Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


ONE LAST VOTE FOR LANDON DONOVAN

Landon Donovan went out a winner on his last day as a professional player as the Los Angeles Galaxy defeated the New England Revolution, 2-1, in extra time at the StubHub Center in Carson, CA, to capture its third MLS Cup in four years and its Major League Soccer-record fifth overall.

Donovan, 32, announced in August that he would retire after the MLS season.  Thanks to the Galaxy’s victories over Real Salt Lake and the Seattle Sounders in the playoffs, his season was extended through November into December.

Though he had an unspectacular afternoon against New England–drawing a caution at the end of the first half and missing on a 20-yard free kick in OT that would have put L.A. ahead–Donovan in the end lifted the MLS Cup trophy for a record sixth time.

He also exits as MLS’s all-time scoring leader and assist leader, and he holds so many other league regular-season and post-season marks that the only ones left involve either goalkeeping or defender-of-the-year awards.  His list of U.S. international records is equally long.  Donovan’s 57 goals include five in the World Cup and 10 game-winners, nine multi-goal games, 14 goals scored in the final 15 minutes of a match, nine alone in 2007 (tied with Eric Wynalda for most in a year) and 15 penalty kicks in 15 attempts.  His 58 assists–10 of which were recorded in 2009 alone–are 36 ahead of No. 2 on the list, Cobi Jones.  Donovan is second all-time in international appearances at 156 games, and if he weren’t left off the U.S. roster for the 2014 World Cup, he might have picked up seven more caps (three World Cup warm-ups and four games in Brazil itself), leaving him one behind Jones’ American mark of 164.  Of course, if Donovan, who logged nearly 13,000 minutes–nine days on the field–for the national team, hadn’t been dumped by U.S. coach Juergen Klinsmann, he might have continued adding to his numbers into 2015 and beyond.  (He’s only 32.  Galaxy teammate Robbie Keane, 34, says he expects to play until he’s 38.  The great Pele retired just shy of his 37th birthday.)

The individual awards in his trophy case are topped by the Golden Ball he was handed as the best player at the 1999 FIFA Under-17 Tournament, and he was voted the 2002 World Cup’s Best Young Player.  [December 7]

Comment:  Donovan has won several other individual honors during his career, including the U.S. Soccer Male Athlete of the Year (2003, ’04, ’09 and ’10) and Futbol de Primera Player of the Year (2002, ’03, ’04, ’07, ’08, ’09, ’10).  His exclusion from the U.S. World Cup team, of course, left him out of the running for either trophy this year.

Howard was the clear favorite for both awards as he set U.S. records for career wins, 55, and goalkeeper appearances, 104, blowing past the now-retired Kasey Keller (53 and 102).  His 15 shutouts in 2013-14 helped his club, Everton, finish fifth in the English Premier League.  And there were those World Cup-record 16 saves in the USA’s 2-1 overtime loss to Belgium in the second round in Brazil.  Howard won the U.S. Soccer award with 64 percent of the vote from a panel of U.S. players, coaches, administrators and others; midfielder Jermaine Jones was second with 19 percent.  Some 200 journalists made Howard the runaway winner in the FDP balloting, giving him 363 points to Jones’ 160 and Clint Dempsey’s 147.

Anticipating the Howard landslide, one FDP voter gave Donovan one final first-place vote (with Howard second and Jones third).  However, it was based not on sentimentality but a nagging doubt.

Naming Donovan the best player in America in 2014 requires a look through a different prism.  That is, Donovan may have demonstrated his value to the U.S. National Team at the 2014 World Cup not through his presence but through his absence.

Watching players who took his place on the roster, like Brad Davis and Chris Wondolowski, struggle in Brazil, must have made Donovan squirm.  Couldn’t the greatest player in American history, perhaps a year beyond his prime, have made a difference in this or that situation?  Should he have been left behind in favor of 18-year-old Julian Green, and could he have scored the goal Green scored against Belgium in overtime?  Many would say no and yes–Donovan wouldn’t have mis-hit his shot like Green’s star-kissed volley.  As for what Donovan might have done with Wonolowski’s chance at the end of regulation against the Belgians . . . .

This upside-down look at a player’s value isn’t new.  Long ago, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, coming off an NBA championship in his rookie season, suffered a serious knee injury midway through his second, in 1980-81.  The Los Angeles Lakers were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, and the argument was raised in many quarters that Johnson proved that he deserved the league’s Most Valuable Player award because the Lakers struggled and ultimately crashed without him.

As for Donovan, it was only one Futbol de Primera vote in the face of a landslide.  It mattered not.  It was worth using it to lift the question “What if?” into a statement.

 

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BELGIUM 2, U.S. 1, AND AMERICA’S FUTURE

In a match that looked like a re-enactment of the siege of the Alamo, Belgium pounded away at the U.S. defense for 93 minutes before breaking through and ultimately winning, 2-1, in overtime to earn a World Cup quarterfinal showdown with Argentina.

Midfield dynamo Kevin De Bruyne and substitute striker Romelu Lukaku combined on both Belgian goals, beating an exhausted U.S. defense that was bombarded with 38 shots.  Three minutes into extra time, Lukaku beat U.S. defender Matt Besler down the right wing to set up De Bruyne for the first goal, then a pass by De Bruyne allowed Lukaku to score on a powerful short-range shot.  The desperate Americans staged a furious comeback and were rewarded in the 107th minute when 18-year-old substitute Julian Green volleyed home a chipped pass into the box by Michael Bradley, but the rally fell short.

The game was played in Salvador, and fittingly the man of the match was the USA’s savior, Tim Howard, who put on a two-hour goalkeeping clinic.  He made 16 saves, many of them spectacular, in sparing his side an embarrassingly lopsided defeat.  It was the most saves in a World Cup game since the statistic was first kept in 1966.

Remarkably, the Americans nearly won the game in the final seconds of regulation added-on time.  Substitute Chris Wondolowski, a natural poacher, latched onto the ball in a goalmouth scramble but put his shot over the bar in an effort to lift it over sprawling Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.  [July 1]

Comment:  Now, following the handwringing, the postmortems start.  Americans caught World Cup fever in a big way for the first time.  But the Belgian police banged on the door and broke up their party, and they want the next party to last beyond midnight.

How can the U.S. get better and go farther at Russia 2018 (the team’s qualification being a given)?  A stronger Major League Soccer?  An expanded U.S. academy program developing more and more young talent?  The U.S. goal will soon be in the capable hands of Brad Guzan–unless the unpredictable Juergen Klinsmann tries to make Howard, now 35, the USA’s answer to Dino Zoff.  DaMarcus Beasley isn’t likely to play in a fifth World Cup, so there is a need for a left back, and forward Clint Dempsey will be 35 in four years.  Whether it’s Besler or Omar Gonzalez or Geoff Cameron or a newcomer in the central defense, Klinsmann needs to find the right duo and stick with it.  And the midfield must somehow get better without a Xavi or Andres Iniesta on the horizon.

Who knows if a “Group of Death” awaits the U.S. if it reaches Russia.  And if it reaches the second round there, will its opponent be Belgium, or a side like Ghana (2010), or Mexico (2002) … or Brazil (1994).  But it is a sure thing that the U.S. will be better–by how much is unknown, but it will be better.

The U.S. is nowhere near reaching its considerable potential.  Participation figures that exceed 20 million and our soccer infrastructure say so.  There’s also that intangible, the slowly continuing evolution of the soccer culture here.  Since the Pele Generation of the 1970s, the sport has improved on the grassroots level by leaps and bounds–and, admittedly, sometimes by small increments–but it has improved, and that improvement goes on uninterrupted .  Compare that, then, with countries where soccer is well-established and yet the fortunes of the national team waxes and wanes, like Belgium.  Or Chile, or Portugal, or Uruguay, or Romania, or Holland, or Norway, or Colombia, or Costa Rica, or Paraguay, or Sweden, or the remnants of the former Soviet Union or former Czechoslovakia.  Most are left awaiting the emergence of its next “golden generation,” which may require several generations of waiting.  A nation like Spain played in the first World Cup in 1930 and didn’t win one for 80 years.  Hungary peaked in the early 1950s with one of the greatest teams ever and has been mostly an international soccer afterthought since.

The U.S. isn’t any of those nations.  Plot the national team’s progress on a graph and the red line continues upward, sometimes sharply (Korea/Japan ’02), sometimes not (France ’98).  It’s why many of the countries in the soccer-playing world would trade their past and present for the USA’s future in a heartbeat.



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.



SIMPLIFY LIFE: EVENSIDE SHOULD BE ONSIDE

The U.S. won the first half and Mexico the second as the two bitter border rivals played to a 2-2 tie in a World Cup warm-up before 59,066 at University of Phoenix Stadium.

A vintage Michael Bradley half-volleyed home a cross by Graham Zusi in the 15th minute, then set up a toe-poke goal by Chris Wondolowski in the 28th with a head flick at the left post.

Mexico, determined not to suffer yet another Dos a Zero defeat on American soil, began its comeback four minutes after halftime when veteran captain Rafael Marquez scored on a free header off a corner kick by Marco Fabian.  The equalizer came in the 67th minute as Alan Pulido tucked the ball past U.S. goalkeeper Nick Rimando and into the net after substitute Paul Aguilar’s shot rang the left post.

The U.S. had an apparent game-winner in the 85th minute, but striker Eddie Johnson, who replaced Wondolowski 19 minutes earlier, saw his goal flagged for offside after a deft pass from 30 yards out by Clint Dempsey sent him into the penalty area unmolested.  [April 2]

Comment:  Johnson’s non-goal generated plenty of talk after the match, although it wasn’t a clear miss by Panamanian linesman Daniel Williamson and referee Roberto Moreno.  Have a look:

http://ftw.usatoday.com/2014/04/usa-mexico-usmnt-offside-referees/

The key is the photo at the end, which shows Johnson leaning ahead of Mexico’s second-to-last man when Dempsey plays the ball forward.

U.S. fans can blame–and Mexico fans can thank–soccer’s official rules-making body, the International Football Association Board.

In 1990, the IFAB made life oh-so-simple with this decision:  “A player who is level with the second-last opponent or with the last two opponents is not in an offside position.”  In plain English, even is on.

In 2005, however, the board decided to make life hell for linesmen and defenders and opposing attackers with this:  “In the definition of offside position, ‘nearer to his opponents’ goal line’ means that any part of his head, body or feet is nearer to his opponents’ goal-line than both the ball and the second last opponent.  The arms are not included in this definition.”

Since then, linesmen, who have been forced to determine the involvement or possible obstruction of an attacking player, have been handed the additional responsibility of serving as master surveyor.  The 1990 decision seemed to give the benefit of the doubt to the attacker in a new world in which a comfortable, relatively reasonable gray line was created.  The 2005 ruling brought back the concept of splitting hairs.

And when it comes to splitting hairs, there will continue to be situations in which the attacker–moving forward–leans too far beyond a second-to-last opponent who is either upright or leaning back upfield.  That’s what attackers and defenders do, though their feet may be directly level.

If it’s any solace to American fans, Eddie Johnson was onside in Phoenix … two dozen years ago.

 

 



WHO WAS THE USA’S BEST PLAYER IN 2011?

Some 200 journalists from across the nation are submitting ballots to decide which U.S. National Team member will be the 2011 Futbol de Primera Player of the Year.

Sponsored by FDP, the exclusive radio broadcaster of the 2014 World Cup in the United States, the award–the most prestigious annual honor in American soccer–goes to the best player who appeared in at least three matches for the U.S. in the calendar year.  Those who qualified are Juan Agudelo, Jozy Altidore, Kyle Beckerman, Alejandro Bedoya, Carlos Bocanegra, Michael Bradley, Timmy Chandler, Steve Cherundolo, Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Maurice Edu, Clarence Goodson, Tim Howard,  Jermaine Jones, Sacha Kljestan, Eric Lichaj, Oguchi Onyewu, Michael Orozco Fiscal, Tim Ream, Robbie Rogers, Brek Shea, Jonathan Spector, Jose Torres and Chris Wondolowski.

First place selections receive three points, second place two points and third place one.

Past winners of the award, until recently known as the Honda Player of the Year:  Hugo Perez, 1991; Eric Wynalda, 1992; Thomas Dooley, 1993; Marcelo Balboa, 1994; Alexi Lalas, 1995; Wynalda, 1996; Eddie Pope, 1997; Cobi Jones, 1998; Kasey Keller, 1999; Claudio Reyna, 2000; Earnie Stewart, 2001; Landon Donovan, 2002; Donovan, 2003; Donovan, 2004; Keller, 2005; Clint Dempsey, 2006; Donovan, 2007; Donovan, 2008; Donovan, 2009; Donovan, 2010.  [October 21]

Comment:  Who would you vote for?  Let us know.

Last year’s vote from here got it wrong.  Donovan won, with Bradley the runner-up and Dempsey the third-place finisher.  Our ballot went to Donovan, Bradley and Cherundolo.  So we need your help before our ballot is submitted in the middle of next week.

Give us a post and list your three top choices, in order.  And feel free to do some lobbying if you so choose.  Bear in mind that the award is for a player’s body of work for the year, so take into account a candidate’s performance for his club as well as his contributions to the U.S. team.

Update:  Dempsey won the award for the second time after being named first choice on nearly half of the ballots submitted by the 202 U.S. journalists who took part.  Howard was second and seven-time winner Donovan was third.  [November 2]



MAJOR LEAGUE SOCCER, SANS NEW YORK, PRESSES ON

The San Jose Earthquakes upset the New York Red Bulls, 3-1, before a disappointed sellout crowd of 22,839 at Red Bull Arena, eliminating New York in the MLS Eastern Conference semifinals by a 3-2 aggregate. 

The conference champion Red Bulls, 1-0 winners in the first leg in San Jose, had tied the home-and-home series at 2-2 in the 78th minute as captain Juan Pablo Angel, playing what was likely his last match for New York, headed home a Juan Agudelo cross.  But the eighth-seeded ‘Quakes quickly replied when Bobby Convey, scorer of San Jose’s first two goals, set up a headed strike by young sensation Chris Wondolowski.  [November 4]

Comment:  If the MLS founders knew back in 1996 that their league would go 15 seasons without its largest market club winning a championship, their first question would be how their highly vulnerable project could possibly have survived 10 seasons.

Nonetheless, MLS has progressed (survived would be too tepid a description, thrived too strong) despite lacking the Big Apple glamor enjoyed by its predecessor,  the North American Soccer League.  While the New York Cosmos won five NASL titles over 10 years, the MLS championship has gone to minor markets like Columbus, Kansas City and, yes, San Jose.  That’s a decade and a half without the New York Times and other media outlets there giving a good blankety-blank about domestic soccer in the midst of a gridiron football season.

If MLS simply must conquer New York to make a dent in the media capital of the world, it may have found the solution.  A group called New York Cosmos LLC, an English-backed group fronted by Pele, is bidding to join MLS, and Commissioner Don Garber has said he would prefer that the league’s 20th club be based in New York.

That’s the ticket:  Put enough teams in the Big Apple and, sooner or later, one will win an MLS championship.