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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:

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.