MLS Exports Ruled the World this Week

With his fairytale goal against Leeds yesterday, Red Bulls striker Thierry Henry capped a tremendous week for Major League Soccer products playing abroad.

Over the weekend, former New England Revolution star and 2004 MLS Rookie of the Year Clint Dempsey scored a hat-trick against Charlton in the FA Cup, and current LA Galaxy attacker Landon Donovan set up a goal and hit the post with a 25-yard rocket during Everton’s 2-0 win over Tamworth in the FA Cup.

There were other players with MLS ties who stood out this week, but before we get to those, here are the highlights, via The FA Cup, of Henry’s triumphant return to Arsenal, the club where he forged his legend—and where they’ve erected a statue in his likeness. He entered the third-round match in the 67th minute with the score 0-0:

On first viewing, Henry appears to be offside, but subsequent replays clearly showed that the defender on the far side, at the top of the screen, kept him onside. Here’s a screen grab for proof:

Definitely onside, and definitely an indelible moment in global soccer, year 2012.

Former Revolution man Dempsey created his own career landmark against Charlton on Saturday, bagging his first hat-trick to power Fulham to a 4-0 win. Highlights below, also courtesy of The FA Cup. Note Costa Rican Bryan Ruiz, who is involved in three of the four goals:

After the game, Fulham coach Martin Jol , speaking to The Sun, had this to say about the kid from Nacogdoches: “He is an American boy so he wants to win every training session. He has the eye of the tiger.”

The MLS-export heroics were not limited to Henry, Donovan, and Dempsey.

Five days earlier, former New York goalkeeper Tim Howard made history by becoming just the fourth goalkeeper (and second Yank, after Brad Friedel) to score in the Premier League when his clearance from the top of his own area got caught in the wind and bounced high over the head of Bolton keeper Adam Bogdan.

In Italy, former MetroStars midfielder Michael Bradley earned raves for his play with Serie A side Chievo. He has nailed down a starting spot, and the team is on track for a solid mid-table finish this season. Bradley has also already mastered enough Italian to conduct his press interviews in the local tongue.

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.

Tim Howard’s True Doppelganger: Greg Matzek or Vin Diesel?

You may have seen the story, here, or here, about Milwaukee radio man Greg Matzek‘s encounter with Everton and U.S. national team goalkeeper Tim Howard in Memphis over the weekend.

If not, here’s a quick recap: For years, people have been telling Matzek that he looks uncannily like the U.S. keeper.

In 2005, ESPN featured side-by-side photos of the two in a “separated at birth” feature.

If Howard’s TV insurance commercial ever came on while Matzek was watching the Women’s World Cup this summer, no matter where he was, the conversation immediately turned to his striking resemblance to the player.

Such was the case this past Sunday, when Matzek was watching the WWC Final in a Memphis sports bar. The difference this time, though, was that Howard was also in the sports bar. Take it away Matzek:

“The same advertisement with Howard aired, and Ryan, Mike and I started chuckling again at my unquestionable likeness to Howard. I also received a couple more texts. About three minutes later, Ryan, who used to play soccer for UW-Milwaukee, looked over my shoulder and said, “excuse me, are you Tim Howard?”

Confused, I turned to look at the man who was five feet behind me eating a salad and drinking a Blue Moon—it was the real TIM HOWARD!

I’ve been around professional athletes for the majority of my professional career, so I understand the etiquette when approaching them. That all went out the window when I realized my celebrity look-alike was near arms-reach away from me.

“Holy sh**!” I said. “I’m you!!” (nice one Greg).

I introduced myself, shook his hand, explained how we have been linked in years past, and showed him the ESPN Page 2 web site on my IPad. He absolutely loved it! He seemed most amused that I dressed as him for Halloween—he even asked for pictures….

He also explained that he heard us talking about my likeness and was waiting for me to turn around so he could judge.”

We agree that Matzek–Howard (top) is a solid “separated at birth,” but does it top the Vin Diesel–Tim Howard resemblance?

It’s a tough call. Let us know what you think in the comments.

U.S. Drops Canada 2-0; Dempsey Unveils “Squirrel Kick”

Jozy Altidore scored in the 15th minute and assisted on Clint Dempsey’s strike just past the hour mark as the U.S. opened the Gold Cup with a convincing 2-0 win over Canada last night in Detroit.

The U.S. performance was so good, it nearly (nearly) washed away the aftertaste of Saturday’s 4-0 defeat to Spain. The Americans dictated the tempo and, except for brief passages at the start and end of the second half, completely dominated the game against a solid Canadian team coming off a 2-2 draw with Ecuador.

Herewith, the highlights:

Unfortunately, that clip does not include Dempsey’s audacious flying backheel—a move he later dubbed a “squirrel kick”—on a cross that flew in behind his run to the far post just minutes before his goal.

The Fulham attacker made solid contact with the ball (while his body was horizontal to the ground) but the acrobatic shot was blocked by a Canadian defender and went out for a corner.

In addition to the standout performances of Altidore and Dempsey, the U.S. got solid games from centerbacks Tim Ream and Clarence Goodson, young striker Juan Agudelo, midfielders Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones, and Tim Howard, who provoked the following postgame quote from Canada coach Stephen Hart: “Howard was absolute magic. I almost clapped.”

Next up for the U.S. is Panama—3-2 winners over Guadeloupe in their Group C opener—on Saturday night in Tampa (8:00, Fox Soccer Channel).

The March Friendlies: Player Ratings

While Backpost was away on vacation, the U.S. played two international friendlies, pulling out a flattering 1-1 draw with Argentina on Saturday night, then following that up with a more balanced performance but a 1-0 loss to Paraguay on Tuesday.

These were the last two games for the U.S. before the Gold Cup kicks off in June. The winner of the Gold Cup gets a berth in the 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil, a dress rehearsal for the 2014 World Cup.

Here are the highlights from the Paraguay match, followed by the Backpost U.S. player ratings for both games:

Tim Howard, 9—A handful of stops—including a spectacular kick save on Leo Messi—kept the scorline respectable against Argentina. The former MetroStar is just a fantastic goalkeeper.

Marcus Hahnemann, 6—Nothing he could do on Paraguay’s goal, and was solid otherwise, including on a double save late in the first half.

David Yelldell, 5—Not a very hectic 45 minutes of action against Paraguay; claimed a few crosses. Was beaten—as any keeper would have been—by Marcelo Estigarribia’s cannon shot from 30 yards, which banged off the post.

Jonathan Spector, 4—Maybe the recent lack of playing time, and the shift to midfield, at West Ham have hurt him. Looked uncomfortable and was overwhelmed a couple of times before being taken off for Timothy Chandler at halftime vs Argentina. Came on for ten minutes at the end of the Paraguay game.

Timothy Chandler, 7—Along with Juan Agudelo, sparked the U.S. to life in the second half against Argentina, and showed attacking ability in both matches. Was also caught out of position a few times in both games.

Jay DeMerit, 5—His hard work and athleticism boosted the U.S.’s emergency defending in the first half against Argentina, but had a couple of scary giveaways in the back. Came off at halftime of Paraguay game with groin strain.

Tim Ream, 7.5—Excellent positioning and pinpoint passing out of the back. Also showed speed—which some critics say he lacks—chasing down a Paraguayan attacker in the corner. Lost his footing on the corner kick that led to the goal.

Carlos Bocanegra, 5—Rebounded from a very shaky first half against Argentina to help set up U.S. goal with header. Came in for DeMerit vs Paraguay and did no harm.

Jonathan Bornstein, 5—Completely mis-hit a cross against Paraguay after being sent in to the box by Landon Donovan. Beaten in the air early, then shored up his defensive game later.

Eric Lichaj, 6—Brings a lot of energy and some surprising confidence to the U.S. backline. Positioned well defensively and picked his spots to get forward in a second-half appearance vs Paraguay. His long throw nearly created the equalizer when it fell for Donovan at the back post.

Oguchi Onyewu, 3.5—Hard to believe he’s playing outside back for FC Twente. At centerback for the Yanks, seemed too lumbering and clumsy on the ball to deal with speedy wing play. Made a few bad giveaways. Gooch hasn’t been himself since injuring his patella tendon back in Oct 2009. DNP vs Paraguay.

Maurice Edu, 5—Was perhaps the most hampered by the U.S.’s 4-5-1 first-half formation vs Argentina, and the overcrowded central midfield it produced. Did much better when the Yanks went to a 4-4-2, and had a solid showing on both sides of the ball against Paraguay.

Michael Bradley, 5.5—Did some frantic defending against Argentina but was also overwhelmed and out of sync with his central midfield partners, until the U.S. changed it up. Did much better vs Paraguay and nearly hit a late equalizer on a 25-yard crack that produced a highlight-reel save from Paraguay keeper Ricardo Villar.

Jermaine Jones, 5.5—Played a half in each game; looked utterly lost vs Argentina (some day coach Bob Bradley will shelve the idea of playing Edu, M. Bradley, and Jones—nearly identical players—together in the center of the field. We just know it), but pretty sharp vs Paraguay. Nearly tied it at the end with point-blank tracer that Villar stymied.

Landon Donovan, 5—Others disagree, but we thought LD donned his invisibility cloak for much of these two games. Nearly (and should have) scored late against Paraguay but missed the target, and was just not enough The Man for the U.S. in both games.

Clint Dempsey, 7—Savviest U.S. player on the field vs Paraguay. Clever, subtle first touches got him out of midfield traffic, tested Paraguay’s Villar with a long looping shot, and headed Chandler’s cross just over the bar. Not as effective against Argentina but still a calming veteran presence.

Jozy Altidore, 5—Completely stranded up top in the first half against Argentina, and subsequently tried to do too much (like going 1 v 4 on the Albiceleste backline). Did better when Agudelo came on in the second half, but his game dropped vs Paraguay with poor touches and no coordination with teammates in attack.

Juan Agudelo, 8—He has scored two goals and drawn a penalty in four games for the U.S. (also appeared to have drawn one against Paraguay but it was not called). His exciting start papers over some of his errors, like not getting the ball off his feet quickly enough, but he shows a ton of confidence and some welcome ideas in the attacking third. Future’s so bright, he … should open a Sunglasses Hut franchise.

Sacha Kljestan, NR—Thirteen-minute cameo vs Paraguay; we thought young Mix Diskerud would get out there, but it was Sacha and his ’stache, which are settling in fairly well at Anderlecht.

Yanks in England: Dempsey Scores, Helps Fulham Bag Crucial Three Points

U.S. midfielder Clint Dempsey scored his team-leading sixth goal of the season (in 19 starts) on Tuesday, burying the second for Fulham in a 3-0 win over West Brom.

Click here for the highlights.

And check out Fulham fans serenading the man from Nacogdoches:

(All together now: “He scores with his left!/ He scores with his right!/That boy Clint Dempsey/ Makes Drogba look shite!”)

The win lifted the Cottagers out of the relegation zone and all the way up to 14th place. That’s a helpful boost, for sure, but the bottom half of the table is absurdly crowded: just five points separate Everton in 11th place and West Ham in 20th.

Speaking of those two clubs, Everton snatched a valuable three points from visiting Tottenham yesterday, winning 2-1, while West Ham was thrashed 5-0 at Newcastle.

U.S. keeper Tim Howard made several saves in Everton’s win, including a brilliant denial of Rafael Van der Vaart from six yards. The game was a cracking, back-and-forth affair, won by Seamus Coleman’s diving header in the 75th minute.

Jonathan Spector dressed but did not play for West Ham, which plunged further into relegation trouble with the loss. The Hammers have played one more game than all of their fellow drop-zone denizens, yet trail all on points as well.

Aston Villa and Brad Friedel fell 1-0 at home to Sunderland, on Phil Bardsley’s 80th-minute winner. Friedel started and went the distance. Young U.S. defender Eric Lichaj dressed but did not play, while Yank keeper Brad Guzan is on loan to Hull.

Villa fell into the drop zone with their loss to the Black Cats, thanks to Wolverhampton’s stunning 1-0 upset of Chelsea on Jose Bosingwa’s fourth-minute own goal. Wolves jumped over Villa on goal difference with the shocker. American netminder Marcus Hahnemann dressed but did not play for Wolves.

Hey, when you’re missing the best player in the league from your lineup, your results are going to suffer, and that’s just what’s happening to Bolton following Stuart Holden’s injury in the Chelsea match at the end of December.

The U.S. midfielder missed Bolton’s next game, a loss to Liverpool, and yesterday, he sat out his team’s home match against Wigan, and Wanderers produced another underwhelming result: a 1-1 tie against the relegation battlers.

Bolton did dominate the game, but couldn’t finish the several chances they created after 19-year-old Rodrigo Moreno’s 54th minute opener. (Dutchman Ronnie Stam tied it for Wigan ten minutes from time.)

The Premier League is off this weekend for FA Cup third-round matches.

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.

EJ Debuts, Spector Disappears, Howard in a Wild One: Yanks in England, Weekend Wrap

Eddie Johnsonremember him? —made his first Premier League appearance for Fulham in nearly 11 months, coming on for fellow Yank Clint Dempsey in the 82nd minute of Fulham’s 2-1 win over Wolverhampton and U.S. keeper Marcus Hahnemann.

Fulham dominated the early stages, yet went down 1-0 on a goal by Jean Claude Jelle van Damme in the 10th minute. They tied it just after halftime on a goal by new signing Moussa Dembele of Belgium, who went on to win it in stoppage time with a rocket of a free kick.

The Cottagers will need Dembele (and Dempsey, and probably Johnson) to step up, as they lost England international Bobby Zamora to a broken leg after a challenge by Wolves midfielder Karl Henry in the 28th minute. Zamora will miss at least four months.

The game was a chippy affair over all, with nine yellow cards shown, along with one red, to Wolves’ Christophe Berra in the last minutes.

In North London, American Stuart Holden again got the start in central midfield and went the distance for Bolton but, after hanging tough for an hour, Wanderers lost defender Gary Cahill to a red card and were overwhelmed 4-1 by Arsenal.

Tim Howard and Everton hosted the U.S. keeper’s old team, Manchester United, and staged an electrifying comeback to gain a 3-3 tie. Trailing 3-1 as stoppage time began, the Toffees got goals from Tim Cahill and Mikel Arteta in the dying minutes to snatch a point.

They were on the attack again when the referee blew the final whistle—literally, as Everton charged upfield—moments after Arteta’s goal. Everton coach David Moyes was not pleased with that, but he will, of course, take the point.

Howard made a circus kick save off a deflected Paul Scholes tracer from distance in the first  half.

Chelsea removed most of the drama from its encounter with former coach Avram Grant and last-place West Ham just two minutes in, when Michael Essien buried a cross from Didier Drogba.

Salomon Kalou doubled the margin in the 17th minute, and Essien struck again in the 83rd.

The Hammers’ ever reliable midfielder Scott Parker pulled one back for the home team—and became the first player to score against Chelsea in four games this year (that’s 17 for, 1 against for the Blues)—in the 84th, but it was too little too late.

Jonathan Spector did not dress for West Ham, which is pointless on the season and has given up 12 goals in four games.

In non-U.S.-related games, plucky Blackpool climbed to fourth in the table with a 2-0 win over fellow promotion team Newcastle, prompting the first entry in the Ian Holloway campaign for quote of the season:

“I am more than delighted with that. If there was a better word than delighted, I would like to think about it now and say it. I might make my own up—‘phantasmagorical,’ whatever. If you think about the end of last season, the trouncing we got here, if you look at how short a period of time it is, if you look at the quality they have got, I am absolutely delighted. My boys get stronger and better all the time and I have got to be careful that I don’t burst with pride about them.”

It may not be the winner, but it’s a solid start.

Blackburn and MLS alum Ryan Nelsen tied big-spending Manchester City on the road, 1-1, but Nelsen had to leave the game just before halftime after a rough challenge left him dinged up.

West Brom held visiting Tottenham to a 1-1 draw, and nearly won the game with three clear chances in the final 10 minutes.

Sunderland traveled to Wigan and got a goal from a player familiar to U.S. fans, one Asamoah Gyan, aka “Baby Jet,” who was making his debut for the Black Cats. The goal did not stand up, though, as Antolin Alcaraz headed in an 86th minute equalizer and the teams split the points.

Finally, Liverpool reflected the malaise at the club in the wake of its American owners’ debt woes, turning in a lackluster performance in a 0-0 road draw with Birmingham.

As the league site put it, “Liverpool were indebted to a superb display from goalkeeper Jose Reina for earning a point from a goalless draw with Birmingham City.”

See what they did there? Indebted? Cheeky. From the official website, no less. We doubt would ever do something like that.

Birmingham dominated the game and blew three solid chances, as well as an opportunity to tie Man U in third place in the standings. They’re currently in fifth.

U.S. keepers Brad Friedel and Brad Guzan, along with young American defender Eric Lichaj, travel to Britannia Stadium with Aston Villa to take on Stoke City today.

This Story Involves Tim Howard … We Think

This is a bit old, but well worth 32 seconds of your time, even if you’ve seen it before: Sky Sports studio anchor Jeff Stelling throws it to his sideline reporter, Mr. Dean Windass, with incredible, possibly historic results:

Let’s review: Everton nearly went behind; there were “pick ons;” someone outraced someone else, while a third party was “sent for a pie;” the anchor is referred to as Jeff, John, Steve, and, finally, Jack—and, as we said, we’re pretty sure Tim Howard features in the story. 

Windass apparently studied at the Northern England branch of the Eric Dickerson School for Sideline Reporting.

Everton’s Good News-Bad News Week Is … Mostly Bad, Actually

Everton defeated Sporting Lisbon 2-1 in the home leg of their Europa League Round of 32 matchup on Tuesday, but also learned on that day that it had lost towering (6′ 5″) center midfielder Marouane Fellaini for the season. And even the Europa League win was dampened near the end by a potentially huge mistake from defender Sylvain Distin, who decked Sporting’s Da Silva Muniz Liedson in the box in the 87th minute, getting red-carded and giving the visitors a crucial away goal via penalty in the dying moments.

Distin will miss the return leg, and Everton’s John Heitinga is also out, meaning the Toffees will play at Lisbon without their first-choice central defense. Getting to the Round of 16 looks a lot tougher now than it did in the 86th minute at Goodison Park on Tuesday.

U.S. midfielder Landon Donovan started, went the distance, and by all accounts had a decent game. (Ditto Yank keeper Tim Howard.) Will David Moyes employ Donovan in the center of the midfield at all, following the season-ending injury to Fellaini?

It turns out the Belgian midfielder was not embellishing, at all, after his crunching 50-50 challenge with Liverpool defender Sotirios Kyrgiakos in the Merseyside derby on Feb 6 (see photo above).

Not that we, or anyone else (outside of the odd Scouser: see Fellaini’s vandalized Wikipedia page here*) were suggesting he was, but Fellaini did go over the ball into the challenge—while Kyrgiakos went two-footed, studs-up—and it’s not uncommon for a player to camouflage a bookable offense by feigning grievous bodily harm. (One match announcer suggested both players deserved red cards on the play).

But Fellaini has come out worse for the wear, as Everton announced Tuesday that he will require surgery to repair ligament damage in his ankle, and will be out of action for six months.

It’s a tough blow for Everton, as the lanky Belgian international had been key to the team’s resurgence in the past two months, pulling strings and providing bite in the Toffees’ midfield.

*UPDATE: Fellaini’s Wikipedia page has been corrected. Yesterday, it listed him as “Screech” Fellaini, and suggested that he had injured himself in the challenge with Kyrgiakos. Clearly the work of a Liverpool fan—and we had no idea that Saved by the Bell had been exported to the UK.