Monday, June 28, 2010

What to Watch For in WC Quarter-Finals

I got four things very wrong in my pre-tournament predictions.

First, I vastly over-estimated the quality of the old European powers outside Europe (even though I explicitly discounted for their tendency not to travel well). I guess I thought that they would ultimately suck it up and perform on the big stage. I picked 6 European teams to make the Round of 16, and in fact 6 made it. While I got the trend right, I missed that France, Italy and England were far weaker than I suspected, and the youthful Germany far stronger.

Second, I under-estimated the Asians and over-estimated the USA. I really thought that the Koreans (both North and South) and the Japanese were decent technical sides, but had little chance of advancement. Both Japan and South Korea made the last 16. On the other hand, I had two CONCACAF representatives, Mexico and USA, both winning their groups and advancing to the last 16, with the USA going all the way to the quarter-finals. USA did win their group -- I got that right -- but both are now gone from the tournament.

Third, I over-estimated South Africa as a "home advantage" for African teams, and I thought Nigeria was the in-form African side who would make a deep run to the semi-finals. Instead, the African teams played mostly poor football, and it is Ghana who are making the deep run.

Finally, I did not believe that, other than Argentina, there was as much quality out of South America as there proved to be. While I did correctly pick 4 of the CONMEBOL sides who made the last 16 (I missed Uruguay, who was the fifth), I was kind of dismissive of Dunga's Brazil going beyond the quarter-finals.

How do I feel about my Holland-Argentina finals pick? It doesn't look all that crazy. We are looking good for a Spain-Argentina semi-final on one side of the bracket; it feels like the Brazil-Holland quarter-final is going to determine the other finalist.

So, on to the quarters, in ascending order of interest (to me, as a mostly-neutral):

Spain-Paraguay. I think that Paraguay are lambs to slaughter against Spain. The only reason Spain won't run up the score to embarrassing levels is because Paraguay play so negatively that Spain's game will be massively slowed down. The Japan-Paraguay match was dreadful. Japan were ok in possession but couldn't finish; Paraguay didn't even try to score and won it on penalties. Ugh. Meanwhile Spain's 1-0 win over Portugal didn't really capture just how great Spain look from back to front. Portugal played very negatively against them, and Portugal's defense is really good, but Spain still had the chance to score three or four goals.

Let's take a minute to acknowledge what the Paraguayan team have gone through to get here. In late January, their in-form striker Salvador Cabanas, leading scorer of Paraguay's qualifying campaign, was shot in the head in the bathroom of a Mexican bar. He was in that lunatic asylum of a country playing football for Club America, and though the case is still unsolved, it appears to be football-related. (BTW, if you haven't seen it, you must watch the ESPN 30-for-30 "The Two Escobars" when it re-airs; it's one of those documentaries that changes the way you think about something you experienced -- the '94 World Cup -- and further reveals some very disturbing aspects of Latin American narco-futbol). Paraguay drafted an Argentinian, Barrios, who happened to have a Paraguayan mom, to replace Cabanas. And they made it to the quarter-finals, first time in the country's history. It's an awesome story of overcoming adversity, but the story ends here.

Ghana-Uruguay. This one is set up nicely. Ghana have an advantage in midfield; Uruguay in the final third and probably in defense, too. Uruguay have had an extra day of rest, while Ghana went to extra-time against the USA. Giving Ghana full credit -- they've done pretty well in this tournament -- I think this one goes to Uruguay by a goal, either 1-0 or 2-1. The key for me is whether Uruguay can get service to their fantastic strikers Suarez and Forlan with Ghana potentially dominating possession in the midfield. Wouldn't be shocked to see Ghana win this one, possibly again in extra-time.

Netherlands-Brazil. This is potentially one of the best matches we will see in the tournament. I thought both of these teams looked great in the Round of 16. The 2-1 scoreline in the Holland-Slovakia match really, really flattered Slovakia. Holland dominated the match and had at least six great chances beyond the two goals. Robben was awesome for 70 minutes; Van Persie and Sneijder up front, Van Bommel and Kuyt in midfield, were brilliant. Their keeping was good, but their defense a bit shaky -- I guaranty that Brazil won't miss two chances like Vittek missed in Slovakia match. Brazil have been explosive, although my pre-tournament concerns have not been totally assuaged. They were awesome in their counter-attack, which will be a threat to Holland, who like to get numbers forward.

To me, this could come down to Brazil playing up the middle, while Holland play an inverted wing strategy, where Robben and Kuyt come into the middle from their respective sides, with Van Persie and Sneijder lurking for a quick through ball or rebound. I thought Brazil looked vulnerable on their left (where Robben plays) even against Chile. Brazil are just plain great, and there's a chance that this one is not even close, particularly if the Dutch come out and try to play negative. Everybody is picking Brazil, but I still think that Holland can gut it out if they go at Brazil, maybe taking it all the way to penalties.

Argentina-Germany. This is going to be sick. Argentina have been one of the most fun teams to watch in the tournament. Tevez, Messi and Higuain have been frightening up front. They are just running at everybody, winning by sheer force of will. They've scored 10 goals so far, the most in the tournament. Germany are just as potent. They've scored 9 goals, one more than Brazil. Klose and Podolski have looked clinical, as have Muller and Ozel out of midfield. Both teams have the ability to flood the final third with quality finishers. Both teams have looked a little thin at the back. Both teams can run the counter-attack with pace, although perhaps Germany has a slight advantage here. I like this one to go 3-2 to Argentina, maybe also in extra-time.

I can't finish without a hat tip to Diego Maradona, the much-discussed, much-maligned coach of Argentina. I felt that pre-tournament, it wasn't clear whether he'd be a help or a hinderance to his team and country. He's been a big, big help. Ok, accepting all the rumors that he doesn't have a tactical brain in his head, and that his managerial direction to players has been poetically cryptic at best, he is undeniably the heart and soul of Argentina football, sweating blood out there on the sidelines. He looks as if he's about to run out on the pitch as a substitute at any moment. He cries, he cheers, he complains theatrically whenever Messi gets fouled, he hugs and kisses his players in long, meaningful embraces. He threatens to run naked through Buenos Aires. He disses Pele in the post-match interviews. It's absolutely batshit crazy. But I love every fucking minute of it.

Go Diego, Go!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Thoughts on Weekend WC Matches

Uruguay 2:1 South Korea -- actually a pretty good match. Uruguay took the game over in the 8th minute with a crazy play. Forlan sent a low cross through the penalty area behind the Korean back four, who all turned around and watched as the ball drifted through. The keeper thought about coming out for the ball, but then seemed to hesitate and half-slid at it, hoping, I guess, that one of his defenders would kick it out for a corner. And then, of course, Suarez got on the end of it and sent a beautiful strike back across to the far post and in the side netting for 1-0. To their credit, the Korean's didn't fold, and they actually looked like the better technical side for long stretches, making some nice quick, triangular passes around the area. When they finally got the equalizer in the 68th minute, off a busted-play header, it was relatively deserved. But Uruguay's finishing was of a much higher quality, and in the steady downpour at the end of the match, Suarez avoided extra-time (where the Korean's fitness would have been an issue for Uruguay) with one of the goals of the tournament. He took the ball on the left side of the area, took a terrific touch toward the center and clear of the two Korean defenders, and curled a perfect ball in off the far post. That's how you win World Cup games, boys and girls.

Ghana 2:1 USA (AET) -- there are a lot of ways to look at this one, but for me, beyond the personal disappointment of not seeing them play to potential, there were three keys: 1) another slow start by the USA, suggesting that Bradley wasn't able to bring his team back to earth after the thrilling 1:0 over Algeria; 2) a dismal performance by Donovan and our strike force, who were insipid in front of goal; and 3) a defensive shambles on both the Ghanian goals, first from Ricardo Clark who should never have been on the pitch in the first place, and then from Boca and DeMerit in extra time, and let's be honest, from Tim Howard on both goals. I thought Dempsey was the real bright spot for the USA in this match -- it felt like he created a half-chance every time he got a hold of the ball around the area. His nutmeg on Mensah which drew the penalty was fantastic football. Feilhaber was also very bright and should have started every match. But credit Ghana and their coach. They played very well in midfield with their dynamic 4-5-1, particularly in the first half and in extra time when they were trying to kill off the match. Very poor in the final third, where they seemed content to just fire long shots after nice spells through the midfield, except, of course, on the break, where they got both their goals. But the bitterness comes from the fact that this was a winnable match for the USA, as the second half evidenced. Ghana collapsed against our pressure, and without some inspired play by Ghana's keeper, this would have been 2:1 USA in 90 minutes. We may never get as clear a shot at the semi-finals in my lifetime.

Germany 4:1 England -- it was curious that, pre-match, the England media were so full of confidence. England had played poorly against USA, really poorly against Algeria, and then edged a pretty dodgy Slovenian team they should have thrashed, leaving them brimming with inexplicable brio. Both teams started very well. The opening goal from Klose was good -- very similar to the Gyan goal that sunk the USA in extra time. Long ball right up the middle, Klose muscled off the defenders, who were not entirely in the play, and finished well. The second goal 20 minutes later was magic. Incredible movement off the ball by Klose and Podolski, the latter ending up with the ball on the left in acres of space and finishes clinically. Then, just six minutes later, it looked like game-on, as Upson headed in a Gerrard cross off a short corner. And a minute later Lampard unleashed one of his insane 30 yard strikes that hit the bar and bounced in, clearly, unarguably, over the goal line, but the referee signaled otherwise and it was 2-1 at the half. A gutted England team came out for the second half and just got run off the field, first dropping a goal on a three-on-two break finished by Muller, and then on a truly amazing play in which Ozil beat Gareth Barry to a through ball on the left wing and then just blew by him -- maybe 10 meters -- into free space to create a chance for Muller to make it 4-1. Well deserved win by Germany, but shocking that the officials missed the England goal. I don't think it would have changed the outcome, but it wasn't even a close call.

Argentina 3:1 Mexico -- speaking of god-awful referee's decisions, how about Argentina's first goal? Again, not sure it changed the outcome, although it did discombobulate a Mexico side that looked pretty bright in the first few minutes, with an ambitious 30 yard strike from Salcido rattling the bar and a dangerously close one from Guardado that just curled wide of the far post. But 25 minutes into the match, Messi found Tevez at the top of the box, who tried a shot that bounced off a Mexican defender; it came back to Messi in the air who headed it forward to Tevez for a tap in. Great, except for the fact that Tevez was miles offside when Messi played the second ball. Not even close. A row ensued, and after it was clear that Mr. Rossetti wasn't changing the call, the Mexican's started fouling with real venom, drawing a card for Marquez and several cautions. Seven minutes later, a sloppy pass in defense by the Mexicans ended up at the feet of Higuain, who juked off a strong challenge and scored his fourth goal of the World Cup. Tevez removed any doubt in the 52nd minute, when he launched a rocket strike past the Mexican keeper from well outside the area, clearly one of the goals of the tournament so far. Javi Hernandez pulled one back with a deadly turn that left him clear of two Argentine defenders for a wonderful finish. But it was too late, and frankly, Argentina had too much quality in the final analysis.

On this evidence, Germany-Argentina is going to be one of the great matches of this tournament. They are really quite different, but both have a lot of attacking flair and a tendency to press forward in numbers. Both have trouble at the back. Argentina will attack and Germany will counter-attack. Should make for a wide open match with potentially lots of goals. Uruguay-Ghana is going to be a grind. I think Ghana have gotten as far as they are capable, and Uruguay will be through to face probably Netherlands or Brazil in the semi-finals.

One final note: I think that this World Cup could spell the beginning of the end of the gnomish FIFA president Sepp Blatter's crusade against "monitored officiating." His position has been that referee fallibility is part of the game, and further that a technology solution or goal-line referees wouldn't "scale" -- i.e., wouldn't work for my kid's U10 club competition, which is governed by the FIFA laws of the game. However, there's little clamor for video replay or more officials in my kid's league. At the f'ing World Cup, on the other hand, where HD cameras are revealing just how bad the FIFA officials really are, and where horrific calls -- not marginal ones, but absolutely terrible ones -- are changing the outcome of games with the highest possible stakes, it's no longer defensible to hide, ostrich-like, from the future.

I actually think that an NFL-like challenge system would be great for the World Cup. Each team gets one challenge per game; once a challenge is made the clock keeps running and if the challenge is unsuccessful, the opposing team gets the time added on, if the ref's decision holds, the time is lost. This would add a bit of gamesmanship, and prevent the match from degenerating into a slippery slope of reviewed decisions. I'd even take a fifth official in a box with video technology, miked up to the ref, who could at least inform crucial decisions.

There's no chance at all of FIFA adopting anything like this -- might as well hope for TV timeouts, or on-field cheerleaders. More likely, we'll get more referees along the goal lines, and in fact FIFA has been experimenting with something like this in the Europa League competition. It is still open to mistakes, and the social pressure of the referee's hierarchy on the field. But it's marginally better than nothing.

The status quo is simply unacceptable, and is undermining the integrity of the game. It's one thing to feel gutted by a result that knocks you out of the competition; it's quite another to get bounced by a missed call.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

LD's Goal

I'm kind of sick of the whole "what it means for US soccer" meme. It means we are through to the final 16 of the World Cup. As group winners, over England. If that's not enough, I don't know what's going to do it.

This is football at its most dramatic. A minute into extra time, we were cooked. England was finishing off Slovenia 1:0, and if the results held, we were going home and Slovenia was moving on in second place. A minute later, the table turned upside down, and we were through.

I think it's more fun to consider what Landon's goal means for this World Cup. By topping England in Group C, we've given the English a ridiculously tough path to the final four. They have to play Germany in the Round of 16, their old footballing enemy. While not totally on form, Germany certainly have looked better than England in this tournament. If they can overcome their historical neurosis against Germany, they would likely face Argentina in the quarter-finals (assuming the rampant Argentines finish off Mexico in the Round of 16). England-Argentina is another fraught fixture, resurrecting the Hand of God and the Beckham red card. It's a full employment plan for England's football hacks and a full engagement plan for the nation's fragile football psyche.

Meanwhile, the USA quietly slips into a bracket with Uruguay, South Korea, and Ghana. It's perhaps the most attractive bracket possible, avoiding all of the in form teams like Brazil, Netherlands, Spain, and Argentina all the way through to the semi-finals. Actually, I would have taken this bracket in the group stage, let alone the elimination round. Not an easy path, but certainly teams we can play with.

What has been fun about this tournament for me is how you can see the emergence of an indigenous American football. The team is a combination of organized youth products (Donovan, Bradley), street ballers (Dempsey), natural athletes (Altidore, Howard) and journeymen (Bocanegra, DeMerit). Their best attributes are excellent preparation, fitness, team dynamics and work rate rather than flair and individual skill. What's different this time is that, outside our defense, we actually have a lot of skill working in the system, and a coach who is not afraid to modify his tactics and make adjustments.

What was ultimately great about Landon's goal was how it was cut from that cloth. Bob Bradley had taken his final tactical gamble 10 minutes from time, substituting a defender (Bornstein) and bringing on an attacking midfielder (Beasley) to press the issue. Algeria put together a counter- attack on the left, ending with Howard saving an easy shot by Rafik Saifi. Howard then had the quickness of mind to run out and make an inch-perfect 40 yard throw to the feet of Donovan as he sprinted up the pitch. Landon played the ball to Altidore who was streaking up the right side. Altidore charged into the box and played a nice square ball in front of the sprinting Dempsey, who, bleeding from the mouth after taking a malicious punch ten minutes earlier, smashed it right at the keeper. But the keeper couldn't handle it, and Donovan, continuing his 80 yard run, finished the rebound. USA's biggest stars were right there at the death, stepping up to make a great technical play when it counted most. It showed the fitness and desire that absolutely characterizes this team.

There's a lot of trust and self-belief in the squad and coaching staff, and that can take you pretty far in a tournament like this, particularly the knock-out stage, where fitness and an ability to score late can make a big impact. In 2006, 6 of the 16 elimination round matches went to extra time; 5 in 2002. Going to be great fun watching USA-Ghana this Saturday. I can't wait.

Monday, June 21, 2010


"Le Meltdown" as it's being called in the press -- the French disaster at the World Cup -- has received more than its fair share of snarky coverage, but this, from around 25:30 to 29:00, is both poignant and very interesting.

Why are the big European teams struggling?

As of the end of the second round of group stage matches, the five major European teams -- those that received one of FIFA's coveted #1 seeds -- are a combined 4W-4D-2L. That's England, Germany, Holland, Italy and Spain. They've taken only 16 of a possible 30 points. They have dropped points from matches against the likes of New Zealand, Algeria, and Switzerland, among others.

If you add France, the '98 World Cup champion and '06 runner-up, who are the top European seed in Group A, it's 4W-5D-3L, or 17 points out of 36. And if you are really a glutton for punishment, look at the four European World Cup winners (France, England, Italy, and Germany), whose combined record is 1W-5D-2L, or 8 out of 24 possible points.

The FIFA #1 seeding is supposed to protect these teams from early exit and insure passage into the second round, by preventing them from eliminating each other in the group stage. But going into the final group matches, only Holland are safe, having won both their matches. Everybody else -- yes, everybody else -- is vulnerable going into their last match. France seem destined for early elimination, and the strange math of the group stage could see off one or two others, or more likely see a few of them finish second in their groups, setting up difficult Round of 16 matches.

What is going on? If you read the European press, it's down to bad coaches, spoiled super-star players, bad mentality, and lack of effort. In the minds of the European media, European teams and players are clearly "better" than their opposition, but their decadence and lassitude make them vulnerable to the hustling football underclass from Eastern Europe, the Americas, and Asia. Sound familiar?

There's another explanation: these European teams just aren't that good outside Fortress Europe. And the rest of the world is getting better, fast.

We saw glimmers of this in 2002, when rank outsiders Turkey and South Korea reached the semi-finals, and Senegal and USA reached the quarters. Back on home soil in 2006 the eight quarter-finalists comprised six European teams plus Brazil and Argentina. But 2010 (South Africa), 2014 (Brazil) and 2022 (USA or Qatar) are all non-European cup sites.

Let's look at the specific example of Group C in this year's tournament. When the group was announced, the Sun tabloid in London ran a headline proclaiming: "England, Algeria, Slovenia, Yanks" (with the worlds lined up to spell E-A-S-Y). Easy, eh? USA are the champions of the CONCACAF group. Champions. They beat out World Cup qualifiers Mexico, who are currently scorching Group A, and Honduras. Qualifying in CONCACAF requires playing in some of the world's most hostile away venues (if you want a great example, read Bill Simmons' piece on Azteca). As CONCACAF champions, they played in last summer's Confederations Cup and finished second in a group that included Italy and Brazil, beat Spain in the semis, and lost a heartbreaker to Brazil in the final after going up 2-0.

Slovenia qualified from a difficult group that included Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland and Northern Ireland, all teams that have qualified for the World Cup finals at some point, then beat powerhouse Russia in a playoff to qualify themselves. Algeria qualified after winning a playoff against African champions Egypt, and were themselves a semi-finalist in the highly-competitive African Cup of Nations in 2010. Easy. Sure.

In addition, the globalization of professional football means that European national leagues are no longer the near-exclusive domain of national players. The three USA stars (Donovan, Dempsey and Howard) all started for top clubs in the English Premiership in 2009-10. Most of the rest of the USA team plays for smaller clubs in the top European leagues, where they face world class talent every week. As do the Slovenians. And the Algerians. In fact, a core group of those Algerians who played England to a "shocking" 0-0 draw last week formed a part of France's successful U17, U18 and U19 national squads before taking advantage of dual citizenship to play for Algeria.

Parity has arrived at the World Cup. In 1954, the group stage was largely a joke. There were results of 5-0, 9-0, 8-3, 7-0, 7-2, 7-0 and 5-0. Not to mention a couple of 4-1's. And the tournament had only 16 teams. The current 32 team format has been in place since 1998 -- you'd think the expansion would have resulted in more lopsided first round results by diluting the talent pool, what with all those extra spots going to "lesser" federations, but it's just not the case. Sure, there are still the occasional shellackings (vis Portugal's 7-0 hiding meted out on North Korea today), but as a percentage of group stage matches, it's nothing like the past.

There was a great moment on TV after the England-Algeria match when commentator Steve McManaman banged his head on the desk and lamented the woeful performance of the England team, how they "under-performed" and wasted all that "talent." His co-commentator, Alexi Lalas, turned to him and said, "Maybe they are just not that good." That's the elephant in the room with European national-team football these days.

The Last Match Days of the World Cup Group Stage

One of the great things about the FIFA World Cup format is the last match days of the group stage. It's unusual for a group to be completely settled prior to the last day, so there's frequently a good bit of drama. Often, the goal differential and goals scored tie-breaker rules come into effect to decide positions. As we saw at last year's Confederations Cup, it's possible for the team dead last in the table (vis USA) to qualify for the next round through a series of improbable results. To make it even more dramatic, they play the final matches for each group simultaneously, so the table is shifting around in real time and an added-time goal could swing a group. Anyone who watched USA-Egypt last summer knows how excruciating that can be.

Overall, the vulnerability of some of the tournament's biggest names means that there is a lot less gamesmanship (in the negative sense) at play this time. The tendency for already-qualified teams to play "negotiated draws" really taints the proceedings. But because of the unpredictability of next-round opponents, and the high variability between playing, say, Argentina in your next match versus South Korea, lots of teams should be going for the win.

If you are setting your DVR, here are the one's to watch (reasons below): Mexico-Uruguay, Nigeria-South Korea, both of the Group C matches, Denmark-Japan, Italy-Slovakia, and Chile-Spain.

So, what's to play for going into the last match day?

Group A: Mexico and Uruguay both go through if they draw when they play each other. Nothing France can do if that happens. However, they will both want to avoid playing Argentina, the likely Group B winner, in the Round of 16, so Mexico will be playing to win, since a draw favors Uruguay (who would qualify first on goal difference in the case of a draw). France could just pip the loser on goal difference if they get a multi-goal win over South Africa and either Mexico crushes Uruguay or vice versa. Unlikely. Mexico and Uruguay should advance, although who finishes first and who finishes second is up for grabs.

Group B: Argentina clinch first place with a win or draw over Greece. South Korea clinch second place with a win or draw over Nigeria, assuming Greece lose to Argentina. If Greece draws Argentina and South Korea lose to Nigeria, Greece goes through in second place. Nigeria has a chance for second if they beat Korea and Argentina beat Greece. Probably Argentina and Korea, but we could see a weird finish for second here if Argentina rest their stars and Nigeria goes for it against Korea.

Group C: Lots of permutations here, with England, USA and Slovenia all capable of winning the group and all four teams still capable of qualifying. If both games draw, Slovenia wins the group and USA likely go through second on goals scored (they have a +2 advantage over England in goals), unless England score three more goals than the USA score. The crazy scenario is an England-Slovenia draw and Algeria beating USA, which would result in both England and USA eliminated. USA must beat Algeria to control their own destiny -- they would automatically advance with that result. A draw would only work if Slovenia draw or beat England. If USA beat Algeria and England beat Slovenia by similar scores, USA goes through first and England second. Going to be a great day of football on June 23rd.

Group D: Despite the table, I think Germany and Serbia are in the drivers' seats. Serbia play a demoralized Australia without either Cahill or Kewell, out on red card suspensions. Germany play a Ghana team they should match up very well against, even without Klose. If they both win, as I think they will, then order is restored and Germany qualify first, Serbia second. Any result against Germany would put Ghana through. If Serbia-Australia ends in a draw and Ghana lose, Serbia could be in trouble. They would be level on points with Ghana, probably level on goal difference (unless Ghana lose by 2), with Ghana having the goals scored and head-to-head advantages. If Ghana-Germany ends in a draw, and Serbia beat Australia, we could see Serbia and Ghana through, and Germany eliminated.

Group E: Holland are through. They play an already-eliminated Cameroon in a meaningless match for both teams. Holland need only a point to guaranty they finish first in the group, and even if they lose, they probably finish first on goal difference. Denmark-Japan is the decider for second place, as they both sit on 3 points going into the last match. Japan have an advantage on goal difference, so could technically play for a draw; Denmark, on the other hand, has to play for the win. Given how these teams have played so far, it should be a great final match, one I'm really anticipating.

Group F: All four of these teams are still capable of qualifying, although there are some unlikely permutations. Despite New Zealand's amazing performances against Slovakia and Italy, this is still looking like Italy and Paraguay, although definitely not in that order. Italy still have work to do against Slovakia, who won't be easy to beat. A draw works for Italy if New Zealand crashes against Paraguay, but If New Zealand draw Paraguay, it's going to come down to goals scored, where the Italians and Kiwis are currently even. Hard to imagine New Zealand beating Paraguay, who should get through in first place. Slovakia could still qualify with a win over Italy and a New Zealand loss to Paraguay.

Group G: Brazil qualify, almost certainly as group winners. All they need is a draw versus Portugal in their last match to get a point and go through on top. Portugal would also be content with a draw, as it would insure that they progress ahead of Ivory Coast. Portugal could top the group with a win. Ivory Coast's only chance is for Brazil to humiliate Portugal, while they knock in a bunch against North Korea -- enough to reverse the astonishing -9 goal difference they currently have versus Portugal after Portugal's 7:0 win over North Korea. The Dear Leader's boys are eliminated and have nothing to play for.

Group H: Chile and Spain play for all the marbles in a wide open group. Only Chile controls its own destiny and wins the group with a draw. That draw would be disastrous for Spain, who would be eliminated in this case if the Swiss beat Honduras. If Chile wins, they qualify on top and Spain are eliminated with a Swiss win or draw versus Honduras. If Honduras beats Switzerland and Chile beats Spain, second place will come down to goal difference where Spain have a slight advantage. If Spain beats Chile and Switzerland beats Honduras (a likely scenario), then Chile, Spain and Switzerland will each have 6 points and it comes down to goal difference and perhaps even goals scored to determine which of the three gets eliminated. Honduras could still qualify in second place with a win over Switzerland and a Chile win over Spain, assuming they could make up some goal difference on Spain.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

A Thinking-Person's Guide to World Cup Analysis

"Football is a simple game," Gary Lineker famously said after England's 1990 defeat in the World Cup semi-final (on penalties, of course). "22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans win." But seriously, the same twenty or so FIFA laws of the game govern both my kid's U10 club matches and the World Cup finals. Ball, goals, keepers, offsides, throw-ins, fouls, cards, free kicks, penalties. That's about it.

Partly because it's so simple a game, it ends up the subject of a lot of analysis. Like its closest American sports analog, basketball, when played well it is highly improvisational and fluid, so it doesn't allow itself to be understood through simple measurement or statistics. It is about the use of space by players with and without the ball, and it is memorably about what skilled players do with the ball in that space. Goals are rare, matches turn on single events, and what happened between the lines over 90-odd minutes is often the subject of intense debate.

The World Cup is the apotheosis of football analysis. Sure, the "quality" of football is better in the Champion's League, where money-is-no-object mercenary squads of the greatest skill players on the planet play. But nothing matches the history, the crucible of national character and the test of individual character, and the clash of play styles that you get in the World Cup.

Here are some of the resources I use and recommend:

Historical Results: The RSSSF archive is unbelievable. It's the wikipedia of football. The official FIFA archive for previous World Cups is great, too. There's also great historical coverage of the World Cup on wikipedia itself.

Analysis: There are unfortunately no American equivalents of the English style of deep thinking, good writing, and snarky gossip. Personally, I love the stuff coming from the team at The Guardian. They are providing some of the most humorous and objective coverage of the tournament, in particular Irishman Barry Glendenning. Their World Cup Daily podcast, full of bad puns, inside jokes and sexual innuendo, is awesome.

Grant Wahl, of The Beckham Experiment fame, writes for Sports Illustrated and has been ok -- not as good as I had hoped, but smart and insightful. The LA Times coverage is pretty good, too. I am not a huge fan of their cranky senior football writer, Grahame Jones, but their site is nicely organized and has some cool content. The New York Times has been spotty.

ESPN's Soccernet site is doing a pretty good job, and has some unique resources such as the great political statistician Nate Silver.

The communal World Cup blog has been variable in terms of quality, but is winning on breadth of coverage and subject matter. does a great job with technical match analysis and player ratings. They've been providing some good in-depth coverage of the US national team. If you want to understand the science of space, tactics and positioning on the pitch, you must read the match breakdowns at Zonal Marking.

For dedicated coverage of the US men's national team, US Soccer's official site is boring but comprehensive A lot of the players are on Twitter, so you can see updates from Donovan, Edu, Altidore and others there. Speaking of Twitter, the World Cup app at TweetBeat is fantastic stuff.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Group A-D: The First Matches

Mexico 1:1 South Africa -- I had a feeling that the home support was going to be worth a goal and that the Bafana Bafana might possibly see a result from this match, so I was not surprised by the draw. Mexico looked the better team in the first half, but all credit to South Africa for a tremendous first goal on the counterattack which sent the fans into ecstasy. Unfortunately, the home side lost the plot after that, and their marking on Mexico's inevitable equalizer was dreadful -- there were easily three or four Mexican players left unmarked at the far post on that play in position to score. South Africa had a late chance to win it, but a lazy shot was denied by the woodwork. Fair result and happy to see the hosts get a point.

France 0:0 Uruguay -- well, France was a bit better than I expected, and Uruguay was a lot worse. France defended well but looked toothless in front of goal. Uruguay really suffered from a lack of playmakers in midfield; their much-praised strike duo of Suarez and Forlan couldn't get any decent service throughout the match. Still, Uruguay should have won but Forlan missed an absolute sitter from the penalty spot, unmarked. Hope both these teams get eliminated as soon as possible.

South Korea 2:0 Greece -- the Koreans were fantastic. Energetic, skillful, and fit. They took it to the Greeks from the first whistle, and with a little luck could easily have won this one by four goals. Both of their goals were nicely taken: the first showed great concentration and belief on a set piece, while the second was a great bit of individual effort from open play. Meanwhile, Greece were horrendous. We knew they would struggle to score goals, but I expected they would be organized on defense at a minimum. Er, no. Their center backs looked like they were going to get into a fist fight after the Koreans came close once too often. Greece won't get a point, or even a goal, at this rate. Korea v. Argentina will be a blast.

Argentina 1:0 Nigeria -- the Argentines were a lot more dominant than the scoreline would suggest. Messi, Tevez and Higuain just tore up the Nigerian back line -- I lost count but Messi must have had five shots on or near target and ran at the defense with real purpose. Tevez was also very, very dangerous. But the Nigerian keeper was awesome, and literally kept his side in the match. The second half introduction of Obafemi Martins for Nigeria was long-overdue, and he really provided some chances to get Nigeria back in the match. Again, with a little luck the Africans might have stolen a point, but you could easily say that with a little luck, Argentina could have had three more goals. It was fun to watch Maradona jumping around on the sidelines, too.

England 1:1 USA -- the Americans looked terrified in the opening minutes, and a totally overmatched Ricardo Clark was punished after 4 minutes with a nice goal from Gerrard who easily tapped in a heads up pass from Heskey following a routine throw in. I had a sinking feeling of a Czech Republic-style drubbing, but instead of unravelling the USA buckled down and fought back. In particular, England had trouble with our pace. On the right side Cherundolo consistently abused Milner, who eventually collected a yellow card for multiple infractions and had to be subbed after just 30 minutes lest he pick up a red. In the middle, Donovan and Dempsey tested John Terry and Leadley King, the latter going off at the half with an injury. On the left, Altidore ripped Carragher on multiple occasions, the last of which almost resulted in a winning goal, but England’s keeper, Green, just palmed it onto the near post and out of the net. Dempsey's 40th minute equalizer was soft and totally, completely lucky, and Green deserved the abuse he's taken for it, but England had let the USA back into the match, and the goal wasn't completely against the run of play. Onyewu, DeMerit and Bradley kept Rooney somewhat in check, and Howard came up big in stopping hard shots by Heskey and Wright-Phillips. Sadly, Bocanegra was the weak link in the defense, as Lennon and Johnson kept running at him on the left, creating several chances. To paraphrase one commentator, England were better at every position except keeper, and the keepers decided the match. A huge point for USA. If they can build from here and not let down in the last matches, they could win the group. On a personal note, the second half was so nerve-wracking in my house, that my always-loquacious father-in-law fell silent and my son looked like he was going to puke. That's why I love the World Cup.

Slovenia 1:0 Algeria -- both these teams were awful for most of this match. Couldn't string passes together, bad service from the wings, sloppy all over the pitch. There were a couple of half-chances both ways, but nothing that seemed like a sustained attack. I had heard so much about the great Slovenian defense pre-match, but they looked really mediocre, even from the tepid attacking Algeria managed. An Algerian forward was sent off for an idiotic intentional hand ball, ending any chance for a goal from them. Slovenia finally got a breakthrough ten minutes from time when a decent but stoppable shot was mishandled by the Algerian keeper, and the ball ended up in the back of the net. And that was that. Without the keeper’s gaffe, this was headed for the worst kind of 0:0 draw. Slovenia got the result, which will put pressure on both the English and Americans to beat them. Good -- maybe we'll play Torres instead of Clark ...

Ghana 1:0 Serbia -- Ghana missed Essien less than I expected, and Serbia's play was definitely not up to the pre-match hype. Ghana had a couple of decent chances but they were not very sharp in front of goal. Ghana seemed more poised in midfield than I expected, though. The match turned on a ridiculous Serb hand ball in the box resulting in a penalty to Ghana, which was clinically finished. Serbia didn’t really put a decent attack together until they had the man sent off; oddly it seemed to energize them and they played much better down a man, getting their best chances of the match. The Ghanaian goal scorer had another chance to put it away late, but hit the post. Surprise result, and Ghana will go into their next match with confidence, but both teams put on second-rate performances.

Germany 4:0 Australia -- wow, did Germany look good here. Best performance of the first eight matches. Ok, the Australians sucked ass, worse even than they were against the USA in the pre-cup friendly. In fairness, the Aussies opened decently, and missed at least one early chance. But when the Germans ultimately took over the match, they were electric. Podolski's strike was an unstoppable rocket, and after Klose missed an easy one on a great early cross from Podolski, he came back and destroyed Schwartzer and the Aussie defense with a killer header, classic German power football. Germany collected two more good goals after poor Tim Cahill was sent off for a dubious straight red card. But my pre-tourney take that Germany was going to suffer from the absence of the playmaker Ballack in midfield was just dead wrong. If anything, they looked quicker and livelier without him. This was more Germany good than Australia bad, and Germany are going to go far in this competition and should provide both England and the USA a lot of incentive to win the group, just to avoid playing them in the round of 16.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

World Cup Preview

"Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that."

~Bill Shankly

Seven days to the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Now that all the squads have been set and the teams have begun arriving in South Africa, it's time for my pre-tournament preview and my (generally insane) predictions.

Overall, this has the makings of perhaps the most exciting World Cup in two decades. Of all the interesting aspects of the tournament, geography provides the most compelling storyline. A European team has never won a World Cup held outside Europe (the eight tournaments held outside Europe have been won by Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay). Add to that the aging, largely unimpressive nature of many of the European powerhouses (England is fielding the tournament's oldest team; France barely qualified; Italy seems lackluster; Germany is a shambles of injuries and managerial spats) and the fact that this is the first African tournament (an Asian team, South Korea, made the semi-finals in the first Asian tournament), the possibility for surprises seems high. I would be shocked to see a repeat of 2006 in Germany, with an all-European final four (Italy, France, Germany and Portugal).

It's hard for non-American's to understand, but this is also the first time I can remember that a major US media company (ESPN/ABC) is hyping the tournament like crazy and signing up to show all the matches in HD. They have even dumped the dubious announcing team of JP Dellacamera and John Harkes in favor of some Brits (and not just any Brits ... Martin Tyler, one of the best in the business). There's a lot of genuine excitement in the tournament, not just in a "team USA goes to the Olympics" kind of way. I think the fact that so many matches from the EPL, La Liga, Serie A, and the Bundesliga are shown on cable TV means that many more Americans actually know the top players who will take part from watching them with their clubs, which makes it more interesting and fun, and of broader appeal than simply the team USA matches.

Group Stage

Group A: This is one of my favorite groups, because all the teams are damaged goods and I can craft an argument for any two of the four teams making the elimination round. France has the pedigree (winner in '98, runner-up in '06), but their current form is poor and they have no clear leader. Mexico always rise to the occasion in the World Cup, but they have a relatively weak squad this time. Uruguay have tradition, but just squeaked past Costa Rica in the post-qualifying playoff to make the tournament. And South Africa are only here as hosts -- they would never have qualified otherwise. Mexico and France are likely to advance, but I think if the hosts can get three points from Uruguay, it might be Mexico and South Africa. Don't underestimate home turf advantage, particularly in far-away Africa.

Group B: While this is potentially a sneaky-hard group, Argentina are absolutely loaded with talent and my odds-on favorite to win the tournament. The big unknown is whether their coach, the volatile Diego Maradona, is a help or hinderance in their campaign. I think the first match -- the morning match on Saturday June 12 between Nigeria and Argentina -- will speak volumes about the Argentine character and potential in this tournament. Nigeria are arguably the best or second best African team in the tournament and I think they could make a run as far as the semi-finals. South Korea are quick, disciplined, physically fit and dangerous. Greece's defensive anti-football can cause problems, but they are light on talent and goal scoring threats I can't see them advancing. Argentina and Nigeria get out of the group.

Group C: The big question here is which USA team shows up. If it's the Confederations Cup runner-up, then I think they have a chance not only to advance from the group, but to win the group outright and potentially avoid a rematch of the 2002 quarter-finals with Germany. If it's the team that played the first half against Turkey, they won't make it out of the group. They are a difficult match-up for England in the opening round with their speed and goalkeeping. Donovan is peaking, Dempsey seems fully recovered from injury, and Bob Bradley made some clever choices bringing Findley, Buddle and Gomez rather than the usual re-treads (i.e., Ching). If Altidore's ankle sprain is really bad, I'd love to see Gomez up front. Unfortunately the USA are always inconsistent in group play, and their back four have been shockingly bad. Onyewu is struggling (he can't jump), while Specter and Bornstein looked terrible in the run-up friendlies. That said, England seemed very flat in their pre-tournament matches. They were totally unimpressive against lively sides from Mexico and Japan. They are over-reliant on Wayne Rooney to score goals. [UPDATE: ... and Rio Ferdinand, their captain and anchor of what has been a shaky central defense, injured his knee in training and is out of the competition]. There is no reason they shouldn't do well, but there's a nagging feeling of dread surrounding the team. Slovenia and Algeria are both good sides, but I don't see either challenging. USA and England advance.

Group D: I don't think Germany are all that good, and without the leadership of Ballack they could be in for some tough matches. Ghana, one of the best African sides, was dealt a tremendous blow with the injury to Michael Essien. Australia has some decent players (Schwartzer, Cahill). Serbia was great in qualifying, and can claim some of the old Yugoslav pedigree in World Cups. I think this is a bit like Group A in that you could make good arguments for a variety of outcomes given that there are no dominant teams. I like Germany to (barely) win the group, with Serbia taking the second place.

Group E: Holland are one of my favorite teams in the tournament, and along with Argentina one of my picks to go deep. I think they win all three matches in this group. The only interesting bit is who gets the second spot. I like Denmark, who had an under-rated romp through qualifying, besting Portugal and Sweden in a tough group. The crazy Samuel E'to controversies have added fuel to an already burning fire around Cameroon. And while Japan did ok against an out-of-sorts England, they have been in poor form for most of the last year or so. Holland & Denmark.

Group F: This is a gift of a group for Italy. New Zealand are woeful. Slovakia are ok, but have limited tournament experience (other than as a part of Czechoslovakia pre-breakup). Paraguay had a magical qualifying run during which they beat both Brazil and Argentina to finish one point out of first place in the South American qualifying table. In a more difficult group, Italy struggles, but here, it's Italy and Paraguay moving on.

Group G: Probably the worst possible draw for Brazil: a quality African side from Ivory Coast on near home turf (with Didier Drogba amongst the top strikers in the world right now, along with Kalou and the Toure brothers); '06 semi-finalist Portugal led by Christiano Ronaldo; and an unknown North Korean team. I would not be shocked if Brazil didn't make it out of this group. The Brazil-Portugal match on June 25 will be incredible. My head tells me Brazil and Portugal advance, but my heart tells me Brazil and Ivory Coast, the latter riding the African wave of goodwill to the elimination round. [UPDATE: Drogba broke his elbow in a friendly with Japan yesterday and is out of the World Cup. No way Ivory Coast beats Portugal without him. Goodbye heart, hello head.]

Group H: Spain have to be the favorite to win the cup after their Euro '08 win, their incredible unbeaten streak (ended by the USA in last summer's Confederations Cup), and their huge pool of talent at the peak of their careers. However, they don't seem to travel all that well. Chile are an unheralded but high-quality second place team in this group. Honduras is lucky to be here (thank you, Jonathan Bornstein, the USA defender, whose injury-time goal knocked out Costa Rica and allowed Honduras to qualify for their first World Cup in three decades). And Switzerland don't have the quality to compete here. Spain and Chile move on.

Elimination Round

Round of 16

Nigeria d. Mexico
USA d. Serbia
Holland d. Paraguay
Brazil d. Chile
Argentina d. France/South Africa
England d. Germany
Italy d. Denmark
Spain d. Portugal


Nigeria d. USA
Holland d. Brazil
Argentina d. England
Spain d. Italy


Holland d. Nigeria
Argentina d. Spain


Argentina d. Holland