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.

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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.

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.

World Club Cup: Sepahan (Iran) 3-1 Waitakere United (New Zealand)

A clarifying thought came to me as I saw Waitakere United’s Jason Hayne come on for Christopher Bale somewhere around the 60th minute.  When you’re part of team to whom fell the misfortune of demonstrating the gap between professionals and part-timers, well, what do you have to lose?  Go out there loose, get a high from playing against people on a higher level in front of thousands, and just…play.  This is supposed to be fun, dammit.

Hayne’s substitution came ten minutes or so after Iran’s Sepahan scored its third, and final, goal on their way to a 3-1 win.  Abudl Wahab Abu Al Hail put a sliced, outward curve on the long-range shot, which made a slow-rolling mockery of the Waitakere ‘keeper’s decision to try to catch it.  The irony of that particular moment grew from the fact that, if forced to choose between the two ‘keepers on the field – Waitakere’s Simon Eaddy and Sepahan’s Mohammad Savari – I would go with Eaddy in a heartbeat…that precise moment excepted, of course.

In goal was just about the only spot on the field where Waitakere enjoyed an advantage.  The Iranian side passed more crisply, moved smarter off the ball and found a couple ways around – or, worse, through – the New Zealanders’ (hereafter, Kiwis) back line.  Forget the final score for a second; a more relevant statistic appeared during the first half, when my TV told me that Sepahan enjoyed a 71-to-29% advantage in possession.  Even with the game ending on a more equitable 66-to-34 breakdown, that edge proved more telling than usual.  Waitakere continually gave away the ball or, where their key forward, Benjamin Totori, was concerned, dribbled into dead-ends.

Given that, the late rally the New Zealanders (hereafter, Kiwis) put together seems a little more impressive.  Doubly impressive, in fact, given that they were part-timers going against full pros; normally, one would expect the professionals to gain the advantage as the game wears on.  This goes back to my theory that the Kiwis decided to make their one-game on the global stage more about getting kicks than getting results.  Whatever happened, they got forward more and, hence, around Sepahan’s back line a couple times – most notably when Totori found some use for his soloist’s skills. Continue reading

World Club Cup: A “Minnows” Primer

Now that I’ve got the bug – and, no less crucially, the indulgence of my wife with regard to TV time – I’m going to make an honest stab at covering the 2007 FIFA World Club Cup.  The first step begins, of course, with education – specifically, getting up to date on the clubs that aren’t world-renowned (e.g. Argentina’s Boca Juniors and Italy’s AC Milan) or that I haven’t seen play three times in the last year (Mexico’s CF Pachuca).

With that in mind, I pulled together some reading on the remaining clubs competing in this year’s World Club Cup (a.k.a. FIFA’s latest money-spinning scheme/methadone fix for soccer addicts the world over.  You don’t own me!  Get out of my mind!!).  I hope it will go some distance to making any viewing more pleasurable.

Sepahan (Iran)
The profile posted on the FIFA site gives dramatic background on this Iranian club’s arrival to the World Club Cup.  Some way or another, their loss to Japan’s entrants, Urawa Red Diamonds, in the obliges them to win a play-in against Oceania’s representatives.  They also mention the fact that, Ehad Mohammed, one of Sepahan’s key forwards, is Iraqi…kinda neat.  On a related note, the Wikipedia entry on Sepahan shows nationalities for all the team’s players – and, lo and behold, there’s another Iraqi in there.  I pull for Iraqis by habit lately.  And, on another related note, I read that their domestic league has recommenced play after an 18-month layoff. Continue reading

Methadone Clocking: The World Club Cup! Saved from UEFA Cup Viewing!*

* I kid. I kid. I just won’t get to it this week.

It’s only when the desperation gets one poking under the cushions of soccertv.com that one truly realizes the full-time nature of the global soccer calendar. I see now that waiting won’t be at all necessary, not with the U.S. U-17s in action all weekend long; they start Thursday, in fact. And the opposition – the U-17 teams from Brazil, Turkey, and Russia – should make for some fun viewing.

But that’s not if I’m not too busy watching the World Club Cup. Yippee!! Tournaments! What better way to justify recording all kinds of soccer, hogging the TV, etc.? That one kicks off Friday with a play-in game between Iran’s Sepahan (looks like soccertv.com has a typo) and New Zealand’s Waitakere United. The games follow hot and heavy from there with Mexico’s CF Pachuca taking on Etoile Sahel from Tunisia. This one only lasts till December 16, so you might miss it if you blink. On a side note, go, our region!

Credit to Sports Illustrated for the reminder. Surely, there’s an official site out there somewhere….ah, here it is. Full schedule, teams, and so on. The only question now is how I’m going to watch the NCAA finals with this going on. What are my priorities?

So, in all seriousness, I’m going to take a crack at catching/covering most of this one. I hope it’s fun.