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Sunday, October 28, 2012

Final 2012 Timbers game: the live experience

It was a historical day in the Rose City today. The crowd at Jeld-Wen Field saw the San Jose Earthquakes' striker Chris Wondolowski tie for the most goals scored during regular season (27), a record set by Roy Lassiter during the inaugural MLS season back in 1996. The goal came from a soft penalty kick on a bad call by the referee in response to Steven Lenhart's apparent foul by Donovan Rickets.

Regardless of the method, Wondolowski got his 27th goal and will go down in history as one of the most consistent goal-scorers the league has ever seen. He has now been the top scorer in MLS for two seasons: 2010 and 2012 and has amassed 64 goals for San Jose.

As for the Timbers, this was a different kind of game. Without a post-season to play for and Cascadia Cup already won, this was more of an exhibition game in which the players kept on performing for the sake of maintaining a high profile on the wake of Caleb Porter's arrival as the new head coach. There was little flow through the middle of the park, with Chara constantly being blocked and Nagbe largely ineffective for long periods of the game. Steve Smith provided a spark on the left side and Bright Dike always looked dangerous, if without as many chances, although his perseverance allowed for Portland's tying goal that left the final score 1-1.

The real winner today was the crowd. We sat at a completely different vantage point at the stadium today, closer to the Timbers Army. This provided great views of most of the field and kept us dry from the drenching Pacific rains. The best part, as always, was the atmosphere. Every seat was full even though this game didn't matter competitively, even though it rained heavily at times, even though there were a myriad college football games to watch on TV. 

Jeld-Wen field is a magical place. Outside, its creeping vines rise up the walls above the front gates and turn a pinkish orange tint with autumn. Inside, the crowds smile and you can see babies and children carried by their parents. You also see the more raucous groups belonging to the Timbers Army or the casual group of avid fans. It is a place of diversity where soccer is king. This city, after all, is Soccer City USA.

Thanks, Portland Timbers, for another season of memories.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Ecuador on its way to World Cup 2014

Photo credit: AP

At the close of the first half of the marathonic, 16-game tournament in World Cup qualifying, Ecuador found itself in second place, behind only Argentina. The Atahualpa Stadium is a fortress once more and the team is 5 for 5 so far, totaling 15 points. Additionally, the team has secured two points abroad: ties to Venezuela and Uruguay. The losses were to last-place Paraguay and Argentina.

Although on the surface the qualification chances may seem high, important obstacles remain. The second half of qualifying has stronger visiting teams like Paraguay, Argentina and Uruguay. Ecuador managed positive results in the 2002 and 2006 qualifiers: wins versus Argentina and Paraguay and ties versus Uruguay. The same could not be said for the failed qualification for 2010: tie to Paraguay and loss to Uruguay. The key will be the game against Paraguay in March, where a win could put the team at 20 points and much closer to making the competition.

The real shift comes from winning abroad to weaker teams like Peru and Bolivia. For the last three qualification cycles, Ecuador has won 6 points away from home from both teams. This, thus, is the real key to the qualifiers. At 26 points, a win or tie versus Argentina and Uruguay at the Atahualpa would all but assure the team of making it to Brazil.

As good as the first act of qualifying has looked, it is not a reflection of the true possible outcomes. Narrow wins against Colombia and Bolivia, as well as losses at Argentina and especially Paraguay, show that the team remains vulnerable and sometimes hangs on thanks to a penalty kick. Antonio Valencia, Christian Benitez and Felipe Caicedo will need to come up big in those away games and they will also need to keep their heads cool so as not to be suspended for key matches.

Ecuador has displayed clean, speedy attack with intricate passing and glorious lofted balls from Valencia. The center of the pitch has been well managed so far and the attackers are better this time around than 2010. There may not be a Tin Delgado here but Caicedo and Benitez pack a dangerous one-two punch. The back line, however, is prone to mishaps and the center backs tend to leave a good deal of open space between them when the fullbacks engage in the attack.

There are always plenty of surprises in qualifying and this time Ecuador hopes to become one of them by advancing in a more prominent role. Chile, Colombia and Uruguay are the direct rivals this time around, with Venezuela having increasingly better chances. Stealing points away from these teams is most important, as is keeping the Atahualpa a fortress to get a possible 9 more points at home.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Made and Broken: USA defeats Guatemala

Photo credit: Getty Images

It was a make or break moment the likes we haven't seen since the 2002 qualifiers. The US national team needed at least a tie versus Guatemala to advance to the final Hexagonal of Concacaf qualifying for Brazil 2014. They made their case and they broke Guatemala by 3-1 in what could easily have been a more dominant score.

As with political campaigns, this game was about coming out punching. Team USA pressed from the first second but a mishap in communication between Cameron and Bocanegra meant that a lofted ball got to Pescadito Ruiz's boots for an easy one-on-one versus Howard for the former MLS player. 0-1 wasn't the way Klinsmann wanted it. But Bocanegra answered back 5 minutes later thanks to a headed assist by Dempsey.

And yes. Dempsey returned tonight with a vengeance after critics categorized him as dull and ineffective at Antigua and Barbuda last Friday. An assist and two goals later and the Tottenham Hotspur ace has once again carried team USA.

There were a few kinks in the defense today, something that Klinsmann will need to continue to work on after so many months of trials. Does Bocanegra retain his spot? Can Tim Ream or Omar Gonzalez break into the fold? As for left back it is Fabian Johnson's spot but in his absence a person like Eric Lichaj should be considered ahead of Edgar Castillo or Michael Parkhurst, simply because of what he did with the position when he had it. Right back is Cherundolo's position and one that can be manned by the likes of Lichaj, Sean Franklin or, if ever, Timmy Chandler.

The offense clicked today for Klinsmann. Possession, passing and calculated moves was what we saw. Graham Zusi has been a revelation and we should expect interest from Europe in the coming months. In the absence of Landon Donovan and Brek Shea he has performed with etiquette and flair. It was a vision of a post-Donovan era, but we will need the all-American for the Hexagonal and, if we're lucky, for the World Cup as well.

Eddie Johnson and Herculez Gomez did their job as strikers but the talent that Jozy Altidore, Chris Wondolowski and Terrence Boyd possess cannot be forgotten. Indeed, we will need all of these players in the ten games reserved for next year's Hexagonal. Somewhere in that time a true stable lineup will finally be drawn by the US coach and some semblance of continuity can finally reign over the national team. This is sorely needed and perhaps the root of some of the more deplorable games in the qualification semifinals we just experienced.

Player ratings:
M. Bradley.............7.5
D. Williams............5.5

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Grimace and Grin: USA wins in Antigua

Photo credit: AP

There was a collective grimace today as we watched the United States Men's National soccer team wait until stoppage time to score the second goal and defeat Antigua and Barbuda. Yes, Antigua and Barbuda. This wasn't Trinidad and Tobago or Jamaica or even Cuba. No, it was a cricket-loving, island nation of only 85,632 people. 

The grin came at the welcoming return of Eddie Johnson, whose career had been in decline after an ill-fated transfer to Europe and numerous loans in Britain and Greece. His positioning for the goals today was just what Klinsmann had wanted.

And yet, for the most part, as the television monitors closed and opinions began, it became certain that this national team had just had one of its worst performances. By virtue of beIN Sport being the sole proprietor of all the away USA matches, this game was not available for me. However, I was still able to keep up with plays through Twitter and other media and I saw the highlights afterwards. Where was the fighting spirit in these players? Even in the condensed version of the game the only ones enthused with being there were Michael Bradley, Zusi and Eddie Johnson. Everyone else was simply at work.

What happened to the team that won in Slovenia, Italy and Mexico? Those were the vintage Klinsmann games. Then again, with Bob Bradley the semifinal qualifying round was over at the fourth game with four straight wins and USA ended up taking the Hexagonal, reaching the final at the Confederations Cup and winning the group at World Cup 2010. Suddenly, for all of us that dreamed of something better than Bradley, the next step is hardly one in the right direction. 

Many of us were Klinsmann believers from the start, but stumbling into the final game before the Hexagonal is no way to repay faith. Yes, Concacaf can be difficult, but not for the USA or Mexico. It hasn't been that way for the past 10 years. Then again, Mexico just slipped into the Hexagonal last time around and Sven Goran Erickson lived for a couple more matches. The Aztecas regrouped under Aguirre and built one of the better teams in the world over the last 4 years. Could the Americans do the same? 

There is another truth to speak of here. Yes, Eddie Johnson was the savior and Gordon the provider in today's match. But what happens against a team like Mexico or Costa Rica or Panama? Or at the World Cup? Are we still not going to field Altidore or Boyd or Lichaj for the games that matter most? When Donovan, Shea, Fabian Johnson and Edgar Castillo go down, the first thing to do is to replace the players with those that matter. The team lived today without replacements, but just so. What if this scenario occurs again in the Hexagonal? Wait, we're not there yet either.

The final match in the semifinal phase of Concacaf World Cup qualifying is versus Guatemala, with whom the US is now tied in points at 10 and the same goal differential. A win provides safety and redemption, a tie will do and a loss could be enough depending on Jamaica's at-home match versus Antigua.Not once in the past 5 World Cup cycles has this occurred. Our players have the talent, they just need the guidance to funnel their strengths.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Wisdom and Worry: Altidore not called in for qualifiers

Photo credit: ISIphotos.com 
The latest of the Juergen Klinsmann surprises came earlier today when the roster for the most important qualifiers was released: Jozy Altidore and Terrence Boyd left off the squad. This is potentially the most important snub in Klinsmann's short history with the US squad. Instead of those two players we have Alan Gordon and Kyle Beckermann. 

As soon as the national team players were announced on the web, Twitter and Facebook erupted with anger, surprise and contempt. How is it that one of the best forwards US has isn't called up for these games? Why does Alan Gordon get the call? 

Jozy Altidore has enjoyed perhaps his best start to a season in his short career: 8 goals in 7 league games and a goal in cup competition. And yet, for all his accolades in recent European play, Altidore has not scored for the national team since a penalty kick versus Slovenia in November 2011. He has looked a bit lost at times with the national team and not much of a threat. Some argue that this is because he has had no service in the US squad compared to the total football practiced in the Dutch league. Whatever the reasoning might be, the truth is that he is too valuable to not be a supersub at the very least.

Then we have Terrence Boyd. The German-American was surprisingly left off the squad despite having a standout first season with Rapid Vienna, including a key goal this past weekend. The 21-year old has 5 goals in 9 games in league play so far this season. If anyone can offer a last-minute change of pace, it is definitely Boyd.

Then there is the inclusion of Alan Gordon. The 30-year old has hardly made an impression with the US squad and has been spotty, at best, with his whirlwind MLS career. Gordon started with the USL version of the Portland Timbers and joined the LA Galaxy in 2005. He was with the Galaxians during the initial phase of the Beckham experiment and had good moments with the team. It wasn't until his recent form with San Jose that his career really made a positive change. With 9 goals this season in the high-scoring team, although not starting every game, his stock seemed to rise with the US coach. But is he really a better option than the near-record-setting Chris Wondolowski?

The addition of Brek Shea and Klye Beckermann also prompt some head scratching. Shea has been nursing injuries lately and not playing much for less-than-perfect FC Dallas. Beckermann enters this team in a bit of a surplus role as defensive midfielder, considering that Bradley, Jones and Danny Williams could all feature with the squad.

If this were just a friendly it would be called an Alan Gordon experiment (thanks, Grant Wahl). But this isn't that kind of game--two games in fact. A failure to win at Antigua and Barbuda this Friday would set the stage for a must-win match versus Guatemala next week. And if things turn out badly it would mean missing out on the final Hexagonal tournament, and yes, no World Cup 2014. Really? Yes. 

So not having Altidore or Boyd will remain what it is: wisdom in picking the right players at the right time and a worry that this could by Klinsmann's last couple of games with the US national team.