Feeding the Fire

August 7, 2010

One of the most common criticisms that players and clubs hear during tough spells is a lack of effort. A team losing isn’t showing  pride in their team, their city, and so on and so forth. A team goes one-nil down and they don’t possess enough heart.

For D.C. United fans, they are about to put this old sports cliche under the litmus test. Curt Onalfo after a poor run of results in the league has been dismissed as D.C. United manager. In the last six league matches for D.C. United they’ve only scored two goals, both of them by 17 year-old Andy Najar. Players like Santino Quaranta have been unable to make the impact they are expected to, and the root cause in many people’s eyes including the front office of D.C. United is a lack of passion.

That worry shouldn’t be a problem with newly appointed interim head coach Ben Olsen. There’s no questioning Olsen’s pride and love of the game and especially D.C. United. I can’t imagine any player not giving effort surviving under Olsen. That much is to be expected. But I don’t think that’s enough.

Onalfo was not getting results, and there cannot be too many complaints about letting him go. It wasn’t working and there didn’t seem to be any real plan to get it back on track, but I’m not confident that there’s a person out there that can get D.C. back on track, especially during this season. D.C. have a whole host of issues ranging from a lack of investors, to stadium issues, to personnel problems. They don’t have a consistent presence in the box, the backline is in constant flux, and youthful mistakes have plagued the team along with this supposed missing fire.

It’s a simple fact that D.C. cannot attract the big players that Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and Seattle are currently pursuing and landing. They don’t have the financial comfort and the only way they are going to consistently compete is if their front office can make solid moves on matters dealing with the team on the field and the club off of it. So far they’ve failed to do this.

The new D.C. United should show passion during the second half of the season. They may get some hard-earned results with the effort they put it. They will still drop quite a few points, but at least the front office won’t be able to go back into the old sports cliche book and will finally have to look at themselves in the mirror. At least that’s all D.C. supporters can hope for.


Red Bulls throw punches, Galaxy’s turn to respond

August 3, 2010

The New York Red Bulls and the Los Angeles Galaxy are locked in a battle for the face of the MLS. This war was once waged between D.C. United and the Galaxy, but with D.C.’s many problems and the Beckham saga, Los Angeles undoubtedly became the biggest club in Major League Soccer. New York, despite many efforts to even the playing field including a re-branding, have been a distant second.

Now after this explosive summer period for soccer in the United States, there is a real battle on hand.

In the past, the popularity contest hasn’t translated on the field for Red Bulls and the Galaxy, neither team have won a Supporters Shield or MLS Cup in the past four seasons.Last season New York was far and away the worst team in the MLS. In 2008, the Galaxy shared the bottom of the collective table with San Jose. Despite their bigger image both teams’ poor moves in the front-office left them behind in the results with the rest of league.

Now they are starting to win. Los Angeles is currently in pole position for the Supporters Shield and the Red Bulls, with an entire half season without Henry, is in sight of ever-consistent and never talked about, Columbus Crew.

How will this summer be remembered years down the road?  So far it looks likely to be the summer of the Red Bulls. The Hans Backe appointment was  a masterstroke during the off-season and obviously Henry’s signing is ground-breaking. Add Marquez joining the Red Bulls and it’s been a spectacular summer for the club. He may not be the iconic, flashy goal-scorer that Blanco was, but he’s certainly well-perceived in Mexico, and a great pick-up on the field.  Now New York have the best attacking front in the league with Angel and Henry, and with a smart draft of Tchani and Ream they have the build to be an elite MLS team for years to come.

So far Los Angeles have not responded. They cannot help that Beckham is hurt. When healthy and not worried about the England squad he brings a whole new dynamic on and off the field. Without him there hasn’t been a front-page worthy story about the Galaxy this summer except for maybe Donovan not being for sale while several  MLS teams, especially New York have made headlines.

There’s no doubt that Los Angeles will want to move the spotlight back to the Home Depot Center. Their upcoming friendly with Real Madrid might help, but the big impact they need could come if they somehow secure Ronaldinho from AC Milan. How Henry was well known by most fans of the game, Ronaldinho is known to many who are not. A successful move for him would completely overshadow what New York have done over the last few months.It would be the ultimate statement that Los Angeles is and will be the biggest club in the MLS for years to come.

He would also be a perfect counter for the Henry move on the field. A forward line of Donovan, Ronaldinho and Buddle, and possibly Beckham pulling the strings would be devastating. The four combined would be almost unfair compared to what other clubs are putting out, especially if you factor in the depleted pool with future expansions.

It would not be easy getting Ronaldinho this summer, a massive transfer price would probably be required, and MLS isn’t keen on paying for transfers. They’ve yet to try and break the bank, but Ronaldinho may be worth it. The naturally conservative MLS might not think so and may try and wait for his contract to expire, but if there’s a time for LA Galaxy to act, it’s now.

Also, Ronaldinho has had issues off the field that have led to a decline on it. Late night partying, out of shape, and the general sense of a lack of motivation have plagued his reputation since his not-so-good 2006 World Cup. But, if the money is there, I  think it’s a risk worth taking for the MLS and the Galaxy. Certainly for the MLS.

Red Bulls have been able to overshadow the Galaxy during this summer of soccer despite Los Angeles being the best team in the league at the half-way point. Now it’s time for Los Angeles to counter and for the good of the MLS, I hope they have something big cooked up.

The league really lacks a recognized rivalry that would draw the interest of non-MLS fans. There could be nothing better for the league as a whole than a rivalry between Red Bulls and Los Angeles. With Red Bulls recent moves and a major signing like Ronaldinho for the Galaxy it would become that marquee rivalry that the league is looking for. The MLS must do what they can to make it happen. It may cost a pretty penny now, but the rewards could be huge.


The Kids Aren’t All Right

July 31, 2010

His story feels like a movie.

Andy Najar moved to the United States from Honduras at the age of 13. He was turned down for being too small by the D.C. youth academy that same year.  In a stroke of big-screen type luck, the assistant coach for his  high school spotted him playing a pick-up game, and Najar immediately found himself on the high school team. A year of organized soccer later and he made the cut at D.C. United. Fastfoward to 2010 and at 17 he may now be their best player.

Najar’s rise from obscurity to a poster boy for the MLS academies has been rapid and has even caught the attention of bigger fish across the sea with rumors that Arsenal want him for a trial at the end of the MLS season appearing.

He’s quick, good on the ball and incredibly aggressive when given the opportunity by defenders. He’s not the finished product, though. Najar hasn’t been the best making choices in the final third, but that’s not something that should be expected out of a 17 year old, especially one with limited organized play. Not to mention D.C. are pretty lackluster in the final third as it is. What makes Najar extra special is his effort to chase down lost causes and track back to help out defensively. I can’t think of too many young hot-shots that put in as hard a shift as Najar does on a week-to-week basis.

D.C. United  have a history of being involved with the brightest and most hyped young players in the MLS. Santino Quaranta, Bobby Convey, and Freddy Adu all were given their first shots with the club and none have reached the potential many expected from them.  Now it’ll be United’s task to prevent Najar from going down the same paths as the others.

D.C. broke the record for youngest MLS player three times with the signings of Convey(2000), Quaranta(2001), and Adu(2004). When Convey and Quaranta were operating on opposite wings for D.C. it looked as if the future flanks of the US National Team were confirmed for the next decade. But due to various issues(Convey- injuries, attitude, Quaranta – injuries, drugs) their careers never hit the heights that was expected. They still have time left as both are in the their mid-20s, but it will be a large up-hill battle to eliminate the “what-ifs” that will most likely surround their careers.

But D.C. isn’t the one to blame. They aren’t responsible for Eddie Gaven, Danny Szetela and Justin Mapp. While Gaven has had a respectable career in the MLS, all three had similar hype as Quaranta and Convey coming in to the league. The MLS as a whole has struggled to develop these young kids labeled as future stars. It raises the question on whether the league is suited for youth development or if it’s still very much a “link-league” to Europe. I think the MLS right now is a fantastic place for college players to come and get a crash course on the professional level, but until the league can prove it can develop so-called domestic wonder kids, I’ll favor giving these players a chance overseas if given the opportunity.

Every year more and more young players with massive potential are appearing  in the MLS.  Luis Gil and Jack McInerney are just two of the latest. While Najar will most likely play for Honduras in his future, for the future of the national team it’s incredibly important that the nurturing and developing of these special talents is improved so players like Gil and McInerney aren’t stunted. If that can happen in the MLS, I would be ecstatic, I’m just not sure it’s ready for it yet, based on the league’s track record.

The MLS need a win here. If Najar can continue to progress it would be a win for the too often overlooked immigrate population by the national team development program. It would be a big win for the MLS and its’ youth academies, and it would be a major win for the national team he chooses. I have my fingers crossed for his future, and any fan of the domestic game should do the same.


Va-Va-Boom

July 14, 2010

The MLS made just the explosion it sought after the nation was gripped by the World Cup.

Courtesy of the New York Red Bulls

The news did not come as a surprise. Rumors about Thierry Henry coming to the MLS and specifically coming to the Big Apple have been circling around since at least 2007. Over the past year it’s become a foregone conclusion in MLS circles. In New York there was the House that Ruth Built, and in 2010 the New York Red Bulls opened what many considered to be the House that was built for Henry.  And after all the anticipation it is now official that “Va-va-voom“ will arrive in America. It is an MLS supporters dream come true.

Henry could be considered the most decorated player to sign for the MLS, and possibly the most decorated player in the United States since the famed NASL years with Pele, Beckenbauer, and Cruyff all playing on American soil. He has a World Cup, European Championship and Champions League winners medal, he is famed member of Arsenal‘s Invincibles and a two-time golden boot winner. He’s France’s all-time scorer(51), second only to Lilian Thuram in appearances(123), and the list continues on and on.

Now he will ply his trade in New York.

But signing for New York and the MLS is one thing, performing is another. After a successful 2008/09 campaign at Barcelona his third year was one Henry will want to forget. He lacked the spark that saw his stardom rise,  the explosiveness  in his acceleration looked gone, and with the emergence of Pedro he took a backseat in the Barcelona pecking order. The signing of Villa all but confirmed his tidy exit in this summer’s transfer window. No fanfare on that side of the Atlantic and that spoke volumes.

And New York does not exactly have the history of big signings working out.

Youri Djorkaeff, a teammate of Henry on the French national team that won the World Cup and Euros had a forgettable run in New York in 2005/06. Roberto Donadoni, while playing well enough to be selected in the league’s best XI, didn’t have the impact that was expected. Lothar Matthaus, capped 150 times by Germany, was a complete disappointment. It would be unfair to not mention Juan Pablo Angel, though. Angel did not see the MLS as a soccer retirement home but as another stop in his career, and he quickly cemented himself as  the league’s premier striker.

It’ll be important for Henry to accept Angel’s mentality toward the league. Equally important will be how he adapts to the style. The game here is played at a quicker pace then what he’s seen at Barcelona over the past three seasons with a much stronger emphasis on the physical game. While he is no stranger to a fast paced, physical game it’ll be interesting to see if his can adapt his game to it now that he is 32, past his prime,  and question marks surround his once famed acceleration. He certainly has the technical prowess to terrify MLS backlines, but that’s always been just a part of Henry’s game. Now that technical ability must take the forefront assuming he can’t burst away in the heat against players that are conditioned to the constant summer running in the MLS.

But there is certainly room for a lot of optimism. He certainly is not washed up nor is he too old at 32.

Also, Henry should slot easily into the progressive 4-1-3-2 formation Hans Backe has installed at New York. He’ll have help in Angel who is considered the MLS’ most dangerous attacker, and their tandem will certainly take the pressure off the shielding midfielder and backline that has struggled to gel during the first half of the season.  With emerging young layers like Tim Ream(who could certainly factor in the US’ 2014 plans), Tchani, Hall, and Borman combined with experienced MLS veterans like Petke, Mendes, Albright, and the enigmatic Richards there is a solid core for Henry to operate in. If you add the possible introduction of Ljungberg to connect the sometimes too separated midfield from the attackers or Marquez to solidify the spine there is a team that should certainly be a major contender come November.

Even with no Marquez or Ljungberg there will be no lowering  the bar for Henry. He is expected to be the deadliest striker in the MLS as soon as he puts on the jersey, and in New York he has the manager, the stadium, the city, and a supporting cast that should create a foundation for him to excel. The MLS might not see the Henry of old, but if he can adapt his game and accept the MLS as something other than a joy ride he might make those pipe-dreams from years ago into a reality.