Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Is 2018 a Real Possibility for the U.S.? I recently discounted the USSF's chances of bringing the 2018 FIFA World Cup to the United States, but I might have been a bit hasty in reaching that conclusion. FIFA President Sepp Blatter's comments suggest that he is leaning in that direction. My reasoning was that FIFA's rotation has the World Cup coming to South America in 2014. I believed it highly unlikely that FIFA would schedule back-to-back Cup finals in the Western Hemisphere. Blatter suggests that the rotation would put the CONCACAF region next in line, since the European (UEFA) region hosted the most recent tournament.

Certainly, what Blatter proposes is a more balanced approach. In the past, the rotation has been one Cup finals in Europe, followed by a finals hosted outside Europe four years later, only to return to Europe in four more years. That system is outdated and should be scrapped, but the reality is that the rotation system should be somewhat skewed towards European hosts -- at least for the foreseeable future. Few countries outside of Europe are capable of staging a wildly successful tournament.

Staging every other finals in Europe is too much -- the Cup shouldn't be in Europe every 8 years. The reality though is that Europe is far ahead of the other regions in terms of population, wealth, development and depth of fan base. There are reasons why the top six leagues are all located in Europe.

I think that every 3rd tournament ought to be located in a European country, which would mean the 2018 tournament would be held in Europe. This would reflect the fact that Europe has twice, or even three times as many countries capable of hosting than any other region. Next in line, among European countries, likely would be England, and probably Holland twelve years later. Russia would be a contender, but might have to wait a further twelve years.

Under my scheme, a European finals would be followed by a North American tournament, and then an Asian country would host. The finals would then return to Europe, to be followed by tournaments in Africa and South America, before starting the cycle all over again.

The 2010 finals are already set for South Africa, and the 2014 finals are virtually certain to be hosted by Brazil. England ought to be the favorite for the 2018 tournament, the United States the choice for 2022, and Australia the likely choice for 2026. Then, it would be time for another European host, possibly Holland or Russia.

If a European finals every twelve years is too often for FIFA, then what about every fourth finals, which would be once every sixteen years? It lacks the symmetry of my suggested every 3rd time, but might seem less Euro-centric. Eventually, other regions may catch up to Europe in development, and a regular rotation would be appropriate. Right now, it's not.

Blatter did recognize that some FIFA members would want to treat the South American and North American continents as one region for purposes of the rotation, which could make a little sense. After all, there are only three CONCACAF countries that are large enough to host the Cup finals, and Canada is a long way off from being a host. Of course, with the balanced rotation, it would be at least 40 years between Cup finals in the United States, which doesn't seem too close in time. A strict rotation would mean that the World Cup would only reach Europe every 20 or 24 years (depending on whether the Oceania region would be awarded a Cup, which seems highly unlikely).

Ultimately, there will be a rotation system -- the biggest question is whether the five regions (excepting Oceania) will be equal within the rotation. As an American, I would like to see two more Cup finals here in my lifetime (if I live that long), so I should be for a more balanced rotation. I'm just not sure that makes sense.

In any case, I think that FIFA should not treat the South American and North American/Caribbean regions as one area for rotation purposes. I would prefer that FIFA find another way to solve any reluctance to schedule finals on this side of the world twice every 20 years. My suggestion is to skew the rotation system, so Europe hosts more often than the other regions. While I would love to have the United States host as soon as possible -- which would seem to be 2018 -- I don't know that it makes good sense to put South America and North America back-to-back in the rotation. On the other hand, if FIFA is OK with it, then so am I.
Arsenal Is Out of the FA Cup -- Yesterday, Reading outplayed Manchester United, but couldn't pull off the upset, because of defensive breakdowns, and poor goalkeeping, during the first six minutes, which resulted in three Manchester goals and a 3-2 Manchester victory. I would not try to suggest that Blackburn outplayed Arsenal today. Neither team was especially great, but Blackburn generated exactly one good chance. The difference in the game is that second-half substitute Bennie McCarthy delivered a game-winning strike for the Rovers, while goalie Brad Friedel made several great plays to keep Blackburn in the game (Games like this make me daydream about how the World Cup might have gone differently for the USA, if Friedel had not decided to sit it out). Perhaps it was unfair for the Rovers to play Friedel, when most teams allow their back-ups to play in such competitions. On the other hand, you can't argue with the result. Blackburn's on to the quarterfinals.

For Arsenal, it's been a tough week, having lost to Chelsea in the Carling Cup final. Arsenal is still alive in the Champions' League, but trails PSV Eindhoven 1-0 going into next week's rematch. If they lose that, the only thing they will have left to play for is to ensure their bid to Europe (Champions League) next year.

Other soccer notes: The AP reported yesterday that there will be a women's professional league again in the U.S., next year. It will be a pared-down version with only five teams, including one in the nation's capital (teams will be in Washington, DC, Los Angeles, Chicago, St. Louis and Dallas).

The men's CONCAFAF club championship resumes play tonight, with two Mexican squads trying to secure their places in the semifinals. Both DC United and the Houston Dynamo play their next matches tomorrow. D.C. United is sitting pretty, having won 4-1 in Honduras. The Dynamo need a win to advance.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Coincidence? Nonsense - The Administration is pooh-poohing the idea that the bombing on the Baghram Air Force base, while Cheney was there, was related to his visit. The military says it's "implausible" that it was an attack on the Vice-President. I suppose if you start parsing the meaning of the word "is," rather than speak honestly, then the Pentagon is somewhat correct. "Implausible" to believe that the attack was truly targeting Cheney, given the security there -- but clearly, the attack was timed to coincide with the visit. It would be "implausible" to conclude otherwise, since the base hadn't been attacked in six months. Is it too much to ask for straight-talk, as well as reality-based dialogue and policy from this Administration...on any level?
Man Utd. Hangs On - Barely: The home crowd at Reading showed to cheer their heroes on to victory in the 5th Round FA Cup match, but they were stunned early on. Manchester broke out with three goals in the first six minutes, combining beautiful attacking play with a lot of luck. Manchester fielded a real "B" team, without Rooney, Ronaldo, Larsson and other regulars, but that didn't show early. The first goal was not really earned as Reading's backup goalie Adam Frederici let Heinze's shot squeeze through his grasp. The next goal came on a great strike by Louis Saha, that might have beaten the regular Reading keeper, U.S.A. international Marcus Hahnemann. The furious opening salvo ended with Ole Gunnar Soskjaer's perfectly slotted shot in a one-on-one situation, but a goal that probably should not have been allowed for offsides.

Still, Reading began to assert itself, controlling the play over the final 30 minutes of the first half. They were only able to gain back one goal, on a practice-perfect corner kick finished off with a header across the goal to set up Dave Kitson with an easy header for goal. Reading continued to press during much of the second half, and finally drew within a goal, when Leroy Lita drove a strong diving header that found net, in the 84th minute. Rooney found his way into the lineup, and then so did Ronaldo, as Sir Alex desperately tried to head off the Reading express. In stoppage time, Reading nearly found the tying goal as Byrnjar Gunnarson's dipping shot had beaten Edwin Van Der Sar, but ricocheted back off the crossbar.

Despite the dreadful start to the game, Reading was the better side. It was a great disappointment to see this spirited squad come up short of forcing extra time. Sometimes, you win, even when you lose...and Reading's fans will remember this game fondly, for years. In the end, though, it is United that lives to play another day in the FA Cup.

Another item worth noting: D.C. United and former striker, the great Bulgarian star Hristo Stoichkov have been named in a lawsuit, springing out of one of the most notorious exhibitions in memory. Stoichkov was a member of the team for one year, in 2003, when D.C. United played a little preseason tune-up against the American University squad. When the college boys scored, the notoriously combative Stoichkov retaliated, in short order, for this enormous offense. Moments after the restart that followed the goal, which Stoichkov had protested should have been disallowed, Stoichkov went in, studs first, diving at the planted leg of young Freddy Llerena. The assault by Stoichkov resulted in a compound fracture of Llerena's leg, requiring surgery and the insertion of a metal plate to hold the leg together. The incident caused the two teams to suspend the rest of the scrimmage, which had only begun ten minutes before.

Stoichkov offered a fairly insincere apology at the the time, calling it a "50/50 ball," while the AU coach called it "criminal." MLS responded by suspending Stoichkov for two games. The authorities, apparently didn't find it a serious matter, but Llerena has now brought suit nearly four years later.

As the article in the Washington Post points out, such cases usually turn on the question of assumption of risk, and the nature of the offensive action -- whether it is related to the play and within the foreseeable risks. The article quotes Duke University professor Paul Haagen, a sports law expert, who said "What this will turn on is expectations -- the expectations of the participants, what the game was about and whether it went beyond those level of expectations...Did the incident go beyond the normal course of the game?"

There is another threshold question concerning the filing of the suit -- whether it is beyond the normal three-year D.C. statute of limitations. I don't know the particulars of the situation -- the article states the suit was filed last year, though it would have to have been filed almost a year ago, with respect to United, anyway. This requirement would have been tolled with respect to Stoichkov, who is out of the country, but D.C. United would not be subject to suit beyond the three-year limit. Stoichkov himself would be liable for his assault only for one year, but, as I note, this would be tolled during his absence. Because the suit has not been dismissed, I assume that the suit was timely filed. If not, it would be a shame, because Llerena deserves to be compensated for this atrocious act.

Llerena alleges United was negligent in hiring Stoichkov, given his history. This is actually a fairly strong, credible argument. If Llerena is successful, it might send a powerful message to teams that they need to really think twice before bringing in talented, but notorious bad boys. Sports aren't always just games. Real life happens sometimes -- and the teams ought not operate under the illusion that they should get the same misguided, favored treatment that top athletes too often are accorded by an over-indulgent legal system.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Targeting Democratics: A Refutation -- I'm going to be putting up a few political posts. It's been awhile since I used this blog space to comment outside of sports. While there have been a number of things I've wanted to write about, I will start with the most recent. Yesterday, the Washington Post ran a front-page story about how the liberal blogosphere has made Rep. Ellen Tauscher its "next target." According to the Post, liberal bloggers, with Markos (owner of the DailyKos) Moulitsas ZĂșniga at the forefront, have put Rep. Tauscher in their fearsome crosshairs. The article notes that the Democratic political establishment is taking this development seriously, and is rallying around Tauscher. On the DailyKos site, a writer who calls herself McJoan posted a story yesterday, detailing the record, justifying the attention being focused on Tauscher. McJoan's posted refutation described the article as "a long lamentation for poor, embattled Ellen Tauscher."

I think the article was more balanced than McJoan allows. However, if possible, I would like to avoid a debate about the merits of Tauscher’s record, from the liberal/progressive perspective. To me, the question isn’t whether I or anyone else is completely satisfied with Tauscher. Instead, I would like to offer some food for thought about the strategy involved when liberal bloggers target Democratic elected representatives like Tauscher.

As I said above, I believe the Washington Post article was fairly balanced. The story does suggest that Tauscher is running scared, and is moving to the left in response to attacks from her left-wing critics. Moreover, the article does not portray Markos as a big, bad wolf. He is described as a "savvy strategist," and he is given the space to explain his logic.

According to the Post, Markos "has no problem supporting conservative Democrats in conservative districts, such as new Rep. Heath Shuler (N.C.). But he sees no need to tolerate a DLC type in Tauscher's district, where Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) received 58 percent of the presidential vote in 2004. And he said that primaries are the only way to force incumbents with safe seats to pay attention to constituents."

Finally, the article claims that Kos isn't necessarily demanding Tauscher's head on a platter. "Kos can imagine a day when Tauscher still holds her seat but is no longer distasteful to the left. 'That's what victory would look like -- a more responsive representative,' he said."

Certainly, I have no quibble with desiring a more progressive Congress. As an ideal, this is what we should all work towards...and Kos' distinction makes some sense. Where the constituents in a district would tolerate, even endorse, more liberal representation, we should encourage that. Kos is correct that it is counter-productive, unfair, even self-defeating to demand progressive politics from Democratic candidates running in more conservative districts. So, we must respect the more conservative tendencies of elected Democrats like Heath Shuler, because their seats are crucial to holding on to the majority.

In the Post article, Markos sounds entirely reasonable, hoping for Rep. Tauscher to be more responsive to the party faithful. By and large, though, the article does present a movement that is a bit power-mad, going around targeting folks who have strong voting records on the liberal agenda, simply because they aren't strident enough on Iraq. As Tauscher points out, she doesn't have the luxury of pretending she can start governing in January '09. Since I joined this site (last July, I think), I've been alarmed at the stridency in attacking strong Democrats. As I discussed above, I do understand Markos' logic in laying off those in conservative districts, and saving his ire for those he sees as more conservative than their districts. I do think, though, that this takes the "all politics is local" maxim to a dangerous extreme, without consideration for the national consequences of that approach.

If the Democratic Party itself becomes too extreme, it will leave the more moderate elements twisting in the wind. More to the point, if the liberal blogosphere becomes the new special interest group dominating the Democratic agenda by punishing independence and dissent, we will have become the left-wing cognate of the Christian Coalition. As the American people have turned on the GOP nationally for their radical conservative agenda, a similar process could doom the new Democratic majority. It might sound nice to say you're not going to attack the Heath Shulers of the Party, but if we turn off the voters in their districts to the idea of voting for Democrats, we're still cutting off those moderate the knees.

We won't lose the more progressive Democrats in the safe districts. After the rout last November, those conservative Republicans from "safe" conservative districts are still in office. By and large, it's the ones that were from more moderate districts that were drowned in the Democratic wave. Sure, there were a few candidates in red states/districts, like Conrad Burns, who were either unbelievably stupid or patently corrupt, and got the old "throw da bums out" heave-ho. Even that effect would have been more limited if people hadn't been turned off to the GOP and its pandering to the radicals who represented the party's activist core. The same thing could happen, in relatively short order, to the Democratic majority, if we try to enforce a too strict ideological orthodoxy.

I'm not really even talking about policies here, so much as image, and public perception. I think we can convince the American people to support a progressive agenda. If, however, we create the impression that the Democratic Party is being held hostage to the whims of a relatively small, but influential cadre of bloggers on the far left of the Party, the new Democratic majority probably won't last even as long as the Republican majority did.

Markos considers the apparent leftward shift by Jane Harmon as a personal political success story, and he hopes for similar success in influencing Tauscher. McJoan agrees, saying that would be a victory. I wonder how many of these successes we can stand before we shoot ourselves in the foot. Tauscher isn't another Lieberman. Her voting record is solidly liberal on most issues. If we target her, and those like her, for their independence on the other issues, we risk a real backlash.

We have an agenda that we want to push, and that's a good thing. Yet, we cannot afford to think only about the next two years. To my way of thinking, we should be focused on convincing the American people that we are better than the Republicans, and we will govern better, in every way. Part of that will entail understanding that our leaders must represent the American people, with a national agenda -- not within separate fiefdoms, some of which we rule tyrannically, simply because we can. That way is the path the Republican majority followed to its ultimate self-destruction. It will not build a lasting majority.

If the netroots show they run the Party and control the agenda in the way the Christian Coalition has done within the GOP, the voters will turn away -- the swing voters will swing the other way. To someone who spent his first 30 years living in a country where the Democrats controlled the Congress (except for a few years in the Senate), and much of the political agenda, I'm disturbed at the thought that the new Democratic majority might not last even the dozen years that the Republicans had in power.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Gomez has still got it...and so does Luciano Emilio -- Christian Gomez started the scoring tonight, for D.C. United, with a fantastic strike from beyond the edge of the 18-yard penalty area box, about 28 yards from goal. First, he made his own space with a great feint forward, before pulling the ball back and blasting a shot to the far upper corner of the goal, beyond the Olimpia goalie's reach. This got United off to a great start, in its CONCACAF Champions Cup series against CD Olimpia (Honduras). Gomez made an even more spectacular play a minute later with an airborne side volley over the defense that found Emilio. Unfortunately, the former Olimpia star, Emilio, was offsides for United. Olimpia went back on the attack, and a cross found the head of a charging Olimpia player, who headed it past Troy Perkins to knot the score at 1-1.

Playing in his first game for United, Emilio put United ahead, just before halftime. Josh Gros delivered an accurate, professional grass-cutting crossing pass, and Emilio got the position on the defender to receive the pass. The finishing touch from Emilio was a thing of beauty -- a magical first-time touch with his back heel, that was impossible to save.

Gomez tallied a second time, again from just outside the box, as he gathered a loose ball and struck a well-placed shot to the corner, beyond the reach of the diving goalie. That gave United a 3-1 lead on the road, a virtually insurmountable lead in the home and home series -- but United wasn't done scoring. The final goal came when Ben Olsen's well-taken corner found the head of Facundo Erpen who directed the ball inside the far post, sealing a stunning 4-1 win for the MLS side.

One other United stalwart bears mentioning: Troy Perkins, who still looks terrific in the air -- apparently Olimpia didn't really study films. You're not going to beat Perkins with those long high crosses into the area. He eats those for dinner.

It certainly wasn't all biscuits and gravy for United, who found themselves chasing Olimpia's attack far too often for comfort. While United gained the victory based on several plays of individual brilliance, Olimpia was the fitter side. In the first half, they were probably the better side, overall. On Olimpia's goal, and on several other rushes, the right side of the United defense looked especially vulnerable. Clyde Simms was beaten to the ball, on the goal, but Bobby Boswell also allowed too much space, making the cross possible. This could be a lack of fitness, or a sign of more lasting troubles for United, in the season ahead.

My overall assessment and prognosis? United may have some weaknesses on defense and in the midfield, but it looks as if United could be a very exciting team to watch on the offensive end. United had the MLS' best two-man combination last year, but the Revolution had the best three-man attack, with Twellman, Dempsey and Joseph. In the conference championship, that combination made the Revolution the more dangerous finishers, as they beat United 1-0. This year, the Revs will not have Dempsey, who is playing at Fulham, and United has added Emilio. In fact, this season, the best two-man combo honors may yet be claimed by the Galaxy, when Beckham joins Landon Donovan in late June. The best three-man attack, undoubtedly, will belong to D.C. United.

If they can stay healthy, United should avoid last year's late-season collapse. A return appearance in the MLS Cup is a strong possibility. That would be a terrific present for United fans, as well as a good outcome for the league, since those United fans will fill RFK for the Cup final. United looks as if it should be regarded as a strong contender in its other competitions, which include the CONCACAF Champions Cup (tonight's game was United's first in this year's event), the SuperLiga, and the U.S. Open Cup. Given that the MLS Cup final will be in RFK, winning that title would mean the most.

Winning the Champions Cup would be an incredible result, too. That would qualify D.C. United to play in the World Club Championship, featuring the top club sides from each region. In the long run, that could make United an attractive club for foreign stars to join. It would also be a positive development for the MLS, in its struggle to gain international respect. Even a second-place finish would be significant, as it would qualify United to play in the Copa Sudamericana, which would be an excellent vehicle to market United as a destination for South American players.

A word or two about the crowd and the tournament: This was as spirited and vocal a crowd as I've ever heard. In the first half, the Honduran fans were in full-throat and indomitable, as they sang almost without pause. Even down 4-1, the crowd continued to sing and dance to the beating drums. This was an entertaining game to watch, but the fans made a huge contribution to the excitement and atmosphere.

This was an enormous contrast to the afternoon game in Costa Rica. It's foolish to compare an afternoon weekday tilt with an evening game, not to mention that the stadium in Tegucigalpa is several times larger than the one in Puntarenas. I think, though, that there is a taste developing among Olimpia's faithful for these contests against MLS sides. They lost to United in 1999, and lost in the final the next year, to the L.A. Galaxy. They were also beaten by San Jose in 2002. No doubt, they're hungry to win one, though they will have to wait at least another year.

With the great result and the live TV coverage tonight, I expect a great turnout next Thursday evening, for the return match at RFK. Given that United is already up 4-1, United fans can also look forward to a spot in the tournament semifinal round, which will begin on March 15th, at RFK, against either Chivas, Guadalajara or W-Connection (Trinidad). Although Chivas was heavily favored, W-Connection rallied from behind while playing with only ten men, to win 2-1 in Trinidad.

After tonight's win, it is fair for D.C. to look ahead to the semifinals. Should they win there, the tournament finals would begin at RFK. The schedule calls for that game to be played on April 19th, if I understand the CONCACAF schedule format. I wonder if that's realistic, since the Nationals are scheduled to play an afternoon game that day at RFK. Anyway, I'm sure that picture would become clear should United advance to the final. If Chivas rallies next Wednesday, that task will become much tougher. I'll be hoping for W-Connection to hold on.

In 2005, UNAM Pumas beat both Olimpia and D.C United, before losing to the Costa Rican Deportivo Saprissa. D.C.'s 5-0 loss in Mexico to Pumas remains the worst defeat in team history. Today, was a good start along the road to getting past that dispiriting defeat. With one of the most convincing wins in the club's history, United's off to a dream start. For tonight, United's fans are entitled to keep dreaming.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Dynamo Down in Defeat -- As the clock wound to 90:00, in a lackluster contest, it seemed as if the Houston Dynamo had emerged with a crucial and surprising scoreless draw. Surprising, because the MLS teams have lost 23 of 28 prior Champions Cup games played in Latin America. Surprising, because the Dynamo lost their starting goalie to injury early in the first half. Surprising, because most of the game was played in the Dynamo end. Surprising, because the Dynamo played much of the second half down a man, after Eddie Robinson was ejected. The Dynamo even survived a penalty shot, only a few minutes after backup goalie Zach Wells replaced the injured Pat Onstad. In injury time, however, a shot by Puntarenas' best player Kurt Bertrand was deflected by the Dynamo defense and redirected into the far corner of the Dynamo goal, giving the Costa Rican side the win, in the first game of the home and home series.

For most of the game, it appeared that the biggest moment was the test faced by backup goalie Zach Wells, just a few minutes after entering the contest. A penalty had been called for contact by Dynamo's Craig Waibel, though the Puntarenas player had no chance of flagging down an errant pass in the box. Yet, Wells proved up to the test, and parried Bertrand's weak, uncertain shot away from its intended destination in the corner of the net. Despite controlling the game, and having the man advantage following Robinson's ejection in the 72nd minute for his second yellow card, Puntarenas appeared destined for a disappointing draw. Though Puntarenas continued to pressure the Dynamo goal throughout the game, the home team could not connect until Bertrand's fortunate effort in stoppage time, in the 92nd minute, a shot that Wells appeared to have covered, but for the deflection.

At least for the first half, the more interesting game was the Chelsea-Porto affair over on ESPN2, starting a few minutes after the Dynamo-Puntarenas contest had begun. In that game, Porto got a fortunate deflection as well, to take an early first-half lead. Chelsea rebounded a couple of minutes later, as Andriy Shevchenko started paying dividends on Roman Abramovich's huge investment in the Ukranian striker. Sheva took a pass on the right wing, pushed the ball forward, and drilled a grass-cutter that beat the Porto keeper and found the far side of the goal. The best play of the game might have been the nifty, running, long-range, first-time strike that curled off the outside part of Ricardo Quaresma's foot. Though Chelsea's Petr Cech was badly beaten, Chelsea were saved when Quaresma's shot hit the far post and caromed into play.

The second half of this European Champions League match was not nearly so interesting, as the teams seemed willing to accept the 1-1 result. The one bit of bad news for Chelsea was another injury to team captain John Terry, who had just returned after a long absence. No word yet on how severe his ankle injury will prove to be.

Tonight, D.C. United takes on the Honduran champs, CD Olimpia. The FischFry will be back with a report after the game.
International Soccer (Football) News -- USSF President Sunil Gulati has announced the U.S. will bid on the 2018 World Cup. This is a rather surprising development, given that FIFA has already indicated a preference for holding the 2014 tournament in South America, with Brazil probably being a unanimous choice. It's also a rather presumptuous move, given that reports suggest FIFA wants to hold the 2018 tournament in Europe, and the British government has announced it will support a bid to hold the tourney in England.

Still, Gulati reports that FIFA is receiving favorably the U.S. interest in hosting the tournament, and has not determined whether any South American countries will satisfy the organization, when the decision is made in November. The U.S. and Mexico remain outside possibilities for the 2014 tournament. According to Sepp Blatter, FIFA's chief, "We have said that the 2014 World Cup will be staged in South America, but if there is no candidate strong enough, then we would go north instead as the logical thing."

Any U.S. bid will consist of the huge American football-specific stadia. Few, if any of the stadia used in 1994 are likely to repeat. I have previously noted that Seattle would be at the top of any U.S. bid, but the new stadium outside Phoenix, where the U.S. took on Mexico, would also be a strong candidate. The U.S. committee would also have to consider the new stadium in Houston. The altitude in Denver is an issue, but that city should not be ruled out, especially given a natural desire to promote the sport there and support the local MLS franchise. It's even possible that Columbus could host some games, though I suspect the USSF will lean towards more popular tourist destinations. I happen to think Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia might be part of any U.S. bid, but the city's proximity to New York might cause the USSF to look farther afield.

Some cities might repeat. Detroit has a nice new stadium, and Chicago's renovated Soldier Field would be attractive. I suspect the USSF would want to skew a little more west, the next time around, with only one or two Midwest home sites, and fewer Eastern sites. I would expect Chicago and Columbus to be the top two prospects from the middle of the country. Even with a western tilt, the Washington D.C. area might warrant repeat duty, with the cavernous FedEx Field in nearby Landover, MD. If San Francisco can resolve the city's problems with the 49ers, and build a new stadium, that could also merit consideration. Of course, the new football stadium that will soon replace Giants Stadium could well be the centerpiece, though a rebuilt L.A. Coliseum would merit consideration for that honor, as would the Rose Bowl, again.

It's fun to speculate about such possibilities, but I still think the U.S. will have to be somewhat patient. I think it unlikely that FIFA will turn to the U.S. so soon, but the U.S. should be the frontrunner to host in 2022. There is another factor to consider, and that is the United States' poor standing in the international community. The New York Olympic bid was not even among the top two contenders for the 2012 Summer Games, which were awarded to London. Given only four years to rehabilitate its image, the U.S. might face strong resistance when FIFA votes to award the 2018 World Cup. Eight years from now, the U.S. might fare much better. Presumably, U.S. troops will have withdrawn from Iraq even four years hence, but the world might need more time to forgive the U.S. for its cowboy ways.

Meanwhile, it's a Champions League week, with games across Europe, between the top clubs. ESPN broadcast the Arsenal-PSV Eindhoven match. It was an interesting match-up as the two squads are so indicative of the new international face of European soccer. Arsenal had one Englishman in the starting 11, while PSV had two Dutchmen in its starting side. Though Arsenal controlled much of the play, the decisive effort was a long-range strike by PSV's Ecuadorean star, Edison Mendez, who beat Jens Lehman to give PSV the lead in the 61st minute. A few minutes later, PSV's goalie, Garcia, made a nice save to keep out a blast by Arsenal's Fabregas. After that, PSV simply ran down the clock as they kept Arsenal from mounting any further serious threats. The loss really puts the pressure on Arsenal, which reached the Champions Cup final last year, only to lose 2-1 in a memorable struggle against Barcelona. The defending champs, Barcelona, take on Liverpool tomorrow.

It's also Champions Cup time in North America. Although some matches were played last week (including a huge upset loss for Chivas of Guadalajara), play begins tomorrow for the two MLS sides in the competition. The Houston Dynamo take on Puntarenas FC (Costa Rica) and D.C. United takes on CD Olimpia of Honduras. This competition isn't going to have the flair of the European tournament, and the MLS sides will not be in top condition, but it should still be interesting for MLS fans.

For Americans who are more interested in the national side, there is also some news. The U.S. learned its draw for the Copa America. This summer, the U.S. will play in the Gold Cup, which is the championship for the North American/Caribbean region, and the Copa America. The Gold Cup is patterned after the Copa America, which is the competition for South American national teams. In recent years, the top team from CONCACAF has been invited to the Copa America, making the tournament one for bragging rights in the entire Western Hemisphere. This year, both Mexico and the U.S. have been included in the Copa America.

The U.S. has got a tough draw for Group C in the Copa, where they will face Argentina, Colombia, and then Paraguay. The only saving grace is that Mexico may have gotten a tougher draw, having to get through against Brazil, Ecuador and Chile. These are odd draws, as the only serious contenders are all in Groups B and C. Group A consists of Uruguay, Venezuela, Bolivia and Peru, a group that the U.S might have won, if we'd been drawn into a group with any three of those four countries. As it is, the U.S. might be considered the underdog in each of its scheduled Group C matches. The fun starts in June with the Gold Cup and continues into July, with the Copa America.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Third Time's the Charm? Or will Norv Turner become a three-time loser? The San Diego Chargers responded to the mass exodus of their assistant coaches by firing the head coach, Marty Schottenheimer. Now, they've followed that move by bringing in Norv Turner, who was a disaster as a head coach in both Washington and Oakland. Maybe, it was just these were not good situations for him. Norv ought to feel comfortable in San Diego, as he served before as the team's offensive coordinator, in 2001 -- the days before Marty-ball. Certainly, the players are there. Almost all the pieces are in place. The challenge for Turner this year will be in putting together a top coaching staff, as the other staffs are pretty much in place.

If they don't win a lot next year, the blame will belong on Turner's shoulders. I'd guess he's got two years to get the Chargers to the conference championship -- maybe three to win the Super Bowl. Turner has proven himself over and over again as a successful offensive coordinator, most recently with San Francisco last season. Unfortunately, his successes as an offensive assistant coach have been matched and followed by failures as a head coach. As a Chargers' fan, I have to hope he can break that pattern.

Curiously, the Chargers have reversed what the Redskins did at the beginning of this decade. In 2001, the Redskins fired Turner and hired Marty Schottenheimer to be their head coach. Now, in an absurdly ironic twist, Turner finds himself replacing Schottenheimer in San Diego. He's got a challenge in putting together a coaching staff, but the talent in San Diego is so good that the team could succeed without much coaching. My fingers are crossed -- that's for good luck (not because I'm lying about what I really think of this hiring decision).

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Arsenal Advances in Thriller -- Arsenal defeated Bolton in a FA Cup match that was much closer than it had any right to be. It's been that kind of year for Arsenal, although tonight's game was a off a slightly different script, since Arsenal did not have to battle from behind. Adebayor put Arsenal ahead, early in the first half. During the second half, Arsenal missed some fantastic opportunities to ice the affair. The first was a missed penalty shot by Gilberto, followed later by an Adebayor's "how did he miss moment?" Adebayor took a long pass for a breakaway, dribbled around the Bolton 'keeper, and then, with a wide open net, hit the post.

Given new life, Bolton fought on, and leveled the score, with a goal in the 92nd minute. Bolton had gained a corner kick. When the ball found it's way in front of the goal, Meite knocked it past the Arsenal goalie, forcing an overtime. Early in the second fifteen minute period, Ljundberg scored to put Arsenal on top. Bolton had an opportunity to once again tie the score, but Anelka put the ball over the bar. Arsenal then missed yet another chance to ice the game, missing another penalty shot. However, playing down a man, Bolton could not muster another shot at goal -- Finally, Adebayor finished scored the third Arsenal goal, deep into stoppage time, for a hard fought 3-1 win.
Snow's on the Ground, and MLS is back -- It's February. Valentine's Day, actually. I guess I'm still searching for that certain someone, but I offer wishes for a special day for everyone who is in that kind of a relationship. Now, on to the good stuff. DC United played it's first preseason game, and came up losers against the Red Bulls. According to Steven Goff's report in the Washington Post's Soccer Insider blog, United took the early lead on a Moreno to Gomez combination (nice to hear they are still in the groove), but the Red Bulls pulled even on a goal by Josy Altidore (I keep writing about this young superstar in the making), and won on a strike by Toure.

Of course, it's just preseason, so the result doesn't matter. Next week, though, United plays a game that does count. It's the first leg of the opening round of the CONCACAF Champion's Cup, as United travels to Tegucigalpa to take on Olimipia of Honduras. Live coverage is next Wednesday on FSC.

Other news items from Goff's blog involve a pair of goalies. One involves Jay Nolly -- who has abandoned his European dreams, and is headed to Florida to join United's camp. I'm sure Nolly doesn't care to be a back-up to young Troy Perkins, but his return is good news for United. The other bit of news comes across the pond, as the USA national team's top goaltender, Tim Howard, will be staying with EPL team Everton. Currently on loan from Manchester United, Howard will become a permanent fixture on the Everton squad. Sure beats sitting on Man Utd's bench behind Edwin van der Sar.

Speaking of Goff's Soccer Insider blog: A friend in New York asked me what I thought of the New York Times now having a regular soccer column. He didn't get the reaction he anticipated. I teed off on the Times' minimal soccer reporting. They are well behind the Post, at least when it comes to reportage on the MLS. The Times does do a good job on covering the international scene, but seems to forget that there is a local team, and a national league, to cover. Perhaps the Times will do a better job of covering the Red Bulls' games and MLS this year. Too often, in year's past, there was no story on the previous day's game.

On that score, the Washington Post is way ahead of the New York Times. Part of that may be just a reflection of the market. Certainly, D.C. United is far more popular in its home market than are the Red Bulls. In any case, the Post does a good job with Goff's coverage of D.C. United, and MLS. Even better than that, especially for the true soccer junkie (having read the blog comments posted by Goff's other readers, I'm not really sure that I qualify as a true soccer junkie) is the Soccer Insider blog. It combines Goff's inside information with the opinions of highly opinionated and knowledgeable United fans that add their comments. It's a must-see stop on the information superhighway for MLS fans. Here's a link: Soccer Insider

Monday, February 12, 2007

Twellman to stay in Foxboro - In a surprising development, Taylor Twellman has cried "Uncle," and inked a long-term deal with the New England Revolution. Twellman has made no secret of his desire to gain a transfer to Europe, but the Revolution and MLS have rebuffed all approaches. In recent weeks, the MLS turned down seven-figure transfer bids for Twellman, and also for fellow Rev star, Shalrie Joseph. It seems that Twellman has seen the writing on the wall, and decided to make the best of the situation. Few MLSers have achieved the fan following that Twellman has in the Boston area. This could mean he will never get another chance to play in Europe, and that he may not make his mark on the national team, but Twellman seems to have made his peace with being an MLS star.
World Cup U.S.A 15 years away? The AP is reporting that the British government will strongly back a bid to make England the host of the 2018 tournament. Right now, South Africa is the designated host of the 2010 tournament, though rumors continue to persist that FIFA is expected to find that the organizers cannot get the job done in time. Assuming that the South Africa holds on to the Cup, the next two cups seem to be set, Brazil is virtually guaranteed to be awarded the 2014 tournament. FIFA seems to be bent on holding the 2018 tournament in Europe. If England wants the tournament, it will surely get the nod.

That leaves either the 2022 or 2026 World Cup for the North American CONCACAF region. The closeness in time of the Brazil bid might cause FIFA to look first to Asia for the 2022 affair, but there has been an Asia-based tournament more recently than one in North America. So, it really will come down to this: Mexico, the United States or Canada. Mexico has hosted twice already, and does not have the financial wherewithal to be as attractive a choice as the U.S.A. Canada might be an interesting novelty choice, but doesn't have the fan base, or the stadium facilities that the U.S. possesses. In fact, no country is as attractive a destination. So, we can expect the World Cup to return here in relatively short order. I predict 2022.

The 2018 tournament in London would be a soccer fan's delight...and possibly a boon to the football fortunes of some F.A. clubs that currently lack the resources to compete with the big clubs in London. Manchester and Liverpool. With London hosting the 2012 Olympics, England is expected to have significant world-class facilities in place. That doesn't translate into having the football and related support facilities around the country -- but, a World Cup finals would do just that.

Right now, there are two stadiums in Manchester, Villa Park in Birmingham, Newcastle's St. James Park, the renovated Wembley Stadium, and spanking-new Emirates Stadium in London, that would meet FIFA's minimum requirements. There are plans to expand the capacity of Chelsea's Stamford Bridge, but rumors still persist that team owner Roman Abramovich plans on a new, much larger stadium to more closely match revenues to the largest payroll in international football. Surely, the stadium promised by Liverpool's new American owners will also be included in the bid. If England does get the bid, no doubt several other cities will get upgraded facilities...perhaps Sheffield or Leeds in the North, a Midlands city such as Leicester or Coventry, an eastern city such as Hull or Middlesbrough. In the Southeast, Bristol seems like an ideal choice, though they lack a strong football side.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Embarrassment of Riches? The Red Bulls traded for goalie Nick Rimando, despite speculation that he would be on his way back to D.C. United. Rimando went to Real Salt Lake in the Freddy Adu deal, but there seemed to be little place for him there, after RSL drafted U of Md. star Chris Seitz. Rimando had not signed a contract with RSL, and it was speculated that he was headed back to D.C., after Jay Nolly left D.C. United in the lurch, while he shops for a job in Europe. Of course, the Red Bulls already have last year's starter Jon Conway, and recently signed a backup from the Dutch national team, Ronald Wattereus. That leaves the Red Bulls with one goalie too many, and United still in need of a back-up. Stay tuned...
Zinedine Zidane Update: The New York Red Bulls technical director Jeff Agoos said this to a reporter about Zidane: ""We haven't spoken with him, and I don't have any plans to do so at this point in the near future." Agoos did say "I'd love to go out with him though, if he's coming here, and we'd certainly be interested in having him." I having a feeling we haven't heard the last word on this story, but Agoos' comments lend more credence to the Times' piece on the Red Bulls' pursuit of Augustin Delgado.

Other MLS tidbits: The Utah House voted to approve a pan to contribute $35 million to Real Salt Lake's stadium project in the Salt Lake suburb of Sandy. This would seem to put to rest all the drama surrounding the franchie's future in Utah.

Conor Casey will be coming home. The U.S. international, who has been riding the pines this year in Mainz, has agreed to an early termination of his contract. Look for him to appear in an MLS uniform in short order. ALthough Casey would prefer to play for the Colorado Rapids, Yanks Abroad predicts that he is headed to TOronto, which has the first dibs to use an allocation. Don't expect Colorado to abandon hope of getting Casey, so a trade is always a possibility.

Finally, Fox's Jamie Trecker has a really insightful critique on the selection for last night's game against Mexico. Trecker makes a compelling case that Coach Bradley should have brought in some fresh faces, such as Jonathan Spector and Jay DeMerit. Though the U.S did win, the weaknesses were readily apparent. Most glaring was the failure of the right side of the defense (and for that matter, of the offense, as well). The U.S. will have to take a look at some other options on defense, and DeMerit is probably the best one. Spector may also be a good option. Another option might be Frank Simek, who pays right back for Sheffield Wednesday, a team in contention for promotion to the E.P.L. next season.

Of course, there are other more established options on defense. One such option on defense remains Steve Cherundolo, who is getting really positive notices for his play in the Bundesliga this season. Oguchi Onyewu will anchor the U.S. defense for years to come, when he is available. The dream defense would be Bornstein on the left side -- he has won me over in very short order. Onyewu and Bocanegra would play centrally, though Conrad proved last night that he deserves a regular spot. I'd like to see if DeMerit can play on the right flank, but Spector might be a more natural presence there. Eddie Lewis may still hold that spot, when healthy, but the team would do better to have a more defensive-minded player there. Lewis is more of a midfielder. As for the midfield, and the attack, there are far more questions that will have to be answered over the next three years, as the U.S. prepares for the 2010 World Cup.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Red Bulls Update -- Zidane in the Mix? The New York Daily News caught Zinedine Zidane at the New York Knicks game at Madison Square Garden Tuesday night. Zidane gave a "no comment" to questions about whether he is talking to the Red Bulls about coming out of retirement to join the club. Zidane, obviously would be a far more valuable addition than the Ecuadorean striker, Augustin Delgado. Bringing in Zidane could rival the Beckham signing in attention, as Zidane has become world-famous for his unmatched football skills, and equally notorious for the head-butting incident in the World Cup final.

Is there reason to take this seriously? Sky Sports News just covered the story on their nightly sports news program. Zidane has rebuffed previous offers, including one from the Chicago Fire, but this story seems like there might be something to it. Zidane has been linked to the Red Bulls before, going back to the Youri Djorkaeff sightings at the World Cup, but this time it seems as if it is more than idle speculation.

I guess the question is whether the Red Bulls do have room under the salary cap. Should the team sign another designated player, the exemption means that only about $360,000 of that player's salary would count against the cap. It may be that the Red Bulls do not have enough cap room to use the exemption.

The entire situation suggests that the MLS needs to revisit the salary cap amount. I imagine the league probably didn't anticipate that a team such as the Red Bulls would trade for an extra designated player exemption. It does seem incomprehensible that the Red Bulls would have made a deal to acquire an extra cap exemption, if the team didn't have the room under the cap to make use of the extra slot. That degree of miscalculation would be inexcusable. If the opportunity to bring in Zidane exists, the MLS should remove any obstacles.

Still, the Beckham signing should cause the league to reconsider the entire economics and salary structure of the MLS. The league has jiggered the schedule to make sure each team will be visited by the L.A. Galaxy, after Beckham has joined the team. MLS team revenues can be expected to climb -- and bringing in Zidane would amplify the Beckham effect considerably. As those revenues climb, it should be possible to add more expensive foreign players, or offer top Americans more money to entice them to remain here.

The ultimate goal should be to raise the level of play in the league. As the skill level goes up, and games become more exciting, crowds will continue to grow. In essence, there is a tipping point at which increased spending will be rewarded by ever-increasing popularity and growing revenue. For that point to be reached, the league will have to lay the necessary groundwork. Bringing in Beckham and Zidane would move the league much closer to this goal. The moment will be lost, however, if the teams are prevented from spending what it will take to raise the talent bar across the league.
N.Y. Red Bulls (gasp) Look to Their Market -- The New York Times is reporting that the Red Bulls are looking at veteran Ecuadorean striker, Augustin Delgado. The team has one open designated player slot, and hopes that Delgado would appeal to the particular demographics of the New York metropolitan area. Delgado has played for several Mexican clubs, so he will be familiar to the large number of Mexicans in the area. More likely though, he will bring out a substantial portion of the local Ecuadorean immigrant community, to the Red Bulls games. Ecuadoreans are reportedly the third largest Latino national group in New York, after Mexicans, and Dominicans. I would assume that this does not consider native New Yorkers of Puerto Rican descent.

The presence of a large number of Ecuadorean immigrants in the New York area has been recognized by Ecuador's own soccer federation, which has made Giants Stadium a home away from home in recent years. It's about time that the Red Bulls took notice of this dynamic. Perhaps this news reflects the new influence of Bruce Arena, Jeff Agoos and John Harkes, who surely remember what the presence of Raul Diaz Arce, Marco Etcheverry and Jaime Moreno did for D.C. United in building a fan base among the Washington D.C area's large Salvadorean and Bolivian immigrant populations.

The New York franchise has done a terrible job of marketing the team, and building any kind of fan base. The team hasn't signed Delgado yet, and a recent story on the MLSnet website quotes Agoos as saying the team really doesn't have room under its cap to add a designated player. Bulls Looking for Wiggle Room. Still, the team's reported interest in the star striker is good sign that the new management is moving in the right direction.

Adding Delgado up front, along with Claudio Reyna, in the midfield, would go a long way towards making the Red Bulls more competitive on the field, and a lot more popular in the stands. When David Beckham comes to New Jersey on Aug. 18th, the Red Bulls may find that ticket sales will approach a sellout. The trick will be to get those soccer fans to return to see the local team play, when Beckham's not in town.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Better to be Lucky than Good -- U.S.A. 2, Mexico 0. The U.S. men's national soccer team weathered a strong Mexican attack during a memorable, thrilling second half, and got two goals against the run of play to continue their domination of the Mexican side. Mexico has yet to beat the U.S., away from Mexico, during this decade. In fact, during this streak, the Mexican team has been unable to score against the U.S.A., on U.S. soil, and that frustration continued tonight for Los Tricolores, as they simply could not find the back of the net. Defender Jimmy Conrad seemed to be in position to block most of the better Mexican chances. When Conrad wasn't able to blunt the attack, goalie Tim Howard was there to save the defense.

On the other end, the U.S. created few chances. On the game's biggest play, the U.S. was able to work the ball downfield with a couple of throw-ins, and Clint Dempsey controlled it in the corner, when the Mexican defense gave away a corner kick far too easily. Given this undeserved opportunity, the U.S. capitalized. Landon Donovan served up a perfectly placed corner kick to the back side and Jimmy Conrad snapped off a strong header past Osvaldo Sanchez, the Mexican goalkeeper. This was a truly world-class service by Donovan -- his best effort in a couple of years, at least.

Mexico responded with a furiously-paced attack that consistently shredded the outmatched right side of the U.S. defense. Only Conrad's heroics and Howard's steady play kept Mexico from tying the score, but their efforts were bolstered by the Mexicans ability to finish off good opportunities. The Mexicans were constantly threatening until U.S. coach Bob Bradley restored some semblance of order to the defense by replacing Chris Albright with Josh Gros, and then subbing out Clint Dempsey for Brian Carroll, the Washington, D.C. area native and D.C. United regular, who made his first appearance for the national side. Though Dempsey had set up Eddie Johnson with the U.S.' most creative attack, Carroll's entrance made the biggest difference in settling things down.

As the game went into stoppage time, the U.S. got an unexpected assist from Canadian referee Lucio Navarro. A pass by one Mexican bounced off Navarro to a U.S. midfielder, who instantly passed up to Landon Donovan. The surprised Mexican defense was caught flatfooted, while Donovan burst past three defenders as if they were standing still. Then, Donovan dribbled wide of the diving goalie Sanchez, and slotted the ball for the knockout goal.

The U.S. certainly showed weaknesses. Chris Albright doesn't appear to be up to playing defense at the highest international level. The U.S. attack was virtually nonexistent. Most of the attackers were invisible. Clint Dempsey has the skills, but lacked the fitness -- and the assistance a good scorer needs. Bobby Convey had one good moment when he followed up his own giveaway, and stole the ball in the Mexican 18-yard box. Convey had the chance to walk in alone on goal, but shot too quickly, giving Sanchez the advantage and allowing him to make a solid save. The fact is Convey looked overmatched in Reading's early season games, and he's been riding the pines for a while. He has the speed the U.S. needs on the wing, but it's not clear that he will ever develop the power or the instincts to become a dangerous flanking player. He needs to move on from Reading, so that he can get regular game experience. Convey was fine last year, when Reading was playing in the second division, but isn't ready to play in the E.P.L.

As great as Donovan looked on the two goals, he remains a curiosity -- a player without a natural position. When he is on the front line, he plays almost as if he is an attacking midfielder. He doesn't go forward without the ball, refusing to play with his back to the goal. That might reflect good sense, given Donovan's small stature, but it limits the U.S.' attack. This is why Arena left McBride up top by himself. Donovan needs to use his speed, to run at the goal. Unfortunately, when he is in the midfield he is too timid, and his defense isn't what it should be -- perhaps, again, due to his small size.

Donovan succeeds as a striker in CONCACAF games, largely because the other teams aren't very big, either -- and the defenders are unable to keep up with him. Against the bigger and faster European, South American and African sides, Donovan disappears. Ultimately, Donovan's best position has to be in the midfield, but this requires the U.S. to find some scoring threats up front. In the early World Cup qualifiers, Eddie Johnson looked like he would be the deadly striker the U.S. so badly needs, but he hasn't played at that level in the last year and a half.

Then there is the defense. As good as Conrad and Bornstein were, Albright was terribly overmatched. Bocanegra was tough, but it appeared he was beaten a few times, as well. Still, the defense was good enough to win. It is the result that matters most of all. Just ask the disappointed, largely pro-Mexico crowd that filled the sold-out University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale.

It's a good start to the Bob Bradley era, though it remains unclear just how long that era will last. I still expect that the USSF will make a big push to bring in a foreign coach to take over the team in the Spring. There's nothing wrong with establishing the U.S. as the top team in the CONCACAF region -- though I think that is oversold. Notwithstanding our ability to beat Mexico regularly, the Mexican side is more competitive against the top teams from the other regions. This game showed that the U.S. team has to improve in a number of areas before they can be competitive outside of CONCACAF, where higher standards are required to be competititive.

Still, a win over Mexico is something to celebrate -- there will be plenty of time later to dissect the team's deficiencies. For tonight, we can celebrate the rediscovered brilliance of Landon Donovan, the excitement generated by speedy, young Jonathan Bornstein, and the emergence of Jimmy Conrad, the Man of the Match.
U.S.A. v. Mexico: The Superclasico halftime report. The U.S. has struggled mightily, chasing after the ball and the Mexican attackers, without really putting much pressure themselves on the Mexican defense. The two best players for the U.S, have been Jimmy Conrad, who has offered solid and timely defense, and young Jonathan Bornstein, playing in his second game for U.S. national side. It was imperative to get Bornstein into the U.S.A. lineup, as Mexico was trying to seduce the Mexican-American to entertain playing for Mexican national side. Bornstein has been flying all over the field, pushing the anemic U.S. attack forward, and is doing a pretty good job of chasing Medina around on defense. Though Medina has connected with Blanco on a couple of combinations, the U.S.A. was rescued by some strong support that shut down the threats.

Landon Donovan can't be said to have had a strong half, but there have been hints of danger and he seems to be more confident than he was in the World Cup last summer. The worst performance has been turned in by the man wearing the captain's armband tonight, Pablo Mastroeni. Pablo has been scattering the ball all over the field, and few, if any of his passes have found their target. His wildly inaccurate touches have taken the threat and the flow out of the U.S offense, but Convey's unproductive touches and Chris Rolfe's tentative play haven't helped much.

The Mexican team really hasn't been able to take full advantage of their midfield dominance, but nearly took the lead off a corner kick in the 44th minute, when Borghetti directed his header just wide of the open far corner of the goal. Tim Howard has looked a bit nervous and unsteady in the U.S. goal (he dropped a ball for no reason, but was saved by Albright's clearance), but he really hasn't been tested yet. The U.S.A. is beginning the second half without any substitutions, but that is likely to change soon.
This Grrrl Can Saang! It's happened. There's a white gal who really can belt soul with the best of them. In truth, it's not doing her justice, and it's small-minded to describe Amy Whitehouse as a white girl who sings bigger than that -- she's not just the next great white hype. She's got a terrifically soulful delivery, and seems comfortable with commercial R&B as well as smoky jazz. Perhaps best of all, she's a wonderfully witty, quirky and original songwriter.

Apparently, she's been quite the sensation in England for several years, but is only just about to hit here in the United States. Her albums have not been available domestically, but that's about to change, At least, her second album, Back to Black, will be released here, and she's doing a few early gigs here to catch the buzz. I suppose that comparisons to fellow Englishwoman, and white soul sensation, Joss Stone are as inevitable as they are unfortunate. This no Joss Stone, who was all hype and not much substance. Winehouse is a genuinely gifted singer, with eclectic taste and range, and she really does offer funny, very contemporary, original songs, to boot. She's not a commercial studio product -- she's the genuine article.

Today's Washington Post has a great feature on Winehouse -- focusing on her legendary drinking problem and the drastic change in her appearance during her short career. There is a photograph of this pure, clean as a whistle, healthy, beaming, incredibly beautiful, young star-in-the-making, about 3 years ago. This photo is contrasted with the a more recent photo showing a dour, underweight, heavily tattooed, burnt-out rock star, with overdone gothic makeup. Winehouse is portrayed as indulging her bad girl, crooning drunk image. The first single on her newest album is called "Rehab." In the song she proudly declares that "They're tryin' to make me to go to Rehab...I said: No, no, no!"

I won't speculate on the causes for this radical transformation, nor on the tabloid stories of her alleged bulimia and anorexia. I just hope she pulls out of whatever's going on. She's phenomenally talented. Her generation needs an original voice -- one that with a voice that can recall Aretha and Diana Ross, and Lady Day. all at once, and who performs her own material in the tradition of the great singer-songwriters of earlier days. Mostly, I'm blogging about this because I am really impressed, and discovering her has brightened up the day for me as I sit here suffering from the flu. I can't wait to hear her live.

The Post story can be found here: 100-Proof Voice. A video of "Rehab" can be seen and heard here: Rehab clip.

Tonight: Look for my report on the U.S.-Mexico Super-Classico.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Dominican Republic Comes Out On Top -- Venezuela, with an upset win over the home squad, Puerto Rico, clinches the Caribbean Series title for the Dominicans. A 3-1 victory by Venezuela took the drama out of tomorrow's match between Puerto Rico and the Dominicans. With wins in their first five games, the Dominicans have won this year's version of the legendary baseball winter classic.

An anticlimactic finale isn't the only disappointment of the tournament. This was the first time that the Caribbean Series was televised in the States. I had been looking forward to seeing some of the tremendous emotion I have only read about in years past. Unfortunately, few top players were allowed by their club teams to participate in the tournament. This represents another missed opportunity by Major League Baseball to promote the sport.

There were familiar names sprinkled throughout, like Javier Valentin, Erubiel Durazo, Joey Cora, and Armando Rios, whose two-out, two-run single beat Mexico in the 10th inning last night. Still, the only really big star was Miguel Tejada. In fact, the Orioles seemed to take a very different attitude to this competition, as Tejada was joined by teammate Ramon Hernandez. The rest of Major League Baseball, unfortunately, did not allow their stars to play in this competition. Watching faded stars, such as Vinny Castilla, Jose Lima, and Luis Polonia, playing alongside young unknowns who have yet to make their mark in the majors, really diminished the potential and appeal of this tournament.

Has anyone really helped themselves in the tournament? Well, Rios turned in a great performance, hitting over .600 coming into the game tonight. He hasn't played in the majors in several years, and is looking for an invite to a spring camp. The Red Sox' Julian Tavarez looked great against Venezuela last night. Vladimir Nunez, who had surgery last year, turned in a strong series, and kept Venezuela in the game against Tavarez and his Dominican mates. Another strong Series performer has been Anderson Hernandez, who struck out in every way possible, when the Mets annointed him their second baseman, coming out of spring training last year.

The biggest human interest story in the series might have been Juan Gonzalez, who is trying to create some interest among major league scouts. After being reduced to playing in an unaffiliated league last year, following multiple injuries, the former star slugger seems to be remaking himself as a singles hitter. Tonight, with two-out in the ninth inning, Gonzalez just beat out the throw from deep shortstop, to leg out an infield single. That gave Gonzalez his 9th hit in 22 at-bats, and sent the winning run to the plate. Pinch-hitting for Luis Matos, Victor Rodriguez flied out to center to end the game. Surely some team could find a spot in their spring training camp to give Gonzalez a long look.

Next year is the 50th Caribbean Series. Perhaps, the MLB teams will take a more enlightened view of the Series then. I understand the fear of injury -- Luis Ayala never got to pitch for the Nationals last season, because of an injury he suffered during last year's World Baseball Classic. The truth is that Ayala was an injury waiting to happen, sooner or later, after being horribly overused by Frank Robinson the year before. Look at what happened to Gary Majewski three months later, during the season -- same story. With the starting rotation the Nats will have this year, I fear for the health of their bullpen, again.

Players are allowed to play Winter ball -- there is no reason why they shouldn't also be allowed to play in international competition. Whatever happens with the Carribean Series, it is essential that every major leaguer be made available for the next World Baseball Classic. While many stars were grudgingly allowed to play, others were not. In fact, not only should they be allowed to play, they should be encouraged to try out for their national teams. It is amazingly shortsighted to dismiss the value of the tournament. It will prove to be the greatest marketing tool in baseball's arsenal, if the owners are committed to taking full advantage of it.

Think I'm overstating my case? Just take a look at the major sports. Soccer has achieved world sports dominance largely through the intense competition and unmatched popularity of the World Cup. Hockey has expanded its appeal by making its top players available for the Olympics, and the World Cup of Hockey, established in 1996. That was, for me, the finest international sports tournament I have ever watched, with a level of skill and excitement that I have not witnessed before or since. The NBA allowed its Dream Teams to stoke worldwide interest in the sport, but the poor showings by second and third-rate U.S. national teams have been a huge factor in professional basketball's declining popularity here.

Excitement generated by high-level international competitions really does carry over to generating interest in the professional leagues. Pay attention, MLB owners. Stan Kasten reads the blogs? Read this, Mr. Kasten: As baseball increasingly looks overseas to fill out its rosters, it should be of paramount interest to baseball owners to do everything possible to generate interest in the sport. The WBC has the potential to approach soccer's World Cup in fan fervor, but it will only happen if the best players are allowed to participate, and given the time to prepare. This last piece will require the MLBPA union to bend the rules for the WBC. Both sides -- management and labor -- should strive to make the WBC the grand spectacle it could be.

If it's a second-rate product, fans will respond accordingly. If, however, baseball does what it needs to do to make the WBC the top priority, rather than an afterthought, the fans will turn out in droves. Not enough Americans playing baseball anymore? What if American kids got really excited about watching Barry Zito pitch for the U.S.A., against David Ortiz, or maybe facing Ichiro Suzuki, during a tight pitching duel with Daisuke Matsuzaka? How many more kids would go out and play some ball with their friends? The logic is so obvious I can't believe that the owners haven't fully bought into it.

There are issues surrounding the World Baseball Classic, to be sure. Reasonable minds can differ as to what might be the best format for the WBC. Should it continue as a preseason tournament? Should it be modified to be a qualifier for a final, to be played over the All-Star break...or, perhaps, leading to a four-team tournament to be played over the break? Or, should it be played after the season -- with teams training while the playoffs are played, and the tournament played in warm climes, during November? These are questions that should be debated, but with the idea that the goal should be to present the strongest, most appealing tournament, generating the greatest fan interest.

Speaking of international competitions: the U.S.A. men's national soccer team renews its rivalry with Mexico Wednesday night. The U.S. has called in a couple of big guns from England, including Carlos Bocanegra, and Tim Howard, who finally assumes the mantle of number one goalkeeper. Go, U.S.A.!!!
The Natosphere -- The Washington Post has written on that corner of the blogging community devoted to commenting on Washington's miserable excuse for a major-league baseball team, our beloved Washington Nationals.

I'm sure I wasn't one of the blogs that Barry Svrluga, the Post's Nationals beat reporter, had in mind, but I'd like to think I can be a valuable contributor to the community. I've been posting on the Nats since this blog started just over six months ago -- but most of the Natosphere has been at it for a year or two.

It's encouraging to read that Stan Kasten does check the blogs to see what folks are saying. Hopefully, Kasten gets more out of it than just finding out how the Nats are playing among their fans. Sportstalk radio can be mind-numbing, but the blogs are consistently thoughtful efforts by intelligent folks who make a sincere effort to offer insightful analysis. Their advice comes free, but it's far from worthless.

This blog covers lots of material -- not just baseball. In DC, politics is the number one sport, with the Redskins, the Nationals, D.C. United, and the Caps and Wizards playing second fiddle, at best. I write about politics, the Nats and D.C United...and whatever else sounds interesting. While I do write about these other topics, I will continue to write about what's wrong -- and what's right -- about the Nationals. If you're looking for one more view, from a long-time baseball fanatic, stay tuned.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Super Bowl Impressions -- I would have offered two forecasts, if I had the time to post earlier. The first was a soft one: that Devon Hester would return a kick for a score -- probably the opening kickoff of whichever half the Bears were on the receiving end. Just before the kickoff, I remarked that he was going to take it all the way. Yea for me! Second, was a hard prediction that the Colts would score enough to overcome the underwhelming Bears' attack. I hit that one, too.

The Colts have shown real resilience in these playoffs, coming from way back against the Patriots, and overcoming a rough start in tonight's finale. Any talk that this is not a tough team should be forever ridiculed. Now that they have finally won a title, the question must be asked if the Colts are a great team -- or merely a good team that got hot at the right time?

They have developed a strong rushing attack again this year, despite the loss of Edgerrin James. And they have, undeniably, one of the greatest passing attacks in the history of the game. Manning has his flaws, but he is still among the greats. His receivers are truly extraordinary. I cannot recall a better tandem of receivers since at least the days of Jerry Rice and John Taylor, and that was a pretty one-sided tandem. In fact, I'm inclined to go further back to the Steelers' incomparable duo of Lynn Swann and Jon Stallworth, or the Cowboys' pairing of Drew Pearson and Tony Hill. The Chargers had some good pairings during the Fouts' era, the Vikings had a brief fling with Randy Moss and Chris Carter, and I think the Bengals have a talented group. None of those earlier pairs will produce two Hall of Famers, though.

Marvin Harrison is already a shoo-in for enshrinement at Canton. Tonight, he offered a reminder of prodigious skills, with his lay-out for the sideline pass that was ruled a catch only after the referee checked the replay. Reggie Wayne isn't a future Hall-of-Famer...yet. Wayne actually had a better year than Harrison. He also made an eye-popping catch tonight, even though he wasn't able to get his feet down in the end zone. It's still early in Wayne's career to make this call -- but, with Manning throwing him the ball, and with defenses having to worry about covering the Colts' other receiving threats, Wayne is on his way to building Hall-of-Fame credentials.

Sure, the Colts don't have a great defense, but the playoffs showed the defense is capable of coming up big. More importantly, there are teams that were considered great, even though they were mostly one-way affairs...most memorably, the 1985 Chicago Bears, who turned in the finest season any defense ever played, without much of a passing attack to help. Though he was near the end of his career, Walter Payton gained enough yards to give the defense some rest -- but it was the defense that made those Bears great. The Cowboys in the Troy Aikman era may have had a better defense than the Colts have now, but it was their potent offense that made that dynasty.

So, are the Colts a great team? They had the worst rushing defense in the league, and they did not play well over the last couple of months. Yet, we shouldn't forget that for the first two and half months, everyone wondered if the Colts would go undefeated. A great team? The Colts aren't a dynasty yet, but this was a team that deserves to be remembered for the greatness of its offense, as the '85 Bears are remembered for their incomparable defense.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Ciao to Calcio? There are conflicting reports as to whether the Italian soccer federation has suspended all play in the national sport, following a riot that led to the death of an Italian policeman. Play was interrupted for a time, as police used tear gas to supress the reported riot. Apparently, the police were targeted by elements of the crowd. Of the 71 people injured, 61 were police -- making this a rather unusual incident. Tragically, one policeman was killed when an explosive device was thrown into his car.

The question remains as to how authorities should respond. NPR reported earlier that the decision to suspend play had been taken, but the AP is reporting at this hour that the federation is considering an indefinite suspension. Perhaps it's just a confusion of terms. All other games scheduled for this weekend have already been postponed. If the federation is still considering whether to suspend games indefinitely, I can only add my own small voice to say that this is necessary.

There is no question that fans' behavior in Italy is completely out of control. The violence surrounding games there has practically become routine. It seems to me that it is worse than the noted English hooliganism ever was in the 80s and 90s. Some sense of perspective needs to be forced upon the mobs. Calcio has become an excuse for violence, and the game needs to go away for a while. It's a great sport, and there is nothing like the fan participation that can make for an entertaining afternoon or evening, even when the game is a little underwhelming.

Obviously, something has gone terribly wrong when the violence reaches this level. A zero tolerance policy isn't sensible -- there is violence in our society writ large -- it shouldn't surprise anyone when there is the occasional fight among drunk fans. While it is unfair to penalize all fans (and players), for random acts of violence, that is not the situation in Italy today. When it becomes systematic and endemic to the culture, the sport's overlords need to respond. I think the federation should seriously consider whether it is appropriate to resume play this year, at all.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

United brings back Dyachenko -- Mortgaging the team's future, D.C. United traded for Rod Dyachenko. Though Toronto had drafted the youngster off the United roster, there were questions about his immigration status. He might have had problems getting into Canada after each road trip, since he has no passport. Now, he only has to worry about getting back into the U.S. after games in Toronto...or international games in Honduras and Mexico. Seriously...get a passport.

Oh...and I was kidding about mortgaging the future. The current trend is for high picks to sign in Europe, so D.C. probably isn't losing much in giving up its first round pick next year. On the other hand, as I've written here before, I just don't see what United sees in Dyachenko. Whatever it is, it must be limited to practices. Dave Kasper says "He really came on last year." I can't say that Dyachenko contributed to any of the team's successes. In fact, though it's mostly coincidental, United stopped playing well about the time that Dyachenko started to get a bunch of playing time. It is true that Dyacheno is tall, and you can't teach height. Maybe, he will pick up the rest soon.

RSL Update: Steven Goff links his blog to an article in the St. Louis Dispatch about the machinations going on with Real Salt Lake and a possible relocation ot St. Louis. Just click this link: Failed deal in Salt Lake may bring a team here.

One more note about Liverpool. The Reds are up for sale -- Previously, I noted a report that the Emir of Dubai was to buy the team and fund the new stadium. Apparently, that was a premature report. The Dallas Morning News is running a story that the Texas Rangers' owner Tom Hicks, is joining in a bid with the owner of the Montreal Canadiens, to buy the fabled English club. It's hard to understand this new trend with Americans investing in E.P.L. teams -- Hicks would be the third American to take over an English football team. If anyone ever needed proof of how out of whack things have gotten in hte U.S.A., with the super-rich having more money than they could ever figure out how to spend, this is the undeniable evidence. It would seem there are oligarchs outside of Russia.