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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Dempsey vs Donovan

Photo credit: FIFA

There are two aces in American soccer at the moment: Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan. Both are at the pinnacle of their careers. Both have great goal-scoring track records, both in quantity and on momentous occasions. So can we really say one is better than the other? Yes and no.

Yes, Landon Donovan has far more international goals than Clint Dempsey. He is the leading all-time scorer for the US national team with 46 goals. He has also scored in two separate World Cups (2002 and 2010), amassing a 5-goal total in 3 cups.

Donovan has also been stellar with MLS sides San Jose Earthquakes (2 titles) and LA Galaxy (2 titles). His forays abroad, however, did not work out as many in the American soccer media had hoped. His time with Bayern Leverkusen of the German Bundesliga was limited and he showed very little with Bayern Munich during a loan spell in 2009.

By contrast, Clint Dempsey has been successful abroad with 39 goals for English Premier League side Fulham since he joined in 2007. This is the highest total goals scored by any American in the Premier League. He surpassed Brian McBride earlier this month. Dempsey was also instrumental for the New England Revolution, helping it reach the MLS Cup final twice.

Dempsey has had an important influence with the US national team. He has scored 24 goals and helped the US with several key moments including the third goal in the American's win versus Egypt at the 2009 Confederations Cup that sealed the team's improbable run to the semifinal. At the semifinal itself Dempsey scored the insurance goal in the 2-0 win versus reigning European Champions Spain. Another magical moment was the long-range shot that Rob Green fumbled into goal in the opening group match that pitted the United States versus England. This proved instrumental since the tie versus the English side would eventually lead to the Americans winning the group.

Recently, storied American goalkeeper Brad Friedel commented about the Donovan vs Dempsey comparison and argued that Dempsey was a better player because of his success abroad. To his credit, there is a point to be made here: Dempsey has stayed in Europe and has been successful. Donovan, on the other hand, has only managed loans abroad after his failed stint as a youngster with Bayern Leverkusen.

But wait a second. What about Donovan's loan to Everton in 2010? It was a major success, as the American provided important assists and scored two goals in only 10 games. He is now headed back there for another two months during a short loan from parent club LA Galaxy. A permanent move is all but ruled out due to Landon's considerable asking price, but David Moyes has asserted that he would try to enable a move if the American ace were to inquire about a permanent transfer.

So, to Friedel's credited apology, there is much to be seen still in this friendly competition between our two midfielder/forwards. Donovan is at a point in his career where going abroad is no longer necessary to "prove himself." He is already an American soccer superstar and one of the only few names synonymous with the sport in this country, mainly thanks to his clutch goal versus Algeria in last year's World Cup. Donovan is in a good place with MLS and can remain competitive for years to come without needing to step into other leagues to be considered for the national team. Dempsey, on the other hand, is quite content abroad and his life and game has profited from it.

Is it really fair to compare our more important soccer stars? Not really. Both have taken different paths to stardom. Both are versatile attacking players that can change the fate of a game at any given moment. Dempsey and Donovan can both slide into the forward position if required by their teams and both are extremely creative players. So let's step back and enjoy them for what they are: our American Soccer Superstars.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

No Racism in Soccer

Photo credit: dailymail.co.uk

There is a disease in this world more harmful to mankind than any other: prejudice. To this day, its ugly roots tend to go unchecked no matter who our president is or who our idols are. It touches us as nasty afterthoughts and cold stares. And it makes its way into football as well.

A month or so ago, the president of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, argued that racism wasn't a factor in football. Whatever was said on the pitch should remain on the pitch and be between players and that was it. Really? I don't think that's the case when Mario Balotelli gets bananas thrown at him in Italy or when Oguchi Onyewu is insulted by players from a different squad, or even when Anton Ferdinand (brother of Rio Ferdinand) is verbally abused by fellow England national team defender John Terry. No, Mr Blatter, there is a serious, unnecessary situation here.

Couple all of the above with the obvious lack of any coaches of African descent in any of the Premier League teams. And then there is the recent altercation between Liverpool's Uruguayan ace Luis Suarez and Manchester United's iconic defender Patrice Evra. Suarez made racist remarks during a marquee match. Evra wasn't pleased and brought it to the FA.

So there you have it. It's distracting, it's a problem and it should be dealt with. You don't hear much about this sort of thing in other sports, at least none as prominent as what has been happening in soccer during the past couple of years. Let's not forget that an incendiary comment by Materazzi caused Zinedine Zidane to flare with emotion and head butt himself out of the final of 2006 and close the chapter for a talented French team that deserved better. Zidane should have known better but certain comments should not be allowed if they interfere with a person's integrity.

We are all guilty of prejudice at one point or another. But we are all capable of restraint even in the most dire of circumstances. It's what separates humans from other animals. Our cerebral cortex is made and meant to supersede instincts that can be detrimental. This isn't meant to be a rant. It's just a reminder that we are capable of more, especially for a game that we love so much.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Carolina Affair: College Cup 2011

The North Carolina Tar Heels defeated UNC-Charlotte in the NCAA College Cup final today by the score of 1-0 thanks to a superb Ben Speas "sombrerito" over the Charlotte goalkeeper. It was an all-North Carolina affair today after Charlotte dispatched reigning champions Akron and Creighton. UNC, meanwhile, defeated Indiana and UCLA (soccer heavyweights) on their way to a second NCAA Soccer Championship.

The match was an enjoyable affair in which Charlotte dominated most of the possession and created the majority of the chances. Giuseppe Gentile, Beaulieu, and Thomas Allen all had a myriad of options. I was particularly impressed by Gentile. We can expect great things from him in the future.

For the Tar Heels, Speas and Enzo Martinez were the shining stars in an otherwise highly-defensive affair for the Chapel Hill side. Goalkeeper Goodwin, UNC captain Urso and Jordan Gafa continuously blocked Gentile and Co.'s attempts on goal. They provided the defensive spine needed by the eventual-champions to unsettle the Charlotte onslaught.

College soccer is a different kind of animal in the American soccer scene. First of all, it obeys its own rules: TV timeout, countdown clock, 10-minute overtimes, clock stoppage for free kicks and goal kicks. This is enough to get some soccer enthusiasts like my wife to question the validity of a system that is supposed to be the #1 feeder for MLS and the national soccer team. Indeed, words of wisdom. And yet, as with many other NCAA gaffes (BCS rankings, college bowls), little can be done on this front. We should simply enjoy it for what it is: a truly American flavor of the game and one that has given us stars like Clint Dempsey, Brian McBride, Tim Howard. Where would we be without College Soccer?

Congratulations, UNC.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

FC Barcelona: Still number one

Photo credit: Getty Images

At the 1st minute in today's Clasico one may have thought that Barcelona's dynasty was finally over. Benzema scored out of the locker room and Mourinho reveled in what would be a game-changing result. But as the match wore on, the resilience of Guardiola's squad slowly weathered away Real Madrid's defense. Alexis Sanchez scored and the floodgates opened.

So what really happened in today's game? Is Madrid really still not good enough? Is Barcelona just too much for the world? A quick look at recent results shows that yes, Barcelona has hit a bit of a rough patch, but they still have only lost once. Madrid has not lost two. And at 37 points tied on top of the Spanish Primera, there is still plenty to be said this season. Note that Madrid has a game in hand, but today's result is truly game-changing: no real change, that is.

Where Real Madrid has built a team around superstars Ronaldo, Ozil and Di Maria, Barcelona spreads the wealth by including newly-acquired Fabregas and Sanchez. No Villa or Pedro on the pitch? No problem. The former both bagged important goals to reiterate why Barcelona is still the best.

Mourinho tried too much offense today. Benzema, Ozil, Ronaldo and Di Maria crowded the offensive side and passes lacked clarity and individual plays went nowhere. Higuain and Kaka only served the same purpose. The defensive midfield also put too much stock going forward. This opened the flanks for Dani Alves and the go-ahead and game-sealing goals were conceded.

How does one beat Barcelona then? Midfield and defense. Crowding Messi and Iniesta can work wonders since it breaks up the "tiki taka" that makes Guradiola's squad so fun to watch. Pressure on Xavi means Busquets has to take the initiative on his own and his passing, although quite good, isn't as evolved as the rest of his midfield team mates. After this, the forwards are left without continuous service and the attack winds down.

So can Madrid accomplish this? Yes. Diarra and Xabi Alonso are perfectly capable players. Sergio Ramos, Pepe and Marcelo can all work wonders. It should be about keeping Ronaldo and Ozil from over-thinking and allowing Di Maria to exploit the spaces. Benzema and Higuain are best when paired together and today Higuain still looked like a player in recovery.

It was a fun match to watch. Keep in mind that both teams are still in the hunt for the Champions League and both have had their chances increase after the Manchester teams crashed out. This is why we love this sport, right?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

MLS 2011 Attendance Statistics Final Week: Part 2

Now we look at the difference between 2011 and 2010 for the whole season and every team. The difference plot shows that MLS overall gained 1142. Compared to 2009 (+2820) the number is even larger. Even with the Beckham effect in 2008 (+1175) and 2007 (+1088), 2011 still shows impressive gains. It comes down to two factors: new soccer specific stadiums and the Pacific Northwest Teams.

Seven teams gained over 1000 seats and 4 approached or surpassed the 2000 seat mark. Kansas City had specific gains due to the opening of Livestrong Sporting Park. New York, LA and Colorado made significant gains since last year. Seattle gained close to 2000 seats due to the New York game and Keller's goodbye match.

The negatives this year included Columbus (-2520 since 2010), Chicago (-1541) and Toronto (-187, although this is negligible). This may be due to the lack of important stars and results for the teams and good DP signings or homegrown stars may ameliorate the numbers in 2012.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Hollywood Ending: LA wins MLS Cup 2011

Photo credit: Stephen Dunn/Getty

The Los Angeles Galaxy won the MLS Cup tonight at the right time and with the right pieces. It was Beckham and Donovan, Magee and Keane, Juninho and Dunivant, Franklin and Saunders, Gonzalez and De la Garza. The Galaxy that Bruce Arena built is based on pairs: goalkeeper and the defense, center forward and great crosses from the outside backs. And it works.

Tonight, the LA Galaxy dominated a Houston Dynamo that looked out of sorts without Brad Davis. There were no clear passes for Brian Ching and just one dangerous set piece. Moffat's insistence in attack wasn't enough for the Dynamo and Carr and Ching never looked in sync.

Bruce Arena made league history today by winning his third title. Donovan also made history by scoring the game-winning goal in a final to win his second title as a Galaxian. And it doesn't stop there: Robbie Keane set up a superb goal by Donovan and added another title to his inventory. The Irishman has been instrumental in cementing the Galaxy's run. He gave the team that much more stardom.he

The defense was also stellar tonight. Omar Gonzalez erased any Dynamo play that came his way, and with a bit of style and presence. De la Garza was a perfect partner and always showed up when the ball was played low and when Ching or Carr tried to break free. Sean Franklin showed why he merits more looks by the national team with his overlapping runs.

And then there's David Beckham. If Donovan is the soul of the Galaxy then Beckham is the heart. His passes always perfect, his positioning and awareness just as fresh at the age of 36, and his drive unsurpassed by any other player on the pitch. No one wanted this title more than Becks. And yes, although some may not want to hear it, the Beckham experiment worked.

Congratulations LA Galaxy. Clearly the class of MLS. Surely the best team in the league. A just win for a star-studded cast. This is Hollywood after all.

Landon's goal:

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Rise of Uruguay in World Football

Photo credit: Getty Images

If one had presumed that Uruguay would make it to the semifinals of the 2010 World Cup, it would have been considered a long shot. They made it in by winning the half spot play-in game against Concacaf's Costa Rica, a wild card so to speak. But at the World Cup we saw the rise of Luis Suarez and the reaffirmation of Diego Forlan, Eguren, Cavani and Lugano. Only Spain could defeat them in the end--and they ended up winning the cup.

Was it an oddity? No. This past summer we saw the same team knock off host-nation Argentina and win the tournament in convincing fashion against Paraguay. Throw in the fact that they went undefeated in 2011, including an away win at Italy, and you know something special is brewing.

Uruguay has always been about passion and defense. I grew up knowing them as "rageros," a word meaning "foulers." Their style was dirty to the point of intimidation. The Uruguay of old that won two of the first four World Cups had been eroded away. Uruguay's position in South America was up for grabs and this allowed teams like Bolivia, Colombia, Chile and Ecuador to advance to the ecumenical tournament throughout the past two decades. Uruguay sometimes made it in, but just by a hair.

The pushover, ragero days for Uruguay are over. After Suarez' crucial handball stop versus Ghana in 2010, everything seemed to change. Forlan's scintilating possession, Lugano's positioning on the pitch and Luis Suarez' nose for goals are only the tip of the iceberg. They dribble around defenses with precision, score sublime goals and win games in style. Luis Suarez' awareness is so impressive that defenders double or tripple up on him, enough so that players like Dirk Kuyt and Carrol, Cavani and Forlan, have room to create dangerous plays. His game transcends seamlessly from club to country and this is the same for other players like Forlan and Lugano. That's the real key to Uruguay. The players always play well, no matter when or for whom.

It's not inconceivable to asume that Uruguay will top Conmebol's qualifying campaign. Also not inconceivable that they could remain undefeated. And, at the end of the day, it's not inconceivable that La Celeste could win the World Cup, in Rio, all over again.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

4-4-2 works: US wins at Slovenia

Photo credit: Srdjan Zivulovic/Landov

Klinsmann finally tried his luck with a familiar formation: 4-4-2. Bob Bradley's choice throughout most of his 5-year career with the US Men's National Team, 4-4-2 gave the US team more attacking options and clear penetration of the opposing defense. But Klinsmann still maintained an attacking style and went with a diamond midfield instead of the flat 4-4-2 that Bradley had used so much. It payed off: Dempsey (attacking mid), Buddle (forward 1) and Altidore (forward 2) all scored.

Besides the stylish attacking play of the front three throughout the first half and part of the second half, was the addition of Fabian Johnson to the team. The Hoffenheim midfielder added spark and creativity to the US attack. He was involved in Buddle's opening goal and Altidore's penalty-winning play. Johnson constantly broke down the Slovenian defense and showed that he could also play centrally if needed (today he was a left winger). In the absence of Donovan or Dempsey, Johnson is looking like a go-to playmaker.

When Michael Bradley started as a right midfielder it was clear that Beckerman would be the sole holding midfielder ahead of the 4-man back line. This had some uninspiring moments. Cherundolo and Chandler looked off and Goodson had trouble with the Slovenian attacks. As a good friend of mine put it: "entertaining match but the defense was terrible." Indeed.

Klinsmann's modified 4-4-2 formation was inspiring to see, fun to watch, and payed strong dividends with an away win in Europe. It comes down to when this formation can be played and how Klinsmann should revert to a 4-5-1 or a two holding-mid center. Clearly, this has not been efficient with either stronger teams (France, Belgium) or weaker ones (Honduras, Costa Rica). The goals came out of a more versatile 4-4-2 formation. It comes down to who the starting forwards should be and which player is tasked as holding midfielder.

Other questions remain: Who will go out wide with Donovan and Dempsey? Would Johnson still figure into the lineup? Does Bradley shift to the defensive midfield role? What will the healthy back line look like? All good questions, especially considering options left out like Omar Gonzales and George John. And what happens when Stuart Holden is healthy and Bedoya and Freddy Adu find form?

Player ratings:

Subs: Edu (6), Shea (5), Williams (N/A), Jones (N/A), Rogers (N/A)

Sunday, November 13, 2011

MLS 2011 Attendance Statistics Final Week: Part 1

Fact: 2011 had the highest attendance in league history
Fact: Seattle once again topped itself with the highest attendance in the league (38496) and would lie 6th in attendance figures if playing in the Premier League
Fact: Portland and Seattle sold out every single match in 2011
Fact: Compared to 2010, all but 3 teams showed positive increase in attendance
Fact: New stadiums attract more fans (KC, NY)
Fact: Seattle continues to sell out US Open Cup

Figures will be updated in the next few postings.

Here are the final numbers:

Team Average Relative Median
DC 15196 62 14849
KC 17812 96 18467
NE 13222 66 12914
CLB 12185 60 11298
TOR 20267 88 20145
CHI 14273 71 14567
NYRB 19691 78 20393
PHI 18258 99 18524
HOU 17694 66 17544
LA 23330 86 23719
CHV 14829 55 14076
DAL 12933 63 11022
SJ 11858 113 10525
CRD 14838 82 14503
RSL 17594 88 17734
SEA 38496 108 36304
POR 18827 101 18627
VAN 20412 97 20518

Friday, November 11, 2011

Same Story: US loses to France

Photo credit: AFP

New stadium, new opponent, same story. Team USA lost a friendly today versus France at the Stade de France outside Paris by the score of 0-1. Sounds familiar? It should. After an encouraging start to he Klinsmann era in a 1-1 tie versus arch-rivals Mexico, The US went to lose 0-1 versus a limited Costa Rica at home, 0-1 in Belgium, and 0-1 in New York against Ecuador. There was a win against Honduras in Miami. A bright spot in a difficult start for the new coach.

The match was fairly even today in the first 45. The US back line held up well and was basically a rock until the start of the second half. Altidore and Dempsey proved to be real headaches for France although neither could get a clear shot on the French 'keeper.

The midfield was a different story. While Beckerman showed why he's worth having as a defensive midfielder, he hardly showed why he should start over Michael Bradley (a regular for Chievo in the Italian Serie A). Danny Williams was beaten several times and did not contribute as much going forward. Brek Shea also had a hard time creating plays and was relegated to the defensive end, forcing the team to retreat further.

The addition of Jermaine Jones offered some respite for the central midfield of Klinsmann's team, but his introduction came shortly before Howard's goal was penetrated by Remy. Enter Fabian Johnson: creativity, speed, but not enough to save the day. He and DaMarcus Beasley allowed for Dempsey and Altidore to exploit open spaces. Dempsey payed for this by getting constantly fouled by the French. Altidore's attempts never quite broke through.

So where does the national team stand after this latest setback? Same place, really. They were going up against one of the best teams in the world, even if there were some new faces in Blanc's squad. This was the Stade de France of Zidane and Henry. A 0-1 loss is acceptable. But what of the 1-4-1 record? Clearly one or even two of those should have been wins. At some point, the honeymoon stage with Klinsmann has to end and he will have to start producing on the field with real results. Altidore needs company. Perhaps with Donovan and Dempsey both on the pitch things might be better. But that is likely to not occur until February or March of next year.

Player ratings:

Subs: Jonson (6), Jones (6.5), Beasley (5), Buddle (6)

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Omar Gonzales and the Klinsmann snubs

Photo credit: US Soccer

The US national team will be playing against world-class France and up-and-coming Slovenia in Europe during next week's international dates. With much of MLS at a standstill due to the start of the post-season and the mandatory breaks for all clubs world wide, this could be a great occasion to shake things up a bit more with the national side. Klinsmann says yes and no.

Yes, says Klinsmann, because Fabian Johnson will have the chance to play for the USA and because Alfredo Morales (Hertha Berlin) gets his first shot. Klinsmann's German connection continues with Timmy Chandler, Daniel Williams and Jermaine Jones all on the roster and all with equal chances at playing in the friendlies.

Klinsmann also continues with his "Latin" connection. If you count Morales, that would be one. Out of his predilection for Mexican Primera folks only Michael Orozco Fiscal is left. Edgar Castillo has clearly seen his stock whither after less-than-average performances. Jose Francisco Torres saw his season end due to injury and will not return to the fold until 2012. Klinsmann asserts that he wants a possession-oriented, Latin-influenced squad. It sure seems more German-influenced to most fans and soccer media alike.

Klinsmann also prefers not to shake up the core of the national team. Okay, a good philosophy. But consider that Omar Gonzalez is the top domestic-based defender in the US pool and that a close second is George John. Neither has been invited by Klinsmann. Gonzalez had his shot with Bradley and it didn't pan out. Klinsmann chose struggling Ream over him several times already. A head-scratcher for sure. This is particularly interesting since George John is being courted by more than one English Premier League team.

One thing is abundantly clear. This is Klinsmann's team and no one will pick his men for him. No matter how much Gonzalez, John, and Herculez Gomez may yell, it still boils down to Klinsmann's plans. Never mind that Gomez (latin connection?) is literaly "tearing it up" in the Mexican league with multiple goals for Tecos this season. But we have yet to see the final product: the dominant possession-based team that gets results. Klinsmann is 1-3-1 so far and the fans are getting restless.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Points rescued: Arsenal vs Chelsea

Photo credit: AFP

Arsenal made headlines this morning when they defeated the 100%-at-home record Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. The score, a resounding 5-3 victory, is a testament to this year's downright inconsistency in the Barclay's Premier League. So now, in the same season, we have Manchester City 6 - Manchester United 1, Manchester United 8 - Arsenal 2, and today's 5-3 score.

What has changed this season? Defense. In my view, the top clubs have focused increasingly on bolstering their attacking front and in so have forgotten about another key aspect of soccer. Box-to-box players are caught too far upfield to contain the opposing attackers. Two of Arsenal's goals came out of horrible blunders from the Chelsea defense. For Santos' goal, six or seven players were on the far side of the pitch, leaving Santos with plenty of space and just one defender to evade. Van Persie's game-winner occurred due to an ill-timed back pass from Malouda to Terry. Petr Cech is also to blame for at least three of the goals today. You have to guard your near post. It's goalkeeping 101.

Another aspect that came out of today's game is the reaffirmation of Robin Van Persie as a world-class striker. As Ian Darke put it, much is made of Ronaldo and Messi while players like the Ducthman go unnoticed until they score a hat trick. Arsene Wenger is finally getting this team to click. He still needs solidification in the defensive third but a place in the top four is within reach.

For Villas-Boas it is also a time to look at his defense. Terry needs more help and he isn't getting enough from Ivanovic. Would David Luiz make a difference? And where does one pick up defenders these days? Italy? Spain? Germany? South America? Do the lines need to be pushed back downfield? Are wingers spending too much time up front?

Whatever happens, for the rest of us it's just fun. If you're not a fan of the big four then you are enjoying the games for what they are. High kicking, high scoring, and no ties.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Old Trafford is blue: City vs United

Photo credit: Getty Images

When the scoreboard in Old Trafford read 6-1 you thought "yes, United continued its dominance and tore another team apart." But wait. The scoreboard is reversed? And to Manchester City? Fans, critics and commentators were left with mouths open, some in disgust, some in joy, some in sheer wonder. This was the team that had just beaten Arsene Wenger's Arsenal by 8-2 earlier in the season. And now the result was reversed.

But how did today's game really happen? Several points come to mind. First, not all usual United stars were on hand: Valencia, Park, Vidic, Giggs, Hernandez, Berbatov. Some were inexplicably on the bench. Evans got a chance to play in the derby along with Welbeck. No results. Indeed, Evans proved the opposite by getting ejected with Man City already up on the scoreboard. Chicharito would come into the match too late for heroics. Park and Valencia never got a chance.

There was also some disbelief in United. Perhaps a bit too much cockiness for players like Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra. They weren't believing that Aguero and Balotelli could run rampant around them. Did they not care? They seemed almost amateurish, especially in Dzeko's goals. And the Bosnian was only a substitute. All in all, only the benched players and Wayne Rooney seemed to care.

There's another side to this coin. Manchester City has elevated its play in the past three years through a mixture of style and stars. Some stars didn't quite mesh (Tevez, Adebayor) and some were troublesome (Tevez, Balotelli). But the spine of the team with Lescott, Silva, Toure, Milner, carried the team to a new sphere. It doesn't hurt that the Manchester City owners have deep Middle Eastern pockets.

Today it was Silva and Milner's game. They dictated play by keeping the ball in midfield and gaining the upper hand in possession. Toure and Lescott marked United players higher up the pitch and controlled the flanks such that Anderson and Young had very few dangerous crosses. And up front, Balotelli and Aguero shined. Their shots were cruel and accurate. The passes that came to them from Milner and Silva were daggers into De Gea's area. And in doing so, they handed United their worst defeat at home in the Premier League era. Welcome, Manchester City. There's a new sheriff in town.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

MLS 2011 Attendance Statistics Game Week 33

Magnificent Seattle. Over 64,000 in attendance for Kasey Keller's farewell match. Can anyone else match that? Perhaps once Donovan or Dempsey retires. Maybe the LA Colliseum or Rose Bowl. Maybe for Tim Howard there will be enough to approach Seattle's attendance for Keller? In New York? Seattle has set the bar pretty high once more.

This is the penultimate week of MLS attendance stats. The Sounders continue in front, having raised their average by 2000 over last year. KC, relatively speaking, has doubled its attendance due to their new stadium. LA, Dallas and Colorado have all had good gains from 2010. Chicago and Columbus continue to struggle a bit although recent matches have seen higher number of seats filled, especially for the Crew as they gear up for the playoffs.

The stats:
Team Average Relative Median
DC 15203 62 14849
KC 18070 98 18467
NE 13631 68 13164
CLB 12185 60 11298
TOR 20183 88 20139
CHI 13898 69 14203
NYRB 19356 77 20039
PHI 18258 99 18524
HOU 16491 61 16478
LA 23330 86 23719
CHV 14470 54 14067
DAL 12933 63 11022
SJ 11928 114 10525
CRD 14881 82 14706
RSL 17248 86 16841
SEA 38496 108 36304
POR 18827 101 18627
VAN 20334 97 20226

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Portland Timbers vs Houston Dynamo: The Live Experience

The Portland Timbers lost their final home game tonight. It was a bittersweet end to an incredible first season. From a 5 game winning streak at home, to their 1-1 tie at Seattle and their 3-0 victory over LA Galaxy, the best team in the tournament, to a terrible win-less streak at home, to being in and out of playoff contention, it was a whirlwind season. And no, it's not over yet, but the mountain is getting too high to climb at this point and they no longer control their destiny.

As I reached the bleachers late, I could sense that there was purpose in Darlington Nagbe's play and Kenny Cooper waited to pounce in nearly every goal opportunity. But the final pass was not there today. Houston made the most out of its two chances. Two chances, two goals. Dominic Kinnear pushed his back line as far back as he could so that the midfield was elongated and congested. There would be few dangerous plays for the Timbers after Houston' second goal.

Whether it was Zizzo's ineffectiveness, Chabala's injury, or Alhassan's loss of pace, the cards just weren't there for a Timbers win tonight. But let's celebrate the game for what it was: a testament to the soccer fever gripping the Pacific Northwest, to MLS' best idea since its inception, to the passion of the fans, young and old, male and female. Let's toast to the Timbers Army's fight chants even in defeat, to Timber Joey showing off his saw although no timber was cut, to the inebriated pair behind (and in front) yelling at the ref, to the older couple cheering or covering their mouths in agony with every kick, to the toddler smiling at his surroundings as his caring parents chanted for their team, and to all the kids decked out in full Timbers gear, dreaming about being on that pitch someday. This why we go to stadiums.

When I root I root for the Timbers!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Honoring a Soccer Journalism Icon: Mauro Velasquez Villacis

The year I went off to college my mother gave me an unusual gift: a series of obscure soccer magazines. They were specific to Conmebol (South America's soccer conference), and more importantly, strictly for the press. As I read through them I learned about the history of Conmebol and of its most important club tournament: The Copa Libertadores.

But why should I get this gift? Mother told me they came from my uncle Mauro, a world-respected soccer journalist, friend of the legendary Garrincha and a fan of Barcelona Sporting Club of Guayaquil, Ecuador. Perhaps he knew of my love for the game. It must have been so because I have over 20 cousins on my mother's side and yet the gift was especially for me. Up until that point, I had been to only a handful of futbol games. And yet he knew that following the beautiful game was one of my passions.

Regardless of the reasoning behind the gifts, my passion for the game grew stronger through the years and it led to this blog, my twitter account, and a distinct proclivity towards US Soccer and MLS.

I saw my uncle once again a couple of years back. He somehow knew that what I wanted was to discuss the game and to see his significant soccer library, his notes about soccer players, his relationships with individuals and his philosophy about soccer. "I follow the players," he said. And then I realized that so do I. It's not just about the games for us. It's about a player's tendencies, reactions and personality on the pitch.

This post is to honor a legend in the soccer media. Mauro Velasquez Villacis was recently awarded the "Most Illustrious Citizen of Guayaquil" award. It was given to him for his dedication towards sports journalism in Ecuador, for what he brought to the history of his country and the world at large, for the honesty and directness he employed in his work. They called him the "human computer" for his otherworldly wisdom, and most of all the award was given to him for his kindness and decency. He is an example for future generations in an age in which the public is increasingly critical of journalism, something that in his case is completely the opposite. He received an extended standing applause and was humbled to receive the award. His soccer language is as sophisticated as the use of his Spanish. Quoted by many. Respected by most. An icon in my life.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Late goals: Ecuador defeats USA in friendly

Photo credit: futbolecuador.com

It was hard to cheer for either team tonight. For some of us, one is the country of birth and the other the country you live and love. As I had told my peers, I'd rather have a high-scoring tie. It was almost a tie. Almost. The young blood in both teams decided the match tonight. Jaime Ayovi, the future of Ecuador, had the better of Tim Ream, the up-and-coming center back hopeful for the USA. It was another 0-1 loss for the Americans.

The match was certainly 60% American. They pressed in the first half with a dangerous Shea and Williams. Edu pushed up to be the box-to-box player that has seen him blossom in Scotland. And Onyewu, the longtime partner with Bocanegra is certainly back.

For Ecuador, the stars were Jaime Ayovi, Jefferson Montero and Michael Arroyo. They were dangerous throughout the night and could punish you with any open chance. Benitez was around to clean things up in the front line while Castillo and Mendez held steady in their center mid positions. Valencia had a bit of an off game today after a great performance in World Cup qualifying against Venezuela. He was substituted due to his ineffectiveness.

How does Klinsmann answer his critics after tonight's match? "Tim Ream." Yes. Switching the youngster for the experienced Bocanegra so late in the game changed the nature of the defense and his touch was as off as it has been for him with the Red Bulls this year and during the Gold Cup. Perhaps George John and/or Omar Gonzales are better options. If Klinsmann really want possession and passing from the back, however, Ream is still top choice. And this is something that will haunt Klinsmann throughout the next 3 years because--let's face it--Cherundolo and Bocanegra will be much older (35) at the 2014 World Cup. One veteran in the back line, possibly Onyewu, should be enough.

The American's other worry is the goal. Who's scoring? Looks like it's still the midfield and only by a tenuous thread. Dempsey got the game-winner versus Honduras over the weekend but there has been no production from Altidore, Agudelo and Buddle. Who can he call next? Is there anyone else? But we can also argue that Jozy did not have the full time to get something going with the increasingly-dangerous Shea-Williams tandem. Charlie Davies and Freddy Adu, you may get a phone call soon.

For Ecuador, their back line is holding up through communication and the presence of Walter Ayovi. It can be argued that the fact that they all play in the Ecuador league, and more importantly in Quito, may be what the team needs to keep the Atahualpa unbeaten in this World Cup cycle.

Player ratings for the USA:
Chandler........... 6

Subs: Agudelo (5), Spector (4.5), Ream (3.5), Bradley (6), Buddle (4), Beasley (5.5)

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Open Cup Dynasty for Seattle

Photo credit: AP

Seattle won the Open Cup tonight. Three-peat. Plain and simple. The team knows. The league knows. The country knows. Then fans know. From ball possession to Montero's opportunistic goal to Alonso's magic. It was the scintillating style of a champion team. But is it a dynasty?

Seattle has a monopoly on the Open Cup at this point. From the moment they defeated DC United in their inaugural season to the sellout record-breaking crowds, it was clear that the Sounders wanted this tournament as their own. And why not? Through the last decade, the Open Cup has been more of an afterthought to the majority of teams in the league. This season alone, the New York Red Bulls pulled all of their starting players from quarterfinals. Really? Yes.

And that's why Seattle's ownership of this tournament is important. It gives them credibility and a place in the Concacaf Champions League. And that's the other piece of information that most are overlooking. The CCL is likely to gain importance as Concacaf places more emphasis and perhaps reduces the importance of Conmebol's Libertadores. Seattle is now in place to not only make important gains in the quarterfinals next year, but also have now earned a spot in the 2012/2013 edition of the CCL.

Seattle's play was emphatic of the importance of soccer in the Pacific Northwest. Sigi Shmid has built a squad from the ground up with a clear attacking style, young designated players, and a way to make their crowd, their 12th man count. Ultimately, that's one of this team's strongest points. Their attendance numbers carry the league and are reminiscent of European squads. No empty seats. Just screaming fans urging for their Montero and Neagle and Alonso to score. And it showed tonight. Seattle's strike in the 95th minute came about as a great pass to a streaking Alonso. He evaded one, two, three players, a goalkeeper and struck it home like a Donovan or a Messi would do.

Well done, Seattle Sounders. The Open Cup is your cup and your dynasty.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Ecuador's 2014 qualification campaign in the absence of Brazil

Photo credit: Yahoo Sport

How does a field of 10 teams qualifying to the 2014 react when the number is reduced to 9. Back in the day when groups were the norm it was easy. Five and four per group. Top two qualify from each. However, those were World Cups with only 24 teams. Now there are 32 and the South American qualifiers are 4 + 1 an interconference play-in. Brazil is the host for 2014 and yet the field of Conmebol teams is not reduced. This raises the possibility that teams such as Ecuador may have a better chance in qualifying.

Things have changed in South America, however. This past summer's Copa America showed us that Venezuela can beat Chile and that Argentina can be defeated at home. The rise (and confirmation) of Uruguay as a world class team also changes the landscape.

At one point, having Brazil in the preliminaries meant your mid-table team could do without 6 points and that claiming 1 or 3 out of it put you ahead of the competition. How does the math change? More level ground? These days, your jersey color is no longer an appropriate measure of greatness. There should not be "winnable" or "unwinnable" matches.

Where does Ecuador fit in all of this? Right now, they are a bit of an underdog and this is a good thing. They were an underdog when qualifiers for 2002 got underway. Winning at home versus Venezuela was a necessary first step. Impressing against Brazil and Paraguay was another. And yet, the other key component of that squad, and even of the 2006 squad, was that most players in the team were part of the local league. This meant more cohesiveness, familiarity and teamwork.

The above was especially true for the defense. Reasco, Hurtado, de la Cruz, Espinoza were all more or less within the same city until after 2002. The midfield also was somewhat local with Obregon and Mendez playing for the same team. Today, the midfield is as it was for the 2010 qualifiers: scattered. The forwards are different, they are mostly based in Mexico.

The local defense (except for Walter Ayovi) will be an important weapon that can also serve as a double-edged sword. The players called up for Friday's game in Quito has individuals with less than 15 caps. How will they react to the rigors of international play? If they stay true to their roots from 2002 and 2006, it will be about intimidation and physicality to keep the Atahualpa intact and without losses. Home field advantage will be key and defenders need to keep this in mind.

The midfield will need to project their considerable international experience to control the ball and disrupt the opposing team's game plan. Valencia will need to act like he's playing for Manchester United. Noboa and Montero will have to show why they play in Europe. Mendez and Castillo will need to provide the steadiness of experience.

For the forwards it's a different tale altogether. There is no more Agustin Delgado. No more Ivan Kaviedes. No more Carlos Tenorio. No Caicedo, at least for the first match. Christian Benitez is our go-to striker and he will need to be fed well by whomever accompanies him. Perhaps a withdrawn forward formation will work best to take advantage of Valencia and Montero's runs along the flanks. Joffre Guerron is an intriguing posibility but so is Arroyo (also capable of midfield work) and Jamie Ayovi (speed). I have yet to see Suarez in action.

It' a simple plan. Use the crowd. Use the local players. Protect your house and enjoy the game. That's why we are your fans.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Altidore, reset and rekindled

Photo credit: twitter feed

It wasn't long ago that New York area fans watched with optimism as their teenage sensation, Jozy Altidore, scored his first goal for the Red Bulls against Columbus after just weeks since playing his first match for the team. The future looked bright and their young star was ready for the stage. He scored in the playoffs in 2006 and continued to be a stalwart for the Red Bulls until 2008, amassing 15 goals in 37 league games.

Altidore not only looked good in MLS action. He also excelled on the international stage. He broke through to the national team in February 2008 when he scored against bitter-rivals Mexico in a friendly match. After that, Altidore would be a permanent fixture in the forward rotation for the Stars and Stripes.

Success internationally also brought him a lucrative contract with Spanish giants Villarreal. His transfer was the most expensive in MLS history at $10 million. But he was low in the pecking order with the "Yellow Submarine" and only managed 1 goal in 6 appearances in his first semester with the Spanish team. A crippling loan to Xerez of the Segunda Division gave him no playing time during the winter-spring of 2009. But he did score with the national team--including a hat trick in World Cup Qualifying.

Things seemed to change overnight for Jozy when he scored against Spain at the Confederations Cup. He also forged a formidable striking force with Charlie Davies. This gave him another loan opportunity with Hull City. He scored for the English Premier League team once in Cup competition and once in league action. But his sparse scoring and diminished playing time took its toll on the youngster. He entered the 2010 World Cup with a degree of trepidation and many fans and soccer media started to think of him as another failed young star.

But let's give credit to what he did do at the World Cup: his header-pass to Michael Bradley against Slovenia meant the score was tied and a vital point was given for the United States. His low center pass to Dempsey at the end of the game against Algeria eventually led to Landon Donovan's iconic goal in stoppage time.

Jozy returned to Villarreal and began to score for them in Cup competition. He enjoyed a few games in the Europa League but it was clear that he was too far down in the pecking order to be a starter. Another loan--this time to Turkish side Bursaspor--changed his surroundings and gave him more playing time. He only scored for them once, however.

Altidore returned to the national team during this past summer's Concacaf Gold Cup and scored twice before going down with an injury. It was the Jozy of old and it looked like we had him back. Soon after, it became known that he was joining AZ Alkmaar of the Dutch Eridivisie on an actual transfer.

AZ was what Altidore needed. He scored as a substitute in his first league match and scored twice more in league action. More importantly, he scored 4 goals in 4 games in Europa League play, helping his team advance to the group stage. That's 7 goals in just two months. Our prodigal striker is back.

Josmer Volmy Altidore is a different kind of player. He's a tall, fast striker that can hold the ball and can use his significant physical attributes to control his game. He may have joined the wrong team at the wrong time when he became a Villarreal player. Lack of playing time at just 18 is difficult to shake. A depletion in talent at the forward position for the United States also didn't aid in helping him regain confidence, as most of the pressure was on him to produce.

It was a series of unfortunate events in his soccer life that spurred Jozy's intermittent development. For Adu, young stardom came at a price. For Altidore, learning from past mistakes enabled him to overcome obstacles. And yet he still struggled abroad. But by continuing his play for the US national team and by finding an environment suitable for his skills, the 21-year old has finally found his place. Here's to a few more years in Holland. Here's to at least two more World Cup cycles with our star striker. Here's to you, Altidore. This is why we wear your jersey to soccer games.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

MLS 2011 Attendance Statistics Game Week 30

Recent results and matches have shown the staying power of the league both on and off the pitch. A week ago, the Washington Post's Soccer Insider blog remarked on a particularly high-attendance game week (29). Depending upon how you slice it, you could end up with vastly different numbers. However, granted equity in our analysis, a few things do stand out: Dallas (17109), Columbus (21203, only sellout of the season), Salt Lake (19888), New York (25000). Great numbers even though football season (gridiron variety) is in full swing. Add to this the perpetual sellouts in the Pacific Northwest and we are talking about the second-highest attendance record in league history; second only to the inaugural season.

The numbers as of this week:
Team Average Relative Median
DC 15107 62 14477
KC 17945 97 18467
NE 13206 66 12914
CLB 11974 59 11272
TOR 20187 88 20145
CHI 14170 71 14567
NYRB 18967 75 19684
PHI 18217 98 18524
HOU 16410 61 16247
LA 22840 85 22959
CHV 14470 54 14067
DAL 13103 64 11138
SJ 12021 114 10525
CRD 14850 82 14706
RSL 17029 85 16571
SEA 36932 103 36287
POR 18627 100 18627
VAN 20585 98 20518

Friday, September 23, 2011

USA Women vs Canada in Portland: the live experience

Photo credit: Craig MItchelldyer isiphotos.com

The US Women's national team defeated Canada by the score of 3 - 0 tonight at Jeld-Wen field in Portland, Oregon. It was a different kind of game from others I have attended throughout my career as a soccer fan. Young girls--the future of our USA team--giggled and cheered for their heroes before, during and after the match. Never mind that. It was fitting, perhaps, that I decided to take my pregnant wife to a family game like this.

On the pitch was a slightly different story. There was grit from Wambach and Rapinoe, calmness from Shannon Boxx, assurance in goal from Hope Solo, and a bit of spark in Lauren Cheney and Alex Morgan. We are only a scarce two months removed from the heartbreak loss to Japan in the Women's World Cup final, through penalties no less. But you wouldn't know if from the way the ladies played tonight.

The passes that were served to Wambach and Rapinoe were almost instinctual. Some of the long balls had swerve through kicking with the inside and outside of the boot. It was a bit of fantasy without the unnecessary dancing of the Brazilian national team. Canada's defense held their fort well throughout the first half. Their goalkeeper performed heroics time and time again. They are a disciplined side that will be tough to beat when Olympic qualifiers are underway in Vancouver next year.

But Abby Wambach would not be held back for long. At minute 64 in the second half, Wambach scored after receiving a pass from O'Hara. The shot came from near the edge of the penalty box with her favorite left foot. A mid-air curve and into the top 90 to the goalkeeper's right. It was almost in slow motion but I, along with all the fans, knew it would go in. The second goal was typical Wambach with a diving header from another pass--this time a sweet center--from O'Hara.

The night would not be done without giving credit to the future of the US Women's National Team: Alex Morgan. The 22-year old scored in typical pure-forward mode: an opportunistic tap-in. She was in the right place at the right time, the way true goal-scorers are, and she finished the game for the Americans in a true "goleada" fashion: tres a cero.

Tonight was about the fans and the ladies, sport and dreams, cleanliness and sportsmanship. One tweeter put it nicely: "Womens soccer is so well played. No flopping, no nasty fouls/tackles. I love watching it." Indeed. Long live the game. Team USA will always win our hearts.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

MLS wins in Mexico without a meaning

Photo credit: MLS

Odd title perhaps. Then again so is the situation at field level. Last month, FC Dallas and Seattle Sounders FC managed historical first-time wins on Mexican soil against Pumas and Monterrey, respectively, at the 2011/2012 Concacaf Champions League. But are those wins meaningful if you can't equal the feat on home soil?

For Dallas this happened tonight as they saw their potential lead in their Champions League group disappear with a loss at home. The 1-0 win in Mexico was erased by a 2-0 loss to Pumas at home. So, all things being equal, they came out losing by a -1 goal differential. So was history really truly made? Cosmetically, perhaps. But point for point it's really not that meaningful. Had Dallas won tonight's game, it local supremacy would have been more evident.

This doesn't just go for Dallas. Seattle could have made history last night by winning their game, at home, versus relative-minnow Herediano of Costa Rica. Herediano had been outscored 9-1 until they defeated a slightly short-handed Sounders team by 1-0. Again, win at home or at least tie in order to have the away game be meaningful.

For LA Galaxy, winning their game at home versus Morelia will be as much of a statement as their controversial loss on Mexican soil. If Colorado can win abroad then they will have erased their terrible result at home.

These days it is clear that teams must not present "B" or "C" squads in continental games. One could argue that this is why Dallas and the Sounders were able to win in Mexico. It is also true that there is nothing wrong with fielding a defensive team when trying to protect a lead. Just something for MLS to ruminate on.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Surviving Klinsmann's Generational Shift

Photo credit: AP

Much has been made of Klinsmann's new roster preferences for the US national team. From choosing individuals from Latin-American backgrounds (Torres, Castillo, Orozco Fiscal) to calling on other youngsters like Robbie Rogers and Brek Shea. When Klinsmann's Germany team took the stage at the 2006 World Cup the team was largely based on players under 23. Joachim Loew's squad in 2010 was also quite young. Will the same happen when USA takes the field in 2014?

There are pitfalls and promises when choosing younger players. But it's also true that generational shifts are nearly always positive. The 2002 and 2010 USA teams included a good mix of players in their prime, young stars and a few experienced stalwarts. For 2010 there was Donovan and Dempsey in the prime late 20s, a younger attacking contingent (Altidore, Findley), and some experienced defenders (Bocanegra, Cherundolo, DeMerrit). Other individuals like Torres, Bradley, Edu and Holden were in their mid-20s.

We need look no further than the 1998 and 2006 USA teams to realize how detrimental it is to have mostly older players in a squad. Same was true for Italy, France and Australia in 2010. Also noteworthy is the fact that new head coaches tend to bring in different individuals with new material to work with. Brek Shea is an explosive midfielder with exceptional talent. Agudelo is an up-and-coming striker. Timmy Chandler (assuming he remains a US player) is the future of the right back position for Team USA.

But who would survive a generational shift under Klinsmann? The German head coach is no stranger to upsetting the establishment and shaking up rosters. Would Bocanegra and Clarence Goodson be sacrificed? Are Hercules Gomez and Edson Buddle out of the national team for good? As far as deserved survivors, I think we have to count on Donovan and Dempsey remaining with the squad. They have too much talent to be left behind. The back line, however, is a different picture. Cherundolo could be the only survivor. Then again, Bocanegra, Mr Captain America, could well remain in central defense. Aside from these four players and Tim Howard, anyone else is probably, likely, to be out.

Klinsmann's 2010 holdovers are also likely to include Holden, Edu, Altidore and Bradley as players in their prime. From there the shake-up will possibly bring 15 new players, if not more, in 2014. Plenty to look forward to as qualifiers get underway in June 2011.

Monday, September 12, 2011

On Bob Bradley's future

Photo credit: twitter feed

Much has come to light in recent weeks about where Bob Bradley, former US Men's National Team coach, will turn up next. Europe? Mexico? Africa? At one point, Bradley was rumored to be headed to Villa Park right after the World Cup. When his name was announced as US coach for the 2014 World Cup cycle all those rumors were quieted. But now that Klinsmann is the US coach, Bradley needs to find work. National teams such as Egypt and Costa Rica came calling. Even club teams in Mexico (Santos Laguna) held conversations with him.

But where will he actually end up? Probably Egypt unless something major happens. He's by far their top candidate. His pedigree as a good national team coach is recognized worldwide. Confederations Cup 2009 final, Gold Cup 2007 and winning the the group at the 2010 World Cup are highly valuable milestones. His style is also very conducive for middle-of-the-road teams searching for a way to hold a good defensive line against bigger teams such as Argentina, England, etc.

Bradley's failed hiring at Santos Laguna happened more because he is regarded a top adversary by Mexican fans and they wanted a Mexican to take the helm. They ended up with Benjamin Galindo instead. And yet, the very fact that he was contacted by the Mexican squad is enough of an exclamation point for soccer media in the US. Should he be successful internationally, the market for US coaches would be greatly expanded abroad.

Bradley's international possibilities are a testament to his strengths as coach and to the continuing ascent of US Soccer and Major League Soccer. He will undoubtedly always have a home in MLS and there are quite a few teams that could use his services.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

No love for LA: USA falls to Costa Rica in friendly

Photo credit: Jake Roth / US Presswire

The United States Men's National team lost its first match under head coach Juergen Klinsmann in a friendly at the Los Angeles Area Home Depot Center. It was supposed to be a warm-up game for the much-anticipated friendly against Belgium on Tuesday. But through 30 minutes of scintillating 4-3-3 attacks and possession, no ball reached the back of the neck. Until Costa Rica scored.

Tonight's formation was a testament to Klinsmann's desire to play attractive, aggressive soccer. It may have payed off if Donovan, Altidore or Torres had scored. Rogers' empty runs and Shea's desire to play the ball up the middle prevented the wide attack that has made the US so dangerous in the past.

Credit (blame?) also goes to the back line. Castillo and Chandler had a great first half with constant forays to the front, leaving Bocanegra and Orozco Fiscal to deal with the counter. This worked while the US controlled the game. But after all the missed chances, Costa Rica built confidence and the back line was stretched and broken.

Orozco Fiscal was often in no-man's land and Bocanegra pushed the line further up to add to the attack. With Chandler and Castillo out of position, the Ticos were able to unleash lethal centers and through balls to open spaces. Maurice Edu had a largely quiet evening and this prompts us to ask if he's better alongside another center midfield.

The 4-3-3 formation left Donovan and Shea in retracted forward positions that also doubled as additional wingers. It played well with the industrious Torres and exploited the speed of Robbie Rogers early in the match. After the initial dominance of the team, Rogers became less efficient and Altidore was left alone.

Adding Kljestan to the mix came a bit too late in the game. His inclusion should have come at halftime for Rogers. Torres could have been sacrificed for Agudelo instead of Altidore so as to have two true forwards. Klinsi knows best, however, so benefit of the doubt for now.

So what is the diagnosis after tonight? Still a work in progress. Klinsmann is still learning about the players, their styles and imposing his own philosophy. His preference of Mexican-Americans on the pitch may have to take a hit if Orozco or Castillo fail to produce in the upcoming friendlies. With the addition of players like Dempsey, Bedoya, Bradley, Jones and Holden, the midfield could look quite different. Likewise for the defense. Waiting are Cherundolo, Ream, Spector, Lichaj, Loyd and, perhaps, George John. Up front we could still see Charlie Davies, Gatt or Adu. Maybe a 4-3-3 is only experimental and perhaps should be a change-up formation and not a starter.

Tuesday's match in Belgium is another special treat because there will be no Donovan. It's a great opportunity to test what a Donovan-less USA looks like. Having Bedoya in the mix would have been interesting but this game should be intriguing nonetheless.

Player ratings:

Orozco Fiscal..........4

Subs: Kljestan (6), Agudelo (6.5)

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Dismanteling Arsenal

Photo credit: Getty Images

Wow. Those were surely the words worldwide today as we looked at the scoreboard: 8-2 in favor of Manchester United. No, this wasn't Derby County they were playing. It wasn't even Bolton or West Ham. It was Arsenal. Yes, the former champions and one of the best teams in the world throughout the last decade.

This loss was just as much about luck as it was about the general state of the iconic London team. Ordinarily, most shots are either saved or off target. Today they were on target and past the helpless goalkeeper. Defenders were off their lines in offside traps and in free kicks. Wenger watched in silence as his team broke apart at the seams and had no answer.

And that's the other main problem with Arsenal. How do you answer a team like Manchester United when you have given up talented players in the last two years? No more Adebayor, Nasri or Fabregas. No one coming up the ranks and no new marquee signings so far. In a world where finding game-changing players is necessary and where most notable players elect to go to Chelsea, Man U, Barcelona and Real Madrid, it becomes that much harder to compete for top spots. The team loses concentration when its main constituents have been eroded away. That's what happened today: lack of concentration.

Wenger will have to search deep within the pool of available strong players in the world. Most have already been signed by the larger teams. Otherwise, a serious change will need to be made with this team either in management or player development. If there is no Arsenal and no Liverpool (much better with Suarez this year), then the English Premier League becomes a two-team tournament. And how sad that is.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Fabian Johnson and the German connection

Photo credit: Liga Insider
The last three years have seen a new breed of American soccer player in the US national men's team: German-born Americans. Chandler, Jones, Johnson are all obvious American (Anglo-Saxon) names. In this case we are talking about Timothy, Jermaine and Fabian. They happen to all play for the German Bundesliga (first division) in established teams: Nurmenberg (Chandler), Shalcke 04 (Jones) and Hoffenheim (Johnson). The latter has been invited to the upcoming international friendlies against Costa Rica (Sept. 2) and Belgium (Sept. 6).

This German connection comes full circle with the recently-appointed US coach Juergen Klinsmann. The players are the sons of servicemen that were, at some point, stationed in Germany, and whose mothers are German natives. Such is the case of Jones and Chandler and also the legendary Thomas Dooley. These players represented Germany in their youth squads but ultimately decided to play for the senior US team since they didn't suit up for the European team in an official tournament, per FIFA rules.

The recent inclusion of these players has payed high dividends for the Americans. Jermaine Jones (age 29) was able to use his considerable talent with Champions League background to muscle the United States into the Concacaf Gold Cup final. He has replaced Ricardo Clark and Maurice Edu in the central holding midfield role alongside Michael Bradley. Jones scored one goal for the US in the Gold Cup (later deemed an own goal by the Jamaican defender). His play has been limited recently due to an uncertain club future and he didn't have a good match in the friendly versus Mexico earlier this month.

Timothy Chandler has had a love/hate relationship, mainly with the fans, after having an impressive debut against Argentina in a friendly in March as well as a second game versus Paraguay. His speed and ball skills made him a fan-favorite to play backup to Steve Cherundolo or provide a change of pace as a winger. His absence during the Gold Cup (recovery after first season in Bundesliga) and the Mexico friendly (desire to play for a starting spot with Nurmberg) caused many fans to question his allegiance. Subsequent communication with him and his club coach confirmed that he still wanted to play for the USA and that he would suit up during the September friendlies.

Now comes Fabian Johnson, recently transferred from Wolfsburg to Hoffenheim and having an impressive start with his new squad. It was just days ago that www.soccerbyives.net first posted that Johnson was interested in representing the US. Now we will have a chance to watch him to see where he fits in the crowded midfield of the US national team. It should be noted, however, that he can double up as an outside back.

Klinsmann has chosen to continue his search for "latin" talent in the form of Mexican-Americans (Orozco Fiscal, Edgar Castillo, J.F. Torres) but he is also looking at this new resource to bolster a squad that had become quite stagnant under Bob Bradley. Do give credit to Bradley for calling up Jones and Chandler, we should acknowledge he started this German connection.

As we near the upcoming friendlies, there are two missing pieces not of German descent: George John (centerback, recently signed by Blackburn of the EPL) and breakout Mexican-American Joe Corona. Both have chances to play for other national teams: Greece and Mexico, respectively. But there is only limited room in the US squad and marquee friendlies call for the best the team has to offer. More international matches are coming in October and later this year. For now, at least, the German connection is up and running.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Ascent of MLS in the Champions League

Photo Credit: Concacaf

The Concacaf Champions League has only been played in its current format since 2008. In the beginning, MLS was ill-prepared and lost scandalously to smaller teams from Trinidad and Tobago, Panama and even USL's Puerto Rico Islanders and Montreal Impact. But a recent surge in the quality of play in the league has been matched by equally-impressive results in the CCL. FC Dallas became the first MLS team to defeat a Mexican squad on Mexican soil with their win versus Pumas last week. Tonight, Seattle Sounders pushed that and became the second when they downed Monterrey at the Tecnologico.

Clearly there is something special going on. The widening of player pools and salary and the increased competition from additional MLS teams has produced a new breed of American soccer player. Added to this is the rebirth of the reserve league. More playing time for individuals means a deeper pool to draw from as squads tackle MLS fixtures, US Open Cup, friendlies and the CCL.

There are a few caveats that come along with the recent success of MLS in the CCL. Aside from the fact that all teams are undefeated so far and that they won all of their opening matches is the clear prerogative that international games have taken. There was an excellent article recently that touched on this subject and shows how much the league has grown in just four seasons.

It also comes down to respect. Yes, Pumas showed a lack of respect for FC Dallas when they played their junior squad and were promptly punished. Today Monterrey fielded a nearly full strength team versus Seattle but the players lacked focus until the second half. That plus the absence of Ayovi in the first half still had us wondering how seriously they were taking the game.

It should be noted that until MLS wins at home versus the Mexican squads in the return games, no real victory can truly be sung. Right now, a statement has been heard and it's up to the MLS teams to own this moment and finish their groups on top. Something special can still happen, as it almost did for Real Salt Lake in the final of the 2010/2011 Champions League. Team's views have changed and reaching the playoffs or winning the MLS Cup aren't the only goals.

It's appropriate to suggest that Mexican teams will storm back into the scene. There is a lot of pride at stake, as could be seen near the end of Seattle's match when tempers flared. Let's remember that Mexico's league is only below Brazil and Argentina (and not by much) in the Americas. For the Aztecas, as it is for most other clubs in Europe and South America, reaching the top spots (and not just the championship) means lucrative deals, better players, and chances for continental glory. This is a new mindset for American fans but one that coaches are beginning to take up. Aaron Winter knows this, his Toronto team is all but out of MLS competition and he is focusing on the CCL.

There is something different and special that MLS brings to the competition. Mexico might have great local and continental superstars in their teams, but only MLS is able to bring players from throughout the world. How many times were we likely to see Beckham and Keane playing meaningful, competitive matches in Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras in the past decade? Not until MLS made the changes necessary. Our American league is learning from its mistakes and is embracing the way the sport is played throughout planet football but without losing its unique American style: teamwork.