2012 MLS Cup - Team Press Conference

Landon Donovan and a recent history of transitioning icons

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Raúl Gonzalez played his last international match in 2006, something more people would talk about if Spain didn’t immediately ascend to their current international preeminence. With 102 caps and 44 goals, the Real Madrid icon remains one of the most decorated players in Spain’s history, but on the wrong side of history, the iconic attacker missed out on a world championship, two European titles, and his country’s discarding of a reputation as one of world soccer’s persistent underachievers.

“I didn’t call Raul to let him know he wasn’t selected,” head coach Luis Aragones, four-time coach of Real rival Atlético, told an undoubtedly incredulous media upon dropping the icon. “He is not an exceptional case.”

source: ReutersPerhaps that statement served Aragones’s purposes, but it’s not true. Players like Raúl are exceptional cases, and rightfully so. Few players have the talent to make their country’s national team, let alone make over 100 appearances, let alone prove so inspirational that even after their former team wins three major titles, people debate whether his exclusion was justified. Capable of creating and scoring, as a focal point on and off the field, Raúl’s significance was difficult to understate, even if a dip in form meant his production wasn’t matching his reputation. Still, there will always be loyalists who feel Raúl deserved to share in Spain’s glories.

Raúl’s story, however, is not singular. It’s a logical one. Soccer players have professional lifespans. For the truly special ones, those lifespans coincide with teams and microcultures being built around them. For Raúl, talent plus iconography plus circumstance derived from his place of birth and club team’s prestige coalesced to create a type of world a player can define, both by his presence and his absence. For all their successes, Spain’s modern story begins where one of Raúl’s ends.

Other instances are less dramatic, but in the United States, we’re going through one of our own icon’s transitions – that of Landon Donovan, a type of American Raúl in significance if not style. But whereas Spain’s depth of talent partially justified Aragones’s decision, Donovan’s quality is viewed as singular. How, many U.S. soccer fans would ask, can Jurgen Klinsmann justify excluding a Landon Donovan?


It isn’t always about talent. Argentina’s discovered that many times with Juan Román Riquelme, whose unparalleled combination of clairvoyant’s vision and magician’s skill came with a sensitive nature that collapsed many relationships between star and manager. So it was no true surprise when, in March 2009, Riquelme abruptly announced his retirement from international soccer, unable to meet his new coach eye-to-eye.

“We don’t think the same way,” Riquelme said of Diego Maradona, the Argentine playing legend who replaced the resigned Alfio Basile. “We don’t share the same codes of ethics. While he is the coach of the national team, we can’t work together.”

source: APMaradona took over an Argentina team that was struggling to qualify for World Cup 2010 and, after incredible inconsistency over his first qualifiers, stabilized the team. The Albiceleste secured a place in South Africa and, despite numerous criticisms, made the tournament’s quarterfinals. It wasn’t classic Argentina, with the team eventually playing with four central defenders across the back, but given what he’d inherited, Maradona’s results vindicated his experiments.

He wanted Riquelme, though. Like most Argentines, Maradona revered Román’s skill, and as a icon for Diego’s beloved Boca Juniors, Riquelme was unlikely to be shown the door.

But for a man that, for all his faults, has inspired such loyalty from the generation that’s followed, Maradona saw none from Riquelme. When he insisted his trequarista adapt his game amid the country’s faltering results, Riquelme walked.

“All I said was that I wanted him to play 15 meters further up the pitch,” Maradona said, when asked about Riquelme’s decision. “What have I done for him to be scared of me? If I can’t say how I want my players to play, then I’m in the oven.”

With “only” 51 international caps, Riquelme is no Raúl or Donovan. His erratic temperament also mitigated his preternatural ability, making him more an object of impassioned debate than blind loyalty. At least, when juxtaposed against potential qualifying disappointment and the legend that is Diego Maradona, Riquelme’s stance was never going to move the masses.

So it was that an iconic player’s career ended amid a personality conflict. Lionel Messi was moved into the middle and, despite fan expectations that he’d score more goals, had an effective World Cup. Though they did not having a clear replacement, Argentina moved on without Riquelme. even if it was unclear how they’d replace him. Ultimately, Argentina was fine without Riquelme.

Out of the team for much of the Klinsmann era, Donovan’s absence no longer carries the uncertainties of Riquelme’s departure. Without the man they saw as their best player, United States fans have seen a capable if more limited U.S. squad navigate its obstacles. If there was a time when the exclusion of a Donovan-like talent would inspire questions and doubts, questions are all the remain.


“I beg the Brazilian fans that they support us,” were Dunga’s words, an incredible plea considering the man’s own playing résumé. A World Cup-winner with 91 caps, the midfield stalwart would garner the benefit of the doubt under most circumstances, but after omitting Ronaldinho from his 2010 World Cup squad, the Brazil boss was forced into a more emotional appeal.

“If they don’t like me or any other thing, that’s fine, but I want [the Brazilian fan] to support us, to be a patriot.”

source: APEven at that point, in May 2010, Ronaldinho’s fading skill was obvious. And given the focal point he’d been in previous squads, it wasn’t surprising Dunga wished to move on from Gaucho’s era. Having built a team that would rely on robust defending and counterattacking prowess, the world’s number one team was no place for a floating icon who, while still being one of the world’s most skilled players, didn’t fit the scheme.

Tell that to a Brazilian public who’d created the icon. Pele may have been the country’s best overall player, and by 2010 Messi had ascended to his global pedestal, but to those loyal to the style Ronaldinho brought, Gaucho was the counterpoint to each. Numbers are nice, and everybody loves goals, but who nobody could match Ronaldinho’s skill on the ball? Chasing a goal late, needing something that transcends tactics, that had to be worth something. Right?

It’s the type of appeal you’ll hear about the Algeria game – Donovan’s transcendant moment. Beyond explanation, beyond anything you can draw up on a white board, when you need a goal late, who would you rather have on the field? Most U.S. fans would rather have Donovan.

Brazil’s quarterfinal exit in South Africa left Ronaldinho’s supporters with a level of vindication, as did his recall under Dunga’s successor, Mano Menezes. But Dunga had long thrived without the former Ballon d’Or winner. The Seleçao were the reigning South American champions and had won the Confederations Cup the year before. They went into South Africa as the world’s number one team. While Brazil’s fans missed their idol, it’s unclear their team actually did.


It would be a mistake to draw direct parallels. Raúl is distinct, as is Riquelme, Ronaldinho and Donovan. It’s what makes their exclusions noteworthy. If we were talking about players easily compared to others, we wouldn’t be talking at all.

But there is something in each scenario that can be drawn on when thinking of Landon Donovan. Raúl’s iconography and importance within the Spanish team made his exclusion seem impossible, form be damned. Riquelme’s unlikely retirement came as expectations of his role changed – amid his inability (or, unwillingness) to accept his new world. And with Ronaldinho, fans passionate about a singular player were unable to see the bigger picture.

With all these players there was a bigger picture. Spain went on to unparalleled success. Argentina salvaged their qualifying campaign. Brazil stayed the top-ranked team in the world. Each team had a future after their icons.

The United States may be a ways away from embracing that future, and with Donovan set to take part in this summer’s Gold Cup, he’s got an obvious route back into the full national team. But if that route ends up being blocked, U.S. fans need only look to recent history and see a series of iconic players for more successful teams whose indispensability was dispelled.

How can Spurs get over Wembley jinx?

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LONDON — There is a real danger that the book “That’s so Spursy!” will have to add an entire chapter for their ‘home games’ played at Wembley Stadium over the next season.

[ MORE: Three things we learned ]

Fans of every club get butterflies in their stomach when they first spot the famous arch of Wembley either from the train, the road or on foot.

Supporters of every club except Tottenham, that is.

Spurs lost 2-1 to Chelsea at Wembley on Sunday as the first-ever Premier League game at their temporary home followed the narrative to a tee. Let’s get this straight from the offset: Tottenham didn’t deserve to lose this game. At all. They did, because, well, Wembley. Is it as simple as that?

Everyone connected with Tottenham will be saying so, but there are so many factors to consider, and to try and alter.

After dominating the game Spurs were hit by two sucker punches courtesy of Marcos Alonso‘s first half free kick and then a late Alonso goal following a mistake from Victor Wanyama.

Tottenham have now lost more games at home this season than they did all of last season and they’ve won just two of their 11 games at the new Wembley and one of their last five ‘home games’ there.

Mauricio Pochettino, who continues to be positive above moving to Wembley, insisted that Spurs’ new home wasn’t to blame for his first London derby defeat as Spurs boss.

“It doesn’t affect me. I understand that we need to talk and everyone today I think the Wembley effect is not the reason because we lost the game,” Pochettino said. “The team played really well and it is not fair to blame Wembley because Wembley is, for me, one of the best places in the world to play football.”

“Today was clear today that if you love football and watch football and you want to watch again the game, you will see Wembley isn’t the problem and the size of the pitch. I think we played better, we created chances to score but that is football,” Pochettino continued.

The main qualm from those connected with Tottenham is the size of the Wembley pitch. Here is a fact: it is only five yards longer and two yards wider than their White Hart Lane pitch where they failed to lose a game last season with the size of the pitch supposedly a key factor in allowing them to high-press teams into submission.

Spurs have a system which only works if they push their defensive line high. Jan Vertonghen revealed in preseason that he sees Harry Kane, their highest line of attack, as the reference point for when they need to push higher. The gap between Spurs’ defense and Kane was much more than it was last season, but maybe that’s because they were too scared about leaving space in-behind for Chelsea to hit them on the counter and that would leave the ultimate sweeper-keeper, Hugo Lloris, with too much ground to cover. Five yards it a lot of space to make up time and time again at the top.

Those were the tactical issues, but some of the aesthetics were also challenging.

With confetti still on the floor from Arsenal’s FA Community Shield win against Chelsea two weeks ago, plus beating drums being broadcast over the loudspeakers to generate more noise which prompted chants of “what the f***** hell is that!” from the Chelsea fans, this will take some getting used to.

There are many positives to Spurs playing at Wembley this season.

My ears are still ringing from the roar when Michy Batshuayi scored an own goal late on to make it 1-1. Adults can pay as little as $25 for a ticket, with children paying just $10. It was notable that more families were present at the home of soccer on Sunday with Spurs suddenly able to accommodate double the amount of home fans they could at White Hart Lane. From that point of view it is fantastic.

Every game will be an event but on the flip-side every game will feel like a cup final for visiting sides. Burnley next week, Swansea in mid-September and Bournemouth in October will all relish the chance to play at Wembley in Spurs’ next three home games.

Chelsea boss Antonio Conte told Pro Soccer Talk after the game that Chelsea found extra motivation by playing at Wembley.

“Honestly, I think to see this atmosphere was great. This stadium, Wembley, it is a fantastic stadium, to see this, it is amazing. It is amazing also for the opponent,” Conte admitted, as he smiled. “In this atmosphere, so strong for us, our fans tried to push the same despite 70,000 Totttenham supporters. Honestly I think to see this atmosphere is also great for the opponent.”

Tottenham’s players will not only have to deal with that but the bigger pitch, the increased pressure from larger crowds and also trying to settle into a temporary home. Even after Tottenham get through this season on the road, they will move into the new stadium at White Hart Lane and have to do this all over again in 2018-19.

The mental side of this is huge, hence why putting your finger on how to solve this jinx is so complex.

Just as West Ham proved last season, it’s tough to settle into new, larger surroundings. Mentally it plays tricks with players, the staff and supporters. Everyone. Just like Arsenal struggling in UCL games many years ago before them at Wembley, the truth is that not much can be done to lift this hoodoo.

It has been a constant dull noise scrambling away in the back of the mind of Spurs’ players for well over a year. Pochettino didn’t want to blame the Wembley pitch but he did point at Tottenham’s unlucky streak continuing.

“I think we were a little bit unlucky, if you don’t have sometimes this bit of luck, it is difficult to win,” Pochettino explained. “I am only disappointed, I am not upset.”

Tottenham’s players will park their cars in different spots, sit in different places in the locker room and may even wear new boots for their next home game at Wembley against Burnley next Saturday. Maybe they can train on the Wembley pitch more, sleep in the executive boxes at night and have lunch in the glitzy suites to become more familiar with their new surroundings.

In truth, it will take time. Nothing more, nothing less.

They must simply do anything to break this hoodoo before the UEFA Champions League group stage rolls around next month as they cannot afford any more home defeats in the PL to harm their title hopes any further.

Right now this is just a jinx, but soon the negative noise about Wembley will drown out the optimism of over 70,000 Tottenham supporters.

Chelsea’s Conte: “This is a perfect response of the champions”

AP Photo/Alastair Grant
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Chelsea’s Antonio Conte heard all the grief after his reigning champion Blues fell 3-2 to Burnley last week at Stamford Bridge, so forgive him if he preens a bit after beating Spurs 2-1 at Wembley Stadium on Sunday.

[ MORE: Recap | JPW’s 3 things from Wembley ]

Missing Gary Cahill and Cesc Fabregas from red card suspensions and already dealing with a relatively thin squad — admittedly of Conte’s choice with many sanctioned sales and loans — Chelsea started Andreas Christensen and not-yet 100 percent Tiemoue Bakayoko and pulled out a win against a very good Spurs side.

“This is a perfect response of the champions. We won the league last season, winning 30 games, and that is not easy. We lost in the final of the FA Cup. We have arrived in some problems with bans and injuries but we must be ready to work and focus on the pitch. The club is trying its best in the transfer market to improve our squad but I must be happy.”

And there’s the rub: Chelsea’s bench did include Pedro and Michy Batshuayi, but also had unfamiliar surnames Musonda, Kenedy, Tomori, and Scott.

[ POCHETTINO: “The better team did not win the game” ]

Eden Hazard will return from injury, but Diego Costa isn’t walking through that door and Chelsea has already sold Nemanja Matic, Nathan Ake, and Nathaniel Chalobah while sending Kurt Zouma, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, and Tammy Abraham out on loan.

Expect buys in the next two weeks, whether a linked name like Danny Drinkwater or unexpected targets.

Spurs’ Pochettino: “The better team did not win the game”

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Both Tottenham Hotspur boss Mauricio Pochettino and defender Ben Davies says Wembley Stadium has nothing to do with why their club lost to Chelsea.

Pochettino was clearly stung by a loss in which their side out shot the Blues but conceded goals on both of Chelsea’s shots on target. Calling Chelsea a team only aimed to counterattack, Pochettino says Spurs deserved all three points.

[ MORE: Recap | JPW’s 3 things from Wembley ]

“I’m not frustrated, I’m disappointed,” Pochettino said. “The better team did not win the game.”

Earlier on television, Pochettino illustrated that point. From the BBC:

“We are one step ahead than last season. We were much better in every aspect of the game than Chelsea, they were just clinical. I am not frustrated or upset I am happy with the performance of the players. We are working hard, there are plenty of games to play.”

In other questions you can tell both Pochettino and the club are exasperated by the questions regarding Wembley Stadium as a home venue. And, at least Sunday, they are right to feel aggrieved by the idea that the stadium is to blame.

Hugo Lloris allowed a bad goal and Thibaut Courtois made a number of fine saves for Blues. That was probably the difference in the match.

Three things we learned from Chelsea’s win vs. Spurs

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LONDON — Chelsea beat Tottenham Hotspur 2-1 on Sunday in the first-ever Premier League game at Wembley Stadium.

The reigning champs put all of their early season worries to one side to sneak out of Tottenham’s temporary home with a narrow win as Spurs squandered chances and Marcos Alonso scored twice, including a late winner.

Here’s what we learned from Wembley.


3-5-2 FOR NEW-LOOK CHELSEA?

When Chelsea’s teamsheet was passed around in the Wembley Stadium press box, there was much debate as to exactly how Antonio Conte would line his side up.

Given suspensions to Gary Cahill and Cesc Fabregas, Eden Hazard out injured and Diego Costa exiled in Brazil, Conte was forced into a reshuffle with David Luiz in midfield and youngster Andreas Christensen starting in a three-man defense alongside Cesar Azpilicueta and new signing Antonio Rudiger.

The 3-5-2 system worked to start with as Alvaro Morata squandered a glorious chance by heading wide, then Marcos Alonso curled home a superb free kick to give Chelsea the lead.

However Tottenham soon found space out wide with Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso asked to do more attacking than in the 3-4-3 formation and this system seemed to be more out of necessity to protect youngster Christensen and help ease in Tiemoue Bakayoko, than something which will stick around for the rest of the season. Bakayoko and Kante shut down Wanyama and Die from getting on the ball and Luiz shut down the space for Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli to work in.

Chelsea’s new signings settled in relatively well with Morata guilty of missing a gilt-edge chance early on and somewhat weak in the challenge, while Bakayoko roughed up Victor Wanyama and Mousa Dembele in midfield and Rudiger was solid. With Cahill, Fabregas and Hazard to return, it seems like many wrote off this Chelsea side too quickly this season following the shock defeat to Burnley on the opening weekend.

Yes, Conte will want reinforcements in the final weeks of the window, but things aren’t as bad as they seemed last week for the reigning champs.


WEMBLEY HOODOO CONTINUES FOR SPURS

Perhaps it was the confetti still on the floor from Arsenal’s Community Shield win over Chelsea two weeks ago. Perhaps it was the bigger pitch. Perhaps it was the increased expectation from a crowd of over 75,000. Perhaps it was Chelsea’s fine record against Spurs as they’ve now lost just twice in their last 18 encounters against Tottenham.

Whatever you put this defeat down to, this was the last thing Tottenham wanted to happen in their first-ever league game at Wembley Stadium.

The Wembley hoodoo remains as Harry Kane hit the post, Thibaut Courtois came up with a string of fine saves and there were some horror misses for Spurs. To top it all just when Spurs thought they had nicked a point for all of their endeavors, Alonso scored in the 88th minute after a horrible giveaway by Victor Wanyama.

Much has been made of the size of the pitch and how unfamiliar surroundings could cost Tottenham dear in 2017-18 during their one-year move as their new 61,000 capacity home at White Hart Lane is finished.

Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge home is closer to Wembley than Spurs’ White Hart Lane and the Blues looked more comfortable there from the start with Alonso’s late strike the difference.

Spurs have now won just two of their 11 games at the new Wembley, failing to win in nine of their last 10 trips to Wembley, and for five of those games they were “at home.”

Does it really make that much difference?

When it comes to the pitch size there isn’t much difference between White Hart Lane and Wembley. The pitch size at Wembley is listed as 105 x 75 yards. That makes it five yards longer and two yards wider than the pitch Spurs dominated teams on last season with Mauricio Pochetino’s high-pressing style seeing Tottenham unbeaten at home all season.

Before the season started Pochettino and Spurs defender Jan Vertonghen discussed how high Spurs push up the pitch and how the defense use Harry Kane as a reference point for the rest of their team. If Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld realize they’re too far away from Kane, they’ll push the entire team up. With an extra five yards to cover, time and time again, it makes a difference at the top. We saw that on Sunday with over half the pitch often separating Spurs’ defense with Kane, presumably because Pochettino was worried about Chelsea launching counters and his team being exposed.

With Spurs still getting used to new surroundings, their fans settling into their new matchday routine and a much different atmosphere generated compared to the cramped, hostile White Hart Lane, this will take time.

The main reason Spurs finished second last season was due to their home form. They will have to adapt to their new home quickly, amid an increased wave of negativity following this defeat, to try and remain not only as title contenders but top four challengers.

Tottenham dominated vast swathes of this game but the Wembley hoodoo remains.


DRY AUGUST FOR KANE

Harry Kane has now gone 12 Premier League games without scoring a goal in August.

Considering he is the top scorer in each of the PL’s past two seasons, that’s quite an achievement.

Kane, 24, hit the post, had shots saved and blocked on Sunday as he did everything but score. The curse of August continues for Kane.

But what can you attribute it to?

Kane is one of those strikers who has to feel the game, to feel the moment and then play on his instincts.

He has all of the raw ingredients — pace, power, aerial ability, vision — to dominate but he needs time to settle down on the pitch and get in the groove.

It is not easy to do that after getting 45 minutes here and 60 minutes there in preseason. Kane seemed a little hesitant when the ball dropped around the box to him on Sunday, waiting an extra split second or taking an extra touch.

In the 77th minute Mousa Dembele played him through after a mazy run but Kane slipped at the vital moment. Even if their stadium has changed, some things never do.

September to January is peak Kane time.