A brief look back at the progress of American soccer in 2013. As usual, it’s a pretty incoherent sort of progress, but progress it is, I’m sure of that.
The most important event -- by far -- was the appointment of Tab Ramos as the USSF’s Youth Technical Director. Which means praise to Sunil Gulati, who made the move. With Ramos in a position of authority and power, there is now, for the first time in the history of the American game, a realistic chance that the full spectrum of American talent will be considered whenever major decisions are made relevant to youth development.
Ramos will obviously work closely with national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann. There seems to be plenty of goodwill there -- Klinsmann clearly likes Tab, and Tab has great respect for Klinsmann. Whether that translates into seeing eye-to-eye on who the good players are seems to me to be a question mark.
I have no doubt about Tab’s end of things, but Klinsmann has so far been more talk than action on the matter of seeking out American talent. He has preferred to bring in his German-American imports. And he has let it be known, repeatedly, that his ideal player is one of them, the reprehensible Jermaine Jones, well known in the Bundesliga as a serial, and serious, committer of fouls and collector of yellow cards.
It is not the younger Tab, but rather the considerably more experienced Klinsmann, who raises the doubts here.
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Over to the ridiculously named New York FC. Two great moves in signing Claudio Reyna and Jason Kreis. Reyna will be the Director of Football -- yes, the people at NYC FC are childish enough to be frightened of the word soccer. Kreis, as coach, has already set out to do whatever it is coaches do when they go to England to “study” other coaches. In this case, it’s Manchester City’s Manuel Pellegrini -- who has the advantage of not being English. Which is just as well, considering that only six of the EPL coaches are English, none of them doing particularly well.
But the amazing news from NYC FC concerns their stadium. Which doesn’t exist yet, and was beginning to look at though it never would exist. But now we know, or we think we know, that a site has been found. In the Bronx. Right next to Yankee Stadium. This borders on a miracle. Very much in the city of New York, slap-bang next to what is probably the most hallowed sports site in New York and with a subway stop (serving two lines) right there. Frankly, it could hardly be better.
Of course we don’t know any of this for sure, because NYC FC hasn’t said a word. The news came from a report in the New York Post, neither confirmed nor denied by NYC FC, which has a unique approach to media relations. It doesn’t have any.
So -- as is always the case when stadiums are to be built, in any city -- but especially New York -- there are plenty of likely obstacles. Just to underline that point, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who favored the stadium plan, is now out of office, replaced by Bill de Blasio, and no one really knows how he feels about the plan.
One thing we do know, or I know, is how I feel about that damn silly “FC” in the New York club’s name. What on earth is the matter with MLS Commissioner Don Garber that he allows this inanity to continue? All the clubs in his soccer league are soccer clubs. End of story. A ruling from Garber telling Dallas, Seattle, Toronto and Vancouver to drop their FC, or replace it with SC would underline that MLS is now a mature league, confident of its own worth and strength, and that it fits into the American sports scene as a soccer -- and not a football -- league. Its clubs should not feel it necessary to clothe themselves in foreign terminology. If they want to be football clubs, let them apply for membership in the NFL.
So I have the greatest delight in singling out Orlando as a fledgling club that has got this nonsense sorted out, right from the start. Orlando City Soccer Club it will be. And that’s a neat message for Dallas, Vancouver and Toronto -- grow up guys. Seattle, too.
But Seattle has something else on its mind. Like Clint Dempsey. The Sounders’ mega-buck move for Dempsey came as the major surprise of 2013. A shock, really. A positive one, of course, that was the universal opinion -- I certainly felt that way, though I would have been hard put to explain why.
Now, some five months later, I have moved to a state of total bafflement over the move. Who thought it up? What is it supposed to accomplish? The answer to the first question seems clear enough: owner Joe Roth. Which tells us that this was not a soccer move. Roth says he wanted Dempsey right from the start of the Sounders’ MLS life back in 2007. Why? This was no hometown boy returning in triumph -- Dempsey had no connection at all with Seattle. I guess the idea was to make him the centerpiece of a team that would take MLS by storm.
We've already had four seasons without Dempsey, and the MLS championship has yet to be won. So the move was finally activated last year. By which time the astonishing success of the Sounders in marketing and attendance-pulling meant the move hardly seemed necessary. Especially as the Sounders were doing well on the field, too.
We now know that Dempsey’s first -- and partial -- season with the Sounders fell considerably short of being a resounding success. An injury to Dempsey didn’t help, nor, I surmise, did the arrival of a lavishly paid player in a standard MLS locker room go over too well.
So: Dempsey did not play well, the Sounders got quickly bounced out of the playoffs, and Sigi Schmid’s job looked decidedly iffy. Sigi survived, that’s the good news (if only because I find it difficult to believe that he had much, if anything, to do with instigating the Dempsey move).
My faith in Sigi’s ultimate good judgment suffered a near crippling blow when he quickly got rid of Mauro Rosales and then upped the status of Osvaldo Alonso to a DP. Yikes.
Dempsey now has a difficult season ahead -- trying to have a big impact on the Sounders in a World Cup year, which will mean a prolonged absence with the U.S. national team. A good run for Dempsey and the national team might augur well for the Sounders, but who knows -- I’m not aware of any evidence that equates good news from the national team with happy happenings in MLS. Or that bad national team results bring bad tidings to MLS.
The thought that, while Dempsey is on national team duty, the key Sounder will be Alonso does not encourage optimism for the 2014 Sounders.
It seems quite possible that Alonso, distributing fouls right left and center with his clumsy and reckless play, may benefit from what looks like a shift in the style of MLS refereeing.
A shift to a more permissive style, one that encourages pretty little chats with players as a substitute for giving out cards. A style we see regularly in the EPL. It goes down well with teams that adopt physical play.
The shift is my impression, of course. But I would offer referee Hilario Grajeda as supporting evidence. His performance in MLS Cup was not acceptable. He could have called a penalty kick against Nat Borchers. He didn’t. He should have ejected Aurelien Collin with a second yellow card. He chose, instead, to give Collin a friendly chat. (Memo to PRO: would it be possible to hear exactly what Grajeda said to Collin? And if not, why not?). This was a crucial non-call, as eight minutes later Collin scored the tying goal.
It could be argued that Grajeda simply had a bad day. But Grajeda turned up again a few weeks later, in charge of the college final. In which he failed to spot, or to call, no fewer than three pretty flagrant hand balls -- all in the penalty area.
Grajeda’s errors -- all of omission -- favored the defending team in every case. Why would a referee with that attitude get two of the top assignments in the U.S. soccer season?
You don’t have to look too hard to work out where that influence is likely coming from. It surely arrived with Peter Walton, the ex-English referee appointed by MLS and the USSF to up the caliber of US refereeing.
We have had a year and a half of Walton now. What evidence of improvement do we have? Not easy to measure, of course. I can find none -- but I have mentioned my suspicion that U.S. referees are getting chattier. Which I do not see as a good thing.
When Walton left England in 2012, he said farewell to “my colleagues in England, who I truly believe to be the best team of officials in world football.”
We have had, during this holiday period, plenty of opportunities to watch these “best officials in the world” in action. They have not performed well. Two dreadful offside calls against Liverpool, a failure to even call a foul on a Charlie Adam (Stoke) tackle that has put Spurs’ Paulinho out of the game for a month, failure to award ManU a penalty when Ashley Young was brought down by Spurs’ goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, failure to award a penalty to Liverpool when Chelsea’s Samuel Eto’o calculatedly barged him to the ground, a missed offside call against Swansea’s Wilfried Bony who scored against ManCity. To name a few. All this occurring within the context of the chatty, pro-physical, let-em-play approach that EPL referees favor. Things got so bad a week or two back, that the head referee felt it necessary to call and apologize to a coach for a bad call that his team had suffered.
I am not making out a case for English referees being the world’s worst. They have a lot of excellent qualities, are probably as good, or as bad, as those of any other leading soccer country. But their penchant for leniency in dealing with rough play is a problem. And we assuredly do not need it in MLS.
To round off on a happy - really joyful - note, let me return to Liverpool, the team that suffered most from bad calls during the last week. In case you missed it -- you must watch this lovely short video of Luis Suarez being interviewed by the Kop Kids demon reporter, Finn. Who is all of 10 years old. An absolute delight. And Luis ain’t bad either.
And with that, a happy and intriguing 2014 to all -- I’ll even extend my goodwill to those reprobates who insist on the FC tag. No hard feelings guys, so a happy FCing new year to all of you.