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THE BOY WITH THE RED, WHITE AND BLUE BULL’S-EYE

Christian Pulisic scored both goals to power the U.S. National Team to a 2-0 victory over Trinidad & Tobago at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park outside Denver to enable the Americans to close out the first half of the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying in third place, six points behind front-running Mexico and one back of Costa Rica.

The 18-year-old Borussia Dortmund midfielder struck in the 52nd and 62nd minutes, lifting his tally in this World Cup qualifying cycle to five goals in eight matches.

The U.S. victory sets up a showdown with Mexico three nights later at Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca, where the Americans are 0-5-2 in World Cup qualifiers and 1-8-2 all-time.  [June 9]

 

Comment:  If he didn’t already have one, Pulisic slapped a big red, white and blue bull’s-eye on his back with his performance against Trinidad & Tobago, a must-win game that righted a USA ship that had all but capsized in November when the Americans opened the Hexagonal with a last-minute 2-1 loss to Mexico at home and a humiliating 4-0 rout at Costa Rica.

If Pulisic–5-foot-8, 140 pounds and the heir apparent to now-retired Mexico tormentor Landon Donovan–was treated harshly by T&T defenders, that will be nothing compared to the welcome El Tri has in store.  Mexico (4-0-1, 13 points), will all but punch its ticket to the 2018 World Cup in Russia with a victory, and coach Juan Carlos Osorio knows stopping the USA’s most in-form player, regardless of his age and international inexperience, is key.  Also working against the U.S. (2-2-1, 7 points) will be the sky-high altitude, heat and the choking smog of Mexico City, as well as history.  Though the Americans eked out a 1-0 win in a 2012 friendly and a scoreless draw four years ago in its last WCQ game there, the Mexicans are 39-2-7 against all CONCACAF opponents in qualifying at the Azteca.

Perhaps most ominous for Pulisic and his mates is the current climate.  Relations between the two nations have never been worse (well, the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 was pretty bad), thanks to President Donald Trump’s insulting Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug dealers and his threats to make Mexico pay for a border wall, not to mention a vow to levy a 20 percent border tax on imports from Mexico.  Many in the sellout crowd of 87,000-plus will let the U.S. players know all about it when they emerge from the tunnel at Azteca, a place where insults and rowdy chants fly as freely as beer bottles, batteries and bags of urine.  (There was, of course, the 2004 Olympic qualifier at Guadalajara’s Estadio Jalisco where 60,000 taunted the U.S. under-23s with chants of “Osama, Osama,” but that’s another story.)

Given these circumstances, coming out of this caldron with any points at all would be a miracle.  For U.S. coach Bruce Arena, his greatest hope would have to be seeing the key to his team’s final four qualifiers, the speedy, heady, wonder-waif Pulisic, walk off the field at the end in one piece.

 

 

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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.

 



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.



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.

 



ONE LAST VOTE FOR LANDON DONOVAN

Landon Donovan went out a winner on his last day as a professional player as the Los Angeles Galaxy defeated the New England Revolution, 2-1, in extra time at the StubHub Center in Carson, CA, to capture its third MLS Cup in four years and its Major League Soccer-record fifth overall.

Donovan, 32, announced in August that he would retire after the MLS season.  Thanks to the Galaxy’s victories over Real Salt Lake and the Seattle Sounders in the playoffs, his season was extended through November into December.

Though he had an unspectacular afternoon against New England–drawing a caution at the end of the first half and missing on a 20-yard free kick in OT that would have put L.A. ahead–Donovan in the end lifted the MLS Cup trophy for a record sixth time.

He also exits as MLS’s all-time scoring leader and assist leader, and he holds so many other league regular-season and post-season marks that the only ones left involve either goalkeeping or defender-of-the-year awards.  His list of U.S. international records is equally long.  Donovan’s 57 goals include five in the World Cup and 10 game-winners, nine multi-goal games, 14 goals scored in the final 15 minutes of a match, nine alone in 2007 (tied with Eric Wynalda for most in a year) and 15 penalty kicks in 15 attempts.  His 58 assists–10 of which were recorded in 2009 alone–are 36 ahead of No. 2 on the list, Cobi Jones.  Donovan is second all-time in international appearances at 156 games, and if he weren’t left off the U.S. roster for the 2014 World Cup, he might have picked up seven more caps (three World Cup warm-ups and four games in Brazil itself), leaving him one behind Jones’ American mark of 164.  Of course, if Donovan, who logged nearly 13,000 minutes–nine days on the field–for the national team, hadn’t been dumped by U.S. coach Juergen Klinsmann, he might have continued adding to his numbers into 2015 and beyond.  (He’s only 32.  Galaxy teammate Robbie Keane, 34, says he expects to play until he’s 38.  The great Pele retired just shy of his 37th birthday.)

The individual awards in his trophy case are topped by the Golden Ball he was handed as the best player at the 1999 FIFA Under-17 Tournament, and he was voted the 2002 World Cup’s Best Young Player.  [December 7]

Comment:  Donovan has won several other individual honors during his career, including the U.S. Soccer Male Athlete of the Year (2003, ’04, ’09 and ’10) and Futbol de Primera Player of the Year (2002, ’03, ’04, ’07, ’08, ’09, ’10).  His exclusion from the U.S. World Cup team, of course, left him out of the running for either trophy this year.

Howard was the clear favorite for both awards as he set U.S. records for career wins, 55, and goalkeeper appearances, 104, blowing past the now-retired Kasey Keller (53 and 102).  His 15 shutouts in 2013-14 helped his club, Everton, finish fifth in the English Premier League.  And there were those World Cup-record 16 saves in the USA’s 2-1 overtime loss to Belgium in the second round in Brazil.  Howard won the U.S. Soccer award with 64 percent of the vote from a panel of U.S. players, coaches, administrators and others; midfielder Jermaine Jones was second with 19 percent.  Some 200 journalists made Howard the runaway winner in the FDP balloting, giving him 363 points to Jones’ 160 and Clint Dempsey’s 147.

Anticipating the Howard landslide, one FDP voter gave Donovan one final first-place vote (with Howard second and Jones third).  However, it was based not on sentimentality but a nagging doubt.

Naming Donovan the best player in America in 2014 requires a look through a different prism.  That is, Donovan may have demonstrated his value to the U.S. National Team at the 2014 World Cup not through his presence but through his absence.

Watching players who took his place on the roster, like Brad Davis and Chris Wondolowski, struggle in Brazil, must have made Donovan squirm.  Couldn’t the greatest player in American history, perhaps a year beyond his prime, have made a difference in this or that situation?  Should he have been left behind in favor of 18-year-old Julian Green, and could he have scored the goal Green scored against Belgium in overtime?  Many would say no and yes–Donovan wouldn’t have mis-hit his shot like Green’s star-kissed volley.  As for what Donovan might have done with Wonolowski’s chance at the end of regulation against the Belgians . . . .

This upside-down look at a player’s value isn’t new.  Long ago, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, coming off an NBA championship in his rookie season, suffered a serious knee injury midway through his second, in 1980-81.  The Los Angeles Lakers were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, and the argument was raised in many quarters that Johnson proved that he deserved the league’s Most Valuable Player award because the Lakers struggled and ultimately crashed without him.

As for Donovan, it was only one Futbol de Primera vote in the face of a landslide.  It mattered not.  It was worth using it to lift the question “What if?” into a statement.

 



MLS FINDS ROAD GOALS ARE NOT KRYPTONITE

The Los Angeles Galaxy lost to the Seattle Sounders, 2-1, on a frigid night at CenturyLink Field but won the Western Conference final on away goals to advance to Major League Soccer’s championship game.

The Galaxy, which a week earlier took the first game of its home-and-home series, 1-0, will return to the StubHub Center on December 7 to play host to the New England Revolution in the MLS Cup final.  New England defeated the New York Red Bulls, 2-1 and 2-2, in the Eastern Conference finals for a 3-2 aggregate.

Brad Evans, in the 26th minute, and Clint Dempsey, six minutes later, scored to give the Sounders hope of reaching their first MLS final, but nine minutes into the second half L.A. midfielder Juninho pounced on a deflected corner kick by Landon Donovan and ripped a shot in off the left post for his first goal in 13 months.  [November 30]

Comment:  The last stupid MLS idea has died peacefully of natural causes.

And we don’t mean the Columbus Crew’s decision to dump its Village People logo once and for all (that’s called “re-branding”).

MLS finally succumbed to the use of the aways goals rule this playoff season, and the world did not come to an end.  Both the Eastern Coference semifinals and finals were decided on aggregate goals, as did one Western semifinal, won by L.A. over Real Salt Lake.  And when the Galaxy walked off the CenturyLink Field at the final whistle after the road leg of its Western Conference final, the partisan Sounder crowd of 46,758 accepted the fact that its side, winners on the night by a goal, were losers overall.

Some in the media here didn’t quite know what to make of this new gimmick, although it’s used in cup competitions the world over.  “Rules of the road lift Galaxy into the final” read one newspaper headline.  Another:  “Galaxy’s Goal is One for the Road.”  But a worthy winner was produced.  Galaxy coach Bruce Arena called the concept of the away-goals rule–an incentive for the road team to attack in the first leg–“garbage,” and it certainly didn’t inspire Seattle to produce an away goal or two in the first leg.  But no one at CenturyLink exited wringing their hands over an injustice.  Everyone knew the rules going in.  In fact, the Sounders were the first team in MLS history to advance on away goals, eliminating FC Dallas nearly three weeks earlier in the Western semifinals (1-1 in Texas, 0-0 at home).  And there was no effect at the gate:  MLS drew a record average attendance of 19,151 during the regular season–once again better than the NBA and NHL–and 21,275 during the playoffs.  Not a tremendous accomplishment, unless one recalls the days in the not-too-distant past when most MLS post-season matches drew crowds embarrassingly smaller than many regular-season games.

Americans fans, apparently, have been more adaptable than MLS gave them credit for over its 19-season run.  Or at least they were tolerant.  They’ve had to endure earlier MLS playoff concoctions, such as the ponderous best-of-three-games playoff.  And the ridiculous “first-to-five-points” system.  Once it got to the simple home-and-home formula in 2003, it counted road goals equal to home goals, perhaps in the belief that a romp by the visiting team in the opening leg would kill interest in the second leg.

Fans here also–some of them–survived other MLS innovations, like the silly countdown clock, and they survived leftovers from the old NASL, like the shootout, back when it was believed that American DNA made it impossible for folks here to understand, let alone appreciate, the concept of a draw.  Perhaps the seamless debut of away goals signals the end, once and for all, of its “unnecessarily creative” period.

 

 

 

 



NOW, EVEN IN AMERICA, IT’S LEAGUE VERSUS COUNTRY

Major League Soccer Commissioner Dan Garber fired a broadside at U.S. National Team coach Juergen Klinsmann, accusing him of comments damaging to his league and the sport in this country.

Garber summoned the media to rip Klinsmann for comments made two days earlier in which he said Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley hurt their international careers by returning from Europe to play for MLS clubs.  The commissioner also said Klinsmann’s decision to leave Landon Donovan, the face of MLS, off his 2014 World Cup squad was “inexcusable.”

Said Klinsmann on Monday, the day before the USA’s friendly with Honduras in Boca Raton:  “I made clear with Clint’s move back and Michael’s move back that it’s going to be very difficult to keep the same level that they experienced at the places where they were.  It’s just reality.  It’s just being honest.”

Garber fired back the day after the 1-1 draw in Florida:  “Juergen’s comments are very, very detrimental to the league, to the sport of soccer in North America, detrimental to everything we’re trying to do.  Not only that, I think they’re wrong.

“To have a national team coach saying that signing with our league is not going to be good for their careers, and not good for their prospects with the national team, is incredibly damaging to our league.

“I will do anything and everything to defend our league, our players and our owners.  I don’t believe anyone is above the sport, and I believe everyone has to be accountable for their behavior.”  [October 15]

Comment:  They both need to shut up.

But, of course, they can’t. Klinsmann will continue to be asked point-blank about this player and that, and Garber has to protect his product.

Klinsmann was only telling the truth.  To grow, anyone in the U.S. player pool needs to play for a club at the highest level possible, and that’s in Europe, not MLS, provided it’s in the top division of a top soccer-playing nation. Garber’s reaction–writing angry letters to Klinsmann and U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati and publicly blasting the national team coach/national technical director in a hastily arranged press teleconference–made him look peevish and unprofessional.

However, Klinsmann has to face the fact that any U.S. player, no matter how talented, is taking a risk in signing with a European club. A player has to play, and if he’s shelved by injury or a drop in performance or a coach who thinks little of American players (there’s plenty of those), he’s regressing and probably should have remained in MLS, where he’d be considered a star.  (That description fits a player like Bradley, who left Roma for Toronto FC and a healthy pay increase after the Italian club brought in several new players, threatening the midfielder’s playing time.)  These guys have to think of their career as a whole, and they’re not on the level of Klinsmann, who in his day would have started, and starred, for any powerhouse club in Europe.

Garber needs to rein it in, skate past this ongoing issue and resume talking up MLS’s strengths, which are a tremendous fan experience unique to American sports and a level of talent that will entertain all but the Euro-snobs. If he continues to have a beef with Klinsmann, Garber sits on the U.S. Soccer board, the body that serves as Klinsmann’s boss, and he can air his disagreements behind closed doors with the people who matter when it comes to the fellow at the helm of the men’s national teams program. As for Klinsmann, he needs to become a better diplomat without losing his credibility with a press and public that is growing increasingly sophisticated and demanding.  Either that or hope that MLS both improves on the field and stops making itself an increasingly attractive choice for top American players faced with a difficult career decision.