Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


WE DIDN’T TELL YOU SO–WE WARNED YOU SO

As expected, Bruce Arena announced his resignation as U.S. National Team coach, four days after he watched his side fall in shocking fashion to Trinidad & Tobago, a defeat that cost America a berth in the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Needing only a tie in its final CONCACAF qualifier to punch its ticket, the U.S. gave up two first-half goals in a 2-1 loss at Couva. The Americans then tumbled from third place in the six-nation competition to fourth and ultimately fifth place minutes later as Panama and Honduras, playing simultaneous matches, both won to move up.  The top three nations–Mexico, Costa Rica and the Panamanians–qualify for Russia automatically and the fourth-place finisher, Honduras, advances to a home-and-home playoff with Australia.

“No excuses,” said Arena in his resignation statement.  “We didn’t get the job done, and I accept responsibility.”

Arena, who guided the U.S. to the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, including a quarterfinal appearance in ’02, was hired to be Mr. Fix-It after Juergen Klinsmann was dismissed in November following losses to Mexico and Costa Rica to open the hexagonal playoff.  The winningest coach in U.S. history at 81-32-35, Arena went 10-2-6 in his second go-round but only 3-2-3 in the USA’s remaining World Cup qualifiers.  [October 13]

Comment I:  We didn’t tell you so, but we warned you so.

Go back to our August 18, 2015 post (“Don’t Put the U.S. Cart Before the World Cup Horse”).  It was inspired by the cocksure attitude in the U.S. soccer community that its team was a rubber stamp to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.  At issue was whether the U.S. or Mexico, CONCACAF’s previous two Gold Cup winners, would win a playoff to secure a spot in the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup in Russia.  From all quarters came the description of the Confederations as “a valuable warm-up for the World Cup,” as if both countries had already qualified with the Hex still more than 12 months away.  After all, they’d piled up 13 World Cup berths between them since 1990, and Mexico probably would’ve qualified for Italia ’90 had it not been barred by FIFA for using an over-age player in a youth competition.

The post reminded readers of the progress being made by the nations behind the Yanks and El Tri, and above all it recalled Mexico’s near-miss four years earlier, when it was seconds from being eliminated until the U.S. threw it a lifeline with two goals in stoppage time for a comeback win over Panama.  The red-faced Mexicans humbly accepted the gift and went on to qualify for Brazil ’14 by beating Oceania’s New Zealand in a playoff.  Four years ago the impossible was possible for a matter of seconds, and now, as of the evening of October 10, 2017, the seemingly impossible has indeed become reality.

The lesson out of The Disaster of Couva:  A World Cup berth isn’t a given.  It’s precious.

Comment II:  Seven consecutive World Cup appearances.

If there was any justification for the confidence here that a World Cup berth had become an American birthright, it is that remarkable run of success.  It’s a boast perennial powers like Holland, Uruguay and England can’t make.  Only six other nations had done it since 1990:  Brazil (five world championships), Germany (four), Italy (four), Argentina (two), Spain (one) and South Korea, which seemingly owns Asia.  The U.S. staggered into Italia ’90, making its first World Cup appearance in four decades, and it made it automatically in 1994 as host nation, but it’s been soccer’s version of a cakewalk since.  CONCACAF may have the world’s ugliest, most contentious qualifying competition, but the U.S. was given a golden path with FIFA’s decision to expand France ’98 from 24 teams to 32, thus increasing the number of berths allotted to CONCACAF from two to three.  Suddenly, regional qualifiers here were no longer a contest to see which countries would be fighting for the one scrap left behind by mighty Mexico.

So where does this hubris leave us?  Next June and July, there will be no outdoor viewing parties for thousands of fans at cities throughout the country for a U.S. National Team.  Fox, which spent more than $400 million for the rights to the next two World Cups, won’t experience the bump ESPN did in 2014 when 18.2 million Americans tuned in for the USA’s first-round draw against Portugal–a figure larger than the domestic audience of 17.3 million for the Germany-Argentina final.  The dominoes that will fall will include sponsorship and endorsement dollars not realized.  You’ll see small headlines, not big headlines, in your newspaper’s sports section, and no special insert devoted to rising young star Christian Pulisic, ol’ reliable Clint Dempsey and the boys.  The day’s World Cup results may be the last thing mentioned on your local TV news’ sports report, if it’s mentioned at all.  In short, your mother-in-law and the stranger in line at the grocery store won’t ask you about the World Cup and whether our guys can win their next match.

Worst of all, there’s a big slice of an entire generation of young players who won’t get that extra inspiration that comes from watching their country play for a world championship.  When you’re age 10, eight years is a lonnnnnng time.

Comment III:  What happened?

U.S. fans will be asking that well into the future.  With its fate in its hands, the U.S. played without urgency long enough for Omar Gonzalez to score in the 17th minute what will now be known as the most notorious own goal in American history, followed by a 35-yard bomb in the 37th by Alvin Jones that beat 38-year-old ‘keeper Tim Howard high inside the far post.  Pulisic, the USA’s 19-year-old wunderkind, pulled one back with a right-footed drive from the penalty arc two minutes after intermission, but would-be savior Dempsey was denied an equalizer in the 69th by goalkeeper Glenroy Samuel’s leap and by the right goal post seven minutes later.

Where was the U.S. side that ran wild four nights earlier in a 4-0 rout of desperate Panama in the penultimate qualifier in Orlando?  Arena started the exact same 11 in Florida, so was it fatigue?  Was the U.S. subconsciously playing for a draw?  Only savvy teams like Italy know how to play for a tie on demand.

Whatever it was, what happened elsewhere wasn’t much of a surprise.  Costa Rica had already clinched second place in the hex, so its 2-1 loss at Panama City on a controversial late goal wasn’t much of an upset.  Mexico had already clinched first, so its seesaw 3-2 defeat at San Pedro Sula didn’t do much to dent El Tri pride.

No, the major surprise was in Trinidad & Tobago.  Because of electrical problems, the U.S. match had been moved an hour south of the national stadium in Port of Spain to a modest 10,000-seat track and field facility.  Just as well.  With the Soca Warriors long since eliminated, the turnout at Couva resembled a crowd for a junior college match.  In fact, an attendance figure was not released.  It was virtually a neutral site.  Certainly T&T was playing with absolutely nothing to lose.  But U.S. fans have to question the fortitude of a team playing what was becoming a do-or-die game devoid of the horrors of qualifying on the road in CONCACAF.

Comment IV:  What now?

Most of the focus is on the man who hired Klinsmann and then Arena, U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati.  He’s up for re-election after three campaigns in which he ran unopposed.  The two fellows expected to run against him in February are relative unknowns.  What Gulati has in his favor is his influence as a player in the high stakes world of international soccer.  A member of the National Soccer Hall of Fame, he sits on the powerful FIFA Executive Council (formerly the Executive Committee), he was instrumental in getting Gianni Infantino elected FIFA president, and he’s leading the Canada/U.S./Mexico campaign to host the 2026 World Cup, which will be the first 48-nation World Cup in history.  It should be noted, however, that the North American trio’s lone opponent for ’26 is Morocco, which would have trouble adequately accommodating a 16-team competition.  It is not imperative, then, that Gulati remain U.S. Soccer’s chief executive.

Whoever wins this winter, it is hoped that the new president shows patience.  There’s no clear successor to Arena waiting in the wings here in America.  Come the final whistle at next year’s World Cup, there will be plenty of qualified coaches who either stepped down or were pushed from their post, and many will be interested in a job where the resources are ample, the players are promising if not international stars and the only goal is not to work miracles but just right a ship that’s badly listing.  Oh, and unlike back home, the public pressure is minimal.

 

 

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OUR BRAVE NEW BLOATED WORLD . . . CUP

The 2026 World Cup will have 48 teams.

The move from 32 teams to four dozen was approved unanimously by the FIFA governing council, an expansion of world soccer’s championship tournament that was welcomed by supporters as a victory for inclusion but criticized by others as another cynical, money-driven effort by an organization still in the throes of a financial and ethical scandal.

The percentage of the expansion will be the largest ever, from the original 16 (1930-78) to 24 (1982-94) to 32 (1998-2022).  More teams mean more matches, in this case an increase from 64 games to 80.  It also means greater revenue:  the 2018 World Cup in Russia is expected to pull in $5.5 billion through television rights, sponsorships and tickets; the 48-nation ’26 cup will bring in an additional billion.  Some of the expected increased profit–approximately $640 million–will find its way into the coffers of soccer’s six continental confederations and–presumably–on to FIFA’s 211 member national federations.

New FIFA boss Gianni Infantino had pushed for the change in 2016 when he ran for the presidency in an effort to include more nations and invigorate what was already the world’s most popular sporting event.

But critics contend that opening the World Cup doors to lesser soccer-playing nations will result in a weaker tournament, with nearly a quarter of FIFA’s membership reaching its most prestigious competition every four years and more matches crammed into an already crowded international calendar.  Infantino was unconcerned.  “We are in the 21st century, and we have to shape the football World Cup of the 21st century,” he said after the vote.  “Football is more than just Europe and South America.  Football is global.”

For Russia ’18, Europe, as usual, will have the lion’s share of berths, 13, plus the automatic slot that goes to the host nation.  Ten-nation South America gets four berths, as does 47-nation Asia.  Africa’s 56 members will battle for five slots.  CONCACAF gets three.  The 31st and 32nd berths will go to the winners of home-and-home playoffs between CONCACAF and Asian also-rans and between the Oceania winner and a South American also-ran.  A decision on how the 2026 pie will be sliced will be made in May.  [January 10]

Comment:  No surprise here.   A huge expansion of the World Cup field for 2026 became inevitable with Infantino’s early Christmas present to the likes of Asia, Africa, CONCACAF and Oceania:  release of a 65-page analysis by a FIFA in-house group of five options in growing the World Cup.   The 48-team concept was rated best (and most profitable), with 16–sixteen!–groups of three teams each playing round-robin to open the tournament.  Another 48-team format called for a 32-team knockout round, followed by a group stage involving the 16 survivors and 16 seeded teams, for 80 total games.  Then there was the idea of 40 teams divided into eight groups of five and, in the end, 88 games played.  Or, 40 teams with 10 groups of four for a total of 76 games.

The opposition, not surprisingly, was led by the European Club Association, which represents 220 clubs on the Continent.  It called the present 32-team format “the perfect formula from all perspectives.”  The ECA added, “We understand that this decision has been taken based on political reasons rather than sporting ones and under considerable political pressure, something ECA believes is regrettable.”

The FIFA analysis indeed conceded the expansion would diminish the level of play at that World Cup, but it also explicitly stated that the FIFA governing council must make its decision purely for “sporting” reasons.  But back to reality.

While Option No. 2 (an opening knockout round involving 32 teams, with the losers going home after one match), may seem ridiculous, what the governing council–the body created to replace the greedy, seedy and disgraced Executive Committee–settled on is only slightly better.  Expansion itself is a bad idea.  Despite three expansions since the late 1970s, the World Cup has remained a relatively compact monthlong festival of soccer.  The approved 48-team formula would mean a reasonable increase by one or two days to 32; the two finalists would still play the customary seven games; and the usual 12 stadiums would be required of the host nation(s).  But the addition of no-hopers only means an erosion in the level of play and a resulting decline in interest among the general public.  If Brasil ’14 had been expanded to 48, the tournament might have included the likes Egypt, Tunisia, and Jordan–and the forgettable matches they were likely to contribute.  As for inclusion, today’s 32-team format has already allowed otherwise outsiders Trinidad & Tobago, China, Slovenia, Angola, North Korea, New Zealand, Tunisia, Togo and Saudi Arabia to have their day in the sun, not to mention splinters from the former Yugoslavia–Serbia & Montenegro (2006), Serbia (’10) and Bosnia & Herzegovina (’14).

Beyond concerns over the drop in level of play, the 16 x 3 format given FIFA’s blessing contains a serious flaw.  Forty-eight teams divided into 16 groups of three might require penalty-kick tiebreakers after drawn matches in the first round to ensure there is a “winner.”  After all, there has to be a brutally quick method to determine a group’s top two finishers and send the third-place team home.  That radical change to how the opening round of a World Cup is run also would be necessary to prevent teams from conspiring to arrange a favorable result in the final group game.

Just what we need:  More chances for PK tiebreakers to rear their ugly head before a global audience.  And more of just what we need:  A reprise of the three-team group, with each team playing just two games.  That was tried at Espana ’82, the first go-round with a 24-team field, when four three-team groups followed the first round and those group winners advanced to the semifinals.  Three teams playing two matches each promised nothing more than mostly defensive, nervy encounters that would please no one, and while there was Italy’s classic 3-2 win over favored Brazil, the 12 games averaged less than 2 1/2 goals–a half goal fewer than the tournament average–and included three scoreless draws.  Happily, that format was jettisoned for Mexico ’86 in favor of the now-familiar 16-team knockout second round.

There’s also the matter of what the bigger field will mean to the qualifying competition for ’26.  If Europe and South America gain only a couple of extra berths, the traditional powers there will have even less to fear.  Even in CONCACAF, the U.S. and Mexico, which survived a mighty scare before slipping into the 2014 World Cup, have no worries.  And with still less drama during what is an interminable qualifying process, the fans lose.

Finally, the expansion in ’26 also will mean a greater burden on the host, which will have to find accommodations and training facilities for an additional 16 teams, a new consideration that will hike the organizing nation’s bill from $2 billion to $2.3 billion.  That’s why there has been talk of the job of hosting that first 48-team event going to the triumvirate of the United States, Mexico and Canada.  Informal talks among the three have already begun.  The decision will be made in May 2020, and FIFA’s World Cup rotation among the continents would put North America in line to host.  Fueling the speculation is that Infantino owes U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati, who was instrumental in getting the Swiss-Italian elected FIFA boss in February.  There’s also the matter of the now-disgraced FIFA Executive Committee having given the U.S. the shaft in 2010 when it chose to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, ignoring the stronger American bid.  But beyond ’26, FIFA will have created a monster event that few potential hosts can handle.  Potential hosts like . . . China, which, on the heels of its 2008 Beijing Olympics, is keen to play host to the world’s biggest single-sport event.

There can be no denying that the soccer-playing world is a much more level playing field today than it was back in the days when the World Cup was an exclusive club of 16.  You could start with surprise packages like Costa Rica, which at Brasil ’14 stunned Uruguay and Italy and tied England before nipping Greece on penalty kicks in the second round and bowing in the quarterfinals to the Netherlands, 4-3 on PKs, after a brave scoreless draw.  But the World Cup remains a competition won by only eight nations–Brazil, Germany, Italy, Uruguay, Argentina, Spain, England and France–and the list of worthy also-rans remains limited to the Dutch; Hungary of long ago; Czechoslovakia, which no longer exists; and, in a bit of a stretch, Sweden.  That’s it.  Infantino’s gambit does nothing more than give hope to the hopeless and directs those extra one billion bucks into FIFA’s coffers at the final accounting of the 2026 World Cup.  And for the fans, if gives them countless more forgettable, hardly watchable matches between giants and minnows under the guise of FIFA World Cup soccer.  And World Cup games, even those not so great, should be somewhat memorable.

In the end, the winner is Infantino.  His act of patronage has placed dozens of soccer’s have-not nations in his debt, and when it comes to FIFA presidential elections, it’s a one-nation, one-vote world.  His power base is assured.



BRUCE 2.0

Bruce Arena was named coach of the U.S. National Team, replacing Juergen Klinsmann, who was fired a day earlier.

It will be Arena’s second stint as U.S. coach.  From 1998 to 2006 he compiled a 71-30-29 record, the most successful stretch in American history. A two-time winner of the CONCACAF Gold Cup (2002, 2005), he guided the Americans to an historic quarterfinal finish at the 2002 World Cup, beating Portugal in their opening match before advancing out of the group and earning a 2-0 victory over Mexico in the Round of 16.  The run ended with a heartbreaking 1-0 loss to eventual finalist Germany in the last eight.

“When we considered the possible candidates to take over the Men’s National Team at this time, Bruce was at the top of the list,” said USSF President Sunil Gulati of Arena, who also led the U.S. to a three-and-out finish at the 2006 World Cup. “His experience at the international level, understanding of the requirements needed to lead a team through World Cup qualifying, and proven ability to build a successful team were all aspects we felt were vital for the next coach. We all know Bruce will be fully committed to preparing the players for the next eight qualifying games and earning a berth to an eighth straight FIFA World Cup in Russia.”

Since his first tour as U.S. boss, Arena served as general manager and coach of the Los Angeles Galaxy from 2008 through this past season, winning Major League Soccer titles in 2011, 2012 and 2014.  He rose to prominence by winning five NCAA championships as coach of the University of Virginia, then led DC United to the first two MLS titles, in 1996 and ’97, as well as the ’96 U.S. Open Cup.  He also helped United become the first-ever U.S. team to lift the CONCACAF Champions Cup and the now-defunct Interamerican Cup, winning each in 1998.

“Any time you get the opportunity to coach the national team, it’s an honor,” said Arena. “I’m looking forward to working with a strong group of players that understand the challenge in front of them after the first two games of the Hex. Working as a team, I’m confident that we’ll take the right steps forward to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.”

The U.S. in early November opened the final round of CONCACAF qualifying for the 2018 World Cup with losses to Mexico, 2-1, at home, and at Costa Rica, 4-0.  The Mexico defeat was the first home loss in a World Cup qualifier in 15 years.  Those results left the Americans in last place, four points off the pace for the last direct qualifying berth with eight games remaining on the schedule.  [November 22]

Comment I:  The timing for the change was obvious for more than one reason.

The next U.S. qualifiers, against Honduras in Salt Lake City and Panama in Panama City, aren’t until March 24 and March 28, respectively.  Roughly four months.  Preceded by a low-key camp in January that traditionally includes a couple of friendlies where hopefuls from MLS and youngsters get a look.  There isn’t as big a window for the rest of the Hexagonal.  Plenty of time for Klinsmann’s replacement to pull together a staff and execute a smooth transition.  It’s the American way.  The USSF doesn’t fire its coaches on airport tarmacs after a big loss.

Then there was Arena himself.  On a personal level, he was the obvious choice, like him or not.  Arena is not the coach he was a decade ago.  He’s now 65, and a doting grandfather.  He signed a two-year contract with the USSF, and this obviously is his final hurrah.  He has an ego, and he’d like to go out with a signature accomplishment, like a successful World Cup run, which wasn’t going to happen if he stayed in Los Angeles.  What’s one more MLS Cup to Arena at this point?

Comment II:  Juergen Klinsmann made the fatal mistake of over-promising.

He was hired to replace Bob Bradley in 2011 on the promise that he would not only lead the U.S. to victory but remake American soccer culture from the top down.  Gulati doubled down on that promise in 2013, on the heels of a U.S.-record 12-game winning streak and Gold Cup title, by extending Klinsmann’s contract (a reported $3.2 million a year, through 2018) and crowning him men’s technical director to boot, placing the fates of the Olympic and national youth teams in his hands.

But the ups and downs of the Klinsmann era turned mostly to downs by 2015.  That year the national team failed to finish in the top three in the Gold Cup for the first time since 2000, part of a slide in which the Americans lost four consecutive games on U.S. soil for the first time in a half-century.   Meanwhile, on his watch as technical director, the U.S. failed to qualify for consecutive Olympic tournaments, something that hadn’t happened since Montreal ’76-Moscow ’80.  As for the U.S. youth teams, the kids haven’t been alright.  The U.S. under-20 team is winless in its last eight games against European nations by a combined score of 27-7, including a humiliating 8-1 pounding by Germany.  The U.S. went winless at the 2015 Under-17 World Cup, four years after failing to qualify for the first time ever.  Remember how the U-17s reached the semifinals of the 1999 world championship in New Zealand and teens Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley were named the tournament’s top two players?

Klinsmann, 52, departs having compiled a fine 55-27-16 record.  There have been two World Cups, including one in which his team won a so-called “Group of Death,” in 2014.  There was the fourth-place finish at last summer’s Copa America Centenario.  And startling friendly victories:  1-0 at Italy in 2012; 4-3 at home over Germany in 2013; 4-3 at Holland and 2-1 at Germany in 2015.  But he also exits with the cupboard bare:  the Klinsmann national team pool is overly reliant on German players with U.S. passports and his youth teams–based on results–are a shambles.  Little was built, and the fallout is the minor chaos that’s now Arena’s problem.

Comment III:  So who’s to blame?  Sunil Gulati.

He was one of the driving forces behind the ill-fated Project 2010, a laughably optimistic $50 million development surge launched by the USSF that was supposed to make America a legitimate contender for a World Cup title.  The title of the 1998 report that introduced the project, “Winning the World Cup by 2010:  Soccer’s Equivalent to the Apollo XI Moon Landing,” is best forgotten.

Gulati’s first major decision as federation president, in the weeks after the 2006 World Cup, was to allow Arena’s contract to expire, saying the team needed to go in a “fresh direction.”  He hired Arena’s assistant, Bradley, as new national team coach, then found him wanting in 2011 and hired Klinsmann, ultimately giving the German, as noted above, an extension and adding technical director to his titles.  Now it’s Arena, back to direct the U.S. in a presumably fresh direction.

As he completes the final two years of his third four-year term as U.S. Soccer supremo, Gulati’s legacy, and that of USSF Chief Executive Dan Flynn, will be one of continued success on the part of the U.S. women and utter mediocrity–even retreat–by the U.S. men at all levels.

Comment IV:  Had Klinsmann lost his team?

One can only wonder.  But there’s Klinsmann’s track record of rarely owning up to a mistake, of throwing players under the bus.  The latest victim was young Hertha Berlin center back John Brooks who, as Klinsmann pointed out, lost his mark, Rafael Marquez, on Marquez’s late winner off a corner kick in the 2-1 loss to Mexico.  Four nights later down in San Jose, a demoralized Brooks turned in a disastrous performance against Costa Rica.  This same 23-year-old came close to earning a near-perfect player rating in the USA’s 1-0 victory over Paraguay at last summer’s Copa America Centenario.

You don’t have to be embedded in the U.S. dressing room to draw the conclusion that Klinsmann, with his insistence on getting his players out of their “comfort zone,” his thinly veiled disdain for MLS players, his willingness to take chances on any and all European-based players, his infamous dropping of longtime U.S. captain Donovan on the eve of Brasil ’14 . . . was not a players’ coach.  And players’ coaches tend to have some support among the people in uniform when they get into trouble.  There was barely a peep from those wearing U.S. uniforms after Gulati dropped the hammer.

Comment V:    Is Arena Mr. Fix-it?

His first stab at professional coaching, with DC United in 1996, was, initially, a disaster.  A month into Major League Soccer’s first season, the team representing the nation’s capital was a laughingstock.  Arena quickly fired several players and United went on to win the league championship.  A year later, it won another.

Can Arena fix this with eight CONCACAF qualifiers remaining?  Odds remain good that the U.S. will qualify for the 2018 World Cup regardless of who is coach.  The top three finishers earn berths in Russia, and the fourth-place team remains alive through a home-and-home playoff with Asia’s fifth-place finisher.

But at this point, U.S. Soccer is in the position of merely hoping for an eighth straight World Cup appearance.  Should the team reach Russia ’18, the U.S. will be back in the familiar position of hoping for little more than surviving its first-round group and a trip to the second round of a World Cup.  Klinsmann’s promise of genuine progress remains a luxury . . . and an unfulfilled dream.

 



THE LEICESTER LESSON

Leicester City, a 5,000-to-1 shot to win it all at the beginning of the 2015-16 English Premier League campaign, pulled off the near-impossible when its closest challenger, Tottenham Hotspur, came from ahead to tie host Chelsea, 2-2, allowing the Foxes to assume a seven-point lead with two matches remaining.

It was the first top-division championship in the 132-year history of Leicester, which had not finished higher than second in the then-English First Division since 1929.  A four-time loser in the English F.A. Cup final, its trophy case previously consisted of English League Cups won in 1964, 1997 and 2000.

The Foxes–or Filberts, take your pick–were on the verge of relegation this time last year, but the unfashionable club from the English Midlands won seven of its last nine matches under then-coach Nigel Pearson.  It was an omen that this band of unknowns, with ex-Chelsea boss Claudio Ranieri hired to replace Pearson during the summer, had bigger things in store this season.  [May 2]

Comment I:  Leicester City, previously known on these shores only as the club for whom U.S. goalkeeper Kasey Keller once toiled in relative anonymity (1996-99), indeed took the EPL by surprise.  The Foxes were a true party crasher, finishing ahead of the usual suspects named Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City.

So Leicester’s surprise climb to the top was amazing, fun, worth a headline or two even in the U.S. sports pages, and a refreshing break from the usual routine, which has seen previous EPL titles–since the Premier League was created in 1992–go to Manchester United 13 times, Chelsea four times, Arsenal three, Manchester City twice and Blackburn Rovers once.  And it sent a wave of hope rolling across the country, lapping up against fans of clubs as pitiful as Middlesbrough, Brighton, Hull, Derby County, Norwich, Sunderland, Bournemouth–for such a small country, the list is long.

But it serves as a lesson in America, where Major League Soccer, now at 20 teams, has designs on expanding soon to 28.  This isn’t about dilution of talent, it’s about dilution of interest.

The reason leagues like the EPL can hold their public’s interest with–usually–one of the same small cluster of clubs finishing first year after year is because of promotion/relegation.  No season is completely uninteresting for the fan of a mediocre-to-poor club as long as there’s the thrill of booing a perennial bully and the terror of dropping into the second division, or the generously named “Championship League.”

Without promotion/relegation, a bloated MLS runs the risk of being saddled with a dozen or more clubs that endure years–decades, even–in which they neither truly contend for a championship nor get punished for their mediocrity.  Death by boredom.

Will MLS ever adopt promotion/relegation?  No.  But perhaps it will reconsider its race to over-expansion, or at least try to publicly offer a justification for its “bigger is better” approach to running a soccer league.

Comment II:   The point was made in some quarters that outsider Leicester rolled to its 22-3-11 record and the league crown partly because it could keep its eyes on the prize while EPL royalty was wrung out by pesky midweek UEFA Champions League and Europa League commitments.

Or, in other words, the EPL’s top clubs sure are impressive, but they don’t win in Europe because winning the lucrative Premiership is Job One and they don’t have the luxury of playing in a league that’s dominated by one club (Germany, Bayern Munich) or two (Spain, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid).  Alas, they have to play one another on Saturdays, so the pursuit of Continental silverware is an afterthought left for midweek nights at faraway places.

That’s an excuse that England would do well to retire.

Deep pockets mean player depth, which means the means to get through league, domestic cup and European cup matches, and there are few clubs more wealthy than England’s big five.  If need be, they can just study Spain’s La Liga, where teams manage to find a way to win a variety of trophies or at least come within touching distance.  The UEFA Champions League final will feature, for the second time in three years, two clubs from one city, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, one year after FC Barcelona came out on top.  Atletico won Europa League crowns in 2010 and 2012, and Sevilla, a Europa League winner in 2006 and ’07, just won its third consecutive Europa title, beating Spanish rival Villarreal in the semifinal.  And all these clubs had the wherewithal to compete in La Liga, a league that’s supposedly FC Barcelona, Real Madrid and a bunch of nobodies.

 



HOW NOW, THE CHANGING OF THE GUARD

Homegrown player Jordan Morris signed with the Seattle Sounders in a splashy ceremony at the team’s fan clubhouse in Pioneer Square, capping a whirlwind six weeks in which the 21-year-old striker led Stanford University to the 2015 NCAA Division I men’s national championship, was awarded the Hermann Trophy as the country’s top collegiate player and took part in a trial with Werder Bremen that left the German Bundesliga club poised to offer a contract.

Morris earned seven caps with the U.S. National Team last year, scoring in a 2-0 victory over Mexico in April and becoming the first college player to make an appearance with the full national team since UCLA forward Ante Razov in 1995.  He also scored six goals and added four assists in 11 appearances in ’15 for the U.S. under-23 side, including two goals in a 3-1 victory over Canada in its opening qualifier for the ’16 Rio de Janeiro Olympics; that campaign will be decided in March with a home-and-home playoff with Colombia .

The signing of Morris reunites the Mercer Island, Wash., native with U.S. and Sounder striker Clint Dempsey.  Sounder coach Sigi Schmid was delighted by Morris’ signing, saying he possesses “unteachable” qualities.  The Sounder rookie, however, is expected to spend his first MLS season in a supporting role, watching Dempsey, Obafemi Martins and Nelson Valdez start ahead of him.  [January 21]

Comment:   Here comes Mr. Jordan, and possibly others.  Can embattled U.S. National Team coach Juergen Klinsmann channel his inner 2006?

In recent months Klinsmann has been blessed by an interesting wave of fresh young talent.  Before the broad-shouldered, baby-faced Morris there was another forward, Bobby Wood, 23, a promising poacher who scored late winners in friendlies against Holland and Germany last spring, plus equalizers against Mexico in the CONCACAF playoff and the World Cup qualifying opener against St. Vincent & the Grenadines.  Wood continues to produce for his club, Union Berlin of the Bundesliga 2.  There’s also midfielder Darlington Nagbe.  Born in Liberia, raised in the U.S., the 25-year-old naturalized American made his U.S. debut against St. Vincent & the Grenadines and dazzled in leading the Portland Timbers to their first MLS Cup title.  Finally, defender Matt Miazga, 6-foot-4 and a mere 20.  He went from buried on the New York Red Bulls roster last spring to becoming one of MLS’s best central defenders in ’15.  Before bowing in with the full national team in the St. Vincent match, Miaza helped the U.S. reach the quarterfinals of the FIFA Under-20 World Cup and became a starter on the U-23 team.

Then there are youngsters who appeared in the 2014 World Cup:  defender John Brooks, 23, of Hertha Berlin, defender-midfielder DeAndre Yedlin, 22, of Sunderland, and forward Aron Johannsson, 25, of Werder Bremen.  Johannsson battled injuries in 2015 but Yedlin and another attacking player, Gyasi Zardes, 24, of the Los Angeles Galaxy, appeared in 19 of the USA’s 20 matches in ’15.

Is this the cavalry thundering down the hill?  Klinsmann can only hope so.  Dempsey is 32.  Defensive midfielders Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman and left back DaMarcus Beasley are 33.  Goalkeeper Tim Howard is 36.

Klinsmann, in his fifth year as national team coach, is on a hot seat, becoming the first national team coach in this soccer-averse country to experience a modicum of public scrutiny.  In 2015, after historic wins against the Netherlands in Amsterdam and Germany in Cologne, the U.S. stumbled badly at the CONCACAF Gold Cup, finishing fourth, its worst showing in a Gold Cup in 15 years.  A humiliating 4-1 loss to Brazil in Foxboro followed, which served as a warm-up (or down) to the lifeless 3-2 overtime defeat to Mexico in a CONCACAF playoff at the Rose Bowl that cost the Americans a berth in the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup.  Three days later the U.S. tumbled to Costa Rica, 1-0, in a friendly in New Jersey, but it salvaged the year by opening a new World Cup cycle by routing St. Vincent & the Grenadines, 6-1, in St. Louis and escaping Port of Spain with a scoreless draw and a point against Trinidad & Tobago.

As the mixed results mounted, Klinsmann came under increasing criticism for his often baffling player selections, his lineups (20 different lineups in 20 games), his tinkering with formations (a 3-5-2, a 4-2-3-1, a flat 4-4-2 and a diamond 4-4-2) and tactics.  At one point, former U.S. star Landon Donovan said that Klinsmann should lose his job if Mexico won at the Rose Bowl.  The U.S. lost, and Klinsmann got a half-hearted vote of confidence from USSF President Sunil Gulati.

This cavalry of young talent may yield a couple of riders or, in Klinsmann’s dreams, a full platoon.  And what the U.S. coach does with it will determine the course of the national team for the near-term, although it figures to be closing in on a 2018 World Cup berth when 2017 dawns.  He’s nurtured young talent before, steering a bunch of young Germans to third place at the 2006 World Cup, becoming a national hero in the bargain.  Among his players were defenders Philipp Lahm, then 22, and Per Mertesacker, 21, midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger, 21, and forward Lukas Podolski, 21.  That was a generation of talent that would go on to win the 2014 World Cup.

Can Klinsmann do it again?  He could succeed.  He could fail.  This new crop–and possibly others to emerge over the next 18 months–could win in spite of him.  Or too many of them could prove to be all false promise.  Time will tell.  But for the U.S. to nail down a World Cup berth and go into Russia ’18 with any hope of a better showing than the last World Cup, Klinsmann is going to have to succeed, and once again engineer a successful changing of the guard.

 



WE WON, THE SPORT WON

The United States overwhelmed defending champion Japan with four goals in the first 16 minutes to cruise to an impressive 5-2 victory in the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup final before a pro-American crowd of 53,341 at Vancouver’s BC Place and become the first nation to capture three women’s world titles.

The Americans, winners of the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991 in China and again on home soil in 1999, had lost to the Japanese on penalty kicks in the last final four years ago in Germany, but a first-half hat trick by attacking midfielder Carli Lloyd buried the Nadeshiko.

Lloyd, the Golden Ball winner as the tournament’s MVP, gave the U.S. a shock 2-0 lead with goals in the third and fifth minutes.  Both came on grounded crosses from the right, the first a corner kick by Megan Rapinoe and the second a free kick by Lauren Holiday that was flicked on by defender Julie Johnston.  In the 14th minute, Holiday allowed her side some breathing room with a volleyed goal after defender Azusa Iwashimizu’s poor header couldn’t stop a U.S. counterattack.  But Lloyd’s third goal, two minutes later, applied the dagger.

Spotting Japan goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori far off her line, Lloyd launched a 54-yard bomb from just inside the Japan half.  The backpedaling Kaihori got a hand on the ball, but it banked in off her right post for a 4-0 lead.  It was the fastest World Cup hat trick–men or women–in history.  The only other player to score three goals in a World Cup final was England’s Geoff Hurst in 1966.

Japan pulled one back in the 27th minute when striker Yuki Ogimi scored on a brilliant turn that left Johnston sprawled at the top of the penalty area.  And the Japanese gave the Americans cause for concern seven minutes into the second half when Johnston headed a long diagonal free kick from the left by midfielder Aya Miyama into her own net.

Midfielder Tobin Heath, however, restored the three-goal lead two minutes later from four yards out on a pass across the Japan goalmouth by Morgan Brian off a corner kick by Holiday.

Lloyd, whose six goals tied her with Germany’s Celia Sasic for most in the tournament, was awarded the Golden Ball.  She joined Carin Jennings (1991) as the only Americans to win a World Cup MVP award.  Hope Solo, whose off-the-field misadventures were well-chronicled in the weeks leading up to Canada ’15, won the Golden Glove award as best goalkeeper, her second straight.  Supported by the young but air-tight back line of Ali Krieger, Johnston, Becky Sauerbrunn and Meghan Klingenberg, Solo allowed only three goals and posted five shutouts.  The triumph, meanwhile, came as something of redemption for coach Jill Ellis, whose moves drew heavy criticism until she moved 22-year-old Brian to holding midfielder mid-tournament, thus freeing Lloyd to join the attack, and the USA’s service and finishing went from disappointing to–in the final–overwhelming.  [July 5]

Comment I:  So the United States becomes the first women’s national team to plant a third star above the crest on their jerseys.   Among the men, whose first World Cup was played in 1930, only Brazil, with five, and Germany and Italy, with four apiece, have more.  The real winner in Canada, however, was American soccer.

Americans, it is said, will watch an international tiddlywinks championship if they think an American will win.  And the U.S. team marched into this World Cup with a winning legacy, recognizable standout players, and a wholesome, likable aura.

But Ellis’ women transcended all that.  Nearly 27 million U.S. viewers watched the final (25.4 on Fox, 1.27 on Spanish-language Telemundo), making it the most-watched soccer match in U.S. history.  Better than the 18.2 million who saw the U.S. men held to a tie by Portugal on ESPN at last summer’s men’s World Cup.  Better than the 17.9 million who saw the U.S. beat China on PKs in the 1999 women’s World Cup.  Better by 41 percent than the U.S.-Japan final four years ago (13.5 million).  As for the 2014 World Cup final between Germany and Argentina, those guys attracted 26.5 million American viewers.

That’s a lot of Americans tuned in to a soccer match, and many were soccer fans to begin with.  But many were not.  And what they saw was a tremendous advertisement for the sport.  The good guys–er, women–won.  But what they demonstrated in the final against Japan was the very best of the sport.  Fitness.  Athleticism.  Skill.  Invention.  Fearlessness.  Teamwork combined with improvisation.

Most important, they demonstrated little of the gamesmanship that plagues the men’s game.  Fortunately, there was no overriding need for a U.S. or Japanese player to dive in the penalty area during the final–nothing turns an American off to soccer like a dive, or “simulation,” or, as they call it in basketball, a flop.  And if there had been a dive, it would’ve been somewhat jarring after 29 days of relatively clean play.

So it’s now on to the CONCACAF Gold Cup.  And if we’re treated to a U.S.-Mexico finale, as the organizers are hoping for, we’ll get a reminder of business-as-usual soccer, with rolling bodies and chippy fouls and all kinds of nonsense.  Fortunately, many of the innocent Americans who enjoyed U.S.-Japan will never tune in to such a match–for now–and remain blissfully ignorant of the game’s ugly macho side.

Comment II:  Despite appearing on the cover of both Sports Illustrated and ESPN the Magazine pre-tournament, that month in Canada was a relatively quiet one for 35-year-old U.S. striker Abby Wambach, who came into the tournament with a world-record 182 career goals, including 13 in three previous World Cups.  She played only 297 total minutes over seven matches (three starts), including the last 11 minutes of the final, when Lloyd handed her the captain’s armband, which Wambach has worn so long and so well.  She scored one goal, against Nigeria in the first round, and missed a penalty kick against Colombia in the second round when she curiously chose to use her less-favored left foot.

However, she came up with the quote of the tournament, albeit six months earlier in an interview with Time magazine.  It illustrated what drove her during her limited time on the field and, no doubt, drove her teammates, especially the ones who were part of the 2011 team:

“‘All the hardships, the sacrifice, the blood, the sweat, the broken bones, the broken relationships will make more sense if we can bring home the trophy,” said Wambach.  And if the U.S. falls short?  “I’m sure I’ll be fine.  But I’ll be pissed off the rest of my life.”

Smile, Abby.



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 . . . .