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.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Elite Eight and MLS Opening Weekend

We're down to the elite 8 of Europe's finest this week, with the Champions League featuring maybe not the most exciting quarterfinal match ups ever, but certainly a string of March upsets (sensing a theme here?) have left a number of underdogs still in the field.

The one mouthwatering tie above all others is Barcelona-Arsenal on Wednesday.  If ever there was a match to get your friends who say soccer is boring to watch, this is it.  Should be some exquisite, silky passing football on display, even if  Andrés Iniesta will miss out through injury.

Arsenal's string of lucky draws (the Duke of Champions League draws, if you will) has come to an end, and so too should their European dreams.  Even with Iniesta out, Barca are juts too devastating.  Cesc Fabregas may want to show the team where he began his professional career his worth, but it's just hard to image Leo Messi being stopped right now and Barca losing out over two legs.

The other big name matchup, on Tuesday, is Bayern Munich-Manchester United, replaying the classic 1999 final.  Bayern hit a rich vein of form from December through February, but they are a very average 2-3-1 in March, dropping to second in the Bundesliga.  The talented team also appears to be openly afraid of Wayne Rooney.  Man U, on the other hand, just keep on winning, not having lost since the trip to Everton in February.  The key for Man U is twofold, both the returning health of their backline and a number of players finding good form at just the right time, including proverbial enigmas such as Berbatov and Nani.

Man U will be favored to reach the finals, with the winner of the French pairing Lyon and Bordeaux awaiting in the semi-finals.  That quarterfinal I'm sure is going to be a huge TV draw.

On the other side of the draw, the Barca-Arsenal winner will face the Inter-CSKA Moscow winner.  CSKA was considered the plum draw, but like a "mid-major", they are more than talented enough, particularly at keeper, to pull off another upset.  Inter has also had an uneven month, with AS Roma and AC Milan crawling to within one and three points of the Serie A leaders respectively.

Could we be nearing a final four of the Champions League without a single "#1 seed"?  That would be quite remarkable, though it's hard to imagine none of Man U, Barca or Inter advancing, and it's fully possible that chalk will prevail.  Bayern, Lyon, Arsenal, and Inter are the home sides this week, so it will be interesting to see how Bayern and Arsenal in particular react against teams more than capable of grabbing the away goals advantage.


MLS opened up its never-ending season this weekend, a rather forgettable weekend from my point of view.  Not that it was entirely surprising that DC United started the season slowly and couldn't win at Kansas City.

Moving on from that nightmare, Seattle looked very good and the preseason predictions that the Sounders will challenge for the MLS Cup in their second year may very well hold true.  The other big new was really the opening of Red Bull Arena.  The gorgeous arena, which appears to now house a passable football team, was only half full at the start, though it filled up to an announced 24k (it seats 25k).  The crowd sounded quite lively and it's should immensely help the Red Bulls, and I'm very excited about making a road trip there this season.  Will the crowds hold up?  They will almost certainly dip as the season goes on, but it's good to just get the black mark that was playing in Giants stadium off the MLS books.

Other teams that should be good, including RSL, LA, and Columbus, won, but I don't take much stock in early MLS results.  This weekend I'll see DC up close, though sadly I may be more excited just to tailgate and see Wale perform before the game than to see the actual game after Saturday night's performance.  Much better will be expected by the home crowd.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

DC United Preview

D.C. is in the midst of ongoing change, a time of transition if you will. And I'm not just talking about continued gentrification or Congress (at least the majority of it) finally putting the American people first and passing historic legislation.

Maybe I don't have a great memory, but this year appears to involve more change and uncertainties than I can remember in the DC sports scene. The Redskins have a new big name coach, maybe a new QB coming, and seem to be transitioning from a team that buys like Real Madrid but wins like Wigan to a team that actually builds properly (Aston Villa?). The Wizards have blown up their team and have a new owner. The Nationals have a glimmer of hope in potential future star Stephen Strasburg. And Caps are the best team by far in the NHL, as well as the most exciting, both of which I guess are a change historically.

All this change has left DC United largely under the radar in the DC sports pages. Having missed the playoffs again in 2009, a change in coach and massive roster turnover leave DC United a unknown quantity in 2010. Not to mention the fact that the threat of a labor stoppage tempered any enthusiasm for the upcoming season, making the focus management-labor negotiations rather than team building.

Well the season is now upon us, and I don't know if it's all the change and the distractions, but this is also the first year where I really don't know how to feel about the upcoming season.

For the past few years, many DC faithful felt that former coach Tom Soehn held the team back, never really developing the skilled potential of the squad into a consistent winner. Now another ex DC United man, Curt Onalfo, has been brought in to right the ship. Will he? His mediocre record in Kansas City is probably less a reflection of his coaching abilities as it is the truly mediocre teams in his charge.

Maybe most importantly for the Barra Brava and Screaming Eagles, Onalfo's ties to DC United of old and his statements after his hiring indicate he will try to stick to the slick passing, attacking football the black and red are known for. If there's a team in MLS that thinks it's Barcelona or Real Madrid -- that it not only must win titles, but must do so beautifully -- it's DC United.

Can they play beautifully with half a new roster, a thin striking core, and no true attacking midfielder? I'm worried, to say the least, on having to rely on Jaime Moreno's old man speed. His excellent preseason hints that he's been rejuvenated once again and wants to go out with a bang, but it's a long season. Fortunately, MLS will actually do the smart thing and take a a break during part of the World Cup. A mid-season break like that will greatly help those old man legs.

It will be the absence of a pair of old man legs, however, that will likely be felt the strongest on the field. Of course I'm talking about caveman Benny Olsen leaving the playing field and joining Onalfo's coaching staff. His fiery leadership and midfield doggedness will be sorely missed, and not that anyone could ever replace Olsen, I'm not sure who could even attempt to step into that void. Clyde Simms is too cerebral. and Moreno, while the brains of the team and capable of fiery leadership, just isn't the emotional center of the team. That task will likely have to fall to the the three key players for DC this year: Santino Quaranta, Chris Pontius, and Troy Perkins.

Santino takes over for aging Christian Gomez at the all-important attacking midfield spot in DC's formation. Santino has played all over the pitch in his career, winger, attacker and central midfielder. Still at 25, DC hopes he can build on a successful comeback last season. Along with Moreno, Santino has the strongest bond with the DC fans and will need to step up his leadership even at his young age. With the seemingly talented El Salvadoran winger Christian Castillo an unknown in MLS, Quaranta will shoulder the bulk of the playmaking duties. At least Castillo will bring back some of the Salvadoran crazies who abandoned the team after Raul Diaz Arce left.

Party Boy Pontius, on the other hand, doesn't need to be a leader as much as the goalscoring threat DC desperately needs next to Moreno. One of the top rookies last season, he was moved around the field by Soehn too much for my liking. Hopefully sticking at striker, his best position, will allow him to flourish. Danny Allsopp joins from the land down under as a target forward, and we can only hope his career here goes better than the last DC United acquisition from the Australian league.

Troy Perkins, reacquired after he decided to return Stateside from Europe, will have to be impressive in goal to help a young and often shaky backline. Perkins was pretty good in his first stint with DC, but I never fully trusted him or thought him great. However, he really seemed to improve at Vålerenga and it showed as he became the third string US National Team keeper. He may have been passed by Marcus Hahnemann as the number 3 recently, but I expect a strong season from Perkins as he looks to impress Bob Bradley and make the World Cup roster.

Strong leadership and organization from Perkins will be vital because the defenders in front of him still have much to prove. I like the move of Rodney Wallace to fullback. His speed and attacking abilities will make him formidable, and he showed his defending chops last season in stints as a holding midfielder. And he played D in college too. When Marc Burch returns from injury, suddenly DC has a nice bit of depth on the left side, with Burch, Wallace, and Castillo.

Dejan Jakovic will anchor the center of the defense. He has a lot of talent, and at 24 will continue to improve, as central defenders do, as his positioning and decision making mature. From there the D gets iffy, with Julius James looking to prove he's not a high draft bust and I know nothing about the other central defender option, veteran Juan Manuel Peña. James showed glimpses at the end of the season after DC acquired him that he could turn things around and I believe he may turn out to be a solid starter. Unfortunately usual stalwart and DC's best defender Bryan Namoff is still out with post-concussion complications. If the youngsters continue to improve and form a level of cohesiveness, I could see DC surprising the pundits expecting them to finish in the bottom half of the Eastern Conference.

Is not knowing what to realistically expect from this team going into the season a good or bad thing? I wouldn't be surprised with a very good season, nor would I be surprised with a mediocre season. But like all seasons before they begin, I have optimism that all the change DC underwent this offseason is change I can believe in.

Last Week's Beautiful Goals

Not having posted regularly, or at all recently, there is just too much to actually cover. I could talk about how Wayne Rooney continues to lead Man U towards an historic fourth straight title and record breaking 19th overall, or how Leo Messi decided he was going to show all those Rooney lovers out there who is really the best player on the planet.

In fact, Messi has been on such a tear, not just scoring goals but regularly scoring absolutely stunning goals, that CNN got in on the discussion of debating whether Messi is better than Maradona.

Now, I think you can legitimately debate the merits on each player's technical ability, compare their stunning goals, and debate their overall dominance. However, when you really want to discuss who is greater, Maradona won Argentina a World Cup, while Messi has yet to produce that same form for his country. Will it change? Many hope so, but until then I think people are getting ahead of themselves. Let Messi play out his career a little first.

If you missed it, here is his hat trick against Zaragoza, including a stunning second (though again, let's not get ahead of ourselves, it's not as great as the famous Getafe goal). I even think I may like his shot against Stuttgart midweek a little more, also following:

His hat trick puts Messi at 34 goals in all competition, one more than Rooney's 33.

Speaking about fantastic goals, I'm sure you've seen the amazing goal by Clint Dempsey against Juventus. It was great on a number of levels. Technically, Dempsey's chip was perfect. But it was also beyond clutch, the game winner that completed a stunning comeback by Fulham against Juventus. The epic collapse by Juve, up 4-1 on aggregate after an early goal, was certainly helped by a sketchy red card against Fabio Cannavaro, but full credit to the Cottagers. Here's Dempsey's strike:

It's pretty amazing that Dempsey has now scored among the two biggest goals in the entire Fulham history. The first goal was his winner against Liverpool that saved Fulham from relegation in 2007 and now the match winner in what is widely being hailed as the most important and greatest victory in Fulham history. And when you consider the legendary status Brian McBride had at the club, with the Club even renaming a bar inside Craven Cottage "McBride's", that makes two Americans now strongly linked and associated with the oldest professional team in London.

There's a lot of other news worth covering that I may touch on later, such as the upcoming MLS season, thanks to a new collective bargaining agreement, the upcoming Champions League quarterfinals, and more.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Friday News Roundup

There are a lot of news pieces the past few days I want to cover, some good, some not so good.

Starting with the bad news, reports indicate the MLS players union voted 350 to two in favor of a strike if a new collective bargaining agreement can't be reached before the start of the season in two weeks. For a still relatively new league going into a key year, with expansion, increased attention to the sport because of a World Cup year, and the league ever-nearing the goal of having all it's teams in soccer-specific stadia, this could end up a disastrous turn of events.

This is not to say I don't 100% support the players in their fight with management, as I've already written about. Importantly for a league that struggles to legitimize itself at the gate in many markets is a situation I currently find myself in that is probably being repeated across the country.

DC United is desperately trying to get my friends and I to pay the remaining balance on our season tickets before the season starts, having already missed the designated deadline. Yet we're refusing to pay a cent further until we know we'll actually be seeing a product in return for our investment. My friend even laid into our poor DC United season ticket account manager explaining in no uncertain terms how we feel regarding the league's control over player rights and restricted movement, particularly when a hard salary cap limits how much salaries can ultimately increase (and it's a laughably low salary cap at that). We're not talking the NBA or MLB here.

The larger point is that I'm sure we're not alone in our stance, and that has to be seriously hurting the bottom line of numerous teams out there. A strike is still not certain, with the league saying that mediated talks this week have been productive even though the players are standing strong in their position. MLS needs to make concessions and it needs to do it soon. We're happy to give your our money, knowing full well I could spend my time watching the best players in the world on TV or simply spend my money watching the best hockey player on Earth in a much nicer stadium in downtown.


I'd like to give a nod to former DC United striker Alecko Eskandarian, who appears to be retiring, without actually using that word. Esky was never going to be a star, but he could have been a very productive MLS player, and will always be remembered as the 2004 MLS Cup MVP in DC United's 3-2 comeback victory over Kansas City. But unfortunately, serious concussions derailed his career.

I'll also love him for embarrassing the NY Red Bulls, which is always a fun thing to do. After scoring against the newly renamed Red Bulls in April of 2006, Esky ran to the sidelines, took a can of Red Bull, took a swig, then promptly spit it out on the Giants Stadium turf. He was fined for his antics, but I laughed. And it's just entertainment after all, so you can't ask for much more.

Maybe most importantly, with Yura Movsisyan now at Randers, there is no one to hold the mantle for Armenian footballers in MLS. Anyway, even though Alecko was probably too "Jersey" for my liking, I hope Alecko the best.


Following up on news that Jermaine Jones was with the US National Team in Amsterdam for their recent friendly against the Netherlands is some interesting quotes from Tim Howard in an interview with Grant Wahl of SI. Speaking about the team, he said that they are "hoping that Jermaine Jones makes it" and recovers from his injury problems to play in the World Cup.

Apparently the meeting, the first between Jones and the rest of the team, went well and Howard thinks Jones will fit in nicely because "he's got a lot of tattoos, he likes his music." Good to know the requirements of how to fit in with the USMNT. I think we can probably get Allen Iverson (if he's sober) and LeBron James on the team in time.

Still, the key point by Howard was that this version of the US team welcomes new comers with open arms (unlike say the reaction to the late addition of David Regis to the 1998 team). The players know well that Jones is highly regarded and feel that his addition would provide a boost to the squad and will welcome him accordingly. In fact, Howard compared the morale boost of adding a difference maker to the addition of Landon Donovan at Everton, while also noting that Charlie Davies would provide the same boost.

I previously gave up on Jones and was going to assume he was out of the picture for this World Cup, but hoped he would enter the team after that. I also worried about the chemistry issues if he just came in and took a starting spot from someone. Now, while still a little skeptical about his injury recovery, I'm suddenly much more interested in seeing Jones return to action and seeing him integrated into the team. With Clint Dempsey returning to action this week and Davies and Oguchi looking positive in their comebacks, one can only hope the injury situation will completely turn around and give the US the boost Howard was talking about for a sustained run in South Africa.


Lots of European action, so I'll hit on a few highlights.

A day after Arsenal crushed Porto, Manchester United was not to be outdone, routing AC Milan 4-0 on the back (or head rather) of Wayne Rooney. He's now reached 30 goals on the season and talk is turning toward him taking aim at Cristiano Ronaldo's 42 goals for Man U two seasons ago.

While there is a lot of soccer still to be played this season, this summer, and the opening of next season, but it appears Rooney is positioning himself to win worldwide honors. At the moment, I think I'd vote for him as best player on the planet over Leo Messi and others. His form has been just unstoppable recently. He doesn't give you the same flash as Ronaldo or Messi and he doesn't score as many awe-inspiring strikes as Ronaldo, such as the famous free kick against Portsmouth in the 42 goal campaign or his Champions League blasts against Porto and Arsenal last year. But Rooney's work-rate is second to none and by improving his heading of the ball this year he's turned himself into a more complete striker.

Regardless of the merits about whether Man U is better off without Ronaldo, which I still doubt when you consider their slight weakness in midfield compared to other top teams like Chelsea and Barca, you can't argue that Rooney hasn't benefited (yes that's a double negative).

Speaking of Ronaldo, he couldn't prevent Real Madrid from disappoint again despite scoring an early goal for los merengues. Truly astounding that this talented team still can't get it right. And Lyon is still a marvel.

Meanwhile, the Europa League round of 16 is poised with intrigue after the first legs of some very interesting ties. Liverpool continue to disappoint, losing by a goal to nil against Lille (how about those French clubs!). Some other nice matches include Valencia-Weder Bremen and Benfica-Marseille tied at 1 and Atletico Madrid-Sporting Lisbon goalless.

In Turin, Juve outclassed Fulham in Clint Demspey's return to action with a 3-1 victory. Juve's stated goal for this year is to climb the Serie A table and secure Champions League football for next season, but it appears they are poised for a run in the Europa League. I do want to point out that the attendance at the Stadio Olimpico was announced at 11,406. That number would be piddling for an MLS match (the last two seasons, very down years for DC United, saw them have an average attendance of 16,000 in 2009 and almost 20,000 in 2008), let alone for a big European match.

Of course that's because it's really only a "big" match for Fulham. The Cottagers are calling it one of the biggest in club history, while for Juve it's a big drop from battles against the likes of Man U and Real Madrid on the European stage. Although the Champions League is expected for a big club like Juve, the Europa League is nothing to be ashamed of, and in fact it could well prove to be more intriguing that the Champions League this season. I'll be happy to see Juve take it seriously and attempt to win the whole thing. Not sure they will, but Italian soccer could use any good news it can get.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Bendtner Still Sucks and Beckham Returns

Champions League football has returned and we now have the first two teams in teh quarter finals after Arsenal trounced Porto 5-0 and Bayern Munich got a screamer from Arjen Robben to push them past Fiorentina on away goals.

Here's Robben's goal:

Arsenal appear to be hitting full stride at the right time, not just in the Champions League but also in the EPL, where they sit level on points with Chelsea, just two back of Manchester United. Although Samir Nasri scored a nice solo goal, the real talk has been of Nicklas Bendtner's hat trick. This comes after critics were railing on him for a series of egregious misses against Burnley. Bendtner has long thought highly of himself and Arsene Wenger has given the young man plenty of chances despite his too oft profligacy in front of goal. No matter how many he scored, I still say he's overrated and he rarely strikes fear in the heart of opposing defenses.

Today's big drama is the return of David Beckham to Old Trafford as AC Milan have a mountain to climb against Man U. The 3-2 away victory for the Red Devils puts them squarely in the driver's seat, but let's see if Ronaldinho can conjure up some old magic.

More intriguing possibly is the Real Madrid-Lyon match. Lyon take a 1-0 lead into the Bernabeu, the key there being they did not concede an away goal in France. This will be an all important match for Madrid, as they have not reached the Champions League quarterfinals five years running, and nothing less was expected of the new galacticos this season. They should probably complete the task, but it could be a tense affair. Coming off the 3-2 victory over Sevilla and taking over top spot in La Liga will give the home side confidence, but you always get the sense that that confidence can be easily rattled and the crowd made nervous.

Lyon have probably overacheived, though that seems to be the consensus in the Champions League every year from the general public who don't fancy them as much as the big boys from the big three leagues. Of course to the Lyonnaise, they have perpetually underachieved, never taking the next step forward in the Champions League that their domestic dominance would call for. Still, I don't think today will be that day.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Importance of Feeling Welcomed

Not to make this a Landon Donovan blog, but his loan to Everton has been a large story for US soccer fans. This weekend he played what might be his last game in front of the Everton faithful at Goodison park, with his last potential match being at Birmingham. Donovan come on as a substitute and scored a nice goal and had an assist. He should have had two assists but a beautiful ball for Yakubu was wasted by the striker.

Anyway you can view the match highlights here.

While much of the talk recently has concerned the possibility of extending his loan deal, -- a "one in a million" possibility according to LA Galaxy coach Bruce Arena -- I'm particularly interested in one aspect of the Everton loan that greatly helped Donovan be successful.

In the book Soccernomics, which I reviewed here, one of the major topics was how some teams are more successful than others in the transfer market. One of the key components is not determining best value and recognizing players with high upside, but rather simply helping the new player feel welcomed and become acclimated to his new environs.

Some teams do nothing and it's often the case that new players for these teams struggle. You hear it all the time, they must learn a new language, culture, get to know a new city and so forth. Without having the book in front of me, I think it was Didier Drogba who claimed this as a problem at Chelsea.

Other teams, however, put forth the extra effort to help their players acclimatize. For instance, they hire assistants who help the new player with whatever he needs, whether it's finding a new home, schools, groceries, or just going to the movies.

It makes obvious sense that the less you are worried or stressed about things outside your job, the more likely you are to be successful at applying yourself on the job. If you're unhappy, you don't perform well.

Well, Donovan was clearly unhappy in his past stints with Bayer Leverkusen and with Bayern Munich. This article on Fox Soccer notes that Donovan was essentially left to sink or swim on his own in Germany. And as we have long known, Donovan needs to feel wanted and comfortable with his surroundings. It's why he's always remained in Southern California. David Moyes recognized that Donovan needs to be comfortable where he is and needs to know his situation.

The family-like atmosphere provided by both the Everton team and the fans was the first and probably most important step to ensuring Donovan's loan would be successful. Granted not every team will have the perfect, ready-made helping hand in US national team teammate Tim Howard, but it also shows why Everton is a such a good location for Donovan if and when he returns to the EPL. A team like Chelsea may not provide the same nuturing environment. I'm not saying he shouldn't consider Chelsea if they are in fact interested, but it's something to consider.

This example also shows how well David Moyes understands his players, and why he's been such a successful manager. He's not managing on a level playing field against Sir Alex Ferguson, and he lacks the hardware (other than three League Managers Association Manager of the Year awards), but he's widely respected for a reason.

(Interesting side note about EPL managers: of the top 10 teams in the EPL table, only two are managed by an Englishman - Harry Redknapp of Tottenham and Roy Hodgson of Fulham. The remaining eight include three Scotsmen, two Italians, and one Irishman, Spaniard, and Frenchman. And for so long the FA wanted to keep the England managerial position in the hands of an Englishman...)

Donovan's last match for Everton will be shown live on Fox Soccer Channel on Saturday, and I can only hope that he'll be back in England before too long, though his reception may be a little less warm depending on his summer exploits.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

USA-Netherlands Fallout

The big news from the US game against the Netherlands yesterday was Stuart Holden's fractured fibula that will keep him out for six weeks. The current long-term injury list for the US includes Charlie Davies, Oguchi Onyewu, Clint Dempsey, Steve Cherundolo, and now Stuart Holden.

On the plus side, all (including Davies, according to reports) will be back on the field in time for the World Cup. The bad is still that five potential starters (at least three being locks) will be coming off injury layoffs and will not have the type of match sharpness and form heading into the World Cup that US fans would prefer.

This on top of the fact that potential US man Jermaine Jones is unlikely to suit up for the USMNT this summer either. Interesting, however, were reports that Jones was seen with the US team in Amsterdam wearing the US team gear. Clearly both he and Bob Bradley have spoken and wish for him to be around the team because the plan is to get him in the squad if he's ever healthy and they'd like it to be as smooth an introduction into the locker room as possible.

Back to Holden, despite his injury, Bolton manager Owen Coyle has stated his intent to extend Holden's option for the next season. Definitely good news that the Bolton manager see's the talent in Holden and views him as a key player for the future, "because of the belief I have in him, and the quality he has shown since he came to the club."

The injury occurred on a pretty bad foul by Nigel de Jong in midfield, but I disagree with anyone who puts particular fault with de Jong or thinks it should've been a red. Ref's have given reds for worse, but it wasn't necessarily malicious.

The thing that de Jong and midfield partner Wesley Sneijder did best was completely control the midfield and outclass their American counterparts. This is to be expected, the two being key players for Manchester City and Inter Milan respectively, versus the starting duo of Michael Bradley and Jose Francisco Torres.

Despite the Dutch pretty much controlling the entire match, the consensus is that there were a lot of positives to take from the game. Those positives include:

-The central defense, with the help of Bradley and Maurice Edu, after his second half introduction, more than held their own and weren't particularly bothered.

-Jozy Altidore, despite getting little in the way of good service, acquitted himself against the Dutch defense and threatened a late leveler.

-DaMarcus Beasley has gone from purgatory to being a lock for the World Cup roster. He was lively and the best American attacker, assisting on Bocanegra's goal.

-The US stayed compact and organized while continuing to show the type of spirit and fight that they showed last summer by never giving up, fighting back to score a goal and nearly tying the game late. This identity, borne in the Confederations Cup and solidified in the final match of World Cup Qualifying, is the most notable trait of the USMNT and surely their best hope for this summer. That and Tim Howard (what a save at the end!).

Still, this all masks some glaring trouble areas:

-Landon Donovan was a huge disappointment. If ever you needed proof that the US offense is entirely reliant on him being the midfield fulcrum, last night was it.

-Torres was even worse than Donovan. He played himself right out of any future starts and and he's now further down the list of substitutes, especially considering Bob Bradley never seemed to want to play him in the past anyway.

-Bornstein was torched. He had a rough night with the penalty and the deflection on the second goal. But every time the Dutch threatened on his side you never thought he could handle himself. Not good. He's a favorite of Bradley's but he's also allowing Heath Pearce to stake a claim to that problematic left back. For the thousandth time... Cherundolo on the right (when healthy) and Spector on the left. Please.

-Michael Bradley has horrible distribution. His defensive work remains strong, for the most part, but he needs someone who can distribute better. That was supposed to be Torres but he was not good. Edu is a much better distributor than Bradley, which is why I think Bradley's starting spot could eventually be threatened. Edu should be starting in his place with an attacking mid like Benny Feilhaber or eventually if Jermaine Jones is put on the team you pair Jones with Edu, since Bradley senior loves playing two d-mids.

-The US has absolutely no second forward options to play with Altidore other than injured players Davies and Dempsey, or Donovan. In fact, I'd say the next best player is Brian Ching because he's proven he can hold up the ball, distribute ok, draw fouls, and at least presents something of an aerial threat from set pieces. If the above three aren't starting up top, I'd rather have Ching than Robbie Findley or Jeff Cunningham, or god forbid the awful Eddie Johnson. Ching and Altidore may not be the best pair in terms of complementary talents, but you get the players out there who will help you the most and have the least amount of downside.

-Lastly, and I fully admit this is total nitpicking, but is Tim Howard any good at penalty kicks? He always seems to guess wrong and never comes close. Is there an example that I'm just not remembering? If so, let me know. Because even though it's not really good form to pull out your unquestioned #1 ahead of penalties (and you usually don't have that substitute luxury anyway, having subbed for field players and maybe one sub for a penalty kick taking specialist), I'd have to say that the US would rather have Brad Guzan. Guzan's turned into something of a penalty saving hero at Aston Villa. Not meaning in anyway to demean Howard, who I said earlier is probably the number one key to the US World Cup hopes, along with Donovan, but am I wrong to worry about that?

Still, I'll take some heart at a 2-1 defeat to the Netherlands in Amsterdam, and just keep hoping that sometime in the future the US will have a healthy roster to choose from. Because as much as I have high hopes for this team, it's safe to say those hopes rest on a very narrow pool of players.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Dutch Manager for Rent, US-Netherlands, Red Bull Arena

Generally it's not good to fire your coach right before the season or a big tournament starts. You stick with what got you there. But the Côte d'Ivoire said to hell with that conventional thinking, firing Bosnian manager Vahid Halilhodzic.

The rumor mill speculation is that Dutch gun for hire and football nomad Guus Hiddink will take over for the World Cup. How is that possible, seeing as the man currently under contract to the Russians will be taking over for Turkey on July 1? Well, seeing as neither team will be partaking in the South African festivities, Mr. Hiddink's schedule has some open dates in June.

Recognized as a brilliant manager for his work with the South Koreans, Australians, Russians, and Dutch (not to mention winning the treble with PSV Eindhoven just over a decade before Man U completed the feat), Hiddink has quite the CV and has surely amassed enough frequent flyer miles to travel the world a few times over.

I suppose Hiddink likes a good challenge, taking on these numerous jobs. That and the money up and coming federations are willing to give him to get their national teams to the next level.

So, the question is, does this move push the Ivory Coast further up in the realm of World Cup favorites. They've been fancied for some time with all their talent and playing in their home continent, but a disappointing showing at the African Cup of Nations must have given their federation something to think about with the Group of Death staring them in the face this summer.

Enter Guus. He likes short jobs, as evidenced by his two and half year contracts with Russia and Turkey. But will this give him enough time to make a difference with Drogba and company? One shudders at the thought of Hiddink getting the powerful Ivorians to play Oranje football. Of course if you don't have a rooting interest, one would be shuddering in delight at that thought. I just have that feeling like he'll get them out of the group, probably to the disappointment of the Portuguese. Either way, it will be exciting.

Speaking of the Oranje, Wednesday will see the US-Netherlands at the Amsterdam ArenA. Big match that will see the closest thing to a full US World Cup squad prior to the actual thing. I'm looking forward not only to seeing Donovan cross over his good form, but to seeing Maurice Edu, the ex-Terp finally healthy and playing well. Big time goal this weekend to win the Old Firm match in extra time. Very happy to see him back in the fold.

Another link I wanted to provide was this piece updating on Red Bull Arena. If you want to see pictures, just Google it. Grant Wahl puts it plainly, the Red Bulls have gotten nothing right with the on-the-field product but it appears they've gotten everything right with the field itself and the arena. Color me very very jealous. I hate you Adrian Fenty for screwing up the Poplar Point deal in DC.

Last, a word of concern for HalaMadrid and any family or friends of his in Chile. Hope everything is all right.