116street Soccer

Footballing from a lesser authority...

Location: New York, New York

Saturday, February 23, 2008

United's To Lose?

Let's seriously hope that Eduardo da Silva plays again. It is always disheartening to see a promising career threatened by the actions of a clumsy hack who tries to combat a skilled opponent by taking liberties with the limits of fouling strategy. In the meantime, Martin Taylor may have just gifted Manchester United the Premiership title. Arsenal was already down to three strikers before the Eduardo horror show, and will now have to adjust its tactics considerably, at least until Robin van Persie returns from injury. Emmanuel Adebayor and Nicklas Bendtner aren't exactly complementary strikers, which means that we might actually see Theo Walcott getting time up front (something Arsene Wenger has been trying to delay for most of the season). United overwhelmed Newcastle today, and if they can keep up that sort of form (they haven't been consistent for a solid month, so that's a pretty big if) they should be able to overtake an increasingly makeshift Arsenal team.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Isn't Jonah Freedman A Man U Fan?

Then he should know that United lost just a week and a half ago. From his World Soccer Rankings for this week:

By our own logic, we can't deny Sir Alex Ferguson's boys anything -- they haven't been on the wrong side of a score sheet since the New Year, unbeaten in 10 straight. Carlos Tévez made sure of that Wednesday, netting a last-gasp goal at Lyon to keep United alive in three competitions at once, even if it is slipping behind Arsenal again in league play.

Umm... United is slipping behind Arsenal in league play because they were "on the wrong side of a score sheet" just a week and a half ago! Remember? Munich Air Disaster Memorial? Throwback kits? Man City? Anyone? Bueller?

Update: SI has amended the paragraph to say "-- other than their loss to Man. City, they haven't been on the wrong side of a score sheet in the New Year, unbeaten in 10 straight." A little better, except that losing at home to your cross-city rival does not constitute a 10-game unbeaten streak. Oh well, nobody is perfect, I guess.

Matchday Madness

As much as we here on 116th Street enjoy a Barnsley upset over Liverpool, the Champions League is the undoubted source of our football happiness. The FA Cup might be useful for exciting upsets and the occasional knockout spectacular (not to mention those incredibly useful lessons in English geography), but there is nothing like seeing the masterful play and contrasting styles on display in the premier football competition in the world. The return of the knockout rounds is probably our favorite time of the soccer year (it seems no small coincidence that it usually occurs right around the time we start noticing that daytime is getting longer again), and the intrigue and magical moments fuel our hunger for the game. Is it any wonder that some terrific storylines have already emerged?

Since when did the fans and players at Inter become such sore losers? One title after 16 seasons (and no, I'm not counting that "championship" they were awarded in '06 by virtue of finishing third but not cheating; it wasn't earned), and now their fans are confronting the team at the airport for losing at Anfield? Gratitude fades quickly, I see. Speaking of fickle behavior, how about Zlatan Ibrahimovic publicly blaming Marco Materazzi for the loss? For a squad that has now lost twice all season, they certainly seem to be surrounded by acrimony. Meanwhile, Liverpool continue their astounding run of European form, causing me to wonder whether they should consider having two managers - Rafael Benitez for Champions League matches and someone else for the Premiership games? When it comes to continental football, Rafa is a certifiable genius; how come he can't seem to figure out the English game? I suppose this all just proves the old adage about football - "one day you can lose to Barnsley, the next you can beat Inter."

Which would you rather be, allergic or impotent? That was the choice presented as Arsenal squared off with Milan. Arsenal, the paradigm of zippy geometric fury (and yes, that was really fun to write), created opportunity after opportunity, only to come out shooting blanks at the end. It is to their credit that after being shellacked by Manchester United over the weekend, they attacked with spirit against the defending European champions. Nevertheless, as the legendary Ronaldo once said, "Dude, the ball is supposed to hit the net not the bar, ok?"
Of course, had the legendary Ronaldo not blown out his knee recently, Milan might not have played as if going near the Arsenal goal would result in severe rash. The AC came out in a 4-3-2-1 formation that basically led to Alexandre Pato running around fruitlessly, often chasing the ball away from the direction of Jens Lehmann. I expected the Rossoneri to eventually mount an attack in search of that all-important away goal, but maybe they really were allergic to the Arsenal onion bag (hey, stranger things have happened, after all).

How electric was the crowd at Parkhead? They nearly willed Celtic to victory against Barcelona, were it not for, well, those annoyingly brilliant Barca players. Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink and Barry Robson certainly did their part, putting the Hoops up 1-0 and 2-1, respectively. Barcelona's skill can be overwhelming, however, and did you see what Lionel Messi and Thierry Henry did to them? Scintillating...

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Quick Hits from 116th Street

Good luck to the Premiership in trying to nail down that "39th fixture": when Asian and Oceanic clubs attempt to keep you out of their stadiums (and your dirty paws out of their revenue), when that Everton-Middlesbrough fixture isn't selling so well in Toronto, and when your entire fan base is pissed off at you for selling them out, you'll wish you had simply scheduled a couple of friendlies in New York and LA featuring the Big Four (oh wait, they can already do that themselves; what do they need you for, Richard Scudamore?). Sure, Arsenal and Manchester United could sell out anywhere; but what about Derby County and Newcastle? The reason it worked for the NFL is that American football is played in very few places abroad; soccer is everywhere and is built mostly upon local allegiances. The Premiership plan seems doomed to fail.

Speaking of failure, Manchester United picking up 1 point in its last two Premiership matches has to really infuriate the Reds, seeing as how Arsenal keeps on picking up results without having played their best for a little while now. This should have been United's chance to make a move to the top, with their already-superior squad depth getting a boost by having little to no one away on African Nations duty. Instead, Arsenal keeps fielding threadbare lineups, moving players out of position and still winning. 5 points clear and with Kolo Toure and Robin Van Persie soon to return, Arsenal has to be feeling pretty confident at the moment.

I have officially had it with FIFA 08: if you catch me playing this god-forsaken game one more time, feel free to smack me upside my head. The players don't make intelligent runs, they just watch the ball go by, switching to a defender causes him to stop running, it's damn near impossible to tackle and there's this bug where I will occasionally try to make a pass and the ball goes entirely in the opposite direction. When does PES 2008 come out in the US?

Hooray, we are even closer to MLS expansion in Philly! Hooray, the USA will play England! Hooray, it looks like we've got Spain and Argentina lined up as well (hooray for potentially going 0-for-3?)! Let's keep playing as many top-20 teams as we can...

Thursday, February 07, 2008

USA-Mexico Thrills, England as Cloverfield

So I take back everything I said Monday about USA vs. Mexico, a game full of intrigue and excitement. After a day of watching some fairly dull international friendlies, it was fantastic to see some true passion and end-to-end action. While I wrote on Monday that there would be little gleaned from this February soirée, I can thankfully say that I was very much in the wrong.

Bob Bradley, for example, has clearly taken a different approach to this friendly than his predecessor. The past efforts to preserve bragging rights in the rivalry have produced a very tightly-packed, possession-conceding USA side merely content with the result on the scoreboard. Bradley, in this very same friendly a year ago (and under tremendous pressure to win as an interim coach), employed this very Arena-like tactic in a game in which the victorious US team was criticized for their conservative approach.
Last night, however, Bradley was able to utilize the tactics he has spent the better part of a year instilling into the Nats, and the result was some very wide-open, attacking play that nearly resulted in a 3 goal performance for the US. That they were able to play an attacking style and hang in there against the superior pressure of Mexico should be a sign of encouragement for US fans.

Less encouraging (particularly considering the praise I just heaped on Bob Bradley) was the play of Drew Moor and Ramiro Corrales. What was Bradley smoking to put two inexperienced fullbacks in the starting lineup against a very quick Mexico squad that likes to pressure from the wings? Neither player seemed suited for the speed of the contest, and Moor was disastrous on set pieces. Using at least one more experienced fullback (Heath Pearce comes to mind) may have helped cover for the shortcomings of the USA wide players.

It looks as if Michael Bradley and Ricardo Clark may be the Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard of the USA squad, and not in a good way. Famous for being fine players whenever not wearing the same shirt as the same side, Stevie G and Fat Frank have become notorious as poster boys for what happens when too-similar players line up right next to each other in midfield. Did anyone else notice that the U.S. midfield possession improved when Benny Feilhaber and Maurice Edu came on in the second half? Bob Bradley still has a lot of work to do in figuring out the midfield equation.

The USA is keeping up with Mexico in the development of young talent. Yes, Mexico's much-hyped young players impressed (particularly Carlos Vela), But the American under-21 players held out their end of the bargain as well (Michael Bradley's performance notwithstanding). Once again, I can't quite figure out why Feilhaber can't get some time with Derby, as he was solid coming on as a sub. Freddy Adu looked comfortable in midfield, and can we please keep Jozy Altidore? Jozy was the story of the match, maintaining possession, making runs (both with and away from the ball), and being a factor in front of goal. An American striker who can finish his chances, who would have thought? It will be very hard to keep him on the bench for the sake of his "development" any longer. The pairing of Jozy and Clint Dempsey up front should continue.

As much space as I have devoted to the US team, Mexico were still pretty clearly the better side last night. It's true that US failure to cover set pieces led to Mexico's goals, but El Tri were pretty threatening all night and had the US Men on the ropes throughout. Had Clint Dempsey's goal been allowed, the US probably would have registered a largely undeserved win, so I have to say that 2-2 is probably a fair result for such a frenetic match.

Speaking of frenetic matches, England vs. Switerland was anything but. Fabio Capello probably blew the minds of English players, fans, technical staff and media when he opted for a 4-1-2-2-1 formation (a formation that only exists in fairy tales and King Arthur stories in England, you see), and the players, fans, technical staff and media responded as you might expect had they seen the Loch Ness Monster: with fear and confusion. Wes Brown, for example, acting on instinct, saw fit to merely push the ball slightly forward to David Bentley at every opportunity. Bentley, for his part, decided that since he was wearing number 7, he should become David Beckham, tactical considerations notwithstanding. Thus, rather than getting forward, he would cross in the general direction of Ashley Cole, who looked about as lost out there as Waldo, but not quite as lost as Gareth Barry, who appeared to be learning the rules to the game at a YMCA in Chester, Pennsylvania. In Barry's defense he was playing out of position at Capello's mandate. The same cannot be said for Steven Gerrard, who, occupying the left side of central midfield in a virtual 4-3-3, seemed to think that made him a winger for the day, slaloming down the left side and getting in the way of Joe Cole, who along with Jermaine Jenas was England's best player on the day (if I ever have to say "Jermaine Jenas" and "England's best player" again in the same sentence, feel free to shoot me in the head).

It should come as no surprise then that Cole and Jenas connected on England's first goal, considering they were the only two with even the slightest idea of what they were supposed to be doing out there (Joe Cole does at least play in a similar formation at Chelsea; Jenas' performance is completely inexplicable). Immediately after, England went right back to looking like the Columbus Crew, until Capello said #*^% it and started letting his players start hoofing it all over the place with typical English zeal (Fabio, hold strong; don't become an enabler). This s what allowed erstwhile winger Gerrard get onto the end of one and find Shaun Wright Phillips for the second goal, giving England the win against a weakened Swiss side. The thing in all of this is that for England to become a serious international contender, it has to break it's long-ball addiction (Fabio, hold strong; don't become an enabler) and learn to become the kind of squad that can actually play 4-1-2-2-1 football if necessary. Expect some growing pains, English fans; not every other formation is a scary, man-eating beast.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Rocky 8

And so it is that we return for what I suppose has become our annual February dance with Mexico, a game that would be so much more interesting had they scheduled it just a few days prior. The chance to witness the first significant merging of national politics with the rise of soccer in our country would have been an amazing sight, with presidential campaigns scrambling to pander to the millions of captive Latino viewers glued to Univision for a USA-Mexico matchup ahead of Super Tuesday. Alas, it was not meant to be.

What we are left with is USA vs. Mexico 2008, a match long on emotion but short on significance, symbolic or otherwise. Yes, we always beat them on our own soil, yes, Landon Donovan should never go down there without proper security, and yes, a Mexico player will likely try something dirty before the match is done. I will watch the game, cheer on the USA, yell obscenities at whoever, and will learn absolutely nothing about the state of US Soccer. Wake me up when we start playing friendlies down there; then we might actually find out something about our team.

The question that is never answered by these Mexico friendlies is the one that asks, how good is our team anyway? We have Freddy Adu performing reasonably well at Benfica, Michael Bradley ripping $#!+ up at Heerenveen, and DaMarcus Beasley having a decent season pre-injury at Rangers. We also have a good portion of our roster battling relegation in the Premiership, or struggling for playing time elsewhere in Europe. Are US players as good as we like to think they are (or hope they will become)? We have taken some good steps in the past year or so, increasing the difficulty of our opposition and (finally) attempting to downplay the significance of our results. At this time last year, we were riding very high after beating Mexico. Needless to say, we didn't end the year on such a high note, although that's not necessarily a bad thing. A lack of complacency could take US Soccer further in the long run. This year, let's resist the urge to get too excited about this matchup, and see it for what it is: another sequel in a thinning storyline.