Tuesday, July 29, 2014

FC Dallas moves Jacobson - what next?

NOTE - make sure to keep an eye on The Red Book for my latest on FC Dallas and MLS.

Andrew Jacobson has been traded to NYCFC by FC Dallas. This is a business, and sometimes business happens. Glad to see the way FC Dallas is thanking him on the way out. His response on Twitter makes it look like everyone is happy, which makes sense.

This raises all kinds of questions, though. I am working on this for MLSSoccer.com, and will certainly share the story if one develops. (Update - Here is the story.)

Is this just finally dealing with the fact that the team has too many holding midfielders, something that clearly was a help at times, but as everyone other than Thomas is getting healthy, you still have four guys for two positions (Michel, Ulloa, Moffat, Jacobson).

Or is it something else - Back to Thomas - as he was placed is expected to be on the MLS version of injured reserve, and now the move of AJ, you have room on the roster and in the salary cap. (Edit - Thomas placed on Season Ending Injury List on July 30.) Same for the sale of Richard Sanchez - to be completed when Chris Seitz returns. Including the sale money for him - which because he is a homegrown, more of it will stay with Dallas. Up to three spots on the roster, and a good amount of salary cap room.

The biggest question then is - room for what?

Unless there was a restructuring, or some other move is on the horizon, Dallas has all three DP slots filled.

So that means, barring a larger move that would require other changes, Dallas is trying to add a non-DP level player or players.

With recent injuries to Hedges and Escobar - although not knowing the details (severity, length of absence if any) - there are a variety of options. (Looks like Hedges should be ok, and they will give Escobar a run out during Wednesday's practice.)

Depth or upgrade at central defense?
Depth behind Diaz?
Depth or upgrade at wing or forward?

Or is there something bigger at work? Currently, Dallas is pretty high on the allocation chart... That could mean either a move directly to Dallas or Dallas could leverage the position to get something in return in case someone is trying to add an allocation level player.

Recent players to come through Dallas for various reasons that seemed innocuous at the time - Honda and Shea?

Other US players who maybe are wanting to come back to the US from abroad?

It will be fun to see how this all plays out.

Mark Followill (@MFollowill) tweeted that Jacobson will join Bob Bradley in Europe on loan until NYCFC starts its pre-season.

Drew Epperly (@wvhooligan) brought up a good point - is part of the deal keeping NYCFC from taking a player from Dallas in next year's expansion draft?

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Dallas at Vancouver - random notes

The cliche is about a glass and whether it is half full or half empty. Well, as everyone knows, the answer is both - it is just from a certain point of view.

Dallas tied Vancouver today, 2-2. Let's touch on a few points, shall we?

Half full

Vancouver didn't gain ground on Dallas
Dallas came back from being down 1-0 to be up, 2-1
Dallas got a road point
Dallas did so without JeVaughn Watson, Fabian Castillo and Andres Escobar
Blas Perez showed some real veteran savvy with his goal (if he keeps it - there was some thought that Loyd might have scored originally, but that doesn't change his cool control and placement)
The lead-in to that goal was quality all around - from Hernandez to Michel to Loyd to Perez
Michel to take penalties has to build confidence
Raul Fernandez made some massive saves
No card issues

Half empty

Hedges' status?
Escobar's status?
Dallas gave up a lead
Dallas was not really able to hold the ball much, especially in the second half
There were long stretches where the team looked vulnerable in the middle of the field


Not ideal because they had the lead at half, but both penalties were more mistakes by the defense rather than pressure from the attack, so in a way, fair is fair?

This team is so beat up, injury wise, that any injury is a concern until proven otherwise, and for a player like Hedges, that is scary. On the other hand, this team has gone a number of games now without a red card, and frustrating as it might be to have to mention that as a positive, it is in fact a clear positive.

At the end of the day, in this stretch of games, if FC Dallas wins at home most of the time and doesn't lose to the teams it is fighting with for playoff positioning (Vancouver, Colorado, Real Salt Lake, Los Angeles), then it has to be considered progress. So today is progress.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

World Cup Rankings - All 32 Teams

What a fantastic World Cup! Here is a ranking of all 32 teams, based on their performances relative to other teams.

The Bottom Four

32 - Honduras. Not much question here. Maybe the group was tougher than others, but Honduras never looked very competitive in any of their games.

31 - South Korea. Maybe Algeria was stronger than we gave them credit for, but that was an awful result against a team they were fighting with to get out of the group. And losing to Belgium down a player simply doesn't look competent.

30 - Japan. Greece, Ivory Coast and Japan were supposed to fight for the second spot in Colombia's group, but it was not very close.

29 - Cameroon. Simply outclassed, albeit in a tough group.

Didn't Have a Chance But Made Things Difficult

28 - Australia. Tim Cahill, take a bow. That goal alone was impressive. And they didn't get bowled over in their games so much as they just weren't as good.

27 - Iran. Was moments away from a substantial result against eventual Finalists Argentina, but Messi being Messi, it just didn't work out.

26 - Bosnia-Herzegovina. They probably deserved better. A goal called back in the game against Nigeria might have changed the whole group, and they played strong against Argentina as well. If they make it back, expect better from this team.

25 - Russia. This is low for a country that was expected to get out of Belgium's group, but not being able to get the right results against South Korea and Algeria - simply not good enough.

Not Outclassed But Simply Not Good Enough

24 - England. What a meek performance. I am sure those much more eloquent than I have written more than enough on this. Suffice to say, they did not play up to potential.

23 - Spain. Never recovered from Holland's second goal, the team that had dominated world football for six years simply fell apart.

The Toughest To Decide

Quick comment. This set of teams was the hardest for me to discern. All of these teams played well at times, but were outclassed at different points. Everyone in this group is practically interchangeable.

22 - Ivory Coast. They played well enough to advance for so much of this tournament - at least when Drogba was in the lineup. And oh what a difference that was. But in the end, it was not enough to afford the late penalty mistake against Greece.

21 - Croatia. Possibly the luck of their group - i.e., not good. Tough opening game against the hosts, and then finishing against a really hot Mexico side. Certainly not an embarrassing result.

20 - Ecuador. In a lot of ways this result comes down to one brilliant moment from Switzerland. From that point on, Ecuador simply couldn't do enough to move on.

19 - Ghana. I am giving them some credit for playing Portugal well, Germany fantastically and the US ok. It certainly was a tough group, and they forced the eventual champions to have to come back to tie them late. For a period of time, they were one goal away from advancement, but they just couldn't penetrate the Portugal defense.

The Edges of Quality

18 - Greece. They found a way to get the results to advance out of the group, and it wasn't a cake-walk group, either, but they aren't higher because they clearly weren't a team going beyond the Round of 16.

17 - Portugal. While they didn't advance, it was giving up 4 to Germany in their opening match that did them in. It was 2-0 when they lost a player to a red card, so it wasn't like they were on their way to winning or even tying that match, and their performance against the US was suspect, but you have to credit them for finding the tying goal in that match and beating Ghana - the only team to play in Manaus and win their next match in the Group Stage.

16 - Italy. They did well enough against England to feel good about themselves, but then they didn't take Costa Rica seriously enough and the Ticos made them pay for it. By the time they played Uruguay, they were on borrowed time.

15 - Algeria. What a fantastic tournament for the Desert Foxes. They had a breakout game against South Korea and got the result they needed against Russia. Then they took Germany to the wall in a fantastic match. This certainly should give them confidence going into the next cycle and it was a joy to watch their passion and desire.

What Could Have Been

14 - Uruguay. This might seem a little low to some, but I am factoring in where they were once Suarez had been ejected from the tournament. My rankings, my reasoning. They were a good side, but not great, and might have been bumped by Italy had Suarez shown his colors earlier in the tournament.

13 - Nigeria. A 2-3 result against Argentina was impresive, and they fought through to get their win against Bosnia-Herzegovina showed they were worth the Round of 16. They played as well as they could against France, but the gap between The Super Eagles and Les Blues was just too big.

12 - United States. Clearly, the Americans are now able to say with confidence that, even with a limited amount of talent relative to other top countries, they can get out of practically any group. Four Time World Champions? We may lose but we won't be embarrassed. "Best player in the world"? A mental letdown is the only thing between him and an embarrassing loss. Personal Kryptonite? Solved. The only thing that might have been clearer would be if they had done what was done by the Ticos.

11 - Costa Rica. Hello, World Cup. CONCACAF ain't just Mexico and the US anymore. And we're not just little brother sticking our head in the door either. No sir, Los Ticos are absolutely legit and also able to get out of any group. In fact, you could easily argue they were in a tougher group than the US and not only advanced but won the group. On top of that, they won their Round of 16 match, although the US probably would have advanced against Greece as well. Either way, it was a fantastic run from another team benefiting from players playing in Major League Soccer.


10 - Colombia. Oh what an amazing run they had up to the game against Brazil. They are lower than some here because you have to question their opposition a little, but certainly it was a joy to watch them play some fantastic football.

9 - Switzerland. In some ways the difference between the Swiss and Ecuador was one moment of determination from the Europeans, but what a moment it was. Clearly one of the most dramatic finishes to a Group Stage game I have ever witnessed. Their remaining tournament showed they had heard and character with their only blemish a extratime loss too the Finalists, Argentina.

8 - Mexico. They won the games they should have won, got an unbelievable game from Ochoa to tie the hosts and then lost in difficult fashion to the Third Place team, Holland. Say what you want about how that game ended, but clearly, their performances up to that point was something to behold.

7 - Belgium. Clearly the best team in their group, and clearly better than the US. But also clearly not better than Argentina.


6 - Chile. The only blemish on their record was a loss to Brazil, and they played them closer than any team. (Germany didn't play Brazil close, they demolished them - not even in the same conversation.) The result against Spain was fantastic, and they didn't falter against Australia. Yes, I am saying La Roja beats any of the teams below them in these rankings.

5 - Brazil. Very hard to discern where these guys should be placed. A good team, but not a great one. But certainly enough talent that they would win in front of the home crowd against all but the very best.

4 - France. Their loss to Germany was the right result, but the rest of the tournament for them showed such quality and ability.

The Would Be Champions

3 - Holland. So close! But so far away.... Holland will probably win their World Cup at some point, but it was not to be in this tournament. Both Argentina and Germany were just too strong.

2 - Argentina. Many question their quality, but their victory over Holland showed me that their results to date were not flukes, but one of clear quality over their competition. They were deserving Finalists. They just ran into the best team in the tournament in the Final.

The Champions

1 - Germany. What an amazing run. What an impressive return on investment. What a validation from Low and Klinsmann, and all those who helped put that plan into place. They overcame all odds and beat worthy challengers along the way. Well, other than Brazil, who clearly weren't what everyone hoped they would be.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Evaluating Klinsmann and the US - Part II - Depth

So here is where we need to really roll up the sleeves and get to work. Up until now, it has been getting the most out of the limited talent the US has. It is how the US has been since it was awarded the 1994 World Cup. The US hasn't had soccer relative to its resources or demographics - not by a long shot - and as such has been trying to get blood from a turnip ever since.

Now obviously, some real magicians have done wonderful work over the years. Gansler got a bunch of college kits to survive v. Italy. Bora got the US out of the group. Arena gave us the US' most successful modern day run, but also gave us the disappointment of 2006. Bradley gave us the drama of 2010 and Klinsmann gave us a real statement - that the US can get out of any group, anywhere, anytime, anyhow.

Massive accomplishments considering we are just now starting our first full generation of players who grew up with a true First Division to look up to. And realistically, it was only the last 8 to 10 years where it was successful enough in a large enough part of the country to really make a long term impact.

But I don't care which cycle it was - at least since 2002 - someone will criticize the US, and if you look deep enough at the question, the real answer is we don't have enough depth. And let's say this now - none of this is an indictment of individual players or coaches - these are all illustrations of individual situations. We will discuss the details of what can be done later.

Jozy Altidore would never be the first choice forward for one of the top teams, and probably not even on the team. Italy, Brazil, Holland, Germany, Argentina, Spain, England, France? No way. But not only is he the first line for the US, we don't have a viable backup that is even close - as we clearly saw.

None of the wing play from the US was at that top level, either.

Now at other positions, the US is much more competitive. Dempsey, Bradley (easy there Alice...), Beckerman, Jones all played well. Howard was hurt by goals given up by his defense, otherwise he would be recognized as one of the better keepers of the tournament. Central defense was solid and Johnson and Yedlin were revelations at right fullback.

But even there, there is no depth. If Jones or Berckerman goes down, who replaces them? Someone not a defensive midfielder which forces the team to change tactics. (Again, Bradley bashers, look in depth at the effect of Altidore's injury before you knock the guy who covered more ground in the Group Stage than anyone else.) Or if Dempsey hadn't been able to keep going?

And to cut to the chase, the World Cup is about depth. You can clearly see that as the tournament wore on, the teams with more depth - and later on, depth and quality - advanced at the expense of those with less.

So why is the US - whose population and resources dwarf so many competitors - having a depth problem? Where is England, Holland, Italy on those lists? True, Brazil is high on population and decent on GDP, but they are the exception. Even Germany and France don't compare - they just aren't as far behind.

Yes, let's acknowledge that the US has more major sports to compete with. NFL, NCAA football, NBA, NHL, plus tennis, golf, etc. Yet that doesn't hold back the US success in the Olympics in a lot of places.

But the real problem is in the fact that soccer is still in its infancy in the US, certainly relative to the century that most other countries have in their soccer history. MLS has achieved its goal - sustainable and successful. To those doubting that, you watch tonight's Seattle-Portland match at tell me with a straight face that isn't True Blue First Division football. And the USSF has done an admirable job of working with MLS and Soccer United Marketing (such a fantastic business idea) to tap into the real interest in soccer in the US and use it to boot strap the US national team programs as well as MLS.

And now we look at the gaps and how to close them. This, frankly, is really simple. We all know baseball, especially MLB and the minor leagues - and it works because it is a player development funnel. Younger players get games to develop and let the cream rise to the top. MLS, the NASL, the USL Pro, the USL PDL and NPSL need to develop into that. And frankly, they are working in that direction. I am just saying that if you want to know what is holding the US back, here is where to look to see progress.

This is where the US needs its next phase of development - so that a young Bryan Leyva or Ruben Luna can get the games they need to show have what it takes to make that jump to the first division level. Locally, compare Leyva and Ulloa. One didn't get games, the other was given an opportunity in part because of the coach, but also because of injuries and suspensions forced him into the lineup. Would Leyva have made that jump? We may never know.

And even MLS people will acknowledge that the MLS Reserve League wasn't the full answer to that question. The USL Pro-MLS Reserve Team partial integration is also another step. That again is a work in progress.

But we are still layers and layers away. Even assume that MLS clubs each have one USL Pro side of their own to use for player development - that isn't enough. How many minor league teams do MLB sides have? At least one AAA and AA club, and usually 2-4 A clubs? Yet one club is supposed to suffice in pro soccer? No sir.

So that is the professional layer. But what about getting them there? Here is the biggest issue. And set aside those already in the system - those who are doing their best in an imperfect system. This is anything but their fault. So please remember that as we go forward in this discussion.

I don't think I am using too much hyperbole in saying that if you were able to train all those who (A) had ability to play and (B) the desire to try, the US would easily double its talent base. Think of what that means - double the talent. So when we have weak wing play, you have another option on the bench. When Altidore pulls a hammy, you can stick in another player in his spot. You can start rotating players the way Belgium did - something that obviously made a difference in the latter stages of the match.

So what is the barrier to entry for that to happen? Money. Real money. Scholarshipping a player or two isn't going to make a difference. Not at the scope that is needed. What is really needed is a doubling of the level of players getting high quality training starting before players are 10 years old.

And it isn't an easy solution. Asking the USSF to do it - they aren't built for it. Frankly their efforts at the USSF Development Academy level has had a real - albeit imperfect - impact. Could MLS clubs do it? Maybe but they are still working on shoring up things at their level.

No, something at the youth soccer level has to change if the US is to truly tap into its true potential. What does that look like? That is the challenge now - to figure out those answers. Actually, to figure out those questions first, THEN get the answers.

Are you a part of that conversation?

And before you dismiss the idea out of hand, you see that German squad out there right now? The one that has dominated so much of this tournament? The one that has made the finals or semifinals the last three World Cups? They started out as a project BEFORE Germany made the 2002 final - a systemic effort to radically improve the German player development system. While the details would be different, it CAN be done.

And IF it is done in the US, it will feed an obvious demand for quality football in the US, and from the US.

So let's do this.

Germany-Argentina - what is going to happen?

Pretty simple - someone is going to win the World Cup.

Wait, you were looking for more than that? Oh, ok. :-)

Seriously, though, let's look at one thing off the top - the chance of this being Germany romping again like they did against Brazil is infinitesimally small. So let's just cross that off the list.

Also, this is the World Cup Final - four years in the making, and so many decades of history for both sides. The current count of World Cup victories is Brazil 5, Italy 4, Germany 3 and Argentina 2. Does Argentina join Germany or Germany join Italy? What does that mean? I means this will be a very tight game, a conservative game - in some places, a cynical game. All the excitement of the Group Stage is gone - now it is business, and big business at that.

Argentina comes into the game having given up three goals all tournament, two in the game that didn't really matter. They have consistently been organized and tidy on defense, then found a way to get the necessary difference maker, usually from Messi in some form. Their win over Holland seems to me most indicative. I am not saying that Holland is as good as Germany, but they are pretty darn close, and Argentina held them without a goal, winning it on kicks from the mark.

Germany on the other hand, gave up four. Wow, what a difference. (No, not really, which is my point). They did have a tougher row to hoe, but have handled it with class. The Brazil match, as discussed, needs to be thrown out as an anomaly, except to say that there is some real power there. But I look at how the USA and France played The Machine. Unsuccessfully, it proved, but if you make an effort, you can slow down The Machine.

And Argentina is better than both France and the USA. The difference between them and the French might be small, but it is key - Messi. He has the ability to create something out of the blink of an eye, something that France was unable to do against Germany.

I think Germany will go out with strength, pressing for the game, and the question is whether they get it. The longer Argentina is within a goal or the game is tied, the more danger there is for Germany because Messi and Co. have found a way in every match, and will likely do so again if given time to.

I can easily see Germany getting one in the first 60 minutes, Argentina tying it up late, nothing in extra time and it coming to kicks form the mark. At that point, it will come down to who blinks. Both because of history, but also because of the same pressure that undid Brazil, Colombia, Spain and others in this tournament, I can see Argentina blinking before Germany - but at that point, the difference is so slight...

What to watch for? If Germany can get a second goal, then they are in the driver's seat. Otherwise, it will come down to a moment of brilliance, probably form Messi.

So for me, I'd put this game at +.5 for Germany, but it will be so tight. SO tight.

Either way, a legend will be born, and the legacy of one of the storied national teams will take another step deeper into history.


Saturday, July 12, 2014

Something new? TheKickAround?

So a new Twitter handle showed up and it is quite intriguing. @TheKickAround. It centers around THIS article from D Magazine, and if it is nothing other than a rallying cry for "There Should Be More Soccer Talk on Local Sports Radio", it is worth supporting - at least to me.

So all you folk on Twitter, give it a follow and let's see what happens. I don't know any details, so I am a drunk monkey on the Titanic with a Ouigi board and tea leaves like you, but I can hazard a guess that it has the potential to lead to bigger and better things.

The really exciting thing that I have noticed is a significant uptick in interest in soccer from outside the normal soccer circles. The reality is this - there is a series of concentric circles that starts really really small, gets a little bigger, then a little bigger as you work through those deep into soccer (US Open Cup), those into MLS, then those into the US National Team all the time and select European leagues, then those really into UEFA and top end US games, then a WIDE gap to the usual pool of people who get into USA-Mexico in World Cup Qualifying, then another WIDE gap before you get to the usual suspects that get into the US in the World Cup proper every four years.

From what I can tell, we have Johnny Footballed WAY outside those circles to where it is bigger than just the sports world, and pretty much everyone between the US Open Cup folk and Good Morning America are now aware of, and at least at a surface level, into soccer. Yes, I am an Aggie, but I make that reference not to throw the last two years into anyone's face, but to give the example of someone transcending his team, his conference, to reach beyond his sport and into sports in general and beyond. For those not paying attention, soccer has done the same thing.

It led to a great article from Bob Sturm, one that I am very excited about mostly because he isn't going to write about it without a sense that he has a good reason to. His audience is not exactly small, by the way, in case you don't know him or The Ticket. In the article, he basically lays out in good detail how to get into soccer if you are new to the sport. Again, back to the guys on the radio admitting that the rush of a World Cup goal is something flat out amazing, and then admitting they want to see if there really is something to this soccer thing. The level of penetration is quite significant.

The trick is, now that we have everyone's attention, how to keep it. Part of that is continuing to do what we do - consume soccer. But also encourage anything in the media, and back to @TheKickAround, follow them and see where it goes.

One quick note to all you soccer die hards who want to get your new soccer-aware people into the sport - personally, I think the best way to do it isn't to point them to FC Dallas or the EPL, but rather tell them to buy FIFA14 and play it. Odds are they already have EA games and this one will make an impact (relative to other EA games, it is pretty high quality) and so the transition will be easy. But additionally, they will then learn the teams and then choose to follow one because if they are sports aware, and they now know the teams via FIFA14, it will be a simple natural progression.

That isn't to say if you have a chance to take them to an FC Dallas game you shouldn't do it - by all means. Especially now that FC Dallas is averaging 15,000 to 20,000 per game and are back to playing well. I'm just saying that with FIFA14, they can play it on their own and as much as they like, and you don't have to hold their hand.

It is a lot of fun, seeing all these new people starting to understand the rush of a goal in soccer. Now if they can learn the nuances, then they will be hooked like you and I are - where we know why a play at the midfield stripe means "get on your feet because something special is about to happen." It is no different than knowing the difference between a slider and a curve in baseball - without it, it is likely a boring game of catch. But know what kind of hitter is at the plate, against the stuff a pitcher has, and now it is a GAME that can be all consuming.

The simple fact is this - they have had that first hit, the first rush of adrenaline. And they are all adrenaline junkies like all sports nuts. So just feed it in small doses here and there. They are already hooked, now we just slowly raise the dose to where a simple goal won't move the needle, they want beauty, and they want to know what produces beauty. They are all the guys who want to say, "watch this" and then see Elvis steal a base or Dirk hit a fade-away or Seguin score a goal. Just give them little tastes until they can't get enough, and soon they will be saying," watch this" when Michel is over the ball.

And our job will be done.

So get to it, people. Spread the Disease. It is a good Disease, one that soothes your soul. No no no, don't tell them it will break their hearts - they have to figure that one out on their own. And they will. Just keep feeding them the rush of a goal, a bit of information that causes them to want to know more, and they will do the rest.

I can't help smile just thinking about it.

Go forth and make it so!

Friday, July 11, 2014

If you enjoyed World Cup coverage this year, say thanks

Please take a moment to thank those that helped bring you soccer coverage during this year's World Cup. And no, I don't mean me. I mean people like Jeff Catlin at The Ticket and Peter Welpton from 3rd Degree, who made the World Cup Kickaround on The Ticket a thing. Thank ESPN and ABC for their significant efforts to treat the World Cup in the way such a massive event deserves, and then for recognizing the monumental change that happened with support for the US Men's National Team.

Then take a moment to thank yourself. Somewhere down the line, you did something that helped move the needle. From something small like reading this blog to going to matches or watching parties, or even just joining in the social media feeding frenzy that was the #WorldCup and #USMNT, etc., you played a part. You put a brick in the wall that is the foundation of true greatness.

Make no mistake, this is a watershed year for soccer in the USA. The tipping point happened in 2010 - after you had teams like Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders came in and showed that MLS can be true Big Boy Football, and then you had the magic of "Go Go USA!" ("Tim Howard, greatfully claims it...). But it was this year that we saw the ratings that reflected the passion we all felt over the years, whether we were in the full stadiums for USA-Mexico matches or the smaller attendances at other pro soccer matches all across the US.

And it was glorious, wasn't it? It was everything we dreamed of - at least the beginnings, right?

And it took a lot of people in the sports entertainment industry to make that happen. MLS and other pro teams certainly played a huge part - so thank them, especially if they helped host watching parties, and go see their games. I know in the Dallas area there were thousands of people because of FC Dallas.

And the same goes for the bars, especially those like Trinity Hall, the Staggering Irishman and The Londoner. What an amazing version of the Little World Cup! So make sure to patronize them again after the World Cup.

But it also took people in the radio, news and television industry itself like Peter and Jeff - people who do sports news on a regular basis, but for whom soccer hasn't been big enough to put resources into.

Well, it finally got big enough to put resources into, and did they ever.  And it was all in front of us to see.

So please, recognize them for their hard work and thank them for seeing the moment and making the most of it. Your soccer experience is much better for it.

And if you are one of those new to soccer, please come back. The flame that burst on the scene this summer is a part of every soccer match everywhere. So go see an FC Dallas match, go watch the EPL at your favorite pub, and you will see that this soccer thing really is all that.

Personally, I want to thank you for reading. It has been a pleasure to share my thoughts and insights throughout this period.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Evaluating Klinsmann and the 2014 World Cup

So here we are - days after the US lost to Belgium in a clear case of depth v. lack of depth, but also unmitigated fight to the death v. quality talent, and the US almost pulled that thing off.

The narrative, though, has been all over the place. The part of the narrative that I have found to be most off the reservation is the thought that the US didn't make the quarterfinals, and that makes this team not as good as others.

Frankly, I am shocked to see some of the journalists who are putting that out there - quality professionals who know enough to be better than that. Sure, for the random new fan to the game, fine. It is easy to look at past results, see 2002 and 1930 and go, "Hey, we have done it before, we should be able to do it again." But for those following the team and the sport on a regular basis to say that is more than a little surprising.

And the ones complaining about Klinsmann not having a good replacement for Jozy Altidore or not playing a more "attractive, attacking style of football"? Shocking.

Why? Let's discuss.

First, let's take Altidore as that will illustrate other things, as well as answer the direct question. Who? Seriously, who should be a direct, one for one replacement for Jozy Altidore? Landon Donovan? Eddie Johnson? Neither player does what Altidore does well. And if you really look for players who might do that, you will find that there isn't a player eligible to play for the US who can be that player.

Second, the desire for more attacking football. Who exactly is going to play on the field that can do that? The only purely offensive player available was Mix Diskerud, who didn't play in the tournament. Looking at his performances over the last year and looking at the opposition the US faced - the Nos. 2, 4 and 11 teams in the world, along with the US' own kryptonite in the World Cup (before this year) in Ghana. And not just level of play, but level of physicality of the teams. Here would be a better place to argue about Donovan, but even he showed clear moments of inconsistency in the '06 and '10 World Cups. If you watched this year's World Cup games for the US, you saw the team never had time for inconsistency.

Third, the overall issue of advancement. The US has never had a tougher group - in terms of talent, historical mismatches, physical ability, etc. 2002? Poland was weak - and ended up beating the US, almost knocking them out of the tournament. 2010? Algeria? Not this year's version, the 2010 version. 2006? Ghana advanced because of how poorly the US played against the Czech Republic and Ghana directly, not because they were as good as even their team this year. 1998? Iran? Come on now. 1994? Colombia surely was a top club, but neither Switzerland and Romania compared to Portugal.

The biggest issue the US soccer program faces, though, is one of depth. Look at where the Belgian players play - league, team, starter v reserve, etc.  While Bradley, Dempsey and Howard are at that level, and Jones can make a good argument, the rest of the team simply doesn't compare player for player to any of the teams they faced outside maybe Ghana.

And there is not a thing that Klinsmann can do about it, beyond what he did - which is give a wide variety of players looks against quality competition. The fact that he found and developed players who weren't on Bradley's radar screen (Johnson, Brooks, Green, Chandler), integrated them with players who were established like those previously mentioned (including Jones - remember, Jermaine was trying to play for the US leading into the World Cup 2010 cycle), and also found a way to develop and integrate players from MLS as well (Besler, Zusi, Beckerman, Yedlin) sure seems to show that he gave anyone eligible a chance and picked what he thought were the best.

Now on some that he didn't bring, we can quibble a little. Goodson and Donovan probably could have added something - especially Donovan in the Germany and Belgium matches. But since you had Gonzales, Besler and Cameron playing the vast majority of the minutes, and Brooks doing a fabulous job in his limited time, you can't really say with a straight face that the decision to leave Goodson behind impacted the team. And as discussed on this blog previously, whether it was that Donovan was too big of a presence in the lockerroom relative to other players who needed to lead, or that he wasn't the best example of consistent effort and fight (something that was obviously a key part of what Klinsmann successfully developed from this team, and was a key part of their success in the tournament), you can at least see Klinsmann's reasoning, even if you don't like it or agree with it. (Personally, I don't agree with it - I think a manager's job is to *manage* personalities like that...)

But that aside, clearly, this team accomplished more against more difficult opposition than the 2010 team, especially considering the injury to Altidore. We can't simply ignore that major fact, folks - this team was build around one key target forward and when he went down, the team had to adjust. They did so against the three toughest teams they faced and should have beaten one, could have tied another and ran out of gas against the third.

Was it better than 2002? I don't think so, but remember, that was a very unique group - in large part it was the last run of a lot of the 1990 and 1994 veterans to break out, driven by the failure of 1998, and juiced by some incredible young talent in O'Brien, Beasley and Donovan, etc. What 02 did against Portugal was bigger than what 14 did against Ghana, although would not have been bigger had they held on to beat this year's Portugal. What 02 did against a soccer-mad South Korea was phenomenal (if you ever want to see the impact of home fans, watch that game. Ooof.) and probably on par with what 14 did v Portugal. 02 did stumble against Poland, but made up for it against Mexico and Germany. The 14 team didn't play as well against this year's Germany team or Belgium as well as 02 did in those two games. 

Then again, that doesn't take anything away from this year's bunch. What they did - in large part without Altidore - against the competition they faced, was something to behold.

Seriously - how many pundits who said they wouldn't get out of the group who now are questioning whether they were successful because they didn't beat Belgium? All of you lose your credibility cards. It is simple logic folks. If you hold people to a standard, and they exceed that standard, you can't move the goalposts just because you want a story or don't like the manager or whatever reason you have in your head.

Now - that does NOT mean that there weren't issues. Clearly there were. Injuries in the Ghana match - injuries that didn't happen to Ghana, so we clearly see that it was what the US was doing, not something impacting both teams. So was that training, nutrition, preparation, what? Whatever the cause, it needs to be evaluated. 

Tactics? Not so sure - at least from a managerial standpoint - as from what I saw, there was a game plan in each game and it attempted to play to the US strengths and against the opponents weaknesses, and for a large part was effective. Ghana - they don't have strength in front of goal, so let them play the ball into our centerbacks. Portugal - the 4-2-3-1 worked like a charm there and but for Cameron's two goofs, could easily have been a 2-0 win. Put THAT in your pipe and smoke it. Germany - with the weather being what it was, the goal of advancement being what it was, and players starting to wear down, what the US tried was at least effective enough to get them out of the group with a significantly less damaging loss to Germany than Portugal had - hence the difference in who advanced. Belgium - it certainly was more sitting back than most are comfortable with, but clearly the US didn't have the legs to attack much. So those complaining that the team sat back to defend as much as they did - think about it - with players getting worn down and tired, and the options from the bench obviously showing a lack of ability to contribute (Davis, Wondo, etc.), what options did he have?

Yes, I did suggest prior to Belgium that Mix be considered. And yes, that was an option that we will never know if it would have worked or not. But one player isn't going to address the clear lack of depth difference. Simply compare the Belgian rosters from game to game and you will see they were able to rotate a LOT more quality players over their games than the US was.

So that leaves us with the one thing that needs to be addressed across the board as the only way to really improve dramatically the level of play from the US in future World Cups - depth. The US needs to develop at LEAST another Altidore-type, Dempsey-type, Bradley-type, and they need at least three or four wingers better than what Zusi is now. More depth on the back line wouldn't hurt, although you clearly have four serviceable centerbacks. Add in that Yedlin looks legit, Johnson surely was good value for so much of the tournament, and you still have Chandler among others who can work their way in. While I don't want to take it for granted, the US pipeline of quality keepers sure seems to be in full force.

But again, an array of attacking options will be necessary, and not just one layer deep.

And THAT is a topic for another post.

As far as this post is concerned, again, the bottom line point is relatively simple - the USA advanced out of the Group of Death that in of itself was a major feat. It was against a much harder group than the US faced in 2010, and they played competitively against a much stronger team in the Round of 16. Anyone looking down on Klinsmann and this US team is, frankly, looking for an excuse because the facts simply don't support it. Again, there is reason for concerns, and need for improvement, but relative to the accomplishments of the team, those pale in comparison.

So be so very proud of this team, fans if the USA. Be very proud. Any doubt that the US can advance out of any group is now gone, washed away with the grit and determination, mixed with the skill and athleticism, of a wonderful collection of US players.