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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?