Category Archives: Soccer

It’s been a great run

It was a great run with The Rally Cap, but it was time to move on.  Please visit my new, soccer-scentric, blog FC Blacklabel:  http://fcblacklabel.blogspot.com/.

Interview with Carli Lloyd

Carli Lloyd against Japan in the 2011 Women's World Cup final. (Photo by Friedemann Vogel/Getty Images Europe)

Funny things happen when you travel.  Sometimes you board the plane and sit on the tarmac for hours. Sometimes you see the plane you are supposed to be on taxiing away from the gate just as you land. Sometimes through sheer serendipity, you encounter Carli Lloyd in the Philadelphia International Airport.

On a sweltering Wednesday afternoon in the City of Brotherly Love, that’s just what happened.  Carli, on her way back to Atlanta to continue the WPS season with the Atlanta Beat, was kind enough to speak with me for several minutes and agreed to a follow-up interview for The Rally Cap.  Check out what the star of the United State’s Women’s National Team had to say:

The Rally Cap: Your favorite players are Xavi, Lionel Messi and Cesc Fàbregas; do you model your game after any of those players? Or is there another inspiration for the way you play?

Carli Lloyd: Over the years I have grown tremendously and I have started to become a true playmaker like Xavi.  Linking passes, short passes, long passes, being tricky, taking shots etc.

RC: Who’s your favorite athlete, other than a soccer player?

CL: Michael Jordan because he was the ultimate champion.

RC: Since establishing yourself as a starter in 2007, what has been your most memorable moment with the USWNT?

CL: The final game in the 2008 Olympics and earning my 100th cap against Italy on November 27, 2010

RC: Not since 1999, has women’s soccer had such a buzz.  What is it about this team, this group of women that captured the hearts and minds of the American public?

CL: Well to start with I think soccer had grown tremendously across the world and our dramatic game against Brazil captivated millions of people.  I think that was the start of people really following us and we gave people hope and inspired young kids.  We helped the nation believe in something, believe in a team and everyone was so proud of us.  Our team showed heart and dedication to never give up.

RC: The US-Japan game was the most watched soccer game on ESPN in their history. Do you think the interest in the USWNT will translate into domestic success for the WPS?

CL: Wow, that is crazy! I knew we broke a lot of records but when I read that it makes me smile. We are already seeing instant results on the WPS side.  Ticket sales have increased across the board.  Our game today (Note: Saturday July 23 against Abby Wambach, Hope Solo and magicjack) is sold out.  The game the other night had a record crowd of 15k so it’s helping.

RC: After the emotional rollercoaster that was the World Cup, how do you and the other members of the USWNT move forward?

CL: We have to move forward.  It’s been hard to swallow but at the end of the day we accomplished so much.  We reached the final.  We have Olympic qualifying soon and have to mentally shift our focus to that.

RC: The next big event is the 2012 Olympics. What team(s) do you think will present the biggest challenge to the US defending its title?  Any dark horses (teams that didn’t make the quarters of the World Cup)?

CL: First of all we have to qualify for the Olympics.  When we do that every team will propose a challenge.  It won’t be easy as everyone can see from the World Cup.  Germany will not be in the Olympics but there are so many other strong teams. (Note: Germany did not qualify because UEFA used the 2011 Women’s World Cup as its qualifier.  As a result, France and Sweden both qualified for the 12 team tournament)

RC: You’re from New Jersey, what is it about that state that produces great soccer players (Tony Meola, Michael Bradley, Claudio Reyna, Heather O’Reilly, Giuseppe Rossi, Christie Rampone)?

CL: I am not sure what it is about NJ being a power house with soccer players.  I think because we are tough and we are fighters.  It’s in our blood. It’s great to see.

RC: You grew up outside of Philadelphia, so being a fellow Philly-area native, I have to ask – who has the best cheesesteaks in Philly?

CL: Honestly a small place by my house has the best ones! BJ’s Deli.  The Philly cheesesteaks are too much for me!

RC: Growing up, what was the best piece of advice you received, whether soccer-related or not? And do you have any words of advice for aspiring soccer players?

CL: Work hard at everything you do. Never give up. Never quit. Many people have talents but without the hard work you won’t get anywhere.

You can follow Carli on twitter at: @CarliLloyd or check out her website: http://www.carlilloyd.com/

Women’s World Cup: French Fried

Stop me if you’ve heard this story before – The United States Women’s National Team jumps to an early lead in a World Cup match, their opponent equalizes early in the second half, Abby Wambach saves the day.  In a match that, through the 78th minute, eerily mirrored Sunday’s instant classic (minus the referee miscues), the USWNT was able to alter the script and book their place in the Women’s World Cup final (their first since 1999).

US fans cheer the USWNT on to victory. (Getty)

While most of America was at work, the US put in a workman like effort to defeat an up-and-coming French squad that for large parts of the match looked the better side.  The US once again jumped to an early lead thanks to a well placed cross, though this time the shot went into the net off an American.  Lauren Cheney deftly redirected a cross from Heather O’Reilly in the 9′ to give the Americans the lead.  Little did fans know that this would be the last shot for the US in the half.   Combining with a forward line of World Player of the Year nominee Louisa Necib, and prolific Marie-Laure Delie, the creative and composed midfield of Gaëtane Thiney, Camille Abily, and evergreen Sandrine Soubeyrand enjoyed the lion’s share of possession. Despite some near misses on both sides – a Carli Lloyd header in the  24′, a Sonia Bompastor blast off Hope Solo‘s crossbar in the 30′, and an Abby Wambach header in the 39′ – the game went into the half with the Americans in the lead.

As the second half began in Mönchengladbach it always looked like Les Bleues would find an equalizer.  Running on tired legs – the result of playing 123 minutes three days ago – the USWNT could not keep up with the creativity or pace of the French midfield.  The French were rewarded for their attacking style with the game-tying goal in the 55′.  The goal did not come from the foot of Nacib or Thiney, but from a Bompastor cross that fluttered over Hope Solo’s head to the far post.  Bompastor launched her cross into the box, and Solo was caught out – guarding against what appeared would be a header by Thiney.

To her credit, coach Pia Sundhage did not sit idly by and immediately replaced the ineffective Amy Rodriguez with phenom Alex Morgan.  A further substitution in the 65′ brought Sunday’s hero, Megan Rapinoe, on for Lloyd.  The effect was immediate, as the fresh legs of Morgan and Rapinoe took their toll on the tiring French.

Abby Wambach rises to score the game winner against France. Odd Andersen, AFP/Getty Images

Rapinoe and Morgan nearly combined for some magic in the 70′ when Rapinoe launched a free kick into the box that Morgan nearly slotted home.  Just 9 minutes later, the Americans’ dominance on set-pieces and in the air would prove the difference. Wambach, who has rediscovered her scoring touch, found the back of the net off a corner from Cheney.  Rising over her defender at the far post, Wambach contorted her body and shifted in mid-flight to power home a clinical header.  Wambach’s header was the type that coaches will use in years to come to train the future national team.   Wunderkind Alex Morgan (who in my opinion has earned a start in the final) put the exclamation point on the victory with a cheeky chip over the French keeper, Berangere Sapowicz.

The French deserve a lot of credit, and the scoreline is a bit deceiving.  They played a flowing, fun-to-watch brand of soccer, and were the revelation of the tournament.  If Les Bleues can improve on their defensive weakness, they will be contenders for years to come.  On the other side of the pitch, the US never-say-die attitude, which has been the subject of hundreds of articles since Sunday, has to be applauded.  Were it not for the confidence that a winner (or equalizer) will come from somebody, somehow, this team would not be playing for the World Cup.  While several teams have shown a technical superiority to the USWNT, the Americans are all about results.  Can they get one more?

Women’s World Cup: A Comeback for the Ages

Abby Wambach celebrates her game-tying goal in the 122'. Fabrizio Bensch/Landov

Highs and lows came at a gut-wrenching pace, but an emotional roller coaster doesn’t even begin to capture the Women’s World Cup quarterfinal match between the Samba Queens of Brazil and United States Women’s National Team was no exception.  Fans of the USWNT were ecstatic when Daiane put the ball into her own net off a cross by Shannon Boxx, then livid when Rachel Buehler was sent off in the 65′ for a foul in the box on Marta. Emotions swung more quickly than a pendulum in the opposite direction as Hope Solo saved the resulting penalty, only to have her save of Cristiane’s penalty nullified by a questionable call by referee,  Jacqui Melksham.  Marta, the five-time defending player of the year, then slotted home the equalizer.

For the rest of the half, fans of the USWNT and the capacity crowd in Dresden hoped for an American winner.   The crowd, feeling the US team had been greatly aggrieved by Melksham, booed Marta with every touch of the ball.  The USWNT, down to 10 women on the field, was able to take the game to extra time, only to have Marta score what appeared to be the game winner just 2 minutes into extra time.  To add insult to injury, it seems that Melksham missed another call, as Maurine was in an offside position when she played the ball into the box for Marta’s second goal.  Fans around the US and in the Rudolf-Harbig Stadium were left incensed by the call.

With time running out and Brazil using some bush league tactics (the worst – Érika’s feigned injury which resulted in her being stretchered off the field, only to then pop off the stretcher and return to the game), the crowd began to chant, “USA! USA! USA!”  Karmic retribution seemed destined.  It was delivered in Hollywood fashion by the foot of second-half sub, Megan Rapinoe and the head of the fourth all-time leading scorer in international soccer history, Abby Wambach.  Check it out:

Improbable though it may have been, the equalizer was more than deserved. Overcoming the amateurish theatrics by Brazil and the equally sophomoric officiating, the USWNT were able to send the game to penalty kicks where few would bet against the Americans.  With the world’s best GK between the sticks and a new-found vigor, the USWNT had become the team of destiny.

Continuing the fairy tale script, Shannon Boxx was given a PK retake after Melksham rightfully penalized Andrea for coming off her line. Boxx coolly scored the retake.  Cristiane and Marta (who stepped to the spot to a chorus of boos) calmly scored from the spot , on either side of a Carly Lloyd make. Wambach followed Marta by smashing her PK into the side-netting to give the US a 3-2 lead.  Then, Daiane’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day continued as she stepped to the spot.  Solo, diving to her right, saved Daiane’s effort, meaning the US would advance if they made their final two PKs.  The platinum blonde, Rapinoe, stepped forward and buried her attempt, whooping as she walked away. The Hollywood ending was just minutes away.  Francielle, a second half sub for Rosana, scored to keep the Brazilians in it, but Ali Krieger with a shot into the lower right corner assured the Americans of an epic comeback.  To paraphrase Al Michaels, “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”

The win assures that the US will continue its streak of making it to the semifinals at the World Cup, and gives the USWNT some measure of revenge for the 4-0 loss to the Brazilians in the semifinals in 2007.  The win also means the US will play surprise semifinalist, France on Wednesday at 11am Eastern on ESPN and ESPN3.com.  With Germany and Brazil out of the tournament, the US has to be considered the favorites.

Beyond the immediate repercussions for the USWNT and the 2011 World Cup, this game could help women’s soccer on a global scale.  Wambach’s golazo with just 1 minute of injury time remaining made believers out of non-soccer fans (check out these tweets – 1, 2, and at one point in extra time USA/Brazil, Tobin Heath, Ian Darke, Julie Foudy were all trending in US.).  The resulting penalty kick shootout provided the high drama American fans love so much.  It will be interesting to see the ratings for this game, as I am sure they increased as the game progressed toward the climactic shootout.  Additionally, it will be interesting to see if the sudden surge in interest and the heroes (and villains – Marta plays for the Western New York Flash) created in this game can sustain the WPS.  Here’s hoping it can and GO USA!

Gold Cup 2011: The Final – Mexico vs. USMNT

This is the final that everyone expected, and virtually everyone wanted to see.  While the road to the Rose Bowl hasn’t been simple for either team (see the US loss to Panama in the group stage, or Mexico’s narrow extra-time victory over Honduras in the semifinal); was their really any doubt that the continent’s two juggernauts would be vying for the regional title?  Since the Gold Cup began in 1991, either the US (4 wins, 3 runner-up finishes) or Mexico (5 wins, 1 runner-up) has won all but one of the titles – Canada won in 2000.

With the region’s two premier teams playing for the title, the game has gotten a lot of attention in the national media.  This morning, ESPN had Alexi Lalas on SportsCenter discussing the match.  The Worldwide Leader couldn’t resist mentioning that the US has lost just once to Mexico on US soil since 2000, though that one loss was a 5-0 drilling in the 2009 Gold Cup final, though this blog post by Scott French of ESPN Los Angeles should make some USMNT fans feel better.  According to French, the US has outscored El Tri 21-8 in matches outside of Estadio Azteca since 2000.  Throw the 5-0 beating out, and the difference jumps to 21-3 in 12 matches!

Player/Position Comparison: 

Tim Howard gives the USMNT the edge in goal.

Goalkeeper - The easiest comparison of the bunch.  Tim Howard, as mentioned before is one of the best in the world.  He’s at the top of his game and a true difference maker.  Take a look at this save (about 2o seconds into the video) against Jamaica to see what I’m talking about.  Alfredo Talavera, however, has Guillermo Ochoa and his failed doping test to thank for his spot in the starting XI.  Advantage: USMNT

Defense - Bob Bradley seems to have found his starting back 4 with Steve CherundoloClarence GoodsonCarlos Bocanegra and Eric Lichaj all playing well in the past 3 games.  Lichaj and Cherundolo have been dangerous moving forward, though they will have to defend much more against Mexico than they have in previous matches.  The US back line has not conceded a goal since the loss to Panama but will certainly be tested against Mexico.  El Tri’s back 4 of Rafa Marquez, Héctor Moreno, Efrain Juarez and Carlos Salcido have conceded just 2 goals the entire tournament, though they have yet to be truly tested.  Advantage: Push

Midfield - Mexico plays with a classic four man midfield.  Two central midfielders (Gerardo Torrado and Israel Castro) and two wingers (Andres Guardado and Pablo Barrera.  Barrera has played well in the Gold Cup, scoring 1 goal and assisting on 3 others.  Guardado may not start due to an ankle injury. If Guardado can’t go, Giovani Dos Santos would likely slot into his spot.  Expect Bob Bradley to start a five man midfield, as this formation has worked in the last two games.  While Landon Donovan hasn’t started the last two games, he HAS to be on the field.  He’s a big game player for the US and has played well against Mexico in the past.  Michael BradleyJermaine Jones,  Clint Dempsey and Alejandro Bedoya should keep their spots in the lineup.  Dempsey has been extremely good, and Bedoya has transferred his fine form with Örebro to the USMNT.  Though the US has played well, Mexico is better from a technical standpoint.  (slight) Advantage: Mexico

Chicharito has been on fire this year. Will the USMNT be able to keep him of the scoresheet?

Forward - Though the goalkeeper comparison is one-sided, this is the area of the field where the difference between the two teams is most apparent.  Javier Hernandez has been a revelation this season.  Chicharito scored 20 goals for Manchester United in 45 appearances and has netted another 10 goals in 8 appearances for El Tri.  Seven of those goals have come in the Gold Cup.  With Jozy Altidore out with a hamstring injury, the US will likely start 18-year-old Juan Agudelo up top.  Agudelo has shown flashes, but he’s no match for Hernandez.  Advantage: Mexico

Prediction - While Mexico holds the advantage from an individual talent perspective, the US is greater than the sum of its parts.  In addition to the team mentality that permeates the USMNT camp, the US team believes it can beat Mexico.  No matter how partisan the crowd, and in Southern California it will likely be extremely pro-Mexico, the USMNT has proven time and again that it has the mentality necessary to defeat its southern rivals.  Score: USMNT 2 – Mexico 1. 

Gold Cup 2011: Jamaica-US Preview

Thanks to this absolute laser by Jozy Altidore, the US beat Guadeloupe to advance to the knockout round of the 2011 Gold Cup.  Despite this victory, the US finished second in their group and drew Jamaica in the quarterfinals.  On current form, this could be an extremely tough game for the Yanks.  The Reggae Boyz have been one of the most impressive sides in the tournament, while the Yanks have underperformed.

Despite the uninspired performance of the USMNT, ESPN’s Five Aside Blog had this to say about the upcoming match:

The United States failed to win its group for the first time in Gold Cup history. As Group C runner-up, the United States faces Group B winner Jamaica, the only team other than Mexico to win all of its group games. USA has reached the semis in nine of the 10 previous tournaments, while Jamaica hasn’t reached the semifinals since 1998. Despite tournament form, SPI rates USA an 83.9 percent favorite to advance and extend its unbeaten (9-0-8) record against the Reggae Boyz. Jamaica has lost all four of its Gold Cup elimination games.1

Clearly, the SPI algorithm thinks the US will be able to overcome its malaise and put in the kind of performance American fans expect.

Player/Position Comparison:

Goalkeeper -  Tim Howard has been stellar for years and cannot be blamed for the loss to Panama.  He is one of the best keepers in England and arguably the world.  The US is lucky to have him guarding their goal.  Donovan Ricketts has been a rock in goal during the tournament, leading a defense that has yet to concede.  He’s also posted 6 clean sheets for the L.A. Galaxy this season.  Despite this good form, this comparison is simple.  One of the best in the MLS vs. one of the best in the EPL.   Advantage: USMNT

Defense - The Jamaican defense has yet to concede a goal, though part of that is probably thanks to the impotent competition they faced in the group stage.  Jamaica’s defense should not be discounted as three of the four starters play in MLS and they have paired well together all tournament.  Shavar ThomasJermaine TaylorDicoy Williams and Eric Vernan have all played well.  The US has struggled to find the right combination to start along the back.  Tim Ream looked out of his depth playing against Panama and Oguchi Onyewu is still lacking in form and hasn’t made an appearance.  Not without their struggles against Guadeloupe, expect the back four of  Steve CherundoloClarence GoodsonCarlos Bocanegra and Eric Lichaj to be in the Starting XI on Sunday.  On paper it would seem the US, with defenders from the Bundesliga, Ligue 1, the Premier League and the Danish League, has a better defense, but Jamaica is hot and is playing well as a unit.  Advantage: Push

While Bob Bradley stubbornly continues to deploy Clint Dempsey in the midfield, he's the USMNT's best hope at forward.

Midfield - Jamaica’s midfield has been on fire during the tournament.  Demar Phillips, who plays his club soccer with Ålesund in Norway, has scored three goals in three games. Dane Richards has been a terror on the wing.  Jason Morrison and Rodolph Austin, both of the Norwegian Tippeligaen have also put in solid efforts. The US midfield should be its strength.  With Landon Donovan on the left and Michael Bradley in the center the Yanks have two midfielders who have proven they can play at the top club level.  Who lines up on the right and in the center next to Bradley is a different story.  Jermaine Jones has not played his best during the Gold Cup, though Bob Bradley seems to be enamored with the former German under-20 international.  Clint Dempsey has lined up on the right, but as stated in a previous post, his best position for the USMNT may be up top.  Alejandro Bedoya has provided a spark off the bench and Sascha Kljestan has reignited his international career with a good showing.  Again, the US has a better midfield on paper, but the Reggae Boyz have been on fire this tournament.  Advantage: USMNT

Forwards – Another area where the USMNT has better players on paper – if you include Clint Dempsey.  As with players across the rest of the pitch, the Jamaican forwards have had a great tournament.  Led by San Jose Earthquakes striker, Ryan Johnson, the Jamaican front line has both scored goals and set up Jamaica’s lethal wingers.  Providing support for Johnson are Keammar Daley who plies his trade in the Jamaican Premier League and Luton Shelton of Norwegian side Vålerenga IF. Both have scored and assisted in Jamaica’s group games.  On the opposite side of the pitch, Jozy Altidore has looked great this tournament.  While still prone to lapses in concentration, he has provided 2 of the US’s 4 goals and assisted on another.  His wonder strike against Guadeloupe should have him feeling confident.  The rest of the US forward contingent has been less than stellar.  Chris Wondolowski has been wasteful in front of goal (see  this video) and Juan Agudelo is still learning.  With Bob Bradley seemingly unable to imagine Clint Dempsey as a forward, the US could be in trouble. Advantage: Jamaica

Coaching Staff - Let’s not even go there…

On paper, the US has better players than Jamaica.  More US players play in the top leagues around the world than the current Jamaican squad.  On form, the Jamaican squad is playing better than the USMNT, though they were in the easiest of the three groups. Is Jamaica’s form entirely due to its easy group, or are they a team to be reckoned with?  The USMNT, its fans and the rest of CONCACAF will know the answer on Sunday afternoon.

Prediction - Jamaica will make it tough, but I expect the real US team to show up for this game.  USMNT 2 – Jamaica 1.

 

Gold Cup 2011: USMNT 1 – Panama 2 – The Fallout

Photo of soccer coach, Bob Bradley. Wilson Won...

While willing to give Bob Bradley the benefit of the doubt, the USMNT cannot continue to lose matches to inferior sides. (Image via Wikipedia)

I could start this post, as I am sure many have started (and will start) with a call to have Bob Bradley removed from his position at the helm of the United States Men’s National Team.  I’m not going to do that.  Every time the United States suffers a defeat, whether to a CONCACAF minnow or a European power, US soccer fans call for his dismissal.  Do I think Bradley has shortcomings as a coach? Yes.  Do I think the USSF should fire him immediately? No.  Do I think the US needs to re-evaluate its coaching staff after the Gold Cup? Yes.  As Brent Latham at The USA 10 Kit wrote:

Coach Bob Bradley, 3.5 – Did what he could with limited resources, but then again, it’s a hole he got himself into. Who on that bench was going to really help him? At some point, you really do have to ask if he’s capable of getting the best out of the resources at his disposal. That moment is now sooner rather than later.

While I am not calling for his ouster, it does seem curious that Bradley continually ignores the fact that his best forward is playing in the midfield.  Clint Dempsey has shown time and again, both with the USMNT and at Fulham, that he is best when he’s near the goal.  He has the strength, vision and creativity to pull off some shots that most of the forwards in the US pool would never dream about.  His record in front of goal the last several seasons and especially this season (12 goals, 3 assists) show that Deuce needs to play up top.  If Dempsey playing at forward would allow Bradley to keep Juan Agudelo on the bench where he could be used as a sub late in the game – something that has worked well for the US since Agudelo’s introduction to the senior team (obviously Chris Wondolowski is not the answer, if you don’t believe me, watch this video - virtually any professional soccer player should have buried that shot!).

For a more in-depth review of how the boys played last night, check the post from The USA 10 Kit, Goal.com, or the NY Times’ Goal blog.

Despite the loss to Panama, the US could still raise this trophy on June 25 in the Rose Bowl.

Beyond raising questions about the direction of the USMNT, what does this loss mean for the Yanks’ more immediate future in this tournament?  With the loss, the US sits in 2nd place in group C behind Panama, who has collected  6 points from their two matches.  The US plays Guadeloupe in their final group game.  Guadeloupe has shown in past Gold Cup editions that they have some quality (finishing 4th in 2007 and 6th in 2009), and gave both Panama and Canada scares this year.  Despite playing both Canada and Panama tough, this is a team the Yanks should beat.  Winning assures the US of a spot in the quarterfinal. Where they will finish in the group gets more complicated.

Possible Outcomes:

  •  If the US wins and Canada defeats Panama by fewer than 4 goals, the US would finish first
    • Quarterfinal opponent – One of the two third places teams to advance – Guatemala (as of this post)
  •  A US win and any other outcome from the Canada-Panama game would see the US finish 2nd in the group.
    • Quarterfinal opponent – The winner of Group B (either Jamaica of Honduras).
  • A draw with Guadeloupe would see the Yanks finish 2nd if Canada loses to/draws with Panama
    • Quarterfinal opponent - The winner of Group B (either Jamaica of Honduras)
  • The US could also finish 2nd despite a loss, as long as they lose to Guadeloupe by only 1 goal and Panama defeats Canada
    • Quarterfinal opponent - The winner of Group B (either Jamaica of Honduras)
  • The US would finish 3rd in group if they lose to Guadeloupe by 2 or 3 goals and Panama defeats Canada. This isn’t a death sentence, as they could still qualify for the quarters on points if either El Salvador – Cuba in Group A or Guatemala – Grenada in Group B end in a draw.
    • Quarterfinal opponent – As it stands now, Mexico.  This is the WORST possible scenario; thankfully, it is also the most unlikely.

The US plays Guadeloupe at Livestrong Sporting Park in Kansas City on Tuesday night at 9pm.  Those interested in watching the match can catch the action on Fox Soccer Channel, or should check out their local chapter of The American Outlaws.

Champions League Semifinal Preview: Real Madrid – Barcelona

Yesterday, we previewed the Manchester United-Schalke match, if you missed it check it out. The second semifinal (April 27th at 2:45 Eastern) will be the 3rd edition of El Clásico in 11 days (the first match was a 1-1 draw at the Bernabéu , the 2nd a 1-0 Real Madrid victory in the Copa Del Rey final).

  Much has been written about this matchup, which is widely regarded as the best rivalry in world soccer, and maybe even in sports – apologies to Red Sox-Yankees, Dodgers-Giants, and Duke-North Carolina.  Real Madrid vs. Barcelona in the Champions League semifinals should be a treat.

The Champions League trophy has arrived in London ahead of the final. Hopefully, London mayor, Boris Johnson takes better care of this trophy than Sergio Ramos. (image from of UEFA.com)

Barcelona has been the best side in world soccer for the past several years and are looking for their 3rd title since 2006 (2006 and 2009).  Sure Inter won the Champions League last year, but Barcelona has been dominant in La Liga the past three seasons and won an unprecedented 6 trophies in the 2008-2009.  Currently, Barça sit 8 points clear of Real atop the La Liga table. Pep Guardiola‘s side, led by mighty-mite Lionel Messi, play some of the most attractive soccer in the world.  Messi has been brilliant this season, scoring 50 goals in all competitions.  It’s not out of the question that the diminutive Argentine could hit 60 this season.  While Messi gets all the praise, he isn’t alone.  Midfielders, Xavi and Andrés Iniesta have been superlative this season, and David Villa (21 goals in all competitions) has proved an excellent deputy to the reigning World Footballer of the Year.

It was originally thought that Iniesta might miss the first leg of the semifinals after deliberately provoking a yellow card in Barcelona’s first leg defeat of Shakhtar Donetsk. UEFA decided to forgo any further punishment.  This is a huge boost for Barça who would have certainly missed Iniesta’s creativeness in midfield.  While Iniesta will be available for the Catalan giants, Adriano will not.  The defender/midfielder is out for four weeks with a torn thigh muscle.

Update: In addition to Adriano, Maxwell has now been ruled out for the match.  Barcelona will be scrambling to patch together a back four.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see Carles Puyol play LB with either Javier Mascherano or Sergio Busquets play CB.  Busquets has played CB multiple times this season, and Mascherano turned in a fine performance in central defense in Barcelona’s 2-0 victory over Osasuna on Sunday.  Barcelona will need to find a defensive alignment that works in order to stop Real’s offense.

Real Madrid, who won their first Copa del Rey since 1993, against Barcelona earlier this week and looked excellent in their game against Valencia following their victory. Los Blancos are looking to make it to their first Champions League final since 2002 when they defeated Bayer Leverkusen. Real, who have played second fiddle to Barça for the past 3 or 4 seasons, attempted to address their short comings this summer with the signing of José Mourinho as manager.  While it appears the league will slip through the grasp of the Special One, the ultimate prize – the Champions League trophy – is still a possibility.

While Barça have Messi leading the way, Real have Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo leads Real with 42 goals and 12 assists in all competitions.  That output is bested only by Messi.  Gonzalo Higuaín (10 goals), Karim Benzema (21 goals) and Ángel Di María (9 goals, 13 assists) have provided extra spark for Mourinho’s side.  One player who will be missing from the side when they take the pitch in Madrid is German international Sami Khedira. Khedira, like Adriano, suffered a torn thigh muscle that could keep him off the pitch for the rest of the season.  At a minimum, he will miss the next several weeks.  The defensive midfielder will be missed, as he has featured in 8 of Madrid’s Champions League games.

Real Madrid and Barcelona face off for the 4th and 5th time this season for the right to play for the Champions League title.

Prediction: Despite Madrid having the momentum following their Copa del Rey victory, I expect Barcelona to advance to the final. The Special One will certainly have something up his sleeve when the two teams meet, keep in mind he led Inter to victory over the Catalans in last season’s semifinal, but Barcelona are just too good.  Expect home wins from both side, with Barça finding the extra goal needed to advance.  Also, as an American sports fan whose teams have befallen curses for their transgressions, I expect Real to pay the price for running over the Copa del Rey.

While the Champions League trophy has already arrived in London, we don’t know the teams that will walk out on the pitch at Wembley on May 28th.  The games on Tuesday and Wednesday should go a long way to providing us the answers.

Champions League Semifinal Preview: Manchester United – Schalke

For soccer fans, the end of April can be a melancholy time.  Domestic leagues around Europe are winding down, and the transfer window doesn’t open until July 1.  But, one thing that makes the end of April exciting is the culmination of the season long UEFA Champions League.

This year’s Champions League semifinals should offer some exciting soccer.  Three of the most well-known soccer clubs in the world are in the final 4, and there is a Cinderella team for all those fans who like cheering for the underdog.  What more could you ask for?  As an Arsenal fan, I suppose I could have asked for the Gunners to make it to the semis, but I’m just excited at the prospect of some good soccer.

Schalke, the surprise team of the season, look to continue their magical run against Manchester United.

The first match (April 26th at 2:45pm Eastern), will see this season’s surprise team, FC Schalke 04, take on one of the preeminent sides in Europe, Manchester United. While this match may not have the flash of the other semifinal, expect some good soccer.  It pits a side that has hit its scoring stride (Schalke outscored Inter Milan 7-3 on aggregate in their quarterfinal meeting) against a side that has conceded just three goals in 10 Champions league games!

Schalke have been a classic example of a Jekyll and Hyde side this season.  Prior to sacking Felix Magath in March, die Königsblauen (the Royal Blues) were struggling in the Bundesliga and still sit just 10th.  While their domestic form left something to be desired, Schalke was simultaneously turning in strong performances in both the DFB-Pokal (German Cup) and the Champions League.  Since Ralf Rangnick‘s appointment it seems the German side has found some joy on the pitch.  Under Rangnick, who spent a spell as manager with Schalke in 2004-2005, Schalke have parlayed their form in cup competitions into better form in the Bundesliga (2 wins and a draw away to Werder Bremen).

While the team, as a whole, has underperformed, Raúl seems to have found the Fountain of Youth in Gelsenkirchen.  The Spaniard, a legend for Real Madrid, has scored 18 goals and assisted on 6 more in all competitions for Schalke this season.  Playing sidekick to Raúl, the Royal Blues boast Peruvian playmaker, Jefferson Farfán and Dutch forward, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. Farfán has been a creative force throughout the Champions League and has tallied 4 goals in the competition (10 goals, 8 assists overall).  Huntelaar, hampered by injuries of late, he hasn’t played since the end of February, but could be back for the clash with the Red Devils.  His presence on the field (10 goals in all competitions) would certainly boost the Germans’ hopes.

On the other side of the pitch, Manchester United again find themselves the last English team standing.  The Red Devils will be looking to make it to their 3rd final in the last four seasons (winning in 2008 against Chelsea, and losing in 2009 to Barcelona).  The beginning of the season saw many pundits writing of Manchester United’s demise - the team was too old, Wayne Rooney had lost his form, the big money teams of Chelsea and Manchester City had bought too much talent.  It turns out rumors of their demise were greatly exaggerated.  Man U has lost just 3 games in the Premier League this season, and hasn’t lost in the Champions League.

Like Raúl, Ryan Giggs and Edwin van der Sar seem to have found the Fountain of Youth in Northwest England.  Both evergreens are having excellent seasons.  Giggs has 3 goals and 10 assists in 34 appearances this season, while van der Sar has 13 clean sheets in league play and 7 in the Champions League.  The Red Devils aren’t just getting contributions from their veterans.  Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernández has been a revelation this season, scoring 11 times in the EPL and another 4 in the Champions League.  Nani has developed into one of the best wingers in the world (9 goals and 14 assists in the EPL this season), and Wayne Rooney has seem to have refound his form since his amazing bicycle kick goal.

This matchup would seem to favor Manchester United, but Man U does not have the best of luck with German teams in the Champions League.  Check out this post on the Red Devils’ history against Bundesliga teams. While past results are not indicative of future performance, you have to wonder if Schalke will find some magic.  With the first game taking place at Veltins-Arena, the Royal Blues will have every chance to take a lead heading into the 2nd leg.

Prediction: Manchester United advance, but don’t win as convincingly as most EPL fans might expect.  I see a draw or even a loss for the Red Devils in Germany, followed by a victory at Old Trafford.

Agree? Disagree? Think I’m crazy?  Leave  a comment, and come back tomorrow for a preview of the second Champions League match – Barcelona vs. Real Madrid.


Attendance in the NBA and NHL

While Cavs fans might feel betrayed by LeBron James, they have shown their support for the team despite a 19-63 record. (Mike Cardew/Akron Beacon Journal/MCT)

Beyond my interest in sports as fan, my interest in the business of sports has grown over the past several years.  One of the aspects of sports business that I find the most interesting are attendance figures for teams in the various leagues. I’m interested in the raw numbers, but also in what cause fluctuations from year to year or within seasons.  A helpful tool for my odd obsession with attendance figures is the SportsBusiness Journal’s Turnstile Tracker.  The SBJ, in its April 4-10 issue, published the latest Turnstile Tracker for the NBA and the NHL and some of the statistics were surprising.  Let’s take a look at the NBA first.

NBA – A couple of things jumped out at me as I was perusing the figures.  These numbers are through March 29, which accounts for between 35-38 of an NBA team’s 41 home games.

1. The Cleveland Cavaliers are 2nd in the NBA in overall attendance at 763,636 fans through 38 games (the Chicago Bulls are first by a wide margin – 803,874 fans through 37 games).  While the average (20,096) isn’t 100% of capacity (which is 20,562 for the Quicken Loans Arena), it’s still pretty impressive.  Cleveland wasn’t competitive this season, finishing just 19-63, and lost LeBron James to the Miami Heat in the offseason. It’s almost like the fans in Cleveland came out to support the team as a way to stick it to LeBron.  Impressively, 24 home games counted at the time of publication, were played before an arena holding 98% or more of capacity.  The only other teams – the Boston Celtics, Chicago, Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers, Miami, New York Knicks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Orlando Magic, Portland Trail Blazers, and the Utah Jazz,  to match that are in the playoffs or in Utah’s case are the only thing in town (no offense to Real Salt Lake who don’t play for most of the NBA season). Several playoff teams – the Philadelphia 76ers, Indiana Pacers, Denver Nuggets, Memphis Grizzlies, and Atlanta Hawks – couldn’t match Cleveland’s support.

2. The Philadelphia 76ers played the most games (25 out of 35) in front of crowds that were less than 75% of capacity.  This surprises me.  The 76ers got off to a rough start, but were competitive throughout the season and made the playoffs.  On average only 70.8% of the seats in the arena were filled on any given night.  It’s pretty clear that the Sixers have slipped to #4, and maybe even #5 behind the Philadelphia Union, in the pecking order of Philadelphia sports.

3. Only two teams (the New Jersey Nets and the Indiana Pacers) played before crowds of fewer than 10,000 fans.  New Jersey played a game before just 8,866 fans, and Indiana played before 9,466.  An interesting fact about the Nets – despite playing before the lowest crowd in the NBA this season, the team has enjoyed an 8.6% increase in attendance from last year.

4. Overall, the NBA has seen a 1% increase in attendance vs. last season and is playing before arenas filled to 90.1% of capacity.

It seems like a lot of fans will be missing the NBA if the current labor situation does not get resolved before the start of next season.  The current collective bargaining agreement expires on June 30 and the possibility of a lockout looks more and more likely. That said, there are clearly a couple of markets that probably wouldn’t miss the hardwood too much if the 2011-2012 season if the NBA shortens or cancels its season.

NHL – The NHL, more than the NBA, relies on putting fans in the seats to pay the bills, and is having a pretty good year overall.  The numbers cited below account for between 37-40 of the NHL’s 41 home games. Some interesting numbers:

1. The NHL is averaging only a couple hundred fewer fans per game than the NBA – 17,071 for the NHL to the NBA’s 17,262.  Not bad for a sport that is a distant 4th in the pantheon of American sports.

2. While it might have seemed sad that the Nets and Pacers played before fewer than 10,000 fans, they have nothing on the NHL.  The New York Islanders played a game at Nassau Coliseum in front of just 3,136 fans.  It is worth mentioning that this game was played during the post-Christmas blizzard that blanketed much of the Northeast in over a foot of snow, but other teams were still able to but fans in the seats.  There were 4 other teams that played before crowds of fewer than 10,000 fans – the Atlanta Thrashers (8,461), the Columbus Blue Jackets (9,128), the New Jersey Devils (5,329) and the Phoenix Coyotes (6,706).

3. Of the teams with the 10 lowest average attendance figures (click here to see the list from ESPN – this list doesn’t match the SBJ list exactly, but it is illustrative), 6 are located in the South and 1 is in California.  It’s pretty clear that the NHL’s strategy to expand into the South isn’t working and some of those teams need to be relocate to areas that will support the teams.

4. Chicago loves it NBA and NHL teams.  The Blackhawks and Bulls are the leaders in average attendance for both leagues.  While part of this can be attributed to the United Center’s ability to hold nearly 20,00o seated fans for hockey and nearly 21,000 for basketball, both teams are playing to capacities of over 100%, meaning fans are flocking to see the Blackhawks and Bulls play and are willing to stand to do it.  Impressive.

Philadelphia fans have been turning out in bunches to see the Flyers, but have abandoned the Sixers.

5.  While Philly has seemingly abandoned the playoff bound Sixers, the Flyers have seen an uptick in attendance compared to last season.  The Flyers are 3rd in the NHL in average attendance and have played before 100.9% of capacity over the course of the season.

It will be interesting to see if the NHL capitalizes on the potential NBA labor strife.  If there is a shortened or canceled NBA season, will that mean more fans going to see hockey?  Time will tell.

Champions League – Quarterfinals Review

The quarterfinals looked like they would serve up some good matches, but all drama is gone as 3 of the 4 are already decided.

Typically, I like to write a post about the upcoming Champions League round before it actually happens.  Clearly, that’s not the case this time.  For those that are interested, I went 5-3 with my predictions from the round of sixteen.  Certainly better than I did in my NCAA bracket.  I picked Shakhtar DonetskAC MilanValenciaBayern MunichReal Madrid, BarcelonaManchester United and Chelsea. My incorrect picks - Tottenham beat AC Milan, Schalke beat Valencia, and Inter Milan beat Bayern.

Since my slacker tendencies prevented me from getting this post up before the first leg of the quarterfinals, I’ve had to tweak what I was going to write.  At this point, there is no reason to predict who is going to make it through to the semifinals, as three of the quarterfinals are well and truly over.

Here's a screen shot from the video of Dejan Stankovic's golazo against Schalke. Check out the video, it's worth watching.

In what has to be considered a shock, Schalke destroyed Inter in Milan 5-2.  Inter certainly were not helped by defender Cristian Chivu drawing a red card in the 62nd minute, but by that point the Nerazzurri were already down 4-2 to the Germans.  The one highlight for the Italians was Dejan Stankovic’s wonder goal that started the scoring.  Check it out.

Barcelona similarly dismantled Shakhtar, 5-1, at Camp Nou.  Five different players scored goals for Barça - Andres Iniesta, Dani Alves, Gerard Pique, Seydou Keita and Xavi.  Barça are truly an incredible team to watch.  They play some amazing soccer.  With a 5-1 lead heading to the Ukraine, Barça have booked their spot in the semis.

The other Spanish team, Real Madrid, similarly dismantled their competition, winning 4-0 over Spurs. Things looked bad from the outset when Emmanuel Adebayor scored off a corner just 4 minutes into the game.  Things went from bad to worse when Peter Crouch was sent off for his 2nd yellow card inside of 15 minutes.  Spurs could never gain or hold possession and Real just kept putting more balls in the back of the net. Based on the way they played, Spurs would have lost even if Crouch has stayed on the field.

Rooney's suspension will not affect his eligibility for the second leg of the Champions League quarterfinal. Good thing for Manchester United, as he scored the only goal in the first leg.

The only match that still has some drama going into the second leg is Manchester United vs. Chelsea.  Man U secured a vital away goal at Stamford Bridge, beating the Blues 1-0. Chelsea enjoyed more of the possession and outshot Man U 21(7 on goal) – 8(2), but the were unable to find the leveler.  Chelsea will be hard pressed to advance when they play the Red Devils at Old Trafford, especially since Man U have that away goal in their pocket.

With the second leg of the quarterfinals being played on Tuesday and Wednesday, look for a semifinal preview in the next week or two.  Hopefully, the matches will be more competitive this time around.  Happy soccer watching!

MLS Celebrates Sweet 16

First, Happy 16th Season MLS!

I am a voracious reader. For several years, I commuted to Boston on the train every day.  During that time I would go through a book a week (sometimes two depending on how quick a read the books were).  I know that this might not seem to be linked to MLS starting its 16th season, just hear me out.  Due to my love of reading and immense amounts of reading time, I’ve read countless books on one of my favorite topics – soccer.

The books ranged from the encyclopedic (The Ball is Round by David Goldblatt) to the quirky (Bloody Confused by Chuck Culpepper).  The most recent book to catch my attention was Soccer in a Football World by David Wangerin. In the book, Wangerin charts the convoluted and often dispiriting path of fútbol in the United States.  From the little documented early days under the auspices of the United States of America Foot Ball Association (now the United States Soccer Federation) and the American Soccer League to the 2006 World Cup, Wangerin provides a great background for anybody interested in soccer in the United States. In addition to filling in some historical blanks, Soccer in a Football World got me thinking about how MLS fits into the American sporting landscape.

As MLS enters its 16th season, which kicks off on March 15 in Seattle (Sounders v. Galaxy; should be a good one), there are reasons to believe that the league and the sport are finally gaining some true traction in America.

Positives Signs -

Philadelphia Union are one of MLS's recent expansion successes, and my favorite club.

Successful Expansion – MLS has added 5 teams since 2007 and will add the Montreal Impact in 2012.  Montreal’s introduction will bring the count to 19, with MLS looking to expand to 20.  Toronto, Seattle and Philadelphia were all extremely successful at the gate in their first seasons.  Toronto has averaged more than 20,000 fans per game in each of its first 4 seasons. Seattle draws crowds that many European soccer teams would envy (36,000+ last season), and Philadelphia continued the trend of successful expansion by averaging over 19,000 fans in their inaugural season. Portland and Vancouver both look primed to continue the trend, with Portland selling more than 12,000 season tickets and Vancouver more than 15,500.

Could the revived Cosmos be the 20th MLS team in 2012 or beyond?

As mentioned before, MLS is looking to expand to twenty teams, and Don Garber has made it known that he would love a second team in the New York City area.  To wit, perhaps the most famous name in US soccer, the New York Cosmos, has been revived in an attempt to become that 20th team.  With Eric Cantona as the Director of Soccer, Pelé as Honorary President, and Giorgio Chinaglia as International Ambassador the club has some heavy hitters promoting its interests (both Pelé and Chinaglia played for the previous incarnation of the Cosmos).

Attendance - Thanks in large part to the success of the recent expansion teams, 2010 saw MLS attendance rise to 16,675 fans per game.  Only two prior MLS seasons top that number (2007 and 1996).  While the NFL and MLB both average far more fans than MLS, the NHL and NBA average only slightly more.  While these numbers might be slightly outdated, MLS ranks 13th in average attendance among world soccer leagues.  Not bad for a country that supposedly doesn’t like soccer.  Attendance has been on the rise and should continue that upward trend, on the strength of a new soccer specific stadium in Kansas City and the addition of the Timbers and Whitecaps.  As Geoffrey Arnold of The Oregonian writes (citing an article from the Wall Street Journal), there are several cities where MLS outdraws NBA teams.  Of the cities listed, only The Galaxy outdrawing the Lakers doesn’t present the full picture (the Lakers would certainly sell more tickets if the Staples Center could accommodate more fans).  The general upward trend in attendance over the past several years is certainly a positive sign for MLS; however, the attendance situation isn’t entirely rosy, there are some disconcerting signs for several clubs. More on the negatives to come.

Performance of the US Men’s National Team (USMNT) – As important as domestic soccer is around the world most (if not all) domestic leagues are set up to help the national team perform on a higher level.  While soccer fans enjoy watching the Champions League, the World Cup is what matters most. The creation and continued growth of MLS has given US soccer talent a place to develop and the performance of the USMNT has benefited from its existence.

MLS is the first domestic soccer league in the US to make developing American talent a priority.  The ASL and the NASL both relied heavily on imports (MLS is starting to trend this way as well) while neglecting native talent.  Since the creation of MLS, the US has qualified for all 4 World Cups, advanced from the Group Stage on two occasions, beaten the World #1 and been ranked as high as 4th in the FIFA World Rankings (I still can’t believe this, but it’s true).

While MLS hasn’t turned the USMNT into a legitimate threat to win the World Cup (yet), the investment in soccer (the USSF’s Project 2010, which didn’t work quite according to plan) along with the growing competitiveness in  domestic soccer has transformed the US from laughing-stock to CONCACAF power and occasional giant slayer.

Interesting side note: The US is one of only 7 teams to qualify for every World Cup since 1990.  The others: Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Italy, Spain and South Korea.

Bad Signs -

Profitibility – MLS continues to expand and more fans (on average) are attending games; however, these positive signs haven’t translated into profitability.  According to most reports, which are difficult to find as financial transparency is not an MLS strong point, very few teams turn a profit.  Thanks to some awesome work by Dave Clark at Sounder at Heart we can draw a few conclusions.  Using data from a 2007 Forbes study in conjunction with a study conducted on behalf of the Portland Timbers, Clark came to the conclusion that 2 clubs (Seattle and Toronto) were profitable in 2009. The long-term stability of the game and the league will require teams to move toward profitability.  Teams can only stay afloat while incurring losses for so long. See the NASL for proof of that.

TV Ratings/Contract – If MLS ever wants to make a collective turn toward profitability, the league needs to establish itself on television.  No professional sport can survive in today’s market without a TV deal.  MLS just agreed to an extension of its previous TV contract with Fox Soccer Channel that will pay the league $6.25 million this season (MLS has a contract with ESPN that pays the league $8 million per year through 2014, and includes rights to USMNT games). For the sake of comparison, the NFL earns $3 billion per year, MLB earns nearly $500 million, the NBA earns $930 million, and the NHL earns at least $75 million. While comparing MLS to the NFL, NBA and MLB is certainly unfair, comparing the league to the NHL isn’t entirely ridiculous.  While TV ratings remain poor (an average of 249,000 viewers for games broadcast on ESPN2), those numbers actually are comparable to the numbers the NHL records on Versus (297,000 per broadcast in 2009-2010, scroll to the bottom to see a table of the ratings numbers).  So the question that needs to be asked is: why the NHL can get $75 million per year from Versus and MLS can only bring in a fraction of that amount? If MLS wants to remain a viable league and grow its brand, it will need to secure a better television contract.

Attendance – As mentioned above, MLS attendance has been on the rise over the past several years, but that doesn’t tell the entire story. While there are successes, several clubs have woeful attendance numbers. Sporting Kansas City, FC Dallas and the San Jose Earthquakes all hovered around the 10,000 mark. Several other teams saw drops in attendance from 2009. There is some hope for Kansas City, as they are set to open their new soccer-specific stadium this season. For a league that doesn’t derive much revenue from a television deal, it is vitally important to put fans in the seats.

An extremely interesting story will be if MLS can capitalize on the labor strife in the NFL and a potential NBA work stoppage to grow its brand. While soccer will never replace football or baseball in the hearts and minds of American sports fans and likely will never challenge the NBA, why couldn’t the beautiful game could supplant the NHL in the American sports pecking order.