Shipped from abroad

Shipped from Abroad, Mexico: An old lion leading Liga MX

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We’re two weeks into Liga MX – what we used to know as the Mexican Primera Division – but rebranding’s failed to produce a new look to the standings. At the top of the league, Tigres, Toluca, and Santos have perfect records through two rounds. At the bottom, San Luis, Querétaro and Jaguares are still looking for their first points (San Luis and Querétaro will spend the season battling relegation). It’s all par for the course.

That’s what makes León’s start stand out. Promoted to the first division for the first time in 10 years (taking Estudiantes Tecos’ place), Liga MX’s newest club is off to a perfect start.

Five-time first division champions, Leon should be a familiar name to U.S. soccer fans who remember Marcelo Balboa’s season in Guanajuato (Eric Wynalda also had a brief spell with the club). A one time contender on the CONCACAF scene, León lived a Buffalo Bills-esque existence in the second division, five times losing the league’s promotion playoff before finally returning to the first division this spring.

The Esmeraldas’ brought in their new era last week with a 2-0 win at Querétaro, earning three points while playing most of the match down a man. Against a fellow-relegation battler, the win was practically a six-pointer, even if it was viewed as a modest success.

On Friday, all modesty was put aside as León blasted Club Tijuana at their Nou Camp. Twenty-two year old defensive midfielder Carlos Pena, brought in from Pachuca this summer, scored a surprise brace, while Hernan Burbano converted his second penalty kick of the year. Add a goal from Luis Montes (another player brought in from Pachuca) and León had 4-0 victory over last year’s promotion darlings.

As with Tijuana last season, León’s promotion carries unique hopes. For Xolos, it was the promise of a new market next to the U.S.-Mexico border, one that could help diversity a league that had settled into a few regional sects. Guantajuato doesn’t offer geogrpahic diversity, but with León’s history, the top division can welcome the return of a storied team. Only five clubs (Chivas, Toluca, America, Cruz Azul, Pumas) have more titles than León.

That’s why León’s position atop the league, while shocking, also has a familiar feel. Having scored six goals while allowing none, it’s a deserved perch.

Next up, León welcomes second division Dorado in the revitalized Mexico Cup (Copa MX). On Sunday, though, they get their wake up call. The Esmeraldas travel to Toluca.

At the bottom

The two biggest disappointments, though two rounds? Chivas and Pachuca, though one of those two deserve a caveat.

Chivas is without a point through two rounds, but you can hardly blame them. The two teams they faced are a combined 4-0-0 to start the season.

Guadalajara opened with a 2-1 loss at Toluca while Carlos Quintero’s stoppage time goal took full points from Estadio Omnilife for Santos Laguna. Post-game, goalkeeper Luis Michel bemoaned the club’s lack of experience. Reports failed to note his level of irony.

Pachuca at least has a point, but more was expected from the Tuzos after legendary striker Hugo Sanchez took over. Sanchez won two league titles while coaching Pumas from 2000-2005 but hasn’t coached in the Mexican league since 2006.

Pachuca, a perennial power under Enrique Meza, has been a team adrift since their old boss left for Cruz Azul (and has since moved on to Toluca). Since, the Tuzos have failed to reach another final, finished no better than sixth in any qualification, and twice missing the Liguilla.

Sanchez was supposed to restore something – call it pride, direction, status, what have you. The opening schedule played into his hands: at Atlanta, Atlas, at Querétaro, Tijuana. Half-way through that paved path, the Tuzos have one point and are coming off an embarrassing 3-0 home loss to Atlas, a game that saw two players (including Jose Torres) sent off.

It wasn’t so long ago that Pachuca was a perennial power, but in the world of two-tournament seasons, that was another lifetime. For all the struggles of the last three years, Pachuca seems more adrift than ever.

Thankfully, it’s only two games, and with eight teams qualifying for the Liguilla, there’s still plenty of time to turn things around.

Friday’s results
Morelia 1-0 Monterrey
León 4-0 Tijuana

Saturday’s results
América 4-2 Jaguares
Tigres 2-1 Atlante
Pachuca 0-3 Atlas
San Luis 1-2 Cruz Azul

Sunday’s results
Pumas 3-0 Querétaro
Puebla 1-3 Toluca
Chivas 0-1 Santos Laguna

Races

Hold on. It’s only two weeks in. Let’s let the league settle, first.

Elsewhere in Mexico

  • Miguel Sabah was Sabah-y on Friday against Monterrey (scoring Morelia’s only goal), but the Rayado loss was eye-opening. The reigning CONCACAF champions have failed to score in 180 minutes, and despite being a pre-tournament favorite have one point through two matches. Did Santos break them in last tournament’s final?
  • Bad news for the rest of Mexico: Chucho’s still Chucho. América’s Christian Benítez scored his first two goals of the tournament in América’s weekend win.
  • And speaking of doubles, Martin Bravo scored twice for Pumas, bringing his season total to a league-leading three. Should we do the annoying “he’s on pace for”? Or can you do the times-nine multiplication without me?
  • Mariano Pavone scored his first goal for Cruz Azul, who got their first win under Guillermo Vazquez. The former Independiente, Real Betis, River Plate and Lanus man was brought in to replace the explosive but inconsistent Emanuel Villa (now with Pumas). So far, so good.

Shipped from Abroad, Euro 2012: Memories, Crystal Balls, and Awards

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source: Getty Images

How We’ll Remember …

Spain 4, Italy 0 – As the signature performance of Spain’s dynastic run.

Having won their previous finals 1-0 (versus Germany in 2008; versus the Netherlands in 2010), La Roja had provided too much fuel for detractors. Now, after a tournament where Spain’s passive aggression wasput on trial, the best international team of our time provided an irresistible closing argument.

Facing Italy for the second time in three weeks, there was no reason for caution. Spain knew what to expect, and they exploited it, posting the most lopsided win in European finals’ history.

Crystal Ball: What Needs to Happen, Going Forward

If Spain can defending their world title with a win in Brazil, they’ll be no argument as to who’s the best team of all-time. A European squad winning a World Cup in South America would be impressive on its own, but for Spain to do so on the back of three consecutive major titles would be provide an inscrutable claim to greatness.

The team will likely need adjustments ahead of 2014. Winning this title, they’ve discovered they can win without Carles Puyol and David Villa. Villa should be back for Brazil, but Xavi Hernández will be 34. Xabi Alonso will be 32. Both players will go through two more years of grueling club soccer for Barcelona and Real Madrid. Come Brazil, Spain will need backup plans, if not outright replacements.

Italy’s obstacles are more daunting. Of their major contributors, only Mario Balotelli (21) is under 25 years old. The rest of their regulars are already in the prime of their careers, with a handful likely to lose effectiveness before the 2014 World Cup.

For a team that won only two of six matches in the tournament, it’s incredibly discouraging. Though they’ve made this final, there isn’t much margin for error. Grouped with Denmark and the Czech Republic in World Cup qualifying, Italy can’t afford to regress.

But with Euro 2012’s success, head coach Cesare Prandelli has solved one problem. He’s reestablished an identity for the Azzurri, on that involves more than just waiting for their opponents to screw up. But the lingering issue, one which may be out of his control: Italy’s not actually producing any players. Come 2014, Italy may have no choice but to take another recycled team into a World Cup.

PST Team of the Tournament

Best XI Reserves
G: Iker Casillas, Spain
LB: Jordi Alba, Spain
CB: Sergio Ramos, Spain
CB: Pepe, Portugal
RB: Joao Pereira, Portugal
M: Andrea Pirlo, Italy
M: Sami Khedira, Germany
M: Xavi Hernández, Spain
AM: Mesut Özil, Germany
F/AM: Andres Iniesta, Spain
F/AM: Cesc Fabregas, Spain
G: Gianluigi Buffon, Italy
G: Joe Hart, England
LB: Fabio Coentrao, Portugal
CB: Daniel Agger, Denmark
CB: Gerard Pique, Spain
RB: Theodor Gebre Selassie, Czech Republic
M/D: Daniele de Rossi, Italy
M: Luka Modric, Croatia
M: Sergio Busquets, Spain
F/W: Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal
AM/F: Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sweden
F: Mario Balotelli, Italy

PST Player of the Tournament

source:

For the third straight championship, there was no true stand out player, with voters left to pick greatness from a number of good candidates. Andrea Pirlo, however, fits a number of different definitions of best player. In terms of absolute quality, he heads the discussion. He was also the most valuable player to a competitive team, and with Italy making the final, his value was part of a team important to the competition. And if you’re looking for an emotional angle, Pirlo sustaining his resurgent club success helped revitalize a world power.

For us, he was simply the tournament’s best player, and although Xavi Hernández’s final performance gave 2008’s top performer a late push, Andrea Pirlo gets our nod.

ProSoccerTalk is doing its best to keep you up to date on what’s going on in Poland and Ukraine. Check out the site’s Euro 2012 page and look at the site’s previews, predictions, and coverage of all the events defining UEFA’s championship.

Shipped from Abroad, Euro 2012: Three lessons to take home from the semifinals

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1. You have to win it in the ring

At some point, you have to actually win something, and although Germany’s young talent won the European U-21s three years ago, it’s been a long time since the senior team actually won anything. As even the casual soccer fan knows after a being bombarded by the fact on Thursday, 1996 was the last time the Germans won a major men’s title. While there’s nothing wrong with that – you absolutely have a successful program without winning anything – Germany’s set higher standards. They planned to win Euro 2012, a plan most of us bought into.

But as everybody knows, a funny thing happened on the way to Germany’s coronation, but rather than leaving us questioning how it happened (Italy’s win was pretty self-explanatory), we’re left examining why we so while-heartedly bought into the narrative that had yet to play out. How did we all become sold on Germany, and (more importantly) what mistakes led us to that state?

We probably over-valued Germany’s defense, took Bastian Schweinsteiger’s health for granted, and perhaps didn’t have enough skepticism of Mario Gómez slotting into Miroslav Klöse’s role. More than anything, we believed the young talent would work before seeing them knock off a world class international team.

It’s an understandable mistake, given what we’ve seen from these players at club level. But it’s still a lesson to take to heart. Germany had beaten England, Argentina, Uruguay, and the Netherlands in major international competition, but they had also lost to Spain the last time the teams met with something on the line (semifinals, World Cup 2010). That should have at least given us caution. Yes, they’ve had some impressive wins, but they need to do a little more before we anoint them.

2. Winning isn’t everything

Five matches, two wins, and a spot in the finals? It doesn’t sound fair until you attach Italy’s name to it. They’ve certainly earned their place in Sunday’s decider, even if an ideal world would have the finalists winning most of their games.

It’s a reminder that, for all the plaudits they’ve earned this tournament, Italy are far from great. They’re experienced, well organized, resourceful and (as evidenced against Germany) capable of a great performances, but it’s still unclear how good they actually are. Though they seem to have a knack of bringing out the worst in their opponents, Italy still seems like a team that can be beaten if a good team (like Spain) can play to their potential)

How good Italy appear to us has little bearing to Sunday’s final, nor should it detract from the story they’ve written to get there. If anything, it makes the story more compelling.

3. Can’t get there without a little luck

Penalty kicks aren’t a lottery. Some players are better than others at taking them. Some goalkeepers are better than others at stopping them. Just because penalty kicks level the playing field, giving the less-talented team a better chance of winning the match, doesn’t mean they’re a lottery. Unless I have no clue what the word lottery means. (Side note: That this paragraph needed to be written makes me very sad.)

That doesn’t mean there aren’t some strange things that happen in shootouts. Take Wednesday’s tiebreaker, when Bruno Alves apparently forgot he was fourth in Portugal’s order. Did having to be pulled back (after he’d approached to take the third kick) throw him off? Though unlikely, it may have provided the small percentage point push that moved the shootout in Spain’s direction. Even if it didn’t, Spain still dodged a bullet in getting through kicks.

Streaks like Spain’s (now 10-straight knockout round wins at major tournaments) are almost always a combination of skill and fortune. Italy losing on kicks in 2008, John Heitenga seeing red in South Africa, Cristiano Ronaldo skying an open shot on Iker Casillas at the end of regulation on Wednesday – they’re all points were capabilities and circumstances converge. The influence of neither should be overlooked.

ProSoccerTalk is doing its best to keep you up to date on what’s going on in Poland and Ukraine. Check out the site’s Euro 2012 page and look at the site’s previews, predictions, and coverage of all the events defining UEFA’s championship.

Shipped from Abroad, Euro 2012: How We’ll Remember the Semifinals

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The winners get one more game, but for the semifinals’ losers, a critical eye and a savage dissection is their immediate reward. Finishing one step short of the finish line, their demises tease one of our favorite questions: What if.

What if Portugal had ordered their kickers differently, or converted that counter attack at the end of regulation? What if Germany hadn’t played their worst half of the tournament in the face of their toughest opposition? What if they had done a little more to mitigate their predictable mistakes?

It’s a ridiculous but irresistible game, and for many, it’s all that remains. After their teams came tantalizingly close to the finals, scrutiny, blame, and questions are what fans use to offset unrequited hope.

We have two more days to dwell on Spain and Italy. Looking back on the semifinals, our thoughts dwell on the teams we’ve lost.

How We’ll Remember …

Spain 0 (4), Portugal 0 (2) – As a cagey if unremarkable affair, one that threw a more gas on the already tiresome “is Spain boring” debate. We’ve quickly became a world of spoiled toddlers, having spent of last Christmas’ gifts. Yeah, but what are you getting me this year. Given how we’ve embraced and discarded Spain, we’ll either finally get that pony or no gift at all. I know which one we deserve.

We should also come to remember this as a huge missed opportunity for Portugal. Portugal is a talented team, but they’re only modestly endowed compared to the teams likely to compete for the next two Euros: Spain, Germany, France. Toss Belgium in if you need a wildcard.

The point: Portugal isn’t one of the nations you see when looking out at the oncoming European landscape. Their performance in this year’s competition was built on a number of great performances glossing over a limited and (beyond the first XI) thin team. Is it reasonable to expect the likes of Pepe, Cristiano Ronaldo, Fabio Coentrao, Joao Pereira, Joao Mourinho, and Burno Alves to performance as well in Brazil and France? Perhaps one or two will, but all simultaneously again? It’s not going to happen. Other players could step in, but who?

Going out on penalty kicks to the defending World and European champions, Portugal may come to see this as a regrettably close call.

Italy 2, Germany 1 – As a reminder that the sport’s stories are told on the field, not with keyboards. It’s an important point considering Germany’s narrative arc, a path that saw them in Sunday’s final. That’s not going to happen, putting to waste all the time spent portraying Euro 2012 as a German coming out party. Instead, it’s an Italian renaissance.

Instead of relying on a story of German ascendance that started in South Africa, people like me are going to have to start writing about what is happening. Rather than the focusing on rosy story lines whose telling require no more than the dressed up recycling of a few timeless tropes, we’ve been handed Italy. Of course, there are plenty of clichés about Italian resourcefulness that could be used in lieu of tales of what Cesare Prandelli is actually doing.

For Germay, the Italy loss should go down as a learning experience. For the players who had trouble putting together mistake-free matches, the loss reminds them of international soccer’s small margin of error. Where talent gaps are not as big as in the club world and players don’t have as much training time together, mistakes can be much more difficult to overcome. When Germany fell two behind Italy on Thursday, they didn’t have the kind of tricks club teams develop over hundred of hours of preparation.

Joachim Löw may also take a few lessons from the tournament. For all the talk of his team wanting the title, Löw’s team inexplicably lacked urgency. They played more like a team that had already accomplished something than a still-improving squad. Löw also seemed rash to bring on the post-Miroslav Klöse world after the veteran showed himself healthy, and he never made the needed decision to bench a hobbled and increasingly ineffective Bastian Schweinsteiger. If the international game does feature of small margin of error, Löw did his team no favors.

Team of the round

G: Gianluigi Buffon, Italy
LB: Fabio Coentrao, Portugal
CB: Sergio Ramos, Spain
CB: Pepe, Portugal
RB: Joao Pereira, Portugal
DM: Sergio Busquets, Spain
M: Andrea Pirlo, Italy
M: Daniele de Rossi, Italy
AM: Mesut Ozil, Germany
AM: Ricardo Montolivo, Italy
F: Mario Balotelli, Italy
Subs: Jordi Alba, Spain; Xabi Alonso, Spain; Antonio Cassano, Italy

ProSoccerTalk is doing its best to keep you up to date on what’s going on in Poland and Ukraine. Check out the site’s Euro 2012 page and look at the site’s previews, predictions, and coverage of all the events defining UEFA’s championship.

Shipped from Abroad, Euro 2012: Looking forward from Group D after Day 12

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source: AP

Grading out Group C

The extent to which each team met expectations.

England, A – Their best player missed two games, they suffered more pre-tournament injuries than any other team, controversy embroiled them before their first kick, and there was a general feeling that they weren’t that good to begin with. They’re clearly good (if not very entertaining), but in light of pre-tournament expectations, their seven points and first place finish is much more than anybody could have asked for.

France, C – This was the minimum they could have done within their range of expectations. It’s not so much about finishing in second. If somebody told Laurent Blanc that England would take seven points, he might have contented himself with a runners up finish. That they did so with four points – with as many losses as wins, as many goals and goals allowed – was particularly disappointing.

Ukraine, C- – It’s always disappointing to see a host bow out early, but they lost to England and France while defeating Sweden. Was there more they could have hoped for? Particularly give the doubt that surrounded them two weeks ago? In beating Sweden to open the tournament, they gave their nation a night to remember, with Andriy Shevchenko getting a final moment in the sun.

Sweden, D+ – They should have expected to reach the quarterfinals, but after two rounds, they were gone. Because of that, their tournament will be clouded in disappointment, but a closing match win over France will provide some room for the sun to break through. Ultimately, they finish with three points, an even goal difference, and some reason to think things aren’t so bad after all.

Crystal Ball: What Needs to Happen Next Round

England moves on to face Italy needing to find some way to create goals. Sound familiar, right? It’s moments like this I really wish vinyl records had never gone away (don’t email; I know they’re not done and they’re a better quality, etc.). Right now, England’s record is skipping: “More goals, more goals, more goals …”

The same could be said for Italy. We’re probably in for one of the worst matches of the tournament, particularly considering the safety net of penalty kicks. With each team likely to favor their goalkeeper in a shootout, England and Italy may continue proceeding with caution.

France’s stumble sees them draw Spain in the quarterfinals. It’s a horrible match for a team whose approach creates an unenviable like-for-like battle with the holders. Despite Tuesday’s loss, Laurent Blanc could be best served by persisting with a lineup closer to today’s, starting Yann M’Vila and Alou Diarra as a two-man shield.

Hatem Ben Arfa won’t be retained in the XI. Given Saturday’s opponent, you could see Samir Nasri go back to the right with Yohan Cabaye being brought back into the center, if in a deeper role. You may even see the Euro 2012 debut of Paris Saint-Germain’s Blaise Matuidi.

PST’s Euro 2012 “More Powerful” Rankings

Taking a long term look, toward teams’ title hopes.

1 (–). Germany
2 (–). Spain
3 (-). Portugal
4 (-). Italy
5 (+1). England
6 (-2). France
7 (-). Czech Republic
8. (NR). Greece

… and PST’s Player of the Tournament Wunderlist

1. Andres Iniesta, Spain
2. Mario Gómez, Germany
3. Andrea Pirlo, Italy
4. Luka Modric, Croatia
5. Mesut Ozil, Germany
6. Xavi Hernandez, Spain
7. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sweden
8. Daniele de Rossi, Italy
9. Alan Dzagoev, Russia
10. Fabio Coentrão, Portugal

We’re still waiting for our heros to take center stage. You can take this last, add four other players, shake it up and come up with as convincing an order as I have. Hopefully, this stuff sorts itself out soon.

ProSoccerTalk is doing its best to keep you up to date on what’s going on in Poland and Ukraine. Check out the site’s Euro 2012 page and look at the site’s previews, predictions, and coverage of all the events defining UEFA’s championship.