Thursday, September 30, 2010

UCSB heightens the profile of college soccer

For those that dispute the significance of college soccer in our american soccer landscape, look at the following statistics that were referenced by J.R. Eskilson as he reports on the UC Santa Barbara vs. UCLA match-

On Friday night, 15,896 people packed into Harder Stadium to watch UCSB take on UCLA. Again, that is fifteen thousand eight hundred ninty-six people who showed up on a Friday night for a college soccer game.

Let’s put that number in context:

  • The best attended college soccer game on campus in history.
  • The attendance of 15,896 is better than THREE MLS games from Saturday: FC Dallas at Kansas City (10,385), Columbus at New England (13,533), and Houston at D.C. United (13,828). (Writer's note: Chris Pontius was part of the UCSB crowd, not the D.C. crowd.)
  • The 15,896 in Santa Barbara is more than the average attendance for TWO EPL teams this season: Blackpool (15,715) and Wigan Athletic (15,499). And more than five Serie A teams: Parma, Udinese, Chievo Verona, Catania, and Leece.
  • No USL regular season game in the last two years had more people in the stands.
  • UCSB Men’s Soccer could qualify for Division I Football Bowl Series status with that attendance. Football teams must average over 15,000 fans to qualify for FBS.
  • The undergraduate size of UCSB is 17,726. Safe to assume half the crowd on Friday night was students. Thus, roughly half of the campus was at a soccer game!

Champions League Lessons by Walter Smith

J Hutcherson writes of the successful tactics of Walter Smith and Rangers in the UEFA Champions League, and the lessons that could be learned from it by MLS coaching staffs.

If you're a struggling Major League Soccer club playing out the schedule, you could do a lot worse than looking at what Rangers are doing in the Champions League. Maurice Edu's team is playing what can politely be called conservative soccer, but it's a tournament specific style of play. Back in the friendly confines of the Premier League, they're piling on goals as usual.

Rangers manager Walter Smith's 541 system assumes the worst about any Champions League club, that the opposition is in the tournament for a reason and not to be overlooked. His team is always the underdog, and that's what their play will reflect even when it's clear they have an advantage.

In other words, it's not just designed to grind out a 0-0 draw or save face when Rangers appear to be overmatched. In real terms, it's almost like Smith is coaching two squads that happen to feature many of the same players. One is built to overrun the opposition in the Scottish Premier League, the other to keep that from happening in the Champions League.

Obviously, that takes a considerable signing on from his players, but results tend to instill belief. True, we've yet to see what happens the game after the Rangers system doesn't work. Still, so far it's earning a lot of notice for its basic pragmatism. There are several MLS teams that should be paying attention.

A lot is said about the MLS brand of parity, but what it normally means in practice is one team not playing to its usual standard getting caught. Case in point, San Jose at home last night. Multiple players described their 3-0 loss to Chicago as some variation of a wake up call. Here's San Jose goalkeeper Jon Busch from the post-game comments:

"I think we learned something tonight, that you can’t just show up every week and get a result. Any team in this league can beat anyone else at any time. It’s not like any other league in the world, where you have a Chelsea, Manchester United that are going to win 90 percent of the time. It doesn’t matter where a team is in the table, any team is close and if you don’t show up and put a solid 100 percent effort in, things like that happen."

More to the point, there's not a lot of MLS teams that consider playing up an opponent even when they might be the ones with the advantage. MLS is closer to what Rangers do week in and week out in the Scottish Premier League. Contrasting styles with the belief that their's is simply better. Busch is right, MLS is too close for that to really work.

So what if an MLS team opted for the Champions League version of Rangers? It's rare for any MLS clubs to spend 90 minutes effectively defending, and there's enough highlight reel material of isolated defenders undoing a game's worth of work with one or two missteps. Even in MLS games where there are only a handful of shots on goal, its rarely a situation where the game is bogged down in the midfield and the opportunities simply aren't there. Normally, it's a question of execution.

Using an MLS variation of the Smith model, a club chooses to play as if they're the ones starting out in trouble. They string multiple defenders across the back, all of whom know they can rely on each other. Their midfield has an attacking edge - and it's worth remembering that edge is an MLS alum - and their lone forward is clear that he's out there as their primary scoring threat.

Unlike so many MLS teams, the partnership problem shifts from the front to the back in a single-forward setup. MLS has never had a wealth of options with players who can take the ball on the run, beat a defense, and score. Certainly not enough for every team to run something resembling a true strike partnership.

It's like MLS is stuck on the Dwight Yorke - Andy Cole model from their glory years at Manchester United. That normally ends up with a season spent working that out and pointing to the handful of times where it seemed to work rather than the examples where it didn't. It's a hedge, showing the support and the media that the club is interested in attacking soccer. In reality, it's just a hedge.

Pull one of those occasionally on target forwards out and save them for the super sub role, and yet another MLS 442 or 352 gets a little more complex. That's what every other team in Rangers' Champions League group is currently dealing with. It's not just the punching power of Manchester United. Now it's breaking up the connections Rangers are making to keep themselves in the game across 90 minutes.

They've become a scary team in spite of their relative weaknesses. Why not try to bring something like that to an MLS team already failing under the old standards?

Holden Committed To Bolton

United States National Team midfielder Stuart Holden has extended his contract with Bolton Wanderers through the 2013 season. Holden has already become a regular in the Bolton starting eleven this season.

"I was given an opportunity by the manager to show that I can play at this level and I'm extremely grateful for that," Bolton told the club's official site. "The confidence that he has shown in me has really allowed me to push on. I had a bit of a setback with the injury last season, but that made me more determined to make an impact when I came back for pre-season. I've had a good start to this campaign and I'm looking forward to continuing playing and helping Bolton as much as I possibly can."

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

MLS Management Lessons from the NFL

Eric Wynalda was quoted recently in an interview with Soccer America where he says: "As far as Americans go, there’s only about four or five of us who are qualified about understanding the dynamics of a group, understanding what it takes to win, understanding how to talk to players."

I don't know that Eric Wynalda is my choice to run an MLS franchise or direct one of our youth national teams, but his comments certainly open the door to a unique are of coaching - a manager's understanding of what it takes to win, how to talk to his squad, and understanding the dynamics of a group.

J Hutcherson writes of the validity of Wynalda's comments.

Feel free to argue the numbers, the specifics, and who gets included, but the point is valid. Over an MLS season, we see enough moments where the basic credibility of coaches across clubs deserves to be called into question. As always, this is about a level. Coaches everywhere make mistakes, and MLS doesn't have the same hook that would have a Premier League manager concerned about his job even a few weeks into a slow start. There's more to it - and by extension what Wynalda seems to be saying - than that.

Namely, that the coaches are getting things fundamentally wrong. Even with those enjoying success, those moments tend to reappear. The Chicago Bears are a good team who apparently didn't realize running the ball on second and third down against a team with no timeouts might not be the smartest move. Green Bay responded by tackling the runner, rather than opening a route into the end zone so they would have more than eight seconds when they got the ball back.

If there's a soccer equivalent, it might be the late substitution. The one that ends with the player sent out there to "give the team a spark" more often than not finding himself in the unenviable situation of becoming yet another problem. Very few MLS coaches get the timing right. More often than not, it's just another piece of evidence that the tactics aren't working.

There are other candidates, with the end result another season where there really isn't a complimentary style of MLS play. That should be of significant concern, especially since the elite leagues are currently moving away from the staid 442 in search of better options.

Historically in MLS, that's meant a 352, though very few teams have been able to operate gracefully in that setup. There's the added problem where deviating from the norm puts a target on the coach's back. In real terms, MLS has become a League mainly concerned with security. The problem is that normally means coaches and their tactics becoming placid, with the mistakes that will always follow.

You would think it would be possible for a single-entity league to get their coaches in a room and explain to them that some ideas are detrimental to what the League wants from an overall style of play and will simply no longer be tolerated. We know how unlikely that is to happen, but it's the same message that should be resonating from the team hierarchies in Chicago and Green Bay this week. At least get the basics right.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Wynalda takes job with ambitious Sinaloa club

Rebuffed in his efforts to coach in MLS or with U.S. Soccer, Soccer America's Ridge Mahoney reports that former U.S. international Eric Wynalda is taking up with a Mexican club.

Murcielagos, which plays in Mexico's Segunda División (third level), has hired Wynalda as its president of international operations. He says he will scout for players to be placed into the club’s player development system, and solicit player exchange programs as well as marketing and sponsorship opportunities.

“I met a lot of people down there when I was with the U-20s,” says Wynalda of a brief stint as assistant coach with U.S. under-20 head coach Thomas Rongen, who took a squad to Mexico last January. “I found it fascinating that there is so much American-Mexican talent in Mexico, players we didn’t know about.

“After I got back I got a call from Miguel Favela, who runs the club with his brother, Elias. They flew me down to Mexico City and I was very impressed with how they view the game and the development of players. They’re very ambitious about getting their team into the First Division, that’s their primary concern, but they also see opportunities to find talent. I think players will benefit from being placed with a competitive club for six months, which is what the program calls for initially.”

For the past few months, Wynalda has been consulting for Murcielagos, based in the city of Guamuchil in the state of Sinoloa. Meetings with national team coach Bob Bradley about a coaching position somewhere in U.S. Soccer didn’t lead to an offer.

Wynalda has been adamant for months that coaching is what he wants to do next. He says there has been some moderate interest from MLS clubs but doesn’t foresee a position opening up for him anytime soon.

“It’s kind of strange that I would end up in Mexico,” says Wynalda, “but I want to coach. If somebody down there thinks that you can contribute, that’s where you end up. Right now there’s just not a place for me in U.S. Soccer or in MLS.

“I’m excited about this, I really am. We want to expand the brand and open up player development opportunities in the U.S. I think the chance to play and train in Mexico will appeal to some players, and I think being involved with a club like this will be great for them and for me as well.”

D.C. United's coaching search and options

With the MLS season winding down, potential head coaching vacancies will start to garner a lot of attention in the media and with fans.

D.C. United will be the initial point of attention, as the club will soon turn its full attention to the head coaching position. Ben Olsen has been the interim boss during his first year as an assistant after Curt Onalfo's abrupt dismissal in August.

While United President Kevin Payne has stated that Olsen is likely to lead United someday, he has also suggested that Olsen lacks the experience to guide the club at this time. To Olsen's credit, the players have responded to his impassioned pleas to play for the badge and salvage something from this season.

The buzz in soccer circles is that Olsen, despite initial uncertainty, would very much like a crack at the permanent job. The buzz in soccer circles is also that United plans to initially focus on experienced foreign candidates.

Steven Goff of the Washington Post writes of the varying backgrounds of coaches leading the five best MLS clubs this year:

THE FOREIGNER (New York's Hans Backe): Few, if anyone, in the States knew of this Swedish coach before his arrival last winter. It was a bold hire defying conventional thinking that outsiders untrained in the American system are bound to fail. While marquee player acquisitions have served a big part in the Red Bulls' turnaround, Backe has shown the temperament, perspective and tactical keenness to mold a championship contender. The support of Richie Williams, a former MLS player and holdover assistant, undoubtedly eased the transition and filled in the gaps.

United's options: There are numerous experienced coaches in Europe and Latin America, with a wide range of fame and success, who surely would love the opportunity to coach in the States. As the Red Bulls have proven, a big name is not essential. Salary would be an issue -- United doesn't have Real Madrid's budget, or even Real Sociedad's budget. One name that has floated around: former Newcastle and England manager Kevin Keegan. A realistic target, though?

THE ASSISTANT (Columbus' Robert Warzycha): After seven years as a player for the Crew, the Poland native served as a club assistant for six seasons. When Sigi Schmid bolted for Seattle, Warzycha inherited the top job and proceeded to guide Columbus to a second straight Supporters' Shield in 2009. This year, the Crew is atop the Eastern Conference heading into the final month of the regular season.

United's options: Besides Olsen, other notable assistants include New York's Williams, who interviewed for the D.C. job last year; Real Salt Lake's Robin Fraser, the former MLS defender in his fourth season with the reigning champions; Los Angeles' Dave Sarachan, the former DCU and national team assistant who guided Chicago to an MLS Cup appearance and is now happily helping Bruce Arena and living in SoCal paradise; and Philadelphia's John Hackworth, who worked in the U.S. national team system.

THE ESTABLISHMENT (Los Angeles' Bruce Arena): After his rebuilding efforts in New York were cut short, Arena has managed the tricky David Beckham-Landon Donovan dynamic and introduced several newcomers en route to a 2009 MLS Cup appearance and the pole position in the 2010 Supporters' Shield race.

United's options: There's only one Bruce Arena, and he's not coming back to clean up the mess at RFK. Had the USSF not retained Bob Bradley, he might have become a candidate. The U.S. under-20 coach, Thomas Rongen, already guided United, from 1999 through 2001.

THE PLAYER (Real Salt Lake's Jason Kreis): In June 2007, Kreis went from player to coach in the blink of an eye, retiring as the league's career scoring leader to succeed John Ellinger. Working with another former player turned decision-maker, General Manager Garth Lagerwey, Kreis has settled into the position nicely: the league trophy last year and contending status this fall.

United's options: An exiting player is not going to be hired for this head position. (Sorry, Jaime Moreno and Brian McBride.) D.C. legend Marco Etcheverry's name comes up time to time, but beyond sentimentality, he has never been viewed as a viable candidate. If United is interested in a former high-profile player with vast life experiences, leadership qualities, a coaching gig in his past, respect in American circles and European connections, what about Hall of Famer Thomas Dooley? The German-American had 81 caps for the U.S. team, started in two World Cups, captained the 1998 squad, played four years in MLS and coached Saarbrucken in Germany for one season before settling in Southern California. He has worked in youth coaching, earned his FIFA coaching license in Germany and been involved with a statistical analysis company. His lack of recent club coaching experience would probably hurt his cause.

THE COLLEGE MAN (Dallas' Schellas Hyndman): At a late stage in his career, Hyndman left Southern Methodist University after 24 seasons to dip into the professional ranks. Some questioned whether he could make the transition, but after not making the playoffs last year, he has guided FCD to a 11-2-13 record and emerged as the leading candidate for coach of the year honors.

United's options: Akron's Caleb Porter turned down DCU last year and Maryland's Sasho Cirovski, a hands-on and demanding coach, would want more control than any club would allow. Wake Forest's Jay Vidovich is also highly regarded. With United in need of an immediate turnaround after two mediocre seasons and an awful one, the club doesn't have the luxury to allow a newcomer to grow into the job.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Klinsmann wasn't the right man for the job

Three weeks after U.S. Soccer re-signed Bob Bradley as national team coach, Juergen Klinsmann said he was courted but didn’t take the job because he wasn’t guaranteed enough authority. We don't know the other side of the story, because the USSF bosses won’t comment. But, as Soccer America's Mike Woitalla writes, it's pretty clear that Klinsmann isn't the right man.

This is, of course, déjà vu all over again. After the 2006 World Cup, U.S. Soccer let Bruce Arena go after eight years at the helm and came close to hiring Klinsmann. USSF President Sunil Gulati never explained why the deal didn’t go down. But the German, who has now resided in Southern California for more than a decade, commented on the record why the deal wasn’t sealed in May of 2010.

Klinsmann, well known as a shrewd negotiator from his playing days – which included stints with seven different clubs in four countries – alluded to authority issues at that time as well. He said, "There were different opinions, you know, what players could get the permissions in MLS, what role it plays."

A crucial requirement of a U.S. national team coach is for him to appreciate MLS’s importance to the future of American soccer. The pro league is, in fact, more important to the future of American soccer than the national team, which depends on MLS’s progress if it is to turn into the world power it has the potential to be.

MLS must become profitable, so that it can raise its level of play by drawing more foreign stars – and so that it continues strengthening its youth development programs, which are the best hope for producing world-class American talent.

Now Klinsmann says the Federation approached him about the job after the 2010 World Cup – and offered him enough of money -- but the Federation would not, in writing, grant him “full control of the technical side.” He didn’t offer details on exactly what control he wanted. But one can speculate that he wanted guarantees on MLS player call-ups, control over the U.S. national team schedule, and possibly oversight of the entire national team program.

Even when the DFB, the German federation, was desperate to hire Klinsmann to lead Germany at the 2006 World Cup, it didn't hand over the keys and give him the authority over all aspects of the national team program.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Fergson - what makes up a good coach

Dave Clarke has a tremendous blog from his Better Soccer Coaching company (, and writes of the characteristics that Sir Alex Ferguson sees as what makes up a good coach-

Ferguson says that observation is vital – if you are too involved you miss a lot of things. It is a good idea to stand back sometimes and watch someone else coach while you observe the players.

He says you need perseverance because coaching is not easy and you have to come back after a defeat full of confidence for the next game. “You have to keep the fire in your belly,” confirms Ferguson.

Imagination is important because when you are asked what was your best ever goal as a coach you want to identify a perfect goal that you influenced. This is down to your imagination and how you get things across to the players in your training sessions.

As a young coach Ferguson thought up creative ways of coaching to inspire his players. “You create a chain reaction which produces thinking players and this is a wonderful thing to develop,” he says.

And simple communication is vital. Ferguson believes making it clear what you are after in a coaching session should be top of a coach’s list. “You see those training sessions where the coach is talking all the time and the message is lost – the words get lost in the wind.”

The players want to get on with it so don’t ramble on. “Talking too much is a big danger for a coach.”

Assortment of challenges awaiting new head coaches

They're a collection that includes former bosses who are starting over in a new location, long-time assistants who are finally getting their chance and one popular figure who can't ever seem to find fulfillment simply by sitting courtside behind an analyst's microphone.

With the Warriors opening the door for the exit of the NBA's all-time winningest coach and replacing Don Nelson with Keith Smart, eight professional basketball franchises are opening training camp with new coaches. That means, in theory, eight teams going into the season with a new attitude and a different approach to the game.

From the youngest -- 39-year-old Monty Williams -- to the oldest -- 59-year-old Doug Collins -- they'll face an assortment of challenges. So as the first batch of two-a-day camp drills begins, Fran Blinebury takes a look at the road ahead for the new men in charge:

Doug Collins, Sixers

It's been more than seven years since his last coaching gig in Washington as part of Michael Jordan's fanciful comeback. At this stage of his career, can the leopard change his spots and be something other than the guy who tended to burn out late in the season in previous stops in Chicago and Detroit? He insists that he's mellowed and just wants to cap off his coaching career by getting the franchise where he once performed as a four-time All-Star back on the right track. There is a collection of young talent on hand that could benefit from Collins' extensive knowledge of the game and ability to draw up the Xs and Os. He'll still be hard-charging and driven and, if he can make the emotional connection, could make the Sixers fun to watch again.

Vinny Del Negro, Clippers

In the end, he had plenty of critics in Chicago, but they could look back and would probably be forced to say that he had the Bulls playing hard, even if they questioned his strategy. If he gets credit for the development of Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, then he has to take ownership of not getting the most out of Kirk Hinrich, Luol Deng and Tyrus Thomas. So now the free-and-easy Del Negro takes his very thin resume to a Clippers' organization that is crying out for an authority figure. Will he be able to keep a tight rein on veteran Baron Davis and not let him run wild all over the floor while getting the most out of young players such as Eric Gordon and Blake Griffin? He has to prove that the Clippers aren't building their annual house of cards on a foundation of sand.

Larry Drew, Hawks

This move could turn out to be like one of those old time movie Westerns where the hero cowboy changes from one horse to another in the middle of a chase scene. There's no reason to think the Hawks won't keep right on galloping down the road to another 50-plus win season. In going from Mike Woodson to Drew, the Hawks made a switch without upsetting what they already have and now they're not asking their players to change the fundamental way they play the game. It was simply time for a new voice in the Atlanta after getting swept out of the playoffs in the second round for the second year in a row. He's spent 14 years as an assistant preparing for this and there's no reason to think he isn't ready.

Avery Johnson, Nets

When a franchise is coming off a horrible 12-win season, the first thing that's got to be changed is attitude. And if there's anyone who has an abundance of attitude it's the Little General, who never walks softly and always prods with a big stick. Johnson has been overcoming doubts all through his playing and coaching career, winning a championship in San Antonio as a point guard and coaxing Dallas into the NBA Finals as a coach. Johnson will surely clash with point guard Devin Harris, an old whipping boy with the Mavs. Of course, he'll rub some of his players the wrong way occasionally with his intense, in-your-face style. But he will get the Nets' attention, he will get them to play defense and he will lift them out of the standings cellar. Loudly.

Byron Scott, Cavaliers

One hour on one July night changed everything about the job that Scott took on. But there's a good chance that he's just what the doctor ordered for a Cavs team and a Cleveland fan base that will need to generate enthusiasm and look to the future. After learning some lessons about how to handle his stars in his first job in New Jersey, he moved to New Orleans, got Chris Paul firmly on his side and got the most out of the Hornets in 2008. Of course, now the biggest of stars has left the building and the challenge is to instill pride and a sense of defiance up and down the roster. Everyone will understandably write the Cavs off, but Scott's got the kind of chip-on-the-shoulder attitude that could rub off and become infectious. It will have to if they are going to survive the rebuilding process.

Keith Smart, Warriors

Does this mean we don't get to see Stephen Curry play center or David Lee handle the ball as point guard this season? Does the end of the Don Nelson Era mean the end of the weird lineups, the end of the moodiness and maybe the start of the Warriors returning to Planet Earth and try to become a team that contends for a playoff berth more than once every decade? It's hard to know at this point whether Smart is prepared and ready to go off in a new direction or whether he's simply Nellie 2.0. He was 9-31 during a stint as interim coach in Cleveland in 2002 and suffered through a woeful 1-4 road trip while pinch-hitting for an ailing Nelson last season. There's a lot to prove here.

Tom Thibodeau, Bulls

To hear some tell it, it's as if the genius professor has finally been let out of the laboratory to unleash his invention on the world. Look, Thibodeau knows defense and how to coach it, maybe as well as anybody in the league today. So if he can make defense part of the Bulls' DNA, they could be ready to jump up and challenge Boston, Miami and Orlando in the top half of the East. The questions will be about his ability to juice the offense and, not so insignificantly, handle the switch from being in the shadows as an assistant to living in the spotlight as the head man. He's always been as thorough and exacting as they come in his preparation, but at the same time down-to-earth and a players' favorite.

Monty Williams, Hornets

The greatest unknown quantity among the new coaches is also likely the one facing the most immediate and difficult challenge. Having cut his teeth under Gregg Popovich in San Antonio and Nate McMillan in Portland, there is no question that Williams values tough, hard-nosed defense above all else. He also learned the beauty of simplicity from his two mentors and the importance of not standing way of your talent. Williams says he wants to put the ball into Chris Paul's hands and turn the Hornets into a foot-on-the-gas running team, but not at the expense of defending. His challenge is to succeed early to cut off any speculation that an unhappy CP3 will be looking to bolt.

Stammler ready to start his second career

Lots of kids dream of one day making it in pro sports. Seth Stammler did. And now he's leaving it all behind, "retiring" before he even turns 30, to do something he figures offers a better future:

Work on his MBA in analytical finance at the University of Chicago.

For one thing, the money's better in business, says Stammler, a 28-year-old Ohio native who's making $123,900 this year playing midfield for the New York Red Bulls, according to the Major League Soccer Players Union.

"I mean, obviously, we're not European soccer players," Stammler says, referring to the huge sums top players are paid in Europe. "It's always a good idea to have something in the back of your mind that you'd like to get into."

Stammler has played for the Red Bulls since 2004, after being drafted out of the University of Maryland. In the next several weeks, he'll juggle classes at U. of C.'s Booth School of Business with the final games of his pro soccer career.

And the exhilaration of playing in front of 25,000 fans -- won't he miss that?

"That's part of why you play the game, to do so in front of home fans," Stammler says. "I've always been realistic about this and knew it wouldn't last forever. I'm sure there will be days when I miss playing."

I had a chance to coach against Stammler while he was a collegian at the University of Maryland and I was at Duke University - he was a leader and competitor at the heart of the Terps' defense, and I am really happy and proud of him for being able to take that degree he earned at Maryland and putting it to use in his 'second career'.

Backe raises expectations for Red Bulls

New York Red Bulls head coach Hans Backe has turned up the heat before the most-anticipated match of the Major League Soccer season by claiming his club is ready to overtake the Los Angeles Galaxy as the United States’ highest-profile soccer team.

Backe’s Red Bulls, without the injured Thierry Henry but including designated players Rafael Marquez and Juan Pablo Angel, will take on the Galaxy – which boasts David Beckham and Landon Donovan – in a nationally televised clash at the Home Depot Center on Friday.

After seeing the Red Bulls thrive since he took over in January, Backe is confident the New York club is poised to become the biggest force in the league.

“I feel sure we can get there,” Backe told Yahoo! Sports. “Certainly by next year, we will have the players and the squad and the structure. Winning the championship must be our target.

“Bringing in players like Thierry and Marquez has increased the level. That works both on the field and away from it. People can see this is a club that is moving up, and we are working to make that happen, too. We want to be the best.”

Who's In Bradley's team in 2014?

This is an important time in a World Cup cycle - identifying and assessing members of the player pool to see who will be used in qualifying.

Bob Bradley and his staff have been busy in putting together a schedule of exhibitions against top-level competition in hopes of testing this player pool, and Leander Schaerlaeckens of ESPN writes about the questions that lie ahead for Coach Bradley as he continues to sift through his pool of players.

"I'm sure Bob began evaluating his pool, trying to see which players can or cannot be available for 2014 World Cup," said Bruce Arena, Bradley's predecessor (1998-2006) and the only other man to embark on a second World Cup cycle in charge. "There are going to be a number of players who are capable for the next year or two, and others that will not be ready. It's really forecasting those things and trying to evaluate the current pool. He's just gone through a cycle and knows which players can help him down the road."

That road, however, has many potholes Bradley will have to negotiate. Here are five of them:

An aging back line

The men who formed three-fourths of the U.S. back line in every single 2010 World Cup game -- captain Carlos Bocanegra, Jay DeMerit and Steve Cherundolo -- will be 35, 34 and 35, respectively, by 2014. Chances are slim that any of them will be at a level that he can compete effectively. Although clearing them out and replacing them with prospects straight away would be senseless, their ultimate successors should start seeing playing time immediately, so they can gradually grow into starting roles.

"Are there young players out there that can come up and provide not just the composure you need as defenders but the pure athleticism and the youthful exuberance that can sometimes make up for mistakes?" wondered Alexi Lalas, a starting defender on the 1994 team and a roster member in 1998.

The answer to Lalas' question is yes, or at least a strong maybe. The Los Angeles Galaxy's Omar Gonzalez made his debut against Brazil in an August friendly. Tim Ream (New York Red Bulls) and Ike Opara (San Jose Earthquakes) should follow suit. Now. As should Gale Agbossoumonde, once the U-20 star sorts out his messy club situation. Ideally, one of them will prove suitable to line up alongside Oguchi Onyewu, 32 in 2014, in the center.

West Ham United's Jonathan Spector, 28 in 2014, should take over at right back. As for left back, well, that could be the hardest hole to fill for Bradley.

Expensive Imports Expand the Possibilities for M.L.S.

The standard of Major League Soccer continues to grow - be it in adding more franchises, in attendance figures, and as an on the field product.

As MLS continues it's rise, Andrew Keh of the New York Times writes about the idea of bringing in big names as Designated Players to continue the exposure of the league.

“As we deal with a more sophisticated soccer fan, we have to provide that audience with a brand of soccer that competes with what they can see on television, within the financial parameters that exist today for an emerging professional sports league,” M.L.S. Commissioner Don Garber said. “We’ve addressed that issue with the designated player rule.”

The match between the Los Angeles Galaxy and the Red Bulls on Friday could provide a strong indication of how far the league has progressed. Four designated players — the four highest-paid players in the league — will be on hand at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., in a game that will be broadcast in high definition on ESPN2. (A fifth, Thierry Henry of the Red Bulls, did not travel to California because of a sprained knee.)

Beckham, who has yet to start a game this season as he continues his recovery from an Achilles’ tendon injury, and Donovan, the only American among 14 designated players currently in the league, are expected to play for the Galaxy. The Red Bulls are the only team with three designated players: Juan Pablo Angel, who has been with the club since 2007; Henry; and Rafael Marquez, who along with Henry joined the club over the summer from F.C. Barcelona, the Spanish champion.

“I’d like to say that we envisioned something like this,” Garber said of the star-studded affair. “But it’s fair to say the stars have sort of aligned with this game.”

When Beckham first arrived here, touring the country, turning matches into sideshows and painting himself as an ambassador (and his wife, Victoria, once known as Posh Spice from her days in the pop group the Spice Girls, as a soccer mom), his words were dismissed by some as lofty or, worse, hollow.

But within team front offices, there seems to be a near consensus now that Beckham’s value to the league has been immense. His mere presence has helped M.L.S. emerge from being an international soccer backwater and paved the way for stars like Cuauhtemoc Blanco, the Mexican playmaker who spent three successful years in Chicago, and the Red Bulls’ current stable of luminaries.

“Let’s be honest, from Blanco to Henry to Marquez — who is a huge name in any part of the country that has a Mexican fan base — those guys aren’t here if not for him,” Tom Payne, president of the Galaxy, said of Beckham.

And as the season winds down, various teams are searching for a roster centerpiece of their own.

Last month, Timothy J. Leiweke, the president and chief executive of AEG and the majority owner of the Houston Dynamo, sat down for dinner with the team’s chief operating officer, Chris Canetti, and Coach Dominic Kinnear. He gave them the green light to pursue a major international star. “His direct words were, I think, ‘Go big or go home,’ ” Canetti said.

Growing up in an era of the North American Soccer League, it is both exciting and scary to think of the rapid growth of the Designated Player - where it was the names of stars like Pele, Beckenbauer, Cruyff and Best that raised the NASL to great heights of exposure, it was also the price tag that went along with bringing those stars here to the US that ultimately led to the league's demise.

I hope the history lesson taught by the NASL can help MLS achieve new heights in their own model.