Saturday, July 30, 2011

Klinsmann's Raw Deal: Coaching in Shadow of a Legend Like Bradley

Jurgen Klinsmann faces this!
Jurgen Klinsmann ain't no Bob Bradley. He's younger, has slightly more hair and has won more World Cups albeit by the narrowest of margins, 1-nil.

Now Klinsmann is further burdened by having to coach Bradley's boys. Y'know, the team he molded into Gold Cup and Confederations Cup finalists. The boys he shaped that "won" their group at the 2010 World Cup and gave Ghana all it had before extra time was just too much for the boys in red white and blue. So much for Klinsmann to bear.

How will he top Bullet Bob's tenacity on the sidelines? How can he beat the way Bradley deftly moved players around the pitch like a Russian chess master? How, by all that's holy, will Klinsmann figure out how to shape the U.S. fullbacks or in heaven's name put the right forwards up top in big games. No one put players in the lineup who hadn't played serious game minutes in months like ol' Bob Bradley did. We're gonna miss that.

No what Klinsmann has to do is follow that legacy left by Bradley. He'll need to look confused, uninspired and dumbfounded at the worst possible moments. He'll need to shoehorn in Ricardo Clark whenever possible into the U.S. lineup. He'll need to put Gooch Onyewu front and center on defense even though big ol' Gooch hasn't played first-division soccer since high school. He'll need to play veterans for today, and screw tomorrow's team. He'll need to make every game a mentally anguishing adventure; y'know, fall behind 1-0, 2-0 in the first 30 minutes and then come roaring back to tie Guatemala, Honduras or, y'know, Algeria.

Following a legend is always the kiss of death for a coach or a pro athlete. Imagine being the focal point of the Chicago Bulls the year after Michael Jordan retired. Or following Bill Parcells or Bill Walsh after winning all those Super Bowls. Jurgen Klinsmann has been dealt a raw hand and I feel badly for him. Not only is he going to coach in Bob Bradley's shadow until at least the 2014 World Cup, but he has fewer than two weeks to get ready for his first live action, Aug. 10 against Mexico in Philadelphia. Poor bastard, his first game is a Gold Cup finals rematch against the dominant team in the region. Well, looking on the bright side, at least it's not in LA.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

New FIFA World Rankings: No Christmas in July

Ho? Ho-Ho
The new FIFA world rankings are out. It's like Christmas morning when is I see FUBAR's, er, FIFA's list of the top national men's teams in the world. I mean, FIFA is such a credible, honest organization that when it speaks, I listen.

Much like the NCAA here in the United States, bringing order to the world's top national sides provides great value for hardcore and casual football fans alike. For example, who knew Spain would be No. 1? I mean, really, what have they done for us lately, aside from winning Euro, the World Cup and curbstomping the United States 4-0? Sure there was that messy 4-0 friendly loss to Portugal, but friendlies don't count -- or do they?

Apparently, the logic and mathematics behind these rankings are more convoluted than the Bowl Championship Series rankings in college football. Details, details -- back to the rankings.

No. 2 is the Netherlands, so we're holding fast to the most recent World Cup finish. Fair enough since the Orange have backed that up with six straight wins in Euro qualifying. Let's say it now: Spain-Holland in the Euro 2012 final? OK.

Three through five is where it starts to get interesting. Here we have Germany, Brazil and Uruguay. Hmm. Seems Brazil actually climbed one spot, despite nose-diving out of Copa America, its continental championship, that was won by, yes, Uruguay. Granted, Uruguay hopped up 13 spots from last month's rankings. I guess 14 is out of the question according to FIFA's brand of "new math."

Let's let the frivolity continue with six through 10: England, Portugal, Italy, Croatia, Argentina. I dare anyone outside of Buenos Aries to argue with a straight face that Argentina is a top 10 team right now. Go ahead, I'll wait. They can't pick a decent manager, much less a solid starting 11 that defends and scores. Wow. And England? At No. 6? This is the same England that has 11 points from five Euro qualifiers in a monster group with Montenegro and Wales still hanging around? Hmm. Croatia too? These guys with the C' thing at the end of their names cannot shake Israel in their group, never mind catch Greece at the top. Italy and Portugal probably should be higher on this list on reputation alone. That seems to be the criteria for Brazil at the moment.

Hop-skip-and-jumping around: Mexico is at 20, behind Montenegro, Japan and Ivory Coast. I need an explainer there. Chile (11), Peru (25) and Paraguay (26) had big leaps off Copa America, yet still languish behind Norway and Australia among others.

The point is that there is no point for these rankings. They're non-starters as far as discussion starters go. They subjective in some spots, objective in many others. The math behind it is incomprehensible, and worse yet, these things are actually used to seed nations in major tournaments.

Put a face behind these things. Make it a plain-English discussion and rank these teams according to what your eyes tell you, not what is subjectively entered into a computer application's form field. And if you're not willing to do that FIFA, then for God's sake stop using them for anything that matters. Like the rest of your corrupt organization, they're a bad running joke.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Starting Eleven European, World Soccer Blog Random Thoughts:

Mr. Tevez married up
Here's another edition of Random Thoughts; no I don't have anything else to write about. Deal with it.

  • Um Carlos Tevez, please go away. Go play in Brazil. Go play in Italy. Go play in Argentina. Go play with yourself. You've become tiresome and a punchline. Your wife and kids don't like England, then make a call for chrissakes. Tell them to stay put in Argentina and cash the direct-deposits, or suck it up and move to Europe. Otherwise, I'm pretty much done with your whining. Play ball, score goals, make money and shut up. KTHXBYE.
  • And as for you Neymar. Call me when you've done something. Is there a bigger bust in the making than this Brazilian wonder boy? the kid might have all the skills necessary to be Brazil's next No. 10, but his runaway ego and immaturity will retard all progress until he gets his requisite reality check. Get in line next to Mr. Tevez and shut up.
  • How hilarious is Mario Balotelli's attempted backheel goal this weekend against the LA Galaxy. Talk about arrogance. Talk about stupidity. Talk about blatant disregard for your opponent and the people in the stands who paid good money to see your team play. And don't tell me he's just 20 and can be forgiven. No way. Roberto Mancini is my new hero for pulling this Rhodes Scholar seconds after this example of the worst kind of grandstanding. Sit down next to Tevez and Neymar and shut up; don't give Mancini lip either. You were wrong. Next.
  • Hope Solo is apparently going to win my informal poll--top right--about the Women's World Cup's biggest star. I like Hope. I think Hope is America's best female keeper. But Abby Wambach, who is currently second in the poll, is the best player on that team and delivered when it mattered most. That's what stars do. Abby made her PKs. Abby scored every time the U.S. needed a goal. That's a leader. That's a legend. Hope has some catching up to do.
  • Selfish time: Sporting Clube de Portugal has thrown in the towel and abandoned its philosophy of going with home-grown, young talent and has gone out and signed a truckload of foreign players to play for new coach Domingos Pacienca. They've scored a bunch of goals against a bunch of bad teams. They had their way with Juventus Saturday in Toronto. They're a threat for second in Portugal. What? Wait? I said this last year too after they blasted their way through the preseason and won that cockamamie tournament here in the U.S. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. Check in with me around Christmas time on just exactly who is the fool.
  • I love the summer friendly season here in the U.S.; look at who's on tour right now in the continental 48 and Canada: Real Madrid; Manchester United; Manchester City; Juventus; Sporting; Clube America; CD Guadalajara; and Barcelona. Best part is that these teams are banging out stadiums across the country; big stadiums too. More than 50,000 for Revs-United; Philly-Real Madrid drew huge numbers as did Galaxy-Madrid. Don't tell me there isn't a hardcore soccer audience in America. We'll come for a good product. Listening MLS? Get off the franchise model; build your clubs stadiums; get on the world calendar; get rid of playoffs; integrate all your smaller leagues and create relegation and promotion. Do it.
  • In breaking news: FIFA is still corrupt. ...I personally cannot wait for next summer's Euro. It's better than the World Cup, just sayin ... How much is ESPN going to hype Saturday's ManU-Barca friendly as a Champions League rematch, and how much are real football fans going to snicker ...  That said, if I had a ticket, I wouldn't toss it out of bed ...  The U17 World Cup was pretty awesome; I just may have to watch some of the U20 World Cup coming up ... Kinda pissed Copa America wasn't available on my cable network ...  Let's take a run at this: Champions of European leagues for 2011-2012: England - ManU; Spain - Barcelona; Portugal - Porto; Germany - Leverkusen; Italy - Milan. Damn that looks familiar.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Five Questions (and Answers) About the Upcoming Football Season in Europe

Domestic football will again be here before we all know it. Thrust in the middle of the Silly Season, it behooves me to add to the silliness and put out some fun queries to ponder and pontificate upon.

Question: Can Barcelona's empire be toppled?
Answer: Depends. Do Messi, Xavi and Iniesta stay healthy? If yes, then probably no. Simplistic answer I understand, but it's pretty clear that the only team that can stop Barcelona is Barcelona. My man-crush on Jose Mourinho is no secret if you read my stuff at all, but I'm ready to admit that not even the Special One has the antidote for Guardiola's guard. Who will ever forget the four matches in four weeks epic finish to the 2010-2011 season between Barcelona and Real Madrid. Madrid managed the Copa del Rey, but that felt gift-wrapped. I concede that if Barca had wanted the Copa, it would have been there for the taking. Instead, it went for La Liga and the Champions League and cleaned up on both. I expect more of the same, Fabio Coentrao notwithstanding.

Question: Will King Kenny Dalglish elevate Liverpool back to the top four in England? 
Answer: Liverpool finished sixth, 10 points shy of the Champions League and four points in arrears of the Europa League. Given their start and abysmal record away from Anfield, it's sensational the Reds got as close to the top as they did. Dalglish deserves a big nod. He deserved the full-time job and now that he has it, I want to see him mold newcomers Charlie Adams and Stewart Downing and whether he can find the same magic as he did with Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez. I expect Liverpool is good for third in England, maybe second given Chelsea's shaky standing.

Question: Is Andre Villas-Boas over his head at Chelsea?
Answer: He better not be. Like it or not, fairly or not, he's bringing a lot of baggage with him from FC Porto. All that silverware gets pretty heavy; I mean how do you top an unbeaten league season, domestic cup win and Europa League title? Roman Abromovich says win me the Champions League; the Premier League too if you can squeeze it in. Well Portugal's top division ain't England. He won't have the best team in the land, and he certainly won't be playing MLS-caliber teams 11 out of every 15 games as he was in Portugal. I'm not saying he'll be out by Christmas, but I am saying the expectations will weigh on him and it may be a relatively short, and fruitless stay at Stamford Bridge.

Question: Can the Champions League be saved?
Answer: Is it in trouble? I know, you're not supposed to answer questions with questions, but I just did. Sue me. BTW, the answer in my opinion is yes. No one cares until the knockout round; the group stage is a boring money grab; and honest football fans like the competitiveness of the Europa League much better. The question, however, was "Can it be saved?" And the answer is yes, if UEFA is willing to be less greedy, revert it back to a knockout-only format like it was back in the day and watch the fun. But then again, we all know the answer to that question. Man, that's a lot of questions.

Question: Will there be a River Plate-style relegation in Europe this year?
Answer: No. But how much fun would it be? I cannot fathom Inter, Liverpool, Real Madrid, Paris St. Germain, Olympiakos or Benfica fighting for its first-division life with two weeks to play. And I'm sure the folks in Buenos Aires were saying the same thing about their beloved River Plate. How much fun would it be?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

How Special is Andre Villas-Boas?
Chelsea FC Soon to Find Out

Chelsea Supporters: Which doesn't belong and why?
It's time to address new Chelsea boss Andre Villas-Boas.

A lot has been written about this 33-year-old and none of it is fair to the man--most of all his hiring at Chelsea. You can't blame him for jumping at the opportunity, but this just smacks of a guy being a little impatient and suffering from a little bit of an over-inflated ego. It also smacks of a desperate owner desperate to once again catch lightning in a bottle as he did with Jose Mourinho.

Boy it didn't take long for another instance of the seemingly never-ending comparison between Villas-Boas and the Special One. You can't help put the two in the same sentence, PB&J style. They just go together. Not only was AVB JM's assistant at Porto, Chelsea and Inter, but he even freaking lived near Bobby Robson, Mourinho's mentor when Robson was Sporting manager in the early '90s. It's like Mourinho ordered a Clone from that freaky planet in Attack of the Clones.

Villas-Boas has been hot on Mourinho's trail for almost 20 years, mirroring nearly ever accomplishment only in record time. His resume is littered with "Youngest to win this" and "Youngest to win that" superseding Mourinho's records on many of those accounts. It seems wherever Mourinho drops a cracker, Villas-Boas is there to sniff it out, pick it up and do something better with it.

So the comparisons are there, even if they're unfair to ol' AVB. Rough thing for him is that along with those comparisons come expectations. Mourinho won six trophies in four seasons at Chelsea, including running titles in 05 and 06, this coming on the heels of six with Porto in two seasons, including a Champions League and UEFA Cup title. That's hard to do even on the XBox playing FIFA 11 in Amateur Mode.

The expectations for Villas-Boas are going to be excrutiatingly demanding. Chelsea hasn't won the Premier League in ages it seems, and since the '08 Champions League final loss, it hasn't been back to that promised land since. In the meantime, have we mentioned Mourinho won the Champions League in 2010? Yikes, this is worse than Pete Carroll following Bill Parcells with the Patriots back in '98. Poor Pete had no chance, and he wasn't even close to a Tuna Clone.

It's no secret Roman Abromovich covets the Champions League trophy more than a new missile for his yacht. He's latching on to Villas-Boas and hoping the kid can deliver. Not sure why, however. Villas-Boas is no slouch and there has to be something good there, but let's look at exactly what he's done:
  • He dominated the Portuguese league with a team that had won six of the previous eight championships;
  • He dominated largely with players who were already on the team; players such as Falcao and Hulk were signed before his reign; (To his credit he won handily after losing Raul Meireles and Bruno Alves, and brought in Joao Moutinho.)
  • Arguably, the Portuguese Liga is at its weakest with a massive gap not only between the first two (Porto won the title by 21 points) but between the top five where 41 points separated first from fifth. 
  • He has coached two top-tier club teams--Academica Coimbra (who?) and Porto;
  • He has not lost a Portuguese club match since the 09-10 season. 
  • Porto set five top division records under his watch last season
Impressive on many fronts; but very misleading on others. I don't know what to expect from Chelsea this season, but it's going to be agonizing to watch at times I fear. What if Chelsea doesn't have at least 15 points from its first seven matches? What if it draws, say Porto, in the Champions League and loses its opener at the Dragao? And what if Abromovich's impulsive nature got the best of him--again?

I think AVB jumped the gun too soon, though I can hardly blame him for taking the job and the money at Stamford Bridge. Though there's no direct connection between Mourinho and AVB at the moment, there's always going to be a lasting link between the two. And if Mourinho can somehow figure out how to beat Barcelona this year, and Chelsea can't get it done in England or Europe this season, the damage to AVB's career may be years in the fixing.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Hope Solo Reinforces
U.S. Claim to World's Best Keepers

Hot, er, Hope Solo
What is it with American soccer goalkeepers? Is it because we can catch and the rest of the world cannot? Is it because our kids grow up watching quarterbacks and catchers lead and naturally, the goalie becomes the central figure on the football pitch because they're an equally solitary figure? Or is it because they're batshit crazy sometimes?

Hope Solo is the new darling of American soccer and the debate is on whether yesterday's Women's World Cup loss cost her millions. Don't care. Don't care if Hope Solo is hot, if Hope Solo has a boyfriend or if Hope Solo is dating. I don't care about the Hope Solo controversy from the 2007 World Cup. Don't care if Hope Solo has a tattoo or if Hope Solo is gay. I don't care if Hope Solo is the next USA soccer symbol.

The marketing of Hope Solo doesn't interest me. Know why? Because I know and enjoy football and I can appreciate a good keeper. For the most part, Solo is a good keeper. She's sensational on penalty kicks--which is super important in a Women's World Cup, apparently. And she's solid in the run of play.

I ranted about the abysmal quality of goalkeeping in the Women's World Cup, and Solo was head and shoulders above the rest. Now, does that make her the tallest midget? Maybe so, but Solo is a keeper through and through. She's tall, agile as hell for her size and has booming kick. I think she was guilty of some real stinkers in this tournament, but she was the best keeper in the tournament, and temporarily makes her the best keeper in the world.

She'll be back in four years no doubt and like Tim Howard, she can complain of poor play in front of her leaving her on a figurative island far too many times. American's have far too few stakes to put in the ground when it comes to soccer. Goalkeeping is definitely one place where collectively we're the best. Hope Solo is reinforcing that notion. Now if we can start building out from the back and beefing up that defense, we might be able to close out one of these big tournaments with a trophy!

Let's Be Blunt: U.S. Women
Gagged on World Cup Final Stage

Abby Wambach
The United States women's national soccer team gagged away the World Cup final yesterday. They choked. They didn't have enough fitness or form to finish off Japan.

Japan was a worthy winner--and not because of an earthquake, tsunami or radiation disasters. They wanted it more at the end. They ran harder. They were more opportunistic. They finished better. Japan might be the sentimental winner here, but they won because they survived the onslaught that was the first 20 minutes of the game by the U.S. and yes cliche kids, it came back to haunt the women of Hope Solo.

I'll admit I don't know the tendencies of the U.S. players well enough to know whether Pia Sundhage made the right choices for penalty kicks, but plenty of folks are casting a critical eye at the Swede this morning. And I know Megan Rapinoe started because of Amy Rodriguez's general ineffectiveness throughout the tournament. Rapinoe has such a great motor and did make the now legendary pass to Abby Wambach in the quarterfinals. But let's be honest, Rapinoe was  not a starter in the tournament until yesterday and it's clear why. The longer that game went, the less effective, more reckless she got. Not sure if it's a fitness or concentration issue, but her foibles in the U.S. area in extra time almost cost the U.S. a goal. And how many times did the cameras catch a teammate (Wambach) give her a WTF look? Trust me, I love Rapinoe's game, but some players are starters and others should come off the bench with 25 to go and that's how they best excel. I'll put that one on Pia as well.

Now for some positives: There's no way you can't like the U.S. team. Solo might be a little off-putting personality wise, but you have to love her cocky confidence. She's an ace on penalties and aside from the first Japan PK, she guessed right on all of them. Her defense, much like the U.S. men's defense ironically, let her down. They were savagely bad on the game-tying goal late in extra time; let's say it again -- Japan was super opportunistic. There was a segment late in that game when I looked at my son and asked him whether Japan had taken a shot on goal aside from its first goal. I think the answer was no.

And as for Wambach, talk about balls. That woman is a leader, something the men's team could desperately use. In fact, this team's on-field solidarity is something the men should strive for. As impressive as Wambach is in the air and positioning, I loved her post-game more. Not sure if you caught the post-game as Japan was celebrating, Wambach took charge and went player to player, coach to coach with encouraging words and hugs. Sure it's risky to conjecture what she was telling her mates post-game on the field, but a pretty safe guess is that it was a little more than "Keep your heads up." I think there was a lot of encouragement for younger players and a lot of "Remember This Moment" type of dialogue. "Stay classy and remember how much this hurts, and never let this happen again."

Wambach was hurting late in the game and she was gassed. She had no legs late in extra time and I hope she has enough to play in four years. Who knows? The U.S. team would be better for it; hopefully her body cooperates.

Hopefully yesterday's loss isn't this team's legacy. The Olympics will be here in a flash and a handful of friendlies, tournaments and the 2015 World Cup. Every team has its moment, and losing yesterday for the time being is going to be this team's legacy. Hopefully they will have a day to redeem themselves because they're good for U.S. Soccer.

Monday, July 11, 2011

U.S. Women's World Cup Soccer Team: You've Won Me Over

Abby Wambach and Hope Solo
OK, you've won me over United States Women's National Team (#USWNT as we say in the Twitterverse). I got sucked into that game yesterday and I enjoyed it; why is this starting to sound like some kind of Alcoholics Anonymous initiation rite?

I admit I was late, forgive me, but I did catch up quickly after halftime. Heard about the own goal; and became enraged at the ref on the red card to Rachel Buehler. Hope Solo, you too, you got me. It was a damned shame that first Marta PK save was taken away from you. It was sheer confident, cocky brilliance on your part. Such moments don't deserve to be what-could-have-been footnotes.

Speaking of footnotes, that's what you're supposed to be Australian referee Jacqui Melksham. Instead, you were the epitome of everything that's wrong with officiating in top-level professional sports. You interjected your fat face into every crucial play; what was the deal with those on-field conferences during corner kicks and free throws--not enough TV time for ya? Not only did you screw up the penalty re-take, but on Marta's extra-time goal, you and your equally incompetent linesmen (lineswomen?) missed the offside two passes before Marta's chip over Solo. And oh-my-freaking-God Julie Foudy, let's clean up the slobber over Marta's goal. It just wasn't that good. She stuck her leg onto a pretty good pass and flicked high on a prayer toward the back post. Solo was a tad out of position, otherwise, yes another footnote.

Thankfully, however, this U.S. team doesn't quit. Tireless engine Megan Rapinoe made the pass of the tournament to Abby Wambach's forehead. Yes, with less than a minute to go before minute 120 ticks off the clock, chances are you're a little spent, but the Brazil keeper and fullback were abysmal covering Wambach and coming out for the Rapinoe cross. Regardless, Wambach finished it. She finished it because she was FINALLY where she should have been the whole match--standing inside the 6-yard box using her 6-foot frame to score goals. It was a brilliant and unexpected goal, and a precious sports moment. If you were watching, you were on your feet the nanosecond the ball went in. You had to yell, loudly. Your hands went up, your dog starts barking. It's a big-time moment.

And how about some kudos for good fundamentals and coaching. U.S. coach Pia Sundhage makes these girls take PKs during practices. This ain't no Allen Iverson practice. This is dedication. This is a bunch of pros who understand that these situations and happen and repetition and precision are the keys to penalties and the U.S. were just better. BTW, watch the Brianna Scurry ESPN interview on the 1999 World Cup win over China. Listen to her talk about the save she made to set up Brandi Chastain's sports-bra moment. She knew she'd stop it by the Chinese player's body language.

Methinks my new favorite crazy goalie Hope Solo (I'll never forget how SCREWED she got during the last World Cup) spotted some of that same body language issue in Brazil's Daiane, the same Daiane who'd scored the own goal in the second minute to put the U.S. up 1-0. Daiane did not want to be at the spot. She took a short run-up to the ball and hit it poorly. Solo guessed right and the rest was history when Ali Krieger hit a worm-burner for the game-winning penalty.

Now I'm not gonna go all squirrely and say this is the game that brings soccer to the forefront of the American sports landscape. Nope, not gonna happen. But it's a great moment, one of the best of the sports year so far. And if the U.S. wins the whole thing as it should now, there are more memories to come.

For now, I'll concede that I'm hooked. I'll be watching the semifinals against France on Wednesday and hopefully I'll be leaping off my couch again.