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Armchair Analyst

02 November 3:25 de la tarde

A rising tide, the saying goes, lifts all boats. And in this case, it helps keep a few afloat.

That's the good news out of NASL and, specifically, Minnesota on Friday afternoon. The club and league announced that a local ownership group has been found, meaning the Stars — who have made it to the past two NASL title games, and won it in 2011 — will be back for 2013.

“We cannot overstate how delighted we are at this outcome,” said NASL Commissioner David Downs in a press release. “The team has represented Minnesota in NASL play in extraordinary fashion over the past two years despite the lack of local owners, and now we believe this will give the Stars the foundation needed to flourish for years to come. As of today, we now have local owners for the team who are clearly committed and dedicated to promoting soccer as an integral part of the community.”

Minnesota had been a league-run team for the past two years, and the ownership search had reportedly become an existential one in recent months.

The fact that it's been resolved in this fashion is good news for fans of the Stars, first and foremost. But from a broader perspective, it's good news for anyone in North America who's a fan of the game. A stable and healthy second division means more opportunities for meaningful soccer all over the map, and more opportunities for youth development in a metropolitan area that's produced a fair number of pros.

Win-win. Today's a good day for soccer.

30 October 7:11 de la tarde

Yes. Yes they are.

And yes, I picked Seattle to win it because it's a moral imperative to stick with the prediction I made in March. But have been wracking my brain to figure out just the right way of explaining why the Earthquakes are such favorites.

Turns out Redditor moatie2000 did it for me in one handy-dandy little chart.

Here ya go:

Not a lot needs to be said beyond that.

16 October 8:20 de la tarde

A month ago against Jamaica, with the US holding on to a 1-0 lead for dear life, it was the defense that looked just fine while the midfield and attack — for the last 25 minutes, anyway — looked like total strangers.

This time through, even with the result decided, it was the defense that caused the US fans all sorts of indigestion. Carlos Bocanegra, goal aside, played one of his worst games in the US shirt. And with that in mind, we'll take a look at the three things we learned in the 3-1 US win that secured passage into the Hexagonal...

The US need a new answer in central defense

Giving up such a rudimentary goal to as predictable and banal a side as Los Chapines is cause for concern. Michael Bradley's midfield turnover was needless and the dislocation between the central defenders — Bocanegra and Geoff Cameron — was reason to worry with more dynamic, better teams waiting in the Hexagonal.

It's beyond time to get Matt Besler or Omar Gonzalez some serious run alongside Cameron. They've been the two best US defenders in the league this year, and both among the four best, along with Víctor Bernárdez and Carlos Valdés — who are starters for Honduras and Colombia, respectively. Hanging onto the old guard was the original sin of Bruce Arena, and Jurgen Klinsmann would be wise to learn that lesson before it dooms him in a game that matters.

And they're going to start to matter — a lot — come February.

Where's the killer instinct in the attack?

"Job done" is what Ian Darke said just over a minute into stoppage time, and mathematically there's no real argument with him since the the US qualified, after all.

But compare the US job to what Honduras did to Canada earlier in the day. Klinsmann's side had every chance to lay a 5-1 or 6-1 hurting on a Guatemala team that was missing their top three central defenders, and lacked either the ability or the desire to do so.

To put it into perspective: one of Guatemala's starting central defenders was 20. The other plays in the Guatemalan second division. This was not a Hexagonal-level backline.

And this US wasn't ruthless or relentless; it was haphazard and ad hoc. That'd be the reason Klinsmann's side has scored more than one goal in just five of 20 games.

Is it disappointing on an "I hate Guatemala" level? Absolutely. But it's even more disappointing on an "I'd much rather face Jamaica than Guatemala in the next round" level. The US could have knocked Los Chapines out, and didn't do it. Jamaica did it.

Needs more nasty in the box, not in the tackle.

"We need him"

That's what Clint Dempsey said about Landon Donovan, and Deuce is absolutely right.

But even more important is finding whoever Donovan's heir is, and finding him soon. As the last 18 months have shown, Landon's not 25 anymore. He'll be an injury-prone 31-year-old by the time the Hex starts, capable of breathtaking moments only in short bursts. Someone else needs to be the creative hub come February.

It's the existential crisis US fans have been dreading since 2001, and Klinsmann needs to take a longer view with it than he has with the defense. And it needs to start with the next camp.

One final thought...

That may be the last time I ever watch Carlos Ruiz play soccer. Can't say I'll miss him in the slightest.

12 October 9:14 de la tarde

Some of that "Goonies never say die!" magic rubbed off on the US national team on Friday night. Alan Gordon, one of the lead protagonists in San Jose's run to what looks like a certain Supporters' Shield, put it on a plate for Eddie Johnson in second half stoppage time as the US beat a stubborn Antigua & Barbuda side 2-1:

 

12 October 9:08 de la tarde

Even if you play badly, you can still win if you execute on set pieces. That's what the US did on Friday night in a 2-1 win over Antigua & Barbuda. Here's the first goal, courtesy of Seattle's Eddie Johnson on a perfect cross from Graham Zusi:

 

12 October 7:57 de la tarde

This is one of those nights that sports fans endure. Whether it's baseball, football, basketball ... whatever. At some point, your team plays so badly that you become physically ill. Or near enough, anyway.

That's what Jurgen Klinsmann's team just did down in Antigua with their ugly 2-1 win on Friday night. And the painful part is that it's not really a surprise.

Klinsmann is, quite possibly, a great "big picture" coach. He might be the right guy to shake up the USSF and institute a more progressive, enjoyable style. He might be the guy who destroys what remains of the "old boy network." He may be the guy who can write a curriculum that turns the US into the Brazil of the northern hemisphere.

He is not the guy to coach a team through qualifying. Period.

Carlos Bocanegra is still a liability at left back

Hey, Boca's been a fantastic servant for US soccer. He's relentless, responsible and has a knack for timely goals.

He's also a giveaway machine when he plays wide. Bruce Arena learned that to his detriment in the 2006 World Cup — anybody remember that "clearance" vs. Ghana? — and Bob Bradley had his own trip down that path from 2007 through 2009.

Somehow, it's 2012 and we're still learning that lesson. Yes, Klinsmann was handicapped by the injuries to Fabian Johnson and Edgar Castillo, but a good coach compensates by finding the right solution, not any solution.

Klinsmann, on the other hand, compensates by putting Bocanegra in a position to fail. And that's exactly what he did on the turnover that led to the Antigua goal.

Possession doesn't necessarily mean chances

Throughout the game, we were treated to analysis highlighting the US dominance in possession. Problem was, that possession wasn't leading to chances. It wasn't even leading to half-chances.

The US put one shot on goal from the run of play over 90 minutes against Antigua & Barbuda. Anyone who's making reservations for Brazil two summers from now needs to internalize that, understand it and choose a second favorite team right now.

It's not because the US lacks creators, certainly — just look at how the game opened up once Sacha Kljestan came on. Quite simply, it's because the creative attacking players we have are, for some undisclosed reason, in Klinsmann's doghouse.

For years many of us have railed against the perception of the US as a "defense only" team, pointing to games like the 2002 World Cup vs. Germany, the 2009 Confederations Cup vs. Egypt (and Brazil) and the entire run of the 2010 World Cup.

But under Klinsmann, the US are defense only. The possession they hold in midfield isn't used to create chances, and as a result, the only time they're consistently dangerous is on set pieces.

Eddie Johnson has a place in the roster ... and so does Alan Gordon

I questioned EJ's inclusion despite his great production for the Sounders. And truth be told, he was more of a liability in possession than any of the other midfielders.

However, he gets open on set pieces, and he finished two of his three looks (of the five total looks the US had on the night, which kind of makes me want to die). There's a place for that, especially against minnows. I still don't think he's the answer long term because he takes too long on the ball in the run of play, but hell, beggars can't be choosers.

As for Gordon, he's the best-passing big man in or around his prime in the US national team pool. I've been pointing this out for quite a long while, and he vindicated me on Friday.

Center forwards, like d-mids and goalkeepers, tend to develop later in their careers (Gordon is the age Brian McBride was when he transferred to Fulham). It's very, very nice to see a guy like Gordon stick with it as long as he has and, eventually, find his moment in the sun.

And it's a reminder: Over the past three cycles, MLS players have done the bulk of the heavy lifting for the US national team. Klinsmann would be wise, on Tuesday and — hopefully — in 2013, to remember that much.

09 October 2:48 de la tarde

Here's the third and final part of our series on the long build-up, looking at how teams use long sequences of passes to break down an opponent's defense.

In this video, we examine the gaps that are created by horizontal and lateral ball movement, respectively, and why ball-playing central defenders are at such a premium these days.

09 October 2:43 de la tarde

It's been the year of the center forward in MLS, and that's trickled down to the North American second flight as well.

The NASL on Tuesday announced its Best XI for the 2012 season, and at its head was Golden Boot winner Pablo Campos. The big Brazilian No. 9 had a career year, knocking home 20 goals in leading expansion side San Antonio Scorpions to the best regular-season record and No. 1 playoff seed.

Campos, who turns 29 this week, had four goals in 41 appearances with RSL and San Jose in 2009 and 2010.

Other former MLS players featured in the Best XI were winger Nick Zimmerman, who had stints with both Philadelphia and New York; and central defender Ryan Cochrane, who spent eight years in MLS and won two MLS Cups with Houston.

Here is the complete Best XI list:

Forwards: Mark Anderson (Ft. Lauderdale Strikers), Pablo Campos (San Antonio Scorpions)

Midfielders: Luke Mulholland (Tampa Bay Rowdies), Walter Ramírez (San Antonio Scorpions), Walter Restrepo (Ft. Lauderdale Strikers), Nick Zimmerman (Carolina RailHawks)

Defenders: Kyle Altman (Minnesota Stars FC), Ryan Cochrane (San Antonio Scorpions), Paul Hamilton (FC Edmonton), Takuya Yamada (Tampa Bay Rowdies)

Goalkeeper: Jeff Attinella (Tampa Bay Rowdies)

Complete NASL coverage

08 October 3:37 de la tarde

The US roster was released, and the Twittersphere exploded — as per usual. To quote a noted philospher, "It is what it is."

And what "it is" is the inclusion of Alan Gordon over a host of other, "more deserving" candidates.

Please read those as air quotes, because that's what they are.

On a per-minute basis over the past two years, Gordon has actually been the most productive scorer in MLS. Better than teammate Chris Wondolowski (who was controversially left off), better than Eddie Johnson, better than almost anyone over any two-year stretch in league history. The only thing that's impeded him are the injuries he's had to deal with.

But even if he was less productive than he has been, he'd still be a good invite.

Gordon, you see, is a specialist. With so many players today we talk about versatility and flexibility, but that's often code for "he's a tweener." There's none of that with Gordon.

He's a No. 9. He's a forward who's going to get into the final third, put his back into a defender — or defenders — and hold the ball. Then, when he holds the ball, he'll make either an attacking, or possession-positive play with it.

It's not sexy, but it's effective, and it's crucial for Jurgen Klinsmann's scheme. It's about holding the ball in the final third and building chances, not about forcing turnovers and hitting on the break. Gordon gives him a better chance to implement his plan than pretty much anyone in the pool — not only because he can make plays, but because he makes it significantly easier for the guys around him to make plays. When he occupies a defender, that defender stays occupied.

Consider: For years, the US played better with Brian Ching or Conor Casey on the field than they did without, in spite of what can be accurately described as "shoddy finishing." Those two guys largely have the same skillsets as Gordon, who is both bigger and a better finisher.

Here's how Klinsmann put it in his conference call:

"That's more tactical related," he told reporters on Monday. "...That's the reason we brought in Eddie [Johnson] and Alan, two guys that are good in the air, they can lay balls off."

Translation: They can take a beating, hold the ball, and bring our attacking midfielders — guys like Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Graham Zusi, maybe even Herculez Gomez — into the play. They give the US a better chance at combining and building a goal (I still don't think Johnson does, but whatever — I can live with it).

The invite for Gordon makes perfect sense. As for the Twittersphere explosion ... well, it is what it is.

02 October 2:34 de la tarde

This is Part 2 of our three-part series examining long build-ups that lead to goals, and both the "how" and the "why" they happen.

In Part 1 we took a look at the role pressure - or the lack of it - plays in the long build. Now we're going to swap from what the defense is doing wrong to what the attack is doing right, with a spotlight on the role the center forward plays.