Monday, March 24, 2008

Depressing Soccer Weekend

About the only thing that could have made this weekend more depressing in terms of soccer would have been DC United losing in teh CONCACAF Champions Cup, but since they weren't playing at least I was spared that.

First off, Fulham FC lost their match against Newcastle, extending their 18 month long road winless drought and giving Newcastle their first win under Manager Kevin Keegan. The 2-0 loss started rough when Newcastles scored in the 7th minute. Fulham had some chances but still didn't convert. American goalkeeper Kasey Keller showed why he is amoung the best around with a number of magnificent saves.

Newcastle was one of the crucial "six point" matches that could help the Cottagers close the gap and escape relegation. As it stands, the combination of the Fulham loss and wins by Sunderland and Reading, make next week's match against already all--but-relegated Derby county all that more important. Even a draw against Derby will mean that escaping relegation will depend on the confluence of a lot of wins and a few lucky breaks, something Fulham has not been able to do much of this season. Once again, they have not been able to string together more than three results in a row (Newcastle would have been four). Seven matches remain and it is getting desperate.

Oh and the strange, almost powder blue away kits--hate 'em. Although they are not as bad as the Chelsea neon yellow ones.

On the American Side of the Atlantic Ocean, the Mens' U-23 team lost to Honduras in the finals of the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament. Although both teams had advanced to the Olympics, the match was the final opportunity for the U-23's to show the world the reason why I think they are a medal contender. Although American Coach Peter Novak chose to rest a number of key players, including Freddy Adu, Dax McCarthy and Chris Seitz, the Americans did have the run of the game. They controlled the possession for the most part and had more then their fair share of opportunities. After ending regulation in a 0-0 draw, the teams went to extra time, where Honduras scored midway through the second overtime session, sealing the win.

Still, the American's depth and skill playing together is phenomenal and that is why I think they are a medal contender. The toughest decision for Novak will be which over age players (and each nation is permitted three) will he pick. I think an almost sure choice will be Landon Donovan for the midfield. Combine Donovan's attacking instincts with Maurice Edu's ball control, Dax McCarthy's vision, and the speed and skill of Sasha Kljestan and Stuart Holden and Novak's dilemma will be who to play and that is an enviable delimma to have. The strikers are also very, very deep. Adu's skills and dead ball abilities are impressive as he has grown while playing in Portugal. Jozy Altidore, the 18 year old wiz kid who is now simply marking time in the MLS before heading overseas, displayed great strength and ability as well. Lesser know players like Charlie Davies, Robby Findley and Chad Barrett proved to be dangers as well during this tournament. Adding a bigger target player up top for Novak might be useful, perhaps someone like Clint Dempsey or Eddie Johnson (for height and speed) would make a potent combination for the American striking corps.

The back line is a bit of a question mark for the U-23's. Although they gave up only two goals in the tournament, I am not sure they could not benefit from either some plain intimidating size, in the form of Oguchi Onyewu or some smarts like Carlos Bocanegra in the back. However, Novak ran a lot of different combinations in the back line during the tournament and that could help. Simply some international experience could help.

Finally, the one position on the field where the Americans excell is goalkeeper. Novak has a quality keeper in Chris Seitz and one wonders if Novak is comfortable with Seitz in net. Other options include Brad Guzan, Tim Howard, or Marcus Hahnemann (although Howard would certainly be my first choice). The fact is the depth among American goalkeepers is probably the greatest in the world.

Options abound for the Americans and as I said, they are serious contenders for the medal stand. Like most of the world's U-23 teams, the Americans have a full complement of professional players who are rapidly improving in international play. The Americans will need to break the knockout round curse and much depends on the tournament draw. The pace of the Olympics may favor the Americans since many of their players will in top form. The Olympic games have a lot of matches in a relatively short time frame. The depth of the American squad will also help.

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