Wednesday, February 24, 2010

MLS Work Stoppage Looming

According to numerous reports, including this latest update from the Washington Post's Soccer Insider, MLS and the Players Union are still far apart on the negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement.

The big issues include player free agency, central MLS office control over team y and contracts, and guaranteed contracts, among others. Here's a longer piece detailing some of the issues.

I'm waiting to say more depending on whether there is in fact a strike, but there are a two very clear points here that I imagine most people are in agreement about:

-The players absolutely will have public sympathies here. The owners may have been losing tons of money through the years propping up a fledgling league, but this would be MLS's 15th year. Many players do not make a living wage and MLS simply has ridiculous control over player movement and contracts. The fact that a team can control a player's rights even after they've refused to renew his contract is plainly wrong. Rights appear to be more important than money to the players, and this is something the public can support.

-A work stoppage may not kill the league entirely, especially if it means getting a better CBA, but it would be debilitating to MLS's image. I think everyone understands this. The NBA may be inexorably headed toward a future work stoppage and the NFL has serious CBA problems as well, but MLS probably has the most to lose with a strike. The NBA and so many of its players that surprisingly live paycheck to paycheck may be seriously hurt by a lockout, but when play resumes, arenas will still fill to see LeBron, Kobe and Gilbert Arenas (just kidding). It's a lot more forgiving when you return to see the best players in the world. As for MLS, all I'll have to do is turn to Fox Soccer Channel to see Wayne Rooney or GolTV to see Leo Messi.

A third aspect that hasn't yet been discussed or examined thoroughly is what effect, if any, a work stoppage would have on the US team this summer. In many respects it wouldn't matter as many more key players are in Europe than in years past and as recent friendly results tell us, over-reliance on the current batch of MLS players would be deadly to US hopes. But depth is important, especially with so many key players facing injury recoveries, so the more playing time for potential US players the better. Maybe it means they will be fresher come June, or maybe they will be rustier. But it also means less chances for players to impress Bob Bradley, especially players who are on the fringe and need an extended period of sharpness to convince the manager that those last few spots on the roster should go to them.

I don't know anyone who wants a work stoppage as a means of correcting the current imbalances in the CBA, so let's hope the players and owners see the light in the next 48 hours.

I have one suggestion -- bring in Jesse Jackson. He seems like he can negotiate anything. And if the owners and players can't stand Jesse, well, that's at least something they can agree on and that's a good start.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Spurs Fans Harmonize

A Valentines Day ad from Puma featuring some Tottenham Hotspur hooligans. Pretty awesome I think. Especially the random people sitting to the left through the whole thing.

Song: Truly Madly Deeply by Savage Garden

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Toffees a Sticky Proposition for the Top of the Table

Since a certain Californian joined the blue half of Merseyside this January, Everton have played seven Premier League games, including matches against the entire top 5, plus a Europa League match against Sporting Lisbon. A murderers row for your season, if you will.

Yet the Toffees record in those eight games - a stellar 6 wins, 1 tie, 1 loss.

In back to back games now, Everton have defeated Chelsea, giving Manchester United a title race lifeline, before subsequently endangering that lifeline today with a well earned victory over the Red Devils at Goodison Park.

Now, I'm certainly not going to say Landon Donovan is singly responsible for this feat. But his presence surely has helped as he's slotted seamlessly into the starting lineup on either flank.

There are a number of reasons for this strong run, including Donovan's growing understanding with Tim Cahill (before being lost to injury against Sporting this Tuesday), Mikel Arteta's return, Steven Pienaar playing in the form of his life (in my opinion), and the general ability of Manager David Moyes to get his teams to continually fight and present a challenge every night on the pitch.

Today's match with Man U was particularly interesting because it was Wayne Rooney, the man who will be charged with carrying England on his back in South Africa this summer, against Donovan and Tim Howard, the two men who will look to do the same for the USA.

Oddly enough, England's World Cup hopes have been boosted because of some questionable decisions by Sir Alex Ferguson. His decisions to sell Ronaldo, to not re-sign Carlos Tevez, and thinking that Dimitar Berbatov and summer signings Michael Owen and Antonio Valencia could pick up the scoring slack have unintentionally led to Rooney's blossoming into possibly the most dangerous striker on form at the moment. Could this also be his undoing, with Rooney being burned out by June from carrying Man U on his back? We'll see.

But plainly when Rooney is not imperious, Man U are not the same team. He wasn't poor today, but even an average Rooney showing can doom Man U when the back line is missing Rio and Vidic. Ironically, today Berbatov had one of his better outings, but his talents are not of the type to carry a team on such a hard fought afternoon.

On the other side, Donovan's loan move has been an outright revelation. US fans have known Donovan was playing the football of his life in the past year or so, but not until he could translate it to Europe was that last modicum of respect going to come his way. And the respect has certainly come, with Everton's supporters naming him player of the month.

A measure of Donovan's quality over the years is the complete transformation in my personal opinion of the USA's all-time leading goal scorer.

Not long ago, when he was returning from failed attempts in Germany with Bayer Leverkusen, despite the fact that he was already probably the best player in MLS and the USA's key player, I never liked him. His talents were undeniable. Donovan has skill, speed, and could run for days. Yet he wasn't always consistent and he just didn't seem to have the ambition nor the fortitude to succeed abroad. He was horrible at taking free kicks and corners. I remember cursing him with friends as he wasted chances with the US National Team. Plus it didn't help that it was well known that he didn't want to leave MLS because he wanted to stay in California where he could be with his actress girlfriend (now his wife, who he's separated from) and the safety zone of friends and family.

Since that time there's been a gradual transformation. His talents continued to mature. Donovan may not have wanted to go abroad, but he often played his best in big moments. His performance against Italy in the World Cup was gritty and passionate, and his perpetual tormenting of Mexico found him easily in my heart. He was a near sure thing from the penalty spot. He maintained his position as the best player in MLS while enjoying more than anyone the responsibility of representing US soccer on and off the field. Even when he failed at Bayern Munich, it wasn't so much his fault as it was being put into a poor situation with the board never backing Jurgen Klinsmann's decision to bring him in on loan.

Now he can say he belongs on the same field week in, week out with the great stars of the EPL and in Europe. He's even turned into a great crosser of the ball, taking corners for Everton and getting a number of assists from them. Plus, it's given us a glimpse of how he could be tormenting the English back line, having already gotten the better of Ashley Cole, John Terry, and now Wes Brown.

The Toffees have been a tricky match for the big clubs of the EPL of late, and I'm sure as the English ponder this run of form, June 12 won't be far from their minds.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Is There Anybody Out There?

Well, mine has been an extended absence, so I think it's only appropriate to inquire if there's anyone out there. With the World Cup fast approaching, Champions League starting up again, and domestic leagues kicking it up into full throttle, I hope you are still out there. Out there or not, it's probably time to take a solid look at European football through the Champions League lens.

First off, you may not yet know, I certainly didn't (and UEFA seems to have done a poor job of advertising) Champions League has a brand spanking new schedule format. It's good for viewers, but questionable for the participating teams. Last year and in recent memory the round of sixteen would bless us with four games on Tuesday and four games on Wednesday, followed by a one week layover sans European footie. Now, this Tuesday will host two games (Lyon v. Real Madrid; AC Milan v. Manchester United) as will Wednesday (Bayern Munich v. Fiorentina; Porto v. Arsenal). Then, the following week, the first leg of the away matches are played, the second leg for Lyon, Real Madrid, AC Milan, and Manchester United is then completed the following week, and then the final second legs of the round of sixteen close out. In efect, we have a month of Champions League uninterrupted until the weeklong break between this round and the quarterfinals. As viewers this new format probably allows more people to watch more games. Whether or not the layovers and differing timetables for play between rounds affects the teams remains to be seen.

As for this week's matchups, an interesting pair. Oddly enough, Real Madrid may be the only true favorite in these first four games. Lyon lost Benzema this past summer, to Madrid no less, and last year also saw their six consecutive Ligue championships come to an end. They simply are not the team they once were. Meanwhile, Cristiano Ronaldo, this Champions League's topscorer is back with MAdrid after injury and red card setbacks this season, and will add his usual pace and skill to the merengues. More worrying for the French side however, will be the return from injury of team top goalscorer Gonzalo Higuain, who is on pace to become a top European striker this year. Similarly Kaka seems to have shaken off his sports hernia and be finding his form. Nevermind that the Madrid back four have adapted remarkably well to losing Pepe, and the midfield is slowly becoming a unit capable of success despite, or perhaps because of their flexibility (Kaka, Granero, Guti, Van der Vaart, Lass, Xabi Alonso, et al. have all played and well this season). The team has Barcelona on its sights in la Liga, but the club from the capital makes no bits about it - May 22nd at the Bernabeu would be the sweetest reward for los blancos. All that said, Real has never beaten Lyon in the Champions League, and has not gotten past the round of sixteen in five years. With Benzema likely out for the first leg, and Lyon expected to be snow covered and at below freezing temperatures this Tuesday, don't count Lyon out yet, at least not on the first leg.

Meanwhile Manchester United has hoisted themselves to within one point of Chelsea after a draw at Aston Villa and a Chelsea loss to Everton courtesy of Landycakes and Louis Saha. But the red devils may be facing AC Milan at their most dangerous. Seemingly out of contention for the Serie A despite being only eight points behind Inter, the rossoneri have hardly sparkled this season. But they are European regulars, and you can bet Ronaldinho will play his best against top opposition like Manchester. Well, at least for a few minutes, though it doesn't take much more from the Brazilian. Huntelaar has also found the back of the net recently, and may be looking to prove he's not a player meant to play in the Dutch league exclusively. Nonetheless, Manchester will stand behind the man that's carried them this season, and in impressive fashion, Wayne Rooney. Almost a force of nature, Rooney has done nothing short of put the red devils on his back amidst a series of defensive injuries and an erratic midfield that sorely misses Cristiano Ronaldo. Certainly Rooney has seen more of goal without the Portuguese, but the team has felt the loss. Nani is hit or miss, Giggs is injured, and Valencia though pacey, still has not found his form. It will be interesting to see if Leonardo, with his job likely on the line, will be able to expose Manchester United weaknesses on the biggest stage. But with Manchester United given almost a full week off with no EPL this weekend, it is hard to pick against the devils over the two legs, though a tie or even a one goal loss isn't out of the question at the San Siro.

On Wednesday the matchups are bit less thrilling on paper, but may prove equally exciting on the pitch. Beating Liverpool 1-0 last week, Arsenal appeared to get themselves back in the title race, at six behind Chelsea aka Team Drogba. But Wenger's boys have yet to prove that they can beat the big boys around town, having dropped games to Manchester United and Chelsea before the Liverpool match, and not in hotly contested games. The loss of Van Persie has certainly hurt the gunners, but truth be told the trade off Wenger has made seems to be one of adding youth to lose meddle and confidence. These last two attributes seem absent from both Arsenal sides fielded against the top two. Simply put, the gunners lack the verve to run with the big boys, and Arshavin's absence for their clash against Porto will not help. In my opinion, the gunners also seem to lack a holding midfielder, as Diaby remains unconvincing, and that position would seem to be essential for a team who needs to maintain possession. So will Porto test Arsenal the way the other seventeen EPL teams test them, or the way Chelsea and Man. U. have? Though they sit third in the Portuguese League, Porto always come to play in Champions League, lest we forget that Porto's two European Cups are two more than Arsenal have managed. Moreover, Porto has absolutely demolished its opponents in recent weeks, and despit losing several key players this summer, Porto still has Hulk and always finds a way to find suitable replacement for losses. This team took eventual runners-up Manchester United to the brink last season, and will look to do the same against Arsenal. Both teams will look to pass and play openly, so this should be an entertaining match to say the least. Over two legs, I'd bet on Porto over Arsenal though.

Finally, the Bayern Munich v. Fiorentina matchup. Here's what you need to know. Fiorentina are doing dreadfully in the Serie A, and have lost their last two (1-0 losses to Inter and Roma). Bayern Munich have gotten Ribery back, he's in a contract year (just not with Bayern Munich) and Robben is on form. The Germans will surely prove too much for the Italians, and should win easily. But no one ever wins easily against an Itlaian side, do they? If Inter and Roma could be held to 1-0 wins, what are the chances Fiorentina arrives at Allianz Arena looking for a tie or 1-0 loss and gamble on their chances at the Artemio Franchi? I say high. Very high even. Will it work? Probably not, as Fiorentina's been off form recently and Bayern should have enough firepower to get through, but it'll be interesting.

Next week I'll get to that mouthwatering Chelsea v. Inter clash, and the other three, rather less interesting matchups.

In other news, The Copa del Rey will be played between Atletico Madrid and Sevilla on May 26, 2010, four days after the Champions League final. Both teams play attacking open football and have several world superstars on their rosters. If Real Madrid, Barcelona and maybe Valencia weren't going to be in the final, these would certainly be your top choices. It's been ten yars since Atletico played in a final, and almsot fifteen since they've won anything. Sevilla on the other hand, has battled Valencia in recent years to take that third Liga spot Atletico once held. In the last five years the sevillistas have won two UEFA Cups, a Copa del Rey, a Spanish Super Cup and a European Super Cup. It's hard to gauge form and injury status this far in advance, but Sevilla should be the slight favorites in what I suspect may be one of the last, if not the last, competitive matches before South Africa. Hopefully no players miss the final due to national team commitments.

This weekend, Cristiano Ronaldo returns to action at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday against Xerex. Meanwhile, Barcelona travel to the Vicente Calderon to face an Atletico team on the ascent. "On the ascent" for Atletico Madrid usually means "before the fall." But despite Atletico's ability be alternatively amazing or horrifying, Aguero and Forlan will be facing a depleted Barcelona defense (no Alves, Pique, Marquez, Abidal, Toure, or Chygrynsky) that may start a youth club player or a modified winger as a defender in Jeffren. While it's hard to see Barcelona lose a game, if ever there was a time...

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

A Quick Rundown of Thoughts

There has been a lot of soccer played recently in various competitions, ranging from internationals friendlies to the African Cup of Nations to league matches to all manner of domestic cup competitions.

So, here's some quick hitting thoughts about all that's been happening.

--Manchester United beat Arsenal 3-1 over the weekend, lead by a scintillating performance from Nani and Wayne Rooney as bullish as ever.

Nani may never become the next Ronaldo, and really, the whole talk about "Ronaldo who?" is nonsense, but that was about as close to replicating a Ronaldo performance as you get. Rooney meanwhile scares the daylights out of me because if he keeps this up, I do not want to see a just recovered Oguchi or slow footed Carlos Bocanegra having to contain him. Maybe they can do it, but he's single handedly keeping Man U in the EPL title race.

--Speaking of which, have you tried to keep up with the EPL table lately? I recently looked at the table and was stunned to see Arsenal on top! With all the cup competitions, they top teams haven't been on equal games in some time, but after today's Chelsea-Hill City draw, the top five have all played 24 games. Suddenly Chelsea's big lead is just two over Man U, while Arsenal are four points further back. Arsenal are not a title-worthy team. In the key games of their season, the Blues and Red Devils tore them apart. One of the small pleasures in life is seeing Arsene Wenger slumped over in his seat with that look of a bewildered and disconcerted look on his face.

--Liverpool continues to hang around in fifth place, one point behind Tottenham and tied on points with Man City, who have two games in hand, and one point ahead of Aston Villa, who have a game in hand. Liverpool has had quite the ignominious season so far, and it wouldn't surprise to see them drop out of a European spot altogether if Gerrard and Torres aren't healthy. Rafa Benetiz has long worn out his effectiveness and needs to go...

--...but he shouldn't go to Juventus. Juve has also had a disappointing season. Their campaign was probably doomed from the start by expectations that were far too high. Realistically no one should have expected a title challenge. Yet they too might miss out on Champions League football next year, after being embarrassed on the final match of group play by Bayern at home. Ciro Ferrara is probably a really nice guy, and could be a decent manager in the future, but he doesn't have the experience or gumption to direct a team as demanding as Juventus. It will be interesting to see how the season plays out under Alberto Zaccheroni. I will say that if Rafa comes to Turin, it would something to see him matching wits against Jose Mourinho again.

--Landon Donovan has put in some excellent early displays for Everton. It's always great to see an American so successful abroad, and it bodes well for South Africa this summer. I hope Everton tries to buy him from LA once his loan spell runs out, but we'll see. The Galaxy will probably play hard ball and demand a huge transfer considering his worth to the team. LA without Donovan are suddenly a last place team again, Beckham and a young and improving defense regardless.

--Meanwhile, the Serie A and La Liga have had far less exciting titles race so far. In Italy it's not so much a race between equals as it is all other teams running a Special Olympics race to Inter Milan's Usain Bolt. Their lead is only eight points, but has seemed much more than that. Inter may not inspire much admiration, and it certainly wouldn't surprise to see them lose to Chelsea in the Champions League, but they sure can dominate the boring Serie A. In Spain, Barcelona are still five points up on Real Madrid. I haven't followed it that closely, other than the countless articles that have been written, and will become nothing short of a cottage industry come this summer, about how Messi has shone for club but not country. The real disappointment in Spain is that the third place team is eight points below second place Real Madrid. So much for being more balanced at the top of the table.

--Finally, Egypt won the African Cup of Nations again, despite not qualifying for the World Cup again. That's three African championships in a row while not qualifying for the World Cup since 1990. That's quite amazing. I think that puts them squarely on notice for being huge chokers (they did after all beat Algeria 2-0 during group play only to lose the playoff match four days later). Can you even think of an equivalent? Sucks for them, but I suppose I can only thank them for letting Algeria into the World Cup draw. Just 128 more days...