Tag Archives: United States

FIFA and the Ministry of Truth

In the official report, that goes down as a Ronaldo-style laser into the back of the net

Let it be known that Big Brother, a.k.a. Sepp Blatter, is an idiot. That, I believe, is a commonly accepted truth.

Let it also be known that FIFA’s attempts at control in the past couple of weeks have reeked of the Ministry of Truth. First, it was decreed that there was no problem and that the referees were doing fine jobs. Now stop asking questions! Next, the Ministry decided that the stadium jumbotrons would not show replays, lest it upset the masses (or show how the referees screwed up). Although the FIFA spokesman used the word “mistake” it was not in response to on-field human error, but in response to showing replays on the big boards.

Now, however, after yelling at him a lot, Blatter has changed his mind and said that us of video technology will be reviewed. Again. So Big Brother will stick to his guns, unless Europe is affected (yes, I think that the tune has changed because England was involved; it was just Mexico and the US, Blatter would be telling us that everything is fine).

So Blatter finally removed his head from his ass. That’s good. But it doesn’t solve anything. “Reviewing” is just that: a platitude that will mollify some people for now until, sometime after the World Cup (maybe 6 or 7 months), the issue will be quietly dropped again. FIFA will not change unless it’s forced to. And the only thing that will force it to change is a colossal mistake during the final. And I, for one, am hoping that happens.

There are several easy ways to fix this without messing up the games. All referees wear microphones that, so far as I can tell, don’t actually do anything. Add a fifth referee who’s watching a video feed and is empowered to tell the referee on the field of any fouls or missed calls. Simple. For the scrums in the box on free kicks and corner kicks, add one referee behind each goal whose sole job is to watch those scrums for infractions. As a bonus, he/she can also watch the goal line. Blatter’s beloved human element is still in place, and it might even clean up the game.

Nothing is perfect and things will be missed, even with HD cameras all over the pitch. The goal is to cut down the number of ridiculous errors, the kind of game-changing errors that cost England, Mexico, and the United States (just to name three). Referees have a difficult job because the game moves at such a fast pace; therefore, FIFA should give them all the help they need, including video technology. To do anything less is idiotic. But I’d expect nothing else from Sepp Blatter.

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A long, bad sports weekend

At least for me. In the span of two days, the three teams I like best (Spain is a close fourth because I love the way they play, but that’s for another day) were eliminated in the knockout round. On Saturday, the United States was eliminated by a sturdy Ghana squad. On Sunday, England crapped the bed against Germany and Mexico was soundly defeated by a very good (though still unappealing) Argentina side.

1. Ghana 2-1 United States. Once again, the US failed to start when the game did. Five minutes in, Ghana’s Kevin-Prince Boateng scored a goal Tim Howard really should have saved. But he still scored. And that, in a nutshell, is the United States’s problem. The back four is leaky and slow. I love Jay DeMerit and I think he’s an excellent defender, but the fact is that he has no pace whatsoever. The goal was as much his fault as Howard’s. But that’s neither here nor there. The real issue is that the US starts slow. Unbelievably slow. It’s like the team needs to play from behind to show any urgency (the exception was the Algeria game, when the urgency of elimination was there from the beginning – where was that in the bleedin’ knockout round??). I’m at a loss to explain why the US does that. It’s unfathomable, to me, that the team cannot get up for an elimination game in the World Cup. Perhaps that’s what’s missing: some sort of killer instinct. Someone who’s ruthless and demands more and more from his teammates. What US soccer needs is some sort of Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan, at least in terms in competitiveness.

2. Germany 4-1 England. Great players, terrible team. That’s the refrain played in England (though it must be noted that England has an inflated sense of its place in world soccer, much like Mexico; again, fodder for a later post). England never looked good at all. There was something wrong with the team from the beginning. I like Fabio Capello and believed he was the right choice for England manager, but he made a bad call playing Jamie Carragher. Carragher simply doesn’t have the pace to play against the world’s best strikers. Too late, he inserted Matt Upson, who was a much better fit beside John Terry. Compounding that mistake was his misguided faith in James Milner as a wing player when Joe Cole was a much better option. Finally, the team failed to include Wayne Rooney, a top-5 striker in the world (at least this year). The failure to get Rooney involved is the squad’s biggest failure and the best proof that England’s best players cannot play together. Perhaps it’s time to look to support players – players who fill vital roles and rely on a few big names (Rooney, Gerrard, and Terry among them; I remain convinced that Lampard and Gerrard cannot play together and that Gerrard is the better player).

Sergio Romero gets lucky v. Mexico (AP Photo/Guillermo Arias)

3. Argentina 3-1 Mexico. The scoreline is deceiving. Argentina dominated Mexico in this game. In fact, the only thing that could have saved Mexico was if Carlos Salcido’s amazing 8th minute strike had gone in. Instead, shaky Argentine keeper Sergio Romero got just enough of it to direct it off the crossbar. Bad luck went further against Mexico when Carlos Tévez’s goal was wrongly allowed to stand. In the end, that didn’t matter. Argentina outclassed Mexico from the 20th minute on and thoroughly deserved their win, even though I cannot root for them because of Diego Maradona. During the match, the commentators suggested that Maradona was responsible for Argentina’s success. I humbly suggest that my cat could manage Argentina to the knockout round. Maradona doesn’t really have to earn his money so long as Lionel Messi and Javier Mascherano are on the pitch. And that’s all I have to say about that.

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Landycakes no more

Landon Donovan scores v. Algeria, 23 June 2010 (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

In the future, we’ll look back at 23 June 2010 and realize that it was that day that Landon Donovan grew up.

To be sure, he’s matured immeasurably over the last two years or so. Most of that has to do with him finally accepting his position in US soccer’s player hierarchy and history. Donovan is the most talented player in US history. Now that he’s seeing that as more blessing than curse, he’s thriving.

Example A: his tenure with the Los Angeles Galaxy. He’s a leader and refuses to back down from anyone, not even Goldenballs himself. Example B: his work with the national team. Although Carlos Bocanegra is the captain and Tim Howard is the vocal leader, Donovan commands everyone’s respect. He’s the key for the strikers and the midfielders and they play off his vibe. He’s quietly confident now. Clint Dempsey’s rise has helped, because Dempsey is vocal where Donovan is quiet. At the same time, Dempsey and Donovan can switch sides without a large drop-off in skill level, a huge tactical advantage and a huge psychological burden lifted from Donovan.

The best, and final example, is Donovan’s 3-month long loan spell at Everton. In contrast to his stay in Germany, Donovan thrived in England. And the reason he thrived has everything to do with his maturity. Donovan accepted his position and the pressure and used it as a motivating factor, rather than getting psychologically crushed by it. Donovan was a revelation in England, and that led directly to today’s goal.

Donovan’s always had the ability to score. He’s not even 30 and he’s US soccer’s all-time leading scorer. He’s always been clinical, to a degree. But he’s never been happy with the result. It was like every time he scored, it was just another burden, something else to make him stick out from the crowd. After he scored the most important goal in US soccer history, there was genuine joy on his face. Even after the mob broke up, the smile remained. Donovan’s leadership and maturity and, most importantly, hard work over the last 2 years led to that goal.

So, no longer will I call him Landycakes. He’s Landon Donovan now. And US soccer is far better for it.

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The most important win in US soccer history

US players celebrate Landon Donovan's goal v. Algeria (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Sure, that could be hyperbole. And I could be wrong in less than a week. But for now, the United States’ 1-0 victory over Algeria on 23 June 2010 at Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria, South Africa, is the biggest win in US soccer history.

The victory, sealed by Landon Donovan’s injury time goal at 91 minutes, was a long time coming. In the last game, a comically bad decision by Koman Coulibaly denied Maurice Edu a winner and the US a victory. But the result – a comeback draw – was still acceptable. Today, in the 20th minute, Clint Dempsey was called offside. Wrongly. The soccer gods were against the US for some reason. To add more insult to injury, the soccer gods rewarded a thoroughly unimpressive England team with a goal from Jermain Defoe. But the US didn’t give up. They kept doing the things that the soccer gods appreciate: work hard, pass crisply, keep shooting. Finally, the soccer gods rewarded them for their effort: Clint Dempsey’s low blast ricocheted off Algerian keeper Rais M’Bolhi and into Landon Donovan’s path. Donovan slotted it home, lighting Loftus Versfeld Stadium in red, white, and blue.

With that goal, the US won its World Cup group for the first time since 1930. It advanced to the knockout stage, and erased the awful memories of 2006. I submit that this win is more important the famous win over England in 1950. To be sure, the 1950 win was less expected (although the US was still seen as a pretty big underdog; witness the newspaper coverage). While the draw was a surprise to some, it was not a surprise to the players.

This US team expects to win games and expects to hang with the soccer elite. This game, the last in the group stage, shows that the US means business. They’ll have a chance to prove that again when they play Ghana on Saturday.

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Jobbed in Joburg

Koman Coulibay looks stunned that he's refereeing a World Cup match (David Cannon/Getty Images)

It’s probably a good thing that I waited this long to write about the US/Slovenia match in the World Cup. Then again, I saw the replays again a few minutes ago, which made me angry again. Almost as angry as I was when it actually happened. But, now that I’ve cooled down, I can safely come to a few conclusions.

1. The referee, Koman Coulibaly, was terrible. Actually, he was beyond terrible. This was, easily, the worst refereeing performance of the World Cup (and that’s saying something given the card-happy Spanish referee’s performance in the Germany/Serbia match). Coulibaly had an awful game. He called phantom fouls and ignored real ones (yes, I realize the game is fast: referees, however, are trained for that and only the best [in theory] get to appear on World Cup pitches). He looked nervous. He looked thoroughly unprepared for the match’s intensity and its speed. All of that, of course, culminated in the horrifying call that denied Maurice Edu the winning goal. I doubt (hope?) Coulibaly will have any more games to referee in this World Cup.

2. The United States came very close to killing itself. The US, going as far back as 2 years, has a terrible habit of conceding early goals. The team under Bob Bradley almost always plays from behind. That needs to stop. I don’t know what the problem is, but the back four is more than a little suspect. I like how Steve Cherundolo has played. He’s been a force on the right. Oguchi Onyewu and Jay DeMerit, while periodically effective, have been abused by speedy forwards. Carlos Bocanegra has not made any mistakes, but he hasn’t been exceptional, either. Bradley needs to consider playing a defensive midfielder for extra cover. Perhaps that will release the other midfielders and the forwards to attack.

But that doesn’t really solve the problem. The US needs to come out committed to defense for the first 20 minutes of the next game (against Algeria). They need to build a wall and then progress from there. The only acceptable outcome is a clean sheet against Algeria. It has to happen.

3. Slovenia deserves to be in the World Cup and will present a challenge to England. Put simply, England must win to progress. England cannot underestimate Slovenia’s skill on the ball or its defensive abilities. And since neither Wayne Rooney nor Emile Heskey has gotten off the schneid yet (really, only Steven Gerrard has looked impressive), I’d be worried if I were England. On the other hand, the US exposed some weaknesses in Slovenia’s defensive wall, perhaps giving Don Fabio a template.

Michael Bradley celebrates scoring his fantastic tying goal (Christof Koepsel/Getty Images)

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On chemistry

Clint Dempsey scores v. England (Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)

Chemistry is a nebulous thing in sports. It’s almost mystical, and it’s responsible for both good and bad things. Look to other sports, like basketball, and chemistry between teammates is seen as a vital part of collective success. Often, part of chemistry is one’s willingness to subvert personal goals for those of the team. In soccer, the same concept exists, usually framed with some sort of pithy argument that “the sum of a team’s parts is greater than each individual player.”

On paper, the United States had no business hanging with England in each team’s World Cup opener. The English team is an all-star team while the US had 3 (maybe 4) truly world-class players at the moment. As a result, England was favored. A draw was a good result for the US. To get the formalities out of the way, England captain Steven Gerrard scored at 4 minutes while winger Clint Dempsey responded for the US at 40 minutes (yeah, the goal was lucky but it still counts). Where does chemistry come in?

England looked very much like a team that had been hastily thrown together, like an all-star team. Don Fabio is an excellent manager but he made two crucial mistakes: one was playing Robert Green (Joe Hart would have been my first choice); the second was starting James Milner on the wing. Milner is a hard man central midfielder, but England’s problem is that both Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard like to play in the middle. In fact, Gerrard and Lampard are basically the same player. Sadly, not even Don Fabio had the stones to leave one of them out so Milner played on the wing when he should have been filling the Owen Hargreaves role as a central, defensive-minded midfielder.

But that’s neither here nor there. The real problem was one of communication and, indeed, teamwork. England is composed of excellent players but they don’t know how to play together. To a degree, England suffers from the same disease as Mexico: it assumes a haughty air in competition as if other teams should wilt in their presence. That is, in a word, idiotic. Yes, England invented the game but that doesn’t mean they get a pass every time they play; they have to earn the win. In this case, England was like Mexico in another regard: it didn’t respect the US ability.

Everyone knows about Tim Howard, Landon Donovan, and Clint Dempsey. Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore have tremendous potential and are just now tapping into it. The other players are good to very good or, like Altidore, long on potential but short on experience. But they’ve been playing together for three years. That has to have some benefit, even if you don’t give chemistry and almost mystical meaning. Chemistry gives players the guts to play long balls or to give-and-go with anyone on the team. Chemistry integrates the new players, like Edson Buddle and Robbie Findlay, easily. The England squad has cliques and the permanently frosty Gerrard/Lampard relationship. That has to influence how a team plays. Logic says so; if you don’t want to play with someone, you’re not going to make the effort to ensure maximum effort at all times.

England is a good, bordering on great, team. It falls on Don Fabio to put everything together. He can’t panic. He can’t listen to the tabloids. What he needs to do is be the calming influence and decide on a squad, and stick with it. Bob Bradley does that and it’s working.

Or maybe the US just really, really likes playing in South Africa.

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The final friendly

Edson Buddle scores versus Australia

The United States defeated Australia by a score of 3-1 today in South Africa in the final friendly for both before the World Cup begins. The score, however, is not the big story. By the game’s very nature and its timing, the more important news is that nobody got hurt and US manager Bob Bradley appears to be set on a sort of depth chart. I’m rather disappointed that he didn’t use more substitutes – in particular, neither Landon Donovan nor Clint Dempsey should have played the full 90 minutes – but I am pleased that Edson Buddle, Robbie Findley, and Herculez Gómez got playing time.

1. Tactics. The US looks like its going with a 4-4-2 base. I imagine that both Donovan and Dempsey will have a little more freedom to roam on the wings as both like to move into central positions. Dempsey looked dangerous whenever he got forward, much like last year’s Confederations Cup (in which he scored 3 goals). The problem remains the back four. As much as I love Jay DeMerit, I think he’s trying too hard. He’s moving too far out of position when he tracks his man out of the box (when the US is on defense). Oguchi Onyewu looked a bit awkward in the 30 minutes he played, though some of that can be attributed to the shoddy pitch. So how can the US protect the back four? It looks like Michael Bradley will have to be more of a defensive mid than usual, though his incredible fitness will allow him to push forward. In general, the midfielders, especially the central midfielders will have to help out and protect the defenders. With Buddle, Findley, and Gómez looking fine, the biggest problem is the defensive line.

2. Fitness. The US played well in the first half but lost steam in the second. That, boys and girls, is a fitness problem. Bradley is going to have to use his substitutes judiciously and I think Gómez is going to be a kind of supersub. The same can be said of José Francisco Torres and Stuart Holden (though both will probably play wide, which means not a lot of playing time since neither Donovan nor Dempsey will come off very often). Ominously, the team’s fitness isn’t likely to get a lot better in the next couple of days.

3. The pitch and environment. The pitch was awful. Players slipped all over the place and the ball jumped around (though some blame the ball). I really hope the other stadiums are better (the friendly was played in a non-World Cup venue, which made sense since only about 7,000 people were there) and last year’s Confederations Cup gives me hope: there were no turf issues then. That said, the environment was really good though the vuvuzelas are insanely annoying. For some odd reason, I don’t remember them being as annoying last year.

Are there any conclusions to be drawn from this match? I think the only safe thing to say is that the US strikeforce is better than I thought. All three strikers that played today played well. Other than that, there were no real surprises and what you see is what you get. I think Bradley will give Donovan and Dempsey a little more freedom against England in an effort to tie up the English wingers and force them to track back but other than that, the die is cast.

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