Friday, July 23, 2010

Brazil 2014 WC Roster Prediction

What might our 23 man roster look like in 2014?

Goalkeepers
S: Tim Howard (C)
Brad Guzan
Bill Hamid

Timmy will be about 35, prime age for a great keeper.  I think he could be captain come 2014.  Hopefully Brad will be starting and thriving in the EPL by then.  Honestly, so far he hasn't inspired a lot of confidence in me yet.  Hamid is a young MLSer - he may be the next great American GK.
In the mix: Luis Robles, Dominic Cervi, Chris Seitz


Defenders
CB: Oguchi Onyewu
CB: Gale Agbossoumonde
LB: Jonathan Bornstein
RB: Eric Lichaj
Jonathan Spector
Omar Gonzalez
Tim Ream
Kevin Alston

Our 2010 starting defense will be pretty old in 4 years - Bocanegra, DeMerit and Cherundolo will likely not be back in 2014.  Its not as if Boca and Jay are fleet of foot as it is now.  Still, there seem to be plenty of young prospects for the spot next to Gooch.  I'm not the biggest fan of Bornstein but he acquitted himself well this WC - there is still hope for improvement.
Others in the mix: Ike Opara, Chad Marshall, Clarence Goodson, Edgar Castillo, Sean Franklin, Marvell Wynne.


Midfielders
LM/ACM: Landon Donovan
CM: Michael Bradley
CM: Maurice Edu
RM: Stuart Holden
Benny Feilhaber
Jose Francisco Torres
Alejandro Bedoya
Mikkel Diskerud

Unlike our defenders, nearly all of this year's midfielders could be back.  Currently, midfield depth is clearly the strength of our squad.  Donovan has always been in terrific shape so I think its very possible that he'll still be in top form at 32.
Others in the mix: Robbie Rogers, Sasha Kljestan, Sebastion Lleget, Jared Jeffrey, Geoff Cameron, Luis Gil, Brek Shea, Ricardo Clark, Jermaine Jones (you never know).


Forwards
S: Jozy Altidore
S: Clint Dempsey
Charlie Davies
Marcus Tracy

Seeing as how Herculez and Buddle weren't on anyone's radar just 3 months before WC camp, it is obviously impossible to predict strikers 4 years out.  Mostly its because it hinges more on who's scoring goals at the time instead of consistency of effort over the 4 year cycle. That said, Jozy should still be our every game starter.  Dempsey should still be a solid forward option then.  Davies may finally realize his WC dream.  Marcus Tracy could be an in form striker somewhere in Europe by then.  I didn't include Adu since right now he is still going backwards.
Others in the mix: Freddy Adu, Andy Najar (if he picks us over Honduras), Danny Mwanga, Tristan Bowen, Juan Agudelo, whoever's hot.


Lineup:
------------Howard-----------
Lichaj-Gooch-Agboss-Bornstein
Holden-Edu-Bradley-Donovan
---------Jozy-Dempsey------

So, 13 players of this year's 23 may be back, and as many as 8 starters could return to the opening lineup in Brazil 2014.  Compare that to only 7 returning players this year from 2006, and 5 returning starters (Gooch, Boca, Dolo, Dempsey, Donovan).  Unless a new coach really shakes things up, continuity could be key for us.  That said, besides Bradley, our 3 best players right now (Howard, Demps, LD) will be past 30 in 2014.  New stars must arise soon.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

US 2010 World Cup Review

I wanted to wait for the World Cup to be over in its entirety before I put down my final thoughts on our performance.  For me, the disappointment of the loss to Ghana was enormous and painful, but in the end, the surprising nationwide reception to US' dramatic performances was the biggest development for US Soccer this year.

Last year's momentous upset of #1 Spain alongside ESPN's new commitment to soccer in recent years certainly set the stage and raised expectations for the US in South Africa.  The four dramatic performances then went on to really captivate not just the longtime fans, but even casual viewers as well.  Pre-tournament, many non-informed Americans had begun to believe that the US could possibly win it all since they reached the finals of the Confed Cup, but the fact is that any prolonged mainstream attention is a positive step.

Yes, a victory over Ghana would have been phenomenal simply because it would have kept the US team in the media spotlight for another week.  Instead, we were eliminated 3 days after the biggest sports moment of the year (according to the voters for the ESPY awards).  That said, I've already gone over my disappointments list after that Ghana loss.

Our WC could have been worse.  Had Dempsey's goal not trickled past Green, we'd be tied for last in the group and been in a deep hole to start.  Had Landon or Bradley not scored vs Slovenia, we would've been all but eliminated.  Had Landon missed the sitter vs Algeria, it would be another 4 long years for a shot at WC success.  Basically, every single goal we scored was massively important.  Each goal was the difference between winning the group and elimination.  So as disappointing as the loss to Ghana was, we met our primary and paramount goal of group advancement.  And we won the group to boot.

Better yet, we did it in the most dramatic fashion possible.  Whenever anyone thinks of the US' 2010 WC in the years to come, they will immediately think of Landon's breathtaking 91st minute Algeria goal.  They won't be thinking about Ghana.  They won't be thinking about the missed call that cost us the win vs Slovenia.  Landon's goal will be the enduring moment of our World Cup.

Also, I think it helps that Spain won the Final.  In a way, it legitimizes our victory over them last summer as well as the direction of our program.  Moving forward, the US is legit.  We're not the most talented and we're not the most skilled, but if you don't play a full 90, we just might beat you anyway.

Here are some other positives:

-Landon and US Soccer won the ESPY for Best Moment of the Year (as well as Best Performance under Pressure) for the Algeria goal.  In years past, that moment would have only been remembered by soccer fans.  This year, it beat out the NFL's Saints!  (The US did win the ESPY for Best Upset last summer).  The US players who were there to receive the award were: Donovan, Bocanegra, Cherundolo, Edu, Bornstein, Holden, Altidore, Feilhaber, and Buddle.  Bocanegra managed to wisely thank John Skipper, the ESPN chief, for making soccer a priority.  Landon then proceeded to thank everyone for allowing themselves to be inspired by him and his teammates.  That was probably the most awkward way of thanking fans I've ever heard.

-Michael Bradley is the name most often listed among impressive breakout stars of the World Cup.  With his determination and work ethic, there is no reason to think that he won't be a mainstay in the middle of the field for the US for the next decade.  Most impressively, he covered more distance per 90 minutes than all other players in the entire World Cup except one - An Yong Hak of N Korea (and Hak only played 3 games, not 4 plus extra time).  EPL teams are seriously considering him now - hopefully he moves this transfer season.

-More significantly, for the first time, a US coach got a serious look by an EPL side - Bob Bradley was on the shortlist at Fulham.  Though they didn't hire him, it shows the respect that Bradley, and US Soccer by extension, has earned internationally.

-US Soccer now has an international identity, first established vs Spain last year and now confirmed for the world to see.  Fit.  Resilient.  Never gives up.

-Mainstream media's post-tournament embrace of US Soccer and Landon has been astounding.  Letterman, Good Morning America, Regis & Kelly, The Daily Show, among others brought on Donovan in the immediate aftermath.  Essentially, Landon has become a mainstream celebrity since even his relationship with wife (then separated, now together again possibly?), Bianca Kajlich, became a national story.  (To get on Oprah, maybe he does need a love child, heh).  Landon and Bob were even asked to close the NYSE.

-Remembering Deutschland 2006.  4 years ago, we only managed to score 1 goal (Dempsey) in 3 games with Italy put in an own goal for us as well (and a DaMarcus Beasley game-winner vs Italy was called back).  This year, we managed 5 goals from our 3 best field players (and 2 goals - Edu's and Dempsey's were called back).
Last WC, the only bright spot was heroically drawing Italy even though we only had 9 men (to their 10), becoming the only team to not be defeated by the eventual World Champions.  We lost the other two games due to inferior play and a bad call and finished last in our group.  This time, we managed to draw vs the "superior" group side in England and essentially beat Slovenia (clearly an Edu goal), then Algeria to win our group.  We're also one of 2 teams to beat the eventual World Champions in the last 4 years.
4 years ago, the best American player in our history was practically non-existent and mentally unprepared for the big stage, but this year Donovan displayed to the world what he could do with the right mindset.  All that to say, the pain from our 2006 failure makes this year's effort that much sweeter and so much more satisfying.


Player Deployment Review

Eight players started all 4 games for the US - Howard, Donovan, Dempsey, Bradley, Altidore, Bocanegra, DeMerit and Cherundolo.  Of the 8, Altidore is the only one who didn't play every single minute.

----------Altidore-X-----------
Dempsey-Bradley--X-Donovan
Bocanegra-X-DeMerit-Cherundolo
------------Howard-----------

Players who made 3 appearances: Feilhaber, Edu and Findley.

Players who made 2 appearances: Gooch, Clark, Bornstein, Gomez and Buddle.

Players who made 1 appearance: Holden, Torres and Beasley.

Players who didn't play: Spector and Goodson and GKs: Hahnemann and Guzan.


Versus England, the other 3 starters were Gooch, Clark and Findley.  Subs were Buddle and Holden (for Jozy and Findley).

Versus Slovenia, the other 3 starters were Gooch, Torres and Findley.  Subs were Feilhaber and Edu (for Torres and Findley at half), the Gomez for Gooch.

Versus Algeria, the other 3 starters were Bornstein, Edu and Gomez.  Subs were Feilhaber (for Gomez), Buddle (for Edu), Beasley (for Bornstein).

Versus Ghana, the other 3 starters were Bornstein, Clark, and Findley.  Subs were Edu (for Clark), Feilhaber (for Findley at half), Gomez (for Jozy in extra time).


Notable FIFA Stats

1) Goals
Donovan's 3 goals ranked tied for #3 overall with only 7 players in the tournament with more goals.  Only 2 of those players scored more goals in the same number of games - poachers in Higuain and Slovakia's Vittek (both with 4).  The 3 other players who also scored 3 goals are Suarez, Gyan and Fabiano, all of whom played more games than Landon.

The other goal scorers are obviously Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey, who scored his memorable goal from outside of the penalty area.

2) Shots on Goal
Dempsey ranked tied for 5th overall in SOG with 8 even though he only played 4 games - only forwards Higuain (11) and C Ronaldo (9) had more SOG in the same number of games.  He was also tied for #7 overall in Shots Taken with 20 - only C Ronaldo took more shots (21) in the same number of games.

Michael Bradley was 2nd on the team with 4 shots on goal, with 8 shots overall.  Landon Donovan had 3 shots on goal, 9 overall.  Considering he scored twice from the run of play, when he's on, he's on.  While he never played a complete game, Feilhaber still had 3 shots on goal in 6 shots taken, in only 3 games.

Jozy had 3 shots on goal in 8 shots overall - which is exactly what Kaka had.  As for our other forwards - Gomez was 2 for 4, Findley 1 for 1, Buddle 1 for 2.  Again, no forward scored.

3) Assists
Cherundolo and Altidore each were credited with one assist (both in the Slovenia match).  Dempsey created his own goal, Donovan's Algeria goal was a rebound, and lastly scored a PK vs Ghana.

4) Passing
This is the one area the US will have to work on.  The 7 top players in pass completion rate for the US (2 games minimum) are defensive: DeMerit, Edu, Onyewu, Bradley, Bocanegra, Cherundolo and Bornstein.

Interestingly, Torres may have only played one half but he had a 83% pcr - the only American even close to 80%.

5) Crosses
Donovan was #4 overall in total crosses with 29.  He was the only player in the top 10 to have played less than 5 games (and 7 of the 10 players played at least 6 matches).  Of the top 10, Landon had THE highest cross completion rate at 38%.  Landon connected on 11 of his crosses which ranked #3 overall.  The only two above him, Xavi (15) and Forlan (13) each played 7 matches to Landon's 4.

6) Defensive Clearances
DeMerit was tied for #4th in clearances with 11 - only 8 players ranked above him.  Bocanegra had 10 clearances.

7) GK Saves 
Howard tied for #7 with 16 saves.

8) Tackles
Bradley tied for #4 overall with 8 tackles - only 3 players had more tackles and they all played more games.  Of those 8 tackles, he won the possession 4 times, which is ranked (tied for) #3 overall.  Only 5 players won possession off tackles more than he did.

DeMerit had 6 tackles while Bocanegra and Onyewu each had 3.  Interestingly, Gooch's 3 tackles all won possession.

9) Fouls
Jozy was surprisingly the top US foul committer with 11.  However, he suffered 15 fouls in return.

Bradley only committed 4 FOULS in 4 games.  Let me repeat that: BRADLEY ONLY HAD FOUR FOULS!

10) Cards
The US did not have disciplinary problems as only 2 players had 2 yellows - Findley and Cherundolo.  Findley's 2nd yellow card is one of the dumbest decisions you'll ever see.  Only 5 other players received a yellow - Beasley, Bocanegra, DeMerit, Altidore and Clark.  The fact that Bradley didn't draw a card deserves praise.

11) Top Speed
Donovan was the fastest US player with a top speed of 30.31 km/h (18.84 mph) - which ranked #11 overall.  Findley was #14 overall at 30.13 km/h (18.72 mph).  Jozy was the next American significantly farther down on the list at 28.75 km/h (17.86 mph).  Hopefully, we can deploy more attacking speed in 2014.

12) Distance Covered
Bradley finished an extremely impressive #2 OVERALL in miles run per 90 min (minimum 360 min played in 3 games).  He covered 7.41 miles per 90 minutes that he was on the field.  Only N Korea's An Yong Hak finished above him with 7.50 mp90m.  Landon finished #12 overall at 6.95 mp90m and Dempsey was remarkably #24 overall with 6.74 mp90m.  It is no coincidence that our 3 best field players also covered the most ground of anyone on the team.

Here are the team stats for miles covered per 90 min.  These numbers only make sense for those who played complete 90 min games:
Bradley 7.41
Donovan 6.95
Dempsey 6.74
Bornstein 6.67
Cherundolo 6.37
Bocanegra 6.18
Altidore 5.85
DeMerit 5.82
Howard 2.86

Here are the team stats for total distance in miles covered in the tournament:
Bradley 32.12
Donovan 30.12
Dempsey 29.20
Cherundolo 27.59
Bocanegra 26.80
Altidore 23.21
DeMerit 25.19
Bornstein 14.83
Edu 14.43
Feilhaber 12.53
Howard 12.39
Findley 11.74
Onyewu 10.46
Clark 8.83
Gomez 6.70
Torres 3.23
Buddle 3.21
Beasley 1.03
Holden 0.68


Player Ratings

GKs:

Tim Howard 7 - Solid performances in most games but he lacked one of those miraculous saves that kept the US from an early hole.  That said, he should still be the starter in 4 years and I'm glad to have him.

Marcus Hahnemann / Brad Guzan NA - Marcus was almost called into duty with Howard's rib injury.

Defenders:

Steve Cherundolo 8 - Defensive standout for a shaky backline in the group stage.  Only in the last game did he not perform up to par.  But I'm glad this longtime US veteran became a huge part of this run.

Carlos Bocanegra 7 - The captain filled in capably on the left and in the center of what is likely his last WC.  He really has made the most of his career.
We have arrived.
Jay DeMerit 7 - An extraordinary achievement in eventually reaching the highest level after not being drafted by the MLS, he played with heart and intensity.  While our central defense cost us early goals, I can't ask for more from him.

Oguchi Onyewu 5 - Coming off injury, he was clearly shaky and hesitant at times and was partially responsible for a goal in both his games.  Hopefully he recovers fully from injury to anchor our defense in 2014.

Jonathan Bornstein 7 - The player I least wanted to see on the field, I'm happy that he made no noticeable errors in his 2 games.  Should he mature, he could be key to our next cycle.  Am I asking too much?

Jonathan Spector / Clarence Goodson NA - I feel bad for Spector since he missed competing for a chance in 2006 due to injury.  He wasn't in form this year though and Dolo's excellent play rightfully kept him on the bench.  The question is whether his lack of pace will keep him from starting in 2014.  Goodson should prove useful this next cycle.

Midfielders:

Landon Donovan 9 - He lived up to every expectation and was a force, especially the last 3 games.  The only American to score in 3 straight WC games, he also set American career cap (12) and goal (5) records that might stand for a long time.  He's also earned a newfound celebrity status that no US soccer player has achieved before.  2 questions: Will a European club come up with the 10-15 million required to buy him?  Will he still be starting for the US in 2014?  Hopefully the answer to both is yes.

Clint Dempsey 8 - Dempsey might not have scored again after his goal off Green, but he was constantly a nuisance to the opponent's defense.  His 20 shots taken were more than double the next American (Donovan with 9) and he should have had the game-winner vs Algeria.  Dempsey could also be on the move after this strong showing - possibly to AC Milan?

Michael Bradley 9 - Bradley quietly became the team's most valuable player after Donovan with his tireless box to box running and defending.  He's perfect for the EPL.  He just might be my favorite US player now.

Maurice Edu 7 - I won't harp on this anymore - Edu is a much better 2 way player than Clark.  He had to start.  Hopefully he will in 2014.  Also, I must recognize his game-winner vs Slovenia as well.

Ricardo Clark 3 - The traditional US player - physical and rangy but completely lacking in technical skill - cost the US the Ghana game.  Eventually the US youth system needs to evolve to the point where players like Clark are not valued over a Feilhaber or a Torres.

Benny Feilhaber 6 - Deployed on the flank, Feilhaber was a solid when we needed him.  However, his potential is vast - hopefully he can live up to his talent this cycle.

Jose Francisco Torres 4 - Only played 1 half and looked out of place in the physical Slovenia match.  But I think he could be the future in the center next to Bradley with his control and passing (kind of like Xavi!.  almost).

Stuart Holden 7 - Only played once as a sub vs England.  I still don't know why he wasn't used more.  In great position to be a starter in 2014 should his EPL career progress.

DeMarcus Beasley 5 - One brief appearance at the end of the Algeria match.  I hope he gets major minutes at his next club because his international career may be over otherwise.

Forwards:

Jozy Altidore 6 - On one hand, he was a physical beast up top and drew endless fouls.  He also headed down the ball for Bradley's goal and slotted it to Dempsey for Donovan's goal vs Algeria.  But the fact remains that he didn't score in 4 games.  Coming off a near scoreless season in the EPL, hopefully he's learning what he needs to do (in games and in practice) to live up to his immense talent.

Robbie Findley 4 - I've said enough about him - speed without skill doesn't cut it on the international level.  Couldn't play the Davies role.  Didn't score.

Edson Buddle 5 - As much as some critics love him, he didn't show quickness of thought on the ball.  Didn't score.

Herculez Gomez 6 - I'm higher on him than Buddle because he seemed to play off Jozy better, but he didn't score either.

Ultimately, the strength of the group was our midfield (since LD, Clint and Bradley all play there) while both the defense and our strikeforce were inconsistent.  Though our backline allowed early goals 3 of our 4 games while our forwards never found the back of the net, we still managed to win our group simply because our midfielders found a way to overcome both deficiencies.  But it was our downfall in the knockout round.  In this next cycle, we will need to revamp our aging defense and continue to hunt for the elusive 2nd striker that we haven't had in 2 consecutive WCs now.  The fact is, no US forward has scored since the 2002 WC.


Coaching: Bob Bradley 7

Putting aside the enormous success, in my opinion, of Bradley's 4 years at the helm leading up to the WC, I thought he made 2 personnel mistakes in the tournament.  First, Edu should have started every game instead of Clark and Torres during their 3 combined starts.  Secondly, he should have played Gomez or Dempsey instead of Findley up top and gave Stuart Holden more minutes.  I didn't mind Feilhaber coming off the bench, but Edu was clearly the right choice for starting, especially by the last match.

I can't make a judgment on Gooch's benching after the 2nd game because I don't know his physical condition but I'd think that his speed and strength might have been a better match-up vs Gyan than DeMerit and Bocanegra.

Aside from nitpicking his starting lineups however, it was clear that Bradley is a great leader by any definition - he leads by example, he motivates his men, he's a solid tactician and demands excellence.  Our team enjoyed an obvious camaraderie that the 2006 team lacked which I think is due to the humility that Bob carries himself with as well as his expressed goal of establishing a team mentality.

He also clearly instilled a blue-collar work ethic in the team (which Argentina lacked).  I loved that there were no egos or prima donnas (which France did not lack).  I loved that there was a never say die attitude (which Brazil lacked).  I loved that they were resilient, fit and able to attack to the very end (which England lacked).  And I loved that they played hard but fair (which the Netherlands lacked).

In the future, who knows how celebrity or wide-spread fame may one day affect our player's mentalities.  Who knows what kind of compromises US Soccer might make to try and achieve results.  Who knows which of our greatest qualities that US players are known for now, namely fitness, toughness, competitiveness, work rate, and coachability will take a backseat under a new regime.  Who knows if our team will be anywhere near as likable.  But all I know is right now, I like where we're headed.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Rewrite The Future Please

Nike's Write the Future commercial looks like the most expensive soccer ad ever made and is of course inevitably entertaining, but from the first viewing, I thought the campaign itself was a bit off the mark.  First, the word "writing" is out of place in sport - it never really fits comfortably as a motto.  "Just do it?"  Yup.  "Joga Bonito" (Play beautifully).  Okay, I'll try.  "Write the Future"?   Eh.  My future is back to my desk after a month of football bliss.  Oh, you mean their futures.  Wait, why is it called the future anyway?  Only Rooney and Ronaldo's bits involved possible futures, most other stories were really about the immediate present.

Also, soccer's never been an individual sport - I think the best soccer commercials are predicated on the idea of the collective.  Nike's focus on the individual this time especially rang hollow when compared to the glory of Spain's team play.

While Write certainly captured the essence of international competition - that a nation's pride and morale hinges on what happens on the WC field, it sought to entertain viewers only with its story with pop icon references mixed in (of which there were many, including Federer, Kobe and Homer), instead of what has made Nike soccer commercials so vastly appealing before: showcasing soccer skill.

In fact, the only flair at all was Ronaldinho's part, which came across as unoriginal and overdone after years of superior Ronnie ads.  Of course, he didn't make it to SA - they could've just substituted in Robinho's bit instead but they would've had to kill the entire step-over montage, including Kobe.  Not happening.  By the way, the step-over is not anything new or current.  Any decent street player has mastered it a decade ago and already uploaded it to youtube.  Show us something new.

In light of their individual-focused campaign, Nike was unlucky that none of the other big names they featured were even mildly successful in the WC.  Drogba broke his arm right before the tournament and Africa's best team was eliminated first round.  Cannavaro was washed up and his mistakes were as much as reason for Italy's shameful early exit as anything.  Rooney was practically non-existent the entire tournament (while Walcott's only appearance in the month of June was in this brief Nike cameo).  As for Ribery, I watched all of France's matches and literally can't remember a single play of note involving the revelation from WC 2006.  C Ronaldo, the biggest star in the Nike stable, isn't getting his own Nebuchadnezzar statue or stadium named after himself if he doesn't start writing some good performances into his own future in 2014.

However, at least players from the pair of 2 second group cameos fared better.  Landon and Howard both put in good performances.  I'd say the Spanish trio, Iniesta, Fabregas and Pique, did okay for themselves too.

So, though the ad seems to be receiving overwhelmingly positive reviews (along with the inane Nike curse theory making its internet rounds), I don't even think it ranks in the top 5 of soccer ads of all time.  The only part that really stood out to me was Rooney's alternate futures flash-forwards - both futures were creative and well-done.  But overall, the music was unmemorable, the soccer skills were pedestrian, and the campaign motto itself missed the mark.  I'm guessing the only thing we'll remember years from now is Rooney's beard and Homer Simpson.  Hey, at least its infinitely better effort than anything Adidas did this year.


Other Memorable Soccer ads:

The Quest - Adidas - WC 2010
Adidas probably had several variations of this campaign for WC 2010 but the one that ran repeatedly in the US showcased Messi and Villa in "Fast v Fast".  Zidane also makes appearances in a more serious Cantona-role.  These comic-book style spots aren't really that interesting or effective.

Take it to the Next Level - Nike - Euro 2008
This one made my jaw drop.  Filmed (by Guy Ritchie) from an entirely first-person point of view, it put every viewer literally in the boots of a player.  Starting from a youth system up to Arsenal's first team games (and practices), then eventually onto the Dutch national team, it was gritty, manic and perfect.  Nike was able to feature its stars as well as its products but still maintain its creative edge.  I thought it was ground-breaking stuff - easily my favorite soccer ad to date.  Too bad Nike didn't save this Euro 2008 campaign for the World Cup.  I'm guessing that perhaps the 2010 Write's pop icon references served a broader (and dumber) global audience.  And its probably fortunate that they didn't have to feature the Netherlands as its hero team this year - Adidas/Spain would've had a field day.
Key players (& coach) featured: Wenger, Gallas, Rooney, C Ronaldo, Fabregas, Materterrorist, Zlatan, dirty marquez, Ronaldinho, Huntelaar, Ruud, C Ronaldo again, Sneijder

Joga Bonito - Nike - WC 2006
Cantona got in your face every Nike spot, exhorting, pleading and demanding viewers to play beautifully.  The superstar-laden Brazilian squad received much of the airtime - their locker room samba spot was most entertaining.  And though I don't like individual ads normally, footage of Ronaldinho's childhood was unbelievable.
Key players featured: Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Roberto Carlos, Robinho, Henry, Zlatan, C Ronaldo.

Jose Plus 10 - Adidas - WC 2006
Adidas finally delivers a commercial that rivals Nike.  Bringing the imagination of little Jose and his friend to life, Adidas found a perfect way to showcase their own stable of stars.  Part of the allure of this spot was the fact that we haven't really seen Adidas' stars playing together on the screen before.  Also, they brilliantly split the spot into two parts - the first showed Jose and his friend's team selection (who would pick Cisse first overall?) - while players randomly appeared from around the corner and the subsequent spot showed the game.  Anyway, my favorite part: "Beckenbauer?!?!  hahahaha...huh?".  I also liked the fact that the spot shows Zidane's excitement to play with his hero, Platini.  Also, who knew that Lampard's shot off the underside of the crossbar would be an omen to this year's Germany game?
Players: Cisse, Kaka, Zidane, Beckham, Defoe, Beckenbauer, Gerrard, Kahn, Schweinsteiger, Raul, Platini, Robben, Lampard, Ballack, Riquelme, Huff, Nakamura, Vieira

Henry's Homegame - Nike - Euro 2004
It might seem like an ad pushing the individual again, but this one actually features a myriad of players while displaying this theme: playing for the love of the game.  Albeit briefly, Tim Howard is in this one, making him one of the first Americans to be in a major international soccer ad.
Players (& coach) featured: Henry, Makelele, Ljungberg, Davids, dirty marquez, Van Nistelrooy, Scholes, Giggs, Tim Howard, Ferguson

Brasil v Portugal "Ole" - Nike - Euro 2004
Brazil's popularity caused Nike to even feature them (vs Portugal) in an ad released for the Euro 2004.  Watching true stars race around, pulling off ridiculous moves on each just makes you smile every time, but not as much as when the ref takes out Ronnie.  Why is there always an obligatory Cantona cameo?
Featured Players: Ronaldo, Figo, Roberto Carlos, Scolari, Denilson, Cantona, Van Nistelrooy, Ronaldinho

Man U v R Madrid High Noon - Pepsi - 2003
Pepsi's not trying to sell boots or shirts so its as if they can take themselves a little less seriously.  Putting Beckham and Casillas in western gear and cowboy hats in a shootout for Pepsi?  Great.  Beckham's high pitched voice demanding Casillas to meet "outside" is unintentional (or perhaps intentional) comedy.
Features Players: Beckham and Man U, Casillas, Roberto Carlos and Real Madrid

Secret Tournament; Rematch - Nike - WC 2002
A dream for any fan is to witness a 3 on 3 tourney like this.  When ESPN's "The Two Escobars" explained Pablo Escobar's habit of flying in hand-picked players for a private game for gambling purposes, I immediately thought of this ad.  Cantona could pass for a drug cartel boss, right?  Of course Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos, Figo, Totti and Henry are the featured bunch.  But why Nakata and not Ruud in the final 6?  Elvis' "A Little Less Conversation" was stuck in my head for months.
Players:
Totti, Nakata, Henry v Vieira, Scholes, Ruud
Saviola, Enrique, Ljungberg v Davids, Wiltord, Thuram
Denilson, Seol, Ronnie v Figo, Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos
Crespo, Mendieta, Lopez  v Rosicky, Cannavaro, Ferdinand

Footballitis - Adidas - WC 2002
Going for humor, Adidas created a memorable and light-hearted spot about a "disease" much in the way that obesity or bulemia is a disease.  But instead of one's love for burgers or sticking a finger down your throat, this is the inability to stop playing football.  Perhaps mocking the scientific approach to analyzing football, Adidas also conveys the deeply ingrained love for the game that all players have.
Featured players: Del Piero, Zidane, Collina (referee), Barthez, Beckham

The Mission - Nike - Euro 2000
In the style of Mission Impossible, Nike tops themselves again with a theatrical experience for the fans.  This one makes fun of itself by claiming the new Nike ball is better because its ... "rounder".  My question is, how come only Davids and Bierhoff made it into the helicoptor before the explosion?  Did everyone else die?
Players: Figo, Thuram, Yorke, Cole, Davids, Guardiola, Totti, Nakata, Bierhoff

Brazil Airport - Nike - WC 1998
John Woo directed this classic spot which perfectly conveyed the skill and joy of Brazilian football culture.  Nike picks the perfect song again, this time "Mas Que Nada" - everytime you hear it, you think Brasil.
Featured Players: Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos, Denilson, Romario, Cantona 

Good vs Evil - Nike - Euro 96
The first feature-like soccer commercial of its time.  Maybe it was banned (wherever that was) because those demons look a little too scary for kids, but hey, the good guys win in the end.  I think its scarier to see that Maldini was once that young.
Players: Brolin, Campos, Maldini, Rui Costa, Cantona, Figo, Ronaldo, Kluivert, Davids, Wright


My Top Five

1) Take it to the Next Level
2) Brazil Airport
3) Jose Plus 10
4) Secret Tournament
5) Pepsi Western

Friday, July 16, 2010

Distance Covered (Miles Per 90 Min)

I've always been interested in how much distance a player covers in the course of a match.  You can really tell how hard he's playing by how much he is willing to run.  Sometimes, when a player isn't scoring or his touch is off, he can still make a huge contribution by his work rate.  So, I was very interested to see FIFA's stats on distance covered.

http://www.fifa.com/worldcup/statistics/players/distanceandspeed.html

FIFA only listed TOTAL distances run by players in the entire tournament.  This is not helpful.  A player who played 7 games, like Xavi, obviously covered more ground than say, Michael Bradley, who was eliminated in the 2nd round.  Average distances covered per game obviously makes more sense, but it is not an accurate measure either since some players played in OT, while others did not.

So, I am introducing my own measure of distance covered.  I converted FIFA's stats into my own stat: miles covered per 90 minute match.  There were two minimum requirements: at least 270 minutes played, and those 270 min had to be covered in 3 matches, which means full game starters only.  This way, 2nd half subs don't count as a full game played which would badly skew the results.  Also, minimum 3 matches is a fair measure since it is a full tournament for many teams.  I took total distance covered, divided by total minutes, then multiplied by 90.  It isn't perfect, since I didn't take the time to account for penalty time or stoppages in play for injury, etc. But, whatever.

These are the top 15 players who covered the most ground in miles, per 90 min match in the 2010 WC:

An Yong Hak (North Korea, 3 matches) 7.50
Michael Bradley (USA, 4 matches) 7.41
Gerardo Torrado (Mexico, 4 matches) 7.36
Jason Culina (Australia, 3 matches) 7.26
Sami Khedira (Germany, 7 matches) 7.23
Bastian Schweinsteiger (Germany, 7 matches) 7.19
Christian Poulsen (Denmark, 3 matches) 7.14
Xabi Alonso (Spain, 7 matches) 7.05
Xavi Hernandez (Spain, 7 matches) 7.05
Raul Meireles (Portugal, 4 matches) 7.05
Marek Hamsek (Slovakia, 4 matches) 6.97
Landon Donovan (USA, 4 matches) 6.95
Carlos Salcido (Mexico, 4 matches) 6.93
Gokhan Inler (Switzerland, 3 matches) 6.89
Robert Koren (Slovenia, 3 matches) 6.88


Random Observations:

- I have even more respect for Michael Bradley after realizing that he runs more per game than anyone in the tournament, save 1.  The North Korean ran a ridiculous 7.5 miles per game but he did it out of fear (probably trying to avoid labor camps).  (Hopefully An didn't get publicly humiliated by that joke of a demi-god as much as the others).  Bradley ran because he wanted to.  It certainly paid off with that 80th minute goal vs Slovenia.



- Spanish midfield duo, Xavi and Alonso both ran 7.05 all 7 matches, proving that their victory was not just a result of superior technical skill, but desire as well.  The Dutch had zero players on this list.

- German midfield duo, Schweinsteiger and Khedira finished 5th and 6th overall.  Everyone knew Bastian was good, but Khedira parlayed his breakout tournament into a transfer to Real Madrid.

- Donovan finished 12th overall showing that superior fitness is also part of his arsenal.

- The two Mexicans on the list both finished 1 spot below an American ( Bradley over Torrado, Donovan over Salcido).

- 14 of the 15 players are midfielders.  The lone exception is Salcido, a fullback who essentially plays like a wing.

- 10 of the 15 players made it out of the group stage - harder workers make it farther, perhaps?

- Interestingly, none of the 15 players played exactly 5 matches.  Obviously, anyone who made it to the 6th game (semi final), also played a 7th (third place match).  (The teams eliminated in the quarters - the 5th game - were Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Ghana.)

- This list includes 1 Asian, 1 Australian, 4 North Americans and 9 Europeans.  No South Americans or Africans appear on the list.

- 4 countries had 2 players each - USA, Germany, Spain, Mexico.

- Did I mention that Michael Bradley finished #2 overall of all players in the entire World Cup?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

WC Starting XI


 ----------Casillas----------
Maicon - Juan - Coentrao
----Xavi---Schweinsteiger-
Mueller - Sneijder - Iniesta
-----Forlan---Villa------

Casillas - Kept a clean sheet in all 4 group games when he had to be perfect.

Maicon - Perfect blend of speed, power and defensive smarts.  Unforgettable strike vs N Korea as well.  Narrowly edged out Ramos for me.

Juan - Juan was even more effective than Lucio in the heart of Dunga's D.  No one in the WC had more tackles than he did (11) and he only played 6 matches.

Coentrao - 9 clearances, 7 tackles, Fabio was key to Portugal's superb defense.  He was also a terror going forward.

Xavi - The key to Spain's offense, he completed 544 passes, 54 more than 2nd place.  Xavi also covered more ground than anyone in the tournament at 80.20 km.

Schweinsteiger - He emerged as a deep lying playmaker this WC driving Germany's potent attack.  He was 2nd in distance covered with 79.80 km.

Mueller - Golden Boot winner for his 5 goals and 3 assists.

Sneijder - Possibly the best playmaker in the world, he carried the Netherlands to the Final with his 5 goals.

Iniesta - Most dangerous player in the 2nd half of the Final.  Calmly drilled home the biggest goal in Spain's history in extra time.

Villa - 5 beautiful goals for a team that only scored 8 all tournament.

Forlan - My MVP of the tournament.  5 goals, 3 of which were outside the penalty area.  No one did more to carry his team - and he got them to the 3rd place game.  I actually saw him score a great goal in an exhibition vs Club America back in the summer of 2003 when he was with Man U.  Yeah, of course I knew he would put his stamp on the biggest stage.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

All time US WC Goals and Caps

With his outstanding showing at this World Cup, Landon became the all-time US leader in WC goals and appearances, with 5 goals in 12 total caps.  While many have argued that he has piled up his incredible overall US goals and caps tallies only because he's opted to play domestically and is therefore available for so many international matches on home soil, there is no selling short his WC records.  Had he mentally showed up for the 2006 WC, he might have put these records out of reach by now.  Who knows what he might be able to add in 2014.  Here are all the US goal scorers and US leaders in matches played in WC history.

All-Time US World Cup Goal Scorers

5 - Landon Donovan (2002 Mexico, 2002 Poland, 2010 Slovenia, 2010 Algeria, 2010 Ghana PK)
4 - Bert Patenaude (1930 Belgium, 1930 Paraguay 3x)
3 - Brian McBride (1998 Iran, 2002 Portugal, 2002 Mexico)
2 - Clint Dempsey (2006 Ghana, 2010 England)
2 - Bart McGhee (1930 Belgium 2x)
1 - Michael Bradley (2010 Slovenia), Jim Brown (1930 Argentina), Paul Caligiuri (1990 Czechoslovakia), Aldo Donelli (1934 Italy), Joe Gaetjens (1950 England), Joe Maca (1950 Chile PK), Clint Mathis (2002 Korea), Bruce Murray (1990 Austria), John O'Brien (2002 Portugal), Gino Pariani (1950 Spain), Earnie Stewart (1994 Colombia), Frank Wallace (1950 Chile), Eric Wynalda (1994 Switzerland)


All-Time US Leaders in World Cup Matches Played

12 - Landon Donovan
11 - Cobi Jones, Earnie Stewart
10 - Brian McBride, Claudio Reyna
9 - Eddie Pope, Tab Ramos
8 - Marcelo Balboa, Eric Wynalda
7 - DaMarcus Beasley, Paul Caligiuri, Steve Cherundolo, Thomas Dooley, Frankie Hejduk, Tony Meola
6 - Carlos Bocanegra, Clint Dempsey, Brad Friedel, John Harkes, John O'Brien, Roy Wegerle

Other Notable Current US Players
5 - Onyewu
4 - Altidore, Bradley, DeMerit, Howard


Random Observations:

-Donovan and Dempsey have the opportunity to be the first Americans to score in 3 World Cups, should they make the team for Brazil 2014.  McBride last had that chance but sadly couldn't find the back of the net in '06.
-Donovan, Dempsey, Jozy, Gooch, Bradley and Howard have a good chance to climb the caps list starting in 2014.
-Should Howard start all 3 group games in 2014, he'll tie Meola for most US goalkeeper starts.
-Beasley, Bocanegra, Cherundolo and DeMerit probably won't be back.  They're too old or have declining skills (Beaz).
-Jozy (age 20) and Bradley (age 22) are the 2 guys young enough to have a decent shot at dethroning Landon from either of his WC records.
-Neither US Legend, Cobi Jones or Claudio Reyna scored a goal during their long WC career.
-Perhaps the most well known ex-US player, Alexi Lalas only had 4 WC caps.  Apparently 1998's sudden formation change to 3-6-1 sent him to the bench.
-Kasey Keller finished with 5 caps even though he was the starter in 2 WCs because Friedel started the final group game in 1998.

Caps Leaders starting lineup 
------McBride----Wynalda-------
Donovan-----Reyna-------- Jones
--------Ramos---Stewart---------
---Pope----Balboa---Caliguiri----
------------Meola---------------

Monday, July 12, 2010

Campeones!


These are the reasons I was hoping Spain would win:

1) The winner's style / strength would be emulated around the world.  Spain's ability to control matches through possession and creative attack deserves to be held in such regard.  Their midfield passing is so exquisite - its beautiful to watch them operate.

2) Nigel de Jong broke Stuart Holden's leg from behind in March for no reason, IN A FRIENDLY.

3) In fact, I realized for the first time that very game that the Dutch played cheap - they fouled hard and dove easily.  Its like playing Guatemala.  Robben is one of the best attacking wings in the world and one of its premier divers.  Van Bommel kicks people's legs for fun.

4) Sneijder is not a good guy.  From all accounts, he's just a jerk.  An extraordinary wizard on the ball who can single-handedly control games as only a select elite few can, but still a world class jerk.  His spat with Van Persie is surely one of the reasons the two never linked up well this WC.  Ironically, I rooted for Sneijder and Inter to take out Barcelona in Champions League earlier this year.

5) Iker Casillas, like Spain, has been great for so long and deserves to have this trophy on the mantle.  I'll be happy for all the Real players when they realize their dream (and Del Bosque, who guided Zidane and Real early 2000s).

6) I like their wordless royal march of a national anthem.  Its catchy.  By the way, did their national anthem sound like it was speeded up or something?  Maybe its just the broadcast...

7) This is really the last true soccer country that hasn't been able to finally break through. Boasting one of the top leagues in the world, La Liga's players (most from Real and Barca) have formed the perfect team to represent Spain as its first champion.  The Netherlands might have great youth programs, like Ajax, but their top level teams are no longer among the best.

8) Spain's tactical superiority over a German side who had dominated England and Argentina was a sight to see.

9) A victory for Spain would be like when Mickelson finally broke through the majors barrier at the 2003 Masters.  A victory for the Dutch is like, well, Sergio Garcia doing it, which would elicit this response from me: "Eh, okay".

10) If Spain won it all, the US would be the only team to eliminate Spain in a major international competition during their dominant 2007-2010 run.  (Switzerland, by their own admission, closely followed US tactics to squeeze out a lucky 1-0 win in the first group stage.)  We want to be able to say that we beat the best.

When Sneijder's perfect pass (surprisingly, the only truly positive thing I can remember from him this game) threaded the Spanish defense and found a streaking Robben in the 2nd half with only Casillas to beat, I felt a sinking feeling inside.  It felt like Materorrist's goal in in the 2006 Final.  Were the bad guys going to win it all again?  Then, improbably, Casillas got his boot on it to deflect it wide even though he dove the wrong way.  That probably would have been game over.

I don't understand why the Dutch have been complaining about the ref.  I know he missed an obvious Dutch corner in extra time, but the biggest missed call of the night was when he only gave de Jong a yellow for his heinous karate kick on Alonso instead of the red that he deserved.  Had the Dutch been a man down from the first half on, Spain would have likely won that game by multiple goals easily.  Holland needs to shut up.  Their strategy wasn't to outplay Spain but instead to take them out of their game by fouling early and often.  Even Dutch legend, Cruyff didn't respect that.  If you're gonna play anti-football, don't complain when the ref starts carding you.  Every single Dutch yellow card (9 in all?) was deserved.  I even thought Van Bommel's tackle on Iniesta should have been red instead of yellow.

Personally I'm glad de Jong and/or Van Bommel wasn't sent off simply because it would've put a serious damper on the game early on.  This road to victory for the Spanish is much more satisfying.  After enduring a game full of dirty play, instigated by and predominantly carried out by the Dutch, Spain deservedly broke through in the waning moments and became the victor in the most dramatic of fashion, a la Landon Donovan v Algeria.

I must admit, I predicted a 2-1 Netherlands win.  I thought that if the US and Switzerland could frustrate Spain long enough as well as get a lucky goal (or two), the Dutch surely could do it as well.  After all, the Oranje were the only ones who had won all their games in the WC.  They were the ones to take down Brazil by coming from behind.  Spain had needed late goals just to advance and they could only get one.  And Sneijder was on top of the world after dominating in Italy, taking down Barcelona in the CL and winning it all - this was surely his year.

The US gameplan was there for everyone to see.  But Netherlands clearly opted for the cheap and dirty fouls route, which the US didn't have to do, and they got what they deserved.  And while Jozy's shot deflected off Casillas into the net, Robben's deflected wide.  That's probably the difference.

It wasn't a perfect night.  I wish Fernando Torres would've scored that winning goal.  It's a shame that a player of that magnitude was so out of form for the biggest tournament of his life.  Oh well.  At least he scored the game-winner to clinch the Euro 2008.

However, Iker Casillas showed up on the biggest stage.  Whether you think him lucky or not, he kept a clean sheet in all 4 games of the knockout round (and only allowed 2 through 7 games), including that enormous PK save vs Paraguay as well as stopping Germany's one great chance from Kroos.  Obviously in this game, his two saves on Robben' breakaways will be remembered forever.  With Spain only scoring one goal in each elimination game, Casillas had to be perfect.  He was.  It was slightly moving to see his emotional response to the goal.  With minutes still left on the clock, he started crying immediately.  You could see how much it means to him to finally win.  After during the media session, he had a Jerry Maguire moment when his emotion overwhelmed the moment and he kissed his surprised girlfriend, who was also the sports journalist interviewing him.


Iniesta benefited most from the introductions of Fabregas, who likes to attack directly - probably learned that in England, and Jesus Navas, the only true winger Spain employed, which provided much needed width on the right.  So Iniesta was able to assert himself more and more as the game wore on and also seemed to be the primary target of Dutch dirty fouls by the end (which got Heitinga sent off).  Navas and Fabregas were also massively important in the final scoring attack and Iniesta cooly slotted it home.

In the end, the right team won.  It wasn't a beautiful game, thats for sure.  The Dutch made it that way.  I thought Spain also didn't play as well in this tournament as they had in Euro 08 - perhaps starting a natural winger like Navas or Silva would've helped, or perhaps if Torres had been in form, their attack would have been more potent.  But perhaps this is fitting, the first victory of a trophy starved nation shouldn't come smoothly, it should come through struggle - and we all saw the blood, sweat, and finally tears.

Spain strikes me as the kind of (potentially elitist snob) nation that I won't be rooting for probably in 4 years, especially if they keep up their dominance, but for now, its good to see the best team to not win a WC finally prevail.

Friday, July 9, 2010

4-2-3-1 The Formation of the Future?

Since Steve Sampson's 3-6-1 disaster in WC 1998, we have primarily been a 4-4-2 shop.  Bruce Arena did try a 3-5-2 at times but mostly used a 4-4-2 (or perhaps more accurately, a 4-4-1-1).  Since then, Bob Bradley has been relentlessly accused by fans of using the 4-4-2 "empty bucket" where 2 holding or defensive midfielders play deeper than the two wings while the forwards stay up top, creating a bucket formation in the midfield:

LM--------------RM
----CM----CM-----

In actuality, we are a fairly rigid 4-4-2 on defense (2 straight lines of 4!).  But on offense, I've noticed that we really are more a 4-2-2-2, with Landon and Dempsey cutting centrally inside at will and our fullbacks having to provide width and make overlapping runs for us.  If the opposing team has strong possession midfielders and capable flank attackers, our fullbacks get pinned back, and our offense seems to be really narrow, and therefore sometimes sputter.  On offense it can look like this:

-----Jozy-Findley---
-----LD---Demps---
------MB-Edu-----

Anyway, I thought it was interesting that most of the successful world class teams used a 4-2-3-1 formation this WC.  Look at how Spain, Holland, Germany and Brazil have deployed their forward/midfielders.

Spain:
-------Torres------- (If Torres' out, Villa's up top, Pedro's on the wing)
Villa---Xavi--Iniesta
---Alonso-Busq---

Netherlands:
------Van Persie-----
Kuyt-Sneijder-Robben
-VanBom-de Jong---

Germany:
--------Klose-------
Podolski-Ozil-Mueller
--Schwein-Khedira-

Brazil:
-------Fabiano-----
Robinho-Kaka-Elano
---Gilberto-Melo--

Look at how one of these teams would lineup in the midfield vs ours:

-----Bradley--Edu--------
Podolski---Ozil---Mueller
Dempsey----------Landon
-----Schwein-Khedira----

At the very least, midfield possession favors them.

So lets say Klinnsman takes over and wants to play a 4-2-3-1.  Particularly for us, it would eliminate the eternal struggle for a second forward and make use of the depth of our midfielders.  (Of course, Jozy would need to, you know, score a little more often, like Klose, Fabiano or Villa, but that's a whole new conversation for another day.)  How would it look?

-----------Jozy------------
Landon-----X-----Dempsey
-------Edu----Bradley----

So the question is who would play the X?  Who is our playmaker?

Candidates: Landon could shift back into a strictly central position but play deeper behind the striker than he did under McBride in WC 2006.  I think Dempsey would be fine in this role as well while Holden slots in on the right in his place.  Jose Francisco Torres might be great fit for this role with his ball and passing skills - his lack of defending ability could be shielded there.  Or perhaps Adu might fit this spot in a few years, pending maturity level.  Personally, I'd keep Landon and Dempsey out wide and take Benny Feilhaber's experience and field vision right now.  (Okay, I'm not going to discuss the world class players deployed there for those other teams that make it work - Sneijder, Kaka, Xavi and even the newcomer Ozil.)

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Final Two!

With Spain defeating Germany today, history as been made (again).  Only 7 teams have ever hoisted the World Cup trophy (Brazil 5, Italy 4, W Germany 3, Argentina 2, Uruguay 2, England 1, France 1) in the 18 tournaments held over 76 years (1930 - 2006).  On Sunday, an 8th team will forever gain admittance to the group of World Cup champions.

It takes something pretty special to breakthrough on the biggest stage.  The last team to finally win one was France in 1998 due to Zidane's wizardry, and beautifully balding head (twice).  Before that, Argentina finally emerged victorious in 1978 after years of inferiority to their Brazilian rivals simply because of the genius of one Maradona.  In 1966, England finally won their one and only title in the 8th edition of a tournament that they, as progenitors of the game, probably think they should have dominated from the beginning, and it was probably mostly due to the fact that they hosted.  In fact, the 3 aforementioned teams were all WC hosts when they finally broke through.

The other winners too, Uruguay, Italy, W Germany and Brazil, managed to win their first titles in the first 6 Cups, mostly at home.  Uruguay won the inaugural tournament at home ('30), Italy won the 2nd tournament also at home ('34), and Germany snagged its first title in Switzerland ('54), which is practically home anyway.  However, Brazil, of all countries, shockingly fell short of winning in 1950 when they hosted.

Also interestingly, this will be the first WC in history to not have one of these 4 teams competing in the championship game: Argentina, Italy, Germany and Brazil.

I think its fitting that Germany lost today.  The best possession team vs the best counter-attacking team made for a great matchup.  But the fact is, Spain proved that the best defense is a great offense.  You can't counter when you've been chasing the ball the whole game.  You also might lose concentration on defending set pieces when you're tired, which is exactly how Puyol was alone for his entire 7 yard run-up and header for the winning goal.  Spain's possession so choked off Germany's attack that they really only had 1 real goalscoring chance that I remember.  Mueller's replacement, Trochowski's shot was saved by a diving Casillas and that was that.  Ozil, Mueller and company are young, its just not their time.  I predict a deep run from them again in 2014, not that Germany doesn't always have a deep run.

So basically, a first time European winner will be crowned outside of its home border and away from Europe on Sunday for the very first time.  (Brazil did do it in 1958 in Sweden.)

Netherlands and Spain both have a frustrating soccer history, though in different ways.  The Netherlands didn't enter 3 of the first 5 WCs and exited after the 1st round in the other two.  Next, they failed to qualify for the next 6 consecutive WCs from 1950-70, then managed to soar into the final game in both 1974 and 1978, only to lose both games to host countries, Argentina and W Germany.  They immediately failed to qualify for the next 2 WCs and since then finished in the Round of 16 twice, Quarterfinals once and would only once come close to glory with a semifinal finish in 1998, which was immediately followed by a failure to qualify for WC 2002.

Spain hasn't even been to the semifinal round before, disregarding their 4th place finish in 1950 since they finished last in the 2nd round group - there was no playoff.  From 1954-74, they failed to advance from the first round twice, which was better than the other 4 times they failured to even qualify at all.  Though they've qualified for every WC since 1978, they only managed these finishes: Round 1 exits twice, Round 2 exits 3 times and Quarterfinal appearances another 3 times.  That doesn't sound too bad.... if you're Mexico.  But for a soccer superpower, it is an enormous continual failure and a badge of national shame.

Though the Dutch have 2 Finals appearances and 1 semifinal match before this year under their belt, Spain can boast about their Euro 2008 championship - a victory which seemed to mark a titanic shift in the world football landscape.  While both countries have previously won Euro championships decades ago, Spain's current Euro title anoints them as the reigning world power (seeing as they knocked off WC 2006 winner Italy en route) and therefore the favorite coming into this Final.

Another reason Spain may be looked at as the favorite is the fact that their lineup consists of players mostly from the two La Liga world powers - Real Madrid and Barcelona.  Casillas, Ramos and Alonso represent Real while Xavi, Iniesta, Puyol, Pique, Busquets, Pedro and now Villa ply their trade for Barcelona.  These were 10 of the 11 semifinal starters (the last was Villareal's Capdevilla at LB, you know, the one whom Jozy manhandled for the win in 2009 - I would start Real's Arbeloa instead, but whatever).  Other major contributors include Liverpool's Torres and Arsenal's Fabregas (who may also end up in Barcelona soon).

The Dutch can boast Van Persie (Arsenal), Robben (Bayern Munich), Sneijder (Inter Milan), Kuyt (Liverpool) and Van der Vaart (Real).  Others players for big clubs include Van Bommel (Bayern Munich), de Jong (Man City) and Huntelaar (AC Milan).  In many respects, this just seems like Sneijder's year, doesn't it?  He was a big reason Inter Milan won Italy's first ever treble and Inter's first Champions League in about 45 years.  Should he lead the Netherlands to the victory, he will be the world football player of the year for sure.  (I knew that Real shouldn't have sold him last summer.  I didn't realize that he might be all-world, but I knew he was a great player.)  Still, you'll notice that none listed for the Dutch are actually defenders, which is a scary proposition when faced with Spain's world class attacking prowess.

In particular, the familiarity in which Spain's Barcelona central midfield and CB contingent operate paramountly contributes to Spain's ability to carry out it's quick and plentiful passing style, especially through the center.

Anyway, with Brazil knocked out, this is the best possible matchup.  I initially had Spain and Brazil in the top tier with England, Argentina and the Netherlands in the 2nd.  (Germany I lumped with pretenders Italy and France.  That was dumb - I'll never doubt Deutschland again.  After the fact, I will now swap them out with England into the 2nd tier.)  I didn't really have a good reason why Netherlands shouldn't be included in the top tier, except for the fact that they hadn't really won anything.  Until now.  Maybe.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

World Cup Semis and Finals Historical Look

With Netherlands beating out Uruguay today, history has been made.  For the first time ever, a European country will win the World Cup away from European soil.  Of the 18 WCs so far, 10 were held in Europe, 4 in South America, 3 in North America, 1 in Asia and now 1 in Africa.  Part of the reason I kept thinking that Brazil would win this year is that they usually emerge as the victor when the WC is held on "neutral" ground - meaning not in Europe or South America.  They've won 3 of 4 times:

Brazil '70 in Mexico
Argentina '86 in Mexico
Brazil '94 in the USA
Brazil '02 in Korea/Japan

They won the first time the WC was held in North America and then in Asia.  You'd think they'd win the first time it was held in Africa.  You'd also think that they'd also be one of the 6 teams to win the title in their home country, but they aren't.  Those that did are:

Uruguay '30, Italy '34, England '66, W Germany '74, Argentina '78, France '98.

Brazil did progress to the final in the only WC it ever hosted in 1950 but lost to Uruguay.  Which are the countries who progressed to the finals of the WC they were hosting and lost?

Brazil '50 lost to Uruguay
Sweden '58 lost to Brazil

Which countries made it to the semifinals of the WC they were hosting and lost?

Chile '62, Italy '90, Korea '02, Germany '06.

So of the 19 WCs including this year, the host nation has reached the semifinals 12 times, with 8 that reached the finals and 6 who won it all.  Those are pretty decent odds - too bad South Africa couldn't progress from their group.  Then again, the US and Mexico (twice) didn't get to the semis when they hosted either.  How the heck did S Korea get there?  That's the real question.  Shoddy officiating, wasn't it?

In the 18 WC tournaments starting from 1930 through 2006, Europeans (Italy 4, W Germany 3, England 1, France 1) and South Americans (Brazil 5, Argentina 2, Uruguay 2) have each won 9 times.

This year, Europe will finally breakthrough outside the European border as the Netherlands and Germany took down favorites, Brazil and Argentina.  This would be the first time since the 1930 and 1934 WCs that Brazil or Argentina are not in successive semifinals, having both missed in 2006 and again this year.

Also, this will be the first time since Italy's '34 and '38 wins that European countries will win back to back World Cups.  Of course, Brazil did it for South America by winning in '58 and '62.

In regards to the 9 South American titles, 4 were won on the home continent (Uruguay '30, '50, Brazil '62, Argentina '78) and 4 away, as listed earlier.  Brazil is still the only South American or European country to win at a tournament held on the other's soil - 1958 vs Sweden.  Of course, they've had more chances since 10 were held in Europe and only 4 in South America.  Still, its interesting to see the dominance that European teams display on European soil and its ineptitude away from it.

Last note on Brazil, its surprising that they have won 4 of its 5 titles away from South America.  Its safe to say that the odds are with them winning it all in 2014.  In just about every way, they're due.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Quarterfinals!

Netherlands 2 - Brazil 1
Its been said that an NBA playoff series doesn't really begin until the home team loses.  For me, the true race for the World Cup began with the favorite going down.  Brazil not even making the semi finals is a shock.  Especially after Robinho's early goal, I assumed that a dominant performance would ensue.  The Dutch defense was already questionable with one of the CBs a late scratch and after Melo's easy pass exposed this fact, I figured Brazil would end up with at least 2 more goals.
Who would have thought that it would be Brazil to give up those 2?  Who would have thought that it would be a Brazilian to lose his composure at the end of contest?  Melo first misfortune was not being able to head Sneijder's sublime left-footed looper away while simulataneously keeping the goalkeeper from punching it out.  Still, I couldn't believe that Brazil started to panic.  It was just a lucky goal.  But their offense looked completely out of sync.  Then Dunga's famed defense broke down on Sneijder's second goal with, who else, Melo allowing him a completely free header.  When Melo Rooney-stomped Robben's leg, the match was over.  Dunga will be lambasted for not having enough offensive firepower since when he really needed a goal, he had to bring in a kid instead of Ronaldinho or any other Brazilian wizard at his disposal.
As for my favorite Brazilian, Kaka, I thought he had a mediocre game.  While the Dutch keeper impressively kept out a sure goal in the 1st half, Kaka missed a shot just outside the box in the 2nd half that I fully expected a great player of his stature to make, especially when his team needed it.  Near the end, in full stride with one man to beat, he should have cut the ball inside and taken a shot.  Instead he cut left, limited his angle and only got a corner out of it.  That was that.  While Melo and Dunga will receive the brunt of the blame, Kaka will sadly be seen as the one who couldn't deliver.
With France, Italy and now Brazil out, we will definitely have a new champion since 1990.
As for the Netherlands side, I hated how they dove and embellished at every opportunity.  It was like watching one of those unsporting Central American teams, like Mexico or Guatemala.  Robben was the main culprit in this one.  For this reason alone, I'll be rooting for the winner of Germany/Spain to take it all.

Uruguay 1 - Ghana 1 (4-2 PKs)
The two goals scored in this match - Muntari's awesome 45 yard strike before half and Forlan's beautiful swerving free kick - are the kind of quality goals that I wish the US would be able to score.  But anyway, the match itself was much more entertaining than the Brazil-Neth contest.  It was much more wide open and of course the drama at the end will be a lasting memory from this WC.
Was Suarez's hand ball wrong and not within the spirit of the game?  Yes.  Was it adjudicated properly?  Yes.  Would I add a goaltending rule much like in basketball?  Well, probably not.  There is already too much on the referee's shoulders as it is.  Are we really expecting him to decide whether a hand played the ball or if the ball played the hand?  It just opens a can of worms that soccer doesn't need.  Obviously had the play occurred in the first minute of play, Suarez would have never used his hands since Uruguay would have been a man down the rest of the match.  But in his situation, there was nothing to lose.  He had to do that.  Perhaps the rule should be that if a handball occurs on the goalline in the last 10 minutes of the 2nd half or in extra time, it should automatically be a goal.  Anyway, it was an exciting end to an exciting match.
I was trying to figure out who I wanted to root for.  Contrary to the rest of the sympathetic world, I was probably hoping for Uruguay to win since I didn't want to see Ghana, the team that had eliminated the US in the last 2 WCs to progress.  I really didn't appreciate their diving and injury-faking at the end our last match.  Uruguay, with the highly impressive Forlan, and ancient WC history, just seemed to fit a semi-final spot more than Ghana.  Plus, I liked that Uruguay beat down Mexico to keep them in the 2nd group spot, something that France couldn't do.  But of course after the handball, it would have been better for soccer for Ghana to progress.  Also, its better for US to lose to a semifinalist than a quarterfinalist.  But oh well.

Germany 4 - Argentina 0
The 2nd shock of this round.  Its not surprising that Deutschland won, of course.  Whats surpising is the ease with which they won.  The question mark was not Argentina's offense, it was always their defense.  The Mueller goal in the 3rd minute was the result of horrible man-marking as much as it was the result of Bastian's great set piece and Mueller's run.  The 2nd goal was something I can't remember ever seeing in a game of this magnitude.  Podolski's pass threaded the keeper and defender so well that Klose literally walked the ball into goal.  The 3rd goal was the result of statue-eque defending as Bastian calmly dribbled through the lazy Argentine defense and slotted it to the oncoming Friedrich.  With Klose already on the board, how was he completely unmarked as he scored the 4th German goal?  That goal was also the 4th of this World Cup and 14th goal of his World Cup career.  How its possible that Klose is merely average for his club team but unstoppable for Germany leaves us either incredulous or simply in awe of the machine that is German football.  This year, the machine has unleashed Mueller and the newest playmaker to take world soccer by storm, Ozil.  He is my favorite German to watch this year.  Muller's yellow card was ridiculous and should be rescinded if they used my postgame review system.  The fact that he will miss the Spain match will hurt them.  Or maybe not.  It is Germany after all.
I know everyone is supposed to hate Germany and the ridiculous success they've had in WCs (quarterfinalists every WC since 1982 and semifinalists 6 of last 8 WCs including this year), but after traveling through that country in 2006 and meeting its people, I much prefer them to the French, the Italians and definitely the Dutch.  Since they are not the giant superstars and egomaniacs that England players mostly are, so I guess I'd include the English as well.  What about the Spanish?  well...

Spain 1 - Paraguay 0
Definitely was rooting for Spain in this one.  Who wants to see a 2nd South American squad in the final four when neither is Brazil or Argentina?  Plus, of the 4 teams left, I definitely want to see Spain win.  Germany already has 3 titles and they're still young.  Yes, the Netherlands have never won but who wants to see Sneijder, Van Persie and those other punks win anything?
Spain is now in their prime.  They won the Euro 2008 and if they win this year, the US will be the only team to eliminate them in a major tournament in the midst of their dominance.  Plus, their wordless royal march of an anthem is catchy.

Predictions:
I guessing Netherlands and Germany will meet in the final.  Spain just seems vulnerable right now and I've learned not to pick against the machine.