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Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Fixture Congestion be Damned: Impact Shock Olimpia, USL on a Roll

photo from CDSOCCER.com

Roberto Brown was not good enough for Fernando Clavijo. But he’s been good enough for Montreal of the second flight, USL leading the Impact to the league semifinals and now more importantly scoring two goals to give the Impact a huge road three points in Honduras against Olimpia in the CONCACAF Champions League. This was the third game in a stretch which will see Montreal play six games in eleven days, all the matches being either Champions League or USL playoff games. This point is precisely why when MLS fans complain about fixture congestion I cannot help but laugh at them.

Throwing out the result of a dispirited and quite frankly completely overmatched DC United team who right now is the laughing stock of the Champions League, Matchday three was very good for MLS and USL sides. (DC did play much better tonight than they have in the previous two Champions League matches but I recall a time not so long ago where DC would automatically get a result at home in an international competition. Besides Cruz Azul was playing its second eleven) Houston became the first MLS team ever to get a result in a competitive match in Mexico City with a 4-4 draw at Pumas. Puerto Rico continued an unbeaten streak of 17 games with a hard fought 2-2 draw in Guatemala against Municipal, and as discussed above Montreal beat Olimpia on the road.

Back to Brown. For my money he was the Rapids most dangerous player early last season. I saw him in person at DSG Park and was amazed by his skill off the ball. But for whatever reason, after making a big deal about signing him, Clavijo let him go after about 10 matches. Rather than go back to Panama, he latched on in USL with Montreal (as by the way many quality foreign players who get waived in MLS have in the past) and he has made a remarkable impact, no pun intended on the Quebec based club.

As things stand now, three MLS/USL teams have a very good chance of advancing to the knock out stages of the event. That’s something we all can be proud of.

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Monday, September 29, 2008

USL Quarterfinal Wrap

DeRoux’s heroics were not enough for the Minnesota Thunder/photo by Paul Phillips

Darren Tilley was among the heroes of the 1999 US Open Cup final, the last major trophy won by a current USL side. Pat Onstad and Yuri Alnatt were also key figures that night at Crew Stadium for the Rochester Rhinos. Now nine years later after a near financial collapse Tilley has his team in the semifinal round of the USL playoffs after dispatching 2008 Open Cup finalist Charleston 2-1 on aggregate. The Rhinos now advance to face Regular Season champ, Puerto Rico in the semifinals. Will the fixture congestion of the CONCACAF Champions League finally catch up with the Islanders next weekend? Don’t count on it. Right now for my money Colin Clarke’s side would be the third best team in MLS (After Houston and Columbus) if they were in that league instead of USL. The Islanders are deep and talented besides being extremely well coached. The semifinals will feature two teams with British coaches playing a very British style of football, so those Anglosnobs who refuse to watch MLS because it seems unfamiliar to them ought to check out the Islanders versus the Rhinos.

Elsewhere Minnesota shelled Jay Nolly all evening long but fell a goal short of advancing past the Whitecaps who came into the second leg up two goals. The final tally was Vancouver 5 Minnesota 4 after two legs. Stephen deRoux had a great game in midfield for the Thunder. Vancouver now will face Montreal in a Canadian derby semifinal. The Impact came from a goal down in the first leg to beat Seattle in the second leg 3-1. The final goal scored in stoppage time was set up Joey Gjerstan and tallied by Antonio Ribeiro. The Impact now focus on the Champions League midweek before facing Vancouver in a two leg series this weekend.

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Friday, September 26, 2008

Will MLS 2.0 Work?

mls_razov.jpg

The indispensable American Soccer News had a good story on Don Garber’s plans for MLS 2.0, which will be discussed later this year with the league’s board. While Commissioner Garber deserves lots of credit for steering MLS away from the troubled waters that threatened its existence a few years back, the arrogance and hubris of the league which we’ve recently editorialized on this site threatens its long term credibility in the football world.

Some points from this story:

Garber says ” In regards to the CONCACAF Champions League, our credibility is being attacked but we want our clubs to focus on MLS…In reality, we are a business developing and to reconfigure our business model is not in our best interest.”

I’m not sure how he can spin this in MLS’ favor. The reality is it was Commissioner Garber whose comments were out of line when MLS teams failed in the forerunner tournament of this, including DC United against Pachuca this past Spring. It was the commissioner and league seemingly anxious to buy international credibility that emphasized these results. Now the Champions League performances are all the more embarrasing not because Mexican or Costa Rican teams are showing up MLS sides: those are clearly better and deeper leagues than MLS, but because the United States’ own second divsion, with which MLS broke off a relationship thus scuttling the American Club football pyramid has been so successful in this event. Sides from the United Soccer Leagues have actually defeated Mexican and Costa Rican sides in this tournament while MLS is winless in the event. I have for many years maintained that the soccer press in this country was ignorant of USL and discounted the quality in that league partly because of the obsession with representing MLS as something it is not. For years I have maintained that while MLS is on the whole stronger than USL the typical gap between a first and second division doesn’t exist in this country, thanks to the limited budgets and poor scouting of MLS teams. The league may not like it but it’s credibility is in the gutter based on its embarrasing performances in the Champions League. The bottom line is this: we live in a Global world where Football from all over is on TV: the best leagues in whatever region rise to the top in their regional club tournament, be it the Argentine teams in Copa Libertadoras or the English teams in the UEFA Champions League. The fact that USL teams are showing more than MLS teams in the champions league for CONCACAF speaks volumes about the overall quality of MLS.

There will be no promotion or relegation unveiled at that time and the league would prefer another Midwest team such as St. Louis to provide more balance geographically. Interest in a Miami franchise has resurfaced and Garber reiterated the demand in the Pacific Northwest is strong as well.

MLS expansion continues to dilute talent and the quality of the product on the pitch. No doubt exists in the my mind that MLS sides would have been more competitive in the CONCACAF Champions League had for example Chivas USA not lost Preston Burpo and Jason Hernandez in the expansion draft, and been forced to replace injured players with guys who are essentially being paid a semi-pro wage.

I can say this from the Miami perspective. MLS can work in South Florida but only if the quality of the product improves rapidly. The same for a second team in New York. If MLS is going to continue to to put out a product where defending is shambolic in almost every match and the pace is like watching paint dry, bigger more sophisticated football markets are going to tune out the product. I’d put Miami, New York and even Boston at the very top of this list.

Garber also expressed that the Superliga is a priority for the league based off of attendance and television ratings.

This line speaks for itself and to the priorities of the league. SUM makes money that sustains the league and thus MLS puts a priority on all SUM related events even if it means promoting a Mexican National Team game will for example cut MLS attendance for the games in the same market around the El Tri matchup on the calendar.

Currently, there are no short term solutions however, in 2009, there may be a possibility that teams will be more carefully selected to avoid fixture congestion so there may be more balance and variety in the Superliga, CONCACAF, and US Open Cup competitions

So no Apertura/Clausura at least for 2009. Even more disturbing I see no mention amending the squad limits or the salary cap in this piece.

What are our readers thoughts about MLS 2.0?

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

MLS Needs to Look Beyond Europe

Jorge Rojas: MLS Super Signing

I’ll be honest. Late in this season with European Football having kicked off, the US National Team’s qualifying in full swing, USL about to decide its playoff participants, and College Soccer having started up I’m having my difficult being motivated to watch MLS games. My disinterest cannot be blamed on the quality of play: I’m used to watching plenty of third rate football: USL and College Soccer would qualify in those categories, but both right now are more compelling for me to watch and track than MLS whose recent public relations among other things have turned me off, as we’ve discussed on this site.

One very obvious thing emerges when comparing MLS and USL. Major League Soccer is becoming more latin flavored in its style of play, while USL is almost undoubtedly a reflection of how lower leagues in England appear in style of play. The two leagues though sharing the same geographical home now play a totally different brand of football: perhaps the direct, route one style of Northern Irish World Cup Veteran Colin Clarke is so atypical to CONCACAF that Puerto Rico Islanders are having success due to style of play more than quality on the pitch in the Champions League. The same can be surmised by Montreal’s solid play in CONCACAF and could have been assumed had Charleston not gotten a few unlucky bounces and beaten DC United in the US Open Cup final. This isn’t meant to minimize the accomplishments of USL sides in CONCACAF play which include defeating a Costa Rican side in a two leg tie, something never accomplished by an MLS side. Readers of this site and listeners to the show know I’m partisan in some regards towards USL but do realize much of the success of its teams when stepping out of what is essentially a second division and playing more talented sides be they in MLS or in Central America has been the style of play and the difficulty it causes for Latin oriented teams.

At the same time Major League Soccer is becoming more and more latin flavored. The New York Red Bulls lost last night to Columbus but I took note of how they played even without Dave Van Den Bergh, who is one of the best players in the league. Juan Carlos Osorio’s side valued possession and knocked the ball around with a purpose in the first half featuring incredibly technical touches on the ball. Jorge Rojas, the captain of the Venezeluan National Team leads this new look team and when you have other quality players like Gabriel Cichero and Juan Pietravello who are technically gifted no question exists in my mind that the New York Red Bulls represents where MLS is headed. On the other side last night, Columbus without the incomparable Guille Barros Schelotto featured the lively, Olympic medalist Emmaunel Ekpo in midfield. Early in MLS’ history Sunil Gulati spent alot of effort in attracting African players to MLS. These included such notable names in World Football as Shaun Bartlett, Junior Agogo, Uche Okafor, Ben Iroha and Abdul Thompson Conteh among others. But as time went on and the original management team of the league was ushered out fewer and fewer African players with the league signing more players from European second divisions like Pascal Bedrosian and Terry Cooke to fill out squads. This trend thankfully seems to have been blunted.

No point exists for MLS to continue to import large numbers of players from Europe. The league is more than welcome to cherry pick certain players like Darren Huckerby who want to be here, but the time of David Beckham, Lothar Matthaeus and Roberto Donadoni has come and gone. The future of MLS lies looking south towards Latin America and the Caribbean as well as across the the Atlantic with a southward tilt at Sub Saharan Africa. Changing the flavor of MLS will make the product more compelling and yes of a higher quality for the American football fan.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Renkin to Arsenal? Some Thoughts

The recent press reports linking Arsenal and other Premier League clubs to 14 year old attacking midfielder Charles Renken whose sterling play for the US U-17 team in the Bradenton Invitational last year caught many eyes is terrifying from my perspective. Despite the success Arsenal has had in developing young footballers, Americans have had nothing but trouble when they go to England at a young age.

I get annoyed when I hear fans of the US Soccer program state that we need to put more young players in the English Premier League. Yes, we need to put more players in Europe, but no we do not have to put more young, developiong players in the Premier League. Take the list of players who have gone to Premier League clubs from the US at a young age: Jovan Kirovski, John Thorrington, Frank Simek, Zac Whitebread ,Kenny Cooper, Kyle Davies, Eric Licaj and Jonathan Spector and contrast that with the list of players who have gone to Holland or Germany at a young age: John O’Brien, Gregg Berhalter, DaMarcus Beasley, Cory Gibbs, Steve Cherundolo, Chad Deering, Robbie Rogers and Michael Bradley. It has been accurately pointed out to me in defense of English Football that some teen players who showed raw potential in Africa or Eastern Europe have dramatically improved once getting to England: That very well may be the case but for American players whose early training in the United States lacks the type of technical skill emphasis of other points on the globe, going to the continent seems to be a more reasonable long term bet for a player’s development than going to England. In England many pundits, including Martin Samuel of the Times indicate that English academies teaching of technique and ball skills is not up to the same standard as it is on the continent. (Samuel wrote a column after England’s 2-0 loss to Croatia in Zagreb during Euro 2008 Qualifying about this topic and was pillaged as you would expect by the Times online readers, but his point hit home with me based on the experiences of American players on both the continent and England.)

Frank Simek signed with Arsenal at 14, the same age and he now remains an outsider in the US player pool struggling for recognition on a second division side in his twenties. This pattern has played out with many of the other Americans I listed above who went to England as teens to develop their footballing skills. On the other hand the list of youngsters who went to continental clubs or academies is more impressive and dare I say has been much more impactful on the fortunes of the US National Team program.

Charles Renken is a special player. He has the potential to be a similar, even complimentary player to Freddy Adu a few years down the road in the US setup. Along with Stefan Jerome and Carlos Martinez he represents part of an attacking trio that could lead to US to glory in upcoming youth world cups. However, all of this is predicated on Renkin making the right move following his time at the US Soccer’s Academy in Bradenton and continuing his impressive growth as a young player.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Who Should the US Start Versus T&T

Six points in the bag and little doubt the US will advance to the hexagonal. However the truth be told I think the United States finishes third in the hexagonal on current form and must improve its linkup play and general possession play in the final four matches of this qualifying stage. With this in mind this is the lineup I would like to see tomorrow assuming the bucket is being used by Bradley again.

—————————–Howard———————————-

—-Hedjuk————-Onyweu————Bocanegra———–Pearce—-

———————-Clark————–Bradley———————–

Kljestan—————————————————Lewis——-

——————————Donovan——————————–

——————————Johnson——————————–

  • Sacha Kljestan is the right sided player that is most dangerous for the US. He needs to play out on that side.
  • Eddie Johnson gets a chance partly so he can be safely written off after this match.
  • Despite scoring a goal against Cuba, Clint Dempsey’s lack of creativity and bad giveaways should earn him a place on the bench.
  • DaMarcus Beasley right now could not start for most of the teams left in CONCACAF qualifying. We are allegedly better than these sides so why do we keep throwing him out there ahead of a steady, veteran Eddie Lewis who is better than any other left sided midfielder in the region?
  • Rico Clark starts in place of Mo Edu who was woeful on Saturday.
  • Frankie Hedjuk is now my right back until he cannot walk or is suspended. Steve Cherundolo’s lack of maturity demonstrated in the Guatemala game can be solved by watching Frankie perform since Hedjuk was equally immature at one time not so long ago.
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US Looks Shaky in Havana

Reuters Photo

Three points is three points I suppose. But tonight’s game unlike last months qualifier in Guatemala City has me very concerned about the state of play regarding the US Team. Against a side that in its own stadium last month gave up three relatively quick goals to Trinidad and Tobago, the US had to grind out a result again dependent on some clutch goalkeeping and quite frankly some mistakes by the Cuban team.

Right now the United States lacks the technical skill nor the clean finishing or awareness in counter attacking situations to ever put away the opposition. The bad giveaways by defensive midfielders continues to be a trademark of this team with its current lineup and the inability for the strikers to finish the chances created for them against respectable opposition is painful to watch. In the last twelve matches, the current set of US strikers, Brian Ching and Eddie Johnson have scored in only one match: the 8-0 rout of Barbados, while every US goal in the other matches has come from midfielders or defenders and typically off set pieces.

Today’s performance was substantially worse than the game many have criticized the US for in Guatemala City last month. Again thye most solid players were the keeper Tim Howard and the two center backs, Carlos Bocanegra and Oguchi Onyewu. The performances of DaMarcus Beasley and Mo Edu in particular were forgetable. Given Scotland’s loss today to FYR Macedonia in Skopke perhaps both players feature on one of the two big sides in the SPL because of the lack of Scottish talent, not because of their individual qualities. Beasley in particular is becoming less and less useful as a player as time goes on.

A word on the atmonsphere tonight: Give the Cuban players and supporters a lot of credit. Despite the political tensions which I am in particular familiar with because of where I live (South Florida) the event tonight was perfect except for the lighting, with a polite crowd, and some good sportsmanship among both sides. Football really can overcome the problems politicians and dictators cause.

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Friday, September 05, 2008

Petke Power

AP PHOTO

Throughout Mike Petke’s Metrostars career a sign draped the wall at Giants Stadium which read Petke Power. For my money no lasting image of MLS early years was more vivid and more poignant than that sign. Mike Petke in fact has been one of the better defenders in MLS during his entire career. But the thing that has made Petke stand out for me is his leadership and his ability to score critical goals in critical matches. Petke’s goals during his time at DC United all seemed to come at critical times, including one in stoppage time against Columbus in 2003 that has to be considered one of the most exciting goals given the circumstances in the history of the league.

Petke now 32 is Colorado’s captain when he’s healthy. But the Rapids have been skidding down the western conference table for week and are now led by a manager, Gary Smith who is actually an Arsenal employee on loan to the Rapids. After last week’s loss to RSL Petke was quoted as saying ” “There were a lot of fans that traveled to come here, and I’m embarrassed. It’s over now, and we have to look forward to Thursday, a big game in Dallas. But, it’s going to be a tough night tonight.”

Petke led by example today scoring a classic goal to sink FC Dallas and to bring the Rapids right back into the heat of the playoff race. This goal was typical of Petke: key situation where his team needs to score and needs to win. Once again Petke power has prevailed, and with the longevity and leadership shown by Petke, don’t count the Rapids out just yet.

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Thursday, September 04, 2008

Islanders Conquer

The Islanders used two late goals to advance Wednesday Night

Tropical Storm Hanna has reaked havoc on Haiti and it also delayed the start of tonight’s CONCACAF Champions League match between Puerto Rico and Alajuelense. For the first time ever a Costa Rican club has been eliminated from a CONCACAF tournament by an American club with the USL-1 side doing the honors. The Islanders won despite playing four matches in the last eight days all over North and Central America thanks to the fixture congestion MLS and USL both seem to tolerate. The US Open Cup final between DC United and Charleston at RFK Stadium was a showcase of the best American club football has to offer. This game was absent of the bad giveaways and poor possession play that characterize MLS and are less prevalent but still numerous in USL-1.

I have to say I am somehwat offended that many of my collegues and friends in the soccer blogger community have seemingly chosen to ignore the success of USL sides in this competition while continuing to discuss MLS’ failures in a vacuum. Football writers in England and Germany do not ignore their second divisions entirely and do not simply make assumptions about a product’s quality without watching it or trying to understand it. The dismissiveness of many towards USL this year has been shocking: the assumption during the early rounds of the US Open Cup was that USL sides were essentially semi pro teams and that any loss by MLS teams was on them, not due to the quality of play from USL. As one who follows both leagues cloesly I can tell you while the most individually talented players are in MLS, USL-1 has a quality to it unknown to MLS, something which both Puerto Rico and Montreal demonstrated in their CONCACAF triumphs: valuable midfield and attacking possession play. USL sides I have noticed also in my trips to Tropical Park Stadium and on the FSC Friday night telecast don’t commit all of the cheap giveaways MLS teams do. Yet USL sides lack the flair and quality in the final third to be as dangerous as MLS sides.

So basically I would say at home in an international competition I’d take a random MLS side, while when I travel to Central America or the Caribbean I’d take a top USL-1 side. While this sounds like I am simply interpreting the results of the last eight days this is based much more in the style and substance of play than on the results which of course do bear out my thinking.

USL sides are much more tecnhical and composed on the ball: Charleston showed this again last night as well but they were facing in DC, a side much more refined and cultured than your average MLS side. First touches in USL tend to be less exaggerated than in MLS and while the best players in the nation play in MLS, their are also a number of development roster player who later in the season play significgant roles in MLS: The majority of these players would not make a USL-1 roster.

I’d urge my collegues in the soccer blogger community and media to pay more attention to USL-1. Sure the games aren’t played in the sexy venues and you don’t have a commissioner that likes to shoot off his mouth in selling the quality of his league, but the football itself is very revealing. It is no coincidence as we enter the group stages of the CONCACAF Champions League, the top club tournament in this region that USL has as many teams left in the event as MLS.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Impact Advances, MLS Falters

Longtime FC Dallas GK Matt Jordan kept a clean sheet as USL-1 side Montreal Impact advanced in the Champions League

Even after DC United beats the Charleston Battery in tonight’s US Open Cup Final, USL will have achieved something tangible that MLS failed at attempting, and failed badly at: to advance a team out of the qualifying round of the CONCACAF Champions League. Montreal got a draw on the road to Real Esteli and advance intyo the group stage of the competition while MLS sides New England and Chivas USA were eliminated on their home turf.

Chivas USA gave a game effort which is much much more than can be said for New England. But the bottom line is this. MLS is nowhere near as competitive or attractive a league as its proponents claim. This tournament was supposed to be different because unlike the CONCACAF Champions Cup, this event was being started right in the heart of the MLS season. But what we’ve discovered is that MLS lacks the depth not only on its squads, but among its squads to seriously compete in these sorts of events. For all those who state that MLS is the most competitive league in the world, the reality is that the same teams usually win the title and the same teams usually compete well when representing the league in CONCACAF competitions. So how good is MLS in reality? Not very good by any objective international standard. I firmly believe that MLS which constantly compares itself to the FMF isn’t even the second or maybe third best league within CONCACAF. But it is our league as is USL and we must embrace both to grow the game in the United States.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Bradley vs Arena: Different Styles

Eddie Johnson and Brian Ching celebrate a goal against Barbados, the only game which a current US striker has scored a goal in the last 14 months for the national team.

Bob Bradley’s tenure as United States National Team manager has gone about as well as can be expected: A CONCACAF Gold triumph, several victories in the “old world” and thus far a smooth run in qualifying including an elusive win over Guatemala. So with this in mind, clearly their will be no coaching change for the US in the next several years. But Coach Bradley unlike his predecessor Bruce Arena seems to be reluctant to use current club form as a guide to player selection. Arena, almost to a fault felt it necessary even during World Cup qualifying to call in any in-form American player to give him a look.

Bradley seemed to take the Arena philosophy early in his tenure. Bradley’s first year and change on the job saw the call ups of about 70 players. However since the March friendly with Poland, Bradley’s selections have become less and less creative and more and more predictable. Thankfully some of this predictability has been the now routine call ups of Frankie Hejduk and Eddie Lewis both of whom spent a year without being called in after World Cup 2006 when younger players tried and ultimately failed to fill their positions. Unfortunetely this also means the continued routine call ups of Eddie Johnson, now playing his trade in England’s second division, Clint Dempsey who has scored one club goal in the last nine months, DaMarcus Beasley whose role should be filled by Lewis until the later retires, and Ricardo Clark who has looked completely out of his depth in his last four matches for the United States.

The return of Clark to the national team for critical qualifiers is totally unjusitifed. Despite playing on MLS’ dominant team, Clark’s confidence is in the tank. He has been most unimpressive to me while playing for the Dynamo this year other than in a few glimmers. Eddie Johnson and Brian Ching the current US strikers have scored goals in only one match for the US in the last fourteen months: that match was an 8-0 thrashing of Barbados. Had Arena still been managing the national team, in form Kenny Cooper or Charlie Davies would have surely been called into this squad if for no other reason to judge them in camp.

Clint Dempsey not only has played poorly for the US, but seeing him in person now in several US matches over the last 12 months I fear he has gone from having a monster killer instinct to disinterest in the national team. This probably comes from being overworked at Fulham and now confused about his role there, thanks to Manager Roy Hodgson’s tactics. DaMarcus Beasley is a player whose hustle wins him accolades from American coaches and whose Champions League experience gets him love in the press, but whose utility on the international level appears to be waning. Beasley’s first touch and creativity are completely devoid when he needs it the most and I personally am much more comfortable with a wily veteran like Eddie Lewis on the pitch than Beasley whose mistakes and poor positioning are more likely to cost you points than win you anything.

Bradley’s call in of Marvell Wynne is long overdue. For some reason with Wynne available for matches against Mexico and Barbados earlier this year, Drew Moor was called in ahead of him as the first choice right back. Also the call up of Mexican-American fullback Michael Orozco who hopefully can earn his first full US Cap is a welcome sign.

The omission of Kenny Cooper, and Freddy Adu the most creative player the US has are glaring. Arena most certainly would have called both players in to camp in a similar situation. Only time will tell if Bradley’s decisions are justified.




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