Thursday, March 31, 2011

The American Soccer Pyramid

With the dramatic debut this week of shiny new logos for both the new NASL and also the reborn Fort Lauderdale Strikers, and the recent re-structuring of the 1st and 2d divisions of the USL into the new 'USL PRO' division, a distinctly new picture of professional soccer in the United States is emerging for the 2011 season.  Lets take a look at it.

Eastern Conference / 9 Teams
Western Conference / 9 Teams
At the top is, of course, the MLS, which remains the premier league of professional soccer in the United States.  The LA Galaxy are arguably the closest thing to a US-based 'superclub' anywhere in North America at this time, based on their chunky revenue, two championships, and both David Beckham and Landon Donavon; but of course DC United remains the most decorated club in MLS history, second only to the old New York Cosmos who had five championships to DC United's four.  (And looking to the future-- G. Peppe Pinton's sale of the Cosmos franchise rights to the Pele consortium in 2009, has cleared the way for the rebirth of the Cosmos as an MLS side within the next few years).  Speaking of start-ups, the MLS also sports a number of remarkably successful start-up clubs such as the Houston Dynamo and Toronto FC, as well as a growing number of sides which sport old NASL club names, especially in the Western Conference such as the Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers, San Jose Earthquakes, and Vancouver Whitecaps.  The presence of Chivas USA in the league purposefully brings Mexican fans to US soccer, and inter-league connections to CD Guadalajara and Mexican soccer as well.  The league appears to be in relatively good financial health.  At 18 years of age, the MLS has now been successfully operating two years longer than the old North American Soccer League, which had consumed itself into bankruptcy after a sixteen year glut of superstar signings and financial excess.
The rebirth of the NASL began with the 2009 sale of the United Soccer Leagues (USL) to NuRock Soccer Holdings LLC, a business transaction which precipitated an open breach between the leagues officers on one side, and several of the team owners on the other.  When Miami FC subsequently acquired the legal rights to the old NASL, a rival 2d Division league was hastily organized by the team owners, leading to the intervention of the USSF in the squabble, and the strange one season joint NASL - USL 2d Division championships last year.  With that behind them and another offseason to gear up, the reborn NASL is showing credible Division 2 talent on the pitch, and generous sports marketing potential off the pitch, based on the latent nostalgia for the old NASL that still exists in the US.  With the USSF now designating the NASL as the second tier of professional soccer in the United States, the upstart owners league has formally supplanted the USL, and even extended its reach into the Carribean with the inclusion of the Puerto Rico Islanders.

National Division: 5 teams
American Division: 5 teams
International Division: 5 teams
The secession of so many leading teams was surely an existential wake-up call for the USL, more so now that it is clear that the USL will occupy the bottom tier of professional American soccer.  The league has responded by merging its 1st and 2d divisions into the new USL-PRO league, the top flight of soccer in the USL bottom-up hierarchy of youth, womens, and mens amateur leagues, and its Premier Development League (PDL) of semi-professional teams.  Despite the NASL defections, a number of decent professional teams remain in the USL, notably the Charleston Battery and the Rochester Rhinos, whose hot-and-cold courtship of the NASL almost put them in the new league.  The Charleston Battery is clearly one of the most successful 2d Division professional teams in North America, with apparent financial stability and even their own facilities, the privately-financed, 5,400 seat Blackbaud Stadium.  Add to this the inclusion of no less than three Puerto Rican sides and a team from Antigua in the International Division, and the USL-PRO league will have a distinctly Caribbean vibe.  All things considered, this new structure seems like a good response to the USL's organizational crisis.  The USL is not dead yet, and may well transcend the losses of the moment if this new professional league prospers.

And there you have it:  three leagues, three levels of professionalism.  I personally delight in the prospects of the NASL, not because I don't like the USL--they have done so much good work with amateur soccer in the US-- but simply because none of the USL professional sides captured my imagination.  Even Miami FC-- my hometown-- didn't really fire me up.  Why pull for the minor league side, when the Big League team is nearby?  It's the curse of the minor leagues.

But put that same Miami FC in a league called the NASL, and re-badge the club as the 'Ft. Lauderdale Strikers,' and NOW I'm interested.  As will be many other people.  As far as I am concerend, the rebirth of the NASL was exactly what 2d Division soccer in the US needed-- a shot in the arm.  Let's hope they can make it work.  I'll do what I can by writing about it.

Which brings us to the final 'distinctive' aspect of American professional soccer-- the absence of any promotion-and-relegation system.  Now that we have a comprehensible tiered system of professional soccer leagues, it would be great if we could implement a way for clubs to move up or down, like every other soccer nation in the world.  The objection (to date) has to do with league ownership of the teams--since the American clubs are owned by the leagues, promotion or relegation would involve the loss of a league's financial asset, so no joy.  My response to this, is simply to propose the negotiation on the loan of tangible assets to the other leagues.  Team 'X' gets promoted to League 'Y' but remains the property of League 'Z.'  A loan of assets, in effect.  Teams loan players to other teams all the time, so why not?  The lawyers could work out the profits and cash flow, which is what it will come down to.  Over time (and with any luck), the assets of the three leagues would become intertwined, leading to another round of happy lawyers doing their thing, and a future Euro-style American Super League.  Now we're talking.

If we could promote the league champions of the NASL and USL, and relegate the two bottom teams of the MLS and NASL respectively-- moving just four teams every year, up or down-- every professional team in America would have a path to the top.  The Dayton Dutch Lions would have a long climb to the top from the USL PRO league, but theoretically it could happen.  This would also make the MLS Cup even more prestigious, as a true North American soccer championship. 

For this to come to pass, the USSF will have to get involved and force the three leagues to play nicely with each other.  That's not happening soon, because there are still probably too many hard feelings.  But time and profits heal all business wounds; so perhaps one day.  Meanwhile... soon we will see how this new American Soccer Pyramid plays out on the pitch.  I for one am excited at the prospects.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Uncle Sam vs. The Flea, 1 - 1

Last night the US soccer audience was treated to some top flight international football, as the US national team hosted a visit by Lionel 'La Pulga' Messi (The Flea) and his Argentine mates, in one of the most eagerly anticipated 'friendlies' of World Cup pre-qualifying.  The surprisingly aggressive tempo and pace of the match suggested anything but a 'friendly' or 'exhibition' match, as both sides played with an intensity usually reserved for much more important international games.  Not surprisingly, Argentina completely dominated the first half of play.  Both Messi and DiMaria were fantastic and absolutely sliced the American defense open at will.  Luckily for the Yanks, a combination of stellar goalkeeping by Tim Howard and poor finishing by the Argentines, kept the match scoreless through the first 40 minutes.

But Messi and the Argentines were not to be denied.  With a typically wizard display of ball-handling skills, Messi singlehandedly cut through the American defense and played the ball through Bocanegra's legs to DiMaria, whose close range shot was saved by Howard.  Unfortunately, Inter-Milan's Esteban Cambiasso was there to clean up the rebound, and thus Argentina went up 1 - Nil.

Half time mercifully saved the Americans.  To his credit, US Coach Bob Bradley switched to a more attacking lineup at the half, with Chandler coming in at right back to replace Spector, and Agudelo replacing Jones.  The changes proved inspired.  Although the Argentines kept up the pressure, Tim Howard's fine goaltending and an increasingly confident American attack began to surge across the midfield and bring the Argentine defense under some pressure.  In the 59th minute, the Americans proved why they can be so hard to beat by coming from behind yet again, when Landon Donavan's free kick was met in the air by Carlos Bocanegra, whose head shot was blocked but not handled by Argentine keeper Mariano Andujar.  As with the earlier Argentine goal, the rebound was cleaned up by Juan Agudelo, and thus the American's tied mighty Argentina and superstar Lionel Messi in a fairly played and competative match.

The good news for the Americans was the fine goaltending, and the outcome of the match (because a draw against Argentina is a moral victory for the Americans), and yet another inspiring display of gritty, never-say-die determination, for which the US National Team is developing something of a reputation. 

The bad news?  Once again, the Americans were forced to come from behind.  And that remains The Big Problem of the US national soccer team--the regrettable tendency to give up the first goal, going back to the last World cup competition.  The US team has proven itself quite capable of coming back from behind, and the heroics are quite thrilling to watch, but this American soccer fan, for one, wishes the team would score first for a change, and start making that our new tradition.

How's that for a new reputation--the team that scores first.  Yes, I like that better.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Top 10 US Players Overseas

The number of American soccer players who compete in the top leagues of Europe continues to grow. Here is a list of ten of the most prominent American professional soccer players currently playing in Europe, re-ordered from the list at in order to reflect my own favourite players and prejudices:

1. Clint Dempsey: No American player gets more attention in Europe than Fulham’s Clint Dempsey, who is now surely the greatest soccer player from Texas ever. Dempsey is a key creative figure for the Cottagers and is finding success in manager Mark Hughes’ lineup, netting six goals already this season in the Barclay’s Premiere League.

2. Carlos Bocanegra: US National Team Captain Carlos Bocanegra has played 16 times this season, scoring and assisting his teammates at St. Etienne of the French Ligue 1, and has made over 100 appearances in English Premier League play with Fulham FC in his career.

3. Michael Bradley: It’s tough times at Borussia Moenchengladbach again as the team wallows around in the relegation zone, but Michael Bradley seems to have engrained himself in the line up with 3 goals and 3 assists in 18 appearances. Playing in one of the best leagues in Europe is a great experience for any player, but if the team gets relegated, Bradley may be best served to find a new club, be it in Germany or elsewhere.

4. Maurice Edu: Edu has pushed his way into Walter Smith's lineup at the Rangers 14 times this season. The former Toronto FC man has proved worth every penny of his transfer, providing youth and quality in the Rangers midfield. He's One of only a few Americans to feature in the Champions League this year and played a crucial part in the team's scoreless draw against Manchester United at Old Trafford.

5. Tim Howard: For Tim Howard’s Everton side, it’s been anything but roses this season, as they’ve struggled to get results and have issues surrounding squad depth. Howard has given up 27 goals in 22 games, decent results for most keepers, but his teammates have lacked attacking prowess scoring only 25 times in that span. A marquee goal keeper on a marginal team.

6. Jonathon Spector: Attacking midfielder or defender? Jonathon Spector’s time on the pitch at West Ham United seemed to be floundering under Avram Grant, but a brace of goals against former club Manchester United in the Carling Cup spelled revival for Spector. He was nothing short of brilliant in the Hammers 4-0 pounding of United, ensuring that someone new will lift the trophy.

7. Oguchi Onyewu: Onyewu has secured a loan move from AC Milan to FC Twente of the Dutch Eredivise, where he is more likely to see regular playing time than the Serie A club. He is a veteran of Eurpopean football, having previously played for Newcastle United in the English Premier League, as well as AC Milan.

8. Jozy Altidore: Altidore is on the verge of a loan move to Sporting Gijon of La Liga. He hasn't seen much time at Villareal playing behind Guiseppe Rossi but if Manchester United are successful in their pursuit of Rossi, Altidore could step up in pecking order. If that doesn't happen, a loan move is probably the best thing for him.

9. Stuart Holden: Holden is part of a formula at Bolton. This season, he has only two goals but both have been come at crucial times for the Wanderers. Coach Owen Coyle has been delighted with the performance of Holden which is why he has featured in 18 of their 23 games.

10. Jermain Jones: Recent addition to the U.S. national team Jermain Jones has moved from Schalke 04 to Blackburn of the English Premiere League. His new employers bought the club earlier in the year and have been looking to shore up the Rover lineup with some fresh talent, so Jones is set to make his debut as a key player in the team's future.

Go Sam’s Army !

Monday, March 21, 2011

Barca & United Roll to Victory

In a weekend full of great soccer both domestically as well as internationally, our extensive staff of dedicated football journalists is celebrating a pair of satisfying victories this weekend by Jedi Soccer favorites FC Barcelona and also DC United.  In Spanish league action this weekend, our beloved Barcelona continued its epic season this weekend with a win over Getafe, in which the scoring was provided by Dani Alves and Bojan instead of the usual trio of Messi, Villa or Iniesta. 

Before the match, a heartfelt homage was paid to Barcelona defender Eric Abidal, who will miss the rest of the season after undergoing an emergency operation to remove a liver tumour this past Thursday.  Best wishes to Abidal for a speedy recovery.  Then, in typical fashion, Barca dominated play, but was frustrated by three strong penalty claims that were dissallowed, and one goal wrongly dissallowed for offsides.  With Getafe doing a good job impeding both Messi and Villa, it fell to defender Dani Alves to unleash a thunderous shot on goal from outside the penalty area after Getafe failed to clear a corner kick, giving Barca the lead.  The second score was in the 50th minute, when Messi wan Kenobi fed a streaking Bojan, whose left-footed shot was deflected in by defender Cata Diaz.  And that was all the scoring that was needed, as Barcelona continues its historic march atop the Spanish League standings.

Across the Atlantic, DC United also enjoyed success in its season opener against the Kansas City Wizards.  The story of this match is the triumphant return of Charlie Davies, whose near-fatal car accident two years ago was supposed to be the end of his professional athletic career.  Instead, the athlete once left for dead rose from the grave and scored twice for DC United before 18,000 home side fans in a 3 - 1 season opening victory.  United started the scoring in the second half with a goal from newcomer Josh Wolff in the 51st minute-- welcome aboard Mister Wolff !  Just after this goal, Davies came on in substitution for Joseph Ngwenya, and successfully took the penalty kick ten minutes later for United when Chris Pontius was fouled in the box.  Then, in the 77th minute, Davies got loose and streaked in to beat the keeper man-on-man for his second goal of the evening, and United's third.  A consolation goal for Kansas City in the 78th minute could not overturn this outcome, and thus United starts its 2011 MLS campaign with a fine win in good form and style, and a heroic strory line from Charlie Davies.

It was a good weekend in the land of Jedi Soccer.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Top Six MLS Clubs

Forbes magazine has finally come around to publishing a list of the 'top' professional soccer teams in Major League Soccer, by which they really mean 'most profitable.'  As there are 18 teams currently in the MLS, this short but surprising list reveals where the MLS is currently being the most successful:

No. 1 Los Angeles Galaxy
Owner: Philip Anschutz
Stadium: Home Depot Center
Value: $100 million
Revenue: $36 million
Operating Income: $4.0 million

The Galaxy was already the league’s marquee team before the arrival of David Beckham, soccer’s most renowned superstar, last summer. Now they’re in another stratosphere--L.A.’s $36 million of revenue in 2007 was double that of any other team.

No. 2 Toronto FC
Owner: Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE)
Stadium: BMO Field
Value: $44 million
Revenue: $17 million
Operating Income: $2.1 million

Hailed by the commissioner as a model team, Toronto FC sold out every game in its inaugural season. The average spectator spent $4.03 on souvenirs a game--that’s a higher rate than MLSE's flagship sports property: hockey’s Maple Leafs.

No. 3 Chicago Fire
Owners: Andrew and Ellen Hauptman
Stadium: Toyota Park
Value: $41 million
Revenue: $16 million
Operating Income: -$3.1 million

In exchange for $98 million of public financing to construct Toyota Park, the Fire share revenues from parking, premium seating and general ticket sales with the Village of Bridgeview, Ill. The upside for the team: no debt service on a state of the art soccer stadium, which is a far cry from cavernous Soldier Field, where they once went 53 days between home games, playing second fiddle to the NFL’s Bears.

No. 4 FC Dallas
Owner: Hunt Sports
Stadium: Pizza Hut Park
Value: $39 million
Revenue: $15 million
Operating Income: $0.5 million

The franchise once known as the Dallas Burn, which for a time called a high school football stadium home, has undergone dramatic changes in recent years. Highlights include moving into a soccer-specific stadium in 2005--complete with a 20-year, $25 million naming rights deal--increased TV exposure and, of course, the new name. The next step in their extreme makeover: trying to secure a jersey sponsorship.

No. 5 New York Red Bulls
Owner: Red Bull GmbH
Stadium: Giants Stadium
Value: $36 million
Revenue: $10 million
Operating Income: -$4.5 million

The Red Bulls hope their days as a small fish in the big New York sports pond will be over once they begin play at Red Bulls Arena in Harrison, N.J., next year. The Austrian energy drink giant is betting big on a turnaround: paying $150 million for the team, its naming rights and construction costs since 2006.

No. 6  D.C. United
Owners: Victor MacFarlane and William Chang
Stadium: Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium
Value: $35 million
Revenue: $13 million
Operating Income: -$3.0 million

The most storied team in the league’s brief history is languishing in 47-year-old RFK Stadium. “The stadium does not generate enough revenue on game day because it’s so antiquated,” says Kevin Payne, the team’s president. The team is in talks with both the District of Columbia and Prince George’s County, MD, and hopes to announce plans for a new stadium in the fall.'

And thus, the brutal conclusions: (1) the Galaxy is worth more than twice as much money, as the next closest team, and is hence officially the only legitimate 'Superclub' in North America; and (2) our beloved DC United is 'languishing,' all apparently due to the absence of a stadium deal.  The team's valuation depends in part on having a shiny new stadium. 

But I'd rather be a United fan with four titles, than a Galaxy fan with two.  Let's see what the team's valuations are, once United gets the stadium they say they need.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Barca to play Shaktar Donetsk

The draw for the remainder of thsi year's Champions League play has been announced, and FC Barcelona is to play Shaktar Donetsk.

According to ESPN analyst Ravi Ubha,

'The Barcelona side that won the Champions League in 2009 was pretty darn good. This year's version has gone up a notch.

The Catalans demolished Real Madrid in league play in November, one of the best team performances of all time. And they dispatched Arsenal in the Champions league for the second season in a row.

The likes of Messi, Iniesta and Xavi have hardly looked better in unison, with David Villa a substantial improvement from Zlatan Ibrahimovic up top. Barcelona can look vulnerable at the back at times, but the opposition barely touches the ball enough to exploit that potential weakness. The best chance for anyone to beat Barca will be in the final, when it's a one-off match instead of home-and-away games.'

In related news, the rest of the draw sees aging Manchester United facing injured Chelsea; a talented but confidence-shaken Real Madrid  facing Champions League debutantes Tottenham Hotspur; and workmanlike German side Schalke 04 against Italian legends Inter Milan.

It is worth pointing out that it is possible that FC Barcelona and Real Madrid could meet in the semi-final round, possibly setting up a colossal encounter between the two rivals.  If so, then Real Madrid boss Jose Mourinho would be aiming to see a third side under his direction, through to the Champions League final. 

This would be insufferable, especially at Barca's expense, and must not happen.  Step one is the disposal of Shaktar Donetsk, which as Ravi Ubha has noted, will be no easy task.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

DC United Wins Carolina Cup

For the second year in a row, DC United has won the Carolina Cup challenge, hosted by second division side Charleston Battery.  In the final match of the tournament last week, United faced MLS side Toronto FC in a see-saw tale of shifting fortunes and momentum.  Chris Pontius assisted Charlie Davies in the 12th minute to put United up by one, but only nine minutes later Toronto came even when Dwayne de Rosario scored on a penatlty kick.  Toronto then surged ahead on a goal by Brazilian Maicon Santos in the 28th minute, but then lost a man when defender Mikael Yourassowsky was sent off after his second yellow card, late in the first half.  United dutifully exploited the man advantage and pulled even in the 62d minute when Joseph Ngwenya took  a pass from Santino Quaranta and scored for United, and that ended the scoring. 

The tied final score was enough for United to win the Cup, based on previous wins over the Chicago Fire and Charleston Battery, and thus United ends the preseason with seven wins, two over MLS opponents, and the repeat as the Cup champions.  A fine preseason indeed, but then again so was last year.  United's home opener at RFK stadium is Saturday March 19, against the Columbus Crew.

Bon Voyage.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Strikers Get New President

In an interesting bit of soccer news, last week the Fort Lauderdale Strikers announced the appointment of Tim Robbie as the teams new President.  For those of you who are not familiar with South Florida sports history, the Robbie family name looms large in the past ownership of the both the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers as well as the Miami Dolphins of old, so this announcement is yet another indication that Traffic Sports has settled on a nostalgia-based marketing strategy.

Not that I have a problem with that.  Of course, it remains to be seen if Tim Robbie can fill the family shoes, so to speak; but I'll wager that most Floridians will spot him a break just because of his last name.  We all remember the past accomplishments of this sports family.  Moreover, as the organization's President, he is not in an ownership role, which was the previous role of the Robbie family with the old Strikers.  Club ownership remains with Traffic Sports Vice President Aaron Robinson, the club's founder and also the CEO of the new NASL. 

Even so, I think Robbie's participation with the new Strikers is a smart move.  The teams potential fanbase knows who the Robbie family is, and so the presence of a Robbie in a leadership role is publicly reassuring.  There will be time later for recriminations if things do not go well, but for now, its all good.  Best wishes to the club's new President!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

DC United Wins in Charleston

This past Wednesday DC United managed to win a crucial victory in the Carolina Cup Tournament being held in Charleston, South Carolina, posting a 1 - Nil victory over their MLS opponents, the Chicago Fire.  Last week United defeated second division side and tournament hosts Charleston Battery, so this second win places them only one victory away from claiming the Carolina Cup for the second year in a row.

The match was generally unspectacular, with the best moment coming in the first half when Santino Quaranta sent a beautiful free kick into the box, where United's Blake Brettschneider was waiting to head the ball into the goal.  After that the match became a defensive struggle, particularly after Chicago player Diego Chaves was ejected with a red card, leaving Chicago to play short-handed for the second match in a row.  Not surprisingly, after this Chicago had difficulty mounting an effective attack, allowing DC United to protect their one-goal advantage for the win.

This win brings DC United to 7 - 0 - 1 during the preseason, a fine mark, although only two matches have been against MLS competition.  The team preseason scoring leaders are newcomer Joseph Ngwenya with five goals, and Blake Brettschneider with four.  About Brettschneider, United Coach Ben Olsen had this to say:

"He was man of the match for me," Olsen said. "He was pretty sharp. He is a handful and has got a lot of desire, and from the day he got here, he has played his way onto the team."

High praise from the coach, lets hope that Brettschneider can keep up this level of performance as the regular season gets underway.  United plays its final match of the Carolina Challenge later today in Charleston against FC Toronto, and begins the regular season on March 27 at Kansas City.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Barca Routs the Gunners 3 - 1

One disadvantage to being on 'Business Travel' is that it sometimes gets in the way of following the success of sides that I like, none more so than FC Barcelona.  Such was the case this past week, as I was stuck in meetings and unable to watch as Barca smashed English Premier League side Arsenal 3 to 1 in Champions League play.

The youtube videos, however, are certainly revealing, and the story line is not so different from last year, when Arsenal came to Camp Nou holding a 1-win advantage over Barca, only to see their chances fall to the brilliance of Messi Wan Kenobi.  This year, if anything, Barca's victory was even more emphatic. From the opening wistle the Blaugrana dominated possession, quickly building up Arsenal's frustration and resulting in a barrage of yellow cards for the Gunners.  The first was in the 16th minute as the proper response to a rough tackle on Pedro by Koscielny, leading to a free kick by Dani Alves which Arsenal keeper Szczesny fielded quite easily.  Thereafter, Barca's attacking possession was so relentless that Arsenal could not mount a proper attack until the 43rd minute, winning a corner kick that the Gunners failed to convert.

And then, three minutes into first-half stoppage time, Lionel Messi finally scored on an intercepted back-pass by Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas, ending the half for Arsenal with a demoralizing goal from an uncharacteristic mistake from their star player.  However, the mistake was repaid in the 53rd minute when a second Arsenal corner kick resulted in an own-goal from Sergio Busquets, proving for the second time in this match, that in football even the best players sometimes make mistakes.  And just like that, Arsenal was back in the match at 1 - 1.

Except, actually they were never really in the match.  Only three minutes later Robin Van Persie collected his second yellow of the night and was sent off, leaving Arsenal undermanned against the most dangerous team on the planet.  The Gunners desperately tried to hold out but to no avail, the relentless pressure from Barca finally broke through in the 69th minute when Xavi coolly took a through ball from Iniesta and scored, making the tally 2-1.  The final score of the night went to Messi wan Kenobi in the 71st minute to make the score 3 - 1.  Although Arsenal never stopped fighting, the end result was yet another dominating performance by Barca, and the Catalans now go through to the next round of Cahmpions League competition.

Here is the most chilling statistic of the match: Arsenal did not get a single shot on goal in the entire second half.  This was truly a dominant performance by Barcelona against a worthy and dangerous foe.

So, hats off to Arsenal, they are without a doubt one of the more determined sides the Blaugrana have faced this season, and they aquitted themselves well against mighty Barcelona, especially in the first match.  But that's the way it goes with FC Barcelona these days-- even the grandest sides have great trouble competing against these Jedi Knights of association football. 

There is no shame in losing to FC Barcelona.  They are the greatest team in world soccer, after all.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Barca over Valencia 1 - 0

In the most anticipated match of the season since El Clasico, this week FC Barcelona travelled to the Mestalla to take on Valencia, currently the third place team behind Real Madrid and Barca.  Adding to the anticipation of the match, was the fact that this encounter marked the return of former Valencia star David Villa to this former home stadium, as well as the fact that both defender Carles Puyol and keeper Victor Valdes were out of the lineup, giving the talented Valencia side some hope.

Employing an odd yet effective 3-5-2 formation, Pep Guardiola's side played evenly for much of the first half aginst Valencia, with the home side having a go-ahead goal dissallowed for offsides which would have certainly shifted the match in Valencia's favor.  After that, Barca began to assert itself, with Lionel Messi missing several close chances.  After the exciting but scoreless first half, the only goal of the match came in the 77th minute, when Barca built up a thorough stream of one-touch passes, allowing Adriano to send a pretty crossing ball over to Messi, who put it into the bottom left corner despite Valencia keeper Guaita getting a hand to it.  With that, the life went out of Valencia, and the match ended with a 1- Nil Barcelona victory.

It was a difficult victory over a talented side, as reflected by the fact that Barcelona maintained only 57% of possession, instead of the 70% or better which usually characterizes their games.  FC Barcelona returns home to Camp Nou on Saturday March 5 for what will likely be a much easier match against Real Zaragoza.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The New Florida Derby

It is with a great deal of satisfaction that I am able to relate that Traffic Sports, the Brazilian sports company that owns 2d-division Miami FC, has finally settled on the name of 'Fort Lauderdale Strikers' for the re-launch of their South Florida soccer venture.  By doing so, Traffic Sports has deliberately chosen to identify with the latent nostalgia in South Florida for the most glamorous and succesful soccer team the region has ever had.  As an original fan of the old 1970's Strikers, all I can say is... 'it works for me.'

It really was a fabulous team in a fabulous league.  Honestly, consider this constellation of ex-Strikers stars: First of all, George Best, the Irish legend; and also Gordon Banks are-you-kidding-me, yep, that guy, arguably The Greatest Goalkeeper ever; Gerd Muller, 'Der Bomber' whose ferocious goalscoring really did make him a 'Striker' in the true sense of the word; Teofilo Cubillas and Elias Figueroa, to this day still the greatest futbolistas of Peru and Chile respectively; and a whole bunch of other talented guys including an Englishman named Ray Hudson who Floridians once thought was an exotic English Soccer Legend, but who we now see is only so when he talks about football.  Yes, my friends, Once Upon a Time, in bitty-little Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale Florida which held (at the time) perhaps 11,000 spectators, this unlikely yet brilliant assembly of international stars took to the pitch to battle other teams of the old North American Soccer League, for the delight of the people of South Florida.

It was a total sports sensation, and never more so than when Fort Lauderdale played the Tampa Bay Rowdies.  Here, for the first time, Floridians tasted the essential element of the passion of international football-- the Derby, and I'm not talking about horse racing at Hialeah Park.  I'm talking about Barcelona vs. Real Madrid.  Manchester United vs. Liverpool.  Celtic vs. Rangers.  Ajax vs. Feyenoord.  You get the picture.  Call it a 'rivalry' if you must, but back in the day, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers vs. the Tampa Bay Rowdies was clearly among the most successful derbies of the old NASL, if not the fiercest.

I attended many of those matches at Lockhart Stadium, and the experience turned a teenage boy into a lifelong fan of The Beautiful Game.  I still remember how much I feared and loathed the Rowdies, not because they were better than the Strikers, but because, in soccer, somehow your greatest rival has the power to beat you, even when they are having a dreadful season.  It's just that way.  Astonishingly, over the history of the old NASL, these two teams managed to precisely split their 22 encounters 11-11, bequeathing to posterity a fierce cross-state soccer rivalry, with neither side having advantage.

And now comes the rebirth of the NASL as a Division 2 league.  The Glory Days are gone forever, Lionel Messi will never play for the new Strikers, and nostalgia will only sell so many tickets.  But it is enough to launch a franchise, that much is certain, and I commend Traffic Sports for losing the uninspiring Miami FC brand in favor of this slice of Florida history.  Really smart move.  I wish them success, and I'll even commend them for the clever  new logo.  The old logo was too... 1970's.

So, its a safe bet that there will be a New Florida Derby, whatever they end up calling it.  And I'll write about it, here at Jedi Soccer, and I promise to gloat whenever the glorious Fort Lauderdale Strikers score against the obviously wicked and evil Tampa Bay Rowdies... er... uh, 'FC Tampa Bay.'

Right.  I'll have to get used to that. See? They're already lame, it would be much easier to hate them if they would simply get with the program and adopt the Rowdies name already.