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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Champions League: Lots of stars, too much defense

You hear it all the time. High kicking, low scoring and ties ties ties. Actually, that's a quote from the Simpsons making fun of soccer. But is it that far off? Not by looking at this past week's results it isn't. Barcelona, the wonder of soccer in the 2008-2009 European season with Messi, Iniesta, Henry, Eto'o, Puyol, Marquez, Hleb and company against Roman Abromovich's Chelsea of the EPL with their Ballacks, Lampards, Drogbas, Essiens and company. Awesome, right? Wrong. Chelsea applied the 1966 England defense and Barca could not get through with clarity. And the other semifinal match? Manchester United versus Arsenal? More of the same. Man U had nice chances early on in the match but the second half relegated them to a few long range shots from Ronaldo, Carrick and Giggs. And the only goal? Scored by a defender--John O'Shea.

Next week should seal the finalists that will meet in Rome on May 27th. Look for Pep Guardiola's team to try to light it up with a loose attack, leaving spaces open in the back line. Also, Puyol and Marquez are out for Barca and this will make their defense more interesting for the next match. No Arshavin (Zenit problem) and no Van Persie for Arsenal means Adebayor must pull off the upset once again at the Emirates. All in all, the stars that stood out for me were Giggs, Cristiano Ronaldo, Tevez and Rooney for Man U and Essien and Petr Cech for Chelsea. You can make the case for Henry in Braca but the rest--including Messi and Eto'o--looked quite muted to me. Fabregas was also quite frustrated against Man U and someone else on that team needs to step up and provide better service for Adebayor and Eduardo. Vela should be considered as well.

So who will it be? It's looking like another Man U vs Chelsea all over again. Guus, take some notes.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

MLS 2009 Attendance stats week 6

I may take a couple of days to post these numbers but they're usually worth it, right? Pretty pictures are usually more intuitive than just random numbers and facts. With that in mind, I'd like to concentrate on this week's numbers. With both TFC and Seattle playing at home, you would expect big numbers. TFC never disappoints and Seattle got its money's worth with Ljundberg and Keller scoring big both on the pitch and in the stands.

As it stands, if you took Seattle and Toronto away, league mean attendance would be scarcely over 12,000. The two teams alone bring the number above 14,000. Columbus and DCU are showing signs of a comeback in attendance terms. Less can be said about the reigning champ's success on the pitch. But it's early and plenty of dreaming to be done. Schellotto may yet show his considerable muscle and this team has a great base to work with.

Qwest field is no Bernabeu and San Jose is no Chelsea, but the stadium boils over with excitement from the crowd nonetheless. More on Champions League after tomorrow's affair. One more check at attendance. On the right is a pie chart of attendance for the western conference. On the left is the same for the east. Clearly, the two attendance leaders overshadow other teams. No Beckham means no huge white chunk (denoting Galaxy) of the pie.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

No more DC United?

I thought I might give some input in the matter. Recent events in the DC metro area have further reduced the team's chances of acquiring their own soccer-specific venue. At one point, DCU officials and MLS had announced of a 27,000 seat, state of the art stadium within the district at Poplar Point. That deal never materialized due in part to the economy but also to the ridiculously expensive Nationals stadium.

A ray of light quickly appeared in the form of Prince George's county in Maryland. Great expectations were present with this new venture, including jerseys for the county officials and other paraphernalia. Recently, however, that also came to an end. DCU was left to search for a new location, and in this uncertain economy, it becomes an even more saddening uphill battle. I, for one, would wait it out another year or so to give the economy a little more time to recover. The team, however, needs to stay in DC.

And it is precisely this that brings me to my next point. Commissioner Don Garber has mentioned in the past week that the team's future in the city is in danger. Why so? Stadium infrastructure is incredibly expensive and prevents the team from making any sort of profit. The team's considerable fan base notwithstanding, this doesn't seem too far fetched. Teams move in this country all the time. How many football teams has LA had? How many more basketball teams have moved around and resurfaced?

And yet, through it all, this league needs DC United. No other team in MLS, aside from Beckham's Galaxy, is as recognized as DCU. It has won the league on four occasions (twice as many as any other team), won international titles early on in the league's history, and it was home to some of the more important stars in this league: Ben Olsen, Marco Etcheverry, Jaime Moreno, Freddy Adu, Raul Diaz Arce, John Harkes. Truly an accomplished team.

It's hard to imagine MLS without it's most important team. What's the EPL without Manchester United? What would happen to La Liga if Barcelona moved, if Real collapsed? What if Chivas left Guadalajara? Indeed, this needs to be seriously considered. The MLS is DCU and DCU is MLS. It's as simple as that. A couple of years of searching for a venue shouldn't be too much to ask. Saint Louis United? I hope not. Not at the stake of DCU.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

MLS 2009 Attendance stats week 5

Another week. Another disappointing look at attendance. Does Beckham actually make that much of a difference? I prefer going to full stadiums to get the full atmosphere. Estadio Capwell, Monumental de Guayaquil, Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, Turner Field in Atlanta, RFK Stadium, Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Florida, Carter Finley Stadium. All glorious when full. Empty and cavernous with no fans.

It's a shame to see beautiful, new soccer-only stadiums like Rio Tinto and Dick's Sporting Goods Park so empty. It seems like any shot during the game catches empty sections of seats. Dallas looks terrible, not on the pitch, but on the stands. It's no secret that many players in the league are itching to play in Seattle and Toronto. Why not? People show up. People are loud. It injects spirit into the players. How should the league and/or teams address this? Square one if you're Dallas/Colorado/RSL. Build your fan base and nurture it. That's the key. One or two expensive stars can only do so much.

Many of us MLSers out there wonder... Why aren't people coming out? No Beckham? Economy? Lack of buzz about teams? Weather? At least one of those is actionable. As a climate scientist I wanted to look at the relationship between weather and attendance. Maybe a factor for 10-20% of fans? More? Not in Toronto or Seattle. Plot 1 on the right shows all games in terms of both attendance and temperature. Not much of a trend. Maybe a tendency towards cooler temperatures? Right. Remove (both cold) Seattle and Toronto (circled) and you get the second plot (left). Trending towards warmer weather? Sure. Very noisy. Not much to look at. Maybe a look at relative attendance - weather next week.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Tim Howard: outstanding goalkeeper

Simply amazing. Howard was the FA Cup here for Everton over the weekend. Two penalties stopped against none other than Dimitar Berbatov and Rio Ferdinand. Clearly, we have an awesome superstar here, not to mention the fact that he's a former Man U keeper as well. It's no fluke that the back line of the US national team just seems to gel better when he'd directing things from his goal.

Meola. Keller. Friedel. Hannehman. Perkins. Guzan. The list goes on. Outstanding US goalkeepers making their mark here and abroad. They have the most impressive resumes of any US player. Why is that? I venture a couple of educated guesses:

1. Americans love upper body-oriented sports: Baseball, Basketball, Football. All rely on arms mostly although speed and motion are important as well. This fact allows for a seamless transition into soccer. Much less knowledge of the sport is necessary. Saves, reflexes, elasticity are important. Think diving for a football/basketball. I venture this notion also because my wife was a goalie back in the day. She also played basketball and rugby. Seamless transition, right?

2. Development. Around the world, goalkeeping is often an afterthought. You need scorers and playmakers first, defense second, and if you have a chance maybe a goalkeeper too. That's the way it goes usually. Just facts. But here in the US all facets are taking seriously, including goalkeepers. It is part of the developmental process and starts with boys and girls at the youngest of levels.

That's my rant for today. Feel free to share your thoughts. Meantime, a few seconds with Howard, stopping mighty Manchester United, and reaching for glory in the FA Cup.

Monday, April 13, 2009

MLS 2009 Attendance stats week 4

4th week. Same numbers. Sort of. RSL attendance slumps, as does the defending champs', Columbus. Rio Tinto Stadium's beautiful facade is, regrettably, visible. The yellow bleachers at Crew stadium glare in the afternoon sun. San Jose was respectable considering the small size of Buck Shaw Stadium (10,500 seats). The Galaxy was actually able to attract over 23,000 to the Home Depot Center for its derby against Chivas.

Elsewhere, Toronto and Seattle had sold out stadiums. I've read how many players in MLS teams are looking forward to playing at Qwest field. Why not? Lots of fans and incredible atmosphere. It's also been rumored that the Sounders are hoping to expand MLS seating beyond its current 27,700 capacity. It's starting to get warmer out there and college hoops are closed for the season. Time to see our MLS supporters in the stands, right? Well, with DC's stadium problems at the top of the list and increasing amounts of expansion teams (Philly, Vancouver, Portland), it's only getting more complicated. It's not so far-fetched to see DC losing its franchise to, say, Saint Louis.

More emphasis should be placed on regaining those ardent crowds that have made teams like DC so strong on and off the field. Come on, MLS, show the fans some love, give them some guidance and a reason to attend games. TFC and the Sounders responded with great squads and acquisitions and they look good on the pitch too. Plenty of season left.

Meantime, a look at the current relative attendance median for the western conference (right). In other words, how full is a stadium on any given week? Also, a similar plot for last season for the western conference (left).

Sunday, April 12, 2009

An ode to SuperClasicos: Chivas vs Galaxy

They exist all around the world. In-town rivalries are unparalleled in their excitement and passion regardless of the sport, current level of play or rivals, stars in each team, or coaches. From Man U - Man City to Real Madrid vs Atletico Madrid, Inter vs AC Milan, Boca vs River, Chivas vs Atlas, Rangers vs Celtic, Emelec vs Barcelona, Mets - Yankees, Jets - Giants, it doesn't matter. Now MLS has its own in-town game: Chivas USA and LA Galaxy. And what a rivalry it has become.

Indeed, yesterday's match wasn't unprecedented at all. 3 red cards, several yellows, no goals and lots of passion. A Beckham-less Galaxy is looking lethargic and anemic at points and no Berhalter, Saneh or Lewis (all national team vets, and old) can save Bruce Arena's side. This team is looking more like the Mexican national team. Chivas, on the other hand, has a splendid attack, imposing defense and is unbeaten this season. Preki (also a national team veteran) has done wonders as coach of the mid-decade expansion side.

Donovan looked a bit lost without much service from the midfield. Gordon knew the importance of the match and acted like it. This may be why he got ejected for two infractions... dissent of the ref and a random foul behind cameras a-la-Zidane. But that's what these games are about. Nagamura (Chivas) felt it too and got unjustly ejected after a soft yellow for a foul against Donovan. Berhalter also tackled Eskandarian in midfield after a bad bounce nearly left the former DC man one-on-one versus Ricketts. And Ricketts came up big as a solid 'keeper. Something sorely needed after Cronin's debacle last season.

And the commentators also reacted well to the superclasico atmosphere. Lalas felt for his former team (manager of Galaxy during the Becks circus) and fellow one-time teammate John Harkes also drowned in the atmosphere. Indeed, JP Delacamera had a nice remark: "Looks like you two would like to be on the field."

So bring it on, SuperClasico. There will be a return match at the Home Depot Center in mid-July before Goldenballs returns to MLS. Another chance to see a good rivalry. Not much soccer yesterday but plenty of grit and emotion. In the end, when it comes to clasicos, all bets are off.

Monday, April 6, 2009

MLS 2009 Attendance stats week 3

Attendance has been poor so far this season (week 3). So where did everybody go? Away with Becks to Milan? Seattle and Toronto? To claim their stimulus check? Call it what you want, people are not showing up to games. Maybe it's the weather, March madness, economy or a combination, or is it that we really actually do need Beckham to fill stadiums in MLS--especially those that cater to 18,000 fans or so?

Numbers don't lie so let's explore them a bit. Steve Goff got ahead of me by citing this fact: "MLS is averaging a respectable 14,696 spectators. But if you remove Seattle's 30,536 figure, the league count drops to 13,100." True, but if you take out Toronto (the other sold-out-stadium team), it's 12,878. If that sounds like the typical FC Dallas attendance you're not too far off (12,966 average in 2008).

Other attendance hogs, LA and DCU are lagging far behind their usual score (27K for LAG and 20K for DCU last year in terms of medians). This year DC is looking more like a team from the West at around 14K. LA is barely above 17K. I'm willing to step back and say that it's the economy, the weather and the lack of buzz around most teams in the league. Even that one's a stretch, though. RSL has had many fans this off-season coupled with a brand new Rio Tinto Stadium.

Maybe once the winter blues cease things will be different. I sure hope it is not up to Mr. Goldenballs to decide. Meantime a little comparison between mid-season last year 2008-2007 difference and this week's attendance 2009-2009 difference.

Also, I've had to stretch the 08-09 difference (yellow bar graph) to +-5,000 to keep up with the numbers. Sad, indeed.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

What's happened to Mexico?

Let's face it. Few teams around the world have as many fans as the Mexican national team. That is a fact. And I'm talking real, true Mexican-born fans, not the bandwagon fans that Brazil, Argentina and France get along the way to the World Cup. And yet it seems that the Mexican team, all Mexican national teams in fact, are in a constant state of negative flux.

Why is this? The players? The coaches? The team owners? The federation? My take: all and none. All because they have repeatedly failed at achieving important goals like qualifying for the Confederations Cup, the Olympics and the U-20 tournament. Hugo Sanchez was sacked and now Eriksson has been sacked. I'm not an expert in these matters but I've heard and read enough about the squabbling delegates of the Mexican soccer Federation that stalled various plans and included their own pet projects into the system. That last one is Vergara, owner of one of the most financially successful teams on the planet--Chivas de Guadalajara. He insisted on bringing a European name to the coaching vacancy left by Sanchez. He failed at getting Scolari and settled for Eriksson.

Did Vergara's pet project and gamble work? Yes and no. The team played differently and added a few names to the fold--Vuoso, Augusto, etc. Interestingly, some of these players were not Mexican-born. Eriksson also gave a lot of opportunities to youngsters like dos Santos, Martinez and Vela. A welcome sight if sometimes an unnecessary gamble.

Still, Eriksson failed at what he was brought to do. Win tournaments and win every Concacaf game. Let's rewind to last fall for a moment. Mexico was pooled against Canada, Honduras and Jamaica in the second round's group of death. Admittedly, all those teams deserved a spot in the Hexagonal. So when Mexico left the Azteca after getting all 9 points at home and gathered only 1 from a tie in Canada, heads started to shake. Was this so bad? A loss in Kingston, Jamaica. The Reggae Boyz are very good at home against most oponents. Why couldn't Mexico lose? Then there was a tie in Canada. The relative "minnows" of the group still have players with considerable abilities--de Guzman, DeRosario, Onstad are just a few. And finally, a loss in Honduras. 1-0. Was is so bad that they lost against the probable number 3 team in the conference?

Friendlies against Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile and Sweden were 2 losses and 2 wins on American soil. All of those games included reserves on the roster due to the fact that they were played outside of FIFA dates. Then comes the Hexagonal. An opening match against the US in Columbus and a loss they should have seen coming. The US held their own and made the home soil count. Mexico did the same against Costa Rica last Saturday. It injected "confidence" into the team and coach. Really? Then why the 3-1 loss to Honduras in San Pedro Sula? Because Honduras really is that good. That's my take. Maybe a 2-1 was more deserving for Mexico but that's football.

So who's really to blame here? Eriksson had only a limited amount of time to get used to Mexico, the style of play and other idiosyncrasies of the Azteca game. Mexico was given a tough schedule in the preliminary round and also to start the Hexagonal. If they had started at home vs USA then a visit to El Salvador and at home against T&T things would be different. It was foolish to let him go at this point. Aguirre (in-coming coach and the coach that lost to USA in the 2002 World Cup) may do only what was expected to happen anyway... qualify for South Africa. Can he inject more spirit into the team? Sure. Can he do the same for the fans? Why not. And the federation? They sure hope so. Aguirre is their "savior" and if he doesn't pan out it will be difficult to truly nail down what could be wrong with Mexican play. Too many players abroad that don't care about the national side? Sure, we've all heard that before.

Mexico has quite a few dollars invested commercially in terms of the national team. This is why Sanchez was ousted. Never mind the awesome play the team displayed in the Copa America 2007. Sanchez didn't need to be the u-23 coach. Bradley sure wasn't for the US. That job went to Peter Nowak. Maybe Mexico should have considered that and Sanchez could have had more time with the nats to make things smoother. Then again, Vergara, Martinez and other FMF owners had considerable input in the matter. Is that where the fault lies? The caprice of one or two team owners? I hope not.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Jozy, magnificent and other World Cup qualifying notes

Redemption. USA 3 - Trinidad and Tobago 0. The US bounced back from an unsatisfactory performance at the Estadio Cuscatlan in El Salvador with a "goleada" to quench fans' thirst for success. What a night for Jozy [Altidore]! Three goals, some spectacular, some because he can score. Clearly, Villareal noticed this kid was special when they decided to invest $10 million into his future. It's too bad Xerez (current on-loan club) management does not agree and keeps the youngster away from the pitch.

Elsewhere on the field that succeeded today was Grankie Hejduk. I think Cherundulo will have quite a battle if he wants to be the number one at right back. Beasley on the left flank was a great move although I'm concerned with the player's frailty at points (frequent injuries). I think of him as a skinny Roberto Carlos. He was thoroughly tested today and answered well against the T&T attacks. Mastroeni on the field as a holding midfielder was an interesting choice. He had his touches but remained quiet. That's a holding midfielder's job. Edu has similar qualities and is possibly the future in this position but for now Mastroeni was done a good job. Donovan was his usual brilliant self in the midfield with Ching maintaining possession of the ball right behind Jozy.

Onyewu and Howard's return were welcome sights. Bradley and Dempsey had great games, winning balls and distributing play. Kljestan, in the short few minutes he had was surprisingly effective against the type of play displayed by T&T (more European). This may be something to note for the future, especially keeping in mind that he was great against Sweden with his hat trick earlier this year. Torres brought in good energy but his effect wasn't as strong as with El Salvador.

Elsewhere around the world were incredible upsets, tearful ties and important wins for established teams. Upsets: Bolivia trashed Argentina 6-1. As I had remarked to a friend of mine, a "best in the world" side does not lose to minnows. Spain has been repeatedly taking care of things. Argentina, Italy, Brazil, France and Mexico seem to trip up here and there. Maradona should be crying as he was that fateful night in Rome on a midsummer night in 1990 when his team lost to Germany in that World Cup's final.

Another important "upset" was Honduras total domination of Mexico. Sven Goran Eriksson will undoubtedly be shown the door pretty soon. Mexicans have very little patience and short attention span. Among upsets that were more like tearful ties were Uruguay and Chile's 0-0, Italy and Ireland's 1-1 and an unfortunate 1-1 between Ecuador and Paraguay in Quito. As I had remarked earlier, this Ecuador side will not make it to 2010. It is true what the Ecuador media had mentioned... Ecuador has great attackers in Benitez and Caicedo but it lacks true goal-scorers like Agustin Delgado. This quite possibly holds true for Mexico, France and Italy as well.

Other teams around the world cemented their steps in next year's ecumenical occasion: Australia, Spain, England, Germany, Holland are some of the big names on the list. There are so many stories here that I can't do justice to. 80 matches, by the way, in the last 5 days. And the band plays on.

In the meantime I'll stick to our local group. Here are my player ratings:
Subs: Kljestan (6) and Torres (6)