Archive for July, 2011

The Talent Gap

Guest TSG contributor, DTH asks if there is a talent gap between the USMNT and their rivals south of the border.

Freddy Adu. A bright spot for the USMNT in the Gold Cup Final.

Somehow the hysteria has sustained itself for a month or so after the Gold Cup loss; it was traumatic, sure, but that’s no reason to draw the wrong conclusions. Most people seem to blame a talent gap, with some reasonable people—like, say, Brian Straus, suggesting that the Gold Cup loss was inevitable, even after going up 2-0. While Straus is a really good reporter, this seems almost unbearably silly: a team good enough to go 2-0 up is good enough to finish the game off. Mexico had trouble scoring two goals against its previous knockout round opponents—Guatemala and Honduras—and the U.S. is more talented than either.

Still, one game doesn’t make a trend and a talent gap, if real, would be a disturbing sign for the U.S., particularly since it had the edge in the previous decade in terms of results. The talent gap people are fuzzy on exactly what they mean: do they mean a talent gap right now or do they mean a talent gap that they can foresee in the future due to superior youth? Both questions are interesting, and I disagree with the common take on both, though to varying degrees.

Let’s take the talent gap right now, and look specifically at the 2011 Gold Cup rosters. Admittedly, I don’t know the Mexico depth chart in perfect detail, but it’s my impression that the roster is basically the most talented assemblage of Mexican players available, save for perhaps Jonathan Dos Santos and Carlos Vela (I have a personal fondness for Edgar Pacheco though as far as I know no one was really surprised he was excluded by de la Torre.) On the other hand, the U.S.’s roster was plainly not at full strength, for whatever reason—the most prominent being Stuart Holden, Timmy Chandler and (personal bias again) Mikkel Diskerud.

Can Mixx bring it at the national level?

There’s quite a bit of uncertainty surrounding each respective team’s fringe players, but I don’t think there’s a substantial difference necessarily. Holden can’t be counted on, as he’s missed large parts of three different seasons now to injury; Chandler may perhaps be a one-half-season wonder and Diskerud hasn’t been tested beyond the Tippeligaen. Still, the Mexican players have their own weaknesses (on the positive side–one Mexican player, dos Santos, addresses a specific and glaring need for Mexico: deep-lying midfielder. Despite the mistaken reputation of some players—no matter how many times you say it, people, Stuart Holden isn’t a number ten and doesn’t play as one, so please stop suggesting he’ll cure any creative woes—I’m not sure any of the U.S. players closest to the top 23 fill any current glaring needs.)

So then let’s consider the rosters themselves. Talent is difficult to quantify, especially in soccer, so I like using a couple of heuristics: number of players in Europe, and number of appearances in Europe. The best players generally play in the best leagues, and generally start in them. The U.S. featured 11 players in top five leagues, and five players playing for other European leagues. Mexico featured five top five league players, and three players playing in other European leagues.

I suppose Mexico partisans might claim that the relative strength of the Mexican league vis-à-vis the MLS helps explain a current talent gap, but this explanation doesn’t fit for me. We know that the U.S. and Mexico were at rough parity in results in the previous decade: was the U.S. substantially less talented during that time? That seems unlikely. It seems more likely that the U.S. and Mexico were roughly equivalently talented. And the gap between Mexico and the MLS was much larger then than now. So our domestically-based players are, relative to the past, getting much tougher competition and the gap between the difficulty of the competition is smaller.

Currently the most successful USMNT player abroad.

As you might imagine, the U.S. made substantially more appearances in top five leagues than Mexico: in total, Americans appeared in 212 top-five league games, for an average of 19 appearances per player. Mexico made 103 top-five league game appearances, for an average 20.6 appearances per player. Aside from Chicharito, Mexicans weren’t playing for substantially more successful teams than Americans: Cherundolo, top-four; Dempsey, mid-table; Howard, mid-table; Jones, lower-table but not relegated (but also Champions League); Bradley, lower-table but not relegated; Bocanegra, mid-table; Edu, champion; Lichaj, upper-table in Championship; Spector, relegated. By contrast two of Mexico’s top-five league players were relegated, and Barrera barely appeared for West Ham (he looked like he needed time to adjust, to be fair). The closer you look, the harder it is to see the talent gap: Americans play for more European teams and at a similar level.

So how to explain the gap? A few theories: Chicharito is just that good; the talent doesn’t mesh; the coaching is poor. Personally, I subscribe to elements of all three.

It’s a fair criticism to note that the U.S.’s best players are aging and Mexico’s are young. That’s where the fairest talent gap criticism comes into play, and given the weakness of American players aged 20-23, that generation will probably always be a weak spot. The youth players criticism even extends to youth teams. This is more interesting. Mexico just won its second u-17 World  Cup in five tries, and the team that won it this time around was very talented. Meanwhile, its American peers alternated from looking very good in the public eye (e.g. against the Czech Republic, or, before the tournament, against South Korea) and looking absolutely clueless. In fairness, this is a lot better than previous American u-17 teams, who looked consistently clueless (aside from the ’99 team with Donovan, Beasley, et. al.)

Mexico's future looks bright as their under 17's just won the World Cup

But if there’s one thing the hysteria has missed, it’s that like Tolstoy’s diagnosis of the family—all happy teams are the same; all unhappy teams are different. There’s the problem with analyzing the two team’s u-20 teams. The U.S. failed to qualify for the team on poor play and a series of flukes, essentially; but on the other hand, it’s already amassed the second-most professional appearances for an u-20 team ever (the exception being the 2007 team, which benefited from Freddy Adu’s huge number of appearances. Also note that this has been done while we’re still in the middle of the year; the gap will grow larger by the end.) At least as far as that generation is concerned, it’s hard to say the U.S. is worse at development. (Especially since the MLS is better: these u-20 players are earning more time against tougher competition.) On the other hand, Mexico’s u-20’s look like a solid bunch with a couple of very good prospects—Guarch and Torres, in particular—but have often looked workmanlike or worse against bad teams. (To take only one example: they struggled to beat a Chinese national team filled with players one or two years younger than they.)

My diagnosis, overall, is that there will be a talent gap—the game is about stars, particularly offensive ones, and the U.S. is not producing proven ones at the moment. On the other hand, it’s doing a good job of producing the Alejandro Bedoyas and Steve Cherundolos of the future. It’s a case of doing some things well and some things too poorly. That’s bad, but it’s a different kind of bad than we’ve been led to believe.

Contribute: The TSG Flash Potluck

Ah..sunsets...

One more day here…introducing the TSG Flash Potluck.

Real simple–and most of you do this in the comment section anyway….

By 4pm PT today, send us your opinion, your op-ed on any topic. Keep it brief (two, three paragraphs) and ask a question at the end, like, “Should we be concerned that many players that Bob Bradley brings in to camps are not playing or not starters for their MLS teams?”

Bring up a hot button issue, link to a cause (like this), take a stand!

Send us it with an email and we’ll put the best ones up. (shinguardian@gmail.com)

See you in a few days.

The TSG American Soccer “Ex-Casters” Round Table

Dan Wiersema of The Free Beer Movement puts together a star-studded broadcasting panel

Class, class....class!

As American crafts its own soccer identity on the field and in the stands another front has opened as well in the broadcasting booth. Major League Soccer’s first generation of players (Jamie Moreno, who retired in 2010, was the last player to have played in the league’s inaugural 1996 season) has taken off their boots and several have made the move behind the mic.

Today we’re talking to a few on-field American soccer pioneers that are now doing the same in front of the cameras; creating a distinctive “American” voice in soccer broadcasting.

Let’s Meet the Participants

Lalas: Say what?!

Alexi Lalas was a member of the 1994 and 1998 USMNT World Cup squads with 96 caps to his name. In his eleven years playing professionally he was the first modern American to play in Italy (Padova) and featured for the New England Revolution, the NY/NJ Metrostars, Kansas City Wizards, and Los Angeles Galaxy in Major League Soccer. He was also the general manager for both the Metrostars/Red Bulls and the Galaxy. For the past five years he’s worked as an on-air analyst for ESPN.

The third person "TT?" No problem...

Taylor Twellman is in his first year of the broadcasting business. Alongside JP Dellcamera, this 31-time USMNTer is the color man for Philadelphia Union matches and also appears on ESPN. Twellman played professionally for eleven years in Germany (1860 Munich) and the U.S. (New England Revolution) before medical reasons forced him to retire.

Martino

Kyle Martino is a three-year veteran of the booth and currently works for Fox Soccer Channel. Martino played in MLS for eight years for the Los Angeles Galaxy and Columbus Crew. He also featured eight times for his country.

Dunny...

Brian “Dunny” Dunseth has been in broadcasting since 2006 as a commentator for Fox Soccer nationally and Real Salt Lake locally. During his nine year professional career he played for several MLS sides including New England Revolution, Miami Fusion, Columbus Crew, Dallas Burn, Real Salt Lake, Chivas USA, Los Angeles Galaxy, and abroad for Bodens BK. Dunseth is also the co-founder of Bumpy Pitch, a soccer t-shirt maker and, The Original Winger, a soccer-lifestyle blog.

The Questions

The Shin Guardian: You all spent your entire lives playing soccer. Talk about your decision to retire and start thinking about life beyond the pitch.

Taylor Twellman: I didn’t have a choice as brain damage from concussions left me with no choice. I was asked, “Do you want to live healthy past 45/50? Then you must retire now and stop working out”.

Black and white issue for me so it was simple. Right now I am enjoying the media side of MLS and covering Boston sports locally and hopefully it’s a future that I have.

Alexi Lalas: I finished playing at the end of 2003 and was told that my contract would not be picked up. One door closes and another opens. I was lucky to be offered the opportunity to go right into an MLS front office. Although I could have hung on and played for a few more years, I recognized the gift that I was being given. Very few players get to go out on their own terms, so if a jumping-off point comes along you have to be mature enough to see it and brave enough to take it – because it might not be there further down the line.

Camaraderie on the pitch no more...

Kyle Martino: My decision was pretty much made for me. After several surgeries to put me back together, humpty-dumpty style, I was advised by doctors that the party was over. Deciding to retire was probably the most difficult moment in my life so far. To give up something I loved so intensely, something that I worked my whole life to obtain left me with a gigantic void. The silver lining (although to me it seems more like clear skies altogether) was getting the opportunity to fall in love with soccer in a whole new way. Broadcasting has given me a new appreciation for the sport that has been so good to me. It has taken time, but I can still get the buzz up in the booth that I used to get down on the field.

Brian Dunseth: I really don’t think anyone professional is ready for the day they decide to walk away from the playing side of the game, regardless of how long they’ve played.  For me, it was more about having control over my own life and the direction I decided to head into.

If you look above, I’ve played for pretty much every team in the history of soccer in the United States and I was completely fine with it.  Playing the game was never about establishing my life in just one spot; it was about the life experience that came along with the game on and off the field.

My wife (who was my Fiancée at the time) was dealing with the decline of her father at the time of my release from the Los Angeles Galaxy and, after owning three homes and not living in a single one of them for more than nine months, I decided my playing path had come to an end

TSG: How did you get into broadcasting? Is that something you considered realistic as a post-retirement career?

Martino: Getting involved in broadcasting was kind of a fluke. We were on a two game road trip with the LA Galaxy and I had received a red card for my skinny guy feisty-ness in the first game.  I was forced to sit on the sidelines to serve that one game suspension during the following game at New England. The broadcast team asked me up in to the booth to do an interview for a few minutes during the second half. I guess they liked what I was doing because they ended up keeping me there for most of the game.

I guess the Powers That Be took notice because a few years later when I had announced my retirement, my phone rang.  On the other end was ESPN asking if I wanted to try covering a game. I said yes, and the rest is history as they say.

Taylor on the pitch...on the right that is...

Twellman: Tom McNeeley from ESPN always told me I should give it a shot when I was done and that I may be good at it, but as a player I was Bull Durham, TT the cliché HA! So Now that I am done playing I can be the personality that I wanted to be as a player but not worry so much about saying something about the opponent or my own head coach that would be controversial.

Dunseth: It’s funny… I had a conversation with Christian Miles and Alan Hopkins in 2006 about getting into broadcasting.  This was a follow up to when I first came into MLS and I watched my teammate Alexi Lalas go on camera and absolutely turn it on.  I knew then I wanted to learn how to do what he was able of doing.

Miles & Hopkins

Less than a week after my release from the Galaxy, I moved back to Salt Lake City so my wife could be with her Father and decided to suck up my pride and go to a game.  When I got there about 45 minutes before kickoff, I heard the Pre-game Radio show and the guys breaking down the upcoming opponent.  I felt like I could do a good job doing that considering the fact I knew all the teams / players in the league and offered up my services.  From the Pre / Post-Game show, it turned into a Color Analyst role on radio and then when Robin Fraser took the Assistant Coach role alongside Jason Kreis, I was fortunate enough to be offered the Color Analyst role for Real Salt Lake broadcasts.

Lalas: In 2008, I was fired from the Galaxy and ESPN immediately called. Throughout my career I had made a point of seeking out and making time for TV work (World Cups, Olympics, highlight shows, commercials etc…). My limited appearances showed people that I knew what I was doing and had a potential future in broadcasting. I’ve always considered myself an entertainer and I enjoy performing. I had a successful career on the field which opened up doors for me off the field. But it only opened the door; the rest was and continues to be about hard work and commitment. It’s one of the most enjoyable jobs I’ve ever had and it enables me to remain in the game I love.

TSG How would you describe your broadcasting “style?”

Dunseth: Honest and Accountable. Being able to say to a player face  anything that I say to the camera.

Martino: My style is critical, but fair. I am in a unique position starting this career at my age. Most people get involved in TV after a long career stretching into their mid to late 30’s. Being so young, I will be covering guys I played with, and against, for many years to come. It gives me a great advantage to know the games I am covering so intimately and have that inside edge.

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Bullet: MLS All-Star “Dilemma” Contradictory

Short, sweet here.

"Two practices you said....ha!"

Hans Backe acknowledged this week that his All-Star selections were strategic in nature so his MLS squad could compete against might Manchester United July 27th at Red Bull Arena.

…but this is just the pre-season for United.

…are the “strategic” MLS players that much better that they can come together for one, maybe two practices and compete against players that play and practice together all the time?

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You can’t straddle the line MLS. Call it “the summer star exhibition” or make it a true All-Star game.

Can’t have both. Wayne Rooney and Ryan Giggs…giggling.

The 2011 MLS All-Stars According To Hans Backe

Hans Backe has spoken.

Sean Franklin...but you knew this picture was going here...

Below is his game-day roster to match Manchester United in the MLS All-Star Game July 27 at Red Bull Arena. That last statement was contradictory I know.

As long as Brad Davis was on the roster, it was mostly acceptable. Some consternation over the exclusion of Chad Marshall and Joel Lindpere.

I did not think Charlie Davies deserving of all-star status at this time.

Your thoughts?

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2011 MLS All-Star game-day roster

Goalkeeper: Tally Hall (Houston Dynamo), Faryd Mondragón (Philadelphia Union)

Defenders: Corey Ashe (Houston Dynamo), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Geoff Cameron (Houston Dynamo), Bobby Convey (San Jose Earthquakes), Sean Franklin (LA Galaxy), Jamison Olave (Real Salt Lake),Heath Pearce (Chivas USA), Tim Ream (New York Red Bulls).

Midfielders: Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), David Beckham (LA Galaxy), Brad Davis (Houston Dynamo),Jack Jewsbury (Portland Timbers), Shalrie Joseph (New England Revolution), Nick LaBrocca (Chivas USA)

Forwards: Juan Agudelo (New York Red Bulls), Omar Bravo (Sporting Kansas City), Omar Cummings(Colorado Rapids), Landon Donovan (LA Galaxy), Thierry Henry (New York Red Bulls), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)

Inactive All-Stars (Note that another six inactive All-Stars will be chosen via player voting): Kasey Keller(Seattle Sounders FC), Omar Gonzalez (LA Galaxy), Rafa Marquez (New York Red Bulls), Brek Shea (FC Dallas)

Women’s World Cup Final: Japan Keeps Coming…And The US Capitulates…

TSG’s Maura Gladys on the intersection of fandom and objectivity after yesterday’s US Women’s World Cup Final loss.

The US ladies get close, but are upended by a Japan team that kept coming...

In the end, this whole tournament was about heart. We saw that in yesterday’s championship match, in the semifinals, quarterfinals, and group stage. We saw that in the way teams played with the grace, creativity and fire that can only come from a good heart.

I’d like to say I was heartbroken after yesterday’s match, when the United States fell to Japan in penalty kicks in the World Cup final. But my brand of heartbreak is easy to take when you put it in perspective with the heartbreak that the Japan squad, and its country, is dealing with. And because this tournament was about heart, and heartbreak, there couldn’t have been a more fitting outcome.

Japan had their own perfect match today, almost identical to the one that the USA celebrated a week earlier. Two comebacks, one of them in the dying minutes of the second overtime period, followed by a triumphant penalty kick victory. For anyone other than a United States supporter, this was a classic ending.

But for the U.S., what about Destiny? What about the idea that there was something special about this U.S. team that was going to guide them to a World Cup championship, regardless of on-field factors?

Make no mistake about it, the United States lost this game. They weren’t unjustly carded, weren’t robbed of a win thanks to a bad call. They lost. They dominated much of the game, were ahead, twice, and let Japan back into the game, twice, then failed to convert on three of their four penalty kicks. As sobering as it is, they lost. But it wasn’t without impressive possession play, goals from the present and future of the American attack, and some trade-mark USWNT drama.

“It is pretty clear to most of us that we are not going to see the same Japan team that we saw the last couple of friendlies. They are playing for something bigger and better than the game. When you are playing with so much emotion and so much heart, that’s hard to play against.”- Hope Solo

Whether it was a gut feeling or a calculated move, Pia Sundhage knew that Amy Rodriguez finally had to sit. After five largely ineffective games, Sundhage benched the striker in favor of right winger Megan Rapinoe, allowing Lauren Cheney to start up top. This way, Cheney could drop into the midfield, to morph the team into a 4-5-1, keeping the midfield tight and compact to better deal with Japan’s passing game.

Sundhage’s switch, as always, paid off immediately. Both Cheney and Rapinoe came out strong, serving up balls to teammates and coming close themselves.

No one could blame Wambach if she had a few choice words for the crossbar after the match..

Just 20 seconds into the game, Cheney broke through the Japanese defense and barely missed sliding it over to Abby Wambach in the middle.

For the entire first half, the U.S. dictated the pace, pushed forward and created chances, but in a reversion to old habits, failed to finish. Cheney put one just wide in the eighth minute. Rapinoe missed at 12” and clanged one off the post at 18”. Wambach sent up a beautiful shot in the 27th minute, that was headed straight for the back of the net, but knocked off the far edge of the crossbar. Flashbacks of the United States’ warm up match with Mexico, when the United States could not find the net until Lauren Cheney’s stoppage time screamer, began to creep in as the teams went into halftime tied at zero.

After halftime, Lauren Cheney emerged from the tunnel with her right shoe off and a large bag of ice wrapped around her sock. She had suffered an injury during the first half and wouldn’t be able to continue, making way for striker Alex Morgan. It was a switch that quite possibly would have happened eventually anyway, provided less distribution, but more speed.

With each scoreless minute that ticked, Japan’s confidence grew. Their touches were clean, their passes accurate. It was almost like the United States was in a race with the clock to net a goal before Japan’s momentum and confidence reached an unstoppable level.

“The breakthrough at long last.”  -Ian Darke

At 69 minutes, Morgan, whom the team has taken to calling Baby Horse, due to her status as the team’s youngest player and her speedy gallop, collected a brilliant long ball from Megan Rapinoe and was off to the races against her defender. After getting a step on her marker, she coolly slotted a low ball past goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori to give the United States a 1-0 lead. The goal was the product of absolutely swarming defense by the United States at the other end of the field when no less than three defenders crowded around striker Yuki Nagasata until she coughed it up, allowing Rapinoe to spring Morgan.

"Here, I've got this thing jabbing me in my side. It's kind of heavy to tote around. It's a torch. Here you take it."

The ten minutes that followed Morgan’s goal was probably the best possession soccer that the United States played all tournament. Armed with the confidence of a one-goal lead, the U.S. made Japan chase, and possessed around them, as Japan fought for its World Cup life. But the Nadeshiko got a reprieve in the 80th minute, when a U.S. defensive blunder put the ball on a silver platter for Aya Miyama.

Pressing forward, Nagasato sent a cross in from the right wing to Karina Maruyama,that was snuffed out by Rachel Buehler, who slid in step with Maruyama. But, in an effort to clear the ball, Buehler turned, while still half on the ground, and booted her clearance right at Ali Krieger. The ball deflected off Krieger, who was racing towards the play, and fell right to Miyama who had a point blank shot at Hope Solo from about six yards out, something she wasn’t about to miss. One all. Despite some good attacks by both teams, regulation would end in a tie.

“If the U.S. ends up winning this, they’re gonna have to bronze that beautiful dome of hers”-Julie Foudy, after Abby Wambach’s go-ahead goal.

After 90 minutes, Sundhage had made just one sub, due to an injury, an uncharacteristic move for the coach, who usually makes at least two subs in the second half, sometimes three. But with Rapinoe already on the field, and A-Rod not a good fit for the current U.S. system, there was no logical switch. Sundhage certainly wasn’t going to sub for Lloyd or Boxx, who had their best game as a midfield partnership. The two bossed the midfield completely for almost an entire World Cup Championship game, plus overtime, a feat that seemed impossible a few weeks ago.

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USA vs. Japan: Women’s World Cup Final: Live Commentary

All the marbles. All the pretzels, so to speak.

USA vs. Japan. For the Cup.

Japan is no stranger to the Ali Krieger & the USWNT, losing two friendlies to the US just two months ago by identical 2-0 scorelines...

A quick aside here. The US ladies should probably first thank Japan when they line-up and shake hands.

It was Japan that took down heavy hometown favorite Germany in the first knockout.

Then it was Japan that took out the US group stage foil Sweden–who presented probably the most difficult challenger tactically to the States in the Women’s World Cup.

Carli Lloyd is looking to bounce back from a tough France match...

What that does say about Japan is that allusions that the US should win outright are miserly misplaced, even though the States went 2-0 against Japan in a friendly series less than 60 days ago.

Kickoff is set for 2:45 ET on ESPN. (Ratings expectation here in the States? Let’s go with a very strong 9.0 which would trump the USMNT’s knockout against Ghana just a year ago (8.2).)

Starting line-ups coming along shortly.

In the meantime, brush up if you haven’t:

The Official TSG Preview here.

Jeff Carlisle: US faces tough test against Japan.

The All White Kit: There Won’t Be Any Suprises Between These Two.

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And if you’ve somehow missed them, two must-read USWNT interviews:

Heather O’Reilly: Another Champion Label Awaits: Heather O’Reilly

Alex Morgan: Sounds Like A Veteran, Plays Like A Veteran…Oh Wait, It’s Alex Morgan

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Enjoy the match.

* Oh one more note, since I haven’t been able to mention it yet.

Carli Lloyd (pictured up on the left) was so dominant in college that she asked to practice with the men’s team at Rutgers because she wasn’t challenged playing against her women’s opponents. Wow.

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