Thursday, March 21, 2013

The USMNT: Double, Double Toil and Trouble

Let's set the record straight on something before we even get started. Brian Straus's article on the United States Men's National Team, which appeared earlier this week on the Sporting News website, was a well written, relevant, timely, and pertinent piece of journalism. The only way I can be convinced otherwise is if someone steps forward with evidence that Straus fabricated all of those anonymous quotes and has a secret voodoo shrine above his fireplace dedicated to the professional ruination of Jurgen Klinsmann. To all the rabid fans out there calling for blood, the team isn't going to win or lose based on an article written by a responsible journalist. The story was there. He reported it.

It's the intervening days since the article was published - the actions of the players and Klinsmann himself - and the looming dates with Costa Rica and Mexico that are the real stories now. So what do we have?

Well, unless, as I said before, Straus pulled all of those anonymous quotes from thin air, the USMNT has a legitimate chemistry issue. Klinsmann, Carlos Bocanegra, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Tim Howard, and Herculez Gomez have all stepped forward in the last 48 hours and engaged in the time honored tradition of athletes everywhere by saying the right things to the media about team spirit, mutual support, and focusing on the task at hand, ostensibly the match against Costa Rica.

Back to the wall. Klinsmann's theories need to become results.
 Reading between the lines a bit, and given that none of the aforementioned players suggested that there was no substance to the quotes in the Straus article, one can assume that the chemistry issues are being addressed in the locker room. Unfortunately, the likes of Dempsey, Bradley, and Gomez will have to handle this issue themselves as elder statesmen and universally respected leaders Bocanegra and Howard are not in Denver through injury and form respectively.

Which leads to another strange and troubling chapter in this rapidly developing saga. What's the deal with Carlos Bocanegra? He was given an entirely unexpected spot on the bench for the loss to Honduras in a match that was crying out for senior leadership and experience in the defensive third. This week he was stripped of his captaincy and dropped from the squad altogether. To his credit, Bocanegra has been his usual classy, well-spoken, and mature self when addressing these issues to the media, but one has to wonder what is going on behind the scenes.

Bocanegra is no spring chicken and Klinsmann is right to be vetting viable alternatives in the US defense, but there has to be a middle ground between ignoring the problem and Klinsmann's chosen hell-bent-for-leather path of throwing the spring lambs to the wolves. Klinsmann has suggested that Bocanegra's lack of form with his club is the reason for his recent exclusion from the squad, but time and again Klinsmann has strayed from this guiding principle by either including an out-of-form player or excluding a player on a hot streak.

This sort of inconsistent decision making and incongruity between speech and action is exactly the sort of behavior for which Straus's article criticizes Klinsmann and it wouldn't surprise me at all to learn that he and Bocanegra had some sort of disagreement regarding the direction of the team. That's purely conjecture and I could be totally off base, but the treatment of Bocanegra seems to have everyone doing that little sideways, ear pricked head tilt Golden Retrievers do when they hear an unfamiliar sound.

Thrown into all of this is the embryonic backfiring of the Germans-as-Americans experiment begun under Bob Bradley and taken to Weapon X proportions by Klinsmann. Again, everyone is saying the right things. Klinsmann has said, "I believe Americans are Americans no matter if they grow up in Japan, South Africa, or Buenos Aires." While this is a politically correct thing to say, true for the American diaspora, and generally a good thing, what the USMNT is dealing with right now is in no way general. It's very, very, very specific and it involves importing players who may be American in paperwork only to be lynchpins on a national team that has seen its greatest successes come through the emotional unity of being an American underdog.

Yes, the USMNT has fielded players in the past - Thomas Dooley, David Regis, Ernie Stewart - who essentially became American by donning the national team jersey, but those players came into the squad as individuals and were quickly assimilated into the team ethos. By contrast, Fabian Johnson, Timmy Chandler, Danny Williams, Terrance Boyd, and to a lesser extent Jermain Jones, have all come into the USMNT at the same time. It's tough to see how they could not not form a clique, if not out of perceived superiority then certainly out of common experience and a language barrier.

And now Klinsmann has named Clint Dempsey captain for the next two qualifiers against Costa Rica and Mexico. This is another Golden Retriever decision for me. It's not that I don't think Dempsey is deserving of this sort of honor, but that, given his form and recent injury issues at Tottenham (again with the club form thing) and Michael Bradley's emergence as a vocal, world class midfield motor, I would have thought Bradley would be a shoe in. Dempsey is more of a get on with it, silent, chip-on-the-shoulder type and perhaps Klinsmann is hoping this will rub off on the rest of the team, but I can't help but think those anonymous sources of Straus might be throwing their hands up at this decision as further proof that Klinsmann is a master tinkerer with very little end product.

So now it's do or die time. At the bare minimum, the USMNT has to get at least a point from these next two matches. Realistically, they have to get three. I don't see the current state of the side remaining unclear after the Costa Rica and Mexico matches. The Straus article and the panicked attention it has brought to the team will result in either a backs-to-the-wall, us-against-them stand that sees the USMNT through these next two fixtures and well on the way to a galvanizing qualification campaign, or the Yanks will implode in a spectacular show of underachievement and caustic finger pointing clouded in a haze of ambiguous and impotent Klinsmann platitudes.

When will we know?

When the hurlyburly's done, when the battle's lost and won.      

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The North London Derby Prediction

Arsene Wenger earlier this week stated that Arsenal make no special preparations to face superlative players. Arsenal suddenly make so much more sense to me.

In Soccernomics, by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, the argument is made that innovative advantages do not live in perpetuity. In other words, if I show up to our office or worksite or lab or *ahem* soccer league with an innovative and effective way of doing the same old thing, I will enjoy a substantial advantage over my opponents for as long as it takes my opponents to either counter my innovation with an innovation of their own or to simply start doing the same thing that I once did so uniquely, and even potentially improve upon my methods.

The case study they use to illustrate said point? Arsene Wenger.

Kuper and Syzmanski are able to pinpoint the exact moment Wenger was no longer "The Professor" and simply became "Wenger." That exact moment? 2006.

This is an image from the near tomorrow
Look, I appreciate Wenger and his very French very stubborn insistence that his methods are not flawed. I appreciate his ability to find young talent and polish it into professional class. I find the brand of football Arsenal plays to be mostly pleasing to the eye (I can do this because I'm not an Arsenal fan and I'll never want to kill myself when they can't play Any. Other. Way. even when they need a goal in the 93rd minute). I can even endure Wenger's constant diffusion of responsibility for his team's inability to do anything other than qualify for the Champions League and get knocked out of domestic cup competitions. I find his peanut butter mouth accent charming, his ridiculous coat ridiculous,  and I kind of dig the fact that he was boning down with an Algerian female rapper half his age...allegedly.

What I enjoy most though, is his tragic inability to innovate again, the caricature of himself he has become, and the manner in which Arsenal fans have adopted their manager's delusional optimism, an optimism that blames everyone and everything else for their side's failure. I don't mean that as schadenfreude. I don't enjoy Arsenal's failure out of spite, but I do enjoy the morality play the Gunners have become. It's like Aesop's Fables or Animal Farm or Oedipus Rex or This Is Spinal Tap all come to life. Arsenal are a cautionary tale warning against the hubris a novel idea can cultivate.
Gareth Bale is not someone like Ricky Lambert who just happens to be his side's best player. Gareth Bale is in the purplest or purple patches. He's wearing a Barney suit, stomping grapes, and listening to Gogol Bordello's Start Wearing Purple on repeat.

Wenger hasn't planned for him? He's either lying or doing the most Arsene Wenger thing Arsene Wenger has ever done. I'm going with latter.

Prediction: Gareth Bale - 3. Arsenal - 1.    

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Better Late Than Never Predictions

Those of you in Blighty are no doubt slumbering peacefully away on the eve of yet another Premier League Saturday...or you're not and you're out carousing with the boys (or ladies) and more than a few pints in. In any case, you're not reading this right now. Consider it a morning gift and/or hangover remedy left in the still of night by yours truly. I'm like football blogging Santa.

Those of you on this side of the Atlantic, well, what's your excuse? It's Friday night! I know because I'm doing this rather than making any number of much more questionable although undoubtedly more fun decisions all for the benefit of you dear readers. I'm like football blogging Jesus.

Santa and Jesus. I'll take that.

On to the predictions!

Chelsea take on West Brom in a match that will no doubt attract even a neutral's eye after Rafa went Waterboy, snapped, and leveled his shoulder on everyone from the Blues' fans to the Chelsea boardroom. I can't say I blame him or even that he's wrong, but wow. Anyone else get the feeling that Chelsea's season may be one or two losses from a spectacular, flaming train wreck to be played out in the season's remaining press conferences, tabloids, and rumor mills?

Rafa Benitez is not impressed
The best thing Chelsea have going for them this weekend is that Romelu Lukaku is ineligible to play against his parent club. Beyond that, you can bet the atmosphere at Stamford Bridge will be considerably unwelcoming to Rafa and populated by the Boo Bird's predatory raptor cousin.

To Chelsea fans, I'd love to say the leadership and quality in the side will buckle down, play for one another, and kick on, but it would be disingenuous and against type for me to do so. Remember the whole "Santa Jesus" thing. That's why I'm right off the bat using my William J. La Petomane Insane Prediction Of The Week! I call a 1-0 Baggies win with more gnashing of teeth and finger pointing in the post match interviews.

Everton and Reading square off at Goodison Park and both teams are in need of a win but for entirely different reasons. The Toffees began the campaign like a house on fire but have recently struggled to find their previously scintillating form and are coming off a FA Cup win against lowly Oldham that should have been done and dusted a couple of weeks ago.

Clearly, the resemblance is uncanny
Reading find themselves at the foot of the table, but only just. With some help in the other matches, they could pop out of the relegation zone with a win tomorrow, but they'll have to do it without Pavel Pogrebnyak who went Drago in last weekend's loss to Wigan. On paper, this should be a relatively easy Everton win, but there are goals in this Reading side and Everton have been suspiciously generous in the back, especially late on in matches. I think the Toffees storm out to an early lead only to get pegged back by Reading to set up a grandstand finish. 2-1, Everton.

Manchester United are the only side in the perennial frontrunners to yet show any semblance of the yips. They see off inferior sides and find a way to win against the other frontrunners. Whether it's 73 year old Ryan Giggs smacking one in with his ivory headed cane, hirsute Wayne Rooney cannoning in a screamer from the edge of the box, equine Robin Van Persie scoring for fun, or even Rafael blacking out and murdering a 25 yard scud into the top corner, United always seem to find the goals to win.

And speaking of "finding the goals to win," whatever Chris Hughton has done to the Canaries in recent weeks (ostensibly not using them to warn miners of impeding death), has worked wonders. This side has come a long way from the team who were thrashed by Fulham 5-0 to start the season. If Norwich find themselves down a goal with 10 minutes left to play, David de Gea will get ample opportunity against the likes of Grant Holt and Kai Kamara to prove that he's gotten over his callow attempts to claim crosses. I don't think it gets that nervy, but I also think Norwich are good for at least a goal in this contest. 2-1, United.

Southampton entertain QPR on Saturday and it looks for all the world to me like the Harry Redknapp effect has earned its few points and normalcy has returned. "Normalcy" being QPR's complete inability to execute even the basic fundamentals of sound defense while setting new standards for futility in the attacking end of the pitch.

That said, Southampton, while a little more than occasionally playing some fine attacking soccer, are also prone to a little more than occasionally pulling a Jos Hooiveld, even when it's not Jos Hooiveld executing the aforementioned Jos Hooiveld maneuver. I think there are goals in this one. 4-2, Southampton.

Murder Incorporated (aka Stoke City) play host to West Ham and all bets are off given the injuries and suspensions affecting players from both sides. Robert Huth is out for Stoke after trying to rearrange Philippe Senderos's face with his forearm in last weekend's match against Fulham (couldn't have made him uglier) , although given that they seem to have an entire squad of meat fisted center backs at their disposal, I don't think this hurts Stoke too much. West Ham are at a considerably more significant loss as Kevin Nolan is set to miss the match with a broken toe and Mark Noble has hurt his arm.

With West Ham missing arguably their two best midfielders and coming off a heart breaking loss to Gareth Bale, I think Stoke finally get back to winning ways and probably break a few legs along the way. Stoke for the 1-0 win.

Sunderland v Fulham represents a chance for the Cottagers to avenge the thumping they received from the Black Cats earlier in the season at Craven Cottage and also build on last week's victory over Stoke. I think they have every opportunity to do this against an underachieving Sunderland side, but as a Fulham supporter, I am immune to confidence and find optimism generally distasteful.

To me, the lynchpin to a successful Fulham side lies in Dimitar Berbatov's ability/desire/discipline to stay farther up the pitch than he has a tendency to do. In lieu of that, Fulham need to play with two out-and-out strikers to compensate for Berbatov's dalliances into the midfield. Given that this match is away from home, I don't think Martin Jol will start two dedicated forwards. This leaves me praying that Berbatov will draw a lesson from the Fulham "Harlem Shake" video (scroll down) and calmly occupy space in the attacking third while the other ten Fulham players go apeshit around him winning the ball, pressing Sunderland, and finding the Bulgarian in space between the Sunderland center backs. Even if all of that does come to pass, I'm still wary of Adam Johnson, Steven Fletcher, Stephane Sessegnon, and Danny Graham...and Philippe Senderos's one required moment of lunacy. Does a 1-1 draw sound about right to anyone else?

In Saturday's most tantalizing match, newly laden with silverware Swansea play host to Nouveau Chateau (aka Newcastle). This could be a really exciting match for the neutral viewer. Now that I've written that it will most probably end 0-0 and have all the drama and intrigue of your grandparent's sex life. Let's hope not.

Swansea will be well rested and full of confidence after winning an uncontested Capital One Cup and Newcastle are playing some of the most powerful and pleasing football in the league at the moment. I'm honestly at a total loss on this one. I call 3-3 in a classic, borderline William J. La Petomane Insane Prediction.

And in Saturday's final match, Liverpool travel to Wigan in a battle of ex Swansea managers, ex Swansea managers who did an excellent job setting the table for Michael Laudrup. Martinez has been trying to set his Wigan table with plastic forks, chopsticks, paper plates, a towel and a cookie tray for the last few years (and made some delicious meals in spite of these presentational limitations) and Brendan Rodgers has a table cluttered with fine china, doilies, real silver silverware, and an enormous centerpiece, but can't keep his hollandaise from separating.

Wigan throttled Reading last weekend and helped only half of my WJL Insane Prediction come true while Liverpool are coming off a similar demolition of the Swans. I see Liverpool the more likely of the two sides to continue their run of form as I think Rodgers is finally starting to put some delicious dishes in those expensive platters. Liverpool, 3-0.

Have a wonderful Saturday!