Following Loss in Kingston, U.S. Faces Test of Nerves in Columbus

The United States takes on Jamaica tomorrow night in Columbus (8:00 ET, ESPN2) and while, strictly speaking, it’s not a must-win game, it’s just about as close as you can get to one.

If the Yanks tie or lose, they’ll almost certainly need wins in their remaining two games—at Antigua and Barbuda and home against Guatemala—to avert the disaster of premature World Cup elimination.

Is coach Jurgen Klinsmann worried?

Here’s his reply, according to Yanks Abroad’s Brian Sciaretta, when asked at today’s press conference what it would mean if the U.S. lost on Tuesday night:

“We won’t. Don’t worry.”

Those words will take on an unwanted resonance if the U.S. does happen to lose tomorrow night, and based on the team’s dismal performance in their 2-1 loss on Friday in Kingston, they may not have been the best choice for his response. Because his team did not look good; in fact, they looked like they’re in trouble.

Of course, the change of venue will help, from the improved field to the home crowd, and Klinsmann is not likely to field three defensive midfielders in an all-but must win game, so there should be more creativity in the lineup.

But the U.S. is shorthanded, Jamaica has some skill, they’re extremely athletic, and they’re going to be loose and confident following their historic win on Friday.

This one won’t be easy.

Klinsmann has already said that Steve Cherundolo (calf) will be back in the starting XI, along with Carlos Bocanegra (healthy scratch), who will captain the team.

There should also be changes in midfield, with the possible inclusion of Brek Shea, who has looked good in training, according to reports.

But the absences of Michael Bradley and Landon Donovan (and the long-term absence of Stuart Holden) have exposed the U.S.’s lack of midfield attackers. Friday’s group of Maurice Edu, Kyle Beckerman and Jermaine Jones were defensive plodders, prone to turnovers.

In addition to Shea, Klinsmann could bring in Jose Torres or Graham Zusi or Danny Williams. He could also (and we’d like to see it) move the dynamic Fabian Johnson from the backline to midfield. Dempsey is also a midfield option.

The problem with most of Klinsmann’s current midfield choices is that, except for Dempsey, they generally lack WCQ experience. They also haven’t played together as a group, and, in the cases of Shea and Torres, they’ve been maddeningly inconsistent.

U.S. fans would hate to see an untested combination fall behind early and have to chase the game in these pressure circumstances.

Highlights from Friday’s game here:

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ESPN’S Adrian Healey: MLS Is Among the World’s Top 10 Leagues

In an interview with Northwest soccer website Prost Amerika, ESPN commentator Adrian Healey—who covers La Liga, Serie A, the Premier League, the Dutch Eredivisie, the Champions League and MLS for the network—says that the U.S. circuit is now among the 10 best leagues on the planet.

“I would say it’s right in the mix now with something like the Dutch Eredivisie in terms of the talent, the standard of play and the infrastructure,” Healey told the site. “The only thing it doesn’t have yet is a history and a body of work, but that is coming. It has made amazing strides in just over a decade and a half.”

The last part of Healey’s statement is undeniable, and in truth the amazing strides have been made in the past decade alone. Consider that at the start of the 2002 season MLS had 10 teams, three investors, one soccer-specific stadium, no reserve division or academy system, and zero income from national TV contracts.

This year, the league has 18 investors, 19 teams (the Hunt family still owns two clubs), and several parties keenly interested in launching a 20th franchise, most likely in New York. There are 13 soccer-specific stadiums now, with a 14th on the way after San Jose’s stadium project was cleared to move forward this week, and the league surpassed the NBA and the NHL in attendance in 2011.

The reserve division resumed in 2011 with a 10-game schedule, and the MLS academy system is flourishing, having already produced a number of young players for the league. MLS has national TV contracts with Univision, ESPN, and NBC (and TSN and RDS in Canada), as well as myriad sponsorships, including an eight-year deal with adidas valued at more than $200 million.

Yes—amazing strides. Truly.

As for the second part of Healey’s comment, it’s not as bold a statement as you might think. The top four leagues in the world—pretty much everyone agrees—are in Spain, Italy, England and Germany. Most would probably pick France next, and after that … well, there’s not much consensus. But the idea that MLS could sneak in at No. 10—and the comparison to the Dutch League—are not farfetched.

MLS has been sending successful exports to Europe for years now, and players who’ve been on both sides of the Atlantic downplay the talent gap. Landon Donovan has lit up the Premier League in two recent loan spells. Thierry Henry’s game did not suffer from two years in MLS—he returned to Arsenal this winter looking almost as if he’d never left. And here’s David Beckham talking to Yahoo’s Martin Rogers about MLS:

“I don’t know whether it’s ignorance or snobbery or whether it’s that the people saying these things have never played the game or watched it being played here, but the standard is nowhere near as low as people have been saying it is. For a start, you have to be incredibly fit and physically strong to play here: America’s a country, after all, that produces some of the best athletes in the world.”

The most notable thing about those comments? They were made in 2007. MLS has gotten markedly better since then.

As for the middle portion of Healey’s remarks—the stuff about history, and a body of work being on the way—we need just one look at the Cascadia rivalries, or the talent on Los Angeles’s roster this season, or the league’s performance in the CONCACAF Champions League to say it’s a high-percentage prognostication.

MLS Invades SportsCenter’s Top 10 Plays of the Day

With four games on the schedule, last night was the busiest Wednesday of the year in Major League Soccer, and the action did not disappoint.

There was a five-goal flood in New York, a record-tying tally in Vancouver, and some great goalkeeping all over the map.

It was so good, in fact, that four spots on SportsCenter’s Top 10 Plays of the Day were occupied by MLS highlights.

Here they are, in the order they were ranked by ESPN:

10. Jeff Cunningham’s record-tying 133rd career goal

It also happened to be a 90th-minute winner for visiting Columbus versus Vancouver:

Final score Columbus 1, Vancouver 0

9. Matt Pickens’s astounding reaction save off a deflection against Sporting Kansas City

This one should have been higher; it’s a truly terrific save and it came in stoppage time, preserving a 1-1 tie for the visitors. Full (and worthwhile) highlights below, but scroll to 5:15 mark for Pickens’ heroics:

Final score: SKC 1, Colorado 1

7. Ben Zemanski’s swerving, 35-yard golazo against San Jose

This high-speed knuckleball broke open a game that seemed destined to become a dreaded 0-0 draw (and be sure to note Busch’s expression afterward. Priceless.):

Final score: Chivas USA 2, San Jose 0

3. This was a twofer: Luke Rodgers’ tremendous volley, and Juan Agudelo’s lethal header for New York against Toronto

Rodgers’ goal signaled the rout:

And Agudelo’s sealed it (and then he added one more):

Final score: New York 5, Toronto 0

ESPN also had a soccer highlight—a goal by Brazil in the Women’s World Cup—as its No. 1 play of the day. Not bad for footy on the WWL today: five out of 10.

See to it that Your DVRs Are in Working Order: Colossal Weekend Ahead

Major League Soccer kicks off its biggest weekend of the season to date with Friday’s “Soccer Night in America” on Fox Soccer Channel (10:30 EST).

The following night, ESPN2 (and Deportes) will carry the marquee New York vs Los Angeles matchup (11:00 EST), and on Sunday morning at 11:00, Fox Soccer will have the titanic Premier League clash between Manchester United and Chelsea, who are three points apart atop the table with three games to play.

There are also, of course, about 261 other interesting games—including a chance for Barcelona to clinch La Liga against Espanyol, a crucial relegation tilt for U.S. defender Jonathan Spector and West Ham, and a potential title clincher for AC Milan against Roma.

So don your agoraphobic sweater, shutter the blinds and stick some fresh batteries in the remote, it’s going to be a busy weekend.

Fox’s new “Soccer Night in America” telecast will feature a revamped set and state-of-the-art replay and graphics technology as it broadcasts Portland vs Philadelphia from the Rose City’s JELD-WEN Field.

Portland is unbeaten in three games at home this season—can Peter Nowak’s grind-it-out side, currently second in the East at 4-1-1, be the first team to get a result at JELD-WEN? We shall see, and appreciate once again the incredible atmosphere in Rip City.

Unlike last year’s two versions of the New York–Los Angeles matchup, tomorrow night’s meeting between MLS’s two biggest clubs will feature a record five designated players in the starting lineups.

Last season, an injured David Beckham missed the Aug 14 matchup (a 1-0 win for LA at Red Bull Arena) and Thierry Henry sat out the Sept 24 meeting (a 2-0 win for New York at the Home Depot Center).

Tomorrow night, both of those players are expected to start, along with New York’s Rafa Marquez and LA’s Landon Donovan and Juan Pablo Angel. (Angel, of course, played for the Red Bulls for four years before signing with Los Angeles, and is New York’s alltime leading scorer. It will be interesting to see him face his old team, which probably could have handled his exit more gracefully.)

Add the Red Bulls’ Dwayne De Rosario—one of the best attacking midfielders in league history—and young U.S. internationals Omar Gonzalez (LA), Tim Ream and Juan Agudelo (both NY), and you have a game that could really scratch your footy itch.

There is one potential absence, though, that could be huge—big enough, in fact, to tip the outcome of the game. New York holding midfielder Teemu Tainio—whom coach Hans Backe has said may be the best MLS signing of 2011—has been declared a “question mark” for the game. Tainio has become very important very quickly for New York, settling the team’s midfield and helping to impose its possession style on opponents.

The Finnish veteran of the Dutch first division and the Premier League left last week’s game against Kansas City at halftime with a groin injury, and did not train on Monday or Tuesday of this week. His replacement in the second half against Kansas City, Carl Robinson, was a parachute-drop of a step down.

We are on the record, repeatedly, regarding Robinson, the 34-year-old Welsh midfielder, and if he starts against LA, well, we highly recommend that you bet big on the Galaxy on Saturday night. Backe does have other options in that spot (Mehdi Ballouchy, Jan Gunnar Solli, even youngster Matt Kassel), so it’s not  a foregone conclusion that Robinson will get the nod.

As for the Man U–Chelsea affair, we have to go with the Red Devils. Alex Ferguson rested something like seven starters in the midweek Champions League game against Schalke (and still cruised to a 4-1 aggregate victory), and his first unit should be perfectly primed for this one. Our crystal ball is showing images of Ryan Giggs factoring in big.

On the other hand, a Chelsea win would certainly inject some interest into the remaining two games. After Chelsea, Man U plays at Blackburn then home to Blackpool, while Chelsea’s final two matches are against Newcastle and at Everton.

Give us your predictions in the comments, and enjoy the games.

Charlie Davies Opens Up, Tim Howard Covers Up (Barely) In Latest ESPN The Magazine

ESPN The Magazine’s “Body” issue came out yesterday, and the cover features U.S. national teamer Tim Howard wearing nothing but his goalkeeping gloves.

(We’d post the picture, but … see previous post re. technical difficulty. Probably a blessing in disguise in this case.)

This seems akin, to us anyway, of Tom Cruise doing a car commercial in Asia, or something. Howard is famous enough in the UK that to do something like this over there would be overkill; it would invite unwelcome scrutiny.

But here, where he’s not quite a household name, he can go ahead and overexpose himself, literally and figuratively, and it’ll only serve to boost his and soccer’s profile in the U.S.

Or something like that. It’s late and we’ve been battling technical glitches for much of the day.

U.S. striker Charlie Davies is also in the issue, one year removed from the car accident in Washington, DC, that left a fellow passenger dead and nearly killed him as well.

He talks about his recovery and displays the gnarly scar that runs the length of his abdomen and well below his waistline (ESPN is taking their “Body” theme to an extreme this year).

Davies talks about his harrowing first moments of consciousness following the wreck, his disappointment at not making it to South Africa, and how his background as a former wrestler has helped in his rehab.

He says he’s “almost there,” but that he has “no deadlines: I’ll be ready when I’m ready.”

Here is his favorite milestone in his recovery so far:

“In a late-April practice, my teammates had been taking it easy on me, not coming in hard on tackles. Then in a possession drill, big Loïc Poujol went in full force and got none of the ball and all of my right leg. I went flying—and popped back up with the biggest smile.”

Click here for the full article.

“I Scored a Goal in the World Cup Final”

Alcides Ghiggia hit the winner for Uruguay against Brazil in the 1950 final.

We watched the first two installments of this new feature from ESPN Soccernet, and they are outstanding.

With surprisingly good game footage and present-day interviews of the players involved, Soccernet tells the stories of players who have scored in the World Cup final since 1950.

Click here to check it out, and enjoy Pelé’s sombrero goal against Sweden in the 1958 final.

Thanks to reader Colonel Ken for the tip.

[Photograph by Michael Donald.]

2010 MLS Opener: The Philadelphia Story

After an offseason of labor strife and uncertainty, MLS Year No. 15 will kick off, on schedule, tomorrow night in front of a packed house at Qwest Field in Seattle. Last season’s expansion sensation, Sounders FC, will host this year’s new team—and the league’s 16th—Philadelphia Union.

Like Seattle, which had a team in the North American Soccer League (NASL) back in the day, Philadelphia enters the league with a solid soccer history behind it. In fact, soccer’s roots in Philly go just about as deep as they do anywhere in the U.S. Here’s a quick look:

Prehistoric Power

Arguably the first professional team in U.S. soccer history, and definitely one of the most successful, Bethlehem Steel FC was founded in 1907 in Bethlehem, PA, just 60 miles north of Philadelphia. The club was originally formed to boost morale among the steel company’s workers, but in 1914, the corporation’s owner, Charles Schwab, began using it as a marketing tool, pouring money into the club and luring top players from Britain.

The Steel went on to appear in five straight U.S. Challenge Cup finals (U.S. Open Cup precursor) from 1915 to ’19, winning four. In 1919, Bethlehem went on a tour of Scandinavia, losing just two of 14 games.

Schwab, however, would not have approved of the name of the current team from eastern Pennsylvania—he was known as a ruthless union-buster.

Read more about this overlooked chapter of U.S. soccer history in David Wangerin’s Soccer in a Football World, and pick up a Bethlehem Steel shirt right here.

Philadelphia Nationals

Formed in 1936 (as the Philadelphia Passon) the Nationals were a middling American Soccer League (ASL) team until the late 1940s, when their most famous player, Walter Bahr, returned from the 1948 Olympics and led the team to three straight ASL titles. Bahr was a member of the 1950 U.S. team that shocked England 1-0 in the World Cup.

Philadelphia Atoms

The Union team that debuts tomorrow night will hope to follow in the footsteps of their NASL ancestors the Atoms, who won the league in 1973, their very first year of existence. And they did it with a roster dominated by U.S.-born (and Philly-bred) players, in front of Veterans Stadium crowds as large as 20,000, when the league average was hovering around 5,000.

The Atoms’ keeper, local boy Bob Rigby, became the first soccer player to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and Walter Bahr’s son, Chris Bahr, joined the team in 1975, winning the Rookie of the Year award after scoring 11 goals.

Other notable Atoms players included defender Bobby Smith, who would later play with Pelé and the Cosmos, and future U.S. national team coach Manny Schellscheidt.

College, Youth Clubs

The region has a long tradition of quality college programs, from 1970s NCAA power Philadelphia Textile (now Philadelphia University) to Penn and Lehigh, and it’s home to famous youth club FC Delco as well as U.S. stars such as Ben Olsen, Chris Albright and Bobby Convey, among others.

Union!

Philadelphia Union will have that history behind it when it takes the field in 2010, along with a raucous supporters group, the Sons of Ben, which was formed in 2007 with the goal of bringing an MLS franchise to Philly, and currently boasts 5,200 members.

The team they’ll cheer on tomorrow night looks to be a defense-first outfit as coach Peter Nowak has built his squad from the back, bringing in experienced defenders Danny Califf, Shavar Thomas, Jordan Harvey and Michael Orozco to play in front of probable starting goalkeeper Chris Seitz. Costa Rican David Myrie will also figure in to the backline.

We like what Nowak did in the expansion draft, picking up former Seattle midfielder Sebastien LeToux, speedy winger Shea Salinas from San Jose, and holding midfielder Stefani Miglioranzi from the Galaxy. For offensive flair, Nowak will look to ex-D.C. United attacking midfielder Fred, the Mononymous One, whom the Union acquired in a draft-day trade.

Goals could also come from experienced striker Alejandro Moreno—a three-time MLS Cup winner, with L.A., Houston, and Columbus—and intriguing rookie prospect Danny Mwanga, the 18-year-old No. 1 overall draft pick.

They’ll take on a Seattle team fresh off a superb debut season in which it made the playoffs and won the U.S. Open Cup.

Sounders FC will suit up Kasey Keller in goal, midfielders Steve Zakuani (a rookie of the year candidate in ’09) and Brad Evans (who earned thee caps for the U.S. in 2009) and dangerous strikers Fredy Montero and Freddie Ljunberg.

Enjoy the game—it’s on ESPN2 at 9:30, in hi-def so clear you will be able to distinguish Seattle’s green uniforms against the identical green of the Qwest Field pitch.