Manchester United win Community Shield

Manchester United defeated cross-town rivals City 3-2 in the Community Shield, the opening match of the English soccer season. The match, one of English soccer’s oldest competitions, pits the previous season’s league champions against the cup winners. United were down two goals by halftime but launched a rousing comeback after the break. Nani, United’s flying Portuguese winger, grabbed a brace for the victors, including a ninetieth minute winner.

United celebrate with the Community Shield tropy

The Manchester derby is one of the fiercest rivalries in England. Historically, United have been the dominant team, lifting trophies at home and abroad while City have at times struggled to retain their top-flight status. But all that changed when a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family bought the club three years ago. City quickly recruited world-class superstars from all over the globe. Last season, City won the FA Cup and finished third in the Premier League, meaning that they automatically qualified for this year’s European Champions League. This season, their aim is to win the league (United took home the trophy last year).

City opened the scoring in the 38th minute when Joleon Lescott headed a free kick past United’s new ‘keeper, the twenty year old Spaniard David de Gea. On the stroke of halftime, Edin Dzeko doubled City’s lead. The Bosnian forward looked a little out of his depth last year after a big money move from Wolfsburg in Germany but his strike showed his confidence is still intact. From twenty yards outs, Dzeko hit a powerful swerving shot that just beat de Gea’s late dive. A fine and ambitious shot but de Gea should have saved it. Will Alex Ferguson, United’s coach, regret choosing an inexperienced youngster to take the place of Edwin van der Saar, one of the game’s top goalies before his retirement this summer? If United can replicate their second half performance against City for the rest of the season, then Ferguson will have no worries. Their offense should cover any lapses by de Gea, who faces a steep learning curve in England (though he did make some fine saves at the end of the game).

City's Joleon Lescott (facing camera with right arm raised) celebrates his opening goal against United in the Community Shield

Seven minutes after the break, Chris Smalling, United’s young defender, clawed a goal back when he got on the end of a free kick after City’s defense left him unmarked. The equalizer, twenty minutes later, was a fantastic team goal, worthy of European champions Barcelona: United moved the ball around the edge of City’s box with a series of fine one-touch passes and give-and-go’s before Nani chipped goalie Joe Hart. Then, with the game seemingly headed to over-time, Nani nicked the ball from Vincent Kompany, the last man in City’s defense, after the center-back mishandled a long United clearance. Nani burst forward, rounded Hart, and finished easily to give his team the win.

United's Nani (in red), who scored two fine goals, tussles with City's Nigel de Jong

United have a strong team, improved by the addition of winger Ashley Young and the emergence of young players like Smalling, midfielder Tom Cleverley, and striker Danny Wellbeck. If de Gea doesn’t make mistakes and Ferguson finds someone to replace midfield maestro Paul Scholes, now retired, United might well claim a second straight title. City will be right on their tails though, especially once their Argentinean forward Sergio Aguero, a new signing who spent this game on the bench, is integrated into the team. If London clubs Arsenal and Chelsea continue to struggle, the league trophy will be Manchester bound.

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Bradley ousted as US National Team coach; Klinsmann in

Bob Bradley is out as coach of the US men’s national soccer team. Bradley, who took over in 2006, has helped the team achieve some decent results. In 2007, the US beat archrivals Mexico in the Gold Cup Final (the North and Central American Championship) and in 2009 lost the Confederations Cup Final 3-2 to Brazil. But the 2010 World Cup was a disappointment for Bradley and his team. The US gave up early goals and had to fight their way back into matches. Their heart was impressive, their defending and tactical cohesion not so much.

Bradley had a chance to prove his doubters wrong (and he had many) at the 2011 Gold Cup. But once again the US had to rely on spirited rallies after going down early. They seemed under-prepared and defensively frail. All would have been forgiven had the US not blown a 2-0 lead against Mexico in the final, conceding 4 goals thanks to a string of defensive mistakes and blunders.

Bob Bradley, the now former coach of the US national soccer team. Despite some decent results, Bradley never won over the American public. He rarely opened up to the press and his cautious tactics seemed ineffective at the highest level

The decision to replace Bradley was probably made before the final whistle sounded. The team lacks an international caliber centre-forward and has no depth at the back. But with players like Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and goalkeeper Tim Howard in the side, American fans wanted more than the cautious, often taciturn Bradley could provide. They were especially displeased by his tendency to stick with players even as they struggled mightily on the pitch. Loyalty is an important quality in soccer: Jonathan Bornstein scored a crucial goal for the United States against Costa Rica in World Cup qualifying. But his defensive liabilities mean the leftback is usually a catastrophe waiting to happen against top wingers. Brazil, Ghana, Mexico and Spain have all proved that over the past year but Bradley has stubbornly stuck with the player.

Now, Bornstein and a few other Bradley favorites have reason to be nervous. New coach Jurgen Klinsmann has promised American fans “positive rather than reactive” football. He has the resume to back up that claim. As a powerful goal-scoring forward, Klinsmann won the 1990 World Cup and 1996 European Championship with his home country, Germany. As a coach, he led his nation to the third-place at the 2006 World Cup. He has lived in California for the past 13 years, speaks fluent English, knows American soccer, and has even used American fitness and psychological methods in his European coaching gigs. He is charismatic, media friendly and fond of attacking football (in many ways, Klinsmann is the opposite of Bradley). He is the natural choice. In fact, Sunil Gulati, president of the US Soccer Federation, approached “Klinsi” about coaching the team after both the 2006 and 2010 World Cups.

New US coach Jurgen Klinsmann in his playing days. Klinsmann will be charged with reshaping a team that has struggled defensively and conceded too many early goals. This is Klinsmann's third job in management: he found success with Germany at the 2006 World Cup before taking over Bayern Munich in 2009. Unfortunately, Klinsmann found it hard to deal with the large egos of the Bayern stars, who objected to his American training methods. He was fired within a year.

Klinsmannn has his work cut out for him ahead of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. He will need to find a solution to the troubled forward spot. Jozy Altidore, Bradley’s favored starter, has scored 3 goals in 3 years with four teams since his move from New York to Europe. The 18-year old Juan Aguedelo, who played at the Gold Cup, still looks raw at the international level. Perhaps Klinsmann will be creative and play without a true center-forward: Landon Donovan (whom the German brought to Bayern Munich in 2009) and Clint Dempsey are attacking midfielders who have scored 68 goals between them for the US. They could well handle the goal-scoring duties.

The defense is the real worry. Aside from right-back Steve Cherundolo, who is now 32, the US has no completely reliable defenders. The center-backs are powerful but slow and prefer to boot the ball out of danger rather than play it around. The US hasn’t had a dependable left-back since Frankie Hejduk, whose natural position was on the right, played  at the 2002 World Cup. Klinsmann will have to mask these defensive frailties with midfield help and rely on the outstanding play of Howard between the sticks.

Finally, the big question is: will Michael Bradley retain his starting spot? The son of former coach Bob, the defensive midfielder was accused of benefiting from nepotism when he made his US debut five years ago, shortly after his father took over. But Bradley has played well since then, despite a fiery temper that has seen him earn red cards, and earned his place in the squad. These days, he has heavy competition from Maurice Edu and Jermaine Jones, harder-tackling players who are not as effective going forward. It all depends on what tactical setup Klinsmann employs.

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Boston Breakers play first game at Harvard Stadium since Women’s World Cup

A loud and supportive crowd welcomed the Boston Breakers back to Harvard Stadium on Sunday evening. It was their first game since the United States lost the Women’s World Cup Final in Germany last week. The Breakers had five players on that team and another who lifted the trophy with victors Japan so coach Tony DiCicco decided to rest his over-worked stars against the Western New York Flash. Only Kelley O’Hara, who played just one game as a substitute at the World Cup, made the starting line-up. But that didn’t stop Boston from giving a fine performance in a 2-2 draw in front of 6,200 people, one of the largest crowds in its history.

The Breakers’ (in pink) line up a second-half free-kick against the Flash

Not all were hard-core soccer fans. Some seemed more interested in finding rare seats in the shade (temperatures reached the mid 80’s) or buying cold drinks from the concession stand. Families with small children were in abundance. But as the game got going, the crowd came alive. One small child asked excitedly if that was Abby Wambach, the U.S.’s goal-scoring hero at the World Cup, down there on the field (it wasn’t, but Breakers’ midfielder Keelin Winters has a similar short hair-cut).

Other supporters would have found themselves at home in the most heated European grudge match. Section 13, home of the Breakers’ boisterous fan club “Riptide,” was the center of the action. Fans dressed in matching blue jerseys sang, chanted and waved flags for the entire ninety minutes. They were backed up by the rhythmic drumming of Grooversity, the Breakers’ pep band. Marcus Santos, the band leader, said there were “definitely more fans than usual” at the game today and Jackie Anderson, president of the Riptide, agreed. She estimated that the Breakers typically attract between four and five thousand fans per game.

Members of the Breakers' supporters' club, the Riptide, pose for a picture. Look for them in Section 13 of every home game.

Laura and Paul Widell said their son Brian, an intern with the Breakers, believed that the US’s fine performances at the World Cup were attracting new fans to the team. He expects attendance will stay high for the rest of the season, especially on weekends. Last week, the Boston Globe reported that Breakers’ ticket sales had increased by 400 percent since the US’ quarterfinal victory over Brazil in the World Cup. Marty and Mary Jane Schoepfer, the parents of Breakers’ forward Katie and regulars at all Boston’s home games, also said that the World Cup would be a great boon for the Breakers.

But they added that high ticket sales for Sunday’s game could be explained by the presence of Marta, the Flash’s star forward from Brazil, who is widely considered the best female player in the world. The Brazilian was cheered loudly by some sections of the crowd. Jose Olivera, wearing the instantly recognizable yellow-and-green kit of Brazil’s national team, and his girlfriend Adriana were among Marta’s most enthusiastic supporters. The Brazilian couple had never been to a Breakers’ game before. They said they came to this one not to support the local team but to cheer on their beloved Marta and maybe get her autograph after the match.

Iggy Farias, who has been coming to Breakers’ matches since their inaugural season three years ago, said this was one of the best-attended games he had seen. Joe Rowland, another regular, agreed and both men said the last game they could remember being this crowded was Marta’s first ever appearance against the Breakers in 2009 when she played for the now-defunct Los Angeles Sol.

The talented Brazilian attacker did not disappoint. Although the Riptide hurled abuse at her whenever she received the ball, Marta showed off her trademark skill and dribbling ability. Seven minutes before halftime, she tied the game 1-1 with a nice goal, canceling out Kelley O’Hara’s 20th minute opener for Boston. Marta didn’t seem to have much of an angle to shoot on net when she found herself in space near the top left corner of the box. But she placed her effort perfectly: it rolled past the hands of Boston’s diving keeper and just squeezed inside the far post.

The Flash's superstar Marta signs autographs for fans after a 2-2 draw with the Boston Breakers at Harvard Stadium

In the 84th minute, Boston took the lead, again through O’Hara, who finished a well-executed one-two with teammate Meghan Klingenberg. The crowd went wild but their celebrations proved short-lived. Three minutes later, the Breakers failed to clear a Flash free-kick into the box. The ball bounced around and around until the Flash’s Alex Morgan, who scored twice for the U.S. at the World Cup, flicked it over the keeper and into the net with the left side of her foot. It was a fine strike though the Riptides loudly bemoaned what they saw as a “fluke” goal.

Mr. Farias, the long-time fan, summed up the match, saying it had been “good quality soccer.” He made a convincing pitch to all Bostonians with a potential interest in the game: “It’s the best players in the world. Why not come? And only 15 bucks!”

The Breakers' pep band, Grooversity, helped energize a crowd of 6,200 despite the sweltering heat

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Football: Corrupt from Top to Bottom

Soccer is in a state of global crisis although its hapless leaders insist nothing is amiss. Even after a series of devastating scandals, FIFA, international soccer’s governing body, hasn’t cleaned up its act. In an age of increasing organizational transparency, FIFA is a dinosaur: the minutes of their most important meetings are kept secret. They refuse to open their account books to the public or reveal the exact salaries of their insular bureaucracy. They have failed to create an independent ethics board and routinely punish serious offenders with small fines and short suspensions.

In October, a sting operation by the Sunday Times caught two FIFA executive committee members asking for bribes in exchange for supporting America’s World Cup bid. In December, top-ranking members of FIFA, including the president of the African federation, were accused of rigging a vote to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar (though the whistleblower who made the claims recently withdrew her allegations, saying she had “fabricated” them after being fired by the Qatari World Cup bid committee).

Then, in May, Mohamed bin Hamman, the chief of the Asian federation and a candidate for FIFA’s presidency, was found to have given cash-stuffed envelopes to members of the North American federation, CONCACAF, with the help of its then president Jack Warner, who was also involved in an embezzlement scandal at the 2006 World Cup. Mr. Hamman had to withdraw his candidacy, meaning the incumbent, Sepp Blatter, ran unopposed and won. On June 20th, Mr. Warner, a former acting Prime Minister of Trinidad, resigned from his position with CONCACAF and his FIFA vice-presidency. FIFA immediately ended its ethics investigation, saying they had no further cause to continue given that Mr. Warner was no longer associated with FIFA. Of course.

Jack Warner, a Trinidadian sports administrator and politician, has been dogged by corruption scandals for years. Mr. Warner was finally brought down this June when his long-time ally, CONCACAF secretary-general Chuck Blazer of America, revealed that Mr. Warner had helped FIFA presidential candidate Mohammed bin Hamman in bribe attempts.

But the mess extends far beyond the smoky backrooms of FIFA. Major leagues all across the world have been rocked by allegations of corruption: In May, a Napoli court found that Inter Milan were just as culpable as fellow giants AC Milan, Juventus, Lazio and Fiorentina in Italy’s “calciopoli” scandal of several years ago. The teams involved were found guilty of fixing matches and bribing referees. Juventus were relegated and had their 2005 and 2006 titles revoked. Italy’s federation has so far refused to act against Inter.

In Turkey, authorities have arrested 30 people, including the presidents of major clubs Fenerbahce and Trabzonspor and a former chief of the national federation. 55 professional players have been indicted for match-fixing in South Korea while a dozen people have been accused of similar crimes in a growing scandal in Finland. According to the New York Times, serious investigations are also underway in Germany, Hungary, Israel, El Salvador, China, Thailand, Zimbabwe and Vietnam. The most bizarre case involved a Singaporean gambler sending a “fake” Togo national team to play Bahrain in a friendly in September.

Greece is in the most trouble of all. Prosecutors have indicted 84 people, including the presidents of two clubs (Olympiakos and Kavala), the head of the national federation, coaches, players (among them Avraam Papapodopoulos, a national team regular) and businessmen. Kavala’s medical staff has also been accused of giving illegal steroids to its players and a member of the Olympiakos and Greek national basketball teams. The evidence was gathered by Greece’s clandestine national intelligence service because prosecutors said the local police kept tipping off suspects. Next year’s domestic league might be canceled and Greek teams face a possible 3-5 year ban from European competition.

Stavros Psomiadis (top), president of Kavala, being led to jail after his arrest. Psomiadis' father, Makis (bottom), was banned from Greek football for life in 2002. "Big Mac," as the 6'7 former nightclub owner is known, was accused of embezzlement, tax-fraud, referee intimidation and assaulting one of his own players while president of Athen-based club AEK. He was convicted of forgery but served only ten days of a 12 year sentence after his doctor diagnosed him with tuberculosis. Strangely, Mr. Psomiadis has seemed in fine health since being released and continues to smoke his favored twelve-inch cigars.

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Paraguay defeat Venezuela, advance to Copa America Final for first time since 1979

Paraguay defeated Venezuela on penalties for a place in the final of the Copa America after a 0-0 draw. The match wasn’t a pretty affair on the field and was even worse off it. After the final whistle, a mass brawl erupted between players, coaches and officials from both teams. Police had to break up the fight and the Copa organizers will probably be obliged to hand out suspensions.

Venezuela played well but it wasn’t enough to beat Paraguay, who had a man sent off in overtime. The Venezuelans were frustrated by the loss and angered by the hard tackling and time wasting of their opponents. At a post-match press conference, their coach, the 38 year-old Cesar Farias, said the Paraguayans behaved “like stupid kids.”

Paraguay's defender Dario Veron celebrates his winning penalty in the Copa America semifinal as the Venezuelan 'keeper, Renny Vega, looks on in disappointment (Photo: Alejandro Pagini, AFP)

Paraguay are a team are used to the big stage. They nearly knocked out Spain, the eventual champions, in the quarterfinals of last summer’s World Cup, and their experience showed last night when it counted: they made every one of their penalties. They’ll play Uruguay in the final on Saturday despite drawing every game they’ve played so far.

Venezuela, meanwhile, have never made it this far at the Copa. They have every reason to be happy at reaching the bronze-medal game against Peru. But they will surely feel they should have been in the final. They were the better team and had a goal wrongly disallowed for offside. Highlights are here.

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Paraguay eliminates Brazil, advances to seminfal

Another Copa America quarterfinal, another tense penalty shootout. Brazil, the early tournament favorites, couldn’t convert a single spot-kick and Paraguay triumphed after making two out of three.

Brazil had plenty of chances to win in regulation but didn’t score thanks to fine goalkeeping from Justo Villar. Santos’ young striker Neymar could have had a brace if not for the ‘keeper and his own wayward shooting. Paraguay, who sat back for much of the game, were not the better team. Lucas Leiva of Brazil and Antolin Alcaraz of Paraguay were sent off in extra-time after a large scuffle involving players from both sides.

Brazil will need to work on their penalties: Elano, Andre Santos and Fred, who took the decisive final shot, couldn’t even get their spot-kicks on target. Marcelo Estigarribia and Christian Riveros scored for the underdogs, who face surprise semifinalists Venezuela on Wednesday in Mendoza. The two sides drew 3-3 in a thrilling encounter during the group stage.

With his team out, Brazil coach Mano Menezes must make a decision: should he keep faith in Pato, Neymar, Ganso and the other youngsters he has promised will shine at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil? Or will he, under pressure, recall older faces like Kaka, Nilmar and Juan? Of course, Menezes will only have the chance if the Brazilian federation don’t fire him first. Brazil were expected to win this tournament and their fans are already calling for the coach’s head. Menezes’ “rebuilding” project might be over after just a year.

Uruguay and Paraguay are strong teams so no surprise that they are in the semis. But it’s a shocker that Peru and Venezuela are the other semifinalists, ahead of hosts Argentina and giants Brazil. The final week of the Copa will be interesting without the heavy-hitters. Uruguay last won the tournament in 1995, Paraguay in 1979, and Peru in 1975. Venezuela have never even been in the final and have only made the knock-out stage twice since their first participation in 1967.

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Uruguay beats Argentina 5-4 on penalties

Uruguay and Argentina put on a thrilling display in Saturday’s Copa America quarterfinal in Santa Fe. The hosts will be distraught at their early exit from a tournament they hoped to win. Uruguay played more than half the match, which remained deadlocked through overtime, with ten men but proved strong at the back.

Uruguay opened the scoring early with a goal from Diego Perez. Argentina hit right back: in the 18th minute, Leo Messi danced down the right wing before delivering a cross past Uruguay’s defense, off the head of teammate Gonzalo Higuain and into the back of the net. A few minutes later, the referee dismissed Uruguay’s goal-scorer, Perez, for overzealous tackling. Argentina attacked and attacked but couldn’t find a way past Uruguay’s young goalie Fernando Muslera, who was superb throughout.

The Lazio keeper’s best moment  came right at the end of regulation when he saved Carlos Tevez’s powerful freekick from distance and then used his face to keep out Higuain’s shot from the rebound.

After extra-time ended deadlocked, the game went to penalties. Tevez, who shot third for Argentina, was the only player to miss. He sent his spot-kick too close to Muslera, who made a diving save. Martin Caceres, a defender, converted  the winning penalty with a beautiful shot into the top-right corner. The highlights are here.

Carlos Tevez of Argentina can't believe it: the hosts are out of a Copa they were favored to win, thanks to his missed penalty and some good play from bitter rivals Uruguay (Photo: Juan Mabromata / Getty Images)

Uruguay, who lost in the 2010 World Cup semi-final, will fancy their chances of a place in the Copa Final. They play Peru in the semi on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Argetina’s coach, Sergio Batista, must head back to the drawing board. Penalties are a crap-shoot but a team with Argentina’s attackin talent should have been able to make the final, especially on home-ground. Batista’s tactics didn’t convince and Messi couldn’t replicate his sensational form with club side Barcelona. He doesn’t look as comfortable playing without Xavi and Iniesta. The team will have to make some changes for their World Cup Qualifying campaign.

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