MLS’s CCL Dream Deferred Yet Again

A team from Major League Soccer will win the CONCACAF Champions League some day. Just not this year.

After Seattle went out to Santos Laguna in a 1-1 second-leg draw on Tuesday night, the LA Galaxy represented MLS’s last hope for a 2013 CCL finalist. Their task was nearly identical to the one Seattle faced on Tuesday: They were playing on the road in Mexico, and they trailed by a goal after the first leg. Indeed, the Galaxy’s degree of difficulty was slightly higher, since Monterrey had scored two away goals in their first-leg win at Los Angeles.

Bruce Arena’s side had been 10 minutes away from taking a 1-0 win down to Mexico for the second leg when the visitors’ two biggest threats, Mexican striker Aldo De Nigris and his Chilean counterpart Humberto Suazo, each struck in the waning moments to send LA to a severely deflating loss. But the Galaxy have Robbie Keane and Juninho and a rounding-into-form Landon Donovan, and their fans had hopes that they could bag the two goals needed in the return match to either win the tie outright or send it into extra time.

LA generated some chances, but Monterrey ultimately showed why they’re the two-time defending champs. Highlights here:

Real Salt Lake’s narrow loss to Monterrey in the 2011 final is looking like a bigger missed opportunity with each passing year. Jason Kreis’s team got a 2-2 draw on the road in the first leg that year, only to fall 1-0 at home in front of an amped-up crowd at Rio Tinto Stadium. Ouch.

Monterrey and Santos Laguna will meet for the trophy in a rematch of last year’s final. The two-leg decider is set for April 24 and May 1.

Controversy, Personnel Shortage Hit U.S Ahead of Crucial WC Qualifiers

USbraintrust

Friday night will be edge-of-your-seat-stuff.

The fallout continues to descend in the wake of Brian Straus’s thunderclap of an article in the Sporting News.

Using mostly anonymous sources connected to the U.S. national team, the story claims that there’s widespread dissatisfaction among U.S. players with coach Jurgen Klinsmann, his staff, and his methods. 

Go read the article if you haven’t, then come back here as we take a look at four issues ahead of tomorrow night’s huge game against Costa Rica (10:00 ET, ESPN).

• Where there’s smoke …

Klinsmann has provoked this sort of reaction at every stop of his brief coaching career. It was common knowledge that Joachim Low handled the X’s and O’s when he was assistant to Klinsmann during Germany’s run to third place in the 2006 World Cup. At Bayern Munich, where Klinsmann failed to last a full season as coach, he was saddled with the same “overtraining, undercoaching” tag U.S. players describe in Straus’s article.

Munich defender Philipp Lahm famously claimed in his autobiography that “the experiment with Klinsmann was a failure. We were only working on our fitness in training. He didn’t care much for tactical stuff.”

• Anonymity is wack 

Straus’s brief “sources were offered anonymity in exchange for their anecdotes, observations and opinions” explanation sort of slipped by unquestioned when the story first hit. But it’s well worth scrolling back to it for another look. Why do they need anonymity? Why can’t they attach their name to their opinions and complaints, or perhaps more importantly, why can’t they bring those directly to the coaches or teammates involved, and work it out internally? Further, what do they hope to accomplish by bringing their complaints to the media? Click here for an interesting take on those questions, or consider midfielder Michael Bradley’s opinion:

“It’s shameful, and it’s embarrassing. I think for every guy who has ever played on a team, you give everything you have … and on every team in the world, not every guy is going to be happy. There’s going to be guys who go back to their room and talk with their roommate about things they wish were different…. that’s normal.

“…But you cross a line when you take those thoughts and you take your disappointments outside of the team, outside of the inner circle.”

• Endgame scenarios

Returning to the question of what the anonymous complainers hope to accomplish, well, the answer, it’s safe to assume, is that they want Klinsmann out—sooner rather than later. In fact, Straus’s article closes with the suggestion that Friday night’s game is do-or-die for the German boss—win or auf Wiedersehen.

But how likely is that? We agree that if the coach truly isn’t working out—and if the U.S. fails to get three points either tonight or next Tuesday against Mexico—a change should be made now, while there’s still time to right the ship and qualify. But that depends on USSF head Sunil Gulati and his willingness to admit he made a mistake in hiring Klinsmann. Not only would he have to swallow his pride, but Gulati would also have to have a quick trigger finger, taking decisive action, now, to address the situation. That’s a double tall order.

There’s also the question of who to bring in. The top choice would be LA’s Bruce Arena, followed by Dom Kinnear of Houston. But both of those men are under contract, and fairly comfortable, with their clubs at the moment. There’s no guarantee they’d want to give up their current contentment for an uphill battle with the USMNT.

At the other extreme, the U.S. brass could simply stick with their man and his program. This would create a situation comparable to the one Lahm had in mind in his book when he wrote, ”All the players knew after about eight weeks that it was not going to work out with Klinsmann. The remainder of that campaign was nothing but limiting the damage.” But in this case the damage, to the U.S.’s standing in the world, its progress as a soccer nation, and player confidence, could be pretty severe.

What about a middle path, you say? Well, the disgruntled numpties in the U.S. camp surely have gotten Gulati’s attention. He knows they’re not happy, and if results continue to reflect that, he’ll have to address it. What if he brought in, say, a Dominic Kinnear to be one of Klinsmann’s assistants? Someone who understands the U.S. players’ perspective and who has their respect. It’s possible but again, you’d be asking a guy with a plum position to trade it in for a … less plum position. And there’s the question of people to fit this particular bill. Kinnear is just about the only one. Ben Olsen or Sigi Schmid also come to mind, or possibly Tab Ramos, but it’s not a long list.

All in all, we’d bet that some approximation of the middle path is what unfolds. Of course it depends on….

• How distracted will the team be on Friday—and who the hell is going to start?

While Carlos Bocanegra, Bradley, and Herculez Gomez have all issued some damage-control, ship-righting statements (Gomez called the controversy “cute” compared to the media scrutiny he experiences in Mexico; he also threw in a “teddy bears” and said the U.S. team will be a “better team for it”), the Sporting News story will definitely have an effect on tomorrow night’s game. Whether that effect is damaging or galvanizing remains to be seen.

It’s interesting to witness Bradley come out with his bold statement, and to see Dempsey named captain for the next two games (in the absence of Bocanegra, Tim Howard, and Landon Donovan), if only because it would appear to scratch their names off the list of 11 players who griped to Straus in the story.

The question remains as to whether their leadership will prevail and get the rest of the group to properly focus on the task at hand. Because anything less than three points tomorrow and this controversy only deepens.

Speaking of tomorrow, when you look at the U.S. roster, no clear-cut starting XI presents itself.

The backline is especially confounding. There are only two pure outside backs, Tony Beltran and Justin Morrow, and neither one has ever played in a World Cup qualifier before.

Some observers have suggested that Maurice Edu could be shifted to center back, allowing Geoff Cameron to move to right back, where he plays for Stoke City. That’s all well and good, but (apart from the fact that Cameron has never played RB for the U.S.) it would leave you with a center back pairing that’s never played together before, be it Clarence Goodson and Edu or Omar Gonzalez and Edu.

If Klinsmann sticks with the central pairing he used against Honduras—Cameron and Gonzalez—which might make the most sense, then he has to go with the two newbies on the outside.

The situation is less murky in midfield, but there’s still a good chance that we could see players out of position (either Eddie Johnson or Sacha Kljestan on the left), and a frustrating lack of speed and width. DaMarcus Beasley is a possible antidote to this latter element, but given Klinsmann’s preference for ball-winning central midfielders, Run DMB may not make the field.

There’s a lot of uncertainty heading into this game, but one thing’s for sure: it’s going to be interesting to watch.

Amid Plague of Injuries, Klinsmann Calls 23 for Costa Rica, Mexico

Klinsi

What, me worry?

Facing a must-win game against Costa Rica in Denver on Friday night, followed by the Herculean task of an away match at Estadio Azteca on Tuesday, March 26, the United States has been hit by an unprecedented injury bug.

Already missing their best player, Landon Donovan, who is taking a break from the sport, the American side will also have to do without Tim Howard, Steve Cherundolo, Fabian Johnson, Timmy Chandler, Edgar Castillo, Danny Williams, Jose Torres, and Jonathan Spector.

As a result, coach Jurgen Klinsmann has named a roster that includes just two pure outside backs, Real Salt Lake’s Tony Beltran and San Jose’s Justin Morrow, neither of whom has ever played a World Cup qualifier before.

Unless Klinsmann opts to start Puebla midfielder DaMarcus Beasley at left back—an experiment that famously failed at the 2009 Confederations Cup—the speedy Morrow, who earns $44,100 a year playing for the Earthquakes, will probably get the starting nod.

No matter whom Klinsmann chooses to start, it will be interesting to watch the patchwork, inexperienced squad respond to a high-pressure moment on Friday night (ESPN, 10:00 ET).

Here’s the complete roster (Club, World Cup qualifying caps/goals in parentheses):

GOALKEEPERS (3): Brad Guzan (Aston Villa – 5/3 SO), Sean Johnson (Chicago Fire – 0/0), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake – 0/0)

DEFENDERS (6): Tony Beltran (Real Salt Lake – 0/0), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City – 0/0), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City – 6/0), Omar Gonzalez (LA Galaxy – 1/0), Clarence Goodson (Brondby – 5/0), Justin Morrow (San Jose Earthquakes – 0/0)

MIDFIELDERS (9): DaMarcus Beasley (Puebla – 26/6), Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake – 2/0), Michael Bradley (Roma – 20/5), Joe Corona (Club Tijuana – 1/0), Maurice Edu (Bursaspor – 10/0), Jermaine Jones (Schalke 04 – 6/0), Sacha Kljestan (Anderlecht – 13/0), Brek Shea (Stoke City – 2/0), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City – 4/0)

FORWARDS (5): Jozy Altidore (AZ Alkmaar – 18/6), Terrence Boyd (Rapid Vienna – 2/0), Clint Dempsey (Tottenham Hotspur – 27/11), Herculez Gomez (Santos – 6/2), Eddie Johnson (Seattle Sounders FC – 12/10)

Given the rash of injuries, there aren’t a lot of unexpected decisions here, but the omission of veteran defender Carlos Bocanegra qualifies as a mild surprise. Bocanegra, 33, has not been getting playing time with his club, Racing Santander of the Spanish second division, and Klinsmann opted not to call him and his considerable international experience. Here’s what the coach had to say about the decision:

“With Carlos, I have had several very good conversations over the past weeks. The reason he’s not here is because he’s simply not playing. He’s not getting any minutes with Racing Santander in the second division in Spain, so he has no flow, he has no rhythm, and he understands the situation. Carlos is still in our picture. This is not the end of his national-team career. He understands that right now he’s behind other players. He’s not in the starter picture and he understands that he gives other players a chance to show what they can prove. A very positive approach from Carlos, very professional. It really shows great character from him. We’ll play it by ear over the next couple of months, how his situation hopefully will improve. He’s on loan until the end of the season. That’s basically two more months and then he probably makes another switch in his career. This is definitely a situation where we re-evaluate it in a couple of weeks down the road.”

Here’s the coach on the outside back situation:

“It’s definitely a challenge, no doubt about it, but bringing in Tony Beltran and Justin Morrow—those are two guys that play that position day in and day out with their clubs. They’re doing very well. I had them both in the January camp so I absolutely think they have the quality to come to the next level now. But we also have other options maybe coming out of midfield. I’m comfortable that we are covered there.”

His comment about “options coming out of midfield” implies Beasley could slot in at outside back. He also suggested Maurice Edu could play in defensive midfield or at center back.

The options on the backline are either inexperienced or unused to playing with one another, or both.

Seattle Squeaks Past Undermanned Tigres to Advance to CCL Semifinals

It came against a reserve-heavy side—and one that took a 1-0 lead (2-0 aggregate) before going down to 10 men just before halftime—but Seattle’s 3-1 win over Tigres last night at CenturyLink Field was a slab of history nonetheless. The victory marked the first time an MLS team had eliminated a Mexican side from the CONCACAF Champions League in the competition’s current format.

Get a load of the series-tying goal by new Seattle signing Djimi Traoré:

The Sounders created chances in the early going, but couldn’t put any of them away, and their wastefulness was punished in the 23rd minute, when former Chivas USA defender Jonny Bornstein started a counter for Tigres that led to a goal by Elias Hernandez. Down 2-0 on aggregate, Seattle would need three goals in the next 70-odd minutes to survive.

A second yellow card to Tigres midfielder Manuel Viniegra opened a door, and the Sounders barged through. Nineteen-year-old DeAndre Yedlin, a Seattle native and Sounders FC academy product, started the rally with a 30-yard volley. Traoré followed with his golazo, and striker Eddie Johnson capped the rally with a blazing run behind the Tigres defense in the 75th minute.

Seattle then survived a stoppage-time scare and held on for the huge win.

Complete highlights here:

The Sounders now advance to the semifinals of the CCL, where they will meet the winner of the Santos Laguna–Houston series, which wraps up tonight (Fox Soccer, 8:00 pm ET). The Dynamo hold a 1-0 lead heading into that second leg in Torreon, Mexico.

Well, Well, Well: U.S. 1, Mexico 0—At Azteca

For the first time in 25 games spread over 75 years, the United States national team got a win on Mexican soil, downing El Tri 1-0 at Estadio Azteca last night.

The winning play involved two of the most questioned choices on coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s roster, embattled winger Brek Shea and out-of-favor defender Michael Orozco Fiscal. That duo was subbed on in the latter stages, and combined with halftime substitute Terrence Boyd for the goal, with Shea beating a defender on the left and crossing for Boyd, who backheeled the ball on to Fiscal to sweep into the net at the far post.

Tim Howard made two big saves down the stretch to preserve the historic win.

To the highlights:

The U.S. had a record of 0-23-1 in Mexico City heading into the match—a fact displayed on a sign inside the fabled stadium.

As Howard said on his way out of the tunnel after the game, “Time to change the sign. Time to change the sign.”

Five Questions About Klinsmann’s Roster for Tomorrow’s Mexico Friendly

Speaking to the MLS website the other day, U.S. attacker Landon Donovan summed up tomorrow night’s friendly against Mexico at the fabled Azteca Stadium (8:00 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN3, Univision). Here’s what he said:

“Candidly, I don’t think it’s that important, but for a lot of guys that don’t get a lot of experience, I think that this will be a good experience. But it’s an awkward fixture date, and I would say that most if not all the players don’t like this fixture date. We’d much rather do away with it, but it’s still a good opportunity to get a game like this. … All things being equal, it’s still against Mexico, so we’ll be ready to play.”

Yep, it’s an awkward fixture date, and Klinsmann’s roster, with its contradictory, even puzzling choices, reflects that (see full roster below). We had a hard time limiting ourselves to just five questions:

1. Why invite Terrence Boyd but not Jozy Altidore as well?

Klinsmann said that Altidore (and Michael Bradley) has an “injury issue,” but the burly striker scored two goals in AZ’s season opener against Ajax over the weekend. He also can’t chalk up the omission to wanting Altidore to focus on his second season with AZ; he invited Boyd, who’s trying to get his first season off the ground with Rapid Vienna.

We’re eager to see what Boyd, who had two goals and an assist in his Austrian debut, can do against Mexico at Azteca, but both of them up top would have been a handful for the El Tri backline.

2. What did Brek Shea do to warrant another call-up?

Whatever it was, it certainly didn’t happen on the field, where he has just three goals and one assist in MLS this year. Off the field, he’s been worse, openly arguing with his coach, Schellas Hyndman, and getting a three-game suspension for chucking a ball at an official. He’s mended the fences with Hyndman, but it seems like he should be made to earn another U.S. call-up with his play, especially with other worthy MLS midfielders, like Chris Pontius, waiting in the wings.

3. What will it take to remove Michael Orozco Fiscal from the player pool?

We might find out tomorrow night. This is a guy who’s had several chances under Klinsmann and has not made the most of them, to put it mildly. Yes, he plays in Mexico, but Carlos Bocanegra—whose teammate at in-limbo Rangers, Maurice Edu, got called in—would have been a better choice for the backline. Ditto Tim Ream, who’s about to start his second season in the Premier League.

4. How will the midfield line up?

There are several holding midfielders in the group (Kyle Beckerman, Edu, and Jermaine Jones) and two wingers (Shea and DaMarcus Beasley, who play the same position). But who’s the playmaker? Jose Torres has yet to convince in a U.S. shirt, and Joe Corona is high on potential, low on international experience. The same can be said for Graham Zusi and Danny Williams. He could of course drop Donovan into that spot. But either way, it’s an unbalanced group of midfielders. Klinsmann clearly has no faith in Sacha Kljestan, who’s found success at Anderlecht and who’s 2012-13 season is already under way.

5. Why take Alan Gordon over younger MLS strikers?

Don’t get us wrong: we love Alan Gordon. He’s a true MLS yeoman who deserves every ounce of success he’s achieved. In 2007, when David Beckham joined the LA Galaxy, Gordon was making $30,870. According to Grant Wahl’s The Beckham Experiment, during his first morning in the LA locker room, the English icon was meeting his new teammates, shaking each player’s hand, one-by-one, and getting an “I’m Kyle, I’m Chris,” etc in return. When he got to Gordon, the $30,000-man said, “‘Hey, I’m Alan Gordon.’ But when Beckham tried to move on to the next player, Gordon kept holding his hand. ‘And you are?’ ”

Thankfully, Gordon is making $110,000 this year, but he’s 30 years old and there are several target strikers like him in MLS who might’ve made more sense, including his 25-year-old teammate Steven Lenhart, and Houston’s 22-year-old bruiser Will Bruin.

We’ve got more questions but we’ll stop with this one: Is Klinsmann prepared to handle the aftermath of a blowout?

Because that is a real possibility with this patchwork group, El Tri’s current form, and the 7,200-foot altitude in Mexico City, where Mexico hasn’t lost a competitive game since 2002 and the U.S. is 0-19-1 all time.

Buckle up.

Complete roster:

Goalkeepers: Tim Howard (Everton), Sean Johnson (Chicago Fire), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)

Defenders: Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Steven Beithasour (San Jose Earthquakes), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Edgar Castillo (Club Tijuana), Michael Orozco Fiscal (San Luis), Fabian Johnson (Hoffenheim)

Midfielders: DaMarcus Beasley (Puebla), Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Joe Corona (Club Tijuana), Maurice Edu (Rangers), Jermaine Jones (Schalke 04), Jose Torres (Pachuca), Brek Shea (FC Dallas), Danny Williams (Hoffenheim), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)

Forwards: Terrence Boyd (Rapid Vienna), Landon Donovan (LA Galaxy), Herculez Gomez (Santos), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes), Alan Gordon (San Jose Earthquakes)

CCL: Rough Night for MLS Favorites as Galaxy, Sounders Crash Out

Having crossed “win an MLS Cup” off their to-do list this past fall, David Beckham, Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane and the LA Galaxy turned their focus to the CONCACAF Champions League as the 2012 season approached.

Winning that competition would be an MLS first and constitute the next frontier for a club with lofty aspirations. A CCL crown would raise the international profile of the franchise and put the Galaxy in the FIFA Club World Cup, where LA could compete against some of the biggest sides in the world.

Last night, those visions of greater glory evaporated in the air of the Home Depot Center as Toronto FC, a team that has never qualified for the MLS playoffs in five years of existence, eliminated the Galaxy with a 2-1 victory. The win, behind goals from Ryan Johnson and Nick Soolsma, sealed a 4-3 aggregate triumph for the Reds and made them the first Canadian side ever to reach the semifinals of the CCL.

Johnson opened the scoring just after the half-hour mark, beating rookie Galaxy defender Tommy Myer to Soolsma’s cross at the far post and heading the ball back across Josh Saunders’ goal and into the side netting.

Los Angeles replied ten minutes into the second half when Toronto defender Ty Harden turned Donovan’s cross, which was bound for an onrushing Keane, into his own net. But Toronto found the winner in the 67th minute, when Johnson beat Myer again, on the left flank, and crossed for Soolsma at the top of the six-yard box.

Keane failed to finish two clear second-half chances to tie the game.

Toronto will face Mexican side Santos Laguna in the two-leg semifinal on March 28 and April 4.

•••

Santos Laguna entered their second leg against Seattle trailing 2-1 on aggregate, but made quick work of erasing that deficit in the 90-degree confines of Estadio Corona. The hosts bagged two goals in the first 10 minutes of the second leg to take a 3-2 aggregate lead.

When Seattle’s Fredy Montero found Alvaro Fernandez at the back post to make it 2-1 (and 3-3 on aggregate) it looked like we were in for a sizzling second half.

We were, except that it was all one-way traffic. Former Sounder and 2010 U.S. World Cup veteran Herculez Gomez scored for the hosts five minutes after the break, and added a second in the 68th minute to blow the game open. Gomez has seven goals in his last five games.

Santos would add two more as Seattle pushed forward to try make up the aggregate deficit. When the final whistle blew, it was 6-1 Santos and 7-3 in the aggregate.