We dream of football and the world is full of dreams

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.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Four stars: Germany wins the best World Cup in the modern era

Photo: FIFA

Germany won the World Cup today with a score line that did justice to the teams and the tournament they played. Germany was dominant throughout Brazil 2014, including the most humiliating defeat of a football Titan ever recorded. Seven goals against Brazil, the host nation. Argentina were uncharacteristically defensive but had brilliant moments through Lionel Messi.

Argentina put up a fight and, at times, controlled the game and could have won the Cup if the ball had rolled the right direction. Messi was masterful when he was unmarked, a shadow of himself when three defenders were upon him. But he still got them to the final, and for that he deserved the Golden Ball.

Mario Gotze scored and saved us from the randomness and cruelty of penalty kicks. It was the one play where Argentina's defenders were out of position, and the German machine pounced and delivered.

We say goodbye to the best World Cup in generations. We salute the dreamers in Costa Rica, Algeria, Colombia. We will remember the fighters in Chile, Mexico, USA, Greece. We wish redemption for the fallen in Spain, Italy, England, Brazil, Portugal and Ghana.

We loved so many moments in this World Cup. From Robin Van Persie's amazing header, to the wonders of James Rodriguez, to the record-breaking number of saves by Tim Howard. There were more goals in the group stage than any other tournament since the number of competing teams went from 24 to 32. There was penalty kick drama, again, and favorites went home and tears flowed in excitement and despair.

There was a bite to the game, pun intended. From Luis Suarez's indiscretions to Arjen Robben's simulation versus Mexico. There were injuries too, like Altidore's early in the first game against Ghana and Neymar's unfortunate departure in the quarterfinal versus Colombia.

We cheered today perhaps for the game alone, perhaps for our favorite team. We forgot a nation's transgressions of the past, fallacies of the present, uncertainties of their future. But, for two and a half hours today, one billion people sat together in their homes, stood clapping at their watch parties, put down their weapons of war, and enjoyed the beautiful game. 

The World Cup is a time machine. Brazil 2014 is now a World Cup of memories that will forever latch onto our psyche. Be it Brazil's fall from grace or Julian Green's goal. But it also gives us glimpses of the future through the magic of James, the speed of Yedlin, the wonders of Neymar and the vision of Gotze.

Today is also the start of Russia 2018. When each of our teams went home, be it at the end of qualifying or the moment of elimination, plans were set in motion for the next cycle. The World Cup is the engine of the sport that drives the passions of billions.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Dream final: Muller, Messi and the history of Argentina-Germany

Photo: worldsoccertalk.com

Wednesday's semifinal game was a only the fifth time that penalty kicks were used to determine a World Cup finalist. Argentina won via Romero and set up a classic finish. For some of us this is a dream final. Argentina versus Germany. Opposing styles, management, flavor. 

Let me tell you a story now. Two stories, really. In the summer of 1986 I was only a small boy and soccer was something for grownups to watch and something to do during recess. Ecuador, my home at the time, had yet to qualify for its first World Cup and the US Men's National Team was only a memory of 1950.

I was enrolled in a German school for my elementary and the thought of cheering for West Germany was just . . . normal. So when I heard that they would be in the final I found myself to be the only one in the room cheering for the Germans. Everyone else was siding with Argentina and someone named Maradona.

The Argentinians jumped ahead by 2-0 before the Germans came back to tie the game 2-2. I still remember the name Karl Heinz Rummenigge being uttered over and over again. It wasn't until late in the second half that Argentina scored the winner, with Schumacher looking defeated on the ground as Jorge Burruchaga put the ball in the back of the net. Argentina won Mexico 86, but the final would repeat itself in 1990.

I was older in 1990 and I understood the game better. I remember us kids making a joke about siding with Cameroon for the opening game versus Argentina. "Cameroon will win," we said, knowing that, football-wise, this couldn't possibly happen. It did. Oman-Biyik put a header past Pumpido and shocked the world.

The Berlin wall had fallen at that point but the team that competed was West Germany. Its federation continued to represent the whole of the country thereafter. The Germans dominated, albeit unconvincingly, the opposition throughout the tournament, save for a tie versus Colombia in the final group stage game. They arrived at the semifinal to play a determined English side that had just knocked out World Cup darlings Cameroon.

Italia 1990 was special in the semis because both games went to penalties. Argentina defeated the host nation thanks to Sergio Goycochea and Germany won its game. This was the Germany of Brehme, Voeller, Hassler, Matthaus and Klinsmann. A talented squad.

This time the uniforms the teams wore were the reverse from 1986, when Argentina wore its albiceleste and Germany was dressed in green. In 1990 Germany wore its home white and Argentina its away dark blue. The game remained tied until the 86th minute, when the referee awarded a penalty to Rudi Voeller. Andreas Brehme put it away and Germany were champions for the third time.

I was happy, of course, given my school allegiance. We joined the parade of cars down the main avenue displaying my gym shirt with the German school insignia. Pride.

Things are different now. I concentrate on the US national team and its meteoric rise to the world stage since 1990. True, they are no superpower, but they have become a fixture at the World Cup and American players have slowly infiltrated major leagues worldwide. Major League Soccer has also grown both on and off the field.

And now that my teams (I include Ecuador here) are out of the World Cup and only the finalists remain, I am left with a bit of a quandary: do I cheer for Argentina or Germany? Messi, Higuain, Aguero and Macherano or Muller, Hummels, Khedira and Lahm?

I will not cheer for either team. I just want to see a good game. I feel Germany should be rewarded for being the best team in the tournament but Argentina has also won every single game until the semifinal's tie against Holland. Then there's the Messi factor. The guy is a genius and he has a chance to catch up to Maradona if he wins the World Cup. He's 27 and Maradona was 26 in 1986.

May the best team win in this dream final.