Why MLS Is Set For A Breakthrough Year

With the threat of a strike over and with the league making steady progress year after year, there are lots of reasons to think that this year could be a breakthrough year for Major League Soccer.

What do I mean by breakthrough? For instance, if you look at 2009, I would argue that it was a breakthrough year for the US national team. The confederations cup performance created a huge amount buzz at home and abroad. It got people talking about soccer. The traditional sports media were forced to take notice – Dan Patrick had Landon Donovan on his radio show twice, ESPN’s SportsNation talked about the game, and American newspapers gave it extensive coverage. Similarly, the US-Mexico game received unprecedented hype for a qualifier – NPR covered it in their news updates, ESPN sent a whole crew, and Bill Simmons declared his love for yanks. On top of this, ESPN got very serious about soccer – they bought the rights to the Premier League and demonstrated that they would go all out on the World Cup. Furthermore, more US players landed abroad in top leagues – Onyewu to Milan, Davies to France, Jozy to England. US Soccer after the last year is now suddenly quite respected abroad and increasingly followed at home. In that sense, 09 was a real breakout year.

In this sense, I think MLS is primed for a similar year, in which the mainstream American sports world begins to take notice in a serious way. I think MLS will have a number of things going for it.

First, and most importantly, the northeast corridor of the United States – America’s cultural and economic heart (sorry Cali) – is going to get a soccer jolt.
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Its awesome when you’re right

Finally, Aquilani plays in his best position

I know it was only Portsmouth at home, but after many, many painful displays of inept and disgraceful soccer, Liverpool finally put together a strong outing in yesterday’s 4-1 win. Scoring four goals against the Premier League’s bottom team that is in administration and definitely going down is not any great achievement in itself. But far more than the scoreline, its was the players and formation that manager Rafa Benitez put on the pitch at Anfield that is giving Liverpool fans reason for hope. Finally, we got to see big money summer signing Alberto Aquilani play in an advanced midfield role with both Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres. The big question now is with Lille at home in the Europa League on Thursday and a trip to Old Trafford on the weekend, will Benitez stick with it or revert to form and use both Dirk Kuyt and Lucas. Continue reading

Exclusive: Tottenham Hotspur and San Jose Earthquakes Developing A Special Relationship

This was cross-posted at Huffington Post Sports.

While other MLS clubs are preparing for the new season by playing lower tier US clubs, the San Jose Earthquakes are in London testing themselves against Premier League competition and practicing at the training facility of Premier League risers Tottenham Hotspur. What is an MLS club doing in London?

The preseason trip to the UK is a result of a partnership that was penned between the two clubs in 2008. This agreement was hardly unique. Throughout the last decade MLS clubs have announced with great fanfare a variety of partnerships with various big international clubs. The LA Galaxy signed an agreement with Chelsea and Arsenal with the Colorado Rapids. While the initial signings of these partnerships brought a lot of initial interest, to most close followers of MLS little has seemed to come from these deals. But as this preseason trip demonstrates, meat is starting to be added to the bones of these agreements.

The Earthquakes by all accounts have had a fantastic week, defeating both a Spurs (1-0) and West Ham (2-0) reserve side that included Premier League regulars. They also beat western conference rivals, the Colorado Rapids (2-0), who have a partnership with Arsenal. Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp told the Huffington Post that he has

“been impressed with our US partners the San Jose Earthquakes; they’ve been well organised and extremely competitive against some good opposition.”

Clive Allen, former Spurs player and head Development Coach was quoted on the Earthquakes website, “they are hoping to achieve a lot more this time around and with the players they’ve brought in and the strength of that squad, it certainly looks that they are capable of doing just that.”
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Beckham’s Injury May Effect Landon Donovan’s Summer Plans

By rupturing his Achilles yesterday playing with AC Milan, David Beckham’s World Cup dreams are over. This, in footballing terms is not that great of a blow to England, as the Guardian’s Rob Smyth dryly notes. But this is a big blow for MLS and to the LA Galaxy who have now likely lost Becks until the very end of the season and possibly for good, due to Beckham’s age.

This is not only a blow to the team’s ability to win, as Beckham despite his age, clearly offered quality to the side and played an important role in the Galaxy’s run to the finals. But this is also a significant blow to the Galaxy’s bottom line. Beckham could still put butts in the seats and create a lot of buzz in Tinsel town, as well as all over the country. When the Galaxy went on the road, every team saw significant boosts in attendance when Beckham played – although that impact declined last year. The league is still losing its most marketable player and noteworthy player.

But this also raises the question Does Beckham injury make selling Landon Donovan after the World Cup less likely? The Galaxy, a fairly big spending club for MLS, would surely not want to lose their two best players and most marketable players even for a decent profit. Additionally, the league, which owns Donovan’s contract under the single ownership structure, will likely be more hesitant to sell, as it will mean losing their two most notable players.
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Injury bug bites England as Beckham ruptures Achilles

Beckham will miss World Cup

England’s injury woes depended today as David Beckham ruptured his Achilles tendon while playing for AC Milan. Beckham hobbled off after he went down without contact and him being officially ruled out of the World Cup is now just a formality. With Aaron Lennon having setback after setback as he attempts to return to fitness, Fabio Capello looked likely to rely on Beckham to come off the bench if not to start against the US on June 12. What could have been a strength for England with either Lennon’s pace or Beckham’s precision seems to be turning into a real question mark for a team that is already struggling at the back and in goal. Its all going Pete Tong for England in the build up to South Africa. Continue reading

I’m back

I know everyone has been desperately wondering where that grumpy Liverpool fan has been these last couple of months. Well, I got a new job that has caused a disruption in my free time and had to curtail my soccer blogging. But I am back and ready to resume regular service as we build up for the World Cup. Thanks very much to Max for keeping up the pace on the blog. On to the posts…

Is Benny Feilhaber The Most Underrated Yank?

Seemingly lost in the conversation about the national team is Benny Feilhaber. Most see him playing a reserve role for the Nats come World Cup time. But in my view Feilhaber should be central to Bradley’s plans.

As this World Cup cycle began, Feilhaber looked certain to be a pivotal figure for the national team. He was playing in the Bundesliga for Hamburg – he even played in the champions league – but his move to the Premier League to Derby County backfired. Derby County was the laughing stock of the Premier League, the manager that brought him in got fired, and Feilhaber proved to be a luxury that a struggling bottom feeder couldn’t afford, choosing to go with more combative and defensive central midfielders. That experience at Derby and a couple of injuries saw a pause in Feilhaber national team progression – he basically fell off the map. However, he landed at Aarhus in Denmark and reemerged with the national team in the Confederations Cup. Feilhaber has had another solid year in Denmark, leading to interest from La Liga sides over the winter.

Feilhaber offers something that other central midfield options just don’t have to the same degree – poise on the ball and precision passing. Feilhaber is not as adept defensively as many of the other options, therefore playing him alongside Bradley – another player who likes to get forward – leaves us a bit vulnerable as occasionally both players get caught too far up field, allowing the opposition to counter. However, international football is very much about possessing the ball and that is Benny’s strong suit. He is also a creative force. He has an ability to pin point through balls from deep – think penalties won by Altidore in confed cup against Italy and by Eddie Johnson in Copa America against Argentina. He also moves well with the ball and with some tidy footwork he put Donovan through on the second goals against Spain. In general Feilhaber is as close to a #10 that the US has. And we all know he can hit the ball.
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Scouting the Enemy: Analysis of England-Egypt

Watching the England-Egypt game there are reasons for the US to both feel good and feel nervous. While the 3-1 scorline against the African champions is certainly impressive, England was on the back foot for much of the first half and the 1-0 lead that Egypt took in at halftime was probably deserved.

However, the quality of England on the ball is undeniable and even when play is running against them they are quite able to slice through an opened up opposition through quick precise passing and intelligent off the ball runs. With a central midfield of Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry, as well as Gerrard on the let, this is an England team designed to create, but not necessarily to defend.

Reasons to feel good:

We can possess the ball against England. A constant weakness of US teams has been the ability to control possession against top sides. We saw this against Holland where a three man central midfield, consisting of two destroyers in De Jong, Van Bommell and an attacking midfielder in Snejder, put tremendous pressure on our central midfielders, forcing turnovers and preventing the US from settling. However, this should not be the case against England, as Egypt demonstrated.

Gareth Barry and Frank Lampard are not ball winning defensive midfielders. While both can put in a challenge, neither are all that fleet of foot, and against Egypt’s quick and crafty attackers they tended to try to contain them as opposed to pressure them aggressively. This meant there was quite a bit of space for Egypt’s midfielders to exploit.
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US-Holland Fall Out

Overall the US was outmatched by Holland, but they certainly didn’t get played off the field. There have been better US performances but overall the US was well organized defensively and showed flashes of attacking venom throughout the game. But in general the Yanks were slow to open up and launch counterattacks. Instead, the US too often just resorted to aimlessly hoofing the ball up field.

The US was defensively compact throughout the game, ceding much of the possession to the Dutch. But the Dutch did not slice threw the US the way they have other teams and only gotten on the scoreboard due to a catastrophic error by Jonathan Bornstein, who needlessly committed a penalty. The second goal was also fortunate for the Dutch as a deflected shot wrong footed Tim Howard. In the final 20 minutes the US pushed forward with Carlos Bocanegra scoring on an uncontested header off a free kick. Jozy Altidore nearly leveled in extra-time.

However, the game is sort of an after thought following news that Stuart Holden broke his leg after a vicious challenge from Nigel De Jong of Manchester City. Holden is said to miss just six weeks, but time frames for leg breaks are often unreliable and Holden’s World Cup place is now definitely in doubt.

There were some poor performances, with Jonathan Bornstein topping the list. He simply lacks the quality to play at the highest international level. He should have been called for two penalties and he frequently was exposed on the flank. He also doesn’t offer anything going forward, frequently leaving Landon Donovan essentially out to dry on the left.
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What to watch for against the Dutch

The US plays Holland this afternoon (2:30pm EST on ESPN2) in an important tune-up for the World Cup, which is now less than 100 days away. This is also coach Bob Bradley’s last opportunity to get US players together before he has to select the 23-man roster.

While there are some important absences from the US squad due to injuries to key players (Clint Dempsey, Oguchi Onyewu, Charlie Davies, Benny Feilhaber, Ricardo Clarke, and Steve Cherundolo are all out), on the bright side this will allow Bradley to test some squad players. No one wants to face the Dutch – who have been among the best teams in the world and are contenders to raise the cup – without some of their best players, but this game is not about the scoreline, it is about the quality of the performance. Therefore here are some things to watch for:

Are we able to hold up on the flanks? Jonathan Bornstein, who looks to get the start today, is a favorite of Bob Bradley. But he is in my view the weak link in the backline, this is not so much for any defensive frailties, which he has a few, but his poor distribution. The Dutch wingers will pressure him every time he gets the ball – will he just send panicky clearances up the field or will he be able to withstand the pressure and distribute to American midfielders.

Will the Maurice Edu – Michael Bradley central midfield be able to do distribute, as well as destroy? Going into the Confederations Cup last June, Maurice Edu, who had become a key player with Glasgow Rangers, looked prime to play a big role for the US. Unfortunately, he suffered a bad knee injury and has only returned to action in the last few months. Edu is an athlete that can cover a lot of ground and can put in a hard tackle after playing in Scotland. But can he distribute? The problem for the US central midfield, is that when playing two holding midfielders, such as Michael Bradley and Ricardo Clark, our ability to keep possession of the ball has suffered.
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