Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Soccer Stuff -- MLS Eastern Conference: D.C. United or Chicago Fire? The Chicago Fire looked pretty darn good tonight in beating the L.A. Galaxy to claim their fourth U.S. Open Cup title (the Galaxy won the tournament last year). The Fire looked even better a couple of weeks ago, when Chicago beat D.C. United in the tournament semifinal.

This tournament may not have the cache of European Cup tournaments, but both teams played their hearts out, and Chicago proved to be the better team with a 3-1 win. ESPN's soccernet has a nice piece on the Open Cup, noting how the success of non-MLS teams, like Dallas' FC Roma, is bringing increasing attention to the tournament. Hopefully, the trends will continue. It would be wonderful to see a team from outside the MLS really give the big boys a run for the money.

Getting back to the topic at hand -- (which team is the beast of the east?): While D.C. United may be showing signs of emerging from a two-month long slump, the Chicago Fire has been very consistent, in league play and the Open Cup. They have terrific young players, including Chris Rolfe, Nate Jaqua and Justin Mapp. To that group, you can add Chad Barrett, one of the most stars of the 2005 U.S. under-20 team. The Fire also have great experience in the defense with Tony Sanneh, C.J. Brown and Chris Armas, along with a top goalkeeper, Zach Thornton. Tonight, the Fire had exciting, athletic goalkeeping from Thornton's back-up, Matt Pickens, and great play from veteran striker Andy Herron, who has 8 goals in only 17 games in MLS play. The Fire has no chance of catching D.C. United to take first-place in the MLS Eastern Conference, but they are playing the best soccer right now.

That news has to shake D.C. United and their fans who still smart from the stunning 4-0 pasting that the Fire gave United at D.C.'s RFK home, during the Conference semifinals last year. In 2006, despite having the strongest start in league history, United has gone through a terrible slump in August and September, as they seemed unable to play an entire game with any consistency. United finally won one this past Saturday, with a game effort against the New York Red Bulls. To be sure, United made some terrible plays that almost cost them the win, but they also put together some nice combinations on offense. They played most of the second half down a man, after Facundo Erpen stomped the Bulls' John Wolyniec. Still, D.C. United extended their lead to 3-1, after going down a man, and held on for the 4-3 victory.

In that United victory over the Red Bulls, 16-year old Jozmer ("Jozey") Altidore entered the game as a second half substitute for the second straight Red Bulls' game, and scored a goal in his second straight game. All indications are that this kid will be something special -- maybe even the top-flight scorer that the U.S. national team has been expecting for at least a generation. He's big and strong -- a real presence -- with soccer sense and real skills, to boot -- including good speed, and an accurate, powerful shot.

Finally, speaking of the U.S. squad, the N.Y. Times ran a great piece in Wednesday's paper on Alkis Panagoulias run as coach of Team America (an NASL experiment to build a national squad), as well as the 1984 Olympic team, and the national side that failed to qualify for the 1986 World Cup, held in Mexico. For those too young to remember, Team America was the NASL's last-ditch effort to save the league and American soccer by creating a team that would play a league schedule, while the players developed individually, training and coalescing as a team.

The team played one year, in RFK Stadium, with a 10-20 won-loss record. Panagoulias, a coaching legend in New York and Greece, never got the support he needed from the other team owners and the players. For example two of the best Americans, Ricky Davis and Steve Moyers of the New York Cosmos, chose to stay with their club. The basic Team America notion died after the 1983 season, and the NASL folded after the next season.

The recent documentary on the Cosmos and the NASL, "Once In a Lifetime," focuses on the Cosmos' glory years, yet also offer some interesting insight into the final collapse of the NASL -- which, is attributed, in the film, to FIFA's decision to award the 1986 World Cup to Mexico rather than the United States (after Brazil lost the right to stage the Cup). If you haven't seen the movie yet, it's a must-see for any fan of U.S. soccer or a student of history. The film ran last week on ESPN2, after a select city theater run last year. I expect it will be out on tape and DVD any day now.

As for Panagoulias, now 72 -- he argues that the USSF needs to select an American coach, or at least someone coaching in the MLS now, rather than seeking out a foreign coach. He also offers up his services. The USSF could do worse. Not withstanding the 1985 heartbreak loss to Costa Rica, Panagoulias is a winning coach with significant international experience, coaching American and Greek national squads. Even if he is not chosen (he's about a million-to-one shot), the USSF should find a way to get him really involved in the U.S. program.

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