This week’s Pan Pacific Championship will air live in the United States on ESPN Classic. The matches start in the wee hours EST and in prime time for the west coast so set your VCRs, DVRs, or Tivo device to catch the matches if you are east of let’s say Denver. the games will also air live on ESPN 360, which is free for AT&T and Verizon broadband subscribers nationally.
Tournament organizers must be pleased that this event, in its first year has been picked up by the ESPN Family of networks. This event is likely to grow in size and stature in future years, but this inagural edition only consists of four teams. Sydney FC of the A-League, the reigning J-League Champions Gambo Osaka, the reigning MLS Champions Houston and the LA Galaxy the runners up in Superliga replacing Pachuca the Superliga champs. Next year’s event is likely to have more than four teams and is also from what I have been told likely to be in Australia or Japan rather than Hawaii the host of this year’s event.
The LA Galaxy are a team in total flux. Word out of Galaxy camp is that Kyle Martino, one of the better Galaxy players is likely to be traded. In addition, as we touched on in the American Soccer Show this week, Ty Harden ‘s retirement opens up a massive hole at the back for the Galaxy. David Beckham needs a big tournament to prove to Fabio Capello he is ready to be called back into the England squad. Celestine Babyaro should be a welcome addition to this squad, but considering it is the MLS offseason and the Galaxy are one of the worst teams in MLS, I would be mildly shocked if they came away from this event with any silverware.
Gambo Osaka like most successful J-League clubs since the formation of the league in the early 1990s features a stable of Brazilians. In Lucas, a veteran of the Sydney Olympics and Brazil U-17, U-20, and U-23 set up, as well as Mineiro the club has two skilled tactical players. Osaka on paper right now has a better team than the Galaxy (That may change as Gullit re-shapes the squad in the next month or two) and should have enough to dispose them in front of what should be a partisan crowd.
The second semi-final matchup features a more evenly matched game between the Houston Dynamo and Sydney FC, a team that quite frankly embarrassed the Galaxy in a friendly last November. (To put into context how embarrassing that result was for MLS, Real Salt Lake one of two teams who finished BELOW the Galaxy in the MLS table defeated Everton in a late July friendly, and Toronto FC the last place MLS team was tied with Aston Villa in the friendly in early August until stoppage time.) Landon Donovan came away impressed from Sydney and implied he’d like to play in the A-League in the future. This from my perspective is not an acceptable ambition for the signature player of US Soccer. Either stay in MLS or play in Europe, but the A-League is NOT an option.
Back to the match. Despite losing Joseph Ngwenya and Nate Jaqua, Houston on paper has a far superior team to anyone else in this competition. But no player on either team is as accomplished as the little maestro, Juninho whose time at the Riverside is fondly remembered to the point of even being worshiped by Boro supporters. A knock on Juninho has always been his failure at Athletico Madrid and his desire to be loaned back and eventually sold back to Middlesbrough. Maybe it is my bias towards English Football speaking, but Juninho was for me always one of the most skilled players on the planet and I look forward to him facing off against DeRo, Ching, Rico Clark and the rest of the very talented Dynamo team. Ching’s return to Hawaii to play a competitive match will no doubt have the crowd at Aloha Stadium cheering him loudly. This should give the Dynamo a home field type advantage in addition to already having a more skilled and determined squad.
Houston is short handed up front and is in its pre-season as opposed to Sydeny whose A-League season just ended two weeks ago. That could tilt the balance towards Sydney, but personally I still like the Dynamo to win this match and this event, with Sydney making the second best showing but finishing third thanks to the draw. The Dynamo if they win this event can use it as a building block going forward as the CONCACAF Champions Cup looms. In that event the Dynamo got a very favorable draw, avoiding Pachuca totally until the finals and potentially playing Atlante’ in the semi-finals a club that has recently re-located to Cancun and lacks the fan base of the home advantage of playing at altitude that most Mexican sides relish.