Tuesday, June 29, 2010

World Cup 2010 Game 56: Spain 1, Portugal 0

Even before Diego Maradonna ran through England and Belgium and almost single handedly (pun intended) delivered the World Cup to Argentina in '86, one of the subplots of the tournament has been which player will establish himself as the best in the world.

Today it looks like Spain's David Villa may come out of the tournament as the alpha male of the sport, besting Christiano Ronaldo (who looked more petulant than threatening as he called out his teammates and the referees) and Portugal. Argentina's Lionel Messi has probably had a better tournament, but as his own strikes haven't found the back of the net and Villa's have, Villa will have the advantage unless or until the two teams go head to head. The fact that Brazil's goals have been modest and distributed amongst the team also makes it easier for players from another team to strike their claim. Then again, if someone does something special in the next three games, that is what will be remembered, not the player who had the lead after 54 holes (metaphorically speaking).

Portugal was a disappointment in this game, and their 0-0 draw with the Ivory Coast was more indicative in the long run than the 7-0 explosion against North Korea. Yes, they hadn't given up a goal in something like 12 matches, but excepting the game against North Korea, they hadn't scored in this World Cup either. I could be wrong, but they looked a bit intimidated by Spain, a bit tight.

With Spain's victory, seven of the eight group winners advanced. Only the United States failed to win its round of sixteen game.

World Cup 2010 Game 55

Paraguay 0, Japan 0

The only thing more dissatisfying than winning a game on Penalty Kicks is losing one.

In one of the earlier telecasts an ESPN announcer chatted about a psued0 debate among statisticians as to whether these such games should be counted as a loss or a draw. Hard to explain how you lost a game where they opponent didn't score, but, then again, if there is a result, then one team did what they needed more than the other.

Japan did not exactly go into a shell and play for a draw, but they were very conservative, often playing only one striker up front and hoping for a moment of brilliance from Honda rather than a team goal. Paraguay, accustomed to playing Brazil and Argentina twice in qualifications had a little more practice in playing defensive shut down games. Neither team had ever made it to the quarterfinals.

Paraguay will be heavy underdogs against either Spain or Portugal but they have beaten two of the teams in the final eight within the last year, so they can score goals in regulation time...though I'm sure if you offered them a penalty kick shoot out right now, they would take it.

World Cup 2010 Games 53 & 54

The Netherlands 2, Slovakia 1
Brazil 3, Chile 0

One doesn't make oneself look smarter than everyone else by picking Brazil, which is the favorite of any world cup until it loses. The experts have been volleying back and forth, embracing Germany after their first big win against Australia, warming up to Argentina after they flattened a weak group, falling in love with Portugal after they poured in six goals in a half against a North Korea team that held Brazil to within 2-1, and falling back in love with Spain after they overcame their goose egg against Switzerland to win their group. (For the latter, there is something to be said for getting your bad game out of the way early in the tournament.)

Even so, Brazil is ranked #1 for a reason. The outcome against Chile was never really in doubt, but two moments impressed me. In the 70th minute, with Brazil up 3-0, the team pressed forward and Kaka got an unmarked strike just over the top of the box. He sailed the shot high, and as the camera panned back on him, you could see him chastising himself for not doing better. In most games with a 3-0 score, the leading team feels carte blanche to try to pad the stat sheet, but each opportunity here is an opportunity to practice and prepare for the key moments.

Perhaps more telling was a moment four minutes later. Brazil had one a corner kick that was headed out of the box starting a counter attack moving the other way. The Brazilian player who did the corner kick literally sprinted back on defense, marking the Chilean with possession, and slowing the break to give the defense time to get back and set up. A fifty yard sprint in the 75th minute with a 3-0 lead? It's customary to think the best teams just coast by on superior natural talent, but they often work just as hard or harder than those trying to overtake them.

The Dutch cruise along, also winning their fourth game with no draws and setting up a quarterfinal showdown of #1 vs. #4. Not as flashy in the build up as Brazil, the Dutch still have some nifty finishers and they are good enough with possession that their defense minimizes the chances the opponents get. At this level, that's what you do...minimize the number of opportunities. Still, Brazil will create a few opportunities on skill, and they will finish. The question, then, is whether or not the Dutch can capitalize on their opportunities. If they do, it will be a close match.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

World Cup 2010 Game 52: Argentina 3, Mexico 1

Well, at least Mexico can say, by virtue of scheduling, that they lasted longer than the United States by a day. This sort of regional supremacy is pretty much all the two would be soccer powers have left.

This game was marked by--you guessed it--yet another egregious officiating error. This one gave Argentina a 1-0 lead as a goal from a man who was clearly offside was allowed (unlike the clearly legal goal in the England game that was not allowed). The error was magnified by the fact that the official was not really in position to call the play. But hey, Argentina was clearly the better team, so it's not as though giving them a 1-0 advantage had any outcome on the game.

Argentina eventually went up 3-0 before Mexico scored a late goal, a beautiful strike to the corner that made me wonder whether or not Concacaf would be competitive if it just formed one regional team with players from different nations. The United States, remember, hasn't had a World Cup goal from a striker in about 8 years.

Argentina continues to pour in goals in a tournament where goals are hard to come by. They have a quarterfinal match with Germany.

And whither now Concacaf? Rather than closing on Europe and South America, it appears to have been caught by Asia, which put as many teams in the second round as Concacaf and had a better showing from its teams that didn't go through (Australia at least put up a fight whereas Honduras looked like it couldn't score a goal if it had another six games).

World Cup 2010 Game 51: Germany 4, England 1

FIFA will no doubt take the position that the final score of the match supports the contention that England's disallowed goal did not determine the outcome of the match.

As even the casual observer over the last two weeks will have noted, though, playing from behind in soccer is a very different proposition from playing level, and the notion that all other things would have been the same moving forward from that point on is as laughable as the failure to award England a goal for a ball that struck the crossbar and bounced inward a yard inside the box and over the line. When the backspin on the ball bounced it back to Germany's keeper, play quickly continued despite the protests of the English side.

In eschewing goal line technology, FIFA has said that it likes the controversy that the human element introduces to the game. Let's be clear on something, then. This was not a controversial decision. This was a wrong decision. There was nothing controversial about it. It is not and was not a judgment call. It was not a borderline decision. It was a flat error. At one of the showcase events of the largest tournament in the world.

As an American with a non-rooting interest in this particular game, I can only say that my hope is now that the final gets somehow marred by an error of this magnitude. Even then, will that be enough to make the governing body heed the cries to take even the most basic steps to correct the most blatant errors? Chip technology has existed for years to measure these sorts of plays and is used effectively in hockey, a much harder sport to judge goal line technology. As American coach Bob Bradley has pointed out, diving could be effectively eliminated without stopping play or altering decisions on the field by rescinding automatic suspensions after review and penalizing the players that took a dive.

When an error of this magnitude takes place, it is customary to focus on the unfairness to the losing side, in this case, England. There is an unfairness to Germany, too. Germany could very well go on to win the World Cup (though they face some fierce competition). If they do, will there always be a nagging question to mitigate their sense of accomplishment? Maybe not. And certainly everyone would rather be on one side of these decisions than the other. It is easy enough to believe you would have prevailed regardless. But believing you are the best team on the field and knowing it, proving it, are two different things.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

World Cup 2010 Game 50: Ghana 2, United States 1

Yes, well...we didn't think they would win it, but I am surprised the United States did not advance further.

Two things made the difference. The United States twice again gave up an early goal, first early in the game and then, again, early in the overtime period. In four games at this World Cup the United States played with the lead a grand total of about two minutes after the stoppage goal against Algeria. Mentally, physically, always pushing uphill costs you physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Secondly, there was just a difference of individual skill at the striker level. Ghana's second goal came not just on a U.S. defensive breakdown but on a skillful finish from a Ghana player who kept his balance, controlled the ball and put it on goal with pace over a good keeper. The few shots that the United States had were at the keeper. Set pieces, normally a strength of the United States were few and far between and are, of course, harder to execute with tired legs.

There are no easy games in the World Cup, no mismatches any more. The bitterness of a loss is, perhaps, alleviated a bit by the fact that it was not on a huge mental lapse or a poor referee's decision but rather on getting beat squarely by a team that capitalized on the chances it had.

World Cup 2010 Game 49: Uruguay 2, South Korea 1

Congratulations to Uruguay for its first knockout victory in over thirty years. Congratulations, too, to South Korea, which fought hard and valiantly in the second half, scoring an equalizer in the second half before giving up a beautiful curving corner strike from Luis Suarez.

Uruguay now plays the winner of the United States vs. Ghana and will like its chances. It has conceded one goal thus far in the tournament and is toughened by having survived what was, apparently, the most challenging regional qualification process.

Two stories to keep an eye on that ESPN has mentioned but perhaps not highlighted:

--Once again, there were a lot of empty seats. I understand that these are not two teams with huge international fan bases, and from a neutral standpoint was the least sexy of the matchups, but FIFA has to be concerned about this matter. I could not find attendance reported in any of the stat sheets, but the figure I saw for the US-Algeria game was 35K. I would think, if anything, this bodes well for the US bid to host 2018 or 2022. It certainly puts a hamper on the argument for more host nations in non-traditional (i.e. South American or European) sites. (Incidentally, ESPN's Bob Ley mentioned there were also a lot of empty seats for the U.S.-Ghana game. The explanation offered there was that these could have been bought by English fans expecting their side to win the group, but I'm not sure I'm buying that. Anyone who has been around a tournament knows that there are usually fans hanging around after the game trying to pick up tickets for the next game from fans of the losing side. So maybe some English fans had tickets they didn't want to use, but the bigger story would be that there was nobody there to take them off their hands.)

--The field was not in nice shape. Okay, one commentator used the phrase "terrible." There are other knock out games scheduled for here, including, perhaps a game with the popular (and pass oriented) Brazil. Could the field conditions affect the run of play at a key moment? Stay tuned.

Friday, June 25, 2010

World Cup 2010 Games 47 and 48: Group H

Spain 2, Chile 1
Switzerland 0, Honduras 0

Yes, that was a shot, not a fluke occurrence. The last set of group games was punctuated by the jaw dropping goal of Spain's David Villa who capitalized on yet another goal keeper error to score from loooooong range.

With the score 0-0 and Chile forcing the action and controlling much of play, Spain had a long pass to a striker making the run. It actually looked like the Chilean defender took an angle and was going to cut off play, but the Chilean goalkeeper streaked out of his box to try to reach the ball first, fearing a break away. He slid into the ball just before the Spanish player and Chilean defender, but he failed to clear the ball out of bounds, so it deflected off both charging players back to the left center of the field and at the feet of David Villa. Villa was staring at an empty (literally) goal. There was just one problem...it was 40 yards away. Did I say problem? Nope, Villa made a long, curving ball that started left of goal and arched like a slicing golf drive into the seemingly gaping goal mouth.

Funny, isn't it, how sometimes (like when the U.S. was 0-0 and needing a goal to advance) that goal can look so small and at other times (like when you are a Danish goalkeeper facing a Japanese free kick) the space you have to cover seems so wide.

Chile started the evening with six points and had a man sent off for a second yellow card just before half time. They faced the prospect of forty-five minutes against the number two team in the world while playing a man down, and a seemingly secure position now looked precarious.

Cynics may suspect that Spain took their foot off the gas in the second half. Once Chile scored a short handed goal to close it to 2-1 it was almost as though both teams tacitly admitted they had the results they needed barring two goals from a Swiss team that only managed one the whole tournament. Still, Switzerland was playing a weak Honduras team, so nothing was in the bag. Honduras actually had a few more chances (and an outside shot at qualifying if they could win by three or more goals). Instead both sides played to a zero-zero draw and we were spared yet a third Top 10 team in the world going out before the second stage.

We were also spared the 1 v 2 match of Spain/Brazil in the knockout round, though, honestly, Spain/Portugal will be nearly as heavy. Brazil is the big winner as they not only get a weaker Chilean team but one that will be missing two players from an accumulation of cards. That said, Chile has played Brazil twice in qualifying and while they didn't win, the familiarity of playing that team means they won't be in awe of the Brazilian side. Still, look for Brazil to go through and set up a round of 8 match with the Dutch.

In the knockout stage things rarely go according to seeds, but if they do, one would half to say that America got a much easier draw than the second place team in their group, England. To win the World Cup, America would have to beat (in order): Ghana, Uruguay/South Korea, Brazil, and Spain (which they have done). England would have to beat Germany, Argentina, Spain, and Brazil or the 1, 2, 5 and 6 ranked teams in the world. So while America is bemoaning its bad luck to get the Malian referee in game two, let us remember they caught a break with a fluke goal against England.

World Cup 2010 Games 45 and 46: Group G

Brazil 0, Portugal 0
Ivory Coast 3, North Korea 0

Much as I predicted yesterday Brazil and Portugal played a less than enthralling match today. There were chippy fouls and a lot of yellow cards in the first half and while Ivory Coast scored an early two goals at no point was Portugal's nine goal differential in doubt. Even if it were, that would be all the more reason for Portugal to play for a draw. Brazil goes to one side of the bracket, seemingly on a collision course with the Dutch, while Portugal may get Spain as their reward for not getting the victory...unless of course Spain can't get a result against Chile.

This was the equivalent of an exhibition game, so I wouldn't read too much into it, but there was one play that was telling. In the first half Portugal had a rare counterattack and a man advantage on a four-three break away. The attacker was in the penalty box, unmarked on the right. Granted the angle wasn't the best, but he laid it off to the center to another player who dove in the box. The result of Portugal's best scoring chance? No shot on goal and a yellow card for embellishment. Portugal is an immensely talented team but that sequence suggests a confidence gap to me. Do they believe they are as good as Brazil? That they can win? In every sport there are players that want the ball in crunch time and players that in the back of their minds would be just as happy to see it go to someone else.

There were a few moments in injury time, including a nice stop by Portugal's goalie off of a deflected shot, but mostly this was a game played very close to the vest.

It's fashionable to feel sorry for the Ivory Coast, probably the best African side, both for the injury to their best player and for drawing the toughest group. Ultimately, though, it didn't come down to goal differentials since Portugal got a tie against Brazil. Also, Ivory Coast had a shot at Portugal in the opening game and both sides played very cautiously, more not to lose than to win. When you do that, you can't complain later that things aren't in your own hands.

One thought about Brazil going forward. They are the #1 team. They are the favorite. But they got 2 goals from a North Korea team that gave up seven to Portugal and were held scoreless by Portugal. Once you get to the knockout stage, will the recipe for beating Brazil be on defense rather than offense...going to penalty kicks or getting a goal of your own on limited opportunities (if North Korea can score on them than anyone can)?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

World Cup 2010 Games 43 and 44: Group E

Japan 3, Denmark 1
The Netherlands 2, Cameroon 1

Pretty much this whole tournament announcers have been lamenting the lack of goals from direct free kicks (not penalty kicks). It must be the new ball sailing...or the altitude. Then Japan scores two in the same half. First time it's happened in long time. Granted the first (which was from waaaaaay out) was aided by a goalie misstep--he broke the wrong way and didn't have time to recover. The second was a beauty. Later a long, looping cross from near midfield bounced off the goalie's hand and hit the crossbar. It wasn't the goalie's best day.

But that makes it sound like the goalie had a bad day. Japan dominated this game, with speed, creativity, and solid defense. (The goal allowed was on a bogus penalty kick awarded by...yes...a crazy referee.) As the game progressed, Denmark chipped long ball after long ball forward, hoping that a loose ball would fall in the box for an opportunistic goal. I suppose scouting may have made this a strategy, but if madness is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result....

I have nothing to say about The Netherlands, a team that had already advanced against Cameroon, a team that had already been eliminated other than to ask why this game needed to be played (except to get another African goal on penalty kicks). Then again, I should ask that of a tournament that makes the semifinals losers play a third place game? (Could you imagine West Virginia playing Michigan State the afternoon before the Duke-Butler game?)

The Dutch have had a very workmanlike stroll through their group and unless Brazil beats Portugal wins tomorrow will be the only team to finish the first round with three victories.

Speaking of Brazil, Portugal and meaningless games: with Kaka out on a bogus booking and both sides safely through (assuming Ivory Coast can't make up a 9 goal differential) I suspect you may actually see a pretty boring game...conservative, safe, with both sides caring more about avoiding cards and injuries moving forward. Add to that the fact that the winner of the group gets put in a subbracket with The Netherlands, and there may not be much urgency.

Then again, the second place team may get Spain in the round of 16. (Assuming the Swiss can beat Honduras, Spain has to win to advance to the next stage, so they are likely either going to win the group or go home.)

Interestingly enough, we could have three of the top four ranked teams in the world in the same quadrant of the bracket, and the teams ranked 6,7, and 8 (Germany, Argentina, England). Due respect to Japan, who shredded the Danes, but if you were Portugal, your reward for winning is a bracket with Spain (probably), Slovakia, and The Netherlands. Your reward for coming in second is a bracket with Switzerland/Chile, Japan, and Paraguay. Hmmmm, we may have a bunch of "own goals" in this one.

World Cup 2010 Games 41 and 42:: Group F

Slovakia 3, Italy 2
Paraguay 0, New Zealand 0

Ciao Azzuri. Italy joins France with an early departure from the World Cup. Given my ambivalence for the Italian side, it was especially gratifying to see de Rossi give away the lazy (and dangerous) central pass that led to the first Slovakia goal.

The oddest thing about this game was the last ten to fifteen minutes. Once Italy gave up the second goal, they went relentlessly on the attack, and when they scored the first goal, Slovakia (which needed a win to qualify) looked shaky. Then, as quickly as Italy established dominance, the old arrogance set in and they didn't mark a man on a THROW IN. The Slovakian sub scored on his first touch of the ball to make it 3-1. Even then Italy threw in a second goal and it seemed like Slovakia was the team on the ropes. Despite the referee chastising the Slovakians for wasting time, they fell to the pitch crying injury with every touch. It really was a shameful display, and if it happened against anyone except Italy, which had stolen a point from New Zealand with a dive of their own, I suppose I would have felt angry. Here it just seemed apropos.

The whistle finally blew, leaving the Italian players showing emotion that had been lacking most of the last three games.

Once Slovakia took a 2-0 lead Paraguay was reasonably safe, but they were playing a dangerous, defensive game. Despite leading the group, Paraguay would have been passed by New Zealand if they had given up a goal, and by Italy if the Italian side won. Even once Slovakia beat Italy, they had a few nervous moments to wait in case New Zealand slipped a ball into the net, which would have elevated them into second place. (This was sort of the revers of the last day of Concacaf qualifying in which Honduras finished their win a few minutes early but still found themselves behind Costa Rica, which was tied with the United States. When American Jonathan Bornstein put in a stoppage time goal, he knotted the game and put Honduras through and Costa Rica in a playoff with Uruguay.) Unfortunately for the Kiwis, their magic ran out and they go home without having lost a game (or winning one).

A lot of attention has been on France and their early exit, but the departure of Italy is a bigger deal. Italy is ranked fifth in the world (to France's ninth) and had a significantly easier draw. (France's opponents were ranked 16 [Uruguay], 17 [Mexico], and 83 [South Africa, playing on home soil]; Italy's opposition was ranked 31 [Paraguay], 34 [Slovakia], and 78 [New Zealand]). In retrospect there might have been signs that Italy was overrated. They fell to Egypt in last year's Confederation's Cup and then got pasted 3-0 by Brazil (allowing a U.S. squad it had beat handily earlier in pool play to advance on goal differentials.) The FIFA rankings are based on results from the last four years (it used to be on the last EIGHT). This would be a little bit like ranking the Philadelphia Eagles as one of the top five teams in the NFL because they have made the Super Bowl with players who were no longer there. Still, much as with the NCAA tournament, the name on the Jersey matters...at least to oddsmakers. Today it didn't matter to Slovakia, they certainly appeared to want it more. Italy acted like they deserved it because of who they were, but they didn't. If they had played with anything approaching the intensity and urgency they did in the last ten minutes they would have skated through this region. Turns out, as Clint Eastwood said in Unforgiven, "Deserve's got nothing to do with it."

One footnote to this match. Italy looked like they had a second goal when a Slovakian defender on the goal line kicked it away. It was hard to tell if the ball had crossed the goal line first, replays were inconclusive and the refs on the field ruled it no goal. They also had a goal taken away on an offside penalty that looked as close as the U.S./Algeria disallowed goal that had Americans up in arms. It's not that the refereeing has been terrible at this World Cup, it's that the difference between these teams, even the powerhouses and the little fish, is very small, and with not too many goals scored, every decision is critical. Again, I would feel more sympathy for the Italians if they hadn't been the recipients of a dubious penalty kick against New Zealand. That said, the U.S. should can any "why does this only happen to us?" It doesn't.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

World Cup 2010 Games 39 and 40: Group D

Germany 1, Ghana 0
Australia 2, Serbia 1

As thrilling as the end of the U.S.-Algeria game was, the last 10 minutes of Australia-Serbia was just as intense. Before moving to the knock out stage lets take a moment to praise Australia, a team that could have folded its tent after a 4-0 drubbing to the German side and playing two games with 10 men. Instead they scored two quick goals and suddenly the impossible seemed to be gaining momentum. They went for it, pushing forward, trying to make up a goal differential that weighed heavily against them. Then, in the desperate push forward, they left the defense vulnerable to a counter attack. Serbia scored and suddenly they went from dead in the water (down two goals in the second half) to needing only a tie to pass Ghana on goals scored).

Suddenly both teams were desperate for goals and that meant back and forth play like you don't never see.

Oh, and hey, lets throw a little controversy in the mix. On a Serbian corner kick a deflection hit Australian Paul Cahill in the hand. The referee (rightly, in my opinion) determined the hand ball inadvertent and did not award the penalty kick.

Like Group C, Group D turned out to be very evenly matched. Although the referee decisions weren't as dramatic as those in the U.S. games, consider that Ghana got all its points on penalty kicks, that Germany played half a game (and all the next game) without their best player. Australia won every game that they got to keep all eleven players on the field. That said, Serbia didn't push when they had a man advantage against Germany and Ghana did not put more pressure on Australia when they had a man advantage.

One side note--Germany certainly seemed to be playing a less aggressive game. Cynically, I might think that the U.S. result meant they may have preferred second place in the group (which would have happened with a tie), but a tie combined with a Serbia win would have knocked the Germans clean out. Once the Australia/Serbia game went into the 90th minute with Australia up a goal, I have expected Germany to let in a howler to get a more favorable match up in the knockout round.

Or is it? The U.S. scored four goals to England's two. Still, once you get to one and done stage, the World Cup is filled with teams who have looked less than great during the pool stage and manage to gain momentum and improve as it goes along.

World Cup 2010 Games 37 and 38: Group C

United States 1, Algeria 0
England 1, Slovenia 0

It is traditional from a sports reporting context to report these sorts of fairy tale endings by saying you could just feel it coming.

I didn't. I thought they were dead in the water. All credit to Landon Donovan, Jozy Altidore and the rest of Bob Bradley's crew. When Clint Dempsey put the ball in goal in the first half and it was disallowed due to a questionable offside call it just felt as though the United States was going to have a valiant effort followed by four years of legitimate griping.

ESPN commentator Chris Fowler mentioned after the game that the United States in qualifying and the World Cup have scored 9 goals from the 86 minute mark and on--more than double that of any other team. Part of that, of course, may be due to its penchant for playing from behind, but surely part of it is a commitment to playing from whistle to whistle.

I really can't say enough about this U.S. team. I think one of the hardest things to do in life (or the subset of life) is to continue to plug away after you've earned a result (or feel you have) only to have it taken from you by unfairness, circumstances, or bad luck. Psychologically, it becomes easy to feel that things are stacked against you, that it was not meant to be, and that you have a built in excuse for failure. I'm very happy for the team.

The English win was not quite as dramatic. They got an early goal and looked to be group winners until Landon's run. The story line here may be missed opportunities. Rooney put a shot off the post (and this one looked like he was offside). This is important because another goal would have put England in first place rather than second. Why is that important? The United States plays Ghana and then the winner of Uruguay-South Korea; England will get Germany with the winner to play the winner of Argentina-Mexico; which side of the bracket would you rather be on?

Alexi Lalas claims the United States will be the underdog since Ghana will most likely be the only African side to advance. I'm not so sure. Ghana has scored two goals in three games, and both were on penalty kicks. That said, if we've seen anything in the group stage it is that on any given day the margin between these teams is not that great.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

World Cup 2010 Games 35 and 36: Group B

Argentina 2, Greece 0
South Korea 2, Nigeria 2

I was mostly watching the South Korea-Nigeria game, so when I turned to the Argentina-Greece match I was really surprised to see the Argentine side wearing navy blue. How odd. While not quite as iconic as the Dutch orange, the power blue with white stripes is so associated with Argentina that I actually did a double take when the announcers called a guy in the darker blue "Messi."

In my Yahoo! Pick'em Group, I predicted a 2-0 Argentina win. My thought process was that they were the better team and that Greece, behind on goals scored, would have to play aggressively. I figured they would give up a goal eventualy and once they did have to keep attacking. That is pretty much what happened.

The Nigeria-South Korea game was definitely the more entertaining of the two. Because Nigeria still had a decent chance, but only with a result, and because South Korea knew a tie might not be enough (if Greece were to upset Argentina) we had two sides pushing for the victory.

We also had a rarity in soccer--a seesaw battle. Nigeria took an early goal, but South Korea equalized and then took the lead on a free kick that curved in when the goalkeeper (previously very good for Nigeria) broke the wrong way. Nigeria tied it on a penalty kick and on the last ten minutes, with both sides knowing that Greece had gone down 0-2 knew a goal would for Nigeria would win it.

And they had some chances. South Korea definitely looked gassed at the end, and even though they were the better side, you could feel the crowd, desperate for an African team to get behind, swelling for a goal. Two lasers in the last ten minutes were just wide right and eventually Nigeria didn't lose so much as run out of time.

Ultimately it was Nigeria's foolish red card against Greece, for a frustrated kick after a shove, that will haunt them. Greece, coming off of an 0-2 drubbing from South Korea, was dead in the water; being able to play with a man advantage got them back in it.

Argentina has a show down with Mexico while South Korea will meet Uruguay. South Korea is a work horse team, but I think Uruguay's discipline, talent, and experience will make the difference. I'll have to think about the other game for awhile before making a prediction.

My one surprise was the lack of urgency on the Greek side. They needed a result, were basically playing Argentina's "B" side (Maradonna put in six subs to protect players with yellow cards), and yet they let Argentina control possession and lean on them the whole game until the inevitable breakthrough.

World Cup 2010 Games 33 and 34: Group A

My quest to watch every game got both easier and harder. The movement to simulcasts meant no more 7:30 a.m. games, but it did mean I had to stream France and South Africa on the computer while watching Uruguay and Mexico.

Uruguay 1, Mexico 0
South Africa 2, France 1

The results mean that Uruguay wins the group and Mexico goes through second on goal differential.

The real story of this group, though, was France. Ranked in the Top 10 and a penalty kick shoot out away from winning the cup four years ago (and not that far removed from the Zidane glory days of winning it all themselves), the team struggled through qualifying, avoided a play-in loss to Northern Ireland on the infamous Henry handball, and failed to score a goal in the first two games. Team turmoil had a conditioning coach quit, a player (Anelka) sent home after the second game for insubordination, and, yet, amazingly, still had an outside sniff of qualifying for the second round with a decisive win against South Africa. Instead, they gave up an early goal and had a man sent off with a red card for an elbow to the the head.

Although a tie would move both Mexico and Uruguay to the next round, Mexico appeared to have enough of a goal differential cushion that a loss would not hurt them, so there was some incentive to play for the win. This game played out much as I had predicted, with Mexico moving forward early and Uruguay content with the counter attacks. When Uruguay scored a late first half goal, the complexion changed slightly. With South Africa up 2-0 and having a man advantage, Mexico suddenly found a seemingly insurmountable goal differential advantage cut in half. Thus the second half was a bit more tentative as the quest for the equalizing goal (which wouldn't have changed the rankings coming out of the group) became less important than scoreboard watching and ensuring they didn't give up any more goals. When France scored a short handed goal (welcome to the World Cup, guys, glad you finally showed up), the ordering of the group stage was set and the teams played out the string. (To be fair to South Africa about giving up the short-handed goal, they were pushing forward, even with a two goal lead, because they needed a bigger margin of victory.)

How to assess the chances of the two sides moving forward?

Uruguay will most likely play either Greece, South Korea, or Nigeria, and will be favored to beat any of those teams. If they were to make the quarterfinals they would play the winner of a match up between groups C and D, possibly the United States, England, Slovenia, Serbia, Ghana, or Australia...with an outside chance it could be Germany.) Given the way England is playing, none of those teams would scare Uruguay, though several could beat them. Still, the Uruguayan squad has to feel as though they have as good a chance at the semifinals as anyone, and if they can make it that far, anything can happen in one game (see US in Confederation Cup).

Mexico will almost certainly play Argentina (unless the Argentines give up four or more to the Greeks while failing to score). Argentina would certainly be favored, but Mexico has the right sort of demeanor for that game: because they think they are better than they are they will not be cowed. They also have the individual talent to make plays. (Guardado's strike that hit the crossbar in the first half of this game was almost a highlight show stopper.) A win there would get probably Germany, the United States or England. In other words, that side of the bracket is quite a bit tougher, explaining why Mexico pressed for a victory when a tie would put them through. The difference between winning Group A and coming in second was substantial, assuming, of course, that the Germany that played Australia with a man advantage is closer to what we'll see against Ghana than the Germany that played Serbia with a man disadvantage. Germany may be the hardest team to judge so far because they have played less than a half in two full games with equal footing.

Monday, June 21, 2010

World Cup 2010 Game 32: Spain 2, Honduras 0

We're half way there. This was Game 32 of 64. The pace will pick up a bit tomorrow as there will be four games a day instead of three to accommodate the last games of pool play being played simultaneously.

Group H is shaping up for a wide open finish. All four teams are still alive, though Honduras would need Chile to beat Spain and to make up a difference of four in the goal differential category. Since they've not seriously threatened goal in two games, this seems unlikely.

But Spain may live to regret not jumping on Honduras when they had a chance. Unlike Portugal in the early match didn't want to leave the door open for the Ivory Coast (whom they had tied and had already played Brazil), Spain seemed content, almost relieved when they finally broke the ice with David Villa's first goal. (That goal, by the way, while not quite a Maradona run, was a beautiful possession keeping one on three challenge that culminated in the player making his own shot. Aesthetically it wasn't as spectacular as a few we've seen, but it will be on the short list for best goals of the tournament.)

Perhaps most troublesome, they missed a penalty kick late in the game that would have been the third goal. This would have no outcome on the game but could have a huge outcome on the tournament. Even if Spain were to beat Chile, they can't guarantee they won't end in a three way tie between Chile and Switzerland. Chile's goal differential is currently +2, Spain's +1, and Switzerland's is even. Were Spain to win, they'd have to outscore Chile by at least 1 goal, so they would move ahead on goal differential and be in. That mean's Chile has to play for a win or hope that Switzerland doesn't score big against Honduras. Here's the thing, though, if the Swiss post a large number on Honduras, they could leapfrog Spain to the first position. So while Spain can make sure they go through by winning, they are less certain to get first place (though they still could) and avoid a match up with Brazil in the Round of 16.

Then again, the team in second gets, most likely, Portugal, who seem to have turned on the jets. It's probably pick your poison. Could it be possible that someone might actually prefer Brazil. (It need be said, too, that with Kaka out, there is no guarantee that Brazil will beat Portugal. Since they are already safely through to the Round of 16, they could rest players.)

World Cup 2010 Game 31: Chile 1, Switzerland 0

Chile gets a second win yet they aren't guaranteed to advance. They have a final game against a Spanish team that will need a result, and the Swiss get the weaker Honduras side. (That is, of course, unless Honduras ties or beats Spain later today.)

The story of this game was simple. After Switzerland had a man mysteriously ejected (straight red for a challenge), they tried to buckle down and just play for a tie. For awhile it looked like they would do it, but a goal line crossing shot to a header put Chile on the verge of advancing.

Switzerland is primarily a defensive, countering team, so the pressure is on them since goal differential will likely determine which two of the top three go through, again, unless Honduras can get a result against Spain. Because of that, this is a bigger loss (and they were hurt more by the referees sending the player off) than the Spain upset was a big win.

In the area of small consolations, Switzerland broke the record for most consecutive World Cup minutes without conceding a goal. So, while there was no guarantee that they would not have given up a goal any way, the red card really, really, hurt them.

That said, it is not a foregone conclusion that Spain will beat Chile in the last game of the round robin. Chile will have several things to play for...they will want to win the group so as to avoid Brazil in the next stage. And Spain will be playing against a side that knows it needs only a tie. While other games show the danger of playing for a tie (if you let a goal in all the air seems to go out, like it did to North Korea, because you've psychologically convinced yourself that you can't score), Chile is also aggressive enough that it can score even against a defensive minded team. So I don't expect them to go into a complete shell against Spain, but I do expect them to push forward less and for Spain to have fewer opportunistic chances (as opposed to chances they create).

Switzerland had an open shot from within the box in the 89th minute for a chance to tie. If they don't go through that miss, as much as the foul, will probably haunt them.

Other news of note, Chile player got a yellow card for diving in the box. As I mentioned earlier, the risk reward of that rule is all wrong. The reward for pulling it off is a penalty kick (see Italy/New Zealand). In a group that may come down to goal differential, that's worth a shot to try to draw the penalty call. The penalty for a dive in the box should be more severe. That said, I'm not sure what it should be. A red card may be too severe, as would a penalty kick the other way. Maybe a suspension for the next game? (That would make sense if FIFA would be willing to review calls between games, but...)

World Cup Game 30: Portugal 7, North Korea 0

Well, excepting Germany's 4-0 result against a ten man Australia side this World Cup had been lacking the good old fashioned rout. Portugal kicked an extra point in the first half and then put a touchdown on the board in the second. Legend has it that when the United States beat England in the last century that everyone assumed the 1-0 score was a misprint and that the score must have been 1-10. Well this was no misprint.

Because Portugal has Brazil in their last game and a tie breaker is on goal differential, they can be excused for pressing for every goal. North Korea is officially eliminated and Ivory Coast all but. (They would have to have a Portugal loss to Brazil and make up a nine goal differential.)

Portugal showed why, despite a lack of success on the biggest stage, people continue to think them favorites to make deep runs in every tournament. They scored goals of all kinds: counter attack, build up, header off a cross, individual strike. Since I picked on Christiano Ronaldo for diving let me say this: with Portugal up 3-0 Ronaldo had the the ball in the box and an opportunity to take on a tiring Korean defender. He layed the ball off to the top of the box for a charging teammate to make an easier strike. With the outcome not really in the balance a lot of players would begin to think about their own stats, much like the basketball players who pad their stats in the fourth quarter of a rout. Ronaldo did get a goal later after springing a defensive trap and winning a mad scramble in the box.

Portugal's win means that, most likely, if Spain recovers and qualifies out of their group they will likely have to play either Portugal or Brazil in the Round of 16. That means a match up of one of the following: World Ranking #1 (Brazil) vs. #2 (Spain) or #2 (Spain) vs. #3 (Portugal). Forget the "Group of Death" (Ivory Coast was hurt by an injury to their best player) the real story of the draw may yet be that three of the top four teams in the world ended up slated for the same quadrant of the knockout stage. Oh, and for all you non-geography majors, remember that Spain and Portugal are neighbors. The plot thickens...

Sunday, June 20, 2010

World Cup Game 29: Brazil 3, Ivory Coast 1

Okay, so maybe whatever group Brazil is in is the Group of Death. Maybe the tournament is one big group of death.

The story here was not the result, not even the fact that an African team scored on Brazil for the first time ever. No, the story here was, as one announcer put it "the not so beautiful game."

Make no mistake FIFA is so big and soccer so powerful that they don't really care about controversy. They like it. Because other than Americans people don't seem to let the bad parts of the sport drive them away. The premiere games of the tournament have been marred with controversy from poor officiating to poor sportsmanship.

Ivory Coast was a bit chippy against Portugal. The pathetic nature of the display here is that they howled and complained about Portugal's propensity to dive and managed to get Ronaldo thrown out for the next game. Here they were chippy again, and when Brazilian star Kaka put up an elbow to protect himself from an oncoming bump the Ivory Coast player took his hit to the chest, dove to the ground and grabbed his face. Remarkably, the Brazilian player was shown a yellow card, his second, and will now miss the last game. In what may only be seen as a bit of irony, Ivory Coast actually needs Brazil to do well in that game (against Portugal) or they will not have any chance to go through.

This pathetic display was on the heels of a game in which Italian villain de Rossi (if you don't know who he is Google "Brian McBride foul Italy" or check out this link). De Rossi salvaged a point by Italy when he dove in the box after a slight shirt pull, earning a harsh penalty kick from a referee who, we can only assume, was the only person in the world who hadn't been shown the replay of Slovenia-USA a couple dozen times to see what ISN'T called a foul.

Earlier in the tournament I expressed happiness at two German players getting carded for taking dives. It really doesn't matter, though, how many announcers scold or fans complain. The issue of diving is simply an economical one of risk and reward. With goals at a premium and FIFA insistent on not using review to check or correct bad calls people will continue to dive because the rewards of it working far outweigh the penalties of it failing. De Rossi got a goal and saved a much needed point for Italy, maybe even made the difference between their advancing to the knockout round and not. You think he cares that some British announcer called him "pathetic"? It's incentive to break the rules.

When games of this magnitude get played with obvious errors that go uncorrected and effect the outcome not just of the game but the whole tournament, that's a problem. You would think FIFA would understand that their inaction sends the message to those watching of how to play the game and maximize your chance at results. More and more players dive because...well, it works.

Other than that...oh, yes, the game. Well, Brazil is #1 and despite the problems of most #1 seeds they dominated the match from start to finish. Can they be beaten? Of course...they were down 0-2 at half time to a United States squad just a year ago. They lost games in qualifying. New Zealand showed us that a feisty undermanned team can hang with superior talent. If someone does that and gets a lucky break...

I think the team that beats Brazil would have to defend well (Brazil will make enough opportunities, you can't give them extra), have a decent possession (you can't just sit back and let the waves come like New Zealand did at the end of the Italy game), have a hot goal keeper and believe they can win. Here are six (yes ten) sides that could do it:

Spain: Yeah they lost to Switzerland, but that's my point. Switzerland showed you can beat a superior side and the talent difference between Spain and Switzerland is greater than that between Brazil and Spain. That said, Spain has a reputation for early exits in the Cup. Some people were looking at these two teams as co-favorites. Could they meet up in the Round of 16? Yes, if Spain comes in second in their group. If not Brazil might face...

Chile: The Chileans lost twice to Brazil in qualifying, giving up 7 goals and scoring 2. Here's the thing though, they attack. Sometimes that means losing by a larger margin than a team that concedes defeat from the get go and just plays to keep it close.

Portugal: Remember in Olympic Basketball how Spain played USA in the round robin format and played very conservatively saving their best game for when they would see them again. If Portugal can get its act together they are a very talented team.

Paraguay: Know the last team to beat Brazil in qualifiers? They are still around in the tournament and are 2-0 and safely in the field of 16.
Netherlands: They are winning ugly but ranked fourth in the world.

Germany: Remember the first game and remember that Serbia is a good team that was playing with a man advantage.

Argentina: Messi gives them confidence. They had a loss and a tie against Brazil in qualifying and they weren't playing nearly as well.

All of these, except Argentina, are on Brazil's side of the bracket in the knockout stage. There are teams on the other side that could spring an upset (remember the United States was up 2-0 at half time in the Confederations Cup final) but I think if Brazil gets to the final they will win. Or, stated differently, if they go down it may be in one of the early knockout stage games.

World Cup Game 28: New Zealand 1, Italy 1

Wow, where to start?

Many of the themes of World Cup 2010 were on display. First and foremost was the struggle of the Top 8 teams. Consider that of the top 9 teams in Fifa's World Rankings, the aggregate record so far is six wins, three losses and five draws. The Netherlands and Argentina and Brazil are fairly safe, while France is in trouble. England, Italy, Portugal, and Germany could all still go through, but, amazingly could all go home.

Italy dominated play. At one point they had fifteen corners to New Zealand's zero. Shots on goal were 20-3. The last fifteen minutes reminded me of the end of the Brazil-USA Confederation Cup Final with wave after wave going forward. That said, Italy's only goal was on a penalty kick for a tugged shirt. (I'm guessing American Michael Bradley wishes the referees for these two matches had been switched.)

Like Group C this group now faces a final set of matches where any of the four teams can go forward. Slovakia plays Italy and would need a win and help in the other match. New Zealand plays a Paraguay side that has looked the best so far but the Kiwis are playing with house money and are dead even with Italy in terms of goals scored and goal differential.

Italy had a ball deflect off the inside of the goal post, but the spin made it bounce harmlessly away. There is a game of inches.

All that being said, remember that four years ago the Italians weren't exactly lighting it up at this point, failing to score a game winner against an American side that was playing with 9 men. They got a good draw in the knock out stage (Australia, Ukraine) and then beat the home Germans to go to the final and win on penalty kicks. So the difference between not being in great form and not still being a threat is quite different. "Survive and advance" Jim Valvano used to the say about the NCAA basketball tournament. In that tournament, you often see a heavy favorite struggle early against a lesser opponent and yet survive (think of Florida beating Butler in Round 1 before going on to success or UCLA needing a buzzer beater to top Missouri in the second round before going on to win the tournament). It's not so much that this result could be a "wake up" call as that to go out you have to actually LOSE a game not just give up a tie.

When asked if his team could beat Slovakia and advance to the knockout stage the New Zealand coach said "does it matter?" That says it all. House money.

World Cup 2010 Game 27: Paraguay 2, Slovakia 0

If yesterday was all about FIFA facing the possible nightmare of all six African teams going out in the first round, today was a reminder that South America is playing with a chip on its shoulder. There have been 18 World Cups and South American teams have won nine times: Brazil 5, Argentina 2, Uruguay 2. Perhaps more tellingly for the purposes of this tournament, no European team has ever won a World Cup that was not held in Europe. Brazil won the tournaments hosted in Japan/South Korea and the United States and Argentina took the tournament in Mexico '86.

Consider, too, that Argentina finished FOURTH in its qualifying and had to get a result on the last game to avoid a play-in round with Costa Rica (which was eventually won by Uruguay, the fifth place finisher). All five South American teams (Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Argentina) could qualify for the round of sixteen though Chile still has work to do with Switzerland having posted a result against Spain. Add the likelihood of Mexico going through and possibly the United States (both who represent Concacaf, or North and Central America) and seven of the final sixteen could represent the Americas. Any chance that Honduras can step up?

The game itself shows the strength of the South American teams. Having to play Brazil and Argentina twice each, the South American squads really have to put a premium on not giving away any easy scoring chances--see also the Uruguay/France game--and put a premium on putting away scoring chances when they arise. There were larger periods of the game where Slovakia didn't really put any pressure on goal.

The second goal was important because the second place finisher of this group will play The Netherlands. Since Paraguay has tied Italy, that could mean it comes down to goal differential, assuming the Italians (who trail early to New Zealand) actually show up.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

World Cup 2010 Game 26: Denmark 2, Cameroon 1

And Cameroon becomes the first team mathematically eliminated. That supports my notion of parity. Five of the eight groups have finished their second game and only 1 of the 20 teams is out.

Denmark becomes only the second team to record a come from behind victory. (Well, three if you count the United States which...ah, let it go...). In tracking the other story, Cameroon's loss means that the African nations now have 1 victory in 11 tries and that was on a late hand ball leading to a penalty kick in the Ghana-Serbia match.

Cameroon will play a meaningless game against the Netherlands (whose only job will be to make sure they don't get anyone sent off and banned for the first game of the knockout stage). Denmark, meantime has a showdown with Japan. Because of Japan's two goal difference in their win over Cameroon, the Danes will have to win the game to advance while Japan can play for a tie. Will they?

This game had an early goal and a lot of up and down action. Both of the Denmark goals were well struck. (In some ways the Danish sides reminds me of the American side--some shaky defense but competent players who will execute well.) Cameroon's best player hit the post late in the second half. It's funny how often the post gets hit in soccer and hockey. Or maybe it really isn't that often, but it feels memorable. What's odd is that you very rarely see a ball hit the inside of the post and deflect in.

The winner of Denmark-Japan gets the second place finisher amongst Italy, Paraguay, Slovakia, and New Zealand. Any of those matches would look fairly even to me.

World Cup 2010 Game 25: Ghana 1, Australia 1

Well you have to feel for the Aussies a bit. After having star Paul Cahill sent off with a straight red against Germany they saw a 1-0 lead evaporate when a hand ball on the line cost them a player against Ghana. While the call wasn't necessarily a bad one, it did not seem like an intentional hand ball to me. Penalty kick in order, definitely, but the red card is a bit rough. That's the way the rule is written though. Ghana is atop the group on the basis of two penalty kicks, one against Germany and one against Australia.

Australia actually created more opportunities in the second half but were unable to convert. They are technically still alive, but the goal differentials are not in their favor thanks to the 0-4 drubbing against Germany. Australia would need Ghana to beat Germany and then they could beat Serbia to take second in the group. This result doesn't seem likely, but Germany will be without Klose who was sent off on his own so you never know what could happen in one game. A late penalty, a fluke bounce, and things could be dicey.

I hate to pick on announcers because, really, it's hard to be in front of the mike for 90 minutes and not have a few flubs. American announcer John Harkes no doubt puzzled more than one listener by saying that since they were playing a man down Australia must be satisfied with the result just as they were with the result against Germany. No doubt he meant that they were playing against Germany with 10 men as well, but it came out sounding like they must have been proud of their 0-4 loss.

Harkes did slip in the news that Australia star Tim Cahill will be eligible to play in the third game, against Serbia. Announcers in the Germany game opined that Cahill's tournament may be over because straight red cards are usually followed up with a two game suspension. Although two is typical, one is the minimum and that's what Cahill got. Perhaps this was bigger news in Australia, but as an American this was the first I had heard of it.

Ghana was playing a little cocky. While they are the most successful African nation in recent memory, their going through is by no means assured. They are playing a Germany team that needs a result in order to ensure a victory, and a loss to the Germans could mean Ghana falls behind Serbia at the finish line.

That said, FIFA is desperate for an African side to go through. With Ivory Coast in the Group of Death with Brazil and Portugal, South Africa and Nigeria all but mathematically eliminated, Ghana may be the best hope. Algeria would need to beat the United States and get some help in the other group game. Cameroon may have to beat Denmark; a tie would leave them facing the Netherlands needing a victory. Is it possible that in this celebration of the first World Cup on African soil that no African nations could advance to the round of 16? If the Malian referee ends ups calling the Ghana-Germany game, let the conspiracy theories begin!

World Cup 2010 Game 24: Netherlands 1, Japan 0

This one followed one of the classic World Cup templates. A stronger side playing an efficient but less accomplished team in a defensive posture. A goal based on individual effort causing the game to be opened up a little. Japan played a countering style, which is effective as long as the defense keeps the ball out of the net but also minimizes the chances for scoring.

Japan had a chance to equalize in the 90th minute when a header forward found a striker in the box. He took the ball on the volley for a strike at goal but hit it a little high off the bounce and it sailed over the crossbar.

Soccer is a team sport, but as with most team sports there are individual plays that can make the difference. Wesley Sneider's strike for Holland was pretty much a display of individual talent. Sometimes stars are responsible for creating opportunities but the most valuable quality in a striker is the ability to put the ball in the net when the opportunity arises.

The announcers and fans appear to be looking for a favorite (or co-favorite with Brazil), and the Germany loss earlier means none of the top 8 squads have looked dominant in both games. Perhaps scoring was down in the first slate of games do to the altitude and the ball,but perhaps parity is evident as well. The Netherlands was clearly a better team but not so much better that a team like Japan could not hang with them. This appears to be a difference from World Cups past where there was usually one team in a group that teams felt they could dominate. Argentina has looked like all of that and Germany at least had an excuse of having to play a man down--is it just me or the press in the United States or do you not hear nearly as much complaining coming from the German side for the poor refereeing that put them at a disadvantage? Is Holland looking like a dangerous team based on two 1-0 victories over inferior opponents? Maybe not, but breaking down defensively minded teams isn't easy--just ask England. If the Netherlands faces a team like, say, Paraguay in the Round of 16 they will have been well prepared for a tight battle. If Italy stumbles in that group and we end up having a Round of 16 battle between two top five rated teams in the world, they would have to worry about Italy playing up to the level of its competition. Once you make it to the second round you never know what to expect.

Friday, June 18, 2010

World Cup 2010 Game 23: England 0, Algeria 0

What's the opposite of the "Group of Death"? The Group of Life Support maybe?

There will be even more nail biting in England this week than in America. If the United States fails to advance it would be a major setback for the team, but if England were to fail to advance it would be a calamity. They would pretty much lose any notion of being a soccer power.

England is sitting third in their group based on tiebreakers having scored one goal in two games. Goal differential is tied with the United States, but the Americans lead the next tie breaker, goals scored, by two. Of course were England to tie Slovenia 2-2 and the U.S. were to play a socreless tie with Algeria the team that would go through would be...decided by the drawing of lots. I'm not kidding.

Since England's lackluster play leaves little to write about I thought I would put in a word about two of my least favorite sports catch phrases:

"A Must Win Game" : How often did we hear this from the United States and England. My definition of a "Must Win" game is a game that, if the team doesn't win, they are eliminated from any possibility to win the (season/championship/tournament). No doubt we will hear oodles of people saying that the Algeria match is now a "must win" for the United States (which could advance with a tie) and that England's match with Slovenia is also a "must win." In the latter case that is probably though not technically right. I guess a "must win or tie by scoring at least three goals if the common opponent doesn't score" just doesn't have the ring to it.

"Controls Their Own Destiny." First off, if any team truly controlled their own destiny, then wouldn't they be through? (How would a team controlling its outcome not choose to go through.) This typically means that a team cannot be eliminated so long as it wins its remaining games, regardless of other results. Aside from the fact that we've just seen how a team can win and have their result taken away because they don't control their own destiny, here's the problem I have with this phrase in this instance. We'll be told over and over again that the United States controls its own destiny. So does Slovenia. So does England. So does Algeria. Yeah, I know, Algeria could win and still fail to qualify if England beats Slovenia. So they "need help" right? Well, does needing to beat an opponent by more than one goal cease being in control of your own destiny? No result would mathematically assure Algeria qualification. They could win 10-0 and if England wins 11-10...yeah, these scenarios are silly. That's my point. When does an improbability become rhetorically meaningful?

Of course, I suspect one reason the American press spent most of the evening assuring a public that might have only been half paying attention that the U.S. side controlled it's own destiny is because those spectators might be surprised at that fact given they had been told for a week that the Slovenia game was a "must win" game.

World Cup 2010 Game 22: Slovenia 2, United States 2

It wouldn't be a World Cup without some referee controversy, would it?

It was a bad call. A bad, bad call. Everyone agrees. Nobody on television, none of the commentators, most English observers, justified the phantom call that disallowed America's third goal and cost them two valuable points in pool play. It wasn't just that one call, though. The referee seemed to lose control of the match at times almost appearing Palinesque (or, more accurately Quaylesque) in his "deer in the headlights" approach to turning the other way. Slovenia went down with every challenge, delaying the game with phantom injuries that disappeared as soon as the player was off the pitch and ready to reenter. The United States seemed to get fouled willy-nilly without a call.

All that being said, they really shouldn't have been in that position to begin with, no? Once again the United States gave up an early goal. Considering how good Tim Howard is in goal, the number of shots let in should tell you something about how loose the United States's marking is on defense. Yes the first goal was a great strike, but given that much time and space a lot of players can make that play.

Landon Donovan made a sweet, sweet goal. If you are a superstar you are supposed to beat the goalie one on one and he did. Michael Bradley continues to come up with big goals. I wonder when American fans will let up on Bradley? It's almost because he doesn't have the flashy runs with the ball that they think he's terrible, but he ran down balls again and again and seems like a very heady player to me...knowing when to play up and when to stay back. How often, when opponents score, do you hear the announcers say "Oh, bad give away by Bradley?" or that Bradley was supposed to be marking his man?

Really, I suppose the way to look at this is that the U.S. needs to look at this, as poor as the officials decision was, is that they are pretty much where they expected they would be...needing a win against Algeria for a good chance to advance. Most probably thought that the United States would lose to England and beat Slovenia, thus going into the last game. That would have left them needing a result against Algeria to keep things in their own hand. There are a few remote scenarios where the United States could win against Algeria and still fail to advance. They would involve goal differentials and goals scored. Since Slovenia's win over Algeria was 1-0, they would have to score two goals in a tie with England to move ahead on goals scored, assuming the United States were only to win 1-0 against Algeria. The United States would still likely go through with a win.

World Cup 2010 Game 21: Serbia 1, Germany 0

Things can change a lot from game to game. That's something United States fans should realize. Nobody looked more impressive than Germany in Round 1, punching in 4 goals. Serbia disappointed throughout their first game and then gave away a late penalty kick to lose to Ghana.

Those anxious to put Germany in the finals though got a taste of some poor officiating--a theme for the day. The game began with the referee handing out yellow cards on nearly every challenge. When German star Miroslav Klose picked up a second card on a second foul without much intent he was ejected from the game (and will miss the third game of pool play against Ghana). When Serbia scored Germany suddenly went from early tournament favorite to looking shaky to get out of the group.

It's hard for me to believe they won't beat Ghana, though. Germany controlled much of the play, even down a man, and even got a penalty kick in the latter stages. (What's with the Serbian players and handballs in the box?) When the keeper guessed right and stopped the free kick, Germany went home with the loss. If the United States manages to go through, chances are they may play one of these two teams.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

World Cup 2010 Game 20: Mexico 2, France 0

Well I was rooting for Mexico. Sort of.

I guess it is appropriate these two teams should play on the day that the Lakers and Celtics square off for the NBA championship. Like that game, this one had the consolation that one of the teams would lose.

Strictly from a regional affiliation, my desire was to see Mexico do well. They had never beaten a former World Cup champion, never beaten France. Their record against European powers is abysmal. Until Concacaf teams can beat the European powers, the United States will always be viewed as a light weight power no matter how much it dominates the region. So, yeah, America is helped by Mexico doing well. Helped in rankings and in keeping the regional interest alive.

That said, Mexico is a hard side to like. From their chippy play to their arrogance to their boorish fans (who threw batteries at Landon Donovan whenever he took a corner kick at Estadio Azteca) the image that surrounds this team is one of boorishness. That's a shame, really, because players like dos Santos are athletically gifted, and they always give the effort.

France, on the other hand, gave a lackluster performance and is in danger of going home without a goal. Amazingly, though, they are still alive. If Mexico and Uruguay tie, they both go through, but if one gets a result, France could go through on goal differential. I'm assuming Uruguay has the tie breaker with Mexico, so Mexico needs a result in order to win the group (and avoid Argentina in the round of 16). Best case scenario for France would be for Uruguay to beat Mexico by two goals (or more) and then they would have to beat South Africa by three or more goals. The host nation similarly could go through with a rout of France and some help in the other game, neither of which seems likely. Still, with Argentina looking good, Mexico and Uruguay do have something to play for and that is one small lining of hope for France.

The Mexican player definitely was offside for the first goal, but I don't have much sympathy for the French. If you watch the play, they assumed the call would be made and pulled up on defense. This is the World Cup guys, you have to play hard for ninety minutes.

World Cup 2010 Game 19: Greece 2, Nigeria 1

Things can change in a hurry.

Greece was dead in the water having given up an early goal to Nigeria. Then Nigerian player Sani Kaita picked up a foolish red card forcing his team to play over half the match with 10 players. Kaita ran up to a Greek player on the sideline and shoved him out of bounds. When the Greek player gave him a little shove with the ball, Kaita gave him a kick with the cleats showing...an automatic red card. Greece scored the equalizer right before half time and then, despite some heroics by the Nigerian goal keeper the man advantage was too much.

Nigeria is not eliminated yet. They would have to beat South Korea by multiple goals and hope Argentina does the same to Greece. Still, Kaita will be regretting his scuffle for a long time. In many ways this World Cup has been more about errors so far than great plays. That will change as things move forward, but this error was as much mental as physical.

Greece is still a shade behind South Korea since the latter gets Nigeria in the last round robin game and Greece must play Argentina. That said, Argentina could be resting players having already gone through. (Mathematically they could still be eliminated but that would involve losing to Greece by maybe four goals and South Korea defeating Nigeria.) Second place in Group B is way up in the air.

World Cup 2010 Game 18: Argentina 4, South Korea 1

Well if the first three games from the second round robin entries are any indication scoring will pick up somewhat. This makes sense since teams don't want to lose game 1, but the later you go in the first stage the more teams need a result. So teams that might be likely to play more conservatively in game 1 may be more likely to press for a result and you get a bit more up and down play.

Like Switzerland, South Korea got a quick goal off a long goal kick. In this case it wasn't a goalkeeper error but a lazy play by the defender who whiffed on possession and gave away an easy opportunity. Argentina was pushing the whole game, though, and while it took them well into the second half to reestablish the two goal lead they didn't look seriously threatened.

Higuain was the recipient of some nice work by Messi and may end up in contention for the golden boot (player with most scoring). That award can really depend a lot on how the team does overall.

From a South Korean point of view losing this game wasn't the end of the world but giving up the goal differential is worrisome since Nigeria only lost 1-0 to Argentina. As a result South Korea will go into the last game most probably needing a win against Nigeria (if Nigeria beats Greece). Also, since Argentina is guaranteed to go through there is no telling how aggressive they will be against Greece.

One thing I continue to admire about the Asian teams (Japan, North Korea, South Korea) is their effort. A lot of players will hustle when there is an obvious opportunity, but much like a baseball player who may or may not run out a pop fly, soccer players may not run down a play to be in position in case their is an error. A lot of teams would not have score in the situation South Korea did because many players would have assumed the defender would control the ball and would not have been in position to capitalize when the error was made.

World Cup 2010 Game 17: Uruguay 3, South Africa 0

You want goals? Uruguay becomes only the second team of the World Cup to score more than two goals in one game. (In fact, only the Netherlands, South Korea, and Brazil in addition to these two teams have scored twice.)

Granted one goal was against a depleted and dispirited South African side fairly late in the game. South Africa's goalkeeper was sent off, meaning the team had to play with ten players. (They do get to use their second goalkeeper but he has to sub in for another player.)

As mentioned several times, the first tiebreaker for advancing is goal differential, so that third goal is pretty big. Uruguay will go into their final match, against Mexico, needing only a tie to guarantee going through to the next round and would probably advance even if they lose, unless there is a big shellacking. Strange things can happen, though. In last year's Confederation Cup the United States lost to Brazil and Italy yet managed to go through to the semifinals based on goals scored when they beat Egypt 3-0 and Italy lost to Brazil.

While not mathematically eliminated, South Africa would need a lot of help to advance. It would have to beat France and get some combination of results in the other games. Since no host nation has ever failed to advance to the second round, this is a bit of a big story. It was kind of sad to see the crowds flooding the exit late in the game.Kudos to ESPN for actually showing this and the commentators for mentioning it. Will the host nation get behind another African nation? Or will the rest of the matches become more muted? Some teams will travel well and have international appeal, but if there were already empty seats for, say Greece and South Korea, will FIFA be embarrassed if the crowds wane? Brazil is scheduled to host the 2014 World Cup, and given that this is the first African hosted World Cup, it's not out of the question that issues might affect the thinking of future bids. There are nine nations bidding to host 2018 or 2022: Australia, England, Japan (seems unlikely given that they were cohosts in 2006), Qatar, Russia, South Korea (see note for Japan), and the United States. Joint bids have been made by Belgium/Netherland and Portugal/Spain.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

World Cup 2010 Game 16: Switzerland 1, Spain 0

Well it took to the very last game of the first round set of games in Round 1, but we finally have a group favorite go down. Given how many pundits were picking Spain as a favorite to win the whole tournament, this was a shocker. (Other highest ranking teams in groups that did not win were France, Italy, and England.)

The game was the classic mode World Class upset where one team dominates play and makes plenty of opportunities but can't put the ball in the net. The Swiss goal, while not a fluke, game off a long goal kick, a challenge won in the air, and an opportunistic rebound.

One complaint I've heard about the World Cup is that with scoring down the "better" team doesn't always win. Funny how I didn't hear that complaint about hockey. In fact, the more I've blogged the more I've thought that the World Cup has a lot in common with America's favorite sporting event: the NCAA tournament. Sometimes the draw opens up for a team because a favorite is knocked off by someone else. Sometimes a serviceable team plays above their head for one game. Sometimes the style of play differs enough to make offensive juggernauts struggle to make points. For me, there is excitement seeing a team like North Korea standing toe to toe with Brazil or a Swiss team hanging on to a slim lead while a heavyweight tries to knock the door down.

Since this game means all teams have now played one of their three opening round games, here are a couple of questions to ponder going into the second round of pool play:

--How much trouble is Spain in?
A lot. The number two team in the world is certainly capable of getting through, but Chile looked awfully good against Honduras, and they can play for a tie against Spain. The Swiss are capable of losing a game, but even if they lose to Chile, they would still have an edge over Spain unless Spain beats Chile. (A tie is worth 1 point in pool play, a win 3). If Switzerland beats Honduras, they are through to the next round. Still, a team that looked hard pressed to score can never feel safe until they are there.

--Besides Spain, which group favorite (top seeded team in group) is least likely to advance?
The Italians looked poor in their opener, but they dodged the bullet that Spain couldn't, getting the goal to equalize. Neither New Zealand nor Slovakia look like a worrisome game. Nightmare scenario? The scoring drought continues and they play to 0-0 ties against weaker opponents, losing on goal differentials.

England is in good shape as they should beat Slovenia and Algeria, but Slovenia's win over Algeria means that if the United States should beat Slovenia, England will need to be concerned about goal differential to avoid a match with Germany in the round of 16. Nightmare scenario? Could Robert Green let in another soft goal? In a low scoring World Cup could a fluke goal given up to Slovenia in the third game could mean a first round exit.

Perhaps the biggest of the remaining big dogs to be in serious trouble is France, both because they didn't look good against Uruguay and Mexico tends to play up during the World Cup. Group A has one of the lowest differences between the two highest seeds. Portugal is ranked #3 in the world to Brazil's #1, making that the "group of death." Greece is the next highest ranking #2 seed at 13, six spaces behind Argentina. The United States is next at 14, six spaces behind England at 8. Mexico at 17, is 8 spaces behind 9th ranked France, but they are trending upward in the second half of qualification while France needed the famous handball to win the play-in series against Northern Ireland. Beyond the fact that France isn't playing particularly well, they are in a group with South Africa; the numbers say they won't go through but history is funny. The host nation has never failed to advance to the second round. Nightmare scenario? If Uruguay somehow manages to beat South Africa, France may be in a situation where it needs to beat Mexico. Even a tie against Mexico would leave them with 2 points going into a game with South Africa for all the marbles.

--Is Germany now the favorite?
Well, it was one game, and that against an aging Australia team. I'm not ready to anoint them just yet. I will say that with scoring being down and the altitude and ball playing tricks, the speedy wing play and passing of the Germans is looking better than the booming strikes from distance we are used to seeing. You can't win a World Cup in the first round, though, and none of those goals carry forward.

--Who outside of the Top 9 (Group Favorites + Portugal) has the best shot at a deep (say semi-finals) run?

On the basis of play in the first round, maybe Chile, but even if they win their group they get the "Group of Death" runner up. Certainly they could take Portugal (who, like France, struggled to qualify and looked listless against the Ivory Coast). But with the Swiss defeat of Spain, Chile might even get Brazil in the round of 16. That would be a fun game to watch, but they have a tough draw.

Both the Concacaf powers--U.S. and Mexico--would be possibilities. Of the two, I would say Mexico is more likely, because they could win their group and draw a Group B runner up that suddenly doesn't look like Greece anymore. I would certainly like the Tri Colores against Nigeria or South Korea (though no game is a shoo-in at that round). Also, I can't help but wonder whether all the concern about altitude might mean that the Mexican side--which plays a lot of games in Mexico City, might be more conditioned to altitude, which can affect both fatigue and ball flight characteristics.

Consider this scenario, though, with the United States having tied England, if they win against Algeria and Slovenia, that could mean that winning the group comes down to goal differential. And while Germany is waiting for the second place finisher in the US group, the winner of Group C gets the second place finisher in Group D--possibly Ghana. If Serbia can recover from their loss and grab the second spot they would also be a possibility. Granted, any game against an African team in the knock out stage would be a tough "away" match, the United States is used to playing in front of hostile crowds.

World Cup 2010 Game 15: Chile 1, Honduras 0

Chile, which has the coolest border configuration of just about any country there is, dominated this game throughout. They probably should have put away more chances. This result is not a huge surprise. Chile finished second (to Brazil) in South American qualifying, while Honduras needed a 94th minute goal from the United States against Costa Rica to avoid having to take on Uruguay in the play-in series.

Performance against common opponents is always a chimerical way of evaluating teams, but Americans could not have been heartened by this result from the third place Concacaf team. The U.S. beat Honduras twice in qualifying, though they gave up an early goal at home and two on the road...to a team that never seemed able to sniff the danger area against Chile. Combined with Mexico's draw with South Africa, this result shows Concacaf teams are not really on the level as national teams on other levels. (And this in a World Cup in which Asia has acquitted itself quite nicely so far.) Then again, this is just one game and Chile is a top 20 ranked team. Still, Honduras looked like a team that was just happy to have qualified, and having lost to the second ranked team it will be interesting to see if they go at Spain at all. If they are out of it by the third game the Swiss could be the beneficiaries of having a "must win" against a team playing out the string.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

World Cup 2010 Game 14: Brazil 2, North Korea 1

Okay, everyone who had this score in your pool raise your ha...put your hands down, liars.

This one was supposed to be a rout, and really, once Brazil scored the outcome wasn't much in doubt. That it took Brazil 55 minutes or so to score was the first upset--though, wow, what a terrific angle shot. Maybe not one of the more spectacularly pretty goals you'll see at this World Cup but definitely a technically difficult shot--when South Korea scored near stoppage time that was the second upset.

The first round has been a bit slow without too many goals and only one side, Germany, looking impressive. Part of that was assumed to be because the schedule was backloaded with the #1 and #2 teams in the world not playing until almost a week in.

Brazil is a little bit like USA basketball...winning isn't enough. If they don't dominate than people are shocked. Nevertheless, this was a very yeomanlike effort, and it does take skill to exercise the patience necessary to break down a disciplined defense. Brazil strides quickly, covering so much ground that they are never far away from getting into danger territory, and they are pretty much the only team that you don't feel is in trouble when they are down a goal.

They are known for skill and precision passing, but I noticed in this game that Kaka (one of the star players) is also bigger than I realized, both in terms of length and upper body strength.

Much has been made of the North Korean side: they played home games in China because they wouldn't allow South Korean anthem to be played before the match; their "fans" are actually paid actors from China (hey anyone want to pay me to pretend to be a fan for free tix?), etc. Mmmm. Okay. Supposedly the goal scored was the only highlight allowed on North Korean television. Reminds me of the old Cold War joke: An American and a Soviet had a race and the American won. The next day Pravda reported "In an international competition, the Soviet Union finished second. The American was next to last."