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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Football and Hair: Dida's Abuse of the Razor

Football is a sport of creativity. And today, footballers have become just about as creative with their hair as they are with their feet.

As a footballer, one lives a privileged lifestyle: Celebrity status, reduced taxes if you live in a foreign country, no need to become friendly with women—the game has already been spit, etc. Most notably, though, only does a footballer get the “okay” on extreme hairstyles.

You see, if the average citizen ever sported an extravagant coiffure, like that of a footballer, his audacity would be a mockery. A schoolboy with a Christiano Ronaldo fro-hawk loses all credibility—he’s just the kid who’s mom wouldn’t let him get a real mohawk. Florent Malouda’s protruding corn row stem will only ever be found elsewhere on the head of a Tellitubbi. And Fernando Torres-esque sleek blonde locks make anyone but Fernando Torres look a pretty boy bitch. But in football—and only in football—is Cisse’s weekly hair color changing socially acceptable.

So props to you, footballers. You’ve worked hard, you’ve earned the right to experiment with your headgear. Some of you, however, are abusing your privileges.

Oi, Mr. Dida.

Dida, a goalkeeper for AC Milan, has exercised his right to shave a nice 3-inch line across the top of his buzzed dome. Why he thinks it looks good is beyond me. Dida looks like he just got out of surgery. His attempt at a fresh cut instead looks like an ugly scar left from splitting his head open upon a collision with his goalpost.

Now, a few years ago, the shaved line-in-hair evolved as a trend amongst footballers. Its locale, however, was initially on the side of the head. Now, though, it seems to be creeping farther up towards the summit of footballer’s noggins. Karim Benzema, a traditional fashioner of “the line,” now carves his design on the top of his dome as well. For heaven’s sake, pretty soon we might be seeing a popularity growth in the inverted mohawk.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m all about individuality. And if that’s established by uniqueness of the hair, then go for it. In fact, if I ever found myself watching a footballer dice up defenses with an inverted mohawk, I would not hesitate to purchase his jersey.

But honestly, footballers, stay classy. Go big or go home. When I’m having trouble deciphering whether you’ve scarred yourself or put a razor to your head (when you’ve actually put a razor to your head), then maybe it's time for a shape-up.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Who Needs A Team When You Have A Player?

TEAM: Together Everyone Achieves More… Right? Well, not necessarily. In fact, this weekend’s Liverpool-Manchester United clash defied all traditional adages of teambuilding throughout sports history.

On Sunday, we watched two of the world’s best teams square off in Anfield. But despite their status similarities, Liverpool and Manchester United have two very different on-field strategies.

First, you have a Liverpool side that is, essentially, two men deep. For the most part, Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres are the Reds’ offense. Not to take anything away from the likes of Yossi Benayoun and Dirk Kuyt, two class acts, but Liverpool’s past three games tell the story of their last two years: With no Gerrard or Torres, Liverpool lose to Sunderland, and three days later, to Lyon at Anfield. But upon Torres’ return, the struggling Reds take down the defending English champions. The string of results might not make sense—until you see the personnel involved.

Manchester United, on the other hand, have a well-balanced on-field approach. Alex Ferguson has a diversity of goal-scorers, as well as capable replacements on the bench. All around, United sport a more well-rounded, more well-built team than Liverpool.

So if teambuilding was anything its been made out to be throughout the history of sport, all factors here point to a United win—Or so the pundits thought. In a shock result this weekend, Liverpool defeated Manchester United 2-0.

So what happened? Well, on Sunday, Liverpool had what United did not: Fernando Torres. Out of nowhere, in a relatively balanced game, Torres’ individual efforts allowed him to outmuscle Rio Ferdinand and beat Edwin van der Saar in net to score the game’s winning goal. It was more a Torres goal than a Liverpool goal.

However you see it, though, the result goes to Liverpool, and that is what matters. You see, in all sports, a championship-caliber team needs a championship-caliber player: a Lio Messi, a Kobe Bryant, a Sidney Crosby. For Liverpool, this game-changing influence comes from the likes of Fernando Torres. Manchester United, though, after the loss of a certain Portuguese pretty boy, have been reduced to a team of nothing more spectacular than 11 men.

So after Sunday’s result, Liverpool critics are silenced. The Reds’ approach might be shallow, but in defying traditional sports logic, they got the three points. This begs the question: Who needs a team when you have a player?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Player Ratings: USA 2 Costa Rica 2

Ninety-four minutes of ugly play concluded with a beautiful header and eccentric celebrations Wednesday night when the USA scored late to tie Costa Rica at RFK Stadium in Washington DC. Jonathan Borenstein headed home the equalizer from a corner in the 95th minute. The tie clinched the USA 1st place in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying for South Africa 2010.

The game was by no means the Americans’ best, but the night was satisfying, knowing that the red, white, and blue confirmed themselves to be the top team in the CONCACAF region.

Here are the player ratings…

Jozy Altidore: 7.5… In lieu of his partner and off-field friend’s tragic accident earlier this week, Altidore came out Wednesday with a newfound vengeance. He sported a relentless work-rate, winning everything that came his way and fearlessly taking on defenders—but only for the first half hour. Altidore’s performance the first thirty was quite impressive, but he clearly needs to improve his fitness because his performance grew less significant as the night went on.

Conor Casey: 4… After a stellar performance Saturday, Casey suffered a bit of a career-night hangover against Costa Rica. Casey was lethargic and off-par throughout the night. He had the chance to open up scoring in the 11th minute when he met Keylan Nevers one-on-one. But the Colorado Rapids striker put his effort high and wide, setting the tone for a night themed by spurned American chances.

Landon Donovan: 7… Donovan fell under his teammates’ curse Wednesday night, also struggling to convert his own opportunities on goal. His shot on goal in the 71st minute, though, provoked the rebound that Michael Bradley subsequently finished for the Americans’ first goal.

Stuart Holden: 5… Relatively ineffective throughout the night. At times it seemed Holdon’s partnering outside back, Steve Cherundolo, made more forward runs than Holden, himself.

Michael Bradley: 7… Unlike Saturday, Bradley was able to expand the midfield and spread to either flank. His advances forward granted him the opportunity to send home the USA’s first goal.

Benny Feilhaber: 4.5… Couldn’t establish any rhythm in the midfield and was ineffective all night.

Steve Cherundolo: 5.5… Provided a decent spark coming forward. And defensively, he was not bad, primarily because the Costa Ricans never gave him much to deal with.

Oguchi Onyewu: 4… His lazy defending allowed Bryan Ruiz to open up the scoring from close range in the 20th minute. Onyewu tore his patella late in the game and is out for 3-4 months.

Carlos Bocanegra: 6.5… For the second night in a row, Bocanegra was solid in the center back role. The Americans kept most of the possession, however, and despite Bryan Ruiz’s two goals, neither of which were Bocanegra’s fault, he and his back line had a relatively easy outing.

Jonathan Borenstein: 7.5… A perfect goal and textbook header in stoppage time to tie the game. Off a corner, Borenstein located the ball, carefully weaved his way through the Costa Rican defense, and headed the service downward where no one could prevent it from going into the goal. Borenstein’s defensive work still needs some cleaning up, though.


Jose Torres: 7.5… Finally, Torres found a well-deserved chunk of playing time with the national squad. Unfortunately, though, the Mexican-American was put into an unfamiliar, less-attack-minded, central midfield role. Despite the position, Torres took advantage of the opportunity, demonstrating quick, efficient, mistake-free play.

Robbie Rogers: 7.5… Good effort from the Columbus Crew boy Wednesday night. His service from the right flank in the 71st minute led to Michael Bradley’s goal, and his work rate up and down the field was terrific.

Kenny Cooper: 5… Cooper was uninvolved with play and really failed to make an impact after coming on in the 78th minute.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


Bob Bradley, hear the American cries: We want Jose Torres! And we want to see him tonight against Costa Rica!

Jose Torres is a Mexican-American soccer player, who last year committed his international soccer future to the United States. Only right now, his future doesn’t even have a present. For reasons unbeknownst to mankind, Torres is not finding any playing time with the USMNT.

All factors imply that the contrary should actually be the case, though. Torres supersedes the good majority of his countrymen in qualifications for the American national squad. But somehow, Bob Bradley always manages to elude Torres when it comes time to put players on the pitch.

On Tuesday, the Americans suffered a crushing blow, losing forward Charlie Davies for an undetermined length of time after Davies sustained multiple injuries in a car accident. The big question now is who will take Davies’ place in the squad? I think I have the answer. Does Coach Bradley?

At this point in time, American soccer is like a lesser version of Italian football: it features technical play. It’s like Bob Bradley writes his players a script, they memorize it, and then perform their roles. Rarely does an American soccer player know how to successfully improvise within his script.

Jose Torres, however, brings to the table a sense of creativity unique to the USMNT. The Texas native is great on the ball, has quick feet, and provides Yossi Benayoun-like in-and-out attack from the midfield. And if you want to get picky, I’ll reference Torres’ club play as well. In one of the smartest decisions ever made by an American international who isn’t quite ready to go to Europe, Torres avoided the MLS, instead playing for Pachuca in the Mexican First Division, a better league all-around in preparing players for the international stage.

So what’s Bradley’s issue with Torres? Your guess is as good as mine. Popular theory suggests that Bradley plays favorites, electing to choose personal preferences over “the other guy” in Torres.

This belief actually seems to have some truth, too. Lately, Bradley has been keen on playing Jonathan Borenstein, and Sascha Klestjan, when around, is almost always used as a second-half substitute. The common denominator: both Borenstein and Klejstan were coached by Bradley at Chivas USA before Bradley took over as the head of the USMNT. Another common denominator apparently oblivious to Coach Bradley is that neither Borenstein nor Klejstan are fit for the international stage.

Jose Torres is fit for the international stage and he has the potential to play a crucial role in American soccer over the next few years. First, though, he needs some ground on which to get started. Torres cannot be thrust into a game next summer in South Africa and be expected to make a serious impact.

Which is why tonight is the night. Bob Bradley needs play Jose Torres tonight against Costa Rica. It is a perfect opportunity for Torres to get his foot in the door with the USMNT.

First of all, the Americans are now looking for someone to replace Charlie Davies. Torres is not a true striker like Davies, but it might be the national team’s best option to alter their formation to feature one striker, Jozy Altidore, and a couple attacking midfielders, one of which could be Torres.

Secondly, the game is a meaningless one with meaning. In other words, the United States have already clinched qualification to South Africa 2010, but a win against Costa Rica will earn them first place in CONCACAF qualifying, and thus a better chance at earning a better seed in next summer’s tournament. Bob Bradley can feel free to introduce new personnel to the line-up tonight, but no one entirely too experimental. Using Torres, in comparison to someone like Robby Rogers or Kenny Cooper, would allow for experimentation without seriously reducing quality on the pitch.

When Jose Torres declared the United States, rather than Mexico his national soccer team, he personally wrapped and delivered Bob Bradley a golden gift. How long will Bradley persist to leave his gift unwrapped? Inside, there is a world of potential, and the USA coach knows this. (Louder voices than mine have staked the same claim.) So please, Coach Bradley, tonight, America wants Torres. America needs Torres.

USA Crushed by Loss of Davies

Just as the USA is soaring off a new high, on Tuesday the Americans suffered a crushing blow: the loss of Charlie Davies. According to reports, early Tuesday morning Davies was involved in a car crash in which he suffered a lacerated bladder and fractures in his leg, face, and elbow.

In Davies, the Americans lose an enormous up-and-coming talent, an already proven goal scorer on the international scene, and a flourishing partnership in the front of their formation.

Davies’ international career is young, but this summer marked his breakthrough with the national team. He scored two of the Americans’ biggest goals during the club offseason: one against Egypt to initiate their incredible Confederations Cup comeback, and another against Mexico, becoming only the fourth American do to so at the Azteca.

Davies’ contribution to the national team is far beyond statistical, though. Nearly an unknown two years ago, Davies burst onto the American soccer scene as a serious potential solution to the nation’s attacking woes. He brought everything ideal in an American striker: lightning speed, relentless runs through the defense, and most importantly, the ability to put the ball in the goal.

The Sochaux striker also has developed a fantastic relationship with fellow up-and-coming talent and striking partner Jozy Altidore. While Altidore stretches the defense, Davies latches on to space, and the two have thrived together, complimenting each other’s contrasting styles in attack.

All this, and everything Bob Bradley has taken so long to build with Davies’ services, is gone with a car crash. At least for six months we hear, maybe even a year. To not have a fully fit Charlie Davies at next year’s World Cup would hurt, but to not even have Charlie Davies at next year’s World Cup would be destructive.

The good news for Americans, though, is that Davies’ likely replacement is coming off perhaps the best game of his life. Saturday night Colorado Rapids striker Conor Casey scored his first two international goals in a 3-2 win over Honduras.

Casey will restore Davies’ work rate, but his similarity to Altidore’s playing style will deprive the team of its diversity in the striking department. Both big-boned, Casey and Altidore each bring fast-paced, rugged efforts against opposing defenses. Thus, with Davies’ absence, the United States will lose a crucial dimension their recently successful offense.

Yet even with no regard for style of play, the USA still suffer from what cannot be replaced. Quite simply, Charlie Davies is a better player than Conor Casey, or whoever will take over his role.

It’s disheartening to see this happen to Charlie Davies. The 22-year old’s career has taken off over the past year, and he has been in super form. Davies now may find himself back at square one with his professional career once his injuries heal.

Building a team has been a long process for the USMNT, one to which Davies has made significant contributions. This disaster happens just as it finally seemed both Davies' and his team's hard work was beginning to pay itself off. Out of nowhere, Charlie Davies' terribly unfortunate injury thrusts an enormous setback upon himself and the American soccer project.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

USA 3 Honduras 2: Player Ratings

In thrilling fashion, the USMNT defeated Honduras 3-2 to qualify for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Despite poor refereeing, they were the first CONCACAF team this qualifying campaign to do so away against the Hondurans. The Americans had their flaws, but overall, put forth an good, encouraging performance heading into next summer's tournament. Here are the player ratings...

Conor Casey: 10… The unlikeliest of heroes, Casey was the man of the match Saturday night. He put the United States on the scoreboard with a gritty, workmanlike goal, and capped off his evening with the classiest of finishes. His relentless work rate and runs up front kept the Honduran defense on their heels all night.

Landon Donovan: 9.5 Pure class. Notice how every time in attack, each member of the USMNT immediately seeks out Donovan; he is the artist of the offense. He recorded one assist and the winning goal on the night.

Stuart Holden: 6… Delivered pinpoint service to Charlie Davies’ head in the first half, but settled to cross too often, and his hand ball late in the second half gave Honduras a potential game-tying spot kick.

Charlie Davies: 6… Should have scored in the first half when his header was denied and the subsequent rebound then sent high. His flick off Onyewu’s long ball, though, became the assist to Conor Casey’s first goal.

Michael Bradley and Ricardo Clark: 6… Bradley and Clark mirrored each other’s performances in the center midfield, so why not group them together? Bradley’s usual runs forward were absent and he was restricted to a Clark-like defensive role. Both were unimpressive, but sufficient.

Jonathan Borenstein: 5… Losing his mark was Borenstein’s theme for the night and he was lucky the Honduran attack failed to punish him for it. While he was consistently involved in play out of the back, he lacked any punch coming forward.

Oguchi Onyewu: 5.5… The Hondurans exposed Onyewu’s two biggest weaknesses as a defender, capitalizing on his tendencies to foul and lose his mark. His rash challenge in the second half gave the home side a free kick just outside the box, which they scored.

Carlos Bocanegra: 8… The back four was shaky Saturday night, but Bocanegra’s efforts alone held them together. He was aggressive, yet precise with his tackles and he made up for his partner’s man-marking mistakes.

Jonathan Spector: 4.5… Provided nothing coming forward, was inconsistent in his markings, and was absent from play most of the night.

Tim Howard: 9… This guy is relentless. Howard is consistently near-flawless in goal.


Jozy Altidore: 7… Immediately upon his arrival, stretched the field and brought a physical nature of play to the game.

Benny Feilhaber: N/A, but should have scored late in the game after cheekily turning a Honduran defender into an on-goal opportunity.

Steve Cherundolo: N/A


Roberto Moreno: 0... The Panamanian has become a regular for USA World Cup qualifiers and his desire to slight the United States is well beyond agitating. Moreno twice ignored clear red card-worthy fouls by the Hondurans against the USA on breaks on goal. His crew also missed an offsides call, and subsequent play lead to the second Honduras goal. The USA has gotten used to playing with a three man disadvantage.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Chelsea a Serious Contender for English Crown

Roman Abramovich, if anyone, means business. And for the past few years now, the owner of Chelsea Football Club has not been happy. This year, though, he might actually crack a smile.

Eight game-days into the 2009-10 Premier League Season, Chelsea look to be serious contenders for the English crown.

Yeah, okay, you hear that about every year around this time, but this time the thought has a bit more conviction.

The Blues currently sit on top of the Premier League by a point, having defeated the likes of Sunderland, Tottenham, and Liverpool, all in dominating fashion. For the first time since Jose Mourinho’s disruptive departure from Stamford Bridge two years ago, the puzzled club do not look fragmented on the pitch.

Actually, they look quite functional. Not beautiful—but functional. The Blues field a rugged, gritty-styled squad and cannot be expected to play a pretty game. They are showing, however, that they can grind out results—and, well, in pretty decent fashion.

Didier Drogba may be the biggest beneficiary of the Blues’ new groove. The Ivorian striker has been reborn and seems to have rediscovered his top form of years previous. He is effectively harassing defenses—with the help of his diving antics, though—and already has five Premier League goals to his name.

Drogba’s partner in crime, Nicholas Anelka, is also on great form, coming off his Golden Boot season in 2008-09. Likewise for Ashley Cole. Heck, even Deco doesn’t look too bad.

It’s not difficult to trace the source of the Blues’ recent success back to the man in charge, though. Carlo Anceolotti, the club’s fourth manager in two years, is bringing something to Stamford Bridge that his predecessors could not—fluidity on the pitch. For the first time in two years, Chelsea look comfortable and confident playing with each other.

Ancelotti’s good start in West London can be primarily attributed to his successful employment of the 4-1-2-1-2 with Chelsea. Unlike managers past, who tampered with 4-4-2’s and 4-3-3’s, Ancelotti has figured out the Chelsea squad and under which structure they best function. The Italian mastered the 4-1-2-1-2 formation with AC Milan and his expertise is now thriving with one of England’s most difficult teams to manage.

Ancelotti’s success, though, was not entirely unexpected. The Italian boasts an impressive resume. Many Blues faithful were confident that he was the man for the job. And while Chelsea’s Big Four rivals seemed to lose more quality than gained this summer, the West London club returned a near-identical squad to last year, bolstered by the addition of Russian back Yuri Zhirkov.

You got this sense, too, that when club captain John Terry and Chelsea reaffirmed their commitment to each other in August, it was like a commitment to success. (Terry was involved in a summer-long transfer saga with Manchester City.) Chelsea ultimately turning down great money for a dwindling player, and Terry declining a chance to redefine himself elsewhere after two below-par seasons, sent a warning to English football that Chelsea was back.

The mood in West London is clearly evident on the pitch because so far this season, Chelsea look fantastic—well, unattractively fantastic.

You see, there is nothing extravagant about this Chelsea club, but they are extremely solid. Most importantly, they know how to win. Former Blues defender Marcel Desailly said it perfectly—Under Ancelotti, the club seems “at peace.” Could this be the year Roman Abramovich finally finds his peace?

***Disclaimer: Chelsea are my least favorite team in all of sports. I write what I think, though, and try to be unbiased in doing so. So, I hope this article jinxes them.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

ESPN: Pure Genius

So here we go again. More ESPN rants.

Yeah, okay, I probably sound like your typical teenage anarchist—You know, the punk that only knows how to make himself seem politically aware by naively complaining about the government. But make no mistake—I whine with passion.

So who does ESPN think they’re fooling? Seriously, check out the latest stroke of programming genius from the self-proclaimed “worldwide leader in sports.”

Earlier this year, ESPN gave up the rights to Champions League broadcasts, which were picked up by the Fox Soccer Channel. FSC, unlike ESPN, is not a basic cable channel, so for those who live the sports package-less, college dorm lifestyle, like myself, this was not the least bit convenient. My only access to European soccer—Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon Champions League—was now gone!

All was not lost, though. As a result, ESPN announced that it would instead fulfill its minimum soccer requirement with weekend broadcasts of both the English Premier League and Spain’s La Liga.

Nice, right? Well, here’s the catch: The network was quick to take advantage of Europe’s early afternoon games. (For example, the EPL usually schedules a noon or one p.m. kick-off each Saturday.) So given that there is a five or six-hour time difference on either side of the Atlantic, these early Saturday afternoon games in Europe take place in America’s Eastern Time Zone around, oh, 4 a.m.

Four in the morning? Really, ESPN, really? The past two weekends, ESPN’s once-a-week soccer requirement was fulfilled by Burnley versus Sunderland and Pourtsmoth versus Everton, both broadcasts that began at 4:30 a.m Saturday morning. For heaven’s sake, no one is watching TV, let alone awake, at four in the morning!

Oh, but it’s not like ESPN doesn’t know this—They are quite aware. The network sees soccer as an inconvenience, so for them, the 4 a.m. time slot is a good way to get their unwanted soccer broadcasts out of the way. God forbid they show a 10 a.m. or 12-noon game instead.

You see, when the weekend rolls around, I’m a feigning addict. My drug, watching soccer. My means of administration, the TV guide. Only now, when I read the TV guide and see that ESPN’s lone EPL broadcast will be aired while I’m drooling on my pillow, I’m not even getting high anymore.

Wouldn’t you expect this, though? Alas, the “worldwide leader in sports” has done it again—Shafting the world’s real leader in sport.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Benito Mussolini has returned to the Italian throne, declaring the 4-1-2-1-2 as the official formation of the corporate state on the football pitch! Any alterations, variations, or opposition of any kind will be eliminated!

Okay, not really, but seriously Serie A—What’s up with the 4-1-2-1-2? Apparently, these days, the latest trend in “the boot” is the 4-1-2-1-2, and the Italians have beat this set-up to a pulp.

Such a formation is difficult to maneuver, as it requires precise execution from all parties involved. Crucial to its success is relentless activity coming forward from the outside backs, and thus structure in the defensive midfield to make up for its susceptibility to counterattacks with width. Also, given that the formation is designed for squads with a surplus of central midfielders, it is important to resist clogging the middle of the field.

The issue is that the requirements of the 4-1-2-1-2 are much more complicated and interdependent in comparison with some of football’s simpler formations. Consequently, its overuse in Serie A has resulted in inconsistency for those who employ its services, occasionally ineffective attacking schemes, and even horribly boring play.

Take, for instance, Inter Milan, 4-1-2-1-2 regulars. Coach Jose Mourinho loves the 4-3-3, but at Inter, he does not have the width to build such a design. Instead, the reigning Italian champs are abundant with central midfielders and have two attack-minded backs.

On paper, this is perfect for the 4-1-2-1-2. However, with an all-too compact midfield, the Nerazzurri rarely escape the middle of the pitch. Their player most apt at providing offensive width, Wesley Sneijder, is positioned at the tip of the diamond, as he is keen on finally attacking from the center midfield after playing on the flanks during his tenure in Madrid. Thus, Inter Milan are left ineffectively trying to force their play down the middle of the pitch, as was no more evident than in their 2-1 struggle over Cagliari on Sunday.

Then, you have AC Milan, who might as well have signed a contract with the 4-1-2-1-2. Despite starting a 37-year old left back (you know, the guy that’s supposed to get forward a lot) this past weekend, the Rosseneri remain intent on sticking with their trademark formation. And how does Milan look? Terrible—so terrible in fact that they probably deserve more than a paragraph of abuse.

Juventus, however, is a rare exception from this theme of structural failure in Italy. Unlike many of their competitors, the Zebras are able to employ the 4-1-2-1-2 and stretch the field. Thanks primarily to Fabio Grosso and Camoranesi, Juventus are able to widen their attack from the defense and midfield, respectively, and open up their formation to a bit of creativity.

As demonstrated by Juve, the 4-1-2-1-2 recipe can certainly work, but only with all the necessary ingredients. And even with a shortage of resources, teams like Bologna, Siena, Chievo, and Palermo persist to employ their country’s national football formation.

So why is Serie A so keen on the 4-1-2-1-2? It might have something to do with the style of Italian football and the make-up of today’s typical Italian footballer.

Italian football, in terms of both the national squad and the country’s professional league competition, is famous for its technical play. Unlike, say, the English Premier League, which stresses speed and quick attack, Serie A endorses structured, precise football.

Thus, Serie A is naturally inclined to develop a more technically-sound player. Technical skill makes for a strong player in the middle of the field; the best players technically often play the center midfield (versus those who excel athletically, players prone to wider positions). As a result, Italian football is home to a surplus of center midfielders, not coincidentally the first disposition in 4-1-2-1-2 employment.

The analogy makes sense, but all in all, is too simple to be accurate. It’s not like the Serie A winger is an extinct player; come on now.

So Italy, what's the deal? Your top-flight has no width and a lack of creativity. The issue is clear and the solution is not difficult. What's up Serie A?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Real Madrid: A Work in Progress

            A month into the 2009-10 campaign, Europe’s most anticipated team is fulfilling exactly what it promised: winning games and tallying boatloads of goals. 

            We’re talking about Real Madrid, of course.  Four games into their season, this summer’s big-spenders are undefeated, averaging an absurd four goals per game.  Impressive.

            But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.   The Spanish giants have been scoring like bros at a frat party, while featuring a squad that quite honestly may rival FIFA 2009’s World XI. But reading score lines does not equate to watching play—And that is where Madrid’s scoreboard dominance becomes deceiving.

            In observing the inaugural month of Los Galacticos II, what cannot be looked past is that the Real Madrid squad do not look fluid.  Their play is tainted by static motion and a lack of structure, and most notably does in fact resemble that of a World XI—no chemistry.  Nor have Madrid established a consistent line-up.  Depth is crucial, but rotations can be disruptive and must not be overused.

            These struggles are largely attributed to the arrival of new personnel at the Bernabéu this year.  Newcomers Kaka and Karim Benzema are finding only limited involvement on the field and have been disappearing for long stretches of play.  (Christiano Ronaldo, however, is thriving, but he is an alien, i.e. his chest is made of body armor.)

            Madrid’s new look, though, has taken its toll on the entire squad, and right now it seems as if everyone is in transition mode.  The club has promised to build their renovation around their prized imports—and rightly so—but Bernabéu regulars are now finding difficulty in adjusting to their new roles within the team.  Featuring a creative, free-roaming attack, Manuel Pelegrini needs his squad to be structurally strong behind the ball—defensive roles Gago and Lass Diarra are struggling to stick with.  Club captain Raul also seems lost amongst his offensive unit, straying from his traditional role up top to foreign parts of the pitch.

            Okay, so already Los Galacticos is a repeat failure, right?  Not quite.  In fact, things couldn’t look better for Real Madrid.

            Building a team is no easy task.  It takes time.  But the fact that the new-look Madrid are thrashing opponents right off the bat with no team chemistry is unbelievable. It’s scary to think what they could achieve once they establish some familiarity on the pitch.

            It’s true, yes, Real Madrid have not been tested by the strongest of opposition, but there is this sense of power, this sense of the will-to-dominate when their army takes action on the field.  Quite honestly, this army looks poised to handle anything that comes its way.

            Good teams win games—no matter how the task is done.  The best teams, though, win with a process, a script currently being written in Madrid.  Real Madrid have their pieces.  I can’t wait to see what the puzzle looks like.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The USA on Mute

            In a way, you could say that there was not much noise made during the USA-Trinidad & Tobago match Wednesday night.  Yeah, a 1-0 victory was tainted by quiet showings from many of the American players and inharmonious play amongst the entire team, but literally, for most those watching the game, there was no noise. 

            In typical American fashion, United States soccer supporters were left to watch their national team from a live stream on the Internet through ESPN360.  But it was not the blurry picture or the lagging feed that was their biggest issue.  Throughout the past few years, since ESPN decided soccer was worthy of its time, American fan-faithful have become accustomed to a new TV series we call “The USA on Mute.”

            “The USA on Mute” is ESPN’s latest gift to American soccer.  The all-too-soccer-friendly sports network now provides its audience with an all-new interactive feature, one that enables those watching to personally control the volume on their very own feed!  It’s quite brilliant, really, and after enjoying ESPN’s commentary teams for the USMNT games through recent years, we now often find ourselves taking advantage of the new audio feature—turning the volume completely off.

            To put it bluntly, the commentary for ESPN’s USMNT broadcasts is awful.  The team of American soccer analysts at ESPN basically consists of former National Team players and then, recent sports-guy-soccer-converts.  Those who have represented our country on the soccer field deserve the utmost respect—but that does not mean they are shoo-ins for a job of play-by-play commentary.  Furthermore, someone new to the game should be the last person to land a similar position.  Think—Would ESPN ever assign anyone other than a basketball expert to commentate a basketball game?

            The latest culprits here are John Harkes and JP Dellacamera, the commentary duo for the T&T game Wednesday night, and for the USMNT in recent months.  For these two, the problem is not that neither lack knowledge of the game—Harkes was fantastic midfielder for the USMNT in the 90s and Dellacamera has been commentating soccer since the 80s—but rather that neither know how to present the game.  During broadcasts, Harkes is too busy trying to explain the “world’s game” in an American context, while Dellacamera is left reading off of stat sheets all night and occasionally asking Harkes for his translations.

            Harkes and Dellacamera are by no means ESPN’s worst, though.  You might remember, when ESPN first picked up the rights to USMNT soccer, before the 2006 World Cup, the infamous Dave O’Brien.  O’Brien, a longtime play-by-play baseball announcer for ESPN, was one of ESPN’s attempts at a “soccer-convert.”  But convert he could not quite do.

            Having never called a soccer game prior to the 2006 World Cup, O’Brien’s performance from the broadcasting booth was a disaster.  O’Brien polluted the atmosphere of his games with inadvertent stats, mispronunciation of players’ names, and incorrect usage of soccer terminology.  (A shot on goal was referred to as “blasting a kick” and free kicks were often deemed “penalty kicks,” for example.)  Quite comically, Marcello Balboa, O’Brien’s partner in the booth, was left interrupting and correcting the novice on air for his frequent errors.

            To be fair, though, O’Brien, Harkes, Dellacamera and their studio counterparts cannot be entirely blamed for their inabilities to call soccer games.  Rather, the fault falls at the feet of ESPN.  Despite its great success as a sporting network, ESPN is the epitome of the American sports scene.  Their ignorant and naive approach to a sport foreign to mainstream America, like soccer, is entirely unprofessional.

            Take, for instance, two explanations from ESPN regarding Dave O’Briens appointment as commentator back in 2006:  For one, it was hoped that O’Brien’s “signature voice from a mainstream event” would popularize that summer’s World Cup broadcast.  And two, it was suggested that “soccer [had] been given its due to have [Dave O’Brien] delivered to the sport.”  Based on these assertions, we can only infer that ESPN is encouraging their soccer commentators to translate USMNT broadcasts to an American context, as John Harkes and JP Dellacamera are too often guilty of doing.

            What ESPN and their commentary crew must realize is that they cannot “Americanize” soccer.  The network seems to want to appeal to their average viewer by compromising between the game and the American sports fan.  In reality, however, they are merely losing attendants, because of a poor, inaccurate portrayal of the game.  For someone new to soccer, they need not to be taught by play-by-play commentary, but by simply watching the game through the most natural experience.  More importantly, for those who know soccer, the last thing they want is a commentator explaining to them what they already know.

            Soccer fans in the United States are admittedly happy, though, that unlike in the past, they now at least have access to watch their national team perform.  It would just be nice if they didn’t have to watch the USA on mute.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Bittersweet Win for USA

            From scaring world-class opposition to scaring fan faithful, the United States Men’s National Team has enjoyed its own personal Halloween vacation through the past year.  After last night’s 2-1 win over El Salvador, the latter was the more prevalent.  And with the World Cup less than a year away, it would be nice if this weren’t the case.

            Inconsistency has become the USA’s theme for the year of 2009.  Let’s rewind back to January 24 when the red, white, and blue defeated Sweden in a game highlighted by Sacha Kljestan’s thrilling hat trick.  Despite the fact that this was basically a B-team clash for each side, the USMNT began the year on the right foot: A win over a quality European nation with a brilliant performance from a highly-touted up-and-coming talent.  Less than 3 weeks later, things couldn’t have been better when the Americans handily dealt with the Mexicans 2-nil in Columbus.

            Things weren’t all good for long, though.  Before World Cup qualifying took its summer vacation, the USA finished the spring at 3-2, struggling to draw El Salvador and suffering an embarrassing 3-1 defeat in Costa Rica.  At this, the Americans’ victories over Trinidad &Tobago and Honduras salvaged little satisfaction.

            Then, came the famed Confederations Cup showing.  When the USA lost to Italy and Brazil in their first two group B matches, American soccer was no further along than it was 10 years ago, nothing but an afterthought in the world’s great sporting nation.  But when the USMNT crushed Egypt, beat Spain, and took Brazil to the brink in the World Cup tune-up’s championship, American soccer was at its pinnacle, a world-class side now to be reckoned with.

            Come mid-August, approaching the infamous Azteca match, the message to the Mexicans was in: Beware.  The newly-rejuvenated USA was destined to end its winless streak on Mexican soil.  However, finding it hard to escape tradition, the Americans crumbled upon a 1-0 lead, eventually falling 2-1 to a relentless Mexican side.

            Now, despite a 2-1 USA victory last night, the post-game mood is bittersweet.  The result is nonetheless a great one for the United States, but as we put this year in perspective, there are a few distressing details that at this point cannot be ignored.  The common denominator amongst all their CONCACAF matches the past eight months is that the Americans have not won on foreign soil once.  The ability to win away from home is crucial in advancing American soccer to a higher level.

            More importantly, too often the USMNT play to the level of their opponents.  This is fantastic when our national team is taking on the likes of Spain and Brazil, but terribly detrimental when facing much weaker CONCACAF opponents, which much more often is the case.  As happened Saturday night, the Americans should not find themselves struggling through a must-win situation against a team like El Salvador.

            We do not have long of a wait to see how our national team follows up last night’s performance, however.  On Wednesday, the USMNT is set to take on Trinidad & Tobago in the Port of Spain, Trinidad.  T&T are admittedly a weak side, but the location of this match gives the USA a challenge it is in desperate need of.  A win is obviously the only option, but should America perform well away from home, its fan faithful may be able to ease their worries—just a bit.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Dutchmen on the Move: "The Adventures of Bayern and Robben" and Communism in Madrid

            This past Friday, Arjen Robben signed with Bayern Munich from Real Madrid for a fee around 25 million euro, and thus now begin The Adventures of Bayern and Robben.  Robben joins French international Franck Ribery behind the wheel of the Bayern Batmobile, and the two should form a deadly attacking combo, threatening opposition from either side of the pitch.  Like Ribery, Robben has established himself as one of the world’s elite wingers, after successful stints throughout Europe at PSV, Chelsea, and Real Madrid.  Upon his move to Germany, Robben should enjoy punishing crime in the infamously poor Bundesliga defense.

            Indeed, only days after the move, The Adventures of Bayern and Robben have begun.  In this season’s first episode, the Dutchman was brilliant.  As Bayern Munich took on Wolfsburg, Robben entered the game as a second-half substitute and in only a half-hour’s time, netted two goals, both of which were assisted by Ribery.  Largely to the credit of their new attacking duo, Bayern dismantled the defending Bundesliga champs 3-nil.

            Fortunately, for the German giants, Robben’s arrival couldn’t have come at a better time.  The club find themselves in a bit of turmoil, coming off a very disappointing second place domestic finish last season and going winless in their first three games this year, while struggling with the transfer demands of their best player in Ribery.  Robben’s exceptional speed, vision, and distribution and finishing abilities will most definitely bolster Bayern’s attack.  The club also hopes that his partnership with Ribery will keep the Frenchman less dissatisfied this season.

            All in all, expect both Arjen Robben and Bayern Munich to bring out the best in each other.  It should be a big year for both parties.

            Elsewhere in the world of football, Robben’s national counterpart Wesley Sneijder also completed his own transfer across European borders this past week.  This Dutch winger was convinced into joining Inter Milan by Jose Mourinho after it appeared Real Madrid no longer wanted his services either.

            Sneijder looks to be a significant addition to his new club as well.  Mourinho had repeatedly stressed this summer that his team was largely lacking a playmaker.  Well, Wesley Sneijder happens to be quite a playmaker, and now that Inter have their final puzzle piece, they, like Bayern, look a much more potent side.  Unsurprisingly, in Sneijder’s first appearance with his new club, Inter coasted to a 4-0 victory over city rivals AC Milan.

            How funny that with these transfers, Real Madrid now look like the communists of European football: Stealing big names from big clubs and redistributing their outcasts to teams in need.  Robben and Sneijder both had great careers at Real Madrid and it seems mind-blowing to suggest that these two could not find their place in the Real squad.  But unless Francisco Franco has something to say about it, Madrid look poised to continue their offloading. 

            As for the Dutchmen, while having left Madrid for different countries, they now find themselves in very similar situations.  Both Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder arrive at their new clubs as the centerpieces of projects built for a season of improvement.  Thus, we can expect big things from these two this year, and thanks to communism, we can expect big things from their respective clubs as well.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Book Review: The Beckham Experiment

            Consider yourself a sports fan?  If so, The Beckham Experiment is a must-read.  With inside access to the Los Angeles Galaxy and interviews with Galaxy personnel, including Beckham himself, Sports Illustrated columnist Grant Wahl reveals the truth—scandals, secrets, and all—that now maims David Beckham’s famed tenure here in America.  Quite simply put, The Beckham Experiment is the most important piece of literature ever written concerning soccer, its struggle, its growth, and its mere presence, in the United States.  Here are my final thoughts on the book…

1.    1. Hollywood > Beckham: Naturally, you would think that the world’s biggest athlete and the world’s biggest sporting scene would mesh well together.  But in terms of on-field production, David Beckham + America = disaster experiment.  And why?  Pop icon status is nothing new for Beckham, but for the first time in his life, Goldenballs was immersed into Hollywood, unlike anything he had ever encountered in England or in Spain.  Ultimately, Beckham was in way over his head and his responsibilities as a celebrity were detrimental to his commitment to the Galaxy.

2.    2. In America, Business > Sport: Although admittedly said from a fan’s perspective, too often for inside parties, American sports become, above all else, a business.  And in the Beckham Experiment, this was its downfall.  Beckham’s people became so preoccupied with promotions, money-making, and status positioning in the Galaxy ranks that in the end, Beckham’s performance on the field received the least attention.  From a business perspective, the Beckham Experiment was an enormous success, but otherwise, not so much.

3.    3. Dear MLS, Stay “American”: Perhaps the biggest winner in The Beckham Experiment is the MLS itself, as the league has enjoyed huge increases in income and popularity since Beckham’s arrival.  Now, MLS has its issues—turf fields, which Beckham himself complained about, awful travel accommodations, a lack of funds—but it is growing and improving.  Beckham’s people, notably former Galaxy coach Ruud Gullit, approached MLS with their “European expertise” expecting the league to kiss their feet.  Two years later, MLS has learned better.  In order to succeed, the league must not succumb to all foreign ways, but retain a bit of Americana, and in doing so building an identity and establishing itself as bigger than the “Beckhams” it houses.

4.    4. Maturity is Landon Donovan: Donovan was another big winner in The Beckham Experiment.  The LA Galaxy forward went through a lot during the first two years of Beckham’s tumultuous MLS tenure: giving up the club captaincy at the request of Beckham’s advisors, performing in Beckham’s shadow despite being the league’s best player and receiving an inferior salary, etc.  Eventually, though, Donovan worked up the courage to call Beckham out as a bad teammate and he has now regained the armband for Los Angeles.  All in all, Landon Donovan has emerged from the Beckham Experiment as a more mature individual and a more professional athlete.

5. Alan Gordon is the Man: Although uninvolved in the tension amongst the Galaxy locker room and front office, The Beckham Experiment sheds light on one of Los Angeles’s lower-profile stars in Alan Gordon.  Gordon emerges in Grant Wahl’s book as the protagonist in an underdog story.  The occupant of an apartment shared with two fellow Galaxy roommates, Gordon earns a terribly low salary and coaches a girl’s youth soccer team on the side to make enough money to get by.  Hampered by drugs and alcohol in his past, Gordon, despite being slow of foot and a showcase of ordinary skills, has worked his best to not only remain contracted with the Galaxy, but to have also earned a pay raise last year.  Congrats to him.

Hooligan Guest Article: Arsenal Update by Willard Hancock

Despite serious grammatical errors and a raging bias, we have decided to privilege Willard Hancock with a guest post on behalf of his beloved Arsenal...

Three games played and Arsenal is looking pretty damn good. 10 goals in two league matches and an impressive slash lucky win against Celtic… I’m not complaining, but it is interesting to hear people continue to write us off. AND! For those of you who are shocked, let it be known I saw this coming 2 years ago. I’ll remind you that Arsenal is the only team that matters, all the other teams just show up to play us. It would indeed be very boring if we won every year.

Something interesting to point out… Only 1 striker (Eduardo) has scored for us thus far. This doesn’t bother me as long as the goals keep coming, but it scares me a bit that William Gallas is the leading scorer for the team. One from a header, another off the ass, and he managed to smother one in with his lower lip (despite what replays may tell you, it was his lip that scored). A little side note, I wonder which is more likely to happen, Gallas scores with his feet or Shevchenko scores…Ponder on that for a min.

This Wednesday we take on Celtic at the Emirates. They should wrap things up here, although I expect AW to twik the starting 11 a bit to keep every1 healthy in preparation for the United game. I think Fabregas will sit this one out with groin problems or what have you, nothing serious. Not too much to say about this one. We’re a shoe in.

Now for the reason I am writing this blog, Arsenal V. United 12:15ET on FSC. I’m looking forward to this one and predicting a 3-1 win to the Arsenal with goals from RvP, Arshavin, and William Gallas’ penis. I’m certain his penis will smack one in for us (no homo). With Ferdinand out and van der Sar turning 93 this year I am willing to bet AW’s squad take care of business at Old Trafford. As for United, some kid named Rattanak Seng (look him up on facebook he is real) thinks Park Ji-Sung will sneak 1 in for a consolation goal and then celebrate by showing 52,000 fans how to properly cook a cat, b/c I’ve always wanted to know. Of course if my predictions are wrong I will gladly tattoo a picture of Wayne Rooney across my back 

Well that’s that, I’m gonna go back to watching Royal Pains. I find the white guy with the curly hair amusing and the Indian girl is good looking. Decent show I guess. Good night, more later.

-Willard Hancock (Subtleaggro)

Friday, August 21, 2009

Arsenal: Truth or Fluke?

            Rewind a few weeks back- before opening weekend of the EPL, before European qualifying was underway, back to a time when all that hooligans had was a transfer window to bullshit about.  Do you remember how bad Arsenal was back then?

            Just weeks ago, with no games in hand and only a squad on paper, you might have thought Arsenal were going to be the next Newcastle United.  With an injury-prone team, a lack of depth, and a manager selling at will while too “stubborn” to buy, the verdict was in: Arsenal were to drop from England’s Big Four.

            This was just too attractive of an idea.  Fans are always looking for a rupture in the Big Four since it became a fixture in England’s top-flight.  And with Manchester City sporting a whole new look, the result of a recent spending spree, now was the time when England’s Big Four would be no more.  I admit, I, too, joined in on the fun.

            The Gunners, however, thought otherwise.  Two games into their campaign, Arsenal are the best team in England.  The North-London club put an absolute drubbing on Everton this past weekend, then three days later handily defeated Scottish powerhouse Celtic away in Champions League qualifying.  Furthermore, with everyone involved looking in top form, the Gunners displayed some beautiful football.

            Sounds like a great story, but don’t get too carried away, now.  Remember, this is only two games into the season.  And in England, it is a long, long season.

            The notion here, though, is that Arsene Wenger and his club have given themselves quite an opportunity.  Wenger has been adamant about building a club from the bottom up and winning with his own players, hence his loathe to spend this summer despite the requests of many Arsenal-faithful.  In modern day football, this is unheard of.  The first solution to a problem on the pitch these days is to buy a fix.  Wenger, however, is poised to do the unheard of.

            Should Arsenal’s run of form as of late be a sign of things to come, we are in for an historic season, one that may make Wenger look a genius.  The Frenchman has taken much criticism in recent years, time he has deemed as for rebuilding, for fourth place domestic finishes, lack of silverware, and lack of investment.  However, his club, now intricately bred like a band of brothers, are set to defy expectations.  For the current era of Gunners, the biggest challenge is getting over the hump of winning their first league title.  From then on, it is free sailing for Arsenal.  Could this be the beginning of a Gunner-reign over England?

            But hey, easy now.  Let's not get ahead of ourselves.  Don’t forget, we’re only two games into the campaign.  And in England, it’s a long, long season.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

EPL Week 1: Winners and Losers


Didier Drogba: The Ivorian has carried a question mark on his back over the past two years: Suffering a decline in form, struggling to cope with managerial inconsistency at Chelsea, and consistently being linked with moves away from the Bridge.  However, Drogba is keen to rebuild his image in West London, indicating so when he signed a contract extension with the Blues two weeks ago.  And to confirm his written commitment, Drogba led his club to a victory with two superb goals in a 2-1 defeat of Hull City.

Arsenal: The Gunners have been the subject of repeated criticism this summer and many have tipped them to fall out of England’s Big Four at the expense of Manchester City.  How to respond?  A 6-1 shellacking of a normally-competent Everton side would do.  After a summer of selling, Arsene Wenger is determined to build his club from within.  If this weekend was a precursor of things to come, the Frenchman looks as if he is doing quite a good job with the North London club.

Roberto Martinez: What a start for the new Wigan manager.  With only two years of managerial experience under his belt, Martinez takes his new club to Villa Park and dismantles one of England’s top clubs in Aston Villa.  This, not to mention that Martinez’s side played a quite attractive brand of football on Saturday, has Wigan off to the best start they could imagine this season.

Club Newbies: The 2009-10 Premier League opening weekend was highlighted by goals coming from club debutants all across the board.  Thomas Vermaelen (Arsenal), Sebastian Bassong (Tottenham), Stephen Hunt (Reading), Emmanuel Adebayor (Manchester City), and Hugo Rodallega (Wigan) all scored while wearing their new colors for the first time.  Congratulations.



Everton: Consistently finishing in the top third of the table, Everton have a reputation as one of England’s strongest non-Big Four clubs, potentially even a challenger for a top four spot.  But giving up six goals in a loss to Arsenal on your own field is no way to compete for status in England.  David Moyes has some serious re-thinking to do after his club’s dismal performance on Saturday.

Liverpool: In recent years for Liverpool supporters, next year seems to always be the year.  This time around, it was Fernando Torres who declared the Reds were fit to win a Premier League title in 2009-10.  Torres also remarked that his club’s season opener at White Hart Line was a “must-win” if Liverpool were to really challenge for the English crown.  After falling to Tottenham 2-1 on Saturday, the Reds find their title race off to the start that Torres hadn’t exactly imagined.

Aston Villa: After giving the Big Four a run-for-their-money the past two years, Villa entered the season with similar expectations.  But with a 2-nil loss to Wigan on home grass, Martin O’Neill finds himself questioning where his club stands at the moment.  Clearly missing summer exports Gareth Barry and Martin Laursen, Villa need reinforcement down the middle, as well as better decision making from Ashley Young, who is now expected to be the star for his club.

Paul Hart: Only one game into the season, in post-game interviews, the Portsmouth manager had a look of utter defeat on his face.  His club, currently a mess after a summer of selling, are tipped by many to be relegated from the Premier League this year.  Even in a game that may well have deserved a draw, Portsmouth received no luck, losing 1-0 on a deflected goal at home to Fulham.  Unfortunately for Hart, despite his best efforts, this may just be the way things go all year for Pompey.