A Perfect Day – Almost

Sunday, July 7, 2019 was a very rare day for US soccer. It is certainly a rare occasion when both the men’s and women’s national teams play on the same day. Even rarer is the occurrence that both games count for something, that neither is a friendly. And even rarer that both matches are for the championships of big tournaments for these teams. And finally, incredibly rare ( like never before) that one of those titles is for the largest championship available for any national soccer team, the World Cup. And yet, that day, that Sunday, was exactly that day. And the results of the matches played on that remarkable day were very satisfactory… almost perfect…almost.

After blasting their way through their group in such dominant fashion that the most negative feedback from observers was the nature of their celebrations, the USA women entered the knockout rounds as a co-favorite (with France) to win the whole thing. But, in facing a Spain squad that had so far given a good account of themselves, the Americans were facing a moderate jump in quality and huge uptick in the intensity of their opponent.

The Spanish did play well with the ball. They dId display some possession and some offensive creativity. But what they did most was foul. They fouled the American forwards ,they fouled the American midfield and their pressure earned them a goal from a steal in front of the USA goal. But they also fouled inside their penalty area and that cost them the game.

Tobin Heath goes down for a USA PK.

That win brought the USA to the French. One of these days FIFA might realize that seeding each team rather than groups of teams could eliminate these types of “finals played in the quarterfinals” but that hasn’t happened yet and so the two co-favorites met way too early in the competition. The concern to the Soccer Yoda going into this match was the straight-on system used by coach Jill Ellis with her side. The USA typically plays a 4-3-3 with the three forwards spread across the top with little help from the other forwards or the backs behind them. Rapinoe and Heath are forced to go 1 v 1 against defenders who have help behind them and Morgan, in the middle, hopes to latch onto a cross or an errent misplay by a defender. It works fine against the likes of Thailand but against knowledgeable and skilled defenders scoring from the field can become a matter of individual brilliance. Set plays become the bread and butter for scoring as the offensive system does not create the space needed to score goals from the run of play. The fact that it took two penalty kicks to beat the Spanish reinforced my concern.

So it was with some surprise that less than a minute into the match against the French Rapinoe took the ball across the top of the penalty area and seemingly took the French unawares. The move resulted in a wicked shot but right at the French keeper.

Rapinoe moves across the middle into space

A couple minutes later a long pass down the left wing found (surprise again!) Morgan…making a run outside the penalty area. The move forced the French into a youth soccer mistake.. Morgan got goalside of her defender who promptly fouled her.

Alex Morgan gets fouled after gaining position on her defender.

The French then compounded their mistake by setting up a too-small 2-person wall which wasn’t positioned well anyway.

Orange line shows track of Rapinoe’s shot

Rapinoe had plenty of room to curl the low driven ball around the “wall” while the USA runners came across the French keeper to block her view. Another set play goal for the USA. The rest of the game was typical USA play as they went back to their more conservative offense and protected the lead. Midway through the second half Morgan checked back into the midfield and laced a perfect long ball to the streaking Heath who got behind the pressing French defense and then sent an excellent pull back cross to the late running Rapinoe for a perfect one touch finish. Although the French scored late on a corner kick header, it wasn’t enough and the Americans were into the semifinal against England.

The English noticed the difficulty the Americans were having in scoring from the field and thought they detected a weakness in the USA defense which could allow them to get behind the Yanks if they attacked quickly. So they came at the Americans all out without the numbers committed to defense that other teams had used. Sure enough, they were right about the way to attack. They scored a nice goal early in the first half, had a second called back for offside and forced the USA into giving away a penalty kick. Unfortunately for them, they were offside if only by a step and Stephanie Houghton’s PK was saved by Alyssa Naeher, the USA goalkeeper. Meanwhile, they discovered that speed and athleticism can be tough to deal with if you don’t cover well and have enough numbers on your defense. Christen Press headed in an early goal when given too much room at the back post and Morgan timed her run perfectly to get behind the English and nod in another late in the first half. 2 – 1 again and our girls were in the final.

In the championship game the Dutch played their numbers back on defense and hoped to find those offensive openings like the English did on the counter attack. But the American technical skills were too good to give the Orange any real looks at scoring. The problem though was that there was little of the creativity that the USA showed against France and it appeared that a scoreless draw was imminent. The Americans were consistently outnumbered near the Dutch goal and they seldom threatened. However, midway through the second half a Dutch foot managed to catch Morgan in the chest which was unfortunate for Netherlands as Alex wasn’t really threatening the goal considering the two defenders on her. Rapinoe was on again from the penalty spot and when the Dutch came out of their defensive stance the Yankees poured in. Only some selfish play and purposeful time-consuming possession prevented the final total from reaching 4 or 5. But the USA women were happy to settle with 2-0 and another World Cup championship.

Alex Morgan catches a high foot to give the USA their needed shot at goal.

Later that day the American men had their opportunity to win a championship. Of course, the Concacaf Gold Cup isn’t the World Cup. Under normal conditions it would be expected that the USA mn would reach a final in a tournament which features teams from islands and nations that average the size of one American small city. But this isn’t “normal” times for the USA men. The team consists of almost an entirely new set of players and a new coach and the majority have no meaningful prior national team experience. The squad is young and new to each other and entering the tournament the questions surrounding the quality of the group (especially after a couple poor performances in friendlies) suggested that they would be lucky to win a few games at all. So getting to the final in convincing fashion, even if the opponents were not the world’s best,  was considered an accomplishment. The opponent in the title match was, of course, Mexico and El Tri represented a major jump in quality compared to the opponents the USA faced leading to the big game. But the USA was ready for a test of its progress and the Mexicans were perfect for that.

The USA men were in an opposite situation from the women. No one questions the American women in regard to their basic abilities as players, only their tactics were at question. But while new coach Greg Berhalter’s system of play looked to be a good match for his players, it was their ability to play the game at a high level that was considered a fault. And so it was with a surprise for everyone, especially the Mexicans, that the Americans flew at the their opponents goal in the opening minutes. First an excellent combination of pace and passing opened up Christian Pulisic to drive at the Mexican goal, only to be denied by keeper Ochoa and some bad luck.

Pulisic gets a great chance to score in the first minutes.

Not long after that chance the USA broke in again but Josie Altidore put a great opportunity wide.

Altidore misses a golden opportunity to score.

Those misses were very important as the Mexicans settled down and worked themselves into the game. By halftime it was anybody’s guess as to which team would gain the advantage in the second half. And in that decisive second half it was the more experienced side that took the advantage as the young Americans gradually lost their edge and ability to hold the ball for any length of time. Finally, at the 72nd minute a nifty heel pass gave Jonathan dos Santos the space he needed and he hit a perfect shot just under the crossbar to give Mexico the lead. The Yanks mounted a dangerous series of attacks late in the game, but it wasn’t enough and El Tri won the Gold Cup title 1-0.

Dos Santos scores a nice goal to give Mexico the win.

It must be said that the tournament presented a positive outlook for the USA men. They already can consider themselves a major force in the region and a favorite to qualify for the 2022 World Cup. With a number of quality u-20 players coming up to add into the mix and a couple years to gain in experience and familiarity with each other and Berhalter, the future looks very promising for the American men. Of course, if one of those early chances had gone in, they could have joined the women as champions and made it a perfect day on that rarest of occasions for American soccer.


U.S. Soccer – Too Cold; Too Hot; Just Right

Its been a very active June for USA soccer teams. The women are in their World Cup, the men are getting ready for the Gold Cup and the U-20 men just finished playing in the World Cup for their age group. And the results, so far, are reminiscent of the porridge in the 3 bears story. These teams are on very different tracks in regard to their development and the outcomes of their recent matches display those differences in unmistakable ways. And the discussions surrounding those outcomes are evidence of how far the sport has come in the USA…for better or for worse.

TOO COLD

USA national coach Greg Berhalter has a tough job ahead of him. Like all national coaches he must assess the available talent and decide which players will perform the best for him at the national level. But, unlike most of his contemporaries, he was tasked with settling on a roster in a very few months and to complicate things, the time frame was during club season when many of his best candidates were unavailable for the short training times he had due to their club responsibility. He also had to install a system of play in that short period of time and again, with players unfamiliar with each other and with him and missing some of his best.

Last week the USA played two friendly matches to prepare for the Gold Cup. The first was against Jamaica. The Jamaicans have given the USA some trouble at times in the past, but overall they are not considered on a par with the Americans and the match looked like an excellent opportunity for Berhalter to give his team a chance to work together without the pressure of facing a more formidable opponent. This would be important because he had only a number of probable second team players available and they were in the learning stages of gaining familiarity with each other and Greg’s possession system. The problem was that they played like it. Completing passes was an effort, any continuity was rare and chances to score were few and far between. Mistakes were plentiful, one led to a Jamaican score, and the final result was a loss on both on the scoreboard and the field. The extent of the disappointing performance was made clear when Berhalter benched half of the starters in the Jamaican match for the next game against Venezuela.

Now Venezuela is no Brazil or Argentina despite coming from the same continent as those two international powers. They are typically considered one of the weakest South American sides. As the last practice against a foe before the Gold Cup games begin, this made them (like Jamaica) a perfect opponent for the new version of the USA men. …Oops, wrong again. In the first half the Americans made a shocking number of defensive mistakes. Mistakes, mind you, that a u-10 team might – MIGHT – be forgiven for making. At 15 minutes, goalkeeper Zack Steffen, off of a basic back pass, pushed the ball on the ground straight down the middle and into the feet of pleasantly surprised Venezuelan forward  Yangel Herrera who was standing between Steffen and the intended receiver. After the goal was scored by Salomon Rondon, Steffen motioned like he expected help to come back to receive the pass. The problem was that this same mistake was made against Jamaica without costing a goal and that time it was Steffen’s fault also.

Rondon scores his first against the USA

15 minutes later Venezuala had a throw-in on the American left side about 30 yards out. The throw went to Rondon, who appeared to have some space when the throw was made. Out comes USA central defender Matt Miazga to pressure Rondon. The problem was that he left the center of the American defense wide open with his move and the rest of the USA back line did not react. Rondon flicked the ball on to Jefferson Savarino who had an open center to attack. While it is true that his first shot was an excellent curling effort that struck the far post – the fact of Miazga’s run to the outside, the lack of communication with the rest of the American defense and the failure to react in time for the rebound from that first shot  – put into the goal by Savarino – were the factors that gave the goal away. There was a third opposition goal in the first half, a period so bad that the USA was booed off the field by the home fans in Cincinnati. The good news is that the lineup for the USA’s first Gold Cup game will be decidedly stronger with a few better players, notably Christian Pulisic, available. Even better…the opponent is Guyana who should be weaker than either of the two teams the Americans faced last week. Thank goodness.

TOO HOT

The American women began play in the Women’s World Cup last week. This team is almost a complete opposite to the men in it’s development. A few of the spots were settled a month ago, but the vast majority of this team has been set for years. Coach Jill Ellis has been with the squad for those same years and the players are very familiar with her style of play and her expectations for each of them. In addition, although the women do play club soccer, the national team carries overwhelming importance compared to those clubs, unlike the situation with the men.

So, it was with a great deal of confidence that the USA women opened the competition against Thailand. Thailand was the fourth best team in the Asia region, which was actually quite a surprise for them. FIFA deemed that Asia  could send five teams and the Thai women took advantage of some strange seeding to finish fourth in the region. The level of play and players is much lower in Thailand and that difference became very obvious soon after kick-off. Nevertheless, some strange calls denying the Americans two obvious penalty kicks and some decent defending by the Thais kept the score moderately level for most of the first half which finished at 3-0. But a flurry of shots 5 minutes into the second half took the will out of the weaker team and the USA poured it on. The final score was an incomprehensible 13 – 0.

Newcomer Rose Lavelle scored against Thailand

The good thing about the furor that was generated by the thrashing of Thailand is that it demonstrated that large numbers of Americans are following the sport and ,in particular, the women’s version of the sport. Once upon a time very few citizens of this country would have cared anything about what some girls did when playing soccer against a team from Asia. But now, even during the game, the comments were coming fast and hard about what was transpiring on the field in France. The critiques came from two definite types of fans: those who don’t know the game from an international perspective and those who do. The “sometime” fans of the sport were taken aback by the failure of the USA to take their proverbial foot off the gas. “Where is their sportsmanship?” ” Why do they need thirteen goals?” The arguments about whether just knocking the ball around the park really shows more disrespect than continuing to score are pointless. The team needed as many goals as possible to give themselves a better chance of advancing when the group games are done. Period; end of discussion. If people feel that particular rule encourages humiliation on the field…take it up with FIFA.

Alex Morgan scored 5 goals against Thailand

The second group had a different and somewhat more educated complaint. Ok, they say, but why the intense  celebrations? Isn’t scoring all those goals enough? This seems to be a more valid observation then questioning the number of goals scored. However, there is more understanding of these celebrations when one breaks down the scoring itself. Four of the girls scored their first World Cup goals; that alone explains much of the celebrations, the goal of millions of girls playing soccer in this and any other country is to score a goal in the World Cup and these four had accomplished that feat. Alex Morgan scored five which set a number of records. Considering her injury-diminished performance four years ago, this represented a roaring return to big time international soccer regardless of the opposition. Other scorers had their reasons for celebrating, but it’s pretty simple: scoring goals is difficult and accomplishing that feat, especially at this level, prompts celebrations. One thing is certain – this “problem” for the women is definitely a preferred issue compared to the problems that the men are having.

USA women celebrate another goal.

JUST RIGHT

The U-20 USA men entered their World Cup with hopes of performing well and going deep into the competition. The squad had an all professional roster and the group they were in was one that, on paper, looked very beatable considering the ability of the Americans. However, there turned out to be surprise bump in the road – Ukraine. In the USA’s first game Ukraine came out with a tight defensive block and an effective counter attack. The young Americans found the packed defensive very hard to break down as their possession didn’t help to create chances to score. They relied way too much on individual 1 v 1 play in attack and it didn’t dent the opposition. Meanwhile the American defense made a couple mistakes that the efficient Ukranians took advantage of to score twice. There was a moment of excellent teamwork by the USA which produced a wonderful team goal, but the 2-1 loss put a dent in American hopes. The remaining two games were more of the same offensively with the Americans spread too much and play too individualistic. However, the competition was different. Nigeria spread themselves just as much and the USA found plenty of room to attack while Qatar wasn’t up to the USA in terms of basic ability and athleticism. The results were two victories and a place in the knockout stage, although the second place finish put favorite France squarely in the way.

It was in the match against the French that the USA displayed what it could do when playing at it’s best and with that display brightened hopes of a bright future for the USA men in a few years. The youngsters played a much better team-oriented game with more effective possession, quick strikes at goal and a remarkable ability to keep playing when down (2-1 late in the game) to take a huge 3-2 victory against a very good opponent.

Sebastian Soto (on the ground in white) scores against the French

That win put the USA against an upstart Ecuador squad which had won the South American championship and displayed some terrific soccer earlier in the tournament. The game was tight and evenly matched. Games like this one are often decided by moments of brilliance and Ecuador supplied those moments,particularly when Jose Cifuentes fired a world class bullet from 20 yards to score midway through the first half. The USA answered off of a corner kick rebound by Tim Weah but another long range bomb by Ecuador hit the crossbar and was converted into the goal to create a lead that the Americans could not match despite some fine play in the second half.

Cifuentes (circled) getting ready to hit his long range rocket against the USA

All in all this young side provided some quality play and put itself clearly in the mix as one of the better teams in the world of u-20 men’s soccer. Ukraine made it into the championship game so the close loss to them was actually indicative of the level of the Americans in this tournament. The team was expected to advance into the later rounds of the Cup and that they did with a terrific win against France among the bright moments.

There is a wide disparity in the situations surrounding these American squads at this time, hopefully the gap between them will close and perhaps there will be more celebrations in store. After all, the “stigma” of celebrating too much is an issue that soccer teams around the world would love to have.

 

 

 

 

 


Europe’s National League What is it? Why is it?

 

This week, in addition to a number of international competitions in which the USA is participating, there is an important one involving a few European teams in which the USA is absent (since we are not European). These matches are very different from the decades of international games, both friendly and not, that have preceded them. In order to understand the difference and the controversy surrounding the new format for international teams in Europe, we should review the standard organization of club teams and their international counterparts.

Club teams operate in the same structure in almost all the world, with one notable exception…..that being the good ol’ USA. In their respective countries, club teams compete with other club teams in leagues. They try to win as many games as possible in order to win the championship of the league or to place as high as they can. Nothing unique about that, is there? But the similarity with American sports leagues ends there. It is standard for soccer organizations around the world to operate more than one league, with the number of  leagues being dependent upon the size of the country. Teams can move up and down, from one league to another each new season. Their movement is based upon their finish in the league in which they are playing that year. If they finish high enough, a club team can move up from a lower league to a higher one. Conversely, if they finish low they can be “relegated” to the next lower division. The exact number of sides that move up or down varies with each country, but the “promotion – relegation” concept is very standard in the soccer world, the USA being the major exception to that format. Club teams also play in “cup” tournaments but the major number of games are in their leagues. International teams, those that represent a nation, have always operated in a different manner. Their format centers on tournaments of which the largest and by far the most notable is the World Cup held every four years. There are also smaller tournaments, more regional in nature, in which national teams compete. They are held in between World Cups. And there are typically a fair number of “friendly” matches in between those tournaments. Friendlies have always been used as tryouts for new players, new formations and as tests of relative strengths of various national teams. Their substitution rules are lax compared to “real” matches and often so many subs are used as to make any score of the contest virtually meaningless. Therefore attendance at friendly internationals can be spotty at best and club coaches can be irked (to say the least) at having their best players risk injury and develop fatigue when playing these friendly matches for their country. 

So, UEFA, the governing body of European soccer, decided to make a change. They reduced the number of friendlies by using dates usually used for those matches to stage matches as part of a league, supposedly similar to the leagues in which club teams play. This Nations League would be important for two reasons, one – performing well could gain a nation entry into the European Cup tournament , held every four years in the middle of the break between World Cups. The Euros, as the tournament is called, is considered as second only to the World Cup in importance and is watched by almost as many followers of the sport around the world. Second, since there are 55 soccer playing European nations, UEFA decided to divide them into leagues, four of them, based on strength of the teams and to use promotion and relegation to move the best and worst of them up and down, just like the clubs.

Ok, fairly simple so far, yes? Four leagues of European national teams, based on ability, with winners moving up and losers moving down. Easy. Well, please pay attention because it is about to get more complicated.

It seems that there aren”t enough play dates for teams to play each team in their league. Take the A league…. the best teams. There are 12 of them in the league, but playing 11 matches, given the few dates available during the year when the clubs are given the weekend off, would take the league far too long. So, the leagues are broken up into “groups’. The A league has four groups each consisting of three teams. The groups were decided by drawing, using a seeding system based on prior results. This theoretically would keep the groups even in competitiveness, each with a very strong team, a mediocre team and a comparatively weak one. Theoretically. 

These were the UEFA Nations League A groups:

League A

  • Group 1: Germany, France, Netherlands
  • Group 2: Belgium, Switzerland, Iceland
  • Group 3: Portugal, Italy, Poland
  • Group 4: Spain, England, Croatia

As one can see, the groups were not exactly even in strength. Group 1 featured all heavyweights, even if Germany didn’t fare so well in the World Cup and the Netherlands seemed to be in a downswing. Group 2 had a good  Belgium squad matched with up and down Switzerland and weak Iceland. Group 4 was almost as strong as group 1 including Spain – aging but talented, World Cup finalist Croatia and England, always good, just never quite good enough. But here is the kicker (no pun intended): The top team in each group ( they play home and away with each competitor therefore only 4 matches decide the final standing of the group) goes on to the semifinals against the winners of the other groups, while the loser GETS RELEGATED. That’s right- all four of the bottom teams in each group go down to league B in the next Nations League competition in 2020. Assuming this league draws the attention that UEFA hopes for, that could be a major loss to some pretty decent nations, given the makeups of the groups.

The group matches were played in the fall of 2018. The semifinals are this week. Here are the results.

There were some definite surprises . Netherlands woke up from their 2 year slumber to take Group 1. England finally lived up to their potential to get past the Spanish while the Swiss scored a mess of goals on hapless Iceland and then rolled over a Belgium side missing some key players. The only predictable finish was Portugal taking Group 3.

But the list of relegated nations is somewhat shocking with its inclusion of Croatia and Germany…..yes Germany. Croatia finished runner-up in the World Cup, but couldn’t continue its run of over-the-top play. But Germany proved that it’s poor World Cup was not a fluke, although the point could be made that it was in a ridiculously tough group when compared to Group 2.

The semifinals are this week with the surprising Swiss playing Portugal and the English battling Netherlands while trying to claim their most international glory since they won the World Cup in 1966.

Assuming one understands the league structure, it appears basic at this point in this regard: England plays Netherlands this week for the right to play in in the Nations League final. But there is a complicating factor and it points out the overriding controversy in the existence of the Nations League.

On June 1, just 6 days before the England- Netherland match, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur play a HUGE match for the championship of all club teams in Europe. This is a match which takes a large physical and mental toll, it is the Superbowl of European club soccer. The Dutch have two vital stars playing for Liverpool. Virgil Van Dijk is considered arguably the best defender in the world and Gini Wijnaldum  scored twice for Liverpool in their amazing comeback against Barcelona. Is it too much to expect them to give 100% for club on Saturday and then again for country the following Thursday? How can they get past whatever the outcome Saturday to be ready for a battle on Thursday?

Wijnaldum and Van Dijk play for both Liverpool and Netherlands

England is in the same situation, but even more so. As many as nine players on the the two teams could see action Saturday in that so big game while then playing again on Thursday.

Just some of the English players who also play for Liverpool and Tottenham

In addition to the problem of playing two very important games in such quick succession, there is the added complication of the make up of the opponents.  As a former coach of both club and school teams, I faced the complexity of coaching players one season in the club, and then coaching against those same players the next school season. Of course, the players were faced with the “play with you – play against you and visa versa” situation to a greater extent than I was. In the case of England and Netherlands, these players- professional or not- are still humans and many of their teammates and opponents will switch those roles only 6 days later. The ability to adjust to that situation may have a bearing on the outcomes of those matches. While the dichotomy of club and national players interacting with each other cannot be avoided, this closeness of the dates of these meaningful matches is rare. Friendlies between national teams did not carry the physical, mental and emotional stress that these contests entail. So, how come the new leagues?

The answer is money and assumed importance. Friendlies draw fewer attendees, even the players themselves sometimes skip them. UEFA was concerned with the added attention ( press, tv, internet) that club soccer has been generating in recent years to the detriment (well, perceived detriment) of the national team version of the sport. So, fewer friendlies and more “real” games was the answer. What remains to be seen is the effect on the players considering the frequency of these matches with so much riding on them. What will be the injury rate?, the ” burn-out” factor?, the long term effect on the careers of the players involved? How long before some clubs, watching their investments risk body and mind for an ever increasing number of international contests, just say no? There is no world wide soccer police that could stop 10 or 15 or 20 of the top clubs from just dropping out of FIFA and sponsoring their own league, paying the highest salaries, and telling their players they don’t need to play for their country if they don’t want to do so. Just look at the NBA and how many of their stars forego international basketball. Too much of a good thing can be dangerous, in this case dangerous to international soccer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 


 

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For USA Soccer – A Big Month

The next  6 weeks represent a very big time frame for USA soccer. Three of our national teams, 2 men’s teams and our senior women’s side will play in competitions which will give American fans a very good read on the strength of our soccer compared with the rest of the world. A number of questions will be answered concerning the present development of our players and the prospects for satisfactory results in the near future.

The two men’s teams are our u-20 and senior sides. The younger are in the biggest tournament of their age group (actually of any age group)  – the World Cup. Like it’s more well-known senior counterpart, this competition puts representatives from areas all over the world who have qualified by finishing high in their respective regional tournaments. The USA is grouped with Ukraine, Nigeria and Qatar. This version of a World Cup has only 24 teams as opposed to the senior mens tournament which has 32 nations represented at the final. As a result the competition is somewhat more difficult since the range of quality is more limited. The u-20 age group has produced some players who went on to star with our senior team but as a team itself its results in the World Cup have not been remarkably better than the older competition. American U-20s have qualified 16 times which is noteworthy ( the tournament is held every 2 years) with the best finish being in 1989 when they ended up 4th. The USA reached the quarterfinals in 2017. So,with enough attention to warrant televising every one of their matches, why all the eyes this time?

This year the roster looks more like a list of German or English or Brazilian players. For like those soccer strong nations (ok, that might be a compliment to put the English on a par with the other two) the American roster consists completely of professional players with the majority developing their game in Europe. Of the 21 man roster 11 are under contract in Europe with the rest all in the MLS. And these European clubs are not low division unheard-of organizations. The likes of Bayern Munich, Ajax, PSV, Benfica and even Barcelona are represented on the team. The most heralded American player is Tim Weah who played (and yes, he actually played, at least in some games) for PSG along with the likes of Neymar and Mbappe before being loaned to Celtic in Scotland where he scored a couple more goals although with admittedly less playing time than he would want. Weah has already played with the senior team so this younger tournament could be a breakout chance for him and for the squad as well. They have already run through the local Caribbean- North/Central American qualifying tournament with scores like 13,6,7 and 4 goals to zero for the competition before sewing up the championship of the region by 1-0 and 2-0 scores with Mexico providing the opposition in the final. And they are coached by longtime American soccer veteran player and coach Tab Ramos. So, is now the time for the USA to prove itself a worthy competitor on the world stage, at least in this age group? We shall see.

Tim Weah leads the American u-20 World Cup team.

Next on the list is the Womens World Cup being played in France. This is the one level of the game where the USA has been dominant enough to be known as the strongest women’s soccer nation on Earth. And the team representing America this June is loaded with experienced international stars. Julie Ernst , Tobin Heath, Megan Rapinoe, Carly Lloyd, Alex Morgan….. sounds like the crew who routed Japan to win the championship four years ago, doesn’t it?

Alex Morgan returns to the World Cup.

With that kind of talent and experience, the USA is expected to go far again as they are the considered favorites. Many Americans expect them to waltz in, after all, we have always been the best, haven’t we? But the familiarity of those names may be a problem. The rest of the world has put more effort and money into the female side of the sport. The list of comparable competitors that once consisted of Norway and China and then added Germany and Japan now has includes England, Spain, France, Sweden, Australia, Brazil. Its been said that American girls rose to the top of international women’s soccer by merely playing the game when the rest of the world didn’t care, that while other nations had tens of girls playing we had tens of thousands. Now that many other countries have woken up can our training methods, our tactics, our technical skill contribute to the ever-present athleticism of our women? Our veterans are just that…veterans… and often four years takes a toll on the ability of aging stars to maintain their standard of play. For sure the USA has added new faces to the mix. Dunn, Pugh, Naeher, these are new names, are they good enough to win another World Cup for the USA?   The Americans will get past a fairly weak group, but then the standard of competition will rise quickly. Coach Jill Ellis plays a very traditional style. There is a minimum of off-the ball movement to force defender decisions, late runs into open space are secondary to overpowering opponents with size and speed. The question “is that enough anymore?” will be decided in France.

The US men’s team plays in the Gold Cup beginning June 24, thus overlapping the women. The Gold Cup is played every two years and typically the USA does well against the Central American and Caribbean competition that it faces in this tournament. But this year there is more to watch than usual.  After the debacle of failing to qualify for last summer’s World Cup, the USSF took plenty of time to decide on a new national coach, finally landing on Greg Berhalter. Greg played many times for the Red,White and Blue and had a successful stretch as coach of the Columbus Crew of the MLS. He has only had time for a couple friendly matches against questionable competition, but has shown a willingness to attempt to play a high level possession-based game.

Greg Berhalter begins his reign as national teram coach.

He has a very young squad, clearly looking at qualifying and performing well at the 2022 World Cup as his eventual goal. The Gold Cup represents his first test with his team against sides that care about the results. He gets a home field advantage with group matches in St Paul, Cleveland and Kansas City, none of which are liable to provide the opposition (Guyana, Trinidad/ Tobago and Panama) with the kind of support common for the USA’s Central American opponents in more southern locations. But the USA is young and inexperienced….. as displayed by the age (20) of Christian Pulisic , the generally accepted star of the team

Pulisic will be expected to perform and lead despite his age.

So…..the Gold Cup will give USA fans a glimpse of the future and hopefully it will be an encouraging one.

The next 6 weeks will be telling for soccer in the United States. Are we on the track to gain and keep international respectability? Are the hundreds of thousands of youth players finally producing world class quality? Or are we still under-performing in the standard of play that our best can display? We will know much more in a few weeks..

(After the writing of this post the American u-20 men lost their first game of the World Cup to Ukraine, 2-1.)


The Soul of Soccer

The Unites States of America is a large country, especially when compared to those nations crammed together in Europe. And there are large bodies of water which separate us from the other continents on Earth.

So, even though we engage in the sport of soccer with its huge international scope, it is easy to forget how far reaching it is when we become deeply involved with our local teams and clubs and players and forget the connections, learnings and impact that the game can impart on us when we go outside our boundaries.

This was never made more clear to the Soccer Yoda than this past week when my youngest son and I traveled to England to watch the second leg of the Liverpool vs Barcelona Champions League series.

To fully appreciate the happenings of the week, lets review the situation as we boarded our plane in Las Vegas for the 10 hour flight to Manchester followed by a short train ride to Liverpool. I am a major Liverpool fan for reasons explained in a previous post ( “Liverpool, Seattle, and the Xbox” ). My son, on the other hand , roots for Barca, and we made a pact years ago that if the two clubs ever met in a regular season (not friendly) match we would be there. Given that Liverpool plays in the English Premier League and Barcelona contests in the Spanish La Liga, the chances for such a matchup are rare. There is only one competition which could provide the groundwork for a meeting between these two clubs. That is the European Champions League, but that requires qualifying for the competition in the first place, something that has been too much for Liverpool in some years. Then, the two teams must be drawn together, and with seedings, pots and 30 other squads involved, the chances have been slim. However, if the teams advance in the tournament, the number of other clubs is reduced and the chances of meeting increase. And this year they both made it to the semifinals where the odds finally threw them together. The semifinals are a two match affair….home and away…with the combined score deciding the winner and away goals counting extra if the score is tied after both games are done. Two weeks ago the teams met in Barcelona and the home team emerged with a resounding 3-0 victory that gave them a huge advantage coming to England. In addition to the mountain to climb that the score provided, 2 of Liverpool’s starting forwards were ruled out of the second contest due to injury. Facing the arguably best team in the world who is led by the best player of our time in Lionel Messi, it was deemed that , for Liverpool, advancing to the final was a nearly insurmountable task.

And if THAT wasn’t enough, the two teams also faced competition to win their respective national leagues, although with very differing situations. Barcelona had already won their La Liga championship, giving them the luxury of resting most of their starting team in a match 3 days before the Liverpool battle. Liverpool, on the other hand, was involved in a dogfight with Manchester City for the English Premier League title and they played a tough match with Newcastle on Saturday night, one in which they won in the 86th minute and cost them their leading scorer.

So, we arrived in Liverpool the day before the showdown looking at a game which looked like a Barcelona walkover and a boring trip while we were there. However, fan intensity, match occurrences and the international nature of soccer made it anything but that.

Manchester City was playing a league match against Leicester City on Monday night. The outcome had direct implications on the English championship in that if City failed to win Liverpool would jump into the league lead. So we looked for a place to watch the match and have some dinner….which turned out to be task. The first sports bar we entered was nice, not very big and an hour before the game completely reserved by Liverpool fans….no seats available.

A nice Liverpool sports bar….. with all seats reserved

After looking at other unsuitable venues we finally found an establishment built in the same style as a German beer hall.  It had long benches and three floor to ceiling HD screens each with the same match on it.

Huge HD tv screens in the beer hall.

By the time the game had started the place was filled with Liverpool fans, watching and hoping for City to falter. They cheered every Leicester move and groaned at missed chances or poor play.

The crowd rooting against a Manchester City victory.

They especially groaned when City scored on a rather miraculous long shot. One very interesting point was the number of fans there that hailed from places other than Liverpool or England for that matter. We chatted extensively with fans from Norway, representing the Norwegian Liverpool Fan Club. While Norway’s own soccer teams have loyal followings, many Norwegians also root for international teams, and there are 40,000 official members of that Liverpool club. Now 40,000 members of a fan club may seem like a lot in any case, but Norway has only 5 million citizens. If one equates that percentage of the Norwegian population to the population of the United States, it comes to over 27 MILLION official members of a fan club for a team not even in their country! The Norway Liverpool Supporters Club had chartered a plane and over a hundred of their members had made the trip to watch their favorite non-Norwegian soccer team in this big match. Manchester City used that goal to win and the crowd left disappointed, looking forward to the next evening’s match, and rather well filled with beer.

The next afternoon we took a walk through the nearby center city of Liverpool and came upon another ritual common in these international meetings….away fans, having arrived early….cheering and singing in anticipation of the game. And in this case, they were across the plaza from the hotel in which the Barcelona team was staying, which increased their fervor as they contemplated the expected victory that evening.

Barca fans making their presence known in Liverpool.

Once, English hooligans used these pre-game activities to engage in fights but now things have calmed down and physical confrontations between supporters of opposing clubs are much less apt to occur. The Barcelona bus, used to take the team on necessary travels while away from home, was parked in the hotel driveway and although it was several hours before the players would take the short ride to the stadium, there were already Barcelona fans lined up to catch a glimpse of their heroes as they boarded the vehicle.

The Barca Bus

Barcelona fans lining up hours before the team boards the bus.

Finally the game was at hand. Liverpool’s stadium, Anfield, has been a fixture in the city since 1884 and has such a revered history that the new (as of 2010) owners, the Fenway Sports Group (who also own the Boston Red Sox) added 8,500 seats in 2016 to raise capacity to 54,000 rather than build a new home for the team, which was their preferred action. The crowd at Anfield is known throughout the soccer world (which means most of the whole world) for its ability to raise the performance of its team and to rattle the opponent. The intimidation begins before the opening whistle when the loudspeakers blare out the Gerry and the Pacemakers version of You’ll Never Walk Alone. This has been the anthem of the club since 1963, the version is by a Liverpool group and the title is even on the Club’s coat of arms. The entire crowd sings with the recording as reverently as any church hymn. But the real 12th man work comes after that.

I have attended many professional sporting events. I’ve had season tickets to the NFL and the NBA and seen more major league baseball games that I can remember. American sports audiences watch, sometimes cheer, watch, get excited at a good play and then watch some more. Even in Seattle, which has the reputation as the loudest home crowd in the country, this was the pattern at the NFL playoff game I attended there. But international soccer crowds are different and the Anfield throng represents the difference more than almost any other. They never stop making noise. They have a memorized song for each player and several songs and chants for the whole club. They sing, chant, get excited for a good play, sing some more. They only stop to either throw epithets at the opposing players if they are deemed to “cheat” ( which means foul or dive) or to go crazy over home team goals. International soccer crowds participate in their events far more than American sports fans do at theirs and at Anfield that night the combination of team performance and fan involvement, at peak levels for both, was too much even for the experienced, talented, and 3-0 ahead Barcelona squad.

Regular readers of the Soccer Yoda know that typically we discuss tactics and strategies and skills. But not in this post. And although tactics certainly played a part in Liverpool’s miraculous comeback, our discussion here deals with the coming together of so many differing people that this sport facilitates. We met Norwegians, Swiss, other Americans, Indians, etc. all drawn together by the magic of their soccer team playing for a huge prize. And as Liverpool scored each goal leading to their 4-0 victory to wipe out Barca’s advantage, the Anfield multitude became louder and more persistent ….at first not believing what was happening but then realizing that they were watching soccer history and not just that of their favorite club.

Finally, when the game ended, the players embraced, the fans embraced, the Liverpool bench ran onto the field and then, appropriately enough, the strains of You’ll Never Walk Alone rang out. And the entire Liverpool squad and the delirious, exhausted but now believing stadium joined together to sing and celebrate.

All of Anfield sings together.

And the Soccer Yoda wondered how long before the USA really experiences the immersion of commonality that this universal sport offers. The Barcelona papers commented the next day that their team had fallen to the “soul of Anfield”. But I think it was bigger than that, it was the soul of soccer manifesting itself in that northern English stadium that night. The same soul that is present in thousands of clubs, stadiums and fields all over the world. And as separated from other nations as we are here in the USA, the sport offers us the opportunity to join in that soul, that common experience, with so many of the rest of the world. I can verify…..its a unique and fulfilling experience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Liverpool, Manchester City and the VAR

This week the European Champions League finished it’s quarterfinal matches. This competition is considered to be  the most important trophy a European club team can win. Given the level of competition in Europe compared with the rest of the world, it is also the toughest honor for any club team to bring home. And after the quarterfinals,  when the number of teams left in the tournament drops from 8 to 4,  some highly touted sides are bound to be among the fallen.

Sure enough, this year was no different as the club considered to be the  favorite, Manchester City, bit the proverbial dust. Another top level team, Juventus, was also ousted, even with Cristiano Ronaldo (a 3 time consecutive winner with Real Madrid) trying his best to keep them in the tournament. Juve fell to upstart Ajax as the Dutch wonders continued to surprise everybody after they had knocked out the defending champions Real in the previous round. Actually there is only one team returning from last years semifinal, that being Liverpool, who took advantage of the best quarterfinal draw by comfortably defeating Porto, just as they did last year. The Reds are joined by Barcelona, Ajax and the Manchester City conqueror, Tottenham Hotspur from London.

The entrance of the VAR or Video Assisted Referee in the knockout rounds of this important competition created some controversy and turned the emotions of players and fans inside out during the matches this week. It was particularly notable in the games involving the English teams, and although they know what VAR is and many had some experience with it in last summer’s World Cup, their reactions to the process and calls were as watchable as the calls themselves.

The English Premier League did not use the VAR this year although it will come into play in the 2019-2020 season. So the use of the system, which is constantly evolving, is not a common circumstance for the teams coming from that league. As it is at present, the VAR has changed from it’s original concept of a couple years ago. At the beginning the process was going to be used on goals, penalty kicks and cards only and that strictly when the referee on the field decided he needed help or the VAR told him a grave error was made. But now the VAR looks at anything the people in the booth feel needs to be examined. If the call, missed or not, doesn’t affect the game the play continues, but if the call on the field seems to be wrong and its an important decision…the VAR comes into play. Of course, goals are pretty important plays so they become instant candidates for review. Notice that much of this process is dependent on video review AFTER the play has completed. So referees and assistant referees have begun holding their judgement and keeping their whistles and flags unused on goals, potential pk’s and some possible offsides so as not to interrupt play for an erroneous call. They know that the video will tell when it is looked at and they would rather be late with the correct decision than early with the wrong one. And it is this delay in calls, which has only begun to sink in with players and fans. Especially those from England.

Liverpool downed Porto 2-0 at home but the score didn’t quite tell the story. The Portuguese found their way through Liverpool’s defense numerous times and only the inept resemblance between Porto’s shooting and the Soccer Yoda trying futilely to score while playing FIFA 19 kept the result from being much closer. So there was a some doubt as to the outcome of the series considering Porto was at home where they hadn’t lost at all this year. On the other hand, if Liverpool could manage just one goal, the away goals rule would require the home team to hit for 4 and that was a near impossibility unless Porto vastly improved its shooting.

The game resembled the first match in the early stages, Porto attacking and missing decent opportunities. Then, at the 26 minute mark, one of Liverpool’s few attacks found its way to Mohammed Salah, who received the ball from his left side inside the Porto penalty area, although surrounded by Portuguese defenders. Sadio Mane did the right thing and looked for space he could get to behind the defense and made a run to Salah’s right. Mane was screened from Salah, but Salah knew where Sadio was going and managed to put a pass between the defense and right into Mane’s sliding feet.

Mane ( Gold Line) makes his run towards space behind Porto’s defense

Mane, not seeing exactly when Salah made the pass, thought he was offside. The assistant referee put his flag up after the ball went into the net. Several Liverpool players started moving back for the Porto kick from the spot of the offside, but Salah told them to wait…..the VAR was reviewing the play and it could be a good score. And sure enough, a few seconds later the referee signaled a goal. This prompted one of the most muted celebrations the Soccer Yoda has seen considering the importance of the score.

Mane (Gold Line) is exactly onside

As seen in the above picture, Mane could not have been more forward without being offside, but his right foot was exactly as far as it could be toward the goal without being too far. It was a good goal and, quiet celebration or not, Liverpool had cemented its spot into the semi-finals. The final score of the match was 4-1 to the victors, taking any controversy or doubt away from the VAR decision, which was accurate without question anyway.

Meanwhile, at Manchester, one of the wildest games in the Soccer Yoda’s long memory was on. Tottenham entered with a 1-0 lead from their home match but that didn’t seem to mean much very quickly. The two sides put defensive soccer back about a century or so in racking up an amazing 4 goals in the first 11 minutes, scoring at a pace that resembled the NBA more than the EPL. City scored yet another goal after 21 minutes to tie the combined score of the series at 3-3. However, Spurs had two away goals to Manchester’s none so Tottenham was leading at that point. No problem …Sergio Aguerro, City’s main offensive threat, scored at the 59 minute mark and, amazingly, the Citizens had the advantage. But, in this crazy offensive show, that was not to hold……with 17 minutes left in the 90 minute game, Fernando Llorente took a cross that hit his arm then his hip and then went in the goal. Llorente ran around like he had fired it off his forehead, but everybody knew a review was coming. The referee looked at several views and correctly decided that the arm was in a natural position and the hip propelled the ball into the goal. Given the type of goal it was, the Llorente celebration seemed more of an attempt to sell the referee on the legitimacy of the score than a genuine “we did it!”, but again, these players haven’t seen the effect of the VAR very much so perhaps he forgot that the review was coming. The goal put Tottenham back into the lead and pushed Manchester against the wall.

American sports fans know all about video replay. Most any controversial play is followed by a wait to see if officials are “going to the tape” before reactions and emotions come pouring out of the involved fans. And this will probably  happen in Europe and specifically England…. eventually. But VAR is very new and in extra time as the few remaining seconds were played, Spurs midfielder Christian Eriksen pushed a poor pass back which, importantly, hit City forward Bernardo Silva before bouncing to Aguerro. Sergio passed to Rahim Sterling who scored and pandemonium broke loose for the Citizens.

The City coaching staff goes wild after Sterling puts the ball into the goal.

But those used to video replay knew better to react at that moment. True, no flag was raised, no interrupting whistle blew…..because VAR was ready and waiting…and even the commentators quickly mentioned that Aguerro could have been offside. The VAR refs notified on-field referee Cuneyt Cakir that they had a clear look at the play which he apparently did not. Upon looking at the replay it was easy to spot that when the ball hit Silva, which makes that the moment in question, Aguerro was slightly, but definitely, closer to the goal than the deepest involved defender and therefore the goal was nullified. And the emotions of all those reacting so quickly went totally sideways.

Agurreo (Gold Line) is slightly offside when the ball touches Silva (Red LIne)

A few seconds later the game was over, Tottenham advanced to the semifinals and Manchester City was left gasping.

There has been much written and spoken about the VAR system. It appears at this point that the Video ASSISTED Referee is actually a Video ADDED Referee, a fourth game official that gets to make decisions in a delayed manner after reviewing tape of the play in question. And the existence of this added official delays calls so that the delayed decisions may be made without stopping play. There is no question that the VAR betters the percentage of correct calls over the traditional instant-on-the-field but possibly more wrong system. But with the waiting around for the decision built into the VAR process, is it more fun?

 


World Cup 2018 – Answers to Big Questions

In the final of this summer’s World Cup, France defeated Croatia 4-2. France was favored by many observers, Croatia was not. The ability of an unfancied team to reach a World Cup final is quite a story. It doesn’t happen very often and, while fans knew that Croatia had a terrific midfield, it was felt that their defense was questionable and their offense too dependent on one player. But the Croats rise to the last game in the tournament was not the biggest story of the Cup. This World Cup featured more upsets than any in my memory, and that dates back to 1966 when the Soccer Yoda first watched a World Cup match. Favorites dropped games and places in the tournament on a daily basis. Germany, Spain, Argentina, Portugal… they were all gone before the quarterfinals. Although the Soccer Yoda’s brackets were way off course, so were about 99% of the rest of the world’s predictions so I didn’t feel too bad. As discussions circled the world ( and my social media neighborhoods) there were several questions that drew the majority of the interactions. So here is the Soccer Yoda’s take on those BIG questions surrounding the 2018 edition of the planet’s biggest sports event.

 

WHAT THE HECK HAPPENED TO GERMANY?

The Germans were favored to win by many and anybody who thought they would finish last in their qualifying group ( was there anyone who actually predicted that?) was deemed crazy. But in their first match against Mexico, German manager Joachim Low was either cocky or just wasn’t paying attention. Defense wins soccer games and especially in tournaments. The Germans have been known for their ball skills and their machine-like offense, but meanwhile they have made a habit of shutting out opponents in important matches. They gave up only 3 total goals in winning the Cup in 2014. So when they came out with a system that put both outside backs up the touchline on offense, even when they were not assured of possession, it was a bit of a surprise and a huge gamble. Of course, teams have been using outside defenders as wide offensive players for years, but it is usually done into open space and when possession is not in question. In addition, many sides have methods to cover the area left vacant when the back moves up. The Germans seemed determined to run their backs right up the field no matter what, particularly right back Joshua Kimmich. The Mexicans could have tasked left wing Hirving Lozano with tracking back to stay goal-side of Kimmich, but Lozano maintained his offensive position and within seconds of start of the game Lozano was behind Kimmich  and shooting at goal.

lozano 1 edit

Above, within the first minute of the game Lozano (#22, green underline) is goal-side of Kimmich (#18, white underline). This is a major defensive failing in soccer, offensive players with the ball cannot be allowed behind defenders. As the game went on Lozano continued to be a threat, but Low either didn’t care or didn’t notice and it is hard to imagine he didn’t see what was happening. But no changes were made and in the 38th minute it cost the Germans.lozano goal 1

Kimmich was moving up like a wing often during the half , regardless of the situation regarding German possession and (above) when Mexico took the ball he (white underline) was several yards behind Lozano.lozano goal 2

When the Mexicans hit a long through pass down the middle Lozano (green underline) was already on the move and had opened up even more of a gap between himself and Kimmich (white underline).lozano goal 3

When the ball was passed to him, he was so far behind Kimmich that Kimmich isn’t even in the above picture. Lozano scored and that allowed the Mexicans to play a defensive game from then on which the Germans could not beat. And that was the Germans second failing. The German forwards Mueller and Werner did not work together very well and in a 4-4-2 like the Germans were using those two needed to help each other. When they did get shooting opportunities they couldn’t find the goal. Given Low’s decision to operate what amounted to a 2 back system, the Germans were constantly open to counters. Against South Korea their inability to find the goal was telling and when they fell asleep on a Korean corner it was all over.

WHAT WAS THE BEST GOAL OF THE WORLD CUP?

There were many great goals in Russia this summer and some amazing individual strikes that scored. But to the Soccer Yoda, the best was easily Belgium’s game winner against Japan. It was a masterpiece of team play, unselfishness, modern offensive soccer and all coming at a moment and situation of the game typically reserved for waiting for the whistle to blow.

The Belgians had already staged an amazing comeback , scoring twice in the latter stages of the game to overcome a very surprising two goal lead opened up by the Japanese. As the clock moved into stoppage time, nobody could have faulted them from taking a breath and looking forward to extra time to finish a come-from-behind miracle. But the Belgians used a set-up on defensive corners designed to create a strong counter attack and the situation presented itself as the game moved into the 94th minute. They marked man-to-man, left the posts open and put 2 men upfield despite the fact that a goal by Japan would end the Cup for them at that point. But it worked perfectly for the Belgians, the kick was high and 6’5″ keeper Courtois handled it easily. Then the break was on.belgian break 0

Courtois took the ball and moved forward. As soon as he saw Kevin DeBruyne (green underline above) he gave the ball to him. The Belgians already had 3 players ahead of DeBruyne moving upfield.belgian break 1 editDeBruyne (circled above) carried the ball as there was no pressure on him. Roman Lukaku was forward and rather than run straight ahead he made a crossing run in front of DeBruyne (going in the direction of the arrow above). This forced the Japanese defender to choose between following Lukaku or moving forward to cut off any pass to Thomas Meunier who was right of DeBruyne . The defender decided to follow Lukaku, thus opening the entire right side for a pass to Meunier.belgian break 3 circle

In the above picture, DeBruyne has made his pass to Meunier because the Japanese have finally moved to pressure him. Lukaku (circled) has turned toward Meunier, but not before seeing Nacer Chadli ( underline) behind him and moving forward. belgian break 4 edit2

Meunier hit a beauty of a one-touch pass toward Lukaku. But Lukaku was covered tightly, so he let the ball run past him right into the path of the onrushing Chadli.belgian break 5

Chadli put the ball into the goal to complete this marvelous play. The key to the move was Lukaku’s crossing run which created the space on the right for Muenier to play DeBruyne’s pass. This type of movement is a major element of the modern game and the Belgian manager Roberto Martinez gets credit for using it with his already talented squad.

The Belgian’s chance-taking defensive corner strategy paid off again against Brazil with Lukaku and DeBruyne somewhat switching roles and they scored the winning goal with it. But gambling on defense often catches up to teams and against France the Belgians gave up a corner kick goal at the open near post and it cost them the chance to play in the final.

WAS CROATIA REALLY THAT GOOD?

For the Soccer Yoda, the answer is a qualified “yes”. International tournament knockout games end in penalty kicks if a winner cannot be decided after 120 minutes of play. This puts a premium on defense and a good PK goalkeeper in addition to good PK takers. Croatia played well in the qualifying group, no questions asked. They scored 7 goals, only gave up one, spread the scoring around and only Luka Modric stood out as an indispensable part of the team. In the knockout stages things became definitely tougher. The Danes and Russians gave them trouble but the Croats were calm during all the stress. Great performances by their goalkeeper Danijel Subasic plus some timely conversions took them through to the England match where they didn’t need penalties to win. It could be said that with Argentina failing to perform well, the first “real” contender they faced was in the French, but Croatia did what was needed for them to advance each round and they added a bit of underdog mystery to the final. Congratulations are definitely in order.

WHAT ABOUT THE BIG STARS?

One of the exciting parts of any World Cup is to see the game’s best play for their countries. Past tournaments have been marked by outstanding performances by the likes of Pele and Maradona. So what happened this time? Well, with one exception, the stars are still excellent players but their circumstances made it difficult for them. Soccer is a team sport and one player rarely carries a team through a tournament like the World Cup.  Argentina knew coming into the Cup that their age and lack of depth was against them. They barely made it out of their group, revolted against the poor lineups and substitutions by manager Jorge Sampoli and eventually got caught in a crazy goalfest against France. They couldn’t keep up with France’s speed and and in the end Messi tried to do too much and couldn’t bring his team back from the two goal deficit in which they had found themselves.Messi wcup

Ronaldo had some very good moments especially in the early matches but Portugal’s defense wasn’t the same as in the 2016 Euros and against Uruguay he appeared to be resigned to leaving the tournament. Maybe his upcoming move from Real Madrid to Juventus was in the back of his mind. But Neymar was another story. Unlike Messi and Ronaldo, he did have a quality team beside him. He just didn’t play like it. He took too many touches, tried to dominate the offensive play and rolled on the ground so much he became an international comic video star. Instead of being a part of an efficient fast moving side, he slowed it down and made it much easier to defend. It was Coutinho who stood out for Brazil, not Neymar and eventually the more team-oriented Belgians ousted them from the tournament.

WHO HAS COME THE CLOSEST TO BEATING WORLD CHAMPION FRANCE?

The French did it right. They got progressively better as the tournament went on and only a scoreless draw against Denmark (who has been unappreciated for their effort in Russia) marred their record. So, has anybody come close to beating the French in recent months? After all, they haven’t lost in their last eleven matches. Actually, yes, and it is very surprising who it was. The much-maligned USA! But this wasn’t the Bradley – Dempsey squad who couldn’t get past Panama or Honduras and into the tournament. No, this was a very young American team playing their third game during the pre-tournament weeks when teams actually in the Cup are preparing themselves. With the exception of some very questionable goalkeeping, the young USA had looked amazingly capable against Bolivia and Ireland, but this was the full French…and looking to finish their preparation games with a flourish. Despite the names and talent in front of them the Americans did some very good things and when Julian Green scored in the 44th minute, the French and everybody else in the soccer world were stunned. Eventually the quality of their opponent overwhelmed the underdogs and World Cup-star-to-be Kylian Mbappe evened it up at the 78 minute mark, sparing the French a very embarrassing result. But it was a very encouraging effort for the USA and hopefully one day in the future we will look back at that game as the first sign of the development of a very good USA team.

green france

Julian Green scores against a shocked France

All in all, most fans have said that this summer was the most entertaining World Cup in decades. It certainly was fun to watch and it will be remembered for it’s drama, upsets and exciting play.