30 August 2005

Soccer vs. Football, Pt II: Promotion and Relegation

It's a slow week, with the impending internationals. So I thought I'd return to this topic. (Though it's really US sport vs. UK sport, but I like this title better.)

One of the absolute best things about soccer everywhere but here is the threat of relegation, and the corresponding reward of promotion. This is an alien concept for the American fan, but it's instantly understandable and adds a lot to the sport.

For those who don't understand it: in almost every country, there are several levels of leagues, called something like "League One", "League Two", "League Three", and so forth.* These are sorted by quality, very simply. Each season, the bottom three teams in each league are demoted — "relegated" — to the lower league. And of course, the best three teams in each league are "promoted" to the next higher league.**

This is a fantastic prospect. For one thing, it means that the worst teams in each league are incredibly motivated, right to the end of the season. After all, they want to "stay up" and remain in the current league. It also ensures that there aren't any perpetual bottom-dwellers.

American leagues don't have this, and in fact it's difficult to see how they would. There really isn't any similar system for heirarchical leagues, with one exception that I'll discuss in a bit. For basketball and football, the lower level leagues are actually college leagues, which operate under vastly different rules. (As in, the players are not allowed to accept any payment of any kind.) There are less powerful leagues, like the CBA for basketball, but there's a huge drop between these levels. It would be like relegating a Premiership team to the second division.

Baseball is an exception, in that it does have a wide heirarchy of leagues. There's the "major league", of course, which is followed by AAA, AA, and A leagues. (There are actually a few different leagues at each level except the majors.) But virtually all of the lower league teams have contractural relationships with the major league teams. These lower teams form a "farm system", essentially the reserves (and lower) for each major league team. Suppose the Pittsburgh Pirates (a major league team) signs a young player. They would likely begin him with the A-league Lynchburg Hillcats. If he does well there, they would move him (in mid-season) to the AA Altoona Curve. From there, he'd move on to the AAA Indianapolis Indians. And finally, he'd get his 'call up' to the Pirates.

So there's no way to have relegation and promotion in baseball. Teams in lower leagues don't control their players; they're almost all held by major league clubs. A good AAA team could be gutted in mid-season if the parent club isn't doing well, losing all their top players. The system exists because baseball demands such skill that it usually takes several years to develop a player past high school. So this gives the players a chance to develop in actual games.

It's a bit surprising that the States can't support lower-level leagues. After all, it's a huge country, and there's plenty of entertainment to go around. College sports cut into this in a big way, since they form a whole industry in their own right. And TV doesn't help either; most sports are completely targeted to TV viewing, and so most fans would rather watch a TV broadcast of another city's major league team than to actually attend a local game from a lower-level team.

Still, I think you could accomplish this, by subdividing the current major leagues. There are 30 teams in the NBA, 32 teams in the NFL, and 30 in MLB. You could at the least split any one of these into a lower and upper divison, with relegation/promotion between the two. It would have a few advantages. It would make the games more exciting, since the teams would be more evenly matched. And it would make things interesting for the middle-table teams, since they would be fighting for something, even late in the season.

It would probably be most interesting to try this with the NBA. The talent gap there is huge, and it seems to have the least amount of change from year to year. Forcing the top teams to play each other on a regular basis would change that. And you could still have a reasonable schedule if you had 15 teams in each division. (Maybe they could even expand to 16 or 18 per division.)

But it won't happen, not in the NBA, not anywhere. No team would be willing to sacrifice it's big games, against the top teams in the league. The lost revenue would be painful. And — perhaps more importantly — the owners of the teams would not accept the ego loss (or the potential loss in team value) that would result from joining a lesser league.

Which is too bad, because it sure would be interesting to see.

*This is where England has become stupid with corporate greed. Originally, the leagues were that simple: First Division, Second Division, etc. Then the Premiership came along and superceded the old First Division. Then, last year, the Second Divison was renamed to the Championship. So now, the First Division is really the third-best league. Dumb.

**There are complications. In England, the first- and second-place teams are promoted, while the third- through sixth-place teams have a playoff for the final promotion spot. But the principle is the same.

27 August 2005

Fulham 1-0 Everton

Since my Gunners aren't playing this weekend, I'm an enforced neutral for this week's games. So, for today I'm watching Fulham-Everton. It's turned out to be a nice 1-0 win for the Cottagers, behind a nicely worked goal for Brian McBride. I'm certainly happy to see him getting a good start to the season.

I'm intrigued by both teams, to see if they live up to their expectations. Everton, that they're as good as their 4th place finish last year. And Fulham, that they're truly a relegation candidate.

I hate to judge too much by this game since both teams played mid-week: Fulham in the well-fought but fruitless loss to Arsenal; Everton in their desperate 2-1 loss to Villareal in the Champions' league. Both teams had their share of mistakes, which I'd pin on three games in a week's time. Still, it was interesting to watch.

Fulham have their problems. They make far too many mistakes and at times they look out of their depth. But I was amazed at the improvement after they scored the goal. Suddenly they had tremendous energy and were able to sustain their attack much better than before. I think Chris Coleman's #1 job is to instill a sense of belief in the team; if he can do that, I think they can hang on and comfortably remain in the Prem. But this is a team that could implode, if they lose faith.

Everton are tougher to figure. They certainly have skill and ability, and really they had enough good chances that they should have won the match. And yet they couldn't unlock the Fulham goal (despite far too many Fulham mistakes in defense). My guess is that they're just too thin in numbers to fight for both the Premiership and UEFA cup, particularly if they make it to the UEFA group stage. They should qualify for Europe again, but I think Champions' League play may be out of reach.

25 August 2005

Champions League Group Predictions

The draw was made today for the group stage of the Champions League. Let me not waste any time and make some rash predictions on who will advance from each group.

Group A
The clear favorites here are Bayern Munich and Juventus. They should both advance easily over Rapid Vienna, who needed a late goal to qualify for the group stage, and Club Brugge, who needed penalties.

Group B
The little Swiss side that could, FC Thun, has already made history by qualifying for the group stage. As a reward, they'll get to face lengendary teams Arsenal, Ajax and Sparta Prague. They'll also get beaten by them. Arsenal should progress without too much trouble. Ajax haven't looked all that impressive as yet this year but should still have enough class to squeek past Sparta Prague for the second spot.

Group C
Barcelona should have little trouble winning this group, but it will be very interesting to see who will claim the second spot. Werder Bremen should probably be favored, but I'll go out on a limb and predict that unfancied Italian side Udinese will pip the Germans.

Group D
There might be an upset or two along the way, but Manchester United and Villareal should survive this group. In fact, Villareal might finish just ahead of United. This group will be tighter than most as Lille and Benfica are quality sides.

Group E
AC Milan will qualify comfortably out of this group. Here again, the race will be for second. I'm going to favor PSV and DaMarcus Beasley, but it's possible Shalke could sneak through.

Group F
I've not been all that pleased with Real Madrid's personnel choices of the past few years, but the galacticos should still make it out of this group. Lyon should qualify as well.

Group G
If there's a group of death, this is it. Chelsea are certainly the favorites, but it will be a tight group. For me it's a toss up between Real Betis and Liverpool for second place. I'll pick Liverpool simply because I think the desire to defend their title will carry them through.

Group H
Inter Milan are the clear favorites and I'm picking Porto to make it through as well, even though they've lost many of their best players and coach, Jose Mourinho. Rangers will be a close third, but they've never made it out of the group stage and I don't see that changing this year.

24 August 2005

Arsenal 4-1 Fulham

No, really. Two goals for Cygan? You gotta be kiddin' me.

All in all, we ended with a solid win. However, we made the first half look too even, us at home to a relegation candidate. Fulham's goal came from an unfortunate Kolo Toure mis-hit, followed by an inspired chip from Claus Jensen. Lehmann was in the wrong spot and didn't have a chance. 1-0 to Fulham.

Arsenal's answer was uncharacteristically workmanlike. Bergkamp's free kick found three Gunners invading the box. Pascal Cygan was the first there, and put a nicely taken header low past Tony Warner (who was poorly served by the final score). That put us 1-1 at the half.

I'm sure that Wenger chewed out his boys because they returned from the break with a renewed directness. Everyone was shooting rather than passing, and Warner was called into action on numerous occasions. Finally, Thierry Henry broke through, masterfully collecting Jose Antonio Reyes' incisive diagonal pass, and firing it wide past Warner. Henry collected a second on Mattieu Flamini's pass by chipping the keeper. But the goal of the game came from a short corner. With Henry and Bergkamp in the left corner, the cross came to Kolo Toure, who first touched the ball back, then frantically hurdled Cygan's shot. Two center-halves fighting for the goal, while the forwards take the corner. Who woulda thunk it?

4-1 was a bit harsh to Fulham. Credit them for coming out aggressive and looking for the win. For the first half, it wasn't out of their reach. But their 4-3-3 was bound to offer opportunities to Arsenal, and only the fine work of Warner (11 saves) kept them in the match for so long. Yet in the end, the attacking prowess of Pascal Cygan was bound to unlock Warner's goal. (And that Henry kid had a good game too.)

Cheers to the two scorers. And also to Reyes, Aleksander Hleb, and Ashley Cole, who all had very good games. Lehmann did well too. Bergkamp played well, but loses credit for his childish pull on the linesman's flag. He was lucky to see yellow. And Gilberto didn't have a great game either; he had more than a few bad touches and seemed uncharacteristically likely to give away possession at inopportune times.

No match for the Gunners until 10 September, when they travel to Boro. Time to get ready for US-Mexico!

23 August 2005

Villan Baros

It's now a done deal; Milan Baros is signed to Aston Villa. It'll be interesting to see him partnered with Juan Pablo Angel. Because, I mean, how can you tell them apart? Maybe they can switch shirts at halftime, just to confuse the ref. Seriously, I like the partnership. Villa has long suffered from inconsistency and underachievement; perhaps this move will make a difference for them.

Villa had an interesting sequence in today's game against Portsmouth. After 10 minutes, Richard Hughes elbowed Noberto Solano, picking up a yellow. However, Solano's retaliatory swing earned him a red, reducing Villa to 10 men. But wait! On the ensuing free kick, Gareth Barry put the ball into the box, and it was headed home — of course — by none other than Richard Hughes. One might say that justice was served. Pompey ended up with a point, after a strike by Lomana LuaLua.

Villa have Blackburn on Saturday. I'm looking forward to seeing double in the Villa strikeforce.

21 August 2005

Review: USA 1 - 0 Trinidad and Tobago

The Nats are virtually qualified now for Germany '06 with this win, pedestrian though it may have been. I have to say that the team always looks better with Reyna controlling things in the midfield. It seems he's finally regaining some form and it's great to have him back. Hopefully, he'll continue to see significant playing time for Manchester City. He was very active and involved in both EPL games this season. Bobby Convey is also starting to deliver on some of his potential. He too is seeing significant playing time for Reading this season and it seems to have done wonders for his confidence.

Chelsea - Arsenal Liveblogging

FINAL: Chelsea 1-0 Arsenal. Drogba turned out to be the difference, though not on a counter as I suspected. As in the Shield, Arsenal had a lot of half-chances but couldn't make anything count.

The report on Ljungberg is a recurrence of his calf injury. Doesn't sound bad, but still he went off on the stretcher. I wish he could have continued; his fight would have served the Gunners well.

Fulham next weekend. We'd better do a job on them.

90+2: One last run forward for the Gunners. Chelsea are able to counter and Senderos makes a meal of the header back.... but Lehmann saves the shot.

90+1: A card for Senderos, for a shove on Drogba. Chelsea go straight for the corner.

89 min: Cole loses posession and takes a frustrated kick at Essien, earning a card for his trouble. The Gunners look more frustrated than fiery, which I hate to see. 3 additional minutes.

87 min: Arsenal working hard but Chelsea have 10 behind the ball; it'll take something amazing to break through now. The Gunners are starting to look a bit desperate.

85 min. Del Horno wasting time by going down on the side. Arsenal brings off Fabregas in favor of Flamini.

84 min: Toure finds Henry, with time to turn, but his shot is straight at Cech.

77 min: Tough shot for Henry takes an awkward bounce; Cech has to put it out for a corner. The short corner comes to nothing and Chelsea break. Gallas has an open look at goal from 30 yards and takes a hard shot, but Lehmann makes the easy catch save.

76 min: Yellow card for Makalele, as van Persie tries to break free on the counter.

73 min: GOAL 1-0 Chelsea. Quick free kick finds Drogba in the box, and he muscles past Senderos and shoves the ball past Lehmann.

An ugly goal but it still counts. I thought Drogba was offsides but I'll need to look again. We'll see if the Gunners can find an answer.

72 min: Hell of a run from Toure, cutting past and making a dangerous cross, similar to the one that Freddie fired last week. This time, van Persie can't hold it.

70 min: Giberto gets a header from van Persie's long free-kick; it's on target but an easy save for Cech.

68 min: The game is heating up; I think neither team is content to take a point just yet. Good back and forth.

67 min: Hard work from Pires wins a corner off Del Horno, who takes some time getting up. Long corner from van Persie is collected by Cech.

66 min: Long ball finds Wright-Phillips, who fires in a dangerous cross for Drogba, but Lehmann calmly collects.

64 min: Nice work from van Persie to win a great cross on the left. But nobody is home to collect. It does win Arsenal a corner however. That one's out, and a second is taken short to Cesc; the shot is blocked.

63 min: It's become a very cagey match. Both teams are still attacking, but they're being quite patient about it. I'd still be surprised to see it end 0-0, but it's looking a lot more likely that in the first 20 min.

59 min: Gudjohnsen off, Essien on. Guess we'll see how match-fit he is. Also Wright-Phillips on for Robben.

58 min: Drogba again, beating the trap, but he shoots quickly and scoffs his shot.

55 min: Long ball finds Drogba in a dangerous position, but Senderos recovers quite well to clear the danger. Good ball from the kid.

54 min: Nice ball from Cole, but Henry mishits.

53 min: More Arsenal posession around the 20-yard box, ending with a confused shot/cross from Cesc. You can smell Chelsea trying to draw the Gunners in.

50 min: van Persie loses posession on the box and makes a silly foul on Duff. Gallas tries to start something but Robin simply stands his ground; Gallas gets a yellow for his trouble. The foul was silly but good to see the kid recover his composure.

48 min: Chelsea seem willing to give a lot of posession to Arsenal. I think they're definitely looking for the counter. It'll be interesting to see if the tactics pay, or if Arsenal are able to strike first.

46 min: Drogba in for Crespo. Crespo is a good player but I don't think he's the man for the counterattack style that suits this game. Drobga will be a bigger challenge there; we'll see how often Chelsea can get him the ball.

HALFTIME. 0-0. The first 15 minutes were really fiery football, back and forth. The game inevitably settled after that. Chelsea had more of the pressure, but the Arsenal defense has done well so far, and in particular Jens Lehmann has done some good work. Arsenal have had their pressure too. Typically for them, they've not put many shots on goal but have been able to hold lots of posession around the box. Cole had a penalty claim around 15 min, but I don't think there was quite enough to it. Close, though.

It's quite disappointing to see Ljungberg off the field, particularly because he'd played well in the season so far. But he already made a key impact with his clearance off the line. Hopefully it's nothing serious, but I do worry.

45+2: Lehmann comes waaaay out to claim from Crespo, but does a nice job of it. Back the other way, and Pires has a decent look at goal, pushing it wide left.

43 min: Close, too close. A bit of chaos in the Arsenal box, but Lehmann makes a nice save on Robben, and the defense does enough to clear after a couple anxious seconds.

40 min: Extended posession from Chelsea, but Arsenal are able to keep it contained fairly well. Now Arsenal hold, but aren't able to get near goal.

35 min: Bad ball from Lampard. He's not been as sharp as usual. Could change in a hurry though.

33 min: Arsenal corner, Lampard makes a meal of it. Another... and Eidur puts it out. Third... finally cleared after Senderos is upended looking for the header.

31 min: Dangerous from Senderos... that header could have easily looped over Lehmann. Worked out OK though.

23 min: Not good to see Ljungberg still favoring his knee. Seems like they may bring in van Persie instead. Too bad, Freddie was key to the early moments of the game.

20 min: The game has slowed a bit, but it's still good football; both teams are changing things up and looking for the goal. I can't believe we'll end up 0-0 like last year.

17 min: nice tackle from Toure to save the breakaway. Followed by nice work to strip the ball from Crespo.

12 min: Oooh! Great turn from Hleb, nice pass from Henry, and Ljungberg came awfully close. Nice work, but needed a better finish.

8 min: Wow, risky play from Cech, almost took it out of the area. The foul on Henry saved him. Not what you usually see from Cech.

7 min: Looks like Robben is adding a weave up top. Good for him.

5 min: Some nice movement from Arsenal. They're bringing some threat too. Hleb could bring an interesting new dimension to their attack today.

1 min: Crap! Hate to see that kind of early pressure. Nice play from Lehmann though. Also a nice clear off the line from Freddie. Jaysus.

0958: Love to see that legend: "Starting in 1:18" on the TV. Let's get going!

0951: Lineups:

Arsenal: Lehmann; Cole, Senderos, Toure, Lauren; Gilberto, Fabregas, Hleb, Ljungberg, Pires; Henry. (Hmm.)

Chelsea: Cech; Del Horno, Gallas, Ferreira, Terry; Duff, Lampard, Makalele, Robben; Gudjohnsen, Crespo.

I'm a bit worried that Arsenal look to be using the 4-5-1 they used in the FA Cup final. But then again, Henry is a more dangerous threat than Bergkamp. We'll see.

0945: It's pretty interesting to see what'll happen with the game. I don't think either team will expect anything like the Community Shield. In fact, it'll be interesting to see how similiar the teams are to the ones that started that game. I wouldn't be surprised to see 3 or 4 new faces from the Chelsea side of two weeks ago.

Arseblog called for a Henry - van Persie partnership up front for Arsenal, and I can support that. The boy is incredibly efficient, putting away a high percentage of his strikes. We'll need some of that today.

0935: $19.95 for the Pay Per View. I don't mind the money, but it's depressing not to have a destination for the game, to watch with others, now that Rob And Jay's chippy has closed.

0932: I'm on the first cup of coffee and pretty wound up for the game. We'll try the liveblogging... maybe just hitting key points. Don't know that I can type and watch at the same time.

20 August 2005

Birmingham 1-2 Man City

A fun game to watch for the neutral, with loads of back-and-forth action. Nicky Butt's early goal was equalled on 20 minutes by Joey Barton. Butt's goal was the result of some chaos in the box, caused by a nicely worked cross from Julian Gray. Barton's goal came after a nice set of passes down the right channel and a shot from Darius Vassell that spun onto Barton's feet. The winner for Citeh came right after the half. Trevor Sinclair sent a looping cross to the far post, which Andy Cole buried on a nice shot from the half-volley.

The rest of the game continued the back-and-forth pace, with good opportunities on both sides. Birmingham fans will no doubt feel aggrieved due to a couple penalty appeals, especially a clear handball from Stephen Jordan.

I was nervous to see Claudio Reyna go down under a poor challenge from Muzzy Izzet. It's never good to see your national team captain waving for treatment. He was subbed out a few minutes later, but not before some solid action, so hopefully there's nothing serious. He looked quite good for the US on Wednesday, and had good moments in today's game too. I'd hate to see him miss the Mexico game on 3 September.

It'll be interesting to see how these two teams develop over the season. Both have some real potential to position themselves up the table. Man City in particular have underachieved for a couple years, and it wouldn't surprise me to see them challenge for a place in Europe. Today was a good start for them in that quest.

19 August 2005

Sam's Army

I've followed the US Men since the '94 World Cup — in other words, since I've been watching soccer. But my fandom has built slowly over the years, and it's only in the past year that I've attended any games in person. I guess I'm slowly building the commitment that leads one to drive several hours, or fly 2000 miles, to see the games.

I do have an example to follow: Sam's Army. The US supporters club brings dedication, energy, and excitement to the games, and they do credit to the team. I've been in the Sam's Army section once, for the US-Costa Rica game in Salt Lake City, and I'll try to be there for every game I can attend going forward. It's the right way to watch the game: on your feet, loud, involved, and united. Politely applauding is fine for some, but I was weaned on college football and basketball, and the Sam's Army Way is the kind of atmosphere I thrive on.

They are doing things right. But there are a couple things I would change, if I were king:

We need better songs and chants. Some are quite good, but I tire of the extensive variety of "U-S-A" chants. They're good at times, but frankly they're overused, and I'd like to see more songs with melodies.

I l-o-v-e LOVE the giant US flag that is brought out for goals and kickoffs. It's stunning, and really makes the point that this is a united group of supporters, behind the team. I do not, however, like the individual flags that are commonly brought and worn as capes. I was always taught to show more respect to the flag than that. I'm behind the sentiment, and I know those with the flags do so with only the best intentions. I just don't like to see it treated so casually.

I applaud the drummers and the work they do. It really adds to the atmosphere. But from SLC — the only time I was close enough to hear them — I have to say I hoped for better skills. It sounded like several folks were having trouble finding the beat, and the cadences weren't all that interesting. CONCACAF is tough for this; many of the teams have great percussion traditions behind them, and their fans really know how to bring it. Perhaps more organization is too much to hope for... but I can dream, anyway.

My biggest complaint, however, isn't about Sam's Army but the rest of the US fans. People, listen to me: you've got to stop bringing those stupid plastic horns. They sound inane, they're not making the right kind of noise, and if you're blowing the darn thing, you're not paying enough attention. I know they're probably mostly used by kids, and I'm sure they enjoy them. So... join the band. But just say No to the plastic. (From what I've seen, Sams' Army frowns on the horns too.)

I know I sound negative, so let me reiterate: I love Sams' Army, and I'm sure I'll be a paid member before the US - Mexico game. (Only wish I could have got tickets for that section before they sold out.) I just want to help us get better, is all.

World Cup Qualifier: US 1-0 Trinidad & Tobago

Congrats to the US Men for their 1-0 win on Wednesday night. I haven't finished watching the game — I had a family commitment that conflicted — but it looks like Landry was correct in his post below. Trinidad and Tobago did a good job of staying organized, and brought some fight into the game. However, there were several clear chances that the US should have converted, and the late goal that was mistakenly disallowed for offsides. So perhaps the scoreline is a bit misleading. The Nats will have to get better at finishing their chances. That starts with Landon, but he's been scoring like crazy so an off game (particularly a win) can be forgiven.

16 August 2005

Preview: US Nats vs. Trinidad and Tobago

In recent years the U.S. has had little trouble taking maximum points from the Soca Warriors, but with their backs against the qualifying wall and under the guidance of a new, world class coach in Leo Beenhakker, I think TnT will prove a difficult nut to crack. The U.S. will prevail, but not as easily as you might think.

15 August 2005

Arsenal-Newcastle Aftermath

I saw two things I liked after the game.

The first was the fact that Graeme Souness skipped the press conference after the game. I'm not a Souness fan, and it seems odd to praise him for avoiding the media. But I think it's much better for him to do that, than to end up saying something he would regret later. And when he did speak — calmly, later — he took some blame on himself, at least for urging Jenas into the tackle. Nicely said.

Then today, referee Steve Bennett downgraded the card from red to yellow after reviewing the video. It was the right thing to do. The red was too harsh, and Bennett was able to realize this after checking the replay. In the past, refs seem unlikely to change their decisions after the fact, perhaps in an attempt to avoid further recrimination. I'm sure that the change does little to mollify the Toon faithful, but it does make a difference, as Jenas will no longer face a three-match ban. Bravely done.

One note to those who would call for video replay in situations like this: be careful what you ask for. Try watching some American football first. Of course, NFL games are inherently stop-start, and involve plenty of time-outs and play stoppage. Even so, when the ref goes to the monitor, the game draws to a halt, usually for a few minutes. (There are time limits, but when you factor in the time to call for a replay, the time to walk to the monitor, and the time to make the decision, it all adds up.) Certainly I've seen some bad calls made right, so perhaps it's worthwhile. But that kind of play stoppage in a soccer match? Difficult to imagine. In the end, I think it's better to rely on the man on the field. He'll make mistakes, some of them crucial and painful... but that's the way life is, sometimes. Better that than stopping the game so that he can watch some TV.

Make Room for Essien

Now that Chelsea have finally got their man after a soap-operatic summer of pursuit, the question must be asked... What current midfield man is most in danger of losing his spot?

Essien's natural position is as a central, attack-minded midfielder. This is the role currently occupied by Frank Lampard. Now there's absolutely no chance that Mourinho would chose to sit last season's leading scorer and risk the wrath of Chelsea supporters for whom Lampard is the team's talisman. Makalele's role is nearly exclusively defensive and his contribution to the stingiest back line in the EPL is far too valuable to put at risk. As a left-sided winger and the team's primary creative force, Robben is safe as well I think.

That leaves Duff, the right-sided midfielder and Gudjohnsen, who typically plays a reserved striker role as the most likely sacrifices. Personally, I'd like to see Gudjohnsen get the hook and have Duff (or Joe Cole) placed on the right wing with Essien paired with Lampard in the middle in more of a 4-5-1 formation. Apparently, I'm not alone in my opinion.

14 August 2005

EPL: Week One

I was able to watch three games this weekend, so not a bad start.

Everton 0-2 Man Utd: By the scoreline, and by the highlights, all looks well for Man U. Certainly Ruud Van Nistelrooy looked on form, and his goal was a solid piece of work among him, Wayne Rooney, and John O'Shea. But United looked vulnerable at times, and turned the ball over too easily. It's early, and I won't read too much into their form in August. Yet I have my suspicions. We'll see how things go.

And I have to sympathize for Joseph Yobo. For the most part, he had a great game, but his gift to Rooney was unforgiveable. A bad day at the office, indeed, only it's on worldwide TV. I did wonder, however, if Rooney was watching for something he'd seen in practice from his Everton days; he was certainly poised and ready for the beautiful ball Yobo fed him.

Middlesboro 0-0 Liverpool: A play in two acts, subtitled "How Many Ways Can Steven Gerrard Almost Score?" Liverpool looked in good form, and faced Boro at 10 men for 15 minutes, yet couldn't unlock the goal.

Arsenal 2-0 Newcastle Yeah, I wrote about it already, but it's nice to say again anyway.

The other games didn't offer anything hugely surprising. The biggest point of interest for me was the spate of red card activity. Four reds were shown: Darren Ambrose for Charlton, Ugo Ehiogu for Middlesboro, Paul Dickov (surprise) for Blackburn, and of course Jermaine Jenas for Newcastle. All were straight reds. Three of the four were for rather dangerous challenges (though one could debate Jenas' challenge), and the fourth (Ehiogu) was for a last-man challenge on Gerrard. I think it's clear that the FA has directed the refs to crack down, particularly on dangerous play. It will be interesting to see if this has an effect on play or not — and whether the refs keep up the pace.

Arsenal 2-0 Newcastle

A bit of a rough win, but a win nonetheless.

Of course the red card to Jermaine Jenas was a key event. I'm not sure that a yellow wasn't more appropriate, but referee Steve Bennett saw what he saw. Perhaps he would have changed the call had he watched endless replays, as we can, but he lacks that luxury. In any event, it was a rash challenge, and Jenas can't hold himself blameless.

The sending off ended Newcastle's chances of winning the game, but I think it may have helped their chance to take any points at all. Certainly, for the next 50 minutes, they showed focus, defending with energy and organization. Arsenal had a few decent chances, but credit to the Toon defense and most notably Shay Given for keeping their net empty. But the Gunners held obscene amounts of posession, and the constant pressure began to wear on the defenders.

As the game ground on, an Arsenal goal seemed more and more likely. Their pressure was rewarded when the penalty came from N'Zogbia's late challenge on Ljungberg in the box. (And it was a clear penalty; there was no malice in the challenge, but it wasn't anywhere near the ball. Anyone who counts on getting away with that inside the box will be disappointed.) Given did well to get a hand to Henry's shot, but couldn't keep it from the goal. Of course, that forced Newcastle back into the attack, and so there was little surprise to see the second goal, with a nicely worked break from Ljungberg to Lauren to Ljungberg. Freddie worked all the way to the goal line, then found Van Persie, who slotted a neat shot between Given and the post.

So, three points. I would have liked to see a more potent attack from the Gunners. Much as in the Community Shield, there was a lot of threat in their attack, but not much shooting, like dark clouds that refuse to shed rain. They'll have to be more efficient against Chelsea next week. Of course, the Blues had a scare of their own, so neither team is in full form at this point. I suppose one shouldn't expect perfection in August. Even so, next Sunday's match at Stamford Bridge will have enormous consequence for the season, and any lack in sharpness will be more than compensated for by an abundance of commitment.

12 August 2005

Cisko's EPL Predictions

OK, OK. I'll do it too. All I'll say is, these predictions represent a compromise between my heart and my head.

  1. Arsenal
  2. Chelsea
  3. Liverpool
  4. Man Utd
  5. Tottenham
  6. Middlesbrough
  7. Everton
  8. Aston Villa
  9. Portsmouth
  10. Bolton
  11. Newcastle
  12. Man City
  13. Birmingham
  14. Charlton
  15. Blackburn
  16. West Ham
  17. Fulham
  18. West Brom
  19. Wigan
  20. Sunderland

EPL Predictions

Everyone else is doing it, so here are my predictions for how the EPL table will look at the end of the 2005-06 campaign. I think there will be some clear gaps in the table. The top four will distance themselves from everyone else. The teams in spots five through ten will vie for the European places. And the bottom seven teams will all face late season relegation worries. I can't wait to see how it will all play out!

1. Chelsea
2. Man Utd
3. Arsenal
4. Liverpool
5. Tottenham
6. Middlesbrough
7. Bolton
8. Everton
9. Newcastle
10. Charlton
11. Aston Villa
12. Birmingham
13. Blackburn
14. Man City
15. Portsmouth
16. West Ham
17. Sunderland
18. Fulham
19. Wigan
20. West Brom

09 August 2005

Premiership 05/06

With the beginning of the league season fast approaching, I feel like I should really post a season preview or some such. But as a committed Arsenal fan, it's difficult to really give a decent preview. It really works out to be two sets of teams: Arsenal, and their opponents. So there's no chance of me offering a realistic assessment of the upcoming season; I'll evaluate it in terms of what I want to happen, rather than what is likely to happen, and what's the point of that?

I will probably adopt a secondary mascot team over the course of the season. Last year, it was Palace; I enjoyed their style of play and enjoyed reading Aki Rhiilati's columns. But there are two factors that make this kind of secondary affection possible. One, there is no question about who I root for when the 'other' team plays the Gunners... or even if a game impacts Arsenal in some way. And second, there's no way I could pull for any team that might possibly compete with Arsenal. So who will be my 'other' this year? Don't know yet. Teams with American players certainly draw my attention. I should pull for Blackburn, due to Brad Friedel, but there's still a Souness aftertaste that I can't shake. Maybe Fulham, due to Carlos Bocanegra and Brian McBride. We'll see.

There's a more complicated thought process that goes into assessing the lower divisions. I'm sure I'd have all kinds of preferences were I English, but it's all a blank slate for me, and so the small things have major impact. I'll be pulling for Palace to get re-promoted (though they're not off to a good start, are they?) Might also look for Reading (due to Marcus Hahnemann and Bobby Convey) or Sheffield Wednesday (due to Frankie Simek — obscure for a Yank, to be sure, but a former Gunner). I have a good friend who's from Plymouth, so I watch for them too. In any event, it's not a rational decision, so I'll wait to see what my heart tells me as the season presents itself.

Beyond the outcome of the actual games, there's one thing that must happen this season. I have to take the plunge and find a way to attend a game at Highbury. I've never been, and this is my last chance. I don't know how English fans see things, but for me it's as if this is the last year for Wrigley Field or Fenway Park. It's a palace of the sport, for me anyway, and I have to find a way to see a game there, before it's gone. Now I've never been to Great Britain, and only once to Europe. I'll end up traveling alone, and I have no idea how to find tickets. I've got a couple months to figure that out, and one way or another, I will. So if anyone has advice or suggestions, by all means, please let me know. Have passport, will travel.

So there's my season preview for you. Me in front of my TV, pulling for Arsenal in every way possible. Me choosing what to wear based on how it'll affect the Gunners. Me finding other amusing teams to track, so that I have opinions about days when Arsenal doesn't play. And me fantasizing about what a perfect day in North London would be like... then scraping together some cash and making at least part of it happen.

I'll keep you posted.

08 August 2005

Get Fuzzy

So the comic strip Get Fuzzy generally amuses me. I've been reading it for a few months now and enjoy it well enough. But when they start making reference to teams in League One, then I just have to post about it here.

Of course, now I know why Hartlepool are the Monkey Hangers. A rather bloodthirsty lot, evidently. Gullible, too.

07 August 2005

Community Shield: Chelsea 2-1 Arsenal

A depressing result, of course.

Didier Drogba was the Chelsea attack. His first goal was an impressive feat of skill, while his second was an impressive feat of strength. The defense was a bit lacking, but only just. With the first goal, Senderos gave Drogba just a hint of freedom, which was all he needed. With the second, I think the problems started with a failed offside trap (Arsenal were trapping very far upfield, as they have been for some time now). None of the defenders could get better position, and it's hard to know what more Senderos or Lehman could have done without giving up a clear penalty. Drogba fought them off. The game accounts are faulting Senderos rather strongly, but I don't feel it was that bad a game for the kid, and I'm not too worried about it, for now.

The Arsenal goal was well worked, with a fine through ball from Ljungberg, nicely dummied by van Persie, followed by a well-taken goal from Fabregas. However, it was somewhat worrisome that Arsenal didn't offer more ideas in the last 20 yards. The Gunners had tons of posession, and looked on the edge of solid chances many times. But Chelsea were always able to break up the last pass or get just enough pressure on the shot. Arsenal have tended to be somewhat profligate with their posession lately, and today was a clear example of that.

Certainly disappointing. And yet there are some positives to take away. Arsenal were able to impose much of their will on the Blues, for a large part of the game, and came very close to having things come off much differently. The six subs, all in the second half, really broke up the flow of Arsenal's game, and yet they still were able to do a lot with the ball. Hleb did some interesting things in the game, and looks to bring a somewhat different dimension to the Gunners' midfield. Perhaps more heartening was the sloppiness of Chelsea's game. They gave away easy balls quite often, and were quite wasteful with posession. If today's game is any indicator, they'll give up a good sight more goals than last year. And I don't know who else might have scored for them, were it not for Drogba's efforts.

So. It's still a loss, of course. But I think there's a few positives to take away. If nothing else, it was a well-played, open, and energetic game. They'll meet again at Stamford Bridge in two weeks. That looks to be a damn fine soccer match.

06 August 2005

CONCACAF Qualifying Situation: 6 August

We've all had two games since the last post. Not much has changed. Mexico and the US are looking good atop the group, at 12 and 11 points respectively. Currently, Costa Rica is in 3rd (automatic berth) with 7 pts and Guatemala is in 4th (playoff with team from Asia) with 4, beating out Trinidad & Tobago on goal differential. With 5 games left, nobody is hopeless at this point.

The good news? Landry and I were able to see the US crush Costa Rica, 3-1, in Salt Lake City. More on that in a later post. The better news? I have a ticket for US vs. Mexico on 3 September in Columbus, OH. For sure I will post on that. Go Nats!

MexicoGuatemalaCosta RicaUnited StatesPanamaTrinidad
& Tobago
8 Oct 2005

17 Aug 2005
27 Mar 2005

7 Sep 2005
8 Jun 2005
4 Jun 2005

12 Oct 2005

7 Sep 2005

17 Aug 2005
26 Mar 2005
Costa Rica1-2
9 Feb 2005
8 Jun 2005

8 Oct 2005
26 Mar 2005

7 Sep 2005
United States
3 Sep 2005

30 Mar 2005
4 Jun 2005

12 Oct 2005

17 Aug 2005
30 Mar 2005
9 Feb 2005

3 Sep 2005
8 Jun 2005

8 Oct 2005
& Tobago

12 Oct 2005

3 Sep 2005

30 Mar 2005
9 Feb 2005
4 Jun 2005

Soccer vs. Football, Pt I

I was intrigued to read this post comparing US sport to European soccer on the always-praiseworthy All Things Footie. In particular, Jordan looks to many of the unique features of American sport, and muses a bit about how English soccer* might learn from it.

This is a topic that's quite interesting to me, though I usually think about importing things the other way. There's much about European soccer that I wish American sports could emulate: multiple levels of leagues, relegation, multiple cups that run independently of league championships, and so forth. I could write about these at length, particularly how they apply to American soccer, but for now I'd just make a few points.

No matter how much Jordan or I might covet features of the others' leagues, it would prove quite difficult to import much on the business side, due to the wildly different business models the leagues follow. And the biggest example is that the US sports leagues are effective monopolies, while all the European leagues are in competition with one another. It's one thing for the NBA to force a salary-cap agreement onto the players. Where else are they going to play? World basketball has come a long way; witness the 2004 Olympics for Exhibit A. Yet still, none would argue that the European leagues are anywhere close to the NBA in either quality of play or quantity of pay. If Kobe Bryant wants to be known as the best, and get paid accordingly, he's got to play in the NBA.

Compare that to soccer. Suppose the English FA tried to impose a salary cap. Ludicrous, right? You'd have all the top talent fleeing to La Liga, Serie A, the Bundesliga... just about anywhere. Not only could they make the money they're accustomed to, they could also still play soccer in its highest form. You might be able to enforce such rules at the UEFA level, but the payoff for a breakaway league would be immense. All it would accomplish is to end UEFA.

I think Jordan (and his commentors) also overestimate the effectiveness of the salary cap. ("An NFL-style salary cap would also mean you didn’t have wonky-lipped mecenaries going from club to club trying to get paid more than the average Middle-Eastern Oil Baron.") You certainly still see American players acting as mercenary as any European. Baseball has its Curt Flood, Andy Messersmith, and Dave McNally to match with John Bosman. Free agency is if anything a bigger influence in US sport than in European, if only because it's had more time to become entrenched. See of course Terrell Owens, for starters.

Still, it's an interesting thought, and well worthwhile to think about what each sports system could adopt from the other. I'll post more on this in the future; it's an interesting topic for me.

*I watch and read so much English coverage of soccer that it's actually a bit painful for me to say "soccer" instead of "football". But it's much clearer if I stick to the American usage, particularly when comparing the two countries.

03 August 2005

Approaching Departure

It's not necessarily easy being a soccer fan in the US. But there is one advantage: soccer never really stops. True, the Euro leagues ended back in May, and there weren't any major summer tournaments this year. But we still have MLS, and World Cup qualifiers, so there's been a lot going on.

Obviously we haven't been posting, though. That's going to have to change now that the seasons are upon us. I'll try to do some catch-up on some of the summer's events before long. But let me start with a look ahead to the English season.

We kick things off with the Community Shield this Sunday, which of course will feature Arsenal vs. Chelsea. It's easy to attach too much to this game; obviously, both teams are eager to make their marks this season, and they're prime competition for each other. But last year proved how little this game means, as Arsenal's 3-1 win over Man U in the Community Shield was completely overshadowed by their sketchy 2-0 loss at Old Trafford, and the disappointing 2-4 loss at Highbury. In other words, don't count on this game to predict anything.

But, of course, it's still important, and both teams have a lot riding on the game. Chelsea is desperate to prove that last season's romp was not a one-time event. Arsenal too have much to prove, most obviously that life after Patrick Viera will still be sweet. Also, the war of words has been prominent in recent weeks, mostly coming from the Chelsea side but with some Arsenal contributions as well.

So, what will we see on Sunday? The game kicks off at 9:00AM CDT on Fox Soccer Channel. It wouldn't surprise me to see a fairly cagey match from the two managers, with a few key players rested on both sides. It is a long season, after all. But I'm sure that the players will be eager and ready for the game. Despite the war of words, we will see some entertaining football. The two teams produced two open and free-flowing matches last year, and I expect no less this time through.

There's much more to watch this season, but that's a pretty good start. Let's get this going!

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