Thursday, January 31, 2013

Spotlight on Africa

It's deadline day for the European transfer window and while most of the football headlines concern themselves with the riots surrounding "Super" Mario Balotelli's return to Italy or David Beckham's new Parisian digs, an entire continent holds its breath, quietly awaiting the outcome of an international tournament that's been all but overshadowed.

This weekend, the knockout stage of the African Cup of Nations tournament will begin in South Africa.  Ghana, America's unofficial international nemesis, are set to clash with Cape Verde, whose shocking success have set the stage for this David v. Goliath matchup.  Hosts South Africa take on Mali as the Bafana Bafana will look to vindicate themselves before the home crowds.  The Elephants (and "heavy" favorites) of Ivory Coast will tangle with the Super Eagles of Nigeria Sunday afternoon, while the Togolese will seek to silence the up-and-coming Burkina Faso.

Defending champions Zambia were sent packing after drawing each fixture in the group stage.  The worst part is that because the AFCON was recently restructured so as not to interfere with the World Cup, Zambia will not be invited to the Confederations Cup.

The group stage witnessed some livewire matches including a tense draw between South Africa and Morocco and an Ivorian drubbing of Tunisia.  There's potential for even more excitement in the knockouts.  But here are some highlights, supposing you may have missed out on the action:

All my joy and excitement are compounded by the fact that I'll be traveling to Africa myself in a matter of weeks!  I can't wait to share God's love (as well as the beautiful game!) with my Ugandan brothers and sisters!

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

An Emerald City Homecoming

Lamar Neagle will be suiting up with the Seattle Sounders for an unprecedented third time since his initial signing with the West-coast powerhouse.  I was surprised to discover only hours after publishing The Major League Connection that it had already become outdated!

The Washington native began his professional career with the Sounders in 2009 having come from UNLV's soccer program.  Joining the Charleston Battery in 2010, Neagle earned the USL-2 Golden Boot and League MVP while plying his trade in the Lowcountry.  The attacking midfielder spent time abroad, recording a successful spell with Finland's IFK Mariehamn before returning home to once again play with Seattle.

Neagle netted a few crucial goals for the Rave Green in 2011, scoring five goals and two assists while logging only 1,008 on-field minutes.  (Not to mention becoming only the second player in franchise history to bag a hat-trick!)  He also found the net in the playoffs, but was traded to expansion side Montreal Impact the following year.  The Cascadia-born footballer did well in the Impact's system, but was underutilized at best.

While Seattle's midfield department is bursting with talent, this hometown hero is a welcome addition to a promising Sounders squad.  Seattle boast the most vibrant supporters in Major League Soccer and I'm sure the Emerald City is ecstatic at the return of one of their own.

(photo credit: SC Soccer Blog)

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Major League Connection

While the ink has only just dried on the groundbreaking MLS/USL partnership agreement, the relationship between the two leagues is anything but a new one.  In fact, most casual fans might dismiss the assertion that the United Soccer League has been instrumental in shaping the dynamic, successful, ever expanding organization we now know as MLS.

Take a look at the teams at the top of the American soccer pyramid.  Granted, there are several MLS teams who are football pioneers in their own right, but the Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers, Vancouver Whitecaps, and Montreal Impact were all once among the most competitive sides in the USL.

Now look at the players that make up the mosaic of Major League talent.  You've got a handful of international stars (either waxing or waning), a good crop of kids drafted from their college teams, and a gracious harvest of persistent professionals who've made the breakthrough to the top tier of the national system.

Need examples?  Well, thanks for asking!  Here ya go:

Start with the Seattle Sounders.  From Charleston alone they've picked up Osvaldo Alonso, whose become their midfield maestro and team captain.  They also nabbed Lamar Neagle who has since been traded to the Montreal Impact.  Alex Caskey earned his MLS contract last year and features regularly with the boys in Rave Green.

The Battery's "Wildman", Tom Heinemann, signed first with the Columbus Crew in 2011 following Charleston's incredible Championship season.  Flourishing as an impact player, Tom was sidelined by injury in his second year.  But the future looks brighter still since the forward just completed a transfer to the Vancouver Whitecaps.  During his loan from NY Red Bulls to the Wilmington Hammerheads, last season Cory Hertzog won a spot on the USL All-league team and was easily one of the most entertaining players in USL.  Hertzog also recently put pen to paper with the 'Caps.

In Portland, the Timbers can thank the likes of the LA Blues for the striking starlet Bright Dike.  Dike's stint in LA paved the way for his acclimation to playing on an even larger stage.  Portland's defensive rookie Andrew Jean-Baptiste also spent time with the Blues last summer.

Especially considering the potential of the new MLS/USL partnership, this is really just the beginning.  The Charleston Battery has four more players training/on trial with MLS clubs and there's a good chance several of them may make the step up.  The Battery's offensive spark and set-piece hero Nicki Patterson is in camp with the New York Red Bulls, having impressed the big boys in their Open Cup outing in the Lowcountry.  Jose Cuevas, USL rookie of the year, is being looked at by the Seattle Sounders and is joined by teammate Cody Ellison.  Midfielder Ryan Richter, who enjoyed an incredible run of form throughout last year's championship season, is on trial with D.C. United and things look quite promising for him in the Capital.

USL Pro will soon be wrapping up their annual player combine, which promises to pump even more fresh talent into the system and with so many PDL franchises opening up across the States (not to mention the NPSL) the sport in America is growing in leaps and bounds.  Now that the nation's two premier leagues have joined forces, the sky is the limit!

(photo credit: MLS facebook page)

Friday, January 25, 2013

"The New Deal" - Unwrapping the MLS/USL Affiliation Agreement

After months of speculation, Wednesday's announcement made the Major League Soccer & USL Pro partnership official.  MLS & USL Pro have entered into a long-term commitment that will restructure the the current MLS Reserve League.  The agreement also looks toward establishing a USL affiliate for each MLS franchise.  In addition to strengthening player development and a unified league pyramid, MLS could potentially explore opportunities to expand the league by "promoting" USL franchises.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, lets take a moment to unpack this monumental development.  While both leagues would describe the partnership as a work in progress, the framework for the 2013 season is in already in place.  (No Quarter also has an excellent breakdown of the new agreement here)  MLS owners have settled on three options for MLS teams and the lower division league:

<> Affiliation- MLS sides would name an official USL partner that would in-effect serve as their development team.  The deal would include at least four signings loaned to the USL side, with the strong implication that the USL has a weighty say in the process.  
<> Creation- MLS teams could choose to field their own stand-alone USL Pro team.  This choice may be the most beneficial in terms of bolstering the USL Pro league, but it would also prove the most expensive and technically challenging.  
<> Integration- MLS franchises may continue on their current track in the Reserve League, but would have a USL "partner" whom they face a few times throughout the RL season.  

So who's going where??  

Four MLS teams have already announced a USL affiliation:

D.C. United - Richmond Kickers

Philadelphia Union - Harrisburg City Islanders

New England Revolution - Rochester Rhinos

Sporting Kansas City - Orlando City Lions

Since no MLS side has opted to field an independent USL Pro side as of yet, that leaves integration for the remaining teams, with the exception being Chivas USA, who chose to forgo the Reserve League all together.  Initially, there will be two interleague fixtures for each USL side (home & away; except Antigua).  The results will count and be figured in to Reserve League/USL Pro standings, respectively.  The integration assignments for 2013 MLSRL/USL Pro are as follows:

Los Angels Blues vs. Los Angeles Galaxy
VSI Tampa Bay vs. Portland Timbers
Antigua Barracuda FC vs. FC Dallas & San Jose Earthquakes
Charleston Battery vs. Houston Dynamo
Charlotte Eagles vs. Chicago Fire
Dayton Dutch Lions vs. Columbus Crew
Harrisburg City Islanders vs. Colorado Rapids
Orlando City vs. Seattle Sounders FC
Phoenix FC vs. Real Salt Lake
Pittsburgh Riverhounds vs. Toronto FC
Richmond Kickers vs. Vancouver Whitecaps FC
Rochester Rhinos vs. Montreal Impact
Wilmington Hammerheads vs. New York Red Bulls

While such widespread changes could potentially threaten the identity of smaller market USL sides, keep in mind the Charleston Battery has remained at the forefront of the professional soccer scene in the US, not to mention, they are the proud owners of America's first soccer-specific stadium.  Further, Charleston, Richmond and a few other USL teams have been in continuous operation for almost twice as long as Major League Soccer.  Of course, there will be plenty more changes to come in the next several years, but it looks to be a most promising development for American fans of the beautiful game.  

Probably what excites me the most about the whole shebang is an intensified rivalry between inter-league foes in the US Open Cup!!

So here's to the new partnership and another year filled with fantastic football!!  

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Africa Bound!!

My buddy Philip
At the end of February, my wife and I will be traveling to Uganda.  Its been over six years since the last time we traveled to East Africa, but the people of Uganda, and particularly the children of Uganda hold a special place in our hearts.

In our time there, we will be visiting, partnering with, and assisting several different orphan care ministries.  They range in scope from a newly begun babies home to an organization that provides loving care for orphans with special medical and/or developmental needs.  We plan to bring as many medical supplies as possible and we intend to pack several other practical items that may be hard to come by.

It has been my experience from the inner city slums, to the wilds of Africa, or anywhere else across the globe, that a football (soccer ball) is the most natural means for breaking the ice regardless of the culture or location I've found myself in.  Thats why I'm calling on all you soccer junkies to take part in our adventure!!!

For most kids in Uganda, the beautiful game is played with a tightly rolled wad of caveras (plastic bags) using someone's flip-flops to serve as goalposts.  And while it may seem like a simple gift, a real soccer ball can bring inestimable joy to the life of a child!  If you have any old or unused soccer balls or equipment (i.e. pumps, socks, pads, etc.), would you consider donating them to our trip?

Rachel and I look forward to sharing God's love with the fatherless of Uganda and invite you to share in the joy of our adventure.  I'd be more than happy to snap some photos of your gear being put to good use!  If you're interested in donating something to our trip, please leave a comment or contact me on facebook.

If you would like to know more about our organization please visit Voices 4 the Voiceless

Monday, January 7, 2013

Carolina Challenge Cup & An Offseason Update

Its time again to break the offseason silence and with the dawn of the New Year unveil the fresh hopes and aspirations of 2013.  The past year was certainly a prosperous one for the Charleston Battery.  Despite the cancelation of an exhibition with Nottingham Forrest, the Black & Gold provided an entertaining season of football with riveting league play, hosting the New York Red Bulls in the Open Cup, and perhaps the club's most memorable playoff run to date.  Advancing to the Championship match by besting the Rochester Rhinos in penalties, Charleston would go on to win their forth league title, defeating local rivals the Wilmington Hammerheads at Blackbaud Stadium to lift the USL PRO trophy.

Looking forward, this year's Carolina Challenge Cup will showcase more Major League Soccer talent than ever before! The Chicago Fire, Houston Dynamo, and Vancouver Whitecaps all participated in the MLS Playoffs and the Dynamo finished runner-up to the LA Galaxy.  Estonian international Joel Lindpere was recently acquired by Chicago from the Red Bulls and should be present at the CCC.  Also worth noting, the American legend Jay Demerit, captain of the Whitecaps and USMNT regular, will make his Blackbaud debut when the 'Caps do battle with the Battery in the first round of the tournament.

Concerning league news, the USL PRO has added two new teams for 2013 season and announced a Sacramento expansion side slated for the following year.  VSI Tampa Bay FC and Phoenix FC will liven up the league and provide some fresh challenges for the Pride of the Lowcountry this year.  Sadly, Kyle Hoffer, a defensive lynchpin in Charleston's 2012 Championship squad was the first signing for VSI and Phoenix FC have poached defender Devin Grousis from the Charlotte Eagles.

The Battery Coaching staff completed their yearly scouting visit to Jamaica in mid-December and could likely pepper Charleston's provisional squad with more Caribbean flavor.  The final set of open trials will be held this weekend as players from across the state and across the country will vie for a contract or provisional roster spot with the Battery.  As in years past, this has proved to be a great opportunity to enlist local talent from the Palmetto State as well as prospects from further afield.

Speaking of local talent, there's even more good news for fans of the Beautiful Game in the Midlands.   South Carolina's PDL side, the SC United Bantams (formerly Palmetto FC), have teamed up with the SC United youth soccer program for the 2013 season.  This means the Bantams will split playing home fixtures between Lander University and USC.  The collaboration will now provide a natural avenue for athletes to progress from youth soccer to the college level, and then on to amateur development and professional football.  And who knows?  With a rich crop of collegiate footballers, we may see a few Bantams move up to join the Battery before long!

So here's to the Battery's USL PRO title defense and an incredible year of football in 2013!!