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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.