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Sunday, August 30, 2009

All's forgiven: Becks lights up LA

Call me a believer. Yes, Bruce Arena is a catalyst for this new LA Galaxy team, but tonight it was pure Becks magic. Sellout (27000) crowd at the Home Depot Center, a gritty match, plenty of shots and another beauty from the free kick specialist. No, it wasn't a free kick that he scored with, but it was his poise and experience and knowledge of the ball that allowed Becks to score against Chivas tonight. The Goats put up a great fight. Nagamura, Marcos Santos, New-comer Jesus Padilla, Maykel Galindo and much-maligned Sacha Kljestan all showed up tonight.

And it's because tonight was much more special due to the game's proximity to the playoffs and how tight the standings are. Any bad streaks or false moves could doom any team at this point. With this result, the Galaxy gains sole possession of second place at 38 points whilst Chivas shares fourth in the West with Real Salt Lake.

There has been much said about TV ratings of MLS and crowd support, but today was a rebuttal to all that noise. The boys came to play. The crowds came to watch. Their star scored. They cheered. And they won. No nasty banners, no pushy fans yelling unnecessary obscenities, no boos. Just the sport. Plain and simple.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

MLS in the CONCACAF Champions League

What a disgrace. It wasn't enough that, save for Charlie Davies, no one else in the national team showed up to play against Mexico at the Azteca. Now it seems even our best clubs fall to Mexican competition. And why is that? Two reasons: team depth and poor player decision on the pitch. DCU managed not to win...again. Never mind that it was against Meixcan powerhouse Toluca. No surprise there with an injury-ravaged and overcommitted team playing in three competitions with only 24 players. But at home again? This extends their inability to win in CONCACAF play since the end of the Champion's Cup two years ago. Sad indeed.

Then there's Columbus. They squandered the game early on when Cruz Azul went ahead by two goals in the first twenty minutes. A silly couple of fouls and they were down a man going into halftime. They looked dangerous in the attack, yes, but ultimately being a man down against a confident Mexican team was too much for the best team in Major League Soccer.

And what about Houston? The feisty Texan team just made their life harder by losing three players going into the next match, including midfield maestro Stuart Holden. They were even up on the scoreboard until the very last minute, when the Panamanian club was able to even out the score.

What have we learned here? Team depth. Yes, the economy is bad and this probably should not and will not come into play in MLS decisions for the time being. But it is worth to note that not having a reserve league hurts the league internationally and lowers the play in US Open Cup. Just ask the teams that lost against USL sides. I think that's the most important lesson. Teams always have a hard time playing in Mexico, that's a given, but we are certainly not going to have a strong showing there if we play the same guys that are busy trying to inch their team into the play-offs.

Oh, and the two ghosts of American soccer present: red cards and focus. These are the unfortunate fruits of poor decision both on and off the pitch. Players have to be smarter when they are involved in international play. More experienced clubs thrive on these situations. And the latter, focus, is to remind ourselves why we lost to Brazil in the Confederations Cup: we let the other team dominate until they scored. That's what happened to Houston yesterday. Now they will be without Holden or Ashe (pretty much the whole of the midfield) when they visit mighty Pachuca. Ouch.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

MLS 2009 Attendance stats week 22 & 23

Updating for two weeks since I'm so busy. Concachampions action is going on now and not many at the stadiums: about 6000 at Columbus for the clash with Puerto Rico and about 8,000 in Houston against Metapan. Looking at this objectively, when we see the numbers in Marathon of Honduras, those were pretty low as well. Granted, it's a week night and no real big stars or big teams. Not much respect for the competition in general. We can compare this to low-level South American teams in the Libertadores or Sudamericana. Sometimes some games are just not that interesting.

Back to attendance analysis. Don't be too surprised with San Jose's climb out of the negative in the 2009-2008 attendance differences. They actually benefit from the Chivas (Guadalajara) versus Barcelona game at Candlestick in San Francisco. To filter that out I'm presenting the mean vs median for the western conference below.

Added to Beckham's return, barring red cards like the one that kept him out of a sold-out midweek match in Chicago, is the sudden influx of high-caliber Mexican strikers. In are Jesus Padilla and Luis Angel Landin. Padilla was usurped out of Guadalajara presumably due to the fact that he was born in the US although he is also Mexican by parentage. Keep in mind that Chivas is a team built to have exclusively Mexican players. Landin, on the other hand, is a proven striker for Cruz Azul, Pachuca and the Mexican national team. He is now the first designated player for Houston. The orange, always fun to watch, now add Landin to its considerable artillery. Look for a potential MLS Cup or semifinal at least.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Reanalysis: USA to miss South Africa 2010?

Not inconceivable. Not in the least bit. The nail-biting, number-crunching, sports scheming and media attention has begun now that four teams in Concacaf are separated by only 3 points or less: Costa Rica (12), Honduras & USA (10), Mexico (9). FIFA allows for 3.5 spots for the North, Central American and Caribbean Football Confederation in a world cup. And the half spot? That's a play-off game with the number 5 from South America, which right now could be Ecuador, Colombia, Uruguay or Venezuela. A few interesting results and it might even be Argentina in the number 5 slot. Ouch.

So the top three is what Concacaf teams strive for. Three spots to be safely in the tournament. And now that the Concacaf revolution is in full swing things look that much bleaker for US hopes. There are 12 points left at stake. Two games at home versus El Salvador (Sept 5) and Costa Rica (Oct 14) and two away games at T&T and Honduras. We might as well write off the Honduras match as a loss. Not many counted on that result either. Onyewu will be missing in next month's crucial contest in Sandy, Utah versus the cuscatlecos. Who will step up? DeMerrit? Bocanegra? Marshall? Califf? This is an absolute must-win, and it should also be by as many goals as Davies and Altidore can muster.

Trinidad and Tobago will be waiting in Port of Spain for what is sure to be the most important of matches. A win there and we would have 16 points heading out to Honduras and then home versus the Ticos. I can go on, but instead I'll point you to a great source.

So what happened yesterday at the Azteca? Lack of concentration? Poor formation, starters? Too much hype? Yes, a thousand times yes. I was worried about it and kept on saying it to every soul I spoke with. The US was inevitably going to lose that match and we should not build it up the way the media had. Thirty minutes on ESPN prior to the game in a special supposed to prep America for another "miracle on grass" was a hard pill to swallow knowing that there was a 70% chance the US would come up empty handed. Watching (actually just glancing) a bit of PTI in which they mocked Bob Bradley as someone that never won the "big game" was another death blow to American soccer fans. I have to agree with them and with commentators like Jamie Trecker that have time after time warned us of the cracks and seams slowly tearing USSF apart.

What if? Yes, what if the US lands into fourth position (we can go ahead and count El Salvador and T&T out unless deities answer their calls) and is forced to play against Colombia or Uruguay or Ecuador or even worse... Argentina? Will Bradley be able to answer such a threat? Will he have the team and resources to decisively win at home and get a result (gulp) away in Bogota or Buenos Aires? And if they lose the playoff, what happens to US soccer? What happens to MLS and all the great strides the past 20 years have brought us?

Casual fans abound in this country and they are not selling out to a team that repeatedly loses the "big game." What if we don't even show up to the "big game"? These are points Bob Bradley, Sunil Gulati, MLS and the whole of US Soccer need to be seriously going over right now, especially when we're all signing up and teaming up for a 2018-2022 World Cup bid. Another point is thinking through the qualifying process. Right now it should be more important to get into the tournament than to shop around venues. Playing T&T in Nashville is one thing, but Honduras in Chicago and Costa Rica in DC is another. I'm hoping to make the trip to DC myself but I'm willing to pass on the opportunity if they can switch the venue to Columbus instead. USSF officials should make sure that the important thing should be the result of a match and not just the revenue. Much more will be lost monetarily if we miss the World Cup.

I have to admit that this is a bigger test than any in the past... and it's good for the players and the game in the region. The US Soccer Federation needs to admit to its mistakes and grow from them, even if it means sacking personnel in order to allow for more seasoned individuals. I think, and we all agree on this, that the time for this has come and passed.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Azteca, the impenetrable fortress: Why Mexico won

Perhaps we built this game up too much. Perhaps we built up the players too much. Perhaps Spector and Bornstein would have been better on the flanks. We'll never know. The truth is today Mexico won fair and square. They went down early, picked up the pieces, and penetrated the defense long enough and often enough to take down Howard's efforts. The scoreline would have been much bigger had Tim not been on goal.

So what did it? The stadium and the fans. They were enough to break the nerves and enough to allow Mexico's midfield to disrupt Donovan and Bradley to the point that they were phased out of the game quietly. Coupled with that was the inability of Cherundolo to be the attacking option that Spector brings and the speed at which Bocanegra moved around. There's no room for excuses here, though. The Aztecs came to play. They never let down. They never gave up. They controlled the ball and passed well.

Mexico's goals came from opening up too much space in the middle for the first goal and just plain persistence and poor clearing for the second goal. The US had a great chance with Davies early in the second half but he came up short.

Finally, it's the Azteca. It's the fans. It's the 105,000 that payed overpriced tickets to experience the best game the region has to offer. It's also history, and it continues to be written the same way. Counting off the Gold Cup as an aberration that should not have happened, I think we can pick up the pieces and move on. This was a game we expected to lose, just like the Costa Rica match. Another one we're likely to drop is the Honduras game. It's the team's prerogative now to win against El Salvador and Costa Rica at home and to try to pry points away from Trinindad and Honduras away.

Great game. Heartbreaking loss. What a goal from Davies!

Player ratings:
subs: Feilahber (4), Holden (6), Altidore (3)

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Protect your house: Mexico hosts the US in World Cup qualifying

Mexico will receive the USA at the Azteca this Wednesday at 4PM Eastern. As always, I like to keep perspective on what the US national team is able to accomplish. This summer was a rollercoaster for the national team. Starting with a horrible loss in Costa Rica with an experimental line-up that had several pieces missing, to redemption at Soldier Field coming from behind to triumph over Honduras, to falling from grace against Italy and Brazil in the opening games to the Confederations Cup. Wait, we're not done. The Americans gathered the pieces left, blanked Egypt 3-0, and with a little aid from Brazil they got through to an improbable semifinal against mighty Spain. We were hoping for a dignified exit from the tournament against the number one team in the world. Altidore and Dempsey showed up as well as the defense and a "miracle on grass" took place with their mildly historic win. A crushing loss in the final 2-3 against Brazil, compounded with a terrible goleada administered by arch rivals Mexico in the inconsequential Gold Cup buried all the hype and clamor the team had achieved earlier in the summer.

Now the US is hungry again for glory and they have a full-strength squad on hand. They look for the improbable... a win at the Azteca, another "Aztecazo" that will further cement them in Concacaf royalty. Only Costa Rica has been able to achieve this in recent memory. Honduras had delusions of grandeur late in 2008 when they thought they could steal 3 points away from the Aztecs. Wishful thinking indeed.

Does this mean it's not possible. No. We can never count anything out in sports. But there exists a fundamental difference between the US and Mexico that goes far deeper than comparing the domestic leagues. The difference is the fans and the crowds. The US may be able to pull of a 60-40 or 70-30 majority at the Columbus Crew stadium but nearly everywhere else the Mexicans always hold home turf within this country. This is a unique situation in the entire planet. And when it comes to "El Coloso de Santa Ursula" you can expect a 99.9% Mexican crowd of 113,000 screaming fans.

Another important point that is different between the two sides is the media coverage. Where the US gathered important attention after the Spain match, nearly all the casual viewers were turned off either by the Brazil match or the Gold Cup final match. Only die-hard US soccer fans and the underground soccer media awaited word on the potential team to be used in Mexico. Where Aguirre chose a squad two weeks prior to the contest, Bradley responded just last Friday. More pressure for Mexico, undoubtedly.

Finally, let's not forget the recent 5-0 loss at Giants stadium with a half-full Mexican squad and a highly inexperienced American side that had none of its starters or even the token substitutes. Mexico is keeping a good number of the players from that match for this one. Here's Aguirre's squad:

Goalkeepers: Guillermo Ochoa (America), Jesus Corona (Cruz Azul).

Defenders: Efrain Juarez (Pumas), Jose Castro (Tigres), Rafael Marquez (Barcelona), Jonny Magallon (Chivas), Ricardo Osorio (Stuttgart), Aaron Galindo (Chivas), Carlos Salcido (PSV Eindhoven), Oscar Rojas (America).

Midfielders: Gerardo Torrado (Cruz Azul), Israel Castro (Pumas), Andres Guardado (Deportivo de Coruña), Cuauhtemoc Blanco (Chicago).

Forwards: Alberto Medina (Chivas), Giovani Dos Santos (Tottenham), Nery Castillo (Shakhtar), Carlos Vela (Arsenal), Miguel Sabah (Morelia), Guillermo Franco (unattached).

Invariably, it comes down to true home field advantage. It comes down to history and comon sense, to European-based players and media coverage, to years of practice and reputations. The US is going for history and this is exemplified by the ESPN spot prior to a game that won't even be on the network itself. Hours of coverage in several other Spanish-speaking networks is the Mexican response.

Bradley's squad looks like this:

- Tim Howard (Everton), Brad Guzan (Aston Villa)

- Oguchi Onyewu (AC Milan), Carlos Bocanegra (Rennes), Jay DeMerit (Watford), Jonathan Spector (West Ham United), Steve Cherundolo (Hannover 96), Chad Marshall (Columbus Crew), Jonathan Bornstein (Chivas USA)

- Landon Donovan (LA Galaxy), Clint Dempsey (Fulham), Michael Bradley (Borussia Moenchengladbach), Ricardo Clark (Houston Dynamo), Benny Feilhaber (AGF Aarhus), Jose Francisco Torres (Pachuca), Stuart Holden (Houston Dynamo)

Forwards- Jozy Altidore (Hull City), Charlie Davies (Sochaux), Brian Ching (Houston Dynamo), Conor Casey (Colorado Rapids)

TV coverage for this match is tricky. No ESPN or Univision or ABC. If you have Telemundo (Charter and Comcast usually carry it) then you can see it in Spanish. For the English version there is mun2, usually an extra channel on satellite and cable. If all you have is internet then you can check out the game here or here.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Altidore to the Premier League: what it means to the player, the team and US Soccer

Yes, it was confirmed by Jozy Altidore himself on his twitter site. The 19-year-old American phenom is moving to the English Premier League's Hull City. In it, the team's manager has assured Jozy that he will be a starter throughout the season. This is excellent news for the player, the US national team and American soccer in general. Where Freddy Adu has not been as much of a factor in the international scene, Jozy has picked up the role to become the next chapter in a rapidly evolving American soccer scene.

It began with an intrepid, stealthy and lethal combination of skill, size, and overall treatment of the ball by Altidore. He showed it at 16 in his first season with the New York Red Bulls by scoring important goals. He continued this form in 2007 and 2008 and was signed by Villarreal for an MLS record $10 million. Time in Spain was limited due to depth at the striker position with Rossi, Nihat, Franco and Llorente but he played 6 games scoring once. Even though his loan to second division Xerez saw no playing time, the man still lit it up in qualifiers for the US national team with 4 goals. And then there was the Confederations Cup, an excellent game against Egypt setting up Davies's play and the score-opener against Spain in the tournament's biggest shock. Winning that semifinal game and entering a FIFA final versus Brazil cemented his place in the big scene.

So what does this move to the EPL mean? To him, a chance to play regularly and to blossom as a player. This so-called relegation-bound team is just what a young American player needs. Look at what it has done for Dempsey in Fulham and Michael Bradley at Monchengladbach. They became starters, they scored goals, and they exploded internationally.

To Hull City his move means having a firecracker for a player. Someone with enough poise and subtleness in play to take on the Ferdinands, Terrys and Lescotts. A youg player with a hunger for playing time and a nose for goal. It is also a player looking to impress and attract attention from bigger clubs. This is how small clubs survive.... and profit.

To the US national team it means great depth in the attack. It means a star for another 3 World Cup rounds. It means attention and respect from other teams. And it means that we can answer the Dos Santos and Velas that our Mexican foes have in their arsenal.

And for fans it means fantasy and magic.

MLS 2009 Attendance stats week 21

A quick update on attendance stats. Not too much change since Mr Becks was on duty in an international LA Galaxy friendly against world powerhouse Barcelona. Decent attendance in Chicago and Houston. Dallas got into the 5 digits for once. With Kenny Cooper gone and the transfer window closing soon Dallas will need to find a way to attract more fans to the stands.

Elsewhere in MLS this week is the apparent inability of our league to win in the Concachampions (Concacaf Champions League). DCU got through on penalties and Toronto couldn't get past USL side Puerto Rico islanders. Sad indeed. Full credit to the Islanders, though. DCU's schedule is extremely full from here on out and that might impede it from trully performing at a good level in all competitions. Partly to blame is MLS for not allowing more reserve players instead of the current 24 per team. This may need revision.

Stay tuned for thoughts and analysis of Josmer (Jozy) Altidore's move to Hull City of the Premier League.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

From jeers to cheers: Beckham scores wonder goal

I'm torn, to tell you the truth. On the one hand I'm hurt as an MLS and US soccer fan that Becks acted with a certain degree of animosity towards the league while he was enjoying Milan. On the other hand he is easily one of the best set-piece finishers in the world and possibly in history. Him going out on loan was understandable and forgivable. We let Donovan go and even Alexi Lalas at one point. We also have to keep in mind that he has a shot at playing in the World Cup and anything to increase his chances definitely helps.

And lately he has been given hell by American fans. It's understandable. He didn't speak nicely about his "home league." He spoke of lack of fans, quality of play, and a lousy MLS infrastructure. Not what you want from an "ambassador," right? Compounding that is the man's inability to cope with the constant harassment by fans at Giants Stadium, the Home Depot Center and at the Rose Bowl.... but wait. He was booed when he touched the ball, booed when he set up a free kick and then the "boos" turned into "yays" once more. I would say he won 60% of fans back... including myself. I couldn't help the "yessss!" that I let out close to midnight EST. I'm actually warming up to the idea of part time Milan-Galaxy... but... always in motion is the future.

In the meantime, enjoy the show: