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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.