Month – October 2015

USMNT: The Days That Try Men’s Souls

The United States Men’s National team is at its lowest point in decades. More embarrassing than the faux denim kits of 1994 was our loss to Mexico in Saturday’s CONCACAF Cup.

In their biggest game since playing Belgium in the round of 16 at Brazil (and probably the most important US-Mexico game since 2002), the USMNT was thoroughly outclassed by their neighbor to the south, Mexico. The Yanks just let El Tri boss the game for large stretches. The possession was disgustingly lopsided. Mexico pushed a focused attacked that never let up while, while we barely held on. Once upon a time, a result like this was par for the course but the Yanks have since held a 3-0-3 record against Mexico. American supporters were getting used to a level of success and suddenly those expectations are very much in jeopardy.

The USMNT is suffering on the pitch, while soccer enjoys record success off it. I was temporarily out of the little soccer nirvana that is Seattle, visiting suburban D.C. for a friend’s wedding. Saturday night found us at a pre-nuptial’s festivity bowling. Amongst late college football games and booming music videos, the CONCACAF CUP played on 2 big screens at the bowling alley. I had expected a night of phone checking, but was thoroughly impressed.

Soccer is gaining traction in this country: the recent World Cup fever, the USWNT Olympic and World Cup victories, major EPL and Bundesliga TV deals, the rise of MLS and yet… the “flagship” team can’t beat Jamaica, Panama or Mexico when it matters? For soccer to hit its US tipping point, the USMNT must be successful. But potential soccer fans have been greeted with mediocrity on the pitch.

Let’s be real a second… the majority of Americans’ relationship to sporting teams is star-crossed. There’s a lot more suffering fans of Philadelphia, Cleveland and San Diego teams than the Yankees and Patriots. But when it comes to international competition, Americans expect success. The Stars and Stripes is a country of winners, be it basketball, gymnastics, hockey, or track.

Our lackluster soccer achievements have never been a problem because, you know, who cares about soccer? But that cognitive dissonance, stinking at the world’s game, while running the world, is finally ebbing. Many of us actually want to be good at soccer now. If the USMNT wants to capture the hearts and minds of US sports fans, losing key games in our region must end.

 

USMNT vs. Mexico: CONCACAF Cup Bold Prediction

This evening at the Granddaddy of them All, the Rose Bowl, the United States Men’s National Team faces off against Mexico in a one-game, winner-take-all match to decide the CONCACAF champion.

Both teams are bringing their “A” games. Jurgen has, thankfully, brought a top choice roster. Mexico’s interim manager, Ricardo Ferretti (who Sounders fans should remember as the coach of Tigres, whom Seattle beat in the 2013 CCL), has also brought a strong lineup despite injuries to key players. (Jose Juan Vasquez will be a key loss for El Tri). Neither team has been on its form as of late, but this rivalry brings out in the bets in North American soccer. Expect a wild one.

An addendum to yesterday’s post: After the USMNT barely bested a poor Peruvian side, Bob Ernisse, my partner on the Wrong Color Green podcast, and I had a disagreement about how best to support the Stars and Stripes. I said I was cheering for the US to lose a friendly ’cause I wanted Jurgen publicly censured. I want the US Soccer Federation to get the clue that he is bad for the USMNT and the development of the game in our country. Well.. Bob said I was being a traitor, that I should cheer on the team come hell or high water. That is a very short-term view.

I love the Stars and Stripes and feel our national team would be better served with a different coach. Why do we want a coach who blames poor performances on “conditioning” when the US has historically been among the best conditioned teams in international soccer? A coach who actively insults his best players’ decisions to ply their trade at home? A coach who openly holds that domestic league in contempt. A coach who lobbies young American phenoms, like Jordan Morris, to go to Europe where “the development is better.” Why do we want a coach who repeatedly fails to put his players in a position to succeed? Why do we want a coach who stewards America’s first loss to a CONCACAF opponent before the final of the Gold Cup for the first time in our history? Tell me that.

If losing friendlies now gets Klinsmann fired sooner (than say after an embarrassing flop in 2018), I feel that’s the best course of action for soccer in this country. Though, today, with so much on the line. I’ll suffer a media cycle or two of Jurgen love, if the Yanks can get past Mexico. Winning today allows the USMNT to compete at the highest level against the very best national teams in the Confederations Cup. That is something I always want to see.

Bold Prediction: This is a tough one to call. Klinsmann hasn’t exactly been Mr. Predictable. This is a strong roster and hopefully, Klinsmann makes a logical selection. I am really just shooting in the dark here, but I think we really want this. The Gold Cup was embarrassing and we have some proud, proud men on this team. Both teams will play close, waiting for the other to screw up. This is heated and a rivalry, and I think things get wild. I want to say Dos a Cero but we’d only be so lucky. I’m calling 3-2 Yanks, with a PK for good measure.

CONCACAF Cup Preview: Jurgen Klinsmann and the Future of the USMNT

Though the Seattle Sounders are on a bye, it is a big weekend for American soccer. Chad Marshall, Nelson Haedo Valdez and Oniel Fisher look to heal up for Seattle’s final push for playoff positioning. But Clint Dempsey and Brad Evans will not have that luxury.

Saturday the USMNT faces off against Mexico in (what the PR geniuses at Fox Sports are calling) the “CONCACAF Cup.” This game is, in world football parlance, a cup tie, or in good ol’ Americanese, a one-game playoff. Saturday’s winner will advance to represent the region at the 2017 Confederations Cup.

Mexico, as we all remember, won the Gold Cup this past summer after the Stars and Stripes bowed out to Jamaica in the semis. Mexico has yet to claim the title of CONCACAF champion because the US won the previous Gold Cup. In light of the Yanks’ performance this summer, it shouldn’t just be regional supremacy on the line but USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s job as well.

First off I am no Klinsmann fan, so keep my bias in mind. Granted, he is a fine recruiter and system builder. He has brought top-notch talent stateside in Julian Green, among others, but he’s weaksauce when it comes to game day management. Klinsmann has made an annoying habit of sloppy rosters and confounding lineups. Leading up to the World Cup in Brazil, Jurgen drilled the squad in a 4-2-3-1 lineup with Jozy Altidore as the lone striker and Michael Bradley playing out of position (more on this later) as a CAM. All well and god, but when Altidore went down early in our first game against Ghana, the USMNT had no like-for-like backup to Jozy. Aron Johansson was trotted out, but proved ineffectual. Against Portugal, Dempsey was pushed up to target forward, a position he’s never played before. It was inexcusable to build your team around one formation, but not actually have the depth to run it.

Jurgen is constantly putting players in uncomfortable positions (much like the back of a Volkswagen). His questionable calls continued this summer. Warming up for the Gold Cup, he fielded star-filled, killer lineups in friendlies against Germany and the Netherlands. When the tournament started, Jurgen went wonky with his lineup card: Brooks and Alvarado as first-choice centerbacks, Bedoya as a defensive mid, etc. etc. Then he overworked his stars in a 6-0 slaughter of Cuba and was shorthanded in the semis, leading to their ignoble loss.

Further complicating matters, Klinsmann makes odd omissions. The most famous being Landon Donovan last summer. I know I’ve weighed in already and that this is a tired argument, but honestly, who would you rather have subbed on late against Belgium with Tim Howard standing on his head, Wondo or a player with 157 caps and 57 international goals? This year, the U.S. has had a sloppy back four, (what did Klinsmann do to Omar Gonzalez’s confidence?) but neither Chad Marshall, nor Clarence Goodson ever get a sniff of a call-up.

Lastly, Klinsmann insults US fans for their perceived ignorance of the sport. After the recent friendlies against Brazil and Peru, Klinsmann took to the media and ranted that Americans didn’t know enough about the sport, saying,”They [U.S. fans] care about the game, they care about the national team. They care about saying their opinion. Do they understand really what happened in the Gold Cup? Some of them absolutely do and a lot of people don’t. I take it, it’s not a big deal. But it also explains we have a long way to go to educate people on the game of soccer still in this country.” He indicated that we did not understand his brilliance and that we need to be “better educated” to understand why we get trounced by Brazil and can barely beat a middling Peru side. He also insults MLS saying that Bradley, Altidore and Dempsey took the easy way out transferring to the domestic league.

The USMNT’s product on the field has been spotty of late. Despite a renaissance of youth and talent at the national level, the Stars and Stripes are losing games they have no business to. Klinsmann’s regime has erratic at best, hopefully this Saturday against Mexico, we win despite our coach.

Seattle Sounders: Talking About PLAYOFFS!?!

The Seattle Sounders are looking ahead to the playoffs. We have just muscled through the toughest remaining game on our schedule and must only face Houston and RSL, not exactly a murderers’ row, to finish out the year.

The regular season is a wash. Once upon a time, 2015 was MLS Cup or bust. Now we’re looking at being happy with the 4th seed. The first round bye, which flickered back into hope for a moment two weeks ago, is a goner. Anything can happen in the wild west, but it is looking more likely we’ll be the 5th seed, hopefully the 4th, and that means a matchup with either SKC or Vancouver.

I am going to play devil’s advocate here, but it sure seems the Rave Green faithful has settled. Sunday night, the stadium was rocking. For the final fifteen minutes, as Seattle laid siege to L.A.’s goal, all of Sodo was echoing with ECS chants. Then the place exploded when Barrett’s strike finally equalized. The only problem… we were way too excited for barely earning a draw at home.

MLS is a weird league. Too often a random team gets hot and tears through November on their way to the Cup. If we are being honest with ourselves, we’ll admit to thinking that this year that team is us. We know we don’t have a perfect team, or a peeking team, or, hell, even a very resilient team (Sunday being only the second time in 32 games we’ve mustered a result after ceding the first goal). But we keep telling ourselves, “once we’re healthy” and “once we’ve gelled” that “we’ll get hot and make a serious run in the playoffs.”

I want to believe that but, man, we haven’t exactly looked like world beaters. If we celebrate a draw at home to L.A., do we really expect to beat L.A. when it matters? Sure, things have been much better since the summer swoon, but this team still has issues. We’ve dropped too many points lately: Sunday night struggling for a draw, on the road at a depleted SKC, and at RSL when we got whupped. These results don’t inspire much confidence.

Do you expect this squad, not it’s ideal form, but this squad as it is, fatigued, injured and all, to win two series as an underdog and then the MLS Cup Final? It is not an easy answer. The Sounders that muddled out draws at SKC and L.A. will just be another postseason disappointment. But the Sounders that destroyed Vancouver in back-to-back games could win MLS Cup. Hell, they should win MLS Cup. Maybe we must all start hoping the ‘Caps fall to the fourth seed, so we can kick off our postseason with some much needed momentum.

 

Seattle Sounders vs. L.A. Galaxy: Dramatic Draw At the Death

The Seattle Sounders drew the L.A. Galaxy 1-1 at home Sunday night in front of a rocking house in Sodo. It took an at-the-death set piece goal from Chad “pickle juice” Barrett to secure the home result and keep Seattle’s playoff momentum cooking.

The 2014 Sounders, those of 20 wins, the US Open Cup Championship and Supporters’ Shield, won in comebacks on the regular. This squad? Not so much. In 31 games played this season, only once has Seattle come back to get a result after allowing the first goal (a 2-1 win over the New York Red Bulls). Thankfully, for the first time in months, the 2015 team is looking a bit like the 2014 variety: contenders.

Seattle absolutely dominated possession (except for a shaky fifteen minute stretch late in the first half) and played smart. The Sounders were patient and rarely overextended themselves to L.A.’s counter, at one point allowing the Galaxy’s centerbacks to play catch on the backline while neither forward chased and lost position. And we played with grit. Oba was all over the field, and Ozzie was at his destroying best. All of this without an ideal eleven.

L.A. came out with their best lineup and the Sounders, as always, mustered together a roster. The backline was especially decimated, with Marshall and Fisher out and only Tyrone Mears could’ve been considered a starter. Then DP Nelson Haedo Valdez pulled his calf during warmups and the roster got worse. Neagle got the nod in the 11 and Chad Barrett in the 18.

Many heads has the hydra. Selecting Barrett was a fortuitous decision by Sigi because pickle power won the day, again. All I can say is wow. I have been on Barrett’s case in the past, but he scores big goals in big games. When healthy, we have so much big-name firepower, but so often the MLS journeymen with barely any European cred, carries the day.

The Sounders were on a 3-0-2 run and a five-game unbeaten streak that was suddenly in serious jeopardy. The draw at SKC could’ve been a tipping point back towards frustration, but Barrett saved the game. Now Seattle can continue their playoff push through two “easier” foes and get set for making noise in the postseason.

 

Seattle Sounders Seek Revenge Against L.A. Galaxy

Huge day in the Western Conference tomorrow as the #4 Seattle Sounders face the conference and league-topping Los Angeles Galaxy.

Seattle-L.A is the biggest game in American soccer. This rivalry doesn’t have the pomp and circumstance of Seattle-Portland, but this truly is the class of the league squaring off. When these two teams meet it is a referendum of the state of the game in the States. These are the two most ambitious, deep-pocketed clubs in the league. Both have legendary coaches and teams aren’t afraid to throw around big money, as both scour the globe for up-and-coming talent and marquee names.

Unfortunately L.A. usually gets the better of Seattle. Sure there’s been outliers, we trounced them 3-nil in 2012 and won the home-and-home for the Shield last year, but L.A. has always been a cut above. They are personally responsible for half of our playoff defeats (2010, 2012, 2014), and both in the Conference finals. They picked our pocket for the Shield in 2011. Taken another way, if we lived in a Scott Bakula-esque alternative timeline where the Los Angeles Galaxy didn’t exist, Seattle would have two Shields and, potentially, two MLS Cups. The Galaxy have just been a brick wall on Seattle’s drive to the top. Portland can say they hate us, but, other than 2013 (when we weren’t doing much anyway), they’ve been little more than a roadside distraction.

The unsaid but obvious goal of 2015 was to prove Seattle was finally better than L.A. We beat them head-to-head for the Shield last season and only just found ourselves on the wrong side of a new playoff tiebreaker. Sigi and co. were ready to prove they’d amassed a roster that was better than Bruce Arena’s. Unfortunately this year hasn’t exactly gone according to plan. L.A. won a 1-nil affair back in April and trounced us 3-1 in August. In neither game was Seattle at full-strength. In the first matchup we started a front six of Neagle, Oba, Roldan, Rose, a rusty Ozzie (his first 90 minute start of the year) and Pappa. Plus Mansaray and Kovar saw minutes. In the August thrashing, we started Thomas, Rose, Neagle and Barrett as the attacking front of our 4-2-3-1. Not exactly the roster the front office had in mind dreaming of the rematches after last year’s disappointing finish.

Sunday’s matchup will only get us a little closer to testing whether we’ve surpassed the Gals, as Marshall will definitely not play. But Sigi should have his best selection so far. Valdez, Ivanschitz, Oba and Deuce should all start. Friberg will be back in the midfield with Ozzie. The backfour will be shaky with Evans and Scott as the likely CBS and either Remick or Leo joining Mears at fullback. Oniel Fisher probably won’t go, but Remick has started both games against L.A. and knows the team well and Leo is a savvy veteran and better defender who just lacks speed.

BOLD PREDICTION: Goals will be scored. Los Angeles has given up the third-most goals in the conference, 38. Only SKC has given up more as a playoff team. Goalie Donovan Ricketts isn’t his scary self from 2013 and has gotten, well, rickety. An attacking front of Ivanschitz plus the DPs should find joy on Sunday night. But so will L.A.’s big-name attack.

The Galaxy score more goals than any other team (except for Toronto, with whom they’re tied), with 52. That’s 13 more than your Rave Green. So expect Scott and Evans to be tested all game long. Frei has been solid, but we will not get a clean sheet.

The player I’m really watching is Marco Pappa. He’s a big player who plays big in big games against L.A. The dagger he slotted home to clinch the Shield last year was a sounders instant classic. Does Sigi roll out the new big money boys, or stick to what works and give Pappa significant minutes.

Clint needs to rediscover his scoring touch. He had it in red, white and blue this summer, but has been dogged by the post and bad finishing lately. If Deuce can once again get clinical, we win 3-2. If Deuce has another spotty showing like last weekend, L.A. sweeps 2-1. (ok, so this is my first ever hedged bold prediction. I just have no reading on this game). C’mon Seattle, FIGHT AND WIN!!

 

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