Saturday, March 8, 2014

Major League Soccer 2014 Predictions

Today is Opening Day for Major League Soccer, or as they call it, "First Kick." The 19th season of MLS promises to be one of its best with Michael Bradley, Julio Cesar, Jermain Defoe, and Gaston Fernandez highlighting another significant influx of talent.

Here are my annual predictions for this coming season:

Rookie of the Year - Andre Blake, Goalkeeper, Philadelphia Union
Blake should be starting for the Union by midseason and with Philly's improved lineup he could be a key in the Union's chase for a playoff berth.

Defender of the Year - Matt Besler, Sporting Kansas City
The newly minted captain of the defending MLS champs has emerged as the best centerback in American soccer, and his 2014 MLS and World Cup campaigns should prove this without a shadow of a doubt.

Golden Boot - Jermain Defoe, Forward, Toronto FC
This will likely be a close race, with the likes of Chris Wondolowski, Robbie Keane, Mike Magee, Jack McInerney, and Marco Di Vaio all contending. But Defoe will be motivated in Toronto and should score 20+ goals if he can stay healthy.

Goalkeeper of the Year - Nick Rimando, Real Salt Lake
Those who have followed MLS in recent years already knew of his outstanding work, but he is getting more notoriety nationally with his impressive Gold Cup performance for the USMNT, leading them to the title.

Most Valuable Player - Michael Bradley, Midfielder, Toronto FC
Bradley should enjoy this coming year, emerging as the undisputed leader of the USMNT and up and coming Toronto FC. With all of Toronto's changes, Bradley will be called on to lead on the field and in the locker room, and he will pass these tests with flying colors.

Coach of the Year - Caleb Porter, Portland Timbers
Porter will have Portland contending for the Supporters Shield in his second season with the Timbers, after leading them to an impressive turnaround last year.

Playoff Teams
Eastern Conference - Sporting KC, New York Red Bulls, Toronto, Houston, Philadelphia
Western Conference - Portland, LA Galaxy, Seattle, Real Salt Lake, San Jose

MLS Cup - Sporting Kansas City over Portland Timbers

Sporting KC will have a lot of challenges just to repeat as Eastern Conference champions, let alone MLS Cup winners. But KC is the total package, and should be able to fend off a young and talented Timbers squad to win back-to-back titles. The Timbers are one year away.

Friday, January 31, 2014

USMNT 2014 Preview

The United States Men's National Team is less than 24 hours from kickoff of its 2014 campaign, a friendly against South Korea on Saturday. Here is an overview and some of my thoughts about the coming year for US Men Soccer:

The Group of Death Beckons in Brazil
Ever since the World Cup Draw in December, USMNT fans have been struggling to understand how the Stars and Stripes, the best team on paper in its pot of teams, got the absolute worst draw of the 32 team field. Not only did the US get placed in the "Group of Death," but our boys will also have to travel the most miles of any team in the field. The US, ranked 14th in the world according to the latest FIFA World Ranking, must play two of the top five in the world in its group.

World Cup Schedule
The USMNT's schedule for the Group Stage of the World Cup:

June 16 at 6:00 pm et vs Ghana (24th in the world)
June 22 at 6:00 pm et vs Portugal (5th in the world)
June 26 at 12:00 pm et vs Germany (2nd in the world)

The challenge to advance out of Group G is not insurmountable. The top two teams in each four-team group advance to the Round of 16. A win against Ghana, which knocked the US out of the last two World Cups, would not only provide significant revenge, but would get the US in position to advance. A draw against Portugal might be enough to get the US through with four points, but it might take a win there as well. Any result against Germany would likely be considered one of the most impressive achievements in US soccer history.

One of the biggest storylines this year will be the match against Germany. US Head Coach Jurgen Klinsmann was one of the stars of the 1990 World Cup Champion West German squad and managed the German National Team to a third-place finish in the 2006 World Cup. His successor, Joachim Low, was his assistant coach in 2006 and is still the head man for Germany. Emotions will be high.

Players to Watch
Over the next few months, we will have opportunities to watch players fight for spots on the 23-man roster going to Brazil. Tomorrow's lineup will mostly be made up of MLS players, meaning four of the likely Starting XI in Brazil - Jozy Altidore, Geoff Cameron, Clint Dempsey, and Tim Howard - will not be available because they are currently on English Premier League rosters. Another key figure for the USMNT, Michael Bradley, was in the middle of a transfer to Toronto FC of the MLS at the beginning of this training camp and will not be part of the lineup tomorrow.

This leaves an interesting mix of players competing against South Korea. Guys like Landon Donovan, Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez, Eddie Johnson, and Graham Zusi should be securely penciled in on the Brazil roster and will probably start tomorrow. Then you have "bubble" guys in Kyle Beckerman, Mix Diskerud, Clarence Goodson, Michael Parkhurst, and Chris Wondolowski who would love to see the field and make their case to be on that plane heading south this summer. Finally, you have promising young talent like Luis Gil and DeAndre Yedlin who are unlikely to be part of the mix in Brazil, but are thirsty for an opportunity to make an impression.

Final Word
World Cup years are always exciting. We have become a bit spoiled here in the United States, with the Stars and Stripes earning a spot in seven consecutive World Cup final rounds, reaching the Round of 16 in two of the previous six and the Quarterfinals in one other. Soccer has never been more popular in this country and mainstream society is becoming more and more supportive of our national team. This World Cup will be tough for the USMNT in the Group of Death, but I don't think Ghana, Portugal, or Germany are all that enthused about having to play Klinsmann's boys either. If the US can advance out of the group stage in this World Cup, we may see a level of interest in American soccer that has never been seen before.

Enjoy the ride!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

What's Next for #USMNT After World Cup Qualification

The United States Men's National Team completed its World Cup Qualification season by scoring two stoppage-time goals and defeating Panama, knocking the hosts out of contention. In so doing, the USMNT finished the Hex with a record-tying 22 points.

Watch highlights of the US win over Panama here.

With eight months remaining before the World Cup kicks off in June, 2014, the U.S. is planning a series of friendlies to work on team chemistry and identify the best lineup and substitute options for Brazil. Going into these next eight months, here is my predicted roster of 23 players for World Cup 2014 with starters in bold:

GK: Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, Nick Rimando
These three look locked in, barring injury. The U.S. is very fortunate to not only have a solid starter in Howard, but two very capable backups.

Defenders: Steve Cherundolo, Clarence Goodson, Matt Besler, Fabian Johnson, Omar Gonzalez, Brad Evans, Geoff Cameron, DaMarcus Beasley
The weakest link on this team continues to be the outside backs, but Steve Cherundolo's recent return from injuries offers promise to upgrade the right side. Johnson has looked good both in the midfield and on the outside, but midfield depth is strong so look for him to remain in the back and help push forward the attack in Brazil.

Midfielders: Landon Donovan, Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, Graham Zusi, Mix Diskerud, Kyle Beckerman, Alejandro Bedoya, Brad Davis
A strong and deep midfield looks better and better. Brad Davis' stellar showing against Panama, assisting on two goals and providing great service on set pieces, puts him in my roster of 23 for the first time.

Forwards: Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, Eddie Johnson, Aron Johannsson
The U.S. is in great shape with these four front men. Johannsson has been impressive and could be a great threat off the bench in Brazil.

The USMNT has two upcoming friendlies to finish off 2014: November 15 in Scotland and November 19 in Austria.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

#USMNT Clinches World Cup Berth!

In front of a record crowd in Columbus, Ohio, the USMNT defeated Mexico, 2-0, to clinch a berth in the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Second half goals from Eddie Johnson and Landon Donovan gave the U.S. its fourth consecutive "Dos A Cero" win over its arch rival in Columbus.

Watch highlights of the match, courtesy of U.S. Soccer, here.

The win was the seventh in ten matches for the Stars and Stripes in Columbus (the other three resulted in draws). Columbus has become one of the true homes of U.S. Soccer, and the atmosphere in Columbus Crew Stadium was electric more than an hour before kickoff. The crowd of 24,500+ was in full throat for most of the match, and many serenaded the team nearly an hour after the final whistle, when the draw between Honduras and Panama officially clinched the World Cup berth for the USMNT.

I was fortunate enough to be there last night, along with some great friends from the Cleveland Chapter of the American Outlaws. No doubt the greatest experience I have ever had at a sporting event. See below for a few of my favorite photos:

Met Kasey Keller and 
Brian McBride before the match!

Group shot before kickoff

Celebrating the USA's first goal

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

#USMNT Can Clinch World Cup Berth Tonight With Win Over Mexico

One of the biggest matches in recent U.S. Soccer history happens tonight about two and a half hours from my house, as the U.S. Men take on Mexico in Columbus, Ohio. I am incredibly excited to be going to the match, along with a few dozen fellow members of the Cleveland Chapter of the American Outlaws.

A U.S. win, coupled with a Honduras win or draw against Panama, will clinch a spot in next year's World Cup for the Americans, despite there being two additional qualifying matches on the Hex schedule. Clinching tonight would give Jurgen Klinsmann and the coaching staff some time to evaluate younger players and maybe experiment with some different lineups and formations.

Here are my three big questions for tonight's match:

  • Can the USMNT continue its dominance of Mexico in Columbus? The U.S. has won six and drawn three in its nine-match history of playing at Columbus Crew Stadium, with three of those six wins coming against Mexico (all by a 2-0 scoreline, which is why you will often here American soccer fans refer to "Dos A Cero"). Columbus is a great home for the Stars and Stripes. 
  • How will the absence of many American regulars affect the match? Jozy Altidore, Matt Besler, and Geoff Cameron will all miss tonight's match due to yellow card infractions. However, the biggest absence for tonight will likely be Michael Bradley, whose ankle injury in pre-match warmups on Friday was a big factor in the U.S. giving up two early goals to Costa Rica. Bradley is the heart and soul of this team - it's true most valuable player - and players like Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman will need to step up in the defensive midfield.
  • How will Mexico respond to its recent coaching change? Luis Fernando Tena, the head coach of Mexico's gold-winning Olympic team last year, was named interim coach after Jose Manuel de la Torre was fired following Friday's loss to Honduras. Tena did not have much time to change personnel or much else, but the mental aspect of this change could inspire Mexico to play well. Mexico is desperate - a loss here and they will likely have to win its two remaining matches to have a chance at qualifying for next year's World Cup.
So what do I think will happen? My heart says the U.S. will win by a 2-1 score. My head says Mexico will play with the desperation they need and earn a 1-1 draw. Either way, this match will feature the same things it always does: physicality, controversy, and tension. When it's all said and done, I hope I am celebrating a World Cup berth for the United States!

Saturday, August 17, 2013

English Premier League Predictions

As the 2013-14 English Premier League gets set to kickoff in a few minutes, I thought I would compile a quick list of predictions for the season. Here goes...

20. Crystal Palace - Most agree Palace are over their heads in the EPL, so don't look for much chance at avoiding relegation.
19. Norwich City - The Canaries spent heavily in the offseason, especially on Dutch forward Ricky van Wolfswinkel, but I don't see enough to avoid relegation in its third season back in the top league.
18. Hull City - Biggest additions were a couple Tottenham bench players, which aren't going to be enough to keep Hull up in its return.
17. Cardiff City - smart spending for the promoted side should be able to keep Cardiff up.
16. Newcastle United - I came close to moving them into a relegated position, as I just don't see much chance of Newcastle having a good season. A managerial change during the season is inevitable for Alan Pardew.
15. Stoke City - An influx of American talent will make this one of the more popular teams in the US, but Stoke looks like it will once again play a conservative style that won't be very fun to watch.
14. Sunderland - Jozy Altidore joins Sunderland in top form and could spark manager Pablo Di Canio's offense.
13. Aston Villa - Coming off a very disappointing season, the once-mighty Villains will once again rely on young phenom Christian Benteke up front to avoid relegation.
12. West Brom - One of last season's early surprise squads, West Brom lost top goal scorer Romelu Lukaku and struggled at the end of last year.
11. West Ham - Andy Carroll and Kevin Nolan lead a solid squad that could finish anywhere from sixth to sixteenth, depending on health and luck.
10. Fulham - A week ago, I was talking about Fulham as a candidate for relegation, but some outstanding transfers make its outlook much more positive. Darren Bent's addition at forward could be a steal.
9. Swansea - Wilfried Bony joins a talented Swansea side that features one of the attackers in the EPL in Michu.
8. Southampton - Rickie Lambert is one of the best young forwards in the world, and he leads a Saints club that should shine this season after a solid summer transfer season.
7. Everton - Roberto Martinez begins his first season as Blues manager with a solid squad that will once again rely on excellent play from left back Leighton Baines, but lack of quality forwards continues to be a big problem.
6. Liverpool - Luis Suarez will sit out the first six matches of the season, which will likely cost Liverpool a strong start, but they will be better than last season because of continued growth from young phenoms Philipp Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge.
5. Tottenham Hotspurs - The Spurs are likely to lose Gareth Bale and gave up on Clint Dempsey after one year, but they added Roberto Soldado and Paulinho among a host of transfers, spending most of the money they are about to get whenever the Bale saga ends. Spurs will once again threaten to make the top four until the very end.
4. Arsenal - A surprisingly quiet transfer season, despite a lot of rumors, has the Gunner faithful wondering what this season will bring, but Jack Wilshere should lead this team to another Champions League berth. Arsene Wenger will once again make the moves necessary to be in the top four in the January transfer window, if necessary.
3. Manchester United - David Moyes takes over as manager, but everyone is talking about what is going to happen with unhappy Wayne Rooney. Man U needs Rooney to contend with the top teams, but Robin van Persie will have a 20+ goal scoring season no matter what.
2. Manchester City - Manuel Pellegrini joins as manager, and he takes over maybe the most talented squad on paper in the EPL. They've lost enigmatic Carlos Tevez, but added Alvaro Negredo and Fernandinho, two of the best signings this summer in the league. Sergio Aguero will be one to watch this season, as he could have a big year or be relegated to the bench because of all the talent on this squad.
1. Chelsea - Jose Mourinho returns to lead a talented squad that should be able to get back to the top. Look for Eden Hazard and Juan Mata to benefit most from a more widespread attack.

Player of the Year
5. Jozy Altidore - maybe a little homerism here, but Altidore is in great form and will need to have a productive first year for Sunderland to avoid relegation
4. Jack Wilshere - Arsenal needs a big year from JW to hold on to its perennial Champions League berth
3. Leighton Baines - the best left back in the world once again returns to Everton despite rumors of joining Moyes at Manchester United...after another stellar season, a bigger offer from the Red Devils will likely mean a transfer
2. Robin van Persie - will once again lead the league in goals
1. Eden Hazard - Mourinho will help make a great player even greater

Thursday, August 15, 2013

USMNT Wins Comeback Thriller Over Bosnia and Herzegovina

The United States Men's National Team won it's 12th consecutive match last night, defeating Bosnia and Herzegovina by a 4-3 count. Jozy Altidore's second-half hat trick led the way, with Michael Bradley and Tim Howard providing strong leadership and quality play to defeat the world's 13th ranked squad.

The 12-match win streak is the longest in American soccer history and is the longest current win streak in world soccer. Bosnia and Herzegovina is undefeated in World Cup Qualifying and was playing at home, so this was a difficult task.

Watch highlights of last night's match here, courtesy of US Soccer:

The USA, ranked 19th in the world in the latest FIFA rankings, was in dire straits at the half, trailing 2-0. After watching a mostly listless attack from his side, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann made a tactical adjustment, coming out of the locker room with a 4-4-2 by moving Eddie Johnson alongside Altidore up top. He also moved Fabian Johnson to a more attacking midfield spot.

The moves paid off in the second half, as Altidore assisted Eddie Johnson on the first goal and Fabian Johnson provided Altidore with quality service for the tally to tie the score up at 2. Altidore then scored on a beautiful free kick to give the US the lead, and Bradley found Altidore on a world class pass for the fourth and final goal. Bosnia scored early in stoppage time, but it wasn't enough.

This match also provided the American debuts of center back John Anthony Brooks and forward Aron Johannsson. Brooks started and looked solid in the back, while Johannsson came on a sub and threatened to score a couple times late. Both look to be important future pieces for the USMNT.

The Stars and Stripes now get a few weeks off before a very important month of September, with World Cup Qualifiers at Costa Rica (September 6) and home vs Mexico in Columbus (September 10). If the US is able to win both matches, they will be assured a spot in next year's World Cup in Brazil. A win and a draw would likely keep the US atop the Hex with a clear path to Brazil, as well.