Monthly Archives: November 2011

Why US Soccer hasn’t progressed under Klinsmann

The US Men’s National Team scored a 3-2 win today in foggy Slovenia with goals from Edson Buddle, Clint Dempsey, and Jozy Altidore. A positive way to cap off their two-match trip to Europe which saw them lose to France 1-0 in Paris Friday.

Today’s result was probably an accurate reflection of the match, although one could certainly make the argument that Slovenia deserved a point after hitting the woodwork twice in the second half. But that line of thought would lead one to ignore the long stretches of possession and pressure the US held in the first half. That said, this is still not a US side capable of playing with Europe or South America’s biggest nations.

Many had thought that former coach Bob Bradley’s inexperience in the game outside of the US had hindered this side. Bob Bradley’s MLS-bred tactics were believed to be no longer compatible with a largely European based national team, led by Fulham’s Clint Dempsey, Chievo’s Michael Bradley, Sporting’s Oguchi Onyewu, and so on and so forth.

Enter Jurgen Klinsmann. The former World Cup winner, manager of the German National Team and Bayern Munich was charged with adapting the way the US play to fit the style of their many Europlayers.

This charge is one-half of the problem. Although the majority of the national team is European based, the side doesn’t have the technical ability (bar Dempsey, LA Galaxy’s Landon Donovan, and Bolton Wanderers’ Stuart Holden) to operate with a possession style of game (no matter how much this blogger would like to think it does).

Klinsmann has regularly opted for a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 formation, in which a target striker is left alone up top to be flanked (in theory) by wide attacking players and a creator playing slightly deeper into the midfield. The result of Klinsmann’s insistence on operating with a single striker is five goals in seven games. That stat is slightly misleading considering three of those goals came in today’s Match against Slovenia, in which Klinsmann reverted to a 4-4-2. So two goals in six games is a more accurate gauge of Klinsmann’s 4-3-3 experiment.

What this tells us is that the US do not have the supporting attackers to successfully support a lone striker. Or they don’t have a lone striker capable of operating on his own. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

Altidore has progressed leaps and bounds since his transfer to Dutch side AZ Alkmaar in the summer, looking like becoming the out and out striker the US have been desperately waiting for. But at 22 years old and just in the infancy of rehabbing his career from the bewilderment of his development at Villrreal and Hull City, he can hardly be expected to carry the brunt of the US’ attack.

Although Dempsey has turned into one of the Premier League’s best attacking midfielders, he’s Klinsmann’s only proven option in support at the moment. Donovan has been recovering from injury and focusing on his MLS playoff run for the past two months, Holden looks set to miss another four months with a knee injury after already losing the previous eight with another knee injury, and at 21 years old, FC Dallas’ Brek Shea may look like the star of the future, but his present is still rather inconsistent.

However, what may be Klinsmann’s biggest dilemma to this point is his midfield. His 2-4-1 record has been largely ignored amongst analysts and insiders because he’s still undergoing player evaluations. With no major tournaments to qualify for until next summer when World Cup qualifying starts, commend Klinsmann for taking his time to see what his best 11 is and in what formation. The biggest problem with his evaluations is that his midfielders are all the same.

Michael Bradley, who was an automatic selection under his father, seemed left out under Klinsmann (although just moving from Monchengladbach to Chievo, some believe Klinsmann wanted Bradley, a known quality, to settle in Italy before joining up with the Nats). With Bradley on the outside for the past few months, this allowed Rangers’ Maurice Edu, Schalke’s Jermaine Jones, Real Salt Lake’s Kyle Beckerman, and Hoffenheim’s Danny Williams to fight over the three midfield places in Klinsmann’s 4-3-3.

Each name on that list is a defensive midfielder by trade. Sure, Edu has progressed some while in Glasgow to be a threat going forward, Beckerman is the closest thing the MLS has to Xabi Alonso, and Williams can play anywhere on the pitch, but none of them are creators. In fact, even Michael Bradley has spent more time anchoring this US side’s midfield than driving it forward.

The biggest problem Klinsmann faces in evolving this US team is that he has no spark in midfield. He experimented today with moving Dempsey to a central role to aid this with some success. But the fact is this side sorely misses the impact of Holden, a player who may never be the same after a year out with knee injuries. Pachuca’s Jose Francisco Torres was an early favorite of Klinsmann’s, but a foot injury has left him on the sidelines for the past two months.

So if Holden never recovers and Torres never progresses past just the gobs of potential he has at present, where will the US get their spark? Those are two pretty far out questions to be asking some six months from the start of qualification, but they aren’t unreasonable. Players recovering from knee injuries have a history of being completely unpredictable as far as when or if their form will ever return. And the amount of young players with gobs of potential must outweigh proven playmakers 100:1.

It’s not difficult to see that injuries have ravaged this US team. Those injuries have limited player evaluations and slowed this team’s adjustment to Klinsmann’s game to a snail’s pace. It would be foolish to write off Klinsmann’s attempts at this early stage, but it seems strange so few creators have found their way into Klinsmann’s midfield.

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What’s in a name?

Newcastle supporters have had a lot to complain about since Mike Ashley bought the club in 2007. His appointment of Dennis Wise as director of football, which subsequently led to the resignation of manager and fan favorite Kevin Keegan. The club being relegated in 2009 for the first time in 20 years. The £35 million sale of England striker Andy Carroll, seemingly with the funds being pocketed by Ashley.

But now it seems that Ashley has gone too far. What’s the latest “last straw” for Newcastle supporters? The renaming of their famous grounds, St. James’ Park. Ashley’s been working on selling the naming rights to the grounds for nearly three years now. In October of 2009, Ashley decided to name the stadium @ St. James’ Park, using his online sportswear retailer as naming rights holder in an effort to drum up interest in an outside group purchasing the rights.

This plan had not garnered the attention Ashley was hoping for, so this week he announced that the name St. James’ Park would be discarded all together. What was once St. James’ Park is now Sports Direct Arena. Again, Ashley using his sportswear retailer’s name to drum up interest in buying the rights to the entirety of the grounds.

“When we initially launched our plans at the end of 2009, we invited sponsors to attach their brand to that of St James’ Park,” Newcastle Managing Director Derek Llambias said. “However, it has become clear that in order to make the proposition as commercially attractive as possible, a potential sponsor must be given the opportunity to fully rebrand the stadium.

“Naming the stadium the Sports Direct Arena helps up to showcase the opportunity to interested parties. We are now actively seeking a long-term sponsor wishing to acquire full naming rights for the stadium.”

Considering this same strategy of using a dummy sponsorship deal to lure a real sponsorship deal has been unsuccessful for the past three years, I’m skeptical rebranding the grounds in its entirety will do much more, but I digress.

But are Newcastle supporters justified in their disgust over Ashley’s latest attempt at a money grab? After all, this is a club that plays in the Barclays Premier League, competes for the FA Cup with Budweiser and the Carling Cup, and runs around with Northern Rock plastered on the front of their shirts.

And selling naming rights isn’t that uncommon in the sport. Manchester City just sold the rights to Manchester Stadium for £400 million to Etihad Airways. In an effort to keep up with the mega money coming into the sport, Arsenal didn’t just sell the naming rights to Highbury Stadium. They turned the grounds into luxury flats, built a new 60,000-seat stadium a 10-minute-walk away, and sold the naming rights of that stadium to Emirates airline.

Roman Abramovich is trying to do the same thing at Chelsea. Abramovich tried to buy the publicly held Stamford Bridge from the supporters who purchased it in an effort to save the club in the 1990s in an effort to mimmic Arsenal’s plan and develop the current ground after moving to a new stadium. The Chelsea Pitch Owners declined Abramovich’s offer, and the naming rights for Stamford Bridge are expected to be sold beginning in 2012/13.

Some will argue that none of the clubs that have sold their rights have grounds with the tradition of St. James’ Park. I might disagree. Stamford Bridge is 108 years old, Arsenal up and left their home of 93 years at Highbury, and Liverpool have actively been looking for ways to get out of historic Anfield in order to turn more of a profit at a new stadium, which would undoubtedly sell its naming rights.

If Newcastle is ever going to compete with the big clubs, it has to put sentimental ideals like this aside and generate as much money as possible. Supporters need to determine what’s more important to them: the name of the stadium or having the old stadium at all. Because judging by other clubs, new stadiums with corporate names seem to be the way to go. Besides, soccer sold out many, many years ago.

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Smith out, Ryan in to rebuild Twins

The Twins announced today that they had parted ways with General Manager Bill Smith and had installed former GM Terry Ryan as the interim GM. Smith had taken over for Ryan when Ryan resigned from the position after the 2007 season.

Smith’s seat as Twins GM had grown hotter and hotter in the past 12 months. With one of the highest payrolls in the league, the Twins were once again swept in the American League Division Series by the Yankees in 2010. Smith’s task for 2011 was to move from perennial postseason candidates to perennial World Series contenders. His Twins went on to lose 99 games and recorded the worst record in the American League.

Considering the injuries the Twins endured in 2011, Smith’s firing may seem a touch harsh. However, payroll ballooned under Smith from $62 million in 2008 to $113 million last April. Based on Smith’s spending and the Twins results in the postseason and their monumental collapse in 2011, one could be led to believe that Smith spent wildly and on the wrong players. But that wouldn’t be entirely accurate.

Under Smith’s reign, All Stars Joe Nathan, Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer, and Michael Cuddyer have all received contract extensions totaling $335 million. A hefty sum, but within the Twins organization, that amount can be justified by nurturing players in-house versus paying even further over the odds on the free agent market.

Some of Smith’s contracts have hamstrung the Twins. Paying any player $23 million a season will make it difficult for any team to install talent around him (bar the Yankees). Giving that money to Mauer, who’s had a career filled with nagging injuries, and you’re looking at 20 percent of your payroll tied up in one player, who happens to be on injured reserve.

However, that wasn’t necessarily Smith’s biggest problem. Smith also had a knack for getting fleeced in trades. Repeatedly. His first major action as GM in the early months of 2008 was to trade Johan Santana to the Mets for Carlos Gomez, Phil Humber, Deolis Guerra, and Kevin Mulvey. Gomez is now in Milwaukee, Humber with the White Sox, Mulvey is in the Diamondbacks’ Triple-A organization, and Guerra is in Twins Double-A ball.

Not long after that, Smith dealt the Twins’ hottest pitching prospect in Matt Garza (the man who Ryan wouldn’t include in the proposed Alfonso Soriano deal) as well as Jason Bartlett to Tampa Bay for Delmon Young and Brendan Harris. Garza went on to win the 2008 ALCS MVP and Bartlett was named the Rays’ MVP of the same season by local sports writers. Young was dealt to Detroit this past summer for relief help and Harris was dealt to Baltimore (with JJ Hardy, whom the Twins received from Milwaukee for Gomez) after the 2010 season.

After Nathan was lost to Tommy John surgery prior to the 2010 season and the Twins looking poised for a deep playoff run, Smith decided that he would need a top-shelf closer. And so, he dealt the Twins’ sparkling catching prospect Wilson Ramos for the Nationals’ All Star closer, Matt Capps. As a rookie in Washington, Ramos has put up numbers that have only been matched by Mauer, Buster Posey, Craig Biggio, and Jason Kendall in the past 25 years. Matt Capps has accumulated 31 saves in 42 opportunities with an ERA of slightly higher than three, while his $7 million a year contract, which expired at the end of the season, leaves him unlikely to return to the Twins.

With a horrid 2011 in the rearview mirror, the Twins have anywhere between $30 million and $40 million to spend in free agency. They need help with their starting pitching, their bullpen, a middle infielder, and a catcher who can step up when Mauer will (frequently) need to be rested. On top of all those holes, they also could be set to lose Cuddyer, Nathan, Capps, and Jason Kubel via free agency.

So Ryan will step in less than a week after free agency has begun with the task of rebuilding this franchise. And for as much doom and gloom as I’ve spent the previous 650 words explaining, Ryan gives the Twins options. With Smith in the driver seat, the Twins were unlikely to trade to patch their holes. Under Ryan, the Twins could use their depth in back-end starting pitchers to acquire bullpen, catching, or middle infield help. Kevin Slowey and Nicky Blackburn are solid if unspectacular starters that could command the sort of patchwork help the Twins need.

The mess Billy Smith has made in the past four years will take time for Ryan to clean up. The cupboards are bare, the payroll is bloated, and there are lots of holes to fill (makes me wonder if Bill Smith and Doug Risebrough went to school together) in the major league clubhouse. But Ryan gives the team and its fanbase a reason to be optimistic.

Now all the Twins need is to somehow convince Ryan to remove the interim tag from his title.

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Valencia closes 2011 MotoGP season

The 2011 MotoGP season came to a close this afternoon in Valencia with one of the most exciting races of the year. A fitting way to conclude a largely forgettable and regrettable (barring Casey Stoner’s achievements) season. Funny, as it also concluded the 800cc era, which can be summarized just as the 2011 season has been.

Casey Stoner took the final 800 race by 0.015 second over Ben Spies after coughing up a near 10-second-lead. Spies managed to take the lead with a lap to go before Stoner retook the advantage out of the final corner. “When we came out of the last corner I got the paint sucked off the bike by Casey as he went past,” Spies said, hinting that Stoner’s Honda had “a bit more motor… down the front straightaway.”

Andrea Dovizioso took the final podium position and secured his third place in the world championship standings today after holding off and eventually leaving teammate Dani Pedrosa, who eventually finished fifth.

Much of the weekend’s drama came at the start, when a collision between Dovizioso and Alvaro Bautista sent Bautista, Valentino Rossi, Nicky Hayden, and Randy de Puniet into the gravel. Bautista claimed Dovi moved over on him and left him nowhere to go, Italian media outlets argued that it was Bautista who had turned into Dovi. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle of those arguments. But the result was three Ducatis, who had looked more competitive than they had all season, packing up early from a wildly unpredictable race in conditions that played into the Ducati Desmosedici GP11.1’s hands.

Away from the on-track competition, there was on-track festivities to commemorate the life of Marco Simoncelli. The 24-year-old Italian who was killed at the Malaysian GP two weeks ago was remembered with a lap of honor featuring all riders from MotoGP, Moto2, and the 125s, all headed by 1993 500cc World Champion Kevin Schwantz, piloting Simoncelli’s Honda. What followed was a two-minute casino, at the request of Simoncelli’s father. Two minutes of fireworks and engines revving. Hard to imagine a better way to remember such a charismatic young man.

But with the close of a season and an era of which many will wish they could forget, a new chapter opens to the public on Tuesday when teams will return to the Ricardo Tormo circuit in Valencia (hangovers permitting) to test the new 1000cc machines for 2012. It will mark the first time that Honda, Yamaha, and Ducati have all had their 1000cc machines on track simultaneously and will give us a glimpse as to just how far ahead of everyone Honda are, and just how much ground Ducati have made up.

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