Friday, April 8, 2011

DC United Prepares For MLS's Most Expensive Roster

On Saturday, DC United will face west coast juggernauts LA Galaxy in their forth game of the 2011 campaign. DC lost its first two away matches of the season, but triumphed at home in the season opener. LA has played four games this season, winning two and tying another. L.A. appear less sharp than was anticipated before the season started, after the much ballyhooed acquisition of Juan Pablo Angel from New York Red Bulls.

DC will be fair better than in the games against either Colorado or the Revolution, playing at home and getting Dejan Jakovic back (after serving a red card suspension) in a frozen stadium at altitude. Perry Kitchen is also expected to get the start, shore up the defense after the U-20 US men's national team was eliminated from the U-20 World Cup qualifier. Cornerbacks March Burch and Chris Korb are certainly up to the task, but less clear is what coach Be Olsen will do in midfield since Chris Pontius and Andy Najar both played in Wednesday's Open Cup match. While Pontius was subbed in during the second half, Najar played the entire game and whether he's able to recover in time for Saturday remains to be seen.Bill Hamid is expected to start in goal, in his first official MLS game since September.

L.A. Galaxy on the other hand intend to come in to RFK stadium to teach the black and reds a lesson. They may do that too. David Beckham played one of his best matches ever in MLS last week. After improving fitness over the last few games, coach Bruce Arena shift Beckham from the right wing to central midfield where his skill, experience and vision are far more valuable than on the wing. Landon Donovan is also expected to start on Saturday despite sitting out practice earlier this week.

Prediction. DC United can get three points out of this game, despite playing against a solid team. The return of Perry and Jakovic could not be soon enough and if Hamid is in form, it will be very difficult for the Galaxy to score. Expect to see week 1's starting line-up, despite Najar's mid-week 90+ minutes, but he will also be subbed-out during the second half in return for Santino Quaranta or Branko Boskovic. Charlie Davies should also make his return to the field this week, but not until the second half. Expect a fierce midfield battle between Donovan and Beckham against Clyde Simms (also back from injury)and Dax McCarty. Final score this week will be a 2-1 victory against Arena's usual tough defense.

CONMEBOL's Uncomfortable Copa America Situation

With less than three months left before the start of Copa America, CONMEBOL is in a tight predicament. Japanese officials gave notice that due to the devastation wreaked on them by the earthquake and tsunami, they would not be able to participate in this year’s competition. Immediately following the disaster, the J-League (Japan's 1st division soccer league) suspended the rest of its season so that players, teams and officials could attend to more pressing matters. Things like whether players' houses were blown away or what happened to missing family members had to be addressed. While their withdrawal from the cup was not immediate, they recently announced that they were withdrawing their participation. CONMEBOL’s dilemma is figuring out how to proceed.

Copa America’s format has traditionally included all 10 members of CONMEBOL and usually two invited CONCACAF teams (although Japan was invited in 1999). Desire to invite Japan again this year looks to have been driven by expectation that the likelihood of selling television rights for a more lucrative sum. In fact, the expectations were met, and the rights were sold before the catastrophe in Japan took place. The result now is that CONMEBOL officials are concerned with the economic (and legal) impact of what it could mean to them.

For now, CONMEBOL have asked the Japanese FA to reconsider their decision, and given them until 15 April to make a decision. The idea has been also been floated to request that Spain fill the slot left vacant by Japan, which could potentially also pay a lucrative fee. While the possibility was initially greeted with excitement by Spanish FA president, Spanish La Liga officials are opposed, preferring instead that their players take the offseason to rest instead.

Several of the last minute ideas are half baked. For example, if Japan were to play, where would they practice? These guys have not been playing at all, so expecting them to compete internationally seem ludicrous. On the other hand, if Spain agreed to send a team, would it be the world champions, or would it be a team made up mostly of reserves? What is the likelihood that Spain would send a U-20 squad? Finally, it is unclear whether anyone has considered whether it is unethical to invited clubs to the Cuopa America who are nowhere from the Americas? It would be a real embarrassment if Spain did send its senior, World Cup team and then won the Copa America. This would result in the Cope America held by a team from no where in the Americas!

This cup takes place in June; roughly the same time period as when the US is hosting the Gold Cup (a tournament for CONCACAF countries). For this reason, CONMEBOL is having a eck of a time finding a worthy participant. But perhaps this predicament will also shine a light on an important issue. Do CONMEBOL and CONCACAF countries actually need separate championships? Perhaps when June's competitions conclude, it will be time to reconsider combining these competitions to form a regional super-championship.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Update: Michael Jackson Statue Revealed At Craven Cottage

It has been an open secret for several weeks that Fulham FC was set to unveil a statue that owner Mohammed Al-Fayed commissioned to commemorate Jackson's legacy. The question of course, is "what is Michael Jackson's legacy in relation to soccer?" Your guess is as good as mine.
In response to Fulham fans' criticism of the hideous statue, Al-Fayed said that “If some stupid fans don’t understand and appreciate such a gift, they can go to hell. I don’t want them to be fans. If they don’t understand and don’t believe in things I believe in, they can go to Chelsea.”

It is true. This has to be one of the ugliest statues on the planet, and it is just plain weird. But there is also something endearing about the Al-Fayed's eccentric tribute. Some fans may be annoyed by this statue, but telling people you've seen it in person (especially if there is photographic evidence) would be fun. A trip to Craven Cottage could yield the entertainment of watching a good game, and a picture of someone standing next to (or just under) MJ. Of course, I certainly wouldn't want to see in front of my home team's stadium.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

DC United Gets Butt Kicked by Colorado Rapids

The still-frozen field, cold, thin air, and great play by Colorado was too much for United to handle on Sunday night.

The environment was strange from the beginning. Snow was plowed off the field just a few hours before the start of the game. The ball bounced oddly, moved quickly and was very difficult to control. Coach Ben Olsen withdrew Charlie Davies from the lineup when he was injured before the game. Instead, Blake Brettschneider, the 19-year-old rookie, debuted in his first ever game with the first team with Chris Pontius (leaving both Joseph Ngwenya and Josh Wolff on the bench). Olsen surprisingly did not start Najar in this game, going with Branko Boscovic in midfield instead and adding Santino Quaranta in the extra midfield slot.

During the first half, DC played well despite giving up a goal. That first goal was hard fought-for by Rapids' Caleb Folan, as the Rapids capitalized on a long ball and brilliant footwork from Folan. For the first twenty-five minutes of the second half DC played fairly. They kept the ball more but the speed of play had slowed noticeably. Quaranta scored on an excellent cross from rightback Chris Korb in the 25th minute, but that excitement lasted less than a minute as Jamie Smith beat United's defense with a header; this was then followed up with two additional Colorado goals to which DC was unable to respond.

This match was destined to be a battle for DC. With most of the starting defense injured or otherwise away, DC's makeshift back line simply was not up to the task. Starting Woolard at centerback was a mistake; it should have been the more experienced Mark Burch. Morsink disappeared for much of the game and Pontius looked to be playing more on the left wing than as a striker at times. Pat Onstad played poorly today; in both of the last two goals he had a legitimate chance to stop the ball but did not react quickly enough (possibly because playing goalie in weather that cold probably slowed his ability to react quickly or he may simply have been encased in ice). The most concerning thing for this team right now, is that there is still a lack of creativity up front. Crosses into the box look haphazard, and too often players seem to try to score by running or shooting generally toward the goal.

What's going on? DC United are going through a tough week right now. They played Sunday, they play an Open Cup qualifier on Wednesday and they play on Saturday against LA Galaxy. DC's defense will improve as players return, and we may have just seen Pat Onstad's final game. But it could be that the selection of Brettschneider and Pontius up front, was intended to keep Ngwenya and Wolff relatively fresh for the next two games. DC has not won anything since the 2008 Open Cup and they will need to play-in to get a shot at this bit of silverware. Perhaps, starting different forwards today, will allow DC a better shot at winning this week's next two games. Besides, it is too early in the season to worry about the grey clouds.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

DC United Against A Good Colorado Rapids Team

DC will face one of the few opponents they defeated last year, when they meet Conor Casey and the Rapids in Colorado. The home team is off to a great start this season, scoring four goals and being rewarded with two wins. Colorado is expected to start the same line-up they played on opening day which scored three goals. While Casey is a big target in the middle, his link-up play with Omar Cummings in the match. This combination will give DC's make-shift backline a a serious challenge. At midfield, Kurt Morsink and Dax McCarty will also need to fight to protect the ball and avoid goofy give aways that allow Colorado opportunities.

United's back line will again be without Perry Kitchen, but neither will DC have Dejan Jakovic (despite the league's quiet agreement that the red card last week was a poor call). DC United has options: Daniel Woolard played well in preseason and continues to do well in the reserve league, while Chris Korb (another one of those "Akron guys") was impressive in his first ever MLS start last week. However, goalkeeper Pat Onstad will have his work cut out for him, as he works to get this collection of good players to defend cohesively.

United will start a different attacking tandem than in the first game this week as Josh Wolff was downgraded to "out" on Thursday, due to a hamstring strain. Olsen has options here; Charlie Davies may be fit enough to start the game, while rookie Blake Brettschneider has been scoring regularly on the reserve squad and may get the call to start on Sunday night.

Prediction. Davies will start the match on Sunday, but don't be surprised if Brettschneider makes his MLS debut after the half (whether for Davies of Joseph Ngwenya). At midfield, last week's lineup will remain intact, but if Morsink is subbed-off during the second half, Olsen may well try Branko Boskovic, whose absence on the field this year has raised questions (and an admission by the coaching staff) about his lack of fitness.
On defense, Mark Burch may shift to centerback due to his experience, leaving Woolard to fill the left-back slot and deal with Cummings. An aggressive Colorado, hosting DC's make-shift defense, and a touch of altitude sickness will combine to vex DC; this game can well end 2-1 Colorado... but this author hopes he's wrong...