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Armchair Analyst

25 July 9:52 pm

Halftime analysis from Chelsea TV: "It feels quite like an exhibition, doesn't it?"

Yes, yes it does.

The MLS All-Star Game is great for the pomp and pagaentry, for the chance to see the guys who are ostensibly the league's best gathered in one spot, and for the chance to heckle one European superstar or another (this year's target, courtesy of the Sons of Ben, appeared to be Frank Lampard. Bold choice that didn't quite work out).

But just as in other leagues, the All-Star Game doesn't quite run in the red. Players have a little more time and space, tackles are a little less meaningful and complaints to the ref are a little less vociferous than they'd otherwise be.

Bear all that in mind when trying to delve into the 90 minutes we just saw, and don't be too firm in the conclusions you've drawn.

With that caveat, here are three things we learned from the 3-2 MLS victory...

Ozzie Alonso can play in any league in the world

Alonso comes up short vs. a number of MLS d-mids in terms of passing ability. He's not a time-keeper like Kyle Beckerman or Dax McCarty, and when he gets frustrated, he'll play it long a bit too often. He never would have hit that pass to Eddie Johnson for the game-winner.

Many coaches would make that sacrifice, however, for his ability to win the second ball. Alonso is simply phenomenal at it, whether it's against Chivas USA or Chelsea FC.

Basketball coaches talk about guys like Kevin Love or — two decades ago — Dennis Rodman, and their "Rebounding Gene." They just, somehow, know how to read the shot, the angle, the momentum, the spacing of players, and get themselves into the right spot to grab the ball.

That's the nearest approximation I can make for Alonso's ability to gobble up everything in midfield. It's uncanny, like a mutant superpower. And while he may not be as well-rounded as other d-mids out there, his ability in this particular area does so much in terms of freeing the rest of the midfield to play higher that it's, at this point, incalculable.

With all that in mind, I'm kind of stunned that no Euro team has made the Sounders an offer they can't refuse. Having that one world-class skill out there would have a multiplying effect on the abilities of the rest of the players on any team. Period.

With All-Star teams, simpler is better

Ben Olsen started his side out in a 4-4-1-1 and basically kept them there all night. It didn't exactly make for elegant build-up (especially against Chelsea's 4-2-3-1), but in those rare moments that the field opened up and the All-Stars got moving forward, opportunities for flowing, aggressive counterattacks were there. That's about the best you can ask for from a team playing with one day of practice under their belt.

Defensively, it was even more important to keep it simple. Chelsea had their chances, sure, but it's worth noting that their goals came off a set piece and a goalkeeper error. That can happen no matter the formation.

Point is, keeping it simple was Olsen's way of keeping his team from making the errors that have plagued the All-Stars the last two times out. It's also why most tactical experimentation takes place at the club level, where coaches have their players for 10 months out of 12, rather than at the national team level, where the best most managers can hope for is a two-week camp. Can't reinvent the wheel on a deadline.

Balance is the most important physical asset for any soccer player

We didn't really learn this today (or the other two, to be honest), but it bears repeating here anyway.

Too often we get caught up in size, speed, strength, leaping ability, etc etc etc. And all of those are valuable (some more than others). But give me an athlete who can stay on his feet when everyone else around him is getting corkscrewed into the ground, and I can build you a soccer player.

The extreme version is Lionel Messi, obviously. His balance is the most outstanding physical trait in the history of the game.

On Wednesday night in Chester, Pa., it was Chris Wondolowski who stood out, particularly on his goal. When he scored, my Twitter timeline filled up with "Typical Wondo goal" and "All he had to do was put it in" and the like.

And, well, yeah. That's the point, isn't it? He was able to get into position in front of goal then stay on his feet in a situation where most strikers would have taken a tumble. Look at how quickly he stops his momentum, squares and finishes. It's not rocket science.

I'll leave you with a thought from the great George Best, talking about — appropriately — former Chelsea and LA Galaxy head coach Ruud Gullit in Andrew Godsell's Europe United:

"Ruud Gullit is a great player by any standards. He has all the skills. He's not afraid to do things with the ball. And he looks as if he's enjoying every second of it. By my reckoning, that's what makes him an even better player than Maradona. Both have the key quality you will find in all the best players: balance."

It's the truth at any level.

19 July 12:57 am

SEATTLE - The "Roger Levesque denouement" story will come sometime in the next couple of days. I'm not the one to write it - Levesque has a special place in Sounders lore, and it'll take someone who's steeped in said lore to do his story justice.

But as a neutral, and as a fan of the league, just know this: A life-long sub, a guy who was never the best player on the field at any point during his professional career, just got a standing ovation from 50,000 fans on a random Wednesday night in July. He hung around out there for 45 minutes afterward signing autographs, mingling with hoi polloi, and basically embodying everything about what must have been a wild trip.

Levesque, like so many other American kids, began playing before there was even a professional soccer league here in the States. He started his pro career bouncing between MLS and the lower divisions. And he finished it on a field surrounded by World Cup stars, European champions and teammates from 14 different countries while 50,000 people screamed his name back and forth.

It's been his own journey, but while watching it was hard not to think of how far we've all come.

Anyway, bon voyage, Roger. Thanks for the moment.

 

17 July 5:57 pm

SEATTLE — One question that fans often ask me is "Which MLS team has the best training facilities?" My answer is always, "I don't know," since I've never actually made a study of it and always forget to ask people who have.

That said, judging by the reactions of Chelsea FC ahead of Wednesday night's Herbalife World Football Challenge opener against Seattle (9:30 pm ET; ESPN2), the Sounders may be the odds-on favorites.

That's French for "Holy crap, this place is diesel!"

Praise for the Virginia Mason Athletic Center in Renton — about 25 minutes from downtown Seattle — has been a recurring theme amongst both the Chelsea players and staff.

"First I have to say is the facilities, the training ground is really unbelievable," winger Marko Marin said on Tuesday. "I never saw something like this — so big and everything."

Branislav Ivanovic had said something similar on Monday after a kick-around with members of the NFL's Seattle Seahawks (with whom the Sounders share the facility). And head coach Roberto Di Matteo was simple and to the point: "Very, very good," he offered.

So there you have it. Not a definitve answer by any means, but a neat little data point along the way.

 

01 July 5:21 pm

There's like a 99 percent chance that, if you're reading this blog post, you also watched the 2012 European Championship final between Spain and Italy.

It was awesome. Even if you had no rooting interest (full disclosure: I'm a quarter Italian, but was pulling for Spain), it's hard not to get caught up when the stakes are that high and the quality of soccer on display matches it.

And it just kills me that CONCACAF and CONMEBOL can't figure out a way to get a "Copa Américas" up and running every four years, starting immediately after the Euros. What an incredible opportunity the two confederations are missing.

Hopefully someday, they'll figure it out.

Anyway, only one real observation this week...

Scoring keeps going up and up and up

You should be reading Andrew Wiebe's Opta Spotlight every week. This past week's edition was especially good. Click me!

OK, now that you've read it, you know that teams are passing more, passing more accurately, passing more aggressively, and as a result (we assume), scoring more. Before this week scoring was already up 12 percent over last season's pace. That will have gone up some more, since in Week 17's 10-game slate there were 34 total goals.

And it's not just a blip. Since the end of the international break, MLS clubs have produced 100 goals in 33 games (thanks to Greg Lalas for that little tidbit).

It's the reversal of a 10-year trend. Back in 2001 MLS averaged 3.28 goals per game; by 2010, that was down to 2.46. Here's the whole table:

2011 -- 2.58
2010 -- 2.46

2009 -- 2.54
2008 -- 2.81
2007 -- 2.66
2006 -- 2.62
2005 -- 2.87
2004 -- 2.61
2003 -- 2.89
2002 -- 3.01
2001 -- 3.28
2000 -- 3.19
1999 -- 2.86
1998 -- 3.57*
1997 -- 3.26
1996 -- 3.37

The key thing here isn't just that MLS have imported guys like Thierry Henry (one of the league's elite finishers) and David Beckham (one of the league's elite chance creators). The league's also kept guys like Dwayne De Rosario and Brad Davis, who've both had overseas interest; they've developed highly rated talents like Chris Pontius and Will Bruin, who've both been given plenty of time to figure out where the net is; and, of course, used the Reserve League to help build Chris Wondolowski, who's turning into one of MLS' all-time greats.

It's a multi-faceted approach to finding and cultivating talent, and the numbers say it's working.

* For those of you who don't remember 1998 for one reason or another ... yes, that season was as crazy as the numbers indicate. Go find some YouTube clips of that year's Galaxy squad — it'll be worth your time.

24 June 8:41 pm

I just went 2/9 on my weekend picks. This was after going 2/6 midweek.

It’s not because I’m bad at picking games (though lord knows, I’m not good), but it’s because the parity in MLS is just that hard to get a handle on these days. This is a league where players like Branko Boskovic and Chris Rolfe come off the bench, where Danny Koevermans goes from misfiring back to deadeye, and where a nine-point week is enough to vault you back into the playoff race.

Turns out the Galaxy aren’t dead yet

Sorry, I know this is going to annoy a lot of you. It’s always fun to try to shovel dirt on the champs – doubly so when it’s a high-profile team.

But it turns out that was premature. LA just rattled off three straight wins, including two by shutout. It’s too early to say they’ve returned to their 2011 form, but it’s also clearly too late to take back all the nasty stuff we’ve said about them over the past couple of months.

One thing to bear in mind: David Beckham said it came down to being happy and loose in the locker room, and that it’s cleared up only in the past couple of weeks. So whatever it was that was eating away at LA’s commitment went away when Robbie Keane did. Will it return now that he has?

“Emergency Defender” proving a rock in Philly

Last week John Hackworth said that youngster Amobi Okugo would be playing in central defense for the time being as an emergency measure. If his first two games there are any indication, he may never get a chance to move back to the midfield.

Okugo is simply excellent when the game is being played in front of him, showing good anticipation and understanding of both when and how to play outlets to the midfield. He’s also big and strong enough (6-foot, 170 pounds) to bully around in the box when it comes down to that.

Most importantly, though, he’s just a better player when he doesn’t have to have 360 degree awareness. This isn’t unusual – d-mids tend to mature later than other players precisely because it’s such a complex position.

But Philly already have two veterans (Brian Carroll and Gabriel Gomez) for that spot, and are paper-thin in defense. And the US… well, we know all about the plethora of defensive-minded central midfielders available to Jurgen Klinsmann.

There are, however, precious few young central defenders who’ve impressed on a game-to-game basis. Okugo’s off to a good start in that regard. Let’s hope he stays there, and we see a bit of him in the red, white and blue this January.

Why not build more Gordons?

Alan Gordon didn’t just become a good soccer player overnight. He’s always had a great passing eye, a good understanding of where to be in build-up play and a willingness to stick his nose in. Even if he’s not a 90-minute player, he’s still valuable. The past two months – and past two games especially – have been proof enough of that.

The thing is, though, that Gordon (and his teammate Steven Lenhart) were built by years of practice and occasional game time. Each of them took several years to get up to speed, and now the Quakes are reaping the rewards of both LA’s and Columbus’ hard work.

Which begs the question: Why don’t more teams take on young guys like Gordon and Lenhart then groom them for that specific role? While combing through MLS rosters, the only ones I’ve seen who are really, truly doing that are Columbus (with Tom Heinemann and Aaron Schoenfeld), Houston (Cam Weaver and Colin Rolfe) and New England (Blake Brettschneider).

None of these guys are truly ready right now – though Brettschneider is close, and Heinemann would have gotten there this season if not for his injury – but in two years, all of these guys can be looked at as Gordon or Lenhart-types.

Or, if you want to go with the original model: Brian Ching-types.

So yeah, putting a guy like that – a true center forward – out there may not be what Vicente del Bosque would do. But no MLS team is going to have Xavi, Iniesta, Silva, Fabregas and Busquets to call on. If you’re not Spain, chances are you’ll need a target.

I’d want my team already hard at work making one.

22 June 4:23 pm

The condemnation of an entire fan base in 140 characters or less:

Voting the player with the best ideas on the field - and that's exactly what Ozil always is unless he happens to be on the same field as Iniesta and Messi - the worst performance of the match is beyond blinkered. So what if not every brilliant flick, through ball or volley came off? Ozil put the Greeks under pressure for the full 90 minutes, and was the primary reason they had to drop their line 10 yards deeper than they wanted to within the first 15 minutes of the game. Germany set up shop in Greece's penalty area, and the German No. 8 is the primary reason why.

I'm flabbergasted. And my gast is not easily flabbered.

12 June 11:08 pm

Was a 1-1 draw the right result? Probably. Well, 2-2 might have been more accurate.

We'll get to the rest of this just after a few of those match balls come down out of orbit.

Wait for it...

Wait for it...

Wait for it...

Geoff Cameron has proved that he's the right choice in central defense

Was he perfect? No, far from it. His first touch was a giveaway and he needs to be smarter defending set pieces.

But he was significantly better than Clarence Goodson, and miles better than Oguchi Onyewu was against Antigua and Barbuda. It's always been a matter of "when," not "if," with Cameron, and it looks like the "when" is just about now.

There will still be tough days to come. Someone will sucker him into a bad foul, or he'll get caught ball-watching, or he'll blow a trap. But he put in a tough 45 minutes and did so with a fair share of aplomb. It was a good first "big" game from Cameron, who should be in the starting lineup from here on out.

Of course, it was also a bad game by Carlos Bocanegra, who totally misplayed the longball that led to the foul that led to the one decent (read: spectacular) free kick of the evening. Let's hope Tim Ream, George John, Matt Besler and whoever else is on Jurgen Klinsmann's radar make a Cameron-like leap in the next few months.

Fabian Johnson is irreplacable at left back

One of the things I wanted to see was how Johnson would combine down the left with Landon Donovan. And it was good.

Donovan's in a particularly passive mode right now, which means he's totally willing to drift wide when Johnson darts inside. It's what happened on the goal, and why Johnson only had to beat one guy instead of two.

And the fact that we can casually talk about one of our players beating a defender off the dribble ... man, that is a nice weapon coming out of the back. Edgar Castillo is functional, and I have high hopes for Justin Morrow, but neither of those guys has the raw creative ability Johnson shows every time he takes the field for the US.

Of course, he can also be spun like a top in one-v-one defensively, and is prone to ball-watching. Two of Guatemala's best chances on the evening were directly attributable to his poor defensive play.

But I don't care. He brings so much other stuff to the table that it hardly matters.

Nobody's on the same page in the final third

Just about the only quality link-up of the night for the US came on the goal. The midfield play was better as a whole (though Maurice Edu and Jermaine Jones were turnover machines), and the defense was relative solid compared to previous outings.

But the final third is still a mess. If Donovan played the ball early, the runs came late. If Dempsey tried a flick, he should have went for a through ball.

And there aren't enough expletives in the world to describe Jozy Altidore's thought-process on that late chance that Michael Bradley served up on a platter.

It is ugly, and not showing signs of getting better. Klinsmann's biggest job is still shoring up the defense, of course. But a close second is reminding his attackers how to attack.

08 June 8:19 pm

Well, that was unsatisfying. At least Canadians can look at their win over Cuba and say, "Hey, it was on the road." The US don't have that luxury after a hard-fought, uneven 3-1 win over Antigua and Barbuda in Tampa.

I can't say I'm surprised. Disappointed, surely, but not surprised. This is a disjointed, confused, and somewhat rudderless US team.

Oguchi Onyewu is done as an international-caliber defender

Bad showing against Brazil? Hey, it happens.

But the same against the Benna Boys? You're done.

It's kind of deceiving because Gooch still looks like he did way back in the summer of 2009 when he had that great showing in the Confederations Cup, but the similarity ends there. His lateral quickness is nil, his passing has always been subpar and his reading of the game has actually regressed. The vast majority of MLS defenders would have bottled up that touch from Byers; Gooch rolled with it and gave him a direct line to Tim Howard's goal.

That's unacceptable in any context. In a game that matters, with a then-fragile 2-0 lead? It's mutinous.

Jurgen Klinsmann needs to bury Gooch on the depth chart. He's a liability against even the worst teams.

If it comes down to goal differential, the US are in trouble

How many goals will the US score in Guatemala City or Kingston playing like this? It's relevant, since Mexico only went through to the Hexagonal on goal differential four years ago.

The US will not have that luxury — not after this performance, and even more so on Tuesday. That means the margin for error is razor thin, and any loss will be a potentially crippling one.

Does that mean Klinsmann should add more attackers to the mix?

Absolutely. Not only was the output poor, but so was recovery of the second ball and pressure in the final third. Putting Jozy Altidore or Terrence Boyd in alongside Herculez Gomez from the start would have given the US a better chance at taking advantage of all those chances they created.

Set pieces are still a thing the US can do well

Landon Donovan's service was perfect pretty much all game long. Carlos Bocanegra, Clarence Goodson, Herculez Gomez, Clint Dempsey, Maurice Edu and Michael Bradley are all excellent targets.

That was the difference against the Benna Boys. (How horrible is that to contemplate, by the way?)

It will continue to be the area where the US have the biggest advantage throughout this semifinal round. Klinsmann's men will have to milk that for all it's worth, or there may be no Hexagonal in 2013.

08 June 2:40 pm

If you're Polish, probably pretty good - and we have the video to prove it:

The rest of the game, probably not so much. Brutal result for the co-hosts.

By the way, Columbus Crew coach Robert Warzycha was at the game. He probably won't come home with Robert Lewandowski, but given all the talk out of Crewland about a new DP for the summer, maybe he'll figure out a way to smuggle countryman Pawel Brozek back to Ohio?

03 June 8:19 pm

So in retrospect ... how bad were Scotland?

I expressed my concern that the 5-1 result for the US in that particular game was a bit of a false positive (usage, I know), and am now bemused in my correctitude. The US are still a mess, looking very much a team in "Who are we, really?" mode.

Canada, meanwhile, get the pleasure of knowing they were the superior team for 90 minutes against the US for the first time since maybe the mid-1980s. And the displeasure of another bad call going against them in this series.

Klinsmann's lineup choices are still baffling

About 95 percent of the Jose Torres-related comments we get on this site are positive. And that's fine — it's always nice to have a favorite player.

But if Torres was as good as you all seem to think, wouldn't he stand out in a game like this? Wouldn't the US have more than one win in 11 games with him starting? Wouldn't he find a way to carve out chances for his teammates — or even, heaven forbid, himself — when afforded time and space in the final third?

That's what he got plenty of on Sunday. And he produced nothing.

The problem is not just his lack of a cutting edge in attack, but that he's being asked to provide something that's not in his DNA in the first place. Torres' only outstanding attribute is his ability to put his foot on the ball and dictate the pace and tempo of the game. Put him in a central midfield trio in front of Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones, and you may have something.

On the wing? He's an absolute cipher, Klinsmann's white elephant.

That wasn't the only lineup choice that left me scratching my head. Against a Canadian side alligned to prevent up-the-gut penetration, the danger was always going to come from the US flanks. So that left just one forward — Herculez Gomez — to do the running and work of two. Even when Jozy Altidore was subbed in, he was tasked with playing wide on the left instead of as a No. 9.

It makes no sense. And the Scotland anomaly aside, this team feels no closer to realizing Klinsmann's vision than it did nine months ago.

The US have depth at left fullback

Edgar Castillo still has some learning to do, first and foremost when to put the ball into row Z instead of trying to play out of pressure. His turnover absolutely should have been a Canada goal.

But he was a demon patrolling passing lanes and the most consistent US threat on the night. And most importantly, he didn't look out of place physically against a big, strong team with some real power and pace on that right flank.

I'm not totally in love with the idea of him starting for the US in a game that matters — again, that giveaway was inexcusable — but hopefully Fabian Johnson's injury will be gone by Friday. Either way, though, this is a stronger position than it was two years ago.

Canada's two-thirds press caused the US more problems than Brazil's high press

Canada dropped off almost to the midfield stripe, then swarmed the US midfielders whenever they received a pass. Because of the way they were deployed, they always had numbers up, and were always on the verge of forcing a turnover and a breakout.

Truth is, they should have had three goals. The reason Brazil are Brazil is because they finish those chances; the reason Canada are Canada is that they don't.

But there's plenty of good to take from this for the Canucks. Their defense is certainly sturdier than the USA's right now, and from the run of play they allowed almost no real looks to a team that had Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan and Gomez all on the pitch.

For the US, the idea of playing through or around a two-thirds press seemed beyond them. Playing over it was a non-starter, since Kevin McKenna and Andre Hainault just about swallowed Gomez whole.

The situation called for two forwards. When the US are struggling to create, it often does.

But that's not what we saw. We saw a bad 90 minutes, a bad strategy and a bad result.

Wonder what we'll see next week when the games really matter?