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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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THE POSSIBLE ‘ACCOMMODATION’

The USA’s draw with Portugal in the second game of Group “G” play created all sorts of intrigue because a tie between the Americans and their last first-round opponent, Germany, would see both teams into the second round at the expense of Portugal and Ghana.

The web is beyond tangled:  The U.S. is coached by Juergen Klinsmann, who as a player helped Germany win the 1990 World Cup and coached Germany to a surprise third-place finish in 2006; Klinsmann resides in Huntington Beach, Calif., with his American wife and American-reared children; the U.S. squad features five players who have American fathers and German mothers and were largely raised in Germany; four of those five play in the Bundesliga and most of those five were coaxed into a USA jersey by Klinsmann; Germany’s coach, Joachim Loew was Klinsmann’s trusted top assistant in 2006; and five current Germany players–Bastian Schweinsteiger, Philipp Lahm, Per Mertesacker, Lukas Podolski and, of course, Miroslav Klose–called Klinsmann “boss” eight years ago.

So, rather than a series of haymakers, would the U.S. and Germany come to an “arrangement” and take it easy, playing to a draw that would assure group-favorite Germany a first-place finish in Group “G” and the Americans the coveted second-place finish in the so-called “Group of Death”?

Klinsmann, immediately after the tie with Portugal, dismissed any suggestion that he’d ask a favor of his old deputy.

“There’s no such call,” Klinsmann said.  “Jogi is doing his job and I’m doing my job.  I’m going to do everything to get to the round of 16.  There’s no time to have friendship calls.  It’s about business now.”  [June 24]

Comment:  What you’ll be hearing about from now until Thursday morning, and possibly all the way into halftime in Recife, from Soccer Stories:  Anecdotes, Oddities, Lore and Amazing Feats:

“The 1982 World Cup in Spain kicked off with 24 finalists–an increase of eight from Argentina ’78–and a format in which the winners and runners-up from the eight four-team groups would move on as well as the four best third-place finishers.  Nevertheless, FIFA … failed to give the last two matches in each group the same kickoff time.  In fact, it didn’t even have the last games of each group played on the same day.

“Algeria, a Group 2 longshot, pulled off an early stunner in Gijon when it upset West Germany, 2-1, in its opener.  The Algerians lost to Austria, 2-0, in Oviedo five days later but closed out their first-round slate by beating Chile, 3-2, also in Oviedo.  That result left the North Africans tied on points with Austria and two ahead of West Germany; on goal difference, the Germans and Austrians were both +2 and the Algerians 0.  [Until 1994, a win was worth just two points, not three; a tie, the customary one.]

“The next day in Gijon, six days shy of the 20th anniversary of Algeria’s independence, West Germany and Austria met in Group 2’s last match and engaged in the biggest farce in World Cup history.

“The Germans opened the scoring in the 10th minute on a header by hulking striker Horst Hrubesch.  Knowing that a 1-0 West German win would see the two neighbors through at Algeria’s expense, the Germans and Austrians proceeded to aimlessly pass the ball around for the next 80 minutes.  Algerian supporters on hand, convinced the match was fixed, booed and whistled in disgust; some tried to invade the field to halt the game.  In the stands, a West German burned his nation’s flag.

“FIFA rejected out of hand an Algerian call to disqualify West Germany and Austria on sportsmanship grounds, and Algeria’s first World Cup adventure ended in bitter disappointment.  Final group standings (with goal differential):  West Germany 2-1-0 (+3), Austria 2-1-0 (+2), Algeria 2-1-0 (0), and Chile 0-3-0 (-5).

“West Germany later bowed to Italy, 3-1, in the final in Madrid.  Austria lost to France and tied Northern Ireland in its second-round group and was eliminated.  Algeria qualified for Mexico ’86, crashed in the first round, and didn’t make it back to the World Cup for 24 years.

“How distasteful was the game derisively called a second German-Austrian anschluss?  French coach Michel Hidalgo, anticipating a second-round meeting with the Austrians, scouted the match and didn’t take a single note.  Hidaldo later suggested that the two sides be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.”

It was all so perfect–and perfectly repugnant.  However, this time, it may become an impossibility because of the competitiveness of the two sides, starting with master (Klinsmann) and student (Loew).  Not to mention a bit more international scrutiny that didn’t exist 32 years ago.



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.

 

 



BRIGHT START FOR THE MINNOWS

Costa Rica pulled off the first major upset of the World Cup, surprising Uruguay, 3-1, in Fortaleza in a Group “D” game.

Joel Campbell, Oscar Duarte and substitute Marcos Urena all scored in the second half to shock the Uruguayans, who reached the semifinals four years ago.  Two of Uruguay’s heroes at South Africa ’10 were non-factors; Diego Forlan, still recovering from the flu, was  substituted in the 60th minute, and Luis Suarez, 23 days removed from knee surgery, did not play.  [June 14]

Comment I:  The Ticos’ victory came 24 hours after Mexico defeated Cameroon, 1-0, to join Brazil–a 3-1 winner over Croatia in the tournament opener June 12–atop Group “A”.

The U.S. opens play Monday against Ghana and Honduras will face France on Sunday.  But at the moment, it’s a bright start for CONCACAF.  The Confederacion Norte-Centroamericana y del Caribe de Futbol has never had much respect from the rest of the world, which can point to the region’s thin World Cup record:  the USA’s semifinal adventure at the very first cup in 1930, then three quarterfinal appearances by Mexico and one by the Americans since.  At South Africa, Mexico, Honduras and the U.S. combined to win two games, lose five and tie four, with the Mexicans and Americans tumbling in the round of 16.

The victories by Costa Rica and Mexico may not mean much at a time when the combined FIFA rankings of CONCACAF’s four current World Cup finalists is a ponderous 94, but it’s temporary progress for a region still in search of a World Cup group seeding that doesn’t come by way of being a host (Mexico ’70 and ’86, USA ’94).

Comment II:  Earlier in the day, Colombia, a dark horse favorite, pounded Greece, 3-0, in Belo Horizonte.  The Group “C” game was played at breakneck speed, but it ended without incident.

That bodes well for the referee, Mark Geiger of New Jersey, who was assisted by linesman and fellow countryman Sean Hurd.  With a dreadful penalty-kick call by Yuichi Nishimura of Japan in the Brazil-Croatia match and two Mexican goals erroneously called offside by Wilmar Roldan of Colombia the next day, another solid performance by Geiger could get him into the middle for the knockout rounds–a first for an American referee.

 



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.



WORLD CUP TICKETS SOLD TO THE U.S.: 125,000 AND COUNTING

With nearly four months remaining before kickoff, the United States has the highest number of allocated tickets among visiting countries for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. 

A total of 125,465 tickets were distributed to the U.S., according to FIFA.

Through all sales channels, a total of 2.3 million tickets have been assigned to the nations attending the World Cup. After Brazil, which was allocated 906,433 tickets as the host, and the U.S., the following nations round out the top 10:  Colombia (60,231), Germany (55,666), Argentina (53,809), England (51,222), Australia (40,446), France (34,971), Chile (32,189) and Mexico (30,238).

“We have seen the interest in the World Cup increase every four years and are excited to see the large number of tickets purchased for the games in Brazil,” said U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati. “There were more ticket requests than available tickets for all three of our first-round matches by a large margin, and we are once again expecting incredible fan support for the team during the 2014 FIFA World Cup.”

U.S. Soccer Supporters Club members who applied for tickets to the specific U.S. matches will be notified soon whether they were selected in the lottery.

The remaining tickets (approximately 160,000) will be available to the public through FIFA.com in the next window of the sales phase on March 12.

The 2014 FIFA World Cup runs from June 12 through July 13 across 12 venues in Brazil. The U.S. National Team was drawn into Group “G” and will open the tournament Monday, June 16, at 6 p.m. EDT against Ghana in Natal. The USA then faces Portugal on Sunday, June 22, at 6 p.m. EDT in Manaus, and Germany on Thursday, June 26, at 12 p.m. EDT in Recife.  [February 21]

Comment:  International soccer’s outlier has become a World Cup insider.

Only seven other countries that will compete at Brasil ’14 can match the USA’s record of appearing in the last six World Cups:  host Brazil–which has never missed one–Spain, Italy, France, Argentina, Germany and South Korea.  The U.S., which finished first in CONCACAF qualifiers for the second straight World Cup cycle, is No. 14 in the latest FIFA rankings and came close to becoming the region’s first nation to be seeded for the first round without hosting a World Cup.  Fox/Telemundo has paid $1 billion for the U.S. rights to televise the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, topping a $600 million bid by ESPN/ABC, which, along with Univision, paid a combined $425 million to air the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, 2007 and 2011 Women’s World Cups and 2009 and 2013 FIFA Confederations Cups.  Now this.

Obviously, while those 125,465 ticket orders may have come from America, many of those ticket holders will be scattered throughout Brazil this summer, following other national teams.  This is, after all, a land of immigrants.  (At the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, of the 2.8 million available tickets, sales to U.S. residents–more than 130,000–trailed only the host nation, although the American allotment for the U.S.-England opener at the 44,530-seat Royal Bafokeng Stadium was just 5,200.)   Moreover, this is a wealthy nation with plenty of folks who can afford the trip to an exotic, alluring destination like Brazil.  

Though its odds of getting out of the so-called “Group of Death” and winning Brasil ’14 are a daunting 100-to-1, the United States, on every level, has become a significant part of the planet’s most-watched sporting event.  That’s a far cry from the beginning of its World Cup run at Italia ’90, when a U.S. team of current and former college standouts needed a miracle to qualify for the first time in four decades, then crashed out in three games, supported by a smattering of American fans, many of whom were already in Italy on vacation and decided, on a whim, to have a look.