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.

 

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DON’T PUT THE U.S. CART BEFORE THE WORLD CUP HORSE

Mexico shook off its funk and stormed to its seventh CONCACAF Gold Cup title, defeating upstart Jamaica, 3-1, in the final before a partisan sellout crowd of 68,930 at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field.

Andres Guardado opened the scoring in the 31st minute with a spectacular left-footed volley off a cross by Paul Aguilar.  That ended a frustrating 272-minute stretch in which the Mexicans had failed to score from anywhere but the penalty spot.  Jesus Corona, voted the Gold Cup’s top young player, increased the lead to 2-0 two minutes into the second half after stealing a ball from Michael Hector, and in the 61st minute Oribe Peralta capitalized on another blunder by Hector to put the match out of reach.  Darren Mattocks got the Reggae Boyz a consolation goal in the 81st.

The triumph earned El Tri a playoff with the U.S. on October 10 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., with a berth in the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup at stake.

The U.S. won the 2013 Gold Cup and could have secured a trip outright to the Confederations Cup in Russia by winning the ’15 tournament, but the Americans were defeated by Jamaica, 2-1, in the semifinals and then sagged to a loss to Panama in the third-place game at PPL Park in Chester, Penn., bowing on penalty kicks, 3-2, after a 1-1 draw.  [July 26]

Comment I:  An aberration?  No climactic meeting of the U.S. and Mexico in the final, as the tournament promoters had hoped?  Perhaps.  Maybe we’ll know as early as the autumn of 2017, when the CONCACAF qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup conclude.  But the balance of power in CONCACAF continues to shift, and the hold of Mexico and the U.S. on the top two rungs continues to erode, by degrees.

The Mexicans needed all of three late penalty-kick calls in the quarterfinals and semifinals to reach the championship match (thanks to Guardado, they converted them all).  The Americans failed to impress in group play, buried a Cuban team decimated by defections in the second round, then went back to failing to impress thereafter and were rewarded with a deserved fourth-place finish.

Are Jamaica and Panama that good?  Of course not.  Neither is Costa Rica, Honduras or Trinidad & Tobago. The most recent FIFA World Rankings placed the Reggae Boyz at No. 55, the Canaleros at No. 65, the Ticos at No. 38, the Catrachos at No. 81, and the Soca Warriors at No. 56.

Fortunately for the U.S. (29th) and Mexico (26th), while CONCACAF’s World Cup qualifiers remain a challenge–with road matches ranging from headaches to nightmares–the outcome has been similar over the past five campaigns:  The Americans and El Tri qualify and are joined by . . . who?  For 1998, it was Jamaica, in its World Cup debut.  For ’02, Costa Rica.  For ’06,  it was the Costa Ricans and, for the first time, Trinidad & Tobago.  For 2010, Honduras qualified, and for Brazil ’14 it was Costa Rica and Honduras.  It’s like a game of Whack a Mole, as first one CONCACAF contender pops out of its hole, then ducks back down and a different one pops up.

And so the battle for the region’s 3 1/2 berths at the 2018 World Cup heats up this fall, and everyone has the U.S. and Mexico with boarding passes to Russia.  Many in the media describe the October playoff between the two at the Rose Bowl as being very important because the winner goes on to the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup in Russia, “something of a dress rehearsal for the next World Cup.”  But the U.S. or Mexico might–just might–go to Russia dress rehearsing for nothing.

Because if there was any proof that there’s no longer a sure thing in CONCACAF, it came in late 2013, when Mexico shockingly finished fourth in the World Cup qualifiers and had to sweat out a playoff with New Zealand to punch its ticket to Brazil.  (Were it not for two U.S. stoppage-time goals at Panama in the region’s final round, Mexico would have been eliminated for the first time since 1934–when the eliminators happened to be the Americans.)  And as CONCACAF nations evolve, there’s nothing to say that Costa Rica, a surprise World Cup quarterfinalist in ’14; Honduras, a semifinalist in the previous two Gold Cups; Panama and Jamaica; and even Trinidad & Tobago; don’t all pop out of their mole holes during a single World Cup cycle, leaving the U.S. and/or Mexico on the outside looking in.  Heck, don’t count out Canada (No. 101), which won the 2000 Gold Cup, finished third in ’02 and now has a generation of players developing in Major League Soccer.

Comment II:  The USA’s breakout star during the tournament was a recent retiree.  Timmy Chandler was a disaster, Michael Bradley disappointed, but former U.S. goalkeeper Brad Friedel, as a television color commentator, proved to be a find for Fox Sports during its Gold Cup coverage as it gears up for much bigger assignments, from CONCACAF World Cup qualifying beginning late this year to Russia 2018 itself.

Friedel gives you the whole field, as a goalkeeper should, but he also gives you the whole picture and speaks with the authority of a player who’s gone from the top collegiate level (UCLA) to MLS (Columbus Crew) to national team (82 caps, two World Cups) to international clubs (Brondby IF of Denmark, Newcastle United of England, Galatasaray of Turkey, and Liverpool, Blackburn, Aston Villa and Tottenham, all of England).  He’s quick, articulate, witty and enthusiastic about the U.S. without losing his credibility–no easy task during this transitory period in soccer’s history in this country.  And unlike most of his predecessors, he compliments his play-by-play partner, instead of making him work.

Friedel is far better than a long line of ex-U.S. internationals who’d hoped to be the second banana in a national soccer broadcast booth for the next couple of decades.  Friedel is better than John Harkes, he’s better than Marcelo Balboa, and he’s better than the insufferable Taylor Trellman, whose partner, the outstanding play-by-play man Ian Darke, must dread going to work.  Friedel’s, literally, a keeper.

 

 

 



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.



THE ABORTED ‘MIRACLE 2’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



BACK IN THEIR HEADS?

Seventy-five years of frustration came to an end as the United States shocked Mexico, 1-0, in a friendly at Estadio Azteca for its first victory in Mexico in 25 tries.  Midfielder Michael Orozco Fiscal, who plays in the Mexican First Division for San Luis, scored the game’s lone goal with an awkward left-footed shot from close range.

The Mexicans’ defeat was only their ninth in 120 international matches at the Azteca, which opened in 1966.  The USA’s modest record against Mexico improved to 1-19-1 at the legendary Mexico City stadium, 1-23-1 in Mexico and 16-32-12 overall.

Mexico dominated for most of the evening, but in the 79th minute a trio of second-half substitutes pushed the U.S. in front.  Brek Shea beat Severo Meza on the left side of the penalty area and slid the ball across to Terrence Boyd, whose back heel found Orozco Fiscal near the far post.

Goalkeeper Tim Howard, who brilliantly denied Mexico scoring ace Javier Hernandez in the 85th and 89th minutes, and a new-look U.S. back line that featured Geoff Cameron and Maurice Edu in the middle, helped preserve the shutout.  [August 15]

Comment:  It was only a friendly, and neither side was at full strength.  But the fact remains that the U.S. at long last shattered the notion of El-Tri invincibility against their hated neighbor on home soil.  Fourteen months after Mexico ended a run of failure north of the border with a 4-2 humiliation of the U.S. in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final at the Rose Bowl, the Americans might just have gotten back into the Mexicans’ heads.



ALAS, NO GOLD, SILVER OR BRONZE FOR U.S. THIS SUMMER

The United States surrendered a goal by Jaime Alas four minutes into added-on time, giving El Salvador a 3-3 tie in Nashville that knocked the Americans out of contention for the 2012 London Olympics.  The Salvadorans finished atop their first-round group and advanced along with Canada to the semifinals of the CONCACAF Olympic qualifiers in Kansas City, where they will face Mexico and Honduras with two berths in London on the line.  The U.S., at 1-1-1, landed in third place.

After taking a lead on a goal by Terrence Boyd in the first minute, the U.S. was sent reeling by goals by El Salvador’s Lester Blanco and Andres Flores in the 35th and 37th minutes.  Boyd scored an equalizer in the 65th minute and Joe Corona, whose mother is Salvadoran, put the U.S. ahead, 3-2, three minutes later with a header off a cross by captain Freddy Adu, who had also set up Boyd’s second strike.

The Americans, however, couldn’t hold off the relentless Salvadorans.  On a quick counterattack, Alas’ seemingly harmless 25-yard shot squeezed under U.S. goalkeeper Sean Johnson, who had replaced the injured Bill Hamid (ankle) in the 39th minute.  [March 26]

Comment:   A disturbing setback, coming as it does on the heels of three other American stumbles in regional or world championship competition over the past 12 months.   A year ago, the U.S. National Under-20 Team gives up a second-half goal against the run of play and is eliminated by host Guatemala, 2-1, in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF qualifiers for the FIFA World Youth Championship.  In June, the U.S. National Team scores twice early, only to give up four unanswered goals to Mexico in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final at the Rose Bowl.  The following month, the U.S. National Women’s Team is unable to protect a one-goal lead in regulation and again late in overtime and loses to underdog Japan on penalty kicks in the FIFA Women’s World Cup title match in Germany.  And now this.

It’s no time for Sam’s Army and the American Outlaws and their brethren to panic, of course.  The U.S. women, despite their confounding defeat at the hands of Japan last summer, are still No. 1 in the FIFA World Rankings.  And with CONCACAF’s 3 1/2 berths up for grabs, the U.S. men head into 2014 World Cup qualifying this summer with perhaps the two most accomplished attacking players in their history, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, still in their prime.  For the U.S. men, however, it would have to be concluded that, given the U-23s’ disappointing loss to Canada and tie with El Salvador in Nashville, there are no wholesale reinforcements on the horizon.

On the eve of the Olympic qualifiers, MLS spokesman Will Kuhn was on message, telling  the Los Angeles Times, “It’s a strong statement about our league and the development of young players that the Olympic tournament–a reflection of the strongest young players in each country–includes so many that are on our clubs.  It draws a lot of attention to the natural progression of our league.  The level of play keeps advancing each year.  The Olympics gives an opportunity for lots more people to see that progress.”  We’ve heard that sort of thing from MLS for several years now, but it might be time for the league to tone down the rhetoric.

If there’s been progress, it hasn’t be reflected in the play of recent U.S. U-23 teams.  The 2000 U.S. men’s Olympic team qualified for Sydney, where it went 1-0-2 in the first round, defeated Japan on PKs in the quarterfinals, lost to Spain, 3-1, in the semifinals and bowed to Chile, 2-0, in the bronze-medal game–their best showing in an Olympic soccer history that goes back to 1924.  In 2004, the U.S. failed to make it to Athens, the decisive blow a humiliating 4-0 loss to host Mexico in the CONCACAF semifinals as the locals taunted the Americans with chants of “O-sa-ma, O-sa-ma.”  Four years later, the U.S. reached the Beijing Games, where it went 1-1-1 and failed to advance to the quarterfinals.

No one wants to see a return of the 1980s and ’90s, when young American players had two hopes:  star in college, then head to Europe, where there might be an opening with a Scandinavian club or a German regional division side.  And there’s no denying that since 1996 MLS has become an international springboard for several top native sons, from Brian McBride to Tim Howard and Donovan and Dempsey.  Nevertheless, if the Olympics are some kind of reflection on the improvement of MLS, that progress has been decidedly uneven.



THE KASEY KELLER EFFECT

They threw open the gates to the upper deck at CenturyLink Field and 64,140 turned out to see the Sounders defeat the San Jose Earthquakes, 2-1, in the final 2011 regular-season match in Seattle.  Sammy Ochoa and Fredy Montero scored in the last 10 minutes and goalkeeper Kasey Kelly stopped seven shots to send the throng home happy. 

This was not part of a doubleheader, and there was no fireworks spectacular offered.  Both sides had qualified for the playoffs.  The attraction was goalkeeper and native son Keller, who plans to retire at the end of the season.  [October15]

Comment I:  Appropriate, and well deserved.

With all due respect to Brad Friedel, Tony Meola and Tim Howard, Keller, 41, will step down as the best goalkeeper produced by a country known, internationally, for its goalkeepers.  The pride of Olympia, WA, never had a three-week stretch like Friedel, who started ahead of Keller at the 2002 World Cup and was spectacular for a hot team.   And Keller largely went down with the ship as a starter at the 1998 and 2006 World Cups.   But from 1990 to 2008, he was world class in England (Millwall, Leicester City, Tottenham, Southampton, Fulham), Spain (Rayo Vallecano), and Germany (Borussia Moenchengladbach), blazing a trail for the likes of Alexi Lalas, Carlos Bocanegra, Steve Cherundolo, Clint Dempsey, Frankie Hejduk, Brian McBride and, yes, Friedel and Howard.

Keller’s career spans an amazing stretch in U.S. soccer history.  A star at the University of Portland, he played for FC Portland of the Western Soccer League in 1989.   The WSL’s players were semipro for the most part, but Portland was made up of college players protecting their amateur status; young Keller posted a 0.38 goals-against average and won the league’s MVP award ahead of players like Marcelo Balboa, Dominick Kinnear and John Doyle.  Twenty-one years after playing in front of  hundreds at Portland’s Civic Stadium (future home of the MLS Portland Timbers), the crowd watching him is an adoring 64,140, the third-largest for a stand-alone game in MLS history. 

At least Keller will always have the 1998 CONCACAF Gold Cup, where he made 10 saves–most of them bordering on the miraculous–to turn away Romario, Edmundo and Brazil, 1-0, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in the semifinals.  It was the greatest performance ever by an American goalkeeper in a high-profile match.  But some will speculate what might have been had coach Bora Milutinovic decided to put up with what was then a young, headstrong Kasey Keller and chosen him ahead of Meola, Friedel and Juergen Sommer for his 1994 World Cup squad.  If Keller, not Meola, was covering the near post during the USA’s final first-round match, a 1-0 loss to Romania, maybe the U.S. wouldn’t have had to face Brazil in the second round.  Instead, the opponent would have been a somewhat softer Spain, in Washington DC, and hard to say if Bora’s Boys wouldn’t have bought an appearance in the rarified air of the quarterfinals and with it another week in the national spotlight.

Comment II:  The crowd at CenturyLink Field was the fourth-largest worldwide that weekend–trailing only those at FC Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich.  It lifted Seattle to a final average attendance for the regular season of 38,496 (nearly 3,000 above stadium capacity) and made the Sounders the best draw in MLS for all three years of their existence.  More important, it helped boost the league’s average gate for 2011 to 17,795 with one week remaining, thus breaking the record of 17,406 set in MLS’s inaugural 1996 season.

There were a few factors that made that 17,406 possible.  First and foremost, there was the novelty factor as an entire league debuted.  There also was the blessing and curse of the many gridiron football stadiums the teams were forced to call home:  While four-figure crowds looked pathetic in these cavernous stadiums, when it came to home openers or games with post-game fireworks shows, there were plenty of seats for all, like the Rose Bowl crowd of 69,255 that saw the Los Angeles Galaxy’s first match.  And there were turnstile counts that deserved an asterisk, like the 92,216 back at the Rose Bowl on hand for a twinbill involving the Galaxy against the now-defunct Tampa Bay Mutiny and the U.S. National Team versus Mexico.  (Easy to conclude that it wasn’t Mutiny fans who flooded the stadium that day.)

No such gimmicks or mitigating factors today, which only makes Keller’s big night all the more impressive.  No fireworks, no giveaways, no glitzy foreign opposition–just a love affair between the Sounders’ amazing following and a hometown boy who makes good and returns to close out his career.   Think of it–an American soccer player as a major drawing card, at least for one night.   The Emerald City is the exception to the rule in so many things MLS, but Keller’s big night suggests the possibility that the league has reached the point where its clubs should consider staging testimonial matches for its most popular American players.

The last true testimonial match held here was Pele’s farewell at Giants Stadium in 1977, when he played one half each for the Cosmos and his former Brazilian club, Santos, before a packed house.  Since then, the only thing close was the 2004 farewell tour by the U.S. National Women’s Team as Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Joy Fawcett called it a career.  It’s too late for favorites such as Cobi Jones (L.A.), McBride (Columbus) and Balboa (Colorado), but it’s time for MLS to recognize that the pull of certain popular, long-time players is stronger than it may have previously realized.