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Monday, November 22, 2010

Original team: Rapids win MLS Cup

The Colorado Rapids won the MLS Cup final yesterday versus arguably the best team in MLS--FC Dallas. It was a fitting finale, perhaps for a team that I grew to appreciate during my brief time in the Denver-Boulder area. From a practice match against a college team that was canceled due to inclement weather to the first competitive MLS match I ever attended. Truthfully, even at the beginning of the season, I never thought the team would make it this far...even less to actually win it. But that's how soccer works.

The match started as we thought it would: FC Dallas dominated and David Ferreira scored. Hyndmann fielded the same team that ran over the LA Galaxy. Another Dallas rout of their opponent? Not quite. Rapids coach Gary Smith continued his game plan and the team quickly moved to shut down the Colombian ace (and league MVP) with Mastroeni and Larentowicz providing the pressure. Brek Shea, meanwhile, was null in this game, with Dax McCarty taking up most of the offensive efforts.

For the Rapids, it was a team effort. Conor Casey showed why he's considered a resilient force and an underrated attacker (probably a better option for the US than Robbie Findley at the World Cup). Omar Cummings provided an important second striker, making the Rapids' front one of the best tandems in MLS. But it was Casey's unwavering fight for a goal that eventually brought the scoreboard level. In a play where Dallas' defense was frozen and in which Hartman and a defender ended up on the ground, was where Casey (also laying horizontal) struck home the equalizer. Typical Casey fashion. It reminded me of the tying goal versus Honduras in the match played by the US against the Catrachos that eventually wound up a victory and sealed the US' passports for South Africa.

The game took a downturn after the tying goal. Too much defense and not enough inventiveness from either team. The game ended up going into overtime and the Rapids grew even more dangerous. Yes, Dallas had more opportunities, but you have to put them away in order to win a game.

It would be Kandji in the 107th minute, after replacing an inured Cummings, that would put the Colorado team ahead on the scoreboard. It was a freak shot that bounced off George John's thigh, past an incredulous Hartman, almost in slow motion, into the net. Kandji would actually leave the game injured after this play and the Rapids were down to 10 men.

Dallas incessantly attacked but was thwarted every time by a stout defense and excellent goalkeeping by Pickens. After 2 or 3 clear chances, the referee blew the whistle and a new champion was crowned: the Colorado Rapids. An original MLS team with hard working individuals and lacking a Designated Player or colorful coach. Attendance in their stadium is mediocre at best, but they've sent a clear message that they are a relevant team ready to win more fans, more tournaments, and the heart of American soccer.

Photo credit: Colorado Rapids

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Back to the future: USA defeats South Africa

USA defeated South Africa in Cape Town today thanks to 17-year-old Juan Agudelo. It was a clear message. Youth is the answer for the United States. Bob Bradley may not be the first choice for many fans and critics, but he had the right ideas today when he picked a youthful squad and had it pay off.

What a match indeed. The defense was stout with Ream-Goodson in the middle and an infallible Eric Lichaj at right back. Guzan showed why he deserves to be playing for Aston Villa...or perhaps another team. Bornstein struggled a bit on the left but still kept the Bafana Bafana from scoring. Up top Findley found little space as the lone forward. Gaven couldn't get through to him and Rogers took his own chances. Bedoya was also impressive on the left.

Enter the substitutes. Bunbury was a spark plug when he entered the game. Spector struggled some on the left (that's not his usual spot) but still got the work done. Borchers and Agbossoumonde would enter the match later in the second half to get some experience in defense at the international level. Then came Diskerud and Agudelo. Agudelo was dangerous from the start but it would take Diskerud's inventiveness for the teenager to make history. And history was made indeed. Diskerud did some fancy footwork in the area late in the game and provided an excellent pass to a streaking Agudelo. The youngster gave placement and pace to the ball. The shot hit the cross bar and bounced in behind the goal line.

Agudelo thus became the youngest player to ever score for the national team. At 17, he is in prime position to start fighting for minutes as a striker. Given the US' recent lack of scoring by forwards, his time with the national team may continue to rise. Expect him to be present at the January camp. Indeed, he and Diskerud are likely to be together early next year and may be featured in the match versus Chile (first international game of 2011).

We have seen the future today and there's plenty to be excited about. Agudelo, Diskerud, Lichaj and Ream comprise the next level of US soccer. Best of luck to them and also plenty of credit for Bob Bradley.

Player ratings:

Subs: Bunbury (6), Diskerud (7.5), Agudelo (8), Agbossoumonde (N/A), Spector (5.5), Borchers (N/A)

photo credit Schalk van Zuydam

The goal:

Monday, November 15, 2010

In Memoriam: Mi primo azul

This is to remember a childhood friend. A father, a son, a cousin. In the dry season we would spend time outside in the driveway. We would play soccer beneath the mango tree. Sometimes with an old soccer ball. Most of the time with a rubber ball or one made out of rolls of duct tape. It didn't matter. It was two against one. My younger cousin and I versus him.

He was always loyal to his team: Emelec of Ecuador. The team of his father and his brother. He taught me to love that team and I made it my own.

In the months before I moved away, we lived in the same house. There, I made up soccer games with G.I. Joe action figures. I named the tournament "Copa AmercoEuropea" and included random teams like Guayana and Andorra, ever the optimist. He would play along with me and would set up the brackets on a notepad and come up with names for all the players. We used tiny wooden stepping stools about half a foot tall and a foot wide as goals. Our grandfather, near the twilight of his life and mainly absent from reality, would watch us play. I still remember when I called "45 minutes" and grandpa said: "Se termino el partido."

My cousin also wrote in the single elimination brackets in my 1994 Don Balon World Cup magazine. I was annoyed. He had picked Bulgaria and Brazil for the final, with the Brazilians as the champions. He was right about that.

I will miss you, my cousin, my friend. You taught me to love the game and in doing so created one of the passions in my life.

This is for Fernando Villalva Velasquez. Soccer fan for life and an Emeleccista all the way to heaven. May you be at peace now.

Designated Winner: FC Dallas triumphs over Galaxy

FC Dallas was victorious this evening at the Home Depot Center, cradle of the LA Galaxy and stadium that ranked second-highest in attendance. Hyndman's men did it in style. Gritty defense. Outstanding 'keeping by Kevin Hartman, often underrated, clearly overlooked by the national team.

The star today? Hartman +10. The team played as one. It defended as one, it created as one and it attacked as one. Some of us out there had called Atiba Harris' lone start up top a risky maneuver not likely to pay off. I jokingly said it could be a genius move. And it was. More so because it allowed for the counter as Ferreira, McCarty and Shea pushed up as soon as there was a free ball. Ferreira iced the game midway through the first half. John scored again for Dallas early in the second half before Chavez sealed the 3-0 win in the 73rd. Hartman saved at least 4 sure goal attempts.

No Beckham and no Donovan in the final. Instead we have two "long shot" teams: Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas. Little did I know when I went to the Rapids' home-opener in April that this would be the team to beat in November. MLS clearly doesn't need designated players to win the cup. And yes, I'm stressing the cup. Because in reality, LA won the league and Real Salt Lake were the runners-up. This would be the case in most of Europe and some South American leagues. Here, the Supporters Shield (awarded to the highest points) is clearly shunned as a secondary title.

One last point: these two teams represent some of the lowest-attended of all squads in this league. Rapids' 2009 average was 13,328, whilst for Dallas it was 10,815. Only San Jose and Kansas City had lower numbers, and that's because their stadiums hold less than 10,500 to begin with. Will reaching the final bring up attendance numbers? It did for Columbus, to some extent. Is a designated player necessary? Not really. Not unless you know how to slide one in without upsetting the environment: Schellotto, Giovanni worked well. For Dallas it may be appropriate to get an interesting name and excite the soccer-loving crowds in the state.

This will be an interesting, fitting finale for a season full of surprises: from the rise of Buddle to the late charge in scoring by Wondolowski. From the return of Beckham to the arrival of Henry and Marquez. From the entrance of Philadelphia to the sellout crowds at Qwest Field. From the impressive Hans Backe (New York) to the outstanding Hyndman.

photo credit: MLS

Friday, November 12, 2010

Youngsters 2010: US vs South Africa

The US national team will revisit South Africa next week for a friendly versus the host nation. This has been a place of providence for our national team: building the future from the 2009 Confederations Cup to the 2010 World Cup. And next week's game offers an even better look at the future of the sport in this nation.

With stars like Steve Cherundolo, Carlos Bocanegra, DaMarcus Beasley, Herculez Gomez, Brian Ching slowly ceding space for a new generation, it becomes rather urgent to analyze future options. It should also be noted that megastars Donovan, Howard, Dempsey, Onyewu, Jones and Feilhaber are nearing their "veteran" status. That is, they will be in their 30s by the time 2014 comes around. Our "mature" players (mid to late 20s) will include Holden, Bradley, Edu, Torres, Altidore, Spector, Lichaj, Bornstein, Guzan.

So who will be our "youngsters"? Bob Bradley will begin to address this question next week. He has called up U-20 players Juan Agudelo (striker), Mikel Diskerud, (midfielder) Gale Agbossoumonde (defender) and Teal Bunbury (midfielder/forward). This in addition to impressive Eric Lihaj (defender played versus Colombia in October), Tim Ream (defender) and 23-year-old goalkeeper Dom Cervi (Celtic). Rounding out the squad is a mixture of experience and fringe players: Robbie Rogers, Johnathan Bornstein, Brad Guzan, Jonathan Spector, Brian Carroll, Logan Pause, Nat Borchers, Alejandro Bedoya, Eddie Gaven, Clarence Goodson and Robbie Findley.

So, who do we watch out for? Starting with the defense: Tim Ream is a potential future starter with the nats. He is in the same boat as Bocanegra, Goodson, Onyewu, Omar Gonzales. Along with Gonzales, he could solidify the back four for years to come once the older guys retire.
Agbossoumonde is one to watch also. He's in Portugal now trying to break into the Sporting Braga first team. I'd also like to see more of Lichaj. He made his EPL debut in Aston Villa's latest game and has played in Cup competition.

In the midfield, all eyes will be on Diskerud, if he plays. He's a starter with Norwegian side Stabaek (7 goals in 47 games). Look for Bedoya, Roggers, Gaven and Pause/Carroll to get the start, as they are more experienced players.

Possibly even more important are the new attacking options. I'm still not sure why Jack McInierney wasn't called but I'm sure there is a reason for it. Aside from that, I think Juan Agudelo could be the most promising of the bunch if we're talking goals. He impressed (although did not score) during the two games he had as a starter for the New York Red Bulls in the MLS playoffs. He was quite the prolific scorer in the youth squads (12 goals / 17 games for U-17, 3 goals / 7 games for U-20). If this sounds familiar it's because there was once another promising young star in New York: Jozy Altidore. Agudelo is quite fast, has excellent dribble and awareness, and is full of energy. An Altidore-Agudelo tandem in the future is always a possibility. But let's see how well he develops.

Bunbury is another interesting option at midfielder/forward. He had 25 appearances as a rookie for Kansas City and scored 5 goals. He's the son of prolific goal scorer Alex Bunbury (Canada) who played his trade in Portugal before joining MLS. Teal is Canadian-American but has chosen America (as of right now). A rising star? There's always room for more forwards.

So there you have it, folks. Youth or inexperience? Gutsy call by Bradley? Given the busy schedules with the usual starters, I think this is a great opportunity for the youngsters. I don't anticipate a blowout, but even if it is, it's more constructive to analyze the new options in the American pool.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

MLS 2010 Attendance stats final week

It seems only fitting that I should do the last week's attendance figures as the first part of the MLS playoffs draws to a close. Why? It just seems that 3 of the teams with the lowest attendance could win the cup and will be hosting the semifinal: Colorado Rapids (13329), San Jose Earthquakes (9877) and FC Dallas (10874). Only New England (13018) and Kansas City (10286) have lower numbers than the Rapids.

With that said, we turn to another statistic: change from 2009. Both San Jose (-3836) and Dallas (-1567) saw declining attendance compared to last year. Indeed, San Jose saw the biggest loss by any team in the league. The Rapids saw a modest gain of +998.

Let's keep this in perspective, however. With the two highest-attended teams yet to play, Seattle (36500) and LA (21571), the spectacle on ESPN tonight will have a nice backdrop. Indeed, this season saw a significant increase in attendance overall when compared to 2009 (+1678). This is partly due to increasing availability of seats for Seattle (+5603 overall) and the major gains by New York (+5889) after opening the Red Bull Arena and adding Marquez and Henry.

How will next season compare? Given possibly sellout crowds for Vancouver and Portland, as well as strong attendance in Philadelphia, Toronto, LA, Salt Lake and Chicago, we could see the figure go up even more, perhaps by another 1000. And if the on-field success by Dallas, San Jose and Colorado can reignite attendance in those cities, MLS can look even stronger in the world scene.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

New York vs San Jose: Superclubs don't always win

It was truly a tale of two matches. On the away match, the overbearing New York Red Bulls stomped all over the San Jose Earthquakes at Buck Shaw Stadium in the first leg of the quarterfinals in MLS' convoluted playoff system. The scoreline was 1-0. Many out there, including myself, thought the Red Bulls should come home with the away advantage and score a routine win or a tie to see them through. We were wrong.

Enter Bobby Convey (remember him?). His goal in the 6th opened up spaces in the defense as Rafa Marquez kept moving forward. Tim Ream and company were leaving too many spaces open after that in a push for the equalizer. Chances came and went via Agudelo, Richards, Lindpere and Angel. None got through thanks, in part, to John Busch.

With the first half behind and an ever-more-dangerous New York pushing farther up San Jose's defense, more room was left in the back line for the Red Bulls. Convey punished them for this with his second strike of the night. Immediately after, however, a smart play by the 17-year-old Agudelo set up a free header for Angel. 2-1. It's a game again.

Then came Wondolowski, the league's top scorer, with a superb header. 3-1 was the final score.

What do we take away from this result? Big spending doesn't necessarily mean success, and this is not a "Tea Party" remark, let's stick to football. Consider this: New York had 3 designated players on the pitch: Rafa Marquez, Thierry Henry and Juan Pablo Angel. Together they are worth three MLS teams, so to speak. Henry was a commodity. Angel was a proven scorer. Marquez was a brilliant move...but Henry and Marquez came in too late in the season (August). Not enough time to transition into MLS play.

San Jose went in the other direction. They signed a designated player late in the season also (Giovanni), but it wasn't their centerpiece. They were smart about spending and about having a blue-collar team that can do some damage. They snuck into the playoffs and are now semifinalists. Players like Wondolowski (27-year-old veteran of MLS), repatriated Convey (his time in Europe was cut short due to form), Corrales, and a hard working team. That's worth more in MLS right now when two or three year projects are allowed to proceed. New York went the opposite direction. New manager, pricey players, big team attitude.

But New York isn't completely flawed. This can be a team to reckon with in the coming seasons if Hans Backe is allowed to remain at the helm and if a more skillful playmaker is signed. Add to this the promising 17-year-old Agudelo, Richards, Lindpere, Tim Ream, and this adds up to a successful franchise.

So cheer up, New York. There's always next season. And to San Jose, welcome back to the big leagues.uJustify Full