Los Angeles Soccer: Mia Hamm
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.
First thought upon seeing the finalists for FIFA's Ballon d'Or award: Where's Wesley Sneijder?
Three very deserving Barcelona stars -- midfielders Andres Iniesta and Xavi, the most prominent figures in Spain's World Cup triumph, and Argentine forward Lionel Messi, the world's biggest star -- are up for the honor, called FIFA World Player of the Year before it merged with France Football magazine's legendary Ballon d'Or (or “Golden Ball” award for the top European star.
Marta, Women's Professional Soccer's two-time MVP, is up for the women's Ballon d'Or, and U.S. coach Pia Sundhage is a finalist for women's Coach of the Year.
Messi, who won FIFA's and France Football's awards last year after finishing second in FIFA's balloting the two previous years, scored 47 goals in 53 appearances for Spanish champs Barca during the 2009-10 season and has 25 in 20 games this season. He did not score during the World Cup in South Africa but was nonetheless among the event's finest attacking players.
Xavi provided the foundation of Spain's World Cup triumph, combining with Iniesta to create the mobile, quick-passing attack so key to the victory.
Sneijder should be there, too, probably in place of Iniesta. The Dutch midfielder led Inter Milan to its fifth straight Italian Serie A title and to the UEFA Champions League crown, then was the pivotal player as Holland reached the World Cup final. Inter's poor start to this campaign might have harmed his candidacy.
And it's a crime.
We get so much soccer on TV these days -- every MLS game, with the right package; every game from Mexico's Primera Division; dozens of matches from England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France each week; regular telecasts of Australia's A-League; UEFA Champions League; CONCACAF Champions League; Copa Libertadores and Copa Sudamericana from South America; Uruguayan, Argentine, Brazilian and Colombian league play; national team matches from around the globe; and, of course, wall-to-wall coverage of the World Cup -- that it's easy to forget what it was like 30 or 35 years ago, when PBS's “Star Soccer” trimmed an English game of the week (usually involving Liverpool) to an hour, “Soccer Made in Germany” made Cologne fans of us with a weekly broadcast on Channel 22, and Univision offered a slow-paced clash each Sunday from what was a most substandard Mexican League. We could watch the NASL final each summer on ABC's “Wide World of Sports.”
The U.S. women were the biggest thing in America 11 years ago, when the Women's World Cup enthralled the country and Hamm and Co. toppled a superior Chinese side on penalties in a packed Rose Bowl. Now, not so much.
Hamm has retired. Brandi Chastain, whose bra-baring celebration of that title triumph over China, was the iconic moment of '99, is strictly an amateur now. Michelle Akers is better known as a horsewoman than as the greatest of all female players. Mission Viejo's Julie Foudy (Mission Viejo HS) is a television commentator. Huntington Beach's Joy Fawcett (Edison HS) is, primarily, a mom.
Aside from forward Abby Wambach (Hermosa Beach) and goalkeeper Hope Solo, no U.S. women's player possesses star power. Nobody in the American game can match Brazilian superstar Marta. There are some outstanding U.S. players, but none have caught the imagination of the public -- and none aside from Solo have offered much in the way of personality.
We've been hearing, and sometimes actually seeing, how the rest of the world has caught up to the U.S. in women's soccer, and no matter how much truth there is to the notion, it doesn't lessen the blow when something thought impossible occurs.
Such as the Americans' loss Friday night to Mexico.
It was an American -- San Mateo's Veronica Perez -- who knocked out the U.S. in the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying semifinal, her 27th-minute header finishing off a 2-1 triumph in Cancun that sends Mexico into Monday's regional final against Canada.
The Mexicans and Canadians, who crunched Costa Rica, 4-0, in the other semifinal, qualified for next year's WWC in Germany. The U.S. must beat Costa Rica in Monday's third-place game, then beat Italy in a home-and-home series for another berth. The Americans' failure to qualify would be disastrous and would -- absolutely should -- cost Swedish coach Pia Sundhage her job.
The U.S. has been in transition the past decade as the legends of the previous generation -- including Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy (Mission Viejo/Mission Viejo HS) and Joy Fawcett (Huntington Beach/Edison HS) -- retired one by one, the Europeans began asserting their technical superiority and the sport's growth around the globe began to mirror what had occurred in North America a generation or two ago.