USA vs. Africa

The US for the first time in this tournament will play in a game with nothing to lose. Yes the US might be slight favorites to advance over Ghana, but even if the US team loses it will be seen as a successful World Cup in which they played well and demonstrated immense resolve. But free of the pressure of expectations, this is when the US team has historically been its most successful and most dangerous.

While the US should be care free, the Ghanaians will play representing an entire continent. As the only African team to advance out of their group, the Ghanaians have taken on the mantle of Africa’s team and they will likely be embraced as such by the South African fans. In short, the US are not going to be just taking on Ghana they are taking on Africa. But how Ghana plays under the pressure of such expectations is an open question. Despite expectations that South African crowds would lift each African team, the fact is that almost all of the African teams have been real disappointments thus far. Ghana advanced, but did so despite losing their last game and were aided by Australia’s surprise victory over Serbia.
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Postmortem: What Happened To Africa?

With just one day left in group play, I think it’s an appropriate time to ask what on Earth happened to Africa in this tournament? Unless the Ivory Coast manages to score a touchdown against North Korea tomorrow, just one African team out of six will make it through to the second round. And even that team — the U.S.’s second round opponent, Ghana — did it in thoroughly unimpressive fashion.

This was supposed to be the tournament where Africa made a real mark. Home soil, fan support, and teams that on paper looked strong all led to the impression that, while they likely wouldn’t win the thing, a few African teams would make a real run.

Theories abound for why Nigeria, Cameroon, Algeria, South Africa, and (probably) Ivory Coast will be watching the second round. They range from lack of soccer infrastructure to players having an “individual mentality rather a team mentality.”

I’d like to throw into the mix their lack of tactical acumen. And that doesn’t fall on the players shoulders, but on those of the coaches. Continue reading

USA v Ghana: What to do with Gooch?

Should Gooch stay on the bench against Ghana?

Shock and horror rang out at 9:25 am Eastern time yesterday when the USA lineup was announced and Coach Bob Bradley made the big decision to drop the struggling Oguchi Onyewu, move left back Carlos Bocanegra into the center, and fill his spot with Jonathan Bornstein. It was understandable but still brave to replace Gooch, but it was the insertion of Bornstein that caused the most dismay among American fans. The defense did not concede, but there were more early jitters and at least two moments when the US could have been punished for bad mistakes, saved once by the bar and another time by a dodgey offside flag. Ghana have only scored two goals in their first three games and both came from the penalty spot, but their attack is not lifeless and is predicated on quick transitions and runs from deep to create chances out of nothing. That favors a defense that is sharp and quick – qualities that Gooch has been lacking since his return from injury.

Gooch was clearly at fault for the second Slovenian goal and was at least implicated in the other two the US had allowed in the first two games. His decision making was both slow and faulty and he was repeatedly caught out. Those flaws are understandable as Gooch’s first full 90 minutes since October was the opener against England. In a must-win game in the group stage finale, Bradley decided he could afford no more mistakes and dropped the AC Milan defender. All credit to Bradley for making such a gutty decision. Continue reading

YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS! Donovan late goal vs Algeria puts USA through

Donovan is the hero!


Wow. It looked like we were doomed. We had another perfectly good goal disallowed. We had chance after chance that just didn’t go in. Algeria had their chances on the break, but there was only going to be one winner. And we did it. What a goal. What a game. What a World Cup. What a day for US soccer.

The play had gotten really ragged through the last ten minutes. Not just stretched but choppy.

I can’t really describe my emotions right now. Just unbelievable.

So happy for Landon Donovan. He deserves it. We deserve it.

And we won the group! Let’s see what happens in the afternoon matches, but we could be in very good shape here.

Congratulations to our boys in South Africa. Congratulations to Bob Bradley for rolling the dice. Congratulations to American soccer fans. We’ve endured a lot. We go into the next round on an unbelievable high. Let’s do this!

Winning Group C brings realistic path to semifinal

Winning Group C legitimately puts the semifinals in reach

With all the appropriate caveats about not getting ahead of ourselves and needing to focus on Algeria tomorrow, a win in that game gives the US a very good chance at topping the group and a realistic path to the semifinal. Second place in the group likely brings matchups against two of the tournament favorites. While no game in the knockout stage will be easy for the US, it’s not hard to pick which path is easier and if the US wins Group C, we can genuinely think about reaching the semis. 

I know we should move on, but because of Koman Coulibali’s shocker, the US is not in control of its own destiny to top the group. If Slovenia beat England, they are group winners. But any other result paired with a US win against Algeria will bring us bring us level on points with either the Slovenes or the English, meaning the group winner will be decided on goal difference. England look a shambles both on and off the pitch, but I still find it hard to believe that they will lose to Slovenia and place the top spot in the group out of the American’s reach. So a US win by two goals should see us top the group unless Fabio Capello’s men find it all of a sudden and hammer Slovenia. A win by one may even be enough, but we can beat Algeria by two goals. Continue reading

AF World Cup Unsubstantiated Theory of the Day: Europe the homesick?

Much has been made of the poor performances from Europe’s elite teams. The English, French, Italian, Spanish, and to a lesser extent the Germans, have all struggled thus far, leaving many to search for an explanation of why Europe struggles when the World Cup is not played on European soil. One potential theory worth considering is the Europeans aren’t used to being homesick.

We Americans tend to think of Europeans as the elite cultured type that flow seamlessly between different cultures and are comfortable traveling the world and living in different places. Yet when it comes to football, many Europeans rarely stray from their continent, or even their home countries for very long.

The English, German, Italian, and Spanish sides for instance are made up of players that almost exclusively play in their home countries. Think about it – how often have the English players spent considerable time away from England? They do play in European competitions during the season, but then they are only gone for a couple days. Some also go on short international tours with their clubs, but on these trips they play no-pressure friendlies and are free to socialize and act as tourists.
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USA v Algeria: Edu and Holden in; Donovan in free role up front

Stuart Holden should be inserted on right wing against Algeria

The joy at the second half comeback and the outrage at the mystery call that ruled out the potential winning goal now must take a back seat to fixing the problems that plagued the US in defense in the first two games and orient the side to take on Algeria in the last group game on Wednesday. Oguchi Onyewu has been exposed on the three goals, but the bigger culprit is way too much space between the two center backs and the central midfield. That problem must be solved, but the main threat from Algeria is their maurading left-sided players. Even though they are yet to score in the tournament, the US team must set up its eleven players to plug the holes from the first two games and stiffle Algeria’s attack.

All three goals the US conceded have come right through the middle of the park and resulted from way too much space between the central midfielders and the center backs. Onyewu’s positioning has been exposed on all three goals, but really only the Slovenian second was a genuine error (and what an error). On the England goal, he justifiably pushed out to mark an attacking player and opened up space behind him. On Slovenia’s first, he failed to close down a player in a similar area, perhaps still smarting from the England experience. We all know what happened for Slovenia’s second. Fortunately, this looks like rust after an eight month layoff because playing ten yards behind your line of defense thus keeping the most advanced attacking player onside is a youth soccer mistake. Let’s hope anyway. Continue reading

Breaking Down Slovenia’s Goals – part 2

This post is an assessment of the second Slovenia goal – check back later for further analysis of what we should learn from these goals. See the breakdown of the first goal here and look for another post assessing what we have learned.

The second goal scored by Slovenia was the result of a great move by Slovenia as well as complete defensive breakdown by the US that began with Michael Bradley in the midfield and ended with Oguchi Onyewu in the central defense.

Second Goal: Scored by Slovenian striker #9 Ljubiankic. US Players at fault – Oguchi Onyewu, Michael Bradley, Jay Demerit. Watch it:

Part 1: Michael Bradley Fail – Slovenia win the ball in the midfield. Donovan loses the ball in a crowded midfield in Slovenia’s half of the center circle. Michael Bradley then rashly sprints forward to attempt to win the ball back. It is a gamble, since if he fails to win the ball the US midfield and the backline will be exposed. What is so shocking, is Bradley doesn’t even make a challenge – no instead he just tamely runs by the two Slovenian players that have actually bumped into each other on the ball. In fact, my description is not harsh enough on Bradley. His effort to break up the play was naive and lackadaisical. He gets his angles all wrong, such that by the time that Bradley and the Slovenian midfielder on the ball are level with each other, the Slovenian is already a yard above Bradley and therefore away into space in the midfield. Bradley is so far out of the play as it advances he ends up being behind Donovan and Dempsey.
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Breaking Down Slovenia’s Goals (Part 1)

This post an assessment of the first goal – check back later for an analysis of the second goal and for another post assessing what we have learned.

While it was a great comeback for the USA, the two goals it gave up in the first half were the result of good play from Slovenia and absolutely shocking defending from the US. Both goals scored were not the result of just one US player – they were result of multiple defensive breakdowns, beginning with the midfield and ending with the backline.

Slovenia’s First Goal: Scored by right midfielder Birsa. US players most at fault – Oguchi Onyewu, Landon Donovan, Carlos Bocanegra, Michael Bradley/Jose Torres, Tim Howard. Watch the goal:

Part 1: The move begins. Slovenia play a ball into the channel toward their left corner flag, which Demerit rightly challenges. This however leaves him out of position and requires Steve Cherundolo to cover at the centerback position, which he does effectively. Slovenia’s #9 Ljubiankic, who recovers the ball in the corner, is forced to play the ball back. The US defensively gets organized, with only Cherundolo and Demerit out of place.
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USA Robbed: Mystery call rules out win

Ref Koman Coulibaly Robs US with "Shocking Decision"

What a game! The best match of the World Cup so far. Day 8 has brought the tournament to life and England v Algeria still have to play. But even though the second half should give the US team a great deal of confidence, a truly bizarre refereeing decision kept this game at a draw and leaves the US plenty of work to do against Algeria on Wednesday. After the US had stormed back to draw level, the Malian referee somehow saw an infraction on one of the American players just before half-time sub Maurice Edu slotted home from Landon Donovan’s perfect free kick. It has to rank as one of the most egregious  mistakes in World Cup play as it was error of commission rather than omission, he saw a foul that wasn’t there rather than missing a call. The US has been victim to poor and extremely consequential decisions in each of the last three World Cups – tough to view all of this as a coincidence. 

For the neutral, this eighth day of the World Cup must have been amazing. For the partisan, the nerves are jangling. After watching German fall flat against Serbia – helped along by some strange officiating in that game too – opening up the second round possibilities for the two teams that advance out of Group C, the US team began play as if they had never seen each other or a soccer ball before. The Slovenes had acres of space and scored two goals from what can only be described as shocking defending.  But it set up a dramatic fight back by the US in a pulsating second half that saw two goals for the US but more chances for both teams. Michael Bradley poking home from Altidore’s knock down set up a remarkable finish with the US on the front foot but still looking vulnerable in defense. Continue reading