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New Season, New Cycle and Chasing a Cup

September 4, 2014

Fall is coming. The leaves will start turning. The air will get crisper with each passing day. That can only mean one thing: Soccer has returned.

It’s been a busy time for the beautiful game, as the English Premiership is back and we’re just on the heels of the transfer deadline. We also just had the poorly timed international friendlies break, which nicely disrupts the start of the season, as well as the playoff push (and a cup final) for the Union in Major League Soccer.

Great times to be alive.

First, United. Things haven’t gotten off to a good start this season for the Red Devils. After three games, they have one loss and two fairly demoralizing draws. Louis van Gaal hasn’t been able to build on the Guinness International Champions Cup victory this summer, nor his third-place finish with the Dutch national team in the World Cup.

Here’s who United brought in: Ander Herrera, Luke Shaw, Marcos Rojo, Angel Di Maria, Daley Blind and Radamel Falcao on loan. (Although Shaw and Rojo arguably can be used as centerbacks, there isn’t really a centerback in that group, which was the major position that needed to be strengthened by United.)

Out went Danny Wellbeck. Tom Cleverly, Chicharito, Nani and some other detritus departed on loan, most of whom will probably never return. Somehow Anderson’s still on United’s books. So is Ashley Young. (Brian shakes his head mournfully.)

Anyway, going forward we might be looking at a team of the following: De Gea; Shaw, Rojo, Jones; Blind, Herrera, Mata, Di Maria; Rooney, Falcao, Van Persie. (This would leave Adnan Januzaj, Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick, Chris Smalling, Marouane Fellaini and Antonio Valencia as the primary reinforcements off the bench.)

Better than last year. Still, probably, not good enough. As I mentioned in a previous post, I feel like United, this season, will be fun to watch if nothing else. (So far, I’ve been terribly wrong about that.) I thought they’d make some cup runs. (Their demolition at the hands of MK Dons in the League Cup showed I might be off about that.) However, they have time to get this team working together. If they can overcome a crap back three (or four, if Van Gaal decides to change the way his team is built), they could make finishing in the top four and a deep FA Cup run their goals this season.

Then, who knows.

Whatever happens, I’m hoping to watch some better soccer than we’ve gotten to see thus far.

The U.S. played their first match the other day, beating a terrible, demoralized Czech Republic team 1-0 in Prague. I was interested in the match because the U.S. roster featured a number of young, up-and-coming talent from the European and Mexican leagues.

The U.S. lineup was as follows (credit to Bleacher Report for the easily cut-and-pasteable info):

United States: Guzan (Rimando 46′), Chandler (Garza 63′), Brooks, Orozco (Ream 46′), Johnson, Diskerud (Shea 63′), Corona (Morales 63′), Bedoya (Hyndman 67′), Green, Gyau, Altidore

Things that were good: Mix Diskerud had a hand in the goal, scored by Alejandro Bedoya. I look forward to those two being involved in a lot of beautiful activity for the U.S. over the coming years. Jozy Altidore did what Jozy does. Julian Green got a solid 90 minutes. I can’t wait to see what he can do playing a full season of regular soccer for Hamburg. Emerson Hyndman and Joe Gyau both got to play. Gyau looked a little out of his depth tactically, and Hyndman looked tiny. However, they’re both really, really young.

Things that weren’t good: The back four in the second half were sloppy. Brek Shea seems to have forgotten how to play soccer since his transfer to Stoke City. If the U.S. is ever forced to rely on him in an important match in the next four years, I’ll be really, really disappointed.

It’s a fun time to be a U.S. Soccer fan.

The Philadelphia Union are in their fifth year of existence, and we’re still looking for our first silverware. It could come in a couple of weeks, as we’re heading to the U.S. Open Cup Final against the Seattle Sounders. (Even though the match is being played at PPL Park, the U’s home stadium, we’ll still be pretty serious underdogs for this match.)

At the beginning of the season, I was hoping for some growth on the end of last year. It didn’t come. New recruits Vincent Nogueira and Christian Maidana haven’t done much to get excited about. Coach John Hackworth paid for some pretty insipid results with his job and in came interim coach Jim Curtin.

Maurice Edu has been a stalwart defensive mid/centerback and has led by example. Things seemed to change when prodigal centerback Carlos Valdes made his return to the team after the World Cup.

But the U have shown a strange desire to sign every goalkeeper in the world. They already had competent keeper Zach MacMath on their books when they used the number one overall pick in the league’s amateur draft to select Jamaican keeper Andre Blake. “OK,” I thought. “Maybe their grooming this guy to take over in a year or two.”

MacMath played pretty well throughout the season. Then the U decided to sign Algerian international Rais M’Bolhi.

What? Why? All this does is prevent two young keepers from developing. If the Union’s management though goalkeeper was the problem, they’re out of their minds. Keepers need rhythm and confidence. If they didn’t think MacMath had it, use Blake and deal with the growing pains.

The strategy of having three pretty good keepers (but none of outstanding quality) reminded me of a fantasy football  issue I encountered (HOLY SHIT) 14 years ago. I was in a league with an associate who handled the draft for me, as I was overseas in Ireland on the day of the draft. When I came home, I found none of my draft strategy had been followed and that my incompetent co-owner had taken three tight ends, all mid-level talents. “Don’t worry,” I was told. “Other teams will have to trade with us to get a tight end when they need one.” The truth was, no they didn’t. Tight ends can always be found. The same with keepers in MLS.

A Union fan I know recently told me that MacMath would return a good midfielder when the Union are ready to trade him. I disagree. Why? Because teams will always be able to find some inexpensive goalkeeping talent without having to spend to get it. Goalkeeper isn’t a position you’re going to get teams in a bidding war over.  Teams in MLS also, for the most part, develop their own goalkeeping talent. This is a lesson the U apparently haven’t learned.

The real problem for this team has always been an inability to score goals when needed, and an over-reliance on Sebastian Le Toux, who, honestly, is probably past his prime now. They shipped out striker Jack McInerney for local boy Andrew Wenger early in the season, and it’s taken Wenger a little while to settle in. He played phenomenally in the recent San Jose game and seems to be fitting in pretty well now.

Just last night the Union beat the downtrodden Toronto FC on a Connor Casey goal.

Note: Last night’s game featured MacMath in goal. Against San Jose M’Bolhi played. Blake made his first appearance of the season in the game before that.  None has been exceptionally good, or exceptionally bad. They’re all on pretty much the same level at this point in time. My point is, you can’t rotate goalkeepers like this! They need to have a rhythm to play well! Stop this insanity!

From the beginning of the season until now, the Union are playing much better than they had. They show fight and a little steel. They have grit. These things are important. I think Curtin should be given the job full time. However, I recently read that there are some managerial candidates about to come in to interview for the job. Among them: Tony Meola and John Harkes.

Meola makes sense, because the Union are hoarding goalkeepers. However, he has no real management experience and, to be honest, I just don’t want him to be my team’s new manager. There’s nothing to be gained. Is he going to be markedly better than who we have right now?

When I heard about Harkes’ candidacy, I tweeted “Hide your wives.” (If you need to know what that was in reference to, feel free to do some Googling on the subject of John Harkes and Eric Wynalda’s wife.) Needless to say, I think Harkes would be a terrible choice.

It seems like Curtin has some momentum going with this team. There’s another match against the wretched Toronto FC to come Saturday. Then a match against the despised Red Bull NY on Sept. 13. The cup final will be Sept. 16, when we will, hopefully, get our first silverware.

Let’s bring this one home. We want the cup!

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