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THE PUTIN WORLD CUP: ENTERTAINING, BUT NO CLASSIC

France scored twice early in the second half to stave off upstart Croatia and win the 2018 World Cup final, 4-2, before 78,011 at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium.

The world championship was France’s second, coming two decades after the 1998 World Cup it hosted.  France joined Brazil (5), Italy (4), Germany (4), Argentina (2) and Uruguay (2) as the only nations to lift the World Cup trophy more than once, and it allowed Didier Deschamps to join Brazil’s Mario Zagallo and Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer in winning a World Cup as a player and coach.

With the French entering the second half leading, 2-1, Paul Pogba scored in the 59th minute from the top of the penalty area on a rebound of his own shot, and teen sensation Kylian Mbappe seemingly put the game away with a pinpoint 65th-minute strike from 20 yards.  Four minutes later, Croatia’s Mario Mandzukic scored on a blunder by French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, whose poor first touch of a back pass was first-timed into the net by the onrushing striker.

Croatia had rallied to take its three previous elimination games after 90 minutes, but another miracle was not to be as the French defense held firm and the Croats, having played the equivalent of an entire match more than France, sagged mentally and physically over the last 20 minutes, although they out-shot the winners, 15-6.

The opening half signaled that this would be France’s night.  In the 18th minute, after French striker Antoine Griezmann drew a questionable foul just outside the Croat penalty area, Griezmann managed to skip his subsequent free kick off the scalp of a leaping Mandzukic for a goal, the 12th own goal of the tournament and the first-ever in a final.  Midfielder Ivan Perisic answered 10 minutes later, beating Kante N’Golo’s mark to score on a smashing left-footed shot.  However, eight minutes before intermission, a Griezmann corner kick caromed off the back of opposing midfielder Blaise Matuidi and against Perisic’s outstretched arm.  Argentine referee Nestor Pitana consulted VAR before awarding a penalty kick, and Griezmann buried the resulting PK, the World Cup-record 22nd of the tournament.  [July 15]

Comment I: Exciting, unpredictable, quirky–this World Cup had a bit of everything.  Everything but classic soccer, regardless of how our friends at Fox tried to sell it.

Who knew that Spain-Portugal in the first round would be the one game recorded by fans worth holding on to?

There were the record number of own goals, plus the record-29 penalty kicks awarded (22 converted) in part because of the introduction of VAR (Video Assistant Referee System).  There were 169 goals (2.64 per game) scored, just two fewer than at Brasil ’14, and 70 of those–a whopping 30 percent–were scored from re-starts, a development that might change World Cup tactics for years to come.

Nevertheless, what fans and the merely curious in this country got was a final that was a nice sales job for the sport of soccer: wide-open, incident-filled (as the Brits would say), and all played against a David versus Goliath backdrop.

With 11.8 million in America watching (a drop of one-third from the 17.3 million who watched the Brasil ’14 finale on ABC), we didn’t get:

2002 — Brazil 2, Germany 0.  A perfunctory affair in Yokohama, Japan, as Ronaldo supplied the inevitable–two second-half goals–and Brazil became the last South American side in the 2000s to lift the trophy.  It also was the last final to end in regulation until France-Croatia.

2006 — Italy 1, France 1 (Italy on PKs, 5-3).  A taut match in Berlin infamous for a head butt in overtime by France’s Zinedine Zidane to the chest of Marco Materazzi in retaliation for a particularly stinging insult.  The absence of Zidane, red-carded for his startling attack, cost the French in the penalty-kick tiebreaker.

2010 — Spain 1, Netherlands 0.  The so-called “Battle of Johannesburg,” the ugliest World Cup final in history.  The Dutch committed 28 fouls and were cautioned eight times, the Spanish were whistled 18 times and shown five yellow cards.  A goal by Andres Iniesta in the 116th minute ended the carnage and spared everyone a PK decider.

2014 — Germany 1, Argentina 0.  Another tight, forgettable struggle, this one in Rio de Janeiro decided by a goal 23 minutes into overtime from late substitute Mario Goetza.

If there would be no gripping finish in Moscow, at least we were treated to a wild opening to the second half.  The Croats threw everything into the attack, only to be punished by Pogba and Mbappe.  Then came Lloris’ blunder, perhaps the biggest ever committed by a World Cup team captain, opening the door to a Croat comeback that never came.  And somewhere in it all was a pitch invasion by four members of the protest group Pussy Riot, for years a nemesis of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who watched the spectacle with other dignitaries from his stadium suite.  It was fun, it was interesting, and it made the rest of the ride comfortably acceptable as the Croats, the second-best team on the field, tried in vain to muster yet another rousing comeback.

Still, soccer fans everywhere await another truly classic final, something that transcends Beckenbauer vs. Cruyff in 1974, Pele’s crowning moment in 1970, England’s Wembley overtime thriller in 1966, West Germany’s miracle over Hungary’s Magic Magyars in 1954.  There remains the World Cup final that shows the average American–in this modern era of lavish live coverage of the tournament on U.S. network TV–why the World Cup final is the planet’s Super Bowl, times 100.

Comment II:  Many fans grieved over the second-round departures of two members of world soccer’s great triumvirate, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.  Ronaldo’s Portugal was eliminated by Uruguay, 2-1, the same day Messi’s Argentina was outlasted by eventual champion France, 4-3.

But few who care about the sport would’ve shed a tear six days later when the third member of that vaunted trio, Neymar, was shown the door with Brazil’s 2-1 loss to Belgium.

American soccer fans in particular.  You know, the people who have to explain to their fellow Americans all the silliness performed by stars like Neymar.  They watch a few minutes of soccer every four years and are disgusted by what appears to be fields littered with human carnage caused by minimal-to-no contact.

Do most soccer fans like “simulation,” as FIFA refers to it?  Just as much as they like penalty kicks deciding a match.  And FIFA has tried to address the problem over lo, these many years.  Yellow cards are shown to players who swan dive in the penalty area, and players seemingly incapacitated by an errant shoe are stretchered off immediately, or somewhat promptly, which means that a possible faker is forcing his team to play shorthanded until medical staff discovers his injury isn’t fatal and he’s waved back on the field by the referee.  And now, VAR may do to combat faking what DNA technology has done for crime solving.

Still, faking, embellishment, play-acting–call it what you want–remains a growing problem and a challenge because:
           o  A player has a tougher time selling a foul in soccer than in basketball or gridiron football.  He’s trying to influence one official (unless the contact occurred in front of a linesman), not two or three or four.  When there are multiple whistles at the ready, a foul ignored by one official may be whistled by another.  And unlike in basketball, the pace of soccer is such that often there’s a split second or full second in which the referee might reconsider a decision–often because of the advantage clause.  In addition, the foul in question may occur a matter of 10 or even 40 yards away from the ref, not 10 or 20 feet, and even blatant fouls get missed, particularly those off the ball.  An average soccer field is roughly 100,000 square feet, and the referee is expected to be lord and master over every inch of it.  Then there’s the intent that has to be behind a foul (“A player who intentionally commits any of the following nine offences” begins Law XII), so the downed player is often compelled to writhe on the turf or sit up with outstretched arms, shouting at the referee that the contact was the result of maliciousness, premeditation, or criminal intent, not clumsiness.  Above all, a foul call in soccer can result in the lone goal in a 1-0 decision, via a penalty kick or perfectly placed free kick, as opposed to basketball’s three to make two at the free throw line late in the third period, something that’s soon forgotten early in the fourth period of a game in which another 40 points are yet to be scored.
           o  A fouled player may actually be injured–and often is.  Metal studs hurt like hell, whether they land on an opponent’s foot or plow into his thigh or calf.  Bruised ribs are lots of fun, especially if you get hit in the same spot repeatedly from your club’s first practice in July until a cup final 48 weeks later.  Head-to-head contact remains a problem, same with elbow-to-head contact.  Oh, and while shoes are flying everywhere, no one’s wearing a protective cup.  Keep an eye on slow-mo replays of player contact during any game.  What’s unfortunate is that American non-fans glance at a soccer match, see what looks like a fake job and just assume every player who goes down is faking it.  Consider that the player most often criticized for play-acting in this World Cup was Neymar, who, four years ago in Brasil ’14, went down in his usual dramatic fashion and actually had suffered a broken back.
Nevertheless, fingers need to be pointed, because these antics are a choice.  And damn cultural correctness.
First of all, women players, even among the highest ranked national teams, are notably immune to the gamesmanship that plagues the men’s game.  Indeed, it’s creeping in as the women’s game grows in importance and the stakes get higher, but for now women’s soccer remains a breath of fresh air–increasingly tough, increasingly physical, and still minimally cynical.
As for the men’s game, the worst offenders over the years by far are the Latin Americans . . . or the Italians and their love of the penalty kick that might decide a tight-as-a-drum 0-0 game . . . or those playing in Third World countries where not being willing to do absolutely anything to win means a trip back to the slums . . .or the prima donnas playing for the royalty of European clubs who seem to believe they are not being fouled but victimized.  You can watch just one club, German giant Bayer Munich, and enjoy Frank Ribéry of France and Arjen Robben of the Netherlands put on a flying, rolling clinic.  There’s Rivaldo of Brazil, who, when a Turkish player kicked a ball at his stomach near a corner flag after a stoppage during the 2002 World Cup, collapsed holding his face.  And nothing will top a long-forgotten U.S. World Cup qualifier at El Camino College in Torrance, CA, in 1985 in which Costa Rica, clinging late to a 1-0 lead, saw one of its players dramatically roll eight–EIGHT–times after slight contact as part of the Ticos’ concerted effort to kill the clock.  No card was shown, and Costa Rica resumed its sprawling, rolling, histrionics enroute to a victory that eliminated the Americans.
American non-fans, however, are non-discrimanitory, they just accuse anyone in shorts:  They’re all girly-men crybabies, they conclude.  They don’t discern that, by comparison, on a Silliness Scale of 0 to 100, Germans and Brits might be on the lower end.  That Scandinavians, by comparison, don’t writhe as much.  That Japanese and Koreans, by comparison, simulate infrequently.  That black Africans, by comparison, don’t play-act to excess.  And as we all know, such antics are beneath most American players, and that’s why American non-fans take one fleeting look and say bye-bye to the global sport of soccer.  Clint Dempsey, a favorite target of enemy defenders throughout his fine career, got chopped down, but he got to his feet and, with those black eyes, looked like he would kill that defender at his next opportunity–but he didn’t play the victim, regardless of the call.  As the occasional American observer would conclude, Dempsey wasn’t naive, Dempsey wasn’t lacking in intestinal fortitude.  Quite simply:  Now, that’s an American.
That’s why most enlightening was a comparison of England-Colombia and England-Sweden during the World Cup.  The Colombians pulled out all their clownish, malevolent shenanigans and the English, thusly goaded, fought fire with fire, behaving decidedly out of character (COL 23 fouls, six cautions; ENG 13 fouls, two cautions).  The result was a disgusting spectacle, one of the lowlights of the tournament.  Five days later against the Swedes, both sides were physical, fair and, refreshingly, nonsense-free (SWE 10 fouls, two cautions; ENG seven fouls, one caution).  Both matches were must-win games, each one decidedly different in tone.  The English, never to be confused with choirboys, won the Colombia second-round match and the Sweden quarterfinal.
This is a cultural thing that should should be discussed openly, and addressed aggressively by FIFA, whose campaign of Fair Play pledges and Fair Play banners and armbands rings hollow in this regard.  Tie 32 national teams together for a month and what you’ll get are the teams whose gamesmanship is beyond histrionics, teams whose gamesmanship is a bit more, um, discreet, and what we see every four years are matches in which the lowest common denominator is what’s on display.  Each continental confederation should be directed to conduct a study to quantify the instances of blatant gamesmanship over a fixed period covering its national leagues and its continental international matches to establish the prevalence of its play-acting problem.  Only then can there be a FIFA-ordered crackdown by referees, who should be given a directive to assume a take-no-prisoners approach in invoking Law XII:  “A player shall be cautioned if [m] he is guilty of ungentlemanly conduct.”  Fortunately, in this matter, “ungentlemanly conduct” means most anything and everything, and that would cover the girly-man antics that turn off so many Americans every four years–and genuine soccer fans everywhere every week.  Use that modern miracle of science, VAR:  If linesmen are keeping their flags down nowadays because VAR can get an offside call right after the fact, then show the yellow card with impunity for perceived play-acting and let VAR clean up the mess later.  Such an assault on silliness might be seen as harsh, but it’s necessary, it’s overdue, and it can be done.  And don’t do it for Joe Six Pack in some bar in Pittsburgh who sees Sergio Busquets or Luis Suarez rolling on the ground during the 10 minutes of a World Cup he’ll bother to watch.  Do it for the integrity of the sport.
Until then, for now, the irony is that grown men, defending and projecting a macho that’s so darned important, writhe and cry and hold the right ankle when it was the left ankle that was kicked, er, brushed.  Elsewhere, it’s the players at next year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in France who, like the girly-women they are, will usually take a knock, get up and carry on playing, cynicism-free.

 

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RUSSIA ’18 THUS FAR

Sweden edged Switzerland, 1-0, in St. Petersburg on a deflected shot by Emil Forsberg and England outlasted Colombia in Moscow, 4-3 on penalties after an ill-tempered 1-1 draw to close out the Round of 16 at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.  Joining the Swedes and English in the quarterfinals are France, Uruguay, Russia, Croatia, Brazil, and Belgium. [July 3]

Comment I:  It has been a World Cup marked by upsets, stoppage-time goals, saved penalties, own goals, and it heads into the final eight with the prospect of a true outsider reaching the final.  On one side of the brackets there’s Friday’s quarterfinalists,  France (7) vs. Uruguay (14) in Nizhny Novgorod and Brazil (2) vs. Belgium (3) in Kazan; on the other side, Saturday brings Sweden (24) vs. England (12) in Samara and Russia (70) vs Croatia (20) in Sochi.

Those numbers in parentheses are the FIFA World Rankings heading into the tournament.  The total for the Friday bracket:  26, with three former champions, eight World Cup trophies among them.  The Saturday total:  126, with one former champion, England.

For those who see an insidious FIFA conspiracy at every World Cup draw, this imbalance is one for the books.  If Belgium is to be considered an outlier because it’s never lifted the trophy, the only World Cup that’s come closer to a final with two outsiders was in 2002, when eventual champion Brazil and runner-up Germany spared us a final between eventual third-place finisher Turkey and host South Korea.

Comment II:  Russia ’18 has been a disaster for CONCACAF, the regional confederation whose teams have reached the semifinals only once (U.S. in 1930, the inaugural World Cup) and whose only first-round group seeds have come when it was hosting the tournament (Mexico 1970 and 1986, U.S. 1994).

Costa Rica, whose remarkable run to the quarterfinals four years ago in Brazil was CONCACAF’s highlight, was shut out by Serbia and Brazil before meekly bowing out of Group “E” with a draw with Switzerland.  World Cup debutant Panama also finished last in its group, losing to Group “G’s” Belgium 3-0, England 6-1 and Tunisia 2-1.

The region’s Great Green, White and Red Hope, Mexico, lifted expectations by upsetting defending champion Germany, 2-1, and South Korea, 2-1, but it was put in its place by Sweden, 3-0, to finish second in Group “F.”  That proved fatal to El Tri, which faced Brazil, not Switzerland, in the second round and succumbed as expected, 2-0.  Mexico’s surprise defeat of Germany would’ve been more impressive had the South Koreans not followed with a 2-0 victory over the Germans.  Those results said a whole lot more about the defending champs’ impotence than anything about perceived Mexican might.  And then there was Mexico’s going scoreless over its final 204 minutes.

The good news is that FIFA now bases its World Cup group seeds on the top eight teams in the world rankings at the time of the draw, not on a team’s–or a region’s–reputation.  The bad news is that rankings are based largely on competitive matches, and in this case that means unimpressive CONCACAF teams playing one another.

This bodes ill for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.  As for the 2026 World Cup in North America, CONCACAF once again gets seeds not based on merit:  tri-hosts Mexico, U.S. and Canada are each automatically seeded in a tournament bloated to 48 teams.  But today begins with Mexico’s elimination.  Tomorrow is eight years away.

Comment III:  TV viewers have enjoyed a relatively seamless transition from Brasil ’14, when the tournament was covered for the sixth straight time by ABC/ESPN, to Russia ’18.  Fox/FS1 raided ESPN of some of its soccer talent, but the network that swung and missed earlier with hyper basketball play-by-play man Gus Johnson plowed ahead and blew it again by plaguing us with the clown prince of soccer, Jorge Perez Navarro.

Fox apparently figured it was worth the risk to possibly annoy non-Navarro fans in the hopes that he could draw more fans of El Tri.  Wrong.

The numbers are in and Fox and FS1 averaged 2,069,000 viewers for its 48 group-stage matches, according to Nielsen Media Research, down 42 percent from the 3.54 million average by ABC/ESPN in Brazil.

Blame the absence of the U.S. from the tournament and kickoff times much earlier–particularly 5 a.m. kickoffs on the West Coast–than four years ago.  So why did U.S. fans have to endure the added insult of El Tri cheerleader Navarro while trying to watch games involving Mexico?

It came as no surprise based on earlier appearances on Fox, but Navarro was loud, silly and unabashedly partisan.  It was bad.  He referred to Mexico as “we,” not “they.”  He offered virtually no information on Mexico’s opposing players while regaling viewers with factoids on the Mexican players, all the while referring to them by their nicknames, as if they were Navarro’s close personal friends.  Another network would remind Navarro that it’s all about the game, not the announcer, but Fox knew what it was getting when it went out and got him.

Based on on-line comments, there are those who enjoy Navarro’s “enthusiasm” and regard the typical soccer play-by-play man in America as best suited to be calling a golf tournament.  But if they need a frenetic delivery and these unprofessional antics to stay tuned, they’d have a great deal of trouble getting through a well-played scoreless draw without him.

What’s unfortunate is that Fox takes this leap at a time when it rounded up solid announcers in Americans John Strong, Glenn Davis and JP Dellacamera, plus Scotsman Derek Rae.  (Reports say Fox cut back on its Russia ’18 budget after the U.S. was eliminated, so no sign of ESPN mainstays Ian Darke or Adrian Healy.).  The stable of soccer announcers here has improved considerably since the days when World Cups were called by baseball announcers paired with American college coaches.  At the same time, the viewership is much more knowledgable than it was two dozen years ago, when ABC/ESPN first provided wall-to-wall World Cup coverage.  What was unfortunate here was that Mexico fans and neutrals were going to watch El Tri regardless of the announcer.  No one tuned in because of Navarro–and some had to tune in in spite of him.



AMERICA: GIVE THE REST OF THE WORLD A BREAK

The defending champion United States stormed into the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic women’s soccer tournament, crushing Trinidad & Tobago, 5-0, in Houston in the semifinals of the CONCACAF qualifiers.

Canada defeated Costa Rica, 3-1, in its semifinal earlier in the day to secure the region’s other berth in Rio and set up a tournament championship match with the U.S. on February 21.

Forward Alex Morgan posted a hat trick against the Socca Princesses, eight days after she scored two goals–the first one in the 12th second–in the Americans’ group-opening 5-0 rout of Costa Rica in Frisco, Tex.  Three days after the Costa Rica win, reigning FIFA World Player of the Year Carli Lloyd scored off a rebound of her own penalty kick in the 86th minute to allow the U.S. to squeeze past a bunkered-in Mexico, 1-0, and earn a spot in the semifinals.  The Americans then won the group by pounding Puerto Rico, 10-0, on a night when young forward Crystal Dunn tied a U.S. women’s record with five goals.

The U.S., 17-0-1 all-time in Olympic qualifying, is seeking its fourth consecutive CONCACAF title against Canada, a team that is 3-46-6 all-time against it southern neighbor.  [February 19]

Comment:  Consider this the first time an American has suggested that the rest of the soccer-playing world deserves a break on the playing field at the expense of the United States.

That is, now that women’s soccer is a firmly established Olympic sport, it should be changed to a competition for players 22 and younger, with three over-age players per team.  Just like the men.

Men’s soccer has had a roller coaster history in the Olympics.  Its start was pretty ragged:  scores from the very first modern Olympiad, Athens in 1896, have been lost, and the 1904 St. Louis Olympic tournament was a five-match affair involving club teams from Canada and the U.S.  By Paris ’24, however, the event had grown into something of a world football championship, and after Uruguay dazzled in winning consecutive gold medals, FIFA was compelled to create its World Cup in 1930 so both amateurs and professionals could compete.

With the end of World War II came a long, dark period in which communist bloc countries, with their state-supported “amateur” athletes, dominated Olympic soccer.  Hungary, for one, claimed three golds.  It wasn’t until the 1984 Los Angeles Games that the International Olympic Committee allowed limited professionalism in soccer, and finally the other shoe dropped when the ’92 Barcelona tournament was transformed into an under-23 competition for players regardless of whether they are amateurs or professionals.

The IOC had resisted such a move because it feared a loss of interest in its cash cow event if it made it an age-specific competition.  Such an event couldn’t possibly draw 1.4 million spectators, like it did at Los Angeles ’84.  But there’s nothing in sports like the Olympics.  And the three-overage player allowance gave Olympic spectators the chance to see old hands like Rivaldo, Ryan Giggs, Diego Simeone, Ronaldinho and Ivan Zamorano.  It’s worked.  Fans appear to have accepted an under-23 world championship–as long as it’s wrapped in the Olympic flag.

Now, the women–with the considerable pressure that FIFA could apply–would do well to follow suit.  The first FIFA Women’s World Cup was played in 1991 in China; the first women’s Olympic tournament at Atlanta ’96.  Since then we’ve had two competing women’s world soccer championships played on consecutive years followed by two off years, one a stand-alone event involving 24 nations and one half that big that’s buried among some two dozen other Olympic sporting events.  Throw in the Algarve Cup, a prestigious 12-nation invitational tournament played every spring in Portugal, and the number of women’s “world soccer championships” is too many.

The 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada demonstrated that there is a pipeline of nations challenging the established powers.  Last year it was Colombia, Switzerland and Costa Rica, and in years past it was France and England and Canada.  The women’s Olympic tournament, as a U-23 affair, could expedite that trend by giving the next wave of young standouts a major stage with something precious–an Olympic medal–as an incentive.

So, is this a major concession on the part of an American who’s seen his women’s national team win four of the first five Olympic golds (and lose a fifth to Norway because of a non-handball call in overtime on the deciding goal) to go along with three FIFA World Cup titles?  No.  The U.S., due to recent retirements, injuries and pregnancies, blew its way through CONCACAF to an Olympic berth this week with a 20-member team that averaged 24 years of age.  The U.S. would be quite prepared for a world championship for under-23s.

A similar concession by an American regarding men’s soccer?  Check back in, oh, say, 2116.



HOW NOW, THE CHANGING OF THE GUARD

Homegrown player Jordan Morris signed with the Seattle Sounders in a splashy ceremony at the team’s fan clubhouse in Pioneer Square, capping a whirlwind six weeks in which the 21-year-old striker led Stanford University to the 2015 NCAA Division I men’s national championship, was awarded the Hermann Trophy as the country’s top collegiate player and took part in a trial with Werder Bremen that left the German Bundesliga club poised to offer a contract.

Morris earned seven caps with the U.S. National Team last year, scoring in a 2-0 victory over Mexico in April and becoming the first college player to make an appearance with the full national team since UCLA forward Ante Razov in 1995.  He also scored six goals and added four assists in 11 appearances in ’15 for the U.S. under-23 side, including two goals in a 3-1 victory over Canada in its opening qualifier for the ’16 Rio de Janeiro Olympics; that campaign will be decided in March with a home-and-home playoff with Colombia .

The signing of Morris reunites the Mercer Island, Wash., native with U.S. and Sounder striker Clint Dempsey.  Sounder coach Sigi Schmid was delighted by Morris’ signing, saying he possesses “unteachable” qualities.  The Sounder rookie, however, is expected to spend his first MLS season in a supporting role, watching Dempsey, Obafemi Martins and Nelson Valdez start ahead of him.  [January 21]

Comment:   Here comes Mr. Jordan, and possibly others.  Can embattled U.S. National Team coach Juergen Klinsmann channel his inner 2006?

In recent months Klinsmann has been blessed by an interesting wave of fresh young talent.  Before the broad-shouldered, baby-faced Morris there was another forward, Bobby Wood, 23, a promising poacher who scored late winners in friendlies against Holland and Germany last spring, plus equalizers against Mexico in the CONCACAF playoff and the World Cup qualifying opener against St. Vincent & the Grenadines.  Wood continues to produce for his club, Union Berlin of the Bundesliga 2.  There’s also midfielder Darlington Nagbe.  Born in Liberia, raised in the U.S., the 25-year-old naturalized American made his U.S. debut against St. Vincent & the Grenadines and dazzled in leading the Portland Timbers to their first MLS Cup title.  Finally, defender Matt Miazga, 6-foot-4 and a mere 20.  He went from buried on the New York Red Bulls roster last spring to becoming one of MLS’s best central defenders in ’15.  Before bowing in with the full national team in the St. Vincent match, Miaza helped the U.S. reach the quarterfinals of the FIFA Under-20 World Cup and became a starter on the U-23 team.

Then there are youngsters who appeared in the 2014 World Cup:  defender John Brooks, 23, of Hertha Berlin, defender-midfielder DeAndre Yedlin, 22, of Sunderland, and forward Aron Johannsson, 25, of Werder Bremen.  Johannsson battled injuries in 2015 but Yedlin and another attacking player, Gyasi Zardes, 24, of the Los Angeles Galaxy, appeared in 19 of the USA’s 20 matches in ’15.

Is this the cavalry thundering down the hill?  Klinsmann can only hope so.  Dempsey is 32.  Defensive midfielders Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman and left back DaMarcus Beasley are 33.  Goalkeeper Tim Howard is 36.

Klinsmann, in his fifth year as national team coach, is on a hot seat, becoming the first national team coach in this soccer-averse country to experience a modicum of public scrutiny.  In 2015, after historic wins against the Netherlands in Amsterdam and Germany in Cologne, the U.S. stumbled badly at the CONCACAF Gold Cup, finishing fourth, its worst showing in a Gold Cup in 15 years.  A humiliating 4-1 loss to Brazil in Foxboro followed, which served as a warm-up (or down) to the lifeless 3-2 overtime defeat to Mexico in a CONCACAF playoff at the Rose Bowl that cost the Americans a berth in the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup.  Three days later the U.S. tumbled to Costa Rica, 1-0, in a friendly in New Jersey, but it salvaged the year by opening a new World Cup cycle by routing St. Vincent & the Grenadines, 6-1, in St. Louis and escaping Port of Spain with a scoreless draw and a point against Trinidad & Tobago.

As the mixed results mounted, Klinsmann came under increasing criticism for his often baffling player selections, his lineups (20 different lineups in 20 games), his tinkering with formations (a 3-5-2, a 4-2-3-1, a flat 4-4-2 and a diamond 4-4-2) and tactics.  At one point, former U.S. star Landon Donovan said that Klinsmann should lose his job if Mexico won at the Rose Bowl.  The U.S. lost, and Klinsmann got a half-hearted vote of confidence from USSF President Sunil Gulati.

This cavalry of young talent may yield a couple of riders or, in Klinsmann’s dreams, a full platoon.  And what the U.S. coach does with it will determine the course of the national team for the near-term, although it figures to be closing in on a 2018 World Cup berth when 2017 dawns.  He’s nurtured young talent before, steering a bunch of young Germans to third place at the 2006 World Cup, becoming a national hero in the bargain.  Among his players were defenders Philipp Lahm, then 22, and Per Mertesacker, 21, midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger, 21, and forward Lukas Podolski, 21.  That was a generation of talent that would go on to win the 2014 World Cup.

Can Klinsmann do it again?  He could succeed.  He could fail.  This new crop–and possibly others to emerge over the next 18 months–could win in spite of him.  Or too many of them could prove to be all false promise.  Time will tell.  But for the U.S. to nail down a World Cup berth and go into Russia ’18 with any hope of a better showing than the last World Cup, Klinsmann is going to have to succeed, and once again engineer a successful changing of the guard.

 



WE WON, THE SPORT WON

The United States overwhelmed defending champion Japan with four goals in the first 16 minutes to cruise to an impressive 5-2 victory in the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup final before a pro-American crowd of 53,341 at Vancouver’s BC Place and become the first nation to capture three women’s world titles.

The Americans, winners of the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991 in China and again on home soil in 1999, had lost to the Japanese on penalty kicks in the last final four years ago in Germany, but a first-half hat trick by attacking midfielder Carli Lloyd buried the Nadeshiko.

Lloyd, the Golden Ball winner as the tournament’s MVP, gave the U.S. a shock 2-0 lead with goals in the third and fifth minutes.  Both came on grounded crosses from the right, the first a corner kick by Megan Rapinoe and the second a free kick by Lauren Holiday that was flicked on by defender Julie Johnston.  In the 14th minute, Holiday allowed her side some breathing room with a volleyed goal after defender Azusa Iwashimizu’s poor header couldn’t stop a U.S. counterattack.  But Lloyd’s third goal, two minutes later, applied the dagger.

Spotting Japan goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori far off her line, Lloyd launched a 54-yard bomb from just inside the Japan half.  The backpedaling Kaihori got a hand on the ball, but it banked in off her right post for a 4-0 lead.  It was the fastest World Cup hat trick–men or women–in history.  The only other player to score three goals in a World Cup final was England’s Geoff Hurst in 1966.

Japan pulled one back in the 27th minute when striker Yuki Ogimi scored on a brilliant turn that left Johnston sprawled at the top of the penalty area.  And the Japanese gave the Americans cause for concern seven minutes into the second half when Johnston headed a long diagonal free kick from the left by midfielder Aya Miyama into her own net.

Midfielder Tobin Heath, however, restored the three-goal lead two minutes later from four yards out on a pass across the Japan goalmouth by Morgan Brian off a corner kick by Holiday.

Lloyd, whose six goals tied her with Germany’s Celia Sasic for most in the tournament, was awarded the Golden Ball.  She joined Carin Jennings (1991) as the only Americans to win a World Cup MVP award.  Hope Solo, whose off-the-field misadventures were well-chronicled in the weeks leading up to Canada ’15, won the Golden Glove award as best goalkeeper, her second straight.  Supported by the young but air-tight back line of Ali Krieger, Johnston, Becky Sauerbrunn and Meghan Klingenberg, Solo allowed only three goals and posted five shutouts.  The triumph, meanwhile, came as something of redemption for coach Jill Ellis, whose moves drew heavy criticism until she moved 22-year-old Brian to holding midfielder mid-tournament, thus freeing Lloyd to join the attack, and the USA’s service and finishing went from disappointing to–in the final–overwhelming.  [July 5]

Comment I:  So the United States becomes the first women’s national team to plant a third star above the crest on their jerseys.   Among the men, whose first World Cup was played in 1930, only Brazil, with five, and Germany and Italy, with four apiece, have more.  The real winner in Canada, however, was American soccer.

Americans, it is said, will watch an international tiddlywinks championship if they think an American will win.  And the U.S. team marched into this World Cup with a winning legacy, recognizable standout players, and a wholesome, likable aura.

But Ellis’ women transcended all that.  Nearly 27 million U.S. viewers watched the final (25.4 on Fox, 1.27 on Spanish-language Telemundo), making it the most-watched soccer match in U.S. history.  Better than the 18.2 million who saw the U.S. men held to a tie by Portugal on ESPN at last summer’s men’s World Cup.  Better than the 17.9 million who saw the U.S. beat China on PKs in the 1999 women’s World Cup.  Better by 41 percent than the U.S.-Japan final four years ago (13.5 million).  As for the 2014 World Cup final between Germany and Argentina, those guys attracted 26.5 million American viewers.

That’s a lot of Americans tuned in to a soccer match, and many were soccer fans to begin with.  But many were not.  And what they saw was a tremendous advertisement for the sport.  The good guys–er, women–won.  But what they demonstrated in the final against Japan was the very best of the sport.  Fitness.  Athleticism.  Skill.  Invention.  Fearlessness.  Teamwork combined with improvisation.

Most important, they demonstrated little of the gamesmanship that plagues the men’s game.  Fortunately, there was no overriding need for a U.S. or Japanese player to dive in the penalty area during the final–nothing turns an American off to soccer like a dive, or “simulation,” or, as they call it in basketball, a flop.  And if there had been a dive, it would’ve been somewhat jarring after 29 days of relatively clean play.

So it’s now on to the CONCACAF Gold Cup.  And if we’re treated to a U.S.-Mexico finale, as the organizers are hoping for, we’ll get a reminder of business-as-usual soccer, with rolling bodies and chippy fouls and all kinds of nonsense.  Fortunately, many of the innocent Americans who enjoyed U.S.-Japan will never tune in to such a match–for now–and remain blissfully ignorant of the game’s ugly macho side.

Comment II:  Despite appearing on the cover of both Sports Illustrated and ESPN the Magazine pre-tournament, that month in Canada was a relatively quiet one for 35-year-old U.S. striker Abby Wambach, who came into the tournament with a world-record 182 career goals, including 13 in three previous World Cups.  She played only 297 total minutes over seven matches (three starts), including the last 11 minutes of the final, when Lloyd handed her the captain’s armband, which Wambach has worn so long and so well.  She scored one goal, against Nigeria in the first round, and missed a penalty kick against Colombia in the second round when she curiously chose to use her less-favored left foot.

However, she came up with the quote of the tournament, albeit six months earlier in an interview with Time magazine.  It illustrated what drove her during her limited time on the field and, no doubt, drove her teammates, especially the ones who were part of the 2011 team:

“‘All the hardships, the sacrifice, the blood, the sweat, the broken bones, the broken relationships will make more sense if we can bring home the trophy,” said Wambach.  And if the U.S. falls short?  “I’m sure I’ll be fine.  But I’ll be pissed off the rest of my life.”

Smile, Abby.



THE VERY QUIET ANNUAL WOMEN’S WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP

The U.S. National Women’s Team awoke in the second half to score three goals and cruise past Switzerland, 3-0, in an Algarve Cup match at Vila Real de Santo Antonio and take over first place in Group “B” with a 2-0-0 record.   Alex Morgan opened the scoring in the 54th minute, Amy Rodriguez doubled the lead with a brilliant finish off a goalmouth scramble in the 72nd and Abby Wambach, aided by a poor Swiss back pass, sealed the victory nine minutes from time.

The Americans will play Iceland three days later in Lagos their its final group match.  The two best group winners will meet in the first-place game; Brazil leads Group “A” (1-0-1) and France tops Group “C” (2-0-0).  [March 6]

Comment:  This 22nd Algarve Cup underscores how far women’s soccer has come . . . and how far it has to go in comparison to the men’s game.

Held in the tourist-friendly southernmost region of Portugal, it’s the biggest annual tournament in women’s soccer.  Nine of this year’s 12 national teams have qualified for this summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada.  With the exception of host Portugal (No. 42), every team is in the top 20 in FIFA’s latest Women’s World Rankings.  How tough is the competition?  The U.S. won two Women’s World Cups before it won the first of its nine Algarve Cups.  And Fox Sports is televising it live.

Yet despite the prestige and world-class quality of this event, attendance puts the Algarve Cup on a par with a decent NCAA Division I women’s match.  The U.S.-Switzerland game at Vila Real de Santo Antonio’s Estadio Municipal drew a crowd generously listed as 500; the USA’s 2-1 win over Norway at the same site two days earlier also attracted “500.”  Not all five of the Algarve Cup venues have bothered to report turnstile counts, but through the first two rounds of group play the biggest turnout was 769 for Sweden’s 4-2 upset of top-ranked Germany.  Denmark appears to be a particularly hard sell:  133 patrons watched the Danes lose to Japan, 2-1, at Stadium Bela Vista in Parchal, and another 45 returned to see them get thumped by France, 4-1.  How seriously are the Portuguese organizers taking all this?  The U.S.-Iceland match cannot be televised due to inadequate lighting at Municipal Stadium in Lagos.

This is not unusual.  The local Portuguese have a history of being completely indifferent to this showcase of women’s international soccer.  Most matches have been played before crowds in the dozens–a stark reminder that outstanding women’s soccer doesn’t always draw.  A women’s Olympic soccer gold-medal match?  Sure.  And the 2015 Women’s World Cup final on July 5 in Vancouver will fill the 55,000-seat BC Place.  As for last year’s Algarve Cup final at Estadio Algarve in Faro, 600 bothered to show up for Germany’s 3-0 rout of defending world champion Japan.

Imagine, then, a men’s Algarve Cup, an annual tournament involving the world’s 12 best national teams–virtually a combination of the European Championship and Copa America.  To the critics of the expansion of the men’s World Cup over the years, this would be a Hyper-World Cup with none of the long-shots and no-hopers from Africa, Asia and CONCACAF (apologies to the U.S. and Mexico) that those critics dismiss as mere fodder.  Play it in Portugal, where the national team is currently ranked seventh worldwide, and you’ve got No. 1 Germany, No. 2 Argentina, No. 3 Colombia, No. 4 Belgium, No. 5 Holland, No. 6 Brazil, No. 8 France, No. 9 Uruguay, No. 10 Spain, No. 11 Switzerland and No. 12 Italy.  Not bad.  And chances are it would out-draw the Algarve Cup.

 

 



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.