U.S. U-20s Rally Against Canada, Clinch World Cup Berth

Two years after their predecessors fell short of qualifying for the 2011 U-20 World Cup and one year after the American U-23 side failed to qualify for the London Olympics, the current U.S. U-20 side made some amends on Friday, knocking off Canada 4-2 to advance to the CONCACAF Championship semifinals and secure a berth in this summer’s U-20 World Cup in Turkey (June 21-July 13).

With former U.S. youth and senior international star Tab Ramos holding the coaching reins, the young Yanks rallied from a 1-0 deficit in the do-or-die game, reeling off three goals in 17 minutes to take a 3-1 lead into the break. A fourth came just after the intermission to all but wrap up the game. Canada pulled one back in the 63rd, and then the teams traded chances the rest of the way.

To the highlights:

U.S. fans can take satisfaction on several levels from this result. The team got the job done without midfield star Marc Pelosi (who broke his leg playing for Liverpool’s U-21s) and center backs Walker Zimmerman and Will Packwood. The U.S. was also missing defender John Anthony Brooks, a German-American who has played for both nations’ U-20 teams.

The side performed in pressure-packed circumstances (WC qualifying, with the above-mentioned previous failures hanging over their heads) and in a hostile environment (Puebla, Mexico, where the locals jeered just about every U.S. touch).

Additionally, a few players stood out as potential candidates for the USMNT a few years down the line, including stocky, speedy striker Daniel Cuevas, goal-poacher Jose Villareal, and Real Salt Lake playmaker Luis Gil.

One other notable element was that Ramos did not hesitate to shift his team out of the Klinsmann-mandated 4-3-3 formation when game situations warranted it. The team looked much more comfortable in a 4-2-3-1 (with two holding midfielders), and they controlled games in that setup, whereas in the 4-3-3 they were overrun in midfield. Something to consider going forward (and something U-23 coach Caleb Porter did not do in his team’s failed Olympic bid).

Here’s some postmatch reaction from Ramos and his players:

The U.S. will meet Cuba in the (much-less-meaningful) semifinals on Friday (6:00 pm ET, Fox Soccer), but with qualification already assured, a number of players, including Cuevas and Gil, will be heading back to their club sides.

BPFL Week 26 Recap: Cruel and Unusual Punishment

BPFL Subbuteo

 

It was a torturously up-and-down week for Co-commissioner MGlo, who tied his Week 26 fortunes to his favorite club, Liverpool.

He’s got the grisly details here:

This game is pure torture. Seriously, why do we do it? I find myself cursing, screaming at the TV (as well as loved ones), and missing out on sleep because I’m worried about my players. The game can ruin weekends, which turn in to ruined weeks, which turn into ruined months, and … well you get the point.

I can’t count how many times I have texted my co-commissioner to say, “I am out of the pool!”

And I’m in first place!!

This week was especially hard because my beloved Liverpool were the main cause of my pain. And even worse, it was the beloved captain of my beloved Liverpool who was the main culprit. Usually I don’t like having Liverpool players in my squad at all, because it doubles the emotions of cheering for them—both the negative and positive ones, but especially the negative ones.

But since Liverpool had two home games this week I brought in Steven Gerrard and made him Captain. When he stepped up to take a (dubiously given) penalty on Monday against West Brom, I saw 14 points coming my way.

When he missed I saw 0!

This left me in a hole going into the final match of the week, down 18 points. But Swansea fielded a weakened lineup in that one, and Gerrard stepped to the spot for another penalty, which he buried. I was greatly encouraged. Anything else from Stevie G would carry me to victory. When Routledge handled in the area late on I knew it was all over.

But it turned out it was all over for me, because Daniel Sturridge took the penalty!

End result? Liverpool 5 Swansea 1, Markansas 69 Old27m 68. Like I said, pure torture!

I am still top after the loss but my lead is now cut to just two points over second placed Colorado Keeper, who was our Performer of the Week with an amazing 120 points. Nineteen from Enrique, 10 from Azpilicueta, 15 from Bale, 18 from Michu (in one game) and 30 from Captain Suarez led the way as the Keeper makes a run for top spot.

Six points further back is Rise* of FC Hammer, who suffered defeat at the hands of fourth-place Disgruntled Numpties. Just one point separates the two teams. Moving into the fifth spot is I Am Liverpool, who made an amazing comeback to not only defeat Unlucky Loser Fall River Marksmen, but also to win their League Cup match against Sporting de Dijon after trailing by 42 points.

Speaking of the League Cup, here are the Classified Results:

1st Leg (2nd leg to be played this Gameweek 27)

I Am Liverpool 94 Sporting de Dijon 93

Average 65 Abes Army 61

Markansas 69 Disgruntled Numpties 90

*Rise of FC Hammer 64 Clever and Witty 75

Nearpost 30 Fall River Marksmen 73

The losers 61 Prison Mike 68

Thanks MGlo! Good luck this week everyone.

He’s Baaaack

Carlos Ruiz

Guatemalan striker Carlos Ruiz, who qualifies as one of the Top 5 villains in MLS history for his dive-y, cheap-shotting, continuously complaining style of play, is back in the league again for the first time since 2011.

DC United acquired the scrappy forward through the league’s allocation process—an acquisition mechanism for former MLSers who left for a transfer fee or U.S. internationals.

Apparently—and somewhat surprisingly given Ruiz’s MLS strike rate—multiple teams ahead of DC in the allocation order passed on the player.

Sure, Ruiz sometimes provokes opponents into rages in which they are prone to doing things like this*:

But he is a proven goalscorer who, at 33, probably has a good season or two left. It’s surprising that a bunch of teams would pass on him. In 2002, Ruiz scored 24 goals for LA and won the regular-season and MLS Cup MVP awards, leading the Galaxy to their first MLS championship. He is ninth all time on the MLS goalscoring list and during his last spell in the league, in 2011 with Philadelphia, he bagged six goals in 14 appearances before jumping to Mexican side Veracruz.

He also has an impressive 54 goals in 104 international appearances for Guatemala.

Should be interesting to see how he and his sometimes devious ways fit in with DC and their straight-shooting coach, Ben Olsen.

*We in no way condone Clark’s outrageous behavior in the above clip, but two thoughts on the incident: One, it’s the only time Clark has ever done something even remotely like that in his career, and we’d be willing to wager Ruiz did something fairly objectionable to provoke it. Two, notice how Ruiz grabs his head and starts rolling around in apparent agony—after the blow clearly struck him in the shoulder. El Pescadito, he’s a slippery one.

Music to U.S. Fans’ Ears

American soccer icon Landon Donovan has mostly steered clear of the media during his recent hiatus from the game, but earlier this week he popped up at USC sports journalism seminar and answered a number of questions, including this one:

Donovan also talked about several other topics, according to a series of tweets by a student named Jesse Xiao, who was attending the event. A few highlights:

On the 2006 World Cup

“[That] was really my first big failure. There were two weeks when I went into depression … I started wondering if soccer is for me again.”

On Beckham’s arrival in 2007:

“I learned a lot of important things … like what to say and what not to say.”

On why he needed a break:

“I was so exhausted from the weight of the past 15 years … really the past 28 years.”

Donovan also said that he contemplated quitting early in his career, while struggling at Bayer Leverkusen as a teenager.

He’s a sensitive soul, LD is, but a great player who probably has a lot more to give U.S. Soccer.

U.S. U-20s Get Off to Shaky Start at CONCACAF Championships, Narrowly Edging Haiti, 2-1

USu20s

They took an early lead, and they got significant contributions from their two biggest guns, Real Salt Lake midfielder Luis Gil and Santos Laguna striker Daniel Cuevas, but the U.S. U-20s raised more questions than they answered in their CONCACAF Championship opener yesterday in Puebla, Mexico.

After Gil and Cuevas gave the team a 2-0 lead within the first half hour, the Americans started to come unglued. They gave up a goal five minutes after the break and spent the remainder of the game on their heels trying to keep Haiti at bay.

They ultimately succeeded in doing that, but it was quite a ways away from convincing.

Click here for the highlights

The U.S. backline, which had several players playing out of position due to the absences of Walker Zimmerman, Will Packwood (both injured), and John Anthony Brooks (club commitment), was at sea for most of the second half. Not helping matters in that department was the midfield’s inability to keep the ball in the second session.

Tab Ramos’s boys have plenty of room for improvement, and if they do advance to this summer’s U-20 World Cup (June-July, in Turkey), they can only hope that players like Zimmerman and Packwood are back and ready to go, along with midfielder Mark Pelosi, a very talented player who had his leg broken in a Liverpool U-21 match this past Sunday.

As for Brooks, an athletic, six-foot-six defender who plays for Hertha Berlin in the Bundesliga2, he has appeared for the U.S. U-20s four times, but he holds citizenship in both the U.S. and Germany, and could commit to either side. He has participated in U-20 camps for Germany and appeared in one game for them in 2012.

The U.S. returns to action on Friday against Costa Rica (6:30 pm ET, Fox Soccer).

Haiti faces the Ticos tomorrow in a tough turn of the schedule for the island nation. If Haiti loses to Costa Rica in that match, they’ll be out and the U.S. will advance to the CONCACAF quarterfinals.

Fox’s Gus Johnson Experiment Starts Tomorrow with Real Madrid vs Man U

GusJYou may have heard that former CBS and ESPN sportscaster Gus Johnson, who made a name for himself with his exciting calls of NCAA basketball tournament games, has been tasked by Fox to become their lead announcer for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.

It’s a bold move because Johnson had never broadcast soccer before October 2011, when the plan was hatched and the March Madness maven started announcing San Jose Earthquakes games on the radio as the first steps toward getting ready for Russia 2018 and Qatar—cough cough bulls***—2022.

If you’ve never heard Johnson, here’s a best-of clip from his NCAA tournament work:

Some fans think he’s over the top, but when he’s doing a sport he knows and clearly loves, we say he works well, adding a layer of excitement and enthusiasm to the games.

To bring that buzz to soccer, well, he’s got a lot of work to do. He not only has to learn the game and all its subtleties (no mean feat) he also, we contend, has to genuinely acquire a taste for the sport. As Bootsy Collins once said, you can’t fake the funk.

Here’s Johnson doing a San Jose game this past year:

He’s not on top of it yet, but he does have five years to get up to speed. And Fox is not hesitating to throw him into the deep end. Johnson is doing Wednesday’s Champions League Round of 16 tilt between no less a pairing than Real Madrid and Manchester United (Fox Soccer 2:45 pm ET). Yikes.

The growing pains start tomorrow, but if the gamble pays off, well, maybe we’ll get calls at the 2018 and 2022 Cups that go a little something like this:

BPFL Weeks 24 and 25: Two Cups, No Girls

BPFL Subbuteo

The one and only Our Man at the Valley is gearing up for the crucial U.S. World Cup qualifier taking place in his hometown next month, but in the meantime he’s cooked up a recap of the past two weeks of the Backpost Fantasy League.

Here he is:

Unless the editor of this site chooses a WAG of the week to accompany this article, I’ll just focus on the cups in this recap of Gameweeks 24 and 25 of the BPFL [Check back later for the WAG—Ed.].

We’ll start with the end of our participation in the website-wide Fantasy Cup. The last remaining contestants from the BPFL were eliminated in Gameweek 24, which by my calculations was the round of 32,000. The eighth hurdle proved too high for both Rise* of FC Hammer (a 69-64 loser) and Disgruntled Numpties (crushed 56-32). So, not a bad performance from those two teams, though given their overall ranking (each around 10,000th out of nearly 2.6 million entries) they might have hoped for better.

And, so, one more cup to tell you about:  The BPFL Cup begins this coming Gameweek. In a modification from last year’s format, we’ll have each of the first three rounds contested over a two Gameweek aggregate basis (tiebreaks, if necessary, will follow the rules for the Fantasy Cup).

Our two leaders, Old27M and Colorado Keeper, receive byes into the second round.

Below are the matchups for the first round, to be contested over Gameweeks 26 and 27:

I Am Liverpool v Sporting de Dijon

Average v Abes Army

Marskansas v Disgruntled Numpties

Rise* of FC Hammer v Clever & Witty

Nearpost v Fall River Marksmen

The Losers v Prison Mike

In the Premier League, the big news to digest during Gameweeks 24 and 25 was the closing of the transfer window and the concurrent addition of many players I hadn’t heard of before. While fewer big names moved at the end of the January compared to some recent years, there was still plenty of action. My advice: Take Mario Balotelli out of your side.

QPR and Newcastle seemed like the big buyers of the month and both seemed to follow their own themes.  QPR bought from Spurs (Andros Townsend and Jermaine Jenas) and Newcastle bought from France (too many to mention; really).

In the BPFL, there were multiple victories for Old27M, Colorado Keeper, Rise* of FC Hammer and a resurgent Average. Not surprisingly, this quartet occupies four of the top five spots in the table, with Old27M continuing to lead Colorado Keeper by five points.

There were a pair of losses for Sporting de Dijon, a freefalling Abes Army (four straight losses after touching the lofty heights of second place), Prison Mike and The Losers.

Old27M won Performance of the Week honors in Gameweek 24, with 67 points. Fall River Marksmen took the same gong in Gameweek 25, with 70 points.

In my opinion, no one deserved the Unlucky Loser award in either Gameweek.

After a quick midweek international break we’re back on Saturday for Gameweek 26.

There you have it, people. Set your teams tonight, and if you’re on the Atlantic seaboard of the U.S., batten down the hatches for Snowmaggedon. Cheers.

Honduras 2, U.S. 1: Highlights, Gnashing of Teeth, Rending of Garments*

This was always going to be a tough game for the U.S.

A draw would’ve been a solid and perfectly acceptable result.

So it wasn’t the loss, necessarily, that will irk the U.S. fan, but the way that loss came about:

• With three defensive-minded midfielders in the lineup, and no true wingers.

• With very little pressure on the ball, despite those three ball hawks in midfield.

• After taking a 1-0 lead.

• Following an odd burst of substitutions around the 60th minute, which included putting Sacha Kljestan out wide on the left instead of in the middle where he’s more suited to succeed.

• And finally, and most surprisingly, after completely fading down the stretch, despite Coach Klinsi’s incessant harping on fitness and doing more than the other guy in training.

Anyway, on to the highlights:

Mr. Juan Carlos Garcia, author of that astounding bicycle-kick equalizer, is 24 years old and plays for Olimpia in the Honduran top flight. Don’t be surprised if he, like several of his countrymen (Roger Espinoza and Maynor Figueroa at Wigan; Emilio Izaguirre at Celtic), makes a jump to a bigger league some time soon.

Honduras is a quality team, full of skillful, athletic, and increasingly accomplished players. The stadium in San Pedro Sula is a cauldron, and the field, on Wednesday at least, was a cow pasture. The long grass slowed the game down and made the U.S.’s counter-attacking tactics more difficult to pull off.

But all that said, this was not a new-model U.S. team, as Klinsmann has been tasked with creating. This was the same old stuff—except maybe worse.

There’s no question that this team misses Landon Donovan. They could also use a 2010-era Stuart Holden, or, while we’re at it, a 2009 version of Charlie Davies.

But they don’t know when LD is coming back (or what his mindset will be), they can’t put too much stock in Holden, who’s been hurt for close to two years, and as for Davies, well, it’s looking like he may never regain his admittedly lofty pre-car-crash form.

So the players we saw on Wednesday are essentially the hand Klinsmann has been dealt. If he can get the best out of them, they should qualify. But so far, in 18 months on the job, he has yet to coax anything like their best, and his tactics seem ill-suited to doing so.

*We’re not really at that point yet, but anything less than three points against Costa Rica on March 22, and that point will be in sight.

The Hexagonal Is Here: Possible U.S. Lineups vs Honduras

USMNT

It’s put-up-or-shut-up time for Jurgen Klinsmann.

When the German legend took over as coach of the U.S. national team in late July 2011, there was much talk about how he would overhaul U.S. soccer from top to bottom, create a consistent style of play for the national team program, instill a different soccer culture on these shores, and take the senior team to the next level.

No one could reasonably expect him to have accomplished all of the above in roughly 18 months on the job, but it’s fair to say that his work in progress has, at this stage, with the final round of 2014 World Cup qualifying set to kick off tomorrow, still too much of a work-in-progress feel about it.

His team has had its moments (they played some beautiful soccer en route to a 5-1 rout of Scotland last May), its gotten some big results (beating Italy in Italy, and Mexico at Azteca) and it had a surprisingly good record in 2012 (9-2-3).

But at no time in the Klinsmann era has the U.S. produced a cohesive, quality, 90-minute performance. Not once. They’ve looked like a troupe in rehearsal throughout his tenure.

And the problem with that is that the show opens tomorrow.

The team has landed in San Pedro Sula, Honduras (the most dangerous city in the world, according to the U.S. Stated Department), where it will take on the vastly improved home side on Wednesday in the opening game of the Hexagonal, as the final stage of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying is known. (Kickoff is at 4:00 p.m. ET, and BeIN Sports has the broadcast.)

This round features six teams (hence the name; the other four are Mexico, Costa Rica, Jamaica and Panama), who will play each other twice (home and away) in a series of games running from now until October 15.

At the end of the round, the top three sides will advance to the World Cup, while the fourth-place finishers will play a team from Oceania in a two-game playoff for a shot to go to Brazil as well.

It’s a rugged, unforgiving stretch of games in venues that, like San Pedro Sula, are quite a bit less than hospitable. The margin for error—the degree to which you can veer from the ‘win-at-home, draw-on-the-road’ formula for qualification—is miniscule, and the competition has never been tighter. All six teams can play, at a level unprecedented for the region, and all six have loads of experienced guys.

Here’s Klinsmann’s roster for tomorrow’s game (with club, World Cup qualifying appearances, and goals—shutouts for keepers—in parentheses):

GOALKEEPERS (3): Brad Guzan (Aston Villa – 5/3 SO), Tim Howard (Everton – 22/9 SO), Sean Johnson (Chicago Fire – 0/0)

DEFENDERS (9): Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City – 0/0), Carlos Bocanegra (Racing Santander – 31/5), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City – 5/0), Edgar Castillo (Club Tijuana – 0/0), Timmy Chandler (Nuremberg – 0/0), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders – 0/0), Omar Gonzalez (LA Galaxy – 0/0), Fabian Johnson (Hoffenheim – 3/0), Michael Parkhurst (Augsburg – 3/0)

MIDFIELDERS (8): Michael Bradley (Roma – 19/5), Brad Davis (Houston Dynamo – 0/0), Maurice Edu (Bursaspor – 9/0), Jermaine Jones (Schalke 04 – 5/0), Sacha Kljestan (Anderlecht – 12/0), Jose Torres (Tigres – 9/0), Danny Williams (Hoffenheim – 4/0), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City – 3/0)

FORWARDS (4): Jozy Altidore (AZ Alkmaar – 17/6), Clint Dempsey (Tottenham Hotspur – 26/10), Herculez Gomez (Santos – 6/2), Eddie Johnson (Seattle Sounders – 11/10)

There are no major surprises here, but there are some mild ones in the exclusions of Kyle Beckerman, a player Klinsmann used quite a bit in 2012, Benny Feilhaber, who looked good against Canada last week and would provide some welcome skill in the midfield, and Terrence Boyd, a big athletic forward who could bring a late spark and threat in the Honduras box.

But this is a solid group. Here are three ways Klinsmann could line them up:

 1. ————————–Howard

——Chandler—–Bocanegra—Cameron—F. Johnson

——————-Bradley——-Jones——–

Zusi–                                                                        E. Johnson

———————-Dempsey

——————————Altidore

This lineup gives you defensive starch in front of the back four (and reliable possession play there from Bradley), a decent crosser of the ball in Zusi, and EJ’s speed on the left flank. Downside is EJ’s defensive liability in that spot. And the fact that neither he nor Zusi is a true winger.

2.  ————————–Howard

——Chandler—–Bocanegra—Cameron—F. Johnson

—————————–Edu

——Bradley                                                Jones

————————Dempsey

——————–Altidore——Gomez

This option would really clog up the midfield and go a long way toward playing for a low-scoring draw. It’s also totally devoid of wingers, and overloaded with defensive-minded central midfielders (even though MB plays box-to-box for Roma)—an element that has produced some ugly displays in the Klinsmann era.

3. ————————–Howard

——Chandler—–Bocanegra—Cameron—F. Johnson

——————-Bradley——-Williams——–

Zusi–                                                                        Dempsey

—————————Kljestan

———————-Altidore

Here you have the skillful Kljestan playing underneath Altidore with the goal of boosting U.S. possession and creativity in attack. He played in the Champions League this past season, so he won’t be overawed by this occasion (as, say, a Torres seems to be in every big game.) The experienced Dempsey mans the troubled left midfield spot (MIA: Landon Donovan, Brek Shea), and Danny Williams wins balls in midfield, hopefully freeing up Bradley to pick spots to roam forward.

Which ever lineup Klinsmann rolls out, we’re predicting a 1-1 draw.

WAG of the Week: “Streaker” from 2008 U.S. Olympic Qualifer vs Honduras

Remember this one? She was a spirited lass. Of course, we’re using the term WAG very loosely here, but it’s late on a Friday, so let’s just say that for one brief, enjoyable interlude, she was the U.S. Soccer community’s missus.

Broadcaster Christian Miles did not hold back in his assessment—“Not too shabby!”—and there was even a replay of her dash, which may be a first in the history of U.S. pitch invaders.

Take a look:

A slipshod Google search did not turn up much info on this healthy female, so we don’t even know her name, but we seem to recall that she was offered, and accepted, an invitation to pose in a gentleman’s magazine soon after her stirring cameo in the U.S.–Honduras Olympic qualifier. Not sure how that turned out, but that could be a research project for the more enterprising readers out there.

(The U.S. won the game, btw, 1-0 on a stoppage-time penalty by Eddie Gaven.)

Enjoy the weekend.