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BRUCE 2.0

Bruce Arena was named coach of the U.S. National Team, replacing Juergen Klinsmann, who was fired a day earlier.

It will be Arena’s second stint as U.S. coach.  From 1998 to 2006 he compiled a 71-30-29 record, the most successful stretch in American history. A two-time winner of the CONCACAF Gold Cup (2002, 2005), he guided the Americans to an historic quarterfinal finish at the 2002 World Cup, beating Portugal in their opening match before advancing out of the group and earning a 2-0 victory over Mexico in the Round of 16.  The run ended with a heartbreaking 1-0 loss to eventual finalist Germany in the last eight.

“When we considered the possible candidates to take over the Men’s National Team at this time, Bruce was at the top of the list,” said USSF President Sunil Gulati of Arena, who also led the U.S. to a three-and-out finish at the 2006 World Cup. “His experience at the international level, understanding of the requirements needed to lead a team through World Cup qualifying, and proven ability to build a successful team were all aspects we felt were vital for the next coach. We all know Bruce will be fully committed to preparing the players for the next eight qualifying games and earning a berth to an eighth straight FIFA World Cup in Russia.”

Since his first tour as U.S. boss, Arena served as general manager and coach of the Los Angeles Galaxy from 2008 through this past season, winning Major League Soccer titles in 2011, 2012 and 2014.  He rose to prominence by winning five NCAA championships as coach of the University of Virginia, then led DC United to the first two MLS titles, in 1996 and ’97, as well as the ’96 U.S. Open Cup.  He also helped United become the first-ever U.S. team to lift the CONCACAF Champions Cup and the now-defunct Interamerican Cup, winning each in 1998.

“Any time you get the opportunity to coach the national team, it’s an honor,” said Arena. “I’m looking forward to working with a strong group of players that understand the challenge in front of them after the first two games of the Hex. Working as a team, I’m confident that we’ll take the right steps forward to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.”

The U.S. in early November opened the final round of CONCACAF qualifying for the 2018 World Cup with losses to Mexico, 2-1, at home, and at Costa Rica, 4-0.  The Mexico defeat was the first home loss in a World Cup qualifier in 15 years.  Those results left the Americans in last place, four points off the pace for the last direct qualifying berth with eight games remaining on the schedule.  [November 22]

Comment I:  The timing for the change was obvious for more than one reason.

The next U.S. qualifiers, against Honduras in Salt Lake City and Panama in Panama City, aren’t until March 24 and March 28, respectively.  Roughly four months.  Preceded by a low-key camp in January that traditionally includes a couple of friendlies where hopefuls from MLS and youngsters get a look.  There isn’t as big a window for the rest of the Hexagonal.  Plenty of time for Klinsmann’s replacement to pull together a staff and execute a smooth transition.  It’s the American way.  The USSF doesn’t fire its coaches on airport tarmacs after a big loss.

Then there was Arena himself.  On a personal level, he was the obvious choice, like him or not.  Arena is not the coach he was a decade ago.  He’s now 65, and a doting grandfather.  He signed a two-year contract with the USSF, and this obviously is his final hurrah.  He has an ego, and he’d like to go out with a signature accomplishment, like a successful World Cup run, which wasn’t going to happen if he stayed in Los Angeles.  What’s one more MLS Cup to Arena at this point?

Comment II:  Juergen Klinsmann made the fatal mistake of over-promising.

He was hired to replace Bob Bradley in 2011 on the promise that he would not only lead the U.S. to victory but remake American soccer culture from the top down.  Gulati doubled down on that promise in 2013, on the heels of a U.S.-record 12-game winning streak and Gold Cup title, by extending Klinsmann’s contract (a reported $3.2 million a year, through 2018) and crowning him men’s technical director to boot, placing the fates of the Olympic and national youth teams in his hands.

But the ups and downs of the Klinsmann era turned mostly to downs by 2015.  That year the national team failed to finish in the top three in the Gold Cup for the first time since 2000, part of a slide in which the Americans lost four consecutive games on U.S. soil for the first time in a half-century.   Meanwhile, on his watch as technical director, the U.S. failed to qualify for consecutive Olympic tournaments, something that hadn’t happened since Montreal ’76-Moscow ’80.  As for the U.S. youth teams, the kids haven’t been alright.  The U.S. under-20 team is winless in its last eight games against European nations by a combined score of 27-7, including a humiliating 8-1 pounding by Germany.  The U.S. went winless at the 2015 Under-17 World Cup, four years after failing to qualify for the first time ever.  Remember how the U-17s reached the semifinals of the 1999 world championship in New Zealand and teens Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley were named the tournament’s top two players?

Klinsmann, 52, departs having compiled a fine 55-27-16 record.  There have been two World Cups, including one in which his team won a so-called “Group of Death,” in 2014.  There was the fourth-place finish at last summer’s Copa America Centenario.  And startling friendly victories:  1-0 at Italy in 2012; 4-3 at home over Germany in 2013; 4-3 at Holland and 2-1 at Germany in 2015.  But he also exits with the cupboard bare:  the Klinsmann national team pool is overly reliant on German players with U.S. passports and his youth teams–based on results–are a shambles.  Little was built, and the fallout is the minor chaos that’s now Arena’s problem.

Comment III:  So who’s to blame?  Sunil Gulati.

He was one of the driving forces behind the ill-fated Project 2010, a laughably optimistic $50 million development surge launched by the USSF that was supposed to make America a legitimate contender for a World Cup title.  The title of the 1998 report that introduced the project, “Winning the World Cup by 2010:  Soccer’s Equivalent to the Apollo XI Moon Landing,” is best forgotten.

Gulati’s first major decision as federation president, in the weeks after the 2006 World Cup, was to allow Arena’s contract to expire, saying the team needed to go in a “fresh direction.”  He hired Arena’s assistant, Bradley, as new national team coach, then found him wanting in 2011 and hired Klinsmann, ultimately giving the German, as noted above, an extension and adding technical director to his titles.  Now it’s Arena, back to direct the U.S. in a presumably fresh direction.

As he completes the final two years of his third four-year term as U.S. Soccer supremo, Gulati’s legacy, and that of USSF Chief Executive Dan Flynn, will be one of continued success on the part of the U.S. women and utter mediocrity–even retreat–by the U.S. men at all levels.

Comment IV:  Had Klinsmann lost his team?

One can only wonder.  But there’s Klinsmann’s track record of rarely owning up to a mistake, of throwing players under the bus.  The latest victim was young Hertha Berlin center back John Brooks who, as Klinsmann pointed out, lost his mark, Rafael Marquez, on Marquez’s late winner off a corner kick in the 2-1 loss to Mexico.  Four nights later down in San Jose, a demoralized Brooks turned in a disastrous performance against Costa Rica.  This same 23-year-old came close to earning a near-perfect player rating in the USA’s 1-0 victory over Paraguay at last summer’s Copa America Centenario.

You don’t have to be embedded in the U.S. dressing room to draw the conclusion that Klinsmann, with his insistence on getting his players out of their “comfort zone,” his thinly veiled disdain for MLS players, his willingness to take chances on any and all European-based players, his infamous dropping of longtime U.S. captain Donovan on the eve of Brasil ’14 . . . was not a players’ coach.  And players’ coaches tend to have some support among the people in uniform when they get into trouble.  There was barely a peep from those wearing U.S. uniforms after Gulati dropped the hammer.

Comment V:    Is Arena Mr. Fix-it?

His first stab at professional coaching, with DC United in 1996, was, initially, a disaster.  A month into Major League Soccer’s first season, the team representing the nation’s capital was a laughingstock.  Arena quickly fired several players and United went on to win the league championship.  A year later, it won another.

Can Arena fix this with eight CONCACAF qualifiers remaining?  Odds remain good that the U.S. will qualify for the 2018 World Cup regardless of who is coach.  The top three finishers earn berths in Russia, and the fourth-place team remains alive through a home-and-home playoff with Asia’s fifth-place finisher.

But at this point, U.S. Soccer is in the position of merely hoping for an eighth straight World Cup appearance.  Should the team reach Russia ’18, the U.S. will be back in the familiar position of hoping for little more than surviving its first-round group and a trip to the second round of a World Cup.  Klinsmann’s promise of genuine progress remains a luxury . . . and an unfulfilled dream.

 

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BEST OF ALL TIME?

Defending World Cup champion Spain became the first country to win a second consecutive European Championship, humbling a shorthanded Italy, 4-0, in the 2012 final in Kiev.

The triumph made Spain, which won its first Euro crown in 1964, the second three-time winner of Europe’s biggest prize after West Germany/Germany (1972, 1980, 1996).

David Silva got the rout underway in the 14th minute when he headed in Cesc Fabrigas’ short cross.  Jordi Alba latched onto a pass by Xavi to beat Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon four minutes before halftime to put the match out of reach.

Substitute Fernando Torres, who also scored against Germany in Spain’s 1-0 victory in the 2008 final, scored in the 84th minute, and Juan Mata, set up by Torres, applied the finishing touch at 88 minutes.  Italy lost Thiago Motta to injury in the 62nd minute after coach Cesare Prandelli had used his three substitutions–the last of them Motta in the 57th–and appeared nearly helpless on the Torres and Mata goals.  [July 1]

Comment:  Spain’s dominating performance put a much-needed shine on a tournament that for the most part was downright dull.  But those quick to brand this team as the best of all time need to take a deep breath.

Is Spain the best?  Those who disagree might start with the West German team that won the 1972 European Championship and the ’74 World Cup.  That team also lost the ’76 Euro final to Czechoslovakia on penalty kicks before winning its second Euro four years later.  Others would point to Brazil’s Pele-led 1970 World Cup champs.  And so on.

So are the Spaniards the best ever over an extended period?  Various media reports branded coach Vicente del Bosque’s ball-possession magicians as the first to win three consecutive major titles.  ESPN, which televised Euro 2012, was among them.  But the first was Uruguay, winners of the 1924 Olympics in Paris and the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam–back when Olympic soccer was the sport’s de facto world championship.  The Uruguayans so dazzled the Continent on those occasions that they fueled the drive to create the World Cup in 1930, which that year was hosted and won by Uruguay.  De facto or no, that was three world titles in a row over a half-dozen years.

Too long ago, when soccer wasn’t quite the global game it is today?  Then for hardware in the modern era, go with another South American team, Brazil, just a decade ago.  Except for an interruption by Colombia at the 2001 Copa America, the Brazilians, three years removed from their win at USA ’94, won the next two South American championships, in 1997 and ’99, finished second at the 1998 World Cup to host France, then won their fifth world championship at Korea/Japan 2002, followed by another Copa in 2004.

But then, when it comes to soccer and other matters, we live in a Eurocentric world.



THE KASEY KELLER EFFECT

They threw open the gates to the upper deck at CenturyLink Field and 64,140 turned out to see the Sounders defeat the San Jose Earthquakes, 2-1, in the final 2011 regular-season match in Seattle.  Sammy Ochoa and Fredy Montero scored in the last 10 minutes and goalkeeper Kasey Kelly stopped seven shots to send the throng home happy. 

This was not part of a doubleheader, and there was no fireworks spectacular offered.  Both sides had qualified for the playoffs.  The attraction was goalkeeper and native son Keller, who plans to retire at the end of the season.  [October15]

Comment I:  Appropriate, and well deserved.

With all due respect to Brad Friedel, Tony Meola and Tim Howard, Keller, 41, will step down as the best goalkeeper produced by a country known, internationally, for its goalkeepers.  The pride of Olympia, WA, never had a three-week stretch like Friedel, who started ahead of Keller at the 2002 World Cup and was spectacular for a hot team.   And Keller largely went down with the ship as a starter at the 1998 and 2006 World Cups.   But from 1990 to 2008, he was world class in England (Millwall, Leicester City, Tottenham, Southampton, Fulham), Spain (Rayo Vallecano), and Germany (Borussia Moenchengladbach), blazing a trail for the likes of Alexi Lalas, Carlos Bocanegra, Steve Cherundolo, Clint Dempsey, Frankie Hejduk, Brian McBride and, yes, Friedel and Howard.

Keller’s career spans an amazing stretch in U.S. soccer history.  A star at the University of Portland, he played for FC Portland of the Western Soccer League in 1989.   The WSL’s players were semipro for the most part, but Portland was made up of college players protecting their amateur status; young Keller posted a 0.38 goals-against average and won the league’s MVP award ahead of players like Marcelo Balboa, Dominick Kinnear and John Doyle.  Twenty-one years after playing in front of  hundreds at Portland’s Civic Stadium (future home of the MLS Portland Timbers), the crowd watching him is an adoring 64,140, the third-largest for a stand-alone game in MLS history. 

At least Keller will always have the 1998 CONCACAF Gold Cup, where he made 10 saves–most of them bordering on the miraculous–to turn away Romario, Edmundo and Brazil, 1-0, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in the semifinals.  It was the greatest performance ever by an American goalkeeper in a high-profile match.  But some will speculate what might have been had coach Bora Milutinovic decided to put up with what was then a young, headstrong Kasey Keller and chosen him ahead of Meola, Friedel and Juergen Sommer for his 1994 World Cup squad.  If Keller, not Meola, was covering the near post during the USA’s final first-round match, a 1-0 loss to Romania, maybe the U.S. wouldn’t have had to face Brazil in the second round.  Instead, the opponent would have been a somewhat softer Spain, in Washington DC, and hard to say if Bora’s Boys wouldn’t have bought an appearance in the rarified air of the quarterfinals and with it another week in the national spotlight.

Comment II:  The crowd at CenturyLink Field was the fourth-largest worldwide that weekend–trailing only those at FC Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich.  It lifted Seattle to a final average attendance for the regular season of 38,496 (nearly 3,000 above stadium capacity) and made the Sounders the best draw in MLS for all three years of their existence.  More important, it helped boost the league’s average gate for 2011 to 17,795 with one week remaining, thus breaking the record of 17,406 set in MLS’s inaugural 1996 season.

There were a few factors that made that 17,406 possible.  First and foremost, there was the novelty factor as an entire league debuted.  There also was the blessing and curse of the many gridiron football stadiums the teams were forced to call home:  While four-figure crowds looked pathetic in these cavernous stadiums, when it came to home openers or games with post-game fireworks shows, there were plenty of seats for all, like the Rose Bowl crowd of 69,255 that saw the Los Angeles Galaxy’s first match.  And there were turnstile counts that deserved an asterisk, like the 92,216 back at the Rose Bowl on hand for a twinbill involving the Galaxy against the now-defunct Tampa Bay Mutiny and the U.S. National Team versus Mexico.  (Easy to conclude that it wasn’t Mutiny fans who flooded the stadium that day.)

No such gimmicks or mitigating factors today, which only makes Keller’s big night all the more impressive.  No fireworks, no giveaways, no glitzy foreign opposition–just a love affair between the Sounders’ amazing following and a hometown boy who makes good and returns to close out his career.   Think of it–an American soccer player as a major drawing card, at least for one night.   The Emerald City is the exception to the rule in so many things MLS, but Keller’s big night suggests the possibility that the league has reached the point where its clubs should consider staging testimonial matches for its most popular American players.

The last true testimonial match held here was Pele’s farewell at Giants Stadium in 1977, when he played one half each for the Cosmos and his former Brazilian club, Santos, before a packed house.  Since then, the only thing close was the 2004 farewell tour by the U.S. National Women’s Team as Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Joy Fawcett called it a career.  It’s too late for favorites such as Cobi Jones (L.A.), McBride (Columbus) and Balboa (Colorado), but it’s time for MLS to recognize that the pull of certain popular, long-time players is stronger than it may have previously realized.



EX-WORLD CUP REFEREE BUSTED FOR HEROIN

Former FIFA referee Byron Moreno, a hated figure in Italy for calls he made in the 2002 World Cup that helped eliminate the Azzurri, was arrested in New York by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents after he was caught at JFK Airport with more than 10 pounds of heroin.

Moreno had arrived in New York on a commercial flight from his native Ecuador when the heroin was discovered during a routine search.  Moreno “became visibly nervous” during the inspection, and agents eventually found 10 plastic bags attached to his stomach, back and legs.  A federal judge in Brooklyn ordered him held without bail on a drug smuggling charge.

The news of the arrest was greeted in Italy with another round of derision.

“I think Moreno already had the (heroin) in 2002, but not in his underwear–in his body,” said Gianluigi Buffon, who was the goalkeeper the day Moreno’s controversial decisions allowed World Cup co-host South Korea beat Italy in overtime.  “Joking aside, when sports people get involved in drug cases it means they’re scraping the bottom of the barrel.  It also means they’ve lost the real meaning of the sport, which is also to save kids from the street and various dangers, like drugs.”  [September 21]

Comment: An opportunity to run an excerpt from the “Referees” chapter in Soccer Stories, entitled “The Curious Officiating of Byron Moreno”:

          Soccer is the most international of games.  In what other sport could an Ecuadoran cause nationwide joy in South Korea and despair throughout Italy on a single day?

          Byron Moreno is the Ecuadoran, a referee whose questionable work during South Korea’s 2-1 victory over the favored Italians in Daejeon in the second round of the 2002 World Cup arguably altered the outcome of the tournament.

          The then-three time champions were ahead, 1-0, on a headed goal by striker Christian Vieri in the 18th minute and doing what they do best, protecting a slim lead.  The only bump in Italy’s road came back in the fourth minute when a debatable penalty kick was awarded to Korea, but goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon saved off the foot of striker Ahn Jung-Hwan.  In the 88th, however, Seol Ki-Hyeon slipped in, pounced on a misplay by defender Christian Panucci, and beat Buffon with a low shot to level the score.

           Thirteen minutes into overtime, it all began to unravel for Italy as playmaker Francesco Totti dived in the penalty area and was shown a second yellow card by Moreno for attempting to draw a penalty kick.

          The shorthanded Italians then had a seemingly valid goal by midfielder Damiano Tommasi nullified by Moreno for offside.  Given new life, the Koreans finally produced the winner three minutes from the end of extra time when Lee Young-Pyo floated a cross onto the head of Ahn, who nodded in the golden goal.

          More than a million Koreans flooded downtown Seoul in the biggest of the impromptu celebrations staged throughout a country where seemingly everyone was wearing a bright crimson “Be The Reds” T-shirt.  Many of the revelers linked the South Korean triumph of 2002 to the North Korea upset of Italy in the 1966 World Cup.

          In Italy, the reaction was quite different.

          “Shame!” and “Thieves” read the headlines in Italy’s leading sports dailies, La Gazzetta dello Sport and Corriere dello Sport, and Italian commentators suggested that Moreno was part of a plot by FIFA to prevent a fourth Italian world championship and/or to deliver South Korea, the tournament co-host, into the quarterfinals.  One Italian town named a row of toilets after Moreno.

          Italians were already in a snit over the officiating during their team’s earlier 2-1 loss to Croatia, a result that left Italy second to Mexico in its group.  A first-place finish would have pitted Italy against what was believed to be a soft touch, the United States, in the second round.

           “Italy has been thrown out of a dirty World Cup, where referees and linesmen are used as hitmen,” read a commentary in the normally reserved Corriere della Sport.

          FIFA, which selected Moreno to work the match, received approximately 400,000 e-mails from fans of Italy regarding the state of the officiating at the Korea-Italy game, causing the world soccer governing body’s server system to crash.  A FIFA spokesman described the e-mails as “virulent, some quite abusive, some of them very threatening, some of them quite disturbing.”

          Even FIFA president Sepp Blatter seemed to believe that Moreno and his brother referees had it out for the Azzurri.  “Unfortunately, through exceptional circumstances and coincidences, numerous and consecutive errors were concentrated on the Italian team,” he said.

          So the 32-year-old Moreno went home in disgrace.  He wasn’t quite done, however.

          That September, Moreno was still refereeing–and running for a seat on the Quito city council.  While working an Ecuadoran league match between Liga Quito and Barcelona of Guayaquil in Quito, he awarded a hotly disputed PK to each team, ejected two players, and disallowed a goal he originally OK’d.  The topper:  With 90 minutes gone, Barcelona was leading, 3-2, and Moreno signalled for six minutes of stoppage time.  Unfortunately for the visitors, Moreno extended stoppage time for a total of 13 minutes and Liga scored in the 99th and 101st minutes to pull out a 4-3 win.

           Exasperated by the performance of its supposed top referee–and by the perception that he was trying to capitalize on his exposure as a ref to win public office–the Ecuadoran soccer federation suspended Moreno for 20 games.

          Within weeks, FIFA began an investigation “as a result of a number of controversies regarding referee Byron Moreno in Japan, Italy, and South America over the past few months . . . .”  At the new year, he was dropped from FIFA’s list of international referees.

           In May 2003, three matches after his 20-game suspension ended, Moreno was at it again, ejecting three Deportivo Quito players during a league match at Deportivo Cuenca.  All three were sent off for being cautioned twice.  Quito somehow survived, holding Cuenca to a 1-1 draw.

          The Ecuadoran referees’ association finally had enough and booted Moreno out in 2004 when it was discovered that he was officiating regional tournaments without authorization.