U.S.A Beats Australia, But What Did We Learn?

The United States National Team defeated their Australian counterparts 3-to-1 this morning, with Edson Buddle stealing the headlines on the back of his two-goal performance.

The game, though a nice victory, was a bit of a bland appetizer before next week’s main course of the a first-round matchup against England.   A small stadium, poor field and half-throttle play for stretches of the game made it hard to get over excited about today’s victory.

And while I could use my previously favored method of looking at the glass as being either half full or half empty over a number of areas, with a week before the World Cup – where the glass is either over-flowing or shattered – I will instead just poke at a few interesting themes.

  • I’m having trouble deciding what’s more frightening… Oguchi Onyewu starting against England on June 12th or him not starting against England on June 12th.  If he starts, Bob Bradley has more faith in talent and experience than recent competitive game-time or proven recent form.  If Gooch doesn’t start, Jay DeMerit and Clarence Goodson need to play a whole bunch better against England.
  • Do we fall out of love that easily?   I’ve seen some of the post-match analysis from the “usual suspects” and the name that seems missing?  José Francisco Torres.   I’ve not been very impressed by the Michael Bradley and Ricardo Clark combination’s ability to close things down,  possess the ball in the midfield or add the creative element so missing from most of our games.  Torres was a pint-sized revelation against Turkey, but didn’t get a sniff of the field today.   I haven’t seen any reports regarding Ricardo Clark’s apparent injury, and I hope he’s fine, but an injury there might force Coach Bradley’s hand a new direction.   (However, it’s not clear that it would tilt him toward Torres over Maurice Edu…)
  • Luckily, US fans can move from man-crush to man-crush fairly easily.   With our Torres love being put on the back burner since he didn’t play today, it’s now Edson Buddle, 24×7.  Hey, two goals will do that.  I’m happy to join the bandwagon and am all for playing forwards who are confident and in a hot-streak.  Oddly the USA appears to have at least two of them, but US Soccer golden-boy Jozy Altidore isn’t one of them.  Time will tell how bad Jozy’s sprained ankle really is, but at this point, I’m more worried about the center of the formation – both in midfield and defense – than who is up front. 
  • Clint Dempsey appears to have a chip on his shoulder.  This is good – as long as he doesn’t get pulled into some silly fouls.   I sure hope Landon Donovan wakes up with a similar chip… just so we don’t leave anything to chance.  Can we start a rumor that David Beckham was up in the stands calling him Landycakes? 
  • Every team needs a player who frustrates them by adding some ingredients the team really needs (like speed) while frequently screwing up the easy (looking) things.   For the USA, this is Robbie Findley.

Today’s win against Australia was a positive step forward.   It was imperfect.  It showed areas of weakness. But it was a win.

England, however, is more than a little better than Australia. Luckily, the USA is more than a little better than it played today.

Have a good week boys, the real game is next.

Unfiltered Thinking: Beckham, Donovan, MLS Cup 2009

When writing about a game that involves a team I support I like to take the approach of looking at the cup as being both half full or half empty. As a (mostly) non-partisan observer for MLS Cup I didn’t want to pollute this blog with such thinking.

(I am, however, surprised that I haven’t yet seen an overtime/penalty related headline somewhere about how “The Cup Runneth Over”… )

Instead, here are some largely unfiltered thoughts on yesterday’s MLS Cup.

It was a Cup Final – Last night’s game was not filled with particularly pretty soccer nor as many goal-mouth chances as I’d like to see, but this is what Cup finals are often like.   What was noticeable: players cared.   Players played sick.  Players tried to play hurt.  Fans watched.  (Actually I don’t know that anybody watched, but I can hope.)

Counter ‘this’ – I was lightly supporting RSL over LA last night, mostly because I like the approach Jason Kreis takes (“He’s making an offensive sub, so early, what about penalties?  Go Jason!”) and as a sentimental vote for ex-Rev Andy Williams who I always liked and whose personal/family story was so compelling this year.   What solidified my support for RSL was this . . . they held the ball, the tried to play on the ground, the wanted to play soccer.   LA never seemed quite capable of that despite Donovan and Beckham’s presence – and appeared to be content to try to win by striking on the quick counter.   While possibly effective, it is not my favorite style.

Penalties – Most people start their rant with “what a terrible way to end a game”… fine.  What’s the realistic alternative?   The players were dead tired and the soccer was beginning to suffer greatly.   Penalties are certainly dramatic, require some level of skill and provide a chance to feed the US fixation on goalkeepers (more on that below.)  I don’t know a better, reasonable, solution.

Beckham – Frankly, I am glad his team lost.  This is not because I’m anti-Beckham, in fact, I think MLS is better with him in it than without him.    However, what I like is that this loss helps the MLS marketing department write the story line around Beckham’s “unfinished business” to create some drama after his Milan loan draws to a close.   (Too bad he doesn’t have a deep evil voice – quite the opposite in fact – or he could have stormed off with an Arnold-esque “I’ll be back” snarl.)

Landon – The contrast of the first goal’s pin-point cross from the wing to his missed penalty and absentee performance post the 45 minute mark pretty much sums up the confusion MLS and US fans have about Landon Donovan.  It will certainly add fuel to the ‘Landycakes’ fire anyway.   Is he a World Class player whose absence from the US National Team shows us as bland and boring?  Is he a player how only really shows well in less-meaningful games and fades away when it matters most?     Like with my view on Becks, part of me was happy that Landon’s team lost.  I like the idea of a ticked-off Landon with something to prove taking the field in South Africa for the USA.  What I worry about is the reverse – some odd crisis of confidence that affects his decision making about his play and his next steps for his club future.

M.V.P. – I like Nick Rimando and both last night and the Chicago game show that he seems good at stopping penalties.  But I must admit it really bothers me when a goalkeeper – any goalkeeper – getts an MVP award.   I much prefer a field player gets it, and this game I’d say Kyle Beckerman was probably worthy.   I doubt most “soccer experts” would really argue this anti-goalkeeper stance, but there’s a continual need to pretend a US soccer fan couldn’t notice a good performance that didn’t directly result in one or more goals.

*Note: Beckerman’s hair may have removed him from eligibility for the MVP award.  Only the other Beck(ham) can be a super-star/sex symbol while having absolutely ridiculous hair.  And Beckham clearly wasn’t going to win anything last night . . .

Field Turf – I have mixed emotions on this.  The purist in me says a final should never be on turf.   Well, actually, the purist in me says a professional game should never be on turf.  (I may have turned off the TV if there were football lines, so at least that was addressed.)   However, there is a piece of me that also wants to say this.  SHUT UP.   “That injury only would happen on turf.” Maybe.  “You can see the affect of the turf on that play.”  Maybe.   Both teams played on the same pitch.  Both knew what type of surface they’d be on.   Both had some amount of time to practice.   Once the game starts, please just LET IT GO.   Alternatively we’d be hearing about the injury that only happened because of the divot in the grass or the pass that didn’t get completed due to the mud puddle.   PLAY THE GAME.   Let’s rid the game of turf if possible (thanks Toronto!) but let’s deal with it until that day.

So that wraps up MLS 2009… time to start watching the Collective Bargaining Agreement hyperbole that we will all be bombarded with and seeing if we can cut through the malarkey that gets spewed from both sides.

Dempsey: Exceptional American, American Exception.

Kudos are clearly warranted for Clint Dempsey as he hits his second goal in as many weeks for Fulham FC.  While his first professional coach and likely mentor, ex-Liverpool great Steve Nicol, might not immediately love that Clint helped Fulham take down Liverpool, it was clearly a significant achievement following a goal the prior week against wanna-be powerhouse Manchester City.

As a Revs fan, I was on the Dempsey bandwagon early.  He brought swagger, skill, attitude and the honest work-rate of a rookie who was both earning his keep while still making waves.   That same set of values transferred to the US National team as well, and has held down a steady starting role.

All is not perfect, in fact, I’ve been critical of Clint’s recent US National Team performances, where he seemed almost disinterested with his midfield role and only came alive when moved to forward.   Funny thing though, even in games where that criticism is leveled on him, he often scores important goals.  In some ways he’s turned into the USA’s Thierry Henry, a player who we always expect to do more than what is reasonable for our national side.  (Ask a Frenchman if they think Henry is as good for France as he was for Arsenal or even is for Barcelona.)

More troubling for the US isn’t the ascendency of Clint into a stand-out professional but the fact that there are too few of his ilk. Now, to be fair, there are MANY proven US professionals making a difference both for MLS clubs and abroad.  But, I’ll submit there what is lacking is any true “skill player” right now that is making an impact on the international scene.

There are many good summaries of US Players and their progress abroad and Steven Goff does an easy to digest version for the Washington Post here.   Skim that list for a second, and it’s hard to suggest US players aren’t playing solid roles for their professional teams in international leagues.

Could we have a more impressive list of clubs?  Sure.

Could more of the players be in “better” leagues?  Yup.

But that’s not my primary concern right now.   My primary concern is that of that long list of players, most of those seeing solid time are “workers” not “skill players.”

What’s my definition of a “skill player?”  I cannot suggest it’s nailed down, in fact it’s a bit like pornography, I know it when I see it.    When Dempsey does a feint, a back heel or whatever slick trick he has lined up, he brings that special something that is worth notice.  He brings the kind of game that makes a kid go to the backyard and try to do the same thing – something we have far too little of.   (Yes, as a US fan, I prefer he does these things well past the midway line and not leave us exposed – which has happened a number of times – but he’s young and still improving.)

While hard to define, I can offer some “skill player” boundaries though.

One easy place to start? Goalkeepers are clearly not in the list, they are their own animals.

Of the defenders in Goff’s list… maybe Michael Parkhurst counts, at least he’s not a destroyer in the classic sense – but he is no Maradona.  (But as a self-revealed Revs fan, I am a bit biased.)   Edgar Castillo is on the wait and see list.   And let’s be honest, even skillful defenders are not going to represent the crème de la crème of skill for the majority of the playing world.

Let’s skip to the forwards… only two are listed as having seen time this weekend. Jozy Altidore and Kenny Cooper.   Both have skills, but neither are magicians.   Jozy only saw 30 minutes for a bad Premiership club (though he’s had a number of unrelated club issues) and Kenny only saw 15 minutes in the second division of Germany.   Not setting the world on fire, either of them.

Freddy Adu is in that list – though he’s just as easily deployed as a midfielder or forward.  A “skill player” if there ever was one – and one I really hope finds success.  But, put plainly, he has not found success, consistency or playing time in any recent league or team.  A real let down for US fans that want skillful creative soccer from our team.

(I’m saddened not to mention Charlie Davies, due to his very frightening and fatal – for others – car accident.   I wish him a speedy recovery and acknowledge he was making a mark in Sochaux.  He brings the attitude and workrate  that Dempsey shows.  However, in fairness, he was a speed-demon with a nose for goal, not a “skill player” in the sense I am searching for here.   As many are, I am hopeful to see him back on the field to make that impact his recent run of form had promised.)

In the midfield – where for me the skill and magic lives – there are hopes outside of Dempsey.   But nothing that makes the world stop and take notice.  I like Michael Bradley, but he doesn’t fit my vague “skill player” definition, sorry.   Feilhaber is undeniably skilled – but Aarhus isn’t a club anyone I know has as a poster on their wall – so international impact is not something we cam claim here.   Torres has the skills, at least, I think (time will tell.)  But as much as respect as I have for the Mexican league (I do) there is still a gulf between it and the top European leagues.

Then there is the odd case of Landon Donovan.   Who knows what to say? He is clearly an impact midfielder with skill – perhaps the most of any US player.  He makes an impact in MLS.   How do we rate that?   I am hardly a Euro-Snob and generally have no problem with our best players playing at home.   But I’m the first to admit, scoring against Chivas USA isn’t the same as scoring against Liverpool, let alone Chivas Guadalajara.   (If you doubt this, please watch this weekend’s playoff “LA Derby” good fun, hilarious defending.)

That leaves Clint.   I’m happy we have an exceptional American to point to right now.

I’m sad he’s the American exception.

US Men v. Trinidad and Tobago: The glass is half…

It’s hard to feel bad about winning three points on the road in CONCACAF, since that seems to be a rarity nowadays.   Yet, it’s hard to feel totally good about this result either.

It is another perfect example of the half-full, half-empty conundrum.

I said after the El Salvador game that this match would tell us a lot about the team… and it did… sadly what it told us was pretty hard to interpret, as if spoken in some dialect I’ll never quite decipher.  Here’s what I did take away. . .

Glass Half Full View

  • USA won a critical three points, and while not a lock for the next round, it just got a lot more likely (big thanks to El Salvador for squeaking past Costa Rica.)
  • No yellow cards issued to the USA… considering our penchant for red-cards in recent tournaments, that’s quite an improvement.
  • Landon Donovan.   No offense to Carlos, but how is Landon not the captain of this team?
  • Howard made some big saves, Spector is coming into his own, and Holden has serious potential.
  • Relative to what was going on around him… I think the Bornstein haters should take a deep breath and pick on a few others for a while.  I’m certainly not his biggest cheerleader, and maybe Castillo or someone else might not usurp him, but he’s far from our only question mark.
  • A different ref, a different day, a different view… and that sliding hand-ball off Charlie D’s centering pass right at the start makes this a whole different game.
  • Apparently Bob Bradley can give a decent half-time talk.

Glass Half Empty View

  • The US midfield at times appeared like they had just met.  Passes too hard, passes to soft, passes to nobody in particular, passes directly to T&T… we tried it all.    Just a thought… how might Torres, Feilhaber and even Holden done in those key midfield roles at the start?
  • Hard for me to figure out Gooch… his towering headers in the second half will have some rate him highly, buty I thought he started slow and was indecisive at first (rusty, no doubt) and those towering headers (admittedly some important stops mixed in) typically went right back to T&T.    I wonder if A.C. Milan is thinking “loan candidate” yet…
  • If not for that cross-bar, what would this story line have been?
  • Dear Coach Bradley… why can’t you give your half-time pep talk 45 minutes or so earlier?
  • Clint Dempsey.  I’m a long time Dempsey fan and think he could be a real difference maker.    However, does someone know if the rest of the US team have all done something to annoy him?  He just seems like he’d rather be somewhere else for long stretches of recent games.   That’s not the Clint I remember…
  • Jump suit.   Could some US Supporters group chip in to by Bob B a sport coat?  Maybe a tie?  I realize there is no standard for coach attire, but he looks like he was running late from a workout and just said, “screw it, I’ll go the game like this.”  If he cannot get the team’s on-field play to respect the “beautiful game”… maybe his attire could at least?

While I know that a bad three points tonight was better than a well played tie or loss in our quest to be in South Africa next year, I just cannot get too excited about this one.

I found Bob Bradley’s quote that started “As the game wore on, our fitness was key . . . “ a stark reminder of how we still win – conditioning, running, fighting.    Or, positively spun, we “earn” our victories through “hard work.”

Effort, heart, determination and “finding a way to win” are all commendable traits that we can see in this team.    I just wish it came with a larger dose of smart, poised, cohesive, and yes, “attractive” soccer.

That would be something to get excited about.

Selling Soccer and Stalled Italian Journeys

Not so fast Ricardo . . .

It seems I may have jumped the gun on Ricardo Clark’s impending transfer to Livorno.   No Short Corners is reporting that he has the offer but it isn’t a done deal.   If you haven’t my read my “Forza America” yet, please do so with this liberal dditions of “ifs” . . .

Supporter’s Club (Brought To You By Soccer Soap Box)

OK, I’m not about to be sponsoring any supporter’s clubs . . . but the idea promoted here that companies could be bypassing sports sponsorships to instead directly align to/sponsor major fan groups is very interesting.    Those groups are influential and cut out the middle-men when wanting to directly reach your end customers.   There are significant risks of course, since such fan groups will undoubtedly be interested in the funding and perks, but will have little tolerance of the rules that might be tied to them.  Of course, no sport seems to have more vocal and organized fan groups than soccer.  The article refers to one of the primary US National Team supporter groups the “American Outlaws” and their ever growing presence on the US Soccer scene.

Selling (MLS) Stuff

Sponsoring fan groups is all well and good . . . but I doubt the official soccer merchandising will ever slow.   This New York Times blog (thanks to the very interesting FootieBusiness) talks about merchandising efforts by the league, including the mini-takeover of the “World’s Largest Toy Store” in NYC.   A few notes of interest . . . the top three teams in terms of sponsorship Seattle Sounders, Los Angeles Galaxy, Toronto F.C. – Seattle and Toronto off of their amazing local fan support, and L.A. clearly because of Beckham.    The Red Bulls are 6th in merchandising, but have generally been terrible on the field . . . a statement to the potential that remains out of reach in that market.

While MLS makes it clear that they have trouble accurately tracking player-specific merchandise, it comes as no surprise that David Beckham, Cuauhtémoc Blanco, Landon Donovan, Freddie Ljungberg, and Juan Pablo Angel would lead the way.   That most of them are “Designated Players” is not a coincidence . . . and makes the ideas recently posted over at the Daily Soccer Fix to increase the rule’s use all the more critical.