Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


SURPRISE! DONOVAN APPARENTLY PASSING THE AUDITION

The U.S. National Team advanced to the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinals with a rousing 5-1 dismantling of El Salvador before a sellout crowd of more than 70,000 at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.

Attacking midfielder Landon Donovan scored once and set up three goals to lead the way.  It gave the USA’s all-time scoring leader three goals and seven assists for the tournament and 54 goals and 55 assists for his career.

Donovan’s second assist came at the hour mark on a cross after a short corner kick, which substitute forward Eddie Johnson headed into the net with his very first touch.

The U.S., riding a record nine-game winning streak, will face Honduras on July 24 at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Tex., as part of a semifinal doubleheader.  The opener will feature Mexico against Panama.  [July 21]

Comment:  Possibly, just possibly, we’ll see Landon Donovan in a U.S. uniform in a World Cup qualifier later this year.  Heck, maybe we’ll even see him at Brasil ’14, playing in his fourth World Cup.

That’s been the guarded view of many in the U.S. media of the best player ever produced by this country.  He went on a very necessary months-long sabbatical from soccer after the Los Angeles Galaxy won last year’s MLS Cup, thus turning his back on the U.S. National Team and its first matches of the final round of CONCACAF’s World Cup qualifiers, as well as the first few weeks of the Galaxy’s 2013 season.  Donovan returned in March, and after several MLS games, he was given a call-up by coach Juergen Klinsmann to play for the U.S.–essentially a “B” team–in the Gold Cup, a move seen by too many as something of an audition for a return to the full national team in time for the World Cup qualifying stretch drive.

An audition?  Ridiculous.

This “story” goes in the same circular file as the attempts to pass judgement on David Beckham’s American adventure a couple of years into his five-year contract and the report months ago that the national team was in complete disarray and Klinsmann’s head belonged on the chopping block.

Donovan’s relationship with Klinsmann has been frosty since Klimsmann was hired in mid-2011, and this is nothing more than the prodigal son’s genuflection before the boss and the kissing of his ring.  If Klinsmann can’t temporarily humble his biggest player for not being a good soldier, he’s not in charge.  Barring injury or a complete crash and burn by the 31-year-old Donovan this summer, there has been no doubt in Klinsmann’s mind that the fleet-footed imp with 149 career international appearances will be part of the USA’s plans for 2013-14.  This is America, after all.  France can spit on Eric Cantona and David Ginola in putting together what would become its 1998 World Cup-winning squad in the interest of esprit de corps; the U.S. is not and never has been so deep.

To put it another way, if Donovan has been performing in some sort of tryout before Klinsmann during the Gold Cup, go all the way back to 1969 and the Beatles’ famous concert on the roof of Abby Road Studios in London.  As John Lennon cheekily announced at the end, “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we passed the audition.”  The audience of two dozen or so way up there that day laughed.  Right now, Donovan is suppressing a laugh.  So is a privately giddy Klinsmann.



ALAS, NO GOLD, SILVER OR BRONZE FOR U.S. THIS SUMMER

The United States surrendered a goal by Jaime Alas four minutes into added-on time, giving El Salvador a 3-3 tie in Nashville that knocked the Americans out of contention for the 2012 London Olympics.  The Salvadorans finished atop their first-round group and advanced along with Canada to the semifinals of the CONCACAF Olympic qualifiers in Kansas City, where they will face Mexico and Honduras with two berths in London on the line.  The U.S., at 1-1-1, landed in third place.

After taking a lead on a goal by Terrence Boyd in the first minute, the U.S. was sent reeling by goals by El Salvador’s Lester Blanco and Andres Flores in the 35th and 37th minutes.  Boyd scored an equalizer in the 65th minute and Joe Corona, whose mother is Salvadoran, put the U.S. ahead, 3-2, three minutes later with a header off a cross by captain Freddy Adu, who had also set up Boyd’s second strike.

The Americans, however, couldn’t hold off the relentless Salvadorans.  On a quick counterattack, Alas’ seemingly harmless 25-yard shot squeezed under U.S. goalkeeper Sean Johnson, who had replaced the injured Bill Hamid (ankle) in the 39th minute.  [March 26]

Comment:   A disturbing setback, coming as it does on the heels of three other American stumbles in regional or world championship competition over the past 12 months.   A year ago, the U.S. National Under-20 Team gives up a second-half goal against the run of play and is eliminated by host Guatemala, 2-1, in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF qualifiers for the FIFA World Youth Championship.  In June, the U.S. National Team scores twice early, only to give up four unanswered goals to Mexico in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final at the Rose Bowl.  The following month, the U.S. National Women’s Team is unable to protect a one-goal lead in regulation and again late in overtime and loses to underdog Japan on penalty kicks in the FIFA Women’s World Cup title match in Germany.  And now this.

It’s no time for Sam’s Army and the American Outlaws and their brethren to panic, of course.  The U.S. women, despite their confounding defeat at the hands of Japan last summer, are still No. 1 in the FIFA World Rankings.  And with CONCACAF’s 3 1/2 berths up for grabs, the U.S. men head into 2014 World Cup qualifying this summer with perhaps the two most accomplished attacking players in their history, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, still in their prime.  For the U.S. men, however, it would have to be concluded that, given the U-23s’ disappointing loss to Canada and tie with El Salvador in Nashville, there are no wholesale reinforcements on the horizon.

On the eve of the Olympic qualifiers, MLS spokesman Will Kuhn was on message, telling  the Los Angeles Times, “It’s a strong statement about our league and the development of young players that the Olympic tournament–a reflection of the strongest young players in each country–includes so many that are on our clubs.  It draws a lot of attention to the natural progression of our league.  The level of play keeps advancing each year.  The Olympics gives an opportunity for lots more people to see that progress.”  We’ve heard that sort of thing from MLS for several years now, but it might be time for the league to tone down the rhetoric.

If there’s been progress, it hasn’t be reflected in the play of recent U.S. U-23 teams.  The 2000 U.S. men’s Olympic team qualified for Sydney, where it went 1-0-2 in the first round, defeated Japan on PKs in the quarterfinals, lost to Spain, 3-1, in the semifinals and bowed to Chile, 2-0, in the bronze-medal game–their best showing in an Olympic soccer history that goes back to 1924.  In 2004, the U.S. failed to make it to Athens, the decisive blow a humiliating 4-0 loss to host Mexico in the CONCACAF semifinals as the locals taunted the Americans with chants of “O-sa-ma, O-sa-ma.”  Four years later, the U.S. reached the Beijing Games, where it went 1-1-1 and failed to advance to the quarterfinals.

No one wants to see a return of the 1980s and ’90s, when young American players had two hopes:  star in college, then head to Europe, where there might be an opening with a Scandinavian club or a German regional division side.  And there’s no denying that since 1996 MLS has become an international springboard for several top native sons, from Brian McBride to Tim Howard and Donovan and Dempsey.  Nevertheless, if the Olympics are some kind of reflection on the improvement of MLS, that progress has been decidedly uneven.



REAL MADRID vs. … REAL SALT LAKE?

Real Salt Lake scrambled to earn a 2-2 draw with host Monterrey in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final, setting up a climactic second-leg showdown April 27 at Sandy, Utah.  The winner advances to the 2011 FIFA Club World Cup in December in Japan.

Argentine midfielder Javier Morales scored the equalizer in the 89th minute to lift the overall record of MLS clubs in Mexico to 0-21-4.  Real Salt Lake heads into the deciding leg having gone unbeaten in 37 matches in all competitions at Rio Tinto Stadium.  However, it will be without playmaker and captain Kyle Beckermann, an occasional U.S. international who will serve a yellow-card suspension.  [April 20]

Comment:  Major League Soccer has an international reputation of being on a par with, say, the Belgian second division and, an aging David Beckham or Thierry Henry aside, that’s not likely to change any time soon.*  Rapid expansion in recent years hasn’t helped as the native talent pool has been repeatedly dilluted, but Real Salt Lake could deliver a minor blow to that perception when it meets Monterrey needing nothing more than a 1-1 draw to become only the third U.S. club in the competition’s 49-year history to finish first.

Geophysicists rule out the major continental shift necessary for MLS clubs to compete in the UEFA Champions League, so the only way MLS can lift its image is by winning the CONCACAF Champions League on a regular basis, beginning with Real Salt Lake next week.  Since the North/Central America/Caribbean region began playing a club championship in 1962, better-paid, better-organized, better-supported Mexican teams have won 26 times (Club America and Cruz Azul five apiece), and no other country is even close.  Costa Rica has nearly half as many winners, six, as Mexico has runners-up, 13.  After El Salvador’s three winners, the U.S. is tied with Guatemala, Honduras, Trinidad & Tobago, Haiti and Surinam.

What makes this showdown significant for MLS is not just a CONCACAF Champions League trophy at stake but a berth in the FIFA Club World Cup.  Back in 1998, when DC United defeated Toluca of Mexico to capture what was then called the CONCACAF Champions Cup, the first-ever FIFA Club World Cup was two years away.   In 2000, the Los Angeles Galaxy beat Olimpia of Honduras in the CONCACAF final and thought it had booked a place in the following year’s Club World Cup in Spain, only for that competition to be cancelled for a number of reasons, chief among them the collapse of FIFA’s marking arm, ISL.   (As some may recall, the Galaxy was grouped with Real Madrid and scheduled to play the reigning European champion in the first round at the Bernabeu.)

The FIFA Club World Cup, which officially replaced the Intercontinental Cup–the long-running meeting of European and South American club champs–in 2005, certainly is not the most gripping competition on the international soccer calendar.   To some Euro champs, it’s been an annoying obligation in the heart of the regular league season, one in which winning is expected.  To South American champs, it’s a chance to prove that the Copa Libertadores holder is the world’s best.  But for the rest–the continental champions of Africa, Asia, Oceania and, yes, CONCACAF–the Club World Cup presents a priceless opportunity to show their wares to an Eurocentric soccer world.

*According to the most recent rankings of national leagues by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics, Major League Soccer comes in at No. 42.  Spain tops the list, followed by England, then Italy, Brazil, Germany, France and Argentina, as well as No. 11 Belgium, No. 12 Mexico, No. 18 Paraguay, No. 27 Japan and No. 32 Israel.  Immediately ahead of MLS are Croatia, Moldova, Serbia, Georgia and Tunisia.  Immediately after are Saudi Arabia, Bolivia, Poland and Sweden.   Five notches below America’s league is the Sudan.   Obviously, MLS Commissioner Don Garber continues to have some work ahead of him.