Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Gibbs Called Into US Squad

Not much time for the Christmas excess to wear off. Cory Gibbs, center back for the Colorado Rapids, has been called into the US national team training camp in preparation for a friendly in Los Angeles against Sweden January 24. The players will report as early as January 4. Gibbs was also in the previous US squad for the game in Colorado against Guatemala though he did not see any action in the World Cup qualifier. Then, he was joined by two other Rapids' players in the final squad - Pablo Mastroeni and Conor Casey. Mastroeni will not play in the vital home World Cup qualifier against Mexico on February 11 because of suspension so it would not really make sense to call him into this squad. A little tough on Casey who saw a quarter of an hour of action against Guatemala but looks to be missing out for the moment.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Happy Holidays

I did end up speaking with a former Rapids' favorite yesterday but I won't have time to write that up until this weekend. So, I just wanted to wish any faithful readers out there a very happy holiday season. Thank you for reading my blog and making your comments throughout the season and into this close season. Please do check back for more player interviews and thoughts as we approach the preseason. It's going to be a busy time in the New Year as the Rapids' staff will be sorting out new players and re-signing contracts. Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah, Joyful Kwanzaa.

Friday, December 19, 2008

World Cup Winner on Chile, Life and Snowboarding

Did you know there is a recent World Cup winner living right here in the state of Colorado? Current University of Colorado student, Nikki Marshall, has just returned to her home town of Mead, Colorado after playing in every minute of every game in the victorious US U-20 Women's Team which triumphed against North Korea 1-0 earlier this month in the tournament in Chile. I called her the other day to chat about the experience. One of the highlights for Nikki, apart from obviously winning the event, was the country of Chile and its people. "They were awesome," she said. "They have a real knowledge of soccer culture and we had people at all our games cheering for us. They were so friendly and welcoming." The toughest games were against France and Germany, both of which the US team ended up winning. The only game they lost in pool play was against China where Nikki admitted there was definitely less motivation given the team was already through to the knock-out rounds.
Interestingly, Nikki plays forward for the CU Buffs but at center back for the national team. She scores a hatload of goals for CU but modestly feels that she is not quite at the technical level to play forward for the national team. "My strength is my speed and my vision is getting better," she said. "The intensity at this level is incredible," she added. CU Women's coach, Bill Hempen, agrees that it is Nikki's athleticism, not to say heart, that is her strength and could see her go all the way at a professional and national team level. "They saw enough of her to put her in as a defender at a younger age level," Hempen said of Nikki's invitation to an U-21 national team training camp which she originally attended looking to gain a place as a forward. From there, she was selected in the younger age group as a central defender. "The kid's a winner," Hempen added. "She is like a puppy chasing a frisbee and will always play as hard as she possibly can. I think she has a legitimate shot at competing as a defender at the full national team level."
The 20-year old is a fairly recent convert to soccer having grown up playing baseball and softball as a young kid and only coming to the world's game at around 11 years old. "I just fell in love with it," she said. The CU junior says she would love to turn professional at the end of her student career. Playing with the likes of Abby Wambach would be a dream. For now, the sociology major is concentrating on staying fit and enjoying the Winter surroundings of her native state. "I love the mountains and especially snowboarding," she said. Better watch out for those ACLs. Coach Hempen's rule? If the students know how to ski or board before they come to college, they can enjoy the slopes as much as they like. "You just cannot learn when you get here," he said. A big congratulations to Nikki and the rest of the US team for an amazing achievement. Find out more about the tournament through Nikki's blog which you can access through this link.
Please do keep your eye on my blog because I will have a former Rapids favorite for you just in time for Christmas. All gift wrapped with a nice bow on the top.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Coaching Staff, Goodbye Reserves, Burciaga Going

These were the main subjects of discussion when I talked today to Gary Smith, Colorado Rapids' head coach. We talked about the search for an assistant coach and a full-time goalkeeping coach, the impact of the MLS decision to scrap the Reserve division and some of the anticipated player movements before next season. Here is a summary of our talk.
There was a bit of fuss and bother (and a major lack of communication) recently when the Rochester Rhinos announced their player coach, Steve Guppy, a close friend of Smith's, would be leaving to join the Rapids as assistant coach. Smith said today that the search was ongoing and that "it was not nailed on that Steve will be coming." "There are a couple of bodies that I want to interview," he added. One of those bodies will not be John Murphy, former assistant coach during the Fernando Clavijo era and currently Director of Player Development. "I have a great relationship with John," Smith said. "John needs to be in charge somewhere else because a move to assistant would be a backward step for him." "Rightly, he has aspirations to do bigger and better things."
On the goalkeeping coach side, Smith said there are still interviews to be conducted. David Kramer, currently acting as a part-time coach, is in "pole position." "He has good experience and the fact that he has already formed a relationship with the goalkeepers here," counts in his favor, Smith said. One interesting angle on this is what will happen to Preston Burpo next season. With the Rapids having to reduce their squad to 24 players because of the Reserve Division scrapping, Smith agrees that there won't be room for four goalkeepers at the club. With Mike Graczyk already signed up for next season and Chris Sharpe signed to a new MLS league contract, it doesn't leave room to have all of Burpo, Bouna Coundoul and Justin Hughes. "If we have three goalkeepers, we will be holding one more than other MLS teams," Smith said. With his emphasis on youth, it seems likely that Preston Burpo would be the one to miss out and Smith said he could foresee a player coach role at some point for the veteran goalie. "I know that Preston will be pushing for a team spot," he said. "He would be a good individual to have around as a player coach or goalkeeping coach." As for Bouna, who is clearly stalling on signing a new contract, Smith said they were close to coming to a resolution with the Senegal international and his agent. "He has been offered an extremely good contract," Smith added. "Bouna is a very talented young lad and he knows he is in front but we all know that people have dips in form and we need to have individuals who not only fill in the gaps but are also fighting for a first team place."
"This is probably the first poor decision and step backward that the MLS has made," Smith said. The squad will have to be trimmed down to 24 players which will mean some "very difficult decisions." Preseason will be key in making such decisions, Smith said. "The younger players will have an opportunity to push on and come into the first team but they will be fighting for fewer spots," he said. "It will be impossible to keep all the bodies and some of these boys will be moving to USL." If it hadn't been for the Reserves, players like Nick LaBrocca, Kosuke Kimura and Colin Clark would have found it far more difficult to get first team chances, Smith pointed out. The Rapids will be looking into organizing as many competitive fixtures for second tier players next season but it won't be easy to do so, Smith said.
Smith has made no secret of the fact that he would like to add two or three players to the current squad in an attempt to make the Rapids a genuine contender for the MLS Cup. One of the positions he is focusing on is another versatile defender, primarily a full-back. The talented but inexperienced Jordan Harvey and Kosuke Kimura look to be the starters right now but there will be no place next season for Jose Burciaga. The veteran left back, who joined from Kansas City at the beginning of last season, started off with a bang, scoring against his old team early on, but injuries set in and it looked as if all his confidence, not to say pace, had gone in later games. "Jose will be moving on to a new home so sadly it won't be here," Smith revealed. The back four of choice looks settled for now with Cory Gibbs and Ugo Ihemelu as center backs but Facundo Erpen, who also looked on his way out at the end of last season, may be revitalized since the departure of Mike Petke and could be challenging for a spot.
Upfront, Smith emphasised his desire to add a striker even with a reduced roster. "Four will be a competitive number," he said. "Omar (Cummings) will be called up, people will pick up injuries and suspensions and we have to have at least one striker on the bench."
Smith said he is spending his days watching a lot of DVDs of players and is keeping an open mind as to where they will eventually come from. The problem with the MLS, Smith said, is that, if you want a player, you also have to be ready to trade a player that you would ideally want in your first team. That is why he is using the relationship with Arsenal to tap into their scouting network. So far, he has seen players as far afield as Holland, South America and Italy that he likes the look of. Ideally, it would be nice to have players in place before preseason. "I don't want a poor personality in the locker room," Smith said. "It is more important for me to get the right person in than the wrong person at the ideal time."
Apart from watching DVDs, Smith will be returning to England at New Year and will be able to take in some real live soccer. The holiday period is a very busy one in English football with games traditionally played on Boxing Day, New Year's Day and any Saturdays around that time. Smith will then return to the US for the MLS Draft and Combine which take place in early January.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Gary Smith is in The House Tomorrow

A quick heads-up that I will be interviewing Colorado Rapids' head coach, Gary Smith, tomorrow morning. This will be the first of a series of interviews I am planning over the next few weeks and into January before the preseason starts. As I said before, some of the interview subjects will be more predictable than others. As always, I would welcome any comments or questions you would like answered.
A quick note also on Saturday's Rapids' Supporters Ball. Online registration is now closed but you can still pay on the door, a mere $25 per couple or $15 individually. Kosuke Kimura, Colin Clark and goalkeeper Chris Sharpe will be among the players attending. Here are some details with times, venue etc.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Another Saturday and Looking Ahead

Chelsea winning away, Manchester United playing when it suits them and Alec Ferguson not talking to the BBC. Just another typical Saturday in the English Premier League. If you want something really surprising, you should check out this BBC story on the village team in Germany that is currently riding high in the Bundesliga. TSG Hoffenheim, village population 3,300, may have lost last night away to the mighty Bayern Munich but only to a last minute goal from Luca Toni. They are still top of the league. Yes, there is money behind the team in the form of SAP founder Dietmar Hopp but it is more than that. A great story and a sportswriter's dream.
In terms of the Colorado Rapids and future coverage during this quiet time of the year, I am aiming to get some decent interviews on the site over the next few weeks. Some subjects you may expect, others may give you a second thought.

Monday, December 1, 2008

O'Brien Off to UK With Generation Adidas Team

Nice trip coming up for Colorado Rapids' midfielder, Ciaran O'Brien. O'Brien, who made his ill-fated debut for the Rapids against the LA Galaxy on opening night this past season, was sent off after coming on as a substitute and then did not play again all season in the first team, is off to the UK with the Generation Adidas team. The team will play three games against Premier Leage reserve teams and will also be able to watch Chelsea training and the Blues' UEFA Champions' League game against Romanian team, FC Cluj. The trip is December 6-14. O'Brien is the only Rapids player in the 16-strong party. Other Colorado links in the squad are Aurora native, Roger Espinoza, of the Kansas City Wizards and Bruno Guarda who was briefly on the books this season at the Rapids before being traded to FC Dallas.