Saturday, January 1, 2011
SOCCER 2011: 10 things to watch for
By Scott French
Anything less than a championship would be considered a failure in the eyes of Landon Donovan.
1. U.S.-MEXICO SUPREMACY
U.S. Soccer has avoided scheduling against Mexico's national team in Southern California for obvious reasons, but the federation has no (reasonable) choice this year. Circle June 25 on the calendar: If all follows form, the Yanks and El Tri will renew the region's best rivalry in a packed Rose Bowl with the CONCACAF Gold Cup title on the line. A young version of the U.S. will face Chile at Home Depot Center on Jan. 22, and we're hearing talk of Mexico at the Rose Bowl in March. And the HDC gets a Gold Cup date June 6, but no idea who will play in the doubleheader.
2. GALAXY'S GOAL: A TROPHY
The Galaxy might have answered its biggest need in Major League Soccer's re-entry draft, selecting aging but gifted Colombian striker Juan Pablo Angel. Now they've got to sign him -- and hope Edson Buddle doesn't bolt for England or Scotland. L.A. has come close to After coming close to MLS Cup titles the past two years, losing in the 2009 final and in the 2010 Western Conference title game, and anything other than a trophy in 2011 will disappoint (although getting through the CONCACAF Champions League's group phase might mitigate somewhat). Landon Donovan is nearing 30, David Beckham's contract ends next December, and Angel is a quick-fix kind of addition. The backline is getting younger (and better, it seems), and if Bruce Arena can find a little more speed, L.A. will be tough to beat. But so will Real Salt Lake, FC Dallas and the New York Red Bulls, and maybe reigning champ Colorado if it can keep Omar Cummings from bolting to Europe. Our expectation: a terrific MLS race.
3. THE GERMAN MISSION
The U.S. women haven't won a Women's World Cup title since that delightful summer of '99, and they've since lost the American public's attention, mostly because Mia Hamm (and others) retired and Nike stopped contributing millions to the team's marketing campaign. This group of Yanks will try to restore some of the glitz, but it's not going to be easy. They'll certainly among the teams to beat at the WWC in Germany next summer -- and they might pull it off, if Abby Wambach and Hope Solo are at their best -- but if anyone other than the Germans are celebrating come July 17 in Frankfurt, it's a massive upset.
4. CHIVAS USA'S COMEBACK
The Goats turned things around quickly after their awful debut season, but they had Bob Bradley in charge. Restoring the sheen after last year's last-place run will be more difficult, and not just because they won't have one of America's finest coaches at the reins. Chivas USA is starting over, to some extent, and it heads into the new year with holes in the front office and all over the field -- and with no coach yet in place, after Juan Carlos Osorio declined an offer. It's difficult to tell if those in charge (president/partner Antonio Cué and interim GM Jose Luis Domene) know what they're doing. If not, things could go turn truly ugly.
5. MEXICO ON OUR DOORSTEP?
Club Tijuana, at the very least, will play a home-and-home series next May for promotion to the Mexico's top-tier Primera Division. Success means Guadalajara, America, Cruz Azul, etc., will play games that matter -- just a little more than 100 miles away. The Xoloitzcuintles dominated the second-tier Liga de Ascenso during the fall Apertura. Their Clausura campaign begins next weekend, and if they can add a consistent goalscorer, there might be no stopping them. Win the Apertura, and the Primera Division is theirs.
6. WHAT NEXT FOR BECKHAM?
David Beckham enters the final season of his five-year deal with the Galaxy still seeking an MLS Cup championship, but there's little sense in calling his first four years in L.A. a disappointment. Even if it's so. Injuries and loan deals have kept him out of the lineup for at least half his tenure, but his play as the Galaxy drove toward their 2009 MLS Cup appearance and after returning from a torn Achilles' tendon last year made clear his passion for the club. (And what he's brought to MLS, in terms of recognition and respect, and to L.A.'s owners, primarily in marketing, can't be underestimated.) We expect big things from Beckham in 2011, but the real question is what comes next: a contract extension, back to Europe, or a move to New York, where he could star (and own a piece) of the new Cosmos?
7. FUTURE OF THE WOMEN'S GAME
Women's Professional Soccer's wanna-be major-league status is dead, no matter how many of the world's best players suit up in 2011. The self-proclaimed world's-best league (and we won't argue) is strictly an East Coast operation in 2011, and its survival could depend on its relationships with the Women's Premier Soccer League and the W-League, national divisions of primarily amateur and semipro clubs. Keep an eye on the OC Sol, a pro team that will play in the WPSL -- the first step, owners hope, toward bringing the WPS to Orange County in 2012.
8. REAL TIME
A lot of the world's biggest clubs will be coming to America for preseason next summer, like they do every year. Count on whichever club Jose Mourinho is running -- Real Madrid, for now -- to make an L.A. appearance. The superstar Portuguese manager loves Southern California and always brings his clubs (Chelsea and Inter Milan, previously) to UCLA for preseason training. It was fun to see Real take on the Galaxy at the Rose Bowl last August, but wouldn't it be nice to see the Spaniards take on another giant. We're rooting (but not holding our breath) for Manchester United or AC Milan.
9. TAKING THE FIFTH?
UCLA will be looking to add to its haul of NCAA trophies next fall, and the men's soccer team might be the Bruins' best bet. Former Galaxy midfelder Jorge Salcedo has everyone back from a young team that was playing its best soccer at season's end last year -- but don't expect fantastic freshmen Kellyn Rowe and Victor Chavez, along with a few others, back for a third season. UCLA won soccer titles in 1985, 1990, 1997 and 2002, and this could be its best shot for a fifth crown.
10. THREE TEAMS
There's no NFL in L.A. -- Galaxy owners AEG are one of the groups looking to remedy that -- but we've got three professional soccer teams. (Four, if you count the OC Sol.) The Galaxy is king, of course, and Chivas USA has a small band of faithful fans. Can the new L.A. Blues, playing at Cal State Fullerton in the third-tier USL Pro division, survive in this market? We'll find out starting in April: The aim is to market more aggressively to Hispanic fans (more aggressively even than Chivas USA does) and be happy with 2,000 to 3,000 in the stands. Reasonably priced tickets, a fun atmosphere and a winning team could do the trick.