USMNT Coach Berhalter Talks
USMNT Coach Berhalter Talks avatar

On December 2, 2018, Earnie Stewart and USSoccer hired Gregg Berhalter as the new coach of the Men’s National Team ending the team’s year plus term of suspended animation and disappointing a large segment of the fan base that hoped for someone different, more exotic.

Instead, hiring Berhalter felt like the conclusion of a Romcom where the protagonist marries the guy/girl who was right there all along. It’s comfortable but the audience can only hope that the protagonist isn’t settling.

Now, finally, we get a hint into how it all will work out. We got a little taste when Berhalter debuted with a pair of friendly wins against Panama, 3-0 on January 27, and Costa Rica, 2-0 on February 2, with an all MLS group.

Today we found out who Berhalter rates when he has a full roster to choose from, and then the U.S. soccer press got to ask him about those selections in a conference call style press conference.

The big surprises/disappointments with the roster involved the omissions of 19-year-olds Josh Sargent and Tim Weah. Both youngsters are seeing sporadic playing time with their clubs, Sargent with Werder Bremen, and Weah, on loan to Glasgow Celtic from Paris Saint Germain. 

Weah and Sargent’s exclusion surprised many. (ISI Photos/John Dorton)

Not surprisingly, Berhalter was asked why he left the talented duo out, saying: “when we looked at players that were U23 eligible and weren’t necessarily going to be in our starting group, we have to weigh is it more beneficial for them to play full international games at a level where they can gain confidence and potentially bring that back to their club and then get a boost in performance with their clubs?”

The coach added “I spoke to Josh and Tim specifically, and they’re young players with a lot of a lot of potential of what I would say about this is we’re looking at this from the from the big picture standpoint, the big picture is, you know, Tim and Josh have the opportunity of playing into the U23 level.”

Mention of the U23 team, which will be playing some as yet unannounced friendlies in preparation for CONCACAF Olympic Qualifiers in October, naturally raised questions, given that the team is currently without a coach.

Berhalter handed that one over to team spokesman Michael Kammaran who said “we’re (USSoccer) still finalizing the details for the new U23 camp,” continuing to say, “in terms of the head coach, we’re also deep into the hiring process for that coach, and ideally, that person would be available for the camp.”

Berhalter has also sprinkled a few veteran players into the mix with Michael Bradley included again after his exile ended in January and the coach was quizzed about his decision to include veteran center backs Tim Ream and Omar Gonzalez, neither of whom has been in the national team picture since the World Cup flameout of 2017.

The return of Gonzalez (L) and Ream (R) was questioned. (ISI Photos/John Todd)

The coach, a former center back himself, noted that “one thing we’ve looked at specifically is, you know, age based on position. And you know, it is common for center backs, central midfielders, goalkeepers to be older

and still be able to perform at high levels.” “And,” the coach emphasized, “if you look at the last World Cup there, there are many examples of that.”

The Ream and Gonzalez selections play into Berhalter’s intention to balance experience with his younger players, with the coach saying “we are looking at 2022,” when selecting players for this roster while conceding that “some of them will be pushing the limit and some of them may not make it just because of the physicality of it.” 

Berhalter does, however value experience, going on to say “you know, we’re projecting this, we’re saying, okay, you can’t have all young players, that there could be guys, there could be three guys on the roster in 2022 that are in their mid-30s, that can happen especially when you’re trying to balance a young team.” 

The USMNT training during their annual January camp in California. (ISI Photos/John Dorton)

31-year-old Borussia Monchengladbach fullback Fabian Johnson has not been called in for this two-game set, clearly a victim of Berhalter’s “age-based position” philosophy. The new head man told the press corps that he met with Johnson on his recent trip to Germany, saying that Johnson “is a guy that’s still available” but Berhalter continued, “projecting towards 2022 he’s one that’s right on the borderline, and that’s tough. 

This despite a backline that includes five center backs, though Ream can play left fullback, and Tyler Adams or even Weston McKennie can be used at one of the fullback spots.

Berhalter said that Adams, a midfielder who has made a recent, successful transition to Bundesliga side RB Leipzig from New York Red Bulls, is available in either role for the U.S.

Pulisic in action against Italy in a friendly match in November, 2018. (ISI Photos/John Dorton)

In other positional intrigues, Berhalter revealed that “in this camp, we are going to look at him as a number 10, slanted to the left,” referring to Christian Pulisic. Berhalter explained “we played with two number 10s last camp, we’re going to do the same this camp, and within that structure, what you’ve seen is there is flexibility. When you look at last camp, there are times when there’s wingers going inside and 10s going wide. We want Christian to be flexible. We want to take advantage of his one on one but we also want to get him in front of goal.”

In June the U.S. will play in the Gold Cup, the first competitive matches of the Berhalter era and the first for the USMNT since the unforgettable night of October 10, 2017, that saw Trinidad and Tobago defeat the Americans and cause the U.S. to miss the World Cup for the first time since 1986.

Berhalter was asked if this roster would strongly resemble the one selected to compete for the Gold Cup and the coach replied: “it is too early to tell.” 

Up next for the USMNT:  March 21 – 8pm et. USA v Ecuador at Orlando City Stadium, Orlando, Florida

March 26 – 8pm et. USA v Chile at BBVA Stadium at Houston, Texas

U.S. Roster by Position (Club; Caps/Goals):

GOALKEEPERS (3): Ethan Horvath (Club Brugge, BEL; 3/0), Sean Johnson (New York City FC; 6/0), Zack Steffen (Columbus Crew SC; 8/0)

DEFENDERS (8): John Brooks (Wolfsburg, GER; 36/3), Omar Gonzalez (Atlas, MEX; 48/3), Nick Lima (San Jose Earthquakes; 2/0), Aaron Long (New York Red Bulls; 4/0), Daniel Lovitz (Montreal Impact; 2/0), Matt Miazga (Reading, ENG; 11/1), Tim Ream (Fulham, ENG; 26/1), DeAndre Yedlin (Newcastle United, ENG; 57/0)

MIDFIELDERS (7): Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig, GER; 9/1), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC, CAN; 143/17), Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy; 7/2), Weston McKennie (Schalke, GER; 7/1), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund, GER; 23/9), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders FC; 7/0), Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew SC; 13/0)

FORWARDS (6): Paul Arriola (D.C. United; 19/3), Corey Baird (Real Salt Lake; 2/0), Jonathan Lewis (New York City FC; 2/0), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders FC; 25/5), Christian Ramirez (LAFC; 2/1), Gyasi Zardes (Columbus Crew SC; 42/6)

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USWNT Sues U.S. Soccer for Gender Discrimination
USWNT Sues U.S. Soccer for Gender Discrimination avatar

Long-simmering tensions between U.S. Soccer and the Women’s National Team arose again today, International Women’s Day, with a New York Times report that all 28 players in the USWNT player pool have sued the governing body for engaging in “institutionalized gender discrimination.”

This lawsuit is just the latest salvo in the ongoing battle between the defending World Cup Champions and the organization charged with overseeing the sport in the United States.

The suit closes the books on the complaint filed with the Equal Opportunities Commission (EEOC) by five leading members of the team in 2016. Of the original five, Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Hope Solo, Megan Rapinoe and Becky Sauerbrunn, all but Solo, who has retired, remain active with the team.

USWNT during the SheBelieves Cup. (ISI Photos/Brad Smith)

The players have requested class-action status for the suit, if that status is granted, former USWNT members could be included in any future agreement. The players are seeking back pay and additional damages in the suit.

The suit alleges unfair treatment not just in salaries but also in conditions around the team, such as travel, hotels, etc. 

Star striker Morgan released the following statement: “Each of us is extremely proud to wear the United States jersey, and we also take seriously the responsibility that comes with that.”  “We believe that fighting for gender equality in sports is a part of that responsibility. As players, we deserved to be paid equally for our work, regardless of our gender.”

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Brexit and the English Premier League
Brexit and the English Premier League avatar

With Brexit looming is the English Premier League in jeopardy of forfeiting its status, self-proclaimed though it may be, as the “best” and “most entertaining” league in the world?

When Pat Riley was leading the “Showtime” era Los Angeles Lakers to multiple NBA Championships in the 1980s he referred to the sports world as the “Toy Department.” 

Bill Shankly (Courtesy of Liverpool FC)

Meaning there were far more important things to worry about. Was Reilly correct? That is a matter of some debate. For instance, we have only to remember the words of Liverpool’s legendary boss Bill Shankly to find a counterpoint. As Shankly once famously stated, “some people think that football is a matter of life and death. I don’t like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that.”

And keep in mind that it is not just the Premier League that may feel some post- Brexit blues, leagues from the Championship on down, plus the Scottish leagues will also be affected.

How? Well, like much of the debate around this controversial topic, it depends.

Firstly we need to know, what type of Brexit will we see on departure day, March 29. Will it be a Hard, Soft, or even a No Deal Brexit? Obviously from a soccer angle, Neil Warnock aside, (more on him later) the softer, less intrusive, the better. Why mess up a good thing, right?

So, from a footballing point of view, what would it mean? 

Work permits for one. American fans are used to the process but here is a quick refresher. 

Brexit concept – UK and European flags waving in the wind. (iStock Photo)

Currently, European Union players do not require work permits but Brexit could change that, meaning that French, Germans, and Poles, etc would be forced to undergo the same process now endured by Americans, Brazilians, and all players from outside the Eurozone, or minus an EU nation passport.

The top players should not be affected, and surprise surprise, the big clubs should also be fine, but a look at the chart below shows that scoring that precious work permit may not be quite so easy for the up and coming players that teams outside the “Big Six” rely on to fill out their rosters.

Work permit – automatic criteria: Based on % of games the player plays for his national team.

National association FIFA rank    Percentage of games

Between 1 and 10                              30%

Between 11 and 20                            45%

Between 21 and 30                            60%

Between 31 and 50                            75%

The appeals process was tightened some years back, American fans remember that Juan Agudelo had to be loaned to Dutch side Utrecht after he signed with Stoke.

Kante representing France in 2018 (ISI Photos/Steven Limentani)

Future stars like Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kante that transferred from second division French clubs would have seen their permits denied had they no benefitted from the EU Freedom of Movement.

And what about younger players that sign on to English youth sides? Minus an English passport, would the likes of Cesc Fabregas be held to the standards that Americans such as Weston McKennie have been and made to wait until he turns 18 to cross the Channel?

According to the data masters at FIVETHIRTYEIGHT.com over half of the players that joined the PL since its 1992 inception would have failed to qualify for work permits. Would the Premier League have reached its juggernaut stats minus talents such as Fabregas, Kante, and Mahrez to name but a few?

On the flip side, it has been noted that British and perhaps Irish players would benefit from a decline in continental talent arriving yearly in England’s Premier League. In a recent article on the topic, Forbes pointed out that, “Over the past 20 years, the EU has expanded, bringing more countries into the “freedom of movement” area. The proportion of U.K. and Irish players in the EPL has continued to decrease: Last season, they accounted for only 41 percent of all EPL players. Players from the rest of the EU accounted for 41 percent, while non-EU players accounted for 18 percent.”

That is quite a comedown from the figures at the end of the late 1990s when, again via Forbes, nearly two-thirds of all players in the PL were British or Irish. Recent reports indicate that Irish citizens in the UK Irish will retain their current rights under the Common Travel Area (CTA).

Warnock, who manages Premier League side Cardiff  sounds ready to embrace the past, saying this on Brexit:

“I don’t know why politicians don’t do what the country wants, if I’m honest. They had a referendum and now we see different politicians and everyone else trying to put their foot in it. Why did we have a referendum in the first bloody place?

“I can’t wait to get out of it, if I’m honest. I think we’ll be far better out of the bloody thing. In every aspect. Football-wise as well, absolutely. To hell with the rest of the world.”

Richard Scudamore

So, that’s one voice heard from. Others may be less positive. Former Premier League Chief Richard Scudamore was widely quoted in June 2016, three days ahead of the Brexit referendum, saying:

“We travel the world being welcomed because of the fact that we are open for business, open for discussion, and open for cooperation.” “There is an openness about the Premier League,” Scudamore added, “which I think would be completely incongruous if we were to take the opposite position.”

Hard Brexit, Soft Brexit, No Deal Brexit?! With so much uncertainty ahead of the March 29th departure date it is impossible to predict exactly what football will look like in England post-Brexit, the one thing we can say for sure is that we will be watching.

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MLS Leans Into “Selling League” Tag
MLS Leans Into “Selling League” Tag avatar

With the January Transfer window set to close in a matter of hours, a trio of big money moves has put Major League Soccer in the spotlight and in the process validated Commissioner Don Garber’s December proclamation that MLS must “become more of a selling league.”

Don Garber  (ISI Photos/Robin Alam)

Now with Sebastian Giovinco, Miguel Almiron, and Luciano Acosta (possibly) on the way out from Toronto, Atlanta, and Washington DC, respectively, it would appear that Garber’s words have been heeded by the league’s owners.

Garber’s remarks at his State of the League speech prior to the 2018 MLS Cup in December were a 180 degree transition from his previously oft-stated belief that MLS needed to hang on to its marquee players in order to give fans something to latch onto as the league attempted to carve out a niche for itself in the hyper-competitive U.S. sports marketplace.

Garber said then that, “as a person who has been selling this league for nearly 20 years, I’ve always believed that you needed to have the players that resonated in your market to be those that could be aspirations for young kids who are peeking through the fence when they see them train.”

Garber, who arrived in MLS after a successful career in the NFL explained, “We all needed to get used to the fact that in the world of global soccer, players get sold. We (MLS) have been buying for so long, and as we’ve gone through the analysis, it’s hard to justify that investment and the investment that we have to make in player development. We’ve got to have something that turns this model around or else it’s going to be unsustainable. When I see Alphonso Davies get sold for what could be $22 million, that’s a positive thing for the league.”

Alphonso Davies playing for the MLS All Star team in August 2018. (ISI Photos/Perry McIntyre)

The sale of 18-year-old Canadian midfielder Davies from the Vancouver Whitecaps to German superclub Bayern (for a then MLS record fee) accelerated the league’s new philosophy and was soon followed by smaller financial deals as Tyler Adams jumped to RB Leipzig from sister club New York Red Bulls and 18-year-old center back Chris Richards joined Davies in Munich when his loan was made a transfer from FC Dallas.

These latest moves differ from the earlier deals in that Giovinco, Almiron, and Acosta were all purchased by MLS teams while Davies, Adams, and Richards, were all developed (in varying degrees) by the selling teams.

And though the transactions have made MLS players in the world market at a previously unseen level, each of the transfers is unique.

Miguel Almiron is the largest deal for a MLS player. (ISI Photos/Andy Mead)

Almiron’s move to Newcastle from Atlanta not only surpassed the Davies deal as the largest transfer fee received by an MLS team (and the league, which also gets a cut), it is also the most money ever paid out by Newcastle United to purchase a player, and is, therefore, big news in England, where the Toons are fighting a relegation battle.

While Almiron’s move to England’s Premier League is widely perceived as a positive for MLS, the departure of former MVP Giovinco’s to Saudi club Al-Hilal for an estimated $2 to $3 million may be judged in a less flattering light if Giovinco’s parting words are to be believed.

“As I have always maintained, I was hoping to renew my contract and finish my playing career in a city that feels like home. … A place my family loves to live and wanted to call home for good,” Giovinco began.

“Unfortunately, this desire of ours has clashed with a change in direction with current TFC management. For the 2 years, I have been seeking to extend my contract however management was reluctant. Recently, after refusing to exercise the club option for 2020, I was offered terms that I deemed unacceptable. They may say I left for a more lucrative deal, but this is not the case. Their offer and lack of transparency is a clear message. It seems management prefers to focus on things other than the pure desire to win.”

If TFC is, indeed scaling back its ambitions- will Michel Bradley and Jozy Altidore follow Seba out the door?- the league could suffer.

Luciano Acosta may still head to Paris on loan.  (ISI Photos/Jose L. Argueta)

And then there is Acosta. The deal to send the DC United attacker to PSG had not been finalized at the time of this writing and rumor has it that Acosta may head to Paris on a six-month loan, rather than a transfer, but the idea that one of the world’s richest clubs is attempting to bring in a DC United player to fill in for the injured Neymar (!) – did I neglect to mention that?- is certainly a feather in the league’s cap and will do the league’s reputation no harm.

Of course, the flip side to selling is replacing departed talent. DC has been linked to Boca Juniors fullback Leonardo Jara, obviously not a direct replacement for Acosta. The new “selling league” mandate will turn up the heat on MLS sides to find replacements, via development, scouting, and spending.

Although winter is in full flush, spring beckons, and as we approach the new season, year 24 for Major League Soccer, the stakes seem higher than in the past, as they should. 2019 feels like a brave new world for MLS, and I for one, can’t wait for March.

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Garber _ The SuperDraft Stays!
Garber _ The SuperDraft Stays! avatar

Chicago, Il. – The appellation Super, as it applies to Major League Soccer Player Draft, has never seemed less credible than this year in Chicago, especially in light of Philadelphia’s decision to trade their entire draft, five picks in all, to FC Cincinnati. The Union’s new boss, Ernst Tanner, who replaced US Soccer GM Earnie Stewart, reasoned that with the $200,000 in General Allocation Money (GAM) he could do more to improve his team than he could by holding onto the 13th pick in the first round, plus the fur additional picks.

Don Garber addressing the audience at the MLS draft.(ISI Photos/Robin Alam)

MLS Commissioner Don Garber heard the talk suggesting that it might be time that the draft, Super or otherwise, was shelved, and the Commissioner met the issue straight on in his address to the media during the latter stages of the annual player auction’s first round.

“As I listen to some of these young men talking about growing up and wanting to play in our league and dreaming of that as a young player,” the Commissioner began, “and whether they are kids growing up in our country or kids from other parts of the world, it makes me feel that much stronger that there is an important role for this draft, it’s just a matter of trying to figure out where these players can get the right opportunity and how we evolve as a league so that those players can build their careers in Major League Soccer.”

Before opening the floor to the assembled media, Garber concluded his draft comments asking the question on everyone’s lips, “What’s the future of the draft?” “In my view,” Garber stated, “I’m a big believer in it. I did speak to one of our owners and his view is similar to mine. There always will be a role for young players that are not developed through academies, are not purchased from abroad, to have an opportunity to play in Major League Soccer and that is what today is all about.”

Frankie Amaya was the overall first MLS draft pick. (ISI Photos/Robin Alam)

There were a few talking points to the draft itself, beginning with expansion side FC Cincinnati, who dominated the draft by making five selections, albeit after mysteriously calling a timeout prior to making Frankie Amaya the first choice of the SuperDraft.

Why FCC needed additional time to select the UCLA and US U20 midfielder was a bit of a headscratcher, especially with Amaya’s near-unanimous standing as the best player available.

Several trades were completed as the 24 MLS teams selected 48 players over two rounds, from the 50 on hand in Chicago but the most poignant moment of the long day was Garber’s tribute to the recently deceased Sigi Schmidt and the announcement that the league’s Coach of the Year award would henceforth be known as the Sigi Schmid MLS Coach of the Year Award.

In his glittering career, Schmid won more games than any other MLS coach, managing the L.A. Galaxy to the 2002 title and raising the MLS Cup with the Columbus Crew in 2008. Schmidt was also the first coach of the Seattle Sounders in MLS, leading the expansion side to four US Open Cup Championships and helping to establish the Sounders as a league power both on the field and at the box office.

But to people around the league that knew Schmid, the former UCLA coach was more than just a coach which Garber captured well in his remarks, saying,

Garber paid a fitting tribute to Schmid. (ISI Photos/Robin Alam)

“while he will be remembered by many in the soccer community for his success on the field, it was his kindness and his great qualities as a father, husband, and mentor that made him such a special person.”

Other highlights of the day included the support from colorful and boisterous fans of the “saved” Columbus Crew and the fledgling FC Cincinnati, who each filled the auditorium with chants and songs, waving their banners all the while.

So, well done and as the commissioner confirmed- see you next year!

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Charlie Stillitano Talks La Liga to Miami
Charlie Stillitano Talks La Liga to Miami avatar

“My dear friend (the late) Georgio Chinaglia used to play for the Cosmos and was my co-host on the radio used to say, ‘Charlie, it’s the money, you moron.’”

Charlie Stillitano (Courtesy of SOCCEREX)

Charlie Stillitano was quoting his old partner to explain just why Spain’s La Liga is so hot and bothered to play an official, in-season match in the United States. La Liga has partnered with Relevent Sports in this venture and as the companies’ Executive Chairman Stillitano is right where he likes to be, at the center of things.

La Liga plans to play in Miami next January 26th with Girona surrendering a home game to “host” Barcelona at the Hard Rock Stadium, home to the Miami Dolphins, the NFL team owned by Stephen Ross, owner and Chairman of Relevent Sports.

The plan has met with considerable opposition with the latest challenge to the project coming when FIFA President Gianni Infantino came out in opposition to the plan while at a FIFA Council meeting in Rwanda saying, “the FIFA Council has addressed the subject, and we stress that official matches of national leagues should be held in the country itself.

Gianni Infantino has made his views clear. (ISI Photos/Kieran McManus)

“As FIFA president, I announce that the organization is against LaLiga’s idea and will forbid Girona-Barca to be held in the United States or any other country that isn’t Spain.”

I asked Stillitano for his view of the subject and Stillitano didn’t shy away. “The game itself is a bit of the tail wagging the dog,” Stillitano told me over the phone Wednesday morning, emphasizing that the deal between Relevent and La Liga is for 15 years and this match is just one part of it.

The overarching point of the deal according to the Relevent Executive Chairman harkens back to Chinaglia’s words of wisdom from all those years ago. Calling La Liga “the league that has dominated Europe for the last 10 years,” Stillitano says, “they’re (La Liga) sitting here saying, ‘wait a minute, why are these guys (the Premier League) getting so much money.”

“The deal with us is really about selling TV rights in the future once the beIn deal (La Liga’s current contract is held by beIn) is finished, getting exposure for the league and to help build the league’s image and brand here, so that next cycle they can get increased financial benefits and they can keep up with the Premier League.”

Still, Infantino is only the latest to weigh in against the game taking place. In addition, the Spanish Players Association has said, no thanks to the game, and the Spanish Football Federation, the RFEF, can stop the whole thing and so far they have been opposed.

I asked Stillitano if Major League Soccer has raised any objections. “I haven’t had any personal (comments),” Stillitano told me. “I only know what I read in the papers,” he said, and it sounds like USSoccer and MLS are generally against it.”

Choosing his words carefully, Stillitano told me that he heard “FIFA and CONCACAF tweets that basically they’re against it,” adding, “I’m not really sure why they’re against it.”

“It’s so funny,” Stillitano said in defense of going forward with the game. “This morning (Wednesday, 11/31) they were talking about increasing the World Cup to 48 teams (in 2022 instead of 2026), then in Rwanda, they’re talking about having a World Wide Nations League, and they’re talking about having a (yearly) World Club Championship.” “It sounds to me,” Stillitano said with an exasperated laugh, “like that’s a hell of a lot of games and they seem to be focused on one game coming out of Miami.”

Real Madrid in action against Juventus in the Champions Cup this year. (ISI Photos/Jose L. Argueta)

Stillitano espouses a “rising tide lifts all boats” philosophy, sharing his belief that the International Champions Cup that he runs for Relevent, has helped grow the sport in America, which in turn helps grow MLS.”

Shortly after we spoke La Liga and Relevent went on the offensive, announcing a campaign to #BringUStheGame. Here is part of the press release.

“In an effort to showcase the public support to bring this match to the U.S., we are launching a petition campaign to encourage U.S. soccer fans to make their voices heard entertainment. The #BringUStheGame campaign will show the sports world that this match is good for the fans and good for the game in America and that U.S. Soccer risks alienating millions of fans if they choose to block this game.”

With this situation still very much up in the air, Stillitano’s appearance at the GotSoccer Convention on Saturday, November 11th will be one not to miss.

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GotSoccer’s Loaded Convention Lineup has Something for Everyone
GotSoccer’s Loaded Convention Lineup has Something for Everyone avatar

Last November the eyes of the United States Soccer public were trained on the GotSoccer Winter Convention in Jacksonville, Florida which featured the U.S. Soccer Presidential Candidates Forum.

2017 GotSoccer Winter Convention Presidential Debate

With the event live streamed, interested parties across the country heard priorities and solutions to the problems facing U.S. Soccer from just about all of the candidates.

The question for this year then, with no election on the cards, was what to do for an encore?

Well, GotSoccer has put together a top-notch list of speakers from all areas of American soccer and beyond for the 10th Annual GotSoccer Winter Convention including our host, GotSoccer CEO Gavin Owen-Thomas.

Eric Wynalda (ISI Photos/Roy K. Miller)

Then there is Eric Wynalda, the former U.S. Men’s National Team great, former candidate for President of U.S. Soccer, and recently announced Coach and Technical Director of USL club the Las Vegas Lights (profiled here add link).

Relevant Sport CEO Charlie Stillitano, the man who brings us the International Champions Cup each year, will be on hand to fill us in on Relevant’s controversial, if exciting, plan to stage a regular season La Liga match featuring Barcelona in Miami this coming January.

Charlie Stillitano (Courtesy of SOCCEREX)

Stillitano is not the only newsmaker on the docket for the convention, which runs from Friday, November 9th through Sunday, November 11th, at One Ocean Resort, in Neptune Beach, Florida.

Mark Lamping is the President of the NFL Jacksonville Jaguars and also serves on the Board of Directors for Premier League club Fulham FC.

I spoke to Lamping over the phone recently, just days before Fulham and Jaguars owner Shahid Khan withdrew his offer to purchase Wembley Stadium, AKA the “Home of Football.”

Mark Lamping (Courtesy of Jacksonville Jaguars)

The purchase was on track to go forward when we spoke, with Lamping telling GotSoccer, “it’s progressing.” “There is still a ways to go,” Lamping said before Khan withdrew his offer, “we’ve made significant progress from the start of this process but we are confident that we will be able to see this through.”

Perhaps Lamping will be able to shed some light on the Wembley situation from the Fulham point of view, but Wembley or not the busy executive has plenty on his plate and should have much to discuss, including the Jaguars yearly match in London.

Jacco Swart

Jacco Swart is the CEO of the Eredivisie, the Netherlands professional league, and is scheduled to address the GotSoccer Convention on the myriad challenges facing professional clubs.

When we spoke via a somewhat finicky international connection Swart expressed concern regarding the “economical strength of the domestic leagues,” noting as an example that the “market in the U.K. is bigger than it is in the Netherlands, and the Dutch market is bigger than Estonia.”

Swart made an interesting point, saying that “the markets in the U.S. and the Netherlands are more or less the same size (for soccer) but obviously, looking at the economical power in general terms, you could say it is only a matter of time before the U.S., with football getting more popular even more than it is today, that the market will overgrow the Dutch market.”

Swart had this to say about the power of the Champions League. “The money that can be gained in the competition (the Champions League) is having a strong influence on the competitive balance in many domestic competitions.”

Subsequent to our conversation Dutch powers Ajax, PSV, and Feyenoord agreed to share their Champions League winnings with their Eredivisie competitors.

James Murray

It will be interesting to hear Swart’s take on this unprecedented step and to perhaps learn about his role in the move.

A highlight of the convention figures to be the Q&A featuring Swart and Charlie Stillitano immediately after the Eredivisie CEO wraps up his presentation on Saturday morning.

Returning to the Premier League I spoke with Arsenal FC Head of Business Strategy James Murray who will kick off Sunday’s GotSoccer Convention schedule.

Attendees will be keen to learn how the Premier League giants go about the business of business. “Data,” the analytics minded Murray told GotSoccer, “is going to be at the heart of every decision that we make internally, and also we know that it’s a vitally important way of convincing our commercial partners that we are a good fit for them from an audience perspective.” And,” Murray added, “people have expectations for how to engage with them in a more tailored fashion which ultimately is underpinned by how you interpret the data that you are able to collect.”

Dr. Pete Zopfi

Turning stateside, GotSoccer’s own Analytics Maven, Bill Cameron will crunch the numbers to show why the USSF Academy structure has failed us in the past while looking to the future and USMNT’s prospects of making it back to the World Cup in 2022.

Youth will also be served as Dr. Pete Zopfi the President of US Youth Soccer shares his insights with the attendees in one of his first appearances since his election in July.

A member of two important committees of US Soccer, the Budget and Finance Committee and the Investment Committee, Dr. Zopfi is not to be missed.

The final speaker of the 2018 GotSoccer Convention is Lynn Berling-Manuel, the CEO of United Soccer Coaches (Former NSCAA). Berling-Manuel is the first female to lead the United Soccer Coaches in its storied 77-year history, and one of the few women in the world to lead a major soccer organization.

Lynn Berling-Manuel

With 30,000 members United Soccer Coaches is the largest coaches organization in the world and its annual convention is a centerpiece of the soccer calendar in the U.S. attracting up to 12,000 attendees and hosting both the Major League Soccer and National Women’s Soccer League drafts as just a part of its schedule.

 

 

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“I’m Done Fighting” Eric Wynalda Seeks Another Way
“I’m Done Fighting” Eric Wynalda Seeks Another Way avatar

Around this time last year, retired United States Men’s Soccer legend Eric Wynalda was running for the top job within the sport in the U.S.

Wynalda had given up his television job covering soccer for Fox, his radio show- WTF- no not that, Wynalda Talks Soccer, on Sirius XMFC, while also putting his coaching ambitions on hold.

Wynalda felt somethings are too important and worth the scarifies.(ISI Photos/Roy K. Miller)

For an interview ahead of the GotSoccer Candidates Forum last November, I asked Wynalda, why? Why give up so much for a non-paying job at the top of a sprawling organization that had just seen it’s men’s team fail to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986?

“Some things are too important,” Wynalda said then, adding, “I think my moral compass has brought me to this place more than anything else.”

Now, with the U.S. Soccer Hall of Famer scheduled to speak at the 2018 GotSoccer Convention in November, I caught up with a reflective Wynalda over the phone from his California home.

Having already dropped off his “little ones” at school, family man Wynalda interrupted a rare quiet morning at home with his wife to speak to GotSoccer on a variety of topics from the state of the national team, to his opinions on USMNT General Manager, and former teammate Earnie Stewart, potential candidates for national team coach, and the current crop of USMNT youngsters.

But first, we had to talk about that failed run for President of U.S. Soccer and where and whether Wynalda sees himself in the American soccer landscape moving forward.

‘When we stand back now and reflect on what transpired, “ Wynalda began, “I think there was a lot of emotion involved with the country, as far as searching for direction and I felt that there were some solutions there that would have made, possibly a difference.”

“As much as there seems to be two real groups that are in a continuous fight about how do we do soccer better in this country,” Wynalda explained, “what I realized here, and there are lots of people who will argue with me on this; I think we are getting a lot of things right.”

Dan Flynn (L) with all the six candidates in February 2018. (ISI Photos/Roy K. Miller)

Wynalda feels that “we do far too much fighting, internal fighting in this country and my objective, “ Wynalda said of his prospective Presidency, “was to try to really to be a glorified mediator.”

So, with almost one year between himself and that run for the top spot in U.S. Soccer, how does the ex-candidate feel about the experience?

“The approach that we took was, to a certain extent, the right one,” Wynalda began thoughtfully. The heat of the campaign trail muddied “the message that we were trying to create,” Wynalda feels, by presenting that message to, “sound more combative than it was.”

“In the end,” Wynalda concludes, “I think we learned a lot, but I also learned a lot. About the inner workings of the sport in this country, and some of the things I thought I knew, I have a better understanding of now.”

“There’s a piece of me,” Wynalda mused, “that considers it a massive mistake and then there is a piece of me that is glad that I went through this process to have a better understanding of what’s next for me in the future.”

Ah, so what is next for Eric Wynalda?

What’s not next is a return to Fox. “I’m not going back to Fox,” the former analyst began. “We mutually decided to part ways,” Wynalda said before noting that, “the next six months are going to be very telling.”

And what will the upcoming half a year tell us? We can’t be sure but it sounds like coaching will be at the heart of Wynalda’s future.

“I think anybody that knows me privately or professionally knows that my heart has always been, deep down, in coaching.”

While working at Fox, Wynalda had coaching and management gigs with the Atlanta Silverbacks and Cal United FC but regrets that because of his full-time status with the network, “I could never really dedicate all of my time to coaching.”

One opportunity to get back on the sidelines fell through with the cancellation of the 2018 NASL season (Wynalda was set to serve as Coach and Technical Director of Cal United as the team moved into the league).

“I’ve tried to throw my hat into the ring several places,” Wynalda admitted, “but I understand politically I have a lot of work to do.”

Wynalda believes a lot of people have a false perception of what he is really about. (ISI Photos/Howard C. Smith)

After that bruising U.S. Soccer Presidential race last fall, Wynalda believes that there are, “a lot of people that might have false perceptions about what I’m about or what my ideology is about, or maybe I’m too controversial or a lot of things along those lines.”

Having played in three World Cups as well as in the Bundesliga and MLS, Wynalda is confident in is his record of recruiting players, scouting players, and building teams and would love a chance to coach again, “before I get too old.”

Wynalda said that he had remained involved in the game through consulting work for teams in the NPSL, the USL, and Major League Soccer.

With that in mind, I asked Wynalda if he thought that his reputation within MLS could be salvaged. “I think it can be repaired,” he said.

“The message has always been, to Don Garber, (MLS Commissioner) is that I’m not the enemy, I’d rather be an asset than an ass.” Long a critic of the league and some of its practices, lack of pro/rel and failure to comply with the so-called FIFA calendar, for example, Wynalda says, “to be perfectly honest I’ve given up on that. I don’t think that I’m going to serve the sport well by continuing to complain.”

Wynalda had a lot to say on a variety of topics concerning soccer in this country, too much for one article, so in the interest of space here are some quick hits.

Ernie Stewart at the U.S. Soccer’s general managers meeting. (ISI Photos/John Todd)

On his former teammate /USMNT General Manager Earnie Stewart :
“The resume just works.”

“I don’t think the Philadelphia tenure was the best but I think it saw a good learning curve.”

“He was a great teammate, we didn’t particularly get along, we weren’t friends but he’s probably the most reliable teammate that any of us ever had.”

“You’re never going to outwork Earnie Stewart, you’re just not.”
“He might make some mistakes along the way but to answer your question, I think he was a great choice.”

Citing “the political nature of all of this,” Wynalda told me the two men have not spoken since Stewart got the GM job, which he understands, although he admits, “I was disappointed he didn’t call me.”

On the next USMNT coach:
“In my personal opinion, I think Gregg Berhalter is already the coach.” “It’s going to require another two months of waiting (for MLS to wrap up) if Berhalter is the candidate.”

“No one has told me that, I’m speculating at best.”

Gregg Berhalter (ISI Photos/Michael Janosz)

On Berhalter as potential National Team coach:
“He’s kind of built for this coaching role. He has a good plan, he plays a system that’s understood by his players, he does a pretty good job of translating what he wants to his players and that’s what we want.”

“We need a clear message.”

“The good news with Gregg is he does all the analytical stuff behind the scenes but when it’s time to play there’s a simple message.”

“I think he’s ready for this.”

Tata Martino (ISI Photos/Michael Janosz)

On Tata Martino for the USMNT:
“He’s very approachable, his players love him.”

“I think the language might be an issue, I wish he spoke English.”

“Let’s face it, if Tata Martino spoke English, perfectly, fluently, he’s already our coach.”

On the young U.S. internationals:
“I wish Tim Weah was in a spot where he could play more because I’ve been very impressed with him and we’ll have to see how Sargent progresses up top.”

“Tyler Adams, and Pulisic and Weston (McKennie), and Kellyn Acosta, you take those four right there and we’re in a good spot, we’re in a really good spot. Those are four very good midfielders with an incredible upside.”

“I like Carter-Vickers, I love Miazga.” “Not to toot my own horn but I’ve been saying Miazga is the best defender that we have and has been for the last three years.”

“Watch some of the plays against Neymar (in the recent USA vs Brazil friendly) and watch Miazga’s feet. As a forward and a player, a former player, he’s just a nightmare. He’s very good and he does not make a whole lot of bad decisions.”

“We still have a left back problem, Yedlin, I’m a fan of.”

“Steffan is great in the nets and we have several other options, as far as the goalkeeping position.”

“I’m excited about this team.”

On speaking at the GotSoccer Convention on November -:
“A lot of people are going to be expecting fire and brimstone but that is not going to be the case I’m done fighting.”

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USMNT GM Earnie Stewart on Search for a New Coach
USMNT GM Earnie Stewart on Search for a New Coach avatar

East Rutherford, N.J. – Earnie Stewart wanted to clear something up. “I do want to comment: have I interviewed people? No, I haven’t interviewed people. Have I spoken to people? Absolutely.”

Speaking to a group of a dozen or so reporters during a roundtable discussion at MetLife Stadium Stadium on Thursday afternoon, the U.S. Men’s National Team General Manager was keen to make that distinction to the press and perhaps more importantly, to an American soccer fan base that has still not quite gotten over missing out on the 2018 World Cup.

Earnie Stewart on his way out to training practice for the USMNT preparation for their match against Brazil. (ISI Photos/John Dorton)

In his new role Stewart is charged with finding a coach that can get the USMNT back on track by qualifying for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar and he let it be known that he has spoken to people in and around U.S. Soccer in order to help build a profile of the kind of person he wants for the job.

That process, Stewart said, is now complete and while the GM admitted, “the interview process has not begun,” when asked when that next phase would kick off, replied simply, “not too long,” later adding that he expected a coach to be named before the end of the year.

Stewart also said that he has spoken to agents that called to gauge interest, and “six or seven coaches” that picked up the phone and called him. And while he remained mostly tight-lipped when it came to precisely what he is looking for in this important hire, Stewart did let a few nuggets slip.

Characteristics of the “set profile” as Stewart said, “start with the values of the American player and what U.S. Soccer is about because, “it’s not about Earnie’s coach or anything like that, it’s about having a coach that’s good for U.S. Soccer and where we stand right now and where we are going to go to.”

And while the GM mentioned finding a style of play, Stewart stressed that it is more about defining “principles of play. It’s an overarching view of what soccer and the values that we have in the United States, how we want to identify with our team that you see on the field.”

The next manager will not have the same responsibility that Klinsmann had. (ISI Photos/Michael Janosz)

“There are a couple of things that are very important,” Stewart began. “It has to be someone that has a we mentality, someone who wants to work together.” In an apparent corrective to the Jurgen Klinsmann era, which saw Klinsmann consolidate power as both Coach and Technical Director, Stewart added, “I think that’s important because in this day and age I don’t think one person can do the whole job, especially in a country as big as this.”

The former USMNT World Cup player added that the next coach should be “a people manager, and then you have all the technical and tactical things that come with that.”

As part of the “profile” Stewart called some characteristics “requirements and other things are desires.” Understanding the intricacies of the Concacaf region is one that Stewart filed in the desires category.

Speaking English was labeled “ a requirement,” by Stewart, potentially bad news for the potential candidacy of Atlanta United, and former Argentina and Barcelona coach Tata Martino, who speaks limited English.

Although Stewart was loath to mention specific names of coaches under consideration the GM gave an interesting answer when asked about Columbus Crew boss Gregg Berhalter.

“It was brought to my attention that he (Berhalter) was going to get the job because he’s a friend of mine,” Stewart began. “That’s the part I don’t understand,” Stewart said before going on to note that they really aren’t that close.

Gregg Berhalter (ISI Photos/Michael Janosz)

“We played together and we’ve communicated with each other, but friends is a little overboard, I want to say.”

Stewart called their relationship “professional.”

Stewart, as well as U.S. Soccer officials on hand, also noted that Jay Berhalter, Gregg’s brother, and U.S. Soccer C.O.O. would not be involved in hiring the coach, although he was involved in the hiring process that resulted in Stewart being named as General Manager.

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Is Zack Steffen the Next Number 1?
Is Zack Steffen the Next Number 1? avatar

Whippany, N.J. – The last time the USMNT gathered at the New York Red Bulls Training Center was ahead of what would be a disastrous 2-0 World Cup Qualifier loss to Costa Rica at Red Bull Arena, last September 1, a loss that would play its part in seeing the United States miss out on the World Cup for the first time since 1986.

Dave Strachan looked to the youngsters for his future team. (ISI Photos/John Dorton)

That failure led to a shakeup that saw coach Bruce Arena follow the man he replaced, Jurgen Klinsmann, out the door followed soon enough by U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati. It also signaled the end of the international career of at least one icon, with Clint Dempsey’s recent retirement and the ushering in of a youth movement led by interim coach Dave Sarachan.

With an average age of 23 years 241 days, this is a young group. It is also a new group, with just three of the squad that succumbed so meekly to the Ticos last September returning to the Garden State for Friday night’s friendly versus Brazil at MetLife Stadium.

Of the three, only Paul Arriola saw action, entering the fray in the 87th minute. Eric Lichaj and Kellyn Acosta did not see any action last September versus Costa Rica.

Steffen in 2016 training alongside Howard and Guzan. (ISI Photos/John Dorton)

Tim Howard was in goal that night and neither Howard nor fellow veteran and former USMNT number one Brad Guzan was called into this squad, prompting me to ask presumptive topman Zack Steffen if those absences surprised him.

Standing outside of the practice field at the Red Bulls’ facility, the 23-year-old Columbus Crew keeper paused a moment before admitting, “I was a little surprised Brad wasn’t, for some experience, maybe.”

Steffen continued by noting the transitional nature of the National Team at this juncture. “At the same time it’s a fresh start and everybody has a chance to step in and play their game and showcase their skills.”
Steffen has been showcasing his considerable skills since the Americans returned to the field of play in a series of friendlies following a prolonged period of wound licking and soul-searching.

In seven friendlies since the awful night in Trinidad and Tobago that saw the Americans miss out on the World Cup for the first time since 1986 Steffen has emerged as the most likely heir to the USMNT goalkeeper legacy that runs from Tony Meola to Kasey Keller, to Brad Friedel, Tim Howard, and Brad Guzan, although Guzan may be back in the picture when U.S. Soccer General Manager Earnie Stewart selects a permanent coach.

Steffen should start for the U.S. (ISI Photos/John Dorton)

Steffen figures to see the bulk of the time in this two-game set against Brazil on Friday and Mexico in Nashville next Tuesday, having outperformed Ethan Horvath, Alex Bono, and Bill Hamid in club and international competition in recent months.

Steffen was particularly impressive in a 1-1 draw versus a full strength French team back in June, shortly before Les Bleus went on to win the World Cup in Russia.

Performances like that, as well as his consistent fine play with the Crew, were bound to attract interest and Steffen came close to a return to Europe with English Championship side Bristol City earlier this summer, having begun his professional career with German club Freiburg.

How close? I asked the former Maryland Terrapin. “It was possible it was going to happen,” Steffen said, adding opaquely, “for certain reasons it didn’t happen.”

The clamor did not seem to phase the keeper. “No, not at all,” Steffen told GotSoccer. “I think the right thing will come and it will all fall into place how it should be.”

For now, the right thing for the USMNT seems to be Zack Steffen between the posts, especially without a veteran in camp. I asked Steffen if the absence of Guzan and/or Howard gave him a boost.

Steffen is enjoying being part of such a good group of young players. (ISI Photos/John Dorton)

“Yeah, I mean it’s obviously in the back of my head but I’m happy to be here with the group, to be here with such a good group.”

Steffen sounded intent on holding on to that number one job, and expressed confidence in the team’s current direction, adding “we’re really young, so it’s fun,” and Steffen said confidently, “it feels like our team.”

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USMNT Great Dempsey Hangs up his Boots
USMNT Great Dempsey Hangs up his Boots avatar

“He tries shit.”

That is what former USMNT coach Bruce Arena once famously said of Clint Dempsey, who announced his retirement today, and it is stands today as a fitting epitaph for a player who rose seemingly from nowhere to the pinnacle of American soccer.

USA’s head coach Bruce Arena watches as Costa Rica’s Danny Fonseca attempts a tackle on Clint Dempsey in 2005. (ISI Photos/Howard C. Smith)

Because with Dempsey it has never been just about the numbers. Oh, the numbers are there for the son of Nacogdoches, Texas. 57 goals for the United States Men’s National Team, tied with Landon Donovan for first all-time on the men’s side of the ledger.

And his 57 goals are the most ever by an American in the English Premier League, his four career World Cup goals second in the modern era to his teammate and rival Landon Donovan, and with goals in the 2006, 2010, and 2014 Cups’, Dempsey is the first and so far, only American to score in three consecutive Mundials.

But Arena was on to something, Dempsey, or Deuce is about much more than numbers. Drafted eighth by the New England Revolution out of Furman College in his native Texas, the box to box midfielder won MLS Rookie of the Year and quickly showed the flair and goalscoring nous that would lead Dempsey on a tour of the pitch from midfield to winger to second forward right on up to striker and just as quickly across the Atlantic to Fulham of the Premier League, and from the fringes of the national team to World Cup captain.

Dempsey celebrating one of his many goals.  (ISI Photos/John Todd)

Dempsey seemed to achieve all of this with a combination of swagger unseen in most American players, and effort that said this ball is mine while occasionally blurring the line between hard and dirty.

Every year it seemed that Fulham would bring in a new coach and that Dempsey, relegated to the bench, would have to regain his place in the Cottagers lineup.

It was a challenge that Deuce was always up for and Fulham fans noticed and appreciated the American’s drive, twice honoring Dempsey as the club’s Player of the Year.

Dempsey displayed a gift for coming up with big goals, too. His first goal for Fulham saved the Thamesmen from relegation, and Dempsey’s long-range blast versus Juventus in the Europa League has been called the biggest goal in Fulham history.

After a short stint with Tottenham Hotspur, Dempsey came home to MLS, signing a huge contract with the Seattle Sounders off of a $9 million transfer.

Although slowed by injuries Deuce won an MLS Cup with the Sounders and his time playing with Obafemi Martins was a spectacle to behold.

Latterly Dempsey was unable to impact games like he has in the past. (ISI Photos/Andy Mead)

Dempsey’s final season with both Seattle and the USMNT sputtered to something of an anticlimactic end but Dempsey leaves the stage with his place in American soccer secure.

Was Dempsey the best American player ever, or does the nod go to Donovan? The two were so different yet they are hard to separate.

On Dempsey’s side of the ledger is his success outside of the cozy confines of Major League Soccer. While Donovan was tarred, unfairly I believe, with the nickname Landycakes as a slur on his toughness, no one ever questioned Dempsey on that score.

Dempsey lacked Donovan’s flat-out speed and while Donovan was more of a playmaker than Dempsey the two shared a flair for the dramatic.

But today is about Clint Dempsey, a humble, quiet, swaggering, rapping Texan, a homebody who proved his mettle on the pitches of England and on the World Cup stage.

Never the golden boy, never the chosen one but also never afraid, no, USMNT legend Clint Dempsey was never afraid “to try shit.”

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All State All Stars Coming in 2019
All State All Stars Coming in 2019 avatar

Insurance company Allstate has recently introduced its first ever All America program intended to honor the best male and female High School soccer players in the United States.

Working with MaxPreps, described in Allstate’s press release as America’s source for High School sports, Allstate will identify the nation’s top high school soccer players in their junior year and award the “Allstate All-American” title to an elite group of 125 male and 125 female players. From the total 250 high school players, 40 males and 40 females wll be selected to compete in the inaugural Allstate All-America Cup at the 2019 MLS All-Star game next summer in Orlando.

Four celebrity head coaches will be named to lead the Allstate All-American Roster Selections who will be divided across two male teams and two female teams. The matches will be televised on ESPNU during 2019 MLS All-Star Week. Additionally, the Allstate All-American Roster Selections will be feted on the field during halftime of the 2019 MLS All-Star Game.

This will open up the opportunities for many more players. (ISI Photos/Tony Quinn)

It should be quite an honor for the teens, while also giving needed exposure to the High School athletes who may have been overlooked because of USSF rules that forbid players from playing High School soccer if they wish to participate in the organizations higher profile Development Academy.

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It’s France!
It’s France! avatar

In a fitting end to a thrilling World Cup France defeated Croatia 4-2 Sunday night in Moscow in the highest scoring final since Brazil topped West Germany 3-2 all the way back in 1986.

The scoreline wasn’t a fair reflection of the game. (ISI Photos/ © France V Croatia/Hollandse-Hoogte via ZUMA Press)

But don’t let the two-goal victory fool you, as good as France was on Sunday, Croatia did not make it easy. Nothing was easy against Croatia at Russia ‘18. After cruising through group play with three wins from three matches and a 7-1 goal difference, Croatia battled through the K.O. rounds in extraordinary fashion advancing twice on penalty kicks before defeating England in Extra Time to set up Sunday’s showdown with the young French team.

No, it wouldn’t be easy for France, one of the pre-tournament favorites, but Les Bleus did get a couple of big calls in the first half that would shape this final. The first came when Antoine Griezmann hit the deck just outside the French penalty area to earn a highly disputed free kick. Griezmann then rubbed salt in the Croatian wound when he delivered a dangerous free kick that skipped off the head of Mario Mandzukic and past a stranded Danijel Subasic to put Croatia in a 1-0 hole in the 18th minute.

It was a tough break for the underdogs, who had been taking the game to the fancied French but true to form Croatia refused to sulk and were back on level terms within 10 minutes.

Ivan Perisic (R) soon got Croatia back level. (Credit Image: © Imago via ZUMA Press)

Ivan Perisic, the hero of Croatia’s 2-1 semi-final victory over England with a goal and an assist, was on target again when he fired a deflection aided blast past Hugo Lloris to equalize.

But Croatian resilience would be tested once again just 10 minutes later with France awarded a penalty via VAR for a handball on Perisic. Argentine referee Nestor Pitana did not call the infraction initially but was swayed by the replay.

Although Perisic clearly handled the ball reaction was divided with many loudly disputing the penalty decision. That VAR was involved only heightened the controversy but even without the technological aspect, the incident highlights the difficulty all officials face when calling a handball for a penalty.

Perisic’s hand was away from his body and moved toward the ball. Still, there is the question of intent.

Griezmann was cool and made it 2-1 for his team. (Credit Image: © Ulrik Pedersen/Cal Sport Media)

In any event, Griezmann cooly beat Subasic to send France to the locker room with a 2-1 lead.

Again Croatia responded well to adversity coming out on the restart determined to restore parity and dominating the opening exchanges before Paul Pogba struck for France against the run of play in the 59th minute.

Croatia was still reeling from Pogba’s strike when Kylian Mbappe made it 4-1 to France in the 65th minute. The goal by the precocious 19-year-old was the first by a teenager in a World Cup Final since the legendary Pele scored two versus Sweden in 1958, and a fitting capper to a brilliant World Cup by the rising star.

Hugo Lloris opened the door a crack when he inexplicably dawdled on the ball and allowed Mandzukic to halve the deficit but this hill was too big for even Croatia to climb.

For all the controversy, France were worthy winners. Manager Didier Deschamps captained France to its only other World Cup title in 1998 and he molded this young team into a disciplined unit without quenching the offensive threat of players like Mbappe, Griezmann, and Pogba.

France’s future is looking bright.(Credit Image: © Ulrik Pedersen/Cal Sport Media)

As Germany, Spain, and a few others can attest, nothing is guaranteed in soccer but with an average age of 25 years and nine months France is the second youngest team to have won a World Cup, (via ESPN FC) just one month older than Brazil 1970, so for now at least, the future of the world’s game looks bleu.

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It’s France Versus Croatia for the World Cup!
It’s France Versus Croatia for the World Cup! avatar

France defeated Belgium 1-0 on Tuesday night in a match that failed to consistently scale the hoped-for heights while Croatia bounced back after conceding a fifth-minute goal to top England 2-1 in Extra Time, the third consecutive match to go beyond the normally alloted 90 minutes for the indefatigable Croats.

France 1-0 vs. Belgium

France and Belgium emerged from the tougher side of the draw with the Belgians Golden Generation riding high following a defend a counter master class against Brazil in the quarterfinal.

France handled Uruguay 2-0, and the sense was that Les Blues had yet to scale the heights that they are capable of.

Mbappe tormented the Belgian defense. (ISI Photos/ © Imago via ZUMA Press)

That France punched its ticket to the World Cup Final with this feeling still in the air gives an indication of just how talented a group manager Didier Deschamps, who captained France to the 1998 World Cup title, has at his disposal.

Not to say that France did not play well on the day, they did with 19-year-old Kylian Mbappe tormenting the Belgian defense all match.

For Belgian boss Roberto Martinez some of the magic of his Brazil game plan seemed stale against France. Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli failed to replicate big performances as subs in the epic comeback versus Japan and as starters against Brazil. For Fellaini that can be taken quite literally given that the big Manchester United man was beaten by Samuel Umtiti for the game-winning header.

Chadli had a nightmare, with even a decent corner kick too much to ask- why did he continue to take them?- while Moussa Dembele was a turnover machine in the center of the pitch for Belgium.

Of course, France deserves huge credit for forcing this lesser effort from Belgium. With talents like Mbappe augmenting speed with vision and trickery, see those sublime backheels, N’Golo Kante disrupting play after play, and players like Antoine Griezmann, and Paul Pogba, this France side is loaded and go into Sunday’s final as firm favorites.

Croatia 2 England 1

While France are deserved favorites, Deschamps men would do well to avoid overconfidence against Croatia, whose 2-1 victory over England was a testament to the skill, the fitness, and the mentality of Sunday’s underdogs.

All of those traits were put to the test when England jumped out to an early lead via a fine free-kick from Kieran Trippier. England would dominate much of the first half but were unable to add that crucial second goal, with Harry Kane somehow missing on a glorious double effort from Danijel Subasic’s doorstep.

Modric’s creativity in the middle constantly challenged England.(ISI Photos/©Hoogte via ZUMA Press)

Having survived the opening 45′ Croatia took the game to England on the resumption. Croatia’s vaunted midfield, Luca Modric, Ivan Rakitic, and in particular Man of the Match Ivan Perisic, led the way.

It was Perisic that knotted the score in the 68th minute, getting his foot to a dangerous cross from fullback Sime Vrsaljko. With over 20 minutes to play Croatia seemed the likelier of the two sides to find a winner inside the 90 scheduled minutes but it was not to be, and extra time loomed.

Much pregame chatter had focused on England’s supposed fitness advantage, given the demands made on Croatia’s stamina by consecutive penalty kick “wins.” Instead, it was Croatia that found a winner with Mario Mandzukic finishing after ghosting in behind statuesque England defender John Stones to finish from Perisic’s flicked header in the 109th minute.

After the victory, Croatia’s captain Luca Modric called out the English media for doubting his team’s ability to last the pace, saying “All these words from them we take, we were reading and we were saying ‘OK, today we will see who will be tired.’ As I said, they should be more humble, and respect opponents more. That’s it.”

Favored or not, France would do well to heed Modric’s words.

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