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Friday, June 29, 2012

Mario Balotelli and Italia's new Forza

Photo credit: Getty Images

Italy has a new force in their team: he's fast, he's outspoken, he has a superb nose for goal, he got them to the Euro 2012 final. Yes, Mario Balotelli made the difference today with two superb goals against the heavily-favored German national team. No Ozil, Mario Gomez, Schweinsteiger, Khedira or Muller at the final this time.

For too long, Italy has been the face of antifutbol: all defense, low scoring, dirty plays, and tough to watch. Enter Prandelli and suddenly this team flows. Andrea Prilo is free to roam, Montolivo can create plays, Cassano drifts forward and Balotelli, well, he is Balotelli. 

We have seen a true revolution in the Italian national team, one that resembles Germany's shift while under Joachim Loew, or Spain under Luis Aragones. The Italians have slowly imposed their new style and speed upon their comptition in a slow, constant, naturally Italian manner. It was still low scoring, but scoring when and where it counts.

Like any true aspiring champion, Italy saved its best for the semifinal and against a team that knows how to attack and muscle their way to win matches. Germany has its own flavor and formula for winning: Boateng-Ozil-Gomez, and variations thereof, but when their attack is neutralized by Bonucci, Berzagli, Chiellini and Balzaretti, and goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, then their game is gone. It is the best of Italy.

And yet, added to all the antifutbol qualities that may still exist and are inherent in the Italian game, one thing is for sure: Mario Balotelli. Perfect header for the first goal and a Romario-esque cannon blast that Neuer didn't even try to save for the second goal. That's what Italy needed and what has been missing from this team in the past. A new way to the goal, a different perspective, a faster outlook, a means to allow Pirlo and Montolivo to create beautiful soccer. Forza Italia, their final against Spain will be fun to watch.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Fight: Timbers earn first win vs Sounders in MLS play

Photo credit: AP

What a game. The Portland Timbers started the match early versus the Sounders at Jeld-Wen Field with a Kris Boyd goal in the 15th minute. Horst would double the score a few minutes later. Seattle's Eddie Johnson rounded out the score at 2-1 in the second half. It was a different kind of MLS game: honor, rivalry, and plenty of fighting.

This was the Cascadia Clasico, of course, one that dates back several decades to the age of the NASL. The on field rivalry plays off the natural competitiveness of the two cities in the Pacific Northwest. Seattle is the more established, cosmopolitan place while Portland is an alternative, and proudly sustainable city. And this carries on to the teams: the Sounders play at CenturyLink Field, an NFL venue with all the commodities, while Jeld-Wen is solely a soccer field with a distinct "made in Portland" attitude.

On the pitch tonight were two squads in dire need of a win. Seattle had been winless in 6 matches, while the Timbers were cellar dwellers in the West. John Spencer, Timbers' coach, has been rumored to be in danger of losing his position. Whether or not this is true, the Scotsman needs to get his team out of the sophomore slump and give the Timbers Army the kind of game they are so passionate about.

And yes, Portland delivered. Boyd knew what was at stake, being a son of the Old Firm rivalry between Celtic and Rangers in Glasgow. Nagbe, Al-Hassan, Jewsbury, Chara and Futty remembered last year's loss at home and were looking to avenge it. Along with Palmer and Perkins, however, Jewsbury let the emotions get to him, and Freddy Montero, a proud Sounder, responded with unsportsmanlike conduct. Two red cards and a yellow card. But hey, that's what these games are about.

The fact that ESPN chose to air this match immediately after the England - Italy Euro game was brilliant, as it captured a different audience and showed the rest of Americans and the world how seriously the game is taken in the Pacific Northwest. Full stadium, Timber Joey, the Timbers Army, and the whole of Rose City watched their team win while singing proudly "When I root I root for the Timbers!"

Sunday, June 24, 2012

MLS Attendance Statistics 2012 Week 15

After a long stretch of international games, qualifiers and a small break for the Euro, MLS got back into full action last week. Thus, it is time to look at statistics once more. New England, DC, and New York continue to struggle. The latter, although the average number of seats filled approaches 16,000, the relative value is 63%, making Red Bull Arena look empty.

Montreal's recent opening of Stade Saputo, its permanent home base, would suggest strong, constant attendance numbers. Instead, neither one of the first two games at the stadium have sold out the 20341 available spots. This weekend's match, for example, drew in only 12,357. Blame the Euro perhaps, but other locales had close to capacity from Philadelphia to Salt Lake City. 

To illustrate the reason why averages may be much higher than any given match, the Eastern Conference mean vs median is presented in this scatter plot. Clearly, Montreal has a median closer to its stadium capacity, while New York has a higher mean stemming from a couple of sold out games.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Goal-line referees not enough for Ukraine

Photo credit: Sky.com

It has been widely accepted by fans, players, coaches, owners, leagues that some form of technology should be implemented to make the game of soccer more just. In 2010, at the World Cup, unfairness reared its unpleasant face when Frank Lampard's strike versus Germany was ruled not to be a goal when the ball is clearly shown to have crossed the line. For Euro 2012, UEFA made things a bit clearer by adding two additional referees at each goal. It was hoped that they could see actions unnoticed by the other officials.

Alas, the goal-line referees weren't enough either. In yesterday's match for the final game of group play between Ukraine and England, Marko Devic's strike past Joe Hart was cleared off the goal line by John Terry. So England fans hoped, and so saw the goal-line ref. But video playback shows that Terry clears the ball after it has completely crossed the line. In essence: goal.

So what now? FIFA has been looking into two different types of goal-line technology to circumvent the kind of situation mentioned above. One uses camera-based technology (Hawk-Eye) while the other (GoalRef) utilizes magnetic sensors to track the ball's path. A decision is set for July 5th and Sepp Blatter himself has said he will not go into Brazil 2014 without goal-line tech.

But why has it taken this long? Why do we have to ask this question? Michel Platini's argument that a goal-line referee would perform the same action is clearly flawed after yesterday's events, but it points to the old guard's elusiveness when it comes to amending the laws of the game.

Some of the American argument for why the game isn't as popular in this country is the lack of playback or assisting technology that is so prevalent in the National Football League. Maybe soccer could take on some American football rules for a change: how about a challenge allowed per team per half? You already have 3-4 minutes of stoppage time in average, so why not add another minute? Purity should give way to fairness in this world we live in. Nowadays everyone can look at the same angle whether on a TV screen, computer or smartphone. Suddenly we are all smarter than the referees. Why can't they use the same technology to upgrade their capabilities also?

Friday, June 15, 2012

Pure Magic: Torres and Spain at Euro 2012

Photo credit: UEFA

When Spain fielded a 6 man midfield (4-6-0) formation against Italy in the opening day of Euro 2012 Group C most of us asked ourselves: What happened to the best attacking team in the world? How come Cesc Fabregas, an attacking midfielder, was playing the lone "forward" role? Italy, it seems, answered for us by scoring the first goal in that match. Fabregas himself would tie it up a few minutes later. And then it all changed when Del Bosque inserted Fernando Torres for Fabregas. Suddenly, the forward third moved faster, cleaner and more dangerously.

On match day two, Del Bosque decided to start Torres as the lone striker in front of a pentagonal midfield that has Silva, Iniesta and Xavi as attacking options and Busquets and Xabi Alonso as box-to-box players. Scarcely 4 minutes had passed in the game versus Ireland when the Fernando Torres that we all knew and loved from 4 years ago came back with a stunning goal. A steal first, a quick self pass and a no-look, not-thinking strike that inflated the net behind Shae Given.

Spain coasted through the first half and they could have had 2 or 3 more goals. Instead, it was 1-0 at halftime and Ireland remained within striking distance. David Silva would silence the Irish crowd, however, with a well-placed slow-roller through 4 different players that only the best players can conjure. And then it came again, a ball lofted over O'Shea that Torres pounced on like a Serengeti predator. He raced with it until he met Given and went for a "puntazo" with his shot. Goal. Spain 3-0.

Not to be left behind, Cesc Fabregas had only one chance and took it, and from a difficult angle too. His muted celebration said it all: I can score just as much as Torres. And so this is where Spain is now, Torres or Fabregas, or perhaps even Pedro. But clearly, a pure forward allows the Spaniards to keep the ball better and to be far more dangerous in the opposing squad's half.

The numbers in the game said it all: 750 completed passes late in the second half, the most since 1980. The Spaniards have added something different to the world's game, a beautiful style without the need for samba or Messi, a possession-based game that is easy on the eyes, a happiness to every play that has been missing since 1986. This is, perhaps, the best national team ever, for if you were to put Brazil 1970 alongside it, the sheer completeness of this team would stand out. 

And if the Spanish are to fall in Euro 2012 then there is only one way to do it: score early, score in bunches and keep the ball away. Italy succeeded, partially, but the match didn't have a finality of the latter stages in a tournament. At this time, however, only one team has the arguments to strip away the Euro champions of their reign: Germany. And what a final that would be.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Suckerpunch: USA escapes with point from Guatemala

Photo credit: Getty Images

Guatemala tied the US today in the second game of World Cup Qualifying in a game that could and should have gotten the United States the full 3 points for a win. To start, let's face it, not many of us were able to watch the show because it was on a pay-per-view and not feasible in this economy. Still, we find ways to watch our favorite team. Unfortunately, that translated into only the last 23 minutes for the futbolusa.net desk.

From a "fashionably late" entry, the match seemed pretty good and all about defense and snatching away a second goal. For all the forays by Bradley and Jones, the Guatemalans seemed to slide into every pass. The Chapines blocked the middle with accuracy and most of Donovan's passes were undone. For the last 20 minutes, at least, there wasn't much of an areal attack, something that should have been exploited in this match.

The defense looked pretty stout most of those last twenty minutes, and it is precisely this that caused Guatemala's tying goal. For all of Fabian Johnson's attributes and the general clamor he was getting by fans and media alike, his ultimate delivery was unfortunate: a badly timed tackle outside the area in a prime free kick position. Marco Pappa usually nets these for the Chicago Fire and today it went past the USA wall and a frozen Tim Howard. In retrospect, Timmy might have gotten to that one on another night.

Winning away from home is difficult for any team, regardless of the pedigree and regardless of the circumstances. Today's tie feels more like a loss because the United States was more than Guatemala for most of the match. They had the better chances, the better numbers, the best possession and generally looked more composed. 

Playing for points in Jamaica looks more difficult than Guatemala at this point, as was shown in the Reggae Boys' win over the Chapines. Still, Jamaica managed only a tie away to Antigua and Barbuda, so if the US can snatch a point in Kingston, then the final three games will have Team USA in a better position. Guatemala will get two looks at the minnows of the group, Antigua and Barbuda, so they could conceivably be up to 7 points by match day 5. The key will be to win both home games by large scores and to snatch a win at A&B at the very least. So, even if they lose in Jamaica, a magic number of 13 might do the trick.

Player ratings:
F. Johnson............4.5

Subs: Altidore (6), Cameron (6.5), Beckermann (N/A)

Monday, June 11, 2012

Points at home: Ecuador - Colombia

World Cup Qualifying is all about points. It doesn't matter how you get them, be it by a high score or a 1-0. It's also important to win, always win, at home. Ecuador continued with this in today's match versus Colombia in Quito as "Chucho" Benitez's header gave the home side the win. 

Maintaining a flawless record at home can be nearly impossible even for teams like Brazil and Argentina. With a marathon of 18 games that are spread over a 2.5 year period it's easy to let 2 to 4 points go at home through ties. This, however, is the major and most fundamental difference: these points should be recovered in away matches. It's also key to not lose at home, for regaining 3 away points is much more difficult.

Such was the task for Ecuador in 2010 qualifying: win away from home to recover 10 points lost at home.The losses were to Venezuela and Uruguay and the ties against Colombia, Brazil and Paraguay. During the qualification process for 2006 Ecuador did not lose a single match at home, thus helping them get the necessary points to advance to that tournament.

The other key issue with winning at home is the direct rivals. Colombia is one of three at the moment, along with Chile and Venezuela due to points and projected status. Peru and Bolivia are having a difficult time at the moment, as is Paraguay. Argentina and Uruguay are almost a given to qualify due to recent results and history. So the fact that all 3 points were retained from Colombia means that Ecuador has the chance to take away points in Bogota when the return leg takes place next year.

Securing points at home against Chile is a top priority at the moment, although wins versus Uruguay and/or Argentina will also help the chances. In the past, wins against Argentina and Brazil at home were seen as pathways to the World Cup. These days these results are more achievable and, in fact, are key in augmenting point status.

Aside from all the points talk here is the fact that playing in front of their countrymen is the ultimate satisfaction for a player. Antonio Valencia of Manchester United thanked the team and the stadium and the country after the win. He may be a world class player but he will never forget what it's like to play at home. All in attendance are united in one chant "Ecuador, Ecuador, Ecuador." This is difficult in America but commonplace elsewhere and it should be treasured. How nice is it when a full stadium erupts for a team's goal? That's how it felt when Benitez scored against Colombia: a massive GOOOOLLL from the stands of the Atahualpa to the Melecon 2000 in Guayaquil and all around the world where Ecuadorians reside. Well done.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

First step: US vs Antigua and Barbuda

 Photo credit: Getty Images

We had wished for at least 3 goals in favor. And we got it. Today, the US Men's soccer national team had an underwhelming performance against the national team from the Caribbean islands of Antigua and Barbuda. It was a 3-1 win, yes, but it could and should have been much more. Instead, after Herculez Gomez sealer, team USA was left scrambling and overly cautious of a side made up of mainly USL (3rd tier) players.

What was unsettling today was mostly the sloppy plays by Maurice Edu, Steve Cherundolo and Oguchi Onyewu. Edu is surprisingly nowhere near his level with the Glasgow Rangers. Meanwhile, Cherundolo was being overlapped and outrun in another glaring display of talent misrepresentation. This is because Steve has been a de facto right back for the United States for many years and has done so stunningly, at points, and thankfully unnoticed at others. Tonight, his diminished pace was clear and his passes were intercepted more than once.

For Onyewu things are different. "Gooch" is nowhere near the dominant center back that signed with AC Milan in 2009. A patella tendon tear in the final 2010 World Cup qualifier derailed his progress as a player and he never quite recovered for the international level. This has been the scenario starting with the World Cup in games against England and Slovenia, and most recently against Brazil and tonight's match. His athleticism and desire are unquestionably there and he remains successful at the European club level in Portugal, but his place as a starter for the United States is no longer a lock.

Aside from some of the negatives, there were a lot of positives: Donovan and Dempsey hooked up and created chances, even if they did not come to fruition, Gomez continued his scoring ways, there was good possession and Bradley and Jones continued to forge their box-to-box roles. We have to hand it to the AB defense and the goalkeeper because there was more than one goal-line clearance and over a dozen corner kicks.

The main questions remain: Who starts at left back versus Guatemala if Johnson is not available? Does Edu and/or Onyewu continue as starter? Will the attack produce goals in a 4-4-2 formation? This next game is perhaps the most important because it lets us know just how well the team can do away from home and earn points to advance to the next phase of the qualifiers. They won at Panama and Italy under Klinsmann, can they repeat the feat in a meaningful match?

Player ratings:


Subs: Onyewu (3), Boyd (N/A), Altidore (N/A)

Monday, June 4, 2012

No goals: USA ties Canada in friendly

Photo credit: The Canadian Press

It was a friendly affair tonight at Toronto's BMO Field as the US national team tied 0-0 versus Canada. Few opportunities from either side and no real forwards making plays. From an American perspective this is both troubling and perplexing. Against Scotland, Klinsmann launched an all-out attack with a 4-3-3 formation devoid of Dempsey but with highly effective results: 5-1. Against Brazil this formula also worked and yielded the lone goal in a 1-4 loss but could have gotten a couple more if it weren't for the Brazilian defense.

Tonight Klinsmann reverted to Bob Bradley's flat 4-4-2. A useful and sometimes powerful approach that can undermine the opposing squad's attack and can set up great play along the flanks to have 2 players in dangerous situations at all times. However, this only works if the flanks are mobile and overlapping. This did not happen with the US today.

In previous matches a 4-1-2-2-1 formation, with Maurice Edu as a sweeper-like defensive midfielder, allowed Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley to overlap in and out of the attack and maintained 3 players forward: Torres/Dempsey, Donovan, Boyd/Gomez. Tonight Jones and Bradley were static and unable to provide dangerous passes or to create spaces for Gomez and Dempsey while Donovan and Torres were double-marked into silence.

It's always great to see changes in lineups and formations, but it's even better when one notices them on the pitch as the play is happening. This did not occur today until Klinsmann made the changes for Torres and Edu and reset the delta in the midfield. Although Brazil took advantage of 5 players going forward, the game was more enjoyable and gave the US the opportunity to do something special. It could also come down to the absence of a Fabian Johnson, a Danny Williams, a Timmy Chandler or even a Freddy Adu. 

Player ratings:

Subs: Onyewu (5), Edu (6.5), Altidore (N/A), Parkhurst (N/A), Wondolowski (N/A)