Saturday, June 26, 2010

Deja Vu and What Might Have Been...

There is something oddly familiar to the sensation I am feeling. I am trying to recover from a US loss at the World Cup to a team that they should have beaten. This has happened in the past two World Cups and it's been against the same team, the score line was even the same!

Ghana's 2-1 victory over the US was an example of what has become a typical US game. An early defensive lapse allows their opponent to take the lead, the US storms back to tie it, but just can't seem to finish the game. Today, the game took a unique turn, as the US was able to push the game into extra time (since we are in the knockout stages, no draws), but they fell asleep on defense to allow the winner. The United States is, perhaps, its own worst enemy. Ghana didn't be the US today, the US beat the US.

I had a conversation with a coworker on Friday about the US's chances. I thought they US had a great shot of making it to the semifinal due to match ups against teams that I thought they could beat. I was concerned, however, that the US might make a mistake(s) that would cost them their best shot to advance deep into the World Cup. Consistently in this tournament, during qualifying and during the friendlies leading up to the World Cup, the US has allowed soft early goals (mostly due to defensive lapses, Tim Howard has rarely been the problem) that dictated the way they played the rest of the game. Is this the players? The coaching? Ultimately, I think it is a combination of the two. The players come out flat (who knows why?) and should be more prepared for the game. That preparation falls to the coaching staff.

The coaching staff (read Bob Bradley) is also responsible for putting the best team out on the field to start the game. Bob Bradley did not do that today. Why was Ricardo Clark starting? Why was Robbie Findley back in the line-up? Why mess with the success that was the Algeria win? Maurice Edu played well in the Algeria game, and deserved the chance to start. What did Bradley get for his decision? A brutal appearance by Clark. Clark was directly responsible for Kevin Prince-Boateng's goal in the 6'.  He turned the ball over near the center circle, which sprung Boateng on the break. Boateng slotted the ball into the net at the near post.  Shortly thereafter, Clark was yellow carded to add to his misery. Bradley said he started Clark because he wanted to put in some fresh legs after the short turn-around between Wednesday's dramatic win and today's game. That is faulty logic. First, these players are professionals, they train for this type of situation. They are used to short turn-arounds during their club season, many weeks they play multiple games. In addition, Edu didn't play the full 90 against Algeria. If he tired down the stretch, then make the switch to Clark. Bradley seemingly acknowledge his mistake, replacing Clark with Edu at the 31' mark. There is no doubt in my mind that the first goal would not have been scored if Edu had been on the field.  After the game, Bradley said he made the switch entirely due to the yellow card. What else was he going to say - I made the switch because Clark played poorly; I made the switch because I made the wrong line-up call? Clearly the latter would have been the gutsy thing to say, but Bradley hid behind the yellow card.

As for the Findley start, I understand the thinking, but it wasn't the right call. Bradley likes to pair a speedy forward with Jozy Altidore, a sort of Thunder and Lightening pairing. Charlie Davies, absent due to his recovery from an October car accident, is the perfect tag-team partner for Altidore. Davies has pace, finishing ability and plays well with Altidore. Findley is, at best, a poor facsimile of Davies.  While Findley is pacey, his finishing isn't as polished as Davies' and that was on display today, as he missed a clear opportunity to tie the game.  Bradley has been searching for Davies' replacement since his accident, and hasn't found it.  But maybe he is looking in the wrong place, the answer is already on the roster.   Instead of starting Findley, start Dempsey up top with Benny Feilhaber taking Dempsey's place in the midfield.  Bradley made this change in the Slovenia game and when the US needed a goal in this game.  If this is a crunch time tactic, why not start the game that way?  Dempsey has a nose for goal.  He's unpredictable and loves to run at defenders.  Why not place him closer to goal to make use of these talents?  This switch would have also helped to minimize mistakes like the one that lead to the first goal.  Playing Dempsey up top gets Feilhaber, one of the US players most composed when in possession, onto the field.

Not all the blame can be laid at Bradley's feet.  The finishing for the entire team was poor.  Richard Kingson, the Ghanaian goalkeeper, isn't likely to win any awards for his goalkeeping prowess yet the US continually put their shots directly at him, barely working him.  Altidore and Michael Bradley are the two most glaring examples of chances wasted, but there were several more throughout the game.  Beyond the poor finishing, the US defense made two key mistakes that lead to Ghana's goals.  Asamoah Gyan's goal in extra time should not have happened, but the US defense failed to communicate allowing Gyan to get past them and put a shot past Tim Howard.

Once Gyan scored, the US never looked like they were going to level the game.  Ghana was content to sit back and defend their lead.  In doing so, Ghana was disgraceful in the way they dove to the ground, faked injuries and wasted time.  There is a certain amount of gamesmanship that takes place in any game of soccer when you are protecting a late lead, but the Ghanaians went too far and the referee did nothing to stop it.  When Ghana made their last substitution, just minutes before the end of the game, the player took his time crossing the field, high-fiving his teammates as he exited.  The referee should have expedited his exit and if he refused to speed up, give the player a yellow card.  Soccer writers lit up the twittersphere with comments on the Ghanaians's unsportsmanlike conduct.

In the end, though, the United States has nobody to blame but itself for being knocked out in the round of 16.  They played against a beatable opponent and committed too many errors to win.  Had they won the game, they would have taken on Uruguay, a 2-1 winner of South Korea.  That potential match-up would have been a tough test, but one I think the US could have passed.  Instead, the US will watching the next round on television, wondering what might have been and if they are experiencing déjà vu.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Soccer's Sweet Sixteen

Soccer is much maligned in the Untied States for being too boring or too European.  Well, I have one sure-fire way to get American fans interested in soccer.  Combine a team that is poised for a run in the biggest tournament in the sport with a little bracketology.  Perhaps the American fan will understand this.  Below is the bracket for the knockout rounds of the World Cup, we have reached the Sweet Sixteen.  It's worked for NCAA basketball, why not soccer.  Think of teams like Brazil, the Netherlands, Spain and Argentina as 1 seeds.  Think of the United States, South Korea, Slovakia and Japan as mid-major Cinderellas.

My Predictions for Soccer's Sweet Sixteen:

The Netherlands

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Putting Things in Perspective

Joe Gaetjens scored the game winner in the US upset of
England at the 1950 World Cup
The US pulled off an amazing victory yesterday that has been covered in this space.  In the last day, I've read a lot of reaction to the win and many people are classifying the win over Algeria as the biggest or most important win in US soccer history.  I just don't think that is true.  While the win goes a long way to create new soccer fans and gave the US their first group win since 1930 (the US finished third that year), it wasn't the biggest or most important victory.  I would argue the 2-0 victory over Mexico in the 2002 World Cup was more important and a bigger win.  The win propelled the US to the quarterfinals for the first time since 1930 and was a win over out most bitter rival on the world's largest stage.  One could also argue that the 2-0 victory over Spain (then ranked #1 in the world) was a bigger victory, as it propelled the US to its first international tournament final outside of its region.  Some argument can also be made the the shocking 1-0 victory over England in 1950 was bigger.  All that being said, I think yesterday's win could move up in the rankings depending on what the US does in the rest of the tournament.  The match-ups are actually favorable to the US.  They play Ghana on Saturday and if they are victorious would play either Uruguay or South Korea.  Neither team scares me.  If the US could beat the Uruguay-South Korea winner, they would advance to the semifinals for the first time since 1930.  At that stage things get trickier (a likely match-up against the Dutch, Brazil, or Spain could be in the cards depending on outcomes from the rest of group play), but a trip to the semifinals would be considered a huge success.

In other World Cup news, Italy lost its final group game to Slovakia, knocking the defending champions out of the tournament.  The last champion to lose before the knockout rounds was France in 2002.  As written before, it is the first time both teams from the previous final have failed to advance out of the group stage.  Paraguay drew with New Zealand, in a listless showing, but secured top spot in the group.  Slovakia, by virtue of its victory, also advances.  Slovakia is likely to play The Netherlands in the round of 16, while Paraguay looks set to face Portugal (mea culpa, misread the bracket) Japan.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

One Game Changes Everything...

That's the slogan that ESPN has been using to promote the World Cup and it couldn't have been more true today.  The United States may have finally staked a claim to being a soccer nation with a dramatic victory over Algeria.  The game was easily one of the most exciting and tense soccer matches I have ever watched.  I watched the game via ESPN3 in my office with no sound, but the game still held an incredible amount of emotion.  I had a knot in my stomach for most of the game, especially after England scored against Slovenia.  The US waited until the last possible moment to score the winner.  When Landon Donovan pounced on the loose ball in the box and drove it into the net, I jumped out of my chair and ran around the office.  As one of my friends tweeted, "Quick. Someone tell me again what a boring-ass, low-scoring, good-for-nothing sport that soccer is."  He couldn't be more correct.

The win secured the Americans' place in the round of 16 and top spot in Group C.  With their victory, and England's 1-0 victory over Slovenia both pre-Cup favorites advanced, though both had a bit more trouble than most people would have guessed.  Based on the reaction on Twitter to the Clint Dempsey's disallowed goal and the response when Landon Donovan finally scored the game winner, America has gone soccer crazy.  Each game the US wins will only add to this phenomenon.

The US don't know their round of 16 opponent yet, but they do know where and when they will play.  Their round of 16 match, against the 2nd place team in Group D, will be played at Rustenberg's Royal Bafokeng Stadium at 2:30pm Eastern.  Royal Bafokeng Stadium has been kind to the US, it was the site of their 3-0 victory over Egypt in last year's Confederations Cup and the site of their 1-1 draw with England on June 11.  Their opponent could be any team from the Group depending on how the games play out later this afternoon.  I think most US soccer fans would like to see Australia beat Serbia and Ghana beat Germany because that would set up a US-Australia game.  The US defeated Australia 3-1 in a friendly played on June 5 in South Africa and would likely prove an easier match than Ghana, Germany or Serbia.  Group D plays at 2:30 this afternoon and should provide some fun soccer, though nothing will top the US victory.  In parting, good luck Socceroos (who doesn't love Australia's team nickname), hope to see you in Rustenberg on Saturday.


Tuesday, June 22, 2010

US and the Game of Destiny

Tomorrow (6/23), the United States Men's National Team faces a must win game.  Sure they've been in this situation before (the Confederations Cup last year in South Africa, in previous World Cups) but this game seems far more important.  With this World Cup causing unprecedented buzz in the US, a win is imperative.  If the US is bounced at the group stage again, I would be willing to bet that interest in the tournament will flag.  If the US wins and can make a run to even the quarterfinals, this World Cup could help turn the US into a soccer nation.

While most American fans, - hardcore or casual - know that winning the tournament might be a bridge to far, getting out of the group stage is certainly within the team's grasp.  A win over Algeria (ranked 16 places lower than the US) is manageable.  If the US can win the game and England beats Slovenia (with a margin that is equal to or lesser than the US's victory margin), the US would secure top spot in the group.  This could allow them to avoid a potential round of 16 match against Germany (assuming Germany defeats Ghana tomorrow).  Any of the other potential opponents (Serbia, Ghana or Australia) don't seem nearly as scary.

The Desert Foxes have acquitted themselves nicely thus far, losing to Slovenia by a goal and drawing against England.  Many of Algeria's players were born in France and several play in top leagues in Europe.  Nadir Belhadj, who plays his club soccer for Portsmouth, might be the most well known player for Les Fennecs.  The US will also needs to keep tabs on Karim Ziani of Wolfsburg in Germany, and Abdelkader Ghezzal of Siena in Italy. If the US is going to win the game, they will need to break down a stingy Algerian defense.  Algeria has something to play for in this game (they can advance with a win and a Slovenia win) and will not role over.  A slow start like they had against both England and Slovenia cannot happen again.  The US needs to play with the same urgency they played with during the second half of the Slovenia game.  The US will need to create space for runs off the ball through the packed Algerian midfield and defense (they are likely to start 5 in the midfield).  The US will also need to keep mental lapses and defensive breakdowns to a minimum.

With Robbie Findley suspended due to yellow card accumulation, I'd like to see the US start this line-up against Algeria:


This is similar to the line-up that finished the game against Slovenia, with Holden replacing Benny Feilhaber (though I couldn't argue with Feilhaber starting at RM), Edu slotting into midfield instead of his temporary CB position (he moved there when Herculez Gomez was brought on in the 80th minute), and a return to the starting defensive alignment.  I think this line-up provides the most creativity and uses Dempsey's talent for goal scoring most effectively.  I really feel that Edu is the best option to start next to Bradley, he plays box-to-box and obviously has a nose for goal.  Jose Torres didn't look like he was ready for primetime in the Slovenia game and Rico Clark had too many defensive lapses in the England game.  All that being said, I think that Bradley will go with the line-up that started against England (Clark in midfield next to Bradley), with Gomez swapped in for Findley.

By noon tomorrow we will know if the US has taken care of business and later in the day we will find out their potential opponent in the round of 16.  Tomorrow should (hopefully) be a fun day for US soccer fans.

UPDATE: Bradley has decided to change things up a bit.  Onyewu is out, with Bocanegra slotting in at CB.  Jonathan Bornstein will start at LB.  Gomez is the starter opposite Altidore and Edu is the starter in midfield next to Michael Bradley (I like the Edu move, and I can't argue with Gomez, who was top scorer in the Mexican league this past season).  I am a tad worried about the choice of Bornstein.  Bradley has a mancrush on Bornstein, consistently playing him despite poor showings for the national team.  If Bradley felt the need to replace Onyewu, who hasn't played to his potential after a long injury layoff, I would have been more confident with Jonathan Spector starting at LB.  While Spector was less than stellar in the lead up to the World Cup, he starts for an EPL team and was very good during qualifying.

France's Flame Out and Other Musings

Siphiwe Tshabalala (L) has been South Africa's danger man.
Wow!  Just wow!  When France goes down, they do it with panache.  Their 2010 World Cup campaign is eerily similar to their 2002 flame out.   During that World Cup. France lost to an African team (Senegal), drew with Uruguay and lost to Denmark.  The only wrinkle this time is instead of losing to a European team, they lost to a North American team.  Unfortunately for the continent of Africa and the host nation, South Africa was not able to duplicate Senegal's improbable qualification for the knockout round.  On their way to a 2-1 loss, Sidney Govou, Florent Malouda, Patrice Evra and Eric Abidal were all dropped from the starting line-up.  This sends a signal that these players must have been the main troublemakers in the French camp.   Raymond Domenech continued with his odd line-up choices starting Djibril Cisse over Thierry Henry (if you happen to click the link and look at Henry's bio, he looks a bit forlorn in the picture, perhaps he knew what was coming for France).  I understand that Henry is getting a little old in terms of international soccer (he's 32), but doesn't he present a better option up top than Djibril Cisse?  It will be interesting to see how France rebounds under the leadership of Laurent Blanc with Euro 2012 qualifying starting in September.

In other news from the France-South Africa game - Siphiwe Tshabalala, who plays in South Africa with Kaizer Chiefs, had another great game.  He assisted on South Africa's first goal with a great corner and was consistently dangerous from his midfield spot.  Steven Pienaar received most of the attention in the lead up to the World Cup, and rightfully so.  Pienaar plays for Everton in the EPL (4 goals and 3 assists this past season) and was much more of a known commodity.   Tshabalala (who has my favorite name at the World Cup) was a relative unknown outside of South Africa.  After his performance a European team will come calling for his services.  He was South Africa's most dangerous player all tournament and ultimately the star of the tournament for Bafana Bafana.  It's a shame that South Africa didn't advance from their group, becoming the first host country ever to not advance.

As of now, we know that Mexico and Uruguay have advanced.  Uruguay finished first in group A and will likely avoid a round of 16 match with Argentina.  Mexico will likely play Argentina, who should finish atop group B.  This would be the 2nd consecutive World Cup that Argentina and Mexico have met in the round of 16.  The next set of matches starts soon, off to enjoy more soccer.

Monday, June 21, 2010

World Cup Scenarios

For those of you wondering who will advance in the World Cup, look no further.  The good folks over at ESPN have posted all of the convoluted scenarios in one easy space.  As it stand, only Cameroon and North Korea have been definitively eliminated.  Some teams, like Ivory Coast are all but eliminated.  I just don't see how they would be able to make up a goal difference of 9 goals (Portugal stands at +7, Ivory Coast at -2).  This would take an immense win by Ivory Coast and a huge loss by Portugal.  Both are possible, but to make up 9 goals seems unlikely to happen.

The most disconcerting bit of news is this: If the U.S. draws with Algeria and England draws with Slovenia, and England scores exactly two more goals than the U.S., the U.S. and England would be even on all tiebreakers for second place. The tie would be broken by drawing lots ... aka, a coin flip.  Really!?  FIFA is going to decide who advances with a coin flip?  There isn't some other tie-breaker they could use?  Couldn't they use the extra tiebreakers that the Asian Champions' League uses (fair play points (score based on number of cards earned, lower is better) or PKs if the two teams that would be tied are playing against each other)?  Don't those two choices make slightly more sense, as they are actually based on the games that were played?  Are you kidding me?  (For confirmation of this seemingly idiotic method of determining who advances see page 20.)

For further explanation of how various leagues/organizations break ties see this post by The Offside.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Has Parity Come to International Soccer?

This World Cup seems to be, at least through most of the 2nd games in the group stage, signaling a new-found parity in international soccer.  The traditional European powers, England (8), Germany (6) , Spain (2), Italy (5), and France (9), home to the 5 biggest and supposedly best soccer leagues in the world (FIFA rankings in parentheses), have been dreadful thus far.  The records through 2 games (for Spain - 1) are:


As you can see, Germany is the only team to win a game (a 4-0 drubbing of Australia (20)), though they have also lost as well (1-0 to pre-tourney dark horse, Serbia (15)).  Italy and England have had to settle for a pair of draws each. One could argue that the first draw for each wasn't a bad result with England drawing the US (14) and Italy drawing Paraguay (31).  However, the second draw for each team has no doubt caused widespread panic in each country.  England drew unfancied Algeria (30), and Italy can thank a dubious PK for their draw with New Zealand (78), one of the lowest ranked teams at the World Cup.  New Zealand's squad consists of players that mostly play in the A-Leauge, Australia's top league, with a smattering of players plying their trade internationally.  They have 2 players who play in a top European league, Ryan Nelsen who plays in defense for Blackburn in the English Premier League and Chris Wood who plays forward for newly promoted West Bromwich Albion (also of the EPL).   A team with this makeup has no business drawing the defending champions.  Italy's entire squad is made up of players who play in Serie A, probably the 3rd best league in the world (after the EPL and La Liga), with the exception of captain Fabio Cannavaro who has just left Juventus to play for Al-Ahli in the United Arab Emirates.  This is another example of a team taking an opponent too lightly.  New Zealand was playing with house money and were able to cash in with a well deserved draw.

England controls their own destiny.  A win and they are through to the next round.  A draw coupled with a US loss would see the English through as well.  If England loses to Slovenia (25), their tournament is done.

Italy is also in position to advance, they are level on points with New Zealand.  Italy plays Slovakia (34) in the final group game, and based on rankings alone Italy should win.  Though, they should have beaten New Zealand too.  An Italian win sees them through to the next round.  A draw could also advance them, as long as New Zealand doesn't pull off a stunner against Paraguay (who have taken care of business) in their last group game.

France's struggles have been the subject of two previous posts, however, the most pressing problem may be that they are likely to miss the knockout rounds because of a loss to Mexico (17), nothing to be ashamed of, and a draw with Uruguay (16).  The French face South Africa (83) in their final game and need a massive win and some help to advance.

Germany is in the best shape of the teams that have completed two games.  By virtue of their big win over Australia they provided themselves with a large goal difference cushion (goal difference is the first tie-breaker used to determine which team advances to the next round in the even the teams are level on points).   For Germany, a win over Ghana (32) secures their spot in the next round.  They could also advance with a draw as long as Serbia does not win their game over Australia.

Spain has the most time to recover from their lethargic display against Switzerland.  With two games to play against inferior competition (Honduras (38) and Chile (18)).  Spain can right ship and advance to the 2nd round with a pair of wins.

While none of the teams are totally out of it (France is on life support), this has not been the cake walk most were expecting.  Also, an interesting tidbit is that if both France and Italy fail to make it to the knockout stage it will be the first time since the World Cup took on its current format (1986) that both teams from the previous World Cup final will have failed to make it to the knockout stage.  In fact every team since 1986 that has been in a final has advanced at the next World Cup with the notable exception of the 2002 French squad.

Several surprising names lead groups - Slovenia, Ghana, Uruguay, Paraguay - and there have been several upsets, as noted above.  Could this be signaling a change in international soccer?  Only time will tell.  There are still a lot of games to play but so far the little guys are making names for themselves in South Africa.

Just When You Thought It Couldn’t Get Worse…

The French soccer team's drama at this World Cup just keeps growing.  Before the games even started several players were involved in an underage prostitution scandal.  Then Nicolas Anelka is sent home following a bust up with Raymond Domenech (see previous post).  Now the team is refusing to train following an argument that took place between Domenech and strength coach Robert Duverne.  In addition to the team refusing to train, World Cup team director Jean-Louis Valentin has resigned from the French Football Federation.
This is completely crazy.  When France does poorly they really know how to go down in flames.  It is amazing, and even more tumultuous than World Cup 2002, when they failed to win a game in the group stage.  This previous failure came 4 years after they won the title in 1998.  The current drama comes just 4 years after they lost the final on PKs to the Italians (who aren't looking particularly good this year either).  If France doesn't advance from the group stage, which is looking increasingly likely, they are getting what they deserve.  The players are acting like a bunch of spoiled brats.  No doubt, the coaching staff must take some of the blame for the poor performance but ultimately the players are the ones on the pitch.  If the French spent half as much effort playing as they do acting like prima donnas  they would easily have won both of their games.  The French are a group of selfish but very talented players who just can't seem to get it together.  The Danes are a shining example of what a team that plays together can do.  They qualified for the World Cup at the top of a very tough group, one that also contained Sweden, Portugal and Hungary, and are in position with a win versus Japan to advance from a tough group that also contained Cameroon and the Netherlands.  I don't think you would get any argument that the French players are, on the whole, more talented than the Danes, but sometimes the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts and sometimes it can be less than the sum of its parts.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Seeing Red

There were an unprecedented number of cards handed out at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, besting the total from 1998.  This year hasn't been as prolific.  Through 25 games, there have been 8 red cards.  In 2006, there were 28 through the entire tournament (64 games).  In addition, there have been 83 yellow cards handed out as well.  In 2006, there were 345 yellows.
While it seems unlikely the numbers this year will match these, several of the cards have been extremely questionable.  Two yellow cards for "hand ball" against the US were given when the ball bounced off the players' faces.  The game b/w Germany and Serbia was marred by 8 yellow cards and one red card.  The red card given to Miroslav Klose in the 35th minuted was ridiculous. While Klose undoubtedly fouled the Serbian player, it is questionable whether his foul was cardworthy, especially given the fact that he was already on a yellow (another crazy card, but I digress).  Serbia went on to score a couple of minutes after Klose had left the field.
Some of the cards have been deserved, see the red card given to Sani Kaita of Nigeria, many of them (both red and yellow) have been dubious.  The criticism of the referees is not limited to their discipline record, look no further than Koman Coulibaly's terrible call that disallowed what appeared to be the game winning goal for the US.  This subject has been addressed ad nauseum, so I don't feel the need to say anything more about it.  Perhaps FIFA needs to rethink the way that selects referees for the World Cup.  The only thing I know is that the biggest headlines (other than France playing worse than a Sunday pub league team, and England looking like a bunch of spoiled brats) have come from the poor officiating.

Going from Bad to Worse…

Things are going from bad to worse for the French.  Nicolas Anelka has been sent home by the French FA after getting into it with Raymond Domenech.  France has looked poor during the World Cup, playing to a listless draw with Uruguay and losing 2-0 to Mexico.  Their chances of advancing from the group stage are virtually nil.  All Uruguay and Mexico need to do to advance is play to a draw.  I would be surprised if the result is anything different.  Even if El Tri or Uruguay win the game, France would need to win by a healthy margin (they are -2 in goal difference) over South Africa to secure passage to the round of 16.
You have to wonder if Raymond Domenech is wishing his star charts had told him to bring Karim Benzema along to South Africa.  Now that Anelka is gone, who is going to provide the scoring? Domenech seems unwilling to play Henry, where was he in the loss to Mexico, and the rest of the forwards don't inspire much confidence.  Benzema would have been the answer here if he were included in the squad.  You just can't tell me he isn't one of the 23 best French players.
I wonder if the French are wishing they could get Laurent Blanc to take over starting with the game versus Bafana Bafana.
I would suggest reading this excellent post by Ben Lyttleton on how Domenech has ineptly led France to what appears to be abject failure.