Monday, June 30, 2014

New Soccer Fans - how to continue the rush

I heard a really honest set of comments on the radio the other day, and I think it offers quite the discussion topic.

Some guys were on a local sports radio show, talking about how they are into the USA at the World Cup, but they aren't really "soccer guys" and they aren't really sure what to do next. The clearly get the fantastic experience this is (and after watching Jones' goal v. Portugal, how can you not be?), but they don't have any context for how to continue things.

They mentioned the rush of a goal, with the kind of detail that made it clear they really really do "get it." Specifically, they said that rush is like nothing they have ever experienced in the sporting world, and how can you argue differently? It is the rush of a Game 7 NHL Sudden Death goal, but you get it every game.

When explaining what it is like to be at a World Cup, and how draining it is, I have been known to tell people it is like the Super Bowl every four days, and THEN you get to the knockout rounds...

Bottom line, it was obvious that the Kool-Aid was definitely flowing through their veins, that they were Victims of The Disease. Now the question is, how to make the most of it.

To be fair, they were honest in their hesitation about both MLS and European Football. Frankly, that is why I struggle with being a fan of an EPL team or whatnot. I have supreme respect for the players, level, etc., but I am not as emotionally tied to them as I am to FC Dallas. In that way, I guess I am more of a fan than a student of the game... Oh well.

For MLS, they talked about the level of play, and surely, there is MLS and then there are some levels before you get to World Cup soccer. There is just too much at stake in the World Cup, etc., for one thing.  Second, MLS has been a going concern for 20 years, not 100+ like most other major leagues, both within the US and outside it. The average American player - the lifeblood of the league - still has work to do to improve.

But that is not to say there aren't things worth watching, especially now that FC Dallas is ranging between 15,000 and 20,000 a game for just about every game now. You have a clear "soccer atmosphere" at those games, including the amazing fan response when a goal is scored.

Add in players like Mauro Diaz (may he get back on the field soon) and Raul Fernandez, and you have real top-level skill. 

So it IS worth it to make it to a game, but that isn't the end of it.

The real trick is this - you have to start learning the game. I have said this before - if you are a baseball fan, you understand the difference between a curve ball and a slider. As such, baseball isn't just a boring game of catch. (Love the baseball traditionalist who says soccer is boring yet turn around and swoon over a pitcher's duel....) Like baseball, you need to learn what makes soccer work - how do you get to those huge highs when a goal is scored? Hint - it will make that high all the more intense.

How do you do that? For some, play the fantasy league game or play FIFA from EA Sports. I know a number of people who got deep into the league once they knew the players and what made certain players more valuable than others. For others, pick a player and follow him during a game - and try to figure out if you could do that.

And don't back away from getting frustrated about how things go - that is part of the madness. In fact, it is the frustration that makes the joy of a goal all the more intense. Frankly, that is why baseball people tend to buy in more, and quicker - because they know what it means to succeed through high levels of failure. Seriously, baseball celebrates as amazing people who fail seven out of ten times! So a forward that fails to score on seven of eight opportunities but scores the game winner - simpatico!

Exciting stuff. And for those of you new to the sport, welcome! For those who have been in the sport for a time, please help those new to the sport - you know you had silly questions when you started into the sport, so help those like you were helped.

Oh, and enjoy USA-Belgium!

Butterflies No More

My sig line used to be “I have heard the scream of the butterfly,” taken from the infamous song by The Doors. I was using it in reference to the successes of US soccer, especially focusing on wins over Portugal in 2002 and Spain in 2009.

But the thing is, while that was true then, our win against Ghana and tie against Portugal, along with our performance in 2010, shows that the US is no longer a meek little butterfly. We may not be one of the top four teams in the world, nor even in that next group of six to ten that come into a World Cup with a real vision of possibly winning, but we certainly belong in the somewhat larger group of teams that will fight anyone for a chance to advance – even those top 16 – and once through, are dangerous. Very very dangerous.

Ask Christiano Ronaldo how he is feeling about how he felt playing the US. No no no, you can’t watch Jermaine Jones’ goal and think anything other than, “World Class.” You can’t look at the way the US had Portugal on their heels for much of the game and think that it was just some tough-minded , hard-workers grinding out a result.

Sorry, Charlie, but the US has awoken as a footballing nation on the field now, with the ability to take the game to anyone. And with their experiences over the last four World Cups, an attitude of fierce determination that is, frankly, unmatched. And it isn’t even close.

Seriously, show me another team that has played in as many tough situations and not hung their heads. In 2002 alone: the stunner against Portugal, the fantastic challenge of playing an incredibly passionate host nation in Korea. Mexico in Jeonju, Germany in Ulsan. In 2006, you have an awful start against the Czech Republic, but then you have nine men v. Italy. Only team to not lose to the eventual champions. That tournament didn’t finish well with the game against Ghana, but it certainly wasn’t for a lack of effort.

And then since then, do I really even need to go there? Tie England, come back from down 2 to Slovenia, the magic against Algeria, the heartbreak against Ghana. Then in this cycle, Ghana and most recently Portugal. Where in there are there games without determination and desperation?

But now you have some real tactical acumen and more consistent skill and advanced thinking. It was developing over the last 12 years, but it seems to have really blossomed under Klinsmann.

And now we face the dark horse favorite of many, Belgium. A very talented squad to be sure, and one that deserves respect.

And most bookies have it 60/40 for Belgium. Not great odds, but not “what are you even thinking, crazy kid, they are too good for you.” But once you give Portugal what-for with a 2x4 (where Vegas certainly had worse odds), facing a really good Belgium side is nothing the US should fear.

On top of that, we aren’t butterflies in the stands or in the streets, either.  Oh no, 20,000 a game for World Cup matches? Half fill the stadium pretty much every time? Oh FIFA will have that, yes they will. And so will we. And the millions watching on televisions, computer screens, smart-phones and the like? Sorry Ann, but this is quite the soccer nation, and immigrants, while welcome to the party, are in no way the only people following this team.

We are living in quite an interesting time. The fun part is that people are getting into it in a big old way, and the water is just not receding back as far with every cycle, and it clearly has reached critical mass. Across the board, fantastic.

So sorry lads, we can’t really consider ourselves such deep underdogs anymore. Sure, we aren’t Germany or Brazil just yet, but we aren’t the shell of a team that we were for so many decades, either. No, we are a legit top 16 team in the world, and the recent run through the Group of Death certainly put paid on any arguments to the contrary.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

USA-Belgium - available players and options

So Belgium, huh? That is our knockout round opponent. Okay then.

Without going into a lot of detail, they are a very young, talented European side that is a little inexperienced and a little beat up.

Who is available?

For the US, we have quite a few players beat up or on short gas. Bradley, Beckerman, Jones, Beasley and Johnson have played pretty much every minute. Dempsey, Zusi, Bedoya and Besler have played almost as many minutes or clearly are close to empty on the gas tank. On the other hand, Diskerud and Yedlin are either very or pretty fresh. I wonder if Green is ready for the big stage or not, but am thinking not at this point. Chandler, on the other hand, could very well be ready to go.

So let's touch on a few points at each area before coming to too many conclusions.

Central Defense

Klinsmann took a gamble on Cameron and Gonzales, and it worked out. He now has Omar with some confidence and Geoff fresh. Might that be the pairing for Tuesday? Much as we love the John Brooks story, is he ready for 90 minutes against that level of competition? Or also, when does Besler hit a wall?

Wing Defense

DeMarcus Beasley is having a quiet but very solid World Cup. Is he still fresh enough to go 90 minutes, or is it time to bring in Chandler?  If Run DMB still has it, you go with the veteran. On the other wing, until Johnson shows he has completely lost it, you ride him. That guy is really scaring teams.

Central Midfield

First off, Beckerman and Jones look like they could go forever, so barring a surprise dip in energy, they stay in the lineup.

And Michael Bradley is not going anywhere. At least, not out of the starting lineup. That man has run more than anyone else in the Group Stage (look it up) and some are quibbling about some errant passes. Granted, I agree that he looks tired and isn't as sharp as we would like, but this is as much his team as it is Dempsey's. Until he isn't clogging passing lanes and doing the dirty work no one sees, he stays in the lineup.

The question is where. We will come back to that.

Wing Midfield

Lots of questions here. Zusi has been good at times, although he surely looked run down late against Germany. Does Bedoya's rest give him fresh legs for Belgium? I must admit, Brad Davis was unlucky in spots, but also wasn't effective in others. That is going to be a challenge to put him back in the lineup.


Clint Dempsey. 'Nuff said.

No, really. Altidore jogging does not get him ready to start against Belgium. Is he a late sub? Maybe. But at this level, Dempsey is the horse we rode in on.

I mean, I could very well be wrong. But I have followed and more recently covered professional teams and you don't go from jogging to playing in four days. Sorry folks.


To briefly discuss Belgium, they strike me as a team that we should treat like we did Portugal and Germany, but more aggressively in attack, especially considering the injuries to the Belgium back line.

How do we play this?

Midfield - The wingers have run themselves into the ground. It has been fantastic, but that is where we are worn out the most. I had an idea that I am going to share, but also saw what I now think is a better idea.

First, my thought was can Mix play the wing? Do the same as v. Portugal, but with Bedoya and Mix. This would get Zusi some needed rest and bring on fresh legs. Mix doesn't cross the ball as well, but he is a playmaker and that might take some pressure off of Bradley.

But then I read a suggestion that was to use Jones outside, move Bradley back in a little more and put Mix in his place. I am not super keen on the idea of Jones as a winger, but he certainly has been playing more outside than centrally of late. Take advantage of it?

Either way, I do think this is the game that someone new comes in. It could be Yedlin but I am not so sure for 90 minutes. Davis again seems unlikely. Zusi I think is running low. For another reason discussed below, I think Mix is your guy.

Defense - If Tim Chandler is going to play in this World Cup, I think the Belgium match is his game. In the same way as Klinsmann sat Cameron for Germany, I think he is going to sit Beasley for this game in favor of Chandler, in part because I think he will be very comfortable with Cameron, Gonzales and Johnson at the other three positions.

If Chandler isn't used here, I could see Klinsmann using Chandler on the wing - a 90 minute version of what he did with Yedlin against Portugal.

Forward - just to touch on this briefly, I do think that there is value to Johannsson, Wondo and Altidore. It is just as a late sub to try to score if we are behind. As a starter, none of them are what the US would need over 90 minutes in a Round of 16 game in the World Cup against Belgium.

Bottom Line

We have options and ways to keep things fresh. For what it is worth, a four day break isn't a bad thing and if used right, can help a lot of players recharge, so some of those things may not be necessary, but those are the options as I see it right now.

It is a winnable game. Not easy - I agree with the general odds-makers that have it 60/40 for Belgium. But that is better than what they had for USA-Portugal, a game the US should have won.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

New Soccer Fans - A Guide to Celebrating Thursday

This is the first in a short series of articles designed for newer fans that will ideally pull a few layers back to give you insight into this brave new world you have stuck your toe into.

For background, I was at a bar for the Germany match and was surprised by the fact that 90 percent of the bar weren't celebrating the Portugal goals, yet they were completely engaged in the US game. Absolutely, they were into this soccer thing, so let's pull the veil back a bit.

So because it is so recent, let's start with Thursday. So the US loses to Germany, yet we are celebrating - why is that?

Lose and Advance Feels Weird...?

To the few that might still feel awkward about losing but advancing, compare it to an NFL team that loses its last game of the season but had already qualified for the playoffs.

What has the USA Accomplished?

To those who can't see why the US was the second best team in the group, consider these facts. Like Portugal, they beat Ghana 2-1, but in the game between the two, they clearly were the better team for much of the match. Granted, Portugal showed quality to catch the US napping and get a draw, but it doesn't change the fact that after an early period of dominance, the team were on their heels and no one was surprised when the US took a lead.

Separate that out, and you have to look at the way the two teams played Germany. 4-0 v 1-0. Pretty simple math. One team was embarrassed, the other made Germany earn their goal under some real pressure.

So absolutely, the USA deserved to advance as the second team out of the group, and advancing out of that group was a fantastic accomplishment. No matter what happens against Belgium, the USA has done something to move the football (pun intended).

But as we will be talking about over the next day or so, the US isn't in the mood to have just advanced. Belgium better bring their "A" game, because the US surely will, and after that group, nothing scares them.

Where does the US Stand in the World of the FIFA World Cup?

Ultimately, though, I think really this is more a question of "how good is the US? Why are we all of a sudden so into this team, and why are we excited?"

So let's go with what the vast majority of sports-following US people would be familiar with - college football. I am a little hesitant to make because people get so passionate about it, but I think this can give us a variety of examples. It also has a LOT of layers, so take a deep breath and read on. (Or skip to the bolded section below.)

So there is an eternal elite - teams that are almost always in the hunt, who have over the decades proven that they can and will win championships. Your Alabamas, your Notre Dames, Oklahoma, Ohio State, USC. This is Brazil, Germany, Italy - which is why Italy going home was such a big deal.

There is a second tier of elite - teams that have gotten to the promised land, which is a very difficult thing to do. This is your University of Texas, Florida State, LSU. In soccer, there are only a handful of teams that have won the World Cup or made multiple finals. So now we are talking about France, Holland (who has never won it but made the finals three times), England, Spain, Argentina.

These two groups make up the top eight in the World Cup

Now there is a layer of real quality. This is the team in the Big XII, SEC, B1G, P-12, ACC that isn't one of the elite teams previously described, but is always fighting for a conference championship. In the old SWC, that was Texas Aggies. It is UCLA, Viginia Tech, Michigan State. In soccer, now we are talking about Portugal, Colombia, Uruguay, Belgium.

This makes up the next group of eight in the World Cup.

The next group is the larger pool of teams trying to get into that regular group of the top 16 in any World Cup.

So now is a good time to actually talk about the US. This is the FIRST TIME the USA has EVER qualified for the Round of 16 in two consecutive World Cups.  Ever.

So what makes the US advancement in this tournament such a big deal? 

First, it is really REALLY hard to do. How often has Texas Tech won the SWC or Big XII? Or Iowa the B1G? Or Ol Miss the SEC? That is probably an apt comparison - it is a huge achievement that doesn't happen often, yet the US just did it twice in a row.

Second, who they played. Germany is called The Machine for a reason - they are. They have more appearances in the final than any nation, and are a favorite to win the tournament along with Brazil. So if right now, Alabama is Brazil, then Germany is a combination of Florida State, Auburn and LSU. Scary, huh?

And Portugal has Christiano Ronaldo, who along with Messi are considered the best players in the game right now. Most people get "best player in the game," but coming into the tournament, Portugal was ranked No. 4 in the world.

And finally Ghana. The USA's kryptonite in the last two World Cups. One of the most talented sides from Africa.

Unlike any other group in the World Cup this year, all four of the teams in this group had advanced out of the group stage in the previous World Cup cycle.

Combined, only one group had a collective level of talent even close to the USA's group. Most groups in the World Cup have at least one weakling. This year, it was South Korea, Japan, Honduras - teams that qualified but really weren't at that next level, and a lot of the time, it was who beat up on the weakling the most that decided between the Nos. 2 and 3 teams in the group as to who advanced.

That is why it was called the Group of Death.

And the US not only survived, they looked clearly the better team than Portugal, and gave Germany a better game than anyone expected.

US sports fans are familiar with the idea of Survive and Advance from March Madness. Granted, this was a group stage version of that, but they survived a much harder group than any other group and advanced beyond where most educated soccer pundits felt they would.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Knockouts

So we have completed group play and to say there were a few surprises would be a monumental understatement for what so far has been the best World Cup ever. Choose your measuring stick, but whether you use goals or lead changes or surprise winners or competitive games, it has had it all.

When the dust settled, though, you had some real surprises in certain areas, and not big surprises in others.

Clearly, Costa Rica punched well above its weight in a group as deathly as the one the USA was in. In fact, the three opponents were probably tougher than what the USA faced except that Ghana was the American's executioner two World Cups in a row, which has its own gravitas to it. But they didn't just survive, they won the group - not necessarily easily, but certainly convincingly.

Greece found a way to surprise the Ivory Coast late to steal the second spot from their group.

Algeria also surprised, fighting to earn a big win over South Korea and a tie against Russia when they needed it.

The Swiss used their successful opening win against Ecuador to survive a flood of goals from France. That wasn't entirely a surprise considering the quality of the Swiss, but some thought that Ecuador had the quality to get out of the group at the expense of one of the Europeans. I, though, clearly underestimated France. I thought the team would lose some confidence with the loss of Ribery, but clearly that was anything but true.

On the opposite end of Costa Rica's success was Honduras' poor performance. There were others, but with the other CONCACAF teams doing so well, Honduras seemed pale by comparison.

I, for one, was not at all surprised that Mexico got out of the group, nor was I surprised by them tying Brazil. I do think that Brazil has shaken off a sluggish start and will give Chile all they can handle tomorrow.

I don't even know what to say about Suarez and Uruguay, other than to say someone in his inner circle needs to find a way to get him some help. He is such a talented player, to see him act in such a way is more than disappointing. The conventional wisdom now is that Uruguay won't advance, and I can't disagree with that.

So let's get into the specifics.

Brazil-Chile ought to be a fantastic game, close enough that either team could win. Playing at home should help Brazil, but Chile has the confidence of beating Spain to lean on.

Colombia is on a run of games that is fantastic to behold. Playing a weakened Uruguay side should work to the Colombian's benefit.

France should not have much trouble with Nigeria and Germany should beat Algeria, setting up a fantastic quarterfinal match.

Holland-Mexico ought to be a great match. Both teams come in with bags of confidence, although I think most would say Holland is more talented. Do not, though, doubt a Mexico side feeling strong.

I hope Costa Rica can get a result against Greece. Considering how the Eastern Europeans have fare so far, that isn't out of the realm of possibility.

Argentina has not looked real good, but Messi sure has. If Argentina can get past Switzerland, they will probably also get past the Belgium-USA winner (which I will discuss separately), setting up what I expect to be a fabulous Holland-Argentina semifinal match.

Because Germany and France would likely face off at the quarterfinal level, I am leaning towards the Argentina-Holland winner to win it all, with Brazil third if they get through (unless they get on one of those Brazil runs which is entirely possible - I just don't see Chile and Colombia going very quietly).

Either way, it ought to be a continuation of the greatness that we have seen to date, which is fantastic.

Group of Death? Not for us!

They called it the Group of Death. Certainly, most felt it was going to be death for sure for both Ghana and the USA.

And on paper, it sure looked that way. FIFA Rankings had the US outside the top 10 and Ghana in the 30s, for all that might be worth, but everyone who follows football knows that Germany has an almost unmatched pedigree, with really only Brazil exceeding their consistent presence deep in the World Cup, and that some guy named Christiano Ronaldo is kinda good, and he plays for Portugal.

So accurate or not, the FIFA Rankings did give a metric to the distance between the top two teams and the ones trying to survive and advance.

But a funny thing about sports - they aren't played on paper, much to the chagrin of teams like the New York Yankees and Manchester United.

And for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, to the chagrin of the Ballon d'Or winner, Sr. Ronaldo and his Portuguese compatriots.

Thanks in very large part to the John Brooks game winner over Ghana, the US entered Matchday Three with an advantage in points and goal differential that they would use to get out of the group, but not without some real anxious moments.

The US entered the tournament a tie in either game away from advancing. Or, if there was a loss in the Germany game, a loss in the Ghana-Portugal match to a team that didn't overcome the goal differential advantage the US currently had would still put the team through. Bottom line, it would take three goals - at least one by Germany, one by Ghana, and another goal by either team. So until Ghana and Germany both scored, it was all academic.

But then Portugal scored in the first half - all the better! Now it would take . . . still three goals, but two had to be from Ghana. So yay! We got through the first half that way, so even though the team wasn't playing its best, we were still in good shape.

But then we got into the 50-60 minute stretch where both Germany and Ghana scored.

I don't know about you, but for me, that window between the Ghanian goal and Ronaldo's goal in the 80th minute of their game was high anxiety time. For that entire time, we sat one Ghana goal away from being out of the tournament. It was odd, seeing the people at the bar I was at - some knew the Portugal-Ghana match would more important than our own result, but a lot did not, so when Portugal scored first, I was part of a very small minority cheering very loudly.

But during this window, it was an awful sense of pending doom. I am sure the Portugal experience added to it, but so did the game against Algeria in 2010, remembering how one moment of brilliance for one team could send another team in another game (in that situation, Slovenia) into despair.

And then, we saw it - Ronaldo scored! We were back to two goal safety! It was still nervous times, but more of a Defcon 3, not Defcon 1, and mostly because the games weren't over.

But all through everything, the thing that warmed my heart the most was the constant sound of US cheers coming from the television. Clearly, the US had won the battle in the stadium for numbers and support. Against GERMANY! Fantastic!

We all wanted to see the US tie the game - as Janice said, much better to handle up on our own business than leave it to someone else - and the largest cheers in the bar were when the US had late chances to score. But when it was all over, there was that weird sense of "we lost, but we advanced" and a muted celebration that grew as the day went along, growing into a realization that we Death Incarnate for Ghana, and we played better against the mighty Germans than Portugal did, adding to the confidence that many felt we should take from the tie against the Iberians.

And then the numbers started coming in - ratings, attendance, and the deep realization that not only had we simply advanced, but also we did something the US has never done - qualified for the Round of 16 in two consecutive World Cups - and that we really did qualify from the Group of Death. We had stared Death down and been the victor.

The rest of the day was spent seeing who would be the opponent, which turned out to be the Belgians. Too bad, I usually like waffles - not this week!

So one last tip of the cap to all who went to support the team in numbers, or added to the ratings, and especially to those in-country who represented all of us who couldn't travel to Brazil with pride, and honor, and made sure people knew that the US ain't nuthin' to mess with!

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Let's not do that again... USA-Germany

Oh my goodness gracious me, let's not do that again anytime soon...

First, lose. That did not feel good and even though we went through, that was not fun.

Second, leave it to another team to do our dirty work for us.

Seriously, after that bang-bang set of goals from Germany and Ghana in the second half, the reality that we were a goal by Ghana away from going out was all too real.  Next time, let's just finish of the Portuguese when we have them on the chopping block, eh?

I am not going to take a lot of time to go into the individual play by the US right now, other than to say that it was an industrious effort that made Germany earn their victory, which turned out to be better than Portugal did.

This is just to vent my sigh of relief and to say "well done" to the team and the fans - everyone invovled was fantastic.

Across the board, it was obvious that many many many people are deep into this World Cup run from the US Men's National Team, and the players are regarding us with a virtuoso performance.

I will say this - I worry a little about Bradley. Another middling performance at times in a position we really need quality. But he also is doing a fantastic amount of work and it is definitely contributing to overall shape and success.

For now, I am going to simply enjoy this - we have advanced to the Round of 16 for consecutive World Cups for the first time ever. This time, though, we did it through the Group of Death - something that neither England or Italy were able to do from a similar group. On top of that, it is clearly obvious to me that US fandom has grown to monstrous proportions, and for that I say thank you and well done!

Match Day Three - Reality Check

So here we are, a mere hours before the biggest opportunity for the USA to prove itself in its history - advance out of the Group of Death in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, against the vaunted Germans.

Now, a little background. The US has exceeded expectations in both matches and moved the needle - advanced the football, so to speak - beyond what most pundits predicted back in December. A win over Ghana gave the team the belief that the ghosts of World Cups past were gone, and the way the team played against Portugal for wide stretches was fantastic.

They have every reason to be confident, to have played so well in the Group of Death.

But now, it is time for the cold water to the face.

The Germans are what stands between the US and advancement. Technically, the Germans and once again, the Ghanians. What? We already beat them? True that, but we didn't beat Portugal and that leaves a crack of opportunity open for them to slip through at our (or, possibly Germany's) expense.

How would that happen? Well, first, the US would need to lose to Germany. More later on that. But second, Ghana would need to win, and not necessarily win big. A simple 2-1 or 2-0 win for the Africans combined with any loss for the Americans and the US is out.

Ghana - again....

Considering that no team has played in Manaus and its heat and gone on to even tie in their next game, that does not bode well for Portugal or the US. In fact, the Iberians were gassed in the US game, so playing on a day's less rest, after playing in the jungle, already beat up - it isn't going to get better, now is it? Add in the fact that Ghana feel hard-done by from their first match against the US, and a little disappointed to have not held onto the win against Germany, and you have the recipe for a very confident Ghana and a big win.

Sports Happens, so I don't think we can just dismiss a tie in that game as impossible, but it sure doesn't seem likely.I see Ghana winning 2-0 or 3-1, depending on how much of a fight Portugal brings - but it will be the proverbial knife to a gunfight. They just don't have the right weapons. Or more accurately, they don't have any bullets left in their guns.

Some have noticed the issues in the Ghana camp relative to the money. Make no mistake, losing Boateng is a big hit. He made a big difference in the US-Ghana match, and played well in the game he started against Germany. I think that it will become a rallying cry - a reason to come together. They will it aside and if anything, it will be motivation. Surely, no player will want to be accused of not playing his best for Country because of money.

Germany - again...

So let's turn out heads to the USA-Germany match. With a win or tie, the US is through. Win and they take the group, tie and they come in second. (Technically, they can advance even if they lose if Ghana and Portugal tie, or if Portugal wins with a small margin of success - which is possible, but not likely.)

For Germany, a tie and they win the group. A win and they obviously take the group. And they are one of the World Powers. They might rest some - or a number - of players, but they certainly won't be playing it safe on the field. Any chance of that went out the window in 1982.

Do not expect anything other than a strong game from Germany. No, if the US is to have success today, they will have to earn it.

But is all in our hands

But that is the beautiful thing - the US has shown that they clearly have the ability to do just that. It is all right in front of them, and this team has more often than not taken what they want from the game.

Even in my recent look at players and tactics, I couldn't find a real weak spot to inject fresh players into the lineup. Yes, I worry about Zusi, Bedoya, Bradley, Beasley and Besler a bit, but only becasue I am looking for potential issues, not because there are real concerns.

You have to look at the way this team responded to the first Portugal goal and feel confident that barring a goal with no time to respond, they will answer anything Germany throws at them.

Final Thoughts

But is that realistic? The talent on the US is there, but even though Portugal has the potential to be the No. 4 team in the world, they clearly aren't that now. And while Germany did end up getting tied by Ghana - and looked a bit shaken at times in the process - I think you have to chalk that up to a touch of overconfidence that apparently the Germans are historically prone to in Game Two of a World Cup.

Now, advancement is on the line, as is pride, and the Germans certainly have enough of that. I don't mean that in a negative way, but the kind of confidence that is necessary to perform at this level of athletic competition. They have zero interest in their former manager taking a lesser side and beating them, let alone the fact that a loss might in fact open them up to not winning the group or even not advancing.

No, Germany will not lie down. In fact, they likely will rest some key players and start players who are just as talented, but fresh, which brings its own problems against a tired US side.

Bottom Line

Make no mistake, there is real, tangible danger here. If you were to ask me to put odds on it, I would put it at 50/50 that the US advances as I think it likely that both Ghana and Germany win. On the other hand, Sports Happens, and there is real reason to think that one or both games will end up tied, which puts the US through. 

I think it more likely that the US earns the tie rather than Portugal, but maybe the combination of Christiano Ronaldo not wanting to go out without a goal and the Ghanian  issues with their players conspire to rob either team of three points.

But really, it is all in the US players' hands. If the US really has progressed to the point where we deserve to advance out of the Group of Death, then they will find a way to get the result they need. What is exciting is we have clearly seen the panache of this group of American players, the spirit, is finally combined with some real skill, some real talent, some real tactical acumen, in a combination that is better than just being a possible group to advance.

There are elements of that fantastic 2002 team in this group - flexibility, adaptability, a veteran's focus and commitment, a rookie's athleticism and energy, all stuffed into this thing that has become American football: an unquenchable hunger to win, an unwavering desire to succeed. So go forth, Captain America and Co., and get the result you need today from Germany.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Know your sources

So I have had a few people comment that my posts are long. "Not that that's necessarily bad," they say. And it is fair comment. I have gotten it enough, though, that I figured it might be worth a moment to pull the veil back a bit.

For those who don't know me personally, let me take a brief (for me, anyway) moment to give you a little bit about me so you can judge for yourself the information I provide. Before going into the background much, let me state up top that my goal here is to share my observations and analysis in a way that I think adds to the dialogue. In general, I am not going to give you the 250 word "quick hit." I am definitely not going to give you video clips (for the most part). What I am going to give you is some detail and some thoughts that I have run through a variety of filters.

As such, let me share what those filters are.

First and foremost, know above all that I am what I call a "big umbrella" guy - if it grows soccer, I am for it. For the most part, that means growing soccer in the US, but not exclusively. For example, I got the opportunity in 2002 to join Costa Rica fans for their game against Turkey - I LOVED that experience, and still have the t-shirt. Literally.

I am an estate planning attorney with my own law firm - mostly to keep costs down and keep things simple. The advantage there is that gives me the flexibility to take turns with my wife taking care of our son, Kyle, but it has the added benefit of giving me the flexible schedule to work for as a writer covering FC Dallas. I have worked in the sport (Ticket Sales for FC Dallas for seven years, team executive with a lower division team before that), and have played the sport since I was really young.

I am also a referee. You will note that I do not discuss refereeing decisions. That is for a number of reasons, but suffice to say, even if I wanted to, it really isn't my place to comment on things that are way above my experience level. True, I have worked hard to advance where I am not a regular, run of the mill referee (technically I am a Grade 7 and a State Candidate, if you want to know that), but I am nowhere near at the level to knowledgeably speak about what MLS or FIFA referees deal with. I have officiated games (either as a middle, or at the higher levels, usually as an assistant referee) involving the USSF Development Academy, Dallas Cup, WPSL, USL Super Y-23 and NPSL.

I also attended the 2002 and 2006 FIFA World Cups, along with a variety of other US National Team games, as a member of Sam's Army. (Side note - I am very proud to see what the American Outlaws have done and am very glad to see their success.) Additionally, I attended the 1999 Womens World Cup Final at the Rose Bowl. Further, I was a long-standing member of The Inferno, the original supporters group for the Dallas Burn.

Bottom line - I have been a student of the game and had to study professional soccer from a variety of angles and situations for quite some time. That doesn't mean that I know more than the next guy, but rather that my opinions and insights are based on a variety of experiences and situations, some of which are at a professional level.

So there you have it. Now you know the filters that are in my head. Hopefully that can help you judge the opinions and information that produces.

Thank you for joining me here - I enjoy the process that produces these posts and am glad to see the increased readership. If you have any thoughts, questions, concerns, ideas, I can be reached at

USA-Germany - available players and formation

Thursday, Noon Eastern, 11 Central. The USA's battle to emerge from the Group of Death into the Round of 16 begins.

And there are a lot of loose ends and questions about how to approach this game. But now that the next game in the World Cup is THAT MATCH, we simply can't wait any longer.

First, who is healthy? By the third game, the grind of the World Cup is taking its toll. Add in the Manaus Effect (teams that have played there are winless in their next match with a 3-10 goal differential) and the reality of one less day to recover, and you have the makings of a very tough challenge indeed.

Oh, and who do we play? Germany, right. Ouch.

I am not a fan of change for the sake of change, but let's look at things. So who do we have real questions about? Certainly not Howard or Jones. Beckerman, no. Johnson, absolutely not. You absolutely have to have Dempsey, who is probably more ready for this game than he has for any game in his career. Ok, those we know.

Ones we might have a slight question about - Cameron? No great replacement. Besler, maybe John Brooks? Zusi? Bedoya? All likely to play again, especially if Bedoya isn't knackered.

For me the two I look real hard at are Beasley (age, not performance) and Bradley (performance, mileage). Unless Timmy Chandler is window dressing, this would be a fantastic time to start the young man rather than run DMB into the ground. Remember, if we advance, we have only a few days to recover, so finding places to play a quality younger player and save a veteran for the next match is something worth considering.

Bradley. General Bradley. He has done so much and is probably hard to replace. But it sure seems like he has gotten to the end of his rope a few times, especially late against Portugal. Does it make sense to start Mix there and have him available to come on late if need be, or to be healthy for a next round game? I am not saying we should, but I am saying it is worth looking at hard.

After thinking about it for a few days, I think you have to play Bradley - he is too important not to. Just be ready to bring on Mix at half if it becomes apparent that his ability to play is compromised.

Add it all in, and it makes me think that the Chandler move is a smart one if he is ready for the moment (and if not, keep DMB). Besler stays unless Klinsmann really thinks that the Sporting man is unable to go 90 minutes. Again, this team is a unit and fighting well for each other. Don't make changes unless it is necessary.

As for style, I think we keep what we did against Germany, in large part because a counterattacking style was used by Ghana to give the Germans fits. Also, if you are talking about a Best XI, I think you use the same XI that you would use in a 4-2-3-1.

Again, there is a lot to be proud of from this side to date. Losing Altidore 21 minutes into the World Cup and we have been as dangerous as we have - real reason for confidence.

And that is one of the things I don't worry about - none of these guys are going to be overwhelmed or awed by the opponent. Klinsmann has done a great job of getting this team together as a unit and keeping the Eye on the Prize.

I do think that it is going to be a very back and forth game. Neither team has it in their DNA to play it safe. It would be ironic in two ways if the US were sent home because Germany didn't play it simple just like the US didn't against Panama, and if Ghana advanced at the cost of the US again.

But back to the first point - that is why I am encouraged. Germany is a test - completely. So let's cut our teeth on it and if we really are good enough to go through from the Group of Death, we have to prove it. Fantastic - bring it on. One, because that is the way it should be. I would hate to think that people could try to take away from this team's performance because "they only had to play two games because they got a pass against Germany." Two, if we do prove ourselves worthy, then no one no-where can take anything from this group, no-how.

Which brings me to my final point - The USA is ready for it. Tomorrow will test the team, to be sure, and a loss and an exit is a real possibility, but this team has proven it is very capable of playing with the best in the world, and frankly has a score to settle with Germany. For Portugal, my call of Dos a Cero was more "a choice to believe." For Germany, we have seen reason to believe. 

At the very least, the team will play well, and earn credit in a match that matters. And for all intents and purposes, they have what it takes to stay in the game and when push comes to shove, they have very good reason to believe they will score the goal or make the save that advances them to the next round. Will it happen that way? Only time will tell, and Sports Happens, but I would rather be in the USA position than in the place of Ghana or Portugal, and that is saying something.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

USA-Portugal - Post Match Thoughts

Things we thought we would see:

4-2-3-1 with Zusi and Bedoya - check
USA attacking down the flanks to try to get Ronaldo to defend - check
Ronaldo be Ronaldo - unfortunately, check
Two goals from the US - check
A shutout from the US - absolutely not.
A win - SO CLOSE!

Things we did not expect:

A wonder-goal
Strike that, a wonder-goal from Jermain Jones no less!
Portugal to sit back so much - or for the US to be able to attack so well for so long
Yedlin at right middie

Some overall thoughts.

The late goal hurts, no doubt. But let's not let that make us forget a few things.

First, we gave up an AWFUL goal that Portugal did not deserve at a terrible time in the match, and it did not matter. We did what Ghana couldn't do to us - shake it off to take the lead.

That comeback was impressive. If you still have it, go back and listen to Steve McManaman, RVN, etc., and how they marveled at the way the US attacked - not just with passion and determination, which has been a US soccer hallmark for years now, but with skill and tactical awareness. McManaman specifically seemed significantly more impressed with the USA than his beloved England, and you know that wasn't something easy for him to share.

And Ruud Van Nistelrooy going on and on about the US attack? That guy knows a few things about attacking football, y'all.

And goodness gracious, great balls of fire, that goal from Jones. That GOAL from Jones. Man.

If Messi had hit that, they would be calling it an all time great.

And then you MLSers out there - Seattle to Toronto to Kansas City to Seattle (2nd) for the second goal. The goal that should have beaten the No. 4 team in the world.

Remember, this is the Group of Death. It is named that for a reason. Portugal was not going to go quietly without a fight, and all they needed was a moment's hesitation to score. And also remember, that Christian Ronaldo guy is kinda good. Frankly, listening to the non-soccer or new-to-soccer people marvel at that cross tells me that it really is sinking in how beautiful this game can be - and how cruel.

But also remember this - the USA has bossed its two first games, and it took a miracle from the best player in the world for it not to be a second consecutive win for the Norteamericanos. No, that isn't revisionist history - if you listen to the tactical discussions, you will hear that the Ghana game played out they was the team wanted, to a large extent. Maybe it was a bit more slanted than they wanted, but they were up a goal, so that is going to happen. But allowing Ghana to try to own possession, not be in their usual counterattack mode, and forcing them to try to break down our central defense was the plan and it worked to a very large extent.

No no no - the US not only belongs in the Group of Death, we are at worst the second best team in it, and we find out on Thursday if we are the best or not. Yes, to be fair, there is real danger that Ghana beats Portugal and in a wide open game with Germany, a loss is certainly possible. The Manaus Effect is also a concern, as is a day's less rest. But this isn't the 1998 US team that is just hoping to hold on. You have a number of quality players who have shown they can play this game - well - and are hungry to again do it against the best in the world.

Breaking things down, that is for another article. Thanks as always for reading.