Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Favorite Songs of 2015 - Songs 1-11

Some years I go back-and-forth between my top five or ten songs and this year was no different -- as it should be I suppose as my "favorites" change as I hear new songs throughout the year. The top three songs this year have been there for quite some time however, although their order changed at one point or the other.

In the end, though, I couldn't escape the fact that one song, however unusual the lyrics, or occasionally (how to say this politely?) screechy (okay, that's not polite) the singing, is my favorite of 2015. And it's this one:

1. Sister Cities by Hop Along.

"In the hospital,
You talked about thumbing down that
truck ride for the first time ...
And the false friend
kept his back turned,
that’s when you learned
The fierceness of man,
again.
How long it took to reach the sister cities.
And then somehow make it back
Just to tell me
'Yeah, I guess I’m still
pretty mad.'"


It's hard to explain why exactly this is my favorite song. The lyrics are sad and disturbing, the vocals lovely at times, grating at others. And yet it's still there. Over and over in my head, on my playlist, on my list. Maybe it's the xylophone ...

2. Until the Night Turns by Lord Huron.

"I had a vision tonight that the world was ending.
Yeah the sky was falling and time was bending.
We spent our last night in the moonlight...
Baby it's so bright we'll be up all night.
I got a helluva view for the end of the world.
I've got a bottle of booze and a beautiful girl.
If I'm going to die I'm gonna go in style."


The second best concert I saw in 2015. And the second best song of 2015 by my estimation. Don't know what is with me and apocalyptic songs ...

3. A Beginning Song by The Decemberists.

"And I am waiting
Should I be waiting?
And I am wanting...
Should I be wanting?
When all around me
When all around me ..."



 Perhaps the sweetest, most hopeful song ever written by the "hyperliterate" (I read that somewhere and thought it suits him) Colin Meloy. Saw them with brother and son in Charlotte the day after my birthday this year. One of the five best concerts I've ever seen.

Colin Meloy at The Filmore in Charlotte. (photo from me)

4. Jackson by The Pollies.

"Wake up mama we got a little
We got a little to do.
Get the children they gonna...
Wanna hear it too.
Six Hundred Strong across that
Edmund Pettus Bridge.
We won't stop for the lawman
'Til it gets fixed."


A soaring song of tragedy and perseverance about a forgotten hero of the Civil Rights movement, Jimmie Lee Jackson. By four white guys from Alabama. Sounds like progress to me.

5. Seventeen by Sjowgren.

"If you want a second to breathe,
I'll give you all of my love,
I'll give you all that you need....
Don't worry,
I'm not in a hurry.
Not going nowhere,
I'm not going nowhere."


No, I don't even know how to pronounce the band's name. But this song is completely addictive from the first piano chords to the crescendo. More please!

6. Getting Ready to Get Down by Josh Ritter.

"Momma got a look at you and got a little worried.
Papa got a look at you and got a little worried.
Pastor got a look and said 'y'all had better hurry...
Send her off to a little Bible college in Missouri.'
And now you come back sayin' you know a little bit about
Every little thing they hoped you'd never figure out.
The Red Sea
The Dead Sea
The Sermon on the Mount.
If you want to see a miracle watch me get down!"


Almost another spoken word song, but mostly because there are so many words ... Saw him live at Mountain Stage recently -- the only other artist I can ever remember being so genuinely happy to perform was Bruce Hornsby. If Ritter is performing live somewhere near you, go see him!

7. Pretty Pimpin' by Kurt Vile.

"But I couldn’t tell you what the hell it was supposed to mean.
Because it was a Monday, no a Tuesday, no Wednesday, Thursday, Friday ...
Then Saturday came around and I said “Who’s this stupid clown blocking the bathroom sink?”...
But he was sporting all my clothes;
I gotta say
Pretty pimpin'."


A song with really clever lyrics but if you just listen to the lyrics, you'll miss how beautiful, and complex, the music is.

8. No No No by Beirut.

"Don't know the first thing about who you are.
My heart is waiting, taken in from the start.
If we don't go now, we won't get very far....
Don't know the first thing about who you are."


I love Beirut's sound, although I'm hard pressed to describe it.

9. All Your Favorite Bands by Dawes.

"I hope that life without a chaperone is what you thought it’d be.
I hope your brother’s El Camino runs forever.
I hope the world sees the same person that you always were to me....
And may all your favorite bands stay together."


I missed them at their latest Mountain Stage appearance and am the poorer for it, but saw them on what I believe to be their first time on the show. A great song of love lost, but remembered, and appreciated.

10. Depreston by Courtney Barnett.

"You said we should look out further;
I guess it wouldn't hurt us.
We don't have to be around all these coffee shops....
Now we've got that percolator,
Never made a latte greater.
I'm saving
Twenty-three dollars a week."


A song with great lyrics that make the banal interesting and the unknown sad. Really doesn't do it justice to only post some of the lyrics. Great album title as well ("Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit").


11. Rock & Roll is Cold by Matthew E. White.


"You said you found the soul of rock and roll
You said you found the soul of rock and roll
Hey hey, rock and roll it don't have no soul...
Everybody knows that
Everyone knows.
Everyone knows that rock and roll is cold."



Great gospel/blues sound here. Plus my love of choruses singing things like "ooo la la la la ooo la la" is well documented.

Hope you enjoyed this year's list -- see you next November!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Favorite Songs of 2015 - Songs 12-22

My list continues with some familiar faces from last year and lists farther in the past. And some great new bands as well.

12. Someone New by Hozier.

"There's an art to life's distractions,
To somehow escape the burning weight, the art of scraping through.
Some like to imagine,
The dark caress of someone else, I guess any thrill will do.


The last of the artists on this year's list that also appeared on last year's. The perfect juxtaposition to "Take Me to Church" where he was literally worshipping a woman. And this year, "any thrill will do." My favorite line in the song, and maybe of any single line in any song this year, however, is "love with any stranger, the stranger the better."

13. Light Me Up by Bronze Radio Return.

"And when you feel right
I'm electrified
'Cause you light me up
Oh, you light me up.
So tell me how ya feeling tonight
Tell me how ya feeling tonight."


Another one of those songs that doesn't wow you with intellectual lyrics but is just so catchy you want to hear it over and over. And the video matches the song - I can almost hear Kevin Bacon yell "Let's Dance!" near the end.

14. Talking Backwards by Real Estate.

"And I might as well be talking backwards.
Am I making any sense to you?
And the only thing that really matters.
Is the one thing I can't seem to do."


After the <ahem> less than monogamous themes of the previous two songs, a more poignant love song. Or love lost song.

15. Waitress by Hop Along.

"I call you enemy.
'Cause I'm afraid of
What you could call me.
The world's gotten so small and embarrassing."


A song about relationships and social media and awkward chance meetings. Made all the more evocative by Frances Quinlan's tired, sad, frenetic, evocative voice. The last artist this year that you'll hear more from in the next installment of the list.

16. Living the Dream by Sturgill Simpson.

"That old man upstairs always wears a crooked smile.
Staring down at the chaos he created.
Said son if you ain't having fun, just wait a little while
Momma's gonna wash it all away
She thinks mercy's overrated."


Seriously, is that not a ridiculously perfect stanza? The only way it could possibly be improved is by the way Simpson delivers it.

17. Lifted Up (1985) by Passion Pit.

"Oh well, how many years has it been now?
How many days went to waste?
Now the rain and the thunder are clashing.
The Sun's go a smile 'cross the face."


Yes, listening to this song after the last, much like watching the video, could lead you "to potentially experience seizures." I didn't make that up - watch the video - and note the warning.

18. Crying Wolf by Caleb Hawley.

"Well I got no time to talk about it.
I said that I'm sorry
And I'm movin' on.
Just pretend that those words we said never happened.
Let's go back to laughin'
And getting along."


This year's blue-eyed soul entry. Love the Motown sound.

19. 4th and Roebling by The Districts.

"Sunshine, I believe we're headed the right way
But then again, I can't quite tell for sure.
'Cause we're running to the west to let our hands touch down
Where you left me in the dark so long before."


This year's "sounds like The Strokes" song.

20. Mr. Rodriquez by Rayland Baxter.

"Yesterday morning, I was walking around
Me and Mr. Rodriguez on the wrong side of town.
The streets were all empty and the houses all burned down
He reached in his pocket and he pulled out a crown.
And he said:
'You're so much like me, boy
Step outta your dream.
Watch 'em all gather 'round boy,
It's your turn to be king."


Saw him at a great Mountain Stage with Craig Finn, among other fine artists. Rayland rocked the house that night.

Rayland Baxter at Mountain Stage. Lighting is great for concert-going,
not so much for cell phones that you're not supposed to use the flash with.
(photo by me)

21. Black Sun by Death Cab for Cutie.

"There is a role of a lifetime;
And there's a song yet to be sung.
And there's a dumpster in the driveway
Of all the plans that came undone."


Kind of like rubbernecking a car wreck with the obvious references to Ben Gibbard's failed relationship, sad and cathartic. But then now-departed guitarist Chris Walla cranks up a fantastic, angry solo and takes it to a different dimension entirely.

Honestly, I had never seen the video when I first wrote the car wreck line. 

22. Gone by Jr. Jr.

"I've made up my mind,
over and over.
Keep pressing rewind,
but I'm getting older.
Tried every door,
don't know who I'm looking for.
And I've made up my mind,
over and over."


I had always hope to hear a song by Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. that I liked enough to include on the list. I heard this one and thought "this is it!" Then they went and changed the name of the band to just Jr. Jr. Ah well, it's still good enough to make the list.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Favorite Songs of 2015 - Songs 23-33

Gather round boys and girls. It's that time of year, when we hear tales of a divine birth, jolly elves, and flying reindeer. And get to listen to what I think is some pretty good music. So much good music that, unlike past lists that were limited to 30 songs, this year's offering includes three bonus tracks!

As in prior years, the list is limited to songs released in 2014 or 2015. And that's about it as far as rules go. You'll hear a variety of songs that could be variously described as alternative, indie, pop, Americana, soul, and maybe even country.

Oh, one disclaimer: while a few of these songs may appear on one critic or the other's "best of" lists, I  do not profess to be a critic. Just an appreciator. And I hope you will appreciate at least a few of these offerings.

23. Fool for Love by Lord Huron.

"I stare into the endless sky
And the sordid tale of my life goes by.
I drift into the great unknown
And I really don't know where I'm going."


Missed Lord Huron at Bonnaroo in 2013 (despite E's best effort to the contrary), but caught them live this summer in Columbia, SC. They've made prior lists before, and will again later on this year's.

Lord Huron at the Music Farm in Columbia, SC. (photo by me)

24. Shut Up and Dance by Walk the Moon.

"We were victims of the night.
The chemical, physical, kryptonite.
Helpless to the bass and the fading light.
Oh we were bound to get together,
Bound to get together."


Admittedly a lightweight song lyrically. But so darn catchy. The pop song of the summer of 2015 for me.

25. Cavalry by Kingsley Flood.

"I've been thinking I've been drinking, I've been scraping rust.
I've been keeping clean, the frames that have collected dust.
Monday nights I watch the fights, on Thursdays I play cards.
But maybe just this week, I'll skip out on both."


Thought this was a standard breakup song until I studied the lyrics some more. It's clearly about the protagonist and his family - though I'm not sure if he's leaving home, or just asking them to get their house in order before he does.

26. Perth by Beirut.

"Blood on the sand
Paint on the water.
I skipped around
Asking for you."


Beirut, too, has appeared on past lists and will reappear on this one as well. Their album No No No is one of my favorites of the past year.

27. Waiting for My Time to Come by Colony House.

"I'm just waiting on the seasons to change.
Waiting for the curtain to fall.
I could lose my cool
Like a restless fool.
But I'm waiting for my time to come."


Horns and a big chorus of fresh-faced youngsters - what's not to like? I dare you to watch the video and not be at least a wee bit happier than you were four minutes earlier.

28.  Rollercoaster by Bleachers.

"Now I'm running and I won't stop I don't wanna go.
I think about it everyday and night, I can't let go.
And, hey, I'm never the same.
It's a hundred miles an hour on a dirt road running away."


A repeat of sorts as Bleachers' I Wanna Get Better was Number 5 on last year's list. Can't help but hear a little Billy Idol in this one.

 29. How'm I Gonna Find You Now by James McMurtry.

"I remember when I met you I's in love in one fell swoop.
You had a blade in your pocket and a rag in your belt loop.
Guys a hoverin' 'round the bar like gulls on the ocean
At the end of your shift just in case you got the notion.
Watch you washin' all the glassware, poetry in motion.
I'd a roped the moon for you.
How'm I gonna find you now?"


A Dylanesque largely spoken word song from a Dylanesque songwriter.

30. What Kind of Man by Florence and The Machine.

"What kind of man loves like this?

To let me dangle
at a cruel angle.
Oh my feet don't touch the floor.
Sometimes you're half in
and then you're half out.
But you never close the door."


I think there are more bands fronted by female singers on this year's list than ever before. And if that's the case, Florence has to be among them, doesn't she?

31. Bullets by Wild Child.

"Oh, I'm so glad, you found a cure.
It was so sad when you weren't sure.
I know you think, we need to talk.
You said, those regrets will burn a hole
In my black and withered soul.
You're gonna think I'm wicked when I walk."


See what I told you about female singers? I've always liked incongruous songs and this is one - a bouncy beat masking some pretty depressing lyrics.

32. Make Me Do It Again by Jim Noir.

"Come through the door,
Tell me more.
Make it up,
Make me feel,
Make me do it again."

Sounds like a Beatles' song to me. Sorry, can't find a link to a video for it.

33. You Must Have Met Little Caroline? by JD McPherson.

"Do you feel like I feel
Half a dozen times a day
When the lights go out
And your thoughts drift away?"


I've seen JD twice in person -- once at Bonnaroo in 2013, then again this year at Mountain Stage. Great rockabilly sound that's even better live. And, yes, I feel I know him well enough now to call him by his first name.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Collective Action Instead of Litigation

You may recall my posts from last Spring and Fall about the NCAA and the efforts by former and current players to organize and to be compensated for their names, images, and likenesses ("NIL") while they competed at the college level.1  

Things didn't turn out exactly as planned for either the Northwestern football players and their attempt to organize or for Ed O'Bannon and his fellow plaintiffs. But there may have been the dawning of a different means over the past week through which college athletes in revenue sports may well begin to realize the true value of the service that they provide.

The NLRB dismissed the Northwestern players' petition to organize not by finding that they didn't have a right to, but rather because action on the petition would not have promoted stability in labor relations. As a New York Times article on the NLRB decision notes:
Chief among the board’s reasons for declining to consider the case were the complexities of an N.C.A.A. in which one team might be unionized while others were not, and whether a union would negotiate terms that conflicted with the association’s rules. The N.L.R.B., which has jurisdiction only over the private sector, was also reluctant to wade into territory that could have raised implications for public universities. A vast majority of top-level college football programs are at public colleges, and Northwestern is the only private institution in the 14-member Big Ten Conference. 2
While the decision apparently left open for another day the issue of whether college athletes, particularly in football, are employees, "student-athletes," or both, it's difficult to imagine a scenario in the near future where either a more worker-friendly or less NCAA-beholding NLRB will find it appropriate to consider the issue.

Meanwhile, O'Bannon essentially won the battle and lost the war when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken that NCAA rules prohibiting "student-athletes" from profiting from the use of their NIL violates anti-trust law, it also found that the part of her decision that granted the former players an injunction requiring schools to compensate their athletes up to $5000 a year for the use of those images was for reasons that are not entirely clear, unsupported.

Nick Saban, Alabama's football coach, reportedly
makes $7 million a year. But the Ninth Circuit found
no justification for his players to make $5000 per year
for the use of their NIL. (photo from commons.wikimedia.org)

The O'Bannon plaintiffs petitioned last month for a rehearing of the case en banc, but regardless of the ultimate decision issued by the Ninth Circuit, the case is likely to be appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which will perhaps take a dimmer view of the finding that antitrust laws apply to college athletics.

This past week, however, "student-athletes" may have realized the power that they hold over the schools for which they play, albeit in an entirely different context. You've no doubt heard by now about the resignations of the President of the University of Missouri system (Timothy Wolfe) and the Chancellor of the Columbia campus (R. Bowen Loftin) in the wake of campus protests regarding the response, or more appropriately the lack of response, to racial incidents on the campus.

While the protests had been going on for weeks, they truly only gained momentum after the school's African-American football players announced that they would boycott all of their remaining games until the demands of one of the protesters, who was on a hunger strike, were met. One of his demands was that Wolfe resign, which was ignored until the players got involved and threatened not to play, beginning with Saturday's game against BYU, a contest that would have required Mizzou to pay BYU a $1 million penalty if it was cancelled.

Suddenly, more than two months after the first racial incident that drew attention, but less than two days after the announcement by the players, Wolfe held a press conference at which he said that out of his "love" for his alma mater he was stepping down. The same day Loftin announced his resignation.  And, as was pointed out in another New York Times article, the timing can hardly be coincidental.

Arguably, the Missouri players' action was undertaken for more admirable reasons than collective action regarding compensation for their work for their schools. But if it hasn't already dawned on them, it certainly has on others (including several in the most recent Times article), that this same kind of action could be easily undertaken to support payment for college players.

What's to stop the squads of the two football National Championship game finalists from talking it over at one of the free outings that the NCAA so generously provides them and deciding, "hey, what if we just decided not to play next Monday unless we start getting a share of this gigantic pie?" Would the NCAA's reaction be any different than Wolfe's was, facing a potential boycott and the loss of millions of dollars from ESPN?

Perhaps that is the only way that the NCAA will be forced to abandon its mantra of "student-athletes" while it and its members continue to rake in the cash and pay the coaches of those athletes more than any other employee. The courts and quasi-judicial bodies seem unwilling to upset the status quo.

But perhaps the status quo is about to change.


1 The link to the article no longer works, but can be found here: http://web.uslaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/2014_Fall_Winter_USLAW-Magazine1.pdf at pages 12-13.

2 A link to the full text of the NLRB's decision is here: https://www.nlrb.gov/case/13-RC-121359

Monday, November 2, 2015

We Were Us Long Before You, And Will Be After

The U.S. Men's U-23 National Team only needed to beat Honduras in the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Tournament to assure qualification, at least somewhat erasing the humiliation of failing to qualify in 2012. Instead, it lost 2-0 and now must beat Columbia in a home-and-away two-game match next year.

The U.S. Men's National Team only needed to beat Mexico, on home soil, to secure a place in the Confederations Cup, a pre-World Cup tournament held in Russia, participation in which coach Jurgen Klinsmann described repeatedly as important to the team's development and status. It lost 3-2 in extra time but, truth be told, was flattered by the score line as Mexico dominated possession and made the Americans look slow, unimaginative, and poorly coached.
 
Bobby Wood provided one of the few bright spots in the loss
to Mexico in the CONCACAF Cup. (photo from concordmonitor.com)
 
The U.S. Men's U-17 Team only needed to defeat Chile, a team that had already been thumped 5-1 by Nigeria in Group play, to advance to the Round of 16 and the U-17 World Cup. Instead, it was thumped 4-1 and crashed out of yet another international competition.

All of which has led, understandably, to consternation among U.S. Soccer fans, many calling for Klinsmann's head while at the same time acknowledging that he's not going anywhere soon, given the financial and institutional investment that U.S. Soccer has made in him.

It's possible that this is just a hiccup, a blip that happens to almost every national team (except, it seems, Germany's) at some point during the World Cup cycle. More worrying are two other things: first, Klinsmann's seeming inability to either accept responsibility for or even acknowledge the repeated failures of the teams that are under his command as both National Team coach and Technical Director of U.S. Soccer; and, second, that clearly no one at U.S. Soccer is inclined to either require Klinsmann to be held accountable, or to have a Plan B should things continue to go downhill with Klinsmann in command.

Klinsmann was brought in to change American soccer culture. He was going to bring attacking, possession football to our second-class soccer nation.
 
It hasn't happened.
 
But I'm okay with that. Maybe that's not who we are as a soccer playing nation. Maybe we are and always will be second best when it comes to possession. Maybe we'll always be the scrappy, counterattacking team. Second-best in possession, first when the whistle blows. Some very successful teams have won trophies that way.

And that's where I really have a problem with Klinsmann: telling us that he's going to make us one kind of team, and then taking credit for us being quite another. He went on an on after the Mexico loss talking about our American grit and fight and determination, as if he had bestowed it on us from above when he arrived four years ago.

Take all the credit you want, Jurgen for trying to get us to play prettier, for bringing us some decent players with German pedigrees, and, perhaps most importantly, for raising the hopes and expectations of U.S. Soccer supporters.
 
But don't, for one minute, presume that you taught us how to fight and dig and expend every ounce of energy and never quit and never say die.

That's ours.

That's us.

And we didn't need your help for us to be that way.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Two Seminal Moments

A lot has already been written about the Women's World Cup Final.  And there were many, many occasions worthy of reflection.

But, for me, the Final, and really the whole tournament, can be summed up in two stunning moments. Both took place in the first 15 minutes of the game in which the U.S. thrashed Japan 5-2 in the most comprehensive and mind boggling domination of any opponent in a World Cup Final.

The first was Carli Lloyd's first goal on a set piece in the third minute (I know, I probably don't have to tell you which goal was which). That goal was the final nail in the coffin of my and everyone else's criticisms of Jill Ellis as a coach. It was the perfect call at the perfect time and it worked to perfection as well.

It was also a little bit of deja vu for me, as it was very reminiscent of a corner that University High pulled off against my Charleston Catholic team several years back (immediately after which one of our defenders exclaimed: "Wow! That was sweet!"). That the University team was trained by the fellow coach that I most admired perhaps colors my appreciation for Ellis' decision. Or informs it.

For most of the pre-match hype commentators had been pointing to the superior height of the Americans and the importance of it capitalizing on that advantage on set pieces.

So what does Ellis do? Have the team spend a lot of time practicing set pieces played on the ground not in the air. On the corner Lloyd, the U.S.'s best offensive header of the ball, started her run at least 25 yards from goal, arriving in the 18 yard box as Megan Rapinoe took the kick, and steaming toward the penalty spot well ahead of her defender.

To be sure, the play needed the perfect ball by Rapinoe, a largely uncongested area in front of the keeper, and a deft touch (outside of the left foot) by Lloyd to succeed. But the area in which the ball was played was uncontested because of the attention being paid to Julie Johnston at the near post, because of Japan's overwhelming concern to guard against headers off of set pieces.

All credit to Ellis for seeing the possibilities in playing completely against form in making that call. Whether the other adjustments that she made during the tournament were fortuitous or planned (inserting Morgan Brian in the line-up due to Lauren Holiday's suspension, moving to a 4-5-1 formation -- stop insisting it's a 4-3-3 Tony DiCicco it's not! -- when Holiday was eligible again) really isn't important to me. What is that she was willing to adapt and learn. That's every bit as important for coaches as for players and the fact that she was willing to change and experiment on the biggest of stages is admirable.

And oh by the way, if you don't think that was the plan, the Americans' second set piece, won by Tobin Heath with some fine work down the right flank, resulted in a second free kick by Holiday (yeah, I was wrong about her too) played on the ground to Johnston, whose wonderful back-heel pass left Lloyd again in front of goal with the ball at her feet.

Random thought: did you notice the calls for a foul from Alex Morgan and Johnston on the second goal? I missed it while watching live, but it's clear that a Japanese player (number 19, Saori Ariyoshi) handled the ball after Johnston's flick on. If the referee saw it and didn't stop play, kudos to her. If she missed it, then it was a foreshadowing of a non-call in the second half when she missed almost the identical play.

The second seminal moment was Lloyd's third goal in 15 minutes, the one that secured the game, her hat trick, and her legacy. That audacious chip may some day be a more iconic moment in women's soccer than Brandi Chastain's penalty kick in 1999 (except for that whole Chastain taking off her shirt thing).

Everyone was still buzzing about Holiday's goal when Lloyd won the ball in midfield off of the Japanese kickoff and then suddenly it was, "Wait. What? Did that just happen?" for about 20 million people.


I saw this comment somewhere on-line after the Final, which is kind of tired but so appropriate here: "It's Carli Lloyd's world and we're just living in it."  She was a beast, she was in the zone, she put the team on her shoulders, choose whatever cliché you want. They all fit.

It took guts for Lloyd to step up and take the penalty kicks against Columbia and Germany. But it took great vision, presence, and a lot of chutzpah to even think to attempt that 60 yard chip. In the Final of the World Cup. The fact that she even thought to try it is astonishing -- particularly against a team that is renowned for its discipline. The fact that it actually went in? Inconceivable.

But it had to go in. Because really, her story, the team's story, our story, this story couldn't have ended any other way.

(photo from bbc.co.uk)

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Let's Not Get Ahead of Ourselves Here

Yes, the U.S. dominated top ranked (for now) Germany in defeating it 2-0 in the World Cup semifinal.

Yes, Japan looked pedestrian, and more than a little lucky, in downing England 2-1 in the other semifinal.

Yes, the U.S. seems to be peaking, as coach Jill Ellis has repeatedly said was the goal, at the right time.

But don't forget 2011.

After Abby Wambach's goal at the death against Brazil in the quarterfinals in 2011 eventually led to an American win on penalty kicks, the U.S. cruised 3-1 over France in the semis. It appeared that the U.S. was truly a team of destiny.

But then it lost to Japan 3-1 in the Final in penalty kicks. After extra time ended with a dramatic Japanese goal by eventual Golden Boot winner Homare Sawa. And, perhaps even more egregious, it squandered a seemingly safe 1-0 lead with nine minutes left in regulation after some Keystone Cops defending that allowed Japan to equalize when it had barely threatened the entire game.

While the U.S. defense is much stouter this time around, surely 2011 was a lesson that the Japanese are every bit as tough and resilient as are the Americans. And Japan is not without skill - its players may be the most technically adept of any at the tournament.

I've witnessed some crazy talk on Fox Sports over the last few days. 3-0 U.S. seems to be a standard prediction. Is that within the realm of possibility? Yes. Is it likely given what we know about Japan and the way it's played the last five years? No. Is it likely given the Americans' continuing inability to score in the run-of-play (two goals in the three elimination matches in this tournament)? No.

A friend suggested after the Germany game that he and I needed to continue to trash-talk the U.S. (and particularly its coach) since it seemed to result in better and better performances. And while I'm certainly prepared to do whatever I can to help the cause, Jill Ellis says she doesn't read the papers or on-line articles so I'm not sure it will make any difference other than pure superstition (to which I am admittedly not immune).

It seems that every elimination game has had at least one penalty kick. And my fear is that, as technical as the Japanese are, they won't give one away.

But they did against England. 

And they just may again tomorrow.

Has she got one more in her? (photo from kansascity.com)

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Mostly Right

Here's what I was wrong about in my last post:

1. The U.S. will inevitably lose to Germany.

The Yanks have a chance if they play as well, and play mostly the same players, as they did against China (sorry Kelley O'Hara, you were good, but you're the odd woman out as way has to be made for Megan Rapinoe). Not saying we'll win. Just no longer saying we're sure to lose.

2. Amy Rodriguez (her energy and defending from the front were exactly what the U.S. needed).

3. Assuming Canada had what it took to get past England.

Here's what I was right about in my last post:

1. Lauren Holiday.

2. Abby Wambach.

3. Carli Lloyd.

(photo from usatoday.com)

4. Germany (barely).

5. Japan.

6. Canada.

Things I meant to say and didn't:

1. In case you haven't noticed, the U.S. defense is really, really good. Can you win a World Cup with a great defense and a so-so offense? Undoubtedly. Since the first half against Australia, Hope Solo hasn't had to do much of anything in goal. That's how good Ali Krieger, Meghan Klingenberg (my personal favorite among the defenders), Julie Johnston, and Becky Sauerbrunn have been.

Yet to be determined:

1. Whether Jill Ellis has the guts to sit Wambach and Holiday against Germany. Remember my comment about how Michael Bradley is more at-ease in an attacking role when he knows Kyle Beckerman has his back? Same for Lloyd and Morgan Brian, who has improved by leaps-and-bounds since her first appearance in this Cup. And Wambach, a legendary competitor, simply hasn't got what it takes for 90 minutes of World Cup play.

This will be fun.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Survive and Advance

How many times have you read those words in the past two weeks? In a tournament it does not matter how you win, or how good you look while winning, only that you do, we keep hearing. Survive and advance.

That's exactly what the U.S. Women's National team has done so far in the World Cup. It's also about the nicest thing that anyone has to say about its performance to-date.

And it's also why it's taken me so long to finish this post. There's something about this team (and has been for a while) that leaves me unconvinced that it will end up with a third star.

There were those shaky moments against Sweden and Australia. If not for a saving header by the shortest player on the field (Meghan Klingenberg) the U.S. would have lost to Sweden and its former coach, Pia Sundhage. And Hope Solo, not weighed down by off-the-field baggage, kept the Yanks in the match with several first half saves against the Matildas that only Solo can make.

The match with Columbia took on an edge thanks mostly to perceived slights of the American players asserted by Colombian forward Lady Andrade. Andrade's comments were curious given that publicly the U.S. players said all the right things about respecting every opponent in the knock-out stage and Columbia's shocking 2-0 upset of France in group play, not to mention that one would think that she would not want to draw attention to herself given that the last time that the two teams met she punched Abby Wambach in the face and was suspended for two games as a result.

But whatever statement the Americans might have made on the field in response was buried under another avalanche of offensive mediocrity. No matter what combination of forwards coach Jill Ellis has tried between Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan, Kristen Press, Amy Rodriguez, and Sydney Leroux, the result has been depressingly consistent - few chances, fewer shots on goal, and, since the Australia match, three goals in three games.

As a coach it always frustrated me when the press and other coaches focused on who was scoring goals, not how they were put in the position to score them. And, while Morgan has been rusty, Wambach not one but two steps slow, and Press, Rodriguez and Leroux largely ineffective, I suspect that the real root of the problem is the service that they're receiving from the midfield, specifically center mids Carli Lloyd and Lauren Holiday.

I've expressed before my fondness for Lloyd's game and my frustration with Holiday's. We may see if the U.S. is better off with Lloyd playing the more offensive ("number 10") role for the women on Friday against China, a game for which both Holiday and Megan Rapinoe are suspended. It's easy to forget now, but Lloyd did score the game winning goals in both the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Gold Medal matches.

Lloyd celebrates one of her two goals against Japan in the
2012 Olympic Gold Medal match (photo from pennlive.com)


But the problem may not be of either Lloyd's or Holiday's making - they may simply be playing the way that Ellis has instructed them to. Long balls forward and depending on set pieces is not interesting to watch and definitely not the way to play if you're playing from behind, which the U.S. has yet to be in the World Cup, fortunately.

If you want to watch how the game should be played, play hooky or DVR the Friday afternoon match between Germany and France. Notwithstanding Les Bleues' inexplicable loss to Columbia, these two teams are not only the most exciting in this year's World Cup, but also clearly the best to this point. The way that they move without the ball and play give-and-goes is a thing of beauty, and sorely lacking in the Americans' play.

The winner of that match will play the U.S.-China victor in the semi-finals. And, while I expect that the U.S. will squeak past China, I don't hold out much hope for it against whichever team survives the Germany-France match (and, really, when Germany and France meet in any competition, can you ever bet against the Germans?).

On the other side of the bracket, if it's possible Canada has been even less impressive and more predictable than the U.S. It will likely have its first real test against Japan in the semis. And will lose.

So, an all-Axis power World Cup Final anyone? 2-0 Germany in the final over Japan. And perhaps a victory for those who play the game the way it's supposed to be played.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

That Bradley Guy Again

After the U.S. Men's Team's stunning 2-1 comeback win over Germany in today's friendly, I was tempted to write another post about Michael Bradley. But Jason Davis over at espnfc.com already has.

Or maybe I already have - Davis makes many of the same points that I did after the Netherlands match. Not that I think he's plagiarizing or anything. But maybe proof that sometimes I'm on the mark? Check out the highlighted sections below, then my post from earlier this week.

Michael Bradley leads U.S. to stunning win over World Cup champs Germany

Three musings after the United States closed out a strong European sojourn with a thrilling 2-1 win Wednesday against Germany in Cologne on Jurgen Klinsmann's first trip to his native land as U.S. national team coach.

1. Michael Bradley, playmaker

He doesn't wear the No. 10 jersey (that would be Mix Diskerud), but Michael Bradley is undoubtedly the Americans' driving creative force. Just as he did against the Netherlands, Bradley served as the key man in the U.S. attack, starting moves and setting up goals with his vision and accuracy. Apparently Klinsmann was on to something when he moved Bradley into the role last summer at the World Cup.
Back then, the Toronto FC man seemed prone to trying to do too much, effectively running himself out of games by attempting to cover too much ground. In two friendlies on this European trip, all things flowed from Bradley in the American midfield. His final passes grab the most attention, but he was equally important moving the ball, allowing the United States to gain some semblance of possession whenever possible.
Bradley in today's match against Germany (photo from espnfc.com).
After halftime changes provided him a solid backstop in Kyle Beckerman, Bradley was free to think entirely forward-first. The number of times he both started attacks and put himself in position to be available to finish them is a testament to his improving understanding of his role on this team.
The only black mark on Bradley's performance was the shot he hit directly at the German keeper, Ron-Robert Zieler that would have turned a strong 1-1 draw against the world champions into a stunning win. Luckily for Bradley, Bobby Wood arrived to lace home a wicked left-footed shot with Germany stretched, surprising the crowd and lifting the United States to a second consecutive win on the road in Europe against a top-10 team.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Insight and Eurocentricity

So much to catch up on in the world of soccer. FIFA scandal (or, more accurately, scandal finally exposed), Sepp Blatter, Hope Solo, the Women's World Cup, the Women's World Cup being played on an inferior surface.
 
But, for just a moment, a post about the game itself. Particularly, one player and how one coach can seemingly be completely insightful and completely wrong at the same time.
 
The player is Michael Bradley. While he didn't score (and frankly should have), he lead the U.S. Men's National Team to an improbable comeback win against The Netherlands last Friday in Amsterdam.
 
Bradley against Holland (photo courtesy of mlssoccer.com)
 
 
Before you say it, I know. Where do I stand on the "friendlies mean nothing" versus "friendlies tell us a lot" scale because I've been all over the place on it? But this isn't an evaluation of the entire men's team and its performance in Holland (which, frankly, was disastrous defensively) but of one player and his standout play and what it tells us about him and about Jurgen Klinsmann as a coach and as technical director of the Men's National Team.

First, the good news. Bradley was clearly the standout player on the pitch, for either team, and that includes Robin Van Persie, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, and Memphis Depay (who was excellent going forward for the Dutch, but not so great in defense).Bradley pulled all the right strings for the U.S., including going on this mazy run that led to Bobby Wood's game winner at the death:

 
Bradley's excellence says much about him and his coach. Of Bradley, it tells us that he's willing to adjust his game, to bow to his coach's will for the good of the team (he is, after all, a coach's son). Since well before the 2014 World Cup Klinsmann has insisted that Bradley's role should be that of the attacking midfielder. And, for a long-time, many insisted that it wasn't working. With his great work rate and apparent defensive proclivity, Bradley continued to drop into the defensive mid role with which he seemed more comfortable.
 
The fruits of Klinsmann's insistence, and Bradley's compliance, were on display against Holland. Perhaps because Bradley knows that with Kyle Beckerman in the holding midfielder spot he can be more comfortable moving forward. perhaps out of desperation because, down 3-1 on the road there was no reason to play it safe. But whatever the reason, the hope is that Bradley is now comfortable with his new home.
 
Speaking of new homes, Bradley's performance again calls into question Klinsmann's mantra that the best American players need to play in Europe against the best competition to reach their competitive peaks. While admittedly the competition in the European professional leagues is still higher than that of MLS, Bradley's transformation has occurred not in Holland or Germany or Italy, which were all stops in his career, but in MLS playing for Toronto FC.
 
For every Bradley or Dempsey whose game has clearly benefited from playing in Europe, there are seemingly several Altidores and Sheas who sat on their benches in Europe and only played (and returned into the national team top tier) after returning to MLS. 
 
Is Europe still better? Yes. But only for players who play.
 
Hopefully Klinsmann the technical director will understand that message sometime soon.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Anteaters and Flyers and Great Danes

Since "my" teams aren't even in the NCAA basketball tournament this year with a few highly tangential exceptions (I was born in Las Cruces, NM, and have always liked the New Mexico State Aggies, and I've rooted for the Oregon Ducks for years), I thought this was a good time to distract myself from my teams' plights and reprise my post of two years ago regarding my favorite college nicknames.

Here is the second ten of my favorite college monikers: 

University of California at Irvine Anteaters. The Anteaters make their initial appearance in the NCAA Division I basketball tournament this year. While the Anteater name is a little bit of California too-cool, having been chosen in a student election in 1965, it is unique and, unlike the UC Santa Cruz Banana Slugs, not completely absurd. Plus, how can you not like the school battle-cry: "Zot!"?

"Peter the Anteater." Peter seems extraordinarily well-
muscled and slim for an anteater. (photo from uci.edu)

Dayton Flyers. The Flyers are named, naturally enough, after native Daytonian pioneers of flight Orville and Wilbur Wright. Beats the school's first nickname: the Saints. 

Albany Great Danes. Also the result of a student election, also in 1965, the Great Dane was chosen to replace Pedwin the Penguin, the former mascot. You can't make this stuff up.

Mississippi Valley State Delta Devils. There doesn't seem to be any information on how the Delta Devils got their nickname, but that doesn't make it less cool. Plus, Jerry Rice went there, increasing the coolness factor exponentially.

Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns. Formerly one of Louisiana's "directional schools" (Southwest Louisiana) the Cajuns are another moniker chosen by a coach. In 1963 football coach Russ Faulkinberry changed the nickname of his team from the Bulldogs to Ragin' Cajuns in homage to the school's location in Acadiana, deep in Cajun Country.

Indiana State Sycamores. Originally the "Fighting Teachers" the students voted for Sycamores as their new nickname sometime in the 1950's. Apparently they had male and female Native American mascots but abandoned those due to sensitivity issues in the late '80's. Now their mascot is "Sycamore Sam" a "furry woodland creature." Can't win 'em all. But the Sycamores almost did win it all once.

Delaware Fightin' Blue Hens. A nickname with a history that dates back to the Revolutionary War, the Hens are named after famous fighting cocks that originated in Delaware and were know for their recognizable blue plumage and ferocity. Presumably PETA has yet to successfully convinced the school to change its mascot.

Murray State Racers. The Racers were originally the Thoroughbreds, but the name proved unwieldy for copywriters and was shortened first to T-Breds, then to Breds and Racers. Racers was adopted as the official name in 1961, although the baseball team stuck with tradition and Thoroughbreds or Breds until last year.

Texas Christian Horned Frogs. The TCU website boasts that the nickname has existed longer than the school's name itself, having been chosen by four students in 1897 at what was then AddRan Christian University. Turns out the Horned Frog is not in fact a frog but a lizard that, when angered, "can squirt a fine, four-foot stream of blood from [its] eyes." Don't mess with the Frogs. Lizards. Whatever.

Western Illinois Leathernecks. The only non-military university in the U.S. authorized to use a military nickname (which makes sense since there is no separate academy for the Marine Corps), the school has been known as the Leathernecks since 1927. It was then that Ray Hanson, the AD and coach of the baseball, football, and basketball teams (busy man!) sought permission from the Corps, in which he had served during WW I, to use not only the nickname but also its official seal and mascot (the bulldog) at the school. Salute!

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Then Again ...

Did I overreact to the result of a friendly?

Perhaps.

But examples of equal overreaction to the U.S. Women's win in the finals of the Algarve Cup abound as well.

Yes, the U.S. was missing Hope Solo and Megan Rapinoe and Sydney Leroux in its 2-0 loss in a friendly last month. But Rapinoe and Leroux made mere cameo appearance in its 2-0 win over France in the Algarve Cup final last week. Meanwhile, the French were missing five of their starters in the match in Portugal who had featured in the earlier game in Lorient (including both starting center backs, playmaker Louisa Nacib, and Elodie Thomis who torched the American defense repeatedly in their first meeting of the year).

What can we learn from the second match? First, as hard as it may be to admit, the team needs Solo. She is athletic and commanding in the box. She made a good save on the late penalty kick, but more importantly her presence seems to calm all of the U.S. defenders. And that unit also seems better equipped to handle fast, skilled players with Julie Johnston partnering with Becky Sauerbrunn in central defense.

Second, the team has a new star in Christen Press. While she may not have been able to shred France's Wendie Renard and Laura Georges the way she did their substitutes in the Final in Portugal, she is a dynamic player whose individual skill on the ball is going to be needed if Jill Ellis' team continues to play balls over the top to its forwards (whoever they will end up being between Alex Morgan, Amy Rodriquez, Abby Wambach, Sydney Leroux, and Press) rather than possession soccer.

Press at the Algarve Cup (photo from usatoday.com)

Which brings me to third, why I'm not sold on the team yet. It probably has more to do with the type of soccer that I like to watch than it does whether I believe the U.S. will win the Women's World Cup in Canada. It seems that Ellis is intent on playing with no true attacking wing midfielders, putting Press and Carli Lloyd out wide and letting Lauren Holiday (of whom everyone but me seems enamored as a playmaker) and Morgan Brian run the center of midfield.

Moving Press and Lloyd "out wide" means that they rarely play as out-and-out wingers, but more like additional center-mids, which is fine if you want to control possession and play a small-pass game. Which, puzzlingly, the U.S. has not done in any of the matches that it's played in that alignment. I've long expressed my admiration for the skills of Rapinoe and Tobin Heath, who excel at wing play (although Heath, like Press, is more adept at challenging players from the wing and cutting inside than Rapinoe, who sends in crosses with the best of them). If Ellis continues to use Press and Lloyd at outside mid, then the U.S. attack will be less varied, more predictable, and not nearly as entertaining as when Rapinoe and Heath play.

I don't expect that the exhibitions that the U.S. has scheduled over the next three months will tell us much about how the U.S. will fair in Canada. But they will very likely confirm what Ellis' plans are for the formation they will use and the players that she is counting to prove that Portugal, not Lorient, was the bell weather of what their chances of success are.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Rudderless

rud·der·less
ˈrədərləs/
adjective
adjective: rudderless
  1. lacking a rudder.
    • lacking a clear sense of one's aims or principles.
      "today's leadership is rudderless"

Rudderless.

That's the one word that kept creeping into my mind, over and over again, as I watched another U.S. National Soccer team, this time the women, be outclassed and outworked.

Yes, we lost 2-0 to a very good French national team that has beaten Germany and Brazil in the past few months.

Yes, the U.S. was without some of its key players as Megan Rapinoe, Christine Rampone, Hope Solo, and Sydney Leroux didn't dress for the match and the first three didn't even make the trip for the friendlies with France and England.

Yes, the rest of the world is catching us along with the other members of the formerly exclusive club of countries that can contend for the women's World Cup.

All the more reason to need, to have to rely on and have confidence in, your coach. And in my opinion the game against the French demonstrated that the team appears to be a rudderless ship.

When, just seven months ago, U.S. Soccer decided to unceremoniously dump national team coach Tom Sermanni I wrote that the candidates to replace him were uninspiring and that, if the powers-that-be had concluded that they had made the wrong decision in hiring Sermanni, they did not have the luxury of making a second mistake in choosing his replacement with the World Cup a year away. 

One of those candidates, Jill Ellis, was chosen as the temporary and then permanent replacement for Sermanni. Ellis was born in England and her father John was a soccer coach as well. After playing for William & Mary, Ellis embarked on a coaching career in college that culminated at UCLA, where the program made eight NCAA Final Fours in her 12 years as coach. She then moved to U.S. Soccer on a full-time basis in 2011. Ellis was the temporary head coach for the team when Pia Sundhage departed in 2012 as well.

Ellis may be a fine coach. She may have the ear of her players. She may be a good organizer. She may be a good practice coach.

But she's never won anything. 

A couple of Nordic Cups, whatever that is. But no NCAA titles (in eight visits). No U-20 World Cups (the team that she coached in 2010 didn't make the semi-finals). 

When it mattered, when it came time to play the game that was the difference between finishing second or third or fourth best or hoisting the trophy in triumph, her teams always came up short. And, while sports are a perfect venue for second chances and new opportunities, nothing that has occurred since Ellis took permanent control of arguably the most prominent women's national sports team in the World indicates that things will be different this time around.

Strategically, the handling of the team, and its goalkeeper/diva Hope Solo in particular, has been troubling. While Ellis was quoted in the New York Times yesterday as saying "for every player, you have to have a Plan B" there was clearly no Plan B for the U.S. at the position that has always been one of the biggest strengths of its men's and women's teams (keeper, not diva). Julie Foudy pointed out as much in ESPNW the day before Ellis' comment was published, and I submit that I did the same over two years ago.

Tactically, the Americans were always "on the back foot," as Ian Darke likes to say, against the French. Second best in effort and ideas. Reduced by bad passes in the mid-field to booting it forward and hoping for the best. Unable, even, to take advantage of a huge potential break when the referee gifted them a penalty for a foul that both wasn't a foul and wasn't in the penalty box, only for Abby Wambach to hit a weak penalty kick that was easily saved. The midfield chased the game, with Lauren Holiday practically invisible unless she was passing to the team in the blue shirts (and, in case you didn't watch, the U.S. wore white).

I understand, and often state, that too much shouldn't be read into friendly matches. But this was one that the U.S. was apparently pointing to. Yes, Ellis wants to review her options in game situations for the World Cup. And it was encouraging to see Alex Morgan put in a full 90 minutes in her return from injury.

Morgan's presence (although not necessarily her play) was one
of the few bright spots against France. (photo from ussoccer.com)

But the lack of ideas and skill and just plain work (excepting the always solid Carli Lloyd and Tobin Heath) transcend the issue of whether this was "just a friendly." Foudy made the comment shortly after Wambach entered the game that you could sense a lift in the other U.S. players' emotions when she was on the field. But neither they, nor Ellis, should have to rely on a simple tactical change to inject energy or ingenuity into the game. And, even if it works, you can only go to that particular well so many times before it becomes routine and by definition unremarkable.

The U.S. plays England in that next friendly on Friday. After that comes the Algarve Cup, the tournament that was presumably Sermanni's undoing when the U.S. finished seventh out of eight teams a year ago. We'd better hope that Ellis has figured some things out between now and then. Because, much like Solo, I doubt that there's a "Plan B" when it comes to who will coach our national team at the World Cup in June.