Steve Davis' weekly column, drilling down on five hot topics in American soccer
1. Think World Cup schedule is demanding? Look at Copa America!
Bruce Arena famously told us the World Cup is a young man’s game. Which is why he went young at the 2002 World Cup.
What makes it such a young man’s game isn’t the event per se; it’s the relentless pace of matches stacked on the debilitating toll of travel. All that makes World Cup a worthy test of mental focus and physiological endurance.
Well you know what? It looks like a casual day of beach soccer next to the upcoming Copa America Centenario.
In 2014, the United States played its three group matches over three cities in 11 days. Same at World Cup 2006; three matches over 11 days. In South Africa six years ago the United States actually caught a break, playing its trio of group matches over 12 days.
Starting Friday outside of San Francisco, Jurgen Klinsmann’s team plays three toughies in three cities across three times zone in … wait for it … just nine days.
Just like in Brazil, they’ll travel between each group match (San Francisco, then Chicago and then Philadelphia.) Oh, if they advance they might go all way back across our big land for a quarterfinal in Seattle. (Either way, they’ll travel slightly less than in 2014; the U.S. team returned to “base camp” in Sao Paulo after each contest across Brazil.)
All of this tells us a couple of things. First, Klinsmann must seriously dip into his 23-man roster. That happens a lot anyway; of the U.S. 23-man roster in 2014 only backup goalkeepers Brad Guzan and Nick Rimando went unused.
So the U.S. manager’s challenge is once again digging deep into that roster, strategically mixing and matching and assembling all the moving pieces as best as possible.
For instance, you’ll probably see Kyle Beckerman at least once at holding midfield, even though Michael Bradley looked so good in the role during the recent friendlies. Yes, we can all see that the United States gets into its offense faster when Bradley mans the spot. Tempo, man, tempo! But as Klinsmann explained last week after the friendly against Ecuador, his team needs Beckerman’s attention to defending when the opposition utilizes a true No. 10, a playmaker who patrols and creates from those areas in front of the back line. Besides, could Bradley really be maximally effective over three matches in nine days?
And it tells us this: Klinsmann should go as young as possible. I wrote about it for FourFourTwo, how this is an opportunity begging for young buckaroos like Darlington Nagbe, Christian Pulisic and others to become breakout stars.
So Klinsmann, please. Pretty please! Play the kids! Use Nagbe over Jermaine Jones when possible. Use Bobby Wood or Gyasi Zardes as a starter and then bring Clint Dempsey off the bench (rather than the other way around). If Klinsmann wants to nurse Pulisic along a bit slowly, fine. Use him off the bench – but give him 30 minutes rather than 20, or if the situation dictates, 20 minutes instead of 10.
It is a young man’s tournament. Even more so than that really, super big young man’s tournament.
2. High irony in the L.A. Galaxy’s goalkeeping issues
Here is what makes the Galaxy’s ongoing goalkeeper struggles so ironic, and perhaps even a bit perplexing (and certainly a bit frustrating if you’re an L.A. Galaxy supporter): We are living in a pretty good moment in MLS goalkeeping.
David Ousted is having another outstanding season in goal for Vancouver, a one-man band of highlight-maker saves. Andre Blake is rewarding Philadelphia bosses for their faith; the Jamaican international was handed the starter’s keys, and he has produced, big-time.
David Bingham just got his fourth shutout in San Jose, which puts him tied for second in MLS. No, he didn’t face a barrage of shots against Dallas (just two on target). On the other hand, he was alert and quick off his line in shutting down several thrusts before they became chances. Bingham, who at 26 is just now getting into the goalkeeping sweet spot, is probably fourth or fifth now in the U.S. player pool in the net.
Bill Hamid is in that mix, too, especially now that he’s back on the field; Hamid’s start in Friday’s win over Kansas City was the previously injured D.C. United keeper’s first this year. On it goes: Luis Robles has been fine in goal for New York. Clint Irwin (Toronto) and Stefan Frei (Seattle) have been solid citizens. Zac MacMath has been steady lately for the Colorado Rapids – and they still have trusty Tim Howard on the way!
All of it underscores how frustrating it must be for Bruce Arena to see points literally fumbled away. Mere seconds from splitting the points with Montreal, Brian Rowe let Didier Drogba’s free kick – knuckling perhaps, but hardly menacing – ricochet into goal for the late, late, late game-winner. Watch the clip. Yikes.
Jaime Penedo, who had been rock solid in goal along Victoria Street out in L.A. Galaxy Valley, wanted more money about this time last year. The Galaxy declined and, well, to recap: Donovan Ricketts was an out and out disaster, perhaps costing the Galaxy a playoff series. Dan Kennedy just hasn’t been what Arena and Co. thought when they picked up the former Chivas USA and FC Dallas man. Rowe has mostly kept his place since Kennedy returned from injury. Now, we’ll see about that.
The Galaxy probably has to find an answer from within. Unless they move Kennedy and his relatively pricey salary, they won’t have much money to go summer shopping.
3. Sacha Kljestan, assist machine of the moment
Sacha Kljestan can barely fall out of bed these days without picking up his next MLS assist. Or so it seems.
Which makes him the assist man of the moment – someone we all love talking about. Every year, some playmaker gets hot, goes on a spell where he’s racking up the helpers and gets us all speculating about that golden target of 20 in a year.
No, it never happens. It’s hard to sustain a good run of assists. No one has reached 20 since Carlos Valderrama reached 26 in 2000, when they handed out assists like it was free ice cream Friday at summer camp. But let’s not allow that to stop us! Let’s have some fun.
Because Kljestan is on another run, with three in the Red Bulls’ last two matches, now leading the league with 10. No one else has more than six.
The Red Bulls are 14 games into the 34-game season; thanks to Jurgen Klinsmann intransigence, the 30-year-old midfielder will not miss games during the summer international season.
He’s got a hot striker to feed now in Bradley Wright-Phillips; with his fourth MLS hat trick (over the weekend in a 3-0 romp over shorthanded Toronto FC), the Englishman set the franchise record and is now tied for second-most career hat tricks in MLS. (Stern John and Diego Serna have five each.)
Can Kljestan reach 20? New York is scoring a lot of goals now – so don’t bet against it.
4. Another foreign MLS manager struggles to adjust
Stop us if you’ve heard this before: a successful foreign manager has bombed out of MLS.
Of course you have. And you probably will again. (Starting to look at you, Patrick Vieira. And if Chicago’s first-year man Veljko Paunovic cannot coax goals from the Fire, some past the club’s current anemic rate, he’ll join the fraternity of “Former foreign MLS managers,” too.)
The Houston Dynamo gave up on Owen Coyle last week. Coyle, a Scotsman who had success in England’s highest levels, just couldn’t make the MLS adjustment. Which, looking at it a certain way, leaves him in some rather impressive company.
Mexico’s current boss, Juan Carlos Osorio, has El Tri confidently humming along, performing at high rev. As a tactician, Osorio is Hans Solo flying the Millennium Falcon. He’s good! And he was always a real gentleman, a pleasure to work with. But, speaking frankly, he pretty much stunk as an MLS manager. His days in the league bottomed out in the Red Bulls’ historically poor 2009 season; the record of 5-19-6 says it all.
Carlos Alberto Perreira won a World Cup with Brazil but couldn’t cut it as an MLS manager. (Admittedly that was in the league’s less stable, early days. But still ...) Ruud Gullit has probably forgotten more about soccer than most of us will ever know, but the Dutchman was a disaster in his short run as L.A. Galaxy boss, indifferent from the start and at a loss to cope with Major League Soccer’s quirky ways.
Raise your hand if you remember Carlos de los Cobos, who went 10-16-15 over a year and a half (2010-11) at Chicago.
(Obviously, there are foreign managers who can cope. Generally speaking, however, they are foreign managers who have previously played in MLS or spent time as an assistant. Dallas’ Oscar Pareja, for instance, did both.)
As the Dynamo scans for Coyle’s replacements, they’ll see plenty of qualified applicants from a pool of American coaches with MLS experience aplenty: Richie Williams, Robin Fraser, Kerry Zavagnin, Steve Ralston are all assistants around the league.
Mike Petke certainly did well enough in New York, 35-24-23 before his (then) wildly unpopular removal. Petke was always looking to soak up knowledge and exploit the experience as he learned on the job in his first head coaching assignment – which means he’s much wiser about it all now than in his earliest days in charge at Red Bull Arena.
Wade Barrett, a former player and assistant at Houston under Dominic Kinnear, is already in place at BBVA Compass Stadium, now fulfilling the head coaching duties while general manager Matt Jordan seeks the best long-term solution.
And for sure, the next opportunity awaits Jason Kreis, who continues to work part-time for Klinsmann’s U.S. staff. Kreis, on the other hand, may want to wait for the next opportunity; his resume of accomplishment at RSL will allow it, never mind what happened in that mess and muddle at NYCFC.
5. The Little Five
5a. DaMarcus Beasley turned 34 last week – then celebrated with an important goal, the team’s only strike in a 1-1 draw at Vancouver, a real pick-me-up on a bad week (due to Coyle’s dismissal). Beasley continues to perform well for the Dynamo. Generally, MLS clubs take 34-year-olds at their own risk. In this case, I’d take Beasley on my team. Still a good player. Good in the locker room (according to those who share locker rooms with him). And an unflappable sort over all of his 18 years as a pro.
5b. Dallas and New York were the winners among MLS clubs in Monday’s CONCACAF Champions League draw. They both avoided teams from Mexico, Canada and Costa Rica, generously enhancing their chances of advancement and minimizing necessary roster depletion in the tough months ahead.
5c. Let’s get this on record: For the seven expansion teams that joined MLS between 2007-13, the average rate of improvement from Years 1 and 2 was 1.5 wins. The best was Vancouver improving by five wins; worst was Portland dropping by three. Currently neither Orlando nor NYCFC is keeping up. The Lions finished with 12 wins last year; they are now at three wins. NYCFC is doing slightly better, with 10 wins last year but still behind normal pace of improvement with just four “Ws” in 2016.
5d. Which happens first? NYCFC gets a stadium? Miami gets a stadium and actually gets going in MLS? (The Beckham’s groups latest struggles detailed here.) Or the computers finally become self-aware and wipe us all out? Tough one, I know.
5e. Interesting story here, Giuseppe Rossi’s agent saying his client made a mistake by choosing to play for Italy rather than the United States. It should be noted that this is his agent speaking, not the man himself. Also, injuries undercut Rossi's career more than national team choices. Still, it’s interesting as this story arc becomes more complete. It’s complicated, I suppose, when one “feels” more of a connection to the land of his lineage. But his choice a few years ago – the New Jersey born-and-raised Rossi, now 29, chose the Azzurri over his actual homeland – always felt opportunistic. It’s one thing if your homeland isn’t calling, a la Jermaine Jones, who wasn’t getting German call-ups, so he played for the United States. I know not everyone agrees, but I always carried a small dose of disapproval over Rossi’s choice.
Steve Davis has covered Major League Soccer since is first kick in 1996. He writes on-line for FourFourTwo and co-hosts the weekly radio show/podcast ESPN Soccer Today on 103.3 FM in Dallas. Davis is also the radio play-by-play voice for FC Dallas on 100.7 FM.