New Contest: Champions League Pick’em

Everybody likes free stuff, especially if that free stuff includes the opportunity to talk smack to friends and enemies. We figured the relaunch of Soccerati.com was a worthy occasion to give something away for just a little effort. All you need do is be able to pick more winners during the Champions League then everyone else.

ESPN is running a Champions League Pick’em contest from the first match through the entire campaign. If you finish with the most points when the latest champion is crowned, we will ship you a jersey from your favorite club. If that club happens to be in the MLS, we reserve the right to mock you while still providing you with free stuff.

The first match is September 18th so get your picks in now. The group is unlocked so players can join later but they will be at a disadvantage (yet still likely to beat most of the Yanks entered). Pass it along, the fun is open to all.

ESPN Champions League Pick’em
Group name: Soccerati.com
Password: soccerati2012 (case sensitive)

Good luck and see you in there.

U.S. v Jamaica:
What went wrong and what can be fixed?

Photo: Gilbert Bellamy / Reuters

One of the primary complaints about the U.S. Men’s National Team during the Bob Bradley years was the coach’s insistence on using two defensive-minded midfielders in the middle of his 4-4-2 formation. The likes of Michael Bradley, the coach’s son, Rico Clark and Maurice Edu were charged with winning balls and then just getting them away from the U.S. goal by any means possible. There was no one to play the role of a Number 10, a player to pull strings and orchestrate attacks with incisive passing, a trait the team has lacked since the retirement of Claudio Reyna.

When Jurgen Klinsman took the reins of the side, we were promised a more pro-active, possession-oriented style. No longer would the U.S. team be the hard-working, athletic sort. There would be technical ability, a free-flowing style from back to front.

Well….

Continue reading “U.S. v Jamaica:
What went wrong and what can be fixed?”

World Cup Final Preview

Previews and predictions for Sunday’s World Cup final between Netherlands and Spain are all over the internet, the so-called experts–including a German octopus–offering their take on what is a mouth-watering match-up between two teams with skill in spades. But did any of those pundits tell you to bet the Netherlands at 12-1 to win the whole shebang?

I think not. Which qualifies Soccerati as the most learned place in the universe to get your football information. Here then, the keys to Sunday’s final.

puyol

Spanish coach Vincente Del Bosque made the correct, though potentially controversial, decision to leave striker Fernando Torres out of the Starting XI in the semi-final against Germany. The Liverpool hit-man is both out of shape and form and the insertion of Pedro in his stead resulted in Spain’s finest performance yet. Though moving David Villa from the left to the lone striker position, saw the tournament’s joint top-scorer receive less service, he did keep the ball moving, which Torres has been unable to do, and added more fluidity to the Spanish attack. Yes, they scored only the one goal, but that was largely due to Germany stacking 8 players inside 25 yards of their own goal. I don’t think that was the German strategy coming in. Rather, I believe they were so stunned by the Spanish movement in the first 20 minutes, that they naturally fell back on their heels, a reaction the Dutch must avoid.

In contrast, Dutch Gaffer Bert van Marwijk has resisted replacing his under-performing striker, Robin van Persie. The petulant Arsenal man also appears a step slow and has but a single goal in this World Cup. Unfortunately for van Marwijk, he can’t go to a Pedro or a David Silva. His lone options are Klass-Jan Huntelaar (also out of form) and Ryan Babel (stale and generally incompetent), so van Persie it is.

Tactically, the Dutch will handle Spain differently than did the back-tracking Germans. Midfield destroyers Marc van Bommel and Nigel de Jong will look to engage Xavi and Andreas Iniesta early and often. Where the Germans simply tried to keep the ball in front of them, allowing the stylish Spanish play-makers to dance around at will, van Bommel and de Jong will pressure the ball higher up the pitch and look to disrupt the flow of the Spanish movements. This decision will also include a lot of fouls, something at which the two Dutchmen are more than adept, so the game will be more choppy, which works against the Spanish.

The Dutch weakness in defense is their two centrebacks, who are unlikely to contain Villa’s pace and guile, so I expect the outside backs, Gregory Van Der Wiel and Giovanni Van Bronckhorst, to pull inside to help. This is a tactic that has worked well against the Spanish–clogging the center and conceding the flanks–as we saw in their tourney-opening loss to Switzerland and in the Confederations Cup semi-final last summer against the United States.

South Africa Soccer WCup Uruguay Netherlands

Out wide, the key match-up will be between Arjen Robben and Sergio Ramos. The Dutch winger frequently starts on the right, but will switch often with Dirk Kuyt on the opposite flank, thus matching up with the marauding Spanish right back. Robben’s pace and general danger should eliminate some of those forays forward, taking away one of the Spanish options. If Sergio Ramos insists on coming forward anyway, Robben will find space and one-on-one opportunities against centrebacks Gerard Pique and Carlos Puyol, which favors the Oranj.

Aside from Robben, the Dutch will rely on Wesley Sneijder to continue to orchestrate their attacks. With five goals in the tournament so far, all of them of an opportunistic nature, the play-maker has shown he needs but the slightest glimpse of daylight to convert his chances. He will be closely shadowed by Sergio Busquests, who, though he is eclipsed by the bigger names on the Spanish squad, has been invaluable in breaking up opposing attacks all tournament long.

Because of the attacking nature of both sides, many expect a wide-open final, but the Dutch have been less adventurous than previous incarnations of their Total Football. While I believe they will force the issue offensively more than any of Spain’s prior opponents this tournament, they will still rely on the steel of van Bommel and de Jong to cause chaos. As such, the game will be a cagey affair, with both sides unwilling to let the play flow too freely.

At the end, I’m sticking with the Dutch. 2-1 Netherlands in an absorbing, if not all together beautiful, final.

South Africa Soccer WCup Uruguay Netherlands

Postmortem

At halftime of the United States-Ghana game, I stood outside the pub with scores of others, smoking furiously and despairing at the Yanks going behind early once again. The mood remained upbeat, however, the same mood that has engulfed this team since its fight-back against Slovenia and the stunner against Algeria. At one point, I mentioned that Ghana’s goal was a soft one, a near-post finish that Tim Howard should have been better positioned for. Cue the end of “upbeat.”

Several fans savaged me for that observation. I had crossed the line. I had become critical of a team which had become darlings of the sports landscape. Never mind the truth, that the U.S was favored to get out of the group, that they found, in the knockout stages, the easiest possible route to the semifinals, that for all their heart-stopping entertainment (Will Leitch called it “terrifying fun”), they remained mistake-prone at the back and lacked a legitimate scoring threat at striker.

endYes, we all thrilled to their exploits and, at the end of the Ghana loss, it seemed cruel to point fingers. The effort did not lack. The two-week ride exhausted our bodies, our brains and our cynicism. In the pub, as the Yanks filed off the pitch in disbelief, we applauded with genuine thanks and admiration and then exited the dim bar, blinking into the stark, afternoon sun.

In the light of day, in the darkness of our frantic minds, we see the errors. The schoolboy defending on both goals, blatant cases of being a step slow in instinct, a thought slow in anticipation. It’s not as if the U.S. team’s penchant for gift-wrapping early goals was a secret. These must be addressed and game-planned on the training ground. And not fixing that issue is a primary reason they are out.

Another was the very existence of Rico Clark on the field, where he was directly responsible for two goals in just over 90 minutes played. We see a feckless Robbie Findley, all that pace useless when you run to nowhere or into the teeth of defense that is organized, physical and every bit as fast as you are. Coach Bob Bradley did not send out his best team against Ghana (Clint Dempsey up front with Jozy Altidore; Stuart Holden or Benny Feilhaber in the midfield with Maurice Edu instead of Clark), a mis-judgement compounded by Clark’s yellow card and the need to expend a precious substitution in the 27th minute of a game that would ultimately go to extra time.

And yes, Howard, the unquestioned backbone of the team. You absolutely can not let that goal in at the near post. He was one, maybe two, strides from where he should have been when that ball was struck. In the correct position, he scoops it up harmlessly at his feet. I’ve not read a single word about this anywhere. Maybe because Clark’s giveaway was so much more glaring, as was Jay DeMerit not closing down the shooter quickly enough. Regardless, a world-class goalkeeper is the one who bails out his team and Howard didn’t do enough in this crucial situation.

Maybe it’s simply because Howard is a symbol of this team, an athlete who overcame personal odds (he has Tourette’s) to succeed at the highest level in the EPL and internationally. As soccer fans in America, we ardently wish our overseas players make a mark, give respect to the game on our shores and Howard, and others, have done that. They make us proud, as if they were our own children. Sometimes, however, children are naughty. They disappoint us, let us down, and we are forced to punish them, to break out the Parent Speech and guide them. Afterward, we may feel badly, seeing their remorse, the pain they feel at being criticized by the ones who love them most.

It hurts to play the heavy, necessary though it may be. And so it is, this team that brought us so much this summer. I’m sad to see them go. But they have lessons to learn and they can not be absolved of their failings. Until they correct them.

Four years should be time enough.

Land of the Free Kick

For the last 48 hours or so, I’ve tried to craft an in-depth, meaningful essay on The Moment, on the feeling I had seeing Landon Donovan stroke it into the net, the emotion of watching the goal over and over, and perhaps most tear-jerking, the compilation of reactions from U.S. fans everywhere (the guy sliding down the stairs kills me). But I can’t. It’s beyond me in my current adrenaline-overloaded state.

cele

I wanted to talk about how the goal, and the entire U.S. World Cup run so far, has basically eliminated the stodgy bullshit from mainstream media columnists, who have never failed in the past to trot our their tired and dismissive drivel about America never being a soccer nation. Which is awesome. Because we already are a soccer nation.

I’ve long since gotten past trying to convince non-soccer fans of the intrinsic beauty of the game. I don’t care if you like it or not. I don’t need you. The U.S. team doesn’t need you. And I can blissfully skip past any ignorant comment after years of red-faced defense of this game I love. Today, I am secure in knowing those people missed out. Serves ’em right.

Ink will be spilled coast to coast about What It Means. I’m usually annoyed at that stuff, too. For every success or failure, we have to hear how it will affect soccer in the future. What other sport is faced with such repeated analysis?

Here’s what it means. It means we won a game in dramatic fashion to save our skins. It means casual sports fans have taken notice because the U.S. team’s fight and belief (and this insane ability to pull goals out of their ass in the waning minutes) is something Americans admire. They don’t need to know a set-piece from a settee to feel something for these Yanks. It means I’m going to bar tomorrow to hopefully re-live one of those scenes from the video, a bar where the proprietor suggested I get there three hours early to avoid being turned away by the fire marshal.

Ghana is a tough foe. They will be very difficult to break down defensively and they have athletes all over the park. Their ability to score goals is suspect, but their discipline and work-rate will be a huge issue for this U.S. team, as will the Yanks’ ability to recover from a physically- and emotionally-draining performance just three days earlier. The game threatens to be 0-0 for a long time, increasing the pressure with every passing minute. This game is as close to a toss-up as you will find.

But watching this U.S. team in this World Cup, would you bet against them?

World Cup Hurting Movie Biz?

This is an old article from Variety (plunked from an unfinished post by @huffcity) but kinda interesting, especially to see if it has played out to be true. Basically, it says that the World Cup — June 11-July 11 — has put a real crimp in Hollywood’s movie release schedule, particularly in Europe, where they’re presuming every debut would be a flop.

Personally, I think they should just re-run Victory non-stop:

Wicked Chops FC Update

wag-portugal

It couldn’t really be a Wicked Chops Fantasy anything without a major WAG involved, right? Diana Chaves is apparently a Cristiano Ronaldo castaway picked up by Portugal’s C├ęsar Peixoto. We found her in BleacherReport’s Hottest WAGs of Group G.


For those of us playing in the Wicked Chops FC Fantasy Pool, it all starts to mean something now that we move through the group stage.

Click here to check out how you’re doing.

Our group has 203 people in it … and one of my squads — Go Alexi Lalas! — is tied for 15th place!

Yes, I said one of my squads, plural. I first saw @Chazbeaner, the group’s creator, had two teams … Chazbeaner Real and Chazbeaner Wish. I was reading Real like ray-al, not reel. Anyhow, I don’t think I can win the prizes anyway, so screw off. My other team, Ditka, is doing less well. But I did recognize the power of Uruguay. And in both flights got USA #1, ENG #2 … But I didn’t give the Mexicans enough credit, and I thought too highly of the Serbians chances as a post-war, rebuilt nation to have the heart to be the first-round Cinderella.

U.S.A.: Group Winners

The last time I cried after a soccer game was when I was 13 and I let in a soft late goal in a 3-2 loss to our hated rivals. Until today. Until the U.S. improbably topped the group after (not improbably) leaving it late to beat Algeria 1-0 in the World Cup.

Those assholes in Red, White and Blue are taking years off my life with these cardiac event-inducing performances. Though, when Landon Donovan slotted home the loose ball in injury time, he may have saved me from getting in my car and driving off a cliff. And, this stalwart U.S. team, ultimately gave me a sporting memory I’ll never forget.

landy

Analysis, at this juncture, seems superfluous. Anyone who suffered through those 90+ scoreless minutes wouldn’t quibble with the effort, the only lingering memory beyond Donovan’s goal being the Americans inability to finish. Kudos must be handed out, however.

To Jozy Altidore, who has beeen immense the last 180 minutes, his skied sitter notwithstanding. He has learned much at Hull; his hold-up play is top-notch, his patience is vastly improved and his ability to get into dangerous spots, while not yet translating into goals in his account, has opened up lanes for others to exploit.

To Michael Bradley, who has tamed his baser instincts (chiefly, the urge to chase the ball and dive into tackles he has no hope of winning) and been a calm and persistent presence in midfield. While he is not yet a distributor who can carve up defenses, he has been far more composed on the ball and kept his giveaways to a minimum.

To Jonathan Bornstein. I had a moment of sheer panic this ayem when I saw he was in the Starting XI. He’s been abject for six months. But this was a masterstroke from Coach Bob Bradley. Algeria’s set-up and approach virtually ensured Bornstein’s defensive responsibilities would be minimal and the Chivas USA player was in to try to get forward and exploit Algeria on the flanks. It didn’t exactly happen that way, but the change did strengthen the back line, with the Bocanegra/DeMerit pairing yielding excellent results compared to the previous two games.

To Clint Dempsey’s tireless work. He could have had three (and did, in fact, have one), but he kept his head and his run helped crate the game-winner.

To Bob Bradley who has fashioned a team to be admired. Not nearly a top-20 team in terms of skill, but maybe #1 in the world in terms of Team. Captial T. Their belief and spirit is remarkable.

And to Landon Donovan, who was largely absent most of the night, but who put the g.d. ball into the g.d. net and remains one of our country’s most approachable and likeable sportsmen. As the de facto figurehead of U.S. soccer, we can wish for no finer ambassador.

The Round of 16 awaits. For now, I’ll relish the next 72 hours until I will live and die with them again. My most favorite memory, well beyond the end of this tournament, will be that I watched this game with my 8-year-old son, AJ. It’s rare he’ll sit through and entire sporting event, but not only was he riveted by the action, he was emotionally invested. He cried, too, ’round the 82nd minute when it seemed all those missed chances would be the 2010 epitaph for this U.S. team. When the ball hit the back of the net, I leaped in the air, screaming, “It’s in! It’s in!” My son jumped into my arms, we hugged, rolled on the living room floor and shared the moment.

Thank you for that, U.S.A.

I Didn’t See That Coming

So many talking points after the U.S. came from behind to gain a point in the 2-2 draw with Slovenia:

* The U.S. continues to concede goals early, a glaring deficiency.

* Oguchi Onyewu resembled nothing more than a statue on both Slovenia goals, failing to close down Valter Birsa on the first and keeping Zlatan Ljubijankic onside for the second.

* A lackadaisical first half, seemingly played at half-speed. If you’re starting Robbie Findley and Jose Torres, isn’t the idea to use your pace advantage and move the ball quicker?

bradleyusa

FUUUUUUUUUCK! YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY!

* Bob Bradley’s halftime substitutions. Outstanding. Maurice Edu provided cover in the middle for Michael Bradley (and Onyewu). He wasn’t at his best, but the change allowed the rest of the midfield to push forward. Benny Feilhaber didn’t have as much of an impact, but pushing Clint Dempsey forward gave space to Bradley and Donovan behind the strikers. And Herculez Gomez, desperately on for Onyewu, made a great clearing run on the equaliser. Not to be overlooked is that last change could not have been made without Edu’s versatility, as he effectively moved to centerback after the goal.

* The amazing comeback. Remarkable to come from two down in a Woirld Cup against a defense-first side that only conceded four goals in 10 qualifiers. At half-time, I couldn’t rationalize it.

* The disallowed goal. It’s now being reported the foul was called on the “scorer,” Edu. Bollocks. There’s no replay in the universe that supports that view, but plenty that show four U.S. players being bear-hugged and ball-tickled.

* Unbelievably (and I mean UNBELIEVABLY), the U.S. still has its own destiny in its hands. Beating Algeria by two goals or more puts them into the knockout rounds regardless of the results of the two other group games. That is eminently do-able. If they can manage to not fuck up the first 15 minutes.

I’m of many mixed emotions. A draw with Slovenia is not exactly something to crow about (though, credit to them; they were good and dangerous all day), but the manner in which it was achieved is certainly cause for celebration. The U.S. were literally eight minutes from being 95% out of the tournament. And now they control their destiny. Relief. The probable winner was taken away by a poor decision. Infuriating.

Going into the final group game, a big question will be the lineup. Will Onyewu get another chance? I think so. The only palatable option, one that doesn’t include Jonny Bornstein or Jonathan Spector, is pairing Edu in the middle with Jay DeMerit, but there’s a lack of experience and familiarity there. Findley is out on two yellows, so do you go with Edson Buddle or Gomez up top, or put Dempsey up there from the off and bring in Feilhaber or Stuart Holden? It will be an attacking formation, regardless of personnel. So will Bradley Sr. get it right?

I’m relieved to have five more days to think about it, rather than staring at elimination.

How the U.S. Can Win

We’re 48 hours away from U.S.-England and I’m about ready to shit myself. I haven’t been able to sleep in days, awakened by various nightmares of Aaron Lennon bearing down on Carlos Bocanegra and Clarence Goodson trying to track Wayne Rooney. It is my logical mind breaking through the veneer of fantasy I’ve been trying to construct.

That fantasy is that the U.S. can win this game. By any reasonable analysis, the Three Lions win by two goals. At least.

You didn’t come here for reason though, did you? Good. It’s often been said that one of the strengths of Yanks is their self-belief, even in the face of substantial odds. So let’s go ahead an perpetuate that stereotype. Here’s how the U.S. can win:

1. Pressure

It’s all on England. They are burdened by their history, agitated by their fans, preyed upon by the media. No bit of minutiae is left unexamined and the entire country has been in giddy anticipation since the Group draw was announced. Suffice to say, the pundits don’t see any cause for concern.

easy

The pressure has begun to assert itself. See Rooney’s yellow card against some South African pub team. Or Capello’s rants at both his players and photographers. Perhaps most damning, the England manager has restricted his side’s access to their notorious WAGs, allowing them only to see each other on the day after games, thus hindering a pleasurable way to release some steam (so to speak).

2. Injuries

Rio Ferdinand is out of the tournament and Gareth Barry is not available for the U.S. game, so Capello needs to find some solutions in the Engine Room. Either Ledley King or Jamie Carragher will start in defense for Ferdinand, but the picture is less clear regarding Barry’s replacement and if you’re a U.S. fan, you’re hoping that it’s Steven Gerrard.

Not because Gerrard is a downgrade, but because he’s never formed an effective partnership with Frank Lampard in the middle of the park. Gerrard is much more effective for the national team out wide or in the free position behind a lone striker (see Torres, Fernando at Liverpool). Together, Stevie and Lamps spend to much time staring at each other trying to figure out which is going forward (You? No, please be my guest. No, after you). If Capello prefers an out-of-form Michael Carrick in the destroyer role (or the inexperienced James Milner), the drop-off from Barry will be mitigated by a more fluid attack.

3. Possession

The U.S. most frequently gets into trouble when they are not able to release the pressure on their defense. Look, we all know they’ll play conservatively, will hunker down with eight men behind the ball and hope to counter. But a vital aspect of playing defensively is being able to move the ball out of the back and string a few passes together instead of just hoofing it long and re-setting.

The primary issue with this is Coach Bob Bradley’s insistence on playing two defensive-minded midfielders in the middle (he’d argue he doesn’t, but he’s wrong). Neither Michael Bradley or Rico Clark (the expected starters) are adept at selecting good outlet options (or even delivering a good pass). They will need to step up, get the ball wide to Clint Dempsey or Landon Donovan to run into space, space which should be there as England sends Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson forward on the flanks. Aside from giving a breather to the back-line, a few jaunts up the pitch might limit the frequency of runs from the marauding English outside backs.

4. Moment of Brilliance

The U.S., collectively, faces a talent chasm roughly the size of the Mariana Trench. But the side does have individuals capable of world class play (see: Dempsey, Clint v. Juventus or Stoke). One unexpected strike could change the tenor of the game.

5. Calamity James

The one position where the U.S. does have an advantage is in goal. While David James has largely overcome his penchant for the odd howler, he will never truly shed the label. One gaffe can alter a team’s chances (see: Seaman, David v. Ronaldinho). I expect Bradley to insist the U.S. test James from any distance, put a few on frame early and see how he deals with the occasion, and the much-discussed new ball.

6. Underdogs

It’s a role the U.S. relishes and its World Cup history is pock-marked with the corpses of more talented teams. Portugal in ’02, Colombia in ’94, even the man-down draw with Italy four years ago. The club does not lack for fighting spirit or a confidence in each other, both of which will grow the longer the game remains in doubt. The first twenty minutes will be key as England will come out roaring and the Yanks will need some time to settle their nerves. If they can weather that storm, will the game into their kind of rhythm, avoid unnecessary cards and fouls in their defensive third, then it’s game on.

gazza

In the end, a loss by a single goal would be a good result for the U.S. in terms of getting out of the group, which is the primary goal, after all. But dang it’d be sweet to win. They’ve pulled these upsets before.

Maybe then, I could get some sleep.

Where to Watch Live Streaming 2010 World Cup Video Online for Free

A little more South Africa from Afar … here’s a list of places you’ll be able to watch matches over the internet via free streaming video:

South Africa from Afar

Just starting to set up my bookmarks and twitter follows for the World Cup. Already friggin’ excited … just filled out my bracket, and I gotta say, I’m such a homer — I’ve got USA losing to Brazil in the semis.

Anyhow, the Washington Post is set to give us one new site, and one old one — both of which seem worthy of checking out (for now):

Steven Goff’s Soccer Insider here.

And the new Wapocup here.

Not so sure about this posterous site … plan seems to be for a group fan-blog chock-full of user-submitted content. Have seen that fail many times in many different genres before — especially with hedlines such as “Here we go!” — but maybe the power of the Washington Post combined with the World FRIGGIN Cup will be enough to give it at least a month’s worth of legs?

More click-worthy links TK for sure, as well as probably a few that turn out to be better suited for unbookmarking eventually.