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Brief thoughts on today’s announcement that Jurgen Klinsmann is the new coach of American National Team…

Those who are calling this a disaster in waiting or saying this is a bad hire while citing Klinsmann’s poor coaching record at Bayern Munich (notably pretty bad) and/or minimalizing the impact he had on the German team that finished third in 2006 are missing the point of the hiring.

He has the knowledge, credibility, and personality to inspire wholesale changes to the way the game of soccer is approached in this country.  He has an attacking mindset and knows firsthand what it takes to play and succeed at the upper echelons of this game.  He also has lived and observed US Soccer for the past 12+ years and knows the strengths and weaknesses of this countries system.  Combined with his MLS experience (albeit minimal) and he has enough of a knowledge of the state of the game in the US to know what he is getting into/

In the below video he makes it clear that he recognizes the issues that plague American soccer begin with the player development system and result in a glaring deficiencies at the highest level (ie a really poor first touch).

People were calling for other big name Europeans/S Americans, but bringing in someone who didn’t understand US Soccer was a bad idea – if the change is going to be massive, you can’t rely on someone who might bolt in the middle due to frustration or a better offer.  Klinsmann (with his family settled here) seems to be committed to this cause of establishing US Soccer as something more than a pesky underdog.  It is all the better that, as a former attacking player, he relies heavily on playing attacking football.

Ultimately, only time will tell whether this is a good decision.  But you have to give credit to Sunil Gulati for finally getting his guy and (hopefully) giving him the control required to change the culture.  This country has no reason to be so far behind in this sport and I think Klinsmann sees that, it is now his challenge to do something about it.

August 10th should be as fascinating as any friendly in recent memory as the new look USMNT takes on Mexico.  Ultimately though, this cannot be a results driven experiment for the next three years; the only result that matters in that period is 2014 in Brazil.  While winning is unrealistic, they should at least be able to demonstrate a sense of style that is their own and doesn’t involve a haphazard attempt at packing the back.

 

I recently found my way to RunofPlay.com.  The site seems to be an outlet for Soccer related content from freelance writer, Brian Phillips, who has a quality writing resume (certainly light years beyond anyone on the I Fischi staff).  Visually, the site verges on perfect.  The content itself is well written, literary in style and trending more towards opinionated, blown out anecdotes than anything terribly insightful; worth a look though.

What specifically struck me in such a fashion that I had to share my opinion on the internets again is this article on the Barcelona striker, 20 year old Bojan Krkic.  A drawn out wonderment of why such a promising youngster has yet to light the world on fire.

First the facts on Mr Krkic:

  • Youngest Champion’s League appearance for Barcelona
  • Youngest player ever to score in La Liga for FCB (breaking Leo Messi’s record)
  • 2nd Youngest Goalscorer ever in the CL (by 22 days)
  • A legend holds that he scored something like 960 goals in the youth ranks (not a fact)

With such a strong resume at such a young age, it begins to make some sense that Krkic has been a popular subject of both wild speculation and pointed criticism as he has spent large stretches of this season on the bench.  Add in the the integral role he played at the end of last season (7 goals in the final 12 games of La Liga and keeping overvalued Zlatan Ibrahimavic on the bench), and it is understandable that the negative opinions have become so loud that we are now voicing them in soccer-crazed America.

However, when looked at a little closer, it becomes clear that anything calling Bojan a bust at this point is, at best, a mis-guided reaction to his prolific individual ability.

The game as a whole has recently evolved around a more withdrawn striker, making the position less of a poacher/target player and more of interchangeable forward.  The positioning and movement involved are much more complex compared to the responsibilities involved in being a target striker  (ZonalMarking.net has a breakdown on the evolution).  It is now less about individual ability/goals, and more about being creating and moving as well as finishing clinically.

In the first team of such an advanced club, Krkic cannot just rely on speed and his ability to score but must also be responsible and answer to the complicated tactics preferred by Pep Guardiola.  He has had some reported struggles on the bench as any elite professional athlete yearns to compete, but he seems to appreciate that his development has actually continued under Pep, despite the lack of minutes.

On a personal level, to even be 20 years old and the 2nd choice striker on arguably the best team in the world puts him select company:

The only other striker born in the 90s on a top 4 team of a major league (Spain, England, Italy, Germany) that is also a top-5 goal scorer on their team, the extremely mercurial Mario Balotelli.  I would say he is ahead of Balotelli at this point in time.

A lot of qualifiers there but the point is that, to be an integral member at Barcelona at his age is quite an accomplishment.

For those who suggest that based on his playing time this year (753 total minutes, 1 league start) he isn’t integral, I would suggest you observe an entire European league season.  Barcelona has been very fortunate to have their preferred starting trio of Messi, Pedro, Villa in tact for virtually the entire season.  Bojan recently got his first start based on a Pedro muscle injury and just happened to score the winner.  In total, he has scored 5 goals over the course of a season that has seen him play a total of about 8 1/3 complete games, a pretty good rate.

Phillips also questions how at a team with such a tradition of developing world-class players, they haven’t developed this prodigy better.  He seems to have missed that there is a very well defined strategy for devleoping the youth, outlined to perfection at totalbarca.com; part1 and part2.  In short though, it is not just about displaying the talent but growing into a leader of the B squad before being promoted.  (Random relevant fact, Barcelona B’s leading striker this season is 25 year old Jonathan Soriano)

Krkic spent just a year at the B level before being promoted – in similar fashion to the reigning 2-time ballon d’or winner, Lionel Messi.  Because he is not Lionel Messi though does not mean he has failed to live up to his potential, Messi is an extreme example, a rare athlete that has been graced with an ability verging on super-natural.

Bojan is a fascinating young talent, the 2nd choice striker on the best team in the world with a very promising career in front of him.   He has had to learn from observing more often than participating, and performing when called upon, both of which he seems to have done superbly.

It is absurd to say he has failed to live up to his potential because he isn’t leading the Barcelona front-line at the age of 20.  Probably the most important reason though; Barcelona is a club focused on winning titles every year, and Bojan is obviously not mature/developed enough to the point where they could compete on multiple fronts if he was the #1 striker.

Might he be sold this summer? Yes, but it could the result of a financial decision as much as a technical one.  Ideally, he would stay at Barcelona and continue his development, as he has proven a reliable replacement when called upon and is still on the road to stardom.  Plus, I would love to proven right.

Americans…

The connection from Barcelona developed talent to the American National Team isn’t quite a clear one but when it comes to the topic of potential, I think it translates well.

Specifically relevant based on the latest in the line of American’s to burst on the stage, Juan Agudelo.  Still only 18, but with 2 goals in his first 3 Senior Team appearances, it is clear that this young man has a very bright future.  However, as he continues to shine, and based on his performances in both the MLS and for the USMNT I have no doubt he will, the attention from Europe will increase.

What will follow is probably a well publicized transfer to a relatively high-profile European team, some waning attention as it turns out he won’t be immediately leading said team to a league title, and then the questioning of what happened to Juan Agudelo.

He won’t actually have failed to fulfill his potential but he will have gone from being a big fish in a tiny pond, to being a big fish in an ocean.  Whereas in America he is the only one at his age performing at that level, there are probably at least 10 Italian, 10 Spanish, 10 French, 10 Dutch, 10 British, 10 Argentinian and 10 Brazilian kids at the same level.  He will take time to adjust to the speed of the game and will undoubtedly struggle at times, whether it’s with injury or the culture or a coach that doesn’t like him.

This isn’t to say it’s the wrong move and in-fact it is a good move.  To become a top-tier team, the US needs their top talent to want the challenge of going abroad and experience alongside that the best in the world will fully display and teach what goes into being world class.

Jozy Altidore and Freddy Adu both went overseas at a very young age.  Both have had some struggles but now find themselves in positions where they are getting quality playing time on a weekly basis.

Freddy Adu specifically seems to have benefitted from increased playing time, having scored at least 2x for his latest club.  Despite being in the 2nd division in Turkey, he hasn’t given up over there and has continued to make the necessary moves to ensure he continues to get better and learn what it takes to be a professional.  Despite his struggles, he hasn’t taken the easy road and come back to the US, a lot more than can be said for the young Landon Donovan after his struggles in Germany as a 23 year old.  For anyone to count Adu out as a future piece of the USMNT is short-sighted and probably a hater.

Those players who have had the most success abroad have had it later in their careers.  The best example being Clint Dempsey.  He recently became the highest single season scoring American in the history of the EPL, 10 goals this year at the age of 28.  He dealt with being a reserve in his first season at the age of 24, only 10 appearances and a single goal, before becoming a regular starter for the past 4 seasons.

For anyone to have thought that Freddy Adu would be leading a top-tier European club at the age of 22 was over-reacting as only Americans do.  The same goes for Jozy Altidore.  The adjustment period is intense and often longer than anticipated, that does not mean that these guys should be staying in the MLS though.  To be the best, you must consistently challenge yourself against the best.

Tonight

Coming off a quality draw vs Argentina, the US prepares for their 2nd International Friendly of the current FIFA break vs Paraguay (8PM tonight – Fox Soccer Channel).  This should be a more telling example of the state of the team compared to Saturday’s draw vs Argentina.

We knew before Saturday that this team is excellent at packing the back and trying to score on the counter-attack or from a set-piece.  The US can tie anyone in the world, and because of that, every now and again there will be a crazy result like the one vs Spain in the 09 Confederations cup.  Tying these elite teams teams does not mean they are on the verge of consistently beating them.

The next step forward is to consistently beat teams that are ranked near them by FIFA; Paraguay, Ghana, Slovenia, etc.  Teams that the US struggles with because they also like to play a disruptive style and hope for success on the counter-attack.  The fact that this game is at home really means that they should win.

On Saturday, the US looked a lot better when they moved to the 4-4-2 system in the 2nd half.  Agudelo is a nice replacement for Charlie Davies (already light years ahead of Edson Buddle/Robbie Findley) and showed a good understanding with Jozy Altidore, let’s see if he get’s his first start tonight, it is deserved.

The 3 CM combo of Bradley Jr, Jones, & Edu didn’t work out so hotly as they are very similar players and don’t have the ability or understanding to pass their way out of tight areas in their own 1/3.  Subsequently they were reduced to a lot of long balls vs Argentina, and once winning the ball, Jozy just had nowhere to go with it.  I think the 2nd half combo of Edu/Bradley is the best bet.

Bradley could get a little experimental and give some time to Mikkel Diskerud, Benny Feilhaber, or Sacha Kljestan in the midfield.  Defensively you could see the young Red Bull, Tim Ream, get a start instead of Onyewu or Demerit.  Timothy Chandler probably deserves at least another 45 minutes after what was one of the most promising debuts of recent memory.

A good view from the NYTimes on suggested changes for tonight. Love the thinking.

Anyone have thoughts on any of the 1800 previous words (#ramblingconvolutedblogposts), please share, I like arguing….

5-0 & Welcome Back

This is only a quick post to celebrate Barcelona’s 5-0 victory against Real Madrid yesterday evening.  Anyone who witnessed and is a fan of the good guys would surely agree w/me, it was a brilliant display of football.  I feel dumb calling it football but calling it soccer does a disservice to the style and class with which they played.

If you didn’t see it, here are some highlights…

Real Madrid surely have a good side but they are light years behind Barcelona when it comes to on the field chemistry.  It should be mentioned that Barca are playing at a level few teams ever reach; their comfort level and overall singular understanding of how they are going to play the game makes coming away with even a single a point a tall task for any visiting team.

Lionel Messi did everything but score, unfortunately, and quieted any burgeoning debate about whether or not CR9 might have passed him by.  Little Leo certainly benefits from been ingrained in the same system, with the same core group for years now, but the performances speak for themselves.

Finally, RM have an excellent core of exciting, young players and have put together some quality performances under Mourinho, but there is ground to be made up on FCB at this moment.  It will be interesting to see if the brain-trust has the patience to get there.

Other big news this week includes our own favorite US of A learning whether or not they will get the World Cup in 2022.  Check back tomorrow to learn more about the bid, the announcement is coming on Thursday.

This has been in the works for a few days…so excuse me if it is outdated, actual work in the way…

Just about 3 days after the US pulled out only the 2nd ever injury time goal which prevented a team from going home and sent them through to the knockout stage, they were sent packing by the same team that did so in 2006. A bit of a mouthful there, you may have to read twice.

Looking back, those first 45 minutes shouldn’t have been surprising. The Algeria game ended in such spectacular fashion and was such an emotional victory that the chances of a letdown had to be pretty high. Everyone out there, with the exception of Clint Dempsey on occasion, just didn’t seem up for the game. Ghana was running circles around them, moving very effectively and maintaining an unheard of 2/3 advantage in possession.

Nobody really seemed interested in having the ball. Michael Bradley seemed tired and was not his omnipresent self we have come to expect this tournament. Maurice Edu was a good early sub by Bob, both because Ricardo Clark’s confidence had to be shattered and he was already on a yellow card in a game the US had to chase; too state the obvious, chasing with only 10 men is even harder.

It took over 30 minutes, but they did finally apply some offensive pressure late in the half. A great chance fell to Robbie Findley in the 35′, but he couldn’t keep his balance and his effort ended up being pretty lame. This was the first real moment of the tournament where I thought to myself, “oh Charlie Davies, how I miss you.” It was a glaring example of the lack of technical ability in US Soccer (More on that later).

The 2nd half saw the US start very positively. Benny Feilhaber had a chance fall to him early and his first touch might have been a bit heavy but Richard Kingson did very well to stop his flick attempt.

Some dangerous balls came through the box, the US fought back to get possession closer to the 50/50 that it needed to be, and they had Ghana looking very leaky at the back. Clint Dempsey, probably the American’s best player all night, finally got the breakthrough by winning a penalty in the 61′ minute. Donovan excuted, and the American’s were back on terms. They continued to press and looked the more likely side to get that next goal, except of course for their lack of finishing ability and the superb goalkeeping of Kingson.

Altidore had a first touch which was too heavy in the 67′ and wasted a chance. Michael Bradley got into great position in the 76′, did well to keep his shot low but it was straight at the keeper. Altidore again got so close in the 81′, one of the only times he looked himself all day, but just couldn’t get his effort on goal.

The US seemed to let off the gas towards the end of regulation and came out a little light at the beginning of extra time. Once again, a defensive lapse did them in. We like to think that defensively the US is very solid, but this is more of an effort to find false positives in the face of growing expectations on the world stage. Defensively this team was suspect all along; Onyewu not 100%, Demerit too often content to back-pedal in the face of pressure, Bocanegra just too slow or weak.

Overall, it was an emotional ride. I am glad that they went out in a fair game which can present no arguments about being shafted by FIFA (a la Mexico or England). Ghana barely deserved to win that game but they were the more opportunistic side and sometimes that’s all it takes. The margin for error in the knockout round of the World Cup is incredibly slim and the US made too many mistakes.

Players

Rather than this game alone….here are my thoughts on each one throughout the tournament. Each is accompanied by a grade as to make me feel as powerful & important as possible.

Jozy Altidore had an ok tournament. His physical stature and style allows him to be competitive at this level but US Soccer has stated that they are not here to just compete. The lack of finishing ability was a glaring weakness in this team and no player is a better example of this than he. Altidore needs to be more comfortable with the ball and more lethal in front of goal. 4 years is a long time, especially as he now returns to a completely uncertain club situation; dealing with the routine of playing professionally, fighting for his spot, and busting his ass day in and day out to improve is asking a lot of someone who has a reputation for being immature and lackadaisical. He can be the first American striker to even approach the World Class level but he has to work at it. A lot more will be expected from him in 4 years and just ticking off the days won’t get him there. C.

The other US strikers, Herculez Gomez/Edson Buddle/Robbie Findley, can all be lumped together – none are really cut out for this level. Gomez and Buddle are ok but seem to be a little unsure of themselves most of the time. Findley also doesn’t seem cut out to play at the international level. He just isn’t comfortable enough in front of goal, his chance on Saturday was clearly compromised when he lost his balance for no good reason. I would be surprised if any of them are in Brazil in four years time. D.

Landon Donovan did carry this team through the group stage. On occasion he went long periods with out having the ball but was a driving force when it did come to him; picking out good passes and getting the ball into dangerous areas. Contributing 3 huge goals from the midfield was obviously invaluable to this team, if not for him, there wouldn’t have even been that round of 16 matchup. Saturday though, he seemed to fade heavily. It was almost as if he blew his load against Algeria, considered his goals accomplished, and then totally forgot to bring it against Ghana. Advancing could have freed him from the weight of expectation and allow him to raise his game again. Instead, he seemed to shrink from the stage, even his goal celebration was unfortunately subdued. Tying that game was a huge accomplishment, celebrate like it. His career arc for the next 4 years will be very interesting to follow; he will probably go back to Europe but he cannot expect to be as fast as he is now and must develop his game to compensate. A-.

Clint Dempsey was kind of the opposite of Donovan. He was wasteful in front of goal against Algeria, kind of absent against Slovenia, but really was the only US player to show up for the whole game on Saturday. Throughout the tournament he worked his tail off. Never afraid to get himself in the mix, his overall performance was very good but another goal or two would would have been nice, if not expected. We can only dream about what might have been if Bob had been willing to start him at forward instead of having to make the in-game switch every single time. B.

Michael Bradley was the most consistent player for the US throughout this tournament. He plays box to box very well; tackling effectively, distributing accurately, and being calm with the ball at his feet. He is probably the most technically sound player on this team and for the most part wanted to have the ball. He did come out a little flat on Saturday but got into the game in the second half. He showed how dangerous he can be going forward with a huge goal against Slovenia and illustrated his maturity by not accumulating a single Yellow Card; an accomplishment for a CM with his reputation. If this team isn’t already his, it should be by the time they get through qualification for ’14. A.

Benny Feilhaber was good enough to get a lot of people wondering why he didn’t start. His experience at this level and previous national team performances really did beg for him to start in Dempsey’s midfield role and push Clint upfront to pair with Altidore. His vision, passing, and movement were all on full display every time he got into the game. His willingness to track back and be an active defender was also impressive. He actively wants the ball and is always looking up with it at his feet. He was prone to over-thinking and got caught in possession a few times though. B+.

Jose Torres only got 45 minutes of time on the field over the four games so there is not a lot to go on. However, his short performance does still show that he has a ways to go in his development. He seemed out of his depth and nervous. His normal level of confidence was not there and it was reflected in his stray passes and indecisiveness. Hopefully he can learn from the experience and continue to develop, being 22 there is a chance for him to be a part of this team for a while. D.

Ricardo Clark continued to show why many observers of the program did not think he warranted a starting role. He is tough in midfield but too often concedes possession and is not at all confident with the ball at his feet. The US had been punished by his mistakes before and it happened again on Saturday. For someone who’s job it is to protect defenders, he must minimize mistakes and play within himself. He did not do either in his 120′ out there. F.

Maurice Edu ended up getting quality playing time throughout the tournament but showed why BB was a little hesitant with that role. He is much better than Clark with the ball but can have some issues with his distribution and giveaways on occasion. He isn’t as good defensively but this should come with age. He must continue to get better, but if he can stay healthy there is promise in the midfield partnership with Michael Bradley that should carry this team to Brazil. C+.

Steve Cherundolo has been a part of 3 World Cup teams so it was nice to see him finally get to play a significant role. Throughout the group stage, he was an offensive force for this team. Causing all sorts of problems for the opposition combining down the right hand side with Landon Donovan. One of the few players in the entire tournament who was not having issues crossing the ball as well. Besides a few lapses, he was defensively sound as well. Against Ghana he did have some trouble with Ayew in the first half and couldn’t find as much space in the offensive half. Overall he should definitely go home proud, and knowing that when his chance finally came, he was up to the task. B+.

Jay Demerit gained a lot of fans in this country with his hard nosed style of play, very reminiscent of his home town Green Bay Packers. He was very physical throughout the tournament both in the air and on his feet. He covered ground well, often making tackles that allowed everyone else to get back and defend. His main area of weakness seemed to be a willingness to back-pedal too far/not step up fast enough…the best example being his refusal to challenge Kevin Prince-Boateng earlier on his first half goal. His story is awesome though and you must appreciate the fact that he even made it to this level. B.

Carlos Bocanegra is an interesting player to evaluate b/c he occupied two different roles. On the left side, he was kind of playing as a more 3rd CB, allowing Cherundolo to get forward often. However, he did have numerous issues with speed on the outside. Speed on the outside is a popular trait and it is hard for a slower outside back to compensate for a lack of it. He did okay though and didn’t make any glaring mistakes. His move to the center of defense saw him get a lot more comfortable and he stepped up with a very good performance against Algeria. Through 90+ minutes against Ghana he was very good too, positioning himself well. Of course, this is the nature of the position, the glaring error he made was the one which lost the game. His former club teammate, Asamoah Gyan made him look like a child when he out-muscled him and put himself in position for that goal. B-.

Oguchi Onyewu was clearly not 100% for this tournament so to grade him is a little unfair. While he might have been fine physically, mentally he was clearly not up to speed. Going back to AC Milan could be an excellent move for him if he can get on the field. The club has a history of developing world class defenders, ‘Gooch developing to that level would be a massive boost for the American defense. D.

Count me among the Jonathan Bornstein doubters prior to this tournament. I actively hoped he would not get a chance to make a glaring mistake and so I was worried when he got the start vs Algeria. However, he was quite good on that day and even better against Ghana. One of the few players to show up for the first half, he was constantly making positive runs and seeking out the ball. His touch still lets him down occasionally which can be frustrating, and he is not the prettiest player out there, but Bradley’s faith in him has finally paid off. Probably the LB for the next four years. B+.

Finally we get to Tim Howard. Often a rock in the back of this team, his performance was not consistent enough throughout this tournament. He was brilliant against England, had a good 2nd half against Slovenia, and was a key contributor to that key goal against Algeria. However, the first half against Slovenia saw him get caught on an early goal and there has been a lot of talk about how he might have done better against Ghana. He was subject to two excellent finishes over the weekend but it is only because of his past performances that we think he could have done better. The US has always lived and died with brilliant goal keeping; Howard didn’t quite get to that level and now we are all reduced to rooting for other teams. B-.

Coaching

Bob Bradley has had a good run as the coach of this team. He won the important Gold Cup in 2007 to earn a spot in last years Confederations Cup, which he took advantage of with a huge US victory over Spain in the semi-final. He took what was mostly a B team to the Gold Cup final last summer before getting smoked by the Mexican A side. He got out of the group stage, the main goal, in this years World Cup. USSF President Sunil Gulati seems to disagree, he apparently expected more but at least getting to that point was an important step.

He got an unprecedented number of players capped and made sure that the squad he took to South Africa was full of the best options he had. He has navigated the US through CONCACAF qualifying successfully and established them as at least equal to Mexico in this region. He has shown the ability to prepare the US to compete with and even beat a few of those teams which can truly be considered world class.

However, there is a huge gap between CONCACAF qualifying and playing England/Spain/Brazil to a tie. There is a whole level of teams that rank in the neighborhood of the US which the US continues to have trouble with. There seems to be a level of entitlement when they come up against Ghana/Slovenia/Algeria, where unless their back is against the wall they aren’t prepared to win, and this is where the real issue is.

They can beat most CONCACAF teams purely based on talent and they can tie powerful teams purely through being defensive/well organized and counter-attacking effectively; not easy to do but also not exactly revolutionary. Coming up against equally talented opposition, of which there is a massive amount, is when it comes down to tactical decisions. This is where Bob Bradley is truly lacking.

Teams at the US’s level are very similar to the US, they are not going to open themselves up to the counter attack often enough for the American’s to be able to rely on it as the only tactic. The US has looked lost at times when they aren’t asked to just defend stoutly out or attack all out. Players don’t seem comfortable having the ball in the midfield, often don’t call for the ball nor distribute effectively. There isn’t a willingness (and possibly ability) to play simple passes in small areas and patiently force the defense to move around and exploit the gaps that open.  Movement is often very linear and direct, lacking any general ability to hold possession and use the space a team opens up.

Now, I am not saying that the US should go out and knock the ball around like Spain or Brazil does. American’s just cannot match the talent level of teams like that, and therefore cannot truly play a style like that. But there has to be a level of confidence in your ability to use the ball to your advantage, allowing the game to be played effectively from a draw.

If this is a result of the lack of ability from the players out there, then that is one thing.  However, if that were the case then the US wouldn’t rank in the top 20 teams in the world.

IF it was up to me, Bradley would continue as the coach of this team for the time being. Next summer’s Gold Cup is an important test of where they stand moving forward. It is a CONCACAF tournament and should be his sweet spot. If he cannot win that, then I think it is time to reevaluate with 3 full years remaining until Brazil 2014.

A POLL!!!

Thought this might be fun to try…

Overall

I am going to post something more about soccer in America, but probably after the tournament…when we can see the full viewing patterns.

I also want to talk about what I see as flaws of American soccer and what is keeping us from being realistically in the hunt for a semi final berth.

Et al

Paul Gardner takes a very critical look at the team and Bob Bradley

Jeff Carlisle from ESPN on what we learned about US Soccer

George Vecsey on the entire tournament run

Joe Posnanski on the American’s struggle to “make plays”

Steve Davis on the learning experience of a tournament like this

US Players mull what might have been and return to their respective homes

Sunil Gulati says, FAIL

Statistical evidence that Michael Bradley is indeed, sick

The US was about 3 minutes from going home disappointed, but here I am, 2 days later, writing another preview post.  It’s a good thing.

What that injury time goal did for this team is almost unbelievable.  They went from the brink of disappointing elimination to sitting in an very manageable corner of the bracket.

England’s quadrant; a round of 16 matchup with Germany, possibly followed by the winner of Mexico/Argentina.

America’s quadrant; a round of 16 matchup with Ghana, possibly followed by the winner of Uruguay/S Korea.

Not to say it will be easy, any team still alive will have confidence in their ability and belief that they can beat anyone, especially the Americans.

We should also thank Wayne Rooney for hitting the post, another goal from the Brits would have put the US in 2nd (and that other quadrant) based on goal differential.

A miracle of Youtube before we move on….a great video compilation of reactions from around the World:

Thank you Robby Donoho, Purdue – class of 2010.

The one disadvantage to winning the group (for the first time since it was a 16 team tournament in 1930) is that the team got only 2 full days off prior to having to play again.  Ghana is in the same situation though and this is where the American’s fitness advantage could really benefit them.  Both teams will surely be amped up for the game itself but things could really open up around minute 70-75 when the reality of playing two games so close together will set in.

The story of Ghana’s World Cup so far has been their trouble scoring from the run of play.  Their 2 goals have both come from the penalty spot and many consider them lucky to have moved on.  This is an interesting fact but it is a moot point now; if the US takes this lightly (which I doubt) they will be disappointed.

Everything changes in the knockout round; the top quality teams have the pressure associated with not advancing removed, while surprise teams are playing with nothing to lose and a subsequent lack of inhibition.  My guess is that Ghana falls into the 2nd group and will only be further boosted by being the only African team left.  You can be sure there will be a lot of American’s in the stands tomorrow, but they will be greatly outnumbered by the number of African’s supporting Ghana.  They are the home team now, the US the enemy, win or go home.

These teams are slightly familiar with each other.  Ghana beat the US 2-1 in their final group game of 2006 and kept the US out of the 2nd round.  Ghana went on to lose 3-0 to Brazil in the round of 16.  They are a team with a good mix of World Cup experience and youth, their European contingent is strong and used to playing at a high level.  They are fast up front, strong throughout, and will provide an athletic test for the entire American team.

Defense

After making some changes in the Algeria match, it will be interesting to see how Bob Bradley prepares his defense for this one.  Was Onyewu out b/c Bradley just decided that after 180 minutes, he wasn’t fully fit or was he being strategic and trying to save his legs in case they did advance.

Cherundolo and Demerit have their right side locked down.  Bornstein was good enough on the left side to give Bradley confidence if he does go that direction again.  Bocanegra has been exposed by speed when he was out there and seemed to be more in tempo with the game than Onyewu was in the middle.

I think the move here is to keep the lineup the same and go with the crew that was responsible for the first US WC clean sheet since 2002.

Midfield

Michael Bradley is the core of this unit.  The outside is exciting but you need strength and consistency in the middle and this kid has continued to provide it.  He is the only American in the top 100 of the Castrol World Cup rankings, and at number 48 he is above players like Javier Mascherano and Lionel Messi.  Let’s not be ridiculous, to claim he is better than either is absurd, but this should give you a good idea for the level he is playing at.  Tomorrow, however, is a new stage for him though and he must maintain the composure he has shown thus far.

BB has been unnaturally inconsistent with his son’s partner though.  Through 3 games there have been 3 different starters in that position.  I thought Edu was pretty good on Wednesday and can provide a goal scoring touch which Ricardo Clark can’t match.  Other than that though, neither has really distinguished himself.  My concern with Clark is that tomorrow will mark 2 weeks since he last played; if he takes time to get himself back up to game speed, it could cause early issues.

Donovan and Dempsey are clearly preferred on the outside of the 4 midfielder formation, the right and left respectively thus far.  They compliment each other very well.  I would like to see BB be a little more free with alternating them if they are having trouble getting good time on the ball.  He has shown a willingness to move Dempsey upfront as well, but only been when he feels the need to switch things up and push for a goal.

Pushing him up would allow for Benny Feilhaber to start.  Possibly a better option than any of the other strikers.  Feilhaber has played very well in some significant time off the bench over the last two group games.  He is a very cerebral player and during the 2nd half against Algeria he seemed to be much more on tone with his teammates than against Slovenia.

My guess is that Bradley comes out with the standard midfield setup he has used for most of the qualifying campaign (Dempsey/Clark/Edu/Donovan).  He was offensive on Wednesday b/c he had no choice, but now I would be surprised if he doesn’t revert to a more traditional setup.  Of course, his offensive approach led to a clean sheet (not a small task for this team) and it would be massively frustrating if he went traditional and allowed another early goal…knock on wood.

Attack

Neither Herculez Gomez or Edson Buddle has really demanded more time with their performances.  Gomez moved around the field very well against Algeria, did well to create space, and make dangerous runs, but at times does seem to be a bit lost out there.

Edson Buddle hasn’t had too much time but has made some good passes.  Most often though, he doesn’t seem like he wants the ball nor is he comfortable when he gets it.

Robbie Findley will probably get the nod after serving his suspension for Yellow Card accumulation.  For like the 25th time, Bradley has shown that he likes his strikers to be complimentary and you can only imagine how much he misses Charlie Davies.  Findley has been fairly positive, but really needs to be a little more patient sometimes and show a willingness to play the ball back and not force things.

Somehow getting Findley a goal would do wonderful things for his confidence.  When he finds himself with a scoring opportunity, he can’t be feeling good about it.  There is a little bit lost right now by starting a striker who is having trouble finding the net, just ask England and Emile Heskey.  Of course, if the US were to get to the point where they need a goal, Bradley has shown a willingness to insert a more natural striker…Gomez/Buddle.

Jozy Altidore is sure to start and has played very well thus far.  He has been a nightmare for defenders, continuously drawing fouls in dangerous areas because they have no other way to stop him.  He has also been very good at not losing his cool or getting impatient.  For his own sake, I hope a goal comes, but either way, he must keep his cool tomorrow.  Another yellow card means he will miss the following game if, god willing, they advance.

Overall

Vegas/UK oddsmakers have the US at about +135 to win, the favorites compared to +200 for Ghana.  Stating the obvious, but we aren’t the only ones who think this is a winnable game.  However, just b/c it is winnable doesn’t mean that by showing up they will win, Ghana will come to play and play for the all of Africa (a massive continent if you haven’t noticed).

Keeping things tidy in the first 20 minutes is imperative.  After that the flow of the game should establish itself.  I expect possession to stay fairly even which should give the US plenty of chances to cause trouble in the box.  Good service from Cherundolo and give-n-gos with Michael Bradley have been the impetus for a lot of chances through the first three games and can really put the pressure on the Black Stars defense.

Despite the stress this team has caused through the group stage, I have complete faith in Bob Bradley and the staff to have them both mentally and physically prepared.  A two day turnaround isn’t easy, especially after such an emotional win, but this is a resilient bunch and if they play their game they have an excellent chance to continue this run.

Et al

My dude, Joe Posnanski with a great blog post on the US team.  I think his description of Donovan’s goal as the most emotional goal in US Soccer history is the most accurate one so far.

This is a little random, so excuse me, but….

We are about 30 minutes from the final group games.

Honduras v Switzerland and Spain v Chile.  3 of the four have a chance to advance so it will be an entertaining set.

I did make a few statements about TV ratings last week.  I was slightly offbase as the records were only in reference to soccer on ESPN.  To clarify…

The US v England game drew 12.9MM viewers on ABC and I expect tomorrow could go over 15MM.  This doesn’t even include the countless people who will be in bars and at friends houses.  Some more in depth viewership numbers:

Richard Sandomir of the NYTimes

ESPN.com focuses on the digital records

Getting back to tomorrow’s game…

Grant Wahl and his things to watch for

US press conference coverage from Goal.com

Jeff Klein details their path to the semi-finals (a little forward thinking for my taste but no one can help it, see above).

Jeff Carlisle from the WWL on Bob, the Defense, and complacency.

Grant Wahl (again) discussing his conversation with Bill Clinton on Soccer and the World Cup.

Is everyone pumped for tomorrow?  What do you think will unfold?

US v Algeria Reaction

Um WOW. Landon – fucking – Donovan.

If there was going to be someone to score that goal and rescue US Soccer, it is very appropriate for it to be Mr. Donovan. The public face of US Soccer, all the positives and negatives, for the past 8 years has now scored two of the biggest goals in US Soccer’s modern era. His impact on the sport in this country will not be fully known for years.

You could argue that this was the biggest based purely on the fact that the pressure was on the US to advance, it was expected. They had to score and after countless close calls, it was only fitting that it fell to Landon Donovan to finish. The 2002 Round of 16 was basically being played with house money, there was little pressure. Here he had to perform and did, bravo.

Rather than continuing my self serving hyperbole, here he is to do it proper justice….

Offensively, this team is his. He disappeared for long pieces of this game, providing a few moments of quality when he did get the ball. It can be very difficult for someone like him who relies on speed to find space and make an impact when facing a team like Algeria which was so content to sit back and absorb attack after attack. Kudos to him for not getting impatient, and keeping his cool when the chance did fall to him.

I have said this team will live and die with him; today it lived.

Moving onto some other players….in order of performance….

Michael Bradley continues to play well beyond what you expect from a normal 22 year old. He is constantly looking up with the ball at his feet, making quality passes, strong tackles, and is quite aware of all that is going on around him. Made some excellent passes around the area, including an excellent through ball to Altidore which led to Dempsey’s effort off the post. At times did seem to get a little impatient with a few passes but this is excusable; he is nothing if not emotional and seemed to get a little lost in the moment, trying to force the issue (nitpicking though). Did very well to keep his free kick effort on goal, but why was no one crashing the net?

Steve Cherundolo was kind of a forgotten presence for the US heading into this tournament; injury troubles over the past few years have kept him out of National Team duty. He has been an offensive force down the right hand side though. Combining very well with Landon Donovan and providing excellent service into the box. As a RB, it is even more impressive that all of this has not come at the expense of any of his defensive duties.

Tim Howard was only called into action a few times and should obviously be thankful for his post. When he was called though, he did very well. His positioning on the header in the 91′ minute was excellent and he turned it into a beautiful long throw to Donovan. A lot of the credit on that goal has to be given to him as exploiting the minimal players that Algeria had in the back is what allowed Donovan to end up with that sitter.

Carlos Bocanegra’s move to the middle was great and I am going to mention him alongside Jay Demerit, who has been very consistent in the middle through the 3 games. Bocanegra is obviously more comfortable in the middle and was very good back there this morning. Demerit did flub the cross that led to Algeria’s early chance, but after that he did very well to clean up everything that came his way.

The insertion of Benny Feilhaber in the 2nd was an excellent move by Bradley. He was energetic and creative throughout the 45 minutes. Did very well to pressure the ball and win possession back. His passing was also expectedly crisp and accurate.

I doubted the instertion of Jonathan Bornstein this AM; he is athletic but can be a liability defensively. However, he showed he was up for the task. Making some positive runs and defending patiently and solidly. His service could use a little work but this will come with time.

I loved the insertion of Maurice Edu in the middle, it is a very thankless position on this team. He forced a few long balls but his technical ability on the ball is much better than Ricard Clark’s. He does seem to get a little lazy tracking back at times, whereas Clark relishes his defensive duties. It will be interesting to see which way BB goes on Saturday but it is a positive sign that he is willing to consider both.

Clint Dempsey was uncharacteristically wasteful in front of goal today and would have dreamed about his chance in the 57′ for years to come. Luckily his boy bailed him out.

Herculez Gomez did well to find space in front of the goal in the first half but was wasteful as well. Considering his trademark is finishing ability, it was disapointing to see to him miss a few times. He did keep his shots on target which is a positive but BB’s decision to remove him was good. The team needed goals and mixing it up was the right thing to do.

Edson Buddle had some good touches after he got in the flow and calmed down. Held the ball well but didn’t have a huge impact on the game.

UPDATE: Somehow I forgot Jozy Altidore; he had a good game holding the ball and distributing very well.  Missed a good chance in the first half but made up for it with his involvement in the winner.  Defenders continue to want nothing to do with him, evidenced by the continued hacking he gets.  It must be frustrating from his point of view, but kudos for keeping his cool and playing his game, causing all sorts of problems.

Overall

I was so close to having to react in a negative way to this game and tournament. Let’s all be thankful it turned out how it did, we get to keep following this team, and we get spared the endless complaining about referees. Yes, some decisions went against them but these are the breaks of the games, as a friend of mine says, sometimes you get lucky and sometimes you get fucked but in the end the universe unfolds as it should*.

This team is quality and their ceiling has a lot to do with their faith in themselves. UPDATE: We now know the will play Ghana, a quality opponent, but one who has limped into the second round. Beatable but also a team which will have the entire African continent behind them.

Americans have responded amazingly well to this tournament. Personally, the amount of talk overheard on the street and random jerseys and overall excitement is awesome. Soccer has made it’s way into the mainstream consciousness of this nation, obviously amplified by the World Cup, but the momentum is undeniable.

US v Slovenia was the 3rd best rated soccer game ever in this country, following the Germany/Italy 2006 semi-final and the US v Germany 1/4 final from 2002. This game probably outrated that one and I would bet everything I own that Saturday’s US v Ghana matchup outrates all of them, possibly even 2x (aka 10MM+ people). During the 2006 World Cup, the US was the 8th ranked nation in viewership, you can bet this year will see it in the top 5, possibly even 3 if the US can keep this run going.

If you are still reading this, thank you. There is going to be a massive amount written about this game and what it means and how soccer is the next big thing, but you chose to read this babbling mess of a blog post, all the way through. Thank you.

My apologies if this was disjointed, it has been done mostly via ifone. Stay tuned for revisions and a collection of others later tn.

*I am not really friends with Harold and Kumar but it would be fun if I was

Others

A collection of YouTube videos from during the goal on the NYTimes goal blog.

George Vecsey really gushes about the American-ness of this team.

Jeffrey Marcus expands on the beating Altidore takes and what it does for the team.

Josh Dean at NYMag.com has an awesome, emotional response to the game.

Jack Bell and his always accurate player ratings.

Goal.com on the rise of our “Soccer Nation”

Goal.com on the impact of Landon Donovan

Apparently condom sales in S Korea went crazy after they advanced to the round of 16. Not much else to say other than, it was either being drunk and eating fried chicken or having sex.

Et al

Tomorrow is an interesting day as Italy will look to continue the new European trend of winning when they must. France obviously discounted b/c that is just a hilarious mess. Good report on that if you are into schadenfreude.

The morning presents a battle between Japan and Denmark to see who will advance to the round of 16.

That is all

US v Algeria Preview

UPDATE:  Bob Bradley has really made some significant changes for this game.  Edu starts instead of Clark.  Gomez get’s the nod of upfront.  Bocanegra moves to the middle, Cherundolo to the left, and Bornstein comes in at Right Back.  His mindset seems to be, “I know if we lose it probably means my job,  if this all backfires then so what anyway.”

Maybe not that extreme but he is putting a lot of faith in Bornstein along the back.  Please god keep his defending instincts calm and collected today.

VIVA AMERICA!!

Less than 24 hours remain until the Americans decide their World Cup fate against the Algerians.

To state the obvious, the US is focused on avoiding one of those early goals which have plagued them since qualification.  The trend has been especially disconcerting against teams to which they consider themselves superior; Honduras, El Salvador, Slovenia.

Players have said plenty about respecting Algeria but I think this team thinks things will be easy against teams ranked lower than them.  An absurd mindset, these teams might be ranked lower but they have gone to South Africa with a belief that they can win and a cockiness that comes from being professionals.  They fear few teams, definitely not including the US.  When the US starts slowly and thinks that by just playing 90 minutes they will be rewarded with a victory, they leave themselves wide open for one of those awesome kicks to the teeth.  Of course, then they get in gear, start to play with more abandon, and hit their potential.

The positive going into this game vs Algeria is that their back is already against the wall and this is when the often play best.  My hope is that they will channel that 2nd half from the Slovenia game into a full 90 minute performance.  Of course they must maintain discipline at the same time and not get caught up in frantic, unorganized play..

Algeria will provide a quality test.  They surely feel as if they could very well be on 2+ points right now, with a serious shot at advancing.  As it stands, a win tomorrow could still see them advance if things fall in their favor and they score enough.  Even though it’s a long shot, they will come to play and have shown in the previous two matches that they are a team which can’t be overlooked.

Moving on to what we can expect from the US…

Up Front

Robbie Findley must sit out tomorrow’s game after receiving his 2nd yellow card last week.  None of the replacements (Dempsey, Gomez, Buddle) bring the same kind of speed that Findlay offers but all are legitimate options to start up front.

Clint Dempsey has shown an attraction to goal throughout his career, regardless of club or country or position.  Bob Bradley has moved him upfront before when the team is in need of goals, but I think he is more comfortable with his alternate striker options than his alternate wide midfield options.

Herculez Gomez has shown a preternatural ability to score when inserted into the game.  Twice since his callup to this team he has come on as a substitute and scored.  Last Friday his sheer appearance in the game allowed the space for Bradley Jr. to tie the game.  Put simply, the man is involved in goals.  His finishing ability is among the best on this team and he is probably the most complimentary to Altidore.

Edson Buddle is the third option for Bob Bradley and would form a very tall, physical strike force alongside Jozy Altidore.  He has been finishing effectively this season and two forwards of that size and strength would make things very difficult on the Algerian defense which is not as physical as the Slovenians.

I think Bradley will go with Buddle to start but if the US finds a goal hard to come by, Gomez will be introduced somewhere around minute 60.

There is some news now that Altidore missed training today because he was sick, he is expected to play though.

Midfield

The main question mark still seems to be who will partner with Michael Bradley.  I think Ricardo Clark will get the start as he is the most defensively sound and has been BB’s preference.  He provides excellent cover for his partner’s forward runs.

If the US is finding goals difficult to come by, you could see Maurice Edu get a late entrance.  He has shown the ability to pop up and score very important goals at the club level and was oh so close to replicating for his country.

Benny Feilhaber or Stuart Holden would probably get the start on the flank opposite Donovan if Dempsey were to start as a withdrawn striker.  Holden offers some more pace and width but Feilhaber brings a level of experience which is probably more valuable.  I love Holden but inserting him into a game like this is asking a lot.

Jose Torres probably missed his chance with his uncharacteristically sloppy performance vs Slovenia.  He is young though and should at least be able to learn from this.

Defense

There have been some calls for Oguchi Onyewu to be replaced.  I see where people are coming from as he has been at least somewhat involved in all 3 conceded goals so far.

The first option for Bradley would be to straight swap him for Clarence Goodson.  An interesting prospect as Goodson is excellent on set pieces and the Donovan has been providing great service.  However, being a central defender in a game like this requires a level of calm and composure gained only with experience.  It would take a lot of faith from BB to see this happen.

The other option is to move Bocanegra into the middle where his speed isn’t as big of a liability.  This would mean putting Spector on his unnatural side or starting Jonathan Bornstein.  Spector seems to have been worn out by the long European season while Bornstein has a love for committing bad fouls, and nothing would be worse than giving up a PK tomorrow.

I think Onyewu will once again start, let’s all hope that he has gotten better with each game.

Overall

The US has to like being in a position where they control their own destiny.  A win and they accomplish their first goal, advance to the knockout round.

They must respect Algeria and what they did to get here.  Just being here is a credit to their quality and two good performances have them playing with a level of confidence that will surely make things harder than they think.

The US however is coming off a very positive draw last week and has a lot of confidence in their own ability to score.  They must, however, stay disciplined and use their advantage in fitness and will to build this game in the image they have visualized.

Et al

Apparently a few of the Algerians have packed their bags and brought them to Pretoria so they can leave right after the game.  Obviously the Algerian Federation president is not happy about that.  A good sign for the American’s but they still have to play the game.

John O’Brien (for the NYTimes) gives his own insight into the unique nature of the final group games.

Phil Ball examines to Spain’s in game response to their early loss.

Ben Lyttleton at SI.com on what we have learned up to this point.

An EPLTalk contributor chronicles the English’s penchant for underestimating opponents; can also be applied (at a lesser degree) to the Americans.

Obviously there are some other games tomorow too..

England and Slovenia will be interesting, especially as England needs to win to ensure advancement.  At least if they fail to make the 2nd round they can be assured they will still be overshadowed by the French disaster.  Little consolation though, we all know they will get roundly ripped and push the French out of everyone’s mind if they fail to advance.

The Group D finale in the afternoon is very messy.

Everyone will be looking to win as that is the only way they can hope to advance.  Germany and Ghana specifically know that a win will put them in the round of 16, no questions asked.

Serbia advances with a win or a tie and a Ghana win.

Australia needs a lot of help to advance but must at least get a win.

Essentially, it will be a very interesting afternoon of games.

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