With the World Cup finally upon us (God, I love the World Cup!), I wanted to talk a bit about my love for Mexican football. I am not the perfect Mexican, I understand that, I’ve always understood that (But then again, what Chicano is?). I was born here, my Spanish is somewhere between average and poor depending how long it’s been since my last trip abroad, my surname is Penney, I’m 6’3”, I don’t have any Mexican-American friends, I’m a registered Republican, my visits to Mexico have become more and more infrequent, and growing up in the Northeast Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Dominican culture dominated the New York metro Hispanic landscape (And they still do).
My connection to Mexican culture and my Mexican heritage has come mainly from two sources: My mother’s food is the first (or if we were visiting Guadalajara: Mama Cuca’s or Juanis’ food). Frijoles, chilequiles, chiles rellenos, tacos de crema, ropa vieja, tortas ahogadas, ceviche, and many more dishes than I care to count. And I am extremely grateful that I am now cooking many of these dishes myself.
But the other major way I’ve connected with my Mexican self is through the national team. Every four years, I get to watch twenty-three wonderful players in green Mexico kits take part in what I think is the greatest sporting spectacle on earth: The FIFA World Cup. In my life I have been cognizant of six World Cups: 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, and 2014. Despite my fandom of football waxing and waning throughout my life, my love for all things El Tri has always burned bright. In each of these years I have vivid memories of watching Mexico. Many of these memories were exhilarating with equally as many heart wrenching.
I remember, despite being only 10 years-old, how confused I was to see Mexico lose to Bulgaria on penalties in ’94. I’ve definitely blanked out losing to Germany on an ’87th minute winner in ‘98. But I’ll never forget Mexico’s back-to-back comebacks from 0-2 down against perennial European powers Belgium and Holland.
In 2002 we famously lost to the United States after a superb group stage performance. I’m still not over it. And I don’t want to talk about it.
In 2006, I remember watching the first two group stage matches in Guadalajara while visiting family. I remember going to get ice cream at halftime of the Iran game and the city seeming a ghost town. We could have robbed half the city’s banks and no one would have known.
And I’ll never forget how good I felt watching Mexico play Argentina to extra time in the Round of 16 only to get my heart broken once again, this time by a Maxi Rodriguez wonder strike.
In 2010 I watched the games from Dublin pubs and I marveled at the kids of the “golden generation” running around making defending World Cup runner-up France look slow. I’ll never forget seeing Chicharito’s giddy face after he maneuvered around Hugo Lloris for his first World Cup goal.
The 2014 tournament will always be about “Piojo” Herrera, Memo Ochoa, and #NoEraPenal (It wasn’t a penalty!).
But why has this team had such a deep and beloved place in my heart? Honestly, I’m not 100% sure. Maybe it was my way of seeing Mexicans in their best light, when I often didn’t get a chance to. Maybe it was a part of being part of something bigger-namely, the rich and beautiful cultural heritage of Mexico-even if I wasn’t connected to it on a day-to-day basis. (And make no mistake; fútbol is as much a part of Mexico’s heritage as the Maya or Mariachi.) I didn’t grow up in Texas or Southern California where Mexican, Mexican-American, and American culture intertwine almost seamlessly. I didn’t get to see successful Mexican American attorneys, doctors, architects day-in and day-out. So perhaps because of that I clutched to the one source of pride I saw front and center every four years.
My passion for El Tri isn’t political. It isn’t overcompensation. It isn’t a statement I’m trying to make for others. It’s personal. And it’s pure. It’s about feel. In fact, I’m probably about as big an America apologist as you’ll find. Nationalism isn’t a sin. It’s a virtue. I believe that. But while America is my country, México y Chivas “son mis equipos”. I feel it in my blood.
I honestly have to say, I can’t ever remember even considering being a USMNT fan. It never really even crossed my mind. Rooting for Mexico against the United States, I never felt guilty about it, it just felt natural. (That being said, as a soccer evangelist in a nation of American sports fans, I found myself crushed at the US’s failure to qualify. I will deeply miss the festive atmosphere which often accompanies US games. But c’est la vie.)
The beauty with which Mexicans play the game is much more aesthetically pleasing than the rough and ragged American way of playing. Even in high school I always knew there was something wrong and robotic about the way the game was played. Football is half sport, but it’s also half art. It’s entertainment. It’s meant to please and amaze. Mexican football has always been about pleasure, just watch Liga MX for proof. When I think of what Mexican football is, something like Cuauhtémoc Blanco’s cuauhtemiña comes to mind-a superb display of brashness and flair. I think I always saw in the Mexico team characteristics which I hoped existed within me. As if perhaps my just being half-Mexican would give me the ability to rely on these traits if desired.
And if entertainment is the purpose of football, then the World Cup has always been the games grandest stage. Or perhaps calling it an altar would be more apropos. While UEFA Champions League may be the brain of the game, the World Cup is its heart. No sponsors on the kits and no ability to import players on huge transfer fees. It is simple. Country vs. Country. Style vs. Style. Mexico, or not, I will soak in as many games as is humanly possible and I would encourage all USMNT fans to do the same. For four weeks we get to lay back and marvel at the world’s best and most famous athletes this side of Madison Square Garden. I’m just as excited to watch Messi, Neymar, Ronaldo, James, Kane, Ozil, Iniesta, Mane, Salah, and Suarez as anything else. It truly is football Christmas.
With that being said, do I want Mexico to win? Yes. Do I think they will? No, probably not. But we must aspire to win. Mexican-American culture is first and foremost about aspiration. But while I connect through my blood, I must recognize that it is Mexico’s team first, before it is the Mexican American team. Although I do hope that perhaps one day, either El Tri or the USMNT will create an Oscar De La Hoya type figure that can transcend both sides of the Rio Grande equally. Perhaps Jonathan Gonzalez is that figure. Perhaps it will be an as of yet unknown American player. Either way I eagerly await that player.
But for now, I look at the roster Juan Carlos Osorio has assembled for Russia and I see that it represents so much about what Mexico is today. The spine of the team is part of a “golden generation” which has shown so much promise, much like the country they represent. They are far more international than any Mexican team that’s come before, with seventeen of the players having played in Europe during their careers. Three of the players are making huge money in the United States-like so many Mexicans dream to do. Yet, like Mexico, despite the talent the team has, it has never truly achieved its potential. Some of that may be misplaced machismo. Some of it is federation mismanagement. And for good measure our team captain Rafa Marquez has been sanctioned by the U.S. Justice Department for alleged ties to drug trafficking. Unfortunately, it shows that even in our beloved game of football, we can’t always escape some of the harsh truths about the problems Mexico, as a nation, faces. But all of these things are what make the team the perfect reflection of the country they play for-for better or worse. Yet the program creeps closer and closer to what it can be with every passing year. For six tournaments now, Mexico has stumbled in the exact same place: the Round of 16, always failing to take Mexico into that elite eight they’ve been knocking on the door of for so long. I think that anything beyond that “quinto partido” will be transcendent. But if that’s where the tournament ends this summer once again, I’ll be OK with that too because I know I’ll have enjoyed the ride. I always do. And then I’ll do what everyone else does: watch the remainder of the World Cup games with delight.
Juan Carlos Osorio is under fire. That is no secret. In fact whoever is the National Team manager is under fire the second they are hired. I really think that sometimes coaches are hired just so they can be fired.
Either way, despite the fan and media hysteria, the truth of the matter is Juan Carlos Osorio is actually doing a pretty good job. If the #1 objective of a National Team Manager is to qualify his team to the FIFA World Cup, then JCO has already gotten mission accomplished. He’ll have a big chance in two weeks to earn himself some good press for a half second if he’s able to officially secure Mexico’s World Cup berth.
At this exact time last cycle “Chepo” de la Torre had just: flamed out in the Group Stage of the 2013 Confederations Cup, bungled his Gold Cup with a Mexico B squad by losing to Panama, and was on his way to getting fired when he proceeded to lose to Honduras at the Azteca in September. Then after losing to the United States (dos a cero) under Luis Fernando Tena, Mexico then hired Victor Manuel Vucetich for the final two qualifiers which required Mexico needing a Raul Jimenez golazo and a Graham Zusi to bail the entire country out.
Instead, JCO has four games left in which he could play the Chivas u-19s in all of them and qualify El Tri to Russia. Somehow, this is such an atrocity that it requires vulgar shouting every time he walks by some clown wearing a green jersey. But I digress.
While there are some things Osorio does which irk me, (I think sometimes he rotates without a clear enough purpose, for instance. And his tendency to play people out of position can be annoying.) I happen to think he’s doing a good job. The players are still coming to his aide. And that’s vital.
Now that we have all that nonsense out of the way, assuming JCO isn’t fired or (perhaps rightfully) quits between now and FIFA World Cup 2018, let’s see if we can’t figure out what he’s thinking is his World Cup roster if he had to draw it up today. With Liga MX already kicking into high gear and two qualifiers forthcoming now seems as good a time as ever.
So, without further ado, let’s evaluate, how I think is how Juan Carlos Osorio is currently viewing the player pool in its entirety:
Now, once I was able to group all the names and see them in front of me, I was able to better find a way to a top 23. Here’s what I came up with as Juan Carlos Osorio’s top 23 as of this moment:
So, how did I come up with this? Well, I’ll tell you generally now before going player by player in a bit. Mexico, more so than the United States, was able to more clearly delineate the “first string” from the “second-string” because El Tri was entered into two international tournaments this summer: FIFA Confederation’s Cup and CONCACAF Gold Cup.
Osorio therefore was kind of forced to play his hand as to what was his “Top 23” and then his “Next 22” as the two rosters only shared one player-Luis Reyes of Atlas. He also put all 12 of his European contingent in the Confederation’s Cup squad while the Gold Cup squad, save for one member of MLS’ Houston Dynamo, was composed of Liga MX players. So it was a decent bit easier to get into his head as to who his best squad was.
The following was Mexico’s roster for the confederations cup:
From that 23, only five players were replaced. Rodolfo Cota, Rafael Marquez, Oswaldo Alanis, Luis Reyes, and Jurgen Damm were all removed from the 23 and in their placed the following five came in: Jose de Jesus Corona, Edson Alavarez, Jesus Gallardo, Jesus Dueñas, and Jose “Tecatito” Corona.
The next important thing was to determine what is Mr. Osorio’s preferred formation? And amazingly enough, despite all the formation changes, lineup changes, and position changes, we really did notice a top XI emerge in a preferred 4-3-3. The excellent Sir Tom Marshall of ESPN seemed to agree.
Here’s what it would look like:
Based off that, let’s go player by player and explain why I think JCO has them on his roster.
Forwards: Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez as a prospective starter for El Tri should come as no surprise to anyone. Not only is he one of the world’s (or at least North America’s) most popular players, but he has a really good goals to minutes ratio. (Don’t make me look it up. OK fine, here it is.) I don’t really need to defend his roster slot or his selection as a starter.
Raul Jimenez is the next player on the depth chart and he’s pretty much a lock too. He’s a big, strong, skilled player who will deploy his coach’s game plan sans complaint. He will even play as a right winger if need be. He’s also the only one who could step in and play as a lone striker if Chicharito were to go down.
After that we come to two players who are undoubtedly forwards, but are not really strikers either: Giovani Dos Santos of the LA Galaxy and Marco Fabian of Eintracht Frankfurt. Dos Santos while capable of playing as a winger or even an advanced midfielder in a pinch, is best deployed as a second striker making late runs into the box and the freedom to create. Fabian is very similar. Though I think he’s better suited to midfield work. I think both will make the team based off experience provided they maintain good form at club level. Dos Santos in particular has his detractors, especially since his move to MLS. But his ideal replacement candidates the young trio of Orbelin Pineda, Rodolfo Pizarro, and Erick Gutierrez did not step up in the Gold Cup and I think Gio played just fine in Russia.
Lastly, I placed Oribe Peralta in as a fifth forward or third striker. While he’s getting up there in age, (he’ll be 34 in January) he will be there for his intangibles if he stays healthy. The guy is a gamer and has a World Cup goal on his resume. ‘El Cepillo” (The Brush) as Peralta’s known reminds me a lot of Clint Dempsey in his effort and ability to come up clutch time and time again.
Wingers: If there’s one position where Mexico seems to have an almost endless amount of depth it is at winger. Not that all things are equal. But someone like Isaac Brizuela, the American-born right winger that was part of Mexico’s 2014 squad, is clearly outside the top 5 despite being a dangerous weapon for Guadalajara.
Jurgen Damm of Tigres UANL is a fine player and has been flirting with a European move this summer. Yet he only made Mexico’s Confederation’s Cup squad because of Jesus “Tecatito” Corona’s absence (which had a trickledown effect because the Gold Cup squad could’ve used him) for “personal reasons.”
Carlos Vela, despite being an inverted winger, is clearly at the top of the list. The Real Sociedad man is probably Mexico’s most talented player. He’s shown a lot more maturity the past couple seasons both with club and country and should be one of the top three or four names on the team sheet. (Although Osorio does seem to bench him for certain matchups for tactical reason. I think that’s one of the many things he does which irks Mexico fans.)
Next on the list is Tecatito. I can’t imagine he’s not starting at LW or LM when September 1st rolls around or even at the first game of next summer’s World Cup for that matter. The guy is one of those tricky attackers unafraid to take people on. Every team needs a guy like that.
Hirving Lozano I think also will be an Osorio regular, especially now that he’s moved to PSV Eindhoven in the Eredivisie. His speed makes him an ideal late game sub and for a guy with his skills he’s a solid finisher as well.
And I think the last winger spot, despite Jurgen Damm’s talent will go to his Tigres teammate Javier Aquino. Aquino has seemingly been around forever, but he’s still only 27. He is a great two-way winger who, despite the talent on Tigres can still play games where he looks like the team’s best player. I think a guy like that is indespensible to a roster. His defensive tracking also makes him important if Osorio ever wants to go back to three centerbacks. His ability to go endline-to-endline for 90 minutes makes him capable of being a wingback or a winger in a 3-4-3.
One other player worth mentioning is Elias Hernandez of Club Leon. He had a very solid summer and is capable of playing on either wing. But I just think there’s too many other players ahead of him on the depth chart.
Midfielders: So there are three players who cannot be dispensed with in the midfield: Captain Andres Guardado, Hector Herrera, and Jonathan Dos Santos. All of them are so talented that Juan Carlos Osorio felt the need to play Hector Herrera as a CDM in order to get them all on the field at once.
The one who played best of the three at the Confederation’s Cup was Jonathan. But to the dismay of many El Tri fans, the younger Dos Santos brother just joined his sibling at the LA Galaxy in MLS. It will be interesting if Osorio will maintain Jonathan in as high esteem after that.
Considering the depth at the position, I’m not sure JDS is really in any trouble of missing out on the roster. Losing his starting role? Maybe. But not his roster position.
One of biggest controversies that arose out of the Conderation’s Cup roster selection was the fact that Osorio didn’t bring a fourth central midfielder and more specifically, he didn’t bring a true #6. It was perplexing given his seeming affection for both Jesus Molina (a true CDM) and Jesus Dueñas (capable of playing multiple roles, but a more than solid experienced CDM). It angered people because once again, it led to Juan Carlos Osorio playing a key player, Hector Herrera, out of position.
I expect him to rectify this mistake in his next roster call up. He’ll do so, I think, by calling up either Jesus Dueñas or Jesus Molina. I went back and forth on this, but I think he’ll prefer Dueñas. While Osorio likes Molina’s height, positional discipline and has complimented Molina several times in the past-even going so far as to say he was ready for European football; I think he’ll prefer Duenas. I think it’s because he’s more versatile and he had a pretty good Gold Cup (or at least as good a Gold Cup as any Mexican player could have had).
Despite three of a possible four central midfield spots generally being spoken for there are some names to keep an eye on. The youthful trio of Pachuca’s Erick Gutierrez and Chivas’ Orbelin Pineda and Rodolfo Pizarro are all possibilities. At 22, 21, and 23 years old respectively, they show a lot of promise and all three are leaders on their clubs. But none of them stepped up as expected in the Gold Cup leaving many to think that they just won’t be ready for this cycle.
There are two names I think worth mentioning, even though I think they’re, as of now, very much on the outs: Carlos Pena of Rangers F.C. and Chivas’ Jose Juan Vazquez. Pena, 27, had been at times a semi-regular for Osorio but after a bad spell at Chivas, he fell out of favor. His physical style of play always appealed to Osorio. So, it will be interesting if Pena, now at the Scottish Premier League side Rangers will be able to catch Osorio’s eye. While the SPL may not be a top European league, Osorio may appreciate Pena’s gumption at going to face a challenge at a pressure cauldron like the Ibrox.
Fullbacks: After Miguel Layun, there aren’t a whole lot of good fullback options for El Tri right now. Layun, the FC Porto man, is capable of playing either fullback position equally well, but as a right-footed player he gives Mexico an extra little something as a ball-possessing LB.
In fact, the depth chart at both fullback spots is so lacking that Juan Carlos Osorio only brought two to Russia and on several occasions played CBs at both RB and LB. However I’m not sure if I expect him to rectify this with his next set of call-ups.
The only other regular or semi-regular fullback was Paul Aguilar. But he’s been out with a serious injury for almost a year now and there’s no telling how Osorio will receive the 31 year-old when he returns.
I think if anyone is going to provide depth at fullback on this roster it will be the 22 year-old Jesus Gallardo from UNAM. He was one of the few bright spots in the Gold Cup, but he’s not a full-time LB. He spends a lot of time at LM as well. Either way I think that versatility will serve him well and I think he’ll get the call-up next time. It will be left to be seen from there if he can maintain that roster slot for another eleven months.
One last option to keep an eye on is Guadalajara’s 20 year old LB Alejandro Mayorga. Osorio liked him so much he took him to the Confederation’s Cup just to get the kid exposed to the experience of the whole thing. But here’s the rub: Mayorga doesn’t have a single senior team appearance for his club. Granted he has the entirety of the Apertura and Clausura to earn a spot, but for a 20 year-old with no pro experience yet that’s a lot to ask.
I think any other depth at fullback will be provided by CBs.
Centerbacks: This position has been much criticized by the El Tri fans, but I think despite that the centerback corp. is fairly set. Hector Moreno is clearly the first name on the team sheet. And while Nestor Araujo and Diego Reyes battle for the right-footed CB spot, both are capable and both seem to have their place in the team secured.
Araujo is the bigger, more physical English-style centerback, while Diego Reyes, despite his height is the more skilled player; capable of playing RB or CDM. It seems as if Osorio as a part of his rotaciones likes each in different matchups.
Carlos Salcedo the former Real Salt Lake and current Chivas player was recently loaned to Marco Fabian’s Eintracht Frankfurt after being loaned to Fiorentina this past season. He has played far more RB for El Tri than CB despite it being his natural position. He’s not bad it
This brings us to another even younger centerback: Edson Alvarez. The 19 year old Club America product played the entire Gold Cup out of position at RB yet he seemed to have earned the most plaudits with his play and demeanor off the pitch. He’s big, at 6’3” and hadn’t played RB in any of his 21 Club America appearances. But I think because of the depth at centerback and the lack of it at RB, Alvarez’s best chance of making the World Cup squad is at RB.
The only thing I’m nervous about when it came to selecting this roster is that I didn’t pick a second left-footed centerback. Osorio on multiple occasions has stated his preference for having two left-footed centerbacks on the roster. But I didn’t pick one. Oswaldo Alanis after his great performance in Chivas de Guadalajara’s playoff run got to go to Russia, but didn’t cover himself in glory. But really, there’s no one else except maybe Yasser Corona who last got some run with El Tri at the 2015 Gold Cup-so it’s been a while. I think if Alanis does make it, having it be at the expense of Jesus Gallardo would make the most sense. Especially since six centerbacks wouldn’t be overkill knowing Osorio’s penchant for three CB formations.
And finally, we should discuss quickly the undead creature that is Rafael Marquez. The Mexican legend is almost 39 years-old and has 143 National Team appearances to his name. He was taken to the Confederation’s Cup but he didn’t play until the third place match mostly due to injuries. I can honestly say that I was having trouble imagining a scenario in which he’s doesn’t somehow squeak his way into the picture. He’d almost have to be arrested to be stopped.
Goalkeepers: I think the goalkeepers are all set. I can’t picture anyone besides Guillermo Ochoa, Alfredo Talavera, and Jose de Jesus Corona getting picked. While it would be nice to have a fourth keeper banging on the door to keep the competition sharp, it just hasn’t happened. Jonathan Orozco has been around forever and never really threatened. Rodolfo Cota seemed to be picked for the Confederations Cup more as filler so Corona could be the Gold Cup starter. Moises Munoz seems too old now, despite his steady presence. And Jesse Gonzalez of FC Dallas is, well American now. Raul Gudino at FC Porto still hasn’t played a game at senior level yet and I’m having trouble coming up with more names.
The one big development this summer has been that Guillermo Ochoa has finally seemed to cement his spot as the #1. He and Talavera had at times seemed to be rotated for tactical reasons with the bigger Talavera used against the US in Columbus and New Zealand in Russia. But in the knockout round Ochoa started both matches.
As if I haven’t already gone into a deep enough dive on the El Tri player pool, here’s my stab at Osorio’s seven injury replacements:
Rafael Marquez, CB (Club Atlas)
Oswaldo Alanis, CB (CD Guadalajara)
Jesus Molina, CDM (Monterrey)
Jurgen Damm (Tigres UANL)
Elias Hernandez (Club Leon)
Alan Pulido (CD Guadalajara)
And 1 of:
Rodolfo Pizarro, CM (CF Pachuca)
Orbelin Pineda, CM (CD Guadalajara)
Rodolfo Pizarro, CM (CD Guadalajara)
How Would I Do It?
Now, I know what you’re all asking: So, Jon how would YOU go about selecting a roster? Never fear, I’m about to tell you.
If I were the Mexican National Team Manager this would be my roster for the World Cup right now barring injuries (which have seemed to crop up in several cases).
My only would make three changes from what I anticipate Osorio will do. I would take Paul Aguilar if he’s healthy. I know he’s getting up there but his ability to play RB or RWB and join the attack is a great weapon. And at 31, he’s still got good pace (at least hopefully he will still have it despite the injury).
I would also take Jorge Torres-Nilo which I know would cause the El Tri faithful to unanimously emit a choral groan of “Ugh, him again.” type apathy. I know what his critics will say. He’s already got 45 caps and has never given a reason to get excited about him. But I like him for several reasons:
1) He’s experienced both at the National Team level and at club level. Ricardo “Tuca” Ferreti of Tigres is a good coach and he has a very talented squad at his disposal and they’ve played a lot of big games both domestically and internationally. And through it all Torres-Nilo has maintained his spot in the XI steadily throughout Tuca’s reign in Monterrey.
2) He’s big. At 5’11” Torres-Nilo is capable not just playing LB but LCB in a back three. So, in that sense he brings some versatility since there won’t be another left-footed CB besides Hector Moreno.
3) He’s a defense-first LB. Doesn’t hurt to have those kinds of players, for at the least, late game situations.
4) I want at the very least three true fullbacks. Because of Miguel Layun’s ability to play either side I don’t need four fullbacks. But I at least want three.
And my last change to my Osorio predictions is that I want Jose Juan Vazquez on the roster. JJ Vazquez has never once been called up by Juan Carlos Osorio despite being a key component of Miguel Herrera’s squads. Maybe I’m biased as a Chivas fan but I think it’s astounding that a player like Vazquez who was a major piece of Chivas’ Championship last season and who had three excellent starts at FIFA World Cup 2014 would be this far removed from the National Team. I think it may in large part be due to Vazquez’s lack of height, But if Osorio, who I know is a student of the game, looks he doesn’t have to try too hard to realize some of the greatest CDMs of all time were small.
I would add the following seven players as my reservists/injury replacements for now:
With the Gold Cup over and as this over-the-top Michael Bay of a summer transfer window winds down to its absurd conclusion, it’s time to take stock of the USMNT depth chart. There were lots of words written about how the Gold Cup was needed to test out the deeper end of the player pool and find the right players to solidify the end of the USMNT’s bench. Some even went so far as to say that this objective was a higher priority than even winning the tournament.
While I’m not sure whether that was true or not, what is true is that the USMNT has only four official matches left between now and next June when FIFA World Cup 2018 kicks off in Moscow. And not only are those four matches vital, being that qualification for Russia is not secured, but they’re vital because there may not be much time left for experimenting.
With that in mind, perhaps it might be prudent (or at least amusing) to try and dive into the mind of one Mr. Bruce Arena and guess exactly which 23 players he likes the most right now.
One of my biggest pet peeves, especially from MLS fans, is that whenever a player is playing well there are natural calls for his inclusion into the Men’s National Team. However they do this without ever considering tactics, formations, or which players would have to be removed from the roster due to their inclusion. You can’t have 34 player on the USMNT. I always remember Jurgen Klinsmann now infamous platitude: “There are others ahead of him.” But it’s true. You can’t take them all. Cuts need to be made. And often times, cuts near the end of the bench are more about fit and need than talent which is why guys like Sacha Kljestan, Christian Roldan, Benny Feilhaber, Lee Nguyen, Kelyn Rowe, Juan Agudelo, CJ Sapong, Dom Dwyer, Sebastian Lletget and other guys MLS fan boys clamor for just don’t have a spot. In fact a lot of these guys aren’t really even close when you kind of map it all out like I did below. But I digress.
So without further ado, let’s predict who Bruce Arena might have penned (or merely penciled) in at the moment and then we’ll get into what my thoughts are.
The following picture is a diagram I designed to help flush out all the names in the player pool and how I think Bruce perceives them:
Using this as my guide: I came up with the following roster:
Now let me explain how I got to these conclusions briefly before going player by player. I figure, after Klinsmann’s disaster in not having a backup for Jozy Altidore after his injury in 2014, I think Arena will attempt, for the most part, to take two of every position. For example, I think Dax McCarty will be on the roster simply to break in case of an emergency, i.e. a Michael Bradley injury. I’m not sure he’ll really have any other chance of starting alongside Bradley, save for a late 5-10 minute close-out. In that vein I arranged the roster in anticipation of Arena truly trying to build a roster rather than a collection of the 23 most talented football players in the country. This roster should be based on some variation of a 4-4-2 or possibly 4-2-3-1 (although as I’ll explain later, I wouldn’t be surprised if he whipped out the 5-3-2 again).
Forwards: I don’t think saying Jozy Altidore is a lock is any kind of stretch. The likelihood is somewhere around 99.4% that he’s starting the first game of the World Cup against whomever that is.
Bobby Wood too should be fairly secure in his place. He’s played well for the States for a couple years now, whether off the bench or as part of a striker tandem. The only reason I didn’t lock him in is because when you’re playing in the Bundesliga your career can crater quickly with all the talent around you and there’s pressure to perform week in and week out. So long as he can start regularly he should be in.
As for what happens after those two is tricky. I think most of us still want Clint Dempsey to be involved even if it is as a super-sub. But for a 34 year old, with a heart condition on his medical history, 10 or 11 months is a long time and a lot can happen. I think Bruce should assemble his roster under the assumption that between now and next June Dempsey will dip in form or health simply out of due diligence.
If I had to guess, I’d imagine that Jordan Morris would be the last man in. Up until he scored the Gold Cup Final winner I had him as the first man out. Why? Because someone had to be. The way I see it, the biggest battles to be in or out of the squad are for those last forward/winger hybrid spots and they’re between Arriola, Morris, Zardes, and Lletget. I only see two at most of that four getting in. Maybe a third could get in if Dempsey is somehow out of the picture by next summer. I think guys like Rowe, Joe Corona, Dwyer, Agudelo, Chris Wondolowski, and Sapong are mostly out of the picture and they will be scrambling for a reserve spot with the last two in the first group. Remember you can only take 23.
But Morris’ versatility will help him, especially since we’re really thin when it comes to players who can play “out wide.” As of now, this roster really only has Fabian Johnson and Paul Arriola to supply width. While Nagbe and Bedoya may lineup in “winger” positions we all know that’s not who they are. By design much of the width will come from the fullback positions via DeAndre Yedlin.
The Dom Dwyer situation is harder to read. Being sent home early wasn’t good, but I could see him as the kind of guy Bruce calls for CONCACAF qualifiers and then leaves home for the big show. While his MLS production is excellent and while he probably is the 3rd best true striker in the US pool I still think he’s already done in terms of making the tournament roster. After that, it’s all really just a stab at a bunch of different albeit flawed candidates like Agudelo, Wondolowski, Aron Johannsson, Christian Ramirez, or whoever else.
The last question to ask is: Could Arena take a fifth forward? It’s definitely possible give our program’s predisposition for playing two strikers at a time. A hybrid forward/winger like Zardes could be useful in order to provide deep cover at two positions but I think he’s more in competition with the winger group.
Wingers: The reason I have Pulisic listed as a winger even though he will almost certainly play as a typical #10 is because in reality, for his Club Borussia Dortmund he’s a winger. The #10 role will require him to play further forward than he does at even his club because he’ll be expected to contribute goals not just assists. I wouldn’t be surprised if he actually wound up being more of a second striker in the end. Or maybe he will play as part of a three man midfield and Wood can start with Jozy. The possibilities are endless with him. Or maybe his talents may even permit the USMNT to play with Jozy Altidore a sole striker in order to get an extra midfielder in the center of the park which hopefully would prevent the USA from being once again overrun in the possession battle as we have been in the past with teams like Mexico, Ghana, Germany, Belgium, etc.
As I alluded to earlier, this is by far the USMNT’s weakest position. It’s so weak in fact, that I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point Bruce Arena whipped out a 4-4-2 diamond or a 5-3-2 just to find a formation which best catered to the strengths of our best players.
In fact, two of the four wingers I predicted Arena will select and utilize aren’t really wingers at all: Darlington Nagbe and Alejandro Bedoya. Bedoya doesn’t even play as a winger for his club; he plays as a number 8, which is far more suited to his skill set and his tendency to hustle at both ends of the pitch. However, while Nagbe does play as a left midfielder for the Portland Timbers, you could easily find some very smart Timbers fans and MLS fans who don’t believe this is his best deployment. When Portland won the MLS Cup two seasons ago, they did so with Nagbe in the central of the park. But, Arena seems to agree with Caleb Porter that Nagbe is best suited as an inverted winger.
This point brings me to the only other full blown lock of the group: Fabian Johnson. Johnson is an excellent footballer playing at a consistent level in the German Bundesliga mostly as a wide left midfielder. While he is versatile and capable of playing a myriad of positions, I still have a sneaking suspicion he could wind up as a left back.
Why? Partly it is because I’m still not sold on Jorge Villafaña. It’s not the he’s a bad player, he’s a fine player and a good quality CONCACAF level player. But while he’s been a steady starter for Bruce Arena, I’m not convinced that his club career and his form will be steady over the next eleven months. He’s only made 35 appearances in all competitions over the past year and a half for Santos Laguna.
And partly it’s because I think Darlington Nagbe has made a nice little case for being one of the starting “wide” midfielders. Although I guess one solution to that issue could be to move Fabian Johnson to the RM or RW position in order to keep Nagbe wide. It’s not as if that RM position is anything closed to being locked down.
And lastly, I have DC United’s Paul Arriola as the final man in beating out the likes of Sebastian Lletget, Gyasi Zardes, Kelyn Rowe and Joe Corona (who really isn’t a winger anyway). It seems like Paul Arriola as much as anyone has improved his stock this summer between his game in Mexico City and the Gold Cup. He brings a youthful dynamic to the group and if needed can provide some width if it’s ever called for late in a game. In essence he’s Alejandro Bedoya’s back up who can pretty much do all or close to all of what he can do.
Who else could slide in? I guess Zardes with his LA Galaxy connections is always hovering around the selection and Jordan Morris is a nice fit because he can play two positions, but after that I’m not really sure. Could Bruce take 5 wingers? I doubt it as it isn’t a focal point of our tactics nor do we really have the depth at the position to justify it. Not to mention the fact that Pulisic is actually our best player at the position.
Midfielders: As has been the case for nearly 7 or 8 years now, Michael Bradley is the first name picked for the USMNT midfield whether positioned as a holding midfielder, a box-to-box guy, or even for a short time as a #10. These days he’s been regularly placed as as a #6 and the team has been essentially constructed around that deployment.
Because of this need to put Bradley into his favorite position, the USA often lines up in lesser known formations such as 4-4-2 diamond, 4-1-4-1, or the 4-1-3-2. While I’m not a fan of these they are oddly suited to the US personnel. The other common formation is the flat 4-4-2 which never seems to do Bradley any favors and in my recollection usually guarantees that the USA’s possession percentage will hover around 40%.
After Bradley it gets hazy quickly. As I said before I think Dax McCarty makes the roster simply as the poor man’s Michael Bradley. He’s the closest approximation to Michael Bradley when the Captain plays as a 6. In fact, at the MLS level, I really don’t see that much of a difference between McCarty and Bradley’s ability. Unfortunately for Dax his steady play has not yet translated to the international level. I think it could if he was able to play alongside Bradley in order to become this cycle’s Kyle Beckerman: a defensive minded player who gives Bradley more ability to help the team with all the good offensive things he does. But it doesn’t seem to be in the cards in Bruce Arena’s eyes. C’est la vie.
I think Kellyn Acosta is pretty close to being locked in. He’s a phenomenal MLS player and his upside will carry him farther than perhaps his performances alone would. I know the MLS crowd loves him and rightfully so, but I’m not sure I want him out there against France or even a Croatia in a World Cup group stage match. But I think as of today that may be Arena’s move.
The last man out for me was Sebastian Lletget-if he can get healthy and in form enough to get called into some matches-would be Sebastian Lletget. (I don’t know if it’s possible but maybe he could aim for a call up to the October World Cup Qualifiers against Panama and Trinidad & Tobago.) Again he may not be known as a top USMNT talent, but he has a couple things going for him. 1) Versatility. That’s always a good thing to have from a coach’s perspective. 2) Connection to Bruce Arena. Never hurts to have an “in.” 3) He was last seen scoring a goal in the 5’ minute of his USMNT debut. And like Buddy Holly or Ritchie Valens (Admit it millenials, you have no idea who either of these guys are!) you’re always more fondly remembered if you go out when you were at your peak. If he gives Bruce Arena any reason to take him he will. In fact, I had him in and Jordan Morris out all they way through the Gold Cup Final. But Arena’s trust to start Morris in the semi-final and final changed my mind.
The big wild-card here of course is Germerican Danny Williams. After several years in the Championship with Reading, Williams has made the big move to Huddersfield Town AFC in the Premier League. I don’t have him on this roster because I do buy a little into the conspiracy theory of Bruce Arena as an MLS-approved candidate. I think that for a player based abroad to get selected he’ll have to be so much better than MLS rival that it will be impossible to ignore. Otherwise, I don’t think Arena will pick them. Now, I can’t claim to have seen a ton of Danny Williams at Reading. But I do know that if he gets 25 or 30+ starts in the English Premier League it would be unprecedented not to take him. Did you ever think the USMNT would be in a place where it would be turning down the chance to call up an EPL regular? I certainly never did.
Actually, the bigger wild card here is Jermaine Jones. The dude will just not die. He turns 36 in November and has been injured almost the entirety of the season. But even Bruce Arena couldn’t quit him. I was stunned back in March when Bruce Arena called Jones into the squad for qualifiers against Honduras and Panama even though Arena knew Jones would be suspended for the first game due to yellow card accumulation. And then he started him in a flat 4-4-2 midfield alongside Michael Bradley in the second game despite the fact USMNT fans have been screaming for years that alignment doesn’t normally pan out in our favor (which it didn’t in that game). He may not be healthy now, but I’m not going to count this guy out until he’s six feet under.
Fullbacks: As of now, I think the only lock at either fullback position is DeAndre Yedlin. He’s got pace, he’s got World Cup experience and he’s coming off a good season for Newcastle United in the Championship. But while I hear every USMNT fan and pundit writing him in as the starting RB with permanent marker, there are a couple things to worry about. The first is that Newcastle is in the Premier League now and they’re a big club. If he can’t do a job or has even one bad game, he won’t get the next start. Also worrying is the fact that Newcastle signed 23 year-old Javier Manquillo from Atletico Madrid (on loan with rivals Sunderland last season) in the transfer window. Even starting out as Newcastle’s opening day RB will be a tough battle.
For now Jorge Villafaña seems a likely choice. But why did I place Jorge Villafaña on Bruce Arena’s roster even if I think he could be up for a rough year at club level? Because Bruce trusts him and will want a true left back on the roster. But that doesn’t mean that he has to play him when the time comes to face off against a World Class international team. I would think that Johnson and Nagbe is a much stronger left side than Villafaña and Johnson. I have a hunch at some point Bruce will have this come-to-Jesus moment. Or maybe he’ll simply use Johnson as a LWB after adopting some kind of three centerback formation.
After those two the player pool gets murky. Graham Zusi got the key starts at the Gold Cup over Championship veteran Eric Lichaj. But Graham Zusi will be a 31 year old winger with only a season and a half of RB under his belt by next summer. I was amazed that he was more trusted than lifelong and steady professional right back Lichaj. But if his job is just to be there in case something happens to Yedlin, he may make the roster. His versatility and late dead ball ability may be something Bruce Arena really likes as a tool on his bench.
This last fullback spot was the roster slot I spent the longest time trying to figure out. So hard in fact that I think Arena may just figure Fabian Johnson and Jorge Villafaña are all the cover he needs at leftback and he can take someone else like Lletget or Zardes instead. But assuming he takes two true leftbacks, I chose Greg Garza for a few reasons. Firstly he’s similar in style to Villafaña. Secondly, it wasn’t long ago before his injury when Garza during his days at Club Tijuana was the LB from Liga MX du jour. He’s an MLS All-Star level fullback and he might already be the best LB in MLS, American or foreign. Also, he’s 2 years younger than Villafaña. But if Villafaña has already secured a roster position and Arena wants a like-for-like backup for him then Garza is his man.
The last man out for me was DeMarcus Beasley. Talk about people who never die. Beasley will be 36 years-old next summer and despite “retiring” from the National Team already, I can’t imagine he would turn down the chance to go to a freakin’ fifth World Cup (He’d be only the 4th person to do it; or tied for fourth if the corpse of Rafa Marquez also makes it, though that seems likely now with his legal issues). Beasley was last seen playing for the USMNT as a LWB at the Azteca. Could he rise again? I will never doubt him.
And as I’ll discuss later, I think the second left back spot could be sacrificed. It could be sacrificed because Fabian Johnson will be the backup left back or because for a fifth centerback. That fifth centerback would likely Tim Ream who can also provide the “break in case of emergency” cover at LB as well.
Another major player for a fullback position is Timothy Chandler. Again, like Danny Williams, it’s funny to think that the USMNT is in an era where it could seriously consider not taking a player who is a week-in, week-out starter for a German Bundesliga club. But, his bad play in a USMNT shirt, his seeming disinterest in making some of the call-ups, and the fact that Yedlin is almost certainly the starter make his selection far more doubtful than I could’ve imagined.
Centerbacks: The centerback position was fairly straightforward. Ideally Bruce Arena wants to take four centerbacks. Preferably two right-footed and two left footed. Luckily the top four centerbacks seem to fit that mold. If we presume John (don’t call me Anthony) Brooks and Geoff Cameron are the starters, then Omar Gonzalez (a long-time Bruce Arena disciple) and the left-footed Matt Besler make the most sense because they have such experience and familiarity with the program. Despite the talent of the “Matts” Hedges and Miazga it was Besler and Gonzalez that Bruce trusted in the end.
The only other player I could see fighting his way in is Tim Ream. Beside the fact that he’s Besler’s only real rival as a left-footed CB, I think the Fulham man would be a smart addition (if perhaps necessary) addition to the roster if Bruce Arena does go with a three centerback formation. When a team goes with three centerbacks it makes taking five centerbacks mandatory. He may benefit the most from that after he played so well as a LCB in the away match against Mexico.
I know the “Matts” will make a push and I agree that they’re very promising I just don’t see how they leapfrog Besler and/or Gonzalez. Simply put: “There are others ahead of them.”
Goalkeepers: OK, I lied. Goalkeeper was the most straight forward position to select. I have a gut feeling; actually it’s more of a hunch that Tim Howard and Brad Guzan will be the #1 and #2 goalies.
After that I had kind of a three way scramble for the final spot between Ethan Horvath, Bill Hamid, and Jesse Gonzalez.
Horvath is 22 years old and all the Brian Sciaretta types seem to think highly of him. If Arena thinks he’s the next great goalkeeper, maybe he takes him. Gonzalez however is 15 days younger than Horvath and in my opinion is already a top three MLS ’keeper. After all the fuss USSoccer made to convert Jesse from El Tri to the USMNT maybe he should be the one.
But I think it will be Bill Hamid. He’s 26 and, believe it or not, he’s been a pro since 2009. You’re going to want someone Hamid’s age (26) to bridge the generation gap between Guzan and Horvath/Gonzalez. Plus I think when push comes to shove if you actually had to put someone in a game I think you’d prefer Bill to Ethan or Jesse.
Reserves: And as for Bruce Arena naming those seven reservists/injury replacements? If I had to predict Bruce’s 7 I think we might be looking at something like:
Tim Ream (Fulham): You always want that extra left-footed CB.
Eric Lichaj (Nottingham Forest): He’s veteran professional capable of playing LB and RB
Danny Williams (Hudderrsfield Town): It will be tough to ignore an EPL player even if he’s only a part time starter.
Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy): He’s a Bruce Arena favorite and in his 12’ USMNT minutes he already has a goal.
Kelyn Rowe (New England Revolution): He’s kind of like a slightly more athletic and versatile Brad Davis. But not as Good.
Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy): His game kind of reminds me of an American soccer version of Danny Welbeck. He looks like he should be good, but isn’t good enough in front of net to play striker. But coachable and dedicated enough to get starts out wide.
Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes): C’mon, look into your heart; you know it to be true.
But that is a total stab in the dark.
WHAT WOULD I DO?
And with all that said, we now come to what I would do, if I were picking the USMNT roster. Here’s how I’d have it and why.
As I’ve continually reiterated throughout this overly lengthy analysis, there does exist a more than just a token chance that Bruce Arena does something funky. Look, if after only three days to practice he can implement and play a three centerback formation at the Azteca with mostly backups then he can do it in preparation of the World Cup. Yes he may be unwilling to implement it again down the final four game stretch of the Hexagonal, but once the October games are over, provided the USA qualifies, Bruce Arena will have nearly four months to plan and scheme.
Once he starts all his little plans and schemes he’s going to realize a few things. One that Omar Gonzalez is a better centerback than Bedoya is a RM or Kellyn Acosta is a CM. I also think he’s going to realize the best wide players on the pitch are Johnson and Yedlin. I also think both those players make for better wingbacks than fullbacks as both lack the defensive discipline for that at the international level. I’m also convinced that at some point Danny Williams is going to become impossible to ignore. I also think he’s going to realize that he wants Johnson and Nagbe on the pitch together to maximize our talent (ability to maintain possession). And I personally, I am really in favor of this. I really think this could be our eventual formation and lineup.
For those of you counting at home the league breakdown of the starting 11, it is: 4 MLS, 3 German Bundesliga, 3 EPL, 1 Liga MX.
For my fantasy roster as a whole it is: 13 MLS, 5 German Bundesliga, 3 EPL, 1 Championship, 1 Liga MX.
(Turns out my roster is far more MLS-centric than I figured it would be. But then again the USMNT is far more MLS-centric than it probably should be.)
Yes, missing out on nice promising players like Arriola, Acosta, Morris, Hedges, or Miazga may seem cruel, but are those guys really going to be the difference between us winning a game we might not otherwise have won? No, I don’t think so. One other criticism I would anticipate is that the lack of youth on the team doesn’t keep the team “hungry” and “energized.” People will point out Arena’s failure at FIFA World Cup 2006 was largely due to the fact that he picked an old squad that aged overnight and was complacent.
While Sacha Kljestan and Benny Feilhaber aren’t spring chicken’s anymore, I don’t think you’d have to worry about complacency with either of them. Both would be totally energized at the prospect of playing in a World Cup-Kljestan for the first time.
Also some of the “older” players like Dax McCarty, Clint Dempsey, Graham Zusi would have their own reasons for being motivated. Dax because it’s his first trip, Zusi because he’s at a new position, and Dempsey because he’s Deuce and is as fiery as they come, especially now that he’s been doubted.
Guys like Danny Williams, Tim Ream, Darlington Nagbe would also all be first timers and motivated. And several young guys like Pulisic, Yedlin, Brooks, Wood, and Jesse Gonzalez would play integral roles pushing guys to maintain their energy levels.
As for the reserves I think these seven would be good:
Matt Hedges-Best young American CB in MLS.
Jorge Villafaña/Garza-Either would work for me as true LB.
Eric Lichaj-I like his experience.
Kellyn Acosta-He’s still a talent.
Paul Arriola-Love the energy, but he wouldn’t have a position in the 5-3-2.
Jordan Morris-If a striker goes down he’d be the next in line.
Dom Dwyer-Can never have to many out-and-out goal scorers.
Also aside from Acosta, who could serve a role on this roster, Morris nor Arriola are going to have a fit because of the lack of width. I guess Morris could play as a striker, but he’s not as good as solo striker as Jozy or Wood.
In the end, I do expect this three centerback formation to pop up again in an important spot for the USMNT. But no, I don’t expect my roster to be Bruce’s even if he does go back to 3 CBs. In fact his 3 CB formation might implement wingers as he used more of a 3-4-3 at the Azteca in March.
Anyway I hope we’ve had a good look at the depth of the player pool and what exactly the USMNT roster looks like at this particular moment in time. Again it’s easy to say someone deserves a look. It’s much harder to pick the 23 and start cutting people when you realize you have to make choices. Maybe we’ll update this after the two September qualifiers as we see Bruce integrate the European contingent for the big home match against Costa Rica in Harrison. Those two lineups will tell us a lot about what he learned during the Gold Cup.
I’ll be back in a few days to break this down from the Mexico National Team perspective. Vaya con Dios mis amigos.
With the beginning of any new season comes prognostications. I’m not afraid to put any of mine on the record, despite the fact that MLS is without a doubt the most unpredictable league in the world.
So, without further ado, let’s officially put down how I think the teams will finish in regards to their regular season standings.*
*Disclaimer: I reserve the right to completely overhaul these rankings by Monday, because I’m sure I’ll want to.
FC Dallas – They’re the best team. They may not prioritize Supporter’s Shield as much this season, but even so, they’ll still be up there. It’s really simple if Hedges and Zimmerman are healthy Dallas will allow fewer goals than they’ll score. And they’ll score. A lot.
Seattle Sounders – Nico Lodeiro, Jordan Morris, and a rejuvenated Clint Dempsey will be a deadly trio. But Chad Marshall and Roman Torres will be the ones who’ll keep the team consistently stingy and help keep the team accumulating points.
LA Galaxy – They always find a way to be near the top don’t they? If Zardes is healthy, they’ll be a potent attacking team. Jermaine Jones, if healthy he’ll give the team a necessary edge.
Vancouver Whitecaps – After a much hyped flop last season, I think their CCL run will give them a boost and the confidence to start hot. I also love the attacking talent with Manneh, Davies, De Jong, Shea, Montero, et al. They also have the best goalkeeper in the league.
Houston Dynamo – Is it just me or did someone in Houston say “Let’s just do what Dallas is doing.” In comes the Colombian coach, the Central American DP’s and I think a totally new and improved Cubo Torres. I think it’ll work.
Sporting KC – At some point this team will grow old and stale. I’m not sure Besler and Zusi are worthy of being Designated Players anymore. But they have a winning coach and winning players. They’ll squeak in.
Portland Timbers – Despite the MLS Cup and good publicity, Caleb Porter now officially has more failures on his resume since leaving Akron than successes. And also at this stage I’m just not sure Nagbe is the player we all want him to be.
Colorado Rapids – With no Jones and an injured Howard, they should get off to a slow start. I think most pundits agree that they’re due for a fall from grace. I don’t think I can disagree. That being said, they could just as well prove us all wrong again.
Minnesota United – I’m not sure anyone in the Twin Cities is going to care too much about where the Loons finish provided they don’t make fools of themselves. They could, but I think their attacking players will score goals and keep them feisty even if their defense is questionable.
Real Salt Lake – This team is rebuilding with youth and the West is as competitive as ever. As much as we all love Rimando and Beckerman I don’t think the aging core of this team is going to be enough.
San Jose Earthquakes – It pains me to rank a Dominic Kinnear team this low. The guy just grinds out wins and has had more than a year to shape his roster. Problem is, it just isn’t good enough.
Toronto FC – This team has too much talent and expectations not try and go for a Supporters Shield, which I believe they will win. I also think they’re even better than last season. Provided that Jozy Altidore stays healthy and confident they will be a juggernaut.
Atlanta United – I know this is way too high. I acknowledge this is a stretch. But I have a feeling this team is going to have a regular season for the history books. They got the talent, they got the coach. Why not?
Red Bull New York – They may get off to a rough start with all the turnaround and influx of academy guys. But Marsch, Kljestan, and BWP will do what they do best, win regular season games.
Montreal Impact – Yes, they’re old in the midfield. Yes they barely got in last year. But this is Ignacio Piatti’s team now. And I think he’s going to take over and put himself into MVP contention this season.
Chicago Fire – Maybe it’s the Red Bulls fan in me. But Dax McCarty and Juninho are two really good MLS players. I can’t see them not leading this team to a Colorado Rapids style turn-around.
D.C. United – I could see any of the next four teams making the playoffs. And while United never look sexy on paper, they have a roster full of solid MLS types and they always seem to get the job done, even if its ugly. But now they have their one creative guy too in Luciano Acosta.
Philadelphia Union – No idea what to expect from this team. They collapsed at the end of last season and Jay Simpson and Oguchi Onyewu are the major signings. Going to have to see a lot from Alejandro Bedoya this season to make playoffs.
Columbus Crew – I think they’re better than they showed last year. And they did seem to straighten out after Kei Kamara left. But I don’t know they’re improved enough to break into the top six. Although if Ola Kamara is the real deal and Jonathan Mensah can fix the defense, they can shoot right up this list.
New England Revolution – They have the talent to be much, much higher. But Fagundez and Agudelo never seem to take the next step. Nguyen seems to be getting less effective and Kei Kamara is kind of a headache. I have no idea what to expect here. All I know is it doesn’t seem the defense is any better.
New York City FC – I’m still not sure how they were as good last year as they were. They’ll need a lot to go right again, including another MVP-type performance from David Villa. They’ll also need to get something out of Andrea Pirlo. It’s going to be a tall task.
Orlando City – My how the mighty Jason Kreis has fallen. This ownership group was supposed to be ambitious. Yet somehow Atlanta is the group that seems to have assembled a better roster despite Orlando’s two year head start. I just don’t see it for Orlando this season.
Some Miscellaneous Predictions:
MVP: Nicolas Lodeiro – I just don’t think Giovinco has 3 MVP worthy seasons in a row in him. League’s too physical.
Golden Boot: Cyle Larin – Orlando will score. And Larin will be in Europe by next January.
Rookie: Ian Harkes – If he can earn a regular job and live up even remotely to his hype the media will be eager to hand him the award.
Comeback Player of the Year: Erick “Cubo” Torres – Granted, Dempsey will be the front-runner, but I think Torres has 15 goals in him.
Defender of the Year: Roman Torres – Seattle is going to be great and Torres is going to be a high profile part of their recipe for success.
MLS Cup Winner: Toronto FC – They have unfinished business and the roster to make another run. Plus they’ll make another big mid-summer signing. Good a guess as any.
It’s like Jesus said: “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Do not even the tax collectors do that?” (Man, tax collectors get the worst publicity) Anyone can learn the USMNT roster. Takes a real fan to learn your rivals!
This entry will help you do that. Read this post and you’ll know all there is to know about El Tri heading into the huge game on October 10th at the Rose Bowl.
As a fan of both Mexico and the United States (Call me blasphemous if you want, I don’t care.) I am often astounded (and incredibly frustrated) how little USMNT fans know of the Mexico team, the program, and really Liga MX and Mexican football in general (I mean Mexico’s National Team is this nation’s most popular sports team and have really good players! How much US soccer fans ignore the amount of free soccer on TV from a Top 10 league I’ll never know. But this is another post altogether). As someone who grew up as a diehard Yankee fan you can be certain that we always knew everything there was to know about that Red Sox roster. If there was a hot prospect in AAA the Sox fans were giddy about, we knew. Same rules should apply here in a rivalry as heated as U.S.A./Mexico. It’s amazing how long conversations regarding the USMNT’s match-up against El Tri can go without their opponent and how and what they do not be mentioned.
Which is a shame. Because if this is supposed to be the great rivalry that fans proclaim, then don’t you want to know each and every one of those guys lining up against you? Can you have a serious discussion about formation when you don’t understand what your opponent will likely try to do?
But before we get to the individual players let’s try and get a snapshot of the team right now by asking and answering some basic questions.
1) What’s the current form of El Tri?
US Men’s National Team fans will never forget the way in which Mexico struggled to qualify for the 2014 World Cup. Nor will they ever allow El Tri’s fan base to forget the fact that they only played in Brazil via the miracle of San Zusi (Mexico really ought to build a holy shrine at the Estadio Rommel Fernandez). But the fact remains, Mexico played well at the World Cup, qualifying out of the group stage for the sixth consecutive World Cup (only Germany and Brazil have achieved that). They followed up the World Cup with some strong friendly performances versus the likes of Chile, Honduras, Panama, Ecuador, and even a road win versus the Dutch.
And with maybe a teeny tiny bit of luck, Mexico got into the Gold Cup Final. Which, you can’t take away from them, they did go on to win convincingly.
Their last test versus Argentina was great for many reasons. The best positive to take from the game is that they reverted back to the same formation and spine used in the World Cup, even though it would not normally be their new coaches’ preferred tactics.
2) What do we need to know about their new interim coach, Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti?
Anyone who watched any of ESPN’s World Cup 2014 coverage, was probably aware that they were managed by Miguel “El Piojo” Herrera. The former Club America boss instituted his preferred three centre-back system and gave the team its swagger back with his loose and fun coaching style. He, along with Jurgen Klinsmann, was one of only two World Cup coaches to be on Twitter.
But, his Copa America and Gold Cup teams struggled and the heavily cynical Mexican footballing press began to wear on him to the point where Herrera punched Christian Martinoli, a prominent commentator, at the Philadelphia airport.
(Side note: one thing I definitely don’t think USMNT fans understand is the current dynamic of the Mexico fan and how complicated it is. Mexicans in Mexico are, like their press, incredibly cynical. They believe that El Tri is a soft bunch of underachievers that are undermined by the corrupt FMF which is a reflection of the entire corrupt system of governance in Mexico. Whenever I ask a cousin or a Mexican friend how Mexico will do, they tell me Mexico is no good and almost always predict a bad loss. Mexican-Americans on the other hand, use El Tri to connect to their heritage and pump up the Mexican players, saying they are superior to American players so that they have something with which they can brag about and be proud of. You’ll never hear a Mexican-American predict a loss to the US, and even when they win, they’re confounded because on paper Mexico ought to be so much better.)
So, in the aftermath of the Philadelphia incident, out went Piojo and in came: Interim Manager-Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti-UANL Tigres, Mexican Liga MX: The man they call “Tuca” has been in Mexico so long people forget he’s Brazilian. He has been in Mexico continuously since he signed with Atlas of Guadalajara as a player in 1977! Even his Spanish accent is heavily northern Mexican.
There’s no doubt about him at this point in his career. The 61 year old is known for two things: good defensive tactics and being a stern disciplinarian. But nobody really knew what to expect of him in his voluntary 4-game stint as Mexico manager (I’m not sure anyone’s positive about what he’ll do even now). But after leading Tigres on a great run to the Copa Libertadores Final, he was the best domestic choice.
And, as his personality might have suggested, he shocked (and irritated) people right from the get-go by not selecting the Dos Santos brothers or Guillermo Ochoa for the September friendlies. But he also pleasantly surprised fans by naming all three to Mexico’s provisional roster. He also further pleased fans by returning Mexico to the 5-3-2 for the Argentina match.
Long a fan of the more traditional 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 he showed a lot of flexibility in allowing El Tri to take the field in a formation with which the players were familiar and also allowed for the best XI possible players on the pitch. I think he was smart (and humble enough) to realize that he had a big game with the United States with only one game left to tinker. And after another wild draw with Trinidad and Tobago he realized defensive stability came first.
3) So what tactics can USMNT fans anticipate?
I expect Ferretti, for the sake of continuity (hear that Jurgen, players like continuity) to line Mexico up in the 5-3-2 on October 10th, even though it ensures his two star wingers from Tigres will be forced to the bench. The wrinkle will be the health of former captain Rafa Marquez and current captain Andres Guardado. Without them, and moreso without Marquez, it will be very tempting to play a 4-4-2. Guardado is a 50/50 proposition at this point and Marquez looks to be out.
Miguel Herrera had long been a proponent of a three centre-back formation which heavily relies on wingbacks. He used it to much success with Club America, winning the title that tied them with Guadalajara for most titles in Mexican league history.
What Herrera liked best about this formation, it would seem, is that it gave Mexico extra defensive cover with three centre-backs and five defenders, yet allows for more of a 3-5-2 flank-oriented attack when Mexico is in possession. And what really makes this formation work is Mexico’s two wingbacks from Herrera’s days at Club America: Miguel Layun and Paul Aguilar.
The other element of Mexico’s success with the 5-3-2 is that they’ve found an undisputed killer threesome in the center of midfield. Captain Andres Guardado of PSV Eindhoven, FC Porto man Hector Herrera, and defensive midfielder Jose Juan Vazquez of Club Leon play at a very high level. Guardado and Herrera are incredibly skilled with the ball at their feet, aggressive in possession, and deft passers with a sense of defensive responsibility. And at ages 29, 26, and 25 they’ll likely be the threesome through 2018 qualification.
At forward, Mexico has a litany of options in their two-striker setup. They can go with any combination of Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, Carlos Vela, Raul Jimenez, Giovani Dos Santos, Oribe Peralta or Jose Manuel “Tecatito” Corona.
Goalkeeper is a position where El Tri will be solid if not spectacular. Guillermo Ochoa and Jose de Jesus Corona have long been Mexico’s 1 & 2 and are equals in talent to Brad Guzan. But Ochoa is currently a backup with his club and neither was named to the squad. But it looks like Club America’s reliable Moises Munoz is poised to start or possibly Alfredo Talavara, the starter when Mexico last won at the Rose Bowl.
4) Well, they sound pretty solid… so where is Mexico’s weakness?
Currently, Mexico’s centre-backs are perceived to be their weakness. Which has at times been particularly glaring being that they are likely to require three. At the World Cup they started Hector Moreno, Rafa Marquez, and Francisco “Maza” Rodriguez who were at the time 26, 35, and 32 respectively. And while Moreno is in his prime and has had a solid European career, Mexico has had trouble trying to find long-term replacements for Rafa and Maza going back to 2010.
Rafa Marquez, long-time villain of Team USA fans, returned to the starting XI for the Argentina friendly and looked excellent, organizing the defense and playing several of his patented long balls.
Maza has not had a great season and picked up a knock before the last pair of friendlies and wasn’t named to the squad. His replacement will likely be Diego Reyes, who has long been thought the heir apparent to Marquez. But the talented 22 year-old was forgotten in Porto last season and has been unable to progress as expected and is currently on loan at Real Sociedad.
5) So, how does the USA attack Mexico?
Well, Mexico should win possession against the United States. That’s a virtual lock. Their players are skilled with the ball at their feet and are super familiar with the system and their roles in it at this point.
At last summer’s World Cup, Mexico really only ever got into trouble when they were being attacked with speed cutting inside from the flanks (Neymar & Robben come to mind. Although who don’t they give problems too?). Even Croatia’s central midfield stacked with the likes of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Danijel Prjancic, and Mateo Kovacic were completely dominated by Mexico’s midfield trio.
Mexico is far more vulnerable down the flanks. While Marquez can hardly run with any pace at all anymore, Reyes and Moreno have decent speed and should insulate Rafa’s big weakness. Moreno is also smart, strong, and he and Rafa know one another well. The key will be minimizing youthful mistakes from Reyes who with his thin frame is capable of being pushed around by bigger physical players. They won’t be caught out of position often. So what do you do? You hit them with speed, preferably on the flanks while Layun and Aguilar are caught up field.
Except there’s one problem: The USMNT has a lack of true wide midfielders. The absence of true wingers in the US pool has been evident for a while. Guys like Graham Zusi, Alejandro Bedoya, Gyasi Zardes, Fabian Johnson, Joe Corona, and DeAndre Yedlin are really not wide midfielders.
The USMNT has always given Mexico problems when they play very ugly American-style ball. What that means is: physical, scrappy, hard-nosed and organized play, relying on counter-attacks, some set pieces and good goalkeeping. When you try to out finesse Mexico (like they did during the 2011 Gold Cup Final) that’s when you lose.
If it where up to me, I’d play Besler and Gonzalez with Fabian Johnson and Geoff Cameron at fullback. Shore up the right side with Cameron, who’s big, strong, and used to being poised under siege. At midfield, I’d play Michael Bradley in front of a true defensive minded midfielder like Kyle Beckerman (I’d prefer someone a bit more athletic, like Maurice Edu, who did a fine job at the Azteca in the hexagonal, but I understand who Jurgen likes and doesn’t like. Maybe Danny Williams could be the new Beckerman.) Jermaine Jones in my view is a disaster waiting to happen, when on his inevitable runs forward will vacate space in front of defense with just enough room for a guy like Herrera, Vela, or Guardado to wreak havoc (see 2011 Gold Cup Final). That was probably Jones’ worst game ever in a USA shirt. Just watch his positioning in those highlights. It’s atrocious. I think playing a flat 4-4-2 with a Bradley/Jones CM pairing is pure doom for the U.S. They would both be totally overwhelmed and outnumbered in midfield.
Instead I would play a diamond in midfield which would give the USA a foursome with which to clog up the midfield, thus preventing Herrera and Guardado from dictating the game.
Finally up front, I’d prefer to have speed for the counter attack but in the absence of speed go with strength and clinical finishing: Dempsey and Altidore. You may only get one or two good chances; you want the guys who can make them count. Then in the end, if Mexico is becoming frustrated, you bring in Yedlin and/or Zardes to speed up the flank attack and see if you can outrun those tired wingbacks.
6) So, let’s get to the important part, who are the players we will likely see at the Rose Bowl wearing black and green come October and what do we need to know about them?
So finally, without further ado, here is a quick cheat sheet as to who exactly are likely to face off against the USMNT in Pasadena.
The presumption remains that Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti will stick with Miguel “Piojo” Herrera’s 5-3-2 for the sake of the team’s continuity like he did against Argentina. And I’d expect the starting XI to be: Chicharito & Vela at forward, Guardado and Herrera in front of Jose Juan Vazquez in central midfield, Paul Aguilar and Miguel Layun deployed at wingbacks, and a back three of Moreno, Reyes and a third center-back to be determined (likely Miguel Angel Herrera or Oswaldo Alanis) if Rafa Marquez is truly out. Moises Munoz or Alfredo Talavera is favored to be in goal over Guillermo Ochoa.
If due to Marquez’s injury, Ferretti decides to go with his preferred 4-4-2 (because Marquez as a libero is what really makes the 5-3-2 work), you can imagine that Javier Aquino will come in to play one of the two wing positions. But after that, the ideal XI becomes much more murky and that’s why I expect the 5-3-2 to be the call.
ST-Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez-Bayer Leverkusen, German Bundesliga: We’re all familiar the man nicknamed the Little Pea. The diminutive striker may not be the best player on Earth and most experts probably wouldn’t have them in their top 100 players in the world. Heck, for those that know Mexican football, he’s certainly not even Mexico’s best player. But when it comes to fame and popularity, there are fewer footballers with quite so many fans. In many respects he may be the most famous footballer in two different countries: Mexico and the United States.
And while his talent to popularity ratio brings out the haters, it’s easy to forget that he’s actually pretty damn good. He will always be an elite level clinical finisheras we saw in last season’s UEFA Champions League quarterfinal. It’s just a matter of having a coach who believes in him and good service. He still has one of the best goal-to-minute ratios in Europe.
And while some deride him as simply a poacher, for me, he’s most dangerous when playing a team that prefers playing a high defensive line. Yes he’s known for his sense of space and timing, but for me, his ability to score goals like the one he scored versus France in South Africa that excite me. He missed one of those versus Argentina, but if he gets in rhythm between now and October with Leverkusen then Chicharito may finally nab that goal vs. the United States which he has yet to tally.
I think one of the reasons he’s failed to score on the Yanks is twofold: 1) while he’s shifty and a great leaper, he’s too short to score poaching goals against the USMNT. 2) USA almost never plays a high defensive line. It will be interesting to see if US plays it tight and to see if he will get frustrated or if he finally breaks through versus the Yanks.
FW-Carlos Vela-Real Sociedad, Spain’s La Liga: Along with Giovani Dos Santos, the mercurial Vela was supposed to headline Mexico’s “Golden Generation” after winning the Golden Ball at the 2005 U-17 World Cup as a 15 year-old. And, like Dos Santos, after signing with a Premier League Team (Arsenal) and subsequently wandering the European wilderness on loan, Vela finally become an elite player upon settling at Basque club Real Sociedad in 2012, helping the team advance to the Champions League in 2014.
But the real story with Vela was his long three-year absence from El Tri. Details of the beef are murky. But it stemmed from a six-month suspension Vela received from the Mexican Football Federation for a party he threw in Mexico after a friendly. That was late 2010. But after one more appearance with El Tri in early 2011, Vela began refusing all-call ups to play for Mexico until only this past November for a pair of friendlies against the Netherlands and Belarus. And when he started beside Chicharito in that game, Mexico fans saw what they had been waiting three long years to see.
What exactly does Carlos Vela bring to El Tri? Pure dynamism and elite talent. He’s the one guy in a Mexico shirt (perhaps Gio too, to a certain extent) who can truly make something out of nothing. He’s the guy Miguel Herrera said is Mexico’s best footballer. On talent alone, he certainly is.
He’s a drifter. Vela has never quite been the ideal inverted right winger and he’s never quite been a striker and he’s never quite been a No. 10, but he can be all of those things within a single game. He is a good partner for Chicharito because he won’t occupy his space. Whereas Hernandez wants to be on a centerback’s shoulder, Vela wants to pick up the ball between the midfielders and the defenders or between a centerback and a fullback where he is capable of shooting from distance, attacking the defense, or passing. This gives center-backs the dilemma of having to come to him, which would leave Hernandez able to break free behind.
ST-Raul Jimenez-Benfica, Primeira Liga: While I still think it would be hard not to pick a Vela/Hernandez forward-line, do not be surprised if Ferretti elects to replace Vela with Jimenez after his excellent performance against Argentina. Jimenez, is tall, physical, technical (watch this epic goal which saved Mexico’s bacon at the Azteca) and is Mexico’s best weapon at matching up in the aerial game. Growing up at Club America where the team always possessed a South American star striker, Jimenez learned quickly how to complement whoever he needed to as a second striker. He is definitely capable of playing a role and doing dirty work if asked to do so.
It’s going to be a hard decision for Ferretti to choose two of Vela/ Hernandez/Jimenez but Raul may be the best strategic matchup for El Tri in countering the US’s size and physicality.
ST/MF-Jesus Manuel “Tecatito” Corona-FC Porto, Primeira Liga: The twenty-two year old winger/striker hybrid is the player Mexico fans are most excited about right now. His coming out party on the international level was the Gold Cup Final where he earned his start of the tournament and recorded the winning goal. He is simply fearless. He takes on players, almost to a fault, always convinced he can beat his man. I am sure, that if he’s on the ball out wide and facing a converted center-back playing fullback, he’s going at him. Probably each and every time. He’s not a great passer yet, so crossing is not where he’ll hurt the USA. It’s his ability to head to the end line, turn in and create chaos in the box that’s his specialty.
He would’ve been a part of the recent friendlies but he stayed in Portugal to assimilate with his new team after just being transferred. It was a good idea as he debuted with a brace. I would expect Tecatito almost certainly will be used as a substitute during the US match.
FW-Giovani Dos Santos-LA Galaxy, Major League Soccer: The son of a Brazilian footballer, the Mexican-born speedster has always been a player with whom a ton was expected. Finally, during an excellent 2013-2014 season with Villarreal, Dos Santos seemed to finally be living up to his potential. In that season he scored 11 goals and notched 8 assists as he led the newly promoted Villarreal to sixth place. Unfortunately last season saw him miss lots of time due to injury and his coach lost faith in him, leading the way to (GASP!) a transfer to MLS.
Dos Santos always has been a feast or famine player. At his best he’s roaming the pitch for the best positions to receive the ball and attacks defenders 1-on-1 ruthlessly.At his worst, he drifts side-to-side disinterested in defense and disengaged. Luckily for El Tri, the former has become more and more the norm. Luckily for the USA… it’s very likely that he won’t see the field after Ferretti left him out of the September friendlies, which means he won’t be able to do this.
Wingers-Jurgen Damm*/Javier Aquino-UANL Tigres, Liga MX: As two of Tuca’s regular starting XI in Liga MX everyone assumes both wingers would slide right into El Tri’s starting XI, however as Tuca has reverted back to Herrera’s 5-3-2 formation for the sake of the squad, it is likely Damm and Aquino who will suffer as there’s no role for traditional wingers.
There is nothing particularly nuanced about their games. They favor staying wide and like to use their speed to blow by people. And both are confident enough to take on defenders 1v1, Damm with youthful ignorance and Aquino with what Bill Simmons would call “irrational confidence.” (By the way the USMNT could use a couple irrational confidence guys. Dempsey and Jones seem to be the only ones with swag in the pool. Michael Bradley’s quiet confidence does not equate.)
And Guardado has made a fine successor. Last year Guardado settled in nicely at PSV Eindhoven on loan after several years struggling out of position at Valencia. And for the first time since playing for Deportivo La Coruna in the Spanish second division, he’s a fixture for his club. He even earned Player of the Year honors from one major Dutch newspaper. In fact, this past March, the PSV fans, thankful for Guardado’s role in leading PSV to their first title in six years, put together a touching pre-game display for Guardado. They displayed a tifo thanking the Mexican and urging PSV and his parent club Valencia to make the loan move permanent.
What he provides in midfield is steadiness and technical ability. He plays well both in attack and in defense and will be a key in helping Mexico dominate possession. Funny enough prior to the World Cup, many Mexico fans wondered if he’d even make the roster. But a serious injury to Club Leon’s Luis Montes gave Guardado new life and his club and country form has been superb ever since.
Clearly Mexico’s best player in the Gold Cup, what he does excellently is dictate play. He runs so hard at the ball, winning it back (along with Herrera and Vazquez who also both run relentlessly) that he’s able to spur these mini-counterattacks from midfield (much like he did for PSV’s winning goal against Manchester United). If the US midfield has one those days where their first touch just isn’t good, it could be a long day for them. Mexico’s trio will scoop up those long touches and the ball will be heading toward Hernandez before anyone knows what’s going on. That’s why, if I’m a Mexico fan I want Jermaine Jones in the starting XI. He’s going to make forays forward, some of them wildly, and if and when the ball is lost he’s going to give his own backline more headaches than they can deal with. Herrera, Vela, or Jimenez or Guardado are going to charge into that vacated area and create scoring chances.
MF-Hector Herrera-FC Porto, Primeira Liga: Despite being overshadowed by the likes of Chicharito, Giovani Dos Santos and others, Herrera is possibly Mexico’s best footballer at the moment. The twenty-five year-old has quietly become the undisputed banner carrier for Mexicans abroad in Europe. Starting regularly as a central midfielder, Herrera was the only CONCACAF outfield player playing in the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League last season and was a key part of FC Porto’s run to the quarterfinals.
Herrera is a dangerous player because he has the exact same position and role with Mexico as he does at Porto. He plays on the right side of a narrow three-man midfield ahead of the CDM and looks to create for the forward line, and more increasingly of late, look for his own long range shots (he scored this great golazo in the Champions League last season). Herrera is tall, strong, technically gifted and will not be intimidated by the USA’s physicality after playing against Europe’s elite. He was incredibly underutilized by Mexico during their disastrous Hexagonal campaign much to the chagrin of Mexico fans.
CDM-Jose Juan “Gallito” Vazquez-Club Leon, Liga MX: “Gallito” was the break-out star of the Mexican team during the World Cup last summer. Vazquez, who had not been on the National team radar until Miguel Herrera took over and noticed he may have been the lynchpin to a Club Leon midfield that won back-to-back Liga MX titles. While Luis Montes and Carlos Pena won the plaudits playing roles similar to that of Guardado and Herrera, Herrera saw that it was Vazquez’s bulldog, and dare I say, Beckerman-esque defensive nature which allowed them to thrive.
Even then, however, it seemed Herrera was going to start his Club America midfielder Juan Carlos Medina in the CDM role in Brazil. But, fate intervened, Medina was hurt in practice and Vazquez was handed the reigns and thrived, playing all three group games in Brazil. In fact, his injury leading up to the Gold Cup prevented him from being a factor at all in that tournament and I think his absence was a huge loss for El Tri. Granted, Jonathan Dos Santos, who replaced him, is far more talented, but is not as defensive minded. Ferretti’s desire to start Vazquez may be the reason Jonathan Dos Santos is unlikely to start.
Yes Gallito can be eager to test the goalkeeper from distance, but generally Vazquez’s game is simple. He guards the defense, runs arounds (the downside: sometimes, he can run himself out of games against well drilled and skilled midfields), wins balls and looks for Guardado and Herrera who will do the creative passing. His battle with a forward deployed Bradley could be the key to the whole game.
CM-Jonathan Dos Santos-Villarreal, Spain’s La Liga: I think Jurgen Klinsmann would’ve appreciated Jonathan Dos Santos. The younger brother of Gio, Jonathan spent five seasons fighting, scraping, clawing, to stay at FC Barcelona despite the fact many urged him to move on and earn regular minutes. It wasn’t until his brother’s team came calling that he finally agreed to concede that he wasn’t going to reach the first team in Catalonia.
At Villareal last season he thrived, even as Gio struggled with injuries. Deployed all over the pitch, the self-proclaimed defensive midfielder is as talented a player as Mexico has. Think of him as Michael Bradley with skillz (yes, skills with a ‘Z’). His game is similar to Guardado’s in that he uses his energy to win balls and his skill to launch attacks. The best example of this was the Gold Cup Final against Jamaica. I was there in person and the way in which he kept attacking the ball and then properly moving the ball forward was the one thing I will always remember about that game.
LWB-Miguel Layun-FC Porto, Primeira Liga (on loan from Watford, Premier League): Not always the most popular player in the eyes of Mexico fans, the former Club America captain definitely has his skill set. Naturally right-footed, Layun can play several other positions as well and tends to cut inside in the final third where he is capable of ripping off golazos from 20-25 yards. He can truly be an extra midfielder in possession.
Watch hereas he cuts inside to the right foot. He won’t be a dangerous crosser, though he can do it adequately with his left and showed versus Argentina he can counter with the best of them. But it won’t be a caught up-field fullback that will scare you with him. It’s a caught up-field right-sided central midfielder who will encourage him to sneak inside and forward and help Mexico control possession in the USA’s defensive third.
RWB-Paul Aguilar-Club America, Liga MX: I’ve already stated just how much Paul Aguilar and Miguel Layun make the 5-3-2 work. Mexico needs both of them on top of their game to succeed in this tournament. If for some reason Ferretti elects to go with only 2 centerbacks, I’d expect Aguilar to be replaced by Tigres’ Israel Jimenez, a more defensive minded fullback.
FB-Israel Jimenez & Jose Torres-Nilo-UANL Tigres, Liga MX: The right back, who made his name by starting for the Mexico team which won the Olympics hasn’t really reached his potential. But he plays his club football for Tigres which means he’s already a reliable soldier for interim coach Tuca Ferretti. While he got the start in Mexico’s 2-2 draw with Argentina, he’s not ideally suited to a 5-3-2 if that is the formation. While he’s a capable fullback who just recently played in the Copa Libertadores Final, he’s just not a strong enough offensive player for that role. At least that’s my opinion, it may not be Ferretti’s however who clearly trusts him. But if the USA goes with a narrow diamond midfield, then Mexico will lose a lot by not having a right sided marauder to take advantage.
Jose Torres-Nilo lost his position as Mexico’s LB to Layun during the 2014 World Cup Qualifying cycle, but he’s always hung around as an option. Like Jimenez, if Tuca chooses a 4-4-2, then the possibility of Torres-Nilo playing goes way up as he’s a more natural defensive player.
CB-Rafa Marquez-Hellas Verona, Italian Serie A: My goodness. What can I say about longtime USMNT villain Rafa Marquez that hasn’t already been said through gritted teeth? Although Marquez’s resume is excellent (2x UEFA Champions League winner, 2x Liga MX champion, only man to captain a team at four different World Cups), he really has never played great against the United States. Their physicality frustrates him and he’s prone to cards as it is. But this 5-3-2 formation has brought him new life. Flanked by a center back on either side, Marquez is able to play an almost Pirlo-esque role while using his experience to direct the defense. He has become the ultimate “libero” in his old age.
His long range passing is such a weapon and it diversifies Mexico’s attack. While the rest of the team can play the possession game, he can start counter attacks incredibly quickly with his direct play. It’s something that El Tri just can’t duplicate or replicate and why, like a zombie apocalypse, he just keeps coming.
As an anecdote I remember being incredibly nervous prior to the final group stage game against Croatia last summer. Mexico only needed a draw and Croatia a win, but armed with Modric, Racatic, and Mandzukic, the Croats were certainly dangerous. Then after a few minutes, I realized that no one on Croatia was pressing Marquez when he received the ball. It was right then I knew Mexico was going to win. I don’t know if it will be Bradley or Altidore’s job to chase Marquez off the ball, but if they don’t, expect to see 40-60 yard pinpoint passes sprayed all across the field, leaving the USA scrambling to recover.
CB-Hector Moreno-PSV Eindhoven, Dutch Eredivise: Very quietly Moreno has been Mexico’s steadiest player abroad for several years. Starting with his time at AZ Alkmaar, and continuing through to his years at Espanyol, Moreno has been one of the first names on the team sheet since 2010 regardless of who is managing Mexico.
Prior to the World Cup, it was expected that the 27 year old would move on to a bigger club, possibly even one at a Champions League level. And while his unfortunate leg break in the Round of 16 derailed that, Spurs, Arsenal, and Juventus’ names resurfaced in summer transfer rumors for the centre-back… until he required foot surgery from an injury against Costa Rica while tuning up for the Gold Cup. But PSV, eager to show their stuff in Champions League bought him solely for that competition. If he plays well in the group stage, and I suspect he will, expect top 4 league interest in him once again.
There’s a lot to like about Hector Moreno’s game. A left-footed player, he was occasionally deployed at left-back in his younger days but is now truly a centerback. And while not the tallest (6’0”) and not the fastest, his soccer brain often places him in the right positions where neither is a detriment to him. I’d argue that his lack of flash is his best attribute. He is Mr. Reliable. I can’t even recall a time where he has made big gaffe, but he can certainly get his head to a ball on a corner. This is really the only compilation video of him I could find.
If there is one knock on him however is that he hasn’t seem capable of taking charge of the back line in Marquez’s absence. However that shouldn’t be an issue October 10, provided the 36 year old can stay glued together over the next month.
CB-Diego Reyes-Real Sociedad, Spain’s La Liga (on loan from FC Porto, Primeira Liga): Reyes, the 22 year-old FC Porto man will likely be a starter in a three-man backline, unless perhaps Tuca favors Tigres’ savvy veteran Arturo Rivas. Much has been expected of Diego Reyes in Mexico and he has long been thought the heir apparent to Marquez. At 18, he started for the Mexico U-23 squad which won Olympic Gold and was a star at Club America before earning the big overseas attention.
However his time at Porto was not good. While Hector Herrera has thrived in Portugal, Reyes has floundered. But Mexico for almost five years now has expected him to be the heir apparent to Marquez. He’s tall (6’3”), speedy, and skilled enough to play defensive midfield or even right back as well. Marquez was always able to give Mexico a dangerous counter-attack with his long ball accuracy and Reyes seems to be the only center-back in the pool with the capability of someday providing Mexico with that kind of danger from the back.
He’s looked great so far at Real Sociedad and played well versus Argentina. There are not a lot of highlights to show off since he left Mexico. This game versus Academia in the Portuguese Cup was his one bit of extended action last year and as you can see he’s shown flashes. He even earned a Champions League quarterfinal start at RB because of this performance, but he was embarrassingly pulled before halftime as Bayern Munich exploded with multiple goals in the first half. But in the end, I don’t think he’s any less of a prospect than John Brooks is.
GK-Moises Munoz-Club America, Liga MX: By anyone’s measure Munoz is at best Mexico’s fourth best goalkeeper behind Malaga’s Guillermo Ochoa, Jesus Corona of Cruz Azul, and Pachuca’s Alfredo Talavera. But the steady and reliable 35 year old likely earned the start versus the USA with his excellent showing versus Argentina in Dallas (though he did have the big error that allowed Argentina to get back in the game). As the elder statesman of Mexico’s goalkeeper pool and as the man who has guarded the net for Mexico’s biggest club over the last few seasons he’s exactly the kind of player a coach would like for a one game playoff. He’s going to bring leadership and he’s going to stay within the gameplan.
GK-Alfredo Talavera-Deportivo Toluca, Liga MX: When Mexico last won at the Rose Bowl in 2011 in the Gold Cup Final versus the USMNT, Talavera was in goal. That was really the last time he was in net for a meaningful game for El Tri. Talavera seems to suffer from just not being able to capitalize on his opportunities in the Mexico kit, such as the September friendly against Trinidad and Tobago. Which is unfortunate because he’s consistently been one of Liga MX’s top goalkeepers for years now. But I suspect if he’s in goal for Mexico on October 10, no one will be too concerned.
GK-Guillermo Ochoa*-Malaga, Spain’s La Liga: Although incredibly popular in Mexico, many fans of El Tri were surprised Ochoa got the start over Jesus Corona at the World Cup. In fact, he was about to have the unfortunate distinction of heading to his third straight World Cup without playing. Luckily for Ochoa, Jose de Jesus Corona picked up a knock during the warm up matches and Ochoa was able to wrestle the job away.
And despite making a big name for himself last summer and rumors connecting him to several big clubs, he eventually moved on a free transfer to Malaga. However, the choice of going to Malaga has been nothing short of disaster (he just reached 500 days without a La Liga start!) as Ochoa was never able to wrestle the starting job away from incumbent Carlos Kameni.
CB-Miguel Herrera*-Pachuca, Liga MX & Oswaldo Alanis*-Guadalajara, Liga MX: Well, these two players have a grand total of 10 caps combined. And yet one of them could quite possibly start in perhaps Mexico’s biggest game of the year. The big difference between them is that one is left-footed and one is right-footed, which may be the deciding factor. While Hector Moreno is the more accomplished center-back by far over Diego Reyes, it is Reyes who is more familiar with the center role in the back three. Therefore don’t be surprised if Herrera gets the call to man the right center-back position. He is also more familiar with a back three. Mexico fans will definitely be uneasy about either of these guys despite the fact that they both performed well together in a November 2014 friendly in Amsterdam versus the Dutch. Moreso than seeing either of them in the starting XI, seeing the 4-4-2 may cause more angst among fans.
(* neither made final 23 man roster)
OK, well after all that, it’s time to make a prediction. So, will El Tri win it all?
I believe they will. I anticipate Mexico will control the tempo in midfield and their defense will play just well enough against the counter attack to get them through. I say final score: 2-1 Mexico.
It was this time last year, during the All-Star weekend, when MLS commissioner Don Garber dropped the bombshell on MLS fans that he wanted a 24 team league by the year 2020. Since that declaration, all but one of the remaining spots were gobbled up. Almost as soon as the news broke, NYC FC and Orlando City franchises were officially announced as teams 20 and 21. Not long after David Beckham’s team was tentatively slated for Miami pending a new downtown stadium. Most recently, Atlanta was officially announced as the 22nd team, with Miami still being the unofficial 23rd. And all of a sudden, within a year, only one spot remained.
Yet, while speculation has been rampant, there has not been a clear frontrunner for the final spot. Several cities and franchises have asked to step up. NASL’s San Antonio Scorpions have made the most noise. It might make sense as MLS has had success in cities with basketball as their only pro sports team, such as Portland, Salt Lake City, and now Orlando. Minneapolis appears to be a city poised to host MLS team #24 considering there have been reports that both the Vikings and Twins owners have inquired on the subject of ownership. St. Louis, with its soccer rich history, has maintained its place as the sentimental favorite for a franchise, though no ownership group seems interested. In July, stories broke that MLS met in Las Vegas with a potential ownership group as well as the city’s mayor. And this week, there are stories that the Sacramento Kings’ owner has sought to invest into the Sacramento Republic franchise for the purpose of making an MLS bid.
So, for those of you keeping score, that’s five cities as potential landing spots for our last MLS franchise. Almost all of those cities make sense as homes for a club, so my question is: what is MLS to do?
This Train Ain’t Stopping At 24
Somewhere Don Garber is smiling. While soccer writers questioned the pragmatism of a 24 team league, one which is bigger than any first division in the World, Garber has instead created a demand for a surplus of potential suppliers. While some thought he was over-promising, he knew exactly what he was doing. But all these ownership groups stepping up to the plate got me thinking? Could MLS be setting the groundwork for an MLS and MLS2?
Could This Even Perhaps Be The Precursor To Promotion And Relegation?
If you ask me, what’s far more likely is that Garber, who as a former NFL guy believes in conferences, divisions, local rivalries, and equal distribution of revenues, wants to someday have a 30 or even 40 team league where each conference kind of acts as its own league and the MLS Cup Playoffs will almost act as a sort of de facto Champions League.
Garber has the benefit of having an American sports scene where 30 or 32 teams is the standard, so fans will be pre-programmed to accept it with MLS as well. Someday we’ll probably have an Eastern and Western Conference with Central, North, South, and West divisions in MLS where teams within divisions are playing one another 4 times a year. Personally, this kind of thing makes me want to throw up. I hate unbalanced schedules, almost as much as I hate amateur drafts and salary caps. But while I can stomach the latter two, the first is really sinful as it messes with the integrity of the league. Not to mention the fact that it really strays from the soccer norm around the globe.
But what if there really were too many quality ownership groups to turn away? Could two leagues really be the answer?
Perhaps. And I say that because I believe Don Garber wants to cap the league at 24 teams about as much as I believe that the moon landing was faked.
Does there exist a way in which MLS can do promotion and relegation that is lucrative for everyone, especially the original investor/owners? I say there absolutely is, and the MLS would be foolish not to ponder it seriously.
The first step in that process would be a buyout of, or merger with, NASL. In fact, I think this is inevitable, and I’m convinced that is what NASL ownership has been pining for all along. Much like the ABA/NBA merger, the ABA got four of its teams into the NBA and the league took off thereafter making everyone involved richer, the same could happen for MLS and NASL. It wasn’t long after MLS President Mark Abbott’s “never” comments that NASL commissioner Bill Peterson responded with a counter opinion in regards to promotion and relegation : http://www.si.com/soccer/planet-futbol
Despite the big talk by NASL and the constant disdain of that league by MLS, the truth is the league has some intriguing properties. Minnesota United and the San Antonio Scorpions are both NASL teams. Their presence in markets like Tampa, Carolina, Indianapolis, and Oklahoma City are also intriguing. And of course, there is also the property that is the New York Cosmos. MLS and the Cosmos can pretend that they dislike one another, but I still believe, and I believe they both secretly know, that there’s a great opportunity in joining forces. But MLS would want to make sure that the Cosmos knew who’s the boss.
So how does this all relate to promotion and relegation? Don’t worry, I got you.
If MLS were to really ever head down the road to promotion and relegation it would need, by my best guess, 40 franchises at minimum. This, as I said before, might be the goal for Garber anyway. And all 40 franchises would need to be under MLS control to assure the investor/owners of MLS that they’ll still get a slice of the MLS pie even when they’re in MLS2. You would have to give MLS teams almost a 5-10 year warning before implementing a promotion and relegation format.
But there’s also another issue. As we’ve learned with the most recent expansion fees, entry in the league is not cheap. MLS has done all it can to keep the league exclusive. But at the same time, they’ve discovered expansion fees are the quickest way to make money (Another reason I don’t believe in MLS capping the league at 24 teams). In 2007 Beckham got a cut-rate $25 million dollar fee for a franchise built into his MLS contract as a reward for legitimizing the league, which at the time only had 12 teams. Beckham got a deal, because Orlando City and Atlanta by comparison had to pay $70 million entrance fees. And the glamour franchise of NYC FC, backed by big Manchester City money was given a $100 million fee which their Emirati owners scraped together from underneath their couch cushions.
So, in this hypothetical scenario, in order to set up the proper setting for such a transition, MLS would have purchased the 13 team NASL. Add in the fact that the MLS already quasi-“owns” the third division USL Pro league and now MLS would have control over 44 teams thereabouts. This is perfect because some teams would overlap territorially, such as the Atlanta Silverbacks with the new Atlanta MLS team or the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers with Beckham’s new Miami franchise. It would be necessary therefore for MLS to contract or merge a couple franchises.
After that was done by either buying out owners or giving them a stake in other properties, the two leagues, MLS and MLS2 would need to be aligned. And so, without further ado, here’s a realistic scenario of how the two-tiered system could work to start off:
Major League Soccer
San Jose Earthquakes
Chivas USA Rebrand
Real Salt Lake
Sporting Kansas City
San Antonio Scorpions (For argument’s sake, let’s say this winds up being MLS 24)
New England Revolution
New York Red Bulls
Orlando City SC
Beckham Miami Franchise (hopefully)
Sacramento Republic (From USL)
Las Vegas Franchise TBD (Expansion Franchise)
Arizona United (from USL)
FC Edmonton (from NASL)
Minnesota United (from NASL)
St. Louis FC (From USL)
Oklahoma City (both NASL & USL have a planned franchise in the city; this would have to be negotiated)
Austin Aztex (from USL)
Ottowa Fury (From NASL)
Detroit Franchise TBD (Expansion Franchise)
Indianapolis Eleven (From NASL)
Pittsburgh Riverhounds (From USL)
Louisville City (from USL)
New York Cosmos (From NASL)
Charlotte Franchise (possible merger of Wilmington Hammerheads and/or Charlotte Eagles of USL and/or Carolina Railhawks of NASL)
Tampa Bay Rowdies (From NASL)
That’s kind of an example of what the two tiered system could look like. I know what some of you real soccer junkies are thinking: “What about some lower tier teams with good histories like the Richmond Kickers or Charleston Battery”. Unfortunately for this to work, the leagues would need as many top 40 metropolitan areas as possible. Cities like Richmond and Charleston just aren’t economically feasible. They’d be better served in a Tier 3 alongside the likes of LA Galaxy II and the Rochester Rhinos or Harrisburg City Islanders and focusing their efforts on the US Open Cup. Perhaps over time there could be a system for them to be promoted to MLS2, but not to start. The owner/investors need to keep the number of slices to as few as possible so that they each keep receiving their lucrative revenue checks.
The Nitty-Gritty Details:
So, now we return back to the problem of how to get MLS’ owner/investors to agree to the possibly of going down to MLS2 after being in an uncontested top tier for so long. You explain to them that:
A) by being in MLS2, you are still an MLS investor and you are still welcome to a slice of all MLS revenues, albeit it would be 1/40th rather than 1/24th (Actually, it could pay out 1/28th or 1/33rd if there were still teams yet to pay their expansion fees).
B) You further explain that since not all MLS2 franchises will be MLS caliber either on the field and/or off it; that teams can only be promoted if they 1) pay a $70 million dollar expansion fee before their first promotion which will only be distributed to teams that have as of that moment been MLS teams before and 2) Meet certain predetermined MLS criteria regarding financials, stadium infrastructure, fan base, and local TV deals.
The first criteria is simple enough. Pay up the expansion fee or you don’t get a piece of MLS’ earnings. Teams could even pay before qualifying to be promoted to MLS so as to become part of the family sooner. Secondly, you set up a minimum for things such as cash on hand, a soccer specific stadium with a capacity minimum (I’m thinking at least 15,000 people), an average attendance figure (perhaps around 8,000-10,000) and finally, you’d need a local TV contract which allowed for all your games to be aired. If these standards were not met, or you could not pay your expansion fee, then you would not be entitled to be promoted to MLS, even if qualified for promotion via the standings.
As for how promotion and relegation would work competitively: this is how it would go: At the end of every season, two teams would be automatically promoted. The winners of MLS2 Western Conference and Eastern Conference would go up and replace the last place teams in MLS Western and Eastern Conferences. Therefore, teams will always remain in the same Western or Eastern Conference designations regardless of whether they’re in level one or two. Then, the second place finisher in each MLS2 conference would play a single elimination game on the road against the penultimate finishers in each MLS conference. However, if teams can’t pay the expansion fees or don’t meet the minimum MLS requirements, they can’t be promoted. In fact, there could be years where no one is promoted because they don’t qualify as tier 1 franchises.
For example: let’s say the Montreal Impact finish last in MLS and the Philadelphia Union finish second to last, under my hypothetical rules, the Impact would automatically be relegated and the Union would have to host the second place finisher in the MLS2 Eastern Conference for a single elimination playoff. But let’s say, that the Pittsburgh Riverhounds finish second and they are nowhere close to playing in a soccer-specific stadium and they only average 6,000 fans per game, don’t have a TV deal and don’t have close to $70 million dollars on hand. Well then, they’re staying in MLS2 and the Philadelphia Union are now saved from the possibility of relegation. And let’s say that the MLS2 Eastern Conference champion was the New York Cosmos. Obviously the Cosmos would be the most likely team to have all the required criteria to be promoted. So if they qualified, now the Cosmos would have to play the Montreal Impact in a single elimination game for the right to be promoted.
It’s a little convoluted, and it would probably be years and years before all 40 teams were capable of promotion, but that’s a good thing. And as for there being a likelihood of having several years with no teams moving up or down, that’s OK. In leagues like Mexico and Argentina it is very hard to be relegated, and even when it happens it’s only one team that goes down.
The world of soccer has a long history of promotion and relegation. For me, when I first heard about it, it nearly blew my mind. It instantly attracted me more to the world of soccer. I thought it was the most brilliant idea. Certainly better than worrying about lazy owners, greedy owners, dumb owners, ping pong balls, or tanking seasons. If you deserved it, you stayed up and earned the money. If not, adios, learn to do business.
Unfortunately, while I never believe anyone when they say never, promotion and relegation in MLS is likely to be 20 years away minimum. Maybe it is 50 years away. Maybe, it will only happen when Garber and Abbot have long since retired and a young traditionalist is in the commissioner’s office.
But either way, I’d say we’re more likely to be headed for two big leagues. I’d Say This Is A More Realistic Future:
Major League Soccer
San Jose Earthquakes
Chivas USA Rebrand
Las Vegas Franchise
Salt Lake City
St. Louis FC
Sporting Kansas City
Oklahoma City Franchise
San Antonio Scorpions
New York Cosmos
New England Revolution
New York Red Bulls
Detroit Franchise TBD
Orlando City SC
Tampa Bay Rowdies
Beckham Miami Franchise
Not quite as sexy is it? Two separate leagues of 20 teams each. I can already predict how it will work: you’ll play 2 home and 2 away against each team in your division and 1 game each versus all other conference opponents for a total of 32 games. Top team each in each division goes to the playoffs and the next best 4 Wild Cards advance to the MLS Cup Playoffs which will include 16 teams. Ugh. American sports at its most typical.
But, you can’t argue it will line pockets. Or can you? Personally, I think my idea could be as lucrative, if not more lucrative, than a 40 team league. Mostly because I believe a two-tiered league could be put together far sooner, in just a few years, because it will utilize more pre-existing organizations. It will give MLS2 franchises time to grow their organizations organically while playing good soccer and it will give the original MLS investor/owners bigger slices of the financial pie in the meantime. Sometimes when people are making a lot of money, they don’t see just how much more money they can make.
One Last Thing
The final piece to this puzzle may not seem related, but it absolutely is. MLS needs to launch a network. And I mean need. They could probably get one up and running for the price of an expansion fee. Not only is it a source of revenue and something which adds to MLS’ financial evaluation, but its the best advertising tool possible for MLS. While ESPN and Fox Sports may have signed lucrative deals to cover MLS, an MLS Network could be used to highlight teams that don’t get national recognition, MLS2 games, US Soccer youth tournaments, NWSL games, and it should even be the home for US Open Cup (which would definitely need to be highlighted if you had two levels of MLS). The truth of the matter is, that MLS and US Soccer’s relationship, especially through Soccer United Marketing, has only gotten stronger, and they can and should work hand in hand to promote that tournament as an extension of MLS.
This is the perfect time for MLS to launch a network. If you are a soccer fan in the United States, there is no channel where you know that you can plop down on the couch, turn on the TV, and check out soccer or soccer news. MLS, by launching the channel now beats everyone else to the punch. By doing that you will force soccer junkies to tune in to MLS as a matter of necessity. I have said it a million times and I will say it a million more times: there are literally millions of soccer fans in this country that don’t watch MLS.
And filling the lineup would be easy and cheap. The NBA Network has had a raving success with their show “The Starters”, a former Toronto-based podcast. With the soccer world forced into podcasting by the mainstream media, there would be no shortage of good talent. And cheap talent at that. Not to mention there are plenty of soccer leagues the network could televise cheaply to fill air time: Scottish League, A-League, heck, even French league or Dutch League. Why not?
The NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL all have fantastic networks and they don’t even have all that much original programming. If MLS is to be their equal, they are going to need one as well. Aside from a morning highlight show, these league owned networks have some shows from about 5-7pm and some wrap-around coverage in the evenings. MLS wouldn’t even need that as games are only occasionally played on weeknights. There’s so much revenue to be had that I don’t know how the league’s owner/investors can’t want to build it immediately. It’s the next step in the league’s organic growth.
To be sure, I’ve rambled enough. Especially since nobody will read this. And I understand Don Garber has a vision and I understand that it’s a brilliant vision, but it needs to be amended. Rather than be an NFL carbon copy, he needs an even bigger vision. That’s the truly brilliant approach.
There’s been plenty of discussion recently about whether MLS is on the cusp of transitioning to “Version 3.0,” as if anyone knows what that really is.
And while the consensus seems to be that we’re not quite into the third era of MLS’ history, we are close. MLS, slowly, has begun fitting in better to the rest of the soccer world. Key elements like a Fall—Spring schedule (totally OK with this, a necessity right now) and promotion and relegation (which I hope to see someday, but not holding my breath) seem almost distant impossibilities. But, generally MLS is doing what it needs to do to be as pure a soccer product as it can. But, because our country has four major sports leagues with rich histories, they’ve each lost a bit of their own unique identity by borrowing ideas readily from one another. There has become, for better or worse, a set “way of doing things” in American Sports.
Thankfully MLS has been obliged to stay away from such things as timeouts, commercial breaks for no reason (an American sports broadcasting staple), and the notion that every game must end with a winning team and a losing team. But some American traditions have found their way into MLS, such as collegiate drafts (communist), playoffs (necessary), conferences (unfortunately semi-necessary), unbalanced schedules (a pure manifestation of evil), goofy team names (at least there’s no more Wizards, Burn, Fusion, or MetroStars to contend wit), and of course the All-Star game.
But, you know what? I love the MLS All-Star game. I love All-Star games. As a kid growing up I had a hard time grasping the subtleties of baseball, but I certainly didn’t have trouble grasping the idea of star powers. I was riveted by guys like Cal Ripken, Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr., Frank Thomas, Tony Gwynn, Ricky Henderson, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, and Greg Maddux. I would see these guys play during the All-Star game and I learned all about the league and baseball by following what these guys were doing and where they were doing it. Same went for basketball. And MLS should be no different. Kids can discover Bayern Munich on their own, they don’t need MLS to introduce them.
For a growing sport in this saturated sports market, highlighting premier players is obviously vital for MLS. This goes double for the league that invented the concept of Designated Players and has always focused their marketing around stars. It makes sense therefore, to have a summer event which brings these players together and allows the casual fan to celebrate the top talent in the league.
And if there’s one thing MLS does have, it’s top talent, MLS has made sure of that ever since they brought in David Beckham.
But for me, the real question is whether the style of MLS’ All-Star Game is the most viable?
While pitting MLS’ best versus one of the World’s best teams is intriguing, I truly feel that the league and its players have outgrown the format of MLS All-Stars vs. touring European team in preseason. MLS can’t claim that it has a new depth of talent, yet at the same time, only name one team of 23 players as All-Stars. In fact, MLS names nine players as “inactive” All-Stars due to a clause in the Collective Bargaining Agreement. In a league of 19 teams, soon to be 21 teams, there are 437 players. Naming 35 All-Stars and having two teams of MLS All-Stars isn’t too many.
If beating a UEFA Champions League team in one-off friendly could earn MLS worldwide esteem, I’d be all for it. But it can’t. It’s a futile exercise in gaining credibility. Instead we need to show the United States that there’s more than just 30-year-old plus designated players.
It doesn’t allow for young players, the MLS lifers, or the American players to be promoted sufficiently. Instead, it simply trots out the Designated Players whom are already well known, or in World Cup years, USMNT players. Before we get into a discussion about what format should be implemented, or what players should be there, let’s look at who’s on the roster for next Wednesday’s game:
Goalkeepers:Nick Rimando, Bill Hamid
Defenders: Matt Besler, Aurélien Collin, Omar Gonzalez (to be replaced by Sean Franklin), Chad Marshall (to be replaced by Bobby Boswell), Michael Parkhurst, DeAndre Yedlin
Midfielder: Osvaldo Alonso, Kyle Beckerman, Michael Bradley, Tim Cahill, Clint Dempsey, Will Johnson, Diego Valeri, Graham Zusi
Forwards: Jermain Defoe (to be replaced by Dom Dwyer), Landon Donovan, Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane (to be replaced by Maurice Edu), Obafemi Martins, Erick Torres, Bradley Wright-Phillips
Everyone is there. All the players MLS thinks you want to see. Which is all well and good, but the casual fan isn’t going to learn more about the league by being shown the same 20 players over and over.
The team is jam-packed with DPs. And with guys like Jermaine Jones, David Villa, Frank Lampard, and Kaka coming into the league next year, will there be room for anyone else but elder foreign statesman?
In this squad only Erick Torres (who, as the league’s only Mexican of note needs to be signed to an extension and kept in MLS), Will Johnson (who’s selection is based more on last season’s performance) are non-stars. That’s it. Two players. Thankfully due to injury (ie. Wanting to rest), players like Dom Dwyer, Bobby Boswell, and Sean Franklin will be showcased.
You might be able to add Chad Marshall to the list, who despite being named twice to the MLS Best XI list, is an All-Star Game debutant in his first season at one of the league’s signature franchises.
In short: this is not fair. Any All-Star game’s mission should be twofold: to promote the leagues stars, yes, but also to get the best players together to share their skills with one another. Even if it’s only for a couple days, someone like Torres or Dwyer can learn an immense amount from being able to talk to a Thierry Henry or Robbie Keane as equals.
All-MLS LIFER STARTING XI
There are so many great American MLS lifers who should’ve been highlighted throughout their careers. Here are some just off the top of my head. Most have already been All-Stars, but they still got buried beneath the praise heaped on the DPs.
Goalkeeper:Dan Kennedy– Nobody can say Nick Rimando hasn’t been given his due after being an All-Star for the fourth straight year. But poor Dan Kennedy has been toiling away at Chivas USA for years and will soon be their all-time leader in appearances. Yet, he doesn’t really get his due as a good keeper.
Left Back:Todd Dunivant– Since Dunivant’s second stint with the Galaxy began in 2009, the left back has been one of Bruce Arena’s most reliable players. Although he’s been injured this year, this is the kind of MLS lifer that needed to be given his due in the past. Being one of the best players on a team that won back-to-back championships should earn you some recognition.
Center-Back:Nat Borchers– Keeping guys like this away from Scandinavian leagues should be the exact kind of thing the MLS should seek to eliminate. MLS players should only be going to Norway, Sweden, or Denmark if they can’t handle the league. It shouldn’t be seen as a step up. We’ll forgive Borchers for a quick detour through the fjords and recognize he’s been one of the league’s best center-backs both in Denver and Salt Lake City.
Center-Back:Chad Marshall– As I mentioned earlier, left unrecognized in Colombus, Marshall had never before been an All-Star until he finally was recruited to settle down Seattle’s defense. And his effects have been felt immediately.
Right-Back:Jack Jewsbury– The one-time All-Star has already become a Timber through and through. And despite right back not being his best position, he plays there because that’s where he’s needed. Even when a guy like this makes an All-Star team he doesn’t get to play enough.
Left Midfield:Brad Davis– He’s so underrated it’s ridiculous. At 32, Brad Davis has had a great MLS careers and is still one of its most clutch performers. He’s one of the reasons that . In my opinion he’s going to be one of the top five careers of any American MLS players.
Central Midfield:Kyle Beckerman– The dreadlocked USMNT regular is the poster boy as to why we need to highlight more MLS players. It wasn’t until Beckerman was almost 32 and had 7 All-Star games to name that he caught the eye of Jurgen Klinsmann.
Central Midfield:Jeff Larentowicz– The redheaded Ivy-Leaguer put in two good years for the Rapids, one of which he earned an All-Star berth for. But he’s been a solid MLS lifer, the kind you can bring in to settle a midfield.
Right Midfield:Graham Zusi– Sporting’s newest DP might actually be underrated at this point. After an average World Cup which drummed up little to no interest abroad, fans seem to forget he’s an elite playmaker in this league. Despite becoming an All-Star game regular, players like Zusi deserve to start and play 60 minutes not make brief cameos as 23 All-Stars shuffle in and out of the game.
Forward: Mike Magee– Chicago is bad. But Mike Magee isn’t the problem. After years of being one of the “other guys” in LA, Mr. Magee showed us all how good he can really be when he won the MLS MVP last seaosn. Perhaps if the All-Star game had been more inclusive we would’ve noticed him earlier?
Forward:Chris Wondolowski– By now, everyone knows Wondo’s triumphant story of persistence. And these are the exact kinds of guys we need to make room for in the All-Star game: players who are late bloomers but have thrived in MLS.
OTHER FORMAT OPTIONS?
There have been alternative All-Star game formats bandied about over the past several years such as MLS versus the USMNT. Beside the fact that it would be difficult logistically, that idea is now stale because the majority of the national team is in MLS (as it should be).
Could MLS develop an even stronger relationship with their rivals to the south by playing against a select team of Liga MX All-Stars? Intriguing idea certainly, but doesn’t cure the problem.
The bottom line is: more MLS players need to be highlighted. With this as the goal, the MLS would have three format options: a traditional Eastern Conference All-Stars v. Western Conference All-Stars matchup, a USA/Canada All-Stars v. World All-Stars (which would work considering around 55% of MLS starters are American), or an NHL style pick-up game format with big stars as “team captains”.
Certainly there’s no difficulty in arranging East versus West. Guys like Lee Nguyen, Benny Feilhaber, Javier Morales, Gonzalo Pineda, Frederico Higuain, would be rightfully given their props. Or perhaps one of New England or Colorado’s youngsters would be shown to the world.
The pick-up game format could be fun by giving MLS another signature event with the selection show and it could allow for a more casual atmosphere where a player’s personality can be highlighted, but in the end, it’s just too gimmicky.
But I’m really intrigued by the idea of a USA v. the World format. The NBA and MLB have flirted with the ideas in the past, but soccer really is the World’s game and the teams would really be equal. Here’s what a World XI for MLS might look like:
Goalkeeper: Donovan Rickets
Center-Back: Aurelien Collin
Center-Back: Victor Bernardez
Center-Back: Jamison Olave
Left Midfield: Oscar Boniek Garcia
Defensive Midfield: Osvaldo Alonso
Central Midfield: Frederico Higuain
Central Midfield: Javier Morales
Right Midfield: Diego Valeri
Forward: Thierry Henry
Forward: Jermaine Defoe
You back that starting XI up with guys off the bench like: Robbie Keane, Jose Goncalves, Jaime Pinedo, Darlington Nagbe, Marco Di Vaio, Tim Cahill, Mauro Diaz, Cubo Torres, Steven Beitashour and all of a sudden the USA team is given a tough opponent.
What would that team look like? Just riffing, but how about:
Goalkeeper: Nick Rimando
Left Back: Chris Klute
Center Back: Matt Besler
Center Back: Omar Gonzalez
Right Back: DeAndre Yedlin
Left Midfield: Brad Davis
Center Back: Kyle Beckerman
Center Back: Michael Bradley
Right Midfield: Graham Zusi
Forward: Landon Donovan
Forward: Clint Dempsey
Add Chris Wondolowsi, Maurice Edu, Seth Sinovic, Bill Hamid, Benny Feilhaber, Will Johnson, and a few more from the team I previously mentioned and now MLS has everyone playing that you want: the high priced European DPs, the USMNT stars, with some MLS up-and-comers and lifers sprinkled in.
For me, this is what MLS needs to do. Embrace the “World’s Game” aspect of soccer. Give those fans who only watch US Soccer a chance to root for their team, albeit in a roundabout way. I would recommend selecting 17 All-Stars per side, thus creating two game day rosters.
I think the USA/Canada versus the World accomplishes the goal of being unique without being gimmicky. If MLS is serious about the non-DP signings in our league, then its time it backed it up with some actions.
It’s nice to show off Bayern Munich. But it’d be nicer to show off MLS’ product wouldn’t it?
In the United States cities like Seattle, Kansas City, Portland, and perhaps even Columbus have laid claim to being Soccer City, USA. But trust me, there is no city with a soccer passion like New York City.
What? New York City? They can’t get anyone out to Red Bull Arena! Nobody talks about New York as a soccer Mecca! They would never put a World Cup qualifier for the USMNT anywhere near New York City!
That may all be true. But there are defenses for each of those accusations.
Red Bull Arena is in Harrison, NJ, not in New York as Cosmos fans have been chanting for several years from their suburban college football stadium. (Oooh! Burn!)
MetLife, CitiField, and Yankee Stadium routinely pack the house to watch games between European clubs and national teams.
That’s because USMNT fans would be outnumbered at MetLife, and possibly even Red Bull Arena.
The bottom line is, because of New York’s diversity and hipster culture, MLS has yet to catch on in the five boroughs. New York quite simply, in soccer parlance, is populated with soccer snobs; one of the three principal soccer fan groups of the United States.
That’s right. There are three kinds of American soccer fan, each with its own distinct culture. And they most often ignore each other; if not at times downright disliking one another. MLS has done a good job at marketing to the first of the three and turning them into their own brand of fan, but their efforts to recruit the other two pre-existing groups have been lacking. Although NYCFC and Orlando City seem to want and reach out to one of the two demographics MLS has long failed to attract.
But what are these three fan groups? OK, I’ll tell you. So, without further ado, here are the three major soccer fan groups in the United States:
1) The MLS/USMNT Fan Boy: These fans played high school soccer and grew up in the suburbs. These are the people who know who Simon Borg is. They refresh Taylor Twellman’s twitter account every few minutes. They believe Portland-Seattle is the best derby in World football. They know MLS.com is a solid site for soccer news. They know what the Supporter’s Shield is. They believe the USA has been the best team in CONCACAF since 2002 and that winning the World Cup is inevitable. They’ve called in to Best Soccer Show or American Soccer Morning. To them DC United is steeped in history. They can explain what a Designated Player is. They wear scarves in the summer and their American Outlaws bandanas to MLS games.
2) The Soccer Snob: These fans live in cities. These are the people who wake up at 7:00 a.m. on Saturdays to watch Crystal Palace play Norwich City in a bar. They are in love with Rebecca Lowe. They believe the Men in Blazers are funnier than Jon Stewart. They’re obsessed with Borussia Dortmund’s style of play. They’re convinced the level of MLS play is somewhere akin to the Conference. They kind of root against the USMNT because they play such ugly football. They believe the US will never win the World Cup and they root for the national team of their European heritage. They’re willing to pay absorbent sums of money to watch Champions League teams face off in baseball stadiums. And they won’t watch MLS out of principal.
3) El Fanatico Mexicano: These fans know Univision has better soccer coverage than Telemundo. They’d rather watch El Tri in Spanish even if they don’t speak it than have to listen to Fernando Palomo and Alejandro Moreno. They believe El Tri are the United States’ most popular national team. They know their league is messed up, but still not as messed up as MLS. They have the same LigaMX team as their cousins or parents. They laugh when Americans whine about anti-American bias in Europe. They follow Tom Marshall on twitter. And while Carlos Vela is public enemy No. 1 they are all secretly proud of his accomplishments.
MLS obviously, off the back of the part-time USMNT fan has built a solid following. There’s no doubt the atmosphere at Galaxy, Sounders, Timbers, and Sporting games have become first rate.
But despite this loyal fan base, there are literally millions of soccer fans in this country who have little to no interest in MLS, many of whom reside in the New York Metropolitan area. The television numbers too back this up. While in-game attendance for MLS matches is good, if not great, the TV ratings remain dismal. While last year’s MLS Cup game between Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake drew meager ratings, around half a million people, NBC averaged about the same number per game in their much ballyhooed coverage of the Premier League. As for Liga MX, their final drew almost five million viewers north of the border.
Personally, I started out as a hybrid of fan types 2 and 3. I’ve always had a love for El Tri instilled in me by my mother and as a kid who grew up a New York Yankee fan, I’ve always been obsessed with the dozen or so teams over in Europe with Yankee-like cache. But over the past three seasons I have come to respect and support MLS, despite the fact I don’t have a team. I do this because it’s our league and the success of that league directly affects the US Men’s National Team, a team I support.
While MLS’ current trend of returning USMNT players home may attract the more casual soccer fan that uses the national team as their springboard for the sport, the league’s track record of attracting the other two types of fans has been mixed to say the least.
In regards to attracting the Mexican soccer fans, the results have been downright disastrous. Chicago has tried a couple experiments attracting Mexico fans with varying degrees of success. Kansas City too with Omar Bravo has given it a shot. And of course, the New York Red Bulls went big when they brought in El Tri captain Rafa Marquez from FC Barcelona. That was a disaster on several fronts. Fans of the USMNT already wanted to hate him before he stepped onto the field and Mexico fans didn’t even know he was there.
I can still remember going to MetLife Stadium for a Gold Cup game in 2011 and on the train ride back I began talking to some El Tri fans who complemented me on my Rafa Marquez Barcelona jersey. When I mentioned he played for the Red Bulls, none of them even knew he was on the team. Great marketing from the Red Bulls huh?
And of course, there’s the disaster that was Chivas USA. Once upon a time MLS needed an influx of new blood. They thought bringing in the brand name that is Chivas de Guadalajara would be a good option for Los Angeles’ second franchise. Problem is: Guadalajara, for as beloved as the team is by its followers, those who have other teams truly loathe the Goats for their history of success. And in the past several years it had become clear that the ownership in Guadalajara had no interest in putting effort into his MLS property as the product in Guadalajara struggled. Thankfully, those days are behind us as Chivas USA is earmarked to be rebranded with new ownership next season.
But the question remains, how will MLS bring the millions of Hispanic and Mexican soccer fans already in the United States into the fold? Or better yet, does MLS want to recruit that fan? I certainly hope so. That would be like the Premier League refusing to bring in German players because they are England’s rivals. Although comments like Sounder’s owner Joe Roth’s about Chicharito do show they do understand the effect a true Mexican superstar would have on the league. But don’t hold your breath for something like that to happen anytime soon.
On the Euro Snob front, clearly bringing David Beckham to LA was the first major move to bring in the fan that had previously ignored MLS. And certainly that made a splash that is still rippling to this day. Subsequently New York answered back by recruiting Arsenal legend Thierry Henry (along with the aforementioned Rafa Marquez) who has likewise been a huge success with the Red Bulls fan base. But other than the obsession with old Italian players in Montreal, there hasn’t been too much courting of the European fan either. Although in fairness, the cost of those kinds of players is prohibitive and the players are almost certain to be on the wrong side of 30 when they arrive.
Although, it looks like things are be about to change. MLS’ newest clubs NYCFC and Orlando City seem keen to bring in high profile Designated Players with long European resumes. With David Villa and Frank Lampard already in the fold for NYCFC there is plenty of buzz among New York soccer snobs as their interest has been fully piqued.
Even despite the failure to lock up Xavi as well (which would have been an incredible threesome with which to start the franchise), NYCFC has nailed their first two DP signings and are still likely to snag a headline name for their third slot. Add in Orlando City’s glamour signing of Serie A legend Kaka and all of a sudden MLS is a place for those in love with European soccer.
THE FUTURE OF NEW YORK PROFESSIONAL SOCCER
All of a sudden NYCFC, with a Manchester City pedigree, and a beloved (if not awkward) home field in Yankee Stadium has created a proper stir. A stir, which RBNY fans have long claimed they haven’t had, despite high profile DP’s such as Henry, Tim Cahill, and Marquez.
Which begs the question? With Henry and Cahill almost certain to leave the New York Red Bulls by the end of the season, what will become of the team amongst the new NYCFC fervor? Even now, despite the Red Bulls beautiful Arena outside Newark, the team can rarely fill every seat. Even for the Red Bulls historic Supporter’s Shield clinching game last season, the stadium didn’t look packed.
So can the Red Bulls, who have often tried to attract New York’s European soccer fans with their designated player signings out-do the flash and sizzle of their new rival? Not likely. So what is this team to do? While Red Bulls’ have deep pockets, their Austrian owners seem to operate in abstentia for the most part.
But, if I’m the Red Bulls I would go the other way entirely. Rather than try and outdo their new sky blue rivals, they should build on all the MLS history and culture which they’ve built by bringing in three USMNT players. They should be doing everything they can to pry Jozy Altidore away from his Sunderland prison. Then they should go and get Mix Diskerud from Norway and a third player, perhaps a Sasha Kljestan or Alejandro Bedoya type.
Red Bulls fans seem to be confident there won’t be any loyalty defections next season, but there is guaranteed to be if the Red Bulls refuse to respond to NYCFC’s shiny new signings. I don’t have an MLS team, but I do frequent Red Bull Arena because it’s the only place I can go to watch professional soccer. And I will say I’m slightly concerned as to what they will do. Just because people, like me, came to Harrison to watch professional soccer, does not mean they are Red Bulls fans.
Whatever the strategy RBNY brass employs, I hope they realize the pressure they’re under, because next year is the year New York City is revealed not just a great soccer town, but an MLS town.
They shouldn’t do it. There’s part of them that knows they shouldn’t do it, but they do it anyway. And what’s more? They really like doing it. American soccer fans are constantly measuring their national team against that of Mexico. But all of a sudden, Mexico and the United States soccer programs are more similar than they are dissimilar. And you can pretend it isn’t true. But it is.
So without further ado, I present to you my case:
There are plenty of similarities between Mexico and the United States soccer cultures at present. They are both certain that they’re the best team in the region and are held back by being in CONCACAF (with all due respect to Costa Rica that is generally true). Both nations are desperately hoping that the Copa America Centenario will lead to more regular competition amongst South American sides.
Both programs are convinced a bias exists against their players abroad. This internal perception is key to the identity of both nations. Many USMNT fans were truly proud of their team’s performance during the World Cup in Brazil. And while I may slightly disagree with the optimism they maintain about their team, you cannot dispute how huge an accomplishment it is for the United States to escape the group stage for the second straight World Cup for the first time ever.
Yet, there has not been an appropriate level of interest in American players as a result. DeAndre Yedlin’s transfer buzz seems to have tapered off. Matt Besler after pondering over joining Premier League bottom-feeder Sunderland and Championship side Fulham instead elected to sign a Designated Player Contract with Sporting Kansas City along with his friend Graham Zusi, who wasn’t able to generate any interest abroad of his own. Perhaps this is due to the perception that the United States is a team that plays better than the sum of its parts. Or perhaps it is because an anti-American bias exists amongst European coaches.
But as long as the love for country supersedes the love for club in the United States, the USMNT will remain a formidable international squad. Even in Mexico, (and especially to those Mexicans in the USA), El Tri is still No. 1, no matter how deep one’s love for America or Chivas is rooted. In fact, most Liga MX fans still take immense pride in boasting how many of the players from their club team made the national team roster.
The best result to have come out of the United States’ performance in Brazil is there grew a perception that the United States is not to be underestimated. Other nations will always believe that they possess better talent than those wearing the Stars and Stripes, but they also know that playing the US Men’s National Team means a 90 minute dogfight, if not 120 minutes. They also know the USA will have a world class goalkeeper, that they’ll have an organized defense, that the squad will be loaded with speedy and physical athletes, and that they’ll be dangerous on set pieces. Not to mention their MLS contingent is going to be in season and far from over-tired like those who participated in UEFA Champions League.
Mexico on the other hand, has quietly been one of the World Cup’s best performers over the past 20 years. No, they haven’t advanced to the quarterfinals since they hosted the World Cup in 1986, but they have escaped the group stage in every World Cup in which they’ve participated going back to 1994. Only three nations in the World have progressed from their group in every Cup since ’94: Germany, Brazil and… Mexico. Scoff if you will at the lack of quarterfinal appearances, but there’s something to be said for always being able to get out of the random craziness that is the group stage.
But how have they accomplished that? Simple; it all stems from a lack of familiarity. Even now, despite a couple of high profile Mexicans in Europe, the majority of El Tri is called upon from Liga MX. El Tri has always been a tough team to scout because their players are a continent away. Yes, I’m sure all the coaches have tape on their opponents, but do you really think a European coach understands the Mexican soccer culture? International coaches have such limited time with their teams and have a hard enough time following their own players; you think they’re breaking down a Tigres v. Cruz Azul game to get a glimpse of Mexico’s left back? Heck no. And you can forget about them watching MLS because it’s not happening.
Even watching El Tri’s qualifying games, how much are you going to learn watching Mexico play against Central American teams parking the bus? While players for the Yanks are known for their athleticism and organization, Mexican teams are known for their relentless running and technical skill. Due to Mexico’s tactical isolation, El Tri is likely to play an unfamiliar style, often employing three center-backs. And as for fitness, Mexico is such a warm country situated at such high altitude, the summer weather and fitness issues prevalent during World Cups are nothing for a Liga MX player.
Sadly, despite Mexico being a soccer obsessed nation of 120+ million people with a rich footballing history, Mexico only has about a dozen players plying their trade in Europe at the moment. That is an almost absurdly low number. That’s less than even the American contingent in Europe. Meanwhile, nations of less than four million people like Uruguay donate dozens of players to Europe’s elite leagues while the North American duo of Mexico and the United States struggle to do so, despite playing well at international level.
The reasons for Mexico’s lack of players abroad are complex. But the main cause for lack of Mexicans abroad has always stemmed from the strength of the Mexican league. Liga MX has a lot of history and is economically strong with dollars coming in from Mexico and the United States. The league is more than capable of paying its stars competitive salaries. Recently though, there has been a crop of young Mexicans who seem eager to test themselves in Europe, with America star Raul Jimenez and Tigres striker Alan Pulido the most current cases. But Mexican teams still request high enough transfer fees for their players that it will derail a potential move. Often it behooves players to just stay in Mexico and be an important part of a team while working toward a spot with El Tri. Young up-and-comers like Pablo Barrera and Efrain Juarez had their careers side tracked or derailed completely by stints at West Ham and Celtic respectively. It took undoubted talents like Carlos Vela and Giovani dos Santos years of bouncing around on loan before settling down and thriving at Real Sociedad and Villareal. Rather than deal with a foreign culture, it’s better to stay in Mexico, close to home. Mexicans have rich traditions and don’t always adjust to European culture smoothly, especially if it’s a club that doesn’t assist transition of its players well. Why risk heading off to Europe where the threat will always linger that a new coach could put you deep on the bench? At 23 years old Javier Hernandez started the UEFA Champions League Final. In his four years at United, Chicharito is now on his third manager and it seems as if Louis van Gaal has even less use for his Mexican striker than David Moyes.
The development of MLS placing a premium on bringing key American players back home has changed the landscape of American soccer. First, it started small, with Maurice Edu, Michael Parkhurst, and Clarence Goodson returning as the three defenders sought spots on the World Cup squad. Then it reached a feverish climax with the arrival of USMNT Captain Clint Dempsey and later Michael Bradley. This week, DeMarcus Beasley to Houston Dynamo continued the homecoming of national team players, while rumors of Jermaine Jones and possibly even Jozy Altidore persist.
Jurgen Klinsmann has shouted out to anyone who will listen that he wants Americans going to Europe to claw and scrap for playing time. But at the same time, he’s favored American players who have performed well and shown leadership with their MLS squads like Besler and Zusi, Omar Gonzalez, Brad Davis, and Chris Wondolowski. Plus, despite Bradley and Dempsey returning to MLS to earn the dollars and minutes they deserve, Klinsmann still saw fit to promote the duo as leaders on the national team. I wholeheartedly disagree with Klinsmann that working abroad and fighting tooth and nail for every minute of playing time for a mid-level Premier League team is the only way to get better. And I’ll tell you why.
American soccer aficionados have long clamored for an “American style”. I might argue an American style already exists. Klinsmann, for all his tough talk about offensive minded football, reverted back to a style US fans were all too familiar with during the World Cup. We played organized defensive soccer in front of a world class goalkeeper. We also showed lots of hustle and grit, utilized our speed and strength and were dangerous off some set pieces. Sound familiar? Two times is a coincidence, but seven times is a trend.
The US and MLS, as we are constantly reminded, are still in their infancy. But even with money you can’t rush the stages of development; everything from player development to fan interest has to develop organically. Mexico, for all their history, still has yet to build a solid pipeline to Europe. Yet the US has found their soccer program at a similar stage of development all of a sudden. In my opinion this return of top level American talent to MLS is a good thing. It shows fans we can develop our own stars and don’t always need to import high priced 30-something EPL veterans to sell tickets. But more importantly it strengthens the quality of play on the field while giving our USMNT players confidence by keeping them in form as vital cogs for their MLS clubs. In Brazil players who have never played outside Mexico like Oribe Peralta, Paul Aguilar, and Jose Juan Vazquez believed they were winners when they stepped onto the pitch because in Liga MX they had been winner their whole lives.
I want to see MLS add a fourth DP spot for teams that already have one American or Canadian DP. I want to see Jozy Altidore, Sasha Kljestan, Jose Francisco Torres, Brek Shea, Alejandro Bedoya, and yes, even Jermaine Jones in MLS. Hell, I even Freddy Adu in MLS (I mean Serbia? Really?). In just a few years there will be 24 teams in the league and we’ll need… neigh, we’ll demand players of that caliber to keep the quality high and hopefully put butts in the seats. In MLS those guys can pump in goals, win games, and become leaders. I don’t know if the can do that at Sunderland, Stoke, Nantes, or Anderlecht. And it’s OK if they can’t.
The US Soccer team could afford to go through a phase where we have a little swagger and think we’re maybe a little better than we are (even if the soccer snobs try to rain on our parade).
The one thing MLS has going for it, and by proxy US Soccer, is that there’s far more tactical diversity in MLS than in Liga MX. There are plenty of Latin American and European minds in MLS. This will help bring in new ideas which our players can learn. Liga MX conversely, has always been overwhelmingly dominated by Mexican coaches, with the occasional Colombian or Argentine skipper. They are a nation, which in the isolation of CONCACAF, has become set in its ways and has never been forced to look inward. Perhaps if they had failed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, as nearly happened, a much needed evaluation of the country’s practices may have taken place. But their performance in Brazil only showed that Mexico was about as good as we all had anticipated.
How good is the United States? I’ve asked that before. But the truth is it’s tougher to tell as MLS’ attraction for top level American players grows. And playing Mexico as much as it does and measuring itself against El Tri first and foremost doesn’t really bring any additional answers. But the United States can be the best version of itself. And, for now, that won’t be so bad.
With the Apertura 2014 underway this past week and Mexico coming off another solid World Cup appearance, I thought it might be time to take inventory of the talent within this soccer mad nation of 120 million.
So, without further ado, here is a list of the top 100 Mexican footballers currently plying their trade in Liga MX and around the world:
1. Carlos Vela-Real Sociedad (Esp)-Forward: Perhaps the saddest saga in Mexico’s international footballing history. Vela is a 25 year old talentclearly in his prime and he has no interest in playing for Mexico. But he is still the nation’s best player, the one guy truly capable of making something out of nothing.
2. Oribe Peralta-Club America-Striker: Overshadowed perhaps by Chicharito, there’s no doubt Oribe Peralta has been the most clinical finisher in Mexico the past three seasons. He starts this season with a big money move to Mexico City’s biggest club after a great career at Santos Laguna.
3. Giovani dos Santos-Villareal (Esp)-Forward: The 25-year-old has been a player Mexico has long hoped would be World Class ever since he was 17 years old. After years bouncing through Europe it looks like Dos Santos has found a home at Villareal after a phenomenal season. Can he do it twice in a row?
4. Hector Moreno-Espanyol (Esp)-Center-back: Possibly Mexico’s best player and certainly it’s most steady, Moreno has quietly been Mexico’s defensive stalwart for several years. At 26, he seemed primed for a move to a big club, but unfortunately broke his leg in the Round of 16 in Brazil. If he can bounce back healthy, he could still move in January.
5. Guillermo Ochoa–Free Agent–Goalkeeper: The world finally got to see what people in Mexico and Corsica have known for several years. Namely, that Ochoa is one of the most talented goalkeepers in the world. Currently a free agent, his good World Cup will likely land him in the top half of the La Liga table.
6. Hector Herrera-FC Porto (Port)-Midfielder: Still only 24 years old, Hector Herrera was the youngest Mexican player to make a name for himself during the World Cup. Herrera just finished his first year at FC Porto and is primed to play an even bigger role this year for the perennial Champions League participants.
7. “Chicharito” Hernandez–Manchester Utd. (Eng)-Striker: What does the next season have in store for Mexico’s most recognizable star? Although he is currently still a member of Manchester United it looks almost certain he won’t be with the team when the EPL season kicks off. The only question is whether he’s headed to Italy or Spain? And how good a team can he land on?
8. Luis Montes–Club Leon-Midfielder: The 28-year-old has hit his prime over the past two seasons and looked like Mexico’s best player building to the World Cup. Unfortunately his broken leg in a tune-up friendly has halted his career. But his best attribute may be how great his midfield partner, Carlos Pena, plays when Montes is alongside him.
9. Jose de Jesus Corona–Cruz Azul-Goalkeeper: The veteran net minder was the favorite to win Mexico’s No. 1 spot in goal until a knock in a warm up friendly opened the door to Ochoa. But he is still one of the best keepers in Mexico and a rock for Cruz Azul. Expect Corona to remain with El Tri for several more years to come.
10. Diego Reyes–FC Porto (Port)-Center-Back: The youngest player in the top 10, Reyes is a versatile center-back who is technically gifted for his position. Mexico is going to need that skill set desperately when it comes time to replace Rafa Marquez. Perhaps he’s this high mostly on potential, but he’s going to get plenty of chances this year with Porto.
11. Andres Guardado–Valencia (Esp)-Midfielder: The veteran 27 year old seems to have been around forever after his 3rd straight World Cup appearance. He seems to have totally revived his career in central midfield for El Tri after starting all 4 games in Brazil.
12. Raul Jimenez–Club America-Striker: The hugely talented youngster is desperate for a move to Europe. Porto seems interested and all of a sudden Porto would become Mexico’s favorite foreign club.
13. Alfredo Talavera–Toluca-Goalkeeper: Mexico’s No. 3 goalkeeper has been a steady performer in Liga MX for years. His shining moment came during the 2011 Gold Cup where he lead the team to Gold.
14. Rafa Marquez–Club Leon-Center-back: Who would’ve thought at this point that a 35 year old Rafa Marquez would still be a top 15 player for Mexico? Actually it’s much harder to judge because although his physicality has diminished, his long balls and organizational skills are still vital to Mexico. How will they replace him?
15. Javier Aquino–Villareal (Esp)-Attacking Midfielder: One of three Mexican players at Villareal, Aquino seems likely to be sent out on Loan. But still only 24, the lightning fast winger is sure to be around the top of this list for several years to come.
16. Carlos “Gullit” Pena–Club Leon-Midfielder: There’s no doubt Pena’s box-to-box skills have taken Liga MX by storm the past two years. But he seems to have worn down by the amount of games he’d had to play the last several tournaments. But he’s a great young talent, becoming the player many expected Jorge Enriquez to be.
17. Alan Pulido–Tigres UANL–Striker: A talented young forward, Pulido has impressed with his most recent El Tri performances. But will a move to Greek powerhouse Olympiacos be the recipe for continuing his development?
18. Marco Fabian–Cruz Azul-Forward: Part of Mexico’s Olympic victory in London, there may not be anyone in Mexico with more natural ability. After failing to reach his potential at Chivas, it seems as if he may have found a home at Cruz Azul.
19. Jonathan dos Santos–Villareal (Esp)-Midfielder: Long touted as a near equal in talent to his brother, Jonathan has allowed himself to whither away on the end of FC Barcelona’s bench for the past several years. Will teaming up with his brother at Valencia make him a star?
20. Miguel Layun–Club America-Full-Back: At 26, Layun is a unique talent. He has both the technical and physical ability to play full-back or wing-back. Although right-footed he almost exclusively plays left back, able to cut inside and fire accurate long range shots on goal.
21. Isaac Brizuela–Toluca-Forward: The versatile attacking player is capable of lining up in several spots.
22. Hiram Mier–Monterrey-Center-Back: Likely to have made Mexico’s World Cup roster if he had not been injured, Mier teamed up well with Diego Reyes to win the 2012 Olympics. He, Reyes, and Moreno should be Mexico’s back three for the next cycle.
23. Jorge Torres-Nilo–Tigres UANL-Left Back: The twenty-six year old fell out of favor immediately after Miguel Herrera took over. But he does certainly have talent. But he may lack the offensive flair for Herrera’s system.
24. Paul Aguilar–Club America-Right Back: Blessed with speed and a member of Mexico’s last two World Cup squads, Aguilar is the perfect fit for the Herrera’s 5-3-2. Aguilar is an offense first wing-back.
25. Jonathan Orozco–Monterrey-Goalkeeper: Once on the very edge of the World Cup roster, he hasn’t been mentioned since having a disastrous 2013 Gold Cup. His club career has also plateaued since the end of Miguel Vucetich’s reign at the helm of Monterrey. But at only 28 he has time to bounce back.
26. Aldo De Nigris–CD Guadalajara-Striker: The big physical target man seems to be on the back end of a solid career, but the thirty-one-year-old still has a few good years left.
27. Angel Reyna–CD Guadalajara-Attacking Midfielder: The veteran attacking midfielder has never been short on talent, but has had trouble falling in line. Chivas brought him in this
28. Alonso Escoboza–Santos Laguna-Forward: The 21-year-old broke out last season as Oribe Peralta’s strike partner. But with Peralta gone, it’s going to be a big season for the young forward.
29. Jose “Tecatito” Corona–FC Twente (Bel)-Attacking Midfielder: Unlike most Mexican players, Tecatito bolted early to Europe after a big U-20 World Cup in 2013.
30. Hugo Ayala–Club America-Center-Back: A big physical defender, he’s never quite lived up to his potential. But he’ll get plenty of opportunities this season for America after Maza Rodriguez moved on.
31. Juan Carlos Medina–Club America-Defensive Midfielder: A veteran of Liga MX, Medina was a lock to start for El Tri before getting injured in practice before the tournament. But he’s still one of Liga MX’s best CDMs.
32. “Gallito” Vazquez–Club Leon-Defensive Midfielder: The 26-year-old filled in admirably for Juan Carlos Medina, starting 3 games of Mexico’s World Cup. He, Montes, and Pena should man Leon’s midfield for years to come.
33. Moises Munoz–Club America-Goalkeeper: The Club America keeper was a tough omission from El Tri’s World Cup squad. But he has been a solid presence for America in goal. He as played mistake free in the years since replacing Guillermo Ochoa.
34. Jesus Zavala–Monterrey-Defensive Midfielder: Back in 2011 in looked like Zavala was the future for El Tri at CDM. But his performances in 2013 caused him to be left out of Mexico’s World Cup picture entirely. But the 27-year-old still has plenty of talent.
35. Jesus Molina–Club America-Defensive Midfielder: Immensely talented and granted with all the physical tools, Molina has had difficulty getting regular playing time in America’s loaded roster.
36. Miguel Ponce–Toluca-Left Back: The American-born left back is a promising young talent. A late addition to the World Cup roster, he is due to play a large part in this World Cup cycle.
37. “Maza” Rodriguez–Cruz Azul-Center-Back: Perhaps this is too low for the longtime El Tri veteran who had a solid European career, especially after he performed excellently during the World Cup. Can he help Cruz Azul finally win a trophy?
38. William Yarbrough–Club Leon-Goalkeeper: Yes he mistake prone, as he proved in Week 1, but the American-Mexican is certainly a talent. At age 25, he has already won two Liga MX titles. I expect the FMF and US Soccer to fight over him soon.
39. Oswaldo Sanchez–Santos Laguna-Goalkeeper: The 40-year-old was the Mexico No. 1 once upon a time and is still going strong as the Captain of Santos Laguna.
40. Fernando Arce–CD Guadalajara-Midfielder: The 34-year-old was brought into Chivas to solidify the center of midfield. But instead will he and the other veteran players combine to make Guadalajara too slow?
41. Pablo Barrera–Cruz Azul-Attacking Midfielder: Despite playing at World Cup 2010 at 23 years of age, Barrera’s career has been sidetracked by a failed stint in England as well as injury. But he still has plenty of talent left.
42. Carlos Salcido–CD Guadalajara-Defensive Midfielder: Like Fernando Arce, the long time El Tri veteran was brought in to stabilize Chivas’ midfield. But he too is already 34-years-old.
43. Juan Carlos Valenzuela–Club America-Center-Back: A solid if unspectacular career, “El Topo” has never quite been international caliber, just missing out on both World Cup squads in 2010 and 2014.
44. Christian Gimenez*–Cruz Azul-Attacking Midfielder: The naturalized Argentine is a true professional, constantly putting in the effort and getting himself and teammates into good positions.
45. Sinha*–Toluca-Forward: Seemingly around forever, the naturalized Brazilian is still capable of some offensive magic, even at his advance age.
46. Oscar “El Conejo” Perez-Pachuca-Goalkeeper: At 41 years young, the man who manned the net for Mexico in 2010 is still going strong.
47. Lucas Lobos*–Toluca-Midfielder: Brought onto the El Tri roster for two games by Manuel Vucetich, the naturalized Argentine didn’t play in his two games. This season he was brought into Toluca for his leadership and veteran savvy after a long career at Tigres.
48. Gerardo Torrado–Cruz Azul-Defensive Midfielder: With over 146 caps for Mexico to his name, Torrado is the consummate pro. At 35 he is still the heart and soul of Cruz Azul playing a strong CDM role as he has always done.
49. Jurgen Damm–Pachuca-Attacking Midfielder: The half-German, half-Mexican winger has been much hyped since he was a teenager. He’s beginning to live up to that hype.
50. Omar Bravo–CD Guadalajara-Forward: Another 34-year-old Chivas player, Bravo is still capable of having his moments. But he has always been prone to the mental blunder.