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Desert Diamond Cup features quartet of MLS teams

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FC Tucson Desert Diamond Cup

Desert Diamond Cup features quartet of MLS teams

The lineup: 2 recent champions, Thierry Henry and a team that's rebuilding

It’s that time of year again: the FC Tucson Desert Diamond Cup is kicking off Wednesday night with four Major League Soccer teams playing at Kino Stadium.

In addition to the longer name, fans will have to keep track of a longer list of teams. Gone are the two Arizona sides that played last year, although FC Tucson now gets to be part of the moniker. So, who are these men with the shorts and oddly colored shirts?

Los Angeles Galaxy

L.A.’s record last year was so close to perfect that long time fan Dan Loney refers to their few losses as “misprints.”

Such bravado may be hard to take for fans of other teams, but the Galaxy spent nearly the entire season at the top of the table and ended the season with two of American soccer’s three top awards: the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup.

The team already boasted of a potent offense with a David Beckham-led midfield delivering the ball to forwards Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane.

This year, they’ve brought back Edson Buddle, who played last year for German club FC Ingolstadt 04 after four seasons with the Galaxy. Buddle scored 19 goals in the 2010 season. If he maintains that form, there will be no letting up even on those days when Donovan and Keane are unavailable.

The acquisition of Buddle also means that the Galaxy are taking CONCACAF Champions League and U.S. Open Cup play seriously. Competing in both while making a good run in MLS would require deep benches.

Still, there are worries about the defense. Omar Gonzalez was injured during a loan to FC Nuremberg and will be out for a big slice of the season. Loney, who blogs at, takes the possibility of a weaker back line in stride.

“Instead of going unbeaten, untied and unscored on, someone will score on them,” he quipped.

Boasting aside, Loney points to Tommy Meyer, the Indiana University defender who was the team’s first round SuperDraft pick. Meyer led the Hoosiers to nine shutouts in his senior year, and he’s featured in the Galaxy’s preseason line-ups.

“It says a lot that (Galaxy coach Bruce) Arena is willing to start a rookie in that position,” he said.

Another player that Loney thinks is worth watching is Sean Franklin. Franklin, also a defender, has been with the team since 2008 when he was named the league’s rookie of the year. Loney credits the largely unheralded Franklin with a share of their success last season.

“He was crucial to their cup win,” he said. “He’s become another weapon that the team has.”

Can the Galaxy repeat last year’s success?

If preseason is any indication, the answer is far from emphatic. After a 7–2 drubbing of the second division LA Blues, the team went on to post losses to the Portland Timbers, Houston Dynamo and Montreal Impact. Their only win was a narrow one against in-town rivals Chivas USA.

Loney doesn’t think that those results indicate anything. LA is a team that is cautious about overworking star players in tune-up matches, particularly after the experience with Gonzalez.

“There is a big ‘don’t get injured’ sign in pre-season,” he said, “So they are putting out guys in MLS shirts that aren’t MLS quality.”

But with the games in Tucson, the last chance to try out a full squad before their matches in the Champions League and MLS, they may need to risk a knock or two.

Real Salt Lake

The legend on the wall of Real Salt Lake’s locker room reads: “The Team is the Star.”

To a great extent, it’s true. If you ask non-RSL fans to name their favorites, they’d probably name goal keeper Nick Rimando and midfielder Kyle Beckerman. Despite their status as U.S. national team players (and despite Beckerman’s Sideshow Bob-esque dreadlock mop), they aren’t usually picked out among the league’s big stars.

It’s not that the team hasn’t been doing well. They defeated a David Beckham and Landon Donovan-led Los Angeles Galaxy to hoist the MLS Cup in 2009, and last year reached the final of the CONCACAF Champions League.

“They play really good small ball, and they play as a unit,” says Scott McAllister, who writes about Utah soccer for the website Desert Crown, “It’s a system. They line up perfectly from the back line.”

It’s the system that has made RSL successful without the high profile signings of other teams.

“They aren’t looking for high-priced players, but players that can fit,” he said.

And, at least for the games in Tucson, it’s lucky they are, since many of their core players, including Beckerman and Will Johnson, have been recovering from injury during preseason.

McAllister sees a silver lining in that it will give two new signings: Cuban-born midfielder Yordany Álvarez (one of a group of Cuban players that defected during a 2008 tournament) and former North Carolina Tarheel Enzo Martinez.

He sees Álvarez as a back-up for Beckerman, but he’s still wondering, “how will Enzo fit in, that’s what I’ll be looking for.”

Tucsonans looking for their local boys may be a bit disappointed. Tucson-born Nat Borchers is among the injured players and Tucson Soccer Academy product Donny Toia was released by the team last week in a move McAllister calls “shocking.”

“It’s sad because he was a ‘homegrown’ player that came up through the system,” McAllister said of Toia, who developed as a player in RSL’s academies in Arizona and Utah.

New York Red Bulls

The Red Bulls are the returning team from last year’s contest, and with eight core players still on the squad from the 2011 season, it won’t be a new team for Tucson fans.

The team will be recognizable, but still troubled. New York, since the days when they were known as the MetroStars, have consistently been unable to live up to expectations. They remain the only original team not to win one of the league’s three top prizes even with line-ups that have boasted of well-known players.

There is no shortage of big names on the current roster: French star Thierry Henry, Mexican national team player Rafael Márquez and Juan Agudelo from the U.S. national team. Despite their firepower, they only managed 10 wins in 34 games in 2011 and made it into the playoffs only as a wild card.

With starters like that, what could have gone wrong? To Dan Ryazansky, who blogs about the Red Bulls at MetroFanatic, some of the trouble lies with coach Hans Backe and his lack of confidence in his bench, particularly in American players.

“If you don’t trust anyone outside your starting eleven, what happens when your players go down?” Ryazansky said in a phone interview.

Particularly frustrating for Ryazansky is the lack of playing time for Juan Agudelo. The Colombian-born Agudelo has 15 appearances for the United States, but, Ryazansky said, “Hans seems reluctant to give him playing time.”

Ryazansky is still optimistic about the team, particularly by the performance of Estonian midfielder Joel Lindpere (who Ryazansky named as a favorite before last year’s cup), and Jamaican winger Dane Richards.

“He’s super fast on the right flank,” Ryazansky said, “and very dangerous. Just don’t ask him to cross the ball,” he said naming one weakness. “He’s gotten better every year.”

New England Revolution

The game between New England and the Galaxy on Wednesday night will be of particular interest to Revs fans.

“It’s a team we love to hate,” said Hank Alexandre, who runs the Midnight Ride podcast.

It’s a sentiment of fans around the league, but in particular for New England, who lost two MLS Cups and a U.S. Open Cup to the Galaxy in the last dozen years, all in overtime.

Even when they were building a reputation as the Buffalo Bills of MLS, they were still arguably one of the best and most consistently exiting sides. However, the past few years have been another matter. Their long-time coach, Liverpool and Scotland legend Steve Nicol, was let go after a second season with no appearance in the playoffs.

This season they are helmed by former Rev Jay Heaps. Along with the coaching change, there were big changes on the team itself.

Gone are many of the recent international signings brought on in an attempt to jury-rig the team into a victory or two.

Still present are the three biggest names on the team: goalkeeper Matt Reis, and midfielders Shalrie Joseph and Benny Feilhaber. Also still around are two players who came to the squad late in the season and made an impact: winger Ryan Guy, an American that formerly played at St. Patrick’s Athletic in Ireland, and seventeen year-old midfielder Diego Fagundez.

The Revolution’s biggest problems last year came near the end of matches. They conceded goals in the final fifteen minutes in thirteen games last year. Their most spectacular late-game collapse came on Sept. 7 when a seemingly in-the-bag 4-2 victory over the Philadelphia Union turned into a 4–4 tie when the team appeared to run out of gas.

Heaps has brought in former Rev Nick Downing as strength and conditioning coach, a move Alexandre is happy with.

“Nick Downing is a sign that they are taking the fitness level seriously so they can close out the game,” he said.

The team is still bringing in prospects, including a former Arsenal academy player named Tom Cruise. (Talk to me, Goose!)

Alexandre is hoping to see something from the two Colombian players brought in, forward Fernando Cárdenas and defender John Lozano. But his favorite is Kelyn Rowe, the UCLA midfielder who has already impressed in preseason. Alexandre calls him the “real deal.”

“Some people are likening him to Benny Feilhaber. He’s natural and comfortable with the ball at his feet,” Alexandre continues.

He gave the highest praise possible for a Rev fan: He invoked former players who were part of the Revs glory years.

“He could grow into being like (Steve) Ralston and (Clint) Dempsey, both players that the Revolution miss.”

Note: the author is a long-time and long-suffering Revs fan. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Beckerman as a forward.


About the FC Tucson Desert Diamond Cup

The event will feature four double-header matches Wednesday and Saturday nights from through March 3. The round-robin tournament will crown a champion on the final evening through a point-accumulation system. All teams will make their final preparations for the 2012 MLS regular season by training on the world-class fields and facilities of the Kino Sports Complex.


  • 6 p.m. New England Revolution vs. L.A. Galaxy
  • 8 p.m. New York Red Bulls vs. Real Salt Lake


  • 6 p.m. L.A. Galaxy vs. Real Salt Lake
  • 8 p.m. New York Red Bulls vs. New England Revolution

Wednesday, Feb. 29

  • 6 p.m. Real Salt Lake vs. New England Revolution
  • 8 p.m. L.A. Galaxy vs. New York Red Bulls

Saturday, March 3

  • 6 p.m. MLS 3rd place vs. MLS 4th place
  • 8 p.m. MLS 1st place vs. MLS 2nd place


New England Revolution

  • 2011 record: 5-16-13 (27 points), ninth in Eastern Conference, 17th overall
  • 2012 preseason record: 3-0-0
  • Founded in 1995
  • Coach: Jay Heaps
  • Honors: U. S. Open Cup (2007), SuperLiga (2008)

Despite being one of the best MLS teams of the last decade with four MLS Cup appearances, the Revs have struggled the last couple of years. They recently replaced long-time coach Steve Nicol with an interesting but inexperienced choice: former Rev Jay Heaps. Even with the poor record, players like teenager Diego Fagundez and U.S. national teamer Benny Feilhaber turned in good performances. The team has re-signed midfielder Shalrie Joseph and goalkeeper Matt Reis, but fans are still looking for a big signing in the off-season.

New York Red Bulls

  • 2011 record: 10-8-16 (46 points), fifth in Eastern Conference, 10th overall
  • 2012 preseason record: 1-0-1
  • Founded in 1995 as the New York/New Jersey MetroStars, shortened to MetroStars in 2003, became the Red Bulls in 2006
  • Coach: Hans Backe
  • Honors: none

The experts picked the Red Bulls as contenders for MLS Cup at the start of the season, but it didn't work out that way for them. Despite having some of the biggest stars of world soccer, they were done in by disorganization, bad player management and infighting, coming to a head when Mexican superstar Rafael Márquez lashed out publicly at his teammates. Still, any team boasting of players like Thierry Henry is going to give other teams fits. Even with the big names, it was lesser-known internationals like Luke Rodgers and Joel Lindpere who carried the water for the squad.

Los Angeles Galaxy

  • 2011 record: 19-5-10 (67 points), first in Western Conference, first overall
  • 2012 preseason record: 2-3-0
  • Founded in 1995
  • Coach: Bruce Arena
  • Honors: CONCACAF Champions Cup (2000), MLS Cup (2002, 2005, 2011), Supporters' Shield (1998, 2002, 2010, 2011), U.S. Open Cup (2001, 2005)

Even long-time Galaxy bashers had to admit that they were hands-down the best team this season, and some hyperbolically assert the best in the history of the league. The team didn't lose a single home game and made a flawless run at the MLS Cup at the end of the season. This success came after several underperforming seasons which led some to wonder if "The Beckham Experiment" was all it was cracked up to be. An offense that boasts of David Beckham, Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan (now with Edson Buddle as a back-up) is likely the most dangerous in the league.

Real Salt Lake

  • 2011 record: 15-11-8 (53 points), third in Western Conference, third overall
  • 2012 preseason record: 0-0-1
  • Founded in 2004
  • Coach: Jason Kreis
  • Honors: MLS Cup (2009), Supporters' Shield (2010)
  • Arizona connection: Long-time defender Nat Borchers was born in Tucson.

RSL could be said to have a "moneyball" model: The success they have had over the last couple of years (including an appearance in the CONCACAF Champions League final) was accomplished without a high-dollar marquee player from Europe or Latin America. The team performed well, even compared with other sides in their tough Western Conference. The team may be due for some changes, especially after the retirement of Andy Williams, but it's hard to see where to make them. Argentine Fabián Espíndola, Costa Rican Álvaro Saborío and American midfielder Kyle Beckerman look like they will continue to be the offensive engine of the Royals.

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