Why, hello there. The United States men's national team qualified for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil thanks to a 2-0 victory over Mexico in Columbus, Ohio. The win means that the American fan base can stop panicking about whether the Stars and Stripes will reach the world's richest soccer tournament (which, let's be honest, was never really in doubt), not worry about Friday's game with Jamaica, and start concerning themselves with the picking of the 23-man roster. Far be it from us to miss out on the prediction game. Without further ado, we present Jurgen Klinsmann's 2014 World Cup roster.
This summer five USMNT players have signed or re-signed with MLS clubs. The most significant of those was Clint Dempsey, who shocked the American soccer community by transferring to the Seattle Sounders from Tottenham Hotspur. Two weeks later, 24-year-old Galaxy center back Omar Gonzalez, the 2011 MLS Defender of the Year and 2012 MLS Cup MVP, signed a Designated Player contract with the Galaxy, foregoing opportunities to play in Europe to stick with the two-time defending MLS champions. Nearly two weeks later, Landon Donovan announced he, too, would be signing a contract extension with the Galaxy, likely meaning that he would end his professional career in Los Angeles.
In case you were busy arguing about the correct definition of "blue moon," here's what you missed in sports on Tuesday:
Red Sox superprospect Xander Bogaerts went 0-for-3 in his major league debut, and Marco Scutaro drew a walk-off RBI walk to give San Francisco a strange 3-2 win over Boston. "We're disappointed with the loss, but we think we have something good here with Bogaerts," said Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington over a cacophony of ringing phones. "Hold on, let me just get this. Yeah, hello, this is Cherington. No Billy. No. No. It's just one game Billy. No. No deal. How stupid do you think I am Billy? That stupid? Really? Wow. I've literally never said anything like that to another man's face in my life. No. No. Still no. Yes, I understand that phones aren't faces. No. I'm hanging up now, Billy. Bye. Bye. No. Bye."
Los Angeles phenom Yasiel Puig was benched and fined for being late to the ballpark in Miami, but still found a way to be his team's hero, blasting the decisive home run in the eighth inning of the Dodgers' 6-4 win over the Marlins. "Rules are rules," said Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, "and I'm going to enforce them until its strategically untenable to continue to do so. Literally nothing but a moment in which I will gain a strategic advantage as a baseball tactician will stop me from enforcing them. Or if I forget about the rule I'm in the middle of enforcing. Or if I think the person who broke the rule is really sorry. Those are the only three ways I'll let anyone on my team get away with anything."
Last year around this time it was a foregone conclusion that American attacking midfielder Clint Dempsey would join five-time European champion Liverpool FC, pairing with Luis Suarez in a revamped attack, as the American-owned Reds would attempt to regain their traditional hold on one of England's places in the UEFA Champions League. That move fell through, with Liverpool's owners unwilling to meet Fulham's valuation for Dempsey, who moved instead to Tottenham Hotspur.
All athletes come with an expiration date, and for soccer players, it hits roughly around their 32nd birthday. But like on a jug of milk, the date acts simply as a recommendation. While Gold Cup captain DaMarcus Beasley’s “sell by” moment will be past due come Brazil 2014, there’s a deceptive quality to his freshness. He retains a spry, youthful feel for the game, playing with a bright-eyed wonderment that a U-17 player could only hope for. The only predicament is whether there’s room for a player who is simultaneously too young and too old for the USMNT World Cup Squad.
There seems to be a bit of mythmaking or revisionism claiming that before the hiring of Jurgen Klinsmann, the U.S.'s soccer identity was that of a counterattacking team. That the Americans were often outmanned, but they had a bit of speed so they'd let the opposition into their half, then hope to hit them on the break.
The country's most famous goal (1950 aside) was scored on the counter but, in reality, the USMNT would have been just as happy to have possession. In the last World Cup, the U.S. played four matches. In three of them they both outshot and had more possession than their opponent (England being the exception). Those aren't the stats of a side trying to sucker you into a counterpunch.
In case you were busy confronting your ultimate nemesis, Wichael, here's what you missed in sports on Wednesday:
In an AL East showdown, Tampa starter David Price threw a five-hit gem, leading the Rays to a 5-1 win over the Boston Red Sox. The win was Price's third complete game in his past four starts, which Rays closer Fernando Rodney called "kind of disrespectful. It's like he doesn't trust me. And yeah, I've made mistakes. But that was in the past. That's no reason to push me out of your life." Rodney dropped his head. "I just respect him so much, and I wish we could see eye to eye again."
Landon Donovan continued his resurgent play and the U.S. men's national team advanced to the Gold Cup final with a 3-1 win over Honduras. There they won't face rival Mexico, which fell 2-1 to Panama in the other semifinal. "We're rivals too!" said Panama, balling up its fists and kicking at the dirt. America chuckled derisively, and said, "Oh kid, sure you are," before mussing Panama's hair. This just served to further anger Panama, which began swinging wildly at the United States, which defended itself by putting the palm of its hand on Panama's forehead, leaving Panama too far away to land a blow.
The United States men's national team only needed a tie against Costa Rica at East Hartford's Rentschler Field, but did one better as a late goal by second-half substitute Brek Shea gave the Americans a 1-0 victory in their third and final group stage game of the 2013 Gold Cup. The win was the squad's eighth in a row, which broke the all-time mark set in 2007. Coincidentally, the team to set the mark was the last Stars and Stripes side to finish the group stage with a perfect record and, perhaps more importantly, the last one to prevail over Mexico and win the regional championship.
Tuesday night's match, played in extreme heat, was a rematch of the infamous blizzard game and, in the words of head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, the true beginning of the Gold Cup. "Players understand they need to step it up and that the whole tournament really starts for us with Costa Rica," he said Monday.
The match started slowly as the Ticos packed nine players behind the ball and dared the Americans to break them down. While Belize and Cuba, the U.S.'s previous opponents, didn't possess the organization, the talent, or the will to stay compact, Jorge Luis Pinto's squad was up to the task. For 82 minutes, that is. The U.S. goal came on a rapid counterattack, with Joe Corona finding a streaking Landon Donovan, who subsequently hit a perfect one-timer to a flying Shea. The Stoke City midfielder beat Patrick Pemberton, and the Americans held on for the victory.
The reward? A Sunday-afternoon matchup against Group B third-place finisher El Salvador at Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium. (Costa Rica plays Honduras in the other quarterfinal. If the Ticos and the U.S. win, the two teams will play in the semifinal because the goal of the Gold Cup is to keep the Americans and Mexico apart until the finals at all costs.)
For this team, this tournament is only partially about the results. It represents a chance to impress the coach on an individual level. After three games, who has and who has not?
The CONCACAF Gold Cup is a silly tournament with a rather goofy name. It serves as the regional championship, which means a bunch of teams play a bunch of games, then the United States and Mexico meet in the finals. The structure of the tournament, which started Sunday when tiny Martinique defeated Canada, 1-0, courtesy of 37-year-old Fabrice Reuperne, and Mexico lost to Panama, encourages this outcome and makes it nearly impossible for the two archrivals to play until the last match. In 2007, the Americans prevailed, a victory that earned the squad a trip to the 2009 Confederations Cup. Two years later, Mexico's "B" team thrashed the Stars and Stripes, 5-0, a result that helped a reeling El Tri get their groove back when playing in the U.S. In 2011, Bob Bradley's team went up two quick goals, then conceded four and lost. The coach lost his job, opening the spot now occupied by Mr. Jurgen Klinsmann.
The German by way of California wants to win this thing. That's partially because he wants to win everything, as he's desperate to instill a sense of urgency that he finds lacking in United States soccer. All players should feel pushed and that their places can disappear instantly. But it's also important because the tournament means something, as the winner will play the 2015 Gold Cup champion for a place in the 2017 Confederations Cup. Previously, the winner of the Gold Cup in the year after the World Cup automatically qualified for the Confed. Given that one of the Gold Cup's primary functions is to fund CONCACAF, it makes sense that the powers that be want to add another lucrative game pitting the two champions — likely the U.S. and Mexico — against each other.
“I’ve been doing this a long time,” said Landon Donovan. It was March 28, and the most famous American soccer player in the world was speaking to reporters on a conference call, his first contact with the media since retreating from the soccer world in December 2012. Earlier last week, he had rejoined the Los Angeles Galaxy, training with the team and accompanying the MLS Cup champions on their visit to the White House. President Obama had jokingly offered to let him take Air Force One down to Mexico to join the U.S. Men's National Team at Azteca. But while he didn't take the president up on his offer, he was, for all intents and purposes, back. On the phone, his voice was its familiar soft monotone, at once seemingly passive and yet entirely sincere.
Listening to the conference call, I was struck with how long Donovan had been playing professional soccer, how long he had been part of my soccer world. It was fourteen years ago, 1999, when I’d first heard of him. I was 18 — on my way to play soccer at Wake Forest University with all the glory of a “recruited walk-on” — when I heard about this 17-year-old phenom at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, scoring goals and running the "Beep Test" like Edgar Davids.
On Wednesday, Bayern Munich and Málaga joined six other clubs in the quarterfinals of the Champions League. Watching the games made me wonder how the United States national team would do if it were dropped into the group stage of the tournament. Would the Americans be able to finish in the top two of a four-team group featuring the Continent’s strongest sides?
I asked Earnie Stewart, former American midfielder and current technical director of Jozy Altidore's AZ club. Quite fairly, he more or less told me it was a ridiculous query. "They are not a club team. It's so very hard to compare international teams to club teams," he said. "It's totally different. The way you play. The responsibilities are different. Plus, there's the fact that it's something that's never going to happen. We're never going to have a national team in a club tournament."
Fair enough. Stewart — who has an actual, important job in soccer — has better things to do with his time than speculate about hypothetical tournaments. You know, like run a team. I, however, do not. So I set out to find an answer with the help of a couple of soccer journalist friends. (See: That thing about not having real jobs.)
The initial response was that the Stars and Stripes would struggle. "If you dropped the U.S. in and they hadn't trained together, they would get destroyed," says Zac Lee Rigg. "I think most national teams would. The World Cup is not as good quality as the Champions League is."
Eight days ago, the United States men's national soccer team fell, 2-1, in Honduras to open the final round of 2014 World Cup qualification. The defeat was notable for a few reasons, one being the fact that it was the first meaningful Hexagonal round match that Landon Donovan's missed in more than a decade. The tepid performance on the field, which saw the Americans lack the spark of creativity so often brought by the team's all-time leading scorer, renewed calls for Donovan to once again don the Stars and Stripes. Someone even started a White House petition calling for President Obama's intervention in the matter. (The initiative looks destined to fail. As of this writing, it had 36 signatures, 99,964 short of the number needed to spur action from the Oval Office.)
The first United States men's national team friendly of every new year is a predictably strange affair. It comes at the end of a long training camp and features roughly two dozen tired guys, the vast majority of whom are not first-choice players for the USMNT. Many of them are not even second or third on the positional depth charts. The group traditionally consists mostly of players in between Major League Soccer seasons, as well as a few assorted refugees from teams in one of the Scandinavian leagues that take a long winter break so their fans don't freeze while watching a mid-January match. It’s a moment to make impressions — sometimes first, sometimes final.
Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann called the typical gathering of players this year but attempted to add some gravitas to the month-long affair that culminated with Tuesday night's abysmal 0-0 draw against Canada. His reasons for doing so were both practical and ideological. For one, the Americans are in a slow transition at a few key positions, as both the in-flux center back situation and the uncertain status of Landon Donovan are creating a number of problems.
What's my relationship status with MLS? It's complicated. I’d like to tell you that ever since I became a supporter of the league, when it kicked off in 1996, I’ve remained loyal to it. But I haven’t. And many American soccer fans probably have a similar story. For me, it’s been hard to stay devoted to the league when you (a) don’t have a hometown team to support (I’m from Michigan), and (b) know that a better on-the-field product exists in England, Spain, Italy, Germany, etc.
But my feelings for MLS began to change last year when I moved to Los Angeles, where there are not one but two clubs to follow: the L.A. Galaxy and Chivas USA. While keeping up with the flashy and successful Galaxy and the rather feckless Goats, my love for the league has been rekindled.
Now, all meaningful relationships will have their day of reckoning. And I believe that for conflicted MLS fan like me, it has arrived: the L.A. Galaxy will play the Houston Dynamo in the MLS Cup this Saturday, and the match holds such potential for greatness, and whether you're an MLS monogamist or just keeping it casual, I believe we all must witness it. Here’s why:
There's a good chance that Wednesday night will be the last soccer game Landon Donovan plays for quite some time. His Los Angeles Galaxy find themselves down 1-0 after the first leg of the Western Conference semifinal against the San Jose Earthquakes. Unless they can go into Buck Shaw Stadium and get a result against the Supporters' Shield winners, the season will end in less than 72 hours. And the Galaxy barely made it this far. For almost 70 minutes last Thursday night, there was a very real possibility the Galaxy would lose to an inferior Vancouver Whitecaps during Major League Soccer's playoff play-in game. The defending MLS Cup champions were dominating the ball but not the scoreline. It looked like one of those matches in which the better side wasn't going to win.
Donovan, 30, recently gave a couple of interviews in which he hinted at needing a long break following the MLS campaign. The brightest star in the American soccer landscape since he won the Golden Ball for being the best player at the 1999 U-17 World Cup, he also raised the possibility of retirement after the 2013 season. He's physically exhausted from playing virtually nonstop for club(s) and country since 1999, and emotionally drained from promoting the game.