One of the best stories in US soccer this year has been the rapid ascent of the San Antonio Scorpions of the NASL. The first-year expansion club has a roster filled with former MLS players, an owner who cares and a crowd that turns out rain or shine.
They're averaging more than 11,000 per game, best in the second flight, and now they have plans for what looks like a pretty sweet soccer-specific stadium that'll be expandable to more than 18,000 capacity.
It's years away, and they're very careful to say that additional seats will be added only if attendance continues to impress.
But the fact that a second-flight team is even considering such things says quite a bit about how far soccer's come in the last 10 years. Even when it's deep in the heart of football country.
When Jurgen Klinsmann was hired, the US were a mess. Their spacing was terrible, they couldn't get consistent performance from the fullbacks and the offense was inconsistent.
It looks like most of that has been cleared up. I'd go so far as to say that Klinsmann's done a pretty good job. But there are still some concerns.
This generation of US players is defined by their weakness in central defense
There's no disguising it against top-level talent. The US got a great result in Italy a few months back, but were protected throughout by a flag-happy linesman who blew five offside calls, and a handful of great 1-v-1 saves from Tim Howard.
Against Brazil, there was no such luck. Howard did make a couple of great saves and was bailed out by the post once, but for the most part, Brazil gave the US central defense the old orange cone treatment.
Oguchi Onyewu in particular — even without the (not remotely debatable) penalty — was awful. When defending on the ball he's on roller skates, and when defending in space he's basically lost. And he doesn't read the game well enough to make up for it against top competition.
What's even more disturbing is the US inability to hold a line. It happened at the beginning of the game, it happened in the middle, and it happened at the end with Onyewu (sorry to pick on you, Gooch), failing to step, leaving Pato to rip the fouth past a stranded Howard.
If you're slower and less skilled than the opponents — and against the great teams, that's always going to be the case for the US — then you have to be smarter and more organized.
This group is not. It's how Mexico killed the US last summer, and how Brazil killed them on Wednesday.
There were telltale midfield turnovers even against Scotland
And against Brazil, those turnovers became goals. It's something I stressed in our March to the Match podcast, but which went largely unnoticed otherwise since we were all stunned at the sheer ferocity of that 5-1 win.
I don't know how much scouting Brazil really did, but it's safe to say that the book on the US is "smother them, make them play combinations, and they will eventually beat themselves."
Even the Scots did it for a bit, specifically in minutes 15 through 35.
The Brazilians did it in minutes 1 through 90, and everyone on the US had their turn to play the goat. Including Michael Bradley and Fabian Johnson.
Speaking of ...
Michael Bradley and Fabian Johnson are really, really good
Bradley's probably too valuable as an attacker and too much of a risk-taker on the ball to play as a true, lone d-mid (as he was in Klinsmann's 4-1-4-1 for most of the game). The other options are unappealing against top sides, though: Maurice Edu has a poor first touch, and Jermaine Jones isn't exactly known for his ability to get out of traffic with the ball on his foot.
So for now, Klinsmann has to keep Bradley in that d-mid role and then find more dynamic players to put in front of him. I'd prefer to see Jose Torres or Benny Feilhaber in one of the "advanced midfield" roles, rather than the uninspiring Edu/Jones combo.
And as for Johnson ... there's not much to say but, "Wow." He's been the best, most consistent attacking force on the US team for the past three games. Who thought we'd ever say that about a left back?
Defensively he still has work to do, especially in 1-v-1 situations (he literally spun in a circle when trying to defend Hulk at one point), but he's got plenty of time to work on it before Klinsmann's side takes on the big boys in a game that counts.
So for now, it's clear that Klinsmann still has a little bit of a mess to clean up. But the good news is that he's already made progress with what was left behind for him in the first place.
I owe Jurgen Klinsmann that much after panning his lineup before the match, since it was chock-full of central/defensive midfielders. I worried that they would spend 90 minutes bumping into each other and checking back to the ball instead of finding gaps and exploiting them at pace. My worries were, as it turns out, totally unfounded.
A few things:
The formation was a 4-3-2-1
It's called the "Christmas Tree," and like most tactical innovations, it was brought to us by the Italians. The strength of it lies in having a pure d-mid — in this case Maurice Edu, and later Kyle Beckerman — sweeping directly in front of the backline. This both protects the somewhat fragile US central defense (still the area of main concern) and allows the other central midfielders to push forward both with and without the ball.
Edu wasn't flashy, then, but he was effective. And with Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones pushing up, Scotland hardly had time to breathe when they were trying to play out of the back.
Offensively, the width was usually provided by overlapping fullbacks, which allowed Landon Donovan and Jose Torres to help crowd the midfield, forcing turnovers and moving quickly into space. In a 4-3-3 (which is what Scotland played — and they did so without a true ball-winner, which is suicide), they would have started much wider.
Boyd's off-the-ball movement was stellar
The other thing that made the formation work was Terrence Boyd's unselfish running. He looked like a more athletic (and far less polished) version of Conor Casey out there, and the similarity is no accident: Like Casey, Boyd has spent time learning in the Borussia Dortmund system, one where the center forward is expected to do as much work creating space off the ball as he does with it.
The best example of that came in the 11-pass sequence that led to Donovan's shot off the post in the 50th minute. Instead of showing for the ball, Boyd cut diagonally through the box, dragging two defenders with him and opening the lane for another touch and that cheeky cut-back shot.
If it had gone in, Boyd wouldn't have gotten an assist—- or any note in the box score at all. But it was a huge, heady, veteran play from him.
And hardly the only example on the night. His activity opened space for Bradley's golazo, and he was instrumental in forcing the early turnover to make it 1-0.
Wide play is a concern heading into the Brazil match
The weakness of the formation, of course, is that you give up a lot of width. Yes, Donovan and Torres pulled a bit wider on defense than in attack, but the few times Scotland got by them, there were acres of space to exploit. That's when the Scots were very dangerous — and where the goal came from. Geoff Cameron gets the blame, but it was a central midfield miscommunication that left Bardsley wide open to pick his spot for the cross once he was past Torres.
This was somewhat of a recurring theme throughout the evening. It's also a real worry because neither Steve Cherundolo nor Fabian Johnson are great 1-v-1 defenders, and because Brazil love to overload the flanks.
Landon Donovan never wanted to be Batman
He wanted to be Robin. I don't doubt for a minute the sincerity of the interview he gave last week, but I think the underlying cause is what's telling.
Donovan has worn a heavy mantle during the last 10 years, almost always regarded as the US' best player. The fact that the team and the league have progressed so dramatically with him as the focal point says something about his talent.
But as soon as the pressure's off, as soon as it's someone else's team, he starts playing without the weight of expectations. We've seen it at Everton, we've seen it in flashes over the last three years since Clint Dempsey has started to really challenge for the mantle of "Best US Player," and we definitely saw it Saturday night.
Expect more of the same for as long as people are saying this is Dempsey's team. Landon seems totally at ease with the notion, and when he's feeling like that, the scoreboard tends to light up.
The transfer window may be closed, but that doesn't apply to players who are out of contract.
One such player is someone most MLS fans will recognize. And he wants back in:
Very hopeful that my deal back to @MLS will happen in the next few days!! My times at @LAGalaxy were the best but time for a new challenge!!
— Chris Birchall (@chrisbirchall7) April 27, 2012
Know anyone with a need for midfield depth and an available international slot? Hello, New York?
Like most of you, I've spent my fair share of time roaming around the intertubes posting on various message boards, commenting on stories, looking for an insight or a laugh.
As the game in North America has grown over the past five years and media coverage has gotten better, I've spent less and less time doing so. But I'd still find myself occasionally making a pit stop on BigSoccer - sometime the on-topic boards, sometimes off-topic - and one of the commenters I'd always go out of my way to look for was CHICO13.
I didn't know him personally - didn't even know his name - but I liked that he was an original '96 fan. I liked what he had to say about the game (and a lot of other things), I liked that he treated other posters with respect but not deference, I liked that he liked Frank Zappa. And most of all I liked that he was intellectually honest about his beliefs and biases, and was happy to discuss them as a human being. That's all too rare anywhere, but especially on the internet.
It turns out that I won't be reading anymore posts by CHICO13 in the future. His non-internet name was Chico Solares, and he passed suddenly and - from what I gather - somewhat unexpectedly on Tuesday evening.
D.C. United, both the club and the fans, will be holding a 12th-minute tribute to him tonight.
I'll be holding my own tribute as well, listening to "Hot Rats," watching the team he loved and enjoying the game that he - and so many like him who've put their heart and soul into MLS - helped make so special.
Rest in peace.
WATCH: D.C. fans pay tribute to Solares
Looks like the injury bug in Real Salt Lake has — temproarily anyway — tied the hands of US Under-20 head coach Tab Ramos.
Ramos will be without his most experienced player, midfielder Luis Gil, who's been recalled by Jason Kreis in the wake of injuries to Javier Morales and Ned Grabavoy.
Good luck to the U20 @ussoccer_ynt out in Portland. Sorry I couldn't make it with you guys #UntilNextTime
— Luis Gil (@luisitogil21) April 9, 2012
Also missing the trip is Birmingham City-based defender Will Packwood. Javan Torre (LA Galaxy Academy) and Matt Wiesenfarth (California Davis) have been added as replacements.
The camp, which runs from April 9-16 in Portland, Ore., will feature an intrasquad scrimmage on April 12 and a friendly against the University of Washington on April 15.
Full roster and details at USsoccer.com.
The nice thing about age-group soccer is that another chance to make good is always right around the corner.
For the US, that means shifting focus from the failure of the U-23s to the next crop of U-20s. Or as I'll be referring to them in my head, "Luis Gil's Group."
The Real Salt Lake youngster is by far the most experienced player in Tab Ramos' squad, announced by US Soccer on Monday, which also includes three other MLSers: Jack McBean of the LA Galaxy; Jonathan Top of FC Dallas; and Victor Pineda of the Chicago Fire.
Here's the whole squad, courtesy of US soccer:
GOALKEEPERS (2): Tomas Gomez (Georgetown; Webster Groves, Mo.), Jake McGuire (Chivas USA Academy; Pomona, Calif.)
DEFENDERS (9): Christian Dean (California; East Palo Alto, Calif.), Bryan Gallego (Akron; Kinnelon, N.J.), Jordan McCrary (North Carolina; Marietta, Ga.), Eric Miller (Creighton; Woodbury, Minn.), Juan Pablo Ocegueda (Tigres UANL; Riverside, Calif.), Boyd Okwuonu (North Carolina; Edmund, Okla.), William Packwood (Birmingham City; Concord, Mass.), Jeffrey Payeras (LA Galaxy Academy; Hawthorne, Calif.), Derek Vogel (Pateadores; Long Beach, Calif.)
MIDFIELDERS (7): Seth Casiple (California; Rocklin, Calif.), Luis Gil (Real Salt Lake; Garden Grove, Calif.), Benji Joya (Santos Laguna; San Jose, Calif.), Mikey Lopez (North Carolina; Mission, Texas), Collin Martin (D.C. United Academy; Chevy Chase, Md.), Victor Pineda (Chicago Fire; Bolingbrook, Ill.), Wil Trapp (Akron; Gahanna, Ohio)
FORWARDS (6): Daniel Cuevas (Santos Laguna; Sacramento, Calif.), Ethan Decker (New York Red Bulls Academy; Manahawkin, N.J.), Daniel Garcia (FC Dallas Academy; Dallas), Jack McBean (LA Galaxy; Newport Beach, Calif.), James Rogers (New Mexico; Salt Lake City), Jonathan Top (FC Dallas; Fort Worth, Texas)
One player not on the list? Charles Renken. The 18-year-old midfielder is still settling in with the Portland Timbers, seeing action in reserve games and regular run in practice. But apparently he's not ready for the U-20s quite yet.
Thierry Henry can be a bit moody and machiavellian on the field, but off the field he's proven time and again to be a man of charity, conscience and kindness.
So it was no surprise that the New York Red Bulls striker hopped on a plane to visit Fabrice Muamba, the 23-year-old English midfielder who's made a stunning recovery after suffering from cardiac arrest in Bolton's abandoned match against Tottenham on Saturday.
Henry was the brightest light in North London when Muamba was just another kid in the Arsenal academy. But the Gunners legend didn't forget.
US soccer announced on Wednesday that John "Clarkie" Souza had passed away over the weekend. The 91-year-old National Soccer Hall of Famer was a starter for the squad that famously beat England 1-0 at Belo Horizonte in the 1950 FIFA World Cup.
Souza is the second member of that famous team to pass away in recent months, as standout defender Harry Keough was laid to rest on Feb. 7.
Follow the US MNT Blog for confirmed funeral arrangements.
Last year, before the season started, I very cleverly predicted that LA would win the West, the Shield and the Cup. I predicted that Houston would win the East. And I came up with a few other good ones that panned out.
Unfortunately I made these predictions on Twitter, and 4000 posts later, I was no longer able to have my moment of glory. Not gonna make the same mistake this year.
Real Salt Lake
US Open Cup
Defender of the Year
Rookie of the Year
Coach of the Year
And the most important question... will another forward come out of the blue and rack up double-digit goals? Wondolowski and Dom Oduro have done so in the last two seasons. This year's version will be... Tommy "Disco" Heinemann.
Feel free to bookmark this and throw it in my face 9 months from now.
Cheers, and enjoy the soccer.