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Saturday, October 29, 2011

Points rescued: Arsenal vs Chelsea

Photo credit: AFP

Arsenal made headlines this morning when they defeated the 100%-at-home record Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. The score, a resounding 5-3 victory, is a testament to this year's downright inconsistency in the Barclay's Premier League. So now, in the same season, we have Manchester City 6 - Manchester United 1, Manchester United 8 - Arsenal 2, and today's 5-3 score.

What has changed this season? Defense. In my view, the top clubs have focused increasingly on bolstering their attacking front and in so have forgotten about another key aspect of soccer. Box-to-box players are caught too far upfield to contain the opposing attackers. Two of Arsenal's goals came out of horrible blunders from the Chelsea defense. For Santos' goal, six or seven players were on the far side of the pitch, leaving Santos with plenty of space and just one defender to evade. Van Persie's game-winner occurred due to an ill-timed back pass from Malouda to Terry. Petr Cech is also to blame for at least three of the goals today. You have to guard your near post. It's goalkeeping 101.

Another aspect that came out of today's game is the reaffirmation of Robin Van Persie as a world-class striker. As Ian Darke put it, much is made of Ronaldo and Messi while players like the Ducthman go unnoticed until they score a hat trick. Arsene Wenger is finally getting this team to click. He still needs solidification in the defensive third but a place in the top four is within reach.

For Villas-Boas it is also a time to look at his defense. Terry needs more help and he isn't getting enough from Ivanovic. Would David Luiz make a difference? And where does one pick up defenders these days? Italy? Spain? Germany? South America? Do the lines need to be pushed back downfield? Are wingers spending too much time up front?

Whatever happens, for the rest of us it's just fun. If you're not a fan of the big four then you are enjoying the games for what they are. High kicking, high scoring, and no ties.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Old Trafford is blue: City vs United

Photo credit: Getty Images

When the scoreboard in Old Trafford read 6-1 you thought "yes, United continued its dominance and tore another team apart." But wait. The scoreboard is reversed? And to Manchester City? Fans, critics and commentators were left with mouths open, some in disgust, some in joy, some in sheer wonder. This was the team that had just beaten Arsene Wenger's Arsenal by 8-2 earlier in the season. And now the result was reversed.

But how did today's game really happen? Several points come to mind. First, not all usual United stars were on hand: Valencia, Park, Vidic, Giggs, Hernandez, Berbatov. Some were inexplicably on the bench. Evans got a chance to play in the derby along with Welbeck. No results. Indeed, Evans proved the opposite by getting ejected with Man City already up on the scoreboard. Chicharito would come into the match too late for heroics. Park and Valencia never got a chance.

There was also some disbelief in United. Perhaps a bit too much cockiness for players like Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra. They weren't believing that Aguero and Balotelli could run rampant around them. Did they not care? They seemed almost amateurish, especially in Dzeko's goals. And the Bosnian was only a substitute. All in all, only the benched players and Wayne Rooney seemed to care.

There's another side to this coin. Manchester City has elevated its play in the past three years through a mixture of style and stars. Some stars didn't quite mesh (Tevez, Adebayor) and some were troublesome (Tevez, Balotelli). But the spine of the team with Lescott, Silva, Toure, Milner, carried the team to a new sphere. It doesn't hurt that the Manchester City owners have deep Middle Eastern pockets.

Today it was Silva and Milner's game. They dictated play by keeping the ball in midfield and gaining the upper hand in possession. Toure and Lescott marked United players higher up the pitch and controlled the flanks such that Anderson and Young had very few dangerous crosses. And up front, Balotelli and Aguero shined. Their shots were cruel and accurate. The passes that came to them from Milner and Silva were daggers into De Gea's area. And in doing so, they handed United their worst defeat at home in the Premier League era. Welcome, Manchester City. There's a new sheriff in town.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

MLS 2011 Attendance Statistics Game Week 33

Magnificent Seattle. Over 64,000 in attendance for Kasey Keller's farewell match. Can anyone else match that? Perhaps once Donovan or Dempsey retires. Maybe the LA Colliseum or Rose Bowl. Maybe for Tim Howard there will be enough to approach Seattle's attendance for Keller? In New York? Seattle has set the bar pretty high once more.

This is the penultimate week of MLS attendance stats. The Sounders continue in front, having raised their average by 2000 over last year. KC, relatively speaking, has doubled its attendance due to their new stadium. LA, Dallas and Colorado have all had good gains from 2010. Chicago and Columbus continue to struggle a bit although recent matches have seen higher number of seats filled, especially for the Crew as they gear up for the playoffs.

The stats:
Team Average Relative Median
DC 15203 62 14849
KC 18070 98 18467
NE 13631 68 13164
CLB 12185 60 11298
TOR 20183 88 20139
CHI 13898 69 14203
NYRB 19356 77 20039
PHI 18258 99 18524
HOU 16491 61 16478
LA 23330 86 23719
CHV 14470 54 14067
DAL 12933 63 11022
SJ 11928 114 10525
CRD 14881 82 14706
RSL 17248 86 16841
SEA 38496 108 36304
POR 18827 101 18627
VAN 20334 97 20226

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Portland Timbers vs Houston Dynamo: The Live Experience

The Portland Timbers lost their final home game tonight. It was a bittersweet end to an incredible first season. From a 5 game winning streak at home, to their 1-1 tie at Seattle and their 3-0 victory over LA Galaxy, the best team in the tournament, to a terrible win-less streak at home, to being in and out of playoff contention, it was a whirlwind season. And no, it's not over yet, but the mountain is getting too high to climb at this point and they no longer control their destiny.

As I reached the bleachers late, I could sense that there was purpose in Darlington Nagbe's play and Kenny Cooper waited to pounce in nearly every goal opportunity. But the final pass was not there today. Houston made the most out of its two chances. Two chances, two goals. Dominic Kinnear pushed his back line as far back as he could so that the midfield was elongated and congested. There would be few dangerous plays for the Timbers after Houston' second goal.

Whether it was Zizzo's ineffectiveness, Chabala's injury, or Alhassan's loss of pace, the cards just weren't there for a Timbers win tonight. But let's celebrate the game for what it was: a testament to the soccer fever gripping the Pacific Northwest, to MLS' best idea since its inception, to the passion of the fans, young and old, male and female. Let's toast to the Timbers Army's fight chants even in defeat, to Timber Joey showing off his saw although no timber was cut, to the inebriated pair behind (and in front) yelling at the ref, to the older couple cheering or covering their mouths in agony with every kick, to the toddler smiling at his surroundings as his caring parents chanted for their team, and to all the kids decked out in full Timbers gear, dreaming about being on that pitch someday. This why we go to stadiums.

When I root I root for the Timbers!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Honoring a Soccer Journalism Icon: Mauro Velasquez Villacis

The year I went off to college my mother gave me an unusual gift: a series of obscure soccer magazines. They were specific to Conmebol (South America's soccer conference), and more importantly, strictly for the press. As I read through them I learned about the history of Conmebol and of its most important club tournament: The Copa Libertadores.

But why should I get this gift? Mother told me they came from my uncle Mauro, a world-respected soccer journalist, friend of the legendary Garrincha and a fan of Barcelona Sporting Club of Guayaquil, Ecuador. Perhaps he knew of my love for the game. It must have been so because I have over 20 cousins on my mother's side and yet the gift was especially for me. Up until that point, I had been to only a handful of futbol games. And yet he knew that following the beautiful game was one of my passions.

Regardless of the reasoning behind the gifts, my passion for the game grew stronger through the years and it led to this blog, my twitter account, and a distinct proclivity towards US Soccer and MLS.

I saw my uncle once again a couple of years back. He somehow knew that what I wanted was to discuss the game and to see his significant soccer library, his notes about soccer players, his relationships with individuals and his philosophy about soccer. "I follow the players," he said. And then I realized that so do I. It's not just about the games for us. It's about a player's tendencies, reactions and personality on the pitch.

This post is to honor a legend in the soccer media. Mauro Velasquez Villacis was recently awarded the "Most Illustrious Citizen of Guayaquil" award. It was given to him for his dedication towards sports journalism in Ecuador, for what he brought to the history of his country and the world at large, for the honesty and directness he employed in his work. They called him the "human computer" for his otherworldly wisdom, and most of all the award was given to him for his kindness and decency. He is an example for future generations in an age in which the public is increasingly critical of journalism, something that in his case is completely the opposite. He received an extended standing applause and was humbled to receive the award. His soccer language is as sophisticated as the use of his Spanish. Quoted by many. Respected by most. An icon in my life.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Late goals: Ecuador defeats USA in friendly

Photo credit: futbolecuador.com

It was hard to cheer for either team tonight. For some of us, one is the country of birth and the other the country you live and love. As I had told my peers, I'd rather have a high-scoring tie. It was almost a tie. Almost. The young blood in both teams decided the match tonight. Jaime Ayovi, the future of Ecuador, had the better of Tim Ream, the up-and-coming center back hopeful for the USA. It was another 0-1 loss for the Americans.

The match was certainly 60% American. They pressed in the first half with a dangerous Shea and Williams. Edu pushed up to be the box-to-box player that has seen him blossom in Scotland. And Onyewu, the longtime partner with Bocanegra is certainly back.

For Ecuador, the stars were Jaime Ayovi, Jefferson Montero and Michael Arroyo. They were dangerous throughout the night and could punish you with any open chance. Benitez was around to clean things up in the front line while Castillo and Mendez held steady in their center mid positions. Valencia had a bit of an off game today after a great performance in World Cup qualifying against Venezuela. He was substituted due to his ineffectiveness.

How does Klinsmann answer his critics after tonight's match? "Tim Ream." Yes. Switching the youngster for the experienced Bocanegra so late in the game changed the nature of the defense and his touch was as off as it has been for him with the Red Bulls this year and during the Gold Cup. Perhaps George John and/or Omar Gonzales are better options. If Klinsmann really want possession and passing from the back, however, Ream is still top choice. And this is something that will haunt Klinsmann throughout the next 3 years because--let's face it--Cherundolo and Bocanegra will be much older (35) at the 2014 World Cup. One veteran in the back line, possibly Onyewu, should be enough.

The American's other worry is the goal. Who's scoring? Looks like it's still the midfield and only by a tenuous thread. Dempsey got the game-winner versus Honduras over the weekend but there has been no production from Altidore, Agudelo and Buddle. Who can he call next? Is there anyone else? But we can also argue that Jozy did not have the full time to get something going with the increasingly-dangerous Shea-Williams tandem. Charlie Davies and Freddy Adu, you may get a phone call soon.

For Ecuador, their back line is holding up through communication and the presence of Walter Ayovi. It can be argued that the fact that they all play in the Ecuador league, and more importantly in Quito, may be what the team needs to keep the Atahualpa unbeaten in this World Cup cycle.

Player ratings for the USA:
Chandler........... 6

Subs: Agudelo (5), Spector (4.5), Ream (3.5), Bradley (6), Buddle (4), Beasley (5.5)

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Open Cup Dynasty for Seattle

Photo credit: AP

Seattle won the Open Cup tonight. Three-peat. Plain and simple. The team knows. The league knows. The country knows. Then fans know. From ball possession to Montero's opportunistic goal to Alonso's magic. It was the scintillating style of a champion team. But is it a dynasty?

Seattle has a monopoly on the Open Cup at this point. From the moment they defeated DC United in their inaugural season to the sellout record-breaking crowds, it was clear that the Sounders wanted this tournament as their own. And why not? Through the last decade, the Open Cup has been more of an afterthought to the majority of teams in the league. This season alone, the New York Red Bulls pulled all of their starting players from quarterfinals. Really? Yes.

And that's why Seattle's ownership of this tournament is important. It gives them credibility and a place in the Concacaf Champions League. And that's the other piece of information that most are overlooking. The CCL is likely to gain importance as Concacaf places more emphasis and perhaps reduces the importance of Conmebol's Libertadores. Seattle is now in place to not only make important gains in the quarterfinals next year, but also have now earned a spot in the 2012/2013 edition of the CCL.

Seattle's play was emphatic of the importance of soccer in the Pacific Northwest. Sigi Shmid has built a squad from the ground up with a clear attacking style, young designated players, and a way to make their crowd, their 12th man count. Ultimately, that's one of this team's strongest points. Their attendance numbers carry the league and are reminiscent of European squads. No empty seats. Just screaming fans urging for their Montero and Neagle and Alonso to score. And it showed tonight. Seattle's strike in the 95th minute came about as a great pass to a streaking Alonso. He evaded one, two, three players, a goalkeeper and struck it home like a Donovan or a Messi would do.

Well done, Seattle Sounders. The Open Cup is your cup and your dynasty.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Ecuador's 2014 qualification campaign in the absence of Brazil

Photo credit: Yahoo Sport

How does a field of 10 teams qualifying to the 2014 react when the number is reduced to 9. Back in the day when groups were the norm it was easy. Five and four per group. Top two qualify from each. However, those were World Cups with only 24 teams. Now there are 32 and the South American qualifiers are 4 + 1 an interconference play-in. Brazil is the host for 2014 and yet the field of Conmebol teams is not reduced. This raises the possibility that teams such as Ecuador may have a better chance in qualifying.

Things have changed in South America, however. This past summer's Copa America showed us that Venezuela can beat Chile and that Argentina can be defeated at home. The rise (and confirmation) of Uruguay as a world class team also changes the landscape.

At one point, having Brazil in the preliminaries meant your mid-table team could do without 6 points and that claiming 1 or 3 out of it put you ahead of the competition. How does the math change? More level ground? These days, your jersey color is no longer an appropriate measure of greatness. There should not be "winnable" or "unwinnable" matches.

Where does Ecuador fit in all of this? Right now, they are a bit of an underdog and this is a good thing. They were an underdog when qualifiers for 2002 got underway. Winning at home versus Venezuela was a necessary first step. Impressing against Brazil and Paraguay was another. And yet, the other key component of that squad, and even of the 2006 squad, was that most players in the team were part of the local league. This meant more cohesiveness, familiarity and teamwork.

The above was especially true for the defense. Reasco, Hurtado, de la Cruz, Espinoza were all more or less within the same city until after 2002. The midfield also was somewhat local with Obregon and Mendez playing for the same team. Today, the midfield is as it was for the 2010 qualifiers: scattered. The forwards are different, they are mostly based in Mexico.

The local defense (except for Walter Ayovi) will be an important weapon that can also serve as a double-edged sword. The players called up for Friday's game in Quito has individuals with less than 15 caps. How will they react to the rigors of international play? If they stay true to their roots from 2002 and 2006, it will be about intimidation and physicality to keep the Atahualpa intact and without losses. Home field advantage will be key and defenders need to keep this in mind.

The midfield will need to project their considerable international experience to control the ball and disrupt the opposing team's game plan. Valencia will need to act like he's playing for Manchester United. Noboa and Montero will have to show why they play in Europe. Mendez and Castillo will need to provide the steadiness of experience.

For the forwards it's a different tale altogether. There is no more Agustin Delgado. No more Ivan Kaviedes. No more Carlos Tenorio. No Caicedo, at least for the first match. Christian Benitez is our go-to striker and he will need to be fed well by whomever accompanies him. Perhaps a withdrawn forward formation will work best to take advantage of Valencia and Montero's runs along the flanks. Joffre Guerron is an intriguing posibility but so is Arroyo (also capable of midfield work) and Jamie Ayovi (speed). I have yet to see Suarez in action.

It' a simple plan. Use the crowd. Use the local players. Protect your house and enjoy the game. That's why we are your fans.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Altidore, reset and rekindled

Photo credit: twitter feed

It wasn't long ago that New York area fans watched with optimism as their teenage sensation, Jozy Altidore, scored his first goal for the Red Bulls against Columbus after just weeks since playing his first match for the team. The future looked bright and their young star was ready for the stage. He scored in the playoffs in 2006 and continued to be a stalwart for the Red Bulls until 2008, amassing 15 goals in 37 league games.

Altidore not only looked good in MLS action. He also excelled on the international stage. He broke through to the national team in February 2008 when he scored against bitter-rivals Mexico in a friendly match. After that, Altidore would be a permanent fixture in the forward rotation for the Stars and Stripes.

Success internationally also brought him a lucrative contract with Spanish giants Villarreal. His transfer was the most expensive in MLS history at $10 million. But he was low in the pecking order with the "Yellow Submarine" and only managed 1 goal in 6 appearances in his first semester with the Spanish team. A crippling loan to Xerez of the Segunda Division gave him no playing time during the winter-spring of 2009. But he did score with the national team--including a hat trick in World Cup Qualifying.

Things seemed to change overnight for Jozy when he scored against Spain at the Confederations Cup. He also forged a formidable striking force with Charlie Davies. This gave him another loan opportunity with Hull City. He scored for the English Premier League team once in Cup competition and once in league action. But his sparse scoring and diminished playing time took its toll on the youngster. He entered the 2010 World Cup with a degree of trepidation and many fans and soccer media started to think of him as another failed young star.

But let's give credit to what he did do at the World Cup: his header-pass to Michael Bradley against Slovenia meant the score was tied and a vital point was given for the United States. His low center pass to Dempsey at the end of the game against Algeria eventually led to Landon Donovan's iconic goal in stoppage time.

Jozy returned to Villarreal and began to score for them in Cup competition. He enjoyed a few games in the Europa League but it was clear that he was too far down in the pecking order to be a starter. Another loan--this time to Turkish side Bursaspor--changed his surroundings and gave him more playing time. He only scored for them once, however.

Altidore returned to the national team during this past summer's Concacaf Gold Cup and scored twice before going down with an injury. It was the Jozy of old and it looked like we had him back. Soon after, it became known that he was joining AZ Alkmaar of the Dutch Eridivisie on an actual transfer.

AZ was what Altidore needed. He scored as a substitute in his first league match and scored twice more in league action. More importantly, he scored 4 goals in 4 games in Europa League play, helping his team advance to the group stage. That's 7 goals in just two months. Our prodigal striker is back.

Josmer Volmy Altidore is a different kind of player. He's a tall, fast striker that can hold the ball and can use his significant physical attributes to control his game. He may have joined the wrong team at the wrong time when he became a Villarreal player. Lack of playing time at just 18 is difficult to shake. A depletion in talent at the forward position for the United States also didn't aid in helping him regain confidence, as most of the pressure was on him to produce.

It was a series of unfortunate events in his soccer life that spurred Jozy's intermittent development. For Adu, young stardom came at a price. For Altidore, learning from past mistakes enabled him to overcome obstacles. And yet he still struggled abroad. But by continuing his play for the US national team and by finding an environment suitable for his skills, the 21-year old has finally found his place. Here's to a few more years in Holland. Here's to at least two more World Cup cycles with our star striker. Here's to you, Altidore. This is why we wear your jersey to soccer games.