Thursday, April 30, 2009

Test of character and mental strength for Arsenal

Manchester United clearly dictated the pace of the game, but only have one goal to show for it in their 1-0 European Champions League defeat of Arsenal last night.

Arsène Wenger boldly predicted Arsenal would make Manchester United regret not turning their superiority into the hard currency of more goals for Sir Alex Ferguson's team. Daniel Taylor of the Guardian reports that Wenger admitted his side had been outplayed but expressed his confidence that "a different Arsenal" would retrieve the situation in the second semifinal leg in London on Tuesday.

"It was a difficult game for us and when you look at the number of clear-cut chances that Manchester United created then, of course, they were on top," he said. "The positive for us is that it's only 1-0 and next week, playing at home, I am confident you will see a different Arsenal."

"We still have a good chance to reverse the result. We have the quality to do it and we believe we do it. The tie is still very open. They [United] will have regrets because they didn't get a second goal and it's down to us to make sure they regret it. It's a good opportunity to show our character and mental strength. There's a final at stake and, don't worry, when we are playing at home and can reach a final we will be up for it. I'm confident because I know we will be on top on Tuesday."

Ferguson was disappointed that his side didn't take more advantage, but his comments were more of the glass being half-full than half-empty.

"The most positive aspect is that before the game we spoke about trying to win without losing a goal and we've done that," he said. "The performance was very good and we've given ourselves a really good chance. The tie is obviously not over but we have players who can score a goal at their place and we have shown that we definitely carry a goal threat. We know we can go there and score and that's the problem for Arsenal."

Preki makes changes without 'tinkering'

Where I referenced a couple of weeks ago the similarities between former Chelsea manager Claudio 'the tinkerman' Rainieri and current New York Red Bulls manager Juan Carlos Osorio, it seems like Chivas USA manager Preki has found success while forced to make changes to his team.

Jeffrey King of reports that in Chivas USA's first seven matches of 2009, Preki has used seven different starting lineups. Whether because of injury, national team duty, or suspension, the Red-and-White have had a different look every time they've played.

The rotating lineup doesn't seem to have hampered Chivas USA's success, as the team currently sits in first place in MLS.

"Using different lineups can be hard," said striker Justin Braun. "As you play with each other more and more, you start learning people's tendencies and every time the lineup changes, you have to adapt pretty quickly.

"But I think we've done a good job with it. We're getting the results, so something's going right."

Much of the success of Chivas USA's ever-changing lineups rests in the players' ability to perform well in more than one spot on the field, or to even learn a new position entirely.

"When I came here, I knew I was going to be used in different positions," said Atiba Harris. "I'm used to it. Wherever the coach wants me to play, I'll play. It's not really too much of a challenge to switch positions."

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The war of words

Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger will resume their rivalry when Manchester United and Arsenal lock horns in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League semi-final clash on Wednesday.

The fixture has historically delivered its fair share of memorable moments, many of those coming in the 13 years since Wenger took up the reins in north London.

In that time Ferguson and Wenger have met 37 times in competitive action, with the Frenchman edging their intense duel with 15 wins to 14.

More often than not, however, the rivalry has spilled over into verbal sparring, with neither manager afraid to speak up in defence of their respective clubs and players.

And although there are now signs of an entente cordialle between the pair, we recall some of the pair's memorable quotations.


"When we meet in airports we don't fight. Those meetings are even funny." - Wenger lifts the lid on a more cordial relationship with Ferguson.


"He's a novice - he should keep his opinions to Japanese football." - Ferguson sticks the knife in during the early days of Wenger's Arsenal tenure.

Preparing for the chess match

Just what are Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger forecasting by way of their opponent's plan of attack in this week's Champions League semi-final? Geoff Shreeves of Sky Sports looks at each of the managers from Manchester United and Arsenal, and what they are likely focusing on today-

The Scot (Ferguson) probably has the easier of the two tasks as it would seem that Arsenal only know how to play one way, however he too will be analysing the small details. Will Fabregas be deployed just off Adebayor or will Wenger revert to a 4-5-1 formation as he often does in away games in Europe?

Did Wenger show his opposite number any of his hand in the win over 'Boro that Sir Alex witnessed personally? Is Silvestre really injured? Will Clichy be fit enough to replace the promising but inexperienced Gibbs to face up to Ronaldo? There's plenty there to occupy the mind of 'The Laird' of Old Trafford.

Turn the tables and there is an equal amount of food for thought for the Frenchman (Wenger). The biggest question he is probably asking himself is just what sort of form are United in right now? Results of late have been good but their performances are nowhere near as solid as earlier in the season.

Is the defence that set a record for clean sheets only months ago vulnerable, even with Ferdinand and Vidic? If so, should that set the tone and tempo of Arsenal's game plan? Where will Rooney play? Is Berbatov due a big performance? Questions, questions.

On top of all of that there are outside factors to consider too. Home advantage? With a team as free scoring as Arsenal it could be a distinct disadvantage. Experience? Bar a couple, every United player will have at least one Champions League winners medals, by contrast the majority of the Arsenal squad have never won anything. Plus these two have never met in Europe and football over two legs it is very different. Small details, big prize.

Team spirit, tactics lead Chelsea

Chelsea emerged from the first leg of their UEFA Champions League semi-final with a creditable 0-0 draw after nullifying the attacking threat posed by Barcelona.

They will now head to Stamford Bridge for the return meeting next week believing they are capable of reaching a second consecutive final. The combination of a great team spirit and stingy defensive tactics helped the Blues gain a valuable draw on the road.


Chelsea manager Guus Hiddink praised midfield maestro Frank Lampard for the manner in which he accepted his second half substitution, understanding that a tactical switch was required for the good of the collective cause.

"We have a very good attitude in the team when it is necessary. Even a big player like Frank has to go off for tactical reasons," added the Chelsea coach.

"It is accepted and it is great to have the players with the right attitude. If it is necessary for the result we do that."

Lampard has a good handle on the relationship between hard work, discipline and success.

"You have to be very disciplined in the roles and work very hard. You have to do a lot of selfless running, not particularly flashy running, but just to try and cover ground and cover people, and I think across the team we've done that tonight and got our reward."


Hiddink came out with a tight and compact team that included both defensive midfielders Michael Essien and Jon Obi Mikel in the side, and right back Jose Bosingwa deployed at left back. Bosingwa is also set to receive thoroughly-deserved plaudits for the manner in which he dealt with Argentine superstar Lionel Messi, but Hiddink believes the Blues may not be so fortunate when it comes to the second leg.

"Messi was rather well neutralised tactically tonight," he said.

"Bosingwa did a good job and had some help from (Florent) Malouda on the left side and good support from the centre as well when Messi cut inside."

"It can happen one night that you stop him, but I don't think it will happen twice."

Manager Guus Hiddink believes Chelsea showed enough at Camp Nou to suggest that is possible to advance, but accepts there is still much to be done against one of the world's most talented teams.

"Barcelona play beautiful football and possession is crucial to their game," said the Dutchman.

"The only thing they couldn't do was find a goal and I think Petr Cech did a good job defensively."

"They couldn't create the big chances and we were a little bit unlucky with Didier (Drogba) in the first half, but we have to accept that they posed more of a threat. We fought very bravely."

"We know this is the only team in the world that can immediately take advantage when you lose your discipline and punish you. The guys did very well."

"The only thing we would like to have done is to have more possession and pose more of a threat, but this is one of the best teams in the world.",19528,11945_5252847,00.html,19528,11945_5252832,00.html

TFC to shift assistant to interim coach's job

Toronto FC officials will hold a news conference today to announce an interim replacement for former head coach John Carver.

Introductions won't be needed.

Chris Cummins and Nick Dasovic, both in their second season with TFC, will take on a heftier role in place of Carver, who abruptly quit last Saturday on the eve of a first-place showdown with Kansas City.

"They're both great guys. They get on really well with the boys and I think we showed on Sunday that we're together," midfielder Carl Robinson said yesterday, referring to a 1-0 win that vaulted TFC into top spot in Major League Soccer's Eastern Conference.

"They're both great coaches," Robinson said. "They're both very technical ... very tactical. So, it's going to be in good hands."

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Definition of Success is different for Keane

New Ipswich manager Roy Keane is one of a number of managers who were playing under Sir Alex Ferguson in 1994. Steve Bruce, Mark Hughes and Paul Ince have all transferred the skills they learned under Fergie but, in typical fashion, Keane insisted that none of them could yet be classed as ‘good’ managers. In Keane's mind, winning titles and trophies determine a manager's success.

"Who are the good managers you are talking about? Sparky (Mark Hughes) and Brucey (Steve Bruce) have not won a trophy have they? They have potential, but you have the potential to be top journalists,” continued Keane.“Steve Bruce has had a good season, but Steve Bruce has been manager how many years. Sparky has done a brilliant job at Blackburn, but is facing different challenges at Manchester City. We are all facing different challenges. Until an ex-teammate of mine from 1994 goes on and really achieves something, then I would not agree with what you are saying about being a successful manager. You need a bit more than some of those managers have achieved yet."

Keane was regarded a taskmaster as the captain of Manchester United, and holds his own players to high standards now as a manager.

"I'll ask of them what I always ask of them as a manager: that they'll be on time for training and that they give 100 per cent. If they do that, they'll enjoy working for me. If they don't, it'll be a very brief relationship."

Superstition from the reins

I'm not gonna lie...I'm superstitious.

Whether it be what I eat on game day to what I wear on the sidelines, I think having little superstitions help keep me at ease. has a list of some of the unique superstitions from managers all over the world.

Legendary Leeds United manager Don Revie was exceptionally superstitious. He would wear the same suit until the Yorkshire outfit lost, always took the same route to the dugout at Elland Road, had a fear of ornamental elephants, believed a gypsy curse was hindering his team and was adamant that birds brought bad luck.

Hiddink plays mind games

Very similar to a successful chess player, it is not uncommon for a manager or his coaching staff to play out every predicted scenario in a match to have predetermined counters to their opponent.

This philosophy is a common practice for Chelsea's Guus Hiddink, who does so before every game his teams play, where he goes over every potential pitfall in his head.

"You have to think ahead and I have played Barcelona twice in my head," he told The Sun.

"In my head, I have never lost a game in preparation. But you have to focus a lot on the difficulty and the complexity of the job Bosingwa has to do."

Hiddink doesn't show too many of his cards leading into this critical European Champions League semifinal match today versus Barcelona, but Sky Sports' Richard Bailey reports on the challenges that Hiddink feels that Barca possesses.

"Although they like to attack, we like to attack as well, but when you play Manchester United or Liverpool, it is a less controlled game and can go either way. Like pinball," he added.

"When you play Liverpool or United or they play us, the pace of the game can go up any second. Boom."

"But Barca are very smart. They can turn the pace of the game up or down. You think you are in control and then all of a sudden they strike."

"They are skilful and have very good possession and can frustrate a team by having possession."

"We must not get frustrated. If they score then we must have the confidence that we can score at any moment."

Osorio 'tinkers' with Red Bulls lineup

Claudio Rainieri was nicknamed 'the tinkerman' by the London media because of the number of changes he made to his Chelsea team while he was at the helm.

Juan Carlos Osorio of the New York Red Bulls has a similar reputation, and defended his style to the New York Times' Jack Bell, based on their recent poor form. Osorio has used 7 different lineups in 7 different matches this MLS season.

“Our players have a responsibility to be in good form in training and in games,” Osorio said after his club squandered a lead and allowed two late goals to lose to D.C. United on Sunday afternoon. “We have five games in two weeks and I need to rotate them. We adjust our team to the opposition.”

Monday, April 27, 2009

Giggs finally voted player of the year at 35

LONDON (AP) -- Manchester United stalwart Ryan Giggs has been voted player of the year by his fellow English league professionals for the first time at the age of the 35.

The top PFA accolade was the one prize that had eluded him since making his United debut in March 1991.
After receiving the award Sunday night, Giggs is now hoping to make his 800th appearance for the Premier League leaders in Wednesday's Champions League semifinal first leg against Arsenal.

Despite his age, Giggs remains key to United's quest for a quintuple this season. The team has already won the Club World Cup and League Cup, while still remaining on course to defend its English and European titles.

Giggs, who is contracted to the Red Devils until June 2010, has won 10 Premier League titles, two Champions League titles, four FA Cups and two League Cups - all with United.

"It's right up there with personal accolades, it's the best to have as it's voted by your fellow players,'' Giggs said at the London ceremony. "I've been fortunate to win a lot of trophies, I won the young player award twice, but this is the big one.''

Bayern sack Klinsmann

Juergen Klinsmann, who had been unsuccessfully courted by U.S. Soccer to replace Bruce Arena in 2006, has been sacked from his first coaching job since guiding host Germany to third place of 2006 World Cup. Bayern Munich dismissed Klinsmann on Monday following the latest disappointing result -- a 1-0 loss to Schalke 04.

The loss left Bayern in third place in the Bundesliga, which it won last season for a record 21st time. Klinsmann replaced Ottmar Hitzfeld at the start of the 2008-09 season. Klinsmann, who had never coached club soccer and whose Germany stint was his first as a coach overall, lost his bosses' faith when Bayern was eliminated from two cup competitions and slipped up again in league play. Bayern was ousted from the Champions League by Barcelona, which thumped Bayern 4-0 in the first leg of the quarterfinal, 4-0, and won 5-1 on aggregate. Bayern was also ousted from the German Cup, which it had won last season.

Klinsmann was thought to have 'Americanized' the club, with him living in California, bringing in two American assistant coaches - Martin Vasquez and Nick Theslof - and training methodology developed here in the United States.

Former coach Jupp Heynckes will take over as head coach for the remaining five games with Hermann Gerland as his assistant.

"We did not come to this decision lightly," club chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said in a statement. "But the results of the past weeks, the way in which they came about and above all, the situation we find ourselves in five games before the end of the season forced us to act out of a sense of responsibility to the club."

Next Toronto FC coach must know MLS

Toronto FC head coach John Carver had submitted his resignation, and after three different coaches in three seasons, continuity has to be a must.

Gareth Wheeler of the Toronto Sun reported that TFC director of soccer Mo Johnston admits he bit off more than he could chew trying to coach while balancing GM duties in Year 1, and that he has to get his next move right. That next move should start with someone who has some clear experience in MLS, someone who understands the demands and rigors of the league.


This should have been priority for the club from Day 1. MLSEL may have thought it had its guy in Johnston upon the club's inception, but it's unclear whether Johnston saw himself as the long-term coaching solution or saw the position as a necessary stepping-stone to becoming director of soccer.

The two newest MLS teams -- San Jose and Seattle -- made it their priority to go out and get proven MLS coaching commodities with winning track records and high levels of understanding of the North American game.

Attractive coaching candidates are out there.

For example, there are few individuals who know MLS better than John Harkes. The ESPN analyst is an American soccer legend who has experience as an MLS assistant coach and experience with U.S. youth national teams.

New England Revolution head coach Steve Nichol was a compelling name rumoured to be floating around the TFC coaching vacancy at the time Carver was hired. Nichol is employed, but may be looking for a new challenge.

Nichol's long-time assistant, Paul Mariner, may be a better candidate. The former English player has a bevy of experience as an MLS assistant coach under Nichol and has been linked to numerous open MLS head coaching positions in recent years.

Harkes has some playing and TV experience, but with very limited coaching experience, you would think that there are more qualified candidates out there.

My hope is that Toronto FC heeds Wheeler's advice, and looks for someone with a proven track record coaching in the US and in MLS. Toronto FC has one of the best venues and fan bases in the league, and it would be great for Major League Soccer to have someone with a clear picture as their head coach.

Schmid keeps reserves ready

Major League Soccer dissolved it's reserve division at the conclusion of the 2008 season, reducing the opportunity for MLS understudies to get ample playing time.

Despite that, Seattle Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid has been able to keep his reserves busy with a make-shift reserve schedule that has allowed his players the opportunity to make up matches and stay sharp.

"These are our games," defender Patrick Ianni said. "These are our chances to get better. We use them to get better at a number of different things ... how you can stay sharp, so when you get your chance with the first team, it's not like you haven't played in months. So it's been very nice that they've put these games together for guys that aren't playing."

Thursday, April 23, 2009

American-Iranian Ghotbi handed Iran job

Soccer America's Paul Kennedy reports that Iran has hired its third national team coach in less than a month, and it is an Iranian-born and U.S.-educated coach.

Afshin Ghotbi has mostly recently been coaching in Iran for Persepolis in 2007 and 2008. Ghotbi, who attended UCLA and was credited for discovering John O'Brien while working as a youth coach in Southern California, replaced Mohammad Mayely-Kohan, who resigned after only two weeks on the job. Mayely-Kohan had replaced former Iran star Ali Daei after the team's 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia in Tehran jeopardized its chances of qualifying for the 2010 World Cup.

Ghotbi, 45, had briefly been an assistant coach with MLS's Los Angeles Galaxy and spent eight years in South Korea working with the national team program and Samsung Bluewings.

"I've had success with Persepolis," said Ghotbi. "I know the players. I think I'm the best candidate. That I'm an Iranian-American, maybe at times that is not very interesting."

Steve Sampson is the only American-born coach to manage a national team program outside of the United States team, having managed Costa Rica. Where Ghotbi is not a US citizen, it is encouraging to see another coach with a US pedigree getting a chance to manage a national team.

"He's Back"

I couldn't recall if it was from Poltergeist or 'Chucky', but one of football's most popular characters is back, too.

Roy Keane has been confirmed as the new manager of Ipswich Town, replacing Jim Magilton who was sacked on Wednesday.

The 37-year-old returns to management after resigning from his job as manager of Premier League Sunderland in December.

Keane had argueably been the most successful leader on the field during the modern era as Manchester United's captain, and proved his successful transition into management after gaining promotion with Sunderland from the Championship into the English Premier League.

Ipswich Town are eager to return to the top flight and see the former Manchester United midfielder as the man to realise that dream.

Keane worked wonders at the Stadium of Light after arriving at the club at the start of the 2006/07 season, transforming them from relegation fodder to Championship champions in just a matter of months.

Club owner Marcus Evans said: "I am delighted that Roy has agreed to join us and we are completely aligned in our ambitions for Ipswich Town.

"He has extensive contacts in the game and is a proven winner who encourages his team to play the attractive football that Ipswich Town fans have come to expect.

"I believe he is the right man to take this club where we want to be - the Premier League.''

Clegg, the former chief executive of the British Olympic Association, added: "The appointment of Roy Keane further demonstrates our commitment to help Ipswich Town Football Club achieve our aim of returning to the Premier League at the earliest possible opportunity.

"Roy has experienced promotion as Championship winners as a manager and, importantly, then kept his side in English football's top flight, and I am looking forward to working with him.''

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Business as usual for Scholes

Assuming he appears against Portsmouth today, Paul Scholes will join a select band of players when he makes his 600th appearance for Manchester United.

If the 34-year-old does feature today, only Ryan Giggs, Bobby Charlton and Bill Foulkes will have played more games for the Red Devils - pretty impressive company.

Scholes was once described by former World Footballer of the Year Zinedine Zidane described as "the greatest midfielder of his generation", but has always gone about his business in a mild-mannered and unassuming approach that makes him endearing to his teammates.

Boasting an array of passing that threatens to outdo his menacing shooting technique and also bagging his fair share of headed goals Scholes is a master at all aspects of the game.

Current team-mate Rio Ferdinand gives an insight into Scholes the person and highlights his pinpoint passing accuracy.

"He'll do ridiculous things in training like say, 'you see that tree over there?' - It'll be 40 yards away - 'I'm going to hit it'. And he'll do it. Everyone at the club considers him the best".

Like all great players he always seems to have an abundance of time on the ball, spraying passes around the pitch at will and often dictating the tempo of a game. It's simple- when Scholes plays, Manchester United play.

However, Scholes' wider contribution to United stretches far wider than the number of appearances he has made and evidence of this can be found in the number of trophies he has won over the years.

Along with the Champions League success the veteran has amassed eight Premier League titles, three FA Cups, one League Cup, an Intercontinental Cup and a FIFA World Club Cup.

Possibly the greatest accolade for any player is the praise and respect of your fellow professionals and Scholes has admirers across the globe with Ferguson hailing him as "one of the best football brains Manchester United has ever had."

Former team-mate of 11-years Roy Keane says, "(he is) an amazingly gifted player who remained an unaffected human being."

While Laurent Blanc adds, "I tell anyone who asks me - Scholes is the best English player."

But almost certainly the greatest tribute, and there are many, comes from United legend Bobby Charlton: "Many great players have worn this shirt of Manchester United. Players I worshipped, then lost with my youth in Munich. Players like Dennis Law and George Best who I enjoyed so much as team-mates and now, finally, players I have watched closely in the Alex Ferguson era. And in so many ways Scholes is my favourite."

Whether it be his flawless technique, his knack for scoring world-class goals, or his ability to carry his lunch pail in a blue-collar approach to his training and professionalism, Paul Scholes will be recognized today among the world's best.

Greatest EPL match ever?

I have spoken to a number of different people who had watched the Arsenal-Liverpool match yesterday who are hailing it as potentially the greatest English Premier League match ever. The topsy-turvy match ended in a 4-4 draw.

Andrey Arshavin netted all four of Arsenal's goals and looked to have secured victory with a fantastic breakaway effort with moments to go, but there was still time for Yossi Benayoun to snatch a point for Liverpool.

The tie puts Liverpool at the top of the EPL table, but with Manchester United having two games at hand, it looks like the lost points could have put Liverpool out of reach for the title.

The Gunners had taken a surprise 1-0 lead into half-time despite being firmly on the back foot for long periods, with Arshavin crashing the ball in off the crossbar after 36 minutes.

Fernando Torres levelled with a powerful header from Dirk Kuyt's cross early in the second half and a brave Benayoun put Liverpool 2-1 in front moments later after poor defending from the Gunners.

Arshavin dispossessed Alvaro Arbeloa to equalise with a superb shot from outside the area on 67 minutes and the Russian playmaker then grabbed his third of the evening to silence the Anfield crowd.

Liverpool responded again and made it 3-3 thanks to a clinical finish from Torres 18 minutes from time, but the drama was far from over as Arshavin's fourth was cancelled out by Benayoun.

I am hoping the game will be replayed later in the week, and if you haven't had a chance to see the highlights, make sure you click on the link below.

I know that some of the leaky defending has sparked comments from TV commentary, but with the way the match went back and forth and with all of the goals being scored, it certainly appears like it was the most exciting match of the season.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Why Be A Coach?

David Clarke had a great video that he found on his blog ( that really sums up what it means to be a coach - the link to that video is below:

College products blaze trail for 2009 MLS season - part II

As Soccer America reports, MLS rookies fresh out of college soccer are paving the way to success in Major League Soccer in 2009.

Playing time for MLS rookies
Tuesday, Apr 21, 2009 7:00 AM ET
[MAKING A LIST] After five weeks, 12 rookies have played more than 200 minutes. Three rookies -- Chris Pontius (D.C. United), Omar Gonzalez (Los Angeles) and Darrius Barnes (New England) -- have played ever minute for their respective teams.

450 Chris Pontius (D.C. United) - UC Santa Barbara
442 Rodney Wallace (D.C. United) - Maryland
405 Sam Cronin (Toronto FC) - Wake Forest
360 Darrius Barnes (New England) - Duke
360 Omar Gonzalez (Los Angeles) - Maryland
315 Stefan Frei (Toronto FC) - California
274 Jeremy Hall (New York) - Maryland
273 Matt Besler (Kansas City) - Notre Dame
270 George John (FC Dallas) - Washington
229 A.J. DeLaGarza (Los Angeles) - Maryland
216 Steve Zakuani (Seattle) - Akron
208 Gerson Mayen (Chivas USA)
179 Kevin Alston (New England) - Indiana
119 Graham Zusi (Kansas City) - Maryland
83 Quincy Amarikwa (San Jose) - UC Davis
82 Alec Dufty (New York) - Evansville
72 Kyle Patterson (Los Angeles) - St Louis
71 Michael Lahoud (Chivas USA) - Wake Forest
38 Raphael Cox (Real Salt Lake) - Washington
37 Chukwudi Chijindu (Chivas USA) - Connecticut
11 Danny Cruz (Houston) - UNLV
7 Jean Alexandre (Real Salt Lake) - Lynn
4 Brandon Barklage (D.C. United) - St. Louis

Monday, April 20, 2009

"You can't win 'em all"

That was the case for Manchester United this past weekend, as they were eliminated from the FA Cup by Everton in penalty kicks.

A lot had been made of United's quest for winning an unprecedented Quintuple - five major trophies - but was not to be as American Tim Howard stopped two penalty kicks en route to the semifinal victory.

As I saw the result, it reminded me of a conversation I once had with Duke University basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski: our Duke University soccer team had started the 2004 season with a 5-game scoreless streak, and after conceding our first goal of the season against East Carolina University, he referenced how fortunate we must feel to have that streak to have ended; he felt that when you were competing for a championship, you don't want to have peripheral distractions like 'streaks' - it's great to shut out your opposition, but your main objective is to win games and prepare for your next opponent.

Manchester United will play more matches than any team in the world this season, between English Premier League, Carling Cup, FA Cup, European Champions League and World Club Championship matches (not including pre-season tours, etc). As much as fans would like to think that their team will win all the time, there are so many factors that go into winning matches - players being in form, avoiding injuries, etc. Former Duke University soccer coach John Rennie used to talk about those factors that are needed to win a championship, and thought that luck was a pretty big factor as well.

Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United team is out of the FA Cup, but he has also always referenced in the past that his priorities have always been the English Premier League and the European Champions League. Now, he and his team can put their full attention on those trophies.

"It is always disappointing to lose a semi-final but you can't win them all and our targets are fairly obvious. We have to win the league and hopefully get to Rome (for the Champions League final)."

Sunday, April 19, 2009

It's a business trip for Miami Heat

Depending on the culture within the locker room of a professional sports franchise, it could be easy to be distracted by the active night life in major cities on the road.

That will not be the case for the Miami Heat in the 1st round of the NBA Playoffs, as the Heat players have set up a "no-go-out policy" for their trip to Atlanta. The Heat kick off their series against the Hawks today.

"I think it's the best leadership and the strongest leadership that these guys have shown here in a Heat uniform," Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. "That's the most powerful. We've talked about it all the time as a staff. Sometimes that can fall on, you know, not deaf ears, but when your veteran guys and your captains say that, I think that's a beautiful thing."

Credit Heat captains Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem - the only holdovers in the rotation from the 2006 NBA Champions - for both setting a good example, as well as learning from established veterans when they were coming up.

"The veteran guys before us, when we came in to the league like Brian Grant, Eddie Jones, that's what they believed in," said Wade, referring to two former Heat captains. "So this is the core of what we know. This is focus time. This isn't play time. Play time is the summer. You can do what you want in the regular season, too. Not now. We're the leaders, so we're just going from what we know."

Does being a great player equal success as a coach?

From the Evansville Courier Press
April 19, 2009

When asked about helping select a coach for a youth soccer team, it was suggested to look at hiring a local college player. When I asked why they would want a player, the parent responded ‘well he’s a good player, so he’d probably be a good coach’.

It is not uncommon to associate that a playing pedigree would immediately translate into coaching success, but in most cases, being a successful player has very little to do with finding success as a coach.

What should be the criteria in hiring a coach or manager, whether it be in youth soccer, other sports, or even in business - Should the candidate have experience? Should the candidate have proper training? Should he be recruited from the same industry (former player)?

It would be challenging to think that you could be a successful coach if you didn’t have experience playing the game at a comparable level that you are being asked to coach at. Saying that, a comparable playing level would be relative to your own understanding of the game. It is more important having actually played the game (understanding how the game is played, the tactics, the rules) and dealing with players at that level (man-management) than it does to have had a certain level of success as a player.

It used to be a common argument in hiring coaches who hadn’t been standout players that the players would not have sufficient respect for a coach who was asking them to do things that they have never attempted themselves. Coaches gain more and more credibility by practical coaching experience – players will follow a leader who knows how to get their team success, and has shown that they have done it prior.

By seeing the success of a number of top coaches in different sports, it leads to the conclusion that there is absolutely no link between an individual’s ability to play well and his ability to manage well. Arrigo Sacchi, the former AC Milan and Italian National team manager who did not have much of a career as a player, was famously quoted as saying ‘You don’t have to have been a horse to become a good jockey’.

In most cases, the former players who have success in coaching were probably those who were tacticians as players – either because of a specific role they played on the field or court, or because of their lack of athletic ability or technical skill, needed to be more cunning to survive.

Former Glasgow Celtic and Scotland coach Jock Stein was described by Tom Campbell and David Potter in his biography:

“Every club he (Stein) played for appointed him captain and allowed him to discuss tactics with the manager. He was also known as a thoughtful player, and to be frank, with his limited skill, he had to rely on cunning and knowledge of the game in order to survive. This meant that he understood more about the basics of the game than many of his more famous contemporary players who tended to play instinctively.”

My guess is that the same way that Stein is described might also be the way that these great American professional sports coaches or managers are described:

• Baseball’s Mike Scioscia: world series champion with the LA Angels of Anaheim – defensive specialist as a player, who’s career batting average is around .250
• Basketball’s Phil Jackson: NBA champion with the LA Lakers and Chicago Bulls – defensive specialist and key reserve as a player
• Football’s Bill Belichick: Super Bowl Champion with the New England Patriots – played football, lacrosse and squash as a collegian at Wesleyan University

For as many great athletes who made the smooth transition to coaching, there are probably twice as many who couldn’t make the grade. Losing patience with players who weren’t as athletically gifted as they were becomes a major frustration, and ‘do like I do’ isn’t as easy as it sounds.

In fact, too much ability as a player can surely sometimes be a disadvantage when that person becomes a coach. If something comes naturally to a person, it can be difficult to convey that to someone who does not possess that same innate skill.

I once witnessed a former player who embarked into coaching observing one of their own players who was unable to perform a particular technique. His response was to step in, perfectly demonstrate, and then demanded ‘that’s what I want…now do it.’ He simply could not understand or empathize with the plight of the less talented individuals.

When looking at sending your child to play for a coach, regardless as to whether it be youth soccer or in a different sport, make sure that your coach has the proper coaching pedigree.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Doug Hamilton remembered

American soccer lost a good man when Doug Hamilton passed away in 2006, due to heart complications at the age of 43. He had accomplished quite a bit as a player, coach and executive, and is still remembered today.

The third annual Doug Hamilton Memorial Soccer Classic will be played at Raritan High School in Hamilton's hometown of Hazlet, N.J. on Saturday. Big East rivals Rutgers and Georgetown will meet in a friendly match at 7 p.m. and both teams will participate in a youth soccer clinic for children 14 and under on the athletic fields at Raritan HS beginning at 4 p.m. Mini youth matches featuring teams from the Hazlet Youth Soccer Association will start at 5:30 p.m.

Hamilton was a stellar player at Raritan High and went on to play for Mike Berticelli at UNC-Greensboro, winning three Division III national championships.

After a decorated collegiate career, Hamilton coached at Greensboro College for three years, leading the team to the Division III title game in 1989. He was inducted into the Greensboro College Hall of Fame in 2007. Hamilton was then an assistant coach at Duke University and the Blue Devils reached the College Cup semifinals in 1992.

From there Hamilton worked for adidas before joining the Miami Fusion, where attendance was up 49 percent in the two years he was the executive vice president there. In his five years in Los Angeles, the Galaxy never missed the playoffs and won a pair of MLS Cup titles. Hamilton was named the MLS Executive of the Year three times and the award is now in his name.

Those who are able to make it to Raritan H.S. will not only get to see a quality soccer game, but can also bid on some wonderful collectibles from every MLS squad, as well as a number of WPS teams and a signed Arsenal FC jersey courtesy of former MLS deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis, who is the chief executive of the famed English Premier League squad.

"It's selfish from my standpoint, but I love this event because it's an opportunity for me to see some old friends and to keep Doug's legacy alive," said Stephen Hamilton, Doug's brother and the vice president of soccer operations for Chivas USA. "He meant so much to me and to so many others to whom he was a friend, a teammate, a coach, a mentor or a boss in a number of different places. He was a special guy and it's great that a lot of people recognize that."

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Isiah Thomas - Santa Claus or 'snake'?

Isiah Thomas is arguably the greatest basketball player ever at 6'0" or shorter, and was regarded for his toughness as the point guard and leader of the NBA Detroit Pistons. He was the leader of the 'Bad Boys' era in Detroit, and was nicknamed 'snake' because of his toughness and sharp tongue with his teammates.

Thomas recently stunned the college basketball world - both by returning to the coaching ranks as the Head Coach of the Florida International University basketball team, and by then offering to donate his base salary in his first season back.

Here's a sign of how badly Isiah Thomas wanted to return to coaching: He's working for free at Florida International.

At his introductory news conference at FIU on Wednesday, Thomas said his salary the first year from the Golden Panthers will be donated back to the school's athletic department.

Thomas was fired by the New York Knicks last year. The team still owes him around $12 million for the final two years of his deal there.
Isiah Thomas said he knows building FIU's basketball program will take effort, but said "I'm willing to pay the price to do that."

FIU athletic director Pete Garcia said that when Thomas learned about layoffs and budget cuts, he told the university president that the school should keep his salary.

It made for good TV yesterday - and whether this was a Santa Claus-like gesture, or 'snake' talking a good game because his deal with the Knicks won't allow him to take a base salary at another coaching job, remains to be seen.

Either way, Thomas will rehabilitate his career and look to resuscitate the FIU program. Thomas said he took the FIU job because he enjoys challenges, and that he conferred with Bob Knight, his former coach at Indiana, and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, about what it took to build college programs.

"I like rolling up my sleeves. I like taking some from the bottom and building it to the top. There's a lot of risk in that and there is also a lot of reward in that. But that's how I grew up. I want to take FIU to the next level and I know it's going to take a lot of hard work, but I'm willing to pay the price to do that."

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Hiddink looks to rebuild Cech's confidence

The psyche of a goalkeeper is as fragile as it gets - in most cases, you are either the hero or the in between.

Because of that, it is not hard for a goalkeeper to his lose his confidence if goals are getting banged in against him and his team. Guus Hiddink is certainly a master motivator, and is doing a good job of aiding and supporting Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech during his dip in form over the past two weeks, as Sky Sports' James Dall reports.

Of Cech's state of mind, Blues manager Hiddink said: "He is a very intelligent and self-critical goalkeeper."

"He was not happy with his performance against Bolton although there was always a sequence of errors before he came into action. But he is very critical of his own performance even when he has had an almost perfect game."

"There were some things tonight [Tuesday] where you could see he was not full of confidence. I think a goalkeeper once in a while has a right not to have a big performance."

"But he will stay a very good goalkeeper, every person sometimes has this small period of not being on top form. If a player is playing a lesser game now and then, it is not always the reason to make a substitution."

Despite his poor performances over the past couple of weeks, the Czech Republic standout seems to be remaining positive and optimistic with the FA Cup semifinal versus Arsenal on the horizon.

"I would be disappointed to be left out against Arsenal. Who wouldn't be? This is a question for the manager, but one bad goal can't change what you have been doing all season," said Cech.

"You have to show your confidence in training and in games."

"If you go to speak to the manager, you can say whatever you want, but he needs to see your answers on the pitch, not in his office. In any case, I am sure we won't defend as badly again on Saturday."

"It is the first time in my Chelsea career that I have conceded so many goals in two consecutive games, and the first time I have made mistakes in both of them."

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Liverpool shows resilency despite loss

Despite being eliminated from the European Champions League today, I have to admit that I was really impressed with the resiliency and character that Liverpool played with.

Going into their second leg of their quarterfinal match against Chelsea, Rafa Benitez and his Liverpool side had a mountain to climb - they were already at a 3-1 deficit, and had to play the second leg without their leader and midfield general, Steven Gerrard.

They came agonisingly close to pulling off a dramatic comeback and left Stamford Bridge on Tuesday disappointed to have been held to a 4-4 draw. They led 2-0 and 4-3 at different stages of the game, putting them within touching distance of the semifinals.

Sky Sports' Chris Burton reports that Benitez learned a lot about his team tonight, and was able to draw a number of positives.

"We showed character and quality and we have to be really proud," he said.

"The players have done a fantastic job. The fans will be very pleased with the team."

"We were on top of them from the beginning, so credit to all of the players and especially Lucas in the middle, the position of (Steven)Gerrard, he worked very hard. Thanks to them we were pushing and we came very close."

"When you play against a team like Chelsea, though, you are made to pay for your mistakes and even though we were pushing and attacking, there were one or two mistakes and they scored."

"Clearly when you lose you are disappointed, but to lose in this way you have to be really proud, hold your head up and think about the Premier League."

"We are positive because we have shown that we can score four goals here at Stamford Bridge and we can do the same at any stadium. We can win many games with this mentality."

Having the ability to come out of the gates flying after being down 3-1 in their first leg shows tremendous resiliency on Liverpool's part, and seeing them to continue to claw back when they appeared to be down and out speaks volumes about the mentality they have within their team.

College products blaze trail for 2009 MLS season

Below is an article from Ridge Mahoney of Soccer America, where he outlines how college soccer (and specifically the 2009 rookie class), have made an impact in Major League Soccer (MLS).

Having had the chance to coach in the ACC at Duke University, and now in the Missouri Valley Conference at the University of Evansville, it is clear to see that college soccer is a fertile entity to draw players from. I had the chance to recruit and coach Barnes, Videira and Grella (referenced below) - and to see their success as professionals, you have to think that any MLS club that has a successful blueprint for success has their finger pointed toward the college game to find their top prospects.

University of Evansville standout Alec Dufty saw his first action in Major League Soccer this past weekend, and led the New York Red Bulls to a 0-0 draw against the Houston Dynamo. Dufty was named 'Man of the Match' by Fox Soccer Channel for his play in goal for the Red Bulls, earning his first career MLS shutout.

Getting it right with college products

Why is it that so often slew of pundits and experts decry the shallow pool
of talent available in the MLS SuperDraft and express astonishment during the
season at how well those players selected have performed?

There are myriad reasons, but foremost among them is that a coach looks for
untapped potential as much as poise and polish, for what a player can be,
whereas fans and reporters and others tend to look at what's on display

Claims from MLS coaches that the available pool of players for 2009 would
offer teams plenty of options to improve their rosters fell on many deaf ears,
so ignorance surely plays a role. And, of course, after the SuperDraft just
about coach claims he hit the lottery, so those post-draft proclamations have to
be discounted as well.

Scanning the lineups this season one runs across quite a few domestic
newcomers popping up. Whether the class of 2009 turns out to be a bumper crop
remains to be seen, but early indications are extremely positive. The prospect
of playing pro soccer, be it in MLS or abroad, and a reduction of roster spots
from 28 to 24 -- along with stricter economic conditions -- seems to be driving
a higher level of competence at both ends. More teams are finding better

Plucking players from the top college programs, such as Wake Forest,
Indiana and Maryland, hardly takes the acumen of an 'A' coaching license. But
more than a few pro coaches have told me they also look for players on
less-successful teams in competitive conferences. Many of them are required to
perform multiple tasks for their college teams, whereas in demanding yet
simplified roles with a pro club their strengths can be maximized.

Still, of course, they must sharpen their touches and skills and instincts,
and adjust to faster, rougher, more physical play. But a good college player can
also be a good pro, while not every college superstar will excel or even make
the grade. And it can take much longer for a talented trickster like Mehdi
Ballouchy to find his feet in MLS, whereas a solid defender like Darrius Barnes
(Duke/New England) or heady midfielder like Sam Cronin (Wake Forest/Toronto FC)
can step right in and get the job done.

Barnes and Cronin squared off a few times in the ACC. Wake is among the top
teams in the country, yet Duke has sent Barnes and Michael Videira (via
Scotland) to the Revs, and Mike Grella to Europe in the past two years. Coaches
look for players who can tough it out and produce against the best teams.

With or without No. 1 pick Steve Zakuani, the University of Akron isn't
likely to reach the final four. Yet the rookie has drawn upon his English
upbringing and college success to play a role in Seattle's impressive

It wouldn't take a brain surgeon to figure out that an attack-heavy lineup
of Dwayne De Rosario, Amado Guevera and Rohan Ricketts would take an extra dose
of stabilizing in addition to that provided by TFC veteran Carl Robinson. Yet
Cronin has done enough playing wide as well as in the middle to further
complicate the selection decisions for Coach John Carver.

And in the nets, where rookies rarely excel, Stefan Frei - a product of a
good but hardly famous program at UC Berkeley -- is in a neck-and-neck battle
with Canadian international Greg Sutton for the starting job. Frei's development
has been accelerated by his time with U.S. national youth teams, yet attacker
Chris Pontius (UC Santa Barbara) has gone straight into the starting lineup at
D.C. United without any such experience.

The final piece of the domestic development puzzle is how many creative
slots are filled not by international players but by homegrown products like
Pontius and Ballouchy, who is now with Colorado. As the league expands, teams
will have greater incentive to offer players like Grella more competitive
contracts, and find hidden gems such as Pontius, guys who can, as the coaches
like to say, "change the game."

Critics of the college game lament its overall quality and how it stifles a
player's development, and no doubt a short season and rudimentary level of play
aren't ideal training grounds for potential pros. Yet just as vital is how
efficiently MLS teams scout and evaluate and draft to get what they need, and if
the class of 2009 turns out not to be an exception but instead what teams and
coaches and fans -- and even pundits -- can expect every year, the league will
have taken another critical step in its development.

Monday, April 13, 2009

High standards in training are the difference at Manchester United

Great quote from Sir Alex Ferguson on about the standard of training at the club.

"I think the players at this club realise quickly they have to have a standard and they don't go below that standard or they won't be playing. So our training performances are fantastic," he said.

"The intensity, the concentration, the quality is always first class."

Essien is the consummate team player

Chelsea's Michael Essien is as valuable a player there is in his team's quest for titles in England and in Europe, and it is not just in his ability to score goals out of the midfield.

He did score a valuable goal against Juventus in the last leg of the UEFA Champions League to help Chelsea advance to the quarterfinals, but it is his versatility, unselfish attitude and single-minded focus on winning that makes him the key component for Chelsea success.

"Everybody said I must have been very happy with the goal, but for me, it is all about the team work," said Essien.

"We did a good job in Turin and it was a very positive result, so that is what is most important. I don't play for myself, I play for the team."

"I'd describe myself as a box-to-box midfielder, but I'll always respect the manager's decision, wherever I'm picked to play."

"Against Juventus it was a tactical move to put me on the right to try to stop the runs of Pavel Nedved."

"I always listen to the manager and I just go onto the field for every game and do what he asks me to do. So I don't really mind where I play as long as I'm out there doing a job for the team and the manager."

Essien's versatility was on display this past week in the 3-1 UEFA Champions League quarterfinal victory over Liverpool, as he shackled Liverpool star Steven Gerrard and kept him from imposing himself in the match.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

New Memphis hoops coach is a prodigy

Scott Cacciola writes about how basketball prodigy Josh Pastner became the head coach of the Memphis Tigers - from 14-year old AAU basketball scout, to student player/assistant coach at Arizona, to recruiting guru for Lute Olson (Arizona) and John Calipari (Memphis).

As a young teenager, he started writing "The Josh Pastner Scouting Report", which he sent out to every Division 1 coach in the country.

Whenever the Hoops hit the road for a tournament and had an off day, most of the players would head to the mall or back to the hotel. Hal Pastner would drop his son off at the gym at 8 a.m., then return at 10 p.m. to pick him up. In the meantime, Josh would scout games and make evaluations.

"He never got more excited than when he saw a great player nobody knew about," Hal Pastner recalled.

He was a self-made high school player, and worked himself into a roster spot at Arizona, where he was a freshman classmate of Mike Bibby. He often worked out together at 5 a.m.

"We'd sneak into the gym, sometimes we'd set the alarm off," said Courtney Pastner, Texas' high school player of the year in 1999. "He was just my role model, someone I idolized. He always told me, 'Friday nights, when your competition is out having fun, that's when you get ahead.'"

Not only did he have a roster spot at Arizona, but he became a coach within the team - getting standouts Bibby and Dickerson to work out with him.

His first week at Arizona, he called home. Pastner had enrolled because he wanted to be mentored by coach Lute Olson, who had recruited him as a sort of player/coach (more of the latter, less of the former). Pastner was living in an athletic dorm, and the football players were giving him a hard time. Plus, he was taking eight classes. His father offered some familiar advice: Just work harder.

"Josh is a carbon copy of his father," said Jim Rosborough, a former assistant at Arizona. "Three cell phones on the interstate, driving with his knee? That's father and son. We've all kidded Josh about being obsessive, a little compulsive. But he learned everything from his dad."

Josh Pastner has long referred to his father as his "best friend," and his advice resonated that first week of school. Buoyed by some tough love, he befriended fellow freshman Mike Bibby, a McDonald's All-American, and they started shooting baskets at 7 a.m. Pastner then recruited Michael Dickerson, the team's high-scoring guard, to work with him at 11 p.m. He assured both that the extra time would pay off.

"A lot of the guys were like, 'Who does this kid think he is?'" said Justin Wessel, a backup forward. "Here's this 5-10 walk-on getting Mike Bibby out of bed. But everything he did was so perfect, so he wanted everyone else to be perfect. The fact that the two stars bought into it so fast changed everything."

Not only had he developed into a credible coach on the court, but his tireless networking allowed him to generate a reputation as a top recruiter as well.

During his four years as a student, he earned two degrees -- his bachelor's in family studies and his master's in teaching -- and started work toward a Ph.D. But he never lost sight of The Goal. To that end, he somehow unearthed two hours each afternoon to man the pay phone outside the locker room at the McKale Center with a jar full of quarters. These were the days before he owned a cell phone, and Pastner would dial and dial and dial.

Asked whom he was calling back then, Pastner said: "Just people, staying in touch. Keeping up on calls."

Pastner understood better than most the power of networking, the importance of reaching out to coaches, associates, players, friends, former teammates, distant cousins -- anyone and everyone. He sensed that maintaining those contacts would prove valuable someday.

He worked his way up the ladder, from player to undergraduate assistant to video coordinator to recruiting coordinator to assistant coach. His reputation as a top-tier recruiter ballooned. He helped land and develop Chase Budinger, Nic Wise, Jordan Hill and Jerryd Bayless.

Having high expectations for yourself and your program, as well as placing high demands on everyone around you, are two key components for success. Knowing that, Josh Pastner is well on his way for carving out his own niche at Memphis.

He continues to push forward, the only way he knows. His life has always been consumed by rigid discipline and mind-numbing extremes. Little sleep, all work. He spent 22 years working toward the past seven days, when the dream turned real and he became the second-youngest head coach in Division 1.

So now, after all that striving and planning, he has his own program, his own team, and he will continue to choke the minutes out of every day, burdened not by Calipari's legacy but by his own expectations, the life he always wanted.

Zonal Defending on corners - more cons than pros

A lot has been made about Liverpool conceding two goals off of corner kicks in this past week's Champions League clash with Chelsea. Zonal defending is not an uncommon tactic on set pieces, but has been met with mixed reviews.

Sky Sports correspondent Andy Gray has pretty definite views about how to attack a team that defends zonally on corner kicks.

Much has been made of Liverpool's defensive strategy and let me say now I'm not a fan of zonal marking and never have been.

As a striker I liked playing against a side that zone marked across the edge of the six-yard box. Any good corner-taker will aim to drop it anywhere along that line and allow one of his players to get a run on it.

I guarantee that a running jump will beat a standing jump at any level of football at any time. I'm not saying it's a shocking system, but it is flawed and that makes it very difficult to blame people who are marking space.

It's not as if Liverpool don't have enough people to cope with Chelsea; yes Chelsea are big, but Liverpool have got two big centre-backs, while Torres, Gerrard and Dirk Kuyt are all good in the air. They could easily go man-to-man if Rafael Benitez wanted but he chooses to go zonal.

The majority of the time it works for them but I've covered a lot of games where they have conceded goals purely because they zone mark and that was the case on Wednesday night when they were very sloppy.,25212,12064_5166548,00.html

Accountability from Hiddink wins over Chelsea

Holding your players accountable is key to developing a positive culture in any team, and is apparently one of the keys to Guus Hiddink's success at Chelsea.

As Sky Sports reports, Hiddink would be the players' choice to manage the team on a permanent basis.

"He's done brilliantly. He's on at us every day in training, and he doesn't let anyone get away with anything."

The demands and expectations that Hiddink placed on each of his players has Chelsea back on course in the English Premiership and European Champions League.,19528,11661_5178238,00.html

Friday, April 10, 2009

Hamlett manages egos in Chicago

Soccer America's Ridge Mahoney writes of how Chicago Fire Head Coach Dennis Hamlett has had to balance the ego of key veteran players while leading the Fire to the top of the Eastern Conference.

Mexican national team standout Cuauhtemoc Blanco has been a key to the Fire's success since arriving in Major League Soccer in 2007, and has been a major draw at the gates as well. Entering the 2009 season with a knee problem that hampered him during the preseason, he has been open in the media about discussing whether he is fit to play now, questioning his head coach's decisions in the process.

"The coach said I'm not well enough yet, and I respect his decision," said Blanco. "But I'm fine. Those are the coach's decisions, and if I'm on the bench, well, then I'm on the bench. Everyone is trying to get to the final.

"From my point of view, I think we need midfielders, but those are the coach's decisions. And we have eight defenders which, honestly, is a lot to me."

How Hamlett manages this outburst from his irascible, irrepressible star is an early pop quiz in advanced pro coaching. Blanco didn't play last weekend in a 1-0 victory against New York, but played all 90 minutes in a midweek friendly against a college team. If the knee was a problem it doesn't appear to be one now.

Hamlett may simply have wanted to see how Blanco, who will be 36 this season, and the knee reacted to playing a full game as he ponders his personnel decisions. Or he may have been trying to make a point.

Any pro coach will tell you a crucial aspect of the job is managing players, keeping things rolling while retaining control, motivating the starters while not discouraging or angering the backups, riding out rough spots without roiling the waters too much. There are few elements of coaching more stressful than dealing with a occasionally brilliant, always compelling, sometimes infuriating personality like Blanco, who might be back in the groove in a week or two if he gets back on the field. But if he doesn't ....

The challenge that Hamlett has is being able to manage the egos of key players like Blanco, while also keeping his eye on the prize - advancing to the MLS Cup. The Fire currently shares first place with the New England Revolution heading into the 4th week of the season, and have done so with second-year players Patrick Nyarko and Marco Pappa in the lineup while using Blanco and Chris Rolfe off the bench. The improvement of Pappa and Nyarko adds them to the list of candidates, along with Blanco, Rolfe, Justin Mapp and rookie Baggio Husidic , to play attacking roles in support of Brian McBride.

Making those decisions and massaging a superstar ego play just as vital a role in success as tactics and systems of play, and is also the major difference between coaching at the professional level. Those who are able to do so find the most success - and winning matches. Getting wins certainly gives the head coach credibility in these situations, and it certainly seems like Hamlett is building credibility in the locker room with the Fire's early season success.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Hiddink tactics help do in Liverpool

Guus Hiddink had Chelsea look like a totally different team than they were two months ago versus Liverpool when they were managed by Luiz Scolari, and his tactics showed why he is regarded as one of the world's master coaches.

Phil McNulty of BBC Sports outlined how Hiddink game-planned to cut off Liverpool's key threats, and won this theoretical chess match against Rafael Benitez, rightly regarded as one of the Champions League's supreme strategists.

It appeared that his key points of emphasis were:

1) Take Steven Gerrard out of the match - by cutting him out, it also denied the right quality combination and service to their key scoring threat, Fernando Torres.

(Michael) Essien held the key to the tactical approach devised by Hiddink to underpin his stated intention to attack Liverpool at Anfield - a ploy threatened by many but actually employed by few, usually only the supremely confident or the foolishly misguided.

Hiddink detailed Essien to shackle Steven Gerrard, and in doing so cut the cord between Liverpool's captain and Fernando Torres. The Ghanaian delivered and the Dutchman's master plan fell into place perfectly.

He said: "It is not so difficult to know where the weapons and arms are in Liverpool. It is Torres and Gerrard and the triangle with Dirk Kuyt and the right-back Alvaro Arbeloa. This is what you have to disarm and Essien was key in this."

2) Take advantage of Liverpool's unorganized shape defending restarts.

Zonal defence is one of the great enigmas of the modern game - why not mark footballers? - and Liverpool employ it with very mixed results. It cost them dearly as the unlikely figure of Branislav Ivanovic headed in two corners either side of the interval.

Hiddink dissected the system with a surgeon's precision as he explained: "Liverpool have zonal defence and they have no marking. We have players who are tall, time everything well and who are brave. We talked about that and how we could get some benefits."

3) Find the right roles and support for his key players - Hiddink has a reputation for doing a great job of getting his players to 'over achieve'; I think the key is putting players in roles they will succeed, and matching them up with players who will put them in a position to succeed. Opposed to leaving Drogba on his own, he had him flanked with true wingers in Malouda and Kalou. This allowed Lampard and Ballack to be able to join up underneath Drogba.

Makes it sound easy doesn't he? The secret is in the simplicity. As former Chelsea star Pat Nevin told me last week: "Hiddink gets good players doing what they are good at."

All Chelsea's players took up the right positions, Liverpool were tested by triangles of passing. It was almost as if Chelsea have been reborn under Hiddink - even the most hardened Liverpool fan would accept they were a revelation.

And this is why we saw Drogba back to his rampaging best, albeit producing some wayward finishing before he scored Chelsea's third, Ballack striding through midfield after an uncertain start and even the under-achiever Florent Malouda actually demonstrating why Liverpool boss Benitez was furious to miss out on him.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Giving Feedback is the same for pros & kids

There are few coaches who have had the success at the youth level as US Under-18 national team coach Mike Matkovich. Soccer America's Mike Woitalla has a good interview with Matko, who references the similarities with giving feedback to professional players and to youth players - Mike works both with US Soccer, as well as an assistant coach for the Chicago Fire.

"Guys who want to please you compared to guys who want to make a living" is how Mike Matkovich describes the general difference between youth and pro players.

"Not that older guys are that much different," says Matkovich, who coached indoor pro soccer in 1990-94 after his playing career ended because of a knee injury. "All good players, whether they're young guys hoping to reach the next level or seasoned pros, want honest feedback. You just have to be smart about picking the right moments to talk, when to make suggestions or constructive criticism. If you're an honest coach, you'll connect with your players, regardless of the level."

Blue-collar work ethic paves the way for Izzo

Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo is at the top of his profession, which is easy to see when you look at his resume. What's behind the resume is a blue-collar work ethic, and a commitment to maintaining the Spartans' standard among college basketball's elite.

USA Today's Marlen Garcia wrote a great piece on Izzo prior to the National Championship game earlier this week.

Izzo has five Final Four appearances in the last 11 seasons, more than any other coach in that span. The coach is a sure thing as a hoops Hall of Famer, yet his most notable attribute is being an everyday man who turned this state into his recruiting mecca. Nine of his players are from Michigan.

"I don't want to say he's a plain old shoe, but that might be the best description of him," said former Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote, Izzo's mentor who turned over the program to him in 1995.

That's fitting since Izzo spent a chunk of his adolescence working in his family's shoe repair shop.

Everything about his work ethic is blue collar, from playing for Northern Michigan as a walk-on and becoming a Division II All-American, to the War Drill he introduced at MSU that leaves players fighting for the ball in a crazed free-for-all.

He rebuilt Michigan State into a national power in the shadows of Michigan's Fab Five that reached the national title game in 1992 and '93. The Wolverines were on top of the world but Izzo soon moved in. In 2000, he led MSU to a national title, the school's second.

About that time, the NBA's Atlanta Hawks wanted to hire him, Heathcote said. Izzo thought it over and resisted the overture.

"What keeps me at Michigan State?" Izzo asked. "They gave me my chance. I feel like I have so much more to build. I love the Dukes, Carolinas, Kentucky, Kansas. I'm not going to see that (kind of success) in my lifetime because they've done it for so many years, but I love aspiring to (that).

"We're not there yet."

Only six schools have three or more NCAA championships. A third for MSU would tie the Spartans with perennial powers Duke and Kansas. Only UCLA (11), Kentucky (seven), Indiana (five) and North Carolina (four) have more.

What separates Izzo from his peers are his preparation and his drive, which seem to be well-documented.

Izzo is famous for his meticulous preparation. He found big holes in Louisville's 2-3 zone last week in MSU's regional final upset.

After the first round of this tournament, Izzo said he made a deal with his players.

"I said, 'You get me through the first game, and I feel good that I can help get you through the second (of the weekend),' " Izzo said. "And they've kind of had that mentality."

There are legendary basketball stories about Izzo that circulate through the state. The most famous speaks volumes of his drive.

As a player for Iron Mountain High, he missed the front end of a one-and-one free throw in the closing seconds of a game, and his team missed the state quarterfinals. He had to be peeled off the floor by his best friend and teammate, Steve Mariucci, who became an NFL coach.

Izzo has been hung up on free throws since. Every day before practice, he shoots at least 100.

"He never makes anything less than 95," Izzo's assistant, Mark Montgomery, said. "He tells the players if he can do over 100 in six minutes, they can do it, too. He challenges the players to do it.

"No one's going to take him up on it."

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Where should you stand at training?

David Clarke of Better Soccer Coaching had a great post about the positioning of a coach during a training session that I really liked. It is amazing how frequently I watch a youth team train and the coach is disconnected to his players because he/she aren't positioned properly when talking to an individual, small group or their team.

Being able to see everyone and everything that is going on means a coach can feedback more effectively, correcting errors or encouraging good work.

Here is a quick guide to better positioning in training.

1. Position yourself far enough back to be able to see all the players working.
2. Try to keep to the outer perimeter of practice areas so there are no players behind you at any time.
3. Make sure you move to various positions around the practice area to give yourself different perspectives of the action.
4. If you need to deliver one-to-one coaching bring the player to you, so you can help them while keeping an eye on the rest of the players.
5. When demonstrating or talking to the players, create a half circle so they can all see.
6. Always demonstrate with the weather (sun or rain) in your face rather than the faces of the players.
7. Ensure there is nothing interesting happening behind you when talking or demonstrating to the players.

Ejections can change tactics, thought process

The ejection of a player can dramatically change both the tactics and thought process of both coaches in a game.

It is not uncommon to find the team going a man down go on the defensive (strengthen their back line & midfield; perhaps playing with one less attacking player), where the team now a man up going on the offensive (pushing forward more; taking advantage of it's numerical superiority).

This past weekend saw four red cards issued in Major League Soccer (MLS) matches, and as Soccer America's Ridge Mahoney reported, provided different results in each.

Los Angeles (versus Colorado) and Columbus (versus Chivas USA) each went down a man and ended up losing. D.C. United lost Jaime Moreno with 19 minutes to play, but preserved its 1-0 lead over Houston. Chicago ignored the ejection of John Thorrington in the 14th minute of a scoreless game to beat New York, 1-0.

"Usually, you see teams that are a man down take an attacking player off but I just felt tonight our guys you could see it in their step and their movement that they wanted this win and I just felt like for that half I was going to leave the group out there for the first half," said Fire head coach Denis Hamlett.

Give Hamlett credit for keeping his foot on the gas in this situation. To lose a player that early in the game and go on the defensive would have not only put his team under a lot of pressure (probably having to play the final 75 minutes out of their own half of the field), but also have his players dejected about essentially 'giving up' on trying to win.

Thorrington received his red card for fouling Macoumba Kandji after the Red Bull attacker had slipped past Fire defender Wilman Conde and set sail for goal. Pappa scored for Chicago in the 33rd minute. At halftime, with a 1-0 lead, Hamlett made his adjustment by taking off midfielder Justin Mapp and bringing on defender Brandon Prideaux. Two more subs in the second half helped his defense hold serve and win out.

The timing of the sending off of Dema Kovalenko couldn't have come at a worse time for the LA Galaxy. The volatile midfielder was sent off in the 59th minute of a game tied, 2-2, which enabled the Rapids to intensify their pressure on two young Galaxy defenders, Sean Franklin and Omar Gonzalez, and ultimately win the game.

Conor Casey scored the winning goal and polished off his hat trick by running onto a feed from Colin Clark, who had stripped Franklin of the ball in midfield. Gonzalez challenged Clark - perhaps to trap Casey offside -- when a wiser course would have been to drop and wait for help. Teammate Tony Sanneh had tracked back and Casey, not offside, dribbled in alone, evaded keeper Josh Saunders, and tucked home the winning goal from a sharp angle.

Columbus defender Andy Iro's savage tackle earned his red card early in the second half, just a few minutes after Chivas USA had regained the lead, 2-1. Down a goal and down a man left the defending MLS Cup champs at a serious disadvantage.

D.C. United veteran Jaime Moreno slid into Brad Davis from behind just a few minutes after entering the game as a substitute, resulting in an immediate ejection. DC United Coach Tom Soehn brought on an extra defender, and though Houston gained plenty of possession and Davis hit the crossbar, it couldn't break through United's 4-4-1 formation. United had just enough energy and luck to garner its first victory of the season and keep Houston winless.

In each of the four matches, the dynamics of the game were changed by a red card. Due to some sharp tactics by both Hamlett and Soehn, the results of the game weren't.