116street Soccer

Footballing from a lesser authority...

Location: New York, New York

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Look At All These Rumors

When Freddy Adu set out on his two-week trek to Manchester to find out how good he actually is, many observers figured the training/trial/whatever to be a mere publicity stunt, yet the word out of Old Trafford so far has been nil. A few Freddy photos made the rounds last week, but no one has heard anything from Adu, Sir Alex Ferguson, Malcolm Glazer or ManYoo's third ballboy. Even the messageboards have been devoid of info, and yet, emerging from the abyss, comes this completely uncredited article from Soccer365, dubiously explaining exactly what is happening behind those closed doors:

Teenage sensation Freddy Adu will turn his back on Manchester United at the end of this week despite an impressive trial at the world’s biggest club.

The Ghanaian born winger has surprised a skeptical team, with his skill while training with The Red Devils youth academy, but he has insisted that he wants to play for Real Madrid citing a belief that the EPL is too physical for him.

The rumor mill is flying fast and furious, with so many changes occurring within the U.S. soccer scene that it is almost impossible to keep up with all the speculation. When Red Issue, the Manchester United fan magazine, reported that Malcolm Glazer would buy the LA Galaxy, rename the team (ManUSA? ha!) and make David Beckham the centerpiece of this ill-fated business plan, the story was picked up by The Mirror. Sports Illustrated subsequently picked the story up and headlined it in their "Truth and Rumors" section. MLS fans, generally inclined to disbelieve such a report, started paying attention this time, having learned from last year's Red Bull wildfire that such rumors are not to be discounted.
The question, with so much innuendo flying around, is how does one go about separating legitimate speculation and insider info from mere wheel-spinning? When La Opinion reported that Luis Figo, David Beckham, Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane and Hernan Crespo (of all people) were all confirmed to join MLS next season in deals totaling $100 million, most MLS fans scoffed at such a preposterous rumor, but when the very same paper reported that Jose Pekerman would be taking over the U.S. national team, more than a few USA supporters took this new report a little more seriously.
The funny thing is that the rumor mill is not confined merely to fanzines or alternative-language publications. Just yesterday, Paul Gardner at Soccer America wrote that one of the Red Bulls' allocations "presumably will be Figo," which is great news for Red Bull fans who didn't read Soccernet's Ives Galarcep in his Monday blog entry. According to Ives, "(Bruce) Arena has plans and the Portuguese winger apparently doesn't fit into them." Even the insiders are getting conflicting reports these days.
What then to do with all of this inside info? If you love football gossip like we do, you get a conversation piece and a laugh, and try not to take it too seriously (who am I kidding; I took that Pekerman rumor to heart!). Besides, if you ignore the rumor mill, how can you get to enjoy a good one, like this one?

Andriy Shevchenko could be sent out on loan to former club AC Milan in the January transfer window...

...they claim he would only be allowed to return to Italy on a six-month loan deal for 'personal problems', as Shevchenko's wife is struggling to settle.

...reports on Tuesday claimed the Premiership champions were lining up a bid for Valencia's David Villa.

Ah yes, Sheva's wife; the twinkle in his eye, the bane of his existence?

He Should Have Won the Damn Thing In '04, Anyway...

Thierry Henry is not even a finalist for this year's FIFA World Player of the Year. Considering that he was probably the best player in the world last year (if not, he was one of two, and the other was neither Fabio Cannavaro or Zinedine Zidane), I am now declaring all year-end awards officially bogus. That is all.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

On Second Thought...

So I was all set to do the Lee Bowyer post today, but after Googling him awhile to get sources, I realized that he has been involved in so much disgusting behavior that I can't even joke about him with a clean conscience (although I still think the McDonald's story is pretty funny in a very perverse way). Even so, his on-field bust up with then-Newcastle-teammate Kieron Dyer is the stuff of legend, so if you haven't seen it, do yourself a favor and check it out:

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Ballad of Andriy Shevchenko

While we here on 116th Street were busy this weekend watching Arsenal officially declare their intentions for fourth place, we completely missed this gem of a goal (although, in our defense, it's a bit hard to concentrate on multiple screens while trying to keep your prized possessions from being potentially thieved by David Hirshey):

Even so, most likely because we enjoy both the Premiership and beer a little bit more than is socially acceptable, we made our way right back to Kinsale Tavern on Sunday to check out the main event, which turned out to be as highly entertaining as we had hoped, but as ultimately dissatisfying as we had expected. United owned a first half in which Chelsea seemed disinterested and tactically inept, but I'm pretty sure everyone expected them to play for a draw anyway, so their lack of width and willingness to weather United's attacking storm came as no surprise.
When Arjen Robben came on in the second half, however, the Blues' response was swift and dangerous, albeit not exactly lethal. Their lack of polish in the final third has caused me to wonder what they can do to get Andriy Shevchenko more involved in attack. Mike Cardillo gave the opinion that Sheva simply isn't suited to the Premiership, but I have observed a striker that, while out of synch with the squad, hasn't been given anywhere near the level of service needed to perform at his highest level. As the game wore on, Shevchenko pushed wider and wider left, and further and further into the midfield; these are the signs of a striker desperate for a touch. After the Robben substitution, Chelsea's newfound width seemed to give Sheva a bit of relief, as he moved back toward the center and even made one or two decent runs, but by then it had become a case of too little, too late.
Because Chelsea knocked long and hard on United's door, and Ricardo Carvalho managed an equalizer, they will stay within striking distance of the title, but the system of playing Shevchenko, Lampard and Ballack at the same time is leaving everyone (with the exception of Lampard) out in the cold. As far as attacking midfielders go, providing service is far from Lampard's strong point, which is one reason why you see that perpetual look of discouragement of Sheva's face. Ballack, for all of his money, looks so lost out there that smoke signals might become a part of his future. And yes, I know that having tons of Chelsea money and being married to an American model is not exactly grounds for sympathy, but can't we do something to cheer Sheva up? How about getting him some quality time out there with Joe Cole for a start?

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

What of the Prem?

Liam must be distraught. Liam is my current favorite bartender of the moment, occasional drinking buddy and full time Manchester United fan, and the prospect of facing Champions League elimination against Benfica, for the second year in a row, must be making him sick. On more than one occasion I have listened to him drown his Red Devil sorrows in a pint of Stella, bemoaning ManYoo's schizophrenia with his thick Irish accent. "Why can't Rooney score in Europe?" he says. "We need another striker," he moans. I remind him that they're top of the table, but he says, "this is the worst Manchester United team that would even win the Premier League."
I've got to say, he has a point: if this Manchester United team wins the league, they would be miles behind previous Man U teams, in terms of talent, depth and cohesion. Let's take a look at the on-field results, first: not that anyone really cares about the Carling Cup, but losing to Southend? Now that they've sputtered in the group stage of the Champions League again, they face another do or die (this time at home) against Benfica. In years past, they would have been overwhelming favorites; this year, few would be surprised if they crash out once again.
Even so, they still find themselves at the top of the league, even without their once-legendary midfield and famous squad depth. This leads to a very honest question: has the quality of the Premiership declined in recent years? There is probably no way to actually quantify whether or not the talent level of English soccer is any better or worse than in years past, but it does seem that way. The wizardry of Zola, grace of Bergkamp, explosiveness of Owen, and excellence of Giggs, Scholes, Keane and Beckham seems to be in shorter supply. The league has stars, to be sure, but something seems to be missing this season. Out of the top four teams (Man U, Chelsea, Portsmouth, Arsenal), has any truly displayed the kind of form befitting a champion?
It is entirely possible that I'm overreaching here, I don't deny it. It is still early in the season, many teams are still shaking off a post-World Cup hangover, and the meat of the schedule (Champions League knockout, F.A. Cup, etc.) has yet to kick in. Perhaps I'm getting carried away with nostalgia. Maybe I'm sour over the fact that I picked Liverpool to win the league, and, well, the less said about that the better. But maybe the league's quality really is declining. Either way, I'm still going to try to assemble my soccer-novice friends to watch the Man U-Chelsea game on Sunday, so it can't be that bad...

Friday, November 17, 2006

The 116th Street Beckham Rule Wishlist

Quick show of hands: who ever heard of XanGo before yesterday? On the strength of that alone, their four year, $4-5 million shirt sponsorship deal with Real Salt Lake has already started paying dividends. So let's all take a moment to celebrate the league's first shirt sponsor with a nice big gulp of "the Power of Xanthones from the Whole Mangosteen Fruit" (apparently, one sip of XanGo, and you get your very own Battle Cat).
But XanGo, shirt sponsorships and the Masters of the Universe are not what I am here to talk about today; we here on 116th Street are way too busy doing a happy-dance over the passage of the Beckham Rule to even begin to try to figure out what Xanthones are. Why are we so happy, you ask? Doesn't the passage of the Designated Player rule divert funds from the further development of young American players? Yeah, it probably does, but if I had billions of dollars to spend on soccer, I'd try to spend it on both (why not?). This is why I'm not bent out of shape over the rule; the NASL isn't coming back, and to me this is a sign of the league's actual health.
But I'm also not here to give speeches: I have demands. There are ten players I want to see in this league, and I will do everything in my power to make sure they arrive (and by "everything," I mean, "write a single blog post"). So with all fanfare removed, I present the 2006 116th Street Beckham Rule Wishlist:

10. Lee Bowyer.
If there is one thing this league is sorely missing, it is a nutjob crazy enough to brawl with his own teammates on the pitch, or even throw a drunken tirade, late night, at McDonald's. Add a guy like Lee Bowyer, however, and just sit back and watch the amusing social deviance run its course! We need you, Lee, we need you (and yes, there will, unequivocally, be a "Gangstas of Football" post on Lee Bowyer in the near future).

9. David Beckham.
He would bring instant (albeit short-term) marketability, credibility, sex-appeal and professionalism to the league. He would be the league's first crossover superstar, his face would be on magazines throughout the country, and, if he gets knighted, we'd all have to call him "Sir David." He can still pass it with the best of them, and would destroy MLS opponents in dead-ball situations. On the downside, Galaxy fans, be prepared for an endless siege of ill-advised long balls.

8. Ronaldo.
I know, I know, he's gained weight/out of shape/fat/lost a step/doesn't take the game seriously enough/spends too much time trying to date models/another Lothar Matthaeus situation in the making, but guess what? He is still a very effective striker, who still scores a ton of goals, and he would be quite an addition to any team in this league. Furthermore, unlike Matthaeus, he is well-known (even here) and charismatic, a true icon of the game. If he ends up becoming the toast of New York, don't be surprised.

7. Manuel Rui Costa.
One of the most underrated magicians of recent times, he unselfishly gave way to Kaka at AC Milan when he still had plenty of game left in him. Most Americans might have never heard of him, but he would dazzle MLS crowds with his skills. As an added bonus, he probably wouldn't cost as much as some of his more well-known European brethren. Who doesn't want to see Rui Costa?

6. Robinho.
Just wanted to make sure you were all still paying attention.

5. Dennis Bergkamp.
In all honesty, we're just curious to see how he'd get here, and what he'd do when it's time to take that cross-country to Salt Lake City.

4. Oliver Kahn.
That's right, America, we know what you want. Just admit it, you are tantalized at the possibility of seeing a goalkeeper who looks like he should have been a Roger Moore-era Bond henchman, on a weekly basis.

3. Alessandro Del Piero.
A lion's mane, a goalscorer's touch, exquisite ball control, and expert free-kick taker; how could he not be a hit over here? Plus, he bears a strong resemblance to our favorite Entourage character of all time, Billy Walsh.

2. Luis Figo.
Who is cooler than Figo? He's got that special dribbling style, where he's just flashy enough for you to notice, yet not too flashy; he'll be setting up goals at age 50; everybody seems to like him; he's always dressed for the occasion; have we mentioned dude's wife? We could picture him suited up for the Fire, being the damn man about town in Chicago. Figo is so good, he would well be our favorite player, if only it weren't for...

1. Zinedine Zidane.
I know he isn't coming, you know he isn't coming, we all know he isn't coming; but let's all just take a moment and dare to dream, shall we? Visions of turns, perfect passes, otherworldly dribbling and the mostly impossible dance in our head...

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

John Terry, Still An OK Guy

* Thanks to reader Matt for bringing this to my attention.

Most of the rumors regarding the Premiership's phantom racial incident have centered around John Terry's second yellow card on November 5th against Spurs, but Donna Cullen, Tottenham Hotspur Director of Communications, had this to say in response:

'Dear xxxx, I am happy to, unequivocally, tell you that there was absolutely nothing said on the pitch of a racist nature. We certainly would not cover up any racist incident. It was a nasty, unsupported rumour which started doing the rounds in the press, who themselves now admit it was wrong information. Having spoken to at least two of the players involved I am quite clear that this is total nonsense and I should be grateful if you could pass this on to whoever is still minded to believe there is any truth in it. Best regards, Donna'

So there, you have it: John Terry, staunch defender, emergency goalkeeper, not a racist, and still an OK guy (at least if you're not a Chelsea hater).

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Stand Up, Speak Up

Did an England player racially abuse another England player during a Premiership match? According to The Voice, (via Caught Offside), the incident occurred sometime in early November, "just days after Kick It Out, football's anti-racist campaign, concluded their annual period of action during Black History Month."
The Voice story, which was also picked up by a few other British media outlets, alleges that the culprit is such a "high-profile England international" that they expect further details of the incident to be "brushed under the carpet." According to the piece, "details of the said incident are widely known amongst the country’s most in tune media houses," but no one is willing to speak up. The Voice itself would not reveal any further details of the incident, "for legal reasons."
So now we have arrived at the moment in which we here on 116th Street feel obligated to call "BS" on everyone involved. The Voice deserves credit for breaking the story, if true, but I find it hard to believe that they cannot legally reveal a name in the incident. Caught Offside used their powers of deduction to offer an educated guess as to the incident in question, why couldn't a (supposedly) legitimate news source do the same?
As for the players, officials and media members who may be attempting to cover this incident up, shame on all of you. How are we supposed to rid the game of the ugliness that seems to often pervade it without the cooperation of its gatekeepers? What a mixed message; racism is absolutely intolerable until one of England's favorite players is accused, then we pretend like it doesn't exist. Give me a break. I sincerely hope one of England's non-white internationals finally comes forward and names the culprit (again, if the incident really did occur). In order to better the game, it's time we started holding everyone accountable, including those who say nothing.

Monday, November 13, 2006

State of the League

How will we know when MLS has arrived? Perhaps one indicator would be when the news on the field actually manages to trump what happens away from the pitch. Houston became the first orange-clad MLS champion (actually, off the top of my head, I can't really think of the last time an American team won a championship wearing orange, so good for them), but the bigger story of the weekend has been the avalanche of initiatives, rumors, deals and general innuendo coming from Don Garber & co. Here on 116th Street, we couldn't let the weekend go by without some kind of analysis, so here goes.
As usual, Grant Wahl has all the good stuff, giving us the lowdown on the Designated Player Rule. We've all been hearing about the "Beckham Exemption" for quite a while, but the logistics of signing players to unlimited salary have been hazy until now. We now know that every team will receive one Designated Player allocation, the salary of which will be paid individually by the team's owner. Knowing that some owners have been pushing hard to sign more star attractions while others are wary of overspending, it will be interesting to see how this impacts the league; for the first time, we are seeing a departure from the single-entity mentality. Are we entering a phase in which MLS owners begin to decide to go it alone?
Getting back to the details, the allocation will count $400,000 against the cap, and can be traded. No team can have more than two Designated Players at a time, and the second allocation will count $325,000 against the cap. How this will affect the league economically remains to be seen, but I, for one, am very excited. I know there are many who would rather that money go to developing American players, but eff that, I want to see Luis Figo. Interestingly, according to the league, players already receiving above-cap salaries (money paid collectively by the league's owners) will be grandfathered in after a year as Designated Players. Can't wait to see which owner wants to pay Eddie Johnson out of pocket.
The league will be keeping the conference format for the foreseeable future (I've already argued that this is a good idea), and I have to say that I like the new schedule format quite a bit. Each team will play each other twice (24 games) plus six additional intra-conference games, bringing the season total to 30. With Toronto FC joining the Eastern Conference next year, each Western team will play one extra intra-conference game (the East will have 7 teams, versus 6 for the West), with preference given to rivalries.
While some would argue for more regular season games instead of two fewer, I have to say that this is a win-win. Having fewer regular season games puts more importance on each matchup; furthermore, the additional intra-conference games should add a little spice to the season, creating stronger rivalries. MLS, of course, would not be MLS without missing a key opportunity every year, however; these intra-conference games should have severe playoff implications, yet they will not, because the league has implemented an even more idiotic playoff format than they previously had.
How did this happen? How did they manage to make the regular season even more irrelevant than it already was? We still have eight playoff teams, and conference hierarchy has been virtually abolished. The top two teams in each conference get ranked (good idea), but the reamining four playoff spots are up for grabs, regardless of conference (bad idea). So after playing six extra intra-conference games for playoff spots, the playoffs won't even be conference-based? Beyond that, they still kept the eight-team format, even though everybody wants to get rid of it? Even six teams, with the top two teams getting a first-round bye, is a better idea than that!
The league really piled on the news this weekend, announcing a very ambitious youth development initiative (in short, each team is required to start an "academy" system, with each team retaining the rights to development players), as well as a worldwide scouting network (not really sure how they will implement that, but time will tell). These measures, in addition to being very potentially beneficial as a long-term investment in quality of play, signify that the league is serious about its place, not just in the American sporting hierarchy, but also in the overall global soccer scheme. This is very good news.
A few other tidbits emerged from the weekend, such as each team getting a bigger share of transfer revenue (more ownership independence?), the possibility of a second New York team (I want a Philly side, dammit!), some more non-news on the partnership with the Mexican league (will they ever have anything concrete to say about it?) and Freddy Ady training with Manchester United (probably not such a bad idea for right now). Oh yeah, and the MLS champ (Houston Dynamo) gets to use a special silver ball for all of their home games next year, in a move of actual marketing brilliance (who knew the league had it in them?). Surprisingly, not much was said regarding the next year's ESPN partnership, but overall the State of the League seems pretty positive. Congrats to the Dynamo, enjoy that silver ball!

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Results Are Coming In...

This year I had the privilege to vote in the 2006 BASAs (Blogosphere American Soccer Awards), presented by the always-excellent Climbing the Ladder. Scaryice has been posting the results over the course of the past two weeks, and since today is election day, I figured there is no more fitting time than to tell you to check over there and take a look at the voting results (especially since he announced the BASA for USMNT Player of the Year today). If you have yet to check out the BASAs, I highly recommend you do so! Oh yeah, remember to vote today, seriously...

Monday, November 06, 2006

Really Needs Fixing?

This may be an unpopular opinion in some circles, but I am going to set my passive Eurosnobbery aside and say it outright: I like the MLS playoffs, I like the two-conference format, and I think going single-table with no playoffs is a bad idea. Let's be perfectly honest here; if D.C. United had lifted the trophy weeks ago, would there be any incentive to follow the league from that moment forward?
I am perfectly aware that the current format makes the regular season less relevant than Studio 60, and I have taken into account the fact that promotion/relegation would spice things up a little, but we need to seriously evaluate the landscape faced by MLS. European, single-table leagues are augmented by the alternate, season-long pursuit of the Champions League, as well as domestic cup competition, the equivalents of which are executed sloppily here in the States.
Let's take a look, for instance, at the Concacaf Champions Cup, a tournament for which public awareness and interest is at a minimum in this country, and is at times seen as a nuisance by its own participants. For public interest in this tournament to exceed that of MLS Cup (in a similar manner to that of the UEFA Champions League), some serious structural work would need to be performed (starting over, perhaps?), work that might exceed the grasp of the league and its partners.
The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup has a higher profile, but currently lacks the marketing and television partnerships required to make it a serious competitor to MLS Cup as a domestic championship. Teams do take it seriously, and public interest is decent, but for an MLS single-table to actually work, the Open Cup Final would have to have national television coverage and take place after the season (the former would be very hard to pull off at this point, while the latter could be viable).
As for promotion/relegation, MLS' single-entity structure and stadium initiatives, as well as shared ownership of some teams, puts it a very long way off, and I for one, think that is a very good thing. Honestly, if there is anything worse than watching bad MLS teams, it's watching teams that are worse than bad MLS teams, and there are not enough quality players in this country to go around at the moment. I love promotion and relegation as much as the next guy, but this league is not ready for it, nor will it be for quite a while.
This, of course, brings us back to the MLS format, which really isn't so bad, all things being equal. The playoffs brought us the Dario Sala incident, a renewed rivalry between New York and D.C., the Arena-Wynalda broadcast pairing, and a very fun final matchup between Houston and New England. Fan interest remains high, the rivalries are intensifying and the league's profile continues to progress. What's so wrong about that? Maybe it isn't formatted exactly like the Premiership, but it's been enjoyable all the same. As for the regular season, my remedy would be to cut the number of playoff teams from eight to four. Have a two-leg conference final, followed by one final match, and the stakes are upped for everyone. Honestly, if you think having fewer playoff teams would decrease interest for fans of teams out of the playoff race, what do you think single-table would do? Only truly deserving teams would make the playoffs, and the playoff push would provide great entertainment. Let's not be in such a rush to emulate everything European.

Friday, November 03, 2006

A Truer Champions League?

We here on 116th Street will now be paying special attention to the UEFA elections, apparently being held on January 26th, mainly because they stand to decide the future of the Champions League. At issue (and this really does seem to be the only issue, for some reason) is the number of slots granted to clubs from the big three nations. Incumbent president Lennart Johansson has vowed to keep the four slots from England, Spain and Italy, whereas legend and challenger Michel Platini would prefer to see that number reduced to three each.
I have to admit to being of a mixed opinion in this case; does any nation really deserve to place four teams into the Champions League? I would say probably not, as finishing fourth wouldn't get you any kind of medal in any kind of competition, thus diluting the meaning of the term "Champions League." Furthermore, out of the fourth-place finishers from last season's big three (Arsenal, Osasuna, Chievo), only Arsenal draws a significant following outside its home country. Would it really be such a bad thing to see those three slots go to actual domestic champions, or runners-up?
Actually, this does present a problem, of sorts. Who should these slots be given to? Simply taking away the three slots (without re-assigning spots to UEFA's lower leagues) would then equate the Premiership, La Liga and Serie A as being at the same level as Ligue 1, the Bundesliga and the Portuguese Liga. Is that such a bad idea? Perhaps not, but I would advocate taking away one slot to each league, regardless of coefficient. That would, of course, alter the entire format of the Champions League, but would make it more of a meritocracy (of course, the prospect of seeing Debrecen instead of Arsenal makes for a very strong counter-argument).
Are you still with me? Anyway, I personally like the idea of the Champions League existing slightly truer to its name. Furthermore, any UEFA president willing to step to the line against the G-14 on this earns my respect (and is probably doomed, as well). If I had a vote, it would be for Platini and his less bloated version of the Champions League. At the same time, I thoroughly enjoyed Liverpool's triumph two years ago, so maybe I'm flopping on this one.