Tag Archives: USA

World Cup Quarterfinal Preview and Predictions

Having taken a vacation to recover from the US’s crushing loss to Ghana, it’s back to the World Cup.  Despite the lack of both England and the US, I am still enamored with the quadrennial football fiesta.  The one thing that is missing is a team to support.  At the beginning of the tournament, as with Euro 2008, I was into the Dutch.  What’s not to like?  They play flowing soccer that is beautiful to watch.  Yet, as the tournament has gone on, the in-fighting in the Dutch camp has left me with a sour taste in my mouth.  I just can’t bring myself to root for Brazil or Germany.  I almost likened cheering for them to cheering for the Yankees, but the Brazilians are eminently more likeable, the Germans marginally so.  For obvious reasons Ghana is out.  Paraguay just doesn’t do much for me.  They don’t play exciting soccer and they don’t have any superlative talents to seduce me.  Uruguay has some appeal.  They are a plucky country with a strong World Cup tradition (they won in 1930 and 1950).  They also sport Luis Suarez, the best forward many people have never heard of.  Check him out, he was prolific with Ajax and will be the target of a big money move this summer.  There is something about Argentina that I like.  Is it their crazy manager?  Their diminutive talisman?  Or those spiffy uniforms?  I’m not sure, but they are a close second for me right now.  In discussions at work, I think I’ve settled on Spain.  They are fun to watch.  Their midfield picks teams apart and David Villa is a striking dynamo.  Can Spain win?  Yes.  They are the #2 team in the world and thankfully, they are on the opposite side of the bracket as Brazil.

Now on to a preview of the quarterfinals and my predictions.

Netherlands (#4 in the FIFA World Rankings) vs. Brazil (#1) – 10am, Friday 7/2:  It is truly a shame that this match is happening at the quarterfinal stage.  This match pits one of the best teams never to win a World Cup against the only team to win on 4 (hoping to make it 5) different continents.  Brazil has looked like a machine during the tournament.  They easily finished first in the supposed “Group of Death”, never really having a problem.  They then dismantled a Chile team that was playing some excellent soccer coming into their round of 16 match.  While Brazil may not have their traditional flare, they are still fun to watch.  They are a tough squad that mirrors their manager and if it is possible with a Brazil team, they are greater than the sum of their parts (which is substantial).

The Dutch marched through their group and swept away Slovakia in the round of 16.  Arjen Robben returned to provide the spark the Dutch needed and should be a greater contributor against Brazil.  (As an aside, does anyone think that Robben is soccer’s Greg Oden, a man who despite being a relatively young age looks like he’s about 50).  The Dutch have played excellent defense and but have lacked a little of their traditional attacking flare.  What they haven’t lacked is their traditional in-fighting.  Robin Van Persie and Wesley Sneijder just can’t seem to bury a hatchet that has been around since Euro ’08 and this tension has spilled over to the rest of the team.  Another question mark is Maarten Stekelenburg, the Dutch keeper.  He has played admirably thus far, but can he withstand the Brazilian attack?

This match should provide some fun soccer.  Ultimately, I think that Brazil’s strong midfield and defense (captained by Lucio) will clog the field and prevent Robben, Van Persie, Sneijeder and the rest of the Dutch attacking talent from truly opening up the game.  I also believe that Luis Fabiano, Robinho, and Kaka will conjure enough magic to break through the Dutch defense.  Prediction: Brazil

Uruguay (#16) vs. Ghana (#32) – 2:30pm, Friday 7/2:  The late game tomorrow pits a team that has been to the top of the mountain (albeit 60 years ago) against Africa’s last hope.  Uruguay has looked impressive thus far, easily winning its group (thanks in part to an imploding France and a not ready for prime time South Africa).   It took a late winner from the aforementioned Luis Suarez to defeat South Korea in the round of 16, but Uruguay had the better of the chances in that game.  Uruguay has displayed an attacking style that is fun to watch, and they have two top level forwards in Suarez and Diego ForlanFernando Muslera, who plays his club soccer with Lazio in Italy, has been great in goal.  Uruguay will be missing defender Diego Godin, due to injury, and will have to find a replacement.

Ghana, as well know, defeated the US in the round of 16 to advance to the quarterfinals.  Prior to that, they finished 2nd in what I thought was the toughest group at the World Cup.  They were able to make it out of a group that consisted of Germany, Serbia and Australia.  Ghana is the lowest ranked team left playing in the World Cup and was the lowest ranked team in their group.  The Black Stars have taken advantage of home-field advantage and are receiving the support of the entire continent of Africa.  Ghana hadn’t scored a goal in the run of play prior to the US game, so scoring for them could be difficult.  Asamoah Gyan and Kevin Prince-Boateng will provide the attacking impetus.

This match could be fun, though I doubt it will be as exciting as the early game tomorrow.  Ghana’s defense and goal-keeping has looked shaky (the US game notwithstanding) and I think that the Uruguayan front line will be able to pick its spots.  I also think that Ghana will find it difficult to break down the Uruguayan defense and get a shot past Muslera.  Forlan and Suarez will lead Uruguay to its first semifinal appearance in 40 years.  Prediction: Uruguay

Argentina (#7) vs. Germany (#6) – 10am, Saturday 7/3:

Would you want to mess with this guy?

This match has generated the most off-field buzz, as one might expect when the match includes Diego Maradona.  A war of words has erupted between Germany and Argentina that stems from bad blood created at the 2006 World Cup.  Germany defeated Argentina on penalty kicks in that game, which was followed by some unsportsmanlike conduct (punches were thrown).  Bastian Schweinsteiger, one of Germany’s most important midfielders, admitted that he has been thinking about the 2006 match and expects Argentina to try to stir things up.  Diego Maradona, of course, replied to Schweinsteiger’s comments by donning a mock German accent to taunt the midfielder.  Maradona is crazy, who knows what the guy will do next.  It is part of Argentina’s appeal.  Carloz Tevez also got in on the war of words stating that he believed Mexico were better than Germany (a statement that is clearly false, my US fan credentials aside).

On the field, Germany has been its usual efficient self.  Apart from a 1-0 loss to Serbia (partially thanks to a dubious red card), Germany has looked every bit a contender.  Disallowed goal or not, Germany demolished England in the round of 16, dismantled Australia in the group stage and eased past Ghana.  The side is a mix of new and old, and features some up-and-coming talents that will surely be targets in the summer transfer window.  Mesut Özil has been a revelation, for Germany in the midfield and Thomas Müller has been his equal.  These World Cup rookies have been guided along by veterans like Schweinsteiger, Miroslav Klose, Lucas Podolski, and Philipp Lahm.  Germany was once again unfancied coming into this tournament but have (as is usual for German teams) stepped up when it matters most.

Just as Germany has looked dominant in their run to the quarters, Argentina has been clicking on all cylinders.  Following an uninspiring 1-0 victory over Nigeria, Argentina then scored 9 goals while conceding just 2 over its next three games.  Destroying South Korea 4-1, Greece 2-0 and Mexico 3-1.  Gonzalo Higuain, has been in fine form, and the defense has made a minimum number of mistakes.  Lionel Messi hasn’t scored yet, but his presence is almost worth as much as his goal scoring.   Argentina’s mercurial manager has actually made some shrew managerial decisions, and hasn’t impeded a stacked team’s progression.

Whether Argentina’s defense can hold is a question that must be answered.  They will face a difficult task against Germany, but I think they are up to it.  Argentina will get some revenge for the loss in 2006 and advance to the semifinal.  Prediction: Argentina

Paraguay (#31) vs. Spain (#2) – 2:30pm, Saturday 7/3:  The last of the quarterfinals might also be the least intriguing.  Spain should dominate this match, at least on paper.  Paraguay has played well throughout the tournament, winning a group that included Italy.  Looking back, Paraguay may have won the easiest group in the tournament.  New Zealand were up for a match, but certainly aren’t that dangerous and Slovakia were never able to regain their qualifying form.  Paraguay’s victory over Japan was a scoreless affair that required penalty kicks to decide the outcome.  Thus far, Paraguay has only scored 3 goals.  On the other hand, they have only conceded 1 goal.  Paraguay needs to play amazing defense to shut down the Spanish midfield and a great game from Roque Santa Cruz or Óscar Cardozo if they want to advance.

Following a shocking 1-0 loss to Switzerland in their opening game, Spain has looked like the team that won Euro 2008.  They have passed the ball beautifully through midfield, defended well, and David Villa has been his usual goal-scoring self.  The one negative thus far has been Fernando Torres inability to find the form that made him one of the most feared strikers in the EPL and all of international soccer. I don’t think that Spain will need Torres to find that form to win this game.  Will they need it to win the tournament?  Yes, they will.

My guess is that Paraguay will try to sit back on defense and then counter-attack.  This could lead to a rather drab game.  I, ultimately, see Spain winning this game after they break down Paraguay’s defensive shell.  Prediction: Spain

If my predictions are right, there will be three South American teams in the semifinals, an incredible stat when you think that South America only sent 5 teams to the World Cup.  The match-ups would be Uruguay-Brazil and Argentina-Spain.  Both games should be fun to watch and the possibilities for the finals are tantalizing.  I can only hope that my support of Spain doesn’t jinx them the way my support of the US and England contributed to their respective downfalls.  Viva La Furia Roja!

Deja Vu and What Might Have Been…

There is something oddly familiar to the sensation I am feeling. I am trying to recover from a US loss at the World Cup to a team that they should have beaten. This has happened in the past two World Cups and it’s been against the same team, the score line was even the same!

Ghana’s 2-1 victory over the US was an example of what has become a typical US game. An early defensive lapse allows their opponent to take the lead, the US storms back to tie it, but just can’t seem to finish the game. Today, the game took a unique turn, as the US was able to push the game into extra time (since we are in the knockout stages, no draws), but they fell asleep on defense to allow the winner. The United States is, perhaps, its own worst enemy. Ghana didn’t be the US today, the US beat the US.

I had a conversation with a coworker on Friday about the US’s chances. I thought they US had a great shot of making it to the semifinal due to match ups against teams that I thought they could beat. I was concerned, however, that the US might make a mistake(s) that would cost them their best shot to advance deep into the World Cup. Consistently in this tournament, during qualifying and during the friendlies leading up to the World Cup, the US has allowed soft early goals (mostly due to defensive lapses, Tim Howard has rarely been the problem) that dictated the way they played the rest of the game. Is this the players? The coaching? Ultimately, I think it is a combination of the two. The players come out flat (who knows why?) and should be more prepared for the game. That preparation falls to the coaching staff.

The coaching staff (read Bob Bradley) is also responsible for putting the best team out on the field to start the game. Bob Bradley did not do that today. Why was Ricardo Clark starting? Why was Robbie Findley back in the line-up? Why mess with the success that was the Algeria win? Maurice Edu played well in the Algeria game, and deserved the chance to start. What did Bradley get for his decision? A brutal appearance by Clark. Clark was directly responsible for Kevin Prince-Boateng’s goal in the 6′.  He turned the ball over near the center circle, which sprung Boateng on the break. Boateng slotted the ball into the net at the near post.  Shortly thereafter, Clark was yellow carded to add to his misery. Bradley said he started Clark because he wanted to put in some fresh legs after the short turn-around between Wednesday’s dramatic win and today’s game. That is faulty logic. First, these players are professionals, they train for this type of situation. They are used to short turn-arounds during their club season, many weeks they play multiple games. In addition, Edu didn’t play the full 90 against Algeria. If he tired down the stretch, then make the switch to Clark. Bradley seemingly acknowledge his mistake, replacing Clark with Edu at the 31′ mark. There is no doubt in my mind that the first goal would not have been scored if Edu had been on the field.  After the game, Bradley said he made the switch entirely due to the yellow card. What else was he going to say – I made the switch because Clark played poorly; I made the switch because I made the wrong line-up call? Clearly the latter would have been the gutsy thing to say, but Bradley hid behind the yellow card.

As for the Findley start, I understand the thinking, but it wasn’t the right call. Bradley likes to pair a speedy forward with Jozy Altidore, a sort of Thunder and Lightening pairing. Charlie Davies, who is absent due to his recovery from an October car accident, is the perfect tag-team partner for Altidore. Davies has pace, finishing ability and plays well with Altidore. Findley is, at best, a poor facsimile of Davies.  While Findley is pacey, his finishing isn’t as polished as Davies’ and that was on display today, as he missed a clear opportunity to tie the game.  Bradley has been searching for Davies’ replacement since his accident, and hasn’t found it.  But maybe he is looking in the wrong place, the answer is already on the roster.   Instead of starting Findley, start Dempsey up top with Benny Feilhaber taking Dempsey’s place in the midfield.  Bradley made this change in the Slovenia game and when the US needed a goal in this game.  If this is a crunch time tactic, why not start the game that way?  Dempsey has a nose for goal.  He’s unpredictable and loves to run at defenders.  Why not place him closer to goal to make use of these talents?  This switch would have also helped to minimize mistakes like the one that lead to the first goal.  Playing Dempsey up top gets Feilhaber, one of the US players most composed when in possession, onto the field.

Not all the blame can be laid at Bradley’s feet.  The finishing for the entire team was poor.  Richard Kingson, the Ghanaian goalkeeper, isn’t likely to win any awards for his goalkeeping prowess yet the US continually put their shots directly at him, barely working him.  Altidore and Michael Bradley are the two most glaring examples of chances wasted, but there were several more throughout the game.  Beyond the poor finishing, the US defense made two key mistakes that lead to Ghana’s goals.  Asamoah Gyan’s goal in extra time should not have happened, but the US defense failed to communicate allowing Gyan to get past them and put a shot past Tim Howard.

Once Gyan scored, the US never looked like they were going to level the game.  Ghana was content to sit back and defend their lead.  In doing so, Ghana was disgraceful in the way they dove to the ground, faked injuries and wasted time.  There is a certain amount of gamesmanship that takes place in any game of soccer when you are protecting a late lead, but the Ghanaians went too far and the referee did nothing to stop it.  When Ghana made their last substitution, just minutes before the end of the game, the player took his time crossing the field, high-fiving his teammates as he exited.  The referee should have expedited his exit and if he refused to speed up, give the player a yellow card.  Soccer writers lit up the twittersphere with comments on the Ghanaians’s unsportsmanlike conduct.

In the end, though, the United States has nobody to blame but itself for being knocked out in the round of 16.  They played against a beatable opponent and committed too many errors to win.  Had they won the game, they would have taken on Uruguay, a 2-1 winner of South Korea.  That potential match-up would have been a tough test, but one I think the US could have passed.  Instead, the US will watching the next round on television, wondering what might have been and if they are having déjà vu.

Soccer’s Sweet Sixteen

Soccer is much maligned in the Untied States for being too boring or too European.  Well, I have one sure-fire way to get American fans interested in soccer.  Combine a team that is poised for a run in the biggest tournament in the sport with a little bracketology.  Perhaps the American fan will understand this.  Below is the bracket for the knockout rounds of the World Cup, we have reached the Sweet Sixteen.  It’s worked for NCAA basketball, why not soccer.  Think of teams like Brazil, the Netherlands, Spain and Argentina as 1 seeds.  Think of the United States, South Korea, Slovakia and Japan as mid-major Cinderellas.

Download and have fun with July Jubilation (lame attempt at alliteration)

My Predictions for Soccer’s Sweet Sixteen:

Uruguay
USA
The Netherlands
Brazil
England
Argentina
Japan
Spain

Putting Things in Perspective

Joe Gaetjens scored the game winner in the US upset of England at the 1950 World Cup

The US pulled off an amazing victory yesterday that has been covered in this space.  In the last day, I’ve read a lot of reaction to the win and many people are classifying the win over Algeria as the biggest or most important win in US soccer history.  I just don’t think that is true.  While the win goes a long way to create new soccer fans and gave the US their first group win since 1930 (the US finished third that year), it wasn’t the biggest or most important victory.  I would argue the 2-0 victory over Mexico in the 2002 World Cup was more important and a bigger win.  The win propelled the US to the quarterfinals for the first time since 1930 and was a win over out most bitter rival on the world’s largest stage.  One could also argue that the 2-0 victory over Spain (then ranked #1 in the world) was a bigger victory, as it propelled the US to its first international tournament final outside of its region.  Some argument can also be made the the shocking 1-0 victory over England in 1950 was bigger.  All that being said, I think yesterday’s win could move up in the rankings depending on what the US does in the rest of the tournament.  The match-ups are actually favorable to the US.  They play Ghana on Saturday and if they are victorious would play either Uruguay or South Korea.  Neither team scares me.  If the US could beat the Uruguay-South Korea winner, they would advance to the semifinals for the first time since 1930.  At that stage things get trickier (a likely match-up against the Dutch, Brazil, or Spain could be in the cards depending on outcomes from the rest of group play), but a trip to the semifinals would be considered a huge success.

In other World Cup news, Italy lost its final group game to Slovakia, knocking the defending champions out of the tournament.  The last champion to lose before the knockout rounds was France in 2002.  As written before, it is the first time both teams from the previous final have failed to advance out of the group stage.  Paraguay drew with New Zealand, in a listless showing, but secured top spot in the group.  Slovakia, by virtue of its victory, also advances.  Slovakia is likely to play The Netherlands in the round of 16, while Paraguay looks set to face Portugal (mea culpa, misread the bracket) Japan.

One Game Changes Everything…

That’s the slogan that ESPN has been using to promote the World Cup and it couldn’t have been more true today.  The United States may have finally staked a claim to being a soccer nation with a dramatic victory over Algeria.  The game was easily one of the most exciting and tense soccer matches I have ever watched.  I watched the game via ESPN3 in my office with no sound, but the game still held an incredible amount of emotion.  I had a knot in my stomach for most of the game, especially after England scored against Slovenia.  The US waited until the last possible moment to score the winner.  When Landon Donovan pounced on the loose ball in the box and drove it into the net, I jumped out of my chair and ran around the office.  As one of my friends tweeted, “Quick. Someone tell me again what a boring-ass, low-scoring, good-for-nothing sport that soccer is.”  He couldn’t be more correct.

The win secured the Americans’ place in the round of 16 and top spot in Group C.  With their victory, and England’s 1-0 victory over Slovenia both pre-Cup favorites advanced, though both had a bit more trouble than most people would have guessed.  Based on the reaction on Twitter to the Clint Dempsey’s disallowed goal and the response when Landon Donovan finally scored the game winner, America has gone soccer crazy.  Each game the US wins will only add to this phenomenon.

The US don’t know their round of 16 opponent yet, but they do know where and when they will play.  Their round of 16 match, against the 2nd place team in Group D, will be played at Rustenberg’s Royal Bafokeng Stadium at 2:30pm Eastern.  Royal Bafokeng Stadium has been kind to the US, it was the site of their 3-0 victory over Egypt in last year’s Confederations Cup and the site of their 1-1 draw with England on June 11.  Their opponent could be any team from the Group depending on how the games play out later this afternoon.  I think most US soccer fans would like to see Australia beat Serbia and Ghana beat Germany because that would set up a US-Australia game.  The US defeated Australia 3-1 in a friendly played on June 5 in South Africa and would likely prove an easier match than Ghana, Germany or Serbia.  Group D plays at 2:30 this afternoon and should provide some fun soccer, though nothing will top the US victory.  In parting, good luck Socceroos (who doesn’t love Australia’s team nickname), hope to see you in Rustenberg on Saturday.

USA! USA! USA!

US and the Game of Destiny

Tomorrow (6/23), the United States Men’s National Team faces a must win game.  Sure they’ve been in this situation before (the Confederations Cup last year in South Africa, in previous World Cups) but this game seems far more important.  With this World Cup causing unprecedented buzz in the US, a win is imperative.  If the US is bounced at the group stage again, I would be willing to bet that interest in the tournament will flag.  If the US wins and can make a run to even the quarterfinals, this World Cup could help turn the US into a soccer nation.

While most American fans, – hardcore or casual – know that winning the tournament might be a bridge to far, getting out of the group stage is certainly within the team’s grasp.  A win over Algeria (ranked 16 places lower than the US) is manageable.  If the US can win the game and England beats Slovenia (with a margin that is equal to or lesser than the US’s victory margin), the US would secure top spot in the group.  This could allow them to avoid a potential round of 16 match against Germany (assuming Germany defeats Ghana tomorrow).  Any of the other potential opponents (Serbia, Ghana or Australia) don’t seem nearly as scary.

The Desert Foxes have acquitted themselves nicely thus far, losing to Slovenia by a goal and drawing against England.  Many of Algeria’s players were born in France and several play in top leagues in Europe.  Nadir Belhadj, who plays his club soccer for Portsmouth, might be the most well known player for Les Fennecs.  The US will also needs to keep tabs on Karim Ziani of Wolfsburg in Germany, and Abdelkader Ghezzal of Siena in Italy. If the US is going to win the game, they will need to break down a stingy Algerian defense.  Algeria has something to play for in this game (they can advance with a win and a Slovenia win) and will not role over.  A slow start like they had against both England and Slovenia cannot happen again.  The US needs to play with the same urgency they played with during the second half of the Slovenia game.  The US will need to create space for runs off the ball through the packed Algerian midfield and defense (they are likely to start 5 in the midfield).  The US will also need to keep mental lapses and defensive breakdowns to a minimum.

With Robbie Findley suspended due to yellow card accumulation, I’d like to see the US start this line-up against Algeria:

Altidore—–Demspey

Donovan—–Bradley—–Edu—–Holden

Bocanegra—–Onyewu—–DeMerit—–Cherundolo

Howard

This is similar to the line-up that finished the game against Slovenia, with Holden replacing Benny Feilhaber (though I couldn’t argue with Feilhaber starting at RM), Edu slotting into midfield instead of his temporary CB position (he moved there when Herculez Gomez was brought on in the 80th minute), and a return to the starting defensive alignment.  I think this line-up provides the most creativity and uses Dempsey’s talent for goal scoring most effectively.  I really feel that Edu is the best option to start next to Bradley, he plays box-to-box and obviously has a nose for goal.  Jose Torres didn’t look like he was ready for primetime in the Slovenia game and Rico Clark had too many defensive lapses in the England game.  All that being said, I think that Bradley will go with the line-up that started against England (Clark in midfield next to Bradley), with Gomez swapped in for Findley.

By noon tomorrow we will know if the US has taken care of business and later in the day we will find out their potential opponent in the round of 16.  Tomorrow should (hopefully) be a fun day for US soccer fans.

UPDATE: Bradley has decided to change things up a bit.  Onyewu is out, with Bocanegra slotting in at CB.  Jonathan Bornstein will start at LB.  Gomez is the starter opposite Altidore and Edu is the starter in midfield next to Michael Bradley (I like the Edu move, and I can’t argue with Gomez, who was top scorer in the Mexican league this past season, starting).  I am a tad worried about the choice of Bornstein.  Bradley has a mancrush on Bornstein, consistently playing him despite poor showings for the national team.  If Bradley felt the need to replace Onyewu, who hasn’t played to his potential after a long injury layoff, I would have been more confident in Jonathan Spector starting at LB.  While Spector was less than stellar in the lead up to the World Cup, he starts for an EPL team and was very good during qualifying.

World Cup Scenarios

For those of you wondering who will advance in the World Cup, look no further.  The good folks over at ESPN have posted all of the convoluted scenarios in one easy space.  As it stand, only Cameroon and North Korea have been definitively eliminated.  Some teams, like Ivory Coast are all but eliminated.  I just don’t see how they would be able to make up a goal difference of 9 goals (Portugal stands at +7, Ivory Coast at -2).  This would take an immense win by Ivory Coast and a huge loss by Portugal.  Both are possible, but to make up 9 goals seems unlikely to happen.

The most disconcerting bit of news is this: If the U.S. draws with Algeria and England draws with Slovenia, and England scores exactly two more goals than the U.S., the U.S. and England would be even on all tiebreakers for second place. The tie would be broken by drawing lots … aka, a coin flip.  Really!?  FIFA is going to decide who advances with a coin flip?  There isn’t some other tie-breaker they could use?  Couldn’t they use the extra tiebreakers that the Asian Champions’ League uses (fair play points (score based on number of cards earned, lower is better or PKs if the two teams that would be tied are playing against each other.) ?  Don’t those two choices make slightly more sense, as they are actually based on the games that were played?  Are you kidding me?  (For confirmation of this seemingly idiotic method of determining who advances see page 20.)

For further explanation of how various leagues/organizations break ties see this post by The Offside.