Holland, England, And Germany | US Soccer Players

By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (Apr 11, 2012) US Soccer Players — Courtesy of the break between the end of the European seasons and the beginning of EURO 2012, there's a month or less left in most of the European leagues.  That means midweek games that could determine a team's season, and we get some of them later today involving and impacting US National Team players.

AZ In The Eredivisie

Jozy Altidore's team plays their 29th game this afternoon (1pm ET on ESPN's online channel ESPN3), and they currently trail leaders Ajax by a point.  They play Twente (3rd) and PSV Eindhoven (4th) back-to-back, get a breather against 16th-place VVV-Venlo, and then play the team currently in 5th, Feyenoord.  Though the rankings should shift before these games are played, facing three of the teams directly behind you when your lead is three points or less isn't easy.  Tag all of them with 'must win' if you like. 

Ajax has it easier.  They play 6th-place Heerenveen later today and Twente on the 29th, and close out the season against currently 8th-place Vitesse Arnhem, but otherwise it's lower half of the table opponents.  Ajax hasn't dropped a point since February 5th, a period where AZ lost to Utrecht and drew with Heerenveen, Breda, and Vitesse. 

Premier League Relegation

We covered this in last week's Corner, but the relegation zone in the Premier League has already shown it can grab a club from higher up the table.  Blackburn are our latest unlucky team, and there's already a six-point gap between 15th-place Aston Villa and 16th-place Bolton isolating those teams between 16th and 19th.  Wolverhampton are six points behind 19th-place Wigan (who play Manchester United today), and with six games remaining it's not much of an insult to go ahead and suggest their chances of escape are slim. 

Wigan, Blackburn, and Queens Park Rangers (who play Swansea City this afternoon) are level on points.  With all due respect to the other relegation candidates, 17th-place QPR are the ones telling the 'too good to go down' story.  Well, sort of. 

In March, QPR started the month by drawing with Everton and would go onto beat Liverpool and Arsenal.  The problem is they lost to Bolton and Sunderland, the kind of clubs they need to be beating to get themselves into Villa territory and relative safety.  Big name wins are nice, but all points count the same.  After starting April with a loss to Manchester United, they get Spurs and Chelsea later this month back-to-back and finish against Manchester City.  That's three of their last six against top-10 clubs. 

Meanwhile, Bolton play Spurs on May 2nd but otherwise they spend the rest of the season playing teams currently out of the top 10.  Advantage Bolton, who can turn their one-point lead over the clubs on 28 points into a safe gap and leave Wigan, Blackburn, and QPR to figure out which of them gets another Premier League season.

Bundesliga European Places

Jermaine Jones's Schalke 04 (they've got Timmy Chandler's Nurnberg today) are the club to watch, though closing a six-point gap between 3rd and 2nd is probably asking too much.  Instead, their primary role is hanging onto that automatic Champions League place.  Schalke currently have a four-point lead over Borussia Monchengladbach, and there's a seven-point gap between 4th and 5th.  In other words, qualifying directly to the Champions League is Schalke's to lose.

Hannover 96 is also in contention for a European place.  Steve Cherundolo's club are currently 8th, a point and goal difference out of the final Europa League place.  That means getting to 6th.  Hannover are on a three-game losing streak for obvious reasons.  They've played Bayern Munich, 'Gladbach, and Schalke back-to-back-to-back.  Their remaining five games are comparatively easy.  They play 9th-place Wolfsburg later today and the team currently in front of them Bayer Leverkusen on the 28th.  Otherwise, it's teams out of the top-half of the table.  That includes a finale against Kaiserslautern (Leverkusen's Wednesday opponent), who should be officially relegated by the last game of the season. 

On the surface, making a case for Fabian Johnson and Danny Williams's Hoffenheim is a bit of a stretch.  Currently 10th in an 18-team league, they're five points out of that final European slot and would need a lot to happen to push some combination of Wolfsburg, Hannover, Leverkusen, and Werder Bremen out of the way.  Hoffenheim play Hamburg today, a club that has skirted relegation trouble and are currently two points above the drop zone.  Still, Hoffenheim have played well in recent weeks.  After a disastrous 7-1 loss to Bayern Munich followed by a more reasonable 2-1 loss to Stuttgart, they salvaged their March by beating 'Gladbach, drawing with Schalke, and beating Kaiserslautern.  Of their remaining five games, only one is against a team currently higher than them in the standings.  With the schedule cooperating, there's an opportunity for Hoffenheim. 

Comments, questions, solutions to problems that have yet to present themselves.  Please, tell me all about it.

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The European Tables And Your Letters | US Soccer Players

By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (Apr 12, 2012) US Soccer Players — In a follow-up to yesterday's column on the scenarios facing several National Teamers Abroad clubs, it's easy enough to pick one-day winners, losers, and open questions without it having a whole lot of meaning. In the Bundesliga, Hannover 96 took advantage while Schalke 04 didn't. Jozy Altidore's goals were the difference in a point instead of none, but AZ has to win games to have a chance of catching up with a team as on form as Ajax. Were any of their seasons decided on April 11th? It depends on how you look at it.

Right now, the two most important things for these clubs is strength of schedule and goal difference. One is completely out of a club's control. If the club in front of you has a superior goal differential in the double digits, for all practical purposes that's also out of your control. When the schedule favors your club and goal difference is still in play, that's an undeniable advantage. When a club fails to take that advantage, that's a serious problem.

Schalke's lopsided loss was a surprise, and it would take a lot to play it any other way than a major disappointment. That said, they weren't going to catch Bayern Munich on points over one game and goal difference so heavily favored Bayern before Wednesday's game that it wasn't a concern. Schalke still has a buffer between 3rd and 4th, and it would take another loss to really put their league position in jeopardy. With that in mind, we're back to strength of schedule. Schalke play Bundesliga leaders Borussia Dortmund on Saturday. Not an easy assignment, though BVB haven't exactly been sweeping aside all comers week-to-week.

It gets significantly easier for Schalke, with Augsburg, Hertha Berlin, and Werder Bremen waiting after Borussia Dortmund. The expectation should be seven points, more than likely enough to keep Schalke where they are in the table.

Letters

Joe, who was kind enough to let me know he's in Geneva, Wisconsin, wanted to ask about the Scottish Premier League.

I'm interested in the SPL now that I can see it on television. It's odd that Fox Soccer got the rights so late in the season, but I've been intrigued by what I've seen so far. How would you compare it to Major League Soccer in general and if you left out Celtic and Rangers and New York and LA?

There's an iPhone app that lets you subscribe to Rangers games the day after they're played. I got that at the start of the season when they signed Carlos Bocanegra and Alejandro Bedoya, so I've had a steady diet of SPL games. It's a skewed perception since it's only Rangers games. Without seeing complete games of the non-Old Firm clubs playing each other, it's tough to call.

I like the idea of the Scottish Premier League, but in practice I don't think it's a noticeably better brand of soccer than MLS. I see what you're saying with dropping the teams spending more than the rest from the conversation, but again I haven't seen enough to be able to really make a meaningful comparison.

That said, I don't think any MLS coach would be surprised to see how the rest of the SPL play Rangers and Celtic. More often than not, it's that disruptive style of play we see every week in MLS. Thanks for the email.

A nameless hotmail account wrote asking about the European clubs on tour in the USA this summer.

I'm interested in perhaps planning a vacation around a game but I don't have enough information to make a good decision. Why aren't these games known sooner so people can check their schedule and make them a destination?

I'm with you, nameless hotmail account.

Finally, Eric – a regular commenter – asked about last week's story on MLS moving on from bad results.

Though I get what you're saying, what other choice do they have? They can't slow down the momentum of the regular season to deep dive into what happened with one team in a secondary competition. I know we're supposed to treat the Champions League with seriousness, but it's not there yet. I'm much more concerned with having entertaining MLS games rather than seeing how MLS teams match with other CONCACAF teams or the European clubs in preseason tour mode. Though I don't think being competitive at Champions League level and putting on entertaining regular season games are mutually exclusive, I'm also not sure one necessarily has to lead to the other.

That's a reasonable point. My main concern is that what the CONCACAF Champions League performances show is a League standing still. MLS is growing in terms of teams, but the influx of players and new takes on what it means to be an MLS club aren't necessarily improving the quality. With that in mind, I might be the only person not overly wowed by what Sporting Kansas City is doing.

Comments, questions, solutions to problems that have yet to present themselves.  Please, tell me all about it.

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Questions: Beckerman, Ties, Careers, Berhalter, Monitors | US Soccer Players

By Tony Edwards – San Jose, CA (Apr 12, 2012) US Soccer Players — In Thursday's edition, Tony doesn't question the value of Kyle Beckerman and Graham Zusi, asks about goals in this weekend's Houston-Chicago game, and wonders if 'soccer player' needs to be on an executive's resume.

How good was Kyle Beckerman this past weekend?

Very good according to the chalkboard at MLSsoccer.com. One useful aspect of MLS' Opta Chalkboards is it can give a sense of how involved a player was. Beckerman made 56 successful passes last weekend against Colorado, with only 11 off the mark. He was involved in 120 plays, which admittedly includes 'negative' events such as fouls and a yellow card.

Now, contrast that with Graham Zusi's performance for Kansas City this past weekend, where almost as many of his passes were labeled 鈥渦nsuccessful鈥?(31 successful to 20 unsuccessful). Did Zusi have a less successful weekend than Beckerman? Of course not.

Is this coming weekend's Houston-Chicago game going to end 0-0?

While much has been made of Philadelphia's struggles, both Houston and Chicago also only have scored twice this season (and one of Houston's was a penalty kick). Even with Mac Kandji starting to feel more comfortable in Dominic Kinnear's system, Houston remains very reliant on Brad Davis. Chicago has two goals from Dominic Oduru in three games, but that's it.

Did a leading scientific journal just report that soccer players make better executives?

What PLOS One reported was that soccer players have "superior executive functions, the brain processes responsible for planning and abstract thinking. And the more elite the player, the better these functions. "

In the study, the authors followed elite players, nonprofessionals, and non-players, and tested them on problem-solving, creativity, and rule-making. The highest scores went to the elite players.  The obvious next question: is this a result of nature or nurture? The authors think its both. That to become an elite player, you need these executive functions, but that they can be developed with training.

How's it going for former US National Team Player Gregg Berhalter in his first head coaching job?

Started the season with a win. Berhalter's team, Hammarby IF, took their opening game in Sweden's Second Division this past weekend.

According to an article in The Oregonian, how many MLS teams use heart-rate monitors during practice?

Eighteen out of 19. The article makes clear that intelligent coaches, trainers, and sports medicine professionals can use this data for a comprehensive understanding of what they're doing.  That means more than just urging players to work harder in practice and allows teams to plan their practices and workouts based on something more than just intuition.

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Learning From Sporting | US Soccer Players

By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (Apr 13, 2012) US Soccer Players — The big game is in Kansas City this weekend, and we’re all supposed to be nodding along with talk of how revolutionary Sporting KC already is this season. As bandwagons go, it’s an easy one to climb aboard. The results are already in Sporting’s favor.

For those of us who watched Kansas City’s opener against DC United, it’s an interesting continuation of what KC did late in that game. Simply put, they took it. In a commendable three points instead of one performance, they resisted the urge to play like the road team. Do that enough in MLS, and that alone would distinguish a club. Add in a workable version of the 433, and you’re the talk of the League.

As it should be. Lookalike clubs only distinguished by their top players doesn’t do this or any league any favors.

When Bob Bradley led the Chicago Fire to the double in 1998, part of what he did was use a version of a 352.  Other MLS teams were tinkering with an extra player in midfield, but Bradley took a calculated risk. It was his answer for how he could distinguish a first-year club full of players unfamiliar with each other.

Of course, other MLS teams followed. Winning teams are trendsetters after all, and by the next season it was apparent why that system wasn’t the standard all around the world.

The problem many clubs, including MLS, are currently facing, is that the 442 also isn’t the standard anymore. That’s what makes the Champions League so compelling in recent years, teams that have very little in common stylistically showing what works and what doesn’t with various spins on multiple alignments.  All of these are risks, and there’s not a club coach anywhere in the world who can see the appeal of bunkering down to get a result.  Even at the highest levels with massive transfer budgets, coaches are still weighing the risk vs reward of trying something new or playing it safe.

That’s what makes an obvious clash of styles so welcome, especially when it means adjustments that could decide the game. Opening up MLS games continues to be a problem, and I’m not talking about one team loading up on goals at the expense of another.

Really open play works both ways, with the chances developing rather than falling victim to yet another attempt at cutting off a tactically irrelevant passing lane. If the statistical reporting revolution in Major League Soccer really wanted to do us a favor, they’d find a stat to show us that. Then we could put a number beside the teams that confuse ‘work rate’ with strategic naivet茅. I was reminded of that when reading Tony Edwards’s column yesterday where he linked to the story on the use of heart rate monitors in MLS practices.  As Tony wrote, the point is using the data intelligently.

For too many MLS coaches, intelligent play has never been at a premium. The old idea that this is a results business doesn’t mesh when those results come from a style that not enough people will pay to watch. Though it has its devotees, the lower divisions of American professional soccer are normally stylistically challenged. I remember watching a USL game when they were still the second division where people in the crowd were shouting obvious adjustments at the away team. Getting their defenders to stop over committing only to lose yet another 1v1 battle with no cover was more entertaining than seeing the home side score yet another goal. That’s fine for a game that announced an attendance of 400, but at topflight level it’s simply yet another problem.

Since sending a clear message to its coaches and club administrators on what or what doesn’t work for the League as a whole likely falls under that same league policy as not announcing contract details, we don’t really know what’s communicated from the League to its clubs. We do know that MLS is aware, evident through how games are monitored in real time at League headquarters and the commitment to better officiating.

Good for MLS, but at the same time that has to work in concert with a very basic idea that still seems lost on too many clubs. There needs to be a meaningful recognition that all involved are part of an attempt to sell a product to a wider audience both in their own market and nationally. That takes a coach figuring out his own club and playing to its strengths rather than only trying to cover its weaknesses.

Comments, questions, solutions to problems that have yet to present themselves.  Please, tell me all about it.

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FA Cup | US Soccer Players

The wonder and appeal of the FA Cup got the help of derby crowds over the weekend.  The luck of the draw had Liverpool-based teams playing each other on Saturday and London clubs facing off on Sunday.  That guaranteed the kind of atmosphere associated with big clubs in big games.  What the oldest knockout tournament in the world didn't get was the kind of quality expected at this stage of the tournament. 

Liverpool and Everton finished 2-1, but the game was marred by the kind of defending not normally associated with soccer at this level.  That's a polite way of saying that both teams had trouble keeping any kind of shape at the back.   For long stretches, the offense wasn't much better.  Missed shots, bad shots, and bad ideas dominated over a 90 minutes that shouldn't be swept aside simply because Liverpool ended up with the winning goal.  Defensive slips made as much difference as missed opportunities in a game that was wide open for all the wrong reasons. 

Meanwhile, Spurs decided that the answer for a season going in the wrong direction was to start their backup goalkeeper in an FA Cup semifinal.  Yes, we all know Chelsea's second goal didn't cross the line, but what about the other four that did?  When it counted, Chelsea looked like a team with home field advantage against an overmatched club in the early rounds of this tournament.  Rarely did Tottenham's performance rise to the occasion, and their late adjustments did more harm than good.

"We got back into the game at 2-1 and I thought we were right in it then," Spurs manager Harry Redknapp said.  鈥淚 took a gamble then, brought on Jermain and went with four forwards. We needed a goal at that time but when you do that, you leave yourself open and they picked us off. We got punished in the end."

So two semifinals and two examples of how not to handle business on the big Wembley stage.  More to the point, what we got were games that didn't live up to the pre-match hype.  A Merseyside derby at Wembley is a huge event by default.  Tottenham – Chelsea might not be the marquee London derby, but it's still an added bonus.  On paper, this should've been a weekend where the FA Cup continued its mission to reassert itself as the premier domestic cup competition in world soccer.  Instead, it was just another FA Cup semifinal round. 

Corner Rating: (with 1 the FA Cup continuing a slide into second-tier status and 11 a return to former glories) 5.5

Last Week's Corner: Sporting Kansas City beat Real Salt Lake, and that's enough to push what was a 7.5 up to an even 8.

The Difference In Soccer Design | US Soccer Players

By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (Apr 17, 2012) US Soccer Players — Once upon a time, the US National Soccer Team Players Association had an event in the magical land of Las Vegas. On the schedule was a game, so uniforms were needed. I came up with a traditional design mashing together vintage Crystal Palace and Birmingham City shirts, and nobody complained. Fast forward a few years later, and all I see is what I got wrong. It's not easy designing something classic, even when you're using classic sources.

Colors that work in theory might not work at all in practice, details matter, and supplier templates will likely severely limit whatever options a team might have. It doesn't help that uniform design in soccer is always a work in progress and a moving target. Euro consumer protection laws aside, no one buys a soccer shirt expecting it to stay the standard for years to come. This isn't the New York Yankees or the other baseball teams that settled on a design and never got around to making noticeable changes. It's not even pro basketball, where the classic jerseys tend to stay classic.

Even the exceptions in soccer aren't standard. Juventus and Barcelona play with the width of their stripes on their classic home jerseys. Manchester United and Liverpool manage to do a lot with what's supposed to be a famous and basic red shirt. Real Madrid with white. They change suppliers and sponsors. The away shirts, third shirts, and Champions League uniforms are an exercise in fashion for most clubs.

Back in the late 90's, I went to a chain discount store in Chicago that might as well have been a museum for recent soccer missteps. They had everything. The questionable design choices from MLS clubs that changed suppliers every season. The puffy goalkeeper jerseys from Euro 96 that helped date any footage of that tournament. The big collar Premier League jerseys from that same period that became pass茅 quite quickly. The shirts with the button that had the club crest engraved into it. You wonder how long some of those shirts sat there, moving from the main racks to the discount racks to that little circular rack where they hang the stuff they desperately never wanted to see again.

What none of these designs were was retro, a fad that would take strong hold in the North American market.  To some extent, the absence of that widespread retro scene in Europe was probably a good thing. No back of the closet storehouse of replica vintage athletic apparel that at the time cost more than what most people wear to work. No wondering why you really thought you needed to have that baseball jersey with the zipper even if it cost twice as much as the button version. No falling so deep into the well of nostalgia that stuff you made fun of as a kid suddenly made sense to wear in public 30 years later. 

Yes, there were attempts at going retro in Europe, but more often than not it ended up looking like a guy that used to sit behind me at Baltimore Orioles games wearing St Louis Browns gear. Yes, there used to be a professional baseball team named the Browns, and yes they moved to Baltimore. No, it didn't end up with people trailing down the aisle waiting to engage our historically prescient fan in discussions about baseball in times none of us lived through.

For professional soccer, the focus is normally on the now. A big part of that is the uniforms. Like those regrettable Euro 96 goalkeepers, the uniforms alone can date games. It divides and subdivides at a rate that's almost unknown in the major North American sports. The length of the shorts and an odd fondness for pinstripes might tell you that the clip you're watching is the National Basketball Association in the mid-90's. The lack of buttons on the shirts and players that looked like they walked in off the street is Major League Baseball in the 70's and 80's. But those are lengthy blocks of time where only a handful of teams really changed up their look. Meanwhile, contemporary soccer can't stick with a basic color scheme, much less a design, for longer than is mandated by government.

In North America, it's the leagues themselves telling their clubs no. Design changes have to be authorized at league level. There's a waiting period. There's also not the supplier pressure since each North American league signs with a league-wide supplier for their official attire.

Soccer is different, producing enough variations on a theme that they have little choice but to push the extremes.

Comments, questions, solutions to problems that have yet to present themselves.  Please, tell me all about it.

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Questions: Goals, Leads, 433, United, San Jose | US Soccer Players

By Tony Edwards – San Jose, CA (Apr 17, 2012) US Soccer Players — Time for questions, with Tony asking about Portland's defensive problems, the mindset needed to play a 433, and scoring woes at DC United.

How often does a team lead MLS in both goals scored and goals allowed?

Not often even at this stage, but right now, the Red Bulls are in the conversation, having scored 16 (first) and allowed 10 (tied for third most allowed). Yes, Wilman Conde is out, but the marking and organization on Saturday was awful. 

How often this season has Portland coughed up a lead and lost a game?

The last three games. Even more concerning for Portland is that only one team in the League, Montreal (with 14), has given up more goals than the 11 surrendered by the Timbers. With Chivas USA finding points and wins recently, Portland is last in the Western Conference with four points from six games played.  The two teams ahead of them have yet to play their sixth game.

"I think I still believe that we have quality, and we have quality to win the games," Portland coach John Spencer said after the latest loss. "For me confidence is obviously a big factor when you have a losing streak and it鈥檚 the same the other way when you go on a winning streak and you feel unbeatable."

What does former US National Team Player, and Ajax veteran, John O'Brien suggest needs to happen when a team is playing 433?

"You're pretty exposed and so if you don't keep the ball, you're definitely very open for counters,鈥?O'Brien told Soccer America.  Ridge Mahoney's excellent article, which also includes interviews with former US National Team member Kerry Zavagnin and current member Jeff Larentowicz, should be required reading for anyone interested (in a nontechnical way) in what is needed for a team to prosper playing the 433. The quick takeaway?  Time to build familiarity and get comfortable in transition.  

What's going on with Hamdi Salihi?

Not a lot in 65 minutes. According to the MLS Chalkboards, he only touched the ball 34 times in those 65 minutes, with only 14 successful passes and 3 shots off target.  Former US National Team member Ben Olsen has DC in third place, but 7 goals in 6 games highlights the need for their Designated Player to produce.

Who's going to play for San Jose this weekend?

With Victor Bernardez, Alan Gordon, Stephen Lenhart, Shea Salinas, and Tim Ward all likely to be out, the Earthquakes' depth will be tested immediately.  While it's true San Jose had the majority of possession in the second half in New Jersey, it was cautious possession.  Instead of going for the three points that a disorganized Red Bulls seemed to offer, San Jose played it safe.

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