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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.