Saturday, November 28, 2009

Barcelona v. Real Madrid

I spent all of three seconds thinking of a catchy title for this post. But let's face it - no further introduction is necessary. Barcelona v. Real Madrid says it all. The biggest club game in the world will kickoff tomorrow, Sunday November 29, 2009 at 1:00 p.m. ET from The Camp Nou in Barcelona. GolTV and ESPNDeportes will simulcast the match Stateside.

The historical and political context paints this match as a battle between the centrist capital and the Catalan metropolis. Barcelona's own marketing campaign feeds fuel to the fire, with its constant reminders that Barca is "mes que un club." But make no mistake, the game tomorrow will be played on the pitch, eleven v. eleven. And that's where the real stories are. The Spanish press has touted this game as a test of club philosophies - cartera (wallet) contra cantera (youth system). Uncle Florentino whipped out the wallet and bought the best. Barca, so the story goes, has bred talent for ages. The truth is somewhere in the middle. Barca has always stressed its cantera, and since Cruyff has carved out a footballing aesthetic very unique to the blaugrana. But the real story is that two of Barca's three European Cups came with this group. That is, Barca's golden generation is not a constant given, but we are experiencing it right now. As Xavi rightly observed at midweek, Real Madrid have been the victim of Barcelona's explosive success domestically and internationally, and were forced to compete or be completely eclipsed in the shadow or Barca's greatness. Of course within this metanarrative of this philosophical inquiry are those great players, whether purchased or created, who will decide this matchup.

The big names we know: Messi, Ronaldo, Xavi, Kaka, Ibrahimovic, Benzema, Iniesta, Henry, Casillas, Puyol, Sergio Ramos. And the small names, well we know those too: Xabi Alonso, Lass Diarra, Yaya Toure, Abidal, Valdes, Pepe, Alibiol. If Real were called the galacticos for their previous arrangement of stars on the pitch, then the number of stars on display tomorrow will form a complex new constellation in the Camp Nou. One or more players from these national teams will be represented tomorrow: Brazil, Argentina, Spain, France, Portugal, and Holland (mostly on the bench).

But the big names are all question marks. Ronaldo is only just back from his fifty-five day layover with an ankle injury. Messi and Ibra too are playing from being on the mend. Benzema has yet to explode, and Kaka has been strictly underwhelming this season. Albiol will be a gametime decision, as will Messi. Will Henry play? But the individual question marks lead to recent form, an area where Barcelona becomes the clear favorite. Though a recent run of ties cost Barcelona the Liga lead, Real has been winning but just barely. Still disjointed and licking their wounds from the Ronaldo injury, only (who else) "el pipita" Higuain has kept the capital's side in it with his now old hat clutch goals. Real's last two performances, both at home, finished 1-0 to inferior opposition. They beat Racing Santander last weekend with the help of an incorrect offside call that would have given Racing the tie. Against FC Zurich at midweek Real fell victim to a worrying trend - consistently playing down to their opposition. Just as with AC Milan, Real played a formidable if unlucky first half and could have gone in 2 or 3 up at half instead of 1-0. But the second half saw a listless team almost give up a tie in the Bernabeu against a weaker side that eventually lost all respect for the merengues and attacked repeatedly for the tie. Quite the opposite took place the day before at the Camp Nou, where a Barca side missing Messi and Ibra put on a clinic against Serie A leaders Inter Milan. Even Mou admitted only one team actually played any football. Cruyff kindly reminded everyone that we didn't learn anything we didn't already know - that Barcelona plays about a thousand times better than Real Madrid right now.

The bulletin board material exchanged this week is too much to discuss in a novel, much less this post, and who knows how much is misquoted or hammed up for spectacle. The reiterative topics such as Guardiola on the 270 million euro spending spree, Ronaldo-dependence (a Catalan play on last year's accusation by the Madrid press of "Messi-dependence"), Barca's feeling slighted by being second and playing better, Pellegrini saying the two teams aren't so different etc... litter the four newspapers that have devoted almost an entire week to hyping this game up.

But truth be told everyone knows these three things:

1) A clasico is always special;
2) A clasico is completely unpredictable; and
3)It's being played in Spain - so "There Will Be Goals."

Both teams are setting out to attack, or so they claim, but we'll have to see how it plays out. For me, a tie would be a victory for Real playing away, not to mention the competitive flavor this result might lead to as Sevilla and Valencia get a chance to draw nearer to the two giants. That said, anything can happen, and anything probably will. So after the Arsenal v. Chelsea appetizer, join the world and watch the clasico, consider it a World Cup warm up session.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Ben Olsen - A DC Legend Retires

Just want to say a quick few words on Ben Olsen, who officially retired today from DC United. Having played in the second most games in team history, the fiery and gritty Olsen was the heart and soul of DC United for so many years.

People still seem to forget that when he first came upon the professional scene from college that he was a dangerous attacking player who probably could have locked down the US right midfield spot. His loan to Nottingham Forest was hugely successful, with Forest supporters still asking about and remembering him. Unfortunately his second devastating ankle injury there ended that bright start to his future and forced Benny to reinvent himself as a gritty defensive midfielder. But I guess in the end, as a DC United fan I was fortunate that Benny came home and I was able to see him play out the rest of his career in front of me.

Benny won the MLS rookie of the year, two MLS Cups, including one MLS Cup MVP, and other MLS honors, but you can never really quantify what he did and meant to DC. He was the most popular player on MLS's most successful club, he played for and to the DC United fans, getting them fired up unlike no one else on the club. That and he was a pretty damn excellent defensive midfielder in MLS. It's the little moments and outbursts that stick out, with the crowd always chanting his name. That hairy little man had a stature far greater than his 5'8" body would belie.

Here's a clip of my favorite moment from my favorite DC United player, his hat trick against arch rival NY Red Bulls, including a great third that had us all on edge as the play was happening because we just knew the hat trick was coming.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Beckham's Penalty Shootout Curse

Even in MLS, Mr. Posh Spice can't catch a break in a penalty shootout.

After being a part of English teams that lost in penalties in the 1998 and 2006 World Cups, as well as the Euro 2004 championships, David Beckham felt the sting of another shootout loss in the MLS Cup final. Beckham fired in his penalty, but saw Landon Donovan sky a Baggio-esque effort and Nick Rimando continued his PK heroics for Real Salt Lake, your 2009 MLS Cup champions.

The game was fairly decently played, particularly the first 65-70 minutes, even though quality chances were somewhat lacking. LA scored a well taken goal in the first half, with Beckham springing Donovan down the right, and Donovan providing a perfect cross to Mike Magee on the back post to volley home from close range. RSL answered in the second half after a shot by Yura Movsisyan bounced around and fell to Findley from about six yards out to the left, where he fired home.

Findley provided glimpses of why some people are hoping he can fill the void at US striker caused by Charlie Davies's absence. He has speed and always seemed to be something of a threat when he was running at the LA defense. Unfortunately RSL, despite having a lot of possession, particularly in the second half of the game, did not have a good creative type to provide telling service. Kyle Beckerman produced another quality display leading the midfield, but he lacks the imagination in the final third that was expected to be provided by Javier Morales, who was lost to injury in the first half.

Interestingly, Donovan may have portended his penalty miss in an podcast interview with ESPN's Sport Guy Bill Simmons last week. He said that usually he picks a side, but that sometimes he'll just sort of see where the keeper is guessing and change his kick to the other side for the easy goal. He made a comment to the effect that this can cause problems because anytime you change your mind late, you don't hit it as well and you get those shots that are up the middle. Rimando guessed to Donovan's right, which seems to be his preferred side, and Donovan probably tried to change where he was placing it, ultimately hitting a very poor shot that skied high. For US fans' sake, let's hope the usually spot-on Donovan got this miss out of his system now rather than if he's called upon in the World Cup.

It would have been nice to see Andy Williams clinch the shootout when he stepped up for his kick. He was something of a sentimental favorite to win for those he know about his trying year with his wife suffering from a rare form of leukemia. Unfornately that was not be, but he was bailed out when Edson Buddle stepped up for LA with a terrified look on his face like he was about to crap himself. Rimando saved, RSL made the clinching PK and it was celebration time. They showed Williams's wife in the box during the celebrations and she seemed about as excited as she must have been when she got her diagnosis. Would've expected a little more emotion there, no?

The final comment goes to Seattle, which everyone reporting from MLS Cup says the City embraced the final as a big time event, coming out in strong numbers (over 46,000), the best MLS Cup showing since 2002. Too bad it's still a turf field, one that seemed to cause footing problems with numerous players falling and slipping randomly as if sniped down. It'd be nice if a great soccer scene such as Seattle could also have an appropriate playing field. Still it was a nice event, only if next time it could have a kickoff that starts before 9pm on a Sunday night, Eastern time. The expansion draft is coming up Wed and then we can put MLS on the backburner with other big events coming up around the World in the next two weeks (important Champions League action mid-week; El Clasico, the Merseyside Derby, and Arsenal-Chelsea this weekend; World Cup draw next Fri).

Thursday, November 19, 2009

La Main de Henry

Soooo, where to begin with yesterday's "slight" controversy.

Before the video gets taken down, take a look (the replay shows it clearly):

Henry admitted the handball, claiming it was not intentional. His intent is certainly debatable, but I wouldn't question that because in the heat of the moment sometimes that kind of thing happens. It's not so much that the handball is intentional but more that you just aren't really thinking, it's all instinct and adrenaline, and only after your hand is touching the ball do you really realize what you're doing.

Certainly Ireland are aggrieved, rightfully so. However, I am going to straight off debunk a number of the Irish complaints.

The offsides. Of all the complaints, this is the most stupid, plain and simple. The players who were offside did not play the ball! Henry was in an onside position, that's all that matters! Then, when Henry played the ball, Gallas (who was offside when the kick was taken) was no longer offside because he was behind the defender on Henry. Simple, it's all on the video easy to see and it's in the rules, so I don't want to hear about offsides on the play anymore. Done.

France and Ireland should replay the match in Paris. Again, just stupid talk from justifiably bitter losers. If FIFA/UEFA were to set such a precedent it would be unheard of and would destroy the legitimacy of the sport as far as I'm concerned. Once you did it here, there'd be no differential between replaying this match and any given match across the world where some controversial call/no call, such as a clear dive leading to a penalty. It would be chaos... Now, speaking entirely hypothetically, what if the French were to say, we don't want to take the victory in this manner, we admit cheating and are willing to replay the match (or replay just the extra time)? I'd still be hesitant, though I might ultimately allow it. The reason even that is dangerous is again the precedence it sets. Now every time a controversial call leads to a result, the aggrieved team would be lobbying the team that benefited to do the same, and that to me isn't much more sporting than cheating in the first place. Part of what makes sports so great, and remember that sports are merely entertainment, is the controversy and talking points that are imbued throughout sports history.

It was Henry's handball that robbed Ireland of a place in the World Cup. I find this point technically wrong because Henry's handball merely robbed the Irish of a chance to continue extra time and try to win the playoff match in penalties. If the Irish were in fact advancing based on away goals or something, and then France's goal changed that result entirely, then yes, they had an actual World Cup place taken away from them. For large portions of the game, the Irish were taking it to France. France continued to show that something is amiss with this team. And Raymond Domenech continues to be an idiot (subbing Malouda for Gourcuff, and keeping Benzema on the bench??), yet the French were dominating extra time and looked like they might get a goal. Ireland had some great chances to put the game away during normal time and failed to do so, that's their own fault and it came back to hurt them. (I know I'm being harsh here, more on my true feelings on the Irish performance follow below.)

Henry is a cheat and this forever tarnishes his legacy. I think people are getting a little hysterical with the calls for Henry to fall in a ditch, etc. etc. He cheated, yes. Is he a cheat? No. There's a difference. Amado Guevara is a cheat. Henry cheated in this instance. Did the Hand of God forever taint Maradona? I say no. In fact, it's part of his mystique. (Maybe if you're English you feel differently.) Of course that goal may be softened somewhat by the fact that Maradona came back three minutes later and ripped through the entire team with probably the most famous goal in soccer history.

I think Henry has done too much, on and off the field. I think his admission of touching the ball, and the way he spoke with the Irish players on the field after the game, is key in somewhat easing this moment from being a huge black mark on his career to merely a negative mark. He even supposedly told the ref it hit his hand. The real question should be what the hell the referee and his assistant were watching/thinking?! Still, this doesn't completely taint Henry's career. It will become part of his and the sport's history, and it'll be talked about all summer when France play in the World Cup, and be reprised the next time qualification comes up for France and Ireland individually. Yet, Henry will still be Arsenal's and France's greatest goalscorer, and a World Cup, Euro Championship, and Champions League title winner, in addition to so many domestic honors.

I'll finish with two more analogies. To some people, Zidane's sending off in the World Cup final tarnished his legacy. I understand that a little because that was his final game and it could have been an unbelievable send off by winning his second World Cup, yet he let his famous temper get to him and he struck out so violently. But no one is using that to diminish Zidane's on the field accomplishments or his place among the all-time greats. As far as I'm concerned he's still the greatest player during my era (Ronaldo was close because of his excellent peak, though he definitely tarnished his legacy when he got fat and continues to play out a somewhat sad ending to his career).

Lastly, many of these complaints are coming from people who obviously have a bias for Ireland, or maybe against France. But if it was a reverse situation, anyone who claims that they would not only own up to it but have told the ref to disallow the goal or would ask for a replay are simply lying through their teeth or lying to themselves. You can say that all you want but you aren't in that situation, and I know you would be no difference than Henry or the French in the same situation. If the US was in the playoff against Uruguay and Clint Dempsey used his hand to divert the ball leading to the goal that sent the US through yesterday, I don't know a single US fan who wouldn't take the goal and qualification. We'd be just like the French. I'd say, yeah he used his hand, yeah it was wrong, yeah the ref should have called it, but such is life and such is sport, sometimes that happens. I wouldn't be proud and I'd know we backed into qualifying, but I would not call Dempsey a disgrace and give up our qualification. And you wouldn't either. So I don't want to hear it.

(And yes, I understand that if this happened to the US, I'd be absolutely heated and would forever hate the opposing player. I'm a biased fan, that's sports. So I'm not actually judging the Irish supporters. I feel for them, and having them in the World Cup would have been great. And let's face it, based on the merits of performance and heart, Ireland should have gone through with a performance in Paris that the UK press are rightfully calling heroic. Giovanni Trapattoni did a great job with that team.)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Counting Down to the Final Field of 32

Today is the big final day of qualifying as 12 teams are vying for the final 6 spots in the 32-team field for the 2010 World Cup.

Kicking off first is Algeria v. Egypt. Algeria is best known for producing great French footballers (see Zidane, Zinedine; Nasri, Samir; and Benzema, Karim), while Egypt are the two-time defending Africa Cup of Nations champions. Most of their team is based out of Egypt, with the notable exception being Mohamed Zidan of Borussia Dortmund. Algeria actually has a squad with players from a variety of European clubs, ranging from Lazio and Siena to AEK Athens to Portsmouth and Hull. Still, even after telling you that its not like you or I would recognize any of those names. Egypt has the momentum from beating Algeria just three days ago, and I'd like to see them rewarded for their generosity in providing the US with the boost it needed to showcase itself at the Confederations Cup.

Up next is Ukraine v. Greece. Greece rely on a disgusting brand of defensive tactics, playing very disciplined and hoping for a rare counter-attack goal. Ukraine will feel confident of winning at home after the 0-0 draw in Athens with one-time superstar Andriy Shevchenko leading the forward line, while thankfully his namesake Andriy Voronin can't even make the squad. I don't really care who wins this match, but I think most neutrals would rather not have Greece advance considering their negative approach to the game.

Kicking off at the same time this afternoon are Bosnia v. Portugal and Slovenia v. Russia. I've been touting this Bosnia team with all their hitmen (Džeko and Ibišević), but they have received a massive blow with the apparent loss of playmaker Zvjezdan Misimović, the man who makes the VfL Wolfsburg attack go. Even if the late reports of his injury absence are true, Bosnia can't really complain about the injury luck department because Portugal of course are playing without arguably the best player in the world (even though in terms of relative impact to the team, Misimović's injury hurts Bosnia more). Deco continues to lead the Portuguese, even though he's on the downside of his career. Youngsters like Nani and João Moutinho have yet to really make their mark, although Nani played well in the first leg. Still, Portugal has so many talented names across the pitch that they really should still qualify, but an early strike by Bosnia could set up a wonderfully entertaining and tense match.

I honestly can't really analyze Slovenia, not having seen them play ever and not knowing any of their players. Russia, on the other hand, have a host of quality players all over the pitch, and not just the attackers everyone knows (Arshavin) but also Igor Akinfeev in goal, who proved he is one of the world's top young keepers with his Champions League performance against Manchester United for CSKA Moscow. The X factor still has to be Guus Hiddink. I think few people would bet against the Russians with the Dutch master managing the sidelines. I'm not sure Slovenia will shut out Russia even though Slovenia had one of the best defensive records during qualifying (in a weak group where they finished second to Slovakia and above the Czech Republic, Northern Ireland, Poland, and San Marino), and grabbing an away goal would make Slovenia's job that much tougher.

The final UEFA qualifying match pits France at home against Ireland. The Irish were incensed after their first leg 1-0 loss and have sounded confident that they can overturn their deficit. There's no need to rehash how France have all the talent in the world but have yet to put it all together. France also have something of a history of crashing out in big moments like these, and I wouldn't doubt that the Irish squads's heart and work rate will seriously test France's nerve. An Ireland victory overturning a deficit at the Stade de France, site of France's greatest triumph, would be quite famous indeed. Will it happen? I'm not as confident as the Irish seem to be. It could be the type of game where France look dominant in possession at times, but something like tied scoreline late could lead to the Irish dominating the ball while desperately searching for a late goal and France just hanging on and nipping an insurance tally that sends them through. In any case, you surely won't have a hard time finding plenty of analysis to sate your appetite prior to this match since the UK-centric soccer press in the US has largely been focusing on this match above all the others.

Lastly, tonight's final Wold Cup Qualifier pits Uruguay against Costa Rica in Montevideo, Uruguay. Having won the first leg, I really see no way that Uruguay doesn't finish off this playoff and beat the Ticos. The Costa Rica loss (OK, it was a tie, but it felt like a crushing loss to them) against the US really was the end of their World Cup hopes. They knew it. You knew it. Costa Rica is not a good road team, and while I think that the US-Mexico-Honduras trio from CONCACAF are talented and could give a South American team a tough go in a playoff, any other team from CONCACAF would have a lot of problems, and we already saw that in San Jose on Saturday.

With that said, I hope you have a TV or internet feed so you can sit back and enjoy the drama.

Monday, November 16, 2009

What We Learned This Weekend

We learned little this weekend, most judgments pending further outcomes.

We learned the US has some defensive depth because Jonathan Spector is versatile and can play center back in a pinch. And I hope we can get a chance to see what we have in Edgar Castillo on Wednesday against Denmark (especially seeing as Bornstein was poor against Slovakia). Building defensive depth is never a bad thing (though Clarence Goodson does not count as defensive depth).

We learned were reminded that the US has no attacking depth. In addition to an uninspired Jozy Altidore, Bob Bradley called upon Conor Casey, Eddie Johnson, and Jeff Cunningham to lead the attack. That's otherwise known as the striker pu pu platter. Granted with unavailable players limiting his choices, Bob Bradley didn't have much to work with. MLS playoffs kept Robbie Findley and Brian Ching from getting looks. And more importantly, Landon Donovan and Stuart Holden were absent, meaning that probably the US's next best option at forward, Clint Dempsey, remained in midfield rather than moving up top.

Also, can we just pray that Donovan doesn't get injured, because let's face it there is little creativity and menace to the US attack without him and if Jozy isn't having an A game. Holden can add that element, but again he wasn't there, though he will be against Denmark. Robbie Rogers hasn't hurt himself with his displays, but I don't think he's a starter and he's definitely not someone who should be expected to be the fulcrum of the US attack. And unfortunately Torres won't be playing Wed either. Feilhaber and Bradley controlled the midfield well, though some of that was due to the extreme defensive look Slovakia was playing, but they never really carved out a truly threatening final pass.

We learned that Brad Guzan looks like he will continue to provide excellent back up in the net despite still playing behind Brad Friedel at Aston Villa. His Cup heroics for the Villains are not flukes.

We learned that FIFA knows how to give out toothless punishment. Two month ban for Maradona for his explitive-laden rant means his can't be present at the World Cup draw and he misses one friendly match. Tough.

We learned that Uruguay will be joining said World Cup draw. Sure they still have the second leg to play, but Costa Rica has been in a free fall during qualifying and there's no way they will overturn a 1-0 home leg defeat in Montevideo on Wed. The World Cup is better off for having La Celeste rather than the Ticos.

Nothing was settled in UEFA qualifying, though we did learn another reason to hate the French, what with Lassana Diarra causing some sort of ruckus and being "unclassy" with the Irish. The World Cup would be better off having the Irish fans and their team's spirit there, but in pure talent, the country that gave us Michele Platini and Zinedine Zidane are the better bet. They outclassed Ireland in Dublin, and players like my man Joann Gourcuff, Thierry Henry, and Patrice Evra do qualify as classy footballers in my book. The 1-0 away win is a great result, and while the Irish won't go down without a fight, they have long odds at this point.

Russia also has some classy players, with Andrei Arshavin (in my book the main reason why Arsenal are looking like a real threat this season) leading the way. Having Guus Hiddink in charge pretty much guarantees some nice attacking football and probably a good World Cup showing if they make it there, but they need to be wary after Slovenia grabbed an away goal. Still, I couldn't name you a single player from Slovenia. Elsewhere, Ukraine and Greece played to a 0-0 draw, fitting for a match that is drawing the least amount of attention of all the playoffs. And Portugal will continue to make things difficult for themselves. While a clean sheet victory at home is usually a great way to start off a tie, the slender advantage means there will be stressful times in the second leg in Bosnia. I'd love to see one of Bosnia's superb strikers get a goal to really open up that match. All neutrals may want Portugal to win so Ronaldo can play in the World Cup, and even though I'm inclined to want the same, deep down don't we know that Portugal is just going to disappoint in the World Cup anyway?

Finally, we also learned our 2009 MLS Cup participants! Landon Donovan and David Beckham can get you a long way in MLS, so the LA Galaxy have to be favorites for MLS Cup. For the second straight year an unexpected team got hot at the right time to make it to the playoff championship, this year being RSL. Salt Lake has players to like (Findley, Yura Movsisyan, Kyle Beckerman, Clint Mathis) and Nick Rimando had flashbacks to his 2004 Eastern Conference Final penalty kick heroics (one of the great matches I've ever attended). I think it'll be a good Cup final, and the Seattle crowd should be a good one, hopefully giving the MLS season a nice send off.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Soccer Power Index

What would the world be without ESPN? Even with a sport like soccer, which ESPN does not often feature, though it is doing so increasingly, they can be trusted to provide us with more than just table scraps. Today's unveiling: the Soccer Power Index, a power rankings for national teams.

The Soccer Power Index, or SPI, is a power ranking of not just how a team has performed, but according to ESPN it is an objective measure of a team's current overall skill level and the SPI ratings are intended to be forward-looking so as to measure a team's relative likelihood of victory if a competitive match were to be held tomorrow.

The formula for devising the ratings is explained in detail here. A more layman's explanation of the purpose of the SPI is provided here.

Though the formula for the ratings is complicated, it's not arbitrary and convoluted; it makes sense. I won't go into detail explaining the system, but anyone knowledgeable about soccer would agree with how ESPN determines much of the formula. There is a lot of adjusting going on because in soccer, unlike most sports, who and where you play make a huge difference, and the ratings are not meant to rank past performance but predict future performance.

Home field advantage is much more important in soccer than in any other sport. Undeniably so. And goals for/against must be adjusted for competitiveness - not just the opposing team (Australia beating American Samoa 31-0 is really like a 4-1 victory between average teams) but also for the particular lineup of both teams. Makes sense that a victory over a B team is not as impressive as a win against a ful strength squad. Similarly, we know that a victory in CONMEBOL qualifying is worth more than a CONCACAF victory, and a Confederations Cup victory is more impressive than a Gold Cup victory. Interestingly, the ratings also use club results as a factor. So every time Barca crush someone via goals by Ibra and Messi from Iniesta assists, Sweden, Argentina, and Spain all benefit. Makes sense if you're evaluating current skill level. And even those numbers are adjusted to take into account the performance within the greater team - soccer is truly the most team oriented sport. The end result is a rating of a team's current skill and competitiveness level.

Though not shown in the ratings explicitly, the SPI formula essentially creates rough equivalencies between national teams and club teams. So Brazil = Barca, Germany = Chelsea (shocking comparison, I know), Sweden = Tottenham (about right), Bolivia = Sunderland (a little generous for Bolivia I think) and Tanzania = Derby County. Who is the USMNT equivalent? FC Porto. Style notwithstanding, the place in the larger order of giants of world football seems about right: dominant in their league/region, can spring upsets against any team in the world, can even advance from group stages and possibly another upset beyond, but not expected to win the whole thing (or really even be a semi-finals level team) - applies pretty well to both I'd say.

So what about the actual ratings? Brazil and Spain are 1-2. Can't argue there. England as no.3? Hmmm. But when you examine their qualifying results, the skill level and how they've played under Capello, I see why they're high, though this is the one of the teams that the SPI seems to have gotten clearly wrong in my eyes. I'd have them closer to 7 or 8.

The full top 25:

1. Brazil, 2. Spain, 3. England, 4. Netherlands, 5. Argentina, 6. Germany, 7. Portugal, 8. Chile, 9. France, 10. Uruguay, 11. Ivory Coast, 12. Italy, 13. Russia, 14. USA, 15. Serbia, 16. Cameroon, 17. Paraguay, 18. Mexico, 19. Croatia, 20. Ukraine, 21. Denmark, 22. Honduras, 23. Sweden, 24. Australia, 25. Czech Republic.

Some people might say the US is a little high, but really, this is about right. The USA is better than Mexico and Honduras obviously, and has beaten Sweden twice relatively recently. Maybe Serbia, Cameroon, and Croatia all have talents well above the US (players like Nemanja Vidic, Samuel Eto'o, Ivica Olić, and Luka Modrić) and I wouldn't argue if they were rated higher than the US, but as a team you'd have to say that a match between any of the four would probably be pretty close, with home field advantage or neutral field playing a big role in who gets the advantage that particular game.

The SPI ratings are also much better than FIFA's rankings. The US is not the 11th best team in the world, but 14 is a little more appropriate. Chile (17th in the FIFA rankings), Uruguay (25?!), Ivory Coast (19?!), and Serbia (20) are all given their proper due in the SPI, while Italy is rightfully dropped eight spots. Croatia may have a gripe, dropping from 8 to 19 between the two polls. But they also only finished third in their qualifying group behind England and Ukraine, only above superpowers Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Andorra. I also like how the SPI righted the fact that FIFA has Switzerland and Greece in the top 16 (absolutely no way) and Bosnia makes a significant jump from FIFA's ranking of 42 to 29 (as I've been telling people, Portugal has to watch out, especially with Ronaldo ruled out of their playoff tie).

Anyway, it's nice to see a ratings system like this that uses advanced statistical analysis and takes into account the unique factors of soccer without just giving credit to teams for beating up on lower opposition (BCS...). Plus, it's always fun to have one more thing to debate.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The State of Affairs in Madrid

Madrid, like most major metropolitan areas, boasts two professional football teams: eternal winners Real Madrid, and a band of malcontent losers known affectionately as Patetico Madrid, excuse me, Atletico Madrid. As these two historic teams prepare for their first derbi of the season tomorrow (ESPNDeportes 4 p.m. ET), it's worth examining how each team arrives to what would be the match of the weekend, were one and two in the EPL not squaring off Sunday morning. Regardless, the Madrid derbi is one to watch.

Atletico Madrid makes a "triumphant" return to the Calderon after their "victory" there midweek...when they tied Chelsea. "Victory" because that tie was the single high point of a terrible campaign so far, even though they were mathematically eliminated from Champions League due to it. But considering they're currently in a relegation spot, 18th, Atletico will be keen to continue their "run" of good form under new coach Quique Sanchez Flores and try to beat Real Madrid for the first time in the 2000s. Kun looked like the star he's been hyped up to be, but with Sanchez Flores calling this the game of the year for Atletico, you have to wonder if the pressure will be too much for the rojiblancos to endure, and it will be S.S.D.D. all over again. And while the team has improved significantly in the past two weeks under Flores, this is still the team that lost a 2-1 lead at home, in the 91st minute, against a nine man Mallorca exactly thirteen days ago. The coach has stated the team's objective is to be in the top seven by the Christmas break, and a win against crosstown rivals would break a huge drought for the team from Manzanares, and go a long way towards bolstering the team's ever-fragile psychology. But for the past four years every year has looked like it might be Atletico's, whether on paper or on recent form, but it never is. Truth be told, they've had the chance to win a derbi three times in that time, and botched all three opportunities in typical Atletico fashion. End result? Two ties and a loss.

Real Madrid on the other hand, must have a win to keep the pace with Barcelona. Less than two weeks ago, the alarms went off (as they're predisposed to do in Madrid) when Real lost 4-0 to third division outfit Alcorcon in the first leg of the King's Cup. It didn't help that the team had just tied Sporting Gijon 0-0 (on a wrongly disallowed Raul goal). Pellegrini's head was requested, with Marca's coverpage reading, "Leave Now." The press actually seemed surprised Pellegrini didn't just quit. Meanwhile Pellegrini played his part, reiterating his belief in the project, and not-so-subtly reminding the press and the organization that in the past five years, with ten coaches, the team's won two titles. A haul the Chilean categorized as "not much." The team redeemed itself somewhat against Getafe at the Bernabeu when the madridista faithful turned on the referee for expelling Albiol, and Higuain scored two (nearly three) for a 2-0 victory against the outnumbered home side. But it's not all smiles in Chamartin, as Ronaldo remains injured and while he should be ready by the clasico, the Portuguese national team is intent on him pushing to play for the two game tie against Bosnia. Qualification, it seems, could cost him the World Cup, considering the delicate nature of his injury. And at midweek, while Real looked excellent in the first half at AC Milan, the truth is they tied, and played a diluted second half.

And just as one knows that eventually Real Madrid will beat an Italian side, so it seems Atletico Madrid will eventually win a derbi. But will this be the year? Can Real afford it to be? With Barcelona within one point, Real Madrid desperately need a win to keep the pressure on. But the rivalry is fierce, and if desperation is truly the key, Atletico certainly have the edge. In the end, Real Madrid's form and talent should win the day, but you never can tell. And that's the reason derbis remain special. Especially the one played in Madrid, where it's not just a battle of history, social class, and football, but a battle for hegemony over what any good gato or gata will tell you is the best city on earth - Madrid.

Weird, Wacky and True

ESPN has the best footage of the series of assaults Elizabeth Lambert carried out on several BYU players in the semifinals of the Mountain West Conference. Normally I could care less about college soccer generally, but this clip takes the cake. I don't know whether Lambert's punishment should be harsher or lighter because she's an amateur. My gut says harsher, but either way, between ten and fifteen games sounds about right for the litany of crimes she committed during the match. And for the record, since all she saw was yellow, a punishment should be meted out to the referee as well.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Over-coaching Does Not Work

The first MLS playoff tie is over, with Salt Lake defeating the Columbus Crew last night at Crew Stadium 3-2, for a 4-2 aggregate victory. The victory is a big upset for RSL, but probably the biggest subplot for the series was the over-coaching by Robert Warzycha.

Despite winning their second consecutive Supporters Shield trophy, the Crew were inconsistent down the stretch, finishing 1-3-1 in the month of October (including a CONCACAF Champions League match). The Crew were struggling to score, so Warzycha constantly changed lineups, leading to the inexplicable decision to sit reigning MVP Guillermo Barros Schelotto in the first leg 1-0 away defeat. He claimed he wanted to find a new combo to spark the offense. What?!

Starting the second leg, all Schelotto did was score two goals. Of course Warzycha balanced out that obvious move by not starting Robbie Rogers. This type of decision making is common, and in MLS the perfect example is Tom Soehn, formerly employed by DC United. He may have had some unfortunate circumstances (injuries, extremely busy schedule), but coaches need to stop over-thinking and develop a best team (usually that means your best players) and ride them for important games. I think the playoffs qualify.

(By the way, the MLS playoffs are just stupid. Why have a conference system for the playoffs? I understand for the season due to the traveling a straight table would require, but the if you're not going to keep all the teams within their conference for the playoffs by giving the the last two spots to the teams based on best record regardless of conference, just do a straight up seeding of the top 8 teams. We now have RSL, a Western Conference team, playing in the Eastern Conference finals, one year after playing in the Western Conference finals! Great job MLS.)

Another coach who was long derided for his rotational policy was Rafa Benitez. He seemingly got things right in the Champions League, prior to this season anyway, but was also changing his squad so that they never gained any consistency in the Premier League. A thin squad didn't help, and at this point the squad is even thinner, with Gerrard likely needing surgery and Torres probably the same, even though he's toughing it out and playing injured. Benitez basically has no choice but to start the same 11 players because he no one to choose from. Not that that stops him from doing things like starting Andriy Voronin and constantly subbing Yossi Benayoun even though he's been Liverpool's most effective perform not named Torres recently.

Now I understand the need to rotate players some when you have so many games as teams like Liverpool and Manchester United. Certainly Alex Ferguson is guilty of odd choices now and then, but he's choosing between players like Anderson, Scholes, Giggs, Carrick or Fletcher, or between Owen, Macheda, or Berbatov. A little different from choosing between Andriy Voronin and Ryan Babel. Or picking the immortal Emilio Renteria and Steven "Blond Sideshow Bob" Lenhart over Guillermo Barros Schelotto.

Not that I'll complain about Liverpool having a disastrous season, despite my affinity for the wonderful atmosphere at Anfield and the Kop for big matches and my man crush on Steven Gerrard. Monday Liverpool take on Birmingham at Anfield, and if they don't win that one, not only will they not be winning any hardware this season (not that they will even if they win), but there's really no way Rafa can stay on. Sometimes a coach's tenure just runs its course. He'll win elsewhere, just not in Liverpool.

Lineup selection and tactical choices very well could play a big part in the weekend's big match between Chelsea-Man U on Sunday at the Bridge. While a win could very well boost the victor's psychological edge in the title race, but not even being halfway through the season and only a two point difference between them, let's not make this out to be a title decider quite yet. It'll still be great theatre (I hope) and it's the match of the weekend (with the Sevilla-Valencia match another highlight, especially after Los Che have found their form in back to back 5-0 and 4-1 victories over Tenerife and Lazio). Chelsea have a fairly set best 11, but SAF's starting 11 could be telling as it's their biggest match so far this season and we don't quite know what his best 11 looks like. Let's hope he doesn't overthink it.