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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.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

MLS 2011 Attendance Statistics Game Week 24

As the league nears the end of the regular season, some teams have seen an upswing in attendance. This is especially important now that the NFL and College Football restart their fall run. Columbus has seen modest gains, as has New York. West coast teams remain strong and the addition of Keane to the Galaxy may bring about sellout games to Hollywood once more.

Here are the numbers:

Team Average Relative Median
DC 15024 61 13735
KC 17687 96 18467
NE 13015 65 12337
COL 11278 55 11246
TOR 20105 87 20122
CHI 13919 70 13156
NYRB 18796 75 19237
PHI 18308 99 18558
HOU 16266 60 15712
LA 23044 85 23719
CHV 14714 54 14058
DAL 12984 63 11138
SJ 12128 116 10401
CRD 14617 81 14185
RSL 16704 84 16220
SEA 37120 104 36326
POR 18627 100 18627
VAN 20580 98 20518

Friday, August 19, 2011

The American Glasgow Rangers

Photo credit: US Soccer

The Scottish Premier League team Glasgow rangers added two Americans during the summer transfer window: Alejandro Bedoya (Orebro) and Carlos Bocanegra (St Etienne). Rangers already has one American international: Maurice Edu. The Ibrox team has been the home of DaMarcus Beasley and Claudio Reyna in the past.

So what has caused this influx of American talent to the Scottish champions? A recent article indicates that the Rangers front office is seeking to broaden American appeal for the squad. Whether this will work remains to be seen. However, those of us following Americans abroad always have an eye on what's happening with the team. Adding Captain America Carlos Bocanegra could mean more interest in soccer media to air matches involving this squad.

There are some interesting undercurrents within the context of Rangers moves. For one, this team has shown a commitment to developing US players in a way that few other club teams in Europe have. Fulham, for example, is another squad that has hosted Americans (Keller, McBride, Bocanegra, Eddie Johnson, Clint Dempsey). This means recognition that there is significant quality in this country, enough to build a squad around. Let's not forget that many teams in Europe have Brazilian and Argentinean spines. Comparing Americans to those countries isn't necessarily fair, but it's becoming clear that our national team players are viable candidates.

The three Americans currently fielding for Rangers occupy different positions on the pitch: defensive midfielder (Edu), attacking midfielder/winger (Bedoya). and central/left back (Bocanegra). This is a testament to the continuing solidification of the defense and, especially, the midfield in this country. Players like Bradley, Donovan, Dempsey, Holden, Jermaine Jones and Edu are notable not just in this country but abroad as well. And even though Maurice Edu may be on his way out of Rangers, having two regular starters in a major European team speaks volumes for the evolution of the American soccer player. Mexican squads have also taken up this cause and have added Herculez Gomez, Jose Francisco Torres, DaMarcus Beasley and Jonathan Bornstein to their teams.

As the summer window closes, players like Edu, Bradley and Jones may move to more traditionally powerful teams. Bradley is reportedly attracting interest from Napoli (in Champions League) and Roma (eternal contender). Clint Dempsey might make a move at any point. His presence in the Premier League is solid already. As for Rangers, their outreach goes a step beyond the Scandinavian attraction towards US soccer players. The Ibrox team has significant pedigree and is looking more American every year. As our young players grow up and become stars, more and more European teams are paying attention to the widening pool of talent in this country.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Choosing MLS: Adu and Eddie Johnson

Photo credit: MLS

Freddy Adu made headlines in the American soccer media last when he rejoined MLS and suited up for the Philadelphia Union over the weekend. There was a general applause as the "prodigal son" returned to the stage that saw him rise as a promising young star. This week comes word that Eddie Johnson might also join the league. Things turned sour, however, for "EJ" and now his future in the American league is in peril.

But what does a return to MLS mean to our young soccer stars? For Adu it's a chance to rekindle his talents, which as we saw at the Gold Cup, are just as impressive as US fans had hoped. Adu's insertion into the Union lineup gives coach Nowak significant freedom as far as player combinations and formations. Nowak's team can function in any number of 4-4-2 (diamond or flat) or even in an attacking-minded 4-3-3 with Adu as a withdrawn forward.

Adu has been requested by many fans to rejoin the league mostly because we are all aware of his talents and because the European market grew more and more concerned about his performance. Benfica worked great for the first few months but he soon became surplus. A loan to Monaco meant almost no playing time since the coach saw him only as a fringe player. The same happened with Belenenses. Adu seemed to have found a home at Aris Salonika of Greece but financial troubles meant his loan could not be extended or taken up as a transfer. Freddy finally realized that playing time was more important and Rizespor of the Turkish second division gave him what he needed.

In twitter conversations a few years back I realized how important Adu could be for the game in the United States. He was a "failed star" to the media and critics. Too young to appreciate the game and his talents. Perhaps it was true. But he also had the ability to "run at the defense" and not "run around the defense" like our other prodigy--Donovan--does. Jamie Trecker made this observation.

In MLS, Adu has the freedom to play his way but under the tutelage and boundaries determined by Piotr Nowak, his first professional coach. And let's face it, Donovan also had trouble playing in Europe when he was a young up-and-coming star with the national team. Now Landon is known worldwide and a bone fide star. Adu can do the same by keeping his head cool and focusing on the game. He might one day return to Europe as Donovan did.

There were a couple of other names this season and last that returned from Europe to play in MLS. Jay DeMerrit had his time in the old continent and did the most with it. Benny Feilhaber, a mainstay with Bob Bradley, also saw his time in Europe come to an abrupt end when his team was relegated. He has had a quiet but active time with New England this season.

There have also been a few snubs towards MLS. DaMarcus Beasley, for one, chose to join the Mexican Primera instead of his home country. Games are still more competitive there due to the history of each team and the established style of play. How do we take this? I say it's just a player looking to do something different in a new league. I don't think it "makes MLS look bad" that he chooses not to play in the United States.

The latest MLS returnee, Eddie Johnson, was set to undergo the league allocation utilized to evenly distribute national team players throughout the various teams. Many fans [and media] were glad to see another special player return to America. Johnson played only sparingly for Fulham (owner of his rights) and had stints at Cardiff City and Aris Salonika. But just today it was revealed that no deal had been reached, perhaps due to his requested salary, and that he would ultimately not join the league. What does this mean for the league? Potentially the loss of another talented American. For Johnson it may mean fighting for minutes in Europe unless the team he joins makes him a starter.

It is increasingly visible that MLS is becoming a great option not just for experienced players but also for former American stars in the league. Stars like Adu and Feilhaber are able to further develop by playing their trade in an increasingly more competitive domestic league. For Adu, his age and talent increases his chances of one day playing in a big team. But is this necessary? Players like Donovan have proven it's not necessary to leave MLS to become American soccer stars.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Klinsmann Begins: USA ties Mexico

Photo credit: AP

It was a friendly tonight between Mexico and the US national team. But a friendly only on paper. As a "Clasico," this game never lost luster even when the Americans looked out of sorts in the first half. Today was coach Klinsmann's first game with Team USA and his calls were questionable at first, with a highly experimental 4-2-3-1. But we knew that this was a learning process.

The first half of play saw a very timid, disconnected Edson Buddle, and a largely non-existent Landon Donovan. Jose Fransisco Torres was charged with being the secondary creative force alongside Beckermann. Torres had his ups and downs and this irregularity has plagued him throughout his stint as a national team player.

The back line was extremely experimental, with only Cherundolo and Bocanegra as the usual stalwarts. Orozco Fiscal was the second centerback and Edgar Castillo had his shot at left back. Castillo was burned continuously by Barrera but still held up play. This position is still up for grabs. Orozco did well to contain the Mexican attack but was still caught ball-watching at times.

When the changes were made for a largely quiet Jermaine Jones and Edson Buddle, the Americans sparked into life. Juan Agudelo provided style with his passes and Brek Shea had a breakthrough game. The FC Dallas man has reappointed himself as a bona fide contender at the midfield in the future. Robbie Roger's goal came largely out of a play created by Agudelo and Shea.

All in all it was a good match for the US today. It might even have been a win if it weren't for poor finishing and some questionable referee calls. Klinsmann has begun to impose his style and it will be interesting to see what he does when players like Dempsey, Chandler, Edu and Holden are available.

Player ratings:

Subs: Roggers (7), Agudelo (7), Shea (7.5), Clark (N/A)

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

MLS 2011 Attendance Statistics Game Week 21

Sorry for another delay, folks! Lots of stuff happening so I had to divide my time accordingly. With Europe restarting this month, most attention will be shifted away from MLS. However, expect strong attendance to continue in the Pacific Northwest and new strongholds in the east (Philly, KC). Some of the other locations might take a hit from NFL and college football as fall sports begin play.

For the current attendance analysis we have Columbus and New England constantly struggling to fill the stands. Toronto and DCU's poor form is also reflected on their attendance. Conversely, Colorado and Dallas continue to make gains relative to 2010 and surely owe their success to their MLS Cup final last season.

I wanted to look at medians again but this time for the west and for the relative attendance. The plot above shows that most teams see over 80% in stadium capacity for most games except for Dallas (64%) and Chivas (54%). Note, however, that Dallas has made a gain of over 2000 seats since last year.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Timmy Chandler: Friend or foe?

Photo credit: ISI photos

Much has been made of US national team player Timmy Chandler in the last few months. From his breakthrough games with the national side against Argentina and Paraguay, to his rise as a starter for Bundesliga side Nuremberg. But his relationship with US national team fans has been a bit rocky ever since those friendlies in March because of missed matches, tournaments, attention.

It started with the friendlies against the South American sides. Earlier this year we were introduced to the lad and watched him become a regular for his Bundesliga team. By mid-March, then-coach Bob Bradley selected him to represent the US in the exhibition matches. Fans had started to watch him closely in his games for Nuremberg and realized that he just might be the future of the right back position as Cherundolo is phased out.

Chandler was stellar against Argentina and provided a necessary spark out of the back and forced the team forward. Agudelo would eventually tie the match. Against Paraguay, Chandler was even more explosive and a bright spot in an otherwise flat game for the Americans.

Flash forward to the 2011 Gold Cup and many fans and soccer media were pinning Chandler as a starter if Cherundolo was hurt or even at midfield for mid-game changes in tactics. He also excelled at that position versus Paraguay. But then came word that Chandler was "exhausted" after his first full season with the Bundesliga team and that he needed some time off to recuperate. Really? Plenty of other players relish the possibility of being called up for the national team regardless of the length and demands of a full season. And this was an international tournament.

Was Nuremberg at fault for not releasing him? Bob Bradley wasn't strict enough to mandate his presence? Did Chandler want to represent Germany instead?

So on Friday, a day after he was called by Klinsmann to appear next week versus Mexico, Nuremberg and Chandler asked for him to remain in Germany and skip this match due to a "slight injury." But when he surfaced as a starter and had a great game for Nuremberg for the first game of the season, fans scratched their heads and were generally irate on twitter and other media. Some respected soccer journalists also posted the news that he was starting for Nuremberg but not willing to play for the US. "Hmmm," was the common denominator among journalists. Indeed.

Another snub by Chandler. Was he really not planning to suit up for Team USA ever again? Not necessarily. Washington Post's Soccer Insider posted an interesting article on the situation. It seems that Chandler is looking to secure his place as a starter during this month before he heads out to national team duties. His "slight injury" was a misnomer by US Soccer and Klinsmann had not talked with Chandler prior to his naming as a player in the 22-man roster for next week's friendly. According to the article, "Chandler and Hecking [his manager] committed to both U.S. friendlies next month: against Costa Rica Sept. 2 in Carson, Calif., and four days later against Belgium in Brussels."

So, I along with most US soccer fans out there will reserve judgement for now. Our team could certainly use Chandler's energy and skills as a new World Cup cycle approaches. He's a friend for now but people will certainly question his commitment further if he doesn't suit up for the national team within the next few matches.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Klinsmann's new team

Photo credit: US Soccer

It's important to try to make sense of Klinsmann's team for the date with Gold Cup champions Mexico to be played next week (August 10th). This is mostly because it's his first try and against a worthy foe. He stayed true to the fact that mostly experienced players would be called up for this match. He also called up players recently ignored by Bob Bradley and gave a first call for one player: Bill Hamid (GK, DC United).

"Klinsi" is known for an athletic, attacking style with significant support for players. This will be interesting to see given the lack of depth and production from our forwards. In are Agudelo, Donovan, Adu and Buddle. Adu and Donovan double as attacking midfielders but he looks to set them up as forwards. Surprisingly, his "forward" category also includes Beasley, who has had a mix-bag of results in his short stint in Mexico (Puebla). Beasley is a natural winger so suiting up as a forward is an interesting change of pace. Agudelo is, currently, the future of the attack and Buddle may just bring what this team needs. Bradley used him only sparingly at the World Cup, choosing Gomez and Findley instead.

Aside from the reliable trio of defensive midfielders that is Edu-Bradley-Jones, Klinsmann also elected to bring back Beckerman (never quite settled in with the national team under Bradley). Another player with plenty to prove with a new manager is much-maligned Ricardo Clark (E. Frankfurt). The former-Dynamo player has settled in with his German team and has played well in the defense. He has had plenty of great moments (his goal versus Trinidad and Tobago in the qualifiers) and also flops (early yellow card in the round of 16 match versus Ghana at South Africa 2010). Finally there's Brek Shea. Mister "haircut" didn't have great showings with Bradley in a couple of friendlies last year but has looked phenomenal for Dallas during the 2011 season. Torres (Pachuca) makes a comeback after not playing with the national team at the Gold Cup.

The back line has a lot of old faces: Cherundolo, Goodson, Bocanegra, Ream, Pearce. No Lichaj (injury) or Spector (recently transferred). Look for a reliable back four to start the match and perhaps Pearce will get the nod at left back. It's also nice to have Timmy Chandler back in the team after showing such promise in friendlies versus Argentina and Paraguay. Michael Orozco Fiscal (San Luis) makes the team after 3 years since his one and only appearance with the national side. Edgar Castillo is another player called up by Klinsmann to break from the Bob Bradley norm. Castillo was recently reintroduced into Club America and has made a couple of appearances. He's a naturally left-footed player and could start at left back.

What's a probable starting lineup? It could look like this:

Howard (GK)
Castillo (LB), Bocanegra (CB), Goodson (CB), Cherundolo (RB)
Torres (LM), Bradley (DM), Jones (DM), Shea (RM)
Donovan (F), Agudelo (F)

I could see Donovan and/or Beasley in the midfield instead of Torres/Shea. Adu-Agudelo at forward would be interesting also. Chandler could get the nod ahead of Cherundolo but I wouldn't bet on it yet. He will, however, be on the pitch at some point as a sub.