25 December 2006

News Flash: Arsenal are Inconsistent

Merry Christmas, everybody!

I haven't written anything about Arsenal's 2-2 draw with Pompey or their more satisfying 6-2 dismantling of Blackburn, mostly because I wasn't able to see either game. And what can you say? When the Gunners were down 0-2 in the Pompey game, I was convinced we would see their first loss in Ashburton Grove. And yet they were able to fight back for the win, nearly finding a winner in the dying minutes. One point is better than none, and it's good to see that the boys can fight with their backs against the wall. Still, Portsmouth is the kind of team they should handle easily at home, so it's not helpful to see another 2 points left on the floor.

Then, the Blackburn game. Once again, the Gunners gave up that silly early goal -- this time handing a penalty to David Bentley before two minutes were gone. Yet this time Arsenal fought their way back into it, led once again by Messers. Silva and Adebayor. Those two are leading the team in Thierry Henry's absence, and doing a good bit of work with it. 3-1 at the half felt safe, but another preventable Rovers goal made for an uncomfortable 3-2 before the wheels came off and Arsenal ran off three more in quick succession. It looks like a spectacular win, but at times it felt like a nail-biter.

That match is a perfect illustration of the Gunners this season. This Arsenal team is frustrating precisely because they're so inconsistent. It's great to see them dismantle Liverpool, or to get the win at Old Trafford. And the draw at Stamford Bridge was well-earned too. Yet they've been crap against the more mediocre teams. I've gone on before about my thoughts on what's wrong with Arsenal at the moment. Suffice to say that the Portsmouth and Blackburn games didn't change my mind. But then I started to wonder, are Arsenal really that inconsistent?

Well, yes.

Let's compare to the other Big Four teams: Chelsea, Liverpool, and Manchester United. Including Arsenal, these are clearly the top teams in the Prem. In the past five years, none of them have finished below fifth, and only twice has another team cracked the top four. The Gunners fully expect to stay among that elite group.

So then we need to define consistency. I'd say that you're always going to have a difficult game against the other Big Four teams; consistency is how well you do against the rest of the league. That's 16 teams, so in a season you could take a max of 96 points against the 'other guys'.

So I took a look at that, back over the last 4.5 years, counting up how many points the Big Four took against the other teams, and marking that as a percent of possible points. So, for instance, this year Arsenal have taken 21 points from a possible 45 against the non-Big Four teams, giving them 51%. I compared those to the team's finishing position. How does that stack up?
    Team    Year            Pos     % points vs 'others'
Man Utd 2006/2007* 1 89%
Chelsea 2004/2005 1 84
Lvrpool 2005/2006 3 81
Arsenal 2004/2005 2 81
Chelsea 2006/2007* 2 81
Arsenal 2003/2004 1 79
Chelsea 2005/2006 1 79
Chelsea 2003/2004 2 75
Man Utd 2005/2006 2 75
Arsenal 2002/2003 2 74
Man Utd 2002/2003 1 72
Man Utd 2003/2004 3 72
Lvrpool 2006/2007* 3 70
Man Utd 2004/2005 3 68
Arsenal 2005/2006 4 66
Chelsea 2002/2003 4 65
Lvrpool 2002/2003 5 61
Lvrpool 2004/2005 5 57
Lvrpool 2003/2004 4 56
Arsenal 2006/2007* 4 54
*Current on 25 Dec 2006.
So. There are a couple interesting things about this list. First, teams that take care of business against the non-Top Four tend to win the league. No surprise there. And this year's Arsenal, so far, are absolutely the worst of all these teams at taking points from lower-placed sides. Thankfully there's still half a season to cover.

But this can't tell the whole story. Teams that do poorly against both good and bad teams will be at the bottom of the list. But that's just consistent, isn't it? Arsenal this year are so maddening because of their inconsistency.

So let's look at it this way. Arsenal have taken 54% of possible points against the non-Big Four teams. But they've taken 7 of 9 against the Big Four; that's 78% of possible points. From 54% to 78% — that's a swing of +24%. How do other teams stack up?
    Team    Year            Pos   %-oth   %-big4    diff
Arsenal 2006/2007* 4 54 78 +24
Man Utd 2002/2003 1 72 78 +06
Chelsea 2005/2006 1 79 83 +04
Man Utd 2004/2005 3 68 67 -01
Arsenal 2003/2004 1 79 78 -01
Chelsea 2004/2005 1 84 78 -06
Man Utd 2005/2006 2 75 61 -14
Chelsea 2006/2007* 2 81 66 -15
Lvrpool 2003/2004 4 56 33 -23
Lvrpool 2002/2003 5 61 28 -33
Arsenal 2002/2003 2 74 39 -35
Chelsea 2003/2004 2 75 39 -36
Chelsea 2002/2003 4 65 28 -37
Man Utd 2003/2004 3 72 33 -39
Lvrpool 2004/2005 5 57 17 -40
Arsenal 2005/2006 4 66 22 -44
Man Utd 2006/2007* 1 89 45 -44
Arsenal 2004/2005 2 81 28 -53
Lvrpool 2005/2006 3 81 22 -59
Lvrpool 2006/2007* 3 70 0 -70
*Current on 25 Dec 2006.
Yes: This year's Arsenal are so far the most inconsistent team. Now, that doesn't mean much in itself. Several other top inconsistent teams won the league. But that's because they just didn't drop many points overall. For instance, the Man Utd of 02/03 took 78% against the Big Four, but they also took 72% against everybody else. They were just a solid team overall. Last year's Chelsea were much the same, and many of the points they did drop came at the end of the year when their title was virtually certain.

And those are the only other teams who did better against the Big Four than everyone else. Which makes sense: you don't expect a team to play better against the league elite than they do against the rabble. I looked at 20 teams, and that was true for 17 of them — and nearly true for two more. What makes Arsenal so unusual?

I've a few thoughts on that, but this post is too long as it is. I will say this, though. It's tempting to blame it on the coaching, and many signs point in that direction. Arsène may have to rethink some things... but in the end, the players have more to answer for.

I'll write on that later. But for now, I'm looking forward to watching Arsenal take on Watford tomorrow. Let's get the second half kicked off right. COME ON YOU GUNNERS!

13 December 2006

Chelsea 1-1 Arsenal; Wigan 0-1 Arsenal

It's not easy, but the Gunners are making progress.

Continuing my tradition of "better late than never," I thought I'd put in a few words about the 1-1 draw with Chelsea on Sunday. Heck of a match, wasn't it? It's the classic kind of tense draw: at different times you're thinking your team will win, lose, and draw; in the end, you feel exhausted and reluctantly satisfied to call it even.

Both teams wanted the three points, but in the end Arsenal feel better about taking one. Chelsea will rue their missed chances, especially from Drogba and Lampard, and the Gunners had to leave feeling a bit lucky there. But on the other hand, it took a seriously good strike from Michael Essien to even bring the Blues level. Were it not for his one good moment, Chelsea could have lost at home for the first time in forever.

And Arsenal? They had some nervy moments in defense, most notably from a few Senderos miscues, and from the fullbacks after Mourinho switched gears with Robben and Wright-Phillips. But they were hard in the tackle all day, and the Flamini goal was extremely well-worked. Mathieu is starting to take on some leadership with the club, and it's gratifying to see him have an impact in games like this and with Liverpool. And I have to give a shout for Gilberto, who has backed up the captain's armband with some magnificent performances.

The quality of play was excellent from both sides; Chelsea are not the dour defenders that they were last year. Which makes their whining and diving even more annoying. It's always hideous to see Drogba throwing himself to the floor, but it's even worse (if possible) when he's having such a great season. As it is, he'll never have a solid reputation if he can't stop his flailing. And the whole team is just pathetic in how they argue with the referees. I have no idea why it is tolerated; were it me, I'd be very tempted to show an early yellow (or two!) for dissent to put a stop to it.

But despite that, it was an interesting match, with good ebb and flow, and a thrilling finish. The draw is a fair result, though both teams will feel they should have done better. The rematch should be an interesting affair.

And then, three points today as Arsenal nick it from Wigan, 0-1 on the late Adebayor goal. Another match that could have gone either way; Henri Camara did much to trouble the Gunners, and Wigan could have easily had a couple goals. But this time, there was no Essien wonder-strike, and instead Arsenal's surging pressure finally forced open the gates.

I haven't seen the game — I heard it online from ATVO. It sounds like the Gunners missed some chances and gave Wigan some too, but in general held the upper hand for much of the match. That's gratifying, particularly when Arsenal fielded a reduced lineup after Sunday's game. Adebayor continued his frustrating but rewarding run, missing a few chances before getting the crucial winner. (His play is fascinating to me, due to its inconsistency, but that's a post for another time.) Much will be made of the fact that it took a Fabregas pass to crack open Wigan; Cesc sat out until 75' and may be seen as the Gunners' savior. But Arsenal did a lot even before he and van Persie came on.

And full credit to Wigan. In their 1.5 seasons in the Prem, they've been a genuine threat despite their short history. Unlike the standard dour relegation candidates that settle like sediment to the bottom of the table every year, Wigan always look to play a positive match, and have earned some surprising and rewarding wins because of it. It surprises me that Paul Jewell has lasted this long without being snapped up by a larger club, but for now I'm glad to see him craft a team that looks up for a win on Any Given Saturday.

So after three solid performances on the road, Arsenal return home to face Portsmouth. Pompey aren't in their best form, with 2-3-2 in their last 7. But this can be a dangerous team. If you haven't yet, see their goals against Everton from Matt Taylor and Kanu. If the Arsenal defense falls asleep, we could see another early goal for the visitors.

07 December 2006

Klinsmann Withdraws. Dammit.

Well, Klinsmann is out as the next US Men's coach.

I'm convinced he would have been a great choice. What's more troubling is the reason behind it -- if rumors are true. Sports Illustrated is reporting that it's due to questions of control:
Klinsmann and USSF president Sunil Gulati apparently are far apart on issues of executive control over the U.S. program, which is more of an issue than money. It was earlier reported that Klinsmann was looking for a deal of up to $2 million a year.
If that's true, it's quite disappointing. It's not as if US Soccer has a great reputation for managing the Men's National Team, particularly in terms of achieving international success. These guys think too much about marketing and not enough about soccer. We can live without Klinsmann. But if the suits are looking to assert control? Watch out.

Evidently, US Soccer will make an announcement later this afternoon. We'll see what happens. But I'm worried that it will not be good news.

Update: The more I think about this, the more disappointed I get. At any rate, US Soccer is holding a conference call tomorrow (Friday) afternoon. We'll see what the deal is then.

What's The Story With Arsenal?

I haven't posted much about the last few games; frankly I haven't known what to say in any depth. Up and down doesn't even describe it. Let's recap. Since the win over Hamburg, we've seen:

Bolton 3-1 Arsenal: What a depressing game. Everyone knew this would be a tough match; Bolton have been a struggle for the Gunners for some time now and they're playing pretty well again this season. But still, the match and the result were depressing. Despite their respective reputations, it was Bolton that looked to have all the ideas, while Arsenal were naive and uninspired.

That was followed by...

Fulham 2-1 Arsenal: If the Bolton match had a feeling of doom wrapped around it, the trip to Fulham was like a nightmare. And we couldn't wake up. Fulham are better than their reputation, but still the Gunners should have been able to keep them in check. Not so; once again an early goal put us under the gun and even a late run forward by Jens Lehmann couldn't buy us a second goal.

Then came relief, in the form of...

Arsenal 3-0 Tottenham: Finally, the breaks went Arsenal's way. Some close refereeing decisions resulted in all three Arsenal goals, as the Gunners took the lead at 20 minutes. Once again, Arsenal showed that an early lead is the prescription; it allows them to attack and relieves the pressure on the defense. And it helped that Spurs were just about woeful.

Finally, we had the spectacle of...

Porto 0-0 Arsenal: There's not much to say about this one, other than the Gunners (and Porto) did what they needed to do. Porto looked more likely to score, but the woodwork was kind and the danger evaporated.

So, there you have it. In 11 days, Arsenal are 1-1-2. Two punishing, humiliating losses, a huge derby win, and a functional draw that saw Arsenal to the top of their group. Emotionally, it's a roller-coaster. But despite the inconsistent outcomes, there's a clear pattern, and I'm not the first to see it.

The first goal is the key. If Arsenal score first, they win. If not, it's a draw or a loss. Rarely this season have Arsenal come from behind to win. Once was the second leg against Dinamo Zagreb, and that's misleading as the Gunners already had a 3-0 lead in the tie. Once was against woeful Charlton. And once was against disappointing Hamburg.

This is fairly surprising, as Arsenal are a high-scoring team (1.64 goals per game so far). With their potent offense, Arsenal should have the ability to come back against anyone. And yet, once they're behind, they struggle to even get the first goal. And lately, they've been behind a lot. Here's a list of all games where Arsenal's opponents have scored, and when the goal came:
19 Aug D vs Villa:     53' (Mellberg )
23 Aug W vs D Zagreb: 12' (Eduardo)
26 Aug L @ Man City: 41' (Barton pen)
9 Sep D vs Boro: 22' (Morrison)
13 Sep W @ Hamburg: 90' (Sanogo)
30 Sep W @ Charlton: 21' (Bent)
17 Oct L @ Moscow: 24' (Carvalho)
28 Oct D @ Everton: 11' (Cahill)
5 Nov L @ West Ham: 89' (Harewood)
18 Nov D vs Newcastle: 30' (Dyer)
21 Nov W vs Hamburg: 4' (van der Vaart)
25 Nov L @ Bolton: 9' (Faye)
29 Nov L @ Fulham: 6' (McBride)
To put it another way: In the 13 matches where Arsenal have given up a goal, on average it comes at 31'. Only 3 times has that goal come in the second half; 5 times that goal came in the first 15 minutes.

That's shocking.

And compare that to some of the matches that Arsenal have won. Just two recent examples, quoting from the BBC:

Liverpool: "Liverpool thought they had taken the lead after 13 minutes when Peter Crouch turned home Alonso's cross, but he had strayed offside. The visitors had enjoyed more than their fair share of possession and territory in the first half..."

Spurs: "Their one and only moment of note came in the 11th minute."

What's going on here?

Well, no surprise from my comments above, but I think it all begins with the defense. Those early goals make the opponents comfortable, allowing them to defend aggressively and counterattack. Defenders lose confidence, becoming jittery and nervous. The midfield bunkers down, afraid to pass to the defenders or to take risks going forward. And the strikers receive no service since the midfielders are tied up. I don't want to oversimplify -- this doesn't explain our poor finishing -- but I do believe it's the root of our challenges. The defense provides the foundation for the team, and the shaky foundation we're seeing now results in an inconsistent team.

You can see it on the flip side, too. No team has come back against Arsenal this year. Once they take the lead, they don't give up goals. The only exceptions are late, meaningless goals in both Hamburg games. Arsenal are a great team once they have the lead. The pressure's no longer on the defense, and that steadies the whole ship.

Which brings us back to the key question: why are the Gunners conceding those early goals? In a word: organization. Watch the tapes. It's not simply poor defending at set pieces; we have given up goals on counterattacks too. But it's confusion and missed assignments that cut us open: a man left unmarked, indecision between two defenders, a poor pass. Even when the goal comes from a great shot, like Anelka's first goal, you can see that the defenders didn't communicate who should pick up the man.

I put that down to two reasons. First, this is a very young defense. Gallas is 29 and Toure is 25; they are the veterans of the back line. After that, you have Eboue (23), Hoyte (22), Senderos (21), Clichy (21), and Djourou (19). Those are young ages for any player, but defenders take longer to bloom because their role depends more on knowledge and decision-making than physical skill. Gallas and Toure have been starters for years, but none of the other players have seen significant playing time in the first team before last year.

That ties to the second reason: the defense has been anything but stable over the last two years. Injuries and youth have driven Wenger to constantly improvise the back line. I'm not going to go look it up, but I suspect we've had seven or eight different defensive alignments this year. Think about it -- if you're Kolo, you have to react differently depending on whether it's Gallas, Senderos, Djourou, or Hoyte playing next to you. And then you have players like Djourou and Hoyte who have switched back and forth between center-half and fullback. That's a hard enough transition for a veteran, but for the kids it has to be daunting. It's no coincidence that our two worst performances (Bolton and Fulham) came right after Gallas was injured. That leaves three players getting on-the-job training for every match.

Look, I'm not offering excuses. If the kids want to be Arsenal players, they have to do better than they have. And that includes times when we lose players due to injury or suspension or whatever. The time to learn is now. The good news is that these kids are talented players. For every mistake, we've seen flashes of brilliance. Once the dust settles -- once the kids get experience and confidence -- the Gunners could have another legendary Back Four.

But in the meantime, Arsenal face Chelsea. Toure is suspended, Djourou may have a hamstring injury, and Gallas is only 20% to play. More turnover in defense.

So there's only one solution: get that early goal! COME ON YOU GUNNERS!

22 November 2006

Arsenal 3-1 Hamburg

Isn't it great when a loved one gives you a pleasant surprise?

Now, it's no surprise for Arsenal to win over Hamburg. They started the night at 0-0-4 in Group G and had nothing to play for. Which of course gave them every freedom to attack the game. And they did so, taking the early lead through a killer shot from Rafael van der Vaart at 4':

This was a plot that every Gunner will recognize from this season: lower-ranked team gets an early goal at the Grove. Arsenal fight hard, and work a goal to equalize, but are never able to take the lead. (See also: Boro, Everton, Newcastle.) It is always incredibly frustrating, not least because Arsenal has had dozens of chances in these games, with tons of pressure but not enough end product. This game was no exception, with Alexander Hleb hitting woodwork and Robin van Persie going just over the bar in the first half alone.

The Gunners got the requisite equalizer soon after the half, on a fine goal from van Persie. But the goal was created by the excellent pass from Cesc Fabregas. Watch how Cesc never looks at van Persie before putting the ball right at his feet. Simply magic.

So, 1-1 with 38 minutes to play. But Arsenal fans have seen this before, and we're not fooled by extended possession or near misses. We know that 1-1 is in the cards. Even for an optimistic guy like me, the sour taste of disappointment began to take hold around 80'.

But fortunately, Emmanuel Eboue didn't read the script. At 83' he cut into the box and fired a low, hard shot that skipped past keeper Stefan Wachter. It was a tight angle and might easily have been saved. But note this: for once, the box is filled with Gunners attacking the goal. Cesc, Adebayor, Baptista, and Henry are all in quality attacking positions, and that's going to give the defense fits. And instead Eboue takes the shot. Hard. It was a high-quality goal despite Wachter's miss, and no less than Arsenal deserved (though perhaps more than we expected).

To their credit, Hamburg continued to fight for a goal, but that's bread and butter for the Gunners and led to their third. Theo Walcott continued his super-sub performance by hanging a pinpoint cross for Baptista to thunderously head home. It's a classic Premiership-style goal and hopefully a sign of things to come for both Walcott and the Beast.

And there you have it, 3-1 to the Arsenal. It's good to see them finally overcome the frustration they've faced with other disappointing results. Time and again they've threatened to score, only to see wasted chances and bad luck. What was different this time?

Tactics. Arsenal started once again in the 4-5-1 (really a 4-1-4-1) they've used so often this year, but at halftime they switched to 4-4-2. I'm not against using the 4-5-1 in many situations; it was the key to our run to the CL Finals last year and it's worked well at other times too. But it's been less effective against the more workmanlike formations of less polished teams. In those situations -- and particularly if it's clear that the opposition is looking to close shop and get behind the ball, such as when they score a goal -- we need that second striker in the attack.

Scrappiness. Look again at the Eboue goal and notice two things. First, Eboue is willing to take an imperfect shot. Wachter had a good chance to save it, and Eboue didn't try for either the far post or high at the near post. But he did put the ball on frame, with a hard shot. He got lucky... but he made that luck. Second, it's great to see the other attacking players in the box. Even if Wachter makes the save, there's a very good chance the ball would spill to another Gunner well positioned to hammer it home.

In normal Arsenal play, I would expect to see several of those players dropping back or making horizontal runs to open themselves for passes. That kind of unselfish play can result in the kinds of beautiful Arsenal attacks that we love to see. But sometimes you just need pressure.

Egalitarianism. Thierry Henry is perhaps the best pure player in soccer right now, and one of the all-time greats. He can do amazing, wonderful things, and at times can carry the Gunners on his back. But. If Arsenal rely on him to score their goals, they won't win many games. He can do a lot, but if he's the only significant scoring threat, the defense can adjust to (usually) stop him. So we need other players to pick up the slack.

And we saw this last night. Look at the Baptista goal. Henry is making a great run down the throat of the defense. And they're forced to react -- after all, it's Thierry effin' Henry coming at them! He's been in that situation before, and it's his genius that he can sometimes work himself open even with two defenders shadowing him. So he was still looking hopefully for the pass from Walcott. But Theo had a better idea, spotting Baptista's unmarked run.

Think about it -- who's going to criticize a kid like Theo if he passes to Henry? It takes a lot of confidence in yourself and your teammates to overlook him for another option. It's a combination of things: other players having the aggressiveness to seek out chances, the confidence to take them, and the willingness to look at all the options. When guys like van Persie and Eboue and Baptista are scoring goals, that will just open things up for Henry. And that's when Arsenal will be at their best.

So the Gunners surprised us all and pulled out the victory. They're now well-positioned in Group G, needing just one point to advance when they visit Porto next week. (They can even advance with a loss, if Hamburg win or draw over CSKA Moscow... but nobody wants to rely on that scenario.) Yesterday's win was crucial for that, but more importantly, it was an important victory for the mental health of the Gunners -- and their fans.

21 November 2006

Video Review

Should soccer move to using video replays?

Landry and I have debated this before, and I tend to be rather skeptical about it. But it would seem I'm in the minority. Arsene Wenger and Mark Hughes, among others, have called for it. And now the call is coming from Keith Hackett, which is pretty important because he's in charge of the Premiership referees. If the Prem wants it, it's likely to happen.

Most of the English arguments for and against video review are based on its use in rugby and cricket. I don't watch either, so it's impossible for me to judge how well it works there. But I have seen it used often in American football (gridiron) and it's clear that this model wouldn't work in soccer. (Here are the American football instant replay rules.) The key factor is that the referee has 90 seconds to review the play. In reality, it takes far longer. For one thing, the referees tend to take as much time as they need, and often will take two minutes or longer. Add to that the time that it takes the referee to walk to the monitor on the sideline, get the headphones on, and then to walk back after the review, and the whole process can take three or four minutes.

That kind of delay would be hideous in a soccer game. The arguments I've heard -- and this is from people who I respect -- say that it would never take so long. I'm unconvinced. For one thing, the referee has to travel to and from the monitor on the sidelines; there's no way around that. And if there's any situation that's less than completely obvious, the referee will need to see things several times to make a decision. That includes any situation where there's a very close decision, or a player blocking the camera, or multiple camera angles to consider. Again, other people will argue that it can be quick. But I remain convinced that a video decision would take between 90 seconds and three minutes to complete. That's all added to the existing stoppage time, of course.

So what kinds of things would be reviewed? It's important to be clear about what things the referee can and can't consider. The current discussion is around whether the ball crossed the goal line. And I can see that this would be a reasonable application. But these situations are quite rare -- maybe one or two in a season. Are there any other situations where video replay could be used?So there are a very few situations where video review could possibly be used. But in the end, I don't expect that it would make a huge difference in the quality of games we would watch. The one situation that seriously needs refereeing help -- offsides -- is not going to be reviewable. And the situations that are practical are uncommon enough that they won't make a major impact.

There is one area where I would be a big proponent of video review, however. And that's for post-game analysis. Leagues already do this to review violent play and other offenses. I would extend this practice, so that players can accumulate red and yellow cards based on events that the ref doesn't see -- as well as allowing the ref to subsequently upgrade a yellow card to a red if the incident was more serious than he realized.

I'd also use video evidence to review diving. It's much easier to see some of the blatant dives in slow motion, and retroactive yellow cards would be a very reasonable deterrent. Five dives and you're suspended for a game -- that works for me.

But perhaps most importantly: video review of games should be a regular practice -- in order to evaluate how well the referees perform. Maybe this is done already, but if so it's secretive. I would personally love to see referees held to public account for their performances. Even with a perfect video review system, there would still be hundreds of unreviewable refereeing decisions in every match, so referees will always have the ability to screw things up royally.

Which is comforting, if you think about it. Can we really afford to lose the best excuse for a team's poor result?

20 November 2006

US MNT Makeover

With action gearing up for the US NATs, what changes should we expect in the new squad? Here are some predictions:

Several players have already announced their international retirements: Claudio Reyna, Eddie Pope, Brian McBride. Of those who haven't, I see these as the most at risk of not earning more caps.

What new faces should the NATs incorporate? How about these:

15 November 2006

US MNT Update

Well, it's been almost five months since the US lost to Ghana to crash out of the World Cup finals, and four months since Bruce Arena was canned. And there's been little news out of South Prairie Avenue. So what's going on?

Well, I had some good news in my email inbox this morning. The US Men are close to taking action again. They'll begin with a friendly, taking on Denmark on January 20 at the Home Depot Center. I'm pretty darn jealous, given that the other Dave has just relocated to the greater Los Angeles area. (You'd better be getting tickets, boyo.) It's not a bad way to begin the recovery. Denmark are a quality opponent, yet also reasonable, and if you want a January match, southern California's not a bad place to be. (I expect a lot of sunburned Danes.) It's good to see that things are taking off again.

The US men have also recently announced their next competitions. Of course, the Gold Cup is coming up in 2007. CONCACAF is once again hosting the tournament in the US, which makes things easier for the hosts (and defending champions). However, there's a significant change in that no non-CONCACAF teams will participate. It's pitched as a move that shows the strength of the region, but it has to lower the quality of the teams in the tournament. Replacing Colombia with Haiti, or South Africa with Grenada, is a simple loss of talent. The region's teams need to face top-quality opposition if they want to improve, and so the news is a bit disappointing.

Yet that news isn't as hard to take given the other US tournament news: the Nats will participate in the 2007 Copa America, the top COMNEBOL tournament. There's nothing better for our national team than to play top-quality opponents, and they don't get better than Brazil and Argentina (not to mention the other fine teams in the region). Plus, playing in the surely hostile stadiums of Venezuela will provide a useful preparation for other harsh international venues. The US hasn't played in the Copa America since 1995, so it's great to see them get involved once again. A solid performance in Venezuela will be a good first step to taking the sour taste of Germany 2006 from the mouths of fans.

All in all, there will be plenty of Nats soccer to see next year. And that's great... but who's going to coach the team? Well, that news may only be a few weeks away. US Soccer President Sunil Gulati said "I am still very hopeful and expect that we will announce a coach in November" or early December. And who will that be? Gulati of course wouldn't say, but he did indicate that five candidates are in serious consideration, and specifically mentioned that Juergen Klinsmann (the perennial DavesOnSoccer favorite) was one of the five.

There were a few hints in the conversation about other possibilities. It sounds like a few of the candidates may be currently coaching in Europe, and there's probably an MLS coach or two in there as well. He did specifically rule out Arsene Wenger (whew!), Felipe Scolari, and Guus Hiddink. Scolari and Hiddink have been mentioned as candidates before so that does clear the picture a bit. There was no mention of Sven Goran-Eriksson, so he may still be on the list. (Oh, please please, not Sven!)

There are plenty of possibilities but hopefully we'll know the answer in a few weeks. That will really mark the transition; we can then move past Germany 06 and start thinking about the upcoming cup competitions. It's been a while since I've been eager to discuss the Nats, but that era is coming to a close. I can't wait.

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