Theirry Henry: the unlikely ambassador of American soccer

Henry celebrates his goal against Leeds

French legend Henry gives the MLS a boost. American (semi)legend Wynalda? Not so much...

Today was a day of ups and downs for the global image of the USA’s domestic professional league, Major League Soccer.

I spent my morning bus ride to school reading Eric Wynalda’s rantings on how the MLS has failed over at the Free Beer Movement (a website you should check out, if you don’t know about it already). Wynalda criticizes the MLS’s failure to involve early American players (like himself) who gave up overseas careers to play in the new league in it’s development. He also criticizes Jurgen Klinsmann’s vision for the USMNT. My personal opinions on these subjects aside, one of America’s most prolific former players trash talking the MLS isn’t exactly great publicity. This was a down.

Fast forward a few hours. Thierry Henry, on loan to Arsenal from the NY Red Bulls, scores the game-winning goal against Leeds United. An up for MLS. A big up.

Both Americans and Europeans alike love to bash the MLS as a “retirement league”. It seems like every time a high-profile player signs with the league – Beckham, Marquez, Angel, Henry, Ljunberg – we inevitably hear how they are only coming to the MLS to play because they are washed up, fit only for retirement, and can offer nothing more in “real” leagues. Henry’s goal today provides a nice counterpoint to these sorts of arguments. French club PSG’s interest in David Beckham recently is another, along with Landon Donovan’s successful loan stints with Everton. Although the overall quality of the league isn’t on par with the best European leagues, the MLS is certainly more than a retirement league – and players who ply their trade in it can compete with the best teams in the global game. Henry’s goal today is just the latest proof of that fact, and it sure feels nice.

Dempsey v Donovan in the FA Cup

A great matchup for USA fans coming up later this month, as Fulham and Everton are set to meet in the 4th round of the FA Cup. Clint Dempsey has been ridiculously en fuego for Fulham this season, scoring 12 goals across all competitions, and a hat trick yesterday to set up the Fulham/Everton match. On the other side, Landon Donovan is back on loan with Everton, and notched an assist in his second match with the club, in their 2-0 victory over Tamworth on Saturday.

Given that Dempsey typically plays on the left, and Donovan out on the right wing, USA fans will have a rare chance to see their two best attacking players go head-to-head – very exciting stuff. The game will be played on the weekend of January 28/29, at Everton.

Keep your head up, Gonzo – and remember Gooch

How quickly life has changed for LA Galaxy and USA defender Omar Gonzalez.

Gonzo injured

Omar Gonzalez suffers a torn ACL in his first practice with FC Nurnberg.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a USMNT fan not upset by the news that Gonzo has torn his ACL while practicing with Bundesliga club FC Nurnberg, where he went on loan less than two days ago. While injuries are undeniably a part of professional sports, this one is particularly devastating under the circumstances. Gonzo has been in top form with the LA Galaxy over the past two years, anchoring the backline and helping lead the team to an MLS championship last season. He recently attended his first USMNT camp under Jurgen Klinsman, only to withdraw after the first day to pursue his loan opportunity with Nurnberg, who were reportedly interested in purchasing him over the summer. He sustained the knee injury in his first practice with the German club, and is expected to be out at least 6 months.

I doubt anyone is more disappointed by this news than Omar himself. I’ve been seeing the outpouring of support on Twitter from fans and players alike. I’d like to add to this support by reminding Gonzo that injuries like this are a setback, but can be overcome. Examples abound, but one eerily analogous to Gonzo’s injury is the recent history of Oguchi Onyewu.

Any USA fan will remember Gooch’s knee injury suffered against Costa Rica in 2010 World Cup qualifying play back in 2009. Like Gonzo, Gooch was a big, physical central defender expected to help anchor the USA backline (though Gooch was admittedly a more established part of the squad). Like Gonzo, Gooch suffered a somewhat flukish injury – twisting his knee on an awkward headed clearance, with little challenge from any Costa Rican player. And, like Gonzo, the injury was expected to sideline Gooch for a long time.

Gooch ended up out for six months, missing most of the 2010 season with his club, AC Milan. He returned in time to make the USA 2010 World Cup squad, but didn’t look the same, and played in only two of the tournament’s matches, watching the rest from the bench. He fell out of favor with AC Milan, despite his decision to play a season for no wages to compensate for his injury, and was loaned out to Dutch club FC Twente. He got playing time there, but still looked out of form at the 2011 Gold Cup, and began to be benched in favor of other centerback options, like Clarence Goodson and Tim Ream. Around the time of the Gold Cup, writers and fans began murmuring that the Gooch era was over, and that Gooch’s career with the USMNT was effectively finished.

This part of Gooch’s journey won’t be of much inspiration to Gonzalez as he begins his rehab. More recent parts should be, however. Gooch continued to train hard, and was loaned out to Portugese club Sporting Libson. He steadily regained his form, and earned his first callup under Jurgen Klinsmann back in October, playing a big role in the USA’s first victory of the Klinsmann era against Honduras. He continued to play well for Sporting, and just a few days ago, he scored the game-tying goal for his club late in a cup match – his third goal with the club, all of them either game-tying or game-winning. I consider this goal to be symbolic of Gooch’s comeback, so here’s a video of it:

This is a longer-winded post than I intended, but the point is this. Omar Gonzalez, the USMNT community is devastated by your injury, but probably not as devastated as you. Keep your head up, Gonzo – and remember Gooch and his journey. Here’s to a speedy recovery.

Hiatus (Hopefully) Over

I’ve had this site on hiatus for several months now, mostly due to my beginning my first semester at law school. I’m just getting my first semester grades now, and I met my goals in terms of how well I wanted to be doing. I was disappointed in the amount of time I was spending doing things outside of law school – seeing friends, following soccer, exercising, etc. As such, I’m going to make an effort this semester to resume something resembling an normal life, rather than devoting my entire being to law school.

Hopefully that means more frequent posts on this site. The next six months are going to be an exciting time for US soccer: upcoming friendlies, Olympic qualifying, World Cup qualifying – some really fun stuff. I’ve got a few ideas for posts for the next few days – see you soon!

Know Thy Enemy: USA v Honduras

** UPDATE

I foolishly missed bringing up the best part about Honduras – the USA was the reason Los Catrachos qualified for the 2010 World Cup, thanks to a last-minute header from fan favorite Jonathan Bornstein in qualifying against Costa Rica.

A quick Wikipedia search on Honduras, the USA’s next friendly opponent on Saturday, reveals a few interesting tidbits:

- Their biggest regional rival is Costa Rica. In fact, the rivalry even has a name: el clasico centroamericano. Honduras has won a majority of the matches.
- Honduras has qualified twice for the World Cup: once in 2010, and once in 1982. They have failed to make it out of the group stage both times.
- Honduras won the CONCACAF Championship (before it was known as the Gold Cup) in 1981. They also eliminated our dreaded rivals Mexico from the 1982 World Cup in that tournament, which served as the qualifier. Good for Honduras.
- Their nickname, Los Catrachos, translates to, um, the Hondurans.

I’ve been looking at all this information with the purpose of trying to come up with some sort of creative, informed, and appropriately irksome chant to pass on to the American Outlaws. Folks over at US Soccer aren’t so pleased with the “You Suck Asshole” chant typically yelled during goal kicks by the Outlaws. I’ve been inspired to come up with something good, but I’m admittedly having a tough time coming up with something.

Anyhow, looking at the good guys, I’m excited to see what Klinsy does with the group of players he has at his disposal. The player I’m most excited to see: Michael Bradley. I feel like many USA fans are quick to forget the talent and composure he brings to the squad (friendly against Spain, anyone?). Granted, he’s not an offensive powerhouse – but at this point in time, USA soccer isn’t geared towards fantastic offensive play. Just take a look at our striker pool. What we ARE geared towards right now is possession, and keeping more of it, consistently. MB90 is perfect for that, and I’m glad to see him back in camp.

Also interested to see how Gooch does back in the mix. He’s been playing well in Portugal, and there have been recent glimpses of what made him such an exciting player when he was fit.

Given the players in camp, here’s the roster I’d like to see (left to right):

Howard
Chandler, Boca, Gooch, Cherundolo
Edu, Bradley
Shea, Williams, Dempsey
Altidore

Chandler out on the left given our lack of options there, especially with this roster. Could see Boca getting pushed out there, with one of the other central defenders in camp (Ream, Orozco) moving into the middle. Williams may be tried out there as well.

Edu and Bradley as dual destroyers, with Bradley playing the more offensive role, covering for Edu if he makes a run upfield.

Shea as a left winger, Dempsey on the right with freedom to roam. Tough call on who to place in the middle here. I saw in this Yanks Abroad article (great article, by the way) that Daniel Williams’ (the latest German-American to join the USA) preferred position is in the midfield, though typically I think in a more defensive role. We could really use Torres or Holden here; unfortunately both are out due to injury. If Landon was healthy, I’d stick him on the right and Deuce in the hole. Since that’s not the case, I say throw Williams in and let him show what he can do.

Jozy Altidore, en fuego in the Netherlands, starts up top.

Go USA!

Know Thy Enemy: USA v Belgium prematch thoughts

Who knew there was more to Belgium than spicy, complex ales and delicious waffles?

Thanks to americanfutbol good friend “Ninja” Pat Foster for the link to this great ESPN article on the history and current state of Belgian soccer. Check it out.

As for this afternoon’s friendly, I’m off to class and will have to catch the replay on ESPN 3 when I get back home. Should be a tough game for the States and a good test. My ideal lineup:

Altidore, Dempsey
Shea, Klestjan, Rogers
Beckerman
Castillo, Boca, Goodson, Dolo
Howard

With Dempsey given freedom to roam and find the ball. Could see Chandler getting a look at left back; I have a bad feeling Castillo will get eaten alive by the Belgian attack.

Go USA!

(Quick) post-match thoughts: USA v CRC

Had the good fortune to be able to catch Friday’s USA v CRC game in person at the Home Depot Center. A decidedly more pro-USA atmosphere than the last USA game I attended – the Gold Cup final against Mexico in Pasadena. Here’s a few thoughts:

- Edgar Castillo still looks shaky at left back. He didn’t perform very well against Mexico in Philadelphia, either. Given the USA’s lack of options at left back, I fully expect him to start against Belgium, however. On a positive note, Castillo had a few bright moments where he cut inside from the left wing, showing his speed and dribbling abilities. On a negative note, he mucked up a few crosses and looked generally off. Overall, I like Eric Lichaj as our left back – hope he recovers from his injury soon.

- Brek Shea is a beast. I thought he was the best player for the USA on the night – making great passes, decent crosses, and putting himself in good positions. I found myself wanting him to take players on 1 v 1 a little more – but his interplay with the rest of the team, especially Torres and Altidore, was excellent. Looking forward to seeing him and Dempsey on at the same time; I think they can really complement one another.

- Jozy Altidore is improving. He’s scoring in the Eredivisie (Dutch premier league) and his confidence showed with the USA. He’s still being asked to play the lone striker/target forward role – arguably not the best position for him to play, since I think he needs another forward to help create chances on goal – and I thought he did a very good job on Friday. The best I’ve seen from Jozy in a long time.

- Costa Rica is developing into the USA’s number-two rival in CONCACAF. Things got dirty fast in the second half, with lots of passion and emotion from both sides. For more on this, see my earlier post on the Yank-Tico rivalry.

That’s it for now; looking forward to seeing the USA back in action again on Tuesday.

USA v CRC pre-game thoughts

A rare break in my law school reading to put down some thoughts I’ve been having in light of the USA v CRC friendly tomorrow night. Which I’m going to. Pumped.

This is my first real attempt at discussing formations. I’ll admit outright that I know very little in terms of formation strategy, the overall team dynamic of each type, individual roles, etc. What I do know a lot about is the individual players the USA has at its disposal: their strengths, their weaknesses, etc. So, with that in mind, what follows is a little brain-dump on how I think the USA can best leverage the skills of the players available for the next two friendlies.

———————————————————

For most of Bob Bradley’s tenure, the USA seemed stuck in a 4-4-2 formation. Plenty of reading is floating around there on why that formation didn’t work for the USA, but the fact of the matter is that it was the go-to strategy for a good portion of the last several years. At the very end of his reign, Bradley began experimenting with different formations, and began to settle into using a more exciting (for fans, in my opinion) 4-2-3-1.

In a 4-4-2, the strategy is often one of aerial overload: defenders boot the ball over the top to big, physical forwards, largely bypassing the midfield. Truth be told, the 4-4-2 may have fit our player pool back in 2009-2010. We had slow, physically dominating but technically inferior center backs (DeMerit, Onyewu); equally dominating but technically inferior forwards (Altidore, Buddle); and a rotating lineup of talented midfielders that couldn’t quite mesh into a coherent attacking unit (Bradley, Edu, Torres, Clark, Donovan, Dempsey, among others). This is oversimplifying the situation, but I think the overall point that the 4-4-2 may have been a reasonable formation for our personnel still stands. Regardless, it’s a boring and frustrating formation to watch, relying on counter-attacks and conceding lots of possession to the other team.

The 4-2-3-1 placed more emphasis on the midfield controlling possession and linking the ball from the defense to the wings/forward, via the defensive and linking midfielders. What I don’t like about the 4-2-3-1 is that, to me, it seems to still be a very defensive-oriented formation. You still have 4 backs, and 2 midfielders acting, for the most part, like backs. Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones slotted in as the defensive midfielders fairly well, but the attack tended to stagnate when it was worked through them.

Today, I saw a sports writer suggest that the USA use a 4-1-4-1 formation against CRC – and loved it. The USA has no shortage of quality (some admittedly unproven at the international level) center backs: Bocanegra, Goodson, Whitbread, Gonzalez, John (as long as we snag him first), Ream, among others. What’s more, these backs have a level of technical skill above that of players like DeMerit and Gooch; it is less necessary to have two defensive midfielders when defenders like Ream and Goodson are fully capable of picking out good forward (ground-based) passes on their own. Against Costa Rica, a Bocanegra/Goodson pairing seems like a solid fit to me.

In the current camp, Edu sticks out to me as the only “destroyer”-type defensive midfielder that the USA is so accustomed to having in front of the center backs. In a 4-1-4-1, he plays the part of the 1, covering for outside backs that get forward and clogging up the attack through the middle. I think this role suits him well: Edu has never struck me as a quality attacking midfielder; his primary strengths seem to be defensively-oriented.

The USA has something in the current camp it isn’t used to having: multiple attack-minded central midfielders with excellent passing abilities and good technical skills. That would be Jose Francisco Torres and Sacha Klestjan. In a 4-1-4-1, either player could play directly in front of Edu, working the ball from Edu and the back line out to the wings or through the middle.

On the wings, the USA again has something it isn’t used to: two quality wingers in Brek Shea and Robbie Rogers, both with great dribbling skills and excellent speed. They should slot in slightly above and on either side of Torres/Klestjan, with Shea on the left and Rogers on the right.

Landon Donovan often played out on the wings in the old 4-4-2, and also in the 4-2-3-1. I like Landon best when he has license to roam the entire field, and minimal defensive responsibilities (though his work rate ensures he will usually track back to help out). With Shea and Rogers out on the wings, Donovan can slot in at the top of the group of 4 midfielders, above and between Shea and Rogers. Here, he can make runs back to receive the ball from Torres/Klestjan, or pop out to the wings to help create opportunities with Shea/Rogers. He can also crash the box when one of the wingers is able to get the ball deep down the sideline. Besides Clint Dempsey, Donovan is the player I want most in the box on offense – let’s face it, he scores when clutch goals are needed.

What’s left is a solitary 1 up top. Altidore seems like a good fit given the player pool currently in camp: he’s physical, can hold up play, and can be a threat in the air. Agudelo could slot in here as well, with the added bonus that he will track back to receive the ball from Donovan, the wingers, or even Torres/Klestjan.

What I end up with is this:

———————-Altidore————————–
———————-Donovan—————————
—Shea—————————————Rogers—-
——————-Torres/Klestjan———————-
————————Edu—————————–
–Castillo—-Bocanegra———-Goodson——Chandler–
———————–Howard—————————

Boom. Let’s see what actually happens tomorrow!

A long interlude, and more to come, but…

Sorry for the utter negligence of this blog as of late. I’m about to start law school tomorrow – so I very much doubt I’ll be updating this blog with any frequency for quite some time. If you’re interested in still seeing what I have to say from time to time, be sure to follow me on Twitter (@americanfutblog).

The American soccer landscape has changed a lot since the last time I posted – and I’ll not try to get caught up here. Looking forward, I’m stoked to see the Mexico match tomorrow and get a first glimpse at what the USA senior team will look like under Jurgen Klinsman.

For the record, and because I like seeing how well I know USA coaches/players, I want to give a guess at what lineup we’ll see starting tomorrow. This is tough, with no previous games to go off of and a roster composed of an equal mix of standby veterans, up-and-comers, and perpetual fringe players. That said, I think Jurgen comes out conservatively for the most part, using most of the veterans and perhaps making subs at halftime to give other players a run. Here’s what I could see:

G: Howard
D: Loyd, Ream, Bocanegra, Cherundolo
DM: Bradley, Jones
AM: Donovan, Torres, Rogers
F: Buddle

Hoping to see the USA pull off a favorable result against our rival here – though the game will certainly be overshadowed by the humiliating 4-2 defeat we suffered in the Gold Cup final. I’m particularly excited to see Torres, who I think could play a big role with the USA if given the chance, and Castillo, who might have what it takes to fill the hole at left back.

Until next time, go Jurgen and go USA!

September friendlies, USWNT, and more

This is a busy time in americanfutbol’s actual (non-soccer) life, so I apologize for the lack of posts.

A few items to satiate your American soccer fix over the next few days:

- US Soccer officially announced two USMNT September friendlies, the first against Costa Rica in Carson, CA (I’ll probably be there), and the second against Belgium in Brussels (won’t make it across the pond). Good competition for the USA – Costa Rica is a solid top-four CONCACAF team with no shortage of animosity towards American soccer (see my earlier post on the blossoming rivalry). And Belgium is a quality European side as well, finishing as high as fourth (1986) at the World Cup. Speculation on rosters is already beginning, but the general sentiment in the blogosphere seems to be that the Costa Rica match will feature USA players who ply their trade in North America (MLS/Mexico), while the Belgium fixture will see those playing in Europe. I agree with this speculation. I’m also expecting to see the USA use these friendlies as a place to start putting together the U-23 roster that will participate (assuming we qualify) in the 2012 Olympics, so my guess is we’ll be seeing an emphasis on youth rather than experience (ie, not too many regular first-teamers).

- USWNT: I’m currently watching the USA ladies do their best to erase a 2-0 deficit to Sweden in the final group-stage game of the Women’s World Cup. I’ve admittedly never watched women’s soccer before (for shame), and have to admit I’m liking it. These ladies can play. The USA is guaranteed to go through to the knockout round regardless of what happens here today, but the first-place finish in the group stage is on the line.

- Wondergoal: Darlington Nagbe’s incredible goal over the weekend is my frontrunner for goal of the year in the MLS. Born in Liberia, Nagbe has indicated his interest in playing for the USA, though he is still in the process of getting his green card. If he keeps scoring goals like this, he’ll certainly be garnering attention from the USA national team.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.