Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


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.

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KEEP COOL, BRA’

The U.S. put its hopes of reaching the 2014 World Cup in doubt when it was upset by Jamaica, 2-1, in a CONCACAF semifinal-round qualifier in Kingston, the Jamaicans’ first-ever victory over the Americans.

With three rounds remaining, Jamaica led the four-nation group with seven points, followed by the U.S. and Guatemala with four apiece and Antigua and Barbuda with one.  [September 7]

Comment:  There has been much hand wringing among fans and in the media heading into the U.S.-Jamaica return leg on September 11 in Columbus, and indeed the Americans have made things unnecessarily interesting.  However, while there is no need for Juergen Klinsmann and his players to be complacent, it should be remembered that the USA’s last loss in a home World Cup qualifier was more than a decade ago to an impressive Honduran side (3-2 at RFK Stadium in Washington, DC, on September 1, 2001).



IN SEARCH OF NASTY BOYS

Brazil, led by playmaker Neymar, defeated the U.S., 4-1, in a friendly before a crowd of 67,619 at FedEx Field in Landover, MD, in the second-to-last tune-up before the Americans open qualifying for the 2014 World Cup.

The 20-year-old Neymar converted a penalty kick to open the scoring and set up two other goals as the Brazilians improved to 16-1-0 against the   U.S., which was coming off a 5-1 rout of Scotland four days earlier in Jacksonville.  Neymar’s Santos teammate, goalkeeper Rafael, made three spectacular saves to frustrate the Americans.

Despite some bright spots–including the play of forward Herculez Gomez, who scored the lone American goal just before halftime to cut Brazil’s lead to 2-1–U.S. coach Juergen Klinsmann was upset not only with the officiating of Costa Rican referee Jeffrey Calderon but the overall play of his side.

“I think we need to get an edge–more nastier,” he said after the match.  “Maybe we’re a little bit too naive.  Maybe we don’t want to hurt people.  But that’s what you’ve got to do.  You’ve got to do that at the end of the day.  We’ve got to step on their toes more and get them more frustrated and make a case with the referee maybe that’s wrong for us, not only the opponents.  There was a clear penalty on Herculez Gomez in the second half not given.  But it is what it is.”

Klinsmann also took exception with the penalty kick, awarded in the 12th minute for a handball in the box by defender Oguchi Onyewu, and Brazil’s fourth goal, scored in the 87th by Pato, whom the U.S. believed was offside.

Comment I:  Klinsmann was criticized in some quarters for his “nasty” remarks.  The U.S. wins clean, y’know, or it doesn’t win at all.

Probably a poor choice of words despite his command of the English language.  Most American coaches probably would have put it this way:  The U.S., for most of the first half, showed Brazil far too much respect and deserved to be down by two goals after 26 minutes.

(Obviously, one player he need not convert is midfielder Jermaine Jones, who could be described as a latter-day Chris Armas with real judgement/anger management issues.  His tackle from behind on Neymar–in front of the Brazil bench–was the latest addition to a long list of nasty incidents.)

Comment II:  After five years of faithfully giving us the Bob Bradley Bunker, the U.S., under Klinsmann, is attempting to become an attacking, risk-taking side.  It’s a work in progress, but some of the pieces don’t fit any longer.  Center backs Onyewu and captain Carlos Bocanegra, who was honored before the game for earning his 100th cap, now find themselves without a host of friendly midfielders directly in front of them when they retreat to the top of their own penalty area.  Klinsmann’s challenge in the coming months is to identify those fast, skillful players–converted midfielders, if need be–who may lack in defensive instincts but make up for it in smoothly getting the ball out of the back.

Comment III:  The early handball call against Onyewu that left the U.S. swimming upstream was correct.

There was a question of whether Onyewu was fully in the penalty area when he handled Leandro Damiao’s shot.  He was.

There was a question of whether the ball played Onyewu or Onyewu played the ball.  The shot struck the U.S. defender in the left arm, but he twisted in such a fashion–his right arm reaching across his body–that it appeared that he could have caught the ball instead of just knocking it down.

Referee Calderon got it right.



CONCACAF PLUS 3.5 ADDS UP

CONCACAF fell short in its effort to gain an extra berth in the 2014 World Cup as the FIFA Executive Committee decided to give the North/Central America and Caribbean region the same 3.5 spots it was awarded for the 2010 tournament.

Under the allotment, CONCACAF will have three guaranteed spots; the fourth-place finisher in its qualifying competition will have a chance to reach Brasil ’14 through a home-and-home playoff with a nation from another regional confederation.

South America will have 4.5 qualifying berths, plus Brazil’s automatic spot as host.  Europe will keep its 13 berths, and Africa its five.  Once again, Asia will have 4.5 and Oceania 0.5.

One change:  A draw will be held in July to determine the playoff pairings among the CONCACAF fourth-place finisher, South America’s No. 5, Asia’s No. 5 and the Oceania winner.

The outcome, nevertheless, left CONCACAF officials–among them president Jack Warner of Trinidad & Tobago, who said in January that his region would lobby for an outright fourth berth– disappointed, if not angry.  Said CONCACAF Secretary General Chuck Blazer of the U.S., like Warner a FIFA Executive Committee member, “We are 35 members who are very serious about qualifying.  We want to be treated fairly and given enough opportunity to be successful.  Hear us.”  [March 3]

Comment:  Crocodile tears. 

Much can be said about how berths have been doled out since the World Cup expanded from 24 teams to 32 for Francia ’98.  Did Asia, in 2002, deserve two qualifying berths to go along with automatic berths that went to co-hosts Japan and South Korea?  Should Europe, with a high of 15 nations in ’98, continue to watch its presence erode?  When it comes to Africa, which had six total slots at South Africa ’10 and saw only Ghana survive the second round, will FIFA continue to reward that continent based on, presumably, promise alone?

For now, FIFA uncharacteristically got it right, for the most part.  Oceania, which since Australia’s defection to Asia has become New Zealand and the Eight Dwarves, truly does not deserve a straight path to a World Cup.   South America, with Brazil holding one spot, deserves its five qualifying spots.   And CONCACAF, which to most of FIFA is Mexico and the U.S.–plus, depending on the year, Costa Rica or Honduras or Canada or T&T or Jamaica, plus a couple dozen dots in the Caribbean–deserves its 3.5.  

At the last World Cup, the U.S., though first in its group at 1-0-2, and Mexico (second, 1-1-1) and Honduras (0-2-1) failed to turn the tournament on its ear.  CONCACAF’s fourth-place team, Costa Rica, dropped its playoff with Uruguay, although it should be noted that the Uruguayans went on to reach the semifinals.

If CONCACAF wants its fourth, it will have to overwhelm FIFA with its performance in Brazil.  The USA’s appearance in the 2002 quarterfinals won’t do, nor will Mexico’s in 1986, when it was host.  It will take that combined, plus a repeat of Uruguay1930, to do it.  That time, the U.S., 32 years before the founding of CONCACAF, finished third.



A GOLDEN CHALLENGE

CONCACAF unveiled its schedule for the 12-nation 2011 Gold Cup, which will be staged in an unprecedented 11 metro U.S. areas beginning June 5.  The regional championship, which was first held 20 years ago with eight nations in two stadiums (the Rose Bowl and Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum), will be played at Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, TX; Ford Field in Detroit; Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC; Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, FL; Soldier Field in Chicago; KC Soccer Stadium in Kansas City; RFK Stadium in Washington, DC; Reliant Stadium in Houston; FIU Stadium in Miami; Red Bull Arena in Harrison, NJ, and New Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ; and, outside Los Angeles, the Home Depot Center and Rose Bowl, site of the June 25 final.

Defending champion Mexico, host U.S. and Canada qualify automatically and will be joined by Caribbean champion Jamaica and area rivals Greneda, Cuba and Guadeloupe.  The remaining five teams will be determined next month at the Copa Centroamericana in Panama.  [December 16]

Comment:  If America’s interest in its World Cup team has any legs, we will find out during this Gold Cup.  This tournament marks the U.S. National Team’s first appearance on a major stage since it drew record television ratings for its four matches at South Africa ’10.  Will a significant number of those same Americans who crowded around TVs last June vote with their feet this June and buy tickets to see some old favorites and new faces playing against lesser teams for lesser stakes?

We’ll see. Provided the U.S. reaches the final and faces the auld enemy, Mexico, perhaps the support for the home team will be better than in 2007, when the Americans beat the Mexicans on a Benny Feilhaber golasso.  That was witnessed by a loud pro-Mexico crowd of 60,000 at Soldier Field.  Or last year, when Mexico humiliated an experimental U.S. side, 5-0, at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ, in front of an overwhelmingly partisan Mexico crowd of 79,156.  

Will a corner be turned in ’11, or will the U.S. players continue to find that an American stadium is just a home away from home?



DON’T JUST FOLLOW THE MONEY

Qatar beat out a strong bid by the U.S. to win the right to host the 2022 World Cup while Russia was awarded the 2018 tournament in balloting by the FIFA Executive Committee in Zurich. 

With 22 members taking part, 12 votes were needed to win.  The last-place finisher in each round was eliminated.

The 2022 vote: 

First Round — Qatar 11, U.S. 3, South Korea 4, Japan 3, Australia 1.

Second Round — Qater 10, U.S. 5, South Korea 5, Japan 2.

Third Round — Qatar 11, U.S. 6, South Korea 5.

Fourth Round — Qatar 14, U.S. 8. 

The 2018 vote: 

First round — Russia 9, Spain/Portugal 7, Holland/Belgium 4, England 2.

Second Round — Russia 13, Spain/Portugal 7, Holland/Belgium 2.  [December 2]

Comment:  So how did Qatar do it?  How did this nation of 1.7 million people perched on a tiny Persian Gulf peninsula, a country that has never even qualified for a World Cup, win the prize at the expense of the United States, a nation whose bid was the only one among the nine 2018/22 hopefuls to be given a 100 percent score by FIFA?

To many, the immediate answer was, “Follow the petrodollars.”  That, however, may be too easy.  The U.S. bid, after all, promised record broadcast rights fees and ticket revenues from a land that is home to many of FIFA’s  major sponsors.

However, there’s the usual horse trading of votes.  In fact, the trading season might have begun not during the bidders’ presentations in Zurich but back in August, when Asian Football Confederation chief Mohamed bin Hammam announced that he would not run for the FIFA presidency in 2011 and instead devote his efforts to ensuring that his native land–Qatar–wins the 2022 World Cup sweepstakes, thus clearing the way for Sepp Blatter to win a fourth four-year term as FIFA supremo next year.  And beyond the horse trading, there was the geopolitical factor. 

Qatar’s bid borders on the fantastic:  Build seven stadiums and enlarge five others and air-condition them to beat July heat that can reach 115 degrees, then dismantle most and reassemble them in needy nations.  That grabbed the attention.   But two emotional appeals at the end of its slick bid presentation the day before the vote were telling.  One young man whose affiliation was listed as Qatar Foundation, a non-profit founded by the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, told of losing family members in fighting in his native Iraq, then recounted Iraq’s triumph at the 2007 Asian Cup, a feat that united–briefly–that country’s Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds and Christians.  The point, though a pipe dream, is that a Qatari World Cup could bring together the Middle East.   The emir’s wife, Sheika Moza bint Nasser al-Missned, then addressed committee members, pointedly, dramatically, asking them, “When?  When will the World Cup come to the Middle East?”

The United States is not loved in the Arab world.  The young Iraqi did not elaborate on the “fighting” that claimed his family members, but most U.S. bid members must have felt their ears burning, at least for a moment.  For Executive Committee members with sympathies toward, or obligations to, the Middle East, Her Highness’ question–“When?”–could be regarded as a firm prod, if not an effective bit of guilt tripping.  And what would be more delicious to those leaning in that direction than to award a World Cup to a Middle Eastern state at the expense of the Western nation that looms menacingly over the region, from Israel to Iraq to Afghanistan?

At the same time, the vote may have been FIFA’s way of putting the U.S. in its place. 

The U.S. bid, on its face, hit all the high notes:  stadiums, infrastructure, profits, experience, diversity, and what could be summed up as “give us the World Cup and we’ll finish what was begun in 1994.”  However, it could be that FIFA likes the United States exactly where it is, a giant who has, in soccer terms, struggled from a prone position to rise up on one knee.  Perhaps that’s the way FIFA wants things for the time being:  a United States that is a cash cow of Coca-Colas and Visas, a credible competitor on the international stage but not a perennial champion, a people whose interest in the game is encouraging but not overwhelming.

No country on earth has the soccer potential of the United States.  If realized, America could very well become the tail that wags the dog (see U.S. television rights, International Olympic Committee).  And what FIFA doesn’t need is another one of its 208 member-nations treating it with disdain.  Like England.

Some notes:

          o  Five of the new stadiums promised by Qatar have been designed by Albert Speer and Partners.  Yes, that Albert Speer–Albert Speer Jr., son of Hitler’s most favored architect and ultimately the Nazis’ munitions minister during World War II. 

          o  Russia’s current place in the FIFA World Rankings–No. 10–is a bit flattering.  That’s six places above four-time world champion Italy.  Qatar’s place–No. 109, one place ahead of Iceland–is not.   

          Qatar has been trying to reach a World Cup since 1978, and despite a string of Brazilian and French coaches it has failed all nine times.  Its greatest international feat remains its loss to West Germany in the final of the 1981 FIFA World Youth (U-20) Championship, followed by a fourth-place finish at the 1991 FIFA Under-17 World Championship.  The hardware in the dusty Qatari trophy case:  Winners of the 1992 and 2004 Gulf Cups, both times as host.  Qatar also pocketed runners-up medals at the 1998 Arab Nations Cup, an event it hosted.  In one of its most recent friendlies, the ultra-rich Qatar lost to the desperately poor Haiti, 1-0, in Doha before a throng of 5,000.  According to the FIFA rankings, No. 109 loses to No. 128–at home.  Had the U.S. been eliminated in the first round of its 1994 World Cup, it would have been a horror.  Then South Africa failed to reach the second round of its 2010 World Cup, and FIFA apparently concluded that losing a host nation after three matches doesn’t signal the end of the world.   So it’s on to Qatar.

          Meanwhile, don’t look to the Qatari Stars League–a circuit of 12 first division teams and six in the second–to serve as a springboard to international glory.  Since its launch in 1963, it has won zero honors in Asian club play.  Its most decorated club, at 12 national championships and six second-place finishes, is the aptly named Al-Sadd.

          o  It remains to be seen what Qatar ’22 will do to grow the game in the Middle East.  Soccer is already the region’s passion, so if the event cannot further rachet up the game’s popularity, then FIFA’s aim, surely, is to lift the level of play there.  However . . .

          Arab nations, despite considerable capital investment, have combined to make 20 World Cup appearances dating back to Argentina ’78.  The result is a record of 7-38-15.  Tunisia has crashed in the opening round four times, followed by Algeria, three; Egypt, two; and Kuwait, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates, one each.  Morocco and Saudi Arabia have both qualified four times, and they lead the parade with one second-round appearance apiece, in 1986 and 1994, respectively.

          Because of a reluctance on the part of Westerners to travel to Qatar for the ’22 World Cup, the in-stadium audience for the tournament could very well be overwhelmingly Middle Eastern.  And if so, a wave of passion could see the world’s 109th-best team into the Round of 16, the realm of respectability.  But don’t count on it.