Inaugural tournament kicks off in Hawaii
Soccer dreams usually fall into just a few categories. There is the vision of winning a league championship, as well as the fantasy of scoring in a cup final, not to mention the desire to represent one's country. Playing in an otherwise obscure preseason tournament wouldn't figure to be in the conversation, but when you're native Hawaiian Brian Ching, participating in this week's Pan-Pacific Championship in Honolulu zips him right past the bouncer and through the front door of the Soccer Dreams Fulfilled Club.
"Ever since I got into the league, I always wanted to play a game back in Hawaii," Ching said. "I've been in the league since 2001, and I've been away from Hawaii since 1996. ... It's a good opportunity for my friends and family who have never seen me play live to get out to a game."
That it has been that long since Ching has played in Hawaii is a testament to his achievements for both club and country. Much of that success has come in the past two years with Houston, where he has won two MLS Cups, as well as an MVP award in the 2006 final. That the U.S. international is now returning with his Dynamo teammates, including some who have been with him since his days as a San Jose Earthquake, will make the return even more special.
"The guys on the team are my friends," Ching said. "We are the champions, and this is something that I want to share with them. I'm really looking forward to it."
That dream will take shape on Wednesday, when Houston will take on A-League outfit Sydney FC in the second game of a doubleheader. The opening match will feature the Los Angeles Galaxy and J-League side Gamba Osaka, with the winners of both games squaring off in the final Saturday.
Of course, to the skeptics, the tournament is nothing more than another opportunity for the Galaxy to recoup their investment in David Beckham. The tournament's other three participants all have recent trophies or high league finishes on their résumés. Not so the Galaxy, who last season failed to reach the MLS playoffs for the second year running despite having two high-salaried players in Beckham and Landon Donovan on their roster.
It has been said that L.A. owes its spot in the PPC to the fact that SuperLiga winners Pachuca turned down an invitation to the tournament, with the Galaxy's runner-up finish garnering them a spot.
L.A. Galaxy vs. Gamba Osaka
11 p.m. ET (ESPN Classic, ESPN360)
Houston Dynamo vs. Sydney FC
That hasn't stopped the naysayers from questioning the Galaxy's presence in Hawaii and the tournament itself. While the PPC isn't the UEFA Champions League, it is a sign that the beginning of the MLS season is inching closer, and the fact that some international sides are tagging along for the ride at least raises the interest level a smidgen above a typical preseason friendly. With the inaugural PPC trophy at stake, here's how the participants stack up.
Los Angeles Galaxy
The tournament will give new coach Ruud Gullit his first chance to view his team in something approaching a competitive setting. Not only will fans be eager to see how Gullit's implementation of "Sexy Football" is taking shape, but they'll also be looking to see how new acquisitions like Celestine Babayaro, Greg Vanney and Carlos Ruiz are settling in.
Another question to be resolved is where Gullit opts to deploy Landon Donovan and David Beckham. Word out of Los Angeles is that the Dutchman has initially opted for a 4-4-2 with Donovan stationed up top, while Beckham has been alternating between the center of midfield as well as out on the right. Regardless, given the glut of injuries the Galaxy sustained last season, simply getting out of the tournament unscathed will count as a major victory.
The reigning Japanese league cup holders will look like a shadow of their former selves in Hawaii given that six players will be with the Japanese national team that is competing in the East Asian Cup, while a seventh is with Japan's U-23 team. While midfield lynchpin Yasuhito Endo is probably the biggest loss, the side will still have two members of the J-League's Team of the Season at its disposal. Defender and captain Satoshi Yamaguchi will anchor the back line, while 6-foot-3 Brazilian forward Baré, who scored 20 goals in 31 matches this past season, will look to be the danger man up top.
Osaka have brought in nine new players during their offseason, and while not all of them will be available for the PPC, expect coach Akira Nishino to give some immediate baptisms to Japanese U-20 captain Yohei Fukumoto as well as former Brazilian Olympic team striker Lucas Severino. Severino was recently acquired from FC Tokyo, where he scored 30 league goals over the past two seasons.
Probably the most eye-opening development of Houston's preseason so far has been coach Dominic Kinnear's extensive use of a three-man back line, something he used in both of the Dynamo's exhibition games last week against the San Jose Earthquakes. The move is something that Kinnear has toyed with in the past, yet the Dynamo head man insists that Wade Barrett's recent illness is the only reason for such a maneuver. That said, the extent to which Kinnear employs this tactic in the future will be interesting.
In the meantime, the Dynamo's wafer-thin contingent of forwards will also bear watching, with Chris Wondolowski aiming to prove that he is a worthy partner to Houston mainstay Ching. Expect midfield livewire Dwayne De Rosario, who broke into MLS as a forward, to see some time up top as well.
The Dynamo have been nicked up a bit in the preseason, with midfielder Brian Mullan still recovering from offseason knee surgery, while Brad Davis was recently sidelined with an injured groin he sustained while on U.S. national team duty. Complicating matters was the sight of Corey Ashe hobbling off the field during Saturday's friendly against San Jose, but Ashe indicated afterward that he should be able to participate in the PPC.
Visitors to Hawaii rarely wish they were somewhere else, but that will be the case for Sydney FC, who will participate in the tournament with one eye on this Sunday's A-League Grand Final at SFC's own Sydney Football Stadium. Sydney finished their league season third out of eight teams, but was eliminated by the Queensland Roar over two legs in the first round of the playoffs.
The second leg of that match saw Sydney without the services of Brazilian World Cup-winning midfielder Juninho Paulista, and that appears to be the case for the PPC as well, with a knee injury ruling out the former Middlesbrough player.
Sydney will have the services for forward Alex Brosque, who finished tied for third on the A-League goal-scoring charts, with eight in 22 matches. In the back, inspirational captain and former Australian international Tony Popovic will try to keep things organized against a Houston team that, despite the aforementioned dearth of forwards, still has plenty of attacking weapons. Sydney has had some previous success against MLS opposition, defeating the Galaxy 5-3 in an exhibition match in November 2007, with Brosque netting twice.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.