July 14, 2014

Germany 1, Argentina 0: After an evening of poorly-executed chances by both teams, it took one of the best goals of the competition to give Germany its first World Cup title as a unified nation (the previous three were won by West Germany).  Mario Gotze's goal in the 112th minute ensured that Die Mannschaft became the first European squad ever to win the World Cup played in the Western Hemisphere, and finally bring a title to one of the illustrious generation of players in the sport's history.  As in 1990, Argentina failed to cause the German goalie to make a single save, and are now the first team ever to have been eliminated by the same country in three consecutive World Cups.  If the truest indicator of the quality of a tournament is that the best team is the same as the winning team, then this Cup met that criteria in spades...the two players who set up the goal, Gotze and super-sub Andre Schurrle, are the first two German players to have been born in the reunified nation, while semifinal hero Toni Kroos is the first, and probably last, person born in the defunct East Germany to win the World Cup.

July 13, 2014

Holland 3, Brazil 0: Most disappointing finish by a host nation ever comes to an ignominious conclusion.

July 10, 2014

Argentina 0, Holland 0 [PK: 4-2]: Well-played defensive battle, in which both teams played cautiously and where the stars (Messi, Higuain, van Persie, Robben, et al.) were mainly silent.  Which is to say, like a Ravens-Seahawks Super Bowl, or a Dodgers-Tigers World Series, it was dull for the non-partisan, but a feast for the connoisseur.  That it would be decided by penalty kicks was apparent before halftime.

Soccer fans spend too much time arguing with trolls about whether the frequency of scoreless draws and 1-0 results is a drawback for the sport, insofar as very little seems to be accomplished in terms of scoring, and to such little effect.  The fact is, people don't follow sports because of the activity is inherently exciting, or else ice hockey would have more American fans than baseball, or, for that matter, high-scoring, since the NBA Finals have much lower ratings than the Super Bowl.  People follow sports because they have an emotional interest in the outcome, not because a lot of points are going to get scored.  The higher ratings for the World Cup in the US have come about not because the USMNT has suddenly become a point-a-minute, offensive juggernaut, or a legit contender to win the whole thing, but because there is a gradual increase in public interest in how well the US does in the tournament.  And even after the US was eliminated, the ratings remain strong, showing that it's the competition itself that Americans are following.  Once you care who wins, the scoreline becomes irrelevant.

July 08, 2014

The hosts get brazilianed....

Germany 7, Brazil 1: Fired up by the loss of their leading scorer and star defender, the hosts came out firing on all cylinders, holding Die Mannschaft to only five goals in the first half, then capping things off with a deadly strike in injury time to clinch a spot in the consolation final Saturday...or to look at it another way, every favela that was torn down and each of its residents who were displaced to make room for a parking lot received a karmic vindication.  Brazil had reached the semis almost solely through home field advantage, besting two superior South American sides along the way who played the game the way Brazil used to, and it all culminated with the most shocking rout in my lifetime.  Germany had hardly looked more impressive since their opening blowout of Portugal, with three consecutive one-goal margins (who would have thought that the US could teach something to Brazil about resolute play and defensive creativity), but today's explosion was wholly unexpected.  Bring on the Final....

July 05, 2014

Duke beats Florida Gulf Coast

Holland 0, Costa Rica 0 [PK:4-3]: Scrappy, underdog team, barely kept in the game thanks to the heroics of a goalie playing out of his mind, taking a world power to the limit before succumbing at the end...it never gets old.  Holland won its first-ever penalty kick tie-breaker in a major competition, fueled in large part by a surprise substitution of goalkeepers in extra time, to advance to a date with Argentina in the semis, while the Ticos bow out just short of becoming the first CONCACAF team in 84 years to do the same.
Argentina 1, Belgium 0: To the apparent surprise of the Red Devils, Argentina plays the game better than the U.S.  Qualifying for their first semifinals since 1990, the Albiceleste went up in the ninth minute, thanks to their other real good player, Gonzalo Higuain, and then seemed content to let Belgium control possession and set up ineffectual pieces from the side.  At one point, Argentina did not try a shot for forty minutes in the second half, Lionel Messi blew a breakaway late in the game, and it hardly mattered.
Brazil 2, Columbia 1: Thrilling game, in which two of the towering leaders from this tournament played their final game.  Brazil jumped out to a quick lead, padded their advantage on a beautiful free kick, then held on as Golden Boot frontrunner James Rodriguez scored with ten minutes left off a penalty.  Shortly afterwards, Neymar, the only player on the host country's squad who could plausibly be placed at the same level with Pele, Garrincha, Zico and Ronaldo, fractured his spine, and will have to sit out the rest of the Cup (damn, the Germans always have a master plan). And just like that, the two most impressive teams from the group stage are sent home.....

Germany 1, France 0: Continuing the pattern of the initial knockout games, a dull, defensive, low-scoring affair.  The Germans scored early, shut down the high powered French attack, and justly earned their record fourth consecutive semi-final spot.  Each team had point-blank opportunities to change the scoreline, but fired directly at the goalkeeper.  Disappointing end to what had been a redemptive World Cup for Les Bleus, but at least this time they didn't have a player nearly decapitated.

July 02, 2014

Belgium 2, U.S.A 1 [A.E.T.]: Some miscellany about last night's game:

  1. Until the overtime started, Belgium pretty much dominated the match for 90 minutes, nearly scoring in the second minute and putting constant pressure on Tim Howard;
  2. The defense for the USMNT was shambolic, forcing Howard to make a record number of saves;
  3. Chris Wondolowski is going to have nightmares about his miss in the 90th minute for the rest of his life;
  4. Starting with the start of extra time, the tone of the match shifted, with the US dominating play.  In spite (or because) of that, Belgium was able to strike twice off the counterattack, set up by the speed of late sub Romelu Lukaku;
  5. There were at least four times when Clint Dempsey was inches from taking the ball in with a clear chance at the goal, only to have the ball bounce the wrong way;
  6. Whether Julian Green becomes the next Pele or the next Michael Owen, or somewhere in between, his shock selection will still be Jurgen Klinsmann's best move in the pre-Cup stage, since it now establishes one of the world's best prospects as a U.S. player into the distant future.  Actually playing in a key game, and scoring a spectacular goal that inexplicably brought the US back into the game in the second extra period, is gravy on the birthday cake;
  7. On the other hand, in all likelihood we've seen the last World Cup games for Dempsey, Jermaine Jones, and DeMarcus Beasley (all of whom were brilliant), since they will be in their mid-30's in Russia 2018 
  8. Belgium has improved markedly from game to game, and their quarterfinal match-up with Argentina on Saturday may be the de facto Cup Final;
  9. The elimination of the USMNT will only slightly reduce the ratings for the remainder of the World Cup.  The tournament has received decent ratings going back to 1994 (with the exception of 2002, when the games from the Far East were shown in the middle of the night), and the ratings for the Final have typically exceeded the best marks received by US games.  It is the event itself, and not necessarily the US performance, that drives public interest among sports fans;
  10. It will have little impact on the domestic popularity of the sport   Fans know the difference between an international competition featuring the greatest players in the world, and a domestic league that is, at best, behind 10 other national leagues in terms of quality.  Hard core fans already know enough to set an early alarm Saturday morning to watch the Premiership; everyone else will wait for the next big international tourney.  Which, come to think of it, is one year from now in Canada...    

July 01, 2014

Argentina 1, Switzerland 0 [A.E.T.]: 118 of minutes of sheer boredom punctuated by two minutes of utter madness.  Messi assists on a perfect pass at the end of the second extra period, leading to a desperation near-goal in final seconds by the Swiss.

June 30, 2014

Schurrle you can't be serious....

Germany 2, Algeria 1 [A.E.T.]: The sort of game that was exciting not because the teams were evenly-matched, but because one team was so much worse than the other that its ability to stay in the game for so long elevated the suspense for two hours...and as always, in the end, Germany wins.

The history behind the two teams centers on a controversy from back in 1982, when West Germany eliminated Algeria at the group stage.  That year, the Algerians had upset the Germans in the opener, then split their next two games with Austria and Chile, while the Germans had recovered in their second game by routing Chile.  The final games of group stage were played on separate days, so by the time the West Germans and Austrians suited to up to play their third game, Algeria had already finished their slate with a 2-1 record and an even goal differential.  The Austrians led the group with a 2-0 record and a +3 goal differential, and the Germans were at 1-1 but with a +2 differential.  Going into the game, so long as the Germans won by less than three goals, both teams would advance; if Austria won or drew, West Germany would be eliminated and the Algerians would advance.

West Germany scored in the opening ten minutes, and won 1-0.  Neither team mounted much of an effort after the opening goal, and the game, forever after known as the Second Anschluss, has become one of the most controversial in the sport's history.  Although the game was painfully boring to watch, I've always thought the Germans received a bad rap for what happened; were I to apportion blame, it would go 40% to FIFA, 30% to the Austrians, 25% to the Algerians, and the rest to the Germans.  Algeria blew most of a three-goal halftime lead against a pathetic Chilean team, and lost to a mediocre Austrian squad in the previous game 2-0; had they taken care of business, the result of the Anschluss game would have been moot.  Austria chose not to attack or play any sort of offense in their final game, not attempting a single shot, and hoping only to keep the score close, which led to the game being famously boring.  FIFA deserved the lion's share of the blame for setting up an unbalanced schedule that made such a result inevitable.

But what exactly did the Germans do in 1982 that was wrong or unethical?  They had to tread a fine line in that game, where a win by any margin got them to the next round, but a tie eliminated them.  Since when has any team been obligated to pour it on and rout their opponents in this situation?  They scored the goal they needed.
France 2, Nigeria 0: Another day, another African team bows out after a strike over "bonuses"...after a prolonged period of frustration around the Nigerian goal, Les Bleus struck twice in the final ten minutes to assure a spot in the quarters.  Regardless of who they play, there's a great film to put either match-up into context....
Costa Rica 1, Greece 1 [PK: 5-3]: Well, it's the first time Greece has ever scored in consecutive World Cup Games...Saw this game at a casino near Vegas, where the crowd was overwhelmingly supporting the Ticos.  The officiating left something to be desired: an obvious hand ball in the box was not called against the Greeks which would have put the game out of reach in regulation, then the ref swallowed his whistle when the Costa Rican goalie clearly moved early in saving the critical spot kick.  First team from the region not named Mexico or the US to reach the quarters since Cuba did it in 1938.

June 29, 2014

Dos a uno

Holland 2, Mexico 1: Just minutes away from their first trip to the quarterfinals in 28 years, Mexico instead lost for the sixth straight time in the second round, and the fourth time by a 2-1 scoreline.   To repeat the cliche used in a different sport of football, the only thing playing a prevent defense does is prevent you from winning.  For sixty minutes, El Tri was in complete control, taking the game to the most dominant team out of the group stage round, only to fold in the last ten minutes, conceding a goal to Wesley Sneijder after a prolonged period inside the Mexican half, then drew a cheap penalty three minutes into injury time to set up the winner.  In spite of the loss, methinks Enrique Ochoa is going to be a well-compensated free agent; he made several more spectacular saves...absolutely brutal heat, with the first two scheduled water breaks in World Cup history.

June 28, 2014

Columbia 2, Uruguay 0: Remembering of course that Columbia's best player is sitting this tournament out, we may be watching the most impressive team coming out of nowhere since 1974 Netherlands...James (pronounced "ya-mayce") Rodriguez, aka J-Rod, scored twice.  Playing without its talismanic vampire, Uruguay came close to scoring on a number of occasions, and quite surprisingly, considering the history of this team in 1986 and 1990, no red cards.


Brazil 1, Chile 1: [PK: 3-2] And the Sweet 16 begins...a tense, beguiling two hours decided by a penalty kick off the goal post, and the host country advances.  It will be tough to top that one.  Both teams scored in the first half hour, then gamely held on for the duration as a combination of goalkeeping and woodworks kept the score even.  Chile conceded a goal on what was probably a deflection by the same player who missed the final penalty kick, tied the game on a defensive blunder by Hulk, who then played brilliantly the rest of the way until he missed a PK of his own.  Not a well-played game by the winners, but they survived.

Is "a Steven Smith" the Worst Person in the World?

Not quite, but I did make Keith Olbermann's hourly show on ESPN last night...it has to do with a commentary of his the other night, decrying the advancement of the USMNT over Portugal to the elimination rounds of the World Cup based on the "outdated" system of goal differential.  After all, the US had lost to Germany in the final game, while Portugal won its final game, and the US had "choked" in the final minute in merely tying Portugal.  I responded with tweets suggesting that point differential takes into account all the games the teams played, that it's a tie-breaker used in other high-intensity sports like the NBA, NHL and NFL, and that it showed the US had played better in its three games than Portugal had in their three.

So lo and behold, I have ESPN on last night, and Olbermann's show starts, and immediately, my Twitter response to his commentary is "deconstructed."  And I'm unimpressed.  He still doesn't seem to get the notion of what "point differential" is, and why most sports use it as a tie-breaker.  In a low-energy, low-intensity sport like baseball, you can easily schedule an extra game at the end of the year if you have a tie, but in a tournament format, where you have players running 4-6 miles per game on average, you can't just pick up the next day and play an unscheduled game.  You need something else to use to break ties, and most sports, including soccer, use some combination of point differential and head-to-head play.

The second point is, so what if the US blew a late lead to Portugal.  Neither team won.  And that was a game the Portuguese needed to win much more than the US, due to their one-sided loss to the Germans in their opener.  That's why after the last second game-tying goal, the Portuguese celebration was rather muted, while the US response was not one of utter devastation.  The Americans could have gotten more out of the game, but they got what they needed.  Losing to Germany no more discredits their World Cup than Connecticut's blow-out loss in their conference tournament made them undeserving of winning the 2014 NCAA hoops tournament.

But Olbermann seems to want a less objective method of breaking ties, not one based on head-to-head performance or scoring in the totality of games, but on the more subjective "the US choked so they were the real losers" standard.  Not since Norman Mailer tried to argue that Floyd Patterson had "existentially" defeated Sonny Liston in their first title fight in 1962 has a blowhard tried to celebrate the defeat of his hero with such audacity.  Suffice it to say, it is not a standard that any other sport or competition uses.

June 26, 2014

Belgium 1, South Korea 0 // Algeria 1, Russia 1: Playing the entire second half a man down, Belgium still managed to dominate the game and scored the well-deserved winner in the final fifteen minutes to win the group.  The Koreans never threatened, but did show ball-handling skills near the goal reminiscent of the San Antonio Spurs, if the NBA champs decided to never shoot.  The other team to advance was Algeria, which overcame a sixth-minute goal to become the second team from Africa reach the elimination rounds.  Belgium and Algeria are both the answers to questions which reflect the globality of today's game: which country has the most players in their lineup from the English Premier League (Belgium)/Ligue 1 (Algeria)?

USA beats Germany, 0-1 !!!

Germany 1, USA 0 // Portugal 2, Ghana 1: Playing as if they were in a competitive World Cup game, and not as if it were 90 minutes of kickball, the Germans used a spectacular second half goal by Thomas Mueller to best the USMNT, and assure themselves the top spot in the group.  Twenty-four hours ago, this result might have sounded the death knell for the Americans, with Ghana needing only to outscore the US by two in winning their final game, but the peculiar disease that always seems to strike African football, that combination of ridiculous team dissension and the non-payment of "bonuses", led to the removal of two star players from the line-up on the eve of the game, and in spite of the typical heroic efforts of Asamoah Gyan, they conceded a pair of goals on boneheaded defensive miscues and lost to Portugal.  Cristiano Ronaldo, to his credit, played with exceptional spirit, and after blowing several easy chances, scored the winner in the final ten minutes after a botched clearance by the goalie.  Portugal, at least, was able to end the curse of Manaus.

June 25, 2014

France 0, Ecuador 0 // Switzerland 3, Honduras 0: The Swiss recovered from the humbling rout on Friday with a convincing win against lowly Honduras, while Ecuador came up with a way to slow down an unstoppable French attack: get their best player sent off with a red card.  By virtue of the win, Switzerland nabs the second spot in group behind the French, thanks to a hat trick by Xherdan Shakiri, as well as avenging the result that knocked them out of the last World Cup.  Honduras clinched the last place position in this World Cup, although they managed to play surprisingly entertaining soccer in both of their final matches, while Ecuador became the first South American team to be eliminated.

Next up, France gets Nigeria, while the Swiss play Argentina...if the US can overcome the Curse of Manous, and wins its second round games, it will play the winner of one of these games.  Also, if you want a handy guide as to when you should tune in to either game, here's a breakdown, by time, as to every goal ever scored in the World Cup (hint, around the 18th and 75th minutes).
Argentina 3, Nigeria 2 // Bosnia-Herzegovina 3, Iran 1: In spite of losing its fourth straight one-goal game since 1994 to Argentina, Nigeria backed into the elimination round as Iran fell to already-eliminated Bosnia.  Paced by two first-half goals from Lionel Messi, the Albiceleste clinched the group lead, while Nigeria, led by two scores from Ahmed Susa, played its first attractive World Cup game in ages to fully merit their advancement, even in defeat. In the other game, Team Melli failed to take advantage of Nigeria's defeat, conceding a first-half goal to Eden Dzeko, but did avoid the tournament shutout by scoring late.
Greece 2, Ivory Coast 1 // Columbia 4, Japan 1: I see Mark Few has taken his big-game coaching to Africa.  Only minutes away from making their first-ever elimination round, Ivory Coast conceded a late penalty, and lost the spot to Greece.  Something seemed off about this game; Greece was on the attack for most of the match, even after they took the lead, while Ivory Coast seemed sluggish.  In the other game, Columbia seemed content to let the Blue Samurai dictate the pace and possession of the game, but still had enough in reserve to easily dispatch what may have been the most disappointing team outside of Europe.  In the final minutes, Columbia subbed out their regular goalie, and brought in the oldest player to ever play in the World Cup, Farid Mondragon; the starter on the last Columbian World Cup squad, Mondragon is also the only player in Brazil to have been on the roster of a 1994 World Cup team.

The other games scheduled for the weekend are now set.  Columbia will play what will probably be a cannibal-deprived Uruguayan squad, while Costa Rica will play Greece Sunday evening.

June 24, 2014

Uruguay 1, Italy 0 // England 0, Costa Rica 0: Luis Suarez, difference maker, goal-scoring talisman, foodie...Uruguay scored in the final ten minutes to send a short-handed Italy home early for the second straight World Cup, in a game marred by a savage foul by Giorgio Chiellini, who violently shoved his back into the teeth of Luis Suarez just before the winner.  

Fortunately for Mr. Suarez, there appears to have no damage done to his teeth, and the Azurri could not recover. Next time, the Italians should add some offense to their diet. In the other game, England cleared its bench, and so ended its disappointing run with a scoreless draw, enabling the country with the highest pre-tournament odds of winning its group, Costa Rica, to come out on top of Group D.

June 23, 2014

Brazil 4, Cameroon 1 // Mexico 3, Croatia 1:  A late offensive explosion sparks the Tricolores past a chippy side from Croatia, while Brazil, after a slow start, became the third team in group to dominate the Indomitable Lions.  Mexico was helped by the return to form of supersub Chicharito, who assisted on the second goal before getting on the scoreboard himself with a header in the 82nd minute.  Brazil's margin allowed it to win Group A, and with a second round game with Chile, the third time in the last five World Cups the nations have met in that round.  Mexico faces Holland on Sunday in what could well be the most entertaining match-up of the rounds.  Cameroon goes home after their seventh consecutive loss; I hope they haven't spent their bonuses at one place....
Holland 2, Chile 0 // Spain 3, Australia 0: The Oranje methodically took apart Chile in the final 15 minutes to win the group, and possibly avoid Brazil in the next round, while Spain ended its campaign with a victory over the Socceroos.  Not really a whole to be said about these games: Spain won the first truly meaningless game of the tourney, since both teams already knew they were going home, while the only thing at stake in the other game was the likelihood that the losing team would have to play Brazil, although even that contingency is not certain.  A palate cleanser for the rest of the third stage of games....