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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.