Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


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.



THE KASEY KELLER EFFECT

They threw open the gates to the upper deck at CenturyLink Field and 64,140 turned out to see the Sounders defeat the San Jose Earthquakes, 2-1, in the final 2011 regular-season match in Seattle.  Sammy Ochoa and Fredy Montero scored in the last 10 minutes and goalkeeper Kasey Kelly stopped seven shots to send the throng home happy. 

This was not part of a doubleheader, and there was no fireworks spectacular offered.  Both sides had qualified for the playoffs.  The attraction was goalkeeper and native son Keller, who plans to retire at the end of the season.  [October15]

Comment I:  Appropriate, and well deserved.

With all due respect to Brad Friedel, Tony Meola and Tim Howard, Keller, 41, will step down as the best goalkeeper produced by a country known, internationally, for its goalkeepers.  The pride of Olympia, WA, never had a three-week stretch like Friedel, who started ahead of Keller at the 2002 World Cup and was spectacular for a hot team.   And Keller largely went down with the ship as a starter at the 1998 and 2006 World Cups.   But from 1990 to 2008, he was world class in England (Millwall, Leicester City, Tottenham, Southampton, Fulham), Spain (Rayo Vallecano), and Germany (Borussia Moenchengladbach), blazing a trail for the likes of Alexi Lalas, Carlos Bocanegra, Steve Cherundolo, Clint Dempsey, Frankie Hejduk, Brian McBride and, yes, Friedel and Howard.

Keller’s career spans an amazing stretch in U.S. soccer history.  A star at the University of Portland, he played for FC Portland of the Western Soccer League in 1989.   The WSL’s players were semipro for the most part, but Portland was made up of college players protecting their amateur status; young Keller posted a 0.38 goals-against average and won the league’s MVP award ahead of players like Marcelo Balboa, Dominick Kinnear and John Doyle.  Twenty-one years after playing in front of  hundreds at Portland’s Civic Stadium (future home of the MLS Portland Timbers), the crowd watching him is an adoring 64,140, the third-largest for a stand-alone game in MLS history. 

At least Keller will always have the 1998 CONCACAF Gold Cup, where he made 10 saves–most of them bordering on the miraculous–to turn away Romario, Edmundo and Brazil, 1-0, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in the semifinals.  It was the greatest performance ever by an American goalkeeper in a high-profile match.  But some will speculate what might have been had coach Bora Milutinovic decided to put up with what was then a young, headstrong Kasey Keller and chosen him ahead of Meola, Friedel and Juergen Sommer for his 1994 World Cup squad.  If Keller, not Meola, was covering the near post during the USA’s final first-round match, a 1-0 loss to Romania, maybe the U.S. wouldn’t have had to face Brazil in the second round.  Instead, the opponent would have been a somewhat softer Spain, in Washington DC, and hard to say if Bora’s Boys wouldn’t have bought an appearance in the rarified air of the quarterfinals and with it another week in the national spotlight.

Comment II:  The crowd at CenturyLink Field was the fourth-largest worldwide that weekend–trailing only those at FC Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich.  It lifted Seattle to a final average attendance for the regular season of 38,496 (nearly 3,000 above stadium capacity) and made the Sounders the best draw in MLS for all three years of their existence.  More important, it helped boost the league’s average gate for 2011 to 17,795 with one week remaining, thus breaking the record of 17,406 set in MLS’s inaugural 1996 season.

There were a few factors that made that 17,406 possible.  First and foremost, there was the novelty factor as an entire league debuted.  There also was the blessing and curse of the many gridiron football stadiums the teams were forced to call home:  While four-figure crowds looked pathetic in these cavernous stadiums, when it came to home openers or games with post-game fireworks shows, there were plenty of seats for all, like the Rose Bowl crowd of 69,255 that saw the Los Angeles Galaxy’s first match.  And there were turnstile counts that deserved an asterisk, like the 92,216 back at the Rose Bowl on hand for a twinbill involving the Galaxy against the now-defunct Tampa Bay Mutiny and the U.S. National Team versus Mexico.  (Easy to conclude that it wasn’t Mutiny fans who flooded the stadium that day.)

No such gimmicks or mitigating factors today, which only makes Keller’s big night all the more impressive.  No fireworks, no giveaways, no glitzy foreign opposition–just a love affair between the Sounders’ amazing following and a hometown boy who makes good and returns to close out his career.   Think of it–an American soccer player as a major drawing card, at least for one night.   The Emerald City is the exception to the rule in so many things MLS, but Keller’s big night suggests the possibility that the league has reached the point where its clubs should consider staging testimonial matches for its most popular American players.

The last true testimonial match held here was Pele’s farewell at Giants Stadium in 1977, when he played one half each for the Cosmos and his former Brazilian club, Santos, before a packed house.  Since then, the only thing close was the 2004 farewell tour by the U.S. National Women’s Team as Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Joy Fawcett called it a career.  It’s too late for favorites such as Cobi Jones (L.A.), McBride (Columbus) and Balboa (Colorado), but it’s time for MLS to recognize that the pull of certain popular, long-time players is stronger than it may have previously realized.



A GOLDEN CHALLENGE

CONCACAF unveiled its schedule for the 12-nation 2011 Gold Cup, which will be staged in an unprecedented 11 metro U.S. areas beginning June 5.  The regional championship, which was first held 20 years ago with eight nations in two stadiums (the Rose Bowl and Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum), will be played at Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, TX; Ford Field in Detroit; Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC; Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, FL; Soldier Field in Chicago; KC Soccer Stadium in Kansas City; RFK Stadium in Washington, DC; Reliant Stadium in Houston; FIU Stadium in Miami; Red Bull Arena in Harrison, NJ, and New Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ; and, outside Los Angeles, the Home Depot Center and Rose Bowl, site of the June 25 final.

Defending champion Mexico, host U.S. and Canada qualify automatically and will be joined by Caribbean champion Jamaica and area rivals Greneda, Cuba and Guadeloupe.  The remaining five teams will be determined next month at the Copa Centroamericana in Panama.  [December 16]

Comment:  If America’s interest in its World Cup team has any legs, we will find out during this Gold Cup.  This tournament marks the U.S. National Team’s first appearance on a major stage since it drew record television ratings for its four matches at South Africa ’10.  Will a significant number of those same Americans who crowded around TVs last June vote with their feet this June and buy tickets to see some old favorites and new faces playing against lesser teams for lesser stakes?

We’ll see. Provided the U.S. reaches the final and faces the auld enemy, Mexico, perhaps the support for the home team will be better than in 2007, when the Americans beat the Mexicans on a Benny Feilhaber golasso.  That was witnessed by a loud pro-Mexico crowd of 60,000 at Soldier Field.  Or last year, when Mexico humiliated an experimental U.S. side, 5-0, at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ, in front of an overwhelmingly partisan Mexico crowd of 79,156.  

Will a corner be turned in ’11, or will the U.S. players continue to find that an American stadium is just a home away from home?



PERHAPS A GOOSE AT THE GATE?

Two clubs that have never won a league championship, the Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas, will meet Sunday, November 21, at Toronto’s BMO Field in the MLS Cup final.  [November 20]

Comment:  The MLS report card came in last month and the results were mixed as TV ratings remained flat while attendance improved by 7.7 percent.

Average league attendance was 16,675, thanks in part to the Seattle Sounders, who increased Qwest Field capacity and saw its attendance jump from last season’s 30,897  to 36,173 in ’10.  The New York Red Bulls, who moved from the cavernous, lifeless Giants Stadium (12,490 average last season) to the sparkling Red Bull Arena (18,441 this year), also helped get MLS above its overall average of 16,037 in 2009.  In all, the 2010 numbers were the third-best in the league’s 15-year history, behind the novelty-inspired 17,406 of 1996 and 2007’s 16,770.

Where does this place MLS as a gate attraction?  It’s far behind the world’s best-attended soccer league, Germany’s Bundesliga (42,790), but as soccer leagues go, it’s not far down the list.  Next is the vaunted English Premier League (34,088), followed by Spain’s La Liga, Italy’s Serie A, Mexico’s Primera Division, Argentina’s Primera Division, France’s Ligue 1, Holland’s Eredivise, the J-League,  the Campeonato Serie A of soccer-crazed Brazil, and MLS.  And in the U.S., the NFL, whose teams play eight home games a year, leads at 67,508 in 2009, followed by Major League Baseball (81 home games per team, 30,213 average in 2010).  The battle for third is tight, with the NBA (41 home games per team, 17,110 in 2009-10) ahead of the National Hockey League (41 home games, 17,004 in 2009-10) and MLS.  (You could pick nits, regarding number of games and stadium/arena capacity, but it would have to start with baseball’s total attendance of nearly 80 million compared to pro football’s 17.4).

Not bad for a league that nearly shuttered its doors after the 2001 season, when its winningest team, the late, unlamented Miami Fusion, averaged an abysmal 11, 177 at Ft. Lauderdale’s Lockhart Stadium, a converted high school football stadium.  MLS contracted that winter, killing off the Fusion and its other poorly supported Florida cousin, the Tampa Bay Mutiny.

It is hoped, then, that a win by Colorado or Dallas inspires a spin at the turnstiles in 2011 for at least one of the finalists.  Despite each being blessed with new, soccer-specific stadiums, only 13,329 a game turned out for Colorado at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park this season–12th-worst in the 16-team league–and just 10,815 supported Dallas at its Pizza Hut Park.  After Sunday night, soccer fans in Dallas-Ft. Worth or Denver can’t use a lack of a champion as an excuse not to support the home town team.

[A note regarding MLS’s bottom-feeders:  Kansas City (10,287), which played its home matches in a minor league baseball park, and San Jose (9,659), confined to a small college football stadium, brought up the rear.  K.C. (2000) and the original Earthquakes (2001, 2003) have each won the MLS Cup, so a title isn’t a cure-all at the ticket window.]