Friday, July 30, 2010

North Koreans Still Alive

Contrary to what many of you may have been expected, the North Korean team, fresh off their embarrassing World Cup, is home safe and sound.  The team has not been physically punished -- at least not yet -- but they were punished nonetheless.

As this report finds, the Red Mosquitoes were subject to a six-hour session of ridicule and abuse, or as the Guardian says eloquently, an excoriation, from the media, sports students, and the sports minister.  Their failure reflects poorly upon Dear Leader's son and dictator-in-waiting, Kim Jong-un.  They go so far as calling the team's actions a betrayal.  I guess they should be relieved they haven't been sent to any gulags, though rumor has it that coach Kim Jung-hun may be sent to work at a building site.  He may have to watch out for "falling" bricks or anvils or pianos (if they even have them in North Korea).

(By the way, what kind of nickname is Red Mosquitoes??  Hi, we're an annoying, malarial insect... even the USA's "Yanks" -- among the worst nicknames at the Cup -- is better than that.  No wonder you suck -- your efforts at inspiration only bring to mind an easily swatted nuisance.)

Impressive PK Performance

This is what I've come to at the moment, just posting about a penalty shootout by 17 year olds.  But, it's about the only good news for DC United fans this summer (I'm grasping for straws here).  And really, has anyone had a better shootout performance than making five straight stops and scoring the winning kick??  Props to the amazingly named Dakota Niedermeier. The first of his five saves is particularly impressive.  Apparently DC really knows how to turn out goalkeeping prospects.

As a post script -- how bad are some of these penalty takers? I know they're only 17 and this was a pressure situation for them, but shouldn't kids that age who are part of a pro team's youth system be able to take PKs better than that?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

World Cup Withdrawal

Anyone else have the same feeling?  Constantly craving?  Checking sites like ESPN for news only to realize that there's absolutely NOTHING going on right now?

After the month long orgiastic spectacle in South Africa, we have to content ourselves with MLS or news that James Milner wants to move to Man City.  Be still my beating heart.

The European leagues haven't started yet and though some of the top clubs have started their preseason tours, those matches just aren't that exciting this year particularly because stars from the World Cup are taking breaks.

Maybe it wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for the fact that I'm forced to watch not just any MLS soccer, but the worst soccer in MLS.  On top of that, this weekend DC United plays Portsmouth, the worst team in the EPL last season, now playing in the Championship. 

I guess this gives us a different look at gauging where an MLS side compares to an English side, whereas usually you're gauging the MLS team against a good team in its preseason rather than a poor one (literally).

Can DC United put on a respectable performance?  You'd think so.  DC isn't getting blown away, which maybe is what makes them harder and harder to watch.  Not that it's agonizing in a heartbreaking way.  It's that I know the hammer blow is coming after watching DC unable to create anything offensively and miss the chances it does create.  It's only a matter of time before the loss comes, almost pre-determined.  And these are home matches I'm talking about. 

Shouldn't a team with a bright US prospect (Chris Party Boy Pontius), a 17 year old rookie that has the entire league buzzing (Andy Najar), and good/solid veterans (Troy Perkins, Jaime Moreno, Clyde Simms) be better than 3-11-3 in MLS play?

I suppose it could be worse.  I could be watching the games in a dilapidated sinkhole of a stadium... oh wait.  If anything I'm at least taking heart in the fact that the NY Red Bulls are creating the Easiest Team to Hate or Super Evil Friends (take your pick) by first signing the Hand of Gaul and now chasing after the Mexican Red Card Stomp maestro Rafa Marquez. 

I may not have much to root for, but at least I'll have something to root against.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Beautiful Reading on the Beautiful Game

Thanks to my friend for passing on the following links, which I'll gratefully pass on for anyone else to check up on. Here's an article from Slate on why we should root against the Dutch, a Vanity Fair piece by David Winner (he of the fantastic book Brilliant Orange) on the changing Dutch and German rivalry, and a really interesting blog post, a little older, on Barcelona and the Idea of the Beautiful Game.

It's always a pleasure to read good writing, and good writing on football is an even greater pleasure (makes me realize I'm not so good of a writer, at least not when I'm just posting randomly here and don't have much time to really compose something worthwhile).

The Barca piece was particularly interesting but I'd argue it wasn't entirely accurate in describing Madrid as existing solely to win without regard to aesthetics. Clearly Real doesn't try to sustain a moral idealism through their style like Barca, and they truly do exist to win more than anything else. But my friend who is a lifelong die-hard madridista would argue that there is a constant tension between that desire to win and the desire to do so beautifully, and it's a much greater aspect of the Real Madrid psyche than the article wants to give credit. It's the reason Capello was constantly pilloried for his pragmatism and was fired despite winning La Liga, while the madridistas looked longingly upon the previously unsuccessful galactico era simply because they played more adventurous football.

As for the Slate article arguing that we should root against the Dutch, well beside the fact that I'll be rooting for Spain because they attack better, don't have dirty midfielders, and I have Spanish blood, I sort of do think that there's something endearing about the image of the Dutch as the "almost" team, the purveyors of skillful football that can't quite win the big one. A loss by this team, even if they are far removed from the long deceased total football, would keep up the image of the Netherlands as everyone's favorite team that hasn't won the World Cup and would add another layer on top of the already complicated interrelationship between the Dutch philosophies regarding football, the desire to win and win beautifully, and the growing recognition of the benefits of pragmatism and the desire to simply win for all the lost opportunities of the great Dutch teams of yore (thereby also alleviating those past national traumas from the collective psyche).  Not to mention the psychological intrigue that would result from losing to what is probably the closest relative to the total football ethos (as the article correctly notes, this Spanish team's style is largely based on Barca's style, and that style is largely the offspring of it's one-time star and ex-coach, Cryuff).

On an somewhat tangential note, it'd be nice if people would stop overplaying the angle of the Spanish as being historical underachievers.  Yes the Dutch teams underachieved in the past.  But Spain? The reputation of Spanish football is largely built on the reputations of its great domestic clubs, and those clubs built their reputations on foreigners from Puskas and di Stéfano (he's Argentine, let's not consider him Spanish please) to Zidane and Messi.  Sure the Spanish have had good teams in the past that underachieved relatively, but as far as I can remember, and I've never really read otherwise, Spain has never come into a tournament as big favorites.

This version of la furia roja are favorites however and I expect them to keep up that artistic tiki-taka and win one for the lifelong lovers of the beautiful game and newcomers alike.  You know there is something great about them because even the people who don't follow soccer and are just caught up in the spectacle of the World Cup appreciate Spain because they really do manage to create sudden coherence and eloquence out of chaos.

Need further reasons to cheer for Spain.  I give you... paella and sangria v. Gouda and Heineken (does anyone who's not from the Netherlands even know a Dutch dish?).  The defense rests.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Oranje v. La Furia Roja

While most people heading into the tournament were dreaming of a Brazil-Spain final, I think most neutrals would happily settle for the Dutch and Spanish - probably the two teams most stylish teams, the two most committed to playing attacking football (along with Argentina and Chile). 

Let it be known that I predicted this final before the tournament in my bracket, which I ultimately never paid the $20 for my friend's pool, so I get nothing from it other than the satisfaction.  Of course, also let it be known that I foresaw the very week part of the bracket that led to Uruguay's place in the final four, but mistakenly bought into the notion that the combined forces of Fabio Capello and Wayne Rooney would lead England to first in group C and therefore the easy path that quarter of the bracket contained.  Still upsetting to think that could have been the US.

I grew to enjoy watching the new version of the German team, one of the few teams going out to demoralize their opponents by getting multiple closing goals.  However, they were just no match for Spain, particularly with Ozil not influential enough and Mueller suspended.  Spain are rightly through and I'm very aroused by the final matchup (it's the smell of desire m'lady).

You have the feeling Spain have yet to really hit full tilt, though yesterday was probably their best match so far.  Iniesta seems to be becoming more and more influential, Xavi is still Xavi, and Pedro looked very dangerous before producing the worst 2-on-1 in history.  The big difference between this Spain team and the 2008 Euro champions is that Torres is out of sorts, so the attack isn't quit as dangerous because they are playing better with Pedro rather than Torres, and Pedro plays more from the midfield than as an out an out lead striker, leaving Villa more isolated.  Additionally, Marcos Senna was sensational in 2008, all due respects to Sergio Busquets, and that combined with the greater width and spacing in the midfield with da Silva playing on the wing rather than the deeper lying Xabi Alonso made the attack more adventurous.

Most people saw the great irony in Spain's semifinal winner coming from a thunderous corner kick header rather than the tiki-taka, death by a thousand paper cuts football.  But to me the real irony was that the most important goal in Spain's history was scored by Puyol, the embodiment and symbol and captain of Barcelona and Catalonia. For so long Raúl dominated the Spanish team; as the longtime captain of Real Madrid he was a symbol of the capital, Spanish Nationalism and Castille (not to mention Francoism). Spain may be captained by another Real Madrid star (Saint Iker), but the heart of the team lies in the cadre of Barcelona maestros. 

No matter who wins on Sunday, I'll be happy -- though not nearly as happy as an actual Spaniard or Dutchman; have you ever seen two countries so joyous at just reaching the final?  They deserve to be so elated and I can only hope to feel the same way at some point in my life.  Anyway, before the World Cup began I predicted Spain would win and I'm not going to change that pick now.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Dutch Back In the Finals

With today's victory over the Uruguayans, the Netherlands are a step closer to winning their elusive first World Cup title.  Awaiting us is a possible classic rematch of the 1974 World Cup final with the Germans or a matchup with Spain that would guarantee a new country will win its first title (not too mention a great matchup of possession oriented attacking teams).

It's hard to root against the Dutch, but I think the best sentiment I've heard is that if the Netherlands wins the title this year it will be the equivalent of Martin Scorsese's "lifetime achievement" best director Oscar win for The Departed.  I really really enjoyed the Departed, more than a lot of people, but it clearly wasn't Scorsese's best work and it was an injustice that he hadn't won a statue before. 

Well, this isn't remotely the best Dutch team (would it even crack the top 5?), and there still seems to be something about them that is underwhelming.  Their defense and Skelkenburg in goal don't exactly inspire tons of confidence, and despite their very good attack they've yet to really seem completely in sync and in a groove for a full 90 minutes.  They've played wonderfully at times, but I haven't been truly awed at any point.  But maybe that's what's needed to finally reach the summit.

I guess it also doesn't help that I still detest van Persie, van Bommell (and Nigel de Jong, though he was suspended today) continues to hack and foul at will, while Robben writhes in agony at the slightest breath blown his direction.  Not to mention Dirk Kuyt is so ugly you almost want to root against him so he'll stop being shown in HD.  Oddly enough the player I like the most is Wesley Sneijder, someone who was widely believed to be a rotten apple prior to leading Inter Milan's treble this season and now the Dutch World Cup run.

Couple all the above with Diego Forlan's brilliance -- it was quite amazing that he kept stepping up in the clutch and dragging Uruguay with him, an admiral feat even if you don't like the Uruguayans or if you felt wronged by the Most Infamous/Greatest Red Card in History -- I almost found myself rooting for La Celeste.  But the Oranje wouldn't be denied, and neither are we denied one of the superior finals matchups that we've all been rooting for, and that ultimately left me happy with the day's result. 

They won't be favorites in the Final, but bravo to the Dutch -- they've deserved all their victories, they brought style to the tournament, and they are worthy finalists. 

Nike's USA Soccer Follow-Up Ad

If you haven't seen, here is Nike's follow up to its Write the Future ad campaign, which famously debuted to much hype and is now infamous for its stars failing said hype.  This new ad features a variety of American youths thanking the USMNT for playing hard, attacking, never diving, and scoring that goal.  Short and to the point, kinda cool I think.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Are The Soccer Gods Chortling?

Has there even been an ending to match as happened today?  Have many teams in any sport ever last so cruelly?

I was technically a neutral, but really everyone ends up rooting for a team during these matches.  Today, I imagine most people were rooting for Ghana, which I'll be perfectly honest in saying I don't understand if you are a USA supporter how you could support Ghana.

People were trying to beat the whole last African team standing theme to death, and while it made for great theater because it seemed that about 83,000 of the 84,000+ inside Soccer City Stadium were cheering for the Black Stars, it was irrelevant to me.  Let's face it, Ghana aren't a particularly great team, they cruelly beat the USA (though maybe deserved on the day), and did so by finishing the game with a level of time wasting and injury faking that simply disgusts me.

So I wanted Ghana to receive their just rewards, and maybe the soccer gods are laughing right now.  But damn, that is traumatizing.  As it is I'm pretty horrified of penalty shootouts and I'm not even English!  Players have missed plenty of decisive penalties before, but has it ever happened on the last kick of the game, with the World Cup semis on the line, then seeing your team lose in the subsequent PK shootout, which, by the way, had to be a forgone conclusion after that miss silenced pretty much an entire continent of fans?

It was damn thrilling drama.  This World Cup has only had a few great performances (and even calling those great is a stretch), but it sure hasn't been short of the amazing and dramatic.  Wow, a perfect encapsulation of why football is beautiful and cruel, inspiring and tragic all at once.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Sports Guy: "We will always have the Algeria game. Always."

I love it when Bill Simmons writes about soccer, as he did again today. Is anyone better at creating or addressing sports/cultural  talking points?

Now, everyone who knows soccer knows that Simmons doesn't know soccer well, at least yet.  Whereas before he either admitted as much or made really obviously stupid comments, he's slowly getting better.

For instance, he's gotten good enough to immediately know that starting Clark over Edu was a huge mistake before the game started (he even tweeted about it at the time), and he makes the occasional smart analogy - this time comparing Jozy Altidore to an NBA center by questioning whether he has a little too much Dwight Howard and not enough Pau Gasol and needing a striker with speed and innate goalscoring ability (Gasol = Klose).  Of course he still gives it away with comments like "How can you screw up a team with superstuds like Lionel Messi and Carlos Tevez on it?" (easier than you think) and "The theory that soccer would never catch on until we found our own Pelé or launched our own successful pro league was dead wrong."

The first half of the latter comment is true, but his dismissing of the importance of a pro league is wrong.  Maybe he's right insofar as he's probably thinking of a "successful" league being on par with the NHL or NBA or NFL.  But having a league was important because it creates a culture where soccer is at least there, even if not everyone is watching it.  More importantly, you can't advance the US team without there being a domestic league for players to start in, to change the youth system, and to give kids a thought about playing pro realistically.   Only six players on the roster never played in MLS at some point.

Reading Simmons singing the praises of not just the World Cup but just soccer in general is encouraging, and his article really takes off in the last couple paragraphs where he talks about the US team being one of the few things nowadays that all Americans can get behind.  In particular, there's a somewhat stable cast of players you can grow with and there are ongoing games between cycles (unlike the Olympics).  He compared the US-Algeria game, that collective moment really, with nothing we've been given since Lake Placid (before I was born).  While not quite that level, it was impressive nonetheless, and he's right -- those YouTube clips don't lie and we'll always have Donovan's goal against Algeria.  Even the ongoing sting of the lost opportunity last Saturday can't take that away.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Nike Ad Curse

Nike's "Write the Future" advertisement was a brilliant campaign, a continuation of the long history of great spots Nike has created for the World Cup.  However, this year it seems they may want to re-consider their casting agency.

Let's see:

-Didier Drogba broke his arm before the games even started and Côte d'Ivoire never looked like going through their difficult group.

-Fabio Cannavaro looked like he was already in retirement and hitting up the talk show circuit, a step to slow for every attacker that came his way.  Still, Italy probably should have had enough quality to qualify but were completely uninspiring.

-Wayne Rooney barely bothered to even show up.  Was he still injured? Probably.  At the least he was worn down from carrying Man U on his back all season.  Not even Atlas probably beared such a burden. England were less inspiring than Italy, only they managed to get one round further before being humiliated by the Germans (controversial goal or no goal).

-Franck Ribéry... well, the less said about the French the better. Who is that player in the background of the play marking Theo Walcott (who didn't make England's roster)... that's right, Patrice Evra!

-Ronaldinho, as everyone knows and regrets didn't even get a plane ticket to South Africa.  At least the Brazilians are still playing though.

-Cristiano Ronaldo was mostly anonymous save for his preening and grimacing after either diving or being fouled but not getting a call in either case, and now Portugal is out thanks to their superior Iberian neighbors.  By the way, why does Portugal play such a horrible, defensive system?  They actually have good defenders, so they should play creative, attacking football knowing the defense is solid behind them.  I blame Carlos Queiroz (who proves that anyone looks like a great coach while assisting Alex Ferguson, but doing it yourself is a different matter... maybe it's leftover stink from his stint with the New York MetroStars).

On the other hand, three teams getting only minor cameos had better fortunes. OK, so the USA lost, but Landon Donovan was the only player of the entire commercial who truly "wrote the future" by scoring the goal against Algeria that so far is still probably the moment of the tournament.  But maybe the US disappointment (I'd say failure) in losing still tied to this commercial?

The Spanish players also get a brief cameo (even though the Spanish team itself is sponsored by Adidas, which is why you only see Iniesta, Fàbregas, and Piqué wearing blank warm-ups with no logos) and they are still on course for a potential dream semifinal with Argentina/Germany and final against Brazil. Brazil, as mentioned before, are still in it, and looking pretty much locks to advance to the final, with only one threat in their half of the bracket, the Netherlands... who also happen to have a cameo in the Nike ad! That's them fouling Ronaldo.

The Dutch are impressing most people but honestly, do you think their D will hold up against the Brazilians?  And of course they're up to their old tricks again, the Dutch, what with Robin van Persie acting like the spoiled arrogant brat (I'd also call him a certain name that rhymes with witch) that he is -- shocker considering he's coached by Arsène Wenger -- and showing hints of the internal dissension that has derailed so many better Dutch squads in the past. No matter what the Dutch camp says about unity and harmony within the team, don't buy it. 

Adidas doesn't have any ad remotely as good right now, but at least they can tout Leo Messi and David Villa,  who just keeps on scoring (god, how scary will Barcelona be next season).

It's not quite the Madden Curse or SI Jinx, but funny nonetheless.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Things Fall Apart

I'm not sure I've ever felt so deflated about an entire tournament as the result of one loss.  After all the great moments and excitement from the US the last two weeks, they just laid an egg against an inferior team.  It's one thing to lose if we played well and just couldn't get it done, or we lost to a superior team.  This time, there's just four years of regrets and what ifs.

First, I finally went ahead and praised Bob Bradley for his moves this World Cup, only for him to inexplicably make the boneheaded decision to start Rico Clark over Mo Edu.  You know, because they're interchangeable defensive mids with the exception that Edu is better than Clark in every facet of the game save for long range shooting (not exactly what we should care about our D mid doing).

Clark has tremendous upside potential (thanks Simmons!) because in games where he plays well he can really be a great midfield destroyer. But he also has the worst downside, disappearing from games, being reckless in tackles, and hurting US possession.  So despite Edu being the better player and playing very well against Algeria, Bradley went back to his boy Clark, who subsequently had to be embarrassed in front of worldwide millions when his poor play help spot Ghana a goal 5 minutes in and necessitated a wasted first half substitution.  It's also pretty clear that Michael Bradley plays better and can advance forward more when Edu is playing alongside/behind him.

Not to put all the blame of Bradley Sr./Clark, Tim Howard played the shot by the German Ghanaian, Kevin Prince Boateng, very poorly and getting beat near post when that should never happen on that type of shot.  I personally was disappointed with Howard this Cup, despite playing well against England and of course his great outlet pass springing Donovan against Algeria.

I don't know if it was naively thinking they could beat Ghana by just stepping on the field and they were looking ahead to a reasonable passage to a possible semifinals, or they were really just dead from the physical and emotional toll of the Algeria.  But they wasted a half and they lacked concentration again in the beginning of the overtime.

The regret is that much greater because let's face it, Ghana is not a good team and they didn't even have their best player.  Ghana's decision making was pretty ridiculous.  A team that makes that many dumb decisions shouldn't be in the quarterfinals.  They also don't even have that much skill, though Gyan did very well on his winning goal (set up as it was by the pure luck of a blind defensive clearance).

Then of Ghana went into among the worst time wasting I've ever seen unrewarded by a single yellow from the ref.  It's understandable when teams waste time and exaggerate injuries when fouled, but the Ghanaians acted as if murdered when it was clear that they weren't touch at all.  Not light brushed or small touch fouls, I mean absolutely no contact -- pure flopping.  I have no love for Uruguay and their ugly style of play -- only marginally redeemed by the fact that it's executed by quality players, in particular that great strike force -- but I will be rooting strongly for Uruguay to beat the Ghanaians.

Lastly, even with all the above, the US still probably still should have put away their chances, only for the lack of a goalscoring striker to come back to haunt them.  Gomez and Findley failed to put away their chances this Cup, showing that being on form in the Mexican league and MLS means very little.

If you're world class you're world class (watch Miroslav Klose and Podolski, scoring goals like clockwork for Germany again despite both having a very poor club season), and the US just doesn't have such a player.  This is where they missed Charlie Davies, and Jozy Altidore showed how far he still has to go.  He too missed his chances, and he constantly reminded why he sometimes gets labeled as lazy and as lacking a soccer brain (so said Martin Keown on the BBC).  It's frustrating because despite all that, his talent and physicality still posed problems for defenders and gave the US great chances.  He showed why he only scored two goals for Hull this year.

So where does this leave the US for the next World Cup?  It's a big question mark.  The US needs to start developing strikers.  Can Jozy become world class?  I hope so.  Will Charlie Davies recover sufficiently?  With his injuries, I really don't know. Before I would've said he was a better bet to become a great goal scorer than Altidore.  Dempsey and Donovan will still be around in four years, but both will have a lot of miles on their legs.  They'll still be key players, but need strikers to support them.  The midfield will probably be very solid with Edu and Bradley both young, Stuart Holden also young, and I'm sure other midfield options will develop. 

The defense is another matter.  Based purely on age, we could see a number of the same players, but let's hope not.  Spector and Bornstein are young and will be around.  Gooch will only be 32, so he too could still be around, but let's see how his knee holds up.  He wasn't exactly fast to begin with, so that's a big question mark.  Even before this Gooch was too inconsistent and at 28, even for defenders who take a little longer to develop than great attackers, he's running out of time to turn into a world class defender.  Boca and Cherundolo -- the USA's best defender this Cup -- will both be 35, too old to realistically be relied on to keep up with the speed and quality at the World Cup (just see how 36 year old Fabio Cannavaro fared with Italy).  Similarly, DeMerit will be 34, and he's never really going to be much more than he is now.

With Germany embarrassing England this morning, we're slowly whittling away the weaker teams and setting up for some great matchups down the road. Possible Germany-Argentina and Brazil-Netherlands quarterfinals could be doozies, the semis could see Germany/Argentina against Spain, and the final will most likely have Brazil -- who has an extremely manageable draw on their half of the bracket aside from the potential Netherlands matchup -- against one of Germany/Argentina/Spain.  If the trio from that half of the bracket wins this Cup they will have fully earned it.  The Ghana match aside, this has been a mostly excellent and redeeming World Cup (including the French flameout, karma at its best), with the only thing missing as yet being a singular defining performance by one of the worlds greats (Messi, Ronaldo, etc.).  I can only hope Messi chooses to oblige us against El Tri.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

USA Advancing to the Round of 16

First, before some videos, I have a few thoughts to put out there, aside from the obvious of how amazing it felt when Donovan scored that goal.

I had no real reason to dislike Algeria before.  I didn't particularly know much about the country.  As far as I was concerned, they were famous for being the birthplace of a pair of immigrants to France who produced the greatest footballer of his generation, as well as that great goalkeeper-football fan-philosopher-Nobel laureate Albert Camus (therefore also being the setting for his great books).

Now however, I can throw this onto my list of countries to dislike.  (OK, not seriously but you get the idea, in sporting terms).  They were so intent on playing out political biases that they were actively trying to play defensively for a draw so as to eliminate the US rather than playing for the win they needed to give themselves a chance of advancing.

Well, for that, you Algeria join Costa Rica and others as countries that tempted the football gods with your negativity, or the Costa Rican's horribly blatant time wasting, only to be cruelly and justly felled by that great cliche, the American spirit.

Cliche though that fighting spirit may be, how awesome is this team's heart?  You really couldn't have it any other way.  People always deride the US for lacking a style, the way the Brazilians have (or used to at least) joga bonita, the Italians the catenaccio, Germans the machine-like precision, etc.  But the US has a swagger and belief, without being cocky, that suggests you'll never outwork them and they'll never give up, and I love it, not the least because it's easy to rally around (check out the crowd videos below) and of course the late drama is amazing (if particularly heart attack/ulcer inducing).

Check out this list of comebacks:

-USA 1 - Algeria 0: Donovan scoring in the 91st minute.
-USA 2 - Slovenia 2: Two down, tying the game in the 82nd minute, winning it in the 85th.
-USA 2 - El Salvador 1: OK, a B team friendly, but Kljestan scored in the 92nd minute for the win.
-USA 2 - Costa Rica 2: Bornstein's 95th minute goal wins CONCACAF qualifying, on a night being played with recently injured Charlie Davies on everyone's mind.
-USA 2 - Panama 1: In the Gold Cup, a B/C team playing, US wins in overtime (105th minute).
-USA 2 - Haiti 2: Again in the Gold Cup, probably a C team playing (because otherwise a tie against Haiti is beyond embarrassing, and even still...), Stuart Holden ties it in the 92nd minute.
-USA 2 - El Salvador 2: In El Salvador for qualifying, two down, Jozy scores in the 77th minute followed by Hejduk equalizing in the 88th minute.

Those are merely the matches the US either tied or won on a goal after the 80th minute in 2010 and 2009. It doesn't count matches the US tied or won with earlier goals coming back from deficits, like against England or at Honduras in qualifying, or scoring 3 goals against Egypt to complete the five goal swing on the day needed to advance in the Confederations Cup.

Though I don't need to go over the particular performances by US players because we've all seen it, a few demand praise:

-Donovan has truly become a leader and star, if he wasn't already.  He keeps this up, he'll be like Wayne Rooney in that Nike ad with all the baby names, and I'd even consider it.
-Michael Bradley is impressing everyone, not just the US faithful.  It's not just his tackling and fabulous late runs into the box, which I guess not everyone has seen since he played at Heerenveen and now at Borussia Mönchengladbach, but also the clever footwork and passing -- see his play that set Donovan up leading to the goalbox scrum in which Jozy blasted over.
-Stuart Holden -- he's playing the Mark Madsen role of bench cheerleader and team celebrator perfectly.  Maybe it's because he's so noticeable with his blond hair, but he's certainly managed to get to both Bradley and Donovan fast enough to start the big pile-ons.  Kudos Mr. Holden, kudos.  
-Altidore is playing great in all areas except goal scoring, which should be sort of important because he's a striker, but he's now teamed with Donovan to be responsible for assisting on both late goals against Slovenia and Algeria.  We wouldn't be here without him.  And he also pancaked the entire US team celebratory mob on top of Donovan.  He's a big man to be doing that.  Not to be outdone of course, I must mention Jay DeMerit, late arriving from the back, somersaulting over the pile and nearly taking the head off one of the team's staff.  Great stuff.
-Steve Cherundolo is pretty good. I'd forgotten how good he was, I mean he's the captain of a Bundesliga team!  To think Jonathan Spector started pushing him for a starting spot.

Lastly, gotta give props to Bob Bradley.  I, as many have over his reign, have railed against him for his tactics and team selection.  Well, he's gotten every decision spot on this World Cup.  I have new respect for the man.

Lots of videos going 'round, here are some of my favorites that I've seen to keep giving you goosebumps:

And the scene at one of my faves, Lucky Bar in downtown DC:

In Seattle:

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Delayed First Thoughts on the World Cup

I haven't been able to post any thoughts on the World Cup yet, having caught the first weekend of games then spending the week watching games on travel. Finally home and with a chance to lay out some thoughts on a World Cup that has been all over the place.

After the first week, I don't think too many observers were surprised, if still disappointed, that the opening round of group matches were mostly cagey and unremarkable.  Now that teams feel a sense of urgency to get the victory or see their second round hopes quashed, more wide open play has come with some more notable results.

Starting with the US, from a pure entertainment standpoint, they may have played the most exciting group stage match three World Cups in a row. The 2002 Cup had some memorable first round games, like Senegal upsetting what turned out to be a very poor French team, England-Argentina, a good Brazil-Turkey match, and Korea holding off nine man Portugal with the help of the post late on (ultimately sending the USA through), so maybe Portugal-USA isn't the undisputed best early match that year, but it was certainly up there and it was the biggest upset along with the Senegal victory.

In 2006, the USA-Italy matched was genuinely exciting as nine man USA nearly beat the champions-to-be.  No other opening round matches really stick out, with the memorable performances being Argentina crushing Serbia and Montenegro and Germany surprising everyone with an exciting attacking style in all its matches.

Now, Slovenia-USA has been hands down the best match of this tournament, with the comeback, late drama, and controversy.  I won't even go into that or I may have another conniption. 

After two matches, the USA continues to be disconcerting in the back.  Gooch has been particularly inconsistent, showing poor timing and a lack of tactical awareness one half, playing much improved the next.  The attack is not that problematic as long as we can settle on the fact that Mo Edu is our second best center midfielder.  Done.  And we've barely seen attacking spark Stuart Holden other than his being the first man to tackle Michael Bradley after his game tying goal, nor any of DaMarcus Beasley.  I'd like to see Jozy get a goal for all the good work he's put in up top.  And Dempsey hasn't been at his best either (and that's not a reverse jinks, since it seems like whenever we start talking about how poorly Dempsey plays he suddenly starts popping goals in bunches).

Moving on from the US, the opening matches have probably produced three true favorites -- Brazil, Netherlands, and Argentina.  Does anyone want to bet against this Brazil team marching to the finals?  I wouldn't, even though something about them just doesn't feel right (maybe the lack of an inspirational practitioner of joga bonita in the midfield).  I'm still not sold with the Netherlands defense, and before you point out the two clean sheets, I'll have you notice their two opponents were Japan and a Denmark team that is predicated on organization and defense, not scoring.  No world beaters there.  I'd like Argentina if their coach wasn't insane.  Spain, meanwhile, hasn't played a second time yet so it's hard to make a full judgment after the Swiss stole the US playbook on how to beat La Furia Roja.

Meanwhile, the African countries are for the most part disappointing people who had high hopes for this World Cup mostly because no one actually watches African soccer enough nor paid enough attention to history to realize they weren't actually that good.  Their "home field" advantage in South Africa doesn't amount to much and when looking at the draw, it was always going to be tough for multiple teams to impress.  Ghana has been the standard bearer to date, and even though they lead Group D, there is a very strong possibility they could fail to advance because they still need to play Germany while Serbia take on Australia, who despite its draw with Ghana is among the worst teams in South Africa, not to mention they'll be missing their two best players.

I think we're all laughing at France right now, not least because anyone who knows anything about that team would've put money on the French imploding before the tournament started.  Italy looks old and uninspired because, well, they're old and have no real inspiring players (oh Cannavaro, how you've fallen).  As Alexi Lalas loves pointing out, England just isn't that good, plus Wayne Rooney can't be 100%.

If anything, all the craziness of this Cup has me remaining optimistic that IF the US takes care of business against Algeria, they could advance further into the knockout stages.  The US would be underdogs against any of the group D trio they'd be likely to face, but I wouldn't be terrified of any of those potential match-ups.  Just three days before boys can get the win their first round efforts already got them deserve.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

News and Bits - One Day Before Kickoff

Just one day before the fun kicks off with South Africa hosting perennial second round losers Mexico.  So I'm sure everyone is fiending for their World Cup fix. There's plenty out there to read previewing the Cup, but here are some not so serious stuff to beware of.

It's being reported that FIFA apparently requires its referees to learn English swear words for the World Cup.  Not just for the all-English speaking USA-England match mind you.  Haven't you always wondered how the various teams and referees communicate when you have a Spanish speaking ref mediating an argument between a German and a Ghanaian?  Now you know that apparently English is the universal language for telling the ref to go f*ck off. 

While most of your World Cup viewing is going to be early in the morning, so unless you're one of those sick people who somehow can function off only five hours of sleep, you'll also want to be getting to bed early.  However, you might not want to fall asleep too early because the Daily Show, where sadly to say I do in fact get a large portion of my information about the news, is sending senior foreign sports correspondent, John Oliver, to South Africa.  Tonight will air the first segment, which features Oliver, aka Dr. Ian Duncan, psychology professor at Greendale Community College, hanging around the US Men's National Team training camp.  Other segments will follow with the Liverpool supporter (Oliver was born in Birmingham but raised in Liverpool, so I imagine he has extra reason to root against Tim Howard and Landon Donovan).

In further evidence that politicians shouldn't get involved with sporting events, and of course vice versa (I'm looking at you Curt Schilling), the US Consul General in South Africa, Alberta Mayberry, is running her mouth off and claiming that, "Our men are preparing to crush your little boys," and that, "We're a nation of winners - we don't do losing." If this wasn't being reported in the Telegraph I wouldn't guessed it was part of some Onion-style fake article.

While not the Onion, the Sports Pickle is also good for a laugh, and here's a piece on why you should root against the other 31 teams in the World Cup. Want a specific reason to root against Uruguay, look no further. They're greedy bastards, having won two Cups despite having only 3.5 million people, and here in America we don’t take kindly to nations who want to hog a disproportionate share of the world’s resources. And, Uruguay produces no oil. None. What good are they?

With two days before the US-England match, I'm already giddy with anticipation.  And with the early kickoff times during the week, let me just say thank you to ESPN3.  What the hell would I do without you?

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Bradley With Decisions To Make

The US closed out its World Cup tune ups with a 3-1 victory over Australia this morning, leaving Bob Bradley with a few big decisions to ponder.

Starting from the back, this match didn't really provide many answers, other than confirming that the US backline is probably the USA's biggest problem area, not the forwards that so many people fretted over.

Going into the training camp, the first choice back line would have been Spector/Cherundolo-Gooch-DeMerit-Bocanegra.  However, Gooch clearly isn't 100%.  I'm sure Bradley was holding him back because of the horrible field they were playing on, but that doesn't hide the fact that Gooch hasn't played a full match since October.  At one point they followed him walking/jogging during a lull in play, and John Harkes had to call him out on his awkward gait.

Would you trust Gooch against Wayne Rooney?  I wouldn't at this point.  That means the new central pairing is Goodson-DeMerit.  Today was probably DeMerit's worst match with the US that I can remember.  Goodson was just as poor on crosses and set pieces, something he's usually good at, but was more solid that DeMerit.  Is Bradley confident enough in this duo?  Boca is playing every minute at right back, because no matter if Bornstein played much better today in his cameo he still better not see a minute in the World Cup.  So Goodson and DeMerit it is.

On the bright side, the midfield looked good.  Or at least Donovan and Dempsey looked sharp.  Donovan's killer passes are making Buddle and co. look like an actual area of strength.  Bradley was Bradley, tracking back nicely (particularly one nice play where he covered for Bornstein after an ill advised foray).  He almost had another classic Bradley goal, cleaning up a rebound in the box, except Mark Schwarzer made a great reaction save.  (The follow up from that shot was definitely a goal.  Dempsey was onside, Findley was not, but Findley never made a play on the ball.  Bad call by the linesman.)

The only question in midfield is the other center midfielfer.  Rico Clark was ok, generally solid again.  I think it's clear Coach Bradley prefers Clark over Edu or Torres.  Against England he'll clearly go for two defensive mids, and even though I think Edu has a better overall game, Clark is solid enough and will get the nod.  I've liked Torres the best in these friendlies, and he'll definitely see the field at some point, and probably get at least one start in the group stage.

The other dilemma for Bob Bradley is going to be his starting duo up top.  Before the past two matches, this was an area of concern, but I'd have to say I'm not so worried anymore.  Now that's not saying I think Buddle, Findley and Gomez are sure things, but the overall flow of the US attack, with Donovan and Dempsey linking with the forward tandems, has generally produced chances and led to goals. 

One sequence on the counter looked positively Brazilian/Dutch in the 27th minute, when Clark won the ball in the back from Tim Cahill, Goodson released Donovan to one-touch to Bradley, who played to Buddle checking nicely at midfield to one touch right back to Donovan, one touch to Dempsey, who was denied by Schwarzer.  Reminiscent of Donovan's goal against Brazil in the Confederation's Cup final.

The dilemma though is presented by the fact that Jozy Altidore may not be entirely healthy and there's not much separating Buddle, Gomez, and Findley.  If you want another finsher, it looks like Buddle could be called to start, and Gomez is a good option off the bench. 

As the speed option, Findley is sort of infuriating. He made great runs, harassed the Aussie defense, showed surprising touch (and that after his fantastic pass releasing Donovan that led to Jozy's goal against Turkey), BUT also missed a  few glaring chances.  There was no excuse for missing the open net after he beat the offside trap and rounded Schwarzer, and he hit the post on the sequence leading to Dempsey's "goal," though he probably should have scored then too.  And he also never could get the final pass right the could've set up Buddle for a hat trick goal.  As my best friend texted me, he's ALMOST a good player. 

So who starts?  A lot depends on Altidore's ankle.  If he's healthy he still needs to be in the lineup, and whether it's Buddle or Findley opposite him comes down to who has the best chemistry with Jozy.  I'm inclined to go with the speed option Findley so he can harass an England back line that could isn't exactly fleet of foot with Ferdinand now out of the Cup injured. 

The best thing to come out of the past two friendlies is an increased confidence in the US attack, and it's tempering my increased nervousness with the backline.  And let's face it, the English generally present a number of match-up nightmares for the US (good in the air up front and in the back, negating a US strength, and pacy wingers that could expose the slower US fullbacks), so a draw would be a good result.  But I'm being encouraged that a draw is still a good possibility, and win is certainly not of the cards (and neither is an embarrassment).

Just under 7 days before the US adventure kicks off.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Highlighting Youth Development in the US

As the World Cup draws ever nearer, major new outlets are increasing their soccer coverage, ranging from your basic US Men's National Team news to full World Cup team profiles, historical profiles, general interest stories, and other new, fresh takes on the sport.

One topic I've noticed creeping around the landscape recently is the major difference between the development of soccer players across the globe and here in the US.  For those interested, the New York Times Magazine is running a feature on the famed Ajax youth academy.  The article is fairly comprehensive and easily understandable for those who don't know the sport well (or don't know about the famed Ajax training method), as well as having enough interesting reporting and interviews to be worthwhile for those more knowledgeable.

There are a couple basic differences that the article highlights between the US and European approach, all well recognized by us in the soccer community in the USA.  Youth players in the US "pay to play," whereas the European academies are basically free.  US youth teams focus on winning, European academies focus on developing individual skill. US teams play tons of matches and tournaments.  European academies limit the number of games played and focus more on training sessions.

Certainly in other places across the world (South America, Africa) players develop on their own playing pickup matches, "sandlot soccer" if you will.  Of course Europeans expect their best players to be doing that as well, but doing it on their free time.  Which is key, because as a kid you still need your free time.  You're just a kid after all. 

The NYT Magazine article notes that some of this is changing the US, and MLS's youth academies are gradually transitioning to the European model.  The article highlights the DC United youth academy, including 17-year old breakout star in the making, Andy Najar.  Coincidentally enough, ESPN just highlighted the growing MLS academies, in particular Andy Najar, as the future model for US youth development.

The articles detail the debates about the Ajax model in the US, particularly how cultural differences regarding college education for athletes and the wariness of seeing clubs exploiting youths will take time for the US system to evolve into something that produces world class players.  I won't go into further detail, but it's certainly true that the US model needs to shift and that DC United gives a great example (its youth teams are very good both locally and nationally, and it is producing quality pros like Najar and DCU's starting 19-year old keeper Bill Hamid).

The NYT Magazine piece might overstate the nature of the stars Ajax currently produces, but it's worth a look and reading the perspective from scouts, coaches and players involved in the Ajax system.

As a little bonus, check out the highlight of Andy Najar's Open Cup winner last night against Salt Lake.  Too bad he's Honduran, but if the DC academy, or other academies in the US system, can produce more of this, the US National Team will be better off in future World Cups.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Genius Behind World Cup Stars

Only nine days before the World Cup kicks off and 10 days before the cross-Atlantic battle between the US and England. Over the course of the month, many of the world’s greatest athletes will be on display. It’s a long lamented fact that the USA’s best athletes are found in other sports. If Cristiano Ronaldo grew up in the United States, he’d be a wide receiver or third baseman or point guard something. Fortunately for us, he’s a soccer player and we get to watch as he and the likes of Wayne Rooney and Leo Messi show their genius on the pitch during the greatest sporting event on Earth.

A relatively recently published article in the science magazine Discover sheds an interesting light on just why great athletes like Ronaldo and Rooney can in fact be called geniuses. Their brains are simply wired that way.

That’s an oversimplified statement, and it comes as no surprise that athlete’s brains are different from us mere mortals. After all, it takes a certain type of person to dedicate every waking hour to the perfection of their athletic craft, to constantly crave and desire to be the best in his sport. I love soccer (you might say obsessed) and was pretty good at it, but it just wasn’t in my make-up to spend every free minute of my time juggling or dribbling or practicing shooting. Furthermore, thanks in large part to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, it’s more widely understood that becoming a master through practice is more important than genetic gifts alone (you certainly need those gifts, but those alone won’t get you there).

But what exactly happens with all that practice, why can you call the brains of those athletes the brains of geniuses? Well as the article explains, their brains arrive at solutions to problems quicker than most. Not exactly stunning news. But here’s the surprising part, athletes’ brain waves are actually quieter during competition than your average Joe, “which means they devoted less brain activity to these motor tasks than nonathletes did.”

Essentially, this is a scientific, neurological explanation of the difference between those people who “think too much” on the field and those who react more naturally and fluidly. And it’s practice that gets professionals to that expert level where their brain anatomy and neurons can change to become more efficient.

One of the experiments described was performed with soccer players:

“Several years ago Matthew Smith and Craig Chamberlain of the University of Northern Colorado examined the connection between the quieting of the [prefrontal] cortex and athletic ability. They had expert and unskilled soccer players dribble a ball through a slalom course of cones. At the same time, the players were asked to keep an eye on a projector screen on the wall to see when a particular shape appeared. Even with the second task, the seasoned soccer players could dribble at nearly full speed. Unskilled players did much worse than when they were undistracted, however. The disparity suggests that dribbling didn’t tax the expert player’s prefrontal cortex as heavily, leaving it free to deal with other challenges.”

Basically, the experts had uncluttered minds that can more easily solve problems presented by new and additional information in the flow of a performing a task. So Xavi’s mind is actually less busy as he’s controlling the ball and moving into space, allowing him to see the opening that will open a couple seconds later for Leo Messi (or in two weeks, David Villa). Xavi makes those connections easier and more efficiently than say Benny Feilhaber, let alone your average pub player, and apparently his brainwaves would tell us the same.

Contrast the above explanation with the picture of someone’s mind racing, trying to decide what to do with the ball, thinking too much, needing to concentrate hard just to have a proper first touch and dribble forward.

Just a little something for those of us sitting on the couch to think about as Ronaldo, Xavi, and the other geniuses in South Africa are doing their thing.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Yanks Going to South Africa

Bob Bradley has just announced the 23-man USA roster for the World Cup:

Goalkeepers: Brad Guzan, Marcus Hahnemann, Tim Howard.

Defenders: Carlos Bocanegra, Jonathan Bornstein, Steve Cherundolo, Jay DeMerit, Clarence Goodson, Oguchi Onyewu, Jonathan Spector.

Midfielders: DaMarcus Beasley, Michael Bradley, Ricardo Clark, Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Maurice Edu, Benny Feilhaber, Stuart Holden, Jose Torres.

Forwards: Jozy Altidore, Edson Buddle, Robbie Findley, Herculez Gomez.

I don't think there are any surprises in the back.  Guzan showed last night that he is the number three goalie behind Hahnemann, and Bradley was forced to choose at least one natural left back, meaning Bornstein obviously gets the nod over slightly more horrible Heath Pearce. 

That said, is anyone else not horrified by our defense at the moment?  Gooch just looks off, which shouldn't be surprising, seeing as he hasn't played a single match in seven months!  The US has depth at center back, until you realize that Bocanegra just had surgery for a hernia and he also probably needs to play left back if only because playing Bornstein would be like inviting the apocolypse upon the team's hopes of advancing.  Imagine Aaron Lennon or Theo Walcott racing past a hapless Bornstein as he either falls to the turf or concedes another penalty.  Yikes.  Once again I'll clamor for Spector to play at left back, even though he's stated that he's more comfortable on the right, and Bradley has never seemed inclined to play him there.  I don't know if Gooch can get up to full speed in time, and I'm a little worried.

The midfield brings practically no surprises.  Bedoya and Rogers made late pushes for inclusion, and I thought they looked alright last night, but Beasley has also looked better recently and his experience won out.  He did well last night, cementing his place.  I won't really argue with anything here.  Holden looked good last night and can argue for a starting spot if Dempsey goes up top. Remains to be seen.

One slight disappointment I had was with Edu.  Yes he scored, but I just wasn't as impressed with his control of the defensive midfield area as I was hoping.  Was I the only one?  There were times where he just didn't seem as engaged and was too passive in the middle when the Czech's had the ball and were attacking.  This is when it would help to have no life to be able to re-watch the game for such things.  Still, I think he's better all-around to Rico Clark and should start with Michael Bradley, but we'll learn more with the Turkey match.

Finally, the forwards are the one area where Bradley shook things up.  The big surprise, causing outrage amongst some, is Findley over Brian Ching.  Personally I thought Ching had a roster spot all but guaranteed, especially after another good showing last night where it was clear that his hold up play and ability to link with other attackers is head and shoulders better than the rest of the US forwards, even if that's not saying much.

Findley clearly won out because he has speed and will be replacing Charlie Davies.  In an ESPN chat recently Bocanegra revealed that he was impressed with Findley in training and was hoping he could make an impact, so maybe there were signs behind the scenes we just didn't see.  I could even see taking Findley, but at the expense of either Buddle or Gomez.  Gomez looked more dangerous and scored last night, all but sealing his spot on the roster, so in my opinion Buddle should have been cut.  Again, it would be nice to be able to go back and watch the game and analyze how Buddle played, but from my viewing last night I just didn't see anything from him that lends me to believe he'll make any impact against world class calibre defenders.

I'm trying to stay positive because all the key players except Gooch were in the stands last night.  Hopefully the Turkey match will provide more answers, because I think last night raised a few more questions.  16 days until June 12...

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Nike World Cup Commercial

Nike's up to it again, with another sick football commercial with all the stars (what's that, that Brazilian guy isn't going to the World Cup??), following up on the Take It to the Next Level commercial, their classic first person point of view commercial that showed you going through the ranks from pub team to Arsenal to playing against Brazil and Ronaldinho (there's that man again) playing for the Dutch. Neat concept this time with the looks into the future depending on how the play could go, particularly the Rooney parts. Take a look:

Monday, May 17, 2010

Oguchi to Play for Free

A very interesting bit of news today is that USA central defender Oguchi Onyewu has signed a one-year extension at AC Milan, keeping him at the San Siro through the 2012-13 season.  That's not the really interesting part.

Oguchi offered, and Milan duly accepted, to play that final season for free.  Noble gesture, in light of his injury-missed season?  Or stupidity, because why play for free when one of the best teams in the world will pay you handsomely? 

It's a clever move by Gooch, convincing Milan to give him another year that maybe they would have otherwise questioned in light of his injury and lack of games with the team. Certainly if Gooch gets on the field and holds down a starting position, he'll get rewarded once he needs to re-sign again.  Hopefully Gooch is healthy enough to play well in the World Cup and carry that over into next season.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

European Glory for Madrid

After a long, excruciating wait for a return to European glory, Madrid has found itself back among Europe's elite champions, thanks to their ex-Manchester United goal-scoring hero.

What's that you say, Real Madrid were knocked out of the Champions League way  back in the first knockout round?

But of course, I meant those cross-town losers, Atlético Madrid.

Early in the season, back in October, we wrote about the sorry state of football at the Vincent Calderon. Los rojiblancos were at the bottom of the La Liga table, and things did not look good.

However, the arrival of coach Quique Sanchez Flores has changed Atlético's fortunes, propelling them up to 9th in the table, bringing home the Europa League championship yesterday against a valiant Fulham, and a Copa del Rey final still to come.

Key to this resurgence has been the partnership between Sergio "Kun" Aguero and Diego Forlan. Forlan of course is the aforementioned goalscorer cast aside by Man U after a comical two years that saw him take eight months to score his first goal, yet he still endeared himself to the Man U faithful for his tireless work and a brace led the Red Devils to victory over Liverpool at Anfield in 2002. He's no Dimitar Berbatov, despite having actually scored fewer goals than Berbatov has for Man U.  Still, I'm not sure many people who followed his work believed he would become so  prolific once leaving England, but I guess the talent was always there.

Aguero was the danger man all game against Fulham, and it was only a matter of time before Atlético's pressure led to goals, and Forlan showed a goalscorer's instinct to win the match in extra time. It was a disappointing ending for Fulham, who had a magical run getting here with upsets and epic victories along the way over the likes of Roma, Juventus, Wolfsburg, and Hamburg. I was hoping for an American victory in the final, and though Clint Dempsey played a massive part in Fulham's run, in particular his stunning winner against Juve, but luck ran out for Dempsey and the Cottagers and Atlético's superior attacking class prevailed.

Pending the La Liga finish and Copa del Rey final, it could quite something if Real's new galactico's finish without hardware and the "other" Madrid side brings back a double.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

US 30-man Preliminary Roster

The 30-man provisional World Cup roster for the US was announced today:

Goalkeepers: Tim Howard, Marcus Hahnemann, Brad Guzan

Defenders: Carlos Bocanegra, Oguchi Onyewu, Steve Cherundolo, Jonathan Spector, Jay DeMerit, Clarence Goodson, Jonathan Bornstein, Heath Pearce, Chad Marshall

Midfielders: Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Stuart Holden, Ricardo Clark, Maurice Edu, Benny Feilhaber, Jose Francisco Torres, Alejandro Bedoya, DaMarcus Beasley, Sacha Kljestan, Robbie Rogers

Forwards: Jozy Altidore, Robbie Findley, Brian Ching, Edson Buddle, Eddie Johnson, Herculez Gomez

Really, there is nothing there that I see as a "surprise."  The big story of course is Charlie Davies failing to make even the preliminary roster, while most people were hoping for him to make the final 23.  Not being able to make the 30 allowed the only half-surprise to me, which was Robbie Findley getting called in.  I thought Davies would at least get a look in camp in that spot, but it became clear in recent days that Bob Bradley was downplaying expectations for Davies and ultimately Sochaux never cleared Davies as medically fit to be released.

Not having Davies is a blow to team morale, as he was a favorite among teammates and proved to be a strong motivator for Jozy Altidore to raise his game, to say nothing of his on-the-field abilities when healthy.

So the question now becomes who will be the final seven players dropped for the final roster.

Marshall is out, and everyone assumes only one of Pearce and Bornstein will make it.  Only seven defensemen are going since Edu can cover in the back and there's a lot of versatility between Spector and Bocanegra.

In midfield, I can't see Sacha Kljestan making it, and Beasley is also probably off due to a lack of playing time.  Because Dempsey may play up top some, there's an extra spot in the midfield, and maybe that goes to Robbie Rogers, who's picking it up lately, though by no means great, in MLS, and showed well in the close of qualifying. Keep in mind that Bradley played Rogers on the right wing where Dempsey usually plays. The spot would go to Stuart Holden if Dempsey is up top, leaving options thin on the wing with Donovan on one side, and the other choices being Bedoya and central midfielders Torres and Feilhaber. But if Rogers is taken, ten midfielders would be an awful lot. I would do it because...

...Look at the forward options.  With poor play in MLS and in recent friendlies, I don't think Findley should make it, even if he is the "speed replacement" for Davies. Altidore is the only lock, though Ching is the next closest thing if healthy.  Do you trust anyone other than those two?  Also, given Ching's injury problems, you'd probably need two more forwards, even with Donovan and Dempsey on the roster.  So, that means saying bye to Rogers, and hello to two of Buddle, Gomez, and Johnson.  Now that's what Bill Simmons would call the poo poo platter of forwards.

Can't we borrow someone from Brazil?  Dunga left home Pato, Adriano, and Ronaldinho, not to mention Diego and Neymar.  France left home Karim Benzema, the Dutch have no place for Ruud van Nistelroy, the Azzuri didn't include Francisco Totti (granted he's retired from the international football), Luca Toni, or Alessandro Del Piero (Italians everywhere are outraged!), and the Germans said no to Kevin Kuranyi.  Furthermore, all these countries, Brazil aside, will be trimming further fat from their rosters by June 1.  Meanwhile, the US has to see Giuseppe Rossi and Neven Subotic on the Italian and Serbian rosters respectively, while the aforementioned poo poo platter will be playing for a spot at camp in Princeton . 

Now, maybe I'm being too harsh on Gomez in particular, but does anyone think Buddle is up to playing against Rio Ferdinand and John Terry?  I long ago lost patience in Eddie Johnson, only to watch in horror as he scored a few times in the Greek playoffs, forcing his way back into the discussion.  Honestly, I'm not sure if I'd rather have EJ or Buddle, so maybe Findley is a legit choice after all?  Ahh.  In this case I do think it should come down to whoever shows the best form and on-field chemistry during the pre-World Cup exhibitions. I hope someone can stake a firm claim to the spot.  Until then, 30 days until the party in South Africa kicks off...

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Ray Husdon Is Fabulous

Need more proof of who is the best color man in sports?  After Leo Messi struck again today against Seville to give Barcelona the early lead, loyal watchers of GolTV were blessed with the following:

"He plays like he has Woody Woodpecker down his shorts all the time." 

No further explanation followed.  Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Ray Hudson!  That is all.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Rooting Against the Hosts

Is there are group with more villains in it than Group A?  It's like the Anti-Super Best Friends.  It's like the Legion of Doom.  It's like a team of Fox News personalities.

What made Group A interesting when first announced what how balanced it was. This year's World Cup groupings seem especially balanced, and while a few groups are harder than others and some have a clear cut favorite, there's really only a small handful of teams that realistically don't have a chance of advancing even in second place.

Now, what's really interesting about Group A is actually finding a team to root for (if you care to find a team to root for out of each group).  Wanting the Mexicans to fail is a given.  They are the Lex Luthor or Bill O'Reilly of the group.

France is also easy to hate for multiple reasons, whether it's because you think they cheated their way in with Henry's handball, or because you can't stand capitulators or women who don't shave and general snobbishness.

Uruguay I can't say you have a reason to hate them, though they are historically known for a brutish, thuggish style of football that's not particularly endearing.

Naturally, the South Africans were left as the sentimental favorite as the home side.  Mind you they might be, well, are the worst team in the group.  But home sides tend to do well in the World Cup, and that boost makes Group A all the more competitive and intriguing.

Then the South Africans had to go and say this: "Our famous prayer is that the Americans don't make the second round. (That) they get eliminated and they go home."

This according to South African General Bheki Cele. The concern is that if the US advances, President Obama may be likely to make a visit to take in the World Cup, presenting the hosts with a large security problem they may not be able to handle.  Apparently the 43 heads of state confirmed to visit South Africa during the tournament combined would equal the effort it would take to provide the security needed for Obama.

Anyway, gracious hosts or not, once you pray that the Americans lose and fail to advance, you get put on the enemies list.  Your vuvuzelas were already annoying, and now you've forced me to root for the stadium to collapse against Mexico. Ok, not really, but you get the idea.  By the way, the World Cup is only 34 days away.  Just over a month away!  Already excited and there's so much more to come.  Vamos Estados Unidos!

Friday, April 30, 2010

The Favorites Knocked Out

I’m going to perform a little exercise in which I write about and quote analysis on two teams that were upset Wednesday despite being heavy favorites to win their respective championships in two different sports. (No cheating and peeking at the footnotes to see which quotes refer to whom.)

One team was supposed to be all conquering, an attacking powerhouse. “They scored goals in bunches, sometimes seemingly at will.”¹ On the other hand, the opposition was tactically astute and dedicated to defense. They “provided a steady dam in front.”²

The more skilled team forced the attack, controlling possession in the offensive zone. Yet, “tactics became less important than focus - which in itself makes up a lot of the scope which you prepare tactics for - and heart, of which the [opposition] showed a lot.”³

“The home side were frustrated in their attempts to find a direct channel, as they managed to do very late.”⁴ All the brilliant defending from the opposition denied space and sight lines on goal. The vaunted attack “never had a real chance to up the tempo and to accelerate, as they like to do, because there was simply no room to do that.”⁵

In the end, all the dirty work by the opposition won they day, surely disappointing neutral fans hoping for the home side, containing the most exciting player in his sport, to win and advance.  Instead, they are at home licking their wounds. Once again it was proven that “defensive courage, in sufficient quantity, can negate a good offense.”⁶ When a team coordinates its defense so well, you “can find ways to take away one star scorer and hope that the pressure to score will shift to lesser stars,”⁷ who are not up to the task.

Quite simply, “The more spectacular, brilliant side were stifled over two games, and the more consistent, aggressive, determined team went through.”⁸

Importantly, the opposition was more prepared to expose and take advantage of the favored team’s deficiencies. For all the excitement over the course of the season that they exhibited, the loss “showed that their fluid attacking style has weaknesses.”⁹

First and foremost, the defense was not as strong as necessary. Cavalier “defenders” attacked forward, pinching up the sides and exposing the team and its goalie to counters and breaks where the defensive gaps now existed in behind.

The opposition duly took advantage, scoring the crucial goals to put them through.

Second, when the attacking team’s fluid passing and dynamic movement were clogged by a barricade of defenders, “they lack a Plan B. It is a criticism that has often followed the great attacking sides in the game, especially those who remain faithful to one particular style of play.”¹⁰

It’s obviously frustrating as the team so used to scoring when it wants or needs to can’t find the opening to do so, “and you get a little more unnerved because you are not used to that adversity of not being able to score.”¹¹

Despite all the claims of how defense trumps, it's sometimes forgotten that attacking teams have won in the past, including last year. Of course those teams remained fairly sturdy in back, often with the help of some timely saves from the goalie. But the true benchmark of greatness is that “sides need to be adaptable and when a bus is parked in front of goal, they need to find a way past it.”¹²

Doesn’t matter if it’s a deflected shot or a crossing pass that somehow gets hammered home from a scrum in front of the goal. You just need to find that way, and unfortunately this team continued to slickly pass their way and fire through the wall, and were seemingly incapable of having someone crash the goalmouth area to truly trouble the defense.

The coach certainly takes some of the blame. From the losing side, it was clear that, “He's a master of attack but clearly no mastermind of postseason psychology or tactics.”¹³ On the opposite bench, a superior tactician played upon weaknesses and rightfully advanced.

Though unfavored and not the “sexy” team, the opposition “must take credit for holding off their opponents with a defensive display that [they] can be proud of.”¹⁴ It was a win earned and deserved.

1. Barry Svrluga, "Montreal's stunning upset of Washington ends Capitals' season much sooner than anyone expected," Washington Post, April 29, 2010, A01.
2, 3, 4, 5, 8. Roberto Gotta, "Inter wall stands firm," ESPNsoccernet,, April 28, 2010.
6, 7, 11, 13. Thomas Boswell, “Washington Capitals are built for the regular season and they are punished for it in the Stanley Cup playoffs,” Washington Post, April 30, 2010, D01.
9, 10, 12, 14. Jon Carter, "Barca in need of a Plan B," ESPNsoccernet,, April 28, 2010.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

USA, World Cup Readings

Before getting to the Champions League Final pairing of Bayern Munich and Inter Milan at another date, here are some links and discussion of some reading on the US team and the World Cup to be found on ESPN Soccernet and elsewhere.

They’ve been running a series of features, one series called “World Cup 101 – 101 features in 101 days.”

ESPN’s been using a lot of statistical analysis in its pieces, such as today’s piece on the percentage likelihood of each team’s advancement from the USA-England group.

Maybe what surprised me the most from the article was finding out that according to ESPN’s Soccer Power Index (SPI), the US has the 9th rated attack, whereas only the 34th rated defense. I’m pretty sure it would take you all of 1.2 seconds to name 10 teams with better attacks than the US. I don't even need to list them.

The weaker defense however actually shouldn’t be too surprising. Aside from goalie, the left back spot is always shaky, while injuries and inconsistency among the center back pairings haven’t helped either.

Still, some of the statistical analyses can be interesting, such as an examination of how the goals per game in the European leagues the year of a World Cup predict an increase or decrease in goals per game during the World Cup from previous years. (This year… look for more goal scoring than in past low years, but nothing close to historical highs. Old school defending just not exactly high quality.) Other articles range from highlighting players that could see a post-World Cup boost in transfer value, and why the cooler weather could lead to a more exciting Cup.

Another interesting series of reads has been a best XI of position players. Always fodder to argue who the top 11 attacking or defensive midfielders have been.

Lastly, as time is running out for players to make their way onto the World Cup, there are a few questionable spots left on the potential US roster and there have been a variety of articles from experts on those who are in or out. Unfortunately there aren’t many forwards worthy of being in.

If there was something close to a consensus on the roster, it would look like this:

Goalkeeper (3): Tim Howard, Marcus Hahnemann, Brad Guzan
Defense (8): Jonathan Spector, Steve Cherundolo, Oguchi Onyewu, Carlos Bocanegra, Jay DeMerit, Clarence Goodson, Jonathan Bornstein , Heath Pearce
Midfield (9): Clint Dempsey, Stuart Holden, Michael Bradley, Ricardo Clark, Maurice Edu, Benny Feilhaber Landon Donovan, Jose Torres, Alejandro Bedoya
Forwards (3): Jozy Altidore and two of Brian Ching, Herculez Gomes, Charlie Davies or Edson Buddle

As you can see, picking Bedoya as the midfield wild card over DaMarcus Beasley is the only non-forward tough choice, and even then that spot is available only because Robbie Rogers hasn’t improved and there’s room for an extra midfielder because Dempsey and Donovan can play up top. I won’t presume between picking the forwards because there’s still a lot to be seen in terms of Ching’s and Davies’ injury recoveries.

Also, I’d like to remind everyone clamoring for Gomez, who was joint top scoring in the Mexican first division, that he was the top scorer in the Mexican first division, not exactly the Serie A of tactical defenses. Nonetheless I’d still take him because he’s on form and confident, something in short supply in the US camp. Here’s where I start praying that Davies can return to a semblance of his former self…

Monday, April 19, 2010

Glad to Be a Soccer Sports Bigamist

Those of you who read ESPN's Bill Simmons, aka the Sports Guy, are probably well aware of a few of his well-know rules for being a true sports fan. One of those rules, one that often goes without saying, is the prohibition against sports bigamy.

However, being a soccer fan, particularly one in the United States, presents a much different situation than your typical NFL, NBA, or NHL fan.  I have a favorite team in those sports, and I will only root for that one team for the entirety of my life. 

But how is soccer different?  For one, MLS only began play 14 years ago.  So prior to that time, allegiances had to lie elsewhere, and as the league was still in fledgling stages, those allegiances remained and kept building.  And as a fan with no other inherent alliances or ties to particular European teams, like many other US soccer fans I suspect I found myself attracted to teams for various reasons, such as cheering for a favorite player (say Roberto Baggio) or a team that plays an attractive style.  Additionally, Champions League aside, the major European leagues offered separate leagues where one could develop multiple allegiances.

So, not being Italian, Spanish or English, with no natural ties to any teams there, I believe it only natural that I find myself cheering for particular teams within each league.  Never multiple teams within a league, but multiple teams across leagues.

But then again, being a US fan presents another wrinkle to this issue.  Like most US fans, I want to see Americans playing in Europe do well, which includes cheering for their teams to do well.  I'm not a Fulham fan, but I root for Clint Demspey and Fulham to win every weekend except when they take on Manchester United.  I don't see anything wrong in this.

To some degree it's not even that I'm a true fan of those teams.  In La Liga I root for Barcelona because I enjoy watching the best soccer on the planet and for whatever reason I disliked all the US fans of Real Madrid who rooted for them just because they had won the most titles. But I'm not really a true Barcelona fan. I'm just a fan of watching Xavi find the unseen angle and Mess perform the unbelievable.

Here's the point of this whole argument.  As a US fan in a time where you can watch soccer from all over the world and circumstances led to fan allegiances with foreign teams, while also having a local MLS team to root for, days like this past Saturday become much more bearable, enjoying, and ultimately fulfilling.

My home team DC United lost yet again, 2-0 at home, falling to 0-4.  It's pretty clear that they are the worst team in MLS, quite a dubious distinction.  It's one thing to root for a middling MLS team, but when your favorite team is this bad, you start questioning the proper outlay of your money.

But that aforementioned soccer bigamy at least gave me a chance to enjoy some good soccer with a vested interest as a fan.  It's one thing to enjoy an exciting Manchester Derby, and marvel at the Ginger Prince securing a second dramatic, extra-time winner against Man City this season.  It's all the better to have a vested rooting interest in seeing the Red Devils pull one out at the death once again.

After that, not to mention knowing that Chelsea's loss left the title race wide open again, everything that was going to happen at RFK stadium could only be gravy.  Sure, watching a team whose only bright spot is a 17 year old academy graduate (I'm already excited about the future of Andy Najar) is slightly depressing.  But that comes with being a fan, and being a US soccer fan, a fully-admitted soccer bigamist, gives me even more to root for.  The good or the bad, I'm still a fan and the more to indulge myself in the better.  I wouldn't have it any other way.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

This Guy You Might Have Heard Of, He's Pretty Decent

I suppose you might have heard about this diminutive forward/winger Lionel Messi.  You might also have heard he's not a half-bad player.

Well, as if there was some debate about who is the best player in the world, the Leo Messi Show yesterday against Arsenal erases any doubt:

Which of the four was the best?  Can you even choose?  The chipped finish to complete the hat trick was fantastic, while the run leading to the fourth was equally good.  No point in even choosing, just marvel.

The ironic thing is that the 4-1 scoreline doesn't reflect the fact that as a team, Barca were not as dominating as when they played Arsenal off the pitch during the first 60 minutes of last weeks match at the Emirates. Xavi was still commanding and impeccable, challenging those who believe, like Wayne Rooney, that Andrés Iniesta is Barca's best midfielder and best player.

What mattered on this day was that Messi not only single-handedly played Arsenal off the pitch and out of the Champions League, but played himself off the pitch where the mere mortals of football reside and ever closer to that realm of greatness that only a select few reside, the Peles, Maradonas, and Zidanes.  Messi still needs to lead Argentina to a World Cup title before I place him alongside those greats, and at 22 he has another decade at least of great football left in him (knocking on wood...).  I've been similarly awe-struck by performances from Cristiano Ronaldo in the recent past, and it's on the grandest stage that their legends must really be made.

But, as Ray Hudson would say, Messi's magisterial goals are already becoming the stuff of legends.  His speed and quick feet, quick thinking and surprising strength on the ball, combined with deadly shooting accuracy, make it almost impossible to stop him when he wants to score.

Arsene Wenger is a lover of the beautiful game, and he'd rather lose trying to emulate Barcelona's flowing, silky passing attack, than win it all by playing catenaccio.  So no matter how upset he may be at staring a fifth consecutive trophy-less season in the face, the Proffesor in Wenger who is devoted to the aesthetics of football could not help but be effervescent inside with awe and veneration at the display of extraordinary footballing grace and power before him.

There is something mythical, almost supernatural, in watching Messi at the Camp Nou, where 98,000 people, visiting fans included, are so joyous at watching Messi's craft, wanting more without really knowing how it can be done, only for the young Argentine to find new ways to amaze.  The reverence showed by the fans upon the latest act in this wonder-show just further the sense that Messi has reached heights beyond any other footballer of his generation.

With each passing moment the world's itch to see Messi replicate his club performances for his country, to truly duplicate Maradona's World Cup winning heroics, grows deeper and deeper.  Can Maradona himself find a way to bring that out of Messi in South Africa?  I can certainly dream.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Thoughts From Lot 8

This winter was one of the worst in recent memory in DC, with record breaking snow falls. But this weekend finally brought with it not just long-desired spring weather (some would say early summer weather), but a chance to exalt in the hope of a new season and to celebrate those new beginnings with fellow revelers in some quality tailgating.

One problem though was that with all that snow from this winter, it had to be dumped somewhere. DC couln't just plow it normally or the snow banks and piles would have made transportation, in all forms, virtually impossible (as it was it was a disaster anyway). So where else to dump it, lot 8 at RFK Stadium of course.

The snow may have long melted away, but the ravaging effects of the elements took its toll. More than half the lot consisted of gigantic craters, rubble, and dirt. Thankfully the access road was repaired and they even completely re-paved the portion of the lot closest to the tunnel heading to lot 5 and the stadium gates.

Just that little bit of open, available space was enough for the previously mentioned revelry. And the DC United crowd made sure to enjoy the day in large numbers. A crowd of over 20,000 enjoyed the pre-game festivities and continued through the game’s opening whistle, thanks in part due to the reappearance of the El Salvadoran support back in the fold after the acquisition of winger Christian Castillo.

Hoping to forget opening game humiliation at Kansas City, the DC United crowd was vociferous and lively, as they usually are. DC United responded with good possession, but few good chances. Like a tailgater who starts early, enjoys sun and drink, only to peter off and lose momentum as the night wears on, drained from the day’s toll, so too did it seem like United must have been enjoying the early fun in the sun. Their early possession failed to produce the opening goal the team desperately needs, and as the game’s paced slowed to visiting New England’s liking in the second half, the Revolution put away its late chances to steal a road victory.

Is this a portent of the season to come, or a slow start for a team trying to fit together significant new pieces? It’s taken all of two games to dash all of my optimism about the season. DC isn’t as bad as six goals against and nil for, but I can see another year of playoff hopes coming down to the final weekends. I hope I’m wrong. I hope Danny Allsopp gives DC that extra bit of threat up top and that a summer signing can come and provide some midfield creativity and control.

In the meantime, I’ll have to remember to get to lot 8 a little earlier than usual to get one of the available spots. You never know in DC when the weather will turn.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Barcelona-Arsenal 2-2 Mauling Highlights

If you have18 minutes to kill, you need to watch the highlights of yesterday's amazing Barcelona-Arsenal match.  It was the biggest 2-2 thrashing you'll ever see. 

Quite an amazing result indeed.  Barca should have killed the match beyond any doubt before Arsenal got back in the game.  You'd have to think the tie is beyond Arsenal anyway with the two away goals and considering how the utter dominance of Barca's attacking will translate at home.  On top of all that, Arsenal's best player, Cesc Fabregas, will miss out on a return home.  But with both Pique and Puyol also out suspended (was the Puyol call the right call? Eh, I can go either way on it), it will be an intriguing match, even if Arsenal should really fear the worst (Messi wasn't nearly as devastating as he can be).  Barcelona's magical, beautiful passing is what all teams should aspire too and if they go on like this, who's to stop them?  Appointment viewing.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Manchester (and England) Wait with Baited Breath

If there was a piece of injury news that could completely overshadow Bayern turning the tables on Manchester United with a late injury time winner, it was the one piece of news a city and nation feared most. Wayne Rooney, injured.

Part of a double blow, Rooney awkwardly injured his ankle while the ball was taken in the other direction, eventually leading to the game winning goal after Ivica Olic ghosted behind Patrice Evra to steal the ball and slot home.  As Olic and the Münchner celebrated wildly, Rooney had to be carried off the field, unable to put any pressure on his foot.

Let's get the game out of the way.  Bayern were better and deserved to win.  Even with key midfielders Arjen Robben and Bastien Schweinsteiger out injured, Bayern controlled the play and probably should have scored more but for some great saves by Edwin van der Saar and some bad misses by the German side.  Man U also threatened on the break, and leaving the Allianz Arena down 2-1 with an away goal in the pocket is nothing to be ashamed of.

The manner of the loss will certainly hurt for the Mancunians. Ribery's goal took a wicked deflection off Rooney, though the key of play was Bayern's man in the middle of the wall.  Most people are focusing on the bad luck suffered by Rooney on the play, but it showed why attacking teams try to put players in the wall (or at the end of it at least).  The Bayern player peeled out, allowing enough space for the ball to squeeze past the Man U bodies and hit Rooney's legs behind him as he jumped and turned.  Without the Bayern man there, maybe there's another Man U player in his spot or Rooney is tighter and the shot never gets through or the block is more solid and the ball goes wide.

When plays like that go in your favor, maybe the football gods are smiling upon you.

If more evidence of said favor was needed, the final play sealed the deal.  Nemanja Vidic did well to tackle Gomez, bringing him down while the ball bounced ahead toward Evra, who was running back to goal at an angle to cut off Gomez's run.  As anyone who's been caught like that by a unsuspecting deflected ball, when you weren't prepared, knows it isn't so easy to deal with. Furthermore, the deflection off Vidic played the ball slightly behind Evra, so he was immediately put in a bad position.  But he was still lackadaisical in trying to stop his momentum and either control the ball safely or clear it, and unaware of Olic's position, the Bayern attacker stole in easily and finished calmly past van der Saar.

Back to the big news, Rooney's injury.  So far reports indicate a layoff of about 2-4 weeks.  Surely enough time to heal for the World Cup but devastating for Man U's season, what with the top of the table clash against Chelsea this weekend and the return match against Bayern next.  Even if it's not bad, surely every step and tackle will be closely watched by the England faithful.  Could Rooney be on the verge of being overworked and burnt out? A twisted ankle is very susceptible to re-injury if not properly healed and strengthened 100%, so how he's used by Sir Alex upon his return will have Fabio Capello up nights.

Man U will claim they can still win without Rooney, as evidenced by their weekend victory over Bolton.  But let's get real, the Wanderers and Chelsea are two entirely difference propositions.  I have my doubts.

From a broader view, the match showed that Man U are overly reliant on Rooney and lack a superior attacking presence in the center of midfield.  I'm as big an admirer of Darren Fletcher as there can be, but the Red Devils need to add some attacking flair to support his all-around industry.  The results have proven how invaluable Fletcher is to the Man U cause, particularly by looking at those big matches when he's been unavailable.  But the aging Paul Scholes (or Giggs when played there), the passive Michael Carrick, or the disappointing youngster Anderson are not going to cut it when it comes to teams with superior midfield possession and attacking instincts.  They've performed up to the task on many an occasion, but not consistently and dominant enough when against the big teams, and one senses that is where Man U falls short.

With Rooney potentially sidelined for a key stretch of the season, Man U's lack of striking options will also be tested.  Berbatov is not a prolific scorer, and one laughs at the thought of going into the season relying on Michael Owen to stay fit and contribute as the third striker (though will anyone say the free signing wasn't worth it for his last gasp winner in the Manchester Derby alone?  I think not).  Meanwhile, the stable of youngsters waiting in the wings have yet to step up and hold down a first team place.

Then again, Man U is not the only team overly reliant on Wayne Rooney, and you can make that two countries that will be waiting intently for injury updates on the golden ankle.