Wednesday, June 27, 2007

If There was Ever Any Doubt About Barry Bonds, the man has confirmed he's a complete jackass. He has been quoted as saying that the Baseball Hall of Fame can have his gear from the record-breaking home run game, when it happens. Sounds great, right? Barry Bonds that generous and munificent? Something's wrong with that picture, right? Well, it seems, what Bonds meant by his gear is his underwear and pants, and maybe his hat and glove. Not the things the Hall of Fame would actually most covet -- his bat and his jersey. Nor his shoes, for that matter. He "just" wants his bat, jersey and shoes. The Hall of Fame can have the rest of his "gear". Gee, Barry. Thanks for the smelly socks.

I can see the display now: "These are the socks and the jockstrap Barry Bonds wore when he broke the all-time Home-Run record. Everything else is in the slugger's private collection -- no doubt alongside the syringes he used to inject steroids and human growth hormone, to help build the body that was capable of so many home runs."

Monday, June 25, 2007

The Copa America roster: There's no beating around the bush here. Coach Bob Bradley wants to use these games to give some high-level international experience to a lot of players who aren't accustomed to it. He's obviously not afraid of an early exit -- in fact, he might be thinking he's avoiding embarrassing the top U.S. players by not taking them to Venezuela. Tim Howard is obviously being brought along slowly, as Kasey Keller will lead the U.S.A. in goal, backed up by Brad Guzan.

There are some talented players to be sure -- but they're almost all very young and very inexperienced. Some of these players gained notoriety playing for an earlier incarnation of the U-20 team, and are now being given their first big chance with the senior squad. Included in that number is Lee Nguyen, whom I believe is one of the most promising young American players. Nguyen has struggled to get time with PSV Eindhoven in Holland, but he'll probably be on the pitch against Argentina. He's joined by the Gold Cup hero, Benny Feilhaber, as well as a slew of young Americans from the MLS -- none of whom are especially impressive right now, at that level. There's Marvell Wynne, Sacha Kljestan, Eddie Gaven and Kyle Beckerman.

Bradley has chosen a few players with experience. From the Gold Cup winning squad, Bradley has Jonathan Bornstein (when I say experienced, I'm being a bit sarcastic, since Bornstein's first cap came this year). Bradley will be relying on some players who had bit parts in the Gold Cup, including, Jay DeMerit, Ricardo Clark, Eddie Johnson, Taylor Twellman and Justin Mapp. There are a few players who are playing in less-familiar European leagues, with Heath Pearce, Danny Califf, and Charlie Davies.

Also in the club are some really raw players, such as Bobby Boswell, and two MLSers who could earn their first caps: Herculez Gomez and Drew Moore. Finally, for real experience, Bradley has brought in Ben Olsen, and Jimmy Conrad, who is coming off a fractured jaw. I am surprised that Conrad is there only because I did not expect him back so soon. His presence on the defense would be a great addition, as he is probably the steadiest American defender.

It's an intriguing roster, but it would be unfair to expect much in terms of good results in Venezuela. Still, it will be interesting to see if any of the second-teamers, like Twellman, Mapp and Johnson, or any of the youngsters like Gomez and Nguyen can make names for themselves on the international stage. Perhaps, one could look on this squad, as well as the current U-20 team which will be playing at the same time in the U-20 World Cup, as the national team of the future. We will get a glimpse of what they might be capable of doing down the road. Stay tuned.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Wow! Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy! -- The U.S. men's soccer team wins an instant classic, with Benny Feihaber scoring possibly the most memorable goal in U.S. soccer history -- certainly, the biggest goal since 1990, when Paul Caligiuri put the U.S. back in the World Cup, following a 40-year absence. This has become a wonderful rivalry. I hope that, in the future, more fans will support the U.S. side, and I hope the Mexicans will show better sportsmanship. They have great talent, and they seem unable to abide the fact that they keep losing to the Americans.

I imagine you saw this stunning, pulsing, thrilling match -- Mexico dominated the U.S. in the first half, with dangerous run after dangerous run, finally breaking through just before half, when Andres Gaurdado buried a terrific cross that left Tim Howard stumbling to try and get over to that side. This was an extremely physical match, with the referee allowing defenders an extraordinary amount of latitude. Still, the Mexicans. especially Guardado and Nery Castillo, usually had the U.S. defense on its heels. There seemed to be an enormous disparity between the two teams in terms of skill.

In the second half, of course, it was a different story. The U.S. put together it's best half of the tournament. Bringing on Ricardo Clark, in favor of Pablo Mastroeni, who picked up a yellow card in the first half, seemed to really spark the attack. The U.S. was unable to score on its best attack, as the veteran Mexican 'keeper, Oswaldo Sanchez stuffed a furious assault, with three good saves within seconds of each other. However, the U.S. struggled to get another similar opportunity, and soon Taylor Twellman was warming up to inject spark in a flagging offense. Clint Dempsey was set up on a break by Landon Donovan, but Dempsey hit a weak uninspired shot, which didn't challenge Sanchez.

Suddenly, though Brian Ching took a long pass in the box, turned on his defender, only to go down in the box, as Jonny Magallon stuck his right knee in Ching's path. Was the penalty kick deserved? There were many more physical challenges in the box, but this contact brought Ching down, as he was driving for the goal. Donovan finished, converting the resulting penalty kick, and the U.S. was on its way.

Some ten minutes later, Donovan was taking a corner kick, which was cleared by the Mexican defense. The clearance header, however, fell to Benny Feilhaber, who showed the touch he'd lacked throughout the tournament. Feilhaber had not been shy about shooting from distance, but he'd also sent a lot of balls wildly over the goal. This time, his one-time strike rose over the defense, but dipped down inside the far corner of the net. Truly a stunning goal, and a stunning bit of skill. A goal that brought the U.S. the Gold Cup championship, and one U.S. fans will long remember.

Of course, the U.S. missed great chances to salt away the victory. Ching hit the post after dribbling away from his man, and the Mexican goalie. Later, Donovan delivered a ball to Beasley, that left Beasley with an easy finish into an open net, but Beasley's shot struck the crossbar. This was a familiar story for the U.S. which had trouble finishing off their opposition throughout the tournament. However, it didn't matter today, in part because Tim Howard made a great save on Bautista's point-blank blast, just two minutes shy of ninety, just before Beasley's glaring miss.

The standouts for the U.S.? Onyewu played well, for stretches -- though another referee might have been less forgiving of the way he uses his forearm to gain leverage, and he was beaten by Castillo on the Mexican goal. Onyewu makes a habit of recklessly physical use of his upper body -- today he got away with it. The U.S. certainly benefited from refereeing that overlooked some very questionable defensive tactics. Bocanegra took advantage of the loose officiating, although he received the game's first yellow card. Boca played what was probably his finest game in the U.S. defense, consistently saving other defenders who'd been beaten by Mexican attackers. I've been critical of Boca's defense on other occasions, but he was the star of the defense on this day.

Substitute Ricardo Clark really did make a huge difference in the U.S. attack, which helped the defense immeasurably. Howard played decently in goal. Though he doesn't seem very effective in distributing the ball, he made the big save when it was needed. Ching made some things happen up front in the second half, after being invisible for the first 59 minutes. Donovan wasn't a huge factor in the first half, either, but his performance in the second half was spectacular. Beasley continued to look dangerous, except when it came to finishing his chances. Twellman was a strong substitute, as well. Jonathan Spector was particularly vulnerable on defense, but showed some real daring in his efforts to spark the attack, until he had to leave for an injury. Frank Simek looked strong coming on for the injured Spector.

Feilhaber? He made the biggest play, so his weaknesses on defense are easily overlooked, Jonathan Bornstein wasn't very effective, on the defensive end. However, Bornstein had one good shot and also a tricky cross that forced the corner kick, which resulted in the game-winning goal. Mastroeni did not make much of a positive contribution, and Coach Bradley was wise to sit him down at halftime.

The biggest disappointment might have been Clint Dempsey. Though Dempsey did make one lovely back heel pass to Donovan in the box, during the first half, Dempsey seemed off. He had two good looks at goal, but shot right at the 'keeper each time. He seemed to lack the skills to make plays at this level, but U.S. fans know this isn't true. Dempsey has shown prodigious skills in other games, so perhaps he just didn't have it on this day. Besides, this isn't a day to dwell on negatives.

The U.S. played a great second half, against a very talented Mexican side. With the exception of a few squandered opportunities around the net, they took what the game presented. They have qualified to play in the 2009 Confederations Cup, in South Africa. This will be an unparalleled chance to prepare for the 2010 World Cup, by playing against some of the best teams in the world. Speaking of playing against some of the best teams in the world: The U.S. next plays Argentina on Thursday, in its opening effort in this year's Copa America. Having survived, and defeated Mexico, it will be very interesting for the U.S. to take on the next level up, with Argentina. It would a great surprise if the U.S. advances out of their Copa America group, but today's win could provide them with serious momentum.

But, you already know all that....

So, I'll just add an interesting historical footnote: With the victory over Mexico, the U.S emerges from the Gold Cup with a winning record in international play -- for the first time. This was the United States' 191st victory, against 189 losses (the disputed victory over Canada last week was actually the win that first provided the U.S. with an all-time winning record, but today's win kept the U.S. on the winning side of that historical ledger. That historical winning record might be in jeopardy in Venezuela over the next couple of weeks. However, if the U.S. can win a couple of games, the U.S. team will likely remain a winning side for the foreseeable future. As the reigning power in CONCACAF, it seems the United States will continue its winning ways for a long time to come, even if the team continues to stumble outside the region.

For now, they remain undefeated (10-0-1) under head coach Bob Bradley. Be Proud. Be Very Proud. This was as satisfying a win as the U.S. has had since their surprising run of success in the 2002 World Cup.

Now for something somewhat different: A few comments about D.C. United, which turned in a miserable game against Real Salt Lake. United lost 2-1, but they were thoroughly outplayed. In their defense, I'll say only that it's a very different game on the astroturf field in Salt Lake City. It's all about running -- more track meet than soccer game. Real Salt Lake just looked more used to kind of game played on that field, and maybe their team is just a little better suited to it, as well. United needs to put this game behind it, and just keep playing their game. They though they may have to play to a similar field in the playoffs against New York, that's not something they have to worry about right now, Besides, the surface at Giants Stadium plays more like a grass field than does the awful surface they played on last night.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Sunday, Bloody Sunday -- It'll be the U.S. facing Mexico in what promises to be a physical, hard-fought, memorable Gold Cup final. These teams are bitter rivals, with much to prove, because both teams have struggled on the road to the tournament final. Tonight, the U.S. weathered some dangerous Canadian attacks, to get two goals in the final minutes of the first-half. Officially, the U.S.A. held on to a 2-1 win, and gained a berth in Sunday's final, but they had some undeserved help from the officials.

Once again, the U.S. did not do a good job of protecting their lead. They allowed one goal midway through the second period, and then surrendered what should have been the tying goal, deep into stoppage time. Indeed, it was so deep into stoppage time that one wonders why the teams were still playing. Four and a half minutes into stoppage time, the game Canadians tried to pass over the undermanned U.S. defense (the U.S. was playing with only 10 men). Oguchi Onyewu got his head to the ball, but couldn't redirect it. The ball deflected off the top of Onyewu's head, and fell to Canadian striker Atiba Hutchinson, behind the U.S. defense. Hutchinson's shot beat U.S. goalie Kasey Keller. For some reason, the play was ruled offsides, a call that was incorrect for two reasons. First, when the pass was first struck, the Canadian striker was still onsides. Second, the ball was played next by the American Onyewu. That couldn't put the Canadians offsides, even if Hutchinson had moved beyond the defense (replays appear to show he may have still been in an onsides position, even at that point -- but he was surely onsides when the pass was first struck).

The only rational explanation is that the officials were confused, and thought the ball was being sent on by a Canadian, instead of Onyewu. If the linesman believed Hutchinson was already in an offsides position, he was mistaken. It was a glaring error, and the Canadians are right to believe this game was taken from them by the officials. Perhaps, the Candians can take solace that they have served notice -- Canada has certainly closed the gap, and now have to be considered among CONCACAF's elite. The U.S. can no longer take games against Canada for granted. A good effort by Canada, but it is the U.S. that will play in the Gold Cup final.

Mexico struggled to find net through much of their game against Guadeloupe. They were denied repeatedly, thanks to several scintillating plays by Guadeloupe's goalkeeper. The Tricolores also failed to finish some good chances around the net. Their honor, and place in the final was secured with a long blast by Pavel Pardo that twisted through the defense, and found the upper corner of the goal, in the 70th minute. Chicago's Soldier Field positively rocked with the cheers of the Mexico faithful.

It appears the U.S. will be facing a surprisingly unfriendly crowd on Sunday in Chicago. Even in Chicago, the American fans will be vastly outnumbered, if tonight's crowd was any indication. The Mexican team will be out for blood, and the U.S. squad has played indecisively. However, the U.S. has shown flashes of brilliance. They will be missing Frankie Hejduk, who has been the best defender, and scored the game's first goal tonight. Hejduk accumulated his second yellow card of the knockout stages, and will have to sit this one out. The U.S. will also be without hte services of young Michael Bradley, who was ejected in the 89th minute. Bradley's solid positional play will be sorely missed. Still, the U.S. has an excellent chance of beating Mexico. In games outside of Mexico, the U.S.A. have dominated the series in recent years, and are well-positioned to continue that dominance. Hopefully, the Americans have saved their best game for last.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

In a Groove -- The goals keep coming for D.C. United. Last Sunday, United notched four goals against New York. Tonight, United found net three times, against the surprisingly sparkless Chicago Fire. United won 3-1, totally dominating the Fire. The Fire's lone goal was probably the softest goal allowed this year by United's goalkeeper, Troy Perkins. The first goal came seven minutes into the contest as a cross was mishandled by the Fire's goalie, and fell onto the feet of young Rod Dyachenko, who couldn't miss from three feet. Later in the half, Luciano Emilio sprang loose behind the Fire defense, gathered in the long pass, and chipped the Fire's goalie, to put United comfortably ahead, at 2-0. In the second half, Emilio was in the right place at the right time, when Cristian Gomez's shot was saved by the Fire's 'keeper, but the rebound fell right to the goal-hanging Emilio. The Brazilian's second goal of the game put the game out of reach at 3-0.

Besides the obvious choice of Emilio as "Man of the Match," United got great play on both ends from Josh Gros, and a surprisingly good effort by Rod Dyachenko, who started in place of Jaime Moreno. United's coaches have spoken highly of Dyachenko for over a year now, but this was the first time that the Ukranian native played a complete game worthy of the praise bestowed on him.

To put it bluntly, the Fire did not look like much of an opponent, but United may finally be showing the form that was expected of them, when all the world tabbed the D.C. squad as the pre-season favorite to capture the M.L.S. title. They've played two very strong games in a row, and seem to be raising their level of play a little higher, with each game. Hopefully, this year's squad won't peak just before the All-Star game, as last year's team did......

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Team U.S.A. Puts it Together -- After two underwhelming victories in the team's first two Gold Cup matches. the U.S. Men's national team finally played a convincing match, defeating El Salvador 4-0. In the the first two matches, the U.S. outlasted Guatemala 1-0, and registered a 2-0 win over a Trinidad & Tobago team that was more of an U-23 team, than a senior national team. In both games, though, the U.S. looked good early, in grabbing a lead, but then let the other team control the game. The U.S. missed too many chances in those first two games -- though, to be fair, their attack was short-changed by a series of woefully bad offsides calls in the Guatemala game. Tonight, the U.S showed more of a killer instinct.

Tonight, the U.S played much more decisively and insistently. They took a 1-0 lead on delightfully tricky shot by DaMarcus Beasley, following the rebound on a corner kick attempt. Beasley's light shot sneaked through several defenders and found the corner of the net. Landon Donovan converted a penalty kick just before halftime, after Benny Feilhaber pass at the edge of the box was intercepted by a defensive handball. The U.S. did let El Salvador press the attack in the early part of the second half, but soon the U.S. side was delivering effective counter-attacks. Two late goals, one by Taylor Twellman, and Beasley's second of the game, each came off terrific no-look passes on breaks down the center of the defense. The first was set up by Brian Ching, while the second was a truly remarkable bit of full-speed wizardry by Clint Dempsey.

While Landon Donovan remains the star of this team, Clint Dempsey is developing into a wonderful talent, with a tremendous feel for the game, which he combines with great skill on the ball. Dempsey's former Revolution teammate, Taylor Twellman, is becoming a really good option upfront, and continues to justify the complaints of those who criticized then-USMNT coach Bruce Arena for not including the striker in last year's World Cup team.

Beasley made terrific plays on both goals, and showed great hustle throughout, but he also botched two excellent opportunities with widely errant shots. Benny Feilhaber had looked strong in the early games, and shows much promise, but he showed poor decisions or a poor shooting touch with his repeated long-range shots that all missed the target. On defense, Oguchi Onyewu played a pretty strong game, though he made a few errors. His size makes up for other shortcomings, though it also gets him in trouble sometimes. Jonathan Spector continues to disappoint this observer, who would like to see Frank Simek at the right back position. Spector commits too many unforced errors. The real star on defense for the U.S. right now is young Jonathan Bornstein, who seems on his way to becoming the best defensive player the U.S. has had.

Pablo Mastroeni had a few poorly timed tackles, but also one or two real gems, and he remains a better passer than the other options in the midfield. One hopes that Ricardo Clark will grow into the position -- he certainly has the athletic ability and the potential to develop into a great midfielder. Lacking Clark's talents, Michael Bradley always seems to be in the right place at the right time, and just doesn't seem to make many mistakes -- he may not be experienced at this level, but his inexperience doesn't show.

The United States should sail through to the Gold Cup final on cruise control. Though Mexico remains the better team against top-flight international competition, the United States now dominates regional play. Based on the early returns, the U.S. should claim the CONCACAF crown, once again. It will be interesting to see how the U.S. fares in the Copa America, at the end of the month. With genuinely talented players like Donovan, Dempsey and Bornstein, and a strong supporting cast including Twellman, and young Justin Mapp, the U.S. may be poised to take the next step up and play competitive football against the world's best. The future looks pretty bright -- the Copa America will be a chance to see where the U.S. stands right now.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Looking Ahead for D.C. United -- After a strong performance against the first-place New York Red Bulls, United finds itself tied with the Chicago Fire for the fourth spot in the Eastern Conference -- what would be the final playoff spot. United, however, has played two fewer games than the Fire. United has also has two games in hand, compared with the Red Bulls. Two wins and six points would pull United even with the Eastern Conference leaders.

Saturday night, the Fire come to to RFK. United cfan put some distance between the two clubs. It's certainly early in the season -- much to early to determine how the playoff chase will shake out. Are the Wizards as good as they have shown this early -- how will Eddie Johnson be affected by what is apparently a minor knee injury he suffered in the Gold Cup match on Saturday? Is the Fire's slow start an aberration, or will they struggle to make the playoffs? On Saturday, United will be facing a somewhat diminished Fire roster, as the Fire's top player, Justin Mapp, is with the U.S. Men's national team. While it is early in the season, a little breathing room is always welcome. United will be expected to win. Can they live up to those expectations, now that they appear to be in a groove?

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Oly-Oly-Olsen's Three -- D.C. United finally put it all together, playing their best game of the year by far. The squad was led, as always, by Ben Olsen, but today there was a twist. Benny wasn't just the field general. He tallied not just once, but three times. A hat trick for the United veteran. United defeated the division leading New York Red Bulls, in convincing manner. The final score was 4-2, but the game was dominated by United.

The crowd was driven into delirium by Olsen's exploits. There were some nervous moments after the Red Bulls answered Olsen's first goal before the cheers even died down. Dema Kovalenko's long shot was deflected in for an own goal that tied the score. Juan Pablo Angel seemed certain to put the Red Bulls in the lead, but Facundo Erpen was able to beat him to the ball and head clear a cross that Angel would surely have buried in the net. The teams went into the dressing room tied at halftime, which had to be disappointing for a United team that controlled most of the play.

Early in the second half, Fred broke down the middle of the field and sent a wide pass to Luciano Emilio. The Brazilian scored to put United in front, but there were still a few nervous moments to come. Josh Gros made a fine defensive play to deny Angel a scoring opportunity. Things seemed about to take a drastic turn for the worse, for the home squad, when Bobby Boswell was sent off with his second yellow card. In fact, playing a man down, United became an even more dangerous squad. Olsen got his second and third goals, and was nearly in position for a fourth. Gros went almost end-to-end with a give-and-go, but his shot was saved by a diving Ronald Wattereus.

Incidentally, the effort turned in by Josh Gros might have been the biggest difference between this game and past United games. There had been talk that Gros might be headed to the bench. While he had a couple of uncertain moments in the defense, he also made a couple of sparkling defensive plays. However, it was on offense that Gros's star really shone. He set up Olsen first goal with a great pass over the defense, and helped get the play started that resulted in Olsen's second goal. Still, the real star today was Ben Olsen. It was Olsen who got the standing ovation when he was removed in the final minute of play -- and it was well-deserved.

In the final minutes, the Red Bulls' Angel did notch a goal to bring the Red Bulls a little closer, with a couple of minutes to go. The former Aston Villa player played an excellent game -- almost every touch was perfectly played, and he was a constant threat. His free kicks were not sharp enough, but he is clearly a tremendous talent. Perhaps Angel was the most talented player on the field, but it was Ben Olsen's day. While Olsen's first two goals were nicely turned finishes of good team play, his third goal was just a picture perfect blast from about 25 or 30 yards. Bravo, Bennie.

If United gets to the MLS Cup, today is really the day that became a realistic quest -- the day the team began to play like potential champions. Everyone in the stadium felt it. RFK pulsed with excitement and ecstasy throughout the second half, but the last ten minutes were as raucous a celebration as one could expect for a regular-season game more than four months ahead of the championship. I cannot even begin to imagine the scene at RFK, if United is playing for the league title in October. Surely, the media will have to admit that, at least in the nation's capital, Americans have caught football (I guess that should be "soccer") fever.

United's back on track -- I might add that the FischFry is back as well, after a 2-week hiatus while I moved. It's been a tough time, as it truly was the "Move from Hell," but I wanted to share my joy with the wonderful showing today by D.C. United. United. United. Vamos United.