Friday, August 28, 2009

Peter Wilt's 'soccer management philosophy'

Peter Wilt, the former President and CEO of MLS’ Chicago Fire, wrote a great article recently outlining his 'soccer management philosophy'.




Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The flexibility of Chelsea

BBC Sports' Lee Dixon writes about the flexibility of Chelsea's tactics, and how they are able to change for home and road matches.

The big thing about Chelsea's midfield is that they have options and in the creative area of the pitch, that is what you want.

It also gives them different ways of playing at home and away and, in a change from the diamond in the middle and the two up front, Chelsea started with a 4-2-3-1 formation in the 2-0 win at Fulham.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Brazil: Are they a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1?

For those who study tactics, it was interesting to see how Brazil morphed it's team in the FIFA Confederations Cup into a system that best utilized their players. As Jonathan Wilson reports, where they describe themselves in a midfield diamond, it more resembles a 4-2-3-1.

At this Confederations Cup, most European observers have happily jotted down their formation as 4-2-3-1, with Luís Fabiano as the centre-forward, Robinho to the left, Kaká as the central creator and Ramires on the right of the attacking three. Gilberto Silva sits in front of the back four, with Fiorentina's Felipe Melo in the slightly more advanced holding role. Yet the Brazilians persist in describing the system as a diamond.

As they see it, Gilberto is the base, with Ramires right and Melo left as carrileros (the shuttlers on the sides of the diamond), Kaká as the playmaking tip, and Robinho as a second striker. At first, that sounds nonsensical, because that isn't how it looks on the pitch, but there is greater subtlety to the Brazilian notation. Gilberto, as the most defensive, they describe as a "first function" midfielder, Melo is "second function" and Ramires, as the most attacking of those three, is "third function".

There is an acceptance too that Robinho pulls left. He does not operate centrally, for were he to do so, he would be competing for space with Kaká and Luís Fabiano. Strangely, he has seemingly reinvented the left-sided attacking position as practised by, for instance, Gianni Riva, in il giocco all'Italiana, the slightly more attacking version of catenaccio practised by Italy in the 1970s. he was, in effect, a converted, tucked-in winger from a 4-3-3, encouraged to move inside by the surges forward of the left-back, who had, since the days of Giacinto Facchetti, been the more attacking of the full-backs in the Italian system.

And once you start to see that, you realise that Ramires, who has had an excellent tournament pounding up and down the right flank, offering deftness as well as energy, could be seen as a modern version of a tornante (literally, a "returner") who, like Jair in Helenio Herrera's Internazionale, is a winger who tracks back. Apart from the fact that the back four is flat rather than employing a sweeper, a middle-aged Italian could easily see this Brazil as an incarnation of il giocco all'Italiana. In that regard, Brazil have become a sort of tactical Rorschach test, with everybody seeing in it what they are culturally disposed to see.

Is the midfield diamond here to stay?

The 4-4-2 Diamond Midfield has started to become more en vogue all over the world, with both Chelsea and Inter establishing the strengths of this alignment in the early stages of the 2009-10 season.

Jonathan Wilson of the Guardian has an outstanding article where he outlines the strengths and weaknesses of that alignment.

After years of being out of fashion in western Europe, the midfield diamond is back. Chelsea have rumbled to three straight league victories at the start of the season, despite pundits pointing out their lack of width, and wondering just how effective they can continue to be. Internazionale manager Jose Mourinho, who is regarded in the UK as a high priest of 4-3-3, reverted to 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield during his side's 1-1 draw against Bari at the weekend. Previously its popularity has proved fleeting - will this time be any different?

A history lesson

The diamond is curious in that it emerged piecemeal over time; it is not part of the grand sweep of tactical history. It never seems to have been anybody's big idea, but was rather a bi-product of other forces and, generally speaking, it has never hung around for long, which suggests it may have limited applicability. The first team self-consciously to arrange their midfield four with one deep, one creating and two shuttling seems to have been Flamengo, where it began as an expedient compromise in a process that began shortly before the second world war.

As part of his plans to develop the club, Flamengo's president José Bastos Padilha sought a European coach. He found one in the Hungarian Dori Kurschner, who was only too glad to escape anti-Semitism in his homeland. He arrived in Rio de Janeiro in 1937, but his attempts to introduce the W-M (3-2-2-3) were scuppered by a football culture suspicious of anything that might stifle natural creativity and improvisation.

Players, fans and journalists were openly mocking, their doubts fanned into rebellion by the assistant coach, Flavio Costa, who had been moved aside to make way for Kurschner. Having finished second in the Carioca championship in 1937, Flamengo lost 2-0 to Vasco da Gama in the opening game of the following season, the inaugural match at Padilha's new Estadio da Gavea, and Kurschner was sacked. After a brief time at Botafogo, he contracted a virus and died in 1941.

Costa, meanwhile, resumed his role as Flamengo coach. He had slowly become convinced of the merits of the W-M, but having been so scornful, could not admit as much, so claimed to have come up with a whole new system – the diagonal. Essentially, he took the central square of the W-M and tipped it so it became a rhombus, with the inside-left advanced just behind the centre-forward in the ponta da lanca (point of the lance) position Pele would make so famous, the inside-right a little deeper, the left-half a little deeper again, and the right-half sitting just in front of the back three (or of course, the formation could be flipped on its y-axis to make the right side more attacking).

Of course, even within the W-M, it had been common for one of the inside-forwards to be more attacking, or one of the wing-halves to be more defensive – at Arsenal in the 1930s for instance, the left-half Wilf Copping played deep, allowing Jack Crayston, the right-half, more licence. But Costa formalised it, and as Flamengo were successful, his rhombus midfield spread. Gradually, though, the rhombus was tipped a little more, until 3-1-2-1-3 became 4-2-4, the system with which Brazil won the World Cup in 1958.

The diamond then disappeared from view, only springing up again in the sixties. It became common within the 4-2-4 for one of the midfielders to sit, as cover in front of the back four – Antonio Rattin of Argentina being a fine early example. Gradually, forwards began to drop deeper. Argentina, reacting to the shock of being beaten 6-1 by Czechoslovakia at the 1958 World Cup by experimenting with defensive tactics, were among the pioneers. Their obsession with the No10 remained, though, and so by the 1966 World Cup, with Rattin holding, and Ermindo Onega operating as a playmaker, the diamond was beginning to re-emerge.

England lost 1-0 to a defensive Argentina in the Maracana in 1964 in the Mundialito, a four-team tournament also including Brazil and Portugal. Alf Ramsey would never have admitted it, but that defeat seems to have persuaded him down the route of pragmatism. He abandoned 4-2-4 for 4-3-3, before ultimately adopting what Nobby Stiles termed a 4-1-3-2. The Manchester United midfielder anchored in front of the back four, with Alan Ball, Bobby Charlton and Martin Peters all given licence to push on and join the front two.

That formation, a close cousin of the diamond, had already been common for a couple of years in the USSR, where Viktor Maslov, developing the notion of pressing at Dynamo Kyiv, deployed the veteran defender Vasyl Turyanchyk to 'break the waves' in front of the back four. In a team in which every player had defensive duties, only Andriy Biba, Maslov said, "retained the full rights of democracy". He was, in other words, the equivalent of the Argentinian playmaker, given a free role in what was effectively a 4-3-1-2.

It is that shape, with a holder and a playmaker flanked by two shuttling players – carilleros, as they are known in Argentina, the only country, seemingly, to give the role a specific name – that really forms the basis of the modern conception of the diamond. Strangely, though, only Argentina adopted it on a wide scale. Elsewhere a club side may play a diamond for a year or two, but it is a fad that soon fades; in the Argentinian league, although there are experiments with double-playmakers (such as Huracan played last season: a 4-3-2-1) or two holders (which I've seen described, rather neatly, as a double-Pacman), 4-3-1-2 remains the default formation.

Problems with the diamond

To European eyes, unused to seeing an artist provided with a three-man midfield stage on which to perform, that is, at least initially, refreshing. Argentina's historical notion of the default way of playing, equally, with its ready division into playmakers and holders has equipped them well for the modern trend towards four-band formations (which makes it all the more frustrating that Diego Maradona seems so reluctant to use one with the national team).

But there are difficulties. The first game I saw in Argentina was River Plate against Independiente in November 2007. Both teams played 4-3-1-2, and both teams cancelled; each seemingly waiting for their respective playmakers, Ariel Ortega and Daniel Montenegro, to do something. Neither did, and the game ended in a tame 1-1 draw that probably would have slipped from the memory had it not been my first visit to the Monumental. It was admittedly, a mid-table fixture, but the wider point was clear: the danger of playing through one creative source (in River's case in that game, bafflingly, for Diego Buonanotte was playing as a support striker and surely could have dropped deeper), is that a single stream is easily dammed. The diamond's lack of width only exacerbates the problem.

You wonder as well whether Argentina remains so caught up in the debate over the viability of the playmaker, and with producing creators (and thus Pacmen to stop them) that other areas get rather overlooked. Playing a 4-2-3-1 – and ignoring the spats that have ruled certain players out - Argentina would have, by some distance, the best middle five in the world (two of Javier Mascherano, Esteban Cambiasso, Sebastian Battaglia and Fernando Gago; three of Leo Messi, Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez, Juan Román Riquelme, or even Javier Pastore), but are deficient in every other area.

My own doubts about the diamond crystallised one night in Belgrade in October 2002. Yugoslavia had played a diamond against Italy the previous Saturday, and had succeeded in frustrating them, drawing 1-1. They set out with the same shape that Wednesday against Finland, and found themselves outplayed in the first half as Finland's two wide midfielders in an orthodox 4-4-2, Mika Nurmela and Joonas Kolkka, revelled in the open spaces on the flanks. Yugoslavia may have enjoyed the bulk of possession, but they became so paranoid about their vulnerability to wide counters that they were able to do little with it, and were fortunate still to be level at half-time. A quick switch to 3-5-2 soon solved that (and freed Sinisa Mihajlovic - playing by that stage of his career as a centre-back - from actually having to do any defending), and they won 2-0.

Can Chelsea make it work in the Premier League?

Given the tendency within the diamond to predictability, it seemed to me fine as a defensive formation, but of less use to a team who needed to take the initiative. Gradually, though, particularly from watching Argentinian football, I've become less sceptical. The issue really is the carilleros. If they get too narrow, as Yugoslavia did that night, then a team is vulnerable wide, and its numerical advantage in the centre is outweighed by the fact that everybody is packed into so tight a space that passing options become limited.

If they can retain some width – and it is notable that Chelsea this season have twice in the league, and in the Community Shield, used Florent Malouda, a winger, as the left carillero – and so ensure the system is a 4-3-1-2, then that is less of a problem. If those carilleros and/or the full-backs (and Chelsea have two – three if you include Yuri Zhirkov – attacking full-backs) can also get forward, given confidence to do so by the central midfield holder, that relieves some of the creative burden from the player at the tip of the diamond.

Chelsea also have the variation offered by the asymmetry introduced by Guus Hiddink. The second striker plays slightly to the right of Drogba – that was clear when Kalou partnered him at Sunderland, and still evident in Anelka's role at Fulham – which encourages the left carrillero to advance, something that is difficult for orthodox symmetrical formations to pick up, and which stimulates a very necessary flexibility.

How to smash the diamond

So, how can the diamond be countered? The lack of width remains the flaw, and the key is to try to shift the battle from the centre to the flanks. Hull rode their luck to an extent on the opening day, but it is no coincidence that it was their 4-5-1 rather than the 4-4-2 of Sunderland and Fulham that came closest to stopping Chelsea.

Midfielders played wide and high stop the advances of the full-backs, while a hard-tackling trio in the centre will at least make Chelsea fight for possession, while shielding the back four when Chelsea have possession. In addition, a team's wide midfielders block Chelsea's full-backs, their own full-backs should be free to either become an extra man in midfield or provide additional defensive cover.

The narrowness of the diamond is a flaw, but no system is without them. The issue really is how many sides are able to engage them those wide areas. So far the inherent weakness in the system has been over-ridden by Chelsea's dominance in the centre. It's all very well pointing at where the space may be, but largely irrelevant – from an attacking point of view – if you can't get the ball, and by playing with, effectively, four central midfielders, Chelsea are ensuring they enjoy the bulk of possession.

Their football may never produce the geometric rhapsodies of, say, Arsenal at their best, but certainly while Didier Drogba remains in form (and in the country: he, Michael Essien, Salomon Kalou and Mikel Jon Obi will all be in Angola in January for the African Cup of Nations), Chelsea look capable of overwhelming opponents, that frontline of attack backed up by a prodigious second wave from midfield.

Sun Tzu's Rules For Every Football Manager

Sun Tzu's 'The Art of War' is regarded as a handbook for success in all forms and fields, from the military to business to sport. Stefan Vasilev wrote a clever article relating rules based on Sun Tzu's work, in which football managers should look to apply.

“Invincibility lies in the defence; the possibility of victory in the attack.”

I doubt if there is a football manager in the world that does not know this rule.

If your team has a good defence, they will concede fewer goals; if your team has a good attack, they will score more goals. But it is the balance that most work to achieve. Being a good defensive team will not bring glory in modern football.

Ask the many Italian football clubs that concentrate their efforts toward a defensive style of play. Ask technically-inclined teams that have plenty of attacking power, but also have failed to meet the necessary defensive requirements.

Mistakes do in Liverpool, Benitez

Liverpool has already lost as many matches in the 2009-10 season as they had all season last year, and manager Rafa Benitez chalks it up to making too many mistakes. Dave Smith of reports how Benitez expressed concern after Liverpool suffered their second league defeat of the season.

"In the first 20 minutes we created plenty of chances and played well. Then we conceded the own goal and started to make more mistakes."

"We have lost and we know we have to improve. I felt we had a chance when Fernando Torres scored, but the penalty finished it. It was a clear penalty."

"We now know that we have to go to Bolton on Saturday and win. Everything could change if we do that, our confidence will improve."

Benitez added: "We were not playing well, and we were up against a team who are excellent on the counter-attack. Their keeper made some great saves, but when that happens we just have to make more chances."

"This squad is virtually the same as last season, so I believe it is good enough to mount a title challenge. But we must do more, we must win at Bolton."

"We will have to sit down and analyse every player now, and make sure we do the right things in our next match. But our senior players must take more responsibility."

Friday, August 21, 2009

Onyewu Speaks About Adapting to AC Milan

During AC Milan's preseason tour of America, newly signed defender Oguchi Onyewu sat down with the New York Times' Jeffrey Marcus for an interview. Onyewu speaks candidly about handling the pressure of the big stage, his new team, and his identity as a person and player. He emphasizes his hunger to learn from this new experience, to take advantage of the opportunity and rely on his adaptability to succeed. Onyewu says the "first thing on his mind" is "to break into that starting lineup." He says his new teammates are "really cool. I appreciate them a lot because they're making this transition unbelievably easy."

Onyewu on dealing with pressure: I don’t feel pressure from either of them, to be honest. I think I’ve been somewhat of a trendsetter ever since I came to Europe. I think when I went to France, I was one of two Americans in the French league. Greg Vanney was there, then he left. When I came to Belgium, I was one of two, then he left and I was the only one for a while. When I signed here, I didn’t even think twice about being the only American. I didn’t even see nationality as an issue, because it shouldn’t be. People should just judge you based on your quality in the sport.

In joining a big club, it’s the same as any other club. I think if you don’t perform then you’re not going to get the results you want. It was the same in any other club I was in. If I wasn’t performing week in and week out, then the result wouldn’t have been this transfer now. I think I just have to put everything behind me and keep focused and grounded and keep doing everything I’ve been doing the past eight years.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The role of the Technical Director

The idea of a 'manager' in most cultures of professional soccer or football is all-encompassing, really a combination of the job description of a 'head coach' and 'general manager' here in our American sports.

Major League Soccer sees most of it's teams employ both a 'Head Coach' and a 'Technical Director', and L.E. Eisenmenger examines the role of the Technical Director in depth on - inteviewing Brian Bliss (Columbus Crew), Peter Vermes (Kansas City Wizards), Paul Bravo (Colorado Rapids) and Mike Burns (New England Revolution).

LE: Why was the position of technical director created?

Vermes: It’s looking out for players, making those deals, overseeing the salary cap and making sure the numbers work within the team not only on a short-term basis, but on a long-term basis. Those numbers need to jibe over the course of the year and the years to come, keep guys under contract and keep them happy, and at the same time satisfy the needs staying within the cap number. I try to provide the coaches and players what they’re looking for and at the same time look down the road at some of the players that may be needed from a scouting perspective.

The other part is the youth academy side of the club, more of an overseer rather than being directly hands-on all the time, although I definitely make a connection to know what’s going on with the program and how the coaches are doing and how the players are developing.

Bravo: My responsibilities include supporting Gary Smith with all first team matters, such as being a liaison for the players and the coaching staff at the front office, scouting domestically, some amateur scouting professional scouting in the US with USL 1, USL 2, and overseeing our scouting project for international players.

I’m also in charge of overseeing our youth development programs. We have two separate youth development programs. We have our Developmental Academy (DA) program which includes our 16s and 18s and then we also have a youth club that is separate to the DA, but filters up to the DA and that includes our recreational programs, our US youth soccer affiliates, all of our Alliance partners and our Adidas Alliance partners. So staffing all that, making sure we have the right people and we’re doing some good things on that side.

Up until three or four years ago you didn’t have technical directors in this league. The league really made a push to the clubs to create positions for soccer specific people be able to come in and help manage the technical aspects of the club and the league does do work to give us guidance on what we need to be doing.

Each club is going to combine some things, leave some things out. As far as my job goes, there is an administrative side to it, but I deal with mostly the league side, so we’re waiving players or discoveries, any of the paperwork that goes into the referee side - we do referee reports every game, so there is an administrative side to my job - I just don’t deal with setting up flights and hotels and stuff like that. There’s Garth Lagerway in Salt Lake who’s a VP of Player Personnel and the General Manager. Each team has its own job description and different job titles.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Vermes debut on Sunday

Ridge Mahoney of Soccer America previews the MLS matchup between the Kansas City Wizards and the Chicago Fire, which will be the debut of technical director Peter Vermes as the interm head coach.

KANSAS CITY (5-7-6) vs. CHICAGO (8-4-8), 3 p.m., TeleFutura

Interim head coach Peter Vermes takes charge of a game for the first time since the sacking of Curt Onalfo. Davy Arnaud and Claudio Lopez are suspended and Kansas City has scored just one goal in its last four games, so open auditions are being held to determine if recently signed Hungarian forward Zoltan Hercegfalvi and rookie Graham Zusi deserve a starting spot more than veterans Abe Thompson and Adam Cristman. Arnaud and Lopez have each scored five goals: the rest of the team, which means just three players, have netted a combined total of nine.

Chicago lost a tough game last week in Houston, falling 3-2 on a penalty kick after scoring twice in three minutes to wipe out a 2-0 deficit. They won three road games in a row back in May and this looks like a prime spot to get another one, but with Brian McBride, Gonzalo Segares and Tim Ward out, and Wilman Conde and John Thorrington questionable, and Cuauhtemoc Blanco recovering from 56 minutes in Azteca Wednesday, the home team simply cannot afford to lose.

Prediction: Wizards 2, Fire 1.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Bad Taste In His Mouth

After Mexico's 2-1 come from behind victory yesterday against the US, Mexico manager Javier Aguirre talked of the sweet taste of victory.

“We threaten to be third or fourth when day breaks tomorrow. Today we deserve a taco because we had eaten nothing but crap for the last three to four months, excuse my language,” Aguirre said in a press conference after the game.

Yannis gets his due

Alex Yannis was the New York Cosmos beat writer for the New York Times during a great time in American soccer, chronicling the exploits of Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia in the 1970's.

Despite being a child of the 70's and growing up a devout Cosmos fan, I was also a neighbor of Yannis. It was not uncommon for the day after a Cosmos game, for my brother and I to go up to his home to talk to him about the game and rummage through his photos of our favorite Cosmos players.

There is no question in my mind that he was integral in my own development as a soccer player, coach and enthusiast.

Last month, Yannis was paid his due for what he has given to the game with the ultimate sign of respect as he was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame.

Rick Carpiniello of the Journal News chronicled Yannis' tremendous ride throughout the US through the game of soccer.

"It's the biggest honor that anyone can bestow upon me at this point," said Yannis, still living in the same house in Tappan. "It's just great. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that this was going to happen."

Grella Pens New Deal

Leeds United striker Mike Grella has agreed a new three-year contract with the club, as reported by Phil Hay of the Yorkshire Evening Post.

The American forward put pen to paper at Elland Road after earning himself a long-term deal to replace the 18-month contract he signed upon joining Leeds from the American college system in February.

The offer was a reward for the 22-year-old's encouraging performances during pre-season, and Grella said: "I'm absolutely delighted."

"It's good to know that the club have instilled a bit of belief and confidence in me. The dream when I came here was to sign a pro contract."

Grella and his agent met with officials from Leeds yesterday afternoon to finalise the terms of his deal, and he has followed Scottish winger Robert Snodgrass in committing his future to the club.

United's boss recruited Grella on the final day of the winter transfer window at the end of a short and successful trial, handing the striker his first professional deal, and Grella turned down a guaranteed offer from a Major League Soccer club to move to England.

He is still to score his first competitive goal for Leeds but grew in confidence during the summer, and Grayson appears to view him as strong back-up for his first-choice strike pairing of Jermaine Beckford and Luciano Becchio.

Grella is one of senior forwards at Elland Road, a group including Tresor Kandol who scored four times in a 5-1 victory for Leeds' reserves against Newcastle on Tuesday.

Finishing matches off

As hard as it is to come from behind after conceding a goal, sometimes there are challenges with playing a goal up as well. As SI's Grant Wahl reports, the US has struggled to hold onto leads in recent matches.

It's a team that this summer alone has taken leads against Italy, Spain, Brazil and Mexico in games that matter, a cause for optimism among U.S. soccer fans. But it's also a team that has gone only 1-3 in those contests, a sign that while these Americans are improving on the world stage, they're still not yet at a level where they have the poise and maturity required to slam the door on a quality opponent once it's down.

"Probably," said (Tim) Howard. "I don't know exactly what it is right now ... You don't want that to become a trend. When you get leads, you want to make sure you can see them out, particularly in this game. A 1-1 would have been a very good result for us."

I really liked this quote from Bob Bradley about finishing off teams - he referenced it during the CONCACAF Gold Cup after defeating Grenada- the team came into the halftime up 2-0:

"You just want your players to understand how to take each game as it unfolds. Understand the opponent, and understand the meaning of the game. We said at halftime that there's a professional way to finish this game. That involves discipline and knowing how to respect the opponent, but also making sure in a good, smart, mature way you know how to finish the opponent. I think those are important lessons and things that you want to take out of a game like today."

Mexico 2, USA 1 recaps the Mexico 2-1 victory over the US in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying yesterday.

"Obviously, the altitude is never easy, but I thought we did very well to prepare. We got beaten by a very good team today," (Tim) Howard said.

"I said this week that I didn’t want people to get carried away," US midfielder Landon Donovan said. "This wasn’t a live or die game for us; it was for them. Now, it puts us in a little bit more of a difficult position, but our next game is home with El Salvador, which we expect to win, and away to Trinidad, which we expect to win. We still feel if we win those two games, we’re going to qualify."

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Donovan is the x-factor

Landon Donovan is the US team's attacking catalyst, and as Grahame Jones of the LA Times reports, when Donovan is on, the US team is at it's best.

If the USA manages to get a result in Mexico City it will likely be thanks to Landon Donovan. The USA is 7-1-2 against Mexico in the 10 games that Donovan has played and 4-0-0 in games in which he has scored against Mexico.

Donovan, the USA's all-time scoring leader with 41 goals in 115 international games, watched the USA's 5-0 loss to Mexico last month in the Gold Cup final from his home in Manhattan Beach, Calif. "I thought the first half we played pretty well," he said. "We put some pressure on them, had some decent chances." The USA then fell apart after Mexico's first goal, in the second half.

Bradley stresses organization on, off the field

Bob Bradley is as organized a manager as you will find, and always seems to find the devil in the details. In his conference call with US Soccer, he discusses important on and off the field keys to success in today's match versus Mexico-

On the problems that altitude can cause and why the U.S. isn’t arriving earlier or training at altitude: “We have worked for a long time with different people, different experts, on altitude training, including many from the U.S. Olympic Committee. The research we have stuck with is one that says if you don’t have enough time to acclimatize, which can take 10 days or so, then going in late is your best bet. So that is the way we’ve scheduled things, knowing that in a single fixture date, players have only arrived on the last day.”

On dealing with Mexico in Azteca: “I think it’s important as a team to stay together. You don’t want a game that gets stretched all over the place, it’s very important to have a good solid base of organization and then the ability to play from that.”

Team leaders help deal with adversity

Hitting a losing skid has the potential to send bad habits in motion, and break team spirit. The important thing is to be able to use foresight to be able to use losses as building blocks to grow from, both individually and as a group.

Seattle Sounders FC recently used a players meeting to try to shake them out of a late season slump, and as Andrew Winner from reports, team leaders discussing situations and references from past teams seemed to go a long way.

In a discussion that lasted for about an hour, they took turns sharing anecdotes about past struggles and the tactics they used to overcome them.

One of the players who spoke was Pete Vagenas, the veteran midfielder who captained the Los Angeles Galaxy to the MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup double in 2005. Now 31 years old, Vagenas took the opportunity to speak about the tribulations of his previous teams and how those teams managed to overcome adversity.

"I've been on teams that have won MLS Cups; I've been on teams that have lost MLS Cups," Vagenas said. "The one thing the successful teams had was that their mental spirit was unbreakable. I won a double in 2005 and that team went through hell and back before we lifted the trophy.

"Looking back, no one talks about the strife and struggles from that year. All they remember is the two trophies we had at the end. That's what's important."

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Bitter taste for Gold Cup holdovers

Losing 5-0 to Mexico in the CONCACAF Gold Cup was a bitter pill to swallow, and three holdovers from that US team have been called in for this important World Cup qualifier tomorrow. Brian Ching, Stuart Holden and Chad Marshall all played key roles for the US in the Gold Cup, and as Soccer America's Ridge Mahoney reports, are looking to set the wheels in motion to vindicate the loss to their bitter rivals.

"I was on the wrong end of that one and it's an experience I don't want to have again," said Holden, 24, who has been summoned to a qualifier for the first time. "I want to be on the winning side of that rivalry. I've seen how passionate it is and how much means to supporters on both sides. For the opportunity of being in the squad for my first World Cup qualifier and especially for it to be in Azteca Stadium, I'm very excited."

Monday, August 10, 2009

Howard: 'I think we can do something special'

US goalkeeper Tim Howard stood the test against Spain and Brazil in this summer's FIFA Confederations Cup. Now, he is preparing to accept one of the toughest assignments in all of world football: Mexico at their Estadio Azteca. interviewed the US #1, who was recently voted top keeper at the FIFA Confederations Cup.

Howard on the rivalry between the US and Mexico - "It's all about the passion of the fans. For so long Mexico dominated our region, dominated us. Now, and for some time, we have been the dominant team. So there's a lot of anger and hurt feelings between the two of us. Let's face it, for they kicked our butts for a long time. And when the tide turned, they didn't like it. Why would they? It's just a pure and natural rivalry."

Howard on the current Mexico team, and the US chances - "Practically no one but Mexico wins at the Azteca [only Costa Rica, in 2001, has ever won a qualifier in Mexico City], but I've always had this feeling that this group of players, this U.S. team, can do something special there," predicted Howard. "We, to a large extent, are a brash young team with a blend of naivety and boldness. We're thinking 'why can't we win?' I think we can do something special, something no other team has done before."

Altitude challenges await in Mexico

Not only will the US be facing their stiffest rivals in Mexico in front of a hostile crowd of 100,000+ supporters, but as SI's Grant Wahl reports, altitude has the potential of playing a major factor as well.

When I asked U.S. defender Oguchi Onyewu what it's like to play in the Azteca, this is what he said: "I've tried to explain that to people who say, ‘You guys looked tired after 10 minutes.' And I'm like, ‘You try playing in those conditions and having to wear oxygen masks at halftime to get some air into your lungs.'"

Friday, August 7, 2009

Arena - one year in

With Bruce Arena approaching his anniversary of taking over as the Head Coach of the LA Galaxy, Nick Green of the LA Daily Breeze examines the team transformation from MLS doormat to playoff contender under Arena.

Exactly two weeks shy of the anniversary of Bruce Arena's first day on the job as Galaxy general manager and coach, this unequivocally is his team.

And the key word here is "team."

"We're a team now and I haven't felt that way in 3 1/2 years," Landon Donovan said after Saturday's game against FC Barcelona.

"In our league, there's not much difference between most of the teams, so having chemistry and having a team that plays together is a big thing."

'Summer of Soccer'

A lot has been written this past month about the tremendous crowds and fervent fan support of soccer in the US. Mark Zeigler of the San Diego Union-Tribune echoes some of the recent articles about the contridiction between 'American support of soccer' and 'support of American soccer (MLS)'-

Over the past month, there have been 13 crowds of 40,000 or larger to see soccer matches in America. That number will swell to 15 when Barcelona completes its U.S. tour with stops in Seattle tonight and San Francisco on Saturday. In one dizzying nine-day stretch, nine games drew an average of 65,272.

“The summer of soccer,” Major League Soccer has billed it.

So what do we make of it?

Is it a sign that soccer has turned some sort of corner, smashed through a glass ceiling, and won its eternal battle for respect in the consciousness of mainstream America?

Or is it merely evidence that the soccer fan here has attained a certain level of sophistication and pretension, recognizing the difference between AC Milan and DC United?

Are they soccer fans, or soccer snobs?

It is important to note another statistic: Over the past month, Major League Soccer attendance has largely been flat. Last Saturday, the six regular-season games drew 72,329. Total. That's an average of 12,055, and that's with the league's well-documented history of artificially inflating crowd figures.

Meaning: People aren't watching Chelsea play Mexico City's Club America at Cowboys Stadium (57,229 did) and then, bitten by the soccer bug, rushing out to catch the Kansas City Wizards at FC Dallas the following weekend (announced crowd: 10,317).

There are two ways to digest this.

One is that any soccer interest is good soccer interest, the old rising-tides-float-all-boats theory. “To me,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said at halftime at the Rose Bowl, “anything that raises the popularity or awareness or excitement of the sport is positive for us.”

The counterargument is that flooding the market with high-quality soccer only further educates spoiled American fans, making it harder to convince (or fool) them that MLS is a viable contender for their precious viewership hours. That they should tune into Colorado Rapids-Columbus Crew, where both rosters combined make less than $5 million per season, when they just as easily can see Arsenal-Manchester United, where a backup forward makes that in six months.

“The sport is slowly building up its core,” said Garber, who celebrated his 10th anniversary as commissioner yesterday. “The international following has sort of taken off with incredible, incredible speed, faster than we thought it would . . . I think slowly that core fan base is going to grow and then you'll start seeing some of that transfer over (to MLS)."

“I don't think there's any quick switch. There's nothing today that says, 'If we do X, it changes.' But it's certainly getting better.”

Aguirre Managing Expectations for US Match

One major challenge for any successful coach is to be able to manage the expectations surrounding their team, be it the players within the locker room or by supporters or the media outside the locker room.

In an effort to temper the hysteria that followed the Mexican national team after their 5-0 defeat over the US in the CONCACAF Gold Cup Final, Carlos Rodriguez of the AP reports how head coach Javier Aguirre has come out to contain the renewed country-wide enthusiasm in El Tri.

"In Mexico we're prone to throw ourselves on the floor after a loss and later feel very good after victories,'' said Aguirre. "We have to find a happy balance. It's not easy. It's a temptation to be very up - or very down.''

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Soccer growing in the MLS?

After stressing the growth of soccer enthusiasts all over the United States - justified by attendance figures and TV ratings over the summer - The San Jose Mercury News' Mark Purdy feels writes how that growth is about soccer...but just not Major League Soccer.

Over the past decade, soccer telecasts from around the globe have found their way onto American television sets through satellite or cable. Thus, in the same way that an NFL fan in Wyoming can follow the 49ers or Raiders, soccer fans in the USA can follow European or Latin American teams every week.

See? See? That's what I say to my soccer-holic friends. See how this doubleheader shows once more that "soccer" and "MLS" are definitely not one and the same thing? Last Saturday when FC Barcelona faced the Los Angeles Galaxy at the Rose Bowl, more than 93,000 showed up. It takes the Galaxy three or four games to draw that many against an MLS opponent — even when David Beckham deigns to suit up for Los Angeles.

See? See? This is still the marketing dilemma faced by the Earthquakes and their American brethren: In the United States when people buy tickets to a "major league" game in any other sport, they do so with the belief and knowledge that they will be seeing the planet's best players in the world's best league. Major League Baseball is the best baseball anywhere. The NBA is the best basketball league in the world. The NHL is the best hockey league in the world.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Puyol, Alves And Guardiola Set For Donovan, Galaxy Clash

Where I would be at the front of the line when it comes to being critical of Landon Donovan, I have to give him his props for his performance in South Africa as well as in MLS this summer.

Apparently, his play in South Africa made him some new fans who appreciate his game - While AC Milan's Clarence Seedorf couldn't name one Galaxy player other than David Beckham before the friendly the Italian club played against the squad, all three FC Barcelona members at the press conference in Beverly Hills not only knew Landon Donovan's name, but aspects of his play that could be a threat.

"He's a great player," said Barcelona captain Carles Puyol. "He's very fast. He goes straight to goal. He has great mobility and he's very dangerous."