Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Problems with the Open Cup

RSL played in the 3rd round of the Open Cup last night against the Wilmington Hammerheads and got a comfortable 2-0 victory to advance to the last 8 in the tournament. This could be the best chance that RSL has to make it back into the Champions League next season, as a team's depth is often tested, and RSL has often showed they are very deep and talented throughout the squad.

While the Open Cup is the longest standing tournament in the United States, I feel there are a few flaws with it's format.

1) All Professional teams should automatically qualify for the tournament. I feel like this is somewhat the equivalent to England's FA Cup, in which any team can qualify, even from the amateur club level. And in this case, 8 teams do qualify from that level. But if they can qualify, why can not every team ahead of them, automatically be in it? I understand that there would be a few more rounds that would need to be added, but if they start it in March or April, they would have plenty of time to include all professional teams (MLS, USL, PDL, NPSL) and add a few amateur teams as well. RSL is fortunate enough to qualify based on the previous year's results, but if I was a player on Chivas, or even Toronto, I'd feel ripped off that these lower division teams qualify but we have no chance to do so because we had a bad season, in MLS.

2) There should be an open draw after each round. The first round should start with all the non-MLS teams and then the 3rd or 4th round start including all MLS teams. While this is somewhat the case, in that MLS teams join in the 3rd round of the tournament, an open draw, like the FA Cup, should occur after each round that doesn't necessarily give the "higher ranked" teams automatic home field advantage. Last night there were 8 games, all of which gave the MLS team the home field advantage. In 7 of the 8 matches, the MLS team won, and the one exception was Columbus, who played down a man for the last 25 minutes of their matchup against Richmond. I feel like the home field advantage was a key factor in those matchups. Also, in the current format, all MLS teams are separated until at least the quarterfinals. An open draw could plot two MLS teams against each other earlier in the tournament, forcing managers to decide whether they play their starters, or they give them rest and gamble with a weakened side in the tournament. This would also create some early excitement in the tournament, whereas right now, it was almost a sure thing that all MLS sides would advance. This would play into some smaller team's favor and you could see a PDL team go to the semifinals or even win the whole thing, but instead they have to get through 4 MLS teams to do so.

3) Lastly, the Final should be played at a neutral site, or at least a predetermined site. Whether it is a scheduled rotation, or the same field every year, I think it is unfair to determine who hosts the tournament based on a "ranking system". Play the game at the Home Depot Center, Red Bull Arena, Pizza Hut Park, or even Rio Tinto Stadium. As long as it is mentioned before, I feel like it is much more fair. Last year, the Sounders defended their title against the Crew, AT HOME. Of course, if you have 35,000 fans screaming for you, it is going to be tough. At least at a neutral ground, both teams have an equal right to buy tickets, and support their team in the Final.

Here's to hoping RSL can put together 3 more strong performances and get 3 more victories on their way to win their first Open Cup.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Is revenge on tap for Saturday's matchup at the Rose Bowl?

Red Sox vs Yankees. Duke vs North Carolina. Lakers vs Celtics. BYU vs Utah. There are a long list of rivalries in this country that draw media attention every time occur. Most of them happen at least once a year, and in some cases, like with Red Sox/Yankees, can happen 18 times in one year. However, the US National Team only plays Mexico about once per year, if that, and in my opinion, this rivalry is greater than all others in this country.

I don't know where to start with the history of this matchup. From Landon Donovan urinating on Mexico's training fields, to the US triumph over Mexico in the Round of 16 at the 2002 World Cup, to the many battles at Estadio Azteca, these matches never seem to have a dull moment. The last time we were matched up in the Gold Cup was in the 2009 Final, when Mexico absolutely embarrassed the US, 5-0, in New Jersey. The US team looks to exact revenge this Saturday at the Rose Bowl, and book a place in the 2013 Confederations Cup.

8 days ago, the US were facing elimination before a must-win matchup vs Guadaloupe, while Mexico had trounced the likes of Costa Rica, Cuba and El Salvador by an aggregate score of 14-1. At that point, most people saw Mexico as runaway favorites in this tournament. Since then, the US has run off fairly comfortable victories over Guadaloupe, Jamaica and Panama (all while not conceding a goal) to reach the Final. Mexico, on the other hand, struggled to beat Guatemala (2-1) and Honduras (2-0, in extra time). While Mexico are still likely favorites for Saturday, it is much closer than what was seen just over a week ago.

While there are many things that the US has to do right on Saturday, three factors stand out to me:

1) The US must have a good start and keep Mexico scoreless in the first half - Bob Bradley's teams have been known for giving up early chances in matches, and while Howard has saved them on many occasions, an early goal for Mexico could all but put the US team away. This game will be played at the Rose Bowl, and while it is in the US, I wouldn't be surprised to see at least 75% of the stadium filled with the green and black from Mexico. An early goal would send the crowd into a craze, and it would be hard to fight back against the Mexican team, as well as the majority crowd, to win the game.

2) The US back line needs to play better than they have all tournament - While the likes of Bocanegra, Goodson, Lichaj and Cherundolo have played fairly well the entire tournament, they have yet to come up against a strikeforce like Chicharito, Dos Santos, De Nigris, and Guardado. There will be chances in this game, and the creativity of the front line for Mexico will open up the US defense, but we need to minimize those chances, especially the dangerous ones. Howard needs to direct this back line with a strong voice to eliminate any confusion that the front running Mexican side will create. A few classic Tim Howard saves won't hurt, and likely he will be called upon to make them.

3) The US cannot waste their chances in front of goal - We have seen some high quality misses this tournament from Dempsey, Jones and other US players as well. The Mexico defenders are not as good as their front line, and chances will be made by the US going forward, whether it comes right through the middle, or crosses coming in from the wings. However, we cannot afford any big misses, and have to take our chances. Agudelo will likely start alone up top, with Dempsey and Donovan supporting him, and their combination play will create the chances, and hopefully we have got all of our big misses out of our systems.

I think this game calls for goals with Mexico's lethal strikeforce and a weakened back line for Mexico. While a lot could happen, I think this game will go to extra time at 1-1, and then the US will snatch a winner through Landon Donovan. 2-1 to the Yanks.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Will the Jazz fall for Jimmermania?

This week, many NBA teams are holding their last player workouts for top prospects before next week's NBA Draft. Many people have said that this draft is much "weaker" compared to previous years. The only big names, according to NBA experts, are Kyrie Irving and Derrick Williams. After that, it's hard to see any player being much of an immediate impact. However, by far the biggest story of the Draft season has been Collegiate Player of the Year, Jimmer Fredette. While many critics said that Jimmer didn't have what it takes to succeed in the NBA, most thought that he would fall somewhere from late lottery to mid first round.

Over the last couple weeks, Jimmer has made stops in Indiana (15), New York (17), Sacramento (7), and Phoenix (13), and finishing up today with Utah (3 and 12). With lots of hype surrounding each workout, Jimmer is reported to have excelled in each city. His athleticism, defensive capabilities and work ethic were just some of the things that seemed to impress GMs and head coaches along the way. While his draft position will likely be in that 12-17 range, he could go earlier, depending on trades made, who is selected before him and who is still on the board.

While I don't follow the NBA that closely, I am naturally a Jazz fan. And while I would love Jimmer to be drafted by Utah, his performances are not the biggest factor in the Jazz' decision to draft him with that 12th pick. Most importantly for Jimmer's possible future in Utah, is what the Jazz do with the 3rd pick. While ESPN's Chad Ford still has the Jazz taking former Kentucky PG, Brandon Knight, there has been a lot of talk recently about taking Enes Kanter, the 19 year old, 6'11'' center, from Turkey. If you know anything about the Jazz, it is that we are terrible inside, and that a big man that can rebound and score is something that would come in handy. Whether Kanter is proven enough to take at #3, that is a different discussion but I think it is worth the risk. The Jazz don't necessarily need to use their top pick at PG with Devin Harris still set to be a starter next season.

If the Jazz do pick Knight at 3, there is no chance for Jimmer to be drafted by the Jazz at 12. However, if Kanter is the Jazz' guy, I think Jimmer will be the pick, unless Sacramento takes him over Kemba at 7, or if someone trades up and takes him before the 12th pick. However, if he is still on the table then, the Jazz will take him.

Since Sloan and D-Will left the Jazz last season, the fan base in Utah has thinned out dramatically. I love the way Millsap plays, and Hayward looks to be a future star, but there isn't much that get fans excited right now in Utah, especially since our record was atrocious after Sloan and D-Will left. After all the hype about "Jimmermania" in Provo this year, and really all over Utah, Jimmer would be a perfect way for the Jazz organization to rebuild that excitement for their club. Whether he turns out to be an All-Star or just sits the bench for 5 years is another debate (mostly between BYU and Utah fans). The Jazz need a scorer and I think Jimmer could fill in at both the point as well as the shooting guard position. He will never be as electrifying as he was at the Y, and even he knows that. But he won't be demanded of that at the Jazz. He can be a steady scorer off the bench, and if things go well, could become a regular starter for a team that really only has room to improve. With young players like Hayward, Favors and Evans, as well as more experienced guys like Millsap, Harris and Jefferson, Jimmer could become a solid piece to turn this franchise, that since Jordan knocked down in 1998, has struggled to become a Western Conference powerhouse.

I don't think that Jimmer alone will turn this franchise from a lottery team to a powerhouse in the West, but I do feel like he would fit in nicely with our system. Over time, even if it is 3 or 4 years away, this Jazz team could be making runs to the Finals, like in the late 90's. In a weak draft, there is no reason not to take a chance on a local star that has the ability and desire to become a star on the national stage, in the best league in the world.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Mediocrity Isn't Good Enough

The US National Team lost for the first time ever in group play at the Gold Cup when they were defeated by the powerhouse that is Panama, on Saturday night. The 2-1 loss is more than just the result, and I believe it marks the end of the Bob Bradley reign as manager of the National team.

If we look back at the last year, we have had the highs of drawing with England in the World Cup, and that great last minute goal by Donovan against Algeria. However, we have also had the lows of losing to Ghana in the round of 16 at the World Cup, and more recently, getting obliterated by Spain and then this loss to Panama. On the surface, you may just think that we are going through a rough patch but that we will get back to the "greatness" that our team was once in South Africa. But how good were we really in South Africa?

We entered the tournament ranked #14 in the world, with the rest of our group ranked as follows: England (8), Slovenia (25), and Algeria (30). While we started the tournament with a good result against the English side, many will argue that we were lucky to get one point. Next up was Slovenia, which we managed a draw against, having to fight back from a 2-0 first half deficit. While we had a goal disallowed that would have given us the 3 points, a draw was probably a fair result. Last up in the group stages was Algeria, a match that we could have easily lost after giving Algeria a few good looks at goal. Yet, Landon Donovan put us into the knockout stages with his dramatic winner in injury time. We won the group, something that no American side has ever done before. But with the under achieving England side, was this that big of a surprise? No. Had LD10 not scored that goal, not only would we have not won the group, but we wouldn't have advanced. Technically, the top 16 teams should advance in the tournament and we were 11 out of 32. Then came Ghana, the 32nd ranked team in the world, and 24 out of 32 (not to mention they didn't even have their best player, Michael Essien). We were beaten all over the field by Ghana, from the start and didn't have enough to beat them as we lost in overtime. So we left the tournament, much earlier than most Americans had hoped, but to me, I wasn't surprised.

We were far from great, and I would say we were very average in the tournament. While most Americans will remember the tournament for Donovan's goal, on the bigger scale, we underachieved. And I blame Bradley's tactics for this.

Going forward, I saw a lot of bright spots in the team, and while the games have been mostly friendlies since the World Cup, the US scheduled games against Brazil, Poland, Columbia, South Africa, Chile, Argentina, Paraguay and Spain. Add the two Gold Cup matches against Canada and Panama and their record has been 2-4-4 (our only two wins to come against South Africa and Canada). These games were an opportunity for Bradley to feature the talent in the American pool combined with the natural leaders already in the team. But we have faltered.

Bradley has yet to pick a team, let alone an entire 23 man squad that I have been satisfied with. His use of players that don't have any business being near the national team (Rogers, Kljestan, Wondo) in big Cup games is embarrassing. His exclusion of Bunbury and Davies from the squad altogether is ridiculous. Davies and Bunbury both had started the 2011 MLS season on a high and this was a perfect opportunity for Bradley to give them a shot on the big stage in the Gold Cup. But he passed on them. He also has included Tim Ream and Clarence Goodson straightaway in the starting lineup, while leaving Onyewu and Bornstein on the bench and shifting Bocanegra out to a wide position, where he has clearly been exposed. I don't know why he still plays Dempsey wide in the midfield, when Dempsey has proven himself as a goalscorer up top in the Premier League.

One other thing I find upsetting is the attitude of the team. Why does it often take us going a goal down to realize that the game has started? I read a stat from Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl this morning which compared Bradley to former boss Bruce Arena, "Win % in ALL official games as USA coach: Bradley .670 Arena .674. % of games USA allowed the 1st goal: Bradley 39% Arena 26%. Win % in official HOME games as USA coach: Bradley .870 Arena .861. % of home games USA allowed the 1st goal: Bradley 30% Arena 8%." People often criticize Arena for the amount of control he demanded as manager of the team. But the last stat is really what stands out to me. In nearly one-third of all our home games, we concede first. That is unacceptable. I credit that to poor lineup choices by Bradley, as well as the attitude that he obviously is not instilling to the team as they take the pitch. Arena didn't make those mistakes.

Going forward, the US need to look somewhere else. While I believe Jason Kreis will be a future manager of the National Team, he still has a little bit of work to do for that position, but I believe if he keeps on the right track, he is in line for the 2018 World Cup. Klinsmann is the name I want right now. Apparently we were all but signed on Klinsmann to take over after the World Cup, but didn't want to give him full control of the team, and youth development. That is a terrible job by the USSF to not give him the job. If no one was paying attention in 2006, Klinsmann took his Germany side to the semifinals as a host country. We also forget that the all controlling Bruce Arena took the Americans to their best ever finish in the World Cup in 2002, taking us to the quarterfinals where we controversially lost 1-0 to the Germans. We need a big name to take over the team and build a new attitude with the boys.

I believe we will recover a bit from this Panama loss to beat Guadalupe and make it to the knockout round of the Gold Cup, but that doesn't solve our long term problems with this team. If we are to win the Gold Cup, we will have to go through Mexico, who right now, look like one of the most powerful teams in the world. At this rate, I'd rather go out before we had to face them and get embarrassed like did 2 years ago. And on a bigger stage, if we want to challenge for the 2014 World Cup, we have a long way to go, and why not make the changes now so that we can have time to adjust before World Cup qualifying begins.

But I'll always stick by my country, through thick and thin. Don't tread on me.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

A Downright Ugly Performance

Following their 2-0 victory against the Vancouver Whitecaps, RSL began a 2 game road trip with stops in Columbus on Wednesday night and Philadelphia on Saturday afternoon. With many players gone due to Gold Cup assignments (Sabo, Alvarez, Johnson) and still some players out with injury (Paolo Jr, Morales), this trip seemed to be a good time for RSL to prove they have the depth that is necessary to succeed in this league.

Wednesday marked a rematch of the CONCACAF Champions League Quarterfinals that took place earlier this year. In that matchup, the game in Columbus was very cold and snowy, and both teams fought with the elements, as well as a frozen pitch, and battled to a 0-0 draw. This time around, the temperature was about 85 degrees, with a humidity level of 80% (at kickoff). There was much talk about how RSL would deal with the heat, having only had 3 days of full rest since their last game. Whether it was the weather, or the short week, or likely a combination of both, RSL didn't seem up to it for the 90 minutes.

Salt Lake came out firing in the first 15 minutes, and was able to get an early goal from Jamison Olave, off a corner. It was a bit of a sloppy goal, but they all count the same. I would have like to see RSL push forward at this point and get another goal before halftime, in order to have that chance to close up shop in the second half and get the points. However, after the goal, RSL couldn't seem to play with the tenacity and precision that they normally do so. Our midfielders were making careless passes, which led to a few chances on the break for the Crew, none of which they could capitalize from. Our forwards were not getting much support from the midfield behind them, and ended up trying to take on a few Columbus players on their own, which usually ended in long shots or lost possession up front. Although we didn't play our best in the first half, luckily Columbus didn't either and the half ended 1-0 to the good.

The second half was just as bad as the last 30 minutes of the first half. RSL could not keep possession of the ball, and the Crew looked to press on for the equalizing goal. After another giveaway in the midfield, the Crew broke into the box, yet Olave seemed to make a good tackle to stop the attack. The ball was not cleared, and Josh Meram took a touch past Olave, only to draw a foul and a penalty. There was a bit of a debate on the penalty, but in my honest opinion, I didn't see anything wrong with the call. While Olave didn't get much of Meram, he got plenty to constitute a foul. After a little bit of a debate between Chad Marshall, Jeff Cunningham and Andres Mendoza about who was going to take the kick, Mendoza drilled it in the top corner. At this point, I had a bad feeling about the rest of the game, and as it would show, the Crew would later get the winner on a deflected shot by Josh Gardner.

The loss is the obvious talking point of this game, but one thing I found very interesting were the substitutions by RSL in the second half. Although we were not playing our greatest football in the second half, as I have previously mentioned, I found it interesting that we brought on Gil in the 60th minute. I know we have this big game on Saturday as well, and maybe Kreis wanted to preserve some of the guys, as much as he could, for the game against the Union. We weren't playing great, but we also seemed to be comfortable on the defensive side of the ball. Pulling out Nelson Gonzalez, and then only 6 minutes later taking out Colleen Warner, for Luis Gil and Andy Williams seemed like a big miss to me. Had the scoreline been 1-1 or even 1-0 down, I think those subs would have been productive, but those two players aren't great defensive players, and that is maybe what we needed on the pitch. Then, having brought on Robbie Russell for Jean Alexandre at 1-1, there were no subs to be made after the Crew scored the winner.

Overall, we didn't deserve the 3 points and I don't think we even deserved 1 point based on our performance. Some of the small things seem to be catching up with us with our depleted squad. However, I will always stick by our team and our manager so hopefully this will give us a little kick for Saturday's game against the Union. I'm Salt Lake 'til I die...

Friday, June 3, 2011

"All Good Things Must Come To An End...."

4-0-0 in league play. Top of the table. 2-2 aggregate in the Champions League Final coming home to the RioT. A trip to the Club World Cup just 90 minutes away. Unbeaten at home in what seemed like an eternity. It could not have been a better start to the season for RSL, and many analysts were already calling this team, "The Best MLS team of All Time". Then the unthinkable happened.

RSL lost 1-0 to Monterrey in the second leg of the Final. In a game that truly demonstrated the "smash and grab" aspect of soccer, RSL dominated possession but could not find the net. Monterrey did not have many chances but all they needed was the one. Naturally, after such a high, we all knew there was going to be a let down, and RSL had to travel to Portland to take on the Timbers just 3 days later. In what ended up being a game that was very similar to that of the Champions League Final, RSL again lost 1-0. It was time for RSL to figure out their problems and get back on the right track, and there was no better way to do so but against Chivas at home, the following week.

Chivas had been struggling a bit, and looked very susceptible to concede lots of goals. It got even worse for RSL, when Javier Morales, arguably the best player in the league, went down with a horrific ankle injury, in the first half against Chivas. Although RSL ended up getting the win, with a late goal from Will Johnson, this game really seemed like a loss. How would RSL respond to losing their best player to a scary injury, likely to sideline him for the remainder of the regular season? Since that game, RSL has two 0-0 ties (vs Houston, @ Dallas) and a 2-1 loss (vs Seattle). Their only goal came at the very end of their home defeat to Seattle last weekend.

It is obvious that our goal scoring has been down this year, as well as our creativity in the midfield since Morales went out with injury. However, I feel like the biggest hindrance to our success at the moment, is the home unbeaten streak, which was halted by Seattle with that 2-1 loss. You can say what you want about our "fortress" that is the RioT and how great we play there. But I would much rather our team go for a few games and take a loss or two, if it means picking up 3 points in 4 or 5 other games, than sit back and preserve a draw. We set the record for longest unbeaten streak in the league back at the tail end of last season, and I understand that we struggled a bit to get past the record, but once we get by that, it shouldn't be giving us trouble anymore. We should be able to play that free flowing game that put us in the positions we were just about 6 weeks ago. Let's drop the "fortress" tag to the RioT, let's quit the promotional videos, and let's start to get the points we need to get back on top of the league.

One other thing, let's give our young kids a shot. If you know me, you know I am one of Bomma's biggest fans, and I always thought Grabavoy and Johnson were key to our successful run back in 2009. However, all 3 of them need to be given some time off to calm themselves and regroup after that first part of the season. They have had a lot of pressure to fill the void of Morales but have struggled to do so. We have the deepest team in the MLS, and now it is time to show it. Let's bring on Warner, Gonzalez and Gil in our game this weekend against a struggling Whitecaps side. I think Beckerman has done extremely well so far in his typical holding midfield position, and I think his experience will help these young players excel. Look what these guys did just last week against Seattle: Gonzalez came on late and scored a goal, and Gil looked extremely confident for the 6 or 7 minutes he was on the pitch. Gil recently returned from National Team duty, and was said to be "the best player on the pitch for both matches" by the head coach. This weekend is the perfect opportunity to play Gil up the middle with Warner on one side, and Gonzalez on the other.

RSL fans, there is no need to panic. Yes, we are 12 points back of the league leading LA Galaxy, but we also have 6 games in hand (they have played 15 and we have only played 9). We may not get all 18 points out of those 6 games, but I wouldn't be surprised it we get at least 12. There is still 25 games left in the season, and with the Open Cup to start this summer, there are potentially some great achievements still in store for RSL in 2011.

I'm Salt Lake 'til I die...