Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Importance of Being Honest

This is the tale of two confessions, the one that I'm about to make and the one that Bob Bradley didn't.

Mine is that I was wrong in my last post. One of the good things about soccer is not that there's no instant replay. Officials have managed to repeatedly demonstrate at this World Cup that they make mistakes. Horrible, blatant, game-changing mistakes.

While it would disrupt the rhythm of a match to stop play for a video review for every close call, there isn't any reason why the fourth official couldn't have reviewed either the goal that should have been but wasn't (Frank Lampard's strike against Germany) or the one that was but shouldn't have been (Carlos Tevez's goal from a clear offside position against Mexico).

On Tevez's goal there were no logistics to work through. Play was stopped anyway because a supposed goal had been scored. And clearly the goal would have been disallowed if it had been reviewed (I can maybe understand missing the call if one defender had been goal-side of him but none? Seriously?).

A review of Lampard's non-goal, which had to land at least a yard into the goal but was missed by the Assistant Referee, would have been a little trickier but could still be easily accomplished. Since his shot was inexplicably not ruled a goal, play continued so there was no stoppage in play as occurred after Tevez's goal.

It would be simple enough, however, to equip the fourth official (who stands at the touchline and acts as nothing more than a traffic cop for players entering and leaving the field 99% of the time) with video replay technology to allow him to review controversial calls or no calls while play continues. If he decides it should have been a goal, play stops, time is added for the duration of the review, and play restarts with a kickoff.

I would only allow replay in those two instances (that I can think of at the moment) -- offside rulings that lead directly to goals and determinations of whether or not a ball completely crossed the line and therefore was a goal. And I wouldn't allow any NFL-style challenges. Every close play in those two categories would be reviewed while play continues, or before play is restarted.

With the technology available and many other sports using it to get the call right (Wimbledon still makes players dress all in white but has electronic line calls!) there's no reason FIFA shouldn't use it in connection with the biggest, most lucrative sporting event on the planet.

Okay, I fessed up. Bob Bradley, on the other hand . . .

I don't like second-guessing coaches. I know as a coach I don't like it, and understand that there are many considerations that no one else, not even an assistant, is privy to when decisions are ultimately made regarding formations, personnel, etc.

That said, I was very surprised when it was announced that Ricardo Clark would start the match against Ghana instead of Maurice Edu, who had been very solid against Algeria. I figured Bradley knew something we all didn't, but was less sure when Clark gave away the ball early in the game to allow Ghana to score yet another early goal against the U.S. in this World Cup.

When Bradley substituted Edu for Clark in the first half (after Clark had been awarded -- that's an odd term, isn't it? -- a yellow card for a frustration foul shortly after allowing the goal) I thought that Bradley had admitted as much as well. According to, however, Bradley had a different explanation after the match:
[I] [t]ook him [Clark] off in the first half which is something that we almost never do, but I was concerned about the card. When we're already down 1-0 and now you're trying to push the game in that part of the field, when you play that role playing with a card is incredibly dangerous. I told him that the decision is solely based on the card.
This is a little too much for me to swallow. I understand Bradley's desire to not throw Clark under the bus, which is admirable. But clearly the substitution was an admission, albeit too late, that Bradley had gotten it wrong this time and should have started Edu. It's hard to see how Bradley's post-match explanation helps his credibility with the his players, the media, or, most importantly for him, his bosses at the U.S. Soccer Federation.

The decision to start Clark may well cost Bradley his job, which would be unfortunate. But you can't help but wonder if he had simply said "I got this one wrong, Clark is a useful player and important to our squad, but Edu was the right guy for the job in this match" it might have made a decision to bring in a new coach a little more difficult to make.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

C'mon In Boys, the Water's Fine

One and one-half hours and 45 seconds of nerve-rattling theater.

That's how long it took for Landon Donovan's goal, probably the most important goal in the history of U.S. men's soccer. What happened in those 90 plus minutes defines both what is right about soccer and why the provincialists among American sportswriters, fans, and talk show hosts (Sean Hannity doesn't like soccer? Oh, the horror) are so wrong.

It was crazy, it was choreography, it was froth-at-the mouth exasperating, it was exhilarating, it was schizophrenic, it was sublime.

Not unlike a normal day, when you have a good day at work, but the drive home is stymied by some idiot driver (probably with an Ohio license plate on his vehicle), or are trying to finish the perfect project or paper only to be annoyed by a co-worker, or are making a brilliant argument in court only to be stopped dead in your tracks by an inane observation or simplistic question.

Unlike American football (which, by the way, I enjoy watching very much), so much of soccer is ungoverned and ungovernable. No instant replay, please. No excessive celebration penalties, we beg (okay, you get a yellow for taking off your shirt, but how many 15 yard penalties would the Saints get if they celebrated a touchdown the way the Slovenians celebrated a goal?).

Go ahead, keep the NBA, with its 100+ field goal attempts, 200 points, 50 personal fouls, and five dives/flops (yes, they do that in the NBA too) per game. Keep Major League Baseball, with its juiced up balls, juiced up bodies, and bandbox ballparks all introduced to score more runs and thereby make it more modern American.

Give me a game filled with uncertainties and foibles, where the most talented team doesn't always win and maybe a bad call does change the outcome. But where the players run for miles every game, play offense and defense (ask Tim Howard about that one) every game, and trade shirts with the opposition when it's over.

And, every once in a while, a game filled with 90 nerve-wracking minutes that ends in a single, exhilarating, jump off the couch, high-five, I-remember-when moment of complete joy.

America loves winners and loves winning underdogs even more. That's why it will be watching Saturday as we take on Ghana. But maybe, just maybe, during that match it will get a whiff of the ether that makes the game magical. As Delmar says in Oh Brother Where Art Thou shortly after he's been saved "C'mon in boys, the water's fine."

Friday, June 18, 2010

Well, that was good timing

Since I had already tipped my hand regarding what this post would be about, Michael Bradley certainly helped make it a little more newsworthy with his late equalizer in the U.S. men's World Cup match against Slovenia. Bradley played much more positively than against England, probably because that's what his Dad asked him to do. His Dad, of course also happens to be the U.S. coach, Bob Bradley. And that's where it gets interesting, at least from my perspective as both a coach who has coached his children and as an employment lawyer.

Many employers have anti-nepotism policies that forbid, or at least limit, the hiring of relatives and significant others. The reason is understandable -- prohibiting the co-employment of spouses or children of supervising spouses or parents certainly avoids potential claims of favoritism. Having hard and fast rules prohibiting nepotism in the workplace avoids having to justify decisions regarding relatives of management employees, either to other employees or, worse, in court.

If U.S. Soccer had an anti-nepotism policy, however, the team would likely not be as good as it is (and how good it is can be argued as well). Michael Bradley earned his first cap for the men's national team in 2006; a few months later, after a disappointing showing in Germany, his father was named the interim coach, and later confirmed as the permanent choice. Although Michael was "there first" in terms of tenure on the team, under most anti-nepotism policies he would have to leave the team once his dad became the coach.

While some may assert that Bob Bradley's value to the team is questionable, very few doubt that Michael has become an essential member of the squad, doing the grinding work required of defensive center midfielders in today's game. His goal Wednesday was sparkling, but the work he does in front of the defense or in back of the offense, depending on what is needed at the time, is the stuff that goes largely unnoticed.

Employers with hard and fast anti-nepotism policies may end up like the National Team would be without Michael Bradley -- losing out on essential team members and potential stars merely because of familial relationships. Those that are willing to acknowledge both the value that relatives can add to a business -- in terms of talent and investment in the success of the business, however, by allowing the hiring of relatives may be better off in the long run.

Michael Bradley's teammates clearly think so. Landon Donovan was recently quoted as saying that Michael was a crucial cog in the team. Through communication and, most importantly, hard work, relatives can convince co-workers that nepotism, on the field or at work, can be a positive dynamic.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

U.S. v. England Player and Coach Ratings and Observations

Well, let's see. I did pretty well in naming the players who I thought were superior to the other side's (Gerrard, Rooney, Terry -- who I semi-hedged on but shouldn't have -- and Tim Howard). Gerrard was terrific throughout, Rooney came into the game late (and set up England's goal early). And John Terry -- I guess with all the hubbub about his less-than-admirable personal life (think Ben Roethlisberger without the bodyguard pimps) I'd forgotten how good he is. Howard's superiority to Green (but it could have just as easily been James) was obviously what earned the U.S. the tie. England did have better players, but Green's gaff yielded what I thought was a fair draw.

My player ratings (only for those players I care to rate -- scale of 1-10):


GK - Green 2. In addition to the obvious, his distribution of the ball was poor.

CD - Terry 7. Has amazing touch and vision for a central defender when he gets forward.

CD - Carragher 3. Was shockingly slow and lucky to not be sent off with a second yellow when he dragged Findley down with about 20 minutes left. If England have to play him the rest of the way, it's hard to see how they make the semi-finals, let alone hoist the Cup.

RB - Johnson 7. He often looked like the best player on the pitch, at least in part because Dempsey didn't deal with him very well.

CM - Gerrard 6. Nice move on the goal, took to the job of captain well.

F - Rooney 5. Pulled the USA's central defense apart when he would track back for the ball and looked likely to score sometime in the last 15 minutes. But disappeared for long portions of the game, especially in the first half.


GK - Howard 7. Anything he touched was smothered, with only one exception that I can think of when he parried Lampard's shot over the bar.

RB - Cherundolo 7. Howard won Man of the Match, but my vote would have been for Cherundolo. Absolutely tortured Milner and Wright-Phillips going forward, made several crucial pokes and clearances. Outstanding.

CD - Onyewu 5. Was neither fish nor foul on Gerrard's goal as he half-heartedly followed Rooney out of the area but really didn't stay with him or take a position to help Clark mark Gerrard. Other than that he was strong and essential.

CM - M. Bradley 4. I'm not a Bradley hater, but I don't think he played particularly well. Was often in the right place at the right time, but maybe a pass or two to the guys with the Blue shirts would have been helpful.

LW - Dempsey 4. Scored the luckiest big goal he will ever have, but it got to the point where Bradley had to switch Donovan to the left to try to deal with Johnson's raids from the back.

F - Altidore 4. One great run, worked hard, but didn't often threaten.


Capello 5. Hard to blame him for starting Green -- James isn't nicknamed "Calamity" for nothing and he's seen both in practice for three weeks now. Hands were tied when it came to substitutions because of the departures of Milner and King.

B. Bradley 4. Bold move to start Findley, who did what everyone expected -- stretched the England defense but never looked likely to score. Still, I was yelling at the t.v. from 70 minutes on for BB to sub him out, which he finally did seven minutes later. Thought the last two substitutions were very curious as he brought in two more offensive players in Buddle and Gomez (well, Gomez didn't actually make it in before the match ended, but the intent was there). I thought Edu for Clark or Bradley would have been a more useful substitution sometime in the last 15 minutes.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Still Us Against the World (or at least the Brits and Guus Hiddink)

There's an interesting contrast in at least two analyses of the USA v. Turkey friendly last Saturday. Some folks, myself included as well as bloggers like Steven Goff of the Washington Post's Soccer Insider, were encouraged by the Americans' second half comeback and the energy and flair that Jose Torres and Robbie Findley brought to the side after a woeful first 45 minutes.

The performances of Torres, Findley, and Steve Cherundolo in the second half, particularly when contrasted with the indifferent to outright dismal displays by Ricardo Clark, Benny Feilhaber, and Jonathon Spector in the first, give some hope that Bob Bradley, viewed by many as conservative when it comes to his personnel decisions, had his hand forced by the marked improvement of play when those three were introduced and that they will play a prominent role when the U.S. begins its World Cup campaign against England in a week.

Turkey's coach-in-waiting, Guus Hiddink, however, had quite a different take, at least according to an article in England's Daily Telegraph. Hiddink is quoted in the article as concluding, after watching the US-Turkey match from the stands, that England's team is at a "higher level" than the Americans.

This analysis is "supported" by the Telegraph author's repeated assertion that the Turks mailed in their second half effort, an observation that I haven't seen shared anywhere else and is inconsistent with their performance in the U.S. in games against the Czech Republic and Northern Ireland earlier in the week. After coming all that way, playing well against two other teams, and going up 1-0 after 45 minutes against the Americans, why they would decide to tank the last half to get out of town faster escapes me.

One wonders if Hiddink was merely telling an English reporter what he thought he wanted to hear and whether the reporter actually watched the U.S. match. From the Hugh Grant interview on The Daily Show forward, the Brits have made it clear that, despite some lip service paid to improvements in the level of play in the U.S., they still have a healthy disdain for the American team as a whole.

While I'm far from thinking the England match a lock for the Americans, I don't believe that they're teams on different levels at this point. Clearly there are a few England players (Rooney, Gerrard, maybe Terry) who are better than any U.S. player at their positions. But the Americans have at least one of those (Howard), and maybe two or three depending on where Dempsey and Landon Donovan start.

Does the U.S. back four still scare me? You bet. But if Bradley gambles and plays Torres and Findley, early in the match if not as starters, then I think the Americans have a chance. Which is more than the British media and Hiddink are willing to give them.