Friday, February 13, 2009

Pardew's Guardian news and notes ...

There's a bit of a format change going on with this post, considering we don't fashion ourselves a news-based Web site as such. Due to my full-time job commitments, I am only able to update this blog occasionally. But while I usually post (ill-informed???) opinions, there are a few things hanging out there that should be addressed in a timely manner: 1) The super soccer Web site Soccer By Ives enjoyed a moment in the sun during ESPN2's broadcast of the U.S. Men's National Team's comprehensive 2-nil World Cup qualifying win over Mexico in Ohio on Wednesday night. The cameras lingered on the "winning" banner (pictured above, top) from a contest on his site he ended up having printed in Columbus the day before the match. My goodness, how we as a soccer community in the United States have come a long way. We are inter-connected via the Internet, cell phones, etc. It's nice to know you have brothers (and, increasingly, sisters) of like mind out there. 2) The U.S. Men's National Team's next World Cup qualifier -- at El Salvador on March 28th -- will be televised live on ESPN2 at 9 p.m. Eastern time. There was some uncertainty regarding a broadcast, but ESPN's Mac Nwulu confirmed to PardsGuard on Friday (after a media e-mail contained an erroneous date for the match) that the game is, indeed, scheduled to air. That match may go down in the annals as the 'Brad Guzan' game (pictured above, middle). Guze, the backup keeper behind fellow American Brad Friedel at English Premier League side Aston Villa, must step in to deputize for the suspended (and, we must add, world-class) Tim Howard. Will that make the difference between a win and a draw -- or, God forbid -- a loss?? We shall see. 3) Back to my earlier report about Inter Milan (and 'Special One' manager Jose Mourinho (pictured above, bottom) playing in New Jersey this summer -- According to well-placed sources, one of whom is in Milan as we speak for the AC-Inter derby on Sunday, a press conference will be held within a month that commits Inter to a Los Angeles-East Rutherford, N.J.-Canada itinerary for preseason. Where there's smoke, there's fire, so we will have to wait and see on this one.

Monday, February 09, 2009

No Freddy Adu? Bob Bradley's Got This One Wrong ...

Fans of the United States Men's National Team have been counting down the days to February 11th (7 p.m., ESPN2), when the CONCACAF Hexagonal gets underway to see which three teams (and possibly a fourth) from North and Central America and the Caribbean get to make the journey to the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. The luck of the draw would have it that we open the round against our archrival Mexico, with the game set for wintry Ohio. Mexico is reeling under the guidance of ex-England manager Sven Goran Eriksson, but beware the wounded animal. I find U.S. coach Bob Bradley's omission of Monaco midfielder/striker Freddy Adu (pictured above, top) when the roster was announced this weekend to be more than a bit worrying. Granted, Adu is rooted to the bench for the Ligue 1 side, but a player with his special abilities MUST be on the roster at this point. No offense, but you're not going to beat the best teams in the world once we get to the Confederations Cup in South Africa this summer -- where dates with Italy and Brazil await -- with the likes of Ricardo Clark on the field. The roster should be shaped now to hit the ground running with for those big matches this summer, with further tweaking ahead of the Big Show in South Africa in 2010. Yes, Sacha Kljestan is in fine form at the moment and you don't need Adu to beat Mexico, but against Italy or Spain or Argentina, that extra bit of guile he brings to the table cannot be underestimated. And if Bradley is punishing Adu for his lack of playing time in the French league, why name striker Jozy Altidore (pictured above, bottom)? Keep in mind I would never once in a million years ask so daft a question, but it's just for argument's sake. Altidore has just been shipped off on loan from Villarreal to a team in Spain's second division, yet he grabs a spot. Maybe there's something here that's not clearly evident at this time. Could it be that Bradley has doubts about Adu's work ethic? This one merits some close monitoring.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Hate To Play Like That And Come Away With Nothing ...

I had done a lot of"gum flapping during the week leading up to Sunday's Hammers v. Manchester United match at Upton Park in what turned out to be a rainy-but raucous East London, based on the television sights and sounds. Although the Hammers were unbeaten in 8 matches, I wasn't promising a win against the defending champions. However, I thought the in-form Carlton Cole, the clever David Di Michele or even our bumper new signing Savio Nsereko could be the one to dent Man United keeper Edwin van der Sar's clean-sheet record. If not a strike from one of our front men, then maybe a well-placed header from one of our sterling central defenders, Matty Upson or James "Ginger" Collins. If nothing else, the odds were in our favor. Van der Sar couldn't keep this up forever, plus Hammers' midfield of Valon Behrami, Scotty Parker, Mark Noble and Jack Collison has a great balance of guile and grit at the moment. Throw in the tactical nous shown in recent weeks by Gianfranco Zola and No. 2 Steve Clarke, and the pieces were in place for a memorable afternoon in the East End. And damned if the home side didn't almost get it done! We had stretches of skillful possession, a chance or two off of corners and by newly-called-up England striker Cole and, in general, matched Man United's tenacity and pace all over the field. Leave it to the old warhorse, Ryan Giggs, to be the difference-maker. Our Aussie right back and captain, Lucas Neill, played another blinder on Sunday, but his one moment of hesitation in closing Giggs down in the box gave keeper Robert Green -- another England player for the Hammers, alomg with Upson -- no chance on the right-footed shot. That proved to be the only goal of the game in a 1-nil win for the visitors/Premiership leaders. Kudos to Zola for staying positive and throwing on Nsereko and Diego Tristan in search of an equalizer. Nsereko got about 15 minutes, but anyone can see that this Uganda-born German is the real deal. He oozes skill and talent, and my guess is he'll be plying his trade at Arsenal or Old Trafford within three years' time. That's just the sad reality of supporting Hammers, but, all in all, we put up a noble fight in the East End on Sunday. We didn't do enough to win it, but nil-nil would have been a result no one could have quibbled with.

Friday, February 06, 2009

EXCLUSIVE: Hot Rumors Regarding Inter Milan v. Chelsea at Giants Stadium ...

Sources tell Pardew's Guardian that a huge announcement about summer soccer in New Jersey could be made this weekend. The Clark, New Jersey-based Inter Club Giacinto Facchetti of New Jersey holds its annual dinner in Newark this weekend. This is an organization committed to spreading the Inter gospel throughout the United States. As a Lazio supporter, I have not been sucked in (and, like any good sons trying to upset their dad, Alex and Ben support Roma; the three of us traveled to Bordighera, Italy, with Victoria a few years ago) but I respect the passion and commitment shown by the Facchetti members. We even have a few locals -- Ocean City Barons principals Neil Holloway and John Granese, both of Ocean City by way of England and Italy, respectively -- making the journey to Milan soon for the big derby at the San Siro. Lucky lads!! The account given to me this week is that a television crew from Italy will be present at the Facchetti dinner to film proceedings and get New Jersey-based reaction to the announcement regarding the Inter v. Chelsea match at Giants Stadium. If this happens, timing will be everything, of course. If it's an early-summer match, the rosters will most likely be weakened, but if the game bumps up against the start of the Premiership and Serie A, expect the likes of Inter's Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Chelsea's Nicolas Anelka (both pictured above) to grace the turf of our beloved "stadium in the swamplands." Stay tuned on this one.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

A Tremendous Run, And Still In The FA Cup

Good times all around in East London, in a footballing sense, and we have a tight-knit squad and the coaching/managerial talents of assistant Steve Clarke and head man Gianfranco Zola, respectively, to thank for that right now. Unbeaten in 8 after Saturday's nil-nil result carved out against Arsenal at The Emirates, the Hammers are finding themselves as the 2008-09 season head into what's commonly known as the "business end." Let's start at the back -- you can't say enough abut the quintet of goalkeeper Rob Green, outside backs Herita Ilunga and Lucas Neill and, most importantly, the center-back pairing of Matty Upson and James Collins. Seriously, other than the fact that he represented homegrown talent, does anyone miss the erratic form of Anton Ferdinand? He was a touch-stone for us at Championship level and during that blissful first year back in the Prem, but Upson and Collins are the real deal. These guys don't let opposition strikers get a sniff. As stated before in this space, Collins' forehead is a ball magnet, and Upson must use his arms for balance more noticably than any defeder in the top flight. When you think of Iluga's play, does anyone really miss George McCartney? Or, more importantly, does the sale of Macca to Sunderland really stand up as a reason for Alan Curbishley to resign his position? And that's a good transition to Curbs' ridiculous views on the acquisition of Italian striker Davide Di Michele, which have also been documented here. After a week in which Zola and Clarke have sung No. 32's praises, it's easy to see that Upton Park needed the fresh eyes of Zola and technical director Gianluca Nani to make a push for the UEFA Cup places. Plus, a home tie in the fifth round of the Cup v. Middlesbrough puts us in great position to reach the final 8 (round 6). Also, factor in the continued good form of Coley plus the capture of club-record signing Savio Nsereko, and all signs point upward for the Hammers. No wonder !! my personal life is in such shambes. Oh, well, as they say ... Fortune's always hiding!!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

8th Place in The Prem, and Round 5 Beckons ...

A Sunday match with Fulham at Upton Park was on the cards -- and, more importantly, on the telly here in New Jersey. The Hammers entered the game in good form, with the Zola regime seemingly taking root. Continental, cultured and easy on the eye. The color commentator on the broadcast even made the allusion that Hammers, under Gianfranco, are playing with a similar tactical nous as did Arsenal in their heydey. He mentioned that Valon Behrami and Jack Collison are mirroring the positioning taken up by Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg, respectively, with the Gunners a few seasons ago. Namely, playing wide but pinching in and narrowing the midfield. Those players had Theirry Henry running rampant up front, but Hammers are quickly finding out what a striker we have in the ranks in one Carlton Cole. With his goal today, Coley became the first Hammer to score in 5 consecutive matches since Teddy Sheringham in 2004. He really is in England form at the moment, and Fabio Capello was in the stands. But Coley's goal came from a perfectly weighted pass from Italian striker Davide Di Michele, who also scored Hammers' opener. You dozens of pardewsguardian readers who check in regularly will know I have been calling for Di Michele's inclusion, at the expense of Welshman Craig Bellamy. With recent developments -- the petulant Bellamy seems headed to Manchester City after refusing to train and play for our side -- that seems a bit prescient, doesn't it? Sunday's 3-1 win puts us 8th with 29 points, and with 16 league matches left we seem to be rising above the relegation mire. Next up? A tricky 5th-round FA Cup tie at Hartlepool United. Most importantly? The match is live on the telly this Saturday, 7:30 a.m. East Coast time on Setanta. Come on, you Irons !!!

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Cruising into Round 4 !!!

The FA Cup is special to me. In my mind and sense of football consciousness, it represents everything beautiful about The Beautiful Game (TM), especially in England and Wales. The Coppa Italia and Copa del Rey (in Italy and Spain, respectively) certainly have their merits, but it's the FA Cup that captures imaginations throughout the world. West Ham did well to impose themselves at home v. Barnsley on Saturday, avoiding the usual banana-skin result against lower-league opposition. A comprehensive 3-nil win, with goals by Herita Ilunga, Mark Noble and the ever-dependable Carlton Cole sets the stage nicely for a massive tie in Round 4 (the final 32). I just get the feeling that gaffer Gianfranco Zola is really getting a grip on this side and the English game in particular. I'm not there to witness them, but I must imagine the training sessions run by Zola and his assistant, Steve Clarke, are among the best since the Hammers' heyday under Greenwood and Lyall. Harry Redknapp was a superb gameday manager, but -- as good a source as John Harkes has told me -- training was not his strong suit. The Cup also holds a very special place in my Hammers' fandom, which began officially with my attending a match at Upton Park in 1999. The 2001 4th-round upset of Manchester United (nil-1 to the Hammers at Old Trafford) saw me amongst about 8 Hammers supporters set against 70 or 80 Red Devils partisans while watching the match live at the Dickens Inn in Philadelphia. When Di Canio scored, the small contingent of Irons whooped, hollered and embraced (beers spilling left and right), sharing a moment that may never be equaled. Fast forward to spring 2006, and Andy Stubbs and I, as well as my lads, watched the final against Liverpool at Atlantic City Bar and Grill, located about 15 minutes from our home in South Jersey. Big Ron Garofalo was pouring the pints, and we took 2-nil and 3-2 leads, only to be pegged back by Gerrard. When Nigel Reo-Coker's second-half extra-time header was pushed onto the bar by Pepe Reina, I knew it was not to be our day. The penalty shootout confirmed that, with only Sheringham converting. But I get the feeling that Zola can bring us a trophy. From my lips to God's ears !!!

Friday, December 26, 2008

Just When I Slam Bellamy ...

... the lad goes and does this. As my son Ben yelled out to me from our info center/home base computer on Boxing Day morning in the States, "Bellers with a brace, Hammers win 4-1!" He and his twin brother Alex were two hours away from flying to the south of France with their mother, but we were keeping tabs on all the Premiership matches via television on Setanta Sports, Setanta Xtra and Fox Soccer Channel. Unfortunately for me (Alex loves Everton, while Ben is a member of the Toon Army) the Hammers at Pompey were not on the telly, but we saw a good Stoke v. Man Utd. match. Tevez had his usual poacher's finish, but back to the team we all care about! As soon as I hit 'publish post' on the last entry, I regretted it. It's not that Bellamy takes extra touches, as such. It's more like he runs down blind alleys. Yes, his pace is electric, but at this point I would rather see the cunning of a Davide DiMichele than the thud and blunder of a Bellers. I know what will happen if he goes to Spurs. He'll probably score 5 in 7, then get injured and/or suspended for his club side while still managing to turn out for Wales. Whether he stays or goes, we won't finish higher than 12th this season (the fates willing!!) I'd rather Zola look further down the road on this one.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

We Played Well, So No Need To Press The Panic Button ...

... yet !! Gianfranco Zola has this group playing the kind of passing football Upton Park demands and, really, have we seen a better striker in regards to holding the ball up, being brave in the air and making a general nuisance of himself in recent years than Carlton Cole? True, the lad couldn't finish in a brothel, but he's also being let down by his partner-in-crime: one Craig Bellamy. His sweet finish at Chelsea aside, Bellers has not produced the goods when it comes to putting the ball in the back of the net during his Hammers career. Sure, his game intelligence makes his play easy on the eye, and he has pace to burn. But whereas you can get around Coley's deficiencies in the starting 11 if you have a goal poacher around him, Bellamy does not afford you that option. (By the way, we're talking about Hammers' nil-1 result v. Aston Villa on Saturday.) The Welshman's game is all about pace mixed in with a bit of cleverness, but the optimal partner of Cole should be someone like Davide DiMichele, who has years of Serie A experience in toe-poking the ball home or, at least, firing one-time shots. Bellamy always seems to take that extra touch, and such elaboration is not what this team needs right now. By all means, sell him and the perennially-crocked Dean Ashton in January. But the rumor that has me sick with worry is the one that sees Matty Upson joining Manchester City for 8 million pounds. What a short-term gain that would be, at the expense of our Premiership status! Don't do it, Gianfranco. Although, it may be out of his hands when the Icelandic moneymen come calling. Anyone miss Terry Brown yet?!?!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

When "Anti-Football" Is Very Unbecoming ...

Saturday's Spanish La Liga mega-matchup between Real Madrid and host Barcelona at Barca's mammoth Camp Nou was intriguing for so many reasons beyond the usual political and footballing issues associated with the rivalry. For one, Barca came out of the box this season under new manager Pep Guardiola (pictured above, in 'deep conversation' with Argentine striker Lionel Messi during the match; Messi himself, sporting a sharp new haircut, is also pictured after scoring in the game) and has put considerable distance between themselves and Real Madrid. Former Madrid legend Bernd Schuster of Germany, who delivered a La Liga title while in charge last season, was fired instantly in the lead-in to Saturday's match when he declared that his side had no hope of beating a rampant Barca. As I told some of my American friends, that's like a Boston Red Sox manager saying his team has no hope of beating the New York Yankees. Then, there was the instantaneous appointment of Juande Ramos (pictured giving instruction to Raul) as Schuster's successor. After an impressive Carling Cup victory over Chelsea early on, Ramos lost the plot in England as Spurs' latest savior. He quickly regained his footing in his native Spain by landing the Madrid job, but what we saw on Saturday -- incidentally, Barca won the match 2-nil, with a missed penalty thrown in for good measure -- was an assault on the spirit of the game. The best strategy Ramos could come up with was to have his team kick chunks out of Messi when the ball was elsewhere, when the referee wasn't looking ... or, basically, the whole match! It was a strategy so unbecoming of Madrid (and I'm sure local 'Madridistas' in southern New Jersey like Dave "Horse" Holak and Steve Miller would agree). Many of us involved in loving and following the game also coach our boys (or girls!), and we all like to win matches. Often times, you "pack it in" and hope to score on a counter-attack when faced with superior opposition. But, as a fan of the sport in general and someone still concerned with the seemingly-antiquated concepts of grace and honor, I could never countenance a strategy that is, basically, a version of anti-football. The fact that Messi's labors bore fruit in the shape of a goal was pure justice (French teammate Thierry Henry joined him on the scoresheet), and it makes you wonder where Real Madrid goes from here. Can you imagine: no Champions League for the Merengues next year? Could happen!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Pardew's Guardian: A Global Phenomenon !!! (Er, Not Really ...)

Let me just start by saying if you read this blog, you must understand my sense of humor. And please know that I don't do this full-time. I just love football (soccer, calcio, futbol) and have the temerity to think that I actually have something coherent to say about the Beautiful Game. Every post is made either before or after my (many!!) working hours and the multitude of nights spent on the fields coaching youth soccer. That's why there are so many gaps in-between the relatively few posts. But thanks to programs like ClustrMaps (see map above, with red dots in varying size representing hits), you get to know who (or whom ?!?!) are the people actually checking in. And I am pleasantly surprised to say that there are at least 97 countries of the 210 or so nations that exist on Planet Earth that have checked in, at some point, to view the blog. Even online users from notoriously Internet-unfriendly nations like Iran and Saudi Arabia have found their way to PardsGuard. That's a bit humbling, not in the sense that I have anything particularly insightful to say, but considering that people's time is precious. If you have, say, 20 minutes a day to spend online, would you actually come to James Clark's blog ??? Didn't think so! Thank goodness, I am linked from many West Ham sites in England and I also have U.S. soccer media advocates in my corner like John Harkes and Max Bretos who might humor me because they are such good guys and actually send on a link or two to their connected friends. The reason I say at least 97 countries is because 2 of the hits at ClustrMaps are listed as "regions" rather than specific countries (designated by "quotes".) Here is the breakdown of PardsGuard visitors, as of December 7:
At least 2,100 hits: United States
At least 1,000 hits: United Kingdom
At least 100 hits: Canada
At least 75 hits: Germany
At least 50 hits: Ireland
At least 25 hits: Italy, France, Australia, "Europe," Holland, Turkey, Spain, Mexico, Norway, Poland, Greece, Hungary, Belgium, India, Sweden
At least 10 hits: Denmark, Israel, Indonesia, Switzerland, Macedonia, Croatia, Argentina, Singapore, Brazil, Thailand, Malaysia, Czech Republic, Portugal
At least 1 hit: Russian Federation, South Africa, Bulgaria, Romania, Finland, Chile, Serbia, New Zealand, Malta, Japan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, China, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Peru, Hong Kong, Slovenia, Austria, Morocco, Estonia, Colombia, Algeria, United Arab Emirates, Ukraine, South Korea, Lebanon, Iran, Pakistan, Taiwan, Luxembourg, Vietnam, Iceland, Philippines, Senegal, Latvia, Qatar, Ecuador, Jordan, Gibraltar, Tunisia, Dominican Republic, Montenegro, Lithuania, St. Kitts & Nevis, Honduras, Guam, Sri Lanka, Guatemala, "Asia/Pacific Region," Cayman Islands, Malawi, Kazakhstan, Bahrain, Uganda, Nigeria, Moldova, Ghana, Kuwait, Costa Rica, Bermuda, Slovakia, Fiji.
While an impressive geographical list of the Earth's inhabitants have checked in here, the total numbers still pale when compared to the viewers drawn by the truly great USA-based blogs like Soccer By Ives and The Offside Rules. Kudos to those guys. They have talent, time and access. We are just nibbling at the edges. Cheers, James

Huge Point For Hammers !!

The pundits, both here and in England, were playing "name the score" when it came to how badly Chelsea would defeat struggling West Ham at Stamford Bridge in the days leading up to Sunday's match. There was minor speculation that Hammers would raise their game to mark manager Gianfranco Zola's (pictured gesturing on the touchline) return to the Bridge with the proper amount of effort, but the prevailing thoughts were focused on a Chelsea rout. But West Ham had other ideas, as they took a 1-nil lead and eventually fashioned a 1-1 draw in West London that took the side up to 16th place with 19 points, just ahead of Manchester City. As I've stated previously -- and as my dear sons Alex and Ben have discussed with me many times in the last few weeks -- it's just soooo !! tight in the Premiership this year -- that I honestly think at least 8 teams will go into the last three weeks of the season with a chance to be relegated. But, back to Sunday's match. Striker Craig Bellamy is the proverbial "straw that stirs the drink," and his fine finish (pictured above) -- body over top the ball, laces parallel to the ground, falling forward on the follow-through -- gave Hammers a first-half lead against the run of play, although they were defending well. Chelsea's in-form Nicolas Anelka equalized early in the second half, but three Hammers players made sure a point was delivered back to East London. Carlton Cole, Robert Green and Matty Upson were impeccable on the day, although of Coley (pictured above, tussling with Chelsea's John Terry) could finish inside the 6-yard box as well as he plays higher up the field with his back to the goal, holding up the ball, he would truly be dangerous. Green, who is again displaying England form after a slight hiccup, made his usual cache of brilliant saves (one of them pictured above). There was a hairy moment when he lost a cross in the lights, but the ever-industrious Scotty Parker was there on the line to head clear. And what can you say about Upson? I would not be surprised if his former club Arsenal recognizes the errors of their ways and makes a big-money bid for the central defender in January. For my money, Manchester United's Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, as well as Terry and Upson are the best central defenders plying their trade in the Premiership right now. Also, I have been a bit critical of Hammers' Aussie right back/captain Lucas Neill in the past, but he played a binder today. Well played, Hammers.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

EXCLUSIVE: USA-Mexico qualifier in Columbus, Ohio, plus other musings ...

Sorry for the lack of posts in the last two months, but we should be back with news and opinions on a regular basis now, so thanks (to all 13 of you!!) for your patience.

-- First off, a highly placed, reliable source in the U.S. soccer community told pardew's guardian on Tuesday that the February CONCACAF 2010 World Cup qualifier between the United States men and their arch-rivals Mexico will be held at Crew Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. An official announcement should follow shortly. As far as I can tell, this news has not appeared anywhere else online or in print. While I was hoping for RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., or (in a fantasy world) Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey or Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia so I could attend -- and, imagine, 60,000 fans attendng the match, with allegiances split 50-50! -- the cold-weather location mirrors the 2001 qualifier at the same venue. Josh Wolff (pictured at top) and company bossed the game against Mexico, winning 2-nil and setting the mental stage for the USA's win by the same scoreline in the 2002 FIFA World Cup round-of-16 game in South Korea. This upcoming match will be interesting for a variety of reasons. Obviously, the last team the U.S. wanted to start with would have been Mexico, but drawing them at home is obviously an advantage to Bob Bradley's squad. It will be interesting to see if Bradley selects the players that merit inclusion (Freddy Adu, Jozy Altidore, et al) in the starting 11, or if he will play it safe. That could backfire if Sven Goran Eriksson figures out that Mexico plays best when passing the ball along the floor and pulls a tactical rabbit, so to speak, out of his experienced hat. Still, a 1-nil USA win, with goalkeeper Tim Howard shutting things down at the back, would get the Americans' Hexagonal campaign (3 of the 6 teams make the Cup, while the 4th-placed team makes a playoff) off to a wondrous start.

-- West Ham have fashioned 3 straight clean sheets in the Premier League. Manager Gianfranco Zola has finally righted the ship, not with champagne, attacking-style football but with the tried-and-true solid back four. Matty Upson and James Collins, I think, rival Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic as one of the best central-defensive pairings in the league. Some of you who don't watch the Hammers may scoff, but Upson has obviously caught England manager Fabio Capello's eye and is now a regular member of the national squad. Keeper Robert Green (pictured second from top) has regained the form that had Hammers supporters calling for his England inclusion, will Collins (No. 19, pictured third from top) is an old-fashioned central defender who is just a pleasure to watch. He must have a magnet in his head! The ball finds his ginger noggin at least 30 times a match; it's almost uncanny. With striker Carlton Cole holding the ball up as the main striker and Scott Parker showing his skill in the midfield, I expect the Hammers to stay just above the relegation mire. But, things are so tight in the Premiership, you can't really be sure this season.

-- Juan Pablo Angel might be the best player to ever wear an MLS uniform. I will write more about the Red Bulls' improbable run to MLS Cup sometime soon (Alex, Ben and I were season-ticket holders in 2008), but it has to be acknowledged that this Colombian striker (pictured fourth from top) has shown talent rarely seen on these shores over the last two seasons. His 34 goals speak for themselves, but it's Angel's intelligence on the pitch that just has to be seen to be believed. You can't really tell when watching on television, but his movement, anticipation and sheer quality must rank him even with or above Marco Etcheverry, John Harkes, Landon Donovan or any other MLS great. I think it's a huge indictment of the coaching at Aston Villa that one season after Angel scored 24 goals in the Premiership, he was marooned on the bench for most of the following year. I think he could still play in the Premier League, La Liga or Serie A even now.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Good to see Jozy in the U.S. squad

Harkesy and I have had many recent conversations about how no U.S. men's side, in a game that truly matters, can afford to be without striker Jozy Altidore and midfielder/striker Freddy Adu in the starting 11. Those two players, while still learning the game and not without their flaws, give the U.S. a cutting edge that not even the talented Landon Donovan can provide. Altidore, with his move from the New York Red Bulls to Spanish side Villarreal, is the first U.S. export to garner big money from a top-tier league, while Adu finds himself playing for Monaco in France's highly athletic Ligue 1. Both men were named Friday in gaffer Bob Bradley's 23-man American side to face Cuba in a CONCACAF World Cup qualifier on Saturday, Oct. 11 in Washington, D.C. (7 p.m., ESPN Classic and Galavision). The roster shows Bradley has a sense as to where this team has to transition to in order to make the second round at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. I like the fact that there's no Pablo Mastroeni (nothing against him, but he's from the past), but there is a first-time call for Jose Francisco Torres. Assuming we qualify from the Hexagonal (3 of 6 go to the Cup from the next CONCACAF round; you have to think the U.S. and Mexico will be two of those teams), we can't take an old, tired team to the big show. Names like Michael Bradley, Maurice Edu and Sacha Kljestan represent the next generation, whose time will surely come in the FIFA Confederations Cup next year and at the real deal in 2010. With Carlos Bocanegra, Oguchi Onyewu and Tim Howard at the back, this team is primed to surprise. I predict another quarterfinal appearance (like 2002), at least.

Monday, September 29, 2008

We're stroking the ball around ...

Manager Gianfranco Zola is 2 for 2 in Premier League matches (the Carling Cup loss to Watford notwithstanding!), but even more so than the results, it's the type of football we are playing that's winning new converts and reinforcing the convictions of the old guard of supporters. Watching the 2-1 win over host Fulham at Craven Cottage last Saturday, I was struck by the degree of Hammers ball movement on display. The football I saw reminded me of the heyday of gaffer Harry Redknapp, most specifically the brand of offensive, probing football we played during the "famous" FA Cup run to the quarters in 2001 -- when Spurs "stole" a result in the rain at Upton Park. There are some good footballers at the club now: first and foremost, Swiss international Valon Behrami is an absolute stud! Throw in Frenchman Julien Faubert at his new "right back" position, and factor in good, old-fashioned English midfielders like Scott Parker and Mark Noble and then you're on to something! But what's really making this team tick is the (potential) England combination of winger Matty Etherington and striker Carlton Cole. At first glance, these two represent all the positive attributes of the English play -- commitment, talent on the ball and a 100 per cent-committed mentality when it comes to the game. They also draw in the dark side: Ethers with his gambling, Cole with drink driving. But nevermind. Zola will sort this out, and Hammers will NEVER totally eschew the English club mentality. Fortune's always hiding, you know ...

Thursday, September 11, 2008

We Have Our Man!

Gianfranco Zola has landed. What a time to be a Hammer! Yes, the jury is still out over whether he will replicate his stellar, attack-minded accomplishments as a player while prowling the touchline in a suit and tie. But you have to like the odds. I have been told by Jim Sturman -- a name familiar to many of you Hammers' fans -- that "Gianfranco is a wonderful man." It only takes one look at the Italian's massive, ever-present grin to know that Sturman's assessment rings true. As much as you had to admire what Curbs accomplished, bottom-line wise, at our club, can you ever imagine Zola keeping a player of Tevez's caliber on the bench as West Ham capitulated to a club like Reading (no offense meant to Royals supporters) 6-nil on a chilly New Year's Day? He will have the instant respect of the pumped-up egos that inhabit the dressing rooms of the modern-day Premiership. The problems the "flash" Alan Pardew and "old-school" Alan Curbishley had in keeping the bling-bling Anton Ferdinands and Nigel Reo-Cokers of the world in line evaporated the minute Zola signed his deal. Here is a man who was an understudy to Diego Maradona at Napoli, for goodness sake! Zola shredded defenses at Chelsea, but his intellect, first touch and movement were as much a part of the package as his finishing. And Zola truly was at the vanguard of changing the way Prem players looked after their diets and fitness. No more guzzling 12 pints at the pub on your day off from training; more like a glass or two of red wine and a fish (minus the chips) or pasta dinner. I honestly don't care if Gianfranco uses our club as a steppingstone to managing his beloved Chelsea someday. Just grab us an FA Cup or a shock spot in the Champions League on the way, please!

Monday, September 08, 2008

If It's Zola, I'm Fine With That

All reports out of England indicate that ex-Chelsea striker and It
alian international 
franco Zola (pictured above top, twice) will be named as West Ham's first foreign manager within days, if not hours. There has been a subtle uproar amongst Hammers supporters -- mainly due t
o Zola's Chelsea connectons, but also as we try to get over the fact that Europe's manager du jour, Croatia's Slaven Bilic, won't be returning to his one-time Upton Park home. But when the Ha
mmers' Icelandic owners signed up Italian Gianluca Nani as technical director, you knew that the days of (now) ex-manager Alan Curbishley's tenure were numbered. This continental set-up -- with both a technical/football director and a first-team coach -- is the way forward in the Premiership. You might wonder why I say that, but think about the Hammers' recent sale of Northern Irish international left back George McCartney. Supposedly, that was the straw that broke the camel's back and forced Curbs to resign.
But let's look at it another way. While McCartney was a fine player, the club -- under Nani's guiding hand -- moved quickly to sign a replacement in Uruguayan Walter Lopez (pictured above, in Hammers' kit), a 22-year-old who played for Argentine giants River Plate. That kind of knowledge of the world market would be non-existent if Curbs were calling the shots when it comes to transfers. He wanted to sign ex-Millwall thug Ben Thatcher, for goodness sake! Curbs acquitted himself very well in his 15 years at Charlton, and he guided his boyhood club Hammers through some rocky times. But he never won over the Upton Park crowd (and, yes, I have been part of that number on five occasions, plus an away match at Derby despite my living in New Jersey) with his "caution first" approach to football. It was effective, and he is a more-than-competent manager in the English top flight. But we want magic. It's why we prefer players with a slight cutting edge like Mark Noble to the cool efficiency of a Scott Parker. We love the Di Canios and FA Cup shocks of the world -- not the dreary, grinding 1-1 tie at Boro to consolidate 10th place in the Premier League. Maybe it's pure vanity, but being a Hammer is about much more than stability. It's about (very!!) occasional magic, and if Zola can produce that then I say welcome aboard!!! Fellow countryman Roberto Donadoni would have been like an Italian version of the charisma-less Curbs, despite his pedigree. One gets the feeling that Zola -- and his potential No. 2, fellow Italian/ex-Chelsea striker Pierluigi Casiraghi -- can be the real deal. Here's hoping! We need some luck and some verve (sadly absent since Harry's tenure, Pards' Cup run and Tevez) around the place. Fingers crossed ... tightly.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

No Adu for the USA?

Coach Bob Bradley's latest USA Men's National Team roster for the upcoming CONCACAF qualifiers for the 2010 FIFA World Cup against Cuba and Trinidad & Tobago has a curious absence: One Freddy Adu. Based on his performances in the USA's first two group games at the Beijing Olympics (Adu was suspended for the third match, down to his own petulance), this sort of beggars belief. Now, Bradley may think he has enough of a roster to walk these two matches and let Adu bed in with his new side Monaco (the lads and I have been to their stadium, by the way). But when you are a national-team manager, you have to budget, so to speak, for all outcomes. And if we go deep into the second half against either Cuba or T&T at nil-nil, you need someone on the bench who can unlock a defense and help you steal a result you might not really deserve. And of all the players who have worn a USA shirt, Adu is showing himself to be the most capable of doing so: whether it be a clever backheel, a probing run or that pass that required an extra second before being released. As a 14-year-old, his hype worked against him. But at this point, a USA starting 11 without Adu seems like folly. Just an opinion.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Red Bulls Peaking As Season Winds Down

East Rutherford, New Jersey -- The lads and I spent a beautiful Sunday with 12,000-plus fellow fans at Giants Stadium and saw the resurgent New York Red Bulls impose themselves during a comprehensive 3-nil win over the Houston Dynamo in a match that was broadcast nationally on Spanish-language network Telefutura. Give some credit to Red Bulls coach Juan Carlos Osorio -- the Colombian has made all the right moves in the "post-Claudio Reyna" era. The signings of Pietravallo, Jimenez and Cichero have added a palpable Hispanic flair to the side, and with Juan Pablo Angel back to his deadly goalscoring form, New York is not a team that any MLS club would want to face in a two-leg playoff. Mike Magee and the blazing-fast Dane Richards also found the scoresheet Sunday, and Rutgers grad Jon Conway shut things down in goal.
The one good aspect about the Bulls' indifferent early season form is that they may now face a weaker Western Conference side in the playoffs, or even this Houston side. Allowing for the fact that Ching and Holden did not start for the Dynamo on Sunday, the Bulls have to be confident in the fact that they bossed the game. Even when Nate Jaqua came on in the second half for Houston, Jimenez had him in his back pocket.
With three-quarters of the season gone, the Bulls still have a chance to move up the Eastern Conference standings. And you get the feeling that Osorio is saving some of his tactical acumen for the postseason. If Angel stays in form, it might finally be a good time to be a Metro/Red Bulls supporter. Eastern Conference final, here we come!