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

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

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 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
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
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.