thursday right now

What's the opposite of Throwback Thursday?

Today I sat down to watch a soccer match on my TV. The entire process was a mini-demonstration of life in the USA in 2015.

First, there was the fact that I was able to watch the match without resorting to illegal foreign-based streaming. It was a quarter-final match in the UEFA Europa League, which is the second-level European club tournament. It lacks the prestige of its big brother, the Champions League, which is the best club competition in the world. The opponents for the match were Sevilla, a good Andalusian team that exists in the shadow of the great teams from Spain, and Zenit St. Petersburg, probably the best club team in Russia. These are fine clubs, but they lack the glamour of the more famous participants in the Champions League. In short, this is the kind of match that would never have been shown on American TV in the good old days.

Now, though, it was on ESPN Deportes. (Trivia note: the color commentator was Giovanni Savarese, who actually played four games for the San Jose Earthquakes.) At this point, we enter the zone of First World Problems. We're not talking malnutrition or disease ... we're talking about watching soccer on TV. Anyway, in our neck of the woods, Comcast offers ESPN Deportes, but only in a standard-definition version. Better than nothing, to be sure. But, just as the Europa League is forgotten compared to the big boys of the Champions League, ESPN Deportes isn't a prestige channel, at least not in the Bay Area. So there is no real SD feed ... they just take the HD feed and lop off the edges. The result is the occasional pass that goes off-screen. It's annoying, knowing the picture is being framed for an aspect ratio you can't see.

But this is 2015. Since the match is on ESPN, it is also available via WatchESPN, a web-and-smartphone app that shows lots of ESPN programming. Like, for instance, the ESPN Deportes offering of Sevilla-Zenit. And it's in HD, which means you can see those guys on the edges of the screen.

But this means I'm watching on my 6" phone screen, or on my computer.

Luckily, there's Chromecast. I open it on my phone, the open the WatchESPN app, select Sevilla-Zenit, and tell the phone to cast the match to my TV, which has a Chromecast plugin. Voila! I'm watching the match in HD on my TV with the proper screen ratio.

To summarize: a match that in the past wouldn't be televised in America is shown on an ESPN affiliate, and I watch it on my phone which sends the broadcast to my TV.

Ah, technology in 2015. There is one problem. Live sports and Twitter go hand-in-hand nowadays, but I couldn't keep track of Twitter and the match at the same time, because the trip from ESPN to phone to TV has a bit of a delay. Twitter is more immediate, meaning if a goal is scored, Twitter would tell me about it before it happened on my TV.

See? First World Problems.

Postscript: It was a fine match, with Sevilla putting together a furious second-half comeback for a 2-1 victory in the first leg of two.

mls, season 20

Twenty years ago, MLS began its history with the inaugural match at Spartan Stadium in San Jose. The home team won on a late goal by Eric Wynalda. We were there.

The Earthquakes’ season is about to begin. In two weeks, they will play their first official match at their new stadium. There have been highs and lows during San Jose’s years in MLS. There were the two MLS championships in 2001 and 2003. There were the dark days when the team moved to Houston. There was their return to MLS in 2006, with an expansion team.

Highs ... and lows. I might not have paid much attention to MLS when the Quakes were gone, but I started following the team as soon as they returned.

You know, in 1971, I moved to Indiana for a year. That fall, the Giants made the playoffs, losing to Pittsburgh in the NL Championship Series. My friends in Indiana thought I should have rooted for Pittsburgh, because I lived in the Midwest. I paid them no attention. The Giants were my team.

If I moved back to the Midwest now, I’d still root for the Earthquakes.

On the other hand, I know how it feels to break up with a loved one. Robin broke up with me in 1969, and even though we married in 1973 and are coming up on our 42nd anniversary, I still get bitter thinking about when she left me. But, as she says, you have to get over it.

throw-in thursday

Twenty-one years ago today, Germany played the USA in soccer at Stanford. We were there.

For the U.S.:

Brad Friedel, Desmond Armstrong, Alexi Lalas, Mike Lapper, Cobi Jones, Mike Sorber, Thomas Dooley, Joe-Max Moore (71 Dominic Kinnear), Jeff Agoos (60 Brian Bliss), Earnie Stewart, Hugo Pérez (46 Chad Deering).

For Germany:

Bodo Illgner, Lother Matthäus, Guido Buchwald, Jürgen Kohler (46 Matthias Sammer), Stefan Effenberg, Thomas Häßler (75 Thomas Strunz), Dieter Eilts, Andreas Brehme (46 Christian Ziege), Andreas Möller, Stefan Kuntz, Jürgen Klinsmann (63 Andreas Thom).

maybe it's just that my brain is broken

Today I watched a soccer match between AC Milan and Inter Milan. Matches between these two are called the “Derby della Madonnina” (here in the U.S. it’s just the Milan Derby). This rivalry dates back to 1908. The two teams are historically very good. What makes this rivalry especially noteworthy is that both clubs play their home matches in the same stadium, the San Siro.

AC Milan’s home jerseys look like this:

Inter Milan’s home jerseys look like this:

I’m not sure why Inter, the “away” team in this match, wore their home jerseys, although I guess they were playing at their home, the San Siro. Whatever, the players looked like those jerseys for the match, with Milan in red and Inter in blue.

As I often do, while the match went on, I had the WhoScored website up in my browser. They offer real-time stat updates. The screen for Milan-Inter looked like this:


I hope you can see the problem. On WhoScored for this match, Milan was in blue and Inter was in red, although those colors were switched for the actual players’ jerseys as I watched my TV. What was worse, in the first half, Inter was going from left-to-right on my screen, Milan from right-to-left. I hope you can see how this was a problem, as well.

My brain couldn’t handle all of this. Even though I’ve seen these teams play many times, I kept getting confused about which team was which as I watched.

I’m sure the brain scientists can explain why this was so frustrating. Or maybe it’s just that my brain is broken.

where has he been, lately?

“What are you thinking about?”, she asks.

At this point I lie. I wasn’t thinking about Martin Amis or Gérard Depardieu or the Labour Party at all. But then, obsessives have no choice; they have to lie on occasions like this. If we told the truth every time, then we would be unable to maintain relationships with anyone from the real world. We would be left to rot with our Arsenal programmes or our collection of original blue-label Stax records or our King Charles spaniels, and our two-minute daydreams would become longer and longer and longer until we lost our jobs and stopped bathing and shaving and eating, and we would lie on the floor in our own filth rewinding the video again and again in an attempt to memorise by heart the whole of the commentary, including David Pleat’s expert analysis, for the night of 26th of May 1989. (You think I had to look the date up? Ha!) The truth is this: for alarmingly large chunks of an average day, I am a moron. …

None of this is thought, in the proper sense of the word. There is no analysis, or self-awareness, or mental rigour going on at all, because obsessives are denied any kind of perspective on their own passion.

-- Nick Hornby, Fever Pitch


I think the U.S. players believe that they will win. They will play to their abilities. They won’t be overawed. It is rare that a soccer match can be controlled by one player … team play is crucial. And Portugal will not be at 100%, due to injuries and suspensions.

And yet … Iran earned a well-deserved upset draw with Argentina, except Leo Messi pull a bit of magic out of his boots. If there is one other player who can “do a Messi” in that way, it’s Cristiano Ronaldo. If Ronaldo is fit, the U.S. is in trouble. They can have a good tactical plan to deal with him … he can have what passes for a bad game by his standards … but if he’s fit, I think Portugal will win.

But that’s a big if.

It’s fun to be an American fan at times like this, thanks in part to those casual fans who only turn up every four years. Those fans diss soccer on a regular basis. They also understand that the USA is not among the elite. But come the World Cup, and everyone becomes a fan. Because they don’t pay attention for the most part, they don’t really know what “not among the elite” means. Like the players, they are fearless, and actually believe the U.S. will win, at least as each match approaches … I don’t know if even the most loony fair-weather fan thinks the U.S. can win it all. They know Ronaldo is tops, but they think Clint Dempsey is only slightly inferior. When the U.S. wins at the World Cup, people go bonkers. And in the buildup, they think of beating Portugal in 2002, about Landon Donovan against Algeria, about Rapinoe-to-Wambach against Brazil. They don’t think of those World Cups where the U.S. craps out.

Thus, it makes sense that American fans have adopted “I believe that we will win” as their battle cry.

Of course, when the U.S. is eliminated (and that could be sooner rather than later … it’s not out of the realm of possibility that they lose to both Portugal and Germany), those casual fans will forget about soccer again until 2018.

My prediction: if Ronaldo is hampered, the U.S. wins, 1-0. If Ronaldo is fine, the U.S. loses, 2-1.

world cup 2014 so far

(Here's an example of what you can find on my World Cup blog.)

So, how are we doing so far?

A week-and-a-half ago, I posted my lame-but-clear “template for a good soccer match”. Once again, the rules:

  1. The margin of victory is one goal, or the match is a draw
  2. At least one of the teams must score multiple goals

I’m searching for matches that were competitive (rule #1), and attack-minded (rule #2).

The 7th match was the first to meet the criteria: England 1-2 Italy. There were 30 total shots (13 on goal), some inspired individual play (Pirlo, Balotelli), and if England never quite seemed like they had an equalizer in them, it wasn’t for lack of trying. On the same day, the Ivory Coast defeated Japan 2-1, in a match that was more lopsided than the score suggests.

Sunday the 15th had two more: Switzerland 2-1 Ecuador, and Argentina 2-1 Bosnia-Herzegovina. The first was headed to a 1-1 draw until the thrilling extra-time winner by substitute Hans Seferovic, a case where the ending made the match seem a bit better than it was. Argentina-Bosnia was also saved by a goal, Lionel Messi’s sublime effort to put Argentina up 2-0 midway through the second half. Bosnia got a late goal to “fulfill” the template, and Messi’s wondergoal made the match memorable, but again, this one was not as competitive as the final score indicates.

Monday the 16th had one, which delighted U.S. fans: Ghana 1-2 United States. I can’t judge the entertainment value, since I had a rooting interest, but Ghana’s put so much pressure on the U.S. after Dempsey’s instant goal that there was a level of tension throughout the match, with everyone wondering if/when Ghana would break through. Which they did, with less than ten minutes to go. Which set up a classic finish four minutes later, when John Anthony Brooks headed home the game-winner.

Tuesday the 17th, Belgium 2-1 Algeria. Not a great match most of the way … Algeria only got off three shots, and their goal came from a penalty kick. Belgium dominated without actually being interesting, until Marc Wilmots made three substitutions in the early parts of the second half. Two of those substitutes scored goals, and Belgium got the win they deserved. But it was odd … Belgium clearly outplayed the Algerians, yet until the last 20 minutes, didn’t seem very potent.

Wednesday the 18th, and the real winner of the Template of the Cup thus far: Australia 2-3 Netherlands. The heavy underdogs Australia stayed with the Dutch for most of the match, even taking a brief 2-1 lead early in the second half. There were 43 total fouls (remarkably, only two by Nigel de Jong), it was a tough match, lots of give and take, and the best team won. But it was a five-goal extravaganza.

Thursday the 19th had two: Colombia 2-1 Ivory Coast, and Uruguay 2-1 England. All three goals in the first match came in a nine-minute period midway through the second half. Uruguay-England was one of the best matches so far, with a lot of the excitement being contextual … it wasn’t just entertaining, it featured Luis Suárez in his first match of the Cup, scoring twice in an emotional performance against the English.

Finally, on the 20th, there was Honduras 1-2 Ecuador. The stat sheet shows some interesting individual performances. Carlos Costly scored the Honduras goal, and also led all Hondurans in committing five fouls. Enner Valencia scored both Ecuador goals, was fouled five times, and returned the favor three times. (Fouls are usually part of the discussion in a match that includes Honduras.)

That’s ten matches already that fit the template. But other matches, while not fitting the straightjacket I’ve chosen, were “good”, usually by featuring one team in a delightful blow out of their opponent. The Netherlands scored five against defending champions Spain, Germany plowed past Portugal 4-0, France got five against the Swiss.

And, as if to demonstrate the silliness of my template, arguably the best match so far was the scoreless draw between Brazil and Mexico.

Against all of the above, Iran-Nigeria and Japan-Greece were more typical 0-0 matches, i.e. boring, and other matches were merely OK. It’s worth noting, though, that “merely OK” would have been quite good in the 2010 World Cup.

So far, this has been an excellent World Cup. Partly because teams are scoring goals, and I like goals. But there are also fine individual exploits, and again, Brazil 0-0 Mexico was a terrific match to watch.

And I didn’t even mention this: