New York Soccer: Chivas de Guadalajara

W2W4: NY Red Bulls at Sporting KC

October, 15, 2011
An MLS playoff opportunity will knock on the door in Kansas City this afternoon. Are the Red Bulls ready to answer it?

The New York Red Bulls make their inaugural visit to Livestrong Sporting Park to kick off against Sporting Kansas City in an afternoon match rife with playoff implications. New York arrives with its playoff destiny in its own hands following a 2-0 win over a beleaguered Los Angeles Galaxy side on Oct. 4, though the red-hot Red Bulls side that had won three of its last five contests needs to regain form following an 11-day hiatus due to the international break.

The Red Bulls also lead the regular season series over SKC after Luke Rodgers scored the game-winner in a 1-0 result at Red Bull Arena on April 30.

Sporting Kansas City comes home looking for better results following a stretch of accruing three draws in four matches. They arrive in shaky form after quickly conceding an equalizer following a go-ahead goal by Kevin Ellis in their international friendly against Mexican powerhouse C.D. Guadalajara last Wednesday, though Teal Bunbury netted a late equalizer of his own in SKC's MLS regular season match against the San Jose Earthquakes on Oct. 1.

The Houston Dynamo (11-9-13, 46 pts) did their job in boosting the Red Bulls' playoff profile with a win on Friday night that delivered a near-fatal blow to the postseason chances of their opponent, the Portland Timbers (11-14-7, 40 pts). A New York (9-7-16, 43 pts) win coupled with a D.C. United loss (9-11-11, 38 pts) would put the Red Bulls in position to effectively clinch a playoff berth as they control tiebreakers over Portland and D.C. It would also vault them over Sporting KC (11-9-12, 45 pts) and into an Eastern Conference automatic berth if the Columbus Crew (12-12-8, 44 pts) lose or draw on Saturday.

Who Wants It More? New York's not the only club playing with playoff aspirations on Saturday, as a Red Bulls loss would clinch a playoff berth for Sporting. SKC's footing may be a little surer than the Red Bulls, but a loss at home would surely deal a major blow to any club's playoff chances at such a late stage of the season.

Red Bulls coach Hans Backe continues to preach the tenets of "cynical soccer," a possession-driven style similar to the Italian Catenaccio system but with a stronger emphasis on playing keep away rather than for keeps, while Sporting coach Peter Vemes's 4-3-3 system caters to a more attack-friendly, possession-oriented offense. Backe's side will make it as hard as possible for SKC to create pressure in the attacking third, but SKC needs to not leave themselves vulnerable to the counter by making a mistake. Will either side blink?

Key Matchup: Ream vs. Bravo. Saturday will be Tim Ream's first chance to move on from the gaffe which created the Ecuador scoring chance that sent the U.S. Men's National Team to a 1-0 loss at Red Bull Arena on Tuesday. Unlike under Jurgen Klinsmann's system, Ream won't come on as a substitute on Saturday -- he'll be expected to anchor a Red Bulls back line against a possession-savvy SKC attack.

Ream's first chance at redemption will come by marking a world-class striker in Omar Bravo. The Mexican forward shares the team lead in goals scored with fellow forward Kei Kemara at nine, though Bravo reached the total despite missing five matches in the early part of the season due to a sports hernia.

Support will come for Ream and the Red Bulls' back line in the form of Stephen Keel and Bravo's Mexican national team peer in Rafael Marquez, but the spotlight will shine brightly on the 24-year-old center back. Someone has to get in the way of an SKC attack that's been shutout only once in MLS regular season play since June, and Ream will once again be charged with taking up those reins.

30. That's how many points Sporting Kansas City has accumulated in their new home at Livestrong Sporting Park, which is the second-highest total in the Eastern Conference (the Crew lead with 32 points) and fourth-highest in all of MLS. The Red Bulls have 16 points on the road, but 10 of those came from draws.

For a Red Bulls side that needs to keep winning to keep their playoff plans within their own control, they'll need to buck a couple of trends if they hope to win at one of the toughest places to play in the league -- a place that wasn't anyone's home until SKC's 11th match of the season.

Rost Rested. No Red Bulls player benefited more from the international break than goalkeeper Frank Rost. With his international duty days far behind him, Rost had eleven days to rest his legs and recuperate from any lingering effects of his quad injury following an intense five-game stretch over three weeks that saw the German netminder collect three wins and three clean sheets in the end.

His recent play has erased any lingering doubts about Red Bulls sporting director Erik Solér's decision to use a designated player slot in net and quieted any debate that reserve 'keeper Bouna Coundoul should be starting.

Going Streaking. Red Bulls team captain Thierry Henry heads to Kansas City mired in a three-way tie in the Golden Boot race. The French striker has scored in his club's last two matches to draw level at 14 goals with D.C. United midfielder and former Red Bull Dwayne De Rosario and Quakes striker Chris Wondolowski, with the latter netting a double against the New England Revolution last Saturday to vault into the race.

MLS All-Star Game as suspenseful as ever

July, 27, 2011
Wednesday’s star-studded soccer spectacular will grab the attention of association football fanatics everywhere, but it’s hardly the first time that such a grand display will take place in the Garden State.

Or the second.

In fact, the 2011 edition of the MLS All-Star Game (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN3) represents the third tour of duty for the best of MLS in New Jersey. This trip comes with a mandate for Red Bulls and MLS All-Stars head coach Hans Backe to field a competitive squad against legendary English Premier League side Manchester United at Red Bull Arena, but even an expectation of making a game of the midsummer showcase is a fairly new phenomenon that was far beyond anyone’s comprehension in the inaugural MLS All-Star Game in 1996 at the Meadowlands.

15 years ago, Major League Soccer came into being with the simple aspiration of avoiding the mistakes of past American soccer leagues such as the NASL to build a bigger, better, stronger domestic soccer presence. Early MLS officials included the peculiar move to add an All-Star Game on the debut season schedule to put a spotlight on the league’s superstars.

Considering no domestic sports league hosted its first All-Star Game until at least five years following the league's inception, who knew what that decision would even mean for the so-called MLS All-Stars?

“Since it was the first one, none of us had really been in an All-Star Game,” said inaugural MLS All-Star and current ESPN analyst Alexi Lalas. “We associated everything with other sports. It’s a very American type of situation. So, we looked at not knowing, from a competitive side, how to approach and play the game.”

MLS hedged their bets on drawing interest in its summer showcase with a trick the league often used to pad the attendance numbers in its formative years – a doubleheader with a marquee hook. The East and West All-Stars would face off for the captive audience on the undercard at the Meadowlands, with an amalgamation of FIFA World Stars kicking off against a Brazil side preparing for the Summer Olympics in the main event.

It worked -- 78,416 fans showed up to Giants Stadium in what, at the time, was the second highest-attended event in Meadowlands history following the Pope’s visit in the preceding year. With MLS doing the dirty work of filling the seats by any means necessary, that left the onus on the players to make the most of its first true step into the national spotlight.

“Even though we recognized a lot of people were there for Brazil-World Stars game, there was a collective understanding that this was celebrating a year into our little project,” said Lalas. “I don’t think any of us ever got the feeling that it wasn’t still about MLS even with the incredible draw of that second game.”

That understanding translated into a wide-open affair which delivered five goals by five different players and didn’t die down until Tampa Bay Mutiny defender Steve Pittman netted the 88th minute game winner for the East All-Stars in a 3-2 victory. MetroStars midfielder Tab Ramos, who split his formative years just a chip shot away from the Meadowlands in nearby Harrison and Kearny, scored the first goal in MLS All-Star Game history by tucking a shot in the upper 90 past Western Conference and Los Angeles Galaxy ‘keeper Jorge Campos.

The memories of that first All-Star Game have faded a bit with the passage of time, save the scorching heat of a July Sunday at the Meadowlands. And what transpired in Giants Stadium will hardly resemble what MLS will present to the world from Red Bull Arena on Wednesday. Does that leave the inaugural MLS All-Star Game with any lasting value in the league’s short history?

“Absolutely,” said Chivas USA coach Robin Fraser, who also started for the inaugural West All-Star side. “It was the first year of the league and everything was new to us. To see the kind of fans there surrounding soccer was great. For those of us who’d been around and been in smaller leagues and been on national teams, we were definitely waiting for the day when soccer would be embraced like that.”

Such an embrace came from a venue that was as close to a sporting cathedral as the American soccer scene had ever known this side of the Rose Bowl. MLS chose the Meadowlands for its All-Star kick off to put the league’s premier event just a short drive from New York City, but moreso to awaken the ghosts of the dearly-departed (and only recently reincarnated) New York Cosmos and the legacy of the 1994 FIFA World Cup tourney that ultimately fueled the league’s creation.

“Sometimes you get lucky and things like that happen in the place that’s close to you,” said inaugural East All-Star ‘keeper Tony Meola, who could also call nearby Kearny his old stomping grounds. “I was lucky not only to be part of it and playing in it, but also that it was here and my family could enjoy it and we could show off to the locals here what the league was about.”

Even as the final whistle blew on the 1996 MLS All-Star Game, the stars didn’t stop shining after Carlos Valderrama was named the first MLS All-Star MVP. Campos played both matches, appearing in the first half for the FIFA World Stars.

John Harkes, another Kearny native, had the opportunity to follow Campos’s lead in being picked as an MLS All-Star and FIFA World Star but ultimately deferred to being the only American to play in the second match as he recovered from a hamstring injury that befell him in the days leading up to the doubleheader.

Harkes, now an ESPN analyst, knew something special was simmering under that July sunshine in the stadium a mere 20 minutes from where he grew up.

“I left to go overseas because there was nothing here that was compatible to the growth and development and playing at such a high level (internationally),” said Harkes. “To come back and actually see (that day) come to fruition with people and family and friends who knew what that area is all about made it all the better.”

Brazil bettered the FIFA World Stars in the second leg with a surprise shot by Roberto Carlos, but that 2-1 result is as outdated as the format that made the doubleheader necessary. MLS let the best of the East and West go it alone in a rain-soaked encore at the Meadowlands in 1997, only to render that template obsolete five years later by letting the best of MLS kick off without a coastal bias against the U.S. Men’s National Team in 2002 and Mexican side Chivas de Guadalajara in 2003.

Now Backe will choose his best XI to try and knock off the defending EPL champs in an All-Star format whose ultimate success will result in the extinction of the status quo. As long as MLS needs an All-Star side to run with the best soccer clubs in the world, they’ll always be a step behind. When the level of talent at the MLS club level can regularly compete with the Manchester Uniteds and Barcelonas, the All-Star XI versus the world format will itself become irrelevant.

Should that day come, it will again reveal a significant trait of the MLS All-Star Game that was as true in 1996 as it is today. It will give you a taste of the possibilities of the beautiful game on American soil before leaving you in suspense for what comes next.

They didn’t know what would follow in 1996. They still don’t quite know now.

But then as now, aren’t you the least bit curious to find out?

W2W4: Juventus v. Club América at Citi Field

July, 26, 2011
After producing a packed house in June for the first professional soccer match in the building's history, what can Citi Field do for an encore?

That's the question as Serie A staple Juventus pays a visit to the home of the New York Mets on Tuesday to kick off against fabled Mexican side Club America (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN3, ESPN Deportes). The famed soccer sides will clash as part of the World Football Challenge, an exhibition soccer tournament hosted by Soccer United Marketing that features some of the most prominent clubs in Europe and North America.

Juventus will look to notch its first win in WFC play after dropping a 2-1 result to Primeira Liga side Sporting Clube de Portugal at BMO Field in Toronto. The Bianconeri personnel provide a major artery for the Italian national team, which includes longtime Azzuri goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, midfielder Andrea Pirlo, and strikers Alessandro Del Piero -- who scored the only goal for Juvenus against Sporting CP with a nice chip from the corner of the penalty area -- and Luca Toni among others.

Club America also seeks a boost in form after falling in a 2-0 shutout to Manchester City of the English Premier League at AT&T Park on July 16. Aguilas legend Carlos Reinoso will rely on Argentine playmaker Daniel Montenegro and US international Edgar Castillo along with a collection of Mexican national team stalwarts to make a competitive match for their Italian opponents.

Key Matchup: Supporters vs. the Turnstiles. June's international friendly between Greece and Ecuador surpassed expectations from a support standpoint as 39,656 fans showed up to cheer on the first professional soccer match in Queens since 2003, making it the second-highest attended event at Citi Field this season (since surpassed by the Subway Series).

It's an open secret that Fred Wilpon, the patriarch of the Mets ownership group that also includes his son Jeff Wilpon, has held conversations with Major League Soccer about bringing another expansion club to New York. Tonight's match, while still a friendly at heart, should provide a sterner test as the marketing gurus were unable to key in on national pride to move tickets for the match.

Both Juventus and Club America sport strong supporters groups, but both clubs are polarizing in their respective soccer spheres. Any gaps in ticket sales would need to be made up by casual fans or, more importantly, American fans. The percentage of those that show up could prove a bellwether for the Wilpons' chances at soccer success in the near future.

Back from the Brink. Juventus may look for an early statement game in America's biggest city to quell concerns about the club's recent slide to mediocrity in recent seasons. The Bianconeri have finished seventh in the Serie A table for two consecutive seasons, culminating in the winningest Serie A club of all time being unable to qualify for both the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League after the 2010-11 season.

New manager Antonio Conte, the club's fifth manager in two years, has a mandate to return the club to the respectability it lost after former Bianconeri general manager Lucianio Moggi engulfed his club in the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal in 2006. Conte has overhauled his roster by bringing in the likes of Pirlo and former Bayern Leverkusen midfielder Arturo Vidal while conversations continue about a possible acquisiton of Villareal striker and New Jersey native Giuseppe Rossi.

Second Verse, Same as the First. The Bianconeri are not the only club looking for a return to respectability as Club America looks to regain its form after finishing sixth in the Mexican Primera Division and exiting prematurely from the 2011 Copa Libertadores in the Round of 16.

Reinoso, who returned for his third coaching tenure with the Aguilas after replacing Manuel Lapuente, is also rebuilding a squad that carries the lofty expectations that come with being the second winningest Primera Ligue side after Chivas de Guadalajara.

Priority one for Reinoso is preparing the replacement for longtime goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, who departed for Ligue 1 side AC Ajaccio on July 4. Man City did not test potential replacement Armando Navarrete much in their WFC tilt, but Leonín Pineda waits in the wings if Navarrete should falter as the Aguilas prepare for the Apertura season.