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Friday, October 22, 2010

Be Champions: Special One TV returns

Just a quick word for all English-speaking fans of the sport. The always-hilarious Special 1 TV show is now back on the air on the BBC. This is, yes, Jose being Jose. The controversial man can provide some laughs too, both live and in puppet form.

Be amused:

The Good Son: Wayne Rooney's dilema

Incredible turnaround for a star in peril. I divert my attention from US Soccer to talk about more immediate international happenings. This blog entry is about Wayne Rooney. This has been a rough season for the English soccer superstar. Once the king of fantasy Premier League, the man has been relegated to the bench and/or dropped from squads completely. In life, he had a mediocre, at best, World Cup, and his EPL season has shown little of his wealth of talent.

Manchester United, undisputed kings of world soccer a few years back, has also lost its grip on the European scene. Is this due to the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez? Is the injury to Antonio Valencia also influencing the team's performance? Sir Alex Ferguson looks nowhere near as concerned when his team ties a team like West Brom. Not the way he would have reacted in 2008, right?

So where does Rooney figure into all of this? He is/was the prodigal son of English football throughout the 2000s decade. His red card in 2006's quarterfinal versus Portugal possibly influenced the outcome of that match: Portugal win. In 2010 he failed to score and his chances were few and far between. In the 2009/2010 season, Rooney played scintillating soccer and defenses couldn't stop him. In 2010, there have been quite a few matches in which his role was reduced to a cameo appearance.

Then comes word that Rooney wants to leave Man. U., that Real Madrid and Manchester City are seeking to acquire him, that Sir Alex Ferguson concedes the player doesn't feel at home with the "Red Devils." The fans parked in front of his house and demanded answers. Is he really leaving. Is he really going to play for the "Citizens?" Wow.

But, as often happens in the world of football, a final decision was made with pen and paper. Yes, Rooney signed a new contract with Manchester United for a five-year deal. If he wants to leave it will be a high price. If he stays, he better rekindle his considerable talent. "Chicharito" Hernandez is waiting on the bench and Dimitar Berbatov isn't going anywhere. Without Ronaldo, United needs Rooney to step up to the plate and deliver as the franchise player. Nani can only do so much.

If all of this sounds familiar it's because we've seen it before, closer to home, with our own superstar: Landon Donovan. Yes, the most recognized face in US soccer history signed a multi-year contract with the Galaxy a year ago, thus foregoing opportunities overseas for MLS stardom. In retrospect it's really not a bad deal. Donovan doesn't need to strut his stuff abroad. He already showed what he can do with Everton, and certainly in international mode with the United States in South Africa during the World Cup. So, for Rooney and England, sticking with Manchester United is the best deal. England's #10 remains on home soil and United can continue to build around him. He's a good son after all.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

American Champions: Jermaine Jones and Maurice Edu

Maurice Edu (Rangers) and Jermaine Jones (Shalke 04) are two Americans enjoying success in club football's most prestigious tournament: The UEFA Champions League. They have both scored goals (even though Edu scored on his own team to negate the early tally). But, if we re-shift our focus to the US national team, and given the midfield, perhaps it is time for Edu and Jones to pair up together in midfield for USA. And yes, Michael Bradley should sit a game, or at least a half, out.

Why not? Edu and Jones partake in the Champions League, and although Shalke may be struggling at the moment in the Bundesliga, it is safe to say they are more experienced internationally than Borussia Moenchengladbach. We already know Michael Bradley is an excellent player, but we also have to measure performance by the quality of the competition they are involved in.

The truth is that all three players are "world class" and so far, at least in the last game versus Colombia, having all three players on the pitch is frustrating for both the midfielders and fans/media watching. It truly is a "three headed monster" if not developed correctly. But yes, that was a first try. But how many tries will Bradley have? Is a Christmas tree formation appropriate for the team with Donovan and Holden/Dempsey behind Altidore and in front of Edu/Bradley/Jones? Worth a shot, but so is the Edu-Jones tandem at midfield. At least a try.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Liverpool falls and rebuilds

There are few clubs in the world with the fandom and recognition that Liverpool has. One of England's "big four" (includes Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United). Winners of 18 domestic leagues, 7 FA and 7 League Cups, 5 European Champions Cup/League (most recent in 2005), Liverpool doesn't lack silverware. And yet, at the moment, they are on the verge of collapse both financially and in the sport.

That is, until the New England Sports Ventures stepped in to rescue them from the precipice. Yes, another American ownership venture into the English Premier League. But this time the new owners are going to pay off the club's debts and will rescue it from going into administration and having a 9 point deficit (Portsmouth underwent the same ordeal last season). So is the team safe yet? Perhaps.

A couple of points, however. Within the Premier League itself, Liverpool has not won, at all, from the league's founding in 1992. So how is it that they've won the Champions League? Perhaps because the Champions League isn't really for "champions" of the sport only, it's more like "champions" of prestige and marketing. But that's another story entirely, and one that Michel Platini knows all too well. Further, the team has been in rapid decline ever since Hicks and Gillette took over: from Rafa Benitez's indecisions to a non-top-four finish, to early relegation battle. A downward spiral indeed.

Liverpool is another team that suffers from the international player bug. That is, less than a third of its Premier League roster is of domestic origin. Fernando Torres and Dirk Kuyt headline a heavily-international attack. This is commonplace these days, however, but it is undoubtedly part of the reason overspending occurs. Argentinians and Brazilians come at a high price. So do Spaniards and the Dutch. There are certain models out there with more home brews: FC Barcelona. Pedro, Villa, Zavi, Iniesta, Valdez, Puyol, Busquets, Pique are all starters and are all from Spain. Oh, wait, that's also almost the World Cup Champions. Food for thought?

The New England Sports Ventures owns the Red Sox, and, after acquiring them in 2002, saw the team win the World Series. Perhaps they should take over the New England Revolution from the Kraft Group? A soccer-specific stadium and acquirement of a world class player would save the dwindling fan base (games average close to 12,000 in attendance this season).

In any case, this is a time to pay tribute to one of the great teams of world soccer. Liverpool FC, a timeless institution that was on the brink of collapse and riddled with disrepair. With off-pitch drama behind them, Roy Hodgson and company can concentrate on the January transfer window and plan their return to the world scene. It's not too late. Not yet.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Jermain Jones and the first crusade: USA vs Colombia

Okay, make that the second crusade. But this one, like the movie, had a partner: Eric Lighaj. And the duo did not disappoint. Jones was active throughout the match, playing box-to-box football and creating chances for the team. Jones also broke up many Colombian plays (and earned a yellow in the process).

As far as Lichaj (pronounced Lee-high), he was stout in defense and active in the attack. Hopefully he will be seeing more action with Aston Villa. It may also be time for him to move on and get some game time with a European club.

Speaking of playing time, Onyewu is showing his rust time and time again whilst players like Parkhurst, Goodson and Pearce showed they are in their prime. Spector was also a bit muted, and this may be due to his lack in playing time with West Ham.

I agree with Harkes and Lalas that the Jones-Edu-Bradley combo is not sustainable at the moment since they are all basically the same type of player: holding midfielder. It's hard to imagine any one of them on the bench, but unless Edu can slide into the fullback position or if injuries take over, this "three headed monster" wont be seeing the pitch in that formation again.

At the attacking end, Holden again showed why he's a regular with Bolton, creating plays and chasing the ball (which most of the team had forgotten to do). Altidore was dangerous again but lacked the finishing touch. Johnson did not contribute much to the match. Dempsey played well, as expected.

Next is South Africa in another friendly in Cape Town this November. Perhaps more MLS players will be available and more formations can be explored.

Player ratings:


Subs: Johnson (6), Lichaj (7.5), Parkhurst (7.5), Feilhaber (5.5), Dempsey (7)

Monday, October 11, 2010

World Cup USA: the game is in US

This is just a short message to my loyal readers. Saturday's game in Chicago was a great success in terms of fan attendance. I've heard some rumblings that tomorrow's game versus Colombia at PPL Park in Chester, PA, won't be so hot. Hopefully this will not be the case. We, the soccer fans of this country, are proud of our home and we are ready to host the greatest spectacle of sport once more. The game is in US.

A few words from reputable characters:

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Bradley 2.0: US vs Poland

Same dog. New tricks? Perhaps. Jermaine Jones sure showed why he was the missing catalyst that may have pushed the USA to a special place in South Africa. Smart passes, good possession and a bit of grit. And yes, he was at fault for Poland's second tally.

Edu in the back line? Not so far fetched. It may even work, but he has been away from this position for a while now. Bocanegra is great at left back...when the opposing right mid lacks pace. Onyewu had an up-and-down match. He gifted Poland their first goal but scored the second for Team USA. When was the last time "Gooch" scored for the US? Against Cuba in 2008. And before that? Poland.

Stuart Holden showed glimpses of why he's likely to take over Donovan's spot once the great American retires from international football (2018?). He had the passes, the shots and the awareness. Just needs the goal.

And up top? Dempsey was nearly flawless except for actually scoring. Altidore scored, for once. The kid needs some company, quick. We all love him but his final touch is still lacking and this has hampered his evolution for the time being. However, Jozy is a #11 and a #11 cannot live without a #9.

Bradley pulled another one on us today. Bedoya for Feilhaber.... and no one else. Six substitutes at his disposal and no one else comes into the match? I like to believe that this is part of some ploy and that he's waiting to unleash the next "Miracle on Grass." Competitive play isn't until next summer's Gold Cup, so his scheming has 9 months to marinate.

Colombia is next on Tuesday. Might we see Brek Shea and Eric Lichaj?

Player Ratings:

Subs: Bedoya (6)

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MLS 2010 Attendance stats week 30

These MLS attendance stats graphics may be a bit disjointed as I compile all the seasonal information. Also, keep in mind that some weeks have more games than others. This tends to impact trends somewhat but the numbers remain solid (5% error at most). A final MLS regular season attendance post will also be included in three week's time.

For now, besides the usual updated graphics on the right column, I'm providing two high-res images of the relative attendance vs average attendance. At some point in the first season I started with this project, I had a person point to me that I should provide details on how the two numbers are related. Most notable is the actual size of the San Jose and KC stadiums. This will change starting next year with the opening of KC's 18,500 stadium. San Jose will also be getting a stadium soon, but this has yet to begin construction. Large attendances don't always equal full stadium (LA, Houston, New York), and this analysis confirms it. As always, it depends on the size of the stadium.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Seattle elevates US Open Cup to glory

The second year expansion team, Seattle Sounders FC, defeated the Columbus Crew in the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup tournament and won it for the second year in a row. For those unfamiliar with this tournament, it is akin to the English League and FA Cup tournaments, the Copa del Rey in Spain, and many other single-elimination tournaments in planet football. Yes, USA has one too, and they've had it for 97 years.

Just like in other countries, this tournament is open to almost all semi-pro and professional leagues within the country, including the USSF Division 2 (Carolina Railhawks, Miami FC, etc.), USL-2 (Crystal Palace Baltimore, Austin Aztex, etc.) and other minor leagues. Like in England when Wycombe Wanderers may upset Arsenal or Everton, a team like the Charleston Battery may defeat the LA Galaxy.

Ever since the formation of MLS, and with the exception of the Rochester Rhinos in 1999, only MLS teams have won the cup. Attendance for these matches is notoriously low because they (a) fall during midweek usually, and (b) media coverage is limited. The same can be said for most other cup tournaments throughout the planet with the exception, perhaps, being England.

But this year Seattle changed the tournament. It injected credibility with the media, given the significant, ardent fan base of the Emerald City. The team also includes world class stars: Blaisse Nkufo (Switzerland) and Angel Fernandez (Uruguay), both present at the World Cup. Added to this are young phenom Fredy Montero, Steve Zakuani, Kasey Keller, among others. And the Crew is no pushover: Frankie Hejduk, Guillermo Barros Schelloto, Robbie Rogers, Eddie Gaven, Emanuel Ekpo.

It was a fun game to watch, with plenty of action on both ends. The Crew went up first but Sanna Nyassi would even the score before the half and would add the winning tally deep into the second half. He did it in front of an emphatic 31,000+ attendees in a raucous environment worthy of the 97-year-old tournament. This is after winning it against DC United in 2009 at the RFK Stadium. Seattle is a model club worthy of praise on and off the pitch. It is a triumph for MLS and for the US fan of the sport. Well done.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The rise of the American midfield

Landon Donovan, Michael Bradley, Maurice Edu, DaMarcus Beasley, Clint Dempsey, Stuart Holden, Jose Francisco Torres, Alejandro Bedoya, Benny Feilhaber. A star-studded cast. All have seen significant time in European leagues (and excelled) as well as Mexico (Torres). They are all starters in their clubs (Donovan with Everton earlier in 2010). They also score. At the World Cup. If Jozy and company failed to deliver, the midfield stepped up.

Beasley may be on his way out and Ricardo Clark has seen his stardom fade after a silly mistake cost the USA Ghana's first goal in the round of 16 at this year's World Cup. The same goes for Freddy Adu and Sacha Kljestan. Incoming is German-born Jermaine Jones, recently pledged allegiance to the USA (his father is American). Jones is a regular for Shalke 04 of the German Bundesliga and featured in the youth German teams.

It is quite fortuitous to have such a wide array of players in this position. It's also a bit of a hassle when it comes to choosing the best. Why? Because they are all potential starters. Would you sit out Donovan, Bradley, Dempsey or Edu? Maybe, depending on the opposing team and the situation. Adding Jones to the mix further complicates matters (for good and for bad). Jones is more of a holding midfielder with scoring capacity (much like Bradley and Edu). Unless a 4-3-2-1 Christmas Tree formation is adopted (with Jones-Bradley-Edu), one of the three will need to sit out. Add to this the attacking mids (Donovan, Dempsey, Holden, Feilhaber and Torres) and your choice for the next two will also likely depend on the game situation.

It's true that we wish our attackers (especially Altidore) would start scoring, but the midfield has more than made up for it. Donova scored 3 key goals in the World Cup, with Dempsey adding the tying tally against England and Bradley playing the hero in the hard-fought 2-2 tie versus Slovenia. Oh, let's not forget the dubious call on Edu's game-winning goal that wasn't. And these guys also score for their clubs on a regular basis. Feilhaber, for example, has scored 6 goals in the past two weeks for his Danish club Aalborg. Bradley, Jones, Bedoya and Dempsey have all scored at least once in the past month. Edu has been dangerous, as has Holden.

It is an interesting predicament for Bradley, especially given that only Dempsey and Donovan can be shifted to a striker role if necessary. We are at a crossroads with the national team. Player development has stalled in the striker role and the defensive techniques require some serious revision. We will have a look at Aston Villa fringe player Eric Lichaj. He, along with Tim ream and Omar Gonzales (both not available for the October friendlies) appear to be the start of a rejuvenated defense. Adding the also-young Jonathan Spector rounds up potential future starters. Onyewu is always in serious contention, as is Bornstein. Bocanegra and Cherundolo are likely to be slowly phased out.

It is in our midfield that the future of the national team is brightest. Edu can also play defense if needed. But we can't rely on Donovan, Bradley and Dempsey to come to the rescue if Howard is left alone or if Altidore and the rest of the striker force is unable to crack the opposing goal. The midfield is the engine of a team but all other pieces must step up in order for the machine to work.