LIVEBLOG: Manchester United at Arsenal

I, and possibly Aaron as well, will be live blogging today’s Champions League semifinal second leg between Manchester United and Arsenal. United won its home match last week, 1-0. The winner advances to the final.

They’ll be goals (probably), bad calls (almost definitely), and some humor (hopefully).

The live blog will begin at 2:30 with what will probably be 15 minutes of ranting about the ESPN2 studio hosts. Check back then for the link to join in.

See you there.

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Anatomy of a Breakdown … Or, Three of Them

This weekend offered us three vibrant examples of what happens when teams fall apart. One of the games had well more at stake than the other two, but while the trio were three of the more talked about games on the weekend, I think it’s interesting to look at what happened in a larger sense.

The three games, of course, are Saturday’s Manchester United-Tottenham match, which had Premier League title implications; as well as the Real Salt Lake-New England match that night; and then the DC United-New York match on Sunday afternoon.

All three games offered glimpses of what happens to teams when adversity becomes too much to deal with – be it adversity heaped on them from their own failings, or those of an outside source.

Let’s start with the penalty heard ’round the world (OK, maybe that’s a little much), which started Manchester United’s rally from 2-0 down in the second half to a 5-2 victory over Tottenham. There already has been all sorts of debate about whether or not Howard Webb has gotten the call right or not. I don’t think there’s any question that Spurs keeper Gomes got the ball first as United midfielder Michael Carrick raced in, then fell over the sprawled keeper. But what I’ve heard from many commentators and such is that when they first saw it live, they thought it was a clear penalty. On review, their minds changed. Webb, of course, had no such review. It’s hard to argue that on first glance, it’s a 100% sure penalty – which it should be for Webb to call it – but if that’s what he thought, he had to it. He doesn’t get the many reviews that we do.

But regardless, and even with Ronaldo putting home the penalty (right up the middle, but he got away with it), it’s still 2-1. Everyone has blamed Webb for everything from Spurs’ eventual loss to the spread of swine flu, but this is too simplistic. Spurs still held a 2-1 lead with 33 minutes to go. If Spurs are soft in the heart category, and lacked the competitiveness to respond after feeling wronged by the penalty in such a fashion that they then gave up four goals in a 12-minute span … then it can be argued they were going to lose anyway. It’s a clear view as to why Spurs are where they are, and why they never break through. Even if wronged by the penalty, there’s no excuse for Spurs not to at least come up with a point. Instead, they folded faster than the Detroit Lions on a Sunday and were well beaten. I’m sure fans of other teams will wonder why Webb doesn’t get a medal if United win the league, but Tottenham has to look at its own failings in the end. There’s simply no reason to capitulate in that fashion.

REAL SALT LAKE did what DC United couldn’t do the week before. In New England’s last two league matches, the Revs have surrendered 49 shots, 20 of those on goal. In a 1-1 draw the week prior, United couldn’t make pay a 20-4 shot advantage and a first half full of possession and some decent chances – needing a Ben Olsen header seconds into second-half stoppage time to salvage the draw after Shalrie Joseph had scored for New England. On Saturday, the Revolution again absorbed shot after shot, but once the floodgates opened, there was little the Revs could do.

This is different from the first example in that you could sense at some point New England would be punctured. But six times? When the onslaught was over (and it only ended because you know, the game ended), RSL had six goals in 36 minutes from six different goal scorers. While MLS seems to be a league where any team can beat any other team, you wouldn’t expect one to do it by a 6-0 margin – especially without a multiple-goal performance from a particular player. It’s one thing for a player to have an “in-the-zone” night and bang home five because the other team had no answer for him (Clint Mathis, 8/26/2000, vs. Dallas). But not here. Although Mathis got in on the fun with a goal and assist Saturday, RSL got a goal or an assist from nine different players. That’s the kind of thing you see in the NHL, not MLS.

The good news is, of these three situations, the Revs have the easiest mode of recovery. They can chalk it up to one bad night, a fluke that would never happen again and move on. Though some argue there are deeper problems.

THE NEW YORK RED BULLS, however, have no such excuse. Having fought back from a halftime deficit to take a 2-1 lead on rival DC United in the second half, at home, the Red Bulls gagged all the points away in the final minutes. United got goals from Luciano Emilio (90th minute) and Chris Pontius (91st) to steal a 3-2 win.

Clearly, this is the most catastrophic of the three examples. It wasn’t just that New York gave away the victory. Playing late on a hot day on a fake grass field, accidents happen, so the fact that United at least got level isn’t a total surprise. Second-half substitutes Boyzzz Khumalo and Brandon Barklage brought some needed energy to a United team that were outplayed most of the second half. Also, the Red Bulls had failed to convert some earlier chances for a third goal that probably would have put the game away.

But on both goals, the comedy trio of Alfredo Pacheco, Kevin Goldthwaite, and goalkeeper Jon Conway gifted United their goals with lousy marking and miscommunication in the penalty area.

Again, that this happened once, given the conditions, may not be acceptable – but accidents happen. All teams at some point give away points in a game that they should have won. It probably happens to every team in the league at least once a season.

But the entire makeup of the Red Bulls can be questioned when giving up the winning goal. A club that is more famous for its failures than successes wouldn’t have erased that notion by winning (or even drawing) on Sunday. But they sure as hell reinforced it with a Keystone Cops routine that left the club 1-4-2 through seven games, with just five points. All that was missing from the sketch was Benny Hill music in the background. One can only speculate what was going on between Pacheco and Conway on the winning goal, as Pacheco pulled up, Conway didn’t get to it – and then Pacheco actually turned his back to the play as Khumalo recovered the lose ball, rolled it to the middle and Pontius bashed it home before Goldthwaite (who was late on the tying goal, too) could recover.

New York’s situation is probably the opposite of New England’s here. The Red Bulls can legitimately question themsleves as to whether they know how to finish a game – they blew two points earlier this season in a draw vs. New England. There’s simply no valid excuse for this loss.

On the bright side for New York, there weren’t many people there to see it. I know the official attendance was 10,303, but there weren’t near that many in the house.

It will be an interesting test for Spurs, the Revs, and New York to see how they respond in their next league matches.

Sometimes, it pays to be unemployed

OK, yeah, that title doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. And having been out of work from writer-world for the last 8 months now, it strikes me as horrific that Isiah Thomas got a job before I did.

However, today was a day where I was glad to hang out at home and watch the Champions League, with no other responsibilities taking me away. I’ll make it clear – I can’t stand Chelsea or Liverpool. I’ve hated both since Isiah was sharing kisses with Magic Johnson two decades ago.

And now Isiah is coaching at Florida International, Magic is doing Rent-a-Center commercials, and I’m sitting here watching TV. Hmmm.

Anyway, I’m not even going to tell you how the game ended today. I don’t want to spoil it for all the unfortunate souls who want so desperately not to know the score of a soccer game, but spend their day on a soccer web site anyway. For just this once, I’ll be nice and not give away the result. (If you want to know, click here.)

But here’s what you should know. It was a hell of a show. Both teams fought hard, there were plenty of goals … perhaps the defense was a little lacking, but hey, that’s fine. It’s OK to have games every once in a while where the offenses overwhelm the defenses. I’ve never believed in the theory that some 80% of all goals are defensive mistakes – and even if I’m wrong in that, that’s fine. I like goals.

What soccer doesn’t often provide us are games that a month, year, or a few years later, you would sit down and watch again in their entirety, even though you of course know the result. MLS has had precious few … the 2004 Eastern Conference final between DC United and New England (who play Friday night on ESPN2 at 7 p.m.) comes to mind; as does the San Jose-Chicago MLS Cup final from 2003 (I found that one highly entertaining anyway). But that’s fine, too, the league is still an infant in age compared to its English cousins (or most other countries).

I don’t know if ESPN is going to trot out today’s match as an “Instant Classic” on ESPN Classic. They should, but it is still soccer, so you never know. But at the end, Derek Rae had it right – the game will probably live forever for the fans of the two combatants, and while one set of fans are going to enjoy it more than the other … it’s a rare game where a team can come up short of advancing and fans be so genuinely proud of their efforts. Sure, fans of the losing team on aggregate are probably going to litter BigSoccer with all the technical, nit-picky points about why they didn’t get it done. Blame the ref! Blame the manager! Blame the captain! Blame the ref again!

But I’d say, spare us all that for a while. As a person who can’t stand either team … perhaps the purest of neutral in that I turned on the game only hoping for carnage … well, I was impressed.

Bravo to Liverpool and Chelsea for a great show.

Garber Begins Search for Launch Codes

Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber came out yesterday and told the Washington Post’s Steven Goff that if DC United and the proper authorities can’t get a stadium deal resolved, the team could move.

I see what Garber is trying to do. Threaten a move, play a little hardball, and the politicians in Montgomery County, or the District, or Fairfax County, any place close to DC, will drop everything and scurry around looking for a place in their jurisdiction to host United’s new home.

I wish it were that easy. Don Garber, while the league has grown under his leadership, isn’t Pete Rozelle or David Stern. His words aren’t going to resonate with folks in the upper reaches around here. I think his statement – while possibly being completely accurate and what he believes to be the case – is probably going to do more to freak out fans than it will to actually help the stadium process.

What I would have liked to hear from Garber was … something about like this:

Instead, Garber put the key in the ignition and lifted the door, paving the way for the league to push the red button and blow the whole thing up, while Joshua tries to find the launch codes. I don’t believe this was the smartest idea – for many reasons, especially because to be brutally honest, I don’t think United would move. Whatever the league would gain in terms of support in a new city wouldn’t be enough of a wound dressing to overcome the act of wiping the most decorated club off the map from the city where it’s been since the league’s inception.

For more on this issue, check out my discussion with Kenn Tomasch and Dan Loney on the “Four at the Back” podcast, available here.

Thoughts on MLS Attendance

… And no, I’m not freaking about it. Yet.

I think you need a good half-season of attendance numbers to really judge where everyone is at. This allows time for games on a variety of days, allows teams to see quality and/or regional opponents; allows games in better weather; and some of the other competing sports clear out as college basketball, the NBA and NHL end.

For example, there has been much grumbling over DC United’s attendance for Saturday night’s 1-0 win over Houston – which ended up at 12,594. Some teams would be fine with that, but United has been one of the top attendances teams for a while, accustomed to bringing in 20,000 most nights.

Now, people will rush to United’s defense, since that night there also was:

* a Washington Nationals preseason game vs. Baltimore
* a Washington Wizards game vs. the Miami Heat
* a DC Armor arena football game right next door at the Armory (first home game in team history)

The Wizards drew better than 20,000. The Nationals actually got outdrawn by United, while the Armor were pleased with their 2,000+ against something known as the Reading Express. However, some fans could have very easily looked at the situation, knowing had bad traffic/Metro probably would have been, and stayed home. Pretty understandable in my book.

Another factor unique to DC is the annual Cherry Blossoms hoopla, which draws tourists out the minute the weather is nice, and other than some wind, Saturday was a good day. It’s possible that folks who might come to the United game simply for Saturday night entertainment skipped it because they were out all day. Perhaps the combination of all the above factors held the number down.

It is also fair to wonder if the continuing negative news about the United stadium project in Maryland, combined with some casual fans perhaps showing a suspicious eye toward the league regarding BeckhamGate ’09, isn’t having a bad effect on attendance. United are averaging 14,425 after two games – down more than 2,000 from the first two home games last season (the latter of which was a 13K effort on a Thursday – the following game was on a Saturday, and drew 23K).

I can’t get into why only 6,524 showed up for FC Dallas vs. Chivas USA last week, because I don’t live in that community and I’m not familiar with the factors that could have caused it. But it is an embarrassingly low total. Kansas City neared that Sunday (6,922), but remember, they play at much lower capacity than other teams to start with, and the weather was horrendous for that game. Fans want to beat their chests and say they’ll be there in any weather – but for many folks, that simply isn’t true.

The Galaxy drew 16,709 for their loss to Colorado – a low total for them, but I don’t think MLS will worry too much about it. Toronto got their typical 20,658 for a 2-0 loss to Seattle.

Every other game was about identical:

* Chivas USA (vs. Columbus): 12,827
* United (vs. Houston): 12,594
* Salt Lake (vs. Columbus): 11,806
* Fire (vs. New York): 11,633
* Revs (vs. Dallas): 11,314

The average for the 8-game week was 13,058. It isn’t impressive, but when you factor in the weather and reduced capacity for the KC total, I don’t think there are any absolutely embarrassing totals – gone are the days (I hope) where we saw multiple games each season (even playoff games) draw fewer than 5,000 fans.

So, no, I don’t think it’s time to be too worried yet. Teams deserve to have a good slate of games under their belt, offering a variety of opponents and such to show how things really stand. The sample size at this point is too low to get overly freaked out.

We’ll look at it again at the start of May and see how things stand and discuss if any conclusions can be drawn.

But if you have attendance thoughts already, feel free to share them in the comments section.

Altidore Hammers Trinidad & Tobago

It’s not as if I’m going to complain over a 3-0 win in a final-round World Cup qualifier. I know some folks might be tempted to for various reasons – or just because Bob Bradley is the coach, and he could win every game 10-0 and somehow, he’d be doing something that made people react like someone just blew up a Cabbage Patch kid in a Toys ‘R Us at Christmas time. Sorry, I’m not one of those people.

The main headline from last night, of course, is the hat trick for Jozy Altidore. The second goal I think was the most impressive to me, where he seemed to find a little extra gear right at the end, put the perfect touch on the ball, then blasted the shot home. That’s just quallity play and it does leave you wondering how he can’t any consistent minutes at the club level. Such a big, powerful force has to be in the US lineup at every opportunity. That’s not meant to slight the other forwards in the USMNT pool, etc., but Altidore has an excellent skill set and the frame to really be dangerous. The US needs that kind of danger in the lineup at all times.

I didn’t have a problem with Bradley’s move to put Beasley at left back. It certainly could have been a lightning rod had the US given a goal or two, or had Trinidad and Tobago actually gotten a positive result. But based on the quality of the two teams and past meetings on American soil, Bradley had to think that if there was ever a time to try such a move, last night was the time and it was fine.

The only troubling thing from my perspective was that the US seemed to unnecessarily fade in and out of the game. I texted a friend who was in the stands in Nashville just before halftime, saying that the US needed to get the second goal, because Trinidad was ready to submit. It took too long for that to happen. There was one excellent save in that stretch by Ince in the Trinidad goal, but the US seemed content at times to roll along at 1-0, and that won’t ever be a good idea against better competition in more hostile environments.

Awesome stuff for the game to draw nearly 30,000 fans in Nashville. No, I don’t think MLS should go about putting a team there right away or anything, but I saw some doom and gloomers predicting this game would draw less than 20,000. They got a good number, and that’s excellent.

The US is at Costa Rica next, a place where the team will definitely need to play consistent, solid soccer for 90 minutes to get a good result. Costa Rica held off El Salvador last night, 1-0. Then it’s home in Chicago vs. Honduras – who thrashed Mexico last night, 3-1. All three home teams won their matches in CONCACAF. At that point, we’ll already be halfway through the final round, and just about a year away from the 2010 World Cup.

Here’s a glimpse at the table through 3 of 10 rounds in the Hex:

1) USA 7 points, +5 GD
2) CRC 6 pts., +1 GD
3) HON, 4 pts., 0 GD
4) MEX, 3 pts, -2 GD
5) ELS, 2 pts, -1 GD
6) TRI, 2 pts, -3 GD

MLS Seeks Mexican Solution to FC Dallas Problem

MLS Commissioner Don Garber and league officials believe they may finally have a solution to their FC Dallas problem.

The club, which plays in its own stadium – Pizza Hut Park in the suburbs of Dallas – drew a shade over 6,500 people to its match vs. Chivas USA on Sunday afternoon, a 2-0 loss. So far, FCD is 0-2, having scored one goal and conceded five. But even with a respectable gate in the opening 3-1 loss to the Chicago Fire, FCD is averaging just more than 11,000 fans per game, far below 2006 and 2007, when the club drew a decent average around 15,000 fans.

In light of that, and the fact that the club is one of the more pedestrian vessels in the MLS armada, Garber has hatched a copycat plan to that of something currently being done in the NFL. You will remember, of course, that Garber came to Major League Soccer from the NFL, having served as head of NFL International. In the NFL, the Buffalo Bills played a regular-season game last year in Toronto.

As for FC Dallas, the plan is for them is to play two regular-season home games per year in Mexico, at sites yet to be determined. This was hoped to be done this year, but with the schedule and team travel plans already set, it has to wait until at least 2010. In a groundbreaking agreement, FC Dallas would get 50% of the gate from each game, with the hosting Mexican club getting 35% to cover game operations cost, and 15% going to the visiting team to cover their extra travel and such. FC Dallas would also get a small percentage of concessions and other revenue. MLS expects it can draw at least 40,000 fans for each match, depending on the opponent, far greater than the capacity at Pizza Hut Park.

There is no word yet on the opponents. Garber and the league will use the time between now and when the 2010 schedule comes out next winter to talk to all the teams in the league, except Houston and Chivas USA, regarding their interest in playing FC Dallas in Mexico. The same team won’t appear vs. FCD twice in Mexico in one season. Houston is off the board because MLS does not want to take away the local Dynamo-FCD rivalry from both home fans and those would like to travel between the cities for games. The league doesn’t feel Chivas USA is a good choice, because of concern that Mexican fans might see it as a Chivas reserve team, and not show up.

MLS hopes to accomplish multiple goals with the plan:

* Bring the MLS game closer to the Mexican fans and media, drumming up new interest in the league, new marketing possibilities, and to hopefully entice top Mexican talent to join the league.

* Give the league two more “events” for its season calendar. The league is talking with ESPN2 and FSC about televising the games in Saturday night primetime spots. Either network could do this – FSC already shows MLS on Saturday nights, and in the summer, ESPN2 doesn’t typically air Major League Baseball on Saturday nights. ESPN Deportes or FSE would be home to the Spanish broadcast.

* Give FC Dallas a greater identity in the US and Mexico, making it a sort of regional team and a larger profile.

The last point is a key one. Aside from some Open Cup success, FC Dallas hasn‘t accomplished much in 13+ seasons. It is the only founding member of the league still in existence that hasn’t played in an MLS Cup final. It is hoped that by playing two games a year in Mexico, Mexican fans and others will latch on to the club and begin attending games at Pizza Hut Park – a decent enough facility but one where empty seats are far too plentiful.

MLS anticipates one game being held in the late spring, with another in the summer, but the choice of venue and working out scheduling with the Mexican Football League, as well as television, will ultimately decide that.