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.

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