U.S. U-17s Win CONCACAF Title on Golazo by Nathan Smith

They’d already qualified for the U-17 World Cup with a quarterfinal victory over El Salvador, but the U.S. still wanted to win the regional qualifying tournament for the first time since 1992. Last night, thanks to a spectacular 35-yard curling shot in extra time from defender Nathan Smith, they did just that.

Here’s the goal:

Pinged in off the post, brilliantly—and is it us or is No. 7 (Alfred Koroma) mighty slow to react to his team’s amazing, probable game-winning goal?

In any event, it was a deserved win for the Yanks, who gave up some early chances to the Canucks, but then dominated the game, and added two more goals in extra time for a 3-0 final scoreline.

Pretty much the entire second half was played in Canada’s end, with the U.S. looking technically and athletically superior—but maybe not tactically: The young Americans could not find a way to unlock Canada’s D, which had not surrendered a goal all tournament before last night.

Smith changed that with his 92nd-minute golazo, and then Andrew Oliver and Koroma added goals at the 100- and 119-minute marks, respectively.

Complete highlights here:

The U.S. beat Jamaica 2-0 to advance to last night’s final. All four semifinalists—Canada, Jamaica, Panama and the U.S.—will play in the U-17 World Cup in June.

MLS Roundup: El Pescadito Returns; Playoffs Revamped

On Tuesday, the Philadelphia Union announced the signing of well-traveled 31-year-old Guatemalan striker Carlos Ruiz, who had been training with the club in presesason.

Ruiz comes to Philly on loan from Greek club Aris, and if he can recapture even 50% of his 2002 form with the Los Angeles Galaxy, he’ll be great value for the Union.

That season, El Pescadito scored a blazing 24 goals in 26 regular-season games, then added an MLS playoff-record eight goals and two assists in the postseason to lead the Galaxy to the final against New England. LA won the title game 1-0 with Ruiz scoring the goal in overtime.

His MLS Cup–winner is not on the InterWebs for some reason (the Backpost intern couldn’t find it anyway), but here’s Ruiz scoring a hat-trick for the Galaxy in a 2008 exhibition against Shanghai, with the first one coming off an effortless, inch-perfect chip from David Beckham:

That was from Ruiz’s second stint with Los Angeles; his first one ended in 2005, after which he went to FC Dallas for three years.

His return to Los Angeles was hampered by a knee injury, and the Galaxy traded him to Toronto FC in August of 2008. The Reds released him at the end of that season, and he’s since had stints with Olimpia Asuncion of Paraguay, Mexican side Puebla, and Aris.

On Wednesday, MLS unveiled its expanded playoff format, which looks like this:

The top three teams in each conference will get automatic bids to the postseason, and then the next four best teams—regardless of conference affiliation—will play one-game, wild-card play-in matches (seven-seed vs ten; eight vs nine). The wild cards will then get re-seeded, if necessary, so that the lowest surviving seed meets the Supporters’ Shield winner (top overall seed) in the conference semifinals.

Got that?

As before, the conference semifinals will be home-and-away aggregate series, and the conference finals and MLS Cup will be one-game battles.

Many, many people have a huge problem with the new format and with the MLS playoffs in general. We don’t. Until MLS gets promotion-relegation (and perhaps another extra-league competition beyond the CONCACAF Champions League), playoffs are the way to go. Otherwise you risk loads of meaningless games late in the season.

Soccer America‘s Paul Gardner makes a nice case for what’s right and what’s wrong about the MLS playoffs right here.

We don’t often agree with Gardner—whose columns sometimes read like a series of “harrumph, harrumph harrumphs” to us—but we think he nailed it on this one, especially regarding the arbitrary geographic designations of the conferences.

Worried that an Eastern team might win the Western Conference title due to the quirky nature of the MLS playoffs? Rename the conferences, sans geography, and … problem solved.

In other MLS news, the league is reviewing the incident that got New England players Shalrie Joseph and Kevin Alston sent home from training camp last weekend. Apparently, Joseph was arrested for trespassing at the team hotel. Details remain scarce, but the plot thickens slightly.

Look What the Cat Dragged In….

Mr. David Beckham graced the Home Depot Center and the Los Angeles Galaxy with his presence today, participating in his first preseason training session of 2011 with his MLS employers.

He also posted a newsflash for the attending media: His focus has been with the Galaxy all along! Who knew? From the MLS website:

“My main objective was to get fit for the Galaxy and for the MLS season,” Beckham said after training. “My main objective wasn’t to play for a Premiership team. Even if I would have been on loan, even if I would have played the games, this is the time I was always going to come back.”

That quote could make a good launch point for Seth Myers’ “Really!?!” segment on SNL‘s “Weekend Update.”

But before we go judging Becks (any further), check out Landon Donovan rushing to his teammate’s defense with a bold “none of us should judge Beckham” for his offseason choices. “The only person who knows what’s going on and what the real story is,” Donovan proclaimed, “is David.”

Really, Landon?

The Galaxy heads to Georgia early next week for the Atlanta Pro Soccer Challenge preseason tourney.

U.S. U-17s Win Batty Quarterfinal, Advance to World Cup

The U.S. Under-17s withstood two late red cards and a penalty kick to hold off El Salvador yesterday in the CONCACAF quarterfinals and clinch a berth in this summer’s U-17 World Cup in Mexico (June 18 to July 10).

Alejandro Guido opened the scoring for the Yanks just four minutes in, but El Salvador quickly equalized, getting a goal from Jose Pena in the ninth minute.

Things got dicey for the U.S. from that point forward, even though they produced a 17-4 advantage in shots.

El Salvador provoked a couple of excellent saves from U.S. keeper Fernando Pina in this do-or-die qualifier. (The Americans’ record streak of 13 consecutive berths in the U-17 World Cup was on the line; they are the only nation to have played in every edition of the tournament.) The U.S. created chances as well, but neither team could find the net again in regulation.

In overtime, though, Marc Pelosi and Guido took over for the Yanks. Pelosi made a nice run down the left in the 95th minute before unselfishly putting it on a platter for substitute Mario Rodriguez (who started the play) to bury and make it 2-1, U.S.:

Twelve minutes later, after some brilliant work by Guido at the edge of the box, Pelosi tucked home to make it 3-1 U.S.:

Game over, right?

Hardly. Soon after Pelosi’s goal, U.S. left back Kellyn Acosta (who’s only 15, btw) was sent off for picking up his second yellow card, and then American netminder Pina was booted for fouling El Salvador’s captain, Diego Galdamez, in the box. This gave El Salvador a penalty and reduced the U.S. to nine men.

El Salvador’s goal-scorer Pena was also sent off for retaliating against the U.S. keeper, making it 10-on-nine in favor of the Salvadorans.

Geraldo Iraheta put the penalty away to cut the U.S. lead to 3-2 in the 120th minute, but El Salvador never threatened in three minutes of stoppage time.

Joseph, Alston Sent Home from Revs Camp

New England’s Shalrie Joseph has been one of the better players in Major League Soccer during the past eight years, and arguably the best holding midfielder in the league during that span.

He helped lead the Revs to three straight MLS Cup appearances (2005-07) and is a four-time MLS Best XI selection (2005-09).

In 2007 and ’08, Glasgow giants Celtic made repeated bids for the dominating, 6-3 midfielder, but had their offers—of $1 million in ’07 and $2 million in ’08—rejected by MLS.

Joseph’s on-field performance has never been questioned, but last April, we saw the first chink in his off-field armor, as the Grenadian left the Revs to join the MLS substance abuse and behavioral health program.

He returned to New England in May and finished the year without incident, but now he appears to have gone off the rails again. Over the weekend, New England coach Steve Nicol dismissed Joseph, the Revs’ captain, and young defender Kevin Alston, from the team’s Orlando, Fla., training camp.

No one from the Revs has offered any specifics on the reason for the suspension, but vice president of player personnel Mike Burns, when asked if the pair would return to the team, New England  said, “Not for this trip.”

Veteran goalkeeper Matt Reis, who, along with Joseph, is the longest-serving player on the Revs roster had this to say:

“Every year you have to deal with things that are out of your control. As a team, the main thing we have to worry about is the guys who are with us, the guys who are here. We have to prepare for the season. It’s very unfortunate, very distracting, something I think could have been avoided. But we have to move on and we can’t stop doing what we’re doing to get ready for the season just because two guys aren’t here. So, we’ll go from there.”

That “something I think could have been avoided” comment is interesting. How so? A towel at the foot of the door? A spritz of Binaca?  (We kid, we kid.)

Nicol didn’t have much to say, but if we read between the lines of what he did say, we conclude that the Revs’ coach is ticked off:

“It’s not ideal, but everyone is professional here and you don’t want any of your teammates not to be here. But, at the same time, everyone is a good pro and, at the end of the day, you blow the whistle and roll the ball out and you play. That’s the main concern.”

He’s not making a whole lot of sense there, but he does repeat the phrase about everyone being a professional, seeming (in a soundbite version of sputtering rage) to call into question the professionalism of the suspended pair.

This is a big setback for Alston too. The 22-year-old defender received his first U.S. national-team call-up in 2010, and this definitely was not the way he wanted to kick off his 2011 season.

Yanks-in-England Quiz Answers and Weekend Preview

Multiple emails flew into the BP headquarters during the past two days as readers hazarded their best guesses at Wednesday’s Yanks-in-England Quiz.

Today, we’re pleased to announce our winner, Chicago-based reader Abes Army. He nailed six of the 10 questions, and wins a copy of Brilliant OrangeDavid Winner’s entertaining portrait of Dutch soccer and how it got that way—for his efforts. Strong work, Abes Army.

Here are the questions again, followed by the correct answers:

1.     How many Americans have played in the Premier League this season? (Ninety-nine point-nine-percent sure it’s a record, too.)

ANSWER: 10. Friedel, Howard, Hahnemann, Lichaj, Spector Holden, Jones, Dempsey, Bradley, Johnson. (Guzan is on the books at Aston Villa but made no Prem appearances this season before going on loan to Hull.)

2.     How many Americans have played in the Premier League since it began in 1992?

ANSWER: 33. See complete list here.

3.     Which American has the most Premier League appearances?

ANSWER: Brad Friedel, 389 and counting.

4.     Which Yank has the most Premier League goals?

ANSWER: Brian McBride, 36 (Premier League competition only. Clint Dempsey is second with 30, and counting.]

5.     I’ve played for four Premier League teams, more than any other Yank. Who am I?

ANSWER: Kasey Keller (Leicester, Tottenham, Southampton, Fulham)

6.     I had a brief stint at Coventry. It did not go well. Who am I?

ANSWER: Cobi Jones

7.     I’m probably the most obscure player on the list. I made one appearance for Bolton, as an 85th-minute sub, in 2006. Later made 14 appearances for Toronto FC. Still only 23, but currently unattached, I am….?

ANSWER: Johann Smith. He was signed to the Bolton academy as a Connecticut high-schooler.

8.     Which outfield American player has the most Premier League appearances?

ANSWER: McBride, 148

9.     Who has more Premier League appearances, Landon Donvoan or Benny Feilhaber?

ANSWER: Trick question—they each have 10.

10. I am about to overtake Eddie Lewis (25 appearances for Fulham and Derby County) for 18 th place on the appearances list for Americans in the Prem. Who am I?

ANSWER: Stuart Holden.

*Bonus trivia: McBride and Dempsey are currently co-holders of the record for the most goals scored by an American (nine) in a Premier League season. Deuce has 11 games left to break the record. (And yes, that means his missed penalty against Chelsea would have given him the record.)

Some of the guys involved in our quiz will be in action this weekend, when the FA Cup returns to the fore in England.

On Saturday, American netminder Tim Howard and Everton travel to Stamford Bridge for a fourth-round meeting with Chelsea (Fox Soccer Channel, 7:30 a.m. EST).

The following day, U.S. national teamers Stuart Holden and Clint Dempsey could square off as Bolton visits Fulham in a fifth-round FA Cup tilt (Fox Soccer Plus, 11:00 a.m. [delay]).

On President’s Day, U.S. defender-turned-West Ham midfielder Jonathan Spector should be involved as the Hammers host second-tier Burnley in the fifth-round of the FA Cup.

The State of U.S. Division 2 Soccer

Division 2 soccer went into limbo in the United States following the conclusion of the 2010 season.

That season had been made possible—after months of feuding between the NASL and the USL—by an 11th-hour provisional sanctioning from the United States Soccer Federation, good for one year only.

The league was called the USSF D-2 Pro League and it consisted of two six-team conferences. At the close of the season, two of its teams (Portland and Vancouver) made the jump to Major League Soccer, one (Rochester Rhinos) self-relegated to the third-tier USL Pro Division, two (Austin Aztex, AC St. Louis) folded, and one (Crystal Palace Baltimore) went on hiatus.

That left six teams twisting in the wind.

They eventually conscripted two more franchises (FC Edmonton and the Atlanta Silverbacks, who’d been on hiatus for several years) to form a reconstituted NASL, and put in a plea for Division 2 status.

Finally, on Feb 12, the eight-team league received D-2 sanctioning from the federation. Its season will kick off as planned on April 9.

That was the good news—we’ll get to the bad in a second—and here are the eight NASL teams:

Atlanta Silverbacks

Carolina Railhawks

FC Edmonton

Fort Lauderdale Strikers (formerly Miami FC)

Montreal Impact*

NSC Minnesota

FC Tampa Bay Rowdies

Puerto Rico Islanders

* Montreal will join MLS in 2012; its NASL replacement will be the San Antonio Scorpions.

Now the bad news: The league is in dire financial straits and the delayed sanctioning means that the five U.S.-based NASL clubs will not be allowed to participate in the U.S. Open Cup, the nation’s oldest tournament.

That’s a blow to league visibility and credibility as the USOC presents an opportunity to compete against MLS clubs in meaningful games, and it grants the tourney winner a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League.

NASL CEO Aaron Davidson acknowledged those missed opportunities while also suggesting that the exclusion could be a blessing in disguise: “Frankly, from our perspective—I don’t want this to come out the wrong way—but we need to focus on our league right now,” he told IndyWeek.com. “The U.S. Open Cup is a phenomenal tournament….But, at the end of the day, we all know we’d rather focus on this league this season.”

D.C. Goalkeepers Coach Pat Onstad Becomes … D.C. Goalkeeper

Faced with last week’s injury to Steve Cronin (broken wrist) and Bill Hamid’s ongoing recovery from offseason shoulder surgery, D.C. United had been in the market for a new goalkeeper—until they remembered they had a candidate on their coaching staff.

Former San Jose and Houston backstop Pat Onstad, 43, who retired after the 2010 season and joined the Black-and-Red as goalkeepers coach, will re-don his gloves and begin training with the team immediately.

United has two other netminders in camp, 22-year-old rookie Joe Willis and 26-year-old journeyman Chase Harrison, but the team thought it best to re-enlist the veteran Canadian to solidify its defense with veteran leadership.

“Pat is our best option in goal right now for the situation we’re in,” D.C. coach Ben Olsen told the team website. “Pat is an extremely experienced player that can bring stability to our backline—we are very lucky to have him.”