Opportunity knocks: The United States could officially qualify for World Cup 2014 with a win tonight against rival Mexico

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COLUMBUS, Ohio – A tremendous double dip of opportunity stands before the United States national soccer team Tuesday night in Ohio.

Qualifying for a World Cup is clearly the be-all, end-all in world soccer, the dream-maker that defines individual careers and helps assign rank to the game’s global order.

Booking official passage to World Cups has become a quadrennial U.S. highlight, and officially nailing the high-stakes target is always a moment to breath it all, to ceremonially harvest the fruits of three years labor. That could all happen tonight.

And then there is the rivalry with Mexico, a bit of a fallen giant at the moment, reeling from a weekend coaching change and teetering too close to the unfamiliar cliff of World Cup elimination. Every U.S. player, coach and supporter, even those feeling a touch of empathy, relishes the opportunity to sock El Tri in the nose at every possible chance.

(MORE: #DosACero — looking the U.S-Mexico history in Columbus)

So that’s the double dose of opportunity when U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann’s and his national team kicks off tonight from Crew Stadium, the chosen venue now for more than a decade for these critical World Cup qualifiers against Mexico. Game time at the 24,000-seat home of the Columbus Crew is 8 p.m. ET (ESPN, in Spanish on UniMas).

The Americans are in great shape in the six-team final-stage CONCACAF group, from which three teams qualify for Brazil, with a fourth heading into a play-in series against New Zealand. Klinsmann’s team will make it official with a win tonight, coupled with a Honduras win or tie at home against Panama.

source:  Klinsmann badly wants to seal the deal in Columbus and was upset about Friday’s loss in Costa Rica, about dropping an opportunity move closer to the finish line there.  “You do not want to wait,” he said. “You want to [qualify] at the next possible chance. Knowing what Mexico is going through, but we have to look this purely from our end,  and we have got to secure our points, and make sure nobody is getting nervous about it.”

U.S. Soccer federation leaders leave money on the table by not staging U.S.-Mexico at a larger venue. But smaller facilities allow organizers to better control ticket sales, helping to ensure a pro-American crowd. Plus, there’s that increasingly meaningful history; The United States defeated Mexico in Columbus, sometimes famously so, en route to World Cup qualification in 2001, 2005 and 2009.

“We have history here, and for soccer in our country that not always the case,” injured U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley said Monday. “So for us to walk into a stadium where there is history, it’s a special feeling. The people in Columbus, in this part of the United States, they love soccer, they love our team, the love supporting soccer in the United States.

“So when we come here, when we step out on the field, there is an overwhelming feeling of American support. When you play against Mexico, when you play in these games where so much is on the line, that can push us. That can help the bar swing our way.”

(MORE: Michael Bradley talks about his injury, absence)

U.S. defender/midfielder DaMarcus Beasley (pictured above) called the Columbus effect the team’s “12th man on the field.”  Beasley, who has been around the team since before the 2002 World Cup, knows better than most that hasn’t always been the case for U.S. matches.

Even with such slanted history, this contest is painfully difficult to predict. Both teams have significant holes to fill. For the United States, that starts with Bradley, the most indispensable U.S. man these days. But with three key figures out due to yellow card accumulation, Klinsmann also has holes to fill at center back and striker, plus looming decisions at two pesky trouble spots, left and right back.

(MORE: Where is the biggest hole in the U.S. lineup?)

Still, if you put the United States problems on the table and then look at Mexico’s mangled pile-up of issues, you’ll take the U.S. set. Mexico has lineup issues and an ongoing inability to score goals, for starters, plus the comprehensive turmoil of a coaching change with just three matches remaining in final stage of World Cup qualifying.

Last Friday’s loss at home to Honduras was the final straw for Mexican manager Jose Manuel de la Torre, who was replaced within hours by assistant Luis Fernando Tena. How El Tri will react – motivated by the coaching change, or stuck in the same funk, with the same set of players and most of the same coaching staff? – really is anybody’s guess.

Klinsmann and his players warned that Mexico remains a dangerous team, with talent throughout the lineup, even if they haven’t put the pieces together in the best way possible. U.S. forward Clint Dempsey says the players don’t see Mexico as “vulnerable.”

“Mexico is a team that has quality, and we need to prepare that way,” Clint Dempsey said. “Every game at home is a must-win, you have to get those points at home to get to a World Cup.

“Getting to the World Cup is the most important thing, no matter how we do it. But you don’t want to wait ‘til the last game, wanting other teams to do you a favor because you weren’t able to get the job done. So we liked to get it wrapped up as soon as we can.”

(MORE: U.S. wary of Mexican backlash amid team turmoil)

(MORE: Jurgen Klinsmann says the time to qualify is NOW!)

(MORE: Klinsmann adds in reinforcements for Tuesday’s match vs. Mexico)

(MORE: Who should start against Mexico?)

MLS Snapshot: Sounders in firm control after Leg 1

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The game in 100 words (or less): The Seattle Sounders took full control of the Western Conference finals with a resounding 2-0 win over ten-man Houston. The Sounders already had hit first in the 11th minute through Gustav Svensson but the red card to Jalil Anibaba changed the game. Houston had some chances later but fatigue meant the focus and control was off. Former Dynamo striker Will Bruin’s goal may have put the tie to bed.

Three moments that mattered

11′ — Gustav Svensson Goal — The Sounders wanted to set the tone early and they picked up an early goal off a corner kick, as Svensson redirected a header past Dynamo goalkeeper Joe Willis. The goal changed the complexion of the game to that point, until our next big moment.

28′ — Jalil Anibaba red card — Joevin Jones was a menace to deal with tonight and after getting past Anibaba, the latter pulled Jones down and as it appeared to be denial of a goal-scoring opportunity, Anibaba was given his marching orders. Suddenly, Houston, down a goal and down a man, had a lot more to do to stay in the tie. Nicolas Lodeiro missed the subsequent penalty kick but Will Bruin picked Lodeiro up later.

42′ — Will Bruin goal — The former Dynamo man scored a massive goal against his former club on a great cross from Jones on the left wing. While the tie isn’t over, the Sounders are in firm control and look set to repeat as Western Conference playoffs champions.

Man of the Match: Joevin Jones

Three things: Sounders cruise after (and before) early red

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The Seattle Sounders all but booked a return appearance in the 2017 MLS Cup final on Tuesday, doing so by beating the Houston Dynamo 2-0 in the first (away) leg of the Western Conference finals on Tuesday. The game wasn’t as close at the final score might appear to indicate.

[ RECAP: Sounders take 2-0 lead over Dynamo ]

We learned the following three things over the course of the 90 minutes…


The red card hurt Houston

No way, you’re kidding, right? Clearly a 28th-minute red card (shown to Jalil Anibaba for the denial of an obvious goal-scoring opportunity) is going to have a massive impact on the outcome of a game. But, it really crippled Houston, given the way they play — having a numerical advantage in the center of midfield is so important to Wilmer Cabrera’s side, in the name of frantically winning the ball back after conceding half or even two-thirds of the field.

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When you have to haul off one of three central midfielders, in hopes of still being about to force-create chances on the rare occasion you recover the ball and move it forward, three things are bound to happen: 1) legs are going to get very heavy, very quickly; 2) the clock appears to be counting up in double-speed; 3) you begin to concede two-thirds and three-quarters of the field instead — every move Seattle worked during the second half came after a waltz in the final third before finally meeting resistance.

At right, you can see every Sounders pass originating in Houston’s half of the field — remember, Seattle are the away team here. Playoff games rarely, if ever, come much easier than that.


Addition by subtraction… again?

This one isn’t so much a lesson from Tuesday’s game, as much as it’s a trend played out over the course of an entire season: much like they wound up being in 2016 following Clint Dempsey‘s heart condition robbing him of the final four months of the season, the Sounders are once again, dare I say it, better without another indomitable figure: Osvaldo Alonso.

Here’s the numbers to back it up: without Alsono in the starting lineup this year, Seattle went 6W-2D-2L. In those 10 regular-season games, they scored 20 goals (2.0 per game, versus 1.3 with him in the lineup) and conceded 12 (1.1 per game, same when he played).

The central midfield pairing of Cristian Roldan (7) and Gustav Svensson (4) has proven a formidable foe for anyone and everyone during the second half of the season. On Tuesday — granted, against 10 men for more than an hour — they could do no wrong. (Passes attempted on the right; defensive actions on the left — green triangles are tackles won, orange are recoveries, blue are interceptions, purple are clearances, red are tackles lost.)

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Alonso has been an unbelievable servant for nine MLS seasons, he’s an MLS Cup champions, a four-time U.S. Open Cup winner, a Supporters’ Shield winner and one of the best defensive midfielders in MLS history. He’s also 32 years old with a growing history of lower-body injuries that seem to never fully heal, and he’s now clearly third in the pecking order behind Roldan and Svensson. It’s clearly an oversimplification to say that soccer is a young, mobile man’s game these days, but it’s certainly true of MLS, and the results are in near total agreement.


May I have some hope, please?

Here’s a not-so-fun fact if you’re a Dynamo fan: your team won one — singular — game on the road in 17 tries this season. Not a dark enough outlook? OK, have this: that lone away win came against D.C. United, who finished 21st out of 22 teams if you put MLS into a single table.

Maybe Seattle weren’t so good at home this year… I’m really just searching for anything at this point, you’re thinking. OK, it’s possible, I suppose. They lost once at home all season, to Toronto FC, the best regular-season team in MLS history, by the final score of 1-0, in the month of May.

We’ll see you in Toronto or Columbus for MLS Cup, Seattle Sounders.

MLS Snapshot: Toronto FC hold Crew on the road

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The game in 100 words (or less): Without two of its stars, Toronto FC set out to play compact and hold on for a draw on the road, and that’s exactly what they did. Michael Bradley recorded 17 recoveries and a trio of interceptions as TFC broke up play and covered the passing lanes, frustrating the Columbus Crew all night. The best chance fell to Harrison Afful late, but TFC goalkeeper Alex Bono made a crucial save to keep it at 0-0.

Three moments that mattered

0′ — The starting lineup — In a game with chances few and far between, the tactical set-up by Greg Vanney – in which his side without Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore came out in a 4-1-4-1 formation – proved to be the difference in the game, frustrating the Crew all night.

52′ — Pedro Santos penalty kick no-call — Justin Meram plays a neat pass through the TFC backline that Santos runs on to, and he appears to be taken down in the box by Bono. Referee Robert Sbiga doesn’t blow the whistle and lets play continue, where Ola Kamara takes a shot that’s deflected away. Santos appeals for video review, and receives a yellow card for his efforts.

85′ — Big Save Bono — Gregg Berhalter’s 77th minute substitution to bring on Kekutah Manneh helped to push Afful higher up the field, which led to this late-game chance. Bono, who hadn’t had a whole lot to do, came up with a massive stop to keep the tie level.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the Match: Alex Bono, Toronto FC

Three things: Being happy with 0-0, and sabotage by Precourt

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On what felt sure to be a seminal night in franchise history, Columbus Crew SC were held by Toronto FC to a 0-0 draw in the first leg of the 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs Eastern Conference finals on Tuesday. Leg 2 will be played next Wednesday, Nov. 29.

[ RECAP: TFC hold Crew SC to scoreless draw in leg 1 of East finals ]

We learned (roughly) three things over the course of the 90 minutes…


Who’s happiest with 0-0?

There’s a case to be made that both sides will be quite happy with Tuesday’s result — Crew SC for the fact they conceded no away goals, and TFC facing no deficit whatsoever before their home leg — but it’s quite clear that TFC should be the happier of the two, given 1) they were the best regular-season team in MLS history, this season; and, more importantly, 2) Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore were suspended for leg 1 (they’ll both be back for leg 2) and Crew SC failed to capitalize anywhere meaningful.

TFC lost once at BMO Field all season, while Columbus managed just four victories away from home. Granted, any draw where both sides score would see Crew SC through to MLS Cup, which they would host no matter the opponent (54 points in the regular season; Seattle Sounders and Houston Dynamo finished on 54 and 50, respectively).


TFC’s tactical adjustment pays off

For all of the regular season, TFC head coach Greg Vanney deployed a back-three, with great success — 69 points, an all-time regular-season record. Nov. 21, three games from lifting (or losing) MLS Cup, is hardly the ideal time to deviate from the only path you’ve known.

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Alas, the absences of Giovinco and Altidore, TFC’s permanent strike partnership in the 3-5-2, changed everything. Without Altidore’s hold-up play bringing the best player to ever grace the league into attacking moves, the 3-5-2 would have quickly devolved into a 5-3-2, followed in short order by a 5-4-1. Columbus need no invitation to hold north of 60 percent of possession in a given game, which is exactly what would have happened. Not just meaningless possession, either, but camping-inside-TFC’s-defensive-third possession; 50-crosses-into-the-box possession; get-the-center-backs-forward-too possession.

Vanney was proactive with his starting lineup, putting another body in midfield by sacrificing a striker for another man in the middle, and it paid off. At right, you’ll see Crew SC’s attempted passes into/from TFC’s defensive third. Woof.


Anthony Precourt sinks to a new low

How low is Anthony Precourt willing to go in order to sabotage Crew SC, the club he owns and efforts to move to Austin, Tex., without so much as a phony attempt at a non-relocation resolution, and alienate the fans that have supported the franchise since MLS’s debut season in 1996? Tuesday night saw Precourt and Co. up the ante as they intentionally restricted entry (two gates for the entire stadium, causing thousands to miss the game’s opening minutes) into MAPFRE Stadium with the presumed intent of a half-empty venue when the television broadcast kicked off and panned left to right.

You pay good money for a ticket so you can see your team play, which ultimately results in filling the pockets of the villain whose no. 1 goal it is to steal your team, and this is how you’re treated on gameday.

This is shameful stuff from all parties involved — Crew SC, under the leadership and direction of Precourt, and MLS, who have allowed this entire saga to be played out in a public forum and enabling Precourt every step of the way.