Thursday, June 30, 2011

Not All That Great

That is, the state of American soccer isn't all that great.

The men were pounded by Mexico and the women looked less than convincing in their win against North Korea, which apparently would have been a loss had the Koreans not suffered tragic misfortune in the days leading up to the World Cup.

The men had a dream start to their Gold Cup final against Mexico, scoring twice in the first half hour of the match to take a 2-0 lead.  The next hour, however, was basically an evisceration of the Yanks' defense as Mexico showed off all of its attacking talent and at the same time exposed the weakness and lack of depth of the American backline.

An overwhelmingly pro-Mexico crowd and the delivery of the post-match honors primarily in Spanish rankled both American supporters and some of their players, but were just salt in the wounds for a disappointing performance in the tournament as a whole and particularly in the final. While their defensive deficiencies can be explained by some extent to the early substitution of right back Steve Cherundolo, it's hard to believe that his presence would have made much of a difference, with central defenders Carlos Bocanegra and Clarence Goodson looking slow and Cherundolo's replacement Jonathan Bornstein completely out of his element.

 Giovani Dos Santos jukes Tim Howard just before scoring
the goal of the Tournament, sealing Mexico's 4-2 win

Post-match commentary has been critical of coach Bob Bradley, suggesting that it is time for him to go so that a new man may be in place and fully in charge before World cup qualifying begins. Given that Bradley received a new four year contract shortly after the last World Cup, a replacement seems unlikely, although U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati seemed somewhat equivocal regarding his confidence in Bradley immediately following the Mexico match.

I think Bradley is in a damned if he does and damned if he doesn't situation -- criticized for being predictable, he actually tried some new things at the Gold Cup that worked (featuring Freddy Adu, then starting him, with considerable success, in the final; installing Eric Lichaj at left back) and some that didn't (mostly, naming Bornstein to the squad in the first place). The biggest thing that Bradley seems to have in his favor is that contract, and the fact that by all appearances U.S. Soccer attempted to find a big profile successor after the 2010 World Cup without success.

The women started their World Cup with a 2-0 over North Korea. The North Koreans were very young (10 players on their roster are under 20) and were technically skilled and the more consistently dangerous team in the first half, which ended 0-0. The Americans ramped up their attack in the second half and won 2-0.

Lauren Cheney (12) celebrates her crucial first goal against North Korea.

After the match, perhaps keeping in mind the humiliation to which the North Korean men's squad was subjected after their 2010 World Cup, the Korean coach explained the "real" reason why his team lost. Lightning. That's right, Kim-Kwang-min claimed that his keeper and his defenders (or strikers, depending on the translation) were victims of a lightning strike in training leading up to the match, leading to their substandard performance in the second half.

While the U.S. women probably won't have to hope that the Colombian women, their next opponents, suffered a similar fate in order to beat them, they will still have to show improvement, or hope for divine intervention, before facing Sweden (to whom they lost 2-1 in January) in the final match of group play, which will likely determine which team will be the number one seed in the group entering the knockout phase of the tournament.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

What Exactly Is The State of U.S. Soccer?

With the United States men's national team in the midst of the Gold Cup and the women's team preparing for their World Cup which begins in Germany later this month, I've been thinking about where were are as a soccer nation and whether things are improving or not.

The men have not looked particularly good so far despite making it to the final after beating Panama 1-0 in the semis. The best news is probably that the U.S. was not in the same bracket as Mexico and will only have to play Los Tricolores once, in the final. Panama had beaten the U.S. 2-1 in group play in this tournament so the semi-final win was a measure of redemption or revenge for a team that had never before lost in group play in the Gold Cup.

The way that Mexico is playing, however, second may be the best that the U.S. can hope for in this Gold Cup. Given the way the Americans both won the Gold Cup in 2007 and finished first in CONCACAF qualifying leading to the 2010 World Cup, that concession is disturbing.

Clint Dempsey celebrates his goal against Jamaica.
Mexico looks like the younger, more innovative squad right now as the Yanks struggle to assimilate new players into the established backbone of Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, Steve Cherundolo, and Tim Howard. Heck, even Freddie Adu (remember him?) played a role in the only goal against Panama in the semis. 

While the men have time to sort things out before the rigors of World Cup qualifying, the U.S. women enter their World Cup next week far from the role of clear favorites that they once enjoyed. Although the women's team is currently ranked first in the world, and won the gold medal at the Beijing Olympics, they have endured a string of inconsistent results in the past year.

After dominating World Cup qualifying for the past decade, the U.S. women lost to Mexico in the CONCACAF tournament semifinal  and had to beat Italy in a two-legged play-in to even reach the World Cup. They followed that up with a series of matches earlier this year, again with some inconsistent results.

Germany seems the odds-on favorite to win the WWC, as the host and after winning the last two (the U.S. finished third in both). Brazil and the U.S. lead the second tier of contenders, with Canada, Japan, and Sweden possibilities as well.

While the U.S. women are led by an experienced group including Abby Wambach and captain Christie Rampone, there are a number of younger players on the roster that could see significant playing time and perhaps tilt the scales in the Yanks' favor. Forwards Amy Rodriguez and Alex Morgan in particular may help inject some speed and youth into an attack that has seemed relatively predictable against well-organized defenses.

There certainly isn't the hype and anticipation for this team that surrounded the 1999 edition, even before Brandi Chastain took off her shirt.

The most famous picture in women's soccer history.

There was a time, even after the men's World Cup was held in the U.S. in 1994 and MLS started in 1996, when there seemed to be as much interest, or more, in the women's national team than the men. Whether because of the retirement of magnetic personalities and players like Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, and Christine Lilly, or the disappointing finishes in recent tournaments that seem attributable in part to too many coaching changes or questionable coaching decisions on the national team, the women no longer enjoy much of the spotlight here.

The hope is that Wambach and company can restore a little of that luster this summer in Germany. After all, there's only one national team from the U.S. (and North America, for that matter) that has won a World Cup.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Keep On Rockin' In The Free World

For the second summer in a row, I recently spent several days reliving my youth and feeling rather aged. This time, the wound was strictly self-inflicted.

As you may have guessed from various references to song lyrics in some of my posts, I am a music aficionado. Not a musician in any sense, mind you, but a fan of music. As are my brother, Jeff and my son, Ethan. And, I suspect, most of you as well.

Jeff, Ethan, and I (and, technically, my nephew Lee, who neither Ethan nor I saw the entire time) spent last weekend baking in the sun, breathing dust-laden Southern Tennessee air, and having our senses assaulted (mostly pleasantly), with 80,000 other folks at Bonnaroo. For the uninitiated, Bonnaroo is a music festival held in Manchester, Tennessee, for the past ten years.

The "What" Stage at Bonnaroo with Colin Meloy of The Decemberists.
I went mostly to see musicians that are currently popular. The Decemberists topped my "must see" list as Ethan and I headed off on our seven hour car ride, with Arcade Fire, Matt & Kim, and Florence + The Machine close behind. But part of the magic of festivals is getting caught up in the excitement of "discovering" someone you hadn't heard, or heard of, before, or simply getting stuck in a crowd that makes your departure to another venue next-to-impossible, or nearly life-threatening.

So I only heard one song from Florence + The Machine, albeit the one I most wanted to hear, but that was okay. If the devil is in the details, then there are devils aplenty when there are at least five different venues hosting acts at the same time.

One of the acts I wasn't all that interested in catching was Buffalo Springfield. But my brother convincingly noted that "Neil Young can't live much longer" so he and I went to see Neil along with original band mates Richie Furay and Stephen Stills. The sound wasn't great, but we managed to scratch and claw our way through the crowd (helped by a few rolls of thunder which spooked some of the fair-weather fans) until we got good positions near the end of the set. Stills (still in great voice) sang the band's one hit ("For What It's Worth") and he and Young dueled on their guitars through several songs.

The seminal moment of the concert, and the entire festival for me as it turned out, came with the last song that Young introduced by saying "this is to show you what it would have been like had we done this" (in response to which Jeff said "he's a crazy old dude") then launched into the machine-gun-staccato guitar chords of "Rockin' In The Free World." When he got to the guitar solo bridge, the hair stood up on the back of my neck and I was convinced that: 1) Jeff had done me a huge favor by talking me into seeing them; 2) Neil would never die; and 3) like Neil, I was in the right place, still rockin' in the free world.

Here are some of my other observations from the weekend:

If Arcade Fire ever plays within 500 miles of where you live, run, drive, swim, do whatever it takes to immediately purchase tickets. Honestly the best concert I have ever seen, anywhere, anytime. Musicianship, showmanship, "big venue" sound and feel -- these guys were made to play on the big stage.

Matt & Kim are impossibly "cute," energetic, and (incongruously) foul-mouthed, which in some strange way adds to their charm. And they make music that defies you to not dance.

Dust is an unpleasant condiment, but is better than sand.

The Decemberists' Colin Meloy is our finest songwriter working his craft today. Period.

We have lost the War on Drugs (Jeff's wry, inarguable conclusion).

If Ben Sollee's day job doesn't pan out, he will apparently be available to play weddings and bar mitzvahs. The guy was seemingly at every show ready to play cello if asked (and maybe if not . . . ).

Showers are always optional.

Eminem is a better Detroit export than either Chrysler or Kid Rock.

Ninety percent of people who view little or no clothing as a viable fashion choice really shouldn't.

Iron and Wine are apparently trying to remake themselves into a "jam band" along the lines of The Grateful Dead or Phish. Don't bite.

John Waters is still kooky and still cool.

The Strokes rock.

You can too.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Emperor's New Clothes in the Digital Age

"But he isn't wearing anything at all!"

While reading articles this week about OSU football coach Jim Tressel's resignation and an op ed piece in the New York Times about the Syrian government's attempts to squelch the use of the internet by that country's dissidents, I was struck by how similar, and similarly naive, the reactions of both have been to media in the digital age.

Much as the emperor's tailors hoodwinked him into believing that his fine garments could only be seen by those smart enough, or worthy enough of his station, to see them so too both the Ohio State administration and the Syrian regime seem to think that despite the explosion of communication technology and instant news, whether via Facebook, Twitter, or on-line publications, it's still business as usual when it comes to the dissemination of information.

"You only need to know what we tell you," they seemed to say, "and that should be good enough." Unfortunately for both, however, news is not something that can be easily controlled these days, whether via a press conference or security checks asking dissidents if they "have a Facebook" on their laptops.

Today there are millions of children itching to expose the emperors for what they are -- naked posers. And they're increasingly willing to do it at the cost of their careers, or even their lives.

While this is somewhat understandably lost on the despotic government in Syria, the naivete of those in charge at Ohio State, particularly its President Gordon Gee and its Athletic Director Gene Smith, both of whom are among the highest paid college administrators in their positions in the country, is astonishing.

Tressel's transgressions certainly aren't -- after all, he's been cheating for 20 years now. Perhaps the only surprise is that, with that much practice at plausible deniability, he finally got caught.

As news slowly leaked out that Tressel knew of his players' NCAA infractions, failed to inform the administration or the NCAA about them despite his obligation to do so, and then lied to the NCAA on reporting forms about the absence of violations, Gee and Smith were faced with two choices: realize that the jig was up and try to salvage some part of the football program's (not to mention the academic institution's) reputation; or pretend that Emperor Tressel really was wearing the finest sweater vest ever created, invisible to all who weren't worthy of seeing it.

That they chose the later course, and the way that they did it, bowing and scraping at the Emperor's feet, makes for great, though squeamish, theatre.

Not much doubt after that about who was running the asylum, the lengths to which the OSU administration would go to hold on to Tressel, or the fact that Gee and Smith had gone "all in" with the strategy that they could convince the press that it was time for everyone to move on, nothing more to see.

It wasn't Facebook or Twitter that ultimately took down Tressel, and presumably left Gee and Smith to try to cover their tracks by forcing his resignation, but rather Yahoo, Ohio State's own student newspaper, The Lantern, and Tressel's damning emails.

While the editor of The Lantern hasn't actually been harmed yet for his journalistic integrity, not surprisingly he has been threatened. And, no, not even this University of Michigan fan would go so far as to compare the ruthlessness of the Syrian government to Buckeye Nation. But the similarly naive approach to the dissemination of information in the digital age is certainly there.

The lesson that should be learned, maybe not for Gee or Smith, certainly not for Tressel, is that "the news" is increasingly an amorphous being with a life of its own. It can no longer be controlled or even managed, only explained and ultimately acknowledged.

We may be facing a similar situation in our state as information and rumors slowly leak out about WVU football's Dauphin Prince's (Dana Holgorsen) escapades at a local casino, and perhaps elsewhere. One can only hope that Mountaineer A.D. Oliver Luck, who appears to be very bright and media savvy, will take a different approach than Smith and Gee did, although the early signs do not look good. At least odds are that Luck won't wear a bow tie at his press conference, if there is one.