With squad thined by injury, will Spurs go for it?

Tottenham’s next two EPL games (Man U at home, Chelsea away) will go along way in determining whether Spurs are for real this year. Spurs came into this year with everyone raving about how deep their bench is. And it certainly is when everyone is healthy – but that certainly is not the case now. In two weeks they will face arguably the top two title contenders in back to back games with a thinning squad.

The biggest is loss is Luka Modric, who will be out 6 weeks with a broken leg. Modric is irreplaceable as a creative force, but I think Spurs have enough on their bench to get by without adding another player. There are a number of options. Option 1. Keane out left, Crouch and Defoe up top, Lennon on the right. Keane can fill in their for Modric, they are similar, it is not much of a loss defensively, but Keane isn’t as good a distributer. Option 2: Lennon on the left and Bentley on the right – Spurs did pay more than 15 million pounds for him. Option 3: Dos Santos on the left as a straight swap. My vote: would be to give Dos Santos a go. All Americans know the guy is a terror. He is left footed, got pace, is good with the ball, and plays with energy. However, throwing him in their against Man United might be a bit much to ask. He could come on as a second half sub to replace Bentley or Keane. (Option 4 is of course to buy another winger/creative player with Niko Kranjcar being most likely. Krancjar would be a good signing, especially since it might be a bargain, and he can play centrally, but where would he fit in when Luka returns? That would seem to doom Bentley and Gio’s chances of playing time).

Perhaps a bigger problem for Spurs is their backline, which is increasingly depleted. Sebastian Bassong looks like a solid purchase from Newcastle – but he was always the fourth choice CB behind Woodgate, Dawson, and King all of whom are injured. King had to be substituted at halftime against Birmingham with a groin injury (not the usual knee problem) and Spurs looked vulnerable at the book with Corluka filling in. They will need King (or Woodgate) against Man U and Chelsea. While there are loads of options at RB, with Bale’s injury there is no cover Assou-Ekotto.

Another area of concern is the central midfield. While The loan of Jamie O’hara makes sense, as the kid needs playing time. The Spurs have no experienced central midfielders in reserve. Jenas is hurt, and while Modric could have played centrally for Huddlestone, and Huddlestone could have filled in for Palacios as d-mid, with Jenas and Modric hurt, O’Hara and Boateng gone – there is no experienced central midfielder in reserve. This is why the priority for Spurs has to be another central midfielder with Muntari at Inter a fantastic option.

To me Spurs need another experienced holding midfielder that can provide cover for Palacios or take Huddlestone’s place. While Spurs had trouble attracting top tier talent during the summer, as top class players believed champions league football was a mirage at Tottenham, with this start one would think Spurs have a shot at luring a Muntari if they are willing to spend.

Man U looks poor

ronaldo tevez
Yes, Man U won, but they look poor. The two goals were gifts and Arsenal looked by far the better side. I said this after the thrashing of Wigan (a game in which Wigan had more possession) – but the loss of Ronaldo and Tevez puts a lot more pressure not just on Rooney but on the whole squad. Weaknesses in the team that were often glossed over last year are now coming to the forefront. Call this hyperbole but they looked more like an Everton, Villa, or even a Sunderland than potential European or EPL champs. The way United approached Arsenal with a 4-5-1 defensive crouch is exactly what a team that lacks a little confidence and that feels itself a little over matched does.

1. In attack, Rooney looked lonely and isolated in the 4-5-1 and United couldn’t get numbers forward quickly enough to support him. Man U fans hope that Rooney can step into the spotlight left by Ronaldo and score loads and loads of goals. Maybe, but he doesn’t have a great goal scoring record in the past and when I think of Rooney I don’t think natural goal scorer. Sure Wayne Rooney is a great player and all of England is really hoping he is among the world’s best players, but he cannot carry the Man U attack as a lone striker.

2. The midfield looks average. Behind Rooney in the hole was 35 (soon to be 36) year old Ryan Giggs. I’m sorry but the “ageless” Giggs looked all of his 35 years. He was awful. His distribution was poor and he was constantly caught in possession. Behind Giggs was Carrick and Fletcher. Fletcher is a decent enough player but hardly would be mentioned as one of the best midfielders in England. Carrick is class but looks like he is in a poor run of form. And out wide you have Nani and Valencia. Both are typical out and out wingers and have some potential but neither look like world beaters. Against Arsenal neither created much or gave Arsenal much trouble.

The problem Man U has now is that with the loss of Ronaldo and Tevez there is so much more pressure on the midfield to create chances – and it is much harder to create when you have no Ronaldo and Tevez to pass too. In other words, those two players made everyone around them look a lot better. A midfield of Carrick, Fletcher, Giggs, Nani, and Valencia is good, but which one of those players can regularly change a game?

Nevertheless there is something about Man U and Ferguson – a confidence maybe – that makes it hard to say they are the weakest of the top 4. But they certainly looked it.

Improving MLS’ poor TV ratings

Kartik Krishnaiyer has an important piece over at MLS Talk on MLS’ poor tv ratings. Krishnaiyer points out that while attendance is up, tv ratings in MLS were actually higher 10 years ago. As a result ESPN has dumped MLS games from its Thursday prime time spot. What is worrisome is that ESPN actually did a fairly decent job promoting the debut of Thursday night primetime.

As for how attendance could be up and ratings down, I think there are a few decent explanations. First, there is a lot more competition now than there was 10 years ago. In 1999 there was much less European club soccer on tv – or at least many fewer people had access to it. Therefore soccer fans would watch MLS, because it was the only thing on. Second, teams are starting to become more institutionalized and rooted in their local markets. DC United I know has become an increasingly known and important pillar in the DC sports scene. But that won’t have a big impact on tv ratings because it doesn’t effect markets outside of DC. Third, despite Beckham, you could say that the number of well-known stars in the league hasn’t really grown in the last ten years.

Kartik fears that if things don’t change:

the league will go the way of several domestic leagues in Asia and Latin America, where there is always a committed core of fans, but the majority of the football loving public breathes, lives and talks foreign club football. We do not want that to happen here in America.

As a result:

MLS has to make a decision. Try and be a good American league, keeping the core of the national team player pool at home or be a global player by releasing the purse strings on clubs budgets and spending and allowing individual clubs to promote themselves outside their “assigned” market. (ie. Allow DC United to advertise on billboards in Dallas about Jamie Moreno, or even in South America, for example). Right now, MLS is neither a good American league as the vast majority of US MNT pool players ply their trade abroad, nor a global player that has allowed clubs to build its own brand. MLS is a tweener league for lack of a better term.

I tend to think there isn’t a real reason to panic. MLS is growing its fanbase, the league rivalries are deepening, the new stadiums make the league look more professional, and its beginning to touch more places around the country. But poor tv ratings are a problem – so what should be done?

I think the key is to make the league much more relevant globally. The way to do this is actually to SELL more players to top Euro leagues. MLS needs to understand its place in the food chain. It is not amongst the elite leagues, this doesn’t mean it should lack ambition but over the next decade or so it should try to become the best of the rest. And to do so it has to be seen as a great league for ambitious players looking to make the jump to the top leagues.

I disagree with Kartik that to be a good American league MLS has to keep its American stars. I think that path will only doom the league, since promising American stars like Charlie Davies will simply avoid MLS altogether if they think MLS will refuse to sell them when big Euro clubs come calling. To be a good American league the league has to develop American talent. But the focus shouldn’t be on just U.S. talent but talent from around the world. While selling players may hurt in the short run, if the league becomes seen as a jumping off point to Europe it is going to attract more interest and better talent. I bet Charlie Davies goes to MLS, if MLS assured him that if offers came and he wanted the opportunity they would work with him.

To really grow ratings, the league needs to tap into the American EPL watching soccer fan – of which there are many (as seen by ESPN EPL ratings and the attendance for club tours). To do so the league needs to both expand its profile and improve the quality of the league by seeking to attract not just American talent, but talent from around the world. I think MLS is much better than a lot of people give it credit for, but as Bobby McMahon of FSC noted the quality on the field is incredibly uneven. There are players on the field that could certainly cut it in the EPL, there are Championship level, and there are league 2 quality players. In most leagues in Europe there isn’t such a wide disparity. Expanding the size of the squad and increasing salaries is required in order to fix this. But it is also about attracting more talented players. Young players from around the world would likely jump at the chance at coming and playing in America if they thought it would give them a good opportunity to get noticed. This is already happening to a certain degree and the league should not shy away from it.

MLS should also seek to gain the confidence of elite clubs and encourage them to loan out some of there younger reserve players. Some meat should be added to the bones of these partnership agreements. For instance, lets say Tottenham at the end of last season in May knows Giovanni Dos Santos is not going to be a core part of the team at the start of the EPL campaign – why not loan him out to San Jose (who they have a partnership with) – he plays until October and then comes back. The summer schedule could be used to the leagues advantage. MLS would definitely attract more television interest if a Man U or Barca youth prospect was on the field.

For this to eventually happen however the league will have to loosen its tight salary cap and the single entity system, which makes the labor discussions coming up tremendously important. The league has grown slowly and intelligently, but at a certain point MLS clubs are going to need more freedom to compete both with each other and within the global market. Parity is good – but a league needs some marquee franchises with some cache and that requires a bit more disparity.

It’s not about better athletes

Jeff Carlisle has an important corrective against the argument that the U.S. needs to get its best athletes to play soccer. Sure it would be great if Chad Johnson, Kobe Bryant, and Barry Sanders (just imagine him with a ball at his feet) played soccer. But a lack of athleticism is not holding us back. Our league and our team are already considered very athletic for soccer, we don’t lack athletes we lack skillful creative players.

Of course it would be great to have better athletes but they don’t need to be 6-4 wide receivers. Answer this, what sport would Maradona play in the U.S.? One of the greatest soccer players ever, an amazing athlete yet could never play basketball, too small for football, perhaps baseball, but you get the point. If you are an amazing athlete in the U.S. under 6 feet tall your options are pretty limited. Sure you could maybe the few guys that make it as an NBA point guard, but the there are great athletes under 6 foot that have really long odds in the other main sports and would be better off choosing soccer. The point being we really don’t need players to pick soccer over the big three sports to “make it.”

Altidore’s debut and what it means

Jozy’s debut was something special and the manner in which he was greeted was unique for an American player and is another indicator of how much international recognition American soccer has grown recently.

I was perhaps just as excited about Dempsey’s debut for Fulham in January 2007 (as were many Americans), but Dempsey was an unknown in England and was still met with that standard international (particularly British) skepticism and disinterest in American soccer players – after all, the refrain went, ‘they don’t even play football.’

What was different about Altidore’s debut is that you could tell everyone – from the fans, to the announcer, to the Hull coaching staff – were excited about his introduction. The cameras throughout the game frequently zoomed in on Altidore sitting on the bench, he was mentioned in the introductory commentary, and as he began to warm up cheers erupted from the Hull supporters. In other words, for perhaps the first time an American debutant was viewed not just as a useful addition but as a potential star. Additionally, the crowd’s embrace of the U-S-A chant almost every time Altidore touched the ball was also recognition that Hull has a player who is the future star of US soccer – and while that might have been met with a yawn ten years ago – now stirs real excitement.

The video below has Jozy-specific highlights. You can hear the chants of U-S-A as he enters. I do wish they caught the moment when he went eye to eye with Zat Knight and the very next move out muscles the big CB and leads a break away.

The great thing about his debut is that the fans are now going to clamor for him every time he is not on the pitch. That’s a lot of pressure. But for a kid who was blogging for the New York Times at 17 and who carries himself like an experienced vet this shouldn’t be a problem.

I know American fans have been very careful about hyping Altidore. We saw what we did to Freddy Adu. We told the world he was going to be the greatest ever, we saw his ego expand, and then saw him fall short of expectations. Adu is still only 20 and we hold out hope, but no one wanted the hype machine to set its sights on Jozy. We were careful, whispering to each other – ‘did you see that?’ ‘man he could be really good’. Asked by non-Americans about potential US stars we sort of meekly responded ‘there is this teenager Altidore who looks good but he’s really young so you never know.’

Screw it. Altidore is primed to be a star. He has Drogba’s physique at 19 and he has the pace, quickness, and touch of a young Fernando Torres or Rooney. I am not saying he is there yet – not even close – but I think back to the U-20 World Cup in Canada, USA-Brazil, and the best striker on the field wasn’t Jo (Everton) or even Pato (AC Milan) it was Altidore. He still has to learn the game and he needs to get on the field – something all young players in top leagues can find a challenge. But he all the tools to become America’s first international soccer superstar.

EPL rewind

The distractor was away this weekend so all I did was watch EPL this weekend.

1.Hull City v. Bolton. I know I am biased but I have never seen a substitution so change a game. Bolton were dominating and Altidore comes on and all of sudden Bolton’s defense which had nothing to do all day had to scramble. He set up a goal with his first touch 28 seconds in and he almost (everyone thought it was in) had a great goal shortly after. My favorite part of his performance came in the last few minutes. Zat Knight got in Altidore’s face in an effort to intimidate him. The next minute the ball is hoofed forward Jozy out muscles and outworks Knight controls the ball and leaves him in his dust on the break. I have seen enough he is not just very good – at 19 should be tapped to be a big star.

2. Spurs did something I have not seem the do – maybe ever – play badly and win. Spurs were just not in sync against a decent West Ham and the quick rhythm passing game was just not happening (Huddlestone passed the ball into the stands like 4 times). However they capitalized on West Ham’s mistakes, defended well, and had one moment of brilliance from Lennon. It was a performance that should bring Spurs fans back to earth – ie we won’t win the league – but there is enough quality there to really contend as we did under Jol.

3. Man U’s 5-0 victory glosses over real deficiencies. A telling stat – Wigan had 51 percent of the possession. 51 percent. I saw the middle portion of this game from about 30th minute to the 65th and in that half hour or so Wigan were very much in the match. Everyone is talking about how the loss of Ronaldo and Tevez puts pressure on Rooney and Berbatov to score more goals – it does – but it also will put a lot more pressure on Man U’s central midfield. When Man U was playing a 4-2-4 with Rondaldo, Tevez, Berbatov, Rooney, teams were incredibly hesitant to get forward, afraid to leave themselves exposed in the back. You simply couldn’t mark all those guys and the tempo that they played at offensively and defensively relieved a ton of pressure on the defense and central midfield. That just isn’t the case now. On Saturday, Man U had a traditional 4-4-2 Berbs and Rooney up top, Nani and Valencia out wide and (at least on Saturday) Scholes and Fletcher in the midfield. This is a good team but that midfield is not a midfield that looks likely to win the league – let alone the battle of possession with Wigan. Seriously Scholes and Fletcher? True, Man U scored 5 goals, but at the 55th minute a 0-0 draw was more likely. What should scare Man U is that I (and I believe most observers) would take Spurs midfield of Modric, Lennon, Palacios, and Huddlestone over United’s.

4. Chelsea looks really strong. Watching them however is like watching a team in Serie A – they are boring really boring and play with a really slow tempo. But it is working. Fulham are a good team and they barely had the ball the entire game. I think this is a team that trudges along with a lot of 1-0 wins – the only question will be do they give up too many draws playing this way.

5. Man City look soft. They just got Lescott and another Brazilian defender and they need it. I watched the last 30 min of this game (after Man U exploded) and boy did they look shaky in the back. Wolves should have equalized – they hit the bar – and looked threatening every time they lofted the ball into the box. City created a lot of chances, but they look soft and should have paid the price for not putting the game away.

6. Arsenal look like Arsenal. But with the Cesc Machine out for 3 weeks will they sputter?

Games to watch for this weekend

Goff has a rundown of all the action on TV. Here are the games I am probably going to check out.

Saturday

-Arsenal v. Portsmouth (10am on Setanta) or Man U v. Wigan (10am on the deuce)- hopefully one of the two underdogs will make a game of it. I am definitely excited to check out ESPN’s coverage.
-Hull City v. Bolton at 5pm on FSC- Murmurs are that Jozy may debut – seems a bit sudden but come on coach give Jozy a go (they don’t get jet lag at that age!)
-DC United v. LA (7:30, FSC) – Beckham in my hood literally – I’m a short walk to RFK). DC needs to right the ship badly.
Sunday – derby day?
Spurs v. West Ham (8:30 on Setanta)- The morning starts with a bang with a north v. east London derby.
Fulham v. Chelsea (11 am Fox) – Another derby follows – this one between posh teams in Fulham. Come on Dempsey!