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Friday, November 30, 2012

An Idol Rekindled: Barcelona SC Campeon de Ecuador

Photo credit: EFE

It has been 14 years since Barcelona Sporting Club, the marquee team from Guayaquil, Ecuador, last won the league. Fourteen years of struggle, bad coaching, political in-fighting, and fan disappointment. But it all ended yesterday when they were crowned champions of Ecuador, unleashing celebrations all over the country.

Barcelona had come to be dominated in recent years by the other big clubs in the country, such as LDU Quito and arch-rivals Emelec. Since 2011, however, the ownership by businessman Antonio Noboa and management by Zubielda, who built the team, and Gustavo Costas, who brought out the best in players like new-comer Narciso Mina, forged a unique understanding with the players that transcended to results on the pitch. 

Let's not forget that Barcelona SC is quite a popular club even though it has seen an extensive trophy-less stretch. They average 25,000 fans for home games and 15,000 for away games. No easy feat in any country. The "Toreros," as they are called, have seen their share of scrutiny and, at times, downright dislike by the national soccer media and the upper echelons of Ecuador soccer officials. There is a certain "Quito tilt" to soccer coverage in the country and the club has been able to break that barrier with this win.

As a child, I grew up watching this team week in and week out since most of my family were big fans of the squad. I, however, preferred certain other teams, for which I was often scolded. The derby matches I attended, the great "Clasico del Astillero," always fulfilled in its display of passion on and off the field. As fate would have it, my team almost always won, but I was happy to attend the Estadio Monumental in all its glory and watch the waves of yellow run up and down the general attendance stands. I admit that, deep down, I still hurt from Barcelona's win over Emelec in the 1989 Libertadores. So every time my team wins it is simply another attempt to make up for that loss--until they meet again in continental play.

In the end, I am happy for friends and family that have seen their dream come true, have cried with goals of glory, taken to the streets to celebrate, painted 9 de Octubre yellow and shown the country once and for all who really is the idol: Barcelona.

I dedicate this post to the great Mauro Velasquez Villacis and Javier Velasquez Villacis. I would like to thank the latter for his guidance in writing this piece and the former for inspiration in being a soccer fan.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Beckham Experiment Worked

Photo credit: AP

During the winter of 2007, the soccer world was shocked when it was announced that David Beckham would be joining Major League Soccer later that year. Although there had been hints of this eventually occurring near the twilight of Beckham's career, the sudden shift towards one of the up-and-coming markets in the world was nonetheless astounding. At just 31, Beckham remained in his prime to help the league get to new levels.

The English midfielder joined the LA Galaxy later in the summer, after a buzz was created around the league and the country. Even CNN had him on their front page when he announced his move. And Victoria Beckham (the Spice Girl) made a reality show about moving to America. The glam was here to stay.

On the pitch, things were different. Becks was plagued with injuries early on in his first games for the Galaxy, and would not show up at some of the games. This was besides the fact that every single MLS stadium was full for every Galaxy game, and most Galaxy games had been moved to the end of the season to maximize on the hype.

But did Beckham really change the league and the sport in the US? Yes, definitely. First, a new type of player was added to the choices for MLS teams. The Beckham rule, it was called, and it meant that teams were allowed to have one player beyond the MLS salary cap. Enter Cuautemoc Blanco for Chicago, Denilson for Dallas, Juan Pablo Angel for New York. Just like that, stars in their prime were coming to MLS.

But besides the influx in world talent, the MLS brand became international and, more importantly, Americans turned to the sport once more. And this happened at the right time because new cities started to sign up to be MLS hosts. Enter Toronto FC, the first Canadian team in MLS and a first in the world, then followed the return of the San Jose Earthquakes. Next came additions to Seattle and Philadelphia, which had pursued a franchise for a long time. Finally, the Pacific Northwest entered the picture with Portland and Vancouver, and eventually Montreal. 

With the new teams came a new type of audience. They were there to see the players but they were also there to enjoy the sport. Seattle and Portland have yet to have a non-sellout in their brief history. Player academies started popping up, encouraging young talent that eventually led to a successful Gold Cup 2007, Confederations Cup 2009, and World Cup 2010. It also led to players such as Altidore, Stuart Holden, Sacha Kljestan, Eddie Johnson to jump to European teams.

But are these developments really due to Beckham. Partially, yes. The influx of media coverage, attention, sponsors, expansion money, allowed for the erection of new stadiums in major markets such as New York, as well as classic MLS teams like Houston, Kansas City, Colorado and mid-decade expansion team Salt Lake. Suddenly, new stadiums were full and money could be diverted to further player development, expansion of the DP field, and increased marketing.

Finally, let's remember that new web pages were added to the soccer internet traffic, including this very blog, and others like the now-defunct mls-rumors.net, and increased attention to professional blogs like Ives Galarcep's soccerbyives.net, Steve Goff's Washington Post page, among others.

So, did the Beckham experiment work? Yes, but it depends on how you define it. Bigger league, bigger names, better players such as Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez, new venues, international attention, increases in player pool for the national team. And goals from Becks' signature free kick. Who doesn't like that?

So now, with word that Beckham will play his last LA Galaxy game in next month's MLS Cup final versus Houston, the league is ready to jump onto better things. Beckham is no longer necessary to fill stadiums, nor is his name a per-requisite for television coverage. The league is here to stay and with new rivalries that will keep the sport going for decades to come. So, thank you, David, for helping to grow our league and the sport in the United States.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Bradley, a general, and USA ties in Russia

Photo credit: ESPN

There were several subplots in yesterday's international friendly between the USA and Russia in Krasnodar: Josh Gatt and Joe Gyau were new call-ups, Altidore was returning, an army of youngsters headlined the team, and Timmy Chandler had another chance. In the end, the most important part of Team USA was Michael Bradley and he was instrumental in earning the US a 2-2 tie versus the Russians.

Starting from the back, Tim Howard was superb and once more showed why he's one of the top 10 goalkeepers in the world. The score could easily have ended up 5 or 6 to 2 in favor of the Russians. Pure instinct in positioning and impeccable reflexes mixed with great communication saved Team USA time and time again, especially early in the second half in a scene reminiscent of the Americans' win at the Azteca. Without Timmy, this team would struggle.

The defense was supposed to be closer to the ultimate starting group: Chandler was back and ready to take up the right back spot, Johnson was healthy and the left back position is his, Cameron has continued his rise at center back and paired up well with Bocanegra. The aging Boca, however, saw his game end early with an injury. Clarence Goodson, the next best player, came in. Goodson didn't have a good night, however, including the penalty he was forced to concede. Johnson was exposed several times tonight and Chandler didn't show the flair displayed in earlier matches with the USA.

At midfield things were a bit different, and perhaps confused. Three defensive midfielders were trotted out by Klinsmann: Danny Williams, Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley. At times, the three stumbled in figuring out who had which man and who was supposed to attack. Jones was very active in the attack, however, and led to important crosses. Williams had a less stellar night and a mistouch allowed Russia's opening goal.

The 4-3-3 formation had Herculez Gomez and Josh Gatt on the outside and Jozy Altidore as the center forward. Jozy did much better in this game than in recent qualifiers, a cause for him missing out on the final two games in the tournament. He still had some moments of absence and showed trepidation when controlling the ball, perhaps due to his recent form with the national team. 

The brightest new start today was surely newcomer Josh Gatt. A member of Norway's champions, Molde, Gatt has been showing excellent speed and talent in the Tippeligaen. This was enough for Klinsmann to call him up to qualifiers, although he was injured, and ultimately to this game. Gatt showed his speed, but more importantly, he showed that he has passion for the game and an understanding of his position on the pitch. 

As happens in many friendlies, substitutes tend to be difference-makers. Such was the case with Agudelo and Diskerud. Juan Agudelo's headed back pass to Michael Bradley allowed the Roma man to unleash a superb shot that defeated the Russian goalkeeper and tied the score at 1-1. Diskerud would go on to tie the game at 2-2 in stoppage time in similar fashion to Bradley's goal, with Terrence Boyd as the provider.

Michael Bradley controlled this match. When the score was down 0-1 he managed the midfield and stopped the Russian attack. When he needed to come forward, he did so, and it always turned into a dangerous situation. He scored the equalizer in a dramatic, world class manner, from outside the area. He also set up the second goal with a well-placed long ball to Terrence Boyd. As Alexi Lalas argued, it was his economy at positioning that set him apart. Dempsey may be the offensive key for the United States at the moment, but Bradley is undoubtedly the engine at midfield and a general on the field.

Player Ratings:
J. Jones............6
D. Williams.......4.5

Subs: Diskerud (7), Agudelo (7), Edu (5.5), Kljestan (6), Boyd (6), Goodson (4)