Without going into details, I just went through a hell of a day, one long enough that I'm rather excited about a vacation. As such, I think I'll start right now.

You won't see anything on this site till Monday night or Tuesday morning (e.g. September 3 or 4). Call this a friendly reminder to keep you from wasting your time checking in.


Thoughts on Wednesday

Per the new program, I posted some third-hand thoughts on last night's games over on ArmChairGM, the site where I do these things.

Visit and vote if you like (the voting thing is kind of weird, but that's how the site works).


Bradley or Nowak?

One of the scrolling front pages on MLS's site poses a good question:

"This much is certain: when it comes to deciding the top coach in MLS this season, the experts deciding the MLSnet.com Awards Tracker have deemed it a virtual coin flip. On one side is D.C. United's Peter Nowak. On the other is Chivas USA's Bob Bradley. Tough choice. Who would you go with?"

So, yeah, who would you go with?

Me, I'd go with Bob Bradley - and not because he's the better coach (see here, at the bottom). The measure for me comes by looking at Chivas USA last year (sucky, mildly comical) versus this year (fun to watch and five points inside the playoff pool, if a little loose at the back). The comparison to DC's situation (a shock early departure from the 2005 post-season and leading the league by a shrinking mile in 2006) suggests Nowak didn't have as much to do.

Any thoughts out there?


Two Nixed Trades - and Which Is Worse

Two of Major League Soccer's (MLS) brighter lights - Shalrie Joseph (profile) of the New England Revolution and Josh Wolff (profile) of the Kansas City Wizards - were denied oppotunities tomoving abroad ahead of tomorrow's transfer deadline. The players would have gone to Scotland's Celtic FC and England's Derby County, respectively. Of the two, I'd point to Joseph's as the greater tragedy - at least on MLS's side of the equation.

In Wolff's case, it wasn't MLS that blocked the move, but English transfer rules that require that a non-EU player has to have played in a (frankly ridiculous) percentage of games for their national team. With the minimum requirement standing at 75% of these games, and with Wolff coming in under 50%, it's not too surprising he didn't make it. This doesn't mean the situation doesn't suck for Wolff.

Turning to Joseph, though, it was a matter of the league thinking the courting club (e.g. Celtic) wasn't offering enough cash for one of the league's better-known players. But the most irksome part of the league's reasoning appears in Joseph's agent's comments on the situation:

"I understand why they did it, but I am saddened by it. [The league doesn't] want to sell players during the season because it sends the wrong message to fans, plus the Revolution are making a playoff run and a drive for the championship. The offer was being made after the transfer window closed here so they wouldn't be able to replace him."

I'm not sure that fans worry about the "message it sends." Speaking as a Revolution fan, sure, I'd hate to see Joseph go; he's a hell of a player that most teams would struggle to replace even out of season. But, to make the leap from soccer to baseball, this isn't unlike a minor league player getting called to the majors. Sure, fans hate to see the player go, but, on a human level, don't they feel a bit of excitement for the player? I know I do. I get these, "Oh, our little boy has grown up," kind of feelings whenever an MLS player gets a shot to head overseas.

A deeper concern - and, again, one that matters no less to fans - also enters this equation. Joseph isn't the only Revolution player being held back by the league: there's also Clint Dempsey, who was denied a move to a couple of English clubs. Add Taylor Twellman's salary woes to this picture and think about what this does for morale in the Revolution locker room. Based on New England's current form, it's a fair question as to whether their lackluster season owes something to a poisonous atmosphere. Does that possibility enter into the league's calculations of what fans will enjoy?

I'm not sure whose interest these decisions are in, but I'm thinking it's neither the fans nor the players. The league, for their part, may discover this winter that the decisions didn't turn out to be in their interest either.

Looking OK in KC

Reports out of Kansas City regarding the construction of a soccer-specific stadium that would keep the Kansas City Wizards home read optimistically if for only one reason:

"A raucous crowd of speakers, split roughly 2-to-1 in support of the fields, addressed board members at the special meeting. It was the public’s first opportunity to weigh in on the issue."

It's not a done deal by any means, but the public in Kansas City sounds a bit less pissy about the whole affair than the folks in Salt Lake City did.

Given their "founders" status, count me among those who would hate to see Kansas City lose the Wizards - and I don't even like the team all that much.


Canales' Defense (Wha?!) of MLS's Playoffs

So...Andrea Canales, writing on Soccer365.com this time, wrote a defense of Major League Soccer’s current playoff structure. Yeah, I know, it’s the damnedest thing. In a nutshell, Canales argues that the current system produces plenty of excitement and she points to the current, and inarguably, wide-open playoff race as evidence. The pair of paragraphs in which she makes her key point reads:

“Folks, we’ve got playoff races on our hands. All fans who give a fig about their team should be nervous, fighting that slight heartburn which comes with both the anticipation and horror of what the future holds.”

“No one is safe.”

“Even DC, from its lofty perch in the standings, should be a bit anxious. Last year, the team just seemed to assume holding Chicago to a scoreless tie was enough – they’d win in their vaunted home field of RFK. Except what ensued was the most lopsided playoff loss of the 2005 season.”

“No one else is even contemplating the postseason seriously yet. It’s going to come down to the wire, frankly. Every game from here to the last game has playoff implications.”


“If it’s so easy to make the playoffs, why have no MLS teams completely assured themselves of it? Of course, one may look at the simple numbers. Eight of twelve teams make it, so the odds are actually in favor of arriving to the playoffs.”

“That’s simplistic reasoning, though, to take that percentage and then apply the adjective ‘easy’.”

Well, not quite. It’s not so much that reaching the playoffs isn’t stressful in a parity-obsessed league. As I see it, the word “easy” substitutes for the word “sucky.” In other words, the problem isn’t that too many teams make it, but that too many teams that suck make the playoffs - i.e. it's "easy" because your team doesn't have to be all that good, or can even suck outright, and still make the cut. Why reward suckiness?

But I think her worst slip comes with projecting the spectacle of this year’s muddled, clumsy playoff race - which is really no fancier than a three-legged race featuring full-time alcoholics; I mean, why celebrate that? - to past seasons. To begin, it’s not often this wide open. Most seasons, there are two, maybe three teams in each conference duking it out for the final spot, with the others already comfortably jockeying for top seeding; even then, any third team’s involvement tends to be mathematical at most. But the worst thing is, this season’s uneven play just hasn’t been that fun to watch. What’s the fun in watching 10 - hell, now 12 - mediocre teams butting heads?

Anyway, all that's a long way of saying the a competitive field isn't inherently righteous. Quality counts for something. And I say that as someone who would watch MLS if they fielded 12 teams populated by eleven full-time alcoholics tied together at the ankles....it’s our league and our game, dammit.

(Mid-)Week 23 Previews

I just posted previews for Wednesday night's games over on ArmchairGM. They look pretty spiffy, if I say so myself; it seems I'm finally getting the hang of their formatting business. It's a shaping up to be an interesting week, especially with teams like Red Bull New York and Real Salt Lake in action, only a few days after their one-sided affair.

Anyway, here's the link to that preview. Since it's more work than I thought it would be - or, really, wanted to put into it - it's possible I won't do that again. Then again...


Week 22 Retrospective

Yeah, the title sucks. What can I say? My insomniac daughter was particularly tough last night. I can barely write my name in the sand with a stick.

Anyway, I think I've mentioned contributing to on another site in the past. I've decided to move all the previews and post-weekend wrap-ups over on that site, ArmchairGM. For a while, I was simply cross-posting between this one and that, but that didn't make much sense. So, I decided to put one kind of content over there and keep the rest here.

So, all (four of) y'all can find the Week 22 wrap-up right here.

Talk at you later.


The Stretch Run...for the Chicago Fire

Chicago Fire, 7-8-7 (W-L-T), 28 points

Hooked on a Feeling

With being second place in MLS’s Eastern Conference being something of a booby-prize, it’s hardly surprising that people can’t find much good to say about the Chicago Fire’s season so far. And there’s ample cause for complaint: Chicago bookended the modest, three-game winning streak that opened their new stadium with two five-game runs mixing draws and losses; worse, losses outnumbered the draws in both cases. Once one adds odd little details - like the fact that they split the season mini-series with Real Salt Lake back when that team sucked, or that Chivas USA owns them in 2006 - the grumbling seems entirely justified.

And yet, of all the teams in the Eastern Conference, the Fire suddenly seems the likeliest candidate to pull together a late season push. Their recent surge, a four-game winning streak split between league (LINK, LINK) and U.S. Open Cup play (LINK, LINK), when combined with some plausible explanations for the earlier stumbles, point to a Chicago team that could be peaking at precisely the right time.

The Past
First of all, Chicago doesn’t do blow-outs (OK, one exception linked to above), neither on the giving nor the receiving ends. They’ve played the majority of teams very closely, but a knack surrendering late goals (as happened here, here, and here) meant the Fire repeatedly gave up points, sometimes two, sometimes one, this season. But when one digs through the match reports - all of them available here; just click the score - one rarely reads about Chicago getting badly outplayed.

It’s possible that fatigue played a role in those late collapses. After all, Chicago opened the season on a nine-game road-trip in order to provide time for the completion of Toyota Park. They did come back for one “soft” home game (whatever that means), but then went on the road again for their next two - and they lost both of those. More significant, though, were the injuries that
bubonic plague key players - most notably, Chicago’s defensive leaders. During the first five-game run mentioned above - a late May to mid-June stretch in which Chicago lost four and drew one - they played without Jim Curtin, Diego Gutierrez, and Tony Sanneh; on the offensive side, the same period saw Justin Mapp sitting out, while Chad Barrett and Chris Rolfe either played through injury or not at all. The second five-game skid, which made for an ugly July (three losses, two draws), saw them still without both Curtin and Rolfe.

Key Men
So many of them appeared below, but it’s worth putting them in context here. Jim Curtin, for instance, anchors the central defense, while Diego Gutierrez both roams the midfield and chips in (a bit) on offense. Persistent injury has seriously limited Tony Sanneh’s participation for the past couple season, so, when he does show, it’s probably feels like a bonus as much as anything. But getting the first two players back means a hell of a lot to Chicago’s defensive solidity.

The one - literally, the only - constant in Chicago’s offense has been Ivan Guerrero; he doesn’t rack up enormous numbers, but provides nearly as much to Chicago as a guy like Joshua Gros does for DC United. All the other key players - forwards Nate Jaqua, Chris Rolfe, and Chad Barrett - suffered through injury at some point this season. Thiago, the Brazilian midfielder who was expected to run their offense this season, apart from a flash or two, hasn’t been up to snuff ; nor has Justin Mapp, for that matter - at least not till recently. Even so, Mapp's healthy right now and picking it up; Thiago, for his part, picked up a knock, which constitutes one last worry now that most the other players have healed.

Injuries aside, none of these players are posting gigantic numbers. Fortunately, they haven’t had to; by collective effort, Chicago’s still produces decent offense - just under the league average of 29 goals for, in fact. Still, any one of these players picking up their game could help the Fire separate from the pack. As if on cue, another potential star, Andy Herron, has done just that...and there was much rejoicing...

These more notable players aside, the Fire also managed a competent rookie class. Jeff Carlisle, writing over on ESPN’s site, wrote defender Dasan Robinson's name on his short list of candidates for Rookie of the Year. Add Calen Carr to the mix, who performed well in recent U.S. Open Cup play, and Chicago shows its depth in some crucial positions.

The Future
Now that they’ve got a schedule with reasonable balance between home and away games and most of their key players healthy - not to mention one intriguing late-season acquisition (one Pascal Bedrossian) - the Chicago Fire hits the home stretch looking pretty damn good. Here’s what that (mostly) healthy selection will face in the weeks ahead:

Colorado Rapids, Houston Dynamo, Red Bull New York, @ Columbus Crew, @ Colorado Rapids, DC United, Los Angeles Galaxy, @ Red Bull New York, Columbus Crew, @ DC United

Basically, the Fire is in great shape to make a hell of a lot of noise. After having already wrapped up their season series against the New England Revolution (2-1-1) and the Kansas City Wizards (2-1-1), the home-and-home series against their other three Eastern Conference rivals loom large. With both the Columbus Crew and Red Bull New York, frankly, dancing on the rim of the toilet, the two games against DC United seem most menacing. But like every other team, Chicago has played DC close - one 1-0 away loss and a 1-1 home draw the Fire should have won, ought to help with the mental side by making that 19-point lead look smaller.

At the same time, Chicago has been average, arguably the most average outfit in the league. Their season pivots on the question of whether they can break out of that. Being able to field their star players, and keeping them fit going forward, should help with that. Getting them to play just one notch higher - especially on the offensive side - should be enough to make Chicago look awfully menacing in the post-season. And that’s when it really matters.

For what it’s worth, I view Chicago as one of the two key teams to watch. And DC United ought to watch as closely as anyone.

The Stretch Run...for DC United

DC United, 13-2-8 (W-L-T), 47 points

Dissecting "The Streak"

“As they have in so many other matches this year, the Black-and-Red grabbed the all-important first goal...”
- Charles Boehm, MLSnet.com, 07/15/2006 (LINK)

There’s no question: DC United has enjoyed a banner 2006. Barring an implosion of catastrophic proportions, the 19-point lead they enjoy over their nearest rival means they’ll walk away with the Eastern Conference regular season title. While the rest of the East traded blows and results in league play, DC United strung together wins, including one remarkable stretch of six wins in a row. If one looks at the score sheet and nothing else, DC seems poised for an MLS Cup coronation this November. It’s only when one scratches below the surface that the latest and current hiccup seems less anomalous than predictable, even inevitable.

The Past
Curiously, DC’s best run in league play - a six-game winning streak, which was itself part of a 14-game run without a loss - featured a team that was, in part at least, riding its luck. Just before that streak, they snuck what appeared to be a fortunate draw out of the New England Revolution’s Gillette Stadium. In fact, good fortune played a hand throughout the streak, which featured a series one-goal wins, not a few of them failing to impress MLS’s in-house pundits (LINK, LINK, LINK). It’s also worth noting that four of the six wins came against two teams - the Columbus Crew and the Kansas City Wizards - who are enduring, as opposed to enjoying, their 2006 season.

In the grand scheme, the mini-fizzle was a long time coming. The few blowouts DC meted out (4/22, 5/27, and 5/31) dried up around the end of May; after those, any games in which DC scored more than once, their opposition played right behind (for example) them as if the Soccer Gods required they sacrifice defensive solidity to produce more than one goal. For all that, there’s no denying their consistency. And DC’s defense, the league’s best in terms of goals allowed, deserves much of the credit for that.

Key Men
Following up on that last sentence, one would have to name DC United’s defenders among this team’s key men. Guys like Brian Carroll, Bobby Boswell, and Brian Namoff, even Clyde Simms and Ben Olsen, mean as much to this team as anyone, even if they don’t have the individual statistics to back that claim; the collective statistic - the 20 goals they allowed against the league average, which comes in just under 30 - tells the story there. One could also point to Troy Perkins’ numbers.

While DC shows no signs of flagging form at the back, the downward trend in scoring suggests a need for their offensive players to pick it up. While all their key offensive players - Alecko Eskandarian, Jaime Moreno, and Christian Gomez - all have solid numbers for the season (just click their names), the match reports tell the story of DC United’s slump. (Honorable mention should certainly go to Josh Gros and, OK, OK, Freddie Adu - even if their numbers aren't eye-popping.) Overall, though, they’re threatening to follow the rest of the East into the give-one-take-one rut that’s produced so many frickin’ ties.

The Future
Looking forward through the rest of the season, one could argue that DC has a tough end to the season ahead. Here, somewhat sloppily arranged, is their remaining schedule:

Los Angeles Galaxy; @ Chivas USA; Real Salt Lake; @ New England Revolution; @ Chicago Fire; Red Bull New York; @ Houston Dynamo; New England Revolution; Chicago Fire.

Of all the above, it’s the games against Chicago, the away games to Houston and New England, and the upcoming home game against Los Angeles that should most worry Peter Nowak’s men. Chicago has played them very tough in both meetings, as has New England; in fact, both teams are playing angry these days, though New England to lesser effect. Los Angeles, for all their inability to score, are awfully hard to beat; more than that, they’re finally getting things in place in the wake of Steve (Bastard) Sampson’s departure. And Houston, allowing for the occasional slip-ups, they’re just tough.

At the same time, DC United is certainly up to it; refer again to 1) their defense and 2) the quote at the top of the page. The reality is, DC United’s damned hard to beat themselves; add their penchant for early goals and you’ve got your winning season. The problem with the latter is that they have to do it. There’s a big difference between avoiding losses and actually winning. And they’ll have to figure out not just how to return to winning, but how to win comfortably and confidently to tie a big, pretty bow on what has been a marvelous 2006 season.

If figuring out how to win is your biggest concern, things could be much worse. These guys are in with a very loud shout.

Open Cup: The First Time I Batted 1.000

The quarterfinals for the U.S. Open Cup came and went last night when all four games were played. Without having actually watched any of the games, I can hardly say anything too intelligent about them. But here are the scores with MLS's in-house match reports embedded under the digits:

Houston Dynamo 3 - 0 FC Dallas
DC United 3 - 1 Red Bull New York
Chicago Fire 2 - 1 New England Revolution
Los Angeles Galaxy 3 - 1 Colorado Rapids

One last thing: for the first time in all my years of on- and off-line punditry, I enjoyed a perfect record with my predictions for the quarterfinals. Where was the frickin' bookie when I needed one?


The "Stretch Run Project"

First, a caveat: in this and previous blogging incarnations, I've been notorious for assigning myself a massive project only to lose the plot halfway through; this actually results in my deleting the blog in question about half the time. I don't anticipate that happening here, but, well, never say never.

With that out of the way, I intend to spend the next two to three weeks working on what I'm calling The Stretch Run Project." The project's purpose will be to look back at the 2006 season so far for each of MLS's twelve teams in order to see where they've been and, based on that information, to try to gain some grasp of where they're likely to go. The research for the project will rely heavily on past match reports, with the easiest of these being available through MLS's site. For no particular reason, I think I'll start at the top of the table and work my way down.

Each of these will carry the title "The Stretch Run for....[Insert Team Here]."

Whatever happens, I'll be happy if it doesn't feel like a waste of time and if the blog survives in its wake.

UPDATE: Check after the jump....

It seems a good idea pull all the Stretch Run reports into one place. I'll add them here as I crank them out.

DC United

Chicago Fire

The Happy Man Who Is Jeff Cunningham

Jack Bell of the New York Times wrote a nice profile of Real Salt Lake's Jeff Cunningham, a player enjoying what must be one of his Best Seasons Ever. As it turns out, Cunningham - who admits to "playing with a chip on his shoulder" - has a reputation around the league for being difficult. That counts news in this corner of the world; he certainly seems nice enough.

But the main point of interest in the article - one that ties in nicely with a Big Soccer thread on whether Cunningham is a Hall-of-Fame-caliber player - comes with the forward's career statistics:

"[In 2006, Cunningham] leads the league with 14 goals, ranks second with nine assists and has scored or assisted on 23 of his team’s 34 goals. In 231 career games in M.L.S., Cunningham has scored 88 goals, which ties him for fourth on the career list with Roy Lassiter. He scored 16 for Columbus in 2002 and has scored 10 or more goals in five of his nine seasons."

I didn't express an opinion on the thread, but whether we're talking about a U.S. Hall of Fame (think that's the case), or a Hall of Fame for the league, Cunningham's numbers so far tell me he ought to go in. Still, BigSoccer's debate touches on a fairly interesting angle: what makes a Hall of Fame player? Is it time with the national team? One's record in league play? If it's the latter, Cunningham, having just turned 30, has some time to pad his numbers.


A Novel Argument for an American Coach

Jeff Bradley, writing this time on USSoccerplayers.com makes what has to be the most novel argument I've yet read for hiring an American - or, an "American-bred" coach - to coach the U.S. national team. It's not a bad argument either. What is it?

"The shambolic state of American soccer would drive a foreign coach crazy, therefore, let's hire a Yank."

Or, in his phrasing:

"When you examine it closely, [former coach, Bruce] Arena did a great job coaching the U.S. because it was his dream job, and he believed in the American player. He was patriotic about the whole thing. He was willing to deal with a difficult system. He was willing to do whatever it was going to take. In short, he was the perfect American soccer coach."

"Mostly because he was American."

"Now, it's time to find the best American (born or bred) coach out there. A guy who will: look at the job as a dream job and not a stepping stone to something bigger and better. Not a guy who will throw up his hands when he's watching a mid-July afternoon game in Houston or Dallas and wonder what the heck it is he's watching."

I think I paraphrased that fairly...

Is Bradley's assessment correct? Possibly. It depends on the take we want to take toward developing the U.S. team. If the plan is to let the team grow organically along with Major League Soccer, an American coach should do nicely; so long as FIFA keeps allotting three World Cup spaces to our region (CONCACAF), qualifying for the finals shouldn't be that difficult. But if we want to gamble and take a stab at accelerating the technical and tactical development level of the American game, a foreign coach makes more sense; even on this path, we should still qualify for the Cup every four years.

Without claiming strong sympathies in either direction, I'm still leaning toward DC United's Peter Nowak for some dang reason.


Secret to DC United's Success (+ Jeff Bradley's Surprises)

Grant Wahl scribbled an ode to DC United's Barra Brava fan club in his exploration of that team's almost dynastic success. He attributes their place in the league's elite both to the fan support and to a talent pipeline that runs from places like Bolivia and Argentina to our nation's capitol. That could very well be the case: after all, between Marco Etcheverry, Jaime Moreno, and Christian Gomez, DC has done pretty durn well in the market for foreign players (Long Live King Jaime I?).

A more concrete take appeared in most recent of Jeff Bradley's First XI columns (he's putting these out regularly lately; did the league threaten his kids or something?). By way of explaining why he counts DC's fine 2006 as one of the eleven biggest surprises of the season, Bradley writes:

"What head coach Peter Nowak has done masterfully -- and this is the formula for success in MLS -- is he's surrounded the two most technically gifted players on his team (Jaime Moreno and Christian Gomez) with guys who will do whatever it takes to win. D.C. brings it just about every game."

So, there's that. Frankly, I don't know what DC does - I only wish they'd either stop doing it, or let New England in on what "it" is.

By the way, the other ten surprises aren't too shabby for debate fodder either.


If (When?) Donovan Fails? Who Creates?

(NOTE: I'll be posting, or trying to post (I have yet to try), something very much like this over on Big Soccer's message boards. I'm not totally sure, but think I'll get more comments in that space.)

Whatever one thinks “happened” to Landon Donovan in Germany 2006, his effort in that tournament poses a disturbing question as the U.S. men’s program moves toward South Africa 2010. Namely, when Donovan loses the thread, what’s Plan B? Who creates for the U.S. national team when Donovan is injured or, as in Germany, not up to it mentally?

It takes only a quick trip through Major League Soccer’s rosters for a measure of desperation to sink in. Worse still, no Americans playing overseas spring to mind either. It’s also possible that some young kid working his way through the youth ranks can take over sooner than we’d think. But extending the list to any player who could conceivably replace Donovan today in a playmakers role, reveals few options. Without claiming to produce a complete list (any additions are welcome), one could include: Justin Mapp, Eddie Gaven (this one's worth the look for the photo alone), Ned Grabavoy, Freddy Adu, Mark Lisi, Brad Davis, Kyle Martino, Mehdi Ballouchy.

One might notice the absence of some high-profile alternatives in that list. Clint Dempsey, for one, certainly deserves mention as well. But he seems closer in style to DaMarcus Beasley, a two-way player whose offensive qualities rely more on individual skill than utilizing the players around him; and Dempsey, for that matter, doesn’t possess Beasley’s two-way capabilities. Neither, however, excels in the most crucial part of the playmakers role: bringing the rest of the team into the game.

Each of the players would bring different possibilities to the table: for instance, Brad Davis and Justin Mapp play more like traditional wingers, but with less emphasis on the virtuoso skills of either Dempsey and more on getting teammates invovled; for good or ill, Mark Lisi and (arguably) Ned Grabavoy would continue the Claudio Reyna tradition of pacing a game through smart passing; Eddie Gaven, Freddie Adu, and Kyle Martino would play a style quite similar to Donovan’s, though, at this point, to lesser affect. In a few cases, considerably lesser affect...

It doesn't help, of course, that a fair number of these players have spent large chunks of 2006 injured; even outside the walking wounded, a look at the above links suggests that fewer still can lay claim to be having banner years. The best thing that can be said about some of these players is that they’re young and have time to grow into both their bodies and their game. But, obviously, these aren’t names likely to be written either first or in ink on the next U.S. coach’s game-day roster. Whatever this future coach wants, however, the reality is he’s got to choose someone to fill this role.

And it’s in the spirit of a coach that fans should approach this question: in other words, operate from the assumption that you have to name someone as the player the rest of the team should keep in the back of their minds when trying to figure out where to send the ball next. Which of these players seems most capable making the team play effectively together? Failing that, which player seems most likely to inspire through their example?

Donovan will, in all likelihood, be available for 2010. But if he isn’t, or if the Donovan who shows up looks anything like the one who played against the Czech Republic, who should we look to for a replacement? What's Plan B?

Toronto Gets Mo

Just a news item to pass on: 2007 expansion squad Toronto FC signed former Red Bull New York coach Mo Johnston to lead them into their inaugural season.

Given Mo's short track record in the coaching hot seat, I don't have much to say on this beyond confessing to scratching my head at Toronto's apparent lust for the Scot. For one, that short record wasn't much to look at.

In any case, if you have any insight into Mo's talents to make a case for or against the man, please leave them below. Otherwise, we'll know 'round about August 2007 what kind of coach Toronto hired.


Galarcep Dumps on Red Bull/Buddle

While it's not so surprising to see Ives Galarcep, or anyone for that matter, dumping on Red Bull New York - they have "too many flaws" as he puts it - the critical attention the pundit gives to Edson Buddle caught my eye. Part of it comes from a personal fondness for Buddle, who has been one of Red Bull's better players every time I've seen them play.

That's when I turned to Galarcep's points against Buddle:

"When the Red Bulls lost leading goal scorer Jean Philippe Peguero to Danish club FC Brondby, the scoring load was supposed to be picked up by Edson Buddle. That hasn't quite worked out. Instead of scoring, Buddle leads Major League Soccer in number of balls lost after dribbling into traffic."

Sometimes one sees what one wants to see - and, in this case, that habit allowed me to overlook a distinct downside to Buddle's game: specifically, his penchant for, yes, trying, and too often failing, to make something out of nothing at the top of the area. That realization took me to Buddle's career numbers - which are neither hot nor horrible. Even though he never seems to have had a full season, injuries haven't hampered his career as badly as I thought they had.

Where am I going with this? A modest retraction from yesterday's post on nominating forwards for the men's national team: I threw Buddle's name out as a possibility...I know what I was thinking, but Galarcep made a good case as to why, at this point in time, he wouldn't be all that swell a fit.


Week 21: Watch for Teams Starting with "C"

Week 21 Results:

DC United 1 - 1 Colorado Rapids
Columbus Crew 1 - 0 Red Bull New York
Real Salt Lake 3 - 1 Houston Dynamo
Chivas USA 1 - 1 Kansas City Wizards
New England Revolution 0 - 1 Chicago Fire
Los Angeles Galaxy 2 - 0 FC Dallas

NOTE: MLS’s in-house match reports are embedded under the scores, interested parties can watch highlights of most the games in MLS’s Sights & Sounds page, here are the standings, and, finally, here’s how ESPN figures the weekend’s action impacted each team’s “power” relative to the rest of the league.

Man. Man and damn, this was one screwy weekend, a half-productive one at best with the only constant being that it was a decent week for teams whose name or home city started with "C." Most results only served to tighten the playoff races, which means that the under-achievers over-achieved and the over-achievers under-achieved. Then again, the league’s rigid parity makes it damned hard to state with any certainty what is and is not the norm.

What did each match tell us? Taking them chronologically:

- DC United’s home draw to the Colorado Rapids confirmed the former's rut; it will only take a loss or two to deepen it. The worrying thing, from DC’s perspective, comes with where their heads seem to be down the regular season stretch. Like it or not, winning MLS Cup is the relevant definition of success in the league and that means success in the post-season leading to the Cup. Without the Cup, they won’t get much satisfaction out of reminding about the Supporters’ Shield they won in 2006. On the other side, ESPN’s stable holds up this weekend’s tie with the league leaders (that’s DC) to dub Colorado “the most underrated team” in the league. That goes too far: they’re more like high-end spoilers, a team no one wants to play, particularly in Colorado. But they’re certainly not contenders.

- Tragically, I actually saw the Columbus Crew end their 13-game winless streak; because I haven’t seen every game this season, I can’t call this the worst game of the season, but it’s a strong candidate for that title. There’s an old Monty Python skit in which a team of philosophers lined up against a team of one-legged pirates; nothing happens till it occurs to one of the philosophers that he’s got to do something or the game will be for nothing; he then runs down the field and scores. Joseph Ngwenya’s goal, and it was a nice one, had a similar feel to it. Before that, it was a whole lotta nothin’. Red Bull New York shares a large portion of the blame for that; of the two teams, they surely must view this as the greater let-down, the unwanted hiccup in Red Bull’s mini-revival. For all the talk of weary legs, every team in the league has to deal with over-demanding schedules and Red Bull’s coach - can’t think of who that could be - has to figure it out. He didn’t and that brings back the question marks.

- Hello Real Salt Lake (RSL)! Even with the league’s resolute devotion to parity regularly producing unpredictable story lines, Real Salt Lake’s (RSL) four-game winning-streak came from beyond left field (not to mix sporting metaphors). In a related note, does Jeff Cunningham’s 14 goal, 9 assist season put him to the top of the MVP 2006 race? Can anyone think of another player more vital to his team? Now comfortably a part of the playoff picture, the next question seems to be how high RSL can go. The question for the Houston Dynamo points the other direction. Most reports give the impression that Houston more than held their own in the first half, but their “Ching-less”(as in Brian Ching) offense continues to sputter. Frankly, it wasn’t all that hot before Ching went down injured either - and Ching was part of the problem. Houston’s fall from contender status ranks as one of the bigger stories of 2006. An off-season shopping spree for a quality striker seems nothing short of necessary. After all, you can't win if you don't score...more than the other guys, especially.

- Chivas USA continued their schizophrenic run through 2006; on the upside, it will only take a trip to the post-season for Chivas to claim success (ditto, by the way, for RSL). As one of three members of the “10-Ties Club” (other members, New England Revolution, Red Bull New York), Chivas could very well rue their inability to put away games once the league gets paired into post-season brackets. On the other side, the Kansas City Wizards probably feel an opposite emotion: relief, especially given that this came on the end of a long road-trip. They may currently hold down the final playoff spot, but with the way things have gone this year Kansas City seems likely as any team in the East to fall out of the playoff picture.

- Reports of the Los Angeles Galaxy’s win over FC Dallas name Dallas goalkeeper Dario Sala as the chief culprit; two big, first-half gaffes built a hell of a hill for Dallas to climb. It could be that, it could be the “curse” of the Home Depot Center: Dallas hasn’t won there in eight attempts. All in all, this was a hell of a time for Dallas to sputter. As with DC United, the question becomes whether they simply gelled faster and took early advantage before the other teams caught up, or whether they’re sliding into a funk of their own. Even as I expect it with Dallas (we have a hell of history, that team and me), Houston’s loss offered them a clear chance to open up more daylight. They failed and with Los Angeles looking poised to do what they did in 2005, it becomes a worrying time.

- I have a habit of blocking out the scores when I sit down to watch the highlight reels on Sights & Sounds; that way, I still get some taste of the elation and anger that comes with watching the game live. Needless to say, I got ample doses of the latter in enduring the New England Revolution’s loss to the Chicago Fire. By the third (fourth? fifth?) ballooning header in front of Chicago’s goal left I had thoroughly scared my kids - that and taught them still more foul words. So...the old excuse was being on the road and being tired; now that they’re home, what the fuck is wrong with the New England Revolution? Is Jay Heaps' over-exotic vocabulary distracting them from the task at hand? ("I’ve only been in the league eight years and it’s mundane that we’re not getting the same calls"? Mundane?! What the fuck is talking about?) Is it as simple as Michael Parkhurst's post-game comments: “Everyone is waiting for the tide to turn, but maybe we’re waiting too much. Maybe we need to take the initiative and go get some results”? Well, no one's going to do it for you, buddy. The Chicago Fire’s Andy Herron did score a beautiful goal (goal of the week, as I see it), but, apart from that moment, it’s so, so difficult to tell where Chicago’s quality ends and New England’s incompetence begins. Based on their form, I’m thinking it’s time to readjust expectations for New England back to where they were in the late-90s, early-Dicketies (e.g. the “2000s,” for instance 2006 would be “Dickety-Six” in this usage), but I also can’t pretend to neutrality where New England is concerned. Chicago, for their part, has quietly put together a pretty decent run - decent enough to have leap-frogged New England in the Eastern Conference standings. The rest of the teams in the league - and certainly the ones in their conference - would be well-advised to keep one eye on this team.

Power Rankings Talking Points (like Rookie of the Year)

The ever-intriguing power rankings ESPN's site puts out every Monday was more intriguing today than usual. The authors snuck some excellent talking points into this week's edition.

In no particular order:

- From #7: Is there another viable rookie of the year candidate besides Chivas USA's Jonathan Bornstein? Quick question: does FC Dallas' Kenny Cooper count as a rookie? Even if he did, I'd still go in for Bornstein. I'm also drawing a blank on alternatives.

- From #1: There's no ignoring DC United's funk, but how bad is it?

- From #9: Is the New England Revolution's shot at the 2006 title over before it started? I'm thinking yes and ESPN's people seem to think the same thing.

- Implied from #6: Anyone talking seriously about Jeff Cunningham as MVP? If not, why not? His numbers are good enough. And Saturday's win wasn't the first time he led/carried Real Salt Lake this season.

All for now.


MLS's Poverty Line

To begin, full credit to MLS for making available through the official web-site articles crapping on their wage policy. They didn’t have to do it.

But they did, by linking to articles from the LA Breeze not once, but twice. Both deal with the same subject: is the dream of playing professional soccer strong enough for MLS to pay a pittance-plus-a-nickel for developmental players? To put a dollar value on a “pittance-plus-a-nickel,” one article puts it nicely in context:

“The senior roster minimum is $28,000, while players signed to standard developmental contracts make $11,700 or $16,500, or $5.635 or $7.933 an hour.”

As anyone might guess, it would be hard enough to live on the senior roster minimum in a number of the league’s cities. But detailing the essential impossibility of living on the developmental contract is the point of one of the articles and a sub-text of the other.

A couple prominent players speak to the league’s limitations in this regard - one of them, unfortunately, was Alexi Lalas:

"This may sound Scrooge-esque, but as far as the sacrifice they're making, nobody is holding a gun to their head. This is not indentured servitude or slavery."

(MEMO to Alexi: Sometimes it’s not about providing colorful quotes; you sound like a dickhead.)

Ivan Gazidis does a better job by far:

"’We have limited financial resources,’ Gazidis said. ‘And we don't want to be closing a door to players who may want to have an opportunity in MLS.’"

To the question of should this change, the answer must be yes. I’ve seen talk (can’t say where) of applying freshly-acquired TV revenues to boosting pay on the lower end of the pay-scale and that adds up pretty well. It’s a status thing, in part, which was illustrated nicely in the lead to one of the articles.

A second, more concrete question is whether this can change from a financial perspective and that’s something else again. Again, the answer here should be yes. MLS can’t compete with Europe financially at the top end of the scale, which renders trying to do so a little pointless and a little suicidal. For every Landon Donovan, whose desire to stay States-side balances against salary considerations, there’s a Clint Dempsey willing to risk washing out if it means playing against the best in the game. Bidding wars seem as likely to expose MLS’s weakness at the bargaining table as anything. Worse, it also poses the potential for breeding resentment when salary figures don’t match production (call this Twellman’s Conundrum).

So, here’s to hoping the league makes a serious push to raise the minimum, both for developmental and senior players. Based on Hercules Gomez’s comments (Los Angeles Galaxy), they risk losing some decent players. Then again, I suppose Gazidis would respond to Hercules by reminding him that he’s one who made the grade in spite of it all.

USMNT: Nominations for Forward (Esky?)

With Brian McBride’s retirement and Eddie Johnson slipping away from his potential, who is out there, particularly in MLS, to run up top for the U.S. men’s team?

Just to throw a candidate out there: I’d like the see DC United’s Alecko “Esky” Eskandarian get some serious grooming. I’m a fan of “little/big-man” forward tandems (e.g. the Big-Man forward knocks balls down to “little,” while, of course, serving as a traditional target player) and think Eskandarian possesses a useful skill-set for that little-man role: he’s quick, plays alertly, has decent close control, and, most important, he’s got a powerful left peg.

The “grooming” would really amount to seeing what he can do at that level - and that’s vital, especially with the 2010 World Cup cycle not yet started. Ample evidence shows that scoring in MLS isn’t the same as scoring at the international level - see, Twellman, Taylor; Ching, Brian. But Esky has enough, and has shown enough, that he ought to get a look as long as Twellman’s at the very least.

There’s a second question, of course: if Esky, or anyone else for that matter, works out, with whom should he be paired?

There’s Ching, of course, as well as Eddie Johnson, assuming the latter ever returns to his potential. But who else is out there? What about Edson Buddle? (Answer: Not a traditional "Big Man.") Or Kenny Cooper? (No answer.) For long-shots, would Nate Jaqua be out of the question? (Answer: Hasn't shown enough just yet.) If we went away from Little/Big-Man, an argument could be made - and not a bad one either - for Jeff Cunningham, given his current MVP-caliber form. (Answer: Too old for a serious look?)

Anyone else out there? Just throwing this out there to see what sticks.


Week 21 Previews: Expectations, Guilt, Stagnation

Here we go: the second half of (what is it?) Week 21. It seems like it’s been a while since everyone played on a single weekend. As always, the home team is listed first and MLS’s in-house previews are embedded in the title. For more preview goodness, USSoccerplayers.com’s Kyle McCarthy pulled together his usual previews (well ahead of the official outlet no less) and tops each of them with both teams’ records over the past five games.

DC United v. Colorado Rapids
Stalled Joe-Mentum?
Will DC pull out of what amounts to a slump? Fortunately for them, they’re playing a Colorado team that 1) doesn’t travel well, and 2) who, through injury (Terry Cooke) or a war-inspired trade (Dedi ben Dayan) has lost a lot of offensive punch in the past couple of weeks. The weird thing, they’ve got players who should be able to create - Jovan Kirovski, Clint Mathis, and, in a pinch, Pablo Mastroeni - but who, unless they’re doing so really quietly, haven’t yet. Whatever ails ‘em, Marvin Tarley can’t fix all of it.
DC UNITED WINS - and gets out some frustration while they’re at it; I’m guessing two goals at the very least.
(TV: ESPN2, Saturday, 1 p.m.)

Columbus Crew v. Red Bull New York
Sigi’s Resignation, Both Withdrawn and Persistent (and the Guilt)
I’ve made a lot - perhaps too much - of Columbus sneaking up on an unwanted superlative. It took only Sigi Schmid’s pained ruminations and talk of resigning to drive home the fact that losing streaks can really suck for those directly involved. (NOTE: Fans don’t count; if your team losing genuinely hurts you, seek counseling.) So, there’s the guilt...but that’ll go away, especially if Columbus beats the record. Both teams picked up injuries in their last games: between them, Columbus’ loss of Jacob Thomas, one of their better performers this season, seems a deeper loss than Red Bull losing Mike Magee. While both sides also added players - the Crew picked up Duncan Oughton and Red Bull, John “King Journeyman” Wolyniec - neither are true game-breakers. So, it’s down to form then: Red Bull has it, Columbus has tons of it...just the wrong kind.
RED BULL WINS - and Wolyniec bags at least one; I’m pulling for the winner. I love that guy.
(TV: FSC, Saturday, 4:30 p.m.)

Real Salt Lake v. Houston Dynamo
Match of the Week
C’mon. Admit it. You want to see RSL win this win. Even you Houston fans out there...yes, you want an RSL win...
...and you may not be disappointed. Somewhere in the above preview, Jeff Cunningham jinxed the team by stating outright that RSL will make the playoffs, but that’s also indicative of the team’s new-found confidence. That - how do you say? - elan syncs nicely with some potentially major injury/suspension issues for Houston: they’ve lost Brian “No, Please; Someone Else Score” Ching to the former and Eddie Robinson to the latter. Add a home game to the mix and this one gets interesting fast. The “X-Factor” comes with Houston’s midfield; Dwayne DeRosario is already having a very solid year and Brad Davis always seems on the edge of returning to form of his stellar start to 2005. With emotions taking over, I’m going to say...
RSL WINS - this ends in a draw at worst. But the national-team fan in me really wants to see Brad Davis play well; he’d be a nice option for the left side to the DaMarcus Beasley/Bobby Convey style.

Chivas USA v. Kansas City Wizards
Freaky Friday
Who would have thought when the season started, all those years ago, that Chivas USA would have five points on Kansas City? The latter had the stacked roster and added Eddie Johnson in the off-season; the former only had question marks. Two-thirds of the way through the current campaign and these teams’ situations reversed: Chivas is not only doing well, they’re one of the more entertaining teams in the league (courtesy of a less than stalwart defense); for their part, Kansas City retained the dullness of “Gansler-ball” but dropped the winning ways. Whatever the history, KC has a shot at this one; between that vulnerable defense and a roster of players who once knew how to score, it seems only a matter of waking up. The suspension of Jesse Marsch, a key team leader by my observation, constitutes the best news for the Wizards; the worst comes with the “probable” listing beside Juan Francisco Palencia’s name. With Chivas a good enough team at home....
CHIVAS USA WINS (I’m a bit hesitant to call ties; feels like a cop-out.)

LA Galaxy v. FC Dallas
Battle of the Buns
One team tops the meaty center of the Western Conference while the other creaks under its weight. But LA’s sputtering return to form, built on a highly impressive defensive record (the preview tells me they’ve given up only two goals in the past eight games!), makes this a trickier game to call than the league table would suggest. The hard thing to swallow (well, for people disinclined to like LA anyway) is the fact that, punchless as the Galaxy may be, that defensive record means they may need only one goal. But Dallas, who has nearly everyone back and healthy, will test the bejesus out of that record. Between Ronnie O’Brien, Ramon Nunez, Kenny Cooper, and, some guy named Carlos Ruiz, they’ve got loads of players able to apply the finishing touch. No, they didn’t do this last week against Houston - which cost them “El Capitan” - but their scoring record suggests this won’t last. There’s also a bit of history standing against that array of talent: Dallas has beat LA only three times in LA. Hmmmm....

New England Revolution v. Chicago Fire
Who Shows Up?
This one is about as interesting as a mid-table clash can get; on the other hand, with DC United so far ahead in the standings, finishing second might feel pretty cool when all’s said and done. For all Jeff Bradley’s faith )in a New England turn-around (see #11) and for all the talk of grueling schedules, the Revolution’s record raises the question of whether this team can win games, or if they’re simply good enough to not lose them. In the other camp, a series of wins over Kansas City could have Chicago feeling a little jiggy. Come Sunday, we should find out whether it was down to the new formation, left-sided midfielder "Waiting for" Justin Mapp’s playing to expectations, or if the whole thing comes down to simply having Kansas City’s number.
DRAW - As I said earlier, I don’t share Bradley’s faith; it could be the New England fan in me.

Jeff Bradley's Look Down the Stretch

(NOTE: As bad as that title may be, the original "Jeff Bradley's Tasty Nuggets," was worse by far.)

Jeff Bradley, whose work usually hides behind a subscription wall, turned in a rare “First XI” column for MLS’s site. Whatever inspired the man (and can I get some of it?), he decorated the piece with delectable talking points. From his faith that the New England Revolution will turn it around (a faith I don’t share), through the big love he passes to former-interim Red Bull New York coach Richie Williams, to the insight into DC United’s long-term strategy he picked up from Ben Olsen, one can find something to turn over and over in all eleven items.

But it was the subtly-voiced prognostications in #2 that most interested me:

"2. Remember the date: October 14."
"It's all set up. The final week of the regular season, every single game will have playoff implications. Book it. New England hosts Columbus, which will need a win to have a chance. New York hosts Kansas City with playoffs riding on the line for both clubs. Houston hosts Colorado, which will be trying to hold on to a spot. Los Angeles will need the full three points in its home match with FC Dallas. Supporters' Shield winners D.C. United will host a mathematically-alive Chicago Fire team. And Chivas USA will host RSL in a win-and-in match for both clubs. OK, maybe I've exaggerated a bit here. But it's shaping up.

Where to begin?

Will the Columbus Crew have a chance? (Personally, I’m pulling against this one; not out of animosity, but a wish to see history made.) The Colorado Rapids “will be trying to hold on to a [playoff] spot?” Predicting anything about Colorado seems as risky a proposition as anything in MLS’s 11th season.

One could find a talking point in each call - and Bradley admits to exaggerating - but the same neck-stretching spirit pervades the column. And that's a good thing.

This is the time of year when people start thinking of the end-game. Bradley's start isn't a bad one. I think he's got some misses - as already mentioned, I see Columbus sitting out the post-season, New England continuing to stagnate, and I worry more about the LA Galaxy shitting all over the regular season than he does - but educated guessing is the name of the game.

In any case, I'd trust Bradley before trusting me...


Kyle McCarthy Seconds Twellman

USSoccerplayers.com’s Kyle McCarthy tops his column previewing this weekend’s MLS action with some sharp insights on MLS salaries and transfers:

“Rumblings of a move here or a move there and players whining about contracts and their ill-fitting value distracts from the on-field business that is increasingly important during this time of year...The league should be forthright in placing a reasonable value on a player and letting him move if the interested parties reach a suitable accord with MLS.”

“Instead, players around the league are caught in a high-stakes game of cat and mouse with the league, not knowing whether or not the league will show the midseason money, place an unreasonable bounty on a player's head or allow a player to move to supposedly greener pastures.”

The chopping and dicing omits some balance in his points, so check out the full post (I’m trying to stay within fair-use limits).

Like my earlier comments (LINK and LINK), McCarthy is responding to Taylor Twellman’s (NE Revolution) midweek gripe about his pay package. McCarthy also improves on mine in terms of pith and clarity. MLS needs to either keep their athletes happy, let them go when other suitors come a-courtin’, or cope with the best talent opting to bypass the league to START their career in Europe. Whether the league likes it or not, American players have career options - more risky and trying options to be sure, but promise of a bigger payout mitigates some of the risk.

There’s also a comparatively high-quality Big Soccer thread on this issue. At last reading, “Ursula” and “goussoccer” turned in the best comments.

On the subject of previews, I’ll put mine out later today.


Portland Timbers Moment of Clarity

The Portland Timbers take the field tonight - a game I, unfortunately, cannot make - against one of their few plausible rivals for a playoff spot, the Puerto Rico Islanders. As The Oregonian’s Timbers Weblog rather bluntly points out, though, it’s a pretty unequal rivalry with the Timbers on the wrong end of it. (The permalink feature isn’t working, so just visit the site and look for the title, The Playoff Push (Kind of).) They've also got a good "magic number" table for your edification.

Whatever happens, this weekend begins the moment of clarity in the Timbers 2006 season. Between tonight’s game and their next on August 31st (against, gulp, L’Impact de Montreal), the several teams the Timbers could remotely (very remotely) hope to catch will play out their respective games in hand. So, while the Timbers play two games between now and August 31...

...the Virginia Beach Mariners will play three games.
...the Puerto Rico Islanders will play four games.
...the Atlanta Silverbacks will play three games.
...Miami FC will play four games.

This means that, by the end of the day on August 31, the Timbers and their Mariners will have their total points from 26 games, Puerto Rico and Miami from 25 games, and Atlanta from 24 games. The rough equality among the players should tell our Timbers, in fairly clear terms, the importance of their last two games. Sad to say, the current standings kind of flatter the Timbers' position till one picks through the details.

Nearly everyone figures the fat lady is deep into her aria so far as the Timbers are concerned. Not that this loosens the "official" Timbers' site's grip on their delusions:

“The Timbers were able to snap an 11-game winless streak when they downed the Virginia Beach Mariners for the first time in franchise history on Aug. 10. With four games to play and only five points [ed. - yes!] separating the Timbers from a playoff position, Portland will be trying to get the most out of its home-field advantage.”

Ah...such sweet belief, such touching hope. They’re like kids searching under an empty Christmas tree for the pony they mentioned to Santa Claus.

Roma FC in the Fog of BS

Looks like 2006's favorite Cinderella team, Roma FC, plopped those glass slippers into the big pile of bullshit laid down by the U.S. Soccer powers-that-be. Pundit Steve Davis, writing for WFAA.com, lays out the sordid tale of Prince Charming stiffing Cinderella.

The key question in play was who received the $10,000 bonus that goes to the amateur team that goes deepest in the U.S. Open Cup. Roma split that honor with the Premier Development League's (PDL) Carolina Dynamo, but was initially told that they wouldn't receive a dime for their labors. The priceless reasoning:

"In the letter [directing Roma's attention to the stiffing], U.S. Soccer discounted Roma's result over {MLS's Chivas USA] because it was achieved in a penalty kick tiebreaker."

Sensing that all the publicity Roma enjoyed during their Cup run might make this one hard to hide, U.S. Soccer offered to give them half the bonus with the rest going to the Carolina Dynamo.

As Davis points out, the rule for determining who gets the bonus when two amateur teams reach the same round awards the money to the team "with the most victories against opponents from a higher division." The U.S. Soccer spokesman points out that there's no language stipulating that beating an MLS team counts for more than beating a second-division team - which is what happened in this case (Roma beat Chivas, while Carolina beat the Seattle Sounders.).

For what it's worth, I hope they change the language for next year's tournament.


Mid-Week Results: RSL Passes One Torch

August 16, 2006 Scoreboard:

Columbus Crew 1 - 2 Real Salt Lake
Red Bull New York 0 - 0 DC United
Chicago Fire 3 - 0 Kansas City Wizards

Real Salt Lake (RSL) made a clear statement last night: We are not the worst team in the league; those guys are. Since their arrival last year, there has been no easier game in Major League Soccer than playing Real Salt Lake at home. Last night, they passed the torch.

The Columbus Crew are the unlucky recipients of said torch. In fact, the defining challenge of the remainder of Columbus' 2006 season comes down to ducking the crown for worst team in MLS history. Only six futile games to go and they'll top the 18-game winless streak RSL garnered between their first and second seasons in the league. Are they bad enough to do it? Head coach Sigi Schmid said it as well as anyone:

""We might still be in the hunt until the last game but if I were going to Vegas I wouldn't bet on us."

This is the coach, mind you, discussing the success of the product he organizes on the field. No one posed the question, but one has to wonder whether Schmid would place a bet on RSL passing the "worst-team" torch (this needs a name, I think; how about "The Poo Stick"?) to Columbus before the season ends.

As for RSL, one can only credit them for an impressive run. If beating up on the Columbus Crew compares unfavorably to pounding on a one-armed toddler, one has only to refer to previous wins against DC United and the Colorado Rapids for a little perspective on their three-game winning streak. They've scored seven goals over that span and let in two; it's also worth noting that two of those were away games. Even if RSL coach John Ellinger misspoke when he said that RSL's away record bettered their home record (in wins, yes, in points earned no), a little confidence on the road helps with the overall.

Four points out of playoff contention isn't ideal - due to that one "extra" point, it's a maddeningly tricky place to be - but who thought RSL would be where they now are in, say, mid-June?

Of the other two games, DC's tie with New York is remarkable only insofar as it suggests some slowing to United's torrid early-season pace. While most other teams have endured three winless games, this is new territory for the Red and Black - at least in 2006. There's no reason to suspect, at this point, that they'll surrender the 16-point lead they've got in the Eastern Conference, but the playoffs can abruptly render a stellar regular season irrelevant.

Whoops. One last thing to add: the "missed" penalty for Red Bull. Watch the highlights (see Sights & Sounds) and check out how DC's Brian Namoff positions his hands as he runs alongside Youri Djorkaeff. It's not hugely obvious - Namoff's running with his hands up in the classic "I'm-not-pushing" position, but he squares his chest toward Djorkaeff just as he's about to deliver the shot/cross. With the benefit of replay, I would have called this one. In the live action, I can't say I blame the ref for passing.

Finally, if Kansas City hasn't been so woefully weak this season, Chicago's win would have meant a whole lot more. It seems wise to wait till this weekend's visit to the New England Revolution before drawing any conclusions from this one.

Midweek Previews

As I see it, last Friday’s “half-assed” predictions were the best I’ve produced in terms of format and content. As such, bits of that will be retained for future editions...like today’s.

For first-timers, MLS’s in-house (and wearyingly thorough) game previews are embedded in the match-up headers; home teams are always listed first. After some I have some fun, I’ll pass on the concrete stuff I think matters.

Columbus Crew v. Real Salt Lake
(TV: Fox Soccer Channel, 4:30 p.m. PST)
The Battle for Superlative Dominance
It’s no secret Columbus stinks, though just how bad may not be common knowledge. Their current 12-game winless streak equals the second-worst run in league history. With this team approach goal with the timid reverence the apes showed the obelisk in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the assumption that the Crew will seize sole ownership of the second-worst all-time run seems a safe one. RSL - who, by the way, set the record for futility with 18 winless games - is actually on a bit of an up. They’ve now won two(!) in a row and, unlike the Crew, they’re scoring goals.
- If the Crew’s injuries didn’t equal RSL’s the latter would have a problem. That many of RSL’s injury woes and worries (those listed as “probable”) includes many of the familiar names in defense at least holds out hope for a Columbus goal.
- Really, this one is about Joe-mentum. RSL has it, while Columbus has its opposite.
- RSL’s road form isn’t the worst: 3-7-0 (W-L-T; 9 points); shockingly, it’s actually better than Columbus’ home form (1-4-5, 8 points). Ouch.

Red Bull New York v. DC United
Who’s Schoolin’ Who?
As noted in several spaces, tonight marks Bruce Arena’s official coaching debut; the whuppin’ he guided Red Bull through against Barcelona didn’t really count. Out of curiosity, did anyone ask DC head coach Peter Nowak what he thinks about Bruce debut? The answer, I’m assuming, would be some variation, of “So what?” As hard as it is to sneak out from under that story line, Red Bull’s recent, decent run serves as the more important sub-text for this game; can they keep it up? Even against the league’s indisputably best team? They've got home field, if nothing else.
- Too little has been said (to me anyway) about DC’s good fortune with injuries. I don’t even know who Devon MacTavish is. Could this be the secret to their success?
- Not to be crass, but is Brandon Prideaux still alive? I don’t see him on the injured list and he’s not in either of the past two line-ups.
- This is a good rivalry, formally (or is it informally?) dubbed the Atlantic Cup. DC leads the all-time series with 23 wins to Red Bull/Metros 15 (there are 4 draws besides). Given DC’s history, one would think it’d be more lopsided. It seems New York plays DC tough.
Still, DC UNITED WINS. I’m thinking The Bruce will have to wait for his first - and Dema Kovalenko for his revenge.

Chicago Fire v. Kansas City Wizards
Like most mid-table clashes, not a lot of enthusiasm in this one; it's playing for the playoffs, really, and no one of which I'm aware thinks either of these teams will go far. It doesn’t help that these teams have played one another something like eight times in a row (NOTE: This is only perceptual). Chicago had the better of the last meeting, an Open Cup win featuring each side’s B-team. The question of who wins comes down to whether KC remembers how they scored those four goals against Columbus, or whether Chicago rediscovers the comforts of home.
- From a personnel point of view, Chicago finally seems close to whole. It now seems a matter of making the parts serve the whole.
- Who does Chicago coach Dave Sarachan pair with Nate Jaqua? Chris Rolfe (stats) or Andy Herron (stats)? Never having been all that high on Rolfe, my answer would be Herron.
- History plays a role here: Kansas City has a hell of a time with Chicago away. Based on that detail, I went against KC over the Fire for the Open Cup draw, which counted as my umpteenth wrong pick of this 2006.

Trades Making, Made (and Missed)

Blogger Maradawga caught word that MLS received an offer for Kansas City's Eddie Johnson from England's West Bromwich Albion. As he says, the league should go for it before Eddie's stock tanks further - unless the offer was totally insulting; I'm thinking only something less than $1 million fits that description.

He picked that out of a New York Times article that clocks progress, or lack thereof, on several trades (scroll down). For what it's worth, I'm pretty mystified by a few of them. For instance, why pass on $750,000 for Jimmy Conrad? Unless Conrad doesn't want to leave, take the money and let the guy go; that goes double if he does want to go. How much more can one expect for a defender pushing 30?

I mentioned potential Clint Dempsey trade(s) below (LINK and LINK), who has a couple English clubs on his tail; Jack Bell, who wrote the Times article, names West Ham United. The only offer so far cited (confirmed? don't know) was $2 million and that's a tough call. While the league does need to get all it can when it loses high-profile players, the line between alluring and coy isn't a thick one. The "X-Factor" in the Dempsey situation is pretty straight forward: in all probability players in Dempsey's league view MLS as a springboard to Europe. If a perception grows that the league is something of a trap, the question could whether they'll simply by-pass MLS. The balance isn't simple, but frustrating a player's ambition poses very real risks of its own. For what it's worth, $2 million sounds good enough for a player who wants to leave.

The rest of the trading news seems brighter. Austrian Markus Schopp sounds New York-bound; that one waits on terms. And a couple promising youngsters seem homeward bound as well: Bell names Stefani Miglioranzi while another outlet mentions Daniel Karbassiyoon's return. I won't pretend to great knowledge of either player, but with both of them seeminly good enough to attract interest in Europe, it's hard to believe their presence and play will hurt the league.

Twellman (and Others) Grumble

There's a cool breeze blowing out of New England, where Revolution star Taylor Twellman spoke for himself and, apparently, want-away Clint Dempsey, about some frustration with MLS's salary policy and general rules. Comparative pay serves as the bone of contention and the passage on this one is interesting:

"Twellman has scored 73 goals in the last four seasons, more than any other MLS player, and he was named the league's Most Valuable Player last season...He signed a four-year contract at the league minimum annual salary of $24,000, then received a raise to about $120,000 annually. He reached incentives as the Revolution advanced to the conference championship four successive seasons and played in two MLS Cups."

"'Percentage-wise, that's fine,' Twellman said of the difference between his first and second MLS contracts. 'But when you see the players' union numbers and I am not among the highest-paid, it's frustrating. For me, the most frustrating part is the way everything has been handled. Other players in the league are being paid very good salaries and contracts have been redone in the middle of the season.'"

Twellman has got a point. He's certainly not pulling down MVP pay; hell, Tony "Wrong Side of the Hill" Sanneh's salary doubles Twellman's take and then some. As for Dempsey, Twellman gives the impression the league is stalling on his move to England in hopes of a bigger pay-out. That may make sense on the business side, but one has to feel for Dempsey.

In Dempsey case, at least, the league's salary position makes sense; if he's going to move on, there's no point in renegotiating his contract. The league would be wise, however, to fix up Twellman's, who is as close to a marquee player as MLS gets.

Elsewhere, Will John is wondering why the Kansas City Wizards snatched him from the Chicago Fire to leave him languishing with the reserves. In fairness to him, he's got a point.

(Ugh. Those KC ass-bags. You can only hit this link once before the Kansas City Star wants your family and financial history in exchange for the privilege. So, go through Soccer Daily (LINK) if you want to read this one.)

Fiesta del Bruce

With Red Bull New York head coach/technical director Bruce Arena overseeing his first meaningful game tonight (more later), the commentariat turned out some perspective pieces. Check out the line up:

Andrea Canales (LINK)
Grant Wahl (LINK)
Steve Goff (LINK)

Each takes a subtly different approach: Canales finds out what the league's other leading lights think; Wahl's is a weird-to-useless piece of water-carrying; Goff, for his part, seems perplexed that Arena got back into coaching. All have their place -even Wahl's - and here's one more take: If The Bruce manages to take Red Bull to the semifinals of the playoffs, the man's legend grows. Otherwise, there's always next year.

One last point: Arena's schtick has started to wear to the point that, yeah, I'd kind of like to see him fail. Not completely, mind you, but the man's ego could definitely use some deflation; check out Wahl's piece by way of reference. If any coaching post can trip up a career, it's got to be Red Bull.


MLS Trade Extravaganza

For some dang reason, today’s a slow one for news - or at least super-swell and insightful commentary. Yes, it seems that everyone has trades on the brain. With a fair number of trades floating around, and with other sites providing better analysis on individual trades, it seems wise to just lump’ all the moves and potential moves into one post - and, for shits and giggles - to rank them in order of significance.

By way of criteria for ranking, the staff (of one) got together and opted to start the rankings with trades already confirmed; from there, the list will rank the rumors and long-shots with one eye on the odds a trade will 1) happen, or 2) matter (when the last name appears, you’ll get this distinction).

- DC United signs another Argentine, this one by the name of Matias Donnet. He’s got an impressive-for-MLS resume, including stops at Argentine Big Boys Boca Juniors and a goal scored against AC Milan in the World Club Championshp (see here). The blog DCenters provided a solid, DC-United-centric analysis of the move.

- Marvin Tarley returns to MLS, this time to the Colorado Rapids. Um, no one seems particularly nervous about this one, or, really, to care much about it. Prove ‘em wrong, Marvin. Prove ‘em wrong.

- The Deseret News is telling people that DaMarcus Beasley wants to return to the States; his desire to play for Real Salt Lake coach John Ellinger poses a two-fold challenge to the trade - especially given the August 31 deadline. The first question is whether Ellinger will have the job (signs, and RSL’s current run, point to yes, but...). Second, there’s RSL’s fourth-place ranking in the allocation lottery; three teams would have to pass on Beasley to make this work.

RSL blog, Are You Loyal, figures this won’t happen till next year - and he makes sense.

- The Clint Dempsey/Taylor Twellman/Pat Noonan situation, of which the Dempsey situation seems hottest. Bigsoccer.com has a thread devoted to a rumored trade to England’s Charlton Athletic (which, I suppose, would make this a “rumoured” trade). Maybe they’ve figured out what’s going on since I last checked, but most people on the thread seem to agree that the reported $2 million offer was too low. My Soccer Blog provided a good analysis of this one - especially with regard to the issues of contracts and timing.

- Paul Dalglish, who is the son of a legend (Kenny Dalglish), may be Houston-Dynano-bound. Dalglish currently plays in Scotland and that’s where this one got started.

- Metrofanatic passes on the juiciest rumor of the day (and admits it’s a rumor), which would send Italian striker, Christian Vieri, who is nearing the crest of the hill at the very least, to Red Bull New York. OK. I’m not seeing this one. Still, it’s a fun story. In spite of an illustrious playing career, I can’t say a Vieri trade would excite me; he’s old and, like some old people, he seems cranky.

Open Cup Quarters & Heresy

With the Chicago Fire’s B-Team beating the Kansas City Wizards' last night, the quarterfinal draw for the U.S. Open Cup is now set. Here are the quarterfinal match-ups (home teams first):

LA Galaxy v. Colorado Rapids
Houston Dynamo* v. FC Dallas
Chicago Fire v. New England Revolution
DC United v. Red Bull New York

* Due to renovations at their home stadium, the Dynamo/Dallas Open Cup tie will be played in some little shitbox. (I’m kidding. It sounds intimate.)

And now for the touch of heresy: as much as I love this tournament, with its giant-killing dramatics (see Roma FC), it just reeks of consolation prize. And that’s only in the years when no team pulls off the double - i.e. when they win MLS Cup and the U.S. Open Cup. Every team may say the right things about “taking the tournament seriously” (check the article about the Houston venue for just the latest example), but come game time, they’re looking under their bench - never mind the far end of the thing - for their starting 11.

As with a lot of things, put the blame on MLS’ playoff structure. With nearly every team making the post-season - where there’s always hope; just ask the 2005 Chicago Fire - this short-circuits another tradition of England’s FA Cup, the tournament on which the U.S. Open Cup is modeled: that of teams “putting all their hopes” into a Cup run. Put another way, when a team knows they're not going to win the league, they start to get really excited about the Cup games in hopes of walking away with something for the season.

While this year hasn’t necessarily been as bad in this regard as past editions - for instance, New England’s fielded their starters against the USL Division 1 Rochester Raging Rhinos - even two clubs with a snowballs chance in hell of winning MLS Cup (see Kansas City and Chicago) chucked only a pair of starters in with the parade of anonymity that were their game-day rosters (Ryan McMahen? Stephen Shirley? Jared Montz? Floyd Franks? (truth be told, this last player received some praise). While it’s true that the Wizards, especially, have a tight schedule (three games in six days, the last two on the road), the thing to look for is which of those games featured more of their bench.

Limit playoff participation to the top six teams - or, better still, the top four - and I’m betting that would change. I'll still tune in and will squeal like a five-year-old girl if my New England Revolution bring home a trophy - it would be their first, after all - but it's a methadone trophy, not unlike the Supporters' Shield, and everyone seems to know it.