|Manchester United, Ho!|
The modern day English Premier League we've all come to waste a significant portion of our Saturdays and Mondays ... and sometimes a lot of other days, has been built more than anything else on characters and controversy.
It probably has to be that way considering each year the level of play in the league seems to slip into some sort of soccer slime. That's why inane, pedantic issues like "handshakes" or a "team in crisis" seem to be the topic du jour seemingly every weekend.
Last night I made sure to email myself before I fell asleep something with this in the subject line, "EPL 2013: Embrace the Shittiness."
In that regard, love him or loathe him the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson is going to leave a massive gap in the Premier League landscape as we've come to know it.
Sports, especially soccer, need readily identifiable heroes and villains.
What are we going to do otherwise, stare at heat maps?
People hate Manchester United with a visceral passion for a lot of reasons, the fact the clubs wins so much being No. 1. The sight of a grumpy, gum-chewing Furgeson stewing on the sidelines only added to this hatred, along with the latter-day deification the Scot earned -- especially from a overly-fawning American soccer media.
For a dyed in the wool United-hater, was there a worse sight than Ferguson's wry smile as he walked toward the opposing manager to extend his hand? Or that self-satisfied, glance he'd give a player after he'd come off the field following a strong performance.
God dammnit, not again, theeeeeeeeeeeey always win. This damn sport!
Painting Ferguson as a pure mustache-twirling, cat-petting villain, as many have over time, is unfair.
You don't have to love him, but there has to be a place of baseline respect for him.
Ferguson's accomplishments speak for himself on his Wikipedia page. There's no need to list them all.
What stands out the most is, naturally, the famous treble in 1999. Equally impressive is Ferguson guided Manchester United to the Premier League title 13 times, only once did he not defend the title the following season, including two different three-year runs.
Say what you will about Manchester United's spending power and advantage over other clubs -- who else aside from Chelsea in the pre-Sheikh days at Manchester City could have assembled a lineup with Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez -- Ferguson still got that team to win, including a Champions League title. How often have we seem pricey teams with lots of stars, flop?
And as easy as it is to crack jokes about "Fergie Time," or throwing a shoe at David Beckham and whatnot, again it's unfair to diminish the will, the drive to win United teams have had over these last two decades. Forgot whatever outside forces may or may not have been in play via conspiracy theories, there was that certain ethos inside the United dressing room that often refused to lose. The smash-and-grab popularized by Ferguson might not have been pretty, but most times it turned into three vital points.
There are going to be a enough flowing, flowery tributes to Ferguson out there on the Internet today. It's probably required if you're a soccer site.
All that's for certain no matter where on the Sir Alex love/hate spectrum you stand, games going forward won't be the same without him. Who knows, maybe we'll even miss the handshake snub stories.
Buckle up, this is going to be a weird one. With any luck a good one, too, but a weird one nonetheless.
In the last couple weeks you've probably seen me on my Twitter account linking to stories on TheBigLead.com. It probably caused some confusion, or more likely your eyes glazed over.
Guess it's time to come out and officially say I'll be writing for Big Lead Sports on a full-time basis going forward.
That's right: you're getting more of my classic arrays of goofy links, dated pop culture references, butchered syntax and typos, typos and more typos.
Basically it'll be the classic, well-honed journalism you've come to expect from me, but on a national platform.
(Contain your excitement.)
It's crazy to think about. Right around this time last year I was about to give up on the blogging game permanently. My heart wasn't in it anymore. Hell, my heart wasn't anywhere except dead in the gutter somewhere. Let's not talk about it, suffice to say your favorite little blogger wasn't in a happy place.
Oddly enough, as my personal life hit the shitter, my professional life never was any better.
Another admission: for as long as I've maintained this ancient, prehistoric, decidedly non-web 2.0 site I've been a working newspaper reporter. It's not something I've talked about in this space. I've worked hard to keep my TOP blogging separate from my work at the Connecticut Post. Kind of a church and state thing. Two sides of a the same coin. (Anyone with a working Google could have figured this out for themselves. I didn't keep it a guarded Bruce Wayne-level secret.)
Today, after nine years working at the Post as a staff writer -- mainly covering high school sports -- packing up my sandwich in a brown paper bag each night and grinding away, I notified my editors I was leaving to take this outstanding opportunity at Big Lead Sports.
People who prattle on about the "craft" of journalism usually make my stomach turn -- take that shit to someone else, mang. Still, over the last year or so something kicked in during my work at the Post. I found myself, gasp, enjoying the job especially during high school basketball season. That's what I'm going to miss the most, being inside a hot, cramped, sweaty gym in the middle of a cold February night with the bleachers packed trying to capture that emotion inside of 15-inches of type. (Ok, I'm wordy in print as well.)
For years we've all read about the demise of newspapers, but there's still a place -- an important place -- for local, community journalism. In the big picture the outside world doesn't care very much when the Bunnell boys basketball team wins the SWC championship -- but it means the world to those involved. I always took it to heart that for the games I covered -- at least the playoff ones -- it mattered to somebody out there. Maybe it's an overly hokey notion but I'd like to think, be it a mom or a dad or grandparent, somebody clipped something I wrote and saved it to remind them of that time everything was good in their world. That they could read the words, remember and smile.
Don't get me wrong, I'm still a cynical piece of shit and all that, but somehow I softened.
The little things about what's mainly an entirely thankless job mattered.
I still won't miss freezing my ass off on Friday night in November covering a football game that just won't end or random people calling up the paper thinking they had free reign to yell at me or demand something of me, but I'll look back at my time as a newspaper reporter quite fondly.
On the flip side, the nature of the web is always going to be less personal and much more jaded, if a contest who can make the most biting comment on a particular post.
For those who've been reading this site, say since circa 2005 when it started getting linked by Will Leitch on Deadspin for soccer posts, I'd like to hope and think it's been a little different, a little more personal.
I've always been up front with everybody: all I am is a guy somewhere in the wilds of the Internet with a modicum of talent, a few original ideas and fair opinions who's sitting behind a computer trying to provide something to read ... if I did my job properly, think.
One of the few things in life (overly dramatic music) I value is the relationship I've built up over these years with the reader. The friendship, well, that's not quite the right word for people you've never met face-to-face, but you know what I mean. That kinship between liked-minded people on Twitter, a message board or whatever else form of social media is in vogue that day, isn't meaningless. There's plenty of smarter, more eloquent people who've written about our increased isolation in modern times and the relationships we develop online, just know it's something that exists -- and from my experience it's usually a very positive thing.
Guys who go back to the old days of the site like The Rev, aimorris, Erik K, the Ironic Steel Salesman (even as a Chelsea fan), Richard in Portland (another Blue scum), Mac Antigua, Brad Thrasher, Slade, Nate from Oh You Beauty, Jared Dunn, Dan from the Free Beer Movement, Drew Konig, anybody from the Unprofessional Foul gang and last but certainly not left 30f. have made following sports, especially soccer a lot more fun than it had been before the blog.
There's the Twitter crew out there -- simply too many to name -- that make watching a game all that much better in real time as well. Guys like Ricky and Evan out in Los Angeles, True Evertonian the Farmer Jones, the Miggie Team down in Texas, Kev Shaw, Chris Thomas, Fulham's No. 1 Baltimore fan: Tim, Jeff in Philly (always love a baseball/soccer guy like myself), and even Inspectah Patio out in Pittsburgh, a man who actually might be more cynical than me -- and perhaps even a bigger classic "Simpsons" fan, to boot!
My real-life friends, you guys don't want name checks do you? Too bad, Mike, Nick and Greg you're getting thanks here, too. Dad, you get a shout out here as well. (Thanks for driving up ad sales.)
Also need to credit all the WFAN mongos out there who put up with my soccer crap following me on Twitter.
(If I left you out, sorry you're just not that cool. Deal with it.)
These guys -- and EVERYBODY -- who's taken the time to read something I've poured a lot of time in to write, if only for my only amusement or to fight off boredom during the summer months ... there's no way to repay you guys or thank you adequately enough. I've always genuinely appreciated the time you've taken to comment on stuff I've written, because you too have put some thought and effort into it. (Plus you rarely tell me how much I suck. Or you do it nicely.)
My "success" would be impossible without the readers. You guy have pushed me and made me better and most importantly -- want to keep doing this.
Is that enough rambling and self-indulgence for one post?
Felt something like this was necessary to get everything out in the open.
So yeah, going forward you can keep up with me on Big Lead Sports. I'm already working on some good USMNT related stuff, making calls, learning how to blog on a big platform -- namely the best brand of sweat pants to wear.
In closing, let's quote from the Book of MA$E:
Now, who's hot who not
Tell me who rock who sell out in the stores
You tell me who flopped who copped the blue drop
Who jewels got robbed who's mostly
Goldie down to the tube sock,
the same ol pimp
Mase, you know ain't nuttin change but my limp
As always, thanks for reading.
|Crazy like a fox.|
"And ... Annnnd .... Annnnnd ... you put the load right on me." -- The Weight, The Band
Did either Mexico or the U.S. muster a quality attempt for 94 minutes of drab, uninspiring soccer?
Okay, that's an even too cynical by my blackhearted standards way to look at Tuesday's game for Estadio Azteca in Mexico City in CONCACAF World Cup qualification.
Realistically, if you're a fan of the stars and stripes, 0-0 has never tasted so sweet.
The lede here from this memorable result is this: when the draw for the Hex came out most expected the U.S. to walk away from the first three matches with four points. All it took was the second-ever point in World Cup qualifiers at the Azteca to make that math add up, but the 2-1 loss at Honduras last month seems a distant memory.
That's what matters.
After three of 10 Hex matches the U.S. is tied in second place on four points with Costa Rica and Honduras. In first? Yep, you guessed ... Panama! Mexico -- the big bad wolf of CONCACAF -- has only mustered three draws in its first three matches, two at home.
What in the wild and wacky world of Steve Sampson is going on here?
But yeah, let's do Hex math some other time and instead praise a job well done by a makeshift American team, that featured (gasp) two MLSers -- Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez -- as rocks of Garb-raltar in the center of the U.S. defense.
Everybody else, sans maybe Maurice Edu (stepping in for Jermaine Jones in both spirit and fan ire), aquitted themselves well. Did Clint Dempsey, or any other attacker, do all that much? Not really, but that's beside the point after a match like this.
Did the U.S. get lucky that Edu running over Javier Aquino late in the second half and not getting called for a penalty? Damn straight the U.S. did, never mind it still doesn't make up for all the woeful calls from CONCACAF's finest which have screwed the team over the years. (There was an earlier non-PK call with Michael Bradley taking down Javier Hernandez, flagged by the linesman -- who was somehow the ref's brother -- but that one was debatable.)
How did the U.S. survive Mexico getting 15 corner kicks and Hernandez missing -- point blank -- late? Who cares?
The seemingly doomed U.S. qualification ship has been righted.
The mystique the Mexicans had playing at the Azteca appears a thing of the past.
Really it's hard not to look at this Mexican side and not think one thing ... it's soft. Guys like Rafa Marquez and those goons might not have the technical pedigree the current El Tri unit has, but they ground out games. You feared that team. You hated that team.
|Come at me, amigo.|
These guys, for all the youth tournaments they've won, almost seem too nice.
This seems to be an overarching trend for most international teams -- nobody likes playing as the favorite -- where they have to take it to the opposition for 90 minutes. Even mighty Spain, masters of death by possession where shocked by Finland 1-1 last week, although it came back Tuesday to win 1-0 at France, but the point stands.
Mexico's performance tonight was a lot like we've seen by the U.S. in recent games -- albeit against CONCACAF minnows. When the onus of the attack falls onto them, it becomes very difficult to unlock a committed, disciplined defense. The play looks listless. The fans grumble. The players huff and puff and try to do something positive, or the opposition runs out of gas.
This isn't club soccer where you're training with a team for about 40-odd weeks a year. Eventually you'll find a combination that clicks. With the international windows, you're basically throwing together a team and getting a couple days training. Frustration sets in a lot easier.
Tuesday Mexico didn't really do anything to gravely worry the U.S. and it appeared set up for the Americans to pull off a classic counter-attacking goal against the run of play and steal all three points. Andres Guardado and Gio Dos Santos were flat-out awful, which was nice since they've roasted the Americans so many times in the past. The U.S. clogged the passing lanes to prevent 1-2 combinations and flushed most of attack out wide.
Did Mexico create anything up the middle of the field beyond some poorly weighted passes? The central midfield of El Tri was equally woeful.
Tonight you could say the pressure of playing in front of 90,000 (or whatever the actual number was) home fans was a burden, not an advantage. Every minute the clock ticked toward 90 and the score stayed 0-0 it hurt Mexico and lifted the U.S.
You know what, as one of my cranky co-workers would say, "that's your problem."
And it is: Mexico's problem.
Klinsmann and crew cross the border with four points in their pocket.
The U-S-A is feeling A-OKAY right now.
Funny what a couple days -- and a Hex-changing snowstorm -- can do.
Other Quick Thoughts:
|Reference to the HBO show, "the Wire."|
* Nice hour pregame show by ESPN, first class work.
* That said, it really does feel like the heat from the U.S./Mexico rivalry has come a little off the boil regardless of what happened in the 1990s and 2000s. There seems much more mutual respect and less out-and-out resentment on both sides of the border.
* Great late save by Brad Guzan -- was it his only one?
* Another strong game by DaMarcus Beasley at left back, especially by the end of it he could barely walk. Playing out of position with a yellow card for almost 80 minutes is impressive.
* Gonzalez looks the real deal in the center of the defense. (As per usual, let's not overreact and anoint someone ahead of time, but this case it seems a safe bet.)
* Grahamn Zusi -- who knew -- would make two terrific defensive plays including running back into his own penalty area to head away a dangerous cross.
* Besler, making his second cap, and starting in the center of the U.S. defense seemed a recipe for disaster. You thought Mexico would, "hack the bone, HACK THE BONE" but El Tri (running theme) didn't do much to pressure the defense outside the first 15-odd minutes.
* Bradley produced the only real American attack, which was blocked away after a darting run into the box. Still, Bradley was never out of position providing cover to the U.S. center backs.
* Donovan, Bocanegra, Cherundolo, Johnson, etc., as they say in the NFL: Next man up.
* Happy longtime friends of the blog Adam and Andy Morris were in Azteca tonight to enjoy it. Subs are on me.
* It's late. That's all I got tonight. What did you guys think?
|Brad Guzan: Cold ... blooded.|
Momentum is a nebulous term once you apply it to the world of sports, as opposed to the realm of physics where, you know, it actually means something what with co-signs, velocity, all that jazz.
Is momentum nothing more than a staple for lazy sportswriters? Is it the bane of people who attend the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference and who think sports are played devoid of emotion inside a vacuum and or Excel spreadsheet? Probably.
But could it actually be something that exists during the course of a sporting event or over a period of time? Maybe.
The most fair way to look at it is that momentum exists, to a degree, yet it's not tangible. It's here today, gone tomorrow.
Sure the winning team usually has "momentum" on its side and the losing team didn't. (Admission: in my real-life job where I get paid to write about sports, I've disinterestedly asked a coach or player about, "how much having the momentum" helped them win or lose.)
Momentum seems to be something we as fans watching seem to readily identity over the course of a game or series of time, whereas the players -- managers and coaches especially -- seem to downplay, hence the Weaver quote to start this jam off.
Ever since the referee whistled full time Friday night to confirm the United State's 1-0 win Costa Rica in snowy Dick's Sporting Goods Park would indeed be official in the FIFA record books, it's been hard not to think about "Uncle Mo."
You'd think, in basic terms, the U.S. -- once again with it's "back against the wall," needing three points to kick start its 2014 World Cup Qualifying campaign -- would get a huge bump from digging down deep in the whiteout conditions of Commerce City, Colo., going into Tuesday's showdown with Mexico at the Azteca.
By the same token, the snow and wind masked any real conclusions to draw from the match. Soccer isn't meant to be played in conditions like that (a-doi!). You can point to Costa Rica playing its home games on artificial turf at the Saprissa Stadium, the elevation of Mexico City, or whichever other of CONCACAF's road pitfalls you fancy. The fact remains, whatever obstacles those homefield advantages pose, it's still the game of soccer between the white lines. What happened in Colorado Friday, was awesome to watch on television and made for some great Instagram fodder, but it wasn't soccer.
Or it wasn't soccer that we see 99.9 percent of the time.
Don't take this the wrong way.
This isn't denigrating what the U.S. players did Friday. Gutting out the win and making Clint Dempsey's goal stand up for close to 75 minutes with the No. 2 keeper and makeshift defense in miserable (unplayable) conditions is commendable. It's more that, because of the outlandish weather scenario, trying to divine anything other than the three points in the bank is foolhardy. (If you think about it perhaps it's the way all games in the Hex ought to be analyzed. Results are results. Points are points. No more. No less. Style points don't qualify you for a World Cup.)
It's also why it would be dangerous with the U.S. heading into Mexico City to think the team had turned a page. For all the goodwill winning Friday did, those positive vibes are likely limited to inside what was reportedly a fractured locker room. There's probably a bond forged by the players and a lot more smiles on the plane to Mexico City. Beyond that?
The problems the unnamed players had about Klinsmann and assistant Martin Vazquez that they're under-prepared tactically (and in over their heads) are still bubbling beneath the surface. One result -- even in Ice Station Impossible -- isn't going to paper over all the hard feeling some players have toward Klinsmann.
Sure it was a night anyone watching won't soon forget, if only for the novelty of it, but what it tells us about the U.S. team before the Mexico game is probably very little -- or very little we didn't already know considering the team's track record for positive results when everything outside appears to be crumbling.
And it must be said: Mexico isn't going to be in a very good mood Tuesday night after it blew a 2-0 lead on the road against Honduras to draw 2-2. El Tri is, believe it or not, a point behind the U.S. in the Hex standings after draws in its first two matches.
On the topic of momentum, a couple months ago it appeared as if Mexico would sweep through qualifying and position itself as a firm favorite in Brazil next summer based on its youth team successes and Gold Medal at the London Games. It hasn't exactly worked out that way for El Tri through its first two matches.
Watching Mexico play vs. Honduras it had the air of a team that expected to win, call it complacency. When things went a little awry there was a lot of wild gesturing toward the referees or players trying to do it all by themselves. Mexico is also going to be without captain "Maza" Rodriguez due to yellow card accumulation Tuesday meaning manager Chepo de la Torre likely turns to either 25-year-old Hugo Ayala or rising star Diego Reyes, who's only 20 but was part of the Gold medal-winning squad in London. Losing Maza might not be a terrible turn of events for Mexico since he was beaten by Carlo Costly on Honduras' first goal then gave up the penalty that led to the equalizer.
If this was chess, it'd be trading, say, rooks with Klinsmann opting not to use ex-captain Carlos Bocanegra for these matches.
Mexico looks vulnerable and with the U.S. winning last August in a friendly for its first victory ever at the Azteca, there's never looked like a better time to win a game that counts in the smog of Mexico City. Of course, Andres Guardado, Javier Hernandez and Gio Dos Santos will pose a much tougher test for the American defense in the beehize of the noise the Azteca figures to be compared to what Costa Rica could muster in the snow of Colorado.
Uncle Sam certainly has "Uncle M"o on its side when it heads South of the Border.
Mexico, decidedly, does not.
If you think it's going to matter when the game kicks off, well, you haven't been paying attention over the last 25 years.
* Snow or not, Klinsmann appeared to get the defense lineup correct, with Geoff Cameron at right back, Clarence Goodson and Omar Gonzalez in the middle and evergreen DaMarcus Beasley at left back. It's only two games in 2013, but perhaps the stink of playing at Stoke City is rubbing off on Cameron. The player he was during the 2012 is becoming a more distant memory. (Once again anointing an American player "the future" based on 2-3 games might not prove accurate. Who knew?)
Many have lauded Beasley's performance and it was just what you'd want from a veteran closing in on 100 caps. How he fares against the pacy, technical attack of Mexico in normal conditions is another story.
* Klinsmann played his seemingly preferred three-pronged attack against Costa Rica in Jozy Altidore, Dempsey and Herculez Gomez. U.S. Soccer listed it as a 4-2-3-1 -- again not that it mattered in the snow. Will the German coach be that aggressive on the road? He doesn't have a lot of other options.
* The U.S. plays in snow on Friday. Mexico played in 100-degree heat. Training staffs going to be working overtime in the three days between the matches. Klinsmann's caught a lot of heat for a different lineup in every match. He may need to make changes by necessity. Soccer players might have superhuman endurance but running around for two hours in the snow has to snap a lot out of you, especially at altitude.
* History won't smile too fondly on Steve Sampson, but he did manage the U.S. to it's only qualifying points at Mexico. This clip in 1997 is proof!
Why did Mexico ever go away from the Aztec imagery inside its shirt?
* Altidore looked more comfortable having balls played to him, as opposed to having to drop deep. Not a shocker. With Maza out and Mexico likely having to scramble to fill the hole next to Johnny Magallon, the AZ forward could be in line for a productive day. If anything Altidore attempted a shot from the edge of the box that set up Dempsey's goal vs. Costa Rica.
Altidore is not Mario Balotelli. You can't just throw him up top all by his lonesome and expect him to conjure up some magic. He needs link-up play and service to prove effective.
* Mexico No. 1 Guille Ochoa is listed at 6-foot-1. He looks tiny. Maybe it's an optical illusion and why the height-challenged Jorge Campos wore such garish outfits during his career. In any event, if I'm the U.S. I take as many shots as I can at the top corners and have guys crashing the six-yard box, ie. Dempsey and Bradley, looking for rebounds.
* Jermaine Jones, love him or hate him, does serve a role in the U.S. team, even if he does dumb things, like give a Costa Rican player a face wipe for no reason to set up a dangerous free kick in the second half Friday. In any event, he's out for the Mexico game, which can only be seen as a negative considering the chemistry he and Michael Bradley have established in the "double-pivot" in the center of the field. Swapping in Maurice Edu is a like-for-like change, but when is the last time we've seen him go the full 90 in an important match for the U.S.? Barring a complete midfield overhaul its Edu or Kyle Beckerman getting the start.
* Longtime friend of the blog, aimorris, will be attending the game with his brother. Give him a follow on Twitter.
* Speaking of Twitter, going to pimp myself via this little Jake Edwards Vine montage. SCORE!!!!!
Wouldn't it make perfect sense for Klinsmann to finally use the same XI in back-to-back games following the snow? Not going to happen since Jones is out with an ankle injury. With the Schalke midfielder out, a 4-4-2 in a tight diamond might make sense. It still seems more likely Klinsmann adds another midfielder to try to clog it up for Mexico, if he does that it probably has to drop Altidore. It would be quintessential Klinsmann to throw Joe Corona into the lineup out of left field.
Option 1 (4-4-2):
GK -- Guzan
DEF -- Cameron -- Goodson -- Gonzalez -- Beasley
MID -- Zusi-- Bradley -- Edu -- Dempsey
FOR -- Altidore -- Gomez
Option 1a (4-4-1-1):
GK -- Guzan
DEF -- Cameron -- Goodson -- Gonzalez -- Beasley
MID -- Zusi -- Bradley -- Edu -- Shea
SS -- Dempsey
F -- Gomez
(I'm making this guess Sunday, blindly. Figure to be way off.)
Boil away all the "do or die" statements, the exposés, the players on surf vacations, the injuries, whatever, through the first two matchdays of the Hex (six games), the U.S. and Honduras are the only teams to notch wins. The four other games finished in draws.
The U.S. isn't going to qualify with a win Tuesday -- it sure would help -- but there's a long way to go until this is over in October. Same thing with a loss or a draw, nothing is going to be decided.
Realistically we're going to know if this is going to be a rote qualification process or if we're going to be sweating it out until the end come June. In a 12-day period the U.S. plays at Jamaica and then hosts Panama and Honduras.
That's when Klinsmann will either make his bread or start really feeling the heat in the kitchen.
|Rock. Snow. Flag. Eagle.|
Apologies up front, used up all my gold snow puns during course of the match's two-plus hours on Twitter. Sorry to freeze you out in blog form. You'll live.
Where to start? Where to end? What to even talk about?
There's the entire snow element, which overshadows the fact the U.S. got three-needed points to put its 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign on course. Chances are when people talk about "that game in the snow against Costa Rica" years from now the locker room discontent swirling around Jurgen Klinsmann will be but a distant memory.
All we're collectively going to remember was (trying) to watch an important soccer game in near-white out conditions. (Dammit, it wasn't easy!) White shirts and a yellow ball made it hard. Watching sports on television isn't supposed to be about work, is it? Half the time it was near impossible to tell what was happening.
Trying to gain any other assessments from the match is a fool's errand.
There is minimal tactical analysis to be gleaned from a game played in a driving snowstorm, limied visibility and a couple inches of the white stuff over the turf at Dick's Sporting Good Park in Colorado. Realistically all you can say about the American performance are buzzwords that modern, new-age sports people are loath to use since they are reminiscent of the old breed of lazy sportswriter, as in "heart," "hustle," "grit," "determination," etc. Hollow words that don't exactly mean anything compared to your usual passes completed chart or heat map.
That "heart" and "determination" is exactly what it took for the U.S. to get a result tonight, however, so take your false nines and stick 'em in a sack, mister!
Realistically the performance by the U.S. netted three points, no more, no less.
Thank the soccer gods Jozy Altidore's powerful shot in the 16th minute was deflected off a Costa Rican defender (Roy Miller, natch) and right into the path of a unmarked Clint Dempsey in front of an open net.
As fun as that game was to watch in the snow -- how great would it have been to be in the building for it? -- it takes on a different tenor if it's still 0-0 in the 70-minute forward. Then all the cries about how much "fun" it was, turn into an outcry of why the hell the game was allowed to go in the first place? (Same goes if one of those pin-balling attempts off a free kick by Costa Rica late in the game bounces off a leg and past Brad Guzan.)
The snow was a blessing for Klinsmann since it overshadowed everything else. There were no worries about lineup selection, formations, who wore the captain's armband, etc. All that anyone is going to talk about is the snow. It couldn't have come at a better time for the German coach, right? Hell, as Taylor Twellman and Alexi Lalas tried to purport on ESPN, this win will build (buzzword alert) "character" for the U.S. going forward.
If anything it was nice, for once, to see America flex it's muscle in the "how hard it is to win on the road in CONCACAF" equation. Full credit to Costa Rica and its players for wanting to complete the match -- and creating a bunch of chances in the second half including a disallowed goal -- but you can't spin an equation where the Ticos wanted to play the U.S. at altitude in a snowstorm.
As it stands, the U.S. thanks to the win has one more point in the Hex standings than Mexico, which drew Honduras earlier in the day in 100-degree heat.
What the lasting images of frozen snow collecting in Jermaine Jones' afro mean when the U.S. hits the Azteca on Tuesday are up for debate, for now, the U.S. survived and earned itself a nice tall cup of hot cocoa.
Marshmallows are on me.
"It's just like pulling off a Band Aid." -- Cop with a Mustache, There's Something About Mary
Everybody got their pitchforks and torches on standby?
This could get ugly ... for Jurgen Klinsmann, anyways.
Safe to say based his Klinsmann's roster selection for Friday's vital CONCACAF 2014 World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica it hasn't been the best week of all-time for the German. Then when you throw in some articles that have painted a picture of the German-born coach, to quote the English terraces -- YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU'RE DOING -- the level of rancor from the usually staid American soccer media (and fans) is growing increasingly toxic.
It's not Rafa Benetiz at Chelsea level, yet, but if the U.S. doesn't beat Costa Rica and gets embarrassed at the Azteca on Tuesday by Mexico people aren't going to be too happy, regardless of how many cool stories about Klinsmann flying helicopters are leaked by the Pravda department of the U.S. Soccer House in Chicago.
There's a lot swirling around at the moment so let's access some facts, first:
* The U.S. lost it's first of 10 "Hex" games last month at Honduras.
* Landon Donovan, Tim Howard, Steve Cherundolo, Jose Torres, Fabian Johnson, Timmy Chandler, Danny Williams, Jonathan Spector (anyone else?) were all unavailable for these two matches, through injury, sickness or personal wanderlust.
* Former U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra was dropped entirely by Klinsmann, opting for a defense with a combined 12 World Cup qualifying caps.
* In 23 games in charge of the U.S. Klinsmann has never used the same starting XI in consecutive games.
Skewing all this are the lingering doubts -- despite high-profile results in friendlies -- that the U.S. hasn't taken the strides forward everyone expected when Sunil Gulati axed Bob Bradley in the summer of 2011 and hired Klinsmann.
|Get to the choppa!|
Let's first start with the Bocanegra issue, which was almost a Catch-22 for Klinsmann.
For one, let's pretend Bocanegra wasn't pinned to the bench for a team in the relegation zone in the Spanish second division and was playing regularly at Racing Santander. It's not like over the last year or so Bocanegra hasn't lost a step -- this is common knowledge for U.S. fans. We've all seen this. We all knew it would be beyond risky to try to coax another World Cup campaign around a 33 year old defender -- two years ago. This isn't a new revelation.
So if Klinsmann picks Bocanegra and he shows the form and declining speed we've seen and gets torched in either game, we all get pissed off. ... Why would you play Bocanegra? I can see the fork sticking out of his back from space!!! Per Mertesacker could beat him in a foot race!!!
For whatever "leadership" Bocanegra would bring to the table, let's not try to build him up into Fabio Cannavaro at the 2006 World Cup or something on that par. Bocanegra was an excellent player for nearly a decade for the U.S., but his time is up.
The real issue here is Klinsmann's done a lousy overall job -- especially in the defense -- of transitioning the squad from the team that's been almost unchanged at the core at both the 2006 and 2010 World Cups (Donovan, Dempsey, Onyewu, Bocanegra, Howard, Cherundolo) to something new. Coaxing all these international games for over a decade with almost all the same key players isn't exactly a recipe for success, is it?
Playing Devil's Advocate, suppose Gulati never hires Klinsmann. Bob Bradley likely leads the U.S. into Brazil -- with ease -- using the same core team who all know their roles. Once the team gets to Brazil, we're facing the same questions if the U.S. has made progress, if it can compete with the elite of the world, can it get past the Round of 16? It's not very exciting. There's not likely any qualifying drama, but the payoff is minimal. We're all probably be bored, too.
Part of this whole transitional mess isn't entirely Klinsmann's fault, considering Omar Gonzalez was out injured with a torn knee for nearly a year, but a lack of preparation leaves the situation where Tony Beltran, Matt Besler and Justin Morrow -- journeymen in MLS -- are the only viable alternatives in defense thanks to a plethora of injuries.
Still, had Klinsmann started the process transitioning into a new-look squad a year ago full-bore, instead of in earnest, we might not be where we are today. It's hard to cook up a scenario, bar every U.S. defensive regular visiting the Springfield Mystery Spot at the same time, where we're in the boat we are now with Goodson being the elder defensive statesman for an American defensive unit.
|I'm burned out, bros.|
It's hard to entirely blame Klinsmann, too, for Donovan's existential spirit quest. Donovan might be past the age of 30, but he was still figured to be a key figure in the run toward what would be his fourth World Cup. For whatever pressures and burnout Donovan has felt (and it's understandable to a degree) he's not the all-time leading scorer for Germany or Argentina or even a place like Norway. It's doubtful in any other soccer country the international leading scorer deciding -- in his prime -- to blow off crucial qualifiers for a holiday in Cambodia would go down too smoothly. It might be taxing being "face of American soccer" for a decade, but let's be honest in the general sports consciousnesses, Donovan has gotten a huge pass. Chances are people will tune into ESPN2 on Friday and Tuesday and have no idea he won't be there, or more importantly why he isn't.
Donovan staring into the sporting abyss and deciding what looks back at him would've been an issue for Klinsmann or anyone on the U.S. touchline.
Maybe it all boils down to this: very few American fans want to think about or admit, the U.S. might be in a down cycle for players. As said before, you can't keep trotting out the same guys year after year at the international level and expect it to maintain. Think about it this way, beyond Michael Bradley which American player can you feel truly comfortable about as a key player who was new to the roster at the 2010 World Cup moving forward toward the 2014 cycle?
You can go down all the usual roads: MLS, youth development, college soccer, guys in Europe, guys not playing in the Champions League, etc., but the hard truth is the old guard of U.S. players has gotten older, more injury prone and haven't been replaced adequately.
Yes, Fabian Johnson and others have shown some promise in spots, but it's not like a brand-new, no doubt Starting XI has emerged from the American player pool. By the same token Klinsmann could have picked a team and stuck with it, supplementing here-and-there instead of the radical adjustments we've seen match-to-match, but we've watched these games. Who would you pick from the player pool, as it sits, with regularity. It's easy for the players to condemn the tactics when they don't work, but at some point the players have to take their share of the accountability for floundering for long stretches in matches, which usually result in the U.S. digging themselves a big hole.
And it's not all the manager's fault -- something anyone reading this knows I've been harping on for years -- America has't produced a decent wide player or winger in years, if ever. Brek Shea? That's a bit of a reach given his consistency Klinsman, again has compounded the issue, playing a weird system in recent matches where Dempsey and Eddie Johnson (yes, remember we've had to bring him back into the fold which isn't clearly not a sign of how desperate things are) in modified wide-forward spots.
This sort sort of bad feelings happened once before in recent memory at the 1998 World Cup when the U.S. bottomed out as Steve Sampson tried to use the bulk of players from the 1990 and 1994 squads, billowed by a few promising players like Brian McBride and some completely forgettable scrubs like Chad Deering. There was a lot else going on with the 1998 squad, namely a 3-6-1 formation and the extracurricular going on between John Harkes and Eric Wynalda.
It's not the best comparison but it's the closest I can recall when there seemed to be this much internal turmoil simmering in the USMNT camp. The upside of finishing last at France 1998 was the Federation hired Bruce Arena, who used some young blossoming talent in MLS to propel the team to the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals.
We're not there, yet, but without a win vs. Costa Rica on Friday and a representative performance (even in a loss) at Mexico, the rancor among the fans -- and sadly the players themselves -- is only going to mount for Klinsmann and Gulati (a package deal at this point).
Above all, with all his tinkering, baffling tactical decisions, blind spots for Jermaine Jones, etc. Klinsmann certainly hasn't helped himself. He's been dealt a tough hand with the injuries, transitional roster, Donovan situation, etc., which most can understand, only the German seems to make matters worse either thorough his cavalier attitude, strange formations or most damning: the lingering sense that the "Emperor Has No Clothes." By now you can clearly question that Germany's success (and only a third place finish) in 2006 was a product of assistant Jogi Low and the more representative Klinsmann was his ill-fated spell in charge of Bayern Munich.
When he was hired Klinsmann tried to promise the U.S. the moon: a change in philosophy, a fun, attack-first team. Instead we've gotten a team that, for the first time in a while, looks like it's going to qualify for a World Cup by the skin of its teeth -- if that.
The worry here, too, is over the years the U.S. -- certainly under Bob Bradley -- provided it's best results when everybody had written it off. One of these days, that backs against the wall, us against the world, ethos is going to wear off. That's not to say it'll happen Friday night in Denver vs. Costa Rica, but it's hard to remember a time there were so many dark clouds and red flags handing over the heads of everyone associated with the team.
As fans, we were mostly ready for a transition back in July 2011. Except instead of tearing away the Band Aid right away, we've found ourselves in a fine mess -- much like zipping up our privates into our prom pants, like Ben Stiller in "There's Something About Mary." The U.S. roster issues and Klinsmann's decisions -- the bean and franks, if you will -- have left us all in a position fraught with peril.
We all knew this might be coming down the road. Nobody expecting getting out of this position, however, to be this painful.
* Good news: Both the Costa Rica match on Friday and the Mexico match are on channels almost all Americans already have: ESPN2! (Way it's going, let's take the positives wherever they exist.)
* The way everything's shaken out, Brad Guzan (likely) starting in goal is the least of the U.S.'s concerns. Who'd have thought that?
* Still there's there's a place for Sacha Kljestan to make an impact for the U.S., but much like a lot of guys in this lineup puzzle, there doesn't seem to be a ready-made spot for him the way Klinsmann sets things up. Either him or Zusi at the tip of a midfield trio, backed by Bradley and Jones seems like a solid idea. Somebody needs to be an offensive catalyst.
* Wrote earlier in the month about Jozy Altidore's goal-scoring form for AZ and how it may or may not apply to the U.S. So read that.
* File this away: Terrance Boyd will make an impact coming off the bench as a second-half substitute.
* Costa Rica is unbeaten in nine matches, dating back to a loss to Mexico at the Azteca in September.
* Based on his continual mental lapses for the Red Bulls, the U.S. gameplan should be to attack wherever the Ticos line Roy Miller up in their defense.
* Will Arsenal on-loan youngster Joel Campbell be in the mix for Costa Rica? Alvaro Saborio and Bryan Ruiz are both dangerous players, but aren't exactly speed-merchants. Something to keep an eye on.
* Costa Rica has a midfielder named Yeltsin Tejeda in the mix. Wonder if he enjoys Borscht?
If you can figure out Klinsmann's methodology, buy lotto tickets, too. This isn't what I'd pick, but more in line with what Klinsmann's done lately.
GK -- Guzan
DEF -- Cameron -- Edu -- Gonzalez -- Beasley
MID -- Bradley -- Jones -- Zusi
FOR -- Dempsey -- Gomez -- Johnson
For whatever doom-and-gloom scenarios that might go through people's heads over the next 90 minutes, it's hard to come up with a situation where the U.S. -- with four more home games -- can't at least coax a way to finish fourth in CONCACAF, which means a playoff with New Zealand. Remember, unless it's going poorly, few people dwell on what happens in the qualifiers.
In the words of Nile Rodgers and Chic ....
Ahhhhhhhh freak out!
Howard is almost universally beloved by U.S. supporters -- aside from my friend Mike, but we'll get to that later. ESPN's Ian Darke has all but open-mouth kissed him during U.S. and Everton broadcasts.
There's no exact Sloan Conference-approved advanced analytic to prove this statement, but watching the U.S. play in the last five or six years it's hard to think of a keeper more important to his team's success than Howard. Iker Casillas, Gigi Buffon, Manuel Neuer, etc. are all better keepers by whatever metric you want to use. (Unless you're Jonathan Wilson then the top No. 1 in the world is some random guy playing in the Bosnian Second Division, but I digress.) The U.S. without Howard, considering the team's limitations in other places on the field, is a scary thought to process.
This is classic "eye test" stuff, but watching the U.S. play it seems like Howard keeps them in a ton of games with his reflexes and ability to make highlight reel double save. How many times has Howard kept the U.S. in a match during the first half, setting up one of their trademark late smash-and-grabs?
My friend Mike argues Howard is overrated and when the money is on the line -- namely the 2010 World Cup vs. Ghana -- Howard couldn't come up with a save on Asamoah Gyan to keep the U.S. alive in South Africa. To some degree that's true. We all probably look at Howad through red, white and blue glasses, clouding our judgment and likely overrating his worth.
We can probably all agree Howard is a very solid -- if not great -- international keeper.
The mild irony here is that for years the one position the U.S. national team had a surplus was a keeper, although looking back now maybe it was just an anomaly to have two guys -- Brad Friedel and Kasey Keller -- at their peak at the same time. The point is, the U.S. never has had to worry about finding a keeper. For all the talk of the Cote D'Ivorie's "golden generation" of players, the Elephants still had to rely on shaky Boubacar Barry all these years. Granted, America's never had anyone quite like Didier Drogba, but dammit, we've got guys who can strap on the gloves and play in net.
At the moment the U.S. keeper pool isn't quite as strong as it was 10 years ago, but it's not barren.
For two matches, albeit one at the Azteca, the U.S. can survive with Brad Guzan -- assuming he's not completely shell-shocked from allowing 50+ goals with relegation threatened Aston Villa in the Premier League. Who knows, maybe this opens the door, after years of being an international understudy, for Guzan to take over.
Sean Johnson and Bill Hamid are young and starting for their MLS clubs, but it's doubtful Jurgen Klinsmann would roll the dice with either of them for these important qualifiers. Nick Rimando would probably be the No. 2 behind Guzan in any case in the short term.
Where the issue for these two games becomes, shall we say, sticky is Klinsmann has seemingly painted himself into a corner opting to play young defenders Omar Gonzalez is 24, Timmy Chandler is 22. (The other starters from last month's game vs. Honduras Geoff Cameron and Fabian Johnson are 27 and 25 respectively, not young in soccer terms.) More important than saying this group is young, they have very few international caps among them -- plus Chandler and Johnson's first language is German. Is dropping veteran Carlos Bocanegra back into the starting lineup as a "experience" Band Aid a route anyone wants to go at this point?
Having Howard behind them there instills a little more confidence in the defenders than Guzan, regardless of their respective physical capabilities.
Take Gonzalez, don't you think he feels a little better stepping onto the field knowing Howard is back there -- even if he might get screamed at in the process? If we as fans have elevated Howard to this lofty hero status, wouldn't his teammates feel the same way?
The big takeaway here is the U.S. is sitting on zero points with a must-win scenario on March 22 in Denver vs. Costa Rica followed by a trip to the Azteca without Howard, Landon Donovan and Steve Cherundolo. That's a combined 316 caps on the bench due to injuries and an existential crisis.
As great an idea it would be for Klinsmann to reach out to Friedel -- who played for Tottenham Thursday in the Europa League vs. Inter Milan but retired internationally -- it's not going to happen. It's a nice pipe dream, but nothing more. (And as for keepers carrying their teams in an international setting, hard to top what Big Brad did in Korea in June 2002.)
Anyways, if we're going to recall a retired U.S. keeper, as the always affable @ChrisThomasFC suggests, there can be only one choice.
The man I affectionately call, Biff.