Thursday, March 31, 2011

US Men's National Team: Can't Touch Dis!

Thinking diverges broadly on the status of the USMNT. Tie to Argentina on 26 March? Awesome! Lose 1-0 to Paraguay the 29th? Miserable! Paul Kennedy, writing for Soccer America, makes it sound like this was the US-Argentina match was the worst game he had ever seen in his life (clearly he's never watch Stoke City play). To read Kennedy’s various articles in Soccer America, there is very little that USSF can do right-or has ever done right. In contrast, MLS Soccer's Talk's Daniel Feuerstein raves about the team's style of play after that game and after the 1-0 loss to Paraguay as well. For Feuerstein, the game did not matter much because it was an exhibition, but 19-year-old Juan Agudelo's goal on Saturday was the greatest thing on Earth since Fidel Castro invented the cigar.

Not losing - and not being intimidated by Argentina - a team led by the greatest player currently in the game was impressive. In a game where our veterans (Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Carlos Bocanegra, etc. did not play well), Tim Howard's 13,000 saves kept us in the game, and Agudelo was able to notch his second goal in three appearances with the USMNT.

In the Paraguay game, the line-up was a bunch of guys that Coach Bob Bradley would ever start in a relevant match (World Cup, Gold Cup or even an exhibition against Argentina). This is the starting line-up that wouldn’t! Even in this game however, the team played fairly, despite the Paraguayan players hacking down US players every time they were beaten by individual efforts.

On a happy note, a groundswell of support has triggered a multitude of comments from unlikely sources:

- Col Muammar Gaddafi- that Juan Agudelo kid is brilliant, I wish he played for Juventus!

- Dr. Doom: Chandler's crosses are so beautiful, my iron mask almost rusted from the tears.

- Donald Rumsfeld: As I recall, that Bob Bradley assured me there was WMD in Iraq.

- Ghost of X-Mas Present: The Gold Cup is going to be awesome this year!

- Alexis Lalas: Dude, where’s my car?

- Diego Maradona: Tuesday I wished I’d been playing for Paraguay, because I would have loved to kick Clint Dempsey in the knee-cap!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

MLS's "Tradition" Problem

One of the issues that has gotten tiresome over the years with MLS is the league's incessant need to constantly push recognition of team and league traditions. Tradition is extremely important in soccer and all of the great South American and European clubs have been around close to a hundred years (Santos for instance), if not more (Manchester United). But MLS, now in just its 17th season, has less traditions to tout. There are not really any derbies to be played since only Los Angeles hosts more than a single team. But there are not several London teams or Buenos Aires clubs to challenge each other. There are also relatively few celebrated former players: the Jaime Morenos and Brian McBrides of the world. So MLS is constantly trying to artificially create club cultures.

This issue is apparent once again as Real Salt Lake is seriously considering retiring Coach Jason Kreis's #9 jersey. This number actually does have a prominent role in soccer culture globally, so the fact that the team is thinking about retiring it (or any other number) is really absurd. Retiring jersey is much more closely associated with NFL, where great players' numbers are no longer given to other players. For the Miami Dolphins, there will never be another #13-that honor will always belong now to Dan Marino. But Marino played his entire career in Miami, whereas Kreis's best years (1996-2004) were all in Dallas (91 goals in 247 appearances), not RSL.

Another trend that has grown tiresome, are the preponderance of artificially created rivalries. The term "rivalry" is thrown around my MLS and in MLS press coverage all the time. Before Philadelphia Union had played its first MLS game in 2010, reference to a rivalry with DC United and New York Red Bulls was already commonplace. Perhaps drawing from major college "bowl games" (i.e. the Orange Bowl or the Rose Bowl), the MLS has a preponderance of little recognized rivalry-based cups. For instance, the "Atlantic Cup" which DC United has won 7 times (woot-woot) against the Red Bulls (twice) and the "Trillium Cup" (Columbus Crew vs Toronto FC) which was not invented until 2008.

All this is to speculate on a question: rather than rigging schedules to draw attention, could it be that the side spectacles (mini-cups and marches to stadiums and such) are taking away from what is most important to MLS's fans: enjoyment of their teams. Why not encourage media coverage of the CONCACAF Champions' League or the US Open Cup? The Champions' League winner afterall, would get to play in the FIFA Clubs World Cup and highlight the growth of MLS and American soccer to the world.

Maybe in 2011, it is time to put the gimmicks aside.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

DC United Week 2: What the Heck Was That?

Maybe it was New England's turf field. Maybe United were still excited about last week's win. Perhaps three players who started for the first game of the season was too many to deal with. It does not matter, DC were flat in their first away game of the season. In contrast to last week, there was a lack of vigor on Saturday and at times (especially in the first half) it looked like Joseph Ngwenya and Chris Pontius were the only ones working.

For most of the game, United's players looked like strangers on the field, there was little coordination and several times it looked like players were not expecting to ball to come toward them. Najar fought for the ball, cross it into the box, only for no one to be on the other end. What happened to the link-up play?

But if United needed a boost, it was New England who received it early in the game after a clear handball five feet from the goal by Zack Schilawski, went uncalled in the eighth minute. A few minutes later, Shalrie Joseph converted on a penalty kick after Dax McCarty jumped tried to clear the ball in the box with a wild kick that caught a sparrow-in-flight-like Pat Phelan in the shin. In total, there were five yellow cards called in the game and one red card. There was also a penalty kick taken by Charlie Davies in the 89th minute, but it was too little too late.

Coach Olsen tried to compensate for New England's midfield in the second half, changing his 4-4-2 to a 3-5-2 and bringing two subs on.

Attitude Adjustment Needed?
It is unclear what happened this week. Maybe the pressure of facing the Revolution at Foxboro? Afterall, in an era where MLS is trying to play-up team rivalries, the differences between these clubs are real. This is not like last year's "rivalry" between United and the expansion Philadelphia Union; two teams that had never played each other, but which journalists parroted MLS in playing up the rivalries between these cities in other sports. Oddly enough, perhaps the missing ingredient this week was character. It was disconcerting watching Charlie Davies pat Revs goalie on the back after saving a goal and smiling and hugging other players at different times. I think most people want to see him do well, but we also want to see him less chummy with opposing teams.

Friday, March 25, 2011

DC United to Face Key Rivals, New England Revolution

DC's 1st away game of the season promises to be a tough slog, as they travel to Boston to face New England Revolution.

Last weekend United's defense stymied Columbus Crew, allowing just one goal behind the leadership (and communication skills) of the ridiculously young Perry Kitchen. Kitchen will not play this week however, because he has been called up for international duty to the US U20 team. United can also miss out on the services of right-back Jed Zayner, who has been nursing a hamstring most of the week and still listed as day-to-day on Thursday. To plug these holes, DC is likely to call on Rodrigo Brasesco (an Uruguayan defender signed in the offseason in place of Julius James) at centerback and Chris Korb, a former team mate of Kitchen at Akron to fill in for Zayner.

While DC’s midfield should remain intact, it is less clear whether Coach Ben Olsen will leave the attack or start Charlie Davies. Davies’s two goals last week (one from a free kick) made great headlines and this storyline will continue to play out over the next eight months. But is Davies a better option up front that Joseph Ngwenya? Ngwenya, a strong and physical attacker, played the first fifty minutes last week, running down balls, holding up the ball and providing some assistance on defense. However, his shots on goal were a little overzealous and they were all way over the bar.

For New England the picture is less clear as the team continues to struggle with injuries to three probable starters, All-Star Kevin Alston (right back), and new additions Ousmane Dabo (defensive midfield) and Didier Domi (left back). Last week, Coach Steve Nicol opted to field a 4-5-1 against L.A. Galaxy in L.A., this week again Nicol’s selection of a starting lineup and formation will be equally difficult, despite playing at home. The Revs backline will again be missing key players, and Marko Perovic (who started last week) has also picked up an injury.

Prediction: Expect New England midfielder Shalrie Joseph to shine again as the Revs will find it extremely difficult to find goals elsewhere. Nicol will go again with a 4-5-1, with Ilija Solica perhaps replacing Perovic in the midfield. DC’s Chris Korb will be tested and but Brasesco’s experience will fortify the center. An aggressive DC will win this one 2-0.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Michael Jackson Statue at Craven Cottage? Really??

In what has to be one of the strangest tributes of all time, Fulham FC owner Mohamed Al-Fayed, has announced that he has commissioned a statue of Michael Jackson. Sources announced on 16 March that a gold-face statue of the late dancer sitting with Bubbles the Chimp, will be unveiled at Craven Cottage on 3 April before Fulham's game against Blackpool.

Jackson and Al-Fayed became friends over several years, and Jackson is known to have attended a Fulham game in 1999 during his umbrellaed widow phase.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

DC United Wins 2011 Opener in Style

There was something hanging over DC United, prior to their season opener. There were many questions that needed to be answered. How would this team react to so many new faces? How would the team react to the start of a new season after what was an embarrassing effort in 2010? Would Andy Najar still have his mojo? Would McCarty's leadership translate to DC? Would Charlie Davies deliver the goals and excitement that the fans hoped he would? DC's opening match answered all of these and more.

The first half of tonight's game was painfully even. Neither DC nor Columbus was especially sharp, despite a coupe of great efforts by Andy Najar (M), Chris Pontius (M) and Joseph Ngwenya (F). Josh Wolff started the route in the 51st minute, beating a defender, positioning the ball with his left foot then putting it in the back of the net with his right. In the 52nd minute, Ngwenya was subbed off and Charlie Davies entered the game. His speed and touch clearly changed how Columbus tried to defend. Davies played further back, and nearer the wing than Ngwenya had, giving the defense trouble the rest of the game. Davies converted a free kick in the box in the 53rd minute and then scored again in the 77th minute. On opening night, DC lived up to the off-season hype.

There were a few surprises on Saturday night. Woolard, Boskovic and Davies did not start. Instead, it was Josh Wolff, not Davies who coupled with Ngwenya up front. Mark Burch started at left back and Pontius started on the wing instead of Boskovic. Burch did not feature at preseason games, and Wolff had not played at all. This lineup was clearly difficult to predict and it will be exciting to see how the line-up will shake out over the next couple of months.

It is difficult to know what this success means so early in the season, but there are a few things worth mentioning at this stage. Perry Kitchen's performance was outstanding; his communication with the players made them more effective. Santino Quaranta came on late in the second half and I will expect that to continue for regular-season MLS games. The expanded roster and number of experienced players on the bench, will allow DC to compete in Open Cup this year. Andy Najar picked up where he left off last year, although he is a little taller and stronger-looking this season. One final note: Pat Onstad played better tonight than anyone expected him to play. He was in the air and on the ground many times; until we get Bill Hamid back and in form, Pat Onstad will be a fine goalkeeper.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Two Days To United's 2011 First Kick

With just two days to go before the start of the season for DC United, the anticipation is almost overwhelming. DC United have increased their public profile in recent months by ramping up PR across the region. Meet the Coach events, happy hour with some players, revealing the new all-red kit at a car show, even commandeering U street's Ben's Chili Bowl for St. Patrick's Day. It is clear DC United is trying to reinvigorate public support.

Despite the public efforts, all of this will be a wasted effort if the team fails to perform on the field. Charlie Davies's loan has provided an enormous boost to ticket sales according to team officials, but if they do not start the season strong, the specter (and bad luck) of last year's poor performances can return to wreak havoc.

Ben Olsen has done a great job assembling this team however and his work ethic seems to have already transcended onto his team. Midfielder Dax McCarty promises to anchor the center of the field with a burst of energy that drove Dallas FC for several years and a young US National team in January exhibition games. Add a recovering Davies (still with something to prove) and a strong forward like Joseph Ngwenya, and you now have an attacking core that will give defenders different things to worry about. Add to that, a strong support cast of wingers and defenders, and what you have is a young team that has every reason to at least qualify for the playoffs.

PREDICTION: Against a Columbus Crew that is looking to find its identity, DC United will win their home game 2-1 on Saturday night.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Lost Art of the Album

Several people I have spoken to lately have commented on my CD collection. I have been collecting these since around 1993. I presently own over 400 in multiple languages and music styles, each with its own charms. Prior to starting this collection I bought cassette tapes that I played until they wore down, warped or otherwise stopped playing. But for almost twenty years now, I have been growing my collection even as many of my friends have turned to media downloads.

Downloads are easier to store. You do not have to go to a store for them (although sometimes you can buy a card at a store that allows you to download the music) and you can get what you’re paying for almost immediately. However, the argument for buying CDs is much stronger. With these, you can copy your CD to your PED or delete it as you wish without worrying about losing your music. More importantly, I think that while buying individual songs is okay, you completely miss out on receiving a more comprehensive piece of work that the artist is trying to use to convey a message.

While CDs are more difficult to store than downloads (which live inside of electronic devices), they come with album covers and artwork that convey some sort of idea; an extra insight into the band or singer’s work.

The album cover has been important to how bands portray since the 1960s. To this day, many people (the author included) can be moved to buy an album based exclusively on the cover. How does a band project its image? Who are they? The 1980 KISS album “Unmasked” for instance pokes fun at their make-up and commercialism, and remains a favorite album cover for many fans.

The inlay cover is also a neat part of a cover. For a band with a revolving- door of musicians, Guns n’ Roses for instance, a listing of who plays what on which track is greatly appreciated. To learn songs when I was growing up, the lyric sheet was essential. Finally, the liner notes that often accompany remastered “classic” albums usually provide great insights into the recording of the album or why it mattered. For instance, the liner notes of Herbie Hancock’s “Head Hunter” provides context to the album. What was Herbie doing before and after that album? How does this relate to other contemporary music? Read the liner note.

While instant gratification is a clear advantage that downloads have over albums, the latter provides more to the listener than just the music. It provides a more comprehensive understanding of the artists and their music.