Monday, October 19, 2009

UEFA World Cup Playoffs Set

In Europe today, 8 teams vying for the final 4 UEFA spots in the 2010 World Cup found out who they were playing in the two-legged ties to take place on November 14th and November 18th. 4 of the teams were seeded as the 4 highest ranked teams according to the FIFA rankings: France, Portugal, Russia and Greece. The other 4 teams, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Ireland, Slovenia and Ukraine, would be paired with the 4 seeded teams. After the draw, the four matchups are: France-Ireland, Portugal-Bosnia, Russia-Slovenia and Greece-Ukraine.

The matchups were not what I was hoping for them, but they leave a very intriguing draw in France-Ireland. The Irish definitely have a team capable of making the World Cup, but they have a very tough task of surviving the French attack of Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka and Karim Benzema. I’m hoping for the Irish to win this draw and get back to the World Cup for the first time since Japan/Korea ’02…but the French attack can be quite deadly, and I think that the Irish will fall in a heartbreaker on away goals.

Portugal-Bosnia is one that I think will be pretty one-sided in favor of the Portuguese. Obviously, whether Cristiano Ronaldo can come back from injury to play in these matches will also be a major factor. If he can come back, send the Portugese through. If he’s out, that creates a hole that the Bosnians could try to expose. Bosnia is a longshot in this one, but if they play like they did earlier in the World Cup qualifying campaign, they will make this closer than people expect.

Russia-Slovenia will be a tough draw for both teams. I hope both teams are prepared to play in the snow, because I think that both ties will be in the cold, frozen tundra. Russia has more talent than Slovenia, but Slovenia has been playing great soccer the entire qualifying campaign. They will have to continue to play great against the Russians. Slovenia is very capable of moving on, and it would be great for the former Yugoslav nation to qualify for the 2nd time in its short history. However, in the end I think Russia’s Andrei Arshavin elevates to another gear, and that gear will be too much for the Slovenians. Russia moves on.

The final one is Greece-Ukraine. The Greeks have been great in competitions lately, including winning Euro 2004 and qualifying for Euro 2008. However, Ukraine has the best player in this tie in Andriy Shevchenko, the former AC Milan and Chelsea striker now playing for Dynamo Kyiv. Shevchenko, if he’s on, will be the one that sends Ukraine through. However, Greece is a formidable opponent, albeit the weakest of the 4 seeded UEFA teams, in my opinion. However, they have a team that plays well together and finds a way to win. My pick, though, is for Ukraine.

So, November 14th and 18th will see some drama in UEFA. My picks to make it to the World Cup are France, Portugal, Russia and Ukraine. However, I hope the Irish can somehow pull it out and beat France. It would be great to see the Irish make the trip to South Africa.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

RFK as National Stadium?

My friend Jeff put me onto a Bill Simmons article on Friday, and while it was just his weekly picks for football and other things in life, there was a particular pick that struck my eye:

RFK STADIUM (-3) over Any Other Soccer Venue
Did you see Wednesday's incredible USA-Costa Rica game? Phenomenal crowd, upper decks hanging over the field, entire sections swaying, tons of history … the whole thing was Estadio Azteca-esque, only without the fluid-throwing. I was lucky enough to stand on that field once with the Hogs for a 2002 column. It's an incredible place. Every seat feels like it's right on top of you. So can't we just make it official? Every big American soccer game should be played in RFK. We need the home-field advantage. Done and done.

That really surprised me, because although the game on Wednesday at RFK (which I attended) was one of the most incredible atmospheres that I had been a part of, the idea of a national stadium has not been thrown around that much. However, it’s a discussion that has picked up over the past few days as the nation looked back on the game and the fan experience. Here in DC, the local chapter of the American Outlaws has wanted to make it so that whenever there’s a big matchup that DC is thrown into the mix because of the incredible atmosphere that results from every match. However, there are other stadiums and parts of the country that have lots of games. Whenever Mexico comes to play in a World Cup qualifier, the game is undoubtedly in Columbus, where we are undefeated and untied. We have never lost in Foxboro either. However, there’s something about having the national team in the nation’s capital that not only has a nice ring to it, but brings out the best in the USMNT supporters.

In most countries, the national stadium for their team is in the capital. In England, it’s Wembley Stadium in London. In France, it’s Stade de France in Paris. In Spain, it’s the famous Estadio Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid. On this side of the pond, Mexico almost always plays in Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. Trinidad & Tobago play in their national stadium in Port of Spain, El Salvador plays in San Salvador.

Now, there are some exceptions. Germany plays in Munich a lot, although Munich is not the capital. Costa Rica plays most of their matches in Saprissa and are very tough to play at home. Brazil, while they play a couple games close to the capital of Brasilia, play many games in Rio or Sao Paulo. Canada plays their games in Toronto instead of Ottawa for the most part.

The idea of a national stadium in the United States is something that should be considered, although since our country is so large, not every game would be played there. Some people would say that New York would be considered with the almost-finished Red Bull Arena along with Chicago’s Toyota Park, LA’s Home Depot Center, the soon-to-be-completed stadium in Philly, along with Columbus Crew Stadium and RFK Stadium in DC. RFK is, by far, the biggest of that group, but other than Mexico games in Columbus, the best pro-American crowds have been in games in DC. US Soccer has noticed as well…RFK has held 3 USMNT matches since October 2008. The nation’s capital is easy to get to from any American city, despite its location on the East Coast. Between Dulles, National and Baltimore, there are many options for flights into the area, and just about every major city in America has at least one flight to DC. It makes sense.

Having multiple games in DC at RFK would also be great for DC. Perhaps, with the national team playing more games here, it can be used as an extra incentive package to lump into DC United’s plans to get a new stadium built in the area. You can even call it DC National Stadium or something like that. By making the new stadium a national stadium of sorts, with a capacity of somewhere around 30-35,000, it not only will make a stadium that is loud and intimidating, but also will serve wonders for DC United and their wonderful, rabid fanbase. Finally, it can serve as that intimidating place to play no matter who the opponent is, whether it is Mexico or Trinidad & Tobago. Games will always be well attended, with a crowd at or near capacity and very loud and on top of the action all game. You can throw in the bouncing stands as well, which also serves as a way to distract the opponent and disorient them. Also, with a national stadium in DC, it will be easy for our overseas players to make the trip back for games.

As this debate gains more and more traction, it’s easy to consider DC as a place that more and more games are played. It will also make it even easier if it can get DC a new RFK Stadium that keeps the intense home-field advantage, which is something that will only help the U.S. become more of a force in the world’s game. Regardless, if you are talking about creating a place that no opponent wants to face us in, RFK Stadium, located within our nation’s capital, might be the stadium that U.S. Soccer was looking for all along.

U.S. Qualifies for the World Cup; What Next for the Nats?

I had the pleasure of attending the crazy emotional 2-2 draw between the U.S. and Costa Rica this past Wednesday at RFK Stadium in Washington, DC. As a member of the American Outlaws DC Chapter, it was great to see so many USMNT fans come in from all parts of the country for a game that sealed the U.S.’s place atop the CONCACAF Hexagonal table and was a worldly sendoff for a team that qualified for the World Cup for the 6th consecutive time (’90, ’94, ’98, ’02, ’06, ’10). However, the game came at a price, as the U.S. finish the Hexagonal with several injuries to many stars.

First, the tragic car accident that left forward Charlie Davies in a hospital with a broken femur and broken tibia in his right leg, a fractured left elbow, a lacerated bladder, facial fractures and other internal injuries was a shocking blow to U.S. fans everywhere. The man that we call Chuck Deezy, Davies had a breakout summer and was poised to be inked in as one of our starting strikers in South Africa. However, his injuries in the October 13th crash, which claimed the life of another passenger in the car with Davies, has dashed his South Africa 2010 hopes and leaves his career in doubt, with it being minimum 8-12 months before we see him back on the pitch. The news got worse during the game as Oguchi Onyewu went down with a torn patellar tendon in the 83rd minute of the Costa Rica game. He’s gone for 3-4 months. Jay DeMerit had surgery to repair his cornea after scratching it with his contact lens…he is out for two months. Finally, we are still waiting for Maurice Edu, Jermaine Jones, and Clint Dempsey to return from various injuries.

In their absence, the U.S. has had many players step up in big moments. Stu Holden, with his play this summer in the Gold Cup and during the last few World Cup qualifiers, may have solidified his place on the plane to South Africa next summer. Connor Casey and Kenny Cooper can vie to be the extra striker that the U.S. take as well. Edgar Castillo and Jermaine Jones, newly registered as American players, will have a chance to work their way into the talk for the final team. Finally, will we see players like Sacha Kljestan or Freddy Adu or DaMarcus Beasley play their way back onto the team of 23? The next few months will be for coach Bob Bradley to figure out his final team sheet of players that he wants to represent the United States on the world’s biggest stage.

In the meantime, while other teams around the world enter playoffs to decide the final World Cup spots, the U.S. will have a chance to schedule some friendlies to keep their team sharp and to test out new players. Already, the U.S. have scheduled a friendly against Denmark on November 18th in Aarhus. There is talk of another friendly before the one in Denmark, with the U.S. possibly playing Switzerland. Finally, the U.S. plan on playing the Netherlands in Eindhoven next March.

I would like to see the U.S. play a plethora of competition between now and the World Cup. In 2006, the U.S. played 10 friendlies between January 1st and their opening World Cup match against the Czech Republic. I think a similar schedule is in order, but these matches should be against teams that they could see at the World Cup as well as teams that have different playing styles. Finally, teams that would be big draws in the U.S. or high profile matches would be great to see. A list of teams I would love to see us schedule friendlies against, besides the already mentioned Denmark, Switzerland and Netherlands, include Scotland, Croatia, Australia, Ivory Coast, Chile, and one of the huge teams like England, Germany, Spain or Portugal. A game against an Irish team that possibly goes to the World Cup (depending on how they fare in the UEFA qualification playoffs next month) would also be a great addition to the friendly schedule.

The U.S. have qualified, but there is still lots of work to do. It’s a long time between now and June, so it will be interesting to see how individual players develop, how the team as a whole plays against some top-notch competition, and how the year shapes up for the USMNT. One thing is for sure: I hope you like vuvuzelas, because we’re going to be hearing a lot of them next summer. U-S-A.