Wednesday, March 30, 2011

This past week of international games prove why Internationals still matter

Over the past few years I've been hearing a growing contingent of football supporters who have spoken out against international week breaks, especially during the middle of the European domestic season. For those who are fairly new to the game FIFA,UEFA etc just like a league, has it's own match calendar which decides when national teams will play each other. The past week was just such an occasion, FIFA had a series of friendlies lined up, Africa had Cup of Nations qualifiers and  UEFA had qualifying for its European championship tournament taking place next summer.
England v Ghana: Gareth Barry tackles Sulley Muntari
England v Ghana: More than a friendly

 The major gripe from these supporters is that club football is coming to its exciting end of season stretch run, and that club football produces more entertaining games to watch. While I would agree that in about 80% of the time club football does bring about higher quality football. I would disagree with the idea that it is always more entertaining, have you watch a Blackburn v Wigan 0-0 draw?

 This week we had some absolute dynamite matches including the U.S v Argentina friendly, Spain v Czech Republic and Russia v Armenia...yes that was actually a really fun game to watch mainly due to the crowd atmosphere. However there are two games that  really made the week were the Netherlands v Hungary Euro qualifier and the England v Ghana friendly from Wembley.

 Both matches with very different levels of importance delivered all the drama, excitement and skill you would find in any club match. Netherlands v Hungary was a back and forth game with 8 goals between them and a very high level of intensity due to it being a qualifier. At one point it looked like the World Cup finalists would fall to the lower ranked Hungarians. However the Oranjie turned it on in the final 15 minutes to escape with the three points.

 While in London a match that had been panned by much of the ravenous English media before hand due to the amount of changes England manager Fabio Capello made to the roster turned out to be the friendly of the week. Both sides wanted to prove something to their supporters, Ghana who had 20,000 fans at the game wanted to beat England for the first time ever. While for the England players on the pitch they wanted to show Capello that they belonged as regular selections to the squad. He handed debuts to Manchester United on loan to Sunderland striker Danny Welback and Wolves winger Matt Jarvis, Capello also started newly signed Liverpool striker Andy Carrol his first start.
The game was played a fast pace and both teams played as if it were a Wold Cup match and not just a friendly. What really made the game was the crowd at Wembley, both sets of supporters were cheering on their sides and there tended to be a good feel vibe in the stadium. The game also had and exciting finish as Ghana through Asamoah Gyan who grabbed and equalizer at the death to finish the game at 1-1.

 There is no doubt that club football will always grab more of the headlines and attention when it comes down to it, there are simply more games to watch than internationals. However what the club game cannot replicate is that unbridled passion for one's country that national team games bring. Just remember back to last summer and the emotions and pure excitement World Cup 2010 brought us, unlike club football which only captures the fans of that league, internationals at the highest level can and does captivate the world. I agree that maybe FIFA could do a better job of lining up the schedule of matches, but in no way should international matches completely be ignored as a footballing institution.


Sunday, March 27, 2011

TFC defeat Portland 2-0: Building blocks for the season.

I'll be honest right off the bat, I will not provide to many tactical views on Saturday's game as I was both freezing in the 200 level at BMO and slightly drunk by the 70th minute. As mentioned in the previous post it was a cold one for the opener and I was prepared for it, however it still made it difficult to grasp all the tactical displays on the pitch. What I will provide is the aspect of play from a purely supporters point of view.

Toronto FC 's Javier Martina celebrates scoring his team's opening goal against Portland Timbers during first half MLS action in Toronto on Saturday, March 26, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
Javier Martina with the brace on opening day

There as a lot to like in TFC's second outing of the year, for one the defenders cut down on the amount of horrible mistakes they had made in the Vancouver game. Adrian Cann was returned to his preferred centre back position and look much more comfortable both defensively and with the ball at his feet. Ty Harden actually looked a bit better this week, but was really only in the line up due to an injury picked up by Nana Attakora during training. It also helped that he didn't have to worry about getting battered by a big powerful forward like Eric Hassli.

The passing looked improved as well, new comer Alan Gordon seemed to fit in well at the top as the centre forward. Maicon Santos and Dewayne DeRosario played just off of Gordon with Javier Martina playing wide right. The latter looked very effective as he helped to spread the play wide on the flanks, it was his pace off the wing which lead to his first of two goals. As TFC have never really had a wide player that could attack the back four it was refreshing to see that a lot of the play was focused that way. Unfortunately Dan Gargan so far does not look like he is quite fitting in Aron Winter's system as a right back who can pass and attack on an over lap.

Martina's second goal was very well taken, set up by and excellent long ball pass by kepper Stefan Frei. It is unusual to see a goal like that but Martina's first time volley was well placed and left the keeper with no chance. The goal set off wild celebrations in the stands as it was one of the finer goals ever scored at BMO by a TFC player.

If there was any bad news from the game, it was that fact that Portland is that bad of a squad and TFC were still making some school boy errors on the pitch. Winter commented as much after the game as he quickly pointed out there was a ton of work still to do. The back four is still shaky and unsettled, Mikael Yourassowsky looked solid as an attacking left back but made some errors defensively and was also sent off late in the game. Harden still has a lot of work to do in order to fit in the new system, and is facing being replaced in the starting 11 once Attakora returns to fitness. The team as a while still have an extremely difficult time defending set pieces and corners. In all honesty Portland should have turned in at least one of their corners in the first half as Reds defenders had a hard time clearing out a bouncing ball.

So my first impressions of the 2011 squad after seeing them in person is this: They will make a lot of mistakes this year, and they will lose a few ugly games against better sides. However they will be entertaining going forward and they will score much more than they did last year when going down a goal spelled the end of the game, even if it was early on in the first half. It's way to early to indicate if this club will have the playoff come October, but I got a feeling they will be in the mix for the majority of the season.

But judging form my predictions from the World Cup, they are doomed to last place.


Thursday, March 24, 2011

-1 degree and going: Why I'll brave it for TFC's home opener Saturday

Bundle up Saturday!

Many of you will think I'm just about nuts to be willing to stand outside near Lake Ontario for 2 hours to watch a soccer game. Especially to watch Toronto FC after their dreadful display last weekend against Vancouver. In some ways I actually might be a bit nuts but that's another post for another day. Everything leans to the team playing another sub-par game, another game with a lot possession but no forward thrust. In fact everything points to it being a complete miserable day on the pitch for your local boys in Red.

So why the hell am I doing this???

The reason is everything happening in the stands. I've been to a ton of TFC games at BMO Field, but never a home opener. From what I've seen and hear from friends who have been it is a electric atmosphere. On top of that it's always fun to see what the U-Sector and Red patch boys have come up with for the new TIFO. Last years was a Star Wars themed one which was call for victory. Unfortunately those call went unheard in the end but it was still cool to see.

TFC 2010 Home Opener TIFO
 It also fun to see all the first timers, going into year five you can pick them out pretty easily as at first they look a bit lost and overwhelmed; however after 20 minutes they start to get into the game and what's happening in the South end. By 80 they are hooked. As all of us soccer fans in Canada are trying to draw more people to the game it is always good to see new or causal supporters come out and get behind the game.

I have a unique perspective on the proceedings at BMO as I have seen games both as a fan, and as a writer in the press box. I can tell you that watching the game in the stands as a supporter will always outweigh sitting in the press box, well except for the food.. they do feed the press well! The energy of the fans and the the proximity to the pitch always makes the game more exciting! Mind you I don't miss over priced beer or mass selling near the gates.

So I'll be up early getting my game face on ready to take on often talked about Timber Army of Portland, so bundle up, suck it up, drink it up and support your Toronto Football Club!


Monday, March 21, 2011

The feel good story of Charlie Davies

There are a lot of negative stories that float around the game of soccer. From corruption at FIFA, to racism, homophobia to fan violence. There are plenty of things I could cover, and have covered over the past year that show the ugly side of the game. But today I'm more that happy...thrilled in fact to post this one, the remarkable come back of U.S international striker Charlie Davies.

I funny enough remember where I was when I heard the news, I was at the desk of my former employer who happened to be a soccer fan as well. We were discussing some technical issues with a product we were working on when she scrolled into a braking news story that was about three lines long. It said:

"The U.S. national team's World Cup qualifying celebration took a very somber turn on Tuesday morning when it learned that Charlie Davies, the Boston College product who has established himself as a first-choice forward this year, was involved in a serious car accident near the team's Arlington, Va., hotel."~Via (Brain Straus)
My colleague had no idea who Davies was, but I did. I mainly remember Davies for ripping Canada apart in a few friendlies and for some excellent performances in France for Ligue 1 side Sochaux. He also was a big reason why the U.S national team made it to the final of the Confederations Cup in 2009 against Brazil. Things were defiantly looking up for the player. Then disaster struck.

Sochaux supporters wish CD9 well

The car he was in that morning lost control on the George Washington Parkway in D.C and according to one officers report was sawed in half. One passenger died in the crash and Charlie was so badly hurt that doctors were sure that he would not survive his injuries. He still has a massive scar on his head. However survive is exactly what he did, unfortunately he would miss the national team's World Cup run, he lost his place at Sochaux though both team's supporters showed him great love and well wishes it was thought he would never play again.

Davies rehab was intense as he set about the goal of playing football at the highest level again. It was painful and frustrating at times but he was determined to make it. I had lost sight of the Davies story for a bit, focused on the World Cup, Euro qualifiers. the MLS season winding to a close, and the start of the new European league season I had forgotten about his fight back to fitness. Then I read a badly Google translated article from L'Equipe that more or less stated that Charlie Davies was back training with the Sochaux reserves. I personally was happy for him but also amazed that he was able to be back training at a high level a little after a year since the accident. He did not see anytime with the first team, but got into some action with the reserves, and after the January transfer window closed, it was announced that Charlie would be coming to MLS to trial with D.C United. In his typical workman fashion he impressed and easily made the squad.

Which brings us to last Saturday in the 63rd minute 12 yards from goal. In his first competitive game in a year and a half, he's taking a penalty. I remember what nerves felt like when taking a game winning shot in Basketball especially when you know the ball is coming to you. The nerves hit you and you have to calm yourself down and visualize an empty court just like in practice. I have no idea what was going though Charlie's mind when he was taking that penalty, but I'm sure a part of him was back on that freeway. He slotted it in of course and for good measure scored another 12 minutes later.

No one know what this season will bring for him but all I know is when I see him play I'll be rooting for him..... except when he plays against TFC. 


Sunday, March 20, 2011

Stalling out the gate: Winter gets back four selection wrong as Toronto FC falls 4-2 to Vancouver

At the beginning of the pre-season, much was made of Aron Winter's new approach to TFC's on pitch tactics. He preached a possession game utilizing a 4-3-3 formation, with an emphasis on passing and good decision making with the ball. Most supporters and journalists who followed the club and knew the make up of the roster understood that this transition would take a good deal of time. Although selling the public on a more offensive seemed to work, the real issue with the club would be at the back. Entering the first game of the season against expansion, but hardly new Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday expectations were mixed as to what kind of team supporters would see for the 2011 season.

Vancouver Whitecaps' Eric Hassli scores against Toronto FC goalie Stefan Frei during the first half of an MLS soccer game in Vancouver on Saturday.The first thing that struck me when the team sheet was announced was the back four Winter had chosen to start the game with. He went with a defence of Dan Gargan at right back, Nana Attakora and Ty Harden at centre back and what was the biggest surprise, recent hold out Adrian Cann at left back. As the clubs 2010 most valuable player Cann was expected to anchor the defence from centre back; Especially as he and Attakora had developed a decent partnership over the past year. Cann was playing completely out of position and it showed through out the game and especially on the first Whitecap goal as he was completely out of position on Davide Cuiumiento's cross into the box which led to Eric Hassli's half volley past a helpless Stefan Frei. Cann's lack of pace lack of pace made it fairly easy for Cuiumiento to get by him and dictate the game with his precise passing.

The other issue with Winter's defensive selection was the pairing of Attakora and Harden against the physically bigger and stronger Vancouver forward Eric Hassli. Nana will I believe will become an excellent defender in the MLS, however it became clear early on that he and Harden were going to have trouble handling Hassli. On both of Hassli's goals his strength and movement cause the defenders massive problems. This is where the size of Cann would have come in handy for the relatively small team.

TFC's management has stressed over the past 6 weeks leading into the season opener that patience was needed while the players adapted to the club's new philosophy of play. A key to playing the 4-3-3 is having players on the pitch that can make a decisive pass and most importantly make good decisions. Saturday was evidence that the team has a long way to go before this system is anywhere near what Winter would like it to be. There were countless turnovers especially from the back four who are still not adept to making as many passes as they're are now required to do. Harden and Gargan were guilty of making poor passes that lead to Whitecap chances, Harden making a horrible pass that was easily intercepted by Atiba Harris which lead to an open break on goal. Gargan's intercepted pass lead to Vancouver's third goal as Russel Teibert's pass put Wes Knight and Hassli clear on goal with the latter finishing off the move.

What was very alarming to any TFC supporters was how disorganized the side looked at times in the midfield and back four. Not taking anything away form Vancouver's performance, but 3 of the 4 goals were due to serious lapses in TFC's judgement. The midfield did not help the back for much with bad defensive positioning and sloppy turnovers which left the defenders out of position.

With a lot of negative play getting the focus, and rightfully so, there were some bright sports for the Reds going forward. For one Winter did get his wish in regards to possession, 61% of possession to be exact. In the first 30 minutes The Reds looked dangerous on the left flank. Newcomer Javier Martina was bright in his attacking play and teased a few good low crosses into to box, and showed some creativity on the wings that this club has rarely ever seen. Jacob Peterson's attacking play looked decent, now deployed more centrally he made some good passes and liked up well with the front players. Macon Santos had the thankless task of holding put the ball and bringing players into the game, but did it reasonably well; He also struck an absolute net buster late in the game for TFC's second goal. For all his off the field dramatics captain Dwayne DeRosario was best outfield player for the Reds once again. His great finish for the first goal showed TFC fans why they still need him, and he did a great job linking the play, especially out wide. However TFC's star of the game was kepper Stefan Frei. Without the third year stopper Vancouver could have scored 5 or 6.

Next week's home opener against Portland will be a big test for this club. Although supporters have seem to have given the club some leeway in terms of implementing the new system, if they turn in a result like Saturday that leeway will evaporate very quickly.