Thursday, January 21, 2010

Revolution's championship stamp

Clubs around the world might do well to seriously consider former New England Revolution players in their coaching searches.

Walter Zenga blazed the trail, guiding Steaua Bucharest to the Romanian title in 2005. The next year, Zenga coached Red Star Belgrade to the Serbia championship.

Last year, three former Revolution players -- Leonel Alvarez, Chiquinho Conde and Mauricio Wright -- coached championship teams in their home countries:

-- Alvarez (Deportivo Independiente Medellin) performed for the Revolution from 1999-2001;

-- Conde, who scored six goals in 17 Revolution appearances in 1997, took over Ferroviario with 13 games remaining in the season and guided it to both the Mozambique cup and league titles;

-- Wright, a Revolution defender in 2000-01, led Brujas FC to the Costa Rica championship.

Conde is attempting to find a position in Portugal. Conde starred for Sporting under Carlos Queiroz (now Portugal's national team coach), and served an apprenticeship when Queiroz was at Real Madrid.

Zenga, 49, started his coaching career as a late-season replacement for Thomas Rongen in 1998, then returned as player-coach, but was fired before the end of the '99 season. Zenga was the most accomplished goalkeeper to ever perform in the MLS, helping Inter win the 1989 Serie A scudetto and Italy reach the 1990 World Cup semifinals. Zenga also guided National in Romania, Gaziantepspor in Turkey and Al Ain in the UAE, then returned to Romania with Dinamo Bucharest. Some of Zenga's best accomplishments have been keeping Catania in Serie A after a late-season 2008 hiring, and guiding the Sicilian club to 16th place (38 points) in 2008-09; he was fired after gaining 15 points in 13 games with Palermo this season, the 18th managerial change since Maurizio Zamparini took over the club in 2002.

Zenga was hoping to land the New York Red Bulls job, which went to Hans Backe. Zenga would do well with mid-level Serie A clubs; if he proves himself there (he was successful with Catania, then led Palermo to a 4-6-3 record), he could end up guiding Inter, which appears to be his destiny -- has anyone ever been a ballboy for a club, then won a championship playing for it, then successfully coached the club?

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Sylvio Cator: Haitian hero

Outside Haiti, the name Sylvio Cator means little. To Haitians, though, he is the namesake of their national stadium. Mention Stade Sylvio Cator to Haitians and they will usually smile, remembering a place which served as a platform to launch the country into the world's sporting consciousness in the 1970s.

Now, the stadium is being used to treat victims of Tuesday's earthquake. There is no bigger edifice in Port-au-Prince. There is probably no greater symbol of the spirit of the Haitain people.

Sylvio Cator was one of the most remarkable athletes of the last century. Cator captained the Haiti national team in soccer and also long-jumped nearly 25 feet, winning a silver medal in the 1928 Olympics in Paris. I thought of Cator when watching Bob Beamon play in a celebrity soccer game at the Copa Latina in Miami a few years ago. Beamon, though considered an almost supernatural athlete when he long-jumped 29 feet, 2 inches, was one of the worst soccer players I've ever seen. My point: the build of a long jumper and soccer player are so different, that you almost cannot be an elite competitor in both activities -- but Cator was.

My first trip to the Caribbean was in August, 1991. My assignment -- the Haiti-U.S. Olympic qualifying soccer match. Actually, there was no assignment -- I went on my own, hoping to be able to write about the game either for my newspaper or to freelance it. I was also working on a "searching for Joe Gaetjens" story, which I was able to get published in Soccer Zones, thanks to Anne Woodworth.

I had never seen a place resembling Port-au-Prince and I don't believe there is anything like it in the Western Hemisphere, in terms of the scale of squalor. A friend once asked Mother Teresa where people were most needed for charitable causes and humanitarian work, expecting her to recommend some heavily overpopulated place on the Indian sub-continent or Southeast Asia. Her reply: "Haiti."

In the early '90s, the economy of Haiti's capital was suffering, there was little infrastructure. The Ton Ton Macoutes, the Duvalier's enforcers, were still around. The U.S. went to Stade Sylvio Cator the day before the game for a training session, and was greeted by a member of the Fédération Haitienne de Football who told coach Lothar Osiander the team was not allowed on the field, yelling at him for nearly the entire workout. The U.S. team mostly stayed inside at the Holiday Inn. A few of us went to the Marce de Fer, and I think assistant coach Len Roitman bought something. Thom Meredith and I got to Petionville for what was supposed to be a Boukmans Eksperyans show, but ended up being a Swedish rock band.

I went out on my own, hooking up with a guy who attended the Newman School in Back Bay. He took me to the Hotel Olofsson, the main setting for Graham Greene's The Comedians, the book/film which first sparked my interest in Haiti. There, we met Aubelin Jolicoeur, Greene's Petit Pierre, who had seen Gaetjens play in the '40s and written some poetic stuff about the experience. Jolicoeur had been known as "Mr. Haiti," working in a promotional capacity for the government. Jolicoeur was a survivor, an incredibly up-beat person who lived to the age of about 80, and it is probably good he has not had to witness what is going on in Port-au-Prince now.

Wherever we went, my driver would stop and try to pick up news, try to get a feel for what was going on. Duvalier had not been gone long, and Aristide's presidency was not considered stable. There could be an uprising at any time? Who knows? The docks seemed to provide some of the clearest indications of the economic and political climate, though you needed to know how to interpret the activity there.

Anyway, I went to Joe Gaetjens' house, saw the building which housed his family's laundromat, was taken to Fort Dimanche prison, right to the cell where he was probably killed. There were cows grazing on the grounds of the prison, no longer in use.

The night of Aug. 25, 1991, I went with the team to Stade Sylvio Cator. The place was filled, spectators literally climbing onto the light stanchions to view the match. The U.S. took a 2-0 victory on goals by Joe-Max Moore and Dante Washington. Brad Friedel was excellent in goal, though the Haitians squandered a point blank chance the one time they appeared to beat Friedel. The crowd was crazy. But I don't mean that in an irrational way. They reacted positively to positive accomplishments on the field and negatively to poor play, always quite passionately. They hit a linesman with a rock after a controversial offside call, and only the intervention of the federation president prevented the game from being suspended.

As for the ride back to the hotel, it was slightly insane. First of all, there are no street lights to speak of in Port-au-Prince. At night, it is very, very dark. You sense, rather than actually see, there are dozens of people en route; and you watch shapes scatter away from the headlights. On the way out of the stadium area, a rock went through a window and hit the bus driver in the head. There was broken glass and blood, but he kept going and got us back to the hotel. There is no way anyone could have made that drive without knowing the way, because you could not see a street sign.

Osiander was pretty calm throughout the whole ordeal. I remember interviewing Mike Burns and Cobi Jones, later recalling any pressure they endured in their pro careers would not compare to this one.

There are many symbols of resistance to slavery in Haiti. The main road from the airport is named for John Brown. There are statues near the stadium of the Revolution leaders Dessalines, Henri Cristophe, the inspiration for the slaves' uprising, Le Marron Inconnu. The biggest monument to a Haitian hero, though, is Stade Sylvio Cator. The stadium provided inspirational memories when it was home to the national team which qualified for the 1974 World Cup, and took the lead against Italy before falling, 3-1.

My lasting memory of Port-au-Prince was not only the squalor of the city but also the spirit of the people. Living conditions could not have been worse, but Haitians were friendly and, as much as they could be, optimistic. Stade Sylvio Cator is a 40,000-plus capacity concrete bowl, refurbished for a 2006 Haiti-Brazil game. Now, it is being used to try to help sort out bodies. Hopefully, someday the name of the stadium will again evoke positive memories.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

U.S.-El Salvador Feb. 20?

The U.S. has set up a World Cup warmup game Feb. 20 against El Salvador, according to a story in El Diario de Hoy. The report quotes El Salvador federation president Reynaldo Vasquez.

The U.S. Soccer Federation has yet to announce the match, indicating it has not been finalized. The U.S. is attempting to find opponents similar in style to their World Cup group foes -- Algeria, England, and Slovenia. But El Salvador does not seem to fit that description.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Sosa shoots, he scores at Fenway

Interesting photo of Ruben Hector Sosa on the cover of the Sunday Globe sports section. Sosa appears to be shooting on goal while playing for the Boston Beacons at Fenway Park in a 1968 North American Soccer League game. Utilizing Colin Jose's NASL history book, I figured it was probably a June 21, 1968 game in which the Chicago Mustangs took a 6-5 win. Sosa scored one of the Beacon goals against Chicago goalkeeper Gerd Langer.

As it turns out, the Globe photo appeared about a year after Sosa died. According to the Clarin website, Sosa's death on Dec. 10, 2008 was related to diabetes.

Sosa must have been among the most accomplished athletes to call Fenway Park his home field, regardless of sport. The Beacons shared Fenway with the Red Sox in 1968, including an exhibition against Santos (with Pele'), won, 7-1, by the Brazilians. Professional soccer was being introduced to the area, and Beacons-Santos game on July 9, 1968 drew a crowd of 18,431, setting a benchmark for soccer attendance. Before that game, there was no evidence soccer could draw major crowds in the Boston area. Four years later, promoters brought Benfica and Sporting to Foxboro Stadium for two games which averaged about 30,000 spectators. Then, the NASL returned with the Minutemen and Tea Men, both teams occasionally attracting significant numbers.

Each of these soccer projects -- not just the Beacons, Minutemen, Tea Men, but also exhibition matches -- was hamstrung by what the Brits call "ground sharing." Soccer promoters and teams had no control over stadia, so they were always an afterthought behind the primary tenant. The Beacons set up their schedule around Red Sox road trips. When the Red Sox were away, the Beacons would play several home games in succession. The Beacons had backing from respected sporting figures, such as the Celtics' Red Auerbach, but not enough people who were involved understood soccer, so it was difficult for the sport to succeed, especially with unfavorable playing dates.

Anyway, Sosa was 32 years old and near the end of his career when he came to Boston. He scored seven goals in 17 games for the Beacons, who finished in last place in their division.

Sosa had been a major figure with Racing Club in Avellaneda, winning the Argentinean championship in 1958 and '61. Sosa led the team in scoring three times, a significant accomplishment with a team nicknamed La Academia for its stylish play and "maquina"-like forward line. In those days, teams attacked with five players -- Racing's front line was composed of Ruben Belen, Oreste Corbatta, Pedro Mansilla, Juan Jose Pizzuti and Sosa.

Sosa also scored 11 goals in 18 appearances for Argentina's national team, winning the 1959 Copa America. Sosa played for Argentina in the 1962 World Cup in Chile, starting in a 3-1 loss to England in Rancagua. His career nearly ended after he sustained broken tibia and perone bones, an injury which few athletes recovered from in that era.

Sosa's nickname was "El Marques," because his movements and stature suggested royalty. He played on the left, as "a No. 10," a highly-respected role anywhere, but especially in Argentina. Sosa scored 82 times in 151 games for Racing, then went to Nacional in Uruguay. Sosa was in the Nacional lineup for the first two games of the 1967 Copa Libertadores final -- against Racing -- but not in the team for the deciding third game, won by Racing. The '67 Racing Club team, coached by Pizzuti, had a 39-game unbeaten streak and won the Intercontinental Cup in a three-game series against Celtic, becoming the first Argentinian club to win what was considered the world championship for clubs.

Sosa moved to the U.S. for one season, then returned to Argentina for a final year. According to the Clarin story, Sosa was an "amigo de la cultura tanguera" and spent much of his time at the tango club El Tabano.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Brujas, Mauricio Wright campeones

Brujas FC es campeon -- on penalty kicks against Puntarenas in the Costa Rican title game.

Mauricio Wright, a central defender for San Jose and New England in the MLS through 2001, coached Brujas, a club in the Desamparados section of San Jose, to its first championship, a week after his 39th birthday.

The game was telecast only in Costa Rica, and website did the play-by-play. The teams played to a 1-1 tie on aggregate, Daniel Jimenez' goal tying the score with a 47th-minute goal. Keylor Soto converted the clinching penalty kick.

Wright has done an impressive job guiding Brujas, a club which started five years ago in his home barrio. Wright came to the San Jose Clash in 1999, then joined the Revolution in a trade. Wright and William Sunsing were expected to open a pipeline from Costa Rica to the Revolution, but any thought of that continuing dried up after a disastrous 2001 season.

Brujas is the 11th qualifier for the 24-team CONCACAF Champions Cup. The field already includes MLS teams Columbus Crew, Los Angeles Galaxy, Real Salt Lake and Seattle Sounders. Also qualified are Cruz Azul and Monterrey (México); Marathón (Honduras); Arabe Unido (Panamá); Municipal (Guatemala); and FAS (El Salvador).

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Alvarez, Wright: Revolution to coaching success

The final game as members of the New England Revolution for Leonel Alvarez and Mauricio Wright was the 2001 U.S. Open Cup. They were performing for the Revolution in a 2-1 overtime loss to the Los Angeles Galaxy in Fullerton, Calif.

Alvarez would return to Colombia to conclude his playing career and Wright would go on to play for Costa Rica in the 2002 World Cup finals in Japan and also to deliver some impressive performances for AEK in the UEFA Champions League.

Unfortunately, Alvarez and Wright left the MLS on a low note, the Revolution missing the 2001 playoffs, then squandering a 1-0 lead against the Galaxy at Titan Stadium with a chance to salvage a disastrous season. Both brought a level of sophistication to the games they played in, both served as models for young U.S. prospects.

Both were destined to become coaches. And, on Sunday, the teams Alvarez and Wright are now guiding had impressive victories.

Alvarez’ Deportivo Independiente Medellin won the Colombian championship on aggregate, following a 2-2 tie with Atletico Huila. And Wright’s Brujas FC took a 2-1 victory over Perez Zeledon in the semifinals of the Costa Rica playoffs. Brujas will meet Puntarenas in the finals.

Alvarez, who anchored the Colombian midfield in support of Carlos Valderrama in the 1980s and ‘90s, is now being considered as a candidate to become the national team coach.

Should Wright continue to impress, he will doubtless be considered to take over Costa Rica’s seleccion. The Ticos have had mixed results with coaches, and have appointed Under 20 coach Ronald Gonzalez on an interim basis for upcoming amistosos against Argentina and France.

Monday, December 7, 2009

U.S.-Honduras in LA?

Next up for the U.S. could be a game against Honduras in Los Angeles.

The U.S. Soccer Federation has yet to announce the game, indicating it has not been finalized. La Prensa reported Monday that Honduras would be meeting the U.S. in Los Angeles Jan. 24.

The La Prensa site also has a story quoting David Suazo's brother, former Honduras national team member Nicolas Suazo, as saying the Catrachos would not be able to defeat Spain "even with 22 players."

[The Nicolas Suazo story originally appeared in Nacion, an interview conducted while Suazo was in Costa Rica for a benefit game. Others involved included Carlos Valderrama and former New England Revolution and San Jose defender Mauricio Wright, who is now coaching Brujas].