Assessing US Soccer After the World Cup – Our Floor is Higher Now on the Field, We Turned a Corner Off

Every four years a presidential election allows us to take stock of the state of the nation – where the country stands on issues, its demographic shifts, and its cultural views. The World Cup does the same for same; it allows us to take stock of the state of the American soccer nation.
So what did we learn about U.S. soccer after Brazil? On the field, the team looked a lot like the ones before, but the we now have a better foundation for which to build due to MLS. Off the field, we turned a real corner off the field, and shocked the world with the level of our support.

The 2010 Team was better, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t progressing. When looking to judge the progress of American soccer, we usually ask is this team better than the last? But in many ways this last cycle was going to be one of transition. We changed coaches a year in and our two best attacking players Donovan and Dempsey were now over 30.

Not only were Donovan and Dempsey both in their prime in 2010, but often forgotten about the 2010 cycle was that three massive injuries devastated the squad prior to the tournament. In September 2010, Charlie Davies almost died, Oguchi Onyewu the next day tore his ACL, and Stuart Holden got DeJunged with a broken leg right after moving to Bolton in a March friendly. It is safe to say that if those injuries didn’t happen those three players would have been among our best 10 outfield players. Holden and Onyewu still made the 23 man roster but clearly weren’t ready. With those three players a starting 11 of Altidore and Davies, Dempsey and Donovan wide, Holden and Bradley in midfield, and a Bocanegra-Onyewu-Demerit-Cherundolo (the back line that anchored the 09 Confederations Cup) would have been formidable. Instead, our depth was challenged and Bradley had to tinker to find replacements. This cycle we were actually quite fortunate with injuries until the Great Hamstring Outbreak struck during the tournament (…not to mention Klinsmann’s own-goal of leaving Donovan behind). But based on the collection of players it is fairly apparent that the quality in the 2014 cycle just was not quite as good as the 2010 cycle.

…But that doesn’t mean we aren’t progressing. While the 2010 squad was probably better, it was also heavily Euro-based. This is why we can feel pretty good about the progression of American soccer. This team was an MLS based team. Against Germany seven of our starters played in MLS and showed throughout the tournament that they were in the same class as their opposition. That players like Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez, and Kyle Beckerman showed so well on the world stage after playing their whole careers in MLS is something that should make us optimistic about the future, as MLS has shown it can produce quality players. This doesn’t mean players shouldn’t still look to challenge themselves in better leagues. But for many, like Kyle Beckerman, that opportunity may just never materialize. Yet Beckerman’s career shows that you don’t have to leave MLS to develop and to be a key cog in the UMNT. That’s very very good news for US soccer.

With the progress in MLS, we can now expect going forward to have a much deeper USMNT player pool, which should help ensure that we are always competitive. In other words, the ceiling for the 2010 team may have been higher than 2014, but the floor was also probably lower. Due to MLS, the floor for the USMNT is now much higher than it was.

But there’s some reason to be a little nervous… Continue reading

Heidbrink’s Hitters World Cup Awards

article-2689740-1F3F521A00000578-398_634x435Yes I know Germany was victorious and James Rodriguez scored the most goals, but there are many other awards that should have been handed out at the conclusion of this incredible World Cup:

 1. Best Defender, Javier Mascherano.

It was a shame that Javier Mascherano did not win any sort of award, his play certainly merited it. Mascherano’s World Cup campaign was incredible. The stout defender’s willingness to risk life and limb on each challenge, most noticeably against Robben in the semi-final, was the primary reason Argentina found themselves and their wildly drunk caravanning fans in the final.

2. Best Thing to Come out of England since Harry Potter, Daniel Sturridge.

Sturridge proved that he belongs at the very highest level of football. The striker was easily the most dangerous player for England in all three games, well, except for Leighton Banes if “dangerous” is evaluated negatively. Btw, I still think it is hilarious to say that England only played three games… Anyhow, Sturridge’s awareness of the goal and newfound maturity to see his teammates (a skill that forsook him at Chelsea) was on display during the group stages. England, if they are smart, should make him the focal point of what could be a very potent offense just in time for the Euros.

3. Best Goal, Jermaine Jones versus Portugal.

Best goal lists are easy to make, but for me, the greatest goals have the biggest impact on a team, a tournament, or a season. Call me a homer but Jermaine Jones goal was great, if not life-changing, for a variety reasons. First, it changed the course of the US World Cup Campaign, only James Rodriguez’s wunderstrike can stake such a claim, but even that goal was coming as Colombia dominated for long stretches against a Suarez-less Uruguay. Jones’s goal capped off the United States’ best period of play in the entire cup and gave the team belief they could progress to the next round. Second, the goalie didn’t even move! Rui Patricio’s feet appeared bolted to the ground such was the magnitude of Jones’ shot. Finally, the goal validated Jermaine Jones’s career as a US player. A touch hyperbolic? Maybe, but it is easy to forget how maligned Jones was as a central midfielder for the US. For me, Jones was our most important player at this World Cup as his effort pulsed through the rest of the team at the most crucial times. Here it is again, ahhhhhh goosbumps!

http://futbol.univision.com/video/474231/2014-06-22/fifa-copa-mundial/videos/jugadas/goooolll-jermaine-jones-mete-el

4. Best Tackle, Manual Neuer against Gonzalo Higuain.

Not only was this not a foul on either player, this was easily the best tackle I have seen in years. The final was full of physicality, which is a good thing. Goalies have the right to defend their box come hell or high water and forwards should be leery of challenges made in and around the penalty area. Association Football is strongly against the double penalty for last -man fouls and penalty kicks awarded on the same challenge, so kudos to a keeper like Neuer who makes unsuspecting passengers pay a price for lingering too long. For more Neuer time, watch this,

5. Best Coach, Herrera.

Let’s move on.

6. Biggest Money Maker, Deandre Yedlin and Men in Blazers.

First let’s start with Yedlin. Other than the conception of my first child, never has a short performance cost so much money. Yedlin’s marauding runs down the right flank against Belgium could have been just that, but the young dynamo finished his 75 -yard scampers with quality service delivered into the Belgium penalty area. Oh, did I mention he shut down Europe’s next best thing, Eden Hazard? Yedlin was a revelation, do you still want Brad Evans as your right back folks? Yedlin has been linked to Roma and Liverpool, whether either pans out remains to be seen. Not in doubt is that his next paycheck will exceed his current. The Men in Blazers were well-known to many hard-core US supporters prior to Brazil, but ESPN’s full embrace of the two gifted commentators brought them to another level. Whether the duo will be able to maintain their shtick as more executives line up to pay them will be a challenge, but one they will likely overcome.

 7. Best City to Watch a US Game, Chicago and Kansas City.

These Midwest towns appeared to attract the largest watch parties, could they serve as capable hosts to a large US men’s fixture next qualifying campaign? Let’s hope. To be a footballing nation we should not have to every game in Seattle.

 8. Best TV Coverage, ESPN.

This is more of a lifetime achievement award than anything else. ESPN’s coverage was masterful. It just goes to show you what that network can do when they buy in completely. Fox and BeIN have some big shoes to fill. Let’s hope they do not try to reinvent the wheel on their respective coverage of the 2018 World Cup and 2016 Super Copa America.

9. Best Game, USA v. Belgium.

Imagine how good this game would have been had Wando finished? Actually, it would have been a crap game just like the Ghana game but who cares!!!!!!!!!

10. Best Goal Celebration, Miguel Herrara.

This was a tough one, my heart says John Brooks. The look of astonishment over what he just achieved will live on in the pantheon of great World Cup moments, but Miguel Herrera is the master. I cannot stand the Mexican national team. Their tactics are questionable and their players disgrace themselves when the team struggles, e.g. Cobi Jones 2006. But after witnessing one Herrera celebration I wanted another, and another and another. After the second Mexico game I almost found myself rooting for Mexico, all because I wanted to see the little man commence another drunken-like tackle celebration Chris Farley style.

Why the World Cup Worked and What We Need To Do About It.

So why did this particular World Cup galvanize America? How is it that we seemingly put to rest the long-standing question of whether soccer has arrived in the US? The early excitement of the tournament and the incredible displays of attacking soccer coupled with several stunning finishes certainly helped. The success of the U.S. in the early games also generated widespread interest for the casual American fan. However, unlike any other sport, a soccer match tells a story. Sometimes the story can be incredibly boring, 0-0 affairs like Dutch/Argentina semifinal reveal this sad fact. Other games produce horror books that we can’t put down, e.g. Brazil v. Germany.Some games are gut wrenching dramas that leave us wanting more as was the case in Manaus where we watched the pulsating draw between Portugal and the United States. Soccer always plays itself out like this, but to experience the incredible highs and lows in a story you have to invest yourself from the very start.

Through ESPN’s incredible coverage, the entire nation bought into the World Cup from the very beginning. Will the momentum continue? Will more Americans watch the EPL or MLS for that matter? yes, it is undeniable. It won’t be sea change, but the numbers and the economics indicate that our nation is moving that way (more to come on that later). Finally, a nation’s soccer team, unlike any other sport I know, takes on the collective zeitgeist of a country. The Italians play it best, but only do it when they have to. The Americans will fight you to the death, regardless of the odds. The Brazilians will play with emotion whether it benefits them or not. It is no coincidence that Americans are falling for soccer, we love reality shows and soccer is easily the best running sports reality show on television.

Jermaine-Jones-celebrates-scoring-for-USMNT-against-Portugal

Now that the country has bought in, US Soccer must figure out how our players can access the top leagues in the world. It is no secret that Americans own several of the top clubs in Europe: Roma, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal (partial ownership), and Aston Villa to name a few. It is incumbent on these American owners to bring American players on the roster. Failure to do so misses the chance to build the sport here in the US and achieve a significant return on investment. For instance, how rich of a commodity is Tim Howard now? Won’t Everton make a small fortune marketing Howard based on his World Cup performance? I would bet so.

Not only are Americans good enough, they are also grossly undervalued in the world market. Much like World War I and II, it will take an army of Americans to fly overseas and prove their worth to Europeans. On a much less skillful and more personal level, whenever I play pick up overseas I am usually picked last as soon as they figure out I am American. It might have something to do with how crap I am, but more than likely my global playing partners are biased and think I will suck. Let’s just hope that after Timmy’s performance they won’t stick me in goal next time. I can think of no better way to put our nation’s finest footballers in the best leagues than by infiltrating the economic ranks of the best teams and force feeding Americana on the English, Spanish and Italians- consider this the new Marshall Plan for American Soccer.

U.S.-Costa Rica – What Klinsmann Got Wrong

ImageThere is a reason why long winning streaks are rare in soccer – stuff can easily go wrong! This was evident against Costa Rica. Michael Bradley is without a doubt the most important Yank and his injury before the game clearly unsettled the team. While the US should have expected an early onslaught, they looked totally shocked and were in some ways fortunate not to give up a third goal. All looked lost. 

 
Yet… and there is a very big YET… the US fought there way back into the game. By the second half the US looked likely to level. Dempsey hit the post and Donovan was terrorizing Costa Rica. Unfortunately, Costa Rica hit on the break effectively ending the game. 
 
It is tough to be too critical of Klinsmann, especially after such a great run of games.  But last night we saw some of Klinsmann’s managerial tendencies back fire, namely his continuing willingness to play players out of position. 
 
First, Fiscal was totally lost at right back. The second goal was caused by him allowing CR to get behind him, forcing Gonzalez to come over. Even then Fiscal didn’t provide any help. As a result Gonzalez was isolated and could do little to prevent the cross into the box – a cross he would have cleared on the other end if he hadn’t had to cover for Fiscal. That wasn’t the only time Fiscal was beat on the wing. Furthermore, Fiscal offered nothing going forward. It is one thing if Fiscal was the emergency option. But Klinsmann had him there over Cameron who plays there for a Premier League side. Granted Cameron doesn’t get forward very much with Stoke, but if he is your back up DM, then he is clearly better on the ball than Fiscal.  The lack of true fullbacks is clearly the major hole in the US side. 
 
Second, the substitutions hurt, rather than helped. I thought Klinsmann decision to bring on Eddie Johnson was a good one. A true CF would through something new at a CR backline that was on its heels. But by taking off Zusi he forced Donovan – who at that point was terrorizing the CR back line out wide. All of sudden the US attack began to sputter without Donovan. A better move would have been to bring on EJ for Fiscal and shift Fabian Johnson to RB with the direction to get forward. Donovan would have then have had defensive responsibilities on the left, but wouldn’t have needed to stay wide as Beasley could have provided the width. Instead, with Fiscal offering little going forward and exposed defensively, Donovan had to stay wide and play more as a true RM. 
 
Furthermore, it made little sense to bring on Johnson if you wanted to bring on Altidore a few minutes later. Bringing on Altidore and taking off Fabian Johnson may seem like an attacking move, but in reality it was anything but. The problem wasn’t Jozy. It is that by bringing on Jozy required Eddie to play deeper and wide (once again a player not playing his normal position). With Donovan isolated wide, and Eddie Johnson having to link the play the US became completely disjointed. While the third goal was clearly demoralizing, the U.S. barely strung passes together once the subs were made. 
 
Also a note on Howard. From my view the third goal was on him. He got his positioning entirely wrong. First, at the time the ball was booted forward, Howard was very deep, essentially at his penalty spot. He should have been further forward prepared to come out and clear balls over the top. Second, his first reaction was to go backward toward his goal once the ball is kicked. If he decides to go for the ball he gets there. Even if it is close he forces Campbell to round him allowing the CB to recover. He had to see that Besler had no chance of catching Campbell. Third, even if he didn’t want to leave the box, he still needs to charge at Campbell to shut down the angle. He literally just stood there – just outside his six yard box – and was beaten low. He has to attack the ball there. Now some of this might be on the coaching staff, as Howard might have been told to stay back and not to venture out as a sweeper keeper. If so that’s a mistake, especially when chasing the game. 
 
Overall, the game probably couldn’t have gone much worse.  The injury to Bradley and the yellow cards (especially the boneheaded one by Altidore) will really test the depth of the US.
 
That being said, the US is still in very good shape for qualification and if Dempsey’s shot hits the inside, rather than the outside, of the post, we are talking about the tremendous resilience of this US side. This game highlighted some areas for the US to improve, what it didn’t do is cause reason for panic. 

Why Spurs Aren’t Going To Sell Bale (or at least why they shouldn’t)

article-2359033-1ABC8FC1000005DC-12_634x521It has been largely assumed that Spurs would have to sell Bale and would not be able to resist an 85 million pound offer from Real Madrid. Daniel Levy is now seen as just holding out to get a better deal from Madrid.  But when analyzing Spurs past transfer history and the current dynamics of the market, it becomes clear that Spurs are most likely not bluffing. They want to keep Bale and have no intention of selling Bale this summer for anything less than an absurd 100+ million pounds.  And Spurs are exactly right in their approach. Bale is worth more to Spurs in 2013-14 than 85 million pounds.

Importantly, this doesn’t mean Bale is worth more than 85 million pounds. Bale is an asset. And just like any property, just  because someone offers you a huge amount for your house doesn’t mean it makes sense to sell. Timing matters and the timing doesn’t make sense here.

But what about Spurs spending?
One reason to think Bale is on his way is that Spurs are spending likely drunken sailors – only Manchester City in the EPL has spent more this season. The logic goes that poor Spurs can’t afford this, so they must already be using the money they plan to get for Bale now. But there are reasons to doubt this.

As the transfer history shows, Spurs have money.  But until this summer, Spurs haven’t really spent considerably since Harry Redknapp’s first two years. Look at the last 8-9 years of transfer activity:

  • 2013-14 (-47 mil euros net): Spurs have spent 69 million euros (Paulinho, Soldaldo, Capoue, Chadli) and sold 22 million
  • 2012-13 (-4 mil): Spurs last year spent 72 mil euros and sold 68 million euros
  • 2011-12 (+36 mil): (Redknapp’s last season), Spurs spent just 6 mill euros (Scott Parker) and sold 42 million euros.
  • 2010-2011 (-23 mil): spent 26 million, and sold just 3 million.
  • 09-10 (-9 mil):  spent 40 and sold 31.
  • 08-09 (-50 mil): This was the year Spurs sold Berbatov and Keane (2 pts, 8 games) and then got Redknapp and had to panic buy in the January window, Spurs spent 140 mill and sold 90 mil
  • 07-08 (-72 mil): 94 spent (Bent, Bale), 22 mil sold
  • 06-07 (-23 mil): 61 spent (Berbatov), 38 mil sold
  • 05-06 (-14 mil): 36 spent, 22 mil sold.

Over the last 8 years (excluding this summer), Spurs have spent an average of 20 million euros more per season than they have sold. But if you don’t count the last two seasons Spurs were spending 30 million euros more per season than selling for the 6 seasons between 2005 and 2011. But the past two seasons Spurs have been a selling club netting 32 million euros. So if Spurs could maintain spending at 30 million per season for the six years prior to 2011-2012 than Tottenham have likely been banking revenue the past two seasons.

This means that not only do Spurs have the 32 million euros they have netted the past two seasons, but likely are capable of spending an additional 60 million from a lack of spending. In other words, Spurs have not spent their transfer allotment the past two years.  That would equate to Spurs being able to afford to spend about 90 million euros netHence, despite already having a net outflow of 47 million euros this window, Spurs should have about an additional 30-40 million euros more they could spend, given the lack of spending the past two years.  This is what makes Tottenham’s bid for Willan and others financially viable. Furthermore, if Spurs plan on selling Bale next season, they can count on likely being in the black in terms of spending, likely making them more willing to push their spending limit.

Lastly, my guess is that part of the agreement in keeping AVB at Spurs (he turned down Real and PSG) is that he will be given the resources to compete. This current rate of spending is probably part of that deal.  So Spurs spending could easily be disconnected from any Bale sale.

But still why not sell at 85 million pounds – a Premier League record?
First, Spurs will increase their chances at qualifying for Champions League. With Bale Spurs, while not assured, will be favorites for the Champions League. That’s likely an additional 20 to 40 million pounds in revenue. Without Bale, Spurs have a good shot at CL, but the odds get lowered. So lets assume you don’t sell Bale this year and his value drops to 60 million, just because the amount that Real is willing to pay lessens. You still have likely come out even by keeping him and getting into the CL than by selling.

Second, it is harder to replace Bale now because you don’t have the attraction of CL. Next year, if Spurs make the CL they can actually use the funds to lure current CL quality players. Right now Spurs have to speculate more in the transfer market, as they have to find players that they think will be of that calibre.

Third, you gain global market share by keeping Bale. Bale is the best player in the Premier League and a human highlight reel. There’s a reason why Spurs ranked top in NBC’s chose your club promotion and its Bale. He’s on the Time’s Square billboard for god sakes. In politics this is called “earned media” – ie free publicity. Spurs will never be able to get this sort of free publicity again. This could hugely impact the potential earnings of the club, as new markets, with a growing fan base have thousands of people looking for a team to cheer for, for jersey’s to buy.

Fourth, Spurs actually have a shot at winning the league with Bale. Yes, with Bale (and with AVB and new signings), Spurs can win the title. The top 3 EPL clubs have new managers this season and while Mourinho isn’t exactly “new” he has to reshape the squad and could face a couple hiccups. The winning point totals the past four seasons have been 89, 86, 80, and 86 points. There are reasons to believe that it will be less this year, due to competitive balance and new coaches. Let’s say 82-86 points wins this year. With Bale likely playing as a striker/attacking midfield from the get go and with Soldaldo and other new signings, Spurs will likely improve on the 72 points last year when they had no strikers scoring more than a handful of goals and had a new manager. It is by no means unreasonable to think Spurs could potentially be about 10 points better than they were last year. And at around 82 points they are fully in the title race.

Harry Redknapp’s Brilliant Tactical Pragmatism

Lost in Stoke’s controversial win on Sunday, in which referee Chris Foy failed to award Spurs two clear penalties and a legitimate goal, was Harry Redknapp’s magnificent tactical switch to a 3-5-2 at halftime.

Redknapp is frequently described in the UK as an old school football manager that doesn’t really do tactics. He is credited with being popular among the players and of having restored solidity to Spurs (an expected trait of English managers), but overall he is widely considered a rather simplistic thinker when it comes to tactics and strategies. During Spurs Champions’ League run last year, UK journalists often expressed doubt that Redknapp had the tactical nous to cut it against the Europe’s best tacticians. With victories over Inter Milan and AC Milan that should have been put to rest. But the notion that Redknapp is more of a working class meat and potatoes football coach that is good for some great quotes in the press but lacks the intellectual sophistication to ever be elite – continues to hang around Redknapp. Some of this is that he has a Joe Bidenesque ability to provide the blue collar sound bite – exhibit A was Redknapp’s fantastic zinger this weekend at Mr. Foy, “But he’ll look at it tonight on TV when his wife’s making him a bacon sandwich and he’ll think ‘**** me, what have I done there’.” Interestingly, many of Spurs fans buy into this line of thinking and are only just now realizing that Redknapp is an internationally elite manager and can cut it tactically with the best of them.

What is different about Redknapp is that he is a pragmatist. He is not dogmatic about how his team plays. He doesn’t care if he plays route one or plays tiki-tak or plays narrow or with width. He is about finding what works with the players that he has. But just because he doesn’t have a style like Arsene Wenger or Barcelona, or is tactically obsessive like a Rafa Benitez does not mean he isn’t a master tactician.
Continue reading

Dalglish should try Dirk Kuyt as Lucas replacement for Liverpool

Dirk Kuyt should be Lucas' replacement; photo by Danny Molyneux

The news that Lucas Leiva has been lost for the season with a torn ACL (something with which I can empathize as I am five weeks out from surgery to repair my own torn ACL, it sucks – best wishes to Lucas) will really test Liverpool’s squad as there is not a natural replacement for the Brazilian. The importance of the defense midfielder is one of the tactical evolutions of the last fifteen years. Charlie Adam is too slow, Jordan Henderson and the also injured Steven Gerrard are too attack minded, and Jay Spearing (who will probably get the job) has yet to prove himself. But Liverpool have a player with all the qualities you want in a defensive midfielder – quickness, energy, endeavor, discipline, and  the willingness to put in tackle after tackle – he just isn’t thought of for this position because he’s nominally a striker: Dirk Kuyt. 

It’s hard for me to say this, as I have long been down on Lucas – even last season when he was named the team’s player of the year, but Lucas has really come into his own and is one of the main reasons that Liverpool enter this weekend as the joint best-defense in the Premier League. He learned from a master when Javier Mascherano was at the club, and Lucas can now be seen breaking up play from sideline to sideline. He still struggles with his distribution, especially going forward, and he at times can get caught ahead of the ball. But there is no question that Lucas has emerged as one of the top defensive midfielders in the league and his presence in the Liverpool XI will be missed. Continue reading

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