Tuesday, December 30, 2014

What Changes

It's not that I don't think Gedion Zelalem can't be a great player for the USMNT. I most definitely believe he can. 

But I also know that a lot can happen between 17 and becoming a regular international. 

Look at these guys, all hope and hunger at around the age of 17. 

On Feeling American

Light a firecracker or pop champagne a little early today if you're a USA soccer fan, because Gedion Zelalem is now a USA citizen. 

Born in Germany, Zelalem came to the US in 2006, leaving only seven years later to join Arsenal's youth team. But 9 to 16 is a crucial age when many friendships and loyalties are formed. Zelalem, even though he has the choice still to play for Ethiopia, Germany or the US, has indicated he would like to represent America, partly because of the strong ties he made with youth club teammates while growing up in Maryland. Zelalem's family also settled in the USA, so he has many reasons to consider himself American. 

That hasn't changed, apparently, even while in England, though he plays for one of the premier clubs in the EPL. 

I think I understand that, a little. For example, I rarely drank Coke while I lived in the USA. I didn't really like it, and there were plenty of other options. When I lived abroad, though, people would often offer me a Coke, assuming that because I was an American, I drank it all the time. At first I resisted. I was traveling and wanted to experience local culture, including beverages. I sampled many coffees, teas, yogurt drinks, juices, etc. 

After a few months, even though I still enjoyed exploring and experiencing other places, I realized I missed the States a lot. I missed peanut butter, pepperjack cheese, Thai food, Tex-Mex, pancakes, TV shows, 24hr gas stations, In-N-Out, friends, family, shorts and flip-flops as acceptable streetwear, "Hey!" as an acceptable greeting, hugs as acceptable farewells, Spanglish as an alternative language,  co-ed soccer games, pick-up basketball games, and eating dinner before 10 pm. I adjusted, of course, with the "when in Rome" philosophy (reminder, must actually go to Rome someday!), but living abroad helped me realize how American I really am. 

So around that time, when yet another new friend offered me a Coke with an "of course this is what you drink" smile, I finally took it. I sipped and it tasted like home. Which is to say, it tasted exactly like the drink that I didn't like back home, but this time, far away from home, that made me feel nostalgic and I liked it. 

That's a story to help explain why I understand that living elsewhere can sometimes make a person more sure of where he really belongs. 

Welcome home, Gedion. 

Friday, December 26, 2014

Donovan Could Do It

There's precedent for a Landon Donovan comeback to soccer, though mostly in a different sport.
In a way, it's comparable to how Michael Jordan retired from basketball to play baseball for a while before coming back to basketball. 

No, I'm not saying LD in soccer is anywhere near what MJ was to basketball - it's more that when MJ came back to play basketball, he could still do so at the NBA level. Sure, he wasn't MJ of old, but that's a really high standard. 

Similarly, LD wouldn't be young LD if he decided to return,
but he'd probably still be fine in league or even national team action. At least, that's what I took away from Stuart Holden's video prediction here of LD's return. It's not so much that I agree with Stu (I don't think LD will return), but I agree with Stu's implication that Donovan could come back and play at a high level.

At least, within the confines of a given time limit, like 2015. Certain things LD is good at, like his ability to keep the ball and his vision on the field, don't deteriorate as easily as stamina and other physical elements.  

Monday, December 22, 2014

LD gets UD award

I mentioned it before, and it turned out to be true - Landon Donovan won a Univision Deportes award and showed up to give a nice speech in Spanish. 

But announcer Enrique Bermudez, one of a bevy of talent covering the awards, lived up to his nickname, "El Perro" (the dog), because he had a bone to pick that he couldn't let go. So he mentioned it yet again, how appalled he was that LD had been left off the World Cup roster by Jurgen Klinsmann. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

LD Didn't Score In His Best Games

According to Landon Donovan, of all the matches he played in, the ones that stood out the most to him as signature games, or his best games, were two in particular. 

I was rereading his quotes and then I realized - he didn't score in either one. One game was even a loss.

Then again, it made sense. LD had always been about helping the team and scoring or creating assists was only part of that. Defending, holding the ball, making the smart pass, moving well into space, set plays, making the follow-up run - those are all key elements that often go unnoticed because they're not registered on any score sheet. But they're a vital part of the beautiful game.

Here's the first game LD mentioned as his best - 2002 against Germany.

2002 wasn't just notable for LD's good game - Tony Sanneh and others played their hearts out. There's a high that's only available in team games when a group effort elevates the whole and everyone is charged up to work for the end result together. The USA didn't quite pull it off, though.

Here's the other game LD mentioned - 2009 vs Spain.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Sad, But Not Surprising

In the wake of the retirement of USA veteran defender DaMarcus Beasley, I immediately thought of Robbie Rogers and his sterling play at left back for the Los Angeles Galaxy. 

It's well known also in SoCal soccer circles that Rogers knows J. Klinsmann from way back. Klinsmann helped guide Rogers at various points in his career, including recommending him as a player to the coach of Leeds in England back in 2012. Rogers, for his part, returned the favor in Klinsmann's debut as coach, scoring the lone USA goal to ensure the JK era did not begin with a loss.

I'm not the only one thinking that Rogers deserves a national team look at left back, either, if the word of that other Robbie - Keane - carries any weight. 

Truth is, though, JK wasn't very encouraging of Rogers' chances to get back on the USMNT squad when it was first announced that he would return to play with the Galaxy. He said Rogers "wasn't in the picture". 

Yet with the lack of depth at left back on the national team level, Rogers should merit consideration, I thought. I was gratified to see that Soccer America seemed to think so as well, ranking Rogers as a viable possibility. But the final sentence of the blurb assessing his chances brought me back to earth with a thud. 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

MLS Does It Better

To me, arguments about leagues and teams that will never or very rarely play each other are silly. Give me a heated debate over whether Real Madrid or Barcelona will win an upcoming match any day over any argument on whether the English WC squad in 1966 could beat JK's latest USA World Cup squad, or if the LA Galaxy could take on Hull City. 

There's no point. It's not going to happen. Most fans in most leagues don't care, either. 

But it's a sore point for many MLS fans that their league gets little respect from others around the world. Some have dedicated themselves to defending MLS, and they're easy targets for those who want to namecall and heap scorn on them for doing so. No one's mind is ever changed in the back and forth. 

Out of pity for their futile mission, I've decided to put together a list of ways in which MLS is indisputably superior to leagues in Europe. It's not long, I promise. 

Finding Fitness Results, Capoeira

As promised, here's my report of my capoeira experience. 

It's hard. There's a reason why MMA fighters like Connor McGregor and others crosstrain in capoeira. It combines kicks, dynamic movement and acrobatics, all to the beat of the bateria playing music while everyone sings along. For the beginner class I took, there was a lot of time spent training the basic movements and practicing to improve technique.

I liked it, even though my muscles are very sore now. I'm not very acrobatic, but I can do a cartwheel (called an ), and I kicked pretty well. Other aspects were tricky. At one point, I was trying to do a rasteira (a type of sweep) to catch the instructor's leg as directed. I struggled.

"Don't kick out like it's soccer," he suggested. "Try to control the move." 

Monday, December 15, 2014

Mohamed's Twelfth Night

In college, I played the role of Viola in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and got to say these lines:

I hate ingratitude more in a man
than lying, vainness, babbling, drunkenness,
or any taint of vice whose strong corruption
inhabits our frail blood.

I thought of those lines again while watching Club America win their historic twelfth championship. How could Club America be so ungrateful?

Truth is, the club has treated the coach, Antonio Mohamed, who got them there very shabbily. It's quite stunning that the team would negotiate for a new coach even as Mohamed was leading the team through the playoffs in search of the title. Not surprisingly, that became the story of the championship. 

It may come back to haunt the club in more ways than just playing against Mohamed in the future. Besides Gustavo Matosas, what coach in their right mind would want to sign with a club that would do this?

Love is in the Air

Isn't this the cutest ever? 

I mean the dog, of course. 

But that's not just any mutt tweeting at me, it's Boss Leroux. The lil' chihuahua with more followers than most soccer writers (including me) reached out to assuage my concerns. 

What was I worried about? Ah, I just wanted to know Dom had the seal of approval from Boss because of this revelation about America's Soccer Power Couple. 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Free Your Mind to Reality

Reading over this article taking new MLS team Orlando City to task over a tweet, I felt a familiar frustration rising up. 

Of course, in North America, women can be fans. Fans=customers and to the emerging soccer market in the USA and Canada, every customer is generally valued. 

But why should women be "just" fans? 

Why can't they be players who have their own cadre of loyal fans? 

But I've traveled enough to know that those are first-world problems in general, and that even in those scenarios, the USA is more welcoming and supportive of women in the sport than many countries in Europe, for example. 

In other places, no, women can't even just be fans. 

It doesn't mean that the battles at every level to eradicate sexism aren't worth fighting, but it's also important to realize how in some places, even a basic enjoyment of the beautiful game is limited to human beings because of their gender. 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Finding Fitness

Now that Landon Donovan is retired, it won't be easy for him to stay in shape. There's no more constant running like in practice and for matches. Most soccer players do have an offseason workout set up, though. That helps them as they ease into retirement, to do whatever they usually did in the offseason when they didn't practice and play regularly. 

For some retired players, staying fit means to do freely what they liked anyway. In Frankie Hejduk's case, that was surfing.

Others take up a new athletic pursuit. David Beckham has gotten into SoulCycle. 

Thomas Dooley is a soccer tennis devotee, and he's gotten other former pros into regular matches and competition as well. 

Keeping fit is important for everyone, though, not just former athletes. I'm going to give different fitness programs a try and report here which I personally find most effective and would recommend, not just for soccer players, but anybody. 

First up is capoeira. LD's own teammate, Juninho, practices the Brazilian martial art. 

 One of the capoeiristas featured in the video here is giving a free class in Glendale at Jewel City Yoga tomorrow at noon, so I'm going to check that out.  

Can Club America Defeat Distractions?

It won't be easy. 

Friday, December 12, 2014

What Price a Coach?

I dismissed the first reports of Gustavo Matosas signing as the new coach of Club America because it didn't make sense that any team would undercut a coach in the middle of a playoff run, with just the championship match yet to go. 

But more and more, the same news kept showing up, until, though still unverified by the team officially, there was too much smoke for me to pretend there was no fire under the butt of Antonio Mohamed. 

I couldn't help shaking my head about it even as I started to believe it. Why undercut a coach who still had work to do? Why couldn't any replacement work wait? How could the Club America administration risk a championship just to get rid of a coach a few days earlier? 

The basic question is - is getting Matosas worth risking the historic 12th championship for Club America? That's what's in danger now. 

Nguyenning and Grinning Through It All

So besides being a talented, versatile midfielder, Lee Nguyen is something of an Internet troll. Or at least, that was the conclusion some came to after the New England Revolution faithful were treated to a bit of a "scare" from their star player via his Twitter account. 

The original Tweet has been deleted, which is rather odd in itself if everything is innocent and Nguyen is staying put. Here is Seth's retweet, though, which still contains all of Nguyen's original text.

One reason that Revs fans were panicking is that Nguyen has indeed been linked to possibilities abroad, namely Southampton, where he could reunite with his former PSV coach Ronald Koeman. Still, I don't know whether to take that rumor seriously when an article like this one puts up a photo clearly NOT of Nguyen.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Rossi Talks Back

In some ways, I feel like I've known Giuseppe Rossi a long time, but I've just really known about him. 

He was almost an urban soccer legend - a Jersey boy with preternatural skills who left youth soccer in the area (where he played with the likes of Danny Szetela) to join the youth team of Parma, and later, Manchester United, Villarreal and Fiorentina. That's quite a tour of top teams in the world's top leagues. 

But it wasn't all success and happiness for the striker. Rossi suffered a series of injuries that left him heartrendingly just on the outside of Italy's World Cup roster not just once, but twice, in 2010 and 2014. He might never play in the tournament. 

It goes almost without saying that he likely would have played in three World Cups for the land of his birth, but that's a scenario of the road not taken, and his career is an impressive one nonetheless. 

In fact, he's got a book out about it now. Note the shout-out to a Jersey legend in the title. I've got to say, as a former Lit major, that I love all the references to American classics in the chapter headings. 

I wrote one of my first ESPN.com articles ever about Rossi, and a few more related to him since. Still haven't spoken to the man in person, but today, I did hear from him. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Bruce Gets Comfortable

Nine years ago, I called for Bruce Arena to make a push at coaching abroad. 

That didn't happen. 

Now, on the heels of his record 5th MLS Cup win as coach, someone else is doing the same.  

I didn't think back when I proposed European coaching for him that Arena would get an offer from a big name team, but sure, I thought some Championship club or Scandinavian squad would take a chance on him. 

But I also understand that LA is nice, he has family nearby, the facilities are great and he gets to coach with a lot of support that he simply wouldn't get anywhere abroad. At the end of the day, coaches are people just like players are. People want to be happy. 

I don't see him leaving, basically. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Out and About

It's pretty interesting to hear Robbie Rogers in this interview with Hannah Storm talk about how, back when he won his first MLS Championship with the Columbus Crew, he wasn't able to really enjoy it because of the stress and strain of being gay and feeling he had to hide that. 

I remember 2008. The final was played here in LA, and yeah, Robbie didn't look all that happy. 

But his transition to the Galaxy wasn't seamless. He was injured and played inconsistently. A position change brought out the best in him this year. 

What seems to bring Robbie the most joy is something most of us take for granted: He's now able to be himself.  

Foreign To It All

No, it isn't that hard to coach in MLS. 

How could it possibly be difficult to manage a diverse mix of roster players, fly enormous distances all over the country, get the most from young developmental players in fledgling Academy systems, scout affordable talent in Central and South America, choose the best investments for big-money talent with an eye also toward marketing to local and Latino fans, stay under a salary cap, negotiate with league demands such as unbalanced scheduling and oppressive day games, and also work with media that can alternately ignore the sport entirely or insist on access that is unprecedented in other countries but standard in the U.S.?

Just ask this guy how easy it is to coach in MLS. 

Give Ruud Gullit credit - he came in with plenty of confidence. A bit of humility and willingness to learn might have served him better. Frankly, it's not a conincidence that foreign coaches have a long history of struggling in MLS. It's harder to adapt to new circumstances than it is to blame these same elements themselves as being flawed, but blame won't create success.

With the news that the Houston Dynamo have signed Owen Coyle to replace outgoing coach Dom Kinnear (who returned to California to coach the San Jose Earthquakes) hope springs anew that a different foreigner can buck that trend. Coyle, who has shown a flair for well-balanced squads and who can unearth talent overlooked by many, would do well to heed these words of advice from the coach in MLS with the most wins ever, Bruce Arena.

"It's very rare that an international player can step into this league, be adjusted instantly, and not explain to us how we're supposed to do things - how it's done elsewhere. We've never heard one comment of, 'This is how they do it at Liverpool or Tottenham.' He's bought into Major League Soccer from the start. He's our greatest advocate."

Now, Arena was speaking after the 2014 MLS Cup on the game and league MVP, but it's still good advice that Coyle should heed. 

Monday, December 8, 2014

Landon Got It

The MLS Cup, yeah, that. Landon Donovan went out with a championship. Yet more than that, LD got what it meant to bring together all the diverse craziness that is part of the soccer landscape in the USA. Americans played in the first World Cup ever, but that bright start (a semifinal finish) back in 1930 quickly fizzled out without consistent support in a big country. 

LD was a warrior on that front since he first played USA youth games as a teen, representing his country in front of sparse crowds locally. He gave interviews in broken Spanish even back then, he wrote a World Cup diary in 2002 for his local paper, the San Bernardino Sun, and he even had the temerity to call out David Beckham's loyalty to the Galaxy and his service to MLS. Time and again, when other USA players would get tired and walk away from reporters, LD would still stay, giving intelligent, thoughtful quotes to everyone who needed them to make a deadline. 

A local LA area kid, he even had a call-out for the LA Times columnist, Bill Plaschke, in his final press conference. 

"I just want to say, for the record, that I think we've made it when Bill Plaschke's at our press conference."

Donovan's final comments overall weren't an answer to any question. His time was up, and he was ready to go, but he had a few more words for all of us, the assembled press. It was a message of gratitude. 

"For all of you who have been around for a long time, and even a short time - Bill (Plaschke)- I appreciate all you guys do for this sport. I know it's a professional relationship, but a lot of you guys are out there and really care about it the way that we do and it's been a long grind. I can't think of many less glamorous jobs than being a soccer reporter in this country, but you guys are passionate about it and you care and we really appreciate it. So I just want to say thank you for all that. I appreciate it."

The media being the beast that it is, LD was immediately asked to say that again in Spanish. 

"That's a lot," Donovan admitted. He was well aware that local staff could easily translate his comments in English. He then obliged anyway. 

"Gracias a todos ustedes en la prensa. Normalmente no tenemos la oportunidad de decir gracias a ustedes tambien, pero ustedes estan aqui cada dia, apoyando a nosotros, y apoyando nuestro deporte en este pais. De parte de todo nosotros, querio decir gracias para todo." 

(Thanks to all of you in the press. Normally, we don't get the opportunity to say thanks to you guys, but you guys are here every day, supporting us, supporting our sport in this country. On behalf of all of us, I want to say thanks for everything.)

Just before my recording cuts off, various reporters respond, some of them for perhaps the last time, "Thanks, Landon!"

Sangre Nueva, All Over Again

Luis used to track Mexican-American players - shoot, once he and I worked together to uncover a Mexican-American player where no one expected it - but now it's quite common to have such players in Liga MX. 

Still it's kind of cool news every time another one breaks out into the scene of a league in a big way. 

Frankly, no team in Liga MX is bigger than Club America right now, as they close in on a historic 12th title. And right there in the mix is Arizona native Ventura Alvarado. 

But will USA coach Jurgen Klinsmann care? Or even pay attention? Aaron's not optimistic. 

The Tragedy, the Triumph and the Missing Ballots

The LA Galaxy won the 2014 MLS Cup on Sunday, sending Landon Donovan off into the retirement sunset a champion. 

There's a sad part to the story of the Galaxy this season, though. Most of it is told here

After the game, here's what AJ told the press. 

“I’ve said it before, this is my best year on the field, and my worst year off the field personally. At the end of the game, you guys saw I just kind of laid there and sobbed a little bit. Obviously, I wish my son was here, so that was all I thought about.”

AJ's wife, Megan, kept a blog of their short time with their first child, Luca, which also includes information about donating in his name to charities that support families dealing with heart problems. 

I talked to AJ briefly on Saturday, before the match, where he explained that he'd recovered from a recent hamstring injury and was ready to play in the championship final. That hamstring was indeed put to the test on one particular play, where he prevented a likely Revolution goal in the 28th minute on a Charlie Davies breakaway.

"I think Robbie missed it, or it just slipped under him. Obviously, Charlie and I were on for a hundred yard dash. He's one of the fastest players in this league. I had to make the perfect tackle and challenge."

De La Garza's tackle so impressed some in the pressbox, that they were voting him for the game's MVP. Others opted for Zardes, who scored the opening goal. No one I knew put down Robbie Keane. That's because the ballots were collected near the end of regulation, before the game went into extra time and Keane scored. He was then named the game MVP.

So the question is, who voted for Keane? What happened to AJ's votes? 

Not that the defender would care. I asked him what his first thought was after the final whistle. 

"My first thought was relief, because I was too tired to run anymore."

Though Donovan's "fairy-tale ending" got a lot of press, the emotional impact of AJ and Megan's experience with Luca really affected the Galaxy players, many of whom have young children. They think the world of AJ, a hard-working, unassuming teammate. The strong bond already forged among the squad grew even stronger. Goals were dedicated to Luca as the team played toward the end of the season.

"These guys have been my support group," AJ said. 

Still, even after the Galaxy win, it was a little heartbreaking when I looked out at the confetti-strewn field and saw a large Luca Knows Heart sign in one corner. 

"A lot of guys got to have their kids out there, and that was hard," AJ admitted. 

No trophy could compensate the De La Garza's family's loss, but for his teammates, it was just added motivation to do all they could to mitigate AJ's pain in some way, if only briefly. 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Sarachan Does the Playoff Beard

So I'm on the field for MLS Cup press access yesterday, getting ready to question Galaxy assistant coach Dave Sarachan, and before I can say anything;

Dave: I know, you're going to ask me about the beard. Go ahead. 

Me: What? I - Is that the official playoff beard? To show solidarity with the players? 

Dave: Yeah, whatever. It's a little bit of that. But I was kidding. 

It's a pretty impressive beard, though. 

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Revolution will be Live

The New England Revolution have been the hottest team in MLS since Jermaine Jones came on board. Now, they're in the championship match versus the Galaxy, who are favored partly because they're at home in LA for the game. 

But the Revs aren't just the J. Jones show -Lee Nguyen, Charlie Davies, Teal Bunbury, Kelyn Rowe, and Co. are a talented bunch. 

It's also a bit of a reunion for two players I covered back in 2005 in Peru, for the U17 World Cup. Omar Gonzalez and Kevin Alston. Back then, Kevin was the speedy defender with the bad luck to suffer a broken leg against the Netherlands. Omar was a forward who would come in off the bench. He converted to defender in college. 

Of course, there's much being made of the fact that it is Landon Donovan's final game. Sure, that's a big storyline, but the Revs don't seem fazed by that. If anything, it's the perfect distraction for their opponents. The Revolution can come in with less pressure and be the surprise champions. 

The Galaxy want to send LD out on a high note, though. They managed it for Beckham a couple of years back, so they could do it again.