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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?

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ARE WE NOT RUBES?

Manchester United, looking to recover quickly from its worst showing in the English Premier League era, rallied to defeat EPL rival Liverpool, 3-1, at Miami’s Sun Life Stadium to win the 2014 Guinness International Champions Cup.  A 14th-minute penalty kick goal by Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard was cancelled out by strikes by United’s Wayne Rooney (55th minute), Juan Mata (57th) and Jesse Lingard (88th).

The tournament, held in 12 U.S. cities and Toronto as a warm-up to the European season, kicked off July 24 with eight European clubs, two of them defending champions of their respective national leagues, plus UEFA Champions League winner Real Madrid.  Manchester United (2-0-1) won its group over Inter Milan of Italy (1-0-2), AS Roma of Italy (1-2-0) and Spanish giant Real Madrid (0-2-1).  Liverpool topped a group that included Greek champion Olympiakos (1-1-1), English champion Manchester City (1-2-0) and Italy’s AC Milan (0-3-0).

Attendance for the 13 games totaled 642,134, for an average of 49,395.  Topping the list was the throng of 109,318 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich., to see Manchester United defeat Real Madrid, 3-1.  That crowd was the largest in U.S. soccer history, eclipsing the 101,799 on hand for the 1984 Olympic gold-medal match at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.   A more modest 51,014 were on hand for the Manchester United-Liverpool finale.  [August 4]

Comment I:  Proof positive that World Cup fever not only hit America full-force early this summer but that it lingers.  Throw in the 84,362 who witnessed Manchester United’s 7-0 demolition of the Los Angeles Galaxy at the Rose Bowl, a Bayern Munich-Chivas Guadalajara friendly at Red Bull Arena in New Jersey and a dozen other exhibitions involving Major League Soccer teams and foreign opposition ranging from Spanish champion Atletico Madrid to EPL tail-ender Aston Villa, and about a million fans in the U.S. paid top dollar to say they saw in person some of the finest players from some of Europe’s most storied clubs.

Comment II:  Are we not rubes?

Sure, there are plenty of expatriates here who’ve just got to see the old hometown club.  And then there are the so-called Eurosnobs, young Americans who’ll get up at dawn from August to May to watch their adopted club–usually from the English Premier League–on a television at the local pub, er, sports bar, but wouldn’t cross the street to watch an MLS game for free.

But to the folks in Europe, a million people over here just shelled out big bucks to watch some clubs with fresh hardware and others living on their good name.  The spectators wore their replica jerseys and cheered and chanted as their favorite players went through the motions during cameo appearances while plenty of the playing time was taken up by fine fellows fighting to win a place on the roster, if not into the starting 11.  Wholesale substitutions disrupted the flow of the games, players weren’t exactly keen on the extensive travel, and coaches considered these moneymaking adventures an intrusion on serious pre-season preparations.  In the end, fans here saw moments of brilliance, mis-timed tackles, remarkable goals, and shots that actually resulted in throw-ins.  And at the final whistle of each match, a result that meant absolutely nothing.

There are many benchmarks that will indicate that the U.S. is developing into a soccer nation.  Like criticism of the U.S. National Team for its shortcomings in a World Cup instead of praising its goalkeeper for repeatedly bailing it out.  Or the prompt emergence of a genuine successor to the soon-to-retire Landon Donovan.  Or, in this case, attendance at meaningless midsummer friendlies involving European clubs in numbers that aren’t an embarrassment to MLS.



DONOVAN’S IMMEDIATE F-U TO KLINSMANN

Landon Donovan became Major League Soccer’s all-time scoring leader, producing two goals to lead the Los Angeles Galaxy to a 4-1 rout of the Philadelphia Union at the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif., three days after the one-time U.S. captain was left off the national team roster for the 2014 World Cup.

With his 135th and 136th career goals, the 32-year-old Donovan brushed past Jeff Cunningham in 54 fewer appearances, although the Jamaican-American, now retired, scored his 134 in 3,907 fewer minutes (about 43 90-minute matches).  Rounding out the MLS top 10 are Jaime Moreno (Bolivia, 133), Ante Razov (U.S., 114), Jason Kreis (U.S., 108), Dwayne De Rosario (Canada, 103), Taylor Twellman (U.S., 101), Edson Buddle (U.S., 99), Carlos Ruiz (Guatemala, 88), and Roy Lassiter (U.S., 88).   [May 26]

Comment:  It took only a little more than 72 hours, but Donovan delivered the ultimate response to U.S. coach Juergen Klinsmann and did it with a flair, scoring twice and adding an assist after going his first seven games of the Galaxy season without scoring.

Of course, it’s certainly not going to make Klinsmann reconsider his decision.  In fact, he’s painted himself into such a corner that if any of the forwards or midfielders among his final 23 is injured, he can’t possibly replace him with Donovan.  As for the goals themselves, they were practically sitters, with striker Robbie Keane playing a large part.

Still, it was difficult not to root for Donovan, who had hoped to become the first American to appear in four World Cups.

At training the day before, Donovan did his level best to suppress his anger and disappointment while talking with the media.  “I think I was one of the better players in (U.S.) camp,” he said, using measured tones.  “If I had gone in and didn’t think I deserved it, then I can live with that, but that’s not the case here.”

And after scoring the goal four minutes into the second half that pushed him past Cunningham on the all-time list, as Donovan skidded on the turf and was engulfed by jubilant teammates while a crowd of 21,000 chanted “USA!”, the moment was nothing short of cathartic.  But as the player himself would be the first to admit, it was only a moment.  He’ll be wondering “What if?” for the next seven weeks and long after that.



KLINSMANN’S UNNECESSARY DONOVAN GAMBLE

Juergen Klinsmann, the coach hired to shake up the U.S. National Team, dropped the biggest bombshell of his controversial tenure by announcing a 23-man World Cup squad that does not include all-time U.S. scoring  leader Landon Donovan, a player considered the best ever produced by this country.

Klinsmann had until June 2 to reveal his final roster, but with his preliminary squad still training at Stanford University ahead of final World Cup tune-ups against Azerbaijan (May 27), Turkey (June 1) and Nigeria (June 7), he pulled the trigger, sending home Brad Evans, Clarence Goodson, Maurice Edu, Michael Parkhurst, Joe Corona, Terence Boyd, and the man considered the face of American soccer.

The final 23 headed to Brasil ’14:

Goalkeepers — Brad Guzan (Aston Villa, England), Tim Howard (Everton, England), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake, MLS);

Defenders — DaMarcus Beasley (Puebla, Mexico), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City, MLS), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin, Germany), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City, England), Timmy Chandler (FC Nurnberg, Germany), Omar Gonzalez (Los Angeles Galaxy, MLS), Fabian Johnson (Hoffenheim, Germany), DeAndre Yedlin (Seattle Sounders, MLS);

Midfielders — Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake, MLS), Alejandro Bedoya (Nantes, France), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC, MLS), Brad Davis (Houston Dynamo, MLS), Mix Diskerud (Rosenborg, Norway), Julian Green (Bayern Munich, Germany), Jermaine Jones (Besiktas, Turkey), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City);

Forwards — Jozy Altidore (Sunderland, England), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders, MLS), Aron Johannsson (AZ Alkmaar, Holland), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes, MLS).  [May 22]

Comment:  This isn’t on a par with the decision to leave Eric Cantona off the roster of what would become 1998 World Cup champion France, but by American standards, it’s close.  And, on the face of it, a completely unnecessary gamble.

In a perfect world, Klinsy’s grateful selection of players melds in Brazil and beats Ghana, upsets Portugal and walks arm-in-arm with Group “G” favorite Germany into the round of 16.

But in this imperfect world of Klinsmann’s own making, the U.S. could be tied late with Ghana or trailing Portugal or Germany by a goal, and  standing at the halfway line, ready to ride to the rescue, will be Wondolowski or the 18-year-old Green (total international experience: one half hour), not the guy who’s scored 57 career goals, including five in his 12 World Cup matches (all U.S. records).  In short, by omitting Donovan and assembling a team that includes Yedlin, Brooks, Gonzalez and 15 other players with no World Cup experience, Klinsmann, the coach whose aim is to motivate his players by making them uncomfortable, has succeeded in leaving everyone unsettled, including fans who, over the years, have derided Donovan with the nickname “Landycakes.”

Klinsmann described the decision as a matter of 23 players being better than the 32-year-old forward/midfielder:  “… I just think the other guys right now are a little bit ahead of him.”   Perhaps it’s true.  But in soccer, player selection can be a very subjective thing.  Perhaps the coach is still holding a grudge against Donovan for his well-publicized sabbatical in late 2012 and early 2013 that caused him to miss the USA’s first matches of the final round of World Cup qualifiers.

Whatever the reason, Klinsmann has created a potential nightmare for himself.  Some have speculated that he has concluded that getting out of the so-called “Group of Death” is impossible and it’s best to blood young players like Yedlin (total U.S. minutes played:  34) in Brazil in preparation for the 2018 World Cup.  But this isn’t the 1990 World Cup all over again, where then-coach Bob Gansler, looking to the ’94 World Cup the U.S. would host, threw a team averaging 23 years of age to the wolves.  Three and out is no longer acceptable under any circumstances.

If the U.S. somehow advances out of Group “G” next month, Klinsmann is a bloody genius.  But if the U.S. crashes, Klinsmann will be hounded by the spectre of Donovan and what might have been.  And that will cast doubt on every decision he makes–whether risky or mundane–from now through Russia ’18.



18-YEAR-OLD MLS BRINGS US THE NEW 40

Pedro Morales converted a penalty kick in the 19th minute and struck again on a 20-yard shot a minute later to lead the Vancouver Whitecaps to a 3-2 victory over the San Jose Earthquakes in a Major League Soccer match before a crowd of 21,000 at BC Place.

The meeting commemorated the 40th anniversary of the first game between the Whitecaps and Earthquakes, who opened the North American Soccer League season at Empire Stadium as expansion franchises on May 5, 1974.  Fans at BC Place were encouraged to dress ’70s retro, which many did with long-haired wigs, sunglasses, fake mustaches and bell-bottom pants.  [May 3]

Comment:  The match was played about a month after the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders battled to an entertaining 4-4 draw before yet another standing-room-only crowd of 20,814 at Portland’s Providence Park.  The Associated Press referred to that encounter as “one of the wilder match ups of a rivalry dating to the mid-1970s.”  NBC, which televised the game, called it “the 85th meeting of the two teams.”  MLS noted earlier that the Sounders, along with a third Cascadia rival, the Whitecaps, and the ‘Quakes would mark their 40th anniversary seasons this year, with the Timbers celebrating No. 39.

What a stretch of the imagination.

Those clubs have as much right to claim a 40th anniversary as a married couple who experiences divorce, death, ressurection, marriage to other partners, further divorces, identity changes, separation, multiple relocations, and, finally, rebirth, all since the days that Richard Nixon was in the White House.

True, the Sounders, Whitecaps and ‘Quakes were born in 1974 as NASL teams, followed by the Timbers in ’75.  However, Portland, which once boldly called itself “Soccer City USA,” folded after the 1982 season, and Seattle, Vancouver and San Jose (known as Golden Bay for its final two seasons) went down with the ship when the NASL itself died after the 1984 campaign.

A year later, with professional soccer in the U.S. resembling a moonscape, two new teams, FC Portland and FC Seattle, joined with a reconstituted San Jose Earthquakes and the soon-to-be-forgotten Victoria Riptides to play in a hopeful attempt to revive high-level soccer called the Western Alliance Challenge Series (San Jose finished first with a 4-2-1 record).  The WACS morphed into the Western Soccer Alliance, then the Western Soccer League, then, through a 1990 merger with the East Coast’s year-old American Soccer League, the American Professional Soccer League.  FC Portland, born as an all-amateur side made up primarily of University of Portland players like Kasey Keller, and their rival, since renamed FC Seattle Storm, folded after that year.

As for the San Jose Earthquakes, they were replaced by the San Francisco Bay Blackhawks in 1989; after U.S. internationals like Marcelo Balboa, Eric Wynalda and John Doyle led them the to APSL title in ’91, they dropped into the USISL by ’93 as the San Jose Hawks and then folded.  After three years of darkness, the San Jose Clash became a charter member of MLS.  It shed the regrettable Clash nickname in 1999 and went on to win two MLS championships as the ‘Quakes, but it wasn’t enough to prevent the poorly supported team from moving to Houston in 2006.  Two years later, an MLS expansion team, named the Earthquakes, was awarded to San Jose; this fourth version of the ‘Quakes will move into a new, soccer-specific stadium, in 2015.

Vancouver?  It returned to action in 1986 as a freelance team, then joined the new, short-lived Canadian Soccer League the following year.  After six seasons as a CSL power, the 86ers embarked on an 18-year odyssey that took them to the APSL, A-League and USL-1.  Along the way, the 86es nickname was changed to Whitecaps.

These 40-year anniversaries are all well and good, but they ignore the difficult days between NASL and MLS, when there was genuine doubt that pro outdoor soccer would ever be seen again.  Ask those in the crowd of 34,012 who watched the Sounders beat the Timbers at the Kingdome in 1979 if any of them were among the 1,500 or so who saw an amateur Portland team play a semi-pro Seattle team at the old Memorial Stadium eight or nine years later.  Would any of them have drawn any sort of parallel between the two games?  Could any of them have foreseen a day when an MLS Portland Timbers and MLS Seattle Sounders would meet at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field in front of 66,452 in 2012 or 67,385 last season?

Given the ups and downs–and glaring gaps–in these and every other major soccer-playing market in the U.S., creating milestones like this is a shameless example of revisionist history.  If not, the New York/New Jersey MetroStars (now the New York Red Bulls) should’ve just claimed the legacy of the New York Cosmos as their own and begun life in MLS in 1996 with five NASL titles to their name.  Better yet, the New England Revolution should’ve simply traced their roots to the Fall River Marksmen, founded in 1921.  That would’ve given the Revs an immediate 75-year history, plus seven American Soccer League championships and four U.S. National Open Cup crowns.  A stretch?  Fall River, which of course is part of New England, is only 36 miles from the Revolution’s home field, Gillette Stadium.

These MLS clubs are right to give a nod to their respective cities’ rich soccer histories.  But the Whitecaps, Earthquakes (with their new stadium on the horizon), and Timbers and Sounders (with their routine sellouts) should celebrate the here and now without trying to re-write history–especially without forcing themselves to drag memories of mutton chop sideburns, Watergate and disco into the equation.



U.S. THE EARLY WINNER AT 2016 COPA AMERICA

The long-rumored centennial Copa America in America became a reality when CONMEBOL announced in Miami that it would play its 2016 championship in the United States.

The tournament, to be held outside South America for the first time, is scheduled for June 3 through 26.  In addition to CONMEBOL’s 10 members, the host U.S., Mexico and four other CONCACAF nations will round out a field of 16 teams.

Many questions remain, among them the cities that will host matches.

“One benefit we have in a country like the U.S. is that we have many, many venues that can host this,” said U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati.  “A number of venues have been in contact with us in the last 48 hours that want to host it.  Some [candidates] in person here in Miami have talked to us, and a number by e-mail.”

Also at issue is the timing of the tournament, which would be a special edition wedged between the regularly scheduled 2015 Copa America in Chile and 2019 Copa in Brazil.  It would overlap with the 2016 European Championship, which kicks off June 10, and conflict with the same season as the 2016 Summer Olympics soccer tournament in Rio de Janeiro.  It would mean the cancellation of that year’s CONCACAF Gold Cup, and CONCACAF clubs are not obligated to release players to play in an event that is a South American tournament.  For the U.S., that issue becomes problematic because Major League Soccer will be in mid-season.

The Copa America is the world’s oldest continental soccer competition, first held in Argentina in 1916 to commemorate that nation’s founding as an independent nation; midway through the tournament, the four participants announced the formation of the first-ever continental soccer confederation, the Confederacion Sudamericana de Futbol.  It’s 14 years older than the World Cup and 44 years older than the European Championship.  [May 1]

Comment:  For those who see this as a way for South American soccer to milk the U.S. of many millions of dollars, keep in mind that clubs and national teams from South America, CONCACAF and, especially, Mexico, have been coming here to feed at the trough not for years but for decades.

Of course, there are always the dollars.  But when it comes to sense, the big winner here is the U.S. National Team.

The U.S., like Mexico, cannot progress living on a steady diet of regional competition–regardless of how hard it is to win a World Cup qualifier at Costa Rica or Honduras.  Playing competitive, non-World Cup games against European opposition is an impossibility, which is unfortunate considering that U.S. internationals play for European, not South American, clubs.  South America and its Copa America, then, makes perfect sense.

Unlike Mexico, a regular guest over the past 20 years at the Copa America and twice a finalist, the USA’s participation has been spotty.  It crashed in the group stage in 1993, surprised all by reaching the semifinals against Brazil in 1995 and predictably crashed again in the first round after sending an experimental team to the 2007 Copa in Venezuela.

It is hoped that the Centennial Copa America is a rousing success and a good U.S. performance inspires–compels–the U.S. Soccer Federation to find a way to make its national team a regular guest participant in future South American championships.  Otherwise, it’s a continuation of a dull treadmill involving the Gold Cup and friendlies against international opponents who, depending on the circumstances, may be under strength and/or under inspired.

 

 



ADIOS, CHIVAS USA

Major League Soccer has purchased the troubled Chivas USA from Jorge Vergara and Angelica Fuentes and will operate the team until an owner is found who will build a new stadium for it in the Los Angeles area.

Sale price was a reported $70 million.  The original bill Vergara, wife Fuentes, and Antonio and Lorenzo Cue paid MLS to create Chivas USA 10 years ago was $10 million; Vergara and Fuentes bought out the Cues 15 months ago for $40 million.

New owners figure to re-brand the team with a new name and logo.

“Certainly, it hasn’t worked out as well as anybody expected,” said MLS Commissioner Don Garber.  “I don’t think this is the fault of ownership, per se.  There’s a lot of issues that we, the league, take responsibility for.  Now we are just very focused on a new beginning.”

Chivas USA will begin its 2014 season next month under new coach Wilmer Cabrera, the club’s 11th field boss, a list that includes Thomas Rongen, Preki, future U.S. National Team coach Bob Bradley and current national team assistant Martin Vasquez.  Chivas’ best season was its third, when it topped the Western Conference with a 15-7-8 record but fell in the conference semifinals.

In 2013, the Goats finished last in the West at 6-20-8, the second-worst mark in the 19-team league.  Its attendance for 17 regular-season games at the Stub Hub Center was an abysmal 8,366, a nearly 36 percent drop in the gate from 2012.  That was the worst in MLS, which averaged 18,608, the second best in league history.  No other MLS club was below five figures in average attendance.  Chivas’ co-tenant at Stub Hub, the Los Angeles Galaxy, averaged 22,152, a drop of 4.25 percent in its first David Beckham-less campaign in seven years.  The Seattle Sounders led all at 44,038 a match.  [February 20]

Comment:  About time, and farewell to a failed experiment and a drag on Major League Soccer.

Despite its good intentions to lure Southern California’s thousands and thousands of transplants from Jalisco state, Chivas USA was neither Chivas nor USA.  Or maybe it was too USA to be a second Chivas–the 2014 roster shows 18 Americans and just two Mexicans, one fewer than the number of Argentines on the list.

It all looked good on paper, but league rules prevented Chivas USA from fielding the predominantly Mexican side ownership sought, and it was all downhill from there.  This secondary version of Chivas Guadalajara quickly became an afterthought and a team damned to stand in the shadow of the older and much more successful Galaxy.

Although the league’s efforts to get to this point were months in the making, it was long overdue nonetheless.  Garber adds expansion teams to MLS like a desperately spawning salmon, while he should have been devoting his attention to this weak sister.  The concept of a two-team rivalry in a major market remains an enticing concept.  MLS will add New York City FC and Orlando SC in 2015, swelling its ranks to an unwieldy 21 teams.  It will be interesting to see if New York Red Bulls versus the new NYCFC ignites local passion.  In the meantime, MLS is left with the lesson out of Los Angeles that it takes two to make a rivalry.