Saturday, July 31, 2010

Strike Force

On Wednesday, the city of Houston played host to the Major League Soccer All-Stars.

Tonight, the Houston Dynamo will host the biggest star in the MLS today, who was ineligible for the “showcase” against Manchester United days earlier. Thierry Henry, the French International, will make his New York Red Bulls and MLS regular season debut.

On the heels of a World Cup that received a lot of attention, Henry has attracted a lot of focus to the Red Bulls and the league. Much like David Beckham in 2007, the high-profile star Henry will bring in a lot of money from jersey sales and extra fans to the games. He’ll also make a big difference on the field.

Henry played in two Red Bulls exhibition matches last week against English Premier League sides Tottenham and Manchester City and he impressed. He scored in the 25th minute of his debut against Tottenham and in both matches showed creativity and a great vision with dangerous passes that sprung forth a strong attack.

In both those games Henry only played the first 45 minutes. Against Houston however he will see increased time.

But what makes his MLS debut more special is that it will be the first pairing of him and New York captain Juan Pablo Angel.

Angel, another Designated Player with EPL experience, is the Red Bull’s all-time career goals leader (even though he has only played in three and a half seasons with the club). He is a quality finisher who the team has heavily depended on.

However they have yet to find a strike-partner for him. The team has paired him with ten different players—Jozy Altidore, John Wolyniec, Salou Ibrahim, Macoumba Kandji, Dominic Oduro, Dane Richards, Francis Doe, Oscar Echeverry, Mike Magee, and Clint Mathis—before landing Henry.

The pairing could easily be the most potent in all of MLS. Henry played on the wing for much of the beginning of his career which has helped him become a great passer and crosser.

They are both dangerous scorers so defenses will not be able to key on one and double him. They will have to respect both forwards which should create more space than either is used to as well as open the field for their teammates, especially the wings like Richards, Jeremy Hall, and Danleigh Borman, who all have good speed.

Henry also has good pace and is able to get behind the defense. All of those skills should help the two players find each other and wreck havoc on their opposition. The opponent in their first game together could help expedite the process.

Houston—in seventh place in the eight-team Western Conference— has given up 25 goals, tied for most in the Western Conference, and will be further weakened.

Veteran goalkeeper Pat Onstad missed practice on Thursday and is not expected to start. Central defender Bobby Boswell will also miss the game due to a suspension he must serve for receiving a red card in the Dynamo’s previous game against Columbus.

If Henry and Angel can capitalize on the opportunity of playing together and against a vulnerable defense then the team can gain some much needed momentum as they head into the end of the season pushing for a playoff spot.

Not only will a successful Henry-Angel tandem generate plenty of buzz for the league and the team off the field, but it may also finally bring home a trophy.

What once was a dream—not only landing Henry but also winning the championship—becomes, at least partly, a reality tonight.

Photo Credits.
Thierry Henry: AP Photo/Mel Evans
Juan Pablo Angel: AP Photo/Bill Kostroun

Monday, July 26, 2010

New England Patriots Training Camp Preview: Running Back Depth

AP Photo/Steven Senne

Throughout the New England Patriots’ dynasty that encompassed the first ten years of the new millennium, one thing that was never stable was the running back situation.
The team got production from the position, whether it be Antowain Smith, Corey Dillon, or Kevin Faulk. However it was also the most inconsistent position. There was a rotating door of running backs due to spotty performances and an unbelievable amount of injuries.

Between the uneven play of the running backs and the star-studded quarterback the team has, the Patriots have evolved into a very pass-happy team, but the fans and coaches would like to add a little more balance to the attack.

Coming into the new decade, the team has found no complete answer. Players have shown flashes of brilliance, but then wound up benched because of turnovers or injuries. Who will the Patriots be able to depend on in 2010, an extremely pivotal season for the franchise?

Here is a look at the running backs on the roster.

Laurence Maroney

Maroney is arguably the most perplexing player on the Patriots roster. Drafted number 21 overall in 2006, he was the first running back New England selected in the first round since Robert Edwards was taken number 18 out of Georgia in 1998.

He has not lived up to expectations.

He has yet to reach 1,000 yards in a season or play all 16 games in a season. He turns the ball over at critical moments in the game and at critical spots on the field. Not to mention three Pro Bowl running backs—DeAngelo Williams, Joseph Addai, and Maurice Jones-Drew—were selected after him (four if you count Leon Washington who made the Pro Bowl as a kick returner).

Still, he flashes moments of brilliance that makes Pats fans think he may be able to turn this thing around yet. Just last year there were the two touchdown games against the Jets and the Saints, the 123-yard and one touchdown performance against Tennessee, and the 94-yards he put up against Carolina (three of those games were Patriot wins).

In the last year of his original rookie contract Maroney will be looking to play for a new contract as well.

At 25, Maroney is still young. The Patriots keep giving him chances, and he will likely start the season as the starting back. Can he overcome injuries and terribly inconsistent play? One has to wonder how much more patient the Pats and the team’s fans will be with him.

Fred Taylor

Taylor has had a long, successful career. The Pro Bowler was productive in his first year with the Patriots.

In six games he played in Taylor scored four rushing touchdowns and lead the team in rushing three times.

The problem is that he played in only six games. Taylor has a history of injury issues, especially lately, and the 34-year-old is in the twilight of his career.

He still has talent and can contribute on the field as well as being a good player to have in the locker room, but the Patriots cannot rely on him to be the number one featured back. One has to wonder how much Taylor has left in the tank.

Kevin Faulk

Faulk is New England’s do-it-all running back. He rushes the ball, catches passes out of the backfield, and occasionally returns kicks and punts. He’s never rushed for more than 640 yards in a season throughout his entire 11-year career with the New England Patriots, however he is the epitome of a team player and is vital to the franchise’s success.

Faulk is also surprisingly durable. Although he is 34-years-old, he has played in at least 15 games in each of the past four years and eight out of his 11 seasons overall.

Faulk resigned with the Pats this offseason and while he won’t be the featured back he is someone the team, especially Tom Brady, depends on.

Sammy Morris

Morris lead the Patriots in rushing yards (727) and rushing touchdowns (7) in 2008, and he spearheaded the most potent Patriots rushing attack in 20 years.

When he first came to the Patriots as a free agent in 2007, a cast-off of divisional rivals Buffalo and Miami, Morris was a solid backup running back that made a good contribution on special teams. However when those ahead of him fell due to injury Morris capitalized on the opportunities. He is in good favor with Patriot coaches and front office members.

Morris’ downfall is his inability to stay healthy. He hasn’t played all 16-regular season games since 2005 and has only done so three times in his ten year career.

BenJarvus Green-Ellis

An undrafted free agent signing the “Law Firm” has been an impressive signing for New England. He’s low on the totem pole, but because of constant injuries at the position Green-Ellis gets opportunities and he makes the most of them.

In 2008 when Maroney went on injured reserve, Green-Ellis was named the starter and really took over. He rushed for a total of 275 yards, compiled 3.7 yards per rush, and scored five touchdowns.

He won’t move in front of a healthy Maroney, Taylor, Faulk, and Morris but he has showed he has value and depth at this position on this team has proved absolutely necessary.

Chris Taylor

Green-Ellis’ running mate while at Indiana, Taylor hasn’t made much of a dent in the NFL. He was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2006 by Houston but has played a grand total of seven games and missed two entire seasons, including 2009—his first with New England.

It’s a mystery what he could provide and how he could climb the depth chart. Yet they re-signed him and kept him around after last season so there’s got to be something the organization sees in him.

Thomas Clayton

A burly running back at 5’11”, Clayton spent all of 2007 and all but two weeks in 2008 on San Francisco’s practice squad, then spent 2009 on injured reserve. He will battle Taylor for a spot on the team, but his outlook isn’t so rosy as of now.

Eric Kettani

The Navy graduate was placed on military reserve last season and will most likely not be a contributor in the upcoming season either.