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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Speed Bump: USA loses to Brazil

Photo credit: Washington Post

Juergen Klinsmann's impressive 5 game unbeaten streak with the US national team had to end at some point. Tonight it happened against one of the world's best teams: Brazil by 1-4. And it happened because of questionable refereeing and having to chase a 0-2 scoreboard against the always-dangerous Brazilian attack.

As the US coach would assert, there were plenty of positives in tonight's unfortunate romp at FedEx Field: great attacking from the flanks, good offensive posture, great goalkeeping, and having Dempsey and Donovan on the pitch. It was a good night for Herculez Gomez, sort of, since he scored on the 5-time world champions. It was the dating runs made by Fabian Johnson that provided the assist for the goal and that could have accounted for a second.

Dempsey still has some rust to shake off and perhaps he should not have been used in the match and perhaps should be rested until Guatemala, the most important match of the summer stretch. The offense clicked well with Torres and Donovan--when the US No. 10 wasn't being double marked--, as well as Bradley and Jones. Terrence Boyd nearly got his first international goal if it hadn't been for a sprawling Rafael.

The back line, sorely untested against Scotland, left many questions by the center two: Bocanegra and Onyewu. Indeed, Onyewu's positioning cost the team Brazil's fourth goal, while the second was an unfortunate handball. Bocanegra had a difficult time controlling the ball and building plays from the back. One wonders if the Confederations Cup Centerback duo will ever be a viable option again. There are plenty of capable centerbacks in the pipeline: Goodson, Ream, Parkhurst, Cameron. Perhaps Bocanegra may continue on for a couple of more years but Onyewu's stock at this level is swiftly falling. 

The wings had their own aging aches as Cherundolo was constantly forced to chase Neymar's shadows and his frustration translated into scuffles with Marcelo. The same can't be said about Fabian Johnson, who manned the often-troubled left back position with flair in attack and temperance in defense. At last, it seems, the left back position might have a winner.

Up next for the US is a familiar foe: Canada. The Americans defeated Canada 2-0 in last year's Confederations Cup in Detroit. This time the game will be played at Toronto's BMO Field. It is a fitting end to the "friendly" portion of the mini summer tournament dished out by Klinsmann: a Concacaf rival in an away game. This is the key to getting to the World Cup and our national team coach knows this road well.

Player ratings:
F. Johnson................7.5
J. Jones....................6
H. Gomez................7

Subs: Boyd (6), Dempsey (6), Parkhurst (N/A), Castillo (N/A), Beckermann (N/A)

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Portland Timbers vs Vancouver Whitecaps: The live experience

The Cascadia Cup sets the stage for a magical mini tournament in the best soccer region in North America: The Pacific Northwest. The teams are the Portland Timbers, Vancouver Whitecaps and Seattle Sounders, and the best attendance records in the league. The FutbolUSA desk was granted the opportunity to watch the match at Jeld-Wen field and the teams did not disappoint. True, as local Timbers followers, the 1-1 final score wasn't the best. But it was the experience that counted.

Today the skies were clear to begin the match and the pitch was a deep, bright green that some in our company thought was artificial grass. Nope, the real thing. The crowds of the Northwest are exemplified by the boisterous Timbers Army and the small band of Vancouver followers. The ride on the MAX was full of chants from supporters of both clubs. The General Attendance sector--Timbers Army territory--never quieted down, relented or were subdued by the weather or Vancouver's tying goal.

John Spencer was quoted as saying his team had played some of the best football this season, and the Scott is correct. It was a fast-paced game and very vertical at times with overlaps between Alexander, Chara, Alhassan and Nagbe. The goal was a justification of 13 shots on frame, and as the ball went in we all cheered in unison. Among our company were first-time spectators of the sport, and they yelled along with the rest of us for uncalled penalties, opening goals and the disillusionment of the opposing side's score.

The Portland Timbers have a long way to go this season if they aim to make the playoffs. Last year they were close due to impeccable home form. They have lost a couple here and it hurts more when they are unable to earn wins away. The Nagbe-Boyd tandem works great and the verticality and passing is also there. A couple of missing pieces in the back line due to injury and suspension derailed what could have been another 3 points in a 4-game unbeaten streak. Let's stress the unbeaten... they have to win, not tie if they want to make it far in the tournament. Until then and beyond them we shall keep on cheering and singing along "when I root I root for the Timbers!"

Saturday, May 26, 2012

MLS Attendance Statistics 2012 Week 11

Recent trends in the attendance numbers show some gain in New England, Columbus and DC. The biggest markets, however, still lag far behind the Pacific Northwest, newer league teams and recently opened stadiums. Here we speak of LA and New York. LA has been stagnant mainly due to poor form while New York just can't seem to get their city excited about their team no matter who they hire to play. Example: midweek fixtures in New York (13919, 55%), Chicago (11,947, 60%), LA (16,512, 61%) compared against Seattle (38,311, 100%) show the discrepancy. 

It is true that these major markets have other major sports, but you don't see their numbers suffering. Not too long ago, LA sold out every match, regardless of how full the Staples Center was. It comes down to the product on the pitch (LA, Chicago) and, well, the New York fickle crowd. Is a second team in the city necessary? Would it make a difference? Only time will tell.

The numbers:

Team Average Relative Median
DC 13548 70 13619
KC 19017 103 19777
NE 11598 58 12112
CLB 12658 62 11516
TOR 19022 83 18944
CHI 13730 69 13852
NYRB 15823 63 15517
PHI 18437 100 18526
HOU 22039 100 22039
MON 36498 179 23120
LA 22242 82 22143
CHV 13856 74 14296
DAL 13178 64 11953
SJ 11668 111 10256
COL 14660 81 14756
RSL 18344 92 17924
SEA 38587 100 38380
POR 20438 100 20438
VAN 19012 91 19333

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Drogba, Magical and Chelsea win the Champions League

Photo credit: The Sun
The heavens are blue. Chelsea blue. The English team's first ever win of the UEFA Champions League was achieved through defense, magical moments and the right players. This is how they beat Bayern Munich today. For Munich, their run to the final in their home stadium was written in the stars when they defeated Real Madrid via penalties at the Bernabeu. But today it wasn't their time, their game, or their title. 

The sheer drive of Chelsea, a team working as a unit, and their masterful striker, Didier Drogba, eventually painted the Munich night blue. This was after the home team had had the bulk of the possession and chances throughout the match. Indeed, Munich was favored worldwide to win it all today because of their record in the tournament, their rich history and the fact that they were to play in their home stadium.

It was Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery, Thomas Muller, Jerome Boateng, Mario Gomez and company pushing harder and further up the field until the masterful header by Muller brought Bayern Munich closer to the cup in the 83rd minute. After that, Muller and Ribery were subbed off for tactical and injury reasons, and this proved fatal when Drogba scored a precise header past Neuer in the 88th.

Fate seemed to smile for Munich when a penalty was given to them when Drogba fouled Ribery in the penalty area. Robben would try to bring it home in the 95th of stoppage time as the thousands of Munich fans expectantly watched the Dutch maestro. Chelsea has another not-so-secret weapon: Petr Cech. The Czech goalkeeper is a penalty specialist and, full of confidence from the Barcelona match, he stood his ground and stopped a powerful but lazily placed shot by the Dutchman.

Extra time was a whirlwind of Munich attacks and trademark Chelsea defense. This is why Di Mateo's club was able to oust Barcelona from the cup. Sheer numbers in the back and tactical marking. It would go on to penalties and Petr Cech showed his worth once more, bringing a 1-3 deficit to a final of 4-3 by stopping Olic and Schweinsteiger.

It is fitting, perhaps, that an interim coach would win it for Chelsea. Abromovich always went for the flashy managers in Mourinho, Hiddink, and Ancelotti but they never got him the Champions League. The other time his club made the final happened when another interim coach, Avram Grant, was at the helm. Will Di Mateo stay? One can't argue with a Champions League trophy, even if the club ended in 6th place in the Premier League.

Often we are treated with true spectacles in the beautiful game and oftentimes the flashy fantasy will win over. Such was the case with Barcelona in recent Champions League finals and Spain at the 2010 World Cup. But more often than not, true teamwork and defensive poise helps a squad succeed and bring home a trophy. Sometimes poetry is written on the soccer field. Today Drogba and Cech were our poets.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Timmy Chandler Saga and Klinsmann's new crew

Photo credit: US Soccer

Many hardcore US National team fans know this dance: Timmy Chandler, German-born with an American father, eligible to play for the US, excellent outside defender and an option at midfield, plays friendlies with Team USA but does not follow through with actual FIFA competition matches. That was the story under Bob Bradley. Chandler was brought in, impressed, assumed a starting position but dropped out of the Gold Cup competition. Yesterday's announcement of the first 16 players selected by Klinsmann for upcoming friendlies and the first World Cup Qualifiers lacked one player: Timmy Chandler.

So yes, the saga continues. Is he holding back to be called by the German national team? Does he not plan to ever play for the US? Is he really that tired and deserving a break? Those were the explanations given by Klinsmann at the press conference where he announced the call-ups. The player has the last word. Klinsmann says the door will remain open but they will move on without him. Is that settled then? Was this saga worth it? Or are we making too much of this situation? Americans love drama, so we'll leave it at that.

Along with the usual suspects Dempsey, Bradley, Edu, Howard, some non-traditional inclusions include Alfredo Morales (Hertha Berlin), Edgar Castillo (Club Tijuana), and Joe Corona (Club Tijuana). Fabian Johnson and Danny Williams will be there, however, so at least part of the German connection is alive and well. As for Castillo's inclusion, it may be due to his increased playing time and performance for the Xolos. His natural left back position warrants further inspection to see his progress. The US has always lacked depth in this part of the field, and his addition along with Morales, Johnson and Williams can expand the possible scenarios.

The inclusion of Joe Corona is a welcome one, although Mixx Diskerud would have been an attractive option at midfield as well--and he may yet be called with the second round (as many as 13 additions). In any case, Corona is a different kind of midfield player, faster and stronger in the middle of the pitch and with a nose for goal. It is a good variant for the more stationary Jose Torres or more defensive players like Bradley, Beckermann and Edu.

Who would we want to see from the remaining 13? Eric Lichaj comes to mind, as does Brek Shea, Herculez Gomez, Tim Ream and maybe even Josh Gatt. Agudelo, Kenny Cooper and Wondolowski should be top targets as well. Terrence Boyd's imminent inclusion is a bit of a stretch since he's not actively a part of first team Borussia Dortmund, but Klinsmann might be seeing something interesting in this lad. Indeed, he was a bright spot in the U-23s ill-fated match versus El Salvador in Olympic qualifying.

It will be a stretch of 5 games: Scotland, Brazil and Canada as warm-ups for qualifiers against Antigua and Barbuda and Guatemala. Should be fun to see variations in lineups and tactics.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

MLS Attendance Statistics 2012 Week 10

No Premier League? No problem. Major League Soccer has plenty of action through the summer, including two or three major signings with names like Michael Ballack, Alessanro Nesta and Stephen Ireland being thrown around. On the stands things are a bit of a mix bag. While new arenas open (Houston's BBVA Compass), and recent additions shine (Livestrong Sporting Park, PPL Field), older teams and stadiums come flat: New England, DC, Dallas, Columbus. Although the latter two have their own stadiums, they continue to struggle with attendance.

League totals still remain above 2011's due to Montreal's sellouts at Olympic Stadium and the opening of Houston's new stadium. Houston happens to have settled for a downtown location for its home, something that perhaps could have been done to increase attendance in Dallas, for example. New England and DC, on the other hand, desperately need their own soccer specific fields. Seemingly weak attendance (Kansas City) has turned into sold out matches after new stadiums have been opened. 

The numbers:
Team Average Relative Median
DC 13751 71 13619
KC 19017 103 19777
NE 10394 52 11251
CLB 12658 62 11516
TOR 19022 83 18944
CHI 14087 70 14159
NYRB 16204 64 17114
PHI 18437 100 18526
HOU 22039 100 22039
MON 40529 199 41016
LA 23197 86 22696
CHV 12868 68 14127
DAL 13164 64 11702
SJ 11904 113 10364
COL 14507 80 13954
RSL 18344 92 17924
SEA 38627 100 38399
POR 20438 100 20438
VAN 18615 89 19271

Monday, May 14, 2012

Calling them stars: The 2012 Premier League Finale

Photo credit: Reuters

There was a dream in the city of Manchester that one day championships would cease being colored red and would instead shine a bright sky blue. Not since 1968 had something like this occurred, when the football club Manchester City last won the league title. It had been an interminable reign by Manchester United, a monopoly of sorts. But today, Edin Dzeko and Sergio "El Kun" Aguero delivered two sublime goals to lift the trophy for City and change the landscape of the English Premier League.

Today's finale was much more than just Manchester City's match versus Queen's Park Rangers. Indeed, there were another nine games occurring simultaneously. And unlike virtually every sport in America, the bottom dwellers always have something to play for: survival from relegation. So, as we watched Manchester City score a last minute, stoppage time goal, our thoughts--as Americans--were on Bolton Wanderers, Tim Ream and Stuart Holden. Their failure to win the game versus Stoke City saw them miss out on the necessary points to capitalize on Manchester City's win. The Trotters will now play in the Championship during the 2012-2013 season whilst QPR will remain in the top flight.

The Premier League finale wasn't without other moments of drama. A solid Manchester United had begun to celebrate yet another title under Sir Alex Ferguson when they got word of City's incredible comeback. Tied in points, a superior goal differential meant their crosstown rivals would lift the trophy instead. But there's more to play for in the Premier League. In contention are also spots in the UEFA Champions League and the Europa League. Arsenal almost missed out on third place and Tottenham secured another try at the tournament while Newcastle United would settle for the Europa League.

Manchester City is a team built from the top down with serious cash from the Abu Dhabi group. This investment included names such as Yaya Toure, Sergio Aguero, Mario Balotelli, Samr Nasri, David Silva, Edin Dzeko, Carlos Tevez, Kompany, among others. And yet Manchester City, always a classic football club, saw some serious trouble as recently as the late 90s when they were relegated two divisions down. Since then they rekindled, restructured and revolutionized play with Roberto Mancini. And yes, money did buy the players but it took talent to manage talent and time to let things come to fruition.

For us, the impartial fans of the game, today's slew of matches--all available on FOX networks and ESPN--were nothing short of a spectacular sendoff for the most thrilling season in world football: record setting number of goals, record-setting points for Manchester City, the drama of Tevez and Balotelli, the rise of players like Cisse, Welbeck and Jelavic, the revindication of Clint Dempsey, and the rise of Eric Lichaj and Tim Ream as American defenders in the best league in the world.

We held our breath today as we heard news about Bolton scoring while Manchester City was winning the game. When QPR scored all of Manchester turned red with United. When QPR scored again the sky blue started fading to night black. When Dzeko scored the equalizer hope was regained by the faithful and when Aguero found the back of the net even those that had forsaken their beloved team reset their tears from mourning to joy. The players enjoyed the game and soccer lovers thanked the athletes on the pitch for their commitment, desire, fantasy, calling them stars.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Americans in Premier League Relegation

Photo credit: Bolton Wanderers

Just 6 days away from "Survival Sunday" and things look decidedly grim for at least one team in the English Premier League that houses Americans: Bolton Wanderers. This is specifically significant because it would mean that two of our younger soccer stars would begin the next season in the second division: Tim Ream and Stuart Holden.

For Tim Ream, it has been a whirlwind couple of years. From draft pick in 2010 to a rise as a new center back option for the national team in 2011, to struggles in the latter half of last year, and finally, a transfer to the Bolton Wanderers of the Premier League. Stuart Holden, the former Houston Dynamo creative midfielder has been playing for Bolton for the past two years and was a key to their success during the 2010-2011 season. Unfortunately, he has been plagued by injuries and hasn't been able to help his team.

Another team that was in threat of relegation was Aston Villa. The Villans were almost in the bottom three until this weekend's tie versus Tottenham Hotspur gave them the point to breathe a sigh of relief. Villa is home to another great American prospect: Eric Lichaj. The young right back has been seeing consistent playing time and even scored a goal a few weeks ago. His versatility as a defender means that he can play either wing and is a good--although not natural--option at left back for the national team. Along with Danny Williams, Fabian Johnson and Timmy Chandler, Lichaj forms the nucleus of the outer defense for Klinsmann as World Cup qualification gets underway.

The final weekend of the Premier League looks to be epic at this time. Bolton will be away at Stoke City. Only a win, coupled with a Queens Park Rangers loss to Manchester City, will allow them to remain at the top flight. For QPR, the stakes are high since Manchester City will look to take all three points at home to secure the trophy. And, after watching their recent matches versus top competition, it is likely that City will win. Since Manchester United will be away to Sunderland, it is plausible that they may not get all three points. Nevertheless, nearly all teams at the top and bottom of the table will be playing for meaningful positions, be it a place in the Champions League, the Premier League title, or safety from relegation.

Good luck to everyone. This should be fun.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Special One returns with Madrid's triumph

Photo credit: Reuters

There are a few characters in life worth noting. In sports, in soccer for the purposes of this blog, this may take the form of Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi, Valencia, Clint Dempsey or Zidane. However, this is only part of the equation. The other side is the coach and there are plenty of big personalities out there when it comes to this category: the cool and calculating Franz Beckenbauer, the fiery brilliant Sir Alex Ferguson, and the antithesis of modesty: Jose Mourinho, a.k.a "the special one."

Jose was never a great player and only participated in modest clubs in the Portuguesa Liga such as Belenenses and Comercio e Industria. He first started as a translator for Sir Bobby Robson with Sporting Clube, Porto and eventually Barcelona. His full coaching career began with Benfica and Lieira, where he found modest success, although the latter attained its highest ranking in the league in club history.

Mourinho's breakthrough came while coaching Porto, which he took new heights by winning the UEFA Champions League with a win over Monaco after eliminating Manchester United, Lyon, and Deportivo La Coruna. As a side note to American fans, the win versus Manchester United came thanks to a serious gaffe by Tim Howard. After Porto came a blockbuster move to Chelsea of the English Premier League in which he earned £5.2 million. Jose won the Premier League in 2005 and 2006, as well as the League Cup in 2005 and 2007 and the FA Cup in 2007.

After continuous disagreement with the Chelsea owner, Roman Abromovich, he resigned from his post as coach in 2007, having never won the Champions League. This would change, however, when he became coach of Inter Milan in 2008. He won the Italian Serie A that same season and also in 2010. Further, in 2010 his Inter achieved the treble by winning the Serie A, Coppa Italia, and the Champions League.

His move to Real Madrid in 2010 was reminiscent of his appointment at Chelsea: a big money club in need of a trophy. Indeed, Barcelona had been champions ever since Guardiola took over as coach in 2008, so re-taking the crown was a paramount objective for the Madrid club. Mourinho still finished second in his first season (2010-2011) but won the Cup that same year. However, he injected new talent into the squad with moves for Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira, and Angel Di Maria. Thus, he effectively crowded out his midfield that already included Xabi Alonso, Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka. However, this depth would become valuable in the future.

Also in his inaugural season with the club, a meeting with Barcelona in the semifinals of the Champions League resulted in some interesting Mourinho "moments." He was critical of the referee in the first round at the Bernabeu and was suspended for the second game at the Nou Camp. Always a competitor and always outspoken, he alleged that a "conspiracy" was behind his loss to the Catalan club.

Mourinho toned it down this past season. He quietly (relatively) and steadily gained ground in the league as Barca faltered time and again. He was outspoken still, yes, but he took a far more calm approach to his job. As Bayern Munich eliminated Real Madrid from the Champions League competition last week, we could see his maturation in his frustrated yet surprisingly calm reaction to his star players, Kaka and Ronaldo, missing their respective penalties. The Special One knew that he had taken the necessary next step in his career by winning the Spanish Primera outright. Earlier that week his team had won at the Nou Camp by the score of 2-1 over Barcelona, effectively ruling the Catalans out of the crown.

The Special One isn't done yet. He knows he must achieve his goal of bringing the Champions League crown back to Madrid. He certainly has the tools for the job but his approach must be more cautious in the defense than it was against Munich. Marcelo and Sergio Ramos, in particular, stretch the back line too far through their constant forays forward. This pulls the central defenders wide and exposes the middle of the pitch for the opposing squad. Pepe's recourse in that match was to concede a penalty.

Perhaps it will be in the defensive end that Mourinho finally strikes gold for Real Madrid. One or two more acquisitions or departures might achieve this goal. He has, after all, a potent attack that spreads talent into every blade of grass on the pitch. He's a special coach that doesn't shy away from substitutions in the middle of the first half. His theme isn't a "we must win," but instead chooses another phrase: "we cannot lose." As he once put it when he was hired at Chelsea: "Please don't call me arrogant, but I'm European champion and I think I'm a special one."

Congratulations, Mr Mourinho. The soccer world wouldn't be the same without you.

And now for something funny:

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Manchester derby hype prevails

Photo credit: EPA

When a soccer match takes over the headlines of CNN.com, you know something special occurred. Today, in England's version of Monday Night Football, the Premier League match of the century took place as Manchester City's Etihad stadium hosted the Manchester United - Manchester City derby. This rivalry is as fierce as any around the world: Real Madrid - Barcelona, Celtic - Rangers, Inter - AC Milan, Emelec - Barcelona de Guayaquil, Yankees - Mets, Giants - Patriots, UNC - Duke. The game transcends time and space and everywhere in between.

The atmosphere was as exhilarating in the stands and on the pitch and all the way to each one of the 650 million video display devices around the world. Yes, that's almost 10% of the world's population watching a league match. And the reason for it, besides the considerable talent on the field, is that at the time only 3 points separated Manchester United (83 pts) and Manchester City (80 pts) with two more games to go. Anything but a win would be a huge blow for City.

The game certainly didn't disappoint. From Yaya Toure's strength in possession to Lescott's timely clearances to Kompany's game-clinching goal, Manchester City had plenty to offer. Sir Alex Ferguson offered a watered-down version of the mighty Manchester United. No Valencia, no Hernandez or Welbeck, no Ashley Young. He went with experience and defensive midfield in Paul Scholes and Ji-Sung Park. Sadly for him, for Man U's hopes, and for the millions of United fans out there, this approach did not work.

The introduction of Antonio Valencia and Danny Welbeck midway through the second half was countered by Roberto Mancini's defensive substitutions of De Jong, Milner and Micah Richards. Mancini cluttered the midfield and United looked as directionless as it had for most of the game. And although Samr Nasri and Aguero could have put the game away on multiple chances, the truth is that City had this game under control after about the 15th minute. They rarely lost the ball and, when they did, United could not muster a good shot.

All is not settled in England after this game. Indeed, it is far from it. Manchester City will need a positive result at Newcastle, a feat almost as difficult as Manchester United, and then they will need to take care of business when they host Queens Park Rangers. United, on the other hand will be hosting modest Swansea before finishing the season at Stoke City. 

From the Scholes versus Toure scuffle to the Mancini versus Ferguson war of words, this game did not hold anything back. There were plenty of "ahs" and "no's" today as well as cries and singing the Blue Moon. Even Liam Gallagher of Oasis and Diego Armando Maradona were singing a modified version of the Beatles' "Hey Jude." Instead, the chant was "nananana, nananana, City." For us neutrals it was a beautiful thing to watch City defeat United when one contemplates that someone new might win the title this season and that it will come down to, possibly, the final game of the competition. This is why we skip work on Mondays or stay up late to watch the game, because this Manchester derby was worth the hype.