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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Not like this: US loses to Paraguay

Photo credit: Fox Soccer

Great game. Excellent attendance. Outstanding performances. Everything but the result. That's what happened tonight as the US lost 0 - 1 at home in Nashville to Paraguay. All due credit to Paraguay. They were dominant in defense and capitalized on their chance. But for the US it has to be put simply: they will not win the Concacaf Gold Cup. Not like this.

We might argue that Paraguay's goal was a fluke and even that Howard could have stopped what Hahnemann was unable to save. We can also argue that there were plenty of chances for the Americans. But at the end of the day, the key component, the positive result, was missing. Might Holden have made a difference? We will never know.

Agudelo once again showed his class, even if this time there was no reflexion of his efforts on the scoreboard. Maybe he's more suited to be a supersub? Timmy Chandler was excellent all day long winning balls, heading forward, creating chances, using his speed. He might just take Cherundolo's place at right back. And he's just as good in a defense-to-midfield switch as was done to allow Dempsey to serve as a second striker. Great versatility.

Also credit Bob Bradley on switching from a 4-4-2 to a 3-5-2 with some success. This was a procedure used after Michael Bradley's tying goal against Slovenia in last summer's World Cup. It worked except for the final product: changing the score.

What happened to our legendary players? Where were our Bradleys, Donovans and Dempseys? Clearly, for both Bradley and Dempsey, it was the finishing touch and outstanding goalkeeping that kept them from scoring. Donovan wasn't his usual dominant self, but do remember that this would be only his fourth competitive match of the year. We only hope he rekindles his magic.

In the end, it was a soccer match that went to Paraguay due to excellent defending and a bit of luck. However, Mexico was able to put 3 goals past this usually-stout defense. And this brings me to the biggest lesson for today. The Americans need to win their home games, especially ones that they dominate in. It's about pride, home field advantage, and, perhaps more importantly, because the likely final for this summer's Gold Cup will probably be against Mexico. Which team will show up? Will it be the one that played against Argentina or the one that failed to protect its house today?

Player ratings:

Subs: Yeldell (6), Lichaj (6), Spector (N/A), Kljestan (5.5), Bocanegra (6)

MLS 2011 Attendance Statistics Week 2

Before I dive into the statistics for this week, I wanted to restate the purpose of this analysis. It is really twofold: as a scientist I am interested in trends and relative terms. Thus, the "relative attendance" factor, which is derived from the stadium capacity, is a look at how full a stadium really is. Having been to two opening days: Rapids (2010) and Sounders (2011), it became clearer that a number be defined. For the Rapids, the attendance was 11,641 (64%). I had posted on Twitter that it was a nice crowd and I believed so until someone replied that "it looked empty."

Seattle, of course, is the pernnially sold-out venue for soccer fans. The stadium can hold up to 67,000 for football matches has a reduced MLS capacity of 36,500. Opening day had 36,443. And it was precicely after this match that, as we walked out of the stadium, I heard several conversations about how full the stadium was and why they didn't expand it further, given its NFL capacity. That's a tough sell in this country, even by Seattle's standards. This is why most soccer venues are usually for 20,000 spectators. It's more cost effective for the team and the fans and it adds intimacy to the experience.

But for opening day this season a couple of weak markets (in recent years) showed very well. FC Dallas opened at 20,104 this season (8016 for opening day 2010). Colorado, the reigning champs, opened with a crowd of 17,139, approaching capacity. Real Salt Lake, Vancouver, LA Galaxy and Philadelphia also sold out for opening day. Decent (>70%) crowds were present for the New York, DC and Toronto. Do temper your judgement, however. Paltry crowds were present for a rebuilding Columbus Crew, New England, Chicago, as well as the second game in Dallas.

Graphics are on the right column. All data is derived from official match reports and stadium capacity.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Agudelo strikes again: US vs Argentina

Photo credit: Getty Images

What a match. Just three years ago, at the old Meadowland, Tim Howard and company were able to hold off Lionel Messi and Argentina in a thrilling 0-0 tie. Tonight was no different. New Meadowland stadium. Capacity crowd of 78,000+. But with goals.

Once again it was Tim Howard that came up big. At least 8 or 9 bona fide saves by the Everton goalkeeper. But he alone cannot keep the Americans afloat. Bocanegra and DeMerrit continued their composure at the back. Spector also rekindled the right back stellar role that excelled at Confederations Cup 2009. Onyewu had a few mishaps but he made up for it with timely challenges and highlight-worthy slides.

Messi was nothing short of incredible except for the final shot. The same goes for Di Maria. It's also a shame that Cambiasso and Zanetti were not included in Maradona's South Africa squad. Cambiasso showed why when he cleaned up a lose ball in another Messi play. This Argentina team has been resuscitated and they warrant close attention heading into this year's Copa America and the next World Cup.

Bob Bradley's squad started the game with a defensive-minded 4-5-1 formation with Altidore as the lone striker and with Bradley-Jones-Edu as the three-headed defensive midfield monster. It didn't work out too well. They defended well in the final third but were confused in taking off and Dempsey and Donovan saw few passes in their direction. Both of our World Cup stars had their moments in the second half, however.

And this brings us to the attacking front. As soon as Agudelo was inserted for Jones and newbie Timothy Chandler came in for Spector. The result was pure magic: more forward runs, passes completed, and the all-important set pieces. We have to hand it to Alexi Lalas when he states that the Americans best weapon against world-class teams are set pieces. And where Altidore had been largely ineffective while on his own in the first half, Agudelo's smart moves and attention-grabbing play gave the World Cup veteran more room to create spaces for Donovan and Dempsey to attack.

Then there's Agudelo. Need we say any more? He is fast, opportunistic, and on a roll. And you never leave the table when you're in the Heater. Bob Bradley understands this and it is why the young Colombian-American gets his role as a supersub. That's three games for the national team that he has played in and has made a difference. He scored against South Africa in his debut as a 17-year-old, then drew a penalty to tie a friendly versus Chile. Tonight he was brought on to spark some magic for the US and he didn't disappoint. A clutch goal very Davies-esque. He may be the Charlie Davies that Jozy has needed for the last year and a half. A true #9. So what do we do when the real Charlie Davies comes back? It's a good problem to have.

Player ratings

Subs: Chandler (7.5), Agudelo (8)

Friday, March 25, 2011

MLS 2011 Attendance Statistics Week 1

Just a quick update. I have posted the new graphics on the right hand column. A more substantial post with some analysis of the first two weeks of MLS will be posted after this weekend's matches. This has been a very interesting and successful start for the season, with sellout crowds in Vancouver, Dallas, Colorado, LA, to name a few. Quite a difference from recent years. More to come.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Trial 1: Ochocinco in MLS

Photo credit: Getty Images

Chad Ochocinco is trialing with MLS side Sporting Kansas City. Yes, the same Chad "Johnson" from the Cincinnati Bengals. And yes, Sporting Kansas City is the team formerly known as the Kansas City "Wiz" and then the Kansas City "Wizards." Formerly knowns should be the motto for this turn of events. But wait, could this really be true? A bona fide NFL star trialing with a modest MLS team? Yes, see for yourself.

Why did this happen? 1.) NFL lockout, 2.) Ochocinco was an avid soccer player in his youth, 3.) friends with C. Ronaldo, among others, 4.) publicity for the league and the team.

Positives: Okay, benefit of the doubt for the outspoken footballer. He was indeed a fan of the game and a youth player during his teenage years up until the higher paychecks from American football came calling. His friendship with high-profile players like Cristiano Ronaldo are certainly positive. He also conversed with Beckham and Thierry Henry before trialing with SKC. Lastly, MLS is in the public eye for an entirely different reason. More attention equals more appreciation? Perhaps.

Negatives: As a counter for the last point, isn't the type of attention given to MLS for this a bit sad and unsatisfying? Maybe a running joke that this megastar is with a relatively unknown (to mainstream America) soccer team? Although, given his production (actual touchdowns, not fantasy yards) last year of TDs (4 total), it sounds like a mediocre/substitute striker's output for a subpar team.

The NFL lockout is the ultimate driving force for Ochocinco's genuine desire to get back to his soccer roots. That can be taken negatively or positively depending on your point of view. One last thought, though: remember that megastar that switched sports for a bit after temporary retirement? His name was Michael Jordan. It didn't work out.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Charlie Davies returns

Charlie Davies returned to first team action in yesterday's DC United season opener against the Columbus Crew. DC won the game by the score of 3-1 thanks to goals from Josh Wolff and Charlies Davies. I write this peace only to point out the second goal by Charlie. It is his vintage speed, adaptability, placement and positioning. He sneaks around Marshall after the defender's mistake with the bounce. His speed into the area and quick movement around Will Hesmer (GK) allow him to position himself for the final shot. A second defender for the Crew attempts to block the empty net. Charlie switches the field of motion of the ball, sliding down and kicking to his left, fooling the defender and the rightward-shift of the entire play. Well done indeed. Welcome back, Charlie.

Video disabled due to Copyright so I removed it from the site. Here's a link instead.

Friday, March 18, 2011

MLS 2011

In my last post, I recounted the experience at the MLS First Kick 2011 opening match between the Seattle Sounders and the Los Angeles Galaxy. Last year I was also fortunate to watch the Colorado Rapids' home opener in April 2010. Perhaps next year I can experience another home opener. And that's what brings me to today's post: a look ahead at MLS in 2011 and what the league has to offer.

Little did I know in 2010 that the Rapids I watched from the Dick's Sporting Goods Park stands would be the eventual MLS champions. This was over the resilient, steady FC Dallas in a 2-1 finally that went into overtime. This was after FC Dallas had dispatched heavily-favored LA Galaxy by 3-0 and semifinalists San Jose Earthquakes had humbled Henry and Marquez's New York Red Bulls. This season, the Galaxy and the Red Bulls are once again heavily favored due to their considerable pedigree and depth. Real Salt Lake is also quite deep and swelling with talent. The same can be said about the Seattle Sounders, although their finishing needs to improve.

There are also teams in rebuilding mode and others that are, at least in paper, good enough to challenge for silverware. Such is the case with the four-time champion DC United. The club boasts not only Andy Najar (18, 2010 Rookie of the Year), but also newly acquired Dax McCarty, impressive rookie Perry Kitchen, veterans Josh Wolff and Joseph Ngwenya, but also the resurgent Charlie Davies. Clearly a team to watch.

The re-branded and remodeled Sporting Kansas City is coming to the fold with US international Teal Bunbury and Mexican star Omar Bravo. Salt Lake upgraded Saborio to Designated Player (DP) status and has kept its core of players, becoming deeper and more stable. Such is also the case with the Earthquakes, who are hoping Ike Opara can return to form and Wondolowski can continue to impress. New York has Agudelo to build around Henry at forward and Marquez in the back line alongside Tim Ream. Also in the mix are Tchani, John Rooney, Lindpere and Dane Richards. LA may have lost Edson Buddle, but have gained Juan Pablo Angel--how's that for a triple whammy with Donovan and Beckham?

Also on the upswing is the Houston Dynamo. Rookies Kofi Sarkodie and Will Bruin complement Brian Ching and a solidified back line with Hunter Freeman as a new addition. The New England Revolution, Chicago Fire, Toronto FC and Columbus Crew are at a crossroads right now, in a continuously difficult rebuilding process. This was evident in RSL's demolishing of the Crew in Concachampions play. Toronto has much to prove after years of impressive fan base but not enough on the pitch.

Seattle and Philadelphia, recent additions to the league, are going through different growing pains. Seattle is still looking for a stabilizer in its back line and a creative force in the attack. Losing Nkufo and Ljundberg have hampered its ability to finish their chances (clear evidence of this occurred in Tuesday's match). Piotr Nowvak has yet to find a winning form for his Philadelphia Union. The sophomore year for this franchise should be an interesting one now that players like Orozco and Fred have left and Faryd Mondragon and Carlos Ruiz have taken their place.

Not to be outdone, not by a long shot, are the two newcomers: Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps. True to their USL and NASL roots, the Cascadia teams have taken similar, yet uniquely distinct paths to the MLS. Portland boasts impressive rookies like 2nd overall Darlington Nagbe, with experience national team players Kenny Cooper (striker) and Perkins (goalkeeper). Vancouver went for the biggest longshot in league history by snatching 17-year-old Omar Salgado as the number 1 pick and the fullback--and World Cup star--Jay DeMerrit. Portland has a stocked offense. Vancouver is still building theirs, with Salgado months away from being allowed on the pitch given FIFA rules (American with a Canadian team).

So tomorrow as some of us watch intently the NCAA brackets unfold and others catch the early European games, a new chapter will be played out in MLS history. The 2011 season is upon us and the league is 18-team strong and 16 years old. Stars will rise and fall but one thing is clear... American soccer is here to stay. Enjoy the games.

Photo credits MLS

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

MLS first kick 2011: the live experience

What a game. What sounds. What fans. Everything a soccer fan can hope for--with an American twist. It was the Seattle Sounders FC versus the LA Galaxy. The new (3 seasons now) team versus the old guard. The setting was the superbly-equipped Qwest Field.

On the pitch emotions ran high, kicks when right and wrong, balls flew past goalkeepers, bounced off posts and skidded along the wet grounds. In the stands the enjoyment was permanent. Whether tied at zero or behind 0-1 after Juninho's goal, the unwavering fan base of the Sounders continued their chants. It came from 5-year olds to the ubnoxious young men yelling obscenities at the opposing team. The yells were against Donovan (American hero) and the multi-million dollar Goldenballs: David Beckham. It is team first, country second here.

The Seattle brand of soccer was present with the fireworks at the start of the game and with the (only in America) marching band. Add to this the cross-field chants of "Seattle" to the west and "Sounders" to the east and one is transported to college football. But this is soccer. This is MLS. And this is the point of today's match. Sold out stadium. Radiant fans. Incredible field. Great spectacle. And this is our sport, our American soccer.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Invincibility cloak: Manchester United

Manchester United all but had this season in their pocket until two weeks ago. First was a loss to fierce rivals and nemesis Chelsea by the score of 2-1. It opened up the league a bit. Then, just yesterday, came a shock loss to long-time arch-rivals Liverpool--by 3-1. Has Sir Alex Ferguson's magic for the season run dry?

Hardly. And yet, we must wonder how it is that a team that had been so dominant in every game at every tournament all of the sudden started to break apart at the seams. A clear answer is its decimated defense. With Rio Ferdinand out, Vidic unavailable and O'Shea on the bench, Wes Brown and Chris Smalling were unable to contain Dirk Kuyt and Luis Suarez. The Reds were determined and the scoreline put it plainly: Manchester United is mortal.

Tell this to Marseille also. The French team is looking to take their 0-0 tie at home to Old Trafford with hopes and prayers that maybe Ferndinand and Vidic can be kept off the pitch. Perhaps it's too tall an order for Marseille. But maybe not so for Arsenal. The Gunners are 3 points behind the Red Devils with a game in hand. A meeting between the two in May could determine the winner of this Premier League season.

Still, no one should take United's recent stumbles as a sure sign of their demise. Clearly, at the beginning of the season it was Chelsea leading the table and poising themselves as the eventual champions. Nothing is ever for certain. Not even for the best of teams. Tell this to Barcelona. Possibly the best squad in the world, the "Blaugrana" tripped up in their visit to Anfield and fell to Arsenal by 1-2. They hadn't lost at all until a Copa del Rey tilt versus Real Betis on January 19.

It's clear that even the best teams are meant to lose games. It keeps things interesting, keeps the ball rolling, keeps ticket sales going and television ratings high. We love to see our teams invincible, but deep down, we always want to see the biggest teams lose once or twice. It gives hope to the weaker sides and helps to keep the superclubs grounded... if just for a day or two.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Dos a Cero: for the fans

What does it mean to win by the score of 2 to 0? Closure. Endpoint. Triumph. For years, the Concacaf was ruled by one country: Mexico. A soccer nation like few others in the planet. A place that breathes futbol and elevates it to glory. But, on a February night in 2001, all of this changed. The United States sent a clear statement. They won at home. They made their home. For once, the majority in the stands was painted red. The scoreline simply filled the voids.

Dos a Cero was a tribute to the fans. A golden ticket for those who waited to have their team reach the potential that so many knew existed. They say that every journey has a first step. This win in a World Cup qualifier was what Concacaf needed: a change in venue.

Ever since that win the stadiums have looked fuller and, where before American fans were outnumbered by the visitors, more red, white and blue, together, was present. Soccer jerseys sold by the thousands... and just in time for Korea Japan 2002. For not only did this win solidify the US as the number one team in the conference, it also carried them all the way to the quarterfinals of that tournament. The game against Germany was stolen, we know.

And ever since that Dos a Cero, the US has been Number One in qualifying standings, winning every single qualifier home game versus the Aztecas by the same score: Dos a Cero. Columbus takes the credit. The heart of working class America gave us our working class heroes. For that is what the US is know for abroad: teamwork, allegiance, understanding.

Dos a Cero lit up the scoreboard and re-lit MLS: after that we received Donovan, Beasley, Howard, Dempsey, Altidore. Dos a Cero made us smile, cry, dream. This is for you, the fans. We cheer on with every goal scored, missed, surrendered. It doesn't matter. That's why we are fans of the game. Dos a Cero became a poem in our futbol hearts. Cheers to 10 years since that victory.