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SAY IT AIN’T SO, LIONEL

Five-time FIFA World Player of the Year Lionel Messi announced his international retirement immediately after Argentina fell in the Copa America Centenario to Chile on penalty kicks, 4-2, following a scoreless draw at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ, before 82,076.

The defeat capped a string of Argentina disappointments for the 29-year-old, including losses in the 2014 World Cup final and the 2007 and 2015 Copa America finals.  Although he led La Albiceleste to an under-20 world championship in 2005 and a gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he has never claimed a winners’ medal with the senior team.

A back injury caused Messi to miss Argentina’s Copa opener against Chile, but he came off the bench in the second group game, against Panama, and notched a hat trick in just 19 minutes.  He scored against Venezuela in the quarterfinals to equal Gabriel Batistuta’s Argentine scoring record of 54, then surpassed it with a brilliant free-kick strike against the U.S. in the semifinals.

However, in the final he was hounded by multiple Chilean defenders for 120 minutes, and he capped a frustrating night by blasting his attempt over the crossbar on Argentina’s first shot in the tiebreaker.

“For me, the national team is over,” the distraught superstar told reporters.  “I’ve done all I can.  I’ve been in four finals and it hurts not to be a champion.  It’s a hard moment for me and the team, and it’s difficult to say, but it’s over with the Argentina team.”  [June 26]

Comment I:  Perhaps the frustration got the best of him.  Maybe his tax problems back in Spain were weighing heavily.  Perhaps Messi will take a deep breath and reconsider.  (After all, he didn’t quit last year when Argentina lost on a tiebreaker to Chile–and Messi made his PK that day.)   But if he doesn’t change his mind, he’ll rue the day.

Messi has never been embraced by his fellow Argentines the way they adore Diego Maradona.  Messi left home as a 13-year-old prodigy for FC Barcelona, where he grew as an academy player and went on to win four UEFA Champions League titles and eight Spanish La Liga crowns.  In Argentina, he’s been more closely associated with Barca than the sky blue and white, and while Maradona also played for Barcelona (and later became a hero in Italy with Napoli), El Pibe de Oro was the one who delivered the goods, singlehandedly lifting Argentina to the 1986 World Cup championship.  Messi has no such clout.

If Messi does not change his mind, he will have forfeited any chance to change how he will go down in soccer history.  As things stand, he will be recorded as probably the greatest player of his generation, better even than Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo.  He’ll be regarded as a the third member of Argentina’s holy trinity along with Maradona and Alfredo Di Stefano.  But, in a world in which kids still look up to their sports heroes, he’ll also be regarded as a quitter.  Worse, a coward.

And this with the next World Cup, in Russia, and possible redemption, just two years away.

Comment II:  The question concerning the U.S. National Team was whether its Copa America Centenario performance had represented any progress.

Well, a year ago the Americans lost the third-place match at the Gold Cup, making it the fourth-best team in CONCACAF.  Now it’s lost the third-place game at the Copa America, technically making it the fourth-best team in South America.  What fourth-place mantle would you rather wear?

On a practical front, the mad scientist, coach Juergen Klinsmann, stopped with the tinkering and would’ve trotted out the same lineup throughout the tournament were it not for suspensions and injuries.  Young center back John Brooks grew into a genuine partnership with Geoff Cameron and was rewarded with a spot on the Copa America Centenario Best XI team, the only player from the U.S.–or Mexico–so honored.  Bobby Wood graduated from minor pest up front to major concern and will challenge Jozy Altidore for playing time in the future.

But then there were the questions raised over the course of the tournament.  Such as, will young right back DeAndre Yedlin couple his scintillating runs forward with some reliable defense?  Will Gyasi Zardes continue to have the first touch of a block of cement?  Will Michael Bradley’s skills as midfield maestro continue to erode?  Will 33-year-old Clint Dempsey, who scored three goals at the Copa to close to within five goals of Landon Donovan’s U.S. career record of 57, continue to defy Father Time?

Those are the questions that matter.  They were raised at the Copa, not answered, but perhaps they’ll be answered where it really counts, when the U.S. resumes World Cup qualifying for Russia ’18, in September.

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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.



U.S. SOCCER’S WARM SEAT GETS A BIT WARMER

The U.S. was denied passage to the second round and Portugal remained alive after the Portuguese got a goal from Silvestre Varela nearly five minutes into added-on time to eke out a 2-2 draw at Manaus in the second game for the two Group “G” rivals.

The Americans and Germany, both with four points, are scheduled to meet in Recife on Thursday, June 26, the same time that Portugal and Ghana play in Brasilia.  The Portuguese and Ghanans have one point apiece.

Portugual, coming off its disastrous 4-0 loss to Germany in its opener, got off to an ideal start when winger Nani pounced on a mis-hit clearance by U.S. defender Geoff Cameron and scored from short range in the fifth minute.  The Americans replied with a 25-yard blast inside the right post by midfielder Jermaine Jones in the 64th minute and took the lead in the 81st when striker Clint Dempsey chested home a short cross in the box by midfielder Graham Zusi.

The prospect of the USA notching its first-ever comeback victory in a World Cup dissolved with 30 seconds left.  Midfielder Michael Bradley was dispossessed just inside the Portuguese half, superstar Cristiano Ronaldo–neutralized for 94 minutes–carried the ball down the left and got off a perfect cross, and substitute midfielder Varela was on the other end for a flying header from eight yards away. [June 22]

Comment:  Though Portugal’s last-gasp equalizer left millions of American television viewers (a record 24.72 million, according to the TV ratings) stunned, Bradley seemed as shell-shocked as anyone.  Interviewed by ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap after the game, he struggled mightily to put words together, especially after he was asked, “Do you blame yourself for what happened?”

http://www.espnfc.com/united-states/story/1904636/michael-bradley-has-no-regrets-on-united-states-performance-after-settling-for-draw-with-portugal

Was it a fair question?  No.  But there was a positive side to it.

Unlike the old adage, “Success has a hundred fathers, but failure is an orphan,” a review of most any goal will reveal mental and physical mistakes by the defense, just as that same goal will likely be the product of skill/creativity/luck involving more than one attacking player.  To pin the goal on Bradley–despite his having his second straight weak showing at this World Cup–would be unfair.  The U.S. had numbers back as Ronaldo dribbled down the wing, and regardless of Ronaldo’s pedigree, the situation appeared to be under control.   If there are goat horns to be handed out, they should go to Cameron, who had played a solid match six days earlier in the 2-1 win over Ghana.  Caught ball-watching and poorly positioned, Cameron allowed the much smaller Varela to surge past him and get to Ronaldo’s cross unmolested.

On the other hand, Schaap’s question is another of those indications that the U.S. continues to evolve into a soccer nation bit by bit.  It’s still too rare for American sports media members to put soccer players and coaches on the spot or generally make life hell for them like their European and South American counterparts.  It was only one question, but as interest in the sport grows and the United States becomes a country of one hundred million or so soccer critics, the media here will be under increased pressure to scrutinize every move made on the field and give us not just the “who,” “what,” “when” and “where” as to what happened in a match but the “why” and “how”–even if it has to include unfair questions in the process.  As this World Cup has revealed, there’s a growing number of inquiring minds who want to know.



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.



THE USA’S INDISPENSABLE MAN

A highly motivated Ukraine turned a friendly into a mini-clinic as it defeated the World Cup-bound U.S. National Team, 2-0, in Larnaca, Cyprus.

Andriy Yarmolenko scored 12 minutes into the game and Marko Devic iced the victory with a 68th-minute goal.  On each strike, the Ukrainians took advantage of a shaky American defense anchored by center backs Anthony Brooks and Oguchi Onyewu.

The match, originally scheduled for Kharkiv, was moved 600 miles to Cyprus’ Papadopoulos Stadium days after the Russian military intervention in Crimea.  Only 1,573 spectators were on hand for the hastily relocated game, many of them Ukrainian expatriates who broke into chants of “No war in Ukraine!” after the final whistle.  [March 5]

Comment I:  Clint Dempsey did not score against Ukraine, nor did a slumping Jozy Altidore; Landon Donovan, preparing for the Los Angeles Galaxy’s MLS opener three days later, wasn’t even there, nor was playmaker Michael Bradley, who recently moved from AS Roma to Toronto FC.  Nevertheless, after the USA’s shutout loss, the most indispensable man of the night proved to be another no-show, right fullback Steve Cherundolo.

Coach Juergen Klinsmann’s back four figures to be Stoke City’s Geoff Cameron–or Brad Evans of the Seattle Sounders–plus the Galaxy’s Omar Gonzales and Matt Besler of Sporting Kansas City and the veteran DaMarcus Beasley of Puebla, who has revived his international career as a left back.  But despite Beasley’s 114 caps, the back line will sorely miss the experience and steadying influence of the 34-year-old Cherundolo, whose ongoing knee problems make his appearance at a third World Cup a long-shot.  Cherundolo has 87 caps to the combined 30 of Gonzalez and Besler, but he brings much more than just a wise old head.

Without the feisty, reliable, attack-minded Cherundolo, Klinsmann is without the player who’d most closely resemble the right back at his disposal if he was still coach of Germany–Philipp Lahm.  Cherundolo, of course, is not quite in Lahm’s league, figuratively speaking, although both play in the German Bundesliga.  While Cherundolo usually captains perennial also-ran Hannover 96, Lahm, a member of the 2006 and 2010 All-World Cup teams, captains both European champion Bayern Munich and the German National Team.  Nevertheless, Cherundolo is as important to his team as Lahm is to his.  At 5-foot-7, Lahm is known as “The Magic Dwarf.”  Without the 5-6 Cherundolo, Klinsmann will be missing his own magic dwarf.

Comment II:  The Ukraine-U.S. match and several other friendlies–many of them World Cup tune-ups for one or both sides–were played March 5, which marked the 100-day countdown to the kickoff of Brasil ’14.  What ESPN2 viewers of that game and the Italy-Spain game that followed were not subjected to was what they would’ve seen four years ago at the same point ahead of South Africa ’10:  promos touting ABC/ESPN/ESPN2’s upcoming World Cup coverage featuring the play-by-play talents of Martin Tyler.

Ian Darke, whose call of Donovan’s last-gasp goal for the U.S. against Algeria four years ago is now part of American soccer lore, has replaced Tyler as the lead commentator for ABC/ESPN’s coverage in Brazil.  Darke will be the play-by-play man for the June 12 Brazil-Croatia tournament opener, all U.S. matches, the final July 13, and other games.

British viewers in this country might miss Tyler, who we are given to believe is to soccer across the Pond what Al Michaels is to major sports here.  But American viewers will find Darke a significant upgrade–if they haven’t already over the last four years with his TV calls here of MLS, U.S. National Team and English Premier League games.  Tyler has proven to be urbane, witty, knowledegable, and–unlike Darke–understated to a fault.  Unfortunately, the end result is play-by-play that is very easy to tune out if the game Tyler is calling isn’t exactly, well, scintillating.  Tyler describing “a thoughtful, probing ball down the left flank,” is not unlike a visit to the doctor’s office, where Dr. Tyler, the proctologist, is carrying on a pleasant, soothing, benign conversation with his patient while the patient isn’t really concentrating on this pleasant, soothing, benign chat.

“So, how are we today?  Any complaints?”

“Well, actually, I ….”

“Yes, of course.   Now, shall we try to breath normally?  This portion will take but a minute ….”

Comment III:  At the Ukraine match, the U.S. sported Nike’s newest stab at designing a national team jersey.  Gone were the welcomed horizontal red-and-white striped shirts that all but shouted “USA,” replaced by something straight out of the bleach bucket:  a white shirt with single red pinstripes on the sleeves and collar, plus the U.S. Soccer logo, not the classic, old-fashioned stars-and-stripes shield the players sported during the 2013 USSF centennial season.

http://www.ussoccer.com/news/mens-national-team/2014/03/140303-new-kit.aspx

The collar is quite alright–a soccer jersey without a collar looks more like a glorified T-shirt.  But Nike’s end result is a boring jersey more suited for playing golf or tennis or lounging about.  And maybe that’s what the marketing geniuses at Nike had in mind all along when it comes to replica jersey sales.



BACK IN THEIR HEADS?

Seventy-five years of frustration came to an end as the United States shocked Mexico, 1-0, in a friendly at Estadio Azteca for its first victory in Mexico in 25 tries.  Midfielder Michael Orozco Fiscal, who plays in the Mexican First Division for San Luis, scored the game’s lone goal with an awkward left-footed shot from close range.

The Mexicans’ defeat was only their ninth in 120 international matches at the Azteca, which opened in 1966.  The USA’s modest record against Mexico improved to 1-19-1 at the legendary Mexico City stadium, 1-23-1 in Mexico and 16-32-12 overall.

Mexico dominated for most of the evening, but in the 79th minute a trio of second-half substitutes pushed the U.S. in front.  Brek Shea beat Severo Meza on the left side of the penalty area and slid the ball across to Terrence Boyd, whose back heel found Orozco Fiscal near the far post.

Goalkeeper Tim Howard, who brilliantly denied Mexico scoring ace Javier Hernandez in the 85th and 89th minutes, and a new-look U.S. back line that featured Geoff Cameron and Maurice Edu in the middle, helped preserve the shutout.  [August 15]

Comment:  It was only a friendly, and neither side was at full strength.  But the fact remains that the U.S. at long last shattered the notion of El-Tri invincibility against their hated neighbor on home soil.  Fourteen months after Mexico ended a run of failure north of the border with a 4-2 humiliation of the U.S. in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final at the Rose Bowl, the Americans might just have gotten back into the Mexicans’ heads.