Monday, July 30, 2007

Manny Acta was at the Game -- Shawn Hill, the Washington Nationals' young, but injured ace, made his first rehab start tonight, starting for the Potomac Nationals. The home team came up short, as a young man named Brian McFall smacked a pair of two-run home runs, as the P-Nats fell 6-3. However, Hill breezed through three very quick innings of work, allowing three hits and no runs. Washington Nationals' manager Manny Acta took in the game -- or at least part of it. When the autograph hounds descended upon him in the sixth inning, Acta graciously signed everything thrust his way, but soon disappeared from his seat behind home plate.

Acta had to be pleased with Hill's effort, but here was little else to please him. Acta might have wanted to see what Chris Marrero had in store for the Nats in a few years. I'm sure this is a game Marrero will like to forget. He couldn't hit the ball out of the infield, and misjudged a fly ball, leaving himself in a poor throwing position, unable to prevent the runner on third from scoring. No doubt, there will be better games for the young outfielder. Since the real focus was on Shawn Hill, the Nats' top brass, including Manny Acta, have to be feeling a little better tonight.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

United Looking Better -- D.C. United played much more confidently, although United only managed to tally one goal, in beating Club America, during tonight's SuperLiga action. Christian Gomez played a truly inspired game, despite taking an ugly, vicious elbow in the 34th minute, that had him repeatedly running to the bench to ice the side of his head. Gomez set up the lone goal, as he headed Ben Olsen's crossing pass back across the goalbox, where Rod Dyachenko ran onto it, blasting a low drive for the decisive goal.

Kudos have to go to Gomez, who attacked consistently throughout much of the game, and narrowly missed scoring himself, on a couple of efforts. This was Gomez' best game since the MLS season got underway in April. Marc Burch played another strong game. Burch's crosses continue to pose danger for opposing defenses, and Luciano Emilio should have scored with a header on one of them. Burch also created a decent chance for himself, with a good run behind the defense. I am sure that Coach Tom Soehn is taking notice, and we can expect Burch to be a regular in the lineup. Josh Gros did a good job controlling the ball and setting up the offense, and Dyachenko turned in his best effort in a United uniform, before being substituted for Clyde Simms.

Perhaps the best news was the surprise of seeing Dominic Mediate take the field, to help run out the final minutes of the game. It's almost exactly a year since Mediate suffered a badly broken leg, on a vicious tackle that wasn't even whistled for a foul. It was wonderful to see Mediate get another chance at an MLS career, despite being released by United earlier, in the preseason. Mediate had several touches, and showed both quickness and deftness with the ball. His return gives Coach Soehn much better midfield options, coming off the bench.

United has a tough challenge on Wednesday, taking on the Dynamo in the final match of group play. United needs at least a point to guarantee advancing to the SuperLiga semifinals. Of course, since Morelia gained a tie with Houston, if D.C. ties with Houston on Wednesday, and Morelia beats Club America, that would leave three clubs tied with 5 points...and the result unclear. So, United may need a win to advance.

Against the Dynamo, even gaining a tie will be no small task. United must shut down Dwayne DeRosario and Stuart Holden, and try to deny the ball to Houston's deadly forwards. At the same time, United really needs to show it can attack Houston's defense. No team has done that in over a month, not in the MLS, nor in the SuperLiga (Houston did give up a second-half goal against Morelia, but that came off a freakish, horrible error by the Dynamo's back-up goalkeeper, in failng to hold on to a loose ball). This will offer United a chance to show it can compete with the Dynamo. Even though the other teams in the Eastern Conference have been loading up with foreign talent, United is still the team most likely to earn a berth in the MLS Cup, where the likely opponent will be the defending champion Dynamo.

Friday, July 27, 2007

A Memorable Debut, But One to Forget -- John Lannan made his major league debut today, for the Nationals, in Philadelphia. It would he an exaggeration to say this was much anticipated. Prior to this year, few Nationals fans would have even heard of Lannan. He was a low round draft choice, who struggled some with his control in his first full year in the minors last year. He figured it out this year, though. Beginning the year in Class A ball, Lannan was so masterful that he climbed first to AA, then AAA, and finally to the big club, in just over three months.

Of course, Lannan was up primarily as fill-in, because of recent injuries to Jason Simontacci and Jason Bergmann. Still, he had the chance to show he was ready for the majors. In truth, he didn't pitch badly. He was more effective than Tim Lincecum was in his debut with the Giants, a couple of months ago -- and now Lincecum is pitching as well as anyone in the National League. Lannan doesn't really have Lincecum's stuff, but he has the potential to do well, if he hits his spots.

Today, Lannan did struggle some, giving up a walk, a couple of hits and a run, before he'd even recorded his first out. What an out it was, though!! The Nationals had spotted Lannan with a two-run lead in the top of the first, and the rookie was trying to hold on to what was left of the lead, with the score now 2-1. Lannan struck out Ryan Howard on three straight curveballs. The last one really dropped right out of the strike zone, leaving Howard flailing off balance. Lannan closed out the inning, by getting Aaron Rowand to hit into a double play, on a first-pitch fastball.

In the third inning, Lannan lost the lead. With two outs, he walked Chase Utley, and then he tried to throw the curve past Howard, again. This time, the ball stayed up a little, at the knees, and Howard drove it deep to straight-away center, for a two-run homer.

As rough as the third inning was, it was not nearly as wild as the events of the fifth inning, when Utley and Howard came to bat again. First, Lannan hit Utley on the hand. Though Utley raced to first base, we learned after the game that he had broken a bone in his hand. The next pitch hit Howard in the back, and the umpire, Wendelstadt, immediately ejected Lannan from the game. Manager Manny Acta soon followed his starting pitcher to the showers. Reliever Chris Schroeder allowed a single to drive in both Utley and Howard, with both runs charged to Lannan.

The news wasn't all bad for the Nationals. Actually, it was all bad for the Phils. The Nationals rallied to win the game, the game-winning shot coming on a two-out three run home run by Jesus Flores, in the eighth inning. Chad Cordero came on, and fought through a tough inning, allowing one run, but nailing down the save. Despite a start that John Lannan would probably like to forget, the Nationals won a really memorable game. With the loss, and the injury to Utley, the day was much worse for the Phillies.

If nothing else. Lannan learned he has the stuff to strike out Ryan Howard. Hopefully, the injury to Utley, and the ejection won't mess too much with his psyche. With his first major league start behind him, Lannan can go about his learning, and earning a place in the rotation, especially for next year.

The next big milestones for the Nats will take place back in A ball. Shawn Hill will have a rehab start for Potomac, on Monday. The next week, first-round draft-pick Ross Detwiler will move up to Potomac, and make a few starts there. If things go well for him, he will make a fairly quick jump to AA, and be fast-tracked to get a shot pitching in RFK, before the season is over. It's even possible that Hill, Lanan And Detwiler will be the cornerstones of the Nats' rotation next year -- of course, it's very premature to predict anything like that.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Thursday is John Lannan Day -- No official commemeration, but it will be the big league debut of the wunderkind, who has sky-rocketed through Nats' minor league system this year. A glimpse into the team's future, perhaps.
It's SuperLiga!!! And United Still Disappoints -- It was a bad night for D.C. sports fans: The Nationals gave away a game with two outs in the ninth, with one play, and a comedy of errors...and then lost it deep into extra innings. Our soccer team, D.C. United, didn't lose. Once again, though, it kinda felt like they did. United completely dominated their Mexican opposition in their opening SuperLiga match, especially in the first half. All they had to show for that domination was a great free kick goal by Christian Gomez in the 7th minute.

After that, United made a real show of how hard it can be to put the ball in the net. Fred and Rod Dyachenko showed great understanding, as Fred delivered a ball to Dyachenko as he ran towards the net, behind the defense. As the goalie came out to defend, Dyachenko delivered a cross to Luciano Emilio that was just a little behind the striker. Emilio couldn't finish, putting the ball over the crossbar, despite a wide open goal.

There were other misses, and most of them came after United gained a man advantage early in the second half. Bobby Boswell took out his frustrations by kicking a Morelia player, an action that should have gotten him thrown from the game. Instead it was the Mexican who was ejected, for a rather tame retaliatory slap at the back of Boswell's head. Frankly, the refereeing was a complete mystery. In the first half, Gomez made a brilliant run through the defense, before he was pulled down from behind, deliberately, just before he got into the penalty box. Yet, there was no foul call. Later in the half, D.C. got an undeserved free kick just outside the box, on a phantom foul. It was like that all game.

Actually, after Morelia began to play short-handed, the game turned in their favor, for a time. Thiago hit the post with a shot that had Troy Perkins beaten. There were a couple of other good chances for Morelia, but Perkins kept the score even, until D.C. seized control again. Fred missed a good chance. Gomez, as well. Emilio had a nice cross that Nick Addlerey couldn't reach to slide in the net.

Just about the time one had to be wondering if D.C. would pay the price for missing those chances to add to their lead, Morelia struck. With about ten minutes remaining on the unofficial clock, Diego Martinez brought down a nice switch-pass and then blasted a shot to the far corner, beyond Perkins' diving reach. United turned on the gas, to try and regain the lead, but still couldn't find net.

So, once again, United squandered a lead they should've held -- failing to finish off their opposition when the opportunities presented themselves. There were some good signs in this game, though. Gomez turned in his most spirited outing of the year. Marc Burch showed he has one heckuva left foot, with really dangerous bending crosses into the area. Burch was doing so well that he was called to the other side of the pitch to take a corner kick, and make use of that wicked left foot of his. He also made some good plays on defense. The most encouraging part should have been that United dominated the game, but the disappointing result tempers any enthusiasm for the team's overall performance.

Another disappointment had to be the turnout. United fans turn out for league games, but haven't caught on to the charms of these international competitions. This stands in contrast to the near capacity crowds that have turned out for the other SuperLiga contests. Of course, D.C. doesn't have the huge Mexican populations that are found in Texas and California, where the other games were played. Still, the league has to be disappointed by the small turnout for tonight's game at RFK.

Sunday ought to be different -- both because it's a Sunday night, rather than a weeknight, and because the opposition is Club America, probably the most popular team in Mexico. There figures to be a decent-sized contingent rooting for the Mexican side. One hopes that United's fans turn out in even larger numbers. If not, one might expect that United may not be included in the next SuperLiga.

Kudos to Houston, and young Stuart Holden. It sems that even Mexican teams are finding it hard to score against the Dynamo. I've already sung Holden's praises here, but he keeps adding to his legend. Tonight, he was the difference for the Houston Dynamo, in beating Club America 1-0. Holden took the ball down the side, and delivered a great bending cross in front of the net, where it was redirected for the game's lone goal. This guy just has to get a serious look with the senior national team -- right now, he's with the U-23 team. After the Beijing Olympics, he could be a big part of the World Cup qualifying effort.

An interesting note about the SuperLiga -- the MLS has not fared well against Mexican teams in other, prior competitions. Those games, however, always took place during the MLS preseason, which was midseason for the Mexican teams. Now, the situation is reversed, and the games reflect that. The MLS has won 2 of the first 4 games. The other two games were ties that ought to have been won by the MLS team. It would be a great surprise if the SuperLiga semifinalists were all MLS teams, and it might diminish interest significantly in the tournament. Certainly, the Mexican press would ignore the rest of the tournament, but it wouldn't have the same appeal here, either. It's a weird turn of events, and it wouldn't surprise me if the MLS marketing people will be rooting for at least one Mexican team to get through to the next round.

One note about the Barra Brava -- Cool it with giving the finger. After the Morelia goal, while one of the Morelia forwards was getting treatment, the fans delivered their ire -- I think it was directed at Mexican fans. It was caught on TV, and it just looked awful. A disgusting display. Basically, I love the Barra Brava and Screaming Eagles. I'm not a big fan of the "If I could fly high like an eagle...I'd shit on those tossers below" cheer. We could do without that one, but at least it's in the right spirit of fun. The finger stuff doesn't have any humor or sense of fun about it. While it is bad enough to make a display like that, with young kids in the crowd, it's even worse when it shows up on TV because it catches the cameraman and director off-guard. Keep those fingers in their holsters, guys....

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Democratic 'YouTube' Debate -- Unlike some bloggers, I found very little reason to cheer the format of Monday night's Democratic Presidential candidates debate -- at least, I didn't see it as incredibly groundbreaking and revolutionary. There has always been a place for questions from the audience. This was just a flashy new way to do it. Some bloggers see it as a great challenge to the mythic power of the mainstream media. Ironically, what made this format work was that the media sponsor, CNN, had a chance to review the submissions, and selected the most interesting or most creative, or some combination of the two. There was nothing revolutionary in this, except that the questions were presented in a more entertaining way. For the most part, the answers were still the same old rehearsed political pablum.

Hillary Clinton and Barrack Obama have gotten into an unnecessary pissing match. Obama answered a question about meeting with our 'enemies,' by making a point about using diplomacy. Clinton used the question to imply that Obama's answer was not a good one -- that her vast experience would lead her to be more cautious. Clinton's answer was the one that everyone was talking about, and she should have let it go with that small victory. Instead, she was quoted today as saying Obama's answer was "naive." Now, she looks like she is playing politics. Of course, that's what she was doing in the debate, but she came off as statesman-like. Now, she's killed that impression.

Without a doubt, the real highlight of last night's debate was "Hair" -- the John Edwards campaign's brilliantly conceived and executed 30-second spot, with images set to the strains of the title song from the '70s musical. If you haven't seen the clip, you should -- click on the link above to see watch it at YouTube. It's one of the finer political ads I think I've ever seen. Bravo to everyone who had a hand in it.

This ad is so good that Edwards should take whatever funds he's got and blanket the airwaves with it. Not just in Iowa. There could be a series of similar ads with images touching on different issues. It can even be made into a radio spot -- sans images, but with John himself talking about issues -- and then a voice-over asking about "what really matters?" It runs the risk of making too much of the hair "issue," but most folks know about it already. It's so good I wish it could have been sprung on us in the general election to crush Republican attempts to make light of Edwards' "haircut problem." Of course, first, Edwards has to get there -- so, we have the ad now. The campaign should make good use of it.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Year of Blogging Vigorously -- It's been a year since The Fisch Fry debuted, and it has become more of a sports blog than I intended or expected. It's rare that I write about much else. I'm closing in on 3,000 hits for the website. This seems pretty impressive -- to me, anyway. It's a big number in baseball -- a Hall of Fame number -- why not in blogging? Since I didn't figure out how to add a counter for the first five days, I still have time to get to 3,000 hits in that first year -- at least, by my way of reckoning.

It's been an interesting year, though. This blog was early to the question of why George Allen was denying his Jewish family roots. Indeed, my posts may have played a role in prompting Peggy Fox's question on the subject, directed to the Senator in a debate. That touched off a furor that came on top of the Macaca moment, and helped propel James Webb to victory in that race. On the other hand, my efforts to make Tom Davis' ethics a major issue bore no more fruit than did the efforts of his challenger, Andy Hurst.

I intend to focus more on politics in the future, but The Fisch Fry will be less of a focus for me, in general. Already, I'm not posting nearly as often as I did in the first six months. There's so much to comment on, including the refereeing scandal at the NBA, more doping at the Tour de France, the Michael Vick mess, the talk of impeachment, last night's Democratic Party debate. I guess I could write forever about any of those things, and give you my opinion on all of these things -- but opinions are worth what you pay for them. I'll keep to myself on most of these questions, but I will post an entry regarding the debate.

Back to the question of blogging -- I hope to make a more formal announcement, in the very near future, of a new website, and blog. It's something I've been working on for a few months, but getting the website up is out of my hands. I turned that task over to a friend who has been generous enough to donate his services. I just don't know when the site will officially debut. Look for it at I'm not linking yet because there is nothing at that address yet. I have great hopes for the Armistice Project, but I'll write more about it when the website is officially up and running. I'm hoping that will be this weekend, but I'll make a formal announcement here.

Otherwise, I expect to attend the SuperLiga contest, so you can look for my reports on the action at RFK, here on The Fisch Fry.
Veron Turns Down United's Millions -- According to El Clarin, Kevin Payne came to Buenos Aires and offered Juan Sebastian Veron, a package worth at least $20 million, including $10 million in salary. Veron said "Today my answer is no." Veron added, though, that his answer might change: "But, in a few months, in December? I don't know." So, United can look to fill the designated player slot with someone else...or hope to slide through with what they've got now, and hope to bring in Veron for next year. Right now, with management surely aiming at the MLS Cup final in RFK this October, they must take a long look around. The question is who else is out there?

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Poplar Point Stadium in Trouble? -- The Washington Post is running a story this morning (Talks Fall Apart On Stadium for D.C. Soccer Team), on the apparent collapse of negotiations between the team and the city over United's plans to develop Poplar Point. United is asking for the moon here, even though they aren't asking the city to fund the proposed stadium, itself. Still, my biggest concern about the plan is the Metro accessibility.

Under the team's proposal, the new stadium would appear to be a bit of a hike from the Anacostia station, which is on the other side of I-295. United doesn't even mention Metro access in its online presentation, though they mention a water ferry (I guess residents in the area around the new baseball stadium could take this ferry over -- United aren't seriously thinking they can substitute a ferry for Metro access?). I might suggest a redesign that brings the stadium closer to the station, and possibly offers the prospect of access from the station directly -- or, at least has safe passage across or under the highway.

Personally, I think it makes the most sense to try and place the stadium on the other side of the highway, near the Metro, but the team wants the prime waterfront property for the stadium. I'm not sure that's the best use of the waterfront property, and city officials may have similar misgivings. Still, it seems like that could be worked out. The D.C. United proposal is probably too ambitious in developing too much of the park land, but that is also something that could be worked out in negotiations.

Some are talking about building a new stadium on the current RFK site. It's not such a bad idea, though it lacks the symmetry of having the baseball and football stadiums in such close proximity, on opposite sides of the Anacostia River. As a soccer fan, though, I'd hate to see RFK get torn down. United is planning for only a 27,000 seat stadium. Thare will be exhibitions and national team games that will be better suited to RFK, than either the smaller, new stadium or the cavernous FedEx Field. Realistically, though, the city is not likely to maintain the stadium for very long, with the prospect of only one or two events a year.

The RFK site might be preferable, though, for the new stadium. I think United is being shortsighted in building such a small facility. Already, we see the demand for tickets to games like the Beckham (Galaxy) match, is much greater than that. In 20 or 30 years the team may want a bigger park to play in. The RFK site might present a better prospect to build a bigger facility later on.

Of course, stadiums should have a longer life than 20 years. In building the new stadium, I think United ought to reconsider and aim for a capacity of at least 30,000 now -- but the plans ought to be flexible enough to allow for future expansion.

In the current negotiations, both sides need to be more flexible. I know United wants the whole shooting match, to build a Poplar Point stadium, and develop the land around it, but they shouldn't make the mistake of leaving the city for the suburbs. The grass really isn't going to be any greener in Mayland or Virginia.

On the other hand, as for giving the team such control to develop a wide swath of prime real estate, the city could do worse. Someone's going to get that land -- why not the DC United ownership? That would weave the team into the fabric of the city for generations, without worrying they might move to the suburbs. Besides, a lot of young Capitol Hill workers may end up there, when the residential components get built. There will be a lot of soccer fans in that group. They'd love to have the stadium close by. And it can't hurt the city to make congressional staffers happy.
D.C. United Rumor Mill: Juan Sebastian Veron -- According to the New York Times' soccer blog, an Argentine newspaper is reporting that DC United officials are traveling to Buenos Aires to conduct negotiations with Juan Sebastian Veron. Veron's reported salary demands are farcical -- the Times notes he's demanding $20 million.*** Even if that were stretched out over anything less than 5 years, it's still way too much to be paying Veron -- I doubt that United will pay anything like that. Even Beckham's base salary will be closer to $5 million.

However, United's been holding on to that precious designated player slot for someone special, and Veron could be that special player. It's true he struggled in stints with Manchester United and Chelsea, earlier in this decade, but he's been quite successful everywhere else he has played. He helped Inter win the Italian Serie A title (the scudetto) in 2000, and he's won the Coppa Italia four times, with three different teams. With Lazio, he led the team to a rare Italian triple in 2000.

Last December, Veron completed a successful return to his native Argentina, helping Estudiantes to its first premiership title in 23 years, including a stunning comeback win in the playoff final against Boca Juniors. Most recently, Veron got plaudits for his contributions to Argentina's run to the finals of the Copa America.

Veron certainly has a strong pedigree. He was named to the FIFA 100 in 2004, after returning to play in Italy. When he signed with Manchester United three years earlier, the team paid what was then the largest transfer fee in league history. It may be that Veron's game was ill-suited to the blistering pace of the E.P.L. If so, Veron will probably find the sometimes ponderous pace of the M.L.S. more to his liking.

He will likely join Christian Gomez in the central midfield, but play more of a holding, or defensive role. This will probably relegate Brian Carroll to a substitute role, in relief of Ben Olsen or Fred, along with the occasional spot start. But, that's getting ahead of ourselves.

The competition has been improving. The Dynamo haven't brought in a designated player of their own, but they've added considerable depth with Nate Jacqua, and they are dominating the league right now. FC Dallas is rumored to be the likely landing spot for the Brazilian veteran Denilson. In New York, Juan Pablo Angel has become quite simply the best player in the league, making everyone forget that New York has 2 designated players -- the other being Claudio Reyna. Eddie Johnson is scoring at a prodigious rate for Kansas City. New England is still a strong team, despite losing Clint Dempsey to Fulham. The Revs have the best goalie in the league, and still have a potent attack. Lastly, the Chicago Fire are to debut their designated player, Cuahtemoc Blanco, this weekend -- possibly lost amid the Beckham hoopla.

While Emilio and Fred are starting to really contribute to United, signing Veron would be a big shot of adrenaline -- perhaps helping United avoid a collapse similar to the one that occurred last season, beginning shortly after the All-Star break. But, that's getting ahead of ourselves. First, Veron needs to come down to realistic levels. He's out of contract, so United won't have to pay a transfer fee, but the number they will offer will be exponentially lower than the one he is seeking, if reports are true.

Veron to United? We'll just have to wait and see. According to the Argentine newspaper, El Clarin, Veron would like to stay with Estudiantes for another year, to play in the Copa Libertadores, before making a jump to North American soccer, in June 2008.

Still, if he does come to United, Veron's likely to get a shot at the Copa Sudamericano or possibly even the Libertadores, anyway -- if he can help lead D.C. to a title. According to the El Clarin article, Veron might wish to sign a commitment to go to D.C., but that he would want to defer playing there for the year. I imagine he is hoping that perhaps a one-year loan to Estudiantes would be worked out. But, that's getting ahead of ourselves.

Besides, United wants help now -- to secure a return berth in the MLS Cup final, which is being played at RFK this year. Winning the title at home would be a great boon to United's local popularity, as it tries to win approval for its Poplar Point stadium plan. (see related post above)

**** [Update] **** I might add, that as I read the article in El Clarin, it doesn't suggest the $20 million is Veron's salary demand -- rather, that is what United is expected to offer him, along with various incentives. Presumably that would be stretched out over at least five years, as I can't imagine that United would offer more than $4 million a year for Veron. He's a nice player, but he's no goal scorer. He might help win some titles, but he won't put fannies in the seats just to see him play.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

MLS All-Stars Beat Another Foreign Club - What Does it Mean? -- I'd like to say the MLS All-Stars 2-0 win over Celtic means that American players are making great strides. Of course, if I begin with a sentence like that, obviously I'm going to follow by adding that I can't say that. It's true -- I can't say that.

One could say that all this win shows is that a team consisting of the best players in the MLS, playing with midseason form and condition, can beat talented foreign club sides that are just beginning training for their next season. That isn't giving the MLS' team its proper due. The MLS all-star team has won the last four years, defeating CD Guadalajara, Fulhma, Chelsea, and now Celtic. I think these wins show that the best players in the MLS can play with good clubs, even the top European club sides -- and I won't qualify it by pointing out the European teams are not at the top of their game, or in the best of shape.

The biggest disappointment is that the American players are not really shining in these games. Last year, it took a brilliant piece of individual play-making by the Canadian Dwayne DeRosario, to beat Chelsea 1-0. This year, DeRosario made a nice pass to set up Colombian Juan Pablo Angel (of the N.Y. Red Bulls) for the first goal. The second goal was scored by another Colombian, FC Dallas' star Juan Toja.

So, the league has some pretty good foreign-born players. It is also true that the level of the play in MLS is improving greatly. The triumph of the U.S.A. in the Gold Cup, and the strong performance of the U.S.A. U-20s suggests that there are some fine American players. It's just that there aren't very many of them. Tonight marked the last All-Star game for two of the best: Cobi Jones, whose speed and skill hasn't been replaced in the U.S. midfield; and Eddie Pope, who was the best defender the U.S.A. has produced -- his absence from the U.S. back line is obvious each time the national team plays these days.

With the league looking to expand next year -- and probably twice more in coming years -- the MLS will have to look abroad for much more talent. Having Beckham here enhances the league's prestige, and makes it more likely that the league can attract good foreign players. However, the league will have to significantly adjust the salary cap so teams can sign foreign talent. The league might also consider granting each team another designated player exception to the cap (the Beckham rule).

These changes are necessary, if the league wants to continue to raise the quality of play. Expansion can only dilute the overall quality of the teams. Look at D.C. United. They are struggling to find any depth. They were knocked out of the U.S. Open Cup, playing a team of second-stringers -- beaten by a third division side. The teams will become more profitable, but the league has to have the foresight to invest in the product.

The league needs more stars, but also deeper, better rosters -- better players at all levels. That will take some money, but it has to be done. Ultimately, to succeed, the league needs to be something Americans stay home to watch on TV. Similarly, home games need to become events that the home city fans turn out to see. There are too many choices -- too many other ways to spend one's time and entertainment dollars, but also too many other options, even for the soccer fanatics.

The M.L.S has the toughest road of any American sports league, because it's not just competing against the other sports, in the battle for fans' attention. The M.L.S. is also competing against the best foreign soccer leagues...and international competitions, as well. Now, soccer fans in the U.S. can watch the E.P.L., the Bundesliga, Serie A, La Liga, and the Mexican league -- as well as the European Champions League, and Euro 2008.

Even against such daunting competition, the M.L.S. does have a potential built-in advantage, because it is the national league. That's only potential, which will be squandered if the product isn't good enough to meet the demand. As exciting as those other competitions can be, Americans still will have a natural inclination to watch the M.L.S. -- if the quality of play makes for entertaining soccer games.
Detwiler's Debut -- According to Nationals Farm Authority (a fan blog), first round pick Ross Detwiler pitched two strong innings in his Gulf Coast League and professional debut. He struck out three, and surrendered two bloop hits. The Nats envision moving him up to Class-A Potomac next month. Detwiler may get a chance to start in Frederick on or about Aug. 8. This would be a great place for locals to catch him, but he'll also be on track to pitch at home on or about Aug. 13th. The Nats believe he may be ready to make an appearance with the big club before the end of the season.
Beckham -- 'Nuff said. It all starts Saturday.

Around these parts -- United doesn't have a home league game until Beckham and the Galaxy come in on Aug. 9th. We'll just have to make do with the Superliga. Morelia comes to RFK on the 25th and Club America comes on the 29th. The atmosphere promises to be electric. I just hope some D.C. United supporters show up.

Breaking news: United's U-17 (SUM) club won the championship this afternoon -- part of the MLS All-Star festivities. The youngsters from the D.C. area beat the Kansas City Wizards' representatives by a 3-0 score. Team headliner and local legend Shane Cook tallied one of United's goals. The win puts the squad into the 2008 Club World Cup tourney, competing next August, in Spain, for the Quixote Trophy. Congrats to the lads.

Last bit of news. The guys that are trying to move the Oakland A's to Fremont, Calif. have staked a claim to bring back the San Jose Earthquakes. The hope is that they can build a stadium adjacent to the San Jose Airport, perhaps as soon as 2010. Personally, I still think the city of San Francisco would be a better place for the team, but what do I know? For now, they have plans to play games at two (currently) undisclosed locations while a new stadium is constructed for the team.

One more team. The talent pool for the MLS keeps getting thinner, but it should be little surprise that there is a desire to expand while the Beckham thing is hot. Hopefully, this will be done more intelligently than the NASL handled expansion in the giddy days of Pele, and the stars that followed him here. There certainly should be a team in the Bay Area. And I think there should be a team in New York City. Right now, the NY Mets' ownership is attempting to craft a proposal for an entry to be based in Queens. Interesting how Don Garber, who came over from the NFL is crafting relationships with baseball people.

Since an odd number isn't good, there will be at least one more opening in the next few years. I know there is a push to move into St. Louis, and there is a tentative deal to put a team in southern Jersey, outside of Philadelphia. My instincts tell me Seattle is the best candidate, for a number of reasons. Geographic balance, market size, interest, and the chance to give the league a presence in the Northwest, making it truly an almost national/continental league. The league would still lack a presence in the South. So long as the league continues to play games throughout the summer, the lack of a southern team isn't the worst thing. Someday, though, the league will have to give North Carolina and/or Atlanta a shot, to spread the gospel and the reach of MLS soccer in that part of the country.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Nats' Second-Half Outlook (Why the Nats Will Win More) -- I've just returned from watching a Washington Nationals game -- their first home game since the All-Star break. This game went almost as scripted, except maybe better. The Nats ended up beating the Houston Astros, 4-3. The fun, as it always is in baseball, wasn't just in the final score, but in the getting there.

The Nats had good pitching from started Mike Bacsik, who shutout the Astros through the first five, before surrendering a 1-0 lead in the sixth inning. Saul Rivera came on to put out that fire. In the bottom of the inning, Ronnie Belliard led off with a solid single. Then, amazingly, Ryan Zimmerman bunted for a base hit. He did that a lot last year -- 11 times, I believe. I'm pretty sure this was the first time he did it successfully this year. The Nats, and the crowd, were fired up. Dmitri Young smacked a 3-run home run, to grab a 4-2 lead for the Nats. Carlos Lee did hit an upper-deck smash, off Jon Rauch, to narrow the gap. Chad Cordero came on in the ninth, to shut the door and earn the save.

Besides Zimmerman's bunt base-hit, there was another unusual moment in this game, with tremendous portent for this team. In the seventh, there was a close play at first base. Dmitri Young fielded the ball, and threw to the pitcher Rivera, who was racing to the bag. Young's throw was not the best, as he didn't lead Rivera enough, and it knocked Rivera a bit off stride. That made the play closer than it might have been. It was either a tie to the bag, or Rivera got there a fraction of a step before the runner. The umpire ruled the runner was safe.

With the crowd cheering him on, Manager Manny Acta came out of the dugout to argue the call. That's almost unprecedented for Acta, who was quoted in an article this weekend saying it doesn't make much sense to protest, because the umpire's won't change the call. Sometimes they do, but Acta's point is well-taken. That's why it was so striking to see him gesturing to the base, as he discussed the matter with the umpire. Acta wasn't incredibly demonstrative, but even this low-key approach made the fans and players take notice. The Nats came through, turning a double play to end the threat.

So, why will the Nats be better in the second half? Firstly, they couldn't ever be so bad as they were in the opening ten days of the season. Secondly, they will be a healthier team. Yes, Christian Guzman is lost for the season -- with Lopez' anemic hitting lately, that's a big blow. Still, Ronnie Belliard is doing a pretty good of hitting, and his average is now comfortably over the .300 mark. Dmitri Young is in a serious groove -- you won't see many hitters in a better groove than he has been in the last two months.

Of course, trades could muck that up, since Belliard and Young are the most likely to be moved. One would think Young has tremendous trade value, given his torrid hitting pace. Given his weak fielding, though, he's best as a DH in the American League.

The problem is that, except for the Yankees, the AL contenders are pretty well set at DH. Will the Yankees make a play for Dmitri? It's possible, but Young doesn't strike me as a Steinbrenner-type of player. Moreover, until the Nationals know whether Nick Johnson will be back this summer, they may be reluctant to trade Young. He makes the fans happy, and he's a bargain at $500,000.

Another possibility would be to see the Atlanta Braves go after Young. They need an upgrade at first base. Actually, though, the Braves have reportedly inquired about Young -- and they were scared off by the Nationals' asking price. Unless one side or the other in those talks makes a drastic change in its negotiating stance, that deal isn't going to happen.

As for Belliard, he's probably more marketable than Young, given his versatility -- but the Nats can't get the same kind of talent in exchange for Belliard, as they hope to get for Young. The Nat would be much better off keeping Belliard as their utility infielder, and I think they probably realize that, too.

Ryan Zimmerman's average and power numbers are climbing. For all the talk about how he hasn't performed up to eh standards he set last year, he's actually not so far off that pace. If his average climbs another 15 points, he'll be where he finished last year. His home run total might be similar, as he will surely hit more in the dog days of July and August than he did in the cooler months. While he might not get 110 RBIs this year, he will give it a run, and probably get 100 -- not bad considering the Nats do not score many runs.

Zimmerman's bunt single tonight is a great sign. With that threat back into the picture, he will find that some of those hard smashes to the corner infielders go for doubles, instead of the outs he's been getting. I swear Ryan Zimmerman gets called out looking at more badly called third strikes than anyone I can recall. Tonight was another instance -- with two hits already in the game, Zimmerman took a pitch for a called strike three. The pitch appeared to be about at Zimmerman's neck level. That might be an exaggeration, but the pitch was far too high to have been a legitimate strike call.

Personally, I think the home plate umpire was in a hurry to get out of the heat -- he returned the favor for the Nats, in the ninth, with a called third strike to end the game, even though the pitch appeared to be considerably outside.

In any case, as Zimmerman's average continues to climb, he will get a better strike zone. This will help Zimmerman, and it will make Young a more dangerous hitter. With Zimmerman on base more often, Young will see better pitches -- so, we can expect more extra-base hits, including home runs, out of Young, in the second half. Dmitri is a power hitter. Perhaps, not in this lineup, but as the lineup improves, so will Young's power numbers.

Adding Alex Escobar should bolster the offense. He's a terrific hitter, if he can stay healthy. I thought Escobar would play today, but I guess his arrival at RFK was put off until tomorrow. With Escobar and a hot-hitting Belliard at the top of the lineup, Zimmerman and Young will have more RBI opportunities. And. there is always the possibility that Nick Johnson will return to bring his slick glove to first base, and his consistent hitting to the middle of the Nats' order. The might even try the portly Young in the outfield for six or seven innings. As comical as that might be, the batting order would be a lot more formidable.

The pitching will be better, as well. The real strength of this staff, as advertised, is the bullpen. Cordero's early-season struggles are a distant memory. Trade Cordero? You don't trade Trevor Hoffman, when he has his best years ahead of him. Cordero is the best young closer since Hoffman. There's no way the Nats can get fair value in return -- unless they're going to get a can't-miss power-hitting prospect, or can't miss flame-throwing pitching prospect (and there really is no such thing), and I don't see that happening. Stop thinking like a small-market team. The Nats have to start acting like one of the big boys. Don't trade Cordero -- sign him to a long-term deal.

Cordero also has great set-up men, with Rivera, Rauch, and now Luis Ayala. I suspect Ayala isn't quite at full strength, but he's put up good numbers, and been effective almost every time out. Traber and Schroeder are good, and King has his moments, and his role. There are some good prospects down on the farm, too -- for late-season call-ups.

The starting rotation is going to be quite deep. Shawn Hill may return to lead the rotation next month. Sean Bergmann is already back, though not with the sharpness he had before his injury. There's no reason to think that he won't work out whatever problems he's experiencing now. If things work out as the Nats hope, we might see three pieces of the rotation of the future, as well. Ross Detwiler, John Lannan (who is astounding everyone, as he has climbed from Class-A Potomac to Triple-A Columbus, and continued to dominate) and Colin Ballester are being talked about as late season additions to the roster.

Certainly, that would be something to make September interesting for Nats' fans -- rather than just closing out the string and waiting for the last games to be played at icky old RFK. On a night when your team wins, everything seems better. I think there will be more nights like this one, in the second half.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

A Tough Day All Around -- Give Dallas some credit. They showed tremendous tenacity tonight, in rallying from a 3-0 deficit early in the second half. D.C. United looked positioned for a memorable victory. I was prepared to write about how all the team needed was a little home-cooking, and a little Jaime Moreno, to return to form. Dallas ruined all that, as they kept clawing back at United, and eventually tied the game at 3-3.

The crowd booed lustily, blaming the referee for two consecutive bad decisions that gave Dallas possession and led to the tying goal. However, I'm not convinced that the refs didn't miss an offsides call against Jaime Moreno, before he delivered a cheeky, looping cross that found Fred's head at the back post, making the score 2-0 for D.C., at the time. So, maybe that balanced out -- or maybe it didn't. In the end, United failed to prevent the FC Dallas goals, and can't really blame the refereeing for this one.

I think United missed Moreno's presence in the latter stages of the second half -- Moreno had been replaced by Guy-Rowland Kpene. Kpene had one good shot that was saved, but he whiffed on another, and showed that he is no Jaime Moreno. ON the other hand, Jaime Moreno showed he's still got it. Coming off his great showing for Bolivia in the Copa America, Moreno looked fit. He showed pace and creativity. His play created the first two goals for D.C. It was great to see his electric yellow boots flashing about at RFK again. Though I didn't see it, reportedly Moreno came off when he did less than 10 minutes into the second half), because he hurt his hamstring. That could prove to be a devastating loss for D.C., if Moreno is forced to miss much time.

The player who looked like he was gasping for air during much of the game was Christian Gomez. He showed great skill throughout the game, but there were a couple of moments when he might have made a difference, instead of standing and watching the play. Gomez really needs to raise his fitness level. Perhaps that is the biggest difference between Gomez this year, and his league MVP play last season.

The defense had shaky moments, but also delivered with a number of fine sliding tackles to save the day. Troy Perkins mad some great saves, but he looked like an amateur getting beat to the ball once by Carlos Ruiz, who scored on a header, and also by Juan Toja, who headed home the decisive, game-tying goal. Perkins left the line late both times. Hopefully, Perkins can improve his timing or decision-making on those kind of plays.

In short, the game that had started so beautifully finished with a big letdown for the faithful. Not as big a letdown as the U.S.A. U-20 side experienced earlier in the day, losing to Austria 2-1. After all, United still got a point, and they weren't eliminated from anything (although they were knocked out of the U.S. Open Cup earlier in the week).

Still, United should have gotten a better result tonight. The good was the way the offense played when Moreno was in the game. They didn't create that many chances, but the ones they did create were finished off with goals. United needs to find a way to keep Moreno in the game for more than sixty minutes, or they need to find a way to get the scoring touch even when he's not on the field.
The Unkindest Cut -- The U.S.A.'s U-20s blew an early lead, and fell to Austria 2-1, in the U-20 World Cup quarterfinal match. The U.S. opened the scoring with a brilliant cross from Freddy Addu that was nailed into the net with a sharp header by Jozy Altidore. After looking strong early on, the U.S. team began to sit on their lead, and the Austrians took control of the match, tying it up before halftime. In the second half, things got worse, but somehow the U.S. survived to take the game into overtime. Chris Seitz' sharp goalkeeping kept the game tied, although at least once the goalpost saved the U.S.. Seitz also had some spectacular help from Nathan Sturgis, who kept one shot out of the goal, when Steitz was beaten. keeping the score tied. In the first half, a misplay by Seitz, in not holding on to a long shot, did lead to the first goal. However, he played brilliantly thereafter.

In the first overtime period, the U.S. did start to play stronger, as they had done against Uruguay, but defender Anthony Wallace was ejected with his second yellow card of the game, in the 15th minute. Wallace's first card may not have been merited, but the second clearly was. Austria brought on their super-sub Erwin Hoffer. About a minute later after Wallace's ejection, there was a mad scramble in the box. One Austrian got off a shot which a diving Chris Seitz may have touched just wide of a goal. The ball bounced into the goalpost. It's hard to know whether the ball would have gone in anyway, but Hoffer was there to carry it over the goal line.

Though down a man, the U.S. had some chances, and were still in the game, because the Austrians missed on two breakaways. The U.S. players just couldn't manage the tying goal, and the favorites were eliminated. The loss is an especially hard blow, because this was the very first U.S. men's team that had a legitimate chance of winning a world championship. There's no knowing when such a chance may come again.

There were some good takeaways from this tournament. Most obviously was the play of Adu and Altidore who must have attracted the notice of some of the wealthier clubs out there, especially in Europe. Robbie Rogers and Danny Szetela had breakout performances -- not by scoring goals, but in opening up the offense, though not so much today. Ditto for Sal Zizzo. Michael Bradley, who scored the game-winner on Wednesday, turned in the game of his life today. If he'd had more help from his mates, the U.S. would have come out on top.

Overall, I was not impresed by the U.S. defenders, however, I was impressed by the play of Nathan Sturgis. He's a midfielder in MLS, but I think we've seen his future role in defense with the national team. Tony Beltran was the weakest link in the defense, except for his replacement. Tim Ward looked absolutely horrible in this game.

Though both goalkeepers gave up goals by allowing rebounds they could have prevented, neither were truly "soft" goals. Seitz and Perk look like good options for the U.S. down the road.

There are some players we will need to see more of in the future to make any assesment. Most notably is Johann Smith, who missed this tournament because of an injury. Andre Akpan and Gabe Ferrari could be good forwards down the road, but didn't have the chance to shine in Canada. I guess all these guys will get another chance at glory in the U-23 championships, the next time around, or in the Olympics.

Ah well. I'm off to see D.C. United.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

A Dynamo Dynasty? As if the defeat last week of D.C. United weren't proof enough of the Houston Dynamo's dynastic potential, the Dynamo destroyed the Chicago Fire tonight. The game was a clinical exercise, as the Fire were whipped in almost every department. Actually, the Fire did have a good start, and tested Dynamo goalie Pat Onstad with a couple of cheeky chip shots, but Onstad was up to the challenge. Once the Dynamo got their first goal, though, this game was all over, except for the shouting...and some dynamite play by the Houston side.

The first goal came on a play started with a nice wide pass by Ricardo Clark, a good run and cross by Craig Waibel, and a spectacular finish by Stuart Holden. With Holden, the Dynamo seemed to have caught lightning in a bottle. He has been stellar since first substituting for the injured Brad Davis. Holden has three goals and four assists in his first three weeks. At this rate, I would think there is an excellent chance that Holden may find himself getting an invite to practice or play with the senior national team. There are some good, young American players that are waiting for such a chance, and Holden may be shooting to the top of the list. For now, he's with the U-23 squad, but the senior national team could use someone with his energy and flair.

Nate Jacqua finished the second goal. Although Jacqua struggled with the L.A. Galaxy, his recent transfer to the Dynamo gives this team extraordinary depth at he forward position. It's almost unfair to the rest of the league. Joseph Igwenye made a scintillating run through one defender and around the Fire's goalie, before scoring as sharply angled a shot as is possible. That made the score 3-0 Houston. The Dynamo added one more for good measure, for a thoroughly convincing 4-0 rout.

Last week's 1-0 Dynamo victory over D.C. United vaulted the Dynamo to the top of everyone's rankings. If that game was a preview of this Fall's MLS Cup, United has some real work to do to get back on Houston's level. Of course, United beat the Dynamo last month in D.C., but that was just before Houston went on a tear. They have shutout their opponents in their last six outings, but they have combined that squelching defense with a strong attack. United was fortunate to hold Houston to one goal. Right now, it looks as if the defending champs are growing a dynasty in Houston.
United's Early Exit -- D.C. United traveled up to Amish country and lost last night to a third division team, the Harrisburg City Islanders. I believe this is the team's earliest exit from the U.S. Open Cup. According the report in the Washington Post, Coach Tom Soehn played less than a handful of regulars, and the substitutes did not seize their opportunity. Most disappointing, apparently, was goalie Jay Nolly, who got tangled up with Bobby Boswell on a corner kick. With Jolly failing to get the ball, it was a simple task for the Harrisburg team to knock the ball into the empty net. That was enough to send United home, losing 1-0.

I am writing about the loss because it is an especially profound disappointment for Marylanders -- particularly Montgomery County residents. We look forward to United's annual journey up to the Germantown SportsPlex. United has made a tradition of hosting a U.S. Open Cup game at the Germantown stadium, to the delight of an annual sellout crowd of over four-thousand soccer fans. The game has been one of the highlights of the summer. Although there will be fewer greenhouse gases generated because we won't see the thousands of cars filing in and out of the suburban venue, my summer will be the poorer because United won't be playing in Germantown this year. Perhaps, in future years, the team will not take the opening rounds of the tournament so lightly.

Maybe, we'll get lucky, and one of the local lower-division teams will make a run in the Open Cup, and bring another MLS team to the site for a late summer tilt. The Richmond Kickers are alive and kicking, after all -- having upset the Los Angeles Galaxy. Actually, the way the Galaxy has played this year, that might not have been such an upset -- but it's a shame. Beckham might have brough some more attention to the tournament. Incredibly, the Houston Dynamo were also knocked out of the Open Cup this week. I guess D.C. United wasn't the only MLS team to underestimate their Open Cup opponents.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

2-1; 2-1; Dos a Uno; Two to One -- That was the message that Michael Bradley kept flashing at the Uruguayan, Mathias Cardaccio. Whatever set off Cardaccio as he and some teammates went after American players at the end of tonight's game, there was no arguing that point. The U.S. side had been minutes from elimination, after falling behind 1-0, on a goal in the 73rd minute. Brian Perk had made a nice diving save on an attempt by the ever-dangerous Edinson Cavani, but Perk gave up a big rebound, which was put away by Luis Suarez. It's hard to be critical of a diving save like that, but Perk should have done better. On the other hand, Perk's defense really broke down on this play, with the worst offender being Julian Valentin. He looked like a spectator while his man, Suarez, raced for the rebound.

As it turned out, giving up that goal was precisely what the American squad needed. They had been sleepwalking through much of the game. Jozy Altidore had played with some determination, and he had produced the United States' only shot on goal in the first half, but Altidore was long gone from the game, with a leg injury that appeared rather ominous. TV announcers are prone to commenting that a particular game "really needs a goal." That was true of this game. Though the U.S. was suddenly facing elimination, the goal changed everything. With their backs against the wall, the Americans finally threw themselves into the attack.

In the final minutes, the Uruguayan defense was trying to clear a loose ball, but Danny Szetela got his body in front of the clearing attempt. Then, Szetela collected the ball and sent in a perfect low cross that passed out of the reach of the Uruguayan goalie, Yonatan Irrazabal. The defender Cardaccio tried to intercept the pass before Andre Akpen could get his foot to it, but Cardaccio actually deflected the ball into the net, for the tying goal.

Just prior to the end of regulation, Uruguay nearly produced a winner when Juan Diaz' brilliant header deflected off the post. Otherwise, Perk, who was playing for the injured Chris Seitz, was up to the task, and kept the U.S. in the game. Perk's finest save was a diving stop in the first period of extra time.

In the second extra time period, the U.S. was back on the attack, and it finally produced results. Freddy Adu sent in a terrific corner kick that Irrazabal tried to punch the ball clear, but the ball came to Julian Valentin, who shot it back towards the goal. Valentin's shot was headed just wide, but it was also heading right towards Michael Bradley. Bradley stretched his leg out and kicked the ball up into the top netting, putting the U.S. in front for the first time.

Sure, the U.S. was lucky to win this game. Uruguay played the better game, and was the more dangerous team on the attack. Still, as Bradley kept flashing with his fingers at Cardaccio, the final score was 2-1, in favor of the U.S. U-20s. It's on to the quarterfinals on Saturday, when the U.S. takes on Austria.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

U.S. U-20s to play Uruguay -- It's official. The U.S. U-20 squad will be taking on Uruguay in the Round of 16, on Wednesday, at the U-20 World Cup in Canada. Despite a surprising loss to Zambia that knocked Uruguay from the top spot in their group, this is not a team to be taken lightly. They have Edinson Cavani, one of the most promising young South American players. The much heralded Cavani (he's called "Edison" on Wikipedia, but the FIFA site uses "Edinson") has justified pre-tournament hype, having scored in each of Uruguay's first two games, a tie with Spain, and a win over a determined Jordanian team. Of course, Uruguayans live and breathe futbol (the senior team has advanced to the semifinals in the current Copa America), so this squad is certain to be a deep and talented one.

The winner of the U.S.-Uruguay match will advance to the quarterfinals, and play the winner of the Austria-Gambia match, but that's getting ahead of ourselves. See you at Summers Restaurant for the game on Wednesday. I'll be wearing my 'good luck' Sam's Army tour of Germany shirt. Hey -- it may not have been much help in Germany, but I was wearing it Friday, when the U.S. U-20s beat Brazil.

Friday, July 06, 2007

The Freddy and Jozy Show: U.S.A. beats Brazil 2-1 -- In a crucial game, with both teams needing to secure at least a point to advance out of the group stage, the U.S.A.'s U-20 squad held off a talented Brazilian team to capture first place in their group in U-20 World Cup play. The second half of this game offered some of of the most exciting football, or soccer (call it what you will), that I have ever watched (I took in the game at Summers Restaurant in Arlington, the best soccer bar in the land). It was probably the most electrifying soccer that I have ever seen a U.S. team play. In the end, the U.S. came out on top, with a stunning and memorable victory.

The stars of the game for the U.S. were Jozy Altidore, who scored both goals, and Freddy Adu, who set up both goals. The Man of the Match, though, had to be goalie Chris Seitz, who somehow seemed to be in the way of every Brazilian effort. Seitz made some terrific saves, but his positional play was remarkable. Shot after shot peppered the U.S. goal, but Seitz was always in the right place to stop the shot.

The U.S. had a 1-0 lead at halftime, and was badly outplaying the Brazilians over the first fifteen minutes of the second half, when Brazil finally struck the back of the net. Seitz made a terrific save of a great shot from outside the penalty area, but a sliding Leandro Lima was there to put away the rebound. Lima's momentum carried him into Seitz. Though there was no indication that Seitz was injured on the play, he must have taken quite a knock. Subsequently, goal kicks were taken by a fullback. In the closing minute, Seitz was limping noticeably -- and he collapsed with the final whistle, in obvious pain. His injury made his performance all the more remarkable and heroic. Brazilians no doubt still recall the game Kasey Keller played to beat Brazil in the Gold Cup, back in the 1990s. Seitz's performance will have to be similarly remembered. He was credited with 14 saves, but it almost seemed like twice that number.

With this game, though, Freddy Adu and Jozy Altidore served notice to the rest of the world that the U.S. is developing world-class talents. Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley used the U-17 World Cup to showcase their skills. Adu and Altidore might be exceeding their performance, with this tournament. Late in the first half, Adu challenged on a ball in the defensive zone. The deflection went forward to Jozy Altidore, at the edge of the Brazilian box. Altidore did a little dancing to create some space, and then drilled a shot past the Brazilian 'keeper. After the Brazilians had tied the game in the 64th minute, Adu and Altidore clicked again. Adu took a ball in the corner, and fought his way through two defenders, with some truly gifted footwork. As he drove toward goal, Adu blasted a shot that deflected off a Brazilian defender to the waiting Altidore. Jozy put the ball in the back of the net, and put the U.S. ahead to stay.

Actually, the niftiest combination between Adu and Altidore was one that just missed producing a goal. The ball came to Adu about 30-35 yards from goal, but Adu was tightly marked, and had his back to the goal. Still, Adu was able to back heel a pass to Altidore who beat a defender to the ball with his sliding shot that just skidded wide. This was one of many creative, skillful efforts by a U.S. team that showed more talent than I have seen at the senior level. Robbie Rogers, Sal Zizzo, Danny Szetela, Dax McCarty and Michael Bradley all exhibited great understanding, and some flashy ball control, creating chances, and putting the Brazilian defense back on its heels, as the teams were nearly equal in possession.

The Brazilians had two talented attackers with Pato and Jo. Pato was quiet for much of hte night, but just missed a goal on a breakaway, when he chipped the ball over Sietz, but sent it into the side netting. Carlos Eduardo also had Seitz beaten late in the game, but also sent his shot just wide. Jo sent some terrific shots Seitz's way, but Seitz hadled each one.

The U.S. team showed some weaknesses -- Michael Bradley had some indifferent touches that caused real trouble, and Tony Beltran was consistently beaten on the defense -- but the defense survived, thanks to great goalkeeping by Seitz, and the great offense provided by Adu and Altidore.

As good as the young Brazilians, Pato and Jo, are, Adu and Altidore were the two best players on the field tonight. If they can stay healthy themselves, and continue on this trajectory, U.S. fans will be drooling with anticipation for the day the Freddy and Jozy show takes to the senior circuit. The U.S. has a tough road ahead in the knockout stages, but they are a legitimate contender for the title...especially if Chris Seitz heals before the next game.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Washington Nationals Show Potential; U.S. Nationals Do Not -- At RFK, on July 4th, I took in one of the Washington Nationals' best performances of this or any other season. Matt Chico delivered 7 strong, shutout innings. In fact, it was a little disappointing to see him removed from the game, as Saul Rivera took the mound to start the 8th inning. Chico should have had the chance to complete a shutout, but the Nationals are being protective of the young prospect -- at least, as protective as they can be, considering they threw this young Double-A ball pitcher to the wolves in the majors.

The Nats showed some of their potential before a robust crowd of over 39,000. Ryan Zimmerman stroked a two-strike first-inning home run, and Dmitri Young finished the scoring with a grand slam in the fifth inning, also coming with two strikes. Of course, Young isn't likely to be part of the Nationals' future. It's unlikely that he will finish the season with the Nationals, as some contending team is certain to offer the Nats a nice deal for the All-Star. Unlike last year's fiasco with Soriano, the Nationals will surely have more realistic expectations, so a trade for Young seems likely.

Zimmerman and Chico may be big parts of the Nats' future, so this memorable Independence Day victory may be a harbinger of future successes. With one exception, the Nats played excellent defense, including a fantastic, inning-ending, rally-killing diving catch by Nook Logan. All-in-all, this was a great effort, and really appreciated by the team's fans.

This contrasts with the performance by the other Nats -- the U.S. Men's National soccer team. Coming into the Copa America, everything coach Bob Bradley had touched seemed to turn to gold, including the victory in the Gold Cup, last month. For the Copa America, Bradley made a serious misjudgment in piecing together a squad that probably wouldn't even be the U.S.' "B" team. The U.S. team lacked real quality. Though some commentators suggested that the U.S. played much better than the results suggest (a 4-1 loss to Argentina, a 3-1 loss to Paraguay, and a 1-0 loss tonight to Colombia), they are overstating the level of the Americans' play. The U.S. might not look so terribly outmanned, and might even have the better of the possession, but the U.S. team lacked the quality and skills to create and finish enough scoring chances. They also give up too many good chances on the defensive end.

The real mistake here, though, is that Copa America officials are now justifiably upset at the lack of respect shown by Coach Bradley, in leaving the best American players off the roster for this tournament. One wonders if Bradley has jeopardized the chances of securing invites for the U.S. to future Copa America play. Moreover, the U.S. coach should be trying to instill confidence in American players and fans. We need good results. If the U.S. looks competitive now, we are more likely to see winning teams in the future. Results like those that the U.S. came home with from Venezuela will not encourage the growth of American soccer culture.

As for this team, goalie Brad Guzan turned in a decent game tonight, stopping a penalty shot, and making at least one brilliant save to deny a goal. Speedy, young Lee Nguyen came on as a late sub, and tracked back to deflect a seemingly certain goal. While the U.S. controlled the play for much of the second half, the U.S. really didn't threaten the net. There were chances to be sure, but the U.S. lacked the skill in the air to finish them. There were also numerous opportunities wasted by off-target shots, easily defended crosses right into the defense, and generally unproductive passing. The U.S. team out there tonight lacked the ability to deliver the kind of pinpoint passes that actually create real scoring opportunities. Similarly, when the passes were close to the mark, the U.S. attackers lacked the skill to score on headers, or to trap the passes and make something of the chance.

The worst moments for the U.S. actually came while the U.S. played with a man advantage, during the five additional minutes of stoppage time, added after the Colombian goalie received his second yellow of the game for time-wasting. I'd say the U.S. team looked amateurish during this stretch, but any Division I varsity squad should be expected to a do a better job with the ball, even against the Colombian national team. Despite having a man-advantage, and a field player defending the Colombian goal, the U.S. couldn't seem to piece together an attack, and gave the ball away twice in their defensive zone -- the first time came when one lone Colombian striker effectively chased the ball as it was loosely passed among three U.S. defenders. The Colombian kept the U.S. defenders from advancing the ball, before finally forcing the turnover. After the U.S. thwarted the ensuing attack, the team gave the ball away again, this time inside their own defensive box. This was not a moment to instill confidence or pride.

Currently, the U.S does have a few players with world-class skills, most notably Landon Donovan. The U-20 team may add a few to that number, including Jozey Altidore, and Feddy Adu. However, it is clear that the U.S. does not have an especially deep talent pool. The next generation, headed by players like Adu and Altidore may change that, but it's far from clear at this point. The U-20 team bears serious watching. They take on Brazil tomorrow, and they have to be considered a real contender for the title, after thrashing Poland 6-1.

I saw a taste of the more distant future this past weekend. I attended some of the Region One championship games for the US Youth Soccer organization. This is where the travel teams from all across the Northeast come together to produce one team at each age group to compete in the national championship in Frisco, Texas. The Region One tournament was held in Maine this year. I came to watch my niece's team (actually, two of my nieces' teams qualified, but one of my nieces had other plans). Mostly, I watched girls' soccer. I have to say that there were some excellent players, and some teams that played terrific combination play. They knew where to pass the ball and they knew where to run when teammates controlled the ball. A few players showed some real touch with the ball, and accuracy with their passes and shots. In fact, they looked better, at times, than the U.SA. Men's team did this past week.

I also got to meet Tab Ramos. I've been a huge fan of his, ever since I sat in the stands in Florence, during the 1990 World Cup. While most of Tab's teammates played scared, looking to make safe passes, usually backwards, the instant they touched the ball -- Tab tried attacking the Austrian and Czech defenses. He provided the real thrills for the American fans, during otherwise desultory efforts. Of course, I was nervous in meeting Tab, and tripped over my words, but I thanked him for his efforts in Italy.

Tab was there coaching a team -- his son, Alex, was on Matawan, New Jersey's U-13 boys' team. They were undefeated in group play, and won the region championship by routing the Olney (Md.) Rangers 4-0 in the final (Alex's team outscored their opponents 22-1). There is no national championship at that age level. Tab didn't seem to do much coaching, as he spent the game seated on a soccer ball. However, his team was clearly very well drilled. As the level of American coaching improves at lower levels, one hopes the level of play will continue to improve as the players make their way up through the ranks. For now, that is the hope of American soccer -- until it supplants the other sports as the major playground sport, and our kids develop world-class skills on their own.

There is some good youth soccer being played in this country -- the question is how good? How will these kids compare against international competition as they move into senior level play? I think American girls are still ahead of their international competition. Are the boys catching up with their competition? I guess it will be fun watching to find out.