Weekend at Joely’s

In the first of what will surely be a series of captivating installments, Soccerchronicle.com columinists John Jagou and Joel Aceves will publish their weekly conversation. The first of edition of this new feature, Weekend at Joely’s, expands on a topic that they both discussed on the dos a zero futbol podcast, the decision by FMF to limit Liga MX gameday rosters with only 8 Mexican nationals.

John Jagou:  Earlier this week, FMF decided to “limit” the number of foreign and naturalized players to 10 per convocación, which would only leave room for 8 natural born Mexicans to dress for a game. What do you think the motivation was for FMF to do this?

 

Joel Aceves:  It’s all about ratings. The Mexican Football Federation (FMF) is run by two competing media conglomerates whose main interest is selling the product of futbol. That said, the availability of football from the world’s top leagues makes FMF believe that in order to maintain fan interest they need to bring in high profile players.  That makes sense but the reality is for every Gignac we get 30 Fantiks.  FMF is foolhardy to believe that a Mexican kid will watch Champions League, La Liga, EPL, then go to Liga MX stadium and be bored. They completely overlook the cultural aspect of the sport and the fact that only a handful of Euroclubs play consistently exciting games. While that same kid can watch Barcelona on tv he still won’t get the excitement that comes with going to the stadium, being part of the club that represents your community and feel pride at their achievements.

 

JJ:  It doesn’t seem to make sense, though. Mexico’s structure, at least at the U-Level for the national team has enjoyed unprecedented success over the past 10 years.  It would seem logical, then that the FMF and the member clubs would give the youngsters as many opportunities as possible to see how much better they can become. Limiting the player pool to 154, while allowing 170 spots to foreigners or naturalized players, when we take it face value, seems to be a very quick way to throw away all the progress that has been made.

Now, there are some who will argue that you can’t just give a player a spot, he has to earn it. And there is plenty of truth to that. If a kid beats out the veterans and foreigners, then there is no question that he is a special talent. But there are so many who don’t really blossom until later in their careers – mainly because their limited opportunities stunted their growth. Oribe is a perfect example.  How many others make their top level debut after the age of 24?  Too many.

 

JA:  I absolutely agree with you that this new rule does not make sense but we have been seeing it since the 05 U17 World Cup win. Very few players since then have gotten opportunities despite the constant success at the youth levels. It almost feels like Liga MX despises their own talent. A few years back the league had implemented the brilliant 20-11 rule, which guaranteed youngsters playing time, and clubs fought tooth and nail to get it removed. It also becomes difficult for Mexican upstarts to compete for a first team place given the short season format that demands instant results. So, clubs would rather bet on a 2nd rate foreigner than nurture their own talent.

As a Chivas fan, I can already see some of the adverse effects the increased amount of foreigners in the league is causing. The club has a very difficult time in the transfer market as there are fewer quality local players available. Chivas desperately needs a striker for next season. A quick look at Liga MXs top 10 goalscorers shows us that there’s only one Mexican player, ironically its Oribe the late bloomer who plays for the dreaded rival, America. He is on the wrong side 30, so his career is winding down. Ideally there should be 3-4 Mexicans on that list and its worrisome that having very little presence is a non-issue for the league.

 

JJ:  Frankly, it is not surprising that there are so few Mexicans among the top scorers. Clubs tend to shop internationally for strikers almost exclusively.  But back to Chivas; the club has a small pool to pick from, and then also has to pay a premium for talent as well because of their personnel policies. The answer for Chivas, at a minimum, is to heavily invest in their youth system. But with Jorge Vergara changing coaches every time he feels a breeze cool his rosy cheeks, he continually sabotages his most sustainable method of talent acquisition.

A lot of this foreign influence also has to do with promoters (which I quite haven’t figured out how different they are from agents) who have embedded themselves in certain teams. They will make more money, no doubt. The bright spot, though, is Pachuca. Their youth system has become Mexico’s most productive. They won the U17 and the U20 Champs this season and are not afraid to give young players chances. There should be more like them, but with this new rule, the incentive is not to make the investment in the future. It is a shame, there are a lot of talented youngsters with nowhere to go.

 

JA:  Pachuca are indeed a good example that it is possible to nurture talent and have foreigners. In addition to their youth success, Tuzos finished the season 2nd in the table. But this is the exception, not the rule.  With the wheels are already in motion for most clubs to easily build up squads with foreign born players, Liga MX will soon mirror the English Premier League with matches having 1-3 nationals on the field.

 

JJ:  Exactly. I guess that is the existential question FMF needs to ask itself. “Do we sacrifice our own identity to make a move that we think will make our league better? Do we improve Liga MX at the expense of the Mexican player?”

England has a top flight, entertaining league that is popular all over the world. England’s national team has made 2 semifinals in international tournaments over the past 50 years. One would think that England would look to the Continent for inspiration, but why would the foreign owners of EPL teams care if the 3 Lions did well at a World Cup? What is their motivation?  On the other hand, Germany was humiliated in 2004 by crashing out of the group stage of the Eurocopa. They committed to overhaul their entire youth and development structure to limit the chances of a repeat performance. I say, so far so good. Italy did the same after their 2010 fracaso. It is true that the Italian league has suffered and may not be as strong as others in Europe, but they have also committed to strengthening the player pool. We will probably start seeing if they were successful or not soon.

One thing none of these countries have, though, is a rule that forces them to play locals like the new FMF rule. But they are also in the EU, so I guess it is moot. Nevertheless, Mexican players may need to start looking elsewhere to make a living.

 

JA:  On that note Major League Soccer must be licking their chops with all the possibilities that will open to them. They have always gone after Mexican talent given the large Mexican community in the U.S and for the most part have been unsuccessful. Either the aging star is burned out or the younger player never adapts. We’ve seen a shift in this however with Giovani Dos Santos joining the league in his prime. We’ve also seen relative unknown youngsters rise up to get called into the national team or return to Mexico with Erik ‘Cubo’ Torres and Carlos Salcedo being prime examples.

So, it is a very good possibility that we will see more and more young Mexican talent flourishing in MLS, being capped for youth national team, and then either going abroad or returning to Mexico.

 

JJ:  They should be licking their chops, and, coincidentally, MLS commissioner, Don Garber, spoke to the Mexican press about his desire to bring in more Mexican talent into the league. It makes nothing but sense. The demographics of the MLS fan base indicate as much. Not to mention the fact that MLS hopes to expand to 28 teams. 28 teams!  There are a lot of roster spots available to fill the 8 new franchises. I am not so sure the NCAA system can fill it all. The irony of a situation where MLS catches up competitively to Liga MX because of Mexican players would be at worst… delicious.

 

JA:  John, are you telling me that Liga MX is about to turn into a bargain bin of young talent for MLS and some of the Euro leagues?  And can such a move be a blessing in disguise provided many players go abroad and succeed?

 

JJ:  I certainly can envision a future where Mexican players can establish a beachhead in MLS. Colombians, Ecuadorians, and Paraguayans have done the same in Mexico for decades.  Mainly because Liga MX has always been an importer’s league. If you look at the historical superstars of most teams, a good chunk of them were foreign born players. There is nothing wrong with that. But with the new rule in place, I suppose Liga MX is trying to become more of a global brand. It would help immensely if Gignac has the Euro of his life.

But it will still be hard for Mexican players to make the jump to Europe from either MLS or Liga MX.  They are still, even today, unproven in the European market. Yes, there are a few players who are making a name for themselves. Compare a dozen or so Mexicans to hundreds of Brazilians, Argentines, even Uruguayans.

 

JA:  That’s the Tricolor fallacy right there; believing that having a dozen players in Europe is enough to truly compete against the top national teams. It is not.  Not by a longshot.  The one thing all of those countries have in common is a very strong and competitive domestic league where their players can flourish. Looking at the last 3 World Cup champions (Germany, Spain, Italy) they all had squads with a core group of players that play for the same home club. It is something we have talked about in the Dos a Zero podcast.

 

JJ:  Those three national teams benefited from having a strong base from 1 or 2 clubs. With the new regulations in place in Liga MX, it would take a very special group of players to even take the field, much less translate that on a national team level. Maybe Chivas will be the answer one day…

 

JA:  Hopefully someday soon.

 

JJ:  Well, don’t get your hopes up.  Haha!  It has been fun, Joely.  We’ll do this again next week.

 

JA:  Hasta la proxima

 

Be sure to tune in to the dos a zero futbol podcast special Liguilla editions.  Next one will be Sunday at the Conclusion of the Pachuca-Santos match

Follow us on twitter

@jjagou

@joelyaceves

Let’s Fix the Liguilla


It is something that has happened every year since 1970. That means that except for a small handful of people that are reading this, the only way you have ever seen Liga MX crown their champion is at the conclusion of the famous Liguilla. So for all the talk about changing the season format, and changing the post-season format, one thing is very clear. The Liguilla is just not going away.

Does not mean it cannot be tinkered with, though.

There has been some tinkering over the years. The best thing the string-pullers have done over the last few years is to eliminate the Repechaje (Wild Card round for the monolinguals). A 10 team playoff in a league of 18 was just silly. It was a move in the right direction. The other major modification that has had an impact was changing the tie breaker. It used to be that the first tie breaker was the seeding. In other words, the lower seeds had to win the series no matter what. The first year this new wrinkle was added, there was a major casualty. Can anyone guess who fell victim to the tie-breaker? If your first (and frankly, it should be your only) inclination was to say Cruz Azul. You are right! And you move on to the next round.

It happened in the C14 season. #8 Leon and Cruz Azul ended level after their tie, but Leon made it through to the next round because away goals became the first tie breaker. Ay ay ay, Cruz Azul! If it were up to me, I would set up the liguilla tie breakers in the following way:

1st round – Higher seed advances if tied on aggregate
Semifinals – Away goals
Final – No tie breaker – penalties decide champion.

Of course, I am making the assumption that there would still be 8 teams that qualify for the post-season. Which would be a good number if the season was not split in half as it is now. Which segues nicely into my next proposal: limit entrants to the fiesta grande.

If we have to deal with 2-season seasons, then 8 teams are too many. It cheapens (or chepoes, depending on how you feel about the man) the regular season. Not to mention, and I quote soccerchronicle.com regular contributor, Joel Aceves “it rewards mediocrity.” He is right. Now, I am also a realistic man. The reason there are that many teams in the post-season is that there will be more games to broadcast. I get that. So while my gut tells me that a 4-team post season would be best, the business man in me says a reduction to 6 teams would be the most palatable.

So the top 2 seeds would get a bye after the 3-6 teams play a one off over the weekend. Tie breakers would be the same as above.

1st round – Penalties after 90 minutes
Semifinals – Away goals
Final – No tie breaker – penalties decide champion

6 teams out of 18 would not cheapen the regular season as much, and would make for some very dramatic finishes over the last few weeks.

What are your thoughts?

Listen to the dos a zero futbol podcast at a special time Thursday at 11pm CDT and Sunday night at the conclusion of the Pachuca – Santos.  Catch all previous editions on itunes.

Follow me on twitter @jjagou

A Coach’s Perspective on US Youth Soccer

There has been a lot of discussion lately about FIFA’s rule 19, and whether or not Mexican clubs can register under aged Mexican-American players.  In some cases, some Liga MX clubs have decided to abandon their scouting efforts in the US on a temporary basis until they get clarification from FIFA about the legalities of registering Liga MX Mexican-American players.  It is unfortunate for all involved – for the clubs because they will leave what has been established as a very fertile area for scouting, and the players themselves.  For better or for worse, one has to have money to play and develop their soccer skills in a hyper-competitive environment in the US.  The ones with modest means get left behind.

We wanted to understand a little more about the culture in the US Youth Soccer world, so soccerchronicle.com conducted an interview with a gentleman who is a youth coach in the United States.  We wanted him to break the myths and explain the realities.  We also understand that this coach’s experiences are not universal, but he does paint a vivid picture of the state of youth soccer here in the US.

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Soccerchronicle.com:  What processes, if any did you have to follow to become a coach?

Coach:  There is a starter license to coach club/travel called the “E” license. That’s the first step into becoming a travel team coach. For recreational leagues and Latin leagues there really isn’t a requirement and most of the time those teams have dad coaches. You also go through a background check and have your fingerprints run through an FBI database. Turns out I’m not the Zodiac guy or DB Cooper.

Soccerchronicle.com:  That we know of yet.  We may feel differently at the end of the interview (both parties laugh).  What prompted you to start coaching?

Coach:  To be honest it was for my kids. My oldest child played and her team was terrible. So I started working on my licenses and becoming a better teacher of the game. She ended up not liking the game but I enjoyed the coaching aspect.

Soccerchronicle.com:  I know a lot of youth baseball leagues where I live have a reputation for being “daddy” leagues.  Is it the same in youth soccer?  

Coach:  You definitely run into that from time to time. Certainly, the apparent favoritism. To a certain extent it’s acceptable, but it shouldn’t affect the team performance because better players aren’t given the playing time. But I have run across them, sure.

SC:  How long have you been involved in coaching kids in the US?

Coach:  I’ve been coaching for over 10 years for various age groups and skill levels. From AYSO to travel team and high school players.

SC:  That seems to cover most of the levels of youth soccer.  It looks like we got the right guy, then.  When a young player emerges as one who is truly gifted, and you know as a coach that your faculties as a coach aren’t sufficient enough to aid in the player’s development, what course of action do you take to see about developing the player further?

Coach:  The answer to this question depends on the coach and organization. The organization I coach for is constantly helping coaches to continue learning and this keeps the coaches knowledgeable ahead of what their players will need. Luckily, we have a way to promote these players and offer them further advancement.

Not every organization can offer this or has a director of coaching that cares to develop the coach. It also really helps to have an open minded person that accepts different points of view and grows from these interactions.  Know-it-alls prove over time to not know it all, and they are more of a liability than an asset.

Our group doesn’t just prepare the players to play the game but how to approach the game and life outside it.

SC:   It is good to hear that your group focuses to help kids prepare for life outside of soccer.  Not every kid is going to make it.

Coach:  Quite the opposite, actually.  But we all know that.  Sometimes I wish the parents would understand that a little better.

SC:  OK.  We have identified this kid as a can’t miss prodigy.  What would be your ideal path for this talented youngster?

Coach:  Ideally, getting an invitation to a professional youth academy and then having them leverage this for a free education. With luck and lots of hard work they would land in Europe and play Champion’s League one day. First they must learn the discipline required to be successful and grow into balanced human beings.  Que sean buenas personas ante todo.

SC:  That certainly is the best possible scenario.  I am sure that any player and their family would love to have that kind of opportunity.  Now that you have lined out the ideal situation of the path for a gifted youngster. Now gives us the reality

Coach:  The reality is a lot of talented kids get left behind for one reason or another. The culture here in the US is so different. It’s not about which player shows long term potential, but which players can help the team win in the short term, help the coach make a name for himself, and fatten his bottom line.

Many kids end up quitting the game because their parents, who never played beyond the occasional pick-up game, expect their kid to be Maradona or Messi from day 1. The pressure is just too daunting for a 12-year old to take most of the time.  Ask this parent to help him with homework, though.

Lots of kids stop playing travel leagues because they are eventually priced out. The average annual cost for a 12-year old is $2000, and that does not include travel expenses.  To an extent, it’s understandable for those coaches who make their living from youth teams, but it is definitely borders on exploitation, particularly for the more talented kids.  Both by their parents who never emphasize education over sports, and the youth clubs who proudly display their trophies won by players they “developed”.  It is how they market themselves.

There are a lucky few that may end up getting college scholarships. The rest. Who knows.

SC:  It seems, then, that one would have to make a serious financial commitment to refine a child’s development in the sport. I have always thought that because of this model, soccer is more of an elitist sport in the US compared to the rest of the world.  Everywhere else it is the sport of the people.

Coach:  It is very much an elitist sport. You still have the local kids that play just for fun and participate in local Latin leagues. But, those leagues take you nowhere.  Most of these kids that go pro and end up in MLS are from middle to upper-middle class households.

SC:  Are public schools equipped to make up the difference?

If I am being completely honest, public school soccer is a joke. High School soccer players are really bad. And the coaches are usually there because they know someone, not because they are good at their jobs. Most kids play high school soccer for school pride and/or the experience of having their classmates cheer for them.

SC:   Well, as a former HS player, I would have taken a little umbrage with that had I not seen Dallas Cup.  I just finished working the Texas State Championships, and there were some very talented teams and players.  But when I compare the level of play from Dallas Cup to what I saw last weekend, there is no comparison.  But the Brownsville team was fun to watch.

Coach:  Understand that Dallas Cup is one of the elite global youth tournaments.  National Teams compete in Dallas Cup.  It is very prestigious.  But you see my point.

SC:   Yes, yes I do.  You mentioned that winning and trophies are the main marketing tools of select programs?  How protective are they of their players when an MLS team or another club comes calling?

Coach:  I’ve heard of some coaches camping out in front of MLS academy tryouts to catch their players…  it is a dirty business in some respects. There is the Olympic Development Program where the “elite” kids are invited as part of the scouting process for national team pools. It’s a farce.  Players have to pay to be able to attend the sessions – 100 kids at 100 dollars a head – a $10,000 session.

If they are lucky enough to make the later rounds of cuts, there will be pressure to join a United States Soccer Development Academy League team. This is the league that MLS Academy teams play in. There is a connected set of clubs that also field teams in this league. Most of the talent is supposed to funnel towards that league and teams. That isn’t necessarily the case because of travel costs. Only MLS teams and a handful of non-MLS organizations can afford to pay a player’s room & board + travel.

SC:  So a lot of kids that have talent & potential, but modest means fall through the cracks.  It seems like the system is upside down because the stakeholders have their priorities out of kilter. Are there any academies that have built their reputation for developing kids as opposed to collecting hardware?

Coach:  There are a few that are able to stake that claim. But, it is only a handful of coaches. One guy would be Clint Greenwood who was Landon Donovan’s youth coach. Unfortunately, he has retired.  The system is upside down, the parents that can pay are the stakeholders. They get to make demands, and if they do not get what they want, they will find coach that will capitulate.

SC:   It doesn’t seem surprising, then, that Liga MX teams have had success in scouting the US. Their endgame might be the same, but priorities are a little different. 

Coach:  It benefits the US National Team to have these kids developed in a professional environment. When you go to a trial to Mexico, these kids are offered room and board for a week. Sometimes they stay 2 weeks and also put in a classroom so they don’t miss too much school. They do pay for their own travel due to FIFA rules. Compare that to a trial for LA Galaxy Academy; you don’t even get a bottle of water for your troubles.

SC:  Are Liga MX teams the only out of towners that scout the kids?

Coach:  I’ve heard of kids attending trials in Spain and Germany. I don’t believe the scouts ever make it out here on their own to scout unknown players. What appears to be happening is that intermediary agencies, operating locally, scout prospective kids, polish them up, and then bring in the overseas scouts. A bit more targeted.

Sure, you still have the big youth tournaments like Dallas Cup and San Diego Surf Cup that attract interest outside the country. And, you do get scouts from Mexico and beyond looking to find that diamond in the rough.

SC:  It is unfortunate, but you are painting a grim picture for young soccer athletes in the US. In your opinion, how far behind are the MLS clubs to the rest of the world when it comes to having a solid infrastructure in place to really start mining for diamonds?

Coach:  They won’t be catching up anytime soon. MLS academies just simply can’t put in the training hours. They just simply don’t have the infrastructure to develop these kids. You need to be able to provide room & board, education, housing and all the logistics to make it run. American soccer players fall behind the curve once they hit their teens. That is the age the rest of the world begins approaching the beautiful game as a career.

SC:   Again, there are exceptions.  FC Dallas has done an excellent job of developing their own players.  Just this past weekend, Victor Ulloa, an FC Dallas youth system product, wore the captain’s armband in their match vs Sporting KC this past weekend.  Their roster is littered with their own products, and they happen to be leading the league.

Coach:  As you said, there are exceptions.

SC:   As far as Mexican American players, if a young prospect asked for your advice if he had to choose between going to a Liga MX club academy or staying with his select team, what would you tell him?

Coach:  I would tell them to consider this kind of opportunity very seriously. This is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of offer and the experience will help them grow. I find this situation to be very similar to a student studying abroad for a semester. And nobody has an issue with that!  At least publicly.

SC:  I got to spend a semester in Paris and it changed my life.  You learn a lot about yourself when you are thrust into a foreign environment like that.  So I can certainly see the similarities.

There has been reports lately about Liga MX sides putting a moratorium on scouting the US for fear of violating FIFA’s Rule 19. A rule that limits teams from registering players from outside their countries’ borders. 

The rule was put in place to eliminate the exploitation of youth players.  What, if any, exploitation have you seen from clubs, both foreign and domestic?

Coach:  The youth soccer tournament system in the US is the most exploitative instrument out there. Young players are expected to play 4 or 5 games in a weekend and not incur injuries. This leads to lower quality soccer overall when players have to coast and reserve some energy for the following games.

Embezzlement issues have also come up at some of these youth soccer clubs. Most are non-profit organizations, so skimming off the top is not an unheard of practice. There was recently a high profile case with a youth soccer club outside of Los Angeles.

There are other issues as well.  The one where youth soccer clubs and coaches want compensation from the MLS academies that poach the players they develop puzzles me. Given the parents foot the bill. How does that entitle them to further compensation?

SC:  You bring up a solid point.  If anything, MLS should reimburse the parents for having to pony up for the annual fees and the travel expenses.  Thanks for taking the time to talk to us.  You have certainly shed light on a topic that does not get a lot of ink.

Coach:  Thank you for the interview. A gentleman and a scholar. It is good to see Soccer Chronicle at the leading edge when it comes to reporting footie news and shedding light on issues few people are aware of.

SC:  It is our pleasure.

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This is only one coach’s experience, and like we said at the beginning of the piece, these experiences are not universal.  What is very apparent, and I am sure it comes to no surprise to anyone reading here is that a lot of very talented players are missing out on some key opportunities. Players who do not have the financial capacity to invest in their future in one country, but have a prospect in another where they have the legal right to work and own land, then that player should eligible to be registered by a club.  FIFA’s Rule 19 is well intentioned, but there certainly needs to be some clarification.

 

Listen to the dos a zero futbol podcast every Wednesday at 9:00PM CDT and on itunes.

Follow me on twitter @jjagou

FC Dallas – MLS Superlider

FRISCO, TX – FC Dallas got a big win at midweek at Portland.  They got an even bigger win just a few days later. The thunderstorms that had pounded North Texas let up just enough to give the fans and players dry enough conditions at Frisco’s Toyota Park. The field had drained, “but it was heavy.”  FC Dallas coach, Oscar Pareja said at his post game presser. He would know, he was spotted checking the field conditions with his bare feet about 90 minutes before the match. Did he have a special technique to determine the sogginess of the pitch. “Just coaches being crazy.” He said, with a slight blush in his cheeks.

He had no reason to blush about his teams’ performance. He was halfway expecting his team to be tired after the long trip to the Northwest, but their energy surprised him. “The character and enthusiasm and energy we had in Portland the whole 90 minutes was crucial, and I knew that today we were going to be off a little today.”  Pareja continued.  “It was too much to ask from me to have the same energy.  I knew they were going to be tired tonight, but they surprised me.”

But it had to take a goal from visiting SKC to start FC Dallas’ engines.  As is almost always the case for possession based teams, defending set plays are crucial, and FC Dallas let a ball bounce through several defenders and Goalkeeper Chris Seitz.  All Lawrence Olum had to do for KC was put his body in front of it.  1-0 KC after 22.

Despite missing their playmaker, Mauro Diaz, who is not fully fit enough for game duty, FC Dallas still has a stout and creative midfield, and Michael Barrios equalized things about 10 minutes later as he outran the KC defense to collect and beat the keeper.

Their could be some arguments made as to whether or not FC Dallas’ midfield is the best in the league, but it certainly might be the deepest.  2nd half substitute, Mauro Rosales placed a free kick just out of reach and that was the ball game.

Chris Seitz, who has come on after replacing Mexican U23 keeper Jesse Gonzalez during the international break, made some key saves down the stretch to preserve the victory.

The two wins has put FC Dallas atop MLS.  And if beating two of the top teams in the league just 4 days apart is any indication, FC Dallas has not only taken the early pole position as a title contender, it should also give coach Pareja some confidence as he plans for the rest of the season, which includes mid-week ties in the Concacaf Champions League.

It was a big win in Frisco Sunday night. FC Dallas passed their first early test.  There will be more.  FC Dallas will be ready.

Listen to the dos a zero futbol podcast every Wednesday at 9:00PM CDT.

Follow me on twitter @jjagou

Pumas, Toluca Poised to Make a Libertadores Run

A quick look at the Liga MX table would tell one very obvious story:  both Pumas and Toluca are not having very good seasons.  They currently sit in 12th and 13th place – both out of the liguilla.  For Pumas, a stark contrast to their last campaign, where they finished the regular season at the top of the table.  Toluca, easily one of the most consistent teams since Liga MX halved their calendar, is also in a zone they are not particularly used to either.  On the outside looking in.  Normally, sluggish results like that would not just raise pundits’ eyebrows, they would also sow seeds for a fan revolt, and have coaches’ termination papers filled out.  In triplicate.

But, when we roll in what they have been able to accomplish in the group stage of the Copa Libertadores, this season has been an unqualified success… so far.

Read more

Will we see Vancouver Again? Let’s Hope so

vancouver skyline

Despite losing 3-0 to Mexico at BC Place Friday night, Canada still sits in 2nd place in Concacaf Group A, which would be enough for Canada to make the final Hex.  If they manage to hang on, and it is a big if, then the City of Glass will hopefully be in the rotation of venues.

Please, please let it be in the rotation of venues.

I am not going to lie.  The big part of the allure of covering this game was going to Vancouver. Oh, and the game as well – there was that too.

It all seemed to come together:  Vancouver’s proximity to Seattle.  The ridiculously small amount of points to fly from Austin to Seattle.  The fact that it was a nonstop flight.  My TV schedule was clear.  So off I went.

The flight is long, and since I was not on the airline where I enjoy premium status, it was not particularly comfortable – a 4 hour flight will do that to you.  That part of the world is so lush and beautiful, and with good reason.  My 150 mile drive up to Canada provided my with no less than 8 bouts of rainfall.  Makes sense why the call it Raincouver.

BC Place was expecting a big crowd, and it turned out to be the biggest crowd ever to watch a men’s game there (the WWC Final was also played at BC place).  IMG_3048What I did not know, though, is that Vancouver is home to about 12,000 Mexicans. I ran into a few of them on the train ride down to BC Place.  I wasn’t entirely sure if they were rooting for Mexico, so I had to ask.

They were.  While I was enjoying my mushroom ravioli dinner in the Media Tribune, a Canadian journalist was telling me that Vancouver is an event driven city.  The locals have their hockey and their BC Lions, and Whitecaps, but nothing draws more than the one-offs, he told me.

Once the stadium was filled, the split was about 70/30 in favor of Canada.  It was a great crowd, and the Press Box I was in was right next to the Voyageurs supporters section.  They were great the whole night, waving Canadian flags as well as the flags of the Canadian Provinces.  ESPN’s Tom Marshall and Mexican Soccer Show’s Wiso Vazquez were able to identify more than I could.

In the end though, Mexico’s quality was too much for the Canadians to handle.  The last 20 minutes saw Mexico play more keep away then attacking the Canadian goal.  Canada may not have the horses to compete with Mexico, but they have a really good chance to make their first hex in 20 years if they can get past both El Salvador and Honduras.  They get the former at home and the latter on the road.  Just don’t ask any Canadian about the last time they went to Honduras.

But if Mexico gets to go back to Vancouver in 2017 for the Hex, I am sure the Canadian won’t mind talking about that game as much anymore.

 

Mexico Breeze Past Canada

VANCOUVER, BC – It was a bit of a surprise to see Hirving “Chucky” Lozano in the starting line-up for Mexico in front of the largest crowd to ever see the men’s national team play at BC Place.   Mexico coach, Juan Carlos Osorio deliberated up until the last minute.

Chucky or Marco Fabian?

Osorio went with Chucky, who took the field along with Jesus Corona and Javier Hernandez to make up Mexico’s line of attack.  The move paid off as all three were able to find the back of the net in Mexico’s 3-0 victory over Canada.  Lozano, in particular, was especially devastating. If it was not his speed, it was his ball control.  If it wasn’t his darting runs, it was his defense.  And when he dispossessed Canada late in the first half, all Javier Hernandez had to do was send the ball into space like a bucket of chum ready to be gobbled up by a lethal shark. Read more

Los “4 Grandes” All Win… Really

With a name like the “4 Grandes”, one would think that news of them winning should not be something to write about.  Well, they did win.  And they all won on the same weekend.  Again, you ask “what’s the big deal?  These are the premiere teams, the flagship clubs, the most powerful and popular clubs in Liga MX.  They are used to winning and winning championships.  So WTF, John?”

Well, let me tell you.

Yes, the big 4 won this past weekend.  America dispatched Leon at the Azteca 2-1

 

while Guadalajara surprised league leaders Monterrey in the tamalera 3-1.  A guy by the name of “la chofis” scored a riveting brace.

Cruz Azul made Atlas look so bad, favorite son Rafael Marquez begged forgiveness from the largest RednBlack supporters group, Barra 51 (named after the last year they won a league title).

After giving up an early goal, Pumas put together a 4 goal spurt to down Monarcas.

 

causing a butterfly to cry in a post-game TV interview.

The big deal is not that they won.  It is that they all had wins in the same matchday.  Something that had not happened in 4 years.  4 years.   Not very big 4-like.  We have to go back to Matchday 9 of the 2012 Clausura to see the last time this happened.

In those 4 years, Club America has certainly had the best run.  A couple of League titles and a CONCACAF trophy have restored order (if you ask any Americanista) to the world.  Cruz Azul and Pumas each have lost a final in that time frame, while Chivas has been in the wilderness, losing games and going through coaches and front office types like a tourist who eat too much street food goes through a roll of toilet paper.

 

The current table has them in the following positions:

  • 3. America       21 pts      +7
  • 5. Cruz Azul     18 pts      +7
  • 9. Pumas         15 pts      +2
  • 12. Chivas       12 pts        0

The 8th place team, Tijuana has 16 pts, so it is conceivable that with 6 dates left, all four sides could make the post-season.  When was the last time that happened? The 2011 Clausura, which coincidentally was won by Pumas – another opportunity to make the Butterflies cry…

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FC Dallas Takes Down Impact

Last season FC Dallas came within a game of the MLS Cup relying on youngsters and locally cultivated talent.  Youngsters will have times when they slip up, as they did last week in the Tejano Derby vs. Houston, a 5-0 pasting by the Dynamo.  Determined not to let that happen again, coach Oscar Pareja instructed his players to play within themselves, use they had practiced, and above all, forget what happened last week in the Bayou City.

It took some doing, but FC Dallas finally broke through in the second half with a placement over power free kick by Mauro Diaz in the 80th minute.  His fellow Argentine Maxi Urruti iced the game with a solid effort of his own – a screamer that found the top corner of the net 7 minutes later.  The score would stay at 2-0, sending the faithful home happy after having to deal with some unseasonably chilly weather in North Texas.

The result should not have been much of a surprise, considering FC Dallas had the Lion’s share of possession.  Were it not for a few spurts at the open of each half by Montreal, the dominion of the round ball would have been Dallas’ and Dallas’ alone.

There was a reason for that.  After studying film, Oscar Pareja instructed his players to bracket Impact playmaker, Ignacio Piatti and limit his off the ball movement.  Piatti started strong, but his influence on the game diminished rapidly, and by the middle of the second half, he had all but disappeared.  With it, much of Montreal’s possession.  Impact did find some fresh wind when their Ivorian superstar, Didier Drogba, made his 2016 debut.  In fact it seemed that the former Chelsea icon inspired both teams to pick up the pace.  FC Dallas seemed to be in a hurry to score a goal before Drogba, and Montreal wanted to make that happen.

Despite his legend status, though, the stars of the the show tonight were the FC Dallas midfielders.  The holding midfielders Carlos Gruezo and Victor Ulloa were excellent in repossessing the offense, while Fabian Castillo, Michael Barrios and Mauro Diaz all took turns with daring and darting runs into the danger area.  Their speed and ball control gave Montreal fits, they just could not complete the play with the ball in the back of the net.  Usually that spells trouble – a player like Piatti, and Drogba, of course, can make teams pay for their offensive shortcomings.

But nothing it was unnecessary foul just at the top of the box gave Diaz the chance to showoff his free kick skills.  His shot badly fooled Montreal keeper Evan Bush, and gave the 14,502 fans the moment they had hoped would happen all night.  With Montreal opeining up to try and find the answer to equalize, it was FC Dallas who put an end to things a few minutes later with Urruti getting his 2nd goal of the season.

The Atmosphere at Toyota Park is lively, but a little labored.  There are drums, a small group of ultras, and the same chants we hear everywhere – but the local flavor is what stands out the most.  It was good to hear the crowd sing “Deep in the Heart of Texas” and a trumpet player belted out the theme to the “Dallas” TV show in the 2nd half. In case I had forgotten where I was.

Dallas has a good young team and as solid a midfield as one will see in MLS. If they can somehow limit the inconsistencies that are a product of youth, they will have a part to play in determining the Western Conference champions.

 

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Clásico Nacional Wins the Ratings Battle

darwinIn a time when cable channels are losing subscribers to all manner of other content providers, there is one recently launched channel that is squashing the current narrative and proving to be a major success story:  Univision Deportes Network.

Launched earlier in the decade, the channel took its time to take root, as one would expect.  But carriage agreements with major carriers has been key.  Additional distribution for Univision Deportes Network has been one of the main reasons Univision has reported quarterly profits over the past year, so it is easy to see why network programmers have been steadily moving their sports properties off the over the air channels, Univision and UniMas.

The ratings for the Club America win over their arch rival Guadalajara have been announced.  And the broadcast took all other soccer games to the woodshed

For those who are math disabled, the Cremas-Cabras Clásico has 6 times the audience of the nationally broadcast MLS games, and nearly 4 times the audience of one of the US’ most popular sides, Manchester United, and their draw with the hammers in the FA Cup.

The ratings may have been even higher were it not for a carriage dispute between AT&T and Univision.  Those folks on U-Verse did not get to see America’s 2-0 win at all.

It would have been unspeakable just a few years ago to air the biggest, most important match of the Liga MX calendar on anything other than Univision, but the runaway success of UDN has changed the paradigm.  The momentum will carry through, at least through the summer as Copa America will also air on the Univision family of networks.

Despite the great news, it is not all flowers and sunshine for Univision, However. Telemundo outbid Univision for the rights to the World Cup starting in 2018.  Telemundo will have very large shoes to fill.  UDN’s coverage of Brazil14 was easily the most comprehensive (and best) in the history of US televison.

 

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