Sunday, September 19, 2010

A Letter to Brendan: It's Good to Be Donkey-Punched

I'm Probably a Cutter

I said that I probably wouldn't write about DC United again, but last night's loss to LA was a kick to the genitals. The loss to the Crew in the U.S. Open Cup was a kick to the genitals. When they lost again to the Crew a couple days later, it was a kick to the ol' rod-and-tackle. It's good to feel again.
Actually, I'm completely serious. Last night, Brendan sent me a text saying that he was "foolish" enough to believe that DC might actually pull off a win when leading 1-0 in the 80th minute. I respond that I was similarly foolish and we have been watching our team concede goals late all season. Actually, Brendan, that was the emotion talking. You were right to believe. Six weeks ago, you never would have fallen for it because there was no reason to believe it. This time, the team gave us a reason.

Why Brendan Was Right to Believe

What happened last night? Losing last night's game can be chalked up to bad chemistry between Jakovic and Simms. Simms is playing through an injury and has spent large chunks of the season on the bench - that his chemistry might be off is disappointing, but understandable.
Graye then proceeded to completely lose Landon Donovan, who made an excellent run and executed a perfect header that left Perkins with no chance. Wow, a rookie-defender lost the best player in the league who made us pay for it? Shocking.
But the game should have been out of reach for LA, Boskovic and Hernandez both squandered chances. That happens, it's not something to be proud of, but plenty of teams fail to maximize chances (see: Arsenal - Sunderland).

Go back seven weeks or longer. You can't point to "what went wrong" because the team played so poorly, it seemed more a result of inevitability than individual errors.

A lot went right last night. You didn't see the first half, did you? 0-0, but DC United absolutely out-classed LA. That's not to say that LA didn't have chances, but United's attack picked it's way through the LA defense with a lot of creative short passing triangles, good ball-skills, believe it or not, retention of possession, speed (from the wings), and a lot of imagination. Brendan, I'm telling you, there were parts that were positively sexy. LA's chances came from long balls over the top, hoping that Buddle would leave James or Jakovic in the dust, which he could not do. For 75 minutes of that game, DC were the better side and not by a small margin.

That's How We Should Be Losing

This was supposed to be a rebuilding year and we have waited 2/3rds of the season to see signs of life. We have the youngest squad in the league, as we should. Graye isn't in the running for rookie of the year, neither were King or Zayner in their rookie years. However, all of them look like they will be very solid MLS players. Najar is a phenomenon. Jakovic is already, last night's single play not withstanding, one of the best central defenders in the league. Julius James has found his legs, he marked Buddle out of the match last night and has taken good players out of the game all season. Hernandez is improving by leaps and bounds as he adjusts to the league. He needs to work on his strength and balance, but his skill is starting to shine through, he carved out a lot of space last night and he is starting to beat defenders. Tino's entire game has improved, save his shooting. Did you see him dribble through two defenders last night? I expected him to put his head down and try to beat the last one and shoot over the bar. Instead, he looked up and laid the ball off to Hernandez. Boskovic is improving, but the jury is still out on whether he's worth the DP money.
Regardless, that is a pretty good base on which to build and that leaves Pontius and Wallace who are out injured. Even Burch looked pretty good in his couple of games this season. I'm not saying that we're going to run the table next year, but playoffs? Very possible. The year after, if the young guys continue their development, DC will have a very good team. There are still spots that need to be filled, chiefly goal scorer. Still, it's a very good foundation that are finally starting to mesh.

If we had played like this all season, we'd probably have a couple more wins and a lot more ties.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Out of My League

An Outsider's View

Spurs are not my territory, but I try to catch all their games that I can so that I can understand the things that BS is saying to me. I won't pretend to his expertise, but I thought an outsider's view might be interesting. Spurs are a great team to watch too, albeit a frustrating one as well. Spurs play attractive football and create a lot of chances, but they have been lacking any sort of efficiency in front of goal. Here are my early season thoughts.

Gareth Bale. Is. Terrifying.

I may have a man-crush on Gareth Bale. I have yet to see a back who can take Gareth Bale out of the match. The top national sides in the world can thank their gods that Bale was born a bit too far to the west, because Bale added to the English side might actually make England live up to the expectations that their fans set for them. Bale's pace on its own is absolutely excellent, but his acceleration absolutely leaves defenders behind. He also must have joints of steel because the pace at which he cuts is ridiculous. His crosses have amazing accuracy given the pace at which they come in and the pace at which Bale is usually moving. And that jaw-line!
Wait, no, what? The point I was actually making is that I think Tottenham may have the best midfield in the league - the only contenders are Chelsea, I feel, and Chelsea's midfield are just lethal in front of goal - they lack the dynamism and variety of play that Tottenham's midfield bring. The addition of van der Vaart has only added to Tottenham's midfield strength.

The Best and the Worst

Raphael van der Vaart may have been the best pick up in the off-season in the entire league. Certainly, I don't think he's playing at full speed yet, but he's playing in central midfield and that is going to take more adjustment time than, say, a striker. Van der Vaart has shown a few of the moments of skill that are expected from a big signing, but the real difference is that van der Vaart looks like he has come to play and to play for Tottenham. He tracks down the ball when he loses it, he fights for any errant passes that come in from his teammates and he has given opposing d-mids and central defenders fits. As he meshes with Spurs, I expect that he will truly start to look like one of the best Spurs players.
Gallas, on the other hand, has been a disaster. I don't share BS's animosity to Arsenal, though I'm not a fan. Gallas, however, may be too old to play with Spurs and their outside backs' tendency to move forward. Gallas has shown all the trademarks of a center back who can no longer hack it. He has been beaten and missed tackles that have resulted in goals, but the real signs are his constant shirt-tugging and rash challenges. These are symptoms of Gallas' fading pace and ability. Unlike John Terry, Gallas does not get the benefit of the doubt from referees. Moreover, Terry may be a horrendous fouler and "cheat," but he does so effectively - Gallas still fails to win the ball when he fouls a striker.


Which bring me to Spurs needs. The first has not changed. Tottenham need a world-class striker; their profligacy in front of goal screams for one. Defoe is streaky and it remains to be seen how he recovers from his injury. Keane and Crouch, unfortunately, are too unselfish. R.Pav's has the right nose for goal and propensity to shoot, but his particular skill set and preferences do not maximize the balls coming in from the wings (he did score as I wrote that though). I think that if Tottenham can start to score and carry a lead, they will start to truly dominate because the tendency of Bale, Lennon, and van der Vaart to leave defenders in their wake will be magnified when their opponents are over-committed and chasing the game.
Unfortunately, I think Ledley King's limitations are really hurting Spurs defense. King, when he plays, is truly a world-class defender. Unfortunately, I think he needs to spend more time on the bench. Assou-Ekotto, Hutton, Kaboul, and Bale (when he is used as an outside back) love to get forward and this adds to the pressure on the center backs. Spurs always need to have top quality in their central defense and, even before Dawson's injury, Gallas no longer has that quality. It will be difficult for Redknapp to recruit an excellent center back without being able to promise significant playing time; few young players are going to want to play second fiddle to Ledley King. Fortunately, Spurs will have plenty of matches this year and should be able to find a way to split playing time and truly I think they need additional depth at central defense.
I also wouldn't mind seeing Tottenham pick up an enforcer d-mid. I've never been the biggest fan of Huddlestone, but he does have a good shot from distance and is a good outlet and passer of the ball. However, when Tottenham do have the lead, their midfield is designed to go forward and they may not be able to kill off a game in the way a strong side should. An enforcer doesn't really fit Tottenham's style, but one may be a vital addition if they are to take advantage of leads.

The Team to Watch

Spurs are the EPL team to watch - unfortunately for BS. Their football is a lot of fun to watch, but their stuttering start also adds drama. They are never played out of a game, but they have struggled to play lesser sides away. Spurs have everything one could want from a football side and, fortunately for BS, that includes a strong possibility to beat any team they face. I know Redknapp doesn't think his team's best matches Barcelona's best, but I would simply love to see if even the "best" team in the world can shut down Gareth Bale.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

This Weekend in England: Gameweek 4 Edition

Well, I realize I have been slacking, but I'm back to look at an interesting weekend in the EPL. So, like I said, it was an interesting weekend all over the premier league. Let's look at the good, the bad, and the rest.

The Good!
I saw some great things this weekend. I'll start in my club's game. Believe me, considering the result, they'll show up in the later categories too. But I was pleasantly shown a good display from a new player in England in Raphael Van der Vaart. He showed some great creativity and heart in a tough and new league, and considering his lack of playing time in Madrid, he really played well and has added himself to the line of players who have to be considered for every game for Spurs. In the slightly more surprising light, I have one word. Blackpool. What an amazing start for the tangerines. Two wins out of four and they sit proudly in the fourth spot for now. I honestly think it is hard to root against them in any game that is not against yours. They have an entertaining and clever manager, a team that one would imagine would struggle in a game played on paper and a fan base who can't be anything but happy to experience this season. They are playing very well, and I think they were disrespected coming into the season and their keeper Matt Gilks was fantastic against a reasonably good Newcastle side who deserved something from that match yesterday. Next up is Everton. From 3-1 down they managed to scrape a point from one of the two teams that are expected to win the title this year. This is a very talented team and their start is a suprise as I know atleast one pundit who picked Everton to finish third this season. I can't say enough positive things about Everton, and I do think they will pull up their socks and do well as the season goes on. Finally, I want to mention Michael Essien. I felt really bad for him as he has had some bad injury problems over the past few years, but he came out yesterday and showed how good he is and I was really happy to see him get a brace even if it was for Chelsea.I can only imagine how well HGhana could have done with him at the World Cup.

The Bad
I will start this part as I did the last, and talk about Spurs. It was embarassing how little the team seemed to care in the second half yesterday. Yes, they have to travel to Germany this week, but when you are on the field and the clock is ticking, you have to focus and get the three points. Just because we got into the Champions League this season, we are not guaranteed a spot next year. Talking of the Champions League, Manchester United were both sides of the coin yesterday. Good play to get to 3-1 going into injury time, but to give up two late goals that they did was poor. The question becomes whether this actually signals the fall of the Red devils. I'd be lying if I said that I hope not, but I really do think it would be bad for the league and the English game as it would really highlight the problems with the philosophy of English football which is probably facing a major revolution in the next few years. Speaking of problems with the English game, next up is Lee Cattermole. Seriously? First game back and you get sent off again? I have heard people blaming Steve Bruce for not controlling this kid, but I don't know if that's right. He was given the captains armband, I suspect, to get him to calm down, but it seems to have had the wrong effect. Hopefully he uses his brain and recognizes his mistakes, as I think he is a good player. Finally, I want to highlight Liverpool. I was watching this game and I was shocked at the continuing play acting, most notably Milan Jovanovic. I personally am sick of seeing diving in Football, and believe me, I hold Grudges. Gerrard, Busqets, Eduardo, Rooney, Ronaldo and Drogba. These guys have been busted by video. And in this matchup last season at Anfield was another example as David Ngog dived to get a penalty which lead to Birmingham City drawing a game they should have won. I have one thought on the matter. Come on FIFA, tell the FAs to start retroactively punishing the obvious ones. Let players know you want this to stop. Be strong. You make the rules for fuck's sake. Pardon my language, but it is something I really hate.

The Rest
I wasn't really sure how to enter into this conversation as it's a very difficult one to have. But, hard play. Yesterday saw one major injury and almost another. The tackle by Carl Henry on Bobby Zamora yesterday was fair. Let me be clear on my position. I think the tackle itself was good, but the result was poor. I hope Bobby comes back as soon as possible, but it was an accident not a bad tackle. I like the English league because it is more physical. This is a good thing in my opinion, but I hate hearing people cry about the physicality when a player gets hurt. I don't want anyone to get hurt, but in a game that requires players to be active and run, there will be injuries. I would have been distraught today if I read that Modric would be out for four months like Zamora, but I really wouldn't complain if it had been the case. I like the tough gritty nature of the league and as long as it's clean I support the continuance of this nature of play. I hope Fulham fans can agree considering their loss yesterday, but teams like Stoke, Wolves and West Brom are built on this traditional English play style, and I want to see it continue, just cleanly and with as few injuries as possible.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

There's Always Next Year

What Do You Mean There Are Two Months Left?

Well, this season has been somewhere between a disaster and a fiasco and there are still a couple months left. Before the season began, I wrote a post about what I feared might go wrong. Judging by that list, I clearly had no idea how bad D.C. was going to be.

A Disaster and a Fiasco

I honestly did not see D.C. competing for any trophies this year. However, while some D.C. United fans felt that D.C. had downgraded at every position, I did not, and still do not (precisely), agree with that premise. Losing Gomez as central playmaker, even with his reduced skills, was problematic since D.C. did not have an obvious replacement. Also losing Emilio without an obvious replacement meant trouble, but I had railed against Emilio in the previous seasons and thought a change in formation and a new striker would more than make up for his loss. I worried also that Moreno would no longer be productive, but would be skilled enough to earn a first team spot and that certainly happened. While those were among my concerns and they proved accurate, they were just the tip of the iceberg and we were the Titanic. Below is a list of what I did not see coming.

I Call It a "Diasco"
  • Bryan Namoff never recovered and was forced to retire.
  • Santino Quaranta's form did not recover from the end of last year and may have even dipped further.
  • Dejan Jakovic spent considerable time on the bench injured.
  • Rodney Wallace had a season ending injury early in the year.
  • I split my knuckles thrice on a tree outside of RFK.
  • Chris Pontius has been playing injured all season and is out for the rest of it.
  • Pontius and Wallace both suffered sophomore slumps when they did play.
  • Troy Perkins went from a national team consideration to a national joke staple.
  • Ronnie Raccoon took up residence in RFK, furthering its dilapidation.
  • The D.C. offense replaced the striker Luciano Emilio as target man with 16/17-year old rookie-winger Andy Najar, with predictable results.
  • The D.C. offense has been shutout as many times as any team in MLS history and there are still two months to go.
  • D.C. has to struggle not to have the worst league record in MLS history (they're not clear of that dubious honor yet and don't look on pace to do so).
  • D.C. United has generally refused to win on either the Christian or Jewish Sabbath.
  • Danny Allsopp and Adam Christman are the same striker and neither scores.
  • The team has moved closer than ever to a move to Baltimore.
  • The symmetry of Pompey wearing D.C. United jerseys during the friendly is not lost on me.
Who Am I Kidding?

Yes, D.C.'s season is "over." I will still continue to go to all the games and I will be sad to see the season end, if only because I enjoy live soccer. These are also the last few games for D.C. and MLS legend Jaime Moreno. My desire to see him hang up his boots should not be taken for disrespect. His number is on my jersey and I fully recognize that he has given this team and city a great deal, not the least of which is a career-record number of goals. I will be there on 23 October 2010 when Jaime puts on the red-and-black jersey for the last time.
Moreover, there are bright points to this season - Andy Najar is a phenomenal player and Bill Hamid has shown tremendous talent in goal. Tino appears to be gradually emerging from his slump and both Paulo Hernandez and Branko Boskovic have shown promise, if not results yet. Hopefully, there is quiet progress being made on the stadium front and 2011 will not be the last year in D.C. I'm just not sure there is much more to write about D.C. United until the off-season.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

I'm in Europe, You're in MLS and You'll Always Be in MLS

What A Wacky World We Live In

I'm not in Europe, that was lie. But then, neither is Landon Donovan and he won't be playing there. Armenia and Azerbaijan are also not in Europe, but they get to play in Euros. Weird.

The Silly Season Goes Red, White, and Blue

The transfer window is now shut; let's look at the big American moves this summer. Sacha Kljestan went to Anderlecht, though not via South Africa. Jonathan Bornstein, on the other hand, went to South Africa and somehow wound up in Mexico. Herc Gomez moved from Puebla to Pachuca, because apparently Pachuca wants to have more U.S. players than most MLS teams. Bocanegra too moved, but only in-country. It looks like Altidore will be playing for Villareal, although that isn't a move so much as not being loaned out this year. I think that about covers it.

Before and after the World Cup, any number of pundits said claimed that Donovan would be going to Spain or England, Michael Bradley probably would be picked up by an EPL club, Bob Bradley would be coaching a Championship side, and Clint Dempsey would not be starting for Fulham, instead following Roy Hodgson to Liverpool.

Well, Dempsey isn't starting at Fulham, but none of the rest of that happened. So what did happen?

No, No, Really, Fabergas Is Happy at Arsenal

First of all, there was surprisingly little movement during the European transfer window. The mass exodus never happened from Anfield and a number of other clubs were reluctant to let their stars go without seeing big bucks (See: Cesc Fabergas). Sure, Robinho and Balotelli moved, but they were all but kicked in the ass on the way out. Athletico Madrid was raided heavily by Barcelona and Manchester City, but those two clubs were virtually the only clubs spending big money this transfer window. Unfortunately, MLS was and is demanding big money for Landon Donovan, their marquee player.

It was not the case that no one wanted Donovan. David Moyes plainly said that he wanted Donovan back, but simply could not afford him. MLS has historically held on to its players for large transfer fees (US$ 10 million for Altidore?!?) and given the inflation in the transfer market, evidence suggests that they were waiting for a big offer for Donovan that never came. I can only assume that Joe Cole found work while Donovan didn't because Cole moved to Anfield on a free transfer. Moreover, as the most recognizable player in U.S. soccer, MLS is probably only looking at large European clubs. It does little for the prestige of the sport if the best U.S. player is plying his trade at West Brom, Malaga, or Lecce.

Michael Bradley's continuing German adventure is a surprise as well. Not only U.S. media outlets were impressed with him (although, I'd think Ives were his agent), but the London Times put him on their list of 10 players who would strike it big based on their World Cup performances. So why is Bradley still at Borussia Moechengladbach? Because he likes polysyllabic words? Treue und Widmung, vielleicht? I have no idea. I'm still trying to puzzle out how Joe Cole isn't in a soup line somewhere.

Joe Cole Should Be Eating a Can of Beans by a Trashcan Fire in London

I think a lot of it comes down to an imbalance in the transfer market as a whole. Spending as a whole dropped dramatically, 22% in the Prem alone and that was bolstered by the cash the Citizens were dropping. Many clubs have serious debt and thus are reducing spending and raising the prices on their marketable players. I still expect that Donovan and Bradley and perhaps some others to get European transfers during the winter or in the next 12 months, if the market calms and re-establishes values for players.

No Americans landed really big deals this summer, it is true. However, Holden secured a spot on Bolton, Altidore finally won a vote of confidence from Villreal, Onyewu. . . well, if nothing else, his offer to play a year for free after missing last year has impressed the Italians with his honesty and dedication (we'll see if he plays), Spector is somehow still playing for West Ham, even Kljestan is doing well at Anderlecht, and the list goes on. The "Americans Abroad" lists from Ives and Goff get longer every year. The U.S. still may not command the prestige or transfer fees that other nations do, but more and more coaches are willing to give Americans a chance and more and more Americans are seizing the opportunity.