Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Adu final gets to Europe

http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2007/soccer/07/31/bc.eu.spt.soc.adu.benfica.ap/index.html

So the American phenom is finally heading to Europe, but not to Manchester United or Chelsea (where he was long time rumored) but instead to Benefica. Let us put this in perspective. Benefica is a solid club, but more due to its legacy rather than its current form. They have struggled in their domestic league, as the article states they have not won the domestic title in 13 years and the European glory came in the 1960s. The Portuguese league is also not the most powerful in Europe, I would rank it well behind England, Spain and Italy and below France, Germany and Holland's leagues. But still well ahead of the MLS, so Adu will get a much higher level of competition playing in Portugal and will get some exposure to European football.

What is interesting is the following - all the hype that followed Adu in the MLS and post U20 World Cup made some believe that he was destined to slot behind Rooney in the starting 11 at Manchester United, yet he ends up in a second tier club. I think this once again shows that the US media hype machine, when it comes to football, over values the worth and talent residing in the MLS.

I do think this is a good move for Adu. He will never discover what his actual football worth is had he stayed in the middle of the MLS mucking it with Real Salt Lake. If starts to live up to an iota of the hype that surrounds him he will do well at Benefica. Playing for such a club will allow him to be better represented to the larger clubs in Europe and will allow him to move to a Barca or Manchester United in 2-3 years of success in Portugal. This will be a big test for Adu. Can he hack it in Europe? You know he will have a huge spot light on him and the defenders in the league will be getting their boots ready for Adu. If he can become a solid player his stock will rise accordingly.

Freddie's move is what should be the blue print for other "prospects." Rather than toil in the MLS (granted according to Alexi Lalas it is really one level below the Prem) get to a lower domestic league in Europe and get your football legs under you, build your resume and then move to a bigger European club. While older established players, such as Beasley, Dempsey and McBride can head right to second tier teams in big leagues, the younger players will need to look at lower domestic leagues or second tier teams (see Rossi who went to Parma from the US).

I will be interested to see how Adu fares, here is to hoping he does not pull a "Donovan" and actually sticks it out through thick and thin. He will be better for it.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Kudos to Iraq

http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2007/soccer/07/29/iraq.saudiarabia.ap/index.html

The "feel good" story for football this year, with war torn Iraq winning the Asia cup. They did not so the easy way either, and I am not talking about the situation in their home country that goes without saying. To get to the finals they had to defeat pre-tournament favorites Australia and South Korea, two of the jewels of Asian football. Iraq then defeated high powered Saudi Arabia in the finals. The path to victory for Iraq showed the best and worst of the situation in the war torn nation. Wild celebrations between Iraqis regardless of their ethnic backgrounds followed their wins over Australia, South Korea and Saudi Arabia....however terrorists took advantage to launch more suicide bombings targeting these celebrations as well.

I would hope this is a start in re-unification of a divided nation, but I am not that naive. It would appear that this is just an oasis in an otherwise brutal desert.

With this win, Iraq qualifies for the Confederations Cup.....if the football gods are awake they will draw the US and Iraqis together in group play.....

Monday, July 23, 2007

The crazy season continues

I decided to throw some thoughts on the recent transfers and player moves since a couple of stories peaked my interest. The first is one that my father pointed out - http://www.news.com.au/heraldsun/story/0,21985,22101756-2883,00.html

So the wizz kid from Australia, not a football hotbed but a nation with some solid talent - Kewell and Viduka come to mind. But it appears as if this 9 year old caught the attention of Manchester United and they have invited him to their training center. The reason this caught my eye was I find it funny that Freddie Adu, who has all the hype was not asked to stay at Manchester United while a 9 year old is asked to relocate from half way around the world. He might be the next star or yet another promising youth that ends up working at a pasty shop. Either way I find it funny that the US hyped Freddie Adu, supposedly the next Pele could not stick with the reserves at Manchester United but some 4-grader from down under is asked to stay.

Another story caught my eye and that was Freddie Ljungberg signing with West Ham. He is another addition to a moderately aggressive moves by West Ham - Faubert, Parker, Bellamey and Wright. Freddie also expressed some frustrations with the actions or non actions by the north Londoners. With Henry leaving and no subsequent move of note, it appears all is not well at the Emirates. The lose of the Swedish captain coupled with the lose of Pires prior to last season, depletes Wenger of two important midfielders/wingers for Arsenal. This makes the inability to sign Ribery that much more painful.

I also read a rumor that Wenger might be open to letting his talismatic Spaniard Cesc head to Real Madrid as long as he could secure Robinho in return. Not sure I would like that move. While Robinho is a huge offensive talent and had a great Copa America, I am not sure he is the answer to your striker needs. In addition, losing Cesc would open a gaping hole at midfield, unless Wenger sees Diaby as the replacement...and as much as I like Diaby he is not the answer for that role. And I am not sure Robinho will shine in the more physical Prem, if Baptista complained about the physical nature of British football what would the smaller Robinho make of it?

Arsenal appear to be treading water once again if not sliding down further into the mid-table. Come on Wenger pull another trick out of your bag of tricks, give us some hope that you are not playing for 3rd place or worse a UEFA spot!

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Beckham zoo - Part II

I must admit that I watched more MLS coverage this weekend than in the previous 10 years...why? Part of it was curiosity around the freak show that is following Beckham and the other is that with out Copa America or any of the European domestic league football I had to get my fix somewhere....plus watching one more Manchester United v Arsenal from the 1960s had little appeal to me.

So what have we learned after Beckham's first MLS action?

  • First the circus has come to town...and it will only get worse before regular service returns. ESPN literally had a Beckham camera zeroed in on him taking on his boots, taking them off, rubbing his ankle, and pretending to care about a friendly. They showed what it was like on the Galaxy side line just prior to kick off with what appeared to be more cameras than even a drunken Lindsey Lohan would usually expect...all taking worthless shots of Becks sitting at the end of the bench. Through out the match they kept showing Becks on split screen with the on field action. Ridiculous.
  • Second, get ready for equal camera work on Beckham's better half, his talented wife Victoria. We had to be entertained to numerous shots of her sipping champagne and carrying on conversation (about what is beyond me) while apparently completely oblivious to the action on the field.
  • Third, our friend Alexi Lalas will be even more in your face than usual. Although I think he has somewhat learned his lesson to temper his irrational exuberance when it comes to his star player and what he can do for the league and more importantly his poor performing LA Galaxy.
  • Finally, a warning for the casual fan as well as the fan that consumed too much Lalas cool aid and thinks that Beckham is the next coming of Zidane-Mueller-Pele-Maradona-Puskas rolled into one...Beckham remains a solid player, but is a far cry from his world class days of the late 90s early 2000 with Man U. I found it incredibly amusing to hear the excitement when he pick up the ball in his defensive third of the field...did fans think he would dribble the opposing team and score a Maradona/Messi type goal? I do think he could have done that when he was 23 let alone now. And before the fans get ahead of themselves the thumping long balls he will serve will not find Van Nistelrooy or Owen at the end of them....
So we will all need to prepare ourselves for the constant Beckham circus, his first official game, his first free kick, first goal, first red card......it will be interesting to watch, but once the real action starts again in Europe I doubt I will have much desire to turn on the Galaxy - DC United game when I can watch West Ham play Newcastle instead.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Beckham arrives in America

So today the circus begins, as Victoria Beckham and Mr Spice, David Beckham and their three sons have landed in Los Angles to launch her acting, errr I mean David's footballing career for the Galaxy. There has been much written and discussed about what this will do for American soccer, for Beckham's image and for the fundamental essence of man kind. Okay maybe I am being a little too dramatic.....but here are some reasons for why this is will succeed and why this will fail:

Why Beckham coming to the Galaxy will be a success:

  • Beckham is the biggest ambassador for football, globally. According to Real Madrid his marketing image was worth close to 40m British Pounds a year while running around with the Galaticos. With soccer academies, Disney-esc movies "Bend it Like Beckham," his own line of gear within the Adidas family, B-movie model looks, the fact he is British (and therefore speaks some form of English), more hair styles that Paris Hilton DUIs and his amazing understanding of how to push his image to all corners of the world, Beckham is a global icon and the fact he can kick a soccer ball 40 yards and place it on a dime helps a bit. He understands the responsibility he has playing in the MLS and will do what is necessary to carry the torch for soccer. I must admit (something Brett point out) that Becks is the consummate professional. He plays hard and plays with emotion (he truly respects and understands the responsibility to wear the three lions). He accepts responsibilities for failure, how many captains took press conferences to announce he was stepping down as national team captain and how he was responsible for England crashing out of the World Cup. He also never threw mud after SAF ran him out of Manchester United. His professionalism, dynamism and his brand name, by itself, is strong enough to attract a few more of the casual fans to the MLS and will raise the MLS exposure as well.
  • Soccer has strong roots, finally, in the US. Unlike the NASL, soccer today has changed drastically since the days of Pele, Best, Cruyff, the Cosmos, the Sockers and the Aztecs. With the rise of youth soccer, the increase Latino immigrants, the increased visibility and success for both men and women's national teams, and the explosion of soccer on cable (GolTV, Fox Soccer, ESPN Deportes), soccer has become more main stream and more accepted by the sporting fan. The MLS already has a decent following and has survived over a decade, adding Beckham will give some star power but the league's very existence is not dependent on him. Both Brett and Sam, in prior email exchanges, point out that the "soccer haters" have started to look a little passe.
  • Beckham is not washed up and will bring a different element to the Galaxy. This is not Youri Djorkaeff or Lothar Matthaus coming when they really should have been retired. Beckham, while past his prime, remains a serviceable player. He brings one element that has become tantamount to the success of modern soccer teams - dead ball abilities. That by itself will improve the play of the Galaxy from day 1.
Why Beckham coming to the Galaxy will be a failure:
  • Overblown hype and expectations can only lead to failure: Beckham is on the cover of Sports Illustrated, every step he takes in LA is already being tracked, Alexi Lalas is flapping his jaws about how the MLS is on par with the Prem, and writers galore are talking about this taking the MLS to the next level. I even heard a talking head on ESPN 2 this morning state that Beckham is the "best finisher of all times." WHAT???? ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Beckham has a grand total of 94 goals for club and country over 482 games....for a 0.195 goals per game average. Maybe ESPN should dig into their achieves to watch a certain Gerd Muller from West Germany. Das Bomber averaged well over a goal per game for both club and country - 595 total goals in 511 games. He scored 68 goals in 62 games for his national team! Even my "favorite" Landon Donovan is a better finisher - 0.388 goals per game, 94 total goals in 242 games. With ridiculous statements and overblown expectations heaped on his shoulders, how can Beckham live up to these expectations? The BBC this morning had a great statement, and I paraphrase - when you elevate someone to the level of the Messiah before he has even stepped foot on the pitch there is only one way to go.
  • Being played out of position and a poor supporting cast will limit his effectiveness. The geniuses that are Galaxy management want to have Beckham play in the middle of the park rather than his preferred right sided midfielder. Hmmmmmm how smart is that.....Beckham has been slotted there on other teams with limited success, and that was when he was closer to his prime. His game hinges on his ability to whip crosses in from the right side and leverage his right foot on dead ball situations. However he is not a maestro with the ball at his feet dribbling and distributing the ball much like Riquelme, Figo, Kaka and Zidane, who are true #10s. The Galaxy need to realize that Beckham's soccer abilities have always been over matched by his public image. Becks was never the fastest, strongest, or most talented player on the pitch. But he was always surrounded by incredible talent (for Manchester United, Real Madrid and England) - Cantona, Scholes, Yorke, Andy Cole, Keane, Giggs, Owen, Shearer, Zidane, Van Nistelrooy, Raul, Robinho to name a few. He was perfect with such players around him. He was not given too many defensive responsibilities, allowing folks like Keane to do the dirty work, he was not asked to manage the center of the park, allowing players such as Scholes and Zidane do that, and he was not asked to be responsible to burden too much scoring, allowing Cantona, Owen, Shearer, Van Nistelrooy, Cole, Yorke etc to do that work. Who does he have in LA to fill in those responsibilities? Additionally, according to Alexi Lalas, the MLS is a small notch below the Prem so without the other parts Beckham may flounder on an isolated island with no one to latch on to his crosses or passes and no one protecting him from vicious tackles.
  • Speaking of vicious tackles, he will have a HUGE bullseye on his back. He is coming into the league with so much hype that it is unquestionable that every fullback looking to make a name for himself will go out of their way to "stop" Becks. On top of which he will be slotted in the middle of the park, when he plays his usual right midfield role he can always know that he has one side protected by the sideline. Beckham is carrying such a large "soccer flag" that every move he makes on the pitch will be noticed, analyzed and dissected. Meaning ever player that is scraping by in the MLS on minimum wage will want to show everyone that they can stop one of the world's "best."
So will it be a failure or success? I think it will be somewhere in between, how is that for a cop-out?? It will be a failure if the moronic pundits and idiotic Galaxy GM don't curb their over hyping of the move. As Beckham says, if folks expect the first time he steps on the field that the Galaxy wins 10 - 0 then he will be a failure....but again it is about expectations.

If expectations are "normal" than he will be a success. Beckham will elevate the exposure of the MLS, just by stepping on the pitch, he will also make the Galaxy a better team, assuming at some point he is used more on the right. However his impact must not be measured by goals scored...otherwise Angel would be deemed a better investment with Red Bull. Beckham has already impacted the world of US soccer by having it become front page news and ESPN et al have already recognized the value of carrying MLS games on their broadcasts. Sportscenter has already included more high lights of MLS. So Beckham's impact has already had an impact on the coverage, so I do not expect a huge long term jump in the attendance at MLS games nor viewership, short term yes, for Galaxy games.

We should not expect Beckham to elevate soccer to the levels of baseball or the NFL, however if we expect him to solidify the place soccer has in America than the move is a success. I do not believe that soccer has become the 4th major sport in the US, I think it is a second tier sport. First tier - NFL, Baseball and NASCAR (trust me, admitting that NASCAR is Tier 1 is painful). I would state that the NBA has slide to First Tier A, along with college football and basketball. The second tiers sports - MLS, NHL (the move to VS is indicative of that), Golf, Ultimate Fighting. Second tier are sports are similar to Hillary Clinton, they have some devoted followers that are large enough not to be considered the lunatic fringe but also have a large "anti-" camp that is just as strong.

I will be interested to see how this plays out. As Sam and Brett stated, it will make me watch a few MLS games...but once the European leagues start again I will be devoted again to watching TV5, FoxSoccer and GolTV.

Good luck Mr Spice, tape up those ankles tight, wear some good shin guards and make sure your wife has a good agent cause we all suspect that the move to LA was as much about her "acting" career as your being an ambassador for soccer. Oh, and please avoid becoming a scientologist nut job like your buddy Tom Cruise......

Monday, July 09, 2007

Anelka and Tevez out....anyone left for Arsenal?

Word out of Bolton is that "The Great Sulk" Anelka has turned down both Valencia and Arsenal to sign on at the Reebok for one more season. With the news that Tevez is all but signed for Manchester United, where does this leave the giant void at striker for Arsenal?

It would appear that we will not see the image on the right at Emirates any time this season. After the charitable gift to Barcelona this off season in the form of Titi Henry, Wenger has a huge void up front to fill. Granted he has some good talent - Van Persie (who was starting to emerge as a real threat before injury last season), Adebayour, Walcott, and newly signed Da Silva. However Arsenal is lacking the 15 - 20 goal scoring threat that any team looking for silverware needs to have in its repertoire. Even with Henry, Arsenal struggled last season to truly challenge Manchester United and Chelsea in the championship run (head to head they still held their own).

With the off season additions at the other "big three" - Torres at Liverpool - Nani, Anderson, Hargreaves and potentially Tevez at Manchester United - Sidwell, Ben Haim and apparently Malouda to Chelsea, push Arsenal back with regards to the battle for talent. Even Tottenham signed the much hyped Bale to reinforce their effective.

Arsenal need to find someone to shore up their offensive punch, and need to do so soon. Some might argue, well they let Vieira go and did not miss a beat with Cesc. How much silverware have Arsenal won without Pat Vieira? While I have been an advocate for allowing Titi move on, I did so with the caveat of adding another experienced world class striker to fill the void, say Samuel Eto'o. Until this happens Arsenal will struggle to maintain contact with the top three clubs and may not be guaranteed to even qualify for the Champions League.....

Friday, July 06, 2007

The US scored a famous victory over the Brazilians in the final group game of the U20 World Cup. I would argue that this one of the United States best wins at any level of international football. However, I would hope for a degree of sanity when it comes to the reaction from the US pundits. This was an upset, yes....and could have been a Brazilian route had they been more clinical in front of the US net.

To set up the situation - going into the final group game the roles were reversed, the US did not need the victory sitting at 4 points with a strong goals against while Brazil needed at least a point if not the full 3 points to move to the knock out stages. The ability of the US to defeat a global footballing power in a crucial game will go a long way for the confidence of the players that participated in the win.

So here are some thoughts...

  • The Brazilians were clearly the class on the pitch. They moved the ball around with ease and at times made the US look like a JV team...at best. The Brazilian strikers and midfielders gave fits to the US defenders, at times there appeared to be 2-3 defenders chasing the yellow jersey on the ball only to be easily split by either a dribble or a pass. Even thought they gave up 2 goals, for the most part they were not placed under tremendous pressure from the US strikers. But the Brazilians were not clinical when given opportunities to finish and did give up 2 opportunistic goals to the US.
  • The US defended admirably, while they were outclassed in talent they appeared to be able to bend but not break. The keeper made some key stops, on two attempts by Jo in the second half. The US was dominated during many spells of the game, showing how much more needs to happen for the team to continue to progress.
  • Altidore is the best player for the US. With all the hype around Freddy Adu, and I have made it very clear as to what I think of the Real Salt Lake midfielder, the New York RedBull striker is the best player wearing red white and blue. It is not solely because he scored the 2 US goals, but due to his innate ability of a goal scorer. The first goal was came after a questionable no call on Adu's challenge on the Brazilian where the ball found itself fortuitously on the feet of Altidore. The youngster showed his true striker attitude by taking on two Brazilian defenders, resisting passing to Adu and rather took his chance from 18 yards out. By no means did he unleash a world class strike, but like true goal scorers he hit it just well enough to beating the Brazilian keeper for a 1-0 lead. The second goal also demonstrated his goal scoring ability. Adu, for once, showed the talent that has some folks raving (more on him in a second), took the ball in the deep corner and acting Brazilian himself beat two defenders. He looked to challenge the keeper from the closed angle only to have the ball deflect across the goal mouth to a completely unmarked Altidore who calmly put the ball away into the open net for the 2-1 victory. Now you might argue that all he did was tap the ball in...but as a true striker he anticipated a potential miss from Adu. Altidore could have checked too Adu, only drawing defenders closer to the Ghanian, Altidore could have drifted back to the PK spot hoping to get a pass from Adu, but Adu looked determined to challenge the keeper. Instead Altidore held his ground, realizing that if Adu took his chance 1 on 1 with the keeper a deflection would either go out for a corner kick or to the weak side...exactly where he was camped out. He is still a youngster, so much more will need to happen for Altidore to develop into a world class striker, but he should become a solid replacement at the senior level for another US goal scorer, Brian McBride.
  • Adu, first let me make the disclaimer that I am not a Freddy Adu fan, I think he is completely over hyped, which is not his fault...well not 100%. He has done very little to live up to all the accolades showered on him. Every time I hear folks say he will become the greatest player in football it makes me cringe...have any of these folks heard of a player name Lionel Messi who is the same generation? But I digress......here is what I say from the young Ghanian. He showed some flashes of brilliance. In the second half he made a lightening quick turn outside the 18 and was brought down for a direct kick. On the second goal he beat two Brazilian defenders with a sombrero move worth of Pele or Zidane. Unfortunately he went long spells where he was completely marked out the game and there were long spells where you did not realize he was on the pitch. Players that are suppose to be the next coming of Pele need to show more, they need to be a constant worry for the other team, working off the ball to threaten and put themselves in positions to strike. I never felt Adu was doing that. Altidore was always camped deep, ready to pounce on any deep ball or mistake by the Brazilian back line. Adu...well he just seemed to disappear. Finally, Adu will need to learn that he has a huge target on his back due to all the hype he received when, as a 14 year old, he broke into professional soccer. The fact he is playing for a second class world power and receiving all this press makes him more vulnerable to the thuggery that is common on the international level. If he is to in fact live up to 50% of his hype he will need to control himself in these situations. It appeared that too many of the school ground tactics the Brazilians used on him threw him off his game. What would happen if he were playing in the Premiership it rather than some 19 year of Brazilian defender it was Michael Essien or Joey Barton that were introducing Freddie to their boots?
Yes the US should be proud of this victory.
No the US should not start patting themselves on their backs.

This will go a long way in terms of confidence for the young US team, but I am not ready to coronate them U20 World Cup champs, let alone world beaters on the senior level.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Arsenal looking for some help up front

As the dust settles on North London and we realize that Titi is actually gone, the rebuilding commences in earnest. The first of which was the signing of Eduardo Alves de Silva, an ex-pat Brazilian who took on the Croatian nationality. Not really the replacement for Titi, but maybe a good part of a greater strategy.

Adding de Silva, in addition to Adebayour, Walcott, Van Persie and Bendtner gives Wenger some options at striker, but no superstar, no gold standard striker that will force defenses to shift their strategies on the mere presence of this striker on the pitch. Walcott and Van Persie may develop into such a striker, but that may take another season or two. If Wenger wants to contend in Europe and England he will need to find such a player...easier said than done. With Liverpool adding Torres, Manchester United adding players such as Hargreaves, Nani and Anderson and we are all waiting for the moves from Chelsea - potentially adding Malouda to an already stacked team.

So does Wenger want to compete for the Premier title or just to be in the "top 4" ..... and I even think the latter is not guaranteed with Tottenham looking to make the player moves to get into the top European competition.

There are still some big time prizes out there: Tevez, Anelka, and potentially Eto'o come to mind. Wenger needs to make a move for one if not two big names if he is serious to compete in England, otherwise we are looking at another "battle for 3rd and 4th place" type season for Arsenal.
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