Thursday, June 26, 2014


I'm spent.

I've written before about my ambivalence about my love of sports. Particularly soccer. Particularly a soccer tournament run by an organization as corrupt as FIFA.

But I've also resolved to embrace my obsession. And so I watched the U.S. game against Germany with E, didn't sit the whole first half, didn't even sit at half time while eating and pacing. E didn't either, although I'm not sure out of superstition or just nervousness. I hadn't been so nervous since my last Regional championship game. Or my last trial. Or the Ghana match.

I in my Klinsmannesque blue USA polo, E in his brand new away jersey that he had just opened, a present on his 23rd birthday. Moaning, muttering, yelling at the ref (which will either amuse or confirm the suspicions of my referee friends - and, no, I do not count the zebra in the photo to the right giving me a card among them).

This one (photo from
Only after Muller scored (and what a fabulous strike) did I decide that particular talisman was broken and sat and watched, as much what was happening in the Portugal-Ghana game as ours, and fretted and groaned and, in the end, exalted. At a loss.

Some of my friends and family, new to soccer, still have problems with the nuances. What is up with added time? Why do players dive with impunity? How can losing a battle mean winning a war?

It's all part of the magic, my friends. There's often the chance of a last gasp. There's always the hesitation for the whistle, the pointing of the arm, the brandishing of the card. And there's also the ability to rely, in the group stage anyway, on good work already done and grinding out a result, and hoping that someone else keeps playing hard on the biggest sporting stage in the World. 

Thanks Portugal. Thanks Ronaldo (never thought I'd say that).

We're through. And that's really all that matters right now. The shirt can stay. 

I'm sitting for the Belgium game, though.

Some random thoughts:

Klinsmann got it right again. I thought Geoff Cameron needed to go after Portugal, and evidently Klinsmann did too. But he stuck to his guns that Omar Gonzalez was his right central defender on the bench and started Gonzalez against Germany. And Gonzalez was very, very good.

Tim Howard was fantastic. Jermaine Jones again was huge, but about as spent as me when the game ended. Bradley not great but better. Dempsey also exhausted (time to get someone else up front -- Altidore or Johannsson -- and let Dempsey play withdrawn?).

If you like soccer, or humor, or even better both, check out the Men in Blazers podcast from Grantland. Spider bites with questionable consequences, tiny bananas, Tiricoism, and, best of all, #wetherrara. These guys are fantastic.

Ian Darke was driving me crazy during the match. E and I kept yelling at him to quit restating the obvious and jinxing us. Michael Ballack, on the other hand, has gotten much better as a studio analyst.

And speaking of improved performances, I begrudgingly give credit to FIFA for lowering the boom on Suarez.

Belgium? I'll take our chances. And Argentina after that? That would be something not to miss.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Post-Match Musings - U.S. v. Portugal

I take back all the bad things I've been writing about Alexi Lalas. His observations immediately after the Americans' 2-2 draw against Portugal were spot on. It was a great match and the Yanks would have been thrilled with four points from the first two games if they had been offered prior to the start of the World Cup. 

It's up to Jurgen Klinsmann to convince the team of that. That we're still in good shape and have showed the world what teamwork and hard work can accomplish. But while the last play of the Portugal match was the most disappointing, there were several things to be concerned about coming out of the match.

One is that Klinsmann's magical substitution touch abandoned him at a crucial point of the game. I understand the idea behind taking Graham Zusi out and putting Omar Gonzalez in the center of defense with a few minutes left (to waste time, for starters). But Gonzalez hasn't done much right in the last month and he was completely absent (out wide to the right and behind the play) when Portugal equalized. Perhaps he was in to man mark Cristiano Ronaldo, but he did a poor job of that as well. He should have been in front of the cross from Ronaldo to head it away, but even with fresh legs was out of the play as it occurred.

Which brings us to the worst performance over 90 minutes - that of Geoff Cameron. Lalas forgave him the horrible miss hit that put the ball at Nani's feet five yards out with only Tim Howard to beat five minutes into the match, but I can't. It was the kind of mistake you excuse at lower levels of soccer, but not in the World Cup. Cameron then compounded the error by being behind Varela when he headed in Ronaldo's cross to tie the game at the death. Ball watching in the 95th minute? Amateurish.

I understand a coach wanting to keep his defense consistent absent suspensions or injury, but one has to think that John Brooks will be seriously considered to replace Cameron against Germany on Thursday. After the Ghana match Klinsmann said that Brooks is his left central defense substitute (i.e., for Matt Besler) and Gonzalez the sub on the right. But Brooks and Besler have to be considered to pair against Germany, particularly given Brooks' familiarity with many of the German players.

He's convinced me as a commentator, but is it 
too late to put him back in the center of defense? 
(photo from

As for the good news -- I start with Besler. He was fantastic throughout the match. Apparently Howard was voted Man of the Match, but for me it was Besler without question. Things could have fallen completely apart after Cameron's miscue, but Besler held it together, stepping when he needed to and distributing well from the back.

Jermaine Jones was very good again, although not as good as against Ghana, save for his fantastic goal. Kyle Beckerman worked hard and had some good touches, although he also was not as outstanding as he was against The Black Stars. One has to wonder, at 32 years of age apiece, whether Jones and Beckerman will have enough left in the tank to go the full 90 minutes against Germany (particularly with three days of rest while the Germans have four - thanks FIFA!).

Clint Dempsey worked very hard and deserved his goal (I had a player score a goal with her stomach once - in a 1-0 upset win over the school that at the time was ranked first in the state - so I appreciate particularly that method of scoring).  Zusi gave away the ball too much, but his perfectly weighted pass set Dempsey up for the belly ball that looked at the time like it had put the Yanks in the Final 16. Howard made one fantastic save, but on a rebound shot from a ball off the post that seemed to go right through his hands.

Honestly, very few of our players except for Besler had outstanding games. Michael Bradley was once again sub-par (but please don't talk to me about how Klinsmann should pull him for the next match - we have no one else who can even come close to being able to do what Bradley does even on a bad day). That should bode well for our chances against Germany.

A win or draw against Germany and we're on to the Round of 16. A loss, and we might still get in depending on the result of the Portugal v. Ghana match. And if Germany draws against us they are not only in, but top the group. 

Don't think that it hasn't already crossed my mind (and those of the powers-that-be in both the Ghanaian  and Portuguese Football Federations) that a dull, goalless draw against a German team that the Americans' coach starred for as a player and coached on this very stage would suit both countries' purposes just fine, thank you very much. 

Such an approach, however, doesn't seem to be in Klinsmann's DNA (remember when we could have sent Mexico packing if not for two stoppage time goals that broke Panama's heart eight months ago?). And it's hard to see the Germans giving either Klinsmann or the U.S. any quarter either ("uh, Ms. Merkel, about that whole listening to your phone calls thing? We're really, really sorry now").

If only we had held on. If only Cameron had taken a better touch early or marked his man late. If only Bradley hadn't given the ball away in the center of the field. If only Gonzalez had done the one thing he was put in the game to do.

But this is American soccer. We're second in the Group of Death with everything to play for, coming off of two gutty performances with a warrior leading us on the field as our captain. We don't coast or dazzle or do things the easy way. But, more often than not, we find a way.

Still, just this once, I would have been fine with us taking the easy way.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Where Were You When Brooks Scored?

When your job is not that of full-time blogger, work sometimes gets in the way of posting. So it was with me on Monday, as I watched the U.S. v. Ghana match not at an American Outlaws watch party, or in the comfort of my own home, but on a boat in the middle of the Hudson River.

Fortunately a combination of my on-and-off whining for several weeks and the ingenuity of the good folks at USLAW meant that we had our own watch party on board, even though it was via the internet and on Univision (there was no sound anyway, so the fact that few of us could have understood any part of the broadcast other than "Gooooooooaaaaallllllllllll" really didn't matter).

As we motored under the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge (under which there was also a watch party significantly better attended than ours), some ate, some took in the sights, and others watched the game and cheered and groaned and critiqued (it was a bunch of lawyers after all) and was on the edge of its collective seat for 90 minutes plus stoppage time -- interminable, excruciating stoppage time.

And while, admittedly, the reaction of those lawyers wasn't as exuberant as that of many of those shown in the video below, I wouldn't trade the experience for any others - except maybe for those who were in attendance in Natal. 

Just as with Landon Donovan's goal against Algeria in 2010, I suspect I'll always remember where I was when I jumped and shouted and acted like a fool when John Brooks' header went in and the U.S. vanquished the demon of Ghana in the World Cup. After the game, we glided past the Statue of Liberty and I took a picture and Tweeted this:

Good on you John Brooks, the unlikeliest of goal scoring heroes, and you Jurgen Klinsmann for, once again, making magical substitutions at crucial times (thinking more of the addition of Graham Zusi - who delivered the cross that Brooks headed - than Brooks here).

Aaron Johannsson kept yelling in his Brooks' ear after the goal, "just believe it." John's not alone Aaron. It took us all a while to believe.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Oh Please

I'm going back on my word to not post again before the World Cup starts. I'll just eke this one under the wire. And all at the risk of appearing a bigger and bigger Jurgen Klinsmann apologist. Or his lawyer.

Still, I'm about to start tearing my hair out. And this is good therapy.

The newest hubbub surrounding Klinsmann concerns his comments, made  in a New York Times Magazine article and repeated yesterday at a press conference in Brazil, that it is not realistic to talk now about winning the 2014 World Cup.

The media and the social media sphere went into a frenzy. "That's un-American!" was the general theme. Since Alexi Lalas has blathered on for months about how we ought to go into this World Cup planning to win or we shouldn't bother showing up, I'm sure he made plenty of comments along those lines last night on ESPN's two-hour extravaganza previewing the tournament.

I'm not sure that he did because the show was so painfully bad that I couldn't watch for more than a minute at a time. ESPN paraded out panels and panels of so-called experts, most of whom speak English with one unintelligible accent or another. Including a woman from the UK who will be some sort of studio host and immediately flubbed her second line on the show. Why does ESPN insist on having foreigners talk to us about soccer? I'm sure Julie Foudy could do her job more intelligently and intelligibly than she. Michael Ballack was particularly ill at ease, which would have made continued watching a little like gawking at a wreck. I was tempted, but kept driving at normal speed and ended up in South Park, Colorado instead.

But I digress. While I can only assume Lalas's indignation, there are plenty of examples in print. The devastating observations of Gregg Doyel, (a columnist for whose bona fides are that he "covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. He was 4-0 (3 KO's!) as an amateur boxer, and volunteers for the ALS Association" Alrighty then, he's got the credentials!) are one example.

Doyel goes on, and on, and on shaking his pompoms and rattling his saber, using the tired trick of repeating Klinsmann's statement in italics while railing about how it's obvious from the statement that Klinsmann ain't "from around here" and that he has a lot to learn about American guts and ingenuity, blah blah blah. Another noted soccer journalist, Mike Wilbon of ESPN, apparently took umbrage with Klinsmann's questioning of Kobe Bryant's salary in the article and told Klinsmann to "[g]et the Hell out" of the country. 

The only problem with Doyel and his ilk is that they are taking Klinsmann's statement completely out of context. Klinsmann did not say and has not said that the U.S. cannot win this World Cup. He has simply said that now is not the time to talk about it. 

Clearly uninterested in winning (photo from

Klinsmann's exact quote yesterday, as reported by several different sources was: 
"I think for us now talking about winning a World Cup is just not realistic,” he said. “If you do it like Greece in 2004, I think that nobody from Greece would have said, ‘We’re going to win the European Championship,’ but they did. At the end of the day, soccer, the beautiful thing is it’s unpredictable. You don’t know what happens.
“First we’ve got to make it through the group," he says, "so let’s stay with our feet on the ground and say, ‘Let’s get that group first done,’ and then the sky is the limit. But before and half-a-year before and even now (a day) before the World Cup starts, to say that we should win the World Cup is just not realistic.”
Makes sense, right? Brazil has won five World Cups. Italy has four. Germany has three. The U.S. has been to one semi-final, in 1930 when no one was paying attention. Klinsmann is merely saying "let's not get ahead of ourselves here. There are countries that can realistically say before the World Cup 'we want to win.' Or even 'we expect to win.' But the U.S., with its pedigree, is not yet one of them. Let's get through the group and then see what happens."

Over and over everyone reports, or even defends, the comment as "Klinsmann: Unrealistic for U.S. to expect title." But the quote was "for us now talking about winning a World Cup is just not realistic." Now, as in right now or "half-a-year before." I am not parsing words, just taking them at face value. And what Klinsmann clearly said was absolutely correct, absolutely defensible, and absolutely coach speak. Let's take one game at a time. Let's put one foot in front of the other. Let's talk about our chances of winning a World Cup sometime after we make it out of the Group of Death.

I don't know what works the rabble rousers into their collective froth about Klinsmann. Is it the temerity that he showed to come from another country to coach "us"? Is it axing Donovan? Or is it just the usual soccer haters who seize the opportunity to throw cold water on the American psyche when once every four years (or two if the women do well) millions more Americans pay attention to soccer than the rest of the time?

Any way you choose, perhaps they could begin to show at least a shred of journalistic integrity by accurately quoting the man before excoriating him for something he did not say. Or just simply keep ignoring the game as they do the rest of the three years and eleven months of every four years.

Go back to covering high school football. We've got soccer to watch.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Trick Up His Sleeve

I ended my post about the U.S. vs. Turkey match saying that Jurgen Klinsmann might have trick or two up his sleeve before the first World Cup match against Ghana next Monday.

Turns out he had at least one, and we didn't have to wait until that game to see it.

The U.S. won its final warm-up match before Brazil, beating Nigeria 2-1 with two goals from Jozy Altidore (the first among the easiest he'll ever score, the second a vicious strike from 12 yards out).  Nigeria pulled back a consolation goal on a penalty kick in the 86th minute to ruin keeper Tim Howard's shut out in a match in which he won his 100th cap for the Stars and Stripes.

The U.S. rolled onto the pitch against Nigeria in a formation featuring two defensive midfielders (Kyle Beckerman and Jermaine Jones) and no true left winger. That left Graham Zusi on the bench (apparently confirming the opinions of those who were less than impressed with his performance against the Turks) and the Americans with no right wing. While a departure from the previous two matches, this was the formation that had guided the Yanks through qualifying, including topping the Hex for the third straight time.

As predicted, Alejandro Bedoya was back at left wing against Nigeria after making way for Brad Davis in the Turkey match and DeMarcus Beasley was again at left back in place of Timmy Chandler, unimpressive against the Turks.

Contrary to what you might imagine, this formation actually created more chances than did the one used against Azerbaijan and Turkey which featured two forwards, two out-and-out wingers and two center-mids. Dempsey played more like a withdrawn striker than a partner alongside Altidore, Jones was more offensive, often drifting out wide (but tracked back as well), and Michael Bradley bossed the midfield and teamed with Dempsey to direct the attack.

This allowed more room for Altidore to roam, and also opened up the wings for marauding attacks from Beasley and right back Fabian Johnson who was brilliant offensively once again. Bedoya lacked quality in the attacking half of the field, but his defensive work was a big improvement over Davis's. Nigeria had the majority of possession in the first half but never looked particularly threatening, while the Americans' counterattack always looked likely to score.

The U.S. defense was solid most of the game. Central defenders Matt Besler committed a late foul that was whistled for a deserved penalty, but while he has been downgraded by some for the foul (and his play in general), the penalty was largely the fault of Omar Gonzalez, who came on late and was badly beaten by a Nigerian attacker in the build-up that resulted in the penalty and the goal.

Beckerman (15) sorts things out with Cameron and 
Besler (5) in the Nigeria match. (photo from

After dominating the African champions, it seems likely that the U.S. starting 11 against Nigeria will take the field in the same formation against Ghana. It remains to be seen whether the U.S. has the strength and speed in the midfield, and the familiarity and organization in the back, to deal with the Ghanaian attack. But Beckerman's insertion into the line-up gives some hope for a more organized defense and a more creative attack.

And that hope is needed after Ghana demolished South Korea 4-0 last night in its last tune-up for Brazil. While the scoreline is intimidating, apparently Ghana did not dominate play as comprehensively as it indicates and South Korea was hurt by poor finishing.  Still, Ghana is spoiled for choices in the midfield and up top and will probably give the U.S. more to worry about as far as attacking options go than will Portugal.

Klinsmann appears to have this group as ready as it can be for the Group of Death. Two teams will survive, that much we know. Klinsmann has admitted that a win over Ghana is essential to the U.S. being one of those two. The time for analysis is over. Only the true test on the field remains.

Monday, June 2, 2014

What Have We Learned So Far?

We can assume, barring injury, that these players will be in the starting eleven when the U.S. men's team takes the pitch against Ghana on June 16 in Natal: Tim Howard, Matt Besler, Jermaine Jones, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, and Jozy Altidore. 

So that leaves us with the questions of who will man the position alongside Besler in the center of defense, who the two outside fullbacks will be, and who the two wings will be.

Against Azerbaijan, Jurgen Klinsmann started Geoff Cameron at center back, DeMarcus Beasley (left) and Fabian Johnson (right) at fullback, Alejandro Bedoya (left) and Graham Zusi (right) on the wings. Many who know more than me thought that this line-up was also the one likely to start against Ghana and at least one blogger noted that it is arguably "the best eleven players that the U.S. has on the roster." Dempsey didn't start after having some discomfort in his groin while warming up for the match (Chris Wondolowski started in his place), but Dempsey's place is in the lineup is a foregone conclusion.

Omar Gonzalez seemed a lock a few months ago to start at center back, but some nervy play and a tweaked knee seemingly have him on the outside looking in for a starting spot. Beasley started the final qualifying matches at left back, almost out of desperation, and did passably well and was the clubhouse leader to man that position in Brazil as well.

Howard, Besler, Cameron, Jones, Bradley, Dempsey, Altidore, Johnson and Zusi started, in the same positions, against Turkey on Sunday. Brad Davis and Timmy Chandler manned the left wing and back positions, respectively, in place of Bedoya and Beasley. Neither Beasley nor Gonzalez played at all, even though Klinsmann used all six of his substitutes.

The U.S. won the match 2-1 thanks to a marvelous one-two from Johnson to Bradley and back that earned Johnson his first international goal for the U.S. and man of the match honors (along with his defensive play). Dempsey added a tap-in following a mistake in the Turkish defense before the U.S. surrendered a late goal on a penalty kick awarded after Cameron handled the ball in the box (on a play that was started by a bad defensive mistake by Chandler).

Johnson celebrates his goal (photo from

My impression was that all who have started both matches did nothing in either one to severely hurt their chances to start on June 16. Being the dutiful blogger (and researching lawyer) I decided to see how soccer experts rated the U.S. performances against Turkey. The results confirmed that, much like legal research, there is no clear answer, only varying opinions. Some rated Zusi's performance highly. But Soccer America found his performance the "[m]ost disappointing of the projected World Cup starters."

That Chandler was the weakest link on the pitch was agreed to by most if not all the commentators. And if not him, then the honor went to Julian Green, the 18 year-old starlet who looked overwhelmed by the enormity of the situation after coming on as a substitute and who, honestly, should not see the field for any of the matches in Brazil.

Brad Davis, while putting in some good crosses, did nothing to lead one to conclude that he should start instead of Bedoya. His lack of pace and inability to consistently defend his side of the field probably put more pressure on Chandler than would allow a completely fair assessment of Chandler's play.

One interesting option for Klinsmann would be to play Johnson at left fullback instead of the right, where he has started both friendlies. Johnson played both left back and left wing for his club team, Hoffenheim. But Klinsmann likely has Johnson at right back to allow his best outside defender to match up with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo in Brazil.

Johnson on the left would enable Klinsmann to start Davis, who offers more interesting offensive options than Bedoya and, if Davis pinches toward the middle as he often does, allow Johnson to make more effective offensive runs from the back. That would likely leave the right back position to DeAndre Yedlin another youngster (he's 20) who has buckets of pace but seems to rely on it at the expense of proper defensive positioning (Ronaldo would likely tear him up).

Or Klinsmann could move Cameron to right back, the position he plays for his club, Stoke, in the English Premier League, and start Gonzalez in the center of defense with Besler. But to do so would seemingly sacrifice the speed that Klinsmann values in his full backs.

All in all, it seems that those three positions, left back, left wing, and right back are the only ones up for grabs. And that Johnson will start at one of those outside back spots. So who's it going to be between Davis, Bedoya, Beasley, Johnson, and Gonzalez? My guess is Bedoya and Beasley. Saturday's match against Nigeria may tell us for certain.

Or Klinsmann may have one or two tricks up his sleeve yet ...