World Cup day 20 – Team USA departs with heads held high

Belgium 2 – 1 United States (after extra time)

Talk of noble defeats is always bittersweet. I’d much rather win ugly than be going home. But this tournament has been all about noble defeats, and the US offered another stirring example. Strangely, the group winners won every game in the round of 16, despite basically every single game offering serious challenges to the supposed favorites. As a result, we got an amazing set of games, full of ever-increasing tension and late drama. And perhaps none were more full of intensity than the end to the US game.

Team USA was thoroughly battered for approximately 60 minutes in the middle of this game (roughly: the second half and the first half of extra time), and only really successfully expressed themselves in the final 15 frantic minutes. But those 15 minutes were some of the most intense and incredible minutes that US Soccer has ever put together. Good god it was awesome to watch. If that’s what the brave new future is going to look like, I am pretty excited.

And even when they were clinging on desperately, there was some astonishing performances here. None more so than Tim Howard, who provided one of the best goalkeeping performances in World Cup history. The most saves ever in a World Cup game. And many of those saves were top-notch. These were not tame shots that just needed to be gathered; they were guys through on goal needing to be closed down. He saved shots with his feet. He anticipated and put himself in position to block of any angle of attack. And he played a huge role in organizing the defense in front of him. Just a ridiculous performance from him.

But beyond Howard, this was a really impressive defensive performance by the entire unit. They were aggressive, powerful, disruptive, and resolute. It was something to behold. Beasley was great, Besler was a beast (except for his one crucial and totally forgivable mishap getting pushed away by Lukaku to set up the goal), Gonzalez once again performed way above my expectations for him, Cameron struggled a bit trying to fill the holding role but grew into it as the game progressed. I still think that Beckerman would have really helped in this game, but there’s no denying that having Cameron around as another tall man was nice, too. And Yedlin…oh what a revelation he has been. Forced into action due to Johnson’s injury, he posed an immediate and enduring threat bombing down the right. His touch was the best of any US player; the control he exerted on any number of long balls was just amazing. And Green! I mocked his inclusion, saying it was purely an under the table arrangement to persuade him to choose the US as his national team. He wasn’t ready, would never be put into a match. It was a wasted roster spot. But oh my god what a touch he had on the goal. And he looked absolutely full of life for the entire period he was on. He probably is not going to become the best player in the world, but for the very first time in US history we’ve got a player for whom that’s not utterly absurd to imagine…

And Bradley. Man alive it was nice to have the real Michael Bradley back. His touch was still a bit heavy at times, and his free kicks were…well, not very good. But his vision was superb and his passing was really excellent. He was the main guy collecting the ball from the back and organizing possession going forward. His distribution in the attacking half was great. Like in the previous games, he was playing a lot of speculative balls. The difference is that this time they were far more perfectly weighted. His ball for Green’s goal is the most obvious example, but there were dozens more in the same vein. AND he tracked back and made a ton of important defensive stops.

I don’t want to go too overboard here. I mean: the US was clearly the worse team today and were played off the pitch in more than a few instances. They sat back too deeply and had a lot of trouble keeping possession. They failed to capitalize on several of their best chances, which you really have to do if you’re going to win playing this way. Bedoya and Zusi worked hard but really didn’t offer enough. Dempsey was much better once he moved back into the attacking midfield role, but didn’t really have his best game. Several of those good chances that were spurned were from him. Not that he did terribly or anything; he just couldn’t quite control his shots and let Courtois gather them up.

All of which is to say: we got beat today by the better team, and shouldn’t feel satisfied. But given where I thought this team would end up in this tournament…I am really happy to have seen so much positive stuff. This might not be the best US team ever (I still think the 2002 group was probably better), but it was easily the most fun team to support. I loved watching them, and am really excited to see this new bunch

Argentina 1 – 0 Switzerland (after extra time)

Also an enthralling game. Quite similar to a bunch of others in the round of 16: the favorite struggled for long patches to break down the opposition, left themselves open to just enough attacks to make you think an upset really could be in order, but eventually found a way to win through a bit of magic. In this case, of course, the magic came from Messi, who weaved through the opposition into the Swiss box and then drew every single defender there toward him like a black hole. Then, with the space now open, he passed the ball to an onrushing Di Maria who finally got the goal he had been looking for the entire game.

Argentina – like every team left – has left us all asking some questions. While they controlled this game, they really had trouble generating high quality chances. They can get through the tournament if they keep playing this way, but it will take a lot of luck. But by far the most important thing they need is for the good version of Di Maria to turn up in the next three games.

A huge part of their strategy today revolved around Messi sucking up all the oxygen and disorganizing the defense as they struggled to contain him…and then letting Di Maria run rampant over the remaining elements. The problem is that Di Maria just couldn’t make his passes stick today. He kept getting himself into dangerous spots and then mis-hitting his cross or mis-controlling the ball and allowing the attack to fizzle.

I’m not sure what the answer is for them, but if they can find a way to improve his play, they still have a very good shot of winning this thing.

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World Cup day 19 – the paths of glory

Two amazing games today.  Filled with tension, excitement, and occasionally some real skill.  This World Cup continues to deliver.

France 2 – 0 Nigeria

This was the best performance by Nigeria so far. They looked worlds better than the team who were stultifying in the opening match against Iran, or the team who looked lost in the wilderness in a pre-tournament warmup match against the US. The first half was absolutely frantic on both sides. Not the finest quality play, but enthralling to watch. Really surprising that no goals went in.

France got pretty lucky here. There was an awful tackle from Matuidi that could easily have produced a red card. But he escaped and they were able to grow into the game. The huge switch happened when Griezmann came on. I was a little surprised he didn’t start, actually. Once he was on the pitch the French attack grew a lot more lively. Giroud had done very little, and replacing him with Griezmann gave them a lot more inventiveness in the midfield, and his movement really troubled the Nigeria defense, which then let Benzema slide into the open spaces left behind. From about 70 minutes on the pressure was incredibly intense and it seemed only a matter of time before France scored. They held on for a while thanks in large part to some great saves by Enyeama. But eventually Enyeama made a mistake, tapped a ball to the head of Pogba who slotted it in. After that, Nigeria looked pretty thoroughly beaten and the only real question was whether France would score more.

Not the MOST impressive display from France, but more than enough to get the job done. A bit shaky for the first hour but high quality in the last third of the match. They remain a serious threat to anyone who has to play them.

Germany 2 – 1 Algeria (aet)

What a fantastic game! Algeria started out excellently, with a blistering pressing game and a rapid series of pouncing attacks. Germany seemed quite bewildered and took a good 20 or 30 minutes to start settling down. If not for some serious sweeping efforts by Neuer in goal (who raced out of his box to close down attacking players who had beaten the defenders probably a dozen times over the course of the game), they could very easily have conceded several goals. The lack of Mats Hummels was keenly felt, I think, since he is only of the only players in their standard backline who is a bit mobile.

I’ve been wondering all tournament why they are so insistent on playing Lahm in midfield, and this game gave us a good chance to see both sides of the issue. Due to an injury, Lahm was forced to move back to fullback about 70 minutes in. This coincided with one of the strongest periods for Germany, as his overlapping attacks were far more useful than his defensive midfield work had been. On the other hand, the back four was dangerously exposed on several occasions, suggesting that Khedira and Schweinsteiger just don’t have the defensive chops to really handle this position anymore.

As regular time came to a close, Germany was pounding the ball into the box and creating chance after chance, none of which would go in. It became almost comical after a while, and the humor was enormously compounded by a Keystone Cops of a free kick that (as with that incredibly terrible Rooney corner) was one of the most joyful and absurd moments of the whole tournament.

So it went to extra time, and Germany almost immediately scored on an absolutely delectable shot from Schurrle, who hit a backheel while contorting himself to get the right angle. One of the finishes of the tournament for sure.

And for a bit it seemed that Algeria might fold at this point, but they managed to struggle back and hung on for a while longer. Both teams were clearly tired and far less precise, and it eventually bit them as they let Germany pass it around in the box long enough for Özil to get an open shot on goal. Since there were only two minutes left at this point, it all seemed over. And I actually think the Algerian defender on the line really needed to Suarez the shot (meaning: stop it with his hand…not bite it). Yes, you’ll get sent off, but at least it forces them to convert the penalty rather than get an automatic second goal. Still, it seemed pretty unlikely that they’d score anyways…until they almost immediately did. And they did manage one final shot just as time expired, but sadly for all us non-Germans it failed to go in, and we were robbed of any more excitement.

Still, this was a ludicrously fun game, and it’s sad to see Algeria go out. Which is crazy, since they were easily the least watchable team of the 2010 World Cup.

So: we’ll have a Germany-France quarterfinal. For all the storied success of these teams, they’ve only met three times in the World Cup before. Germany knocked France out of the 1982 and 1986 tournaments, both times in the semifinals, with that 1982 match often being referred to as one of the all-time classics. And, of course, Germany invaded France a couple times in some big wars. So the French definitely have some historical aggression to work off here.

Neither team was at their most impressive today, but both were still pretty good. I don’t see any reason to change my initial prediction of a German win, though I continue to think that it’s pretty finely balanced.

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World Cup day 18 – more late drama

Two more enthralling games. Both featured goals in the final five minutes which radically shifted the game. The Dutch came from behind to win as the clock ticked down. And a 10-man Costa Rica lost their lead but just barely held on to the draw, giving themselves a chance to authoritatively smash home all five penalties and book a place in the quarterfinals.

Netherlands 2 – 1 Mexico

Heartbreaking stuff for Mexico, who held a deserved 1-0 lead until the final five minutes. They were easily the best team in the first half, where the Dutch looked bereft of ideas and quite slow. It seemed to repeat every couple minutes: Mexico would control the ball in the midfield, move it diagonally to the wings, and then send an attacker toward the goal line. And the Dutch defense was just sooo slow that they would be beaten to the ball even if they had four or five leading steps. And in this we saw the essence of why Holland is pretty unlikely to win the tournament. Their defense has held together so far, but really just can’t deal with a strong and pacey attack. They don’t have the skill to take the ball off people running at them, and they don’t have the pace to catch up to speculative balls over the top.

When Mexico scored early in the second half, the big question was whether it would waken the Dutch from their slumber. And, to a certain extent, it did. They looked livelier and more aggressive. Though, still, they didn’t seem to have much in the way of ideas. Their key game plan, pretty much the whole game, was: get the ball to Robben and hope something happens. Usually: hope that Robben can discover a foul and win a penalty.

But they were helped by getting Kuyt more involved thanks to some tactical switches. But really the key thing was simply that Mexico started retreating. They seemed happy to try and hold their lead, and took off Dos Santos who was giving the defenders fits. And this in turn let the Dutch push forward and discard their third center back. The final 30+ minutes were pretty much all one direction.

Still, Mexico held on pretty strong. And it was a bit of a surprise when things finally broke down, especially with the strike coming from Sneijder who has looked terrible and completely off the game so far. But he collected the tidy little headed pass from Huntelaar and buried it with precision and power. And suddenly the whole tenor changed. Now it was Mexico trying to survive the clock and needing to re-establish their earlier dominance. But, tragically, the same old plan of getting the ball to Robben and hoping to win a penalty finally paid off…

I’ve watched it a couple times now and I have to say, though it pains me, that it probably was a penalty. There is contact. That’s a foul anywhere else on the pitch. Robben was in a dangerous position and Marquez lunged. You don’t always see them given, but very often will. And, after all, Holland was denied a much better penalty shout at the end of the first half.

Still, it really leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, to see this comparatively ugly and unpleasant Dutch team move on, thanks to the unpleasant Robben falling over himself in the box all night and eventually getting a call. There IS a foul there, but it was a very minor one and Robben was absolutely looking for it, as he always does. It was a sour ending to an otherwise very enjoyable match.

Costa Rica 1 – 1 Greece (Costa Rica win 5-3 on penalties)

Desperately dull in the first half, but grew in excitement as things progressed. Neither team particularly wanted to attack and neither team has particularly skilled or exciting players, for the most part. But thanks to a Costa Rica goal early in the second half and a Costa Rican red card a bit later, Greece was able to exert some influence, eventually giving the game a bit more aggression.

The opening goal was truly quite baffling. I think it was a mis-hit by Ruiz, and the entire Greek defense seemed perplexed at its direction. They just stood there, mouths agape as it ever…so…slowly… inched its way across the line. I know the keeper had the entire length of the goal to cross, but it sure seemed like he could have run long way around the perimeter of the entire penalty area to get there and still had time to make the stop.

When Greece finally got their equalizer, I lamented both that Greece seemed ready to snatch victory away from another team I was rooting for, but also that I would be subjected to another 30 minutes of watching Greece play. However, they were a bit less drab in extra time, forcing a couple of very nice saves.

Then, for all the lack of skill on display out on the pitch during the game, these two teams put on a real clinic in how to take penalties. 8 of the 9 were converted – many with both power and placement – and the only one that was stopped required and excellent save.

So, the quarterfinal will be Netherlands-Costa Rica. Obviously the Dutch will be the favorites, particularly given how much work Costa Rica had to put in today. But they didn’t have an easy game either, and were playing in much more harsh conditions. So the real question is just whether Costa Rica have another huge game in them. Based on the evidence today, I would say no. This was nothing close to the quality they showed in their group stage wins. Today, they were a mediocre CONCACAF team desperately trying to hold on to the meager scraps they had gathered. And doing so against a thoroughly bleh Greece.

So the question is: which one is the real Costa Rica? A mediocre team who got lucky to play the two games of their lives in a row? Or a genuinely good team who might reasonably be expected to play that well again? My argument for the former is:

  • They beat a Uruguay team playing without Suarez, who theoretically are still a very good team, but…Uruguay honestly didn’t look particularly good in any of their games, not even the ones they one with Suarez
  • They beat Italy on the back of their game in Manaus. And Italy looked thoroughly wiped out
  • They beat Italy by playing a dangerously high line and counting on their inability to beat the offside trap. And hey, it worked! But if they try to play that way against the Dutch, they could lose 10-0.

All that said, I’ve learned my lesson in counting this team out. The Dutch will be favorites, but it certainly wouldn’t shock me if we saw an upset here.

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World Cup day 17 – heartbreak for Chile, reprieve for Brazil

James - Ex Cops

Brazil 1 – 1 Chile (Brazil win 3-2 on penalties)

What a fantastic game, and a great way to start the knockout round. The skill on the ball wasn’t always perfect, and both sides could very easily have created more goals, but the pace of play was out of this world. Both sides applied enormous pressure, meaning that the game covered every inch of the pitch and was constantly moving. Well, except for all of the people lying on the ground writhing in agony until they suddenly got better.

In the end Brazil advanced, but they came dangerously, excruciatingly close to going out. This was probably their best performance yet, though honestly that isn’t saying all that much. They were the better team today, but not that much better. Their attack remains quite limited, thanks in large part to the uselessness of their center forwards and the inconsistencies of their playmakers. Neymar showed off in patches today but mostly only in quick counter-attacks. There wasn’t a lot of good buildup from him. Oscar was pretty anonymous, then would pop up with a beautiful long diagonal pass, and then would disappear again for long stretches. Hulk had his best game yet, with a couple brilliant runs and powerful shots, as well as a goal that was (correctly, but only just) ruled out for handball. The problem is that their success mostly depended on one individual doing something excellent – there wasn’t much fluidity in the team.

In part, I think, that’s because Chile are just SO impossible to play against. They press so tightly and are so excellent at pushing you off the ball, that it’s almost pointless to try and build through the center against them. Which meant that Brazil was often trying to work around the defense rather than cutting through it.

For their part, Chile did what they needed to do. They didn’t have as many good chances as Brazil, but they made the most of the ones they got. Strangely, sort of like Brazil, most of their best attacks didn’t come from good movement in possession but instead came from pouncing on mistakes. The goal, for example, emerged almost out of nowhere. They nicked a weak tap-back by Hulk off a throw-in, and then suddenly the ball was in the back of the net.

The last 75 minutes of this game looked a lot like the second half of Spain-Chile, with Chile holding out against a probing attack, riding their luck a bit, and mostly succeeding because the more-favored opposition couldn’t quite put everything together. But then, with just a minute left, again out of almost nothing, they had the ball at the top of the Brazil box and fired a shot that rattled the crossbar and left millions of hearts in throats. A few inches lower and Chile would be readying to play Colombia now.

Sadly, it was not to be. It went to penalties, and Brazil just eked it out. It’s worth noting that Cesar was really coming off his line for his saves. Which technically isn’t allowed, though it’s basically never called. But his jumps were particularly egregious. Sill, he made the saves and got away with it, so good for him.

Final thought: Howard Webb (who famously cocked up refereeing the final four years ago) did a really excellent job. He made a number of tough calls – including disallowing Hulk’s goal – and pretty much got them all right. And while this game was very intense and very aggressive, he managed to keep it from escalating out of control (the thing he failed to do with the Netherlands-Spain game). Good for him.

Colombia 2 – 0 Uruguay

I’ve got a lot less to say about this one. The difference was basically James Rodriguez, who scored a wonder goal and tapped in another. Other than that, I can’t say Colombia particularly controlled this game. Despite the scoreline, this was probably the least impressive game they’ve played. Still, they held the lead the whole way and seemed quite comfortable letting Uruguay probe at them. So I’m sure they could have amped their attack back up if necessary. Uruguay desperately missed Suarez, who very likely would have converted one or more of the decent chances they put together and also likely would have added quite a bit more guile and incisiveness to their attack

You’ll notice that I resisted making any puns about biting there. I think I deserve a reward for that.

Anyways, these two teams will be playing in the quarterfinals. 538 continues to insist that Brazil is far-and-away the best team in the world, making them 80% favorites to go through. I (and the bookies) are far less skeptical. Brazil should be the favorites for that match, but Colombia could give them a great deal of trouble at the back. And if they can’t resolve their problems with fluency in the attack, their victory today may have only staved off elimination by a little bit. We will have to see…

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World Cup day 16 – a brief respite

There are four quadrants of the bracket, each of which will produce one semifinalist. Today I’ll briefly preview each, and give a quick thought or two about what I’m looking for in these matchups.

I should also say, for what it’s worth, that my pre-tournament predictions have mostly held up regarding the structure of the bracket – apart from one quadrant where literally everything is wrong. I got a lot of the second-place teams wrong but two of the quarterfinal matchups I predicted are still reasonably likely to occur (Brazil-Colombia and France-Germany), while Argentina remains the favorite to march to their semifinal berth as well. But in the other quadrant…holy hell, what happened?

The South American Massacre
Brazil – Chile
Colombia – Uruguay

Somehow four of the five remaining South American teams have clustered in this one corner of the bracket. Which is rather unfortunate since I would have really liked to get some more data on the comparative quality of the European and South American teams. Sadly, there will be a bloodbath of CONMEBOL teams here and only one will emerge with the chance to take on (most likely) Germany or France for a berth in the final.

I will stick with my pre-tournament guesses here, with Brazil emerging victorious, beating Colombia in the quarterfinals. But I think it’s a close call in both games. Current odds seem to put Brazil as roughly 75% to go through against Chile which seems very high. Chile is difficult to play against and I could see them frustrating Brazil a great deal. Meanwhile Colombia have been very impressive (admittedly against pretty weak opposition). I expect them to beat a Suarez-less Uruguay and to give Brazil a great deal of trouble.

The Western Front
France – Nigeria
Germany – Algeria

France are heavy favorites against Nigeria, and justifiably so. Nigeria were, by a pretty large margin, the least impressive team that managed to advance (with only Greece as a competitor). They’re not terrible by any means, but they will really struggle to generate goals and I have a hard time seeing them holding France to less than two.

Germany should also be expected to beat Algeria, who I anticipate will fall back into the more defensive tactics they employed against Belgium. I hope they don’t because they more attacking approach they took in their latter two games was a lot more fun. But I feel like Germany would clinically dispatch them if they show too much space. So this should be somewhat similar to Germany’s victory over the US yesterday. Relatively dull, with a modest chance of Algeria springing a surprise result, but likely to end in a German win.

After that, I’ll once again stick with my pre-tournament prediction. France have looked very good, but I still think Germany is more cohesive on the attack, less reliant on standout individual performances. But that’s a 55/45 sort of game.

Um, What Happened Here?
Netherlands – Mexico
Costa Rica – Greece

So, yeah. I only predicted that one of these teams would even reach the knockout round (Holland, who I thought would finish second and lose to Brazil). Whoever wins in Mexico-Netherlands has to be considered the favorite to advance to the semifinals. Greece are pretty bleh. And while Costa Rica was very good, I think they got pretty darn lucky, too. Playing Uruguay without Suarez, playing Italy after Manaus (and bereft of tactical ideas). Still, I don’t see any of the teams in this group being as good as basically any other team that will be in the quarterfinals. If Costa Rica can beat Italy, I see no reason to think they couldn’t manage it against the Dutch, too.

I guess I’m going to go out on a bit of a limb here and say that Mexico advances to the semifinals. The quality is there for them, and for once it all seems to be clicking together. I can’t see them fully containing Robben – particularly the danger of his pace – but I think they’re far less likely to lose shape and get overrun. I think this is the year they finally break the curse of the Round of 16.

Manifest Destiny
Argentina – Switzerland
Belgium – USA

Some people are a little down on Argentina, who have at times struggled to open up defenses and have looked a bit exposed at the back. I don’t deny those concerns. And it looks like they’ll be without Aguero for at least a game or two, if not the whole tournament. But honestly, something has clearly been wrong with him since the first game. And they have other options who might well be better (at 100%) than the 75% Aguero has been. I also think this creates a bit more tactical flexibility for them. Any time you’ve got ‘undroppable’ players, it has the potential to unbalance your team. Bringing on Lavezzi, for example, would give them a very different look that could be helpful. Obviously, it would be preferable to have a healthy Aguero, but I don’t think this will hurt them that badly.

Which is to say, I’ll stick with Argentina winning this quadrant. And while I’m less confident than I was in my prediction of them as the eventual winners, no one else has quite convinced me to switch my opinion. The Swiss have some very nice players and have looked good in patches. If they could connect their attack and defense better – and not leave themselves so awkwardly exposed when they lose the ball – they could spring a surprise. And while Belgium has excellent players, I actually see them as slightly less risky for Argentina. I just can’t see them devoting the resources to containing Messi and bottling up Di Maria. In fact, of all the teams in this group, I almost think the US might be the one that could bother Argentina the most.

As for Belgium-US, I can’t quite convince myself to pick us to win. But I see that game looking a lot more like the one we played against Portugal and a lot less like the other two. I think the US can challenge for midfield supremacy against Belgium (not win, but challenge) if Beckerman continues to be the beast of a holding midfielder he’s been so far. I feel like the US is most threatened by quality attacking fullbacks and that’s precisely what Belgium lacks. I still think that’s a Belgium win but I there’s a quite decent chance the US could pull through.

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World cup day 15 – All differences forgotten, and no need at all to mention the war

Moving On - Mimicking Birds
I’ve Got It All (Most) - Modest Mouse

We are through! In the end, it was a tiny bit anticlimactic.  For a period of 20 minutes or so, we were a single goal away from elimination at the hands of Ghana, who could have advanced over us for the third straight World Cup.  But then, bless his soul, Cristiano Ronaldo scored a goal for Portugal and we could all breathe a lot easier. So things petered out, and the US is on to the next round!

I have to say, I didn’t think they would do it.  I wrote a couple weeks ago: “I certainly think this team has it in them to beat Ghana and nick a draw from Portugal and/or Germany.  But each of those results is at least a little optimistic.  I would not be at all shocked if we only get one point (or even zero) from this group.”  And back in the winter I was saying that we probably had a 25% chance, trying to make a fair assessment, but in my heart I couldn’t even really get myself to believe it. I was sure we’d get bludgeoned in at least one of these games. But in the end: beat Ghana, draw Portugal, lose to Germany by a small margin turned out to be exactly what happened.

And to have done all this having lost Altidore after 20 minutes, having Bradley playing at the bottom of his expected range of quality, with the obvious tired legs they displayed today after a grueling schedule, against these three excellent teams…it’s a really proud moment for US Soccer.

They have shown (against my own expectations) that we deserve to be talked about as a legitimate second-grade ‘power’ of global football. We are tough to beat, can hang in there with anyone, and when we play up to our potential, can beat anyone. And that’s with a group of players who weren’t particularly highly thought-of going into the tournament.

First on that list is Kyle Beckerman, who I pooh-poohed, but who has been absolutely huge for us.  And his performance in the holding role has freed up Jones – who has been the best player on the team over these three games.  It’s really stunning to see him play so excellently.  Fabian Johnson has been a revelation. I have been high on him for awhile but he’s arguably been our most important attacking player so far.  Beasley has held out stubbornly against all odds (and quite a few held breaths). And I’ve loved seeing Yedlin off the bench.

One thing that’s becoming more and more clear: MLS is a quality league.  It’s not La Liga or Serie A or anything, but the guys from MLS have looked perfectly capable of playing at the top level.  Even five or six years ago, I was still pretty dismissive of the quality in our domestic league, but I’m really coming around.  It’s pretty exciting.

United States 0 – 1 Germany
Portugal 2 – 1 Ghana

I know some people feel like losing today somehow cheapens the fact of advancing. But I don’t see it that way at all.  Losing 1-0 to one of the best teams in the world is a perfectly fine result.  We did the hard work in the first two games. This one was about keeping ourselves in a position to respond to events.  If Ghana had taken a lead at some point, you can bet the US would have attacked more aggressively and looked for an equalizer.  But attacking too much can leave you exposed. We saw what Germany did to Portugal. The goal was to avoid that risk, unless it became necessary.  Stifle the game, protect ourselves from getting battered, and prevent the extra freshness of the German players (who had an extra day to recover and a less intense climate in their last game…and who are probably just better athletes in general) from overrunning us.

It wasn’t pretty, exactly, but it wasn’t nearly as desperate as they were for most of the Ghana game.  This was a more composed effort.  And while it petered out quite a bit in the final third of the game, they had enough left in them to challenge for a draw right ‘til the end.  But frankly, once Portugal re-took the lead in the other game, it didn’t make much sense to push too hard.  We were going to finish second either way so the only real risk was giving up a couple late goals, ruining our goal differential, and suddenly letting Portugal back into things.  It was a good plan from Klinsman and was well-executed by the team.

Notable performances: Tim Howard remains excellent.  He made a couple nice saves but was really excellent in controlling the box.  He came out for quite a few crosses and through balls, and did a fantastic job organizing the defense in front of him.  He’s not quite at the level of Neuer or Courtois and a few others, but I think there’s a very solid argument for him being among the best 10-15 keepers in the world.  Bradley was somewhere in between the first two games. Still having trouble with his first touch, but more composed than against Ghana.  He was fine tonight.  Not good.  If we’re going to beat Belgium, though, we’re really going to need a top-level performance from him. And from Jones who was excellent once again today, apart from his tendency to keep running into people (the ref, other US players). Then there’s Gonzalez, who started at center back, in for Cameron, in a move that I don’t really understand. He managed fine (a couple scary moments, a couple nice ones, mostly pretty solid), but I am terrified about him getting any more minutes for this team.  I really hope that this decision was a matter of Cameron being particularly exhausted from the previous game and dragging a bit in training. Because from what I’ve seen, he’s a clear step better (and more experienced) than Gonzalez.  I hope he’ll be back for the next game.  Notable in a bad way was Brad Davis. Or rather: totally un-notable.  I have no idea why he started today.  He provides very little defensively and was at fault for a great deal of the early pressure. And if he touched the ball in any useful way more than two or three times the whole day, I sure didn’t see it.  Rotating Bedoya made some sense, I think. But I sure would have liked to see…well…just about anyone else.  Diskerud perhaps?

I mostly focused on the US game and took glances at the other one, up until the final 20 minutes when I reversed my attention.  So I can’t speak too much about that one, except to say that it seemed frantic, very very open, and lacking in a bit of quality.  Which is to say: pretty fun for a neutral but nerve-wracking for a US fan who just wanted it to remain 0-0 the whole day.

South Korea 0 – 1 Belgium
Algeria 1 – 1 Russia

Algeria are through!  Their game was reasonably exciting, with a lot of attacking from both sides, though Russia never quite seemed comfortable in their counter-attacking role.  A draw seemed just about the right result, and I won’t be shedding any tears about Russia getting summarily dumped out of things.

The other game was terrible.  Belgium went down to 10 men just before halftime, which seemed to make no discernable difference.  They were the better team, I guess, but mostly only because South Korea once again seemed pretty helpless.  They created just enough to have possibly nicked a win here but can’t really have much to complain about.

This was a truly rotten tournament for Asian teams, by the way.  All together, they got 3 points from 12 matches, by far the worst ratio of any confederation. They were outscored by 16 goals, again the worst of any confederation. Australia gave it a go in two or their games, and Iran was excellent against Argentina.  But other than that, these teams brought very very little. For example, both South Korea and Japan faced opponents that were reduced to 10 men before halftime.  In those 90+ minutes, they scored zero goals while conceding one.  That’s…well, it’s not very good.

While we’re on the subject, here’s the confederation table, by goal difference and average points:
CONMEBOL – 6.8  +17
UEFA – 4.7  +10
CONCACAF – 4.5  -1
CAF – 2.4  -10
AFC – 0.75  -16

80% of teams from the Americas advance.  33% of teams from the rest of the world do.  Maybe there is a significant home continent advantage after all.

I’ll post tomorrow with my predictions and commentary for the Round of 16.

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World cup day 14 – Argentina and France top weak groups

Nigeria 2 – 3 Argentina
Bosnia and Herzegovina 3 – 1 Iran

Messi was at it again, scoring two more goals and playing much better outside of the goals as well.  Argentina still have a lot of questions to answer—having conceded two very sloppy goals here.  But their attacking play certainly looked better this time around.  Though some of that was likely to do with the circumstances. Nigeria knew fairly early on that Iran was trailing, and that they were likely safe even if they lost.  Which gave the game a casualness that was quite fun.  Messi and Eneyeama in the Nigerian goal were particularly playful with each other

In the other game, Bosnia quite comfortably dispatched Iran, who looked a lot more ragged than in their first two efforts.  Part of that is just natural regression—it’s virtually impossible to consistently play as perfectly as a unit as they did against Argentina—and part of it is the fact that they needed to WIN the game to advance.  Especially once Bosnia went ahead, Iran were forced to push further up the field which made their shape a lot harder to hold.

I feel bad for Bosnia, who were quite good in their first and third games and had a goal unjustly disallowed in the second. If that goal had stood, they’d very likely be the ones advancing right now

Honduras 0 – 3 Switzerland
Ecuador 0 – 0 France

An anticlimactic end to a group that brought very few surprises.  France created a lot of chances but couldn’t score any of them.  They certainly weren’t terrible, so I wouldn’t read too much into this one.  Especially since they had already basically wrapped up first place, making this almost a completely meaningless game for them.  On the other side, Honduras put on a serious clinic in how to avoid scoring. Pretty much any way you can imagine, they did it.  Misguided headers, shots pulled just wide, shots barely over the bar, forcing saves, unmarked people in the box who couldn’t be picked out, hilariously obvious penalties not being called.  Switzerland were not at ALL impressive, scoreline be damned.  Though Shaqiri’s first goal was pretty tasty.

This all means that France and Argentina are going to have to really like their chances against Nigeria and Switzerland.

Predictions for tomorrow:

  • Portugal 2 – 2 Ghana
  • United States 0 – 1 Germany
  • South Korea 1 – 3 Belgium
  • Algeria 1 – 2 Russia

Well, here it is.  I still am convinced that Portugal is a pretty good team, and they will really need to go for it here.  Both teams, actually, are going to really want goals.  A draw helps neither of them, and a high scoring win is particularly helpful for both.  If Ghana wins by only one goal, then goals-scored might well become the next tiebreaker for them and the US.  And Portugal need to ratchet back a 5 goal margin in goal difference.  So 2-2 might even be underestimating things.

At this point, I just have no idea what to predict from the US games. A cagey 1-1 draw that would suit both teams seems quite possible (or even a 0-0 draw).  A 5-0 demolition by Germany seems possible. A 4-3 victory seems possible. Who the heck knows? But I’m predicting a 1-0 because (as I’ve said) my presumption is always that Germany will somehow find a way to win.  And I think they’ll both set out to play conservatively.

In the other group, I see an easy win for Belgium and a grueling, awful, soul-crushing win from Russia. Because that’s just how these things go.

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World cup day 13 – Uruguay add a bit of bite to the tournament

A miserable day of football, to be honest.  The quality of play was pretty low, two very unpleasant teams advance, and the palate-cleanser of Colombia is nowhere close to enough to overwhelm the horribleness that is Luis Suarez.

Italy 0 – 1 Uruguay
Costa Rica 0 – 0 England

I commented to someone around 55 minutes into Italy-Uruguay: “Any sort of injustice could happen in this game and it wouldn’t really bother me. A phantom goal, a red for no reason, whatever. My only regret is that both teams can’t lose in horrible ways.” That’s how bad it was. But I had forgotten who was playing, and that my normal scale of ‘injustice’ simply wasn’t calibrated for the insanity that one Luis Suarez was ready to unleash.

It almost seemed like he had gotten ahold of his issues. I mean, he hadn’t bitten anyone or used racist insults in over a year! But I think it’s clear that there’s something pathological here. In an elimination game, with roughly 10 minutes left, to bite your opponent…it’s just insanity. Watching it live, it wasn’t quite clear if he had actually bitten, or maybe if it was a little bit of a headbutt. But the replays after make it very clear—as do the teeth marks on Chiellini’s shoulder—what happened. I have to imagine that was his last game in this tournament, and might well be his last game in the World Cup ever.  Then again, it’s FIFA so who knows what they’ll actually do.  But a 15 game ban seems like the bare minimum at this point.  Incredibly talented player, total lunatic on the field.

As for Italy, I mostly stick by my comment quoted above. They were truly dreadful today, and it’s hard for me to muster all that much sympathy for them. They showed up for a draw and did their best to stifle the game, made the absolute most out of every challenge, and generally played in a fashion designed to frustrate both the opposition and the viewer. Balotelli was terrible and justifiably subbed at halftime. But Immobile wasn’t any better. Even Pirlo seemed pretty off-kilter, taking a lot of wild shots and doing very little in the way of distribution.

As far as I can tell, the other game wasn’t quite as bad but offered very little in the way of excitement either. It seemed like England had the better opportunities, but a 0-0 sounds about right. I saw one very good chance missed by Sturridge but not a whole lot else. Honestly, I feel bad for England who actually played reasonably well. Unlike Uruguay who was pretty much awful for all three games but is somehow going through.

Oh, and by far the best player for Uruguay today: Godin. Who should have missed this game for the red card he ought to have received in the last game. That one terrible decision basically determined this group. I hope that ref is ashamed of himself.

Japan 1 – 4 Colombia
Greece 1 – 1 Ivory Coast

Well, that was unexpected. At around the 80th minute, my predictions for both these games was spot-on. Colombia were beating Japan 2-1 though they had not been dominating. And Ivory Coast were drawing with Greece 1-1, in a fairly even game. Then, Colombia knocked in several more goals (including an absolute beauty from James Rodriguez) as Japan fell apart. And Greece won a penalty well into stoppage time, winning them the game and advancing them to the next round.

Once again, I only watched the first match with limited attention, but Japan seemed to be a lot better than in their first two games. It only really got away from them at the end as they were chasing the game, needing several goals to stay alive. And you don’t want to have to chase against Colombia who attack with pace and power on the counter.

But I did watch the Ivory Coast-Greece game pretty closely. And while it has to have been truly heartbreaking for them to lose their chance to play in the knockout rounds, I can’t really say it was an undeserved result. Greece were the better team on the day, hit the crossbar several times, and actually played quite well. And Ivory Coast just could never get their attack to click. They dominated large stretches of the game in the middle of the pitch, but ended up giving away possession cheaply or taking weak shots rather than picking out the open man.

So, I certainly feel bad, and very much lament that Greece, of all teams, has advanced (ugh). But it might just be the fairest possible result out of what turned out to be a pretty weak group.

And now, Costa Rica will play Greece in one of the least-anticipated, least-expected knockout games of recent memory. And the Dutch will be that much happier to have won their group and have that game looming on their horizon for the quarterfinals if they can dispatch Mexico.

Predictions for tomorrow:

  • Nigeria 1 – 2 Argentina
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina 1 – 1 Iran
  • Honduras 1 – 2 Switzerland
  • Ecuador 1 – 3 France

Can’t say I’m all that excited about any of these games to be honest. Argentina and France are already through and will both very likely win their group. If Iran can win their game, that might generate a bit of tension in that group. But otherwise, Nigeria could lose and still go through. I can’t say I’m very exited to watch Honduras again, but Switzerland will need to get a result against them if they want to advance, so I suppose that’s the one the watch. France might make a mess of things against Ecuador but it doesn’t seem particularly likely.

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World cup day 12 – Mexico advance, Spain recover a little bit of dignity

Only one game today with real drama in it, but it ended up being a pretty good one.  Mexico booked their ticket for the knockout rounds with a stirring performance. And as much as I like this Croatia team and hoped they would advance, I’m happy to see our neighbors to the south moving on.  And I will certainly be rooting for them to wipe that smirk off of Robben’s face.

Australia 0 – 3 Spain
Netherlands 2 – 0 Chile

I half-watched both of these games which, as always, means that I didn’t get a good sense of what happened in either. The Spanish game mostly reiterated what I’ve been saying. They had a terrible 40 minutes against Holland, a mediocre game against Chile, and are on the down side of their cycle. But this is still an incredibly talented squad, and they dispatched Australia with quite a bit more ease than either of the other teams in the group. Obviously you can’t draw too many conclusions from a dead-rubber game, but I think the new generation of Spanish players is going to do just fine in the years to come.

The other game seemed quite dull, though again that might only be because I wasn’t devoting my full attention to it. Still: no shots on goal at all in the first half and only a handful in the second. Chile seemed to really miss Vidal, but if they’re worried about his fitness (and his yellow card situation) I think resting him here was a good call. No one WANTS to face Brazil in the first round, but having your best lineup is probably more important than going all out to win this game once you’ve already qualified. The Dutch looked fine, though not particularly exciting. Obviously, no one is going to want to play them while Robben and Van Persie are clicking this well (and they’ve got a reasonably easy route in the first couple knockout rounds), so you’d have to make them a strong bet to make the semifinals. I mean, apart from that one half against Spain this team hasn’t impressed me THAT much, but they’ve beaten everyone put in front of them and done so with some decent style. And every team in this tournament has some serious flaws.

Cameroon 1 – 4 Brazil
Croatia 1 – 3 Mexico

I mostly watched Croatia-Mexico and gave a few looks to Brazil. From what I could tell, they once again failed to impress and were flattered by the 4-1 scoreline. The defense looked quite weak, with a number of serious chances for a not particularly great Cameroon. But, again, whoever wins this tournament will necessarily be a team with flaws. So there’s absolutely no reason that could be Brazil.

Mexico deserved their win. For the first 60 minutes, it was pretty even. Croatia generally had a lot more of the ball, and produced the more organized and developed chances. But Mexico was repeatedly threatening on the break, and the Croatian backline looked a bit ragged. For the final 30 minutes it was all Mexico. They had a number of decent chances, a couple questionable refereeing decisions go against them that could have opened things up (including a penalty shout that lots of people seem to think was stone cold but I’m actually not at all sure about), and eventually got the goal that really put Croatia under pressure (a draw was enough to get Mexico through). As they pressed forward more, their already-stressed defense cracked and let in some more.

I feel bad for Croatia who played excellently in five of their six halves but got screwed by the ref against Brazil and got knocked out needing to chase the game today. Still, what really killed them more than anything is Mexico playing up to their potential. If the Mexico of the qualifying campaign had shown up, Croatia would have easily advanced.

Predictions for tomorrow:

  • Italy 1 – 2 Uruguay
  • Costa Rica 1 – 2 England
  • Japan 1 – 2 Colombia
  • Greece 1 – 1 Ivory Coast

I think Italy is the better team, but this Uruguay team just refuses to die. I can’t really justify it, but I’m predicting another questionable victory that puts them through to the knockout round. Speaking of things I can’t justify, I’m once again predicting a good result for England. But I think they’ve played well and will do even better now that the pressure is off.

For the other group, I think Colombia beats Japan because I am quite a bit less enthusiastic about this Japan team than I was a few weeks ago. And I think Greece scrapes a draw that doesn’t really do them any good, but allows them to exit the tournament with their heads held high.

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World Cup day 11 – the agony and the ecstasy

A moment of madness from Geoff Cameron. A moment of pure beauty from Jermaine Jones.  A game for the ages, that had the US just seconds away from a truly stunning victory and entrance into the knockout stages, torn away from us in the end. For all the pain of losing the victory at the end, this was a truly stupendous day of soccer.

Belgium 1 – 0 Russia

This game happened. I watched it. Both teams were pretty dull. Belgium woke up with about 10 minutes left and made a couple lively attacks. One of them produced a goal. Belgium has many good players but sure hasn’t looked very good yet.

South Korea 2 – 4 Algeria

Wow! I only watched the first half of this game since I spent the second half on the train to the city so I could watch the US game. But the part I saw was excellent. Algeria absolutely ran roughshod over South Korea, who looked desperately bad. But it sounds like they pulled things together a bit in the second half and salvaged some of their dignity, if not a result. Looking forward to watching that second half at some point.

United States 2 – 2 Portugal

This was a genuinely excellent performance from the US. The best I can remember seeing them play in a World Cup match, probably since 2002. As has become depressingly common, they conceded a stupid early goal and had to spend a significant portion of the game fighting back. But they did so, and quite well. The key to the gam was the right side, where Fabian Johnson was once again excellent and gave absolute fits to the makeshift Portuguese defense. Because Ronaldo was only nominally playing on the left anyway, and didn’t seem interested in defending regardless, there was very little need for Johnson to stay back. Especially since Jones (who was also excellent for a second straight game) was deputized to fold in behind him when necessary.

This was all helped by a very strong midfield performance from Bradley and Beckerman. Beckerman has really been a revelation to me. I’ve been snootily dismissive of him in the past because he has a limited skillset. But he sure does get everything out of those skills he can. He was tremendously good at closing off Portugal’s passing in the midfield. With Bradley as two holding players, there was a ton of cover for the center backs which freed up everyone else to get involved in the attack.

Speaking of Bradley, I’m kind of baffled that people seem to think he was terrible. Okay, I’m not baffled; I get why. He made two costly mistakes (not scoring and giving away possession at the end to allow Portugal to equalize). But he was crucial to the US even being in place to win the game. He was the key player keeping the US afloat in the first half, exerting substantial influence in the midfield. And the fact that he was completely spent by the end is a function of the fact that he was basically playing as the second striker in a 4-4-1-1 and also playing as the second holding player in a 4-2-3-1. Which is to say: he did the work of two players today. Lots of people want to blame him for some reason, but the US doesn’t get a draw without him.

Same point re: Cameron. Yes, huge and incredibly dumb missed clearance to let in a goal. And he probably could have done better on the final goal, too. But other than that, he was superb. Very mobile, able to race out to block off attacks. Big in the air. Lots of strong tackles. Somewhat surprisingly, our center backs have been a real strength so far.

Dempsey had one of his better performances, I think. Didn’t allow himself to get isolated but also didn’t force himself back too far to try and link up. Put in more of a defensive shift than usual. And, as is his trademark, put himself into a position to score an ugly-looking goal. People tend to dismiss that skill since the actual scoring doesn’t look pretty. But it really IS a skill to be able to understand a play and place yourself in a position to pounce.

The goal from Jones…simply beautiful. It actually was quite similar to the stunner from Messi on the previous day. At the top of the box on the corner, move inside just a little, bend it to the corner. Messi’s was more pinpoint (and had to be), but the bend Jones got on his to go around the defender was amazing.

Finally…obviously it was a gut punch to lose the three points. But going into this tournament, a win against Ghana and draw against Portugal was at the top of my hopes. They’ve done very well to put themselves in good shape. Looking forward to Germany, the success with Johnson is encouraging. The same formula is likely to be our best bet there, since left back is probably their most vulnerable point, unless they switch Lahm back (which wouldn’t totally shock me). I do worry a little bit about health. Our guys have looked wiped in both games, and the Germans will have an extra day of rest. And they didn’t have to play in Manaus. Not sure if there’s anything that can really be done about that, though, since the players likely to most need rest (Dempsey, Bradley, Jones, Beckerman) really can’t afford to be dropped.

We shall see…

Speaking of which, here’s the new qualifying situation:

  • Win or draw – we’re through no matter what.
  • Portugal/Ghana is a draw – we’re through no matter what.
  • We lose and Ghana wins – we’re through ONLY if both games have one-goal margins AND they fail to out-score us by two goals.
  • We lose and Portugal wins – we’re through as long as their margin of victory and our margin of defeat add up to 4 or less. If it’s 5, it goes to goals scored as a tiebreaker, which they will likely win since they probably just scored a bunch of goals.

Predictions for tomorrow:

  • Australia 1 – 2 Spain
  • Netherlands 1 – 1 Chile
  • Cameroon 0 – 3 Brazil
  • Croatia 1 – 1 Mexico

Who knows what version of Spain will show up. If they play to their quality, of course they’ll win. But they could completely implode. Who knows? I expect Brazil to turn up for real and tear Cameroon apart. The other two games, I see hard-fought draws, which will qualify Mexico ahead of the unlucky Croatians, and will put Chile into a round of 16 game against Brazil.

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