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Monday, June 24, 2013

Wembley, Cathedral of Football

How does one describe a dream? Images, feelings, actions, emotions. This is how I would classify the different experiences I had when visiting Wembley Stadium today. There was no England game, no FA Cup or Champions League final, no American football exhibition, no rugby match, not even a rock concert. It was just the stadium and I and the history of the game.

A late June visit to the legendary venue means one thing: one cannot do the full tour because it's concert season. Nevertheless, I went ahead with the fragment of the experience because I didn't know when or if I would have another chance to visit Wembley. It did not matter and the stadium did not disappoint.

For us lovers of the game the now iconic arch over the structure is clearly visible as one approaches Heathrow airport via plane. From the ground there is no mistaking it and it is no wonder that this arch also has become the building's signature and most recognizable element. It also, as I learned today, serves as the main support for the roof.

Wembley stadium is completely modern but it retains vestiges of its storied past. The halls contain sample monuments to the 1966 final, where England defeated Germany in the World Cup via a very contested goal. This includes a copy of the Jules Rimet Cup, a plaque with the flags of all the countries and the very post that allowed for England to win the match. The ball bounced in off the cross bar, according to the referee and English fans. German fans think otherwise.

Inside the stadium the red seats reach 90,000 in number and a single person's voice bounces off every structure interminably in order to retain the maximum amount of noise. Just imagine what a game must be like. It is the history of this hallowed ground, dating back to 1923, with its numerous FA Cups, Champions League finals, and England national team games, that so reverberated with my football persona. 

There is a feeling of greatness wherever you walk at Wembley. From the walk up Wembley Way to Sir Bobby Moore's statue outside to echoes of soccer games both recent and past, from memories or the countless TV screens showing scenes of Beckham scoring, Messi celebrating and England winning World Cup 1966. Once you are here you understand why you love this sport.

Pele called Wembley a Cathedral when he arrived at the old "Twin Towers." To me it's a monolith, a conversation, a primal feeling of togetherness and achievement. That it belongs to the crucible of soccer, England, is only right. And yet Wembley Stadium remains a treasure for all, a monument to the sport and a beacon for its fans.

See more pictures at our Facebook page.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Altidore rekindled: USA vs Honduras

Photo credit:  SB Nation

Three for three. Three goals and three wins. Such has been Jozy Altidore's contribution to the US Men's National Team World Cup Qualifying campaign. Altidore's return to national team form should not be a surprise given the youngster's 31 goals for AZ Alkmaar of the Dutch Eridivisie this past season. He has found his groove and bigger clubs will be after him.

I must admit that I did not watch the match given my current absence from the country and the fact that the game was played at 2AM my time.Regardless of this fact, a few observations can still be made.

Altidore's goals have allowed more space and opportunities for the national team and have also relieved the pressure on Clint Dempsey to provide all the scoring for the United States. Altidore is now both the target forward and a physical presence that must be dealt with by any opponent, regardless of their level. This was always Jozy, but only now is it consistent. . . and just in time.

The flanks are here to stay. Weather it's Graham Zusi and Eddie Johnson, or Fabian Johnson as an option, the passing and pressure on the wings are both finally consistent. Given DaMarcus Beasley's mobility at left back and Brad Evans' positioning, protection from other teams is also available although vulnerabilities in the defense are inevitable due to injuries. Landon Donovan is an option for now but is no longer a fixture.

Michael Bradly is a general and Jermaine Jones is his commander. The pair in central midfield have different attributes but both offer the box-to-box attack and defense needed by a team and system that do not utilize a number 10. The passing and recovery from Bradley are of highest importance here. As his form goes so does the team.

Central defense is set. Although Omar Gonzalez can still struggle at times, his physical qualities and club history make him a fixture in the American center back position. Matt Besler is now the perfect partner with a lower profile that ensures recovery and passing from the back. Howard is a rock and will not be discussed here.

13 points are now in the bank and in a Hexagonal system that usually requires 16 or 17 points to advance to the World Cup, the US team is now positioned to make its latest appearance in the tournament. 4 games, 2 at home (Mexico and Jamaica) and 1 winnable on the road (Panama) remain. Even if the team is to falter versus our southern neighbors, a win versus lowly Jamaica is likely given the team's form. Only time will tell and there is still plenty of work to be done.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Complete performance: USA defeats Panama in Seattle

Photo credit: Dan Levine/EPA
It's been a few years since we have seen a complete performance by the US Men's national team in an official tournament setting. There were none present in the Gold Cup 2011 and World Cup 2010 had its ups and downs, yet inspiring games. But last night Team USA delivered, as did the city of Seattle with a full stadium cheering for the Americans in unison as the team went on to win 2-0 with goals by Altidore and Eddie Johnson.

Starting from the back, although Howard did not have much to do in this match, he did provide a trademark save late in the game to keep the shutout. Brad Evans struggled at times at right back but continued to solidify his place as an option, perhaps behind Cherundolo, for the spot. He needed help from Eddie Johnson and the center back tandem but eventually settled in. Besler is certainly a fixture for the team now and in many ways better than Omar Gonzalez, who still struggled at times but remained dominant in the air. DaMarcus Beasley may not be a natural left back but he has shown he is more than capable of playing there when needed and/or remaining the starter.

The midfield was all Michael Bradley. Easily the best and most complete player in the team right now, Bradley had a 92% pass completion rate and broke up Panamanian plays and set up Altidore's goal. The Roma midfielder is arguably, as some have suggested in the media, the top box-to-box player in Concacaf. All he needed was a goal.

Johnson and Johnson, Fabian and Eddie, that is, were brilliant as wingers in this match. The first was good at defending the flank and pairing up with Beasley and also provided the assist for Altidore's score-opener. Eddie Johnson covered for the struggling Evans and timed his run beautifully for Geoff Cameron's lobbing pass to score a perfect breakaway goal in front of his home crowd. Geoff Cameron did well to cover for Jermaine Jones' absence and defended the midfield well. Although Cameron lacked the experience of the Bundesliga player, he still provided expert attacking passes such as his assist for Eddie Johnson's goal.

Up front it was all Jozy Altidore. While Clint Dempsey continued to be a distracting threat for the opposing squad, it was Jozy that delivered, once again, with a quality strike to break the deadlock. We have now seen three varieties of Altidore's goals: a volley versus Germany, a trademark header against Jamaica and a tap-in on the Panama goal. Perfect positioning, physical while holding the ball, athletic abilities mixed with deft touches. It is no surprise that he is one of the top scorers in Europe and the 31 goals he scored for AZ Alkmaar of the Dutch Eridivisie have now translated into game-winning goals for the national team.

There were two other winners in this match: Klinsmann and Seattle. While Mexico experienced its third scoreless tie at home against Costa Rica, the US hasn't lost in the Hex since the first qualifier at Honduras back in February. Three wins and one tie. In a tournament that needs usually only 16 points to qualify for the World Cup, another two wins could send team USA to Brazil, especially considering that they still have 3 more home games to go. Credit Klinsmann on this and for sticking to a lineup with alternatives due to suspension and injuries. He has a winning combination on the flanks with Fabian Johnson (left) and Zusi/E.Johnson (right) that feed the ball to Altidore where only Landon Donovan could do it before. And now Jozy scores too and all the burden doesn't fall on Dempsey.

Finally there's Seattle. Michael Bradley said so himself. This was the best USA crowd to play for. All USA chants. All red and white. The symphony of the Sounders harmonically synced with American chorus and the United States had their home turf. Better and bigger than Columbus, more American than Chicago, a home venue difficult to match. Not to mention that they have a consistently sold-out stadium club team in the Sounders with attendance matching Bundesliga games....but that is another blog post.

Player ratings:
F. Johnson.....6.5
E. Johnson.....7

Subs: Corona (N/A), Davis (N/A), Castillo (N/A)

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Klinsmann's gambles: USA defeats Jamaica in Kingston

Photo credit: Getty Images

The USA took a significant step to reaching World Cup 2014 with its win in Jamaica by the score of 2-1. It was the reassurance of Altidore, the rise of Graham Zusi and the breakout of Brad Evans that gave team USA the win.

The team that beat Germany last week was the team that Klinsmann went with for this match. Beasley continued as left back and Fabian Johnson played the wing. Graham Zusi remained in Donovan's spot. Cameron gave way to Besler and Brad Evans. Klinsmann gambled and was rewarded.

The game started as it should have: total domination by the Americans given the shorthanded defense for the Jamaicans. Jones pressed, Bradley controlled the midfield and Dempsey and Altidore pounced at every loose ball. It took another picture-perfect center by Zusi to find Jozy's head to mark the 1-0.

But the US took their foot off the pedal late in the first half and most of the second half. Where there should have been a desire to score more goals, there was only false satisfaction. And the Jamaicans punished the US for this in the dying moments of the second half. A stunner of a goal that exposed the central defense in the air, as Germany and Belgium did recently. A tie at "The Office" was now likely.

Enter Brad Evans. The midfielder-turned-right-back Seattle player was added to the team late in the training process and only stepped in for Geoff Cameron as a right back in the Germany match. It worked. Where Cameron struggled, Evans showed poise. Where more timings in the attack were needed, Evans acted. And when the game needed to be saved, there he was, on stoppage time, to give the United States a historic win in Kingston.

Other seeming head-scratchers included Cameron's substitution for Jones when the Bundesliga player went down with a concussion. It was a defensive move and there were other players available. But the coach knew what he was doing. He needed a level midfield to contain Jamaica. Edgar Castillo for Fabian Johnson was another interesting move, but the Mexican-American played well and continued to break down the right flank of Jamaica.

Two other observations stand out. Beasley can claim the left back spot as his if he continues to play this way against worthy opponents and in times of need such as qualifiers. And Michael Bradley is a general. Every ball went through his feet from defense, recovery and attack, and when Jermaine Jones went down he lifted the team and ensured the win. 

Things don't get any easier now with the surprising Panama visiting Seattle and a date with always-difficult Honduras in Salt Lake. But yes, those are home games and it's time to claim and protect this house.

Player ratings:
F. Johnson...............6

Subs: Cameron (6), Castillo (6), E. Johnson (N/A)

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Flashback performance: USA 4 - Germany 3

Photo credit: Getty Images

Today, as US Soccer turned 100 years old, we watched in awe and joy just how far the program has come in the last two decades and how good the men's team can be. The USA dominated FIFA #2 ranked Germany in a 4-3 match that could and should have been a 4-1 rout. It was a performance the likes we haven't seen since that magical game versus Spain in the Confederations Cup 2009.

It was a flashback today for the offense. Jozy and Dempsey. A goal for the often-criticized, unjustly categorized as lazy, Jozy Altidore. Altidore had never scored in the run of play for Klinsmann until today. For Dempsey, it was another landmark statement. The Tottenham Hotspur ace will not stop scoring--and looking good doing it--for team or country. Hopefully we will see Deuce suit up in the Champions League before his career starts to fade. For Jozy, there are suitors for his services from Germany to Italy.

The defense today was no flashback. Bob Bradley's defensive brain has long been gone in favor of better flank play and a higher line. The lack of experienced centerbacks like Bocanegra and Onyewu have also hurt the defense. Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler and even Geoff Cameron are still a long way from being in the same position as the Onyewu-Boca tandem.

It was curious to see Geoff Cameron in the sidelines but this gave a chance to Evans, who did not disappoint. Beasley seems to own the left back option and Fabian Johnson provided good movement and passing as a winger. The middle of the pitch was well patrolled by Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones. The two clicked today in their box-to-box plays and covered for each other well. When these two perform, the team is more secure and has more options.

The right side had great speed with Graham Zusi and this provided for Altidore's goal at the start of the match. This was the type of service required by him that had always been provided by Landon Donovan. Yes, today USA won without him and it's clear that they can do so from now on. There are options for right midfielder with Zusi, Johnson and Gomez. They may not be Donovan but the chemistry is there. Whether the Gold Cup enables Landon to return to the full national team remains to be seen.

What else did we like from today? Fast scoring, quality scoring. Altidore's volleys and Dempsey's long and mid distance shots are highlight-worthy strikes and shows us the growth of US Soccer. It wasn't a cheap goal, a penalty, an own goal. It was great plays, good positioning and the ability to own the field. A flashback, so to speak, to days when the USA could do no wrong and the world took us seriously in soccer.

Player ratings:
F. Johnson............6

Subs:  E. Johnson (6.5), Davis (5.5), Castillo (5), Boyd (4)

German treble: Bayern Munich in 2013

Photo credit: Sky Sports

There is an ultimate measuring stick in the world of soccer to determine which club truly is the best in the world: the treble. For those unfamiliar with this term, it means this: winning the domestic league, domestic cup and continental tournament. In the case of Bayern Munich this season it was the German Bundesliga, clinched weeks ago, the UEFA Champions League, won against Borussia Dortmund, and yesterday's German DFB Pokal.

In recent times, only Barcelona have achieved this back in 2009, when Guardiola took Messi and company to the heights of all the different competitions and outclassed teams like Real Madrid and Manchester United along the way. Bayern Munich achieved the same this past season, completely demolishing domestic competition like Dortmund, Shalke 04, Stuttgart and Wolfsburg, as well as European giants Manchester United and Real Madrid in the Champions League.

Munich won the first ever German treble through a mix of rigorous and innovative training, and a rich tradition. In fact, they are a model for the Bundesliga itself, which is quickly becoming the top league in the world due to its inherent competitiveness and breakthroughs in marketing achieved by following American sports coverage. The Bundesliga is number one in the world in attendance, is majority-controlled by German investors and, unlike most leagues, collectively makes a profit.

The addition of players to the Bayern Munich squad, such as Mandzukic and David Alaba, have allowed for growth and efficacy in multiple positions. That Mario Gomez is on his way out does not mean Bayern is in a losing position, since they will be acquiring players like Lewandowski from Dortmund.

And yes, one cannot forget the true heroes of Bayern Munich: Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery, Thomas Muller, Philip Lamm, which are the backbone of its prodigious attack. One only needs to see their third goal in the Cup final yesterday. Lamm overlap with Muller and a perfect center of death to a surging Mario Gomez. Gomez made no mistake and Munich was on the verge of clinching their treble.

Bayern Munich is an exciting club that has gone largely unnoticed by the wider world of soccer, not by the true follower, but by wider international media and those that consider the Premier League, Serie A and Spanish La Liga the only tournaments worth watching. It is not for lack of star power that Bayern Munich is behind Barcelona or AC Milan in the world's eye. It's the significant capital that goes into overstuffed teams in the Premier League or two-horse races like the one we see in Spain every year.

It's time for us to enjoy and celebrate the best team in the world for what it is: class, inventiveness, coolly calculated German plays and pure soccer. Bayern Munich dazzles us with Robben's deft touches, Boateng's energy and commitment, Muller's speed and tenacity, the two Mario's effectiveness in front of goal and a collective mentality of victory.