AmSoc 28 - USA v. Turkey

Monday, May 31, 2010 | View Comments

It's the holiday weekend edition of the American Soccer Show, in which Zach and I cover the U.S. match with Turkey and talk American chances at the World Cup.

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Formula XI: Where Are We?

Monday, May 31, 2010 | View Comments
Obama, Biden, And Bill Clinton Pose For Photo With US National Soccer Team

Rankings are an impossible thing. There is no art or science that can take two teams of similar talent and say one is definitively better than the other. But by drawing comparisons to others national teams, by looking at what results are obtained, and by analyzing player pools, a better understanding of the United States’ place in the world of soccer is hopefully obtainable.

The goal of this weeklong series is to look at the strengths and weaknesses of the US team as objectively as possible through comparison with other teams throughout the world. This process will result in a lot of data being thrown your way. I’ve attempted to focus each post on the highlights of the data being presented, though I welcome comments delving deeper into what’s presented.

The Growth of the US Team


A logical place to start answering the question of where are we, is to answer the question where have we come from. For some perspective on the situation, rankings are a good place to start. Because FIFA changed their ranking formula in 2006, it’s impossible to use those rankings to obtain a consistent measure for more than this current world cup cycle. That amount of data would be pretty meaningless. However, rankings using a modified version of the ELO rankings used to rank chess players has been consistently applied to every official international soccer match ever played. Charting the US ELO rankings from their reappearance in the World Cup in 1990 to the end of 2009 looks like this:

I’ve added an exponential best fit trend line to show the approximate path that the US has taken in the last two decades. As you can see, there is a definite up trend though there are periods of success relative to the trend line (mid 91 - mid 93, mid 95 - mid 97, and mid 99 - mid 06) and periods of underperforming the trend line.

Another way to look at this data is by the amount of time each year that the team was above plateau markers. The table below starts in 1995 (the first year that the US cracked the ELO top 30).

Percentage of Days at or above ELO Plateau Numbers (1995-2009)
Top 30Top 25Top 20Top 15Top 10

As you can see, besides the slip endured by sending a “B” team to Copa America, the US has been consistently a top 30 side since 2000. 2003 through 2005 can make a strong claim as the best run of form that the US has ever had with a three year run almost entirely in the top 20. However, by the rankings, the most successful single year belongs to 2009, when the team first cracked the top 10 and had the highest percentage of days in the top 15.


USA team 2005

Another logical place to look at the progress of the national team is the cyclic World Cup qualifying process. The CONCACAF qualifying process of three group semifinals and the “hex” finals began for the qualifying for the 1998 World Cup. In the four qualifying cycles, the US has dropped the following number of points compared to the 48 possible points in each cycle; 1998 – 17, 2002 – 20, 2006 – 14, 2010 – 13. The total of these points dropped is 64 points. 57 of those 64 points have been in at least one of the following categories: 1) away to Mexico or Costa Rica or 2) to teams with an ELO ranking worse than 50.* Significant trends exist for both of these categories.

Any serious US fan knows about the constant struggles of the US at Azteca and Saprissa. For the US to turn the corner and really be a world powerhouse, those are games that the US will eventually need to get some points from, but a consistent inability to win in those places tells us little about how the US has improved over time. The other category however, shows a more usable and positive trend:

US Games Versus ELO 51+ teams in World Cup Qualifying Cycles
CycleWinsDrawsLoses% of Points Taken

As was shown with the US’ ELO rankings, compared to previous US teams, there is a trend showing continual improvement by the national team. While this data shows that the US is getting better compared to itself, how the US compares with other nations around the world will be the focus of the next installment.

* The other 7 dropped points cannot be categorized in a way creates enough observation to undertake statistically significant analysis.

Relative Strengths

Friday, May 28, 2010 | View Comments
Czech Republic v United States

With the 23 now selected, the focus moves to who the US will be starting come June 12. While there are questions about the fitness of several key players for the US, there are a few players who are locks to start if healthy; Howard, Onyewu, Bradley, Donovan, Dempsey, and Altidore. Donovan’s and Dempsey’s ability to play multiple positions makes it hard to set them in the lineup, but the positions for the other four are obvious.

This leaves a few positional battles in the starting lineup. Each option has his own strengths and weaknesses. Bob’s ability to match his lineup’s strengths against that of his opponent’s while hiding the weaknesses of those players will determine the success of this team in the World Cup. I would expect to see slight tactical differences throughout the final warm-ups and the tournament itself to exploit these players’ strengths.

I’ll start with the one positional battle where the competitors are so similar that there is virtually no difference. If healthy, either Bocanegra or DeMerit will line up next to a healthy Onyewu. Both are defensive leaders, both are good in the air, both are a little slow. Because of his role as captain, Bocanegra will be on the field, but whether that is as a center back or a left back remains to be seen. If he’s shifted wide or Onyewu is incapable of going, DeMerit will be there. This is a positional battle that will be decided by tactical decision elsewhere on the field or by injuries, not because the players bring a different skill set.

Left Back

The position that will help determine Gooch’s partner is left back. Here there are differences that can be exploited:

Bocanegra – better positional awareness; better leadership

Bornstein – faster; better going forward

Spector – field knowledge of Premier League right wingers

Of the three options, Bocanegra offers the best defensive and leadership option. Some of Spector’s offensive ability is lost by moving him to the left, but his knowledge of the English players in particular may be exploited June 12. Bornstein provides the best option going forward on this side, but is the worst of the three options defensively. Against a mediocre offense or with appropriate help, Bornstein can be the most effective choice.

Right Back

Another position affected by the choice at left back, Spector moving to that side, makes Cherundolo the obvious pick. However, beyond that there are still differences:

Cherundolo – veteran leadership; better positioning (offensively and defensively)

Spector – better long ball; better crosser

Depending on the composition of the rest of the backline, Cherundolo’s experience may trump Spector’s potential. If injuries result in Goodson and Bornstein being in the lineup together, having another veteran presence would be a must. However, in a purely counterattacking formation, Spector’s ability to deliver the long ball could outweigh Cherundolo's experience.

Defensive Midfielder

This is the one position where it doesn’t matter what shuffling goes on around it, the analysis will remain the same:

Clark – Stays at home more often; more time paired with Bradley

Edu – Gets forward more often; more fluid on the ball; picks up garbage goals

If Edu’s description sounds like it also applies to Michael Bradley, it’s because it does. Because of this similarity in style (though Edu is a destroyer rather than disruptor, like Bradley), some of Edu’s advantage over Clark is lost when paired with the coach’s son. Also, with the limited mobility of the starting center backs (even more so with their injuries), a defensive midfielder who stays at home may be preferred. But, whoever doesn’t start will play an important role because neither of the two are fit enough to play the position as the formation demands for three full games.

Side Midfielder

This may be the most complicated position, because its options allows Bob to mask weaknesses in the other areas. Donovan will almost assuredly line up in one of these two slots, the other is a big question mark:

Beasley – bigger scoring threat (than Holden); tracks back well defensively

Dempsey – best all around

Holden – better creator; better crosser (than Beasley)

If Dempsey doesn’t move up top, he’s the obvious starter. If he does move, then tactics becomes involved. Does the lineup need more defense, more creativity, or more goal scoring? The two left mid options of Donovan and Beasley both provide necessary defensive cover for whoever is playing left back. But forcing Donovan to track back as much as is necessary on the left limits his offensive potential. Moving him to the right relieves some of that pressure (see the amount of defensive work done by Dempsey compared to Donovan in the Confederation Cup). The other side of the equation is balancing creating chances versus scoring goals. By pairing Altidore and Dempsey, there are two players up top very capable of providing assists. Adding Donovan and Bradley, there may be more providing than finishing on the field. In this case, Beasley skill set is a better fit. However, Beasley is probably not fit enough to play 90, which would necessitate bringing in Holden and switching Donovan to the left for the last 20 to 30 minutes. If this move is coupled with fresh legs up top, Holden’s crossing ability becomes lethal.


Finally, there’s striker. The three options each bring a special skill set:

Buddle – Donovan knows his positioning well; physical presence; best holder

Findley – speed, speed, and more speed

Gomez – excellent scoring record as a sub

If Altidore and Dempsey are the starters, any sub will be situational. Buddle, to slow the game down with a lead while having the scoring ability to extend a lead; Gomez, as supersub if a goal is needed; and Findley, if his speed can be exploited. If Dempsey stays in the midfield, the most likely compliment to Altidore is Findley. With Findley’s speed and Altidore’s strength as weapons in a war of attrition against the opponent. By moving Dempsey up top and bringing in Gomez during the final 30 minutes of the game, Bob would attempt to exploit a worn down backline. While this would be the ugliest way for the US to play, if the US backline can hold, it would probably be effective.

Beginning tomorrow, we’ll begin to see what Bob is thinking about tactics. Different opponents will call for different skill sets. What weaknesses show themselves tomorrow and what changes can be made to cover them will go a long way toward telling us what to expect in June.

Members of the U.S. men's national soccer team stand on a makeshift soccer field as the team is officially announced at the ESPN headquarters in Bristol

I'm headed up to Philly tomorrow to take in the last domestic warm up match before the US National Team boards a plane with our hopes and dreams shoved firmly in their pockets. I'll be going as a fan, which means my insight will be that of a fan; the experience of cheering on your team in person will never really allow for in-depth breakdowns of individual performances and tactics, but it might provide a grander sense of how the team plays as a whole.

Which is why I'm glad that this is the game I'm able to make, that Bradley has announced his intention to put a team that will be as close to his first choice lineup as is possible, and that I'll be in the stadium to see them play together. Of course I'll be closely watching Onyewu, looking for any lingering vision issues with DeMerit, anxiously assessing the play of whichever forward Bradley sends out, etc., etc.; all of that behavior is the price I pay for writing a blog, the kind of thing I can't avoid even if I wanted to.

But I know that I'll also be distracted. It will be nearly impossible to properly track the game in a way that would result in any meaningful conclusions beyond the most general. Maybe I'll record it at home and review it later. Maybe not.

Either way, I'm going to enjoy being a fan tomorrow. I can't make it to South Africa, so this is as close as I'm going to get to seeing World Cup soccer.

Although I'm sure they won't agree it's warranted, the excitement I'm feeling today and the experience I hope to have tomorrow makes me pity those in the blogging world that choose to set themselves apart as unbiased analysts of the sport (not the pros though; they get paid, which trumps missing out on the fan experience). It's their chosen path, sure, but by removing themselves from the passionate aspects of soccer they've forsaking a major component of appreciating the sport. It can make people callous and cynical, because they lose (or never had) the ability to see things from a fan's perspective. Even the most irrational among us gets to enjoy the game in a way those analysts never can, and though it's difficult to place a value on experience because it is so personal from individual to individual, I can't help but think they're missing out on something big.

Still, they're a needed part of the ever-evolving fabric of American soccer, and so I should probably just shut up now.

I digress. Philly here I come.

If you'll be in Philly as well, drop me a line somehow, maybe we can meet up for a beer or just to shake hands.

Thursday Afternoon Haterade!

Thursday, May 27, 2010 | View Comments
Sacha Kljestan, because none of my jokes are as funny as that "mustache."

I think we've all gotten over the initial shock of yesterday's selections but still, wow. I mean who saw that one coming? 24 years old, and your biggest dreams coming true? Captivating the hearts of a nation and swaying the opinions of some of the world's foremost judges of talent? Congratulations to Lee Dewyze, and a good ole "nice try" to Crystal.

Oh, and Robbie "Even his mother knows he has no chance" Findley is going to the World Cup. Whoops. Mea Culpa on that one, guys. But hey, thanks. Where would bloggers be if we didn't have readers to nitpick every single throwaway joke weeks after we've made them? I kid, I kid. I'm just happy someone besides Jason's mom is reading the site.

Speaking of soccer bloggers, I'm convinced that's how Bobby tracksuit (kudos for his ability to put on khakis to meet the three of the most influential men in the World) picked his World Cup squad.

"You know how everybody thinks Ching is a lock, EJ is my homeboy, Robbie Findley has about as much of a shot as I do when making my annual run at Amy Wynalda, and that I'm going to make Buddle and Gomez work a spot out Thunderdome style? Screw 'em. And I'm gonna take Feilhaber and Torres and leave out my pet project Bedoya. Ever see a blogosphere crap its pants out of shock? Well you will."

Speaking of crapping your pants, who else enjoyed watching the comedy of errors at left back Tuesday night? Jonathan Bornstein looked more lost out there than the tribe of Reuben. Aaron Lennon is already practicing signing a copy of The Sun with a terrible pun on the front page. Heath Pearce looked about as interested in defending as Marcus Hahnemann does at a performance of The Vagina Monologues. "But there's always Bocanegra!" cry the hilariously optimistic US fans. Yep, the same Bocanegra who just had a hernia operation and spent most of the evening filling his finely tuned body with burgers and buffalo wings.

At least it's American junk food. Wouldn't want his time at Rennes turning him into some frog-leg munching nancy boy, like some twisted continental version of Brad Friedel. Or John Harkes, when he tries to drop slang.

Speaking of of Mr. Amy Wynalda (I know! Two Amy Wynalda jokes in one post. I'm so cutting edge, like Vanilla Ice's heavy metal album.), he sounds like an idiot when paired with JP Dellacamera. Putting him in a booth with Martin Tyler is like playing co-op Halo 3 with your friend who spends 6 hours a day on X-Box Live. Either way, it's not pretty. Brad Guzan levels of not pretty.

Tyler and Harkes isn't so much Abbot and Costello as it is Abbot and Carlos Mencia. But hey, it could be worse. I mean, it's not like our three best central defenders have serious health issues and our most important striker couldn't get playing time at one of the most abominable teams in Premiership history, right? I mean, that would bum me out like Taylor Twellman after TMZ's over.

Well, crap.

Better start working your ass off, Landon.

Zach was missing due to a power outage in Texas, but I took to the UStream internet waves last night with a live 23-man roster review and warm-up friendly themed show.

I was joined by Ahmet Turgut of and Noah Davis of and, plus Aaron Stollar of Fighting Talker fame called in as well.

Download it.

Inline player will go up at the AmSoc site shortly, but I'm not sure when this will make it to iTunes.

I didn't have time to get the standings up this week, so look for the updated standings next week. Here are this week's predictions:

Chicago Fire - 2
FC Dallas - 1

New England Revolution - 1
New York Red Bulls - 1

DC United - 2
Chivas USA - 2

Columbus Crew - 1
Los Angeles Galaxy - 1

Houston Dynamo - 2
Philadelphia Union - 0

Colorado Rapids - 3
Seattle Sounders FC - 2

Real Salt Lake - 2
Kansas City Wizards - 1

San Jose Earthquakes - 1
Toronto FC - 0

Oguchi Onyewu Has Haters

Thursday, May 27, 2010 | View Comments
Oguchi Onyewu

I'll admit it; I like athletes with chips on their shoulders. I can empathize with the pressure they must feel, the natural reaction being one of hurt feelings, raw nerves, and an desire to "prove people wrong".

It doesn't even really matter if there are too many of those "people", or if the athlete is erecting a straw man with the help of their own over-sensitivity. Sometimes, people under the microscope don't always respond the way they should. They're human, after all.

So I'm giving Oguchi Onyewu a pass on the chip he's cultivating during the run up to the World Cup. He seems to be feeding it indiscriminately, tweeting about "haters", bristling when the press questions his fitness, and just generally giving off an angry vibe. Everyone doubts him. No one believes he'll be fit. Hell, some were saying that leaving the big guy off the team might be a good idea.

Not the sane ones, but whatever.

I'm giving our man Gooch a pass not because I think his reaction is justified, but because I think it is truly motivating him that there is any doubt at all that he can be ready for England on June 12th. As a fan, this is all I care about; I get the media reacting in shock horror when they ask what is a reasonable question and Onyewu fires back with vitriol, but that doesn't affect me. If Gooch needs a chip to push himself, I'm all for it.

It's not like Onyewu is the only guy harboring a me-against-the-world grudge. Clint Dempsey's comments, specifically when asked about his inconsistent performances when wearing the U.S. jersey, were intriguing to say the least. Deuce seems like a guy with an internal fire constantly burning, one stoked by the fuel of external criticism, and it's hard to argue that it hasn't helped him. Dempsey got defensive, and probably rightfully so; American fans put a lot on the Texan's shoulders, and he considerable talents only serve to bring him harsh assessments when he doesn't seem to live up to them. Again, if this is what he need to spur him along, I say stoke away.

Athletes are human beings (in case you didn't know), susceptible to all of the same insecurities and personal demons we all face. There's a line they must be careful not to cross, but a hearty desire to "prove everyone wrong" can be beneficial. The motivation each player drums up to push them to new heights on the field is extremely personal, and varies from man to man. Donovan dealt with scathing criticism for years, internalized his processing of it, and claims it now has made him a better player. Dempsey seethes, and has only become an integral part of both his club and national team. Onyewu is new to this, with his recovering knee sowing seeds of doubt, giving both fans and media reason to question his ability to play on an high level in two weeks time.

If it pushes him, means he works just that much harder in training, or is able to push beyond the natural reluctance he might have to land on the knee (see Tuesday's non-jump), then it won't matter to me if he gets a little testy.

Oguchi Onyewu has haters? I hope he proves them all wrong.


Edson Buddle and Herculez Gomez scoring their way onto the U.S. National Team World Cup roster isn't quite a miracle, but it's damn close.

Two guys whom USMNT fans, and likely Bob Bradley himself, hadn't even considered a possibility just a few months ago are now two of the four strikers headed to South Africa. Putting aside what this means for the Americans and their chances in the tournament, the stories of Buddle and Gomez, and the out-of-nowhere nature of their making the team, are two amazing examples of hitting form at the perfect time.

Injuries and a dearth of proven talent at the forward position was enough to crack the door for Buddle and Gomez. Charlie Davies would certainly be there if healthy. Brian Ching's hamstring was apparently not as strong as Bob Bradley would like. Forwards Bradley ran through during the qualifying campaign, Connor Casey and Eddie Johnson among them, were of questionable quality at the international level. More accurately, their forays with the National Team did little to engender confidence in them.

So Bradley looks to what are essentially two unknowns. No, Buddle and Gomez are by no means kids, but they've been out of the picture for so long that they might as well be. Buddle's international career never got off the ground after a start-stop period that saw him make an off the field mistake and struggle to establish himself with a handful of teams. It wasn't until the arrival of Bruce Arena in LA that Buddle found a groove, living up to the talent many saw in him. Buddle's rampant form to start 2010 got him the headlines and a look for the World Cup, but he's actually played well over the course of the last three seasons. Buddle scored 15 times in 2008, and while he knocked in only 5 in 2009, much of his season was affected by injury. Whether it was playing with Donovan, under Arena, or just a sudden spark coming at the right time, Buddle's evolution into a better, more polished player has been in the works for some time. A dedicated effort to prepare for 2010 by staying in California and working through the winter, rather than heading back to his home in New York as had been his habit, certainly appears to have served him well.

Real Salt Lake v Los Angeles Galaxy

Gomez' path has been even more rocky and fraught with dead ends than Buddle's. Gomez went from quality attacking MLS player to benchwarmer in Kansas City in the short span of a few years; moved out of his natural position and falling off as a goal scorer, Gomez' inclusion in the 2007 Copa America team failed to bring him additional opportunities with the National Team. Bob Bradley was auditioning a lot of players during the cycle, and Gomez' circumstance meant it was nearly impossible for him to get back into the mix. Only a renaissance in Mexico with Puebla, where he tied for the scoring title in the Clausura season with Puebla (usually coming off the bench), brought him back into the discussion.

A confluence of factors meant Bob Bradley could hardly ignore the amazing things these two players were doing. Credit him for ignoring their meager national team resumes and giving them a shot. Credit each of them more for performing well enough to make the dream come true.

Three months ago, none of us, let alone Herculez Gomez and Edson Buddle themselves, would have though it possible they'd be representing the United States at the World Cup.

Czech Republic v United States

Bradley pulls the old okey-doke on my and picks Robbie Findley even though the kid didn't get on the field against the Czech's last night. By my "Dirty Dozen" theory, any player that wasn't a sure thing and didn't play was probably in major trouble; apparently that didn't apply to the speedy RSL striker. And it's also a bit of a surprise that both Buddle and Gomez made the team.

Here's the rest of the roster, with most of it fairly predictable. World Cup teams made is in parentheses:

GOALKEEPERS (3): Brad Guzan (2010), Marcus Hahnemann (2006, 2010), Tim Howard (2006, 2010)

DEFENDERS (7): Carlos Bocanegra (2006, 2010), Jonathan Bornstein (2010), Steve Cherundolo (2002, 2006, 2010), Jay DeMerit (2010), Clarence Goodson (2010), Oguchi Onyewu (2006, 2010), Jonathan Spector (2010)

MIDFIELDERS (9): DaMarcus Beasley (2002, 2006, 2010), Michael Bradley (2010), Ricardo Clark (2010), Clint Dempsey (2006, 2010), Landon Donovan (2002, 2006, 2010), Maurice Edu (2010), Benny Feilhaber (2010), Stuart Holden (2010), José Torres (2010)

FORWARDS (4): Jozy Altidore (2010), Edson Buddle (2010), Robbie Findley (2010), Herculez Gomez (2010)

Zach and I will be live tonight over at The American Soccer Show website to take Skype calls and get the impressions of's Noah Davis. We'll also have a short chat with Turkish Soccer's Ahmet Bob Turgut about what to expect this weekend against Turkey.

I expect much of the furor will be over the exclusion of Brian Ching and the inclusion of Robbie Findley; rather than give my take today in written form, I'm going to save it for the show tonight. I'll likely have a closer look at things tomorrow.

Feel free to work out any angst you're feeling in the comments below.

I'm also going to include the show player and chat room in this post for tonight's show, just to make things as easy as possible. If you miss the show, it will be available for download tomorrow.

Live video by Ustream

Left Back?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010 | View Comments

The USMNT's 23-man roster is due out shortly, but I'd like to take a quick minute to talk about what concerned me most last night against the Czechs. And that, dear reader, is the position of left back. At most positions, we at least have one or two players who if, unspectacular, are at least solidly reliable against good opposition. At left back, we've got Jonathan Bornstein and Heath Pearce. A lot of people have noticed that this is a problem area, and you can bet that Fabio Capello is aware of it, too.

I've never really been a fan of Bornstein's. He seems to have graduated cum laude from the Marvell Wynne School of Defense (If you get beat, be fast enough to get back and foul him), and that was painfully evident last night. The main weapon in his defensive arsenal seems to be hurling himself in the general direction of the attacker's feet. As far as I'm concerned, the Hondurans can have him. He's one of a select group of USMNT players whose presence on the field genuinely frightens me.

Heath Pearce, on the other hand, frustrates me because I think he has a lot more to offer than he's currently putting out. I remember his debut, a friendly against Scotland. He came on as a sub and immediately impressed me. He wanted the ball at his feet, was dribbling at the opposition, making incisive runs off the ball, and tracking back on defense. None of that was on display last night, and to be honest, I haven't seen him play well in a while. I was in the press box for during the FC Dallas v. Philadelphia Union game last week, and at times, I forgot he was even playing. After the game, I was asked to write a paragraph on him, as part of a collaborative piece on MLS players on the 30-man roster. I went back and re-watched the game, specifically him, and my initial suspicions were confirmed. He seemed content to jog and watch play, rather than get involved. I'm convinced that it's only the dearth of talent at that position that he's even involved.

But the problem still exists of who should play in that position. Carlos Bocanegra has been an option there, and I wouldn't be surprised if he is used there in some World Cup games. But in the England game, we'll probably be facing Aaron Lennon, who has enough speed to negate Boca's defensive capabilities and cause a lot of problems on the back line, or Theo Walcott, who has even more pace with less of an end product. Another option would be moving one of our two right backs, Steve Cherundolo and Jonathan Spector, to the left. Frankly, at this short notice, I'd lump for Dolo. He has enough pace that he won't be completely marginalized, and is a seasoned international defender with a lot of games under his belt.

Whoever Bob Bradley decides to take, I'm not envious of the responsibility facing him. This is, in my eyes, the most problematic and potentially disastrous area for the Yanks, and may be the most difficult decision he has to make before June 12.

Czech Republic v United States

Losing 4-2 at home to a "B" Czech side isn't good. There's plenty to be concerned about from what was a fairly abject defensive performance.

But really, what has changed? What's different now, after Bob Bradley put out an experimental lineup full of guys either coming back from injury or making a last gasp effort to make the team?

The three themes I heard most last night, in order of relative importance, and my visceral reaction to the angst:

1. Onyewu didn't look good

No, no he didn't. He's obviously still stiff, far from one hundred percent, and potentially a liability at the back if he doesn't get any better. I mistakenly thought he would go a full ninety, and the fact that he didn't is a concern. But to think that a player pushing the timeline on a what was a fairly unusual knee injury would look any better than he did is nonsense; doubly so if there's no allowances made for Gooch improving over the course of the next two weeks. He has to be able to play, of course, but an ice pack on his knee wasn't unexpected, nor is it necessarily a sign of major problems.

Gooch's health and form was worry before and it's still a worry now. But the degree of that worry hasn't gone up, at least not for me, and I'm not ready to say Clarence Goodson should start because of it.

2. The defense look bad/unorganized/terrible/abysmal

Second (or possibly third choice keeper). Makeshift backline that included one assumed starter, and he was getting his first game action since October. Essentially, there are too many variables for me to be overly concerned about how a team that looks nothing like the one Bradley will start against England played. Are there endemic issues with the American defense? Maybe. But it was always going to take the first choice guys having a very good to great game for the U.S. to make it out of the group and go further in South Africa. Last night's performance changes nothing, and it certainly shouldn't be seen as an indication that goals will be flying into Howards net next month.

Besides, the two guys most critical as backups had solid individual nights in Steve Cherundolo and Clarence Goodson.

3. DEPTH!?!&!&*@! (as in, there is none)

Again, this isn't new. The U.S. isn't churning out enough high-quality players to have the luxury of a fully prepared and international-class second choice lineup. This is particularly notable in defense, as it was last night. Guzan isn't ready for prime time, Maurice Edu is only an emergency option at centerback, and Jonathan Bornstein is, well, Jonathan Bornstein. Hearth Pearce didn't do himself any favors either, but none of that was terribly surprising. Goodson's strong performance, and what appears to be his growing confidence, is a silver lining that cannot be discounted; if Onyewu is unable to play, Goodson is a reasonably solid backup. There's a drop off certainly, and it may damage American chances in South Africa if Goodson is starting, but we already knew that, didn't we?

I get it. Whenever the evidence of the shallowness of the American squad is exhibited for us all to see, conniptions follow.

The roster announcement is today at 1 PM ET on ESPN, at which point there will be plenty of time to pick over Bradley's squad, finding holes and points of weakness.

Speaking of which, the American Soccer Show will be live tonight to give you an outlet to praise/bitch about the roster at 8 PM ET. Check the website for details.

On the positive side, there's reason to believe that Herculez Gomez' amazing path to the National Team will continue with him going on to the World Cup.

Since it's required, here's my roster prediction:

KEEPERS: Howard, Guzan, Hahnemann

DEFENDERS: Bocanegra, Cherundolo, DeMerit, Onyewu, Goodson, Bornstein, Spector,

MIDFIELDERS: Donovan, Dempsey, Bradley, Edu, Clark, Holden, Beasley, Torres, Feilhaber, Bedoya

FORWARDS: Altidore, Ching, Gomez

*Yes, I changed this one already.

Saturday should tell us a lot. If things go poorly then, if Onyewu hasn't made any progress or can't play, or if the full first team lays a complete egg, panic mode is understandable. It's just a little too early.

USA soccer players stretch after a training session in Princeton, New Jersey

I'll admit it. I have no idea who will play for the U.S. against the Czechs tonight at Rentschler Field in East Hartford. Speculation, and the general feeling out of camp last week in Princeton, is that Bradley will use the game to evaluate players fighting for the last few spot on his roster for South Africa, as well as get critical field time for players in desperate need of live game action. After telling reporters that "17 to 19" spots are locked up, it sounds like he still has a bit of work to do in the former regard.

Around the interwebberbloggernets people are making their best guesses, putting forth what they hope to see, and just generally shooting spitballs at a houseflies. They might connect on a shot out of pure luck, but more likely they're as clueless as the rest of us.

All I'm really certain of is that Oguchi Onyewu will get ninety minutes because he needs it, that twenty-three guys will dress, and that only seventeen will play.

Six substitutions means thirteen guys, those that don't make the roster plus unused subs, won't see the field tonight. Subtracting the one keeper who is unlikely to play, it's actually this group of twelve that intrigues me the most. It stands to reason that the twelve will be made up of players in two categories: locks who don't need to play for whatever reason (or for whom rest is more important), and bubble players whose World Cup dream is about to come to an end.

If you're Eddie Johnson, Alejandro Bedoya, Chad Marshall, Sacha Kljestan, Robbie Rogers, Edson Buddle, Herculez Gomez, Robbie Findley, or one of a handful of others and you're not part of tonight's roster, it might be time to settle those vacation plans or get ready to head back to your MLS team. Hell, even Brian Ching could be on this list, though his status might be more "lock" than "bubble". These are the questions we still don't have the answers to, and why we'll be anxiously waiting for tomorrow morning (or whenever it might) and Bradley's final twenty-three for South Africa.

The fun will be in guessing which of those left out are locks not playing or bubble guys on the way to the cut list. I'm not sure we'll all agree.

We'll know soon enough who will represent the U.S.A. in South Africa. But tonight will give us our first clue as to which of the camp thirty has hit the end of the road.

Football - Bayern Munich v Inter Milan 2010 UEFA Champions League Final

The Guardian's Jonathan Wilson posited something interesting a few weeks back when looking at Inter's stunning victory over Barcelona: How important is possession?

The tactical implications of the question, and the likely hyperbolic statements Jose Mourinho made on Inter's ridiculous 16% possession number (that the Italians gave away the ball on purpose) prompted me to conceive of a tangential question of my own, related directly to our own U.S. National Team.

What of intent?

It's no secret that the U.S. struggles to maintain possession when faced with technically superior opposition. It seems they're destined to defend, take their chances on the break, and hope the other team fails to make them pay for their negative tactics. On the surface, it seems defeatist, almost as if they're conceding before the game ever starts. Possession is the barometer: Good teams have it, lesser (or poor) teams don't.

Intent is key here. The relative quality of the U.S. leads to assumptions that losing the possession battle the way they so often do is a byproduct of their lack of quality. Where Mourinho and Inter are playing to their strengths, rejecting the notion that an edge in possession is crucial to victory, overwhelming Barcelona and Bayern Munich with their superior organization, the U.S. is simply getting beat.

Generally, the assessment isn't incorrect. The U.S., when playing Spain, Brazil, and soon England, does suffer from a lack of relative quality. This inevitably leads to a lack of possession. Whether it's inherently bad, however, is not as clear as it might seem. Wilson's question, and the performance by Inter that prompted it, muddies the waters.

File photo of U.S. head coach Bradley reacting during his team's Confederations Cup final soccer match against Brazil in Johannesburg

Jose Mourinho gets the benefit of the doubt, Bob Bradley does not. Rightly so, but there is a commonality in their approaches: each is actively choosing to play in such a manner, even if their reasons for doing so might differ significantly.

If the U.S., meaning Bob Bradley specifically, recognizes that they'll see less of the ball than their opponents no matter how they attempt to play, common sense dictates that they sit back, break whenever possible, and use organization and defensive commitment to give themselves the best chance at victory. There's even an argument to be made that by choosing passes with high risk but high reward, they're working towards this same end. Keeping the ball just to keep the ball isn't in the Americans best interest because they're at their best attacking a stretched defense; if they overly commit to attempting to break down an opponent with a slower buildup, they may find themselves caught out and open to the counter, unable to support the back line by slowing up play with their midfield.

It's obviously much simpler to say the other team is just better, and that the U.S. can't hold possession because they're not good enough to. Again, this is ultimately true in many cases. The question, however, is if the Americans exasperate appearances by their own strategic decisions. It's almost inconceivable that they would intentionally give the ball away; but if movement forward is regularly highlighted by passes that are "dangerous" in the sense that they risk giving the ball away, it might be evidence of overarching direction from Bradley.

Back to the original issue, the one of intent. Intent, or rather the one we assume teams and coaches hold, colors our perceptions of performance as it relates to the issue of possession. Possession's place as the indicator of the superior side is sacrosanct, provided a team does something with it; as long as there are reasonable chances on goal, it seems clear that the team with the ball more of the time is better. It's there in front of us, clear and easily identified. A team that refuses the ball, or chooses to be more cavalier with it than their opposition (long balls being the most obvious example) is playing what is labeled "negative" or "anti-football".

Inter's performance in the Champions League flipped this perception on its ear, at least to some extent. Mourinho was generally lauded for doing what most thought was impossible - shutting down the Barcelona machine. Reduced to sideways passing, the Catalans were frustrated by an opponent dedicated to stopping Barcelona rather than emphasizing their own offensive efforts. Of course, without Inter capitalizing on a few of their own scant chances, the tactics employed by Mourinho would be worthless; scoring is necessary to win, after all.

An Inter Milan soccer fan kisses a banner which shows team coach Mourinho before their Champions League final soccer match against Bayern Munich in Madrid

To a lesser extent, this is what the U.S. sets out to do anytime they play a team superior to them. It's how they beat Spain, how they almost beat Brazil, and how they attempted to play Holland more recently. Bradley's appreciation for what his team can and cannot do forces his hand; but it's the extra steps he takes, doing his best to turn a distinct weakness into as much of a strength as is possible, that will ultimately give the U.S. its best chance to win.

So are we to suppose that Bradley, and the men who came before him, hold to the theory that possession isn't all that important? Probably not. It's almost certain that if he could have it, he would; while an advantage in possession doesn't guarantee victory, it does improve the chances considerably. Bradley knows this. Whereas Mourinho and Inter's decision to play "anti-football" is one made by a coaching genius with world class players at his disposal, the Americans do it out of necessity. This is an important distinction that overshadows smaller adjustments made by Bradley within the constraints of his team. Inter's choice is dramatic, an obvious movement visible to everyone, while the United States' attempts to spin their disadvantage is much harder to see and appreciate.

This difference in visible intent imposes on the U.S. the perception that they are a reactive team only in these underdog situations. The favorite dictates play and the Americans simply respond, doing their best to muddle through with counterattacks and sell-out defending. There's little room for gray in the world of black-and-white, so the viewpoint will naturally persist. Besides, it's impossible to know how much of each possibility is true; if we were assign a percentage to it, what would it be? Can we quantify how many of the decisions made by American players can be chalked up to simple failure and how much are part of a plan in which possession is lightly valued?

Perhaps there's a clue to Bradley's intent, be it forced upon him or not, in something Grant Wahl highlighted on his World Cup blog. As a student at Princeton thirty years ago, Bradley extolled the brilliance of Tigers basketball coach Pete Carril in his senior thesis:

"Carril is not able to recruit the top-notch city talent. In fact, many of his players are barely recruited by other schools. But Carril is able to take these players and teach them his patient, intelligent style. Carril’s teams are noted for their tough defense, patient, often deliberate offense, taking only the good shot, and team play. To me, there is nothing better than to watch a Princeton basketball team frustrate and beat a ‘bigger and better’ team. Yes, the coaching staff is definitely very important." (emphasis mine)

Honduras v USA

Before he ever had reason or need to conceive of a philosophy like the one he currently employs, Bradley was already lauding something eerily similar. Yes, he doesn't have the players to stand toe-to-toe with the likes of Spain, England, and Brazil; nevertheless, his intent is clear.

It's how we appreciate that intent that makes Bob Bradley the oft-criticized coach of a weak team doing what he has to rather than the tactical adept navigating his side into the best position to win.

AmSoc 27

Monday, May 24, 2010 | View Comments

New show. MLS, USMNT, Henry, various other topics.

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Beat England, the T-Shirt

Sunday, May 23, 2010 | View Comments

Friend of MFUSA Ted Meyer (@futbolhooligan) created a "Beat England" T-Shirt with proceeds from sales of the shirt going to Soccer in the Streets, a charitable organization that uses soccer to teach kids life skills in Atlanta.

I think both are ideas we can all get behind. Get one.

Sports News - May 23, 2010

Genius in action

If you hadn't heard, Jose Mourinho beat Bayern Munich yesterday to win some relatively large soccer tournament. Jose's legend exploded into the realm of the ridiculous in the immediate aftermath, with his qualities as a coach, brilliance as a tactician, and magnetism of personality all fodder for the type of hero worship the likes of which we haven't seen since Douglas MacArthur departed Japan.

If it weren't for 250 million oblivious Americans and cricket-obsessed India, Mourinho would be a shoe-in for President of the World. Mourinho's triumph launched a thousand glowing columns and blog posts the way Helen's face launched a thousand ships, each looking for new ways to describe the brilliance of a man who single-handedly destroyed the Spanish empire of Barca on his way to another Champions League title. The fact that he looked so dapper doing it; well, he's not The Special One for nothing.

Mourinho's dominance of the headlines, garnering so much attention as a coach and not a player, is a testament to the force of his personality as much as his tactical brilliance. Sure, Mourinho beat the greatest attacking team the world has ever seen (oops, that was a month ago) with his defensive-minded game plan before repeating the feat against the Germans. But that alone can't be responsible the flood of words spent bathing the man in syrupy accolades, can it?

Even if it is, Mourinho's status as the preeminent figure in Inter's wonderful season despite the presence of world class players in the team is a rare departure from the usual distribution of attention. There is no direct comparison, since such an example would need to be a man who was recognized as both genius in the ways of the game and a hypnotically charming yet pompous narcissist of the highest order.

Is Mourinho one of a kind? Yes, undoubtedly. There is only one Mona Lisa, after all.

Our traditional American sports are littered with legendary coaches recognized for their genius. Lombardi was ground-breaking innovator and unparalleled leader of men. Stengel managed his collection of egos and bit players masterfully in New York. In more recent times, Joe Torre, Phil Jackson, and Bill Belechick have each been given the crown of "greatest coach in the history of everything". Yet none of them approach Mourinho's combination of ego, charisma, and ability. Torre is a good manager but ultimately a bore. Jackson brings little to the table beyond new age philosophies and the ability to win when he has basketball's best player. Belechick is a strategic genius who intentionally avoids saying anything interesting, ever.

Who then? Two men come to mind. While neither could hold a candle, relatively speaking, to Mourinho's tactical genius, both coached championship teams and had personalities bigger than the game itself.

The two candidates:

Red Auerbach

Auerbach's success was built on choosing the right players more than strategy; always ahead of his time in the former regard, the legendary Boston Celtics coach racked up title after title because he had a special ability to find talent. His larger-than-life personality is legendary, and even when he was no longer coaching the Celtics himself he was still seen as the man responsible for the club's success.

Auerbach may never have reached Jose's stratospheric level of combined magnetism and coaching reputation, but they definitely share a certain quality.

Mike Ditka

SB XX Ditka Bears

Iron Mike was never known as a strategic guy; Mike's greatness lied in his motivational abilities. It may even be wrong to call Ditka "great", since he was really just the lucky recipient of a dominate Bears defense with the genius of Buddy Ryan backing him up. But Ditka did have an impressive ego and a polarizing persona that more often drew people to him than pushed them away. Perhaps most in favor of Ditka being Mourinho's closest American parallel is the "Superfans" of Saturday Night Live, who regularly hypothesized that Dit-ka would defeat entire teams by himself. Even if Ditka couldn't actually defeat teams this way as Mourinho can, the simple fact that the possibility was discussed puts Ditka closer to Jose than anyone else.

These American coaches, who plied their trade in sports that pale in comparison to the beautiful game, are nothing when juxtaposed to the supernova Jose Mourinho. His star burns so bright now that it only makes sense for him to move to the club of the Galaticos; even there, surrounded by gaseous giants Ronaldo and Kaka, he will dominate the sky, causing their stars to fade next to his blinding brilliance.

Head go boom.

I find myself regularly saying something like "You'll know soccer is big in American when..." with various endings to the statement. Some of them relate to the media, others to the general public's view of soccer, and every now and then I'll have one specifically on MLS or the USMNT.

Why I never thought to write a post with all of the "You'll know it when" thoughts, I have no idea. But here I am, so let's do this.

All of these, if and when they happen, will be indicators that soccer, our league, and our National Team are at a previously unreached level. Or they're just mildly amusing.

I put this out on Twitter as well, so I'm including responses from there with proper credit given.

You'll know soccer is in America big when...

...MLS players other than David Beckham are hounded by TMZ (this is stolen directly from @jrodius).

...Sportscenter anchors narrate highlights without any hint of snarkiness.

...those same guys avoid hockey terms when talking about soccer.

...sports talk radio hosts discuss soccer stories regularly.

...Jim Rome's head explodes because of the previous.

...the ranks of the biggest sports star in the US include Europeans who aren't over 30.

...rappers are sporting the latest soccer jerseys.

...MLS no longer needs single-entity.

...Dan Shaughnessy writes a book on the Revs called "Curse of the Bachelor" (courtesy of Ginge)

...Google sponsors an MLS club (@wvhooligan)

...people refer to it as football. (@mellows)'s big in Canada. (@RWhittall)

...high schools start focusing more on Soccer in the athletics than Football. (@Bruno43) Italian shuns the Azzuri to play for the USMNT. (@Eric_Howell)

...Budweiser redoes its age-old Bud Bowl for the MLS Cup, renaming it the Bud Cup. (@stoehrst)

...'Arry Redknapp makes an MLS club financially implode. (@stoehrst again)

...the national obesity rate goes down by a few percentage points. (@SoccerMontreal)

...there is a goal setup on the white house lawn. (@jasonseas) (apparently this has happened at least once)

...Americans decide to watch the champions league final instead of the Yankees-Mets game. (@mattpricewc2010) can see more than one MLS game a week on basic cable. (@benuski) are making videos like this about MLS teams.

...Americans in top 5 European leagues are getting left off USMNT rosters.

...the MLS draft moves to Radio City Music Hall. (@jasongatties)

...our best centerback can actually get paid to play in Italy. (@MHaaskivi)

...there's a daily soccer radio show hosted by people with American accents.

...atheletes like Kobe Bryant, Lebron James and Michael Vick choose it as a career. (@jrodius)

...American kids dream about the MLS Cup as much as they do the Super Bowl or World Series.

...the average MLS salary reaches mid-six figures.

I could do this all day, and Twitter was certainly blowing up with responses. Can't take them all though, right? Let's go people...give it your best shot.

The Calm Before the Storm

Friday, May 21, 2010 | View Comments
Uncle Sam barbecuing at a grill

Hello, friends and fellow fans. Today is Friday, May 21st, 2010. The World Cup countdown stands at three weeks. As I sit here, chained as usual to a desk I would prefer to have nothing to do with, I find myself pondering an notable fact: Things are about to get crazy.

From a U.S. National Team/World Cup perspective that is; this coming weekend, which could not possibly start soon enough, is the calm before before the storm that begins with super important warm up friendlies and ends with the conclusion of their World Cup campaign. Whenever that may be.

Starting next week there will not be a seven day period without a U.S. match until the World Cup story is over. By then our beers will be salty with tears no matter when the U.S. exits, and the autopsy of the tournament from an American perspective will have fully begun. Sure, all of the buildup to June 12th won't have half the intensity of the World Cup matches, but we can be sure there will be laser-focused criticism, honest and overwrought analysis, and rampant teeth-gnashing. It's what we do.

But before I find myself in need of dentures and a new beer, I'm going to try and enjoy my weekend "off". The molecules that constitute my physical being are already beginning to vibrate more violently, so while my fan-at-rest state is less at-rest than usual, I'm going to make an attempt. I'll relax, kick my feet up, watch a few games that won't have me clenched with nervous tension, and try not to think about the coming storm. There will be plenty of time to worry about the state of the team come Tuesday when the send-off series begins in Connecticut.

Champions League final? Sure, that's a nice distraction. A little MLS, some patio sitting, firing up the grill...ahh, sounds nice. I'll put out of my mind all of the questions: who Bradley will start up front, which midfielder has a bead on the job to pair with Michael Bradley, how Gooch's sharpness really is despite his outward confidence, whether Donovan is ready to put in a virtuoso performance, if we'll avoid debilitating red goes on and on and on.

Because really, why give myself an ulcer before anything of real import has actually taken place? There will be plenty of time to turn myself into an throbbing ball of nutso, and I don't want to blow my wad too early. This is my World Cup prep time as well; the best thing I can possibly do is bring everything down to neutral, let the peace of a detached soccer weekend wash over me, and fire up the thrusters when Monday rolls around.

At least try, anyway.

There may be more content around here between now and Monday, and I'm still supposed to tackle the ending of the USMNT movie script. But I won't blame you if you take the weekend off yourself. Unless your MLS team is playing.

Carlos Bocanegra, Jonathan Bornstein

In my younger days, I desperately wanted to make movies. I went to college with the goal in mind. I spent hours with friends concocting story lines for hypothetical films, and even when college didn't work out so well (the less said about that particular chapter of my life the better) I kept up the dream. I bought script writing books (which are currently sitting in a trunk someone in my house collecting dust), tried my hand at movie treatments, and generally just thought I'd end up writing a movie someday.

Turns out I suck something awful when writing in that format, and dialog isn't really my strong suit. Stories were never the problem, though, and I'll occasionally come up with something I think would make a pretty decent movie plot. I never follow up, but still...

This has me wondering what the perfect script for the USMNT this summer would look like if we wrote it now; and I don't mean "best case scenario", because that would obviously be hoisting the cup on July 11th. No, I'm talking about what would make for the most compelling story, one that is believe, engrossing, dramatic, and overall, entertaining.

Problem 1: The story has already lost a major bit of intrigue with the premature end of Charlie Davies' World Cup comeback. Charlie getting to South Africa and actually playing would be a movie unto itself; the climax would certainly be whenever he came on, and since this is a movie, he would naturally score the winning goal. Alas, it can't happen, and seeing as how I've successfully bummed everyone out, let's move on.

Every good story has a beginning, a middle, and an end, the classic three-act structure. We need that for our USA script as well, so let's take a look at possibilities for Acts I and II.


A few options. Since the World Cup will be the climax, we need to set up the movie with an appropriate tone-setting open. This could be the Confederations Cup Final loss to Brazil (or if needed, the whole of the Confed Cup run, ending with the Brazil loss) - the players walk off dejected after having put in a massive effort, Clint Dempsey cries after coming so close, and the resolve of the US to prove themselves again on the world stage is set. Even if we flash-forward significantly from this point, the Confed Cup disappointment provides an emotional low point from which move up through the story.

It's hard to ignore the beating of Spain though, so if needed, we could start off on a high, frame the Brazil loss as a disappointment but a "moral victory", then move forward.

Or...Charlie's accident. Yes, this is playing on a real life tragedy for the purposes of a movie plot, but since this is all pretend let's consider this an alternate point to move on from. The last-minute draw with Costa Rica and the emotional display by the fans at RFK might be a worthwhile scene to follow an open with the news of Charlie's accident (depictions of the accident itself or the aftermath might make me a little uncomfortable); from there, Charlie's comeback effort would be part of the storyline even if it's eventual end might not fit a typical Hollywood script.


Because this is the story of a national team in the time of disparate club commitments, the middle might be a little tough. Follow various stars through the intervening months, like Donovan at Everton, Dempsey at Fulham, etc? That might work, though it would make the movie a little all-over-the-place, with widely ranging story lines, and doing it chronologically accurate might be tough. Besides, without the collective dynamic on the screen, people might lose touch with the supposed focus of the film, the team itself.

Is there a way around this? Just show various friendlies or qualifiers (if we're using the Confed Cup open) that won't really carry much weight with the audience? Tough to build the drama when the game being used to push the story along is for...nothing.

Another alternative is to shift Charlie's accident to Act II. Coming off the disappointing-yet-encouraging Confederations Cup performance, the hit of having a teammate go down might be the perfect conflict point for a compelling film. The US National Team must pull themselves together, move on without their rising star striker, and push on towards a World Cup without their friend and teammate.


At this point, moving from Act II into Act III, we leave the world of what has already happened and move into the unknown. Remember, this isn't about what would be best for us as fans (again, winning the World Cup), but what would be best for the movie. Beat England, reach the semi-finals, lose Germany thanks to a un-called handball? Lose to England badly, rebound to make it out of the group, then shock everyone by reaching the semis? Something else entirely?

If the entirely thing were fictional, what ending would really make the movie the best it could be from a story standpoint? Hoosiers, USMNT Edition doesn't sound quite right to me.

We're just having a little fun with this, so I'm asking for your suggestions. Pick what you see as the best ways to go with the first two acts and give me your third act. Hell, if you want to have the U.S. winning the whole thing because you think it makes for the best movie, I can't blame you.

I'll tackle Act III, with your suggestions in mind, tomorrow.

Ouch Philly, Ouch

Thursday, May 20, 2010 | View Comments
Football - Villarreal v Arsenal UEFA Champions League Quarter Final First Leg

by Vlad Bouchouev

As a first-year MLS organization, the Philadelphia Union has been doing an exceptional job. It all began with the persistent efforts of the Philadelphia soccer fans, particularly the “Sons of Ben.” Then came the stadium. Then came the expansion team. Then Nowak and Mwanga. And now we’re hearing that the Union has sold out all of their season tickets for this year. Philly fans, very nice job.

So seemingly the only thing that Union fans have been missing to set the icing on the cake has been a good start to the season and a big-named, designated player.

Ah, “the designated player.” The term has some sort of aura about that just makes you tingle inside, giving you the sense that every MLS team is in constant search of the “Messiah” who will save its fans from misfortune and achieve perfect harmony; a sort of nirvana so to speak. Well, that’s just going to have to wait in Philadelphia.

The Union’s best shot at signing a big-named star this season has been all but shut down after Robert Pires abruptly turned down their offer. The reason? The aesthetic standards of Philly are just not good enough for him. Hey I didn’t say it, Pires did. “I do not want to be difficult, but left to take my family away, I'd rather do it in a beautiful city. Otherwise, I will put an end to my career,” expressed Pires in a report from the French newspaper L’Equipe. Seriously? The French just continue to impress me. I mean I really believe that Youri Djorkaeff was an outstanding ambassador for the French during his time with the Metrostars/Red Bulls, but I think such blunt comments from Pires set us back a few spaces. Personally, I see beautiful Philadelphia as a city that is metronomic with the United States and if you insult Philly, you insult Americans.

After Pires was asked about the latest rumors of his friend and compatriot Thierry Henry moving to New York, Pires stated, “I wish him to go there. That is a beautiful city.” Another slap in the face for Philly fans and I can already hear the Empire Supporters Club coming up with some cleaver chants about you at the next Union game.

From the league’s standpoint, this was one of their more disappointing transfer fall-throughs ever. What seemed to be close to a completed deal for the MLS instead turned out to be a reality check for the league. Just as we began to think that the MLS has grown in reputation and quality, Pires reminded us that when overseas players come to the States, many of them do it to just experience the lifestyle. And granted, aside from that and some good cash, we just currently still don’t have the muscles to compete for some of the world’s best players. As for Philly fans, shake it off. But maybe next time you’re trying to get a frog to play on your team, send Sebastian Le Toux to the bargaining table.

The Ginge and I got together for a special edition of the American Soccer Show, and managed to track down preeminent soccer writer Grant Wahl in the process. Grant gives us his take on USMNT camp to this point, plus some thoughts on Henry coming to America.

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New York Red Bulls - 2
Columbus Crew - 1

FC Dallas - 1
LA Galaxy - 1

Toronto FC - 2
New England Revolution - 1

Seattle Sounders FC - 1
San Jose Earthquakes - 1

Houston Dynamo - 2
DC United - 0

Chivas USA - 1
Real Salt Lake - 2

Kansas City Wizards - 1
Columbus Crew - 0

Jozy and The Rolling Ball

Wednesday, May 19, 2010 | View Comments
Sports News - April 24, 2010

A ball is rolling down a hill. At the bottom of the hill is a sign that says "BRAT" in sloppily drawn letters, as if way the letters look themselves is mean to convey the nastiness of the word. The ball, a shiny top-of-the-line number with undulating lines and a hefty price tag, is stamped with four bold letters of its own. Though it is difficult to read the word they form as the spheroid picks up speed, we already know that it says "JOZY".

Make no mistake, the ball was kicked from the top of the hill by the young American striker whose name emblazons it. He showed up late. He appeared to sulk during games, visible petulance growing every moment with his team's inability to get him the ball. His managers, two of them, criticized his commitment and he ended his English stay with an ugly head butt to an opposing player. Yes, the kick with which he sent the ball on its way was swift.

As the ball bounds quickly away from him, the young striker can only watch as even his slightest transgressions are turned directly into new momentum for its journey down the hill. Writers and observers are more than happy to give it an extra push, pulling alongside the zooming orb and slapping it forward with accusations of bratitude, their own questions on his commitment, and a propensity to seize on anything and everything he says or does. A twist of the striker's intent here and there turns an innocuous bit of chatter with an English contemporary in public into a new burst of attitude-problem energy.

It seems he's helpless. Utterly helpless.

Or is he? Can he possibly catch the ball, which is now but a speck in the distance and perilously close to the end of its journey? Can he bring it back up the hill in any measurable way, putting separation between it and the scarlet letters B, R, A, T?

Perhaps simply stopping it is the first step.

Jozy, the hill, and his rolling ball will all be transported to South Africa in a few weeks time. Between now and then, a stint at training camp with his USA teammates should be a quiet one. He will play in warm up friendlies against the Czech Republic and Turkey, and while those matches aren't quite opportunities to slow the ball down, he can do some good just by playing hard and not providing it any more momentum.

No quit, no attitude, no problems. Once the ball is rolling, the standard for behavior gets that much higher; it's not enough to be like everyone else, Jozy has to be better if he wants that ball to stop.

In South Africa, the ball's ultimate fate could be decided. The right kind of performance augmented by a clear commitment in both training and matches, and he might be able to catch the ball, trap it under foot, rear back, and blast it back up the cursed hill. If he hits it just right, it might even stay there.

Do the opposite, throw a tantrum or anything that might be viewed as a tantrum, take the wrong step, become frustrated in a match and lash out, pick up a team-crippling card, or just simply fail to work hard enough, and that classy high priced ball will go sailing straight into the looming sign with the damning word. Once that happens, getting back up the hill and removing the stigma of the word will be like climbing Mount Everest with goalposts tied to one's feet.

Maybe it's all unfair that the ball is flying down the hill at such a rapid clip. Maybe Jozy's not a brat, nor should he be headed towards the label. But perception is everything in the world of soccer, and as long as the ball is rolling, danger lurks ahead.

A ball is rolling down a hill...

Although I'm not personally a regular gambler, mostly because I don't have money to lose, I'm always interested in odds. While they don't ultimately mean anything (unless you are a gambler), they are in some small way an indication of how teams and players are viewed. The goal of a bookie, after all, is to entice bettors to lay down their cash while leaving themselves open to as little risk as possible.

With that being said, I thought it might be worth a look at some of the odds out for the United States in World Cup and how they compare to others lines.

In the interest of time, all of these odds are based on a basic Google search, which led me to

To Win:

USA: 80/1

Spain: 7/2-4/1 (Favorites)

North Korea & New Zealand 1000/1 (Longest, with New Zealand as high as 3000/1)

Mexico, Paraguay, and Ghana are all about the same odds as the United States, usually around 80/1. If we look at a couple of other sports, there might be some perspective in noting that Nikolay Davydenko is 80/1 to win Wimbledon and the Chicago White Sox are the 80/1 shot to win the World Series. 80/1 also puts the U.S. right in the middle of the pack in the World Cup field.

To Finish Top 4:

USA: 50/1

Spain: 7/2-10/3 (Shortest)

North Korea: 750/1 (Longest)

Mexico, Ghana, and Serbia are all right around the same price.

Top Goalscorer:

Landon Donovan: 100/1-125/1
Jozy Altidore: 125/1-200/1
Clint Dempsey: 150/1-250/1

Donovan, Dempsey, and Altidore were the only two three (oops) Americans on the board (and I missed Dempsey at first).

David Villa: 8/1-9/1 (Shortest)

Messi and Rooney come in just behind Villa.

Not going to bother with the longest odds here, since it's probably someone you've never heard of who might still not make the roster for his country. It's probably safe to say it would be a Kiwi though.

Individual Group Games:

USA v Enland

USA to Win: 5/1-11/2
Draw: 12/5-11/4
ENG to Win: 8/15-1/2

USA v Slovenia

USA to Win: 11/10-6/5
DRAW: 11/5-9/4
SLO to Win: 2/1-12/5

USA v Algeria

USA to Win: 4/5-8/11
DRAW: 5/2-12/5
ALG to Win: 11/4-10/3 (Big range on this)

None of this means anything, but it's fun to look at. At 50/1 to make the semifinals, why not throw $20 on the United States?

Real Salt Lake v Los Angeles Galaxy

It's been a good year for Landon Donovan. MLS MVP, brand new big time contract, glorious loan stint at Everton, continued National Team stardom, and a new level of respect from his peers and fans around the world. From a purely professional standpoint, it's difficult to come up with more that could have gone right for the American.

Off the field, however, Donovan's life hasn't been so rosy. His three year marriage to actress Bianca Kalich ended, and while the low level of media attention given American players kept the details mostly out of the spotlight, there was a public element to the breakup. It wouldn't have been surprising if Donovan had shrunk on the field for a time, allowing the personal emotional issues to affect his level of play.

Instead, he seemed to increase his focus, and results followed. The Everton stay was a rousing success, and while the sample size still allows room for debate on where Donovan falls in the hierarchy of star players, there's no doubting his quality. Considering the label Donovan carried before heading to Merseyside, that he was a soft player who came up short on the big stage, beating back the demons must have been a self-satisfying experience. That he's continued his strong play in a much different role with the LA Galaxy is another bit of evidence that Donovan may have turned a corner professionally.

As Donovan readies himself for the World Cup, he's welcoming questions about how his personal turmoil has positively affected his play on the field. He's explaining the process of maturing as a player and how looking inward while shutting out the criticism has allowed him to improve. He's not the first athlete to say such things, and he certainly won't be the last. The words, though, will only matter if the performances back them up. So far, so good.

Yes, camp is for the most part uneventful in its initial days, and writers must find angles to cover during the buildup to matches next week. But the explosion of stories focusing on Donovan's growth, his willingness to discuss his personal life, and the quiet confidence he projects as one of the leaders on a youngish team is still notable.

After disappointment of 2006, American star Landon Donovan feels prepared for World Cup - New Jersey Star-Ledger

Divorce helped Donovan reconcile differences - Yahoo! Sports

Entering World Cup, Landon Donovan finds himself in a good place for U.S. men - The Washington Post

Landon Donovan sees greater opportunity with U.S. National team at World Cup in 2010 than in past - New York Daily News

Donovan ready to lead the U.S. - Philadelphia Inquirer

Donovan Pushes Ahead, Looking Inside - The New York Times

Straight shooter - New York Post

Donovan maturing before our very eyes - Ives for Fox Soccer

None of it will matter if he doesn't step up at the World Cup, of course. A taste of success in England is nice. Continued dominance in MLS, as expected, is all well and good. But if Donovan's new found understanding of himself doesn't translate to a star performance in South Africa, all of it will just be words.

He certainly seems ready.

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WORLD CUP 2010 QUALIFIER - USA Beats Mexico 2-0

There is probably no issue more maddening for those of us that live and die with the US National Team than that of Americans who willfully choose to support someone else. Often, these Americans living in America support the team of their parents, or extend identifying with some aspect of their ancestry to backing another national team.

When "defending" the USMNT, or discussing a soccer culture that breeds so many of these fans, it's easy to fall into the trap of generalizing. Each person who chooses say, England over the USA is doing so for their own personal reasons; even if I'd have an opinion as to why they might be doing so, I might be unfairly shoe-horning them into a group to which they don't actually belong.

And let's be clear here. It is anyone and everyone's right to root for whomever they choose; there are no laws or rules which bar rooting for a nation other than the one in which you hold citizenship. Doing so doesn't, by itself, make anyone a "bad person", worthy of hatred, name-calling, or worse. But there are some unwritten "rules of fandom" being broken by anyone forsaking a team they have an actual connection with for one that might be better, sexier, or more historically relevant. Hard, fast, and important in any meaningful sense? No. Part of the sports culture, and therefore elemental to the discussion? Definitely.

Beyond questions of whether or not it's "right" to root for another country if you were born in the US, live in the US, and self-identify as American - without the complication of being first- (or maybe) second-generation - we come to the role of "patriotism" in supporting the US National Team. By simple logic, it would seem to make sense that being patriotic is part and parcel of rooting for a team representing the country; but do we really have to be flag-waving, bleed red-white-and-blue, rah rah Americans to support the USA on the soccer field?

Perhaps the issue is what exactly "patriotism" means these days. In an America going through a serious identity crisis, one that has sharply divided us politically and fractured the nation along party lines to unprecedented extremes, the word, and the various expressions of it, have become politicized themselves. Somehow being a "proud American", flying the flag, and defending the country in the face of (both valid and questionable) criticism without reservation has become inextricably linked to the political Right; like or not, that does have some implications to the US National Team. Those that find such things, which they might view as exclusionary and jingoistic, distasteful would logically be turned off to expressions of national pride in the world of sports. There should be a clear separation of the two, but that's likely outside of reasonable expectation.

Supporting a national team should not be taken as support for a government, national policy, political party, specific way of life or anything else outside of the game itself, just as love of country does not necessarily imply complete support of those same things. Dissent and patriotism are not mutually exclusive.

Let's also not confuse "patriotism" with "nationalism"; in a modern context, the former should be about pride and love of country without political slant, while the latter is a much more insidious and exclusionary concept built on putting the interests of one's nation about those of all others. If there must be a connection between either of the two narrowly-separated ideas and soccer, than let it be the type of patriotism that does not carry additional baggage.

Does a national team represent the people or the government? Can a people love their national team, wave the flag, and express their passion while hating those in power or the policies they maintain?

The world is a much smaller place these days, thanks to technology and air travel. This means the lines of nationality are blurred, that the concept of community crosses borders, and that for some rooting for another national team is less a question of citizenship than it is of appreciation. When shared language is in play, influences are heavy and connections easily formed. The black and white formula of "if you're American, root for America" is no longer applicable, and the use of words like "traitor" is irresponsible, unfair, and dangerous. Loyalty lies where it is freely given, and no one can be forced to root for anyone because some self-appointed arbiter decides they should.

That doesn't mean we, meaning Americans who passionately support the US National team, have to like it. It doesn't mean criticism, based on an understanding of individual justification whatever it may be, can't be dished out within certain limits. Not that the Americans supporters others will or should care, of course.

So carry on, you Yank fans of England, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Argentina, Germany, etc. You're more than welcome to root for whomever you choose, even as I believe you're missing out, acting in a "plastic" manner, or denying real connections for manufactured ones. Maybe "fake" is too far...maybe not.

The temptation to paint in broad strokes, on both sides of the question, is powerful, and even while I do so as lightly as possible (paragraph above - likely a failure), I know it's unfair to castigate anyone for making a personal choice that doesn't happen to coincide with my own. Part of what makes me a patriot is recognizing that hateful rejection of a freely made choice is exactly counter to the American ideals I celebrate.

No hate, just the expression of my right to say, as a fellow soccer fan, "You suck".

Now let's go grab a beer.


Trust me when I say that I realize what I'm opening myself up to whenever I broach this subject. Too often, people are blinded by assumptions made; if I want Americans to be fans of the USMNT, and think they should be, I must be a intolerant jingoistic monster with a closed mind and hateful attitude. Already, people have taken shots, due to this discussion beginning on Twitter, both directly and indirectly. This subject is perfect fodder for those who try entirely too hard to be clever while ignoring any nuanced argument that doesn't fit the "intolerant flag waver" label applied to me. That's fine, and they're obviously within their rights, just as any of you are that would like to take issue in the comments. Short of unproductive name-calling, I'm happy to take criticism.

This piece just scratches the surface of all of the issues involved, and is ultimately a poor attempt to explore them. Questions of identity, cultural aspiration, elitism, a collective complex of inferiority, and more play into Americans dissociating from American soccer entities. Maybe we'll take a look at those down the road...but probably not.

And I would be remiss if I didn't not admit the a lot (most?) of the angst felt by US fans caused by Americans supporting others (ASOs?) is based on the small size of the community. We probably wouldn't care so much if millions and millions of Americans were rooting on the USA every time they played.

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