Tag Archives: soccer

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/

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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.

 

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.

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.

Top Ten – English Transfer Window Signings

 

Fernando Torres looks to help the Blues push for the Premier League title.

The dust has settled on what was a crazy January transfer window.  One of the biggest names in world football switched teams, and several up-and-coming players will be plying their trade in new locales.  Obviously, much attention has been focused on the move of Fernando Torres to Chelsea, but there was a lot more action.  What were the ten best signings in the English Premier League during the transfer window?

1o. Curtis Davies – Davies moves across the city from Aston Villa to Birmingham City.  He brings the Blues a strong replacement for the injured Scott Dann, who had become a rock in central defense.  Davies, who missed time last season due to a shoulder injury, fell out of favor with Gérard Houllier and couldn’t crack the 4-deep center back rotation at Villa.  I don’t really understand why Davies wasn’t given the opportunity given Villa’s poor performance early in the season.  Villa’s loss, both in terms of the player and the nearly £8 million difference between investment and sale, is City’s gain.

9. Andy Carroll – Newcastle born and raised, the young forward left his hometown club to move to Liverpool.  While it seems clear that Carroll didn’t want to leave St. James Park, Newcastle United had no choice but to take the ludicrous £35 million offer the Reds threw their way.  Carroll would be higher on this list if he had more Premier League experience and if he weren’t out with a thigh injury.  While Carroll has shown a lot of promise, he has only played in 33 EPL games, though he has scored 14 goals.  It seems to me that Liverpool pair a premium for Carroll simply because he is English.  How else do you explain the fact that Carrol cost £12 million more than Luis Suárez (who will make an appearance further up this list). If Carroll continues to develop he could be an even better signing, but I find the price Liverpool paid a bit tough to justify.

8. Jean Makoun/Michael Bradley – I know that this is a bit of a cop-out, combining two players as one signing, but Aston Villa did a lot to strengthen the center of their midfield with the £6 million capture of the Cameroonian midfielder from Olympique Lyonnais and the loan of the American midfielder from Borussia Monchengladbach. Makoun brings composure on the ball, good visions, and the knack for scoring timely goals.

Watch this video of his goal against Real Madrid in last year’s Champions League.

Like Makoun, Bradley is an energetic box-to-box midfielder.  Bradley was a goal scoring machine in his time with SC Heerenveen, and has shown a touch for scoring with ‘Gladbach. He was one of the stars of the U.S. team at the 2010 World Cup and should provide Villa with an excellent partner to Makoun.

7. Sully Muntari/Stéphane Sessègnon – Another combination, but Sunderland strengthened their attack and strength in midfield with these two signings.  Muntari, moving on loan from Inter Milan, will bring steel to the midfield.  He will provide both good vision (as shown by his ball over the top to fellow Ghanaian Asamoah Gyan against Stoke City)  and energy in the center of the park.

Sessègnon, who had fallen out of favor at Paris Saint-Germain, with provide the Black Cats with some creativity out of the midfield or in a withdrawn forward position.  The Benin international played well against Stoke and should help Gyan keep the attack going while Danny Wellbeck and Fraizer Campbell recover from injury.

6. David Bentley – The supremely talented, though somewhat enigmatic winger moves on loan from Tottenham to Birmingham in a bid to find regular playing time.  Bentley, who started his career with Arsenal, but made his biggest impact with Blackburn, has loads of talent but can’t seem to find the pitch on a regular basis. In his first match, he won man-of-the-match for his work against Aston Villa. He scored his first goal for the Blues against Coventry City in the FA Cup. If Bentley can keep up this form, he will certainly help the Blues keep their place in the EPL.

5. Edin Džeko – On talent alone, the Bosnian striker would be higher on this list, but questions remain on how he will fit into the squad on the pitch.  He has been one of the most sought after players in world soccer over the last several years.  He was the engine that drove the attack for VfL Wolfsburg in his time in Germany.  The reason he lands at #5 is due to questions on how he will fit into the mercenary side at Manchester City.  With Carlos Tévez an ever-present in the lineup, and  Manchester City and Roberto Mancini preferring a 4-3-3 formation where does Džeko fit? Tévez prefers playing in the center of the park, and Džeko does as well.  Neither seems a natural fit on the wing.  Will City change their lineup? They could shift to a 4-4-1-1 with David Silva sliding back to a left-sided midfield spot, with Tévez in a withdrawn forward role and Džeko up top.  If City find a way to truly incorporate Džeko he would have to move up this list. Plus, not to knock Andy Carroll, he was nearly £8 million cheaper.

4. Fernando Torres – El Niño lands at #4 due to similar concerns expressed in my critique of the Edin Džeko move.  Torres is undoubtedly talented, and brings an amazing goal scoring record in the Premier League to Stamford Bridge (65 goals in 102 games).  However, where does the Spaniard fit into a Chelsea side with so much (volatile) attacking talent?  Nicolas Anelka will not stand for being dropped from the first XI, nor will Didier Drogba. While Ankelka has slotted in well on the wing, neither Drogba nor Torres are a natural fit on the wing.  Perhaps a 4-3-1-2 formation with one of the forward occupying a withdrawn role would work the best, but it remains to be seen if Carlo Ancelotti will alter his system.

3. David Luiz – The Blues make a second appearance on the list, this time for signing the dynamic Brazilian defender for up to £26.5 million from Benfica.  With Chelsea clearly in need of defensive help, Luiz was an excellent signing.  He was a huge part of a rock-solid defense as Benfica conceded just 20 goals on their way to the Portuguese title last season.  He is versatile (he can play left back or center back) and is strong in the air.  At just 23, Luiz has time to grow into an even better player and will a rock in Chelsea’s defense for years. Plus, how could you not like this guy, he has some of the best hair in English soccer!

2. Luis Suárez – Suárez is probably best known in America for his handball against Ghana during the 2010 World Cup.  The handball, which looked stupid at the time, saved La Celeste from defeat at the hands of the Black Stars.  However, people would be remiss if they aren’t aware of the young strikers immense talent.  The Uruguay international has a history of scoring goals (111 goals in 159 appearances for Ajax), something Liverpool will need after the departure of Torres.  He made a positive debut for the Reds, getting credit for what was certainly an own goal for Andy Wilkinson of Stoke.  Costing less than Andy Carroll and with a much stronger track record, Suárez is the best signing of the transfer window for Liverpool.

1. Darren Bent – Darren Bent is a goal scorer.  Plain and simple.  Aston Villa needed a player up top who could put the ball in the back of the net, and they got that when they signed Bent from Sunderland for £18 million.  Bent, who scored 24 Premier League goals just two season ago, provides Villa with proven finisher.  Many thought Villa paid too much for Bent, but Bent proved his worth scoring the game winner against Manchester City (his debut for Villa).  When you consider the cost of the other forwards on this list, Bent certainly looks like he could be a bargain.  Villa is fighting to move into the top half of the table, and stay away from the relegation zone,  and Bent and their midfield signings will help Villa realize that goal.

Other signings that merit mention are Robbie Keane‘s move to West Ham, a team that sorely needs a goal scorer, and Blackpool‘s signings of Andy Reid and James Beattie – two players who should help the Seasiders keep their place in the Premier League.

Agree with my selections, disagree, leave a comment.

You Have Got to be Kidding Me!

I wish this were the US bid's logo, but clearly the Qatari's must have put more money in Sepp Blatter's bank account.

First, I want to thank Earbud DJ, for his guest post on Federer and Nadal.  I was a well written post, and I am appreciative of his periodic contributions on tennis. Second, I am fully aware that I haven’t written anything for nearly a month, and nothing substantive for at least 6 weeks, and I promise I will be back to posting more regularly after I finish my classes this semester.  While, I probably don’t have the time to be writing this (with a 15-20 page paper for my graduate history class, and work for my job looming), I just couldn’t ignore the announcements of the host nations for the next two World Cups.

As you might have guessed from the title of this post, I’m indignant (at best) at the selections of both Russia for WC2018 and Qatar for WC2022.  Ravi Ubha over at ESPN calls the two picks bizarre, and I couldn’t agree more.  The selection of Russia and Qatar smacks of the charges of corruption, bribery and backroom politics that have dogged FIFA for years.  Before the selection, there were rumors that the Portugal/Spain WC2018 bid and the Qatar bid were in collusion regarding votes.  BBC television program, Panorama, reported that three top FIFA officials are reported to have taken bribes, totaling nearly $100 million, in the 1990s.  Why would we think that something like this didn’t happen this time?

Russia received the 2018 World Cup, beating my favorite - England.

For the 2018 selection it could be argued that the Russian bid, which was quite good – with all the oligarchs’ cash, a strong domestic league, decent national team, was the strongest.  Still, Russia would have to build or finish construction on all but one of the proposed stadiums.  England’s proposal, for comparison purposes, included just 3 unbuilt stadiums, and was centered on the expansion of current stadiums.  While, I believe the 2018 World Cup should have gone to England, the Russian selection was certainly competitive.

The same cannot be argued for the Qatari bid (Sorry no link, because the Qatar bid site is down.  Vengeance by some crazed US soccer techie? we may never know).  With 7 of the proposed 12 stadiums needing to be built and all but 1 of the remaining 4 needing significant expansion, 100+ degree temperatures during the summer, a small population, a barely competitive domestic league, and a national team with a FIFA ranking in the 100s,  Qatar just doesn’t seem like a logically place for the World Cup. Unless you are thinking about all the oil/natural gas cash the Qataris possess.

The 1994 World Cup was and remains the most successful World Cup ever held.  It spurred support for the creation of a national soccer league in the United States and drew some of the largest crowds to attend soccer matches (since stadiums became all-seaters).  There is no reason to believe that the proposed 2022 World Cup in the U.S. would have been any less successful.  If the U.S. had been given WC2022 the growing interest in soccer, demonstrated at this year’s World Cup, would have continued to mount.  Doesn’t FIFA want to tap the most lucrative market in the world, and turn the US into a soccer mad nation?  Wouldn’t turning a country where soccer was, at best tolerated into a footballing nation be as great a legacy as putting a World Cup in the Middle East? Clearly, money in pockets now was more important than more money in pockets later.

For more on the process, I direct you to Soccer by Ives, a fantastic site run by Ives Galarcep, a soccer writer for Fox Soccer.  He provides information on the vote breakdown and more for the World Cup selection process.  His site is also a wealth of  information on U.S. and world soccer.

What to Do?

This weekend was a tough one for Philadelphia sports fans.  Our beloved Phillies flamed out in the NLCS against an inferior opponent, and the Eagles forgot how to hold a lead against the Titans.   I could easily write a post full of recriminations of both the Phillies and the Eagles (hello Ryan Howard, how do you not swing at that pitch!? But don’t blame him, as set out in this post on FanGraphs) but those topics have been covered to death by both the mainstream media and in the blogosphere.  Instead of harping on that mistakes that were made (Kenny Britt and his 225 yards and 3 TDs against the Birds), I am asking – where to I turn my sporting attentions after this tough weekend?

The baseball season is over, and with the Phillies already committing $143 million to just 16 players in 2011 there will be no major signings to keep the hot stove hot during the winter.  Very little chance of entertainment or something interesting happening in that area.

The football season does not look promising either.  This Eagles team is deeply flawed, but then again so is the rest of the NFL, and looked lost in the second half against the Titans.  While Sunday’s game should settle any talk of a quarterback controversy, it didn’t provide much hope for the future.  With the Eagles facing just two teams with records currently under .500 the second half of the season could be rough.   While I haven’t given up hope yet, the NFC is a conference of parity, the Birds will need to get their act together to make some noise.  Plus, this week is a bye.

It’s much to early to care about the NHL or the NBA in a meaningful way.  Sure I will catch some games here or there, but these leagues don’t consume my attention until well into the spring (read when they get to the playoffs, with over half the teams making the postseason the regular season is rendered irrelevant).

Cameron Indoor Stadium, home of my favorite team - the Duke Blue Devils.

We are still weeks away from college basketball tipping off, but here again is another sport where I just can’t bring myself to focus more than a small amount of my attention before conference play starts in January. Sure there will be some early season marquee matchups (Duke-Michigan State on December 1 or a rematch of last year’s title game – Duke-Butler on December 4) that will draw my interest, but the season doesn’t really start until you are in conference play.

College football provides me with some distraction, but with Penn State floundering my interest is only in seeing Boise State crash the BCS title party.  What is a sports fan to do? Where do I turn for my sports distractions?

I am counting on Rhett and the Terriers to deliver me some sporting hope.

It appears college hockey, a realm where my alma mater – Boston University is a contender, and world soccer will be my areas of interest for the next several months.  While I can never quit the Eagles, I need more than just one team to fulfill my sporting needs.  So here’s to the Terriers! Here’s to Arsenal and Reading FC!  My sporting hopes lie with you, don’t let me down.

Suggestions are welcomed.

Champions League Preview: Group H

Finally we have come to the last group in our Champions League preview.  I must thank the UEFA schedulers for placing the back half of the draw’s first matches on Wednesday, which bought me more time to complete all of the previews.  While half of the opening matches have already been played, don’t forget to take a look at all the other group previews: Group A, Group B, Group C, Group D, Group E, Group F and Group G.

Group H continues the pattern established by many of the other groups.  One team that is the prohibitive favorite (Arsenal), and several teams (Shakhtar Donetsk, Partizan Belgrade, and Braga) that are likely competing for second place.

Despite rumors that Cesc Fàbregas was rumored to be leaving the Emirates, he is still with the Gunners and will lead them on their quest for silverware.

Arsenal F.C. – One of the most storied clubs in English football, Arsenal have seen a bit of a hardware drought over the last 5 seasons.  Their last major trophy was the FA Cup in 2005.  While the North London side remain perennial contenders, they have not been able to break the recent ChelseaManchester United duopoly at the top of the English Premier League.  In addition, there has been only moderate success in the Champions League (advancing to at least the quarterfinals every year since 2007, and almost always advancing from their group), with their best finish being runners-up in 2006.

This year’s squad resembles the United Nations, with players from 17 different countries.  Manager Arsène Wenger is highly respected and seems to be able to get the best out of players (look no further than former Gunner Thierry Henry).  Wenger dipped into the transfer market this summer to sign Moroccan forward Marouane Chamakh, and a pair of French defenders (Laurent Koscielny and Sébastien Squillaci).  Chamakh address the lack of depth at the forward position that was exposed when Robin Van Persie missed significant time with injuries last season.  With the departure of Eduardo to Group H rivals Shakhtar, the Gunners couldn’t stand pat.  Squillaci and Koscielny fill the hole created by the departure of William Gallas, who never really fit in at the Emirates. The one weakness that Arsenal did not address was goalkeeper.  Manuel Almunia and his two Polish deputies are just not good enough to lead a team to the Champions League trophy.  If Arsenal are going to make a deep run they will need to complete the rumored signing of Mark Schwarzer or sign another keeper.

While no team can match the high-flying start Chelsea has put together, Arsenal has seen a great deal of success in the early EPL season.  With a 3-1-0 record, the Gunners sit 2nd in the table, 2 points adrift of the Blues.  This year’s squad has the look of contenders in the EPL, but it might be too tough to catch the buzz saw that is Chelsea.

Arsenal are the clear favorites in this group.  With a history of advancing deep into the tournament, a manager that is one of the world’s best, and a beautiful brand of attacking football, Arsenal should win Group H with little trouble.

Former Gunner Eduardo, now with Shakhtar Donetsk, will seek to oust his former teammates.

FC Shakhtar Donetsk – The 2009 UEFA Cup winners, Shakhtar have become a fixture in the Champions League over the last decade.  Consistently in the top two in the Ukrainian Premier League, Shakhtar are looking to advance from the group stage for the first time.  Thanks to the rise in competitiveness of the Ukrainian League, Shakhtar were able to qualify directly for the group stage of this year’s competition.  In year’s past it had taken at least one round of qualifying for Shakhtar to make the group stage.

Shahktar’s current squad is made primarily of Ukrainian and Brazilian players, with players from the former Soviet Union making up the bulk of the rest.  Perhaps the two biggest signings of the summer were the aforementioned capture of Eduardo from Arsenal, and the signing of young, Ukrainian defender Dmytro Chygrynskiy from Barcelona.  The squad, captained by veteran, Croatian midfielder Darijo Srna certainly has the talent to make an impact in the Champions League.

On the domestic front, the Ukrainian league has completed 9 rounds, and Shakhtar sit atop the table.  With a 7-1-1 record, Shakhtar are 2 points ahead of rival Dynamo Kyiv.

Following their victory in the 2009 UEFA Cup, it is clear that Shakhtar need to be taken seriously.  In their last trip to the group stage, in 2008-2009, Shakhtar finished 3-0-3 and narrowly missed advancing.  This season, they might top that performance. Given this composition of this group, Shakhtar are in a good position to advance to the knockout round.

Braga are making their first Champions League appearance. Will they find beginner's luck?

S.C. Braga – A truly unfancied side from Portugal, Braga stormed out of the gates last season and found themselves atop the Portuguese Liga early in the 2009-2010 season.  Ultimately, Benfica finished atop the table, but Braga had secured their first trip to the Champions League.  After dispatching Celtic and Sevilla on the way to the group stage, it is clear Braga have come to play.

Braga was relatively quiet on the transfer front, and why not, the team had its most successful season last year.  The current squad consists almost entirely of Brazilian and Portuguese players, with one of my favorite names in soccer: George Lucas (wouldn’t the Imperial March from Star Wars be great intro music for him and his teammates?)

While Braga had been hanging around the top 4 or 5 for the better part of this decade, they were finally able the break into the top 2.  The Portuguese Liga is one of the most top-heavy leagues in European soccer, being dominated by just three teams: FC Porto, Benfica and Sporting CP.  The fact that the plucky side from the north of Portugal displaced one of the “Big Three” is refreshing. This season sees Braga sitting 4th in the table, at 2-1-1.  With the only  loss coming to table-topping Porto, Braga should be happy with their record heading into their first Champions League group stage match.

Braga certainly have the talent to compete in this group, but their lack of experience at this level could be a handicap.  In a group where the other three entrants have all played multiple seasons in the Champions League, you have to wonder if Braga will be able to put together the consistency necessary to make it to the knockout round.

Partizan have been extremely successful domestically, can they transfer their success to the Champions League?

FK Partizan – Easily one of the most storied clubs in Serbia, Partizan are making their third straight appearance in the Champions League, but their first group stage appearance since 2003-2004.  Interestingly, Partizan have the same number of runner-up finishes as Arsenal, despite being from a much smaller league, and being far less known.

The current rosters consists almost entirely of Serbian players, many of them new to the squad.  Partizan were busy during the transfer window, bringing in 19 new players and sending 13 players packing.  One has to wonder if that much change to a squad that is the three-time defending champions of the Serbian League is wise.  No names jump out as me as being major additions or subtractions, so perhaps Partizan will not lose chemistry and moment with such a high turnover.

If the results from the domestic league are any indication, the roster turnover has not hurt Partizan.  With 4 wins from 4 matches, Partizan sit atop the table with 12 points and a +8 goal differential.  If Partizan continues to play at such a high level, the Belgrade side just might win its 4th league title in a row.

Partizan are a bit of an unknown. While the team has the tradition, the current squad has not been together long enough.  Also, Partizan has been absent from the group stage for 7 seasons.  Will this lack of experience hurt Partizan?  Partizan’s last trip to the group stage was not a good one, as they finished last in their group with a 0-3-3 record.  I suspect the Serbian side will acquit themselves better this time around, though more than a Europa League spot might be a pipe dream.

Predictions: Arsenal outclass the rest of the group and win easily.  Shahktar finish second to become the first Ukrainian side to advance past the group stage.

Champions League Preview: Group G

The penultimate group in this year’s Champions League is upon us, with the final group to follow tomorrow (thankfully the latter half of the draw plays Wednesday). As we wrap up our previews, don’t forget to check out the rest: Group A, Group B, Group C, Group D, Group E and Group F.

Followed by previews of groups where one team stood head and shoulders above the rest followed by teams competing for second, we reach the ‘Group of Death‘.  Every international soccer competition has one and Group G is this year’s version.  With three former Champions League winners (A.C. Milan, Real Madrid, and AFC Ajax), and a relative newcomer from a top 5 league (AJ Auxerre), this group is tough from top to bottom.

Zlatan Ibrahimović will look to find his scoring touch with AC Milan. In his last stint in Italy, he scored 57 goals in 88 appearances for Inter.

A.C. Milan – The second team in the competition from Milan, A.C. Milan are a fixture in the Champions League.  Milan have won the title 7 times (2nd most all-time), the most recent in 2007.  Since that win, Milan haven’t made it past the round of 16.  Milan are looking to make a deep run in the Champions League, and certainly have the roster to make that a reality.

Milan, a team that hasn’t won the scudetto since 2004, made a determined effort this summer to add new talent to an already talented squad.  Joining the Rossoneri were Robinho (from Manchester City), Zlatan Ibrahimović (from Barcelona), Kevin-Prince Boateng (from Portsmouth), Mario Yepes (from Chievo Verona) and Marco Amelia (from Genoa).  To add this many players with much talent is almost unheard of.  By adding Robinho and Ibrahimović to an attack that already boasted Alexandre Pato, Filippo Inzaghi and Ronaldinho, Milan have one of the best forward lines in the competition. Ibrahimović even suggested that Milan should play as many as 5 forwards because there is “[n]o need to track back if you score plenty of goals.” While I don’t see this happening the thought of those five players running around the offensive half of the field is exciting.  The other summer additions, add depth to the defense and midfield and by adding Amelia, Milan got much stronger between the posts (though for some reason incumbent keeper Christian Abbiati has started both Serie A games thus far).  The biggest departure from the club was Klaas-Jan Huntelaar who joined Schalke.  His departure, after a lackluster time at the San Siro, will not impact Milan very much and was addressed by the additions of Robinho and Ibrahimović.  Also, there needs to be a quick mention that Milan have Oguchi Onyewu, one the U.S.’s best players currently on their roster.

With the threat of a player strike in Serie A looming, Milan are currently 1-0-1 in domestic league play.  Following a 4-0 demolition of U.S. Lecce in Milan, the Rossoneri suffered an embarrassing 2-0 loss to newly promoted A.C. Cesena.  The most interesting fact about the loss to Cesena, is that the plucky side from Emilia-Romagna had been in the Italian third division just two season ago.  For Milan, 7 time European champions and 4 time world champions, to lose to a club of that stature is shocking.  Perhaps Massimiliano Allegri should listen to Ibra’s suggestion and play 5 forwards.

Milan certainly have the talent to make noise in this group, but if the team has too many uninspired outings like their recent match against Cesena, they will be playing in the Europa League (or worse not playing in Europe at all).

The 'Special One' will look to guide Real Madrid to the Champions League title after guiding Inter Milan the last season's hardware.

Real Madrid C.F. – The all-time leaders in Champions League victories (9) haven’t won the competition since 2002.  Despite their best efforts to collect as many soccer superstars as possible, the Blancos continue to come up short in Europe.   Real Madrid have not been past the round of 16 since 2004 when they were ousted by A.S. Monaco in the quarterfinals. Typically known for their splashy additions, they made one of the biggest moves of the summer by adding José Mourinho as manager.  Mourinho is a master tactician and led Inter to the title last season.  Will he have the same success in at the Bernabéu? Club president Florentino Pérez certainly hopes he does.

Like fellow group-mate, Milan, Real Made made several high-profile signings over the summer.  Apparently whomever makes the personnel decisions for the Blancos was watching the World Cup, as Real Madrid went out and signed several players who burst onto the seen in South Africa.  Mesut Özil and Sami Khedira both proved their worth for Germany this summer and joined Real Madrid from SV Werder Bremen and VfB Stuttgart respectively.  Also joining the Spanish side were Ricardo Carvalho (from Chelsea) and influential, Argentine winger Ángel di María.  Adding these players to the other Galácticos already at Real Madrid gives the team the appearance of a fantasy soccer league team.  The amount of attacking talent rivals that of Milan, with the added bonus of having arguably the world’s best goalkeeper (Iker Casillas) between the posts.

On the domestic front, Real are continually locked in a battle with Barcelona for the top spot on La Liga.  Fans in the Spanish capital will certainly be hoping that the Special One can deliver another La Liga title, but Real Madrid are off to a lackluster start.  Thus far Real Madrid has played to a 0-0 draw with RCD Mallorca away, and a narrow victory over Osasuna 1-0 in Madrid.

Despite the slow start, Real Madrid remain a co-favorite to win this group.  With the amount of talent they possess (I didn’t even mention the likes of Gonzalo Higuaín, Cristiano Ronaldo, or Kaká) Real Madrid should easily secure a spot in the knockout round.

Ajax will look to recapture the success they enjoyed in the early 1970s when they were led by Johan Cruyff.

AFC Ajax – The Dutch side have by far the most Champions League titles of any team not from the big 4 (sorry France) leagues.  With 4 titles to their name, Ajax are tied for the 4th most titles.  Three of those titles came during a dominant stretch in the early 1970s when they were led by the inimitable Johan Cruyff.  Over the past several seasons, Ajax seem to have lost their grasp on Dutch football, having not won an Eredivisie title since 2004.  While they have been titleless, Ajax have been near the top of the league.  Due to the odd method (a 4 team playoff between teams 2-5) the Dutch use to determine their Champions League representatives Ajax, despite finishing 2nd for several season, has not been in the Champions League since 2008.  This season marks their first appearance in the knockout round since 2006.

Despite a strong showing last season, and the promise of Champions League soccer, Ajax have seen several players exit the Amsterdam Arena.  The most notable are Marko Pantelić and Dennis Rommedahl (to Olympiacos), and Kerlon (to Inter).  On the positive side, Ajax brought in some of the top talent in the Dutch league, signing Andre Ooijer (from AZ Alkmaar) and Mounir El Hamdaoui (from PSV Eindhoven).

Clearly the departures has not affected Ajax, as they currently top the Eredivisie standings.  Through 8 games, Ajax have a 6-2-0 record and a +18 goal differential.  Already three points clear of their nearest competitors, it looks like Ajax could recapture the league title this season.

With Ajax in fine form entering their first Champions League match (against Real Madrid in Madrid), the Dutch side merit watching.  They have a history of winning this tournament, and while their recent history hasn’t been as bright, they are not a team to underestimate.

AJ Auxerre will look to crash the former winners' party in Group G.

AJ Auxerre – Not among the “name” teams in the Ligue 1, Auxerre enter this campaign a relatively unfancied side.  When I was researching for this post, I came across an interesting tidbit which said that Auxerre is the only team to have never been relegated from the French first division.  I found this shocking, but I found the fact in multiple sources. Relative upstarts in this group, Auxerre finally return to the Champions League after an 8 year absence.  Their last trip to the Champions League in 2002-2003 saw them finish third in a group behind Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund, but ahead of PSV.

The Burgundy side saw stability reign over the summer with few players coming or going, none worth noting.  The current squad is a mix of French players and players from Francophone Africa, with a few other European players included. Valter Birsa made a name for himself at the World Cup, by scoring against the U.S. in the controversial draw with Slovenia.  An interesting roster note is that Auxerre are the only team I have ever seen to have a player from Madagascar (forward Anicet Andrianantenaina).

Auxerre have gotten off to a slow start in Ligue 1, drawing 4 times in five games.  While they have only lost once, it is clear that the Champions League is on their minds.  Auxerre will need to step up their game if they intend to qualify for next season’s Champions League.

As far as their prospects go this season, I think Auxerre are the weakest team in this group.  That said, they could knock off a complacent Milan, or take some points from Ajax.  If Auxerre replicates their performance in the 2003 Champions League, where they went 2-1-3, the Burgundians should be happy.

Predictions: Real Madrid win this group, with Ajax pulling an upset to finish 2nd.  I feel that A.C. Milan are a tad too dysfunctional to make a run, despite their talent.

Champions League Preview: Group F

The Champions League previews continue at a fast and furious pace due to my slacking. With Group E previewed Friday, we move on to Group F. If you haven’t already, check out the rest of my previews: Group A, Group B, Group C, and Group D.

Group F, with Chelsea, Marseille, Spartak Moscow and Žilina, has the chance to provide some interesting soccer matches.  While Chelsea are the clear favorites, especially when considering their form in the early part of the EPL season (4 wins, 17 goals), the rest of the group should prove competitive.

Didier Drogba has been on fire to start the EPL season, scoring 4 goals and dishing out 4 assits in just 4 games.

Chelsea F.C. – Chelsea, last season’s Premier League champions, have during this decade become perennial contenders for both the EPL and Champions League titles.  The runners-up (to Manchester United) in 2008, the Blues are looking to finally win the big one this season.  Always the stated goal of owner, Roman Abramovich, this could be the year that Chelsea break through and take home the move coveted trophy in club soccer.

Last season, Chelsea exited the Champions League at an early stage (by their high standards), losing to eventual champions Inter in the round of 16.  Each of the previous three seasons saw Chelsea make it to at least the semifinals.  In an effort to get themselves back to the semifinals, Chelsea undertook an extreme team makeover.  While their only major signings of the summer were Brazilian midfielder Ramires (from Benfica) and Israeli midfielder Yossi Benayoun (from Liverpool), Chelsea allowed several older players to leave the team.  Gone are Michael Ballack, Ricardo Carvalho, Deco and Juliano Belletti. Chelsea allowed these players to leave in an effort to get cheaper and younger.

In the EPL, Chelsea have been in top form from the beginning of the season.  With consecutive 6-0 victories to start the season (against West Bromwich Albion and Wigan), Chelsea’s offense is firing on all cylinders.  Prior to conceding against West Ham United in the 85 minute, Chelsea hadn’t given up a single goal.  While these stats are impressive, Chelsea has had a bit of a cupcake buffet to start the season.  The best team Chelsea has played thus far (Stoke City) finished 11th last season in the EPL.

Chelsea are clearly the favorites in this group.  The team has been in fine form to start the season.  While Marseille could trouble the Blues, especially in France, Chelsea should dominate this group.

André-Pierre Gignac, one of Marseille's biggest signings over the summer, should add fire power to an already potent offense.

Olympique de Marseille – Marseille, winners of Ligue 1 last season, have in each of the past three seasons made it to the group stage of the Champions League.  In each of those seasons, the French side has been unable to make it to the knockout rounds, finishing third all three times.  Marseille will look to improve upon that showing, in a group where they have a chance to finish second.

Marseille have enjoyed their recent resurgence and with the nearly unlimited funds from the estate of French billionaire Robert Louis-Dreyfus, they should be able to bring in talent to keep them at the top of Ligue 1.  In an effort to boost  what was one of the most prolific attacks in French soccer, Marseille imported French international André-Pierre Gignac (from Toulouse FC) and Loïc Rémy (from OGC Nice).  As if those additions weren’t enough, it has recently come to light that Marseille attempted to buy Didier Drogba from Chelsea.  The only major exit from the squad was tempestuous winger, Hatem Ben Arfa.  I feel that the subtraction of Ben Arfa, who has been a distraction virtually everywhere he has played, could actually help Marseille.

While Marseille enjoyed a lot of success domestically last season, this year’s campaign has gotten off to a rocky start.  Manager Didier Deschamps and sporting director José Anigo had a falling out over the transfer strategy, and the team has gotten off to a 1-1-2 start.  Marseille started the season with a 2-1 loss to SM Caen at Stade Vélodrome, followed by a 3-2 loss away to Valenciennes FC.  It seems that they have found a way to bounce back, defeating Lorient in Marseille and drawing with Bordeaux.  Marseille will have to find their form quickly, as they host Spartak on 9/15.

Marseille certainly have the firepower to compete with many teams in Europe, though to ask them to top Chelsea might be asking too much.  While pipping Chelsea to the top spot might be out of the question, a second place finish and a trip to the knockout rounds is certainly within Marseille’s grasp.

Aiden McGeady was Spartak's biggest summer signing. Expect the Irishman to star for the Russians.

Spartak Moscow – Spartak enter this season looking to win their first league title since 2001.  During the early years of the Russian Premier League, Spartak dominated, winning 9 championships in the first ten seasons.  Since then, their best finish was last season when they were runners-up to Rubin Kazan. Spartak are making their second recent appearance in the Champions League group stage.  Their prior appearance, during the 2006-2007 season, saw Spartak finish third in their group behind Inter and Bayern Munich. The Russians will be looking to improve upon that result this season.

As with fellow Russian entrants, Rubin, Spartak was extremely active in the transfer market.  With over a dozen players joining and at least that many leaving, Spartak has dramatically reshaped its team.  The biggest signing was the capture of Aiden McGeady from Celtic.  The Irish midfielder will add a steady, attacking presence to the Spartak midfield and should significantly upgrade the club.  With McGeady providing service for Brazilian forward Welliton, Spartak should see their offense improve.

The Russian Premier League has a different calendar than most of the rest of Europe, starting in early spring and ending in November.  Due to this schedule, Spartak have already played 19 games in the domestic league.  With an 8-5-6 record, Spartak sit 5th in the Russian Premier League and look likely to miss out on Champions League football for next season.  With this in mind, expect Spartak to make the most of this opportunity and provide some tough competition to Marseille for the second position.

While I do love the addition of McGeady, I ust don’t see Spartak having the fire power to finish in the top two.  Playing in the Luzhniki Stadium can be intimidating for visiting clubs, but Chelsea played Manchester United there in the 2008 title game.  Spartak will likely finish third in this group and ear their way into the Europa League.

MŠK Žilina are just the 2nd Slovak team to make it to the Champions League group stage.

MŠK Žilina – I have to admit no prior knowledge of Žilina before writing this post.  The most I knew about the Slovak Superliga was that Artmedia Bratislava made it to the Champions League group stages a few seasons ago. There always seems to be one team that comes out of nowhere to qualify for the group stage, and I think Žilina are that team this year.

Champions of the Slovak Superliga, Žilina are making their first appearance in the group stage of the Champions League.  Having previously qualified for the Champions League on 4 occasions, Žilina defeated Birkirkara F.C. (Maltese champions), Litex Lovech (Bulgarian champions), and AC Sparta Prague (Czech champions)  along the way.

Žilina’s team consists mostly of Slovak and Czech players, and doesn’t contain any international stars of note.  Žilina are the second Slovak team to make it to the Champions League group stage, following Artmedia Bratislava (who finished third in their group in the 2005-2006 season).  If Žilina are able to replicate Artmedia’s success, the Slovaks would have to be happy.

Prediction: Chelsea easily top this group.  The Blues are in fine form this season and open their campaign against Žilina in Slovakia.  Marseille finish second.

Champions League Preview: Group E

After a bit of a break from blogging and soccer, and after having covered the first half of the draw (check out the previews for Group A, Group B, Group C, and Group D), we move on to Group E.

Group E, at first glance doesn’t look very difficult.  The group has one traditional power (FC Bayern Munich), a club on the rise from one of big 5 league (AS Roma), and two relative upstarts (FC Basel 1893 and CFR Cluj).  As with several of the other groups already previewed, there is one clear favorite in this group (Bayern Munich).  What makes this group different is the presence of a presumptive second place team (Roma).  Will there be surprises in the group?

If Arjen Robben can stay healthy, Bayern has a shot to make a run to Wembley Stadium.

FC Bayern Munich – Bayern Munich, last year’s losing finalists, have to be smiling when they look at this group.  The Bavarian side are clearly the class of the group.  With a history that includes 4 Champions League titles, the most recent in 2001, Bayern are contenders virtually every year.  Bayern have won 6 league titles this decade, and despite an early stumble in the Bundesliga, look poised to contend again this season.

Last season, Bayern won the Bundesliga title, finishing 5 points clear of Schalke.  Over the summer, Bayern made no major purchases to augment a successful 2010 squad.  With Breno and Toni Kroos returning from loan spells, the side has gotten better without spending a lot of money.  Just as Bayern did not bringing in players, no major players left the squad.

In what has become something of a trend among Champions League teams, Bayern has stumbled out of the gate in the Bundesliga.  Prior to the international break, Bayern split its first two games, winning 2-1 at home against VfL Wolfsburg and losing 2-0 away to Kaiserslautern. Louis Van Gaal will look to right ship when Bayern host Werder Bremen on Saturday.

As with last season, Bayern will go as far as, Dutch international, Arjen Robben can take them.  If the oft-injured Dutchman can stay healthy and pair with World Cup revelation, Thomas Müller, Bayern have the team to make a deep run.

Which Adriano will Roma get? The prolific scorer or party-going, locker room distraction.

A.S. Roma – Seemingly always the bridesmaid, and rarely the bride, Roma are looking to break that tradition this season.  Roma’s best showing in the Champions League came when they finished runners-up in 1984.  This year’s squad will look to repeat their stunning 2007-2008 group win (they pipped Chelsea to the top spot).  There are some similarities between this season and 2007-2008.  Roma were clearly the 2nd (or even 3rd) best team on paper in their group (this year they are 2nd).  Though they won the group, Roma couldn’t advance past the round of 16, losing on penalties to Arsenal.

Looking to build on their recent success, Roma was relatively active in the transfer market, adding firepower to their strike force, and reinforcing their defense.  Roma are the most recent team to take a chance on mercurial forward, Adriano, and added Marco Borriello. Adding this offensive talent to Francesco Totti, Mirko Vučinić, and Jeremy Menez should net Roma plenty of goals.  On the backline, Roma added the brothers Burdisso, Nicolás (from Inter) and Guillermo (from Rosario Central in Argentina).  With no major subtractions, Roma should be a better team this season.

Following a second place finish (just 2 points behind Inter) Roma will look to make a breakthrough on the domestic scene.  Currently, the Giallorossi have played just one game in Serie A (a 0-0 draw with Cesena) and could be facing a long layoff from domestic play as the Serie A players’ union have announced a potential strike to begin on September 25.

Roma are clearly the favorites to finish second in this group.  With a very talented squad, and the lack of additions by Bayern, Roma might be able to push the German champions for first in the group.

Alexander Frei, the all time leading scorer for the Swiss national team, is the danger man for FC Basel.

FC Basel 1893 – The Swiss champions, FC Basel, have been fixtures at the top of the league since 2002.    With 5 Swiss championships since 2002, Basel will look to advance from the group stage for the first time. Their best showing in the Champions League came in 2002-2003 when they made it to the second group stage (equivalent to the group stage in the current format).  Basel entered the competition in the 3rd qualifying round and defeated Hungarian champions, Debreceni VSC (group stage participants last season) and Moldovan champions, Sheriff Tiraspol on their way to the group stage. Domestically, Basel have played 7 games, posting a 4-2-1 record, good enough for second place behind FC Luzern.

Basel, because they are in one of the middling leagues in Europe, tend not to make a big splash in the transfer market.  All of Basel’s signings over the summer were from within the Swiss League (with the exception of Fwayo Tembo, who joined from ES Sahel of Tunisia) .  The only major loss was Portuguese winger, Carlitos, who signed with Hannover 96 of the Bundesliga.

Basel will look to have a better showing than last season’s Swiss entrant, FC Zürich, who finished 1-1-4 with a -9 goal difference.  While I believe Basel will play better, I don’t see them advancing.  They might be able to pull off one upset (perhaps against Roma) when playing at home.  Zürich was able to pull an upset of AC Milan at the San Siro last year, so anything is possible.  A best case scenario for the Swiss side is to finish 3rd in the group and qualify for the Europa League.

CFR Cluj are relative newcomers to the European stage. Will they be able to pull off an upset, as they did in 2007-2008 against Roma?

CFR Cluj – A team with relatively little history in the Romanian top flight, just 16 seasons since 1946, Cluj are an example of what a team can do if they suddenly acquire significant financial backing.  In the Romanian third division as recently as 2002, Cluj have risen through the Romanian soccer ranks to capture two of the last three Liga I titles. During their previous appearance in the Champions League group stage, Cluj defeated Roma 2-1 in Rome, and drew with Chelsea in Cluj-Napoca.

Cluj’s squad has surprisingly few Romanians, as the team has imported international players in an attempt to win the league and compete in Europe.  One of their best players, Ciprian Deac, left the club over the summer and signed with fellow Champions League side, Schalke.  Cluj did add some new, international talent over the summer, but nobody of note.

Along with Unirea Urziceni, Cluj have (over the last several seasons) displaced the Bucharest teams at the top of the domestic table.  This season, though, seems to be returning the Bucharest teams to power, as Cluj currently sit in 10th with a 2-2-3 record.  Will playing the Champions League hurt Cluj’s chances to win a 2nd straight Liga I title?  Time will tell.

Cluj need to manage expectations in this competition.  If Cluj can even duplicate the success of their last appearance, they would be lucky.  Given their poor domestic form, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Cluj finish at the bottom of this group.

Predictions: Bayern Munich will top this group, though I do see a bit of a struggle for them against Roma.  Roma will finish second, taking advantage of matches against clearly weaker sides.

Check out the rest of the Champions League previews:
Group A
Group B
Group C
Group D
Group F