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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

How Ferguson's exit may have influenced EPL standings in 2013

Photo credit: Manchester United
When Sir Alex Ferguson left his post as Manchester United manager this past May there were two potential outcomes: Manchester United would remain in power or they would merely survive. Looks like the latter might have occurred.

David Moyes took over as manager from Ferguson during the summer but was unable to exact much change into the squad. Bringing Fellaini during the transfer period was the most likely impact player for the season. There was hope that the former Everton coach might be what Guardiola was for Barcelona, a new coach to lead a team into new heights. But it was not to be, at least not right away.

Right now the top four reading like this: Arsenal, Manchester City, Chelsea and Everton. This season has seen the resurgence of Arsenal, the rediscovery of Liverpool, the continuing presence of Manchester City and Mourinho's Chelsea remix. But was it really Özil's coming that lifted Arsene Wenger's Gunners and can we credit all of Liverpool's success to Luis Suarez? Certainly these are major factors, but they aren't enough to explain the current state of the league.

Once there was a legend at Old Trafford; you only needed to whisper his name. Ferguson was a constant force, a guardian of the best in English football. He was the best in the world, in reality, if we take into consideration his record. The ownership knew it and respected his decisions, the players remained in line despite their egos. Indeed, even if they crossed the boundary, personalities like Rooney and Ronaldo always relented in the end or parted ways. But the team remained on top.

For opposing squads Ferguson's presence was no different. He exuded only respect and always owned the sideline. He was the X-factor that so many times won a game for United. Not too long ago, when the team was riding high--as was often the case--they were close to losing a game to a smaller team. But enter Ferguson with the right tactic and change in personnel and at the 95th minute his team had tied the score. And let's not forget Manchester United's win over Bayern Munich in the Champions league final of 1999. At the death they pulled it off.

So maybe now this shroud has been lifted, so to speak, from English football. Smaller teams know they can beat Manchester United, the bigger teams aren't afraid of Old Trafford, and the players seem more concerned about their state in the league. It is up to Moyes to keep it together.

United is sitting in sixth place right now, outside of all European competition. This after being a constant in Europe for two decades now. Three losses at home halfway through the season won't do it and other teams are taking note. It suffices to say that perhaps this year Manchester United will be fighting for a spot in the top four and will need to stave off Everton, Liverpool, Tottenham and Newcastle to reach the fourth place.

Will Moyes bring in real reinforcements? A player like Cristiano Ronaldo might do the trick but then again there is something else missing, a mystical quality. They are beatable, they can be weak, they struggle, they lack Sir Alex Ferguson. They say that rain forests gain terrain, sunlight and freedom when the biggest and oldest trees die. Can we say the same about the Premier League?


Saturday, December 14, 2013

Risky choice to keep Klinsmann for four more years

Photo credit: US Soccer

When we heard that Klinsmann would remain as coach of the US Men's National Soccer team for another four years and would also become a technical director, many of us questioned this decision's wisdom. Two World Cup cycles with the same manager almost never pans out.

This is true for many teams around the world, but even more so for Team USA. While the first cycles for coaches like Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley were hugely successful internationally, their style became stale and the rest of the world caught up with their strategies.

Bruce Arena may have gotten the US to the quarterfinals in 2002, but 2006 saw them score one goal and manage a unlikely tie against eventual World Cup winners Italy. Lacking Chris Armas, a clear attacking role, an aging Claudio Reyna and an under-used Landon Donovan resulted in a forgettable tournament.

The same goes for Bob Bradley. After a stellar Confederations Cup in 2009 and a great group phase in South Africa 2010, his miss-use of Ricardo Clark and reliance on Johnathan Bornstein gave Ghana the upper hand. And that was really the end for the coach. A year later the lack of depth in his team during the Concacaf Gold Cup contributed to a clear defeat to Mexico in the final. 

US Soccer made the right decision in replacing Brdaley with Klinsmann in 2011. The former German star's tactics and depth building were slow to kick in but eventually paid dividends in 2013 with important victories abroad, a Gold Cup win with a largely-experimental squad and record-breaking points and number one qualification in the Hexagonal tournament of World Cup qualifying.

But USA is in certain peril with their World Cup draw. Germany, Portugal and Ghana are all extremely talented and with a greater number of technically superior players like Mesut Ozil, Cristiano Ronaldo and Kevin Prince Boateng. It will take a little luck and playing the games of their lives to get through this group.

And what if there's another three-and-out in Brazil 2014? And a loss at the Gold Cup and no Confederations Cup again? Might we have jumped the gun already? Complacency? Lack of inventiveness for US Soccer directors?

There might be some positives, of course, with Klinsmann as a technical director. Player development from a young age is key for future tournaments. The involvement of MLS is another step forward. Finally, exploiting the German connection and adding Bundesliga players to the pool remains advantageous now and in the future.

As fans, we hope the best for him and that the decision to keep him another four years turns out to be a good one. Examples are available when it comes to second cycle coaches for other countries: Hernan Gomez and Luis Suarez for Ecuador, Sven Goran Erikson for England and Raymond Domenech for France. Need we say more?


Sunday, December 8, 2013

Sporting Kansas City: MLS Cup justified by penalties

Penalties have been called anti-football many times in the past. But it just so happens that once in a while the luck inherent in a penalty shootout goes the right way. That is what happened yesterday when Sporting Kansas City won the MLS Cup from the PK spot.

This was a justified win. Justified because the team was consistent throughout the season. Because the ownership has taking incredible strides in recent years with its new stadium, fan base and player development. It is a justified win for Peter Vermes, the first person to win an MLS Cup as a payer and as a coach.

MLS is building its tradition and doing so in small steps sometimes and in giant leaps in others. With KC you can make a claim for both. The team exited the cavernous realm of Arrowhead stadium only to be confined by the Community America Ballpark--a venue that held less than 12,000 spectators. But now they have Sporting Park and fill the stands frequently.

It doesn't stop there. Sporting KC has provided two of the more instrumental and versatile players in the national team player pool: Matt Besler and Graham Zusi. Without Besler the tie in Mexio was unlikely. Without Zusi Donovan's absence would have been far more significant and Mexico might have missed out on the World Cup.

Kansas City proved to be a complete team. They were consistent in the playoffs and throughout the season. They also had unexpected help in an Aurelien Collin that came through when the team needed a player--any player--to step up. From "old man" Jimmy Nielsen's timely saves, to Besler's buildup from the back, to Zusi's darting runs and Sapong's return to form, this was the team Real Salt Lake hoped it wouldn't encounter.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

A deadly group for Team USA at the 2014 World Cup

The sorting is done. The magic is about to begin. And now each team knows its fate. The official World Cup draw was held today in Brazil ahead of next year's tournament and it wasn't favorable for the Americans. Their group G includes Ghana, Germany and Portugal.

What do we mean by this?

Drama: First game is versus Ghana, the perennial enemy of the United States in official FIFA competitions, at least for the last 8 years. In 2006 their 2-1, after Dempsey equalized, sent the US packing with just 1 point and only 1 goal scored. In 2010 Ghana had Asamoah Gyan and Kevin Prince Boateng to dismantle Bob Brdaley's weak defense and a hole down the middle after Ricardo Clark's early yellow. It doesn't end there. Bob Bradley managed to lose to them while coaching Egypt in the decisive play-in match in Accra by 6-1. In Cairo the 2-1 was not enough.

Some glamor: Second game is Portugal, with CR7, a.k.a. Cristiano Ronaldo will be eager to avenge the 3-2 shock-loss to the United States in 2002, which made for a magical run to the quarterfinals in Korea/Japan. Now, for the media in the country and the casual soccer fans, this is a great game. 

Revenge: The final match is Germany, the perennial favorites. They are without trophy since 1990 and currently boast incredible talent: Mesut Ozil, Mario Gomez, Thomas Muller, Sami Khedira, Jerome Boateng come to mind. Germany also ended the magical run of 2002 thanks to a goal by Michael Ballack and a non-call that should have been a penalty in favor of the Americans.

So what are the tactics? Africa, Africa, Africa. Klinsmann will need to prepare for the African attack and he might want to play a couple of official matches versus Nigeria or Cameroon or Ivory Coast. Klinsmann is never one to shy away from taking chances in unusual friendlies and this game will be the key to this group. If US defeats Ghana then points versus Germany and Portugal wouldn't be unheard of.

Second is perhaps Portugal. The Portuguese haven't been the steamrollers they once were when Figo was still playing. They are, perhaps, a one-man team with CR7 doing most of the work. If he's out then the team is vulnerable. Hence the struggles in qualifying with a tie versus Israel and a disappointing second-place finish.

So how does Klinsmann feel about playing Germany last in this group of death? Excited, he says. Terrifying for the rest of us fans. Does the United States go into this match with an absolute need for a win? Will Germany need a win just as much? Can Beasley or Brad Evans stop Ozil and Muller and Julian Draxler? 

Nate Silver of the ESPN Soccer Power Index put it all in statistical terms. Germany almost sure to get out of the group (92% chance), but USA (39%) and Portugal (40%) dead even and Ghana (29%) lagging behind. Us Yanks hope this holds true.

Alexi Lalas had it right when he said that the soccer Gods give and also take away. The 2010 draw was a gift with Slovenia and Algeria as the lower-seeded teams, with only England as the difficult squad. This time the US has a chance to do something special simply by getting out of this group of death. Ever since 1990, every other World Cup has been a dud: 1990, 1998, 2006. The magic happened in 1994, 2002 and 2010. Coincidence or crazy superstition? Can 2014 break this cycle?

2013 was a great year for the national team: wins in the Hexagonal and the Gold Cup and great friendlies versus Germany, Russia and Bosnia. Added to this are new names like Diskerud, Bedoya, Corona and Johannsson. Klinsmann has a chance to prove why this American crew is special and only he can make us believe.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The magic of the 2013 Portland Timbers




As the game drew to a close last night at Jeld-Wen Field, there was an underwhelming feeling spreading through the stands in the stadium and the city and around the country for all the Timbers faithful. Real Salt Lake had won by 1-0 thanks to a Robbie Findley goal, bringing the aggregate score to 5-2 and eliminating Portland.

But the chanting went on and happy faces remained, for Portland had just achieved one of the most amazing one-season turnarounds in the league's history. Last season the team was losing matches left and right and goal scoring was so deplorable that the DP was benched and struggling Danny Mwanga was acquired from Philadelphia. This year the team lost a total of 6 matches at home and had an incredible unbeaten streak for much of the season.

The real change for Portland came through the addition of their coach: Caleb Porter. The former Akron coach was known for his attractive attacking style and great interpersonal skills with his pupils. It worked. Portland was fun to watch and hard to beat.

The addition of Diego Valeri and Will Johnson changed the shape and the direction of the team on the pitch and brought attacking and defending qualities that had lacked all through the first two seasons of the Timbers. Most importantly, however, was that Valeri helped Darlington Nagbe come close to reaching his potential as a bona fide MLS star.

Perhaps the greatest victory for the team this year came just a few weeks ago against none other than the Seattle Sounders. And better yet, this happened in the playoffs in a home-and-home series that saw Portland win both games convincingly. It was this, perhaps, that made most of us believe the team might go all the way.

Caleb Porter instituted a fluid form of attack with the ability to quickly shift all resources to defense, a total football approach championed by the Dutch in the 1970s and 1980s and adopted by many coaches throughout the world. He brought back Danso to the center back position and acquired Kah as his partner. Together with a repositioned Jewsburry at right back and Michael Harrington on the left and Porter had a key to fluidity and athleticism necessary for his total football scheme.

Portland is a young team. Only 3 years in the league. It is this fact which separates it from squads like Real Salt Lake. For all the magic and talent, there is little in the way of backup. Alhassan and Zemanski can only do so much and Ryan Johnson and Piquione and Urruti are not reliable strikers. In contrast, Salt Lake  has Sandoval and Velasquez and Plata.

Next season these holes will likely be filled and Portland might become an even stronger team. But Today we thank the Timbers for a wonderful season full of memories and goals and firsts and for going into Seattle and grabbing the win when it counted. We don't need the Dempseys and Martins and Eddie Johnsons of the footballing world to be great. Then again, what if we did add one or two marquee players to the team? 


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Team USA after The November friendlies

Photo credit: Yahoo Sports

Against Scotland the United States came out flat in a 0-0 tie. Against Austria things were better! Albeit in a 0-1 loss. Plenty of questions remain. Can this team do without both Dempsey and Donovan if they are unable to suit up for the national team?

The answer, sadly, at least to some extent, is no. The truth is that the "would be" replacements in Zusi, Bedoya, Kljestan and Diskerud aren't quite there. The latter might have a chance at some magic but he is hardly the goal scorer that both Donovan and Dempsey have been historically.

The attacking third might be much better now and with a wider arrayof options. The truth is, however, that Altidore remains the best striker due to maturity and skill. When he lacks service or is in a slump (as is the case at the moment) then the entire team suffers. Johannsson is likely to be the new focal point of the attack but it seems like he's more effective with some company up top.

The Jermaine Jones - Michael Bradley tandem seems destined to stay as the swivel point for the national team through the World Cup unless either one gets injured or if Jones loses form. We don't see Bradley having any problem remaining on the starting team as he is integral to the way Klinsmann's system operates when at its brightest.

The flanks just didn't produce as much with Eddie Johnson out of position, or a Brek Shea reuniting with form or even Bedoya, who looked lively and dangerous but still couldn't transform his attacks into Dempsey-Donovan magic.

The defense is a tossup after watching these two matches. Does Besler come back for the Gonzalez-Besler MLS duo at center back? Is Goodson out for sure or might John Brooks break through? The NBCSN crew put it clearly: no US squad has every been in a World Cup without a center back with previous World Cup experience. 

As we watched Geoff Cameron shine in attacking fro a right back position we understood why it is that Mark Hughes likes him in that spot with Stoke City. His attacking quality putts him ahead of Brad Evans but he is still not a pure right back in the mold of Cherundolo or Eric Lichaj or even Timmy Chandler. The latter saw his last USA game the first time he got cap tied earlier this year.

Then there's the left back. For now it is Beasley's to lose. And to think that this was an area of so much concern under Bob Bradley. Only Johnny Bornstein worked for him and we all know how that turned out. 

Losing at Austria shouldn't be considered a failure. They're a strong squad and playing at home in Europe. But wait, this is the USA that defeated Italy and Bosnia and tied Russia. All on European soil. Maybe more consistency from the best team in Concacaf should be a requirement. If they are to make a statement at the World Cup then all games, small or large, should count and they should go for AND achieve the win.

Landon and Clint, we are on hold until your arrival.




Friday, November 15, 2013

Perspective after Mexico's first game versus New Zealand

Photo credit: Yahoo Deportes
 
5-1 shouldn't be an unusual score for Mexico playing at home. Estadio Azteca on a Wednesday afternoon the November before a World Cup would ordinarily suggest a prep game for the tournament. But that wasn't the case yesterday. The Mexican national team was playing for its World Cup qualification life versus Oceania's entrant, New Zealand. How did it come to this?

Blame the poor form in the Concacaf Hex under de la Torre and less-than-optimal performances with Vucetich (Panama win and Costa Rica loss) as well as the non-issue that was Luis Fernando Tena's game versus the United States. All chose the same defensive, cautious style and relied on overpriced, over-hyped Europe-based players like Chicharito Hernandez and Giovanni Dos Santos.

In comes Club America coach Herrera and all bets are off. Herrera is a pupil of "Lavolpismo," a style of play first introduced by Ricardo Antonio Lavolpe and which preached attacking football with limited defense. It had mixed results for Lavolpe with the Mexico national team but made for entertaining soccer.

Another thing Herrera did which upset many people, even though it may not have surprised many, was the selection of purely national-based players for the play-in games versus New Zealand. Gone were the Chicharitos, Dos Santos and Guardados and in came ten players from Herreras's own Club America. He needed consistency, he said, in order to be successful and he claimed that the foreign-based players had too far to travel and that this diluted their abilities.

The win gave both hope and relief to the Mexican nation and confidence that their recent trophies in the u17 and u23 tournaments were in fact based on the reality that Mexican soccer that is on the rise. But what are the major takeaways after the win and the certain qualification?

First thing is addressing the foreign I players. Will they continue to be a part of the system? Certainly come World Cup prep time they will have time off to get acquainted with Herrera's style and manners. Will they acquiesce to the three man back line? Can they survive in that formation versus a team like Belgium? Perhaps another point here is the absence of  Carlos Vela. Will he turn down being at the World Cup? Does Herrera even need him there?

Mexican soccer needs to answer some serious questions ahead of the tournament. Is their structure a viable one where very few people control the direction of the national team? A serious failure at this point is going three and out at the World Cup, and the way teams are stacking up in terms of death groups, this isn't out of the question.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Timbers and RSL rise in the West and reach conference final

The moment the referee called a penalty for the Timbers at Jeld-Wen field midway through the first half of the conference semifinal versus Seattle, you knew this game would be fun to watch. And also not into overtime like the other playoff games. For Salt Lake the moment came when the diminutive, 5'5" Sebastian Velasquez was left alone for a header that tied the global score.

The results now pit RSL and the Portland Timbers in a somewhat unprecedented Western Conference final with two of the youngest coaches in the league in Caleb Porter and Jason Kreis. Beating the establishment figures of Bruce Arena and Sigi Schmid speaks volumes for them and for the development of American soccer coaches.

Salt Lake imposed their game on the Galaxy but it was more the Galaxians' lack of cohesiveness, luck and missing pieces that assured the team would not threepeat in winning the tournament. Perhaps the Magee-Robbie Rogers transfer was the worst decision by Arena and Galaxy management and could arguable have cost them the title.

For Seattle the negatives are a bit more grave. For one, the Dempsey transfer has been a dud since he has only managed to score once in 11 days ever since his record-setting signing from Tottenham Hotspur of the English Premier League. Martins, Rosales and Johnson bore some of the brunt but still couldn't make it work for a heavy-spending and trophy-hungry fan base that continues to set records in attendance. Clearly, something must be done and Sigi Schmid is in peril. Bob Bradley, anyone?

The Portland Timbers have played their game. Caleb Porter's game. All offense and all defense in a perfect unit. Only five loses during the regular season and the only team to win both legs of the Conference semifinal and that didn't require overtime.

The key to Portland's success is their midfield: Diego Valeri, Will Johnson and Darlington Nagbe. Those three provide the spark and the goals. Chara, Alhassan and Zemaski contain the opposing squad while Kah and Danso outmaneuver attackers down the middle. Jack Jewsbury has found a nice spot for his new location at right back and is making the most of it.

Portland's win versus the Sounders was a tribute to their style. Will Johnson's well-taken penalty started things off right on time and Valeri's masterful goal added to Seattle's agony still in the first half. Danso's header early in the second half after a trademark fast-free kick played well with Caleb Porter. He nodded at the goal without much celebration as if saying "yup, I planned that."

Portland will need to be careful with lazy defending against RSL because Kreis's crew can punish you very fast, as was shown with Velasquez's go-ahead goal last night. DeAndre Yedlin's goal for Seattle, which sparked a 2-goal comeback, could have been averted by better positioning by Ricketts and the defense. Porter will need to fix these errors and prepare for a very difficult task in going to Utah this Sunday. They haven't defeated Salt Lake this season and now might be the time to do it.


Thursday, November 7, 2013

Red Bulls elimminated and the craziness of MLS Playoffs

Photo credit: USA Today
 
For some of us, watching games late at night prior to a day full of work can sometimes be unfeasible. And yet, if for whatever reason you are unable to sleep, you can catch up on the #MLSPlayoff action.

First up was New York's latest bid to make it past the first round of the playoffs. Ever since the inception of Red Bull Arena, the Red Bulls have been unable to win in a playoff match. Last year it was Houston that took away their chance at advancing. Might the same happen this year even though the team was the best in league play and won the Supporter's Shield?

Answer, unfortunately, was yes. Whether it was Jamison Olave's absence or lack of clarity in the final touch, New York was unable to break through Tally Hall's masterful performance and Brad Davis's control of the midfield. An overtime clutch goal by Omar Cummings sent Houston to the next round and New York to continue looking for answers and suffer another setback.

Kansas City versus New England Revolution was a different type of match. It was second place versus third place. Establishment versus youth. Solidity versus experiment. New England pressed and made a statement when they tied the game halfway through the second half. It would have been 3-2 aggregate. But Kansas City had other plans.

Sporting KC was the better team yesterday. Better poise. More atmosphere. A Feilhaber, Nagamura, Zusi midfield that knows how to play attacking football. Deadly strikers in Bieler and Sapong. Peter Vermes played his game and delivered a statement win in overtime thanks to a sublime Bieler strike.

It was Graham Zusi's masterful runs along the flanks and Feilhaber's pinpoint passes that makes the difference for Kansas City. It is a team built around a great, hard working and underrated midfield. Kansas City also has an intimidating stadium that they have to learn to use to their advantage. Another shock loss to Houston like last year's would undo another great campaign just as it did for New York.

The playoffs highlight some of what opponents always argue against: unfair advantage to lower-seeded teams. Any slip-up can mean elimination, no matter how good your squad is. In the end, it is an American institution and for the rest of us the Supporter's Shield remains the true championship trophy and the MLS Cup might remain a cup competition a-la FA Cup. Then again, this counts as the star emblazoned above each team's jersey logo.

Will there be more surprises tonight? Salt Lake and Portland sure hope not. Portland needs to be more cautious in their approach and should try to score as many goals as possible and as early as they can. Seattle will not and cannot back down. Jeld-Wen could make the difference, as could Rio Tinto for RSL. Salt Lake needs to win by two goals while the Galaxy just need a tie. For Portland a tie will also do but being at home gives them a chance to make a statement just like KC did.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Let's not lose Julian Green to Germany

Photo credit: ASN
 
As recently as last week, US soccer fans had been alerted to another dual-national youngster that could step up for the national team: Julian Green. Green is a forward and a youth squad player for non other than the famed Bayern Munich of the German Bundesliga. 

Julian Green was born in Tampa, FL to an American father and a German mother and holds two passports: USA and Germany. If this sounds familiar it's because we've seen this play out with Jermaine Jones, Danny Williams and Terrence Boyd. All had a choice between Germany and the US and joined the US team.

Not much differentiates a player like Terrence Boyd (formerly of Borussia Dortmund, now with Rapid Wien) from Green. Both from storied clubs, both in their developmental teams, both eligible for two different countries. And whereas Boyd never took part in German youth squads, Green has already participated in 6 such games.

Thinking back, plenty of players have played for teams other than the United States and still have wound up playing for Team USA: Jermaine Jones (Germany), Edgar Castillo (Mexico), Mix Diskerud (Norway). However, some notable exceptions are Neven Subotic (Serbia) and most famously Giuseppe Rossi (Italy). The latter was born in New Jersey and was invited by Bruce Arena prior to Germany 2006.

Where does this leave Green, Germany and the US? Green should be called up sooner rather than later, hopefully in January if he's available. I doubt the March friendly will count and after that we will wait until after the World Cup. And therein lies the problem. If Green has a breakout performance and impresses enough, he could be called up in September 2014 for Euro 2016 qualifiers for Germany, thereby tying him to the German squad.

Green's next chance to be cap-tied to the United States does not come until summer 2015 at the Gold Cup. Still, plenty of time for call-ups to friendlies and for filing his one-time switch in FIFA nationality. That's right, having played for U19, he now must make an official switch. Another kink might be if Germany calls him up for the U23s for the Olympics. The plot thickens.

In the end, it really is a missed opportunity to see the youngster at least train with the national team. He would only have been able to train in the November friendlies given that he has not filed his one-time switch. As I see it, it's doubtful he will train, let alone play with the national team for many months to come. Until then it is up to Klinsmann and US Soccer to keep him engaged. The last thing we need is another Rossi. Then again, Danny Williams hasn't been called up recently and Terrence Boyd, for all his potential, has yet to score.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Curse broken: New York wins 2013 Supporter's Shield

Photo credit: MLS Soccer
 
There have been many constants in MLS: high attendance in Seattle, LA a perennial contender, spring-fall schedule. But another constant, that of New York never winning a single tournament, has now been erased. The Red Bulls won the MLS Supporter's Shield yesterday with a 5-2 decision over Chicago

I've been around MLS, or the other way around, since its inception. New York's lack of silverware was always an oddity and also a concern. How can you have a deep-pocketed, centrally-located, and soccer-rich city such as New York. Let's face it, Beckenbauer and Pele ruled the land and soccer in America for several years through Cosmos and the NASL. So why can't the city have this in MLS?

It's not for lack of trying that New York hasn't won anything until now. Their squad has included players like Branco, Roberto Donadoni, Tony Meola, Jozy Altidore, Juan Agudelo, Yuri Djorkaeff, Lothar Matthaus, Rafa Marquez, Eduardo Hurtado, Michael Bradley and Juan Pablo Angel. Some young and unproven, some in their prime, and some in their twilight of their careers, but all significant in their own right.

It took the addition of French-great Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill, as well as the subtraction of Rafa Marquez to get this team through. Add in Espindola, Olave and Dax McCarty and you get a stronger and more balanced group. But the missing piece was the coaching and this year marked a new direction. Mike Petke, a man without coaching experience but deep love for the team took the helm.

Petke suffered from the now-normal inconsistencies that always plagued this New York club but broke through thanks to the incomparable play of Tim Cahill and a suddenly-stout defense. New York was more difficult to beat and gathered enough points to push for winning the league. And win they did.

Mike Petke is a different sort of coach. Young, energetic, with a bit of Guradiola to his look and style. Along with Caleb Porter or Portland, he is a new breed of MLS coach. One that knows what it's like to play in the American soccer scene, and for Petke, one that knows what it's like to play in Major League Soccer.

It's now up to a newly-minted New York Red Bulls team to continue its good fortunes and go beyond the Shield won yesterday and win the MLS Cup. With the Caricola curse lifted, this team knows no bounds and West Coast squads should be wary. It would be great to have another title in this city ahead of the second MLS New York team: New York City FC.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Parity rules in 2013 MLS playoff race

One look at the table(s) in MLS standings and you come away with a peculiar observation: at any time in the past month any one of 5 to 6 teams in each conference could have won their group and at least 6 overall teams could have won the Supporter's Shield. That's  how small the margin of error is for each team in the league.

Alexi Lalas once put it this way: MLS is the most competitive league in the world. Now while those are very big words and 99.9% of the soccer world would disagree, there is a thread of truth to his claim. Unlike most European nations, not much is settled in terms of championship this late in the season. In England, Spain and Italy usually the championship is already spoken for a month in advance or is between only two or three teams with two months to go. In Spain, for instance, the choices are Barcelona or Real Madrid--always.

How does MLS do this? First, salary cap. The league contains how much each team can spend, with the only loophole being the "Designated Player" or "Beckham Rule." It has worked, for the most part, to buoy the attendance figures and increase quality in players. If it really affected who wins the league then we wouldn't be talking about Salt Lake winning in 2009 and Colorado in 2010.

The second is continuity in coaching. Most teams refrain from sacking their managers even when times are tough. Such is the case for coaches like Sigi Shmid (Seattle), Schellas Hyndman (Dallas), Ben Olsen (DC), Frank Klopas (Chicago) and even Bruce Arena when LA failed to win in 2009 and 2010 even though they were arguably the best team in the league.

This year the contest comes down to the big-spending LA and New York, new big-spenders Seattle, and more blue collar teams like Kansas City, Salt Lake and Portland. The Timbers, in particular, have lost only 5 games and yet they have not clinched the Supporter's Shield because they were tied at home to Real Salt Lake. The Galaxy have also not won key matches and now are out of the running for winning the Shield. 

Another fact remains: clubs like Colorado, Montreal, Chicago and New England could still win the MLS Cup by virtue of the playoff system. Such was the case with Real Salt Lake in 2009. What's to say this can't happen again.

There are two key components to the parity in the league: the Supporters Shield and the MLS Cup. Most critics of the American playoff setup would find it sacrilege to allow lower-seeded teams to win the league. But to those of us that understand the game and understand what the Shield stands for then this argument does not hold up. The Shield is the league and the Cup is another type of tournament, e.g. FA Cup in England. This may not be as apparent in the way the tournament is marketed but it is another trophy and a ticket to the Champions League.

So there you have it. Right now, Salt Lake, Portland, New York or Kansas City can win the league and any one of ten teams that advance to the playoffs can win the Cup. How's that for parity?

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

USA saves Mexico from elimination with win over Panama

Photo credit: AP
 
Epic finish. Last night we saw Mexico come back from the brink of elimination not with a win, but with a loss and mathematical help from the United States national team. Mexico lost 1-2 to Costa Rica but USA beat Panama 3-2 and made sure Mexico remained in fourth place in Concacaf to enter the continental playoff versus New Zealand.

A couple of years ago we saw the Premier League end in dramatic fashion when Manchester City forward Sergio Aguero scored in stoppage time to give his team a victory and the championship in the process. At that moment, Manchester United had won its game and were two points ahead, and champions, had Aguero not scored. Last night was no different, for Graham Zusi and Aron Johannsson scored within a minute to end Panama's hopes.

Let's revisit how it went. It boiled down to this. For Mexico to go through with the automatic 3rd place spot, they had to both win this game by 2 goals and hope that Honduras lost by two goals. Within just a few minutes Honduras had already scored and were through to the World Cup. It was now up to Mexico to at least tie to reach 12 points such that even if Panama won, the Central Americans would have only reached 11 points.

At minute 18 of the Panama game, Gabriel Torres put the "Canaleros" ahead and Mexico started to panic. It got worse when Bryan Ruiz scored an exquisite goal on the 25th minute. Mexico was out at that point. Oribe Peralta, however, scored four minutes later to bring "El Tri" back.

As the second half began in all three simultaneously-played games, "El Tri" was still in playoff position even with Panama winning. Then came Real Salt Lake's Alvaro Saborio's goal and Mexico were once again looking at elimination. This was only brief, for Michael Orozco scored an equalizer for the US to give the Mexicans life.

But Panama wasn't done. At the 84th minute, Luis Tejada beat out the American defense and tapped the ball into the goal after Guzan had made a temporary save. Panama was in and Vucetich and the Mexican bench knew it.

Vucetich had decided not to field Giovani Dos Santos for Mexico and this looked to be very costly, as Chicharito failed to make an impact and the "Aztecas" played without passion. His insertion made little impact in the second half and the Mexicans looked deflated despite not knowing their ultimate fate.

As the game closed for Mexico, it was clear that Costa Rica was in no mood to lose or even tie this match. They wanted to defeat Mexico at home for the first time in over a decade. Mexico were out and many fans in the US and around Concacaf were salivating at the prospect, including many US fans that turned against their own team only to see their arch-rivals miss out on Brazil 2014.

But the reserve-laden side that Klinsmann put on the field at the drenched Estadio Romel had a lot to prove. These were not firs string players and were trying to make a statement to be in the final 23 for next year's tournament. It was this very fact that steered Brad Davis as he lofted a sublime center that found a wide open Graham Zusi. 2-2 and Panama was eliminated. The picture above shows the emotion as Terrence Boyd of the USA consoles Panama's Felipe Baloy.

The night was not over, however. Another American player, Aron Johannsson, notched his first goal for the US. Johannsson is regarded as the next best US forward and could make for a perfect partner with Altidore, depending on formation. 

With the 3-2 win, Panama was out and Mexico were given a chance to qualify through a home-and-home matchup against New Zealand. Fate, it seems, prefers to flirt with irony. The most hated squad by Mexican fans saved their team. Mexico's Rafa Marquez had no comments to make about the USA game. Not even at this point does the animosity end. It's true, however, that his team has reached rock bottom. 

Once heralded as a potential World Cup contender, Mexico now has to wait until November 20th to earn a space in the tournament. They played without passion or lack of purpose, without the spirit that made them so fearsome. Even ESPN Deportes's Futbol Picante show Mexican commentators agreed: Panama deserved to qualify and Mexico was given an unjust chance.


Atahualpa remains the key as Ecuador advances to the World Cup

Photo credit: via Instagram
 
For several months late last year and during the spring of this year it seemed like Ecuador could do no wrong in its World Cup qualifying campaign. Goleadas over Paraguay and impressive ties away to Venezuela and Uruguay. Every game at home they won. And then came a low. A tie versus Argentina at home and a loss at Peru and a tie away at Bolivia. Usually these games meant 9 points.

It was the Caicedo-Benitez tandem that gave Ecuador the dream of reaching its third ever World Cup. But suddenly we saw that this wasn't an invincible Ecuador. Dropping a game at Peru for the first time in five World Cup cycles gave Ecuadorians a scare that they might not make it. Then came the tragic loss of Christian Benitez.

But after the letdown of the Bolivia game in La Paz came one more chance to win at home at the Atahualpa. And that's what did it for Ecuador. The Uruguay game has come to signify the ultimate key to the World Cup for Ecuador. It was there that a Kaviedes goal in 2001 sealed their first ever entry into the tournament and it was there last Friday that Jefferson Montero put Ecuador in a position where the worst they could do was a continental playoff versus Jordan.

Ecuador ran all over all night versus the Charruas and Luis Suarez and Edison Cavani attacked but eventually subsided and rescinded control to the Ecuador defense. Was it the altitude?

Invariably, one has to give some credit to the altitude when it comes to Ecuador's impressive streak at home: 7 wins and 1 tie and zero losses. But one should say the same for Bolivia, correct? And yet the Altiplano crew cannot win at home and gets pummeled away. So yes, we have to give credit to an Ecuador futbol that has ascended leaps and bounds in the last couple of decades.

From the days of Dusan Draskovic to the rise of the Colombian guard in charge of the national team: from Maturana, who got the country ever so close to 1998, to Hernan Dario Gomez, the man that gave the country its ultimate wish in reaching Korea/Japan 2002, to Luis Fernando Suarez, who brought Ecuador to the round of 16 at Germany 2006. It was a decade-long progression that came to a stop with Suarez's second round and Sixto Vizuete. But Reinaldo Rueda picked up where Suarez left off in 2006 and Ecuador earned the right to own their house and defend their status as a South American force.

Is Ecuador a true contender? Hard to imagine it at this point. Results are based on playing in neutral venues in big tournaments and the country has been downright horrid in the Copa America. But one thing is clear, Estadio Atahualpa and Quito are fortresses that the team has guarded zealously and where players have shown all the emotion, athleticism and fantasy that make for great teams. In qualifiers it's a simple formula: win your home games and snatch a few points abroad.

Today the team lost away to Chile 1-2, but the goals collected in Quito along the way set them apart from Uruguay to clinch the fourth and final spot for Conmebol. Uruguay will now face Jordan in the continental playoffs and Ecuador is now in Brazil 2014--and deservedly so. Caicedo sealed it with a goal in Santiago, keeping the goal differential unreachable for Uruguay. 

For over two years the crowds in Quito watched the team win and score and protect their stadium. They made it clear that Ecuador is a talented soccer country and has been so for the last 16 years, but the extra catalyst is undoubtedly the 2700 meters all visitors must climb to defeat Ecuador at the Atahualpa.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Klinsmann improvises and USA defeats Jamaica

Photo credit: John Sleezer / The Kansas City Star
 
Another tale of two halves for the US National Soccer team.With their qualification for Brazil 2014 already assured, Klinsmann's team was playing for consistency and the chance to win the Hexagonal once more. It was a time to try full offense with a 4-4-2 formation that included Diskerud, Donovan, Bedoya, Altidore and Johannsson. A rout? Not so fast.

The USA pressed but lacked style and poise and chances came and went and none went in. Not by Altidore, not by Donovan, and not for Johannsson. Klinsmann had a choice at halftime. Continue with his ultra-offensive stance or take a look at a different formation that might open things up for Diskerud.

And that he did. Donovan out and Zusi in. A switch to a 4-2-3-1. Mix got a chance to go forward more and Jermaine Jones tucked in behind the midfield. More freedom, but a spark was needed. Enter Edgar Castillo, in for Beasley and things changed overnight. Speed and savvy. The left flank suddenly opened and the team created the chances.

First was Zusi with a well-placed shot to break the deadlock and send his home crowd to a frenzy. Second, Castillo himself with a searing run around the Jamaican defense and a center of death for a simple tap-in by Altidore. 2-0 and America is on top and deservedly so.

Zero goals allowed at home in the Hex. All wins at home. 19 points in the final phase. Another pitch-perect performance that solidifies USA as the top team in Concacaf, despite the resurgence of Mexico during 2011-2012. But things have just started for Klinsmann and his crew. A test such as today's serves to educate the team and managers in how to manage games at the World Cup, as well as the players selected. So what if Donovan comes out? It was a win in the end, right?

Around the world today we saw many more teams enter the tournament. A team like Belgium, for example, is en route to perhaps eclipse their semifinal run in 1986. Brazil shows no sign of slowing down despite not playing in qualifiers. Colombia, Chile and Bosnia are all teams that have equal chances at advancing to the final 16 at the World Cup and these are the teams Klinsmann will need to prepare for. 

Let's cheer for our team and thank the players and coaches that we're not in a position like the one Mexico is facing right now. Any team can have bad games and any team can have a terrible rut. So far, Klinsmann and Team USA have evaded this. The game in Panama should be even more fine tuning, this time for the defense. The Canaleros can only use a win and that's the sort of adversary the US will face at the World Cup.

Player ratings:
Howard..............6.5
Evans.................7
Besler................6
Cameron.............6.5
Beasley...............5
Donovan...........5.5
Diskerud............6
Bedoya.............5.5
Jones................6.5
Johannsson.......5.5
Altidore............7

Subs: Castillo (7.5), Zusi (8), Kljestan (6)

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Vierja Corner: Prólogo antes del partido Ecuador vs Urugay por las eliminatorias

El viernes 11 de Octubre, las selecciones de fútbol de Ecuador y Uruguay medirán fuerzas en Quito, capital del Ecuador. Quien salga avante de este partido, asegura su cupo en el mundial de Brasil 2014.
Cuatro meses atrás, Ecuador figuraba como la selección número 10 del mundo, según el escalafón FIFA,  pero el plantel de nuestro país no resistió la presión de tan alto honor de pertenecer al "top ten" mundial, o en realidad nunca fue la décima mejor selección del planeta. En nuestra opinión y sin considerarnos genios, nos inclinamos por lo segundo.

El tricolor se ha visto afectado por  el triunfalismo en la prensa deportiva, la cual se desbordó con comentarios acerca de los futbolistas, sus méritos y sus supuestas similitudes con grandes exponentes del soccer internacional. Así, empezaron a especular colectiva e individualmente si Felipe Caicedo, un grande de nuestro fútbol, era peor, igual o mejor que Ronaldo o Ibrahimovic; o si Ecuador era inferior o superior a Alemania. Toda esta presión mermó la débil fortaleza anímica de nuestros jugadores, quienes cayeron en el peor nivel de juego de toda la eliminatoria. Alemania aplastó a Ecuador en USA y empezó lo que podría ser el principio del fin.

A esto debemos sumar el sensible fallecimiento del buen jugador Cristian Benitez, cuota de gol importante de nuestro combinado.

Varios factores atentan contra la real posibilidad ecuatoriana de ir al mundial. Su cuerpo técnico es confuso, sin ideas puras de fútbol, renunciando a lo que hace fuerte a nuestros jugadores, imponiéndoles un estilo que no sienten, pero fundamentalmente, escogiendo mal el equipo para los últimos partidos eliminatorios. Nos atrevemos a decir que lo conseguido por Ecuador hasta hace tres fechas atrás, sólo fue por mérito de jugadores, quizás con una pequeña cuota de Rueda y "su plantel técnico".

Hoy, Luis Chiriboga echa la culpa de la situación actual del seleccionado ecuatoriano, al referato sudamericano. Escupe para arriba Chiriboga, pues en el torneo nacional maneja el arbitraje, el mismo que es ampliamente cuestionado y parcializado, creando dudas de la seriedad del gremio. Y se nos viene a la mente el proverbio del “conejo criticándole las orejas al burro”.

Siendo así la situación, y por el buen momento de Uruguay, sobre todo de sus delanteros, nos inclinamos por la celeste como el plantel favorito para asegurar el viernes, su cupo al mundial 2014.
Ecuador deberá cuidarse en el repechaje con el mal momento de la selección, ya que sin timonel técnico ni administrativo, podríamos ver el mundial de Brasil, sólo por TV.

[by Javier Velásquez Villacís]

Ecuador focus: Introducing the Vierja Corner

Much of the commentary and analysis provided on this blog has been very America-centric in nature due to my location. More recent focus has been placed on the US national team. However, to stay true to my roots, I have often also touched upon Ecuador fútbol. It is this fact that has prompted me to start a new segment to the futbolusa.net blog.

The "Vierja Corner" will be a Spanish-language commentary section authored by futbolusa.net contributor Javier Velásquez Villacís. He worked alongside the award-winning Mauro Velásquez Villacís for many years prior to Mauro's retirement in Ecuador media such as Canal 4 on television and Radio Caravana, and Atalaya and Sucre radio stations, and radiofuego.com. Other experts he has worked with in Ecuador are Valenciano, Manuel Kun, Raúl Villar (Radio Sucre), Jorge Lao, Pedro Santos, Alberto Sánchez Varas (periodista) and Jacinto Landázuri (Radio Caravana).

Please join me in welcoming him and his brilliant and thoughtful commentary (en español). You can follow him on twitter at @vv_javier.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Was Sunderland the right move for Altidore?

Photo credit: Getty Images
 
Earlier this summer we saw Jozy Altidore leave Dutch Eridivisie side AZ Alkmaar for Sunderland of the Premier League in what was supposed to be a big move for the US National Team striker. These days, the calculations that went into this change in venue are showing some cracks.

Why? Sunderland is at the very bottom of the most competitive league in the world with just one point, including an opening-day loss to Fulham at home. They just fired their manager, Di Canio, and are in very real danger of being demoted to the Championship at season's end.

Sunderland, on paper, should be a fairly competitive side. Names such as Wes Brown and John O'Shea are familiar to most since they were Manchester United players until recently. Former Juventus midfielder Emanuele Giaccherini is also an experienced player, as are Adam Johnson and Steven Fletcher. Clearly, management was key in their dismal start of the season.

On the pitch you can see Jozy very involved in every play he gets a chance to be a part of. He also constantly searches for the ball, a welcome evolution for the player. His touch has not faltered, as can be seen from a wrongly-disallowed goal versus Arsenal that would have tied the game. He does, however, require better service in the air and on the ground. That is where his chances at remaining a top scorer have stalled.

Perhaps continuing to be a part of AZ Alkmaar was a better choice for the New Jersey native. He was getting great service, scoring goals-a-plenty and continuing to make his mark in Europe. A mid-table team in a bigger league was the correct next step. However, Sunderland was not the best option and many out there felt that way too. A team like Aston Villa or Everton or Liverpool may have suited him better.

Altidore would have done well in a league like Italy or France also. His athleticism and nose for goal were key requirements for a move to those leagues. However, the Premier League was the best option, especially as he grows into a player that might eventually join a top squad.

So what's next for Jozy? Relegation is a clear possibility, even this early in the season, given Sunderland's struggles. Would he stay with the team in the Championship? Is his form likely to stall playing with Sunderland prior to the World Cup? All key questions that will need answers as Sunderland begins, hopefully, a recovery. Altidore can be a part of that but crucial, basic evolution will need to take place at the Stadium of Light.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

What's wrong with the Mexican national team?

For the Mexican national soccer team, qualification for Brazil 2014 World Cup was supposed to be a breeze. After a perfect preliminary round in which they won every game, a great run of results in friendlies, and capturing the 2011 Gold Cup, there seemed to be no stopping "Chepo" de la Torre's men. This all came crashing down in 2013.

This year, the team has yet to win at home and has only managed to score one goal in the Azteca. They have won two games: one away in qualifying and one versus Ivory Coast played in the United States. Three ties at home and one very painful loss to Honduras now has the team in 5th place of the Hexagonal, down in goal differential and fighting for their World Cup lives.

Let's rewind to why this should be a great team. First, the youth squads have swept through competition from the U-20 tournament in 2011 (3rd place) to outright winning tournaments with U17 (2011) and more impressively at the Olympics 2012 in a final against Brazil. Add to this players like Giovani dos Santos (Villarreal), Carlos Vela (Real Sociedad), Javier Hernandez (Manchester United), Andres Guardado (Valencia), Hector Herrera (Porto), Javier Aquino (Villarreal), Hector Moreno (Espanyol), Oribe Peralta (Santos Laguna), Aldo de Nigris (Guadalajara), among others in the domestic league. Let's not forget that Liga MX is one of 3 top leagues in this hemisphere.

But the fate of certain players both domestically and abroad and de la Torre's unwillingness to call up specific players has not gone unnoticed. Carlos Vela, for example, hasn't played for the national team since 2011 due to a bad relationship with Mexico's front office. This in spite of him being a top goalscorer in the Spanish La Liga and having done his early years with Arsene Wenger and Arsenal. 

Then there is Chicharito Hernandez. He hasn't been the same ever since an injury in 2012 and then another one earlier this year. Chicharito was pushed down the depth chart at United with the transfer of Van Persie and the steady play by Danny Welbeck and Wayne Rooney. He's still an impact player but has yet to reclaim his status as an indispensable, fearsome goalscorer.

The back line for Mexico hasn't fared well either. Constant changes and the decline and replacement of the old guard (Salcido, Marquez, Magallon) has the defense in flux. The same usually occurs for most teams but it has been quite painful to see with Mexico. Ayala and Severo Meza have not been convincing enough.

Added to the back line is a midfield that just isn't producing. Despite having a relatively youthful group with the likes of Aquino and Herrera, the defensive middle isn't communicating well with the forward or rear flanks or we'd be seeing more goals for and less goals against.

Lastly there's de la Torre, Mexico officials unwillingness to let him go earlier, and the style of play he imposed on this squad. De la Torre should probably have gone after the Confederations Cup or maybe even before. He went from a pure possession and attack mentality under Aguirre to a highly-defensive game demeaning to years of development in Mexican teams. For this one only needs to look at the youth squads. Their momentum was halted with the senior team.

What can Mexico do now? Win both remaining games, to start. The key game versus Panama October 13 will decide whether they even have a shot at an intercontinental playoff. A loss leaves them pretty much out and a tie gives them merely a mathematical advantage. Even a win, unless it's by a significant margin might not be enough if the Aztecas do not win at Costa Rica as well.

Enter Vucetich. The former Monterrey head coach now has control over this squad. He has a fresh perspective, attacking mentality and desire to bring only the best players to the team, including Vela. He can make this team be as formidable as it can be, as dominant as it should be, and as great as their fans deserve. Failing to qualify for 2014 is not an option.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Bob Bradley versus Ghana

Photo credit: Sports Illustrated

If you are a US Men's National Soccer Team fan, then you remember the second round of World Cup 2010, an ill-fated, 7th minute yellow card for Ricardo Clark and the eventual defeat of Team USA versus Ghana. Bob Bradley was blamed due to his starting of Clark over a much steadier (and fan-favored) Maurice Edu.

It was America's second time to be booted from the tournament by the Ghanaians. The first one occurred in 2006 with Bruce Arena's 4th-ranked US team and although Clint Dempsey almost made things interesting, the Americans bowed out of the tournament with only 1 point and one goal scored.

Most people will undoubtedly remember Boateng's goal in the 5th minute and Donovan's penalty in the second half. However, it was Gyan's game-winner in extra time that will forever haunt Bradley and still gives him nightmares to this day. His ubiquitous choice of Johnny Bornstein at left back also opened up the most dangerous side of the field for most opposing teams, as we also learned with the 2011 Gold Cup final versus Mexico.

So what can Bob Bradley come up with this time around with his Pharaohs? He has an entire country dreaming of the World Cup and players hungry for the tournament and a chance for redemption after the 2010's cycle's games versus Algeria. There was some drama with those matches (3-1 Algeria win in Algiers; 2-0 Egypt win in Cairo; 1-0 Algeria playoff win in Sudan) and it included frozen diplomatic (not soccer) relations between the two nations.

But Bob Bradley has been almost spectacular for the Egyptians during this qualifying round. With an unmatched 100% record in the qualifiers, signs would point to certain victory for his team. But Bradley must be cautious in picking his squad and avoid the Clarks and Bornsteins. His side is heavily domestic-based and reliant on Al-Ahly players, especially at defense. At forward he has some quality in players like Koka (Rio Ave) and Salah (Basel). 

Should Bradley defeat Ghana it will be twice the victory. One for America versus their African nemesis and two for Egypt and making it to the World Cup after 24 years of absence. And, oh yes, an American coach qualifying for a World Cup with another nation's squad. Hard to beat. We are all cheering for you.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Dos a Cero again: USA qualifies for World Cup with win over Mexico

Photo credit: ESPN
 
If we thought missing Michael Bradley and Matt Besler and Jozy Altidore might cost Team USA a game versus Mexico in Columbus, then Klinsmann's crew proved us wrong.

No Bradley? Jermaine Jones stepped up and Beckerman covered for him. Besler is out? Goodson and his experience clogged up Mexico's attack. No Altidore? That's okay, Eddie Johnson plays for us.

It was a patchwork team with the surprising addition of Bedoya on the flank instead of Zusi, with Donovan in the midfield and Dempsey a withdrawn forward, but both present. Michael Parkhurst in on the right side and Beasley looking to redeem himself. It worked.

It was a tale of two halves. Mexico pressed and controlled the first half and could have scored. The second half was vintage USA in Columbus, Ohio. Two goals by legendary figures: Eddie Johnson and Landon Donovan. EJ had a picture-perfect header that Jozy would be jealous and proud of. For Donovan it's the 6th goal against the Americans' nemesis, and in what fashion. Diskerud provided the fantasy we wanted to see with a self-chip to allow himself to set up a center of death for Donovan. Goal.

This game was a testament to Klisnmann and the depth he has built in this squad. Can the US make noise at the World Cup? Possibly, but for that to happen Bradley will need to be with the squad and more discipline will be required.

USA will be in Brazil 2014. Today it was fantasy and speed, set pieces to be proud of, a city of Columbus that always delivered, and the scoreline that is as poetic as Dempsey missing his chance to score three for the US. A poem was written tonight and this poetry was Made in America.

Player Ratings:
Howard.................7
Fabian Johnson......6
Gonzalez...............6.5
Goodson..............7
Beasley.................6.5
Bedoya................6
Donovan..............7.5
Dempsey..............6.5
Beckerman...........6
Jones...................6.5
Eddie Johnson.....7

Subs Diskerud (8), Parkhurst (6), Zusi (NR)

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

USA has missing blocks to defeat Mexico

Photo credit: mlssoccer.com
 
Four days ago, prior to the US Men's National team's game versus Costa Rica, it seemed like the game versus Mexico to be played today was largely in the bag. One injury and three suspensions later and it seems like Team USA's chances have evaporated.

Let's keep it simple: no Michael Bradley means a handicapped midfield. Jermaine Jones is a rugged, albeit impulsive player that can shine at moments and also endanger the team at others. He is the box-to-box player in Bradley's absence and will need to be as disciplined as possible.

There are three main choices for Klinsmann to actually replace Bradley in the midfield. First is a conservative option in Kyle Beckermann given his track record as a solid yet sometimes quiet defensive midfielder. The second choice is pure attack in Jose Torres, who never really has convinced fans or critics. Third is youth and question mark in Joe Corona and Mix Diskerud. The former has speed and the latter style.

What will Klinsmann go with? Likely Beckerman, although if he has problems in the defense and USA is down in the scoreboard then Klinsmann will go with his favorite Torres. Many of us out there would wish for Diskerud's fantasy and short passing but that's not likely to happen. Corona is also way too young for such a pivotal match and is still a developing player.

It is the fact that Geoff Cameron is missing that further complicates things. If anything, he could have taken Bradley's place. However, Matt Besler's suspension also means Cameron would have slid into the center back role. Now Goodson will probably get the nod alongside the LA Galaxy's DP defender Omar Gonzalez. The other vacant position is right back. The once so deep position with Cherundolo, Lichaj, Chandler and later on Brad Evans, is now up for grabs and will likely be manned by Ausburg's Michael Parkhurst, who has yet to see playing time this season with his club.

Yet another hole remains with this American team: Jozy Altidore. The veteran attacker and prolific scorer earned a silly yellow card at the end of the Costa Rica game and has left the team without an experienced target forward. Dempsey will get the call and later on either Johnson or Johannsson might enter the match depending on the score. EJ is streaky and Johannsson is an unkonwn quantity internationally.

These factors, along with Mexico's dire need for three points and a fresh face with newly-appointed coach Tena, make for a difficult task and a huge boost for Mexico. The only player missing for Mexico is Torrado and the US hardly has the pieces to exploit that fact tonight.

History cannot be discounted but statistics always favor change. Klinsmann has never lost to Mexico as a player or coach and the US has yet to not win at the Columbus Crew Stadium. Then again, this is an unprecedented Mexico due to their position and the balance of power has shifted in their favor. Expect a tough match and perhaps an expulsion or two, including for the US. 

The Americans will likely be lucky to escape with a tie and will have to wait until next month to punch their ticket to Brazil. If luck and chance are on their side, a win tonight means an early entry into next summer's tournament. Let's hope for some spectacle and emotion. The scoreboard should always be secondary to quality plays on the pitch.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Not without Michael Bradley: USA loses in Costa Rica

Photo credit: Getty Images
 
If you missed the first few minutes of the Costa Rica - USA match then you saw something wasn't quite right. First, the US was down on the scoreboard. Okay, that happens. But wait, why is Orozco playing and where is Michael Bradley? It ended 3-1 in favor of the Ticos.

The weather, it seems, played its part in today's match as well. Michael Bradley was hurt in pre-game practice, possibly due to the wet conditions. Revenge of sorts, it seems, after the US won the home game versus the Ticos in a blizzard.

But what really went wrong tonight? There's no replacing Michael Bradley in a big match. He's the general and the rudder in this team. The box-to-box player that can clean up messes, lob balls in for goals and score clinching strikes himself. Jermaine Jones was alone tonight and Graham Zusi and Geoff Cameron didn't quite cut it.

Donovan played well most of the match and diverted attention. So did Fabian Johnson. Indeed, the German-American should have had his goal if it weren't for Navas saving Costa Rica once again. In fact, Navas stopped more than one American attack and nearly stopped Dempsey's penalty.

Added to the loss of Bradley in this match and possibly the next is the assured loss of three important players: Cameron, Besler and Altidore. Most notable is Besler, who has been the best defender for the Americans, although he got beaten pretty badly by Joel Campbell tonight. No Jozy means that the in-form player will need to be replaced by Eddie Johnson or Aaron Johannsson, who was cap-tied this evening.

What can Klinsmann do versus Mexico. It now becomes a must-win of sorts for a variety of reasons. A win takes them out of any sort of hot water coming from the utter revolution in this field of teams and hopefully out of the dreaded intercontinental playoff versus New Zealand. A win also means the team can win games without Bradley at least at home. A win means the team can regroup and get ready for next summer. A win means confidence and versus Mexico no other result matters.

The Mexicans have only 8 points with 9 in play and possibly playing with a new head coach by Tuesday. Their implosion and inability to win at home means they have to do so abroad. There's always Mexican fans in the US and even Columbus is always half and half.

Should be an interesting match with many subplots.

Player ratings:
Howard.....................5
Besler........................5
Orozco......................4.5
Beasley......................4
Gonzalez....................5.5
Donovan....................6
Zusi...........................4
Jones.........................5.5
Cameron....................4.5
Fabian Johnson...........6.5
Dempsey...................5

Subs: Altidore (3), Eddie Johnson (4), Aaron Johannsson (NR)


Friday, September 6, 2013

Missing points: How Ecuador will find it tough to reach the World Cup

A few months ago it seemed almost certain that the Ecuador national soccer team would be at Brazil 2014. Two games later that is no longer the case. Where in the past 4 rounds of qualifiers dating back to 1998, points in Peru had been all but assured, this time was different. Zero points in June. And where every single match at the Atahualpa had yielded 3 points, Argentina stole 2 away.

So now the team is 5 points away from the World Cup. Right now they would have 26 points and would be one win away from the tournament. As it stands now, a win at Bolivia next week and a win at home versus Uruguay in the last home game is required to enter the tournament.

Chile is likely to surpass Ecuador today as they face Venezuela at home. "La Roja" is particularly dangerous with players like Alexis Sanchez and Humberto Suazo while Venezuela, an upstart in recent years, is likely not strong enough to steal points away in Santiago. With a win by the Chileans, Ecuador will go down to fourth place. 

Further complicating things is Uruguay. Luis Suarez returns to the squad and they can certainly take all 3 points away from Peru today. A game versus Colombia might also yield points and a total of 6 points will put them ahead of Ecuador by Tuesday if the Ecuadorians are unable to get any of the 6 or even 1 point in the next two games. Same would happen if Venezuela wins 6 points.

Let's be clear. Bolivia are out already, even if the highly-unlikely situation in which they win their next four games. Peru, at 14, has a better chance but still would need a serious run for all 12 points. It becomes a matter of mathematics at this point if Ecuador do not win any points in the next couple of games. A win versus Uruguay in October would be a must and even that might not be enough if the "Charruas" win all six points this week and still have another game in hand.

So what does Ecuador have to make this happen? Some pride and good quality for sure. Felipe Caicedo is on board, as is Valencia, Rojas, Mina, Montero and Walter Ayovi. How Reinaldo Rueda will line up his squad and defensive/offensive posture is up in the air. Ball possession has been key but early game management has haunted this team of late. 

The absence of Chucho Benitez is key now. The recent, painful loss of the Ecuador ace could also be used as a way to rile up the national team. To play for their fallen comrade. To make it to the tournament in his honor after he gave so much to the country and the team. So, play for him, Ecuador. Play for love.