American soccer galore as MLS playoffs heat up and natives excel
With the MLS Playoffs and multiple Americans abroad, it's good to be a soccer fan
Los Angeles and Houston both surprised the top seeds in the quarterfinals
Michael Parkhurst is maturing as a defender and excelling in Denmark
MIAMI BEACH, Fla. -- It wasn't so long ago that watching soccer games and consuming soccer media in the United States was well near impossible, limited to the occasional Champions League game and, going back a bit further, Soccer Made in Germany. These days there's so much soccer available here that it's almost overwhelming -- and completely, unabashedly wonderful for soccer geeks.
How much has been going on in the soccer world in the last 24 hours? A lot. So much, in fact, that we're going to do a reverse running diary, Memento-style. Let's go:
4. Thursday, 1:20 a.m. ET
In an MLS playoff game that even Bud Selig thinks is running too late, defending champ Los Angeles turns around a 1-0 deficit at West top seed San Jose, winning 3-1 to advance to the MLS semifinals on a 3-2 aggregate. It's hard to know which of the priceless moments is the most memorable: Landon Donovan's "I'm Still the Best MLS Player" assist rampage? Robbie Keane's classy finishes? The frantic final 10 minutes which make desperate playoff soccer must-see TV? Or maybe it's just the majestic mustaches sported by ESPN commentators Alexi Lalas and Kasey Keller. Whatever the case, LA's win completes a remarkable MLS playoff night that sees both the conference top seeds (San Jose and Kansas City) go down in the MLS Cup quarterfinals. Kansas City doesn't play badly at all, but (speaking of desperate playoff soccer) it can't get the equalizing goal in the final 30 minutes before a wild KC crowd and falls to Houston 2-1 on aggregate. It's the second straight year that Houston upsets Kansas City in the playoffs -- and, not coincidentally, the fifth time in seven seasons that Houston coach Dominic Kinnear guides his team to a conference final. At a certain point, you'd have to think Kinnear would be in the discussion as a future U.S. national team coach. His preparation for win-or-go-home tournament is amazing.
3. Wednesday, 8:40 p.m. ET
One of the great skills of international soccer planners is to take a quasi non-event and turn it into a spectacle, and finally CONCACAF seems to be getting the hang of it. After the leaders of the six Hexagonal countries couldn't agree on a 2013 schedule two weeks ago, CONCACAF stumbled into an idea: Even though we already know which six teams will play each other home-and-home, let's stage a draw at the W Hotel in South Beach to determine the schedule! And let's invite figures from each of the countries like U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann!
Believe me, I'm all for CONCACAF staging as many events as possible in Miami in November, though Klinsmann may not think of this place as a lucky charm after the draw the U.S. received: A debut match at Honduras on February 6 and (alone among the six nations) three of its first four Hex games on the road, including at Mexico on March 26. Given the U.S.'s struggles on the road, qualifying for World Cup 2014 may well come down to the wire, where there is at least one saving grace: three of the last four U.S. games will be at home.
In an interview on Mexican TV Thursday morning, I'll learn that Mexican FA president Justino Compeán has told the media that U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati told him the U.S.-Mexico qualifier north of the border will not take place in Columbus, Ohio. Columbus is a house of horrors for Mexico, a place where the U.S. has beaten them three straight times. My guess on what really happened: Gulati pulled his usual gambit of saying he'd move the game from Columbus if Mexico agreed not to stage its home game vs. the U.S. in Mexico City. Like that's going to happen: My sense is we'll see Columbus and the Azteca hosting these monster games again in 2013.
2. Wednesday, 8:30 p.m. ET
While the CONCACAF Hex draw takes place in South Beach (where it's a glorious 70 degrees), New York tries to stage its MLS playoff against D.C. United in Red Bull Arena with one giant complication: A Nor'easter that's dumping much more snow than expected in New Jersey. In a series that has already had epic complications from last week's hurricane (which moved the first leg to D.C.), MLS finally decides to postpone the second leg until Thursday night. Part of me would love to see the orange ball and the players fighting the elements, but you can also understand the rationale for having a game that won't be a debacle. Plus, New York and D.C. fans can take solace in the fact that if they make the MLS Cup final, they'll get to host the game.
1. Wednesday, 4:45 p.m. ET
The Champions League group stage used to be a relatively drama-free event, with nearly all the heavyweights advancing without much trouble, but the last two years have been far more competitive and highly entertaining. What's more, you can now go to sports bars in any U.S. city -- my choice today is the Playwright in South Beach -- and watch any and all of the eight games going on concurrently. That's a godsend given that a record four U.S.-eligible players are competing in this year's Champions League group stage -- Nordsjaelland's Michael Parkhurst, Anderlecht's Sacha Kljestan, Schalke's Jermaine Jones, Málaga's Oguchi Onyewu -- and the last three all have a chance to advance.
Yet Parkhurst is enjoying the most impressive performance of the Americans, playing in all 360 minutes of Nordsjaelland's four games at right back and even making UEFA's team of the week for his solid play in a 1-1 tie against Juventus two weeks ago. Nordsjaelland isn't as fortunate today, falling 4-0 on the road at Juve, but none of the goals are the fault of Parkhurst, who might be his team's best player, getting forward occasionally, completing a team-high 67 passes and defending well one-on-one against such accomplished foes as Kwadwo Asamoah and Sebastian Giovinco.
At 28, Parkhurst has made the most of his move to Denmark from the New England Revolution in 2009. A center back with New England, Parkhurst moved to right back last year and tells me it was a good move for his career. "It's gone well," he says. "I was a little reluctant at first because I've been playing center back my whole career, but I had a few good games and realized if this was going to keep me on the field and help me progress in my career, then I might as well go full-tilt and give it a shot. I've learned the position a little bit over the past year and a half, and I'm still learning, but I enjoy it. Because of the way we play, I get to attack a lot, and that's fun."
In fact, Parkhurst is tied for the lead in assists this season in the Danish league. There's plenty of discussion in MLS circles over whether moving from the U.S. to the Danish league is a lateral move or a step up, but Parkhurst says he has no doubt the move has been good for his career.
"I've definitely become a better player since I've been over here," he says. "I've learned a lot tactically. That's a big difference between the Danish league and MLS, the tactics that go into each game, the way teams set up their gameplans instead of just going out there and matching up with each other all over the field. I wouldn't say it's less physical, because some games are pretty physical [in Denmark], but the running is more for a purpose. It's not just craziness going on, where I think sometimes in MLS the games get like that."
"That said, I don't think the level of the games is much different," he continues. "The overall level of an MLS game and a Danish game is pretty equal. But the biggest difference I notice straight away over here was training. The level of training and intensity of training, and the dropoff from [players] No. 12 through No. 20 isn't nearly what it was when I was in MLS. I can't say what it is now there, but our 18th guy can come in and play for us, and the level won't drop that much, whereas it would have back when I was with the Revs, at least."
As for Parkhurst's Champions League experience, he views it as invaluable, a chance to show his level against some of the best teams in the world. He considers Nordsjaelland's group to be the second-toughest in this year's competition with Chelsea, Juventus and Shakhtar Donetsk, and he's probably right.
"You see Chelsea and Juventus playing on TV, but you don't really know what it's like until you're in the heat of the moment and going up against them and seeing firsthand what they do tactically and how technically gifted someone like [Andrea] Pirlo is," Parkhurst says. "And the runs they make off him, you don't have to get in awe of anything, but you realize these guys are at the top of their game, and there's a reason why they play at a big club. Because it's the little things that make them very good, and they do it perfectly every time. That's what we're trying to achieve. We can play a good team, but it's playing them back-to-back and a whole 90 minutes that's difficult for us."
Parkhurst's run of good form has made him a regular call-up with the U.S. national team, and his versatility has helped too -- he played left back in a pinch last month against Guatemala and did fine in a 3-1 victory.
What's more, Parkhurst's club contract ends at the conclusion of this season, and he may well be on the move to a bigger club destination considering his recent Champions League and national team success. "That's what we're hoping for," he says. "I've really enjoyed my time in Denmark and have become a better player, but I want to challenge myself at the highest level possible. So we're going to see what's out there. These Champions League games are great exposure, so if somebody is interested they have a chance to watch me at a high level playing against top teams. I'm just hoping I can play consistently and thing will work themselves out at the end of the year."
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