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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.

 

 

 

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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?



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.



THE AMERICAN-GERMAN-AMERICANS

Bayern Munich forward Julian Green has applied to FIFA to change his national team association from Germany to the United States.

The highly touted 18-year-old, who was born in Tampa, FL, will become the latest German-American to join the U.S. National Team pool under the USA’s German coach, Juergen Klinsmann, following in the footsteps of dual-nationalists Jermaine Jones (Besiktas, Turkey), Timmy Chandler (FC Nurnberg), Fabian Johnson (Hoffenheim), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin), Daniel Williams (Reading, England), Terrence Boyd (Rapid Austria) and Alfredo Morales (FC Ingolstadt).

The son of an American father and German mother, Green moved with his family to Germany when he was 2.  He played for Germany’s under-16 and under-17 teams, then represented the U.S. in an U-18 friendly against Holland.  He later played for Germany in a qualifier for this year’s UEFA Under-19 Championship.

“We are absolutely thrilled,” said Klinsmann, who first attempted to call up Green for U.S. friendlies in November.  “He is a very special talent.”

The teen winger has made just one appearance for Bayern Munich, a brief stint in November at the end of a UEFA Champions League match against CSKA Moscow.  Green has been a regular with Bayern’s Regionalliga team, scoring 15 goals in 19 games.  [March 18]

Comment:  Green is unlikely to play a role in the USA’s adventure at Brasil ’14, but this June we will finally learn whether the German way is the American way when it comes to soccer.

Back in the mid-1970s, when the growth of the North American Soccer League was forcing a spotlight on the American game in general and the national team in particular, the U.S. Soccer Federation took the tack that the style that best suited its team was German.  It hired Dettmar Cramer, an assistant to Helmet Schoen on West Germany’s 1966 World Cup runner-up team, as coach in August 1974.  Cramer was in charge long enough to lose two games to Mexico, throw up his hands at the lack of talent, money and organization at his disposal and, 5 1/2 months into his tenure, returned home, where he would guide a Bayern Munich starring Franz Beckenbauer to consecutive European Cup titles.  Less than a decade later, the USSF tried again with the appointment of former FC Cologne coach Karl-Heinz Heddergott as national coaching director, but Heddergott ran into the same frustrating constraints.  All the while, critics of this Teutonic shift claimed that the national team program–if “program” was the right word–was ignoring the coming USA wave of Latin players, eventually led by hyphenated Americans Hugo Perez, Tab Ramos, and Claudio Reyna, that would transform the national team and carry it to glory.

The U.S. has had a link with German soccer that dates to 1923 with the founding of the powerful semipro German-American Soccer League (later renamed the Cosmopolitan Soccer League) in New York, a circuit whose best players helped make up the roster of the original New York Cosmos in 1971.  Paul Caliguiri made a major–and unlikely–breakthrough when he leaped from UCLA to Hamburger SV in the late 1980s.  He later played for SV Meppen, Hansa Rostock, SC Freiburg and FC St. Pauli, paving the way in the Bundesliga for players like Eric Wynalda, Kasey Keller and Steve Cherundolo.  U.S. coach Bora Milutinovic’s decision to bring FC Kaiserslautern midfielder Tom Dooley–son of an American serviceman and a German mother–into the national team fold established a two-way street whose inbound lane has only increased in traffic by plenty under Klinsmann.

But it’s not just personnel.  Klinsmann has tapped into characteristics common between the two cultures.  Despite shortcomings that continue to keep the U.S. out of the top 10 in the FIFA rankings, the Americans’ compulsion, like the Germans, is to attack.  On a good day, Klinsmann has his players pressing forward–some would say recklessly–at speed with six and seven players, followed, at speed, by a similar commitment on defense.  High tempo, hard work.  They expect to win every challenge.  They count on wearing down the opposition long before the final whistle.  And like the West German teams Klinsmann grew up watching and then playing for, they now consider no deficit insurmountable.  The U.S. demonstrated that resolve by tying host Russia, 2-2, in late 2012 on two late strikes.   The following June, in a World Cup qualifier,  it squandered a 1-0 lead late in Jamaica and emerged with a 2-1 victory.

Above all, for those who remember Steve Sampson’s team of complacent U.S. veterans who crashed at the 1998 World Cup, Klinsmann has called out his established players, introduced interesting outsiders and created a player pool that may not be deep but is certainly competitive as the 30 players with a realistic chance to make the trip to Brazil are whittled to the final 23.

The critics from long ago must feel permanently slighted at this point:  Klinsmann has turned his back on any possibility that Latin flair is the USA’s recipe for success.  It’ll be grit, not beauty, heading into Brazil this year.  Some of the players may have names like Omar Gonzalez,  Michael Orozco Fiscal, Joe Corona or Juan Agudelo, but it’s not the name, it’s the mentality and the approach.  After all, when Klinsmann’s looked over his shoulder two years ago at the German National Team he once coached, the joint scoring leader of the European Championship was a German named … Mario Gomez.



MARCH MADNESS, U.S. NATIONAL TEAM-STYLE

On the eve of the U.S. National Team’s World Cup qualifiers against Costa Rica on March 22 in Denver and Mexico on March 26 in Mexico City, The Sporting News ran an article that has called into question USA coach Juergen Klinsmann’s ability to lead the team.

Coming off the USA’s lackluster loss at Honduras on February 6 in the opening game of the six-nation CONCACAF finals for Brasil ’14, TSN writer Brian Straus quoted numerous present and former U.S. internationals–anonymously–who questioned Klinsmann’s tactical acumen, communication skills and controversial personnel changes, including a reliance on German-born newcomers.

Citing the Honduras match, Straus wrote, “The performance that day, as well as a lack of obvious improvement during his 19 months in charge, has alarmed the American soccer community and unearthed considerable discontent.”  [March 21]

Comment:  Is this France ’98 all over again, when then-U.S. coach Steve Sampson lost his team and sailed it directly into the rocks?  Is Klinsmann the fellow who, with the highly regarded Joachim Lowe as his right-hand man, led Germany to a highly unlikely third-place finish at the 2006 World Cup?  Or is he the ex-genius who, with current U.S. assistant Martin Vasquez at his side, crashed and burned three years later as coach of the German giant known as FC Hollywood, Bayern Munich?

Much will be revealed over the next few days.  The USA goes into these two qualifiers without the soul-searching Landon Donovan, as well as injured goalkeeper Tim Howard and injured defenders Timmy Chandler and Fabian Johnson.  The defense, whose biggest absentee is venerable right back Steve Cherundolo (knee surgery), could be the most inexperienced in recent memory.  The captain, meanwhile, will be attacking midfielder Clint Dempsey in place of center back Carlos Bocanegra, whose advanced age and lack of speed finally prompted Klinsmann to drop him from the roster altogether.

The day before the Costa Rica match, Klinsmann reminded the media of where he stood:  “If we do things exactly the same way, we are not improving.”  Indeed, and that’s what Klinsmann was hired not to do.  If he succeeds in “taking the players out of their comfort zone” (his mantra since assuming the U.S. helm) and gets results, this early hexagonal angst will have been worth it.  If he doesn’t, it will, among other things, reveal the suspicion that, no matter the coach, the U.S. player pool remains woefully thin–too thin to experiment with.



WHO WAS THE USA’S BEST PLAYER IN 2011?

Some 200 journalists from across the nation are submitting ballots to decide which U.S. National Team member will be the 2011 Futbol de Primera Player of the Year.

Sponsored by FDP, the exclusive radio broadcaster of the 2014 World Cup in the United States, the award–the most prestigious annual honor in American soccer–goes to the best player who appeared in at least three matches for the U.S. in the calendar year.  Those who qualified are Juan Agudelo, Jozy Altidore, Kyle Beckerman, Alejandro Bedoya, Carlos Bocanegra, Michael Bradley, Timmy Chandler, Steve Cherundolo, Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Maurice Edu, Clarence Goodson, Tim Howard,  Jermaine Jones, Sacha Kljestan, Eric Lichaj, Oguchi Onyewu, Michael Orozco Fiscal, Tim Ream, Robbie Rogers, Brek Shea, Jonathan Spector, Jose Torres and Chris Wondolowski.

First place selections receive three points, second place two points and third place one.

Past winners of the award, until recently known as the Honda Player of the Year:  Hugo Perez, 1991; Eric Wynalda, 1992; Thomas Dooley, 1993; Marcelo Balboa, 1994; Alexi Lalas, 1995; Wynalda, 1996; Eddie Pope, 1997; Cobi Jones, 1998; Kasey Keller, 1999; Claudio Reyna, 2000; Earnie Stewart, 2001; Landon Donovan, 2002; Donovan, 2003; Donovan, 2004; Keller, 2005; Clint Dempsey, 2006; Donovan, 2007; Donovan, 2008; Donovan, 2009; Donovan, 2010.  [October 21]

Comment:  Who would you vote for?  Let us know.

Last year’s vote from here got it wrong.  Donovan won, with Bradley the runner-up and Dempsey the third-place finisher.  Our ballot went to Donovan, Bradley and Cherundolo.  So we need your help before our ballot is submitted in the middle of next week.

Give us a post and list your three top choices, in order.  And feel free to do some lobbying if you so choose.  Bear in mind that the award is for a player’s body of work for the year, so take into account a candidate’s performance for his club as well as his contributions to the U.S. team.

Update:  Dempsey won the award for the second time after being named first choice on nearly half of the ballots submitted by the 202 U.S. journalists who took part.  Howard was second and seven-time winner Donovan was third.  [November 2]