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Sunday, December 27, 2009

World Cup Memories: Mexico

Mexico has a rich history in world football. They hosted two World Cups: 1970 and 1986. They advanced through to the quarterfinals in both tournaments. Mexico won a FIFA Confederations Cup, five CONCACAF Gold Cups, three CONCACAF Championships, one North American Nations Cup and two NAFC Championships. Additionally, Mexico has also participated in the CONMEBOL Copa América since Ecuador 1993, finishing as runner-up twice and obtaining the third place medal on three occasions.

Besides having Mexico '86 being the first World Cup I remember, Mexico is one of those teams that I have continuously followed throughout my young life as a soccer fan. In 1986, I remember that Germany faced and defeated them in the quarterfinals en route to the final versus Argentina. They (Mexico) lost that game on penalties. It was a heartbreak for a proud soccer nation.

On to the 1990s. The team was absent in 1990 due to a suspension after using players over the age limit allowed by FIFA in the qualifying round for the Olympic Games in Seoul 1988. In 1994, they returned to the world stage and won the "group of death" that included Norway, Italy and Ireland. Those were the days of Jorge "el Brody" Campos on goal with his exceedingly colorful goalkeeper kits. Mostly, though, I remember Hristo Stoichkov's quick strike against Campos (his hands failing to make good contact with the ball.

On to 1998. Not many memories here of the Mexicans... except for the fact that, after a good first round in which they qualified second but with equal points as Holland, they once again faced Germany. The paternity continued and the Germans ousted the Aztecs once more.

Now comes the fun part: 2002. This tournament had both Ecuador (my birthplace) and the US (my home) and I followed both teams very closely. Ecuador was participating in the event for the first time in its history. The US was looking to make amends for a disastrous 1998. The tournament was in a neutral location in Asia. It would be Mexico's time to shine. After a 1-0 victory over always-difficult Croatia, they headed for a game against newbies Ecuador. Agustin Delgado's goal for the Ecuadoreans early in the first half was only temporary. Mexico would dominate the game and eventually would win it by 2-1. They would then go on to tie Italy 1-1 with a wonder goal from Jared Borgetti. Mexico was riding high once more, having won its group, and went on to face a familiar foe in the round of 16: USA. This was a defining moment for the US national team, as they went on to defeat the Aztecs 2-0, and one of the hardest defeats for Mexico. The score still hurts up to this day. "Dos a cero" is a phrase they won't soon forget.

Mexico once again qualified for the World Cup in 2006. They were one of the eight seeded teams for this tournament due to their previous achievements in the Confederations Cup and the Copa America. They faced Angola, Iran and Portugal. Iran was the easier of the three foes and the Mexicans went on to defeat them 3-1. They subsequently tied Angola and lost to Portugal but still made it to the second round. Here, after a hard-fought 90 minute battle against always-favorite Argentina, Maxi Rodrigez struck a perfect volley in extra time to hand Argentina the victory.

Mexico has a wealth of stars playing abroad and in the domestic league. Some include Rafa Marquez of Barcelona, Vela of Arsenal, Guardado of Deportivo, Salcido of PSV. Their group matchup against hosts South Africa, Uruguay and France may seem like one of the lighter groups with plenty of chances for them to sneak into the second round. Never underestimate the hosts or former champs Uruguay and France. This is an exciting group and the Mexicans will be one of the favorites as giants of the world football scene.

Borgetti's goal. Easily one of my favorites of all time:

Sunday, December 20, 2009

World Cup Memories: South Africa

This is the first of a 32-part series in which I reminisce about each of the teams participating in the World Cup. Some teams I have little experience with but will include a few caveats most aren't familiar with. I start with the hosts of next year's tournament: South Africa.

South Africa was marred for most of the century by its Apartheid system. What was used to segregate people induced a self-segregation and isolation of the country from world soccer. At one point, there were three different federations within the country: The all-white Football Association of South Africa (FASA), was formed in 1892, while the South African Indian Football Association (SAIFA), the South African Bantu Football Association (SABFA) and the South African Coloured Football Association (SACFA) were founded in 1903, 1933 and 1936 respectively (source: wikipedia). In 1992, they returned to the world stage once Apartheid was lifted and participated in the African Cup of Nations as well as the FIFA World Cup.

My first memory of the South African team stems from its first game in the 1998 World Cup against hosts France. France was always one of my favorite teams ever since 1986, when they ousted Brazil through penalty kicks in the quarterfinal. I was happy to see the French back in the tournament and also newcomer South Africa. By this World Cup, the team total had been raised from 24 to 32, thus opening the way for more teams from less-represented confederations (i.e. CAF, AFC, CONCACAF). Most of us were content with France's 3-0 win over lowly, entry-level South Africa. I remember this game because I was watching it from my grandmother's store whilst on my way to get some paperwork done (visas and such).

On that day it was Dugarry that started the game for France. Little did we know that soon Trezeguet and Henry would become France's dynamic duo. South Africa shared that group with Saudi Arabia (2-2 tie) and Denmark (1-1 tie).

On to 2002. South Africa was now a soccer nation with aspirations to host a World Cup and one tournament under its belt. They were pitted into a "group of death" of sorts alongside Paraguay and Slovenia. Spain was the headliner and didn't disappoint. This tournament actually came down to who had scored more goals. South Africa tied Paraguay 2-2 and beat Slovenia 1-0. They lost to Spain 3-2... just enough to give Paraguay a berth having gone 0 goal differential but with a margin of 6 goals for and 6 against. South Africa had 5-5. I caught only highlights of that game, but I remember Jose Luis Chilavert (the emblematic Paraguay goalkeeper) saying that he was thanking his "Spanish brothers" for handing them the result.

South Africa has had few stars in recent years, except for Benni McCarthy. The Blackburn Rovers man is 32 and has scored on 32 out of 77 competitive games for his country. Added to him are Portsmouth's Makoena (captain of South Africa) and Everton's Pienaar. The majority of the current squad play at home in the local league...something that might hamper their chances come next summer. Still, they face Mexico, Uruguay and France. They are at home and given their play in the Confederations Cup, they can hold their ground against any team.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

FC Barcelona: Enhancing a superclub

Move over, Real Madrid. Barcelona might just outdo you during the January transfer window. Never mind that the team already has Messi, Henry, Xavi, Iniesta, Dani Alves, Ibrahimovic, Pique, Busquets, Keita, Puyol, and counting. The latest from the BBC pipeline and other media outlets have confirmed that Barca is looking for further reinforcements emanating from the EPL... None other than Robinho (Manchester City) and Fabregas (Arsenal).

The addition of Fabregas would almost make the team have the majority of its midfield and defense be comprised of the Spanish national team. And who will they unload? Yaya Toure comes to mind. Bojan Kirkic, Jonathan dos Santos and even Thierry Henry are in danger (I see Henry staying until the summer window and then, possibly, to MLS).

Will this shift the balance of power further towards the Catalan side? Yes, in Spain. Yes, in Europe. Manchester United are depleted after losing Ronaldo and also due to injury. Chelsea can cause some headaches but the quality and style of Barca is still superior. Arsenal will be left without a creative midfielder and Manchester City will have deep pockets but no talent left. So, if the two transfers above actually do happen, then Barcelona will rival some of the best teams in history. A repeat of the Champions League title might be on the horizon.. and the local cup and league too. It's just too much power.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Beasley is back in form

And he's back! Sort of. He has started in 4 consecutive matches for Rangers, adding three assists and a wonder goal against Dundee. Was he ever gone? Yes, in the minds of many (including my own). It started with a bad string of World Cup qualifying games that included the 1-3 thrashing in Costa Rica followed by a horrid showing at the 2009 Confederations Cup in South Africa. In the US' second game against Brazil, Beasley had an unfortunate miscue that led to a loose ball and an eventual goal by none other than Robinho.

Injuries have taken their toll on the speedy winger. Perhaps Scotland, full of imposing figures and physical matches, was not a good fit for him. Still, he was instrumental in Rangers' Champions League campaign in 2007 after being signed on from PSV Eindhoven. He scored 2 goals for Rangers prior to today's match. It is believed that Rangers is showcasing him for potential buyers during the winter transfer window.

Beasley played well during his time in the Dutch Eridivisie, notching an impressive 10 goals in 56 matches and has scored more goals in Europe's highest club competition, the UEFA Champions League than any other American player with a total of six for PSV (4) and Rangers (2). Even during his loan spell at Manchester City in the 2006-07 season, he managed to score three goals in 18 matches.

In MLS, he played for Chicago during the formative years of the league in the early 2000s. For the USA, Beasley has scored 17 times (two of which I saw at the qualifier versus Cuba October 2008). He set up the USA's only goal in 2006, scored by Clint Dempsey against Ghana.

What does the future hold for him? For one, Bob Bradley would be pleased to see him being used on the right flank so effectively. His addition to the squad, given a resurgence in form internationally, would be to free up either Donovan or Dempsey so that they can slide into the forward position. This would temporarily alleviate Charlie Davies' absence. We probably are unlikely to ever see him at left back again, and he may still be a long way from being a starter at the World Cup, but June 2010 is still six months away and anything can happen.

His goal against Dundee:

Sunday, December 13, 2009

American College Soccer

Maintaining America's unorthodox approach to the beautiful game is a rare gem: College soccer. Today, as I watched the Akron-Virgina game go into overtime and the proverbial penalty shootout, I realized the uniqueness of the game in the United States. Here, soccer is not meant for the kids from the block as much as the soccer moms and the scholarships to competitive institutions. Soccer follows the pattern of all American sports. Little league, junior varsity, varsity, and, if you're lucky... college.

Of course, there's no NFL, NBA, NHL or MLB to pick up the pieces left over from college play... but USL divisions, NASL (USL off-shoot), and MLS are happy to snag the fruits of college sports. MLS has a tough time, of late, in keeping the higher picks from its "SuperDraft." This is because European markets have discovered a previously-untapped new source of players--America. Indeed, recent MLS "dropouts" include Marcus Tracy (Aalborg of Denmark) and Mike Grella (Leeds).

But beyond the obvious tug-of-war between MLS and foreign clubs, one thing remains: college soccer is like nothing else in the world. The average player age is more like a U-23, U-20 team that constantly battles against other U-20s and U-23s. It's the ultimate formative league. It also has strange rules: countdown, regressive game clock; 10 minute overtimes; a mid-game time out, and possibly one or two others I'm not aware of. This, sadly, is what keeps a lot of soccer-minded Americans away from the College game. They are only interested in its products and how they may fare in Europe or the national team or MLS.

Virginia won its 6th title today. Akron failed to win its first even though they were undefeated. Such is the fate of great teams. It was rolling the dice with penalties. It was Restrepo coming up big as a goalkeeper should. It was a fun and emotional game played on a rainy afternoon in Cary, North Carolina. It was the weight of a dynasty (Virgina) against the fun-to-watch newcomers (Akron). And the fun doesn't stop with the game. Caleb, Akron's coach, is being sought by teams like DC United. And that's the other side of the coin--the coaches. Rewind things a bit and you find familiar faces like Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley winning multiple collegiate trophies. And they grow up with the system to become managers of a internationally-competitive national team.

Last year's crop included Chris Pontius (DCU), Zakuani (Seattle), Alston (Revolution), and impressive players like Marcus Tracy (expect him at the January camp). Previous, but recent successes include [Furman's own] Clint Dempsey, Charlie Davies, Ben Olsen, Brian McBride and Tab Ramos (actually went to my own NC State). And the kids keep coming through the system: Restrepo, Bates, Tchani, Opara, Duka, among others. Some are of African descent, opting for a higher education in the States whilst providing entertainment through their sport. Others are renegade youths that chose a sport outside of the American mainstream.

In all, College soccer is a wonder of the American game. It may not have the fantasy that some of us desire, but it is gritty, fast, athletic, and most of all, competitive.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Landon Donovan's Future

Landon Donovan is the prodigal son of a golden generation in US soccer. He came up the ranks, having grown up through the system in the U-17 and U-20 teams, winning the Golden Ball at the 1999 U-17 championship in which the US reached the semifinals. He also scored the second goal in the 2002 World Cup round of 16 versus Mexico that propelled the US to their best finish at a FIFA tournament since 1950.

Donovan is part of a "golden generation" that also includes Tim Howard, DaMarcus Beasley and Oguchi Onyewu. He had a rough start with Bayer Leverkusen of the Bundesliga in 2001 and after the 2002 World Cup and was loaned to the then-Earthquakes of San Jose for three years. He helped the Quakes win the 2001 and 2003 MLS cups. A subsequent transfer to LA Galaxy in 2005 translated into automatic success when the LA team won the MLS cup on that same year. Not to mention the fact that he has scored the most goals internationally than any other American (42 and counting). And he's only 27.

Recently, in 2008, he was loaned to Bundesliga powerhouse Bayern Munich for a short 3 months whilst MLS was in temporary hiatus. He has seen his share of scorn with the media (Mexican, American, Beckham circus), and he has continued to be a scoring threat in MLS. Lately, during MLS's long winter break, he has been linked with Everton of the English Premier League. The Galaxy has said nothing is set yet. But where should he go?

1.) Europe. A common denominator for someone with his talent and potential. He's not terribly young, however, so it's unlikely that major teams such as Man U., Barcelona or AC Milan will try to snag the attacking midfielder/withdrawn forward US international. His stint with Bayern Munich failed to impress the established Bavarian side and his size isn't terribly suited for the Bundesliga.
Some argue that Italy or Spain may be better venues for the speedy American. Why not a team like Deportivo La Coruna, Almeria, or even Valencia or Atletico Madrid. And why not an Italian side like Atalanta or Bologna. Indeed, at one point Livorno came around asking for a transfer figure. This may be the Achilles heel of his career: he's just too good a player to go on a small transfer figure. And $10 million is enough to turn down even the more deep-pocketed teams in the old continent. Not when there are younger players from Brazil, Argentina or Cameroon waiting to be discovered.

2.) Mexico. Why is this not being discussed more often? I've heard enough rumors about Club America wanting to hire Donovan. Indeed, a team with the resources like this Distrito Federal side would be a great match for him. Why? He speaks fluent Spanish. He plays very fast, ground-based, passing-rich soccer. And the Mexican fans hate him. But if he turned that hate into love through a club jersey it would be the ultimate flip of a coin. Mexico gave us Blanco. We give them Donovan. Not to mention the fact that he would get to know Mexican players and style better (always a positive given the structure of Concacaf competition and the tug-of-war between the two nations).

3.) MLS. Yes. Why not? Why can't our best player just stay here? He's not wasting his time. He's not "getting worse." He's not not scoring games internationally anymore. He's not losing his spot in the national team. The truth is that MLS, outside of its various faults, is a growing league with increasing potential. The league is more competitive than many others due to the nature of its salary cap. The Galaxy is an excellent squad with a bona fide coach in Bruce Arena and another superstar like Beckham. Given a few years and this team could become a superclub (albeit just in Concacaf). This, of course, would happen more easily if teams had more cash to spend. But it's not out of the question.

In the end, Landon Donovan is a world class player. He took his national team to great heights both as a youth (U-17) and as a senior (2002 World Cup, 2009 Confederations Cup). He plays for a world-renowned team (LA Galaxy) and is the top scorer for the national team. Wherever he ends up, he will be great. That's just the kind of player he is. I will calmly sit down and enjoy watching him play, wherever he is.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Champions League: The cream rises to the top

Messi marks the difference. So does Cristiano Ronaldo, Balotelli, Gilardino, Michael Owen and Ronaldinho. They do so because they are the best. They do so because they belong to superclubs. And in the end it is the superclubs that come out on top. Out are Rubin Kazan, Wolfsburg, Unirea and Rangers. In are Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Chelsea, Inter Milan.

Today was about realizing why we pay so much to see these players display their talent. It was also about why Lionel Messi is the best in the world. No Dynamo Kiev or Rubin Kazan (even during their brief spells of glory) can opaque the greatness of the current slew of superclubs.

What does the future hold? For the foreseeable time... more of the same. Expect the usual suspects in the semifinals: a couple of EPL clubs, maybe Real or Barca, maybe one of the Milan clubs. To them, in their majority, it's also about being in good shape for the World Cup. Even if Ibrahimovic and Arshavin are left out, the majority of the superstars will be present in South Africa. They define the superclubs, and why not...they define the wonder teams that make up the cream of the crop of the World Cup.

Friday, December 4, 2009

South Africa 2010: the draw

The excitement began today. The party is underway. What will this world cup be like? Here is a quick look at the groups and who has it easier/harder and what surprises we can see. Throughout the time leading up to the tournament, I will post a more personal look at each of the teams, their structure, history, players and memories.
  • Group A: South Africa, Mexico, Uruguay, France. It's hard to imagine France not winning this group, but 2002 proved that it could happen (loss to Senegal and ties to Denmark and Uruguay. You can argue that Mexico has it easy to be the second team to make it through. Uruguay is a dangerous team that can surprise any established squad. Then there's South Africa. Clearly the weakest African team in the tournament...but they are at home. Never underestimate home field advantage (think USA in 1994).
  • Group B: Argentina, Nigeria, S. Korea, Greece. This group is almost a mirror image of the 1994 group that included Bulgaria instead of Korea. Argentina should win this group, but Maradona's squad has lost to much weaker teams recently. Nigeria struggled to enter the World Cup, but they have the history and the players to dominate any team. Greece is the new Italy, with it's superb, albeit boring, defensive style. Korea has the speed and agility to create chances.
  • Group C: England, USA, Algeria, Slovenia. This is the "easiest" group the US has had in recent memory but I will give much more details on this on future posts. England should claim victory in this group, but they are prone to injury and much weaker without Gerard, Lampard and Beckham. Algeria is in a World Cup for the first time since 1986. They aren't a terribly strong squad but they have a certain African pedigree that could help them go the distance. Slovenia is arguably the weakest European team, but as they showed versus Russia in the UEFA playoffs, they have the ability to overcome stronger teams.
  • Group D: Germany, Australia, Serbia, Ghana. Group of death #1. Germany is the strongest team, but they aren't too far ahead of the others. Serbia has history on their side but they match up equally against Australia and Ghana. The Australian "socceroos" have players in major leagues making the difference in those teams (Kewel, Viduka, Shwartz) and they aren't a weak team anymore. Ghana isn't as strong as they were in '06, but they still have dominant men like Michael Essien pulling the strings.
  • Group E: Netherlands, Denmark, Japan, Cameroon. This is a fun group to watch. It could be considered group of death "light" since they are all quite accomplished sides. Holland are likely to win this group thanks to Kuyt, Snejder, Van Persie and company. Denmark is another strong squad that booted out Sweden and forced Portugal into the playoffs. Japan, like S. Korea, has the speed to surprise the opposing defense. Cameroon struggled to enter the tournament but they have the history of being a difficult team to play against.
  • Group F: Italy, Paraguay, New Zealand, Slovakia. A relatively weak group for the Azzurri. Paraguay should also be able to overcome a much weaker "kiwi" team and another weak European team. New Zealand is possibly the weakest team in the tournament, whilst Slovakia can be another toss-up.
  • Group G: Brazil, N. Korea, Cote d'Ivoire, Portugal. Group of death #2. Apart from N. Korea, all three teams have a chance at advancing through to the next round. This will likely come down to scoring plenty against the Koreans for the Ivorians, Brazilians and Portuguese. It's also about getting a result against the stronger teams. Portugal is one of the few countries that has beaten Brazil in recent memory. The Ivorians are one of the strongest teams in the world (Drogba, Kalou, Toure) and they could go the distance. Brazil is just what it is--Brazil.
  • Group H: Spain, Switzerland, Honduras, Chile. Spain is the best team on the planet and I can see them getting all nine points here. Switzerland are a bit of a mystery but with excellent players. Chile has a squad to reach the quarterfinals, given the right results. Honduras aren't pushovers anymore. Players like Suazo, Costly, Palacios and Guevara mark the difference.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Liga: South American Royalty

Yesterday, Liga de Quito proved why it belongs with the top teams in South America. They went to the mythical Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro and they won the Copa Sudamericana. It was Edison Mendez, Ulises de la Cruz, Neicer Reasco against an experienced and dangerous Brazilian team--Fluminense. If it sounds familiar it's because Liga topped the same team in June of 2008 in the Copa Libertadores. It is another high point in Ecuador futbol.

Club allegiances aside (I favor Emelec of Guayaquil), we must note the incredible progress that Ecuadorian soccer has made in the past two decades. Before, Ecuadorians were happy with a 0-0 tie against Brazil in the Copa America. Nowadays, making it to the second round of the World Cup is what they expect... not making it at all to the tournament is a failure. Club teams were the same. For years, Barcelona of Guayaquil and Emelec were content with making it to the semifinals or the final of the Libertadores only to lose to a Brazilian, Paraguayan, or Argentinian team. This is no longer the case.

Liga's success is reflected in Ecuador soccer because Liga has to fight other teams within the country to get through to play international games... and they often lose to Emelec, Nacional, Deportivo Cuenca. We also acknowledge their resilience, their ability to hold the ball, their Casa Blanca, and their fans. At home they are invincible (like Ecuador in the 2006 qualifiers)... and they win with authority. The first leg of the final produced a 5-1 win, whilst the home leg of the semifinal was a resounding 7-0 victory over River Plate of Uruguay.

Liga pulls it off. They win the games they have to win. They get the results away from home that they need to get. A bit of luck is always present in sports royalty... but we can't deny them their place at the top. Three consecutive international titles is no fluke. Players like Claudio Bieler, Espindola and Franklin Salas are world class. Their repatriation of Ecuador legionnaires Mendez (PSV Eindhoven), Reasco (Sao Paulo), de la Cruz (Aston Villa) is a credit to their management. Yes, they are a world class team, and they belong at the top.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

When Superclubs meet: Barcelona-Real Madrid and Arsenal-Chelsea

It is always such a treat to watch the most expensive, most coached, most watched, and most controversial teams play each other. Such was the case with the Barcelona - Real Madrid SuperClasico and the Arsenal-Chelsea London derby. Both games delivered and were worth the millions spent on the teams (not endorsing such exorbitant prices, by the way).

For Arsenal it was perhaps the lack of Van Persie and Adebayor, or just that Ancelotti clearly outmanaged Arsene "Voyeur" Wenger. Or maybe it's because Chelsea is just that good this year. When you realize that the same group of players have basically been marinating in their own collective talents (Lampard, Ballack, Drogba, Deco, Anelka, Terry, the Coles) you have to admit something special could come to fruition. The Drogba-Anelka tandem alone strikes fear into opponents, especially now that they are starting to gel. Drogba, needless to say, is pure magic, and both goals against Arsenal attest to this notion.

In the city of Barcelona, home of the soccer team bearing the city's name, a clash of titans occurred today. It was the "merengues" Real Madrid visiting Guardiola's champions. It was Raul - C. Ronaldo versus Ibrahimovic - Messi. It was Iniesta - Xavi versus Xabi Alonso - Kaka. It was a slow game at times with plenty of defense, but Ibrahimovic needed only one shot on goal. It is the Swede's positioning, opportunism, and clarity in finishing that makes he and this Barca team so dangerous to stellar defenders like Arbeloa, Sergio Ramos and Pepe. Perhaps Real Madrid would wow us with every move if it weren't such a makeshift team put together with a dream of winning everything, but instead coalesced established players around a quality nucleus at midfield (like Barcelona and Chelsea). But, who are we to dismiss any of these teams? They make us cheer, scratch our heads, and appreciate the king of all sports--soccer.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

More Liga magic: en route to Sudamericana crown

As if last week's heroics versus River Plate of Uruguay wasn't enough, yesterday's demolishing of Fluminense of Brazil further cemented the Quito team as one of the top club teams in the world, let alone of South America. What can we expect from the final next week? A great showing and maybe a win versus Fluminense in Rio would be nice... else, if there's a loss, nice fireworks at the end of the game for the crowning will be another star for Ecuador club football.

Enjoy the goals by Mendez (hat trick), "el Mago" Salas, and former Ecuador legend Ulises de la Cruz:

Monday, November 23, 2009

MLS Cup 2009: When Antifutbol wins tournaments

If you are a fan of MLS, then you fall in two categories: either you were going for LA and Beckham and Donovan and greater respect for the league when the "superclub" wins it all.... or you hate MLS's direction (Beckham included) and you wanted the Cinderella team to win it all. Yesterday it was Jason Kreis' team that won the battle, but they won it by chance and by the psychology of penalties and the well-poised Rimando.

It is antifutbol, yes. This word has been coined in Latin American soccer media through the years as a way to describe overly defensive teams and penalty kick decisions. When given a chance, any psychologically motivated goalkeeper is tough to contend with. After riding high on last week's win versus Chicago, Nick Rimando was as sure of himself as Goycochea was for Argentina in 1990. It would require more power and placement than Galaxy players could. Landon Donovan, always so sure on penalties, was not to be undone by Rimando. And he wasn't. Instead, his first penalty miss in quite a while went over the bar.

It is also true that although they may have felt an edge as favorites, the Galaxy star players looked tired and injured. Such was the case of Beckham, who disappeared late in the game, and Ricketts, whose injury aided in RSL's equalizer.

And then there's Real Salt Lake. A blue collar team, grassroots from its inception and full of young, hard-working talent. Jason Kreis may have been the apprentice compared with Arena, but he has now become the master. Out was Morales early in the game and constant was the pressure from the Galaxy attack. Movsisyan, Beckerman and Findley probed a fragile Galaxy defense often and hard... especially in the extra time. They held their ground, forced the tie, and eventually lifted the trophy.

The penalties were just what they are supposed to be: a game of chance and psychology, the epitome of antifutbol. Salt Lake City now has a bona fide champion, a beautiful cathedral of a stadium and a fan base that isn't going away, not after yesterday. Maybe a designated player looms in the horizon--Blanco, I'm looking in your direction. For the Galaxy, it's back to square one, back to solidifying their defense, back to re-sign Donovan or search for another star to feed of Beckham, back to asking themselves if they really can become a superclub.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Prelude to MLS Cup 2009

The MLS season has built up to this day. It is LA versus Real Salt Lake. The dream final of Chicago - LA didn't happen thanks to Nick Rimando's penalty kicks heroics, but Beckham and Donovan highlight a rebuilt, refurbished and focused Galaxy team under the direction of Bruce Arena.

MLSers out there had been waiting for this game ever since the English ace first signed with the league in 2007. Maybe what he and the team needed was to be away from all the hoopla and to focus on the games, how to win them, and how to play defensive soccer while at the same time highlighting the magic of its offense.

Things are different for the Salt Lake City team. On their 5th anniversary, with a stable, workman style crew, Jason Kreis is hoping for a Cinderella story that will propel them to the top of the league. Robbie Findley and Kyle Beckerman highlight the team's attacking style. They were lethal at home but terrible on the road. But they found a way to win outside of Rio Tinto Stadium at just the right time--the playoffs.

There are plenty of European-minded soccer fans in this great country that greatly dislike playoffs and a single "final." But keep in mind that this isn't necessarily the case in plenty of other countries in the Western Hemisphere. Mexico, for example, also has a "liguilla" that is in playoff format (they are currently in their quarterfinal stage). MLS is now 14 years old and has morphed into a bona fide talent developing institution (Howard, Altidore, Donovan, Dempsey). Tonight's game will be just what the league needed: An awesome, star-studded team (LA Galaxy) against a Cinderella (Real Salt Lake), all against the backdrop of the best atmosphere in the league--Seattle. The Sounders broke all sorts of records in their debut season, and although they aren't in the final, their fans sure are and the city has welcomed soccer fanatics from all points in the nation.

Cheers, Seattle. Thank you, Salt Lake and Galaxy. Let's have a great match and may the best team on the field win.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Liga de Quito: The new Ecuador Idol

El idolo del Ecuador. That was Barcelona of Guayaquil. Might it still be? With me being away from my home country for 19 years, it's hard to say. With recent events, however, it's tough to argue with the fact that Liga Deportiva Universitaria de Quito is the best club team Ecuador has ever produced. We measure this not just in the domestic league (9 titles, behind Nacional, Barcelona, Emelec), but on an international level. Liga won the Copa Libertadores last year, was a finalist in the Club World Cup against Manchester United, and won the Recopa (match between Libertadores and Sudamericana winners).

Today was another high point for the Quito team. They won with an amazing score of 7-0 against Uruguay's River Plate in the 2009 Sudamericana semifinal. This means they advance to yet another international final against Fluminense of Brazil (curiously, the same team they faced in last year's Libertadores final). That's four finals over the course of two years. Truly a noteworthy accomplishment.

As much as it may pain me as a native of Guayaquil and a hardcore fan of Emelec, I must admit to this: Why shouldn't Liga be the new idol? The little kids in the country without a team of their own need only watch television to assert their allegiance. This is a team that boasts former Ecuador internationals De la Cruz, Reasco and Edison Mendez. What young Ecuadorian footballer doesn't want to play alongside them?

Enjoy the highlights of this record-breaking game:

World Cup teams set, scheming begins

Vive la France. Vive les Bleus. France are in after Henry "handed" them a victory thanks to his pass for William Gallas. It's tough to argue that significant dividends will come from the French's inclusion in next year's tournament. Add Anelka, Benzema, Henry and Malouda and you start to see the economic impact. This also sets up another possibility for Brazil to not win the tournament. For the past six World Cups, only France and Argentina have been able to knock off the "verdeamarela." France-Brazil in quarterfinals of Mexico '86 and Argentina-Brazil in the round of 16 in Italia '90 are some of my best memories.

Another economic success is Portugal's entry into the tournament. Cristiano Ronaldo will be in the World Cup after all. After a poor showing at home versus Bosnia in a match that the Bosnians deserved to win (3 hits on the post), the Balkan team collapsed at home due to player suspensions and saw their chances of advancing come to an end on a sad night in Zenica. Portugal won without CR9 by the minimal score away from home.

Welcome back, Greece, Slovenia, Uruguay, Algeria. Greece, the unlikely Euro chanps in 2004, enter their second World Cup since their debut in 1994. This a stronger Greek team full of defensive potential. They are the new Italy of defensive football. Out is Shevchenko's Ukraine, which failed to win in Donetsk. Slovenia also managed to knock off another former Soviet republic--Russia. Guus Hiddink failed to qualify a young and promising Russian team that had raised a few eyebrows during the last three years.

Uruguay are back thanks to a playoff versus relatively weak Costa Rica. The team is loaded with attacking talent in Bueno and Forlan. Then there is Algeria, appearing in its first World Cup since 1986. They are a country rich in soccer history (Zidane's family is from Algeria). They battled against Egypt on neutral soil in Sudan after tying in every statistic in their respective African group. The match was a gut-wrenching 90+ minutes full of joy and sorrow. I caught the Egyptian-based signal and it was sad to hear the tones of voice emanating from the announcers even though I couldn't understand a word they said.

The next phase is Friday, December 4th in Cape Town (ESPN2 at noon), where the draw will take place that will decide the groups for the initial stage in next summer's tournament. Who will be in the "group of death"? Who will have an easy "group of life"? What group will the USA land in? It will be a fun couple of hours .

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Henry gives France a hand

La main de Dieu. La mano de Dios. The hand of God. Not Maradona. Thierry Henry. Easily one of my favorite players, but even they can fall from grace. And so he did. Kind of. At least in Ireland and most places that don't fancy the French and/or their national team. He handled it, no doubt. He probably thought he would get called on it, yes. In the end it wasn't really his fault. It wasn't the referees'. It was the game.

For some time now, maybe 40 years, there have been calls for video playback to be included in the officiating of matches. FIFA was slow to act and simply never did it. It would be useful for handballs, dives, goal-line decisions and other important calls that might change the result of a game. True, it might hamper the flow of the game. True, it might lengthen the game. But how long are we going to watch travesties such as today's to continue when we have the technology to circumvent this problem?

I propose this: With NFL rules as a start, why not allow two "challenges" to each team that can be reviewed by the officiating crew? This way it will only be a limited amount of calls, adding potentially another 4 minutes to each game.

But now it's just the result that matters. France are back in the World Cup, and with it the millions of dollars in sponsorship deals and media contract. Out is Ireland. A country proud of its sport, whose warriors on the field were handed an unfair result. But that's football.

Collapse: US falls to Denmark in friendly

This was a chance for newcomers to shine. It was a chance to prove the US can do it without Dempsey, Donovan and Howard. It was a chance to see how the US might do in a tough World Cup group. They failed. No one served the attackers. The defenders were overrun and got no help from midfield.

What do we make of this? Clearly, Donovan's presence is key to the US attack and drive as a whole. Onyewu's absence in the back line was flagrantly obvious, along with Bocanegra's mishaps. DeMerrit, Goodson, Marshall and Conrad are all good options, with DeMerrit being at the top of the list. Unfortunately, Goodson-Conrad, Bocanegra-Spector did not work today. Spector was miserable as a center back, even though he is occasionally played there in his club team, West Ham.

On the flanks, Bornstein had a quiet day but let a few balls slip through. Hejduk was a trooper and played with his trademark spunk, but Cherundolo and Spector remain better options at that position. Castillo was not used as a left back, from what I could tell and failed to impress.

The attack was quiet with a seemingly out-of-shape Altidore and with Cunningham and later Johnson lacking enough service to be dangerous. This was ultimately the problem... The midfield. Holden was exceedingly out-of-pace with the rest of the game, Bradley was caught ball-watching and Clark didn't contribute enough defensively. This was the major cause for the collapse at the start of the second half with three unanswered Danish goals. The defense needed more numbers in the back and the defensive midfielders were caught ball-watching.

Some positives include Feilhaber's resilience and Cunningham's opportunistic chance. I'm not sure if Castillo will be called up again, maybe for another friendly, maybe not. Donovan and Dempsey are clearly the aces in this team. It's hard to see the US faring well without them. Another point is Altidore's companion up top. Davies' speed is missing right now and the only other dominant player that can do this is Donovan. But who would be the creative force without Donovan in the midfield? These are questions that need to be mauled over by the coaching staff and the players themselves. There's not much time left until the World Cup and there are only a handful of FIFA dates to work with next year ahead of the competition. Indeed, it's crunch time.

Player ratings:
Subs: Johnson (5), Goodson (5), Conrad (5.5), Castillo (3.5),

Sunday, November 15, 2009

In & out: the November World Cup playoffs

Yesterday I had the pleasure of experiencing a full world cup qualifying day with a great Bosnian friend of mine. Our prerogative was, of course, the playoff between Bosnia and Portugal played at the Stadium of Light in Lisbon. The home team came away with a victory of 1-0 in a game that could easily have gone Bosnia's way with three (yes, three) shots hitting the post. Dzeko was a threat in the area but Bosnia's chances came only in spurts as the hosts put continuous pressure on the visiting team. Return leg is on Wednesday at Zenica in Bosnia. An upset by the Balkan team could effectively push Cristiano Ronaldo's team out of South Africa. That would add another superstar's absence from to next year's tournament after Ibrahimovic's Sweden was eliminated.

Elsewhere in football yesterday was France's win in Ireland thanks to a Nicolas Anelka goal in Dublin. The bleus are now one foot away from South Africa. It was a scorcher between Russia and Slovenia. Russia deserved more, but Slovenia got an away goal late in the game that will prove crucial during Wednesday's return match in the former Yugoslav republic. Arshavin and Pavlichenko's play, along with Bilyaletdinov's brilliant strikes highlighted a young Russian side with great prospects for the future... if they are able to advance after Wednesday's game. Ukraine and Greece tied 0-0 in Athens. Donetsk will be a tough, cold venue for the Greeks in the return leg.

But the playoffs in Europe weren't the only qualifiers yesterday. Egypt forced a playoff in neutral ground against Algeria after a 95th minute goal earned them a 2-0 victory that tied their North African neighbors in points and goal differential. Nigeria and Cameroon also returned to the World Cup after their absence in 2006. Oceania finally has a team other than Australia (now in the AFC) earning a spot in the World Cup after New Zealand posted a 1-0 victory over AFC's Bahrain. Finally, another inter-conference playoff between Concacaf and Conmebol ended in a 1-0 victory for Uruguay in Costa Rican soil. The two-time world champs are now poised for another appearance in FIFA's most important tournament.

The fun doesn't stop there. Because this was an official FIFA date (meaning all club teams are required to cede their players for international matchups), high profile friendlies could be played. A depleted England fell to Brazil in Quatar whilst Spain beat out Maradona's Argentina. The US also had a friendly in Bratislava against a limited Slovakia side that was content with a 1-0 margin attained through a questionable penalty. Cunningham and Dax McCarty made the squad but didn't factor much. Wednesday brings a more intriguing game against Denmark on Danish soil. Edgar Castillo will feature for the Americans, as will Torres, Holden and Clark. Dempsey, Cherundolo, and Marshall have been released from camp.

Wednesday should be another great day for international futbol. Much is still at stake and all will be resolved ahead of next month's World Cup draw.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Deuce is lose: Clint Dempsey , Fulham, USA

And he's back! Clinton "Deuce" Dempsey has returned to the club form his fans have loved him for here and in the UK. After spending the last three months without scoring for Fulham in the Premier League and lukewarm games with the national team, Dempsey has scored in three consecutive league games. It couldn't come sooner for a Craven Cottage team in dire need of results to escape the relegation zone.

As far as the US national team, Dempsey is always spotty at best in terms of midfield play, but always a wild card in any given match. His greatest moments happen when you least expect it, when you've given up on him, when no one else in the team can do it. Examples abound: from his incredible header against Egypt in the Confederations Cup to seal the US's passage into semifinals, to his opportunistic goal against Spain to dethrone the number one team in the world, to another brilliant strike against Brazil in the final, and to his game-tying header versus El Salvador in the qualifiers.

What do we make of him? Is it just that he plays better at Fulham than the US? Is it that Bradley Sr is not exploiting his style? In Fulham he tends to drift much farther upfield into a withdrawn forward position. He is nearly always in good position to shoot or pass. With the US, he is pulled farther back, where his talents aren't as exploitable and he looks lost or out-of-touch during the match. It's a game-changing option for Bradley, however, because he can drift Dempsey into an attacker position and redraw his offense. The question is, do we put him there to start the game? Do we keep it as an option only? Can anyone else step up in the midfield role?

An answer might be Holden in the midfield and Dempsey up front with Altidore. A three-pronged attack could have Donovan slide forward as well in a 4-3-3 formation. The question there is who you would put in the midfield and against what team this formation could work. Similar tries with a more limited squad failed in Costa Rica. If Feilhaber can step up his game, and Holden, Torres, and Bradley Jr can continue their form, then this may be an option against a lower-seed team in South Africa. The addition of Jermaine Jones and Edu's imminent return could also shake things up a bit. Don't discount Beasley yet; the man is making it known he still has it with back-to-back appearances for Rangers.

Right now, Dempsey is a key for the US attack thanks to his superb vision and positioning. He and Donovan mark the difference. In Fulham, Dempsey is another ace up Roy Hodgson's sleeve. He is a workman in the Cottager offense. A mainstay for the team. And a great goalscorer.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The MLS playoff bug: Salt Lake topples Columbus

Today Real Salt Lake, MLS playoff wild card, beat the reining champs Columbus Crew by the score of 3-2, with a 4-2 aggregate after winning at home last week. Was it a fluke? Hardly. Do they deserve it? Yes. Does Columbus deserve not to win again? Not really.

There are many haters of the playoff system and its contrast against European-style leagues. Other leagues in this same continent have playoff or "liguilla" formats as well, Mexico being one of them. In Europe, in the big leagues, the champions are decided by total points accrued during the season. In MLS, point totals positions you in the standings and sets up the playoffs. Eight of the fifteen teams in the league proceed to the playoffs. Home-and-away series for the quarterfinals, decided by eastern and western conference. A single game semifinal with the higher seeded team as host... and the MLS cup at a "neutral" location--this time in Seattle.

There is, however, a title for the highest amount of points in the regular season--the Supporter's Shield. It doesn't get the attention it deserves but it counts as a trophy and earns passage to the Concachampions (Champs League in Concacaf). In Europe, we could call this the league title, with the playoff being more of a cup like the Copa del Rey in Spain and the FA Cup in England. We shouldn't forget the US Open Cup that more closely mirrors the FA or League Cup in England where most amateur-to-professional teams all vie for the same trophy. In the US, USL leagues and other American small teams are allowed to compete against each other and against MLS.

In the end, Americans love their playoffs. It's part of the sports atmosphere in this great country. It's the legacy of years of media coverage and sponsorship deals and consumerism. Soccer may be a different beast in some aspects but in the end it is nothing but a sport... and you can attach playoffs to any sport. Case in point, the ultimate soccer tournament... the World Cup.

When a league is as competitive as the MLS, mostly thanks to the salary cap, any team that enters the playoffs has a shot. There are no seven game series here. You have to bring your game to the 180 minutes (or 90 minutes for single games). Robert Warzycha chose not to play 2008 MLS Cup MVP Guillermo Barros Schellotto in the game at Salt Lake. The Argentine virtuoso did score today, twice, but the final tally was 3-2 in favor of RSL. We will question his wisdom in subtracting him from the squad in the first game... and it will haunt him.

This is MLS. These are the MLS playoffs, love them or hate them. Last year, lowly New York defeated then-champs Houston to advance to an improbable final. Who's to say that can't happen again? RSL is capable of taking down both New England and Chicago, with the former being a more likely win. It should be fun to watch. At this point, everyone should take this tournament as it is... a cup... and this always means that, in the end, all bets are off.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Slow forward: US in the U-17 World Cup

A 1-2 loss against Spain in the opening game of the Nigeria U-17 World Cup when the US was a man up for 88 minutes. A lackluster performance in a 1-0 win versus minnows Malawi. A 1-0 win against the United Arab Emirates to seal group play. That has been the kind of play by this young US squad. This isn't the Landon Donovan team that reached 4th place in 1999. This isn't a media-friendly team that boasts Freddy Adu, Jozy Altidore, or Michael Bradley. But slow progress is part of the American game.

It's interesting to note that this American squad played their best game against Spain when they were down by a goal. They attacked with clarity and created multiple chances that lack the final 1% to tie the game. Against Malawi they looked a bit lost and slow in movement in front of the Kano, Nigeria crowd. They didn't deserve that win, but the logic of football allowed the more established US team to take all three points. Today was different. The US wanted it more and Gil, Mcinerney, and Jerome showed their class. Their attack was constant but lacked a good final touch. It was actually UAE that had better chances, albeit fewer. The scoreline was decided by a poor clearance from the UAE goalkeeper and great vision from Mcinerney to put away the chance.

The round of sixteen awaits. The final touch will be important against more demanding foes like Uruguay, Korea, Netherlands. That's the sort of practice this team needs. We're looking forward to it and these potential future stars are making US soccer fans more confident about the future of the senior national team.

Monday, October 26, 2009

MLS 2009 Attendance stats final week

Seven months. Fifteen teams. Eight playoff spots. Two conferences. One winner. As it stands, Columbus, Houston and LA are the teams to beat in the MLS playoffs. I'm not crazy about the system that's in place but I understand it and enjoy it all the same. This was a transition year. A transition because the Beckham experiment unraveled. Also because the Seattle Sounders showed the large support there is for the game in the Pacific Northwest (Portland and Vancouver are the expansion teams in 2011). And finally, it was a transition year because the biggest markets also had the worst attendance records.

I will let the figures on the right column speak for themselves, but I offer some final thoughts for this MLS attendance season.

The winners:
  • Seattle, Houston, Salt Lake, Toronto. Houston and Salt Lake City both saw small improvements in attendance relevant to last season. I could say the same for San Jose, but their numbers (and some other clubs as well) were lifted by doubleheaders with much more flair (Chivas Guadalajara at the Candlestick Park). Seattle has the attendance record in MLS with a whopping 30897. The others in this group made only small gains relative to 2008, but this highlights the stability of the fan base.
  • Columbus, Chivas USA, Kansas City and even FC Dallas didn't lose an appreciable amount of attendance, which suggests a stable fan base. All have respectable numbers as well, although much can be done about Dallas. Their doubleheader with a Mexico match upped their numbers considerably.

The losers:
  • LA, New York, DC, Chicago, New England, Colorado. It should jump out at first glance that the worst losses are in the four biggest markets. Indeed, LA saw a sharp decrease partly in response to Mr "Goldenballs" and his parade from LA to Milan and back again. He redeemed himself on the pitch, though. I give him that much.
  • New York was almost always slow this season, partly due to J.C. Osorio's management, and also partly due to the inhospitable Giants Stadium environment. With the Red Bull Arena to be operational by next March, we could see a resurgence in fan appreciation for the team and perhaps more inspired play by its stars.
  • DC United, on the other hand, saw above average attendance relative to the rest of the league but the fans were less than inspired by the players, the stadium, and international competition. Chicago seems to have leveled out now that the Cuauteminha isn't a fad anymore. New England, on the other hand, suffer from a terrible stadium situation, lousy management, and general lack of spark on the pitch. This reflected on the stands. As for Colorado, I'm not sure I have much to elaborate with.

A final look at the distribution of general attendance shows the clear winners in Toronto FC and Seattle, the strength (even though diminished) of big markets like DC and LA. Dallas and Colorado clearly need improvement... and don't let the stadium size factor fool you... just look at all the figures in terms of average, relative and median attendance.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

MLS international: The Champions League

No, not UEFA. We're not in Europe, even if our style and players are more suited to the European game. I'm speaking of the Concacaf Champions League or the Concachampions, whatever you want to call it. Christened last year as a substitute for the Concacaf Champions Cup in order for the conference to emulate other tournaments around the world that have a longer period of midweek play or perhaps to cash in on the new MLS designated player rule. Whatever the reason, it's been miserable for MLS. Last year only Houston made it to the quarterfinals and were booted off in their first game. Somehow USL's Puerto Rico Islanders made it to the semis.

This year, Columbus punched its ticket to the quarterfinals thanks to poor play from Costa Rica's Saprissa. The Crew has done exceptionally well, save for their game against Mexican foes. Houston, however, failed to win against Metapan, a Salvadoran team that was outscored 0-17 prior to last night's match. Somehow, though, they were able to score 3 goals on Houston, enough to win 3-2 and leave Houston out of the quarterfinals. DC United will be hoping that winless San Juan Jabloteh can beat or tie Marathon (Honduras) to get past the group stage.

It suffices to say that right now MLS just can't cut it internationally. Last year both Chivas and New England were booted off the competition by teams from Panama and Trinidad. I give full credit to those teams, but we have to look at this objectively. I don't know if it's lack of experience or lack of motivation for players with matches outside MLS (Quaranta was quoted at one point saying that he wasn't as interested in matches outside MLS but instead wanted to focus on playoffs).

Another point is the lack of a reserve league when these games happen near the end of the MLS regular season. There just aren't enough players for all these tournaments. I think that until the reserve league is reinstated (no hurry with the economy as it is) then we can expect more international failures. No qualms. We just don't have the arguments at this point. The MLS - Mexican league matchups left us with an 0-6 record. The league should, at this point, continue to concentrate on building its fan base here in the States, build more stadiums, and solidify their teams. At some point, though, true fans of the game will want international success. It's part of club soccer around the world and it brings prestige to the league, not to mention a degree of accreditation that MLS lacks right now.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Giants falling: Barcelona and Liverpool lose at home

It's still early, yes. But could we be seeing a reversal in superclub fates? I watched most of the Barcelona - Rubin Kazan and Liverpool - Lyon games and I have to say it was entertaining to watch multimillion dollar players get frustrated against more modest (by European standards) teams. Until I read a couple of post-game stories, I thought both Rubin and Lyon had won at home... and rightfully so. But then, as I read the game recounts and other scores, I saw that the games had been at Anfield and Camp Nou. What?!

That's right. Not Ibrahimovic, Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Marquez, Pique and company could tackle the Russian champs in their own house. Ibrahimovic's goal was pure magic but the icing on the cake never came and Barca are now in a bit of a predicament, if only for a while. Could both Inter and Barca be left out of the competition in the group stages? Don't count on it. Rubin Kazan will need to secure all home points and a tie vs Inter isn't helping much at this point. Inter, however, needs to start winning some games.

And what about Liverpool? The Anfield side has much more to worry about with Fiorentina also being in this group. Benayoun and Torres weren't big enough deterrents to keep the eternal-favorites French club, Olympique Lyonnais, from causing damage through Argentine Delgado late in the game. Yes, no Benzema included.

Could this be a backlash of modest teams versus superclubs and their super-expensive players (e.g. Real, Barca, Man U)? Too early to tell, but the possibilities and the ensuing matches are anything short of dramatic.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

MLS 2009 Attendance stats week 30

Back to club business. MLS has seen its share of ups and downs lately. From DCU's inability to win important wins at home, to an FC Dallas that suddenly has a last playoff berth in sight with the aid of the resurging Cunningham. In the stands, Chivas has lost its momentum while Salt Lake, Dallas, New England have seen important gains that bring them at least level with last year's numbers. With the closing of the season next week, it looks like some of the numbers we have will stand as they are.

A closer examination with the aid of the figure 2009-2007 we can see the pre-post Beckham effect. His influence felt late in 2007 and died down in 2009 after the AC Milan soap opera. This year, it's Seattle and Toronto that make the difference. Indeed, dropping Seattle and Toronto from the average places the average season attendance to 14411 from 15895. Plenty of things to consider before 2010 and Philadelphia's introduction. Will we see more of the same? Will Seattle's attendance tumble out of the honeymoon phase? Only time will tell. Again, all stats are derived from MLS official numbers and the graphics are in the right column of this page.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The World is not enough: USA tops Concacaf

The USA cemented its place atop Concacaf today with a well-earned tie full of emotions that reverberated all the way to San Salvador. There, upon learning that Costa Rica had tied, Honduras was assured that their goal differential would mark the difference and that they would go on to qualify as 3rd in Concacaf.

Back home it was personal for Altidore, as seen with early scuffles in the game that earned him a yellow card. It was also personal for coach Bradley and his son. Bradley Sr wanted to finish at the top of the conference to have a better chance at being first-seeded in the World Cup group draw. Bradley Jr wanted to respond to critics of his game. He did so with a goal. The same goes for Bornstein, the much-maligned left back, who delivered a stellar performance that was capped with a C.Ronaldoesque surprise-header that sealed the tie in the final seconds. Mexico's tie with Trinidad & Tobago meant the US would remain first in the table.

It is true that our players had Charlie Davies in mind today. So did an entire nation of fans and followers of the game throughout the world. Our national team players wanted to make him proud. The Americans never gave up. That is what separates this country from other footballing nations. It is our sheer will to continue fighting the game until the very end. Scanning through the Mexican soccer media I repeatedly came across these phrases: "Typical United States come back," "they are resilient," "a cohesive team like no other," "the concept of group is integral for success." Indeed, an important recognition of the American style of the game.

Losing Onyewu to an unfortunate injury in his left patella tendon (knee) will create important competition for the starting spot alongside Bocanegra. Marshall, Goodson and Conrad are great options, as are Califf and Parkhurst. These are all very technical, capable players. Still, a healthy Onyewu marks the difference in this team. Charlie Davies' absence will force Bradley to rethink the offense, one that was performing remarkably well with the speedy forward. Still, we must consider that Casey, Cooper, and Ching are great options with Altidore. And if that were not enough, we have both Donovan and Dempsey able to shift into striking roles. This is the depth of the US at this point in its history. This is why just getting to the World Cup is not enough. The US can penetrate deep into the tournament. They have the character and the players to do it.

M. Bradley...6.5
Subs: Rogers (6), Torres (6.5)