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Saturday, July 7, 2018

Has World Cup 2018 been that different from the past?

Credit: FIFA

Russia 2018 has shown us plenty of surprises and some out there think it is the best World Cup ever. But is this really true? History suggests otherwise.

I thought I would return to blogging for some thoughts on Russia 2018. Yes, no USA and no Ecuador this time around. But also no Italy, Chile or Holland. Big teams tend to miss out on the tourney every 4 years. No biggie.

Major teams got knocked out of the World Cup early on. Specifically, eternal-favorites and current champions Germany. It has been quite common for this to happen. Since 2002, France, Italy, Spain and now Germany have all exited in the group stage. Perhaps out of overconfidence. But more likely because their game style hasn't evolved while the rest of the world has.

Surprises abounded in 2018 early on: Mexico and South Korea beat Germany, Iceland tied and Croatia dismantled Argentina. The rest of the scores were quite ordinary for the tournament: Spain being tied by Morocco, Colombia falling to Japan. These things happen. Have we forgotten Cameroon beating Argentina in 1990? Senegal defeating France in 2002? USA defeating Portugal in 2002?

Really, it comes down, at the end, to the weight of history. Further, conferences outside of South America and Europe have done worse in 2018.

For instance, there were no African teams in the round of 16. Only one Asian team and one Concacaf team made it through. Japan fell to Belgium and Mexico did not reach the coveted fifth game once more when they fell to Brazil.

The last time an African team made it to the quarterfinals was Ghana in South Africa 8 years ago. In 2014, three Concacaf teams went through to the round of 16, but only one made it to the quarterfinals: Costa Rica. And the Ticos got through via penalties versus a weak Greek team, although major credit goes to them for their games versus Italy and England in the group stage.

As we look at the semifinalists so far we see some familiar faces: France, England and Belgium. All three have been to the semis before and England and France are former champs. The two teams set to play in a few minutes are Russia and Croatia. Rusia, as the Soviet Union, was a mainstay in the semis for decades in the past. Croatia was a part of the former Yugoslavia, which reached the semifinals in 1930 and 1962 with Croatian players. Independent Croatia had a magical run to the semifinals in 1998 with the aid of the great Davor Suker.

Typically, European teams tend to win in Europe, with Sweden's 1958 being the sole outlier mostly thanks to 18-year old Pele.

So, weight of history, folks. The real, at least partial, game-changer would be a champion not named England or France, but it's not for a lack of trying by the rest of the squads still alive in 2018. They have been knocking at the door since the founding of the World Cup 88 years ago.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Reboot: USA's only choice after failing to qualify for Russia 2018

The United States Men's National Team miserably crashed out of the qualifiers after falling to Trinidad and Tobago by a score of 1 - 2. This loss, combined with wins by both Honduras and Panama, meant the USA sat at 5th place in Concacaf and would thus not proceed to the Russia 2018 World Cup.

There are lessons to be had, for sure. And plenty of blame. Was it Arena's fault? The defense? Sunil Gulati and US Soccer? MLS? 

Actually, it was a combination. Yesterday's game was not lost by the defense. The young Trinidadians shots came from distance, dramatic, wonders of soccer. Not even the best of goalkeepers could keep those shots away.

It was the formation used by Arena, the lack of focus that was so present versus Panama, not understanding the fact that they were always supposed to be the better team. Pulisic, bright as he was, could not muster enough magic. Dempsey, ever the master of moments, was denied by the posts. Bradley and Altidore, veterans of so many fights, complicated by the moment.

I hate to admit it, but Klinsmann's call for more "nastiness" is something the US Soccer program requires. And, as Taylor Twellman put it: it's everyone's fault, including the media.

Soccer is no street sport here. It's an expensive undertaking. MLS is bigger and ever more diluted than it was just a decade ago. Our players are mostly domestic, a clear disadvantage in international play. What happened to the Romas, Tottenhams, Villarreals of yesteryear? 

A reboot is what is needed. From the bottom up. US Soccer should follow what Germany did after losing in the semifinals in 2006 and what Brazil did after failing so miserably in 2014.

So, everyone needs to sit down and acknowledge the situation. And it starts at the junior levels. There should be a concerted effort through developmental leagues, colleges, USL, NASL and MLS. Build on strengths and attitude. This is America and we can always do better. 

Finally, and it pains me to admit this, but this will be officially my final blog. My exit is not due to the team's loss, although it certainly precipitated my decision. I have been absent from the soccer scene for two years now due to a combination of circumstances. I feel it is appropriate to cede space for those whose interest is raw and present, to those opinionated voices that have nonsense to yell or those with educated statements to make. 

Over 600 posts and nearly a decade later, I have relived soccer tales and attempted to predict the sport's future. It is fitting, perhaps, that yesterday I was unable to watch any of the games, having relinquished cable TV a month ago. Instead, I followed the games via Twitter, a most dis-likable method. 

And so I saw the fates of Conmebol and Concacaf games come to fruition 140 characters at a time. It was a nervy 5 minutes after Panama scored the go-ahead goal. The wish for a miracle faded fast. Why should it be that such a moment can happen again to Panama 4 years later? 

I call this exit a retirement. I won't be permanently gone. This blog will remain open as a website for another year and the tweets will likely continue, albeit at a lower frequency. So, some final asks and wishes:

To US Soccer: go back to the beginning and think about a real 10 year plan. 2026 is calling.

To Pulisic and the young kids: Your time will come. Grow as a player and kick some ass for your clubs.

To Ecuador: focus on defense.

To college teams: adopt all of the game rules.

To FIFA: More substitutions and more referees.

To Emelec: Go for the Libertadores. Focus only on that.

To the Portland Timbers: Keep doing what you do.

To MLS: no more expansion unless promotion/relegation is adopted AND switch to a fall-spring calendar like everyone else in the world does. This will help the national team and the league internationally. Focus on the Concacaf Champions League. If MLS starts winning that then you can truly claim to be an elite league.

And finally, to my daughters and nieces and nephews: Play the game with your heart, learn from your teammates and your opponents.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

USA v ECU at the Copa America Centenial: A personal journey

The United States Men's National Team will face off against Ecuador in tonight's quarterfinal at the Copa America. The USA comes to the game in good form after dismantling Costa Rica 4-0 and holding a formidable defensive posture versus Paraguay, with 10 men, to win the game 1-0. Ecuador is one of the best teams in Conmebol. They are tied for first in the World Cup Qualifiers and are unbeaten in the tournament.

The last time I posted a blog was last June. This post signifies my return to the blogosphere. And it is quite special since USA and Ecuador are my two favorite teams and the countries that I call home. 

My ride for the past year has been quite emotional in my world. Sometimes life gets a hold of your wishes and expectations and we can only accept that we are, and will always be, along for the ride. I thank family and friends for being there for me.

What applies to me personally also applies to the two teams I write about in this post. The USMNT has had an up-and-down year, with more downs than ups, but they are finally starting to gel and hitting their stride at the right time. Ecuador has been impressive for the past year but really needs to make a statement internationally to truly show they belong on the stage.

The key for this match is on the flanks. For Team USA, DeAndre Yedlin will miss the match due to a red card in the previous game. This is a tough loss because it gives Ecuador's Jeff Montero much more freedom to exploit his speed and fantasy. Fabian Johnson will have his hands full against one of the world's best crossers in Manchester United's Antonio Valencia.

John Brooks will need to be at his very best and continue the trend he has set in this tournament. He is becoming this generation's Onyewu. He will need all his defensive knowledge to nullify Enner Valencia. For Ecuador, Paredes and Erazo will need to concentrate on keeping Dempsey and Wood in check. Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones have a good test in Noboa and Arroyo (if healthy). This should be an interesting matchup.

So let's enjoy the game, folks. This cannot end in a tie. A semifinal is a huge achievement for either team. It will be the USA's highest outside of the Gold Cup and 2002's World Cup quarterfinals appearance. For Ecuador, a semifinal would mark the first time the team has made it this far since they hosted the Copa America in 1993.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Blatter resigns but corruption will likely remain

Photo: REX
Dare we say it? Fifa is a corrupt institution and it goes all the way to the top? Can things be changed?

Answer is no. Not at the pace we have decided upon. At least not as the world's governing soccer body is concerned. Blatter was reelected and it's the equivalent George W Bush of four more years of "how the heck?" for a majority of the population. For Blatter that comes up to about 1 billion people, at least.

But Mr Sepp heard the people. Enough noise was made by everyone inside and outside of Fifa that he had no choice but to resign if he wished to live in some sort of dignity and to leave the organization at a time of transition. A planned escape perhaps?

And while his exit is a welcome sight for pretty much everyone, the inevitable questions about corruption remain.  How deep up the line did the corruption go? Was Blatter involved in transactions carried out by other individuals? Did he personally engage in this behavior?

The real test comes down to Fifa and its minions. Serious changes in culture are needed beyond incarcerating "top officials," even though this is a step further from anything the American government ever did about the culprits behind the financial crisis. Those were powerful, big banks. Here, we're talking about officials from various countries with enormous power on world football decisions, not to mention monetary assets.

How did Russia and Qatar fulfill their World Cup bids?  It's interesting how Russian authorities (including Putin) have labeled US involvement in the corruption charges as an overreach. And many of the overall corruption charges go towards granting Qatar's successful bid for 2022. Let's remember that the Persian Gulf nation has never participated in the tournament. 
And now charges have reached all the way to Ecuador with television rights for the Copa America in the next 3 tournaments, including Chile 2015, under question. Luis Chiriboga, president of Ecuador's soccer association, has been accused of millions of dollars in embezzlement. Even his son has been connected to suspicious activities worth millions of dollars.

How far does this rabbit hole go? Should we replace everyone in command just so the next generation of questionable individuals take charge? One can only hope this won't be the case and we can get back to enjoying the beautiful game on the pitch. For now, kudos to Loretta Lynch for her actions in exposing the top officials that have damaged world football.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

In Qatar 2022 only the club soccer economy loses

Photo: Getty Images

By now, if you are reading this then surely you know that World Cup Qatar 2022 will be played in the winter during the months of November and December. Uproar, concerns, disappointment in the soccer world. But who really stands to lose?

Business. Club soccer business. Seven years out and already major pieces are being moved, and, interestingly, one of the first outcomes is in the United States. The Fox Broadcasting Company acquired the rights to World Cup 2026 (yet to find a host) in what ESPN deemed to be an unfair move. But what prompted this change was something specific: November and December are crowded months for sports in America. Having to deal with consequences of the addition of a major sports tournament surely required extra recompense.

Scheduling of European and major South American leagues will be a bit of a nightmare. November and December are key months for decision making on the state of a team as they head into transfer windows. It's also a time of important games in the Champions League. Scaling back player break during the summer window might be a way to address this, as will restructuring cup competitions.

These soccer leagues and the international tournaments they take part in are lucrative businesses that depend on long term planning to maximize profit. Television rights, travel considerations, player compensation, mid-season injuries must all be accounted for. 

There are still seven years to make this work properly. Further, as Mr Blatter stated, this is a one time deal. World Cups will continue to be a soccer tradition after the trophy gets handed over in Qatar. Plenty of leagues around the world already take breaks in the winter, like the Bundesliga, Scandinavian leagues, MLS. Surely others can do this as well.

The question comes back to all of us, however. Why Qatar in the first place? Consider that even the Confederations Cup will not be held in the Persian Gulf country. FIFA has made it clear Qatar will be the host, no matter what truths may be out there, as clear as they are, for the reason this country was picked above other worthy nations.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

A simple question: would Altidore or Bradley ever go back to Europe?

Image: Toronto FC

Altidore just finished a move back to MLS to play alongside USMNT mainstay Michael Bradley at Toronto FC. A dream move for the club and the league. A respite for a forward looking to score (and play) regularly. A nightmare for Jurgen Klinsmann.

Scarcely a season removed from seeing his best field payer, Michael Bradley, retired from European football, now his marquee forward is heading stateside. Both, he opines, belong in a Champions League team. Not so much for Altidore, it seems, after scoring just one goal for lowly EPL team Sunderland in 1.5 seasons there.

And following Jozy is Brek Shea (Orlando City), Juan Agudelo (NE Revolution), Sacha Kljestan (Red Bulls) and Mix Diskerud (NYCFC). The latter, however, was a move suported by Klinsmann.

It's interesting that now all of these World Cup players are taking part in the January camp and early-year friendlies. It didn't quite pan out in Chile versus a domestic-based team. Hopefully it will be a different story against Panama.

So, to the main point of this article. Would any of the above players ever move back to Europe? Perhaps if the right offer is there?

It's actually more likely that European teams won't be interested. At least not in a player like Altidore, who was extremely streaky on both sides: lots of goals for AZ Alkmaar, very few for Sunderland/Bursaspor/Hull/Villareal. 

For Michael Bradley it's a different story. If he regains his former, pre-2014 form, and he has a good Copa America, then a big team might come calling. On the other hand, the lad seems to be through with playing in Europe, having gone from Holland to Germany to England to Italy. He know's he's good. He can score at the World Cup. He's tired of not being a starer.

The case for Brek Shea and Sacha Kljestan is fairly clear. For Shea Europe is just not for him. Kljestan just wants to come home.

But Agudelo and Diskerud could still go back accross the pond, and deservedly so. Once again, it will be up to their form in the international stage that will determine their club level fates.

As for Bradley and Altidore, it's probably already too late to go back. But why do it anyway? Just because Klinsmann says so? They are just fine in MLS, regardless of what USMNT EU purists might say. Remember Landon Donovan, the legend? We had our local star stay local and still set trends. There's nothing wrong with staying in MLS.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Lampard, Gerrard, and the new MLS veteran superstars

Photo credit: MLS

Lampard is coming. Finally. Really. The news broke yesterday that the former England national team captain and Chelsea FC superstar would be donning the NYCFC crest during its first season in MLS this year.

Why all the fuss? It is another reminder that, to the rest of the world, MLS is still a second class league.

My argument here is this: if you sign with a team, don't you want to start playing with the team as soon as the season starts? That would mean that if you were on loan during the fall, then you could join the team's pre-season in February and eventually start play in March. Doesn't sound difficult, right?

Not for stars like Beckham, who went on loan to AC Milan during the first half of the year in 2009 and did not return to the Galaxy until the summer window. Now Lampard follows the same path, even thought it was stated that he would start playing for NYCFC in March.

We get it. The EPL is a prestigious league and you want to play through to the end of the season. But it's disingenuous to announce that a player will start on time when the reality is another. It's better to be upfront about it. The loan is for a full season or half a season. Period.

It's just a bit upsetting that these marquee players, or their representatives, ignore basic concepts of courtesy. Is it because MLS is still not considered a serious league? From experience at the World Cup, that sentiment needs revising in the international sphere.

Now don't get me wrong. I love the idea of Lampard, Gerrard, Kaka joining the league and I'm looking forward to seeing them in action. I'm just asking for some respect for our 20-year old league.