CARSON, Calif. – You have heard the names David Beckham and Landon Donovan circling fiercely around the domestic soccer media whirlwind over the last few days.
Robbie Keane has gotten his Irish due, and rightly so. Bruce Arena is reaching ever higher on the legend scale.
All well and good, but this point absolutely cannot be overstated: The Los Angeles Galaxy absolutely would not be MLS Cup repeat champions today without commanding center back Omar Gonzalez.
It wasn’t just what the Galaxy’s center back and his ever growing shadow on this team meant to Saturday’s 90 minutes at the Home Depot Center – although Gonzalez surely put his big paw prints on the match like no one else.
Gonzalez rescued the entire L.A. Galaxy season. There’s a fairly high probability the Galaxy would not even had qualified for the playoffs without the high-value contributions of the fourth-year man.
Think about that. No Beckham farewell coronation. No Donovan to get his fifth MLS Cup. No Arena to get his fourth.
Just a bunch of pricey stars left to explain how things went so pear shaped.
Remember the low point? When Bruce’s boys fell to the … wait for it … Carolina RailHawks back in late May, going down the U.S. Open Cup drain that night. At that point the Galaxy had won just three of 13 MLS matches and had crashed out of the Open Cup and the CONCACAF Champions League.
The club was awful. The defending champs were awful.
Players have explained away the stunning reversal that followed by talking about better attitudes. They found the hunger and the inner drive that had been so horribly misplaced. The players hand Arena a lot of the credit, and rightfully so.
Donovan has banged on about Beckham’s role, about the former England captain’s rising refusal to accept lesser; I’m sure Donovan is right.
But who are we kidding here? None of that would matter with the back line, one pounded into such an inferior state relative to the fierce product on rear guard patrol during the 2011 championship campaign, had not improved so substantially. And that’s all about Gonzalez.
The simplest explanation for the early misfiring was never a mystery: the defense wasn’t very good. Plain as that.
Gonzalez helped the Galaxy regain their defensive footing, and the long march toward reclamation of glory was officially “on.”
Said Beckham: “Omar isn’t just a special player, he’s a special person as well. He works hard, he listens. He’s a young player with a lot of talent. I hope someday that he will play for the U.S. national team more regularly because he deserves it. He’s been dancing around in there [locker room] naked, so he definitely deserves it after that. He deserved the MVP today and are very lucky to have a young player with his talent on this team.”
Klopp’s blockbuster arrival brings hope back to Liverpool
LIVERPOOL – Jurgen Klopp is box office in every sense of the word.
His relaxed demeanor makes him likable, yet he also exudes self-confidence, something he will need a lot of in the coming weeks and months as he tries to get Liverpool’s players to believe in his methodology and drag the illustrious club back to the top of the Premier League and get them challenging for trophies at home and in Europe.
There was a palpable buzz and sense of excitement in the air in the packed press conference in the Centenary Stand at Anfield on Friday, as the British, German and world’s media descended on Anfield. The terraced rows of streets in and around Anfield were busier than usual. All roads led to Anfield. All roads led to Klopp. He didn’t disappoint as he delivered a flawless display of controlled optimism.
He had previously described this opportunity to manage Liverpool as the “most interesting job in world football” at the moment. Everyone was interested in what he had to say, as he strode into the presser with a beaming smile on his face, wearing a a pair of jeans and a stylish unbuttoned shirt complemented with a trendy blazer. Make no mistake, signing Klopp to a three-year deal is a major coup for the Reds, as any of Europe’s giants would have snapped him up had a managerial vacancy arisen over the past four months since he left Borussia Dortmund.
Friday marked the biggest managerial appointment for Liverpool in a decade, as all the stops were pulled out to make sure the German coach was given a royal welcome at Anfield, a pantheon of world soccer that he’s eager to wake from its trophy-less slumber. After the presser, Klopp was ushered onto the pitch as he posed for pictures in front of the huge $165 million renovation of the Main Stand that will add over 7,000 corporate seats at Anfield and help the club generate extra revenue to compete with the four clubs currently above them — Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United — in the Premier League’s “rich list.” Liverpool’s American owners Fenway Sports Group (FSG) will be celebrating their fifth anniversary at the club next week. This appointment was one of John W. Henry and Co.’s biggest moments, if not the biggest, to date.
Klopp has previously spoken about his ability to coach with feeling. On Friday he spoke with feeling — as well as humor — and truly engaged the audience. Mutterings such as, “He’s enthralling, gripping, isn’t he?” could be heard among the press. Klopp’s enthusiastic mannerisms on the sidelines and his ability to conjure fervor from fans and players has been well documented. He is a man who is at one with the working-class people who make up the vast majority of the local fanbases for his previous clubs Mainz and Dortmund, and now his new club, Liverpool. He seems tailor-made for this adventure at Anfield.
In the past three seasons at Anfield, hope of success flickered brightly at first, then intermittently, before fading in recent months. Liverpool failed to win a single piece of silverware under Brendan Rodgers, with the Northern Irishman finally shown the door last Sunday. In Rodgers’ place stands a coach who has been here before.
During his seven years in charge at Dortmund, Klopp rebuilt the team from relegation candidates to two-time Bundesliga champions. He led them to the UEFA Champions League final (where they lost narrowly to German rivals Bayern Munich at Wembley) and built a young squad that was hungry to succeed. Klopp’s side bought into his methods of high-pressing early in games, complemented by pacey counter-attacks later.
The similarities between the situation Klopp now finds himself in at Liverpool are strikingly similar to the one he inherited at Dortmund when he arrived from Mainz in 2008.
“We did in Dortmund what we had to do, to improve the players, to work for a common idea of play. That is what we did and it’s the same thing we want to do here. They are not the same players of course,” Klopp told NBC Sports’ ProSoccerTalk. “These players from Liverpool are better, more experienced in some ways and younger in other cases. Everything is okay, I am here. I am not here only because LFC was calling. I believe in the potential of this team. Four or five strikers you can work with when they are not injured, midfielders is really good, defenders experienced and very young, goalkeeper is really good. Everything is there.
“Now we have to work. The problem in football is that you can be as good as you want but you always have to play against other teams. You have no influence on how good they are before the game. But in the game, if they are better, you have to bring them to your level. On your level you can kill every team. If they are not so good, you have to win. That is football.”
A towering six-foot four-inch veteran of the 2. Bundesliga during his playing days, Klopp’s soccer brain has been revered and he takes his staff wherever he goes. Longtime allies Zeljko Buvac (who he nicknames ‘the brain’) and analyst Peter Krawietz have joined Klopp at Liverpool, as he aims to replicate the success he had at Dortmund. He also revealed he is comfortable with the transfer committee which many blamed for Rodgers’ downfall. “It’s enough for me to have the first and last word.”
Liverpool’s 25-year wait for a 19th league championship may not end anytime soon, but with Klopp FSG have got the man they were after. As he mentioned when saying, “I am not here only because LFC was calling. I believe in the potential of this team,” Klopp has placed his managerial reputation on the line to try and stir a sleeping giant of English soccer with his raucous celebrations and infectious enthusiasm on the touchline. If this initial appearance before the press is anything to go by, Klopp will bring plenty of life to the PL over the course of his initial three-year contract with Liverpool.
He has become the second German to coach in the Premier League, after Felix Magath‘s short stint at Fulham almost two years ago, and Klopp’s English is very, very good as he engaged with the press and put on a flawless show of charisma, style and confidence.
“In Jurgen Klopp we have appointed a world-class manager with a proven track record of winning and someone who has the personality and charisma to reignite this football club and take the team forward,” Liverpool chairman Tom Werner said in a statement. “He possesses all the qualities we are looking for in a manager, he is a strong, inspirational leader, who has a clear philosophy of high energy, attacking football. Critically, he is also a winner and someone who can connect with and enthuse our supporters.”
The club. The fans. The players. Klopp blends it all together perfectly. He gets what a club like Liverpool means to the fans and now shares their hopes and dreams.
Perhaps one of the most poignant quotes to come from Klopp was that he wants his players to feed off of the huge expectation placed on them by the fans and the media worldwide, rather than be downtrodden by it.
“It is a really important thing that the players feel the difference from now on,” Klopp said. “They have to think they can reach the expectations of all the people, of all the fans, of the press. We have to change from doubters to believers. We have to change our performance, of course, but stop thinking about money. It is only about football.”
There was no football played on Friday, as Klopp will get to work early next week when the majority of his squad arrive back at Melwood from international duty. But the talking he did on Friday, with charisma oozing from his comments in both English and German, impressed all in attendance, and proved he is relaxed and seems to be capable of delivering success to a club which has been crying out for it for a very long time.
Spain can book its place in France with a win over Luxembourg on Friday, just one of several match ups of giants and minnows on the docket.
The real Group C battle is for second in the group, as Ukraine should easily pick up three points against basement-dwelling Macedonia, which would keep its Top Two hopes alive should Slovakia drop unlikely points at home to Belarus.
Roy Hodgson has set England’s sights on an undefeated run through group play, and that could crush Estonia’s hopes in Group E. Sitting fourth, two points back of Slovenia, Estonia has a tough duo of matches to finish (Switzerland is next).
The Swiss, for their part, have No. 6 San Marino, while Slovenia can stay in they playoff driver seat with a win versus Lithuania.
Will Austria be on cruise control, given it’s won Group G in a landslide? Montenegro will hope so, but their hopes also hinge on Sweden and Russia picking up historic upset losses on the road.
Macedonia vs. Ukraine
Slovakia vs. Belarus
Spain vs. Luxembourg
England vs. Estonia
Slovenia vs. Lithuania
Switzerland vs. San Marino
Liechtenstein vs. Sweden
Moldova vs. Russia
Montenegro vs. Austria