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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.



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.

 

 



SPAIN’S PAIN

The Netherlands dismantled defending world champion Spain, 5-1, in its Group “B” opener in Salvador to avenge its loss to the Spaniards in the 2010 World Cup final.

Strikers Robin Van Persie and Arjen Robben each scored twice and defender Stefan de Vrij once to wipe out an early Spanish lead created by Xabi Alonso’s penalty kick.

The shocking margin of defeat was the worst for Spain in a World Cup since its last appearance in Brazil, in 1950, when it was humbled by the hosts, 6-1, in a final pool match.  It also marked the first time a reigning world champ has dropped the first game of its title defense since France was upended by Senegal, 1-0, at Korea/Japan ’02.  That team infamously crashed out in the first round without winning a game or scoring a goal.  [June 13]

Comment I:  Amidst the Dutch jubilation, was there a sadder sight than Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas’ expression moments after his careless giveaway gifted Van Persie’s second goal?  And this, nearly three weeks after his blunder against Atletico Madrid nearly cost his club, Real Madrid, the UEFA Champions League final.

Spain may yet recover from this dreadful collapse and still make an impact on this World Cup, but at the moment, the face of its team is, fittingly, its captain, the one-time boy wonder who made his Real debut at 17.  He’s now 33.  Not a senior citizen as goalkeepers go, but like most of the team, not prime time.

Comment II:  Despite the grave concern by U.S. fans over their team being drawn into the so-called “Group of Death” and having to travel a total of some 9,000 miles for its first three games, there is a bit of consolation that’s been overlooked.

That was on display during the Netherlands-Spain match in the form of the spectators.  Fans of the Oranje were loud, of course, but much louder were the thousands and thousands of Brazilians, who were more than happy to see a team they considered a larger threat to their beloved Selecao go down in flames.

Count on Brazilians, who will out-number supporters of the participating teams at the USA’s games against Portugal and Germany by a wide margin, to be solidly behind the Americans, who they would much rather see Brazil face later in the tournament than the No. 4-ranked Portuguese or No. 2-ranked Germans.

Doubt it?  Go back to the 1950 World Cup in Brazil, where the U.S. shocked mighty England, 1-0, in Belo Horizonte.  America was represented by a team of semi-pros while the English, inventors of the game, were playing in their first World Cup after blithely skipping the first three.  The U.S. closed out the final minutes of the match to the roars of the crowd of 10,000, most of them Brazilians, and after the final whistle, newspapers were set ablaze in the stands in celebration while a crowd of happy locals carried the goal-scorer, Joe Gaetjens, off the field on their shoulders.



ARGENTINA IN 2014

The 2014 World Cup draw, as expected, produced multiple “Groups of Death” as the 32 finalists were sorted into eight groups of four nations each for the 64-match tournament, which will begin June 12 scattered over a dozen Brazilian cities.

The United States got the worst of it, being drawn into Group “G” with three-time champion Germany, the Cristiano Ronaldo-led Portugal and Ghana, the nation that knocked the Americans out of the last two World Cups.   Not far behind in terms of difficulty were Group “B” (defending champion Spain, 2010 runner-up Holland, Chile, plus Australia) and Group “D” (2010 third-place finisher Uruguay, four-time champ Italy, England and Costa Rica).

Conducted at the beachfront resort of Costa do Sauipe before an international television audience, the draw also produced a first-round cakewalk for Argentina, which was joined in Group “F” by the tournament’s only World Cup newcomer, Bosnia-Herzegovina, as well as Iran and Nigeria.  [December 6]

Comment I:  In a repeat of the Brazilian nightmare of 1950, Brazil will tumble in its own World Cup.  Argentina will defeat host Brazil on Sunday, July 13, before a stunned, heartbroken crowd of 73,531 at the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro, and lift the World Cup trophy for the third time.

Argentina, unlike host Brazil, has been steeled by 16 World Cup qualifiers in the ultra-tough South American region–and finished first.  It went into the draw at 6-1 odds, just behind Brazil and Germany.  It will be playing virtually at home, without all the pressure that comes with hosting a World Cup.  It will have the motivation of the opportunity to humiliate its neighbor and historic arch-rival.  Its only question mark is its defense, while its absolute certainty is up front, four-time FIFA Player of the Year Lionel Messi, who will turn 27 the day before his team meets its final group-stage opponent, Nigeria.  And the draw produced brackets that make a Brazil-Argentina final possible.

Comment II:  To distraught fans of the U.S. National Team:  Enough with the hand-wringing.

Setting the tone immediately after the draw, U.S. coach Juergen Klinsmann, the man hired two years ago to take this team to the next level, was frank in his initial comments after the last ball was drawn in Bahia:  “Well, I think we hit one of those real killer groups.  It is what it is.”
But what the draw yielded was a glass–er bowl, er pot–half filled.  To wit:
          o  This Group of Death merits its unwelcomed name based on numbers, if not history.  With three-time world champion Germany at No. 2 in the November FIFA world rankings, Portugal at No. 5, the U.S. at No. 14 and Ghana at No. 24, its average ranking–11.2–is the highest among the eight groups (Group “H”, at 28, is worst).  For those who take the monthly FIFA rankings at least somewhat seriously, and with the October rankings determining the eight seeded teams, it’s no longer merely a list of nations designed to produce chatter among press and public.  But on a practical level, this would not be a Group of Death if the U.S. was the international laughingstock it was before the first rankings were issued back in December 1993.  The Americans came to the draw as the first-place team out of the CONCACAF qualifiers and the top team out of Pot 3, which included its three other regional rivals (Mexico, No. 20; runner-up Costa Rica, No. 31; and Honduras, No. 41) and Asia’s qualifiers (Iran, No. 45; Japan, No. 48; South Korea, No. 54; and Australia, No. 59).  The U.S., with its fitness, physicality, growing depth, ability on set pieces and fight-to-the-finish mentality, is a team that no one wants to play.
          o  Ghana:  This U.S. team is better than the ones that were knocked out by the Ghanans in the first round of the 2006 World Cup and the second round in 2010–and obviously driven by revenge.  Ask Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan, who were there on both occasions, plus the likes of Tim Howard, Michael Bradley, Eddie Johnson, Steve Cherundolo and DeMarcus Beasley.
 
          o  Portugal:  There’s the USA’s shock 3-2 victory over Luis Figo and Portugal’s “Golden Generation” in the 2002 World Cup opener–a match the Americans led, 3-0, after 36 minutes–to motivate both sides.  This current Portuguese generation was rated No. 14–one spot below the U.S.–in the October rankings, then jumped a whopping nine places on the strength of must-win games over minnow Luxembourg and, in a playoff, Sweden, a home-and-home set in which Cristiano Ronaldo carried the team on his back, scoring all four goals in a 4-2 aggregate decision.  The U.S., meanwhile, was playing friendlies at Scotland (0-0) and Austria (0-1).
 
          o  Germany:  The U.S. will be lucky to steal a point against Germany in its Group “G” finale … unless the Germans have already locked up first place and might possibly ease their foot off the gas pedal.  Much attention has been directed to the Americans’ wild 4-3 win over Germany on June 2 in Washington, DC, that improved their all-time record against Germany to 3-6-0.  It also was dismissed as a friendly in which Germany was without eight starters.  However, in competitive matches, there’s the shock 2-0 victory in Guadalajara in the 1999 FIFA Confederations Cup and the 1-0 loss in Ulsan, South Korea, in the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals that will be remembered in this country for the Torsten Frings goalmouth handball that was never whistled. Of course, there’s also the 2-0 first-round loss in Paris in the 1998 World Cup as a veteran striker named Klinsmann scored the clinching goal.  Now, Klinsmann is on the other side, and, as U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati observed,  “I guarantee you Juergen knows more about Germany than Jogi Loew knows about the U.S.”  What Klinsmann wouldn’t give to beat his former understudy.
 
          o  Much has been made of the USA’s first-round travel itinerary, the worst of any of the 32 finalists.  In 2010, the Americans covered the fewest miles in the opening round; all of them involved bus rides of no more than 75 miles.  In 2014, they’ll trek more than 9,100 miles; though based down in Sao Paulo, all three of their matches will be in the tropics.  They open June 16 against Ghana up in Natal on the Atlantic coast, then face Portugal on June 22 in Manaus and Germany on June 26 back on the Atlantic in Recife, just south of Natal.  The killer figures to be off in the far northwest in Manaus, a city in the Amazon where the heat and humidity, on the second day of winter in the Southern Hemisphere, is expected to be in the high 80s.  However, part of the U.S. squad should be prepared for the travel, the other for the heat.  The players who play for European clubs, like their South American counterparts, are quite used to frequent flights over the Atlantic.  And Klinsmann’s choices from Major League Soccer teams know all about slogging through matches in the high temps and humidity of mid-summer.  The German and Portuguese players won’t have the same advantage. 
 
          o  Finally, since every World Cup involves a smile from Lady Luck, it should be noted that the U.S. does not have to play on Friday, June 13.  That’s reserved for Group “B”‘s Spain-Holland matchup in Salvador and Chile-Australia in Cuiaba, plus our friends south of the border.  Mexico will play Cameroon that day in Natal in its Group “A” opener … followed four days later by a date with host Brazil in Fortaleza.


A SPORTING DISASTER WAITING TO HAPPEN IN 2014

The pressure on Brazil’s World Cup organizers increased considerably with the release of a report from a government watchdog group highly critical of officials for missing deadlines and allowing costs to spiral in preparations for Brasil ’14, all the while lacking in transparency.

The Brazilian Audit Court, the body responsible for monitoring how public money is spent in the country, said organizers were falling behind in upgrading stadiums, airports and infrastructure ahead of  the 32-team, 64-match event.

The report comes on the heels of remarks by Pele and fellow Brazilian Joao Havelange, a six-term FIFA president, who expressed concerns about the pace of work.

The Audit Court found widespread problems in most of  the 12 host cities and cited a “very great risk” of misuse of public funds, a concern that recalled preparations for the 2007 Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro, which will host key World Cup games as well as the 2016 Summer Olympics.  [February 23]

Comment:   Though not the first World Cup host nation to appear to be in over its head dozens of months before its big moment, Brazil is following in the proud tradition of, well, Brazil. 

The Brazilians hosted their first World Cup in 1950 and built the massive, eye-popping Estadio Mario Filho o Maracana in Rio for the occasion–that is, they almost built it.  When the 178,000-seat stadium welcomed a world-record throng of 220,000 (thanks to ample standing room) for the final between Brazil and Uruguay, this architectural marvel was far from complete.  That wouldn’t happen until, officially, 1965, when the Maracana was already showing signs of disrepair.  Now there are doubts that this same stadium will be ready for its second close-up, as site of some of the marquee matches in 2014.

Things like that happen in this proud, stunning, maddening, dysfunctional, potentially great nation–just ask any Brazilian.  But for the vast majority of fans who plan to watch Brasil ’14 on television, the concern is not be on whether World Cup tourists will be able fly from the Salvador airport in the northeast to Viracopos airport outside Sao Paolo but whether the Brazilian team can get into the final on home soil and, unlike their 1950 predecessors, win it.

This will be the first World Cup in two dozen years in which, unfortunately, there will be unbearable pressure on the host team to win it all.  And as we have seen, there’s something very stifling about such tournaments.  At the most recent, Italia ’90,  the expectations of a nation seemed to suck the goals right out of the proceedings (an all-time low of 2.21 goals per game); at Argentina ’78, as the Argentines took the final in overtime amidst a shower of confetti in Buenos Aires, the end result, for non-Argentines, was empty, like watching soccer played according to a script.

With that in mind, for those rooting for a great tournament, one that reflects the joy, color and passion of Brazil, we are all forced into the position of rooting for the Brazilian team as it makes its tortured way to what is fully expected by 165 million countrymen to be an appearance in the final, where it will finally avenge that loss to Uruguary in 1950.  But if Brazil performs as it did in its most recent friendly, an uninspiring 1-0 loss to France in Paris, the only question will be just when the local atmosphere surrounding the 20th World Cup goes from carnaval to funeral.