Monday, June 28, 2010

Dear Mr. Gulati:

After writing a derivative and unimaginative postmortem of the USMNT experience in the 2010 World Cup that provided the ages of various players, I am happy to pen yet another pointless piece about the national team.

As part of my month of soccer book reading, I am working my way through Brad Friedel's "Thinking Outside the Box." As Paul Kimmage observed in The Times two years ago, if you can get over the ponderous start to the book, it is a worthwhile read. Friedel is a thoughtful and relatively candid storyteller and the book reads as a rather clinical study of how to approach a career as a professional. He neither sugarcoats the mundane details of the work required to be at the top of his game nor does he attribute his achievements to divine providence.

Of particular interest at the moment is Friedel's thoughts on former teammate and manager Mark Hughes. Friedel appears to have a large amount of respect for Hughes. He contrasts Hughes with his predecessor at Rovers, Graeme Souness, by deeming Sparky an "improver" and Souness an "importer." Friedel argues that Hughes' tenure as the head coach of Wales taught him the need to get the most out of the players in the squad and emphasizes the changes that Hughes brought to Blackburn (like the introduction of ProZone and other regular, routine metrics for evaluating performance and development).

The thought of Hughes as a potential candidate for the USMNT gaffer position would seem ridiculous -- it is a far cry from the resources he had available at Manchester City and a remarkable distance from the English Premier League -- but Hughes' current dalliance with the Dubai club Al Ahli would seem to indicate that such a job might not be terribly unattractive. I doubt that anyone in the U.S. Soccer Federation would seriously entertain even approaching Mark Hughes for the position (there is a far better chance of BB keeping the job than Hughes being recruited), but I would at least hope that he is considered as a possible option. Under Hughes, Blackburn performed better than the talent on the team would have forecasted. Hughes has previously expressed an interest in returning to "international management" albeit with England and at a more advanced age and he is therefore clearly not ignorant of the demands of national team coaching.

Hughes' time with Man City is not terribly informative of any shortcomings he has as a coach, insofar as his reign coincided with a tumultuous era at the club with heightened expectations and a lot of overpaid dead weight on the roster. However, Hughes has been criticized as tactically deficient and too committed to a management staff of familiar friends (the Welsh mafia). But these concerns are muted a bit by the deficiencies of other realistic candidates that may be available. They could be further mitigated by the introduction of Friedel -- tipped to be a future football coach himself -- as part of the coaching staff.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Start Again

I was excused from the heartbreak of having to watch Ghana's upset of the United States yesterday afternoon by the visit of good friends from overseas. I had intended to watch both games later in the evening, but had those plans foiled by stopping by J. Paul's in the Inner Harbor for a late lunch. I was reasonably certain that the United States would lose the match -- as much as I have enjoyed watching them this tournament, I was still surprised to see the USMNT advance out of the group stage with a gaffer who insists on making poor tactical and lineup decisions. Craig Stouffer's post-match autopsy is, I believe, spot on: Bradley never got out of his own way and it cost the United States the best opportunity that its earned to reach the semifinals in its history.

But that should not detract from how enjoyable the team was to watch. Nor does it take away from how much many of the USMNT players developed under Bradley. The individual talent on display has been remarkable. The issue now squarely confronting the USSF is how to proceed forward. This was likely the last World Cup competition for Steve Cherundolo (31), Carlos Bocanegra (31), Jay DeMerit (30), and Marcus Hahnemann (38). Cherundolo, Bocanegra, and DeMerit all played well and I hope that DeMerit will get a serious look from an EPL team to anchor someone's line next season.

It is possible that Howard (31), Donovan (28), Dempsey (27), Onyewu (28), and Beasley (28) might be in the mix for any team that qualifies to travel to Brazil -- the oldest outfield players were 31 for this team -- but the team is going to have to find new anchors. At 22, Michael Bradley was, by a significant margin, the best player in the U.S. side. Altidore, 20, developed into a good big target man, who laid the ball off well (although inconsistently) to teammates. More work on finishing, more confidence, and more repetition against the world's best and perhaps he is what we have all been waiting for in a clinical striker. Feilhaber (25), Edu (24), and Holden (24), may continue to develop and will likely be important pieces going towards qualification, but most eyes will be on M. Bradley's fellow 22-year old midfielder, Jose Torres. The US team was undone when Rico Clark (27) lost the ball in the midfield early on and the turnover highlighted the sublime skill that Torres offered in his limited opportunity (when he was stupidly asked to play a more defensive role), where the ball stuck to his foot and he showed possession capabilities beyond anything currently on offer in the team. And then there is Alejandro Bedoya -- at 23 -- and Charlie Davies -- at 24 -- who both provide more creative promise to a side the suffered to pull anything out of Robbie Findley (24), who did not merit a starting role in two World Cup matches.

The biggest concern facing Bob Bradley's replacement (there is no reason to allow Bradley have another cycle) is the team's backline. Jonathan Spector (24) should have gotten more time when the decision was made to bench Onyewu, but BB went with the underwhelming other Jonathan, Bornstein (25). Edgar Castillo (23) will presumably get a fair shot under a new regime, Silver Spring's Kevin Alston (22) will get a look at right back, and Marvell Wynne (24) will hopefully develop further. But while the fullbacks may be ok, the immediate question for the new coach is who plays in the center? Omar Gonzalez (21) is a stud and should anchor the backline. Will Chad Marshall (25) improve enough to warrant playing alongside Gonzalez? Will Brandon McDonald (24) and Michael Orozco (24) remain part of the mix?

Whatever happens, the talent pool continues to deepen, and an improvement in coaching would coincide with an improvement in capability.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

International Relations

When Ji Yun-Nam placed the Jabulani slightly over Julio Cesar's diving body, we jumped off of our bar stools and raucously applauded. We were the only ones. The rest of the half-full bar turned, registered their disdain, and pivoted back to the bank of televisions. It is apparently not socially acceptable to cheer for North Korea in a K Street bar. While it may be that the issue was cheering against Brazil as opposed to perceived support for Lil' Kim, it is more likely that rooting for them is interpreted as supporting all of the inhumane aspects of North Korea's governance.

I do not understand the need to infect enjoyment of the tournament with political considerations. But for this World Cup, Americans have managed to politicize the games to ridiculous levels. No surprise that commentators would publish the cliched "soccer will never be accepted in America" pieces (thank you Christine Brennan) and "soccer is boring" pieces (cheers Jon Chait), but the political attacks on the sport border on the hysterical. The Progress Report has gamely catalogued a number of the anti-soccer rants from conservative pundits.

The views of Glenn Beck are no more meaningful to me than the political allegiances of our dog or the political analysis of a LaRouche supporter. People might listen to him, but people listen to Hot Tub as well. Whether people think that soccer will catch on in the country or how they feel about the possibility that the sport's popularity will increase is irrelevant. It will either happen or it will not. But regardless of the bluster regarding the World Cup, folks who care about the question ought to cast their eyes elsewhere. Last Thursday, on the eve of the opening of the tournament, 36,146 people turned out to watch the Seattle Sounders host DC United. Those 36 thousand supporters sang and cheered throughout the match -- even when going three - zero down to a team at the bottom of the league table -- and were rewarded with an untiring and exceptional effort at a comeback late in the game.

Soccer games at Qwest Field defy conventional conceptions trotted about by critics of the sport: although it may seem to be mimicry of British football culture, Sounders supporters have created a fundamentally American approach to enjoying the game and do so in significant numbers. They set the standard for support in the country and if soccer "catching on" in the U.S. means that local clubs have the same impact on their towns as the Sounders do on Seattle, we are all better off.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Milan Friendly

Well after they are relevant, some shots of Milan's visit to RFK:


I have, unremarkably, spent the last three days watching virtually every minute of the eight World Cup matches played. Of more importance is the fact that the vast majority of that time, my two-year old has watched with me. Sure, in the eightieth minute of the Mexico - South Africa opener, she turned to me and said "Too long, daddy, too long, turn off, turn off." But after I promised to take her to the playground before Uruguay - France kicked off, she piped down and got into the matches enough that she spent a lot of today's drab Australia - Germany tie running over to her mother (who was making her way through some paperwork in the living room) and drawing her attention to replays of whatever scoring opportunity Germany had just bottled against the underwhelming Aussies ("Look, Mommy, look!").

The tipping point, in my daughter's move from toleration of the game to enjoyment, was DC United's friendly with AC Milan several weeks back. We took a number of friends to the match and the club provided us with tickets behind the players' tunnel entrance. The atmosphere, environment, and quality of the game seemed to grab her. DC's unexpected performance helped tremendously as well.

Since that time, she has asked regularly to go to soccer games. We began this season with season tickets to three clubs and I had marked out about a half dozen games that I wanted to take her to -- afternoon or early evening affairs or matches, like the AC Milan game, that were particularly special -- and planned on going to the remainder with others. But now she wants to go to every game. Real Salt Lake in a US Open Cup match? "I want to go to soccer game Daddy, I go to soccer game." I have a hard time getting up for those matches and, yet, she wants to be there.

I play less attention to the games, as I spend the bulk of my time fretting about whether I need to entertain her or worrying about her hurting herself when she's grown momentarily bored, but I enjoy them far more.

After Siphiwe Tshabalala's beautiful goal, she walked into another room, got on top of a step ladder, thrust her arms out, and chanted "D - C - United!" She continued throughout the rest of the games, finding multiple reasons to scream during South Korea's romp over the most disappointing team of the World Cup thus far, until the U.S. - Ingerland game yesterday. After that match, she has reverted to walking around the house yelling "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!," albeit with slightly less confidence than the "DC United" chant.

I don't know what I've done to deserve this, but I plan on enjoying her enjoyment of this for as long as I can.