We dream of football and the world is full of dreams

Saturday, November 15, 2014

More late game woes and USA surrender to Colombia

Image: ISI Photos

Team USA lost to newly-promoted powerhouse, Colombia, by a familiar score of 2-1. Why familiar? The U.S. played with strength and belief and new faces but a top team still steamrolled the USMNT for the majority of the game.

The worst part about this loss was how it came. They lost it at the end of the game when they could have walked away with a galant tie. That part wasn't as much Colombian magic than the same game management problem that robbed the team of wins in October.

It's true that friendlies are about careful observation and experimentation. Yet Klinsmann has shown time and again that he will experiment the day of the game. One thing that could have gone better for the team in Brazil was a sense of longevity and cohesiveness. That goes out the window with 6 substitutions.

Let's face one thing. We can blame the October friendlies on the multitude of substitutions inthe second half, completely different teams won't play the same way. Against Colombia he turned to John Brooks and Jermaine Jones. While the latter always imposes himself in a match, the former was a head scratcher for sure.

Colombia is Colombia. I haven't seen a team play so seamlessly since the Spain we all knew and loved from a few years back. So, in reality, the game was Colombia's to lose. And, truthfully, there should have been a penalty called in their favor also, which would make the 2-1 result a moot point.

The game against Ireland is a more interesting game in that it is technically "winnable" if Klinsmann plays his cards right and sticks to a stout defense. Rubin needs to play, for sure, and maybe he can get his first goal. Altidore has the tools to dictate a match and will look to these friendlies to catapult him to a new team on January.

Elsewhere for the team, Bedoya and Diskerud were impressive, as was Kyle Beckermann. Why he didn't play more in the latter games of the World Cup, we will never know. Fabian Johnson and DeAndre Yedlin might need to switch spots. Yedlin is becoming a speedy menace at midfield and is another gem for Klinsmann as we move forward into the regional tournaments and, eventually, to a place in Russia 2018.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Klinsmann: The most divisive figure in US Soccer history

Image: Getty

The title of this blog should make it clear. Klinsmann is and has been quite a divisive figure for the sport of soccer in the United States. His hiring came as no surprise in mid 2011 when Bob Bradley was let go after a disastrous showing in the Gold Cup. Klinsmann would remake Team USA and would give it the world presence it deserved.

Klinsmann's tenure was rocky at first, with 3 losses and 1 tie in the first 4 games. After that came great showings in friendlies versus Italy, Mexico, and Slovenia, interspersed with lackluster performances in the beginning of the CONCACAF qualifying rounds.

But Klinsmann pushed the envelope of what could be achieved. He got the most out of Altidore, and introduced and reintroduced players like Geoff Cameron, Mix Diskerud, John Brooks, DeAndre Yedlin, Julian Green and Joe Corona. He set a record for the USMNT in consecutive wins at 12, won the Gold Cup 2013, and delivered the U.S. to Brazil 2014.

Up until the pre-World Cup friendlies, most things could be forgiven. And yet, there were fissures in his relationship with some of the players and, especially, with MLS.

It started in August 2013 when Clint Dempsey made a surprise move to the Seattle Sounders. Klinsmann was not happy that his captain would no longer be playing in Europe. Michael Bradley's move to Toronto FC in January made things worse. Klinsmann was very clear in his disappointment. It was not competitive enough in MLS and their form would suffer.

What really broke things for him with many fans was his exclusion of Landon Donovan from the World Cup team. Many, myself included, thought the decision would haunt him at the tournament. In a way, it did. Altidore's absence due to injury after the first game and an ineffective Brad Davis stick out as reasons the best player the U.S. has ever produced should have been a part of that squad.

But Klinsmann's recent remarks about more players needing to be in Europe and MLS not being enough drew the ire of one Don Garber. Garber was rightly insulated by the coach's words on player development. 

But what is the real truth behind Klinsmann's divisive nature? Just ask the fans. Some argue that MLS is great, should be supported and is getting more and more impressive every year. The crowds in Portland and Seattle make this point clear.

And then there is a vocal minority that sustains that the only worthwhile soccer exists in Europe, that Klinsmann is absolutely correct and that Michael Bradley needs to go back to Europe. I heard this from a soccer fan in small town Florida: Klinsmann is right, MLS is not good enough, and, surprisingly, Landon Donovan isn't as good because he never played abroad. I suggested that he look at the statistics. Donovan has scored more goals than anyone else for the USMNT.

So there it is. Surely, if you are a soccer fan in the U.S. then you fall under one of those two categories. You side with Klinsmann or you don't. Divisive indeed.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Thank you, Landon

Image: Getty

Landon Donovan played his last match for the U.S. Men's national team tonight in a game versus Ecuador in East Hartford, Connecticut. He didn't score but sure got close. There was spectacle while he was on the pitch and his teammates wanted it for him.

Altidore served Donovan the perfect ball and he Landon struck it well. The post, however, disagreed. The rest of us, all of us, wanted it for him. 

But Landon gave us so many goals already with the national team. 57 of them, actually. Some were expected, some spectacular, some made us dream, some made us cry. There was the second goal in the 2-0 versus Mexico in 2002 and a passage to the quarterfinals. There was also the goal versus Mexico that clinched the qualification to Brazil 2014. And, of course, the goals versus Slovenia and Algeria in 2010. 

Donovan's goal versus Algeria encapsulated what it is to be an American soccer player. The goal started from the bottom up, from Tim Howard's pass, to teamwork between Altidore and Dempsey, to Donovan's sublime final touch off a rebound. It was meant to be and it was meant to be dramatic. Americans love drama and Donovan wrote us the script.

Andres Cantor put it well during his narration of the goal. The goal was and had to be scored by America's franchise player. 

Tonight we say goodbye to his presence on the pitch for the USMNT. True, he was missing at the World Cup and it would have been nicer for his career to end with another tournament. And yet, in the end, Landon chooses his own path, as he did by staying in MLS and foregoing a career in Europe. He knew it was his time to end this journey. Landon chose to say goodbye at 32 with his head held high, still scoring, still smiling, still dreaming.

Thank you, Landon, for helping us dream of soccer.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

MLS breaks all-time sellout games record in 2014

Photo Getty Images

MLS fans were greeted by an interesting and welcome piece of news this morning. The league had its record-breaking 113th sellout game this season after the Toronto-Portland game. This is significant progress for the league and one that has been coming for a while now.

In 2007 MLS acquired its first bona fide international supertar in their prime: David Beckham. The pop culture icon transcended the game and MLS got a boost in attendance figures given the many sellouts at the Galaxy's stadium and throughout the country. This very blog site came into being as a way to track attendance per team in percentage number and median figures.

So what changed for MLS this year? Two factors: the World Cup and recruitment of American internationals in their prime. Such is the case with repatriated Michael Bradley (Toronto) and Jermaine Jones (New England). The marketing has been superb and more focus has been placed on player development and quality skill on the pitch.

Will this trend continue? Likely. With the expansion to new markets with NYCFC in New York and its superstars in Frank Lampard and David Villa, as well as Orlando City with Kaka, the upswing in attendance should remain. True, expansion might thin the league up a bit in terms of talent due to expansion drafts but quality players in academies are waiting to take over the ranks.

So now the league is breaking attendance without David Beckham, which means it's no longer novelty. In short, this is a good time for MLS. It's a good time for the fans and it's further proof that the game is here to stay.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Czech rewind: Gyau and Klinsmann's young crew

Photo: sportingnews.com

The game against the Czech Republic in this past Wednesday's international friendly had a purely experimental USMNT squad. Young players, uncapped players, and 24-year old Jozy Altidore as captain. And they won against a solid European team in Prague.

Perhaps the most impressive outing was that of Borussia Dortmund reservist Joe Gyau. He commanded the flank as a midfielder/forward in Klinsmann's 4-3-3 and looked great doing it. In fact, he was only outdone by Nick Rimando, who really, trully should be thanked for this unprovable win.

Was young Julian Green active? Sure, but not as much as we would like the heir of Donovan to be. Miskerud, on the other hand, showed why he's so special and why it was sad that he never got to play in Brazil this summer.

There was cohesiveness in the back for the USMNT versus the Czech Republic, at least In the first half. Orozco showed his steadiness in the back. Fabian Johnson also displayed his abilities and, perhaps, why his going to Moenchengladbach was ahead of the World Cup was perhaps not the best first choice. John Brooks also showed he wasn't just another lucky head against Ghana. Timmy Chandler also seems to have finally won over the American public. He can't go anywhere else now, folks.

Certainly, the channels weren't there for Altidore to thrive. He hardly had a chance and became more of a defensive midfielder far upfield. One would hope that this could be remedied with a more experienced midfield. However, shouldn't the team be expected to start doing better?

Klinsmann wasn't kidding when he said he would go young with his next set of international games. Joe Gyau showed that the coach still has an eye for young talent. This is, after all, how John Brooks won us the game versus Ghana and how DeAndre Yedlin went from experimental substitution in midfield to Tottenham Hotspur transfer over the course of two months. We can't wait to see others on the pitch like Luis Gil, Perry Kitchen, Jack McInierney, or dare we say, Geidon Zelalem?

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The EPL is back and America is loving it

Image: author

It's here. England's Barclays Premier League began this weekend with high expectations amongst American fans. NBC Sports Network had it on and so did Mun2. Social media was alive and Manchester United faithful were upset on both sides of the Atlantic.

If we start with big names like Manchester United and Arsenal, then you're likely to have heard of them even if you don't watch the sport. Why?

Take the summer friendlies. Manchester United sold out football stadiums in Washington DC and Ann Arbor. Ann Arbor? Ok, so Real Madrid was playing too, but Ann Arbor?

And here's why. Manchester United has flexed its considerable marketing muscle in a country that is easily swayed by the market. Throw in the fact that they also have Mexico's Chicharito Hernandez and it's a perfect potion for soccer madness.

Take the International Champions Cup friendly in Washington between Manchester United and Inter Milan. Over 60,000 fans, most dressed in red. All around me there were Manchester United chants in the stands, English accents, cheering for Wayne Rooney. 

And then it got more interesting.  The chants morphed into "I Believe That We Will Win!" Sound familiar? It should, because that was the US National Team's game chant at the World Cup. And then there's the fact that Chicharito came in as a sub and the stadium exploded. In front of me I had a large contingent of fans cheering only for Chicharito.

The Premier League has broken into the mainstream networks. You will see NBC carrying prominent matches on a Sunday morning slot. You will also see Frank Lampard, former Chelsea man, suiting up for New York City FC next year.

And it doesn't stop there. Premier League teams know American marketability. Arsene Wenger chose to play 17-year old Geidon Zelalem in a friendly versus the New York Red Bulls possibly because he knows American fans are keen on the youngster choosing to play for Team USA instead of Germany in the near future. Tottenham Hotspur just signed World Cup breakout star DeAndre Yedlin from Seattle. It's no secret  that the Spurs are trying to build a fan base on this side of the Atlantic. Yedlin is a pathway for that.

Americans love drama, English accents and big money. The EPL gives you all three. Oh, and the game is pretty intense too. I've gotten comments from family members like this "I notice that it's faster and more fluid in England than in MLS." Good observation. Perhaps our folks still have some work to do.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

American Legend: Donovan Retires

It came out of nowhere. Today, US Men's National Team fans were going about their daily chores when they saw a shocking headline: Landon Donovan is retiring. The leading MLS and USMNT will exit from professional soccer at the end of the season at age 32.

We lose a star, a constant, a dream. His retirement came as swift as his movement through the pitch. Always faster than the rest, always looking for the goal.

We remember the many moments that made him a legend. We recall his goal in 2002 versus Mexico in the round of 16. It made the score 2-0, forever coining the "Dos a Cero." There was his hat trick versus Ecuador in 2007 and again versus Scotland in 2012. And of course, clinchers like the goal versus Algeria to win the group in South Africa 2010 and versus Mexico in 2013 for another "Dos a Cero," this time cementing the Americans' entrance into Brazil 2010 and leaving Mexico to hope for a playoff spot versus New Zealand.

There was the San Jose Earthquakes and LA Galaxy, of course. Two trophies for the Quakes, three for the Galaxians. 137 goals in MLS. His performances with Everton in 2010 and the sublime goals he scored will always be remembered. He was on top of the world in 2010 and it showed at the World Cup.

We could write interminable accolades for Mr Donovan, so I will leave this simple. When Donovan chose soccer as a little boy, he did so because he saw the great stars playing the game and he wanted to be like them. A true origin story for our best American player in history. So who's to say that the next great star is not out there, having watched Landon Donovan light up the league and the international stage. That is, perhaps, his greatest gift, for now a small American boy need not look abroad for soccer idols. He has Landon Donovan. Our American Soccer Legend.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

European friendlies show how far behind MLS still is

Photo: Action Images

USA almost beat mighty Ronaldo and his star-studded Portugal at the World Cup. You wouldn't know it based on the performance of America's soccer league in summer friendlies versus the best teams from Europe. 

The results are atrocious. Seven goals by Manchester United, zero by the "flagship" LA Galaxy. Toronto is unable to defeat Tottenham, and Dallas loses to Aston Villa. The one lone bright sport was a tie for Columbus versus Crystal Palaca.

Sure, Omar Gonzalez wasn't playing and the Galaxy are deep in mid season and struggling to stay in the playoff zone, so players' focus is elsewhere. But it doesn't excuse such a lopsided loss. Or does it?

MLS is still lacking that extra push: winning internationally in the modern, post-Beckham, designated player era. RSL was close in 2011. Close. That's all. After that it has been all Mexico over and over again. Is it the league schedule? Clearly that won't change. Is it competition and player development? Maybe.

Let's not be too hasty in pointing fingers before the international friendlies are all done. Maybe the MLS All-Stars can pull it off or maybe they'll go down in flames like so many other All-Stars teams. There is still a gap in talent at the most basic formative level, Klinsmann made that clear. What is also clear is that US Soccer and MLS are both trying to address that with home-grown players, the reserve league and even interesting moves like the Galaxy II. But we deserve a league that is not pushed over all the time on the international stage.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Four stars: Germany wins the best World Cup in the modern era

Photo: FIFA

Germany won the World Cup today with a score line that did justice to the teams and the tournament they played. Germany was dominant throughout Brazil 2014, including the most humiliating defeat of a football Titan ever recorded. Seven goals against Brazil, the host nation. Argentina were uncharacteristically defensive but had brilliant moments through Lionel Messi.

Argentina put up a fight and, at times, controlled the game and could have won the Cup if the ball had rolled the right direction. Messi was masterful when he was unmarked, a shadow of himself when three defenders were upon him. But he still got them to the final, and for that he deserved the Golden Ball.

Mario Gotze scored and saved us from the randomness and cruelty of penalty kicks. It was the one play where Argentina's defenders were out of position, and the German machine pounced and delivered.

We say goodbye to the best World Cup in generations. We salute the dreamers in Costa Rica, Algeria, Colombia. We will remember the fighters in Chile, Mexico, USA, Greece. We wish redemption for the fallen in Spain, Italy, England, Brazil, Portugal and Ghana.

We loved so many moments in this World Cup. From Robin Van Persie's amazing header, to the wonders of James Rodriguez, to the record-breaking number of saves by Tim Howard. There were more goals in the group stage than any other tournament since the number of competing teams went from 24 to 32. There was penalty kick drama, again, and favorites went home and tears flowed in excitement and despair.

There was a bite to the game, pun intended. From Luis Suarez's indiscretions to Arjen Robben's simulation versus Mexico. There were injuries too, like Altidore's early in the first game against Ghana and Neymar's unfortunate departure in the quarterfinal versus Colombia.

We cheered today perhaps for the game alone, perhaps for our favorite team. We forgot a nation's transgressions of the past, fallacies of the present, uncertainties of their future. But, for two and a half hours today, one billion people sat together in their homes, stood clapping at their watch parties, put down their weapons of war, and enjoyed the beautiful game. 

The World Cup is a time machine. Brazil 2014 is now a World Cup of memories that will forever latch onto our psyche. Be it Brazil's fall from grace or Julian Green's goal. But it also gives us glimpses of the future through the magic of James, the speed of Yedlin, the wonders of Neymar and the vision of Gotze.

Today is also the start of Russia 2018. When each of our teams went home, be it at the end of qualifying or the moment of elimination, plans were set in motion for the next cycle. The World Cup is the engine of the sport that drives the passions of billions.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Dream final: Muller, Messi and the history of Argentina-Germany

Photo: worldsoccertalk.com

Wednesday's semifinal game was a only the fifth time that penalty kicks were used to determine a World Cup finalist. Argentina won via Romero and set up a classic finish. For some of us this is a dream final. Argentina versus Germany. Opposing styles, management, flavor. 

Let me tell you a story now. Two stories, really. In the summer of 1986 I was only a small boy and soccer was something for grownups to watch and something to do during recess. Ecuador, my home at the time, had yet to qualify for its first World Cup and the US Men's National Team was only a memory of 1950.

I was enrolled in a German school for my elementary and the thought of cheering for West Germany was just . . . normal. So when I heard that they would be in the final I found myself to be the only one in the room cheering for the Germans. Everyone else was siding with Argentina and someone named Maradona.

The Argentinians jumped ahead by 2-0 before the Germans came back to tie the game 2-2. I still remember the name Karl Heinz Rummenigge being uttered over and over again. It wasn't until late in the second half that Argentina scored the winner, with Schumacher looking defeated on the ground as Jorge Burruchaga put the ball in the back of the net. Argentina won Mexico 86, but the final would repeat itself in 1990.

I was older in 1990 and I understood the game better. I remember us kids making a joke about siding with Cameroon for the opening game versus Argentina. "Cameroon will win," we said, knowing that, football-wise, this couldn't possibly happen. It did. Oman-Biyik put a header past Pumpido and shocked the world.

The Berlin wall had fallen at that point but the team that competed was West Germany. Its federation continued to represent the whole of the country thereafter. The Germans dominated, albeit unconvincingly, the opposition throughout the tournament, save for a tie versus Colombia in the final group stage game. They arrived at the semifinal to play a determined English side that had just knocked out World Cup darlings Cameroon.

Italia 1990 was special in the semis because both games went to penalties. Argentina defeated the host nation thanks to Sergio Goycochea and Germany won its game. This was the Germany of Brehme, Voeller, Hassler, Matthaus and Klinsmann. A talented squad.

This time the uniforms the teams wore were the reverse from 1986, when Argentina wore its albiceleste and Germany was dressed in green. In 1990 Germany wore its home white and Argentina its away dark blue. The game remained tied until the 86th minute, when the referee awarded a penalty to Rudi Voeller. Andreas Brehme put it away and Germany were champions for the third time.

I was happy, of course, given my school allegiance. We joined the parade of cars down the main avenue displaying my gym shirt with the German school insignia. Pride.

Things are different now. I concentrate on the US national team and its meteoric rise to the world stage since 1990. True, they are no superpower, but they have become a fixture at the World Cup and American players have slowly infiltrated major leagues worldwide. Major League Soccer has also grown both on and off the field.

And now that my teams (I include Ecuador here) are out of the World Cup and only the finalists remain, I am left with a bit of a quandary: do I cheer for Argentina or Germany? Messi, Higuain, Aguero and Macherano or Muller, Hummels, Khedira and Lahm?

I will not cheer for either team. I just want to see a good game. I feel Germany should be rewarded for being the best team in the tournament but Argentina has also won every single game until the semifinal's tie against Holland. Then there's the Messi factor. The guy is a genius and he has a chance to catch up to Maradona if he wins the World Cup. He's 27 and Maradona was 26 in 1986.

May the best team win in this dream final.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Dusk at Belo Horizonte and we say goodbye to Brazil

Photo: daily telegraph

A dream was broken today by seven German goals. Brazil will not win a World Cup at home. They lacked hope, passion, and desire. The tears of the fans were heartbreaking to watch. This was their tournament, and they would not see it go their way.

Another Brazilian dream was lost sixty-four years ago. Brazil was in a World Cup final in front of a home crowd at the newly-built Maracaná stadium in Rio de Janeiro. They needed only a draw in their final game to win the Cup. But Uruguay scored twice and won in the famous Maracanazo.

That day still haunted Luiz Felipe Scolari and his team today. It was a ghost of the past that remained unshakable to brazilians, both those that remember it and those who have heard the legends. 

Brazil went to face Germany without their talismanic player, Neymar. They were also without Thiago Silva, their main defender and team captain, due to yellow card suspension. "They will still win," said o fenomeno, Ronaldo. But they didn't.

And it wasn't a galant affair. It wasn't a 1-0 or 2-0, not even a 4-1, the score Brazil handed Italy in the 1970. The final score was 7-1. The defense was shredded apart. David Luiz simply watched goal after goal go past Julio Cesar. Dante was hopeless. Maicon was nowhere. Marcelo looked distraught in disbelief. The crowds were silent.

There would be no comeback. No miracle. A storm over Rio de Janeiro blackened the ESPN studios in Copacabana and, likely, many places where brazilians huddled together to watch their beloved team. Lighting struck in the form of cruel reality for the Brazilian national team.

For those of us that remember past World Cups this was a first. We watched in awe as wave after wave of German attacks undid the Seleçao. They never went out like this. Not Brazil. For the tournaments I witnessed they won two in 1994 and 2002. In 1986 they lost in penalties, in 1990 it was Maradona and Caniggia, in 1998 and 2006 it was the French, and in 2010 the turn was Holland's. Acceptable score lines. Even the 3-0 in the France 98 final versus the home nation was acceptable. Ronaldo was ill, it was a bad game, France had Zidane. 

Today's score was a reminder, perhaps, that today's game requires more than stars and glamour, more than mythical stadiums, more than the 12th man. There is a bottom-up approach in Germany when it comes to the sport where the talent is both nurtured and expanded upon. The Bundesliga is, in reality, built to outlast other leagues. 

For Brazil this is a chance to look in the mirror and ask why things went wrong, why they relied on just one player, why they thought that the crowds alone would win the games for them. It didn't do so in 1950. Today wasn't even the final. It was the step before the final, the point at which you show you belong on the stage. 

The Brazilian dream has shattered once more. The Pentacampeones will win again, for sure. But it will be decades before they can try to lift the trophy on home soil for the first time.

DeAndre Yedlin: America's breakout star in Brazil

Photo: AP/Matt Dunham

DeAndre Yedlin played a pivotal role for the USMNT in Brazil. He provided speed, width, defensive cover, and adaptability versus some of the world's top teams. Here's a look at what makes him special and why he should be at a top club in Europe.

On a humid Manaus night on 22 June, the US vs Portugal match was tied 1-1 after Jermaine Jones' golazo. Bento, Portugal's coach, knew that he needed a game-changer in order to win the match. In came Varela. Klinsmann saw this as a highly offensive-minded move and knew he needed some speed to help Fabian Johnson. He inserted DeAndre Yedlin, the 20-year old Seattle Sounder, for Alejandro Bedoya.

1. Speed
Yedlin's impact versus Portugal was immediate. Portugal's left flank was covered. Further, Yedlin opened up spaces, ran around the defense and provided the initial setup for Dempsey's go-ahead goal. He also covered well for Fabian Johnson's absence versus Belgium and set up quality opportunities when he had the chance. This is a key factor for European suitors.

2. Width
Along with speed, Yedlin's ability to hug the line while he sprints and to push the ball ahead and still be able to recover adds an extra dimension to any team. This was seen in MLS during a Seattle-Portland match, where he tracked all the way into the Timbers' 18-yard box and drew a penalty.

3. Defensive duties
Yedlin is a right back. He's a modern winger. He is fast enough to be able to launch into the attack while at the same time covering his flank. He proved this versus both Belgium and Portugal. He repeatedly made life difficult for Varela, Postiga, Almeida and even Ronaldo.

4. Adaptability
DeAndre is a defender. He had never trained as a midfielder for the USMNT, but when he took the field versus Portugal he was inserted into the right midfield position. And he excelled. Klinsmann has never been shy to deploy players in very different roles (Brad Evans from defensive mid to right back) and his gamble payed off. This will be key if Yedlin were to transfer abroad, say Roma or Liverpool.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Costa Rica and why Brazil 2014 was Concacaf's World Cup

Photo: Getty Images

We said goodbye to the Ticos via the penalty shootout versus the Netherlands yesterday. But their historic run, coupled with strong performances by USA and Mexico made one thing clear: this was Concacaf's tournament.

True, no team from Concacaf has ever made it to the semifinals, but it's not for lack of trying or quality. Indeed, the world should no longer think of Mexico as the only quality side north of Colombia. Not when quality teams like Italy, England, Croatia and Portugal have gone home courtesy of North and Central Americans teams.

Yesterday marked the fourth occasion that a team from Concacaf made it to the quarterfinals. Before it was Mexico in 1970 and 1986 (both hosted in Mexico) and USA in 2002. However, the Ticos had the hardest road of all: they won the "Champions Group": Italy, England and Uruguay. They defeated, via penalties, the 2004 Euro Champions Greece. Further, they got scored on only twice!

Concacaf also boasts the world's best goalkeepers: Ochoa, Navas and Tim Howard. In recent years there has been an increasing trend in Concacaf players transferring and succeeding in Europe: i.e. Javier Hernandez (Mexico), Clint Dempsey (USA) and Bryan Ruiz (Costa Rica). In doing so, these countries have advanced their knowledge of the game and this has trickled down to players in domestic leagues.

Concacaf's exploits have surpassed Africa's. While quality sides remain in Nigeria, Algeria, Ghana and Ivory Coast, their tactics and defense have yet to fully exploit the incredible talent of attackers like Ayew (Ghana), Moses (Nigeria), or Gervinho (Ivory Coast). 

To date, the only non-UEFA or CONMEBOL team to qualify for a semifinal is South Korea (2002), when they co-hosted the World Cup with Japan. And, truthfully, were Mexico to host the World Cup, I would bet on them winning it all. They already have the talent. The same cannot be said for Team USA, not yet. But come 2026, if the tournament is hosted in America, we might have the talent to make a run for it.

Friday, July 4, 2014

No more Neymar: Brazil will need to look to the past for inspiration to win the World Cup

Photo: AP

Neymar Jr has been ruled out of the tournament for the Brazilian national team after the quarterfinal game versus Colombia. An ill-timed challenge by Zuñiga left the Barcelona ace with a broken vertebra, medical reports showed. Can Brazil still fulfill it's promise to win the World Cup on home soil?

One need only look to the past for inspiration. In the Chile World Cup 1962, twenty-one year old Pelé was injured during the second match against Czechoslovakia. This shocked the Brazilian squad and it seemed unlikely that they should win the tournament.

But another player, Garrincha, stepped up to the plate and delivered sciniillating performances that elevated Brazil to a new sphere of accomplishment in world football and cemented the country's place as one of the perennial favorites to win it all.

It wasn't only Garrincha that won the tournament for the Seleçao. With him was Botafogo teammate Didi and Palmeiras's striker Vava. Garrincha went on to be the player of the tournament, but it was interchanges with Didi and crucial goals scored by Vavá that made the difference for Brazil.

There has been a lot of criticism for Luiz Felipe Scolari's side. One remark often heard from analysts is that Brazil has only one main star: Neymar. In doing so, we forget the talent of midfield aces like Oscar and Willian and the exploits of Hulk and Fred up top. Is this fair?

In a way, Brazil will have to rely on these young players for inspiration and magic. They will need to show why Brazil is deemed to be the most fertile land for player development on the planet. 

Brazil must work as a unit and will have to concentrate on its defense as well if they are to defeat a very talented German team in the semifinal. Germany's defense works as a back four of center backs without true wingers. This is where Dani Alves and Marcelo will be key. And with Thiago Silva suspended, it will fall upon David Luiz and whoever Scolari's decides to replace Thiago Silva to control the spaces where Müller, Klose and Kroos like to operate.

It is not an easy scenario for the Canarinha, but they will have the crowds behind them to push forward and win the title. They also have the weight of history behind them, not only as a nation but with inspiring performances of players that stepped up when superstars went down. Brazil will need a new Garrincha to win in 2014.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The loss of Altidore cost the USMNT the World Cup

Photo: Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports

Let's admit it. When we saw Jozy Altidore reach for his hamstring 21 minutes into the first half of the US-Ghana match we all knew it was over. Of course, we were wrong. Dempsey filled in for Jozy for the rest of the tournament and the young guns, Brooks, Yedlin and Green, rounded out an acceptable performance for the USMNT at the World Cup. 

And yet, playing Monday morning center back, the realities and frailties of the national team and of Klinsmann's approach were apparent. Altidore was always the key for the possession/attack team we wanted to see and the manager had no backup plan. Here's why:

1. Michael Bradley
You will recall that Bradley, usually a defensive midfielder, was pushed higher up the pitch against Nigeria in a World Cup tune-up. The team flowed, Altidore scored, we all believed. Take away Jozy and Bradley has no outlet. Dempsey isn't a target forward and he tends to retreat to find the ball. This puts Bradley in limbo and we lose our playmaker as he dissolves into defensive duties.

2. Possession
Along with Michael Bradley losing the ball, and Dempsey's retreat to midfield, the ball is no longer in the opposing team's half. Altidore does more than score. He can hold the ball and defends higher up the field. Without an outlet down the middle for Bradley, Zusi and Bedoya are left to do all the work along the flanks. There, they found quality opposition and their weaknesses were exposed.

You can argue that Yedlin+Johnson would have been a good combination. However, Johnson succumbed to yet another hamstring injury. Had Donovan been available, things may have been brighter on the flanks.

3. Defending the middle
Things became so cluttered at times in the midfield for the US that we gave up balls around the middle of the pitch. The two center mids format with Jones and Beckermann works only if Bradley is allowed to play offense. Without Jozy and a retreating Dempsey, the field of play is shortened. Note that major goals were allowed down the middle, especially Nani's and Belgium's first.

4. The second forward
Clint Dempsey is better as an advanced midfielder role, or, better put, a hovering number 11. He's better when he gets service that he can then bounce off of a fellow attacker, i.e. Altidore. Johannsson was largely missing versus Ghana, and Wondolowski was ineffective in his cameos. He's not particularly fast and isn't a prodigious passer either. He's a poacher and there weren't enough chances created.

The truth is there was never a replacement for Altidore. And, despite his poor scoring form with club and country, his skills served a far greater purpose: possession and defense. Eddie Johnson and Terrence Boyd have similar attributes but neither have his experience, vision, and natural abilities. Juan Agudelo is another possibility here.

We are now left to wonder what it might have been like with Jozy on the pitch in all those games.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Tim Howard's fortress falls and USA loses to Belgium

Tim Howard gave everything he had against Belgium tonight, but the team still lost in extra time and were denied a berth in the quarterfinals. The score of 2-1 in favor of the Belgians does not do justice to what happened on the pitch, however.

In all honesty, the score should have been 5-1 or worse. Howard had a record-setting 16-save game against some of the most prolific players in Europe. Indeed, we are lucky to have him in goal.

What went wrong? That's not he right question. Belgium was better than the US from the start. The possession was theirs, the chances were theirs, the style and ability were also theirs. 

Team USA played as a unit, as a never-give-up squadron of warriors. It's not enough at a World Cup. This is the reason why they have not gone past the round of 16. Except in 2002, but that was against Mexico and it really doesn't count in the grand scheme because they are a known foe.

Was Landon Donovan missed? Yes and no. At times you could say that he might have succeeded in some plays or he might have injected extra pressure in others. But DeAndre Yedlin came up big with his speed and Julian Green showed us why he was called in by Klinsmann.

We can claim that Wondolowski could have scored at the end of the match and won the game for us. True. But Belgians might say the same about the numerous chances they had thwarted by Howard.

It's time to look forward now, to see what Costa Rica did right, which was to win the group and enter the knockout round in a position to play a weaker team. Had the US had to play Greece or Switzerland, then the chances to reach the quarterfinals may have been greater.

The USMNT erased major specters in this tournament: we have no fear of Ghana, of mid-level European teams with marquee players (Portugal), and we had style when we wanted to play the game. 

There won't be Clint Dempsey next time, or Jermaine Jones or Kyle Beckermann. A new spine will need to develop. The American game is growing and MLS teams and US Soccer is getting more involved at a younger age with soccer-aspiring youths. Klinsmann also has a knack for recruiting youngsters with an American passport. Between now and the time Russia 2018 starts, don't be surprised if there are one or two more Julian Greens.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Facing Belgium is the real next step for US Soccer

Photo: ronaldo7.net

Beat Ghana, check. Tie or beat Portugal, check. Stand up to Germany, check. Team USA did what was necessary to get out of the group. Now comes the real test. A real "final," so to speak, for the USMNT: Belgium.

The truth is that Klinsmann trained his crew for the group stage. They had to earn points against the best African side in the world. No offense to Nigeria or Algeria, but the change-up, positioning and speed of play is much better for Ghana. USA also nearly defeated a wounded Portugal and might even have tied Germany.

Landon Donovan put it well when he was asked about the exceptionalism of this USMNT. Sometimes things just go right, he insisted. You score in injury time (vs Algeria in 2010), you advance out of group stage by virtue of other scores (2002, 2014). The "breakthrough" in 2002 was defeating heavily-favored Portugal. The match against Mexico was icing on the cake. Germany in the 2002 quarterfinals was just that: Germany.

Tomorrow's test is completely different. USA was handed one of the more unpredictable and difficult sides in this World Cup when they finished second in the "group of death." This Belgian squad has the likes of Hazard, Kompany, Lukaku, Dembele, Fellaini, Mirallas, Courtois, Januzaj, Vermaelen. If they sound familiar it's because you know soccer and you know the teams they play for. Top teams like Chelsea, Manchester United, Everton. 

But Belgium is also very young, with its 11 starters averaging less than 25 years old. Also, only one player has participated in a World Cup. For USA, we have Bradley, Dempsey, Howard and Beasley from the starting lineup that know how it works.

Even so, Belgium was ranked in the top right and that is why they got to be a top-seeded team and were given a "group of life," of sorts, along with Russia, Algeria and South Korea. They are one of the "top" European teams still in contention and they are better than others like Greece or Switzerland.

This is why Team USA could take the true "next step" by earning a place in the quarterfinals against a true contender, regardless of how lackluster the Belgians' performance has been so far. Is it a bridge too far? Most of us thought the group stage was and they proved us wrong.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Rise of Mark Geiger in World Football


As the Round of 16 begins in the Brazil 2014 World Cup, there is another American breakthrough. It's not the fact that the USMNT made it to the second round in two consecutive World Cups, or that they escape the Group of Death. It's Mark Geiger, the American referee from Major League Soccer. Today he became the first American to get assigned to a Round of 16 match: France-Nigeria.

So we must give credit to him for his poise in the various games he has already refereed in this World Cup: Colombia-Greece and Spain-Chile. The latter one was particularly important given its serious implications in this tournament, i.e. Spain getting knocked out.

Geiger has had a steady rise through the ranks of American soccer: from being a math teacher in New Jersey to his time in the A-League in 2002 to MLS in 2004, to getting FIFA-listed in 2008, to the London Olympics in 2012, and now at the 2014 World Cup. 

He will now dictate how one of the marquee teams, France, conducts its business on the pitch alongside the African champions, Nigeria. The French have a tendency to commit certain egregious offenses: Zidane's headbutt in Germany 2006 and Henry's handball in qualifiers, 2009. Nigeria can get physical. It will not be easy for Geiger.

Let's celebrate this latest accomplishment in the development of American soccer. We're not only showing the world we know how to play. We're also showing the world we know how to manage a match in the most difficult international stage: the World Cup.

Congratulations, Mark Geiger. Hopefully we'll see more of you later in the tournament.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Saved by Math: USA through to the round of 16

Taylor Twellman said it. Today's 0-1 loss to Germany in the final game of Group G in World Cup 2014 felt a lot like 2002. Why? The Americans were saved by math and Klinsmann knows how to work the problem out.

As I put it in a previous post. A "small" team has to try to go for 4 points and a decent goal differential in order to go through. USA came into the game with 4 points while Ghana and Portugal had 1. Ghana had -1 goal differential and Portugal -4. 

A loss to Germany was highly probable. They have not been eliminated at the group stage since 1954 and they have one of the most talented sides in the World Cup. Klinsmann knew it and acted accordingly. A win versus Ghana was a must. Done. At least a point versus Portugal was crucial. They almost won. The rest was just math, as Portugal was undone in the first game and could not defeat Team USA in their second outing.

For the players it comes down to Jermaine Jones being the absolute MVP in this tournament for the Americans and Howard showing why he's one of the top 5 goalkeepers in the world. Dempsey has partly made up for Altidore but the New Jersey product will be required versus a highly talented Belgian side.

Some deltas include Michael Bradley's subpar performances. This is very disconcerting considering his pedigree as a player, but Jones has made up for it. Beasley, Fabian Johnson and Matt Besler have also played their best, as did Omar Gonzalez in his first start today. 

Now anything is possible. Belgium is an entirely different team. They will be difficult for the USA in terms of their speed and athleticism and their highly-skilled midfielders. Think of them as a mix of Germany and Portugal. It's no wonder some dub them the dark horses of the tournament. In this World Cup, however, all logic has gone out the window.

And let's say it: We Believe.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

How Team USA could still be ousted by Ghana in Brazil 2014

Photo credit: Getty Images

Americans love drama and there's nothing like what the Germany-USA match has to offer, plus the simultaneous Ghana-Portugal match. For those of you that thought our Ghana-World Cup nightmares had been exorcised, think again. There is still a way that Ghana can go through and oust the Americans in the process.

The standings
Group G

It's simple. USA wins and they're through. USA ties and they're through. But it's never simple at the World Cup.

With Germany at 4 points and +4 goal differential, it will take a monumental takedown by Team USA to knock the three-times champions out. That, coupled with another goal-fest by Ghana. Highly unlikely but this tournament has been odd.

If Portugal manages to take down Ghana by 3 goals and USA also loses by 3 then Cristiano Ronaldo and company go through and the megastar lives another day.

The Manaus Factor
Fact. To date, every single team that has played in Manaus has gone on to lose their following match. That would mean that both Portugal and USA will come out with zero points from their final Group G games.

Ghana Returns
The Ghanaians are no pushovers. They controlled the game versus the Americans and probably deserved better. They showed why in the second game against the Germans. They almost won that game and it set up a nightmare scenario for their now-eternal World Cup nemesis: USA.

If Ghana wins by two goals and USA loses by one goal the Africans will go through. Plain math. It would be a heartbreak for a hard-working American team and the third time they knocked the USMNT out of the World Cup. First it was directly with a win in group play, second was in the round of 16. This time via math.

Hold your breath.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

When Suarez bites it damages the game

Photo credit: Getty Images

Luis Suarez did the unthinkable. Again. He bit Giorgio Chiellini on the shoulder in today's deciding match in group C between Uruguay and England. But where does this leave him, FIFA, and the game of soccer?

For Suarez this should be no coincidence. In 2010 he bit PSV Eindhoven's Otman Bakkal when playing for Ajax of the Dutch Eridivisie. In 2013 he bit Chelsea's Ivanovic when playing for Liverpool FC of the English Premier League.
Clearly, the man is disturbed. Such a childish, hurtful and plain disgusting gesture lies outside of professional sports. Just ask Mike Tyson. Is this what we want to show the quarter-billion children watching this World Cup? These are kids looking up at role models. What should we tell them when Suarez commits such an act? It's certainly not part of the game.

The match ended in a 1-0 win in favor of Uruguay, with the lone goal coming a couple of minutes after the purported bite. Italy was down a man after Marchisio was ejected and had little to show for as they combated the well-poised Uruguayan defense. We can't credit the win to Suarez's bite, as Godin scored a perfect header to put the "Charruas" in front. Still, some measure of psychology has to work itself into the conversation.

Should FIFA act, it will likely be a suspension for Suarez. Maybe a ban for life from international competition. Why not? This is the third offense of this type.

Let's also not forget that most of Africa already harbors a deal of dislike for Suarez for his handball at the mouth of goal, with the goalkeeper already beaten, to deny Ghana the goal and the win. Ghana would have advanced to the 2010 semifinals, the first African team to do so. Instead, they settled for penalties and Gyan missed, sending Uruguay to their first semifinal since 1970. 

And also we should remember his racist remarks towards Manchester United's Patrice Evra, his suspension for this, and, once back, his refusal to shake Evra's hand. So, my friends, as much as I like to watch him score and play for club and country, I have to say this: time to let him go.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

America's tie versus Portugal was always the plan

The truth is that a win versus Portugal was never meant to happen. As heartbreaking as the tie was, it was a just result for two teams that played as equals. Portugal needed the win to stay alive. USA needed it to seal their way through. A tie meant they both still had a chance.

The game was not lost. That's the most important take home message from the game in Manaus. In fact, a positive result, be it tie or win, was what Team USA was after from the beginning.

So for the novices in World Cup soccer, I will make this post simple. In a World Cup there are three types of team: the top team (I.e. Germany, Brazil, etc), the strong European team (ie Netherlands, Portugal), and the two other teams. These could be from any of the other confederations, i.e. Ghana and USA. 

The idea has always been to beat the weak team, steal a point from the strong European team and then wait to see what happens. For Costa Rica things panned out even better than they thought. Italy is always underwhelming in the group stage and England imploded. That Suarez was unable to play in the first game was a gift. Two wins and history made. That's what the World Cup is about.

Playing devil's advocate, however, we should mention today's global game. European teams are no longer what they used to be. Most teams from other confederations have a large number of players plying their trade in Europe, learning their style, adapting to their plays, and building a foundation.

So let's celebrate tonight's match for what it was. A dignified result for two teams that worked hard to win the game. Both teams controlled the ball well and both teams had their share of chances. This isn't 1966's Portugal and it isn't 2006's Team USA. Clint Dempsey showed up again and scored a would-be game-winner. It was only undone by the one moment of wisdom allowed to the reigning best player in the world: Cristiano Ronaldo. His cross thirty seconds from the end sealed the tie. 2-2.