Thursday, July 16, 2009

To Care Or Not To Care

Photo Credit. AP Photo/ Rich Schultz

Tomorrow evening, David Beckham returns to the MLS when his Los Angeles Galaxy travel to New Jersey to play Red Bull New York.

The burning question: does anyone care?

The fans, the media, his teammates, Beckham himself, do any of them care?

When he first crossed the pond, some were claiming he would be the soccer savior in America.

While savior was an extreme title to give him, there was some legitimacy in the idea that Beckham’s name was popular enough that it had crossover appeal outside of soccer to draw more casual, or non-fans, to MLS and the sport as a whole.

Beckham’s arrival did generate a lot of buzz about MLS and soccer in the media and at the gates.

The Galaxy had the highest average attendance in the league, and when they were the visitors, the home team saw an incremental spike in attendance, like when over 66 thousand people showed up to see Beckham’s first trip to Giants Stadium against the Red Bulls. Beckham jersey sales also did well.

However, a few things really hampered his first season.

For starters, Beckham’s health was not 100%.

Knee problems, including a sprained right medial collateral ligament, kept him from making only seven appearances in his first season with the club, in which a handful he only came on as a substitute.

The Galaxy were also a terrible team.

Losing never helps a player’s profile, and Los Angeles lost a lot. They were eliminated from the playoffs, which meant one of the bigger stages of the MLS season would be without its biggest marketing tool.

Another disappointing aspect was the level of expectations that were placed, unfairly, on Beckham.

What non-soccer fans expected out of the player from the two biggest clubs in the world, Manchester United and Real Madrid, was for him to dominate the league and score a lot of goals.

What they didn’t understand was that that wasn’t the type of player Beckham was.
Beckham was a playmaking midfielder, a facilitator of the ball, with extremely good touch and a deadly free kick. He was not a goal scorer.

Spectators were building him up to be something he wasn’t, and when he didn’t deliver, they felt something was wrong with him and they were cheated by all the media hype.

What didn’t help Beckham’s case was that along with not scoring he was also not doing a great job of distributing the ball.

In his Galaxy career, he has only registered a total of 12 assists, certainly not what one would expect from a player of his caliber. Just last season, Columbus Crew midfielder Guillermo Barros Schelotto lead the league with 19 assists.

Nothing was worse, though, when Beckham was loaned out to AC Milan in the offseason.
One reason for the loan was because Beckham wanted to keep playing at a high level in order to continue to fight for a spot on the English national team.

While one can never berate a guy for wanting to play for his country, it is unfortunate that he would only be considered if he were playing abroad.

Things got uglier when he stepped on the field.

Beckham looked like a rejuvenated player. He scored two goals in his first four matches, assisted a number of others, and looked to be playing at top form again.

It was great to see a player who had been in MLS the past season and a half performing at a high level in the Serie A, but one couldn’t help but wonder why Beckham couldn’t perform this way in an L.A. uniform.

Where was this skill, talent, and production?

Why was it all of a sudden just showing up in Italy and not the states?

Then he pushed to extend his loan.

Beckham was supposed to return in time for the beginning of the MLS season. Yet he forced his hand into staying with Milan until the end of the Serie A season, not making him eligible to return to MLS until today. What Beckham really wanted was to be sold to Milan for good.

Now Beckham looked like a player who didn’t want to be a part of the league.

All his talk about being serious about doing his part to make America a soccer nation, and not just being another paycheck, seemed to be for naught. Comparing and contrasting his play in L.A. to Milan made him look uninspired on the field in L.A., and now he was backing it up with his contract dispute.

Beckham didn’t want to be here.

Recently, Beckham has made headlines again, but this time as part of the subject of a book.

The Beckham Experiment is written by Sports Illustrated writer Grant Wahl, detailing Beckham’s arrival in the states and impact on the game here.

One of the interview subjects is Galaxy teammate Landon Donovan. Donovan rips into Beckham and the perception that he didn’t want to be here.

"He's not shown (he's a good team-mate). I can't think of another guy where I'd say he wasn't a good team-mate, he didn't give everything through all this, he didn't still care. But with (Beckham), I'd say no, he wasn't committed,” said Donovan.

"Let's say he does stay here for three more years. I'm not going to spend the next three years of my life doing it this way. This is [expletive] miserable. I don't want to have soccer be this way."

While Beckham countered that he’d never been called a bad teammate anywhere he’s played, it’s tough to believe he’s been completely committed to MLS and the Galaxy.
He was much more explosive on the field at AC Milan, like playing for them mattered more to him.

Between the stark difference in play and his push to stay at Milan and be away from L.A., the team he is under contract for, has left a sour taste in many people’s mouths. Now that he’s finally coming back, it’s tough to tell if anybody cares anymore.

There will be some attention on the Galaxy-Red Bull game, especially two days after Wahl’s book came out.

How will Beckham and Donovan’s playing relationship be?

Will Beckham even be fit enough to play?

How much media coverage will the game receive?

Most importantly, will Beckham, after all this controversy, still be enough of a draw to bring fans out to Giants Stadium to watch a miserable Red Bulls team?

Beckham better put on a show in New Jersey like he did in Italy, because we know he’s capable, and if he doesn’t, this “savior” will become a fallen angel, and may take the intrigue of the league down with him if he isn’t careful.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

What We Learned

Photo Credit. AP Photo/ Paul Thomas

The FIFA Confederations Cup was meant to be a warm-up for next summer’s World Cup.

The competition, the venue, and the team that was sent was all put together to allow for select nations to get an idea of where they stand and what they need to do in order to be successful in South Africa one year from now.

The United States learned quite a bit over the past few weeks. Here is a look at some of the things that the Americans can take out of the Confederations Cup.

The U.S. can compete with the world’s best

Some of the team’s games have not been pretty. However, this Confederations Cup really forced them to step up to the competition and step up they did, eventually.

They beat Spain, the No. 1 ranked team in the world, 2-0 to reach the finals and then they pushed Brazil to the limits, even though they lost 3-2.

These outings were quite impressive and proved that the U.S. can stand toe-to-toe with any soccer power in the world.

It is imperative though that the team came out with a sense of urgency and with a chip on their shoulder. Without those things, they cannot compete.

In recent outings against Costa Rica and the first match against Brazil, the Americans were undisciplined, lagging, uninspired, and complacent, and they got pounded because of it.

When they play with heart, when they fight, when they scrap for loose balls, when they show that they want to be out on the field and they want to win—come hell or high water—they pull out some great performances.

That’s a team that the whole country can get behind.

Tim Howard is one of the world’s best goalkeepers

Howard proved that he is in the elite class of keepers in the world.

Sure, some of the scores were a bit high; 3-1 loss to Italy, 3-0 and 3-2 losses against Brazil, and in the shutout against Egypt backup Brad Guzan was in net. However, watching the games you would see how valuable Howard is.

Howard has incredibly quick reflexes, great poise, and good decision making skills. These traits, combined with his athleticism, allow him to make marvelous saves.

Had Tim Howard not been in net for the Americans, especially in the match against Spain and the final against Brazil, you can bet the scores would have been very lopsided and the country would be nowhere near as proud of this team as they are today.

You can thank Tim Howard for that.

The team is still young and immature

Thirteen players from the 23-man Confederations Cup roster are 25-years-of-age or younger, and only seven have over 25 Caps.

Their immaturity and their inexperience at the international level still surfaces.

Michael Bradley, Sacha Kljestan, and Ricardo Clark were all given red cards for late and reckless challenges. While the color of the cards were questionable, they were still unnecessary and lazy tackles.

Jozy Altidore was given a yellow card for taking off his jersey after scoring against Spain. While it is true his emotions were running high, taking off one’s jersey is explicitly against the rules and it is a silly way to get a card.

Card accumulation and a potential second yellow card in the game could have had Altidore suspended and the team shorthanded. You need to control yourself better than that.

They are young, and they will learn, but the learning curve has to be faster and they cannot make foolish mistakes that will cost the team.

If players are going to transfer to clubs overseas, they need to go where they will play

In order to be a competitive team, players need to be competing at a high level on a regular basis. Practicing with top flight teams is not enough.

Take a look at the Confederations Cup roster. Jozy Altidore, Freddy Adu, DaMarcus Beasley, and Heath Pearce have trouble even making the bench at their respective clubs, let alone playing in games.

These guys will not get better if they do not play. Plain and simple.

What we didn’t learn:

Anything about Freddy Adu

My boy Tom DeRiggi wrote to me, “Freddy Adu= what we learned= he can cheer on the people actually playing with the best of them."

We have no idea what kind of player he is, how effective he can be. He really has not been tested at a high level.

He struggled to get off the bench in the beginning of his time with D.C. United. In a (shortened) season with Real Salt Lake, he made only 11 appearances.

He has played in only 11 games for Benifica, and barely gets any time with AS Monaco. He also has only been on the field for the senior national team 13 times, and didn’t see the pitch at all this tournament.

Many were excited he made the roster, but without seeing him play, he still remains a question mark.

Is he more dangerous offensively than Benny Feilhaber?

Can he complement Michael Bradley?

Does he defend adequately enough? Is central midfield the proper place for him to be playing, or should we utilize him on the wing or as a striker?

No one knows these answers.

Hopefully the Gold Cup will shed some light on Adu’s game.

Other musings:

Landon Donovan needs to learn when to pull the trigger. He had a number of chances to shoot during different games, but didn’t.

He’s the captain and needs to take the initiative. PK’s are nice, but you cannot depend on getting them all the time.

Clint Dempsey still has some magic while in a U.S. uniform. He disappeared in the beginning of the tournament but really stepped up against Egypt, Spain, and Brazil to renew the country’s faith in him.

Jay DeMerit and Jonathan Spector did a great job during the tournament and could really complete a defensive line that had some questions.

And how many times did we hear “Sacha Kljestan is a player without confidence right now”? Too many.

I’m all for getting a guy’s confidence back, but if he is not believing in his ability and it is affecting his performance on the field, why is he subbed into the tournament’s final, against superpower Brazil, in a 2-1/2-2 game (he got off the bench when it was 2-1, but didn’t come in until after Brazil scored the equalizer)?

Overall, the tournament can be viewed as a success.

The team learned a lot over the course of these five games about themselves. They also were able to get familiar with the country and the stadiums, which is only an added bonus next year (provided they do indeed qualify).

The focus shifts onto the Gold Cup now, and hopefully the team can continue to improve and perform at a high level.

Photo Credits.
Howard and Benny Feilhaber: AP Photo/ Martin Meissner
Adu: AP Photo/ Elane Thompson