Sunday, August 14, 2011

Chris Konopka Makes Solid Spot Start in Goal for the New York Red Bulls

Chris Konopka, a 26-year-old alumnus of Toms River High School East (Toms River, NJ) and Providence College, got the opportunity of a lifetime Saturday night. After spending three years in Ireland, the six-foot-five-inch goalkeeper made his first ever MLS start for his hometown New York Red Bulls in front of a sold-out crowd of 25,177.

“I grew up watching the MetroStars. I grew up watching Tony Meola, Tim Howard,” Konopka told the media. “They were the guys that I watched.”

The only other thing he could’ve asked for was a win.

Konopka made three saves as the Red Bulls came from behind to earn a point in a 2-2 draw against the Chicago Fire.

He was a surprise start to begin with. Konopka is an MLS pool goalkeeper, a resource available to teams in the league to bring in goalies in case of emergency. New York starter Frank Rost was ruled out earlier in the week due to a quadriceps injury. Former starter Bouna Coundoul was thought to be the logical replacement, but his flight back to the States after playing for the Senegalese National Team was late and didn’t arrive until late Friday night.

So it was down to Konopka, who had been training with the club, and Alex Horwath, who had made one start earlier in the season and didn’t surrender a goal in a 0-0 draw. Even though Horwath had the edge in “experience” and had been with the club longer, Konopka did enough to become the fifth goalie used by the Red Bulls this season and earn his first MLS start (Konopka spent 2007 with the then-Kansas City Wizards—now Sporting Kansas City—but did not make a regular season appearance with the team).

“Konopka has been outstanding this week,” head coach Hans Backe said. “He’s looked very sharp. That’s why we have him over Alex Horwath.”

Konopka didn’t do terribly. There were two goals allowed, but the team’s defensive effort was subpar and he was put in a difficult spot on both goals as the Fire’s speedy forwards beat the Red Bull’s backline multiple times.

On the first goal, Patrick Nyarko got free on the left side and sent in a cross in front of the net to former-Red Bull Dominic Oduro, who had gotten between the two centerbacks—who seemed to not notice Oduro made a cut to goal and was open. Konopka got a piece of the shot, but it trickled underneath him and into the back of the net.

The second goal came on a fast break. Once again, Nyarko got behind the defensive thanks to a through ball from Marco Poppa. Nyarko attempted to chip the ball over Konopka but the tall keeper was able to knock the shot down. The ball fell in front of Fire midfielder Sebastian Grazzini, however, who then put the rebound away.

“It’s a little bit unfortunate about it but it is what it is,” Konopka told reporters after the game. “I just had to turn and keep my head up and play the rest of the match.”

Konopka did make a nice save in the second half to preserve the tie. With some good passing from the Fire, Orr Barrouch slipped behind the defense after receiving a through ball (a recurring motif for the night) and dribbled in one-on-one with the goalie. Konopka came out, stayed low, cut off the angle and made a point-blank save.

While it was a story-book setting for Konopka, the total result probably wasn’t the kind that Konopka dreamed of in his ideal situation, especially when the Red Bulls could’ve really used a win as they make a push for the playoffs. Still he may have done enough to earn another chance.

Rost is out for a month. Coundoul is inconsistent and has fallen out of favor with club management. Greg Sutton was loaned out to the Montreal Impact. So, for at least one more week, if Konopka can continue his strong practice sessions, he may be given at least one more opportunity to start between the posts ahead of Horwath.

“You just gotta’ try and stay positive,” Konopka told the media after the game. “There’s nine games left till the end of this season. I’m a part of this team through and through till the end.”

Given the revolving door that has been the Red Bulls goalkeeper position this year, it certainly isn’t far-fetched to think that the big and athletic keeper will be seen again.

Photo credits.
Chris Konopka: photo from Waterford United,

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Jürgen Klinsmann and the German feel of the United States Men's National Team

The United States Men’s National Team is going through an identity crisis. All that’s left is changing the flag from red, white and blue to the black, red and gold of Germany.

The signing of Jürgen Klinsmann as head coach of the senior team gives this team an increasingly strong German presence, one that had already begun to develop prior to the new skipper’s arrival.

Klinsmann is a former World Cup winner for Die Mannschaft, as well as a player for a European Championship winning team and a German Footballer of the Year award winner in 1994. He is one of the most famous and well-respected players in Germany’s soccer history. And as a manager he revamped the nation’s playing style and helped them finish third in the 2006 World Cup, when they hosted the tournament.

As he writes in his manifesto, Klinsmann transformed the German National Team into an offensive minded squad; attacking, being aggressive and “proactive”. To help the senior team accomplish this transformation, Klinsmann reached out to many of the German Bundesliga coaches to help implement that style of play throughout the country, creating a national identity through style of play.

It’s a style many USMNT supporters have wished their country would adopt and it seems that Klinsmann plans to implement. And he’s relying on players with strong ties to the German game to introduce it to the rest of the USA.

The team already has midfielder Jermaine Jones. He grew up in Frankfurt-Bonames with his mother and his father was an African-American soldier stationed in Germany. He played professionally in Germany from 2000-2011 before being loaned to EPL side Blackburn Rovers. Jones even made three appearances for the German National Team (under Klinsmann’s assistant-turned head coach Joachim Löw) before using a FIFA rule change to allow him to switch eligibility to the USMNT.

There is also the tantalizing prospect, Timothy Chandler. He was born in Frankfurt—also to an African-American soldier and German mother—lived in Germany his entire life and has played professionally only in Germany. He plays right fullback, but can also play on the wing.

Fans want to see more of Chandler, already labeling him the next starter at right fullback, but he was not named to the Gold Cup roster (left off due to concerns from his club team) and was an injury scratch for the Mexico friendly. Still, he figures to play a large role on the team moving forward.

Also, Steve Cherundolo and Michael Bradley, while they are not German citizens, have played in the Bundesliga during the time of Klinsmann’s influence on the club level.

Don't forget that Klinsmann was also the coach of Bayern Munich when American star Landon Donovan was on loan there in 2009.

All five players were named to Klinsmann’s first roster as head coach of the USMNT, but there’s even more ties to his German background lurking on the team, and they are with some surprising players.

DaMarcus Beasley, Ricardo Clark and Edson Buddle have all thought to be completely out of the National Team picture after the 2010 World Cup. All three, to the shock of many USMNT supporters, have been placed on the 22-man roster for the Mexico friendly, earning a chance to prove their worth to the new coach.

What do all three have in common, other than thought to be finished with the USMNT? They all have played club ball recently in Germany.

Clark has played both midfield and center fullback for Bundesliga 2 side Eintracht Frankfurt and Edson Buddle has scored three goals in 17 league appearances since joining fellow Bundesliga 2 team FC Ingolstadt 04 last summer. Beasley, though he just joined Mexican –side Puebla this summer, was a member of Bundesliga club Hannover 96 the past two seasons.

One would imagine all three are in an “Impress now or forever hold your peace” situation with the USMNT, but it isn’t far-fetched to imagine that their experiences in German soccer have earned them all one last chance.

Don’t expect the parade of German-Americans (or those playing professionally in Germany) to end soon either. Some other options still exist.

Goalkeeper David Yelldell, a German-American who has made one career appearance for the USMNT, signed with Bundesliga club Bayern Leverkusen this summer. He was briefly named the team’s starting goalkeeper in July, although he did not play in the team’s first game of the season. He could emerge as a No. 2 keeper behind incumbent starter Tim Howard.

Alfredo Morales is a 21-year-old German-American defender for Bundesliga side Hertha Berlin. Young players on top-tier teams usually get a good amount of hype from the American soccer media (think Eric Lichaj), so Morales’ name could get mentioned frequently in the upcoming years.

Luis Robles is another goalkeeper who plays in Germany. He plays for Bundesliga 2 team Karlsruher (previously with FC Kaiserslautern) and has made one appearance for the USMNT in the 2009 CONCACAF Gold Cup.

So Klinsmann (and USMNT fans) wants the team to play more offensive-mindedly, more aggressive and with more technical skill. He wants them to play more like the German National Team. So to do that he’s bringing in players with ties to Germany who have experienced the style of play Germany plays, a style Kilnsmann influenced onto German teams with support from their soccer federation in 2004.

And how bad a model could the German National team be for the United States? Historically they are one of the most successful nations to participate in the FIFA World Cup and have finished third in two straight editions of the tournament (not to mention a second-place finish in 2002, pre-Klinsmann).

The Mexico friendly will usher in a new era for the American team, the “German era”. Now it’s time to see if Klinsmann can replicate that success of Die Mannschaft in the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Photo Credits.
Jürgen Klinsmann: AP Photo/Mary Altaffer
Jermaine Jones: AP Photo/Stephan Savoia

Pieces of Jürgen Klinsmann's introduction as USMNT head coach. Video from YouTube.