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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.

 



FOR WHAT THEY’RE WORTH: $157 MILLION PER MLS TEAM

The average worth of Major League Soccer clubs reached $157 million in 2014, up 52 percent from the previous year, according to a valuation by Forbes magazine.

Topping the list were the Seattle Sounders at $245 million, while the Colorado Rapids, worth $105 million, brought up the rear.  The biggest mover was DC United, whose value increased 97 percent, from $71 million in ’13 to $140 million last year.  Average team worth was $103 million in 2013, nearly triple what Forbes valued the teams five years earlier.

Eight of MLS’ then-18 clubs turned a profit in 2014, led by Seattle’s $10 million.  The biggest loser was the New York Red Bulls at $9 million.

2014 valuation of MLS clubs, plus revenue and operating income*:

1.  Seattle Sounders — $245 million, $50 million, $10 million.

2.  Los Angeles Galaxy — $240 million, $44 million, $4 million.

3.  Houston Dynamo — $200 million, $26 million, $5 million.

4.  Portland Timbers — $185 million, $35 million, $4 million.

5.  Toronto FC — $175 million, $32 million, -$7 million.

6.  Sporting Kansas City — $165 million, $29 million, $4 million.

7.  Chicago Fire — $160 million, $21 million, -$6 million.

8.  New England Revolution — $158 million, $25 million, $7 million.

9.  FC Dallas — $148 million, $25 million, -$3 million.

10.  San Jose Earthquakes — $146 million, $13 million, -$1 million.

11.  Philadelphia Union — $145 million, $25 million, $2 million.

12.  New York Red Bulls — $144 million, $22 million, -$9 million.

13.  D.C. United — $140 million, $21 million, -$1 million.

14.  Montreal Impact — $128 million, $22 million, -$3 million.

15.  Vancouver Whitecaps — $125 million, $21 million, -$6 million.

16.  Columbus Crew — $112 million, $18 million, -$4 million.

17.  Real Salt Lake — $108 million, $17 million, $1 million.

18.  Colorado Rapids — $105 million, $15 million, -$3 million.

*Operating income before interest, taxes, depreciation, amortization.

Forbes cited a number of reasons for the league’s surging team valuation, including:

o  Growing attendance, which through July averaged 21,000, as MLS continued to widen the gap with the NBA (17,800) and NHL (17,500) in that department.  That average projects to total attendance of 7.2 million in 2015, thanks in part to the addition of new teams in New York and Orlando.   The 2013 total was 6 million.

o  An influx of overseas talent that picked up in 2015 with the arrival of the likes of Kaka, Andrea Pirlo, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, David Villa and Didier Drogba–a clear indication that owners are willing to spend to enhance the product on the field.

o  More soccer-specific stadiums throughout MLS.  The latest was San Jose’s Avaya Stadium, which opened in March, and DC United plans be in new digs by 2018.  Like United, the Earthquakes’ value has doubled since ’13.

o  The end of a TV deal with ESPN, NBC and Univision that paid MLS an average $30 million per year.  The new deal, in which Fox replaced NBC, pays $90 million a year.  Hardly NFL figures, or even NHL figures, and average viewship of 232,000 this year on Fox Sports 1 trails even the WNBA, but that represents a 65 percent improvement over NBCSN’s average audience of 141,000.  [September 19]

Comment I:  Total team worth of more than $2.8 billion for a league that as recently as 2002 nearly went under.  No wonder there were no signs of panic when MLS Commissioner Don Garber, during his “State of the League” address in December, revealed that the league was losing more than $100 million a year.

Comment II:  Being part of MLS is still far from being a license to print money, but no wonder the owners of LAFC, which won’t begin play until 2018, paid a league-record expansion fee of $110 million to try to succeed where it predecessor, the ill-fated Chivas USA, failed.  By comparison, the Miami Fusion, one of the league’s first two expansion teams, paid $20 million in 1997 to join MLS.

 

 

 



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.

 

 

 



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 . . . .



KLINSMANN EXPLAINED . . . OR NOT

Stanford University sophomore Jordan Morris scored four minutes into the second half and his replacement, erstwhile striker Juan Agudelo, applied the clinching goal in the 72nd minute as the U.S. defeated Mexico by that familiar score of 2-0 in a friendly played before a sellout crowd of 64,369 at San Antonio’s Alamodome.

The 20-year-old Morris, who made his international debut in November at Ireland, became the first college player to start for the U.S. in two decades.  Agudelo hadn’t played for the U.S. since November 2012 and hadn’t scored since March 2011.

With the match not on the FIFA international schedule, the U.S. lineup was dominated by Major League Soccer players while Mexico was largely a Liga MX side.

The U.S. is 13-5-5 against Mexico since 2000, 17-11-9 since 1990 and 19-33-14 since the two nations first met in 1934. [April 15]

Comment:  Just a friendly and just a warm-up to this summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup between two sides missing their biggest names, many of whom stayed with their overseas clubs.  U.S. coach Juergen Klinsmann had this to say to MLSsoccer.com a few days before the match, which was played a couple of weeks after the Americans lost at Denmark, 3-2, and earned a 1-1 draw at Switzerland:

“. . . It is a great opportunity for everyone (individually) to show where they are right now, where they are at this stage with MLS teams, down in Mexico, and just show us at what stage you are. And then obviously the closer we get to the Gold Cup the more we kind of define things.”

Obviously.

And because of logistics, Klinsmann and his predecessors have had to play the hand they’re dealt when it comes to personnel, rounding up European-based starters for one friendly, then European-based bench sitters and MLS and Liga MX players for another. (Playing outside the FIFA international window, like the Mexico game, only makes things more difficult.) But in his nearly five-year tenure as U.S. boss, Klinsmann has established not just a revolving door but a spinning revolving door to his team’s dressing room, frustrating observers who would like to see him, at the very least, settle on a back line so those four souls don’t have to introduce themselves to one another before every kickoff. They might even learn to play as a unit.

True, the U.S. got a shutout victory in San Antonio with yet another eclectic group, but that quote and that game only made a recent online article by Bobby Warshaw all the more interesting. A 26-year-old midfielder for Baerum of the Norwegian first division who played for the U.S. U-17s, FC Dallas and two Swedish first division clubs, Warshaw wrote:

“Juergen Klinsmann is a tough cat to understand sometimes, but his comments prior to the U.S. men’s national team game with Switzerland shed a little light for me. Whenever Fox Sports’ Rob Stone asked a question about the team, Klinsmann put the emphasis on the players. He never mentioned team goals. Rather, he kept referring to the players, suggesting that ‘the players have the opportunity’ and ‘it’s a big time in their careers.’ It annoyed me.

“That doesn’t answer the question, Juergen. Why are you putting the weight on the players here? You’re always criticizing the players. He asked about the TEAM. How are you going to prepare the TEAM? You’re the man in charge.

“It seemed he was missing the boat.

“And then I remembered back to one of the first conversations I had in a European locker room. I had been there for a week on loan from my Major League Soccer team. I started talking to a guy in a nearby locker about his career. He said he didn’t want to be with the club long; he was going to move on to a bigger club soon. It seemed a strange thing to tell a teammate.

“I realized Klinsmann wasn’t shirking responsibility in the interview. He was making a statement that reflects his view of the game, and it’s something I think I’ve failed to understand about the coach: The European football culture where Klinsmann was raised revolves around individual ambition. Personal success means more than team accomplishments.

“It’s a funny feeling around a European locker room. Everyone is happy to be on the team, but everybody also wants to be on a different one. A lot of the players have one foot out the door as soon as they step in. If a European player could pick between a trophy at the end of the season and moving on to a bigger club, he would choose the move. And it’s all perfectly accepted. It’s a strange way to conduct a team. (I can’t imagine what it’s like to play for a feeder club like Ajax, where not a single person really wants to be on that team.)

“Every player in Europe has a small sense he will someday end up in Manchester United red. Seventy-five thousand fans, Champions League, multi-million-dollar deals all feel within your reach.

“In MLS, the ceiling seems so low. The league office won’t sell you; it has no incentive to. You work hard to get some playing time and then become a starter. Hopefully the team rewards you with a new contract, but it’s not likely. They pat themselves on the back for getting a good deal within the salary cap. They tell you to sacrifice for the team. You chug along.

“In Europe, the sky’s the limit. It’s an incredible feeling. It only takes one game or one good run for someone to spot you. The next morning your club sells you to pay the electric bill. You move up a step in a matter of days.

“It changes the way you see the game. Winning isn’t the be-all and end-all. You don’t play to win the game . . . . You play because you’re personally ambitious. Ambition drives performance. And if everyone plays well, then the team wins the game. That drive, that ambition, that personal selfishness helps players, and the team, perform.

“This is strange to Americans. We hate to think anyone is playing for himself. We loath selfish players. And that’s one of our disconnects with Klinsmann.  Klinsmann doesn’t view it as selfish. He sees it as natural, if not necessary.

“The way you talk about the team doing well is to talk about the players playing well. All of a sudden, ‘the players have the opportunity’ makes a lot more sense. It’s the individual’s drive that moves the team forward.

“But players still need direction and game plan, neither of which Klinsmann seems to provide. Emphasis on a player’s individual ambition aside, at some point coaching needs to be done.

“Klinsmann has a general view of the team that we don’t seem to like. Some wise person in history surely said that hatred is fueled by ignorance–and seeing Klinsmann through this European lens at least helps us understand the man a little more. But who knows, maybe that understanding simply gives a little more merit to the hatred.

“Klinsmann grew up in a sporting model different than the one touted in the United States. I don’t think it explains everything, but it explains a little.”

Warshaw is certainly right in that Klinsmann’s outlook runs counter to American sensibilities.  The U.S. sinks or swims as a team; for decades, it has been a one-for-all, all-for-one outfit out of necessity.  Go down the list of the USA’s greatest upset victories–from England in 1950 through Portugal in 2002 and beyond–and in every case the whole was greater than the sum of its parts compared to the individual international stars they defeated.

And U.S. Soccer has even had to stand its approach to youth soccer on its head in an effort to match the player development methods of top soccer-playing nations.  When Claudio Reyna was appointed the USSF’s youth technical director in 2010 (a year before Klinsmann took the helm of the national team), his curriculum could be summed up by this quote:  “We care about how many players you develop rather than how many trophies you win.”  It was refreshing . . . and altogether Klins-ian.

So the focus now is on the individual, not the team.  It can only be hoped that when these sparkling individuals reach the national team, it is Berti Vogts who can help the rugged individualist Klinsmann turn a collection of talent into a unit, supplying Warshaw’s “direction and game plan.”  With Klinsmann under fire for his selections and methods and tactics, it was Vogts who was brought aboard two months ago as technical advisor to do for Klinsmann, perhaps, what Joachim Loew did for him at the 2006 World Cup when Klinsy was German National Team boss.  Vogts, an unselfish, blue-collar player nicknamed “The Terrier” would’ve been Warshaw’s prototypical American, a guy playing for the team, not to move up the soccer ladder.  Vogts, after all, toiled 15 seasons in the Bundesliga, all with the glamorous Borussia Moenchengladbach.



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.