Disappointment can’t overshadow season of improvement for D.C. United

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One year ago, D.C. United were watching the MLS playoffs from home after finishing seven points out of the playoffs. Burdening with one of the worst defenses in Major League Soccer, Ben Olsen’s club was dragging to seventh in the East, a -3 goal difference unable to compensate for their 52 goals allowed. For the RFK faithful, it was another disappointing season and another year removed from the franchise’s glory days.

It’s a testament D.C.’s 2012 accomplishment that the dour mood that surrounded the franchise is now a memory. No more talk of fading legacies. No delicate thoughts of the Bruce Arena years. This season, Olsen kept D.C. in a playoff race since March. Thanks to a late season run to second in the East, La Barra Brava had reason to believe their team a contender.

And ultimately, that belief was rewarded. Though Houston’s 4-2 aggregate victory in the Eastern Conference final left little doubt who should represent the East in the MLS Cup Final, D.C.’s presence in the conversation spoke to all the improvements the team’s made since last year:

  • A year of health from Chris Pontius plus the addition of rookie Nick DeLeon helped D.C.’s attack take a step forward, the team’s 53 goals scored ranking fourth in MLS. A near-full season of Dwayne De Rosario helped;
  • Perry Kitchen, moved back into midfield for his second MLS season, provided cover for the back line;
  • Brandon McDonald and Dejan Jakovic helped the defense shave nine goals off 2011’s total;
  • As did improvement in goal from the still-improving Bill Hamid.

But as Houston made apparent over the last week, there’s only so much progress you can make in 12 months. Over the course of 180 minutes, D.C. United — playing essentially a 4-5-1 formation that helped protect a still vulnerable defense — was a better set up to take advantage of opponent mistakes than create opportunities of their own.

It’s a formula that’s rarely going to beat a Dominic Kinear-led team. Without De Rosario and Pontius (who only played 12 minutes in the series), United was left reliant on lapses like the one that led to Branko Boskovic’s second leg goal. There were never going to be enough. Without a threat up top or any push from their two-man shield, D.C. wasn’t going to keep up with a in-form Dynamo.

But in light of how far D.C.’s come in 2012, it was too much to ask them to keep pace. Houston was a finalist last year and have since added Boniek Garcia, Ricardo Clark, and Mac Kandji (while losing Geoff Cameron). They’re better positioned to claim 2012’s title than 2011’s. It would have been an amazing accomplishment if Olsen found a way past Kinnear’s team. That he didn’t shouldn’t diminish how far D.C.’s come.

If that’s doesn’t serve as a silver lining for United fans, consider the improvements the team’s likely to see next season. Bill Hamid will be a year older and, presumably, a year better. Same can be said for Andy Najar (suspended for the final series), Kitchen, and DeLeon. If they make the playoffs again in 2013, D.C. can expect better health from their two main goal scoring threats: Pontius and De Rosario. Ben Olsen, having proved himself one of the league’s promising young coaches, will build on this season’s experience.

Positives are always elusive in the minutes after a season’s extinguished, but when D.C. and their fans are ready to move on, they’ll be able to reflect on their most successful season since claiming 2007’s Supporters’ Shield.

And the 2013 season is only four months away.

ProSoccerTalk will keep up the discussion of the chase for MLS Cup through the Dec. 1 final.

Former Arsenal striker Bendtner drops appeal, will serve time

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COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) Former Denmark forward Niklas Bendtner will have to serve a 50-day jail sentence after dropping his appeal against an assault conviction.

Early this month, Bendtner was found guilty of beating and kicking a cab driver in the Danish capital on Sept. 9. The 30-year-old Dane admitted to hitting the man but said he had acted in self-defense after a quarrel over the fare.

[READ: What’s next for the USMNT?]

Bendtner was sentenced to 50 days in prison and fined 1,500 kroner ($230).

The State Prosecutor of Copenhagen wrote on Twitter that it also abandoned its appeal after Bendtner’s move, adding “the verdict is therefore final.”

It was not immediately clear when Bendtner would serve his time.

Bendtner, a former Arsenal and Juventus forward who now plays for Norwegian club Rosenborg, has not been selected for his national team in recent months because of his poor shape.

What is next for USMNT after baffling transition of 2018?

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GENK, Belgium – On a freezing evening in a Belgian town close to the border with Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and France, the performance of the U.S. men’s national team summed up that they are, quite literally, at a crossroads.

Playing against Italy in Genk to finish off their 2018 schedule was a beautifully apt, if not cruel, metaphor.

[ MORE: Pulisic on being captain, Dortmund ]

The U.S. conceded in the 94th and final minute to lose 1-0 to Italy, and the neutral venue for this game reinforced the gear the USMNT are currently stuck in.

Due to many factors, most notably the 2018 World Cup qualifying debacle but also a U.S. Soccer presidential election, the Americans have been stuck in a strange place the past year with no permanent head coach and no clear plan.

There isn’t much optimism around this program right now. Even the youngest side in USMNT history seems bemused as to why veterans aren’t being called in and why they’ve not been told what the plan is and who the coach will be moving forward.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]  

Lacking direction after a year spent dishing out caps to 50-plus players (which included 23 debutants) as they went 3-5-4 since their World Cup qualifying debacle, this is not the fault of interim head coach Dave Sarachan.

The U.S. lost to England, Italy, Colombia, Brazil and the Republic of Ireland, they drew against Portugal, Peru, Bosnia and France, and beat Mexico, Bolivia and Paraguay. This young team was stretched to its limit and the hope is that these tough experiences, in games they were they were largely dominated, will hold them in good stead in the years to come.

Sarachan — who confirmed on Tuesday that the injury time defeat to Italy was his final game in charge of the USMNT — has done all he can with the brief of playing as many youngsters as possible. He put out the youngest lineup in the modern era against Italy.

After 13 months (yes one, three) in charge on a temporary basis, what progress has been made since the USMNT failed to qualify for the World Cup last October, if any?

“It was my last game. I haven’t been told that, but it is evident there is going to be a change in the very near future,” Sarchan said. “I feel as though this has been a very good year for the program and I feel as the leader over the last 12 months of the program, I feel as though we have moved it forward. It may not look like that to everybody on the outside but to look back on the games we played, the players we’ve exposed to this level, that we brought forth. I am certain it is going to pay dividends down the line. For me, I feel as though when the next person comes in, they are going to have a great starting point. That makes me feel good and the program feel good.”

In other words, the transition period is over and whether or not these kids have developed and learned in these games, it is no longer Sarachan’s problem.

There’s no more experimenting. This is where it all begins.

As U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro (elected in February) and new USMNT GM Earnie Stewart (appointed in the summer to start on Aug. 1) stood on in the press conference room in Genk and watched Sarachan deliver his final comments as USMNT head coach, the attention has switched to them. They’re on the clock.

They have to not only appoint a new head coach but usher in a new identity to this program which is focused on one thing: making the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. That journey, with or without most of these kids, begins now.


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Michael Dovellos, a lifelong USMNT fan, travelled to Europe from Chicago along with his parents to watch the final two games of 2018. Like many fans, he is extremely optimistic about what this young team can achieve in the coming years but there’s no doubting they need extra direction.

“It would have been great to go into 2019 now, finishing these last two games playing against England at Wembley and Italy here in Genk with a brand new coach,” Dovellos explained. “Take these guys, tweak the system, play these two games against great oppositions and make them your team. It is frustrating not to have that happen. We’ve waited all year, there’s no coach. We waited until after the World Cup, there’s no coach. Here we are now, at the end of 2018, and we don’t have a coach yet.”

Coach or no coach, this last week has been a humbling experience for anyone connected with the USMNT.

Getting spanked 3-0 at Wembley by England’s C team in a game which the Three Lions treated more as a testimonial for Wayne Rooney was the low point of Sarachan’s reign. The U.S. were so far off the pace it was scary. Playing all of your youngsters at the same time will lead to that but was getting this experience for them all together, without much veteran leadership, healthy for their development?

Against Italy — a team also packed with young talent with the likes of Leonardo Bonucci and Marco Verratti sprinkled in – they had 26.6 percent of the ball and only a string of fine saves from goalkeeper Ethan Horvath kept them in the game.

Will Trapp, who has captained this young U.S. side for much of the past 13 months, was honest after the defeat to Italy.

“We talked about it in the locker room afterwards, a few more choice words, as you can imagine. Yes, it is about competing and defending, but we can’t defend every game 90 minutes,” Trapp said. “The point that was brought up is ‘the talent is there’ but it is just having a culture of confidence that we can step on the field and play alongside these teams. That is the difference in terms of what Italy was able to do and what we weren’t able to do. They move and want to get on the ball. That is something with a coach and a style we will see how that develops. It is certainly an area to be improved.”


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It is clear that just being able to qualify for the 2022 World Cup will need a huge amount of improvement from this group of players.

We all knew there was a long road ahead for these USMNT youngsters to gain the experience needed to navigate the CONCACAF gauntlet in the coming years, but the past 12 months has taught us one thing: this process will take longer than we thought.

Christian Pulisic, the undisputed star of this team who also became the youngest USMNT captain in the modern era on Tuesday at 20 years and 63 days of age, knows they have a long way to go.

“They [Italy] came out a lot more confident than us and they dominated the game,” Pulisic said. “In the end, we can keep learning things but again it wasn’t good enough. All we can do is look back at our mistakes and learn from them, and now look forward to this new year and we have to become a lot better.”

U.S. supporter Eric Sarno echoed Pulisic’s views, as he took part in what almost became a group therapy session with other American fans ahead of the game against Italy. They pointed to the changes at the top and how Cordeiro and Stewart now needed to deliver, but only one thing matters to these fans.

“We are in CONCACAF. We have to qualify for the World Cup. There are no excuses,” Sarno said. “We have 300 million people, we have millions of soccer fields, tons of coaches, tons of facilities. It is not okay for us to be passed by Trinidad & Tobago and Honduras. I like that the game is growing in our region but we absolutely have to qualify no matter what, every tournament out of CONCACAF. This year was about shock and sadness.”

It all hinges on one thing: U.S. Soccer hiring the right head coach to take this young group to the next level. Is that even possible without at least a few more experienced heads around?

“That would be up to the coach, but I don’t think it would be a bad idea,” Pulisic said. “Some guys need the direction and to see where this team is going to go. Veteran guys can always help that.”

Gregg Berhalter is the USMNT’s heir apparent but you would excuse the current Columbus Crew coach if he has cold feet after these demoralizing, rather embarrassing friendly defeats.

A dank, cold, miserable night in Genk summed up the mood hanging over the USMNT. Nobody knows what has been gained from 2018, and nobody knows if the majority of these young players will be called in again.

“The only improvement that we’ve made is that we’ve gone younger,” Steve Crump, a U.S. fan who had travelled to Genk from Colorado, said. “But we are still in constant tryout mode. 25 players are different than the last 25 players every single time. Why can’t we just have a lineup and get on with it?”

Crump, who declared his anger to the group outside the stadium in Genk, has a fair point. The time for experimenting is over. The youngsters who have taken their chance over the past 13 months should remain but the best 23 players available should now be selected.

“Whoever the new coach is, they need to come in and start making things happening,” Dovellos said. “Make this team theirs, make the captain theirs, make them play for him and make them play for their country. Make them play well. At the end of the day, if a player doesn’t play well, they should then make way for another young guy to make a name for himself and make the team the best this country can have.”

Dishing out caps for the sake of it has to end.

Only time will tell if 2018 was a ‘lost year’ or one that handed young players vital experience to push on and become stars on the international stage.

Right now, the latter seems a stretch and the former more realistic.

“From last October there has just been turmoil, man,” Sarno said, scratching his head. “Not knowing who the coach is, who is going to be on the roster, the transition time. Turmoil. We are positive, we have a lot of support for our youngsters who are hopefully going to make Qatar. But it has been rocky to say the least.”

O’Neill out as Republic of Ireland coach

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Martin O’Neill, and his bombastic, fiery assistant coach Roy Keane, are out of a job.

The pair, along with another two assistants, left their jobs with the Republic of Ireland National Team by mutual consent on Wednesday morning, one day after a scoreless draw in Denmark. The result ensured that the Republic would be relegated to League C in the next UEFA Nations League, earning just two points in four matches against Denmark and Wales.

O’Neill and his staff were in charge for 55 games since he took over on November 5, 2013. O’Neill nearly led his side to the 2018 World Cup, falling in the UEFA qualifying playoffs to Denmark over two legs. O’Neill’s Ireland squad was one of the darlings of Euro 2016, in part because of the fan support in France and because of Ireland’s 1-0 victory over Italy In the group stage, which put the Republic in the knockout round for the first time.

The future is bright for the Republic. O’Neill gave 28 players their first caps, including exciting 18-year-old Southampton striker Michael Obafemi, who could lead the line for the Irish in the years ahead.

FIFA ethics judge arrested in Malaysia in corruption case

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) A FIFA ethics committee judge has been arrested in Malaysia on suspicion of corruption in his job as director of an arbitration service.

Sundra Rajoo’s lawyer tells The Associated Press his client was detained by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission late Tuesday after returning from FIFA business in Zurich.

The lawyer, Cheow Wee, says a court refused a request for a seven-day remand order against Rajoo. Wee says the court “agreed with our position that he (Rajoo) has diplomatic immunity and privileges.”

However, Rajoo has resigned from his position with the Asian International Arbitration Centre.

Rajoo’s office in Kuala Lumpur was raided on Monday.

FIFA appointed Rajoo last year as a deputy chairman of its ethics committee’s adjudicatory chamber.