Friday, February 26, 2010

Is the circus over?

With a title like that these days, there are two things i could be referring to, but I can't bring myself to even register an opinion here on one of them. Portsmouth Football Club have finally gone into administration. So the big stories there are that the team should survive for the rest of the season at minimum and Peter Storrie will finally be leaving the south coast club. With administration comes a point deduction and inevitable relegation.

So why is this a big deal when football teams go into administration all the time? The first part is that this is the first time that a Premier League team to do so which begins to lead to questions of who else in the Premier League could be at risk. I'm not going to discuss this matter here as I would rather focus on Pompey and what they have done and what can be done to prevent it. The second issue relates specifically to England where it has been reported this week that English football holds around 56% of the debt in all of World football. This means that English clubs have taken on so much debt that the league could risk a major fall if some of the clubs aren't careful and worse yet, if the teams who are teetering on the brink lose the revenue from competitions like the Champions League(i.e. Liverpool).

I think the important place to start is to see how this happened. The case of Portsmouth comes down to a relatively simple situation of overspending and taking on to much debt. When the club won the 2008 FA Cup, the team began to build and repay their players for their success with larger contracts. Reports claim that goalkeeper David James gets 50000 pounds a week and John Utaka makes around 80000 pounds per week. this kind of spending has helped lead to debt levels which have been reported to be in the realm of 70 million pounds. The debt level is unbelievable because the fans and club have been complaining that they can't make enough money due to the fact that they are in the smallest stadium in the Premier League. With the problems surrounding the stadium, it is unclear who even owns the land around Fratton Park. The real question for how this happened is who is at fault. Most people leave the blame at the feet of executive Peter Storrie. There is atleast some blame to be had by Storrie. He takes more than 100000 pounds per month and he is responsible for the signings and contracts. The story has echos of the downfall of Leeds United where Leeds had borrowed against the TV revenues and spent too much and were forced to sell a great number of their players. This is almost identical to the situation at Pompey. The issue being, will they be following Leeds' path down to League One?

How can this kind of problem be prevented in the future? UEFA President Michel Platini has back a number of ideas which should help turn the tide to financial responsibility. He supports wage caps and caps on transfer spending either in absolute terms or in terms of a percentage of club turnover. Even his idea of the 6+5 rule I believe would be good for football finance. The rule would call for the a given teams side to be composed of atleast 6 home internationals. This would likely reduce transfer spending and hopefully help to bring wages under control by reducing scouting outside each country. I don't support the idea, but it could be a measure that gets true consideration. Finally, Platini has talked about barring teams who maintain high levels of debt from participating in European competition. It is a controversial idea, but would force teams to stop their reckless practices with debt. In addition to Platini's ideas, the transparency used on German and French clubs should be used worldwide, and would help to keep clubs accountable for their spending and financial practices.

So this is a sad day, because it will be the day where we either say, "that was the day that football learned to run itself properly," or we'll be saying "that was the day football fell apart." I really hope its the first one.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Money, the Big Four, and the Champions' League

I was initially critical of BS' last post. "Big four? What big four? Surely, at least five and even that is slighting a number of other teams," I thought. Sure, Chelsea are at the top, followed by Manchester United and Arsenal, but fourth place is up for grabs, and not just between Liverpool and late-arrival Manchester City. Spurs and Villa want in, too. Everton looks like they're going to throw their hat in the ring (methinks, not in time, though). Moreover, had Fabergas not stepped up in a huge way, would the Gunners really be sitting so pretty? Who knows what happens if Rooney takes a knock?

But he's correct. Why, one might ask, are Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal still at the top? I would argue, their benches. A season is long, players get tired and they get injured or the take leaves for other reasons. Case in point, Drogba left for ACN and Chelsea still flourished, van Persie went down and Fabergas stepped up, Rooney. . . is an outlier. Many point to an over reliance on Wayne Rooney and fear for Manchester United should he be injured. Certainly, he is on-form and that should be a concern, but how big? Arshavin and maybe Michael Owen sit behind him waiting for a chance. If that's not enough of an argument, Manchester United lost Ronaldo, whom many felt was their best player and still, they are competing for the league title. The opposite end of this argument is easy to spot as well, Everton and Fulham. Since Saha and some other injuries have returned (plus the acquisition of Landon Donovan), Everton have been on a tear. Some of it is probably luck, but the return of injured starters and spending some cash Everton's weak bench, which, by themselves, were barely keeping the Merseyside team out of relegation. Fulham were playing ever-so-well, right up to the point when they lost Dempsey and Zamora. With neither on the pitch, Fulham looked truly toothless, they had no one even close to the caliber of Dempsey or Zamora to replace them.

So what of Liverpool? Not doing so hot, but still a very wealthy team. Benitez has complained time and again of not having money to spend. Noticeably, on a second striker. Torres can be a monster, but he has spent a lot of time injured this season. N'Gog has proven poor quality. Dirk Kuyt was pushed up front, with some effectiveness, but Liverpool then lost a mid-field work horse; Babel is a poor replacement. Gerrard too has been injured a number of times, Benayoun, who was on-form, also lost part of the season with busted ribs. For Liverpool, who were not functioning well as a team to begin with, these were too many injuries to bear. Liverpool has not gotten any breaks, they have had a poor season. Yet, they are still in contention and I expect a better season from them next year.

BS too is correct about the smaller clubs not doing well in the Champions' League, but I am less inclined to chalk it up to "experience." If Everton can beat Manchester United, then why not Barca? Because Everton cannot afford to rest their key players in the Prem and expect to get a result against any but the weakest of the Prem sides nor can they rest those players against any Champions' League side. Everton may be able to fashion a decent Champions' League run with healthy players and if they are well rested, but when that's over, they may find themselves in in the bottom half of the table, if not in a relegation battle, in the league. The only teams that can consistently succeed in both the Champions' League and the EPL are the big four, plus Manchester City (probably), because their money buys depth, not just starting-eleven stars.

DC United fans probably think this self-evident. We have seen what the lack of depth can do to a team engaged in multiple tournaments plus a league. It is not, however, an argument not to break up the big four's hold on the Champions' League. So what if the fourth place team doesn't excel every time? Honestly, it makes it that much more romantic and exciting when an Aston Villa or Tottenham do make it to the elimination stages (which would happen sometimes. It's a tournament: the effect of outlier outcomes is multiplied due to the small sample size). I just find changing the rules because you don't like the results to be dishonest when not completely daft. Besides, the "race for fourth" may seem silly (Who wants to be third loser? You wouldn't even get a medal at the Olympics), but it can be interesting. I certainly think it is this year.

Hey Brendan, "O-H!"

"The crack of the bat and the roar of the crowds..." No, wait, that's baseball, a game played by men with big, steroid-supplemented arms, and occasionally, a pretty big gut as well. Instead, let's start with Kuper and Szymanski's assertion that "American soccer is alive and well and lying on the sofa watching Manchester United on Fox Soccer Channel."

As an MLS fan, I have blasted those in the U.S. that not only favor foreign soccer, but do so to the extent of shunning the lower-quality American version. My prejudices aside, let's consider the impact of what Kuper and Szymanski consider typical American soccer fandom, but expand it. Considering that for big leagues, like the NFL, MLB, and EPL, TV viewership economically trumps ticket sales, could a team conceivable exist that had no home fans? Can the big teams subsist off sales from abroad? Ceteris parabus, probably. However, would an empty stadium continue to draw viewers?

Hence my opening reference to baseball. I hear those things and it fills me with nostalgia for Reds games with my father. I do not watch, cannot watch, baseball anymore, but come summertime, when channel surfing the radio in my car, if I hear those things, I am instantly transported to the halcyon days of my youth. Then I keep flipping because I don't like the rest of baseball. I still like marching bands and the chants from Ohio State football games. The songs and chants too are part of soccer. For me. This is where I feel Kuper and Szymanski's assertion goes awry, soccer is not alive and well without chants and songs. Economically, I am wrong. Statistically, I am wrong. But culturally, I feel I am correct and soccer is a cultural event.

There is a reason that ESPN will televise far more home games at Qwest Field in Seattle than anywhere else in the MLS. The stadium is full and it is loud, even if it is filled with a bunch of Johnny-come-lately, arrogant, fair-weather friends. There is a reason that there are always camera crews and boom mics near the Barra Brava in DC and Section 8 in Chicago (and there are reasons that sometimes those feeds are cut and their volume muted, I like to call that "over-zealous support" but many soccer moms disagree). Aside from the fact that soccer crazies make damn fine television, the noise from these supporters groups are part of the sensory experience of the game. The strongest argument I have heard against the vuvuzela is that no matter what happens in the game, there is no roar from the crowd, no groans, or disappointed moans, it always sounds like a "swarm of angry bees" (Really, it's the "angry" part that bothers us, why not "happy" or "contented" bees?) and thus it detracts, not improves the game. We as humans are hardwired to respond to the noises of a crowd, the noises agitate or depress us. There are conformity pressures in both supporters' groups and crowds as a whole that increase fan retention. Fandom can offer the same sense of community that keeps other groups - ranging from religions to political parties - together through thick-and-thin. Shouting at the TV from my sofa doesn't improve the game or offer a sense of community (makes me feel better, though).

Now clearly, I and many others went to games held by the traveling European teams this summer, specifically AC Milan vs. Chelsea in Baltimore and DC United vs. Real Madrid, both of which were packed (I think the DC game was packed, I was much more focused on the game. Also, I was drunk and sunburned.). There was some good noise at the DC game and yeah, most of it was for Royal Madrid. At the AC - Chelsea game, you could hear a pin drop most of the game. There were supporters a-plenty and a couple supporters groups. But their chants were faint and in distinct in such a large venue. Now, this may be a function of soccer in America. I have been criticized for standing (or even just jumping up) by families in the non-supporters section. There are long periods of calm in baseball and football, so you can go to a game and discuss work and your stocks like the Seattle fans next to me when I sat in the non-supporter's section for the home DC United - Sounders game. Yet, the noise not present at soccer games in the U.S. is present in other U.S. sports.

Silent, half-empty venues seem to be an anathema to televised sports. Moreover, a couple of big games between big teams does not necessarily equate support for a team over the course of a season, plus various tournament games. I question whether you can claim American soccer is alive and well when it simply watches foreign soccer on TV (American Manchester United support might be alive and well, since there is no better option than FSC). It sounds more like soccer in the U.S. is kept alive by an outside source and I think that's called, "life-support."

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Champioooooons?

This week has brought a new big idea from the Barclay's Premier League. Allegedly, the league is considering a playoff between the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh place teams for the fourth UEFA Champions league spot, which is a place which requires a qualifying game before the group stage. The possible proposal has sparked up a great deal of debate on the possibility. Many people, including Harry Redknapp, are interested in the idea because it would be a likely way to get someone else into the top four spots. The most notable critics are Rafa Benitez and Arsene Wenger, who manage the teams who seem to be in the most danger of losing out if the playoff is brought in. As a Spurs fan, I think most people would expect me to be in favor of this idea. The truth is I am not.

The biggest reason this idea is gaining some steam is that the majority of fans want to see the big four change. This is something I want as well. Yes, I dislike(being diplomatic) the Arsenal and Liverpool, but I have to agree that this is a silly idea. An example of the difficulties ingrained in this plan is when Everton qualified in fourth and went in to the Champions League and got knocked out quickly. Unfortunately, the non-established teams around that fourth spot do not have the experience, and squad depth to compete with second tier teams who make it into the champions league. This year alone, we saw Liverpool struggle only to be booted into the Europa league and Rangers were abysmal and were knocked out convincingly. Even Barcelona and Inter Milan had some struggles but made it through. Teams like Spurs, Aston Villa, and Manchester City are nowhere near ready for the step up.

Amongst the three teams I just mentioned, there are only a handful of players who have played in the champions league with the majority of them being on the Manchester City squad. All three of these teams are good, but will they make a proper showing in the Champions League? I think all could play well, but I don't think any of these teams can make a run for the finals without making a few major signings to make the squads really tough to defeat.

This leads to my next major point. Those major signings are not going to come cheap especially considering the money that Manchester City, Chelsea and Real Madrid can flash in the transfer market. Many teams can not afford making the signing to make that step without taking on major debt. Debt is a major portion of the danger of this idea. Portsmouth is the ideal example of a club biting off more than they can chew. When Pompey won the FA cup 2 seasons ago, they stepped up their expectations and brought together an expensive team with high wages which has brought their impending downfall upon them. Clubs with quality squads that just aren't quite in the higher echelons of the mythical "Big Four," can try to build a squad above their means which they believe can help them step up to a higher level and compete on a level that the fans begin to expect. Some teams who are near the proposed playoff spot may try to get that player that will get them to into the playoffs, but even this is a major financial risk as it could possibly damage the club financially if they make the playoffs and fail to make it into the Champions League.

Essentially, I think that there is far too much risk in the current financial philosophy. If we could trust clubs to live within their means and develop players, I think this could be a fun idea, but as trusting a football club to live within their means is like expecting to see Lady GaGa in a t-shirt and jeans with no makeup performing her album with a symphony, I don't think it is realistic. Although, now that I have put that idea out there, I want to be paid when she does it.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

FA Cup or 4th Place?

Spurred on(pun intended) by the mention of spurs in the latest post by my co-conspirator and a thread on a board where I argue with other spurs fans, I thought I would try to get all my Tottenham Hotspur based issues written down and ask some real questions about the club.

Lets start at the top. As we stand right now, we are in a good position to take the FA cup back to N17 where it belongs and we are within reach of the ever elusive fourth place in the Barclay's Premier League. Both prestigious prizes and something every team in England wants a taste of. Which should be the bigger priority to the club? It is a strange predicament as the obvious answer is BOTH! But when the question of getting fourth place or winning the FA Cup came up I had to think about it.

The FA Cup is an amazing achievement no matter what some clubs may think of it. It is a piece of silverware that some clubs would die for and some fans would kill to have their manager take it seriously for once. In Tottenham's case, it is a tradition. We were the first non-league side to hoist it back in 1901. We were the first team to do the double in the 20th century when we won it back in 1961. We created legends when we won it twice in a row in 1981 and 1982. In 1991 Gazza created a magic moment that will live for the club forever on the way to our eighth FA Cup win. These are the moments that fans of any team in any sport live for. And believe me, I've seen moments like this in all the sports I have watched over the years. I have a moment like that for each team I have loved. This cup would be a massive lift to a club that seems to underachieve almost every year. And in addition to the fact that we get silverware, it would be another that we win that the Arsenal don't, which is almost a prize in it's own right.

What about fourth place? It sounds like a nothing more than the third loser. But we as football fans know it is so much more. It is the ticket to a world where money is nothing. Where the best of the best go to figure out how good they really are and figure out what they have to do to get better so they can be the best next year. It is the holy land of the football world, the UEFA Champions League. I heard a spurs fan say on a podcast I listen to say that he would cry if he heard the Champions league theme played at White Hart Lane. I think I would too. It is one of those elusive dreams that has been just close enough for us not to lose hope but far enough away to break our hearts. Finishing this season in the fourth position in the league would be the biggest achievement in this clubs history. It would overshadow the double from 1961. It would be seen as the move to do it again for this club and its fans.

So the problem is, how likely are either scenario? Both are possible. Of the remaining 16 teams in the cup, one should expect that only four of them are any real threat to Spurs assuming we beat Bolton on Valentine's day. The question becomes how likely is it that we draw Chelsea, Birmingham, Villa or Man City in the next round? Assuming we get there and all of those four teams do as well, it's better than 50 percent. This is where we dive into the question of whether it is better to meet and beat a quality side early or to avoid them until the end. I'm not going into that question here. Either way, It is not unreasonable that we could make the final in May and that we could win it.

Again, What about fourth place? Is it realistic to think we can get there? I think it still is despite losses against the likes of Wolves and Stoke and all the draws this year alone. Spurs are one point outside of the top four and sit behind two teams they have beaten this season, and I do remember losing to Liverpool as well, but it means we are good enough. The answer to whether we can do it comes in April as we play United, Arsenal and Chelsea all in a row. If we can do alright, and preferably beat City again, we will be in a position to go at the three teams that will be battling for the league title and find our position in the table. Last year we saw that Spurs can hang with these teams, now we have to prove it once more. Is it likely? No. Is it possible? Yes.

Finally, I want to look at the manager. Is Harry Redknapp the man to take us to either one of these prizes? When he showed up last year I think you would have heard a resounding yes from every single Spurs fan on the planet. Now, the opinions are split somewhat. I don't think anyone would sack him, but can he get us where we should be. The results we have seen leave us unsure. Yes, we can stand up to the big boys. Yes we can beat the small frys. But can we do both and cement our status in this league? I suppose we'll only know in a few months. But in the mean time, "In 'Arry, we trust." Come on you Spurs!

What is Landon Donovan Worth and to Whom?

After years of being blasted for not living up to his potential, multiple failed attempts to make it in Germany's Bundesliga, being called, at best, a sissy for playing in the MLS, and having a row with the fading soccer phenomenon that is David Beckham (nasty as that may have been for the two players, it probably helped Beckham stay in the spotlight), Landon Donovan has arrived. Mostly.

That "mostly" isn't a shot at Donovan. He was lethal this past summer at the Confederations' Cup, paired well with the aforementioned Beckham, Donovan and the Galaxy often showed their MLS counterparts what a creative offense looks like, was a constant force to be reckoned with in the qualifiers, and he is demonstrating that he can not only handle, but shine, in arguably the finest league in the world. It's just that this is less than 12 months.

Actually, that's not entirely fair. Donovan did not shine in his stint at as a substitute with Bayern Munich, but he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Ribery, Schweinsteiger, and Klose and he never looked out-classed. There are those that look back now criticize that move, but I felt then, as I feel now, that he played with one of the finest and most storied teams in Europe, a team filled with superstars, and did "fine." He was solid. Not great. But before Onyewu's move to AC Milan, it was probably the biggest, most famous club with which an American had signed (I don't count keepers, the U.S. has had a string of good keepers. They are outliers.). He was not the team star, but he generally made the 18; he wasn't relegated to reserves. It wasn't embarrassing and were Donovan not a tremendous player, it would have been. Maybe I just like Bayern Munich and German football and want to see even more Americans in the Bundesliga. Could be.

Either way, he certainly did not attract the praise of the German press in the same manner that he has drawn praise (and some fear) from the English press. It isn't fair to say that he single-handedly pulled the Toffees clear of the relegation zone, there is truly some fine talent on Everton. They certainly weren't playing particularly well before his arrival though. I haven't seen as much of Donovan at Everton as I would like, but I can't fault him for that. He's starting and playing 90 minutes a lot of the time. It has more to do with my lack of Setanta and my computer being too crap to stream or even play video very well. Nevertheless, he drew startled but good reviews when he first arrived and my impression, backed by Ives and Everton manager David Moyes, is that he is improving.

Moyes has said that it is unlikely that Everton will be able to extend Donovan's loan. Ives has explained why that would be silly anyway. That is hardly the end of Donovan's European ambitions, or so I hope. While Everton may attempt to make a play for longer term loan in the summer, a successful World Cup may bring other suitors as well. Which (finally) brings me to the subject line of this post: What is Landon Donovan worth? Not that I have an answer.

The first question to ask is, "what is at stake?" For U.S. soccer and future U.S. stars, it is prestige. Donovan might not be "blazing a trail" into the EPL, after all, Dempsey has proven how valuable he is to Fulham by virtue of being injured (have you seen Fulham play recently? They haven't exactly been threatening defenses.) and a number of other U.S. players have played in the Prem (if not with quite the impact of Dempsey or McBride). I'm not even counting the keepers. He would, however, be blazing a trail as a real "star." Although, the "best" American players have played in the Premiership, Donovan's signing would be different. Reyna was a big step. McBride played and played well for Fulham; he was certainly missed when he left. However, U.S. soccer has grown and, rightly or wrongly, being the "star" U.S. player means more for Donovan. He would be brought in with a lot of hype and would have to live up to it, like a big signing from any other country (well, maybe not so big as some, but to an extent previously not experienced by the U.S.). If Donovan is unsuccessful, European clubs would continue to look with a jaundiced eye at the hype surrounding any future U.S. player. The opposite is true if he is successful; managers and owners who may hold U.S. soccer in low regard may re-evaluate their U.S. options. Not ending the mistrust and denigration of U.S. soccer, but perhaps changing a few minds and opening a few doors. Success also may assist the general quality of U.S. soccer, if more players stay in the game hoping that they can be the next Landon Donovan and earn a multi-million dollar contract.

Of course, Donovan has stakes in it as well, but how much is up to him. He has made it clear that he would like to play in England. If he wants a lengthy career in Europe, he will have to prove that he can hold up over the course of a season or more. His stay at Everton has piqued some interest, but still hasn't ruled out the "flash-in-the-pan" possibility. If he only wants to play in Europe for a couple of years before returning to the MLS, the stakes are lower and probably makes his calculus almost entirely about the money that he is offered. But again, how much is he worth?

I don't have a crystal ball. Alright, I do have a crystal ball, but it doesn't tell the future. Okay, it does tell the future, but I only ask it questions about the stock market. Those are all lies, all I have is a magic 8-ball and it's broken. The point is, it is unclear who would be interested in Donovan. Much will still depend upon his World Cup performance, but even if he has a disappointing World Cup, I don't believe all of the offers would dry up. So let's run the gamut.

Everton will probably be interested: Everton will stay in the Prem, short of a fiasco. However, European ambitions seem far-fetched and Everton are currently placed mid-table in the league. This is a path previously trodden, McBride and Dempsey most recently. A large part of me hopes that the best U.S. player can do better than a team that will really be aiming to Europa league at best. Indeed, as I have argued above, I believe Donovan may well want to aim for more. I may be dreaming.

What about Aston Villa, Spurs or a similar club? Villa has been in spitting distance of the big four and has gone on a couple runs to make it look like a contender. Villa does not, however, have the pocketbook or accompanying star power of the Manchesters or Chelsea. Villa or Spurs would probably be the lowest risk (risk being the difference between greatest and worst outcomes divided by probability. No, I did not bother assigning values and doing the math). While there would still be competition for a starting spot, it would probably be more manageable (although Spurs keep plenty of star power on the bench, that I'll leave that for the better half of this blog to lament). If Donovan plays well, he is still likely to be noticed by many other European clubs and his name and nationality would leave a positive impression for future U.S. players. He would probably get very decent money, particularly if his club made a successful European bid. I should probably note, though, that Everton is just a bit behind these clubs and, if they continue their run, and were last year, are comparable to any of the upper table clubs.

So what if Roman Abramovich makes a vodka-fueled call to Donovan and his agent (read, what if Donovan gets an unlikely offer from one of the heavy hitters)? Donovan playing well for one of the biggest teams in Europe, playing in the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions' League, speculations on his private life being front page material for big European papers would be awesome. Well, not the last bit, but the rest would be really cool. It's the playing that is the question. Big European stars like Ballack, Deco, and Valencia have all spent considerable time on the bench, and that's not even to mention promising players like Babel and Wright-Phillips. Getting a starting spot at any of those clubs would be difficult to achieve and to keep. I don't know that he is that good. I don't know that he isn't, but it is a risk. If he's just in Europe to make the big bucks before returning stateside, clearly, this is his best bet. But it probably wouldn't have the best results for U.S. soccer as whole, unless he really can wrangle a starting spot. But that's an ambitious and high-risk gamble for both U.S. soccer and for Donovan, if he intends to have an extended European career. Plus, it's highly unlikely that this would ever happen.

A nicer way to phrase this post would have been "how good is Landon Donovan?" But that would have missed the monetary aspects. Donovan's contract is not owned by the L.A. Galaxy, it is owned by the MLS. The MLS has been notorious about over-pricing its players and squeezing every last dime out of clubs seeking American talent. Which is understandable, but has it's drawbacks. Playing "hardball" with a good, but hesitant, option for Donovan could lead to the retraction of the offer. One would not hope that the MLS would put a premium on the money only, after all, they have stakes in increasing the "brand awareness" in the MLS and U.S. as well. However, as a fan of the MLS league, if not always the organization, I wouldn't put it past them. They may also opt for the best "general offer," that is the biggest club with the best money, without really considering how much Donovan would play for that club or whether it's really where he wants to play. Indeed, as a good friend said while criticizing my post (it's okay, I steal his jokes all the time), one of Donovan's great weaknesses appears to be his comfort zone: When pushed out of it, he does not adapt, he flounders. Donovan has some say and I assume has influence with the MLS (the last thing the MLS needs is its greatest national champion bashing them) and the MLS doesn't always operate like it's run by retarded hampsters, but having the MLS control his contract should be something of a concern, particularly if a faction of the MLS wants to keep Donovan's star power in the league. I'm not weighing in on the labour issue here in the U.S., I'm using a case-specific analysis for Donovan. An additional concern is whether Donovan's pricing may ward off any potential suitors, like Villa or Spurs or possibly even Everton, who if inclined to begin with, would not be interested in pay big money on a relatively unproven player (again, 12 months).

So, there is no real course emerged from this post. Merely a sample of the dragons and orcs and World of Warcraft nerds (perils and pitfalls, all) that still lurk in Donovan's career path. Donovan has done a lot of good soccer playing, but there is more to be done and (hopefully) many choices to be made.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Where have all the goals gone?

The start of the season saw a flurry of goals. The first weekend of the Premiership season saw a 6-1 scoreline. So far this season, as a league, the premiership is averaging 3.01 goals per game. This sounds great until I point out that the average went down by .05 with this current midweek round of matches. The peak month this season was September when there was an average of 3.57 goals per game, but so far this month, and it was improved by this weeks matches, the league is averaging 1.91 goals per game. This has been an incredibly high scoring season so far, but where have all the goals gone?

Let me give you a bit more background information first. With games spanning seven months so far, 3 months averaged higher than 3.00 goals per game, five months have averaged more than 2.50 goals and of the two averaging less than 2.50, only one month averages less than 2. So again, where have all the goals gone?

I think the most obvious answer that I have heard is false. Many people blame the switch to winter as players would be slightly desensitized by the cold. I think this may be a very minor factor, but I see two obvious things where I feel we can lay the blame. The first is fixture congestion. As soon as we entered the new decade, we were stricken with rapid fire weekend and midweek fixtures each week. This is really exacerbated by the fact that due to this year's World Cup, the season has to end a bit earlier this year. This forced games to be stacked up before we got to the second problem with the fixtures which was the weather problems which caused a large number of matches to be postponed at the beginning of this year. This congestion is causing teams with smaller squads to become tired which may also explain why some of the teams in the lower end of the table are getting some upsets.

The second reason for the lower goal per game averages is Arsene Wenger. His inability to buy players in the transfer windows is why there are many fewer goals being scored. As a spurs fan, I couldn't be happier about this, but since Wenger refused to stump up the cash and buy a striker that Arsenal desperately need right now. Arsenal are averaging 2.40 goals per game but this average has been plummeting since they lost Robin Van Persie to injury. They have scored four or more goals in a game 7 times and only twice since the first week of November. Since the beginning of November, they have been held goalless six times.

This finally leads us to an important question. Will the goals come back? I would have to say yes. I think as the fixture congestion continues though may, player will become more tired and the ones who need to cement spots on their national teams will step up to do so. I don't expect that we will see another month with an average above 3.50, but I think we will see some more as the season winds down especially since this seems to be one of the tightest races for the title and for the Champions League places.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Euro 2012 Qualifying Draw

Seems a bit early to be looking at Euro qualifying already but the time has come to see what the qualifying will look like. Just to clarify this is the qualifying for the finals tournament in 2012. The qualifying goes as follows: The 51 UEFA members are drawn into nine groups of either five or six nations. In the end of the group stages, 16 teams will make it to the finals. The Hosts, which are Poland and the Ukraine are given automatic births just like the host of the World Cup.

There are some great ties in this draw. Group B looks to be the most interesting group with World Cup 2010 attendees Slovakia being grouped with two teams who narrowly missed out in the European playoffs. Russia will likely be looking to rebound from their missed qualification much like the very unlucky Republic of Ireland. Russia nearly pushed Germany into the playoffs and Ireland probably should have knocked out France, but neither were quite so lucky.

The other particularly interesting groups are G, H, and I. Group G sees England matched up with home nations rival Wales as well as a struggling Bulgaria and an up and coming Switzerland who are going to this years World Cup. Group H sees Denmark and Portugal, two World Cup qualifiers who came from the same European qualifying group, meet again with an up and coming Norway team and Iceland. Finally Group I sees European holders Spain grouped with a weakened Czech Republic and a Scotland team who has a lot to prove as they have plummeted through the FIFA rankings and nearly made the Euro 2008 tournament only to be brushed aside convincingly in World Cup qualifying.

Though there are some interesting matchups in the other groups such as Turkey and Germany in group A, Serbia, Slovenia and Italy in Group C, Romania, France and World Cup qualifier Serbia in Group D, Sweden and Holland in Group E, and Croatia and Greece in Group F, these groups appear a bit more straight forward. Hopefully we get a set of 16 teams to build a final that is nearly as good as Euro 2008 was.

Euro 2012 qualifying draw:

GROUP A: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Belgium, Austria, Turkey, Germany
GROUP B: Andorra, Armenia, Macedonia, Republic of Ireland, Slovakia, Russia
GROUP C: Faroe Islands, Estonia, Slovenia, Northern Ireland, Serbia, Italy
GROUP D: Luxembourg, Albania, Belarus, Bosnia, Romania, France
GROUP E: San Marino, Moldova, Hungary, Finland, Sweden, Netherlands
GROUP F: Malta, Georgia, Latvia, Israel, Greece, Croatia
GROUP G: Montenegro,Wales, Bulgaria, Switzerland, England
GROUP H: Iceland, Cyprus, Norway, Denmark, Portugal
GROUP I: Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Scotland, Czech Republic, Spain

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Derbies: What is wrong with these matches?

What is it about Derby matches that have returned to chippy anti-football matches? Game like today's Liverpool v. Everton match made me think about this. When the schedules are announced, everyone looks forward to these matches, but they rarely please anyone but the victors and even then some of the supporters get annoyed at how chippy and ugly these games often become. Today really seemed more like a war that occasionally had a football rolling through it. So when you see the horrendous play in a match like this involving heated rivalry, why don't we see this as much in the other big ones? The closest thing on the pitch that I can think of is the Nottingham Forest v Derby County match last week which ended up with Derby County's manager allegedly kneeing Forest's Billy Davies. Most times when these derby and rivalry matches come around, though the game may not be great, the real talking points are in the stands. The most obvious example is from the West Ham v. Millwall League Cup match back in August. The violence outside Upton Park as well as the multiple pitch invasions.

What is it that ruins so many derby matches? I think it's a case of trying too hard. It's hard to believe that good teams in some of the best leagues around the world can have some rather ugly games. There is a common idiom about when things don't go your way in sport, you are likely trying too hard. I think this is the case and I believe that's where the ugliness usually comes from. There is hardly any reason to think that foreign players understand long riding animosity between these teams. Why the rivalry is there is not the point, but the players know that a great showing in one of these matches can make them legends.

The one big derby that I believe follows the trying too hard is the Old Firm. Celtic and Rangers, though the last several that I have been fortunate to watch were exciting, are often so frustrating because they do hate each other because these teams are heavily local(or atleast from Scotland). Often these games get relatively out of control and become ugly and chippy. And some of the Old Firm games I have seen make today's Merseyside Derby look like an actual game of football.

In the end, the Derby matches are what keep us excited. I just wish things like the horribly vile chants heard at some of them and the violence between fans stay out of the games. Remember it's still just a game. That means you Carragher. That "tackle" was an incitement.