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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.

US realities before Portugal

Photo credit: Time

When Jurgen Klinsmann was hired for the US national team position there was one request: do well at the World Cup. For most this would mean get out of the group stage. Wrong. Chances were that the US could end up in a group of death. And it did.

After US Soccer knew its rivals, Ghana, Portugal, Germany, in that order, the request changed: Beat Ghana. Why? History.

In 2006, the United States was ranked in the top 10 and Bruce Arena's men were poised for a better tournament than the quarterfinals in 2002. They lost 3-0 in the opening match to the Czech Republic, tied 1-1 with Italy and lost 2-1 against Ghana in a game briefly tied by Clint Dempsey's first World Cup goal.

In 2010 the United States were once again an underdog but were placed in the "group of life" along with England, new-comer Slovenia, and Algeria, in that order. A herculean effort gave a 1-1 tie against England, a come-from-behind 2-2 tie against Slovenia was another classic, capped by a Hollywood ending 1-0 win over Algeria thanks to an injury time goal by one Landon Donovan. The round of 16 pitted the Americans against Ghana and the African nation prevailed, once more, knocking Bob Bradley's team out of the tournament.

This is why Ghana was the priority for the Americans in 2014. This and the fact that both Germany and Portugal are top 10 teams. "Too tough," claimed commentator Alexi Lalas. Most of us knowledgeable soccer followers concurred.

Alexi Lalas had some words of encouragement yesterday following Michael Bradley's interview previewing Portugal. This Portuguese team is fighting for their lives without Coentrao and Pepe in the defense and Cristiano Ronaldo not 100%. A chance for a win.

But do not be fooled. This Portuguese team, despite a lopsided 4-0 loss to Germany, has quality all over it. From Nani to Meireles to Cristiano Ronaldo. They have years of experience in the World Cup with a top 4 finish in 2006

Portugal will come out to win. They will do so down the right side and exploit the spaces left for Ronaldo. Team USA has no Mertesacker, no Sami Khedira, no Jerome Boateng. This is the one game where everything will be on the line for the Americans. They must play for everything and they must play to win. That's where the spaces will open.

Against Ghana there were no spaces because Dempsey scored early and the team backed off. A gift and a curse, as the players themselves assured. Jermaine Jones will need an even bigger game, Beckermann will have to be stronger and Michael Bradley has to show up. Without Altidore there will be little hold-up up front so the attack must come up the middle, through Bradley.

In reality the chances are slim for the Americans today. They are just as banged-up as the Portuguese and will play in a high-humidity scenario that levels the chances for both sides in terms of environment. 

For Klinsmann and US Soccer the real goal was met. We did something we haven't done for two World Cups. We beat Ghana. This is a team looking to the future. Otherwise we would have Donovan in the 23. A win or a tie versus Portugal would conjure up memories of 2002. We are all allowed to dream.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Adios España 2014: End of a Generation

It was halftime in the Chile - Spain match and the score was 2-0. But it wasn't Spain's comeback from a humiliating loss to Holland last Friday. Instead, Chile was on top and it was further proof that this Spanish team would not repeat as world champions.

If Spain's 5-1 loss to Netherlands was a wake up call then the loss to Chile suggests a generational change is needed. 16 out of the 23 called in to Brazil by Vicente del Bosque were part of the 2010 World Cup winning squad. The starting eleven and tactics varied little between games and the tiki taka no longer dazzled, surprised, or was efficient.

For Casillas, today's game was a comedy of errors that scarcely does the storied goalkeeper justice. This wasn't how he wanted to be remembered, nor will it, in the long run. Casillas was at fault in at least one of Holland's goals and certainly for Chile's second. But del Bosque didn't have his new first-choice, Victor due to injury and Casillas got the call because of his years of experience.

It wasn't only Casillas that faltered. Xabi Alonso was clumsy in his decisions and players like Iniesta, David Silva, and Busquets were never quite in sync. Their game was off. It may have been credit to great marking by Chile, but also the time these players have been together. Many of these players are in teams like Barcelona and Real and Atlético Madrid, whose season just ended. Fatigue? 

Maybe a fatigue of style and desire. Not of desiring the cup itself but maybe complacency since they were, until this point, the best in the world. It's true that they repeated in the Euro two years ago but the World Cup is a different tournament with more playing styles. Further, in today's global game, the most studied game is the Spanish style, given its impressive track record both internationally and at club level.

Perhaps the best way to view today's game is as a goodbye to a generation. They let us know they have reached the top and are ready for a new stock of Spanish players. Individuals like Juan Mata, for example. 

So we say goodbye to Xavi, to Casillas, to Puyol and David Villa, to the tiki taka and the joy they brought to the world with a whole new and exciting style of play. Thank you, Spain. May your new generation bring us great goals and memorable games.

Van Persie: One of the best goals ever scored in the World Cup

Photo credit: ESPN

What a great goal by Robin Van Persie yesterday. Few goals deserve further analysis since few goals are as impressive as the one scored yesterday. So let's look at what happened

First, Spain was actually holding a fairly good line, trying to work the offsie by maintaining a pretty straight line. This is what makes it such a good goal since van Persie had to work for it. 

Daley Blind takes part of the credit for his incredible center. He lobs the ball in nearly from the half line, as can be seen in the graphic below. It's a fairly blind center, hoping that an attacker can cradle the ball and create a chance.

The bulk of the credit goes to Van Persie. He looks up at the ball, runs diagonally with his eyes on the ball into the center of the 18 yard box, around 17 yards. He is not looking at Casillas, however, which makes the play that much more interesting. His header lobs the ball over Casillas with just enough curve to get it over the Real Madrid goalkeeper and below the cross bar. Pure class. The truth is few goals in past World Cups are better than this one.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Hollywood finish: USA defeats Ghana

Photo credit: FIFA 

The US Men's National Team pulled off another Hollywood ending today with their emphatic win over Ghana. It was a game of fantasy plays by Dempsey, true grit by the American defense, last-minute surprises, and plenty of pain.

It started with Dempsey's goal inside of the first minute. Pure Deuce action that reminded us why he was such a highly-coveted player in Europe. The US was active, attacked and controlled the ball.

However, after Altidore's unfortunate injury, Ghana was emboldened and sought after and achieved control of the game. Dempsey's broken nose made him less confident. The Americans' key to the attack and holding the ball in the opponent's side was gone. Aron Johannsson wasn't able to keep the focus on the attack and Ghana parked itself in the American side of the pitch.

There was pain, sweat and strength in this match. This is what caused Besler to be substituted as well as Bedoya. Jermaine Jones and Geoff Cameron also could have used a breather, except that there are only 3 subs allowed. Perhaps time to review that rule?

Team USA had one of its token defensive matches today. Howard kept most of the balls out and the defense and midfield retreated to expel the attack. It worked until deep in the scond half, when Ghana finally broke through. A tie would be okay, right?

Wrong, said John Anthony Brooks. The 21-year-old stepped up in a corner kick in the 86th minute and headed the ball low and hard, where no goalkeeper can get it. Goal. USA 2 - Ghana 1.

It's possible that Team USA might make it out of this group, but the odds are stacked against them. No more Altidore. Perhaps no more Besler. The elements were difficult and they will continue to be so. This is Brazil and heat and humidity are a constant in the environment. Portugal is wounded, too, but the US will have to bring its absolute best if it is to defeat the mighty Ronaldo and his squad. 

Friday, June 13, 2014

Brazil's undeserved penalty is a call for use of video replay

Photo credit: Reuters

Brazil defeated Croatia yesterday in the opening game of the World Cup by the score of 3-1. The go-ahead goal however, came due to a controversial penalty kick.

The goal came in the 79th minute, just in time to give Brazil the psychological bump it needed to bring the crowd into the game. However, how this PK came is debatable. In fact, it is clear from the replays that Fred wasn't touched, at least not ith enough force to pull him down.

This latest lack of fairness in a major soccer match has called, once again, for action from FIFA. But will they ever get this to happen? The goal line technology that is finally being employed took more than a decade to implement, even though the capability has been around for other sports, such as hockey, for much longer.

There are the usual arguments. Referees are part of the game and human error is a tradition, of sorts. This has been Michel Platini's assertion, for example. And yet, as the game gets a further hold of the North American sports scene, it is likely that more pressure will be placed on FIFA to act.

The way that the Mexico and Spain games went also add credence to the argument that at least one replay should be allowed per team per game. A couple more minutes per game is something most soccer lovers can live with. Giovanni dos Santos had a goal called back without a clear reason and Spain's lone goal versus The Netherlands came through another questionable penalty. Clearly, goal line tech is a great start, but it's still not enough to make the beautiful game also a fair game.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Bradley/Altidore the key as the US defeat Nigeria

Photo credit: goal.com

Jozy Altidore scored a brace today versus Nigeria in the final send-off game before Brazil 2014. It was a significant moment not only for Jozy but for the whole of the team. Now their starting striker is back in scoring form and Michael Bradley is the provider.

Michael Bradley remains the key. He was always a fulcrum for his father, Bob Bradley, but years of playing at the highest level in Europe have made him a world-class player. Klinsmann's genius move to try a 5-man midfield with two holding mids behind Bradley allows him to be a creator, a number 10. 

There were at least 10 such moments of true magic from Bradley. He created the chances, the spaces, the game. Most of his passes get through, but it's the chippy ones, the blind crosses, the small moves that make the magic. He is a complete player.

But Bradley wouldn't be here if it weren't for Beckerman and Jermaine Jones. In effect, Beckerman has substituted Bradley's place as a holding midfielder and relieved Toronto's designated players of a crucial duty: defense. Make no mistake, Bradley won quite a few balls on his own today. But it was the space and time left for his creativity that stole the show. That's what Beckerman's role did.

The defense is set with DaMarcus Beasley at left back. Chandler's communication with Besler just wasn't there versus Turkey or today. Omar Gonzalez is also behind Cameron at the moment as a center back. Hat's off for a great performance by Cameron.

So Klinsmann has his formula now. Bedoya, Zusi and Brad Davis seem to be interchangeable. That is probably where the change might come versus Ghana June 16. But as the commentators said during the broadcast, Bedoya brings the defense. Against Ghana, all the defending possible will be required.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Qatar 2022: Corruption and Tragedy

Photo credit: inhabitat.com
The selection of Qatar as host for the 2022 FIFA World Cup has been connected with corruption of officials and tragic events for the workers building the stadiums. The country's selection was met with disenchantment and anger for some, ecstasy for others, but what is the truth behind all the rumors?

Certainly, the significant wealth of the country (one of the highest GDP in the world) suggests it was a determining factor. It may be that this wealth could translate into fabulous venues never before experienced. On the other hand, what role did money play in swaying the FIFA committee?

While FIFA refuses to review new corruption allegations, evidence continues to mount on misconduct on part of top FIFA officials. Further, serious questions remain about the actual feasibility of playing in Qatar during the height of summer, with a move to winter being a distinct possibility. However, club teams in Europe are not on board.

One other subject worth mentioning here is the tragedy associated with the laborers in the construction of Qatar 2022 stadiums. If has been reported by multiple outlets, including ESPN, that conditions for migrant workers are deplorable. ESPN's video was an eye-opening piece of journalism work and I recommend watching it.

Clearly, Qatar has a long way to go to comply with the international community in more than just their capability to hold the tournament, but on the human rights issue. Further, most international tournaments like the World Cup and the Olympics carry with them inherent inequities. Brazil 2014 has seen rampant corruption with skyrocketing costs and the population has rightfully marched in protest.

If corruption did occur when Qatar 2022 was chosen as host, and if FIFA does change the dates to a winter schedule then terrible precedents are set for the organization. Let's hope that the sport can get past this point in time.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

USA defeats Turkey but questions remain

Photo credit: AP
It was a good game. A "wide-open game," remarked Klinsmann. The US Men's National team defeated Turkey at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey in its next-to-last sendoff game prior to the World Cup. 2-1 was a just score but it hides some important questions as the US heads to Brazil next week.

Julian Green or Landon Donovan
We all expect some magic from the youngster. We get flashes of fantasy and a good bit of speed. We have yet to see a dominant game from Green, and many American fans are starting to wonder whether  his inclusion in the final 23 was worth dropping Landon Donovan. We can imagine that Donovan would have made quite an impact had he come in in the second half versus turkey. Green came in but was not as large a factor.

Flat or diamond midfield
Jermaine Jones was exposed several times in the first half. He was also dominant. But that is his nature. There is no denying the prowess of the German-American's skill as a holding midfielder. But he is also a good box-to-box player and, in Klinsmann's diamond formation, lies right behind Bradley. This exposes the back line to attackers from the opposing side if Jones decides to go forward. His interchanges with Bradley sometimes fail to materialize and this could spell doom versus Ghana on June 16.

Can Beckermann be a better option? That's though to answer and validate, given Jones' illustrious career in Europe. But it comes down to what formation Jones is playing in and whether he can follow through.

The back line 
Fabian Johnson will likely start every game during the World Cup. He has proven time and again that he is reliable, consistent, and dangerous. Today he scored his first goal for the National Team and it was a beauty. He provided the type of dynamic flank performance required of the modern right back position. 

Timmy Chandler got his first start in 15 months and was fairly steady, except for the play that led to Turkey's goal. Cameron and Besler remained in the middle. This, by far, has looked like the steadiest group since the qualifiers. But does it come down to strength and quality in the back four? Alexi Lalas, the great American defender, argues that it's a lot more important to have good collective understanding and cohesiveness within the defensive corps. If this is to be the starting defense, then they had better hurry in understanding each other's moves and positioning.