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Sunday, February 28, 2010

American History X: Edu scores for Rangers vs Celtic

Who would have thought just a few months ago that Maurice Edu would bounce back to the American soccer picture with enough momentum to become an impact player? That's what happened today as he scored the winning goal in one of the most heated soccer contests in the world--the Celtic - Rangers match of Scotland. It was an injury time, scavenger goal, that only comes when a player is on his moment.

What happens now? First, a definite start against the Netherlands in Amsterdam for Wednesday's Fifa date friendly. Next, continuous playing time for Rangers, which is now almost assured the Scottish Premier League title. Finally, Edu may be well on his way to starting alongside Michael Bradley during the World Cup. This is true if Ricardo Clark is unable to make an impact in Germany.

Edu has considerable defensive abilities that might make a difference against foes like England. Torres and Feilhaber are more likely to play against more accessible foes or as supersubs. Edu can also play as a center back, adding to his functions in the national team (he played this position in the 2008 Olympics). It is a crowded midfield, yes, but this may allow Dempsey or Donovan to play as forwards, especially given Charlie Davies' potential absence.

It has been a month worth remembering for our younger players. Adu, Edu and Altidore are making their mark in Europe and re-writing American history in the world's greatest game.

His goal:

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Argentina's surplus of attackers

What do you do when you have the best attackers in the world? Who do you bench and who do you start? That's Argentina's "problem" at the moment. Let's count it down from most important to slightly less: Messi (FC Barcelona), Tevez (Manchester City), Higuain (Real Madrid), Milito (Inter Milan), Aguero (Atletic Madrid), Palermo (Boca Juniors). Wow. Just having one of them in your team would make the difference in any given game.

We can argue that Messi can be moved to the midfield, yes, but this may cut down on what the best player in the world can do for the national team. Tevez, it is argued, is a sure bet for a starter, at least according to sports media.

And who's providing service from the midfield? That's the other side of the equation. There's Veron, Riquelme, Cambiasso, Saviola. Oh, wait... no Riquelme because he quit the team thanks, in part, to squabbles with coach Maradona. Saviola has also fallen out of favor with the Argentines. Veron isn't getting any younger and is a tender player at best and has maybe two games of fitness at a time. Cambiasso is a great option, but it seems that Maradona and staff are a bit concerned with his age and fitness. What a mess. There are a few options with Mascherano and Di Maria, but not nearly enough to supply the formidable attack.

Who do you start, then? Milito and Higuain have similar styles and appreciable height for aerial attack. You can say the same about Palermo. Tevez is fast, opportunistic, and a true center forward. Aguero brings youth and unpredictability. My guess would be a 4-3-3 with Messi, Tevez and Higuain/Milito. It all depends on form at this point. In their clubs, they are pretty much the same. It thus comes to who can score and/or assist with the national team. Might we see a preview of this when Argentina faces Germany this Wednesday? In the end, however, it comes to quality passes from the midfield and a stout defense to back up a talented offense. This is Argentina's Achilles heel... their overwhelmingly good offense.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

US squeaks, Mexico rolls in friendlies

International friendlies during non-FIFA dates are a way to diagnose how domestic-based players stack up compared to those playing in Europe's elite leagues (and other countries as well). These games are usually reserved for non-European teams and/or mid to low level Europeans. Why is this so? Big leagues, big teams, big players. The clubs have priorities and do not release their players for non-FIFA dates. This is why Mexico can't call on Guardado or why the US can't call on Donovan or Altidore.

For teams like the US and Mexico, as well as, recently, even Argentina, domestic leagues cede their players to the national team as a way to support national team success and/or to comply with ordinances from the country's federation. For the US, MLS is not in season at the moment and players are free to engage in national team camps. Even some Scandinavian-based players like Clarence Goodson are allowed to partake in non-FIFA dates since their leagues are on winter breaks.

In the end, it's about gaging prospects within the domestic league that may compete for spot with more prominent Europe-based players. Bornstein, Ching and Casey are probable picks for the final 23. But rest assured that the majority of the squad will be comprised of Dempsey, Altidore, Bocanegra, Howard and other international stars. These unofficial friendlies become crucial for at-the-moment fringe players like Kljestan, Findley, Pearce, Beckerman. We might say that they haven't done as well as they could have. Their first friendly versus Honduras was horrendous due to an early red card. Yesterday's match against El Salvador was a great deal more promising but we are left wondering if our base players are very shallow in scale and confined to Europe.

Granted, Kljestan, Pearce, and Ching showed signs yesterday that they can compete at a higher level and are worth keeping as potential supersubs at the World Cup. A 2-1 win is a win, especially given their shot-on-goal ratio versus their counterparts (something like 4 to 1 with 15+ shots for the US). A lack of the finishing tough is what was missing, something we cannot afford in South Africa. Mexico, on the other hand, ruled the day and completed a thourough routing, 5-0, of Bolivia. Players like Hernandez, Blanco and the veteran Braulio Luna emerged as potential competitors for the Europe-based players like Vela, Osorio and Guardado. Mexico showed how a friendly match on home turf (it's San Francisco, people) should be won when the competing squad is also comprised of domestic-based players.

All in all, it was a promising start. Now it's time for the international stars to affirm their status as first-teamers... and the chance comes against Holland in Amsterdam (Wed, March 3 on ESPN2). Good luck.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

World Cup Memories: Nigeria

Ever since Italia '90, Africa has had a special place in my futbol heart. It was a win by Cameroon versus Argentina on opening day that changed everything. Then came Nigeria in 1994, ready to build on Cameroon's improbable run to quarterfinals four years before. Nigeria played wonderful soccer and did not disappoint, even if they couldn't make it past the round of 16.

It certainly all starts with 1994, but Nigeria always had football in their hearts. Their first "competitive" match came while still an English colony in 1949. They would not see much success until the 1980s as more of their players joined European clubs. This was limited to one AFC Cup of Nations in 1980 and a couple of finals in '84 and '88, where they lost to Cameroon. Their junior team, U-23s, won the gold medal in Atlanta '96, reafirming Africa's place in world football royalty. Kanu, presently still with the team, captained the team.

Nigeria made their first World Cup appearance in USA '94 and opened the tournament against Hristo Stoichkov's Bulgaria. They impressed, much as Cameroon had in Italy four years before, by defeating Bulgaria 3-0, then facing Argentina in a hard-fought loss (1-2), before ending their group phase with a 2-0 victory versus Greece. It was Yekini's goal celebration versus Bulgaria that became the trademark of African soccer in 1994. Nigeria's next game came against Italy. They were winning for most of the game until Baggio tied it up in regulation time before with a penalty before securing the Azzurri's victory with another spot kick in overtime.

Looking to build on their impressive, albeit short, participation in 1994, Nigeria entered France '98 with certain optimism. They would not disappoint. Easily the most memorable game from that tournament came when the "Super Eagles" faced Spain in their first game. A final 3-2 score after coming back twice from being a goal down sentenced Spain's chances of advancing through to the round of 16. They would win against Bulgaria once more but would lose to Paraguay in the last game of group play. An unfortunate 1-4 loss to Denmark followed and they exited the tournament after the second round.

After two impressive World Cups, Nigeria was prepared for a third when they were placed in the group of death: Argentina, Holland, and England. They would salvage only a tie versus England in the last game. Losses to Argentina and Holland in hard-fought matches weren't enough.

Next for Nigeria is a more accessible group that includes 2004 Euro champs Greece, mighty Argentina, and always-difficult South Korea. Veteran Kanu seeks to erase past memories with a good outing. Mikel Obi of Chelsea and Obafemi Martins of Wolfsburg are headliners, as is Yobo from Everton. This is a highly-contested World Cup group, but advantage is in Nigeria's side based on some of their more prominent players.

Yekini's 1994 goal on Bulgaria:

Saturday, February 20, 2010

World Cup Memories: Argentina

If you are a futbol fan, then Argentina is always on the top of your list for players, teams, history and superstars. Who can forget Basile, Mario Kempes, Caniggia, Goycochea, Batistuta, Ortega, Sensini, and of course, Maradona?

Argentina is one of the most successful teams in the world, having won 19 different international titles spanning the Copa America (14), Olympic games (2), Confederations Cup (1) and the World Cup (2).

Argentina's World Cup adventures starts with Uruguay 1930, when the host country defeated them in the final to become the first ever champions. The "Albicelestes " have been in 3 other finals since that tournament. It would not be until they hosted the World Cup in 1978 that they reached a final and won the title. They were the hosts and boasted the great Mario Kempes. Argentina '78 was one of the most controversial tournaments (aside from England '66). Argentina needed a win and a lot of goals to get past Peru in order to make the final. Some say that the 6-0 score resulted from bribery.

My memories of Argentina begin, understandably, with 1986. I knew about the "Hand of God" in the Argentina-England game. Clearly one of the best games of all time. Maradona would score once with his hand and once on an incredible run from his own half to beat midfielders, defenders and goalie to score their second of the match. Gary Lineker would score for England. 2-1. Probably the game I remember the most from that tournament (aside from Brazil-France) has to be the final against West Germany. It was Basualdo, Burruchaga, Maradona, Valdano against Brehme, Rummeniege, Voller. After going up on the scoreboard 2-0, Argentina were well on their way to their second title. Germany would come roaring back. Burruchaga's strike in the 83rd would seal their win with a goal that left the goalie lying flat on the ground.. forever imprinted in my mind.

Italia ’90 was different. Argentina were the champions and Maradona was a legend. It would all come crashing down in the first game. It was Cameroon and Oman-Biyik that proved Argentina wasn’t the same from 1986. They would lose to the Africans by 1-0. They would bounce back, however, beating the Soviet Union and tying Romania. They qualified as one of the best 3rd places. Then came Brazil in the round of 16. A South America clasico. Caniggia in the 80th minute that silenced the “Cariocas.” That had to be one of the better games of the tournament. Argentina went on to defeat Yugoslavia in penalties as well as the hosts, Italy, on penalties once more. Goycochea, the Argentina goalie, made the difference. The final, a reprisal of the ’86 final, saw them face Germany. This was a match of special significance for me. I sided with Germany whilst the rest of my family were with Argentina. This was mostly since I was enrolled in a German school. Andreas Brehme, the charismatic defender, sentenced the match in a controversial penalty. Maradona cried as he received the silver medal. Lothar Mathaus rejoiced as he lifted the cup.

In USA ’94, Argentina succumbed to forces outside their control. Maradona, after playing inspired matches versus Greece and Nigeria, test positive for doping and was banned from competition. This marked the beginning of the end of Diego’s career as a player. Argentina would not get past Hagi’s Romania. The score was 3-2.

Fresh from rough years for the national team, Argentina would once again be considered a contender in France ’98. It was Batistuta and Ariel Ortega (regarded as the new Maradona) that would help the team to win their group. In the round of 16, Argentina faced England in a reprisal of the ’86 quarterfinal. At this time, Michael Owen stepped onto the big stage, as did some guy named David Beckham. Alan Shearer and Owen scored for the English whilst Batistuta and Zanetti scored for Argentina. This had to be one of the more entertaining matches in the tournament. Owen’s goal was particularly impressive. Argentina would win on penalties, but Becks’ red card may have played a role. In the quarterfinals it was Denis Bregkamp of the Netherlands that exacted revenge for the 1978 final. Argentina was bounced from the tournament.

In Korea-Japan 2002, Argentina landed in the group of death. They faced England, Sweden and Nigeria. After defeating the Nigerians, the “gauchos” would lose to England thanks to a Beckham free kick in a match worth remembering for the England international. Batistuta and Crespo couldn’t do enough against Sweden and they were sent home after the group stage.

During the last World Cup in Germany, Argentina once again emerged as favorites. They were once again in the group of death, except this time they came out victorious. Their rivals were Serbia, Ivory Coast and the Netherlands. They would tie Netherlands and win the other games. In the round of 16, it was a familiar rival, Mexico, that stood in their way. The Mexicans were playing impressive soccer and went up on the scoreboard 1-0 thanks to a Rafa Marquez goal. Argentina would tie it up right away thanks to a Hernan Crespo goal. Maxi Rodriguez’s goal in overtime saw them qualify for the quarterfinals. It was now Germany, the host team, that ultimately defeated the Argentines in penalty kicks after Cambiasso and Ayala failed to score. Some blame Peckerman’s refusal to start a much younger Messi in the games.

In 2010, it will be MaraMessi or MessiDona that may be the difference. They have an “easy” group comprised of Nigeria, Greece and Korea.

Caniggia’s goal in 1990 vs Brazil:

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Adu scores his first for Aris of Greece

Freddy Adu, once branded as the American Pele, scored his first competitive club goal today in over a year. Maybe it was coming all along. Maybe we wrote him off too early. Could he make the World Cup team? Not so fast. Not yet.

Adu first signed with MLS at the tender age of 14 and played for DCU under Peter Nowak. He was never as dominant as expected and scored 11 goals in 87 games. A brief stint at Real Salt lake followed before he moved to Benfica of Portugal on a free transfer in 2007. Whilst at the Portuguese team, Adu scored twice but quickly fell out of favor. He would appear only 11 times for Benfica. Next came an unsuccessful loan to Monaco of Ligue 1 during the 2008-2009 season. He only made 9 appearances. For the 2009 fall semester, Adu was loaned to Belenenses of Portugal. He played in only 4 games.

Many in the US soccer media thought that Adu was on his way out of Europe and back to MLS. Then came news that Aris Thessaloniki FC of Greece would snatch him up on loan along with Eddie Johnson of Fulham. This was his last chance, many though. Maybe he can start silencing his critics now... but let's not jump to conclusions. If, however, he continues to dominate, he may sneak his way into the national team, especially if injuries continue to strike top players like Edu, Dempsey, Torres.

His goal:

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Altidore scores his first Premier League goal

Perhaps it was only fitting that after all the criticism, personal afflictions, and group play in his team. Jozy Altidore finally scores in the English Premier League after playing for Hull City in 18 games. It is a result that brings confidence to his game, relief for US soccer fans, and perhaps more importantly, temporary safety for Hull as it climbs out of the relegation zone.

The past few months have been a rollercoaster for the 20-year-old. From no participation whilst on loan to Xerez of Spain during the spring season, to a hat trick versus Trinidad and Tobago in World Cup qualifying, to a stellar performance in the Confederations Cup, to the announcement of his loan to Hull, to tragedies with Charlie Davies and his ancestral home-Haiti. Indeed, enough events for a young man like himself.

Altidore last scored for Hull during his second-ever match for the team in Carling Cup play against Wycombe Wanderers in August 2009. He has been a hard-working forward, however, winning balls, setting up goals and winning free kicks and penalties. The press hasn't wasted time acknowledging him, though. Perhaps it's time for impatient US soccer fans to let the man breathe and play his game. He is a star player, and he proved it yesterday.

His goal:

<a href="http://video.msn.com/?mkt=en-us&brand=foxsports&from=metadatawidget_en-us_foxpsorts_videocentral&vid=e00366b4-cbb9-4cb9-9f6e-ada99f4a8237" target="_new" title="PL Highlights: Hull/Man City">Video: PL Highlights: Hull/Man City</a>

Friday, February 5, 2010

Big Love: from Terry to Harkes

Who says there's no drama in soccer? And what about love and infidelity? Maybe some "Dream Team" action too? Yes, from England to the USA. Just recently, John Terry of Chelsea and the England national team has been sacked as captain of the England squad. Why? Extracurricular activities with Vanessa Perroncel, the former girlfriend of England defender Wayne Bridge. Ouch indeed. Should he be removed as captain? Yes, if it will cause turmoil within the team that will also cause distractions prior and during the World Cup.

Would England blame bad form in south Africa to Terry's affair? Probably. It happened before. Here, in the USA. Do you remember back to 1998 when Steve Sampson decided not to include John Harkes (captain at the time) in the US squad for the tournament? Apparently, this is what caused the three and out for the US. But why? An extra-marital affair with the wife of none-other than Eric Wynalda. Drama!

Now, I won't get into details but know this: according to Sampson and Wynalda, this caused enough of a rift to undermine the team's performance, thus leading to losses against Yugoslavia, Germany and even Iran. What a disappointment. I'm not sure this is necessarily true. Sampson wasn't ready for the tournament and the US needed a foreign coach to ride the psychological high from 1994. Scapegoating is just too easy in world football, and Terry's and Harkes' dilemmas are further proof. But, if England is distracted, this may actually help the US, direct rivals in the group phase. If so, American fans should cheer on the current events. Soccer analysts, both official and unofficial, will just be disappointed... but players are human beings, we must remember that.

Monday, February 1, 2010

World Cup Memories: France

Vive les bleus! That was the chant in 1986 as Michel Platini worked his magic to get past Brazil to a semifinal date with Argentina. It was also the chant when they played again, 12 years later, in St Denis outside Paris... and when they beat Brazil, again, but this time in the final. That's the story of the French national team with me. Always a favorite, always able to get past Brazil. Always controversial. They have two Euro championships (1984, 2000), two Confederations Cups (2001, 2003) and one World Cup (1998).

France is a nation with deep roots in world football. France was present at the inaugural and 1934 World Cups but did not advance far in those tournaments. They hosted the World Cup in its third and final tournament before World War II in 1938. They advanced to the quarterfinals in that tournament, losing to eventual champions Italy. In the 1950s, France saw a golden age with players like Just Fontaine (13 goals in one tournament, unmatched since then). They lost 5-2 at the semifinal in 1958 to eventual champions Brazil courtesy of a Pele hat trick. The French saw a significant decline in the 1960s and 1970s before roaring back to the scene in the 1980s.

This is where the story begins. Easily one of the most memorable games in my memory, Brazil-France in 1986 cemented the team as one of my favorites. It was Platini versus Socrates. It came down to penalties...and the French prevailed. Since then, not one team has been able to knock out Brazil from the competition except for Argentina (1990). When France didn't meet Brazil (1994, 2002), the "Samba boys" won the tournament. When they met (1986, 1998, 2006), the French ousted the Brazilians... Pattern? Maybe, because in sports, as we know, psychology plays a major role.

Two World Cups passed with a glaring absence (1990, 1994), as France failed to qualify twice in a row (once against Bulgaria in 1993 courtesy of Hristo Stoichkov). But the Gauls would return with a vengeance. They were hosting 1998, and what a tournament that was! For the first time, 32 teams were included. For the first time, Asia and Africa were dully represented. Who can forget games like Nigeria-Spain or Brazil-Chile? And as for the French team? Just say the names: Zidane, Henry, Petit, Deschamps, Laurent Blanc, Trezeguet, Dessaily, Vieira, Thuram, Fabien Bartez, Lizarazu, Djorkaeff, Dugarry. Simply an amazing squad. On that final versus Brazil, Zidane, who had not scored at all in the tournament, stepped in to initialize the scoreboard and seal the deal with a 2-0 that would later be appended by Petit's goal. Goleada!

On to 2002 and the pains of being number 1 but relying on one player--Zidane. "Zizou" was injured for the first two matches. France went on to lose their opening match (which I incidentally had called) to Senegal 0-1. Scoreless tie against Uruguay and a 2-0 loss versus Denmark doomed the squad and they bowed out after the first phase.

In 2006, the "old guard" would have its chance once more. After a slow start in a relatively weak group, France squeezed out of the group phase by defeating Togo and with help from Switzerland. The round of 16 pitted them against Spain, heavily favored by many. It was not to be for the Spaniards... 3-1 for the French in an amazing match. Next came Brazil, again, except this time there was no penalties. This time it was Zidane dancing around Ronaldinho and connecting superbly with scintilating Henry. Henry's touch on the 57th minute marked the difference. Portugal, with a young Cristiano Ronaldo, met them in the semifinal. Zidane's penalty early in the match decided the contest. And the final? Still fresh in the memory of, dare I say, American fans. Zidane's header on Materazzi's humanity eclipsed the penalty he had scored early in the match. The legend would be ejected and Trezeguet would miss the penalty that decided the game. Italy won in another installment of antifutbol.

So what's next? They are in 2010 due to FIFA oversights but are here nonetheless. Franck Ribery, for one, rose up during 2006 to become Zidane's apprentice and now sits comfortably in the midfield directing plays left and right. He's joined by Toulalan, Diarra, Diaby, Malouda. Up top are Benzema, Henry, Anelka. Anchoring the back line are Gallas, Evra, Sagna, Abidal. Against them are the hosts, South Africa, along with Uruguay and Mexico. You could pencil them in for the next round but remember that they are a streaky bunch (as 2002 showed). They are in need of a spark at the moment, yes, but they can never be counted out.