Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Jose Mourinho Is A Whiny Little Bitch

Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho is up to his old tricks again, bitching to anyone who will listen about how Manchester United has been unfairly lucky all season. He whined about Man U's lack of injuries (Chelsea lost keeper Petr Cech for a long stretch to a freak accident against Reading, and other injuries have hurt the Blues), and about some bad calls that went Man U's way, and about how Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger is apparently under less pressure than he should be despite the fact that Wenger's Gunners have a steady stream of top four Premiership finishes and a second-place finish in the Champions League to their credit.

Mourinho's a good manager, and I don't begrudge him that, but would it kill him to admit that Man U (which just beat Reading in the FA Cup 3-2 after the Royals' back line apparently failed to take the field until six minutes in) has a damn good team this year? Or that his front office wasted money on high-profile underachievers like Andriy Shevchenko and Michael Ballack, thus making Chelsea less able to pick up capable backups to hedge against injuries? Whining about some other team's "good luck" and trying to get another coach fired is simply being annoying.

Also, I love the beginning of this column written by an Italian guy about the Italian teams' performance in the Champions League. He seems honestly surprised and dismayed that one of the Italian players blatantly dove to get a penalty (and ended up with a yellow card). An Italian player diving? What a development! Absolutely shocking! It isn't like Italy only beat Australia in the World Cup because of the most blatant dive in recent memory or anything. Seriously, dude, Italian players dive. It's how they roll. If you pay attention to Italian soccer and haven't noticed this, you're either crazy or in denial. There's a reason Fark calls Italy's national team the "Azzurri grass-diving squad."

Here's a YouTube clip of the dive. It's absolutely hilarious.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Olimpic Feat

Let's hear it for D.C. United, who prefaced their MLS season with a big 4-1 victory in Tegucigalpa over Honduran champions CD Olimpia in the CONCACAF Champions Cup (CONCACAF's answer to the Champions League). This means that barring a complete meltdown at RFK on Thursday, D.C. United will reach the CONCACAF Final Four (okay, it's an eight-team tournament). The Houston Dynamo, the other US side, has a chance when it hosts Costa Rican champions Puntarenas in College Station; Houston trails, 1-0.

DCU would face off against either Chivas Guadalajara or Trinidad champions W. Connection. Suprisingly, the Trinidadians lead 1-0 going into the second leg at Guadalajara.

In other news... Middlesbrough? Really? Does anyone lose to them? Shit almighty. That was three points Reading really needed for the Europe chase, too. With Arsenal having two games in hand and up by six, this whole Reading-in-Europe thing might be turning into a pipe dream...

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

A Few Random Musings

- Good to see Reading's B-team draw with Manchester United's B-team in the FA Cup Sweet Sixteen. Okay, it wasn't completely either side's B-team - Cristiano Ronaldo still took the field for Man U - but there were still a combined 15 or so starters that aren't week-to-week regulars in Premier League competition. These cup competitions can be fun since they give players who are either recovering from injury (Convey, Kitson) or who wouldn't usually play (keeper Adam Federici) a chance to show off what they can do. They also give minor-league teams a chance to play against the big boys of the Premiership and occasionally make some waves.

And I love the idea of replaying a tournament match if it ends in a draw. It reminds me of the 18-hole playoff in golf's U.S. Open, which should be the standard for every tournament (or at least every major). The best part, at least for a Reading fan such as myself, is that the match goes to the underdog's home field for the replay. I say if you can't get it done at home against a supposedly inferior opponent, you deserve the road trip you're about to get.

- Plenty of hand-wringing, and deservedly so, over the recent deaths in Italy following soccer matches. Hooliganism in professional soccer is something I'll never understand, I don't think. The only time our sports fans riot is when the Lakers or the Pistons win the NBA championship (or whenever Ohio State does anything, but come on, you'd riot too if you lived in Columbus). But these are riots that are quite often occurring in the stands. It simply seems unthinkable to most Americans that a riot could break out in the stands of a sporting event between rival factions of fans unless Ron Artest was somehow involved.

Anyway, one of the precautions that Italian police are taking is that Italian soccer fans will no longer be able to take fireworks into the stands. Which, of course, makes me wonder: why the hell were fireworks allowed in the stands in the first place? Who thought this would lead to anything but disaster? I'm picturing the Guinness scientists here: "Allowing emotionally charged fans to bring miniature explosive devices into a tightly-packed crowd? Brilliant!" I hear Italian authorities are thinking of not allowing bombs on airplanes anymore either - stay tuned.

I also hear that skinheads have taken over the fan base for a Paris club, which led to rioting and an attempt on a Jewish fan's life when an Israeli team whooped them in Paris. Maybe I can't be a soccer fan. I don't know if I have that capacity for violence. I simply can't picture myself trying to kill a Cowboys fan if they beat the 'Skins - or really, doing anything more than drinking another beer and talking crap.

Update: Looks like Germany's got problems too.

- The MLS season starts in about a month. My prediction - the L.A. Galaxy will have Landon Donovan and David Beckham... and will still suck.

- Since I didn't post on this earlier, kudos to the U.S. women for winning the Four Nations Cup in China. Winning a competition that involves Germany when Kristine Lilly and Abby Wambach don't participate is no small feat. That'll prepare them well for the World Cup in September.

- U.S. men's team draw in Copa America - Argentina, Colombia, Paraguay. I really want to see the U.S.-Colombia game. Specifically, I want to see if all the players on the Colombian team survive for at least a month following the match, which would be a welcome change from the 1994 World Cup match. At least that's one thing in the Italian fans' corner - when their defender scored an own-goal against the U.S. in the World Cup, they didn't kill him.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Weekend Premiership Action

Mixed results this weekend - Reading won 2-0 against Aston Villa to maintain their sixth-place standing. Unfortunately for the Royals, Bolton - the fifth-place team - also won, defeating my other team, the Yankees (read: Fulham), at home. Arsenal, the fourth-place team that Bolton and Reading are chasing for a Champions League spot, also won, defeating hapless Wigan 2-1 on a late scoring binge. This leaves Reading six points back of the Gunners with eleven matches to go (that's two games back in baseball-speak). In theory not too difficult, but Reading has a tough schedule left, with trips to both Bolton and Arsenal and a visit from third-place Liverpool to go. The Royals can't lose any of these if they want to keep up the chase for that fourth C-League spot (which, I hear, won't exist after this year - UEFA's limiting each country to three teams).

In bad news for Royals fans, midfielder Steve Sidwell is probably on his way out. Don't get me wrong, there's plenty of other talent on that team (Lita, Doyle, Hunt, Convey when he's healthy) - it's not like the Washington Wizards losing Gilbert Arenas. But Sidwell is still probably the best player on the Reading team.

Not that I didn't expect this. Any time a smaller club gets a potential superstar, one of the bigger clubs throws money at him and he leaves. Eventually, all of the established talent ends up at either Chelsea, Liverpool, Man U, or Arsenal (and occasionally Newcastle and Tottenham), just like all the baseball talent goes through New York or Boston at some point. Reading isn't going to singlehandedly buck this trend - there will come a day when Leroy Lita leaves, and Kevin Doyle after him, and they'll probably end up at the Big Four at some point. The hope I have is that the Royals become the Oakland A's of the Premiership, keeping a solid young talent base and occasionally scaring the crap out of the bigger clubs.

Aside: I love how all four of the superhuge clubs have great excuses to hate them, with the possible exception of Arsenal. Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho is a whiny little bitch, Man U striker Wayne Rooney is a douche, and Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez is a condescending asshat (though I do like Peter Crouch and the little robot thing). I can't really think of a good reason to hate Arsenal. Hmmm... well, their manager and best player are French. That can't be good.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

US-Mexico Running Diary

OK, I see the people on ESPN.com try this, so I figure I’ll give it a shot. What follows is my running diary of the US-Mexico soccer game. This will probably suck, but whatever. It’ll be read by approximately six people. Which is approximately the same number of people who’ll be watching.

8:57: Still watching basketball highlights. I wonder if the people in the newsroom root for games to run over so they don’t have all this dead time to fill. Illinois-Northwestern finished early, and it looks like the lady in the ESPN newsroom is just giving us whatever random highlights the unfortunate news crew had lying around.

8:59: Yes, the lady in the newsroom just used the phrase “It’s a friendly, but they don’t like each other.” And I still haven’t figured out why Mexican fans – and damn, there are a lot of them, this is Arizona for God’s sake, can’t we get some of our fans out there? – insist on wearing those Nacho Libre masks.

9:03: Is it awkward at all for Bruce Arena to be in the booth so soon after he got canned from the National Team job? He’s gotta be just silently fuming up there. Which makes him work well with Eric Wynalda, who’s always fuming rather publicly. Wynalda’s hilarious to listen to because he’s such an ass. I think it’d be great to pair him with one of those sarcastic Brit commentators and watch the sparks fly. Also, I just saw one of our fans with a Nacho Libre mask. Is that really necessary? Really, you look like an idiot.

9:09: Just heard that Tim Howard, our starting keeper, landed on a nail during practice. What the heck is a nail doing in the middle of the field? This explains a hell of a lot about the Cardinals’ season.

9:11: I just realized I’m drinking a margarita. This is probably inappropriate.

9:12: We’re coming out in a 4-4-2, with Donovan starting as a forward. Which means he’s really going to have to stop tripping all over himself and just play. Mexico’s got a 4-4-2 also, with Blanco and Borgetti leading the attack. That’s a hell of a strike team. It’ll be tough for our young D-line to take care of. My worry is that it’ll keep Convey and Dempsey from going forward and force our attack to go through Clark and Mastroeni – which isn’t going to happen. It’s good to see Blanco back on the Mexican side – maybe their new coach isn’t as much of an asshole as Ricardo LaVolpe. Bad news for us, of course.

9:16: Things I can do without: the overwrought intro montage. Sure, this is the North American version of Cowboys-Redskins, but don’t assign this game a cosmic importance.

9:17: First gratuitous mention of the immigration issue. I hear Tom Tancredo wants to build a wall at midfield. There, now you have mine.

9:26: Kickoff. Bornstein’s hair is significantly shorter than it was against Denmark. Wynalda: “A little bit of a slow start…” Clock: less than one minute. Seriously.

9:29: Some Mexican guy just nailed the corner flag. That’s about all that’s happened so far.

9:30: Tim Howard needs to thank Jimmy Conrad for saving his ass there. Howard really misplayed that attack and almost gave Borgetti an easy shot. If this continues it’s gonna be a long night.

9:33: That’s why Blanco’s such a good player – that back-foot flick to set up a chance. Pretty. Good D by Conrad though. And Convey just gave us a run. This needs to happen more often.

9:36: I like that run by Donovan. Maybe he’s gonna start showing some attacking ability again. And yes, Bornstein definitely deserved that card. You can’t football-tackle someone. Salcido deserved the card too – that was a really hard foul on Rolfe. Let’s see what Convey can do with this free kick… nothing. Mastroeni frustrates the counter – good play.

9:40: Another scary Mexican attack, spoiled by Albright this time. We’re letting them down the field a lot. That’s the knock on Convey and Dempsey – good offense, not a lot of defense. At least our back line has shown some good positioning so far this half. They’re getting way too far down our left at Convey’s expense and Bornstein’s left picking up the slack.

9:45: One of the reasons why I love Bobby Convey – he basically shoved the Mexican defender and tried to throw the ball in, then looked all pissed off because he got whistled for the foul. That’s a true soccer player there.

9:52: Dempsey just got away with leg-whipping a Mexican guy. That should have been a card. Lucky for us. And Bornstein is looking really good – Medina keeps getting runs down our left and Bornstein keeps shutting him down and forcing him back. Arena’s right, though – we’re getting nowhere through central midfield. Someone just got away with a card foul on Dempsey – guess that’s payback.

9:55: That’s one of those plays that doesn’t get talked aobut all that much – Albright just ran all the way across the field to stop Blanco on a counterattack that could have turned dangerous.

9:57: Convey just threw a cross way up over everything. Arena likes it, but I would have liked the cross to be in range to be hit by someone, even if no one’s there. Wynalda’s right – our forwards are not running enough. Donovan and Rolfe need to be more aggressive.

9:59: BS dive of the day there. Mastroeni didn’t even touch him. Good job basically tackling Blanco there and getting away with it, Conrad. And the worst corner kick ever gets picked off by Howard.

10:01: Beautiful cross by Dempsey, and both our forwards completely missed it! That was our only scoring chance so far, and you don’t get many chances that good. Dempsey just fed you perfectly, guys – do something about it. Wynalda’s the only person who could get away with calling one of our guys’ performances “miserable.” He’s such n ass. I love it.

10:05: Looks like Convey’s still having issues coming back off that injury. He needs more playing time with Reading if he’s going to be effective for us. If he doesn’t take the brakes off and start moving, I think a switch to Mapp is in order.

10:06: Albright just robbed Borgetti of another scoring chance. Beautifully set up by Mexico though. And then one of their guys robs Rolfe on the other end as payback. That’s why soccer is so fun – the slightest hesitation on the part of a player costs you. Borgetti held up a little and Albright was there. Rolfe slows down a bit and gets spanked in the middle. Medina just launched a counter attack, left a pass a little too far upfield, and Conrad smacks it into oblivion. And now Borgetti goes up for a corner, is a little unconfident, and just sends it wide. These little exchanges make up for the expanses of dead time where neither team can get any sort of possession going.

10:10: Landon just created a turnover and ran straight at the goal. Sure, he missed horribly, but that aggressiveness is something we haven’t seen from Landon D in a while. I hope he keeps it up.

10:12: Halftime. Looks like neither of these teams have got anything going here. Both sides only got a couple of chances – Mexico’s on a missed cross by Blanco and a blown header by Borgetti, ours on an ignored cross by Dempsey and a weird-angle run by Donovan. I’m impressed by that young D of ours – Albright and Bornstein might not be Fabio Cannavaro yet but they’re holding down the fort well against a Mexican attack that seems to be coming down the flanks a lot. Our midfield has had trouble stringing passes together, though, and our forwards have created nothing. I’d look for Rolfe to go out in the second half and be replaced by maybe Eddie Johnson or Taylor Twellman. Now watching the highlights. I just saw the Spain goal where someone took a crack off a busted cross from roughly 15 and snuck it in. He took a chance and it paid off. That’s what we’re missing on our team – an American player would have settled that ball and tried to set up a play instead of whacking it toward the goal and seeing what happened. There’s a palpable confidence gap between the U.S. and the rest of the world. We simply don’t have players who believe that they can score from anywhere on the field – we think we have to score goals on clever passing and good positioning instead of just taking shots when we have them. The difference during the ’02 Cup was that we had players who were too na├»ve to understand that they’re not supposed to take shots. Justin Mapp and Kenny Cooper gave us that refreshing naivete during the Denmark match. The overreliance on the brain is what has gotten into Donovan recently – he has a habit of giving the ball up instead of taking it to the net, which is why it was refreshing to see him run at the goal toward the end of the first half. He’s got the talent to shake defenders and create chances – he just has to use it.

10:31: Rolfe’s still on. Hope he gets his act together, else he’ll be off the field. Mexico’s going with three strikers now plus Blanco, which is pretty intense. Looks like we’re really going to get a look at that back line of ours.

10:32: Bornstein frustrates another attack. This guy could be good someday. And is it just me, or does Convey look about thirteen?

10:36: Albright just got schooled on the attack there. Good thing Conrad is standing tall out there else that could have been easy pickings for Borgetti. There’s already more offense in this half than there was in the entire first half. Crazy White Haired Dude just shot… straight at Howard. Phew.

10:38: Albright creates a corner… GOOOOOOOAAAALLLLLLL!!!!!!! Donovan finds Conrad near the back post! It looked like that floated a little bit on Donovan, but I guess not – it landed right on Conrad’s head. A good defensive game, and now the goal – this is turning into a night to remember for Conrad.

10:41: Mexico started a good run, and Convey came out of nowhere to steal the ball and take it the other direction. That was sweet. That’s the Convey we saw flashes of during the Cup.

10:44: Guardado just scared the crap out of everyone. He completely schooled Dempsey and Albright on the attack and just missed Borgetti (who was marked pretty well by Bornstein on the play). Entering this game I thought our back line was our weakness… looks like it’s everything but our back line that’s weak. As I say that, Albright just takes a really goofy fall on the off-field concrete.

10:46: Nice run by Landon there, drawing the free kick just outside the penalty area. And a little bit of dramatics there on Landon D’s part. Too bad he went low on the free kick though. I’m liking the new Landon.

10:48: Conrad, being a beast, just bailed out the rest of his team again. Fonseca just had a great look at goal until Conrad got in front of him, creating a corner that missed horribly. Both sides have gotten a couple of good chances – we could see a 3-2 game by the time this is over. And another scoring opportunity, this time broken up by Bornstein.

10:51: Johnson for Rolfe. It was bound to happen at some point. Bornstein just created a nice chance for us, beating everyone to a loose bal….

10:52: …and we almost gave up a garbage goal. Conrad deflected yet another shot over the crossbar. This guy’s everywhere.

10:53: Damn, Borgetti just headed to Omar Bravo at the far post off a corner who headed it on goal… right to Howard. Then Borgetti fed Guardado, who got pushed off the shot by Howard as the ball wandered harmlessly past the goal. Scary series for us. That could have easily been two goals. They’re getting way too much from midfield and attacking almost with ease. That’s four shots in about two minutes of game time.

10:57: Eddie Johnson just got a run and put a shot on goal that got saved by Sanchez. That’s the kind of long shot that we don’t usually take though – good to see Johnson firing rather than just running meekly into the defense.

10:59: Guardado just created another attack. Right now this game is the Guardado/Conrad Show.

11:00: Oh, Convey, Convey, Convey… he just created an amazing chance by running down a flank, losing it, pressuring a defender, causing a turnover and getting a one-on-one with Sanchez… and proceeds to shoot it right at Sanchez. That could have easily been 2-0-lights-out. Carroll for Dempsey, which is okay since Dempsey has been kind of wandering around aimlessly out there today. We need some D on the wings now anyway.

11:03: Bornstein bails his team out with a blocked shot. This needs to be an official soccer stat. We’d be leading the world in something that way. Carroll just gave up a dumb yellow card. He didn’t need to make that foul – he had help behind him. Now it’s a free kick from about 30…

11:05: …which falls meekly into the wall. Mexico needs to be worried about its finishing. The midfield is excellent and the chances are there, but Conrad and Bocanegra have really thrown Borgetti off his game and neutralized the threats once they reached the box.

11:10: Another good chance by the Mexicans – they got the ball into the box but still couldn’t finish with it. This time they just let Howard pick up a loose cross to nobody.

11:11: Convey is tying his shoe. That’s great. 84th minute and he needs to kill some time, what does he do? Tie his shoe. Awesome.

11:13: Another great chance from Guardado, taking a shot from about 30 that really tested Howard. He has basically been the Mexican team today. Oooh, Eddie, that was close – one yard back and he has a goal, instead it's offside. And it’s rare in other sports to see the ref chew out a player the way the ref just chewed out Johnson for backtalking, eh?

11:15: Sigh of relief there. Fonseca just whiffed on a perfect cross with Howard out of position. Maybe this is our day after all…

11:17: GOOOOALLLLLL!!!! And that’s the icing on the cake, folks. You know it’s your day when you win possession because a pass from the other team hits the ref and bounces straight to you. Then Donovan played like Donovan should, running past defenders, around the keeper, and hitting the open net. That was what we expect out of Donovan. And on the replay, it looks like Oswaldo Sanchez takes a cheap shot at Eddie Johnson… and misses. It’s been that kind of night for Mexico. If you can’t even be a good cheap shot artist, it’s time to go home.

11:19: Borgetti got a great look at a corner and pretty much hit Howard in the face. That was a save made out of self defense. Before that, Conrad got in Borgetti’s face and created the corner out of a pretty good Mexican chance. Bocanegra just got in the way of another good cross…

11:21: …and it’s over. Mexico is refusing to shake hands with us. Why? They played a good game, and they have nothing to be ashamed of. They whipped us in midfield, but our defense, especially Jimmy Conrad, seemed to be in the right place on all their chances. I like the way Donovan played tonight – he looked like he has finally shaked that self-confidence problem that he has had and started running at the defense and creating plays. And I’ve been a Conrad doubter for a while… not anymore. He completely destroyed Borgetti today – the leading scorer in Mexican soccer history was pretty much a non-factor, and Conrad was in no small way responsible for that. Albright and Bornstein held their own too, even though a lot of Mexican attacks seemed to originate on the flanks. If Bocanegra and Conrad play the way they played today and we add in the already proven Gooch and Cherundolo, we have one heck of a defensive corps. If there’s one disappointment in today’s match, it was the midfield – Ricardo Clark and Mastroeni made me realize today how much we miss Claudio Reyna distributing the ball out there in center midfield. Convey and Dempsey looked slower than usual on the wings, but that’s understandable; Convey is coming off an injury and Dempsey is still trying to break into Fulham’s rotation. They definitely need to be at full speed and full confidence if we want to create more offense. Eddie Johnson was more of a presence out there than Chris Rolfe – he should be the leading striker from now on.

I was watching the end-of-game montage, and I noticed something. Now that Peyton Manning has won his championship, it seems inappropriate to refer to the “Manning face.” I propose we initiate the use of the “Borgetti face.” Seriously, Jared Borgetti makes the craziest faces when he misses a shot or whiffs on a chance or whatever. He basically scrunches his eyes and nose up while opening his mouth as wide as he can, yelling. It’s hilarious.

Anyway, good win for the U.S. team. That's two straight solid efforts under Bradley now. He has won me over, and I was pretty skeptical when we picked him. Think Sunil Gulati will actually make him full coach instead of this "interim" crap?

Yeah, I know we have owned Mexico in the recent past - we're 8-0-1 against them when we're not playing at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. But it's still an unexpected thrill for a country with a relatively small soccer fan base to beat a country that lives and dies by the sport. Maybe that's why I like to root for the U.S. national soccer team - it's about the only sport where we really have any right to feel like the underdog. And any time we win, it still feels like we're George Mason knocking off UConn. The novelty of good American soccer will wear off eventually, but for now, that's part of what makes it fun.

Inaugural Post

Hello, all. I realize that I'm somewhat of a soccerhead. This is not natural for an American. Most people don't even know what a "Fulham" is, much less root for them. Anyway, I'm going to start this so that my soccer rantings don't clog up my other blog. My teams are the U.S. national teams (men's and women's), Fulham and Reading from the Premiership, and D.C. United from MLS. My coverage will revolve around what's listed on ESPN Soccernet since soccer on TV doesn't exist around here. On the rare occasions when I actually get to watch one of my teams, I'll blog on that too. Anyway, hope you - ahem - get your kicks.