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Thursday, April 28, 2011

No Beckerman: RSL loses in CCL final

Photo credit: Kansas City Star
Real Salt Lake lost tonight's Concacaf Champions League final in a spectacular thud. Monterrey didn't overrun them. RSL had a 2-2 tie away-goal advantage and couldn't keep the Mexicans off the score sheet. They also failed to score on numerous chances. Tough luck for the team, the league and the soccer nation.

Monterrey simply attacked with their most potent weapon--Humberto Suazo--and got the goal they needed. Real Salt Lake lacked inventiveness within the box itself. Numerous times we saw Saborio, Morales, Wingert, Williams and Espindola just not getting that final shot. The ball landed in the area but they didn't have a clean shot. Good defending? Perhaps.

And then there's one very obvious fact: no Kyle Beckerman. The RSL captain and US international was suspended due to yellow card accumulation (that yellow, incidentally was wholly unwarranted). He is a leader in the midfield and a player counted on to disarm the opponent's attack. Real Salt Lake may be a deep squad, but it's obvious that Beckerman wasn't easily replaced. Not by a long shot. Suazo and Ayovi cut through the Claret and Cobalt's mid line without mercy for much of the match. RSL was left to chase the game for most of the second half.

It was a crude, cruel, rude awakening for MLS fans. This wasn't going to be their year. Not yet. Not so even though the pieces were clearly laid out for the league to acquire its first continental cup in the modern era (for LA and DC wins and why they don't compare click here). Jason Kreis was going to be the messiah for the league, the coach that finally brought the cup home. Real Salt Lake would be the breakthrough squad. International spotlight would be on the league, and this time for soccer reasons.

But that's how it works in sports. Not even mighty Real Madrid could thwart Messi and Barcelona, not even at home at the Bernabeu in the UEFA Champions League. Why should Salt Lake be any different? It's time to pick up the pieces and get ready for the next tournament. MLS did a good job with incentives to win this tournament, and general support was impressive.

So thank you, Real Salt Lake. Your team and your fans make us proud of our league. In victory and in defeat, American soccer fans stand behind you.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Not scoring: from Altidore to Fernando Torres

If you are like most knowledgeable US national team fans you will know one thing: Jozy Altidore, our star at forward, isn't scoring much these days. Indeed, since his multi-million, record-breaking move to Spanish powerhouse Villarreal, Altidore has scored more goals for the national team than at club level. He scored once in La Liga play during the 2008 season and then two more times in local Cup play. Not what you want from a striker of his quality. His year-long loan to Premier League side Hull City (since relegated) saw him score just once in league play and also in Carling Cup games. Lately, on loan to current Turkish champs Busaspor, the talented American scored once just last week, as the season winds down.

Altidore is not alone in this. Eddie Johnson, once heralded as a US international star, has managed very few goals abroad in league play. Josh Wolff was another underachiever in his day. Not to mention Freddy Adu. Others out there have a bit more luck: Edson Buddle with bottom-dweller 2.Bundesliga team Ingolstadt.

But our American stars aren't alone. Spanish superstar Fernando Torres scored his first goal for Chelsea this past weekend. This was his first goal after a multi-million dollar move from Liverpool. At one point, Carlos Vela of Mexico (Arsenal) and Kikin Fonseca played eight games for Benfica, scored once, and was sent home packing.

The truth for all these players is clear: form, luck and understanding. Being patient with the ball and passing to team mates enjoying better form. Sometimes it's better to play for smaller teams and, finally, to return to one's homeland. There, they can find and regain form, get the necessary minutes, and compete for spots in the national team. Such isn't the case for Torres. For him it's about warming the bench or biding his time until opportunities and luck return. It may even be better to go back to Atletico. But Chelsea won't give up on him. Not yet. He is a proven goalscorer and his fantasy play can still dazzle. As with most injury bugs, some of these players just require more time. We are, after all, rooting for them to do better and to lite up stadiums and TV screens.

Good luck to all. Come home if necessary. Patience is a virtue.

Photo credits: Getty Images

Sunday, April 24, 2011

MLS 2011 Attendance Statistics Weeks 5 & 6

Weeks 5 and 6 had to be a combo due to the midweek matches. Real Salt Lake gets a pass for the Monterrey games. We're all behind you as MLS fans.

New England continues to struggle, as does Chicago and Columbus. New York, surprisingly, is also well below its stats from last year. This is quite inexcusable due to the form of Henry, Ream, Agudelo, Marquez, Lindpere and just the team in general. The lowest attendance has been 14,000, well below the capacity of 25,000.

I make a lot of points about relative attendance, which is the actual numbers divided by the capacity. It's an interesting statistic worth exploring when one sees how full (empty) a stadium really is. Bigger stadiums look emptier than small ones depending on crowds. When it comes to Western Conference teams, stadiums are typically much fuller than the East. A simple scatter plot above shows the relationship between relative and average attendance. Notice that many teams are close to 100 even though some, like San Jose, have smaller stadiums (i.e. higher relative attendance). Conversely, a team like Chivas is much lower in the relative axis due to its large capacity (27,000).

Thursday, April 21, 2011


Photo credit: Brian Nicholson, Desert News

Real Salt Lake took the first step into uncharted territory: championship of the Concacaf Champions League. They did so by tying 2-2 against a powerhouse of the western hemisphere: Monterrey. Monterrey includes players like De Nigris (Mexico), Neri Cardozo (Argentina), Walter Ayovi (Ecuador) and world-renowned Humberto Suazo (Chile). Real Salt Lake fought back twice on the scoreboard to level the game at a packed Estadio Tecnologico.

It was the play by Nat Borchers, Jamison Olave and Nick Rimando which anchored the Real Salt Lake defense. In the midfield, captain Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales built and distributed plays. Espindola and Saborio had frustrating nights, as they were continuously shut down by the Monterrey defense. This, however, allowed for players like Borchers and Morales to create chances that developed into goals.

Jason Kreis played his cards well tonight. He maintained a good defensive posture that allowed for his midfield to spark into action when his attackers were marked. Two wonderful goals gave the team, the city and the league reason to believe that silverware is possible next week. RSL carries a two away-goal advantage into Rio Tinto Stadium (where they are undefeated in 36 games). A win in the next game or a 0-0 or 1-1 tie means RSL takes the title, MLS and its fans are behind you, RSL. You are MLS.


Tuesday, April 12, 2011

MLS 2011 Attendance Statistics Week 4

We are now in the 4th week of play and attendance remains strong for the most part. FC Dallas, although only having an average of just under 12,000 for their last couple of matches, still pulls off an average of over 14,000 given their sellout opening game. They are clearly doing something right both on and off the pitch. Vancouver has also had the novelty sellout crowds and continue to show how strong soccer is in the Pacific Northwest market. The Portland Timbers open their new home venue at Jen-Weld Field on Thursday. This match attracts special interest on my part, as I will probably attend a few games this season.

Some of the weaker markets are already showing their poor attendance, however. Most notable are New England and Columbus. A more detailed look at the difference between seasons is presented in the two plots above. For the yellow bars (2011-2010), New England lags behind last year's average by over 3,000. Compare that to 2009 (green bars) and it is over 4,000. Something needs to be done to address this. Not to mention that their total numbers are in the four-digit category. New England used to be one of the strongest markets early in the league's history. Is it management? Players? The venue? Steve Nicol is a great coach but sometimes fresh ideas can inject energy into a team (and crowd). Hyndmann did it for Dallas.

Also on the losing end is Columbus. The 2008 champions have struggled in attendance for the past couple of years, even with the presence of Barros-Schelotto. They also recently lost their jersey sponsor, Glidden, before their contract was up. Finally, Chicago is also well below their past attendance numbers when C. Blanco was playing. Bringing is Ljundberg and Nery Castillo payed very little dividends and aren't in the team anymore.

Expect other markets like Houston and Toronto to stabilize. Their fan base is strong and their stadiums are usually full. More stats will come by the middle of next week as a combo of weeks 5 and 6.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Portland Timbers vs Oregon State: the live experience

Yesterday I witnessed an exhibition match between the Oregon State University Beavers and the Portland Timbers. This is perhaps a long overdue post about the Timbers. Considering the fact that I will be in Oregon for at least another year and a half, it is only fitting that I support the newly-promoted team.

A little history: The Portland Timbers were a part of the North American Soccer League (NASL) that ran from the mid 70s to the ultimate folding of the team in 1982. They appeared once in the final in 1975 and lost to Tampa Bay. This team cemented soccer as a sport in the Portland area and its legacy is still present to this day. The Timbers were also resurrected briefly in the late 80s but were only around for two years. One thing to note is that that particular iteration of the Timbers had Kasey Keller in its pool of players. In 2003, the USL added the re-christened Portland Timbers as an expansion side and were relatively successful both on the pitch and in the stands. The team averaged over 8,000 fans in 2008. This success, along with investor Merrit Paulson and support from the city of Portland, allowed for the Timbers to become MLS' 18th team.

The current Timbers squad boasts players like Kenny Cooper (US Men's National Team player during 2010 qualifiers), MLS Draft 1st round pick Darlington Nagbe, former US national team goalkeeper Troy Perkins, Jack Jewsbury and Sal Zizzo (played in Spain and Germany). Their home is Jen-Weld Field (formerly PGE Park). Their rivalry with the Seattle Sounders dates back to the NASL and USL teams, making for a potent Northwest derby.

In yesterday's game, it was clear who the professional team was. Although there were plenty of misses, the Timbers controlled the pace of the game and had the larger share of goal chances. Darlington Nagbe was particularly impressive (scored the lone goal), as was Kevin Goldthwaite in the back line. Ryan Pore also had a good game and reserve goalkeeper Guppy should be a good option if the team requires his presence later this season.

It was an intimate experience at OSU's Patrick Wayne Valley Stadium, with the stands full of a mix of students and Portland Timbers fans. Granted, there was only one side of the field with bleachers, but it was accessible and free nonetheless. The Timbers Army (fan club) was loud in its chants and drums and made the experience much more enjoyable. It was a 1 - 0 win for the visitors but the Beavers played well. This, after all, was where Danny Mwanga (1st overall MLS draft pick of 2010) played during college.

Another interesting part of the game came from listening to conversations among fans on the bleachers. They ranged from "I miss playing the game," "I like the European style," "this game is being played with FIFA rules," "Timbers are a new team in MLS." Some were familiar with soccer, others were just there with their friends. It became clear, however, that there is a deep soccer culture in this region of North America and that Portland is indeed ready for professional soccer. I hope to attend a few matches myself and you can expect more blog posts about those games. Go Beavs! Go Timbers!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Wake-up call: US U-20 fails to qualify for World Cup

Photo credit: Associated Press

The US youth system's Under-20 national team has qualified for every single World Cup tournament since 1995. Last night, however, a determined Guatemala side halted the US team's progress and eliminated them from the competition. How do we proceed after this?

Let's settle a few things. The game: poor defending and lack of final touch. Also, Guatemala played great defense and awesome saves by their goalkeeper. They were also at home with a sellout crowd. A game versus Honduras would have been more accessible, in theory.

The team: this was supposed to be one of the most talented U-20 squads in recent times. It was likened to the Bradley-Altidore-Adu team of 2007. This team boasted Salgado (#1 1st round pick in MLS), Conor Doyle (Derby County), Gyau (Hoffenheim), Bobby Wood (1860 Munich), Agbossoumonde (Djurgården), Perry Kitchen (DC United), Okugo (Philadelphia), Sebastian Lletget (West Ham). Sometimes, when a team is too good, their ego can be their undoing. Might this be the case?

The coaching staff: This is where it gets interesting. Thomas Rongen is a great coach. He has been at the helm of the U-20s since 2001. In the process, he left out Neven Subotic, among others, in previous tournaments. He peaked with the Adu-Altidore team of 2007 and never quite recovered. Perhaps it's time to shake up the staff?

In the end, it was comedy of errors that unraveled the US squad. A necessary evil in order to expose a stagnant youth development. If no changes are made by US Soccer, it is another point of criticism by American soccer media and US fans like yours truly. Please keep this in mind: these are the players of the 2014 and 2018 qualifiers and the future of the American soccer system. Dominant teams are expected to win in tough matches. Is the US still a dominant team?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Size does matter: Big clubs win big in Champions League

Photo credit: Getty Images

Okay, let's see: Real Madrid 4 - Tottenham 0, Inter 2 - Shalke 5, Barcelona 5 - Shakhtar Donetsk 1, Chelsea 0 - Man. United 1. Aside from the curious result in Milan, it is fair to say that the dominant teams in Europe (a.k.a. the world) are set for another run at the UEFA Champions League. Further, a repeat of 2009's Manchester United versus Barcelona is not out of the question. So, big money plus player development always wins.

And that's the kicker, the difference, the point at which the remaining teams can be separated from one another. It is "cantera" versus "cartera," meaning "quarry" and "purse." To develop a team from the ground up or to buy the best players in the world. FC Barcelona prides to call itself the former and uses local talent (also the spine of the World Cup-winning national team) to build the skeleton of the squad: Xavi, Pique, Busquets, Iniesta, Puyol, Villa, Pedrito. Real Madrid opts for the latter: Cristiano Ronaldo, Ozil, Kaka, Adebayor, etc.

In Manchester United we have a mix of the two, with the more obvious piece being the legendary architect: Sir Alex Ferguson. No insult intended towards Ancelotti, he is a superb coach. But something has to be said for a coach that has held on to his post for 24 years. He chooses his homegrown players well (Wes Brown, Paul Scholes, and snatches up local talent (Rooney, Ferdinand, Carrick). He also picks up interesting, but extremely productive players: Berbatov, Hernandez, Valencia, Ji-Sung Park.

For Barcelona, the path to the semifinal is all but laid out. For Manchester United it is a bit more complex: they must still defeat Chelsea at home. However, after today's glaring errors by the London squad, you have to like the "Red Devils" chances. Real Madrid has made its case and Tottenham will be tested to their limit at White Hart Lane (no Peter Crouch). Shalke 04 has assured the rest of the world that this Inter Milan team isn't the same without "The Special One" Mourinho at the helm. This also leads to a preemptive conclusion that Manchester United will be at the final.

More fireworks next week--for sure. Be champions!

Class of MLS: Real Salt Lake advances to Concacaf final

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Real Salt Lake made history tonight by reaching the final of the Concacaf Champions League. They were the first MLS team to advance to the semifinal and have now taken the next step after defeating Saprissa of Costa Rica. It is truly an accomplishment for both the team and the league. It can be argued that the level of play in MLS has risen to new heights with player development, expansion and the influx of top players.

A couple of things need to be acknowledged, however. This isn't the first time an MLS squad reaches or wins a continental tournament. DC United first won in the tournament's previous incarnation, the Concacaf Champions Cup, in 1998. This was followed by the LA Galaxy in 2000. So, it's not technically a first but more of a renaissance of American soccer. Remember, however, that those teams still practiced the archaic MLS style of countdown clocks and shoot-outs.

If there is another important point to make about the current level of play of Concacaf and the MLS, then we have to turn to the Mexican Primera. Theirs is a premier league and the best in the Americas along with the Brazilian and Argentinean leagues. Mexico is a heavy importer of talent from South America and they have also become decent exporters of players, i.e. Javier Hernandez, Rafael Marquez, Carlos Salcido. They are also heavily involved in the South American Copa Libertadores. That alone raises the expectations and quality of the league.

This is where the competition gets truly special for Real Salt Lake and MLS. Can it top a premier soccer team from Mexico? Can MLS live up to the level the national team has played in for the past decade?

The Concacaf Champions League is fun to watch just because so many more teams are in action and more of MLS is exposed abroad. It's curious perhaps, that it was expanded from the 8-team Champions Cup to the format it's in today mainly because it coincided with the arrival of Beckham and the Designated Player Rule. Coincidence? Why not spread the wealth of marquee international players for all of North and Central America and the Caribbean to enjoy. MLS is unique in the Americas in its import of global talent. It's time, perhaps, to see this reflected on the pitch by winning a continental tournament.

Monday, April 4, 2011

MLS 2011 Attendance Statistics Week 3

Week 3. Interesting trends. Scheduling is always tough in a sports-mad society like America. With MLB opening days and March Madness, not to mention ongoing NBA, and one has to have priorities. Clearly, for some of the markets, MLS isn't a priority. New England continues to struggle with their attendance no matter who comes to town. This time it was the Timbers and I enjoyed watching some Timbers fans in the stands. Also on the same boat is Red Bull New York. Their impressive stadium always looks a bit sad when the Red Bull logo is so prominent in place of spectators.

Dallas, who had an impressive opening day, also collapsed in the second week. The same is true for the reigning champs: Colorado Rapids. Their figures for this week didn't hit the 5 digit mark. Granted, it was cold and snowy, but that usually doesn't stop fans in this country. And props to those that showed up. It's tough getting there when the weather's bad. I know first hand. And yet, the LA Galaxy holds strong in their attendance, nearly 25,000 this week. And the signs held up by fans reading "We love Beckham" brings it right home. It's about stars, and it's worth it when it is. Then again, the west coast is much more consistent in attendance than the east. Just have a look at the relative attendance as of week 3:

Friday, April 1, 2011

MLS Media Circus(es)

The United States is the land of the Media. CNN, MSNBC, FOX News, NY Times, Washington Post, MTV, ESPN, Fox Sports, Time Magazine, Newsweek, Comedy Central, National Enquirer are just the surface. Digging up new, interesting stories are what makes this country tick day in and day out. MLS is not immune. Is Freddy Adu the next Pele? Is David Beckham really coming to the US? Is Chad Ochocinco switching sports from football to futbol?

What started with the overplayed (and unfortunate) premature crowning of Freddy Adu as America's soccer darling was forgotten once it became obvious that he was just another gifted, albeit average, player. David Beckham's revolution of MLS also earned front page news but was quickly forgotten due to injuries and a backlash against his loan to AC Milan when it became apparent to the England FA that he was only viable at a "competitive team." Who wouldn't want to switch if it mean playing at the World Cup?

The most recent media circus involving MLS is Chad (Johnson) Ochocinco's desire to play soccer for Sporting Kansas City (previously the Wiz and then the Wizards). Suddenly, ESPN was all over the relatively weak soccer market in Kansas City. He became the sizzling news in the NFL aside from the impending lockout due to salary disputes. Hoards of reporters from various media outlets were present at SKC practice and reserve games (practice matches? really?).

So is this really good for MLS? Remember one thing, and I'm not overreaching with this: MLS tends to be an afterthought for most Americans, a parenthesis in an otherwise crowded sports scene, a curiosity when your kid is at soccer practice and you realize there is an American league. Ochocinco's publicity stunt is likely to remain what it is: just a stunt. 85 had a reality show where he was choosing from 85 bachelorettes, his TD celebration of "bribing officials," a person that chose to change his name to the Spanish for eighty-five even though he has no real connection with the Spanish-speaking community. How much stock are we willing to put into this when a BBC report on Ochocinco using an American soccer journalist was shrugged off by the BBC radio host?

The truth is that MLS is a growing league with ardent fans. The true fans are merely intrigued by the publicity stunts. They go to the games and enjoy the action. They applaud recent signings like Rafa Marquez and Omar Bravo as players that can contribute. They cheer for the new American stars like Juan Agudelo, Tim Ream and Teal Bunbury. They get their soccer news from dedicated, serious soccer journalists. That's the MLS, not these circuses.