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Monday, July 19, 2010

MLS Designated Players 2009

Is it silly season yet? In Europe, it is. Fabregas is flirting with Barcelona. Drogba is being lured out of Chelsea. Efrain Juarez is now a Celtic man. Carlos Bocanegra has moved to St. Etienne. Roy Hodgson is now the Liverpool manager and Fulham are about to pick their own. It doesn't stop there: MLS also has its share now.

Yes, no longer a pushover league after the success of the US national team and the rise of its players abroad, MLS is quickly becoming more interesting to the international audience. Not too long ago, MLS was a league akin to that of Qatar or Saudi Arabia: big name stars in the twilight of their career. We are talking about Valderrama, Stoichkov, Zenga, Matthaus, Djorkaeff, Donadoni, Hugo Sanchez, Luis Hernandez, Leonel Alvarez. Not now: Freddie Ljunberg, David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Juan Pablo Angel, Marcelo Gallardo, Nery Castillo, Blanco, Nkufo. These are all players capable of working at the highest level in the toughest leagues. Note that Beckham missed the World Cup due to injury while Henry had some minutes for the ill-fated French squad and Blanco scored on a PK for Mexico.

Consider the fact that Nery Castillo is by no means a grade B player. He had a monstrous time with Olimpiakos before an ill-advised move to big-pocketed Ukranian team Shaktar Donesk. He's 26, not a 32-year-old retiree. Also consider that both Beckham and Blanco were recalled by their respective nations given their play in MLS. I can't say the same for a team in the Middle East, not yet. Also, Henry is no pushover. His time in Barcelona was winding down given the accuracy of Pedro, the consistency of Ibrahimovic and the arrival of David Villa. Few people want to sit on the bench. Henry wouldn't be the first.

Then there are the Omar Bravo, Ronaldinho and Rafa Marquez rumors. Some probably truer than others. For Marquez, it would be change in scenery for one of the best Concacaf defenders of all time. He has ascertained that he has already won everything in Europe and is ready for something new (New York is a possibility). Omar Bravo has been released by Chivas Guadalajara and is rumored to be on his way to Kansas City. Ronaldinho is another matter entirely: he has been rumored to be going to the Galaxy ever since Becks made his way there.

Perhaps the most important signing is Thierry Henry. He is by no means done with the sport. He knew from 4 years back that he would be a Red Bull eventually... this was just the right time. His recent bad press with the "Hand of Gaul" against Ireland, limited time on the pitch with Barcelona, and the French debacle in 2010. Americans love outlaws and controversies and redemption stories. Henry should fit the bill. Added to that is the fact that he will be paired with Juan Pablo Angel, with the possibility for another DP (Marquez?) to manage the midfield. How fun does that sound?

So there you have it. Even if Landon Donovan were to leave MLS, the league would have newer and younger (Castillo) stars to continue the growth of the sport in this country. I'm looking forward to seeing them in action with their teams. Nkufo already played for Seattle (impressive, although the team hasn't been). Henry will debut next week in MLS action (this week versus Tottenham in a friendly match). Castillo is likely to do the same this week or next for Chicago.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Paint it yellow, paint it red: Spain wins the World Cup

Yellow and red because those are the colors of the Spanish flag and the flag of Catalunia. Yellow and red because Webb, the referee, decided to give out a myriad of punishment cards (12). Most notable was the red card for Heitinga deep into extra time. Spain was victorious today because of the whole of the team. . . and they taught us how to play soccer once again.

There would be no Fernando Torres starting today. Most of us knew that. But was Pedro the right call? He had shown a bit of trepidation in his play. Maybe he wasn't ready for the big screen. Llorente and Navas were the other options. Navas would come in to add some spark to the game.

No winning goal from Torres, not this time. No sixth goal for David Villa, he would settle for five in this World Cup. No heroics from Sergio Ramos, Carles Puyol or Gerard Pique. No magic from Xavi or Xabi Alonso. It was Iniesta this time, and just in time. The man that sent Barcelona to the Champions League final in 2009 was the man that would give his country the one tournament they always knew they could get but had not been able to acquire. Gooooooooal! We screamed and cried and laughed as the net opened its petals when the ball hit the polyester strands. Spain would win it without penalties. Spain would redeem soccer once more and bring the beautiful game back to the glory it deserves.

Another chapter in world football closes today. Another four-year cycle comes to a close. We return to our everyday lives and begin to train our hearts and minds to dream once more. Maybe your country can go far in 2014. Maybe your country can win. Now we watch our players grow and fall and score and cry so that they can share the dream. This is why we love this game.

Que viva Espana.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

MLS 2010 Attendance stats week 13-15

Yes, World Cup action is all over the place. Don't forget we have our own league here in the US, and it's back in action after the group phase ended. Note that a lot more people are showing up to games due, perhaps, to increased buzz about the sport. Philly just opened their new PPL Park soccer-specific stadium on the banks of the Delaware river in Chester, PA. The capacity crowd of 18,700 showed once again why the sport is here to stay. Out in LA yesterday fans cheered their hearts out for their players. And no, it wasn't David Beckham. It was the American Hero Landon Donovan. A capacity 27,000 crowd watched the game from the stands (and the lawn). We have to credit Donovan and the US national team for this. Crowds are also up in Dallas, Toronto, Salt Lake City and Colorado. Expect crowds to remain high as the season rolls on.

Stats graphics are on the right column.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Breaking history: The Semifinals

There are favorites in every tournament, the usual suspects: Brazil, Argentina, France, Italy, Spain, Germany. Always on the horizon is Holland, the one team many claim the best nation never to win a tournament. Of the above only Germany and Spain survive. Uruguay is reliving its glory days of 40 years ago with its first semifinal berth since 1970.

Certain patterns always emerge during World Cup cycles. For the past 36 years, for example, no team that has won the cup has lost a single game. Only one team in the 80 year history of the World Cup has won the title after losing a match: West Germany. Curiously enough, it was against fellow-finalists Hungary in 1954 and against the recently-deceased East Germany in 1974. So, contrary to previous posts, it actually is possible for a champion to lose during the tournament. The question is this: will it be Germany or Spain? As the saying goes, there can be only one.

It will be Klose-Podolski-Ozil versus Xavi-Iniesta-Villa. Germany may be fast, impressive and young. Spain, however, is a more complete team. All of Spain's players are world-class individuals. Germany can't say the same, although their collective spirit has dismantled soccer powers like Argentina and England. Do remember, however, that the Germans were pushed to the brink by Ghana and were deflated and defeated by Serbia during group play. Spain has been less than impressive during this tournament except during the Honduras game and the first half versus Chile. Germany must contain the considerable power of Spain's attack and exploit the so-far sub-par performances by Puyol and Pique, as well as Sergio Ramos' frequent excursions into the offense. Spain needs to score, plain and simple. Torres may not start the match due to lack of form.

On the other side of the coin (tomorrow's semifinal) are Holland and Uruguay. These two teams are unbeaten. Uruguay has been particularly impressive after defeating Mexico, South Korea and South Africa following a 0-0 draw versus ill-fated France and a controversial win against African darlings Ghana. Keep in mind that Fucile may not play (injury) and Suarez is unavailable due to suspension after his goal-line handball at the end of extra time versus Ghana. The team is tired and stretched after their quarterfinal game, although with plenty of confidence. The Netherlands have steadily grown stronger throughout the tournament. No multi-goal demolition of their opponents, no flashy forwards like David Villa, just a solid squad that has addressed its shortcomings in defense and that has taken care of things in the midfield. Wesley Sneijder, "Best Player of the Tournament" candidate derailed heavily-favored Brazil thanks to his partner in crime--Arjen Robben. This one-two punch along with Van Persie, Dirk Kuyt and Huntelaar may be too much for a weakened Uruguay defense. On the other hand, Uruguay has a knack for major upsets (Maracanazo in 1950).

Four games are left. Only one can be crowned champion. Were Uruguay and Germany to lose, we would have a first-ever champion, something that has not occurred since France won the tournament in 1998.


Friday, July 2, 2010

For Ghana: Wavin' Flag

Ghana lost today on penalties even though they deserved the win. That's why, sometimes, we hate this game. It's also why we love it. Uruguay was a worthy opponent, true to their roots of unnecessary fouling and last-ditch efforts, gifted strikers and ambitious defenders.

Africa lost today. Again stopped short in the quarterfinals. It was Cameroon in 1990 against Gary Lineker's England in one of the best quarterfinal matches in history. In 2002, Senegal surpassed group and round of 16 play only to be derailed by a surprising Turkish team. But the Ghana of today is a different kind of team. More gifted than those two squads, exceedingly fast and athletic, and most of all... younger.

To the fans it is a heartbreak. To South Americans it's another triumph. A wise person once told me that soccer is like life, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. Eighty-four thousand people shed tears today at Soccer City. Behind them an entire continent. This game was for the fans listening to the game on a beat-up radio in the Sahara desert, to the farmers clearing fields in the Sahel, to the adventurous city-dwellers from Accra to Kampala, to the bars in South Africa, and to fans here in the United States. Yes, there were some of us here that looked past the USA loss in the round of 16. We recognized that this game was something bigger for the most ancient and beautiful of all the Earth's continents. Africa gave us humanity and not long from now the soccer Gods will deliver the World Cup to them.

Remember that this Ghana team is young and inventive. They came from big leagues and teams like Inter Milan, Rennes, AC Milan and Bayer Leverkusen. And when they get older they will indeed be stronger.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Pledge your allegiance: The quarterfinals

Admit it, if you are like 70% of futbolUSA.net readers then you are American and have no team to cry over, or do you? Everybody watches the Superbowl and everyone has their own pick, right? So yes, it's bandwagon time. It's time to side with your favorite non-local team. Plenty of favorites to choose from:

Is it everyone's favorite, Brazil?

Are you happy with a young team playing smart soccer? We have Germany for you.

Do you like soccer Gods? Maradona, Messi and Argentina are there.

Do you want a star-studded, fast-paced game? Spain is the right team.

How about underachievers? Holland is a nice match.

First-timers by default? Paraguay is a good bet.

And how does a one-two attacking-punch plus dirty defense sound? Like Uruguay.

Underdogs can be fun to root for, no? Yes, that would be Ghana.

It's easy to choose the favorites for each match. Brazil has had no problem with Holland in the past. In fact, this match is a direct replay of another quarterfinal--in 1994. Romario and Bebeto scored, Bergkamp and Winter rescued the Dutch and Branco sealed the deal for the South Americans. Oh, that baby-swing celebration was trademarked by Bebeto when he scored. Truth is Holland lacks the arguments in its defense to cope with Brazil. Brazil doesn't. Not with Lucio, Dani Alves, Juan working the back line.

Argentina-Germany is a "final adelantada." A final in 1986 and 1990. Argentina won it first, followed by German vengeance the second time around. In 2006 they also met in the quarterfinals. Germany prevailed on penalty kicks. They were at home, don't forget that.

Spain-Paraguay will give us a first-time semifinalist or the final return of a giant. Paraguay had never made it to the quarterfinals. Now is their chance to write more history. Spain claimed fourth place in 1950. If Paraguay can play like Bob Bradley's squad last summer (and the Swiss on Spain's opening game) then they certainly stand a chance. Watch out for Villa, though. It seems like he wants the golden boot.

Finally there's the match we all thought the Americans should have had. Uruguay-Ghana. Uruguay's footballing history ended in 1970's semifinal. They did win it all in the inaugural tournament (1930) and in Brazil (1950) against the Ademir's host nation. Ghana is an entirely different kind of team. No history beyond the Olympics, one previous World Cup (2006) and an entire continent behind them. Win and they make history. Lose and they stop where other African nations have stopped prior to this tournament (Cameroon in 1990 and Senegal in 2002).

Are you a fan yet?