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Oct 24, 2005

De Rosario deserves the MVP

October's been a hectic month in the soccer world. With the U-17 World Cup on display, the wrapping up of World Cup qualifiers and various domestic league play, it's difficult to know to where to begin. This said, I've decided to opt for a sweeping look around the globe.

MLS

With the MLS regular season at an end and the playoffs underway, the question remains as to who deserves the MVP award. There are really only three candidates - New England's Taylor Twellman and Shalrie Joseph and San Jose's Dwayne De Rosario. There's no denying Twellman's credentials - he's been clutch all season. Of his league-leading 17 goals, six have either tied or won a game after the 70th minute.

However, it's arguable that Shalrie Joseph has been the real key to New England's success this season. Joseph consistently dominates the center of the park allowing the flashy Revs offense to work its magic. With players like Clint Dempsey and Pat Noonan in support, the Revs could probably survive a short-term injury loss of Twellman, but Joseph remains their most indispensable and irreplaceable player.

Having said that, my vote for MVP goes to San Jose's Dwayne De Rosario by a narrow margin over Joseph. De Rosario has been a revelation since his switch to an attacking midfield position. His emergence at that position coincided with the Earthquake's surge and transformation into a regular season powerhouse. There's no doubt that De Rosario is currently the engine that makes the Quakes go (with apologies to Ricardo Clark, who has also been excellent all season).

I'd vote De Rosario, Joseph and Twellman, in that order. As an aside, it's just as well for De Rosario that the award is based off regular season play. In the first leg of the Quake's playoff matchup against the Galaxy, De Rosario was clearly outshone by Landon Donovan who added to his legacy of impressive MLS playoff performances. Even more egregious was the performance by Pat Onstad, who looked nothing like the recipient of the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award should look.

World Cup Qualifying

With most of the participants for the 2006 World Cup decided, there were a few surprises - none more so than Cameroon's failure to qualify. Cameroon's departure from the tournament is regrettable given its pedigree (who can forget Roger Milla and Co. in the 1990 World Cup) and shocking given its star-studded lineup headlined by Barcelona's Samuel Eto'o.

Compounding the situation were the circumstances in which it happened. Needing to beat Egypt in its final game, Cameroon was awarded a penalty in injury time with the game tied at 1-1. Ordinarily, the kick would have been taken by Eto'o, but up stepped defender Pierre Wome to take the kick. To absolutely no one's surprise, Wome missed the kick and Cameroon was eliminated. Here's where things get murky - Eto'o maintained after the game that he was preparing to take the kick when Wome waived him off.

"Why didn't I take the penalty? I went to take it, but Wome came up to me and said he was really confident of scoring," Eto'o told Spanish daily Sport.

The problem is that Wome disputes Eto'o's version of events. "Nobody, not Eto'o, not our captain, wanted to take that penalty because they knew what could happen in case of an error," Wome said.

Who does one believe? Logic dictates Wome is telling the truth in this case. There's always been a history of violence in African football where players often fear physical repercussions on themselves and their families from angry fans upset at perceived poor performances. Were the other Cameroonian players too scared to take the kick? Probably. After all, why would Eto'o, easily one of the world's top strikers at present, let his country's fortunes rest on the shoulders of a defender who had scored all of seven goals since the 1998 season?

One can't blame Eto'o for not taking the penalty if he genuinely believed his family or well-being was at risk should he fail. However, what is unacceptable is his attempt to fob off the blame onto Wome by claiming that the defender superseded his penalty kick responsibilities.

English Premier League

Speaking of penalties, in the midst of what promises to be yet another dull one-horse race in the EPL (give the trophy to Chelsea now already), Arsenal certainly livened up proceedings this past weekend.

During the team's eventual 1-0 win over Manchester City, Robert Pires (who had already scored from the penalty spot earlier) attempted to touch pass a second penalty attempt to teammate Thierry Henry. Unfortunately for Pires, he fluffed his pass miserably, prompting chaotic scenes that ended with referee Mike Riley awarding City a free kick.

The question here is not just one of whether or not it was an affront to their opponents - "I felt it was a little bit disrespectful to us," said Manchester City defender Sylvain Distain - but what it was exactly that the pair was attempting to do.

One could argue that it was merely a playful homage to Dutch great Johan Cruyff, who passed a penalty to an Ajax teammate to score in similar fashion in the 1982-83 season. Or you could argue that Henry and Pires' priorities seemed rather misplaced since Arsenal already trailed Chelsea by 11 points and that considering the Gunners' indifferent start to the season, the duo should probably concentrate more on securing wins at this point than dreaming up intricate showboating penalty kicks.

Rafa Benitez has certainly earned the right to be above reproach due to Liverpool's Champions League success, but the team's poor start this season has fans discontent. The team's main problem this season has been an inability to score, and a large part of that can be attributed to the presence of 6'7" man-mountain Peter Crouch in the starting lineup.

Benitez seems to be enamored with the concept of a prolific target man in a 4-5-1 formation, which in itself is fine, but the problem is he's chosen the wrong guy. Crouch is the classic example of a player who looks good on paper but doesn't deliver on the field. He's never been much of a goal scorer despite one stretch for Southampton last season, which is looking more and more like a one-off career purple patch. His main attribute remains the fact that he has above-average touch for such a tall player. However, considering his height, he has extremely poor heading technique and offers very little in the way of an aerial threat. Liverpool would be far better off playing the tandem of Djibril Cisse and Fernando Morientes upfront or, if Benitez insists on playing a 4-5-1 formation, selling both and buying Feyenoord's Dirk Kujit for the lone target man role.

U-17 World Championships

The recent U-17 World Championships in Peru were certainly a revelation as Mexico swept aside a talented Brazil team. The current group of Mexican players is lauded by some as Mexico's finest generation of talent ever. It's a bit early to say that - success at U-17 level doesn't necessarily translate to senior level success.

Mexico's Giovanni Dos Santos definitely displayed talent, creativity and an ability to make things happen, but at this point, comparisons to Ronaldinho are still a little far-fetched. He'd have to improve his shooting ability and the capability to take over a game before he can warrant such lofty praise. As for Brazil, the scoreline in the final was a bit misleading given that their best player Anderson was effectively a non-factor due to an injury early on. The tournament was also worse off without the presence of Cruzeiro's teen phenom Kerlon, whose skill level and patented seal dribble move needs to be seen to be believed.

The U.S. team received criticism in some quarters for over-dribbling among other things. I'd disagree with that. The U.S. team (David Arvizu and Gabriel Farfan in particular) showed a refreshing level of flair and willingness to take players on. The great teams in world soccer are those that possess players with the ability to break down the other team and make things happen off the dribble. Over-dependence on direct play, pushing the ball wing-to-wing and set pieces can take a team only so far (Greece's shocking success in Euro '04 notwithstanding). The key for the young U.S. generation is not to curb their dribbling tendencies but, instead, to reign it in and have them apply in the correct medium - i.e., more in the final offensive third as opposed to the middle of the pitch.

La Liga

Once again shaping up as a two-horse race, with only Valencia possibly threatening the big two. Real Madrid's defense looks as shaky as ever, but even more important than the addition of Brazilian wunderkind Robinho has been Raul's apparent return to form. For the past two seasons, Raul has looked like a shadow of his former self and barely deserved to be in the starting lineup, but this season, he's starting to look more like the previously untouchable star that he was.

As for Champions Barcelona, I still think they erred by not investing in their defense in the off-season, but with Argentinian prodigy Lionel Messi adding to their otherworldly offensive firepower, it's difficult to see them failing to repeat. The only thing that could derail them is the off-field distraction and continuing sideshow that Barcelona president Joan Laporta has become.

Once credited with restoring the glamour and success to Barcelona (by overhauling the salary structure and finances of the club), Laporta has seen his stock drop dramatically as of late. Obviously, success has gone to Laporta's head - his increasingly domineering style led to the resignation of once-close friend Sandra Rosell and several other key executives earlier this year. Rosell's influence cannot be understated; he was the chief reason that Ronaldinho and Deco signed with Barcelona.

On top of this comes the latest revelation that Laporta's brother-in-law and former Barcelona director Alejandro Echevarria was a member of a foundation honouring former dictator Francisco Franco.

That's the equivalent of the director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) revealing that his brother-in-law founded the Ku Klux Klan.

Obviously, such a finding sent shockwaves through a club that has traditionally identified itself with Catalan nationalism and opposition to former ruling right-wing dictator Franco. Laporta initially refused to accept Echevarria's resignation but eventually backtracked under increasing pressure. Unfortunately it's not going to happen anytime soon, but it's become evident that Laporta himself needs to go as well.

Jen Chang is the U.S. editor for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: armchairsweeper@gmail.com