Sunday, July 31, 2011

Sigi Schmid on the Klinsmann hire

Joshua Mayers is the Seattle Sounders FC writer for The Seattle Times, and wrote on his blog about Seattle Sounders FC Head Coach Sigi Schmid's thoughts on USSF's hiring of Jurgen Klinsmann (as provided by Sounders FC media relations). Klinsmann and Schmid have a longstanding relationship.

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(On Juergen Kilnsmann being named U.S. Men's National Team head coach...) "I think it's good for US Soccer. I know that Juergen is a guy that they've been talking to off and on over the number of years right after Bruce Arena left and Juergen left Germany. I knew it was a possibility then. Obviously in the interim time, they've been able to work out whatever issues or differences there were. Now we all have to support the new national team coach and see that our program continues to move forward."

(On Juergen Klinsmann, continued...) "I think what's important about it is that they hired someone who's been in America for a while. Juergen has been living in America now for close to ten years. His son is involved in the US club structure in youth soccer so he knows what that's all about. Part of his coaching license he did by working with the Galaxy for three months when I was there. He's been around the Galaxy and the pro game in MLS and the national team. Even though he is a highly known international soccer person, he's also a person who has been around the block in the US and he has an idea about what US Soccer is all about. I don't think other guys would have that idea."

Tough Job Ahead for Klinsmann

George Vecsey of the New York Times writes of the challenges facing Jurgen Klinsmann as the new head coach of the US National team.

Klinsmann has the aura of the international soccer celebrity — “sexy,” one soccer insider said, meaning attractive, in the public relations sense. But it would have been instructive, in a purely laboratory experiment, to give Bruce Arena or Bradley the German squad of 2006 and see if they could achieve third place. Either one just might have done it.

Now it is the time for the mysterious gentleman caller from the world where coaches really understand the sport, or so the theory goes. The opposite theory (to which I have adhered) is that the national team has needed a home-grown coach who understands the mentality of the American player.

What does that mean? American athletes ask questions — these days, maybe even in that most authoritarian, brute sport known as American football. They ask: Why, Coach? Coaches like Arena and Bradley understood the quirkiness of Landon Donovan and the independence of Clint Dempsey. I’m not sure a Fabio Capello or a Marcello Lippi — my way or the autostrada — would work in the United States. Then again, top European coaches often have room for a resident madman on the field, a Gennaro Gattuso in Italy or a Wayne Rooney in England, and the United States has lacked a lunatic since Frankie Hejduk wore his body down during the last qualifying round.

Donovan praises Bradley, and excited about Klinsmann

US international Landon Donovan says he's excited about playing for Juergen Klinsmann, saying that the German legend's “positive energy” could make a difference for the U.S. national team.

Landon Donovan also praised Bob Bradley, who was dismissed Thursday as the U.S. coach, in an interview with following the Galaxy's 4-0 rout Saturday at Vancouver.

Donovan, the all-time leading U.S. goal scorer (with 47 in 141 international appearances, said he and his teammates are “all excited” about the prospect of playing for Klinsmann, who succeeded Bradley on Friday and will be formally introduced at an event Monday in New York.

“I have the benefit of having played under Juergen a little bit [while on loan in early 2009] at Bayern Munich, and I think one of his biggest attributes is just his positive energy, and I think he brings real excitement and good energy, and I think that's going to be really helpful for our guys,” Donovan said.

Klinsmann, who scored 11 goals in three World Cups and starred for clubs in Germany, Italy, England and France, spent nine months in charge at Bayern after guiding Germany to a surprise third-place finish at home in the 2006 World Cup.

Bradley, who succeeded Bruce Arena as national team head coach following the 2006 tournament, led the U.S. to the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup title, to an upset of Spain and into the final at the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup and to the second stage of last year's World Cup in South Africa.

“When you spend five years with a coach,” Donovan said, “when you see him leave, it's sad, because you develop a relationship and you go through a lot of great times, a lot of really hard times together. So it's sad to see Bob go. And I think we all have a lot of respect for what he's done.

“Now is the time to move forward, and the end goal is the same. But the bigger goal for all of us is to qualify [for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil]. What players come and go, what coaches come and go, we've got to make sure that we keep qualifying.”

Donovan praised Bradley's tenure and said his legacy was that “we achieved things we never achieved before” under his leadership.

“I think he really brought a new professionalism to our team,” Donovan said. “Since I've been on the national team, we've never been respected the way we have when we were coached by Bob. And everywhere we went, teams respected us, and he took us to a new level. So he did a lot for this team.”

Arena, the Galaxy's head coach, said some of the criticism Bradley endured was unfair.

“Bob did a good job. He did a good job,” said Arena, who guided the U.S. national team from 1998 through 2006 -- taking the Yanks to two World Cups, with a quarterfinal run in 2002. “I think expectations from the [U.S. Soccer] administration to the fan base is very unreasonable at times and never makes it easy. Domestic coaches will always be a scapegoat. That's the way it is.

“For some reason, everyone thinks that foreign means better all the time. And in the case of Juergen, I'm hopeful he does a good job.”

Klinsmann looks to mirror 2006 World Cup success with US

A new era of US Soccer will start tomorrow, when Jurgen Klinsmann is formally introduced to the media as the new national team coach.

Rob Hughes of the NY Times writes of the potential influence that Klinsmann will have on his adopted nation.

When Jürgen Klinsmann took over as the German national team trainer before the 2006 World Cup, he opened the eyes of his birth nation.

He persuaded Germans to change the stereotype that had won them World Cups.

He engaged a fresh, young, multiethnic group of players. He instilled an attacking philosophy. He introduced American ideas on fitness and locker-room psychology.

Now, in a sense, Klinsmann must do the reverse. His appointment as head coach to the U.S. Soccer Federation starts officially in New York on Monday morning. And he will try to open American eyes.

He brings European know-how to a land where he settled after his playing prime. He has believed, from the moment he landed in California 13 years ago, that the United States is a melting pot of humanity that ought to be a major player in the global game.

MIKE JACOBS COLUMN: Time to stress being humble as an athlete

From the Evansville Courier Press, July 31, 2011

With preseason for so many high school and collegiate soccer teams — as well as all fall sports — right around the corner, this is a great time for coaching staffs to really stress what facets will become important parts of the culture of their team.

A friend of mine once described the idea of culture as "that's how we do things around here." I loved that description, because it really makes it clear to a coach's players about the ideals and standards that a team should possess.

One of the first things on a priority list for a group that wants to have a successful culture is humility. Wikipedia defines humility as humility (adjectival form: humble), the quality of being modest and respectful. It also uses the term "egolessness" in its definition.

In the new book, "Don't Waste Your Sports," author C.J. Mahaney profiles what a humble athlete looks like. Here are some of Mahaney's keys to help your athletes, children or co-workers develop humility:

— A humble athlete recognizes his limitations, as it is our limitations that are meant to humble us.

I asked a group of campers this summer if any of them went through the whole training session without giving a pass away or having a shot they had taken go off target. The reality is that everyone makes mistakes, and it is the humble athletes who don't get too caught up in magnifying a teammate's mistake (or their own).

— The humble athlete welcomes criticism and correction from coaches and teammates. If a player is truly humble, he or she will not only realize their weaknesses, but also be open to correction.

I've found over the years that the players who really are professional in their demeanor seek out correction or instruction rather than hide from it. Most of the players I've worked with who have moved on to the professional ranks have really bought into the idea of video editing — studying their own performance — as well as using support staff such as strength coaches, sports psychologists, athletic training staff and extra work with the coaching staff.

The special athletes want to use any resources available to help improve themselves and turn weaknesses into strengths. If we are truly humble we know we need to improve, so we want others to show us where and how.

— The humble athlete acknowledges the contribution of others.

No athlete accomplishes anything alone. The truly humble athletes are the ones who heap praise on their teammates and support them when they are interviewed rather than talk about themselves.

— The humble athlete is gracious in defeat and modest in victory.

When the humble athlete loses, he recognizes that his opponents played better. When the humble athlete wins, there are no excessive celebrations, no inappropriate victory dances. He or she acts like they have been there before

The humble athlete also realizes that victory is a gift. When a truly humble athlete tastes defeat, rather than put blame on someone or something else, he or she accepts defeat on that day and then works toward improving the following day.

The margin between victory and defeat is very slim, and the humble athlete appreciates how hard he or she has to work to achieve victory.

— The humble athlete honors his coach.

He or she doesn't rip the coach in private, doesn't slouch when on the bench and expresses gratitude and accepts the role the coach chooses for him.

— The humble athlete respects the officials.

He or she doesn't protest a call, even if they felt it was inaccurate.

I try to stress to our players that an official has never scored a goal against us or cleared one off the line of the opposing team. Even if a referee is perceived to have made a call that has affected the outcome of the match, the reality is that the ball has to go past 11 of your own players before it can go in the goal.

Humility is a trait that everyone should possess, yet very few athletes have a grip on how to develop it. The truly special athletes are the ones who are humble, and the best teams are the ones that have humility at the core of their program's culture.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Klinsmann Named Head Coach of U.S. Men's National Team

CHICAGO (July 29, 2011) — U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati named Jürgen Klinsmann as head coach of the U.S. Men’s National Team today, making him the 35th coach in the history of the program.

“We are excited to have Jürgen as the head coach of our Men’s National Team,” said Gulati. “He is a highly accomplished player and coach with the experience and knowledge to advance the program. Jürgen has had success in many different areas of the game and we look forward to the leadership he will provide on and off the field.”

U.S. Soccer will hold a press conference in New York on Monday, Aug. 1, to formally introduce Klinsmann. Further details regarding the press conference will be released later today.

Klinsmann’s first match in charge of the U.S. National Team will be against Mexico on Aug. 10 in Philadelphia. Tickets are still available for the match and can be purchased at Kickoff is set for 9 p.m. ET and the match will be broadcast live on ESPN2, and Univision. In addition, Univision will air a live pre-game show beginning at 8:30 p.m. ET.

•Tickets: U.S. Men vs. Mexico, Aug. 10
“I am proud and honored to be named the head coach of the U.S. Men’s National Team,” said Klinsmann. “I would like to thank the U.S. Soccer Federation for the opportunity, and I’m excited about the challenge ahead. I am looking forward to bringing the team together for our upcoming match against Mexico and starting on the road toward qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup.”

Klinsmann has been involved in soccer almost his entire life as a player, coach, television analyst and consultant. As a player, Klinsmann was one of the game’s premier forwards and enjoyed a 17-year career that included stints in four major European leagues for a number of clubs, including VfB Stuttgart, Inter Milan, AS Monaco, Tottenham Hotspur and Bayern Munich. One of the most well-known international players of all-time, he earned 108 appearances for Germany and scored 47 goals while helping the team win the 1990 FIFA World Cup in Italy and the 1996 European Championship.

After retiring from professional soccer following the 1998 FIFA World Cup, Klinsmann moved into different areas of the sport. He also moved to the United States with his wife, Debbie, and they currently reside in California with their two children, Jonathan and Laila.

In July of 2004, Klinsmann was named manager of the German National Team. He guided Germany to a 20-8-6 record and a third place finish in the 2006 FIFA World Cup, earning him Coach of the Year honors in Germany. Despite stepping aside as Germany’s manager after the World Cup, he left a foundation for ongoing success, including the core of the German National Team coaching staff and players.

Two years later, Klinsmann took over the head coaching position at Bayern Munich. Under his guidance, Bayern reached the quarterfinal of the UEFA Champions League, losing to eventual champion Barcelona. Overall, his record with Bayern from 2008-09 in all competitions was 25-9-9.

After the match against Mexico, the U.S. will play a pair of friendlies in September, hosting Costa Rica on Sept. 2 at The Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., before traveling to face Belgium on Sept. 6 in Brussels. Kickoff on Sept. 2 at the National Training Center is set for 8 p.m. PT, and the match will be broadcast live on ESPN2, and Galavision. Four days later, coverage from King Badouin Stadium begins at 8:30 p.m. local time (2:30 p.m. ET) on ESPN Classic and Fans can follow both matches live on’s MatchTracker and Twitter @ussoccer.

When Is the Right Time To Make a Coaching Change?

It is not uncommon to make a coaching change following a World Cup - in looking at the past 2010 FIFA World Cup, the only two managers who had also managed in the previous 2006 FIFA World Cup were that tournament's two finalists - Marcello Lippi (Italy) and Raymond Domenech (France).

Both Lippi and Domenech saw their teams slump badly in the following tournament, not being able to move on from the group stages.

My problem is at the timing of this decision by USSF President Sunil Gulati - why renew Bob Bradley's contract following the 2010 World Cup if he didn't intend to retain him through the next cycle towards the 2014 World Cup?

I don't know if there is ever 'a good time' to make a change, but clearly Gulati doesn't know when that time is, either.

Ridge Mahoney of Soccer America writes about the process of moving the US National team coach.

The decision to jettison Bob Bradley as national team head coach comes at a critical juncture for U.S. Soccer. The dilemma of whether to fire a head coach came up in November, 1997, when I stepped into the lobby of a Providence, R.I. hotel that was housing the U.S. national team.

Two veteran players who shall not be named motioned me over and with lowered voices said, “Do you think Steve [Sampson] should be fired?”

This enquiry came with the Americans already qualified and the final Hexagonal game against El Salvador pending. A rift between Coach Sampson and captain John Harkes would occur months later, and just two weeks prior the U.S. had carved out an historic 0-0 tie against Mexico at Azteca Stadium despite playing with 10 men for most of the match.

Yet the players felt enough concern to raise the ultimate question, to which I responded, more rhetorically than pragmatically, “I’d say yes in a heartbeat if you can tell me who can make things better.”

Whereupon they looked at each other and one of them said, “We were thinking the same thing. Making a change this late might upset the camp.”

National teams have changed head coaches much closer to the World Cup than the seven-month period of this situation, to varying results. As subsequent events showed, there remained plenty of time for the U.S. team to self-destruct, and we’ll never know if a change would have rectified the problems, or magnified them.

We do know that U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati has chosen this as the right time for a change by dismissing Coach Bob Bradley after a meeting Thursday at Home Depot Center. The decision ends a 4 1/2-year tenure that produced some unprecedented successes for the national team along with disappointments. It also comes with the federation mired in a rut of bad outcomes.

“I think there’s a sense that a malaise has set in, not necessarily just with the national team, but with the federation in general,” said former national team defender and ESPN commentator Alexi Lalas. “If you look back over the last year or so, you see a lot of opportunities missed: not getting past Ghana last summer, the failure to get the [2022] World Cup, the flame-outs of the U-17s and U-20s, even the Women’s World Cup.

“Obviously, most of those things are not Bob Bradley’s fault. But Sunil is a very smart guy, and I think he sees this is the right time for a change, and not because we’ve heard a lot of about change these past few years or change for change’s sake, but he does see the need to change direction. I also don’t think he’d do this if he didn’t have somebody lined up.”

In the U.S. Soccer press release that announced the decision, there was a mention that the federation would be releasing more information Friday. Not clear is whether that means a new head coach will be named, an especially pressing concern since the U.S. has scheduled a match against Mexico in Philadelphia Aug. 10.

The two names mentioned most often are former German international and national team coach Juergen Klinsmann and former Liverpool coach Rafael Benitez. Klinsmann, a resident of Southern California, discussed the job with Gulati after the 2006 World Cup and again last year; a close ally of Benitez, Paco de Miguel, helped youth technical director Claudio Reyna present the new U.S. Soccer coaching curriculum in April. Benitez has also been unemployed since being fired by Inter Milan last December.

No matter if a foreign coach is chosen, or one of several domestic possibilities, the federation is at a most critical juncture.

TIMING. The decision to dismiss Bradley probably came shortly after the Gold Cup, in which the U.S. lost a group game for the first time – to Panama, which it later defeated in the semifinals – and in the final took a 2-0 lead against Mexico before collapsing, 4-2. Michael Bradley’s wedding, the Women’s World Cup, and MLS All-Star Game may have caused the delay, and/or Gulati may have needed that time to nail down a replacement.

The U.S. looked embarrassingly short on skill against Mexico, which in the wake of its Gold Cup triumph hosted and won the U-17 world championships. Last spring, as the U.S. U-20 team faltered, Mexico qualified for the U-20 World Cup that starts this week. Bypassing the U.S. at each level spread panic amongst the soccer community.

Though the U.S. has a rematch with Mexico looming, and friendlies against Costa Rica and Belgium in early September, there won’t be any World Cup qualifiers until next year. A replacement will have plenty of time to get familiar with the vast scope and quirky cubbyholes of U.S. Soccer and the American game in general, and begin the process of change, whatever that entails.

The disappointing performance of the U-17s and the U-20 team's failure to qualify for the world championships has renewed cries for an overhaul of player development, which the federation has already started with its Development Academy, among other programs. Reyna has stated his intent to devise a style of play that all U.S. national teams at all levels will utilize, but not everyone believes that is feasible.

In recent seasons, along with expansion, MLS has decreed that its teams must field academy programs at youth levels, and this year has also revived its Reserve Division. Only recently has MLS generated the revenues and resources -- and devised workable procedures -- to put any real muscle into player development.

In most nations, national team coaches do not develop players, per se: they pick them from the clubs, and meld them – hopefully – into a successful team. The U.S. Soccer residency program in Bradenton, Fla., at which U-17 players are housed year-round, is an exception, not the rule, though similar programs have been implemented in a few countries.

“I’m not one of those people who insist on a style from the U-17s to the U-20s all the way up to the senior team,” says Garth Lagerwey, general manger of Real Salt Lake, which has an ambitious and well-funded academy program. “What there has to be, however, is a commonality of what you want those players to look like and the kind of players to pick from.

“It’s a lot easier to develop a style if you have a lot of good players, and I think that’s the starting point we have to strive for.”

It is not for me to determine who should assume all of the responsibilities of the success, or perceived lack of success, by the US National team, but when you see poor performances from our Under-17, Under-20 and Under-23 National teams, it looks like our president should assume some of the responsibility, too.

US soccer culture - not Bob Bradley - is to blame

Poor Bob Bradley. He always was U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati’s Plan B.

Twice, Gulati failed to land his prized national team coaching candidate, Jürgen Klinsmann, and twice he settled on the stoic but hard-working Bradley.

To his credit, the no-nonsense New Jersey native never indicated he suffered from wounded pride. Bradley went about his business with diligence and dignity, and he had a keen appreciation for what it meant to represent his country.

"It has been an incredible honor to serve as head coach. I am proud of everything we've accomplished,” Bradley said in a statement Thursday night, hours after being fired.

There is plenty to be proud of. During his five years at the helm, Bradley shepherded the U.S. to the final of four of the six tournaments it entered, winning the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup and falling just short vs. Brazil in the 2009 Confederations Cup following a semifinal upset of Spain. The U.S. also finished atop a World Cup group for the first time in 80 years.

But it wasn’t enough. It never was going to be enough. And that’s because for all his qualities, Bradley represented only where the U.S. has been as a soccer country, not where it hopes to be. He was a product of the college system so many now deride, and he built his coaching bona fides during the early days of a mostly mediocre MLS. Few with World Cup dreams will be moved by that resume.

The U.S. national team has been led by an American coach since 1995. It now appears Gulati is ready to end that streak because the only coaches who’ve been where the U.S. Soccer Federation wants to go carry foreign passports.

Klinsmann is the heavy favorite to take the job. His coaching accomplishments don’t match Bradley’s, but he’s a powerful symbol nevertheless. He won a World Cup as a player and directed a young, stylish and exciting German team to the bronze medal at the 2006 World Cup (with home-field advantage and a top assistant, current Germany coach Joachim Löw, who has proven to be a quite capable international manager in his own right).

Klinsmann lives in Southern California and appears accessible, yet he possesses genuine international pedigree. The fact he was fired from his last coaching job (at Bayern Munich) after only nine months and hasn’t held steady employment in more than two years somehow hasn’t removed any luster from the “golden bomber.”

That’s because to all those American fans who worship at the altar of the English Premier League and La Liga, and to those who believe the U.S. should be contending for a World Cup despite the fact soccer has been taken seriously in this country for a mere quarter century, Klinsmann and coaches like him represent a quick fix. He’s charismatic and has yet to make a single scandalous substitution decision.

He’s the anti-Bradley. He’s the future.

However, there is little Klinsmann can do to change the real reasons the U.S. fell short vs. Brazil, Ghana and Mexico. Those are issues of soccer culture, player development and priorities.

Some have argued the U.S. punched above its weight under Bradley, considering the second-tier clubs for which the vast majority of the team plays. Klinsmann cannot inject more money and expertise into MLS’ nascent academy structure, can’t fire the youth club directors who stress winning over learning and can’t alter an American ethos that steers talented teenagers to college rather than to pro soccer careers.

The players who Klinsmann, or whomever is given the job, will select for national team duty are the finished product. Subtle changes in philosophy, lineups and tactics won’t make a significant difference.

Still, that doesn’t mean that Klinsmann, or a similarly sexy foreign coach, can’t have a positive impact. If Bradley failed, it was as a communicator, not a tactician. He never really got the hang of explaining himself, his decisions or his philosophy to fans and media, and reportedly wasn’t much of a motivator. His knowledge of the game was lost in translation.

The new coach won’t be tied inextricably to American soccer’s failed development system. He’ll have that European aura, cache and instant respect. With that bully pulpit, Klinsmann (an excellent communicator) or whoever gets the job could exert significant influence on U.S. soccer culture.

Klinsmann, for one, might have unorthodox methods (he forced Bayern players to take yoga classes), but he certainly understands how top players are produced. He understands club culture and the importance of a unified, modern developmental system like those found in countries that win World Cups.

The U.S. must follow suit, and the best thing the new national team coach can do is push and prod the vast and often competing interests in American soccer in that direction.

Bradley’s successor won’t win a World Cup. But he just might help convince those who want one what it takes.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Bradley's Tenure as Head Coach of U.S. Men's National Team Ends

U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati announced today that Bob Bradley has been relieved of his duties as the head coach of the U.S. Men’s National Team.

CHICAGO (July 28, 2011) — U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati announced today that Bob Bradley has been relieved of his duties as the head coach of the U.S. Men’s National Team.

“We want to thank Bob Bradley for his service and dedication to U.S. Soccer during the past five years,” said Gulati. “During his time as the head coach of our Men’s National Team he led the team to a number of accomplishments, but we felt now was the right time for us to make a change. It is always hard to make these decisions, especially when it involves someone we respect as much as Bob. We wish him the best in his future endeavors.”

This announcement comes after a meeting at The Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., between Gulati, Bradley and U.S. Soccer CEO Dan Flynn.

Bradley was named the head coach of the U.S. MNT in January of 2007 and during his five-year tenure compiled a 43-25-12 record. He led the team to a number of accomplishments, including winning the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup, finishing second in the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup, winning their World Cup qualifying group and advancing to the Round of 16 of the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa.

U.S. Soccer will have a further announcement on Friday.

United players assess Major League Soccer

After Manchester United's 4-0 victory over the MLS All-Stars last night at Red Bull Arena, Alex Labidou of was able to speak with Anders Lindegaard and Ji-Sung Park about what's needed for MLS, and specifically American soccer, to continue to grow.

Year after year, Manchester United continues to show that there is a huge disparity between the world’s best and Major League Soccer. Yet, the same questions remain after another drubbing by the Red Devils.

What can be done to change the league? What are players in America missing?

Manchester United’s goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard believes that in order for American soccer to improve, the way coaches organize their players needs to be better.

“Overall, it’s not on the same level as we are, with all due respect,” said Lindegaard. “I think the organization of the teams overall has to be better.”

Lindegaard started almost every one of United’s games during the club's United States tour this month and has seen the Red Devils beat MLS clubs by average of nearly four goals a game.

The Danish goalkeeper, who has been compared to United’s recently retired legendary keeper Edwin van der Sar, says that he doesn’t believe that players in MLS lack talent but they are missing out on the small tactical details that are stressed in Europe.

However, Lindegaard doesn't see a quick fix to the dilemma as Europeans have been perfecting their craft and coaching techniques for decades. The 27-year-old says that if Americans put more focus into the coaching side of the game, there is no reason why the development of players can’t catch up to the levels of Europe sooner than later.

“You guys have athletic players who can surprisingly play more technically then I expected,” said Lindegaard to the American press. “I was actually really surprised to see how many teams tried to play technically against us. It wasn’t like they were just trying to long ball it throughout the game.“

He added, “You have great facilities and beautiful stadiums; all it takes is organizing the game better out here.”

Ji-Sung Park, whose wonder goal secured him All-Star MVP, said that he thinks MLS is improving but also agrees that the one thing missing in its clubs is consistent and constant communication on the field. He also added more talented players wouldn’t hurt either.

“They need to improve a lot of things, it’s not just one thing, it’s everything” said Park. “More [talented] players need to come play but I think it will change over the next few years."

MLS All-Star defender Tim Ream acknowledges Lindegaard and Park's assessment. When asked what attribute from the Red Devils he would like to add to his own club, the Red Bulls' 23-year-old player said that he would improve the level of communication.

“I think their cohesiveness, how they played with each other and no matter if they are having a good day or a bad one,” answered Ream to “If we had that in New York, we’d be unstoppable.”

Still, both Lindegaard and Park were amazed by the progress made by MLS clubs.

“I was shocked because I heard soccer is your smallest sport out here,” said Lindegaard. “If that’s the case, then your other sports must be massive.”

Park revealed that if he was offered an opportunity to play in Major League Soccer, he would seriously consider it.

“The American league will be big,” said Park. “Yea, if I had an opportunity [I’d consider it] but for now, I’d like to focus on European football.”

At midseason, MLS attendance up from 2010

Mike Woitalla of Soccer America reports on the rising attendance figures in Major League Soccer.

MLS crowds before the All-Star break were up from last season's average at the midseason point. For MLS attendance rankings ...

* At the All-Star break, MLS's attendance average of 17,417 is more than a 6 percent increase from its 2010 midseason mark. Last season ended with a 16,037 league-wide attendance average.

* MLS's highest attendance came in its inaugural season of 1996 -- 17,406.

* Week 19's 11 games included five midweek clashes and averaged 15,669. The biggest crowd was the 24,709 at the Home Depot Center for Los Ange les' 1-0 win over Columbus last Wednesday. On the other end, San Jose drew 8,122 for a 2-2 tie with Vancouver, also on a Wednesday.

* Defending champion Colorado hosted two games in Week 19, drawing 15,227 on a Wednesday and 12,273 on Saturday.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

MLS Attendance Continues to Rise

Through this season's 177 games, the MLS's average crowd increased by 6.3 percent from its 2010 midseason mark, to 17,526. Fred Dreier points out the increase is thanks to sellout crowds in the Pacific Northwest combined with a new stadium and rebranding effort in Kansas City.

The expansion Portland Timbers have sold out all 10 home games at Jeld-Wen Field, which after a $31 million renovation seats 18,627. Fellow newcomer Vancouver has sold 95.3 percent of its capacity and averaged 20,008 fans a game at its temporary home, Empire Field, while its permanent home, BC Place Stadium, undergoes construction. The Northwest’s third team, the Seattle Sounders, which has topped MLS in attendance since it entered the league in 2009, has also posted its best midseason mark, 37,189.

Outside the Pacific Northwest region, the New York Red Bulls, FC Dallas, San Jose Earthquakes and Sporting Kansas City have all posted double-digit percentage increases in attendance, with Sporting Kansas City growing the most at 81 percent and San Jose following at 36.7 percent. The team formerly known as the Wizards rebranded itself Sporting Kansas City in November 2010 in the lead-up to the completion of its $200 million soccer-specific facility, Livestrong Sporting Park, which opened June 9.

MLS All-Stars prep for Man Utd

Ridge Mahoney of Soccer America previews the exhibition match between the MLS All-Stars versus Manchester United.

It’s been a heady couple of days building up to the MLS All-Star Game, with Coach Hans Backe -- a perfect 2-0 against Manchester United during his stint as a Manchester City assistant -- talking about tactics and film study, and a few players referring to the 5-2 pasting inflicted by Man United in last summer's midsummer classic. Sporting Kansas City defender Matt Besler is also undefeated, having played in a 1-0 defeat of United last year in a friendly.

All of that makes for lots of Web hits and breathless preview material, but little of it is relevant. If MLS and its marketing arm, SUM, really wanted the All-Star Game to be competitive, it would put up a pot of a few million dollars for the winning team.

Lacking that incentive, watching how the young American All-Stars budding for places in the national team – Sean Franklin, Tim Ream, Juan Agudelo, Tally Hall, etc. – fare against top-class foreign players, even in a friendly setting, is what I’ll be watching. Regardless of how fit and motivated are the United players, they are clever, and will be quick to spot errors in positioning and technical flaws that they can exploit.

That’s why the absence of lanky, speedy FC Dallas winger Brek Shea, who is committed instead to play a Concacaf Champions League match in San Salvador against Alianza, is especially disappointing. If anybody needs a fresh crack at proving himself against good international players, regardless of the setting, it is him.

Many were the cries for his inclusion to the national team last year, so strongly did some believe he would soon fill a void on the national team of a left-sided mid with pace, confidence, and a knack for slashing open the opposition. It’s a facet of attacking play the USA has sorely missed since DaMarcus Beasley went off the radar after the 2007 Concacaf Gold Cup and though Shea’s traits are different than those of Beasley, or other young candidates such as Alejandro Bedoya, he certainly has a good base of skills on which to build.

Shea debuted for the USA last October against Colombia and labored through a miserable first half before being substituted. He came back two months later to play against Canada and hasn’t been selected since.

One could argue that Shea’s game will grow by playing in the Concacaf games, and at his age and moderate base of professional experience, he’ll certainly derive some benefit for a tough away encounter in Central America. But I’d like to see him working the flank against United, maybe nicking the ball past Nani or running at Rafael, or cutting inside to challenge Rio Ferdinand. Since United’s backups could start in MLS, Shea would gain valuable experience against just about any of them.

At the other end, the more that Ream and Franklin see up-close of Wayne Rooney, Michael Owen, Ryan Giggs, Federico Macheda or Park Ji-Sung -- not to mention Javier Hernandez, who has rejoined United after taking a long break following the Gold Cup – the better off they’ll be in the long run. No matter which players line up on the United back line, they won’t be too lenient in dealing with the brightest young light of the U.S. team, Juan Agudelo, so he’ll need to be on his game as well.

Another regrettable absentee is Omar Gonzalez, who is wearing a protective plastic mask as his broken nose heals. (He and Hernandez could well be battling each other for the next decade.) Like Shea, he struggled through a rough U.S. debut when handed a far tougher assignment against Brazil a month after the 2010 World Cup.

The All-Star Game is a high-powered, hyperbole-swollen exhibition, and there’s nothing wrong with that when it gives young American players an opportunity to play with and against some truly outstanding talents.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Tweet at your own risk

"Players are going to get themselves into trouble over Twitter, I can tell. I can't ban it and I'm not going to try. But they have to be careful what they say on it about the club and its policies. If they put a team selection up, which I'm sure some disgruntled numpty will at some stage, they will be in trouble. Then I think they can get fined. … We are in the process of educating them, having a media law firm come in and speak to the players about it. Having pictures of yourself misbehaving as a 16-year-old is OK until you become a famous footballer and that picture is still there and is there forever."

Mick McCarthy, coach of English club Wolverhampton Wanderers.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Has MLS demeaned itself with World Football Challenge?

There is definitely a yin and yang to the idea of exhibitions squeezed into the Major League Soccer schedule.

Despite the large gate and fan interest, a condenced schedule and poor results haven't put MLS in the best light as the World Football Challenge continues.

Paul Gardner writes about the challenges that these one-sided exhibitions have brought to MLS, and it's perception in this country and abroad.

Like it or not -- and most of us would at least make a pretense of objecting -- scorelines are the vital building blocks of all sports. The only indisputable things that allow us to make judgments and comparisons, the relentless realities that mean triumph or disaster, fame or infamy.

And that wasn’t true what I just said about them being indisputable -- they’re probably all disputed by someone, somewhere at some time, or even all the time. It’s just that they get into the archives and then all the controversy that might surround them doesn’t matter any more. History, and the printed word, have spoken. Such scorelines are there to be accepted -- not interpreted.

I have before me a scoreline: Manchester United 7 Seattle Sounders 0. Pretty bad. Knowing, as I do, that Sigi Schmid has apologized to the Sounders fans, knowing also that he substituted in a virtually second-string team for the second half (when six of the goals were scored) makes no difference. The stark story told by the numbers is that Seattle, one of the better MLS teams, was shockingly outclassed by ManU. In front of 64,000 fans, mostly, I presume, Sounders supporters.

At which point any moderately sane person is going to ask why MLS teams are playing these games in which the chances are high that they will get beaten, or quite possibly thrashed. Did Commissioner Don Garber or anyone else at MLS, need the Sounders to be publicly ridiculed before they accept that MLS is not up to the level of the EPL?

Doubtful. So why are MLS teams playing in this so-called World Football Challenge that inserts 14 high-profile games into the already crowded MLS season? This tournament first popped up in 2009, a four-team event organized by a non-soccer group from Los Angeles, Creative Artists Agency (CAA). MLS teams were not involved in 2009. The WFC was not played last year, the summer being fully taken up by the World Cup.

But the WFC is back. Not only are five MLS clubs taking part, but we find that MLS is now a co-organizer along with CAA. A crude case of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” The WFC had shown in 2009 that there was plenty of money to be made by bringing in top foreign teams to play each other and charging pretty fancy prices for the tickets.

The WFC, with glamour teams like Chelsea and Inter Milan, looked capable of simply obliterating interest in MLS during a three-week spell in the middle of its season. Difficult to imagine how that was going to help the sport, particularly the MLS version, grow.

But helping soccer to succeed in the USA was never part of the CAA agenda. Making money was. What would you expect from an organizing group -- of Americans -- that names its tournament -- to be staged in the USA -- the World Football Challenge? That deliberate snubbing of the word soccer, tells you immediately that the WFC cared nothing for the American game or about Major League Soccer.

Well OK -- if the American fans show themselves willing to pay the hefty ticket prices to see the foreign heavyweights there’s not much to be done about it. Under that despairing sort of thinking, the MLS decision to help organize a money-making tournament that disrupts its own season and embarrasses its own clubs may make, at least, financial sense.

Talking finance, I should point out that there is a sleeping partner here, one that, without lifting a finger, will do very nicely out of the WFC. Namely, the U.S. Soccer Federation, which rakes in 9% of the gate money from games featuring two foreign teams (8 WFC games), and 5.25% from the six games featuring an American (i.e. MLS) team. An income of several million (some of which gets passed on to FIFA and to Concacaf).

But does MLS have to go so far as to demean itself and kneel down in front of the big name clubs? In come the big European names and suddenly the artificial turf fields in Seattle and Vancouver -- which have so far been deemed good enough for MLS games -- must be replaced with grass fields to accommodate the foreigners. Vancouver made such a mess of laying down its new grass that its scheduled MLS game against Real Salt Lake had to be called off because the field was waterlogged. The game, says MLS, will be re-scheduled. It should not be, it should be deemed a forfeit win for RSL. I can’t think of any reason why RSL should be required to suffer as a result of Vancouver’s efforts (or is it the league’s?) to kowtow to the WFC.

The Los Angeles Galaxy’s Bruce Arena -- who else would it be? -- has spoken out against the way that the WFC is structured to favor the foreign clubs: “The whole tournament is set up to accommodate them. Our needs are not addressed at all.” The Galaxy, currently the best team in MLS, were taken apart by Real Madrid, 4-1 -- more very public evidence to fuel the argument of those who like to scoff at MLS as a rinky-dink league, an argument further strengthened by the fact that the MLS teams are supposedly fully fit and operational in mid-season while the foreign are only beginning their preseason training -- and Arena made the point that the WFC’s liberal substitution regulations made things easier for the visiting clubs, which have bigger -- and stronger -- rosters.

So far, we’ve seen the New England Revs and the Sounders mauled by ManU, and the Galaxy brushed aside by Real Madrid. The Vancouver Whitecaps -- as it happens, currently the worst team in MLS -- did a bit better in a 2-1 loss to Manchester City, but that game was reduced to a farce by the cow-pasture field produced by the newly laid turf.

Three more games featuring MLS teams remain to be played. We are asked to believe that these ritual sacrifices of the MLS teams are a good thing, that the MLS players “learn” from them. Maybe they do. But being forced to go through a brutal learning experience slap-bang in the middle of your own season does not sound like good timing.

Nor does it suggest that MLS is taking its own regular season very seriously. Which adds another arrow to the bow of those critics who maintain that MLS regular season games verge on the meaningless because the playoff system deprives them of significance.

LaBrocca works himself into an All-Star

Nick LaBrocca's qualities have been clear to the most discriminating observers since he was a rookie fresh out of Rutgers seeing all of his playing time in Major League Soccer's Reserve League.

It quickly vaulted him into the Colorado Rapids' starting lineup, and then Toronto FC's after a trade last year, and now we're getting to see him emerge into a star. The next step comes Saturday night against the Houston Dynamo at Home Depot Center.

LaBrocca has been a catalyst in Chivas USA's rebuild this season, taking charge on the attack to the count of a team-best six goals -- one more than he'd netted in his first four MLS campaigns -- a figure that merely hints at his importance to the Goats.

“I've been trying to get Nick for three years, at least. I'm just happy we have the opportunity to get him now,” said Chivas USA coach Robin Fraser, who came to the Goats from Real Salt Lake. “The good thing about him, too, is for all his ability, he's very humble and willing to do whatever the team needs him to do. You put that together with that kind of natural ability, he's a tremendous player to coach.”

LaBrocca, 26, who joined the Goats (5-7-8) in a preseason trade from Toronto, is an unassuming as they come. At 5-foot-8, 165 pounds, with a receding hairline and a genuine shyness, he's not going to be mistaken for a top-class athlete -- until he hits the field. Then he's the maestro, serving as Chivas' primary linkman and creator from his spot atop the club's midfield diamond.

“He's a great player. He gets better and better every game,” midfielder Blair Gavin said. “You're like, 'Can you get better?' And he does. He's shifty, he's crafty, he makes great runs off the ball ... he changes up the dynamic. [Opponents] got to be aware of this guy.”

Defender Zarek Valentin says LaBrocca “has four eyes when he's on the field.”

“He has two eyes behind his head and two eyes in front of his head. His awareness is incredible,” Valentin said. “And it's good to have those kind of guys where I can play the ball as hard as I can on the ground, and he'll take a perfect touch to where he wants it, and he'll start an attack out of that.”

Fraser praises LaBrocca's soccer IQ.

“That's one of the reasons we wanted to get him, because he's such an intelligent player,” the coach said. “And I think we've asked him to be even more active in finding open spaces on the field, and he's become very good at being able to find gaps and holes between defenders and slip into good spots. You put that with a very good first touch, and he makes himself dangerous frequently.”

His performance has been noticed. New York Red Bulls coach Hans Backe, who next week will guide the MLS All-Star team against Manchester United, included LaBrocca on his 22-man roster.

The game will be played at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J., not too far north of LaBrocca's hometown, Howell, N.J. The opportunity to play in such a game in front of friends and family is humbling.

“This is like icing on the cake,” LaBrocca said after getting the news. “It feels good. I'm excited, honored. I feel very fortunate to be given this opportunity.”

He earned it with a series of superb performances capped by often sizzling goals -- and had scored in three successive matches before last weekend's 0-0 draw with the Red Bulls.

“I'm just kind of doing what I've been doing, what I've been working on,” he said. “It's just translated offensively a little more than it has before.”

Fraser has given him more responsibility than he had with Colorado or Toronto, and that's part of what has fueled LaBrocca, “helped me get on the same page as my teammates a little faster than I normally would.”

LaBrocca says that Fraser's staff, the chemistry among players and the atmosphere in the locker room have “made life very easy in transitioning in what would usually be a difficult and challenging time,” that he “mesh[es] well with this group of players, not only on the field, but off the field,” and that there's “still a lot to build on, and that's the exciting part.”

Ferguson's the best in the business, says Guardiola

Manchester United's Alex Ferguson is the number one coach in the world, according to Barcelona boss Pep Guardiola.

Ferguson's Premier League champions were comprehensively outplayed in May by a rampant Barcelona, who had United chasing shadows for the majority of their 3-1 Champions League final victory at Wembley Stadium.

Guardiola said the dominance of his all-conquering Catalans should not detract from Ferguson's trophy-laden reign at United.

"I cannot be compared with Ferguson," Guardiola told reporters ahead of Barcelona's friendly against Hajduk Split in Croatia on Saturday.

"The fact Manchester United lost a Champions League match doesn't mean I am a better coach than he is.

"I still have a lot to do just to attempt to be compared to him. The kind of prestige he has isn't lost for losing a match in the Champions League," added the Spaniard.

"When a person is working for more than 25 years and winning and winning and winning so many times, if there is one person I think is number one it is Alex Ferguson."

The Scot has led United to three Champions League finals in four years, winning in 2008 having also triumphed in 1999.

United overhauled Liverpool as the most successful English club in May when they won their 19th league title -- Ferguson's 12th Premier League crown since joining the club in 1986.

American Media Coverage of Soccer Needs to Grow

Mike Cardillo of the Stamford Advocate has seen soccer grow significantly in our country. Now, he wants to see the media's coverage of the game grow, too.

Sunday evening, waiting to take the field before a rec softball game, all the chatter among my teammates was about the Women's World Cup final between the United States and Japan, which was in the second period of extra time. Yes, you read that correctly. One of my teammates was almost late for the first pitch, only leaving his house after the 90 minutes of regulation were complete.

It was pretty clear: For whatever reason, the 2011 Women's World Cup seemed to strike a nerve with sports fans. Instead of being (at best) ignored or (at worst) mocked, the final match was being talked about by my teammates the way we generally jib-jab back and forth about all other sports.

Credit the smooth ESPN production from Germany.

Tip your cap to a likeable, outgoing group of American players displaying a never-say-die attitude, which produced some thrilling soccer games.

Call it good timing, since aside from baseball, there's not a whole lot of interesting stuff going on in the world of sports in mid-July.

Regardless, for a week at least, people took notice.

Will the success of the 2011 Women's World Cup usher in a new groundswell of interest in women's soccer, specifically the fledging WPS league, which has struggled financially since its inception in 2007? Realistically? Probably not.

Better yet, let's ask a more probing question: Whenever a World Cup rolls around -- be it men's or women's -- why does the American media begin to rattle off the same, old cliched stories about whether the sport will take off in the United States as it has around the rest of the globe?

For folks 40 and under, it probably already has done that.

Granted, this isn't exactly empirical research, but Wednesday night, there were no fewer than five soccer games from across the globe on American television, all overlapping. On Univision, it was the Copa America semifinal of Paraguay vs. Venezuela; on Fox Soccer, it was a WPS match, followed by the Seattle Sounders taking on world power Manchester United in a summer exhibition game. Later on MSG was a regular MLS match with the Red Bulls playing at Colorado, and finally on ESPN2, Spanish giant Real Madrid taking on Mexico's Guadalajara.

Twenty years ago, playing youth soccer in Fairfield, about the only exposure to professional soccer my team had was access to a grainy VHS tape my father made from the 1990 World Cup. Nowadays, kids have no shortage of international and domestic stars to aspire to follow.

Again, a random example, but helping my parents move, a couple of kids were playing next door. One was wearing a Carlos Puyol Barcelona shirt.

There's clearly more than a passing curiosity for the sport every four years.

Is soccer ever going to displace the NFL or baseball or college football as the dominant sport in the land? Of course not. Better yet, why should this be a concern or worry?

If anything, Americans embrace all sports; well, maybe not cricket.

Part of me, as a media member myself, wonders if soccer takes too many of my ink-stained brethren out of their comfort zone. Since they didn't grow up with the sport and don't know much about its strategy or inner workings, they tend to write in broad strokes, as they did in the wake of the U.S.'s eventual loss to Japan -- did the Americans choke? Or the media celebrated the heart displayed by the team in defeat. At worst was the "Around the Horn"-type blabbering heads who focused on the inane, such as why penalty kicks are the wrong way to decide a champion, instead of talking about -- you know -- the game itself.

There's a generation of soccer fans in America, the fans who flock to games in cities like Portland or Seattle or even nearby Harrison, N.J., who crave more than these cursory, straw man-type arguments the mainstream media likes to serve up. As a person who's followed the game for the past two decades, we're almost beyond that threshold.

On the plus side, at the bare minimum with soccer, you'll never have to read about the words "lockout" or "collective bargaining agreement."

In the year 2011, there's seemingly always a game on television ... somewhere.

Injured Donovan drops out of All-Star Game

Landon Donovan missed the Los Angeles Galaxy's friendly Sunday afternoon against Manchester City with a strained right calf. Turns out it'll keep him out of Major League Soccer's All-Star Game, too.

The Galaxy captain withdrew from Wednesday's midsummer classic after the Man City game because of injury, a lingering ailment that was bothering him a little more than usual this week.

New York Red Bulls coach Hans Backe, who will guide the MLS All-Stars against Manchester United in the game in Harrison, N.J., likely will decide by Monday who will replace Donovan on the 22-man game roster.

Garber talks about growth of league

MLS Commissioner Don Garber has been at the forefront of the growth and success of Major League Soccer.

On the eve of the Major League Soccer All-Star game, Garber sits down with Michael Fensom of the Star Ledger and insists the league must pay careful attention to its growth strategy as it continues to evolve and capture the interest of soccer fans across the United States and internationally.

Q: How would you categorize the league at this point in time?

A: We are the NFL 50 years ago, we’re baseball and basketball 50 years ago. We’re still figuring out what things we need to do and how to innovate, how to evolve and how to take advantage of market change and opportunity and doing it in real-time. At some point 50 years from now, people will look back and say, ‘Hey, if it wasn’t for them building stadiums, this wouldn’t have happened; if it wasn’t for academies, this great striker now a superstar for FC Barcelona, who might be some American kid from Dallas, would not basically have come through like he had.’ So we’re very focused in trying to ensure a better future than the future we have today.

USSDA takes High School vs. Club debate to new level

From the Evansville Courier Press, July 24, 2011

There has always been a 'High School versus Club' debate between groups on both sides of the discussion of the best place for young soccer players to ply their trade, but a recent initiative from US Soccer could escalate this debate to all new heights.

The United States Soccer Development Academy is the top league in the US for the Under-15 through Under-18 age groups, and has a limited number of teams across the country. There are 79 clubs that have been selected for USSDA Academy status, with boy's teams that compete in both the 15/16 and 17/18 age groups. Indiana has one team in the Academy- Indiana United- which is based in Indianapolis. Each Major League Soccer team has youth academies in the USSDA, and the Under-15 and Under-17 national teams are comprised primarily from players off USSDA teams.

Many believe that the USSDA has replaced the Olympic Development Program (ODP) as a true developmental model for boys here in the United States- giving the top youth players the opportunity to play with and against the top players and teams in the country.

A new wrinkle potentially being posed by US Soccer is the concept of a 10-month season which would start earlier than in years past, and run through the entire Fall- overlapping the Fall High School season. There are other parts of the country that do not play High School soccer in the Fall- Texas and Florida play in the Winter; Georgia, Tennessee and California play in the Spring. Most USSDA divisions have taken High school seasons into account when creating their schedules, which are very regional- avoiding overlaps with High School.

If this new initiative does come into affect, top youth players could be potentially asked to choose between playing for their school and their club.

I have had the opportunity to speak with coaches and administrators from both factions, and there are some serious challenges with this figurative line being drawn in the sand.

US Soccer officials look at the player development models in other parts of the world, and deem that to catch us up with the other top nations that we need to have our top youth players competing under higher demands for longer periods of time throughout the calendar year; attempting to do so with high school soccer being included leads to overtraining and playing, with bodies being taxed with both high school and USSDA matches coinciding with each other.

High School soccer advocates will point to the values that are developed in the school game that just can't be replicated in youth soccer- lessons that transcend sport like being a part of something bigger than yourself while representing a player's school, town and community.

This hits home here in Evansville specifically- I travel all over the United States, and outside of maybe the St. Louis metropolitan area, I have never seen another part of the country where high school soccer is as prestigious in it's community as we have here in Evansville.

This initiative will not 'kill' High School soccer- there are enough players at schools and enough prestige with the idea of representing your own school that there will always be a place for High School soccer (the same critics of the high school game usually share the same opinion that our top young American players should skip college and go straight into the pro ranks).

Saying that, 5 of the top boys high school players from Evansville played in the USSDA last year between teams based in Indianapolis and St. Louis/Collinsville- pulling them out of their high school teams would have significantly affected the standard of the high school game in Evansville last season. That is where this could potentially hurt the high school game the most.

We have never seen a challenge like this posed to youth soccer players in our country before- without the opportunity to potentially play both high school and in the USSDA, the very few players in each community that fall into that category will be asked to choose- or rather, have their opportunity to choose taken from them (it would be either/or if this initiative does come into effect).

I see a definite benefit for the opportunity for our top youth players to be able to play both high school and for the US Soccer Development Academy or in other club teams. The reality is that if you take the best of both- offering the chance to represent your town or school, playing more important playoff-type games (in high school) coupled with the opportunity to pit the best players with/against each other under higher training and game conditions (USSDA or club), you have, well, college soccer.

The combination of both of those settings most resembles the college game. Where very few players will realistically move onto the professional ranks directly from high school or USSDA, the reality is that a steady diet of both could help prepare players for the collegiate level- which is where 99% of the players from these programs should be aspiring to go.

I see benefits to both high school soccer and the mission of the United States Soccer Development Academy, and hope that they can find a way to coexist.

Uruguay wins Copa America

Paul Kennedy of Soccer America recaps why Uruguay are the deserving champions of the 2011 Copa America.

While Brazil and Argentina couldn't get past the quarterfinals -- the same stage at which they fell at last year's World Cup -- Uruguay confirmed its status as the best team in South America with a thoroughly deserved 3-0 win over Paraguay in the 2011 Copa America final. Here are five reasons the Celeste, winner of a record 15 Copa America titles, is the best team in South America ...

DIEGO FORLAN. Named the best player at the 2010 World Cup when he helped Uruguay finish fourth, Forlan had not scored in 12 straight matches for the national team going into the final, but he scored twice in the final against Paraguay to tie Hector Scarone as Uruguay's all-time leading scorer (31 goals). He also joined father Pablo and grandfather Juan Carlos Corazo as Copa America champions. "Three generations have won this trophy," Diego said. "The name of Forlan will stay in history."

LUIS SUAREZ. The Liverpool striker played a key role in Uruguay's victory over host Argentina in the quarterfinals, scored both goals in the semifinal win over Peru and had the first goal against Paraguay in the final. In a tournament that saw its bright young strikers all exit quickly -- Argentina's Sergio Aguero, Brazil's Neymar, Chile's Alexis Sanchez and Colombia's Falcao -- Suarez stood out.

OSCAR WASHINGTON TABAREZ. At 64, Tabarez began his second stint as the Uruguay national team coach in 2006, and he doesn't look to be leaving any time soon. "We have to have faith in our things, we prepared for the [Copa America], we did it well," said Tabarez. World Cup 2014 qualifying starts this fall and Tabarez cautions, though, that it won't be easy. "To have won the Copa America has no bearing on the qualifiers," he said. "it's no guarantee."

DEFENSE. While the Celeste's attack struggled to find the mark until the final -- just six goals in its first five games -- its defense was outstanding throughout the tournament. Goalie Fernando Muslera had a great game in the quarterfinals against Argentina, and Diego Lugano was the tournament's best center back.

YOUTH MOVEMENT. Uruguay built on its success at the World Cup, bringing 20 of the 23 players it took to Germany to Argentina, but it continues to develop young talent. Center back Sebastian Coates, 20, was named the best young player at the 2011 Copa America. There should be more talent on the way. Uruguay finished second to host Mexico at the Under-17 World Cup. Next up: the Under-20 World Cup that begins this week in Colombia. Uruguay has also qualified for the 2012 London Olympics, eliminating 2008 gold-medalist Argentina in the U-20 qualifiers that doubled as the Olympic qualifiers in South America.

Balotelli substituted in disgrace

Mario Balotelli's remarkable talent for finding new ways to embroil himself in controversy resurfaced on Manchester City's pre-season trip to Los Angeles when the Italian was substituted in disgrace only 30 minutes into a friendly against LA Galaxy.

Balotelli then became involved in a touchline row with his manager, Roberto Mancini, and angrily threw a water bottle on to the pitch after taking his seat among the substitutes.

The striker had gone clean through on goal a few minutes earlier but, rather than finishing off an easy chance, he turned full circle, flicking the ball behind his legs and trying to score with a backheel. It was a remarkable act of self-indulgence and, as the ball went wide, several of his team-mates, particularly Edin Dzeko, could be seen remonstrating with him.

Balotelli had opened the scoring from the penalty spot but Mancini was so incensed with the showboating that he immediately signalled for James Milner to replace the former Internazionale striker. The manager studiously ignored Balotelli as he was substituted only for the player to confront him and demand to know why he had been replaced. Mancini rose to his feet and started to berate him angrily before Balotelli stalked off.

"I hope this is a lesson for him," said Mancini, who hopes a deal for the Atlético Madrid striker, Sergio Agüero, can be done in the next four or five days. "In football you always need to be professional, always serious and in this moment he wasn't professional. He needs to understand his behaviour has to be good in every game – not just in a final or a semi-final but every game.

"He knows he made a mistake. Football should always be serious and if you have a chance to score, you should score. If you are serious, you can play 90 minutes. If not, you can come and sit by me on the bench. Mario is young, I want to help him and that is the end of it. To take him off after 30 minutes is enough punishment. It won't have been easy for him but it has to be a lesson."

Click here to see the video of the spectacle that is Mario Balotelli.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Schmid, Sounders agree on extension

Sigi Schmid, often mentioned as a potential successor to current U.S. national team coach Bob Bradley, has signed an extension that will keep him with the Seattle Sounders through the 2015 season.

Schmid -- the MLS career leader in both regular-season victories (he has a 148-107-82 record) and postseason victories (19-10-5) -- has guided the Sounders to two U.S. Open Cup titles and back-to-back playoff berths in the club's first two seasons in MLS.

The 58-year-old Schmid has won MLS titles with Los Angeles (2002) and Columbus (2008).

"From the moment we hired Sigi I knew it was the right decision, and that he was the right man for this particular club," said Sounders owner and general manager Adrian Hanauer. "I feel that even more strongly today. Beyond the victories and the trophies won, Sigi possesses a strong, positive character and he has represented himself and this club with tremendous class and professionalism. Sigi is the right coach to lead us to more successes and more championships."

Ferguson: MLS should have promotion-relegation

Following Manchester United's 4-1 victory over the New England Revolution at Gillette Stadium, Sir Alex Ferguson told the press that a system of promotion and relegation in MLS would help develop soccer in the United States.

The game kicked off Manchester United's U.S. tour and the 2011 Herbalife World Football Challenge, which showcases some of the world's top clubs in friendly matches across the United States.

"I look at the States as incredible potential," said Sir Alex Ferguson. "The potential is that you’ve got young kids throughout the country – millions – playing soccer, but how long? College football, college soccer, there’s nowhere for it to go, so until you get a league that relegates, and the soccer leagues from MLS straight down, so that young kids in the leagues and schools can go to different types of leagues depending on their abilities.

They have it in England, they have it in Germany, they have it in France and then they got the relegate system so that it enables all kids to have an opportunity like … going up to school. Once they get that, then the league gets stronger."

Although promotion-relegation is an excellent incentive for teams to improve and invest, one major obstacle to that system in the U.S. is that MLS club owners pay a high fee to operate an MLS club. Recent franchise fees were approximately $40 million and future expansion franchise fees are rumored to be as high as $80 million.

Another issue is the League's salary cap, which restricts how much an individual club can spend for the purpose of establishing parity throughout MLS. The designated player rules, which originated with David Beckham, have relaxed the cap slightly for club owners who desire a more competitive club with one to three expensive players. However, club fees to purchase a designated player are distributed to the MLS clubs without a designated player in order to retain league parity. Obviously, clubs paying those designated player fees are not pleased to see their money paid to clubs not investing or attaining the same level of quality and essentially weighing MLS down.

On the plus side, the United States already has two lower leagues that theoretically could cooperate in some kind of promotion-relegation system with MLS. The United State's second division, the North American Soccer League (NASL), operates eight teams without a salary cap and the third division, USL PRO, operates a 12-team league.

The machinations of getting these leagues to work together would be very complex and likely fraught with litigation. D2 and D3 team owners would balk or be unable to pay the high franchise fee should they be promoted and MLS clubs would be hard pressed to part with their invested franchise fee should they be relegated.

Should MLS elect to split into a higher and lower division, the extensive travel issues would be aggravated and local rivals perhaps separated.

Ferguson broaches the travel issue

Ferguson touched lightly on the issue of travel, a serious issue with players, team expenses and broadcasters.

"There’s no question that it’s take off, soccer, here – that’s absolute no doubt about that," said Ferguson. "And you’re getting some good crowds for the games now. I think that I would say that there will be big decisions on how to lay the line, i.e. the travel, maybe split the country into different leagues, something like that. For the United States to do that, I think would make for far better competition and bring more teams into the soccer."

Splitting the vast United States into two geographically divided top leagues, as opposed to conferences, is an equally complex issue. On the plus side, it would relieve some of the travel expenses and time zone broadcasting issues, and would improve local rivalries with the increased familiarity. Reduced travel would also make the League more attractive to foreign players who are accustomed to mostly busrides to and from games.

However, the obstacles in dividing the League are far too great at this time. First, with the exception of the New York Red Bulls and the Philadelphia Union, the Western Conference is far superior to the East and responsible for drawing crowds to the Eastern stadiums. Second, the broadcasters' efforts to improve ratings and draw sponsors would likely be slashed with decreased audiences, now narrowly garnered from steadfast fans across the U.S.

Ferguson on soccer in the U.S: 'It's taken off'

Ferguson's candid comments add healthy fuel to the various debates as to how the MLS should grow. The League increasingly attracts world-wide attention, which is a very good thing and positive indicator of its success.

"I’ve noticed an improvement last year when we came across," said Ferguson. "[It's] added more teams, a bigger league and I think that it’s a far, far bigger project in terms of soccer throughout the country. It’s taken off."

Reyna’s youth system overhaul provides US path to close gap with world's elite

Claudio Reyna was a long way from the glare and glamour of the World Cup, sitting in a folding chair beside a patchy suburban soccer field and eating a boxed lunch.

The former U.S. national team captain watched intently as a youth academy team from Major League Soccer’s New York Red Bulls took on the Dallas Texans, a top club team. The match was part of the U.S. Soccer Federation’s “Finals Week,” a tournament that brought some of the nation’s best teenage teams to Milwaukee this past week.

As the youth technical director for U.S. Soccer, Reyna is leading the federation’s push to identify and nurture talented players at an early age. Reyna says player development doesn’t happen by accident in countries such as Spain, Netherlands, Germany and Brazil. Superstar Lionel Messi didn’t fall out of the sky one day, he was groomed at Barcelona’s legendary La Masia academy.

In hopes of getting the U.S. to that level, Reyna is borrowing ideas from soccer’s powerhouse countries and clubs to change the way American kids learn to play.

“It’s going to happen with a real, collective plan,” Reyna said. “No way is it just going to happen. It’s not happening in the other countries just like that, they’re not just rolling out the balls. It’s a real high level of progressing and evolving, and it’s going to be the same thing here. We’re going to have to make some real big steps to catch up with the world, and have any chance to compete with the rest of the world on a consistent basis.”

As the U.S. women’s team prepared for Sunday’s World Cup title game against Japan, Reyna said he sees a path for the U.S. to reach similar heights in the men’s game — just not overnight. While the men’s team has played itself back into international relevancy and had some big moments over the past two decades, Reyna wants a new generation of players who can take the U.S. from good to great.

“The possibility to influence and make youth players better is what I like, because they can make big steps at these ages, and that’s very important,” Reyna said. “And it’s something that I just enjoy more, because there’s a greater need for it. It’s very, very important that we take on this challenge in a serious way. Clearly, we’re not with the best teams in the world at the moment. We always look at it that way: How do we close the gap?”

Drawing on his experience as a player and ideas from his contacts at top teams around the world, including Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola, Reyna established an official coaching curriculum for U.S. Soccer. About 100 pages long, it outlines the way the U.S. wants to play — retaining possession with quick one- and two-touch passes and attacking, like Barca or Spain’s national team — and provides age-specific guidelines for coaches. The curriculum will be put in place primarily through U.S. Soccer’s partnerships with elite youth clubs and development academies across the country.

A couple of concepts could raise eyebrows.

While today’s kids might play four or five games in a weekend tournament, Reyna wants more practice and fewer games. And in a culture obsessed with winning, Reyna says coaches, especially with younger kids, should worry less about the score and more about playing the “right way.” A team of 12-year-olds might be able to win 1-0 with conservative, defensive play. But that doesn’t help them improve.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Mexico Under-17 Victory Is No Fluke

For the often-maligned CONCACAF region, Mexico's victory in the U-17 World Cup was a big deal.

South American and European teams have dominated men's soccer for generations, so the raw emotion of just under 100,000 screaming Mexican fans provided an excellent advertisement for the region to FIFA chiefs in attendance.

Mexico's victory was no fluke either. Over the past two decades, culminating in the 2005 U-17 World Cup title in Peru by beating Brazil in the final, Mexican soccer came to its senses. A number of clubs started seriously investing in their youth systems, and now it’s starting to pay.

Just look at the most prominent performers for Mexico during the campaign and the youth systems their clubs have in place.

The head-bandaged hero Julio Gómez is from the border state of Tamaulipas, but the man-of-the-tournament plays at Pachuca where there is a soccer university. Dutch maestro Hans Westerhof — the interim coach at Chivas USA back in 2005 — has recently been installed as director of youth development.

Striker Carlos Fierro has been brought up at all-Mexican Chivas de Guadalajara, where owner Jorge Vergara regularly tells fans that new first-team “signings” will come from the youth system. There has been heavy investment in the youth setup since Vergara took charge in 2002.

Across town at Atlas, there has long been a tradition of developing top players. Rafa Márquez, Pável Pardo and Andrés Guardado are just a few to have come from the Zorros. In the same tradition, Mexico captain Antonio Briseño gave assured performances throughout the tournament and looks set for great things. For Atlas, without a title since 1951, the production of players is vital for the club's income.

Finally, there is the case of Tigres UANL midfielder Jorge Espericueta, given the award for the tournament's second-best player. Tigres are not a club known for producing many top players. However, since Dutchman Dennis te Kloese took over in 2008, there has been an infrastructural overhaul in the club's youth system. Espericueta is part of the result.

From a Yank perspective, there is also a group of five young Mexican-Americans champing at the bit to get into the Tigres first team (more about this in Thursday's Postcard from Mexico). All four have received interest from European clubs, according to Mexican press reports.

Then there is case of the talented American 'keeper between the sticks for Mexico, Richard Sánchez. Born in Southern California, Sánchez plays with FC Dallas but has rejected offers to play for US youth teams in favor of Mexico.

Sánchez thanked FC Dallas and his family and friends in California in an interview with Mexican TV straight after the game. He has stated that he left Atlético Madrid in 2009 because of the problems he had learning in Spain. Having been brought up in the United States education system, in English, Sánchez and his family decided to move back to the US.

Although Sánchez can switch allegiances to the US, it would take some persuading for the world champion to turn his back on Mexico, especially after the wild scenes of celebration after the game. More likely for Sánchez is a move back to Europe, at least according to some press reports in Mexico.

On a more positive side for the US, FIFA President Sepp Blatter stated on his recent trip to Mexico that it is very possible the 2026 World Cup will be based in the CONCACAF region. That can only be a good thing for this part of the world as a whole.

Rooney: MLS has potential to be among best in world

Manchester United star Wayne Rooney will be getting his first taste of an MLS club on Wednesday night at Gillette Stadium when his team faces the New England Revolution (8 pm, ESPN, ESPN Deportes), but that didn’t stop him from making a bold prediction about the future of America’s top-flight league.

“I think the league is definitely on the rise and I’m sure in the next five, 10 years, it’ll be one of the major leagues in football, I think,” Rooney said in an exclusive interview with on Tuesday.

And the England international forward backs up his claim, pointing to what he’s seen from the American players with whom he has crossed paths back home. All of them have deep connections with MLS.

“American players who have played in the Premier League have done very well,” he said. “Brian McBride, I’ve played with him at Everton. Joe-Max Moore when I was a young lad [at Everton]. Clint Dempsey has done really well. Brad Friedel has done incredible over the last 10 years.

“When you see the way they play and then you look at the MLS, it’s similar to the way they play. They work hard. They’re physical. They’ve got quality.”

And while American fans may be hard on US national team coach Bob Bradley and his squad, Rooney offers an outsider’s perspective, which sustains Bradley’s view that the USA are appreciated abroad — often more so than they are at home.

“The way the US played against us in the World Cup, they’re so committed,” Rooney said of the 1-1 draw between England and the USA in last year's World Cup. “And I think for any team to have players who are committed like that, it’s a great ability to have to be committed and work hard.”

It’s that American hardworking spirit that Rooney is counting on to help the Red Devils get in shape to win their 20th Premier League title.

“On this tour, it’s important for us to get the fitness working and be fit for that first game of the season,” he said. “And in three of the games [vs. New England, Seattle and Chicago] we know we’ll do that because teams in MLS are physical teams and work hard. And that will push us as well to get more work in the games.

Study Shows Women Half As Likely To Fake Soccer Injuries As Men

Turns out that when it comes to sports injuries, women aren't faking it.

Female soccer players are half as likely to fake an injury as their male counterparts, according to a study from the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.

Published in the July edition of Research in Sports Medicine, the study reviewed 47 televised matches from two international women's tournaments, dividing all apparent injuries into "definite" -- those when a player left the field within five minutes or was visibly bleeding -- with the rest being classified as questionable.

The research found a rate of 0.78 definite injuries per match and 4.96 questionable injuries per women's match.

According to the press release:

[The] research indicates that apparent injury incidents for women are much less frequent than for men, however, occurring at a rate of 5.74 per match as compared to 11.26 per men’s match. The proportion of apparent injuries that were classified as “definite” was nearly twice as high for women, 13.7 percent, as compared to 7.2 percent for men.

"It is clear from this study that female players don't fake injuries at the same rate as their male counterparts," said Daryl Rosenbaum, an assistant professor of Family and Community Medicine at Wake Forest Baptist.

Rosenbaum hopes that the study will help FIFA and those monitoring "injury simulation" issues tainting professional soccer focus their efforts on addressing the issue.

Villas-Boas wants Chelsea players to 'die for the cause'

André Villas-Boas has stressed he will only succeed as Chelsea manager if he gets the squad to believe in his coaching methods so they will "die" for the cause.

The 33-year-old's treble success at Porto last season – the Portuguese club won the domestic title, cup and the Europa League – was built largely on his devotion to preparation and attention to detail. Villas-Boas will adopt the same approach at Stamford Bridge, in contrast to the more relaxed reign of his predecessor, Carlo Ancelotti.

"It's not the case that managers who approach the game in the other way are not successful," Villas-Boas told Chelsea magazine. "You can be successful in the game in various different ways. The most important thing is that the idea you want to sell, the players are able to buy it; that it doesn't seem something so out of the ordinary that they are not able to commit and die for you and for the cause."

Sir Alex Ferguson predicts growth of Major League Soccer in US

Why is it that whenever world football giants like Manchester United come to the United States for pre-season exhibitions, that I am reminded of Rocky taking on Thunderlips for a charity exhibition in the movie "Rocky III"?

Whether it is for a preseason tour or a charity exhibition, Sir Alex Ferguson can eventually see Major League Soccer being made up of four conferences, such are the rapid advances being made by football in the United States.

Ferguson's first experience of US football was the now-defunct North American Soccer League, which was filled with overseas signings such as Pelé, Johan Cruyff and George Best.

Even eight years ago, when United embarked on their first commercial tour, opposition was drawn from Europe and Mexico to ensure the standard was high enough to generate public interest.

Now, though, Ferguson knows his team face tough examinations even though three of United's five matches this summer involve teams drawn from the domestic league, with a fourth featuring an MLS All-Star team containing David Beckham, Thierry Henry and Landon Donovan.

In two years' time, the MLS will confirm a 19th franchise, which is tipped to mark the return of the legendary New York Cosmos.

"I always thought the problem would be the size of the country," Ferguson said ahead of Wednesday's game with the New England Revolution. "Travelling from Boston to Los Angeles is a long haul.

"But in Brazil they have two leagues. They could easily do that in the United States if it takes off and they got more clubs involved. In fact, you could have four leagues because of the size of the country and the population base. There are unbelievable possibilities for the United States."

Over 50,000 fans are expected at the Gillette Stadium to watch the Champions League runners-up. That is three times the normal number of supporters who would be expected to attend an MLS game. Nevertheless, it is a significant portion of a city which boasts top NBA, MLB and NFL teams.

"It is different to when I first came here in 1978," Ferguson said. "I went to see quite a few teams to see if I could bring something to Aberdeen that would have been useful in terms of not just the football side but the commercial side. But it was difficult. Teams used to travel to play three away games at a time and it never really worked.

"Now we see the United States in a different light. There is evidence now that they are starting to produce their own players. They have advanced their game because of the coaching and their sports science. That has put them to a different level in terms of my appreciation of them and also my understanding that you are not going to get an easy game."