soccer

World Cup Brazil 2014, Part Five.

Had the semifinalists (Brazil, Germany, Argentina, Holland) right from the beginning, though there was a bit more squeaking-by than I expected. My original picks, as documented in this august journal and in my ESPN bracket, were Brazil over Germany and Argentina over Holland. If those picks turn out right, I will gladly accept congratulations, accolades, and cash from the world over. But I no longer believe that’s how the semis will go.

Germany’s been pretty consistent. They flailed a bit against Algeria in regulation, but that aside they’ve been strong on offense and defense, they’ve attacked consistently, and they’re due to get back to final. The loss of Neymar and Thiago Silva puts Brazil in a lot of trouble. Hulk’s played hard and sorta well; now Oscar and Fred et al need to turn it on. The Brazilians still have more than enough talent to win it, but this whole tournament they’ve over-relied on Neymar to the point that I wonder whether they think they can win without him. I now have to take Germany over Brazil.

Argentina is still getting by on talent without being properly organized, and that’s not going to work much longer. Di María is out just as Argentina is running into its toughest, best organized, most fearless opposition so far. Yes, Aguero is coming back, and yes, Messi is still Messi, but no di María means no playmaker in the midfield. Meanwhile, Holland looks awesome. True, they needed PKs to get past Costa Rica, but I think the Dutch were unlucky not to blow the Ticos away in regulation. And hanging on to that last sub juuuust in case you want to change out your keeper for the PKs? That’s insane, but it worked, and that’s what counts. Between that gamble, and the amazing comebacks, and that epic whupping of Spain, and their generally dominating play throughout the tournament, I now think Holland’s going back to the final.

So, am I going back on my original calls? Yes. Could you say I’ve picked all four teams to win? Yes. Will I backtrack on this blogpost if my new predictions turn out wrong? Certainly. But Germany and Holland are more impressive, Brazil and Argentina are hobbled by key injuries, and so: Germany over Brazil, Holland over Argentina, Holland over Germany in the final. No coin flipping this time.

About Robben: the guy doesn’t dive. He does embellish, no doubt. It’s embarrassing to watch, but the reality is he’s super-fast, he can use either foot, and so the bad guys foul him. A lot. Twice he was fouled badly enough in the box in the first half against Mexico that he should’ve gotten a PK. Against Spain four years ago, two defenders were hacking the bejeezus out of him on a breakaway and he didn’t go down. He doesn’t dive. He plays hard, non-stop, and I no longer want to run a power sander over his face.

Dr. Hmnahmna tells me that his daughter saw a picture of Lionel Messi in the paper today and asked if it was me. Me! But of course it wasn’t me; I’m right-footed.

World Cup Brazil 2014, Part Four.

I don’t think the US played well against Belgium. Tim Howard is rightly getting his due, and the defense in many cases did well to force Belgium into low-probability shots. But I thought we were poor in transition and offense until the last few minutes of regular time and the second half of extra time. I realize that part of the offensive surge at the end was due to Belgium falling back and defending a lead, but it was also due to greater aggression, better decision-making, and better touch on the passes– all of which were missing for most of the previous 105 minutes. I lost track of how many times our mids either didn’t play the ball through, or tried to play it through and kicked it right at a defender. Oh well.

I like what Klinsmann has done with the team, and I loved watching him sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” during pre-game. We’ll always wonder about his decision to leave Donovan off the roster, but keep in mind we advanced out of the so-called “Group of Death” without him. In fact, if not for a defensive lapse at the end of the Portugal game, we would have clinched advancement after two games. Yes, Wondo missed at the end of regulation, and we can wonder about whether Donovan would’ve buried it. But Donovan’s comments and attitude throughout qualification made Klinsmann question his desire and commitment, and that was that.

Hopefully our guys will build on this (we had a young team, this was a good experience), and MLS will build on this (though I won’t hold my breath), and we’ll breeze through qualification, and we’ll draw an easier group in 2018, and go even further in the knockouts.

My predictions from the last post:

“Brazil over Chile. Chile was better than expected, but Brazil is hitting its stride and there’s no way the tourney/refs will let Brazil lose this one anyway.” Yes and no. Yes, Brazil won, but no, they didn’t get any help from the refs this time.

“Colombia over Uruguay.” Easy pick.

“France over Nigeria, Germany over Algeria, Netherlands over Mexico, Argentina over Switerland… those winners have looked strong and played positive games.” Three of these were nail-biters. I’m most impressed with Holland. They have fallen behind in three of their four games– once at halftime to the defending champion, once in the second half against an upstart, once with two minutes left in regulation of a knockout game– and all three times they won. It’s not like they’re barely eking out one-goal victories with early goals and packing the bus. They’re playing high-flying, attack-first games and winning.

“Costa Rica will beat Greece…” Yes…

“…and I think the US will beat Belgium.” No. Someone had to pick them, and I didn’t care that it might cost me my bracket. Seven of eight isn’t bad. Odd that all eight winners were the group winners.

My quarterfinal picks: Brazil over Colombia. Messitina over Belgium. Holland over Costa Rica.

France v. Germany. This is a really tough call. France has thoroughly impressed throughout the tournament, but I have Germany in my bracket, and I’m sticking with them. Germany’s had its scare and had its mettle tested, France hasn’t. I say that’ll be the difference. We’ll see.

World Cup Brazil 2014, Part Three.

My prediction performance so far, with my correct picks in bold:

Group A: Brazil, Mexico. Easy picks.

Group B: The Netherlands, Spain. Even after the whupping from Holland, I thought Spain would bounce back. Nope. The Dutch look good. I mean real good. I mean like “we’re back for revenge and we don’t care who gets in our way” good. And it looks like Chile’s high ranking was justified.

Group C: Colombia, Ivory Coast. Got Colombia right despite not knowing too much about the group. I’m a bit disappointed about the Ivory Coast; Drogba’s a genuinely good guy and I wanted to see him do as well as possible.

Group D: Italy, Uruguay. Whoops. Italy was awful in its last two games, but was still unfortunate not to advance. But if hard work begets good luck, then they didn’t earn any good luck. After the first match, the offense disappeared. The Azzurri were barely even trying to score. Balotelli reminds me of Wayne Rooney in his first World Cup appearance– incredibly talented, but undisciplined and immature. Even if Italy had advanced, his second yellow would have kept him out of the Round of 16 game. They need him to grow up, and they need to develop at least one other reliable striker to pair with him.

Uruguay advanced as expected, but the how was unexpected. If the ref sees the bite, Suarez gets a red, Uruguay’s down to ten men, they probably don’t score a minute later, and Italy advances with four points. But I’m not mad at the ref. Shame on Italy for allowing themselves to be in that position, and shame on FIFA for the light punishment. This was not the first time Suarez bit an opponent. This was not the second time Suarez bit an opponent. This was the third. He needs a complete and total ban for at least a year (some have argued for a lifetime ban; I wouldn’t object), and mandate a psychological evaluation and extensive therapy. Four months is a mere vacation.

All that said, Costa Rica looked darn good. I’d bet nobody outside Costa Rica picked them to win this group, much less with seven points. This was the real Group of Death; Italy, Uruguay, and England were all ranked in FIFA’s top ten heading into the tournament. Costa Rica beat them. Congratulations to our CONCACAF rival for doing so.

Group E: France, Switzerland. Nailed it, but France looks even better than expected.

Group F: Argentina, Nigeria. I thought these were easy picks, though Iran did have a shot at sneaking through in the final group game. What’s scary is that Argentina won without looking very good. Messi has shown up, what happens if/when the rest of the team does?

Group G: Here’s what I wrote: “Germany will win the Group of Death, and the US will finish second.” Yep.

“In the first set of games, the US will finally get past Ghana, and Portugal will be beaten and beaten up by Germany.” Yep.

“Ronaldo’s nagging injuries will get the better of him, and I think Portugal’s a paper tiger without him in good health.” Not quite. Ronaldo was Portugal’s only bright spot, and the more I read about his charitable work, the less I despise him.

“We’ll tie or beat Portugal in our second match, Germany will beat Ghana and secure passage to the second round.” I gave myself some leeway in the USA-POR game, but was surprised by the Germany-Ghana tie.

I could only listen to the USA-Portugal game on ESPN Radio, but it sounded like we had the better of the game. We were better than Portugal. We didn’t get the result we should have, but that’s because we were sloppy and they were fortunate to score.

“Then we’ll tie Germany in the third match and advance with five points. I hope.” Close enough.

Group H: South Korea, Belgium. Belgium won the group, so I should give myself half-credit. South Korea disappointed. The Algeria-Russia match was fun to watch. Aabrock and I flew out to Vegas to watch the last two days of the group stage, and were surrounded by Russians in the sports book. We hoped for a high-scoring Russian victory so we could (A) be assured of making it out alive and (B) witness their loud and happy and terrifying celebrations. Didn’t happen. They drew, and Algeria advanced.

In toto: Got 12 of the 16 second-rounders right, with 11 of those 12 in exactly the right spot. Not bad. I think I’m winning my fantasy league right now. That in mind, my original picks for the knockout rounds are mostly intact, but let me offer some new picks.

Brazil over Chile. Chile was better than expected, but Brazil is hitting its stride and there’s no way the tourney/refs will let Brazil lose this one anyway.

Colombia over Uruguay. Colombia is better than expected, Uruguay is down to its gums.

France over Nigeria, Germany over Algeria, Netherlands over Mexico, Argentina over Switerland… those winners have looked strong and played positive games.

Costa Rica will beat Greece…and I think the US will beat Belgium. Belgium’s had their nice little run, but we’re better than everyone they’ve played so far. They aren’t as good as Germany. Altidore will be back. We’ll be ready– not to squeeze past them, but to beat them.

Match of the tournament so far: tough call. The most significant game so far was Holland’s defeat of Spain. The term “statement game” is perhaps overused by American commentators, but that was one if I ever saw one. Spain’s run of greatness was over, Holland was back and angry.

The goal of the tournament so far was from that same game. Robin Van Persie’s Nintendo goal right before the half was well-served, well-struck, and well-timed. You could see the life and hope drain out of Spain– that’s when it was over.

World Cup Brazil 2014, Part Two.

I didn’t want to say anything for fear of jinxing the US and the Azzurri and the tournament in general, but good Lord this has been a great world cup. There’ve been goals galore (for soccer), great comeback, decent refereeing (despite the controversial PK in the opener), and no lynchings of scorers of own goals (knock wood).

I’m thrilled that the US avenged our losses to Ghana, and thrilled that we overcame the adversity of injuries that spent our substitutions so early, and thrilled that we overcame Ghana’s late equalizer. Honest. But as I told my brother last night, this looks like a team picked with 2018 in mind. I told him the team looked like it was Howard, Dempsey, Bradley, and eight JV players. Then he pointed out that Bradley wasn’t too good tonight, either. The defense was frantic, there was no purposeful possession in midfield, not too many threatening runs up front, not enough response to the pressure Ghana put on us for far too much of the game. But we got the win, and that’s all that matters.

Italy beat England, as I expected, in one of the better games of the Cup so far. The defense looked a little unsure without Buffon behind them. I’m a bit worried about the offense. Balotelli’s up front and seems to be in a good mood, but who’s the other guy? Italy can usually scrounge up two world-class strikers; despite the stereotype, they put on decent offensive shows in ’02 (five perfectly good goals were disallowed by the criminals with whistles in Korea and Japan) and ’06. The midfield looked awesome, though. Pirlo might be the smartest player in the world. He reminds me of the old fat guys who played in my summer league when I was younger– you thought you could run them to death because they were old and fat; but they passed so well that you couldn’t keep up with the ball and you ended up getting beaten. Badly. And then they’d go smoke and drink on the sidelines during breaks, and come out and do it again when they came back on the field. That’s Pirlo.

More later.

World Cup Brazil 2014, Part One.

The Greatest Month in Sports is back. I don’t own any video game that might help me simulate the World Cup, so I had to rely on thinking and stuff. Here are my slightly belated predictions for 2014 (group winners listed first):

Group A: Brazil, Mexico. Brazil is Brazil, in Brazil. Mexico was lucky to get through (thanks to the US showing mercy, in fact), but their poor play is probably behind them. Although I love Cameroon for what Omam-Biyik did to Argentina in 1990, and for Roger Milla’s performances in ’90 and ’94, they’re too inconsistent. Croatia will fold, especially after today’s match.

Group B: The Netherlands, Spain. They’re both too good for Chile (despite its ranking, higher than Holland’s) and Australia. But I think Spain is waning, and it’ll start to show in the group stages.

Group C: Colombia, Ivory Coast. I don’t have a good feel for this group, so… yeah.

Group D: Italy will win the group because I said so, and because they’re going to bounce back from 2010. Uruguay will build on its recent success and advance. England will continue to disappoint.

Group E: France will return to form, even sans Ribery, after their nightmarish performance in South Africa. Switzerland will also advance. They’re more mechanical and consistent than Ecuador or Honduras; it will pay off.

Group F: Messi et al will win the group easily. Nigeria will also advance despite being the lowest-ranked team in the group.

Group G: Germany will win the Group of Death, and the US will finish second. In the first set of games, the US will finally get past Ghana, and Portugal will be beaten and beaten up by Germany. Ronaldo’s nagging injuries will get the better of him, and I think Portugal’s a paper tiger without him in good health. We’ll tie or beat Portugal in our second match, Germany will beat Ghana and secure passage to the second round. Then we’ll tie Germany in the third match and advance with five points. I hope.

Group H: I flipped some coins to make my calls here. I think South Korea will win the group and Belgium, despite high acclaim, will finish second.

Second Round: Brazil over Spain (Some will proclaim tiki-taka dead, which will be nonsense. If that style suits your players, then play it. Spain has the players, but they’re aging and the world is onto them). Uruguay over Colombia. France over Nigeria. Germany over Belgium. Netherlands over Mexico (Mexico’s good fortune runs out). Italy over Ivory Coast. Argentina over Switzerland. US over South Korea.

Quarterfinals: Brazil over Uruguay. Germany over France (who will finally miss Ribery). Netherlands over Italy (not enough offense). Argentina over US.

Semifinals: Brazil over Germany (despite what happened earlier today, this is the game in which home-field advantage will be most obvious). Argentina over Netherlands.

Final: Brazil over Argentina, hopefully in an insanely high-scoring game. Like, 7-6.

Perhaps I’m a bit optimistic regarding the US, but somebody has to be.

Earlier today I told someone that Brazil would win the whole thing. They have enough offense, I thought they’d be organized enough on defense, and too many other contenders are dealing with big injuries. That, plus home-field advantage, plus the threat of the entire team being crucified if they don’t win, should be enough to put them over the top.

About the penalty vs. Croatia… I asked my brother if I was the only person who thought the ref’s call wasn’t that bad. Apparently I wasn’t. No question Fred embellished it, but Lovren put both hands (actually a hand and an arm) on a guy who was turning towards goal with the ball. A slight bump or tug in that situation can put you off balance. It might’ve been soft, but PKs have been given for less.

Back in my day, continued.

(Found a draft of this digging through some files this afternoon. I really should have posted this last year, heading into reunion summer. Here’s part one.)

I tried out for my high school varsity soccer team as a sophomore, earned a starting spot in the first game, and was so proud to be a starter at age 14 (might’ve been 13, my birthday was around the start of the season).

Unfortunately we lost that game 10-0, and it could’ve been worse because there was no mercy rule. One of those ten goals we gave up occurred when Yours Truly passed the ball back to the keeper so he could pick it up– which was still legal then– only to see him look away from the ball at the last second and let the ball roll between his legs and into the goal. But we had fans there, and they cheered us on anyway.

We were awful those first few years, but we improved. We ended up winning four games– and I’m proud to say I scored the game-winner in our school’s first-ever victory that didn’t involve the other team’s bus getting lost. The next time we played the team that beat us 10-0, we lost again, but by a much closer 3 to 1.

My junior year, we improved a little bit more– we again won four games, but this time we picked up a few ties– one against a state-title contender. We did lose a bunch of games, but the margins of defeat kept getting slimmer and slimmer. One of those losses was by a score of 4-3 to the state’s 10th-ranked team, on their home field. There was some promise, and the fans kept showing up.

My senior year, they decided to tear up the old field and start building a new one elsewhere on campus. Since the new field was under construction, we had to practice and play our “home” games at Jackson High School’s field, a few miles north. (I’m not sure why I wrote “had to” instead of “got to,” considering the cat skeleton and broken glass on our old field). The lights at this field weren’t that good at the time, so these games were played right after school. Happily, we only had four home games, so the rest were played at away fields that were Wembley-esque compared to Stanton’s original field.

Our first win my senior year was against a team which, like many, had put us on the schedule because they thought it’d be an easy win. We were up 3-0 after ten minutes and won 6-2. I scored a lefty, a righty, and a header in that game. Their manager (a player’s dad) later told me that when he called the score into the newspaper, the guy at the paper didn’t believe him.

It was our team’s best season yet, which admittedly wasn’t saying much since team history was only four years long at that point. But we had a winning season, we’d beaten teams we’d never beaten before, and locked up the top seed for the district playoffs despite (or perhaps due to) no true home games that year. Due to injuries and coaching decisions, I was the only senior starter left by the end of the season (might’ve been the only one left playing, too, there were only three or four of us at the beginning of the season). We ended up losing in the district final, 1-0 in overtime– we weren’t soccer-wise enough back then to call it “extra time”. Some of the fans gave us roses after the game, which they’d planned to do win-or-lose. A little odd, perhaps, but that’s what the old Soviet club and national teams used to do, and those guys weren’t lacking for gruffness.

In retrospect, the best part of senior season was that at all but one game,* “home” or away, we had more fans than the other team. We had good fans.

*The lone exception was the away game for which our opponents let their entire school out a little early to watch us beat them 5-0.

Anti-dive.

With the World Cup a mere six months away, it’s probably too late for FIFA to introduce any meaningful new anti-diving measures. Therefore it’s up to the fans, the advertisers, and the players themselves to do what they can to eliminate this most embarrassing element of jogo bonito.

Fans could pledge to stop buying products that feature, or that are endorsed by, the divers. No more posters. No more replica jerseys. No more video games if the person on the box is a known diver. Furthermore, the television-viewing fans could pledge to turn off their TVs for five minutes after every dive– we’ll see how purist FIFA is when their ratings drop after every dive.

Advertisers could refuse to allow divers to endorse their products. They could terminate endorsement deals with divers. They could write anti-diving language into all future endorsement contracts. These companies could band together to create a cross-brand advertising campaign: “Be a man.” It’d include TV/internet spots highlighting and lauding players who play through fouls, who shrug off rough handling, who don’t fall to the ground and cover their face when someone looks at their shoelaces the wrong way. I think one ad should highlight Robben’s run against Spain in the 2010 final: he got hacked pretty badly but played through and got a decent chance on goal. I think another ad should highlight notorious divers– especially those about to participate in the World Cup– and mock them mercilessly. Another ad could feature little kids promising that when they play in the backyard or on the beach or in the street, they will not pretend to be anyone notorious for diving. The campaign could include men and/or women from any sport (probably heavy on hockey, rugby, and American football, light on soccer and basketball), but they have to emphasize playing hard and tough and not diving.

Players could publicly take anti-diving pledges. “I will not disrespect the sport, the fans, the officials, my teammates, or my opponents through simulation, faking, diving, flopping, etc.” And, of course, the players could actually stop diving.

Ideally the campaign will be in full swing by the time I get out to Vegas to take in a game or two with Aabrock and Nikita. One can hope.

Qualificado.

Gli Azzurri pulled off a nice little comeback earlier today to win UEFA Group B and advance to Brazil.

The US downed Mexico 2-0 (dos a cero, again) just a little while ago, and assuming Panama doesn’t win, that’ll be good enough to get us through…

[10:57 PM] Yep. Honduras 2:2 Panama. We’re through to Brazil next year. Both my favorite national squads qualify on the same day. That probably doesn’t happen too often. I wonder if this is the earliest we’ve clinched a spot in the Finals.

Back in my day.

Back to high school soccer:

My sophomore and junior years, our home field was horrific, and looking back there’s no way I’d’ve let my kids play on it, whether for varsity sports or for phys ed class. If it was a regulation-sized soccer field, it was just barely so. The penalty box is 44 yards wide and the minimum width for a field is 50 yards, so that means the touchline should have been at least three yards beyond the side of the penalty box. I don’t think it was. In fact, the penalty box might not even have been the right width. It was narrow enough that with a single-step run-up, I could chip the ball with the outside of my foot from the corner flag into the center of the goal box. Fields shouldn’t be that narrow.

But that’s not what made it horrific.

A little bit less than half of the field was a fine, grassless, gray sand. It was hard to run through– imagine running on the softer sand at the beach, but with patches of grass every 5-10 yards or so, and people kicking at you. Dribbling through it was hell, so you’d have to rely more heavily on passing even when dribbling was the right thing to do. But if you tried to pass the ball thorough those lumpy patches of sand, it could end up anywhere– just probably not wherever you meant to kick it. And at the end of a practice or game, your cleats and socks were probably going to be full of sand.

But that’s not what made it horrific.

What made it horrific was having to rake the sand before the beginning of the season to find any potential hazards. You know, chicken bones, cleats that had separated from shoes, the plastic spines that slid into shin guards, broken glass, hypodermic needles. One year we found a cat skeleton.

We were pretty certain we got all the sharp stuff out of the sand, but slide tackles and diving headers were still more of a gamble on our field than on others.

We thought that the field would give us a bigger home field advantage than usual since we’d be used to playing on it and other teams wouldn’t be. Nope. The field was bad enough that our practices were almost always unproductive, so we couldn’t improve much as a team. We got more practice out of our games on real fields (which is usually the case anyways) but Lord knows we needed those practices.

Our home games were right after school– 4:00 kickoffs after a 3:10 dismissal– because we didn’t have lights. That meant students and teachers usually stayed after school, stand along the sidelines due to the lack of bleachers, and watched at least part of our games. They usually saw us lose, but we fought hard and defended our field’s dusty, biohazardous honor as best we could.

They should probably have nuked it all long before they finally tore it up my senior year, but now that a good bit of time has passed, and as the field grows deadlier and the home crowds grow larger and our efforts grow more valiant in my memory, I suppose that field had its charms.

Four goals.

The Stanton Class of 1993’s twenty-year reunion is in June. A week or so ago, a blurb from the reunion’s internet group put me in a nostalgic mood. I pulled my senior yearbook off the shelf and flipped through the pages until I got to the boys’ varsity soccer team. The schedule was printed in the lower left corner of the page, with the result of each match scrawled in the margin by 1993-Me.

Twenty years ago tonight: the last regular season game of my high school career, at First Coast. That morning I’d decided– not predicted– that I was going to score four goals.

We stopped at a McDonald’s on the way up there. I had twenty McNuggets, a large order of fries, and a large Coke. Was it going to make me sick? Didn’t matter. I was going to score four goals.

We got there, warmed up, lined up, and kicked off. About 90 seconds into the game, I dribbled around the keeper for number one. A few minutes later, I scored number two. I got subbed out about 20 minutes in, and we were up 6-0 at the half.

Second half started. The other team put in their backup goalie. Under a minute in, I dribbled around him for number three. And with about ten minutes left in the game, I shot from long distance, megged the keeper, watched the ball go through the side netting for number four, which made it 8-0. The ref went to talk to the linesman to see if it went in. One of our freshmen started yelling at the ref. I told him to shut up; we were already winning big. The keeper went up to the ref and told him that it was a goal.

And so: four goals, as decided. I was content.

I’ll have to wax nostalgic some more about high school ball sometime soon.