Saturday, October 30, 2010

K-League Profile: Ilhwa Chunma FC

As we wait about for Barca's match later today against Sevilla FC, perhaps we can use this time for Jedi Soccer to visit the K-League and profile their best club, as we have already done with the J-League Kashima Antlers.  When speaking about the dominant side in Korean football, the team to watch is Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma FC.  The story of this club is also the story of professional football in Korea.

First established in 1983 as the Korean Super League with only five clubs, in 1998 the Korean professional soccer league was reformed and renamed as the K-League, and has expanded to 15 teams.  The story of professional soccer in Korea has largely been about the migration of clubs from the urban centers into the provinces, in some cases coerced migration by the Korea Football Association (KFA).  The driving force behind this migration, and behind the growth of soccer in Korea, was the 2002 FIFA World Cup, which was co-hosted by Japan and Korea.  During the bidding process for hosting the World Cup, the KFA recognized that for Korea to win the bid, it would be necessary to build soccer-specific stadiums nationwide, and for those stadiums to eventually host professional clubs.  Because until that time (the early 1990's) professional soccer in Korea had been largely confined to the major urban areas, the KFA embarked on a policy that may be called 'provincialization,' the systematic relocation of clubs out of the big urban areas and across the country.

The history of Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma FC reflects this policy.  Established in 1989 as Seoul Ilhwa Chunma FC, the team's badge has always been the flying stallion (chunma), a creature from Korean mythology.  From the start, this club has attracted some controversy, because it is owned by Reverend Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church.  In the heated religious atmosphere of contemporary Korea, this has been enough for Korean Christian Evangelicals to boycot the team.  Despite this, the club has been successful from its inception, winning supporters and championships in 1993, 1994, and 1995. 

In the midst of this winning streak, the KFA forcibly evicted the club from its facilities in Seoul, and forced it to relocate to Cheonan, becoming the Cheonan Ilhwa Chuma FC.  This forced relocation was followed by a few years near the bottom of the league standings, leading the club to relocate once more in 1999, this time voluntarily to the city of Seongnam.  Here, the club has prospered, winning four more leauge titles in 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2006.  With seven league titles to its credit (as reflected by the 7 stars in the club's crest), Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma FC (or just Ilhwa Chunma to its fans), has established itself as the dominant team in Korean soccer.

Ilhwa Chunma has been succesful without as much reliance on foreign talent as some other Asian clubs, such as the Kashima Antlers in the J-League.  Although there has been foreign talent on the team, Ilhwa Chunma (and most Korean soccer clubs) have done a good job developing home-grown Korean talent, a fact reflected by the growing prowess of Korea's national teams.  Moreover, despite the brusing growth pains of the K-League, the 'provincializaton' policy of the KFA has proven to be a success. Today the K-League is arguably the strongest soccer league in Asia, based on the results of the Asian Champions League competition, which has been won by Korean sides 8 times, more than any other Asian nation.

The K-League is currently the oldest professional soccer league in Asia, and Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma is its most storied franchise.  But the real news is this:  soccer has totally caught on in Korea.  Thanks to the KFA's sometimes-forceful policies, today the Beautiful Game is quite popular in South Korea.  And that is welcome news for any true football fan.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

One More Tribute for Jaime Moreno

By Frank Giase, The Star-Ledger:

"Pick any big name from the 15-year history of Major League Soccer. Now think of who has meant the most to the league.  Carlos Valderrama? Marco Etcheverry? Landon Donovan? Nope. Not even close.

The most important player in the history of the league played his final game Saturday night, and if every player who comes along now doesn’t pay respect toward the trail blazed by Jaime Moreno, then he is not seeing the big picture.

Moreno was there from the start, a 22-year-old kid who was struggling to get playing time at Middlesbrough and who signed with D.C. United in 1996, Major League Soccer’s inaugural season. Moreno, playing for coach Bruce Arena, teammed with Etcheverry, John Harkes, Jeff Agoos, Raul Diaz Arce and Eddie Pope and D.C. United immediately become the most dominant team in the league. D.C. United, in their black kit, was the villain every other team geared up to knock off, a team that could play with finesse or physicality — and beat you either way.

D.C. appeared in the first four MLS Cups, winning three. Eventually, the stars moved on or retired, except for Moreno, who continued to score goals and win games.

Except for the 2003 season, when he played 11 games with the MetroStars in an injury-filled season, he spent his entire career in Washington. And in 2004, when he went back to D.C., he had a career-high 14 assists when the team won its fourth MLS Cup.

He will retire as the league’s all-time leading scorer with 133 goals, although FC Dallas’ Jeff Cunningham, with 132, will surpass him next season. And his 102 career assists make him the only person in league history with triple digits in both categories. But that’s just the statistical side of it.

“There’s been very few people, perhaps none other, who have done as well for our league and for the sport of soccer in our country,” MLS commissioner Don Garber told the RFK Stadium crowd Saturday night.

As the 36-year-old Moreno walked off the field to a standing ovation with eight minutes to play, Toronto’s Dwayne De Rosario, who won MLS Cups with Houston in 2006 and 2007, embraced him.

“I just thanked him for what he’s done in this league,” De Rosario said. “Guys like that put the league on the map. Guys like that made players from Europe and players from all over the world be attracted to this league.”

MLS is different now. No player of Moreno’s talents will likely spend a 15-year career here, although we can hope the league will become strong enough in the future for that to happen.

And if it does, those players can thank those who helped build the league and were there through the tough times, and they should begin with Jaime Moreno."

Monday, October 25, 2010

Moreno Retires, Messi Wins

This past Saturday, two really important events happened in the world of Jedi Soccer: Barca's 2-Nil triumph over Zaragoza in La Liga play; and Jaime Moreno's final match and final career goal for DC United.  Normally Barca news takes priority over what DC United is up to, but I think today is an exception.

In the last match of this dreadful Season from Hell, DC United hero Jaime Moreno, United's Ultimate Champion, stepped up to the penalty spot in the 48th minute against FC Toronto to take a shot and score the final goal of his fabulous and illustrious career.  A deafening crescendo of cheers rose up from the spectators when he put the ball in the net, including from MLS Commissioner Don Garber and former United teamates John Harkes, Eddie Pope and Marco Etcheverry.  Sadly, as-per-normal in this ugly, ugly season, DC United promptly gave up the lead again and ended up losing to the Canadian side 3-2, in an otherwise forgettable match.

So ends the brilliant football career of Jaime Moreno, Champion.  Mercifully, the season is over for DC United, but its clear that no one will hold this season against Moreno.  He will be fondly remembered for his many other contributions.

Meanwhile... on the other side of the Atlantic, FC Barcelona paid a visit to La Liga rivals Zaragoza this past Saturday.  In yet another stunning display of football virtuosity, Messi Wan Kenobi found the back of the net twice, posting all the scoring that Barca would need to stay in the race to defend their league championship.  Including his two recent goals against Kobenhavn in Champion's League play, Lionel Messi has now scored 4 goals in 2 games.  Lionel Messi is truly the dominant football player of this generation.

Lionel Messi and Jaime Moreno: two champions.  I'm really going to miss seeing Moreno in the all-black, but at least Messi will be still be around for a few more years to entertain us, hopefully wearing the blue and red.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Barca Over Kobenhavn 2-0

With characteristically beautiful goals in the 19th and the 92d minute by Messi Wan Kenobi, yesterday FC Barcelona dismissed Danish league Champions FC Kobenhavn, 2-Nil to take first place in Group 'D' of the Champions League competition.  With solid defense work from the back line Abidal, Pique, Puyol and Alves, Barca was able to move the ball about freely, allowing the front line of Iniesta, Villa and Messi to shoot on goal.  Goals in the 32d minute by Villa and in the 38th minute by Messi were dissallowed for being offsides, but this reflects the offensive duress that Kobenhavn was under, and the final score could easily have been much more lopsided.

With 7 points in Group 'D' play, Barcelona is now well positioned to win their group and advance to the next round of play.  However, because Kobenhavn finished the group stage in second place with 6 points, Barcelona will face them again on November 2d in Parken Stadion, Copenhaven.  Assuming Barca displays the same fine defense work and offensive coordination, the outcome should be the same and Barcelona should advance once more in this year's Champions League play.

Barcelona's next match is this Saturday, October 23rd when they visit Zaragoza.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Barca 2-1 Valencia

In a classic "tale of two halves," on Saturday FC Barcelona came from behind to defeat Valencia 2-1.  In the first half of play, Valencia trotted out a mid-field dominance strategy that effectively stunted Barca's vaunted ball-control offense, denying Xavi and Iniesta any room to work their magic.  Frustrated and looking for a clue, Barca looked flat when in the 38th minuted, Valencia star Pablo caught Pique and Alves out of position, leading to a goal and a 1-nil lead for Valencia.  Valencia's mid-field control in the first half was exceptional, and it was only sheer luck that prevented a second Valencia goal in the 40th minute, when Valdes made a desperate save to keep the score close.

It would be interesting to know what Pep Guardiola told his side during the half, because Barca came out after the break and looked like the all-dominant Blaugrana side we all know and love.  Xavi and Iniesta re-asserted control over the midfield, which almost immediately produced results.  In the 47th minute Xavi played one-two with Iniesta and then calmly slotted the ball past Valencia goalkeeper Cesar for the equalizer, and after that the floodgates opened.  Barca posted shots on goal in the 55th and 59th minutes, and then in the 63rd minute Puyol slammed a header home from a cross by Xavi to put Barca up, 2-1.  In the 65th minute Messi Wan Kenobi had a brilliant shot somehow saved by the defense, and then in the 94th minute he collected a chest ball and put it home, but was ruled offsides.  And that finished the scoring, to give Barca a much-needed and well-deserved come-from-behind win, thus keeping their title defence in La Liga alive and well.

Barca's next match is this coming Wendesday October 20th, when they return to Champion's Leage play against FC Kobenhavn.  If they can win this match-- and they should-- Barca will advance to the next round of play in the Champions Leage.  And thanks to this result against Valencia, Barca is also alive and well in La Liga competition.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

J-League Profile: Kashima Antlers

As we wait for Barca to take on Valencia later today, and for DC United's dreadful Season From Hell to finally end, it might be fun to take a detour to the Land of the Rising Sun and look at the Kashima Antlers, the top club in the J-League.  Since its inception in 1993, the Japan League has emerged as one of the top association football leagues in the world, with an impressive number of foreign stars playing on Japanese teams, and the steady growth of native Japanese soccer talent.  Over the 17 year history of the J-League, the top team in the J-League has consistently been the Kashima Antlers.

Named after a pun on the word 'Kashima,' which means 'Deer Island,' since 1993 the Kashima Antlers have won pretty much everything there is to win in the world of Japanese soccer.  The Antlers have been J-League Champions an astonishing 7 times ( 1996, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2007, 2008, 2009).  They have won the Emporer's Cup competition three times (1997, 2000, 2007); the J-League Cup three times in 1997, 2000, 2007 (open to clubs from all levels); and the Xerox Super Cup match between the J-League and Emporer's Cup champions no less than 5 times, in 1997, 1998, 1999, 2009, 2010.  With an astonishing total of 18 championships in 17 years, the Kashima Antlers may be the most successful soccer team in the world, that nobody in the west knows anything about.

Why has Kashima been so successful?  I believe it has to do with the strong ties between Kashima and Brazilian soccer.  Although like all Japanese teams Kashima is required to field a majority of Japanese players, the Antlers have also built a strong recruiting relationship with developmental clubs in Brazil, leading to an unusually high number of Brazilians playing in Japan.  Brazilian luminaries such as Zico, Leonardo, Bismarck, Bebeto, and current players Marquinhos and Gilton, have all played for this team, among many others.  The result has been the inculcation of the Brazilian "beautiful game" style of play, which has come to characterize the play of the Kashima Antlers.  Now that Zico is the head coach of the Japanese national team, the Kashima-Brazilian style has also come to characterize the Japanese national team (the 'Blue Samurai'), similar to the way that Johan Cryuff brought the Dutch style of 'Total Footbal' to FC Barcelona and, hence, the Spanish national team.

In my estimation the quality of play in the J-League is at least as good as in the American MLS, which means it is totally worth watching.  The top clubs in the J-League, such as the Kashima Antlers, are clearly world-class sides which can compete anywhere.  Maybe one day some of these Japanese teams will come to play against the best that the MLS has to offer.  I would totally buy a ticket to see DC United against the Kashima Antlers, for example.

Considering how badly United is playing this season, right now I'd have to pick Kashima to win that match.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Thank You Jaime Moreno...

Two weeks from today, on Saturday October 23rd, MLS legend Jaime Moreno will make his final appearance for DC United, the club he has played most of his career with.  With only weeks remaining in the career of one of the premier players in the history of the MLS, it is not too early to begin heaping the accolades on Sr. Moreno, which he has so richly earned:

Item:  Jaime Moreno is the all-time MLS scoring leader, having surpassed Dallas Burn star Jason Kreis on August 22, 2007 with a goal against Red Bull New York.  With two weeks left in his career, his career goal tally stands at an astonishing 134 goals.

Item:  On April 17, 2009, Moreno became the first MLS player ever to reach the mark of 100 goals and 100 assists when he assisted on a Ben Olsen stoppage time goal.

Item:  In 1994 Jaime Moreno became the first Bolivian to play in the English Premier League, when he signed for FC Middlesbrough.

Item:  Jaime Moreno won the 1997 MLS Cup MVP trophy.

Item:  Moreno is a seven-time MLS All-Star: 1997, 1998, 1999, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2010.

Item:  As a regular on the Bolivian national team, Jaime Moreno played in the 1994 FIFA World Cup, and in the Copa America in 1997, scoring goals against Paraguay, the United States, Columbia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Peru in international competition.

Item:  Jaime Moreno was a team leader and instrumental in FOUR DC United MLS championships, in 1996, 1997, 1999, and 2004.  He was there for every one of our triumphs.

Item:  Moreno is a two-time US Open Cup champion, in 1996 & 2008

Item:  Moreno helped United win the CONCACAF Champions Cup in 1998.

Item:  In 2005 Jaime Moreno was named to the MLS All-Time Best XI team, even before his illustrious career was over.

Over his illustrious 18-year career, Jaime Moreno has spent 14 years with DC United (with three at FC Middlesbrough in the Premier League, and one year with the MLS MetroStars, now Red Bull New York).  DC United has been Jaime Moreno's home for most of his career.  He will always be remembered as a DC United man.

According to DC United President Kevin Payne, Jaime Moreno is "Arguably the greatest player in the history of Major League Soccer."  I agree.

Moreno has announced his intention to return to his native Boliva, but he also has a standing offer from DC United to come back and work for the club.  It is a beautiful gesture and perhaps Sr. Moreno will accept the offer.  We can only hope.

So, with a sense of gratitude for the championships and the memories, and deep appreciation for his many football accomplishments, I say, "Thank you Jaime Moreno."  You were the best, and you will be missed. 

Players like this are never easily replaced.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Barca 1-1 Mallorca

For the second time in two weeks Barca has delivered a tied match at a home game, this time against Spanish league rival Mallorca, thus missing the chance to post three points in La Liga standings.  Adding insult to injury is the fact that Barca consistently dominated play throughout the match, scoring first in the 21st minute on a give-and-go through Messi-Alves-Pedro-Messi, who finished beautifully to put Barca ahead.  Unfortunately, despite dominating possession and shots on goal, in the 42d minute Barca's usually-solid defense broke down, allowing Mallorca defenseman Emilio Nsue Lopez to sweep through six Barca defenders enroute to a beautiful header that equalized the score.

Although Barca once again dominated play in the second half, the Blaugrana were unable to find the magic against a Mallorca side that played defensive football, leading to the final tied score.  For Mallorca, a tied score at Camp Nou is a good result, but for Barca it is not, leaving them 4 points under first-place Valencia and behind Real Madrid in league standings.  Last week's tied score with Rubin Kazan was less damaging than this outcome-- Barcelona now cannot afford to miss any chance for points in La Liga, if they want to play for the league championship.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Barca 1-1 Rubin Kazan

With a first-half penalty goal and a smothering 5-4-1 defensive effort that shut down Barca for most of the match, Russian side Rubin Kazan appeared to be headed for an unexpected win until David Villa converted a penalty kick in the second period to equalize the score.  Barca played better after that, but still missed opportunities in the 62d minute, when Danny Alves wasted a chance after brilliantly intercepting a back pass to the goalkeeper; and again in the 71st minute when Messi Wan Kenobi had a shot blocked; and then again in the 87th minute when a powerful header by Martins came off the post.  Barca's last chance was a misdirected header in the 89th minute by Bojan Krkic, and that ended the match, Barca finishing 1-1 against Rubin Kazan.

Even so, this is not a bad result for Barca.  This was clearly going to be the toughest match of the Champions League group phase for Barca, so this outcome allows Barca to stay in the running for the next round of competition-- currently FC Kobenhavn is first in Group D with 6 points, and Barca second with 4.  Despite their strong showing, Rubin Kazan still has only 1 point in Group D, so Barca is in good position to advance.  Moreover, the come-from-behind outcome against a side that was playing defensive football showed some strong character.  Frankly, Barca's fearsome reputation is sure to lead other teams to adopt the 5-4-1 defensive clam against the Blaugrana, so Barca fans can probably expect to see more of this kind of tactic in the future.  It is the price of success.

Barca returns to league play on Sunday October 3d against Real Mallorca, and their next Champions League match is on Wednesday October 20th at Camp Nou, against group leader FC Kobenhavn.  If Barca can shut down Kobenhavn's Senegalese sensation Dame N'Doye, Barca will win Group D and advance to the Round of 16 in Champion's League play.

It will be fun to watch.