In an interview with the British paper The Observer, which was published on The Guardian's Web site, Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson offered an anecdote involving an exchange between himself and his star player, Wayne Rooney, at a typical Man United training session.
According to Ferguson, the back-and-forth goes like this:
Rooney: "What's the team?"
Ferguson: "You're not playing."
Rooney: "Come on, give me your team."
Ferguson: "No, I won't. I'm still thinking about it."
In The Guardian interview, Ferguson finishes the story with this: "Then he says, 'I'll give you my team.' And he gives me his team. He's brilliant at it. He's never far wrong. He thinks about it, you see. He knows the game."
It's an interesting exchange between one of the world's greatest players at the moment and the person who knows him best as a player. Considering Rooney's talent for team selection, perhaps he should offer his expertise to England national team coach Fabio Capello.
It's been a bizarre couple of weeks for England, which will face the United States in both teams' World Cup openers. Scandal has engulfed the pages of the British tabloids after it was revealed John Terry was having an affair with the girlfriend of Chelsea and England teammate Wayne Bridge. The details are more worthy of a VH1 reality show than a national team captain, and they almost make Tiger Woods' travails seem tame by comparison. Terry has since relinquished/was stripped of his captaincy.
None of this disguises what has been the most pressing and enduring problem Capello faces in the months leading up until June: Who will play alongside Rooney? The Italian has been hailed for his discipline and organization since taking over the English side, but the master tactician has yet to solve the problem of finding a natural attacking partner for his most important player.
A simple solution may be found in Rooney's exchange with Ferguson. It might seem out of character for Capello, but why not kick the question back to Rooney? Let him decide who he wants to play alongside, if he has any preference at all. Freed from the imposing shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo, Rooney is enjoying the best season of his career and has vaulted himself into an elite category shared by former Man United teammate and Barcelona's Lionel Messi.
An exchange between Capello and Rooney might sound something like this:
Capello: "Wayne, we've tried everything, with mixed results. I'm willing to let you decide. This conversation will never leave this room and I'll accept full responsibility for the outcome. If you feel more comfortable with a certain player, consider it done. If you don't like playing with a certain player, he'll never see the field with you."
What would Rooney say? A list of the likely candidates would include:
Pro: The 23-year old Aston Villa striker has talent coming out of his ears and has turned in some performances this season that hint at his becoming one of the Premier League's most dangerous strikers. "Explosive" is probably the best way to describe him, and he has the speed to get behind and cause problems for defenders.
Con: "Explosive," yes, but "consistent"? Not so much. Is he too much of an unfinished product? He certainly has the physical tools to be an international player but might lack the refinement and experience. He's probably more likely to be used as a super-sub if he's in South Africa at all.
Pro: The wily veteran has been a reliable performer for the national team. He's a stereotypical target man who's comfortable with his back to goal and is proof that a striker's production doesn't always have to be measured in goals.
Con: That Heskey still is in the discussion at 32 years old probably is all the proof you need that this is an area England has had difficulty addressing.
He's the new and improved version of Heskey, without the experience. A strong and powerful player, he's surprisingly good with the ball at his feet and was having the best season of his career before being injured. At 6-foot-3, he doesn't give much away to Oguchi Onyewu physically.
Con: Cole is inexperienced at the top level and has really started to deliver on his potential only this season, after failing to break into Chelsea's side early in his career. Can he be effective without the benefit of a lot of service?
Pro: At 6-7, Crouch provides the kind of target man whom few teams in the world can dream of and has World Cup experience.
Con: The experiment has been tried and hasn't worked out. He's a hard worker and has better technique for his size than he's given credit for, but Crouch proved at Liverpool that he wasn't a Champion's League-quality player and similarly has proved with England that he isn't international quality.
Pro: Owen plays with Rooney at Man United and has accepted a lesser role. He still possesses the predatory instincts and clinical finishing (see: a hat trick in CL versus Wolfsburg) that made him so dangerous in his heyday.
Con: He's accepted a lesser role because he's a lesser player. Owen hasn't featured for Man United much this season ("unused substitute" appears often in his stat line), and that hat trick is pretty much all there is to point to this season.
Pro: Bent's 15 goals for Sunderland this season indicate his goal-scoring prowess.
Con: Despite having a respectable goal-scoring record, he was sold by Tottenham to Sunderland after two years for considerably less than the team paid for him. And though Bent is one of the league's top scorers, he's much closer to fighting relegation than fighting for a European place. He also never has played in the Champion's League and has only a handful of England caps to his credit.
Pro: Scores goals in bunches. When he's in the mood, Defoe is one of the best in the Premier League. He has started 23 games for Tottenham this season and has scored 16 goals. He has had considerable experience with the national team and, at 27, seems to be at the right stage in his career to warrant inclusion in England's starting 11.
Con: Defoe needs to dominate the ball and relies on an endless supply of service in order to be effective. He's not equipped to play as a "second striker" and hasn't really shown the ability to create goals -- just finish them. Selfish is a desired quality in most strikers, but his role on England's side would be to complement Rooney, not the other way around. And at 27, I can't help but wonder if there's a reason he hasn't yet found his way on to one of the "Big Four" teams in the Premier League.
This was the kind of game Landon Donovan was never going to get in MLS. The kind of passion and intensity that was on display in Liverpool's 1-0 win over Everton on Saturday could be replicated only perhaps on the international stage (see: U.S.-Mexico). In the American professional setting, something akin to the Merseyside derby isn't to be found.
Positive (and even rave) reviews have followed Donovan since he has suited up for Everton. His manager, David Moyes, and the English press have recognized his contributions to Everton's recent good form. But he had yet to face a challenge like that when Everton visited Anfield in one of the English game's most impassioned rivalries.
Whoever coined the phrase "familiarity breeds contempt" probably knew something about Liverpool-Everton. With all due respect to Chivas-L.A. Galaxy -- and despite the best efforts of sincere supporters and eager marketers in MLS front offices -- that flagship MLS derby is only a pale imitation of what was on display Saturday. Although few doubted Donovan's ability to play in a top league such as England's, it's in games such as these that top players thrive, on the kind of stage that few American players have found themselves.
All it took was a savage tackle early in the game by Everton's Steven Pienaar, a South African, on Liverpool's Javier Mascherano, an Argentine, to illustrate that this rivalry doesn't discriminate on the basis of nationality. The color of the shirt will do.
So what of the American wearing the No. 9 blue shirt? If forced to offer a grade of his performance, I'd be inclined to offer an incomplete. It's not that he played poorly or made costly mistakes. His poke through Mascherano's legs early in the first half earned Everton a dangerous free kick and was probably the best display of individual skill throughout the match. This was a game, however, that was always going to be decided by attitude and not artistry.
That's the area where Donovan and much of Everton's side were found lacking. With a man advantage, you'd have expected more initiative and ambition in taking the game to Liverpool. For Donovan's part, he seemed tied to the touchline, never eager to push into the middle of the field and get on the ball. Considering the kinds of tackles that were flying in that area of the field, you could hardly blame him (Bob Bradley certainly wouldn't). Credit Liverpool, though: Desire can overcome a lot on a soccer field -- even an extra-man advantage.
Jozy Altidore's goal to open the scoring against Manchester City in Hull City's shocking 2-1 win -- his first in 18 games in England -- had to come as welcome news for him and American fans. It's not so much the goal itself, but the way he took it that should bode well for him going forward. It was a nice mixture of composure, instinct and class that can hopefully create some confidence for Altidore moving forward.
Clint Dempsey won't require surgery on his injured knee and will likely return to action in May. It remains to be seen what his fitness level will be after such an extended period of time on the sidelines, but early indications are that he should be healthy in time for the World Cup in June.
Now that we've got the good news out of the way, let's get to the not-so-great news.
What's that, you say? How is that the good news?
That the injury status of one of the U.S. national team's most important players has been upgraded from "sky-is-falling disastrous" to just plain "unfortunate and unnerving" has to be taken as positive news, especially after a truly troubling performance against Honduras on Saturday in the first international friendly of 2010.
In light of a growing list of injuries to essential players, you might have been hoping for a silver lining in the form of a deeper and more developed player pool, as Bob Bradley sent out what was basically a B squad. But you'd be disappointed. If you don't believe me, all you'd have to do is look at Bradley's facial expressions during the Americans' 3-1 loss in Carson, Calif. Even by his stoic and solemn standards, you could see he was not at all comforted by the display of his reserve squad.
And what exactly was he seeing? More importantly, what was he expecting? By definition, such games are meaningless. And with the exception of Benny Feilhaber, no player on display at the Home Depot Center is a shoe-in for South Africa. So the fact that the team lost was not altogether troubling. The expectation for a game like this is not in the result, but in the impression that players make. It's a tryout for the few remaining places on the final roster.
And that's what was so frustrating. The best you can say about most players was that their performance was underwhelming enough not to seriously damage their chance at getting another look in the near future. However, at the same time, no one player distinguished himself in any meaningful way.
Clearly, any criticism, observation or judgment has to be qualified with the fact that the game lost much of its impetus with the mind-numbingly bizarre decision to send off Jimmy Conrad and award a penalty before 20 minutes had ticked off the clock. But in a strange way, that's almost immaterial. While it may have left no doubt about the final result, it could have been used as an opportunity.
We've seen enough of these games to know that the result is not what's at stake. Again, it's about the impression made by players with something to prove. And playing a man down for well over an hour actually provides a unique, albeit unfortunate, scenario for players to do just that. The opportunities to get on the ball in pressure situations increases, while the pressure to actually win the game and get a result lessens.
Bradley pointed to the poor quality of his team's passing as something he was most disappointed in. The lack of rhythm and tempo, the absence of any quick passing combinations or short exchanges was clear to see. In my opinion, midfielders Feilhaber and Kyle Beckerman are most culpable on this count.
Even before Conrad was shown his second yellow and given his marching orders, it was largely the responsibility of Feilhaber and Beckerman to get on the ball and provide some balance in the passing game. The U.S. needed possession to create avenues in order to get other players, like Robbie Rogers and Sacha Kljestan, involved in the play more. Honduras wasn't overly aggressive providing pressure in the middle of the field, even with a man advantage. However, Feilhaber and Beckerman seemed overeager to dump the ball forward into the path of forwards Jeff Cunningham and Robbie Findley as a first option.
As for the Findley-Cunningham partnership, I'd have preferred to see Conor Casey get a start, but you can understand Bradley's thinking. They're players who offer similar qualities and who are somewhat unknown quantities at the international level. It's likely that it will come down to choosing one or the other (if either) for the final World Cup roster. Why not throw them out together and see who performs best? Unfortunately, the circumstances prevented them from really getting involved in the game, though you'd have to give the nod to Findley on the night for showing more initiative.
As for the defense, well, it was also downhill after Conrad's sending-off. But the fact that Jonathan Bornstein, who shifted to the center of the defense in place of Conrad, was more convincing than Chad Marshall says a lot about the Columbus man's display. Right back Marvell Wynne probably provided the most instructive lesson of the night in showing that he's not the answer at the international level, at least not yet. The physical tools are obviously there, but we can probably expect to see Kevin Alston from the New England Revolution get the nod the next time around.
And hopefully the next time around, against El Salvador in a month, we'll have something more positive than Clint Dempsey's not-so-injured knee to talk about.
The change in the calendar year brings about a heightened sense of anticipation ahead of the World Cup in June. Moves in the January transfer window seem to be made more with an eye toward South Africa than in securing professional stability. Those recovering from injury face a race against time to get from the treatment table to the playing field in time to prepare for June.
Some American players -- and by extension, American fans -- find themselves in a state of anxiety this time of year. South Africa suddenly doesn't seem so far away and the opportunities to make an impression are becoming few and far between.
Maurice Edu, for instance, only recently returned to the field for Rangers after a lengthy spell on the sidelines due to injury. He has limited time to force himself back into Rangers' coach Walter Smith's lineup and show U.S. national team coach Bob Bradley he can be the type of box-to-box midfielder the national team lacks at the moment. Similarly, his Rangers teammate DaMarcus Beasley is in equal need of health and opportunity as he sets out to convince Bradley and American fans that a short memory can be a virtue when considering selection for the national team.
For players like Oguchi Onyewu and Charlie Davies, the countdown to June probably feels more like a race against time and the ground both need to cover to get back to full health seems daunting. Onyewu's prognosis has been more positive. It remains to be seen when and if Davies can return to full fitness.
Perhaps no national team member has a more important decision to make than Stuart Holden. A move from the MLS to Europe so close to the World Cup is a tricky proposition. He can feel confident he's done enough to warrant inclusion in Bradley's June roster, but he'll need regular run from now until then if he's to force himself into Bradley's starting 11. He has a lot at stake and a move overseas right now is certainly ambitious. But he also seems to have plenty of good options, and at 24 years old and entering the prime of his career, that's not a bad dilemma to have.
Speaking of options, they seem to be what Eddie Johnson and Freddy Adu are running out of. Their loan to Greek club Aris feels more like an exile, a move motivated more by desperation than an attempt to secure their long-term future. But the past couple of years have treated neither player kindly and a guarantee of regular minutes might be the best they can hope for. As it stands, they're likely on the outside looking in on Bradley's World Cup roster.
While these are some of the many developing subplots to keep an eye on from here to June, perhaps the most intriguing storyline is not one involving fringe players looking for a late push or established players on the move. It involves players so obviously entrenched in the national team side you might forget that they too are facing pivotal moments in their careers.
I'm talking of course about Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey. I exclude Tim Howard from this discussion because it's rather implausible to think he's going to suffer a major dip in form in the next six months. He offers the best quality a goalkeeper can provide: an excellence that's so consistent it borders on boring.
If recent performances are any indication, Dempsey and Donovan are primed to make major strides in the coming months. Donovan was impressive in his Everton debut, assisting on the opening goal and causing fits for Arsenal's left back Armand Traore in a 2-2 draw. That he was included in the starting 11 with so little preparation time against a team that had previously beaten Everton 6-1 shows the confidence Everton coach David Moyes has in Donovan's ability.
Dempsey, meanwhile, has not only cemented himself in Fulham's starting 11, he's become perhaps its most important player. Tied with Bobby Zamora as the team's leading scorer with six goals, he's at the forefront of much of Fulham's attacking movement. And if his wonder goal against Stoke is any indication, he's developing an appetite for goals that might cause Bradley to rethink his role in the national team side.
In the coming months, it's natural to focus on how the bottom of the national team side will shape up and what players will play their way into a trip to South Africa. But we should keep in mind that it's still the cream of the crop that will determine the U.S. team's fortunes in June. The two best American players are playing and performing well for competitive English sides. The strides they make and the progress they bring to South Africa could be the most interesting development for the national team in the months leading up the World Cup.
According to reports, a short-term loan deal that would send Landon Donovan to Everton could be completed soon. For its part, Los Angeles has been predictably coy in responding to reports that this season's MLS MVP was negotiating a move to join the struggling Premier League side. But Everton manager David Moyes indicated the two sides are trying to finalize a deal that reportedly would bring Donovan to England at the start of the January transfer window until the end of March, when he would return to the Galaxy for the start of the MLS season.
Will the latest incarnation of rent-a-Donovan result in another disappointing European adventure for the U.S. national team star? Not likely. The opportunity with Everton presents Donovan with something he didn't have at Bayern Munich last summer: a chance to succeed. Last year's loan deal always seemed doomed to fail and it was through no fault of Donovan's. Rare is the player that can show up and walk into a side like Bayern Munich, especially with so little time to make an impression.
Everton presents a much more favorable scenario. Mired in a miserable start to its Premier League campaign, the team is desperate for a spark. While shoring up the back line may seem like the greater need, the team also lacks creativity, industry, versatility, pace and, most importantly, goals. Mikel Arteta, the team's creative influence, has been out with injury. When healthy, Ayegbeni Yakubu and Louis Saha can form a dangerous strike duo, but injuries have made their partnership largely unreliable. And Jo is the rarest of Brazilian strikers in that he doesn't score goals.
Simply put, Everton could use a player like Donovan. He doesn't excel in any one of the areas of the aforementioned players. But as U.S. and Everton goalkeeper Tim Howard intimated in comments on Everton's Web site, Donovan does each of them well enough to be an asset for any team. The fact that he's comfortable playing in a variety of positions in the midfield and up front makes him a useful option in the Premier League. Of course, the million-dollar question always lingering over his head is if he can provide that quality at the highest level. Despite the brevity of his proposed stay, it's likely we'll find out if and when he suits up for Everton.
Joining a team sitting in 15th place, dangerously close to relegation, doesn't seem like a dream scenario. But let's not forget that Everton was the last side to break up the proverbial "Big Four" in England when it finished in fourth place ahead of Liverpool in 2004-05. And with Yakubu (Nigeria), Joseph Yobo (Nigeria), Tim Cahill (Australia), Steven Pienaar (South Africa) and Howard, you've got a team with substantial World Cup representation, so it's not as though the cupboard is bare. In its last two games, Everton drew 3-3 with Chelsea and 2-2 with Tottenham. So while a European place might now be asking a bit much, this team still has enough quality to make things interesting in the second half of the Premier League season.
And the real winner in this deal is the U.S. national team. There's been a slight trend in recent years with more national team players entering the World Cup with European experience. Consider that in the five games the U.S. played in the 2002 World Cup, 12 MLS-based players were on the 23-man roster. As many as six and no fewer than four MLS players featured in the starting 11 in each of those games in South Korea/Japan.
Eleven MLS players traveled to the 2006 World Cup in Germany -- three started in a loss to the Czech Republic, four in a tie with Italy, and three in a loss to Ghana. One of those MLS players, Clint Dempsey, left for England shortly afterward. And while it may have taken longer than many American fans would have hoped, Landon Donovan appears to be set to follow.
Perhaps the numbers are too small to be taken seriously, but I can't help but think the trend toward national team players entering the World Cup with European experience is increasing, however slowly. It's still way too early to know how U.S. coach Bob Bradley will adjust to the injury losses of Charlie Davies and Oguchi Onyewu, but it wasn't long ago that a starting 11 made entirely of European-based players seemed possible, if not likely. In fact, it's easy to imagine a scenario, especially if Stuart Holden and Ricardo Clark venture overseas, in which Bob Bradley arrives in South Africa with only a handful of MLS-based players on his 23-man roster.
American fans have long seen team success at the international level and the migration of young players to Europe as being intertwined. Which brings us back to Donovan. Fair or not, he's the standard for which the national team is judged. And the reality is, the greatest talent America has to offer doesn't play against the greatest talent the world has to offer. That's always been a source of frustration for American fans. Clint Dempsey has made himself one of the most important players on a pretty good Premier League team. I'm one of the biggest Dempsey fans, but he's not better than Donovan.
Perhaps now we'll get to see how Donovan fares in arguably the greatest league in the world. He carries higher expectations than any other American player. The easy answer for this is that it's because he's the best we have to offer and American fans would like some confirmation on the world stage of what we see on the national team. Is that so much to ask? Maybe. But we can afford to be demanding. We're entering a World Cup year, after all.
I've never watched a World Cup draw before. To be honest, I never really considered it. What was there to see? You were assured of a couple of cupcake groups and a "group of death." If you were a United States fan, it was a futile exercise in crossing your fingers and hoping to avoid the worst-case scenario.
But who knew a lottery could be so exciting? Apparently, a little pomp and circumstance and a whole lot of Charlize Theron could turn a pingpong-ball draw into a red-carpet event. Needless to say, I was hooked, and not just because the stakes were so high for the United States. Once again, circumstances seemed to conspire against the U.S., with more worst-case scenarios in play than favorable ones. But then, the unthinkable happened Lady Luck (or maybe Charlize?) favored the Americans.
I'm loath to predict anything at this stage, with an eternity to go until June. But here are my thoughts on each of the groups and how I see each playing out right now. Picking one team from each group seems easy enough. But there are plenty of groups in which the second qualifying spot seems to be up for grabs among the three remaining teams.
Group A: South Africa, Mexico, Uruguay, France
Even from my cubicle in Bristol, Conn., you could feel the oxygen leave the room when Mexico was placed in the same group as South Africa. It was the big chip that everyone was waiting for to fall and seemed to ratchet up the tension as the rest of the selections were made.
But while Mexico must have felt it had dodged a bullet by being placed with South Africa, the good cheer quickly soured upon hearing France's name called. With Uruguay in play as well, the Mexicans suddenly went from having a plum position to staring at one of the most difficult groups in the tournament. It did seem that justice was served after France -- basically a top seed in disguise -- was placed with South Africa.
Prediction: It's a trickier slate than it probably looks on paper for France with three non-European teams, but even if it comes down to needing to beat South Africa in the final group game, you'd have to favor the French to win the group, with Uruguay following in behind them.
Group B: Argentina, Nigeria, South Korea, Greece
Diego Maradona said he's pleased with Argentina's draw. Ostensibly, he should be. But I wonder if these aren't the type of teams that can give Argentina trouble. It didn't respond well to being taken out of its comfort zone during qualifying, and that was against South American teams that the Argentines generally dispose of comfortably.
Nigeria, South Korea and Greece offer a completely mixed bag of athleticism, speed, fitness, organization and dogged defense that will surely frustrate the Argentines. None of the teams aspire to the type of aesthetic Argentina seeks, and they certainly won't delude themselves into thinking that they can match the Argentines in terms of quality. Will Diego & Co. be able to meet the challenge?
Prediction: One of the three will hand Argentina a loss that will be hailed as a monumental upset, but it won't stop the Argentines from winning the group. One thing's certain: The games between Nigeria, South Korea and Greece will be infinitely more interesting from a neutral's perspective. Whichever team draws blood against Argentina is the second to advance to the next round. I'll give the edge to Greece.
Group C: England, United States, Algeria, Slovenia
Much has been made of the United States' good fortune with this draw, and there's not much to add. Slovenia and Algeria were the best-case scenarios for the Americans. Be honest: How many of you were mentally preparing for Portugal's card to be pulled?
As for England, I'm of the mindset -- and apparently in the minority -- that it was one of the most desirable seeded teams the United States could draw, aside from South Africa, of course. Spain, Brazil and Argentina would have been disastrous. Germany and Holland both have such singular styles, and it would be hard to see the Americans forcing them out of their comfort zone. I wouldn't have minded Italy. But I honestly think England gives the Americans the best chance to steal a result out of the seeded teams.
I'm not saying they should be favored to win, and I'm not disputing that England doesn't have more exceptional players at every position. But England's more direct, physical approach actually plays to the Americans' strengths. They struggle with crafty, skillful and deceptive teams. England -- even the new and improved version under Fabio Capello -- is still coming right down Main Street. If the Americans can win enough of the individual battles early and keep the English in front of them, there's no reason they can't steal a draw in the opening game.
Prediction: England takes the group with the United States following in second.
Group D: Germany, Australia, Serbia, Ghana
The group obviously belongs to Germany. The Germans might be down in terms of talent from past years, but it's never been smart to bet against them in a major competition, and it's not wise to start now.
Beyond that, I can't really distinguish who else I like to get out of this group. I'm inclined to lean toward Ghana, who, along with Australia, exceeded expectations in the previous World Cup.
But Serbia will feel that it has a point to prove after its 2006 run. The Serbs weren't as bad as their result in the previous World Cup indicated; they just had the misfortune of being placed in an impossible group.
Prediction: Germany wins, with Serbia following behind.
Group E: Netherlands, Denmark, Japan, Cameroon
The best thing this group has going for it is that Denmark and the Holland open with each other, making the two group favorites force the issue in the opening game instead of navigating through their lesser opponents first. That also means Japan and Cameroon's opening-round game is probably an elimination game, with both needing to grab maximum points to position themselves the rest of the way. Always good fun.
Prediction: Holland wins the group. Cameroon beats Japan in the opener and rides that momentum to the next round.
Group F: Italy, Paraguay, New Zealand, Slovakia
If Italy hasn't clinched a place in the next round by the end of the second game, the Italians will probably be disappointed. That's how pleased they must have been after this draw. It will be interesting to see Marcello Lippi's approach in the early going. Will he be a little more ambitious or favor a more conservative, play-it-safe approach?
Prediction: Italy cruises, with Paraguay following the Italians to the next round.
Group G: Brazil, North Korea, Ivory Coast, Portugal
Pity poor Ivory Coast. I was among those who pegged the Ivoirians to be a breakout team this year, but alas, they find themselves in yet another group of death. All is not lost, however. The inclusion of North Korea essentially makes it a three-team race. Portugal versus Ivory Coast in the opening game figures to be the most important and exciting opener in the tournament.
Prediction: Brazil wins the group, but Ivory Coast beats Portugal in the opening game and uses the points over North Korea to book its ticket to the next round.
Group H: Spain, Switzerland, Honduras, Chile
What is there to say, really? Could Spain win the group fielding a secondary starting 11? Probably.
Prediction: Spain and Switzerland.
You'd be hard-pressed to argue with Nick Rimando's selection as the MVP of the MLS Cup. Over the course of two games, he conceded just one goal in four hours and came out on the winning end of two penalty shootouts. That kind of performance in a championship setting surely entitled him to the individual hardware.
Deserving as Rimando is, however, I'd offer another candidate who I think distinguished himself more during Real Salt Lake's remarkable championship run -- a run that really began in the final weeks of the regular season, when it was looking unlikely that RSL would even make the postseason.
I'm talking about midfielder Kyle Beckerman. His contribution to RSL's cause perhaps gets lost among the more highlight-grabbing displays of Rimando and Robbie Findley. But to me, the key to RSL's playoff run was the ability of its central midfield to impose its will on opponents. In each game during the postseason, RSL was determined to establish tempo and rhythm from the back through the midfield, giving its forwards a platform to operate on.
That all starts with Beckerman. Columbus, Chicago and Los Angeles all rely on individual playmakers -- Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Blanco, Landon Donovan and David Beckham -- to spearhead their attacking movements. But while each gravitates toward the middle of the park during games, none is particularly comfortable or effective patrolling this area of the field for 90 minutes. RSL's ability to dominate space and control possession denied those players the room and service they needed to be most dangerous. (I know Schelotto, Donovan and even Blanco didn't exactly disappear against RSL, but they weren't allowed to boss the game the way you would have expected them to.)
It's not all Beckerman, of course. He provides the range of passing, discipline and steel to the midfield, but without Will Johnson and Javier Morales for much of the final -- both were forced out because of illness and injury, respectively -- his responsibilities only increased. Andy Williams and Clint Mathis are no slouches on the ball, but they can longer be relied on to cover a lot of ground in the center of the park for 120 minutes.
The game-tying goal is a good example. The end result was a mixture of reckless abandon and predatory instinct on the part of Robbie Findley. But rewind the play a few frames, and you'll see that the initial movement started entirely with Beckerman. He collected the ball in RSL's defensive third, right in front of Rimando's penalty area, and played the ball out wide to start the move. A couple of passes later, Beckerman's on the ball again, this time in the center of the midfield. He switched the emphasis of play to the left side, linking up with Ned Grabavoy in the attacking third, who found Findley at the edge of the penalty area. The rest, as they say, is history.
It's a less glamorous, but essential function for any successful team. Watching RSL through the playoffs, you notice the ball doesn't go from the defense to the midfield or from the midfield to the attacking third without Beckerman getting a touch. He doesn't always make the home-run pass that creates a goal-scoring opportunity. But he's always within sight of the play and ready to be used as an outlet if his team gets in a jam or to provide cover if possession is lost. It's reminiscent of the way Gilberto Silva played for Arsenal's championship-winning teams, acting as a pivot from the defense to the offense, always in a position to receive the ball and never caught out defensively.
The question has to be asked, then: Has Beckerman played his way back into contention for the U.S. team? If the national team's last two friendlies are any indication, a player with his skill set and style would be a welcome addition. And it's not as if he's a stranger to the senior side, having played well in the Gold Cup and getting periodic call-ups during World Cup qualification. But you have to wonder whether his game translates to the next level. He's not the most athletic player, and to play that position you have to be able to cover a lot of ground, something Ricardo Clark, despite his faults, can do.
Would his lack of speed and athleticism get exposed at the international level? And if it comes down to a situation where Bradley is handing out the final roster spot, do you opt for a reliable player like Beckerman, or higher-risk, higher-reward player like Eddie Johnson or even Freddy Adu? I have a feeling we'll find out from now until next June, as Bradley surely has to give him another opportunity on the senior side in 2010.
International friendlies are frustrating. You never know quite what you're supposed to be rooting for or what your expectations should be. By definition, they're meaningless, so it's hard to spend too much time and energy agonizing over winning or losing.
Ideally, their purpose serves the big picture. It's a snapshot of what a team looks like at a given moment, to be used as a reference point for the future. Indeed, they can be a valuable exercise, if only to provide meaningful competition for players who otherwise don't get many opportunities to play together.
So what does the big picture look like for the United States national team after a two-game European swing through Slovakia and Denmark that ended in 1-0 and 3-1 losses, respectively? Unfortunately, it's a bit blurry.
Even by the most conservative estimate, by now you can nail down 15 seats on the plane to South Africa, which meant these last two games of 2009 served as something of a tryout for the remaining slots on coach Bob Bradley's 23-man roster for the 2010 World Cup. And with the injuries to Oguchi Onyewu and Charlie Davies threatening their World Cup prospects, Bradley is forced to reach deeper into his player pool than he'd probably like in the final months before the competition begins.
Jeff Cunningham is a good example. His blistering goal-scoring streak toward the end of the MLS season forced Bradley to give him a chance. Cunningham is essentially in pay-as-you-play mode, and he can ride his winning hand as long as he keeps scoring goals. Who knows, maybe it'll take him all the way to South Africa. So far, so good, anyway.
But while Cunningham might be playing with house money, it's not just the so-called fringe players who still have something to prove. Ricardo Clark has had the luxury of an unavailable Jermaine Jones and an injured Maurice Edu, the main competition at his position. But his place isn't cemented in the center of that midfield.
Furthermore, though it seems heretical to suggest Jozy Altidore not be included in the starting 11 -- especially without Davies -- how many would object to giving Robbie Findley 90 minutes of leading the line after Altidore's lethargic performance in Denmark? You can be protected by potential for only so long. Maybe he has a better answer for his recent lack of production, but the rest of us are running out of ideas.
Of course, the performances can be excused somewhat by the absence of key players. It's amazing how you take for granted the endeavor and work rate Landon Donovan brings to both the midfield and attacking third.
But that's kind of the point, isn't it? This game -- and this stage of the international season -- isn't so much about the established players as it is about which team can reach deeper into its pocket to pull out a winning combination. Denmark was certainly without many of its big guns. Yet it seemed to the Danes to truly be an open tryout, with eager 20-somethings from the domestic league with a point to prove vying for the few remaining tickets to South Africa. In fact, it must have been an educational evening from the Danes' perspective.
If only it were so from the American point of view. In fairness, it wasn't so much that the performance was bad, just confusing. Inserting Donovan and Clint Dempsey into the lineup goes a long way toward clearing up that picture, but the question marks remain.
To me, Benny Feilhaber distinguished himself more than anyone else against Denmark. But as well as he played, do we know any more about his role in the national side? Is he the main guy in the center of the midfield? Does he stay wide and drift inside as the play develops? Is he there to complement Michael Bradley? Should it be the other way around?
Stuart Holden did nothing to diminish his prospects, either. He showed signs that he's comfortable and capable of being more than a wide player. His is an interesting case to watch moving forward, especially with a likely move overseas in the January transfer window.
The biggest problem with the U.S. performance in Denmark was that it was found guilty of the worst offense at the international level: It was predictable. Without Dempsey or Donovan, there was no fluency or connectivity in any U.S. passing or movement. Scoring three goals right after halftime after being down 1-0 at the break, you might expect that the Danes had a rousing locker-room speech. But you can imagine all that really needed to be said was, "Pressure their center mids and they'll give the ball away cheaply and their outside backs can be had every time. Do that and we win easily."
It really seemed that simple for Denmark in the second half, and that's what has to be troubling for Bob Bradley. As I said before, these games have to be viewed in the context that they were played -- with key players absent, injuries and players just on the heels of a long MLS season. And even in failure, these games can be informative.
For his part, Bradley said the things you'd expect him to say. There were bright spots early on, but the game got away from his team in the second half. And while it's not the best bookend to 2009, the year was ultimately a positive one, and these losses don't mean much in the grand scheme of things. But I wonder if he's not more concerned than he lets on about the lack of options he has to turn to.
Three Cheers for Cuauhtemoc
There'll be plenty of words written about the upcoming MLS Cup final in Seattle between the L.A. Galaxy and Real Salt Lake. But my lasting impression from this year's playoffs was that of Cuauhtemoc Blanco during the Chicago Fire's run to the Eastern Conference finals.
Blanco, whose tenure in the MLS came to an end with Chicago's loss to RSL in the Eastern Conference finals, might not be able to match fellow designated player David Beckham in terms of exposure and commercial weight, but that doesn't make his tenure in MLS any less significant. With his return to Mexico to play for Veracruz, it's interesting to compare the two players when you measure their value on the field, independent of T-shirt sales and magazine covers. Each has such a singular quality to his game that is so pleasing to the eye yet impossible to replicate.
But while Beckham's ability to make a ball move in ways that defy the laws of physics can take one's breath away, what Blanco brought to the MLS game is more significant. It's an intuitive quality that's hard to pinpoint but one that is infectious to his teammates and captivating to an audience. His teammates wanted to match his creativity, even if they fell short of his brilliance. He invites players to play a style that should be the standard the MLS is trying to reach.
At first glance, he looks more like a Sunday morning rec-league player than a professional -- and a player you'd pick near the bottom. But despite not possessing the speed to get behind anyone, he can have a defender at his mercy with the ball at his feet. It's guile, it's invention, it's creativity -- whatever you want to call it, it's the kind of quality the MLS doesn't see enough of and will surely miss.
Real Salt Lake and New England had to wait until their final regular-season games to clinch spots in the postseason, and both did so with a little help from other teams.
So perhaps it's fitting that both provided the drama and intrigue in the first leg of the MLS playoffs. Each secured a one-goal advantage at home against a higher-seeded opponent, vital lifelines to carry when they hit the road for their return legs.
Here's my breakdown of the first leg of the MLS playoffs:
New England versus Chicago (New England leads 2-1 heading back to Chicago)
I admit, I was among those who bought into the conventional wisdom that suggested New England had too many injuries and not enough firepower offensively to seriously challenge Chicago over two legs. That's in no way an endorsement of Chicago's championship credentials; the Fire's shortcomings are obvious enough. But the Revs couldn't continue to count on Shalrie Joseph to provide cover for the back line, maintain possession in the midfield and venture forward into the box and score goals, could they?
So much for conventional wisdom. Joseph did just that in a 2-1 win at Gillette Stadium, notching a 75th-minute winner to give the Revs a vital one-goal lifeline to bring with them to Chicago.
The Fire probably will leave Foxborough feeling a bit aggrieved. They had a bright start and were rewarded for their ambition and attacking endeavor with a Chris Rolfe goal in the 17th minute. It looked like they might blow the game open a couple of minutes later, but Brian McBride's shot hit the post.
New England's lack of a natural target man in attack is painfully obvious at times. As industrious as Sainey Nyassi and Kenny Mansally are on the wings, neither would be mistaken as a center forward. And Edgaras Jankauskas will give you an honest effort, but not much else.
Not too many teams rely on their holding midfielder to double as a striker. But anyone who has followed the Revs closely this season wouldn't have been surprised to find Joseph essentially spearheading the attack late in the game. It's a tactic I was convinced would fail them come playoff time, but Joseph poked home the game-winner after a scramble in the box to prove me wrong.
Second-leg prediction: Chicago 1, New England 1
Real Salt Lake versus Columbus (RSL leads 1-0 heading back to Columbus)
I'm not so quick to lambast Crew coach Robert Warzycha's decision to leave Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Alejandro Moreno on the bench. He must have had his doubts about their fitness (especially Schelotto's) and was confident enough in his other players to get the result he wanted.
And let's be honest: The result the Crew were aiming for at Rio Tinto was a scoreless draw to bring back home to Columbus. Schelotto and Moreno were not going to offer much to achieve that aim. And the Crew were two minutes and change from achieving that goal, until Robbie Findley grabbed a lifeline for RSL in the dying minutes.
Heading back to Columbus, the focus doesn't change much. The Crew still need to win at home, something they obviously have shown they're more than capable of. Now there's just a little extra pressure, which may not be the worst thing. It gives the players extra initiative to take the attack to RSL, and perhaps will liven up the home crowd.
And Warzycha will have a fully rested reigning MVP at his disposal. The Crew's coach could come up looking smarter by the end of next week. Or he could have some serious explaining to do should Columbus come up short. I'm guessing the former.
Prediction: Columbus 3, Real Salt Lake 1
Chivas versus L.A. Galaxy (Chivas 2, L.A. 2)
It was exciting, to be sure -- but not necessarily in a good way. Maicon Santos' goal in the fourth minute proved to be the only goal scored that didn't come as a result of a shockingly bad, rec-league defensive error.
But while it won't be easy viewing in the film room for the coaches, both sides probably can agree that a draw was a fair result. Either team could have won or lost -- it was just that kind of afternoon. Hopefully, the nerves (or whatever was plaguing the game) will be gone for the second leg.
Preki will have a difficult time keeping Maykel Galindo on the bench to start the second leg. Galindo came on as a second-half substitute to inject some energy into a Chivas attack that seemed a bit shell-shocked heading into the break down 2-1. Although his 50th-minute equalizer was gifted to him from a bad back pass from Omar Gonzalez, he finished the chance well and gave Chivas an added element in attack. It's hard to imagine Preki not giving him full run in the second leg.
Second-leg prediction: L.A. 1, Chivas 0
Seattle versus Houston (Houston 0, Seattle 0 heading back to Houston)
The speed and intensity of the game screamed for goals, but none were forthcoming. It wasn't for lack of effort. Patrick Ianni, who filled in for an injured Tyrone Marshall in Seattle's back line, exhibited the kind of luck the Sounders were destined to have on the night when he saw two headed chances denied: one cleared off the goal line by Brian Mullan, one by the crossbar.
The talking point for me following the game was the performance of the referee, Ricardo Salazar. The numbers suggest Salazar didn't have a great game. He produced three yellow cards for each team, yet the Dynamo committed three times as many fouls as the Sounders (18-6).
But my point about the officiating is less a judgment of Salazar's performance than an observation of the challenges MLS officials face come playoff time. The game was physical, and you didn't need to see Nate Jacqua's head wrapped in bandages to realize that. But isn't there a tacit recognition that referees err on the side of swallowing their whistles come playoff time? It's what makes the NBA playoffs so great to watch. Players, coaches, officials and fans all understand that what was a foul in the regular season isn't going to get called in the playoffs.
After watching the Seattle-Houston game, I'm not so sure that trend translates as well to soccer. The best thing a referee can do early in a game is set a standard for what an acceptable challenge is. Whether players (or fans) perceive that standard as fair or unfair, at least they can reasonably assume what they're allowed to get away with on the field. Salazar was, to be polite, inconsistent in setting that standard in the game. And it took fluidity away from an entertaining, attack-minded game.
Second-leg prediction: Houston 2, Seattle 1
After watching the first weekend of MLS playoff action and considering the results for Real Salt Lake and New England, I found myself wondering what Kevin Payne would think.
Payne, D.C. United's president, recently stirred up a bit of controversy in MLS circles when he suggested that teams that employ cynical and negative tactics to earn results -- and possibly a playoff berth -- damage the league's image, and that a stronger emphasis on entertaining, attacking style should be embraced. He identified New England and Real Salt Lake as culprits of what he perceives as a bad trend for MLS.
Setting aside whether his argument has merit (it does) or smacks of sour grapes given that D.C. United is watching the playoffs from home (it does), I wonder if he feels vindicated after watching RSL and New England win over the weekend? If it's true that both teams don't play an attacking and entertaining style, yet were rewarded with an invitation to play on the league's biggest stage, is that bad for the league's image, as Payne suggests?