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Sunday, October 19, 2014

Klinsmann: The most divisive figure in US Soccer history

Source: Getty

The title of this blog should make it clear. Klinsmann is and has been quite a divisive figure for the sport of soccer in the United States. His hiring came as no surprise in mid 2011 when Bob Bradley was let go after a disastrous showing in the Gold Cup. Klinsmann would remake Team USA and would give it the world presence it deserved.

Klinsmann's tenure was rocky at first, with 3 losses and 1 tie in the first 4 games. After that came great showings in friendlies versus Italy, Mexico, and Slovenia, interspersed with lackluster performances in the beginning of the CONCACAF qualifying rounds.

But Klinsmann pushed the envelope of what could be achieved. He got the most out of Altidore, and introduced and reintroduced players like Geoff Cameron, Mix Diskerud, John Brooks, DeAndre Yedlin, Julian Green and Joe Corona. He set a record for the USMNT in consecutive wins at 12, won the Gold Cup 2013, and delivered the U.S. to Brazil 2014.

Up until the pre-World Cup friendlies, most things could be forgiven. And yet, there were fissures in his relationship with some of the players and, especially, with MLS.

It started in August 2013 when Clint Dempsey made a surprise move to the Seattle Sounders. Klinsmann was not happy that his captain would no longer be playing in Europe. Michael Bradley's move to Toronto FC in January made things worse. Klinsmann was very clear in his disappointment. It was not competitive enough in MLS and their form would suffer.

What really broke things for him with many fans was his exclusion of Landon Donovan from the World Cup team. Many, myself included, thought the decision would haunt him at the tournament. In a way, it did. Altidore's absence due to injury after the first game and an ineffective Brad Davis stick out as reasons the best player the U.S. has ever produced should have been a part of that squad.

But Klinsmann's recent remarks about more players needing to be in Europe and MLS not being enough drew the ire of one Don Garber. Garber was rightly insulated by the coach's words on player development. 

But what is the real truth behind Klinsmann's divisive nature? Just ask the fans. Some argue that MLS is great, should be supported and is getting more and more impressive every year. The crowds in Portland and Seattle make this point clear.

And then there is a vocal minority that sustains that the only worthwhile soccer exists in Europe, that Klinsmann is absolutely correct and that Michael Bradley needs to go back to Europe. I heard this from a soccer fan in small town Florida: Klinsmann is right, MLS is not good enough, and, surprisingly, Landon Donovan isn't as good because he never played abroad. I suggested that he look at the statistics. Donovan has scored more goals than anyone else for the USMNT.

So there it is. Surely, if you are a soccer fan in the U.S. then you fall under one of those two categories. You side with Klinsmann or you don't. Divisive indeed.


Saturday, October 11, 2014

Thank you, Landon

Image: Getty

Landon Donovan played his last match for the U.S. Men's national team tonight in a game versus Ecuador in East Hartford, Connecticut. He didn't score but sure got close. There was spectacle while he was on the pitch and his teammates wanted it for him.

Altidore served Donovan the perfect ball and he Landon struck it well. The post, however, disagreed. The rest of us, all of us, wanted it for him. 

But Landon gave us so many goals already with the national team. 57 of them, actually. Some were expected, some spectacular, some made us dream, some made us cry. There was the second goal in the 2-0 versus Mexico in 2002 and a passage to the quarterfinals. There was also the goal versus Mexico that clinched the qualification to Brazil 2014. And, of course, the goals versus Slovenia and Algeria in 2010. 

Donovan's goal versus Algeria encapsulated what it is to be an American soccer player. The goal started from the bottom up, from Tim Howard's pass, to teamwork between Altidore and Dempsey, to Donovan's sublime final touch off a rebound. It was meant to be and it was meant to be dramatic. Americans love drama and Donovan wrote us the script.

Andres Cantor put it well during his narration of the goal. The goal was and had to be scored by America's franchise player. 

Tonight we say goodbye to his presence on the pitch for the USMNT. True, he was missing at the World Cup and it would have been nicer for his career to end with another tournament. And yet, in the end, Landon chooses his own path, as he did by staying in MLS and foregoing a career in Europe. He knew it was his time to end this journey. Landon chose to say goodbye at 32 with his head held high, still scoring, still smiling, still dreaming.

Thank you, Landon, for helping us dream of soccer.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

MLS breaks all-time sellout games record in 2014

Photo Getty Images

MLS fans were greeted by an interesting and welcome piece of news this morning. The league had its record-breaking 113th sellout game this season after the Toronto-Portland game. This is significant progress for the league and one that has been coming for a while now.

In 2007 MLS acquired its first bona fide international supertar in their prime: David Beckham. The pop culture icon transcended the game and MLS got a boost in attendance figures given the many sellouts at the Galaxy's stadium and throughout the country. This very blog site came into being as a way to track attendance per team in percentage number and median figures.

So what changed for MLS this year? Two factors: the World Cup and recruitment of American internationals in their prime. Such is the case with repatriated Michael Bradley (Toronto) and Jermaine Jones (New England). The marketing has been superb and more focus has been placed on player development and quality skill on the pitch.

Will this trend continue? Likely. With the expansion to new markets with NYCFC in New York and its superstars in Frank Lampard and David Villa, as well as Orlando City with Kaka, the upswing in attendance should remain. True, expansion might thin the league up a bit in terms of talent due to expansion drafts but quality players in academies are waiting to take over the ranks.

So now the league is breaking attendance without David Beckham, which means it's no longer novelty. In short, this is a good time for MLS. It's a good time for the fans and it's further proof that the game is here to stay.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Czech rewind: Gyau and Klinsmann's young crew

Photo: sportingnews.com

The game against the Czech Republic in this past Wednesday's international friendly had a purely experimental USMNT squad. Young players, uncapped players, and 24-year old Jozy Altidore as captain. And they won against a solid European team in Prague.

Perhaps the most impressive outing was that of Borussia Dortmund reservist Joe Gyau. He commanded the flank as a midfielder/forward in Klinsmann's 4-3-3 and looked great doing it. In fact, he was only outdone by Nick Rimando, who really, trully should be thanked for this unprovable win.

Was young Julian Green active? Sure, but not as much as we would like the heir of Donovan to be. Miskerud, on the other hand, showed why he's so special and why it was sad that he never got to play in Brazil this summer.

There was cohesiveness in the back for the USMNT versus the Czech Republic, at least In the first half. Orozco showed his steadiness in the back. Fabian Johnson also displayed his abilities and, perhaps, why his going to Moenchengladbach was ahead of the World Cup was perhaps not the best first choice. John Brooks also showed he wasn't just another lucky head against Ghana. Timmy Chandler also seems to have finally won over the American public. He can't go anywhere else now, folks.

Certainly, the channels weren't there for Altidore to thrive. He hardly had a chance and became more of a defensive midfielder far upfield. One would hope that this could be remedied with a more experienced midfield. However, shouldn't the team be expected to start doing better?

Klinsmann wasn't kidding when he said he would go young with his next set of international games. Joe Gyau showed that the coach still has an eye for young talent. This is, after all, how John Brooks won us the game versus Ghana and how DeAndre Yedlin went from experimental substitution in midfield to Tottenham Hotspur transfer over the course of two months. We can't wait to see others on the pitch like Luis Gil, Perry Kitchen, Jack McInierney, or dare we say, Geidon Zelalem?

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The EPL is back and America is loving it

Image: author

It's here. England's Barclays Premier League began this weekend with high expectations amongst American fans. NBC Sports Network had it on and so did Mun2. Social media was alive and Manchester United faithful were upset on both sides of the Atlantic.

If we start with big names like Manchester United and Arsenal, then you're likely to have heard of them even if you don't watch the sport. Why?

Take the summer friendlies. Manchester United sold out football stadiums in Washington DC and Ann Arbor. Ann Arbor? Ok, so Real Madrid was playing too, but Ann Arbor?

And here's why. Manchester United has flexed its considerable marketing muscle in a country that is easily swayed by the market. Throw in the fact that they also have Mexico's Chicharito Hernandez and it's a perfect potion for soccer madness.

Take the International Champions Cup friendly in Washington between Manchester United and Inter Milan. Over 60,000 fans, most dressed in red. All around me there were Manchester United chants in the stands, English accents, cheering for Wayne Rooney. 

And then it got more interesting.  The chants morphed into "I Believe That We Will Win!" Sound familiar? It should, because that was the US National Team's game chant at the World Cup. And then there's the fact that Chicharito came in as a sub and the stadium exploded. In front of me I had a large contingent of fans cheering only for Chicharito.

The Premier League has broken into the mainstream networks. You will see NBC carrying prominent matches on a Sunday morning slot. You will also see Frank Lampard, former Chelsea man, suiting up for New York City FC next year.

And it doesn't stop there. Premier League teams know American marketability. Arsene Wenger chose to play 17-year old Geidon Zelalem in a friendly versus the New York Red Bulls possibly because he knows American fans are keen on the youngster choosing to play for Team USA instead of Germany in the near future. Tottenham Hotspur just signed World Cup breakout star DeAndre Yedlin from Seattle. It's no secret  that the Spurs are trying to build a fan base on this side of the Atlantic. Yedlin is a pathway for that.

Americans love drama, English accents and big money. The EPL gives you all three. Oh, and the game is pretty intense too. I've gotten comments from family members like this "I notice that it's faster and more fluid in England than in MLS." Good observation. Perhaps our folks still have some work to do.


Thursday, August 7, 2014

American Legend: Donovan Retires

                             
It came out of nowhere. Today, US Men's National Team fans were going about their daily chores when they saw a shocking headline: Landon Donovan is retiring. The leading MLS and USMNT will exit from professional soccer at the end of the season at age 32.

We lose a star, a constant, a dream. His retirement came as swift as his movement through the pitch. Always faster than the rest, always looking for the goal.

We remember the many moments that made him a legend. We recall his goal in 2002 versus Mexico in the round of 16. It made the score 2-0, forever coining the "Dos a Cero." There was his hat trick versus Ecuador in 2007 and again versus Scotland in 2012. And of course, clinchers like the goal versus Algeria to win the group in South Africa 2010 and versus Mexico in 2013 for another "Dos a Cero," this time cementing the Americans' entrance into Brazil 2010 and leaving Mexico to hope for a playoff spot versus New Zealand.

There was the San Jose Earthquakes and LA Galaxy, of course. Two trophies for the Quakes, three for the Galaxians. 137 goals in MLS. His performances with Everton in 2010 and the sublime goals he scored will always be remembered. He was on top of the world in 2010 and it showed at the World Cup.

We could write interminable accolades for Mr Donovan, so I will leave this simple. When Donovan chose soccer as a little boy, he did so because he saw the great stars playing the game and he wanted to be like them. A true origin story for our best American player in history. So who's to say that the next great star is not out there, having watched Landon Donovan light up the league and the international stage. That is, perhaps, his greatest gift, for now a small American boy need not look abroad for soccer idols. He has Landon Donovan. Our American Soccer Legend.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

European friendlies show how far behind MLS still is

Photo: Action Images

USA almost beat mighty Ronaldo and his star-studded Portugal at the World Cup. You wouldn't know it based on the performance of America's soccer league in summer friendlies versus the best teams from Europe. 

The results are atrocious. Seven goals by Manchester United, zero by the "flagship" LA Galaxy. Toronto is unable to defeat Tottenham, and Dallas loses to Aston Villa. The one lone bright sport was a tie for Columbus versus Crystal Palaca.

Sure, Omar Gonzalez wasn't playing and the Galaxy are deep in mid season and struggling to stay in the playoff zone, so players' focus is elsewhere. But it doesn't excuse such a lopsided loss. Or does it?

MLS is still lacking that extra push: winning internationally in the modern, post-Beckham, designated player era. RSL was close in 2011. Close. That's all. After that it has been all Mexico over and over again. Is it the league schedule? Clearly that won't change. Is it competition and player development? Maybe.

Let's not be too hasty in pointing fingers before the international friendlies are all done. Maybe the MLS All-Stars can pull it off or maybe they'll go down in flames like so many other All-Stars teams. There is still a gap in talent at the most basic formative level, Klinsmann made that clear. What is also clear is that US Soccer and MLS are both trying to address that with home-grown players, the reserve league and even interesting moves like the Galaxy II. But we deserve a league that is not pushed over all the time on the international stage.