MLS MVP is open-and-shut case, World Cup qualifying, more Mailbag
Chris Wondolowski is the clear MLS MVP favorite with a league-leading 21 goals
U.S. fans should be rooting for Guatemala to win big at home against Jamaica
Bob Bradley started well in World Cup qualifying in Egypt, where he's respected
We haven't done a soccer Mailbag in a while, and it seems like a good time. So let's dive in:
Who is your favorite for MLS MVP for 2012?
It has to be San Jose's Chris Wondolowski. The forward for the Supporters Shield-leading Earthquakes is running away with the MLS Golden Boot race with 21 goals (seven more than anyone else), and while it won't be easy to break Roy Lassiter's MLS record of 27 goals in a regular season, Wondo at least has a shot at it with five games left. While many of us were sleeping on Wednesday night, Wondo put on a show, scoring twice in a rare sub's role to bring San Jose back from a 2-0 deficit to tie Portland 2-2. The skill and grit he showed on the goals was inspiring, as was his fiery response. This guy wants to win a championship. Badly.
The other top MVP candidate in my mind? Graham Zusi of East-leading Kansas City has had a terrific year from the start, piling up a league-leading 14 assists, including another one in KC's 2-0 takedown at New York on Wednesday. KC is now just three points behind San Jose in the Supporters Shield race with five games left for both teams; the winner would have the right to host the MLS Cup final for the first time.
Do you think that the availability of high-level soccer on TV in the U.S. now will have a substantial positive impact on the quality of U.S. soccer in the future? I ask because we are about the same age, and growing up I can barely remember seeing any high-level soccer on TV. We had to watch tapes and felt like it was watching bootleg movies or something like that. My only vivid memory watching soccer was the World Cup from Mexico. On the other hand, I also played baseball and I could mimic the batting styles and pitching motions of almost any player. With so many more games available on TV now, won't that inevitably increase knowledge of moves, styles, game plans, etc.?
-- Peter Ladig
I was just having this conversation with someone the other day. The amount of live soccer games on U.S. television these days is staggering, as many as 70 or more a week. It's one thing to participate in soccer, as so many young Americans do, but it's another to be able to watch the highest levels of the professional game, immerse yourself and see how it's done: technically, tactically, all of it.
During the Olympics, I had an interesting informal talk with now-former U.S. women's coach Pia Sundhage on the field at Old Trafford the day before the semifinals. She talked about how many of her U.S. players are hardcore viewers of the Champions League, Premier League and La Liga -- far more viewers, she said, than were on her U.S. Olympic team in 2008. Alex Morgan, Tobin Heath, Megan Rapinoe: They're all soccer junkies, always searching for a televised game, and all of them happen to be smart, technical players.
I have to admit that I die a little whenever there's a huge Champions League game on and some promising U.S. player is tweeting about his or her lunch at the beach. (Why aren't you watching the game?) But just as often I see tweets that others are watching the game, too. If I'm coaching young people in the U.S., I'm making sure they're taking advantage of the TV soccer situation these days, in which you can see more live Premier League games on U.S. television than you can in England. Believe me, it'll pay dividends in the future.
Assuming USA takes care of business in Antigua and Barbuda, what should we be rooting for in the Guatemala-Jamaica match?
The U.S., Guatemala and Jamaica are all on seven points with two games left (the top two advance to the final round of World Cup qualifying), and the U.S. controls its own destiny: A win at Antigua and Barbuda and a tie at home against Guatemala would be enough to put the Americans through. If you assume that the U.S. and Jamaica will both get three points in their final-week qualifiers against Antigua, you're probably hoping that Guatemala wins big at home against Jamaica. That way the U.S. could still go through with a loss to the Chapines. But if you're a fan wouldn't you rather have the U.S. just take care of business and not have to scoreboard-watch?
(From a purely selfish perspective, I'm hoping Jamaica gets in ahead of Guatemala, Canada aces out Honduras and Costa Rica edges El Salvador. Better road trips during the Hex. Did I just say that? Sorry: Last time I was in Honduras I got mugged at gunpoint.)
After about a month of the season with some EPL and Champions League mixed in, what is your verdict on Arsenal? Have they taken a step in either direction?
-- Patrick Tarbox, Fort Worth, Texas
It's hard to have a full verdict on the Gunners since it's still so early, but for the most part things are encouraging so far. Among the new guys, Santi Cazorla has been just as good as anyone who saw his creativity in Spain would expect, and Lukas Podolski has been better than I thought. Olivier Giroud? Not so much. But Abou Diaby has been terrific as a replacement for the departed Alex Song, and defensively the Gunners have been solid, allowing a Premier League-best one goal in four games so far. We'll know a lot more in the next two league games, though, at Manchester City on Sunday and against Chelsea at home six days later.
Watching the Champions League this week, I get the impression that UEFA president Michel Platini's vision of a more democratized soccer landscape is slowly realizing itself. We've always had the pipeline of small teams making big impressions (Shakhtar, Porto, etc.), but Cluj, BATE and others are now coming to the fore. Do you see this trend gaining ground?
-- Tim Wander
It's only the first week, so keep that in mind, but surprise road wins by Romania's Cluj (2-0 at Braga) and Belarus's BATE (3-1 at Lille) continue the trend we saw in last year's CL group stage, when the usual lack of drama was overturned and teams like APOEL and Basel made runs while Man United and Man City failed to reach the knockout rounds. The big question was whether last season would be an anomaly, and so far the answer is maybe not. With Platini's support, the little guys are getting a few more opportunities in the Champions League, and that may only increase if Financial Fair Play ends up having real teeth. Then again, FFP may have some unexpected consequences, too: the UEFA clubs that were docked prize money recently for not meeting requirements were mostly lesser-known outfits, not the big boys.
What's been the best match you've ever seen in person?
Tough one to answer, because I've been fortunate to attend some great ones over the years, including four men's and two women's World Cup finals. Best European club game I've seen in person: Manchester United-Real Madrid, 2003 Champions League quarterfinal (Brazilian Ronaldo scores hat trick, leaves game to standing ovation at Old Trafford; Galácticos galore; David Beckham comes off the bench to score twice for United; Real Madrid loses game 4-3 but wins 6-5 on aggregate). Best U.S. men's game: USA 3, Portugal 2 at World Cup 2002. Best U.S. women's game: the miraculous come-from-behind win against Brazil in the World Cup 2011 quarterfinals. Best MLS game in person: Probably the 2004 MLS Cup final (D.C. United 3, Kansas City 2).
How is Bob Bradley doing in Egypt? Do you think he can get them to the World Cup? Any good stories you have heard about him over there?
-- Dustin Fuller, Jackson, Miss.
Bradley-in-Egypt is an amazing story, so much so that not one but two documentary films are being made about it. So far he has done a terrific job just to persevere in remarkably difficult circumstances, both from a human perspective (a country in turmoil, the awful tragedy at Port Said) and from a soccer perspective (the suspension of the Egyptian league after Port Said). Bradley's biggest achievement has been to earn the respect of Egyptian players and fans, whether it meant attending a rally after Port Said, staying in the country and meeting with players or saying all the right things in tough situations. (He was pitch-perfect after the recent death of a legendary Egyptian coach.)
Soccer-wise, it hurt Bradley when Egypt was knocked out of qualifying for the Africa Cup of Nations. But the main goal is returning Egypt to the World Cup for the first time since 1990, and so far Bradley's Pharaohs are on the right track with six points from two qualifiers. Winning at home against Zimbabwe in their next qualifier in March would be big. If Egypt can take first in the group and win a home-and-home against another group winner, the team will make Brazil 2014 -- and Bradley will be an Egyptian national hero.
What are your thoughts on South American World Cup qualifiers?
The biggest surprise so far is that Paraguay, which has reached the last four World Cups and gave Spain all it could handle in the 2010 quarterfinals, is dead last with four points. On the positive side, Colombia is the world's hottest national team, riding the coattails of Radamel Falcao (perhaps the planet's top striker in the box) to second place behind Argentina with recent wins over Uruguay and at Chile. It would be a great story to see Colombia back in the Big Dance for the first time since 1998. It's crazy to think there will probably be six South American teams at World Cup 2014: host Brazil is already in, and the fifth-place South American team will meet the fifth-placed Asian team in one of those Star Wars bar-style intercontinental playoffs. I'd kind of like to see Venezuela (currently in sixth) qualify for its first World Cup.
It seems to me that most goal kicks result in a turnover of possession. Keepers are encouraged to kick the ball as far as possible, but the landing zone is populated by (usually) larger defenders facing in the direction of the ball. I feel like nine times out of 10 the opposing team gets the first contact. Playing a goal kick short, to a midfielder or defender who handles the ball well, would seem to be a better bet. With all the statistical analysis going on now, has anyone measured this?
-- Carson Stanwood
Well, readers: Has anyone measured this? Let me know if you have.
What are your top five favorite soccer books?
Lots of good ones to choose from, but here are my top eight (in no particular order):
Football Against the Enemy, Simon Kuper.
Fascinating tales of soccer and politics around the world.
How Soccer Explains the World, Franklin Foer.
One of our best political writers continues Kuper's pursuits, adds a big theory.
Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life, Alex Bellos.
I learned more about Brazilian soccer here than anywhere else. Useful as we prepare for World Cup 2014 there.
Among The Thugs, Bill Buford.
The former New Yorker writer shows how violent English soccer got during the 1980s.
Soccernomics, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski.
Kuper again, this time with a sort of Moneyball angle for soccer.
Inverting the Pyramid, Jonathan Wilson.
A grad-level history of soccer tactics. Great for those of us who didn't grow up with a big tactical knowledge base.
Soccer in Sun and Shadow, Eduardo Galeano.
The great Uruguayan is one of the sport's most graceful poets.
The Glory Game, Hunter Davies.
Ahead of its time and with remarkable access for a book in England, this insider's chronicle of Tottenham's Hotspur's 1971-72 season is a classic.