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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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KLINSMANN EXPLAINED . . . OR NOT

Stanford University sophomore Jordan Morris scored four minutes into the second half and his replacement, erstwhile striker Juan Agudelo, applied the clinching goal in the 72nd minute as the U.S. defeated Mexico by that familiar score of 2-0 in a friendly played before a sellout crowd of 64,369 at San Antonio’s Alamodome.

The 20-year-old Morris, who made his international debut in November at Ireland, became the first college player to start for the U.S. in two decades.  Agudelo hadn’t played for the U.S. since November 2012 and hadn’t scored since March 2011.

With the match not on the FIFA international schedule, the U.S. lineup was dominated by Major League Soccer players while Mexico was largely a Liga MX side.

The U.S. is 13-5-5 against Mexico since 2000, 17-11-9 since 1990 and 19-33-14 since the two nations first met in 1934. [April 15]

Comment:  Just a friendly and just a warm-up to this summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup between two sides missing their biggest names, many of whom stayed with their overseas clubs.  U.S. coach Juergen Klinsmann had this to say to MLSsoccer.com a few days before the match, which was played a couple of weeks after the Americans lost at Denmark, 3-2, and earned a 1-1 draw at Switzerland:

“. . . It is a great opportunity for everyone (individually) to show where they are right now, where they are at this stage with MLS teams, down in Mexico, and just show us at what stage you are. And then obviously the closer we get to the Gold Cup the more we kind of define things.”

Obviously.

And because of logistics, Klinsmann and his predecessors have had to play the hand they’re dealt when it comes to personnel, rounding up European-based starters for one friendly, then European-based bench sitters and MLS and Liga MX players for another. (Playing outside the FIFA international window, like the Mexico game, only makes things more difficult.) But in his nearly five-year tenure as U.S. boss, Klinsmann has established not just a revolving door but a spinning revolving door to his team’s dressing room, frustrating observers who would like to see him, at the very least, settle on a back line so those four souls don’t have to introduce themselves to one another before every kickoff. They might even learn to play as a unit.

True, the U.S. got a shutout victory in San Antonio with yet another eclectic group, but that quote and that game only made a recent online article by Bobby Warshaw all the more interesting. A 26-year-old midfielder for Baerum of the Norwegian first division who played for the U.S. U-17s, FC Dallas and two Swedish first division clubs, Warshaw wrote:

“Juergen Klinsmann is a tough cat to understand sometimes, but his comments prior to the U.S. men’s national team game with Switzerland shed a little light for me. Whenever Fox Sports’ Rob Stone asked a question about the team, Klinsmann put the emphasis on the players. He never mentioned team goals. Rather, he kept referring to the players, suggesting that ‘the players have the opportunity’ and ‘it’s a big time in their careers.’ It annoyed me.

“That doesn’t answer the question, Juergen. Why are you putting the weight on the players here? You’re always criticizing the players. He asked about the TEAM. How are you going to prepare the TEAM? You’re the man in charge.

“It seemed he was missing the boat.

“And then I remembered back to one of the first conversations I had in a European locker room. I had been there for a week on loan from my Major League Soccer team. I started talking to a guy in a nearby locker about his career. He said he didn’t want to be with the club long; he was going to move on to a bigger club soon. It seemed a strange thing to tell a teammate.

“I realized Klinsmann wasn’t shirking responsibility in the interview. He was making a statement that reflects his view of the game, and it’s something I think I’ve failed to understand about the coach: The European football culture where Klinsmann was raised revolves around individual ambition. Personal success means more than team accomplishments.

“It’s a funny feeling around a European locker room. Everyone is happy to be on the team, but everybody also wants to be on a different one. A lot of the players have one foot out the door as soon as they step in. If a European player could pick between a trophy at the end of the season and moving on to a bigger club, he would choose the move. And it’s all perfectly accepted. It’s a strange way to conduct a team. (I can’t imagine what it’s like to play for a feeder club like Ajax, where not a single person really wants to be on that team.)

“Every player in Europe has a small sense he will someday end up in Manchester United red. Seventy-five thousand fans, Champions League, multi-million-dollar deals all feel within your reach.

“In MLS, the ceiling seems so low. The league office won’t sell you; it has no incentive to. You work hard to get some playing time and then become a starter. Hopefully the team rewards you with a new contract, but it’s not likely. They pat themselves on the back for getting a good deal within the salary cap. They tell you to sacrifice for the team. You chug along.

“In Europe, the sky’s the limit. It’s an incredible feeling. It only takes one game or one good run for someone to spot you. The next morning your club sells you to pay the electric bill. You move up a step in a matter of days.

“It changes the way you see the game. Winning isn’t the be-all and end-all. You don’t play to win the game . . . . You play because you’re personally ambitious. Ambition drives performance. And if everyone plays well, then the team wins the game. That drive, that ambition, that personal selfishness helps players, and the team, perform.

“This is strange to Americans. We hate to think anyone is playing for himself. We loath selfish players. And that’s one of our disconnects with Klinsmann.  Klinsmann doesn’t view it as selfish. He sees it as natural, if not necessary.

“The way you talk about the team doing well is to talk about the players playing well. All of a sudden, ‘the players have the opportunity’ makes a lot more sense. It’s the individual’s drive that moves the team forward.

“But players still need direction and game plan, neither of which Klinsmann seems to provide. Emphasis on a player’s individual ambition aside, at some point coaching needs to be done.

“Klinsmann has a general view of the team that we don’t seem to like. Some wise person in history surely said that hatred is fueled by ignorance–and seeing Klinsmann through this European lens at least helps us understand the man a little more. But who knows, maybe that understanding simply gives a little more merit to the hatred.

“Klinsmann grew up in a sporting model different than the one touted in the United States. I don’t think it explains everything, but it explains a little.”

Warshaw is certainly right in that Klinsmann’s outlook runs counter to American sensibilities.  The U.S. sinks or swims as a team; for decades, it has been a one-for-all, all-for-one outfit out of necessity.  Go down the list of the USA’s greatest upset victories–from England in 1950 through Portugal in 2002 and beyond–and in every case the whole was greater than the sum of its parts compared to the individual international stars they defeated.

And U.S. Soccer has even had to stand its approach to youth soccer on its head in an effort to match the player development methods of top soccer-playing nations.  When Claudio Reyna was appointed the USSF’s youth technical director in 2010 (a year before Klinsmann took the helm of the national team), his curriculum could be summed up by this quote:  “We care about how many players you develop rather than how many trophies you win.”  It was refreshing . . . and altogether Klins-ian.

So the focus now is on the individual, not the team.  It can only be hoped that when these sparkling individuals reach the national team, it is Berti Vogts who can help the rugged individualist Klinsmann turn a collection of talent into a unit, supplying Warshaw’s “direction and game plan.”  With Klinsmann under fire for his selections and methods and tactics, it was Vogts who was brought aboard two months ago as technical advisor to do for Klinsmann, perhaps, what Joachim Loew did for him at the 2006 World Cup when Klinsy was German National Team boss.  Vogts, an unselfish, blue-collar player nicknamed “The Terrier” would’ve been Warshaw’s prototypical American, a guy playing for the team, not to move up the soccer ladder.  Vogts, after all, toiled 15 seasons in the Bundesliga, all with the glamorous Borussia Moenchengladbach.



THE VERY QUIET ANNUAL WOMEN’S WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP

The U.S. National Women’s Team awoke in the second half to score three goals and cruise past Switzerland, 3-0, in an Algarve Cup match at Vila Real de Santo Antonio and take over first place in Group “B” with a 2-0-0 record.   Alex Morgan opened the scoring in the 54th minute, Amy Rodriguez doubled the lead with a brilliant finish off a goalmouth scramble in the 72nd and Abby Wambach, aided by a poor Swiss back pass, sealed the victory nine minutes from time.

The Americans will play Iceland three days later in Lagos their its final group match.  The two best group winners will meet in the first-place game; Brazil leads Group “A” (1-0-1) and France tops Group “C” (2-0-0).  [March 6]

Comment:  This 22nd Algarve Cup underscores how far women’s soccer has come . . . and how far it has to go in comparison to the men’s game.

Held in the tourist-friendly southernmost region of Portugal, it’s the biggest annual tournament in women’s soccer.  Nine of this year’s 12 national teams have qualified for this summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada.  With the exception of host Portugal (No. 42), every team is in the top 20 in FIFA’s latest Women’s World Rankings.  How tough is the competition?  The U.S. won two Women’s World Cups before it won the first of its nine Algarve Cups.  And Fox Sports is televising it live.

Yet despite the prestige and world-class quality of this event, attendance puts the Algarve Cup on a par with a decent NCAA Division I women’s match.  The U.S.-Switzerland game at Vila Real de Santo Antonio’s Estadio Municipal drew a crowd generously listed as 500; the USA’s 2-1 win over Norway at the same site two days earlier also attracted “500.”  Not all five of the Algarve Cup venues have bothered to report turnstile counts, but through the first two rounds of group play the biggest turnout was 769 for Sweden’s 4-2 upset of top-ranked Germany.  Denmark appears to be a particularly hard sell:  133 patrons watched the Danes lose to Japan, 2-1, at Stadium Bela Vista in Parchal, and another 45 returned to see them get thumped by France, 4-1.  How seriously are the Portuguese organizers taking all this?  The U.S.-Iceland match cannot be televised due to inadequate lighting at Municipal Stadium in Lagos.

This is not unusual.  The local Portuguese have a history of being completely indifferent to this showcase of women’s international soccer.  Most matches have been played before crowds in the dozens–a stark reminder that outstanding women’s soccer doesn’t always draw.  A women’s Olympic soccer gold-medal match?  Sure.  And the 2015 Women’s World Cup final on July 5 in Vancouver will fill the 55,000-seat BC Place.  As for last year’s Algarve Cup final at Estadio Algarve in Faro, 600 bothered to show up for Germany’s 3-0 rout of defending world champion Japan.

Imagine, then, a men’s Algarve Cup, an annual tournament involving the world’s 12 best national teams–virtually a combination of the European Championship and Copa America.  To the critics of the expansion of the men’s World Cup over the years, this would be a Hyper-World Cup with none of the long-shots and no-hopers from Africa, Asia and CONCACAF (apologies to the U.S. and Mexico) that those critics dismiss as mere fodder.  Play it in Portugal, where the national team is currently ranked seventh worldwide, and you’ve got No. 1 Germany, No. 2 Argentina, No. 3 Colombia, No. 4 Belgium, No. 5 Holland, No. 6 Brazil, No. 8 France, No. 9 Uruguay, No. 10 Spain, No. 11 Switzerland and No. 12 Italy.  Not bad.  And chances are it would out-draw the Algarve Cup.