New York Soccer: English Premier League

RBNY Notes: Home field holds the key to Red Bulls' playoff hopes

August, 24, 2011
Over at his insightful blog Soccer by the Numbers, Chris Anderson followed a post that summarized the effects of home-field advantage in the English Premier League by observing that Manchester United maximized its ability to collect draws on the road in addition to winning at home en route to winning the 2010-11 EPL division title.

Inspired by Chris's efforts, here's a look at the effects of a home-field advantage in MLS during the Red Bulls era (2007-present):
  • Since 2007, home sides in MLS have won 47% and lost 23.8% of their matches while settling for draws in the remaining 29.2% of their regular-season fixtures. That trend means all MLS sides since 2007 finished with slightly more draws than defeats, collected twice as many wins than losses, and ultimately accrued almost as many wins as non-wins at home.
  • However, draws are way, way up in 2011. 38.2% of all MLS matches in 2011 thus far have ended in ties, which is considerably higher than the five-year average. Moreover, the next-highest percentage of draws in a regular season occurred in 2009 when 30.7% of all matches concluded in a draw. So if it feels like the Red Bulls' 14 draws this season is hefty, it's not unusual in the context of what the rest of the league is doing.
  • What is unusual is where those draws are taking place for New York. The Red Bulls collected ties in 64.3% of all regular season matches away from their namesake arena in 2011, which is not only significantly higher than the 2011 average but, more surprisingly, the second-highest ratio in MLS after the Houston Dynamo at 66.7% have finished level in two-thirds of their road matches. After the Red Bulls and Dynamo, no other potential playoff contender except Chivas USA (46.2%) presently possesses an away draw ratio above the average.
  • Those away draws come at the expense of wins and losses -- a reality to which New York is not exempt. New York's only win on the road makes up 7.1% of the road results while the losses contribute 28.6%. While the losses fall well below the average, only one MLS playoff side in the Red Bulls era clinched a playoff spot with a worse away win ratio: the 2008 New York Red Bulls with 6.7%. And that 2007 side at least had the decency to win 60% of its home games before making a playoff run that resulted in New York's first and only MLS Cup appearance.

So how does this affect the Red Bulls over their final eight games? For starters, five of their final matches will take place at Red Bull Arena. As previously demonstrated, MLS sides win twice as many matches as they lose at home. For a New York side praying for another 12 points in the standings to feel better about its postseason hopes, that's a phenomenon that could provide an edge as long as the back line can make a few leads stand up.

More importantly, two of New York's remaining three away games will occur in the two matches preceding their final regular season game at home against the Philadelphia Union on October 20. The ratios suggest that New York may have accumulated too many draws at the expense of road wins and likely can't sustain that during a postseason push.

Those two away matches -- October 1 at Toronto FC, October 15 at Sporting Kansas City -- will come at a pivotal time in the stretch run. If New York fails to accrue victories in September, that road trip represents what could be the last chance to undo that damage. Draws don't fix things; only wins will do that.

W2W4: NY Red Bulls at Arsenal FC

July, 31, 2011
Forget Paris -- Tell the world Titi's coming home.

Red Bulls captain Thierry Henry returns to the scene of his greatest career triumphs as his New York Red Bulls club faces English Premier League stalwart Arsenal FC in the Emirates Cup finale at Emirates Stadium in London, England on Sunday. Henry will make his first start against the Gunners since departing for FC Barcelona in 2007, though the French striker briefly appeared as a substitute for Barça at Arsenal in the first leg of the 2009-10 UEFA Champions League quarterfinal match.

New York will need to overcome the pomp and circumstance surrounding Henry's homecoming to leave with the host's hardware on Sunday. The Red Bulls sit atop the two-day tournament's four-team group with three points by making a Joel Lindpere goal hold up against a barrage of shots by their opponents in a 1-0 victory over Ligue 1 side Paris Saint-Germain on Saturday.

Arsenal and Boca Juniors consummated a 2-2 draw in the second-half of the doubleheader at Emirates Stadium, giving each side one point heading into Sunday's doubleheader finale.

Key Matchup: Henry vs. the Gooners. New York may consider taking the Emirates Cup home with them a priority, but this prestigious invitation to kick off against one of the elite English Premier League sides on their home turf simply does not happen if not for the presence of Henry.

This match may morph into a de facto testimonial for the Arsenal legend, but his current club owes him an equal debt of gratitude for enabling the Red Bulls to kick off on such a prominent stage. The contest is nothing more than a preseason warmup for the Gunners, but everyone will watch in hopes of getting a passing glance at the magic that helped Henry deliver two EPL titles, two FA Cups, four Golden Boots, five Player of the Year awards and a club-record 226 goals in 370 contests to Arsenal.

For a fleeting moment, New York now stands in the soccer spotlight. So what can they do with it?

Let's Play 21. From the 21 players selected to make the trip across the Atlantic, Red Bulls coach Hans Backe fielded a very aggressive lineup against Paris Saint-Germain on Saturday that included eight of his regular starters as well as teenage phenom Juan Agudelo. All of that grouping but Teemu Tainio saw more than 70 minutes of action while Agudelo departed after 74 minutes as a precautionary measure after banging up his ankle in the 49th minute and another snag which Saturday's broadcast team described as a "groin strain."

Backe saved Henry and Rafael Marquez for the Sunday finale, but it remains to be seen who else the NY coach will call upon to represent the Red Bulls against the Gunners -- and more importantly, which players will receive double duty this weekend.

Gunners Blazing. Arsenal may have kept tabs on their former captain (Gunners captain Cesc Fabergas and Robert Van Persie were guests of Henry for the Red Bulls match against Colorado on May 25), but they'll enter Sunday's match with an eye towards August 12 -- also known as their first week of competition in the 2011-12 EPL season.

Fabergas will miss Sunday's finale as speculation builds about the Arsenal captain's potential transfer to FC Barcelona (the same move Henry made in 2007), but Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger can't wait for that situation to sort itself out and simultaneously acclimate his newest acqusitions, Ivorian forward Gervinho and English defender Carl Jenkinson, and the rest of his club to EPL season form.

Considering Wenger is overseeing a light preseason schedule with only one more match before their EPL season commences in Newcastle, he'll need to see more than a club with some offseason rust to shed.

Chivas USA's LaBrocca gives MLS All-Star Game an NJ flavor

July, 27, 2011
The best of MLS need little prodding to step into the spotlight of the 2011 MLS All-Star Game (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN3), but it was the location of that spotlight which enticed Chivas USA midfielder Nick LaBrocca the most.

For the Howell, N.J. native and former Rutgers standout, representing Major League Soccer on a stage against English Premier League titans Manchester United elevates to the next level as it will occur just an hour's drive from his hometown.

“As soon as I heard, I was really excited about it,” said LaBrocca. “I’ve spent my entire life playing there, and now I get an extra game back home. Not only do I represent myself and my family, but I get to represent my teammates, my fans and the league as a whole both on and off the field.”

LaBrocca’s All-Star selection adds an exclamation point to a season that has seen the Goats midfielder play all but two minutes of the club’s 21 games this season while contributing an already career-high six goals to the Chivas offensive efforts – despite never previously scoring more than two goals a season and netting only 10 in four years at Rutgers.

Red Bulls coach Hans Backe confirmed the selection of LaBrocca, also a three-time All-Big East selection, shortly after the fans recognized the MLS All-Star First XI, but Chivas coach Robin Fraser concedes that he has kept tabs on his star midfielder – who arrived via trade with Toronto FC prior to the 2011 season – for quite some time.

“He’s a player that I’ve tracked for a while,” said Fraser. “I really envisioned him as someone who could be a great attacking midfielder. He’s got a great soccer brain, very good first touch, a really good idea as a good finisher. So far, he’s lived up to what we expected.”

For Fraser, LaBrocca’s All-Star nod reinforces what the first-year Chivas coach is trying to implement for the Los Angeles-based club. Seeing LaBrocca depart along with Chivas teammate and two-time MLS All-Star Heath Pearce further recognizes the team-first mentality being implemented by their coach.

“We are trying to create a very close-knit group that is very much about a team going forward together,” said Fraser. “Together, (LaBrocca and Pearce) have helped grow this team and a lot of it has to do with the performances of both of them. It’s only fitting that they both get the opportunity.”

That opportunity also cements a proud New Jersey soccer tradition, which can now boast LaBrocca’s recent success. For the guy who sprung his soccer career from Exit 7A on the New Jersey Turnpike (or Exit 98 on the Garden State Parkway, depending on your itinerary), LaBrocca readily admits to the boost that the Garden State influence has given his good form.

“There’s such great talent and competition throughout the entire state where you play so many games,” said LaBrocca. “Every day is competitive which definitely helps you grow and push your limits. With that comes great coaches. Whenever you see great talent like that, you see great coaches.”

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.

RBNY Recap: Nyassi's hat trick helps Rapids rock Red Bulls

July, 21, 2011
Who knew being a mile high could leave the Red Bulls feeling so low?

Sanna Nyassi carved up the Red Bulls defense for his first career hat trick as the Colorado Rapids collected a 4-1 victory at Dick's Sporting Goods Park on Wednesday. The Gambian midfielder, whose offensive outburst eased the Rapids' loss of forward Conor Casey for the season, factored in on all four Colorado goals -- including Colorado's first hat trick since August 2009 -- in what was only his seventh start of the season.

Despite maintaining a 60.4%-to-39.6% edge in possession, New York only directed three of their 12 shots on target and only one in the first half. Thierry Henry accounted for two of those three shots, which includes his league-leading 10th goal of the season.

The loss leaves New York (6-5-11, 29 pts) looking up from second place in the Eastern Conference at the Philadelphia Union (8-4-7, 31 pts), who collected a 1-0 win in a friendly against Everton of the English Premier League on Wednesday.

248. That's how many minutes the scoreless drought had extended for New York -- or 338 minutes, if you include the 4-0 loss to the Chicago Fire in the US Open Cup quarterfinal -- before Henry collected a Juan Agudelo cross and cleverly tucked it low and inside the far post in the 67th minute for the visiting side's only goal.

Of course, Colorado already held a 4-0 lead when Henry put a crooked number on the score sheet for the Red Bulls. But this is as close as you will get to any kind of moral victory for what transpired on Wednesday.

Play of the Game: The Goal Nyassi Didn't Score. It should be noted that Wells Thompson could not score the Rapids' second goal of the game without Nyassi's help, but it was the course of events leading up to it which best represents New York's rocky night.

After Rapids 'keeper Matt Pickens disrupts a Mehdi Ballouchy attempt to link a lob ball to the forwards, Pickens sends a lateral pass to the right flank where the ball bounces between a few Colorado players. A series of short passes eventually leaves the ball at the feet of Marvell Wynne, who lobs a long ball that ricochets off Red Bulls center back Carlos Mendes and into a gap in the Rapids' attacking zone.

A sprinting Nyassi picks up the deflection and immediately sends a shot from distance off the far post, which Thompson picks up and fires past a diving but ultimately helpless Frank Rost for the goal.

Nice touch passing by Colorado. Blown coverage by the Red Bulls back line that leaves Nyassi wide open. Rost left out to dry. One goal could not sum up the Red Bulls' troubles on Wednesday any better than that.

Don't Fear the 'Keeper. In recent weeks, Red Bulls supporters would cite the occasional Bouna blunder or Sutton slip to explain a perceived inconsistency in the club's goalkeeping efforts.

Wednesday's tilt should shake that sentiment immediately. Nyassi ran right through a center back pairing of Mendes and Tim Ream that entered the match with a mandate to keep Casey's successor at bay. They simply had no answer for Nyassi's speed and quick reflexes and largely watched him roast Rost all evening.

Rost gets his share of the blame for being the man between the posts on the wrong side of a rout, but he did what he could including a nice save that prevented Thompson from getting a brace.

Even legendary German 'keeper Oliver Kahn would not have fared any better with such a poor defensive effort from a club that signed a shot stopper as its third designated player to cover up these troubles.

Minus 11. That's the interception differential for the Red Bulls, who picked off 10 balls as compared to 21 by Colorado.

It was merely a minus two before the half (eight interceptions for the Rapids, six for the Red Bulls), but that disparity illustrates how the Rapids defense -- led by the efforts of Drew Moor and team captain Pablo Mastroeni -- kept New York at arm's length from the penalty area all evening. Not only did the Rapids cut off the Red Bulls' passing lanes, they shut them down by assuming possession.

House of Horrors. New York, who now trail by two losses in the all-time series against the Rapids (Colorado leads 16-14-5), has not won a match in the Centennial State since a 1-0 victory at Colorado on July 8, 2007.

The Red Bulls have only accrued one win in eight matches since then with a 3-1 win last September, although they defeated the Rapids at Red Bull Arena in US Open Cup play in May 2010.

Unlike a pilot mishap on Tuesday that left the club arriving in the wrong airport, New York likely won't care which airport lets them leave their poor performance behind as they head home to face FC Dallas at Red Bull Arena on Saturday. First kick is scheduled for 6:00 p.m.

Everton's Tim Howard talks transfer, MLS

July, 20, 2011
As Everton prepares to commences its US tour on Wednesday evening at PPL Park against the Philadelphia Union, they will do so without longtime goalkeeper Tim Howard.

Howard, who will not be between the posts for the Toffees against the Union, is still resting after a grueling CONCACAF Gold Cup Tournament in which the North Brunswick, N.J. native served admirably as the shot stopper for the U.S. Men's National Team. He should have ample opportunities to gain match fitness before the start of the upcoming 2011-12 English Premier League season, but Howard may need a bit more time in the interim to recharge the batteries before resuming his role as one of the best 'keepers in the EPL and one of the great success stories in U.S. Soccer.

His club's loss during their U.S. tour is our gain, as Howard gave a few moments of his time to chat by phone on Wednesday morning with your friendly neighborhood soccer blogger about his own preparations ahead of the EPL season, his club's lack of noise thus far in the transfer market, his thoughts on missing the U.S. matches this week and on next week's MLS All-Star Game, and his enthusiasm in appearing in a slew of advertisements for Allstate.

Without further ado, here's my conversation with Everton goalkeeper Tim Howard:

ESPNNY: How are things going with preparation for the upcoming season with Everton?

Howard: Part of preparation is the rest and mentally preparing is the biggest part because it is a long, tough, grueling season. All in all, it’s going well. The spirit in the group is high. I’m ready and looking forward to getting back into action. Fingers crossed, we can have a good start and put ourselves into the position to hopefully get into the top four.

ESPNNY: There hasn’t been much chatter in terms of transfers for Everton going through this particular window. What are your feelings about the lack of movement for your club thus far?

Howard: We’re always disappointed when there’s not a lot of player movement. I think everyone involved is. Our manager, David Moyes, has shown that’s he’s pretty shrewd in the transfer market and can wheel and deal without a ton of money. But yes, I think in order to move forward, the club needs to spend money and keep up with each other. At the moment, we haven’t brought anybody in but we’re optimistic that will happen before the close of the transfer window. I do think it’s important – it just lifts the squad a little bit and gives everybody a boost.

ESPNNY: Is there anything in particular position or area that the team could use?

Howard: We have two very good top strikers, but when it comes to strikers, they’re priceless. You can always use more firepower – it’s a long season. In losing Stephen Pienaar last year, he was one of our top wingers. He’s a guy we’re trying to replace. And of course in the back, we’re on the fortunate side but we keep talking about how long the season is, those kind of things are forced to have quality and depth.

ESPNNY: There was some reports yesterday about how you won’t be with the team over the next few days at Philadelphia and at Washington. Is that accurate?

Howard: It is. I’m going on my manager’s advice to shut it down and take some more rest. He knows how much I’ve put in the last 12 months and what the next 12 months look like. He’s been generous enough to give me an opportunity to rest and get ready for this next long stretch of the season.

And part of that, unfortunately, is not being around tonight. I wish I could be there. I know the people of Philadelphia are excited for it and that’s the reason we came. We knew what good preparation it would be.

ESPNNY: So, in the end, it was the manager’s advice and not necessarily that you requested the next few days off?

Howard: Yes. Those decisions are obviously made jointly, but unfortunately, they were made quite a long time ago. They don’t get made this week. Those types of things are discussed amongst ourselves months and months in advance. That’s the unfortunate part.

ESPNNY: I wanted to change speeds a bit. Next week, Major League Soccer is preparing for its All-Star Game. You had the distinction of being able to play on both sides in that you played once upon a time for MLS and also, in 2009, you were there with Everton. I was curious about your impressions of that match since you were on both sides of the MLS All-Star Game.

Howard: That’s a good point. I’ve played for both of those teams – I’ve played for Everton against the All-Star team. I think it can be a pretty intense game. I think the All-Stars in the new format have something to prove. A European club comes over and they’re promoting themselves as well. I think the MLS All-Stars can handle themselves.

In terms of Manchester United, I think they’re very much in a transition. That usually means bad things, but not for ManU. It’s going to be exciting to watch them revamp their team from last year and kind of see what they have going on going forward. They have to replace a few different players, but they always do that and do it well.

ESPNNY: So will there be a small part of you maybe scouting as ManU prepares for the upcoming season?

Howard: If I watch, it’ll be fan first. We do enough scouting over the course of the year. We’ll have plenty of meetings on what Manchester United does. So, I won’t watch it just for that reason. But yeah, I’ll certaintly tune in. I have no doubt that they’ll play that in England. And I’ll be tuning in to see my new Allstate commercial.

ESPNNY: Could you tell me a bit about the new commercial?

Howard: It’s quite a funny one, I think, of all of them. The most entertaining. It’s called “Borange” and actually airs today on YouTube. (Ed. Note: You can see it here.) I’m super excitied to partner with Allstate this year, first year partner of MLS and and the U.S. Men's National Team. Those are all things that mean a lot to me as well as the protective side of things, being a goalkeeper and all. It’s going to be kinda cool, kind of exciting, and I think people will really enjoy this commercial. I will, I’m going to watch and enjoy the game as well.

ESPNNY: Did you have any problems with your own humility, or having a sense of humor in doing these commercials?

Howard: I think that’s the part I like about it the most -- The humor and how they twist it and made it not your run-of-the-mill type of sports commercial. I enjoyed watching, being in the process, being a part of making it, and then seeing it come to fruition.

ESPNNY: Before I let you go, could you handicap your expectations for the start of the upcoming EPL season?

Howard: I think that the Champions League, a lot of people talk about it. It’s very difficult – most clubs don’t actually attain that goal until the end of May at the last games of the season. All of that is put in place, particularly early on, we’ve shown over the course of the last 10 years that when the winter months come, the really hard, tough months, that we can grind with the best of them and we’ve always seemed to flourish in that time.

Our goal and the key to this season will be get off to a fast start and collect a lot of points early on, really make it tough on the teams around us and try to pull away earlier. Last year, we started to pull away from some teams but it happened later in the season. I think every team’s trying to do that, but the more players we can bring in with quality, the better we’ll be in that regard. Having said that, our top players are very, very good.

We have every opportunity to make that right, get some points early on. If we can do that, we’ll be a happy bunch of guys and our manager will be happy as well.