Thursday, October 29, 2009

MLS Season Review

Tonight marks the beginning of MLS's second season, the playoffs. Expansion Seattle FC and their smug, coffee drinking fans take on the Houston Dynamo before the remaining three pairings start this weekend - Real Salt Lake v. Columbus, New England v. Chicago, and Chivas USA v. LA Galaxy (boy is MLS happy they get to have a playoff edition of the LA Derby -- note, it is not the Super Clásico! That is reserved for Boca-River and only Boca-River).

So, now is as good a time as any to review what was unfortunately a somewhat ordinary MLS season.

Columbus - 49 pts. For the second year in a row, Columbus wins the Supporters Shield on the back of ageless Guillermo Barros Schelotto. However, indicative of the MLS season as a whole, this year the Crew finished tops with 49 points, whereas last year they finished tops with 57. This was mostly a result of 10 draws this season, as there were an inordinate amount of draws throughout MLS. Parity is rampant and MLS is not the better for it. This is not the NFL, there are other leagues for the best players to go to for better competition and much better salaries.

Indeed, Columbus has a very good team, but they don't really scare anyone or really stir anyone's imagination with their play. Fits the city and stadium I suppose. Schelotto is simply class, and other than Robbie Rogers, the rest of Columbus is merely capable MLS attackers (Eddie Gaven, Jason Garey, Alejandro Moreno). The difference, other than Schelotto, was solid goalkeeping and a defense led by Chad Marshall (despite his missing some games due to injury and the National Team) and Frankie Hejduk (ditto). They have as good a chance as any team to win MLS Cup and repeat as champions, and it's good to see Robbie Rogers hopefully build on his key substitute appearance for the USA against Costa Rica.

Los Angeles - 48 pts. The Galaxy were a team of two halves. Their season started with a ridiculous 1-1-9 record. Just look at that. One win, one loss, nine ties. Like I said, parity. Plus there was this thing about Beckham and Landon Donovan and some book. You may have heard about it.

Anyway, LA finally kicked it into another gear in the second half as their potent offense kicked off and they finished tops in the Western Conference, tied with Houston on points. LA will always be dangerous simply because they have Donovan, who is undoubtedly the best player in MLS. No one in MLS combines his level off skill, speed, goal scoring, and unmatched fitness. Throw in Beckham's passing and set pieces, Edson Buddle being able to finish Donovan's and Beckham's passes occasionally, and you have a dangerous team.

The big surprise in LA is their vastly improved defense. Rookies Omar Gonzalez and AJ DeLaGarza (Terps in the house!) proved to be mature and steady enough right out of college to contribute immediately. Gonzalez was less a surprise because he has the physical frame and potential to be a very very good defender, as well as being dangerous on set pieces. But watching DeLaGarza in college it was unclear whether his size and physical limitations would ever make him a decent pro. You couldn't doubt his heart, character, and reading of the game, and he's managed to do better than I expected.

People also forget that Bruce Arena is a pretty damn good coach. People may have soured on him due to his stint with the Red Bulls (as if anyone could look good with that team) and the USA's 2006 World Cup showing (let's be honest, he got a great performance against Italy, an unlucky game against Ghana where the ref screwed the US, and only the Czech game did the US look unprepared and out-coached). But give him a good team to work with and some continuity and he will surely develop a winner. Many are tipping them to win MLS Cup this year and I might have to agree.

Houston - 48 pts. Houston is pretty much the most consistently good franchise, finishing in the top two of the Western Conference in each year of their existence. They're very solidly built front to back with no glaring weaknesses. Geoff Cameron was one of the top defenders this year, and Bobby Boswell has revived his career there in the back alongside him. The key of course is their midfield trio of Stuart Holden, Brad Davis, and Rico Clark. Holden was always being groomed to take over playmaking duties, and when they traded Dwayne De Rosario to Toronto, they didn't lose a beat with Holden finally showcasing his skills as the lead dog.

If there is a weakness on Houston, it's a true goal scoring forward. Holden and Davis chip in goals, but the leading goalscorer was again Brian Ching. Just the mention of his name must make USMNT fans cringe... Brian Ching. He can hold up play and draw fouls and be a very good MLS player, without ever being considered a finisher. He's like the US Emile Heskey. Like Columbus, it was Houston's tied-for-league-best defense that really sets them apart, not the goal scoring, despite both teams having two of the best attackers in the league.

Seattle Sounders FC - 47 pts. Seattle is a "feel good story" of the year to many observers, what with their inaugural season leading to the playoffs, winning the US Open Cup, and having the best home crowd in the league. Coach Sigi Schmid built a nice roster. Fredy Montero was one of the most exciting players in the league, Nate Jaqua is like the MLS Peter Crouch, a beanpole who's not a true target forward but can score, Steve Zakuani could develop nicely, there's midfield depth, and Kasey Keller can still bring it in goal. Seattle is a beautiful city, they have a nice stadium, if still an NFL stadium with artificial turf, and they have the potential to become a team hated across MLS because they somehow think one season of strong fan support and an Open Cup title makes them the new Real Madrid or Yankees. MLS is more exciting for having them, and it's fun to hate on other teams. Good for you Seattle. At least they're a worthy target. Unlike the Red Bulls. They just suck.

Chicago - 45 pts. Blah. Blanco is good, but he may be headed back to Mexico. Brian McBride is a US hero, but managed only 7 goals and injuries hindered his season, even though he played in 22 of 30 games. Not much else to say, because like Columbus, they don't excite the imagination. They play a dreadfully boring and negative style, though maybe that will change if they decide to not bring back coach Denis Hamlet. Unlike Columbus, they do engender passion from opposing teams because they play a negative, thuggish style. Too bad, they could play better with their talent, and they have a decent crowd at Toyota Park.

Chivas USA - 45 pts. Chivas is an interesting team. They seemed like a young, up-and-coming team heading into the season. Preki had them playing an attacking style. Yet they took a step back this year. A big reason was Sacha Kljestan, who pretty much went into a season long funk. Zach Thornton turned back the clock with a good year in goal, and maybe the most important positive from the season has been the growing connection finally between the team and the LA Latino fan base. Rumors abound that they will look to further that connection with signings, including a Mexican coach, in the offseason. If Preki is let go, he'll immediately be a top candidate for other vacancies across MLS, and I think he'll be a good coach, just this Chivas team was not as good as believed. They finished about right for their talent.

New England - 42 pts. Their season was always going to be somewhat derailed with top forward Taylor Twellman out injured the entire year. Yet credit to the combination of Steve Nichol for being among the best at identifying talent in the MLS draft and the overall brilliance of Shalrie Joseph for keeping them competitive. If only Joseph was an American. Along with that flaming ginger, Jeff Larentowicz, they held down the midfield and got New England into the playoffs. I may have almost fought Jeff the first time we went out drinking at Brown University because of the New England-DC United rivalry, but he's grown on me and I like him as an underrated player who may very well get the Brian Carroll honorary call up to National Team camp at some point. Like LA, the Revs benefited from rookie surprises in defense when Kevin Alston (who played one year at my high school with my younger brothers, it's no surprise he's done well as a pro) and Darrius Barnes (Duke grad, yuck) stepped in after injuries to the back line and more than held their own. This is MLS's perpetual "almost" team - a winning squad that's never won the MLS Cup. Unfortunately I don't really see it happening this year or the next. They need just that new attacker to push them over the edge.

Real Salt Lake - 40 pts. Possibly the worst team name in American sports. I can't get over it. Nice young attackers in Robbie Findley and Yura Movsisyan backed up by hard working Kyle Beckerman. Findley has speed and could find his way into National Team camp with the US lacking a speedy forward after losing Charlie Davies, and I root for Movsisyan because of his last name. Beckerman has slowly over the years become a reliable MLS player and fringe National Teamer. I was never that impressed playing against him when I was younger (as opposed to Oguchi, who we knew was going to be a big time player), but he's become the heart and soul of this team. Don't have much to say about them other than when they played DC United, they never really tried to do much. I hate that.

DC United - 40 pts. Ugh. I have too much to say about them than can fit in this roundup of all of MLS. They were exceedingly disappointing this year because the talent is there. Unfortunately so was Coach Tom Soehn. He should be gone, though he's now using the excuse of injuries, a jam packed schedule with international tournaments and the Open Cup, plus his one year winning the Supporter's Shield with Peter Novak's roster to lobby for another season -- Kevin Payne, do not listen to him! I'm excited for the development of Rodney Wallace and Chris Party Boy Pontius. Santino Quaranta continues to be reborn and started off very strong, and I hope he can make his career turnaround permanent. Big change is still coming, with old folks or underachievers like Jaime Moreno, Luciano Emilio, Ben Olsen, Christian Gomez, and Fred in limbo. I can't imagine Olsen being gone, even if he doesn't have ankles, and Moreno still provides a different element off the bench. The others -- gone. Good thing my last memory of RFK for the season was the USA match.

Colorado - 40 pts. Probably the worst playing style of any team in the league. Maybe not the worst team overall, but man watching them stinks. And that's despite the fact that they have Conor Casey, who for all the angst over his place in the US Team is still a prolific MLS goal scorer, with 16 goals this season. Another year of below mediocrity for this team. Owner Stan Kroenke also has ownership in Arsenal, so he must just be ignoring this team. Not that the MLS structure would allow him to do much to vastly improve this team. They could go out and sign a designated player. Hey, what an original idea! Hey Colorado, go make yourself half relevant.

Toronto FC - 39 pts. I'm never really sure who's playing for Toronto. They seem to constantly trade players. Maybe that's why they've never settled to become a good team yet. However, I think they make something of a leap next year. They have De Rosario, one of the best players in MLS (again, oh why couldn't he be American rather than wasting his international career with the Canadians), signed Canadian star Julian de Guzman (ditto) from Deportivo de La Coruña near the end of the season, have up and coming youngster Sam Cronin, and the universally despised but highly talented Honduran Amado Guevara. That's a strong midfield. But they've never really found a forward, hoping that O'Brien White will blossom next year in his first full pro season, having missed this one with an ACL tear suffered in college. De Rosario was good again, leading the team in goals, but you need a forward to lead your team in goals unless the midfielder is named Ronaldo. A new coach and another forward will be needed for this team to do better than they did this year. They have a great home atmosphere and a fun city and I think it'll be something to see once they have a team to match.

FC Dallas - 39 pts. Though equal on points with Toronto, we've now reached the dregs. A completely surprising late season run pushed this team to a more respectable level, even threatening for a playoff spot. The key was actually selling Kenny "Franken"-Cooper to 1860 Munich. He may have scored 7 goals in 15 games, but by jettisoning the big man, Dallas opened up space for Jeff Cunningham's ego to be the alpha dog striker. He obliged with a league high 17 goals. They scored the most goals in the league, but also allowed the second most. Will they ever be truly good. I don't know. Not that I really care.

Kansas City - 33 pts. Did I say Colorado was boring. Yawn. So are Kansas City. Claudio Lopez was among the quietest designated players ever in MLS, though he didn't necessarily perform poorly. Josh Wolf scored some goals, and Jimmy Conrad continues to play well enough to get calls for a place on the National Team, particularly with the current center back injury crisis. Still, I can't think of any young talent on this team. Let's face it, they don't even belong in KC. Move them to Saint Louis, OK. Done.

San Jose - 30 pts. Yuck again. Just not a good team. I had to look up who their leading scorer was - Ryan Johnson. Never heard of him? Neither have I. Darren Huckerby, with his English pedigree, was a bright spot in their inaugural season, but unfortunately for San Jose, he had surgery on a shredded hip and promptly retired. Add to that fact that Bobby Convey has fallen harder than even DaMarcus Beasley and you have a recipe for disaster. No real bright spots here.

Red Bull New York - 21 pts. Double, no, quadruple yuck. They don't even deserve a write up. 21 points from 30 games, and that's after a very good late season run after interim head coach Richie Williams took over. Basically their entire season was nothing but waiting for Red Bull Arena to open next year and hope they sign a second designated player to play in it. And since there is nothing worth talking about during the season, other than a continuation of probably the worst franchise in MLS, the real focus is on whether management will drop the interim tag from Williams's title, or will they let him bolt, in which case he'll surely be snagged up by DC United (where he won three MLS cups as a player) or some other team. In fact, what am I saying. Red Bull, you need a high profile coach for your new stadium and to handle potentially two designated players. You need European pedigree. Because if there is one thing the NY/NJ MetroStars/Red Bull New York lack, it's pedigree. And talent. And fans.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Liverpool-Manchester United Thoughts

It's a little late and there are other more current items to discuss, but I still think we need to go over the happenings at Anfield on Sunday.

Without going back over the specifics of the Liverpool "crisis" before the game, it seemed everyone was waiting for the final nail in the Red's coffin for this season, only for Liverpool to valiantly pull off the 2-0 victory. It was something of an unexpected result but it really shouldn't have been so surprising in retrospect.

Other than the team turmoil coming into the game, the only aspect that was really surprising about the game was that without Steven Gerrard, Liverpool still dominated the midfield behind a great display from the oft derided Lucas. Surely it was his best performance for Liverpool, though he was lucky to escape without a booking despite countless fouls against (though some were questionable, the persistent calls warranted a booking).

Nonetheless, there are a number of reasons why the result should not have caught anyone off guard.

-Liverpool swept a better Man U side last year. Rafa Benitez has shown the ability to get his team to win cagey matches against his managerial rivals, such as Jose Mourinho when at Chelsea.

-Related to the first point is the fact that Man U have been inconsistent against the other members of the Big Four in the past year. Last year they managed a win and two draws against Cheslea, Liverpool, and Arsenal. This year they already struggled to beat Arsenal and now lost to Liverpool. Of course they still beat Arsenal in the Champions League semifinals last year.

-Rio Ferdinand is struggling, and apparently Fernando Torres owns Nemanja Vidic. Rio has turned the corner on 30, which isn't necessarily a problem, but his constant injuries combined with his age and losing even one step has caused a massive drop in form. He's made some big blunders and was made to look bad chasing down both Craig Bellamy and Fernando Torres in two of the key games this year. Vidic is one of my favorite defenders, but something about Liverpool brings out the worst in him. Granted few have successfully dealt with Torres in the EPL recently, and Vidic wasn't playing poorly for the most part before getting caught for a second, inescapable yellow on Sunday. Even though they've only allowed 11 goals in 10 games, tied for third best in the league, there's a sense that something is amiss. If the Torres harassment doesn't permanently start weighing down on Vidic (which I don't think it will), we could start seeing a Johnny Evans-Vidic partnership.

-Man U's midfield needs strengthening. The big tactical error for the match was SAF's choice of Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick was curious. Talk about a pair with no bite. Aside from the fact that Scholes is pretty much done as a significant impact player in the high tempo world of the EPL (when his passing accuracy starts going, you know it's time to put him down) and Carrick isn't exactly a midfield workhorse. Once again the absence of Darren Fletcher's bite was telling, and even Anderson would have been a better choice. This January, or more likely this summer, SAF is going to have to seek out a new central midfield fulcrum. He'll also have to figure out what to do with this next person...

-Dimitar Berbatov oozes silky skill and touches, but his playing style does not suit Man U. His skill alone allows enough glimpses that when he combines with Rooney and Giggs it must make SAF salivate, but it's too few and far between. Some people hoped that his mercurial nature and wonderful abilities would be the second coming of Eric Cantona, but King Eric had an altogether different, more aggressive approach to game. Even if he does produce, which he very well may, he will never really warm to the never say die approach of Man U. And with Michael Owen being next off the bench, SAF will have to hope Frederico Machedo and Danny Welbeck develop into regular first teamers while also seeking out striking reinforcements.

-Jamie Carragher's game is built of blood and guts, and it would have made sense for him to step up to the plate in place of missing captain Gerrard. Unlike Rio Ferdinand, whose defense is predicated more on smooth skills and elegant speed, Carragher is just a battler who throws himself into every challenge. He had been struggling this year but played superbly, and although he may have lucked out by not getting whistled on one or two borderline penalties, he epitomized the Liverpool team for the day. In an intense game such as this one, his ability to step it up is less impacted by his recent form, unlike his opposite England man.

Still, I think Man U will push Chelsea to the end. There are legitimate concerns, and unless the midfield stays healthy and improves, it could be a death by a thousand cuts without there ever being a particular moment where the season ever really goes awry. Still, one game being outplayed by Liverpool is not cause for great alarm. Ignoring the final goal while pushing for the equalizer, they essentially lost by one goal on the road at a charged Anfield, only really being tested once (a great shot and rebound that Van der Saar saved in the first half) other than Torres's goal.

On the other hand, I still don't think Liverpool will challenge for the title. I also wonder if such a good display today actually hurts Liverpool by masking apparent shortcomings. Rafa may feel confident in relying on Lucas, who despite his great match, I doubt anyone would put money on him replicating that display over the course of an entire season if he has to deputize for Gerrard or Benitez rotates his squad as he's prone to do. Aquilani is returning from injury soon, so maybe he changes the dynamic, and his precense with a healthy Gerrard, Torres and Mascherano could give them a very dangerous spine. A follow up this weekend against Fulham could be telling, same with Man U trying to respond against a pretty dismal Blackburn Rovers side at Old Trafford.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Road Field Advantage

Who said that there's a big team monopoly over the Champions League? And what happened to home field advantage? This most recent round of UEFA Champions League matches bucked a few generally held assumptions and may have livened things up for some teams, while sending a few others into downward spirals from which there appears a long march back.

Tuesday in particular saw a few big upsets. First and foremost among those was FK Rubin Kazan stunning Barcelona 2-1 at the Camp Nou. On the heels of their 0-0 draw with Valencia over the weekend, not too mention an unconvincing 1-0 win over Almeria before that, and suddenly the Barca machine has lost it's luster. Maybe Messi needs to get some of that Maradona-Argentina stench off him. He hasn't been as dynamic recently, and the return to health of Andrés Iniesta hasn't provided the boost yet that we would expect. No one doubts they will rebound and are still among the favorites to win both La Liga and the Champions League, but maybe they are not so invincible.

FC Unirea Urziceni went to Glasgow and crushed an embarrassed Rangers team 4-1, and Dynamo Kiev continued the great day for Eastern European teams by going to the San Siro and drawing Inter 2-2. Inter continue to underwhelm, with some people even already putting pressure on Mourinho. But let's face it, they're not a great squad and they won't win the Champions League, although they probably will win the Serie A with main rivals Juve and Milan looking underwhelming (and few would put money on Sampdoria and Fiorentina to keep up their current pace through the entire season). Actually speaking of Fiorentina, they also went on the road and pulled out a 4-3 thriller against Drebrecen.

Also on the road Tuesday was Sevilla, who is in fine form and look their typical dangerous and exciting side, beating Stuttgart 3-1. Stuttgart have stuttered so far this year and seem in rather dissaray, and they will probably miss out on Europe altogether without an unbelievable run from here on out.

And if we're talking about disarray and missing out on Europe, who better to move on to than Liverpool. Liverpool probably couldn't be in a worse state. They lost at Chelsea and then at Sunderland via beachball-gate, so Anfielf, usually a fortress on European nights, must have seemed a wonderful sight. Yet without injured striker supreme Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard limping off again after 25 minutes, you could tell that the Liverpool season was going down the drain all at once. A 1-2 loss to Lyon later, with Manchester United coming to town Saturday, and well, the odds on Rafa Benetiz's job security are certainly not getting better. I guess that's what happens when you don't strengthen an already thin squad and also sell one of your key midfielders in the offseason.

Meanwhile, Arsenal, who are playing some of their wonderful silky football, may have been expected to win at AZ Alkmaar. Of course Arsenal always think they're better than they are, while always having something of an inferiority complex in Europe I feel. AZ might not have the traditional name recognition of PSV Eindhoven or Ajax, but they have been a good team in recent years, and they managed to hold Arsenal 1-1.

Bucking the home trend was Olympiakos, who held fort 2-1 over Standard Liege. So in recap, it was a 1-5-2 day for home teams. Rather striking, and none of the road victories were by any of the "giants" of Europe. A good day indeed for those who like upsets and drama.

Wednesday returned some sanity to the regular order or things, but there were still a few curveballs thrown to keep up the spice.

If you can call it business as usual, the unsurprising results including Juve beating Maccabi Haifa 1-0 in Turin, Man U beating CSKA Moscow 1-0 in Moscow, Marseille beating Zurich on the road 1-0, FC Porto beating Apoel Nicosia 2-1 at home, and Chelsea crushing Atlético Madrid 4-0 at Stamford Bridge.

Of those matches clearly Chelsea looked the best, but the result is also indicative of the utter collapse occurring at Atlético, which HalaMadrid has touched on here in the past. Sad. Man U's win was nice, on the road, and getting a goal in the second straight game from Antonio Valencia will boost them ahead of this weekend's clash at Anfield. I'll be looking forward to seeing if they can put Liverpool's season to bed and put Rafa's head on the chopping block so early in the season. Meanwhile, Juve continues to be underwhelming despite getting a result, and it's clear that this year probably won't involve any trophies for them, but they hopefully are on the right track for next year, as long as Gigi Buffon continues to play out of his mind and can come back healthy and on form after surgery for his right knee that he's hoping to have in late December after playing through the Inter Milan game.

There were three more results, however, which did not necessarily fall as predicted. First, Bayern Munich continues to be the epitome of inconsistency and lost 2-1 to Bordeaux. While most people would be surprised by this, but Bordeaux are not to be taken too lightly, and while I'd expect them to not last too long in the knockout stages, one of Bayern or Juve could very well end up in the Europa League. Bordeaux even won despite missing two pks. Besiktas held Wolfsburg 0-0 at the Wolkswagen Arena. Pretty amazing to hold this high flying team scoreless, though much of that was from super scoring Bosnian Edin Dzeko missing a few great chances.

(By the way, most people are focusing on the France-Ireland World Cup playoff draw, but Bosnia-Portugal with Bosnia getting the second leg at home could very well be the best matchup. Bosnia is still up and coming and doesn't have all the greatest results, including a 2-5 whacking at the hands of Spain, but they have the talent to send Ronaldo home pouting.)

Last and best of all though was AC Milan's 3-2 upset of Real Madrid at the Bernabéu. This was a very exciting game, including huge gaffes by Dida and Casillas gifting goals to the other team, a wonder shot out of nothing from Andrea Pirlo, Pato scoring a game winning brace, and signs of life from one Mr. Ronaldinho. The result was rather amazing because Milan was basically playing like a shell of its former self this year. But the amazing thing about having ageing players of the skill of Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf, and Ronaldinho is that if they start clicking they can put on an occasional show of beautiful passing football. It was also very heartening and pleasing to Ronaldinho having fun with flicks and skills and generally reminding the world that there was once a time where he put on a perfect show that even the Bernabéu stood and applauded (unsurprisingly, he was jeered every time he touched the ball yesterday). Granted he had large stretches where he was somewhat invisible yesterday and there's still a long way to go before he nears any semblance of being on form for him, but even just those glimpses yesterday were enough to make me happy as a football fan.

And while I applauded the nice midfield work in the second half between Ronaldinho, Pirlo, Seedorf, and Pato, I doubt the Madridistas were very happy. I've not seen much of them this year so I can't really compare it to anything, but I wasn't really impressed with Kaká and Karim Benzema looks a little off kilter. I thought Lassana Diarra and Xabi Alonso were alright and I liked Royston Drenthe off the bench, but there still needs time for this team to gel. And how much does Ronaldo mean to them, maybe too much already? Madrid will certainly argue no, and although I don't doubt they can get it right and play great without him, they need to prove it. Nonetheless, let's hope that by November 29, we're not seeing the Barca and Real Madrid of the past two days.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Stay Classy Diego

The English-speaking press didn't do the best job of picking up/translating Diego Maradona's latest non-footballing gem. Indeed, the man who dazzled all of us on the pitch seems determined to disgust us off it.

With Brazil, Paraguay, and Chile through, it was up to Argentina to travel to Montevideo and try to lock up that fourth place spot with a semblance of attractive football. Instead, CONMEBOL fans were treated to a disjointed, meek Argentina that may have gotten the result they needed but look a far cry from the team that most expect when they think of the albicelestes. For most it would be a moment of introspection. To humbly assume what was an unimpressive foray through the qualifying rounds, where two teams with significantly less talent made it through while the mighty Argentina had to wait for the last matchday to learn their fate. Indeed, it was time for Diego to think about reading a book on tactics. Maybe find out how to use the chalkboard in the lockerroom.


He could tell the Argentine press to "Suck it." And then tell them to "Keep sucking it." Followed by some nonsensical blithering about being white or black, but never grey, excusing himself for the ladies, and telling the press guessed "keep sucking it." Though to be fair, Diego switched the verbs this time, going from "chupar" to "mamar." So maybe he told them to suck it and keep eating it. Hey, you can't say the guy's repetitive.

At least at press conferences. But, the man with the most gifted left foot in football proved once again that he remains repetitive at life. Once more Diego shows that he is incapable of looking inward, identifying a flaw, and fixing it. Diego, as has been the case since he left the game, continues to blame others and behave like a child. An op-ed from Spain made a great point when they noted that Maradona must be working his tail off with this Argentina team...for them to look as bad as they do.

Diego, aside from his charisma as one of the game's best ever, appears to have no tactical acumen to speak of. Or work ethic, as leaks to the Argentine press indicate the team doesn't practice in the mornings because Diego likes to sleep in...until 3 p.m. And so, as the international dates come to an end, and the Argentine populus returns to their apologist ways with "God" aka el Pelusa aka Maradona, Argentina looks to be in serious trouble.

Messi is unrecognizable in Maradona's "system," Veron is old, Riquelme remains marginalized (who's fault no one knows), and the defense is a patchwork of interchangeable question marks. The best move Grondona and the AFA could make is to fire Diego immediately and pick a proven successor to wait for the pre-World Cup friendlies. But with Diego having been "ratified" by his qualification we're more likely to see Argentina careen into South Africa this summer like a train going off the tracks. And off the track it will go, because Argentina looks a poor side, and no amount of talent or will can overcome the formational and strategic mess that is Argentina. Normally a country that knows exactly how it should play, under Diego this team looks lost at best, and at times borders on the unrecognizable.

While comforting to know that Argentina will be at the World Cup, and with them Messi, it may be a tragic version of the albiceleste that we witness this summer. And the potential failure of the team could be the final straw for an icon who's burned almost every bridge except the faith of his own country. While Argentina may have forgiven him for his crass remarks, his drug-addled idiocy, and general ridiculousness, I don't think even they will forgive him if Argentina underperforms in South Africa. Because the Cup Maradona brought home would essentially be counterbalanced by a Cup he lets slip away by virtue of his own arrogance and incompetence.

Maradona should be careful. Because he may be the one sucking it soon.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

An Emotional Release

Sometimes a rare or unusual confluence of things make what should be an ordinary event become something greater. Well, last night at RFK Stadium was surely one such event. From events happening before the game to the progression of events during the game, it all lead to a rather gratifying and joyous last-second 2-2 draw.

The USA already qualified for the World Cup, so technically this game was meaningless. The players wanted to win to finish first in the hexagonal and possibly get a seed for the World Cup draw. But let's face it, that seed is not happening, just forget it, so the match was meaningless from the standpoint of being absolutely necessary.

Yet Tuesday morning's accident that left Charlie Davies seriously injured and another person dead altered everything.

The US has never really gotten a hold of what type of team it is in terms of formation and attacking style, and you can tell it has somewhat bothered the team in the past, and certainly bothered fans for a long time. Sometimes it's two deep defensive midfielders, maybe one defensive midfielder and an attacking mid, sometimes attacking through the wings, sometimes trying to force it through the middle, you never really know. But with a shortage of World Class talent to build around an attacking style that can dictate a set style or pace no matter the opponent, the US team has formed one hard and true identity- the classic never-say-die attitude, always fighting and lots of heart. They showed resilience in the Confederations Cup, and time and again during World Cup qualifying when fighting back from deficits, such as the improbable comeback against a Honduran side previously unbeaten at home.

Well, fighting on behalf of a fallen comrade was certainly another motivator to just fight for everything until the last whistle, to do whatever it takes to get a result and honor their friend and teammate.

Costa Rica, on the other hand, was still playing for it's World Cup life. And they brought their game in the first half. They withstood early US pressure, including a laughable, inexplicable misfire by Saturday's USA hero Connor Casey (at 9 minutes nonetheless, when we were honoring ChuckDeez! RFK might have literally combusted had Casey scored). Then came Bryan Ruiz tooling Oguchi, who looked increasingly off key since his summer move to the AC Milan bench. Then came Michael Bradley failing to track Ruiz before he unleashed an unstoppable shot that must have sent an entire country into delirium.

But a not-so-predictable thing happened. Costa Rica backed off, trying to defend the lead with 10 men, the US took complete control, and despite blowing way too many chances, showed heart to rescue a point, an undefeated home campaign, and first place bragging rights in CONCACAF.

Of course, it never should have come down to the last second. Connor Casey blew that early chance, showed a lack of killer striker instinct by deferring to Landon Donovan on a clear chance later, and then pretty much didn't do anything aside from two or three decent flicks/lay-offs. The man is something of a hero after his Honduras performance, yet he gets no slack from USA fans, and his performance didn't help.

His strike partner was also wasteful, though no one can doubt Jozy Altidore's otherwise immense performance. He was all over the place, winning tackles, setting up teammates, and probably should have scored twice (though his first half chance saved by Navas was good agressive goalkeeping). He clearly wanted to play well for his good friend and his comments after the game about always leaving everything on the field because you never know when it's your last are heartening for US fans and scary for opposing defenses.

Landon Donovan may be even more guilty of profligacy than Casey, and he may have even been a little tired for once. He usually can be counted to attack defenders and push the ball forward when a game gets stretched end to end late in the second half, but he tended to hold back somewhat, though that did help retain possession.

The keys were the introduction of Jose Francisco Torres and Robbie Rogers. Benny Feilhaber was ineffective because he was coming far too deep to receive the ball from his defenders, while Bradley was playing above him. Something seems backwards about that scenario. Torres on the other hand played the part perfectly, and his distribution was great, throwing in a key tackle as well. Rogers also came in and missed some chances, though they are more excusable since you wouldn't expect him to finish with his right foot or head anyway. Still, both Torres and Rogers may merit more playing time after last night.

Still, after all these performances, the US was down late, and the air in the stadium was entirely sucked out after Oguchi went down with a serious injury. By the way, I'm going to send a big F You to AC Milan chief executive Adriano Galliani, who wants compensation from the USSF for Gooch's injury.

Additionally, the Costa Ricans were continuing with absolutely ridiculous time wasting. It began in the first half! At one point an "injured" player was getting up and the Costa Rican medical staffer dumped the entire contents of his cooler on the field. Seriously?! For this egregious poor sportsmanship, the karma gods struck them with what I can only imagine is a horrible, gut-punching twist of fate.

While part of me is upset that we couldn't sell out the final home qualifier and only 26,000 people were in attendance (though that was 75-80% USA fans, filling the entire lower bowl with US fans), at the game the crowd was simply amazing, a great atmosphere around the entire stadium, not just the usual loud side of RFK. And you can't discount the effect and atmosphere of those classic RFK stands bouncing up and down like its glory days. As the game was dying and it seemed like we couldn't get the point, and the disappointment of DC United's season at RFK was bleeding over to the USMNT, well the fans decided the heck with it and jumped and cheered for one last attack, trying to will a goal. And when Jonathan Bornstein came unmarked and buried his header, well we might have celebrated harder than when the US clinched qualification on Saturday. It was an affirmation of the US's heart, getting a point for Davies, bragging rights over Mexico in the CONCACAF standings, and sticking it to the Costa Ricans for their antics all at once (while also benefiting the Hondurans, who I must say the US felt good helping after their country was so respectful of the USA on Saturday, a rarity in Central America). All those emotions were released at once, a necessary outpouring from both the team and its fans.

There's probably more to add (what does Gooch's injury mean for the team, Bornstein's continued good play, the marked improvement of Central American goalkeepers recently - Navas was very good last night, the ongoing central midfield question, who steps in up top next to Altidore, etc.), and I'm sure we'll go over that at some point. But to finish things off, here's the video of the final seconds, with the US crowd, the corner kick and goal, US celebrations, and Costa Rican heartbreak:

(For a sound clip of how important this was to Honduras, listen to the Honduran radio call from El Salvador when the US scores)

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Wishing Davies The Best...

I was going to post something about the US team today, maybe look at the current roster status and do something of a power poll for World Cup roster spots. Unfortunately life sucked the air of out of me today as I read the emerging news of a serious car crash involving Charlie Davies early this morning.

When I read the headline that Davies was in a deadly car accident, my stomach just dropped. One person is already dead and Davies is in surgery for non-life threatening but possibly career-threatening injuries. Everyone across the US soccer nation is surely stunned and saddened right now, wishing the best for the family of the deceased and for a speedy recovery for Davies.

There's also a lot of speculation going on right now as to the cause of the accident. One car crashes at 3:15am usually mean one thing. I don't want to seem like I'm stretching here, but through an acquaintance who was a friend of the deceased, I heard there was definitely alcohol involved. However, Davies was not driving. I'm saddened to think that Davies, a player with such potential and a great career ahead of him, put himself in such a poor position. Following along the USMNT during qualification, Confederations Cup, and more, I know lots of people feel very connected to these players, just as I do, and something this horrible really hurts even if I don't personally know Davies.

More to come...
Update: The long and awful list of injuries to Charlie Davies includes: lacerated bladder, fractured right tibia and femur (yikes) that required titanium rods, facial fractures, and a broken elbow, with more surgeries to come the next week to stabilize his facial and elbow fractures. Wow, that's a serious list, and he's damn lucky to be alive, let alone have a chance at recovering in a year or so and having a successful career (which he will have a chance to do thankfully). Not much more I feel like adding today, though I'll certainly be looking out for how both the team and fans honor Davies tomorrow at RFK.

Monday, October 12, 2009

USA Qualify; Argentina Survive (For Now)

ARF gave his thoughts on the USA game, and I don't have much to add. But it's difficult to understate how important it was for this side to get a road win against a quality opponent. And for all the hand-wringing the American side has put themselves (and its fans) through, the US would actually top CONCACAF with a home win against Costa Rica on Wednesday. It will be interesting to see how Bradley approaches that game, which means little to the Americans but everything to Los Ticos who would qualify for their third straight World Cup with a win.

Costa Rica took care of business against Trinidad and Tobago, and now sit third in the table and two points ahead of Honduras. A Honduras loss or draw in El Salvador would send Costa Rica to South Africa and Honduras to the playoff with COMNEBOL. A Honduras victory would force Costa Rica to win in Washington D.C., because Honduras would go through on goal difference if Los Ticos only managed a draw. Honduras must quickly recover their composure after their home defeat; three points is a must on Wednesday to apply pressure. Elsewhere, Mexico won and qualified for the World Cup as well, though the first had to clear the pitch of bees.

The weekend's fixtures clarified the picture in South America considerably. Chile won in Colombia to punch their ticket and eliminate the Colombians. Venezuela fell to Paraguay and were also eliminated in every way except mathematically. Uruguay overturned a 1-0 deficit in the second half and stunned the Ecuadorian crowd in Quito with a 2-1 victory when Diego Forlán converted a penalty in extra time. Uruguay now sit in fifth in the playoff spot, with Ecuador one point behind. Both are still within striking distance of the fourth place side, Argentina.

The Argentines remain the big story as they slop through their qualifying rounds and risk staying home entirely. Maradona remains the manager despite his obvious ineptitude, though perhaps he would not remain so after the qualifying stage. Playing at home against last place Peru is the closest one can get to an automatic three points in CONMEBOL, but a stunning turn of events nearly saw Argentina give the game away in the final moments. Real Madrid striker Gonzalo Higuaín scored at the beginning of the second half in his Argentine debut, but also missed two other good chances that would have put the game away. Peru were the inferior side but were not lifeless, at one point hitting the crossbar from distance. At some point in the second half the rain starting coming so hard it was virtually unplayable, and Peru took advantage of the sloppy conditions and found a stunning equalizer in the 90th minute. But the agony turned to ecstasy for Argentina when substitute Martin Palermo, who hadn't played for the national team in ten years, tapped in for a dramatic victory. Because the goalkeeper was well off the line, it looked as though Palermo was actually offside, with only one defender between himself and the goal. Regardless, it was a massive relief for Maradona, who belly flopped and slid on the soaking turf as though he'd scored the goal himself. Maradona has since called the goal a miracle, and it's hard to disagree, from an Argentine perspective. Along with the inevitable speculation about Maradona getting fired, the other unanswered question for the struggling Argentines: where's Messi?

Argentina are hardly out of trouble going to the last matchday, as they must travel to Uruguay with the World Cup on the line. Argentina only need a draw to be bound for South Africa, but that's asking a lot against a Uruguay side that would qualify with a win. An Argentina loss would send them at best into the playoff. An Argentina loss coupled with an Ecuador win in Chile would send Ecuador into the playoff and stunningly keep Argentina and Messi home during the next World Cup.

In Africa, the Ivory Coast was the second African side to qualify by drawing against Malawi 1-1, with Drogba scoring the equalizer. Cameroon defeated Togo, and would qualify with a win in Morocco. If they fail to win Gabon could capitalize and qualify. Nigeria found a late goal against Mozambique to keep their hopes alive, but still need another victory and a slip-up from group leaders Tunisia in the last matchday. And Algeria and Egypt both won, setting up their dramatic matchup in the qualifying finale. Egypt must win by two goals to advance. The last round of African qualifying is on November 14.

Bahrain and New Zealand played the first leg of their playoff, which concluded 0-0. I'm sure it was scintillating.

Good news for those who want to see Cristiano Ronaldo in the World Cup, as Portugal's victory over Hungary along with Denmark's victory over Sweden (which sent the Danes to South Africa) moved the Portugese into second place. A victory over woeful Malta would send Portugal into the playoff round. Bad news for CR himself, as he re-injured himself in the match and will miss three to four weeks. In other European action, Greece found a vital victory against Latvia, and would qualify for the playoffs with a win over Luxembourg. They could even still win the group if Israel were to defeat Switzerland. Slovenia's road victory over Slovakia puts them in a similar position as Greece; Slovenia need only defeat San Marino to at least qualify for the playoffs. Thus far San Marino have zero points, have scored one goal and allowed fourty-four. I'm guessing Slovenia gets it done. Slovakia must win in Poland or Slovenia will qualify and the Slovaks will be relegated to the playoffs. And Ukraine's victory over England has moved them above Croatia into second place. Ukraine only need to defeat Andorra to finish second, and they will. Croatia will not be going to South Africa.

Several groups have locked in both first and second place after this weekend. Germany's victory over Russia locked up the group for the Germans and second place for the Russians. Likewise, the 2-2 draw between Italy and Ireland sent the Italians through and the Irish into the playoff round. Serbia and France both won in order to finish 1-2 in that order. And Bosnia and Herzegovina won to finish second, and will attempt to qualify for their first World Cup via the playoffs. Of the European matches on Wednesday, only the Switzerland and Slovakia matches hold much interest for qualification, unless a truly shocking upset were to happen.

Speaking of the European playoffs, FIFA announced the rules for determining the matchups last week, deciding on two pools of teams based on FIFA World Rankings. Is FIFA playing favorites? This piece examines.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

When the Yanks Come Marching In

Well that was exhilarating.

The USA clinched World Cup qualification with a rather stunning 3-2 victory over Honduras in San Pedro Sula last night. Due to the TV rights debacle, rather than watching the game at home, I watched the game at a bar in DC packed to the hilt with scream USA fans. That was $15 well spent.

So all discussion about the game begins and ends with Connor Casey. When the starting lineups were flashed and Jozy Altidore was not listed, there was considerable angst among the crowd. At one point early in the match, Casey was shown on camera and was actually booed by the crowd watching the game. Well, he certainly had something to say about that, didn't he?

He started off slowly, but his hold up play improved drastically as the first half wore on, and then he hit for the two goals. He gets all the credit for going in and challenging the 50-50 ball with keeper and not just slamming into him for a foul. And while Donovan's pass was amazing and had the bar on it's feet in anticipation of the go ahead goal, Casey did well with his first touch and coolly slotted home. He drew the foul on the third goal as well, completing a drastic turnaround from previous performances with the USA, receiving a vociferous standing ovation from the crowd at Fado in Chinatown.

I agreed with the analysis in previewing this game that it certainly had the potential for going back and forth attacking, but not necessarily goals. Well I guess the natural consequence of the attacking mindset of both teams was in fact goals, and it made for a great viewing experience.

The second half in particular was just great to watch. It was probably the best half the US has played in quite some time in qualifying, certainly the best since the first half against Brazil and the game against Spain in the Confederations Cup. The most encouraging sign to me was that after the first goal, the US sensed it could grab control, and they followed through in seeking and getting the second. Even more impressive, the US sensed a chance to kill the game right then, and while I couldn't hear the audio at that point, I'm sure the Honduran crowd felt the same. And when Casey drew that foul in perfect free kick territory, we all sensed this was the moment that would clinch qualification, and Donovan capped just an amazing string of performances for the USA this year with the ultimate game winner. By this point, I had long lost my voice, but I sure as hell was still screaming hoarse.

Of course, a CONCACAF match wouldn't be a CONCACAF match without the referee conspiring to let the home team back in the game. He continuously missed easy fouls against Honduras but made weak calls against the US. The second goal was initiated with a pass in the box that was so offside that I really don't know how the linesman could ever be retained for another WCQ after missing it. Then the ref ignored a blatant foul by Honduras outside of their box and subsequently gave Honduras a phantom foul call in the US half at the other end. That free kick resulted in the US hand ball and it seemed the like the ref blowing the game was going to be complete. The Football Gods however made sure that karma was restored, and Wilson Palacios choked from the spot, hitting a pretty nice field goal. The US killed the game nicely with neat possession, even getting a chance or two to salt the game away, though in the end it was enough to book their tickets for next summer.

A final note on watching the game. We couldn't hear the audio with the crowd so loud in the bar, and as the clock hit 90 minutes, we must have missed the sign for time to be added on and we couldn't hear what extra time was given. So when Stuart Holden was subbed, the fourth official raised the number 7, but without showing the substitute number (which turned out to be Steve Cherundolo), so the crowd initially thought this meant 7 extra minutes. Well, let's just say that if the ref had given that, we may have rioted right there in downtown DC, and somewhere Mark Hughes would be feeling our pain. But the US held on and showed great heart to pull out the victory, making sure that when I see them Wednesday, I'll be able to relax and give the boys a nice send-off to South Africa.

A few other things to add on player performances:

-Stuart Holden made a fantastic cross for Charlie Davies's chance in the first half, but was largely ineffective. I love his energy off the bench, but he didn't exactly earn a starting spot last night. He improved in the second half, but was still a little disappointing.

-Michael Bradley started off slowly in the first half, but was very good in the second half, covering a lot of ground. His long range shooting is probably overrated, and he took a number of attempts in the second half that weren't very close, though his accuracy was improving with each attempt, ending with one that was dangerous. His midfield partner Rico Clark was also not at his best early on, but improved as did the entire team in the second half, allowing Donovan in particular to start taking control as he sought to link with Casey. Yet, there still remains questions about who to pair with Bradley in the central midfield in my mind.

-Charlie Davies, how do you miss that chance?! His first header was great, drawing a fantastic save from the Honduras keeper, but you absolutely must finish the rebound. No excuses. He still fought and chased well, but his end result was lacking, and despite promising play from him in France, his play with the National Team has slightly dropped off from the summer. Wonder if he misses playing with his buddy and usual starter Jozy.

-Also missing a fantastic chance was Benny Feilhaber after he dribbled through the Honduras defense and was in one on one with the keeper. He went for the far post curl, typically the correct shot, but he missed badly. My brother thought it was a great opportunity to fake the shot and drag the ball past the keeper near post. He came on a little late for my liking, and I'd like to see him start on Wednesday.

-Spector was solid in the second half, and Jonathan Bornstein held up well opposite him on the back line for a second straight match. Maybe he'll have something to say about that left back position after all. He'll still be a liability against world class opponents, but he's forcing Bradley's hand.

-Gooch made some great interventions throughout the game, but also threw in some shaky moments, in particular his give away setting up his foul, which led to the first Honduran goal. His lack of playing time at AC Milan could be problematic if it continues through the Spring.

-I'm not sure how many coaches vacillate between getting things horribly wrong to getting things amazingly right out of left field any more than Bob Bradley. The Connor Casey pick over Altidore seemed destined to lead to further derision from US fans, but his faith was rewarded. Altidore has so much potential, but his loan move to Hull is increasingly turning out poorly, with his playing time being limited and of course Hull just sucking in general. Now comes the typical time where Bradley can experiment with his selections. Wednesday's match may be meaningless to the US, but Costa Rica still hasn't qualified and they will come looking for a victory, so it will be a good chance for Bradley to get some players a good run in against a desperate opponent without worrying about absolutely needing three points.

It was a great night of football that left me both amped and drained all at once, and I can't wait for the next stage to come for this US team.

Friday, October 9, 2009

USA Hitting the Stretch Run

Massive five days coming up for the US Men's National Team. San Pedro Sula. Honduras unbeaten at home. Costa Rica. No second chances.

Before going into my own thoughts. There's obviously an abundance out there to read up on to prep for the game. Stating the obvious, Jeff Carlisle says the US is wary of los Catrachos' home form, having gone 8-0 during this qualifying cycle. He says watch out for the Honduras midfield (Wilson Palacios is dangerous), the absence of Dempsey (no matter his form, he's scored big goals for the US), and the glut of players with yellow cards who could miss a potentially all or nothing final game.

This second ESPN observer mentions other obvious things, like the Honduras home crowd advantage, lack of playing time for US players in Europe (I guess he doesn't count Charlie Davies, Benny Feilhaber, Michael Bradley, Steve Cherundolo, and Carlos Bocanegra... great reporting buddy) and the general unappealing style Bob Bradley prefers. This guy just repeats that the Honduras midfield is dangerous and that the constant switching of the US starting lineup is unsettling.

In an actual piece of analysis, someone named Leander Schaerlaeckens writes that the US has a big problem - a lack of a world class defensive midfielder. Interesting because most people consider this the deepest position in the US player pool. It may be disingenuous to speak of the US lacking a world class player at any position, because let's face it, other than Tim Howard the only players who could argue for world class status are Landon Donovan and hopefully Jozy Altidore in the future. But his point is still valid. All the great teams have those rocks that cover the back four and sit behind the attacking players. In recent years that has been personified by payers such as Makelele, Gattusso, Marcos Senna, Javier Mascherano, and Felipe Melo. Going back further, all the great teams had the hard man in the middle - France in 98 had plenty of those players (Deschamps, Vieira, Petit), Brazil has had them (Gilberto Silva, Dunga), and even those total football Dutch teams from the 70s needed their hard men to cover for Cryuff and co. For the US, Bradley doesn't count as a pure defensive mid, because he likes to roam forward and is given the license to do so. Clark is serviceable, but still needs fine tuning in holding his position and eliminating certain reckless fouls and tackles from his game. Jermaine Jones is the obvious candidate, but he recently suffered another injury set back which means he probably won't play again until 2010. Maurice Edu has potential, more so than Clark and Bradley, but he's also been injured for so long now, he has a lot of question marks. Let's hope he can return to action and get on the field for Rangers during the second half of the SPL.

It's curious to question US defensive midfield talent, because even though the US seemingly has more central midfielders than any other position (considering that Feilhaber, Jose Francisco Torres, and even Landon Donovan and Stuart Holden can all play center mid, not to mention the players Bradley has given caps to who won't be in South Africa), but in reality the reason it's often so hard to choose between the players is because there's so little difference between them and no one player stands out. Feilhaber has the best vision and passing, Torres the most calm and experience in big time club matches, Bradley the most two-way ability, Clark the most bite, and Donovan the best overall, but there's really no pair from those players that you would consider scary for opposing teams, even in CONCACAF.

Another unique take on the game is Grant Wahl, who thinks this could be a back-and-forth shootout type of game since a tie doesn't really help either team and both need victories to prevent big worries ahead of Wednesday's final games. I agree that we could see some open play, with the midfields getting stretched and some dangerous counterattacking, but I don't think that necessarily means lots of goals. Lots of heart attacks maybe.

The question everyone keeps wanting to talk about it the Holden v. Feilhaber debate for the starting lineup. While I usually advocate for Feilhaber to start no matter what, if he's put on the wing, I'm not sure I like it as much. So my view is that Holden should start, giving more energy and defensive presence up and down the wing. Feilhaber will remain the first man off the bench to bring in extra presence and that final bit of quality in the midfield as the game enters the final third.

The other issue that needs addressing is the constant reporting of the large number of players who carry yellow cards and could miss the final match against Costa Rica, and how that could affect team selection or how people play. Put simply, that's just stupid to even consider. The US needs to go out and try to qualify tonight. As confident as I am that the US can get it done at home against any CONCACAF team, you never want your automatic qualification going down to a single match, where anything can happen or go wrong. Also, I hate to break it to people, as much as I love RFK and think it can bring a good US crowd, if Costa Rica needs something from that last game, every Costa Rican in the United States with the means and wherewithal will most certainly converge on the venerable stadium, home to many great US performances, but also home to a few instances of "home away from home" for Central American or Caribbean teams. It's the nature of the country, and the Nation's Capital in particular, so I think all focus should be on making that game nothing more than a fond send-off. I'll be there screaming my ass off, but I don't want to have to sweat out that game.

Finally, we couldn't go over today's game without the on-the-ground view. My favorite US soccer reporter, from the Washington Post, reports on the scene in Honduras, where the country is in the midst of some political turmoil in the capital, but in San Pedro Sula things have been calm and all Hondurans are united in hopes of a big victory and a huge step toward South Africa. Good to know the US players don't need constant armed guards to protect them from protesters. Maybe there's something to this Obama Nobel Prize and the international community loving the US again...well, maybe not for one night.

One final thing - check out the US Soccer scenario generator to see what the CONCACAF table will look like after you plug in possible results from every match, including how goal differential would play out.

Weekend Primer

It's the international break this weekend, and there are a number of key matches that will define the World Cup race. At this moment, South Africa (host), Japan, Australia, South Korea, North Korea, the Netherlands, England, Spain, Ghana, Brazil and Paraguay are in. Twenty-one spots are yet to be claimed.

Here in CONCACAF, the big match of the weekend is obviously the Honduras-USA match. Mexico hosts El Salvador and Costa Rica hosts Trinidad and Tobago; both home sides will be expected to win. Mexico qualifies with a victory. Costa Rica needs a victory to set up their final match with the US, and could actually be relegated to the playoff with CONMEBOL with a surprise loss. The United States qualify with a win and have a great chance to finish atop the group. A loss would leave it all to be decided on the final matchday, barring a shock result in San Jose. Honduras would qualify with a home win as long as Costa Rica doesn't score at least eleven goals (unlikely). With a Honduras win, the US-Costa Rica match on October 14 would then decide the final qualifying spot, with the US needing only a draw to progress. Whoever does not progress would fall into the playoff.

In CONMEBOL, Argentina face the definition of a must-win match at home against Peru, who sit at the bottom of the table. Argentina currently sit in the playoff position. Maradona says he's not going anywhere. Bad for Argentina, entertaining for the rest of us. Chile look fairly comfortable to qualify, but could finish it off with a win at Colombia. Colombia sits in eighth but only two points back of Argentina, and badly need a win. Ecuador face Uruguay in a matchup of teams "on the bubble", so to speak. Both teams badly need a win, though a draw wouldn't be the disaster for Ecuador that it would be for Uruguay. Finally, Venezuela face already qualified Paraguay in a must win match. Everything still to play for in South America, where the cluster at the middle of the table makes predicting the final qualifying teams nearly impossible.

Action has wrapped up in Asia, with four teams qualified. Now the fifth team, Bahrain, will face Oceania winner New Zealand in a home-and-home playoff for qualification. The first leg is Saturday; the second leg is November 14.

Plenty of important matches in Africa this weekend, which offers little room for error by having four-team groups and only the group winner advancing. Thus far only Ghana have qualified. The group-leading Cameroon side of Samuel Eto'o currently lead Group A and host Togo and Emmanuel Adebayor. Both teams are still alive, along with Gabon, who host Morocco. In Group B, Tunisia lead the group and control their destiny, having twice already played (and drawn) favored Nigeria. Tunisia host Mozambique, while Nigeria look to keep pace against Kenya. In Group C, it's Algeria who have taken control, three points clear over the Egyptian side that impressed at the Confederations Cup (until the USA game anyway). Algeria hosts Rwanda, while Egypt must travel to Zambia. Algeria are the clearcut favorites at this point, especially with having the goal difference advantage as well. In Group E, the Ivory Coast are perfect through four matches, and need only one more point to punch their ticket. They should do so in Malawi. With Kolo Touré, Emmanuel Eboué, Didier Zokora, Yaya Touré, Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou on the roster, among others, anyone want to draw this team in South Africa? Didn't think so.

Finally a look toward Europe, where this week will wrap up all the group qualification matches, with only the playoffs for second place teams to come. All eyes will be on Group 1 with Denmark-Sweden and Portugal-Hungary, determining if Cristiano Ronaldo will be part of the World Cup. Ronaldo is healthy and will play. Apart from desperately needing a win, Portugal will be rooting for Denmark to win, which would vault Portugal into second place and the playoff position. All still to play for in Group 2, with the Swiss topping the group with seventeen points, Greece and Latvia tied with fourteen points, and Israel lurking with twelve points. Greece hosts Latvia in an obviously crucial match, while the Swiss could qualify with a win at Luxembourg, and Israel needs three points at home again Moldova to keep any hope alive. Chaos reigns in Group 3, where Slovakia leads the group but five teams still have a chance to finish second. Slovakia, with nineteen points, hosts Slovenia, who sit on fourteen. A draw qualifies the Slovaks directly. The Czech Republic, on twelve points, host Poland, one point behind the Czechs. Northern Ireland has played an additional match and is idle, but sits on fourteen points. The race for second will be much clearer after the weekend.

The rest of Europe is less complicated. Only one match of interest in Group 4, where Germany travels to Russia. The two sides are well in front of the group, and the Russians sit one point back. A draw would do for Germany, while the Russians must play to win or end up in a playoff. Spain have won Group 5, and Bosnia Herzegovina could finish second with a win in Estonia. Otherwise they could open the door for Turkey, who travel to Belgium. England have likewise clinched Group 6, but still play in a vital match when they travel to Ukraine. Ukraine sit two points behind Croatia for second place with a game in hand. Serbia look comfortable in Group 7, four points above France. A home victory over Romania would place them in South Africa. The French would wrap up second place with a home victory over the mighty Faroe Islands. Italy look to win Group 8, and would clinch with a victory in Ireland, who sit in second. An Irish loss would leave Bulgaria at least momentarily in the hunt, assuming they defeat Cyprus.

That should be enough football tomorrow to keep you satisifed. Enjoy the games!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Chelsea Victory Defines Early Season Title Race

Chelsea looked like potential champions all season until the week before the Liverpool game. But a loss to Wigan and an unimpressive win midweek in Champions League led to questions about the Blues heading into their clash with Liverpool. But a comfortable 2-0 win will quiet the critics for the moment.

Liverpool started the game on the front foot, and had occasional quality chances throughout. Most of those chances fell for super-striker Fernando Torres, just as the Reds would have hoped. But Torres seemed a touch off and did not convert either his free header from 12 yards out, or the bouncing ball that came to his left foot (or shin, as it turned out) while he was unmarked 15 yards from goal. Not Fernando's day. Otherwise, Chelsea's defense held firm, with John Terry clearly cross after cross and generally looking confident in leading the backline.

There was little doubt Chelsea's time was coming, as the chances they created increased in quality throughout the match. Finally, Deco played Drogba through on the wing, who found a streaking Anelka in front of goal. Anelka got behind Carragher and managed to keep the bouncing ball down rather than sending it over the crossbar. The second goal was a tap in for Malouda after Drogba again dispatched a helpless Carragher. Overall, the performance from the Liverpool central defense was actually an improvement, but was still not good enough against a side of Chelsea's quality.

Heading into the break for international play, the two sides are in two very different places. Chelsea now top the table by two points and have to be at least co-favorites with Manchester United. Drogba and Anelka continue to play well together, and refusing to deploy both of their talents at the same time for so long now seems silly. The defense is strong, with only six goals allowed, tied for lowest in the Premier League with Villa. The midfield looks solid, and there is quality on the bench. Hilario looked solid as well in relief of Cech. Chelsea is primed in both England and Europe.

For Liverpool, three losses in eight games leave them sixth in the table, and Villa is two points back with a game in hand. Their three losses came in the three matches they actually played quality opposition: Tottenham, Villa and Chelsea. They also lost midweek to Fiorentina and looked awful. Are they legitimate title contenders at this point? It's hard to say yes, and not just because of the results; Liverpool have problems all over the pitch, with the exception of striker and goalkeeper. Gerrard is the engine that makes the side go, and has been below par to this point. Lucas is awful. Why Benitez continues to put him out there every match is mystery, aside from a total lack of other options. Insert generic comment about missing Xabi Alonso here. One would presume that Aquilani would take Lucas' place in the lineup when healthy, but Aquilani is still a couple weeks away. The central defense is still a question mark and the defense in general lacks depth. Riera is inconsistent and can't find his way into the lineup regularly. The lack of attacking options on the bench was particularly highlighted by Rafa's last substitution at Stamford Bridge. Trailing 1-0 late, Benitez' final move replace Insua at left back with Fabio Aurelio. At least Aureilo wasn't playing in midfield, like he did midweek in Champions League.

After the break, the next two matches for Liverpool are at surging Sunderland, currently sitting eighth in the table, and home for Manchester United. Another loss (or two) may bring an early end to any title aspirations. Likewise, the next two Champions League matches are against group leaders Lyon. It's not unthinkable that by early November, the goals for Liverpool this season may go from "winning the league and in Europe" to "retaining a Champions League spot". Even that last part may not be guaranteed. Tough times for Benitez, and the next month will define the season.

Elsewhere this weekend, United managed a late draw against the previously mentioned Sunderland side thanks to a deflected own goal. The Sunderland striker partnership of Darren Bent and Kenwyne Jones continue to cause havoc for defenses across England, and both scored in the match. Bent's strike was taken beautifully, and though there was some question of a foul on Jones' header against the goalkeeper I believe the referee appropriately did not blow his whistle, as Foster arrived late and did not deserve to be bailed out. Otherwise United struggled and probably didn't deserve a point. It's hard not to think of Chelsea as the favorites after this weekend.

Arsenal have missed their opportunites against other top flight competition, but no one plays more beautiful, flowing football in England than the Gunners. Their attacking display in a 6-2 victory over Blackburn was pure joy. Despite twice stunningly falling behind, Arsenal kept their nerve and kept pressing forward. The end result was a celebration of football to commerate Arsène Wenger becoming Arsenal's longest serving manager. As a neutral, it's hard not to admire Arsenal, once known for playing some of the ugliest football in England, but now created in Wenger's image as just the opposite.

As ARF mentioned, Man City and Villa drew Monday, a just outcome given the even nature of the contest. Villa are a solid side, but it's hard to imagine them legitimately threatening for the top four. I wouldn't say the same about City. Tottenham drew at Bolton, and sit third for the moment, but both City (even on points) and Arsenal (one behind) have a game in hand on Spurs. Portsmouth managed to win, though ARF's Championship diagnosis is surely correct. At least they've paid their wages now, and Saudi oil money is on the way. Hull also managed to win. Those two sides won't win on the same weekend very often. Burnley defeated Birmingham in a contest of newly promoted sides, and the Clarets are still perfect at home with four wins and sit in the top half of the table. Of course Hull started off hot last season and barely stayed up, so nothing is guaranteed.

Key matches two weeks from now: Villa hosts Chelsea on ESPN2 (at 7:45 ET, so set the DVR if you plan on sleeping in), while Liverpool must travel to the Stadium of Light to face Sunderland. Darren Bent against Jamie Carragher should be enough to give Liverpool fans nightmares for the next two weeks.

Monday, October 5, 2009

International Fixtures Are A Coming

Today's draw between top four hopefuls Manchester City and Aston Villa signals an end to the most recent round of European League fixtures and a shift to the crucial final matches of World Cup Qualifying. The draw keeps Villa fourth, tied with Tottenham on points for third and one point ahead of Liverpool and Arsenal. Villa stays seventh, a further two points below 'Pool and Arsenal, while also tied on points with somewhat surprising Sunderland. The top seven were pretty much expected, with the only other team with honest lofty ambitions, Everton, sitting 10th after a slow start. As they continue to get healthy they could continue to move up the table, but I'd be surprised if the current top seven aren't the same come May, if not necessarily the same order. The season may end up a two-horse race between Chelsea and Man U for the title, but the season is shaping up nicely with the annual Big Four monopoly under serious threat this season. It's also very early in the relegation battle, with the bottom seven teams separated by four points. However, Portsmouth can be penciled in for the Championship next year. Done.

Maybe I (or someone else here) will go into detail about an early season review/outlook for the EPL, but it's still early and while some trends are shaping up, there's plenty other more pressing matters to attend to. (One last thing before moving on from European leagues, I can't forget to note Sevilla's nice 2-1 victory over Real Madrid, and though I can't provide any analysis of that match, I have noticed some slight hysteria at how the team performed absent one Mr. Cristiano Ronaldo).

The international date is upon us, with the USA taking on Honduras, who has a perfect record at home in San Pedro Sula, then Costa Rica at RFK Stadium in the Nation's Capital. To bzimzim's delight, as well as many others, it looks like usual starter Clint Dempsey is out for the match after suffering a shoulder injury. This could be a blessing in disguise considering Dempsey's recent form, and the fact that he defends as well as a lampost. Dempsey does not have the workrate needed on the road against a fairly loaded (by CONCACAF standards) Honduras squad, and both Jose Francisco Torres and Benny Feilhaber have shown the ability to possess the ball well. The other easy option is starting Stuart Holden in his place, which provides more energy than Torres or Feilhaber. I don't have an opinion on that yet. Yet.

I'm sure I'll be back later with more previewing the big US games.

There are a bunch of do or die games coming up elsewhere for WCQ. Portugal takes on Hungary, and anyone who is a fan of the game has to be rooting for Portugal to win and for Denmark to either tie or beat Sweden so that Portugal can get into a playoff spot. Who doesn't want Ronaldo at the World Cup? No doubt Ronaldo will be shaking off his ankle injury for this match. In another match of Earth-shattering significance, Armenia will look to build on its upset of Belgium by getting something from already qualified Spain in the great city of Yerevan. France take on minnows Faroe Islands, hoping they can catch first place Serbia, who take on Romania. The question really isn't whether France will win, but how will they look in doing so? They seemingly have a lot of young talent, but Domenech seems to have lost the team. My man Yoann Gourcuff is out due to injury, but Ribery and Benzema alone should beat Faroe Islands with an amateur side. Of course France still only won their first meeting 1-0 away in front of 2,000 people. Not exactly confidence inspiring. In South America, Argentina faces bottom side Peru, while hoping Uruguay can hold Ecuador and allow the Albicelestes to jump Ecuador into the fourth and final automatic qualifying spot. HalaMadrid's Chile is within reach of qualifying, taking on Colombia. Whoever finishes fifth will play the fourth place CONCACAF team, which could be any of the top four teams, including the USA even though they currently sit first. Mexico and Costa Rica host El Salvador and Trinidad respectively, so they have easier matches on paper than the US.

While not related to the international fixtures, still an international issue is the debate amongst the European leagues on how to curtail the outrageous spending by a few teams to the detriment of others. Well MLS commissioner Don Garber will be giving a speech to his European comrades on the benefits of applying the US sports model of a salary cap, revenue sharing, and the players unions and collective bargaining agreements to help level the playing field. Certainly he won't be slipping in slides of how the US model allows the Pittsburgh Pirates to compete with the New York Yankees. One of the interesting facts in support of his claim is that since its inception in 1996, MLS has featured seven different champions (DC United, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Jose, Houston, Columbus, and Kansas City - note I was actually shocked to learn that KC had actually won a championship!) whereas in the same time frame the EPL has seen only three (Man U, Arsenal, and Chelsea). Not noted in that piece is that in that time frame, La Liga has seen four winners (Barca, Real Madrid, Valencia, and Deportivo de La Coruña), the Serie A has had five champions (Juve, Inter, Milan, AS Roma, and Lazio), while the Bundesliga has had six champions (Bayern Munich, Kaiserslautern, Borussia Dortmund, Werder Bremen, VfB Stuttgart, and VfL Wolfsburg). So by reasoning of most number of champions means most balanced league, the tally looks like this: Premier League < La Liga < Serie A < Bundesliga < MLS. I've now proved that MLS is the greatest league in the world. It's science.

Meanwhile, the U20 World Cup unglamorously continues with the round of 16. In today's matches, Korea crushed Paraguay 3-0 and Italy beat Spain 3-1 thanks to two goals from Mattia Mustacchio. His cousin Frederico Fumanchu was unavailable for comment.

Coincidentally enough, all the English speaking sides crashed out of the tournament rather pitifully: England, Australia, Trinidad and Tobago, Cameroon (English is an official language with French), and the United States. It seems I've stumbled upon a second scientific truth today. Turns out the reason teams like the USA and England can't win the World Cup is because the English language is not proper enough, nay beautiful enough, for the beautiful game. What's that you say, Germany has how many World Cups? Hmm... Actually, two English speaking sides did advance: South Africa and Nigeria. Of course both sides have multiple official languages, of which English is just one, but still.

This US team was particularly pathetic. I've already bemoaned Thomas Rongen once before, and I'll do it again. His tactical choice of a 4-3-3 against Germany and Korea backfired spectacularly. And his team selections were just bizarre. One of the best players for the US was Bryan Arguez, who was only added to the tournament roster as a late injury replacement. Clearly Rongen has an eye for talent. I realize the US at least qualified and other teams like Mexico and Argentina did not, but let's just hope the USA is not relying on any of these players in the 2014 World Cup qualifying the way the current squad relies on players from the previous u20 team.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Heads or Tails for Football in Madrid

This past week has only served to highlight the distance between the two Madrid teams and reinforce the depressed state of Atletico Madrid. This past weekend saw Valencia and Atletico square off in a matchup from which the rojiblancos desperately needed three points. Despite Kun Aguero putting the boys from Madrid up in Mestalla in the 7th minute, goals from Pablo Hernandez (25th) and Villa (27th) put the home team up in just over a minute. The game was marked by terrible defense and a chaotic pace that was more reminiscent of feeding frenzy footage on the Discovery Channel than a football match.

A win would have been too much reward for a Valencia side that has similar failings to Atletico (weak at back, thin squad) but whose strike force is in better current form (Villa/Mata/Silva v. Kun/Forlan). Maxi evened the game out in the 92nd, and the game would go final at 2-2. Meanwhile Real Madrid still hasn't quite figured out how they play, and went into the second half tied with recently ascended Tenerife, 0-0. As is the case among the Madrid press, they rang the alarm. This team, in light of the investment made, is terrible, doesn't know how to play, and is not as good as Barca.

Nevermind that they've been together far less time and are still getting the same results as Barca, someone needed fired to hear the reactionary Madrid press tell it. Neverthless, Pellegrini subbed in Kaka and Guti, and "voila!" Benzema scored a brace in eleven minutes time (47, 58) and Kaka got his just deserts by scoring the third in the 77th minute. While the press' exasperation is expected, sometimes the irrationality of the criticisms leveled at this Madrid side call into question the profesionalism and intelligence of Madrid's press corps. Reason, it seems, is superfluous in analyzing the team. That, however, is the burden of every large side, especially one that has just spend a country's GDP in signings.

At midweek, Atletico was put to the fire by a strong Porto side that exploited Atletico's meek defense and basically eliminated the rojiblancos from Europe barring a set of surprising results against Chelsea in their next two games against the Londoners. Atletico is bottom of their group, and at best will be hoping for Europa. Real Madrid are at the head of their group, but like the weekend looked similarly inept in the first 45 against Marseille. But three pieces of brilliance from CR9, one of which resulted in Kaka converting a penalty, and the dismantling was complete.

Unlike flipping a coin, the footballing stature in Madrid seems rather predictable with Real drawing heads, and Atletico always ending up tails. This applies to both Champions League groups or the table itself, where they sit 18th with three points.

More preoccupying for Real is the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo to injury (on the midweek penalty tackle) that will keep him out of the Sevilla game. Sevilla currently sits three points behind Real and Barcelona in 3rd place, and looked impressive crushing Rangers 4-1 in Glasgow midweek and fourth place Athletic Bilbao 4-0 in San Mames last weekend. This is the first true test for a Real Madrid side that has a wonderful ability to strike and lots of "goal" as they say in Spanish, but has yet to prove that they're a footballing "machine." Sevilla on the other hand have established that they play from memory and are in fine form. Real's eighth consecutive win in all competitions, even with Ronaldo, was not guaranteed, and is less so without him. Real will have to see if it's up to the task of taking on another world class team in Sevilla. Expect alarms to go off if they lose, but an expected sigh if they win. Such is the plight of Real Madrid.

Atletico ... well I'm rather sure they'd be ecstatic to grab three points from a decent Zaragoza side and leave the bottom of the table. But smart money's on a tie if you ask me. And if so, Atletico will truly by coasting downhill without brakes. Forlan has re-signed this past week, but look for Kun Aguero to look for the door if Atletico continues on this path for the season. Indeed, it looks like another year of heads or tails in Madrid's footballing hierarchy.