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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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SIGI SCHMID: BEEN THERE, DONE THAT, SEEN IT ALL

Four-time World Cup goalkeeper Kasey Keller, longtime MLS and collegiate coach Sigi Schmid and the late Glenn “Mooch” Myernick, a U.S. international and USSF youth coach, have been elected to the National Soccer Hall of Fame.

Keller, who made 102 international appearances for the U.S. from 1990 through 2007, played in the English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga and Germany’s Bundesliga before ending his career with the Seattle Sounders.  Schmid, elected on the builder ballot, is the winningest coach in MLS history and a two-time winner of the league’s Coach of the Year award.  Myernick, elected on the veteran player ballot as an American soccer pioneer, earned 10 U.S. caps and starred for the NASL’s Portland Timbers before coaching the U.S. national under-23 and under-17 teams and the MLS Colorado Rapids.

Details on the induction ceremony for Keller, Schmid and Myernick have yet to be announced.  [April 8]

Comment:  For interesting stories among this trio, you could probably start with Keller and his family living in an honest-to-goodness castle in Germany while he played for Borussia Moenchengladbach 10 years ago.  But for a career that has amounted to a sweeping panorama of the recent history of American soccer, nothing tops what Sigi Schmid has seen over the past half-century.

It’s not Forrest Gump-ian, but it’s close.

Born in West Germany, Schmid moved with his family to Southern California as a child in time to play for the Firefighters, one of the first four teams in the history of the hopefully named American Youth Soccer Organization, in 1964.  Little is know of what became of Schmid’s teammates and opponents, some of whom played this strange new sport in high-top basketball shoes.  None could have known that AYSO would grow to become a national program with, currently, more than a half-million players.

Young Schmid, on his way to becoming a CPA, played midfield at UCLA from 1972 through 1975, then coached the Bruins from 1980 through 1999.  He could have padded his lineup with foreign-born talent, which was common in the college game at the time, but he insisted on American players, most of them Californians.   Led by future U.S. internationals like Paul Caligiuri, Cobi Jones and David Vanole, Schmid’s UCLA won three NCAA championships.

An assistant on the USA’s 1994 World Cup team, he served two stints as coach of the U.S. National Under-20 Team and won MLS Cups with the Columbus Crew and Los Angeles Galaxy.  Now, he’s the only coach the six-year-old Seattle Sounders have ever known, having guided that club to four U.S. National Open Cups, and his team regularly plays home matches before crowds of nearly 50,000.

But before USA ’94, MLS and the Sounders, Schmid can remember other days.  Like how AYSO, to a ragtag collection of 11- and 12-year-olds, had no business catching on and going nationwide.  And despite 16 NCAA playoff appearances, how UCLA–and top-tier collegiate soccer–seemed destined to continue to labor in complete obscurity, as the Bruins drew about 300 for many home matches.  And in 1989, how, while Schmid was filling a summer coaching the California Kickers, the World Cup the Americans would host in five years seemed headed for disaster on the field and at the gate.  The Kickers played in the Western Soccer League, which along with the East Coast’s American Soccer League, was home to nearly every U.S. international player at the time.   No one, from Tab Ramos and John Harkes to Marcelo Balboa and Eric Wynalda, was paid a living wage.  Each club that year played all of 16 regular-season matches.  And as for the Kickers, their home games were played in a rickety high school football stadium.

The Kickers once played the visiting Arizona Condors in front of 72 spectators.  Seventy-two.  But Schmid, in retrospect, needn’t have worried.  Add 43,662, and that was the average number of fans at cavernous CenturyLink Field in Seattle who last season looked down and saw a former AYSO kid pulling the strings in front of the Sounders’ bench.



A FOND FAREWELL TO THE STRANGE ESTRANGEMENT

Landon Donovan played his final match for the U.S. National Team, a 1-1 tie with Ecuador in a friendly in East Hartford, CT.

An adoring sellout crowd of 36,265 at Rentschler Field bade farewell to Donovan, 32, who leaves as the USA’s all-time leader in goals (57), assists (58), starts (142) and minutes played (12,853).

Donovan played a small part in Mix Diskerud’s goal in the fifth minute.  He later rang the right post with a shot in the 25th minute, grounded an attempt wide and saw another shot smothered by Ecuadoran ‘keeper Maximo Banguera before exiting for Joe Corona in the 41st.  In the 88th minute, with Donovan long gone, striker Enner Valencia spoiled the party somewhat when he equalized on a looping shot.

Donovan’s 157 caps are second only to Cobi Jones’ 164; the U.S. was 90-36-31 when he played, and 11-3-5 when he was captain.  He played a record 15 years as a member of the full U.S. team, tied with a non-field player, goalkeeper Kasey Keller.   Donovan was a seven-time winner of the Honda Player of the Year award and was named U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year four times.

The impish forward-midfielder announced two months ago that he will also retire as a player when the Los Angeles Galaxy’s season concludes later this fall.  He is Major League Soccer’s all-time leader in goals (144) and assists (136), and has won five MLS championships.  [October 10]

Comment:   Thus endth the international career of the greatest player ever produced by America.  With about five minutes left in the half, Donovan and coach Juergen Klinsmann, who controversially cut Donovan from his 2014 World Cup squad, exchanged an awkward embrace at the touchline, and the only U.S. male soccer player many Americans could name was gone.  Over the past five months the snub–costing Donovan a U.S.-record fourth trip to a World Cup–became the biggest soap opera in U.S. National Team history, dwarfing the sacking of captain John Harkes by then-coach Steve Sampson on the eve of the 1998 World Cup.   What began as a discussion of player form and the subjective nature of a coach’s player selections mushroomed to almost Freudian proportions.

No one will know exactly how this coda to Donovan’s career in red, white and blue came about.  Most will summarize it by pointing to Donovan’s five-month soccer sabbatical in 2012-13, causing the driven Klinsmann to question the player’s commitment to the national team and his profession in general.  But this appears to be a case of Klinsmann regarding Donovan as a prized pupil, a player held to a much higher standard than, say, defender and dual citizen Timmy Chandler, who waffled from 2011 to 2013 before at long last agreeing to play for the U.S., not his homeland, Germany.

Here’s what Klinsmann had to say the day before the Ecuador friendly:

“As a coach, you always want to see a player drive for his 100 percent.  I’m looking at Landon always that I wish, in a certain way, he could have done a bit more here and a bit more there.  But he had a tremendous career and he deserves that farewell tomorrow night and all the compliments on your end as well.”

And Klinsmann’s wishes go all the way back to 2008, when Donovan, who had already struck out as a kid with Bayer Leverkusen and was striking out on loan to  Bayern Munich, had nevertheless captured the fancy of Munich’s coach.  That  happened to be Klinsmann, who would last only one stormy season with the club known in Germany as FC Hollywood.  Said German legend and Munich general manager Uli Hoeness later, “Juergen really wanted us to sign the guy, but to be honest, he wasn’t even good enough for our second team.”  (Donovan would go on to prove his European mettle during loan stints in England with Everton in 2010 and 2012.)

So where did it go sour between Donovan and the man who some six years ago was one of his biggest boosters?  And why?  Did Klinsmann chase Donovan into a premature retirement as a professional player?  It should be noted that Klinsmann won a European Championship when he was Donovan’s age and two years later he played in one more World Cup.  So it should also be asked how much more Donovan could’ve accomplished in MLS as an elder statesman.  But the primary question remains the one fans have been asking since the U.S. was eliminated from the 2014 World Cup on July 1:  What would Landon Donovan have done in Brazil?



THE ABORTED ‘MIRACLE 2’

The U.S. National Team will close out 2012 with a Wednesday, November 14, friendly against Russia at Kuban Stadium in Krasnodar.

The Russians, No. 9 in the current FIFA World Rankings, are coming off a frustrating first-round exit at this year’s European Championship, while the Americans, ranked 27th, are 9-2-2 in 2012 and a tie away from posting their best single-year record in their history.  [November 12]

Comment:  This could be a useful exercise for both sides.  Russia, led by the Zenit Saint Petersburg trio of Victor Faizulin, Roman Shirokov and Aleksandr Kerzhakov, leads European Group “F” in qualifying for the 2014 World Cup and has gone 4-0-0–all by shutout–under coach Fabio Capello, who last faced the U.S. at the 2010 World Cup as England boss.  As for the U.S., coach Juergen Klinsmann will use the opportunity to tinker yet again before his side begins the final round of CONCACAF qualifiers for Brasil ’14 in February.

But this game will hardly go down as historic.  The Cold War is a distant memory, and the two countries now keep one another at arm’s length, a frozen smile on their faces.  There have been meetings, but nothing of consequence:

o  February 3, 1979, U.S. 1, USSR 3, in Seattle

o  February 11, 1979, U.S. 1, USSR 4, in San Francisco

o  February 24, 1990, U.S. 1, USSR 3, in Palo Alto, CA

o  November 21, 1990, U.S. 0, USSR 0, in Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago

o  January 25, 1992, U.S. 0, Commonwealth of Independent States 1, in Miami

o  February 2, 1992, U.S. 2, Commonwealth of Independent States 1, in Detroit

o  February 13, 1993, U.S. 0, Russia 1, in Orlando

o  February 21, 1993, U.S. 0, Russia 0, in Palo Alto, CA

o  January 29, 1994, U.S. 1, Russia 1, in Seattle

o  April 26, 2000, Russia 2, U.S. 0, in Moscow

All friendlies, of course, with the Soviets/CIS’ers/Russians holding a solid 6-1-3 advantage.  The only competitive match between the Eagle and Bear was played September 22, 1988, in Taegu during the Seoul Olympic Games.  The U.S., featuring North American Soccer League old-timers Rick Davis and Kevin Crow and up-and-comers like Paul Caligiuri, Tab Ramos, John Harkes, Frank Klopas and Peter Vermes, had played Argentina and host South Korea to ties but needed at least a high-scoring draw against the Soviets to advance to the knockout round for the first time in its Olympic history.  Despite goals by John Doyle and substitute Brent Goulet, the USA lost, 4-2.

There might have been a game of real significance, however–a real Cold War potboiler–had the stars not mis-aligned four years earlier.

In 1984, the U.S., as host, held an automatic berth in the Los Angeles Olympic soccer tournament.  At the draw conducted that spring by FIFA at the plush Huntington Sheraton Hotel in Pasadena, CA–a stone’s throw from the Rose Bowl, site of the final–media members and guests gasped when it was revealed that the USA had been drawn into the same first-round group with the Soviet Union.  Visions of a Miracle on Grass, a redux of the Americans’ titanic upset of the USSR in ice hockey at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, NY, immediately danced through many a head.

When the media questioned  draw emcee Joseph Blatter, then general secretary of a FIFA even less transparent than the one he heads today as president, the shifty Swiss was characteristically oblique.  The U.S. and USSR landing in the same group didn’t happen by sheer chance, he allowed.  On occasion, said Blatter, FIFA will honor a host nation’s “request.”

In the end, the behind-the-scenes shenanigans that set up the American-Soviet clash were all for naught.  On May 8, the Soviet Union, still smarting from the U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games, announced that it was boycotting the Los Angeles Games.  Thirteen other communist bloc nations followed suit, plus Iran and Libya.  As for the ’84 soccer tournament, it meant that all three medalists from Moscow ’80–Czechoslovakia (gold medal), East Germany (silver) and USSR (bronze)–would be no-shows.  They were replaced by three nations that fell short in Europe’s Olympic qualifiers:  Italy, West Germany and Norway.

That summer, the U.S. thumped Costa Rica, 3-0, in its opener at Stanford Stadium, then lost to Italy, 1-0, at the Rose Bowl and missed the quarterfinals with a 1-1 tie with Egypt back at Stanford.  It appeared to be a golden chance lost, because for this tournament FIFA had changed the rules to allow players, regardless of amateur/professional status, to take part if they hadn’t played in a World Cup for a European or South American country.  Thus, this American team was loaded with NASL players, not raw amateurs.  And the absence of a marquee match like U.S.-USSR allowed ABC, the Olympic broadcaster, to choose to limit its coverage of the 16-nation, 32-game tournament to all of five minutes.

The ’84 Olympic soccer tournament drew a record 1.4 spectators to lead all sports–track and field included–and enable the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee to turn a $40 million surplus.  And that turnout prompted FIFA, four years later, to award the 1994 World Cup to the United States.



JOHNNY, WE HARDLY KNEW YE

ESPN reportedly has dropped John Harkes as its color commentator for its U.S. National Team and Major League Soccer telecasts and will be replaced by former New England Revolution star Taylor Twellman.  According to SI.com, Harkes, who was in the booth for ESPN’s coverage of the 2011 MLS Cup final, recently was informed that his contract would not be renewed.  [November 21]

Comment:  The search goes on for the complete package:  an American soccer color commentator who is quick, witty, insightful and a true complement to his play-by-play partner.

During his Hall of Fame career, Harkes, a two-time World Cup veteran, became known among media members as a good interview, the guy with a quick quip or an amusing impersonation.  As an ex-U.S. captain, he seemed to be an obvious choice as a TV soccer analyst.  Unfortunately, Harkes’ personality never came across on air.  He was very good at pointing out coaching points to youth players, but otherwise to Harkes there were just two aspects to soccer:  things that were “difficult” and things that were “important.” 

We’ve hardly seen the last of Harkes.  He’s been providing commentary since 2002, and with ABC/ESPN, NBC/NBC Sports and Fox/Fox Soccer Channel battling for soccer programming, there’ll be a need for experienced name analysts.  Viewers, however, are waiting for someone better.