Tuesday, July 26, 2016

This and That

As occasionally happens, life and work have gotten in the way of writing several planned posts. Here are a few short takes on things happening or that have happened recently in soccer:

1.  U.S. Men Are Thrashed by a South American Opponent (Again).

Was it great that the U.S. made the semi-finals of the Copa America? Yes. Should we have expected any better than 4-0 against Argentina in the semis? Well ...

Yes and no. The U.S. has played well in the knock-out rounds of some tournaments (while rarely winning). Outplaying (really, they outplayed them!) Germany in the 2002 World Cup only to be denied a shot at the semis by a missed handball that rivaled Maradona's; the second dos a cero win over Mexico in the round of 16 in the same 2002 World Cup; even the 2-1 after extra time loss to Belgium in the round of 16 in the 2014 World Cup in which the U.S. had every chance to extend the match to penalties until Wondo missed the sitter that allowed Landon Donovan fans everywhere to say "I told you so."

But there was a theme to all of those games. And it was that the U.S. was not playing a South American opponent in any of them. For some reason, in games that matter (or any match against the top teams from CONMEBOL really) the U.S. wilts. Against what are generally recognized today as the top three teams in South America (Argentina, Brazil, and Columbia) the U.S. is a disastrous 6-26-7 all-time.

No doubt the U.S. was hurt by the absences of Jermaine Jones, Alejandro Bedoya, and Bobby Wood against Argentina. But they were behind almost from the start thanks to Lionel Messi and never looked up to the task. U.S. Soccer in general and Jurgen Klinsmann in particular have to figure out how to stay in games early and win matches early, late, or any time in-between, against South American opposition if they ever hope to make the semis of a modern World Cup.

2.  The U.S. Women Tune-Up for the Olympics, with Middling Results.

The U.S. Women's Team has not been particularly scintillating in its warm-up matches for the Olympics, drawing a match and winning one against Japan (a team which, like the U.S., is regrouping or reloading as the case may be) and then beating South Africa 1-0 before thumping Costa Rica 4-0 in the final tune-up last Friday.  After last year's World Cup, however, far be it from me to question coach Jill Ellis's preparation of her squad leading into a major tournament.

With the Olympic soccer rosters limited to 18 players and a schedule of three group stage matches crammed into six days, with the quarters, semis, and finals jammed into the next week, versatility of players and coaches to adapt to fatigue, injuries, and suspensions will be at a premium. Which makes the inclusion of Megan Rapinoe, who has not played since tearing her ACL last December, in the final roster all the more curious.

The Women are in a tough group, with World number three France, Columbia, and New Zealand. But with only 12 teams in the mix, any group was going to have some difficult opposition (although, not surprisingly, hosts Brazil drew by far the easiest of the three).  The U.S. should make it out of the group, but it could be very important that they do so as the top seed as far as the strength of their quarterfinal opponent goes.

Regardless of the ultimate result, it will be exciting to see how well new star Crystal Dunn (who scored the only goal against South Africa and tallied again against Costa Rica) and starlet Mallory Pugh will fare in their first international tournaments for the senior team.

Dunn against Costa Rica (photo from newsday.com)

3.  Portugal, Sans Ronaldo, Wins the European Title.

So much for my wish that Cristiano Ronaldo would eat some crow during the 2016 UEFA Championship. The only saving grace was that he was injured during Portugal's win in the Final against France and spent most of the match on the sidelines (a little cruel, I know -- I wasn't hoping that it was a debilitating injury -- which it apparently wasn't).

I wasn't as upset about the fact that Portugal won (although France winning on home soil after all it's been through in the past year would have been nice), but the way that it accomplished the task. As mad as I get at South American teams for their diving, faked injuries, and time wasting, at least, on some level I feel as though they truly believe that it's just part of the game. The Portuguese, on the other hand, are so cynical in the way that the go about it that it's infuriating. 

After all of their disappointments at the international level, I suppose Portugal was due a few breaks in its favor.  And it got them through squandered opportunities by a French team that seemed, frankly, overwhelmed by the moment and one well placed strike by Eder that barely eluded French keeper Hugo Lloris, who seemed slightly out of position on the shot.

So a tournament that began with promise ended with a whimper (as did, to be fair, the Copa America) and Portugal got its trophy. And the beautiful game took a blow.