Tuesday, July 15, 2008

'Captain America' Claudio Reyna Retires

New Jersey has such a rich, wonderful history when it comes to American soccer. Names like John Harkes, Claudio Reyna, Tony Meola, Tab Ramos and Bob Bradley drip off the tongue, as do clubs and schools like Kearny Thistle and St. Benedict's Prep of Newark. (I'd even throw my alma mater Ocean City High School in there when it comes to the roundball tradition.) 
College sides from Rutgers and Princeton merit a mention, and let's not forget venues such as Giants Stadium and pro teams such as the Cosmos -- and, yes, the very successful Ocean City Barons, too -- when it comes to the Garden State ranking up there with the elite of Yank futbol legacy. Well on Wednesday, we lose one of our own when midfielder Reyna hangs up his boots after a phenomenal career. Think about the places he's played: the aforementioned St. Benedict's, the ACC powerhouse University of Virginia, Vfl Wolfsburg of the German Bundesliga, Glasgow Rangers of Scotland, Sunderland and Manchester City of the English Premier League and New York Red Bulls of MLS. But it is Reyna's exploits for the United States Men's National Team that will cement his place in the pantheon of the game as long as it is played in this country. This son of Portuguese and Argentine immigrants became the first American to be named in a FIFA All-World Cup Team after driving the United States into the quarterfinals in 2002, where they gave Germany all it could handle in a 1-nil loss in Korea. Reyna played a key role for the USA in the 1998 World Cup in France and the 2006 version in Germany. He reminded us all what a force he could be when his shot hit the post in the loss to the Czech Republic in the opening match of the latter tourney. Unfortunately, his blunder in the last group match against Ghana and his injury-filled tenure with the Red Bulls (while he occupied a Designated Player slot and drew a $1.1 million salary) has clouded people's perspective of his accomplishments lately, but when the dust clears Reyna will join Harkes as the two most decorated and talented American outfield players to ever lace up the boots. (I think Reyna lacked Harkesy's drive, grit and goalscoring ability, but I think even Harkesy would agree that Claudio was slightly more skilled on the ball and a good passer.) The bottom three photos in this entry were taken by me at Bulls matches this season, as Reyna signed shirts for Alex and Ben and took a corner right below us in our corner-flag seats in Section 107. The lads and I were able to chat with him briefly on 4 or 5 occasions (the most recent time being in the elevator after the USA-Argentina match) and I always found him to be polite and engaging. He would often hand his baby off to his wife to sign for the various kids gathered around, which I thought showed real class. Funnily enough, of all the players from the Red Bulls, other MLS clubs, USA, Argentina and even the few West Ham players I've met in England, Reyna is the only one I've ever asked for an autograph. (As I explained to Harkesy one time, being 38 years old I really have no desire to ask fellow grown men for their autographs. I'd rather shake a hand, enjoy a brief word and let the kids do the hero worshipping as I snap a photo for the boys' memories. Besides, of all the American players Harkesy was -- and still is -- my only hero, but thanks to some incredible luck, some journalistic hustle on my part and true graciousness on his, we actually enjoy a mutual friendship, which is much cooler!) I don't even know why I asked Claudio to scrawl his name on my shirt, but the lads still tease me for saying, "Claudio, how 'bout one for the old man?" after he signed their shirts. Now that he will no longer be playing, I'm glad I deviated from my usual protocol. I hope he enjoys his retirement and finds a way to give back to the game, much like Harkesy does on the airwaves or Ramos does with his youth academy. Kudos on a great career, Claudio. And thanks for taking us along on your unique ride through Europe's -- and the world's -- great stadiums. Every American boy who's ever kicked a ball in earnest would have traded places with you in a heartbeat!

Monday, July 14, 2008

3 Questions Ahead of The Premier League 2008-09 Season, Vol. 6

An occasional Pardew's Guardian feature leading up to the August 16th kickoff ...
1) Will Mark Noble fulfill his potential in the heart of West Ham's midfield? The local East Londoner (pictured above, top) is one of the gems of Tony Carr's famed Youth Academy, and Hammers supporters warm to him even more than most because he was born and bred as one of them. But while Hayden Mullins has cemented the role of holding/defensive midfielder from as far back as the winter of 2003, Noble has had to bide his time behind the likes of Nigel Reo-Coker, Nigel Quashie, Yossi Benayoun and Scott Parker at different points as Mullins' more attack-minded partner. Noble is a better passer than any of those, and he has that special "something" when it comes getting forward. When Carlitos Tevez really clicked in Hammers' lineup over those last nine games of the 2006-07 season, he and Noble seemed to enjoy a sort of telepathy out there. But it hasn't all been good news. Noble seems to disappear for stretches of some games, he gets booked a little too often and he's never been able to fully gain a manager's confidence -- whether it be Alan Pardew or Alan Curbishley. Still, the reported interest from Arsene Wenger and Arsenal has to tell you something about the quality of the lad.
2) Will any side figure out how to muscle Bolton Wanderers out of the Premiership? Under manager Sam Allardyce, midfielder Kevin Nolan (pictured above, middle) and his Trotters teammates mastered the art of winning "ugly" -- relying on set pieces, brute strength, defensive solidity and the goalkeeping of Jussi Jaaskelainen to get by. Their experiment with Sammy Lee in charge nearly ended in tears, but the grit of Gary Megson righted the ship. And, in the interest of accuracy, there have been some skill players taking to the pitch in the white shirt the past few seasons: Jay-Jay Okocha, Youri Djorkaeff, Ivan Campo and Nicolas Anelka to name just a few. The Reebok is one of those "new" stadiums that seem to lack the feel and atmosphere of a ground like the Boleyn, but Bolton have made playing there a tough assignment the last few years. Just ask Arsenal.
3) Can Stoke survive in the top flight with players like Rory Delap? The Irish midfielder (pictured above, bottom) was quite a useful player a few seasons back in his Derby heyday, and he's continued to show some snippets of quality in stints with Southampton and now the Potters. But as Derby exhibited last spring (and Sunderland under Mick McCarthy in spring 2006), making the jump from the Championship to the Premiership is more difficult than ever. You'd like to think that Stoke manager Tony Pulis can rely on team spirit and tactical nous to give it a real go, but the hard fact of the matter is that his roster doesn't look to have the pedigree to do much more than hover around the 25-point mark when the final table is printed. Stoke's fans may not want to hear such talk, but that's the reality of English football these days. 

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Championship 2008-09 Storylines, Vol. 1

An occasional Pardew's Guardian feature ahead of the August 9th kickoff of England's "second tier" ...
1) Will Alan Pardew rescue his managerial reputation by taking Charlton back to the Premiership at the second time of asking? "Pards" (pictured above, top) was riding high after leading West Ham to a surprising 9th-place finish in the Prem and a place in the FA Cup final in the spring of 2006, capping an upward trajectory that saw him lift Reading into contention for the top flight before taking on the Hammers job while the club was getting used to the Championship in 2003. But the disastrous first few months of the Hammers' 2006-07 campaign led to his firing, and while Pardew landed on his feet by taking over at Charlton on Christmas Eve he was unable to keep the Addicks up. The South London side looked like a good bet for automatic promotion in the early part of the 2007-08 season, but they fell off precipitously as spring 2008 came around. Some critics thought it was evidence that the bloom had finally come off the Pardew rose. A manager married to the sports science side of the game may have seen his shortcomings on the footballing and tactical fronts come home to roost. Still, the Addicks will be right in the Championship mix again so maybe Pards will have the last laugh.
2) Can Dexter Blackstock and friends deliver newly-wealthy Queen's Park Rangers to dizzy heights? The free-scoring forward (pictured above, middle) found himself to be the toast of the West London sub-Prem football scene after regaining his scoring touch for manager Luigi De Canio's QPR side last spring. And that was a good time for the former Southampton man to show his capabilities, as Formula One's Renault technical director Flavio Briatore and his Italian consortium vowed to pour money into the club in an effort to reach the promised land of the top flight. Blackstock is one of those 'tween players who may be too good for the second tier but just not up to the standard of the Prem. For similar examples, think of Nathan Tyson, Freddie Eastwood, post-Sunderland Kevin Phillips and -- some would say, though I disagree -- Bobby Zamora. How Blackstock comes out of the gate could go a huge way in determining the Hoops' fortunes this season.
3) Will Roy Carroll's quality deliver Derby the title at a canter? The Northern Irish goalkeeper (pictured above, bottom) certainly has his detractors, but I don't happen to be one of them. I think he got a raw deal from the English press for some high-profile blunders while at Manchester United, and his well-publicized drinking and gambling problems derailed what had been a promising start to his West Ham career. I saw him play for the Hammers in person vs. Bolton at Upton Park, and his attributes were on display for anyone with a good pair of eyes that day. Rams manger Paul Jewell brought Carroll in last season much to late to save Derby's sinking ship, but that inspired signing could provide a comfort zone when it comes to the top of this season's table. There won't be another keeper with his pedigree lining up for any of the other 23 teams in the division, and that sort of solidity at the back could have everyone else fighting for second place.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

3 Questions Ahead of The Premier League 2008-09 Season, Vol. 5

An occasional Pardew's Guardian feature leading up to the August 16th kickoff ...
1) Will West Ham's Kieron Dyer 
recover fully from his horrific leg break? As you can see from the top photo above, the Hammers midfielder suffered a nasty injury in a League Cup match early last season, just as he was starting to make an impact for the East London side. I was never much of a Dyer fan before he landed at the Boleyn. While he brings bags of pace to the table, a dearth of skill is Dyer's downfall. Like Jermaine Jenas, 
I don't think he's a player of international standard but in England over the last 10 years, that doesn't seem to keep mediocre talents from accumulating Three Lions caps like they're going out of style. That's not to say that West Ham couldn't use some significant contributions from Dyer this season. He does have a nose for the goal, and with ou
r soft early schedule getting out of the gate in good form could make all the difference when it comes to a nice run at Europe.
2) Will Michael Owen give Newcastle fans a full season of goals? "Little Mickey" (pictured above, middle) will never regain the jets that enabled him to blow past defenders during his early days at Liverpool. But an older, slower Owen is also smarter, and that cunning around the box can be just as much of a weapon. When he ended up with the Magpies after a stop-start tenure with the Galacticos of Real Madrid, you got the feeling that Owen was in a holding pattern to wait for a bigger club to come in for him. Reality may just have settled in for Owen, and with Kevin Keegan starting his first full season as Newcastle's manager (the second time around, of course), the stars could just be aligning for Owen. I wouldn't be at all surprised if he sticks 15 to 18 goals in the back of the net this season provided he can stay injury-free. And that's a big "if."
3) Can Emile Heskey and friends keep Wigan in the top flight yet again? The big ex-Liverpool striker (pictured above, bottom) is sort of in the same boat as his ex-teammate Owen -- once a big fish, he now toils for a side in the "other" Premiership: the one that exists outside the Top 4. While those clubs scour Europe, Africa and South America (and, occasionally, North America and Asia) for the best players in the world, the Wigans and their like take what they can get. When manager Steve Bruce left Birmingham for the bigger money of Latics chairman Dave Whelan, he seemed to cement his reputation as a mercenary. But something happened on the way to relegation -- Heskey and his mates won some key matches, and Wigan lived to fight another day. Can they beat the odds again? We'll see.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Join the Pardew's Guardian Blog fantasy league on the Premiership's official site ...

Oh, baby! It's nearly here -- as the famed holiday carol said, "It's the most wonderful time of the year." No, not Christmas; the start of the Premier League season! Festivities kick off Aug. 16, and you fantasy veterans know how much fun this competition can be. New to it all? Then log on to www.premierleague.com to create a fantasy team and get started. There's also a predictions-based game called "I Know the Score," but more on that some other time. Once you've picked your side (and you can make unlimited substitutions until the deadline for Gameweek 1), click on the "Join a League" feature. The code to join the Pardew's Guardian Blog league is 72989-21578. Get in there, and good luck to everyone in the race for second place! Cheers.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

3 Questions Ahead of The Premier League 2008-09 Season, Vol. 4

An occasional Pardew's Guardian feature leading up to the August kickoff ...
1) Will Julien Faubert become the force he was originally predicted to be down the right flank for West Ham? The Hammers' capture of the fleet Frenchman (pictured above, top) made headlines last season, and sometimes for the wrong reasons. Namely, French National Team manager Raymond Domenech questioned why right-winger Faubert would leave Bordeaux of Ligue 1 for the East London side instead of Roma, Arsenal, et al. Hammers chairman (at the time!) Eggert Magnusson heralded the newly-signed Faubert as "one of the most sought-after players in Europe," and his pre-season performances seemed to justify such lofty praise. But, alas, the injury bug that seemed to bite every other player on Alan Curbishley's roster struck Faubert hard, and Hammers supporters were left to wonder if the ball skills and blazing speed he showed in glimpses could manifest itself over the hurly-burly of a physical English season. If he comes back with a vengeance, Faubert could be one of the league's surprise packages. And a skillful player setting the Boleyn alight is long overdue.
2) What can Everton do for an encore? Even more so than finishing fourth and earning a spot in Champions League qualifying a few seasons ago, what the team from the Blue half of Merseyside has accomplished the last two years is nothing short of extraordinary. Led by the fighting spirit of the unfairly-maligned Phil Neville (pictured above, middle), Everton has become one of the hardest teams to beat in the whole of the Premiership. Manager David Moyes has crafted a workaholic side in his own image, and think of these names in the starting 11: Tim Howard. Joleon Lescott. Yakubu. Any team (including those in the top 4) would accommodate players of that caliber. The best part about Everton's rise to prominence (again! They are a club steeped in history) is that has occurred after the sale of Wayne Rooney to the Mancs. It seems there is life post-Shrek after all!
3) Will Boro's Stewart Downing emerge as an league and international force in his own right? Much praise has been bandied about over the past few years regarding the pedigree of Downing (pictured above, bottom) and how he should carve a guaranteed place for himself in the Three Lions' starting 11. But that enthusiasm for his early England performances has to be tempered by the fact that his ex-club manager -- the umbrella-toting Steve McClaren -- never ventured beyond the orthodox when it came to handing out caps. Where were the Matty Etheringtons, the Steve Sidwells, the James Milners when the rosters were announced? All such players enjoyed their purple patches, but Downing (who's undoubtedly a talented winger) always got the benefit of the doubt. It has to be said that Boro under gaffer Gareth Southgate always look to be a preseason favorite to be relegated, yet they always manage to scrape the 42 or so points necessary to stay up. Downing will have a big say in whether they do so again.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

3 Questions Ahead of The Premier League 2008-09 Season, Vol. 3

An occasional Pardew's Guardian feature leading up to the August kickoff:
1) Is George McCartney's position as West Ham's left back secure? The Northern Irishman (pictured above, top) has been an ever-present name in the starting 11 over the last couple of seasons, and deservedly so. But there always seems to be talk of replacing him with the likes of Reading's Nicky Shorey, etc. When Alan Pardew bought McCartney from Sunderland and he settled into the lineup, it looked like we had the left-back slot sorted for seasons to come as McCartney continued to prove his worth after the club made the jump into the Premiership. But Alan Curbishley doesn't seem so sold on Mac. When he's been injured, Curbs moved Lucas Neill from right back to left back, put Jonathan Spector over on the right and had options such as Anton Ferdinand, James Tomkins and Danny Gabbidon and James Collins (when the latter two are fit) for central defense. At his best, McCartney is a boon to the offensive attack down the left flank. For Hammers supporters, this situation bears watching.
2) Will Steven Gerrard drive Liverpool into title contention this time around? Liverpool's midfield dynamo "Stevie G" (pictured above, middle) has been a driving force in the Champions League for the Reds the past few seasons, but when it comes to domestic form the lad often seems to go missing. In fact, his early-season disappearing acts have been a big reason why Rafa Benitez's men have been out of the title picture by mid-October the last few years. Gerrard famously did a U-turn a few years back when he was on the cusp of joining Chelsea, and his decision seemed to pay off when the Reds pulled that rabbit out of the hat v. AC Milan in Istanbul in the Champions League final. But, that result aside (well, there was his one-man demolition of West Ham in the FA Cup final, as well!) there hasn't been much to cheer about on Merseyside when it comes to closing the gap on Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal. And the thing of it is, Gerrard isn't getting any younger.
3) Has anyone come as quite as full circle in recent seasons as Hull's Nicky Barmby? The former Liverpool, Everton, Leeds and Tottenham midfielder (pictured above, bottom) landed softly with his hometown club Hull City when they were firmly ensconced as a Championship side. In fact, until their promotion this spring Kingston-upon-Hull was the largest English city never to have hosted top-flight football. The fact that Barmby and fellow long-in-the-tooth player Dean Windass lifted the Tigers to the Prem via the Playoff final is one of the more remarkable storylines the English game has seen in a while. If you think back to Kevin Keegan's England lineup during Euro 2000, Barmby's name was one of the first on the team sheet. For him to be getting another crack at the big time 8 years later is truly something else.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

3 Questions Ahead of The Premier League 2008-09 Season, Vol. 2

An occasional Pardew's Guardian feature leading up to the August kickoff ...
1) Will Craig Bellamy be on the pitch enough to form a dream strike partnership with Dean Ashton for West Ham? When he's on his game, "Bellers" (pictured above, top) provides the perfect complement of speed to the power and skill of Ashton, and both of them are among the best finishers in the Premiership. If the Hammers are to make a real run at Europe, this has to be the first-choice forward line. Bobby Zamora and Carlton Cole are fine players, but they won't get you much above mid-table. And unless those rumors of Luca Toni or Eidur Gudjohnssen have merit, Bellamy as our No. 10 and Ashton playing the role of a traditional No. 9 is about as good as it will get in East London. Bellamy doesn't have the best track record when it comes to injuries and off-the-field incidents, so keep your fingers crossed.
2) Is West Bromwich Albion this season's version of Sunderland? Baggies manager Tony Mowbray (pictured above, middle) has that look about him. As in, the "we've got nothing to fear from this division" snarl that Roy Keane perfected as the Black Cats won on opening day last year and never looked in real danger of going back down to the Championship. West Brom led the second flight in goalscoring last term, and they have been enough of a yo-yo club over the past decade to know that the only way you stay in the Prem is by sticking the ball in the back of the net -- especially at the "business end" of the season. Fulham got hot at the right time in the spring when it came to scoring, and if West Brom are within striking distance at a similar point in 2009 don't bet against them.
3) Is Sunderland this season's version of Reading? Once a new table takes shape, what you did last season counts for nil. And as well as Sunderland played in their first season back up in the top fight, one has to wonder if the same type of "Second-Season Syndrome" that bit Reading in the behind last year (and nearly claimed West Ham's Premiership status in 2006-07) beckons for the Black Cats. The season-ending injury suffered by striker Kenwyne Jones (pictured above, bottom) while playing for Trinidad & Tobago v. England in a friendly this summer could well be a hammer blow for Keane's men. Consolidation has to be Keano's and chairman Niall Quinn's main goal, despite the fans' hope for an outside run at Europe.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

3 Questions Ahead of The Premier League 2008-09 Season, Vol. 1

Starting today, Pardew's Guardian will post an occasional feature posing 3 questions worth discussing ahead of the 2008-09 Premiership season (as it says right there on the tin). These are topics Alex, Ben and I spend summer evenings by the poolside or on the beach having a chinwag about; as loyal readers (all 14 of you now -- I've gained a few in India!) can surmise, I am not recycling viewpoints from other Web sites or blogs. Whatever you will say about this site, it will never lack for an opinion. These are original thoughts. Are they informed? That's up to you. The lads and I follow the Premiership and English footy in general like most of our fellow New Jerseyans follow the NFL. All that said, here's the first edition:
1) Will we see the real Freddie Ljungberg at West Ham this season? Now that he's retired from international football with Sweden, maybe everyone's favorite Calvin Klein underwear model -- and West Ham's No. 7 -- will spend his second year at Upton Park injury-free and resembling the force he was with Arsenal. Time has slowed his once-blistering speed, but if he can stay out on the pitch, his guile and game smarts should more than make up for a lack of dash. There are still few players with the skills and touch Ljungberg can show around the 18-yard line when it comes to passing, so for all us Hammers out there here's hoping Freddie can come good this time around.
2) Will Mark Hughes regret his move to Manchester City? When "Sparky" left the comfortable post as manager of perennial top-10 side Blackburn to take up the challenge of using Thaksin Shinawatra's millions to help Man City crack the top 4, there's one thing he didn't bring with him -- Yank goalkeeper Brad Friedel, his security blanket. Many people are placing City stopper Joe Hart in the rarefied air of being a future England No. 1, but he still has a lot to prove. Hughes also had a winger of the caliber of David Bentley on hand at Blackburn to unlock defenses. Elano was a revelation for City last year, but will he suffer from second-season syndrome? Hughes will have to work some magic.
3) Does Phillippe Senderos have a future at Arsenal? The huge Swiss center-half is coming off a shaky Euro 2008, and he spent more time on the sideline than on the pitch with the Gunners last season. When Senderos was first blooded into the Arsenal starting 11 by manager Arsene Wenger a few years ago, he suffered some definite growing pains. Then, without warning, he seemed to raise his game and become a rock at the back as the team conquered all placed in front of them. But once William Gallas swapped Stamford Bridge for the Emirates as part of the Ashley Cole transfer, Senderos seemed to regress. Injury problems haven't helped, but one gets the feeling this is a cay campaign for him.