Keep Your Numbers, I’ll Keep The Beautiful Game

A good friend kept pointing me at fivethirtyeight.com for statistician extraordinaire Nate Silver’s (and team’s) views on the World Cup. In particular, he really thought I should read the following article (Why Isn’t the U.S. Men’s National Team Better at Soccer?) and that it would be interesting on an analytical level. So I did.

The problem was, I came in biased.  And that’s how I left.  And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Of course, it didn’t help that the silly title was followed by an opening paragraph that concluded with the idea that despite America’s riches and focus on sport it “can’t field a world-class men’s soccer team.”

I knew from there on I was going to struggle to maintain an open mind because I immediately formed a couple serious concerns.

First, this presumptions, misplaced opening premise starts the reader on the easy, but not particularly well-informed path that the USA isn’t good at this “foreign” sport.

Second, the desire to turn soccer into another statisticians dream the way Money Ball changed baseball frightens and dismays me.

Mr. Silver’s website has lots of new World Cup coverage, and I’m sure it’s all quite thorough. There are percentages on what teams will advance, what games will be ties and other statistical discussions that can make newbies to the game sound smart at a cocktail party or at the office water cooler.

I don’t find such soccer statistics a thing of beauty.  And I don’t really want them coloring my view of the beautiful game.

Fivethirtyeight.com knows that there are people who feel like I do, they even address it head-on.  The site even makes the very specific claim that “In soccer, data and aesthetics are not mutually exclusive, just as they aren’t in any other sport.”

I hope they are wrong.

And I love when it the numbers don’t tell the story.  Like today.

The site predicted only 19% change of a Germany/Ghana tie and thought Argentina vs. Iran would turn into a blowout victory for the South Americans.  Very logical.

What happened? A Germany/Ghana tie. And a last second goal by Lionel Messi to save Argentina from an unexpected scoreless tie.

The unpredictability of those results made the day much more fun.

The beauty of the game comes from the decisions that need to be made on the field, by players, in real-time. It’s a game of emotion.  Of momentum. And yes, of luck.

There are few plays to be run from a playbook. Limiting the number of plays where success or failure can be tracked.

Can you predict pulled hamstrings, goals that happen within the first 30 seconds, the humidity or field conditions?

Can you predict players getting broken noses or head-butting one another?

Can you predict a poor decision by a referee?

Maybe in aggregate all of these things can be calculated, predicted and analyzed.

I hope not, because there’s more to a fluid team sport than any of that.  Especially a team sport that leaves so much responsibility on the hands of the players.  Not play calling.

What variable/value is assigned to team spirit, exactly?  Not so easy.

Did the USA outplay Ghana in its first game of this World Cup? No. But did it display an unbelievable commitment to each other on the field?  Absolutely.

And that proved to be enough. On that day. On that field. In this competition.

I don’t think that this game is predictable. And I hope it never is.

Despite all of my internal rejection of the ‘numberization’ of my chosen sport, the article’s premise was just as troubling as the fact that it was searching for something to analyze.

The overly-Americanized and ridiculously presumptive title started me down a path that’s hard to recover from.

It asked: “Why Isn’t the U.S. Men’s National Team Better at Soccer?”

Wow.  What a question. How much better should the USA be exactly?

The game against Ghana was clearly more grit than beauty… and I do not think the USA is the World’s best team, but how much better are we talking about, specifically?

Germany, I presume, is considered way better that the USA. And today, they tied the team we beat a few days back.

One measure of being “better” means getting results in the World Cup, right?

The USA has qualified for every World Cup since 1990. (Yes, in 1994 we did not need to, as hosts.)  This success is disregarded, since people think that our region is easy to qualify from.

Really?

Mexico, of our region, just tied Brazil.  How good are they?  Yeah, we qualified ahead of them.

Costa Rica, of our region, has already qualified for the second round beating both South American and European foes.  Yeah, we qualified ahead of them too.

And for Euro-soccer Snobs that think our region is easy  to qualify from, I suggest they play some competitive matches in San Jose, Costa Rica, Tegucigalpa, Honduras or in Azteca Stadium in Mexico, and see what they think afterward.

Think it’s easy?  Read this.

But the article asks, why aren’t we “better.”  Perhaps that means we need to beat the best teams in competition.

However, in REAL competitions, we’ve beaten Argentina by 3 goals (Copa America), stopped Spain’s ridiculously long winning streak (Confederations Cup), beaten Mexico and Portugal in World Cup play. Is that not enough?

When, exactly, will we qualify as being good enough for the statisticians to go back to baseball.

I get that in some way statistics may help explain soccer.  But having some foundational knowledge and understanding of the game – and its frustrating intricacies – might help form some better hypotheses to begin with.

During World Cup coverage, when players leaving the field, ESPN (who’s coverage has been quite good, actually) shows me how much the player has run.  As if that’s a metric of success.

It’s not.

We now see team possession statistics that aren’t particularly useful either, in my view, since for some teams it is a strategy and for others it is a necessity that happens without any meaningful offensive moves.

We now see percentages of passes completed.  Interesting, but flawed. One beautiful pass can be worth ten simple ones.

And please, don’t ask why the USA “aren’t better” unless you are willing to describe what better looks like.  Because the USA can and should get better, but I don’t think our improvement will be driven by a calculator and an algorithm.

So please, keep your statistics off in a fantasy league corner.  If you haven’t noticed, the USA is developing a passion for the beautiful game.

Let’s not bury it in, largely meaningless, numbers.

I plan to remain with my head firmly in the sand.  Preferring emotion to calculation. And beauty to analysis.

Yes, in my soccer book collection I have (and enjoyed) Soccernomics, by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski.

But my favorite will always be “Soccer in Sun and Shadow” by Eduardo Galeano.

Toward the end of this glorious text, he writes “The more the technocrats program it down to the smallest detail, the more the powerful manipulate it, soccer continues to be the art of the unforseeable.”

That’s what computes for me.

 

 

 

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Looking Back On A Torrid Affair Of A World Cup

As I entered the New Year resolution-making time before January, I was confident that increased blog writing was a “gimme.”   I mean, c’mon… it’s a World Cup year.  How could I NOT write tons of really interesting blogs during this time?

Well, the World Cup has come and gone.  And aside from a therapeutic open-letter to Soccer Haters, I didn’t mention the World Cup.   Not the USA games, not the French debacle, not the surprise Italian exit… heck, not even the Vuvuzelas.

This lack of writing had nothing to do with any corresponding lack of interest or attention to the month long orgy of soccer that was World Cup 2010.   I saw more games than I feel prudent to even own up to.

I followed the United States as close as anyone had a right to outside of South Africa.  And I forever wished I was there in person.

I was enthralled.

However, it became clear early on in the World Cup that there were enough voices, maybe too many voices, talking about the competition on twitter, in blogs – heck, even in mainstream media.  Frankly, I saw no need to chime in early or often.

However, any soccer blogger worth his Twitter account needs to at least mention the competition and some views, controversial or not.  I’m convinced that otherwise, some other-worldy force will somehow shut down Soccer Soap Box from behind the scenes in contempt of my lack of commentary.

So, here it goes…

This World Cup felt like what I imagine a brief, torrid, lusty and certainly ill-conceived affair with a ex-girlfriend (or ex-boyfriend, ex-wife… whatever your case may be) would be like.

It was emotional.   (Thank you South Africa.)

It was familiar, and new all at the same time.  (Wow, the Brazilians are still amazingly skillful.  Why do I find myself rooting against them?)

It was dramatic.  (Thank you Landon, among others…)

It was sexy.  (Well, we did have Ruud “Sexy Football” Gullit talking in our ear, and Ms. Riquelme didn’t hurt either.   And yes, lot’s of eye candy in shorts for the ladies.)

It was never likely to live up to expectations.  (Thank you Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Franck Ribery and though I hate to say it, at least to a degree, Lionel Messi of Argentina and all of the Brazilian squad.   Oh, and thanks to the Dutch for the empty promises to take the game to Spain.)

There were misunderstandings.  (Who was that foul called on?  Wait, the USA?)

There was lots of emotional baggage.  (I want to root for you Argentina, but it really seems like your coach is a clown in some porn-actor’s suit.   That makes it REALLY hard.)

It was filled with excuses.  (Jabulani, anyone?  Altitude?  Vuvuzela noise?)

It was abusive.  (Ok, most affairs hopefully don’t have this component, but I suppose the worst ones might.  And besides, I needed to call out the Netherlands since their display during that final was certainly an abuse of soccer, especially when we know they are capable of so much more.)

So, while this is the closest I plan to get to any torrid affairs with an ex-anything, I cannot help but feel that it would end similarly.

The time spent with this World Cup was more about the excitement of the matches than the quality of the play.  Few soccer moments will live long in our memory for their skill, beauty and execution, but certainly moments of excitement will remain.

And like a torrid affair, you didn’t want it to end, but you knew it had to.   However, unlike most relationships that revisit past flirtations, this month long affair was worth every minute.

That said, I look forward to Brazil 2014 hoping for a more fulfilling relationship.   Yes, I want all the emotion and I will expect some let downs.

But coaches, players, referees… I really want to move from lust to love.

Are you with me?

U.S.A Beats Australia, But What Did We Learn?

The United States National Team defeated their Australian counterparts 3-to-1 this morning, with Edson Buddle stealing the headlines on the back of his two-goal performance.

The game, though a nice victory, was a bit of a bland appetizer before next week’s main course of the a first-round matchup against England.   A small stadium, poor field and half-throttle play for stretches of the game made it hard to get over excited about today’s victory.

And while I could use my previously favored method of looking at the glass as being either half full or half empty over a number of areas, with a week before the World Cup – where the glass is either over-flowing or shattered – I will instead just poke at a few interesting themes.

  • I’m having trouble deciding what’s more frightening… Oguchi Onyewu starting against England on June 12th or him not starting against England on June 12th.  If he starts, Bob Bradley has more faith in talent and experience than recent competitive game-time or proven recent form.  If Gooch doesn’t start, Jay DeMerit and Clarence Goodson need to play a whole bunch better against England.
  • Do we fall out of love that easily?   I’ve seen some of the post-match analysis from the “usual suspects” and the name that seems missing?  José Francisco Torres.   I’ve not been very impressed by the Michael Bradley and Ricardo Clark combination’s ability to close things down,  possess the ball in the midfield or add the creative element so missing from most of our games.  Torres was a pint-sized revelation against Turkey, but didn’t get a sniff of the field today.   I haven’t seen any reports regarding Ricardo Clark’s apparent injury, and I hope he’s fine, but an injury there might force Coach Bradley’s hand a new direction.   (However, it’s not clear that it would tilt him toward Torres over Maurice Edu…)
  • Luckily, US fans can move from man-crush to man-crush fairly easily.   With our Torres love being put on the back burner since he didn’t play today, it’s now Edson Buddle, 24×7.  Hey, two goals will do that.  I’m happy to join the bandwagon and am all for playing forwards who are confident and in a hot-streak.  Oddly the USA appears to have at least two of them, but US Soccer golden-boy Jozy Altidore isn’t one of them.  Time will tell how bad Jozy’s sprained ankle really is, but at this point, I’m more worried about the center of the formation – both in midfield and defense – than who is up front. 
  • Clint Dempsey appears to have a chip on his shoulder.  This is good – as long as he doesn’t get pulled into some silly fouls.   I sure hope Landon Donovan wakes up with a similar chip… just so we don’t leave anything to chance.  Can we start a rumor that David Beckham was up in the stands calling him Landycakes? 
  • Every team needs a player who frustrates them by adding some ingredients the team really needs (like speed) while frequently screwing up the easy (looking) things.   For the USA, this is Robbie Findley.

Today’s win against Australia was a positive step forward.   It was imperfect.  It showed areas of weakness. But it was a win.

England, however, is more than a little better than Australia. Luckily, the USA is more than a little better than it played today.

Have a good week boys, the real game is next.

USA, Revs and Burpo Offer A New Perspective

I would typically sum up a US Men’s National Team game with a glass half-full vs. half-empty review.   Often, I’ll offer thoughts on New England Revolution games as well, focusing on what went right or wrong.  However, this time I’ll be taking a different direction.

Today, it’s all about perspective, both soccer-wise and otherwise.

For the US game, fans could talk about how José Torres was a revelation.  Or how Clint Dempsey can at times appear to coast along, but still come up with a clutch goal out of nowhere.  Or how the rust of inactivity was so thick on some of our players that they appeared not to see each other in midfield for the first 45 minutes.   Or how Robbie Findley, however imperfect, might just belong on this team.

But that isn’t what I am focused on.

The United States vs. Turkey game was a tale of two halves.   To keep it simple, from the US perspective the first half was a complete mess.  The second half was pretty good.  

At the end of the first half, fans are left wondering how badly the USA will be abused by England on July 12th in our first World Cup game.

At the end of the second half, fans are left with hope and excitement that with some more time to gel, a few lineup modifications and some luck, we might have a good tournament.

Quite a change in perspectives 45 minutes can make.

Fans watched the USA’s “best eleven” look very ordinary.  But then, with the addition of some substitutions that fans either didn’t think belonged (Robbie Findley), didn’t think their coach would ever play (José Torres) or thought were riddled by injury/fitness problems (Oguchi Onyewu), we suddenly look like a team to be taken seriously.

Quite a change in perspectives created by a few substitutions.

US fans still wonder how such an up-and-down team will compete against our World Cup group, and especially England, the “world beaters” that they are.   Then we learn that during this very same weekend it took two own-goals for England to beat Japan, a good – but not stellar – team.

All of a sudden, the US chances are put back in perspective, and fans remember that on any given day the USA can beat (or lose to) any given team.

The New England Revolution’s win over the New York Red Bulls also offered lessons in perspective that were bigger, broader and more poignant than those from the US game, even if the soccer-specific ones are a lot less important.

Fans could focus on the unmistakable fact that when Shalrie Joseph is on his game he is one of the best midfielders in MLS.   Fans could worry that despite the presence of a local “rival,” and decent weather, only about 12,000 fans could be bothered to show up at Gillette Stadium.   Much surprise could be found in the idea that a makeshift backline of Pat Phelan and Joseph Niouky actually held things together. Revs fans could rejoice that a much needed victory was finally found and that perhaps the team would start to find its rhythm.   

But toward the end of the first half, a horrific injury to Revolution goalkeeper Preston Burpo made all of those topics seem very much secondary.   There were 22 men on the field who make their living by putting on this athletic show for us that we get to enjoy, talk about, complain about and yes, blog about.

When you watch one of their careers get jeopardized in an instant, obvious and violent (even if accidental) way it changes the way to feel about the connection to “your” team.  When you watch the reaction of some of the injured player’s on-field family react by falling into a sobbing heap, you realize that there’s more than tactics, questionable calls and a few points at stake.

Suddenly, you realize that a weekend full of soccer needs to be put back into perspective. 

Get well soon Preston.

Logic trumps Emotion: The US National Team’s “Provisional 30”

US National Team coach Bob Bradley today announced the 30-man provisional US World Cup team that will head to Princeton, NJ for its pre-World Cup camp.   This is not an easy task and Coach Bradley will inevitably have people pick away at his choices from every conceivable angle.

Choosing this team, and soon having to narrow the list to the 23-man FIFA limit, is a difficult task for any World Cup bound coach – at least as far as media/blogger critiques are concerned.   I do not plan to second guess the Coach . . . but that does not mean I don’t have some opinions on the choices, or on those left out.

Goalkeepers: Tim Howard, Marcus Hahnemann, Brad Guzan

Thoughts on the goalkeepers: Frankly, this was the position with the least mystery.  The three choices are all capable keepers and probably well ahead of others that follow on the depth chart.   No surprises.

Defenders:  Carlos Bocanegra, Oguchi Onyewu, Steve Cherundolo, Jonathan Spector, Jay DeMerit, Clarence Goodson, Jonathan Bornstein, Heath Pearce, Chad Marshall

Thoughts on included defenders:  Hard to say that there are any real surprises here.     Bornstein seems to get more criticism than he deserves, but is a Bradley favorite.    Onyewu is coming back from injury and – if we are honest – didn’t look like a world beater in his pre-season friendly matches with A.C. Milan.   Goodson and Chad Marshall are in a tough spot for making the 23 man limit, since others like Bocanegra and Spector are more versatile across the back line. 

Thoughts on excluded defenders: Edgar Castillo looked like a possibility for a while but was never too likely to bounce Bradley favorite Jonathan Bornstein. (Nor was it clear he should.)   As a New England Revolution fan/watcher, I have a soft spot for Michael Parkhurst and Kevin Alston, but Parkhurst had not done enough to be here and Alston isn’t ready for a World Cup.   (Watch this space though…)

Midfielders:  Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Stuart Holden, Ricardo Clark, Maurice Edu, Benny Feilhaber, Jose Francisco Torres, Alejandro Bedoya, DaMarcus Beasley, Sacha Kljestan, Robbie Rogers

Thoughts on included midfielders: Donovan, Dempsey, Bradley were obvious choices.  Watching qualifying and Gold Cup games also mean that Holden, Clark, Edu and Feilhaber were all likely choices.   After that, it gets a bit interesting.   Many in the US fan base will be glad to see Torres included, though he’s not a lock for the 23.   Beasley, Rogers, Kljestan and Bedoya are bubble players right now.  Beasley brings experience while Bedoya represents the future.   Rogers is a bit of an enigma, having performed very well for the USA against lower-level competition, but not really looking like a game changer against stronger opponents.  Kljestan is a positive offensive factor, when on form, which is never guaranteed.

Thoughts on excluded midfielders: Generally speaking, there were not huge surprises here.   Kyle Beckerman’s fate was probably sealed when Maurice Edu reached full fitness. 

Freddy Adu:  If you’ve read my work before, you know I have a soft spot for Freddy Adu.  Seeing his pro-club teammate Eddie Johnson make the 30-man cut must be extremely hard on Freddy, who seems to be finding his form to some degree in Greece.   I could argue that there’s more experience in Adu than Bedoya (or Rogers?), despite both showing promise, but that’s from an outsider’s view so I’ll defer to the Coach’s perspective.   

Forwards:  Jozy Altidore, Robbie Findley, Brian Ching, Edson Buddle, Eddie Johnson, Herculez Gomez

My thoughts on included forwards:  Clearly, current-form rules the day.   Buddle, Gomez and (even) Johnson have been scoring and that is clearly the determining factor here.   Jozy was a lock, though his season was more about promise than results.  Ching will need to prove he’s game-ready in camp to make the 23, but there aren’t many other forwards like him available.  Johnson would be a surprise to make the final cut, but that is what the camp is for.

My thoughts on excluded forwards:  This was always going to be the most scrutinized group.

Charlie Davies. Coach Bradley did what he had to do.  The World Cup is not a place for sentimentality.  It is a place for the best team you can assemble – which at forward has a lot to do with form and confidence.   It’s not a popular thing to say in US Soccer circles but ever since that horrible accident took place Charlie was always on the outside looking in. 

Jeff Cunningham and Conor Casey:  Jeff and Conor must be wishing that the World Cup was in 2009 instead of 2010, because they were the hot properties of last year, but haven’t made an impact this year, while others have been shining for their respective leagues or teams. 

Kenny Cooper:  Hindsight is 20/20 for Kenny Cooper, whose pro-club hopping was an over-engineered attempt to make this World Cup team, which failed on a number of levels.   As he watches Edson Buddle (MLS), Herculez Gomez (Mexico) and Eddie Johnson (Greece) prove: it’s not where you play, it’s how you are playing.

Logic trumps Emotion

The exclusion of Charlie Davies will clearly be the main discussion point following this 30-man roster selection.   But clearly Bob Bradley made the decision that he won’t be ready.   That’s logic. 

My wanting Freddy to get another look?  That was more emotional.

Now that the team is beginning to take shape, let’s get back to illogical commentary about the expected results.   How we’ll beat up poor injured England.  (Illogical.)  How if we don’t get far into the tournament Bradley and Sunil Gulati are useless.  (Illogical.)

The next few months are logically going to be an emotional ride. 

Game on.

Forza America – Gooch and Rico Head to Italy

Italy is not a normal destination for US soccer players.   However two Americans are moving over to Serie A in Italy albeit in two very different scenarios.   Oguchi Onyewu has a 3 year contract with Serie A powerhouse A.C. Milan, while Ricardo Clark appears to be set for a move to recently promoted Livorno – (props to Ives for seemingly be quickest to find this gem.)  Livorno were also after Landon Donovan, but don’t appear willing to pay what would be needed for him.

Grant Wahl posted a great write up about everything that Gooch is now exposed to at A.C. Milan.   Gooch is used to European soccer as he was a key part of Standard Liège who has been on top of the Belgian league for the last two years.   My being used to MLS and its bare-bones approach, the idea of Oguchi being “dressed to kill in team-issued Dolce & Gabbana” is somewhat hard to fathom.   A.C. Milan’s history is so deep and well catalogued it seems pointless to try to replicate it here.   So I’ll let A.C. Milan tell its own story.

Livorno is a smaller club, one that has bounced between Serie A and Serie B in the last few years.   But they too are not without a deep history and tradition . . . even if that tradition includes some infamous moments and themes.   John Foot’s incredibly detailed “Winning at All Costs – A Scandalous History of Italian Soccer” does a great job of cataloging some of this history  including the 1967 fan uprising that trashed much of the stadium and had referees trapped in their locker room until late in the evening.   Livorno is also known for having the most left-wing fans in the world and as recently as 2002 had unfurled a banner in honor of Stalin.

So what do these two moves mean in terms of their soccer and their position with the US team?   Ironically, there are many more similarities than differences.

Where they are coming from: Onyewu has been extremely successful in a second tier European league, and Clark is a leading midfielder in MLS.   Frankly, both are going to see a big step up.

Style:  Both players are extremely athletic . . . Onyewu as a monster of a man, Clark who covers acres of space like an angry gazelle.   (No, I don’t know what would make a gazelle angry by the way.)   If both of them make sure to keep and pass the ball as well as they break up plays, there is a chance for success.

US National Team:   Both players would be on the plane if it was leaving for the World Cup today.    Presuming it will be much harder for Onyewu to crack A.C. Milan’s starting lineup than it will be for Ricardo to do so at Livorno, Onyewu will need to make sure he stays fresh.   This will be interesting since both positions do have capable replacements on the US team meaning that both of these players need to stay sharp.

Temperament:  This will be an interesting part of the equation.   Both players have had foul/card issues on the biggest stages (Onyewu giving away a critical penalty against Ghana in the World Cup, Clark getting red-carded at the Confederations Cup and infamously over-reacting and kicking Carlos Ruiz.)   The Italian players will be expert at the art of fouling, diving and winding players up – how these two cope might be as important as anything else.

It appears that Ricardo Clark won’t move until January, but the experiment is already started with Onyewu’s playing with A.C. Milan in the US based “World Football Challenge” and the Germany based “Audi Cup.”   Despite many caveats about familiarity and new surroundings, he needs to do better than what we saw at the World Football Challenge.    (And though I didn’t see the game, he was on the field for some of Bayern Munich’s four goals against A.C. Milan this evening.)

Overall, the addition of some new American blood into Italy’s Serie A is a great statement about American players – and maybe what a discount they are on the world market.

Hopefully we aren’t talking about their moves back down the European ladder in one of the next transfer windows.

“Cero a Cinco” Caps a Long Soccer Weekend

Well, that was quite a weekend of soccer.   My eyes hurt.

“Cero a Cinco”

Surrounded as I am by a large Colombian family of in-laws, I understand and revel in the “Cinco a Cero” (5-0) hysteria that rang down as a high-note of 1994 World Cup Qualifying when Colombia downed Argentina by that score in Buenos Aires.   Any Colombian of the right age will remember that night, or at least remember the hang-over from the partying that ensued.   And why not?

I never expected that today’s Gold Cup final could be the flip side of that for the USA vs. Mexico. Since this wasn’t a World Cup Qualifier, it certainly doesn’t carry the same weight as that Colombian victory . . . but Mexico really needed a victory like this against the US to set them back on the right path.  And I’m sure they are delirious South of the Border.  (Well, or in lots of places North of the border too, like Giants Stadium which looked like an Azteca preview party today.)

On Friday, I acknowledged that we didn’t yet know enough about our USA “B” team and that “. . . it’s Sunday against Mexico for the final where we’ll really learn something.”  Well, lesson learned.

Stepping back . . . a questionable penalty tilted the field toward the US goal and then the flood gates opened. The US team on that field is further away from the best 11 we’d start than the Mexican team was from their best eleven (since it certainly contained some first team starters.) And for good stretches of the match, the US looked as dangerous as Mexico.  At 0-5 though, none of that will matter, nor should it.

There is a bigger picture here, both in terms of the Gold Cup and the US v Mexico rivalry.

Gold Cup: As I noted on Friday, the pressure in the Mexico/Costa Rica Semi-Final was much higher than what the USA faced against Honduras – a representation of the fact that the USA’s group stages overall shouldn’t have been that hard to get through. Reaching the final inflated expectations which were brought down to earth in a hurry today. When we started this competition, everyone acknowledged this was NOT the best eleven for the USA but would provide an excellent growth opportunity and learning experience for a (mostly) young US Squad. Well, this is one lesson the players on that field won’t ever forget.

US v. Mexico: US fans have had it easy for a while. The USA has “owned” Mexico on our soil, beat them at the World Cup and overall had a pretty clear sense of superiority about them recently.  Is that real though? Are we better than Mexico? Probably need to define “better” . . . our best eleven can beat Mexico’s best eleven, we’ve proven that. But be it the National teams or club teams (as evidenced in Superliga, CONCACAF Champions League, etc.), what was proven today is that there remains a pretty serious experience gap after you dig deeper into the roster.

Again, I’ll avoid player ratings here, as there will be too many offering opinions already. I heralded Jay Heaps for his improved play after a rough start . . . if I were clairvoyant, I’d have begged him to take the accolades and run for the hills.  Missed opportunities in the final third and tackles that needed to be all or nothing but missed that mark were shared by many. Risks were inevitable after the team was a down by a couple goals  . . . but the disintegration of the back line screamed for experience. Too bad Jimmy Conrad’s bell was rung against Panama, he might have helped.

The real question is what will happen on August 12th in Mexico City. Can new found confidence push Mexico to leverage the Azteca advantage and romp once more?  Will the USA “first-eleven” feel the need for some “revancha” in Mexico and be even more motivated than they already were?

MLS Games

Funny things happen when the New England Revolotuion can get some of their better players (Shalrie Joseph, Steve Ralston) on the field.   They win.   I have a secret (and perhaps unreasonable) hope that this season has some potential left. Why? Based on no-data to prove this it seems to me that many teams which start out gangbusters tend to run out of luck (injuries) or otherwise lose their way by the playoffs, whereas the teams who work through early season injuries/issues are fresher and more focused come playoff time. Hmmm, perhaps all we need to do is sneak into the playoffs and keep recovering from injuries.

David Beckham played and even shook a fan’s hand, but he didn’t score.  His captain did.  Both were out done by the more than half-field goal by Claudio Lopez.

I didn’t see the Red Bulls / Colorado game, but I didn’t really have to, did I?  RBNY really is THAT bad.  Unfortunate for MLS.   Hysterical for a Revs fan.

World Football Challenge

I struggled to care about these games. How is it possible that some of the best teams in the world are visiting and I struggle to care?  Frankly, it’s sad to me that the crowds are coming out for a pre-season warm up “competition” in such numbers as to suggest they had no other soccer to watch in this country. I thought Taylor Twellman’s (whose team gets maybe a third of today’s crowd) tweet said it all “gosh I wish the stadium filled like this for OUR games be so cool.”   Yes, it would . . .

Taylor also tweeted on the joys of playing on natural grass. Which makes me wonder . . . if it is feasible to install a grass field for some of these one-off games is it really out of the question for MLS to do something for the part of their season that doesn’t conflict with the NFL?

As for the AC Milan / Inter Minal game, the idea that this game was anything like a true “derby” is laughable if I’m being generous. I’ve been to a European derby (Chelsea/Arsenal), a Brazilian Derby (Fluminense/Flamengo — OK, preseason, but still) and actually stood in the last row of Inter’s Ultras at the amazing San Siro.   The intensity of those games is hard to describe.   What happened at Gillette earlier today pre-season warm up with a little extra juice than the others we’ve seen in this tournament.  But not much more.