Yanks Repel Three Lions In WC2010 Debut

In today's Group C match between the USA (#14 in the FIFA World Rankings) and England (#8) in the 2010 FIFA World Cup, Bob Bradley's American side gave a very respectable showing against a powerful, confident English side that by most accounts far outclasses the Americans in nearly every aspect of the game. The game ended in a 1-1 draw.

England took the lead in the 4th minute with a beautiful goal when skipper (and Liverpool midfielder) Steven Gerrard slipped away from Ricardo Clarke after Emile Heskey had turned a pair of US defenders inside out. As Gerrard took a celebratory kneeling slide across the pitch, many of the American supporters must have felt a familiar old pit in their stomachs - the USA has never won a World Cup match in which their opponents took the first goal. And the English fans, proudly waving their St. George's Crosses? Surely, finally, this must be the English side that would bring home the Cup, for the first time since 1966 (and only the second time ever - a dazzling underachievement from the nation that is the birthplace of football). They would mop up these uppity Americans (one British friend of mine predicted a 3-1 England victory, with Gerrard scoring a brace - two goals, for those of you unfamiliar with football lingo) and then Algeria and Slovenia, respectively, to take the full 9 points from the group stage and march dominantly into the knockout stages to face the second-place team from Group D. However, rather than collapsing in on themselves as has historically been the general international perception of the USA, the Americans redoubled their determination, showing the kind of grit they exhibited in last summer's Confederations Cup, where they defeated then-#1-ranked Spain before falling to Brazil in the final.

Early in the match, England controlled the flow of the game and put steady pressure on the Yanks, but the American defense - despite several miscommunications, especially between Oguchi Onyewu and Jay DeMerit in the center of the backline - withstood the Brits, and was extremely successful in several important regards. Most notably, they took Wayne Rooney, coming off the best season of his career at Manchester United and widely considered to be the key element of England's attack, almost completely out of the game - his first dangerous chance came in with a wide shot from range in the 74th minute. Steven Gerrard maintained pressure and incredible effort at both ends of the pitch, and showed that he is certainly capable of handling the pressure of captaining England. However, not all of the English players were as impressive. James Milner (Aston Villa) made several silly and unnecessarily rough tackles on Steve Cherundolo, earning an early yellow card and an exit in the 31st minute (substituted for Shawn Wright-Philips).

In the 40th minute, Clint Dempsey took a long-shot from just outside the box...a shot that looked to be easily handled by British 'keeper Robert Green, with no attackers following in to collect any potential rebound. Inexplicably, the ball slipped out of his hands like a slow-motion eel and dribbled across the line and into the back of the net. It was an error that will surely have Green frequently waking up in cold sweats for years. (He's not alone...many of England's recent 'keepers, including Scott Carson and Paul Robinson - and David James, on club level - have committed atrocious errors resulting in costly goals for their opponents)

Jamie Carragher - who came out of international retirement for the World Cup at the request of England coach Fabio Capello - came on as a halftime substitute for Ledley King, who has had nagging fitness/injury issues, and promptly picked up a yellow card for an ugly studs-up tackle on Robbie Findley. Later, in the 64th minute, Jozy Altidore out-muscled Carragher and turned him around twice, most notably with a blistering shot that Green deflected, ricocheting off the near post and across the goalmouth.

Findley (currently a striker for Real Salt Lake, although that may change quickly if his current run of form is any indication, and a goal or two in the World Cup would certainly draw attention from European clubs) was probably a surprise starter for many American fans, who see him as a super-sub player who can inject blistering speed off the bench. However, based on his outstanding form lately, and strong performances against the Netherlands (as a starter on March 3) and Turkey (on May 29) showed Findley is capable of contributing for the US. He showed several bright moments, including challenging veteran English players in the midfield and at the box. At one point, he took on five English defenders running into the box...he didn't get through, but he showed he's not afraid to run at anyone, and if he keeps that up against Slovenia and Algeria, his lightning pace and fearless cutting runs will surely lead to a goal or two, if not for him then for one of his striking partners (against the Turks, he fed a beautiful chip-pass to Donovan streaking into the box, who then crossed to Altidore for a rocket of a finish, and Dempsey attributed his goal in that game to Findley's pace stretching the field and opening up space).

As much as England's 'keeper looked like a buffoon, America's Tim Howard looked every bit the reliable shot-stopper we know and love. Gerrard's goal was the result of a breakdown in the defense after an England throw-in, and can hardly be blamed on Howard, who was as furious as Gerrard was exuberant. Howard, who manages to be one of the best 'keepers in the world (he had an excellent season with Everton in the English top flight) while overcoming Turret's syndrome, made his best save of the match in the 52nd minute, smothering Emile Heskey on a breakaway strike from point-blank range, coming well out of the goalmouth and closing space on the striker, whose shot can only be described as a choke. Eleven minutes later, Howard punched over a cannon of a shot from midfielder Frank Lampard to keep the game level. (go to 1:15 of this video for the Heskey shot, followed immediately by the Lampard shot)

The Americans showed great resolve, and made good use of their underdog status in the match, and the fact that ALL of the pressure was completely on England. Although outperformed in most of the first half, Dempsey's goal just before halftime swung the momentum to the American side, and they looked much stronger in the second half, giving the stronger performance after the intermission. In particular, the communication problems the plagued Onyewu and DeMerit seem to have been resolved at the half, and the two played together much better in the last 45 minutes. Onyewu in particular was markedly improved, holding off Rooney on a potential breakaway, and getting a headed chance in from a set piece. Michael Bradley handled himself well in the midfield, and Cherundolo, despite picking up a yellow card, performed well at right back. Donovan showed a few glimpses of his brilliance, but must do better if the Americans are to advance. And in their next two matches, the Americans will be favorites, not underdogs, so their trend of performing better against teams which ought to beat them will be little comfort against the Algerians and Slovenes. If they are to advance, the Americans must figure out how to shore up their backline, particularly in the middle, and must take more shots. You can't score goals if you don't take chances. I wouldn't be surprised to see Herculez Gomez or Edson Buddle, both of whom are on the hottest streaks of their respective careers, figure into the next two matches for the Americans.

As for England, their national pride will be bruised by this 1-1 draw with the USA, but the truth is that they played a good match and if it weren't against the chronically disrespected Yanks, they probably wouldn't feel so bad about the result. They should still feel confident of dominating their other two opponents in Group C and advancing to the knockout stage. I suspect that David James may start their next match, with Robert Green relegated to the sideline. Emile Heskey, who has been favored by Fabio Capello and is Wayne Rooney's preferred striking partner, is not in his best form, as indicated by his choke-job on the breakaway, and ought to be replaced - most likely by Peter Crouch, who has been on a good run of form, although Jermaine Defoe also has huge potential for England. Veteran Joe Cole was not used today, and he surely should figure into England's plans, and I wouldn't be surprised to see a number of changes in the England lineup in their next match.

The game offered excitement and drama for fans of both sides, and a surprisingly fair job by the referee - each side was issued three yellow cards, although two of England's could have been red for studs-up tackles (one by Heskey who slid hard into Howard's chest in the first half, and then Carragher's tackle on Findley, mentioned above). The linesman on the far left side of the pitch (TV perspective) left much to be desired, however, with several botched offside calls and, most senselessly, calling a ball out of bounds on Steve Cherundolo when the broadcast, let alone the instant replay, clearly showed that the ball was far from meeting the standard for being ruled out (the entire ball must completely cross the line). All told, a good match, and a good start to the tournament for both sides. I am excited to see what the remainder of the group stage holds - will the US advance to the knockout round? Will England choke when it really matters, as is their habit? Will Bob Bradley silence his critics and finally earn some respect for US Soccer? I can't wait to find out...


A Brutal Day

The story of the day in MLS is cards. In 7 matches this Saturday, refs handed out 44 cards. Of those, 7 were red (4 straight red, 3 as a result of a player receiving a second yellow). Only 3 matches saw 5 or fewer cards, and as many as 11 cards were given in a single game (8 yellows and 3 reds in the Superclasico match between LA Galaxy and Chivas USA). Normally when this many cards are given out, it's a matter of poor officiating, but in the 3 matches I watched today, most of the cards were deserved. Obviously something has to change, but I'm not sure it's fair to blame the officials outright for how out-of-hand things are getting on the pitches across the MLS.

In a rare event, 2 redcards were handed out today for "denying a goalscoring opportunity". One was received by Kasey Keller, GK for the Seattle Sounders, in the 29th minute of their match against the Kansas City Wizards at Qwest Field. Keller slid in to stop a breakaway, but unfortunately for him, he slid right past the 18-yard line and out of the box, where he blocked the shot with his hands, earning himself an automatic redcard. The second such offense was committed by Gregg Berhalter of the LA Galaxy when he pulled down Chivas' Alecko Eskandarian after the striker beat him and broke toward the net. This is a rare foul, and for two to be committed in the same day is an unusual occurance in the league, but it warrants discussion, since many fans are certainly confused by this rule. The premise behind "denying a goalscoring opportunity" is that when a player is in a clear goal-scoring situation and a defensive player commits a blatant foul against that player to prevent him from scoring, what would normally constitute a normal offense becomes more serious due to circumstances. In the case of a goalkeeper, intentionally handling the ball outside the box in order to save a shot always constitutes this kind of offense. This was shocking rookie mistake from a veteran like Keller, and will have everyone in the Emerald City scratching their heads, as it led to their loss to Kansas City at home and means he will miss their match next weekend against Chivas (the only other team who had won every game going into this weekend). This breaks the charm for Sounders, who had been in perfect form until tonight, but now the shine is off both their invincibility at home and their goalscoring streak. Fortunately for Sounders, Chivas will be without MF Paulo Nagamura, who received 2 yellowcards against Galaxy and has been the top performer for Chivas so far this season.

In other news, both New York Red Bulls and Houston Dynamo continue to underperform, playing to a scoreless draw, with no real signs that we should expect much improvement in the immediate future. Conor Casey followed up last week's hat-trick with a goal in a 1-1 draw against Columbus Crew. The real high-lights of the day are the Chicago Fire and Real Salt Lake. Falling behind San Jose 3 times, Chicago rallied back each time to salvage a point from a hard-fought game and remain undefeated on the season. That said, Chicago's 8 points come from 2 wins and 2 ties, so we've got to remember, although they're getting results, they're not quite dominating. RSL fell behind DC United home at Rio Tinto in the 38th minute, but answered back 2 minutes later in the 40th minute on a header from D Jamison Olave, then went ahead in the 80th minutes later on a goal from Argentine MF Javier Morales. Robbie Findley picked up assists on both goals, to follow his hat-trick last week against the Crew - expect more from him in the coming weeks. Considering Seattle's bellyflop tonight and Chicago's aforementioned scrappiness, RSL (2-0-1, 7 pts) appears to be the best-tuned team in the league at present, winning their first 2 home games to set up perhaps an even stronger homefield advantage than last year. Their only loss came at Seattle in RSL's season opener in a game in which RSL outplayed Sounders for most of the game, but failed to get the result. Coach Jason Kreis has got his team playing together very well, and I think we can expect big things from this side. With a game-in-hand as a result of their first week bye, RSL is in good position to move toward the top of the standings with a win against an abysmal Red Bulls side in the coming week.


Week 1's Worth Mentioning

The first week of MLS 2009 Season has come to a close, and there are a couple points worthy of noting:
  • Seattle Sounders FC are here to play. The MLS debutant means business. They've got the roster, the coach, and the FANS to be a force to be reckoned with in their virgin season. I'm looking forward to seeing what they make of it, and you should be too. A 3-0 victory over Red Bull New York is definitely an auspicious start for the boys from the Emerald City, and lord only knows Seattlites are hurting for a sports team that they can be proud of right now.
  • Landon Donovan's back from Germany, and he's none the worse for the wear. Instead of taking time to relax in the MLS offseason, the Golden Boy of American Soccer went on temporary loan to Bayern Munich of the German Bundesliga, where he performed well and even tallied a few goals in one of Europe's top leagues before returning in time for the start of the MLS season--unlike his illustrious teammate, David Beckham, who dipped into his own monstrous bank account to ensure the extension of his loan to AC Milan through the end of the Italian Serie A season, after which he will take a month's vacation before returning to join the Galaxy in mid-July...hm, sound familiar? Wonder if this scheme will work out any better the second time around... But I digress...after winning last season's Golden Boot, Donovan started off the 2009 MLS season by personally resurrecting the Galaxy from a 2-goal deficit to draw against DC United. He appears to be in better form than ever, and that's going to mean trouble for the league's defenders and goalkeepers, but it won't do LA any good unless they can fix their own defensive problems. Dismissing last season's 'keeper, the worthless Steve Cronin, was a good start, but LA still gave up 2 goals to a weak DC side at the weekend...
  • Chicago Fire @ FC Dallas demonstrated a couple of important facts...First, Kenny Cooper is now not only one of the most lethal strikers in the league (at least, until he gets snatched up by a European team this summer), but he's been practicing his range, and he is now positively surgical from 65 YARDS OUT. With his strength, size, speed, and range, Coach Bob Bradley will be an IDIOT not to make Cooper a regular face on the US National Team. Second, if Cuauhtémoc Blanco and Brian McBride's goals on Saturday are any indication, the Fire are going to be downright scary on set pieces and freekicks this season. Blanco didn't play a full 90 minutes, but he did score a textbook goal on a freekick just outside the box, curling the ball into the upper-90. McBride's penalty kick was at least as good as Donovan's, and showed that McBride's still got it.
Tune in for Week 2 of MLS 2009! Schedule available at www.mlsnet.com.


2011 MLS Expansions announced

The past week has finally seen the announcement of the 2 expansion franchises to begin MLS play in the 2011 season. Vancouver, BC's franchise was announced first, and today Portland, Oregon was also granted a franchise. After last night's debut, I'm willing to bet that the Seattle Sounders expansion will prove itself a brilliant move for the league, but THREE teams in the Pacific Northwest within 2 years? I worry that these teams are going to cut into each other's potential fanbases somewhat, and that it may have been better to grant a franchise to St. Louis, which is the historical hometown of American soccer and would have made for a more balanced map of the league... Also, adding 3 teams to the Western Conference probably means that the conferences will need to be balanced. There are currently 8 teams in the Western Conference (Seattle FC, Chivas USA, LA Galaxy, Real Salt Lake, Houston Dynamo, FC Dallas, Colorado Rapids, and San Jose Earthquakes) and 7 in the Eastern Conference (Red Bull New York, Chicago Fire, Columbus Crew, Kansas City Wizards, Toronto FC, DC United, and New England Revolution). Next year the Philadelphia expansion team will restore balance to the conferences, but in 2011 2 more teams in the Pacific Northwest will probably mean that we will see both Houston and Dallas shift to the Eastern Conference.

On the other hand, maybe this will be one of the best moves MLS has made to date: the United Soccer League teams in Vancouver and Portland both have strong followings already, which may provide a solid fanbase for the new MLS teams (which may or may not be promotions of the current USL teams) despite their proximity. Furthermore, one of the biggest criticisms of the US as a soccer scene is the geographic factor...the distances between cities are so great that it is often difficult and expensive for fans to travel to away games to support their club, meaning the atmosphere at a game can't compete with the European scene, where fans routinely travel to away games in numbers significant enough to make them a real factor in their opponents' home stadiums. As wonderful as it is that many soccer matches are now regularly broadcast on television for viewers nationwide to tune in, it is undeniable that to properly appreciate the beautiful game, you should be there as it's happening. Having teams clustered in cities close enough that it is easy for fans to travel creates potentially thrilling rivalries, and could be good for breeding dedicated new fans. Time will tell...


MLS 2009 Kickoff!

Tonight was the kickoff of the 2009 MLS Season with the inaugural game of Seattle Sounders FC hosting Red Bull New York. The nearly 43,000 screaming fans at Qwest Field made for quite a 12th Man as the Sounders dismantled a shaky-looking Red Bull 3-0, with 2 goals from Fredy Montero and another from Brad Evans. While the showing from New York was disappointing, the ambition demonstrated by Sounders proves they, under the leadership of championship-winning coach Sigi Schmid, have every intention of being a legitimate force in the league this season. If their fans remain as supportive and as LOUD as they were tonight, this franchise probably will meet their goal of making the playoffs. Congrats Seattle on finally having something go right lately in the wide world of sports!


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Goalie scores!

In Sunday's U-23 (that's Under 23-years-old, for you soccer lingo neophytes) match between South Korea and Côte d'Ivoire, goalkeeper Jung Sung-Ryeong scored a goal from just outside his own 18-yard box.  Check out this video!