The quandry that is Landon Donovan

Note: This article was written back in April of 2008 when I was still writing on just my personal blog.  I have since branched out to begin writing for a soccer blog entitled Endlines.  If you dig this article, please cruise over there and check out what we got going about the latest news and developments.  Cheers!

So far this month has been all soccer all the time for me. Not being one to buck a good trend, I thought I’d add to that que despite the plunge of my favorite Gunners. But, while I won’t be talking about them in this particular post, I will be talking about another team that I follow voraciously…The United States Men’s National Soccer Team. In this case I want to talk specifically about our reigning star player…Landon Donovan. I recently read a post on ESPN’s Soccernet by Steven Davis in which he eloquently articulated an issue that surrounds Donovan: bluntly, a lot of soccer fans hate Landon Donovan. Few of the world’s players who star for their national team and have had the kind of professional success (three MLS titles, a U.S. Open Cup crown, a record four Honda U.S. Player of the Year medals, scored more goals for the senior team than anyone, etc…) draw so much ire from his country’s fans. Why, Davis wondered, are their so many Donovan-bashers for a person who obviously loves to play for his country, works so hard at it, and is so talented? Now, I feel it’s only fair to say that I have regularly and openly griped about Landon Donovan, but I do respect his obvious talent. So please allow me to speak my piece about why I find myself often among the Donovan-bashers.

Landon Donovan of the LA Galaxy

I don’t really blame Donovan for not enjoying his time overseas and wanting to come back to the MLS. Yes, the level of play over in Germany is better, and I think he would have developed more as a player by staying, but you have to play where you’ll be successful and comfortable. Benny Feilhaber made the move overseas and is now a ghost on his squad. His playing situation has gotten so bad that Americans are practically clamoring for him to come home and play in the MLS. Double standard? Maybe a little. But then again, no one has exactly expected Feilhaber to be the shoulders upon which the future of American soccer rest. And this gets at the heart of my problem with Landon Donovan. He invites this kind of scrutiny and responsibility onto his shoulders, but has yet to deliver when his country’s fans were counting on him. Davis points out Donovan’s goal against Mexico in the 2002 World Cup as an achievement worth holding up to those who dislike Landon, and rightly so. But at the 2002 World Cup, Donovan was a fresh-face player who wasn’t expected to carry the team. His play, which basically amounted to over-achieving from the expectations of him, was one of the reasons the team went so far. But in 2006 Landon was one of the experienced players and one of the most outspoken. Every news segment about the US’s preparation for the cup included an interview of Landon Donovan saying that the MNT could be world beaters. He took on the expectations, he invited the pressure, and then he vanished. Donovan’s contribution to the team in Germany was negligible. Donovan’s play since the 2006 cup has been good, but the only time he has stepped up to carry the team has been in smaller games that haven’t carried the pressure. We heard more from Donovan during the run up to Germany than we did from our captain, Claudio Reyna. Reyna was the perfect type of captain for the US at that time because we weren’t world-beaters. He was quiet and hard working. He let his play speak for him. Granted, Reyna had a poor cup in Germany, but he wasn’t the one we expected to carry the team despite his armband.

Davis is right when he says that Donovan is more than a character in a book or story, and that he needs to be thought of as a real person even by the public crazy for soccer success. But as long as Donovan continues to be the face of his domestic squad, and the one giving the interviews with his trademark gusto, he will be the one people watch when they tune into the MNT games. If he doesn’t produce after calling the pressure and attention to himself, people will continue to point the finger at him when the Americans don’t achieve the success he tells them is possible.

Landon Donovan of the US Men\'s National Team

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The utter heartbreak of Arsenal’s 2007-8 season

Note: This article was written back in April of 2008 when I was still writing on just my personal blog.  I have since branched out to begin writing for a soccer blog entitled Endlines.  If you dig this article, please cruise over there and check out what we got going about the latest news and developments.  Cheers!

I am very much a half-full kind of guy generally. I have coached several soccer teams, some good and some not so. I usually look at the season as a sum total of all experiences, not just a particular piece. But right now, in the immediate aftermath of Arsenal’s stunning, and frankly befuddling, 4-2 defeat at the hands of Liverpool that has ended their Champions League run (not to mention the 1-1 tie this past weekend against the same Liverpool that has severed all but the slimmest hopes of a title run), I look back over this season and must, am absolutely required, to call it a disapointment. Now, hear me out before you think this argument is soley about not bringing home silverware. I think you can lose in grand fashion and be successful by some definitions doing so. But this season has seen Arsenal collapse under the weight of it’s own expectations here in the late running. These expectations are of their own creation after their fast start to the season and attractive style of play. They are a gutsy team, there’s no doubt about it. And while it is most certain that injuries played a role in the slow demise of the Gunners, one cannot blame injuries for all that has happened. Is it inexperience? Maybe, they are a rather young side, but that is countered by the derth of talent on the squad. I tend to think that is squad depth that is mostly at the heart of this season’s fall from grace. The Gunners are a rather thin squad. The season is long, and made longer by multiple competitions outside the domestic race. Players get tired. It isn’t for a lack of talent that Arsenal have fallen. They have talent in bucket loads. But that talent is concentrated in a small squad. I’m not begging Arsene Wenger to splurge on buying big name talent. We’ve seen that’s not his style, but I think he’ll need to consider expanding his squad for next season if he is going to make the push for at least the double of the Champions League and the Premier League.

This game was particularly disapointing because of the fast start, and also because of the advantages that Arsenal had coming into the game, which I have spoken to before but will mention some of here for the sake of wrapping up the series. Arsenal were in prime position, with the 1-1 tie at Emirates, to come in and progress. Anything better than a 0-0 draw would give them a chance. All they had to do was get on the board to put the pressure on Liverpool. And they came out blazing and got on the board with a nifty piece of work from Hleb. But weither through caution or fatigue, the game turned fast. Liverpool had started out playing the game close to the vest, bunker-and-counter, just as had been suspected. And Arsenal made them pay for it with attractive passing and aggressive tackling. But the Gunner goal sparked Liverpool into life, and after half time Liverpool was up 2-1. When Adebayor equilized in the 84th minute it looked as though my 2-2 prediction would proove precient and Arsenal would advance. But the collapse of my beloved Gunners was completed in the 85th and 90th minutes as Gerrard and Ryan Babel hammered the nails in the coffin. Did i or did I not say that both Torres and Gerrard would get on the board in Anfield? And of course, Senderos, having a tough season but never really that impressive, was culpable in at least 2 of the goals (losing his mark on Hyypia first and then letting Torres turn him so easily). How a team with such attractive soccer and so many of the pieces needed to be great can slowly collapse this way (especially after downing the defending European champs to get here) can only be attributed to two things in my mind: of course the fact that Liverpool play as though they are entitled to a European berth every year, and fatigue from a squad too short on personel.

Will Arsenal challenge for multiple pieces of silverware next season just as they did this season? Undoubtetly, but until they expand their squad, the numerous injuries that plague Arsenal year in and year out (Van Persie, Rosicky, Hleb, Eduardo this season, and Fabregas is usually good to miss a few games) will continue to thwart their best efforts. The frustrating way they have been thwarted this season both domestically and in the CL makes this a dissapointing season no matter what their record is.

Steven Gerrard breaks my heart

Steven Gerrard hammers in the penalty that ends Arsenal’s Champions League run…and breaks my heart.

Of course I was wrong…it was a PRE-diction after all! (Arsenal vs Liverpool thoughts)

Note: This article was written back in April of 2008 when I was still writing on just my personal blog.  I have since branched out to begin writing for a soccer blog entitled Endlines.  If you dig this article, please cruise over there and check out what we got going about the latest news and developments.  Cheers!

Alright, so my 1-0 win at Emirates for Arsenal didn’t pan out as I had guessed. I was wrong, I’ll admit. But, while I’m disappointed in the outcome, I’m reservedly proud of the display. Liverpool (as I said they would) showed their ‘bunker-and-counter’ brand of soccer, and managed to slip one by. Gerrard showed his unquestioned class and produced a dandy of a chance that Dirk Kuyt only had to fall on to put in the back of the net. But Arsenal showed some real attacking football, out-shooting Liverpool 15-4 and forcing Liverpool goalkeeper Pepe Reina into 5 saves to Almunia’s 2. They also maintained 65% of the possession to Liverpool’s 35%.  Fabregas played well, and Adebayor got on the scoreboard, which has been difficult the last few games for him. Positives all. It does leave Arsenal in a decent position going on the road (as I’d mentioned before about the away goal rule), but that assumes they’re going to score at Anfield. Arsenal need to step up and get over the ‘great display, poor result’ that has plagued them the last few seasons. I’m as big a fan of their youth-centric philosophy and tactical focus as anyone, but I really want to see them back it up with some silverware. They’re a quality side whose heads are in the right places. I’ve heard rumors of Wenger going after Kaka, and (much as I want it to be true) I’m a little saddened that it has to come back to the “buy” mentality as to whether they’re a winning side. Even if the rumors aren’t true, even if some wishful fan fabricated them, that mentality is all over world football in general (Real Madrid, LA Galaxy, Manchester United, Chelsea, and even Barcelona to a degree). Very few sides really focus on developing talent in-house like Arsenal does. They work with young, promising talent and nurture it in what seems to be an amazing club environment. They’ve even survived the departure of Thierry Henry, although some could argue different given their form as of late. I’m guessing the return leg will still favor Arsenal. I’ll stay with my 2-2 finish, or possibly even upgrade a 3-2 win. 2-2 should put the Gunners through on the away goal rule. They won’t be able to keep Torres quiet at home despite his seemingly innocuous showing at Emirates. He’s way better at Anfield than on the road. He’ll probably get on the board with Gerrard either offering the other or doing the work for someone else as he did today. Arsenal will need Van Persie to find his touch again or Adebayor and Fabregas to play out of their minds. Flamini is still playing consistantly, and I was happy to see Senderos play respectably. Walcott will probably start the next leg, or start this Saturday and have his playing time in the return leg depend on his Saturday form. So much is up in the air, and the tie can still go either way. Liverpool have the upper hand, but I feel the scenario can still favor Arsenal if they step up to the challenge.

Soccer’s age old debate: style or defense? (Arsenal vs Liverpool UCL preview and prediction)

Note: This article was written back in April of 2008 when I was still writing on just my personal blog.  I have since branched out to begin writing for a soccer blog entitled Endlines.  If you dig this article, please cruise over there and check out what we got going about the latest news and developments.  Cheers!

I’m having a rather bear of a day today, so I thought I’d give the politics a rest and actually write about something that makes me feel a little lighter (and a little more bubbly of the mouth, if you’ve ever discussed it with me): Soccer. As anyone who follows the game knows, this is a big night for soccer fans, and Arsenal fans like me. Tonight is the first leg of the Champions League quarter finals between Arsenal and Liverpool.

To understand this contest there are four main issues to consider: the two team’s individual styles, current form, home advantage, and the packed schedule of these two teams meeting over the next two weeks.

First, the individual styles. You’ll remember last year the final in which Liverpool lost to A.C. Milan because Milan’s corps were able to wait out Liverpool’s ‘bunker-and-counter’ mentality. Liverpool is a team entirely built around Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres’s abilities to run the counter attack that is sprung from the other nine men behind the ball. Torres has been successful this season where previous Liverpool strikers have not because he’s quick and crafty enough to stay high and wait for service, and then turn that service into points. Torres is easily a world class striker who is helped even more by being in his first year. He made a quick adjustment to England, and teams have yet to figure him out.

Fernando Torres of Liverpool

With Gerrard and Torres, who prefers slashing, diagonal runs in behind defenders to receive sharp passes from Gerrard, working combination, Liverpool have made an entire offense out of the counter-attack.

Arsenal, on the other hand, prefer to play a much more possession-oriented ground game emphasizing the short pass. While midfielder Cesc Fabregas has been a little off-form lately, along with forwards Emanuel Adebayor and Robin Van Persie, all three of them are still game changing players.

Robin Van Perse of ArsenalEmanuel Adebayor of ArsenalCesc Fabregas of Arsenal

I have to give the edge to Arsenal in the style department. They have the possession and the patience to wait out Liverpool’s bunker mentality.

Current form plays into the hands of Liverpool, however the effect of the recent 10-man comeback from being down 2-0 against Bolton cannot be underestimated when looking at Arsenal’s current form. Liverpool have been playing much stronger in general, and practically become a different team in CL competition, but being that these are two English teams who know each other, Arsenal cannot be ruled out. They too have a history of stepping up in big games, as they did in their drubbing of Milan in the last round.

The home advantage piece plays into Arsenal’s hands as well. In the UCL set up, where away goals count more, I always prefer to see my team have the away game second. It takes pressure off the team if they give up goals in the first leg, and allows them the possibility of catching up going into the second leg if they fall behind. Admittedly the advantages of having the away-leg second are mostly mental, but they are still worth considering. Torres has had difficulty scoring on the road this season (19 of his 21 league goals have come at Anfield this season), so the chances of him having a quiet first game are good. If Arsenal come out of the first leg up or tied, the scales lean heavily in their favor with the away goal rule.

Lastly, the packed fixture schedule that sees these two teams meet three times in next week or so. After tonight’s match they will play on Saturday, April 5th and then again in the return leg for the CL. This I think is an advantage for Liverpool. Liverpool have been notoriously tactical throughout Rafa Benitez’s time in charge. While I think Arsene Wenger is a supreme tactician, Benitez is at least an equal mind, and may even be better at his substitution decisions and ability to change the game on the fly. Arsenal’s strength is in their patience and possession and with so much familiarity Benitez may reign his team in enough to out-think Arsenal’s youngsters.

Overall, I’ll predict a 1-0 win for the Gunners at Emirates, and a 2 all draw at Anfield. I think the Gunners will eventually face a tougher test vs Chelsea in the semi-finals, unless Chelsea’s tendancy to fall to underdogs this season bites them once again.

(Photos courtesy of dailymail.com, arsenalfcblog.com, and infosradasports.com)