MLS (Semi-)Daily Sweeper, 12.18: The REAL Dull-Drums, A World Cup Qualifying Must-Read

With the FIFA Club World Cup and the NCAA Championships done and dusted and half of Europe taking a winter siesta, things look to have really wound down for 2007. Speaking specifically about the U.S., a look at Fox Soccer Channel’s 15-day domestic forecast says it all: the only thing more pointless than an international club friendly is a days-old, tape-delayed international club friendly…that it stars the Major League Soccer (MLS) dog-n-pony show only makes it that much worse.

Given that, I’ll be going into a winter break of my own till the New Year, but won’t start that till the end of this week. I’ve got Christmas BS throughout, in any case, and will thus be too busy with food, euchre, presents, running my kids around, and having drunkenly aimless, yet unbelievably passionate arguments about everything under the sun to get to much for posting.

But there’s always today and the rest of the week – and, as Steve Goff points out on Soccer Insider, today is positively stuffed with activities. The time being what it is, I’ll get to those tomorrow…it’s not like the story is going to change on me. So, on with the show, this is it….literally…

– On ESPN’s site, Steve Davis posted the quintessential hubris-checker regarding the United States’ road through World Cup qualifying; those wanting a clearer explanation of what the hell he’s talking about can get that through My Soccer Blog’s road map for the first part of the journey. The latter is useful for Davis’ column, but by no means necessary. Speaking for myself, I’m most worried about the one I’m assuming worries everyone else least: the play-in home-and home versus either Dominica or Barbados. Yes, either team is miles below us, both in the FIFA Con-jo…er, World Rankings, and quality of play, but it’s the lower margin of error that brings the anxiety, not to mention the potential for MASSIVE, unbearable humiliation. The thing is, if the U.S. finds themselves in a funk, or if Barbados (to pick one at random) somehow steals a goal and plays killer, athletic defense…well, that’s it. Unlike in the round-robin stages, both games against whichever Caribbean minnow we face matter, at least so long as we don’t carry a butt-stomping lead into the second leg; anything less than a 3-0 lead going into the second leg and I’ll be more nervous than I ought to be given the opposition. This is the point of Davis’ column: weirder things have happened in World Cup qualifying. So, stay frosty, people. Continue reading

Asia Rising? Relative to the U.S. at least?

This is just a quicky, an idea I want to throw out there to see if I can’t kick up a discussion/round of speculation. For the record, watching Urawa Red Diamonds play AC Milan this morning inspired it.

Question: Is Japanese club football at a higher level than Major League Soccer (MLS)?

My answer: The way Urawa played against Milan makes me think yes. And it’s less that I think an MLS club couldn’t manage the same result than I suspect we would look at lot less polished and a lot more desperate in earning it. More to the point, whenever I watch Japanese, or even South Korean teams and players, I get the sense that they’re learning a more efficient and tactically sophisticated style of play. Add their insane fitness level and I’m to the point where I’d be less surprised at seeing Japan or South Korea win the World Cup than the United States National Team.

Fortunately, we’ll have something of a test on club side of the equation during this spring’s newly announced Pan-Pacific tournament, which will include two MLS clubs – the LA Galaxy and Houston Dynamo – plus one from Australia’s A-League and one from Japan’s J-League. That won’t be the best of tests, mainly because MLS’s clubs will be in preseason – early preseason, no less – and, well, LA is LA, by which I mean they’re the distracted mess from 2007 as opposed to one of their earlier incarnations. But, if my theory holds true, the Japanese team should do well in the tourney.

Against the larger theory, though, are two factors. 1) Apart from having a larger population all told, we’re making more babies than the Japanese and will have a generally younger population going forward; this augurs better for our future; the growing Hispanic/Latino influence in that population growth hardly hurts, either. 2) On the international level, we’ve held our own and, if you trust a really small sample, things might be trending our way already.

This last point is based on something less than the most thorough research – in fact, I’d love it if someone who knows where to look up the United States’ all-time record against the rest of the world would tell me where to look. But it looks like we’ve split the all-time series with Japan, losing in 1993 (referred to in an article that mentions an upcoming friendly in 2003, but we played Venezuela on the date mentioned) and beating them in a close one ahead of the 2006 World Cup. Now, it’s possible we played the Japanese “B-team” – I don’t know Japanese players well enough to say one way or the other – but, against that, we definitely played our B-team.

So, that’s a theory, one possibly informed more by impatience than reality. In any case, have at it.

CWC: Urawa Red Diamonds 0-1 AC Milan…dang it.

(I’ll start with a confession: for the second day running, I screwed up my attempt at recording Club World Cup semifinal between Urawa Red Diamonds and AC Milan. Being an insomniac, however, I woke up in time to turn on the cable and record the second half. I can’t even beat old technology. The 21st Century is clearly going to be a bitch.)

And so we have the inevitable final – AC Milan v. Boca Juniors – the one I didn’t want. No one doubts these are the better teams; having watched the second half of AC Milan’s win over Urawa Red Diamonds, I have to admit the Italians played the better, more decisive game. For my money, the Brazilian Kaka was the difference, the man with that little something special to create the deciding opening, setting up a goal so neatly that even I could have finished it; Clarence Seedorf scored the winner. And AC Milan certainly controlled the tempo – Urawa contented themselves with counter-attacks – whether by choice I couldn’t quite tell – and they played with the precision and savvy I love about the Italian game; at times, it seems the Italians set out to prove with every game that precision alone is sufficient.

For all that, Urawa made Milan work for that goal. Moreover, the only thing stopping them from scoring a goal of their own was a modest boost in quality; in as little of the game as I saw, they found openings – big ones on a couple occasions – that flummoxed the Milanese, once to the point where Dida got all up in Gennaro Gattuso’s grill. They forced a couple saves, but Dida stood up to each.

What really separated the sides, however, was something simple as confidence; you could see it in the subtle shimmy Kaka used to slip by his defender, just the slightest pause to freeze the defender, before he bolted by him. This characterized most of what Milan did: their players move with the ball and react to one another seemingly on the assumption that the move will come off; it’s to the point where it’s second nature, automatic even. And it applied on both sides of the ball: once during the time when Urawa pushed for an equalizer, Milan lost possession on their side of the center circle; the second that happened, one of Milan’s defenders immediately dropped a couple steps and into the likeliest path forward for Urawa; it ended where he expected and that was it, attack thwarted. So…damn…efficient. And still Urawa found openings. A little better finishing from Urawa, just a little bit more speed of thought in the offensive third, and this one could have gone either way.

In fact, between this year and last year’s tournament (at least what I remember of it), I sense the Asians are getting close to the inevitable upset. Didn’t happen this year, but it’s coming…which gets me thinking about something else, but that deserves a post of its own. Coming shortly.

CWC: Boca Jrs. 1-0 Etoile Sportive du Sahel…

…um…all I know about this game comes from FIFA.com’s site; here, in fact.  Some jackass (me) blew setting the VCR, entering p.m. where he needed a.m.  (Yeah, I’m still on old technology; I also rocked K-Mart duds through elementary school and rode a hand-me-down girls bike with a peppermint-candy banana seat for years; such trends are powerful, only the details change.)  Sounds like it was a close game.

So, I missed this one.  I’ll try again for tomorrow’s game: AC Milan v. Urawa Red Diamonds.  I’m still pulling for an upset in the Club World Cup; hopefully, Milan will oblige.

MLS Daily Sweeper, 12.11: CWC, CONCACAF, Atlante, TRADE MADNESS…AHH!!

Jesus balls! What a day! So many major and minor things to discuss….best start with the little stuff to warm up. Just like before playing, right?

– One little thing to keep an eye on: I seriously don’t know how teeny-tiny Major League Soccer (MLS) rosters will cope with the scheduling insanity if the powers-that-be follow through with their threat to create a CONCACAF Champions Cup. FC Rocky looked only at Houston’s schedule, but a couple teams will be eating the same shit sandwich.

– The Club World Cup continues (very early) tomorrow morning (report tomorrow) when Etoile Sportive du Sahel enjoys their one-night stand against Boca Juniors. Naturally, Boca is trotting out the typical “we’re not overlooking anyone” business, but one suspects they’re grinning like cats when no one’s looking. Then again, Jonah Freedman’s look at how the world’s mighty have fallen cautions against complacency.

– Don’t know how far behind I am on this (so much for following the Mexican league…oh wait, I couldn’t, not with my cable package), but Atlante, the latest hot thing in Cancun, Mexico, won the Mexican Primera’s Apertura. That makes them the “other” Mexican club for this spring’s CONCACAF Champions’ Cup, right? Wikipedia says it does – smack at the bottom of their brief history of the club. Do note the move from Mexico City to Cancun in August 2007. Luis Bueno wrote a nice recap of Atlante’s accomplishment as well. But the most interesting thing to come out of any of these pieces appears at the bottom of that first link – and it doesn’t deal with Atlante so much as MLS’ future prospects in our local, international tournaments:

“One-time models of success, Pachuca have hit rock bottom. The record-setting club lost 1-0 in the opening round of the Club World Cup to little-known Tunisian side Etoile du Sahel. Los Tozos went to Japan who had high expectations, but the club that could do no wrong for most of 2007 — winning the Clausura championship, the CONCACAF Champions Cup, and the Superliga title — has not played well of late and they failed to make any accounting of themselves on the world’s stage.”

So that’s one CONCACAF Champs’ participant sucking wind. Maybe we’ll get a club to the final in 2008?

OK. Now the big stuff (and the accompanying thought-sprawl): Continue reading

World Club Cup: Today and Tomorrow

Urawa Red Diamonds 3-1 Sepahan

Looks like a case of same result, different score.  As they did when the same two sides contested the AFC Champions’ League final in the middle of November, Urawa Red Diamonds beat Iran’s Sepahan by two goals.  And, in spite of this being the most evenly contested game of the FIFA Club World Cup so far, Urawa looked likely winners from the get-go.  The Japanese club pushed a frenetic pace through the first half and, after a series of attacks, forced a goal from the left though the hard work of Takahito Soma (great last name).

Sepahan, to their credit, fought hard from the back foot – for instance, it took the crossbar to prevent them from knotting the score at 1-1 through Emad Mohammed just after the start of the second half – but Urawa always stayed one step ahead of them.  Well, two when all was said and done, after Urawa’s Brazilian, Washington, scored from a crazy tight angle and Sepahan defender Hadi Aghily nodded in an own-goal (the second credited to him this tournament; poor in luck, but rich with hair, that one).

The general quality of this game put me in a mind to revise my estimation from yesterday’s post where I plopped CONCACAF into the thick of the fight for the #3 confederation in international soccer.  They’re still in there, but after watching Urawa run Sepahan ragged – and, not coincidentally, after watching Sepahan hold them off for long stretches – it seems the AFC (that’s the Asian Football Confederation…I’m pretty sure) has a dog in the fight boiling beneath the top two confederations, UEFA and CONMEBOL.  Put another way, I don’t doubt Urawa would run a team like Pachuca just as ragged as they did Sepahan.

And that constitutes something of a warning to AC Milan: if the Italians come out flat or complacent, the Asian club has enough in the tank to pull off the upset.  Urawa may not punch toe-to-toe with Milan when it comes to the technical and tactical, but, like most East Asian teams, they can go the full 90 and run a marathon besides, all of it flat-out.  They defend pretty well, too; had Marcus Tulio Tanaka not flubbed a moderately tricky touch, the Iranians’ consolation goal probably would never have come.  Milan’s offense poses more of a threat, of course, but, if this morning’s game is any indication, they’ll have to make space or struggle to find it.

So, that’s one more of this tournament’s – what? – seven games in the book and I’m again having to readjust my preferences.  There was just something about Sepahan I kind of liked.  Maybe it’s the thought of trying to get their Iraqi forward, Emad Mohammed, playing in MLS; he looked a bit like Maykel Galindo out there.  Whatever it was, they’re gone.  So…now who do I pull for?

I’ll stick with the underdogs, of course, but think I’ll pull for Etoile Sportive du Sahel; maybe they can stun Boca Juniors Wednedsay morning.  Probably not, I know, but, another upset – and a big one – would do this tournament good.

CWC: CONCACAF’s Pride and Place in the World

Etoile Sportive du Sahel 1 – 0 CF Pachuca

It wasn’t as if Pachuca didn’t do itself, or the CONCACAF region, proud last night. Outside the first twenty minutes and off the score-sheet, they carried the game in terms of possession and aggression. In spite of the general advantage, however, Pachuca couldn’t force clear-cut openings in the Etoile Sportive du Sahel (hereafter, ESS or “the Tunisians'”) defense. As such, when ESS finally scored – off the kind of narrow chance, in fact, that characterized the game – Pachuca couldn’t swing the reply.

Even so, Pachuca looked the better team; play this game 10 times and Pachuca wins about seven of them. Thanks to the skill and understanding in the side, their passes slipped into and out of the narrowest confines everywhere on the field but the Tunisians’ defensive third; there, they tried plenty of quick give-and-goes – and pulled off a couple, at least in the wide portions of the field – but found themselves thwarted again and again by the second-to-last defender. They still created some openings where a Pachuca player had at least part of the goal to shoot at and room to fire, but the angles were such that the ball always seemed within the ESS ‘keeper’s reach – or it went just over the bar.

To give them credit, ESS just proved hard to beat; the quality of their defending limited Pachuca’s opportunities. And given the kind of opportunity that the Mexicans couldn’t finish all night, their guy (Moussa Nary) put it away – albeit, courtesy of a deflection. Their capacity to concentrate defensively, however, should do them some good when they meet Boca Juniors in the semifinals. Going the other way – e.g. on offense – well…maybe the team should lengthen the prayer they offered just before kick-off against Pachuca. Continue reading