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Armchair Analyst

07 March 7:11 de la tarde

I've always been of the opinion that the argument is "Pele vs. Maradona" instead of "Pele vs. Maradona vs. Di Stefano" simply because the Blond Arrow never won a World Cup.

Fifty years later, we may be in the midst of Di Stefano Part II.

What if that's Lionel Messi's destiny? What if his next seven years are as great as his past four, but Argentina comes up short in both 2014 and 2018? Will he truly be in the argument with Pele and Maradona? Or will he languish with Di Stefano, Cruyff and Puskas in the ranks of those who never got it done on the world's greatest stage?

Where do you stand?

29 February 8:21 de la tarde

Here in the US we're fed a steady diet of "don't get too worked up about friendly wins." And it's sound advice that goes all the way back to the 3-6-1 thrashing of Austria in the lead-up to the 1998 World Cup.

In Italy, though, they are a bit more... passionate. Or uncompromising. Or irrational.

However you want to put it, the Italian press is, in the wake of the US' 1-0 win over the Azzuri on Wednesday, showing the fight and engagement that both the players and fans in Genoa clearly lacked (the crowd, I think we can all agree, was terrible).

La Gazzetta dello Sport, the Italian soccer bible, called the US win "A fiasco." And it gets more colorful from there.

Happy reading, folks.

24 February 12:28 de la tarde

It's one of the favorite pastimes of MLS supporters (and detractors): Figuring out where the league stands in the grand scheme of things.

Most feel it's somewhere between 10 and 15, and ESPN's Adrian Healey comes in at the upper limit of that range.

"I feel it is now a top 10 league in the world. I would say it’s right in the mix now with something like the Dutch Eredivisie in terms of the talent, the standard of play and the infrastructure," Healey told Prost Amerika on Wednesday in a must-read interview. "The only thing it doesn’t have yet is a history and a body of work, but that is coming. It has made amazing strides in just over a decade and a half."

Anyway, where do you feel MLS ranks among the world's leagues?

22 February 7:50 de la tarde

According to the website of FC Nordsjælland, Michael Parkhurst has been called in to the US national team for next week's friendly against Italy. At least, I think that's what it says - I don't speak Danish, and Google Translate is only so helpful.

Anyway, Parkhurst being tabbed by Jurgen Klinsmann isn't much of a surprise, seeing as the one-time Rev put in two fairly strong showings against Panama and Venezuela last month, and the US is now paper-thin in central defense thanks to the Oguchi Onyewu injury.

Who else will join him? Here's my best guess:

GK: Tim Howard (Everton), Brad Guzan (Aston Villa)

D: Parkhurst, Geoff Cameron (Houston Dynamo), Tim Ream (Bolton Wanderers), Carlos Bocanegra (Glasgow Rangers), Timothy Chandler (FC Nürnberg), Steve Cherundolo (Hannover 96), Heath Pearce (Chivas USA)

MF: Michael Bradley (Chievo Verona), Maurice Edu (Glasgow Rangers), Jermaine Jones (Schalke 04), Danny Williams (1899 Hoffenheim), Fabian Johnson (1899 Hoffenheim), Jose Francisco Torres (Pachuca), Landon Donovan (LA Galaxy), DaMarcus Beasley (Puebla)

F: Clint Dempsey (Fulham), Jozy Altidore (AZ Alkmaar), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)

Note that this isn't my roster, just the roster I think Klinsmann will call. Also bear in mind that injuries have plagued Kyle Beckerman (recently) and Zak Whitbread (forever), otherwise the first would be a lock and the second would get a look.

The two young American-born left backs in England - Danny Potts of West Ham and Adam Henley of Blackburn Rovers - are expected to be with the youth squads of England and Wales, respectively. And neither's really ready for a spot with any full national team, anyway. Pearce, meanwhile, was pretty solid last month, and needs another look at the spot.

Up top it was a coin flip between LA's Edson Buddle and Wondolowski for the third forward slot, so I ended up going with Wondo. Hush-hush reports out of camp say that Klinsmann's staff were very happy with the San Jose man's ability to create chances - though, like the rest of us, they're still waiting for him to finish a couple.

The big omissions for me are (and will be, unless things have changed) Sacha Kljestan and Benny Feilhaber. I've said all I have to say about that elsewhere, so we'll leave it at that.

20 February 7:05 de la tarde

Plenty of folks were disappointed that the little Swiss playmaker spent his maiden MLS voyage tethered mostly to the wings. As part of the Martin Rennie overhaul in Vancouver, though, it looks like Chiumiento will be moved to the center of the park - his natural spot, and the place he's wanted to play since day one.

Go to 1:16 of the following video and you'll see why that's a good idea:

Yes, it was against a college team. Yes, it's just preseason, and no, most MLS defenders wouldn't fall for those shenanigans.

But Chiumiento's got more than that in his bag, and the 'Caps are going to improve this year (I figure they'll compete for the final Western Conference playoff spot). If they go from 6-18-10 in 2011 to the postseason in 2012, somebody's gonna get the credit.

If history holds, that somebody will be Chiumiento. Six of the last nine MLS MVPs have been attacking midfielders, and many of them - David Ferreira, Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Christian Gomez - are strongly associated with "turnaround" seasons.

14 February 5:58 de la tarde

I thought Andrew Wenger was going to be a central defender. So did Caleb Porter, apparently – the US U-23 coach played Wenger there during January's camp.

And we weren't alone; I'd say a plurality of people in the world of US/Canadian soccer figured Wenger projected as a surefire star in the middle of the defense. He has ideal tools for a young center back – he's skilled, physical, big, strong and quick, a guy cut straight from the Geoff Cameron mold.

But it turns out that Jesse Marsch has different ideas. He played Wenger up top in the rookie's first action last week, coming right out and saying "I like him as a forward." And Wenger himself has said he wants an attacking role.

So when word dropped today that former Italian international central defender Matteo Ferrari was/is about to sign with the Impact, it just crystalized what was already pretty clear: Wenger's not going to be a defender in MLS.

At least, not yet, and not unless something goes "Chris Albright at center forward"-level wrong over the next couple of years.

For the Impact's sake, let's hope that's not in the cards.

For Porter's sake, let's hope Ike Opara can stay healthy and impress. Otherwise, the US central defense could be in a world of hurt come Olympic qualifying time.

In the meantime, enjoy the highlights of Montreal's scoreless draw with the Portland Timbers:

01 February 2:22 de la tarde

For the first time in league history, "Embarrassment of attacking riches" really is an appropriate phrase. There's never been a team as stacked as the 2012 LA Galaxy.

In Robbie Keane, they have a Designated Player striker who would be the odds-on favorite for the Golden Boot if he weren't going to miss at least a month for Euro 2012. In Landon Donovan, they have a former Golden Boot winner, MLS MVP and the all-time leading US goal scorer.

That David Beckham fella you've probably heard of, and lest you think he's merely a set-piece specialist, I suggest you re-watch the MLS Cup Playoffs and see how he constantly played the ball early and into stride, making it easier for the likes of Donovan and Keane to carry the ball at pace or pick passes themselves. And Mike Magee proved his worth several-fold over the second half of last season, showing a knack for one-touch passing in the final third and bagging timely goals when it mattered most.

Bringing back Edson Buddle – one of the league's all-time leading scorers – and adding him to that mix, then, is almost unfair.

So does it mean a repeat of this...

is inevitable?

Nope.

A solid chunk of those chances that Chad Barrett and Adam Cristman sent into the Angel City Brigade will land cozily in the net now that Buddle's back, which does eliminate one of the few weaknesses the Galaxy had. The big man never did get starter's minutes in Germany with Ingolstadt, but he did producing starter's goals, leading his team from the bench this year before the bizarre cancellation of his contract.

And, of course, we've seen what he can do in MLS.

For LA, though, the real issue is figuring out who's going to replace Juninho and Omar Gonzalez. Once Gonzalez got healthy last year, the Galaxy ran off a string of 24 league games with just one loss. During that stretch, they lost their starting 'keeper to injury, lost Donovan to the Gold Cup (and got him back injured), saw Beckham battle through a series of knocks including a fractured back, and had Leonardo and Gregg Berhalter go down for the year and for two months, respectively.

One loss in 24 despite that. Gonzalez got my MLS MVP vote – he was that important – and the Galaxy, for all their stars, were a team that was defined by their defense.

With Juninho, the appreciation was a little more subtle, and the (justifiable) worry among Galaxy fans is that his absence will become very, very tangible this season. The Brazilian was one of those "little things" midfielders, a guy who always managed to play the smart pass, always kept the central defensive pair shielded, always make sure his team kept its shape. And he came through with several big goals when the Galaxy needed it.

The difference between having him on the pitch and not was best illustrated in the playoffs. One game LA struggled to subdue a pretty mediocre New York Red Bulls side as Juninho served his suspension for the Rafa Márquez affair; the next, they tore through a very, very good Real Salt Lake team with relative ease, dominating the tempo for nearly the full 90 minutes.

Those were the two pressing issues for Bruce Arena and Co. heading into 2012, and landing Buddle doesn't answer either. Defense wins championships, and the Galaxy still have questions about theirs.

But ... man are they going to be fun to watch in attack. It could be 1998 all over again.

31 January 8:34 de la tarde

In the history of US youth soccer, there are three absolute stand-outs, guys who were so can't miss that they made coaches, teammates, scouts and – especially – agents giddy at what the future would hold.

First was Claudio Reyna, who turned down Barcelona to play at the University of Virginia in the early 1990s.

Next was Landon Donovan, who won the Golden Ball at the 1999 U-17 Youth World Cup.

And then there was Charles Renken.

(No, Freddy Adu was not in this group. While considered a very good prospect, most serious scouts and managers didn't consider him to be "can't miss.")

Renken was as polished a prospect as they come. In the 2007 Nike Friendlies against Brazil, the midfielder – then just 14 – didn't dribble circles around the Samba Boys. He didn't explode out of the pack at a gallop, displaying a sprinter's turn of pace.

Instead he just feinted, the ball glued to his foot, and slipped a pass to a teammate. Time and again three yellow kits would close around him; time and again he'd slip Joe Gyau or Stefan Jerome through. Renken was possessed of an otherworldly ability to handle pressure, a sort of soccer aikido that you're either born with or not.

This was the American Xavi. Every team in the world wanted him, and wanted him badly.

Then he blew out his right knee in a training session. A year later, he did it again.

It's been three years since that second ACL injury, and now Renken has slipped quietly through the waiver wire to land with the Portland Timbers. 1899 Hoffenheim let him go for nothing, and 18 MLS teams passed on the chance to sign him on a free.

Does that mean he's broken beyond repair? That the Timbers ponied up for damaged goods, similar to how Chivas USA brought John O'Brien in for a cup of coffee in the 2006 season?

I don't know – no one really does, and no one really will until the kid has some time under his belt in the Rose City.

But we can hope. This isn't just for Timbers fans, or US fans; it's for soccer fans. Renken has the kind of talent that everyone can enjoy, the ability and preternatural gifts that make you think "This is why I love this game."

That's what we saw on the field four years ago against Brazil. If the soccer gods are kind, I'd love to see it again.