All aboard the Rafamobile! Benítez suddenly coach of Chelsea (for now)

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Hours after they parted ways with the man who won them their first European title, Chelsea’s moved on to a man whose reputation hinges on his UEFA Champions League success.

With the appointment of former Liverpool manager Rafa Benítez today, Chelsea’s replaced Roberto Di Matteo, if only in the short-term. Given the job of seeing out the 2012-13 season, Benítez appears to be doing little more than keeping a seat warm for Roman Abramovich’s true ambition – Pep Guardiola.

Here’s the club’s statement:

Chelsea Football Club can confirm Rafael Benitez has been appointed interim first-team manager until the end of the season.

The owner and the Board believe that in Benitez we have a manager with significant experience at the highest level of football, who can come in and immediately help deliver our objectives.

The 52-year-old Spaniard is due to meet the players at the training ground in Cobham tomorrow

Those objectives are unlikely to include UEFA Champions League, where Chelsea’s fate now depends on Juventus losing in Donetsk on matchday six. Of course, that could happen, and if it does (while Chelsea beats Nordsjaelland), the Blues will have a man whose reputation has come to rest on his Champions League accumen. If not, there’s always the league, two domestic cups, and Europa League.

It’s a good appointment for everybody except Di Matteo, who likely would be in a job today had Benítez been either unavailable or unwilling to subjugate himself to a temporary position.

Such has been Benítez’s fall. After guiding Liverpool to second in the Premier League in 2008-09, he allowed Liverpool to slip to seventh place, the failure to make Champions League beginning a slide from which the club’s still recovering. Benítez’s subsequent inability to replace José Mourinho at Inter Milan meant the former Valencia boss’s best route to a marquee job was a situation like Chelsea’s.

Let’s also not forget the nature Benítez’s failings in Milan, because they’re particularly relevant to his potential success at Chelsea. We should take managerial hubris and put it aside, because Benítez has likely been dissuaded of notions that had him shrug off his part in Liverpool’s downfall. The state he left Internazionale in was bad enough.

There he inherited an old team coming off a Mourinho-led European title and not only changed how they played but ran his veterans into the ground. There’s more than one similarity to be drawn between that Inter side and Benítez’s new charge. By the time the Nerazzurri took off for 2011’s Club World Cup, they were depleted, mutinous, and out of chances for their ill-fitting coach.

While Benítez is not directly replacing Mourinho in London, he will again be faced with expectations raised by the Special One. Even after Di Matteo delivered the one prize José couldn’t claim, standards at Stamford Bridge reflect the demands of a man five years gone. If Benítez is going to retain his job, he has to claim the league, FA Cup, or Europa League. And as Di Matteo’s travails show, even that might not be enough.

Because if Benítez is to win silverware during his Stamford Bridge residency, it will likely be through the same pragmatism that characterized his most successful times at Anfield. It’s not ugly, it’s not anti-football, but it’s also not Barcelona. And for whatever misguided reasons Roman Abramovich is using to fuel his decisions, Chelsea’s owner won’t be happy until his team is playing the brand of soccer he’s wanted since the day he bought the club.

The lack of style undid Mourinho. It undid Di Matteo. And it will likely undo Benítez, regardless of results.

The one thing that could keep Benítez in London past May 2013 is if Guardiola goes elsewhere, because for everything we’ve heard about Abramovich’s lust of Pep, we’ve heard little of reciprocation from the former Barça boss. We know he prefers England. We know he prefers London. We also know that he’s unlikely to make any decisions until early-2013, if not later.

All of which makes the treatment of Di Matteo more curious. Replacing a club icon with a former rival is precarious enough (though Chelsea fans will likely recognize Benítez’s qualities). To do so when it’s unclear if lack of a striker or thin central midfield are the real problems hints Di Matteo was never going to be embraced by Abramovich. It didn’t matter that Di Matteo’s Champions League troubles came in a group with two of the top eight teams in Europe. That he lost provided Arbamovich an out from a man he never truly wanted, even if it made more sense to keep him until the Guardiola question was resolved.

With no answers in sight, Chelsea fans are best served concentrating on the present. They aren’t the best team in England, but they’re capable of competing for the title. Perhaps Benítez will bring something new out of them. Cup competitions have taken on a special meaning for the Blues. They’re still alive in both. And even if Europe only offers Europa League, the team has enough young, exciting talents to make that congestion-inducing tournament worth a Chelsea-supporters’ time. There’s still plenty of light in this 2012-13 tunnel.

Roberto Di Matteo won’t be driving them through it, but it’s time to move on. All aboard the Rafamobile.

Sunday league in New York rallies around assaulted referee

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I had to share a nice, feel-good moment from my neck of the soccer woods on this fine Sunday in July.

It starts with something heinous, though.

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Let’s begin here: The Buffalo District Soccer League (BDSL) is an 81-team men’s league in Western New York. It also conducts the Tehel Cup, the oldest amateur cup tournament in the United States.

Unfortunately, this post is about neither of the positives associated with those facts, as last weekend saw a player lose control after receiving a red card. The player in question hit referee Mike Crane, leaving the official with a head injury.

It’s not the first time we’ve written about referee assault; Unfortunately, typing the phrase “referee dies” in the PST search tool brings up multiple entries.

Yet the incident understandably caused a stir in the Buffalo soccer community, as the BDSL rallied around Crane and its officials.

Clubs assembled before their matches to take photos with the referee units, tagging each on Twitter with the hashtag #UnitedForCrane.

Let’s hope this post serves as a reminder to all weekend warriors and professional players alike: It’s still just a game.

 

What’s next for growing American would-be pro soccer clubs like Detroit City?

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As our attention switches from international football back to the club game, a new article coming out of Michigan recalls where American soccer was when the American soccer world hit pause for the World Cup in June.

That’s when the United States Soccer Federation rejected billionaire businessman Rocco Commisso’s plea for a 10-year runway to bring the North American Soccer League to Division 1 league status by virtue of a $500 million investment proposal.

As if on cue, a John Niyo article in The Detroit News drags the so-called “closed system” back to the forefront, and his writing on National Premier Soccer League side Detroit City FC makes an interesting case.

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DISCLAIMER: Before we go any further, it’s important to note I operate a club in the same league as Detroit City, and very much admire how they’ve built what they’ve built there. That said, my opinions may be buttressed by that fact but are not birthed by bias.

The would-be Cliffs Notes go something like this: Detroit City FC wants to move from the short-season, semi-pro National Premier Soccer League to a fully professional league with a longer season. The rub is that DCFC currently only has one path and it’s one neither they nor the lion’s share of their supporters would support at the given time.

That’s largely because the U.S. Soccer Federation has only sanctioned two options above the NPSL: The United Soccer League and Major League Soccer. If DCFC doesn’t want to play a part in either of those organizations, it has no other current option. And while Detroit City has continued to bring huge crowds to its restored Keyworth Stadium whether NPSL matches or friendlies against the likes of FC St. Pauli, Necaxa, or Venezia, its next step is currently stuck in a holding pattern despite the club’s achievements.

And — and this is where Commisso’s offer comes back into play — the USSF has no reason to sanction any league that doesn’t go by its current divisional guidelines, which demand a very wealthy owner and specific stadium requirements amongst other things. Infrastructure and fan support can be built, but asking these clubs to hand themselves over to someone with deeper pockets simply to meet a standard is real 2×4 to the gut.

“What you’re doing is awesome, but imagine if instead of you owning all of your success, you found a wealthier person to help you meet our standards?”

As we saw when MLS had its Detroit press conference without DCFC, there is no longer the ability to pretend soccer wasn’t already in town. DCFC may seem like an outlier, and may well be one, having had massive success with big crowds in a stadium they renovated themselves. Yet there’s little doubt there are myriad markets in this giant country that wouldn’t mind trying their hands with something new.

Put plainly, there are 172 clubs in the NPSL and Premier Development League alone, few of whom are in markets with MLS teams. Even eliminating the PDL teams with close relationships to MLS and the USL (The USL owns the PDL), and there are still well over 100 teams in play. Sure, some of those may not have the ambition to grow higher, but they are also currently also shackled by having to compete against the former NASL teams who had no alternative outside of the USL once their Division 2 league shut down last winter.

So Niyo’s article asks a question many have posited in the realms of social media: Why not go outside the structure of FIFA?

From The Detroit News:

Building a league outside the constraints of U.S. Soccer’s “Professional League Standards” could be one option for remaining NASL owners — New York, Miami and Jacksonville — and NPSL teams that are looking to grow pro. Detroit City FC was one of at least a half-dozen NPSL teams — clubs from Boston, Phoenix, Virginia Beach and Boca Raton, Fla. among them — poised to join the NASL with letters of intent last fall. But whatever path a new league pursues, it’ll require strength in numbers — at least 10 or 12 teams — and a geography that makes sense.

It’s a major risk, one that certainly is lined with the hopes that the influencers and money people behind the USSF might blink at significant competition.

But it still requires significant salesmanship: Getting top-notch players to commit to a league which several hampers their international aspirations is a hard sell (The NASL had capped players from 27 caps heading into the 2016 season).

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So, too, is convincing deep-pocketed investors that they are capable of slaying, or at least denting, a big machine which has grown in a dramatic way in the last two decades. If a guy like Commisso, who has since went deep into discussions for a takeover of AC-freaking-Milan, sees the value and necessity of USSF sanctioning, lawsuits or not, certainly most would have the same questions.

Are there enough of the renegade rich to self-sustain a league outside of the MLS-USL set-up, and even get to sanctioning? Probably, as evidenced by Commisso’s belief that he’d be able to go from multi-club ownership of a D-1 NASL to 10 owners within a decade.

And there’s no denying the allure of safety for new markets. NISA founder Peter Wilt left his nascent D-3 league to helm USL soccer in Madison, and it’s easy to envision his safer new venture an almost automatic success.

So would that same group of risk takers be willing to do it outside of USSF sanctioning, without name players?

That’s where DCFC’s status as an outlier might really come into play. For everyone tooting the proverbial horn of MLS’ rapid and impressive evolution in quality — academies and foreign recruitment alike have made the league very entertaining — there’s no doubt that players with the name quality of Wayne Rooney, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, or Carlos Vela still put butts in seats.

Consider this: For all its growth, MLS’ top performing players remain almost overwhelmingly foreign-developed. Using an advanced rating site like WhoScored, the Top 20 finds only two players with any sort of U.S. or Canadian development in their lockers (and that’s being gracious with Kei Kamara, who came to U.S. for college at the age of 20).

You get to No. 23 before another U.S. developed player, Sean Davis, hits the list. It only gets to seven by No. 40 if you allow foreign-born players who largely grew their games in college soccer (including Mark-Anthony Kaye from TFC’s Academy and York University in Ontario).

Suffice it to say, there’s plenty of quality American and foreign talent which would benefit from more jobs.

As DCFC CEO Sean Mann says in The Detroit News piece: “It was frustrating: Why are there so many obstacles? We’re not zealots. We’re not crusaders to reform American soccer. We just want to play at a higher level. We want to naturally grow. And U.S. soccer doesn’t allow that.”

This nation is gigantic, and there are few fans out there who genuinely believe MLS will stop expanding any time soon. In fact, it’s a safe bet that the long play is to one day announce a knockoff of promotion and relegation within the confines of the Major League Soccer umbrella.

The question isn’t who’s right and who’s wrong. Let’s face it: the answers seem likely to fall along the lines of one’s political alliances. Those who fear the risks of the new and unusual will worry about short-circuiting the current path, while the other side will beg to give ideals and theories a chance at practice in the name of something better.

But something does have to change. Soon, more and more major success stories are going to be held short of their goals because of the current structure. Whether that’s Detroit City or Chattanooga seeking a next level and not finding it, or the Sacramento Republic not getting its shot at MLS, or a fan base and market like Columbus getting waylaid by a slimy contract and inaction from on high, they will keep coming into your news feed.

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And if we keep making the mistake of letting these conversations regress to simple “pro-rel” banter, then we’re all going to lose. And it’s going to take a bunch of risk takers who put aside their egos to find common ground.

Here’s a quick way to put the American soccer landscape in perspective: Look at a map. As this sport continues to grow, and the country’s young players are coached and encouraged by generations of fans who were coached and encouraged by fans themselves, the markets for summer sporting entertainment will continue to explode in the United States (with only baseball to compete with them thanks to the given calendar implemented by the USSF).

Are there more than 26 markets fit to host a top-tier side? Yep. Are there more than the 60-plus when tossing in USL (but subtracting MLS reserve sides)? Yep.

And if Commisso’s offer tells us anything, anything at all, it’s that there are figures out there who love the game and have an appetite for something not currently satisfied by the current structure. So either MLS or the USSF is going to announce its plan for a much bigger league with more than a couple dozen markets, or someone is going to challenge from the outside (Of course, both could happen and that would be very intriguing).

Either way, let’s hope it happens before the next guys who want to take up Detroit City’s example decide they’d rather not rattle their skulls against an unnecessary ceiling.

What’s the solution given the current power and success of the USSF? Your takes are welcome.

Nothing to separate Portland and 10-man LAFC

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There was entertainment value in Los Angeles FC’s potential playoff preview with the Portland Timbers on Sunday in the City of Angels, but all that arrived was a scoreless draw.

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Both Giovani Savarese’s Timbers and Bob Bradley‘s nickname-free expansion club remain in the West’s Top Four. PLAFC remains unbeaten at home during their maiden voyage through Major League Soccer.

Adama Diomande came close for the hosts, who finished with 10-men when Lee Nguyen went studs-up on Sebastian Blanco‘s thigh for a pretty easy red card (though it took some time for Silviu Petrescu to produce the red).

VIDEO: France stars projected onto Arc de Triomphe

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If France’s players had any doubt about the level of import their World Cup title had back home, it was erased when their photos were projected onto one of the most celebrated monuments in the world.

The photos of Hugo Lloris, Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann, and company made their way onto the Arc de Triomphe on Sunday, hours after France defeated Croatia 4-2 in the World Cup Final.

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The Arc de Triomphe honors those who died in the French Revolution and early 19th century wars, and sits above France’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I.

How humbling must it be for those players to grace such a heavy monument (both in weight and substance).