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BELGIUM 2, U.S. 1, AND AMERICA’S FUTURE

In a match that looked like a re-enactment of the siege of the Alamo, Belgium pounded away at the U.S. defense for 93 minutes before breaking through and ultimately winning, 2-1, in overtime to earn a World Cup quarterfinal showdown with Argentina.

Midfield dynamo Kevin De Bruyne and substitute striker Romelu Lukaku combined on both Belgian goals, beating an exhausted U.S. defense that was bombarded with 38 shots.  Three minutes into extra time, Lukaku beat U.S. defender Matt Besler down the right wing to set up De Bruyne for the first goal, then a pass by De Bruyne allowed Lukaku to score on a powerful short-range shot.  The desperate Americans staged a furious comeback and were rewarded in the 107th minute when 18-year-old substitute Julian Green volleyed home a chipped pass into the box by Michael Bradley, but the rally fell short.

The game was played in Salvador, and fittingly the man of the match was the USA’s savior, Tim Howard, who put on a two-hour goalkeeping clinic.  He made 16 saves, many of them spectacular, in sparing his side an embarrassingly lopsided defeat.  It was the most saves in a World Cup game since the statistic was first kept in 1966.

Remarkably, the Americans nearly won the game in the final seconds of regulation added-on time.  Substitute Chris Wondolowski, a natural poacher, latched onto the ball in a goalmouth scramble but put his shot over the bar in an effort to lift it over sprawling Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.  [July 1]

Comment:  Now, following the handwringing, the postmortems start.  Americans caught World Cup fever in a big way for the first time.  But the Belgian police banged on the door and broke up their party, and they want the next party to last beyond midnight.

How can the U.S. get better and go farther at Russia 2018 (the team’s qualification being a given)?  A stronger Major League Soccer?  An expanded U.S. academy program developing more and more young talent?  The U.S. goal will soon be in the capable hands of Brad Guzan–unless the unpredictable Juergen Klinsmann tries to make Howard, now 35, the USA’s answer to Dino Zoff.  DaMarcus Beasley isn’t likely to play in a fifth World Cup, so there is a need for a left back, and forward Clint Dempsey will be 35 in four years.  Whether it’s Besler or Omar Gonzalez or Geoff Cameron or a newcomer in the central defense, Klinsmann needs to find the right duo and stick with it.  And the midfield must somehow get better without a Xavi or Andres Iniesta on the horizon.

Who knows if a “Group of Death” awaits the U.S. if it reaches Russia.  And if it reaches the second round there, will its opponent be Belgium, or a side like Ghana (2010), or Mexico (2002) … or Brazil (1994).  But it is a sure thing that the U.S. will be better–by how much is unknown, but it will be better.

The U.S. is nowhere near reaching its considerable potential.  Participation figures that exceed 20 million and our soccer infrastructure say so.  There’s also that intangible, the slowly continuing evolution of the soccer culture here.  Since the Pele Generation of the 1970s, the sport has improved on the grassroots level by leaps and bounds–and, admittedly, sometimes by small increments–but it has improved, and that improvement goes on uninterrupted .  Compare that, then, with countries where soccer is well-established and yet the fortunes of the national team waxes and wanes, like Belgium.  Or Chile, or Portugal, or Uruguay, or Romania, or Holland, or Norway, or Colombia, or Costa Rica, or Paraguay, or Sweden, or the remnants of the former Soviet Union or former Czechoslovakia.  Most are left awaiting the emergence of its next “golden generation,” which may require several generations of waiting.  A nation like Spain played in the first World Cup in 1930 and didn’t win one for 80 years.  Hungary peaked in the early 1950s with one of the greatest teams ever and has been mostly an international soccer afterthought since.

The U.S. isn’t any of those nations.  Plot the national team’s progress on a graph and the red line continues upward, sometimes sharply (Korea/Japan ’02), sometimes not (France ’98).  It’s why many of the countries in the soccer-playing world would trade their past and present for the USA’s future in a heartbeat.

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U.S. SOCCER’S WARM SEAT GETS A BIT WARMER

The U.S. was denied passage to the second round and Portugal remained alive after the Portuguese got a goal from Silvestre Varela nearly five minutes into added-on time to eke out a 2-2 draw at Manaus in the second game for the two Group “G” rivals.

The Americans and Germany, both with four points, are scheduled to meet in Recife on Thursday, June 26, the same time that Portugal and Ghana play in Brasilia.  The Portuguese and Ghanans have one point apiece.

Portugual, coming off its disastrous 4-0 loss to Germany in its opener, got off to an ideal start when winger Nani pounced on a mis-hit clearance by U.S. defender Geoff Cameron and scored from short range in the fifth minute.  The Americans replied with a 25-yard blast inside the right post by midfielder Jermaine Jones in the 64th minute and took the lead in the 81st when striker Clint Dempsey chested home a short cross in the box by midfielder Graham Zusi.

The prospect of the USA notching its first-ever comeback victory in a World Cup dissolved with 30 seconds left.  Midfielder Michael Bradley was dispossessed just inside the Portuguese half, superstar Cristiano Ronaldo–neutralized for 94 minutes–carried the ball down the left and got off a perfect cross, and substitute midfielder Varela was on the other end for a flying header from eight yards away. [June 22]

Comment:  Though Portugal’s last-gasp equalizer left millions of American television viewers (a record 24.72 million, according to the TV ratings) stunned, Bradley seemed as shell-shocked as anyone.  Interviewed by ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap after the game, he struggled mightily to put words together, especially after he was asked, “Do you blame yourself for what happened?”

http://www.espnfc.com/united-states/story/1904636/michael-bradley-has-no-regrets-on-united-states-performance-after-settling-for-draw-with-portugal

Was it a fair question?  No.  But there was a positive side to it.

Unlike the old adage, “Success has a hundred fathers, but failure is an orphan,” a review of most any goal will reveal mental and physical mistakes by the defense, just as that same goal will likely be the product of skill/creativity/luck involving more than one attacking player.  To pin the goal on Bradley–despite his having his second straight weak showing at this World Cup–would be unfair.  The U.S. had numbers back as Ronaldo dribbled down the wing, and regardless of Ronaldo’s pedigree, the situation appeared to be under control.   If there are goat horns to be handed out, they should go to Cameron, who had played a solid match six days earlier in the 2-1 win over Ghana.  Caught ball-watching and poorly positioned, Cameron allowed the much smaller Varela to surge past him and get to Ronaldo’s cross unmolested.

On the other hand, Schaap’s question is another of those indications that the U.S. continues to evolve into a soccer nation bit by bit.  It’s still too rare for American sports media members to put soccer players and coaches on the spot or generally make life hell for them like their European and South American counterparts.  It was only one question, but as interest in the sport grows and the United States becomes a country of one hundred million or so soccer critics, the media here will be under increased pressure to scrutinize every move made on the field and give us not just the “who,” “what,” “when” and “where” as to what happened in a match but the “why” and “how”–even if it has to include unfair questions in the process.  As this World Cup has revealed, there’s a growing number of inquiring minds who want to know.



A STRING OF GEMS–AND JUST ONE ROCK

The first two doses of pain were inflicted in the so-called “Group of Death” as Germany humiliated Group “G” co-favorite Portugal, 4-0, in Salvador and the U.S. scored late to defeat Ghana, 2-1, in Natal.

German striker Thomas Mueller, the leading scorer at the last World Cup with five goals, picked up where he left off, scoring a hat trick.  The rout was both humiliating and painful for the Portuguese:  defender Pepe was sent off eight minutes before halftime for head-butting Mueller and both striker Hugo Almeida and defender Fabio Coentrao limped off with injuries.

U.S. forward Clint Dempsey scored 30 seconds after the opening kickoff–the fifth fastest goal in World Cup history–and the Americans held on until the Ghanans equalized through forward Andre Ayew in the 82nd minute.  In the 86th, however, substitute Graham Zusi curled in a corner kick and another sub, 21-year-old defender John Brooks, pounded a downward header into the net.  [June 16]

Comment I:  They can’t all be gems, but they’ve come close.

Two more entertaining matches.  Though it was lopsided, the German victory over the world’s No. 4-ranked team and its reigning FIFA World Player of the Year, Cristiano Ronaldo, was beyond impressive.  The U.S.-Ghana match was entirely different but no less compelling, with Ghana ratcheting up the pressure over more than an hour before gaining the tying goal, only to see the match turned on its head in dramatic fashion four minutes from the end.

Fitting, then, that those two games should bookend the day’s stinker, a toothless scoreless draw between Iran and Nigeria in Curitiba that put a dent in the average of 3.4 goals through the first 12 games–the best since 1958 in Sweden, a 3.6 average.  Unlucky No. 13 only underscored how entertaining this tournament has been.  Will any of the matches played thus far go down in World Cup history as classics?  No.  But this sure ain’t the dreadful 1990 World Cup in Italy (2.21), which gave new meaning to the word “dour.”

Comment II:  Americans are responding.  The Brazil-Croatia opener in Sao Paulo drew a total 9.5 television rating on ESPN and Spanish-language Univision, and the U.S.-Ghana game got a 7.0 on ESPN and 3.8 on Univision for a combined 10.8.  By comparison, the NBA finals on free TV (ABC) averaged a 9.3 rating and the Stanley Cup finals, also on free TV (NBC), averaged a 5.0.

 

 



KLINSMANN’S UNNECESSARY DONOVAN GAMBLE

Juergen Klinsmann, the coach hired to shake up the U.S. National Team, dropped the biggest bombshell of his controversial tenure by announcing a 23-man World Cup squad that does not include all-time U.S. scoring  leader Landon Donovan, a player considered the best ever produced by this country.

Klinsmann had until June 2 to reveal his final roster, but with his preliminary squad still training at Stanford University ahead of final World Cup tune-ups against Azerbaijan (May 27), Turkey (June 1) and Nigeria (June 7), he pulled the trigger, sending home Brad Evans, Clarence Goodson, Maurice Edu, Michael Parkhurst, Joe Corona, Terence Boyd, and the man considered the face of American soccer.

The final 23 headed to Brasil ’14:

Goalkeepers — Brad Guzan (Aston Villa, England), Tim Howard (Everton, England), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake, MLS);

Defenders — DaMarcus Beasley (Puebla, Mexico), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City, MLS), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin, Germany), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City, England), Timmy Chandler (FC Nurnberg, Germany), Omar Gonzalez (Los Angeles Galaxy, MLS), Fabian Johnson (Hoffenheim, Germany), DeAndre Yedlin (Seattle Sounders, MLS);

Midfielders — Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake, MLS), Alejandro Bedoya (Nantes, France), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC, MLS), Brad Davis (Houston Dynamo, MLS), Mix Diskerud (Rosenborg, Norway), Julian Green (Bayern Munich, Germany), Jermaine Jones (Besiktas, Turkey), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City);

Forwards — Jozy Altidore (Sunderland, England), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders, MLS), Aron Johannsson (AZ Alkmaar, Holland), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes, MLS).  [May 22]

Comment:  This isn’t on a par with the decision to leave Eric Cantona off the roster of what would become 1998 World Cup champion France, but by American standards, it’s close.  And, on the face of it, a completely unnecessary gamble.

In a perfect world, Klinsy’s grateful selection of players melds in Brazil and beats Ghana, upsets Portugal and walks arm-in-arm with Group “G” favorite Germany into the round of 16.

But in this imperfect world of Klinsmann’s own making, the U.S. could be tied late with Ghana or trailing Portugal or Germany by a goal, and  standing at the halfway line, ready to ride to the rescue, will be Wondolowski or the 18-year-old Green (total international experience: one half hour), not the guy who’s scored 57 career goals, including five in his 12 World Cup matches (all U.S. records).  In short, by omitting Donovan and assembling a team that includes Yedlin, Brooks, Gonzalez and 15 other players with no World Cup experience, Klinsmann, the coach whose aim is to motivate his players by making them uncomfortable, has succeeded in leaving everyone unsettled, including fans who, over the years, have derided Donovan with the nickname “Landycakes.”

Klinsmann described the decision as a matter of 23 players being better than the 32-year-old forward/midfielder:  “… I just think the other guys right now are a little bit ahead of him.”   Perhaps it’s true.  But in soccer, player selection can be a very subjective thing.  Perhaps the coach is still holding a grudge against Donovan for his well-publicized sabbatical in late 2012 and early 2013 that caused him to miss the USA’s first matches of the final round of World Cup qualifiers.

Whatever the reason, Klinsmann has created a potential nightmare for himself.  Some have speculated that he has concluded that getting out of the so-called “Group of Death” is impossible and it’s best to blood young players like Yedlin (total U.S. minutes played:  34) in Brazil in preparation for the 2018 World Cup.  But this isn’t the 1990 World Cup all over again, where then-coach Bob Gansler, looking to the ’94 World Cup the U.S. would host, threw a team averaging 23 years of age to the wolves.  Three and out is no longer acceptable under any circumstances.

If the U.S. somehow advances out of Group “G” next month, Klinsmann is a bloody genius.  But if the U.S. crashes, Klinsmann will be hounded by the spectre of Donovan and what might have been.  And that will cast doubt on every decision he makes–whether risky or mundane–from now through Russia ’18.



SIMPLIFY LIFE: EVENSIDE SHOULD BE ONSIDE

The U.S. won the first half and Mexico the second as the two bitter border rivals played to a 2-2 tie in a World Cup warm-up before 59,066 at University of Phoenix Stadium.

A vintage Michael Bradley half-volleyed home a cross by Graham Zusi in the 15th minute, then set up a toe-poke goal by Chris Wondolowski in the 28th with a head flick at the left post.

Mexico, determined not to suffer yet another Dos a Zero defeat on American soil, began its comeback four minutes after halftime when veteran captain Rafael Marquez scored on a free header off a corner kick by Marco Fabian.  The equalizer came in the 67th minute as Alan Pulido tucked the ball past U.S. goalkeeper Nick Rimando and into the net after substitute Paul Aguilar’s shot rang the left post.

The U.S. had an apparent game-winner in the 85th minute, but striker Eddie Johnson, who replaced Wondolowski 19 minutes earlier, saw his goal flagged for offside after a deft pass from 30 yards out by Clint Dempsey sent him into the penalty area unmolested.  [April 2]

Comment:  Johnson’s non-goal generated plenty of talk after the match, although it wasn’t a clear miss by Panamanian linesman Daniel Williamson and referee Roberto Moreno.  Have a look:

http://ftw.usatoday.com/2014/04/usa-mexico-usmnt-offside-referees/

The key is the photo at the end, which shows Johnson leaning ahead of Mexico’s second-to-last man when Dempsey plays the ball forward.

U.S. fans can blame–and Mexico fans can thank–soccer’s official rules-making body, the International Football Association Board.

In 1990, the IFAB made life oh-so-simple with this decision:  “A player who is level with the second-last opponent or with the last two opponents is not in an offside position.”  In plain English, even is on.

In 2005, however, the board decided to make life hell for linesmen and defenders and opposing attackers with this:  “In the definition of offside position, ‘nearer to his opponents’ goal line’ means that any part of his head, body or feet is nearer to his opponents’ goal-line than both the ball and the second last opponent.  The arms are not included in this definition.”

Since then, linesmen, who have been forced to determine the involvement or possible obstruction of an attacking player, have been handed the additional responsibility of serving as master surveyor.  The 1990 decision seemed to give the benefit of the doubt to the attacker in a new world in which a comfortable, relatively reasonable gray line was created.  The 2005 ruling brought back the concept of splitting hairs.

And when it comes to splitting hairs, there will continue to be situations in which the attacker–moving forward–leans too far beyond a second-to-last opponent who is either upright or leaning back upfield.  That’s what attackers and defenders do, though their feet may be directly level.

If it’s any solace to American fans, Eddie Johnson was onside in Phoenix … two dozen years ago.

 

 



THE USA’S INDISPENSABLE MAN

A highly motivated Ukraine turned a friendly into a mini-clinic as it defeated the World Cup-bound U.S. National Team, 2-0, in Larnaca, Cyprus.

Andriy Yarmolenko scored 12 minutes into the game and Marko Devic iced the victory with a 68th-minute goal.  On each strike, the Ukrainians took advantage of a shaky American defense anchored by center backs Anthony Brooks and Oguchi Onyewu.

The match, originally scheduled for Kharkiv, was moved 600 miles to Cyprus’ Papadopoulos Stadium days after the Russian military intervention in Crimea.  Only 1,573 spectators were on hand for the hastily relocated game, many of them Ukrainian expatriates who broke into chants of “No war in Ukraine!” after the final whistle.  [March 5]

Comment I:  Clint Dempsey did not score against Ukraine, nor did a slumping Jozy Altidore; Landon Donovan, preparing for the Los Angeles Galaxy’s MLS opener three days later, wasn’t even there, nor was playmaker Michael Bradley, who recently moved from AS Roma to Toronto FC.  Nevertheless, after the USA’s shutout loss, the most indispensable man of the night proved to be another no-show, right fullback Steve Cherundolo.

Coach Juergen Klinsmann’s back four figures to be Stoke City’s Geoff Cameron–or Brad Evans of the Seattle Sounders–plus the Galaxy’s Omar Gonzales and Matt Besler of Sporting Kansas City and the veteran DaMarcus Beasley of Puebla, who has revived his international career as a left back.  But despite Beasley’s 114 caps, the back line will sorely miss the experience and steadying influence of the 34-year-old Cherundolo, whose ongoing knee problems make his appearance at a third World Cup a long-shot.  Cherundolo has 87 caps to the combined 30 of Gonzalez and Besler, but he brings much more than just a wise old head.

Without the feisty, reliable, attack-minded Cherundolo, Klinsmann is without the player who’d most closely resemble the right back at his disposal if he was still coach of Germany–Philipp Lahm.  Cherundolo, of course, is not quite in Lahm’s league, figuratively speaking, although both play in the German Bundesliga.  While Cherundolo usually captains perennial also-ran Hannover 96, Lahm, a member of the 2006 and 2010 All-World Cup teams, captains both European champion Bayern Munich and the German National Team.  Nevertheless, Cherundolo is as important to his team as Lahm is to his.  At 5-foot-7, Lahm is known as “The Magic Dwarf.”  Without the 5-6 Cherundolo, Klinsmann will be missing his own magic dwarf.

Comment II:  The Ukraine-U.S. match and several other friendlies–many of them World Cup tune-ups for one or both sides–were played March 5, which marked the 100-day countdown to the kickoff of Brasil ’14.  What ESPN2 viewers of that game and the Italy-Spain game that followed were not subjected to was what they would’ve seen four years ago at the same point ahead of South Africa ’10:  promos touting ABC/ESPN/ESPN2’s upcoming World Cup coverage featuring the play-by-play talents of Martin Tyler.

Ian Darke, whose call of Donovan’s last-gasp goal for the U.S. against Algeria four years ago is now part of American soccer lore, has replaced Tyler as the lead commentator for ABC/ESPN’s coverage in Brazil.  Darke will be the play-by-play man for the June 12 Brazil-Croatia tournament opener, all U.S. matches, the final July 13, and other games.

British viewers in this country might miss Tyler, who we are given to believe is to soccer across the Pond what Al Michaels is to major sports here.  But American viewers will find Darke a significant upgrade–if they haven’t already over the last four years with his TV calls here of MLS, U.S. National Team and English Premier League games.  Tyler has proven to be urbane, witty, knowledegable, and–unlike Darke–understated to a fault.  Unfortunately, the end result is play-by-play that is very easy to tune out if the game Tyler is calling isn’t exactly, well, scintillating.  Tyler describing “a thoughtful, probing ball down the left flank,” is not unlike a visit to the doctor’s office, where Dr. Tyler, the proctologist, is carrying on a pleasant, soothing, benign conversation with his patient while the patient isn’t really concentrating on this pleasant, soothing, benign chat.

“So, how are we today?  Any complaints?”

“Well, actually, I ….”

“Yes, of course.   Now, shall we try to breath normally?  This portion will take but a minute ….”

Comment III:  At the Ukraine match, the U.S. sported Nike’s newest stab at designing a national team jersey.  Gone were the welcomed horizontal red-and-white striped shirts that all but shouted “USA,” replaced by something straight out of the bleach bucket:  a white shirt with single red pinstripes on the sleeves and collar, plus the U.S. Soccer logo, not the classic, old-fashioned stars-and-stripes shield the players sported during the 2013 USSF centennial season.

http://www.ussoccer.com/news/mens-national-team/2014/03/140303-new-kit.aspx

The collar is quite alright–a soccer jersey without a collar looks more like a glorified T-shirt.  But Nike’s end result is a boring jersey more suited for playing golf or tennis or lounging about.  And maybe that’s what the marketing geniuses at Nike had in mind all along when it comes to replica jersey sales.



THE PLUSH LIFE OF JUERGEN KLINSMANN

Juergen Klinsmann has agreed to a four-year contract extension that keeps him at the U.S. National Team helm through the next World Cup cycle and on until the end of 2018.  As part of the agreement announced by the U.S. Soccer Federation, Klinsmann also becomes technical director.

Appointed U.S. coach in mid-2011 following the dismissal of Bob Bradley, Klinsmann guided an overhauled American squad to a 2014 World Cup berth.  The U.S. finished first in the final round of the CONCACAF qualifiers (7-2-1) and went undefeated in winning the 2013 Gold Cup.  The team ended the year 16-4-2 overall, setting single-year marks for wins, winning percentage (.761) and consecutive victories (12).

“One of the reasons we hired Juergen as our head coach was to advance the program, and we’ve seen the initial stages of that happening on the field and also off the field in various areas,” said U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati.  “In the past two years he has built a strong foundation from the senior team down to the youth teams and we want to continue to build on that success.”

Klinsmann reportedly is being paid $2.5 million a year on his current contract and can earn up to $10.5 million in bonuses depending on the USA’s performance at Brasil ’14.  [December 12]

Comment:  The comfortable throne reserved for the U.S. National Team coach just got a little more plush.

Since the Bora Milutinovic era, when the rest of the world started to pay attention to the Americans, the post has been derided by the international media and fellow coaches (some of them wishful suitors) as a job with none of the intense scrutiny and relentless criticism that hounds most every other national team boss.

Said soon-to-be fired Mexico coach Ricardo LaVolpe of the overall U.S. National Team atmosphere after losing a World Cup qualifier to the Yanks in 2005:  “Here, everyone’s interested in baseball and American football and many people didn’t even know that a soccer match was being played today.  So it’s easy for them, because they aren’t playing under any pressure.  My mother, my grandmother, or my great-grandmother could play in a team like that.”

We’ll assume that LaVolpe’s grandmother is Clint Dempsey and his great-grandmother is a good deal older, like Steve Cherundolo.

Then, more recently–last December–there was disgraced former France coach Raymond Domenech, who guided Les Bleus to the 2006 World Cup final and then watched his team mutiny and implode in a disgraceful three-and-out showing four years later.

“There’s a job I’d rather have,” Domenech said in an interview with But! Lyon.  “Besides, I know [Klinsmann], he knows and he doesn’t care.  This post is the coach of the United States.  I’d like to see this country.  Add to that, the Americans always qualify [for the World Cup].  At the same time, it is easy in North America:  there are only two games to qualify for the World Cup.  South America is already a paradise, but the North is even better!  You play Canada, Mexico.  You’ll walk in the Islands.”

We’ll never understand what Domenech meant by Canada, which is ranked 112th in the world and crashed in CONCACAF’s 2014 World Cup qualifiers two months before his comments.  That aside, he made his point.    Here, there is the lack of the breathless, relentless pressure that has made life miserable for everyone from Franz Beckenbauer to Michel Platini to Brazil’s once and future genius, Felipe “Big Phil” Scolari.  And it hasn’t done much for Miguel Herrera, the last in a string of four Mexico coaches run through the grinder from September to November.

While the U.S. National Team is years away from having the support–and scrutiny–of a majority of the country, the resulting atmosphere has spared the USSF the temptation to make panicky dismissals of its coaches and allowed those coaches to go about their business.

In Klinsmann’s case, time to test a large number of players, make mistakes, and, ultimately, over time, alter the culture of the team.  Then watch the results at a World Cup.  Or, perhaps, a second World Cup.

Not being a soccer nation has its advantages after all.