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.

Barkley ineligible to make Chelsea debut in FA Cup replay

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Ross Barkley was expected — and himself expected — to make his Chelsea debut on Wednesday, when the Blues host Championship side Norwich City in a third-round FA Cup replay at Stamford Bridge.

Alas, the 24-year-old English midfielder has been ruled ineligible due to a lesser-known and -applied rules surrounding transfers and player registration.

[ MORE: Tuesday’s 3rd-round replay roundup | Wednesday preview ]

Barkley completed his move from Everton to Chelsea, for $20 million, on Jan. 5, the day before Chelsea and Norwich drew 0-0 at Carrow Road. In order to be eligible for Wednesday’s replay, Barkley is required to have completed his transfer prior to the noon cut-off the day prior to the original tie. While the time of official approval is unknown, Barkley’s move wasn’t announced by the club until after 5 p.m. in the UK.

As such, Chelsea will attempt to set up a behind-closed-doors friendly this week, in order to provide Barkley a bit of game action as he builds fitness and sharpness ahead of a potential debut against Brighton & Hove Albion on Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com). Barkley hasn’t seen a single minute of first-team action this season after suffering a serious hamstring injury in the summer.

FA Cup preview: Three more PL sides face 3rd-round replays

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Three more Premier League sides, including a top-four fighter, attempt to join a dozen of their top-flight contemporaries in the fourth round of the FA Cup on Wednesday…

[ MORE: Tuesday’s 3rd-round replay roundup ]

Chelsea and Swansea City host Championship opposition in the form of Norwich City and Wolverhampton Wanderers, respectively, while Bournemouth will make the 500-mile roundtrip to take on League One side Wigan Athletic.

The Blues, who now sit fourth in the PL after their disappointing 0-0 draw with Leicester City, could manage only a scoreless draw with the Canaries at Carrow Road earlier this month. They are winless in their last four games across all competitions — all draws — including their League Cup semifinal first-leg draw with Arsenal last week; the last three of those all finished without a single goal scored. Chelsea, who are tied with Liverpool with the fourth-most FA Cups in their history (7), lost out to Arsenal in last season’s final at Wembley Stadium.

Swansea are undoubtedly the side on highest Cupset alert, as Wolves are the runaway leaders and champions-elect in the Championship (10 points clear after 27 of 46 rounds played), thus able to devote more attention to the FA Cup than the typical second-division side. With the two sides separated by just a single place in the English footballing pyramid (Swansea, 20th in the PL; Wolves, 1st in the Championship), they appear destined to swap places by the end of May.

Meanwhile, Bournemouth’s punishment for conceding a pair of early goals to a side currently 32 places below them in the pyramid, is the long, midweek trip from the south coast to the DW Stadium in the northwest of England. It was the Premier Leaguers who needed a two second-half goals, including Steve Cook‘s 90th-minute equalizer, to draw level at home in the first meeting.

Tuesday’s FA Cup replay actionFULL ROUNDUP

Leicester City 2-0 Fleetwood Town
West Ham United 1-0 (AET) Shrewsbury Town
Mansfield Town 1-4 Cardiff City
Sheffield Wednesday 2-0 Carlisle United
Reading 3-0 Stevenage

Agent: 37-year-old Ronaldinho has retired

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SAO PAULO (AP) The brother and agent of 2005 Ballon d’Or winner Ronaldinho announced Tuesday that the former Brazil and Barcelona playmaker has retired from football.

Roberto Assis made the announcement to Brazilian media on behalf of the 37-year-old midfielder, who played his last professional match in 2015 for Brazil’s Fluminense.

“Ronnie’s professional career is over. He wants to be a football ambassador, do charity, and work with his friends in music from now on,” Assis told The Associated Press.

Assis hopes to schedule some farewell matches for Ronaldinho after the World Cup in Russia, which ends July 15. The initial plan is to play games in Brazil, Europe and Asia and to also get Brazil’s national team involved, Assis said.

Last July, Ronaldinho said on the sidelines of a friendly in Chechnya that was he was “too old” to return to action.

The Brazilian’s decorated career also includes one World Cup title (2002), one Champions League victory (2006) and two Spanish league titles with Barcelona, and two FIFA world player of the year awards (2004 and 2005).

Ronaldinho started his professional career at Gremio in southern Brazil in 1998. He left for Paris Saint-Germain in 2001 and was signed by Barcelona two seasons later.

At the Camp Nou, he was the engine of a team that took Barca back to the limelight. However, after a series of club trophies, Ronaldinho’s career took a downturn. He was often accused by Brazilian and Spanish media of lacking professionalism, despite his mentoring of a then youthful Lionel Messi.

In 2008, with Messi then leading Barcelona, Ronaldinho left for AC Milan. Despite being part of a team that won Serie A in 2011, he failed to reach his previous heights as a player.

When returning home became a real option, Ronaldinho frustrated Gremio’s efforts to re-sign him and joined Flamengo instead.

Disappointing performances in Rio de Janeiro took him to Atletico Mineiro, a club that then was more often fighting against relegation than for titles.

Yet a more mature Ronaldinho took Atletico to a different level.

In his last great run, Ronaldinho carried Atletico with his superb passes and dazzling dribbles to second place in the 2012 Brazilian Championship.

A year later, he was the key to his club lifting its first Copa Libertadores, South America’s most prestigious club trophy, but his hopes of playing at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil were dashed.

Ronaldinho left to play for Mexico’s Queretaro in 2014-15, but was mostly on the bench.

He played his last seven matches as a professional for Fluminense, though his performances were a far cry from his best days in Spain.

Now living in Rio, he has appeared in advertisements all over the world since leaving Fluminense.

USL granted 2018 2nd-division sanctioning by U.S. Soccer

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U.S. Soccer has officially granted the United Soccer League second-division sanctioning, behind first-division Major League Soccer, for the upcoming 2018 season, as well as first-division status for the National Women’s Soccer League.

[ MORE: Landon Donovan unveiled by Liga MX side Club Leon ]

USL, which will feature 33 teams in 2018, had been granted temporary second-division sanctioning, alongside the North American Soccer League, in 2017. As NASL’s demise continued and accelerated — the league will not begin play this spring, opting instead for a late-summer kickoff, after a number of its teams either folded or jumped ship to USL — USL, with the help of MLS, quickly pounced to capitalize — from U.S. Soccer’s statement:

Sanctioning allows NWSL and USL to operate a Division I and II league, respectively, during the 2018 season and includes a two-year pathway to full compliance with the Professional League Standards. USL has demonstrated substantial progress toward reaching full compliance since being granted provisional Division II sanctioning in 2017.

Conspiracy theorist’s take: USL supplanted NASL as the U.S.’s second-most viable professional men’s league — and more importantly, being granted official second-division status — paves the way for MLS to, at some point well down the line — say, 2030 or so — implement its own multi-tiered system of promotion and relegation, featuring anywhere between 60 and 80 teams, while still remaining a single-entity structure closed to the lower reaches of the sport in America, as the lines separating MLS and USL have only become more and more blurred in recent years.

[ MORE: Donovan ready to “win championships” after ending retirement ]

MLS realizes that public demand for promotion and relegation in the U.S. has grown significantly louder in recent years — particularly given the climate of the sport after the men’s national team failed to qualify for the World Cup, and subsequent ongoing presidential-election campaign — thus an open-but-not-really-open system which satisfies neither side will eventually be the end result.