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A Casual Reason Football (Ours) is Better Than Football (Everyone Else’s)

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014 - by Rich Tucker
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BELO HORIZONTE, BRAZIL – June 17, 2014: Marc wilmots, head coach of Belgium is seen during the FIFA 2014 World Cup Group H at Mineirao Stadium

The Belgian soccer team apparently doesn’t worry about excess baggage costs. Sports Illustrated reports that the team packed 674 home shirts and 878 away shirts for its trip to the World Cup in Brazil. Since it’s only guaranteed three games, that’s quite a wardrobe. Maybe they’re afraid the Brazilian dry cleaners might lose their items.

One thing’s for sure: None of those shirts will be worn by team manager (we might call him coach) Marc Wilmots. He’ll be on the sidelines running his team, but he’ll be wearing what might be called street clothes: dress shoes, slacks, oxford shirt and a blazer. And he’s not alone.

At the World Cup, tens of thousands of fans come to games wearing crazy costumes, flag-themed pants and, for the less adventurous, replica team jerseys. But when the camera pans to the team managers they seem always to be dressed as if they’re on their way to work at a bank. Most, as in the recent South Korea-Russia contest, even wear a tie.

It’s just another reason American football is better than the rest of the world’s football.

America football coaches created “casual Sunday” many years ago. Perhaps the last man to coach in a tie was Dan Reeves, and he retired from coaching in 2003 when the Falcons fired him.

Since then, the sidelines have been filled with nothing but men in comfortable clothes.

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Why Americans Shouldn’t Embrace Soccer

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014 - by Dennis Mitzner

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There are many signs suggesting that America is changing. In fact, to an outside observer America is starting to look a lot like Europe on many fronts.

One indication of the Europeanization of America might be the growing interest towards soccer. (For the purpose of this article and to avoid confusion, I will, albeit reluctantly, refer to football as soccer.)

The New Republic, once the torchbearer of American liberalism – the classical kind – and now largely a progressive voice, dedicated a whole section for the ongoing soccer World Cup taking place in Brazil.

Granted, I have always been uneasy about Americans and soccer. I love soccer and see it as part of being European. But in my murky soul, soccer represents nothing more than the same lightness and irrelevance of European cultural novelties and indulgences as coffee shops, fashion and high-speed trains.

Of course Americans love sports, but should they embrace a sport that has a bloodier history than any other sport in modern times?

Football and its all-pervasive fan culture is yet another example of the tribalism that Europeans – excluding the euro elites – are sinking into. Western Europe today is defined not by a coherent set of values, but by its identity crisis and deep divisions between lawmakers and the public, Brussels and local governments – and of course between the secular and the religious.

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5 Suggestions to Make Soccer More Palatable for American Audiences

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014 - by Rick Moran

There are legions of soccer haters in America, including some on this site. As I’ve said in the past, there’s nothing wrong with this. Many soccer haters know the game as well as I do and still can’t stand it. Others don’t know the game at all and hate it, which is illogical. Either way, the haters have their reasons and who am I to try and convince them otherwise?

I hate to be the bearer of bad news for the haters, but the World Cup has actually generated some interest in soccer. The ESPN broadcast of the U.S.-Ghana match drew a 7 share overnight, or 8 million viewers. By contrast, a usual broadcast of Monday Night Football draws an 8.6 share, or 9.3 million viewers. Somebody out there in America likes soccer and loves the World Cup.

But it is my belief that a few rule changes would go a long way to getting even more Americans interested in the game. Hopefully, these suggestions wouldn’t alter the character of the game, but simply make it more accessible to American audiences.

1. Injury, or “stoppage” time

The timekeeping problem in soccer is incomprehensible. Are the officials too stupid to keep accurate time? Why not stop the clock for an injury instead of adding on an indeterminate amount of time at the end of the half? (They’re rarely close to being right.) Why can’t they stop the clock after a goal is scored, or when there are long periods of time wasted on arguments with the officials? They rarely stop the clock, except in the case of very serious injuries.

There is nothing exact about timekeeping in a soccer match which is ridiculous in the 21st century. Either keep time or don’t. Add an official timekeeper as they have in football, basketball, and hockey. The ref can control when the clock is stopped and when it starts again. None of this nonsensical, subjective, inaccurate guessing about how much time was lost during a half.

No injury time. No stoppage time. Just 90 minutes of action. Isn’t that what they’re after in the first place?

2. A lack of precision on ball placement and out of bounds plays

How often do you see a foul called and, instead of the player placing the ball exactly where the foul occurred, he advances it 5 or 10 yards and puts it in play? Or you may have noticed when a ball goes out of bounds, the throw-in might eventually occur far from where the ball left the field of play.

The referee will occasionally blow his whistle and force the player to move the free kick back, or motion the player throwing the ball in to play to move closer to where the ball went out of bounds. But there’s no precision, no exactitude. (On throw-ins, I’ve seen players dance 20 yards down the sideline before putting the ball in play.)

It offends the American soul to see this demonstration of inexactness. It’s vaguely unfair. We’re used to games where precision makes a difference between victory and defeat. It can in soccer too.

I understand the attraction in not requiring the referee to handle the ball before putting it in play. It keeps the flow of the game going and maintains an advantage for an attacking team if they can quickly put the ball in play. But there are plenty of times when this rule is abused. Penalizing a team for abusing the practice by awarding a free kick to the opposing team should get players to be more exact in ball placement and out of bounds throw-ins.

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USA-Ukraine Soccer Friendly Exposes American Vulnerabilities

Thursday, March 6th, 2014 - by Rick Moran

The World Cup tune up match between the US and Ukraine was originally scheduled to be played in Kharkiv. But with protestors currently occupying the provincial building and the general unrest in the region, the game was hastily moved 600 miles away to the island of Cyprus.

Only 1500 fans showed up to watch a lackluster performance by the US side, who lost the match 2-0.

In truth, most of the best US players stayed home or weren’t released by their European club teams. Coach Jurgen Klinsman decided to give some European based US national players a chance to excel, thus improving their chances of making the 23 man roster that he will take to Brazil in June.

It was not to be.

The match was billed as a golden opportunity for the Yanks’ many European-based bubble players to make one final push for a spot on Jurgen Klinsmann’s 23-man tournament roster. Instead, the under-strength Americans were thoroughly outclassed during a 2-0 defeat, with few players raising their stock.

It’s hard to see defenders John Brooks, Edgar Castillo or Oguchi Onyewu making the plane to Brazil after struggling so profoundly on Wednesday. Those three were long shots to begin with, of course, even if Onyewu made January’s list as a backup. Then, the hope was that a healthy Onyewu — a two-time World Cup vet who was finally playing regularly after battling injuries for much of the last four years — would lend valuable experience to a mostly untested back line. Now, it looks as if Geoff Cameron, who on Wednesday lined up at right back once again, will be called on to provide cover in the event still-green central defenders Matt Besler or Omar Gonzalez aren’t quite up to the task in Brazil.

Midfielder Sacha Kljestan also failed to take advantage of what was probably his last chance, while youngsters Juan Agudelo, Terrence Boyd and Danny Williams barely got enough time off the bench to make a compelling case.

Still, several players helped — or at least didn’t hurt — their chances.

Brek Shea remains in contention for a reserve role on the left wing after another active performance off the bench. Alejandro Bedoya, with a spirited display, kept the pressure on MLS-based right wing Graham Zusi. And surefire starters Tim Howard and Jermaine Jones showed why Klinsmann will rely so heavily on them this summer.

The lack of experience and depth on the back line spells big trouble for the US in Brazil. At this level of competition one mistake — one misplay of the ball or bad pass — and your tournament is over. That’s the cruel reality and for the US it’s doubly true since they are going to have a hard time scoring goals as it is. Their mid field does not lack talent, but even against inferior competition, they have trouble maintaining a flow to their offense. Individual talents like Michael Bradley, Landon Donovan, and Clint Dempsey are excellent in space, but World Cup matches aren’t like MSL games with room to operate and set up plays. A premium is placed on short, crisp passes that move the ball forward deliberately, relentlessly. Frankly, American players in general just don’t possess the ball skills to play that kind of game.

This will make the US vulnerable to the counter attack, which is why your back line has to be rock solid. At this point, this crucial aspect of the game appears to be the greatest weakness of the US squad.

It doesn’t help that the Yanks are playing in a genuine “Group of Death” with Germany, Portugal, and Ghana. To advance, the US will need to beat Ghana and get a result of some kind — win or tie — against Germany or Portugal. A tall order that. Germany will be one of the favorites to win it all while Portugal has a bevy of quality offensive players that will give the US fits.

Perhaps the low expectations will work in America’s favor. They’re going to need all the help they can get.

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Is Julian Green the Future of US Soccer?

Friday, February 28th, 2014 - by Rick Moran

Eighteen year old soccer phenom Julian Green has a big decision to make in the next few months. Green holds dual citizenship with the US and Germany and both national teams would dearly love to have him in their future.

At 18, Green has already been called up to play for current European champion Bayern Munich. Perennially one of the best club teams in the world playing in what is acknowledged as one of the top leagues in the world, The Bavarians have been developing Green for three years, bringing him along on their youth squad while the youngster also played on the German national Under 16 and Under 17 teams. He is currently on the German Under 19 team, which presents a problem for the US national squad.

Under international rules, Green can’t play for both the US and Germany. But he can ask FIFA, the international governing body of soccer, for a one time waiver to play for the US. This is what US coach Jurgen Klinsman is hoping for and to that end has invited Green to practice with the US national team prior to a March 5 friendly with Ukraine.

ESPN:

Green, a dual national who holds both U.S. and German citizenship, will participate in a two-day training camp with the U.S. next week ahead of Wednesday’s friendly with Ukraine. Green is currently tied to Germany due to his participation with the German U-19 team, and thus isn’t eligible to play in Wednesday’s match.

But he could file a one-time switch with FIFA should he decided to pledge his international future with the U.S. team. Next week’s training stint will give Klinsmann a chance to convince Green to do just that.

“We’re thrilled that [Green] is coming in actually” said Klinsmann, who was speaking at a USSF-sponsored Google Hangout. “He’s coming in for the two days of training with team, and we get to know him. More importantly, he gets to know us a little bit. He meets his teammates, he meets the coaching staff, and we have time then to explain a little bit how the U.S. national team program works.”

Klinsmann made it clear that he won’t be applying any high-pressure sales tactics on Green. Instead, he’s hoping that the benefits of playing for the U.S. will become clear to the Tampa, Fla. native.

“We kind of approach [Green’s visit] very casual, very easy. But at the end of the day, we hope down the road that he decides to go with us, and like in many cases of the dual citizenship players, we hope more and more that they want to play for the U.S. because we are just getting better.”

With just a little over two months remaining until Klinsmann names his preliminary 30-man roster for this summer’s World Cup, there had been speculation that the U.S. manager might be saving a spot for Green.

But Klinsmann insisted that there is no deadline for Green to make a decision.

What is there to get excited about if Green chooses the USA? Here’s a sample of some of his play:

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He’s got a field presence off the charts for his age. He is said to have a powerful leg and is strong with the ball — both qualities that are somewhat lacking among US forwards. And he appears to have a nose for the goal — an innate ability that can’t be taught. Further,

If Green does pick the U.S. over Germany, he has the ability and talent to become a focal point of the next generation of U.S. stars. Watching video clips of him playing for Bayern’s reserve side, he has poise, possesses a lethal shot, has skill, bags of pace and an eye for a pass. He has scored 15 goals and added six assists in 18 games for Bayern II this season, and at the age of 18 he has everything you’d want to see from a professional soccer player. Plus he’s being developed at the reigning European champions Bayern Munich where he’s highly thought of. This kid has star potential, no wonder the U.S. are so desperate to get him on board as the Olympics, Gold Cup and future World Cup qualifying tournaments hover on the horizon.

Grabbing Green from Germany would be a massive feather in the cap for Klinsmann and his squad. The two day training stint in Frankfurt later this week could have a huge impact on the future of the U.S. national team, as the USA roll out the red carpet for Green in hope he’ll chose to play for his homeland.

Landon Donovan, the face of US men’s soccer for more than a decade, recently announced that Brazil would be his last World Cup. There are several fine, young US-born players just now coming into their own with some of the best European teams. The future of US soccer looks promising.

But if the USA is ever going to reach the next level of international competition where they are actually mentioned in the same breath as the top sides in the world, they are going to need a superstar. No one knows if Julian Green will pan out to reach the potential he appears to possess. But if he does, and if he chooses to play for America, soccer in this country will never be the same.

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One of the Best Sports Moments of the Decade

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013 - by Bryan Preston

Most Saturday mornings you can find me checking headlines on my laptop while English Premiere League soccer is up live on my TV. Moments like this one from Saturday’s matches are why soccer fans watch the games. They’re what the sport is all about.

Arsenal are north London’s biggest soccer team (Spurs fans, you know it’s true). The Gunners currently lead the league, and Saturday they were at home facing Norwich, who are currently near the bottom of the league. Arsenal  are playing lights out lately and expected the win, but no one expected the Gunners to score their first in quite the way that they did.

It happened in the 18th minute. With the match still scoreless but Arsenal dominating possession and forcing their will on Norwich, Arsenal midfielder Jack Wilshere picked up the ball in the Gunners’ end and started to charge forward. He passed left to defender Kieran Gibbs, who passed forward to midfielder Santi Cazorla.

Cazorla, just returning from injury for his first match in several weeks, was showing a few signs of rust early in the game. But not at this moment. He held up the ball while Wilshere continued his run forward toward the Norwich goal. What follows is telepathic team play.

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Cazorla’s move starts at the :05 mark of the video. He has the ball, and that’s Wilshere in red facing the Norwich #27 in yellow. Cazorla passes to Wilshere, who passes back to Cazorla, who one-touch passes to Arsenal striker Olivier Giroud, standing side-facing the goal at the top of the Norwich penalty area. Giroud flicks back to Wilshere, who heel flicks back to Giroud as he continues to charge forward through the Norwich defense. Giroud turns around and one-touch flicks the ball forward into Wilshere’s path. All Wilshere has left to do at that point is slide the ball past the keeper into the net, 1-0. Those six pinpoint moves spanned about :03 on the clock. Play the video a few times and you’ll see 21-year-old Wilshere’s unbelievable heel flick as he charges at pace right through the defense. A lifetime of work on the training ground won’t leave most of us anywhere near capable of pulling that off.

The stunning goal silenced the stadium. Norwich’s defenders and goalkeeper could do nothing about it. Arsenal midfielder Mesut Özil, who scored two on the day and is regarded as one of the best playmakers in world soccer, said his teammates’ “Playstation” goal was “unbelievable.”

The Gunners weren’t finished. Arsenal went on to score three more, including this solo masterpiece by midfielder Aaron Ramsey that sealed the win.

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*****

Cross-posted from the PJ Tatler

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David Beckham Quits LA Galaxy

Tuesday, November 20th, 2012 - by Bryan Preston

Midfielder and former England captain David Beckham has announced that the MLS cup final on Dec. 1 will be his last match with the LA Galaxy.

The 37-year-old Beckham isn’t retiring, but the superstar he gave no hint of his next move.

”I’ve had an incredibly special time playing for the L.A. Galaxy,” Beckham said in a statement. ”However, I wanted to experience one last challenge before the end of my playing career. I don’t see this as the end of my relationship with the league, as my ambition is to be part of the ownership structure in the future.”

Beckham has played in Los Angeles for six seasons since his groundbreaking move from Real Madrid, reaching three league finals and winning one MLS title last year during his best stateside campaign.

He agreed to a two-year contract extension with the Galaxy in January after playing out his initial five-year deal, turning down potential moves to wealthy Paris Saint-Germain and other clubs – including at least one Premiership team, according to Beckham.

Beckham hadn’t given any overt indications he was planning to leave the Galaxy after this season with a year left on his deal. Last week, the longtime England captain pointedly denied rumors linking him to a short-term stint in Australia.

Beckham has been among the chief reasons to watch MLS action during his years in Los Angeles. At 37 he is not the player who dominated both the Premiere League and Spain’s La Liga, but he has remained one of the most consistently threatening players in the league. He has been plagued by injuries but his vision is as sharp as ever and his precision has only barely dimished. At just about any moment and from just about any position, Beckham can lob one of his trademark overhead passes to a forward for a one-touch shot or bend a free kick or corner into the net.

The question now is, where does Beckham go from LA? Rumors have him returning to Europe, going to South America or even Australia to play in that country’s A-League. One intriguing rumor has him remaining in the MLS, where he does have an interest in ownership eventually, and moving to New York to join the Red Bulls. The Red Bulls have one of the league’s highest salaries but have underachieved for years. In New York, Beckham would play alongside former Arsenal and Barcelona striker Thierry Henry, who is one of the finalists for MLS MVP this year. The Red Bulls were dumped out of the playoffs this year by DC United. Beckham could be the leader and threat that the Red Bulls have needed. A team featuring Henry’s guile and power and Beckham’s leadership and precision would be an instant threat for the title, provided both could stay healthy for enough of the season to lead the line. Beckham and Henry played for arch rivals Manchester United and the Gunners respectively during their time in the English Premiere League. Having both on the same side in the twilight of their careers could be expected to knock ticket sales up a bit for the Red Bulls and any team they play against on the road. It would be good for Red Bulls and for MLS itself.

Beckham has enjoyed two seasons with similar talent around him in Los Angeles, playing alongside US international Landon Donovan and Irish international Robbie Keane. The Galaxy reached this year’s MLS Cup final by beating Western Conference rival Seattle Sounders 3-0 in the first leg at home and losing 2-1 in the second at Seattle on Sunday. They will host the Houston Dynamo in a rematch of last season’s final, which the Galaxy won 1-0.

During Beckham’s years in Major League Soccer, MLS has gone from relative obscurity to become the world’s seventh most watch soccer league.

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Why Arsenal Should Hold Striker Robin Van Persie to the Final Year of His Contract

Thursday, July 5th, 2012 - by Bryan Preston
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Another summer off-season has brought on another crisis for the Premiere League’s Arsenal FC. In 2009 the red and white lost power talents Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Adebayor to rivals Manchester City in summer transfers. In 2011, they lost world class midfielder Cesc Fabregas to Barcelona and playmaker Samir Nasri, along with defender Gael Clichy, to Manchester City. The club has mostly replaced such lost talents with cheaper, younger players, many of whom have not stepped up to fill the lost Gunners’ boots. This year, as the Gunners ruthlessly climbed the table after an awful start to the 2011 campaign, striker and captain Robin Van Persie emerged as the massive talent that the club’s fans suspected he was, but which a string of injuries had prevented from full revelation. He scored when he wanted in the 2011 season, it seemed, banging in 37 goals in all competitions and netting the Premiere League’s Golden Boot and both Player of the Year awards. At times Van Persie carried the Gunners on his back.

But throughout Van Persie’s incredible campaign, there was a nagging doubt that he would not return for another season. He was in the penultimate year of his contract, and had put off any extension talks until the end of the season. Arsenal finished third in the table, and RVP joined his countrymen at the Euro 2012 championships, no new contract inked. On Wednesday, he declared that he would not sign an extension.

His announcement has sparked condemnation and a raging debate: Should Arsenal sell him and buy other players to replace him, or should they hold him to that final year?

Van Persie is no youngster by soccer standards; he turns 29 in August. He has been injury-plagued throughout his time at Arsenal, and was once accused of rape. That charge was false, and the club stood patiently by him during that ordeal and the many months he has spent off the pitch and on the doctor’s table. One great and complete season later, though, he questions the club’s ambition and says that he will not extend his contract. Here is how he framed his decision to leave in his statement to the club’s fans:

I personally have had a great season but my goal has been to win trophies with the team and to bring the club back to its glory days.

Out of my huge respect for Mr Wenger, the players and the fans I don’t want to go into any details, but unfortunately in this meeting it has again become clear to me that we in many aspects disagree on the way Arsenal should move forward.

I’ve thought long and hard about it, but I have decided not to extend my contract. You guys, the fans, have of course the right to disagree with my view and decision and I will always respect your opinions.

I love the club and the fans, no matter what happens. I have grown up and became a man during my time with Arsenal. Everybody at the club and the fans have always supported me over the years and I have always given my all (and more) on and off the pitch.

The timing is interesting: Arsenal have already bought two world-class strikers in Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud before the summer transfer window has even officially opened, and are said to be chasing the signatures of a new goalkeeper and one or more established midfielders including American Clint Dempsey, who is coming off his best season at Premiere League stalwart Fulham. They are also in the hunt for Belgian defender Jan Vertonghen. Podolski carried his German club last season, and Giroud led the French league in scoring on the way to his club winning the title. None of Arsenal’s moves to sign them and other players show any lack of ambition. Despite his protestation that he has “huge respect” for club manager Arsene Wenger, Van Persie’s statement says otherwise: The player is questioning the manager’s and the board’s vision for the club. His public statement caught the club off guard. It was designed to damage the club going into its transfer window, and may reduce the price it could have gotten for him had he stayed quiet. That’s disrespect, and the club and its fans expected and deserved better from him.

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