Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

Ali Krieger: On Rising Again In Germany

Ali Krieger - USWNT right back present and future.

Ali Krieger made the leap into the main stream after coolly slotting home the 5th and decisive penalty  in the infamous quarterfinal against Brazil. Having played most of her professional career in Germany (she is back with FFC Frankfurt), she might have gone under the casual fans radar, but as a rock at right back, Krieger has been a mainstay on the USWNT for the past year.

A super sharp, confident, intelligent woman on and off the field, Ali Krieger was gracious enough to take time from her well deserved break to talk to us at TSG.

Here’s an excerpt of our conversation.

TSG: You were one of 4 players to play every single minute this past World Cup and you’ve been played 25 or so games with the USWNT, do you feel that you have cemented a place on the team for the upcoming Olympics?

Ali Krieger: Yeah lets hope so. I think if I can stay fit and healthy, I don’t see a reason to keep me of the roster, but playing wise you never know what could happen, so I don’t want to say that my spot is “cemented”, even though some of the players tell me that. I don’t want to get complacent, so I need to continue working hard and playing at my best and hopefully that will continue to allow me to play in the right back position.

TSG: I imagine the World Cup was a different experience for you then the other girls. How was coming back to Germany? Was it like coming home?

AK: It was amazing and so comfortable. I was so happy once we landed that I had a big smile on my face and I felt like I was back home. I was made to feel so welcomed by the fans. I was excited to be back in football country and it was all an amazing feeling.

Krieger with some of her FFC Frankfurt teammates

TSG: Your last name in German means “Warrior “and you appropriately plied your tough swashbuckling style in Europe and are one of the only USWNT players to do so. Can you tell us about your experience with FFC Frankfurt?

AK: It was a stepping stone that helped get to where I am today and I will always be grateful and loyal to the club. In 3 and a half years, they have prepared me to be able to play in the past World Cup by making me a better person and player.

My perspective on life has changed since living there as I had to learn a new language and culture. It was such a cool experience that I will never forget and hopefully one day, maybe in the near future continue to be a part off.

TSG: Would you recommend playing in Europe to any of the younger or even veteran USWNT players?

AK: I tell them everyday that it’s amazing and every time they ask me how it is or if I recommend it I say “of course”. Look at how much I’ve changed as a player and how much more comfortable I’ve gotten on the ball. My technical and tactical abilities have grown from being in Germany, which to me is the “football country”. In Europe in general, it’s the number one sport and I think everyone should  have that experience and to be a part of it. It’s been unreal for me and I know everyone would enjoy it as well.

TSG: For the most part, it’s the desire for most male players to play on a Champions league team. Is the women’s Champions League held in a similar high regard?

AK: Of course. The Champions League is right under World Cup in terms of a tournament that everyone wants to play in and be part off, and is the highest level of club football. I think the most important part about playing with a club team is that you get to train day in and day out. You can’t treat the national team like a club team cause that’s not why it’s there and what it’s about. I think everyone should have the experience playing with a club and playing in important games every weekend. This year there is the Champions League, the DFB cup (German domestic cup), and Bundesliga all together.  That is a lot of highly competitive games that one has to compete in week in and week out, and that experience can only make one a better player.

Krieger's farewell game with FFC Frankfurt. Will she go back?

TSG: Where would you say is the prominent or prestigious league that most women want to play in? Is it the WPS or is it in Europe?

AK: Well I’m going to be a little biased, but the German league could be the top league as off right now. Unfortunately the German national team lost in the quarters so it might be hard for them to lay claim as the best league.  I think Sweden, England and Germany all have very good leagues, and then you have Lyon who just won the Champions League this past year. I’m not all together familiar with the rest of the French club teams, but I know that Lyon is a very good team with a great training atmosphere that seems indicative of the rest of the league.

TSG: One hears stories that a lot of the South American Soccer federations are not very supportive of their women’s teams. Do you feel that there is an increase in support in the US and in Europe?

AK: It’s getting better as you can see in the increased number of teams in the World Cup qualifiers as well as teams like Columbia at the World Cup. I think it’s growing, but it will take time. Countries aren’t immediately going to all of a sudden put money toward their women’s football teams. Look at Brazil who barely get any support and they are one of the best teams in the world, though they will be hosting the Olympics in 2016 so they will probably put in some money toward the women’s national team, but unfortunately I don’t think they will ever get the same support as the men’s teams.

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The Jack Of All Trades: Chatting With Brek Shea

Brek Shea was the first player born in the 90's to be capped by the senior USMNT.

TSG got the opportunity to catch up with Brek Shea right before the beginning of the season. In Brek’s short career he has played striker, midfielder and defender and has played every position well. He must be a coaches dream, as he doesn’t complain, and just goes out, plays as hard as he can, and does what is asked for him.

Here is our conversation before their last pre-season game.

TSG: Okay, first question. Are you going to be okay now that Heath Pearce is no longer in Dallas? Or perhaps better question: Is Dallas a safer place?
Brek Shea: I don’t know man. He brought a lot of fun stuff and I’m going to miss him. I’m pretty jealous he’s going to be out in California which sounds pretty sweet, especially with non-soccer related stuff.

TSG: Alfonso Mondelo, the MLS technical director, said you impressed scouts on the Generation Adidas trip to Spain, but you impressed them in central defense though?! What is your ideal position? Where do you prefer to play?
Brek Shea: I don’t know. I’ve had to play center back because there has been a shortage of people and injuries, so coach asked me to play there, and I have to do what he asks. I don’t know if I have an ideal position. A lot of people like me at center back and a lot of people like me as a left midfielder. I don’t really have a preferred position so whatever the boss asks of me I’ll do.

TSG: So where do you see yourself playing 5 years from?
Brek Shea: Well it all depends on what I play this season. If I play left mid this season, then I’ll probably play left mid for the rest of my career. If he (coach) switches me to center back, then I will probably be playing center back.

TSG: You’ve played striker, forward, winger, and defender over the past 5 years. Any interest in playing goalie?
Brek Shea: I did start off as a goalie when I was young. I would get mad when we got scored on, so I would go up to our goalie and say “hey let me play goalie”. [ TSG throws in some sort of pun about how it is good to take things into your own hands. Brek chuckles ].

Knocks them in regardless of the position he plays.

TSG: You’ve graduated from the Generation Adidas program. Can you tell us about your experience with this program?
Brek Shea: It’s a great program for young people and for young athletes coming into MLS. They help you out, they give you a chance to go to school, and they hook you up with some really great opportunities.

TSG: Getting back to Heath’s departure. The team let both Pearce and Dax McCarty go in the re-allocation draft and in the process got younger, but arguably less experienced? Who are the main leaders now and who will need to pick up the slack?
Brek Shea: Our captain (Daniel Hernandez) and Kevin (Hartman) are two main veterans on the team and they do a pretty good job, but I think everyone needs to pick it up. We have some new guys and a lot of youth guys that came up, so everyone needs to take it in their own hands to be responsible.

TSG: Do you see yourself taking on more of a leadership role?
Brek Shea: Well I’m not a very big vocal leader, but I hope I can show some leadership by playing well. I like a lot of the younger guys and I hang out with them as well, so that they can feel like they can come up to me if they need anything, or talk to me about stuff that they might be scared to with the older guys.

TSG: You went to Bob Bradley’s January camp this year after featuring in an October friendly against Colombia. First, what skills did you improve on in the camp and 2nd, tell us a little bit about the differences in training and game preparation between Schylles Hyndman and Bob Bradley?
Brek Shea: When I was there, they really wanted me to work on coming inside, instead of just being out on the touchline. They asked me to come inside and get the ball and run at the players, instead of being out wide and going around players. They wanted me to come in, so I could get shots off, and that really helped with my game. I was really thankful for that.

We had the whole month to prepare for one game with Bob. It was mostly about getting back in shape and learning and dealing with his style of play. They are different guys and they go about things differently.

This picture captures two of Brek's goals this year. Be more dominant in the air and get more chances with the USMNT. TSG says "that shouldn't be too hard".

TSG: What skills do you want to work on and improve upon this year?
Brek Shea: Well one of the big things I want to work on is my heading. I’m one of the bigger guys out there and my heading hasn’t been the best in the past, so I want to come in this year and win a lot of headers and score a lot more goals with my head. I also want to work on everything. Obviously my left foot is more technical than my right and I want to get it up to speed.

TSG: Last year, the media was reluctant to place a “favorite” tag on FC Dallas as the team was undefeated for major stretches in the season, but those matches were draws instead of wins. How do you feel about being a “favorite” this year and teams gunning for FC Dallas?
Brek Shea: I kind of like the pressure. Last year, even up to the final we were the underdogs, and I think this year people will have more respect for us. To be honest, I like it because each game will be a hard game and those games are always fun.

TSG: Dallas season tickets are up 300% on the year. That’s good, however Pizza Hut park still has a ways to go, or rather attendance has a ways to go before the park fills up. Is it difficult playing at home in front of half empty stadiums?
Brek Shea: Well as a player you definitely hope it will be more packed and louder than last year. You can only expect what you had the week before, so we never expected the big crowds, but as you said sales are up, so hopefully we’ll have a good loud crowd to play for.

TSG: You’ve been having a fantastic pre-season. Obviously your team goals are to win the MLS cup. Any specific personal goals for the season?
Brek Shea: Well, I would like to get more chances with the national team and I want to do bigger and better things than last year, like score more goals, get more assists and play with more consistency.

TSG: Describe what it’s like playing with a true #10 in David Ferreira?
Brek Shea: Well obviously he played very well last year and was MVP of the league. It’s great cause every time we are in trouble we can find him and he relieves tons of pressure from the rest of us.  He is someone you can always rely on to keep the ball, to keep possession and can find the right angles and passes to create the offense.

TSG: What are your long-term plans? Do you have plans to try and make it in Europe? What’s a good destination league or team for you?
Brek Shea: Well as a soccer player my goals are to play in Europe, but as of right now I’m focused on this season. Hopefully in the future when the time is right, I will play in Europe, but who knows when that will be. I would like to play in one of the big leagues and hopefully I can focus on doing and improving on what I do every day so that I can get there eventually.

Brek's hairstyle is more dynamic and ever-changing then Holden's, however both hairstyles tweet!

TSG: We recently did an interview with Brandon Zimmerman. How do you feel about him as a player?
Brek Shea: [Perks up]. Brandon Zimmerman. He’s one of my good friends. I love playing with him. I would call him a traditional “English style player”, who wins the ball and dishes it out and crushes everyone as he runs past them. To be honest, I like the way he plays. He inspires you to play hard when you play with him, because he lets everyone know that it’s “game time”.

TSG: So both yours and Stuart Holden’s hair have twitter accounts. Whose hair is better?
Brek Shea: To be honest, Stuart’s always stays the same, where as mine changes every once in a while. I get a little more flair with the change, but I don’t know…

TSG: Well good luck with the upcoming season.
Brek Shea: Thank you very much.

From Expansion Draft To Contender: Arturo Alvarez

TSG writer Jay Bell on RSL’s new flank weapon.

Arturo Alvarez celebrating a goal for the Earthquakes.

Arturo Alvarez was once a US Men’s National Team prospect. Known by fervent US fans as a guy who could possibly own a place on the wing, a consistently thin position for national team. Alvarez eventually faded out of the US setup altogether and switched his allegiance to El Salvador in 2009. Alvarez already has 14 caps for the Salvadoran national team and should be an important player for La Selecta in the Gold Cup this summer.

Alvarez is entering his eighth year as a professional at the ripe old age of 25. He has played for the San Jose Earthquakes (twice) and FC Dallas before landing with Real Salt Lake in the off season. Arturo takes his different, yet American, perspective and style to one of the league’s top teams, who also deploy a different, yet American, style.

Now here is our conversation with the All-American Salvadoran as he talks about MLS, RSL and the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup this summer. Big thanks to Real Salt Lake and you can follow Arturo on Twitter at @artieart10.

Alvarez's new club

TSG: What was it like for you on the day of the expansion draft?

Arturo Alvarez (AA): Obviously I was keeping track and seeing if I got picked up by anyone, by any of the two teams, either Portland or Vancouver.  It ended up being that Portland took me with their last pick of the draft.  I didn’t get a call from them or anything saying that they were going to pick me or right after the pick.  I think they usually call people.  Instead, I got an “801” phone call and it was Garth Lagerwey and he just wanted to welcome me to Real Salt Lake.  So I was pretty excited about that.

TSG: How did you feel when you finally found out that you had landed with Real Salt Lake?
AA: I was actually really happy about it.  I know Real Salt Lake is a really good team.  I think as a soccer player you want to be part of a good team like that and surround yourself with good players and good people.  From the moment I found out that I was a part of Real Salt Lake, I was pretty excited.

TSG: What is it like going into a team that was already headed to the knockout rounds of the Champions League?
AA: That’s always a bonus, I think these other kinds of tournaments on this side of the world that you want to be playing in.  I’m just happy to be a part of the team right now.  I thought they had a great, successful run last year.  Now that I’m a part of the pack, hopefully we can make it to the finals.

TSG: Is there a different dynamic or a different feel within RSL than there was with other teams that you have played with?
AA: Yeah.  I think to be quite honest, from the get-go, I think they showed me how important this tournament was, the CONCACAF Champions League, to this team and to this organization.  Usually a lot of people say that most teams don’t even pay attention to the tournament, but if anything it is one of the biggest tournament to be a part of because it can give us an opportunity to go to the Club World Cup.  Just the fact that I just got here, I know we’re in preseason and all, but just from the get-go it was “win, win, win.”  That’s exactly what we’ve been focusing on.

TSG: With the Champions League, you also have the MLS season coming up, how are you feeling as the season gets closer and closer?
AA: I think that MLS is just as important as this tournament.  If anything we are going to have some games under our belt.  [AT&T issues] start off on a positive note to continue well into the MLS season.

Alvarez will be playing for El Salvador at the Gold Cup.

TSG: How did you feel last season went for you?
AA: Last season was a bit up and down for me.  I kind of struggled a bit with some hamstring injuries at the beginning of the year, which I think kind of brought me down.  I started off really well and scoring goals early.  Then I had my injuries which made me miss a good [AT&t issues] in the year.  First of all, I feel like I contributed to the run that San Jose had last year.  Towards the end of the year I wasn’t in the starting lineup, but I think I would come in and do well.  That is the way soccer goes sometimes.  You got to keep your head up and just keep going forward.

TSG: What do you think your role is going to be this year with RSL?
AA: I think my role is going to be just scoring goals and get involved in a lot of the play, a lot of the attack.  Early this year, Jason and the coaching staff have spoken to be me about maybe using me as a second forward.  If anything that is going to put me closer to goal and I think I’m a natural goal scorer.  So I feel I will get a lot more goals than in my years past.

TSG: Does RSL deploy a different system than you are used to?
AA: Yeah.  Usually they play with a 4-4-2 with a diamond in the middle.  Teams that I have been with before in the past, it was just a straight 4-4-2 with just a line across the middle.  With the diamond it is a bit different.  We’re lucky to have Javier Morales who is the center mid for this team.  He is the guy that gets everything going for this team so he has more of a free role.  I think there is a lot of movement for the attacking players and a lot of freedom, which is good.  One thing that Jason asked of all of the players is to work hard and work hard for the ball and that is what I am looking to do.

Alvarez played for the under 20 USMNT before deciding to play for El Salvador

TSG: Are you looking forward to anything specific this year?  Any specific games or anything?
AA: My focus is just to come here, work hard and earn a starting spot on this team because I think this is one of the best teams in MLS.  So it is good to be starting for a team like this.

TSG: Are you keeping your eye on the Gold Cup this summer?
AA: Yeah.  Obviously that is a big tournament.  [AT&T issues] that we qualified for the Gold Cup so I am looking forward to that.  Obviously you want to be on top of your game for those tournaments.  So I am definitely looking forward to it.  It is going to be my first one so I am pretty happy about that.

TSG: As far as MLS goes, how do you feel it will go with the Champions League, the season finish, the playoffs and everything else.  I know it is a long season, but how do you feel it is going to go?
AA: Like you said, it is a long season.  Real Salt Lake is in the CONCACAF Champions League and on top of that we have the US Open Cup and MLS to look forward to, so it is a lot of games.

AT&T issues]

I think the coaching staff knows exactly what they are doing when it comes to that.  I think one of our strengths, for Real Salt Lake, is that we have a really deep team; we have a lot of depth.  I think any player can go in and do well for us, and that is a good thing.

TSG: Thanks man.  We always like to end our interviews on a light note.  I’d like to do a quick word association with you.  I’ll say an MLS team, just give me a word to describe them to you.
AA: Okay.

TSG: I’ll start off with the San Jose Earthquakes.
AA: Scrappers.

TSG: LA Galaxy.
AA: Hollywood.

TSG: New York Red Bulls.
AA: Energy drink.

TSG: DC United.
AA: History, like history of the team.

TSG: FC Dallas.
AA: I don’t know what do say there. [AT&T issues]

TSG: Colorado Rapids.
AA: Fighters.

TSG: Real Salt Lake.
AA: Nice style of soccer, I guess.

TSG: Is there anything else that you would want to add in at the end?
AA: Just, I’m looking forward to this year.  I am excited to be a part of Real Salt Lake.  I think we can do a lot of great things this year, not only for us, but for US Soccer as well.  Hopefully everything will go as planned and we’ll just work hard.

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

Deadly finisher, incredibly humble.

On November 20th, 2010, Alex Morgan scored an injury time winner against Italy in the first leg of the USWNT World Cup playoff match to give the U.S. the critical away goal, and a 1-0 lead going home.

Quickly becoming the scorer of vital goals (her first against China ensured the USWNT’s undefeated home record), she’s the youngest player on the current USWNT squad.

Deadly in front of goal and possessing all the skills needed to become a top class striker, Alex is a charming and incredibly humble young woman.

Alex was gracious enough to take some time away from her studies (finishing up at UC Berkeley) to talk to us.

Here is an excerpt of what we talked about.

TSG: So at the beginning of this year which did you think was more unlikely: You scoring a critical goal in a must-win series for the USWNT or merely playing for the USWNT?

Alex Morgan: Well scoring the critical goal was more unlikely. I was surprised to even get called in from Pia to come into the camp, which was just an honor for me. Once I made the qualifying roster, from then on I was just enjoying the ride, and accepting my role on the team. So scoring the critical goal was definitely more unlikely.

TSG: Typically qualification for any major tournament is a cakewalk for the USWNT, but this time you guys had to play in a playoff to qualify. What was the mood like in the squad before the first and second legs?

AM: We were pretty fired up as this had never happened before. We were really disappointed after the Mexico game in Cancun. We got a few days to clear our thoughts and we came back and were super focused and ready to take on Italy in both games. I’m glad we showed up for both games as it showed we really wanted it, especially when we scored in the 94th minute in the first game.

Alex Morgan being mobbed by teammates.

TSG: You’re USA’s youngest player, and in only 8 appearances have scored 4 goals. Abby Wambach said that your 94th minute winner against Italy was one of the “top-five most important goals in U.S. History.” How did it feel giving your National Team a huge boost going into the second leg?

AM: It wasn’t just me, it was a whole team effort. We were going hard until the last whistle blew. For Abby to say that is a real honor, as she is a close friend on the team. So that was amazing to hear that from her. Just for us to be up a goal in Italy gave us a chance to relax and to have the upper hand going into the second leg.

TSG: Can you describe the play that led to the goal. How did you remain so composed?

AM: Well, Pia told Abby and I to stay up. We were a little stretched out, but we got a throw in in our defensive third and Carli [Lloyd] got the ball and turned it. I knew by her body language that it was going to be a long ball, and I knew it was going to Abby. Most long balls over the top are looking for Abby to run onto them. So Carli gave a great long ball and Abby was in the perfect position to flick it on, and I tried to position myself to cut off the defender and the ball came straight to my feet, and luckily I was composed enough to put it away.

TSG: LUCKILY! You seemed pretty composed.

AM: At the international level you really only get a few chances, so I really try and stay composed in front of goal. I had a pretty poor shot right after I came in, so that was my bad shot that I got out of the way. So once I got that ball from Abby, I really tried to stay composed and put it in the corner.

TSG: Now that the USWNT has qualified, what do you need to do to ensure your ticket to Germany? What do you think your chances are?

AM: Well, I need to do whatever Pia tells me to do, to work on what is really going to help me contribute to the team. The more I can contribute to the team, the more of an asset I am. So really working on my weaknesses as well as my strengths.

I’ll be done with school in two weeks, so I can focus on soccer which will help a lot. I’m really not taking anything for granted. Even though I scored that critical goal, I haven’t really established myself on this team. I don’t have a secure spot whatsoever. It’s really important for me to keep working every day on anything that I can improve on. I’m taking advice from all my teammates as well as Pia.

Abby has been on the team for so long and has scored over 100 goals, so any advice I can get from her and the rest will really help.

TSG: You’ve mentioned Pia a lot. How is she as a coach?

AM: For the team she has been really good about developing us tactically. The U.S. is known for its strength, speed and having a strong mentality, but she’s been working hard to develop more than just those attributes, and preparing us months before the World Cup.

Pia Sundhage taking the USWNT and the faux hawk to new heights.

Personally she wants to see what I can offer before she steps in and develops me as a player that she feels can contribute most to the team. I’ve only been with the team for less than a year, so I don’t think she thinks I’ve shown everything that I’m capable of. It has been very nice that Pia has given me the opportunity to show myself and recognizes that I have more to offer.

TSG: Being in college but also playing for the USWNT, is it hard to tell your college friends, “No I’m sorry, I cannot do any keg stands as I have to play for the United States this weekend”?

AM: [Chuckles for a couple of seconds] This is my last year of college, and I’m ready for the next step. Ever since the U20s, I’ve grown up and become more mature as a player and as a professional. I’ve been ready for quite a while to take this next step and really commit myself to the National Team.

Thankfully Pia has given me a year to transition. It will be hard to leave my friends and teammates here at Cal, but this is what I wanted, what I’ve worked up to, and dreamed of my entire life.

TSG: Now that your college career is over, what are your future plans regarding soccer for a club team? Some of the WPS teams, like FC Gold Pride here in the Bay Area, are folding. Are there options abroad or are you solely concentrating on the National Team?

AM: I’m going to concentrate on the National Team for as long as I can, but in terms of club teams, I definitely want to support soccer in America.

I definitely want to play in the WPS as long as there is a league in the States. I hope it stays alive and it’s looking good for next year.

I’m hoping to get drafted and be playing on a team next year. I want to support soccer in America, but if something goes wrong with the WPS, I have no problems playing abroad.

My options are really open.

TSG: I’m assuming going abroad means playing in Europe. Is there a certain league or team that you would like to play with?

AM: I haven’t thought about it much, as I’ve really been interested in the WPS, but I’ve heard that England’s professional league is starting up next year. Sweden and Norway always have great women’s professional teams, and one of my teammates, Ali Krieger, is on Frankfurt. There are really quite a few options, but I haven’t really looked into going abroad too much.

The Tony Danza Army supported Alex when she briefly played with the Pali Blues.

TSG: You played for the Pali Blues. We did a supporter series on the Tony Danza Army. Can you describe your experience playing with the team and the supporters who followed you?

AM: I only really got a couple of opportunities to play with the Pali Blues. I was trying to graduate early, so last summer I was in school and taking a full load of classes. Charlie [Naimo] is a great coach and I was lucky enough to play for him. He flew me out for a few games. We played in Canada, Washington and in LA which is their home base.

I had a great time playing with them and they have a lot of supporters which is really awesome for a W-League team. All the girls on the team all seemed very committed for a W-League team, which is great for the fans and supporters. I really enjoyed playing with them and it’s unfortunate that I only got to play with them for a few games.

TSG: So back to the upcoming World Cup. The USWNT has drawn arguably the toughest group of the tournament with Sweden, North Korea  and Colombia. How do you feel about the USWNT’s chances in Germany?

AM: I’m actually pretty pleased with our group. I think we do have a tough group, but it is very diverse. I like that a lot, because it really prepares us for the next step in the tournament. We have a South American team from Colombia and North Korea, a team we cannot scout, and Sweden which is where Pia is from. There are only 16 countries that get to go to the World Cup, so there really is no easy group. I do think that our group and Germany’s group are the toughest.

TSG: You played against the North Koreans in the U20’s World Cup Final in Chile, scoring arguably the goal of the tournament in the final. Do you know if any of the players you played against will be playing in Germany?

Alex Morgan celebrating her wonder goal against North Korea at the U20 World Cup in Chile.

AM: I don’t know who’ll be playing in Germany from that team. They work very well together and made it to the finals. They have always been a very good team, because they work hard and never give up. In the final against us, they scored in the last 5 to 10 minutes when we were up 2-0, so they never really gave up and which is a very good quality to have in a team. It will be a good fight.

TSG: Even though you have a great scoring record for the National Team, you’re not in the starting eleven. How do you prepare for being a super sub striker when you’re called upon?

AM: All my life I’ve been playing and starting a full 90 minutes, but now I have a new role. [Incredibly enthusiastically] I love my new role!

I’ve never had this role before. I think it’s pretty cool, and as funny as that sounds, I think it’s cool to come off the bench and be in a high-pressure situation and be depended on to score.

All I can say is that I love my role right now. Pia decides whether I sit on the bench for 90 minutes, or if I come on for 10 minutes or 45 minutes, and that’s my role and I’m accepting it right now. I love it and it’s worked out for me so far.

TSG: One characteristic that is very evident in the USWNT is the camaraderie. Can you discuss how this helps you as a young player, if it does at all?

AM: I think it is something special about our team that we are all very close. I didn’t feel it as much with the youth teams, but when I came on to the full National Team it was different. Some of these girls have played together for 5, 10 and even 15 years, and have spent most of their lives with each other.

World beaters and best friends.

They’re all best friends and these girls will be at my wedding and hopefully I’ll be in some of theirs. I’m really growing up with these girls, as I am with them more than I am with my family or my friends back home.

When you’re around people so much, you really do have to come together and work for each other, and that’s what we’ve been doing, and it has been working out well for us. We had the unfortunate loss in Mexico, but after that we really came together.

Being the youngest player, everyone’s really accepted me. From Kristine Lilly to Abby and even some of the younger players, that are only a year or two older than me, have accepted me, which is really helped me transition from college to the National Team.

TSG: So what can the older players like Boxx and Lilly learn from you?

AM: Good question [TSG pats ourself on the back]. I’ve never been asked that question before. I’m not sure because they’re the ones that have been doing it for years.

TSG: Sure, but you probably provide a spark and an excitement to play the game that rejuvenates them!

AM: I’m definitely excited about everything. I’m very excited about being on the team and everyday I’m thankful. I have that young attitude of wanting to go out and beat every team, that young attitude that they might not have had in a while. But they’ve really taught me more than I could ever teach them, so I really have them to thank.

TSG: Do you have any role models or players whose game you looked up to and wanted to emulate growing up?

AM: I know this is kind of cliché, but I’ve looked up to Kristine Lilly [ TSG did an interview with Kristine Lilly back in October ] my entire life. I actually wore number 13 up until I got to the full team. I wore it with the U20s, I wore it in college and on my club teams.

TSG: You do realize that you were born after her first cap for the USWNT?

AM: Yeah I realized that. She came on the National Team when she was very young. She was one of the Fab Five and I love all those girls, but I really looked up to Kristine and the way she played and how she presented herself.

Kristine Lilly. Amazing.

She’s going to be 40 this year [actually July 22 of next year], and hopefully makes it to the World Cup. That is amazing to me. I think that story is absolutely amazing. No one is ever going to have as many caps as she has. I think she’s an amazing player and person, and I really look up to her.

TSG: You’ve proven to be quite a prolific striker in college and with the National Team, and you were born in the U.S. Why do you think the USMNT has such difficulty in finding a striker of similar ilk to yourself?

AM: Well I think the real reason is that young girls grow up playing soccer and it’s one of the biggest sports for girls. There is such variety of sports in the U.S. for men, and soccer isn’t that big. It’s getting bigger, but MLS started 10 to 15 years ago, so growing up, young boys liked baseball and American Football, so soccer was kind of lost.

In American Football, you need big, strong guys whereas soccer is more of a finesse sport; so those skills haven’t quite developed yet. I do think soccer is going to take over in the next 10 or 20 years, so that should make a big difference, I hope.

TSG: So time to spill the beans on the veterans on the team! Do certain people get first choice of seats on the bus or plane? Do you have to carry Lilly’s bags? Is there any rookie hazing?

AM: It is kind of sad, but there really isn’t. I have carried all the girls jackets off the field when they’re done with them, but seriously everyone helps out. There isn’t been much hazing from the older players.

Top Prankster: Heather Mitts.

There are a lot of jokes being played, I don’t want to name any names, HEATHER MITTS, but they’re not directed towards the younger girls, but at everyone. We are on long trips with each other for three to four weeks at a time, so we like to keep things not too serious.

TSG: Are there any club teams that you support?

AM: Well, obviously, like half the world, I’m a Barca fan.

TSG: Did you watch the game on Monday [Barcelona hosted Real Madrid]? I thought it was possibly one of the greatest games ever played.

AM: I know that sometimes games when one team is getting whipped are boring to watch, but that was the most amazing game. I love watching Barcelona play at anytime, but that game was the best, especially because it was against their biggest rivals.

TSG: Any favorite players on Barcelona?

AM: I like Pique. I know he’s a defender and that might be weird, but I think he’s one of the best defenders in the world.

I also like Pedro a lot because he brings that young fire that I try and bring to the National Team. I watched him in the World Cup last year and I really like his style of play

TSG: So last question here. We’re impressed you’re following Iniesta on Twitter, but we’re concerned that you are following Snooki…care to explain?

AM: [Laughs] Oh my God! I know it’s sad, but I love the Jersey Shore. It’s one of the most ridiculous shows in the world but I think it’s hilarious.

I follow Snooki and Pauly D and their tweets are so ridiculous. But that show is great, though it doesn’t give Jersey a very good name.

TSG: Well good luck with your World Cup preparations and good luck with the rest of your classes.

AM: Thank you, Shaun.

ESPN UK’s Rebecca Lowe On All Things English

The lovely Rebecca Lowe with ESPN UK.

TSG had the honor once again of speaking with the absolutely wonderful and INCREDIBLY knowledgeable Rebecca Lowe. She had just finished doing her show for ESPN UK and we caught her while she was in a “football mind.”

We touched on some of the topics we discussed in our first interview and discussed the future of English football.

Here is an excerpt of what we talked about.

TSG: A rather large topic a couple of weeks ago was the whole Rooney saga. Do you think it was a carefully spun ploy or was it more of a desperate move by United and Ferguson to keep Rooney happy?

Rebecca Lowe: It’s so difficult to really know. I think, if you’re going to be skeptical and cynical and look at it with those eyes, you could say, similar to Cristiano Ronaldo and Sir Alex Ferguson, they made a pact which said, “Give me one year and then you can go.” I wonder if giving Rooney a whopping five-year contract might lead to them getting a huge sum for him next summer and allowing him to go then. I don’t think that’s beyond the realm of possibility at all.

The fans may not be as forgiving as Rooney hopes they will.

I think it was a very strange episode. I don’t think that Rooney was handled very well in terms of his PR. I don’t think the statements he put out were very wise. There are United fans who will not forgive as easily as Rooney is hoping they will. There are still rumors that there are players who haven’t forgiven him.

I’ve talked to Man United players and they have assured me (and I suppose they would) that what is done is done and it was all over the top and newspaper driven and everything is fine. Whether or not that is true, I don’t know. I know that a lot of fans are not happy and it will be very interesting to see when he comes back to play for United. Lets put it this way: I’m not sure he will see out his 5 year deal.

TSG: Do these very public contract negotiations and demands for money create a jealously among the players which effect their relationships?

RL: I obviously don’t know that for sure, but I think if you put yourself in that position, and if you’re in a normal office or in any normal job and that was going on, AND then you learnt that that person (who by the way was not playing very well) was being

O'Shea could be benefiting greatly from the Rooney saga.

rewarded with a whopping great contract, having just come out and said he doesn’t really fancy the club nor does he want to stay anymore, I don’t see how you can get over that so quickly. In a way, I think it has opened the doors for other players to ask for more money. Like John O’Shea who reportedly might be getting a new contract around 100,000 pounds a week. I think it’s going push a lot of players and their agents forward to push for more money from United. I don’t know, I’m not in that dressing room, but there are stories that come out and say that the players are not happy, BUT they have assured me that it is all forgotten. Time will tell what happens and maybe some day someone will write a book which will tell us the truth.

TSG: I wonder if this sets a bad precedent for United because everyone is going to ask for more and at some point they are going to have to say no.

RL: Yes indeed. John O’ Shea is a versatility [utility] player, and appears to be on the verge of getting a four-year contract of  something like 100 or 120 a week which is surprising. That and the knowledge that Rooney is getting a quarter of million a week will give the other players and their agents a bargaining tool to use, and United cannot afford it, end of story.

They just can’t afford it which is why, if they have done the deal with Rooney in order to get a massive sum for him next summer, they might not have realized what it is going to do to the rest of the players in terms of coming forward. United just don’t have the money to give those sort of wages. They’re are not Man City.

Gareth Bale is the real deal and could possibly be one of the most exciting players to come into the EPL in the last 5 years.

TSG: Gareth Bale has been playing very well since last spring, but his recent performances against Inter Milan have propelled him into the realm of the best, and is garnering interest from the top clubs. Is he for real or is this just a flash in the pan?

RL: I think this is for real, no doubt this is for real. You just can’t do what he did against Inter Milan and not be for real. It’s not just what he did against Inter, but at the end of last season, I think they played Chelsea and won and he scored or set up a goal, but he was just magnificent and Harry Redknapp came out afterwards and said what more can you say about this kid. He has been so consistent and Inter Milan was him showing that he can play against the very best.

He had a bad run of injuries and I don’t think he had a great belief as a youngster, and didn’t keep on the right track at times in terms of his confidence because his injuries were so bad. He also had bad luck because when you start off playing 24 games without your team winning it effects you. Finally, they may have been up 5-nil or 4-nil  against Burnely or someone, and Redknapp said, right, it’s safe to put Bale on and we are going to win this game [and they did].

Psychology is a massive part of football and according to all reports and to Harry Redknapp himself, the losing streak was playing on his [Bale’s] mind massively, and it is a great thing for the media to grab hold on to. I was using it, my colleagues were using it, as it was an interesting fact. Gareth Bale would listen to it and he didn’t need to listen to it, and that game freed him up. The things that set him apart. One is his engine. The guy runs about 20 miles a game and he never tires and in the 95th minute he’s running just as hard and as quick as he is in the first.

Not only does he have amazing stamina, but he is very quick. He was best friends with Theo Walcott growing up in Southampton and apparently Walcott is a little bit quicker but not that much. He’s quite speedy but it’s his finishing that sets him apart. It’s outstanding.

Andy Carrol should take note of Bale's career and keep himself out of the front pages for the wrong reasons.

Secondly, he is living his life off the field correctly. He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t go out clubbing and he doesn’t get himself on the front pages of newspapers. He’s a very down-to-earth guy and I’ve been lucky enough to interview him, and he’s incredibly polite and humble, and so far has kept himself on the straight and narrow. As we’ve seen from Andy Carroll at Newcastle at the moment, it doesn’t help when you’re on the front pages of the newspapers.

Gareth Bale has enough good people around him like Harry Redknapp and his parents which makes me think he’ll carry on like this and go on from strength to strength. I think he’s one of the most exciting players that has come out of the Premier League in the last five years.

TSG: When Spurs came out here for their pre-season tour, I went down to San Jose to check them out and it was finishing that stuck out the most to me. He started off as left back but now has a more prominent midfield role.

RL: Yeah. Up until the end of last season he was been playing at left back and they realized he was getting forward so much. He’s not a bad defender, but he is a much better attacker and Redknapp saw that he was being wasted back there, and that is why he’s playing in the left of midfield which absolutely works as he is dictating games. I think it helps that he is playing alongside players at Tottenham that maybe in the past few years haven’t had the quality that they have now. Rafael Van de Vaart who is of the same level. To be playing alongside someone with that sort of football brain is only going to breed more success, and the more good players Bale plays with, the better he will get himself.

TSG: Stuart Holden, Clint Dempsey and Maurice Edu are all playing well for their respective clubs, whether it be in the EPL or SPL. They’re getting on the score sheet, setting up goals and in Holden’s case doing a good job of controlling the midfield. Is the English public surprised that the U.S. outfield players can have an impact on their clubs?

RL: No. Less and less surprise as the years go by to be honest. We can’t deny that the World Cup was a disaster for England against America. I think leading into that World Cup a lot of the general public in this country probably saw the USA as a country that doesn’t really play football, so that will probably be an easy victory. But it didn’t work out that way and I think that made quite a few people sit up and take note. Obviously you got the fans of the clubs where the likes of Clint Dempsey and Stuart Holden are who know them.

Donovan loved by fans, players and media in the UK.

Dempsey has been a regular for a long time and is doing even better now (after coming off some injury problems) and really coming into form by scoring a couple of goals last weekend. Certainly within the game people say that American players can be as good as anyone else, but with the fans it is now beginning to get there.

It really doesn’t help that American goalkeepers have been so prominent because I think that was the general perception: that Americans just have good goalkeepers. But now, especially with Landon Donovan, when he was at Everton it pushed that whole situation forward because he made a serious impact on the Premier league; he was really good and then of course came the World Cup.

He probably is recognized much more in Liverpool than he is in LA, and I think it’s a shame he cannot make it a permanent deal because he was great for the Premier league. Not only was he so good and he proved a lot of people wrong, because they thought since he came from the Galaxy he wasn’t going to be very good in the Premier League, but he was and he did it brilliantly. As you know, media and sports personalities in America are so excellent in front of  camera and so at ease because they have to do it so much and his interviews were such a joy to watch. It’s a great shame he hasn’t been able to come over here. I think on whole people are starting to notice and respect the U.S. outfield players.

TSG: People here were very happy with how the USMNT played and were clearly disappointed when they exited the World Cup. They fell in love with the heart and passion with which their team played. We kept expecting the same verve and bite from the English squad, but they were lacking. Was there a general malaise in the camp? Did the players not buy into Fabio Capello’s plan? We never got a full explanation describing why England did so poorly.

RL: It was a very, very bizarre summer for English football fans. No one could understand then and no one really understands what happened, even now. No player has yet offered an explanation of what happened. I think it was a combination of the little things that weren’t quite well thought out. Their base was tucked away up in Rustenberg and the players were bored. Rightly or wrongly, as a footballer in South Africa having everything at your fingertips, whether or not you should be bored is irrelevant, because they were and that led to less energy. I’m not sure if Capello saw eye to eye with the players every day. As an international manager  you get your squad for a couple of days every other month and from what I’ve heard, his manner and his way didn’t sit well with them for more than two or three days.

Capello should have done more than just shout.

Another reason is that in this country the pressure is so great. I spoke to Ashley Cole about this a few weeks ago and I said to him, “What was it?” And he didn’t really know why, but he did say that he thinks that the England players fear the shirt. They actually feel the pressure. At their clubs there is pressure, but it is a different kind of pressure.

England fans and media are so desperate to win the World Cup. We are so desperate for some footballing success and the press builds them up and builds them up a year before a major competition, and everyone is so desperate for them to win and that just yanks up the pressure. The media are quite tough in this country, and there are a lot of forthright, firm views and the players read it. They definitely read it and the fear of failure almost overwhelms them. Wayne Rooney is a separate case. I don’t think Wayne Rooney cares about pressure. I don’t think it gets to him. I think he knew what was going to come out of the papers not long after World Cup and his life was going to take a very, very sharp turn to essentially a mess really, and he was going to have to deal with that and that definitely weighed on his mind.

TSG: There doesn’t seem to be a general healthy support for the English National Team from the press as they tend to nit pick at everything about the team, whereas in other countries the press is a lot more “calm.” Does that make sense?

RL: Absolutely. There is no middle ground in this country when it comes to football. It’s a matter of extremes. You are either brilliant or you are off it, but that’s just the way this country is and that is the way football is unfortunately.

TSG: The USMNT’s success comes from their strong team ethic and game, but they don’t possess any world-class players. On a club level, the English team possess players who do play at the highest level, who win the EPL, Champions League, etc., but they all have strong foreign players around them. Are English players being “found out” a little bit in that at club level they are brilliant, but does it have to do with their surroundings rather than their skill?

RL: It’s interesting. When England came back from the World Cup I started thinking, “the Premier league is not the best league in the world is it,” because the players are making little impact at the World Cup, yet they win the Champions League and Premier league. It’s an interesting point. I don’t think that they are being found out, but I don’t think they’re as good as we think they are and I don’t think the level of English football is as good as we think it is.

Do Drogba, Torres and other foreign players make their English teammates better than they really are?

Man United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea are not filled with English players, whereas a lot of foreign clubs are like Barcelona being a case in point. They have a core which does very well for Spain.

I think in this country we have to decide: do we want a successful National Team or do we want a great Premier League? If we want a successful National Team then we have to limit the amount of foreigners in the league. It is preventing a bigger pool of players coming through and we’ve got to concentrate on the National Team if that is what we want.

No one is going to make that decision because the Premier League and the FA that decides the National Team are two totally different organizations and there is no one above them to make that decision, and the Premier League has a lot more money and therefore have a lot more power.

TSG: There seems to be a decent crop of future England players coming up: Jack Wilshire, Adam Johnson, Andy Carrol, Agbonlahor, Young, etc. Do you there is a new generation coming up that can measure up?

RL: Not really. I’m quite pessimistic about that. I don’t think they’re that good. Jack Wilshire is excellent and I think Adam Johnson is very good, but how could we possibly know how good they are when we thought that Lampard, Gerrard, Rooney and Ashley Cole were world beaters? And as you rightly say,  they can play at the top level of football, but they can’t bring it at the World Cup and I don’t know if we can say that the young players coming through will be any better, and I don’t really have a great deal of confidence.

TSG: Well, there were so many teams at the World Cup that might not have possessed superstars, but they could play their positions and play together as a system. Is that a direction that England need to take?

RL: Yes, definitely. We need to be a team. That was exactly what we are, a collection of 11 individuals as opposed to a team, and that is what Capello failed to create. I think the buck stops with him a fair amount, because he should have to shoulder the blame in the manner of which he went about things, like putting on Emile Heskey when you need two goals. [I rolled my eyes and I suspect Rebecca did the same when she said this.]

TSG: I think Fabio Capello should take the majority of the blame, because even though thought the players were better than they were, they were certainly not bad players and it is Capello’s job to find a way for them to play together.

RL: I think he needs to shoulder a lot of the blame and is quite fortunate to be in the same job. I think over the next year or so the call for Harry Redknapp to be the next England manager will grow and grow because the press love him in this country and partly because he’s been so successful at Spurs.

Is 'Arry the next England manager?

He definitely built a team, a real team ethic at Tottenham. The problem with that is that he’s quite outspoken, and I don’t know if the FA will go for it. Redknapp is someone who can create a team and take off that expectation that is being pushed on the English national team. Adam Johnson and Theo Walcott need the freedom to go out there and make their mistakes and play without fear, whereas now the moment they put on an England shirt and they make a mistake they get booed.

TSG: Early in your career you were a reporter for the Women’s World Cup. Do you still pay attention to that?

RL: It’s difficult as I’m not nearly as caught up with it as I was at the time, and naturally you have other things that fill your day, but I keep an eye on it because of the World Cup. What happened with America? Did they get through?

TSG: They’re playing Costa Rica this evening and if they win they will be in a playoff with Italy, I believe. They should easily win against Costa Rica though.

RL: Yeah, they should. There is the World Cup next summer and if America do get there they will be one of the favorites along with China and Germany and England who are there as well which is great. I certainly keep an eye on it, but it’s very difficult to be abreast of all the divisions in the international and domestic games is quite difficult.

TSG: You’ve worked for the BBC, Setenta and now ESPN. How is it working for them? Is their a different attitude being a U.S.-based company?

RL: Not really. On the show tonight there is nothing American about the show or innately different from anything I’ve done in my entire career. You are aware though, always of being part this huge group which brings about quite a lot of excitement, quite a lot of confidence to the company.

ESPN's World Cup coverage was excellent.

I think it has an excellent reputation in England already, partly because a lot of people go to America and see ESPN over there, and partly because they’ve done a good job over the past year and a half of covering the Premier League.

It’s different from the BBC because the BBC is a lot more…I must pick my words carefully here [TSG chuckles]…It’s a lot more traditional and it’s funded by the taxpayers, so they have to make sure they are appealing to a wide range of people, whereas ESPN being an international company can target certain groups and can go for it and have a very forward thinking attitude, break new ground and take some risks.

It’s quite like Setenta in that way as they can be innovative, but working for ESPN you definitely know that you’re working for a worldwide company from everything from getting e-mails in Spanish and God knows what they are saying.

TSG: During the World Cup people in the States loved the production and commentary and all in all thought ESPN did a great job of presenting the tournament.

RL: Yes. ESPN were very clever about the World Cup because they didn’t quite know enough about it, but they identified where the opportunity was and got the right people on board and that’s the right way to go about it.

TSG: Back to the EPL. It’s a bit of topsy turvy season with traditional sides like Liverpool and United struggling a bit and the promoted sides doing so well. Is this just early doors or will everything come back to normal come May?

RL: Yeah. I think it will return pretty much back to normal come May. I do think it’s one of the most interesting Premier League seasons so far and I really cannot pick a winner. I went for Chelsea in the beginning of the season and I was happy with my choice in the first few weeks, but a team loses one game and then you start thinking “Oh, maybe they might not win the league.”

I think the Premier League is a better product now than it has ever been because it is so unpredictable. With the newly promoted sides I can see any of those, well maybe not Blackpool, but certainly West Brom and Newcastle, finishing in the top half and that is really unheard of as a whole.

Will the Special One be back in the EPL next year?

Most often promoted sides would go back down again and the fact that these sides haven’t, I don’t really know the reason why, but there is carefully a closing of the gap between the top and the bottom teams and it makes for much better division. I mean no one wants predictability. I don’t think United will win it. I think Chelsea will win it,  but I’m not convinced in saying that.

TSG: Do you want to talk about Crystal Palace at all? [Rebecca Lowe is a Palace supporter and at the time of speaking were last in the Championship.]

RL: [sternly] Let us definitely skip over that one.

TSG: You’re the one in “the know.” Any rumors that you can tell us?

RL: Oh God! I’m rubbish at finding things like that out cause I’m not a tabloid journalist and they know everything! Well, I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw Mourinho over next summer to take over Man City. I wouldn’t be surprised at all.

TSG: Well I would love it if the Special One came back to the Premiership as he was so much fun. Thank you so much for taking the time and hopefully we will get to talk again soon.

RL: Take care and have a good day.

Steven Lenhart: Proving MLS Is a Short Hop from NAIA

This is a guest interview by frequent TSG contributor Jay Bell.
Photos courtesy of the amazing Matt Mathai.

Few rookies come into MLS with less fanfare than Steven Lenhart. He was a virtual unknown coming out of Azusa Pacific University in California. He showed up, he worked hard, and all his team has done is win. Turns out that’s what he did in college as well.


Lenhart's hard work has always made him a winner.


I got a chance to talk to Steven on the phone Tuesday about his soccer past, present, and future. The guy just never stopped chuckling. You could tell that he was giving honest answers, but he laughed at a lot of little stuff too. I don’t know if it was my southern accent or if he was in a really good mood, but it made for a fun conversation.

I was also lucky enough to speak with his college coach, Phil Wolf. Wolf and Lenhart led Azusa Pacific to a 20-1-1 record and their first ever NAIA National Championship in 2007. Wolf has since moved to currently ranked #5 Southern Methodist and was very eager to share some words about Lenhart. His comments will be seen throughout this conversation with Steven.

TSG: First off, we just want to say congratulations on being the first MLS team to get to the quarterfinals twice in the new version of the Champions League.  How do you and your team approach that competition?

Steven: Man, I think that we take each game seriously. The games do fall during the week. We’re trying to do well in the league also, so sometimes certain players don’t travel or guys that haven’t been playing play a lot. Yeah, we approach it, we take it very serious. And like you said, this is the second year that we did qualify for the quarterfinals, so I think we’re doing something right. Also, like a lot of the guys that aren’t playing–I think there’s a lot of commitment to working for each other and kind of battling, trying to get results in some of those other countries and at home.

TSG: Alright…well a lot of MLS fans, not just Crew supporters, were upset with the way that away match at Santos went down. What was that match like and what are road games like in CONCACAF in general?


Jumping up high for the header.


Steven: Yeah, dude, those–they’re always interesting. Because you don’t know, you don’t know how the reffing is gonna be. I guess you never know in a game. Yeah, you kinda feel like you’re at a little bit of a disadvantage, but at the end of the day you can’t worry about that side of things.

But yeah, just being in other countries its always an experience. Cruising around before the games, going to the grocery stores or just walking around–people are a lot more interested and asking questions. You know, like taking pictures with you. Its kind of a novelty down there. I think they like it when Americans get to come. It’s fun; I enjoy it. I really like going down there.

TSG: Speaking of enjoying it: a lot of people thought you had kind of a “coming out party” in the last quarterfinals. Do you think that just because you enjoy it more you seem to do really well in that tournament?

Steven: No; I mean, I enjoy playing. So, I don’t know. It was just another game. Yeah, when I am enjoying soccer, when I am enjoying it, yeah I play way better. But its a long season so there is a lot that goes into it. That was the beginning of the season and it was fun. Yeah. I try and play like that every game, but it just doesn’t happen.

TSG: Lets backtrack a little bit. I think you were born in Jacksonville, right?
Steven: Yeah, in Florida.

TSG: When did you first move out to California?

Steven: My whole family is from California. So my dad got transferred with his job just for… a year and that’s when I was born in Florida. So we just moved back after… literally…when I was six months old. Moved back to California. Moved back to one of the same cities that my whole family had been before.


Skipping around two defenders.


TSG: I know you went to one school for a year and then ended up at Azusa. What made you head to Azusa Pacific?

Steven: Yeah…you know, you just feel like you don’t connect somewhere or you just feel…a change needs to happen. It wasn’t necessarily soccer. I was playing at the school. My first school was called Point Loma Nazarene University. I was a walk-on there. I wasn’t recruited by anyone. So I just..went and just…ran on the beach by where my first school was. I got to surf and hang out. I just kind of felt like I needed to get out of there. There’s something better for me, literally. So I just told my coach I was done and transferred to Azusa without even telling–I didn’t even tell the head coach, Phil Wolf at Azusa. I just kinda…I called him  late in the Spring. I was like, “Hey, can I come try out?” He let me try out. So he let me walk on. I don’t know. Just–a change needed to happen, so from my old school, but I guess it worked out.

TSG: It kinda seems to happen a lot over there. We recently interviewed Justin Braun. And he’s another big guy and he said he wasn’t really recruited much out of high school either. Did you try to contact other schools to try to get some more looks?

Steven: No. My senior year of high school I was on a pretty good soccer high school team. We won the state championships or whatever. I wasn’t like a big part of the team really. I didn’t play like the last half of the season with my club team. They didn’t want me to come back. So I was just kind of off soccer–whatever.

I’ll just go to Point Loma and surf and hang out really and just try to experience college. And them I’m like, well they have a soccer team I might as well try. So… two weeks before I just called, I called… before their training camp and they let me come walk on. It happened at both schools, Point Loma and Azusa. I was done. After Point Loma, I had a little bit of a falling out with the coach.

Not really, it was just…something needs to change. So I was like, dude, I’ll just transfer to Azusa. I need to get out of this place. I don’t need soccer. I could be done. And …literally, that’s kinda still how l am today. Soccer doesn’t… define who I am, you know? I mean that you hear, I bet people say that a lot, I’m sure, but I really try and live it and make it more about soccer. So I don’t know, that’s kind of where I’m at still.


TSG: What were your first impressions of him [Lenhart]?

Coach Phil Wolf: He showed some ability and I thought he was a decent enough player for me to give him a roster spot, but I didn’t think much of him past that. Kind of, he’s good enough to make our team. Let’s give him a roster spot. Let’s see if he can develop into something.


Continue reading

Are You Ready For Some Football?

Spurs on their warmup jog. Photo Credit - Allison Pasciuto

On October 31st of this year, the San Francisco 49ers will play the Denver Broncos at Wembley Stadium as part of the NFL’s global outreach football program.

Last Wednesday evening, Tottenham Hotspur landed at San Francisco airport, and Thursday morning had an open practice for fans at the Earthquakes’ training facility.

Tom Huddlestone's hiked up shorts were quite the distraction...and not in a good way. Photo Credit - Allison Pasciuto

People in the two teams’ marketing departments must have realized at some point that they could form a partnership that would be entertaining to fans from both teams. So the 49ers sent quarterback Alex Smith, offensive tackle Joe Staley and kicker Joe Nedney to the Spurs’ practice to meet some of the players, try some kicking and get a view of the “other” football practice.

I have a friend who works for the production company that does 49ers Total Access, a TV show that tends to follow all things Niners. He called me up as they knew nothing about soccer and asked me if I knew anything about “the TottenHAM Hotspur.” I said, “A little, their manager is named Harry –” “You’re hired,” said my friend.

I assumed I would be there as a liaison of sorts – pointing out certain players to the cameramen, giving them a bit of history and facts so that the interviewers would come off as knowledgeable, etc. Turns out it was just me and one cameraman – I was the interviewer AND and I had to come up with my own questions! What follows are my notes about the whole affair which lasted over two practices.

The practice itself

Keanos' still got it.

About half of Spurs’ starting eleven were not there as they were still on post-World Cup holiday. So sadly no Crouch (yes, I would have asked him to do the robot). Defoe, Gomes, King, Lennon, etc. were also absent. Still, Spurs are a talented team and many of their superstars were on show. Some bullet points:
– Luka Modrić is tiny and looks like a 10 year old schoolboy. He was also the best player on the pitch by far and his ball control is spectacular.

– Tom Huddlestone is a big boy. He also likes “hiking” his shorts up to uncomfortable levels.

– Younes Kaboul is bigger still, but he looks in shape.

– Robbie Keane really does bark and yap, and is still a very skillful player.

– Gareth Bale has simian-like features.

– Cudicini ALWAYS has a scowl on his face.

– Roman Pavlyuchenko is known as “Pav.”

– Hutton never shuts up and is really funny (if you can understand him).

– There was a definite distinction in skill between Modrić, Bale, Pav and a few others versus the rest of the squad.

The 49ers arrive

Joe Staley and Alex Smith of the 49ers get their Earthquake jersey's. Photo Credit - Allison Pasciuto

The first day Alex Smith and Joe Staley showed up midway through practice. The obvious thing one notices is how big they are, especially in relation to the Spurs players (yes, even Huddlestone). Even Joe Nedney, the kicker, was bigger than most of the soccer players.

I talked first to Joe Staley, the gregarious tackle. Both he and Alex Smith were surprisingly knowledgeable about soccer. They both not only avidly followed the USMNT, but they watched most of the other World Cup games as well, and both gave perfect descriptions of what offside meant in soccer. Most surprising to me was that they also knew all about the significance of Wembley Stadium and its importance as a national venue, and were incredibly excited to play there.

I asked Staley what he thought of the soccer practice and he mentioned that the biggest difference is that there is a lot more scrimmaging between the entire team. In football, the players tend to work on their positions more and there isn’t nearly as much running.

When posed the question whether “any of these players could make it as a NFL football player,” Joe quickly shook his head and said, “No”…until he saw Huddlestone and said, “Well, he could!”

Clive Allen.

Alex Smith was a little more serious. His views on instant replay in soccer were very well thought out, and, in my opinion, spot-on. He said that it should be in use for goals and major incidents in the penalty area, but for everything else, just let the game flow.

The US athletes were much more comfortable talking to me and the camera than the English ones were. 49er All Access wanted me to interview the English players as opposed to Modrić, Ćorluka, etc. Although polite and obliging, the soccer players answered the questions quickly and without any embellishment. They also knew nothing about American football (though a couple of them do watch it occasionally). The one exception was Clive Allen, one of the Spurs coaches.

Clive Allen is a Spurs and QPR legend who played with many teams throughout his successful career. A gifted striker, he also, as I found out, was the kicker for the London Monarchs in NFL Europe. He was fantastic to interview.

Completely engaging and very knowledgeable about both sports, he too was a big advocate for goal line technology and instant replay. He also still had the ability to kick the hell out of a football (pigskin) when Nedney challenged him to a kicking competition.

Athletes are athletes
At the end of the first practice, there was a shooting practice on the Spurs’ keepers. Staley and Alex Smith were encouraged to join in with Keane, Bale, Pav, Kranjčar, Huddlestone and a couple of others.

Joe Staley scoring off a volley. Photo Credit - Allison Pasciuto

Clive Allen would stand at the byline of the penalty box and whip in balls either in the air or on the ground for the players to either trap and shoot or one-time towards the net. Keeping in mind that the Americans hadn’t played organized soccer since they were 5, they acquitted themselves pretty well. They both trapped the ball on the chest as if they had been playing for years. Admittedly Staley’s chest is pretty huge, but their ball control was good.

Staley even scored a goal which was followed by an equally impressive goal celebration (based on the Bafana Bafana World Cup goal celebration dance). Both Bale and Modrić were incredible during this drill and slammed the ball in the back of the net with deadly precision.

After this it was the NFL players’ turns to throw American footballs with the Spurs squad. Surprisingly no one aside from their 49 year old coach (Clive Allen) could run AND catch the football. Some notes:
– Huddlestone has great hands. The boys were challenging Alex Smith to whip it at him, and though he would cower a bit, he caught every single one of them.

– Bale has an arm, a cannon even. He kicks with his left, but throws with his right.

– Jenas should never be a wide receiver.

– Whenever he has a free moment, Redknapp is ALWAYS on the phone.

– Hutton never shuts up and is really funny (I was finally beginning to understand him).

Gareth Bale - Back up QB. Photo Credit - Allison Pasciuto

During the second practice, Nedney challenged Clive Allen and the two young keepers (Cudicini didn’t seem to be in the mood) to a kicking competition with the American football. The keepers, after a couple of miss-hits, really could hammer the ball. They need to work on their aim (their shots would hook to the left), but if it doesn’t work out with Spurs, I’m sure an NFL team could pick them up.

Equally impressive was Nedney’s distance and accuracy on goal kicks, and shots on goal with a soccer ball. On penalty kicks, Nedney buried half of them in the top corner. The rest were well saved by the keepers (who were also adept spot kick takers). However, neither could hold a candle to Allen, who never missed.

At the end, both the players of the two sports left with a mutual admiration for what the other does.

All told it was an entertaining two days. I got to watch a professional Champions League-bound team practice and be put through their paces, as well talk to some NFL players who were funny, intelligent and knowledgeable.

One note to leave you with: in the interchange of trying out the different sports and positions, taking penalty kicks or passing the ball, the one area that the NFL players could not get and failed at – keeper!


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