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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.