Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Mid-Week Fixture: Under Pressure

International soccer, despite the global popularity of the World Cup, is at its best, a head-scratcher. Important games, like this weekend’s latest batch of Euro 2008 qualifiers, almost always come out inopportune times. Clubs hate that their expensive investments are subject to further wear and tear, or worse, without being compensated in return. Fans, under siege from their various league, cups, European cups, Inter-Toto Cups and World Club Cups, are often in a haze and bear the brunt of paying the financial and lifestyle costs associated with following one’s favorite club. If asked if they’d rather have their favorite club would win the league or qualify for the Champions League or their country win the World Cup, most European fans would probably choose the former.

It’s reasons like these, in addition to a lack of continuity, injuries, travel and hostile environments, why I don’t envy Steve McClaren this week. The England manager is riding a high after last month’s expected wins over Estonia and Israel, but it’s more of a relief than actual progress – England should reasonably expect to defeat that pair 10 times out of 10, but usually don’t. Saturday, the Three Lions travel to Moscow to take on Russia. A win virtually assures them a spot in next summer’s European Championships, but despite their superior collection of talent, such games are often incredibly difficult.

For those aforementioned games against Estonia and Israel, McClaren turned to the thunder & lightning duo of Emile Heskey and Michael Owen up front. With Wayne Rooney out with a broken foot and Heskey finding a rebirth of sorts at Wigan, McClaren dialed the clock back to 2001, when Heskey, Owen & Co. famously thrashed Germany 5-1 in Munich on the way to the 2002 World Cup. No one should have really been surprised that England faired much better with the complimentary pair up top, including the absence of the injured Frank Lampard in midfield. McClaren didn’t have to decide between Lampard or Steven Gerrard spearheading the midfield, and was free to use dynamic wingers like Shaun Wright-Phillips and an excellent holding midfielder in Gareth Berry. Meanwhile, Rooney and Owen have rarely played well together in such infrequent opportunities due to the both of them spending so much time on the treatment table. A resurgent Heskey and a now-fit (maybe?) Owen together up top, and all the other pieces fit right into place.

McClaren’s job is no doubt much more difficult at the moment, with Rooney and Lampard now fit (enough) to play, and Heskey injured and out, in a much more difficult environment against a well-coached team in a game of major consequence. Speaking first-hand at seeing just how difficult it is for a team to gel quickly after a period of time away from each other, an international coach has even less leeway between getting things right and getting things horribly wrong. They have the most difficult job in the game because they have to hope, more than anything else, that so many things out of their control go right.

Speaking of international coaches, one who is still putting his feet up in Huntington Beach turned down Chelsea. Jurgen Klinsmann wants complete control with nobody to answer to, a position he’s more or less deserved to put himself in, but no way he’d ever get at Chelsea.

This article from The Times doesn’t really tell you much you don’t already know about Klinsi and rehashes how his modern approach to coaching is so far foreign to some coaches and journalists (while coaching Germany, he hired a computer specialist so he could communicate with his players via email!), but anytime he speaks, it’s interesting. I’m sure he’s not coaching the USA because he wanted too much control that US Soccer was unwilling to concede, but I can’t fault this obviously brilliant man for not conceding anything on his part. While there’s a small part of me that thinks he could be the next Matt Daugherty, he, along with Arsene Wenger, are clearly the most interesting coaches we have in the game today.

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Monday, October 8, 2007

We love you Ajax, we do...

Oh dear. Things haven’t been going well at Ajax for the last few years, but losing your head coach to become the top assistant at Chelsea is just another painful reminder that Ajax is no longer one of the top 50 clubs in Europe, let alone amongst the elite.

The writing has been on the wall for about 10 years now. Back when Ajax was sexy, ESPN2 showed a weekly Dutch soccer game every Sunday morning in the early- to mid-90s. Naturally, as Ajax was a European powerhouse at the time, they were on every almost weekend, meaning I saw a heaping serving of 5-0 wins over team names I couldn’t even pronounce. It didn’t matter. As a new fan of the game (my history dated back to Paul Caligiuri’s 1990 World Cup berth-clinching goal at Trinidad & Tobago in November 1989), I finally had a team I could follow, watch and root for.

Nevermind the fact that the Dutch lost in the second round to the hated Germans in Italia 90, I was hooked by their delightful soccer and bright orange jerseys. That fall, a public channel carried RAI Italian games, the only regular soccer I could watch back then, and AC Milan’s Dutch trio of Marco Van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit instantly gave me a team to watch. After doing my homework through reading World Soccer magazines - which, comically, were months behind in getting here, and already months behind carrying recent news to begin with – I learned that Van Basten and Rijkaard had came from Ajax. I started to read a lot about Ajax and liked what I was hearing. They were a team that didn’t have the kind of money needed to compete with bigger clubs, but they were incredibly successful by bringing young talent to the fore. During high school, Ajax was not only on TV every weekend, they were making a captivating run towards the 1995 Champions League title. They ended up beating the millionaires of Milan, of all teams, with Patrick Kluivert scoring the winning goal. He was 18.

Eventually, big money and, more devastatingly to a club like Ajax, free agency, got into the European game, and Ajax lost most of its young players who were now household names to Italy and Spain for nothing in return. This ripped the club apart over a stretch of two years, timed perfectly with the move to the new, modern, soul-less Amsterdam Arena. The club made another run in Europe in 1996, losing to Juventus on penalty kicks in the final, and a year later, when they were thrashed by Juve again in the semifinals. This was the time my interest really started to gain, mainly because of the Internet and a more reliable arrival time for World Soccer, as well as finding an obscure videotape documentary on their youth system, which I still have. I’d follow the team by going online at the local public library (!), taping Champions League games and watching them when I got home after work and generally hid the fact that, although I was really into college sports, the NBA, NHL, NFL and baseball, I was embarrassed about liking soccer.

There hasn’t been much to cheer about the last 10 years, save for the odd league and cup title and Ajax’s run to the 2003 Champions League semis, which so cruelly was ended after they outplayed AC Milan. During a few weeks spent outside the northern Holland city of Groningen (pronounced XXXXCCCCHHHHRRROOOO-ni-XXXXXCCCHHHH-en) with US Soccer in May 2002, we spent two nights in Amsterdam before heading home. Our coach, Thomas Rongen, was from Amsterdam and played for Ajax, and his buddy Ronald Koeman, then the Ajax coach, gave us a behind-the-scenes tour of Amsterdam Arena. Needless to say, it was pretty freakin’ awesome and a dream come true, right down to seeing the locker room and resisting the temptation to pee on Zlatan Ibrahimovich’s lamborghini (he was a misfit for Ajax back then).

These days I follow Ajax mostly via YouTube highlights, which is better than I have been able to do the last 10 years, but something is missing. I’ve always wanted to go see a game there, but who in their right minds would travel to Europe to watch Eredivisie voetbal, besides these guys? It’s hard being an Ajax fan these days, and there’s little hope of it getting any better. Or at least very hard to justify having a non-English team as your favorite.

I really hope Henk ten Cate’s decision to leave isn’t a sign of further things to come for the club. I’m okay with him leaving – he hasn’t been the most beloved coach at Ajax following his successful stint as the top assistant at Barcelona – and figured it would happen anyway, but not to become an assistant. I’m sure Roman’s just warming up the stove for Guus Hiddink to bring that delightful soccer that has charmed so many people to the dilapidated whorehouse that has become Chelsea, but it's yet another reason for me to dislike and distrust them.

But me? It’s obvious I’ll never be a Chelsea fan. I just wish it was cool again to follow teams who did it the right way, the non-Chelsea way. I just wish the good ol’ days, like 1995, would come around again (with the technology we have today, of course).

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Friday, October 5, 2007

And we wonder why they don't take the MLS seriously

From the otherwise pointless "Beckham returns to practice" story on

Los Angeles is 7-13-6 with four games remaining in the regular season and have an outside chance of making the playoffs.

So you're saying that the Galaxy could still make the playoffs, but can't possibly finish better than 11-13-6? Yeah, that's a legitimate sports league right there. Christ.

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Sunday, September 30, 2007

Now on Soccer.Com - Bronze!

I've taken some shots at this uniform, so after the team never wore it at the World Cup and finished 3rd, I felt this was appropos.

Rest of post.

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Friday, September 28, 2007

Mid-Week Fixture: Sour Grapes

So, Hope Solo is pissed, and “The Greatest Team You’ve Never Heard Of” is playing in the consolation game after, for lack of a better or more accurate phrase, getting its ass handed to them by Brazil Thursday.

In a week where Oklahoma State football coach Mike Gundy has received quite a bit of attention for absolutely melting down in anger at a post-game press conference, it’s only fair that ESPN would enjoy Solo’s post-game rant on head coach Greg Ryan’s decision to pull her for the semifinals in favor of the more experienced Brianna Scurry. I thought Solo’s comments were refreshing in the sense that all we get today is heavily-guarded comments from athletes, but I really would have enjoyed this more if it had been about a team I dislike - like if James Laurinaitis laid into old sweater-vest instead.

I’m not here to talk about Ryan’s decision to bench the goalkeeper who had a, no pun intended, large hand in the US women’s 50-plus game winning streak - it was certainly bizarre but there are more qualified people to handle that (oh, who am I kidding? It’s women’s soccer, of course there aren’t). Solo’s post-game comments, in addition to Julie Foudy’s in-game commentary, further proves the fact that, while they are all warm and cuddly when they are winning, they are off-putting and whiny when they aren’t. Competitiveness is an essential trait needed to compete at the highest level; cattiness is something this team could certainly do more without.

First, Foudy was going on and on about how, back in her days with the national team, they would stand united and not give up if they went through a rough patch. It didn’t seem like that when they got destroyed by Germany in the 2003 World Cup semis, all we can ever remember(or are ever reminded about) is the team gutting out ugly victories over China in 1999 and Brazil in 2004 that won them championships. I like Foudy, but sometimes her comments, on the women’s and men’s side, cross the line between objective analysis and abject homerism. Quite frankly, I don’t care how the Golden Generation did things; the US isn’t even the second-best team in the world and hasn’t been for years, let alone the best. During her average men’s World Cup studio analysis, Foudy often trumpets the accomplishment of the women’s team and belittles the men, despite the fact that the two are on nowhere near equal playing fields. Saying things like “this is where so-and-so would bail us out” is her way of bailing out of giving thoughtful analysis. Like Solo said, it’s not 2004 anymore, or even 1999.

I feel sorry for Solo more than I feel embarrassed for her. She’s been the team’s undisputed No. 1 and has played like it for years, and under no circumstance, barring injury, should she be pulled in the World Cup semifinals. So she was pissed going in, and a folly-filled 4-0 loss to Brazil couldn’t have made things better. Aside from the World Cup and Olympics, women’s soccer players have little else to play for, so the pressure and expectations for an event like this must be immense. So Ryan’s taking the rug out from under her on the eve of her biggest game must have been difficult to handle, no matter what. That said, throwing the coach and Brianna Scurry under the bus after the game was uncalled for. Refreshingly candid, yes, but immature and in the heat of the moment too. Scurry didn’t make the decision and sure as hell as more hardware sitting on her mantle than Solo does, so to rub it in by saying she knew “for a fact” she would have made all those saves is criminal. The US failed to score, so all those magical Brazilians would have had to do was make sure she couldn’t save just one of those shots.

In the meantime, we should be hailing Brazil for their Joga Bonita. The men certainly don’t play like this, and I suspect Nike misfired with that campaign a year ago and the one they laid on the US this time. Enjoy:

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Sunday, September 23, 2007

Serie A Sunday: Some things never change

Juventus is the most loathed side in Italian soccer for a good reason. Like baseball's Yankees, La Vecchia Signora is a team comprised of bloodless, oft-inhuman assassins who are hell-bent on destroying the weekends of opposition fans. Juve's 4-1 curb-stomping of Roma in the Eternal City two seasons ago — before the team was delightfully demoted for fixing matches — is still perhaps the signature loss of the last three campaigns for the Giallorossi, along with the historic 7-1 thrashing delivered by Manchester United in last year's Champions League. Hell, the Bianconeri were still the story in Serie A last season, and they weren't even participating. Juve is the Greenwich of Italian soccer; Serie A's metaphorical clock is inevitably measured against the Torino side.

So don't blame Roma fans if they were willing to invest a little more in Sunday's match against Juve in the Stadio Olympico than, say, an equivalent tilt against Inter. For a team that is finally bold enough to set the Scudetto as a reasonable, if not expected, goal, the ability to take three points at home against Juve still stands as one of the most telling yardsticks. And, by that account, the 2-2 draw is exactly the kind of result that leads the rest of us to wonder if this season will turn out to be, like the match itself, nothing more than an entertaining diversion that leaves Roma partisans ultimately disappointed.

The knock on teams like Roma is always the mysterious and undefined lack of "killer instinct," something that apparently only shows up in big games (that I Lupi hadn't allowed a goal until Trezeguet's 16th-minute header Sunday is likely a distant memory in tomorrow's sports pages). While such sentiments may be nails on a chalkboard to the more analytically inclined, game's like Sunday's serve as the foxhole for an atheist; it just seemed that Juve was going to make something happen in the game's twilight. And, of course, more that thing happened: the officials took over, looking past blatant fouls and, without much in the way of explanation or justification (or much precedent), awarded Juve the late throw-in deep in Roma's territory after Cicinho apparently took to long to put the ball in play. That throw-in, of course, led to Iaquinta's equalizer in the 87th minute.

Perhaps it's facile to lay everything at the feet of the officials, and it's certainly true that Juve's luck was the product of design, or at least spirited play in the game's final 10 minutes. Ultimately, one becomes breathless trying to identify all of the ways winners keep winning, and frustrated by trying to figure out whether or not an emerging team has yet to achieve that status. It's early enough in the season to wait it out and see if my favorite nickname of the Roma side — La Magica — is fitting with respect to this campaign.

But one thing is clear after Sunday: Juve's still got it in them to beat any team in Italy, and perhaps any team in Europe, though they won't have a chance at the latter this season. And, in that respect, La Vecchia Signora has proven to be as stubborn in its ways as we expect of the elderly.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Matchday 1 con't: Whaaaa?

There's crazy, and then there's the absolute lunacy of Chealsea boss Jose Mourinho quitting the Blues less than two months into the season, and in the midst of a Champions League campaign.

Leave it to Mourinho, the sports most insatiable attention whore, to steal the headlines on a day his team isn't even playing. According to early reports, Mourinho added a touch of class to his abandoning the team by informing Chelsea skipper John Terry via text message. Details of the breakup are still under wraps, but it's not hard to imagine that the "Special One" quit in a fit of pique, considering he's done little except behave like a child the last three seasons.

The Times' always entertaining Martin Samuel has penned the first of what promises to be many incisive columns on the Mourinho era, and how it ended. It's so well-written that I suspect it's been hanging around in a makeshift obit file, since the only thing surprising about this divorce is that it happened so early in the season, and at Mourinho's suggestion.

The million-pound question, now, is what we can expect of the Blues the rest of the way out. They head to Old Trafford, Sunday, for what has the makings of a bloodbath at the hands of Ronaldo and Co., which could be the first domino to fall in what's now promising to be a disastrous EPL campaign (a campaign that wasn't looking all that hot, mind you, when Mourinho was still in charge). As for the Champions League, which probably now registers as an afterthought for the Blues, it's as hard to imagine them not earning one of the top two spots in group play as it is to imagine them getting very far at all in the knockout stages (again, this isn't a marked change from Chelsea's prospects with TSO at the helm).

Regardless, it's safe to assume the only group involved that will, in time, regret Mourinho's departure from English soccer — because he's got a better chance of bedding Gemma Atkinson than getting another EPL job after his puerile departure from Stamford Bridge — is the media, which relished Mourinho's willingness to slander just about everyone, including his own players.

As for the games themselves, Wednesday's slate traded in Tuesday's plodding pace — and
unexpectedly ugly performances by favorites — for a couple of blowouts and an otherwise uneventful victories by favorites (no, I do not considering the "tearful" 1-0 victory for Man-U over Sporting to be eventful). About the only thing I can think of that's remotely notable is how little Barça's 3-0 victory over Lyon really tells us about the team many feel is a favorite for a trip to the finals. With Eto'o out to injury, Barça was able to accommodate all of its available all-work attackers within a more traditional 4-3-3, but the play still appeared stilted. Henry's first goal with his new side was more happenstance than skill, and he still looks completely out of place having to play up front with players who are actually better than him. The passing is well below what one would expect of a team with that much class on display, and one wonders if there will be too much talent overlap — not to mention too few places on the field for everyone to play within a reasonable structure — once Eto'o's available for play again. In the spirit of making predictions one might regret later, I'll go ahead and say that Barça's run will be a lot shorter than most expect this season.

Tomorrow: Inter loses! Who can't be happy about that?

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Mid-Week Fixture: Champions League Predictions

Today’s 3-0 Champions League wins for Barcelona and Arsenal over their top group rivals, Lyon and Sevilla, respectively, demonstrate the collective power of these two teams. In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that these two could be the last two standings next May when the championship game is contested in Moscow.

What you might not be expecting me to say is that I think Arsenal has a better chance of winning, and will win, the Champions League, than their Spanish rivals.

We all know about Barcelona’s star-power, but Arsenal’s more of an unknown quantity, despite currently sitting at the top of the Premier League standings. Facing an unknown is a dangerous proposition in the Champions League, a collection of teams that know everybody else inside-out. One just has to look at the Porto-Monaco final from 2004 or Liverpool’s triumph a year later to see that the Champions League, despite its glamorous façade, is still a competition that isn’t always kind to the teams you'd expect to win — just ask Roman Abramovich.

Arsene Wenger recently signed a contract extension that settles his situation and keeps him at Arsenal until 2011. He mentioned that he did it for the young players at the club, but his intentions weren’t entirely out of sympathy – those young players are very good. So good, in fact, they are surprising even the most optimistic Gunners fan by looking like they will contend this season, not in two or three years. I’ll take it one step further, and I’m not the only one, and say they can win this year’s Champions League.

By selling Thierry Henry to Barcelona, it appeared as if Arsenal was giving up on their claim of being one of Europe’s great clubs and starting from scratch. Instead, they gave Barça a spectacular, but injury-prone, attacking player to a team that already has three of them. The results so far haven’t been spectacular, as Barça’s high-powered offense has two 0-0 draws on the road against middling teams, the kind of results that gifted the title to Real Madrid last season. The team’s best and most in-form player, Lionel Messi, is also the least egotistical of its attacking quartet, and often makes way for the clubs more ornery players, Henry, Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o. Neither of those three have hit their stride yet this season, and their video-game offense is known to backfire.

Its most consistent player up front last year and the guy that does the small stuff for his better-known teammates, Eidur Gudjohnsen, is practically on vacation on the Barça bench until he’s sold somewhere else. Worse yet, their defending last season was abysmal in all competitions; the addition of Gabriel Milito and Éric Abidal will help, but this is still a team that has the mistake-prone Rafa Marquez and Carlos Puyol and the aging Lilian Thuram at the back, not to mention a shaky keeper in Victor Valdés. For all their attacking prowess, the rearguard was the reason why they lost to Liverpool in last year’s second round.

Arsenal, meanwhile, ridded itself of its dependence on Henry, which they got a taste of for most of last season. While the club will certainly be asking a lot of its forwards, the talented but relatively untested Robin Van Persie, Emmanuel Adebayor, Eduardo da Silva and Theo Walcott, they will get support from everywhere in Arsene Wenger’s system. The midfield, in particular, has pound-for-pound the best balance of bite and skill in Europe, led by the incomparable Cesc Fabregas. Had Barcelona been paying better attention a few years back, Cesc would be exactly the player they need now – a box-to-box player with great instincts and a nose for goal.

Defensively, Arsenal could do better than have the error-prone Jens Lehmann in goal, but the backbone of Kolo Toure and William Gallas, with Gilberto Silva protecting them from midfield, is athletic and aware enough to handle anybody. Perhaps Arsenal’s biggest weakness is themselves — too often, they are criticized for searching for the perfect goal instead of being selfish. The draw here can help them if they avoid an Italian team that could easily stifle their free-flowing style of football, but with that human highlight-reel Thierry Henry gone, I think the current crop of Gunners will be less likely to play to the fans and instead go for the victory.

Final Four Predictions: Arsenal (winners), Barcelona (runners-up), Liverpool, Milan

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Matchday 1: What sayeth ye, Rafa?

Tuesday's Champions League openers offered much in the way of uninspired English play, as both Liverpool and Chelsea came away with 1-1 draws and singe marks from the bullets dodged.

It's to be expected that upsets will happen in group play. What wasn't to be expected was the all-around shoddy performance of the Reds, who — with the exception of striker Dirk Kuyt — appeared almost ambivalent at the prospect of getting an early leg up on their group, despite coach Rafa Benitez's stated goal of earning a road win off the top, as to allow his side to concentrate on the goal of a Premier League title. And while Chelsea's draw, earned on the back of maligned striker Andriy Shevchenko's 53rd-minute header, was surprising, the lackadaisical play was at least somewhat expected with the Blues missing both Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard.

No, Liverpool is alone in being forced to wonder if it really has the heart for a serious run in the competition, as unfathomable as it may seem.

Porto came out as if it smelled blood in the water, controlling every aspect of the game in the first half, with Liverpool managing to earn a halftime push thanks only to a flukish header opportunity by Kuyt in the 17th minute. It would go down as the Reds' lone scoring opportunity of note, and one of the few times that a Liverpool pass actually found its intended target in the first half.

The second half was notable only for the fact that Porto responded to Jermaine Pennant getting sent off in the 57th minute — more on that in a second — by removing its foot from Liverpool's throat and apparently settling for an almost embarrassing home tie, considering to what degree the Dragons outclassed the Reds on the night.

Both teams ended up losers on the night, but it's Liverpool that appears worse for the wear despite earning a point in its toughest match, on paper, in group play. Pennant's second yellow card was what one would expect of a churlish amateur, not the brilliant winger who put on a show in last year's CL final against Milan. In addition, Torres — a complete non-factor in his much-awaited CL debut — Kuyt and Mascherano were booked; the only reason Gerrard didn't draw a yellow is because he didn't get involved in the game whatsoever until a centering pass from inside the box in the game's final minutes, which went unrequited, unsurprisingly. As if that weren't cause enough for a slack jaw, Benitez left two strikers on the pitch for a good 15 minutes after going a man down, as if he were baiting Porto into the additional two points it rightly should have earned.

Benitez has made no secret of his priorities this season, clearly stating that the Premiership title is the Reds' primary goal. That's understandable, considering the heat he's taken in the media for Liverpool's relatively poor showings in league play under his guidance, but it's also foolhardy. The reason the Reds have a legitimate shot in the EPL is precisely because of their recent dominance in European competition; the heralded offseason pickup of Torres was made possible because of the striker's desire to play in the Champions League, and he's probably not alone in that regard. Yes, it's difficult to ignore idiotic comments like these. But Benitez, of all people, should be the first to realize that while the next few domestic fixtures for the Reds are unlikely to decide his team's chances of domestic supremacy, that's not the case with the Champions League.

In other words, it's time for Benitez to drop the cavalier shtick when the subject of the Champions League comes up, because it's apparent that his team is willing to follow suit.

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Monday, September 17, 2007

The best of what's on TV, Sept 18-23

This week, in a word, is going to be absolutely bananas. Group play hath begun in earnest, though this week's slate offers up only two CL games that are a lock to be captivating. Nonetheless, for those of us without Setanta, it's our first opportunity to see the superteam that is Barça against the best side France has to offer, which alone is worth the cost of upgrading your cable package to include ESPN Deportes (which is stupidly available, at least in my area, only as a part of the Spanish package, and not the sports ... who wants to come over for some hot telenovela action?).

After the Champions League's opening salvo, it's on to a marquee Sunday offering from both the EPL and Serie A, with Juventus heading to the capital for a face-off against Roma, followed by Chelsea's trip to Old Trafford. Best part? Both should be over before the early NFL games, which means there's really no excuse for movement at all.

UEFA Champions League (Group Stage)
Real Madrid v. Werder Bremen
2:30 p.m., ESPN Deportes
Porto v. Liverpool
4:45 p.m., ESPN Deportes
Chelsea v. Rosenborg
7 p.m., ESPN Deportes

None of the four Tuesday games really stand out on first glance, if only because Real Madrid and Liverpool are expected to roll. However, there's cause for fans of either giant to be a little worried about these openers. Read Madrid has scuffled so far under new coach Bernd Schuster and without some of the pure star power of years past, and while Werder Bremen has problems of its own, the Germans' hyper-aggressive style could be a disastrous matchup for the Spanish Giants. As for the Reds, Rafa's clearly stated that the EPL title is Priority No. 1 this season, something he probably believes until weeks like this. Liverpool is a sure bet to get after it in international play, but Porto — even a Porto that suffered a couple of key losses in the transfer market — isn't known as a giant-killer for nothing. If Liverpool plays it close to the vest, Porto could very well provide the first upset of the group stage.

UEFA Champions League (Group Stage)
AC Milan v. Benfica
2 a.m., ESPN Deportes
Barcelona v. Lyon
2:30 p.m., ESPN Deportes
Sporting Lisbon v. Manchester United
2:30 p.m., ESPN2
Arsenal v. Sevilla
7 p.m., ESPN Deportes

Leave it to ESPN to totally botch its coverage in a day in which what's shaping up to be the game of the week — or, at the very least, the second-best — happens to come at the same time that David Beckham's Former Team Manchester United (did you know David Beckham played for Manchested United? He did! Now he plays in America! And he calls it "football!"). The decision to air Barça-Lyon on the main stage should have been a no-brainer, but alas we'll be treated to two hours of Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani beating up on their former mates. Barça, of course, is expected to cruise through its group — if not the entire tournament — but no team is capable of making domination so damn attractive. The nightcap should be as, if not more, compelling, with Arsenal and Sevilla facing off in the first week's most balanced and aesthetically pleasing match. The Gunners have been brilliant so far this season in EPL play, but play between the pipes is usually in the spotlight during international play, and that happens to be Arsenal's most glaring weakness. Sevilla is an up-and-coming side that appears ready to be to La Liga what Arsenal is to the EPL; a team that makes up for not having the financial clout of the league's upper-echelon by developing talent and employing a playing style that is both gorgeous and dizzying for the opposition. This is a football fan's football match.

UEFA Champions League (Group Stage)
Roma v. Dynamo Kyiv
2 a.m., ESPN Deportes
Fenerbahce v. Inter Milan
3 p.m., ESPN Deportes

Fans of Italian soccer should enjoy Thursday, as the two best bets to make the knockout stage from Serie A are featured in games in which they should roll. Of course, any time Inter's involved, you can count on some unforeseen drama, and Roma skipper Francesco Totti hasn't looked very sharp so far in league play.

English Premier League
Liverpool v. Birmingham City
9:45 a.m., Setanta
Arsenal v. Derby County
9:55 a.m., Fox Soccer Channel

The only thing notable about these mismatches is the fact that both Liverpool and Arsenal will be coming off mid-week Champions League tilts, which means both favorites will likely be playing with less than a full deck against overmatched competition. Does it mean an upset is likely in either case? No. But it's certainly more probable now than it would be in a regular week.

English Premier League
Fulham v. Manchester City
Noon, Fox Soccer Channel

Team America is on a little bit of an upswing, losing by only a goal to hard-charging Aston Villa two weeks ago, and forging a final-minute, 3-3 comeback draw against the foundering Spurs last week. Conveniently, Man City has cooled off considerably after a torrid start. While Fulham is still an undecided underdog, this writer has a feeling that the Cottagers are in good standing to deliver an upset in front of home fans. Screw it: I'll go ahead and call it 2-1 in Fulham's favor, with Yank Clint Dempsey bulging the old onion basket in the 86th minute.

La Liga
Barcelona v. Sevilla
4 p.m., GolTV

Sevilla gets its second opportunity to knock off one of the big boys in a week, this time in league play. Barça's construction, while potentially breathtaking, is also pretty volatile, as Frank Rijkaard struggles to find spots for four world-class attackers on one field without going too far outside the box in terms of scheme(though there's a decent chance that Eto'o will be out to injury, which should make things a little more clear-cut). Barça has only one win to show for its first three league efforts (against two draws), while Sevilla has dispatched both of its season-opening opponents in impressive fashion. Yeah, Barça features three of this decade's best players (Ronaldinho, Henry and Messi), but would it really be that much of an upset if Sevilla comes into Camp Nou and wins? I don't think so.

Serie A
Roma v. Juventus
9 a.m., Fox Soccer Channel

Sunday starts off with a bang, as La Vecchia Signora invade the quaint town of Rome, Italy, for the first marquee matchup of the young season. Juve was looking like it hadn't missed a beat until getting stunned by Udinese in Week 3, Udinese! At home! With the shine off Juve's early start, this one's looking like Roma's to lose.

English Premier League
Manchester United v. Chelsea
11 a.m., Fox Soccer Channel

The nice thing about games like this is that there's nothing really left to say except: I'll be watching.

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Friday, September 14, 2007

Ex-plo-sive, Albanian-coast s*#!

The only Euro 2008 qualifier I got to see was the second half of Albania-Netherlands. The Dutchies scored a late goal from Ruud Van Nistelrooy, your typical Ruud Van Nistelrooy goal at that, sealing a valuable three points on the road. The game was called with two minutes of injury time remaining because a firework exploded just meters from Mario Melchiot's head! Holy crap!

I wanted to watch this game because the world is clamoring over Real Madrid new-boy Wesley Sneijder, bought from Ajax last month for 27 million Euros. That's great business for a club like Ajax, who failed to make the Champions League group stages once again, even though they will no doubt miss Sneijder. He looked very good, but was overshadowed by Ruud's late heroics. However, I wish he would have celebrated like this, one of my all-time favorites:

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

The cotton candy was sooooo much better than the game....

Due to an unexpected interruption, I didn't get a chance to finish my running diary of Chivas-Galaxy....however, I felt it would have been a total waste of time if I didn't post what I had, even if it's missing some edits. Chivas went on to win 3-0. There were so many funny moments in the second half, including a classic near-meltdown by Eric Wynalda, who was so irritated by the Galaxy he spewed non-sense for a good 10 minutes. I really wish I would have continued after halftime. Nonetheless, enjoy:

Few people have the gift of comedy; even fewer can see a golden comedic moment coming before it happens. With that in mind, I bring you a running diary of Galaxy-Chivas, live on ESPN2, sans David Beckham. I’m debating whether or not to keep track of how many times Rob Stone, Eric Wynalda and Tommy Smyth (with a Y) mention Goldenballs’ name tonight – 25? 50? 100? With the Galaxy’s season all but over, they enter the game with a rare losing streak to Chivas, who have only beat them twice, including last month’s 3-0 beatdown. The aforementioned ESPN2 crew will no doubt give me plenty to talk about, and besides, Landon Donovan is in the game. Comedic gold, I’m predicting.

The good news about tonight’s broadcast is the WNBA Finals, Game Four, is over, thus we won’t lose any time to women’s basketball. The bad news? Detroit lost to Phoenix, forcing Game Five. This series is just tearing my heart in half, causing me much grief over the last week.

More women’s sports news
I watched some of the tape-delayed US-North Korea game on Tuesday night. One thing that struck me about North Korea was how mannish good they were. “The Best Team You’ve Never Heard Of” didn’t even deserve the 2-2 tie!

A change in our booth today – no Rob Stone! Stoner must be off covering this week’s Big Ten-Mac non-conference showdown for ESPNU, or perhaps he’s considering how delicately to ask Lloyd Carr if he’s lost it during the halftime interview at Michigan-Notre Dame. He’s replaced by Glenn Davis, a reporter for the Houston Chronicle (and former NASL player), who I place just below Grant Wahl in my soccer writer man-crush latter.

We went to Houston a lot during my USSF days, and Glenn took the staff out for a couple of great nights around the town, and he made Houston actually look cool. Him and Thomas Rongen killed us with old NASL stories, including the time Thomas saved George Best’s wife from stabbing him. Besty even mentions this incident in his autobiography, thanking TR for saving his life. Good times!

1st Minute: And we’re off! Galaxy in white, Chivas in the traditional red and white stripes, with Chivas technically the home team. Meanwhile, the game is brought to you in HD, while the WNBA Finals were not. Eat shit, WNBA!

2nd Minute: Cobi Jones, who apparently can simply go by “Cobi,” gets the start for the Galaxy. Injuries have cost the Galaxy 48 man-games this season, meaning Cobi has to strap on the boots for 90 minutes down the right flank. Tommy Smyth has taken a break from gloating about calling David Beckham’s coming to America to actually deliver an interesting statistic: neither of these teams have won this season when allowing the first goal.

3rd Minute: And it’s already kicking off! Pete Vagenas takes down Jesse Marsch, who responds by throwing the ball at him and is booked.

6th Minute: Chivas’ Mendoza counters down the left flank, taking on Abel Xavier and firing a weak shot that falls harmlessly into the arms of Nick…err, Joe, Cannon.

7th Minute: In addition to announcing that he won’t dare get his uniform dirty or defend any actual key situations today, Abel Xavier announces that his name will be “Xavi” for the rest of the first half, just because. When I reckon that will confuse him with the Barcelona midfielder, Xavier points towards the camera and

8th Minute: Alan Gordon technically gets a shot off when he heads the game’s first corner into the 20th row.

10th Minute: What’s the day’s biggest sports story? Bill Belichek getting fined $500k and the Patriots losing a draft pick for stealing defensive signals? Greg Oden’s rookie year being over before it starts? Nope…how about McLaren getting fined $100 million for using stolen information from Ferrari in Formula One. Now that’s a punishment!

15th Minute: Landy and Kyle Martino combine on a great run, and while Martino tries to lose it in the box, he sets up Carlos Pavon beautifully, only for Pavon to fan on it. Seconds later, the Galaxy get it back, and Pavon sets up Gordon, who shoots meekly into Brad Guzan’s arms. Christ, these forwards are bad.

16th Minute: The cameras just showed Becks in a suite upstairs. Holy shit! He’s there?! I’m stunned. Completely speechless. He cares??

19th Minute: Randolph’s poor touch turns the ball over at midfield, and Chivas races down the right flank. Maykel Galindo is set up, but his left-footer from the top of the box goes right at Cannon. Wynalda earlier mentioned how Galindo looked “off” today, literally 13 minutes in the game. Takes one to know one.

21st Minute: Galindo, still off, fights off Randolph and dances around another defender and shoots right into Cannon’s mid-section from four yards away.

22nd Minute: How come, whenever I type “Carlos Pavon,” I type “Carl Pavano?”

23rd Minute: GOAL! Ante Razov finds himself in the exact same spot Galindo was minutes ago and makes Xavier look like he plays for, well, the Galaxy. Razov’s shot then deflects off Cannon and in off the far post, giving Chivas a 1-0 lead. The goal is Razov’s 107th, putting him three behind Jaime Moreno for MLS’ all-time leader. But what I’ll most remember is Xavier’s failed kick at Razov as he sauntered right by him. I told you this blog was a good idea!

26th Minute: When asked what is wrong with the Galaxy, Wynalda says “something is wrong” and that the team never gelled. Surely it can’t be comical defending like we just saw, could it, Waldo? That certainly wasn’t the first time the Galaxy have done that this season. It can’t just be the offense.

28th Minute: After rambling on about how the Galaxy’s offensive woes are to blame, Tommy Smyth jumps in and blames the defense, almost with an “are you nuts?” pitch to his voice. Hurrah, Tommy!

29th Minute: Beckham and Chris Albright, dressed quite dapperly, are absolutely shitting themselves laughing in the suite. Great shot.

30th Minute: Gordon finds the ball bounce right to him… never mind, he blew it, there’s something far funnier happening. The ensuing corner kick features more comedic genius from Xavier, who volleys the cross into Compton. To top it off, Xavier does a little jump-step before hammering the ball. This guy takes the cake.

32nd Minute: Trying to counter, Donovan launches a cross-field ball that hopes to free Pavon behind the Galaxy defense. But since he’s not Beckham, the ball sails and ends up out of bounce. This is the reason why we miss having David Beckham playing.

34th Minute: Waldo takes a pot-shot at soccer bloggers, calling them/us “the real geniuses of the world,” when he defends the “stuff” he took for saying North Korea was the real deal. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt here, but I’m wondering where he got his information on a team from behind the Iron Curtain.

35th Minute: Great end-to-end action! Donovan has a terrible angle when Guzan charges out, and luckily has four defenders covering his goal and no Galaxy players in sight. The other way, Razov absolutely blasts a left-footer that goes well wide, but watching live looked a certain goal.

38th Minute: Another minute, another shot that goes right into the goalkeeper’s chest. This time it’s Mendoza, whose weak shot is just pathetic. Hit it, Sally! Moments later, Chivas gets the ball in the box, fails to shoot and then passes it around too much before losing it out of bounce. The announcers criticize them for not shooting, but can you really blame them for trying to bounce it around the Galaxy D?

41st Minute: The Chivas fans are unveiling a gigantic flag (honestly, the biggest flag I’ve ever seen)

42nd Minute: I caught some of Marsch’s appearance on (“Oy! Hallo!”) Fox Football Fone-In on FSC Wednesday night, and I was intrigued. When he was able to get a word in between Steven and that schmuck Nick Webster, Marsch gave us some valuable insight on the current and former USMNT coaches, saying Bruce Arena was more interested in the big picture, while Bob Bradley is more of a hands-on, micro-manager. He also mentioned how his current Chivas coach, Preki, was more of a defensive coach. Which is ironic, because Preki never defended. Why does that happen so often to former attacking players, in any sport, who adopt a defensive coaching philosophy?

Anyway, I thought Marsch’s insight was incredible, especially since we’ve heard all along at how Bruce and Bob are supposed to be so similar, since Bob came from the Bruce coaching tree.

43rd Minute: Now Albright and Beckham and the rest of the injured Galaxy players are eating cotton candy in the suite! Eric Wynalda can barely hide his disgust!

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Mid-Week Fixture: Cold-Hard Ka(ka)sh

For all its unquantifiable factors such as useful statistics to compare players, one thing is clear when it comes to success in the soccer — the more you spend, generally the better you do.

The Gazzetta della Sport, the daily bible for sport in the country, recently published a list of all player salaries in Serie A. AC Milan's Kaka is the highest-paid player, pulling in 6 million Euros (roughly US$8.34 million) a season, and Milan is the biggest spender out of all clubs, totalling 120 million Euros (US$168.8 million) in player salaries.

It shouldn't be much of a surprise that Milan, Inter Milan and Juventus are far and away the biggest spenders, at 120m, 110m and 97m total, respectively, but three things struck me from this report:

1. Italian soccer players don't make nearly as much money as I thought they did.
2. The gulf between the 3rd- and 4th-highest spenders is massive - Juventus spends nearly 40 million more than Roma.
3. Lazio wins the 2006-07 award for Biggest Bang for Their Euro, although the asterisk for that is about as big as the gulf between the spending of Juventus and Roma.

Historically, Italian soccer has been the land of the rich. The prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, used his TV ownership money to fund the great Milan teams of the last 20 years, while Fiat has been the financial muscle behind Juventus for decades. It clearly isn't widespread - most Italian clubs are barely fiscally solvent, even those in Serie A - but clubs like Inter Milan, Roma and Lazio have somehow found a way to keep up with the Big Two without being run into the ground by (too much) corrupt bookkeeping.

Despite being the destination for global footballers during the 1990s, Italian soccer started to decline, in money spent in the transfer market and the overall success of its clubs in Europe. This trend coincided with the rise of the English Premier League, whose NFL-like business model created a shift in worldwide popularity and television revenue. In 2007, the Premier League was the biggest spender in the transfer market and on player salaries, followed by Spain, Italy, Germany and France. All leagues have a giant gulf between the haves and have-nots, but in England, the television revenue is at least distributed evenly, giving everybody at least a reasonable shot; Clint Dempsey's winning goal for Fulham last year against Liverpool not only kept Fulham in the Premier League, it earned them tens of millions of pounds they wouldn't have gotten this year in the Coca-Cola Championship (England's second-tier). Clubs in Spain and Italy negotiate their own TV deals, meaning some clubs (Barcelona, Real Madrid) earn more than others.

Which is more important to club owners, pride and prestige or dollars and cents? Based on the influx of foreign owners in the Premier League, most of whom have or had little rooting interest in the teams themselves, it's clearly the latter. When owning an EPL team can create as much revenue as your typical American sports franchise, that trend surely won't go out of vogue anytime soon.

Back to Italy, I was surprised at how little, relatively, money the players made. Kaka probably makes less money than LA Dodger Luis Gonzalez, but he surely is the better player and more marketable throughout the world; the money Milan must make off him is staggering. Being a star in Europe, South America and Asia must have its financial rewards - I'm sure Kaka makes plenty of money from his Adidas contract - but he's still making a smaller salary than if he played for Real Madrid or Chelsea. No wonder both teams figured they could have signed him this summer.

Finally, the Lazio conundrum. They look to have made out like gangbusters in 2007, spending just 18 million Euros for a team that reached the lucrative Champions League group stages and being the flagship for more overt fascist propoganda. They certainly did; however, you must remember that the 2006 match-fixing scandal in Italy sent perennial powerhouse Juventus down to Serie B for a season and docked Milan eight points in Serie A. Lazio, meanwhile, were also punished in the scandal, but their original punishment of relegation was changed to an 11-point docking in Serie A to just a three-point one. They had a great season, finishing third, but you can't expect the team to match that result this time around, or for as long as they keep the purse strings tightened.

I (nearly) told you so

Last week, I had an (unfinished) post about how France's likelihood of securing a good result in Italy had heightened exponentially, simply because its coach, Raymond Domenach, was suspended for it.

My reasoning for the prediction was based on him making numerous dubious decisions during the World Cup and his inability to put together a strong team, despite a ridiculous amount of talent. And, as an avid astrologist, he distrusted Scorpios so much that he didn't include any of them in his team. It made sense that I didn't trust him, either.

This prediction proved fairly prophetic: France tied Italy in Milan 0-0 in what Diesel described as a "horrible" game (I was too busy going to another "horrible game, Michigan-Oregon, to watch). Five days later, Domenach returned to the sidelines and France promptly lost. At home. To Scotland.

As a Scorpio, I was well vindicated.

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Sunday, September 9, 2007

The best of what's on TV, Sept 10-16

After a week off from league play for Euro Cup qualifiers, we're back in action. Let's get to the games!

Euro 2008 Qualifying
France v. Scotland
2:55 p.m., Setanta
In what's already proven to be the most compelling qualifying group in the competition, this could be the best game yet. Les Bleus are all hot and bothered over the booing of their anthem prior to Saturday's scoreless draws against Italy, which was classless and rightfully condemned by the Italian players. It's ironic, though, that France is so concerned over sportsmanship and respect, what with the fact that France coach Raymond Domenech accused Italy of bribing referees in a 1999 U-21 match, and previous to that accused Scotland's ball boys of stalling in a 1-0 defeat last season. Yeah, France — particularly its jackass coach — really deserves respect from everyone. To boot, Thierry Henry — that's French for traitor — will be suspended after getting booked against the Azzuri. While I doubt the Scottish fans will start any international incidents, midfielder Alex McLeish for his part said he's ready to shove it up the Blues' derrieres, Wednesday, and to that the rest of the world says: Espérons!

David Beckham's Soccer USA
11 p.m., Fox Soccer Channel
Ha ha, just checking to make sure you were paying attention. Even Posh Spice won't watch this garbage.

Premier League
Tottenham v. Arsenal
8:25 a.m., Fox Soccer Channel
Before the start of the season, it was fashionable to suggest that the Spurs would be supplanting Arsenal in the league's top four. One month into the season, the rivals find themselves on opposite ends of the table, with the Gunners tied with three other teams atop the league with 10 points through four matches, while Tottenham sits among the relegation crew with 4 points through five matches. Obviously, there's lots of season left, but one has the feeling that the Spurs absolutely must come away from this tilt with at least a point if they're going to have any legitimate claim as a contender. Meanwhile, all the clouds have cleared for the Gunners, who not only have started off the season with some inspired play, but also have the security of knowing that the "In Arsene We Trust" signs will be displayed in Emirates Stadium for another three seasons.

Premier League
Chelsea v. Blackburn
Noon, Fox Soccer Channel
In this space two weeks ago, I not-so-boldly claimed that I "knew" Chelsea would beat Aston Villa. Well, I was delightfully wrong, and The Villans picked up a new (albeit casual) fan with their exciting young nucleus of players. More importantly, however, it was proof that Chelsea is vulnerable right now despite being tied atop the league with 10 points. Frank Lampard's status is in flux after an apparent re-injury of his toe in England's 3-0 win over Israel, Saturday, the owner is still making a scene of his displeasure with the troops (this time by following up a half's worth of scowls with an early departure during the Blues' loss to Aston Villa), and poor Michael Ballack just can't understand why no one will talk to him. By the way, doesn't Steve Sidwell play for these guys now? The offseason transfer didn't even dress for the game against The Villans. One can't think of a better time for the Rovers to reverse their recent (lack of) success at Stamford Bridge.

Premier League
Portsmouth v. Liverpool
4:30 p.m., Setanta (Delay)
The hits just keep coming for Pompey, who will attempt to recover from a two-match skid against table-toppers Arsenal and Chelsea with a tilt against another league leader in the Reds. While it's nice that they'll at least be on home pitch for this one, Liverpool is looking like a beast right now, and Gerrard's inspired performance against Israel has cast aside any worries over his fitness.

Serie A
Siena v. AC Milan
4:30 p.m., Fox Soccer Channel
With FSC not yet announcing its third Serie A fixture for Sunday, this is shaping up to be the best of the lot from the Italian league. And that's only because Milan's playing; we'll not expect anything spectacular from pointless Siena, which appears well on its way to a season-long battle in relegation zone.

Premier League
Manchester City v. Aston Villa
11 a.m., Fox Soccer Channel
While the Spurs-Gunners tilt is the catchiest of the weekend, this is the one with the most potential for drama. Both sides are early surprises, with the Sven-tastic Citizens sitting just one point out of the league lead despite a 0-1 loss to Blackburn in their last fixtures, and the Villans coming off the aforementioned upset of Chelsea.

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Thursday, August 30, 2007

When all else fails, defer blame towards soccer

I am all riled up about how the Galaxy are killing David Beckham, but this is just too good to pass up: former Ohio State president Karen Holbrook denounced the culture of rioting at the university, then later back-tracked to everybody’s favorite fallback line — …in Europe, they literally kill people at soccer matches. Oh, of course! Let's cover up our problem with something completely unrelated, thousands of miles away! You know, that death in our community is a problem. But I wouldn't worry about it too much - in Iraq, people die literally every day!

Diesel, I’m looking at you on this one, as I’ve never been to Italy. But I have been to Columbus numerous times, and just knowing what I know, I’d rather walk through Italy with a picture of the Pope’s body engulfed in flames on my t-shirt than walk through Columbus in a Michigan t-shirt. But hey, they literally kill people at soccer matches in Europe, as you know.

But that’s not all. In the recent edition of SI, an ancient ‘Bama fan, Ken Fowler, tried to defend why selling out a spring game doesn’t make them “subhuman” by saying in some countries, they kill soccer players, don’t they? Yes, Ken, pretend you’re superior to others (in anything, I dare you), God knows you Southern folk have a history of that. I stopped reading the story after that line — but I was on my way there anyway, what with all the Nick Saban/Bear Bryant fellatio going on and all.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

He's not really our son, you know

One of the best changes this blog hath wrought in my life is how much it's compelled me to do more reading on soccer. Yesterday, I stumbled on this rather uneven, rambling and poorly titled commentary piece on the MLS by Martin Samuel of the Times Online.

The author's main point — when he wasn't making long-winded analogies that only served to call his sobriety into question — was that the Galaxy's mishandling of David Beckham was not only irresponsible w/r/t the player's future, but the reputation of the league itself.

This gives America a status it does not deserve. Say what you like about Total Network Solutions of Llansantffraid-ym-Mechain (now known as The New Saints, and thank heavens for that): they might have had a daft name, but if their right midfield player had an ankle the size of a hippo’s backside, they would not have played him, being a serious professional football club. No league with grand aspirations would pick a man who was badly injured simply because the occasion demanded it, or let him play on consecutive days on either side of the Atlantic, merely because he wanted to, just as no league of stature would rearrange its fixture list around one competitor.

The whole process is shockingly Mickey Mouse and must pain those American fans with a genuine love or knowledge of the game. It is a bigger mess than any of us could have imagined.

It's an interesting point, and one I hadn't really considered until I read this, despite my qualification as an American with a genuine love of the game. But I think where the author gets mixed up is that being an American soccer fan does not mean you have invested any stake in the MLS. I think it's too bold to say that most American soccer fans don't give two fucks about the MLS with any degree of certainty, but if I had to make a bet it would be that. But at the same time, most American soccer fans — even those who are unconcerned with the MLS right now — would like to see the league flourish, and realize that Becks' arrival is its best chance at doing just that.

Now, it's simply a matter of figuring out exactly what the goal for the MLS is, because it's fairly clear that the people who will play the biggest role in getting there — Alexi Lalas, commish Don Garber, and Beckham himself — haven't really thought things out.

It's easy for people from the MLS to dismiss sentiments like the ones expressed by Samuel as the same tired shit Europeans have trotted out any time American soccer is in the news. But this isn't quite the same as the world's glee every time misfortune/horrible play befalls the USMNT, or another Yank washes out of European soccer and runs back home with his receding hairline between his legs. The difference is that, now, the English — if not the rest of the world — actually have something invested in American soccer, if not the rest of the world. Beckham is still a member of England's national team (however begrudgingly for Steve McLaren), and he's still the most revered footballer in the world. However, the concern is simply for him, not for the league he plays in. And that only lasts as long as he's relevant internationally; the second he's really done with the Three Lions, I have a feeling things will peter out a little bit, at least in terms of Europe's concern.

But I have a feeling that interest will remain relatively high within the states, at least for the next three years or so, regardless of Beckham's standing internationally. It's what exactly, however, Americans will find interesting that matters; the MLS can either use Beckham's presence to raise interest in the sport, or they can treat him like the only reason worth showing up to games and expect people to lose interest the second he's gone. And it's clearly the latter that the MLS has done so far, by playing him on TV dates despite a severely sprained ankle, not to mention playing him the night after an international friendly in Europe and the ensuing flight back to the States. Keep that up, and people will begin to believe that the games aren't worth watching without him (which seems to be the general sentiment already).

Truth be told, I don't care much what the rest of the world thinks about American soccer and its fans; they are as ignorant of us as we are, often, of them. And, it's stretch for anyone to think that the MLS will ever really catch on abroad; it's as silly as thinking that Argentinian basketball (were it available on television) would somehow catch on in the states. Pretty much every solvent country in Europe has its league and is partial to it, and one can't blame any of the countries for that. So, ultimately, it doesn't matter if the rest of the world thinks the Americans mishandled Beckham.

But it does matter what Americans think of all of this. And, no one has given anyone but the most hardcore fans of the league — people who, by definition, would have been into it had Beckham not arrived at all — any reason to think this is anything else except a sideshow.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Mid-Week Fixture: "I'm having a party... it's gonna be very... colorful"

While watching Liverpool-Chelsea recently, a friend of mine questioned, with almost sheer shock, the lack of soccer teams wearing white, particularly while playing at home. This wasn't the first time he had brought it up, but there was little I could say in response other than "Umm, because neither team is known for wearing white" and "because it looks cooler this way." Ironically, he's a Padres fan, so who is he to question why soccer teams never wear white?!

While there are a few notable exceptions, white doesn’t play too prominent of a role on the club level with regard to primary uniforms. A few teams have occasionally used white as their alternate (ie Road) jersey, generally used only when there would be a clash. Mostly these jerseys are designed simply to sell more of them, as they usually only last a year and provide a unique souvenir for that particular season. Even Arsenal wore yellow in the 2006 Champions League final, a color jersey they'd worn as their alternate kit for years.

Internationally, really only England and Germany’s primary jersey colors are white. (Of course, there are more examples, but these are the ones that spring to mind of important, trend-setting teams – closer to home, one could argue that, by recently changing their gear to coincide with David Beckham’s arrival, the L.A. Galaxy have opted for a clean look that resembles Real Madrid, home and away) Most countries have stuck to an established color scheme that reflects their obvious color scheme, although that's not always set in stone, a point I will get to later.

I’m not sure exactly why teams have, in general, stayed away from white. I can only surmise that white materials were more common a century ago, so teams began to distinguish themselves by using new (and now traditional) colors. As a former equipment manager myself, I can appreciate the fact that white is also more difficult to wash, making colors a more attractive and logical option. Furthermore, we live in a colored world, rendering extreme cases of contrast (dark and white) pointless, hence we can watch a game with one team wearing all blue and the other all red. In some cases, white is a painful reminder of the past. Brazil lost the 1950 World Cup final at home to Uruguay, the most painful and unexpected loss in that country's rich soccer history. Four years later, the team ditched white in favor of yellow, won the next World Cup four years later and haven't looked back since.

It’s long been established that Italy and the Netherlands wear blue and orange, respectively, as tributes to the monarchy and founding fathers, to little objection. Both normally wore white shorts with the look, and for a period, Holland wore black, but both seem to be going for the monochromatic look a lot lately. Not only are there looks cool, it’s provided a unique identity and comical looks amongst the fans. When I think of the Italian flag, azzuri springs to mind before I have to correct myself that it's red, white and green; it's the same with the Dutchies. It's safe to say soccer's worldwide popularity has helped create a distinguishable identity for countries that wouldn't exist without the game. They couldn't have done it in white.

The U.S. will trot out at next month’s Women’s World Cup wearing gold, which was argued by Nike as being "the color of premium, the color of victory. The U.S. women have won two World Cups. They've won two Olympic gold medals. If any team on the planet deserves to wear this color, it's them.” Surely, this isn't based presumptuously on the fact that our girls are the best in the world - they aren't even the defending champ, and are no locks this time, either - yet it also doesn't mesh well with Nike's slogan for the team this go-around, "The Best Team You've Never Heard Of." Then why wear gold? Few players remain from the days when they achieved cult status eight years ago, so why establish this golden legacy? It'd be like the Bulls issuing commemorative gold jerseys years after Jordan and Pippen left. Perhaps, as San Diego Union-Tribune writer Mark Ziegler wrote, the US should try to establish a standard uniform across the board to adopt a consistent look. God forbid the United States establishes a soccer tradition. Or, while we're looking to grab people's attention, and color is apparently not an issue, may I suggest something like this instead. FIFA president Sepp Blatter has ideas he'd rather see.

Of course, uniform tinkering is evident worldwide, namely when my favorite four-letter word, FIFA, is involved. World Cup rules state, briefly, that all items on the two teams’ uniforms must have clear contrast, leading to odd-ball uniform matchups like this take place when color like this is so much better.

FIFA most notably screws up Brazil’s classic look at least once a World Cup - ugh - choosing complete contrast over tradition and aesthetics. In some cases, intended uniform combinations are often rendered meaningless, as I can personally attest: when the US faced Paraguay in the Under-20 World Cup opener in Abu Dhabi in 2003, we had to wear white socks with the navy jerseys and white shorts, a combination I had successfully avoided in two years because that combo was never intended to ever happen, and it was cheap-looking. An aside, I also forgot to pack black goalkeeper socks for that trip, and didn’t notice until gameday. I was stuck with this goalkeeping combo, with red socks, for that first game – my uniform nightmare game, apparently. We won the game 3-1. Finding a pair of black Nike soccer socks in Abu Dhabi proved easier than convincing the goalkeeper, Steve Cronin (now of the Galaxy), to change the luck, so he wore the same combo for the next game, a 3-1 loss to Germany (a game in which we were back to normal). Most of the oddball things you might read here can mostly be chalked up to human error and superstition, just like this one.

Of course, some teams just don't have the white uniform option. Barcelona has had its fair share of weird uniform colors (including the aforementioned orange ones), but have not and will never wear white - it's Real Madrid's color. Perhaps Barca could extend that policy to its players' feet, as seemingly everybody wears white boots for them. And others, such as anytime Liverpool and Manchester United play, somebody can't wear red.

Sadly, I still don't have a better answer than "it looks cooler" to give to my friend, but dammit, it just looks cooler! I suppose I can file yet another question like this under the expanding "who knows, it just is" category in soccer discussions, but at least I can give a professional opinion on this argument, rather than just saying "I like this better." Why be stuck wearing white, the least distinguishable, most universal and most bland uniform color, when the options just look better?

Wouldn't we all want to see more of this anyway?

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Monday, August 27, 2007

Uh oh

The idea of the Reds being eliminated by Toulouse in their third-round Champions League qualifier just got a little less outlandish.

Yes, Liverpool still out-classes the French side by a factor of 10, even without Gerrard and defender Jamie Carragher, but few teams rely on its skipper to the degree that the Reds do, and one has to wonder if Torres has had enough time with his new side to actually set the pace for the offense. Factor in the fact that Rafa seems unwilling to ever let Peter Crouch feel like he's a valued member of the team, and one couldn't ask for a better setting for a stunning upset.

The Gerrard injury might have big consequences for England's national squad as well, which was already limping though its summer slate of friendlies and Euro Cup qualifiers. Rooney's already out for the next few matches, Owen is what he's always been (gimpy, but supposedly close to being fit), the keeper situation is up in the air, a once-left-for-dead Beckham is still suffering from his ankle sprain, and Steve McLaren is looking no more competent at the helm of the Lions than the near-lynched Sven.

Essentially, within the next month or so, England could find itself without representation by either its most historically prolific club and its national team in the two most important European competitions.

In a word: Wow.

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Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Best of What's on TV, Aug 27-Sept 2

With all the European Leagues in full swing, it'll be a jam-packed weekend of EPL and Serie A fixtures on Fox Soccer. Nothing really worth watching in La Liga this week, but there is an appearance by Spain's Sevilla in Friday's UEFA Super Cup tilt. If you don't have a ton of room on the DVR, go ahead and delete those episodes of Ken Burns' Jazz you've been sitting on for the last six months, because you're going to need the space.


UEFA Champions League (3rd Qualifying Round, 2nd Leg)

Liverpool v. Toulouse
2 p.m., GolTV
Last year's runner-up is walking the razor's edge against the upstart French side, going into this match with a tie after an unimpressive 1-0 victory in the Liverpool home leg. Sure, it's almost unfathomable that the Reds will actually end up on the losing side of the ledger to a team that's enjoying it's first go-round in the Champions League — that's ever — but stranger things have happened. On the bright side, it appears Rafa Benitez's vendetta against Peter Crouch only applies to domestic matches; the robot-dancing phenom played all 90 minutes against Toulouse in the first leg, contributing the assist in the game's lone goal.


UEFA Super Cup

AC Milan v. Sevilla
2:30 p.m., Fox Soccer Channel
In one of the stranger hardware games of each season, UEFA Cup champs Sevilla will take on Champions League victors Milan in what could be a surprisingly good game, if recent history is to be taken at face value. Sevilla's going for a second-straight Super Cup after last season's 6-3 drubbing of Barca, so there's reason to believe that any effort by the Rossoneri to hold back will be met with some pretty fierce resistance.


Premier League

Fulham v. Tottenham Hotspur
9:55 a.m., Fox Soccer Channel
It's Team America vs. Team Sleeper, as everyone's favorite pick to upset the usual gridlock in the top four of the EPL gets an opportunity to take out some rocky-start aggression on a side that appears well on its way to relegation. But the silver lining here is the opportunity to see former USMNT keeper Kasey Keller back between the pipes, and fellow Yank Clint Dempsey continue to prove that he should have been starting all along for the foundering Cottagers. If Dempsey scores another goal this week, he should be a lock to appear in another rap video, shortly.

Premier League
Liverpool v. Derby County
9:55 a.m., Setanta
It's pronounced "Darby," guys. I can't stress that enough.

Premier League
Manchester United v. Sunderland
Noon, Fox Soccer Channel
I don't know about you, but I'm taking Man U's one-point lead in the standings over Sunderland as evidence that this one will be a thriller. That's not completely in jest, either: The Devils have scored exactly one goal through three games, and they'll be without Ronaldo (suspension) and Rooney, who's apparently trying to convince everyone he can play with a broken foot. Yes, Man-U should roll, but let's not assume the season-opening slump is over until it's actually over. Oh, and this game also marks the return of former Manchester United captain Roy Keane to Old Trafford, this time as Sunderland's manager. Can he pull one over on Fergie?

Serie A
Empoli v. Inter Milan
2:25 p.m., Fox Soccer Channel
OK, it's probably a little early to say Inter's "slumping," but the season-opening draw against Udinese was baffling, considering last year's Scudetto winner went to great lengths to get even better in the offseason. Inter usually reserves its swan-dives for European competition, so expect the Nerazzuri to actually show up. That said, Empoli's a plucky squad that's looking to prove a point after a UEFA Cup berth, and Inter just received news that stopper Marco Materazzi will be out for at least a couple of months after a leg injury suffered in a friendly/humiliating loss to Hungary last week. Materazzi said the injury was "fate," and a sign that he was not meant to slander any of the French players' sisters in the Sept. 8 Euro Cup qualifier. Il Dio, truly, works in mysterious ways.

Premier League
Arsenal v. Portsmouth
8 a.m., Setanta
The good news for the Gooners is that Pompey hasn't won a road fixture since before this writer was a footie fan (OK, not really). More good news for Arsenal is that L.A.H. (Life After Henry) hasn't turned out to be all that bad, thanks in large part to the early-season exploits of Fabregas and Van Persie. The good news for Pompey? They were a goalkeeper error away from a 0-0 draw against Chelsea last week, though I'm sure Mourinho would tell you the only reason the Blues didn't score another goal was because he wanted them to work on passing within the box.

Serie A
Roma v. Siena
9 a.m., Fox Soccer Channel
I'm not going to lie: This game will be an absolute beat-down. But it should be a pretty beat-down; have I mentioned that Roma plays the most beautiful football in the world right now? Fawning aside, the Giallorossi have two fairly easy fixtures left before a tone-setting tilt against Juventus on Sept. 23, and Francesco Totti did not look match-fit in the opener; these next two matches will be a much-needed opportunity for the Roma skipper to get his legs back before the real competition arrives.

Premier League
Aston Villa v. Chelsea
11 a.m., Fox Soccer Channel
Chelsea has 10 points through four games. Aston Villa has four, and that includes a win over a feckless Fulham squad. I only know two things: 1) Chelsea will win; 2) It will be closer than you think. Don't ask me to justify that statement; I just know it will be the case.

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