Thoughts on the World Cup

The World Cup is into the knockout stage and we have seen some surprising scores. These results have raised some questions which are being debated in soccer circles around the world. So here is the Soccer Yoda’s take on the newest discussions among soccer fans.

Just how good is the USA?

The World Cup has created tens of thousands of new soccer fans in this country, at least for a few weeks. Many of those bandwagoners don’t really understand the traditional position of the USA as a less-than-fearsome team. So, losing to Germany produced many many long faces and talk of “backing in” to the knockout phase. On the other hand, before the tournament began, very knowledgeable soccer people claimed that the USA had no chance of getting out of the Group of Death in the first place. In 2006, the USA played a poor game against Ghana and lost. In 2010, the USA played a good game against Ghana and lost again, although in extra time. This time we played a poor game against Ghana…..and won! Then we played a better game against a good Portugal team and drew, but should have won. Against Germany we played with one eye on the Portugal-Ghana game and were very aware of the situation -which called for conservative play. The Germans were better, anybody who was surprised at that doesn’t know their soccer. But, compared with previous World Cups, the play of the Americans has been immensely improved. It didn’t take a horrible goalkeeping error or a totally overconfident opponent to get us through to the knockout phase as it did in 2010 and 2002.It was done on merit by a team that deserved to advance because of one simple fact – they were better than 2 of the other three teams in the group, Group of Death or not. So, how good is the USA? Better than half of the top 32 national teams in the world. And maybe better than that. We aren’t top 5 material yet….Brazil, Argentina, Netherlands, France and yes, Germany, are – day in and day out- still above our caliber, but the Soccer Yoda believes that the USA is in the next tier, regardless of what happens against Belgium.

Dempsey scores in the first minute against Ghana

Dempsey scores in the first minute against Ghana

Is ticky-tacka now dead?

During the 1970’s the Dutch introduced a style of play which stressed possession of the ball, even if that possession didn’t immediately lead to attacks on the opponent’s goal. In order to maintain that possession, players needed to move from traditional positional places to spots closer to the teammate with the ball. This movement inspired the name “total football” for this style of play. Although the Dutch eventually became somewhat more traditional, the movement and possession left its mark on world soccer and most teams incorporated elements of the Dutch game. Around 2008 or so, Barcelona, being inspired by manager Pep Guardiola, took the Dutch concept to new extremes. They shortened the passes, strung them together in long sequences and gradually approached the opponents goal. The “ticky-tacka” passes eventually wore down even the best of teams and Barca had a fast enough defense to cope with the counter attacks that opponents were reduced to attempting as their only available offense. Spain, consisting of many Barcelona players, adapted the style and became the best national team in the world. So, with Spain going out of this Cup amazingly fast and Barcelona having a less-than-expectation season, the pundits are claiming that ticky-tacka has had it. Well, that may be true to an extent, but not because of this tournament. Spain (and Barcelona before it) in an attempt to speed up it’s offense and shore up it’s aging defense, lengthened the passes and went more directly to goal. But without a truly dangerous goalscorer and with that older, slower and mistake-prone defense, it just didn’t work. Ticky-tacka might be dead, but if so, it’s because it’s own originators stopped using it. Spain’s tactics in 2014 bore small resemblance to it’s  2010 team. However, other teams, both national and club, have adapted elements of the possession-first game. Even if it doesn’t consist of hundreds of 5 yd passes, the influence of ticky-tacka is very present. So ,it isn’t dead, it has evolved as it has spread – just as total football did.

Spain gives up another goal vs Netherlands

Spain gives up another goal vs Netherlands

When is a penalty a penalty?

One thing that players, coaches and fans want from referees is consistency. Calls can be argued, but if they are made with a predictable view,then players and coaches will know how to play and spectators will know what to expect. In this tournament, the most momentous call, the penalty kick ,has been anything but consistent. FIFA must better define what constitutes a penalty and instruct it’s referees to call it correctly. But meantime, defenders need to understand that anytime they go to ground or grab an opponent or even stick out a foot in the penalty area, the whistle may blow. They need to adjust their play accordingly and midway through the tournament that hasn’t happened. So, the calls continue to come and the controversies continue to demand our attention. Hopefully we will see wiser play from defenders and more predictable calls from the refs.

A huge "maybe" penalty against Mexico

A huge “maybe” penalty against Mexico

Is soccer a moment or a movement in the US?

Without a doubt, with no possible debate, it is an undeniable fact that the 2014 World Cup has generated by far, the greatest amount of interest of any prior World Cup and ( despite what the soccer haters say) this is NOT the Olympics. I have NEVER seen thousands of fans viewing Olympic sports in outdoor venues watching on huge screens. I have NEVER seen hundreds of fans cramming themselves into individual pubs and sports bars to watch ANY Olympic sport. This is an unprecedented outpouring of interest in soccer in this country. It’s a sports happening here in the US just like it is in the whole rest of the world. Finally. As a sign of the massive amount of interest in the World Cup and therefore in soccer , the haters are out in force. Mad Dog sports says that “nobody really cares about soccer” and then to back up this assertion mentions the fact that ” the MLS only averages 20,000 or so to each game”, then Ann Coulter says that the interest in soccer is an example of our nation’s “growing moral decay” and that soccer isn’t really a sport because a sport must have ,” danger of personal humiliation and major injury” (she was being sarcastic,right?). Then ,to top that, Keith Ablow of Fox Business News says that the interest in the World Cup is part of a conspiracy engineered by the Obama administration along with relaxed marijuana laws. WHAT? The most sensible comment I have heard came from ESPN:”The interest in the World Cup is merely a visualization of the growing soccer movement in this country. It’s been going on for years, gaining participants and followers at ever faster rates and the Cup has motivated almost all of them at once.” Will millions of World Cup fans desert soccer and the US team as soon as the Cup is over? Absolutely. Will millions more continue to play, coach, follow and watch the sport as they did before the Cup? Certainly. More importantly – will an undetermined amount of Americans follow up on their new-found interest in soccer despite it’s “moral decay” and the threat of conspiracy? For sure. Soccer is here to stay, it isn’t getting any smaller and those who continue to minimalize it’s growth or berate it’s followers will just look more foolish than they already do.

 

 


3 Comments on “Thoughts on the World Cup”

  1. Sam St-Phard says:

    Al,
    I am 100% in agreement with your assessment of the United States. After watching them dominate Portugal, I realized that I was watching a team on par with all but probably, France, Germany, and Colombia. The Brazilian defense is shaky and Argentina, in my opinion, though explosive offensively, is not supported by a consistent defense. Overall, I’m incredibly impressed with the showing of the 3 out of 4 CONCACAF Nations who advanced to the Round of 16. As usual, Coach, great insights!

    Like


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