Aug 30, 2011

This Guy is the Spanish #2

Check out these fabulous Victor Valdes saves against Giuseppe Rossi of Villareal.

Great stuff and remember, Valdes is not the Spanish national team starting keeper--he is the #2 behind Iker Casillas. Yeah--the Spanish don't have a weakness at keeper.

Aug 29, 2011


Last night I watching the late SportsCenter and after getting through all the baseball talk and a trip by Lou Holtz to his old high school to coach one practice, I saw some highlights of Wayne Rooney taking a few free kicks and scoring a hat trick.

Now, first of all, I am happy that soccer highlights are making the SportsCenter cut, so I really shouldn't complaint.  But let's look only at the Manchester United mauling of Arsenel and I can find two prettier goals:

Ashley Young's First of the day (here) and Ashley Young's 92nd minute dagger.  (Just a note to premier league clubs, you might want to consider putting a defender on Young when he is sitting on the corner of the penalty area--just a free piece of advice).

Look, taking nothing away from Rooney's set piece magic, but if ESPN wanted to feather Rooney, how about also featuring the work he did on Young's goals.

A Change MLS' Policies Finds MLS Clubs Sitting Atop Champion's League Groups.

After two rounds of the Group Stage in the CONCACAF Champion's League, MLS clubs are leading the pack.  If you would have told me two years ago that I would be writing a lead like that, I would have laughed at you.  The reason is that until two years ago, for the most part, MLS clubs simply didn't put a great deal of emphasis on winning the Champion's League--it was another international competition that simply drained the talent and resources of clubs from their MLS league campaigns.

But this year, we see something different, we see five MLS clubs (four from the United States and 1 from Canada) not only competing but succeeding in the tournament. That's right, after two games each, all four of the groups are headed by the MLS clubs in their groups.  The L.A. Galaxy leads Group A on six points, the Colorado Rapids top Group B on four points; FC Dallas is carrying six points in Group C and the Seattle Sounders lead Group D on six points.  Part of the success is that FC Dallas and Seattle both traveled to Mexico and won on Mexican soil for the first time in 49 games.  Had Colorado not blown their lead against Real Espana, they too would have been on six points.  Toronto, the Canadian representative, is carrying three points as their loss in the competition came at the hands of FC Dallas.

So what should we attribute this success to?  Well, the cynics would say that the Mexican sides (Pumas and Monterrey) didn't field their normal first XI, which is true.  The cynics would also say that L.A. Galaxy and Colorado have not faced their Mexican opponents either at home or in Mexico.  Which is also true.  But there is something a little different this year--two factors which make it more likely that MLS clubs will be able to compete and which make it possible that certainly three and possibly four MLS clubs can make the knockout stages.   I think the MLS clubs are taking the competition seriously this year.  The success of Real Salt Lake, making the final and almost winning, has shown that if MLS clubs take the competition seriously, real success can be found.  I believe the mindset, more than anything else, is what has put the MLS clubs in the position they now find themselves.

First, MLS has made it easier, from a personnel standpoint for MLS clubs to compete by expanding the rosters, making player development a priority and the general improvement in quality of play and quality of players.  I believe that Don Garber and the rest of the MLS leadership and owners always wished that MLS clubs would do well on an international stage importance.  But in the past, their focus was a tad myopic, looking first to the league, without understanding the importance of the regional, international club competition.    Garber's delusions of grandeur in earlier years was always tempered by the cruicible of the Champion's League.  No matter how good MLS clubs looked when competing against each other, they were often found lacking when competing against Mexican clubs or Saprissa or the top clubs from the region.

MLS rule changes, the homegrown player rules, the expanded rosters, the reserve league, even the young designated player rule (even thought it didn't directly related to the most recent results) all contribute to an atmosphere at the clubs that gives them the ability to prioritize the Champinon's League without necessarily sacrificing league play.  Clubs now have, or are on their way to having, the depth to play their first team players in the Champions' League matches and then rest them for league games if necessary without affecting the quality of the league play.  So instead of just young players, rookies or reserves getting time in the Champions' League while the first team rode the bench, now you see these clubs starting 9 or 10 of their normal starting 11 and then using reserve and squad players for a couple of games in the league play.

I have no doubt that these rules changes were about making the League stronger, their carry over effect cannot be minimized.  The rules changes, particularly expanded rosters and the reserve league,  puts the MLS on a more even keel with other regional powers, particularly the Mexican sides because the players get more game time in meaningful matches. The general upward trend of the quality of play can be linked to the intense focus on player development being made by Don Garber & Co., changes that are welcome and important.

These changes do make a difference in whether teams are prepared, from a personnel position, to compete in the regional competition.  But I also believe that the support that MLS leaders gave to Real Salt Lake also indicate something of a shift in the mindset of MLS leaders.  When RSL came close to hoisting the Champion's League trophy and did so without the express, initial support of the MLS, I think Garber & Co. had to jump on the bandwagon quickly.  In doing so, leading up to this year's competition, I think MLS has made a implicit, if not explicit, effort to give clubs support for the Champion's League.  I think theyGarber & Co. want an MLS club to hoist the Champion's League trophy and compete in the Club World Cup, even if the MLS squad gets stomped on at the Club World Cup for a few years.   RSL made their run and came close--largely without some of the benefit that accrue to MLS clubs now and certainly not with the emphasis, up front, that the League put on the tournament.  So whether they intended to or not, MLS has made it possible for clubs to compete in the regional, international tournament.  MLS has sent a message, whether they were explicit or not, that winning the Champion's League is important and good for the club, the league and the sport in general.

Aug 12, 2011

USA 1:1 Mexico--Some Thoughts

The USMNT Wednesday night did prevent a 4 game losing streak to the Mexicans, something that hasn't happened in about 40 years, but that is cold comfort.  The game ended up a draw and considering the U.S. performance in the first half, that is a pretty good result.  I am sure that Jurgen Klinsmann will take with a smile.

Speaking of Klinsmann, he was in a no lose situation.  If the U.S. came into the match and got hammered, Klinsmann would be able to point to the fact that he had only been on the job for 10 days and just a little over a month ago, the U.S. blew a two goal lead to this same team minus Chicharito.  But a draw is the best result for Klinsmann, it puts him in good stead with the fans ("at least we didn't lose to Mexico again") but avoids the unrealistice expectations that would come from a win.

Here are my conclusions about the game, such as it was.

1.  The Back Line and Playing Out of the Back.  It was clear from the effort and energy that everyone was putting out defending that Klinsmann wants this team to defend as a unit.  He also clearly wanted them attacking as a unit but that didn't happen because the U.S. featured a make-shift back line.  Bocanegra is still a good centerback--not great, but good, solid, dependable.  But what was missing for Klinsmann's attack as a unit/defend as a unit mentality was the ability to play the ball out of the back.  Orozco-Fiscal and Castillo can't do it.  I counted at least 6 times in the second half where Orozco-Fiscal just hoofed the ball foward toward Buddle and later Agudelo despite the presence of Beckerman, Cherundolo or Bradley within 15-20 yards for a simple, possession oriented pass, the kind of pass that Tim Ream or Clarence Goodson are excellent at making and confident enough in their own ability to make.  Goodson can claim experience, but Ream has as much or even less expereince than Orozco-Fiscal and will make the simple, high percentage pass.

By the same token, Edgar Castillo might be a fine attacking left back, but he appeared only comfortable doing so when the ball was in the U.S. attacking half.  Castillo didn't seem adept at moving the ball from the defensive third to the midfield third.  Some people will chalk this up to nerves and I might give Castillo the benefit of the doubt in the first half, but by the second half a professional player has to get past the nerves.

Tim Ream, Clarence Goodson and to a slightly lesser extent Carlos Bocanegra (of the players brought into camp) are far more comfortable with the ball at their feet, under pressure, and have the confidence to play the pass.  If the U.S. is to advance beyond its current level, our back lines has to be better with the ball at their feet.  The development of soccer playing centerbacks (as opposed to strapping, strong, hard men) is likely to take time and that is where Ream and Goodson have an advantage.  But until Klinsmann gets a back line capable of playing with the ball at their feet, the attack as a unit/defend as a unit is going to be lacking in the former department.

2.  Landon Donovan and the Strikers.  Edson Buddle is a decent striker--not world class, but serviceable.  The problem is that to be effective, he cannot operate alone, that much was obvious in the first half.  When Buddle was lighting it up in MLS a couple years ago, what did he have to help him?  Landon Donovan and Mike Magee to work off of him and several good midfielders to feed him him the ball.  Stuck on the right wing, Donovan did not have the freedom to burst through to Buddle holding the ball.  The central midfield triangle of Jones, Bradley and Beckerman left too much space (as Jorge Ramos noted last night, almost 30-35 yards at times) between them and Buddle to allow them to move through in transition for the few seconds that Buddle was able to hold the ball against three defenders.

What Wednesday proved is that Landon Donovan is most dangerous as a withdrawn striker.  Donovan's effectiveness as a player is diminished when tied to a position like left wing, but his skills, speed, vision and creativity are best used when he can move around.  Donovan's unpredictablity is the U.S. side's greatest asset.  When Juan Agudelo came on last night, his movement created problems for the Mexicans, left the Mexican back line a little disorganized (more so when Rafa Marquez left the game), and opened up opportunities for Donovan.  Agudelo's movement, combined with Donovan's movement made it impossible to predict where Donovan was going to pop up.  Since both players have pace and the ability to strike from anywhere, the U.S. was far more dangerous.  If Klinsmann wants Donovan on the left or right flank, then Klinsi will need to free Donovan to move around and to let a player like Steve Cherundolo to provide the width from the back.  This may call for a asymmetrical formation, but that may be what is needed.

Which brings me to Jozy Altidore.  Think back to 2009 and the Confederations Cup Semifinal against Spain and Final against Brazil.  How was Jozy most effective?  When he and Charlies Davies were working as a dual striker, even Spain's normally rock solid defense couldn't keep track of them.  Jozy and Charlie did not play a target striker/off striker set up, but when both were moving around the field, inside out or oustide in, somewhat independently, but aware of each other, they could pry open a defense either by themselves or opening the space for Donovan or Dempsey to do it.   People have looked at Jozy and thought that he has the size to be a target striker.  But while Jozy can do that, he is not best at it.  Since Brian McBride and Brian Ching, the U.S. has not had a truly effective target striker.  So I hope Klinsman will look at what happened last night, look at Jozy's performance two years ago and look for a way to exploit the things Donovan, Dempsey, Davies, Altidore and Agudelo do best---move.

3.  Three Players Who Improved their Stock.  Wednesday night, three players really made a solid case for continued inclusion in the Player Pool:  Kyle Beckerman, Brek Shea and Jose Torres.  I couldn't believe what I was seeing on my Twitter feed when people were saying Beckerman was the worst player on the field.  I couldn't disagree more, Beckerman was doing the job he was put in there to do...clean up in front of the (shaky) back line and serve as a conduit for transition.  He did the first part of his job superbly and the second part better than Jones and almost as good as Bradley.  Beckerman is, in my opinion, the best defensive/holding midfielder in MLS and very underrated by Bob Bradley.  Bradley could have put Beckerman in a holding role and freed up Michael Bradley or Stuart Holden to attack, knowing that there was someone in the hole to watch their back. Beckerman can do by himself, what Bob Bradley needed two players to accomplish--to do the dirty work in midfield.

Brek Shea was a revelation Wednesday and after several abortive attempts under Bob Bradley, Shea was probably in the minds of many people, going to be a fringe national teamer at best.  But his club coach, Schellas Hyndman has helped mature a promising young man into a professional.  With nine MLS goals this year, Shea is confident and has learned the game.  Shea's season with FC Dallas is impressive, but I always wondered if he could take the step to the national team.  Wednesday gave me hope.  He muscled his way to that assist on the U.S. goal, showing his strength.  He has pace and deft ball control and at 6'5" can dominate in the air.  He has always had these attributes, but the mental side of things was lacking; confidence was lacking.  Wednesday Shea was finding the open space and more importantly, literally screaming for the ball. Shea was not content to have the ball moved around to him, he was demanding the ball, being assertive.  That is the mark of confidence and that is what Shea's national team game was missing--a belief that he belonged on the pitch and had something to contribute.

Jose Torres is wasted on the left flank.  There, I said it.  He doesn't have the pace to play a winger and his close control and short passing cannot be put to use on the flank.  When, in the second half, he moved inside as Shea moved outside, Torres showed what he can do---play football.  With Torres helping to direct traffic, the U.S. was making shorter, faster, one-touch, two-touch, crisp passes that caused the Mexicans to back off.  Most of the time it was Torres at the center of those exchanges and that is what makes him valuable to Klinsmann and not so to Bob Bradley.  To play a unit style of soccer, there has to be a couple of players in the middle of the park to link everything together; think Xavi and Iniesta.  Without that, attacking and defending as unit will not work--one line or the other is going to get isolated.  Torres is one of those players and I think Stuart Holden is the other that could be the midfield glue.

4. Having Fun and Playing for Fun.  In the post game interview, Klinsmann said he is having fun.  To be honest, I think that is what I missed under Bob Bradley, a sense that the players and Bradley were having fun.  In the first half, it looked like the U.S. was not having any fun.  Maybe it was Bradley's personality, I don't know, but the U.S. rarely looked like they were having fun.

As a coach of young players (U7s and U8s) my job is to make sure they have fun while learning the game of soccer.  As they get older, I think professional players sometimes forget that they are getting paid to play A GAME.  Yes it is their job, but it should be fun too.

But in the second half, the whole half, it looked like the U.S. was having fun.  Maybe that is what Klinsmann said in the dressing room, "Come on boys, this is a game first--have fun!"  The last 25 minutes or so was not just the U.S. playing better football but playing for fun.  That energy, enthusiasm and the feeling of fun was almost palpable through the TV.  The players seemed more relaxed and more energetic.  They played beautiful football.  But most of all, they were playing a game--a game that should be fun first.  Maybe the change in ethos among the U.S. Team with Klinsmann at the helm will be a reminder that yes, you may be playing for national pride, but have some fun.  It looked like fun, they played like the were having fun and particularly in the last 25 minutes it was FUN TO WATCH.

As a fan, that is what I want, an enjoyable, FUN experience.

Aug 4, 2011

Klinsmann's First Roster

No doubt about it, Jurgen Klinsmann is not Bob Bradley.  Of course we knew that, for one think Klinsmann still has hair and I hope won't be wear track suits on the sidelines (really Bob, was even khakis and a U.S. Soccer polo too much?)  But with today's announcement of Klinsmann's first roster as MNT coach, it is clear that Klinsmann is looking at things very differently that Bob Bradley.

By now, everyone has seen the Roster, but here are my comments on the particular groups:

Goalkeepers:  Bill Hamid, Tim Howard.

    Big, huge break for Hamid, but I think he has earned it.  I have been surprised that he hasn't been called up into youth national team camps.  But I think Klinsmann is looking at Hamid as his guy for the Olympics next year.  The young DC United Academy product has really improved this season, taken his lumps and learned from each one.  Clearly one of the best young American keepers since, well, since Tim Howard.
    Howard's inclusion is no surprise.

Defenders:  Carlos Bocanegra, Edgar Castillo, Timmy Chandler, Steve Cherundolo, Clarence Goodson, Michael Orozco Fiscal, Heath Pearce, Tim Ream.

     This is almost the perfect mix of youth and promise paired with age and consistency.  Older guys first--Bocanegra and Cherundolo.  I don't know if these guys will be around in three years for Brazil 2014, but right now, there is no better right back in the U.S. than Cherudolo, so much poise and leadership, plus the ability to get down the wing and whip a great cross.  I think Dolo is looking for a chance to get at the Mexican side after leaving the Gold Cup final with an injury.  Bocanegra is not as mobile as Cherundolo and I see him moving back into the middle, particularly with the inclusion of Heath Pearce and Orozco-Fiscal who are better on the left flank.
     Chandler and Ream are clearly future starters.  Ream is the less polished of the two and prone to mistakes, but if you watch his play carefully, he rarely makes the same mistake twice and never three times.  Chandler is, as of right now, the heir apparent to the right back slot currently held by Cherundolo.  But Chandler can also move forward into the right wing slot, with lots of speed.
     The biggest surprise for me was Edgar Castillo's inclusion.  I have seen him from time to time playing the FMF and he has always looked solid.  But I am not sure where he would play, but clearly Klinsmann or someone has been watching Castillo who has been solid, if not flashy south of the Border.
     Let me say a few words about Clarence Goodson.  If I were a betting man, I would say that Goodson becomes the center back anchor for the next four years.  Goodson is strong, consistent, a quiet leader and has worked his way into this position.  Almost the classic center back, tall, strong in the air and a good position player.  But what sets Goodson apart from guys like Jay DeMerit and Oguchi Onyewu is that Goodson can play with the ball at his feet.  He can make that cutting pass from the defensive third to deep into the midfield third or attacking third.  Credit to DeMerit and Onyewu for their defensive skills, but Goodson is an "attacking" centerback and that is exciting--if if Goodson's demeanor on the pitch is not.

Midfielders:  Kyle Beckerman, Michael Bradley, Ricardo Clark, Maurice Edu, Jermaine Jones, Brek Shea, Jose Torres.
     Dear Jurgen---I think you have enough central, defensive midfielders here.  Just sayin'
     I am surprised by the inclusion of Beckerman.  He doesn't have a great many caps and has been on the fringes of the MNT "A" squad for years.  There is not doubt in my mind that Beckerman is not a quality defensive midfielder, but at 29, can Beckerman really contribute that much to a team that is already neck deep in defensive midfielders.  Likewise, I am surprised by Clark's inclusion.  While his club team just crashed out of the DFB Pokal (the German Cup), I am surprised that Clark is here, having not garnered a huge amount of playing time since leaving the Houston Dynamo.  Perhaps Klinsmann sees something new, and we will see.
     The Bradley-Edu-Jones trio continues.  Finally, Michael Bradley will be able to show people that he is not a nepotism call-up as I do believe he is the most complete player of these three, efficient on defensive, brilliant on the late run into the box and deadly from long range.  The pressure is on Bradley to prove something to fans and people who don't like his surname, but the greater pressure is on Edu.  Sure Edu is a quality player, but hasn't really raised his game in recent years.  That is no doubt owed to injury problems, but this next year is going to be key for Edu.
  I am excited to see Shea in here, but he knows the pressure is on.  Despite his success and improvement in MLS, Shea has rarely stepped up when he has had the chance on the national team.  This might be his last shot at the MNT for a year (although he is certain to get called up in September).  The same thing might be said for Jose Torres, although there is a little less pressure on Torres.
     One thing that strikes me about this midfield is that aside from Torres, there are not a lot of great ball handlers in this group.  Of course the forward group selected provides people we have come to think of more as midfielders than strikers.

Forwards:  Freddy Adu, Juan Agudelo, DaMarcus Beasley, Edson Buddle, Landon Donovan

    Of this group, only Agudelo and Buddle are true "strikers" but certainly Donovan can fill the role.  I guess I could see Adu as a second striker, but he doesn't have the pace to effectively work as a second striker. Adu could spray passes around as an attacking midfielder.
     But it is the selection of Beasley that has to have people buzzing.  Beasley, always a left midfielder or even a left back, is not a name that has been on the tongues of a lot of MNT fans for a while.  But Beasely is naturally left footed, has loads of pace and can stay wide.  On the flip side, players like Donovan, although good on the left flank, tend to cut into their preferred right foot.

To be sure, Klinsmann thinks that FMF is producing some great footballers and it will be interesting to see how in works that into matters.