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belgium-usa

Eden Hazard, Vincent Kompany, Daniel van Buyten, Thibaut Courtois. There may not be a single American player as good as these four. Even Tim Howard, recognized everywhere as one of the top goalkeepers in the world, probably takes a back seat to Courtois.

Belgium won all three of its group games, allowing a total of only one goal (and that one a penalty). An unsettling note: many people feel Belgium was not even at their best in the group play. They won each match by a single goal, and played with less flair than they are known for. If they can win three straight without breaking out the brilliance, the U.S. would seem to be in trouble.

Belgium has shown they are happy to take the three points in any manner that presents itself. But you get the feeling they’d like to turn up the jets a bit, which requires that the U.S. do the same. If the Americans sit back, I don’t think they can hold off the Belgians the entire match. But if they take the risks, they are vulnerable.

I don’t know how it will play out. I suspect it’s going to be a lot like the Monday matches, where the underdog gives a good account of itself, the match is close and entertaining, with the favorite picking up a late goal for the win. The USA are not the favorites.

Here’s hoping I’m wrong.

Here’s what happened the last time the U.S. won a round-of-16 game. Nice to see a reminder of what Rafa Márquez was like back in the day.


monday’s matches

Might as well talk about them together, because France-Nigeria and Germany-Algeria had a lot in common. Both were very entertaining, thanks in large part to the efforts of the underdogs. Algeria in particular played without fear. It’s understandable, if kinda boring, when an underdog tries to shut a game down against a strong opponent, but you didn’t see that today. One could argue that the fearless strategy was ultimately unsuccessful, but I don’t think the African teams were going to win, and why not just go for it? FRA-NGA was scoreless for 78 minutes, GER-ALG for 91 minutes, but it was always interesting. All four teams had their chances. Perhaps this said something about the quality of the teams … neither France nor Germany looked like world-beaters, and both Nigeria and Algeria should have done better with their chances. But the result was two matches with four teams trying to win, and it was a pleasure to watch.

Side note: Luis Omar Tapia on Univision was obsessed with the name “Schweinsteiger”. Every time he said the name, he gave it a juicy relish. At one point, he started explaining to announcing partner Pável Pardo that it was like two words in one … “Schwein … Steiger … Schweinsteiger!” I may have totally misunderstood all of this, but it was hilarious, in any event.


sunday’s results

Netherlands-Mexico: Arjen Robben is a notorious diver. But Rafa Márquez is hardly the cleanest player in history, and he did foul Robben, dive or no dive. Wrexham-born Robbie Savage, who played more than 500 league games and represented Wales on 39 occasions, was once named the dirtiest player in the history of the Premier League … he knows his fouls. He’s been a pundit for a few years. On Twitter, he said, “If referees start giving penalties when there's a foul but the person stays on his feet in the box then they wouldn't need to exaggerate” and “If robben stayed on his feet , no penalty would have been given even though it was a foul , what would you do ?” I tend to agree with this … if we made a list of the things scofflaws do during a soccer game, diving would be pretty low on my list. It’s easy for Mexico to blame Robben, but the real blame lies with Rafa. He has had a great career with some low points … now the last moment of his international career will be the foul against Robben. As for the rest of the game, the first half was slow, but up until Gio’s goal, Mexico mostly controlled play, and it’s hard to fault the teams for conserving energy. They never reached the heights of the first half of Brazil-Chile, but those two teams spent the final 75 minutes running on fumes. Finally, there was what may turn out in retrospect to be the most important thing about the entire 2014 World Cup. As Grant Wahl tweeted, “Van Gaal says he changed tactics during the water break. Might as well let coaches call time-outs then. Paradigm change for the sport.” Someone check Paul Gardner’s heart monitor.

Costa Rica-Greece: Penalties are very personal. You have an opinion about a team, and you watch them work as a collective … certain players stand out, to be sure, you won’t miss Neymar or Messi. I’m not saying individual brilliance doesn’t matter in soccer. But penalties are the ultimate, excruciating moment where the individual stands out. When a player misses a penalty in a shootout, I find myself feeling badly for them, even if I’m rooting for the other team. Thus, Theofanis Gekas. It’s no surprise I wanted Costa Rica to win this. And when Gekas stepped up to take his penalty, all I could think was the stupid idea that I didn’t like how he looked. But then he missed, and I felt sorry for ever thinking he was unlikeable. So I went to find something more about him … I wanted to pay tribute to him in a small way. I found this story from 2012, which included a paragraph after Gekas left Germany, having played there for several years and scoring many goals:

He left Eintracht under a cloud, having not picked up the language during almost six years in Germany. "I wonder how it is possible for somebody to be living in Germany for five years but not be willing to learn the language," said the legendary former Eintracht goalkeeper Egon Loy. When Gekas was told about the criticism he answered: "I am being paid to score goals, not to talk."

 

Jennifer Doyle, “Mexican Gothic (puto is a curse!)”.

Kristian Jack, “Robben vs. Rafa and the Needless Obsession with Diving”.


links and today's matches

Netherlands-Mexico. I have a rooting interest, so this will be tense no matter the quality of the game. There are two factors at work here that influence my preference for Mexico. First, they have always been my third-favorite national team, behind the U.S. and Spain. It’s interesting, Mexico is the arch-rival of the USA, and when the two nations play each other, Mexico might as well be the Dodgers for the amount of negative emotions they draw out of me. But, unlike the Dodgers, when those matches are done, I root for Mexico. The Netherlands are a complicated team. Their reputation as the creator of Total Football, and the presence in their team of wonderful, enjoyable players, means their matches should be looked forward to. But there is also a dirty side to their play, exemplified by Nigel de Jong. As long as he is around, I can’t root for the Dutch. Mexico can give as good as it takes when it comes to rough play, so this one could be brutal, depending a lot on how the referee handles things (although, to be clear, I tend to blame the players when things go badly). I hope for a beautiful game, I expect something quite different, and I think Holland wins by a goal. Whether than means 1-0 or 2-1, I can’t predict.

Costa Rica-Greece. As you can tell from my long post about Greece, I have a troubled relationship with that team. And it’s nice to see a CONCACAF team doing so well. Mexico is a better team than Costa Rica, but Greece is a lesser team than the Netherlands, and Costa Rica have a better chance than Mexico of advancing to the quarterfinals. Greece can go defensive and squeeze the life out of a game, but they’ve shown occasional signs of breaking out of their stereotypical strategy. Still, a solid defense is their best option here, since I think Costa Rica has the better offense. Costa Rica might score early, forcing Greece to open their game, leading to more goals from Costa Rica. Or Greece could shut down the Costa Ricans, pick up a goal along the way, and win 1-0. It’s an odd match where I can’t decide to predict 1-0 for Greece or 3-0 for Costa Rica. I’ll be rooting for CONCACAF, but if I was a betting man, I’d go with that 1-0 Greek win.

 

Charlotte Silver, “Imperial Sports: An Interview with Dave Zirin”.

Michael Cox, “Brazil 1-1 Chile: Brazil progress by the finest of margins”.

Newsbomb, “Greek National Team’s letter to A.Samaras: ‘Instead of bonus, we prefer a training center’”.


saturday’s matches

Brazil-Chile: Brazil has now been part of two of the best matches of the tournament so far, in which they scored one goal in 210 minutes. This time, they were a sliver of woodwork away from elimination, and that woodwork did well by them in penalties, too. Of course Brazil was favored, and it was hard to imagine them actually going out in the first knockout round. But Chile wasn’t a bit afraid of the juggernaut, and showed they had a pretty good side on their own. It’s a sign of a good match when I being as a neutral, and then find myself rooting for first one side, and then the other, over the course of the match. That’s what happens when you say, “I’m just hoping for a good match”. For most of the match, both teams were nearly all-out attack, although near the end, Chile became a bit more cautious. Despite the attacking mentalities, or perhaps because of them, the two goals were an own goal and a defensive blunder. By the penalty kicks, I was rooting for Chile, who fell behind early, for a simple reason: I didn’t want the match to end.

 

Colombia-Uruguay: It should be a rule that you can’t have a second match after the first one is a classic. It’s like watching Vertigo, and when it’s over, someone says, “now let’s watch Psycho!” COL-URU was a decent match … there was off-the-field drama, with Suárez hovering over everything, and Colombia trying to advance farther than they ever had before. The match was OK, too, and what more is there to say about James? His first goal in particular was a dazzler. But an OK match ends up in the shadow of BRA-CHI. Still, this makes Brazil-Colombia look like a mouthwatering match.

 

By the end of the day, I’ve probably overdosed on soccer until tomorrow arrives. This is one reason I don’t like that MLS plays during the World Cup. This time they waited until group play was over, which is an improvement. I know little about marketing, and I’m sure MLS has done studies that show interest in soccer in the U.S. rises markedly during a World Cup, and it is worth it to capitalize on that. But I need a break after 2-4 matches a day.

The highlight of the Earthquakes’ regular season is their matchup with Los Angeles, played at Stanford Stadium. There is always a big crowd (50,000 or so), and in recent times the matches have been thrillers. I certainly understand why the Quakes promote the heck out of this match, which is tailor-made to reward longtime fans while pulling in newcomers.

But this year, the match takes place today. And all day long, in email, on Facebook, and on Twitter, I’ve gotten reminders about tonight’s Earthquakes match. I’m watching Brazil-Chile, a terrific match in the knockout rounds of a very good World Cup, and the Earthquakes are suggesting I watch a video of one of their past wins against the Galaxy. To return to the movie metaphor, it’s like watching Vertigo, and in the middle of the movie someone jumps in front of the screen and says, “you should be watching previews for this other movie!”

As I say, the marketing experts may know that this stuff is ultimately useful. But for me, it’s just distracting.

Having said all of this, I love the fact that Júlio César was a hero today for Brazil. It was a nice moment for him after 2010, and a good advertisement for MLS, where he currently plays. Hopefully this will, for a day or two at least, shut up the people who think MLS is a bad place to prepare for a World Cup.


knockout

Now begins the part a casual fan can understand. Many people seem to have been bewildered that the U.S. lost to Germany yet won a place in the second round. Most of them are just trolls, and they will always be around. But if you really found it confusing, the knockout phase is simpler: one team advances, the other goes home.

If the teams are tied after 90 minutes, they will play an extra 30 minutes. If the teams are still tied, they will go to a shootout where each team will take five (or more) kicks from the penalty spot to decide a winner.

Trolls, you can pull your Shootout Template now, so it will be ready when the first shootout occurs. Please feel free to complain about the shootout as if no one in history before you had ever considered the appropriate nature of such an ending. We won’t listen, because we’ve heard it a billion times, but I’m sure it will make you feel better, so go ahead, talk amongst yourselves. The rest of us understand that it is too much to ask athletes to continue to play after 120 minutes in the heat of Brazil. We know that the shootout is random, that it doesn’t reflect which team is the best on the day. But the “best on the day” hasn’t been decided, so a shootout it is. And a shootout is the most excruciating thing in soccer.

 

Brazil-Chile. Brazil is the favorite to win the tournament, Chile are a favored underdog. While even the casual fan knows Neymar, Chile has a few big stars as well, with Alexis Sánchez being perhaps at the top of the list. Chile was shutout by the Netherlands in their final group match, but no one expects Brazil to pull off the same feat. The most common prediction I’m seeing is Brazil 2-1 Chile, which seems about right. It should be an entertaining match.

Colombia-Uruguay. Four South American teams play Saturday, and two of them will go home afterwards. Colombia won all three of their group matches by a combined score of 9-2, although their group wasn’t the strongest. Uruguay’s aggregate score in the group was 4-4. Basically, no one knows what the loss of Luis Suárez will mean to Uruguay. They aren’t a one-man team, but close enough to count. Colombia will likely be the choice of the neutral, because they are still pissed at Suárez, and because people want to see more of James Rodríguez, one of the best players in the tournament so far. While Uruguay still have talented players like Edinson Cavani, my guess is they go for an ugly strategy with lots of fouls. A popular prediction seems to be Colombia 2-0 Uruguay, and again, that seems about right. Both of the matches have potential, but I suspect this one will be the less-entertaining. Still, there are some great players on display.


links

Jeff Fogle, “World Cup: 3-Game Stat Profiles for all 32 Teams with ‘Shot Engine’ Data”.

Jonathan Wilson, “5 Key Tactical Decisions of the 2014 World Cup Groups Stages” and “Luis Suarez challenges Tabarez to restore Uruguay’s reputation – again”.

Adrian Melville, “The Altidore domino effect”.

ESPN FC, “Assessments

Joe Prince-Wright, “After being bitten by Luis Suarez, Chiellini says four-month ban is ‘excessive’”.

Simon Gleave, “ANALYSE THIS: The ‘Copa de Zebra’ revisited”.

Michael Cox, “World Cup 2014: group stage, day 15” and “Group stage round-up”.


announcers

Play-by-play, English:

Ian Darke: Thanks to his goal calls of Donovan and Wambach, Darke is now the #1 announcer for U.S. games. This means he’s also #1 for England games. He’s worthy, willing to be more emotional than the average English announcer. Can let his biases show a bit too much, but given his accent and knowledge, he’s very much a Martin Tyler, only a step below. Add in his more-emotional delivery, and he tops even Tyler for the American market.

Derek Rae: I mentioned to someone that Rae would be a great announcer for someone new to the game. He is skillful at working useful information and even analysis into his play-by-play, which itself is very good. To my ears, he’s good at pronouncing names.

Jon Champion: Solid English announcer, which means he’s pretty good. I haven’t heard much of his work in Brazil, but I’ve had plenty of time in the past to listen. To some extent, I have a hard time distinguishing him from the other Brits.

Adrian Healey: See Jon Champion, above.

Fernando Palomo: What I’ve heard, I like, and he brings a Spanish-language fervor to the games. But he usually gets assigned the big Latin matches, which I almost always watch on Univision, so I miss out on Palomo.

Daniel Mann: I confess I knew very little (i.e. nothing) about Mann prior to the Cup. I don’t have anything bad to say about him, which is a good start.

 

Play-by-play, Spanish:

Pablo Ramírez: The #1 guy for Univision. Has a sense of humor, and his goofy “AZO! AZO! AZO!” for exceptional goals has grown on me over the years. I miss Jorge Ramos and Andrés Cantor, but Ramírez is solid.

Luis Omar Tapia: Among my favorites of these announcers. Begins each match with “Comienzan los 90 minutos del deporte más hermoso del mundo!” Known for giving nicknames for players, although in fairness, all of the Spanish-language guys seem to do this … watch a Mexican league match sometime, practically every player on the field has a nickname.

Jorge Pérez-Navarro: Another favorite … I could have him confused with someone else, but I think he’s the guy who gave the Earthquakes Ramiro Corrales the nickname “OK”.

José Luis López Salido: Usually when I don’t recognize the voice, it’s José Luis. He’s the Adrian Healey of Univision.

Enrique Bermúdez: You always recognize this voice, which is low and booming. Main thing I don’t like is that he seems to take time away from Pablo Ramírez. Univision has started this odd practice of splitting the play-by-play among two announcers, one per half. I don’t know why.

Édgar Martínez: Incomplete, not sure I’ve heard him.

 

Color commentary, English:

Steve McManaman: He and Darke have a great rapport. But, even more than Darke, Macca lets his English heart show, and his analysis never seems too deep.

Efan Ekoku: Sounds authoritative. Whether that confidence is warranted, I’m not sure. He does give more detail about his opinions than the average ex-jock.

Kasey Keller: Pleasant, useful. I wouldn’t say that adds up to “bland”, but he’s on the fence, at least.

Alejandro Moreno: Usually (always?) works with Palomo. I like him, and not just because he once played for San Jose. But, as with Palomo, for most of his matches, I’m tuned in to Univision.

Stewart Robson: See Adrian Healey, above.

Taylor Twellman: It’s nice to have an American in the booth, and he brings more personality than Keller. But his insights rarely rise above the usual ex-jock stuff.

Craig Burley: Incomplete.

 

Color commentary, Spanish:

Everyone gets an Incomplete. My insufficient command of Spanish gets the best of me here. I’m good enough to call myself fluent for conversational purposes, and I’ve been listening to sports in Spanish for a long time. But the best color guys offer detailed analysis, and I’m never confident I’m picking up the subtleties (there’s nothing subtle about the goooooooool calls, so this doesn’t really matter for play-by-play). I end up liking or disliking a color guy based on what I get of their personality. So I’m really enjoying Hristo Stoichkov, partly because I loved watching him play when he wasn’t breaking an opponent’s leg, partly because this Bulgarian speaks better Spanish than I do, partly because while I couldn’t identify it as Bulgarian, he clearly has a different Spanish accent than everyone else. He even seems pretty likable. Beyond him, Jesús Bracamontes is known as “El Profe” because he’s supposed to know a lot about the sport … he’s an ex-coach rather than an ex-jock. He gets respect from the other announcers, who call him “Profe” without irony. The rest blend together in my mind.

 

I don’t watch the pre- and post-game shows, so I can’t comment on them. There have been a few folks on Twitter that have served as a kind of virtual commentating crew. The legendary Ray Hudson, whose network does not have World Cup rights, is left with Twitter to hand out his magisterial praise to Messi. On the local angle, up-and-comer Kate Scott is delightfully profane and enthusiastic. And, in a more cultish vein, Golden FM does an entertaining job of interpreting the matches as if he was managing a game in Football Manager (sample tweet: “Lahm playing in a classic inverted false wing back role today”).


group h

A combination of match fatigue and using up my emotions on USA-Germany meant it was very hard to pay attention here. I had Algeria-Russia on, but I can barely tell you what happened. This post is just for future reference … when I look back on this in my dotage, I’ll want to be reminded of what I missed.