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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Sportsmanship: a short letter to US fans

Anger and disillusionment are natural human emotions. It doesn't matter if you're El Salvador losing to Panama, Holland losing to Spain or US losing to Mexico. We call for the heads of our coaches, question the benching of players, remark about the loss of form of individuals or the phantom calls by referees. But we should not resort to violence, not physical nor verbal.

The most recent emotional event for US soccer fans was the loss of Team USA to Mexico at the Gold Cup final. Fans and critics were irate and suggested Bradley should be deposed as coach. But in the stands there was verbal violence of Mexican fans to Americans and vice versa. And players too. Landon Donovan refused to comment on Bob Bradley's status and also expressed his disillusionment for being benched for the start of two Gold Cup matches. Tim Howard, star goalkeeper for the US, was quoted saying:

“CONCACAF should be ashamed of themselves. I think it’s a (freaking) disgrace that the entire post-match ceremony was in Spanish. You can bet your ass if we were in Mexico City it wouldn’t be all in English.” His apology followed: “I am the father of young children, and I certainly do not believe profanity is appropriate in public comments. I was caught up in the heat of the moment.”

Caught up in the moment indeed. We all do it. Apology accepted. He didn't have the best of nights and he knew it. However, I'm in agreement with the fact that the ceremony should be held in the languages of both participating teams. Where's our FIFA fair play? Howard also said in his apology statement that he stood by his words about the language used at the Gold Cup ceremony.

Reading fans comments in several soccer blogs I found silly language and unfortunate prejudice. And yet, through it all, I reminded them that this country is unique. For some of us, when two national teams play it might just be the case that you will find no qualms with either team losing. You might be cheering for the country you love for a moment and the country you were born in a minute later. There was an image that struck me before the match started: a fan wearing a green Mexico jersey holding his right hand on his heart as he sang the Star Spangled Banner.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Reset: US loses to Mexico in Gold Cup final

Photo credit: CONCACAF
USA lost to Mexico by the score of 4-2. With it went the ticket to the Confederations Cup and a bit of pride. But now is not the time to put our heads down. Now we can press the reset button and start anew.

We press the reset button because the US can no longer subject itself to giving away early goals. In today's case it was in the second half when Barrera scored the go-ahead goal.

We reset because we can't give up promising players to club intentions. This is about Timmy Chandler, arguably the best prospect in the young US defense. Bradley had the chance to bring him in but decided to waive the idea when the club and player requested extra resting time. How important would he have been when Cherundolo got hurt early in the game?

Reset the defense more. Bornstein has had spotty playing time in Mexico and hardly ever at left back. Why not players like Loyd or Pearce that are actually playing every game with their clubs.

Reset because some players need to be considered higher in the pecking order even if they are nursing injuries. Charlie Davies is having a great comeback season with DC United but Bradley chose Wondolowski over him but still called up Onyewu (also nursing an injury coming into the Gold Cup). Davies was back on the pitch the weekend the Gold Cup restarted. Again, judgement call but one with considerable weight behind it.

Reset the location. Why does CONCACAF continue to play the Gold Cup only in the USA? Further, why does US Soccer go ahead with this? It's better for the players if they play in other countries. But somehow the final is set for the Rose Bowl. Chicago was a more neutral location four years ago. I'm scratching my head with this one still.

Reset for the fans. We know this country has great athletes. We know they are playing more soccer these days. Having Thomas Rongen miss a chance with the most talented U-20 in a decade only thwarted development further. That team never made it to the U-20 World Cup and players like Agudelo, Salgado, Kitchen won't be exposed to the elements. Rongen was let go. Should Bob Bradley?


Subs: Agudelo (4), Bornstein (3), Kljestan (N/A)

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Remembering Donovan's clincher in World Cup 2010

Photo credit: FIFA
Tears of joy. Plain and simple. This was the emotion felt as Landon Donovan scored the goal that clinched the group in World Cup 2010 and sent the Americans back to the round of 16. You could hear it from Miami to Seattle, Los Angeles to Boston, San Fransisco to Washington, Denver, Kansas City, Chicago, and all points in between. The American soccer nation held its breath for 92 minutes and was awarded with a Hollywood ending.

I was reminded of this occurrence as I read a new post in Ives Galarcep's soccer blog, which asked the question: where were you during that game and that goal?

It was an interesting time in my life. I was scarcely over two months away from finishing my degree and moving to the state of Oregon for the next phase of my life. And yet this would not stop me from watching my national team in the biggest game for the US since the 2002 quarterfinals. I had watched the US-England match in the company of friends and the US-Slovenia game with my wife. For the Algeria game I decided to visit my family. Actually, just my mother.

As I sat with my mother, we yelled at the players when their shots went high and scolded the refs when their calls seemed dubious. I gripped the amulet hanging from my chain and closed my eyes when Algeria attacked. And as the game wound down my sighs and visible disagreement prompted my mother to leave the room momentarily to continue making lunch.

The final play prior to Donovan's goal was enough to send a collective breath through soccer nation USA. A point blank header by an Algerian attack was promptly saved (and held) by Howard. Our star goalkeeper then quickly served the ball up to a running Donovan. Landon quickly passed to a streaking Altidore to his right. It was four on two with Dempsey and Buddle also on the prowl. A perfect driven center by Jozy came to Dempsey but the Fulham striker was too close to the goalkeeper and the ball bounced back out. Donovan picked up the lose ball and gave it a low, well-placed tap. Goal.

It was pure joy from that point on. I jumped out of my seat and my mother screamed "goooooooooool" with me. Half a city away, my wife watched the goal from her office and screamed in silence with fists to the sky. I almost cried. Actually, that would come a few months later when I watched the highlights of the game and of fans worldwide and nationwide.

We won't forget this moment in American soccer history no matter what the near future holds for the team. On a June 23 in 2010, the American soccer nation cried with joy in unison as Donovan's goal made us believe in fantasy again.

I'd like to thank the SBI crew for reminding me of this wondrous occasion.

Mission accomplished: USA defeats Panama and reaches Gold Cup final

Photo Credit: Getty Images
Mission accomplished today. The USA played a complete game against Panama today and got what it needed: a 1-0 win over Panama to catapult them into the Gold Cup final. It is mission accomplished because the US fought hard to evade an early score by the opposing squad. Because Eric Lichaj continued to show why he's the future of the fullback position, left or right. Because Agudelo showed that he can step in where Altidore left off. Because Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey ascertained their place as America's top players. Because we had the pleasure of seeing an old friend, Freddy Adu, return to the national squad--and excel.

It was also mission accomplished because Jones and Bradley continue to solidify the midfield in a region where Ricardo Clark showed inconsistency and where Maurice Edu had not settled. Mission accomplished because Bob Bradley has changed his lineup from 4-4-2 to 4-5-1 without clogging up the midfield and allowing for more control of the game. Mission accomplished because Clint Dempsey has now become the go-to guy when a decisive strike is needed, something sorely required given Donovan's recent struggles with the national team.

For the US national team, reaching the final will be its mission accomplished. As resilient as this team may be at the moment, it's missing the arguments that will allow it to win the tournament. No Altidore, Davies, Holden or an in-form Onyewu means that a speedy, creative Mexico is technically, on paper, a more fluid team with several weapons. Add to this the fact that the match is in Los Angeles and you are basically letting the Aztecas play at home.

So the US will be the underdogs again, and even if they do not lift the trophy they will have planted the seeds for the future: Agudelo's strength and speed, Lichaj's dominance at left back, the rise of Jermaine Jones and the return of Kljestan and Adu. And yes, a confirmation of our superstar: Clint Dempsey.

Player ratings:


Subs: Donovan (7), Adu (8)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

MLS 2011 Attendance Statistics Game Week 15

Sorry for the long lapse in stats analysis. It's been quite busy elsewhere and only one person manages the desk at Futbol USA. One of the more important events in the past few weeks is the inauguration of Livestrong Sporting Park in Kansas City, the new home of Sporting KC. Beautiful location and one the national team will remember for a while (just see some comments by Edu, Donovan and Co. at ussoccer.com). In MLS play, the stadium has been sold out and is a welcome sight after years at cavernous Arrowhead Stadium and CommunityAmerica Ballpark (slightly over 10,000 capacity). Because of KC's stadium and the fact that they just now started playing at home, its numbers will look relatively inflated. Remember that it's doubling its previous capacity so crowds will be bigger.

As was posted before, the median of the attendance can now more appropriately be used to gauge the approximate attendance any particular team has had this season. Above is the average - median relationship for the Western Conference. Unlike the East, there is more of a one-to-one relationship for most stadiums. Notable differences are Dallas and Chivas. Dallas had higher attendance for its opening day and when the Galaxy came to town. The same goes for Chivas (sellout at the HDC for the SuperClasico).

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Rekindled: US defeats Jamaica in Gold Cup Quarterfinal

Photo credit: US Presswire

Bob Bradley may have saved his job a little while longer. The US dominated and defeated Jamaica by the score of 2-0 in a match that served as a preview of what the team can do without Donovan or Altidore. Donovan was left on the bench for two thirds of the match and Altidore (2 goals in the Gold Cup) had to be subbed off early in the game due to a hamstring strain. But team USA responded with smart plays by Kljestan and Bedoya and great teamwork in the defense.

This game was also Dempsey's game. He was severely criticized by media and fans alike (myself included) after the game against Guadeloupe. Indeed, the "Deuce" missed three or four chances in that match that could have increased the scoreline to a more appropriate difference between two squads with considerable spacing in quality and experience. But today Dempsey responded with constant attacks, shots on goal and a superb strike to put the Americans up 2-0.

When Altidore went down injured at the start of the game, Americans nationwide held their breath. Might he miss the rest of the tournament? Would the US still be able to get past Jamaica? But Agudelo picked up where Jozy left off. He provided an additional spark and passes that gave way to the goals scored. His center provided the assist for Clint Dempsey's strike. The youngster proved why he belongs with the team and why he is a player to watch for the future.

Another hero tonight was Jermaine Jones. Always controversial and full of pride, Jones received a yellow for an unnecessary foul but was involved in the attack much more than in previous games. He had his share of chances and his strike from outside the area proved to be the difference-maker in this game.

The back line also had a solid game today. Goodson and Bocanegra held the middle of the field with great poise, although they were outrun on a couple of occasions by the speedster Dane Richards. Cherundolo and Lichaj were great at countering the wings and also by providing great crosses for the US attack. Lichaj, in particular, impressed with his poise and positioning. Hopefully this means more playing time in the Premier League or wherever he ends up next.

Up next is Panama, who just defeated El Salvador on penalty kicks. This could be both good and bad since the players will be full of pride after defeating the Cuscatlecos but also tired from the 120 minutes on the pitch. Team USA will have to undo the damage done by Panama in the group stage loss to the Canaleros. A tough task indeed, but if they play like today then the outcome is likely to be positive.

Player ratings:

Subs: Agudelo (7), Donovan (6), Edu (6.5)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Not good enough: US vs Guadeloupe

Photo credit: Fox Soccer

1 - 0. Yes, that was the score for the USA tonight at a sold-out Livestrong Sporting Park for the last game in the 2011 Gold Cup group stage. And the US needed at least a tie. But wait, this was Guadeloupe we're talking about. Then you throw in last Saturday's loss to Panama and a lukewarm win versus Canada and suddenly you have to wonder if the US national soccer team is regressing.

The match started with two changes that were forced due to the loss against Panama. But did Bob Bradley get it right? Tim Ream out for Lichaj, who was inserted into the left back position, allowing for Bocanegra to return to his center back spot. But Wondolowski in for Agudelo? And no change in the midfield? Why not try Edu instead of Jones or even Bradley? Why not slide Dempsey forward from the start of the game with Bedoya covering the wing? No, these are important questions without clear answers.

The game had possession, countless chances but no real fluidity in the final third. What kept Donovan from taking shots from distance the way he used to? At other instances even Dempsey missed his chances on open goal. This was Guadeloupe defending, not Chelsea or Liverpool or Manchester United.

The sad truth is that the US is just not good enough at this point. Altidore's lone long-distance shot was the difference in a game that should and could have ended 10-0. How is the US suppose to counter this against Jamaica (zero goals against)? And how does the US defend against Chicharito (if they make it that far)? The days of the "Miracle on Grass" at the Confederations Cup and "story book ending" at the World Cup are far behind. There's no DeMerrit or in-form Onyewu on the pitch. Donovan isn't running at the defense like he used to. Michael Bradley and Cherundolo do all the work themselves. Altidore is still not as explosive as we all thought and hoped he would.

Does Bob Bradley take the fall? Or is the US truly in a downward spiral?

Player ratings:

Subs: Bedoya (6), Kljestan (5), Edu (N/A)

Monday, June 13, 2011

Mexico: Class of the Gold Cup

Photo credit: Getty Images

The Mexican national team currently playing at Gold Cup 2011 is quite possibly one of the finest sides this country has produced in the past decade. Its offense is by far high above all others in the region. And why not? It fields Manchester United's striker Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, Giovanni Dos Santos (Racing Santander), Andres Guardado (Deportivo La Coruna), Efrain Juarez (Celtic) added to the likes of Carlos Salcido (Fulham) and Rafael Marquez (New York Red Bulls). If 5-0 wins versus El Salvador and Cuba were "to be expected," then the 4-1 demolishing of Costa Rica today was further proof.

Indeed, Costa Rica went looking for points in this match to perhaps qualify as top seed of the group. But the complete domination of the Aztecas, now firing on all cylinders was too much for a Central American side that came to this game after rallying back to tie El Salvador 1-1 during injury time.

Mexico is just clicking well right now. Every pass is assertive. Every shot is dangerous. Every tackle is timely. Every decision is wise. From the slick passing and possession by Slacido, to the darting runs by Guardado, Torrado and Castro, to the positioning by De Nigris and Barrera, it's just too much for Concacaf competition. Chicharito is the star of the tournament and of the region. His headers unleash rebounds unreachable for goalkeepers. The same goes for his shots on target.

So, can anyone stop Mexico? Honduras, perhaps? Jamaica? The United States? Let's not forget that Mexico is essentially playing "at home" in pretty much any Gold Cup location. And this is where US Soccer might be shooting itself in the foot by continuing the silly format that is the Concacaf Gold Cup. Always in the US and always in stadiums friendly to the Mexican team. If the US is to beat Mexico--if they reach that far--they will require ideas that are nonexistent in Bob Bradley's playbook or in our starting defense.

This is likely to be a Mexican Gold Cup. And deservedly so. The team has the style, the technique, the crowd, and the passion behind it at the moment.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Implossion: US loses to Panama

Photo credit: Fox Soccer

Seriously? Not a typo? Bound to happen? How many headlines do we require to convey the message? The US just isn't that good at the moment. It is possible the team peaked at South Africa 2010 and now we are picking up the pieces and restructuring. You could even make a case for 2009 being a higher point for the American squad. No, the USA was outclassed, outdefended, outplayed and just not good enough.

There were no heroics from Donovan, no clinching goal from Bornstein, no superhuman saves from Howard, no cohesion in the central midfield or defense, no real spark from Agudelo. And we were at home? And we think we can win the tournament?

If I had been a commentator today, I would have duct-taped my mouth like Carlos Albert did when the Mexico U-23 squad failed to qualify for the 2008 Olympics. Yes, it really was that bad. My non-soccer friends were just as disgusted and pointed to sad details that even I was blind to. Where was Goodson and Ream? And our Captain America--Bocanegra? Who do we turn to now? Onyewu still isn't 100% and DeMerrit is with his club. Lichaj? Spector? Bornstein? Are you also cringing now?

And we cringe not just because of today. Every team is allowed to have bad games. Even Spain, with its all-star cast lost at the World Cup (not to mention the US game in 2009). We cringe because there are other teams in this tournament capable of significantly more damage if the US has another bad day. What if it had been Chicharito instead of Blas Perez? Dos Santos instead of Tejada? Saborio? Maynor Figueroa? Need we say more?

Today was the highest lesson in humility. Donovan mentioned how they "needed to learn from this game." We sure hope they did. The dreams and thoughts after the Canada game, a near-perfect game for the US, were quickly erased today by a team of significantly less stature. What else can we say? Bradley? Our US coach has taken the US to new heights and relevance. But we have also seen his game unravel--early. In the first half hour of play. Over and over again. I find it difficult to see Bob Bradley remain at the helm if the US does not capture the trophy. And right now that doesn't seem likely.

Player ratings:

Substitutes: Kljestan (6), Bedoya (6), Wondolowski (5)

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Jozy strikes back: US vs Canada

Photo credit: AP

The United States started the 2011 Concacaf Gold Cup with the right result today: a 2-0 win over Canada. The 0-4 deficit versus Spain four days ago was quickly forgotten thanks to savvy play by Donovan, Bradley and Dempsey, outstanding central defense, lateral penetration thanks to Cherundolo, scintillating goalkeeping by Howard, and great offensive plays by Altidore.

The match started fast for the Stars and Stripes, Michael Bradley showed why he's such a gifted box-to-box player and he combined well with Jermaine Jones. Dempsey played a slightly withdrawn forward role in a 4-3-1-2 formation at times. It worked. Donovan's penetrating runs and crosses fed Agudelo and Altidore on several occasions and could have added another pair of goals.

The defense was stout in the middle with a Goodson-Ream tandem that just might be clicking the way Onyewu and Bocanegra once were. Bocanegra's new position at left back looked vulnerable, at times, due to his lack of speed, which in turn meant he restrained from going forward too much. Cherundolo was solid for the most part. Then there's Tim Howard. This game and his various saves en route to a shutout are the reason why he's one of the top goalkeepers in the world. One sequence after a corner, in particular, required feline instincts and reaction.

And then there's Altidore. Redemption from constant attacks from media and fans alike. Why isn't he scoring? How can we rely on him as our top striker? He gave us the reasons today. Protecting the ball by using his strength and size and centering his strike with enough force to slip past Hirschfeld. And Dempsey's masterful sliding goal came from a pinpoint Altidore center. And this is what people forget--Altidore provided two of the most important assists at last year;s World Cup. One was a cradling header to set up Michael Bradley's tying goal versus Slovenia. The second was the center he provided for Donovan's goal versus Algeria. This is how important Altidore is to the future of the US national team.

Let's not forget that a likely rival in a possible final is Mexico. Chicharito and company are a whole new level above what Canada has to offer. However, Canada is a team with similar characteristics to the US. This is important to gauge similar weaknesses and strengths that can be exploited by other squads like Mexico or Costa Rica.

Well done, team USA. Great way to start a tournament.


Subs: Kljestan (5.5), Edu (6), Wondolowski (N/A)

Monday, June 6, 2011

Blanc slate: The new France

Photo credit: 1000 goals

The hope of all of France went up at the end of World Cup 2006 when it was announced that Laurent Blanc would take over as manager of the national team. I must admit this pleased me also, having been a fan of the team since their victory over Brazil in penalties at the 1986 World Cup. Back then it was Platini versus Socrates in a match for the ages. This would be repeated at the France 98 final when the French won 3-0 with two goals from Zidane and one by Petit.

France hasn't been the same since winning on home soil. Even at Germany 2006, when they reached the final, Zidane shocked their country and the world with an unnecessary headbutt against Materazzi of Italy. They lost in penalties to the Italians. Raymond Domenech remained as coach of the team through the 2010 World Cup cycle. But his pupils rebelled and his team fell apart. Losses to Mexico and Uruguay knocked them out of the tournament in the group stage. Even France's entry into 2010 was shrouded in controversy, as Henry's handball to set up his team's win over Ireland was seen by everyone but the referee.
Photo credit: FIFA

Now, in France's 2012 Euro and 2014 World Cup cycles, new life is gracing the team. Even though the team started his cycle with a loss against Norway, the team soon recovered with wins over Brazil and Argentina. The team now tops the 2012 qualifying group with a 6-1-1 record.

Blanc has also brought in new faces to the team. Most notably, Marvin Martin and Younes Kaboul. Look for these players to make some noise in world football. Add Ribery, Benzema, Diaby, Diarra, Abidal, and you are already talking world class with a great coach behind them. Next year's Euro will be a tough test, but they can certainly hold their ground versus teams like Spain and Germany, and may have surpassed others.

Blanc plays smart, attacking football with a concentrated defense. The man that scored the golden goal for France versus Paraguay in 1998, as the world held his breath, is ready for the challenge. And we are enjoying the way his team plays.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The B side: US loses to Spain

Photo Credit: AP

The United States lost by the score of 4-0 today against Spain without some of its key starters. Is a game worth playing when you know you know you're not putting in 100%? Bob Bradley and US Soccer sure think so. Yes, it's Spain and it's the cash from playing against the world champions. Yes, it's a "tune-up" match before a big tournament. Really?

Today was a sad day for US soccer fans and the players themselves. They went out there to try to not get injured, to stay away from tackling too hard, to not outrun your own pace. How is this a warm-up? And no big stars from the start of the game? Donovan (illness), Bornstein (injury), Bocanegra (resting). Yes, we get it. But no Bradley, Cherundolo or Dempsey? That's 5 top players and not much cohesion in the midfield or defense.

This game would have been better played against a more modest team like New Zealand. Mexico had the right idea. They played earlier in the week and versus a smaller team. You can't go against the best team in the world with only your bench players or new guys. It's just math.

Who was at fault here? Everyone and no one. It's not Bob Bradley's fault that they were playing against the best in the world in a meaningless friendly three days before the start of a major tournament. Why would you risk losing the tournament only for a single game? And if we want to blame US Soccer then we have to realize that the revenue from this game alone plus the exposure is important for the growth of the federation. And the players? Howard can't do it all himself and the rest are trying to stay healthy for the tournament while at the same time trying to impress the coach enough to get picked as starters in the Gold Cup.

Only Spain won today. Not the fans nor the team nor the federation. The USA still lacks the depth required to play high-level matches without the main starters. This is true for games like today's and for tournaments like the Copa America or the second Gold Cup (which excludes passage to the Confederations Cup). Aside from trying to understand the logic behind the 2-year Gold Cup cycle, which is more due to Concacaf, is the sobering reality that our second and third-tier players are still a few years away from top competition. Also, in the end, your "B" team isn't going to win against most "A" teams. If you need further proof then just look at Argentina's recent multi-goal loss to Nigeria.

No ratings today for the sake of brevity.