In regional World Cup qualifying, don’t overlook Panama


So much of the coverage over the next two days around here will focus on the United States’ contest in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, as the final drive for Brazil 2014 begins.

But there are two other matches in the region that deserve our attention.  One is in Panama, where the new kids on the regional qualifier block have a massive opportunity in hosting Costa Rica.

Panama is the one team among six in final stage CONCACAF qualifying that has never been to a World Cup. Even little Honduras (a vastly improved program now doing big things internationally) went to the last World Cup, three years in South Africa.

The Panamanians have tough road ahead – but not an impossible one. The United States and Mexico will be heavily favored to grab two of the three spots available for automatic qualification.

Presumptive as it is, that leaves Costa Rica, Honduras, Jamaica and Panama battling for the final automatic berth. The fourth-place team faces Oceania’s first-place side in a final spot for Brazil 2014.

I like Honduras to grab the third spot, but not by much. (More on why I like Honduras later.) Could Panama sneak in, or perhaps grab that fourth-place spot? Absolutely.

This is the side that crashed into Bob Bradley’s Gold Cup effort two summers back, upsetting the United States in Florida in a match that helped push U.S. Soccer to make a change. Panama has a group that plays within itself, that understands roles and usually doesn’t try to work beyond them. I remember being impressed two years ago by how far the country’s soccer efforts had come, and by how hard the Panamanians worked for each other.

Show me a team with unity, structure, a tough defensive mindset and one motivated, quality striker (Blas Perez, pictured), I’ll show you a team that can be dangerous. More on Panama is here in this piece from Tropigol, including some words from Perez, who gets right to the heard of it:

We work hard, very hard. There’s a union, a harmony in this Panama team. We don’t fight with each other, we’re not greedy, and when we enter the pitch, we do it as one. Our solidarity is our strength.”

“Sorry to kill your stories”: Klopp not seeking new Liverpool GK

during the UEFA Europa League Group B match between Liverpool FC and FC Girondins de Bordeaux at Anfield on November 26, 2015 in Liverpool, United Kingdom.
Leave a comment

The topic of goalkeeper Simon Mignolet is a lightning rod for a certain subset of Liverpool fans, but you can count Jurgen Klopp in the group that likes him just fine, thank you.

[ MORE: USMNT back Alvarado on Club America’s transfer list? ]

The 27-year-old Belgian has been the man between the sticks for Klopp since the manager took over at Anfield, and Klopp is already tiring of the rumors that he’s looking for better in the goalkeeping department.

From the BBC:

“I’m absolutely satisfied with our goalkeeper situation.

“I’m sorry to kill your stories about German goalkeepers and different goalkeepers from Stoke – we are not looking for another goalkeeper.”

Pretty clear cut there. Jack Butland would be nice and all, but Klopp’s fine with Mignolet and ex-Bolton man Adam Bogdan.

Do you think they need better?

Klinsmann backs Altidore ahead of busy 2016; USMNT star “back on board”

Jurgen Klinsmann, Jozy Altidore
AP Photo/Matt Dunham
Leave a comment

Jurgen Klinsmann thinks Jozy Altidore‘s tumultuous year ended on an upswing, and expects it to continued into an important 2016.

The Toronto FC hitman had plenty of ups and downs for club, and just as many for country. Whether injuries or form, Altidore wasn’t often the player USMNT fans remember from years past.

[ MORE: USMNT back Alvarado on Club America’s transfer list? ]

But the recently-turned 26-year-old scored six times in his last nine games with TFC to give him 13 on the season, and Klinsmann seems to think his big striker is out of the woods.

From US Soccer:

“Everybody saw that 2015 for Jozy Altidore has been very difficult, a tricky year, but it has become a year toward the end of it where it got stronger and stronger. He had some injury issues and some fitness issues in the beginning of the year. Obviously we had the episode in the Gold Cup where he was not in the shape he needed to be. In then towards July, August, September, he got more and more into the flow. He started to score goals for Toronto, and he got stronger and stronger for the national team as well. This is a very positive sign for us to have Jozy back on board, to plan with Jozy into a very busy 2016, obviously the biggest highlight is the Copa America in June.”

It’s great for the coach to have faith in the United States’ fourth all-time leading scorer, who should catch Eric Wynalda for third this season. Whether Klinsmann will be rewarded for his faith in the striker is another thing altogether, especially in that pivotal, U.S. hosted tournament this summer.

The tricky thing for Altidore, in the run up to the 2018 World Cup, will be for him to prove his merit if players like Bobby Wood, Aron Johannsson and Jordan Morris continue their rises as scoring options.

Manchester City defeat a “cruel” reminder for Hull City’s Bruce

BRISTOL, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 21: Hull City Manager Steve Bruce during the Sky Bet Championship match between Bristol City and Hull City at Ashton Gate on November 21, 2015 in Bristol, England.  (Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images)
Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images
Leave a comment

For nearly 90 percent of Hull City’s League Cup quarterfinal against Manchester City, the Tigers hung tough.

A 1-0 deficit made dreams of an Etihad equalizer far from absurd, and Hull had to be thinking about the possibility of another extended Cup run after making it to the 2014 FA Cup Final.

[ MORE: League Cup roundup sees Man City, Stoke, Everton advance ]

Then, the 80th minute hit Hull. Seven minutes later, it was 4-0 Man City. Boom. It finished 4-1.

From the BBC:

“If we needed a reminder how cruel it was to play against the big boys, we just had one.

“After 80 minutes we just had our best spell of the match and after 87 minutes it was 4-0. It was never a 4-1.”

Hull is three points off the lead in the Championship after being relegated from the Premier League last season. Their only loss since Sept. 12 came Saturday against Derby County, so the gifts of Man City were likely a surprise.

With loads of genuine respect to Bruce and complete understanding of what he’s inferring, it did feel more like a 4-1 than the 1-0 his Tigers faced for 68 minutes after Wilfried Bony‘s 12th minute tally.

What would it mean for MLS if Portland wins it all on Sunday?

Fanendo Adi, Portland Timbers
AP Photo/The Oregonian, Randy Rasmussen
Leave a comment

It’s a tricky question, isn’t it? Would there be an underlying thread, a lesson, or a copycat inspiration inside of Portland scoring a minor upset of Columbus at MAPFRE Stadium on Sunday?

Here are some thoughts on the storylines from a post-Timbers title.

1) Stick with the boss

Caleb Porter’s reputation is rather “hate or love”, and people (including this “perhaps still bitter from the Olympics” writer) were expecting his days to be numbered after a rough start to this season.

In his first year in PDX, Porter engineered a 20-point upgrade to the West’s No. 1 slot, but Year Two featured no playoffs and it looked headed that way for much of this year.

[ MORE: USMNT back Alvarado on Club America’s transfer list? ]

But after leaping into control of its playoff destiny with a game to play, Porter now has a Conference Final and an MLS Cup Final (at least) on his resume inside of three seasons.

Where other teams have gone through coaches like candy, Portland keeps going with Porter. Perhaps there’s a lesson there, as in 102 games he’s posted 41 wins and 36 draws to go with just 25 losses (and he was missing Will Johnson and Diego Valeri for the critical moments of his bum season).

2) Spend* at the back, and spread it out

Portland spent the league’s 10th highest total dollars on players when including Designated Players, but that total leaps to sixth if you discount the big money guys (Liam Ridgewell, Lucas Melano, Diego Valeri).

You have to get to 19th on the list of top MLS salaries to find Portland’s first entrant (Ridgewell), and you don’t hit another until No. 33 (Fanendo Adi).

[ MLS: Impact to sign 96-times capped Ivorian defender? ]

But Portland has six players in the Top 100, compared to Columbus’ four. High-end spenders NYC (five players), Toronto (four), and L.A. (four) all don’t hit that figure inside of the Top 100 (and to be specific, Portland does in 98).

They also rank ninth in spending on forwards, 14th on midfielders, and third in defenders. Of the 15 players making more than 100k in base salary, four are defenders and one is goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey.

All numbers come from Spotrac*

3) Get Darlington Nagbe

This will be harder to copycat, seeing as there’s only one Darlington Nagbe, but the Timbers’ midfielder is versatile and helps Porter challenge opposing coaches because of the unpredictable nature of how he can be deployed on the pitch.

In fact, when you run numbers on advanced statistics site Squawka, you’ll see something quite interesting. Among players who hit the pitch in at least 2/3 of their teams’ games this season, Nagbe is fourth in MLS in combined score. More intriguing? Besides Michael Bradley, he’s the most complete contributor (offense, defense, possession) of any top scorer.

[ MORE:  Who is the favorite for MLS Cup 2015? ]

Nagbe stats4) Parity continues to reign

For the same reason people barely celebrate the NHL’s Presidents Trophy, the MLS Supporters Shield is a bit of a fallback party for fan bases who fail to capitalize on a season’s worth of solid play.

In much of world soccer, the season-long title matter more than a tournament, but North America is about the playoffs. The fact of the matter is that only one team in MLS this season finished more than four wins out of a playoff spot (Chicago), and most teams that missed the playoffs by a bunch (New York City, Colorado, Real Salt Lake, Houston), earned their gaps off the playoff pace by losing a lot once they were officially eliminated.

Even Chicago, who was awful, had a shot at the playoffs when August ended, only to lose seven of eight to finish the season. MLS, for better or worse, literally is anyone’s ball game at nearly any time.