Saturday, January 30, 2010

U.S. Soccer and the World Cup (Part III - Expectations for U.S. Soccer and the MLS)

It might be necessary for U.S. soccer fans to realize that soccer may never take the hallowed place in American sports that American football, baseball, and basketball possess. Many soccer fans in the U.S. believe that the U.S. will have to win the World Cup before soccer becomes major sport here. There is merit to that argument - having been a dominant player in global politics for at least sixty years, U.S. culture has also spread around the world increasing the popularity of American football, baseball, and basketball. When competing against the world in these sports, the U.S. tends to win, or at least have a very respectable showing. It may be that Americans have come to expect the winning and, when cast in the unfamiliar role of underdog, become uncomfortable when the U.S. is beaten by Ghana or the Czech Republic or possibly a country that U.S. fans may not be able to identify.

There is a case for that. But Americans can, in fact, deal with losing. Our club or university teams do it all the time. Here in the District, the Redskins and Nationals have fans and they don't win a damn thing. Actually, if you look at the district, the more successful teams are my beloved D.C. United (trading on past glories at this point, but still, lots of trophies for less than two decades) and the Capitals (hockey, for those of you unaware). These teams have fair followings. Certainly, there are people who watch the playoff games and finals and claim to be "huge fans," even if that fandom meant noticing the Caps score on the ESPN ticker or in the Post. But D.C. United does not sell out RFK, even for big games, like the Redskins did and continue to do at a much larger stadium. If you need illustration of the difference between baseball and soccer, the Nationals took the city to the cleaners and continue to do so over their stadium, whereas successive mayors have paid lip-service to a new home for D.C. United, but haven't been willing to waste political capital or one red cent on the project. I have digressed considerably, but I think my point is clear, we can handle our teams losing. Sure, a national team is somewhat different, but people didn't stop watching baseball when the U.S. lost the first baseball World Classic (or whatever that monstrosity was called), nor basketball when the U.S. "Dream Teams" finally stopped walking through their Olympic opponents.

Winning the World Cup would certainly help. Probably a lot. But U.S. soccer would have to make a sustained effort to maintain that interest and it is by no means guaranteed that they could maintain even that boost in interest. It certainly wouldn't silence the much defamed "Euro-snobs." (Lacking an Oxford definition, the term is used here to describe U.S. nationals or resident aliens who routinely mock the U.S. Soccer program, have never been to an MLS game, but feel confident to mock the league and generally argue that any "difference" in the American game from the European game is a "failure." The owner of this blog plainly prefers his Spurs to the Black-and-Red and prefers his Swedish ethnicity to his American nationality. The big difference is that he goes to D.C. United and U.S. MNT games because he enjoys the sport and enjoys watching it played more than he likes to tout the superiority of his national and club teams.) Euro-snobs claim that their love is of soccer, but really, it's more of an identity. It's about having arcane knowledge that few Americans possess, feeling cultured and unique for having an interest outside mainstream, and probably no small part is being able to bash U.S. culture which has been so unabashedly dominant globally (I'm no culture warrior; I would probably be stoned to death for my political views in the heart of the Mid-West, but having dealt with no small number of these fans, these are my views). U.S. Soccer would still be different, the best American players would still be playing for mid-level teams in Europe's top leagues or in mid-level European leagues. A U.S. victory would be easy to shrug aside; hell Uruguay has a couple World Cup trophies. As for the public at large, sure there would be an interest. But getting into soccer for one tournament is very different than following a club team through their season and tournaments. And the domestic game would still be the MLS.

Many proponents of the World Cup argument point to the huge boost that hockey got in the U.S. after the 1980 Winter Olympics. And rightly so. The NHL shot itself in the foot with its labor issues and subsequent strike, but the NHL remains one of the best, if not the best, professional hockey league in the world. That, however, is where it differs from soccer. Soccer is a far more popular sport globally. It has established leagues already in place awash with loads of talent and even more money. England, Spain, and Italy spend millions upon millions of Euros or pounds on their footballers. The top teams in Germany and France spend comparable amounts as well. Right now, the top-flight Mexican clubs far out-spend the MLS for their talent. The failure of the NASL (the old one) has justifiably spooked the MLS into controlling finances more rigorously. It might be holding the U.S. league back, but there's a pretty good argument that it's holding the league together. Regardless, it is difficult to believe that the MLS teams even without a salary cap could attract the big talent that Europe attracts - particularly right now. Many, many UEFA teams are posting monumental losses - while filling their stadiums every game and selling millions of ridiculously-priced jerseys worldwide. Even with a windfall attendance coming from a World Cup victory, it seems implausible that the MLS could sell every seat in the house. Qwest, okay. BMO and Crew stadiums, maybe but they're tiny. Not RFK, not Pizza Hut Park. The MLS would be even less able to support such spending, not to mention the inflation in salaries that would accompany adding another entire big-spending league. Plus, the U.S. is in CONCACAF; the CONCACAF Champions' League does not have the luster of the UEFA Champions' League. Certainly, tournaments could be developed or maybe the World Club Championship would actually matter, but the success of those tournaments are by no means guaranteed. The lack of regional rivals will be an impediment to the MLS ever reaching the quality of European leagues (Mexico currently has superior club teams, but it is tough to argue that U.S. teams could ever rival the big European teams without first surpassing UNAM, Guadalajara or Club America).

Of course, most reasonable proponents of the theory would say that it's not a "magic bullet." If the U.S. somehow manages to win the World Cup this summer, no one is really thinking that Messi or Ronaldo would be booking tickets to the U.S. to find a contract. Winning the World Cup would probably fall under the "necessary-but-insufficient" category for it's proponents.

I'm actually more optimistic. I argue that soccer in the U.S. is on the right track. More Americans follow the game locally and globally than ever before. Last summer, visiting European teams drew sell-out crowds at some of the largest stadiums in the U.S. The U.S. is becoming a regional power in CONCACAF; which means that the U.S. will generally qualify for the World Cup finals, which is new. The MLS is getting better. The MLS has been a starting point for many national team members, it attracts national team players (not many, but an increasing number) from other CONCACAF countries. The expansion, so far, seems good and having local professional soccer may encourage greater numbers of young Americans to get involved in the youth program. Speaking of expansion, okay many of the Seattle fans are douchebags, but sorry Barra Brava and Screaming Eagles, they're out-stripping us. I personally doubt it will last at its current levels and D.C. fan groups are far better organized and creative and rely less upon the largess of team owners, but Seattle sets the bar for attendance and I expect their fans will become better organized as their team ages. The fact that an MLS got a reception like that speaks strongly to the increasing popularity of the sport in the U.S. The fact that U.S. Soccer couldn't draw half the Sounders' number to a U.S. MNT Gold Cup game should be somewhat worrying though. I don't believe that the U.S. needs to win the World Cup. Getting close is enough. Right now, surviving the group phase is an acceptable goal. Moving forward in the knock-out phases should be the expectations for the future. But winning the World Cup? Only seven teams have done it and there are a dozens of countries where soccer is far and away the national pastime and far more popular than it is here and have never won it. If the U.S. has to wait to win the World Cup before soccer is accepted as a major sport in the U.S., well to paraphrase Mal Reynolds, "that may be a long wait for a train that don't come."

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

U.S. Soccer and the World Cup (Part II - Expectations redux, The England Game)

So, the U.S. is playing England in their first game of the group stages. It may not be the first game of the tournament or even on the opening day, but the game has already attracted a great deal of attention in both countries (okay, soccer attracting attention in the U.S. is relative). I'll open with where I stand: I think the U.S. will draw or lose to England. All things considered, that's what I believe. Fabio Capello was quite polite, calling it "no easy game." I don't think it will be for England. And I don't just mean insofar as "there are no easy games in the World Cup." I'm sure there have been a few, first of all, and second, I think it will be the toughest game England can play without losing. In fact, I would almost think the odds were nearly even: slightly in favor of the Brits, but with a fair possibility of an upset. Unfortunately, the U.S. has tended to start slow and I see no reason to believe that won't be the case in this tournament as well. The fact that this is the first game for the U.S., I argue, weights the odds further toward the English. But seriously, why is this even a question?

No offense to my Yanks, but how many players on the English squad are going to be coming from Everton, Fulham or the Bundesliga (no disrespect intended toward any of those clubs or leagues either)? Maybe Zamora deserves a shot, but that's about it. The English squad, from strikers to defenders, has superior players in every position. Tim Howard is the only exception, which is why I stopped at defenders. Donovan is good. But if you think he's a Premiership-quality striker, I will argue, at the time of this post, that is yet unproven. I think he might be. Maybe he is, but even still, is he a Rooney or even a Defoe? So why would anyone think that the U.S. was even going to be in the game with England? I think there are two answers to this: 1) For the past decade or decade-and-a-half, the American team has been better than the sum of it's parts while the English have been precisely the opposite. 2) The Brits have a star problem.

I'm actually going to discuss England for a moment. Their stars are also their Achilles' heel. England's stars should be able to pretty much go out and thrash any opponent short of Spain. They did well in the World Cup qualifiers, or rather, they won a group that they should have won and lost only one game that they shouldn't have. Still, that should give the U.S. some pause. England may not collapse this World Cup. However, it should be noted that the sheer number of absolute luminaries of the international football world on the team makes it a difficult team to coach. Few, if any (Lampard, maybe) are arrogant enough to brush off the guidance of Fabio Capello. But they also may be less likely to take his advice to heart. They may be less willing to play the style of football that he wants to them to. After all, Rooney plays a pretty nice style of football that has worked out for him so far. Bob Bradley may not have the reputation of Fabio Capello, but the mentality of the U.S. team may be different. Without the large ego of England and other European or South American teams, Bradley has a better chance to make his squad play like a team, to get his players to play the roles that he wants or needs them to, rather than the way that has worked for them at their club teams.

The U.S. also may have an advantage when it comes to player selection. It's a bizarre thing to propose with the considerable depth that England has in its national team pool. That depth, however, may cause more rotation and may inhibit England's ability to function as a team. The U.S. certainly does have rotation and it does have positions that are competed for by two or more players. But not nearly to the extent of England. Think of all the U.S. players you think might play well as a center-midfielder for the U.S. Now think about England's players. Capello may not give all of those players a try-out, but many of them are going to get a chance. When Arrigo Sacchi has recently lamented that the depth of club squads may be inhibiting their ability to play "team" soccer, is there any reason to think things are different on the national level? England's team is stacked with talent, but no offense to Mr. Capello, I'm not convinced it is the right mix of talent. Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard are two of the best midfielders in the world. It would be foolish not to play them both when you have them. Except that they are very similar players and fulfill similar roles on the field. They also have similar weaknesses, like they don't track back as much as they might. Which isn't a huge weakness, but then you really need to have a defensive midfielder. So either Capello has to put on a largely defensive midfielder who might be lower on the talent list than the rest of the team or the team isn't going to function well as a unit. Ultimately, Mr. Capello is a far better manager than I would ever be and one would be wise to go with his picks instead of mine. However, he is in the limelight and he knows that should England fail to win the entire World Cup, the English press is going to grill him (Abrahamic God, Buddha, the spirits of his ancestors, Brahma, and the pantheon of Greek gods help him if the team should do poorly and crash out at an early stage; he could be deported or killed). He knows that if he puts Lampard, but not Gerrard, or vice versa (or neglects any of England's stars in favor of a role-player), on the team and England do not succeed, that decision would be a lightning rod for controversy.

Of course, Bob Bradley would probably kill to have the talent depth of England (he might consider killing to halve the talent depth of England as well, but we don't advocate violence at this blog). The U.S. won CONCACAF, sure, it's a weak region (sorry, Mexico, it's true). If you're going to pick a weak region team to bet on, Cote d'Ivoire seems a better wager (or did, until their lackluster performance at the African Cup of Nations, thus far). The U.S. has plenty of problems, not the least of which is injuries and a total lack of depth. The U.S. squad has proven that it can do well with players without the star power of Messi, Rooney, or Torres. But having some of their finest players, Onyewu, Davies, and now Dempsey, injured and missing, at best, pre-World Cup training (at worst, the entire tournament) is not at all helpful. Especially, if the team's success is due in part to the players functioning well as a team. Injuries remove that chemistry and may force other team members to play in roles, if not positions, with which they are unfamiliar. I was going to have a whole section on Dempsey and how he seems to under-perform in a U.S. jersey, but now that he may miss the tournament, it seems more apt to point out that he has been one of the leading goal scorers for the U.S. and has drawn attention and defenders from U.S. opponents simply because he is known as one of the higher quality players on the U.S. squad. Should Dempsey miss the entire tournament, any rational individual should be downgrading their hopes of the U.S. performance in South Africa.

Considering Dempsey's injury, which took place after the majority of this post was written, I now expect the U.S. to lose to England. Quite simply, without Dempsey and Davies, I simply do not see enough of an attacking threat to score more than a goal, if that, and without a healthy, fit Onyewu, I do not believe the U.S. can shutout the attacking strength of the English.

As a fan, however, I expect the U.S. to try to go out and win.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Fourth Place

This looks like a special season in the Barclay's Premier League. Only 16 teams have made it into the top four since the formation of the Premier League in 1992, who weren't Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United or Chelsea. And by looking at the tables from all these years, most of the 16 were early on around the time Blackburn won the league in 1995. Each of the last several seasons, the question is asked all season long, who can break the monopoly of the traditional "Big Four?" This year looks likely to be the breakthrough finally after spurs and Everton came in fifth several times and Aston Villa nearly held on last year. First, I'd like to make the point that I think only two of the "Big Four" are capable of falling out for an extended period. Those two are Liverpool and Manchester United. If you've been watching the league this year, you understand the Liverpool situation. Manchester United are in a very similar situation but they are winning right now. Financially, they are in a great deal of risk with a bond issue about to happen which will run their debt up to 1.1 billion pounds and a group of owners who are taking money out of the club. This is very dangerous ground to live on in the current financial climate let alone a booming one. If things don't go well, They run the risk of losing their last few valuable assets which could end their run of league titles, let alone their run of champions league runs.

What I want to discuss here is the so called "wannabe" teams. The three primary contenders for the fourth spot this season are Aston Villa, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur. All three of these teams sit ahead of Liverpool, and with Liverpool's injury woes and lack of money available to strengthen the squad which they desperately need to do. But who actually has the ability to supplant Liverpool this year?

Manchester City have been the clear favorite this season. They have the money and the players now to make a good run. The team is good, but there are some glaring problems. I think the most obvious is Robinho. He obviously doesn't want to be there, and seems to have lost all of his ability. He is now a bench warmer and better yet, was substituted as a substitute today. He is dreadful and needs to be shed as soon as is possible. The other big problem is chemistry. With the squad available, it has seemed like they have not figured out a best 11 and have not been able to build team chemistry. I also think there is a air of arrogance because of the money the players are making. If the team can gather some chemistry and play seriously with the heart that Tevez shows, I think they can stay up in the realm of the top four, possibly for the foreseeable future.

Aston Villa are my head's pick to make it. The team has so much talent available to Martin O'Neil, they should have managed the feat last season. I think the failure to do so is the best lesson to help them make it over the line this year. The big problem I see for the Villains is their lack of Depth. I think they have one of the better starting 11's in the league, but beyond that they are weak. There's also the problem of Emile Heskey. He is not right for Villa, and I'd argue he isn't right for England. I think Villa will cross the line but I think it will be a narrow margin.

Finally are my beloved Spurs. I genuinely believe we will implode yet again this season. Tottenham have one of the best squads in the league with good depth, a good manager who seems able to deal with the egos at the club, and a fan base ready to fill the upcoming new 55,000 seat stadium that the club are building. On Paper, Tottenham should be winning titles. But when you see the bipolar nature of the team, it makes you wonder how they managed to be in 1st place in the league for the first month and a half this season. There are three major problems with the team right now. Robbie Keane, Ledley King and the lack of a Midfield presence. Robbie Keane is a shadow of the player that left for Liverpool 18 moths ago. He has not bedded back into the squad, he has played poorly, has not played the way he is needed to play. He has become a distraction as Captain as Redknapp has found it difficult to drop him. Ledley King has been a distraction who we have needed because we haven't been strong at the back. We are building our future centerback pairing and he needs to resign himself to the bench to cover for injuries. The problem with the midfield is slowly being solved. Both Luka Modric and Aaron Lennon are taking control of games and showing massive leadership qualities and hopefully will be the basis of that midfield for years to come. I think Realistically Tottenham are least likely to make it into the top four this year. The thing is, they are going to become stronger and stronger contenders for years to come.

So Who pulls it off this year? We'll see in May.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

U.S. Soccer and the World Cup (Part I: Expectations and Advancing from the Group)

I intend this to be a series about the U.S. and the World Cup examining, the various expectations of the U.S. performance, the impact on the sport in the U.S. and the impact on perceptions of U.S. soccer globally. That is, if time and the omni-benevolent owner of this blog allow.

In the U.S. both fans and the U.S. soccer establishment place a very high value on the World Cup and have similarly high expectations both for their team and what it will mean for the sport here should the U.S. meet those expectations. I say, “Don’t hold your breath.”

U.S. can expect to do well, but not really to advance past the first or second elimination stage. Frankly, if they are not going to match expectations, I expect them to fall short rather than exceed them. I could use the Confederations’ Cup final as a metaphor for my predictions of the U.S.'s performance, but I’d rather draw parallels between the Confederations’ Cup group stage and the previous World Cup group stage. The previous World Cup was a fiasco – massively over-hyped with an equally massive under-performance. Except, I hasten to point out that, the U.S. drew Italy. That is a feat only, at best, mirrored by France in the final. It wasn’t pretty, but the U.S. pulled it off and that cannot be taken away. Then they went on to lose to Ghana, whom they should have beaten. And lost badly to the Czech Republic previously, but that was "expected." "Expectations" aside, the Czech performance in their subsequent games suggests that they were a beatable team and the U.S. really should have done better, drawing or beating them, if the U.S. was ever going to be competitive.

So about the Confederations’ Cup: after beating Spain and forcing Brazil to comeback, we may have forgotten that the U.S. needed Brazilian and Egyptian help to even make it out of the group stages. The U.S. lost to Italy (Screw you, Guiseppe Rossi) and Brazil. Only by pounding Egypt (which they did) and hoping that Brazil pounded Italy (which they did) and, oh yeah, Egypt had to beat Italy (which they did, what the hell was that, Azzurri?) did the U.S. stand a chance of making out it out of the group. And then the U.S. did very well.

However, the group stages were hardly a resounding performance in either instance. The big difference between them was that the U.S. stepped up and beat Egypt in the Confederations' Cup when it was necessary, whereas they lost a must-win game to Ghana in the World Cup. The U.S. should make it out of their group, that bit of improvement makes me confident that they are capable of and should advance from the group stages. They are capable of beating any mid-level team decisively when it is necessary. They should be competitive with their opponents in the elimination stage, but lose in the first or second game, depending on their opponents. The U.S. are capable of beating any established football power when the U.S. is having a really good day, unless that football power is feeling its roots, and then it will get ugly. That is not new. The U.S., for various reasons, has been able to compete at a very high level from time-to-time. Now, they're slightly more consistent. However, the U.S. could just get flustered and collapse, like it did against the Czechs in the World Cup and the Italians in the Confederations’ Cup. Nothing about that has changed either. Given the U.S.'s track record, it’s almost as likely that they will fold against a UEFA or CONMEBOL power and get blown away in their first elimination game. The U.S. could fall badly to England and not recover enough to hold onto the second spot in the group, but that seems less a possibility than in years past. Of course, the U.S. could beat England then be absolutely destroyed by Slovenia and Algeria, because this is soccer and stranger things have happened. But that would be weird and I can't be held responsible for such craziness.

So maybe this is downer, no, I doubt the U.S. will win the World Cup or even make a particularly strong showing in the elimination stages. But look on the bright side! Now, as U.S. fans, we don’t have to be pleased just to have made the tournament. Now, we get to be like the Brits and make up excuses as to why we still have awkward losses to teams we can beat and “underperform” in every tournament. That’ll be my excuse if the U.S. gets thrashed by the Brits. “We get flustered when we face big teams in the first game. It’s a confidence, not skill, issue.” If you want to use my excuse as well, feel free; it’s a good narrative and I’m here to help.

Monday, January 4, 2010

FA Cup: Does it still matter?

This past weekend, we got the chance here in the states to see a small selection of FA Cup games from England. This competition has long been considered one of the great sporting competitions in the world. The question keeps getting asked on the many podcasts I listen to. Does the FA cup still matter? From the view of a supporter of an English club from the US, I personally feel that it does. I think the "magic of the cup" is shown in the fact that despite no one wants to admit it, they do seem to care. Asking the question every time the competition comes around. In the same right, the unbelievable support of one of history's most hated clubs, Leeds United A.F.C., in their defeat of one of the clubs with the largest support bases worldwide in Manchester United shows that people are looking for the unlikeliest winners and the most interesting stories. The competition isn't what it was, but teams like Spurs, Man City and teams playing want that trophy to shove in the faces of their rivals. I absolutely want to remind every Arsenal fan that tries to make fun of me for being a Spurs fan that we have more trophies in the past 5 years. It's not the most fulfilling, but atleast I have something. Without the 2008 Carling Cup we Spurs fans would have little to be properly excited about. The question is repeated and answered by pundits all over the place, but the real important people in this is the players. Niko Krancjar has come out after the weekends fixtures and pointed out that he wants to win it again. If the players still want it, then it definitely still matters.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

With a new year, January brings a Window...

That's right. January is here with all of it's respective psychosis. The transfer window is now open and the ITK's are all spreading the most fantastic rumors they can. Who will be the big players to move? Who will be the most active teams? All the questions that everyone wants the answers to. The quickest to answer would probably jump up and say Manchester City will be most active. But I don't think they would be right. There are three major clubs who need to do something now. Logically, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea need to do something. Arsenal are least likely to do anything, but if they plan to truly make a run at the title, they need a midfielder and striker at minimum. Chelsea are still at risk of not getting to make any moves in the summer and need to make sure the team can survive the next year with the players on their books. Liverpool is a special circumstance. They don't really need anyone on paper, but the form books say something different. The team is stricken with injuries and players simply not living up to their potentials. They are also struggling with the ego of a man who is looking more and more desperate by the day. They need a leader. Now, the problem for all these teams is that no big player is going to move before the World Cup. So how are these teams going to make these changes? They won't. I think you'll see the "Big Four" stay as they are. And for the same reason, Man City will do the same. The real action will be happening in positions eight through Twenty. The teams at the bottom need to strengthen to protect their status in the Premier league(and this is true of all leagues in Europe). The lower teams will buy a player or two who has no chance of going to the World Cup who is good enough to keep them up. The teams in the middle of the table will pick up a player or two to help keep them high in the tale and prepare for next years push upward. In the end, the busiest team in the window will be Portsmouth. Sadly they will be likely selling the left over talent that they have. It's sad but this is probably what you'll see this January, and in May you will see Pompey go down.