116street Soccer

Footballing from a lesser authority...

Location: New York, New York

Friday, June 29, 2007

USA - Argentina Observations (And A Rant)

I saw Esteban Cambiasso coming off the pitch and wondered aloud, "who is coming on?" I slumped my shoulders, let out a deep sigh and said "oh #*^%, it's Aimar." A few moments later, Pablo Aimar scored, the USA was cooked, and then they brought on Tevez. A few observations:

  • Eddie Johnson looked better in this one than he has in most recent performances, but he still appears to lack confidence going forward. Had he played this match with the "A" team, he might have had more chances. He scored a well-earned and well-taken penalty, however.
  • Marvell Wynne didn't appear rattled at all, and delivered a strong performance at right-back, although he did tire late in the match.
  • Fatigue on the back line killed the U.S., as Crespo, Aimar and Tevez had their way with a tired back four. Bradley would have done well to make a defensive substitution late in the game.
  • Jonathan Bornstein probably had his best defensive match in a USA shirt thus far, going to toe-to-toe with Leo Messi and not giving an inch.
  • Hernan Crespo is a wildly underrated striker; how has a guy this good been bounced around by so many clubs? He destroyed the USA back line all game.
  • I think it's time to close the Kasey Keller chapter of USA soccer. Kasey is obviously a national team icon, but his reaction, handling and distribution are all pretty suspect at this stage of his career. Let's see what Brad Guzan can do the rest of the way.
  • After observing last night's early game, I think the USA beats Columbia but loses to a very organized and dangerous Paraguay team. Roque Santa Cruz was a terror last night.
What is up with Americans who cheer against the USA? I'm not talking about Argentine transplants, I'm talking about the group of American dudes at the pub last night who were not only cheering on the other team, but antagonizing USA supporters. You front-running, wannabe posers, what the eff are you trying to prove by rooting against your home nation? Are you trying to impress the hot Argentine girls at the bar (as if they can't tell you're a bunch of glory-chasing dorks)? Do you think you look cool singing "You Only Win In Chicago," while everyone around you is singing in Spanish? Get the #*^% outta here. Try being a real fan who experiences real emotion for a team that carries personal pride, rather than trying to fit in with a bunch of fans who won't even speak to you because you don't speak their #*^%!#& language. Jerks.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Diminishing Returns

What happens when an established superstar joins a club with no defined role for him? When David Beckham joined a Real Madrid team that already had Luis Figo manning his position in 2003, the result was an awkward tactical squeeze made to accomodate the talents of both players, thereby diluting the very qualities that made those players effective in the first place. The same occurred when Michael Owen joined Los Galacticos late in 2004; on a team stacked up front with Raul, Ronaldo and Guti, he went from world-renowned striker to super-sub, eventually opting out to Newcastle United for the chance to play first-team football. Andriy Shevchenko and Michael Ballack, anyone?
I'm not predicting the downfall of Thierry Henry, mind you, but it should be fairly evident that at this stage he is a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. How can Frank Rijkaard fit Titi into an attack that already features Ronaldinho, Eto'o and Messi without diluting Henry's unique abilities? For all of his winger-like qualities, Henry's time at Juventus proved that he is not cut out for that position; his at-times awkward play for France suggests that he is not suited to play as a single striker; and let's not even get into the question of who will sit for Barca to accomodate their superstar signing.
Even so, the question of who will sit remains at the core of all of these big-name signings, because in the end it is the fans who lose out. As terrific a story as their transfers made, watching Shevchenko and Ballack struggle for Chelsea robbed all of us of a chance to observe their previous brilliance, particularly since their talents are so rare that there is no one to fill the void left by their departures. Beckham's resurgence has been so uniquely tied to the fact that Real Madrid, having divested itself of much of the superstar dead weight that preceded him, now had to rely on his abilities rather than simply accomodate them, that talk of him being "only good on set pieces" has dissipated. Of course, to get to this point we had to endure three years of "Galacticos" stepping on each others' toes while trying to make nice with each other.
Thus it is that from a fan's perspective, we don't really win; if Henry struggles, well, that sucks. If he's great but Eto'o has to sit the bench, where are we going to find another Eto'o? If Messi gets lost in the shuffle because there's not enough of the ball to go around, how is that any fun? What happens if they all start infighting (like Barca started to do this season)? Do we really want to see Ronaldinho, rotational striker?

Monday, June 25, 2007

(A Brief) Catharsis

It was about 5 PM yesterday, and I was standing outside, jumping up and down with a bunch of USA supporters while being videotaped for Univision, and I realized that this feeling of optimism was something I hadn't experienced since May 2006. Way back then, when I was writing "Know Your Yanks" blurbs and generally anticipating the coming surge of U.S. soccer supremacy, I could have sworn that DaMarcus Beasley was on his way to true stardom and that the USA was only one World Cup away from actual contention.
Since we all know what happened subsequently, I won't rehash, other than to point out the general cloud that has hung over all of U.S. fandom since. We didn't get Jurgen Klinsmann, we reached the limit of patience with Sunil Gulati, we endured the departure of Thierry Henry (oops, that's a different post). The thing about fandom, however, is that without hope, support is hopeless; this why Benny Feilhaber's thunderous volley that sunk Mexico (and kept the Gold Cup in its rightful place) elicited not just a cheer of celebration from USA fans, but also a feeling of cleansing.

The U.S. picked a fantastic occasion to play its best match thus far under Bob Bradley, and we were treated to the promise of a future of fast-paced, attacking football. For fans, younger players and a new ideology are usually the cure for what ails, and yet these aspects of the game can be so difficult to implement. This is why the Bradley era has been successful thus far; not necessarily due to results (we're winning an awful lot, but much of our competition has been substandard) but rather because the teaching aspect of the game has gone so well. The increasing confidence of our younger players is testament to Bradley's ability to implement a new philosophy, and while all is not perfect (Beasley continues to play inconsistently, we haven't seen the best of Clint Dempsey, and let's not even talk about the finishing), it feels terrific to have our hope in the National Team restored. Let's go into the Copa America not focusing on the negatives, but rather with the mindset that this young (young, young, young) American team has nothing to lose - and let's bring on Lee Nguyen!

Monday, June 18, 2007

Ballad of the Forgotten Star

Years from now (such as 2008), when observers and historians look back upon the footballing saga of 2007, categorized by Ronaldo brilliance, Ronaldo obesity, Kaka reality and life post-Zidane, the story that will stand above all others will be that of David Beckham, disgraced ex-England captain. Blamed for World Cup failure, stripped of his captaincy, benched at Real Madrid in favor of Jose Antonio Reyes (!), exiled to Major League Soccer (!!), recalled to the Real Madrid lineup due to an injury to Jose Antonio Reyes, suddenly hailed as an indispensable leader, begged not to leave for Major League Soccer, crowned La Liga champion and destined to headline Major League Soccer. For Becks, such an epic finale to his European career could not have been more fitting, but that's all I'm going to say about him until he puts on a Galaxy shirt (incidentally, although we almost never discuss him here, we here on 116th Street are fascinated by Beckham; count us among those who can't wait for him to get here).
For a story with similar origins, yet much more somber in nature, one must look to Real Madrid's claret-and-blue Catalan rivals, FC Barcelona. It is here that we find a player with talent to electrify, but no one to appreciate his ability. Javier Saviola, he of the twelve goals in sixteen appearances this season, has found himself a pariah at Barca since Frank Rijkaard took over the squad in 2004. His goal-scoring record has never faltered, and his displays were enough to convince Jose Pekerman to make him a first-choice striker for Argentina during the 2006 World Cup, and yet Barcelona has never wanted him. While it is easy to justify Saviola's place behind Samuel Eto'o on the Barca pecking order, the disdain the Blaugrana have shown him has been downright disgraceful. To send a player of Saviola's renown and skills on loan (without even requesting a transfer fee!) should never happen, yet Barcelona did this twice, in 2004 to Monaco and in 2005 to Sevilla (yet, somehow, Santi Ezquerro got to stay at the Nou Camp). It wasn't until he led Sevilla to the UEFA Cup in'06 that FCB brought him back, and this was only after they couldn't agree a transfer for him (Saviola wanted to prove himself at the club; they didn't even assign him a squad number until right before the season began).
Even so, when Eto'o went down with an injury earlier this season, it was Saviola who rescued Barca's season, scoring 8 goals in 6 consecutive games. Unlike Beckham, who was hailed as a savior, Saviola was promptly benched upon Eto'o's return and did not even dress for Barcelona's final home match against Espanyol. Now that the season is over, Saviola plans to leave the club in the wake of a contract offer that seemed "more of an invitation to leave the club than anything else." He has been linked to a move to Real Madrid, of all places, although I'm sure there are many clubs willing to offer El Conejo better treatment than he has received thus far from FCB. Let's hope that he, much like his former rival in the capital, can make a triumphant return to the footballing stage.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Round One Review

With the first round over, it is nice to see the U.S. Men are beginning to round into form. Watching last night's match on Telefutura, it was difficult to immediately see which formation the USA was using, but my guess of a 4-3-3 with Dempsey up top proved correct, and I was glad to see that Bob Bradley remains willing to experiment and use players outside of their "traditional" roles within the squad. What I was not happy to see was the continued shaky play of Michael Bradley, who at this point has done nothing to convince me that he deserves a spot ahead of Ricardo Clark in the National Team's plans.
Benny Feilhaber, meanwhile, continues to be a revelation in the center of midfield for the Stars and Stripes, full of versatility and skill, while Jonathan Spector seems to be making strides in terms of becoming more comfortable in a USA shirt. Oguchi Onyewu, meanwhile, continues to appear out of synch for the most part, although I'm not yet part of the "bench Gooch" movement that has seemed to pick up steam since the end of the World Cup.
My main observation about this iteration of the U.S. team is that it is evident that this squad has simply not had enough face time with each other as of yet. Without the continuity and experience provided by Brian McBride, Claudio Reyna, Eddie Pope and Steve Cherundolo, along with the depth that players like Cory Gibbs, Jimmy Conrad and even Josh Wolff have given the side, it should come as no surprise that the team has looked out of synch, even (especially?) against sub-par competition. New faces such as Bradley, Feilhaber, Clark, Jonathan Bornstein, Jay DeMerit, Frank Simek, Justin Mapp and Michael Parkhurst not only have to show that they fit the framework of the (still uncertain) USA plan, but they also have to impress technically. Is it any wonder they are out of synch? In retrospect, it is good that they played their toughest, most physically demanding match thus far in the first game; now they can focus on playing faster and in tighter spaces, while having experience in the pace and physicality of the tournament. I fully expect this U.S. team to win the Gold Cup, and hopefully, by the end, to have enough of a foundation to make a decent showing in Copa America.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Transfer Check-In (Part I)

You know, for the life of me, I cannot even begin to understand the legality of transfer dealings. On the one hand, you have Peter Kenyon writing to FIFA (isn't this more of a UEFA matter to begin with?) about Real Madrid contacting Arjen Robben, creating something akin to an international incident over a practice seemingly perfected by Chelsea to begin with. On the other hand, Miroslav Klose just "decides" he wants to join Bayern Munich, even though he is still under contract with Werder Bremen, and it's a-okay? Where's Bremen's demand of an investigation? I know this is supposed to be footballing from a lesser authority and all, but I just don't get it. Aren't there better ways to posture for higher value than writing to FIFA? Isn't there something fishy about this Klose business?
Getting back to Bayern, it appears as though they are serious about getting back into the Champions League at the end of next season. With Luca Toni, Franck Ribery and now Klose already on board along with reinforcements Jan Schlaudraff, Marcell Jansen, Hamit Altintop and Jose Ernesto Sosa, it looks like a makeover of FC Hollywood is in the works. Owen Hargreaves and Claudio Pizarro have already been shown the door, which means that Roy Makaay, Oliver Kahn and other Bayern veterans are likely in close contact with their agents at the moment.
Big signings, or course, do not guarantee success, and now it appears that Arsenal's summer 06 approach of signing heralded youngsters has been copied by Manchester United. How much Anderson and Nani contribute in the upcoming season remains to be seen; Arsene Wenger's teenaged red-and-white army is far from ready, after all. But give Man U props (or patiently await their downfall; either will do for now), for they have managed to spend the kind of money nobody thought they actually had, and it is still early in the transfer season.
Speaking of giving props, Chelsea, tantrums aside, has done well to bolster thier squad depth. They may not have achieved their goal of Champions League success this year, but look for them to come back stronger next season. Getting Pizarro and Alex on the cheap gives them bench options they lacked this past season, and having a healthy Joe Cole won't hurt either. The key to a successful off-season for Chelsea now is holding on to Robben. They can't win the league without him.
Everything else at this stage bores me; the Thierry Henry melodrama, Liverpool expecting to sign even more players to rotate every single week, Real Madrid and AC Milan stirring the passions of their fan bases: wake me up when something happens. In the meantime, I will be watching the Gold Cup, cheering on my beloved Yanks in the hope that, at least at the end, we might end up playing a halfway decent team (Mexico, please do your part, please, please, please). Copa America, kids; it's just around the corner!

Monday, June 04, 2007

4-3-3 Fever

The 4-3-3, that beautiful, reflexive, attacking innovation of the Dutch, was finally embraced by a U.S. team that has been suited to it for quite some time on Saturday. It wasn't quite a flawless execution of the system by the Stars and Stripes, but it was a pretty fair attempt against an obviously weak opponent, and that is a good thing. Bob Bradley seems fairly dedicated at this point to introducing new variations to a once-predictable U.S. attack, and it was great to see our Nats playing imaginative, creative soccer without having to rely on a single playmaker (who might that be, I wonder?).
Bradley, pulling together a squad that still lacks a dynamic threat in front of goal but in possession of a plethora of wingers and central mids, is obviously pursuing every option available going into the Gold Cup (and by extension, the Copa America), and this 4-3-3 he had going against China seems to have created a little spark in the side. DaMarcus Beasley, in particular, seemed more at home in a USA shirt Saturday than at any time before 2006; empowered to go far forward at will, he was able to overcome an inconsistent performance with some truly dangerous runs. His goal was deserved. Clint Dempsey, seemingly unsure of where to go early in the match, similarly found his stride in the formation as the game wore on, and I am certain he would thrive as a wing forward in this formation.
Despite the solid contribution of his wingers, the most interesting part of Bradley's 4-3-3 was the midfield. The U.S. midfield, faced with the loss of Claudio Reyna, the inconsistency of Pablo Mastroeni and the lack of a dominant playmaker (count me in the camp that thinks Landon Donovan should be a forward for the Nats), is certain to undergo a makeover in the current cycle; thing is, much of the young U.S. midfield exists as neither clear-cut defensive or attacking, creating a logjam in more traditional 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 formations, but ideally suited for a three-man midfield. The poise and comfort displayed on the ball by Kljestan and Feilhaber was revelatory, and while Michael Bradley was unspectacular, he was also effective. It will be interesting to see what formation Bob Bradley goes with when Donovan, Ricardo Clark and Pablo Mastroeni come back into the mix.
The change to the 4-3-3 against China, naturally, does not mean a sudden shift in the playing style of the U.S. Men. In fact, I'm sure they'll be 4-4-2-ing it again in no time (although I hope we never have to see the 4-5-1 for as long as I live). It does represent a tactical shift in the American philosophy, however; it seems clear that Bob Bradley wants the team to play faster, attack more and become more confident in tight spaces. The team seemed unsure of just how to play in this formation, but was also willing to allow its instincts to take over, and it served them well on Saturday. It was refreshing to see an attacking, less rigid approach, and I hope to see much more of it in the future.