Maradona Sceptics Vindicated – As Germany Becomes The Team To Beat

Argentina had become the darlings of the tournament. But their march through the tournament, while done in style, in retrospect failed to provide the sort of defensive and organizational test that Argentina would confront against the Germans. In the end, coaching and tactics matter. Germany had a great coah – one that was able to get his young team to play exciting organized attacking soccer as a unit. Argentina had a poor coach – one that was outdone tactically and that placed the hopes of a country on the brilliance of his individual players, instead of on the team as a unit.

Maradona tactically got it all wrong. He had put out a team built to dominate a lesser side. Playing a 4-3-3, Argentina essentially had one player in the center of the midfield – Liverpool’s Javier Maschereno. Maschereno is one of the best defensive midfielders in the game, but he is not a distributive creative central midfield player. He is the guy who plays alongside that player and wins back the ball so his team continue their attacking work. Yet Maradona had him essentially playing on his own in the central role. He was outmanned 3-1. The Germans played a 4-2-3-1 – with the impressive Schweinsteiger playing alongside another deep lying player and Mehmet Ozil roaming further up field behind Klose. Ozil in the end had a quiet game, not because he played badly, but because he became redundant, as the Germans simply marched through the central midfield in loads of space playing in wider players Podolski and Muller through. Germany’s midfield dominance was so great in the first half that they could have gone in 2 or 3 up.
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Brazil Collapses From Its Own Petulance

Brazil looked like the favorites to win the tournament, but they didn’t look like champions. Champions rally. Champions keep their composure. Champions score when they are on top. Brazil crumbled to pieces. It looked like a team that felt it was entitled to glory and looked ill-equipped to deal with adversity. Brazil had no team USA spirit. They weren’t fighters, they were performers, and when the show went bad, they pouted.

One would have thought that the Dutch would have had to play their best to Brazil. They didn’t. Poor defending in the first half gifted Brazil an early goal. Holland pushed a bit in the second half and one felt more attacking changes were imminent with Elia, Huntelaar, and Van Der Vaart. But in the end the Dutch didn’t have to make the changes. An own goal and a well worked corner by the Dutch put Brazil behind. It was fortunate, but Brazil never put the game away and one felt the Dutch also had goals in them. But when Brazil went behind – even when they went level they seemed to crumble.
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Jozy Is The Future

There has been a lot of talk about how no US strikers have scored in the last two World Cups. This is an uncomfortable stat and is a fairly solid thing to point to for why the US isn’t in the tournament. Strikers have to score and Altidore’s failure to do so is worth pointing out. But we shouldn’t go over board.

Jozy it seems to me is being treated as if he is a veteran in his prime, with the same expectations of a Donovan or a Dempsey. He is 20 years old. Repeat that. And then repeat that again.

Yes he didn’t score, but in my mind he had a very strong World Cup. he played the target role brilliantly, he scared the crap out of defenses and as a result opened up space for others to come in behind. He drew fouls, created chances, and ran at defenders. He hit the post against England, set up Bradley’s equalizer against Slovenia, and put the ball in to the box for the winning goal against Algeria. Against Ghana the importance of Altidore was evident when he was taken off before extra time. Without Jozy the US lost one of their main focal points in attack and his absence allowed the Ghanaians to focus more on Dempsey and Donovan.

It seems to have been forgotten that target strikers are often late bloomers. No one heard of Didier Drogba until he was about 25. Brian McBride didn’t settle into the premier league until his 30s. Jozy, while not scoring many goals at Hull City this year, started more games at striker than anyone else on the club and he did so as a lonely isolated holding player, where chances were few and far between. I heard some Englishmen remark that they had seen Jozy play and weren’t all that impressed – his touch would elude him, he would drift in and out of games, make the wrong run at times, or try to do too much on his own. But most of these commentators had no idea that Jozy is 20 years old. If Jozy were English, he would be hyped to be the next savior of England and would have a hugely expensive price tag. Think I am over doing it? Crap, marginal players English players like David Bentley even cost 20 million dollars!
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The Right Man For The Last Cycle – Bradley Built A Team

In a few weeks time Sunil Gulati the head of US Soccer will have to make a decision whether Bob Bradley should keep his job. The answer should probably be no, depending on who is available. But this conclusion is not based on a negative assessment of Bradley. No, in fact, it is largely due to the fact that Bradley has succeeded tremendously in building a really solid and deep team that in the biggest of games exemplified the never-say-die attitude so ingrained into the mythical notions of American character.

Back in 2006, when Bob Bradley was named coach after US fans were clamoring for Juergen Klinnsman or any other big named foreign coach the disappointment was palpable. Almost no one wanted Bradley. But the reality was Bradley was exactly the right man for the job – much more so than a foreign coach.

US soccer was undergoing a difficult transition after 06. A generation of players that included Claudio Reyna, Brian McBride, John O’Brien, and Eddie Pope had all retired, forcing Bradley to replace the spine of his squad. While other countries go through similar transitions after tournaments, rebuilding the squad in the US is a different animal than in other more developed soccer powers. For instance, in countries like Spain, England, Germany the national team coach usually plays little role in actually developing players – that is the clubs job. Instead, the national team coach selects the players that are playing the best and builds a squad to his liking. The coach’s job is therefore one of selection and one of getting these players to play well. In the US however, there is another element. The coach plays a critical role in identify and developing young talent – often before these players have really emerged. Indeed, while Europe immediately shifts gears to qualifying for the European Championships, by contrast first couple years of the World Cup cycle for the US will be about scouting new young talent and working to integrate them into the squad.
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The World Cup: As Popular In The U.S. As The World Series?

World Cup viewership during day = World Series in primetime

Yesterday, Ken pointed out that more Americans are following the World Cup than live in the United Kingdom, a great stat to refute the notion that Americans don’t care about soccer. I’d like to add to that a fun little stat from the New York Times’ Sports Business column — as many Americans watched the USA v. Ghana Round of 16 match as watched the average game in the last World Series:

For the ESPN empire and Univision, any questions about the return on their investment in the World Cup are being answered by viewers. On Saturday, the United States’ loss to Ghana was seen by 14.9 million on ABC — an American record for the tournament — and an additional 4.5 million on Univision. That’s 19.4 million viewers for a Round of 16 game on a Saturday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. Eastern — the same number that Fox averaged over six prime-time games for last year’s World Series.

In fact, “through 52 games, ESPN’s average viewership is up 58 percent to 2.86 million; Univision’s is 2.1 million, up nearly 9 percent. Figure, then, that about five million are watching the games, comparable to the N.B.A. playoffs, excluding the finals, and the Stanley Cup finals.” The American Prospect’s Tim Fernholz submits that this means soccer’s time is here:

What intricate argument can be brought against these numbers? Tom Scocca blames Fox for making baseball boring to watch, but what they’ve done — playing games at night, have a lot of commercials, etc. — have been characteristic of baseball for a long time. If you care about baseball, you’re going to watch the World Series whether or not the games are long. Why not just admit it, soccer critics: Futbol is coming of age in America.

There’s little doubt in my mind that the World Series had been made (even more) mind-numbingly boring by the demands of television, which the structure of soccer tends to confound (no stoppages, so no commercials, for instance). In the localities for the teams involved, though, I’m willing to bet that the World Series isn’t lacking for viewers.

But still, this, combined with Ken’s point from yesterday, shows that there’s a sizable U.S. audience following the tournament, despite what the soccer haters say. And that’s a great thing for the future of the sport in America.

Size matters: More Americans following the World Cup than entire population of UK

21% in US = 65 mil; or more than entire pop of UK

Andrew Sullivan, a British transplant living here in America has done an admirable job tracking the following of the World Cup here in America from a British perspective. Usually that means narrow-minded dismissal of “soccer” ever taking hold here, but Sullivan has not succumbed to that lazy analysis. He does post today, however, the chart to the right as his “Chart of the Day” without any additional comment. Visually, it appears to present a significantly negative account of support for soccer in America, with just 7% of Americans responding that they are  following the World Cup “very closely” and just another 14% saying “somewhat closely”. Those figures are overwhelmingly outnumbered by the 79% that say “not closely” or “not at all”. But looking a little deeper, that 21% in a country of 310 million people like the United States equates to 65 million Americans that are following the World Cup either very or somewhat closely, or more than the entire population of the United Kingdom.

This can be seen in TV viewership too. The ratings are in and more Americans watched the USA v Ghana game than had ever watched a men’s World Cup game featuring any team ever before. An average of 19.5 million viewers (15 million on ABC and 4.5 million on Univision) watched the US go out of the tournament in extra time, eclipsing the 1994 World Cup Final between Brazil and Italy and is only second to the 1999 Women’s World Cup Final between the USA and China. USSF President Sunil Gulati is right to lament what kind of impact another game at those viewer levels – and the guarantee of two more had the US reached the semis – would have meant for soccer in America, but these numbers are reason to celebrate as they equal the number of Brits who watched England v Germany. Size matters, and obviously the level of overall interest in soccer in the US and the UK are vastly different, but in sheer quantity its remarkable that the same number of Yanks and Brits suffered through those second round defeats.

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Assessing US World Cup Performance

The US had a successful if disappointing World Cup

The US showed some great strengths and glaring weaknesses in its four games at the 2010 World Cup, but overall this team is in position to continue its improvement before the next World Cup in Brazil in 2014. The top players performed well, young players had solid tournaments, and coach Bob Bradley showed admirable flexibility and courage. By far the most impressive feature of this US team was its ability to create scoring chances. Not only did it put in five goals but it created numerous excellent opportunities to get more.

The flip side of all those chances is the failure to convert many of them into goals, a real weakness that must be rectified if the US is going get to the next level. Of equal concern is the frailty at the back, which is a combination of lack of skill and consistency. That inconsistency plagued the whole team at times, and solving that problem will be key to stepping up to the next level. And Bradley needed to be flexible and courageous because he often got the original team selection wrong. Continue reading

USA-Ghana Post Mortem

After a tournament filled with dramatic comebacks, the US couldn’t muster that second goal that would have either won the match or sent it to penalties in extra time. Alas the US didn’t get it done. While the US had achieved its stated goal – to get out of the group – the loss to Ghana without a doubt should leave US fans unsatisfied, as the US had a real shot at making a run to the semifinals.

Overall this was a tournament that affirmed what US soccer fans had known – the USA is a nation to be taken seriously in world football. But it also demonstrated where the US must improve in order to reach the next level. Under Bradley the US fully adopted a resilient never say die attitude, but the basic fact is that in and of itself was never going to be enough to make a deep run in the World Cup. The US was going to have to show something that they have so often failed to show – consistency. Instead, once again the US failed to put together a solid 90 minute performance.

The US showed once again against Ghana that it is an incredibly resilient team, as the second half performance left Ghana rattled and left the US as looking like the likely winners. But after conceding in the extra time, the US just looked exhausted and out of ideas. They had already spent most of regulation time chasing the game, and having to chase it in extra time was just too much to ask. If the US was going to win this game, it needed to do so in the second half when it was on top. Hats should go off to Ghana. They put the US under constant pressure, created turnovers, defended strongly and looked bright going forward.
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Congratulations to our boys for earning respect of soccer world

I know its hard in the midst of such disappointment to push away those feelings and recognize that the US team accomplished a great deal in this tournament. There will be plenty of time for analysis and recriminations. The bottom line is that this team earned the respect of the soccer world. I can’t tell you how many of my British friends sent messages of support and appreciation for what this US team brought to this tournament. Yes there were embarrassing lapses at the back and yes we repeatedly failed to finish our chances, but gone are the days when the US team is considered a pushover and a US win must be down to good fortune.

No phase of the US team escaped error, from each line of players to the coach, but no other team in this tournament displayed the resiliency, confidence, and toughness to fight through mistakes that would have sent other teams to the showers far earlier than our boys went out. We were, seriously, among the revelations of the tournament. Which other team has provided a quarter of the drama of the United States so far? I know that its more intense for a supporter, but even the nuetrals have been entranced by each of the four US games. Going behind early and storming back late is hard on the nerves but great for entertainment. The cardiac kids sure did open some minds about US soccer. Continue reading

USA v Ghana: Jozy Altidore needs to score

Altidore needs to score against Ghahan

Here we go, the business end of the World Cup begins today. As we have discussed repeatedly, the US has a favorable draw but none of that matters unless it performs well and wins games. The Ghanaians are a quick side that play two holding midfielders that help clog up the middle and stiffle their opponents. The US needs to be sharp in defense and be sure to communicate and keep track of Ghana’s deep runners. The key for the US team, however, is for Jozy Altidore to turn his solid performances in the last couple of games into goals. Donovan, Dempsey, and Michael Bradley are having excellent tournaments, but for the US team to make some real noise today and beyond, Altidore must start putting the ball in the back of the net.

There are a lot of fascinating matchups in the second round – the Iberian clash of Spain v Portugal, another big European rivalry with Germany v England, a tantalizing match with lots of attacking flair in Argentina v Mexico. Don’t count out the USA v Ghana as one of the games of the round as the Ghanaians are playing for the entire continent and the Americans have provided virtually all of the drama of the group stage. American fans, lets be sure to enjoy this. We do want to win, of course, and our big players will have to show up and lead us into the quarterfinals. Continue reading