Los Angeles Soccer: Europe

Galaxy loan Chad Barrett to Norwegian club

July, 31, 2012
Galaxy forward Chad Barrett has been loaned to Valerenga of the Norwegian Premier League, the team announced Tuesday.

Barrett, 27, trained with the club for a week earlier this month. He will travel to Oslo on Wednesday to join his new team, whose season concludes in November.

In 45 regular-season games with the Galaxy since 2011, Barrett has scored eight goals and eight assists.

This season, Barrett appeared in 18 regular-season games, scoring one goal against Philadelphia on July 4. He also had three assists this season.

Valerenga team is currently sits in sixth place in its standings and have 13 games left on its schedule.

MLS, Galaxy, Europe

Lampard to Galaxy? 'Nothing to that'

July, 9, 2012

Frank Lampard's rumored move to the Galaxy isn't happening, he told English media, claiming his time in L.A. was just vacation.

Chelsea's star midfielder watched L.A.'s Fourth of July loss to Philadelphia from a Home Depot Center luxury box with suspended David Beckham amid reports he'd been offered a two-year contract worth $20 million to join the Galaxy. He's been linked to the club since last year.

“There's nothing in that at all,” he told The Sun, a British tabloid. “I'm here in Los Angeles on holiday with Christine [Bleakley, my fiancee]. We got engaged here last year, and we love it over here. [Agent Steve Kutner is] over here on music and football business. He organized a box so we could go to see the Galaxy game.

“Becks was suspended for the match, so he came and sat with us, and we had a good laugh -- that's all.”

Lampard, 34, has a contract with the European champions through next summer, and he said he was “really looking forward to getting back to Chelsea” after missing Euro 2012 with a thigh strain. “Maybe missing the Euros was a blessing in disguise for me. I had a full summer off, and I'm ready to go back to start the hard work for the new season.”

Pearce on Beckham: I know how much it meant to him

July, 3, 2012

Stuart Pearce is convinced he's made the correct decision in not including David Beckham on Great Britain's 18-man roster for the London Olympics, but that doesn't mean he has no empathy for the Galaxy star.

And there's a chance, indeed slim, that Beckham could feature after all.

“I've got a vast amount of respect for David and what he has done in bringing the Olympics to these shores,” Pearce told media Monday, when he officially announced his roster. “I have to be comfortable that I've made decisions on footballing grounds alone. Not on personality, or who I like as individuals. This is the strongest squad that's available to me to select. ...

“I feel very sorry for David. I know how much it meant to him. I do understand that.”

Beckham, who played a pivotal role in bringing the Olympics to his hometown and served in an ambassadorial role for the organizing committee, had been expected to be one of three over-23 players on the unified Great Britain roster, but Pearce opted for Liverpool's Craig Bellamy, Manchester United's Ryan Giggs and Manchester City's Micah Richards instead.

Beckham broke the news with a statement last week that he was “very disappointed” to miss out on the Olympics, “but there will be no bigger supporter of the team than me. And like everyone, I will be hoping they can win the gold.”

Said Pearce: “There's no doubt David had a burning ambition to be part of this -- he said it many times before. The other 18 players had the same burning ambition, the three overage players especially -- they have been absolutely desperate to be part of this.”

(Read full post)

GALAXY: Pearce chose GB team on form

July, 2, 2012
Stuart Pearce on Monday officially unveiled Great Britain's 18-man Olympic roster, and, sure enough, David Beckham wasn't on the list. The over-23 players, as reported last week, are Liverpool's Craig Bellamy, Manchester United's Ryan Giggs and Manchester City's Micah Richards.

Beckham's omission was all about form, Pearce said.

“Form plays a big part, and I don't think there is a manager around who picks on sentiment,” he said at a news conference. "I have to be comfortable when I have made decisions solely on football grounds alone, nothing else. ...

“From the offset, when I sat down with the [English Football Association] chairman David Bernstein some time before Christmas, he offered me the opportunity to pick the squad. If at that stage he had said to me that certain individuals would have to be included, I certainly wouldn't do that job. I don't know any manager worth their salt who would have. Right through this process I have had carte blanche to pick whatever players I regard as best. I do enough hours watching matches, and I think I've done due diligence on all the players here.”

Pearce saw Beckham play in three Major League Soccer games before deciding to leave him out of the squad. Beckham played a vital role in bringing the Olympics to London and has played an ambassadorial role since, and it was widely assumed that he would captain the unified British team as a reward.

Beckham has not addressed the media since learning last week he would not make the Olympic team. His representative released a statement Thursday in which the Galaxy star said he was “very disappointed, but there will be no bigger supporter of the team than me.”

(Read full post)

Superstars' charity ride is a kick, for real

July, 1, 2012

Scott French/For ESPNLA.com
Among the riders: Queens Park Rangers (sitting) and, behind him, starting third from left and moving to the right, Chelsea's Salomon Kalou and Ashley Cole, Bolton's Zat Knight and Shanghai Shenhua's Didier Drogba. The other men are Wright-Phillips associates who also participated in the ride.

HAWTHORNE -- Wayne Rooney was a no-show, but fans who waited three hours to see some soccer royalty Sunday morning were amply rewarded with a few minutes -- photos and autographs, too -- with some of the English Premier League's biggest stars.

Those hoping for a glimpse of Didier Drogba, Ashley Cole, Salomon Kalou, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Zat Knight cruising L.A.'s freeways weren't so fortunate.

Wright-Phillips' annual charity motorcycle ride to benefit two causes aiding children in Africa, India and Central America went off, with a few hitches, but the expected journey -- from EagleRider Motorcycle Rentals down the San Diego Freeway to Seal Beach, then over to Pacific Coast Highway for an oceanside trek through Orange County -- was scrapped for a little footy in a Palos Verdes Peninsula park.

There are only reports about what happened -- virtually nobody was on hand to see $100 million of talent playing pickup soccer -- but the word is they kicked around with a few kids and local coach Lloyd Kinnear, who also took part in the ride.

The event was to raise funds and awareness for Education For The Children, which provides schooling for poor children in Guatemala, and Arms Around the Child, which assists children affected by HIV/AIDS in Africa and India. And if there was any negative, it's that the ride conflicted with the Euro 2012 final, during which Spain beat Italy 4-0 in the Ukraine.

“I'm a bit disappointed about that, if I'm honest. I'm not going to lie,” Wright-Phillips, who calls L.A. his second home, said while waiting for the the others to show up at EagleRider's Hawthorne headquarters, which they did an hour or so behind schedule. “But charity is charity. Plus you have TiVo over here, so I recorded it.”

His plan: “I just won't listen to anything anyone says about the game.”

Drogba, Kalou and Cole played at Chelsea alongside Wright-Phillips, a former England national team winger who now plays at Queens Park Rangers.

“That's my brother there,” said Kalou, an Ivorian striker who is a free agent after six years with Chelsea. “Anything he's involved in, it's always a pleasure to come support him.

“This is a good cause. Even though I'm going to miss watching [Spain-Italy], coming here, supporting this cause is very important to me. And for Shaun, I'm here to show him that there is always a family and family always come first.”

Drogba, a superstar Ivorian forward who just left Chelsea to sign with China's Shanghai Shenhua, was the biggest name on site after England/Manchester United star Rooney pulled out, and several among the few dozen spectators that waited patiently to meet the players wore his jerseys.

(Read full post)

Rooney, Drogba in L.A. to ride motorcycles

June, 29, 2012

Wayne Rooney and Didier DrogbaGetty ImagesWayne Rooney, left, and Didier Drogba will be in Hawthorne on Sunday to ride in a motorcycle charity event.

Soccer stars don't come much bigger than Wayne Rooney and Didier Drogba.

And both will be in Southern California on Sunday for the fifth annual ride to raise money and awareness for Arms Around the Child, a program that aids African and Indian orphans affected by HIV/AIDS, and Education for the Children, which works to improve educational opportunities in Central America.

Rooney, Manchester United's star forward, and Drogba, the Ivory Coast superstar who just signed with China's Shanghai Shenhua after eight years at Chelsea, are among six players from the English Premier League who will climb aboard motorcycles for a four-hour ride around town.

Queens Park Rangers winger Shaun Wright-Phillips, a former English national-teamer, is the man behind the ride, which will begin at 11 a.m. at motorcycle rental company EagleRide's headquarters in Hawthorne.

The route is not being publicized -- organizers don't want to disrupt L.A.'s notoriously complicated traffic flow -- but fans can gather from 9 to 11 a.m. at EagleRide, which is located at 11860 S. La Cienega Blvd., to greet the players and get autographs.

Also riding are Chelsea stars Ashley Cole and Salomon Kalou and Bolton defender Zat Knight. They will stop for lunch during their ride -- no particular spot has been determined -- and return to EagleRide at 3 p.m.

GALAXY: Becks' teammates disappointed

June, 28, 2012

David BeckhamAnthony Gruppuso/US PresswireThough disappointed for being left off Great Britain's Olympic team, David Beckham says he will cheer the team along as much as anyone.

CARSON -- David Beckham omission for Great Britain's Olympic soccer team stunned and disappointed his teammates, who were looking forward to seeing the English icon suit up at his hometown London Games.

Beckham wasn't made available after Thursday's training session, so all we have from him is the statement his representatives released, but teammates were vocal in Great Britain manager Stuart Pearce's decision, reported widely in the British media, not to include Beckham on his 18-man roster.

“I was surprised, yes,” said Galaxy captain Landon Donovan, who played in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, helping the U.S. to the semifinals. “I think we're all disappointed. I think we probably all don't agree with the decision, but that's the way soccer is and always has been that way, and we're disappointed for David.

“You look at it in the bigger context, the opportunity to play in the Olympics in your home country is really special, and to have that taken away from you is devastating. Especially for a guy who has done so much for the sport in that country. It doesn't really make sense. But that's life.”

Beckham was informed this week that he would not be one of three overage players on Pearce's side at the London Olympics. Beckham played a crucial role in bringing the Games to his hometown and has served the organizers in an ambassadorial role. He was widely considered a shoo-in for the team, but Pearce, according to media reports in England, will instead select Liverpool's Craig Bellamy, Manchester United's Ryan Giggs and Manchester City's Micah Richards for the over-23 slots.

“Everyone knows how much playing for my country has always meant to me,” Beckham said in a statement widely disseminated Thursday. “So I would have been honored to have been part of this unique Team GB squad. Naturally, I am very disappointed, but there will be no bigger supporter of the team than me. And like everyone, I will be hoping they can win the gold.”

(Read full post)

No Olympics for Beckham

June, 28, 2012

David Beckham will not be playing for the unified Great Britain team at the London Olympics.

Manager Stuart Pearce, who was at Home Depot Center to watch Beckham in L.A.'s 1-0 victory 11 days ago, had been expected to select the 37-year-old legend along with Liverpool's Craig Bellamy and Beckham's old Manchester United teammate Ryan Giggs as the three over-23 players for the “Team GB” men's soccer roster. Manchester City's Micah Richards is expected to get the nod instead of Beckham.

“Everyone knows how much playing for my country has always meant to me,” Beckham said in a statement. “So I would have been honored to have been part of this unique Team GB squad. Naturally, I am very disappointed, but there will be no bigger supporter of the team than me. And like everyone, I will be hoping they can win the gold.”

Beckham, who played 115 times and in three World Cups for England, had hoped to cap his career at his hometown Olympics. He played a vital role in the London organizers' bid to win the games and has served as an ambassador since. A role on Pearce's 18-man roster was expected to be his reward.

“He's been a great ambassador, but that's no guarantee he'll get in the squad. I'm picking on form and merit alone,” Pearce, who made two trips to the U.S. to scout Beckham, said in April. “David Beckham will be treated exactly the same as any other individual, whether it is young or overage. I have a duty of care to the Great Britain squad to try to win a gold medal. I will pick the strongest squad I can.”

The Olympic men's soccer tournament is for under-23 teams, but each nation may include three overage players.

Beckham is expected to have a role at the July 27 opening ceremonies.

GALAXY: Keane is ready to go

June, 22, 2012

Robbie KeanePeter Muhly/Getty ImagesRobbie Keane is back from Euro 2012 and ready to play for the Galaxy if called upon.

CARSON -- Robbie Keane returned to training Friday with the Galaxy, just four days after wrapping up his involvement at the European Championship, and although he wishes he were in Ukraine preparing for a quarterfinal Saturday or Sunday, he says he's happy to be back.

And ready to go, should he be called upon for Saturday night's Major League Soccer clash with Vancouver at Home Depot Center.

“It's nice to be back amongst the lads and look forward to being involved tomorrow,” the Irish striker said following Friday's training session at HDC's Track and Field Stadium. “[I'm ready to] play as long as I can. I'd be happy to play 90 minutes.”

He's hoping to “get minutes under my belt tomorrow to sort of get all the stiffness out” as he looks to move on from a very disappointing Euro 2012 campaign. Ireland lost all three of its Group C matches, to Croatia, Italy and Spain, and finished last in the 16-nation tournament.

Asked what he takes from the Euros, Keane replied: “Nothing, really. It was a good experience. It was obviously great to play in the European Championship, but if you don't win ... sometimes you just have to hold your hand up and say the team you played were superior than you were. Simple as that, really.”

It was a frightful group for the Irish, who are capable battlers without the depth or talent of the continent's powers, a roster that includes the Spaniards -- defending European and World Cup champs -- and the Italians and, on occasion, the Croats, too.

The gap might be growing between decent teams, such as Ireland, and “people like Spain, who's probably on a different planet at the moment [from] anyone else I've ever played against,” Keane said. “You're just basically chasing shadows for 90 minutes.”

The only positive for Ireland was the Green Army supporters, a jovial lot who charmed everybody and won great plaudits for serenading their team with the Irish folk song “Fields of Athenry” as Spain rolled to a 4-0 victory Monday.

“That's normal for Irish fans,” Keane said. “They've been fantastic over the years, and especially in Poland I think they've been a credit to the country in the way they behaved and the way they supported the team. That's how every team should be supported.”

(Read full post)

MLS Power Rankings: Technology time

June, 20, 2012

Dominic Oduro, Wilman CondeJonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesThe Red Bull's Wilman Conde clearing of the Fire's Dominic Oduro's shot was the biggest play of the week in MLS.

In just a matter of days, the argument over goal-line technology has been settled. They'll still argue, but after Ukraine was denied a legitimate goal in Tuesday's 1-0 loss to England at Euro 2012, the discussion is moot.

“After last night's match,” FIFA President Sepp Blatter tweeted Wednesday, “GLT is no longer an alternative but a necessity.”

MLS Commissioner Don Garber has been vocal in his support of goal-line technology, and the week's better argument in favor of implementation occurred in Chicago's 3-1 victory Saturday over visiting New York.

A shot by Fire forward Dominic Oduro, slowed by a deflection off Red Bulls goalkeeper Ryan Meara, was cleared as it entered the net by Wilman Conde. The linesman was a little behind the play and screened by a sliding Conde and could not see that the ball had, indeed, crossed fully into the goal. Referee Baldomero Toledo waved play on and cautioned Oduro for protesting.

The incident incensed the Fire, who replied with another goal four minutes later and another 13 minutes after that to pull away.

Marko Devic's goal for Ukraine was just as clear, and John Terry's clearance after it had crossed the line should have been easier to spot. UEFA, led by legendary French midfielder (and anti-technology crusader) Michel Platini, is experimenting with goal judges in this European Championship. Their sole job is to decide if the ball has crossed the line. The goal judge in Donetsk was next to the net staring at the play, and he didn't get it right.

As Michael Ballack noted on ESPN's coverage of the Euros, it's not his fault. Everything's happening so fast, the eyes can't discern exactly where what is at any given moment. ESPN used stop-action video to prove Devic's goal should have counted.

FIFA on July 5 will decide if Platini's alternative or either of two systems, both using technology, at use in England and Denmark should be approved for widespread use. The past week calls for at least one of them to get the nod, and the UEFA boss' chances aren't good.

Here are this week's power rankings:

1. REAL SALT LAKE (10-3-2, 32 points), Last Week: 1
Week 15:
Fabian Espindola strikes twice in impressive 3-0 triumph at Chivas USA.
Latest: Javier Morales ready to return to the starting lineup.
Should-be All-Star: Espindola has been unstoppable.
Next: Wednesday vs. Galaxy, 6 p.m. (KDOC/Channel 56 and KWHY/Channel 22); Saturday vs. San Jose, 6 p.m. (MLS Direct Kick).

2. SPORTING KANSAS CITY (9-3-1, 28 points), LW: 3
Week 15:
C.J. Sapong, Julio Cesar hit the net in 2-0 win over Toronto FC.
Latest: Peter Vermes reveals K.C. has tried to acquire Giovani Dos Santos “a couple times, but there's always been little problems here or there,” mostly money talk with Tottenham. The Mexico star says he wants to stay in Europe.
Should-be All-Star: Aurelien Collin has been splendid at the back.
Next: Wednesday at Seattle, 7 p.m. (MLS Direct Kick); Saturday at Philadelphia, 4 p.m. (MLS Direct Kick); Tuesday in a U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal vs. Dayton Dutch Lions (USL Pro), 5:30 p.m.

3. SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES (8-3-3, 27 points), LW: 4
Week 15:
Latest: When will the Quakes' new stadium open? Could be 2013 or 2014 -- still lots of uncertainty.
Should-be All-Star: Chris Wondolowski, of course.
Next: Wednesday at Colorado, 6:30 p.m. (MLS Direct Kick); Saturday at Real Salt Lake, 6 p.m. (MLS Direct Kick); Tuesday in a U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal vs. Seattle, 7:30 p.m.

(Read full post)

Swansea City has date with Fusion

June, 19, 2012

Swansea City will be the Ventura County Fusion's British opponent this year, the club announced Tuesday, with an Oxnard College friendly set for July 28.

The Welsh club, which plays in England's Premier League, follows in the footsteps of Everton, Burnley, Portsmouth and, last year, West Bromwich Albion, who have visited Ventura County for preseason work since 2007.

The Fusion, an amateur club which is one point out of the lead in the USL Premier Development League's Southwest Division, also played Manchester City in a closed-door match last summer at Loyola Marymount. They have lost all five games against English opposition.

The game will kick off at 5 p.m., and advance tickets ($15 for adults, $8 ages 16 and under) are available through the Fusion's website or by calling (805) 277-9742. Tickets at the gate will be $20 and $12.

Swansea City, which last season debuted in the EPL with a 12-15-11 record to finish 11th, on Friday appointed former Danish star Michael Laudrup as manager. The Swans will train for a week in Oxnard as part of a 12-day U.S. trip, which includes matches against Major League Soccer's Colorado Rapids on July 24 and San Jose Earthquakes on July 31.

The Fusion, which annually plays preseason games against MLS clubs, last year in a two-week stretch played West Brom, New Zealand's under-20 national team, Argentine club Independiente and Man City. They beat New Zealand and lost the others.

GALAXY: Ireland out, Keane L.A.-bound

June, 14, 2012

Robbie KeaneAP Photo/Peter MorrisonIreland's Robbie Keane reacts at the end of the Euro 2012 soccer championship Group C match between Spain and Ireland. Ireland lost the match, 0-4.

Robbie Keane will be back with the Galaxy next week, following Ireland's first-stage finale, after the Republic was eliminated from Euro 2012 contention with a lopsided loss to Spain.

The Irish, despite strong support from their legendary Green Army, are the first team ousted from the European Championship after Thursday's 4-0 defeat in Gdansk, Poland. They lost their Group C opener Sunday to Croatia and complete their schedule Monday against Italy in Poznan. The Italians must win to advance.

Keane, Ireland's captain, is expected to rejoin the Galaxy when they return from Wednesday's game at Real Salt Lake, although a club spokesman Thursday said the striker's schedule was not known. The Galaxy return from a three-week break Sunday against Portland at Home Depot Center. Keane has missed three Galaxy games, including the U.S. Open Cup defeat, while with the Irish squad.

Spain dominated Thursday's game, and after the game former Irish captain Roy Keane voiced his displeasure.

“It was a wake-up call for these players,” he said. “The goals they gave away tonight at any level were absolutely shocking.”

Ireland, the underdog in a a very difficult group, fell behind Spain on the first of two Fernando Torres goals in the fourth minute. The Spaniards, Euro 2008 and 2010 World Cup champion, held two-thirds of possession, spent much of the match in and around the Irish box, and outfired their foe, 26-6, putting 20 shots on target.

David Silva, Cesc Fabregas and Torres scored second-half goals.

Ireland was making its first European Championship appearance since 1988 and playing in its first major championship since the 2002 World Cup. They are one of two teams to play twice without a point -- Holland remains alive at 0-2-0 in Group B -- and have conceded a tournament-worst seven goals. Only one other team has surrendered more than three.

Editor's note: In an earlier version of this post quotes from former Irish captain Roy Keane were mistakenly attributed to current Irish forward Robbie Keane.

GALAXY: Keane's Euro starts badly

June, 10, 2012
Ireland's start to the European Championship was not what Galaxy striker Robbie Keane hoped for.

Mario Mandzukic scored two goals to lead Croatia to a 3-1 victory in the Group C opener in Poznan, Poland, leaving the Irish in a difficult position to advance to the knockout stage.

Ireland, which entered its first major tournament in a decade with a 14-game unbeaten streak, is last in the group after the opening matches and has games left against the last two World Cup champions, Thursday against Italy and next Monday against defending Euro titlist Spain. The top two teams in the group move on to the quarterfinals.

If Ireland fails to advance, Keane is expected to return to the Galaxy in time for the June 23 game against Vancouver at Home Depot Center. It is unlikely he'd be back for the June 20 match at Real Salt Lake.

Italy and Spain drew, 1-1, in a sparkling encounter featuring brilliantly executed sequences for goals three minutes apart in the second half by the Azzurri's Antonio Di Natale and Spain's Cesc Fabregas.

Keane, the Irish captain, went just 71 minutes before manager Giovanni Trappatoni, looking for an offensive spark, pulled him off in favor of Shane Long. Keane was denied a clear penalty kick in the 63rd minute by Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers; televised replays indicated Gordon Schildenfeld fouled him from behind.

Ireland was unfortunate on all three Croatian goals. Mandzukic scored in the third minute from an odd header following a deflected cross, and Nikica Jelavic was in an offside position when he scored the winner just before halftime, except the ball came off a shanked clearance attempt by the Irish. Mandzukic's second goal, three minutes into the second half, was a header that hit the right post and ricocheted in off diving goalkeeper Shay Given.

Sean St. Ledger netted Ireland's goal, a header from a free kick in the 19th minute.

Beckham for Team GB, reports say

June, 8, 2012

David Beckham is going to the Olympics.

That's the word according to English tabloid Daily Mail, which reported Thursday that it “can reveal that the Leytonstone-born England icon is included in the Great Britain squad Stuart Pearce will submit to FIFA, ending fevered speculation over his participation.”

Pearce is to submit Friday a shortlist of 35 players to FIFA, and The Telegraph, a British broadsheet, reported that “it is understood that Beckham has not only been included but will survive the cut to become an Olympian.”

Both reports are unsourced, but Beckham, the Galaxy's midfield leader, is considered a strong bet for one of three-overage slots on the 18-man roster for the London Olympics, for which the soccer competition begins July 26, the day before the opening ceremonies.

Beckham, 37, was part of the team that campaigned to bring the Olympics to his hometown and has served in an ambassadorial role since. He left the Galaxy last month to accompany the Olympic flame from Athens to Cornwall, where the torch relay across Britain began.

There has been criticism in Britain that Beckham's inclusion would be solely about his celebrity -- his ability to fill seats and sell souvenirs -- and he bristled about it with the British press while in England last month.

“I have never said it before, but that suggestion has always felt a bit disrespectful,” he said. “Whenever I have been asked about shirt sales or filling stadiums, it has always felt it is a bit disrespectful. Throughout my career, I have been pretty successful, I’ve played for some pretty big teams, represented my country quite a few times, and played for managers without sentiment.

“When you play for Sir Alex Ferguson, Fabio Capello, Sven Goran Eriksson or the [other managers] that I have played under, they don’t pick players because they want to fill a stadium or particularly to sell shirts. I have always found it an honor that people have wanted to buy my shirt and an honor that fans turn up to watch the team I am playing in. I have always found that a huge honor. But no, I don’t want to be picked for shirt sales or as a stadium-filler. I want to be picked for what I can bring to the team.

“That has been the case throughout my career, and I don’t want that to change.”

GALAXY: Keane, Ireland have Euro goals

June, 8, 2012

Robbie KeaneAP Photo/Niall CarsonRobbie Keane will be away from the Galaxy for the next month while competing for Ireland in Euro 2012.

CARSON -- The odds might not favor Ireland as the European Championship begins in Poland and the Ukraine, but that's fine with Galaxy striker Robbie Keane, the Irish's captain and all-time goals leader. He rather likes it that way.

The world's No. 2 soccer tournament kicks off Friday morning L.A. time, and Keane will lead the Irish into Euro 2012 action on Sunday morning, a critical meeting with Croatia before showdowns with the last two World Cup champions.

It's a ferocious challenge, but whatever Ireland lacks in technical brilliance is offset by plenty of grit and guile -- and Italian manager Giovanni Trapattoni's clampdown defensive system.

“We’ve certainly got the toughest group,” Keane told L.A.-based reporters before heading to Europe last month. “We’re underdogs, and I think with the national team it’s always good -- and we’ve always done better -- when we’re the underdogs. Hopefully, that will be the case.”

It's Ireland's first major competition in a decade, since the 2002 World Cup, and its first European Championship appearance since 1988, when Keane was 7 years old. The draw could hardly have been worse.

Spain, the defending European and World Cup champion (and only the third team ever to win the titles back-to-back), is the finest side on the planet and, along with Germany and Holland, the tournament favorite. Italy comes in undervalued and, as always, with a defensive mindset that can boost Azzurri chances. Croatia always is among Europe's most talented teams.

Ireland, based in Poland for Group C play, faces Croatia in Poznan, then takes on Spain next Thursday in Gdansk and Italy on June 18 in Poznan.

“Spain, who are kind of the Barcelona of everyday kind of football, that’s going to certainly a challenge,” Keane said. “We’ll certainly be doing a lot of running, a lot of chasing. Croatia we played against last year, and we’re quite even team. Italy is Italy -- they defend very well as a team, but we’ve got a manager who’s Italian, who knows the Italian players inside-out. ...

“We have the toughest group, we know that, we’re not stupid, we’re not na´ve to think that we’ve got an easy group, but the thing is when you play these games, there’s no easy games regardless who you’re playing.”

The Irish beat Italy, 2-0, in a friendly last year, and they have a knack for getting results against better-fancied teams. They've lost just twice in 24 competitive games under Trapattoni and might have gone to the 2010 World Cup if not for Thierry Henry's infamous hand ball.

(Read full post)