Wednesday, June 15, 2016

A Plateful of Soccer (Best Served Cold)

We've got the Euros all day long and the Copa America in the evenings. I'm already spoiled enough that I am perturbed that there are no Copa 100 games Wednesday before the quarterfinals start tomorrow.

As a result, writing choices abound ...

There were the U.S. men's spirited displays against Costa Rica and Paraguay (and we have to credit Jurgen Klinsmann some for that, don't we?) in not only overcoming a desultory 2-0 loss to Columbia in the first game of group play, but in ending up winning their group.

There is the game tomorrow against Ecuador, and perhaps a deserved backtrack from a certain comment about them being "minnows" in CONMEBOL when they currently lead its qualifying, are ranked 13 in the world, and have qualified for three of the last four World Cups.

But there was something even more compelling that happened on the other side of the pond.

Iceland is playing in its first major tournament ever, thanks at least in part to the expansion this year of the field at the Euros from 16 to 24 teams. But make no mistake, "Our Boys" (or "StrĂ¡karnir okkar" in Icelandic if you prefer) earned their way to the Finals by finishing second in their group in qualifying, beating The Netherlands at home and away in the process.

To put things in population perspective (as I'm want to do), Iceland's population is roughly 330,000 people, or a few thousand less than that of, yes, Kalamazoo, Michigan. As far as countries go, Iceland is wedged between Belize and The Bahamas (or 179 out of 209) in population of  FIFA member nations. But in the FIFA world rankings, Iceland is #34, between the Republic of Ireland and Sweden, and just three spots below the U.S.

The most recognizable Iceland player to international soccer fans is probably Eidur Gudjohnsen, who played, and played well, for Barcelona and Chelsea back in the day but is now 37 years old and did not start or appear off the bench for their first major competition match, against Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Interesting side note: Eidur Gudjohnsen and his father, Arnor, hold the unique distinction of being the only father and son to appear on behalf of their country in the same international match.  Arnor started the game, against Estonia in 1996, and Eidur, 17 at the time, came on in the second half as a substitute for his dad.  

In the Portugal match, Iceland, a true soccer minnow, tied mighty Portugal and Ronaldo 1-1. Iceland fought and scrapped and was a little bit lucky, but survived. Afterward they celebrated like, well, like a country that had just tied its first ever match in an international tournament against the eighth best team in the world and a player about whom my friend Mike would say "Ronaldo loves him some Ronaldo."

Portugal took the lead in the match, but Iceland, with one of the precious few chances it had, tied it 50 minutes in on a goal by Birkir Bjarnason, then held on for the next 40 minutes for the tie, surviving two Ronaldo free kicks deep into stoppage time.

Bjarnason celebrates his goal (photo from

Was it particularly attractive soccer? No. But it was a demonstration of why soccer is great and why, sometimes, a team underskilled and undermanned (although, as is apparent from the picture, not undercoifed, even against pretty boy Ronaldo) can, for 90 minutes, make up for all of those deficiencies by playing gritty, desperate, team soccer.

“Iceland didn’t try anything,” whined the Portuguese captain. “They were just defend, defend, defend and playing on the counterattack. It was a lucky night for them. We should have three points but we are OK. I thought they’d won the Euros the way they celebrated at the end. It was unbelievable. When they don’t try to play and just defend, defend, defend, this in my opinion shows a small mentality and they are not going to do anything in the competition.”
To which Karo Arnason, an Iceland center-mid, responded: "tough shit."

I could add more about Ronaldo, but the Telegraph article is too well written to even try to challenge. So I leave you with these observations about Ronaldo while I hope you revel in the smorgasbord of soccer from which we are feasting, whilst Iceland parties like it's 999, and while I fervently hope someone is forced to eat a little crow:
But Ronaldo would not be Ronaldo if he did not view every single game as a stage for him alone to confirm his greatness, rather than an opportunity for any Tom, Dick or Heimar to seize their own 15 minutes of fame.
He is the ultimate back-garden bully, the kind of barbecue guest who would spend the afternoon doing step-overs past seven year-olds and nutmegging the neighbours’ arthritic collie. It is that mind-set which has made him great. You don’t score 487 career goals, including 50-plus a season for the last six seasons by routinely squaring to better-placed team-mates.
... you get the impression that even now, at the age of 31, it does not matter how luxurious the hotel suite – if Ronaldo has no goal to replay in his mind before lights-out, he does not get a good night’s sleep.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Glimmers of Hope

So what are we to think about the U.S. Men's National soccer team headed into the Copa America (or Copa Centenario, if you prefer)?

Consecutive wins against South American opponents in the past week? Good.

Those wins coming against traditional CONMEBOL minnows Ecuador and Bolivia? Not so good.

Four straight wins and a 6-1 record so far in 2016? Good.

The loss being in World Cup qualifying to Guatemala in a dismal 2-0 performance? Not good at all.

The introduction of new, exciting players like Darlington Nagbe, Christian Pulisic, and Steve Burnbaum? Good.

Continuing to rely on old, and old guard, players like Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman, particularly in the demanding role of center midfielder? Not very good.

Obviously the upcoming Copa America will give us more information on where the national team is, and where it might be going, in World Cup qualifying and, hopefully, the 2018 World Cup itself. The recent wins have certainly quelled, for now, the anti-Klinsmann drumbeat that reached a crescendo after losses to Jamaica in the Gold Cup and Mexico in the play-in for the Confederations Cup last year.

While they are far from a guarantee for success in the upcoming Copa America, which will be against stiffer competition in a more meaningful setting, the Americans' luck appears to be turning after a dismal 2015. And not just on the field.

The U.S.'s opportunity to participate in the Copa, and indeed the entire tournament, was cast into doubt by the indictment or arrest of many top CONMEBOL and CONCACAF officials last summer and additional indictments for Traffic Sports, a major player in organizing (and skimming graft from) both the Gold Cup and Copa America. The importance of the tournament as preparation for the next World Cup cannot be understated, particularly after the ignominious denial of the chance to play in the Confederations Cup, participation in which was long touted by Klinsmann as essential to success in Russia, until it wasn't.

But whether through sheer will to actually celebrate the 100th anniversary of the competition, or the unappealing prospect of losing millions of dollars of revenue from the target-rich U.S. soccer market, the tournament will go on (although perhaps without Argentina).

While Klinsmann has talked about bringing new or younger players along slowly (hence not starting Nagbe or Pulisic against either Ecuador or Bolivia), this tournament seems the ideal opportunity to start determining whether they will be able to withstand the pressure of top flight competition in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, particularly once it moves to the final stage (known as The Hex because of its six teams, the top three of which will qualify for the World Cup, and the fourth place team of which will advance to a playoff against the fifth place team from Asia).

The back line seems set with John Brooks and Geoff Cameron (assuming he's healthy) in the center of defense and Fabian Johnson and DeAndre Yedlin on the wings. Bobby Wood, Gyasi Zardes, and Clint Dempsey appear ready to play up front in some combination (particularly with the surprise exclusion of Jordan Morris from the squad) with Pulisic likely to come off the bench and Chris Wondolowski available to poach a last minute goal in a pinch. 

Pulisic celebrates his goal against Bolivia, which made him the
youngest goalscorer for the U.S. Men in the modern era.
(photo from

That leaves three players to man the midfield (although Zardes could play wing or Dempsey as a withdrawn forward or attacking midfielder at the top of a diamond). Michael Bradley is a shoo-in, of course. Alejandro Bedoya was, for my money, perhaps the Yanks' best player against Bolivia and seems unlikely to be left out of the starting 11 (as long as Klinsmann doesn't insist that he play in the back).

There has to be some bite, which Jones normally provides. Klinsmann could go with two defensive mids with Jones and Beckerman, but that seems unlikely, particularly given Beckerman's lack of mobility. Equally unlikely is abandoning the defense altogether and playing both Nagbe and Bedoya along with Bradley.

While Jones is an acceptable choice this summer, it's hard to see him as capable of being one in Russia. I'd like to see Klinsmann try Bradley at the bottom of a diamond with Nagbe and Bedoya the linking midfielders and Dempsey at the tip. But that's unlikely to happen since Klinsmann has insisted for more than two years now that Bradley's best position is up the field leading the attack, and for the most part Bradley has proved him right.

Another option would be to recognize that Dempsey may be too old by the time 2018 comes around and put Bradley at the top, with Nagbe and Bedoya behind, Cameron in the defensive/deep-lying mid position, and Burnbaum or Matt Besler in the center of defense with Brooks.

Given the heat that Klinsmann took last year over the team's performance it's understandable that he is reluctant to sacrifice results for experimentation in the Copa. But, in the long-term, that may be exactly what this team needs. Regardless, it's nice to talk about the options available to him, which seemed in very short supply last fall.