Monday, July 27, 2009

Mexico. Five-time Gold Cup Champions.

The US men's team was absolutely demolished in the second half of a cup final this year, for the second time.

One soft penalty and the US team went to pieces. After Jay Heaps tugged at Giovanni Dos Santos' shirt, Gio went tumbling down into Heaps. The call was questionable, but the US team had plenty of chances in the first half to score and put the Mexicans on their heels.

But even worse was what happened after the penalty: the US looked like it was committing every man forward, leaving the inexperienced backline at the mercy of Dos Santos and Carlos Vela. The US lost discipline, shape, the match, and, eventually, dignity by a 5-0 scoreline. That's the kind of score we haven't seen in about 25 years.

Some fans will say that this doesn't mean anything. After all Coach Bob Bradley brought an inexperienced roster and decided to stick with them to see how they handled the pressure. And that's fair enough: there are lessons to be learned in defeat. And Bradley should be commended for sticking with his young team, when he could have brought in more experienced reinforcements.

But here's what should never happen: if you are a weaker, less talented, less experienced team, you must never be beaten on heart or organization. And this young US team was beaten on both accounts. Sure, they showed me more than enough in the first half of the game: this young team had the potential to beat this Mexico. If they played with the same discipline and marksmanship of US team's past, they would have put away one of their decent chances in the first half and known how to manage the result. It's fair to say that the US sometimes got lucky against Mexico during its near decade-long home unbeaten streak, but you'd also have to admit that the hard work those US team did made its own share of "luck". I saw none of that yesterday at Giant's Stadium.

Soccer's a funny game (as most sports are) with near overnight comebacks. But it will take more than a good US performance in Azteca on August 12 to convince me that Bob Bradley knows how to organize this team. For once, the US team has talent. How ironic, then, that its heart has seemed to fade away almost in tandem with the growth of the American's skill.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

You're almost always wrong if...

You're almost always wrong if you write "If X doesn't happen, there's no way the US team can be successful at the next World Cup." (unless, of course, X is "score more goals than their opponents...)

This week's entry is Jamie Trecker's assertion that "It's been clear for some time that Adu needs to be a part of the 2010 effort for the USA to have a real chance."
Jamie's latest

So we're all clear on one thing: Freddy Adu can do things with the ball that no other US player can do. But the US had a good run in 2002 without anyone remotely resembling Adu. Not to mention the US's recent run in the Confederations Cup, in which Freddy didn't play a second...

So... no... Adu doesn't need to be part of the 2010 effort for the US to have a chance.

But here's hoping that Adu gets more playing time in the Gold Cup and shows that he can play against tighter defenses. Just because the American path to success need not be trod solely behind Adu's little footprints doesn't mean the team can't use him.

Monday, July 6, 2009

It's an OUTRAGE that Torres/Adu/Whoever Didn't Play Because They Were Out of Form!

The anger starts from somewhere deep within.

Some fans of the US men's soccer team are outraged when Coach Bob Bradley keeps talents like Freddy Adu on the bench, obstensibly because Freddy's "out of form," yet still has the audacity to play Sacha Kljestan, who is also "out of form." These fans ask: "Why can Bradley play Altidore, who also hasn't played for his club team, and then sit Adu BECAUSE he's not playing for his club team? It just doesn't make sense!"

Of course it does.

Part of the problem is that we don't always mean the same thing when we say a player is "out of form." It could be the player is injured. It could be the player simply hasn't seem much action. Or maybe the player is just not performing. Sometimes, it's all of the above (consider poor DaMarcus Beasley).

But a bigger part of the problem is that different players will react... wait for it... differently to being out of form.

Remember John O'Brien? One of the US's most talented midfielders, he was also always one wrong foot away from an ambulance. As a result of his many injuries, he didn't always see much time with his club team. But if he was healthy, you had to play him. He was that good: he got healthy just in time for the 2002 World Cup and put in a great tournament.

Similarly, Jozy Altidore played a decent Confederations Cup, despite not playing a minute for his second division club in Spain. Granted, he looked gassed at times later in matches. He likely would have been even better if he was getting serious playing time in Spain. But you could count on him to play his way into form.

Coach Bradley decided that guys like Adu couldn't play their way into shape but bet that Klejstan could. He clearly made a mistake with Beasley, who had taken advantage of past experiences with the national team to regain his form. But overall, I'm inclined to give some deference to the coach: he sees what's going on in practice. If he decides that Jose Francisco Torres is too tired to play, then he's making the decision based on information that you and I don't have.

So what's the bottom line? It doens't make sense to expect Bradley to be "consistent" in his decisions about playing guys who are out of form. Consistency for consistency's sake is almost worthless: all we really care about is who performs. We can criticize Bradley for not recognizing the depth of Beasley's problems and wonder what else he got wrong, but criticizing him for his inconsistency doesn't make any sense.

Friday, June 19, 2009

US-Brazil-- The Sad, Sad Aftermath

Danny Karbassiyoon.

That's who I thought about watching Brazil completely dismantle the US men's soccer team, 3-0.

After the 2002 World Cup, where the young Americans shone brightly, US soccer fans were optimistic. Young MLS players, Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, had acquitted themselves well under the spotlights in Korea. The US had been, for many years, tough to beat. But now the team had young talent! And Donovan and Beasley were just the start of it: Bobby Convey would soon join them! Kyle Martino was amazing. Eddie Johnson looked like he could become the superstar forward that the US sorely needed. MLS was producing real talent.

And we had an amazing overseas contingent of young Americans at top flight European teams: Danny Karbassiyoon, Zak Whitbread, Frank Simek, Kenny Cooper, Jonathan Spector, Cory Gibbs... The list was long.

We understood that not all of these players would pan out-- but they were playing with first tier European teams! At least a few of them would be great players by 2006. And, if not 2006, then just imagine 2010!

But here we are in 2009, looking dismally back at our demolition by Brazil. The embarassment of riches has given way to simple embarassment. The post-2002 generation of young Americans has not produced. Danny Karbassiyoon is retired. The other young Americans have, so far, had disappointing careers. Sure, some players came out of nowhere: Clint Dempsey has a productive career in the English Premiership. Jozy Altidore might become the superstar forward that the US sorely needs. There are still many names that give US fans hope.

But there is a fundamental fact we have to face: the US has not progressed. Much of our talent has not panned out, whether it's in Europe or MLS. The national team now looks unprepared for big games, soemthing for which coach Bob Bradley surely must take responsibility. But for whatever the coach's faults may be, I go back to talent and professionalism: would you rather have Claudio Reyna and Brian McBride or Michael Bradley, Benny Feilhaber and Jozy Altidore? I have high hopes for the young Americans, but I know what my answer would have to be today.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

US-Brazil Preview, or "You're An Idiot If You Think the US Has Any Chance of a Result"

No Chance? In the wake of the United States' loss against Italy in the Confederations Cup, I was struck by how many fans from outside the US thought it was ludicrous to suggest that US might get a result from Italy. They explained that the US has no futbol tradition and vastly inferior talent. They noted that the US coach was tactically naive and had no experience outside of the United States.

All true. But the conclusion that the US never had a "chance" is just stupid. Unforgivably stupid, really. The US got a result against Italy just three years ago, in the biggest stage possible: the World Cup. Would a rational human being expect a US win or even a tie? Of course not. But you'd have to be truly slow to say that a US result is "impossible" when they earned a hard-fought point so recently. Unfortunately, a lot of fans don't seem to understand the difference between "unlikely" and "impossible".

So what's this mean for the up-coming US-Brazil match tomorrow? I expect a competitive game. I think the US has typically done well against possession teams, so I don't think a positive result is out of the question. Is there also a decent chance the scoreline could get ugly? Certainly. The recent debacle in Costa Rica shows that this US team may not be quite as tight defensively as in year's past. Just don't discount either possibility entirely.

Was that a red? The international take. Was Ricardo Clark's tackle on Gattuso in the Italy match worthy of a red card? Some, like the master of false controversy Jamie Trecker, seem to think the tackle was clearly a red. The Italian press was rather more equivocal, with Gazzetta dello Sport noting that the tackle was more "theatrical than aggressive". Rossi, for his part, thought it was a yellow. The BBC thought it was harsh. But the Spanish press? Almost universal in deeming Rico's expulsion justified.

What do I take away from this? I think it's anecdotal evidence that countries see fouls differently-- it would be no surprise if the Italians and English saw the same tackles as innocuous while the Spanish viewed them as harsh.

And Trecker? His writing seems to lack internal consistency-- his opinions seem to shift as needed so that he can write the most inflammatory piece possible. But kudos to him: his boneheaded style keeps me reading his columns.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

That never stopped anyone before...

Keith Costigan had an interesting thought in his power rankings this week.
He, like many (including me), isn't entirely convinced that Columbus is for real. But his argument is the following: "The Crew still lack a striker who can score 15 to 20 goals and that may ultimately be their downfall in the quest for MLS Cup."

Hmmm. I thought back about some of the most dominant performances by strikers in MLS (I'm thinking Stern John, Mamadou Diallo, Luciano Emilio and JPA last year). How many MLS Cups did those guys win? Do you really need a 15 goal scorer to win MLS Cup?

It turns out you'd be better off not having a 15 goal scorer on the team: 8 of 12 MLS Cup winners didn't. And of the 24 MLS Cup finalists, 14 teams didn't have a 15 goal scorer.

So, no, Keith, having a 15-20 goal scorer isn't a pre-requisite for winning MLS Cup. And given that Columbus is third in the league with 14 goals scored, I'm not sure the forward tandem of Robbie Rogers and Alejandro Moreno is a problem. In fact, given that Alejandro Moreno was a starter on an MLS Cup winning team, despite never scoring more than 8 goals in his career, I'd say he definitely isn't the problem.

Monday, May 19, 2008

MLS Power and Form Rankings, Week 8

I'd call it a quiet week, except for LA crushing Dallas. Who called that one?

1. Columbus Crew (Last week: #2, tied #6 Toronto away)

So it was ugly. I'm still not sold on the Crew, and Toronto put them under serious pressure, but right now, picking up points at BMO is an accomplishment.

2. New England (Last week: #3, beat #13 San Jose at home)

Beating up on the Earthquakes at home isn't much of an accomplishment, but the Revs got it done. Sadly, though, with Twellman's latest injury, it's back to the drawing board for the Revs' front line. Since this is a Steve Nichol team, you never know who the hero will be. This time it was Kheli Dube, scoring the go-ahead goal. I hesitate to rank them too highly without Twellman, but all of the teams are vulnerable these days.

3. Houston (Last week: #5, beat #8 Colorado at home)

For the second week in a row, Houston benefitted from a somewhat flukey goal-- who knows how many times Dwayne DeRosario's goal deflected before reaching the net (incidentally, it's hard to see how Rico Clark can really be credited with an assist on that pinball strike). Still, I have a feeling Houston was due a little more luck after a tough-luck start to the season.

4. Chicago Fire (Last week: #1, lost to #4 Houston at home)

A week after everyone was talking about this team fought for each other, we saw a performance without much fight. And how must Thomasz Frankowski feel about being behind Chad Barrett in the starting spot pecking order?

5. Toronto (Last week: #6, tied #2 Crew at home)

John Carver got apparently his first exposure to Latin American soccer the other day as the Crew came to town looking for a point. Guillermo Barros Schelotto spent an awful lot of time on the ground. Carver wasn't too pleased by the diving: "If that was back in England, everybody would be up in arms screaming and shouting it's bad for the image of the game. I'll have to be honest, I certainly agree with it."

And it's true: in England, they don't have much tolerance for diving. But it's always seemed to me that "back in England", they tolerate fouls that aren't acceptable in the international game. Carver needs to shut up and learn a little bit about how the game is played here, as opposed to how he thinks it ought to be played. Is that fair or right? No. I'm sympathetic to how the guy feels, but until he figures it out, his team will continue to drop points at home because its opponents will bunker. This is the by-product of now being a tough team to play. Toronto needs to kick it up a notch if they really want to join the elite.

6. New York Red Bulls (Last week: #7, tied #10 KC at home)

New York needs to do better. They put Kansas City under serious pressure but were still waiting for an equalizer when Danleigh Borman struck in the 81st minute. They shouldn't be dropping points to Kansas City, which is still struggling to fit together as a team.

And Danleigh Borman's goal celebration-- A mixture of an athletic cartwheel with a grade school tumbling class move? Everyone assumed that it was a mistake last week, but he went and did it again this week, claiming that he was just trying to emulate his father. I'm not sure-- I suspect he felt so stupid about it last week that he's just making up stuff this week. See for yourself from SBI.

7. Colorado (Last week: #8, beat #14 RSL at home)

Omar Cummings does it again. The whole team looks good. But it was only RSL.

8. Dallas (Last week: #5, lost to #12 LA Galaxy at home)

What a disaster: a 5-1 defeat to the Galaxy at home. The Gals lined up in a 4-5-1 and FCD's D didn't know what to do about it. Looking at the scoresheet, you'd say that Donovan and Beckham didn't have as much influence on this game, but I don't think that's true. The freedom and space they had in midfield left FCD completely disoriented, opening up the field for the Galaxy's lesser stars to have career days.

But what's most disappointing about the game? Dallas's offense. Despite a four goal deficit at half-time, the Hoops created enough chances to make it a competitive game. They just didn't show up.

9. Kansas City (Last week: #10, tied #7 NYRB away)

So Jimmy Conrad is now their leading scorer? Yes, this team needs work.

10. Los Angeles Galaxy (Last week: #10, beat #5 Dallas away)

What a surprising match. Not because the Gals scored 5 goals, but because their defense only gave up one goal. It wasn't for lack of trying to be predictably sieve-like.

And Edson Buddle scored a hattrick. As the MLSnet write-up reminded us, he once scored four goals for Columbus. Buddle does this sort of thing periodically. The only problem is that he likely won't score again until 2010, which made his celebration of his hattrick a little bittersweet.

11. Chivas USA (Last week: #11, beat #9 DCU at home)

Here was Chivas USA's backline: Marsch, Burling and Curtin. Yikes. And they still won... I'm not sure the Goats' injury situation is going to improve much over the coming weeks, though. Can they keep pulling this off? It's still a paper thin squad and, with the exception of Kljestan, none of their offensive studs have really got their seasons started.

12. DC United (Last week: #9, lost to #11 Chivas away)

Gallardo scores a wonder goal-- United's first away goal since *October 2007*. DCU loses due to a monumental late collapse. They don't have the horses.

13. San Jose (Last week: #13, lost to #3 Revs away)

The E-quakes have had a rough schedule. Yes, they aren't generating anything against the league's top teams. And it doesn't get any better with Houston on deck. I'm circling my calendar for the next RSL-SJ game.

14. Real Salt Lake (Last week: #14, lost to #8 Colorado away)

Yes, they showed flashes of being capable of doing something constructive against Colorado. But they need to start getting results...

Next week
TOR-DC-- Toronto win
SJ-HOU-- Houston win (but what an event, right? The first vist of the Dynamo back to the community that lost them...)
CBUS-REV-- Columbus win (that's what the rankings say, but I have a hunch that the Revs' big game experience might help them get a result)
DCU-TOR-- tie
COL-CUSA-- Colorado win
LAG-KC-- Galaxy win