wherein DF travels to Deutschland for the 2006 world cup to follow the US men's national soccer team

Sunday, March 26, 2006

DVD Review: “Hooligans and Thugs: Soccer’s Most Violent Fan Fights” (2003)

As usual, let’s start with the verdict: your life will hardly be incomplete if you never see Hooligans and Thugs. It’s basically a series of spliced together clips of football violence—inside and outside stadiums—set to an irritating techno soundtrack, with no unifying thread other than occasional narration from Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols. So is there anything redeeming about this film?

For one thing, it’s hard to say what one might of some hooligan-related books and movies: this film doesn’t glorify fan violence. Just the opposite—it made me want to steer as clear of scenes involving hooliganism as possible, not only out of concern for my safety but also because there was nothing attractive or heroic about any of the scenes. Maybe I’m alone in this, but if you’re watching a bunch of drunk fat guys kick the crap out of each other and you discover yourself saying “That’s the life for me!” then I stand corrected. And I’d also suggest a long heart-to-heart with your analyst.

This isn’t to say that I join with the guy who wrote the voiceover for this film and posed the weary and vaguely sanctimonious question “We all watch this and ask ourselves one question—why?” I didn’t ask this because I think the answer’s obvious. If you have an id and have read any of the more thoughtful books on this topic (Buford’s Among the Thugs being the best, I think), you can’t help but understand the answer. The hooligan fights for the same reason that the alcoholic drinks or the druggie shoots up: it provides a high that allows you escape from the humdrum nature of your daily life. You don’t have to have any interest in antisocial behavior to get why others do it.

So if you get this point and you’re not particularly interested in the topic (and you haven’t sworn to watch every soccer movie in existence, like I have), is there anything to be learned from watching Hooligans and Thugs? Perhaps. There’s one scene where cops tear-gas a pub during Euro2000 where some English hooligans are rumored to be hanging out. But when people come streaming out of the bar, holding their faces and barfing from the gas, it’s not a gang of hools bum-rushing the cops, but just a bunch of fat, confused, drunk England supporters. The line is fine, but the lesson is clear: stay way the hell away from anything approaching a hooligan scene because police enforcement casts a wide and indiscriminate net (something of particular salience to anyone traveling to Germany this summer).

And like a lot of similarly themed productions, Hooligans and Thugs has an ambivalent attitude toward police enforcement. I’m not uncritically enthusiastic about police methods as a general matter, but it seems like in this case the no-tolerance approach makes sense. Also puzzling to me was the narrator’s observation that it’s objectionable when police possess apparent zeal for whacking rioting fans with clubs and otherwise using force during confrontations. There’s something mildly unsettling about a cop enjoying smashing hooligans, but at least this cop is directing his lust for violence toward solving rather than creating a social problem. And it’s hard to imagine what the alternative would be—a bunch of pacifist policemen who tried to negotiate with a drunken violent mob?

The best thing about this film is Steve Jones’ turn as the narrator. He addresses the viewers as “cunts” and “slags” and appears in a variety of crazy getups—a medieval knight, an English bobby, and (to introduce a section on violence in Latin America) a sombrero-wearing, enormous-moustache-sporting, serape-draped cholo. The absurdist comic relief works well against the monotonous violence of the main feature. And at the end, Jones (addressing us as he sits on the can) abjures any preachiness. “That’s the end,” he says, “Did you lot learn anything? I doubt it.” Sounds about right. Despite the lurid goriness of its subject matter, Hooligans and Thugs is, all things considered, kind of a snooze.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Germany 4:1 US--Final thoughts

Before this game, Kasey Keller did an interview with German press in which he responded to some snotty question about the upcoming game by saying, "No one wants to get their ass kicked." Then, of course, that's exactly what happened to the US. The response has been like nothing else I've seen in the aftermath of an MNT game. Bruce Arena apologized (at least, took responsibility) for the decision to play the friendly at all. Kasey Keller had a sweary tirade with the media in which he excoriated his teammates for their poor play. The same video shows downcast US players struggling to say anything positive about their loss to Germany.

But was it really such a disaster? Despite the disgust I felt immediately after the game, which is reflected in my first post about it, there's quite a bit that's good to take away. If Cory Gibbs can continue to play that well in his natural position of centerback as he did at left back against Germany, I think we have our backline straightened out: Dolo--Gibbs--Gooch--Lewis (though some might be more skeptical that Eddie is the solution at left back). We also have a great left wing supersub (starter?) available in Bobby Convey. And then there's the notion that this team was able to play Germany to a virtual standstill for seventy minutes. That is, of course, not close to sufficient in a ninety minute game, but it's still not bad given the second-string lineup we trotted out.

Another interesting point is that Bruce and crew were so mad (or bummed) after the loss. There was a time when the US team would have said "Hey, no big deal, we lost to Germany--that's to be expected." Even after our 4-2 loss against the same team back in 2002, the response was basically sanguine--we were outclassed, it was to be expected, c'est la vie. This time, the sense seems to be that no US team that ever takes the field should ever be humiliated. That was my feeling after the final whistle blew, and it seems to be reflected in the response from Bruce and the squad. It may not be a reasonable expectation under the circumstances, but it shows that standards have raised considerably. We've come a long way in terms of quality and reputation, and now we have the expectation to go along with it.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Germany 4:1 US--Player analysis

As I wrote earlier, this game was all (well, mostly) about individual performances for us. So what can we take away from it? Whose stock is up and whose has gone down?

Blue-chippers on the rise:

Gibbs: He was one of the main ones to watch this game. A bad game could have scuttled his World Cup chances altogether, but he truly rose to the occasion. He played Gerald Asamoah tough from the get-go and basically marked him out of the game. He also came forward well along the left, and got a shot off early that was earmarked for the far corner if it hadn’t been well-defended by Josh Wolff.

Convey: The only player all game long who could create danger with the ball at his feet. Other players did well with a shot or a pass, but Convey ran down the left all day long, with creativity and skill. He’s definitely going to be on the roster come June, perhaps as a super-sub (a role in which I think he’d excel) or even as a starter if DMB doesn’t improve his game. (Also, did you know that according to some ranking system he’s the best player in the English first division?)

Johnson: Not the post-injury breakout game that I’m still waiting for (perhaps against Jamaica?), but he showed something I didn’t think he had in him: a tough, hard-fought ninety minutes. EJ was well marked but provided our only danger on set pieces, twice getting headers on goal (that would have resulted in at least one score against a lesser goalie than Oliver Kahn). Plus, he tracked back well on defense, and was as responsible as Dolo for the flukey goal we scored, bearing down on Kahn to create danger even in minute 86 of a game we were losing 4-0. He still needs to improve his first touch and link up better with teammates (both making and seeing runs off the ball), but based on what I saw today I’m excited to see what he’ll bring after some MLS seasoning.

They’re dogs with fleas—dump ‘em:

Berhalter: largely responsible for the three goals we gave up toward the end. The second and fourth goals were the result of some miscommunication, though Gregg was beat on the second, and was standing in the box as Ballack headed in the fourth. So those two might be partially on Conrad, but the third was all Berhalter, with the awful giveaway gifting Klose a chance clean in on goal. Shades of the turnover to Adriano that created Brazil’s only goal in their 1-0 defeat of us during the 2003 Confederations Cup. He shouldn’t be on the roster, but Bruce loves him, so I fear he may be.

Ching: two good moments. A nice shot on goal that forced Kahn to save well in the tenth minute, then he battled well to win a 50-50 ball in the box, but was wrongly whistled for the foul (the ref likely didn’t want to whistle it on the German player who did commit the foul—that would have meant calling a penalty). In sixty minutes, that’s not nearly enough production. Ching is a good guy, and a solid MLS player, but not good enough at this level.

Conrad: not as bad as Berhalter, and in fact very good in the first half and up until the minute 70 debacle. He even went forward a few times and had a decent chance on goal (that he flubbed, not surprisingly). But two of the three late goals were partly due to his hesitation and miscommunication, and when the US defense was in pieces late on, he was a major contributor. Centerbacks have to be steady 100% of the time. JC’s not at that level yet, and while he will be important for us in Gold Cup and Concacaf games, I doubt he’ll ever be a world-class defender.

Zavagnin: A few decent moments, but basically invisible. He’s like Pablo in that you don’t notice him that much, but unlike Pablo in that he doesn’t have the same ability to control and calm the midfield. When you’re a holding midfielder and you’re not effective at holding possession, you shouldn’t be on the team. I don’t see him on the final roster.

Klein: He was only on the roster thanks to Noonan’s injury, and only got in the game thanks to Wolff’s injury. Barring a similar series of lucky breaks, he won’t be on the World Cup squad, especially after his consistently unimpressive play on Wednesday.

Unchanged after heavy trading:

Keller. He really can’t be blamed for any of the four goals. In his best moments, he’d come up with wonder saves on some of the breakaways and point blank chances, but when you leave Ballack wide open in the middle of the eighteen-yard box or allow Klose to run in unmarked on goal, you can’t hold the goalkeeper responsible for the resulting score. His angry reaction after the game suggests that he’s emerged as the unquestioned team leader as well.

Dolo. Another typically great game from someone who’s locked into the starting XI as solidly as any of our players. Plus, have we ever had anyone score from behind the midfield stripe? Hey, maybe he’s the solution to our striker problems…

Mastro: Celo Balboa called it right—Mastro is steady. He knows his role and executes within it, helping give the midfield coherence and stability. It’s no coincidence that right around the time he was subbed out in the second half, things began to go to pieces. Reyna is probably better and deserves the start if healthy, but even if Claudio’s unavailable, I think we’ll be OK with Pablo shoring up the midfield.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Germany 4:1 US--Initial reactions

Being a good opinion writer means knowing when to admit you’ve made a mistake, and not having to do so very often. A couple posts ago, I brazenly asserted that “[a]s long as we avoid a confidence-deflating result (and this US team is probably too good to get embarrassed), we’ll be fine.” Now technically, this is a true statement, but it’s the part in parentheses that I feel obligated to retract. After today’s 4-1 loss to Germany, it’s pretty clear that we’re not “too good to get embarrassed,” and that disappoints and upsets me.

It disappoints me because we were playing so damn well for 70 minutes. The first two-thirds of this game made me feel as good about the US team as I’ve felt since 2002 in the Cup itself. If it were our full-strength squad holding their own against Germany’s A-team in Dortmund, I’d be pleased but not entirely surprised. But for this B-list group to be doing the same—that was impressive and inspiring.

Then Neuville scored, and the next twenty minutes are why I’m upset. In Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs, the author infiltrates a group of Man U hooligans, and is told that there’s no shame in losing a fight “as long as you don’t shit yourself.” That is, as long as you don’t panic and lose your composure. Today, after Neuville’s goal, the US shat itself.

Until then, I was unconcerned about the scoreline. But for a fluke goal from Schweinsteiger and an unbelievable save by Kahn off an EJ header, we could have easily led. But the way we played after the seventieth minute reminded me of the old US squad: intimidated, panicky, mistake-prone, outclassed. We’ve seen touches of this US team in recent years, but we’ve largely laid it to rest. Yet the memories are so bad—the ten or so minutes at Azteca where we let in both goals in WCQ 2005, the early going against Poland in WC 2002, the 2002 friendly versus Germany in which we also gave up three goals in ten or so minutes—that they leave a really bad taste in the mouth.

Now to be fair, lots of teams have bad outings. This Germany side just got embarrassed by Italy by the same scoreline (a fact that does not reassure me considering that we’re about to play Italy), and every so often a result like this has to happen, so it might as well be in a friendly. And of course there are the standard excuses about how this was a B-team, Germany was super-motivated, etc. (Though it really burns me up that Germany bragged about routing us, and then did just that.)

But at the end of the day, it’s not the loss but the way we lost that bothers me. We have a really strong team, as we showed for 70 minutes, but we still struggle for respect on the world stage, and looking like headless chickens for 20 minutes can’t do much for our confidence. Ultimately, it’s probably just a bump in the road. Bruce will bring perspective, and no doubt also hone a fine squad for the big dance. But confidence is key to performing well in sports, and I wonder if this result may have exacted a greater toll in confidence and loss of face than it produced in practice and learning about players. As for the latter, I’ll save it for my next post. As for the US, go buy some toilet paper and clean yourselves off.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Pre-match anxieties--real and imagined

It would be nice to think that when I sleep, I dream of liaisons with Victoria's Secret models, but as last night attests, this is not (well, at least not always) the case, as I had what can only be described as a prophetic vision regarding today's exhibition versus Germany. The details are a tad hazy, but went something like this: Germany goes up an early goal (by, I think, Ballack) and adds a second before halftime. After the interval, they ease up, letting us pull one back. In a dramatic final move, a mazy run up the flank results in a pass and brilliant shot at the death to even the score. It ends 2-2, to our elation and to German frustration. Even in the sober light of day, this scenario doesn't seem terribly unreasonable. I can imagine the Germans pouring it on early, then taking their foot off the gas once they feel they've got a comfortable lead. And I can see us finally getting our heads together late on and pulling a couple goals back. Of course, the plausibility of this is belied by the fact that the dramatic late run to set up the final goal was made by non-roster player John O'Brien, and the player he passed to for the otherworldly game-tying final shot was, um, me. Hey, it's my dream, I can have it any way I want.

Anyway, when I awoke from my moment of imagined glory, I learned the sobering news that the power had gone out in my apartment building. Calls to the super proved useless. He once took over a week to respond to an emergency gas-leak situation, and when I rang him today he didn't even have his voicemail on. Normally, this is hardly an emergency: maybe I have to throw out some spoiled food, eventually I reset the electric clocks, nothing of major importance. However, today was different: no electricity meant no TiVo, and no TiVo meant no game. I'd be disappointed not to have a DVR-saved version of the telecast, since that would prevent me from watching the highlights over and over, but this emergency had an even darker side. Without TV access, I couldn't see the game live, and since I live in one of the bleakest most distant parts of Chicago (Hyde Park--"where fun goes to die"), this meant that I had to make emergency arrangements even to see the game live. A series of frantic calls to friends ensued (everyone at work, no place for me to see the mid-afternoon game), but then while I was looking up public venues, I heard the hum of the fridge. It had never sounded so sweet--the power was back on and all was right with the world, with a mere two hours til game time.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Adjusting expectations for the Germany friendly

By the title of this post, I don’t mean “lowering our standards”, “preparing for defeat” or “getting the excuses ready.” Rather, I want to write about what the US can and should take away from tomorrow’s exhibition against Germany.

Start with the backdrop. The buildup to the game has raised the already-high stakes considerably--for our opponents, that is. The Germans got worked by Italy in their last friendly on March 1, setting off major rumblings among fans and DFB highers-up. Juergen Klinsmann has already received criticism—despite never having coached a competitive game—based in part on questions about his distance (literally and figuratively) from the team. The Italy game also drove down expectations about the Nationalmannschaft’s likelihood of success in the Cup, and in order to counter those expectations the Germans are looking for a cathartic goalfest of a victory against the US tomorrow in Dortmund. The Teutons are bringing their full complement of WC players to get the job done, and all expectations are that they’re going to rout the US.

For their part, the US go into this game with a depleted version of what was already a B-list roster. Our players from the English, Dutch, and Belgian leagues aren’t being called in (save for two players from Reading in the English second division), so it’s largely an MLS + Bundesliga side. From there, we’ve lost three players who likely would have started the Germany game (Dempsey, Hejduk, and most critically Donovan), so what we have left is hardly the most formidable version of the MNT.

For what it’s worth, German mag Kicker has predicted what seems to me the likeliest way the US XI will come out tomorrow: in a 4-4-2, with Keller between the pipes; a flat back four of Dolo, Pope, Gibbs, and Pearce; a box midfield with Olsen and Mastroeni behind Klein on the right and Convey on the left; and Twellman and Johnson up top. I suspect Conrad will see time as well, though likely in relief, perhaps for Pope if he tires in the second half (Eddie didn't practice yesterday because of back trouble). This midfield is an interesting deviation from the standard diamond setup, though it worries me because I think neither Olsen nor Klein are truly of international caliber.

The key to US success in this game will be avoiding being overwhelmed by the Germans when momentum swings in their favor. This is a team that can and does pile on goals when things are going well. I remember all too well how they Blitzkrieged us in the 2002 friendly, turning a relatively even 1-1 match into a 4-1 embarrassment in only about ten minutes. There’s also the famous 8-0 crushing of Saudi Arabia they broke out in the first game of the 2002 World Cup—another “message” game where Germany was seeking to counter whispers that they were a subpar unit. This means that I’ll be at my antsiest during the first 10-15 minutes of the game, when the Germans will be looking to put us away early; and then in the first several minutes after Germany scores (well, assuming they do score), because they have a tendency to get goals in bunches.

But to return to the title of this post, what can the US expect from this game? Most of the predictions I’ve seen have said that a draw would be a great result, and a one-goal loss would be fine. Considering that the Germans are at full strength, playing at home, and badly need a victory; and that the US is in the midst of a solid run-up to the Cup and using a depleted version of what would have been a shadow of their WC roster, that seems about right to me. And in a way, this is great, since it means we have nothing to lose. If the Germans need a win so badly, then they can have this one—we’re inevitably going to lose some games, and if this exhibition match is one of them, then it’s simply not that big a deal. Of course, one does wonder just how much the massive expectations might cause Germany to freeze under pressure. However, I don’t want to write off the possibility of a positive result; I just want to stress that we shouldn’t think about this game solely in terms of the final scoreline. As long as we avoid a confidence-deflating result (and this US team is probably too good to get embarrassed), we’ll be fine.

So what should we look for out of this game? Given how many key players are missing, I think it’s all about focusing on individual performances. What can Cory Gibbs show us after a long, injury-related layoff? Will Heath Pearce impress, or is the mediocre form he showed in the friendlies earlier this year an indication that he’s not of international caliber? Will we finally see Eddie Johnson score against a truly world-class opponent, or can he shine only against mid-level Concacaf foes? Could Benny Feilhaber provide a late spark, suggesting that he could be a dark horse in the mix for a midfield spot on the WC roster? These are the questions that will be worth asking tomorrow, keeping an eye on the big picture rather than the result itself.

More media:

Some solipsistic notes

Let me clear up a misconception: I am not living in, nor writing from, Germany. I realize my blog's title may be confusing on this score. It refers to the original conception of this project, which was to memorialize my upcoming trip to see the USMNT compete in the World Cup, much as I memorialized my trip through Central Europe in blog form last summer. It's since become broader, including general commentary on the USMNT as well as MLS. But as of now, I live in the states and am not, as they say, a Yank Abroad.

That said, when June rolls around this will become less of a soccer news and analysis blog and more of a travelblog, to include reflections on my experience of being a US fan in Berlin during the world's greatest sports event. Also forthcoming: travel-related details that may be of use to other fans planning a trip to Germany. In particular, I need to straighten out my train travel plans: buy a Weltmeister pass on the DB, make reservations for Kaiserslautern and Nurnberg, etc. Note to self: do that soon.

Also, shout-outs to two fine soccer bloggers who have added me to their blogrolls. Climbing the Ladder is doing some very interesting stat-crunching these days, and is named after one of the many bizarre yet lovable cliches employed by the late, great ESPN soccer announcer Jack Edwards (where are you, bro?). Pseudo Corner Kick features snappy news and commentary on the MNT, and rightly made fun of me for the verbosity of my verbiage. When I get to creating a blogroll of my own, I'll be sure to include these two first.

Monday, March 20, 2006

JOB 100% healthy and coming to MLS

...reports Yanks Abroad. This is huge news on both levels. Let's consider the first part first. If JOB is truly at full health, that's unalloyed good news for the US. As possibly the most talented player ever to take the field for us, he could shore up our midfield in a defensive role, play left mid, or even slot in at left back.

But can we be so confident that he really is back to full health? The quote in Y-A was from his agent, so should be taken with a healthy dose of salt. And even if it is true that JOB is 100%, that doesn't mean he's match-fit. ADO Den Haag doesn't seem to want him, and so one might say that if a team at the bottom of the Dutch Eredivisie isn't interested, perhaps something is amiss that should concern us as well. There is of course time to train into match fitness before the Cup (particularly if JOB goes to MLS), but then again what's to say that this isn't just the prelude to another injury? I love the guy, but JOB has been to injury-prone for me to feel confident that he can stay fit between now and June. But Lord I hope he does--even if we have to cover him in bubble wrap until the team arrives in Hamburg.

So what about the second part, O'Brien to MLS? This is still in the rumor stage, though talks are apparently ongoign with an undisclosed team. The soccerati have all kinds of opinions about where JOB will end up, many of which reflect an impressive understanding of the byzantine MLS salary-cap and player-allocation rules. The long and short of it seems to be that the frontrunners are Chivas USA and the Galaxy, given JOB's preference for SoCal (man, can I relate to that).

Chivas would be my preferred destination for John between the two. I don't think it does MLS any good to have a terrible loser of a franchise, so while I have no love for Chivas and think that the whole project was shakily conceived, since we're stuck with them, getting a quality player with star potential would be positive for the league overall. Plus, CUSA have seemingly given up the weird ethnic restriction thing they had been implementing during their first season, so JOB would be a good addition in this direction.

JOB might also go to the other LA team, not unlikely since he's been training with the Galaxy earlier this year during his rehab. The Galaxy already have Donovan, so the idea of arguably our two best midfielders playing for the same MLS team could create huge talent disparity issues. Of course, is this bad? Some might say no--that to have the equivalent of a SuperClub in MLS would galvanize support either in favor of or against the unusually strong team. I'm not sure about this; I wasn't an MLS supporter in the early years so I can't speak for what the feeling was like about DC United when it won three of the first four Championships (and was in all the first four finals).

Bottom line, JOB at full strength would be great--and unexpected--news. JOB in MLS would also be a major positive. It's too early to start counting on anything, though; the best move is to wait and see how this turns out.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Hejduk out, Feilhaber in for Germany friendly

The injury bug I wrote about yesterday continues. Now Frankie Hejduk has a strained hamstring that will keep him out for a few weeks, meaning that we're going to see plenty of Heath Pearce (I suppose) on Wednesday against Germany. Based on his performances in the January and February friendlies, I'm not feeling positive about the change.

One interesting twist is that Hejduk will be replaced by 21-year-old Hamburg midfielder Benny Feilhaber. This doesn't quite make sense to me; we're losing a defender and gaining a middie (albeit a defensive one). But Bruce's hands were tied. This Wednesday isn't a FIFA-sanctioned friendly day, so it's harder to get teams outside the Bundesliga to release players. Given that our choices were limited, and Feilhaber was right there in Hamburg, it's the best of a limited slate of options.

I hope Benny gets a chance to play, though. He's Brazilian-born, so there's some chance that he'd bring to the team the kind of flair that we don't really have much of otherwise. Then again, there's virtually no chance that he'll start the game, and it's unlikely that he'll come into a closely fought contest, so a few trash-time minutes at the end of a one-sided contest are about all we'll have a chance to see. But that could free up some time for Benny to show his creative side. I think Feilhaber could be an exciting part of the next WC cycle.

There's more injury-related news out of the US camp, unfortunately: in the same press conference where Bruce announced the selection of Feilhaber for Hejduk, he revealed that Brian McBride may have a sports hernia. I'm not sure what that means, but lord it doesn't sound good. It didn't slow Brian down much today, as he led Fulham to an impressive 1-0 defeat of Chelsea at Craven Cottage. Boa Morte scored the goal, but McBride earned rave reviews from the British press for his role in the victory.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Injuries and the USMNT

Early reports are that Claudio Reyna left today's Man City-Wigan game in the 66th minute with an injury. As of now, I have no more info, though of course I'm hoping it's minor. But this reminds me that it seems like our top players are unusually injury prone:

  • JOB, nuff sed
  • Reyna, ditto
  • Josh Wolff's troubles were summed up nicely in a ThreeSixOne joke headline, "Josh Wolff injures self talking about latest injury"
  • McBride, until the last couple years seemed like he was always injured
  • DMB was out for part of 2005 with that nasty knee injury (though he bounced back well)
  • Gibbs is only just coming back from an injury he suffered almost a year ago
  • Dolo got that nasty injury in the gold cup quarters against Jamaica (though he too bounced right back)
  • Eddie Johnson was out with turf toe for the better part of 2005
  • Lots of guys who were in the US camp earlier this year have suffered injuries of varying seriousness (Noonan, LD, Dunivant)

I know injuries are part of the game, but it certainly seems to me that we have more than our share. I can't say for sure whether this is true, since I don't follow any other NT that closely. But if it is, what could explain it? Bad luck? The lower qualify of opposition in Concacaf, where opponents are likely to resort to fouls because they can't beat us fair and square? Anti-Americanism? I got nothin'.

Friday, March 17, 2006

KK sounds off

Sometime in the past year or so, I became aware that Kasey Keller is not only an outstanding goalie and a team leader, but also a hilarious character. Did you know, for example, that he lives in a 1000-year-old castle outside Duesseldorf, complete with a moat? Did you know that Kasey was fined for singing along with Borussia Moechengladbach fans after a win over Cologne (apparently the song was slightly off-color). Did you know that Keller body-slammed his team's mascot (a man dressed in a plush foal costume) late last year?

It's the stuff of legends, but it's true. Now, in a more reflective moment, Kasey talks to FIFAWorldCup.com about the upcoming mundial, his recent form for club and country, and the rise of the USMNT (and the associated expectations). One tension Kasey raises but does not resolve is he regards the US as expected to get out of their group as a general matter "(Just getting to the World Cup is not enough."), but also seems to think that both Italy and the Czechs are better positioned to qualify for the Round of 16.

And bonus points for any reader who can explain why Kasey was good enough to make the World Cup team in 1990, start in goal for the US in 1998, but failed to be on the final roster in 1994?

Thursday, March 16, 2006

LD on the DL

The one player the US can't afford to lose, Landon Donovan, is lost to the US for the March 22 friendly versus Germany. The injury itself is not a big deal: Landon just has a calf strain that is going to take a few weeks to heal. We're not talking MCL tear or anything career- or even World Cup-threatening. But this is bad news for a couple reasons:

First off, we want to mount a credible threat to Germany. We don't need to win this game, but it would be good for our confidence to show well. Without Donovan, this is going to be much harder. He holds the keys to our offense, cemented like an unlucky mafioso's feet in the A-mid position. It's one thing to lose a wing back or even a forward, but the US without Donovan is __. My inability to complete that sentence is the point; he's so central to our team's identity that I'm not sure what we'd look like in his absence.

This suggests my second point of pessimism: in the absence of Donovan, we're not really playing like we will with him in the lineup. Thus it's a lot less meaningful to look at the players because their ability to combine well in a Donovan-led offense won't be on display. This is a marginal loss; Bruce will get a passable look nevertheless, but it's not ideal.

Which raises interesting questions. Most evidently, who plays A-mid? Convey? He never really shone in that position for DCU, but has been stellar for Reading, though I must admit I'm not sure if it's been as a left wing mid or a pure #10-style A-mid (I suspect the latter). This also opens up a spot on the left; who plays there with Convey in the center? These are all interesting questions, but since LD will almost certainly be on the field for the WC, they're kind of moot. I'd much rather see how Convey performs at left mid where he's likely to contribute for us in the Cup, than filling in at a position he'll likely not play for us this year.

Finally, the absence of Donovan and the angst it's causing US fans should remind us all how damned lucky we are to have Landon on our team. He takes way more crap than he deserves from MLS and US fans, largely related to the questionable conclusion that his move from Leverkusen last year was a sign of weakness. I've always been of the opinion that Landon deserves the utmost appreciation from US fans for his unquestioning committment to the team as well as his consistently excellent play. The fact that he shows up for every game leads some to take him for granted, but now that he's missing I hope the haters begin to realize just how integral Donovan is to our success.

US v. Tunisia in June?

US fans disappointed with the underwhelming slate of pre-World Cup matches announced earlier this week can cautiously take heart in news announced by Reuters yesterday that we're in negotiations with Tunisia for a June friendly. The only date that they seek that also fits the US schedule would be June 2/3 in Tunis; they also want to play on May 27 (when the US alredy has a friendly scheduled) and have scheduled a match against Iran in Germany on June 7.

The North African side--nicknamed the "Carthage Eagles"--were winners of the 2004 African Cup of Nations and are regular World Cup qualifiers (the last time they failed to make the finals was 1994). Much has been made of the fact that this would afford us a chance to play against an African side in advance of meeting Ghana in the Cup, but I don't put much stock in this. The coincidence of two teams hailing from the same continent doesn't mean they'll have anything much in common, especially when you consider that Tunisia is much closer geographically and culturally to Europe than to sub-Saharan Africa. The reason this game is exciting is that it gives us a chance to compete against a challenging, WC-qualified team that will be in form for the upcoming tournament. Let's hope it comes together.

For what it's worth, the Tunisians seem to have the best luck in World Cup draws of any team out there. This time around, they're in the underwhelming group H with Spain, Ukraine, and 2002's WC embarrassment, Saudi Arabia. Last World Cup, the Carthage Eagles were in the undisputed group of life with Japan, Russia, and Belgium. In 1998, they had an average draw with Romania, England, and Colombia. Despite the kindness of Lady Luck, in those previous two tournaments, the Tunisians managed to garner only two points after two draws and a loss, scoring only two goals in the process (a penalty and a free kick).

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Notes on roster for Germany friendly

Today US Soccer released 19 names for the Germany friendly. They are:
  • Berhalter, Gregg
  • Cherundolo, Steve
  • Ching, Brian
  • Conrad, Jimmy
  • Convey, Bobby
  • Donovan, Landon
  • Gibbs, Cory
  • Hahnemann, Marcus
  • Hejduk, Frankie
  • Johnson, Eddie
  • Keller, Kasey
  • Klein, Chris
  • Mastroeni, Pablo
  • Olsen, Ben
  • Pearce, Heath
  • Pope, Eddie
  • Twellman, Taylor
  • Wolff, Josh
  • Zavagnin, Kerry

Reading the tea leaves of these rosters is always hard. There are a lot of different reasons you might be on the list:

  • You're a lock for the WC but you're needed in the roster to be able to mount a credible threat to Germany and allow other players to fit in (Donovan, Keller, Mastroeni, Dolo, Pope)
  • You're going to the WC but Bruce isn't sure what you bring and wants to see more of you (Twellman, Johnson, Convey)
  • You're on the bubble and Bruce wants to see if you can impress him enough to make the team (Ching, Zavagnin, Conrad, Berhalter, Hejduk, Gibbs, probably Hahnemann)
  • You wouldn't even be on the bubble based on past performance but you can play a position that's weak for us so Bruce wants to see if you'll do (Olsen, Pearce, Wolff, Klein)

    There are also various reasons you may have been left off the roster:
  • You're a mortal lock for the WC but Bruce sees no reason to rock the club boat by calling you in (McBride, Beasely, Bocanegra, Reyna, Onyewu)
  • You were in the picture but now you're not, so Bruce has no need to see anything further (Casey, Rolfe--which kind of surprises me)
  • You punched out a teammate and are serving a two-week suspension for it (Dempsey)

The players with the most possible upside have to include Convey (great club form, exciting late sub in Poland friendly) and Johnson/Twellman (with a torrid run-in to the cup a spot in the starting XI will likely be yours).

How do I feel about this friendly? Cautiously pessimistic. Germany has a lot to prove in this game after their 4-1 drubbing by Italy, so they're looking to get some pre-Cup pride back, not just test out players. Given that we're on their home turf as well, I think there could be rough going if we're not sharp. But more on this as the game approaches.

Us? Fifth?

The US continued its inexorable (and some might say inexplicable) climb up the FIFA world rankings with another jump this month to a new height, from tied for sixth place (with Mexico) to sole possession of fifth. Ahead of us are several undisputed world powers: Brazil (of course), the Czechs, Holland, and Argentina. According to FIFA, we're better than Spain, England, Italy, Portugal, and a bunch of other teams we actually are better than (like Mexico).

The FIFA rankings are a source of both pride and ire. The pride part derives from a monthly measure of something that can only be gained from much rarer head-to-head competition or tournament results: a sense of where your national team stands in relation to the world. Plus, the FIFA rankings are issued by the world's major soccer organization (hence some sense of authority), and they provide an enumerated ranking so you know exactly what they think of each team relative to others (unlike a tournament in which teams that go out at the same stage are regarded as roughly equal).

But anyone who knows much about how these rankings are derived and has a shred of sense about soccer understands that they're bunk, and thus that any pride people take in them is misplaced. The rankings are afflicted with a host of problems that I won't enumerate here, though most egregious among them is that they stretch back to an arbitrary point in years past, including all results after that benchmark and none before, and weighting all such results equally (so that last week's win over Croatia is perfectly though nonsensically offset by a loss to Croatia in 2003).

That's not to say that the rankings are irrelevant. This is a common misunderstanding. They're strongly related to whether you get a seed in your World Cup group. But now that we missed that boat (barely) the only thing the rankings are good for is increasing expectations; and I feel that this is a detriment since the US do better as a stealthy underdog. At the very least, though, the rankings illustrate what a tough draw Group E was for the US--it contains three of the world's top 12 teams.

Monday, March 13, 2006

US releases send-off series schedule

So US Soccer has finalized the traditional three-game series that will precede the team's departure for the World Cup in Germany. We've got:
  • US v. Morocco in Nashville, TN 5/23
  • US v. Venezuela in Cleveland, OH 5/26
  • US v. Latvia in Hartford, CT 5/28
I've got to say this is a disappointment. First off, the teams are hardly exciting or challenging foes. None of these teams have qualified for the World Cup. In fact, Venezuela and Latvia have never qualified for any World Cup, while Morocco occasionally have a pretty respectable team in there (they were unlucky not to get out of a tricky group including Norway and Brazil back in 1998, the last time they made it to the finals). As I mentioned earlier, Latvia had a brief, surprising moment of glory back in 2003/2004 when they qualified for Euro2004, but that moment has since faded and now they're back to mid-level European mediocrity. As for Venezuela, they've improved in recent years as a soccer nation (their main sport being baseball), but they're not exactly Brazil. The US played them in a friendly back in 2003, winning comfortably, 2-0 (Kirovski, Donovan).

There are constraints, of course; we can't play against anyone we want, and this time is busy as all teams are trying to arrange friendlies to prepare for the World Cup or to get some practice. But still, last time out we managed to get Holland, Uruguay (then a WC qualified team), and Jamaica--a much more challenging and varied set of opponents. Even the 1998 trio (Scotland/Macedonia/Kuwait) included one team headed to the World Cup. But I don't think US Soccer made these choices out of laziness or ignorance; they were likely trying to get the best slate of teams possible under the circumstances, and this was it.

However, US Soccer did have control over where the friendlies were scheduled, and this is another reason I'm disappointed. Cleveland, Nashville, and Hartford seem to be designed to draw fans from the Midwest, South, and Eastern Seaboard respectively, but why pick three B-list cities? I'm biased but what about Atlanta, Chicago, and New York/Boston? These cities have larger populations and are bigger draws and better travel hubs. Last time around, I hosted a big group in DC, including people who drove in from out of town to see US v. Uruguay; I then flew up to Boston the next weekend to see friends there and to attend US v. Holland. I really don't see traveling to any of these matches; I don't know anyone in those cities and they're not attractive destinations independently of the games themselves (cue Nashville and Cleveland denizens outraged at my dismissing their great hometowns).

I suspect it might be related to the US decision to stage friendlies in cities without large populations of immigrants who will turn a home game into an away game with a show of support for the other team. But given the opponents, this can't be right. I really doubt that there are enough Moroccans, Venezuelans, or Latvians in any of the major US cities to take over the stadium. It's not like we're playing Mexico, where Tri supporters will travel from all over to pack in and boo the Yanks. And even if that were a risk, these are just exhibitions. The results don't really matter, and if anything it might be helpful for the US to get used to playing in front of a hostile crowd (since it's a safe bet that at least the Czechs and Italians will outnumber us in Germany).

But it is what it is. Morocco/Venezuela/Latvia in Nashville/Cleveland/Hartford. Get psyched.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Do friendlies really matter?

There's a nice article over at FIFAWorldCup.com about how various successful World Cup teams have fared in friendly matches leading up to the tournament. The verdict: most winners and finalists have had good records in warmup matches, though there have been some notable exceptions. It's a great read for the soccer trivia obsessive, and has some interesting historical notes. I didn't know that prior to France 98, the hosts were far from favorites, having had a miserable series of pre-tournament matches. That should be heartening news for Germany following their miserable 4-1 loss to Italy earlier this month.

Formation consternation

I wasn’t enough of a fan in 1998 to appreciate the now-infamous 3-6-1 debacle authored by also-now-infamous former USMNT coach Steve Sampson. For those who don’t know the story, basically it’s this: in a pre-World Cup friendly versus Austria, Sampson deviated from the tried and true 4-4-2 formation that had served the US well for years, using a 3-6-1 formation to achieve a great result: a 3-0 victory. Buoyed by this success, Sampson relied on the 3-6-1 setup for the Cup itself, with not-so-great results that I need not repeat here.

To be fair, that was not the only reason the US sucked in the 98 World Cup. There was internal team dissension, breakdowns in individual play at key moments (Mike Burns at the near post), and generally getting no breaks (it’s a little-remembered fact that until the Klinsmann goal that gave Germany a 2-0 lead in the first game, we had a few great chances to equalize). Still, Sampson stands as a cautionary example to all USMNT coaches not to change the formation on the eve of the Cup.

That said, I have an idea for how Arena could change the formation on the eve of the Cup that might solve a few of the MNT’s problems. As a background proposition, I think we can all agree that we’re incredibly weak at striker. Right now, there’s Brian McBride, and that’s about it. He’s played great for Fulham so far this year (including goals against Man United and Chelsea), and though his form has cooled off a bit of late, McB still looks like a mortal lock to be in the XI that takes the field in Germany.

Right after him there are Eddie Johnson and Taylor Twellman. EJ appeared to be a mortal lock about a year ago when he couldn’t seem to touch the ball without it ending up in the back of the net. But an intervening injury has raised serious questions about his form, and he’s still got to prove he can score against world class sides instead of Concacaf weaklings. The way he played against Mexico in WCQ and, more recently, Poland doesn’t fill me with confidence. TT has looked great of late, with five goals in his last five games and a goal or an assist in each of them. And while as of now I’d slot him in along McB as our second striker, I’m not sure using a second striker is going to get us very far.

Instead, I want to suggest the following variation: a 4-4-1-1, or one could say, a 4-2-2-1-1. It begins with McBride up top as a pure striker, and LD playing behind him as a withdrawn striker/attacking midfielder. Then there are two wingers out wide: DMB (or Convey?) on the left, and Dempsey on the right. Behind them are two holding/defensive mids: Pablo and Claudio. Finally, a flat back four with Dolo on the right, Eddie Lewis on the left, and Gooch and someone else in the middle.

Why do I like this? Because I’m a sucker for lineups that get our best eleven on the field, and this one does that. My take is that if we don’t have a second striker, then we shouldn’t force an unfit Eddie Johnson or an inadequately skilled Taylor Twellman onto the world stage just because the 4-4-2 is traditionally the US’s best formation. Also, this team is best when attacking and creating off the wings, using speed; Dempsey and DMB/Convey bring that aspect. Of course, against Poland we saw the need for a strong defensive mid to hold the ball and control the pace of the game; considering the quality we’re up against with Italy and the Czechs, we’ll need all the help we can get on that front, so two D-mids should do the trick. Up top, McBride is McBride, and LD seems like an ideal cross between withdrawn forward and A-mid. The former role reflects his ability to score (six goals and six assists for the MNT in 2005, each team leading totals, though I still think he’s only a B+ finisher), and the latter his ability to create and to link the midfield and attack.

Is it implausible to expect Arena to do something this different on the eve of the Cup? Well, for one thing, it’s not that different; it merely requires swapping a forward for a D-mid and then redefining somewhat the A-mid’s role. Also, Bruce has shown some balls when it comes to fielding weird lineups in pressure situations, breaking out a 3-5-2 to confuse the Mexicans in the Round of 16 in 2002. And that of course is the point: whether your use of a novel formation is a brilliant move or a stroke of idiocy basically hinges on what result you get.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Claudio Reyna and I

I swear it happened like this: back in 2003, I was walking along the sidewalk that runs behind the beach in Santa Monica with one of various ex-girlfriends when I noticed another couple walking toward us. As they got closer, it became clear that the guy looked exactly like Claudio Reyna.

So as we were about to pass them, I said to X, “That guy looks just like Claudio Reyna,” in a voice loud enough that he certainly would have heard me. Possibly-Claudio, hearing this, looked at his female companion and did that Bill the Cat tongue-thing that’s impossible to express in print (“phbbbblt”). The other couple passed us by, and that was it.

The first major question is, was this actually Claudio? I’m 80% certain that it was. First off, I’ve seen enough of the guy that I know what Claudio Reyna looks like. Plus, this was at a time when he was recovering from an injury (admittedly, not an uncommon occurrence), so that would explain why he was in So Cal despite it being the middle of the season for Man City. Finally, who but Claudio Reyna would have reacted upon hearing his name? It’s not as though the average person who looks like Claudio Reyna likely hears that much; CR10 is a great player but not exactly a household name in America (though he may deserve to be).

The next question is, did I miss some great opportunity? I’m not so sure. Although my heart doesn’t bleed for celebrities who complain about how their fame makes it difficult to be anonymous in public, neither do I feel any desire to accost them myself. I certainly don’t want to get an autograph, and I’m a bit old to be star-struck by a soccer player (though it might be different in the case of actresses; if I ran into Angelina Jolie on the street, all bets would be off and I’d likely become a pathetic drooling sycophant on the spot, pledging my eternal devotion and what have you).

Nick Hornby has a similar note about meeting players in Fever Pitch. He observes that there’s not a lot you can say that doesn’t seem awkward, and there’s something in the male ego that doesn’t want to admit too much in the way of admiration lest you come off like a teenybopper fan. The point is that eventually you outgrow any sense of hero-worship for soccer players, and that’s probably for the best.

Now this isn’t to say that I haven’t imagined alternative scenarios where I did stop and greet Claudio in Santa Monica that day and talked shop with him. No “you’re the greatest!” tomfoolery, but two aficionados discussing the game they love. I’d be interested to see what players have to say about the moments and games that stand out in my memory as a fan of the USMNT. That’s not to say that it couldn’t be disappointing to find out that a player has no real interest or sophistication when it comes to appreciating the game itself. I suspect that this is often the case based on the incredibly dull interviews most players give (e.g., “I’m just going to give 110% and try to help the team”).

I don’t really regret not accosting Claudio that day, though. There’s an inevitable gulf between players and fans, and I’m perfectly at ease letting it persist.

Friday, March 10, 2006

DVD Review: Journey to Germany

Let me get the initial Ebert-style verdict out of the way: this DVD absolutely rocks. (The DVD at issue, by the way, is Journey to Germany, a US Soccer product.) Let me also give a disclaimer: I’m a US Soccer addict who often re-watches TiVo’d friendlies between the Nats and Concacaf weaklings or European U-21 sides.

Still, I think I possess decent judgment in this regard, and I don’t like just any US Soccer-themed DVD. For example, one of the worst purchases I made was Reedswain-produced number “Team USA: Coming of Age,” which consisted largely of basic highlights of the USA’s WC02 games that you could see just as easily on Reedswain’s other (truly excellent) DVD recapping the entire tournament. OK, in the "Team USA" vid you get to see LD’s called-back goal against Poland, or Sanneh hitting the side netting against Germany, or Reyna’s attempted 50-yard chip against same Teutons—but I don’t really need to see any of those.

So why is “Journey to Germany” a DVD that I already see myself re-watching an embarrassing number of times? First, completeness. There’s footage of all the US goals scored in qualifying for the 06 WC, including even the early home-and-away tie against Grenada (much of which I missed because I was watching some Euro04 game involving Portugal at the time). For a compulsive observer like me, this is a gold mine. Three different camera angles of the strange goal in the rain Josh Wolff scored to put us up 5-0 on aggregate on a minefield of a pitch in the Carribbean? Priceless! To be fair, the main feature focuses only on the hex, so you have to go to the extras to see all the goals, but that’s hardly a terrible burden.

Second, sweet sweet memories. I remember being in Foxboro for the game v. El Salvador in the semis, just after we had barely managed to tie Jamaica at the Office (hard to believe we almost started off a virtually flawless campaign with an embarrassing loss) and El Salvador had thumped Panama to go top of the group: the early Ching header, the second-half LD solo goal, and we were rolling. I was in DC for the Panama game too, when Eddie Johnson scored a hat trick as a sub in like ten minutes. I’ve never seen the US beat up on a foe like that, but it made me consider the notion that goals mean so much in soccer because they’re rare. Based on that game, it’s a lie. I savored each one of the six we hung on the Istmeños. Then there was the queen mother of all qualifiers: going to C-bus to see the US play Mexico. It was one of the great fortunate moves of my life as a sports fan to sneak into the supporter’s section at halftime and be behind the goal for the the Ralston and Beasely tallies that sent us to Germany.

And for someone like me whose view of life closely approaches Nick Hornby’s autobiographical protagonist in Fever Pitch, where major personal events are invariably tied up with soccer, these games trigger not only thoughts of the contests themselves, but also of what was happening at the time. The best example is the 2005 Gold Cup. It was a strange time: just back from a great extended trip in Central Europe, about to move to Chicago, in the process of a breakup with a longtime girlfriend. I flew to Boston for that weekend in a strange state, but it was a great day nonetheless. Good friends, the holy triumvirate (grillin’, chillin’, and swillin’), and a decisive US victory in the quarters against Jamaica (3-1, Wolff and a brace from Beasely, with Kasey saving a penalty and LD missing one).

Third, this video should remind even the bitterest hater of what a great year 2005 was to be a US Soccer fan. Of course, 2002 is the gold standard—a continental championship and a quarterfinal appearance in the World Cup is a tough act to follow. But in 2005, the US won the Gold Cup and took an unprecedented step by winning the Concacaf World Cup qualifying group as well. Admittedly, the latter does not result in silverware, but it means bragging rights over Mexico, and it’s an important reflection of how dominant we were in qualifying. We were up 5-0 on Grenada on agg before letting up a tad late in that game. We ended up getting through the semis with a game to spare (while we needed a dodgy win in our last semi game in 2000 against Barbados even to make it to the hex). Then we qualified—against the Mexicans, in fine form, at home—with three games to go. That’s domination, punctuated by our finally getting great results on the road. We got points from all but two of our road games: the loss to Mexico at Azteca, and the 3-0 loss to Costa Rica at Saprissa, after we qualified and were using a second-string team. Our overall record was 13-3-3 in 2005, and it was a true pleasure to watch the US play. A great year by any standard.

Just go buy the video. It’s great and you’ll be supporting US Soccer in the process. Now I’m going to rewatch the whole damn thing.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

The Metros sell out

Nothing’s been cracking in the US camp for the past few days, so let me again briefly turn my attention to a name-related development from MLS. AEG, the group that owns several MLS franchises and manages much of the league, announced the sale of the NY/NJ MetroStars to the Austrian company Red Bull. Yes, the same Red Bull that gives you wings, or at least a tooth-grindingly intense caffeine buzz.

The team will be officially known as Red Bull New York, though they’ll be informally called the New York Red Bulls, in a concession to US sports culture.

It’s hard to know what to think of this. In a sense, I’m glad that there’s any interest in foreign investment in MLS, though if the ownership decides to shortchange the team through lack of interest (or to use the Bulls as a farm team for the Austrian team they also own), that could be a real problem.

Then there’s the concern about the team’s image, and about MLS’s image more generally. It’s aesthetic but far from trivial. With all the soccer haters out there licking their chops to get in their digs at soccer (the media equivalent of bravely picking on someone half your size), they’ll have a field day with anything that makes MLS look foolish.

But how will this move play with the American sports public? It’s hard to say. In other countries, sponsorship is familiar for teams—if you buy a Roma or Inter jersey, you’re shelling out eighty bucks for an enormous ad for Diadora or Pirelli. The sponsor’s name makes a bigger splash than the team logo. On the other hand, with the exception of Red Bull Salzburg, I can’t think of another example of a team that’s named after their owner’s company (I remain unsure about the origins of the name of Artmedia Petrzalka, the team that embarrassed FC Porto in the Champion’s League this year).

In America, there’s no shortage of sponsor-whoring. Stadiums are the obvious example; few of them remain un-sold-out to some wealthy corporation. Even abstractions have sponsors (the Nokia halftime show at the Superbowl). And the more successful MLS teams have had uniform sponsors as well (DC hawking Bud, LA shilling for Sierra Mist). But this really does seem to take sponsorship to another level, and in a way that requires a weird elision of fan support and product support (can you like the team Red Bulls even if you hate the beverage Red Bull?).

But maybe this is just a matter of getting used to something novel. In Chicago, the Sox used to play at Comiskey Park. It was a classic stadium with a classic name that honored one of the early greats of the game. Then Comiskey was demolished to make way for US Cellular Field, a bland modern stadium honoring a telecommunications concern. Yet this name has become widely accepted, and now Sox fans affectionately refer to attending games at “the Cell” without any consciousness that they’re selling out in the process.

The verdict on Red Bull New York? I’m going to wait and see. As a DC United supporter, though, I feel obligated never to drink that beverage again.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Fear the Lats

The last three friendlies before the World Cup are traditionally grouped together over the course of a week in a widely publicized, well-attended (by any standards, not just US Soccer standards) series of games billed as the Road to the World Cup. Last time out, we beat Uruguay 2-1, smoked Jamaica 5-0, and lost to Holland 2-0 in a performance that was much more impressive than the scoreline suggests.

The eagle-eyed readers at BigSoccer just identified a news snippet on FIFA.com revealing our opponents in one of these games, the last of the three and typically the major send-off against a challenging foe that will allow us to test our mettle against some sturdy competition. Ladies and gentlemen, it's...

Latvia. Or, depending on how ethnically correct you want your spelling to be, Latvija. Either way, it's a disappointment. Latvia's no Holland, to say the least, though they aren't quite the footballing chumps one may think. The Lats qualified for Euro04 (through the playoffs, beating Turkey on aggregate over the two legs), and managed respectable results against the Czech Republic (who squeaked out a 2-1 win after being down 1-0 at halftime) and Germany (a gritty 0-0 draw).

They haven't done much since then, failing to do much in their WC06 qualifying group and never even challenging for a playoff spot. There could be some sense that we want to line up opponents who will be like our WC foes, so one might think that the Latvians will play like the Czech Republic, but I'm skeptical. Apart from the fact that both teams are located in Eastern Europe writ large, I don't think there's any reason to expect that they're similar. It could also be that we simply got lucky last time with two of three solid foes (in 1998's WC run-up, we tied Scotland and Macedonia 0-0, and beat Kuwait 2-0). In any case, Latvia in Connecticut is on. Get psyched.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Jamaican me crazy

Tickets for the US friendly versus Jamaica on April 11 in Cary, NC sold out in under 90 minutes this past weekend. Any indications that the South is in the grips of World Cup fever have to be taken with a grain of salt; there were only 8,000 tix on sale to begin with. Still, the notion that any US game would sell out that quickly is kind of surprising.

Perhaps there's an unusually large Jamaican expat community in the Raleigh-Durham area that I didn't know about. Perhaps Ticketmaster got crossed up and routed people seeking Duke basketball tickets to SAS stadium instead. Or perhaps Occam's Razor applies here and people everywhere--even in the deepest darkest American South--are psyched about US Soccer and the upcoming mundial.

For what it's worth, though, there's a bit of bad history in Cary. Last time the US played there in a pre-WC02 scrimmage, they went up against the Richmond Kickers, and needed a late Earnie Stewart goal to escape with a 2-2 tie. As everyone knows, that game was a dead-on indicator that the US was doomed in the World Cup.

MLS makes the right call: 1836 becomes Dynamo

To take a turn away from the US and the World Cup and toward MLS, it’s worth noting that today the newly established Houston franchise announced their team name: Houston Dynamo. Seems like a perfectly good name to me; better certainly than Kansas City’s Wizards or Los Angeles' Galaxy.

The trick is that it’s the second time the Houston team named their side. The first name was “Houston 1836”, in homage to the year the city was founded (at the expense of its previous Mexican occupants, who were ousted by Sam Houston and company). It seems that it never occurred to the genius MLS execs responsible for the name that it would conjure up problematic associations for the city’s Hispanic population; not an insignificant fact when you consider that this is a demographic the franchise will need to court to survive.

Today’s change wasn’t welcomed by all. The predictable nub of eternally aggrieved white guys lamented the loss of a team name that appealed to them and them alone. I’m not sure what you call it when the tender feelings of cultural conservatives are hurt, but it seems analytically indistinguishable from the kind of responses from the left that aforementioned conservatives tirelessly decry as limp-wristed PC whining.

I get the general point that people can be too sensitive about these sorts of issues, and I even share to some extent in the compassion fatigue for identity politics that’s been sweeping America for some time. That said, the name-change issue doesn’t seem like a close call at all. "1836" was a stupid name from an economic, public relations, and soccer point of view.

First off, when you select a team name, it's elementary that you should choose something that appeals to all of the demographics you want to bring in. You'd have to be dumber than a dead armadillo lying by the side of a Texas highway not to realize that choosing a politically charged year as part of a team's name is going to alienate a large sector of that demographic. Choose such a name and you lose money; simple.

Second, team names often have political implications in soccer. Do you think a lot of Glasgow protestants root for Celtic, or that you find a lot of Catalan separatists going to see Espanyol? Not likely. MLS names have been weird and bland, but at least they haven't been designed to trigger sectarian feelings. The change to Dynamo intelligently continues the latter part of this trend.

Finally, even if you don't buy any of the political problems the name raised, "1836" simply missed the mark as a team name. I get the significance for Houston's history, but no other football team with a year in its name does this. The year refers to the founding of the athletic club, not of the town. 1836 made about as much sense as calling the Salt Lake team "ReAL." If you're going to ape European team names, you should at least do it in a way that makes sense.

By contrast, Dynamo seems like a great name. It's got positive connotations, doesn't give off the weird vibe of some MLS names, and is something everyone can appreciate. Kudos to MLS for making the right move.

Left back and forth

Every team has their problem areas. For the US, areas of concern are second striker (assuming we play a two-striker formation), right midfield, and—probably the longest-standing area of concern—left fullback.

We’ve got a surfeit of candidates at center back: veterans like Pope and Berhalter, newcomers like Onyewu and Conrad, seasoned regulars like Bocanegra, and wild cards like Gibbs (who may or may not be back from injury). At right back, Cherundolo is back from a nasty injury but looks on-form and is a lock for that spot. But left back continues to be a problem for us.

And this matters because the kind of teams we’ll be playing at the World Cup will key on any weakness and exploit it for all ninety minutes. To see what kind of impact even a single weak link in the backline can be, cast your mind back to 2002 when almost every goal we surrendered (and some we didn’t thanks to great goalkeeping from Friedel) was due to Jeff Agoos being sadly but plainly overmatched. So what to do? The options:

Eddie Lewis. Eddie usually plays left-sided midfield for Premiership promotion hopefuls Leeds United. His virtues are quickness and excellent crossing, as well as a decent free kick and one of the better shots from distance on the squad (though the latter is really not saying much). Against Poland, Bruce Arena slotted him into the LB slot and he performed quite well, earning MOTM honors (from ESPN) for an error-free performance that included a wicked cross that led to the game’s only goal. The concerns are his size and lack of experience, but I’m not too bothered about either of these. A wingback need not be large to be effective; Dolo is short at RB and does a great job (if anything, size might compromise needed mobility). As for experience, it’s somewhat of a concern, but Lewis looked comfortable in the LB spot as a first-time gig against Poland, and he has plenty of WC experience, so I’d be happy to see him start for us there in the World Cup.

Jonathan Spector. Between Wednesday and Saturday of last week, I had pretty much accepted the idea that a converted Eddie Lewis would be our LB in the World Cup. And while I still fully expect that to be the case, I began to question this a bit over the weekend when Jonathan played a stellar game at left back for Charlton Athletic, helping to hold Liverpool to a 0-0 draw at Anfield. He got an 8 rating from Skysports and was named to the Premiership Best XI for the week. Most impressive was his performance against Djibril Cisse, the crafty French forward who Spector pretty much marked out of the game, even though you could tell Liverpool had begun attacking down the right flank to try to exploit that side as a weakness. Spector remains young and has only a touch of USMNT experience, so his mere inclusion in the WC roster would be a surprise, but Arena has shown a willingness to take a chance on promising youngsters (e.g., Beasley starting in the 2002 WC), and strongly favors on-form players starting for their top-flight teams (and it looks like Spector has merited at least one more start for Charlton), so I think there’s an outside chance of Spector being in the mix this summer, at least if he continues to perform like he did over the weekend.

Frankie Hejduk. Frankie played RB for us during the last World Cup when David Regis simply didn’t have anyone’s confidence, and he did a damned good job (though I believe LB is his most natural position). You know what you get with Frankie: speed and tireless effort. He’s not the most skilled player on the ball, and doesn’t bring any real offensive weaponry, but with wheels and World Cup experience, he’s a solid third-best option.

Carlos Bocanegra. About three years ago, Carlos seemed to be our best young defender. He won MLS defender of the year honors, then Premiership side Fulham acquired him and immediately slotted him into the starting XI. Trick: the Cottagers put him in as a left back, not as a center back (his natural position), with the result that Carlos was getting run down badly by the speedy forwards and wingers who populate the English game. He’s back at CB for Fulham now, starting and (despite some controversy) doing fairly well. I see him as a backup option, though; certainly not an ideal LB (lacks the speed and ball skills, plus too tall), but he’ll be the option if the others don’t pan out. It wouldn’t be an unmitigated disaster to have Carlos play out of position for us in the World Cup, but it does sort of make me cringe to consider the prospect.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is it. I really can’t think of another player who could plausibly play LB for us at the international level. And while the tone of this post is optimistic, given both Lewis’ and Spector’s outstanding performances in that position this past week, we’re really only an injury or two away from having this be a truly problematic position.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

The strength and weakness of World Cup groups: some numbers

Which is the real group of death? This question draws lots of attention because it points out one of the major issues of the World Cup draw: that its focus on geography can result in massive differences in the quality of competition from group to group. This is part of the game; ex ante, no team has a much greater or worse chance to be in a GoD. However, once the groups are drawn the debate tends to focus on which teams are better than others in the putative GoDs, and this doesn’t really get very far. We could debate all day about whether the US is better in its group than Serbia is in its, or Cote d’Ivoire versus Ghana, ad nauseam.

So I’ve tried to use the ELO ratings to provide a more determinate look at the relative difficulty of the eight groups, with some interesting results. I’ve averaged the ELO ratings of each team in each group to give some sense of their average degree of difficulty. This isn’t a foolproof method, of course. The ELO ratings aren’t guarantors of current quality and certainly don’t predict how good teams will be on the eve of the WC. Also, averages like this can be deceiving. A group with three excellent teams and one poor one might be much more unfair than a group with two superior and two inferior teams, even though the average ELO ratings of both those groups might appear equal. Anyway, with those caveats in mind, here’s what I’ve found:

Group A………..26.25
Group B………..25.75
Group C………..16.5
Group D………..28
Group E………..21.5
Group F………..15.75
Group G………..37
Group H………..33.25

The average difficulty for a group was 25.5. So we have a couple groups (A and B) right at the mean; one group a bit tougher than the mean (E); one group a bit easier than the mean (D); two much more difficult (C and F) and two much easier (G and H).

So compare this to the conventional wisdom. I looked at the groups and initially thought there were some major disparities. Just looking at the teams, I perceived groups C and E to be clearly the hardest; and groups G and H to be clearly the weakest. According to ELO, E may not be as hard as all of us US fans seem to believe. The numbers could be deceptive, though; Ghana’s got a very bad ELO rating (67), which skews the average upward of what I think it should be.

Also, I didn’t rate F as a very difficult group. I think any one of Croatia, Japan, and Australia should be thrilled to make the second round, and one of them is guaranteed that. Not so, according to the ELO averages, which has F as the real Group of Death, even harder than C (which includes Argentina, Holland, Serbia, and Cote d’Ivoire). The conventional wisdom that G and H are weaklings seems right, though. Lucky bastards.

My Favorite Year: USA 2002

One of my favorite pieces of soccer writing is Roddy Doyle’s account of following Ireland in the 1990 World Cup. I first encountered it in My Favourite Year, one of many fantastic collections of soccer writing done by the British outfit When Saturday Comes. It reminds me a little of what it was like to have the World Cup in the US in 1994. Even in our soccer-unsavvy nation, people were thinking and talking about the tournament. I even got the afternoon off work to watch the second half of the Nats’ famous 2-1 win over Colombia. But even that pales in comparison to the footy-mad Dublin that Doyle describes. The packed pubs roaring Ireland on, the flag-festooned streets, the euphoric madness in the city when the team beat Romania on penalties to reach the last eight…

It sounds wonderful, and it makes me insanely jealous. Compare, for example, my experience of the 2002 World Cup in Washington. DC is, by American standards, a good soccer town. DC United has arguably the best support in MLS, and the US used to have lots of games at RFK Stadium because they could rely on strong turnouts.

Still, when our opening game against Portugal rolled around in June 2002, there was little in the way of buzz. Sure, Sports Illustrated had Clint Mathis on the cover, and people seemed vaguely aware that the World Cup was happening (in the same way they’re aware that the Olympics are happening), but there was no buzz in the streets, no growing sense of national anticipation, certainly nothing to match the way I felt at 4am that morning when we kicked off against the team of Figo and Rui Costa that was surely going to run circles around us.

I watched the game in my apartment in the dead quiet of pre-dawn in Woodley Park—partly because it was so damned early that I didn’t think any place would be open—and so the setting was strangely dead for the sporting miracle that unfolded. When John O’Brien scored in only the fourth minute, I fell off my couch and onto the floor in excitement, though I had to be careful not to disturb my cranky downstairs neighbor (he had already complained to the management about the volume of my celebrations when the US beat Canada on penalties to advance to the finals of the CONCACAF championship earlier that year).

When Donovan and McBride added two more, I couldn’t stand being quiet. I looked online and found that the Diner in Adams-Morgan was televising games for free. I set out on a dead run and arrived to see the start of the second half (and having missed Beto’s goal that reduced our lead to 3-1). Finally, there was an atmosphere. People packed the Diner and spilled out into the street. The support was intense but subdued, save for the stomach-churning moment when Agoos blasted a spectacular goal into the upper 90—of our own net. When the game ended, predictable chants of USA! ensued for about fifteen seconds, then people cleared out. I ate breakfast at the counter, and by the time I left, it was as though the game never happened. No one celebrated in the streets; hell, no one even seemed to know that this massive event had even taken place. I was at work by 9am and an uneventful, if sleep-deprived, day ensued.

I ended up watching the regrettable Poland match and the miraculous Mexico match with a group of friends, and then the quarterfinal versus Germany on the Jumbotron at RFK Stadium with several thousand other fans. When it ended, we applauded the great US effort, and then went home, silent.

It’s not as though I think the US should be in the grips of soccer madness like other countries are. Nations, much the same as people, are free to love what they love. And American doesn’t love soccer; they like it, in much the same way that you like a vague acquaintance that you’re happy to run into every now and again but don’t think about when he’s not around. What I miss about watching soccer in the US, and what makes me jealous of Roddy Doyle’s Dublin, is the sense of being part of something. It’s strange that something that seemed as earth-shattering a national event as the Portugal match had so little impact on the nation it involved. Or perhaps it’s less of a geopolitical issue but just a matter of feeling unfulfilled; the Portugal match made me want to go out and party, but instead I had to go into work.

Hence the trip to Germany this summer. Win or lose, I’m going to be in a place where the atmosphere outside matches what’s going on inside.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Eurodissed and loving it

Anyone who follows US soccer closely enough knows the following pattern: the US manages a decent result against a European foe; the press throughout Europe (and in England) responds with measured rather than effusive praise; and the nerdtastic soccerphiles stateside go into a tizzy, bemoaning the lack of respect US soccer receives.

Now some of this is understandable, if unwarranted. Reputations take a long time to change, and for many decades, the US was rightly considered a soccer backwater. Nor are we as good at soccer as we are in many other sports (even the Winter Olympics; can you imagine the shock if the US finished second in the World Cup as they did in the recent medal count?). On the other hand, when some sass-mouth reporter suggests that the Yanks' win over Poland was lucky, Bruce Arena has every right to call out this opinion as dead-ass wrong.

But American fans might not be so quick to read the Euroresponse to the rise of the USMNT as merely condescending. It's partly that, sure (though I think the condescenscion is less a sincere belief in the inferiority of US soccer than a desperate attempt to hold onto that belief in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary). But it also reminds me of a story I heard from a Germany-based friend, who responded to the US success in WC2002 with a sense that the inevitable had come to pass, and now the US had started to become good in the last area that they'd long ignored. "You've got everything else," this response seems to say, "And now you have to have soccer too?"

Thus it's not just a rude dismissal, this tendency of foreign press to underrate the US soccer team. It's also a desire to deny that the US has arrived in one area that they could long have for themselves alone (like the Simpsons episode where Homer becomes good at art, one area in which Marge has always felt superior).

So I say let them have their illusions. In fact, I hope the foreign press does continue to think poorly of the USMNT. As we saw last time around, when top-rated European teams underrate us, it tends to work to our advantage (US 3:2 Portugal). So if any coaches of our World Cup opponents are reading this, then yes, your national sports press has it exactly right! The Yanks don't even know how to kick a ball, let alone play soccer. It would be best to focus your efforts on the other teams in the group and forget all about the pathetic footballing backwater that is the US. Trust me.

Cancel the World Cup

...because Germany is guaranteed to win, suggests a recent statistical study. It works like this: on average, Germany reaches at least the quarters and usually the semis of any World Cup. Add in the fact that hosts generally overperform by an average of 2.5 rounds, and you've got Germany winning the final and then one additional bonus game afterward.

Asked for comment, Italy affirmed the validity of the study. "You can't-a argue with-a the science," said the boot-shaped nation in adorable broken English, and brandished their 1990 World Cup champions' trophy to illustrate the point.

Rivals' friendlies

Enough about how the US warmups are going. How did our Group E opponents fare in today's international friendlies, and what can we read into those results?

First, Italy smoked Germany 4-1 in Florence in a match that doesn't seem to have been as close as the final score indicates. La Squadra were up 2 goals in the first seven minutes and 3-0 by halftime. They coasted after Del Piero added a fourth after halftime, and Germany's late goal (Huth) was just consolation. Implications for the US: hard to say. It's just one game, and even world powers have off-days (recall that Germany looked awful in qualifiers for the 2002 Cup but then made the finals). Still, it's harder to look more commanding than Italy did today. I really don't think the US will beat them if Italy plays like they did today. Fortunately, such performances are rarely repeated.

In Turkey, the Czech Republic were cruising past the hosts until sub Umit Karan scored a very late brace to knot the affair, 2-2. These tea leaves are tough to read. Turkey's a nation on the decline after their great performances in Euro 2000 and World Cup 2002, but winning in Istanbul is no mean feat, and late goals in games where you get six subs likely don't mean much. This is a good result for the Czechs, and suggests that their rep as tough foes is well-earned.

Finally, in a game that finished not too long ago, Ghana fell to Mexico at Pizza Hut Park, 1-0 on a late goal by Franco. I watched the early part of this game on Telemundo, and Mexico pretty clearly had the upper hand, but Ghana hung tough, didn't seem disorganized or edgy like the team that went out of the African Nations Cup in the first round, and gave a creditable account of themselves. The match suggests at least that the few people who are assuming Ghana will be a pushover are dead wrong.

So on the day, it was a commanding win for Italy, a gritty win for the US, a deceptively positive draw for the Czechs, and a respectable defeat for Ghana. There's a lot of chat about which group is the hardest, and I still think it's Group C (Argentina, Serbia, Netherlands, and Cote d'Ivoire), but it's worth noting that those teams didn't make much of an impression today in their friendlies (Croatia 3:2 Argentina; Tunisia 0:1 Serbia; Spain 3:2 Cote d'Ivoire; Netherlands 1:0 Ecuador).

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Progress report: 3/1/2006

There is nothing more dangerous than trying to predict a team's World Cup performance based on their results in the friendly matches that precede the big dance. US fans know this all to well: our ego-inflating 3-0 shellacking of Austria (which was a Cup participant that year) in Vienna on the eve of France 98 was followed by the debacle that was our ignominious three-loss performance in the event itself.

With that caveat in mind, it might be interesting to at least compare how the US was doing in its preparations for the 2002 World Cup at this point four years ago. Check it:

2002 results:

1/19/02.........US 2:1 Korea (Gold Cup prelims)
1/21/02.........US 1:0 Cuba (Gold Cup prelims)
1/26/02.........US 4:0 El Salvador (Gold Cup quarterfinals)
1/30/02.........US 0:0 Canada (4-2 PKs) (Gold Cup semifinals)
2/2/02...........US 2:0 Costa Rica (Gold Cup finals)
2/13/02.........Italy 1:0 US
3/2/02...........US 4:0 Honduras

2004 results:

1/22/06.........US 0:0 Canada
1/29/06.........US 5:0 Norway
2/10/06.........US 3:2 Japan
2/19/06.........US 4:0 Guatemala
3/1/06...........Poland 0:1 US

The numbers seem pretty comparable. At this point in 2002, we were 5-1-1, while now we're 4-1-0 (I'm using a W-D-L system, which has always seemed to make more sense to me). There were a couple more data points then, but there are a lot of parallels. In each year, we had a one-goal win over a good Asian side; a couple thrashings of far weaker teams; and a good showing against a strong European side.

That said, I think a look past the numbers indicates that we're doing better this time around, though not by a ton. One difference is that we played Cuba very close in the Gold Cup, while we haven't looked bad against a subpar opponent so far this year, instead smoking them all (OK, the Canada game, but that was early on, and Canada's really not that bad; they beat Austria in Austria today). The post-match press this year after the early games was all about how it was impossible to read anything into those games because the teams weren't good; we were at home; etc. But I think it means a lot when you consistently crush inferior opposition, and in the three games that ended the early 2006 camp, we did just that (and Japan is not inferior, but we still beat up on them before getting sloppy late).

Of course the optimism doesn't necessarily translate into anything. I like that we're playing well. I think we're looking even better than we were at this point in the last WC cycle. It's too early to read anything into all this, but given what indications we do have, it seems hard to argue that cautious optimism isn't warranted.

US 1:0 Poland

One of the most painful memories I have of last WC is the third group game. We were sitting pretty, needing only a tie against Poland to guarantee an appearance in the Round of 16. Our Polish opponents had looked wretched in their first two matches (despite much pre-Cup puffery in the Europress touting them as dark-horse faves), losing 2-0 to South Korea and then getting stuffed 4-0 by Portugal. Confidence ran high. Even the bookies on the continent, who so consistently underrate the Nats, had us as heavy favorites to win and advance.

Then in about five minutes, the roof caved in. Emanuel Olisadebe (Poland's naturalized Nigerian forward) scored a weird goal off a fracas following a corner. Landon Donovan had a goal chalked off for a dubious foul. Then Pavel Krzyszalowicz (sp?) executed a beautiful though heartbreaking move that culminated in a second Polish goal and effectively killed the game off with eighty-five minutes to go. The team and all US fans spent the rest of the game watching with half an eye on the Portugal-South Korea match, which miraculously ended in favor of the Korean hosts, sending us into the second round via the back door.

I don't know if it's coincidence, but since then we've gotten three chances to avenge that loss to Poland. We handled them in Lodz, 1-0, back in early 2004 thanks to a DeMarcus Beasely goal, then outplayed them in Chicago but barely salvaged a 1-1 draw when Carlos Bocanegra scored on a late header from a corner. But those games were--from what I can tell--against B-level versions of the Poland side, and weren't taken that seriously because they weren't in preparation for any major tournament.

Today, the US and Poland squared off for the fourth time in three years, with the series knotted at 1-1-1, and this game was serious. Both teams brought their A-list players, both teams took the occasion seriously as one of the few opportunities to gear up for this summer's World Cup (Poland qualified second out of England's group, and is in Group A with hosts Germany, as well as Costa Rica and Ecuador), and the friendly was staged in Kaiserslautern, one of twelve German World Cup venues to give a taste of the real event.

Before the game, I felt optimistic. Our three previous frendlies had seen a skein of victories and an onslaught of goals (12 all told, something close to a USMNT record). And Poland is a solid side with some quality players, but they're not a glittering, threatening, storied side with expectations of winning the Cup. They are, in other words, daunting but beatable. I predicted a 2-1 win. Then the first half started.

It's not that we were awful, we just weren't that good. To be fair, neither was Poland. Both teams looked as though they were bent on embodying the maxim that it's easier to destroy than to create. To be fair, though, the only team that put together any sustained attacks was Poland, but our defense was up to each of them. Keller came out of goal a couple times to scuttle some chances, and the whole backline showed well (I love that with Onyewu we finally have someone who intimidates opponents). There was a late Dolo free kick that went close, but for the most part the only good thing to take away is that our defense is good enough that they can keep a quality opponent from scoring even when our midfield is getting run through like Paris Hilton (the jokes will improve, I promise). And while I was less than enthused after 45, I think the defensive solidity is an excellent sign for the future.

At the outset of the second half, Howard and Bocanegra replaced Keller and Berhalter, and I said to myself "now when we lose we can blame it on the subs." Shortly after, Lewis put in a nice cross from the left, Twellman challenged, the Polish goalkeeper punched poorly, we got a lucky ricochet off TT's head, and Dempsey ran around a sloth-footed defender to head in. A blizzard ensued and it ended up being the only goal of the game. My pre-game optimism had been justified; my halftime pessimism was misguided. Even Tim Howard looked solid in the net. I'll be damned, another win.

Admittedly, we didn't exactly light Poland on fire (unlikely to create any heat in the subzero temps). However, as Celo Balboa hyperactively repeated again and again, this game looked much like the World Cup will, and was a much more meaningful test than the previous friendlies against weaker opponents in familiar venues. And even though we were outplayed in the first half, the defense showed up and did a nice job; Poland never really looked like scoring thanks to the back four and Keller. And in the second half, we administered the 1-0 lead perfectly, looking throughout like the more dangerous team and deserving (if not richly meriting) the fourth straight win. There are points of concern (in particular, LD looking useless as an A-mid without a good supporting D-mid), but on the whole it's hard for me to find reasons not to be happy about this one.

(Oh, and by the way, all my posts will not be of this inordinate length and tediousness. It's the soccer obsessive in me. I can't help it.)