Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


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.

 



SURPRISE! DONOVAN APPARENTLY PASSING THE AUDITION

The U.S. National Team advanced to the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinals with a rousing 5-1 dismantling of El Salvador before a sellout crowd of more than 70,000 at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.

Attacking midfielder Landon Donovan scored once and set up three goals to lead the way.  It gave the USA’s all-time scoring leader three goals and seven assists for the tournament and 54 goals and 55 assists for his career.

Donovan’s second assist came at the hour mark on a cross after a short corner kick, which substitute forward Eddie Johnson headed into the net with his very first touch.

The U.S., riding a record nine-game winning streak, will face Honduras on July 24 at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Tex., as part of a semifinal doubleheader.  The opener will feature Mexico against Panama.  [July 21]

Comment:  Possibly, just possibly, we’ll see Landon Donovan in a U.S. uniform in a World Cup qualifier later this year.  Heck, maybe we’ll even see him at Brasil ’14, playing in his fourth World Cup.

That’s been the guarded view of many in the U.S. media of the best player ever produced by this country.  He went on a very necessary months-long sabbatical from soccer after the Los Angeles Galaxy won last year’s MLS Cup, thus turning his back on the U.S. National Team and its first matches of the final round of CONCACAF’s World Cup qualifiers, as well as the first few weeks of the Galaxy’s 2013 season.  Donovan returned in March, and after several MLS games, he was given a call-up by coach Juergen Klinsmann to play for the U.S.–essentially a “B” team–in the Gold Cup, a move seen by too many as something of an audition for a return to the full national team in time for the World Cup qualifying stretch drive.

An audition?  Ridiculous.

This “story” goes in the same circular file as the attempts to pass judgement on David Beckham’s American adventure a couple of years into his five-year contract and the report months ago that the national team was in complete disarray and Klinsmann’s head belonged on the chopping block.

Donovan’s relationship with Klinsmann has been frosty since Klimsmann was hired in mid-2011, and this is nothing more than the prodigal son’s genuflection before the boss and the kissing of his ring.  If Klinsmann can’t temporarily humble his biggest player for not being a good soldier, he’s not in charge.  Barring injury or a complete crash and burn by the 31-year-old Donovan this summer, there has been no doubt in Klinsmann’s mind that the fleet-footed imp with 149 career international appearances will be part of the USA’s plans for 2013-14.  This is America, after all.  France can spit on Eric Cantona and David Ginola in putting together what would become its 1998 World Cup-winning squad in the interest of esprit de corps; the U.S. is not and never has been so deep.

To put it another way, if Donovan has been performing in some sort of tryout before Klinsmann during the Gold Cup, go all the way back to 1969 and the Beatles’ famous concert on the roof of Abby Road Studios in London.  As John Lennon cheekily announced at the end, “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we passed the audition.”  The audience of two dozen or so way up there that day laughed.  Right now, Donovan is suppressing a laugh.  So is a privately giddy Klinsmann.



SOCCER, AND NOT-QUITE REALITY TV

“Chicago Fire,” a television series that follows the lives of firefighters and paramedics at a Chicago Fire Department station, will debut on NBC on October 10, airing Wednesdays at 10 p.m. Eastern/9 p.m. Central.  [October 1]

Comment:  So the Windy City now has two Chicago Fires.  One is a soccer team that’s won an MLS Cup (1998, its inaugural season), and four U.S. Open Cups (’98, 2000, ’03 and ’06).  The other is a network TV show.

With the national election fast approaching next month, perhaps TV can come up with a politically themed show called “DC United.”   It would be pure fantasy and ideally made for the Syfy channel.



MLS: DRAWN AND MORE THAN QUARTERED

This Saturday, Major League Soccer will kick off its 17th season, tying it with the old North American Soccer League (1968-84) as the country’s longest tenured national pro soccer league.  With the addition of its 19th club, the expansion Montreal Impact, the league will play 323 regular-season games, 17 more than in 2011.  The climactic MLS Cup is scheduled for Saturday, December 1, making this the league’s longest campaign in its history.  And for the first time, every match will be televised, thanks to ESPN, Univision, new partner NBC and various Canadian networks.  [March 7]

Comment:  Another set of milestones for a league that a dozen years ago was in danger of falling flat on its back, but for those who care about what goes on down on the field, perhaps we’ll see some improvement in the standings, where wins and losses are in danger of being surpassed by ties, draws and deadlocks.

Last season, with 18 MLS teams each playing 34 regular-season games for a total of 306, a whopping 106 of those matches ended in a tie.  That’s 34.6 percent, or more than a third.  The New York Red Bulls and Chicago Fire registered 16 draws apiece, breaking the record of 14 set the previous season by FC Dallas.  Toronto FC and the Philadelphia Union were next at 15, and another nine teams posted 10 draws or more.  In fact, 11 teams finished with more ties than victories, including all those who made up the bottom nine.

Is there a trend in place?  In 2010, in a 16-team MLS, only three clubs hit double digits in ties, and just one club, the New England Revolution (5-16-13), had more ties than wins.  Teams each played 30 games that year and they racked up 58 draws–24.1 percent of all results.

To a disdainful general American public, soccer and ties are almost synonymous.  But compare MLS with the Italy, the land where, as popular perception would have it, the scoreless tie was invented, and games are so tight, oftentimes so negative, that the players walk onto the field hoping for that one, blissful penalty-kick call.  Yet in 2010-2011, Serie A’s 20 clubs, each playing 38 matches, had 97 ties in 380 games–25.5 percent, just more than a quarter of all results.  Half of the teams tied at least 10 games, led by Fiorentina, with 16.

“We’re not going to eliminate ties from Major League Soccer, but we have way too many ties and way too many zero-zero ties,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber told the Newark Star-Ledger in July, as the draws were piling up at an alarming rate.  “What could we do as a league to make it more valuable for a club to play to win every game as opposed to playing for just a point?  We’re looking at what those initiatives could be.  And that is a league initiative.”

[For the record, Commissioner, of those 106 ties last year, 27 were scoreless.]

What’s troubling here is that not only has MLS not taken concrete steps to reverse the trend (meaningful player bonuses for victories, perhaps?), it has offered little in the way of explanation beyond praising its parity and competitiveness.

MLS is catching up with the rest of the world when it comes to intimate stadiums and boisterous followings, thus creating in many cities the home-field advantage factor that was so missing in the league’s first decade.  As a result, however, is MLS also becoming yet another league in which teams are more than happy to escape most road games with a single point?  If that’s the case, it’s all the more reason for the league to take the necessary steps to foster a climate in which those large, loud and loyal followers go home happy on a more regular basis.