» U.S. Soccer

Mostly Baffled, But There Are Some Answers

I’m big enough to admit it. I have no idea what the hell is going on. Does Rafa Benitez have any idea what he’s doing at Liverpool? By almost everyone’s estimate, he came into the season with the second best team in the Premiership. They’ve struggled for their form to say the least so far. Everton just dusted them in the derby at the weekend 3-0. I can understand perfectly well that he may have been less than thrilled with some of the perfomances.

Tonight in the Champions League he sat most of the usual suspects and PSV Eindhoven held them to a 0-0 draw. They used to accuse sweet Claudio Ranieri of being too much of a ‘tinker’ when he was at Chelsea, but Benitez is taking it well beyond even that. Liverpool is much stronger this year, but still not Chelsea-like–being able to field an entire second team with enough talent to beat just about anyone. Liverpool has to field the likes of Gerrard, Alonso, Hyppia, and Crouch to have much of a chance against a quality team. He sat them all.

Maybe he had a point to prove, but it seems like lately every time a manager decides to drive home a point it costs them a big game. There must be better way.

No such slip-ups for Chelsea. They took care of Werder Bremen fairly easily, 2-0. That was the one team in the group good enough to surprise Chelski, especially this early, if they looked past them, but Mourinho had them awake and ready to play. Looks like they’ll get through along with Barcelona. Their chances look much better than they did when the draw first came out. It was wonderful to delude myself into thinking they could get knocked out in the group stage. It’s not going to happen, but I still don’t think they’ll win the thing either.

I also can’t begin to figure out Tottenham. I’ve kept up my end and have been avoiding watching them live. No matter. They still look shaky. Actually, they look fine, they just can’t seem to be able to score. Not playing Defoe is obviously not wise. He wants out, but play him while you have him. Of course, he only wants to leave because Jol, for some reason only he must know, doesn’t use him much.

Ipswich has always been beyond me. I’ve decided to just ride the wave and not get too bothered about where they’re going. They looked awful to start the season, but have managed to win three on the trot now. They are a mid-table team, through and through. They’ll be streaky all season, I’m afraid. Just when I start getting my hopes up that they may be good enough to contend, they’ll drop several points to teams they should easily beat. I blame Magilton for some of that, but the reality is they’re just a very average Chamionship side.

One manager that can easily be blamed for his team’s up and down performance is Gareth Southgate at Middlesborough. They look absolutely great one week, and absolute rubbish the next. Southgate is a great guy and I hope he eventually succeeds, but you can’t tell me ‘Boro wouldn’t be better off with practically anybody else at the helm. He should be learning the ropes somewhere in the lower leagues. Well, he may have ‘Boro down there where he belongs soon enough anyway.

One other thing that has become glaringly obvious is how great Martin O’Neill really is. He won’t be out-coached by anyone, and Aston Villa already look like a completely different team. Randy Lerner should be very pleased with his English football team, unlike the American one.

Is the US ever going to name a national coach? One should have been hired as soon as Arena left. I don’t think they’re cannily waiting to land the one they want. I’m convinced they have no idea what they’re doing at all. I think they want an American, but none strike me as being capable of taking the team beyond where Arena had them. They had a quick chance to do something dramatic and make a difference right after the World Cup. That moment looks to be gone.

Comings and Goings

Bruce Arena was quickly snatched up by the Red Bulls as the new joke coach of a joke team in a joke league. After his dismal running of an overrated American squad in the World Cup, I guess he had to take what he could get. He publicly complained right after the Cup that the American players had to go abroad to hone their skills in order to become competitive. He was absolutely correct there. The first thing he’d gotten right in a month. The advice didn’t apply to him, apparently. Sorry Bruce, Europe has all the bog standard coaches it needs at the moment–good luck in Jersey.

I’ve been looking over the transfer lists, but there really hasn’t been much to raise the eyebrows over yet. I don’t really think Chelsea has improved over last year despite dropping even more dosh. Ballack, Shevchenko, Mikel–so what? They’re going to be focused on the Champions League this year, since that’s the coveted bit of silverware they haven’t won. The race might be tighter in the Premier League. They just might end up with nothing. There’s always hope.

The Premiership challenge has to come from the usual suspects, though. There’s no new teams sneaking into the upper echelon yet. I think Arsenal are slipping a bit rather than gaining. Their defense is getting worse by the day. Cambell is gone. Senderos is out. Cole wants to leave. The new stadium isn’t going to be hosting the same quality that has been on the pitch at Highbury the last few years. The Invincibles, they aren’t. Chelsea probably won’t dip far enough for the Gunners to be a factor.

ManU need a few signings–and no, Ole Gunnar isn’t one. He’ll never be quite the same after his destroyed knee. They’re in the process of getting rid of Ruud, but dead set on keeping prissy Crissy Ronaldo (on the same team as his best mate in the world, Wayne Rooney). When they need help, and they do especially in the midfield, they’ve always gone out and got it. They’re still the biggest team in the game. As long as the Glasers keep up that tradition, they should add enough talent to push that London team.

Liverpool might be the strongest of the lot. They trimmed some dead weight. Bruno Cheyrou, the next Zidane, wasn’t and never will be. Morientes, Hamann, Cisse, were all superfluous parts. Adding Gabriel Paletta may help in the back. I’ve never cared for Craig Bellamy (Norwich bloke that he was), but Liverpool might be the perfect spot for him–if there is one. They want a few more signings, but the purse strings seem to be tightening. If they can wrestle away one of the relegated Italians or two–they could be right there at the end.

I always have a soft spot for Tottenham. Especially with Martin Jol coaching now. I always support them, but they only win when I’m not watching. They haven’t really bulked up any over last year, but the pack may come to them. I’ll do my part. I refuse to watch a live Spurs match until October (unless they’re playing Chelski). I’ll give them until then. Can’t say fairer than that.

USA still alive after 1-1 tie with Italy

What a game! After looking like a second-rate squad in their opener against the Czech Republic, the Americans came back strong with a sprited effort against an Italian team that looked fantastic in its opening match.

The Americans were able to frustrate the Italian side by working loading up the midfield and playing very aggressively, constantly fouling the Italians. Unofrtunately the officials issued an incredible three red cards! The Americans played with a 10-9 disadvantage for much of the game, but still managed to hang on for the draw.

With Ghana’s amazing 2-0 upset over the Czech Republic, the United States now has a clear path to advance. They need to defeat Ghana and then hope for a win by Italy over the Czechs.

Defeating Ghana will not be easy, though Ghana will be without two of their top players in the match. Ghana looked great agaist Italy in the opener despite losing 2-0, so many shouldn’t be surprised by their win over the Czechs.

As for Italy, they have to be disappointed by their effort against the United States.

What Are We in For?

I can’t help but be concerned. The US team is waltzing along to Germany without a care in the world. The mainstream media gives them the happy nod, expecting them to do well. That opinion is, no doubt, bolstered by the ridiculously high world ranking, and their ignorance of all things soccer. What’s going to happen once the team gets a shellacking and is unceremoniously sent back home?

Can you hear the jokes already?

The sport is just struggling to its feet in this country. Most of the sports stories and talk, when soccer gets any attention at all here, are still condescending and derisive. The sense is, people are cautious now because they might have heard the US actually has a decent team, but they really can’t wait for them to bomb so they can get a cheap laugh and go back to talking about the only 3 things they all know anything about.

I do think the US team is at least competitve, much better than they ever have been, but I still don‘t rate their chances this year. Things are just beginning to look up, and these things take time. Will a quick exit from the World Cup do irreparable damage now?

I think it might.

The MLS is eking by, and it’s important that it is, but even I struggle to get interested in most of their matches. If the national team doesn’t manage to live up to a respectable showing, I suspect the domestic soccer league will lose the fledgling amount of support it has earned so far. The message will be that soccer just isn’t America’s sport. Let the Europeans have that one and lets get back to something we can do. Right now, the likes of Landon Donovan and a handful of others are willing to sacrifice money and exposure by playing here. I’m afraid even a slight downturn now will bring them to say, “well, we tried”.

As things are now, I can pretty happily get as much soccer on television as I like. Between Fox and Setanta, I can watch most of the English Premier League matches, a handful from the Championship (thankfully, since my Ipswich seems mired in it for life), The Italian Serie A, the German Bundesliega, even some French and South American matches. ESPN generally carries a Champions League match. I can get extensive daily news, and there are even soap opera themed shows if I really get desperate.

All that is wonderful, but the truth is, those channels are losing money on that programming even now. They’re betting that they are starting out in a tiny market that will surely expand over time, and will eventually pay off. They honestly believe soccer is so good that it can’t possibly fail. A poor US showing could set them back years, and I worry they might just throw in the towel. It’ll be back to scouring the internet, and we won’t even catch a fleeting glimpse of the game from here.

So I’ll be rooting very hard for the national team to do well. For purely selfish reasons. I want the greatest game in the world to be played here. I want to be able to follow it from here. Unfortunately, if the US only play to their ability, it could be the beginning of the end. Americans want to be the best at whatever they’re doing. They tend to ridicule anything they don’t understand. They don’t have much patience to begin with, and I’m afraid a hiccup might be all it takes for it to run out on soccer.

I think a lot more hinges on the success of this Cup than many realize or would like to admit.

Everyone in the world seems nervous

Ten days away from the start of the world cup and every soccer fan, or at least the writers, seem to be losing faith. No matter where you look, it seems every country is heading for trouble. Except, perhaps, the US, where as usual, barely a peep is heard about the national team. Ironically, they’re the team with the most to worry about.

Even Brazil seems rattled right now. Edmilson is off due to a knee injury. Ronaldinho claims to be so tired he can barely stand. They’re even worrying about how many sausages Ronaldo has been tucking-in. While everyone else is tuning up with actual national teams, Brazil is playing against children (under-21 sides from club teams). I guess they know what they’re doing, but even the fans of the undisputed best team in the world are getting concerned.

Most teams are still nervously tinkering with line-ups. Some of this is just to give the regulars a rest, and much of it is over-blown, but Germany is still desperately searching for a defense. Any idiot would know just to throw Ballack, Klose, and Schweinsteiger up front, but you’d think they’d have had the back sorted sometime before now. It doesn’t look like they can stop anyone. Klinsmann should have had nothing else to think about for months. Apparently, a California beach isn’t conducive to that sort of thinking.

England has the whole Rooney saga. That’s shaping up to be their next ’if only …’ excuse. As in ’if only the plane hadn’t crashed in Munich’ , ’if only Maradona hadn’t cheated’, ’if only Becks was healthy’. They pull a new one out every four years–some lame, some not. They do look a bit lost right now with Owen alone up front. They actually look a little better with the novelty act, Frankenst–er I mean, Crouch in there with him, but Sven is right not to trust that. So the tinkering continues there. Including throwing a 17 year old who doesn’t even play for his club team into the mix. They’ll be ok with or without Rooney–but only ok, and that’ll never be good enough in Blighty. They’re right to be worried.

Italy is being overwhelmed with the match fixing scandal. Practically everyone on the national team has a link to it. The consensus seems to be that that distraction is going to be too much for them, and they’ll quickly duck back home in shame. Maybe a proper problem like this is just what they needed to keep the focus somewhere else than on their game. The only other thing they’ve been whining about was that Luca Toni misses too many chances. He only led the universe in scoring–how many did they expect him to stick in? But, that’s the Italians. They have a habit of inventing disasters, maybe they’ll do better if they already have a real one. For ninety minutes they can just go out and play and forget about everything else. See if that works–nothing else was.

Anyway, it seems no one is comfortable right now. That’s as it should be. The tension is building, and suddenly everyone has doubts. Beautiful, isn’t it?