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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Diskerud mixes it up for the USMNT vs Azerbaijan

Photo credit: Ezra Shaw
Mix Diskerud showed two things in last night's 2-0 USA win over Azerbaijan: he is a supersub and he can be a number 10. The number synonymous for so many years with Landon Donovan was given to Mix by Klinsmann as a message to the new generation of players: This is your team now.

Diskerud's place
Diskerud has shown, repeatedly, that he can be counted on as a game-changer. He did so versus Russia in an impressive tie last year and then versus Mexico in the qualifier that clinched a place in Brazil for the US. In a perfect sequence versus Mexico, Diskerud skillfully lobbed the ball to himself at the edge of the area and provided the pass for Donovan's tally and the eventual "dos a cero."

Other observations
The back line continues reshuffling and this is worrisome. With Cameron moving ahead of Gonzalez at center back, Howard has to retrain and reconfigure his communication with his sentries. Fabian Johnson on the right could work but Beasley's inclusion, however just given his stellar record, is suspect versus the Group of Death opponents. There wasn't enough of Timmy Chandler last night.

Would things have been different with Dempsey on the pitch? Possibly. Especially regarding the fact that he was set to start as second forward and in a preferred tandem with Altidore. How this affects forward-corps substitutions in the tournament will also be interesting to watch. Does Wondolowski remain the go-to sub? What about Johannsson's performance (and goal!). 

The wings also had an interesting, younger look to them with Zusi and Bedoya. Both performed well but their impact in a marquee game has yet to be seen with both as starters. The middle with Bradley and Jones is set and does not need tinkering.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

No Donovan is too bold for the National Team

Photo credit: US Soccer
There was something odd about the picture when US Soccer unveiled its final 23 for Brazil 2014. There was no Landon Donovan. Yes, really.

There are many reasons for this move. Not in shape, maybe not as fresh, not as young, not as fast, not scoring, not really. But the name and face of the US National Team is too much a part of what this team is about to leave him behind and all his fans. Or is he?

The manager always has to make tough choices. This time the choice was tough for Donovan and his millions of fans. But what does the US lose?

If you say "passion," yes, true, but you can say the same for every other player in this squad. If you say "experience" then we will say "Dempsey." If you say "speed" then we say Zusi or Green or Bedoya. If you say "set pieces" then we say Brad Davis. If you say "style" then we say Diskerud. If you say "leader and fantasy" then we say Dempsey.

And this is what happens. What was once only Donovan is now many players. What was once a hard 4-4-2 is now an interchangeable set of formations. It's a hard thing to swallow, but Donovan had his World Cup in 2010. This one is Dempsey's. 

In the end it's about results on the pitch. If America goes through then Klinsmann is a genius. If they fail miserably then we blame him for Donovan's omission. If it's a close ending then we are left to wonder. Was leaving Donovan out too bold for the US Soccer team?

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Missed opportunity: Liverpool will find it hard to win the Premier League in 2015

Photo credit: Reuters

This was going to be Liverpool's year. All the pieces were together: Sturridge and Luis Suarez, with the latter being the poster boy for goalscoring worldwide. A tie last weekend sealed their fate.

There is talk of "next season" and "even better" but is Liverpool likely to have the same opportunity next year? Not without Luis Suarez, and he is likely to leave for a more lucrative future in the summer transfer window.

Brendan Rodgers had it. He had the team on the cusp of its first title in 24 years and bad defending at the end of the game cancelled all his work. That's how tight things can be in the world's best league.

So what can Liverpool do to win next season? Hold on to Suarez is number 1, and unlikely to occur. A replacement will be difficult to get given the price some other strikers are going for at this time. Fernando Torres won't be moving out of Stamford Bridge, according to Mourinho. Maybe an up-and-coming player that succeeds at the World Cup?

Another reason Liverpool is the resuscitation of Chelsea via serious cash to be spent by Mourinho on strikers and general reshuffling of the team. Diego Costa comes to mind. Manchester United will have a rebuilding year in which they will not participate in European tournaments, reopening the door for the once-perennial contenders.

Liverpool has a young nucleus with which to build around as well: Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge and Coutinho have serious talent made exponentially more productive thanks to Luis Suarez. If Rodgers can tap on their energy and athleticism and make the right moves in the transfer market they could still be in contention, at the very least.

Liverpool missed an opportunity this year, however, with the collapse of Manchester United and Arsenal and some of the struggles Manchester City and Chelsea had.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Risky picks in Klinsmann's preliminary 30

Photo credit: US Soccer

Juergen Klinsmann picked his preliminary 30 for the World Cup today and his picks were every bit as controversial--and fun--as we wanted them to me, Julian Green made it after all, but so did Brad Davis.

The controversial
Six of the manager's picks are dual German nationals: Julian Green, Jermaine Jones, Fabian Johnson, John Brooks, Tim Chandler, Terrence Boyd. Great players, interesting pattern.

The surprises
That Julian Green got called in is an underwhelming surprise. We knew he gave him a chance versus Mexico for a reason. That Brad Davjs made it is much more interesting. Is it either or for the final 23? 

And Joe Corona! A fan-favorite during last summer's Gold Cup, Corona was a bit lost in the shuffle at Tijuana with their new manager. Klinsmann clearly believes in him. Yedlin, on the other hand, is quite a  risky move, especially given his performance versus New England this past weekend. Or perhaps he was already dreaming of Brazil?

The forward bunch
Pretty much called it a month ago. Wondolowski is the token poacher, Altidore is the golden boy, Johannsson is the new guy and Terrence Boyd picked up his game lately.

The flanks
Timmy Chandler made it in after all. Klinsmann is not one to ignore commitment on the pitch and he wants all weapons available to face the group of death. Chandler can man both flanks and so can Fabian Johnson. Will it be the duo that failed as flankers in Honduras?

The deleted
Agudelo missed out. And he will be missed. In truth, the former Red Bull has done more for himself via scoring than any other forward except Boyd. But would you risk leaving Wondolowski or Johannsson out? Boyd had made a a case with his late season goals so he was going to be in this group regardless. Mike Magee also misses out, but his age and failure to impress internationally certainly played a part.

No Eddie Johnson. A bit of a head-scratcher, but given EJ's struggles lately, it may not be that bad an idea. Perhaps it's time for the baton to be rescinded to the youngsters.

Tim Ream has not played lately for the National Team, nor has Brek Shea. Danny Williams missed the cut due to a crowded midfield. Jack McInerney will have his chance later on, as will, possibly, Zelalem.

The constants
Landon Donovan, Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey are back. They were the core of the midfield in 2010 and also scored all of the goals. But how will they be deployed this time? Together? Certainly Graham Zusi is there for a reason. 

In the end what counts with the trio is experience. no one knows a World Cup better than Donovan, and although he's not that young, he's also not that old. Dempsey is a star Stateside and so is Michael Bradley. Major League Soccer is their playground and they come to represent.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Who is Zelalem?

Photo credit: Arsenal FC
Move over, Julian Green. Here comes the next you. That's right, Klinsmann and his crew are at it again and this time they may have just added another highly-rated prospect in Gedion Zelalem.

Zelalem plays for Arsenal's U-21 squad, was born in Germany and is of Ethiopian descent, meaning he could play for either of those countries. The youngster did play for the Germany youth squads U-15 and U-17 but never in an official tournament. This opened the possibility for him to choose the US National Team once he had his citizenship; he is in the process of acquiring it.

As was the case with Julian Green when he became a household name for USA fans, Zelalem has made one official appearance for the senior Arsenal team--in the FA Cup. Green debuted for Bayern Munich in garbage time of a Champions League match.

So how is the capture of Zelalem important? It means that the US recruiting system is in full gear and working like it never has in the past. There is no more losing players like Neven Subotic or Giuseppe Rossi. It also means more pressure on local talent, however.

How do American soccer youngsters react to inclusion of players like Green and possibly Zelalem? This is uncertain. While older players welcomed Green with open arms in training prior to the Mexico friendly in April, we don't know how the average American prospect feels about the inclusion of double nationals.

It is likely that the effects of double nationals is minimal, although far less than insignificant. Already we have Jermaine Jones, Fabian Johnson, Aron Johannsson and Terrence Boyd as likely call-ups for the final 23 to participate in Brazil 2014. That's one fifth of the team. If players like John Brooks, Daniel Williams and Julian Green are also added, this could make it up to a third of the team.

In the end, national team business is about competition. About getting the best possible available players ready for competition. It is not too dissimilar from how club teams behave in transfer cycles. It is a reality of the sport.

Right now, Zelalem is a prospect. It is still up to him if he wants to join the US. He will not go to the World Cup but could be in for the Olympics. He would also enter what's fast becoming a more impressive group of players that could compete in the Russia 2018 World Cup. The soccer planet continues to turn, and Zelalem is a welcome part of the process.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Arsenal: Explossion 2013, Implossion 2014

Photo credit: Michael Regan/Getty Images
At the start of the Barclay's Premier League in August 2013 one thing was clear: Mesut Ozil was making a difference and this might be the season Arsene Wenger's team won the league again. Fast forward to April 2014 and the team was fighting for the fourth place entrance to the Champions League.

This was meant to be Arsene Wenger's return. Instead it was Brendan Rodgers's breakout season with Liverpool. What happened? Will Wenger's finally leave? What is the next move for Arsenal?

These are serious questions that the ownership group must be asking, not to mention Wenger and the players themselves. Was it the loss of Aaron Ramsey? The lack of a partner for Grioud? Did Özil run out of gas?

It was sad to see the German national team fans boo one of their marquee players during a match earlier this year. Perhaps it was a symptom of where he was in his career and of Arsenal's tailspin. Clearly, the most pressing need for this team is a consistent second forward, the type of player that Robin Van Persie was for the club for so many years.

The defense will also need some mending. Mertesacker can only do so much and the wide players are  losing their touch. In any case, it's a sad ending in a season where Arsenal could have continued to excel and run away with. Instead this position was ceded to Liverpool. Of course, the Merseyside team has Luis Suarez, the best striker in the world at the moment.