Did U.S. Soccer and MLS Turn the Tide in CONCACAF this Week?

JVillareal

 

The United States U-20 team shook off a slow start in the 2013 CONCACAF Championships and went on to produce solid wins over Canada and Cuba to advance to the final against Mexico in Estadio Cuauhtemoc in Puebla, Mexico, last Sunday.

In that game, with only 12 fit outfield players (several guys had departed for their club teams once World Cup qualification was secure with the win over Canada), and with more than 40,000 hostile fans looking on, the young Americans went toe-to-toe with the home side, giving just as good as they got, if not better. They gave up an early goal (after starting the game as the aggressors), but responded quickly with one of their own.

From there, both sides created chances in a wide-open free-flowing game. (Highlights here.) The U.S. ran out of gas late—hobbled striker Jose Villareal (above right) had to stay on the field because they had no subs—and gave up a pair of goals in extra time, but they made a statement in the game nonetheless.

Here’s coach Tab Ramos after the game:

“This shows the character of the players that we have coming up in the U.S. Not only are we playing in a difficult environment, but we take a goal early when we’re attacking and the players responded.”

He acknowledged that the main goal was to clinch a World Cup berth, and once that was done, the secondary aim was to try to win the tournament on Mexican soil. They came closer than just about anyone would’ve expected beforehand, and Ramos suggested the tournament was a valuable learning experience for his group:

“There’s no doubt that these are the games where you see the players and how they respond. I have to give the players a lot of credit because it was their first time playing in a situation like this and I think they respond incredibly. They played a great game and I’m very proud of that. I’m happy with my team. I’m satisfied that [the final] was a game in which either one of the teams could’ve won and I think the team did a great job.”

The coach can also take heart in the fact that this wasn’t even his top group of players. There were several first-choice players out injured, and as we said, several others left the team in mid-tournament to rejoin their clubs. The Yanks should be interesting to watch in the U-20 World Cup this summer, and they’ve clearly narrowed the gap between themselves and their neighbors to the South.

If results pan out the way the three MLS clubs involved in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals would like, much the same could be said of the U.S. domestic league and its more longstanding regional rivals.

The Houston Dynamo, Seattle Sounders, and LA Galaxy all produced decent results in CCL play this week, and all have a fighting chance to advance to the semifinals.

Houston edged last year’s finalist Santos Laguna 1-0 in a hard-fought game at BBVA Compass Stadium, getting an 89th-minute goal from Brad Davis. They’ll be hard-pressed to hold on to that advantage in the second leg at the foreboding Estadio Corona, Santos Laguna’s home stadium, but we wouldn’t put it past Dominic Kinnear and his men in orange.

Seattle lost 1-0 on the road to Tigres, but they’ll come home to the rowdy confines of CenturyLink Field looking to overturn that margin in next week’s second leg.

The Galaxy have the best chance of all, having locked down a 0-0 first-leg draw away to Costa Rican side Herediano. Each team hit the crossbar, and LA had a goal (by the in-form Mike Magee) called back after a dubious offside ruling. A win at the Home Depot Center in the second leg and they’re through.

MLS has never had more than one semifinalist in the history of the CCL. If things go their way next week, they could lock up three of the final four spots.

That would send a message to the region, if not the world, and put the league in a pretty good position to lift its first CCL trophy in the tournament’s current incarnation. (D.C. United won an earlier version of the CCL, in 1998, when the event featured eight teams instead of the current 24.)

Depending on how things play out in the CCL this spring, and the U-20 World Cup this summer, this week in early March could go down as a pivotal one.

Mila Kunis Joins Elton John, John Barnes, and Jay DeMerit In Rich Tapestry of Watford FC History

Diehard Watford fan and alleged BBC employee Chris Stark interviewed an obviously under-the-weather Mila Kunis the other day.

The enterprising young man started off talking about Kunis’s upcoming movie (something about Oz) but, not one to waste the opportunity at hand, he quickly shifted the topic onto more important matters, such as would she accompany him to a Watford match, with chicken at Nando’s beforehand and the obligatory halftime steak-and-ale pie?

From there, they moved with their cartoonishly oversized microphones on to ‘lad points,’ his mates at the pub, and Baywatch-themed wedding customs.

Also, he asked her out not one, not two, but three times.

Take it away, Chris:

We have a couple of questions (English readers, please feel free to weigh in with the answers in the comments):

1. Is it “neck” a pint, or “nick” a pint?

2. What’s the difference between “boshing” a pint and “nick/necking” one?

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:

Belgian Soccer Gaining On Belgian Beer

Forget waffles, forget chocolate—Belgium’s greatest contribution to world culture is beer. They do it better than anyone else, and it’s not even close.

You could limit yourself to Belgian beer from here on out and live the rest of your days a happy, satisfied camper, ranging from Chimay Grande Reserve to Tripel Karmeliet to Orval Trappist Ale or any of the other outstanding concoctions from the more than 178 breweries in the country.

They also play soccer in Belgium, but their brand of the sport has traditionally trailed the aforementioned articles—along with Brussels sprouts, frites, and being the capital of the European Union—on the list of things the multilingual country is known for, by a good margin.

But that—as many have noted recently—is changing: Belgian soccer is in the midst of a renaissance, so much so that the current wave of players—which routed the Netherlands 4-2 last month, and begins 2014 World Cup qualifying on Friday against Wales—is denying that they are a ‘golden generation.’

We suppose that remains to be seen, but this is an exceptional group from a country that hasn’t qualified for a World Cup since 2002 or a European Championship since 2000 (Belgium did finish fourth at the 2008 Olympics).

As Our Man at the Valley said recently, Belgium probably has a more skilled contingent in the English Premier League than England does. Let’s take a look:

Goalkeeper: Simon Mignolet, 24, Sunderland. Recently established himself as first-choice keeper for both club and country. Ten international caps.

Defenders: Vincent Kompany, 26, Manchester City; Thomas Vermaelen, 26, Arsenal; Jan Vertonghen, 25, Tottenham. Kompany and Vermaelen both captain their teams, and Kompany has been called the best defender in the world after leading City to the Premier League title last season. Vertonghen has looked like a quality addition in North London.

Midfielders: Marouane Fellaini, 24, Everton; Moussa Dembele, 25, Tottenham; Eden Hazard, 21, Chelsea. Fellaini has been a mainstay at Everton for several seasons now, and he was deadly in the club’s season-opening win over Manchester United. Tottenham jumped to land Dembele for $24 million, and Hazard, with a price tag of more than double that, has sparkled so far for Chelsea this season.

ForwardsKevin Mirallas, 24, Everton; Romelu Lukaku, 19, West Brom (on loan from Chelsea) Mirallas, who can play as a winger or a striker, bagged two goals and two assists in his first start for Everton (in a League Cup match), and Lukaku, who is built like an NFL linebacker, has a goal in two appearances for West Brom this season.

That’s an impressive group, and it doesn’t even include rising goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, 20, on loan to Atletico Madrid from Chelsea, or promising attacker Kevin De Bruyne, 21, on loan to Werder Bremen, also from Chelsea (Roman Abramovich and Co. are clearly onto this Belgian thing).

Better than England’s crop in the Premier League? You bet.

The Red Devils are grouped with Croatia, Serbia, Scotland, Macedonia, and Wales in World Cup qualifying. If they can advance—and they should—they’ll be an interesting side to watch at Brazil 2014.

Quick, Check Out Tim Howard’s Freakish 100-yard Goal, Before Copyright Claims Strip It Out

U.S. attacker Landon Donovan made his (second) Everton debut today, but it was his fellow national-teamer, goalkeeper Tim Howard, who scored in the game against Bolton.

You read that right—Howard belted a clearance at the top of his own box and, thanks to the gusting winds at Goodison Park, the ball carried … and carried—and bounced over Bolton keeper Adam Bogdan into the net to give the Toffees a 1-0 lead.

Take a look:

Unfortunately for Everton and U.S. fans, Bolton scored two goals in an 11-minute span soon after Howard’s fluke tally and held on for a 2-1 win. Leighton Baines hit the bar with a free kick in stoppage time, but that was as close as Everton got to an equalizer.

Donovan had a decent game, particularly in the first half, when he made a few good runs, got in some crosses, two shots, and had a possibly legit penalty claim waved off after surging into the box against Sam Ricketts.

UPDATE: Ah, well, that was fun while it lasted–about 12 hours. You can probably still find the clip out there on the worlwide webster.

The Curious Case of Eddie Johnson

Former U.S. international and onetime next-big-thing striker Eddie Johnson has been in the news three times in the past five months and on each occasion it was for the wrong reason.

First there was this incident in early August 2011, and, well, the less said about that the better.

Then there was his decision later that month to back out of a deal with Major League Soccer at the very last minuteafter the very last minute, actually: MLS honchos had already gone public with the agreement.

Not the best way to do business, but the former Fulham and Kansas City striker recently told Soccer By Ives that he had said to himself at the time, “You know what, I’m still 27 years old, there’s a lot more soccer in me. I still want to prove this to myself that I can make it abroad.”

In late December, apparently following that impulse, Johnson hooked up with Mexican side Puebla, current home of U.S. winger DaMarcus Beasley.

After initially saying they’d signed the player, Puebla reversed field (pulled an EJ?) yesterday and announced Johnson had been let go because he is not fit enough. “He didn’t pass the test in three training sessions,” Puebla spokesperson Hugo Fernández said in various media reports. “And he’s not staying.”

Johnson has been out of soccer for eight months and counting. What’s his next move? He’s burned bridges with MLS, had the door closed in Mexico, and most likely could not get a sniff of first- or second-division European ball right now.

For a player who scored 23 goals in 25 appearances for the U.S. U-17 team 10 years ago, and bagged a remarkable seven goals in his first six World Cup qualifiers with the senior team, it’s been quite a fall from grace.

Donovan Signals Merseyside Return with Thursday-Morning Tweet: “Once a Toffee, always a Toffee”

Those six words came over Landon Donovan’s Twitter feed early yesterday, causing his 588,475 followers to go, “Hmmm.”

Sure enough, about six hours later, his agent, Richard Motzkin, confirmed that LD would be returning to Everton for a winter loan deal, saying, “Exciting times ahead in the New Year at Goodison Park.”

Hopefully for U.S. and Everton fans those times will be as exciting as Donovan’s 2010 spell with the club, when he had two goals and three assists in 13 appearances and was named Everton Player of the Month:

(What’s up with that “Dono” at the end, btw? Someone needs to tell them it’s “Lando”)

Donovan could make up to 11 appearances with Everton during this loan, including in a Jan. 11 matchup with Tottenham and U.S. keeper Brad Friedel, who recently said, among other unflattering things, that Donovan had taken the “easy road” by forging the bulk of his career in Major League Soccer. That game ought to be interesting.

Also of note are a Feb. 1 meeting with Manchester City, a Feb. 11 matchup against Chelsea, and the Feb. 25 Merseyside Derby versus Liverpool.

See Simon Borg’s helpful rundown of the entire LD 2012 Everton schedule here.