Spain 3 – Portugal 3

 

The Iberian Darby was a thrilling game worthy of a final. Instead it was the first game for both of these continental powers, and it got the World Cup off to a riveting start.

The best team of the early 2010’s vs the best player of the last three years was exactly how this game played out. Spain’s Diego Costa netted two goals and Nacho hit a screaming line drive which already has to be candidate for goal of the Cup. Meanwhile, Cristiano Ronaldo scored all three of Portugal’s goals: one on penalty, one on a low shot that DeGea muffed, and one on a glorious free kick at the end of regulation (also candidate for top goal).

The dramatic game was played end-to-end with numerous lead changes. It was probably fair that it ended 3-3 as it won’t matter since both teams are going through to the next stage anyway. At this point, only positioning as 1 or 2 in the group needs to be finalized. Spain exhibited its version of the beautiful game — tiki-taka passing plus majestic tactical organization — and it was not affected by the sacking of its manager Lopetegui. Fernando Hierro was a natural as the last minute substitute coach. If you don’t follower soccer, you would not have noticed that he had just been put on the job 48 hours before kickoff.

Is there any doubt now that Ronaldo has eclipsed Lionel Messi as the world’s greatest player ? He just scored three goals in one game to add onto his 3 consecutive Champions League titles.

He is in such incredible form that he may be able to lead his team and get the only trophy missing from his trophy case.  I wouldn’t completely rule that out at this point.

Mexico 1 – Germany 0

ochoas_amazing_save_mex_germany
Mexico’s goalie Memo Ochoa saves Kroos’ direct free kick

Germany has been Mexico’s nemesis for over three decades now, going way back to the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Before their first-round game, Mexico had not beaten the unified German team (the last victory being a friendly over West Germany). On June 17th, 2018, Mexico finally made history knocking off the defending champions and number one ranked team in the world.

Mexico surprised Germany by its aggressive approach early. They advanced into the German area early and often in the first 15 minutes, forcing the German defense and keeper into numerous saves. In the 35th minute, just as Germany had begun possessing more of the ball, Mexico converted a German turnover into a full out break. Chicharito received the ball at half and made a quick pass to his right to Guardado, who passed it right back to Chicharito on a class give and go. Chicharito then dribbled forward at full speed before laying off a pass on the left wing to Hirving “El Chucky” Lozano. Lozano dribbled into the box and then cut the ball back to his right, eluding a trailing Mehmet Ozil before smashing the ball past Neuer just inside the left post.

The key to the play was that Lozano outsprinted Ozil, racing from deep inside his own zone.  The Germans are a very disciplined team tactically, and rarely do they get exploited down the flanks. And even more hrarely do they get outworked. Most teams don’t take those chances because they then leave huge openings in their the back that the Germand take advantage of. But the fact is that in this play, Germany was exposed because Lozano simply outworked Ozil, who was left scrambling to catch up.

This play was emblematic of the entire tactical approach in this game. After recovering the ball, Mexico attacked as quickly as possible by outrunning the German midfield and defensive in order to apply maximum offensive pressure.

Germany’s coach Joachim Low plan was to double team players like Lozano as they made their runs forward into the offensive end. They knew that Mexico would make quick transitions but they were too slow to execute the defensive strategy.

But Mexico’s true hero had to be goalkeeper Ochoa, who frustrated the Germans the entire game. Shortly after Mexico’s goal, Ochoa saved a sure goal when he directed a free kick from Kroos into the cross-bar. It was simply an amazing save. And it was one of many. Mexico retreated to a more defensive posture in the second half and let Germany attack. The Germans ended with a 61-39% advantage in possession but Ochoa negated that by making 9 saves.

Juan Carlos Osorio, the coach Mexicans call “The Professor”, summed up his philosophical approach to this game: “The phrase was to play for the love of winning, not the fear of losing,” Osorio said after the game. “We were brave, and defended with our hearts.”

World Cup 2018 Group Stage Preview

Group A – Russia, Uruguay, Saudi Arabia, Egypt

Uruguay, a country of only 3.5 million people, always fields a competitive team. It is the smallest country to ever win a World Cup. It beat Argentina as hosts in 1930 and bested Brazil 2-1 in 1950 in the the original Maracanazo. In total, Uruguay have won 20 official titles, a world record for most international titles by any country. The team is a prohibitive favorite in this group. It wouldn’t surprise me if they win all three games. This year’s team is loaded and very experienced at every position: Muslera (G), two world class defenders Diego Godin and Maxi Pereira, and two world class strikers Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. Although not quite as well known as their superstars, Betancur (Juventus) and Vecino (Inter Milan) are two young dynamic players.  If this midfield gels, Uruguay will be a strong favorite to make the final 8 and maybe even the final four.

Egypt’s chances at advancing out of the group took a huge hit when their best player (maybe the best forward in the world this past year), Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah, went out with a dislocated shoulder in the Champions League Final against Real Madrid. Salah looks to be somewhat fit and will play in the World Cup. If he’s even at 80%, Egypt should surprise in this group.  If they can beat Russia in the second game of the group they should advance.

Russia did not perform very well going 1-2 in the Confederations Cup in 2017. They beat New Zealand but lost to Portugal and Mexico.  Since then, they’ve played only a series of friendlies since they didn’t have to qualify for the Cup. They only have a handful of players that play outside of the Russian league.  But the history of the World Cup is that the host nation generally performs much better than their ranking  indicate. Russia should handle Saudi Arabia in the opener, but I don’t give them a chance against Uruguay. The game against Egypt should decide which of those teams gets out of the group.

Saudia Arabia’s best performance in a World Cup was in 1994, when they beat both Belgium and Morocco before losing to a very good Sweden team in the Round of 16. Perhaps the best goal scored in the World Cup of 1994 came from a Saudia  player. Other than that, I have no idea about this team or their abilities, but I think they will go winless and possibly routed by Uruguay, although I don’t think they’ll lose by as a big a margin as when they lost to Germany (0-8) in the 2002 World Cup.

Predictions: Uruguay, Egypt

Group B – Spain, Portugal, Iran, Morocco

Spain has always been one of my favorite teams in the world. One could argue that in the past 10 years, they have been the best footballing team on the entire planet.  While they have under-performed in the last two major competitions (WC 2014 and Euro 2016), this can be attributed to the fact that it is extremely difficult to remain dominant, especially in the most popular sport in the world.

But the as the roster was announced for this World Cup, it is obvious that Spain are back with an embarrassment of riches at every position. At goal (De Gea, Pepe Reina), in the back (Carvajal, Ramos, Pique, Jordi Alba, Azpilicueta, Monreal), in the midfield (Busquets, Iniesta, David Silva, Alcantara) and in attack (Isco – is he Brazilian ?, Asencio,  Lucas Vazques, Diego Costa). The names read like a who’s who of Spanish and English football. The presence of Spanish footballers in Spain is nothing short of a second Armada. As they say in Spain, “joder, claro que vamos a ganar la Copa”, which roughly translates to: “shit, of course we’re going to win it all”.

It is those missing from the team are what makes this so shocking. When Cesc Fabregas and Juan Mata can’t make the team, well you get the picture. Spain has so many world-class players, they could field two World Cup squads. Maybe in 2026, when the World Cup expands to 48 teams, they should be given two spots !

But this fairy tale in the making, meaning the run to the championship, may have been shattered two days two days before the opening kickoff, when the Spanish camp imploded with the worst scandal before the Cup. Their manager Julen Lopetegui, was announced as the next manager of Real Madrid on Tuesday June 12. The Spanish federation chief, Luis Rubiales, promptly fired Lopetegui from his post, and in his place installed Fernando Hierro, the long-time and most excellent Real Madrid and Spain central defender (500 and 90 appearances respectively). As good a player as he was, Hierro is largely inexperienced as coach with only one year under his belt.

The effect of this bombshell is largely unknown. Is the dressing room a mess ?  Is there division between the players over how the situation was handled ? We know for sure that Sergio Ramos lobbied Rubiales hard to allow Lopetegui to continue on to no avail. It’s interesting to note that Pique tweeted that this situation could be compared to the University of Michigan situation in 1989, when coach Steve Fischer was named coach of the team before the NCAA tournament, and the Maize and Blue had one of the greatest runs in March Madness and won the championship.

Pique tweeted: “Todos unidos, ahora más que nunca”. For all soccer loving fans, let’s hope that this mentality prevails so Spain can again rock the world.

As a parenthetical note, blame Zinedine Zidane for these events. His resignation from Real Madrid, after the Blancos won their second straight Champions League Crown, paved the way for this scandal. Go Bleus ! (read below).

Portugal is the reigning European champion, having won their first major title in Euro 2016. Portugal has Cristiano Ronaldo and a good supporting cast (this is not the Cleveland Cavaliers of recent vintage).  Their main weakness is that their two central defenders, upon which they depend so heavily to not only stop opponents but also to initiate the attack, are the aging Bruno Alves (35) and Pepe (36). They have talented midfielders in Adrien Silva and Joao Mouthinho, as well as forwards Andre Silva, Ricardo Quaresma, and of course the eternal Ronaldo, who could lay claim to being the greatest true #9 ever to play.

Portugal should come out of this group in the first place (only due to the mess in Spain) and should face a fairly weak opponent from Group B (either Egypt or Russia), paving their way to the quarters and possibly beyond.

Iran and Morocco have no hope. They are lost at sea in this group.  The match between them will probably be entertaining however.

Predictions: Portugal, Spain

Group C – France, Australia, Peru, Denmark

According to the FIFA rankings, Group C is the most challenging group, featuring France (9th), Australia (39th), Peru (11th), and Denmark (12th), yet it hardly stands out to anyone as the Group of Death. But it does seem to be a very balanced group which could feature some very exciting matches.

France’s situation is very much like Spain’s. They are overflowing with talent at every position, they have many players plying their trade in the EPL and La Liga, and they are also one of the favorites to win the trophy. They also left some notable players at home (Benzema, Martial, Lacazette).

The French have a more potent attacking force whereas the Spanish are better defensively. The obvious difference is that Didier Deschamps is firmly in command as the manager so the drama in the ‘Bleus’ camp is lacking. With little injury worries, France is loaded in midfield (Kanté, Matuidi, Pogba) and in attack (Dembélé, Mbappé, Griezmann, Giroud). Heir defenders are not as well recognized but Varane (Real Madrid) and Umtiti (Barcelona) were pivotal in their team’s success this year.

The French are very young and talented. Deschamp’s role is to motivate his young players to play beyond their ages so they can be serious contenders. They should win this group easily and are capable of a deep run in this tournament.

Denmark has a decent squad that finished second to Poland in Euro qualifying and then thrashed Ireland 5-1 in the two legged playoffs to qualify for the World Cup. Their undeniable leader is Chrisan Eriksen, Tottenham’s excellent playmaking midfielder. This team features a cast of players that mostly play outside of Denmark in the 4 major European leagues.  Their recent good set of results, including a 2-0 win over Mexico in a pre Cup friendly should give this team a good lift. If they can beat Peru, they should go through to the next stage.

Australia’s road to the World Cup was dubious at best, having to beat Syria, a country mired in a vicious 7 year Civil War, in a two legged playoff, winning by a 3-2 aggregate score.  They then beat Honduras 3-1 in a second playoffs, so one could say the best thing about this team is that it is battle tested. It is also a veteran squad led by Tim Cahill (106 caps), Lucas Neill (96 caps), and Brett Emerton (95 caps).  The road out of this group will be difficult for the Socceroos to manage. I’ll be yelling “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie” chant during their group games but not beyond.

Peru hasn’t been to a World Cup since 1982 (was Nene Cubillas still playing back then ?) but has been a team on the rise (semi-finals in Copa America in 2011 and 2015 and the quarters in 2016). It also qualified as the fourth team in the rigorous CONMEBOL. It is a team on the rise and just two weeks ago was given the best news it could have when FIFA cleared Peru’s best player and all-time leading scorer, Paolo Guerrero, to play in the World Cup. Led mostly by players who play in South America, they have the individual talent and fire to upset Denmark. The winner of that game should have a leg up to qualify in the second spot in this group.

Predictions: France, Peru

Group D –  Argentina, Croatia, Nigeria, Iceland

What is about the luck of the draw that almost always seems to put Argentina and Nigeria in the same group ? Here they both are again and they both should get out of this group. In 1994, in Maradona’s last World Cup, Argentina beat the Super Eagles 2-1. In 2002 and 2010, Argentina again beat Nigeria by identical 1-0 scores, and again beat them 3-2 in 2014.  So while Argentina owns Nigeria in the World Cup, it hasn’t been easy and Nigeria has managed to come out of the group on multiple occasions.

The big story of this group of course is Argentina’s quest for its major title since 1993, which is the year they last won Copa America.  In that time span, they have lost a World Cup Final (2014), four Copa Americas (2004, 2007, 2015, 2016), and the Confederation Cup (2005).

Will this be Leo Messi’s last run ?  The prevailing opinion is yes. After retiring for a brief period of time after the 2014 World Cup final, Messi came back and was pivotal in Argentina’s miserable qualifying run, including netting three goals in a 3-1 victory over Ecuador to clinch the third of fourth qualifying spots in CONMEBOL. If not for that victory, Argentina would have to had qualified via the playoff system. Instead that spot went to Peru.

Argentina is loaded with as much talent as all the big favorites. They are solid in the back (Otamendi, Rojo, Mascherano, Mercado), possess a decent corpse of midfielders (Lanzini, Biglia, Banega, DiMaria), but their forwards are their forte (Dybala, Messi, Aguero, Higuaín). Their one weak spot is at goalkeeper, where Caballero (their likely #1) is a second goalkeeper at Chelsea.

The problem for Sampaoli has always been assembling the right kind of team around Messi. Whereas at Barca Messi has always relied on the great playmaking of Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta, no Argentinian has been able to perform at that level. Messi will need Banega and Biglia to step up and play the best football of their careers.

With a still very vibrant, dynamic, and highly motivated Messi, Argentina will get out of this group. The question will be can they go all the way ? With the absence of a top keeper, Argentina is a likely finalist, and unfortunately, a runner-up yet again.

Croatia has two of the best midfielders in the world in Modric (Real Madrid) and Rakitic (Barcelona), and a talented striker in Mandzukic (Juventus). The only issue for Croatia’s golden generation is that they average over 30 years of age and that can spell disaster at the World Cup level, especially if they get off on the wrong foot in their inaugural game against Nigeria.

iceland_chant

Iceland burst on the scene with their victory of England in the Euro 2016 Round of 16. During the World Cup qualifying campaign they continued their streak of success with their victories over Ireland, Turkey, and fellow group teams Croatia. They have earned the moniker as the giant-killers and are no longer an unknown quantity. Plus, their fans have a killer clap/chant that has made the team even more famous.

Iceland are highly dependent on two ‘sons (Gunnarsson and Sigurdsson), the teams two most important players.  They have been plagued by injuries in the lead up to the Cup. If they are not fully fit, this team will not be able to compete with the others in this group.  Another factor is that, since they are now a known quantity, their rivals have had time to study their style and tactics. Does Iceland have other individual resources required to overcome any injury to the big two ?  Probably not. Their first game against Argentina is key. If they can stay close they may be competitive; if not they will not survive in this highly competitive group.

Prediction: Argentina, Nigeria (again)

Group E – Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Serbia

Brazil have some of the world’s best soccer players. The country has always counted as players as one of its exports, with estimates of over 15,000 playing abroad. Can Brazil recover from the most humiliating defeat in its history, the 7-1 thrashing at the hands of Germany in the 2014 semi-final, and finally restore itself to its rightful place in the hegemony of world soccer ?   It may not be in the Group stage against inferior rivals, but when it faces another powerhouse, will it be able to forget the past ? That’s the question that is on everyone’s mind at the outset of the competition.

There are many new players in this squad. I became a huge fan of Philippe Coutinho while he was at Liverpool, mostly impressed by his fine playmaking and his ability to rocket shots from well beyond the 18-yard line. He is the one player that I think will shine in this tournament, my sleeper if you will. Paired with William as the other attacking mid and buttressed by Casemiro and Fernandinho makes this the best midfield in the tournament, perhaps even better than Spain’s.

Up front, the dynamic Douglas Costa and Neymar make for a dynamic duo.  In the back, Thiago Silva is solid in the center, while the Marcelo whirlwind style makes him the best left back in the world.  Brazil’s traditional weakness has been the goalkeeper. This year they have two excellent stoppers in Alisson (AS Roma) and Ederson (Man City).

On paper, there is no weakness on this team. It really is up to them to get out of their heads and conquer the daemons from four years ago and show the world it is capable of the beautiful game once again.

Switzerland has two of the greatest names in football: Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaquiri. Add AC Milan defender Ricardo Rodriguez to the mix, and if we just used their first names, this team starts to resemble Brazil, at least in name only.  The Swiss struggled to qualify, having to beat Northern Ireland in the playoff. But they are here, and the guess is that they’re good enough individually to take second in this group but not go much further than that.

Costa Rica made the final 8 last time, a feat that will be hard to duplicate again, for various reasons. Both Joe Campbell and Bryan Ruiz, two of the Ticos best scorers are coming back from injury and their form is still to be determined.  Their other forward, Marco Ureña, has been on fine form for LAFC in MLS. Costa Rica can count on one of the world’s best keepers in Keylor Navas, but will their defense be as disciplined as they were four years ago, when they led all teams with their offside trap ? I will root for Minnesota United defender Francisco Calvo and hope that he does well. In a tough group, the ageing Ticos will fall just short.

Serbia is led by the defenders Alexander Kolarov (AS Roma) and ex-Chelsea Branislav Ivanović, midfielder Nemanja Matić (Man United), and of Nikola Milinković (Fiorentina). They are a talented and strong and experienced squad. They are led by Mladen Krstajic, who has only been with the team since October of 2017.  They will struggle against all three teams they face and will not make it out of the group.

Predictions: Brazil, Switzerland

Group F – Germany, Mexico, South Korea, Sweden

Mexico and Germany have quite a World Cup history. Germany has been the Azteca’s nemesis for generations. In the 1986 World Cup quarter-final in blistering Monterrey, Mexico severely outplayed Germany over 120 minutes but couldn’t score. They wilted in the penalty kick shoot-out. Germany went all the way to the final before losing to Maradona’s Argentina 3-2 in a most thrilling final.  In France 1998, Mexico’s held a 1-0 lead until the 80th minute before Germany struck twice on set pieces to vanquish Mexico yet again. Two of Mexico’s loses in the fourth game have thus come at the hands of the Germans. At least this time they meet in the group stage so Mexico can’t be eliminated with a loss. But in order to escape the group, Mexico can’t afford a slip-up of the kind they had last year’s Confederation Cup, where their A team fell to Germany’s B squad by a shocking 4-1 scoreline. If they do, its curtain for Mexico.  But as is their custom of playing the best teams evenly at the World Cup, if they can get one point from this key game, Mexico should be able to advance. If they can beat Germany then its better but I wouldn’t count on that.

Mexico’s biggest issue is that their talent pool is actually too deep and their manager Carlos Osorio hasn’t fielded the same lineup twice in over 31 games now. He switches the keepers every game which is simply unheard of in World Cup qualifying. If he sticks with Memo Ochoa, who I think was one of the best keepers last go round, Mexico will be well served.

At the back, Mexico has four players from European clubs: Diego Reyes (Porto), Carlos Salcedo (Eintracht Frankfurt), Layun (Sevilla), and Hector Moreno (Real Sociedad). In midfield, Marcos Fabian (Eintracht Frankfurt), Andres Guardado (Betis), Hector Herrera (Porto), and the dos Santos brothers (LA Galaxy) provide both quality and vast experience.

Most surprisingly, Mexico chose to take 7 forwards, with the most famous being Chicharito (West Ham) and Carlos Vela (LAFC), but Raul Jimenez (Benfica) and Hirving Lozano (PSV) can also strike fear into any defense.  The sheer number of forwards is an interesting choice, one that indicates that Osorio will employ an attacking philosophy in this World Cup. Against Sweden and South Korea, that is a good strategy; against W. Germany it could, however, be very costly.  But having lost only 7 of 45 games under his watch, Osorio has a record that shows he knows what he is doing.

Mexico has nobody to fear in the group stage. Other teams should fear it. Mexico’s issues have always been in that fourth game. Their inability to play the famous ‘quinto partido’ (5th game) since 1986 is what most motivates this team. I am one fan who will ardently be hoping that they can finally get the monkey off of their back.

What more needs to be said about Germany other than, along with Brazil, they are the  top favorites to win it all. Germany is so good that they won the Confederations Cup last year with their second-tier squad, made up mostly of young players. No other country, other than Brazil and Spain, have the vast resources to be able to field two World Cup quality teams.

The Germans are solid at all levels. They boast two World quality keepers: Manuel Nauer (Bayern Munich) and Marc-André Ter Stegen (Barcelona). They have the Bayern Munich defense (Boateng, Hummerls, Kimmich). At midfield they are immensely talented with the elegant Kroos (Real Madrid), the young and dynamic Julian Draxler (Paris St. Germain), veterans Sami Khedira (Juventus) and Memet Ozil (Arsenal), and Marco Reus (Borussia Dortmund). Surprisingly (or not), Joachim Lowe chose only three forwards, amongst them experienced goal-scorer Thomas Muller (Bayern Munich) and Mario Gomez (Sttutgart).

The other huge plus for this team has been the stability of its leadership, where Joachim Lowe has been the manager for 12 years now. Although the playing style has changed, the fact that Germany has had the same manager for that long is extremely beneficial.

Having said all of that, having fully regaled plaudits upon this team, could it be that Germany are  due for a letdown ? Probably not in the group stage or the Round of 16, but after that, it does become extremely difficult to defend the crown.

Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s retired from international football last year but Sweden managed a lackluster 1-0 two legged playoff win over Italy to get in to the World Cup. Without their superstar, the team did not impress in winning an equally struggling Italian team. They have two aging forwards (Marcus Berg and Oila Toivonen), a very good midfielder Emil Forsberg. They play a 4-4-2 and are very direct in their attack, so don’t expect a lot of technical wizardry from this team. Although Mexico are much better man for man, this is the kind of team (hard, tall European) that give the Aztecas fits. If Mexico can beat Sweden, they will move on; if they can’t they may not make it out.

South Korea is an unknown quantity. Only four of their players play outside of Japan and South Korea. The most famous of those is Tottenham’s Son Heung-min (Tottenham), who proved last year to be a lethal striker. South Korea is always very well organized, super fit and super fast. They tied Spain and Mexico 1-1 in 1994 and Spain in 1998 respectively. In the 2002 World Cup co-hosted by South Korea and Japan they made it to the final four. I expect them to be competitive but not to get out of this group.

Predictions: Germany, Mexico

Group G – England, Belgium, Panama, Tunisia

Belgium has to be the prohibitive favorite in this group. Belgium’s Golden Generation is  composed of proven players such as Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea), Romelo Lukaku and Fellaini (ManUnited), Kevin DeBruyne and Vincent Kompany (Man City) and Jan Vertongen (Tottenham).  That core is strong up the middle as any team in the world and features a player Hazard who plays the entire field as well as anyone (are you listening Costa Rica manager ?). The only Red Devils only difficult game will be against the Three Lions. The fact that all of Belgium’s stars play in England will make this game seem like an EPL super darby, and rival only Spain vs Portugal as the marquee matchup of the first round.

If you watch a lot of English Premier League football, England’s team will be instantly recognizable. The defense has Phil Jones and Ashley Young (Man U), Gary Cahill (Chelsea), John Stones and Kyle Walker (Man City). At midfield, Raheem Sterling and Fabian Delph (Man City), Eric Dier and Dele Ali (Tottenham), and Jesse Lingard (Man U).  Up front, the names are more commonplace: Vardy (Leicester), Harry Kane (Tottenham), Marcus Rashford (Man U), and Danny Welbeck (Arsenal). The biggest name missing is Joe Hart, previously England’s #1 keeper, who was left out. Still, the nod will probably go to Stoke City’s Jack Butland, who had a marvelous season after coming back from a foot injury.

England has great balance between experience and youth and have all the players necessary to not only make a run but to win the World Cup. The EPL is the world’s most competitive league and also one of its most diverse, featuring top level players from everywhere on the planet. It is also one of the most prominent with matches broadcast around the world. The question will be how good are the English players within that league. Are they as good as everyone else that plays there ? They will have a chance to prove that they truly are now.

Panama qualified for the World Cup on a combination of goals late in CONCACAF qualifying. Roman Torres scored in extra time in San Jose to qualify his country for its first ever World Cup at the same time that the US were losing to Trinidad and Tobago. They will be competitive initially but then will be overwhelmed by the vastly superior talent of the two powerhouses.

Tunisia will face a similar fate. Seven of their players play in La Ligue with most others playing in Saudi Arabia or Tunisia. Without any presence in the top leagues, this team will succumb to the giants. It may not be pretty as it happens.

Predictions: Belgium, England

Group H – Colombia, Japan, Poland, Senegal

This group is tricky. While Poland and Colombia are the two obvious favorites, one cannot completely count out the other two teams.

Senegal qualified for the World Cup after beating South Africa 2-0 after FIFA overturned their previous loss to the same team due to match fixing. Every single one of their players are in the top European leagues with the exception of their #1 keeper, Khadim Ndiyae. Liverpool’s Sadio Manne is their best known player but far from their only with quality. This is a fast and athletic team and like Mexico, they carry seven forwards, which would suggest an attacking mentality. Can they repeat their success of 2002, when Senegal stunned France and made a run to the quarterfinals ?  I think they will stun Poland and make it out of the group, but will lose in the Round of 16.

Colombia finished 4th in the CONMEBOL qualifying, the world’s longest qualifying and possibly most rigorous campaign featuring 18 games. This team is battle tested and talented, and returns many quality players from the last World Cup including Cuadrado (Juventus) and James Rodriguez (BayernMunich), winner of last World Cup’s golden boot, at midfield, David Ospina (Arsenal) in goal, and Radamel Falcao (Monaco). Their entire defense is based at European teams and is equipped to handle the pressure at this level of play. The Cafeteros will definitely exit this group, but it will be a struggle. The game against Senegal should be a dandy.

Poland qualified number one in a very weak UEFA Group E. They are a strong team up front with Robert Lewandosky (Bayern Munich) a proven goal scorer who scored 16 goals in qualification. But four of their defenders – Lukasz Piszczek, Kamil Glik, Michal Pazdan, Maciej Rybus – are all aged over 30. This will make them vulnerable against speedy and energetic sides like Senegal and Japan.

Japan dominated AFC Group B qualifying taking the top place over Saudi Arabia and Australia. Japan has many players in Europe and arguably their best midfield Keisuke Honda in Mexico ( Pachuca). They are a fast technical team that cannot be overlooked.  Japan, like Spain, recently promoted their technical director (Akira Nishino) to the job as coach. Without much time to work with the team, Japan’s success will be limited. They do not, after all, possess Spain’s level of talent.

Predictions: Colombia, Senegal

 

 

US Stunned in Trinidad

United States out of World Cup 2018

Loses to Trinidad and Tobago in final game of CONCACAF Hexagonal

On November 19, 1999, Bob Ley, the finest journalist ESPN has ever had, delivered some wonderful news on the then new cable television network about the mens national US soccer team. Paul Caliguri had scored a miracle goal against Trinidad and Tobago to qualify the US to the World Cup in 1990 in Italy. This was the first time the US had played in soccer’s marquee event in 40 years. They had claimed the last spot in the field of 24 in a game they had to win. A loss or tie would mean that Trinidad would advance instead.

Tony Meola, John Harkes, Alexi Lalas, Tab Ramos, and the aforementioned Caliguri were some of the main players on that team. John Paul de la Camera and Seamus Malin were calling the game.

Caliguri’s goal was a beautiful display of skill. In the 30th minute, Caliguri received a pass from Tab Ramos, and faking a shot with his right foot flicked the ball onto his left side to beat his defender, and then looped a high arcing shot with his left to beat TnT’s goalie.  Tony Meola, wearing a white baseball cap to shield his eyes from the sun, was solid in goal towards the end of the game, making a couple of key stops to save the US.

Caliguri’s goal became known as the “Shot Heard Around The World” and it helped launch US soccer into the modern era. In 1994, the USA would host the World Cup and make it out of its group.

In 1995, as a precondition imposed by FIFA for granting the Cup to the US, a  new soccer league called Major League Soccer (MLS) was started. The goal was to bring a professional league to this country in order to grow the number and quality of players with the aim of keeping US Soccer competitive for years. FIFA obviously saw the US as a huge market that needed to be kickstarted and nourished. The money available in this country’s sports possessed market was simply too big to continue to ignore.

This goal was mostly met for the next 20 years as the USA would qualify for the next 5 World Cups. In 2002, behind phenoms DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan, the USA beat Mexico 2-1 in the 2002 World Cup to make it to the quarter-finals, before bowing out to Germany. While 2006 was a disappointment, the USA once again made noise in 2010 by beating Portugal 3-1 in the opening game and again getting out of the group phase, where they would lose to Ghana 2-1 in a thrilling extra minute game.

In 2014, the US would again continue to make strides forward, surviving what many called the Group of Death, making it to the Final 16 before losing to Belgium. Tim Howard, the USA’s keeper would set a World Cup record with 16 saves in the overtime loss.

But all of that progress came crashing down last night. Entering the game, all the US had to do to secure their berth was to get a tie. Trinidad and Tobago was the weakest of the final 6 CONCACAF teams in Port au Prince, having amassed only 3 points in 9 games.  They were also missing one of their best players to suspension — the Loons’ own Kevin Molino.

Before the game, the US had a 13-1-3 record against this country of 1.2 million people in the World Cup qualifiers (with a 4-1-2 record on Trinidadian soil).

With everything before them, the USMNT played a listless first half and fell behind by a 2-0 scoreline. The first goal was an own goal by Omar Gonzales, an innocent error on a miskick from an equally innocent cross. This should not have been enough to derail the Americans from the World Cup.

Still in the first half, came the real shocker, a long distance shot from Alvin Jones that beat Tim Howard.

Pulisic pulled one back early in the second half. This should have been enough to push the team forward, inspired it to at least get the tying goal.  Clint Dempsey had a couple of decent chances to equalize, one off of a set piece was tipped over the goal by the Trinidadian keeper and the second, in the 78th minute, went off of the post.

Meanwhile, there was high drama at the other two games.  The chances of the USA not qualifying had been calculated at around 4-5 % since the USA had to lose and both Honduras and Panama had to win their respective games.

In Honduras, Mexico had a 2-1 lead before Honduras stormed back. The equalizer came off of a crazy shot that hit the crossbar, then hit Mexico’s keeper Memo Ochoa in the face before going in.  Honduras would add the winner late in the game in a play tantalizingly close to being offside.

In Panama, the scene was just as chaotic.  The Loons Johan Venegas had put Costa Rica up 1-0. Up to that time, and with Mexico also winning, the US was still in.  Then, in one of the most controversial calls you’ll ever see, Panama’s Blas Perez headed a ball down towards the corner of Costa Rica’s left post. As Perez fell towards the goal, he came tantalizingly close to nudging the ball into the net with his head, but it was actually cleared well off the line by the Costa Rican defender who had fallen into his own goal net area.  The goal was somehow awarded and Paname was tied and had a chance.  Why goal-line technology is not being employed at these crucial World Cup qualifying games will be a topic of debate in the upcoming months. And then, in the dying moments of the game, Panama got the game winner from Roman Torres, sending the US all the way down to fifth place.

Of the US effort, captain Michael Bradley summed it up best:

We got back to 2-1 and at that point couldn’t make a play to unlock them, couldn’t get the final pass, the final shot, the final action. You can go around in circles a million times over again. But the reality is it was all there for us, and we have nobody to blame but ourselves.”

Like Caliguri’s shot nearly 30 years ago, Jones’ long range strike was the Trinidad’s own shot heard around the world, the shot that kept the United States out of the World Cup.

 

 

The Loons get revenge on Atlanta

Redemption

Loons beat other expansion United 3-2

Hands Atlanta first loss at Benz Stadium

 

Nearly seven months ago, in the coldest game in MLS history, Minnesota United made history by bringing back professional soccer to the state. Atlanta was in no mood to allow Minnesotans to celebrate the return of the beautiful game. The weather notwithstanding, the Atlanta team drubbed Minnesota United 6-1 in that historic opener.

It appeared as if the Loons would be in for a very long season, one typical of expansion teams, meaning a lot of losses, and the way things had shaped up early after getting outscored 11-2, a lot of lopsided defeats.

But somehow the Loon righted the ship and got untracked.  In the following game after the disastrous home opener, they would come back to earn their first point against Colorado. None of the games after that first one would turn out so uneven (except a 4-0 defeat to Seattle in the summer), and while Minnesota didn’t amass a ton of points, they were getting beat by more normal soccer scores.

By the time the game in Atlanta rolled around, the Loons were out of the basement and had an overall record of 9-6-15 (32 points). In contrast, Atlanta sat in 3rd place of the vastly superior Eastern Conference (if they were in the West, their 51 points would top the division !)

On paper, this game again looked like it would be a mismatch.

Danladi opened the scoring with a thundering left-footed kick, a goal more impressive than the game winning goal a couple of games earlier because it came with his off foot.  Then Atlanta came back to take 2-1 lead.  An Atlanta player got ejected for two yellows, leaving them shorthanded for the last xx minutes.

Minnesota would capitalize on that one man advantage.

In the 85th, Minnesota United scores a goal when Christian Ramirez screens his defender and allows the ball to deflect off his shin. Hardly one of his best goals of the year, but maybe his most important.

In the 91st, Jerome Thiesson crossed into Kevin Molino, who headed it in for the game winner.

After suffering an ignominious defeat to this same team in our home opener, we come back full circle and hand Atlanta their first home loss of the year. Minnesota is languishing in the depths of the West while Atlanta is in the top of the East. No matter, this felt like a playoff win for the Loons.

This game should set up what should be a very interesting rivalry for these two teams moving forward.

Tough Sledding at Soccer Ice Bowl

Minnesota United crushed by Atlanta in Historic Home Opener

20170312_161112
View from Dark Clouds Supporters Section

The Dark Clouds are the largest of Minnesota United’s fan clubs. They were assigned Sections 123-127 of TCF Bank Stadium, behind the Eastern end-zone of the Minnesota Gophers football stadium.  Several thousand fans marched from Surly Brewery just up the street to cheer on the team’s professional debut on what was a cold, windy, snowy March day. The fans wear the traditional Dark Clouds hats and scarves, sing songs, jump up and down, make noise throughout the game, much like many other soccer fanatics around the world.

Gabriel and I had seats in the Dark Clouds section for this game, and the atmosphere before the game and during the opening ceremonies was electric. Professional soccer was making its return to Minnesota after a nearly 35 year hiatus, and a mix of old and new fans were ready to cheer on the Loons inaugural game. (The total attendance for the game was eventually announced at around 35,000, a pretty sizable amount given the weather conditions.)

It was freezing cold, the conditions reminiscent more of American football games than soccer. This felt more like the old Met Stadium or Lambeau Field, soccer’s version of the Ice Bowl. Even though it was frigid, it was fun to be part of this kind of atmosphere.

Before the game, many past Minnesota professional soccer players such as Tino Lettieri, Alan Wiley, and others who had mostly gained fame playing for the Minnesota Kicks franchise in the 70s and 80s were inducted into a ring of honor.

The Dark Clouds have designated cheerleaders, who stand in front of the fans on a stage of sorts and lead the songs and the cheers. And they were going on non-stop throughout the festivities and as the game started. It was all continuous noise and cheer from the opening whistle.

20170312_160209
Opening Ceremonies

Once the game started, I snapped some pictures and then put the phone away.  Just as I looked up, Atlanta’s speedy Josef Martinez received a pass completely unmarked. He dribbled in on Minnesota United’s keeper untouched and unharassed and scored with a low hard shot to the far post.  Just 10 minutes later, Atlanta’s other speedster Miguel Almiro worked his way past the United defense and fired a high shot past United’s Swedish keeper John Alvbage. The game was barely 15 minutes old, and we were already down 2-0.  By the time Martinez  scored his third goal in the 27th minute, it was obvious that we were not going to get the glorious win.

dark_cloud_shirtless
Balancing Beers

The fans undeterred, kept singing. One of the Dark Clouds had taken his shirt off, and the bald guy in front kept leading cheers. He didn’t even turn around to watch the shellacking we were taking, as if he were oblivious to it all.

kevin_molino_scores
Kevin Molino retrieving United’s first ever MLS goal

In the 30th minute, MInnesota score their first ever MLS goal when Kevin Molino scored on a penalty kick.  A guy coming down the stairs turned to me and yelled as we high fived the historic goal. Minnesota continued to press and actually held better possession in the last 15 minutes of the half. In injury time, Jermaine Taylor hit the crossbar.

Spirits were still high at the break despite being down by 2. We were still in the game and the fans in the stadium seemed to be enjoying this crazy opening day. Dark Clouds continued making their presence felt, the one guy still didn’t have a shirt on in the freezing weather and wind.

Unfortunately in the second half, things didn’t get any better. In the 52nd minute, Almiron pounced on a deflected shot and half-volleyed a shot high into the net. The goal came right in front of the Dark Clouds and really deflated our spirits.  Martinez completed his hat trick in the 75th minute.  The fans continued cheering and singing, but with less enthusiasm than before. Towards the end of the game, with the scoreline already 5-1 in favor of the visiting and also expansion team Atlanta United, even the hardest core of fans had given up, their enthusiasm squelched by Atlanta’s goal barrage.

The learning curve for expansion teams is always steep in any professional league so it was to be expected that United would struggle. Unfortunately, Minnesota has just set an MLS record of futility, becoming the first expansion team ever to lose by more than 4 goals in their first two games. (The Loons lost their first game to the Portland Timbers 5-1.)

It is ironic that on this cold day, the team from Minnesota didn’t even enjoy the cold weather advantage.  The roster, made up of only 4 ex United players from last year’s NASL squad, don’t have any more experience playing in cold weather than Atlanta’s players did. If anything, Atlanta’s players looked fresher, faster, and hungrier right off the bat. So much for recreating the old Viking’s mystique, at least for this year.

NOTES:

In Minnesota’s third game, the Loons gained their first point by coming back from a 2-0 deficit in Colorado.  There were some lineup changes. Atlanta, on the other hand, beat the Fire 4-0.  I later learned they had a year head start and have a payroll that’s much bigger than ours.  Professional soccer seasons are long, and all kinds of things can happen to change the fortunes of teams.

Professional Futsal League

As I watched the U16 Boys Final at the St. Louis Midwest Regional Futsal Championships, as I saw the level of skill exhibited by both teams, the amount of excitement generated by the fast and furious end to end play, and how much the crowd was enjoying the matches, I wondered if  Futsal could become a winter mainstream American sport, like hockey or basketball ? I later learned that  the PFL (Professional Futsal League) will debut in 2017.  I wondered if the sport could become popular enough to challenge hockey or even basketball ? Could it flourish, much like the Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL) did in the mid 1980’s ?

For the uninitiated, Futsal is a sport related to Soccer. Consider it like a cousin of sorts. While Futsal can be considered a miniature version of Soccer in some ways, there are ways in which it is quite different. In some respects, it is also similar to basketball and hockey in terms of both the size of the playing surface but also because of the lightning quick pace of play, tactical maneuvers, unlimited substitutions, timeouts, and yes, what is maybe most appealing to the American sport-loving fan-base, lots of goals.

Futsal is played with a smaller ball on a hard surface. It is a 5 v 5 (4 field players plus a goalie) with two 20 minute halves.  The hard court is about twice the size of a basketball court (and in many youth leagues it is played on a basketball court). Unlimited substitutions are permitted and teams have one timeout per half.

futsalcourtsize

Many of the rules are similar to soccer but there are some significant differences. Many of the infractions are similar and have the same penalties (indirect, direct, and penalty kicks). There is no sliding tacking allowed in Futsal, and there are unlimited substitutions. Time also does not run continuously but is stopped when the ball is out of play. There’s an accumulated foul rule that allows a team to have a direct kick when the opponent has tallied more than five fouls.

The combination of rules, smaller court size, smaller number of players, and the speed of the game are some of the factors that contribute to the larger number of goals scored.

But don’t confuse Futsal with any kind of version of indoor soccer, such as the game played on a synthetic turf inside of a bubble or dome. The kind of game that was popularized by the success of the MISL in the 1980’s. That game was played inside of a hockey rink (a bigger playing surface than a futsal court) where the rink walls were part of the playing surface. This allowed for players to be able to pass the ball by bouncing off of the walls, which is something that can’t be done in Futsal.  Also because of the larger playing area, indoor soccer was a 6 v 6 game.

In Futsal, the characteristics of the ball forces players to make quick short passes along the ground when building up attacking play (i.e. such as South American or the European Continental style) as opposed to making long passes and crosses most characteristic of the Northern European style.  Goalkeepers are allowed to make long lobbing passes to the forwards into the attacking court (the low bounce allows players to control the ball quickly off of the long distributions from the goalkeeper) as well as to distribute to their defenders via a bowling style roll. Because of the much smaller playing surface than outdoor soccer and smaller number of players, a keeper is more an integral part of the offensive game than they are in soccer.

The small court also make the game more immediate to the fan, who can enjoy the subtleties of the game because they are so close to it.  The artistry of the game is undeniable. Skilled players can work magic with the ball, moving it every which way, spinning it, flicking it, scooping it into the air.  There’s a full repertoire of body movements in the form of feints and fakes that allow players to make amazing moves with the ball. The smaller ball also makes passing much faster and more more accurate. When combined with dynamic player movement and complex offensive schemes, players are able to generate lots of scoring chances.  The dazzling speed makes it a beautiful sport to watch.

The following video showcases the best Futsal players at the last FIFA Futsal World Cup.

You can see elements of Futsal in Soccer. This is most evident when an attacking team is operating in small spaces. The ability to think and act quickly in confined spaces is why a lot of players credit Futsal to having developed their comfort with the ball. Seeing players manipulate the ball as if it was attached to their feet is one of the most pleasing aesthetic qualities of either game.

But what may make the sport more palatable to mainstream American fans and also to advertisers that would be integral to support it in the American Sports model are the built-in pauses (currently only one timeout per half is allowed but that could easily be expanded to two or three to accommodate advertising).  I personally hate this amount of stoppage in play, but if the sport is ever to gain a foothold in the US, this concession to advertisers would have to be made.

The MISL (Major Indoor Soccer League) consisted of more than 10 teams and in it’s heyday attracted around 8,000 fans on average to its games. I attended some Minnesota Striker games and they were loud, raucous affairs. At those games, the passion of the fans was as palpable as you see in games played in the rest of the world. The game, like Futsal,  was fast paced, exciting, and there were always lots of goals scored.

Nearly thirty year laters, America has seen Major League Soccer establish franchises in 20 cities and will expand to 22 in 2017. Could there be more appetite for a similar sport in the Winter season ?  There are a lot more players and fans than in the past, but part of MISL’s success was the fact that it was the only game in town, as there was no real viable outdoor league after the NASL folded. The success of the PFL hinges on how much appetite there is for the both soccer and futsal in the United States.

Futsal has a growing professional presence in Europe and South America.  In the United States, it has of late been considered as a sport to develop skills for soccer, and its popularity is growing. In Minnesota for example, there are many more leagues than just 2 or 3 years ago. At the national level, there are regional and national tournaments that feature hundreds of skilled players. With many more players being exposed to it in the youth ranks, the talent pool is increasing. Many of these players could form the basis for the PFL.

The presence of a PFL team in Minnesota would be amazing since Futsal is as entertaining to watch as Soccer, and for those of us who have grown to love the game, it may be even more so.

Johan Cruyff

“Quality without results is pointless. Results without quality is boring.” – Johan Cruyff

When I was thirteen years old I lived in Madrid Spain for one magical year. I learned a lot about Spanish culture, language, and sport. I went to an elite private school known as Colegio Estudio which was an hour away from our house and where the kids would loudly chant Franco, Franco, Franco in the bathrooms and gym dressing rooms in rabid support of the dictator. I went to a lot of museums and traveled extensively around the country with my parents who were obsessed with seeing as much of  Spain as possible during the nine months we were there. I learned how to speak proper Castellano (which is what the Spanish call the language since it originates from this province), and how to order tapas and the occasional glass of vino tinto at a bar.

I also fell in love with the sport of futbol by watching Johann Cruyff play what may have been the finest seasons of his illustrious career. For me Cruyff was my first soccer love, and to this date I revere him as one of the best players the world has ever seen.

We ended up in Spain because my parents had obtained a scholarship to do research work on Middle Ages poetry in Spain for the 1973-1974 academic year. We settled into an apartment in the outskirts of Madrid in a complex of 4 20 story buildings right next to the Madrid Amusement Park. From the balcony of our tenth floor apartment, off to the right, I could see a soccer stadium located about 2 kilometers away. When there were games at night, I would see the stadium light up and I longed to go to one of the games, mostly because I didn’t know much about soccer (or futbol as it is known in spanish speaking countries). As a young kid I was already fascinated with other sports, mostly baseball, basketball, and American football.

One day a Spanish man named Martin and a woman involved with the research project came over to have dinner. The conversation drifted between various topics of Spanish culture. Martin was very knowledgeable about all things Spanish and he talked about a lot of different things. I mostly remember his rambling about bullfighting (a truly Spanish sport) and futbol.  He cited that the two most important teams in Spanish soccer were Real Madrid and Barcelona. They were the two biggest clubs, hailing from the two largest cities in Spain, they had the two largest and most energetic fan bases, and they had dominated the league for what appeared to be decades. Real Madrid had dominated the 1950’s with legendary players such as DiStefano, Puskas, Gento, and Kopa were led by the president Santiago Bernabeu and had won 5 European Champions League Cups in the decade.

I asked Martin if Real Madrid played in the stadium that was visible from our apartment and he informed me that this was not the Bernabeu (Real Madrid’s home) but the Vicente Calderon, which was the home of Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid’s arch-enemy from the capitol city, but not their most important rival. He went on to tell me that although the Madrid Darby was important, it paled in comparison to the Real-Barcelona rivalry, which was not only the most important in Spanish Futbol, but one of the largest in the entire world of soccer.

In the summer of 1973, Barcelona had signed a very good footballer from the Netherlands named Johan Cruyff. Barcelona was going through a down period and had not won the Spanish Championship since 1960.  Cruyff, with his genius, changed all that.  He made other pretty good players around him so much better (Rexach the tall elegant midfielder and Hugo Sotil, the diminutive Bolivian forward are the ones I liked the most). Barcelona played with a style that I really liked even though I didn’t know anything about soccer tactics back then. Their game flowed back and forth between offense and defense. I think Cruyff and Rinus Michel, the Barca coach who was also from the Netherlands were implementing the Dutch idea of total football. Even though I had no idea what it was, it was a beautiful thing to watch.

I watched the first Clasico that year as Cruyff Barca team thrashed the Merengues 5-0 at the Bernabeu.  Martin, who was a Real Madrid fan, called the following day, quite despondent. He told me that I had witnessed the worst possible defeat a team could absorb, especially from against their bitter rivals. From then on, the scoreline 5-nil has become magical to me and whenever I see one team beat another by that scoreline, I immediately identify it with that past Barcelona result.

Cruyff’s other magical moment that I remember vividly came during a game played at the Vicente Calderon. On a cool evening in November, 1973, Cruyff scored what is now known as the phantom goal.  He leaped high into the air to knock a cross that had already gone past the far post with his heel past the stunned Atletico keeper. I was watching the game on TV but I would occasionally step onto the balcony where you could hear the noise of the stadium when fans celebrated a good play. After Cruyff scored his legendary goal I quickly went to the balcony. Although I didn’t hear anything coming from the nearby stadium, I felt as if a magic wave emanated from his foot all the way to the apartment balcony. The goal is still amazing even by viewed through today’s hyper athletic prism. It was an act of pure genius and it is one of the goals that is forever etched into my collective soccer memory. It is the kind of goal that you try to emulate, and if you can’t actually do it, you imagine yourself doing it, you dream about doing it.

Although Cruyff was a brilliant and transcendent player, many are now proclaiming Cruyff’s greatest legacy to be the practices he instituted at the Barcelona club, both while he was there as a player and then when he was head coach starting in 1988.  Cruyff was responsible for starting Barcelona’s youth academy at La Masia and introducing the tiki-taka style of ball movement and possession. More importantly, he was responsible for establishing the way that the club teaches promising players that style of football for generations to come.  It is without a doubt that Barcelona has been the best club in the world for the past 20 years, with all of their Champions Leagues (4), Interncontinental Cups (3), La Liga titles (10), and Copa del Reys (5) to boot.

What I know for sure is that Cruyff was absolutely a pleasure to watch. I fell madly in love with the sport watching him play for Barcelona those years. I returned to Spain in 1998 and went to the Camp Nou and saw and relived the moments from that season.

I may have lived in Madrid, but thanks to Cruyff, my favorite player of all time, I became a Barcelona fan for life.

RIP Johan.

 

The Real World Cup

The World Cup is a tale of two tournaments.  In the first round, it’s a tournament about hope, happiness, and mirth. In the knockout phase, it’s a tournament about reality, despair, and despondency.  The first round is the party time, the second the business time.

One watches the first round full of optimism and hope about one’sfavorite team.  Anything can happen, the possibilities are endless.  If the team play well and loose, if the team avoids major injuries and catches a break here and there, then anything is possible. A team can get to the knockout phase without winning all of its games.  The party has just started and it is a good party.

As the games progress, as one does the math, certain things become evident.  The possibilities of advancing are calculated. By the time of the third game, when the group matches are played simultaneously, there’s a more serious air to the affair. Elimination is now a distinct possibility.  But if your team gets through, a joyous feeling radiates among the fan base, like the bright orange glow of a glorious sunset.

Once the teams are set for the following round, pundits and fans begin the analysis phase. It’s once again hope that maybe you can win a game or two, to have a good run as they say. For the major teams, the Brazil, Argentinas and Germany’s of the world, this is a more serious time, one in which the expectations of the nation become a burdensome weight.  For other teams, hope again springs eternal.

The tension of the second phase is evident from the kickoff.  What one encountered as bliss in the first phase (yey the World Cup has finally started) is now a heavy knot of worry felt in the gut of the common fan. A defeat at this stage strikes with the force of a knockout punch, the finality of the moment hits home hard.

In this World Cup, teams such as Mexico, Algeria, the US, Switzerland, Chile felt the pain firsthand.  First, Chile lost to Brazil after a scoreless 120 minutes in the dreaded penalty shootout.  Trailing  by one goal at 3-2, they needed a goal from their last kicker to stay alive.  When the kick struck the right post, caroomed all the way across, flying across the sprawled goalie, and safely stayed out of the net, the Chileans were eliminated. This was even worse because Chile had hit the crossbar late in the game, sometime around the 118th minute, a ball that if it had gone in, would have eliminated the host country Brazil. Such a dramatic victory could easily have been categorized as a second Maracanazo for the annals of history. Maybe it would not have been as as dramatic as Uruguay beating Brazil in the 1950 final, but a close second considering that Brazil would have been eliminated from the only other tournament they’ve hosted since 1950 at the beginning of the knock-out phase.

Mexico lost in just as heartbreaking of a manner.  Leading 1-0 on a goal from Giovanni Dos Santos until the 88th minute, Holland scored when Sneijder took a defensive clearance and shot a rocket into the corner that Memo Ochoa had no chance on.  Ochoa had played remarkably well and had kept Holland at bay with a number of incredible reflexive saves.  About 4 minutes later, in stoppage time, Arjen Robben dribbled into the penalty area, and then after a clumsy challenge from Rafa Marquez, took what appeared to be a dive. The referee did not flinch and signalled to the penalty spot.  Holland converted, and just like that, Mexico went from winning one of the most important games in its history (they’ve only advanced to the quarter-finals once) to losing yet another Round of 16 game.

Similarly, Algeria battled Germany to a scoreless tie for 90 minutes, only to see Germany get two goals in the extra period. While Algeria got one back, it was too little too late and Germany once again advanced into the quarterfinals.

Argentina required 118 minutes before vanquishing a tougher than anticipated Swiss side (the same side that got plastered 5-2 by France in the group stage).  It took a darting run, a moment of brilliance from Messi to define the outcome. After a Swiss turnover, Messi received a pass near midfield before eluding two defenders. Two additional Swiss came at him. At that moment, Leo passed the ball to his right to DiMaria, who slotted the ball coolly on the ground to the far post to beat the Swiss keeper.  But Argentina had to sweat it out in the final minutes. On a corner kick, Switzerland’s Dzemaili headed the ball straight into the post. To add insult to injury the rebound also hit his foot and went inches wide.

The USA Belgium game followed a similar script that the other American games had.  The US was dominated by the opposing team in terms of shots and corner kicks (although it boggles the mind understand how they won the possesion game 53%-47%). Belgium uncorked a record 27 shots on Tim Howard. He stopped a World Cup record number 15 of them. Belgium finally had the breakthroughs in the extra-time as DeBruyn and Lukaku scored one each. Lukaku’s fresh legs and energy provided the spark for both goals. The US got one goal back from Julian Green late in the game, begging the question why Klinsmann didn’t bring him in for the the entire extra period. The US had one more opportunity off of a set piece to put the game into penalties but Dempsey’s shot was stopped by Courtois.

To quote US keeper Tim  Howard: “It’s really awesome getting through the group, but it means nothing. The sting of failure is the same if you lose in this round as if you didn’t get out of the group.”

To paraphrase Dickens, the Spring of Hope gives way to the Winter of Discontent.