The World's Game In The Heart of the Sun Belt

With season over, fate of USL at stake

Kartik Krishnaiyer reports today that the breakaway threat involving several United Soccer Leagues owners — including the Atlanta Silverbacks in something called The Ownership Association — is looking more likely.

Among the developments: Even some Professional Development League owners are unhappy with USL management, and further fractures in the developmental system of North American soccer could result.

Also, the new Atlanta-based owners of the USL system, whose purchase from Nike led to the breakaway threat after years of disenchantment, don’t appear to have satisfied the essential complaints about the organization:

NuRock Soccer Holdings, it is confirmed to us by multiple sources has a management plan for USL which does have some new wrinkles to the old operating procedures of the league. However, these changes we are told do not address the numerous, articulated concerns of the TOA.

Silverbacks president Boris Jerkunica told Atlanta Soccer News recently that serious machinations are continuing, but he wouldn’t elaborate.

Whether there will be organized men’s soccer of any kind in Atlanta — either with the Silverbacks or a PDL franchise run by NuRock last season — is among the unanswered questions apparently being sorted out.

October 19, 2009   1 Comment

One place to see U.S. vs. Honduras in Atlanta

There’s only one place in Atlanta where soccer fans can watch Saturday’s critical World Cup qualifier between the U.S. and Honduras.

Fado Atlanta, located at 247 Buckhead Ave. (near the intersections of Peachtree Picture 1and West Paces Ferry), will be that nirvana. It’s one of the city’s top soccer watering holes as it is, but for unexplained reasons, the Brewhouse Café is not showing the game on its premises in Little Five Points.

The complicated story behind the decision by the Honduran federation to sell only close-circuit availability is here, and Yahoo’s Martin Rogers doesn’t hesitate to blame American soccer marketers for letting it reach this point:

“As is always the case with bureaucratic pileups of this nature, a swathe of finger pointing and insinuation has ensued. In reality, though, the primary fault lies with U.S. Soccer and Soccer United Marketing, the subsidiary company which owns its commercial rights.”

The U.S. can qualify for the World Cup in San Pedro Sula, a four-hours’ trips from Tegucigalpa and one of the most difficult venues on the continent. And even when there’s not a political crisis like the one that has consumed Honduras in recent months.

And then there was the so-called “Soccer War” that involved Honduras.

It was Conyers native Clint Mathis who etched an indelible moment in American soccer history eight years ago in San Pedro Sula. Another Atlantan, Ricardo Clark, gets ready for his first trip.

Game time is 10 p.m. ET, but given the nature of Buckhead traffic in general, and on Saturday evening in particular, getting to Fado with plenty of lead time is highly recommended.

October 9, 2009   No Comments

U.S. soccer needs some Mathis-like imagination

With Saturday’s massive World Cup qualifier in his adopted home town, former U.S. national team forward Clint Mathis went down memory lane with Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl, who famously dubbed the Conyers native “Cletus” for his Southern iconoclasm. It’s a nickname that stuck as he became an American soccer folk hero for an all-too-brief spell earlier this decade.

When the Yanks meet El Salvador in Salt Lake City facing the possibility of missing out on the World Cup altogether, I’ll be thinking of the inventiveness Mathis demonstrated, his instinctive playfulness that is a virtue in soccer around the world but all too rare in the development of the game in America. It’s a quality that is glaringly missing from Bob Bradley’s current team, which features Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and a promising attacker in Jozy Altidore but otherwise has one thinking “work rate:”

“Not since Reyna retired has an American shown his cleverness at varying the pace and direction and rhythm of possession by holding the ball as well as running with it or passing it. Calmness and patience and diversity in attack, especially against a bunkered-in opponent, is still hit-or-miss. Having a lot of the ball doesn’t guarantee a lot of success.”

If Mathis had been able to blend his innate skills with better discipline, we might not be thinking of him now as a could-have-been. He parlayed his international success into a disastrous spell with Germany’s Hannover, where he contemptuously dropped his shorts after being put into a game by a coach who rarely played him. He’s settled down now, a husband and a father, still enjoying a respectable career in Major League Soccer at the age of 32.

The memories shouldn’t haunt, but might perhaps inspire a younger generation of American players riding an exasperating roller coaster this summer. Humiliation at Costa Rica, victory over No. 1-ranked Spain, agony at the hands of Brazil after going up two goals early, leaving it late against Mexico at Azteca. And now, needing three points against lowly El Salvador to stay out of the CONCACAF danger zone.

The searing free kick goal Mathis scored in San Pedro Sula to down Honduras during this very same stage in qualifying eight years ago was one of the defining moments of recent U.S. soccer history. Then there was the goal against co-hosts South Korea in the 2002 World Cup. When asked days before the game about the unpredictability of Mathis, then-U.S. coach Bruce Arena sheepishly told reporters: “Clint could show up for the game bald for all I know.”

Cletus' finest moment, albeit a fleeting one

Cletus' finest moment, albeit a fleeting one

So Cletus went out and got himself a Mohawk instead.

In the clanging hothouse of Daegu, Mathis was cool and precise under pressure. The Americans got a vital point against a South Korean side riding the euphoria of tens of thousands of youths joyously gathering in the streets, all over the country. It was hard to tell which was louder: the deafening thundersticks in the stadiums, or the marching, chanting and viewing parties on big screen TVs in downtown Seoul.

Mathis’ goal was pure brilliance, and so was the service:

“I just remember Johnny O’Brien played a phenomenal ball. But what I’ll remember most telling my grandchildren is, you couldn’t hear anything during the game. There were 65,000 home fans screaming. You couldn’t hear each other ask for the ball. And when I scored that goal, you could hear a pin drop. It was a really cool feeling. In sports, people always like to get the crowd up and to hear your fans, but in my opinion, there’s no better feeling than to silence a crowd.”

He was maddeningly inconsistent, and he’s honest with Wahl in explaining some of his regrets. But the combination of fearlessness and free play that was crafted on hardscrabble ground in Rockdale County, and against ruthless older brothers, gave Mathis the confidence to reach an exalted place in world sports. His perspective now, offered to his successors, is both instructive and hopeful:

“You don’t need to really be peaking now. You need to qualify for the World Cup but you need to be peaking next summer . . . It’s just about the timing. Hopefully this new era of kids can withstand the pressure, because it is a lot of pressure. You’ve got a billion people watching you. I can’t think of any other sport that has that. It’s crazy to even fathom.”

September 5, 2009   No Comments

U.S. vs. Mexico: A crucible for Ricardo Clark?

Even before he confidently predicted victory in a place the U.S. national team has never won (more on that in a moment) Ricardo Clark was priming for what figures to be the biggest game of his budding soccer career.

When the Americans take on Mexico Wednesday at the forbidding Estadio Azteca in a colossal World Cup qualifying match (4 p.m., mun2, Telemundo) the former AFC Lightning club and St. Pius X standout is a likely candidate to be in Bob Bradley’s starting squad.

After numerous fits and starts that have included injuries and disciplinary issues (including a red card in the Confederations Cup), Clark has recovered nicely this summer to raise his game and his profile.

His play in South Africa, filling in at defensive midfield for an injured Maurice Edu, earned him some interest overseas, including an offer from Livorno of Italy’s Serie A that he may accept by the end of the year.

And Clark’s form is cresting for Major League Soccer powerhouse Houston Dynamo, as he scored his first goal of the season over the weekend.

With the U.S. needing three points to virtually seal another trip to the World Cup — and potentially slay the aspirations of its fiercest rival — Clark sounded quite ready for the challenge when he proclaimed: “It’ll be a great experience, and it’ll be nice to beat Mexico on their soil.”

No pressure at all, mate.

The Americans will probably be soaking up pressure everywhere with El Tricolor coming off a 5-0 thrashing of the U.S. “B” team in the finals of the CONCACAF Gold Cup. A re-energized Mexican attack features the young, free-flowing Giovani dos Santos, who scored during the team’s June win over Venezuela in the Georgia Dome. As one of the first lines of defense, Clark’s going to be fiercely tested.

But will it be any more intense than the consecutive games against Spain and Brazil in the Confederations Cup? If the Americans can’t draw from their experiences in those games, then they may never claim Mexico’s scalp in this “House of Horrors.”

There’s certainly going to be plenty of scrutiny paid to Landon Donovan, whose skill, leadership and brio will be crucial for the Americans to end their winless drought.

From our little parochial corner of the American soccer universe, this game represents Clark’s best chance not only to solidify a place on the U.S. team, but also to help write no small piece of American soccer history.

August 11, 2009   No Comments

Youth soccer’s dividing line: Club vs. academy

The Washington Post has a lengthy piece on the club vs. academy issue raging in that youth soccer hotbed, and it’s a topic that’s a rather hot one across country.

The U.S. Soccer Federation setting up a development academy that has involved Major League Soccer helped fan the flames of a long divide between the “professional” and “youth” camps in the American soccer structure.

Advocates of the academy system believe that the teaching and mastery of skills aren’t being emphasized enough, and they favor a more vertical system of player development that is common around the world:

“We need to shift the focus of our young elite players from an ‘overburdened, game emphasis’ model to a ‘meaningful training and competition’ model. This will ultimately lead to more success and will allow players to develop to their full potential.”

The speaker there was USSF president Sunil Gulati, whose comments have rankled more than a few defenders of the club approach, and not just because they feel their uniquely American-style autonomy and dominance are being encroached upon:

“I think we all want to push our players on to better environments But the key is, is it a better environment? We’re told it is, but there is nothing being done that proves they are.”

That was an unnamed youth club technical director in the D.C. area. Of course, the academy undertaking is rather new, and it probably will not supplant the established club system that is financed and dictated by highly involved parents.

Earlier this year, Jeff Carlisle of ESPNSoccernet.com examined the national youth structure in a five-part series that delved heavily into the Development Academy. One of his conclusions isn’t optimistic about this new approach:

“One issue is that kids rarely play soccer outside of a structured setting, meaning the kind of improvisation and experimentation that players develop organically in other countries is tougher to come by in the United States. But that is a cultural obstacle too large for the USSF to influence with one program.”

This is a topic I want to explore further as it pertains to what’s happening on the metro Atlanta scene. How much of a club vs. academy problem is there with your club? How is it affecting your child’s ability not just to play or get noticed by scouts, but simply to enjoy and appreciate the game?

Cobb Futbol’s Jack McInerney, a leading player on the U.S. Under-17 national team, has benefited from both environments, although his time this past year at the USSF’s residency program in Florida certainly has elevated his stock.

Can the long-standing club culture really turn out top-level players with potential for pro and national team careers in a way to advance the American game? Or are young players, especially those at the youngest age groups, better off in a less competitive and results-oriented cocoon, where their skills can be incubated without the constant pressure of winning games?

What do you think?

August 10, 2009   2 Comments

Hate to trash your soccer summer, but . . .

Despite the recent euphoria from soccer’s boosters, bloggers, executives and others, how much progress has the sport really made in the public imagination in this ballyhooed “Summer of Soccer?”

Not much, according to Jonathan Zopf of the Gainesville Times, who speaks to soccer aficionadoes local and beyond in painting a gloomier picture than what’s been touted elsewhere.

Indeed, to most Americans, soccer remains “a beautiful bore,” and National Soccer Hall of Fame historian Roger Allaway sums it up thusly:

“People talk about ‘have we turned the corner.’ In my mind, there is no corner; it’s a curve and we keep going further around it.”

Zopf examines the American player development system — youth associations organized unlike anywhere else in the world — as a source of the problem, and this is not a new suggestion.

Neither is the problem of getting Americans to watch their own domestic leagues when the most glamorous club teams and national teams are criss-crossing our shores. Says Woodstock soccer fan Travis Dexter:

“I don’t even watch the MLS and I live in this country. I’d rather watch the overseas clubs. Soccer is never going to grow where we watch the MLS.”

There are other critics of the “Summer of Soccer” meme as well.

And here’s a sobering fact about the Rose Bowl throng of 93,137 that watched Barcelona defeat the Los Angeles Galaxy 2-1 in a friendly on Friday night: Not only is it the biggest soccer crowd in America since the 1994 World Cup, it also had more far more people watching than the other six MLS weekend games combined.

Would a greater eye toward style help?

August 3, 2009   2 Comments

Check out these good soccer reads

In addition to writing about the Atlanta soccer scene here, I round up and comment on news and views from the world of soccer on Beyond The Touchline. I’ve included the latest posts from that site on the sidebar here on Atlanta Soccer News.

Here’s what I wrote today about an amazing summer for American soccer fans — and how it’s just getting warmed up. There’s also a roundup of latest transfer news and its implications for soccer economics and finance, the travails of Bobby Convey and Landon Donovan’s harsh assessment of David Beckham’s impact on the Los Angeles Galaxy and Major League Soccer.

Enjoy these links, and I’ll be back next week with fresh news about the latest soccer developments in the Atlanta area.

Happy Independence Day!

July 4, 2009   No Comments