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DON’T PUT THE U.S. CART BEFORE THE WORLD CUP HORSE

Mexico shook off its funk and stormed to its seventh CONCACAF Gold Cup title, defeating upstart Jamaica, 3-1, in the final before a partisan sellout crowd of 68,930 at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field.

Andres Guardado opened the scoring in the 31st minute with a spectacular left-footed volley off a cross by Paul Aguilar.  That ended a frustrating 272-minute stretch in which the Mexicans had failed to score from anywhere but the penalty spot.  Jesus Corona, voted the Gold Cup’s top young player, increased the lead to 2-0 two minutes into the second half after stealing a ball from Michael Hector, and in the 61st minute Oribe Peralta capitalized on another blunder by Hector to put the match out of reach.  Darren Mattocks got the Reggae Boyz a consolation goal in the 81st.

The triumph earned El Tri a playoff with the U.S. on October 10 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., with a berth in the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup at stake.

The U.S. won the 2013 Gold Cup and could have secured a trip outright to the Confederations Cup in Russia by winning the ’15 tournament, but the Americans were defeated by Jamaica, 2-1, in the semifinals and then sagged to a loss to Panama in the third-place game at PPL Park in Chester, Penn., bowing on penalty kicks, 3-2, after a 1-1 draw.  [July 26]

Comment I:  An aberration?  No climactic meeting of the U.S. and Mexico in the final, as the tournament promoters had hoped?  Perhaps.  Maybe we’ll know as early as the autumn of 2017, when the CONCACAF qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup conclude.  But the balance of power in CONCACAF continues to shift, and the hold of Mexico and the U.S. on the top two rungs continues to erode, by degrees.

The Mexicans needed all of three late penalty-kick calls in the quarterfinals and semifinals to reach the championship match (thanks to Guardado, they converted them all).  The Americans failed to impress in group play, buried a Cuban team decimated by defections in the second round, then went back to failing to impress thereafter and were rewarded with a deserved fourth-place finish.

Are Jamaica and Panama that good?  Of course not.  Neither is Costa Rica, Honduras or Trinidad & Tobago. The most recent FIFA World Rankings placed the Reggae Boyz at No. 55, the Canaleros at No. 65, the Ticos at No. 38, the Catrachos at No. 81, and the Soca Warriors at No. 56.

Fortunately for the U.S. (29th) and Mexico (26th), while CONCACAF’s World Cup qualifiers remain a challenge–with road matches ranging from headaches to nightmares–the outcome has been similar over the past five campaigns:  The Americans and El Tri qualify and are joined by . . . who?  For 1998, it was Jamaica, in its World Cup debut.  For ’02, Costa Rica.  For ’06,  it was the Costa Ricans and, for the first time, Trinidad & Tobago.  For 2010, Honduras qualified, and for Brazil ’14 it was Costa Rica and Honduras.  It’s like a game of Whack a Mole, as first one CONCACAF contender pops out of its hole, then ducks back down and a different one pops up.

And so the battle for the region’s 3 1/2 berths at the 2018 World Cup heats up this fall, and everyone has the U.S. and Mexico with boarding passes to Russia.  Many in the media describe the October playoff between the two at the Rose Bowl as being very important because the winner goes on to the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup in Russia, “something of a dress rehearsal for the next World Cup.”  But the U.S. or Mexico might–just might–go to Russia dress rehearsing for nothing.

Because if there was any proof that there’s no longer a sure thing in CONCACAF, it came in late 2013, when Mexico shockingly finished fourth in the World Cup qualifiers and had to sweat out a playoff with New Zealand to punch its ticket to Brazil.  (Were it not for two U.S. stoppage-time goals at Panama in the region’s final round, Mexico would have been eliminated for the first time since 1934–when the eliminators happened to be the Americans.)  And as CONCACAF nations evolve, there’s nothing to say that Costa Rica, a surprise World Cup quarterfinalist in ’14; Honduras, a semifinalist in the previous two Gold Cups; Panama and Jamaica; and even Trinidad & Tobago; don’t all pop out of their mole holes during a single World Cup cycle, leaving the U.S. and/or Mexico on the outside looking in.  Heck, don’t count out Canada (No. 101), which won the 2000 Gold Cup, finished third in ’02 and now has a generation of players developing in Major League Soccer.

Comment II:  The USA’s breakout star during the tournament was a recent retiree.  Timmy Chandler was a disaster, Michael Bradley disappointed, but former U.S. goalkeeper Brad Friedel, as a television color commentator, proved to be a find for Fox Sports during its Gold Cup coverage as it gears up for much bigger assignments, from CONCACAF World Cup qualifying beginning late this year to Russia 2018 itself.

Friedel gives you the whole field, as a goalkeeper should, but he also gives you the whole picture and speaks with the authority of a player who’s gone from the top collegiate level (UCLA) to MLS (Columbus Crew) to national team (82 caps, two World Cups) to international clubs (Brondby IF of Denmark, Newcastle United of England, Galatasaray of Turkey, and Liverpool, Blackburn, Aston Villa and Tottenham, all of England).  He’s quick, articulate, witty and enthusiastic about the U.S. without losing his credibility–no easy task during this transitory period in soccer’s history in this country.  And unlike most of his predecessors, he compliments his play-by-play partner, instead of making him work.

Friedel is far better than a long line of ex-U.S. internationals who’d hoped to be the second banana in a national soccer broadcast booth for the next couple of decades.  Friedel is better than John Harkes, he’s better than Marcelo Balboa, and he’s better than the insufferable Taylor Trellman, whose partner, the outstanding play-by-play man Ian Darke, must dread going to work.  Friedel’s, literally, a keeper.

 

 

 

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BRAD FRIEDEL, USA’S BEST EVER?

Brad Friedel, one of the most decorated players in U.S. history, announced that he would retire at the end of Tottenham Hotspur’s English Premier League season.

The 44-year-old, who made his EPL debut 17 seasons ago with Liverpool and went on to play for Blackburn and Aston Villa, holds the league record for consecutive starts with 310 and made 450 overall.  He’s eighth all-time in career shutouts with 132, and he is only the second goalkeeper in league history to score a goal.

Friedel made 82 international appearances from 1992 through 2004.  He won the 1992 Hermann Trophy as a UCLA junior and two years later was the USA’s backup goalkeeper to Tony Meola, along with Juergen Sommer, at the 1994 World Cup.  He was the 1997 Goalkeeper of the Year, with the Columbus Crew, in his only season in Major League Soccer.  Friedel then left for England, where he made 450 starts–310 consecutively.  The Ohio native recorded 132 shutouts (eighth all-time in the EPL) and became only the second goalkeeper to score a Premier League goal, still only one of five to do so.

The 44-year-old Friedel, described by one writer as “follicularly fulsome” at the beginning of his career and bald as a soccer ball since, now brings his curious British/Midwestern accent to the tube as a full-time commentator for Fox Sports.  [May 14]

Comment:  For all the accolades that came Tim Howard’s way for his heroic performance in the USA’s overtime loss to Belgium in the second round of the 2014 World Cup, the greatest sustained  World Cup performance by a U.S. goalkeeper was Friedel’s at Korea/Japan 2002.

Friedel was the guy who, at France ’98, was known as the USA’s No. 1 1/2, losing to Yugoslavia, 1-0, after No. 1 Kasey Keller had lost to Germany, 2-0, and Iran, 2-1.  But four years later, he was the undisputed starter.

He saved penalty kicks against host South Korea and Poland in the first round, becoming the only ‘keeper to accomplish that feat since Jan Tomaszewski during Poland’s run to third place at the 1974 World Cup.  Friedel’s performance against Korea included three saves of shots from inside 10 yards–without those, the U.S. doesn’t survive with a 1-1 tie and doesn’t advance out of its group.  Then, Friedel doesn’t post his 2-0 shutout of Mexico in the second round.  And in the quarterfinals, maybe there’s a call on Torsten Fring’s goal line handball on the shot by Gregg Berhalter, maybe the U.S. takes the game beyond overtime to penalty kicks, and maybe Brad Friedel . . . .



ARE WE NOT RUBES?

Manchester United, looking to recover quickly from its worst showing in the English Premier League era, rallied to defeat EPL rival Liverpool, 3-1, at Miami’s Sun Life Stadium to win the 2014 Guinness International Champions Cup.  A 14th-minute penalty kick goal by Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard was cancelled out by strikes by United’s Wayne Rooney (55th minute), Juan Mata (57th) and Jesse Lingard (88th).

The tournament, held in 12 U.S. cities and Toronto as a warm-up to the European season, kicked off July 24 with eight European clubs, two of them defending champions of their respective national leagues, plus UEFA Champions League winner Real Madrid.  Manchester United (2-0-1) won its group over Inter Milan of Italy (1-0-2), AS Roma of Italy (1-2-0) and Spanish giant Real Madrid (0-2-1).  Liverpool topped a group that included Greek champion Olympiakos (1-1-1), English champion Manchester City (1-2-0) and Italy’s AC Milan (0-3-0).

Attendance for the 13 games totaled 642,134, for an average of 49,395.  Topping the list was the throng of 109,318 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich., to see Manchester United defeat Real Madrid, 3-1.  That crowd was the largest in U.S. soccer history, eclipsing the 101,799 on hand for the 1984 Olympic gold-medal match at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.   A more modest 51,014 were on hand for the Manchester United-Liverpool finale.  [August 4]

Comment I:  Proof positive that World Cup fever not only hit America full-force early this summer but that it lingers.  Throw in the 84,362 who witnessed Manchester United’s 7-0 demolition of the Los Angeles Galaxy at the Rose Bowl, a Bayern Munich-Chivas Guadalajara friendly at Red Bull Arena in New Jersey and a dozen other exhibitions involving Major League Soccer teams and foreign opposition ranging from Spanish champion Atletico Madrid to EPL tail-ender Aston Villa, and about a million fans in the U.S. paid top dollar to say they saw in person some of the finest players from some of Europe’s most storied clubs.

Comment II:  Are we not rubes?

Sure, there are plenty of expatriates here who’ve just got to see the old hometown club.  And then there are the so-called Eurosnobs, young Americans who’ll get up at dawn from August to May to watch their adopted club–usually from the English Premier League–on a television at the local pub, er, sports bar, but wouldn’t cross the street to watch an MLS game for free.

But to the folks in Europe, a million people over here just shelled out big bucks to watch some clubs with fresh hardware and others living on their good name.  The spectators wore their replica jerseys and cheered and chanted as their favorite players went through the motions during cameo appearances while plenty of the playing time was taken up by fine fellows fighting to win a place on the roster, if not into the starting 11.  Wholesale substitutions disrupted the flow of the games, players weren’t exactly keen on the extensive travel, and coaches considered these moneymaking adventures an intrusion on serious pre-season preparations.  In the end, fans here saw moments of brilliance, mis-timed tackles, remarkable goals, and shots that actually resulted in throw-ins.  And at the final whistle of each match, a result that meant absolutely nothing.

There are many benchmarks that will indicate that the U.S. is developing into a soccer nation.  Like criticism of the U.S. National Team for its shortcomings in a World Cup instead of praising its goalkeeper for repeatedly bailing it out.  Or the prompt emergence of a genuine successor to the soon-to-retire Landon Donovan.  Or, in this case, attendance at meaningless midsummer friendlies involving European clubs in numbers that aren’t an embarrassment to MLS.



KLINSMANN’S UNNECESSARY DONOVAN GAMBLE

Juergen Klinsmann, the coach hired to shake up the U.S. National Team, dropped the biggest bombshell of his controversial tenure by announcing a 23-man World Cup squad that does not include all-time U.S. scoring  leader Landon Donovan, a player considered the best ever produced by this country.

Klinsmann had until June 2 to reveal his final roster, but with his preliminary squad still training at Stanford University ahead of final World Cup tune-ups against Azerbaijan (May 27), Turkey (June 1) and Nigeria (June 7), he pulled the trigger, sending home Brad Evans, Clarence Goodson, Maurice Edu, Michael Parkhurst, Joe Corona, Terence Boyd, and the man considered the face of American soccer.

The final 23 headed to Brasil ’14:

Goalkeepers — Brad Guzan (Aston Villa, England), Tim Howard (Everton, England), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake, MLS);

Defenders — DaMarcus Beasley (Puebla, Mexico), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City, MLS), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin, Germany), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City, England), Timmy Chandler (FC Nurnberg, Germany), Omar Gonzalez (Los Angeles Galaxy, MLS), Fabian Johnson (Hoffenheim, Germany), DeAndre Yedlin (Seattle Sounders, MLS);

Midfielders — Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake, MLS), Alejandro Bedoya (Nantes, France), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC, MLS), Brad Davis (Houston Dynamo, MLS), Mix Diskerud (Rosenborg, Norway), Julian Green (Bayern Munich, Germany), Jermaine Jones (Besiktas, Turkey), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City);

Forwards — Jozy Altidore (Sunderland, England), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders, MLS), Aron Johannsson (AZ Alkmaar, Holland), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes, MLS).  [May 22]

Comment:  This isn’t on a par with the decision to leave Eric Cantona off the roster of what would become 1998 World Cup champion France, but by American standards, it’s close.  And, on the face of it, a completely unnecessary gamble.

In a perfect world, Klinsy’s grateful selection of players melds in Brazil and beats Ghana, upsets Portugal and walks arm-in-arm with Group “G” favorite Germany into the round of 16.

But in this imperfect world of Klinsmann’s own making, the U.S. could be tied late with Ghana or trailing Portugal or Germany by a goal, and  standing at the halfway line, ready to ride to the rescue, will be Wondolowski or the 18-year-old Green (total international experience: one half hour), not the guy who’s scored 57 career goals, including five in his 12 World Cup matches (all U.S. records).  In short, by omitting Donovan and assembling a team that includes Yedlin, Brooks, Gonzalez and 15 other players with no World Cup experience, Klinsmann, the coach whose aim is to motivate his players by making them uncomfortable, has succeeded in leaving everyone unsettled, including fans who, over the years, have derided Donovan with the nickname “Landycakes.”

Klinsmann described the decision as a matter of 23 players being better than the 32-year-old forward/midfielder:  “… I just think the other guys right now are a little bit ahead of him.”   Perhaps it’s true.  But in soccer, player selection can be a very subjective thing.  Perhaps the coach is still holding a grudge against Donovan for his well-publicized sabbatical in late 2012 and early 2013 that caused him to miss the USA’s first matches of the final round of World Cup qualifiers.

Whatever the reason, Klinsmann has created a potential nightmare for himself.  Some have speculated that he has concluded that getting out of the so-called “Group of Death” is impossible and it’s best to blood young players like Yedlin (total U.S. minutes played:  34) in Brazil in preparation for the 2018 World Cup.  But this isn’t the 1990 World Cup all over again, where then-coach Bob Gansler, looking to the ’94 World Cup the U.S. would host, threw a team averaging 23 years of age to the wolves.  Three and out is no longer acceptable under any circumstances.

If the U.S. somehow advances out of Group “G” next month, Klinsmann is a bloody genius.  But if the U.S. crashes, Klinsmann will be hounded by the spectre of Donovan and what might have been.  And that will cast doubt on every decision he makes–whether risky or mundane–from now through Russia ’18.



PHIL WOOSNAM’S NASL LIVES ON … ON DVD

Phil Woosnam, commissioner of the North American Soccer League during most of its 18-year run, died at age 80 in Dunwoody, Ga., of complications related to prostate cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, on July 19.  The death was made public two days later.

Woosnam represented Wales on the schoolboy, youth and amateur levels before making 17 appearances for the full Welsh National Team from 1958 to 1963.  A forward, he began his professional career with Leyton Orient–while doubling as a physics and mathematics teacher in London–and later played in the English First Division with West Ham United and Aston Villa.

Woosnam moved to America in 1966 and played in the pirate National Professional Soccer League before becoming player/coach/general manager of the Atlanta Chiefs of the new 17-team NASL in 1968.  The league withered to five clubs in ’69, but under Woosnam, who was appointed commissioner two years later, the NASL mushroomed to 24 clubs in the U.S. and Canada, thanks in part to the acquisition of such international stars as Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruyff and George Best.  The hard-charging Woosnam, perhaps best known here for his proclamation, “Soccer is the sport of the ’80s,” was dismissed as league boss in 1983, a year before the NASL’s final season.  [July 21]

Comment:  There can be no doubt that without Phil Woosnam, the evolution of soccer in this country would have been stalled for years.  At one point, the NASL’s very survival came down to Woosnam and the man who later signed Pele, Clive Toye, hunkered down in the basement of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, trying to figure out their next move.  Without the crowds of 60,000 and 70,000 the league occasionally drew, without the generation of promising young American players the league inspired, WorldCupUSA 94 might have become WorldCupUSA 06 and Major League Soccer’s debut might have been delayed  to, well, a handful of years ago.

Mistakes were made, of course–mistakes MLS, to its credit, certainly learned from.  But what raised the hackles of Woosnam and continues to get a rise out of the NASL’s former players and coaches is the suggestion that the league’s level of play was poor, that the NASL was a comfortable landing spot for aging superstars, a second chance for anonymous English Third Division players, a version of the sport degraded by transcontinental travel, summertime heat and humidity and artificial turf unfamiliar to its many imported players.

Though the NASL is long gone, you can judge for yourself.  Go to http://www.DaveBrett.com Historic Soccer Videos and DVDs, which offers a treasure trove of soccer telecasts, including more than 300 NASL matches dating back to 1969.  The recordings are for sale or trade, and trades are preferred.  Contact Dave at DaveBrett@austin.rr.com

The long list of offerings includes the marathon 1974 championship game between the Los Angeles Aztecs and Miami Toros, the Minnesota Kicks’ crowd of 50,000 to see Pele and the Cosmos in 1976, the classic 1979 playoff semifinal between the Vancouver Whitecaps and Cosmos, the grand experiment that was Team America, and a game between the Chicago Sting and the team with the most wonderfully awful uniforms in the history of sports, the Caribous of Colorado.   Of course, there’s plenty of Beckenbauer, Cruyff, Best, Teofilo Cubillas, Giorgio Chinaglia, Trevor Francis, and even a young  Julio Cesar Romero and Peter Beardsley.  There’s also Soccer Bowls, Trans-Atlantic Challenge Cup games and various friendlies against other clubs from abroad, and NASL highlight shows, plus matches with Spanish and French commentary.  (For those so inclined, there are indoor, college and MLS games as well.)

The sport, as presented by Phil Woosnam, was indeed a different game, one that was adjusting to the advent of  Total Soccer and other changes.  But have a look.  Those who experienced the NASL in person will get a pleasant reminder of how good and entertaining the league could be.  And as for the MLS generation, it should be an eye opener.

Comment 2:  Phil Woosnam was a cousin of golfer Ian Woosnam.  Phil Woosnam was 4-4-1 as U.S. National Team coach in 1968.  And in Phil Woosnam, has any other U.S. sports league had a commissioner who had more first-hand knowledge of his sport?



GRAY, IN BLACK AND WHITE

Play-by-play man Richard Keys and color commentator Andy Gray,  Sky Sports’  leading soccer voices since the launch of the English Premier League in 1992, have been ousted over sexist remarks that have triggered a debate in Britain over the role of women in what is a male-dominated sport.

Keys resigned under pressure one day after Gray was sacked.  Both issued public apologies.

The two thought their microphones were off before a Wolverhampton-Liverpool match telecast when they questioned whether a female assistant referee knew the offside rule.  Keys predicted that the lineswoman, Sian Massey, would make a mistake during the game (she actually nailed a critical offside call), and Gray used an expletive in referring to Wendy Toms, the first woman to officiate in the Premier League.  Keys piled on by criticising West Ham executive Karren Brady, known for her complaints of sexual discrimation in the soccer media.  Then the off-air remarks were leaked–perhaps by someone within Sky–to a Sunday newspaper.  [January 26]

Comment:  Keys isn’t well known in these parts, but Gray, thanks largely to his work for ESPN as a color man during the 2010 World Cup, is.  And Gray was a misogynistic misadventure waiting to happen:  a reputation as a playboy backed by a ledger sheet of five children by four women (for the record, two were wives).   

Perhaps Gray will be able to resuscitate his career across The Pond, but it’s doubtful he’ll be back for ESPN’s coverage of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.  And so much the better.  While Gray’s resume as a striker, from the mid-’70s to the mid-’80s, was impressive–20 games, seven goals for Scotland and many more goals for Everton, Aston Villa and Wolverhampton–to American viewers he wasn’t much more than that gravelly voiced truck driver with the thick Glaswegian brogue who happened to wander into a broadcast booth.

If Gray will be missed here, it’s because in a world in which English play-by-play men are for some reason routinely paired with Scottish color men, Gray was one of the few Scotsmen whose comments could be deciphered by American ears.



TWO HAPPY BIRTHDAYS

A young, experimental U.S. National Team, defeated South Africa, 1-0, on a goal by substitute Juan Agudelo five minutes from time in a friendly at Green Point Stadium in Cape Town.

The U.S. starting lineup averaged only 10 1/2 caps, and four of coach Bob Bradley’s halftime substitutes were 20 years old or younger and making their international debut.  [November 18]

Comment:  No doubt Agudelo will still be celebrating his goal six days hence, when he marks his 18th birthday.  After all, the Colombian-born striker, set up brilliantly in the box by the Norwegian-born Mikkel Diskerud, is the youngest scorer in U.S. history, eclipsing Jozy Altidore.

A more impressive birthday boy, however, was U.S. right back Eric Lichaj, who turned 22 the day of the South Africa match.  Lichaj, whose parents were born in Poland and reared in America, earned his first cap as a sub in last month’s scoreless draw with Colombia, and he played a key role, along with goalkeeper Brad Guzan, in keeping the American net clean.

Lichaj turned in the kind of performance–smart, strong, creative and utterly cool–that was sorely missing at times on the U.S. back line during the Americans’ last stay in South Africa.  All this despite playing the last hour with a yellow card.  Best of all, he covered ground like a young Thomas Dooley, popping up deep in the South African end on a regular basis.

It was only one match, but Lichaj (pronounced “LEE-hi”) showed off the qualities that inspired Aston Villa to sign him when he was a University of North Carolina freshman.  He’s just now breaking into the Villains’ starting lineup, but with the venerable Steve Cherundolo due to turn 35 when the next World Cup rolls around, it is hoped that Lichaj will be doing same for the U.S. over the next couple of years.