Friday, August 12, 2011

2011-2012 Premier League Season Preview

The streets of English cities are being set ablaze in anticipation of the upcoming Premier League season. A mass panic hit the masses and they realized that their 36" televisions were simply too small to hold in the glory that is the Greatest League in the World™. They needed that 42" and it just so happened that the store around the corner had plenty in supply.

At least, this story makes just as much sense as the other ones I've heard to describe the motives of the mobs.

But this is no sociological study, this is a look-ahead to the much-loved/hated English/Barclay's Premier League. So, let's get to it!

At the top of the table, competition for the top spot and the Champions League qualifications is going to be rough. Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur look to be the ones duking it out to be able to finish in the top 4, but then, if they miss that to adeptly dodge that dreaded 5th place spot and qualification to the annoingly much-maligned Europa League.

Right now, Manchester United looks set to defend their league title and to put even more space between them and Liverpool. At the refreshingly exciting Community Shield, in which United created one of their trademark comebacks, it seemed that United was stepping right back into stride. They have been wise with their purchases, bringing in Ashley Young, Phil Jones and David de Gea, and have kept all the pieces of their title-winning team. Their noisy neighbors, Manchester City, looked decidely disjointed during the Manchester Derby. It's sounds clichéd, but there is an important nugget of truth in the fact that United play as a team, whereas City seem to be a collection of individuals thrown out onto the field. Beyond that, the harder part for City is going to be dealing with their foray into the world of Champions League football. United, Arsenal and Chelsea have played this balancing act between domestic and European play for years; City have not. For City to pose a legitimate challenge, Mancini will need to keep this Frankenstein squad happy and playing together. The addition of Sergio Aguero will be a big boost to the team's hopes, as the young Argentine looks like he could be even better than Tevez.

Arsenal will be putting their best foot forward to tackle the might of United, but the hardest part is that even with the season a matter of hours away, no one knows whose foot that will be. The transfer sagas surrounding Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri have become as laughable as they are tiresome. At this point it seems that it might be coming to an end with Wenger finally capitulating to their departure. The loss will be a tough one for the Gunners. Juan Mata looks to be coming in to try and fill that gap, but Arsenal's play is based on the whole team playing as one. When I run this way, you run that way. It takes time to build that sort of connection. Nasri and Fabregas had put that time in; the newcomers will not have. After an embarrasing couple of days at the Emirates Cup, it seems that Arsenal might be just starting with their end-of-the-season collapse rather than building up the hopes of all their fans. How benevolent.

Amongst the overwhelming sea of player transfers, the biggest move of the season might be the acquisition of Andre Villas-Boas from Porto by Chelsea. Roman Abramovich seems to believe that this is the man that will take their storied team to the Champions League glory that they rightly deserve simply because they are Chelsea. That is: he'll believe up until Chelsea don't win the Champions League. Next! The Blues might find that the Essien's absence due to injury could hurt them, but new singings Romelu Lukaku and Oriel Romeu look highly promising. Combined with the return of Daniel Sturridge from a loan spell at Bolton, Villas-Boas will not be lacking in attacking options. They should still finish firmly in the top 4, but United will be just out of their reach. Don't count them out, though. Even after a poor run of form in mid-season, they managed to make up a 18-point gap pull within a single win over United of taking the title.

Read the rest of the article on The Pursuit of Victory here.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Fulham FC: We're All Going On a European Tour

While a "season preview" might be a misnomer given that the season has already started for Fulham FC, I've yet to find a word that means "a look forward at the future of something that has already started but has really just begun so that the look forward is still relatively profitable." Or at least as profitable as any of these look-aheads are.

The Premier League season begins this Saturday, barring the riots spilling over onto the grounds at Craven Cottage as the angry masses yank the biggest statue they can find from the ground (please don't be Johnny Haynes!) and chuck it into the nearby Thames. Actually, that might be worth postponing the first game. No matter, though; let's focus on the important stuff, which is obviously not the overwrought violence, but football!

Fulham are venturing back into Europe looking for a little more of the magic from two years back, when the Whites ran all the way to the final, taking scalps from the likes of Juventus, Shakhtar Donetsk and Hamburg. This European adventure is a tad bit longer, beginning in the First Qualifying Round with all the minnows. Before we look forward to what Fulham can accomplish this year, we need to look back at what has been a surprisingly tumultous summer at the Cottage that has settled down into calmer waters.

It began with the sudden departure of Mark Hughes. The man, who did a proper job with the club during his year-long tenure, declared that he was off to bigger and better things. He was bigger and more ambitious that this small team (who had managed a European final and has finished consistently well in the top league in the world) and was off to bigger and better things. If you thought it was perplexing when that big, ambitious dream lay at Villa Park, imagine how strange it is to find that his final ambitions lie simply on his own couch. How daring! How bold!

It was no problem for Al-Fayed, who simply went out and found the man who he originally wanted instead of Hughes, the affable Martin Jol. Jol came in seeming to be everything that we wanted out of Hughes. He was excited to be here. He was dedicated to the club and didn't just want to use us as a stepping stone to greater things (or to watch those greater things on TV). Looking back, Hughes' departure might be one of the best moves Fulham has made. That's not to say that Hughes did a poor job; he did great job of keeping Fulham completely out of the relegation scrap by the last month of the season even after being plagued with injuries, namely to Bobby Zamora. Jol was the man that was the first choice after Hodgson left and it only seems fitting that he get his chance.

Jol has stated that his policy in the transfer market has been to look for good youth talents. Looking at it now, it is hard to judge how his signings will turn out. Only time can tell on that. Hungarian goalkeeper, Csaba Somogyi, impressed Jol when he went on trial at Ajax. He has only signed a one year deal and looks to serve as an emergency netminder with Mark Schwarzer starting and Neil Etheridge deputizing. Czech midfielder, Marcel Gecov, impressed enough at the European U21 Championships to get named to the team of the tournament to get a signing at Fulham. Jol's other youth signing, thus far, is 2009 U-17 World Cup champion, Pajtim Kasami, a midfielder, who was signed from Palermo. Promising 19-year old defender, Dan Burn from Darlington, along with Everton youth product, Tom Donegan, who defeated the Whites in the Academy League Final, were brought in before Jol and both look like potential first-teamers who could make a good impact. 

Read the rest of the article on The Pursuit of Victory here.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Don't Write Off Dortmund Just Yet

I was told that summertime was going to be a barren wasteland in terms of soccer at the end of the last European season, my first while following the sport. It was a lie. The summer was packed with MLS, Copa America, U20 European Championships, the Women's World Cup, the U20 and U17 World Cups, Scandanavian domestic leagues, South American domestic leagues and a myriad of friendlies. The soccer season never really ends. The focus is now turning back to Europe, as the biggest leagues in the world restart their season. Friday marks the kickoff of the German Bundesliga as defending champions, Borussia Dortmund, face off against Hamburg SV. 

Borussia Dortmund are an interesting team, to say the least. After a surprising domination of the league last year, many are questioning whether or not they have the ability to defend their title. Most commentators are saying that BVB are capable enough to finish in the top 4, but would struggle to defend the title that nearly everyone is handing over to Bayern Munich. I think people are generally underestimating this Dortmund team, much like last year, and--don't take this the wrong way--are overstating the impact of Nuri Şahin's loss. 

The main reason that people see Dortmund falling down the table is the loss of the amazing Turkish midfielder to Real Madrid. Şahin is an absolutely fantastic player. He sprayed the ball around expertly to his forward midfielders and was a goal threat on late runs. It appears that Dortmund will not be able to replace him. And, I believe that appearance is true. But, Dortmund doesn't need to replace Şahin to be just as good or even to get better. Dortmund simply needs to adapt to their new players and work with who they have. Ilkay Gundogan doesn't need to play exactly like Şahin, he needs to play like Gundogan. The production that Şahin brought does not need to be replaced one-for-one, but rather needs to found throughout the squad. If Dortmund have anything, they have the ability to improve on last season, because they are such a youthful squad. 

Read the rest of the article on The Pursuit of Victory here.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The US Open Cup and Soccer in the USA

The US Open Cup may not receive the coverage the MLS enjoys but its place in the USA's sporting history is bigger than many may realize 
Pleasant surprises: those wonderful little moments of unexpected glee. We all love them and we all experience them. They make life enjoyable and can give us that extra lift to get through the day. And I had one of the best of all time.
My hometown team, Sporting Kansas City, was having to qualify to enter the 2011 version of the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup and the first qualifier was that night. We were fighting for the last two MLS spots to this national cup competition and our first match was against the Houston Dynamo. I went to wikipedia, my source for most of my sports scores, and searched "US Open Cup". Every page for a competition has this nifty link at the bottom of the info box on the right side that takes you directly to all the information about the current edition and the US Open Cup page was no different. 
Before I reached that expertly placed link, I was pleasantly surprised. 
Wait. That's probably understating it, though. 
No. That's definitely understating it. 
It was much more of an stupendous shock. The sort of moment that takes your breath away and makes your heart stop for half a second. Above the link to the 2011 US Open Cup was one simple piece of information about this cup. It stated simply: "Founded: 1914." I was dumbfounded! I was still in the middle of learning a lot about soccer in America and it was only a few weeks before this that I began to hear tales of the mythical North American Soccer League that brought professional soccer to the States way back in the 1970's. I was stunned when I heard that the Portland Timbers were not merely an expansion side and that the Cascadia Cup was not a new competition. Not at all! The Timbers and Sounders have been duking it out for decades. American soccer had history! We've played for over 40 years! 
But, nearly 100 years? Since 1914? Surely not!
It was all true, though. The United States has a rich footballing history and the US Open Cup is the best example of that fact. 
To understand the US Open Cup, you actually have to go even farther back into history to 1884. In this year, the first organizing soccer organization, the American Football Association (AFA), was born. It only covered regions around New Jersey and New York, but was still ground-breaking. Most importantly for this story, the AFA organized America's first non-league cup, the American Cup. The first American soccer dynasty of sorts came about as Clark ONT, a team from northern New Jersey sponsored by the local Clark Thread Company, swept the first three American Cups. Teams from New Jersey and Massachusetts dominated the competition until 1897 when the Philadelphia Mainz defeated the previous year's champions, Paterson True Blues. 
Read the rest of the article on In Bed With Maradona here.