Major League Soccer’s All-Star game is tonight at 8:30pm on ESPN2, as the league’s best come together, have a couple of practices, and then play against Bayern Munich in Portland. Liga MX, the Mexican first division, is also in full swing for the fall. European leagues, though, start up later this month, with a few beginning as soon as Friday. Here is your quick-and-dirty SoccerCentric guide to the season ahead.

LIGUE 1
Begins: August 8
TV: beIN Sports, which might be a little hard to find on your channel lineup
The season ahead: Paris St. Germain is owned by Qatar. They have an enormous amount of money, have won two consecutive Ligue 1 titles, and are the heavy favorites to win a third straight. Monaco, owned by a Russian billionaire, is the only other team with a real chance to unseat PSG. (In European soccer, cash is king, let’s be honest.)

PREMIER LEAGUE
Begins: August 16 (though the traditional season-opening exhibition, the Community Shield, is Sunday)
TV: NBC Sports (occasionally NBC, always NBC Sports Network and always online at nbcsports.com)
The season ahead: The oddsmakers have installed Chelsea as the favorite, just a nose ahead of Manchester City. Behind the two uber-rich clubs, though, there are a host of interesting stories. Manchester United were a disaster last year, but the mercurial (and quite possibly insane) Louis van Gaal is now in charge; can they right the ship? Arsenal, for once, signed big players (most notably Alexis Sanchez) without losing anyone; can they finally make the jump? How will Liverpool handle losing Luis Suarez? Can Everton maintain their magic? Will Burnley win a game this season?

BUNDESLIGA
Begins: August 22
TV: GolTV – sorry, but unless you speak Spanish and have DirecTV, you probably can’t watch this channel at home
The season ahead: Bayern Munich are once again the favorites for the German title. Borussia Dortmund, like Monaco in France, are probably the only team that have a chance of challenging them in any real way. While many American soccer writers have tried to compare various English teams to the Yankees and/or Cowboys, it’s probably Bayern that are the closest European comparison, so feel free to use that in your rooting interest.

LA LIGA
Begins:
August 24
TV: beIN Sports
The season ahead: Atletico Madrid beat the odds, and both Barcelona and Real Madrid, to claim last season’s crown. While this is a little like getting excited about the Mets beating the Yankees and the Red Sox for the World Series, it’s still nice to see someone other than the big two on top; it hadn’t happened since 2004. That said, Barca and Real are the heavy favorites to take the title this year.

SERIE A
Begins: August 30
TV: beIN Sports
The season ahead: Juventus are favorites, but Roma and Napoli are also in the mix, as is AC Milan. The once-all-conquering Italian league has dropped off a bit in recent years, probably due to the money that has flowed into other leagues and to the weakness of the Italian economy; no Italian team has made the semifinals of the Champions League since 2010, and last year, only Milan even made it through the group stage. That said, though, Italy is always a riot, only partially because on any given day, both teams may be paying off the referee.

CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
Begins: Qualifying has already started; final playoff round begins August 19, with group stages starting September 16
TV: Fox Sports, especially FS1
The season ahead: Nobody knows anything in the Champions League; Bayern are the favorites, but that hardly matters. As with the World Cup, the group-stage draw (August 28) can determine a lot of things. Juventus, PSG, and Manchester City are lurking as potential #2 seeds, with Liverpool and Roma are even further down the draw; any of the top teams could draw a cakewalk to the final 16, or could be eliminated before even getting to the knockout round. And of course, once the knockout round begins, anything could happen.

OTHER LEAGUES
Celtic will win the Scottish Premiership (starts August 9 on FOX Soccer Plus and the FOX Soccer 2Go app), but it’s worth mentioning because Scotland is the home of Inverness Caley Thistle, the Official European Team of SoccerCentric… FOX Soccer Plus also carries games from the Europa League, UEFA’s second-tier continent-wide competition – as well as the Australian A-League, which begins October 10…  UEFA’s ranking system has the Portuguese Primera Liga ranked as the continent’s fourth-best – ahead of both Italy and France. It begins August 17, but does not have a USA TV deal I can find, so you might be out of luck.

NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.

Tune into this week’s throwback edition of the podcast to find out who we wished Ebola on (and immediately took it back).

I wrote a recap of Washington’s one-wicket, last-over win over Philadelphia in the American Cricket Federation Champions League. You can see it at www.acfchampionsleague.org.

With Christian Ramirez still flying high at the front of the Minnesota United attack, the team has signed an impressive insurance policy, bringing in El Salvador international Rafael Burgos on loan for the remainder of the NASL season. Burgos, who was with Austrian side SV Reid, was loaned to Hungarian champions Gyor in 2013. The 26-year-old has made 31 appearances for El Salvador’s national team, scoring ten times, and while El Salvador is a second-tier CONCACAF team, it’s still a good pedigree for a second-division striker.

Perhaps more importantly, the signing is an indication that United is no longer counting on striker Pablo Campos to return in 2014. When Campos tore his ACL and MCL in preseason training, the team said he would return for the fall season – an impressive timetable, to say the least. Vikings running back Adrian Peterson took nine months to return from the same injury, and while Germany international Sami Khedira made his return from the dual ligament tear even more quickly – going from his injury last November to starring in the World Cup this summer – it always seemed unlikely that Campos could do the same.

The NASL season stretches into November this year, so it’s always possible that Campos – with three more months ahead of him – could still come back. But with Burgos now in the fold, it would appear that Minnesota no longer expects that return anytime soon.

While Burgos should be a good weapon, it also seems unlikely that the Loons would break up the partnership between Ramirez and Miguel Ibarra, one that’s produced three goals in three games this fall. It’s more likely that United simply wanted another goal scorer on the roster that has a little more experience than Nate Polak, should the team need a second striker late in a game, or to spell Ramirez.

Burgos will arrive in the Twin Cities tomorrow, meaning that he’s unlikely to be available as soon as Saturday’s game at TCF Bank Stadium. The rest of the team is healthy, however, as United looks to continue a seven-match unbeaten streak.

NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.

Saturday’s game at TCF Bank Stadium between Manchester City and Olympiacos is fast approaching, but the friendly competition that the game is a part of – the International Champions Cup – is already underway. Olympiacos has a win and a loss in Group B, after beating Milan 3-0 in Toronto before losing to Liverpool 1-0 in Chicago, while Manchester City currently tops Group B after destroying Milan 5-1 in Pittsburgh. (I don’t know that there’s much good to say about Milan so far.)

City plays again on Wednesday in Group B’s marquee matchup, vs Liverpool at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. It’ll be a good test run for soccer at Yankee Stadium, given that New York City FC starts play there next season as they continue to search for a permanent MLS home in the city.

Nine World Cup players highlight the two teams’ rosters – three from the Greek champions (all from Greece) and six from the English champions. Greece is led by midfielder Andreas Samaris, fresh off his first World Cup goal in Greece’s 1-0 group-stage win over the Ivory Coast. Man City, meanwhile, has a wealth of talent throughout the roster; its six internationals are goalkeeper Joe Hart, defender Bacary Sanga, midfielders David Silva, Yaya Toure and James Milner, and striker Edin Dzeko. Throw in players like Stevan Jovetic (whose Montenegrin side didn’t make the World Cup) and Samir Nasri (who just missed out on making the French squad), and it’s a safe bet that Man City will have plenty of star power on Saturday.

The full rosters, as sent to me (though, as befitting a friendly, always subject to change):

OLYMPIACOS
Goalkeepers: Roberto, Megyeri, Choutesiotis,
Defenders: Maniatis, Elabdellaoui, Holebas (Greece), Papadopoulos, Abidal, Siovas, Manolas (Greece), Masuaku, Salino, Bong, Avlonitis.
Midfielders: N’Dinga, Dominguez, Kasami, Kolovos, Samaris (Greece), Bouchalakis, Fuster, Ghazaryan, Yatabaré, Dossevi.
Forwards: Saviola, Diamantakos, Papazoglou.

MANCHESTER CITY
Goalkeepers: Hart (England), Caballero, Wright, Lawlor.
Defenders: Richards, Sanga (France), Bossaerts, Denayer, Rekik, Nastasic, Boyata, Clichy, Kolarov.
Midfielders: Fernando, Nasri, Sinclair, Garcia, Huws, Rodwell, Zuculini, Milner (England), Silva (Spain), Navas, Toure (Ivory Coast).
Forwards: Negredo, Guidetti, Ihenacho, Jovetic, Dzeko (Bosnia and Herzegovina).

United, Ottawa set for second half of doubleheader

I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the second half of Saturday’s doubleheader, as Minnesota United takes on the Ottawa Fury in a regular-season NASL game. The friendly game will be fun, but if it’s true meaningful soccer you’re after, perhaps you’ll want to stick around. United and Ottawa begin at 4:30, following the Man City-Olympiacos game at 2pm.

United is flying high, having defeated Swansea City 2-0 and the Mexican under-21 team on penalty kicks, plus beginning their fall NASL slate undefeated through three games. The Loons have allowed just one goal in the three games, and that controversially, with the referee awarding Atlanta a questionable penalty kick late in the teams’ 1-1 draw last Saturday. Nevertheless, United are one of just two NASL teams without a loss through three fall-season games – though the other, San Antonio, has already posted four wins out of four and is laying early claim to controlling the fall season.

Ottawa, meanwhile, has yet to score a goal in the fall season, and has just one point; probably their only success was in the stands, where they drew nearly 15,000 fans for their first game in the new TD Place in Ottawa.

In other words, Minnesota needs to win on Saturday – and they’re hoping to do so in front of a large crowd.

(FINAL EDITOR’S NOTE: Sorry for the lack of posts lately. My wedding, two Saturdays ago, put a real damper on my ability to pay attention to soccer. Semi-normal service should resume soon.)

NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.

So, new soccer fan: you’ve watched, and enjoyed, the World Cup. You’re thinking that this soccer thing seems pretty fun, and you don’t want to wait until the next World Cup – in June 2018, whole years from now! – to watch more soccer.

But what to watch? The USA men’s team doesn’t have meaningful matches again until next summer, and the women’s CONCACAF championship isn’t until October. It’s a long time until you can again don your red, white, and blue scarf, and forget the words to “America the Beautiful.” You need something now. It’s time to dive into the glorious world of club soccer.

Years in the past, this meant pestering the kid who studied abroad one semester and came back with a Manchester United jersey and an annoying habit of saying “cheers” instead of “thanks,” but I’m happy to report those days are long gone. You are awash in soccer choices. It’s important to pick the right one. That’s where SoccerCentric comes in; let us be your faithful Sherpa, guiding you among the mountains and helping you pick the right league for you.

The thing you liked best about the World Cup: Cheering for the Americans! U-S-A! U-S-A!
What you should watch: Minnesota United FC and the NASL

Minnesota’s home team plays in Blaine; if you can’t make it up there, their home games are broadcast on Channel 45, which you get at your house. The Loons are the home team, the local squad, and while it’s true that the NASL is the American second division, it’s also true that this doesn’t mean Triple-A soccer. United’s players aren’t property of MLS teams, waiting for a callup to the big leagues; they’ve got their own championship to win. If you enjoyed being part of cheering for the home team, it’s America and Minnesota for you.

(A word to anyone who complains about the quality of American soccer, or says they won’t get invested in Minnesota soccer until MLS comes here, or anything along those lines: oh, sorry this game isn’t good enough for you, Bobby Robson. While you’re over there pontificating on whether the game is worthy of your attention, the rest of us are going to be over here, actually watching soccer and having fun.)

The thing you liked best about the World Cup: That, unlike baseball or football or basketball, the games are over in two hours
What you should watch: MLS

Love American sports, but hate that an American League baseball game now takes four hours to play? Allow Major League Soccer to step in. You can transfer over all of your usual prejudices: it’s still safe to hate New York and Los Angeles (though not the second LA team, which is in terrible shape because of a crazy owner.) If it’s local prejudice you want, you can cheer against Chicago and Kansas City, and it’s always fun for a Minnesotan to cheer against Dallas. Plus: Hate Boston? Well, New England is terrible and their owner (Robert Kraft, the Patriots’ owner) is the worst in the league! Ah, delicious schadenfreude.

The thing you liked best about the World Cup: Drinking in the morning and yet feeling normal
What you should watch: The Premier League

NBC Sports Network shows all the English games, either live or online, which is great for those of us who are looking for something to watch at 9am on Saturdays. It’s the most popular and richest league in the world, and no matter what team you choose to follow, you will easily find someone else in the area who will watch games at the bar with you. In some ways, the English league is the easiest league for Americans to follow – especially if you like a beer with your morning sausages.

The thing you liked best about the World Cup: GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOL!
What you should watch: Liga MX

It is hard not to be taken by the irrepressible goofiness that is Univision during the World Cup. Spencer Hall covers it better here, but if you’re a fan of zaniness and don’t mind a Spanish-language broadcast, go ahead and find Univision or Telemundo on your dial.

Be aware when you do, too, that you’ll be watching North America’s best league, filled with entertaining, attack-minded players – and be aware that more of your fellow Americans are tuning in to watch along with you than are watching any other league. You may not know it, but the Mexican League is the popular pick among your countrymen.

The thing you liked best about the World Cup: That it doesn’t come around that often
What you should watch: The Bundesliga

The German league is the best-attended in the world, and boasts Europe’s current best team in Bayern Munich. Unfortunately, it’s saddled with a TV contract with GolTV in the USA, a channel that nobody gets. It thus follows that if you’re a Bundesliga fan, you don’t have to bother with watching games until 2015-16, when FOX picks up the rights and you’ll start seeing German matches everywhere.

The thing you liked best about the World Cup: The superstar players – Messi, Neymar, Ronaldo, etc.
What you should watch: La Liga

Real Madrid and Barcelona seem to have endless funds, which is why the world’s biggest stars all seem to end up with one of the two. And last year, neither one managed to win the league, losing out to Atletico Madrid, which had fewer superstars but a better team – just like what happened to Messi, Neymar, Ronaldo, etc. at the World Cup.

The thing you liked best about the World Cup: The allegations of match-fixing.
What you should watch: Serie A

In general, the Italian league is beset by a scandal of some type at least every other year. This being Italy, nothing is ever resolved, and any punishments handed out are overturned on appeal. If you loved the dramatics of the Cameroonian match-fixing probe – or even the story of the Ghana’s players potentially going on strike if they weren’t paid – you’ll love Italy.

We here at SoccerCentric hope that this guide has helped you, and may we say in closing: Go [insert name of your new favorite team in whatever league matches your interest]!

NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.

In the end, it was Germany. It was always Germany, at this World Cup, ever since they smashed Portugal to pieces 4-0 in their first group game. There were stutters – a surprising draw against Ghana, extra time needed to get past Algeria – but the enduring memory of this World Cup will be the ten-minute blitzkrieg that the Germans loosed on Brazil in the semifinal.

It ended up taking them 113 minutes to break through against Argentina, surprising given the flow of the game. The Argentines were again content to rely on their defense and the occasional counterattacking parrying thrust, not a bad ploy when your weapon is Lionel Messi. Germany hit the post and goofed up several other good chances, a sign of nerves that hadn’t been there all tournament for the country most known by the phrase “ruthlessly efficient,” but Mario Gotze’s goal – astonishingly good – was always on its way. Argentina had the ball in the net from an offside Gonzalo Higuain in the first half, but otherwise did not manage to place a single shot on goal in the entire game. Germany had two-thirds of the possession, and completed 716 passes to Argentina’s 436; it’s safe to say that the better team won this game.

Here are the things we will remember most about the World Cup that was – besides that astonishing 7-1 Germany win over Brazil in the semifinals, which four years from now will be the only thing that most of us remember:

  • Robin Van Persie’s soaring diving header against Spain – the first of five Netherlands goals against the defending champions, and the moment that marked the end of the road for the team that had won seemingly every tournament it had entered for more than half a decade.
  • The cavalier joy of Colombia’s James Rodriguez, who led the tournament with six goals – and who in the process touched off six excellent group-dance celebrations, taught everyone that his name is pronounced with a soft beginning ‘j’, and scored the tournament’s best goal. He was the World Cup’s breakout player on the World Cup’s breakout team, and there are more than a few people who will be picking Colombia four years from now.
  • Costa Rica winning a penalty shootout against Greece in the first knockout round, the crowning moment for the only underdog in the quarterfinals. Los Ticos surprised us all by beating Uruguay and Italy and winning group D; it was their most successful World Cup ever.
  • Luis Suarez cementing his hard-won status as the most hated man in soccer. Biting? Again? Really?

Of course, for us American fans, that’s a list that’s missing more than a few moments. We’ll remember Clint Dempsey’s dream start against Ghana. We’ll remember John Brooks’s holy-crap-what-did-I-just-do goal celebration after scoring the game-winner in the same game. We’ll remember Jermaine Jones being a wrecking ball for the entire tournament, and scoring an astonishing goal against Portugal; we’ll remember the knife in the heart as Portugal scored in the final seconds. We’ll remember the absurdity of cheering for a 1-0 loss to Germany, and the wonder of everything Tim Howard did against Belgium, hauling the USA into a game they didn’t belong in.

And now, we wait four more years.

We’re headed to Russia, next time around, and the Russians have five or six stadiums to build, so you can expect a repeat of the coverage that led up the Sochi Olympics. Expect terrible cost overruns and delayed construction schedules, and funny pictures of missing seats or dual toilets, all of which will be completely forgotten once soccer starts.

Depending on the host city, the games will be between eight hours and eleven hours ahead of Central time, so you can also prepare yourself for plenty of morning starts, as fans. A 7pm game in Moscow would start at 10am, here; a noon game in Yekaterinburg would begin at 1am our time. I suggest just planning ahead and taking all of June 2018 off of work.

Goodbye, World Cup. Come back, World Cup. Until we meet again, you will be missed.


One final World Cup aside: Below are the picks that Star Tribune columnist Michael Rand, Minnesota United head coach Manny Lagos, and I made before the World Cup began. This is from the June 12 edition of the Star Tribune. I post it, of course, because I nailed everything but the number of goals that Germany scored in the final. Feeling pretty good about this, of course.

NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.

 

I think the guys on the podcast are just letting me talk about soccer to be nice, but it’s fun all the same.

It would probably wrong to say that, once the Argentina-Netherlands semifinal went to extra time, it was always heading for penalty kicks. It would be more correct to say that, from the moment the game kicked off, it was heading for penalty kicks.

Argentina seemed cautious, like a football coach that runs the ball on third down and is determined to win the game through excellent punting. The Netherlands, meanwhile, seemed determined mostly to go backwards to the goalkeeper, apparently reasoning that if they kept all of their players in their own half, the Argentines were unlikely to score.

Gonzalo Higuain had a couple of good chances for Argentina, but missed. The Dutch, meanwhile, ended the game with one shot on goal in two hours, and that from Arjen Robben, 25 yards out and straight at the keeper.

The fireworks of Germany beating Brazil 7-1 aside, this is what semifinals and finals are often like – cautious, reserved, with each team determined to avoid the mistake that might send them out of the tournament. I suppose that there are defenders who enjoyed the game from the first minute to the 121st, pointing out excellent defending from Pablo Zabaleta on one side and Ron Vlaar on the other. The rest of us, though, spent much of the game checking our watches and stifling yawns, like parents trapped at a eleventh-grade production of “Waiting for Godot.” It had to end on penalties. Vlaar missed his, as did Wesley Sneijder, and all four Argentines scored, ended by Maxi Rodridguez, who seems like he’s been around forever but is just 33.

For all of the Netherlands’ attacking flair in the group stage, they finished the tournament with four consecutive hours of soccer without scoring; for all of the Lionel Messi-led power of Argentina, they have now managed just two goals in their three knockout-round games.

It is better to look forward to the final, I suppose – Germany and Argentina meeting for the third time in a World Cup championsihp, after an Argentine victory in 1986 and West Germany returning the favor four years later. At the moment, Germany appear to be the favorites – especially given that Argentina has now played two overtime games in nine days, and has to have very little left in the tank, while Germany basically played a half-hour on Tuesday against Brazil.

Can Messi, or Higuain, or Sergio Aguero, turn things around on Sunday (2pm on ABC)? Or is Germany simply unstoppable? If nothing else, let us hope and pray not to have another game like this one.

NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.

We are always interested in the doings of former Minnesota soccer executive Djorn Buchholz, and he is on the move again. Louisville City FC, which will start play in USL Pro next year as an affiliate of new MLS side Orlando City, will announce today that Buchholz is the team’s new president.

“I just can’t stay in one spot,” he said, jokingly. “You’ve got to go where the opportunities are, you know?”

Last year, Buchholz left Minnesota to take a job as Director of Fan Experience with Sporting Kansas City, which gave us an opportunity to look back at his Minnesota career. In summary: Buchholz was the Minnesota Thunder’s general manager until the team folded, left for a year to run the Austin Aztex, then returned to take over the Minnesota Stars, when they were owned by the NASL and unable to find an owner. It is due in no small part to his effort that Minnesota has a pro soccer team today.

Now, he’s headed back to the lower divisions of American soccer – and he’s back in charge of an organization, perhaps where he’s most comfortable. “It seems like the right move,” he said. “I think this club has got aspirations to go to MLS. Building a team from scratch is something I’ve never done before; I’ve helped resurrect a team, and taken over a team, but this seems like a challenging opportunity for me. Long term, I want to be potentially running an MLS team. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Kansas City, and I’ve learned a ton, and what an amazing organization to work for – but there’s a lot of things I’ve missed that I’ve been able to do in my previous career.”

The move takes him back to the organization that hired him in 2010, when he was the Austin CEO. The Aztex moved to Florida to become Orlando City in 2011, and with the start of the new MLS franchise next year, will move again to Louisville, with Orlando minority owner Wayne Estopinal owning the team.

The club will play in Louisville Slugger Field, the home of the AAA Louisville Bats, and while playing in another team’s baseball stadium presents a set of challenges, Buchholz is looking on the positive side. “The stadium is right downtown, which is something we always wanted in Minnesota,” he said. “I think you’ve got advantages like that. You’re walking into a market where there isn’t an expectation for what pro soccer is. There’s no preconceived expectations, so being able to create an experience for people that they didn’t expect and that goes above and beyond what they were expecting to experience, that’s one of the most exciting things about Louisville.”

As much as anything, it’s that opportunity to create a culture – like in Minnesota – that Buchholz couldn’t pass up. “When I came back [to Minnesota] the second time in 2011, we created a soccer culture in and around that venue,” he said. “There was a buzz, and that was done without a lot of resources. Well, there’s some resources in Louisville. I’m excited to walk in and have the resources that we need to create a club that’s going to be top-notch.”

Buchholz helped save Minnesota soccer on a shoestring. It’ll be very interesting to see what he can build – with actual resources, this time – in Louisville.

NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.