1. Calling on U.S. veterans to stand up, be counted
Depending on how far you buy into some of the (probably oversold) hype, Saturday’s U.S.-Mexico match lands somewhere between “garden variety important” and the most significant soccer happening in our country since Pele himself signed up 40 years ago for a hopeful NASL.
Saturday’s match does mean something, of course. And it’s certainly clear that this week’s Rose Bowl biggie means a lot to the players and to U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann, whose footing looks increasingly tenuous these days.
So what better time for a few of the U.S. vets to elevate their game, to rise to the moment. In the clichéd sporting vernacular, they call it “stepping up.”
Whatever you call it, it’s time for a few of them. Generally speaking, since the 2014 World Cup, the U.S. men who matter most haven’t done enough in rising to the moment, in delivering the clutch and that sort of stuff. When they have, it has arrived in spurts rather than in recurring, dependable waves.
Clint Dempsey and Brad Guzan have generally stood the high-pressure tests, earning regular gold stars and performing consistently over the last few months. Past that …
Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Jermaine Jones, Matt Besler and Graham Zusi were named to Klinsmann’s roster for this one, all holdovers from the 2014 World Cup roster. They are foremost among the older hands who have drifted in and out of form, the men who should have led a more successful Gold Cup charge, who could have put up more resistance in the recent, meek showing against Brazil. (Omar Gonzalez would be on this list, too, except that he wasn’t even named to this weekend’s roster.)
Maybe the frustrating inconsistency isn’t all the players’ fault. Jermaine Jones went through a failed position switch at Klinsmann’s request. And we’ve all beaten the “Bradley as playmaker?” debate to death.
But Besler, Zusi and Altidore? This is the one game where, assuming they play, they simply must deliver. Same for Jones and Bradley, no matter what role they are assigned. Even if they can’t round out a complete, comprehensive performance, they need to stand up and be counted here. Get a goal. Or get an assist. Or come up with a huge defensive intervention. Or imprint the game with memorable, unyielding effort or through nearly perfect midfield connecting. In short, find a way to make a major impact.
If the match is as big as U.S. Soccer (and the broadcast partners at FS1) say, then then is the moment of 2015 to seize.
2. Didier Drogba (right man, right time) sets a new standard
Any student of Major League Soccer knows the deal when it comes to fall soccer: the sides that do best in the playoffs aren’t necessarily the “best” teams, but the hottest teams of the moment.
You just have to be “right” at the right time – assuming you’ve been adequate over the longer haul, having collected enough points to stay relevant in the post-season chase. One way to arrive into that sweet spot of opportunism in September and October is with the proverbial “final piece.”
He’s not easy to find; so many have tried and failed to place that last little cog into the machine. The list of splashy summer signings who sagged more than soared is long and sad indeed.
As final attacking pieces go, the late-summer additions who come stomping in with a major impact, the standard is Federico Higuaín. The Argentine playmaker debuted for Columbus in late August of 2012 and almost single-handedly drove the Crew up and over the playoff red line.
He played just 13 matches but finished with 5 goals and 7 assists out of the midfield for an otherwise averagely talented team; that’s absolutely brilliant production, especially for a newcomer into the league.
In more defensive positions, Jermaine Jones transformed New England last year from a hard-trying side that couldn’t win tight ones into an MLS Cup threat.
Well, now comes Didier Drogba, the Montreal Impact striker who is setting new standards for late-season influential additions. In one sense, this shouldn’t be a surprise; the man is a Chelsea and Ivorian legend for reason, after all.
Drogba debuted late on Aug. 22 in a 1-0 loss to Philadelphia. Since then he has scored 7 goals in 7 appearances. More importantly the club is 4-2-2 since that loss to Philly, having gained strong footing in the playoff race.
Drogba’s presence (not to mention his savvy first touch and his world class strength on the ball) means everything to Montreal right now. Yes, new manager Mauro Biello has something to do with it, too, but it’s a players’ game, and Drogba is delivering at weapons-grade level.
It would be easy to say “Montreal should have acquired a player like Drogba (or Drogba!) to begin the season.” But that’s not necessarily the case. The man is 37. His miles have been logged in the demanding EPL and while collecting 104 caps for Ivory Coast over a dozen years. Fair to wonder whether he could be “full-effect Drogba” over a longer window?
But go back to the first part of this item; it’s about being “right at the right time.” The man is making top impact now; he was the perfect man at the perfect time.
3. Best MLS vet who has never been in an MLS playoff
With MLS playoff races so tight, every little managerial decision matters. One of the most interesting personnel decisions ahead involves a man who hasn’t played in more than a month, a man who has never participated in an MLS playoff match despite years and years of league service.
In Dallas, Dan Kennedy is back to full health and ready to challenge for his starting spot once again. That leaves manager Oscar Pareja with a weighty call:
Young Jesse Gonzalez has allowed 9 goals in 7 starts and has a 4-3-0 record. Numbers-wise, he’s a little behind Kennedy (19 goals allowed in 16 starts, a 7-5-4 record), but he’s been impressive in fill-in duty.
It looks like a fairly easy call. After all, Kennedy has 160 matches of MLS experience, which is 153 more than Gonzalez.
But there are a couple of possible mitigating factors to consider, starting with Pareja’s unbending belief in his “kids.” Pareja trusts ‘em and plays ‘em like no manager in MLS has before.
And there’s this: Kennedy, for all his talent and for all his years of MLS service – he’s 33 years old and made his first MLS save back in 2008 – he no more playoff experience than Gonzalez. Ain’t that a kick in the head! Kennedy has never participated in an MLS playoff match. I asked him about it recently to be sure.
Kennedy was a Chivas USA man for all his previous years, which obviously explains a lot.
Chivas did make the playoffs under Preki in 2008. Brad Guzan was the club’s No. 1 that year but left in the summer for Aston Villa, putting Kennedy in charge. Unfortunately, Kennedy was red carded in the team’s final regular season contest.
So Kennedy lost his starting spot for the first round (in which the Goats were eliminated) and the opportunity for a post-season start never came up again.
If nothing else, the nine-year MLS veteran surely must be the answer to a great trivia question: Who is the only MLS player with more than 150 career starts, who has been an MLS All-Star, who has never participated in an MLS playoff match?
4. More signs of Chicago hope
Andy Dufresne told us from the darkness of Shawshank that “hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things.”
The point isn’t that Toyota Park outside Chicago is a prison. Hardly. This is for the Chicago Fire supporters, who could use some hope. While most of MLS preps for the next post-season positioning jostle, fans in Bridgeview are left to dream of better days ahead.
The thing is, a lot seems to be in place. I wrote two weeks back of a revamped front office that looks promising, and about promising players. But here are two more reasons for optimism in Bridgeview:
Harry Shipp played centrally last week as the Fire took down 2014 MLS runner-up New England, a team that could certainly kick up another playoff fuss in 2015. Let’s hope Shipp stays there, because he was so miscast previously out wide.
This is what happens when clubs don’t trust their young Americans in key spots. Which is why the team went out and got Shaun Maloney, who was quickly identified as the next DP bust in a lengthy succession of them in Bridgeview.
(As MLSSoccer.com’s Matt Doyle smartly points out here, foreign imports are generally given a longer leash than American kids in settling into creative roles. It’s some kind of weird, institutional prejudice within the U.S. soccer establishment.)
And then there is Gilberto, who will always have the misfortune of being “the guy they got instead of Didier Drogba.” Remember, Drogba was soooo close to joining the Fire before Montreal won the prize. So they “settled” for Plan B in Bridgeview, which was Gilberto. If you don’t understand why that’s a sore spot around Bridgeview, see item No. 2 above.
Gilberto is just 26, and he was hardly awful previously at Toronto. He was basically shipped out on loan to Brazil because he wasn’t Sebastian Giovinco – and since “Seba” is practically a shoe-in for league MVP in 2015, that’s clearly no sin.
Gilberto has four goals in six starts for Chicago since re-joining MLS, and he looks like a fixture to build around for 2016. Between Gilberto and the similarly promising Kennedy Igboananike, they’ve got a tough choice to make. Both are DPs, and with needs to fill all around the field, they’d be smart not to keep a pair of DPs who essentially play the same position.
5. The Little Five
5a. Do not underestimate the significance of Giovani dos Santos’ absence for this week’s Rose Bowl biggie. Or perhaps you don’t remember the Mexican international – his country’s most dynamic attacker – absolutely shredding the U.S. defense in the Gold Cup final inside this very same Rose Bowl back in 2011. That’s the game that ultimately cost Bob Bradley his job.
5b. I don’t necessarily “blame” U.S. Soccer for staging an international friendly next week (vs. Costa Rica at Red Bull Arena). After all, it’s another chance for Klinsmann to tinker and kick the tires on combinations, etc. But has there ever been a more meaningless U.S. friendly, one that will come and go with pretty much zero interest or appeal? Coming three days after such a meaningful match (Saturday in the Rose Bowl) and with athletes eager to get back to their clubs for matches that actually matter (especially in MLS, where every single contest has big significance for someone now) the regard for this one by supporters and participants alike will be at all-time low.
5c. We all looked at the Western Conference this year and said, “They clobber the East in quality.” It was mostly a hunch, of course. Well, here’s the evidence, with just one cross-conference match to play: the West is 45-34-19 against the East. Eastern teams went West to collect just nine wins. Conversely, Western teams took 17 wins out of Eastern Conference venues.
5d. The tactical boo-boo of just-completed MLS Round 31 was surely Houston manager Owen Coyle’s choice to play Boniek Garcia at right back against FC Dallas. Garcia had played that position lately for the Dynamo, and didn’t look out of place. But … ! He had not played the position against Fabian Castillo, the league’s most dangerous left-sided attacker. The results weren’t pretty; Coyle had to make a tactical change and substitution less than 25 minutes into the contest. That’s basically a manager raising his hand and saying, “I got this one wrong.”
5e. Chicago finishes its 2015 road schedule next week at D.C. United. Unless they win, an MLS team will go an entire season without a road win. Montreal did it last year, and United went winless away from home in 2013.