Archive for December, 2009

Soccerizing American Sports

“Americanizing soccer” is always a topic for spirited debate, but how might other American sports benefit from being “Soccerized.” There are a number of great things about the beautiful game that could be translated to the NFL, NBA and MLB. Here are three things from soccer that could make some American leagues more enjoyable.

Sounders, big and little, take the pitch together.

How Teams Enter the Field
Recently I attended a Denver Broncos (American football) game. Just prior to kick-off, the speakers in the stadium started to blare with the latest hip-hop, the cheerleaders lined-up and a giant horse head was inflated near the south stands. As the announcer implored the fans to cheer for “your Dennnnvvvvver Bronnn-cooooos” smoke started pouring out of the inflated horse’s nose and large columns of fire shot into the sky. The players then charged out of the inflated horse head and started jumping up-and-down.  (And I didn’t even mention the five skydivers that landed moments prior.)

Quite the sight for sure, but it really did nothing in regard to the game. The fans listened to the anthem, sat down and then waited for the team to take the field again for the real game. Contrast those theatrics with the gingerly walk on the pitch by 18 players a side holding the hands of kids that typically happens in professional soccer games.  Different intention, different tone and different mindset.

American football is an inherently more violent game and perhaps players need to be hopped up to make hits, but it isn’t any less cerebral than soccer. Cultural differences and “fan experience” carry the day in America. However, can you imagine if NFL entrances were soccerized?

Picture the Super Bowl in February…Drew Brees and the Saints versus Peyton Manning and the Colts. A hush falls over the crowd as the teams are about to enter the field. Then, without fireworks, a bass line or a tumbling pass Reggie Bush trots out holding a hand of a youngster in a matching Saints jersey followed by the rest of his team. It would probably be the most talked about entrance in years.

Game Officiating
Performance aside, soccer officials take a better approach to officiating contests than most other sports. Unfortunately, in most American sports, the officials have evolved into a major part of the game. NBA referees are said to “control the game,” NFL officials throw yellow laundry at the players where an infraction occurred and MLB umpires are notorious for going chest-to-chest with players and managers.  In soccer, the official is rarely the center of attention (unless they miss an egregious double handball that results in a World Cup finals spot.)

As in any sport there are good and bad officials in soccer, but most do a good job of not becoming a part of the game. Soccer referees let players play and only ratchet up their own involvement beyond obvious rules violations if players are not competing in the spirit of the game. Often times, the first step in discipline is a discussion followed by a stern warning and then escalation to cards. In soccer, officials routinely attempt to influence the game in the right direction through gesturing to their pocket, calling players over for discussions before going the route of formal discipline and potentially altering the game.

Imagine if instead of tossing around double technical fouls, NBA officials decided to bring the sparring players over, talk to them like men and get them to shake hands, however forced. This approach wouldn’t diffuse every situation, but it will help to refocus the competition on the players and the game and not the official and their whistle.

Singing
Maybe it is just that soccer has history on its side, but as all sports have “gone corporate” in the past 15 years, soccer seems to have maintained the most passion in its fan bases. One of the outlets for the passionate soccer fan is singing. It is quite the thing to witness nearly an entire stadium of supporters singing in unison.

In America, fan led songs and cheers are few and far between outside of college fight songs and the J-E-T-S! Jets! Jets! Jets! cheer. In their place teams play Jock Jams, “De-Fense” chants are led by the PA announcer and noisemeters are placed in stadiums.

Could inspiring songs at the right moment give players of the home squad a boost? Might a player stepping to the plate in the 9th inning of a ball game in an opposing stadium be just a bit more distracted by a deafening song than the white noise of clapping hands and stopping fee? Would fans feel a certain sense of camaraderie through song much like you put your arm around the nearest stranger when Auld Lang Syne comes on New Year’s Eve? I’m not sure, but I’d like to find out.

Relegation
Pittsburgh Pirates. Kansas City Royal. Cleveland Browns. Detroit Lions. (gulp) New York Knicks. In all the major American sports, cheap owners, poor personnel decisions and general ineptitude has lead to a handful of perennial losers with virtually no motivation to improve due to monopolies of the major sports leagues. Relegation is perhaps the greatest gift soccer could give to other American sports, but also the most unlikely due to finances.

How else should American sports be soccereized?

Part III: Davies Still Repairing, Who’s Striking?

(Part IV of the series coming real soon….)

Two months ago to the day, TSG wrote one of our more popular columns: “With Davies in Repair, Who Strikes?

We followed this column with Part II that suggested that the answer to the USMNT striking problem may lay not with the players themselves, but with a different formation that took into account the rejiggered talents of the team that Bob Bradley could currently field.

So where do we sit today? Sixty odd days after the USMNT began addressing the issue for the South African replacement–sniffle–for one Charles Davies we’re still left with a lot of head scratching, if not even more.

Cakes: "I'm the man, but I'm still curious who's the man in front of me?"

TSG’s biggest question on the day and biggest requirement? How does the new look upfront impact Landon Donovan who clearly has the class now to be a difference maker, but needs the team and strategy tailored to his style. (Just ask Clint Dempsey about this….)

On our Landon issue, no current answers. With Landon absent for both friendlies, we learned little about potential replacements in Eddie Johnson and Jermaine Defoe Jr.–I mean Jeff Cunningham–who were called in to be considered for the role.

Cunningham scored in his starting debut, but was also knocked off the ball on multiple occasions. Eddie showed a little bit of pace, but a troubling lack of creativity in one-on-one situations. Further, since that friendly, EJ was moved to the discount rack at Fulham, buried on the bench and likely available to and at the mercy of the first suitor. No playing time for the potential South African hopeful.

Worse for the USMNT, it appears that Jozy can’t get a handle on things in Davies absence either, being wildy erratic and nearly invisible in the two friendlies–whether Jozy has been told to roam the offensive 1/3 or play hold-up is not known–what is known is that whatever role he was inhabited in Friendlyville it certainly didn’t breed confidence or create systemic opportunities.

JZA’s club situation has not shed any light on his future contributions either.

So going forward in this column, we’ll take a different tack in reviewing the possible players and combinations.

We’ll do the following: We’ll give some general priorities that Bob Bradley has favored through qualification. We’ll give our take on how the offense changes with various personnel and finally we’ll interject about the USMNT’s group stage opponents in helping us with our evaluation.

General priorities:

Complement Mr. LA Galaxy Landon Donovan.

Let me lead this segment with a broader question: Should it be Landon Donovan or Clint Dempsey who the team is built around?

Wow! Did you see that question coming?

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Where There’s Smoke, There’s Blackburn?

SH: Still in Dyna-orange for now...

You’ve got to take releases from the England rag The Sun with a grain of salt, but the latest?

Stu Holden offered a 4-year to head to the Rovers of Lancashire in the EPL.

Remember though, this is the same rag that gave us this Holden beauty.

Weigh in on what Stu should do here.

We’ll let you know if anyone sends us anything more here.

Damn You Jimmy Bullard…

• Well that stinks…as goes Jimmy Bullard so goes Jozy Altidore apparently.

Without funny man Bullard in the middle of the line-up, Hull City skipper Phil Brown has shifted his entire front six strategy. Two games post-Bullard knee injury have seen Brown go super conservative in an attempt to protect an extremely weak midfield. Brown has employed a 1-5 up top, relying on Craig Fagan to run down balls over the top and provide pressure and hoping that the likes of Steven Hunt and Geovanni can do yeoman’s work in both offensive and defensive support.

The strategy has returned Altidore, who was seeing starting time with Bullard in the line-up (and 4-4-2 line-up) to the bench or in Saturday’s case confined him to the stands. I might understand Brown’s strategy against Arsenal with one exception….Mr. Cesc Fabregas donned a parka for the game. If there was ever a game to be more offensive on the road at the Emirates, this was it. Further, what I don’t understand is, if you’re down 2-0 on the road, why take off forward players Geovanni and Garcia and introduce two defenders. Huh?

TSG for Hull City Manager!

When will Altidore see the pitch again as a starter? Likely when Bullard returns from the knee injury suffered three games ago against Villa. Jozy was able to link effectively with Bullard migrating the ball up the pitch–in short Hull was more offensive. With Fagan, Hull is essentially conceding offensive flow in favor of stretching the defense and hoping to get lucky on an over-the-top ball or on the trailing authoritative foots of Hunt and Geovanni.

Not all is lost for Big Jeezy though. Wiith a Sunday game coming up hosting Man U and a Bolton game away the Tuesday following, Altidore should factor in one of the two.Further, as we mentioned in our column on Friday, Kamel Ghilas goes out for the African Cup….so Jozy will–hopefully– be consistently in the 18 as at worst the 3rd striking option.

Does this man hold the key for the USMNT striker fortunes in South Africa....

Finally, you have to be a bit concerned by the defensive posturing of Manager Brown…if Brown thinks he can eek out survival of the relegation zone with going defensive and playing for the win only sporadically, JZA might have further trouble getting on the pitch until his game becomes more mature and well-rounded.

Let’s watch for Bullard’s return–it’s ironical that the once heir apparent to the central midfield for England might hold the key the USMNT striker fortunes in South Africa.

• If you didn’t see Clint’s assist Saturday against United it it was vintage Dempsey….find where the ball is going on a cross, head it back across the goal, score. It doesn’t get much simpler and efficient for that. Clints, “nose” where the ball is.

• West Ham, off the 1-1 draw to the Blues, has back-to-back games Sunday and Monday. So you’re likely to see Jonathan Spector, however with Faubert and Ilunga doing nothing short of a stellar job against the Chelsea attack, that backline looks set for West Ham.

• We know, we know. DaMarcus Beasley for president–another goal and assist. I guess that’s what happens when you’re very fresh from resting. Here’s the latest entry in the Beasley scrapbook:

• I don’t often root against Americans, but I sort of did this week. Bus loads of Woverhampton fans made the trek last weekend, only too see the Wanderers’ “B” squad up against Manchester United. Manager Mick McCarthy got–and TSG thinks he deserved–some serious guff for not playing his regulars. I would have liked nothing better than a Wolverhampton to lose at home to Burnley. Not in the cards, and USMNT’s Marcus Hahnemann turns away 5 shots-on. Kudos.

You don’t think a handful of World Cup-bound nattie teams would want Hahney in contention for their goal spot. Maybe let’s start with, oh, England or France? Gotta be embarrassing if you’re Robert Green and you get beaten three times on the same penalty (Lampard this Saturday), no?

• I can’t wait to see this Landon Donovan-Luis Saha pairing. Saha is at the top of his game….

• The Jay DeMerit locomotive is gather speed, another 90 in the middle for the stalwart as fellow interior man Carlos Bocanegra sits for Rennes. That’s now two straight games that Boca doesn’t make the starting 11 for Rennes when available….yikes!

• We’re calling it! Our next weekend update leads with “Maurice Edu in the 18 for Rangers and……”

(UPDATE: According to Mr. DaMarcus For President, Edu’s getting run out in a reserve game today….)

World’s Best 20?

Not even good enough to be considered a bridesmaid

So I was putzing around ESPN’s main site and came about this little fun widget thingy.

First, the fact that this was accessible from ESPN’s homepage shows how far soccer has come. It’s often mentioned on Sportscenter and there is usually a highlight or two in every show…and somewhat frequently a great goal or play from the champions league, premiership and or MLS is shown in the top ten.

There was nothing remotely close to this 4 years ago (yes, Soccernet was popular but was treated more like the red haired bastard step child of the Worldwide leader…the Roger Clinton to Bill Clinton as it were). I excitedly filled out my rankings, ignoring the fact that Ballack and Henry were mentioned in the world’s top 20, and where as my bottom 3 and top 3 were fairly consistent with the ESPN sports nation poll, the middle varied drastically. For example, I had both Xavi and Iniesta ranked very high as I believe what they do is bed-wettingly-exciting and Eto’o ranked close to last which seemed the opposite of most people. I personally think the Barcelona creative engine are in the top 6.

Now…2 questions for all of you…First: Who is noticeably absent from this list? I would suggest that Ballack, Henry, Eto’o have no business being there (4 years ago. yes) but I see why they are, as they are who the general public might recognize.

There is also no goalkeeper or defender on this list (Maicon is a defender like Roberto Carlos or Dani Alves are defenders!) which I guess means they cannot be considered an MVP (Cannavaro anyone?). Iker Cassilas deserves to be on this list, if not for the fact that he has been one of the top 3 goalkeepers for over a decade but for this incredible save. Others that should certainly be on this list are Ibra and Aguero amongst others but who else? Your thoughts?

Second…does your ranking list compare to Sportsnations’…aside from Messi, Ronaldo and Kaka in the top three, the only other one I got compared to others was Stevie G at 9.

So have fun with it…remember that ESPN are probably catering to the new somewhat informed fan not the hardcore one, but it does bring up an interesting argument about what is considered an MVP in soccer.

Time and time again, Claude Makelele was considered the MVP by his teammates of every team he played for, but he was about as exciting as…as…as…a very boring thing. He never scored goals, he rarely passed the decisive pass BUT no team won without him. For country he was equally important. He made everyone around him better, did all the dirty things such as make hard tackles, hold up play for the forwards to get there, make the pass that set up the attacking play etc…but never even cracked the ten for FIFA footballer of the year (guess here).

Is a January move to the Premiership in the cards?

And while we’re on the subject of winning players….the same goes for Jay DeMerit at Watford. He was often in the top three voting for  player of the year for Watford and his no nonsense, tough, smart defending was instrumental in Watford getting promoted (he scored the first goal in the playoff final too) and if it wasn’t for their lack of goals they would have stayed up in the EPL.

I hope he gets another chance this transfer window to play in the Premiership. I see him as a poor man’s Jamie Carragher (I say poor man’s only because he hasn’t proved himself at the very top like Carra) and he is what many teams like Everton, Man City, Hull etc. need right now. I would love to have him at Liverpool except that Benitez would never play him even though he is the type of player that Benitez covets.

His only downside is that he’s slow but many great defenders are not blessed with any speed..Terry, Maldini, Blanc to name a few statues. Personally, I think he’s better than Gooch as he doesn’t make many mistakes (I think Carragher vesus Rio Ferdinand is a good comparison between DeMerit and Oneywu) and will be key to the US’s progress in the WC.

So thank you ESPN for trying. You’re getting there. Everyone loves the MVP talk but like in all sports, the real MVPs often get unnoticed.

Somber Update: Davies Driver Consumed Alcohol

Charlie Davies

The Washington Post has the unfortunate story this morning.

The driver in Charlie Davies’ vehicle had consumed alcohol prior to the fateful trip that killed one and put the USMNT striker on a long road to recovery. A look at a GPS unit while driving, according to reports, contributed to the crash.

Again, more here.

Rumors, Playing Time & An Elf That Can Cross It

There is a good chance we’re getting the USMNT Jan camp roster announcement tomorrow I would surmise.

A few pre-Friday weekend bullets for you:

• Jack Rodwell goes off with an injury for Everton yesterday. Ayegbeni Yakubu headed to the African Cup. Oh yeah, Landon Donovan is going to get run…real soon.

No automatic joy ahead at West Ham for Specs this January....

• Speaking of Everton, iron man Tim Howard given the day off Thursday (thankfully) in the Europa League, now ready to take on red-red-hot Birmingham Saturday in the Premiership.

• Jay DeMerit playing for more than country pride in South Africa. With DeMerit out of contract at the end of the season and his club Watford headed to administration, there’s a great shot that DeMerit will have a new club at the end of the year. Audition time!

• Jerome Rothen, who we mentioned in our Stuie article this week, apparently leaving the Rangers according to many sources. Rothen plays on the wing….hmm….Stu, you made that decision yet? Door’s open…

• USMNT now officially to face the Netherlands in Stonerville in March; it’s confirmed. The news went around everywhere this week….I thought we confirmed this game a long time ago, no….nope? did we space….damn I’ve got the munchies….if you’re headed to Holland though, three tips for you: 1) Rent a bike. 2) Try the fries 3) Check out the graffiti…some of the absolute best in the world and 4) Coffee shop does not mean coffee shop.

• The American Outlaws Seattle chapter found a story yesterday that suggests a US friendly against Tunisia in May. We’re passing it along. In our mind it was either Morocco, who the US lost to in Nashville right before the ’06 World Cup, or Tunisia to prepare for the Algerians, so this sounds plausible.

• More on how the African Cup impacts USMNT player fortunes in club ball next month:

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