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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.DeBruyne (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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This week the most followed sports event in the world begins its once-every-four-year occurrence. The World Cup takes place in Russia and the eyes of almost the entire sporting world will be on the teams and the games as nations attempt to claim the title of best national soccer team in the world. This year some usual participants will be missing. The innovative Dutch , the defensive-genius Italians, the not-so -good but economically welcomed Americans. It will be a telling measure of interest in the sport here in the USA as we see what the interest level is without our team’s participation in the event.
Every March American sports fans put themselves out on a limb by predicting the outcomes of each game of our college basketball tournament. We fill out our “brackets” knowing that the upsets that occur each year will leave many of us looking like we know nothing about college basketball (which, of course, is actually the case). But filling out World Cup brackets is something we don’t generally do when that tournament comes around. So, in the interest of building interest in this year’s unAmerican World Cup, the Soccer Yoda will risk my world-wide reputation as a …..well…soccer yoda…by predicting the outcome of the tournament, from the group stage eliminations onward to the final. Here goes:
Group A: Russia – Saudi Arabia – Egypt – Uruguay
The Russians are hosts and although they are old, slow, overly physical and with few players playing outside of Russia, being host tends to bring out the best in teams and their supporters. The Uruguayans are easily the best of the group, especially if Luis Suarez remains on good behavior when not playing for Barcelona and doesn’t bite anyone. Egypt might have a chance but Mo Salah’s shoulder is a huge question mark. The Saudi’s had a great qualifying run but seem out of their league here.
Winner – Uruguay
2nd place – Russia ( some will say this is a crazy pick)
Group B: Portugal – Spain – Morocco – Iran
The Iberian Peninsula will own this group, but predicting the winner is tricky. The Spanish have a good mix of youth and experience while the Portuguese have Christiano Renaldo along with some other quality players. The Spanish lack a true world-class forward, but every other position is loaded. Portugal is better up front but the Spanish have the team and the experience to finish on top of the group.
Winner – Spain
2nd place – Portugal
Group C: France – Australia – Peru – Denmark
The French are as filled with top quality players as anybody in the tournament. From back to front, top to bottom the likes of Griezemann, Pogba, Kante, Mbappe, Varane, etc. will be a threat to take it all. Previous French teams have folded due to the pressure of the tournament, but this one could be different. Runnerup is a tossup…Peru can be decent but are missing one of their best due to injury, Australia can surprise and the Danes have a couple very good players.
Winner – France
2nd place – Denmark
Group D: Argentina – Iceland – Croatia – Nigeria
Messi and friends will take this group but Croatia has a midfield that can compete with anybody. Iceland is the tournament sentimental favorite but let’s be realistic, this is, after all, the World Cup. African teams have surprised in the past and the Nigerians could take second…..but if midfields really do win games then Modric, Rakatic, and Kovacic will get Croatia out of the group. Actually, I don’t believe that the midfield is as indicative of who wins a match as some observers do, but I’m picking Croatia anyway.
Winner – Argentina
2nd place – Croatia
Group E: Brazil – Switzerland – Costa Rica – Serbia
Of course Brazil is the easy favorite in this group, but like several other groups second place is up for grabs. The Swiss were once the Cinderella of Europe, a spot now occupied by Iceland and they aren’t as strong as in previous Cups despite a high ranking by FIFA. The Serbs have some capable talent, especially Matic from Manchester United and Kolorov ,a good defender who plays for Roma. But the mystery squad is Costa Rica. On paper their goalkeeper Navas is the only top caliber player, but they surprised in the 2014 Cup ( which earned Navas his job at Real Madrid) and they appear to be stronger than four years ago. Logic says the Swiss should take the 2nd spot but my pro CONCACAF leaning tells me the Ticos will get out of the group.
Winner – Brazil
2nd place – Costa Rica ( a real upset pick)
Group F: Germany – Mexico – Sweden – South Korea
The favorite in this group is no secret, but unlike many other groups the runner-up seems apparent also. The Germans have been the most consistent high finisher for decades and that isn’t going to change this time. But Sweden isn’t as strong as usual and South Korea is a bit of a mystery, having qualified in a weak group, then switching coaches and going to a youth movement. Meanwhile Mexico has an experienced squad that can trouble many teams in this tournament, though the top teams seem a couple steps beyond them.
Winner – Germany
2nd place – Mexico
Group G: Belgium – Panama – Tunisia – England
Finally a group with a battle for the top spot. The Belgians get the award for “best team coming from a little country”, usually reserved for the Netherlands. They are loaded in most positions but have a history of underperforming…having come within a Chris Wondolowski fluff ( and a potentially horrible offside call) of losing to the USA in 2014 and then failing to dent Argentina. England, meanwhile, has a solid if unspectacular lineup, unless one counts Harry Kane as a world class scorer. Panama and Tunisia will be trying for respectable losses except when they play each other. I”m taking the Belgians on their talent, but England could win the group, despite my prediction.
Winner – Belgium
2nd place – England
Group H: Poland – Senegal – Colombia – Japan
This might be the most interesting group in the tournament. Poland looked very good in qualifying out of Europe and Colombia has a lot of that magical South American talent. Senegal has some quality players and if Mane can make better decisions on the field with Senegal than he has with Liverpool, they could score some goals. Japan has lots of energy and hustle but should be a step behind the others in quality. This is a tough call, but Colombia has the ability to take the group and Poland’s experience should take it past Senegal. This will be a great group to watch for scoring, they can all put the ball in the net.
Winner – Colombia
2nd – Poland
Round of 16
Based on the above predictions, these will be the first knockout round matches and winners. There will be some very good matchups in this round.
Uruguay vs Portugal – This is one of the early knockout round heavyweight clashes. Both teams know that on paper they are a step below the top favorites, but also believe, with luck and a couple good performances, they could be in the run for the semifinals…at least. But that means getting through this match. Uruguay has top quality in Suarez and Cavani up top and Godin in the back. But the midfield is young and inexperienced. Portugal counters with Renaldo, Quaresma and a quality midfield. They are aging in the back, though. Therefore I expect a high scoring game with Portugal’s ability and experience coming through.
Winner – Portugal
Spain vs Russia – The Russians will have the crowd and Putin behind them , but even that won’t get them past Spain’s quality, experience and overall superiority.
Winner – Spain
France vs Croatia – Another clash of quality teams in the round of 16. Croatia boasts an excellent midfield of Modric and company. Mandzukic and Perisic provide goal scoring and Lovren improved drastically during the year to lead a decent back line. But France has it all…..if they can get over …being French….which means they must work together and keep off-the-field distractions to a minimum. If they can do that, they will run past the Croats.
Winner – France
Argentina vs Denmark – This is a cakewalk for the Argentinians. Denmark has enough to get out of it’s group, but that effort will leave nothing left to battle a top squad like the South Americans.
Winner – Argentina
Brazil vs Mexico – If there is a big early tournament upset, this could be it. The Mexicans have some talent, they play together well and the Brazilians can be inconsistent. However, Brazil has a 7-1 2014 loss to Germany to constantly remind them that it takes total commitment in a World Cup and I don’t think that this one gets past them.
Winner – Brazil
Germany vs Costa Rica – Costa Rican keeper Navas will have a very busy day and will show why he is considered a world-class goalkeeper. But the Germans will still get something in the goal and that’s likely more than the Ticos will do.
Winner – Germany
Belgium vs Poland – The Belgians have Hazard, De Bruyne, Lukaku, Kompany…..and that’s not all….it sounds like a Premier League all-star team and they have Courtois in the goal to boot. The Poles have a good qualifying record. They scored lots of goals, but more importantly, they gave up alot also. They won’t be able to hold off this much talent.
Winner – Belgium
Colombia vs England – Ok, this might be the biggest game in the round. The Colombians have some excellent players but England has a full complement of decent players themselves. Kane and Vardy have something to prove on the world stage and the midfield of Alli, Henderson and Lingard is good enough to supply them against this opponent. Call me crazy, but I like England in this one.
Winner – England
Portugal vs France – This round gets down to the basics of who are true contenders for the Cup and who are not. IF (big IF) the French play up to their talent, they are better than Portugal, even if Portugal does have Renaldo.
Winner – France
Brazil vs Belgium – Wow, a game for the talent appreciators of the world. Brazil has Neymar, Coutinho, Firminho, Jesus, Thiago Silva, Marcelo ..just to name a few. And, in a major change for Brazil…a great keeper in Alisson. Belgium has the aforementioned Premier League all-stars. This is a match for the ages and Brazil comes through due to their …..Brazilian…..ability to create great plays.
Winner – Brazil
Germany vs England – The Germans are loaded as usual and ,of course, can play like a fine-tuned machine at times. Their defense comes complete from Bayern Munich and includes arguably the best keeper in the world in Neuer. Their midfield has so many good players they could probably supply a couple other teams and still have a great midfield left over. If they have a weakness it is depth up top where Mueller, Werner and Gomez are talented but have no replacements except from the midfield. Their forwards may cost them eventually, but not against a good but not great England side.
Winner – Germany
Spain vs Argentina – Another great match. Messi needs a World Cup title to call his own and he has help up top with Aguerro, Higuian and Dybala. But the rest of the squad is somewhat weaker than the forwards and Spain has the talent and depth to take advantage. Perhaps more significant, Argentina has trouble playing together and up to their talent level. Spain has no problems playing as a well-oiled machine. In a friendly, Spain blasted Argentina 6-1. It won’t be that bad, but Spain will win this and leave Messi still without the big trophy.
Winner – Spain
France vs Brazil – Only once have the French have been consistently good throughout the tournament and that was at home. Brazil has won the championship five times and although playing in Europe has been a problem, this group plays for European clubs and being far away from home won’t bother them. I think their inconsistency catches up to the French against the talent and experience of Brazil.
Winner – Brazil
Spain vs Germany – Neither team has a wealth of scoring power, but both can boast experience and talent everywhere else. This could be a classic defensive battle, but if I had to put my money on one of these sides putting together a magical goal it would be the Spanish. Iniesta, Isco and Silva can put a great goal together and that will be enough to down the Germans.
Winner – Spain
Brazil vs Spain – Two great teams with the utmost of respect for each other. It’s a long tournament and by this time a month of frequent matches will take it’s toll. The Brazilians are younger, faster and more likely to have the energy and depth to break through at this point in the tournament.
World Cup Champion – Brazil
So there it is…….the Soccer Yoda has spoken. Now lets see how my bracket stands up to the craziness of world soccer. One thing is for sure though. This will be a great World Cup to watch, even without the USA.
Please note that the opinions expressed in this post, particularly in regard to training methods, are those of the Soccer Yoda, although many soccer institutions, agree wholeheartedly.
Well, it’s that time again…again. Each year around the end of May soccer clubs around the country have their tryouts. This year there is more expectation and more urgency as to how America’s children are coached, so that they can reach their maximum potential as soccer players. Why this year more than others? Because the USA men’s team did not qualify for the World Cup. Because the likes of Panama and Honduras finished above us in the 6 team playoff round. As a result there has been a huge amount of introspection as to the reasons this soccer-world catastrophe occurred. And our youth coaches have been among the most accused. And rightly so. The drive for most all American soccer clubs to grow manifests itself into a drive to attract parents with money to spend on their kid’s soccer. And that frequently means to shortcut the development of players in order to produce immediate victories that attract more players. Sometimes it means to use training methods like “speed and agility” or “strength and conditioning” training that forego the use of a ball but sound great to unaware parents. Sometimes it means small areas to train because of an over-sized club. Sometimes it means a coach who is also coaching 2 or 3 or even more other teams as a means of increasing income and therefore cannot provide the personal touch so important to youngsters. And sometimes the coach just doesn’t know any better. Last year at this time, I posted a well-received “here is what to look for” piece for parents who want their child to have the best soccer experience in terms of development and fun. In light of this past year’s disappointment and subsequent attention to youth soccer training methods, I am posting it again, with some additional up-to-date comments.
Success in soccer can be defined in many ways and is usually dependent upon the goals of the player and his/her parents. These goals can range from “be prepared for a pro career” to “have fun and don’t break anything!” We know that only a minuscule percentage of kids will play professionally and that, despite the dreams of so many families, only 5.6% of boys playing high school soccer will play in college (according to the NCAA). Statistics are about the same for girls, except the number playing pro is even less than the boys. We also know that not all youth players will even be proficient enough to play for their high school and even less will make those controversial high level programs that take the place of high school soccer for some of the very gifted. So, this means that we must recognize that life lessons that carry beyond soccer are extremely important for our young players if they are to carry benefits gained from their soccer experience for the rest of their lives.
But it is not the purpose of this post to discuss the non-soccer learnings that can be derived from the sport, as important as they may be. Here is why…..unless youngsters are having fun they tend to drop out within a comparatively short span of time. At that point they aren’t getting any life lessons from playing soccer anyway. Although other factors may drive a kid from the sport, failure to improve skills is a leading cause of the “this isn’t fun anymore” syndrome. After all, it is fun to learn and get better and often boring not to do so. And of course if a child does harbor dreams of advancement to higher levels, learning new skills is a must. It is possible, even if a child loves the game enough to keep playing for years, that skill development can be neglected by coaches. I have seen, not very long ago, youngsters who were veterans of a number of years of soccer and yet could not use their opposite foot, couldn’t use the outside of either foot, didn’t know the offside rule despite playing with it for years and whose tactical knowledge consisted of “the goal is down there, why don’t we just kick the ball down there?” Once upon a time that might have been expected, although not preferred, because so many youth coaches were moms and dads with little or no soccer experience who were volunteering so kids could play. Not today. Parents are spending good money and devoting more time to the demands of the soccer club than to be satisfied with a lack of soccer growth in their children. One problem is that, to less experienced parents who are paying so much attention to game action and scores, it is not easily apparent if their child is not advancing. If they spent money on a piano teacher for a couple years and their child was still playing the same songs as when they started, they would know something is wrong. But it is not nearly as obvious if their youngster is still playing the soccer equivalent of Chopsticks after years of soccer experience.
Other countries are not nearly as dependent on coaches to develop their soccer talent. Brazil, Italy, Argentina, Germany……these soccer powers have a culture to help produce talent. Kids play for hours a day in the streets or neighborhood fields in small groups, with makeshift goals, emulating their “football” heroes that they see on tv. There are no coaches, no parents, no recorded scores or tournament championships to be had. Just kids having fun playing the sport and trying new skills with no negative feedback if they mess up while learning. It has been said that the more our youth training is like playing in the streets the better our kids would learn.
Soccer is a sport played with the players feet, brain and heart. Although playing with lots of heart certainly helps achievement and is one of those “non-soccer” attributes parents want their children to develop, the deciding factor in the consideration of the achievement level of any player is far more often the players feet and brain than his/her heart. And it is in those areas, the feet and brain, that good coaches stand apart from the ordinary. So lets look at the methods used (or not to be used) in order to produce soccer players who are at the top of their potential and are having fun while constantly improving their game.
A. Minimum of activities without the ball
A top German professional coach said to me once,” You know what you get when you have your players run lots of laps? Good lap runners!” Youngsters need to touch the ball to develop ball skills. The more touches done right, the more proficient they become. Running done without a ball or not in a soccer situation does nothing to develop the ability of a soccer player. Of course, the “win” syndrome plays a part with coaches who run their players. Coaches may feel that they can make up for a lack of skill and tactics by being in “better shape” or “more aggressive”. But 1) just running is not fun to most kids and 2) eventually kids and teams who can use their feet and brains on the field pass those who can’t, no matter how much those latter teams can run or how fast they can get to the ball. For older kids cardio work may be needed, but it can be gained by exercises using a ball. Beware of “speed and agility” sessions that don’t use a ball. Last January Barcelona spent $190 million to acquire Philippe Coutinho, a player who is not fast or strong or big and, in the age of “all positions play defense”, plays virtually no defense at all. But he is a magician with the ball. Parents should remember that.
B. Practice should be efficient, lots of soccer and less of other things.
Take a look at the picture below:
Of the 10 young ladies in participating in this exercise, 1 is practicing soccer and 9 are practicing standing in line. If the drill lasts 20 minutes, that’s 2 minutes of soccer and 18 minutes of line waiting per player. Coaches should use drill structure that involves a high percentage of players in soccer activity and less involved in standing around. Here is an example:
This is a dribbling drill similar in structure to the picture above in that there are 2 players working while the others stand. But, the same work could be accomplished like this:
Now there are 3 times as many players involved. If the coach makes this a game condition drill by putting a time limit on the encounter in the middle , the work and rest times resemble those during a game where there is a period of high action followed by a period of less. In regards to methods #A and #B above, the USSF has long preached the no “L’s ” concept…..” no laps, no lines, no long lectures”.
C. Use the “teaching progression” to develop skills and concepts.
When introducing new skills and team play the use of this progression is the most effective means of developing talent:
- No pressure or opposition – players practice the move or skill without anything forcing the action. They can take it slow, practice by trying one step at a time, make sure of what they are doing.
- Passive pressure – when learning dribbling moves, a “defensive” player who does nothing but stand in the way is a good means to introduce opposition. Limiting space can also provide a limited obstacle for new players. For passing skills the clock provides an excellent form of pressure i.e.”how many passes can you complete in 15 seconds?”
3. Low pressure – use of numbers is a great way to introduce active pressure but still provide a transition from no active pressure to game conditions. 5 v 2; 4 v 1, etc. Introducing team shape with small numbers of opponents works well to familiarize kids with positional responsibility without discouraging them.
4. Increasing resistance to full and beyond – gradually making the numbers of the opposition more equal or limiting time and space to game conditions can prepare players for game action. For advanced teams adding even more opposition players ( 4 v 5; 8 v 9 to a goal) can make games seem easy.
D. Lots and lots of “rondos” – Rondos are drills in which one side outnumbers the opposition and the emphasis is ball possession. As noted above, these are great for building ability when used with youngsters, but even the best teams in the world practice using this concept. Lately the USSF training gurus have decided that rondos do not simulate the game enough and are not in favor of them. After talking to many experienced successful youth coaches, they and I strongly disagree. Repetition develops skill and these activities supply those reps better than other exercises. The individual drill can be modified to fit the learning objective desired. Touch limitations, single foot usage, dribble requirements…..if it is a part of the game it can be practiced in a rondo form of exercises. A form of rondo can even be used with a goal….ex: the offensive team must complete 5 passes consecutively before shooting. The German coach I quoted above finished his statement about laps with,” If you want good soccer players, they must play soccer!” Rondos and conditional scrimmages are the closest thing we have to the “street soccer” that international youth play and might even be more efficient due to the specific purpose of the play.
E. Make it competitive – kids love to play, but they also love to compete. Those Brazilian youngsters on the beach are always keeping score, even if the outcome is forgotten as soon as they go home. Coaches will keep the interest and the fun levels of their players high if they devise ways to keep score in their exercises. For instance: Passing: a point for every x number of passes ( depends on the skill of the players) Dribbling: a point for every stepover (or whatever move is being emphasized) accomplished in the rondo. Shooting: a point for every shot on goal and 5 points for scoring. The coaches imagination or a good practice manual can provide different scoring scenarios, but competition tends to drive practice energy upwards.
These methods will be very beneficial in making practice fun and improving the ability of players at a high rate. What skills should young players be developing?
Ball Control – Good soccer begins with good ball control. Players must be able to receive the ball and make it playable immediately. Young players learn to receive the ball with the inside of both feet (all skills should be learned with both feet) . Then with the outside of the foot. The ball should be put in front of the receiver just far enough to play it with the next touch. As kids learn, they should be able to move the ball away from defenders with their receiving touch. This leads to the ability to play 2 touch soccer, but the initial receiving touch is all important. Body surfaces should be used to cushion the ball for play. Thighs, midsection, chest ….youngsters need to develop the ability to use all surfaces. If one watches a mid-level ability professional team and compares that to the worlds best, the difference in ball control is very evident.
Passing – For youth players passing is the skill that starts them on the road to advancement. Inside foot ( both feet of course) is the basic and most used pass in the sport. Outside foot and laces passing adds the versatility and unpredictability of a players passes. To pass effectively players must have their heads up to see who should get the pass. This is an extremely important concept for young kids……getting their heads up with the ball is an absolute necessity. This skill must be practiced often and in different situations to develop proficiency.
Dribbling – Dribbling is a required skill for aspiring players. Youngsters should learn to move forward while keeping the ball close . Use of both inside and outside of the foot needs to be stressed. The ability to change direction with either surface accompanied with a feint to the opposite direction is an easily learned first “trick”. Then stepovers, cuts, pullbacks, etc can be added. Experience has shown that young players can develop these moves much earlier than many coaches believe. One point in regard to training dribbling moves: I have seen many drills in which the dribbling player gets 10 seconds, 15 seconds, even more time to try to beat a defender. This never happens in a game. Coaches need to keep to “game condition” exercises and with dribbling that means giving the offensive youth one quick try per attempt to make the move work successfully.
Receiving and Turning – turning as a part of receiving a pass is probably the most important skill in the game that is also the most neglected when it comes to training. The ability to receive a ball and turn 180 degrees quickly with it is very important. Kids can start with a basic inside of the foot 2 touch turn, but once that is mastered they should move on to one touch turns. These include outside of foot swivels, inside of foot hook turn, and the behind-the-heel ( also known as the Cruyff Turn). The ball should be ready to play as soon as the turn is completed. As players advance they should be able to confidently and quickly take a ball from the back, turn and play it to a teammate.
Shooting – Youngsters catch on to shooting fairly easily as far as form is concerned. However accuracy can be challenging to any age player and youth are no exception. The smaller goals now required by the USSF make training to shoot more productive than with adult goals. Keeping shots low and on goal is paramount. Shooting with the outside of the foot and putting spin and curve on shots are not above the level of experienced youth players. However, it takes many practice attempts to become a good shooter so kids need to get many repetitions to improve.
Heading – Due to the unknown potential of injury to still-developing skulls and brains, the USSF has banned all heading (practice or games) for youngsters age 10 and under and minimal heading for those 11 and 12 yrs old. If a parent has a teenager playing, expect basic heading exercises and heading in games gradually leading up to the expertise expected in advanced players.
Defending – By definition playing defense is not a ball skill. Still, youth players need to understand the basics of defense. Parents should expect their kids to know about position ( goal side), footwork, patience and proper tackling technique. As they get older youth should learn team defensive strategies such as sheparding and maintaining shape.
Team Play – Once it was said that younger players could not understand team tactics and therefore only technical skill should be taught to kids. It is my belief that is absolutely wrong. Coaches should never underestimate the ability of youth to develop their feet AND their brains in regard to soccer. They can learn proper support moves, how to get to good angles, when to move to space, what their positional responsibilities are and those of their teammates. I have seen and coached u-10 and u-12 teams that play a high level of tactical soccer and they loved learning the game. In addition. it should not be a surprise that kids get better at things that they practice. By stressing and practicing team possession tactics, youth players also develop technical ball skills of control, passing, dribbling, etc. to accompany their always improving vision, movement and team concept. WARNING: while learning the “good game”, kids make mistakes and this can lead to losses on the field, especially to teams that are athletic and big and fast, even with the new rules that are designed to minimize those physical advantages. But, make no doubt about it, time spent developing these soccer skills…..the feet and brains of youth players, will pay off in the end.
It’s the lucky kids, those whose coaches teach them to know the game and love playing it, that will stick with it and experience those events that make for livelong memories, great friendships and personal traits that can lead to fulfilling lives in many diverse areas. And a few may even be a part of a USA team, of either gender, that can qualify and advance in the World Cup!
Soccer Yoda would like to thank the many readers of this blog. In the last couple months soccer fans from many countries around the world have become viewers. It is quite an honor to have an audience as widespread and diverse as this one has become. Thank you all!
This past week the European Champions League played it’s first leg of it’s quarterfinal matches. As expected, Barcelona did well against Roma, winning 4-1 and Bayern Munich downed a surprisingly stubborn Sevilla team 2-1, in Spain. This makes Bayern a large favorite for the overall result given the second leg will be at home. Liverpool astounded everyone, especially Manchester City, in thrashing them 3-0 at home. It remains to be seen if City can come back in Manchester this week. The big contest, pitting Real Madrid against Juventus in a repeat of last years final proved to be disappointing, unless one is a Real fan. Madrid rolled to a 3-0 win, and in Italy no less. In doing so, Real scored a terrific goal that caught the eye of the Soccer Yoda in it’s application of modern soccer tactics. And no, I don’t mean Ronaldo’s overhead scissors goal. That was an amazing display of technique and athletic ability. That kind of skill can decide matches regardless of whatever tactics are being applied.
The goal that impressed the Soccer Yoda so much was the third one, scored by Real’s left back Marcelo. It involved a fair amount of technical skill with the ball, mainly the ability to control a pass to feet and the ability to deliver an accurate pass under some pressure. But what it really demonstrated is that an understanding of space and movement can beat the best defense. And the fact is that this understanding can be taught to youth.
At the beginning of the move (above picture), Ronaldo has the ball in Real’s attacking third. He is moving with a deliberate slow pace. Marcelo has moved up the left side and is position to support Ronaldo. Farther away on the right Isco is literally in the picture but is a tough pass for Ronaldo. It should be noted that Juventus has 5 defenders in the area and another moving in from the far right. Real has 3 attackers against 5+ defenders of one of the best defensive teams in the world. This doesn’t look like a positive situation for the Spaniards.
With no penetrating move available and Juventus defenders closing in, Ronaldo makes a safe pass to Marcel0. Meanwhile Isco sees space open behind the 3 defenders marking Marcelo and Ronaldo. He starts a diagonal run into that space using the concept that attackers away from the ball should make runs into space left open by the defense.
Marcelo takes the ball inside toward the space while Isco continues his run across the defense. Isco’s run forces the Juventus defenders to decide whether to stay where they are or to follow him as he moves into an open area.
Isco’s run takes him into the space and the defenders decide to move with him to prevent him from getting the ball unmarked in a dangerous area.But diagonal runs that are properly made allow the receiving player to shield any following defender with his body and Isco can take a pass from Marcelo while shielding the defenders. So Marcelo slips Isco a short pass using the outside of his left foot. The diagonal run has taken 2 Juventus defenders out of crucial areas and now there is a large open space inside the Italian penalty area right at the penalty spot. But how to get the ball into that spot at a Real player’s feet and at the same time keep that space devoid of defenders?
Isco is receiving a pass with a defender on his back preventing him from turning with the ball. This is a classic “man on” situation in which the receiver being pressured passes the ball back to the original passer. In this case, the original passer has moved since making the first pass. The defender marking Marcelo has turned to watch the ball and lost sight of Marcelo who is now in a good position to receive Isco’s return pass.
Marcelo has the ball he obtained from Isco. That big open area at the penalty spot (opened by Isco’s run) is still there but Marcelo is surrounded by defenders and the chances of carrying the ball into that spot past all those defenders is slim. However, Ronaldo has followed one of the basic concepts of possession soccer. He has put himself into a position where his close teammate with the ball can reach him with a pass. Marcelo knows that although he would have trouble reaching the open space with the ball, there is another way.
Marcelo takes advantage of Ronaldo placing himself on a line with him. He passes the ball through the surrounding defenders to Ronaldo. But he knows the importance of that empty space in front of the goal and he continues his movement toward it after making the pass.
Ronaldo receives the pass from Marcelo and although he could shoot from where he is, he sees Marcelo making the run toward the penalty spot. Juventus defenders have been turned again as they follow the ball. Each turn costs them a couple steps and so they seem rooted to the ground while the Real players move around them. Ronaldo makes a “second side” pass to take advantage of the turn and cause the defenders to lose sight of Marcelo. A “second side” pass is made to the opposite side of a defender than the side that the offensive runner is on in respect to the defender. Since the ball and the runner are on opposite sides of the defender he will not be able to keep both of them in sight. In this case, the Juventus defenders are watching the ball and lose sight of Marcelo.
Marcelo is meeting the ball in open space with only the keeper to beat. The defenders are calling for offside, but Marcelo timed his run to coincide with Ronaldo’s pass and he is not offside. Ronaldo gets the assist for the prospective goal and the player who created the goal by his run is standing alone watching the culmination of his work. Isco knows that he played a crucial role in this score even though he neither scored nor assisted on it. In modern movement-oriented soccer, many times the player whose movement opened the defense is not part of the actual scoring of the goal.
Ironically, Marcelo fumbled the actual shot on goal, but the position and lack of defenders around him allowed him to stumble into the goal with the ball. Real was up 3-0, the game and likely the movement into the next round was settled.
Real scored with only 3 players against a number more defenders by using modern offensive concepts that involve possession by having close support, movement by players into space from off-the-ball locations, forcing defenders to make choices as to their position and then taking advantage of those decisions. This may seem like extremely high level play reserved for only the best of the best in the world. It is not. The basics of this style of play can be taught to single digit aged youngsters. As they become familiar with possession and simple movement they can learn more complex strategies like diagonal runs, second side passes, decoy runs designed to move defenders away from important areas and more. And while they play this type of offense they develop the technical skills of control, passing and vision that this style of play needs to be successful. If American youth coaches were tuned in to developing these ideas and skills in our youngsters, we would not be worrying about qualifying for the World Cup. It can be done, we just need to educate our coaches to teach our youth and eventually the USA will have our own Isco, Marcelo and Ronaldo scoring goals like this one.
There are many wonderful things about the holiday time each year. One of the best practices during late December is the telling of stories that carry a positive outcome and often offer a meaningful lesson to accompany the tale. We see uplifting movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life”, “Miracle on 34th Street” and “Home Alone” that use the Christmas and New Year period to make us feel great and teach life lessons to boot. The Hallmark Channel devotes weeks to the telling of tales that end with problems that are solved through the learning of lessons that are important all year long.
In keeping with that tradition, the Soccer Yoda would like to tell a story, at this time of year, that like those mentioned above, has an important life lesson to teach and a positive outcome to make the reader smile. This tale is true and, of course, it’s a soccer story. What it isn’t- is a Christmas story- I decided to use the season as an excuse to relate a real-life happening that still reminds me of an important lesson I and a group of teen-age boys learned a long time ago.
In the summer of 1984 I was into my fourth year of coaching a team of boys living in Columbia,Md. The Soccer Association of Columbia was formed in 1971 and had grown into one of the stronger soccer clubs in the East, producing a number of Maryland State champion teams as well as several Eastern regional titleholders and a national championship team ( and more were to come in the near future). My team was a good team, we had risen from the Washington DC beltway league’s 3rd division all the way to the first and we were looking to continue that improvement. To that end, we decided that a trip overseas could have a great impact on the boys.
A word about team names – it is common practice here in the 20-teen years to name youth soccer teams by a specific process: the name of the club comes first, then the year of the players birth, then either a color or a level description (or both) or perhaps the coaches initials to indicate which particular team it is. So a team at the same level as our story team ( u-16, top team) would be named SAC 2002 Premier Blue at the present time. Under the present system we would have been SAC 1968 Premier Blue. But back in the 70’s and 80’s team names were different. There were fewer teams at that time and many clubs including ours used team names to inspire loyalty and pride. For while “SAC 1968 Premier Blue” might be descriptive, it certainly doesn’t raise any passion or identity. All SAC teams went by the name “Columbia” ( it helped that there were no competing soccer organizations in the city at that time) and had a nickname that was unique to that team in the organization. Therefore there were Columbia Eagles and Columbia Strikers and Columbia Comets and the like. We took the name of the top professional team in the country and thus were the Columbia Cosmos (it was a nice alliteration and the fact that I had an ex-player of mine on the actual Cosmos didn’t hurt the idea).
In that summer of ’84 our team went to Europe to play and learn from the best European soccer nations at that time , Holland and Germany. I had made this trip before with an older team and it was very worthwhile on many levels. We were going to travel through the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium, play 8 games and learn as much about soccer and Europe as we could. Our first stop was at the Dutch National Training Center at Papendal which is located just outside of Arnhem. There we would train for a short week ,play a game against local competition and then head out to Germany. I had been at Papendal before, it was (and is) a terrific facility which is used by many teams and clubs for training purposes and in the summer it is especially busy. On this trip we were joined at the facility by a first division Greek squad and a Dutch soccer camp consisting of about 200 boys ages 8-16.
We stayed in dorms and ate meals at a cafeteria used by all those using the center. We arrived in the evening and the next morning went to breakfast before our first training session. During the meal one of the boys came to me and said,”Coach, is it just me or are those Dutch kids staring at us?”. I glanced around quickly and remarked that I didn’t see anything unusual. Our sessions went well, the fields were perfect, the weather was great. But as each meal occurred, the boys became more convinced that the camp kids were staring and laughing at them. This bothered them far more than it should have and began to have an effect on their overall experience at the center. I tried to assure the boys that being Americans, they would normally attract some degree of attention in Europe and these were youngsters who had probably never seen an American at all. “They know the USA isn’t very good at soccer and they are laughing at us” was the general thought of the team though. Given that all were there to play soccer everyone wore the same general apparel and hair styles were no different from each other, so that the only reason the Dutch boys gave our team extra attention was a perceived ineptness on the field, or so my kids surmised. “Coach, they haven’t even seen us practice, how do they know whether we are good or not? Just because our national team can’t make it to the World Cup?” I still wasn’t aware of any extreme behavior at meals but the kids insisted that they were being disrespected and I did notice some added attention paid to them at times. As they were itching to play a match on those grass-carpet fields I decided to talk to the camp coaches about a game between us and their best u-16 campers.
The camp coaches asked if I could wait a day for their answer as they needed to talk to their director. The next day they told me that the director had decided that if any of their campers were hurt in a match with us, they would be liable for damages and parents would be very upset if that were to happen. I understood the caution but the team wasn’t happy. “They laugh at us but they won’t give us a chance to prove we can play.” As I ran a soccer camp myself I understood the caution and explained the reasoning to the boys. They calmed down but it was evident that they really wanted to prove that they (and therefore Americans in general) could play the game at least as well as an assortment of camp kids. This was bothering them to no end.
Finally the last day of our stay arrived and in the evening we were matched up with the best u-16 team in the area. Our team was very ready to play and out-hustled the opposition during the first 5 minutes resulting in a scrappy goal for us. This fired the boys up even more but the Dutch team started putting together some good passing moves and held the ball in our half for a few minutes. Suddenly we took possession and then put together as fine a counter-attack as one would see at that level… a fast series of three balls down our flank followed by a centering pass to a late running central midfielder who found the net with one well placed touch. The boys went crazy, the opposition slumped….and then the kids noticed the campers watching the game from the hill overlooking the field. If anything they were now even more energized than before and by the time it was over we had decimated our foe 7-0.
As we walked back to our dorm we passed the building housing the campers. They had disappeared after the game and frankly the boys were basking in their performance rather than worrying about what a bunch of Dutch youngsters thought (finally!). As we walked past the camp dormitory, I saw a boy looking out from the front door. When he saw us he yelled out in English,”Here they come boys!” With that the door slammed open and at least a hundred campers of all ages came streaming out, running up to our team , all of them armed with paper and writing utensils. In broken English they asked every player on our team for their autograph. My kids were astonished, at first unsure of what to do and then signing with the most bemused looks on their faces. They laughed, they signed, they tried to converse, they shook hands, they even hugged the younger campers. Nothing could have topped off that match effort like this reception. After a long while the campers gradually returned to the dorm. I noticed that the “lookout” who had hailed our appearance was among the campers still lingering. I surmised that he spoke some English and went to him and asked,” This is very nice, but why do you want our autographs?” He looked at me and said incredulously,”you are Cosmos!”
It took me a second or two……and suddenly it all fell into place …and I felt somewhat ashamed. My team and myself among them had totally misinterpreted the campers. Our own doubts and insecurity had allowed us to completely misread these children. European professional clubs, especially the larger organizations , have youth teams to groom potential players for the senior team. Many of these youngsters end up as stars, others don’t pan out. At present MLS clubs are developing youth teams like their European counterparts. In 1984 the Cosmos were a world-famous team. They had brought world renown players like Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia, and others to New York in order to build a soccer organization that would provide a base for the growth of the game in the USA. Given the talent level of the team, any youth playing in the Cosmos organization would naturally be considered to be extremely talented and a probable future star. The campers were staring at the Columbia Cosmos in the mistaken belief that we were the NY Cosmos u-16 team ( which did not even exist at that time) and the rout of the local team that they had just witnessed convinced them that we were the real deal…..which we were not. A little communication during the week could have cleared up the confusion and perhaps forged some friendships, created some international understanding and, while costing my boys their moment of false celebrity, it could also have spared them their week-long anxiety. Communication can solve many misunderstandings, and once the barriers were broken down, even for just one short evening, we found that the love of soccer made for a great commonality.
During our trip we were treated like royalty by so many great people. I am happy to say that perhaps the experience at Papendal had an effect as the boys had a wonderful time, made many friends and found ways to communicate with citizens of three different countries. We also won almost every game , even defeating a German Regional Championship team who underestimated us badly. Our one loss was a fantastic game against a REAL professional u-16 team when we played Schalke 04. Schalke is a long time successful first-division German club and we were lucky enough to play their u-16’s in their former stadium, the Glückauf-Kampfbahn. The stadium held 34,000 people, we played before about 50. We lost 2-0, which sounds excellent considering the competition, but in all honesty, if we were awarded a goal for every time we got into Schalke’s defending third, we still would have probably lost. For a squad that considered itself a possession team, we learned what possession was truly all about. But that was fine, after all that kind of learning was the point of the trip.
Members of the Columbia Cosmos have done well. Many were the nucleus of an undefeated state championship high school team. Members of the team played in such diverse colleges as Catawba College, Jacksonville St, UMBC, Dartmouth, U of Maryland, US Naval Academy (captain!). While ex-Cosmos have succeeded in many different careers, there are some still attached to the game, coaching in places such as College of Charleston, LSU, U of Maryland, Loyola College, U of North Carolina Greensboro. The Soccer Yoda (that’s me) likes to think that the lessons learned through the sport of soccer contributed to the lives and successes of these men, for in the long run, for youth, that is the purpose of the game.