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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

WorldCup 2014 Round of 16 Predictions

Brazil – Chile: Brazil

Brazil critics say they haven’t played well, but they scored have a 7-2 goal scoring margin, and their only blemish is a scoreless tie against a very in-form Mexican side.  They should have won that game but Mexico’s goal-keeper Memo Ochoa played out of his mind to keep Brazil off the scoreboard.  Chile looks good but can they really beat Brazil in their World Cup ? I don’t think so. They’ve played at this stage before in 1998, and Brazil thumped Chile 3-0. History repeats itself here. Brazil 3-1.

Colombia – Uruguay: Colombia

Suarez bites his way out of the tournament and in the process shoots his team in the foot. Colombia wins a hard fought battle, but ultimately Colombia have too much style and win 2-0.

France – Nigeria: France

France looked too good in the first stage to muck this up. It won’t be easy but they’ll beat Nigeria in a hard fought battle, 3-2.

Germany – Algeria: Germany

What a gift for Germany. Algeria beat South Korea 4-2 to basically get themselves into the second round. It won’t be so easy against Germany. In fact, itt will be no contest. Deutschland in a rout 4-0.

Netherlands – Mexico: Mexico

Mexico always manages to draw the opponent from hell in the knockout phase. In 1998 it was Germany. In 2006 and 2010 it was Argentina. And now Holland, easily the best European team in a tournament dominated by teams from the Americas. However, in sports, results are cyclical. The odds say that Mexico can’t keep losing these games. This time, after losing many a heartbreaking Round of 16 game, Mexico stuns Holland 2-1.

Costa Rica – Greece: Costa Rica

Greece is an interesting team. They really battled to beat Ivory Coast (2 crossbars) but Costa Rica is playing at a high level. They somehow edge Greece on PKs after a 1-1 draw over 120 minutes. Go CONCACAF !

Argentina – Switzerland: Argentina

The Swiss were destroyed by France (can’t resist the worst cliche of all: swiss-cheese defense).  Messi is gaining confidence by the minute.  He and his mates will continue to find those gaping holes and kill Switzerland 4-1.

Belgium – USA: Belgium

The USA managed to get out of the group, but I don’t think they really looked that good in doing so.  They have difficulties in holding the ball, they played in the Group of Death, they had the worst travel schedule in the entire Cup, and they had to play in a rainstorm in Recife in their last game. It’s all too much to deal with. Belgium wins a close game, but they edge the US by scoring late (as they have all tournament) and win 2-1.

 

Continental Advantage

A month before the World Cup started, I anticipated that teams from the Americas would do quite well, considering that the Cup was being played in their back yard.  By the end of the group stage,  7 Latin American teams plus the USA qualified for the knock-out phase (the most in World Cup history): Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Uruguay. Only Ecuador and Honduras failed to advance. With more than 50% of the teams in the knockout phase, and with such giants as Spain, England, and Italy out in the first two weeks, part of the bracket looks like a mini Copa America with some distinguished guests.

In Group A, Mexico and Brazil won convincingly over their rivals, taking 1st and 2nd places respectively.  Mexico, a team that barely qualified for the World Cup, played Brazil to a 0-0 tie.  Had two legitimate goals against Cameroon not been called back due to atrocious refereeing, Mexico would have had the same goal differential (+5) but they would have still finished in second place due to the total goal rule.

Chile won second place in Group B and played a competitive game against a Dutch team that effectively ended Spain’s world reign with a 5-1 thrashing in the first game. Holland finished with the maximum 9 points and has scored a World Cup leading 10 goals.

Colombia won a relatively weak Group C handily, not a shock given they were the number 1 seed.  The Cafeteros played very well, despite missing their best player Falcao, and accumulated the maximum 9 points and scored 9 goals, second best only to the Dutch.

The biggest surprise was In Group D, where Costa Rica won the group over heavyweights Italy, Uruguay, and England.  Costa Rica surprised Uruguay 3-1 in the first game, beat Italy 1-0, and then drew 0-0 with toothless England.  Italy and England bowed out early after scoring only 2 and 1 goals respectively.  This was stupposed to be a Group of Death, but failed to materialize due to yet another pathetic performance by England. Italy was in it until the 80th minute of the 3rd game against Uruguay, when the Uruguayans scored on a set piece. This occurred right after yet another biting incident from Luis Suarez, this time against Itallian defender Giorgio Chellieni.  The evidence was evidently clear enough for FIFA to suspend Suarez for 9 games and 4 months. Uruguay, who started off slowly, but finished off strong, are now facing a daunting uphill battle in their game against Colombia.

In Group E, France was the runaway winner after destroying the number 1 seed Switzerland 5-2.  Ecuador had a chance to qualify in the last group game but couldn’t score against France. Honduras looked anemic in getting 0 points and was never in it So instead Switzerland, who got thrashed by France 5-2, sneaked out of the group, largely on the strength of a stoppage time goal against Ecuador.

In Group F, Argentina collected the maximum points. Leonel Messi finally duplicated his club form for the national side. He scored brilliant goals against Bosnia-Herzegovina and a stoppage time goal against Iran when it appeared that the Persians were about to get a much needed draw. Against Nigeria, he netted two superb goals, including one off a vintage curling free kick minutes after the Nigerian keeper had made an incredible save from almost the same spot.

Group G proved to be the true group of death. Germany collected 7 points to top the group and  the USA escaped with superior goal differential to Portugal. The US was involved in some of the most dramatic games of the tournament, beating Ghana with a last minute header in Game 1, and allowing Portugal to tie in the last 15 seconds of stoppage time. The win would have guaranteed the Americans passage into the second round before their final game against Germany. Instead it gave Portugal, who were thrashed 4-0 by Germany, life in the group.  In the end, the lopsided defeat turned out to be too much for Ronaldo and Portugal to overcome. They beat Ghana in the final game 2-1, but their goal differential was too far in the negative to overcome the US. Ghana, who outplayed the US and Germany in stretches, exited the tournament with one measly point despite playing some of the most attractive football of the Cup.

In Group H, Belgium and Algeria advanced in what was easily the weakest group in the competition.  Belgium won all 3 games for the first time in history, but didn’t look dominant in any one game. They scored all of their goals after the 70th minute, but unlike their European counterparts that made it out of the America’s tournament, don’t look like a bona fide contender. Belgium will match up with the USA in what will be a very winnable game for the Americans.

The success of teams from the Americas is hardly surprising. Historically there has always been a continental advantage.  In the 2006 World Cup played in Germany, 10 of the 16 teams that qualified for the second round were European, 6/8 in the quarterfinals, and all 4 semi-finalists were European. In the 1998 World Cup, the numbers were very similar (10/16, 6/8, ¾ respectively).  In the 2002 World Cup co-hosted by South Korea and Japan, South Korea made it all the way to the semi-finals, their best showing in history. Japan made it into the second phase for the first time in their history.

The exception to this rule appears to be the 2010 World Cup played in South Africa.  The only African team out of six to even qualify for the knockout phase was Ghana.  This is a particular African problem, that despite some of the most talented players in the World, their teams rarely enjoy success in the World Cup.

As for this World Cup, the fact that so many Latin American teams have made it through means that 2 Round of 16 games will pit teams against each other (Brazil-Chile, Colombia-Uruguay) and if Mexico and Costa Rica win, the 2 CONCACAF team would face each other in a quarterfinal showdown.

I believe that the World Cup Final will be played between Argentina and Brazil.  The waythe bracket has been laid out (with the teams on separate sides of the bracket), the only way the can meet is in the championship game.   Both teams are playing at a high level and both will be heavy crowd favorites to advance. If this comes true, it would be fitting that the South American classic would decide the World Cup Champion•

The World Cup, NBA Finals, and OJ’s ride down the 405

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June 17th, 1994 will go day as one of the most fascinating days in the world of sports, a day in which events from the worlds of soccer, basketball, and football collided and intertwined to constitute a perfect dramatic storm, a day in which the personal problems of an American football icon from the past overshadowed the sporting events that took place that day. I watched this unfold and unravel in an Irish bar on Michigan avenue on an extremely humid evening in the Windy City on the first day of the World Cup, accompanied by a legion of German fans, who had just seen their team open defence of their championship with a 1-0 win over Bolivia.

The 1994 World Cup was being played in the United States for the first time ever.  Chicago was one of the many big cities hosting group games. The event was finally supposed to bring soccer out of the minor leagues and catapult it into a major sport along with football, basketball, baseball, and hockey. The buzz was tremendous.  Chicago was host to two of world’s most promising teams: the three-time (and defending) champion Germany, and Spain, a perennial also ran who nevertheless always had a huge number of talented players. I was partisan to Spain (and still am to this day) since I had learned to love the game while I lived in Madrid during a one year study abroad program.  The Spanish had not won much but were always counted as favorites nevertheless.  Germany, as usual, was loaded: Lothar Matthaus, Ruddi Voller, Oliver Kahn, plus current USA coach Jurgen Klinsmann, just to name a few.

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Coinciding with the World Cup were the NBA Finals, being played between the New York Knicks and the Houston Rockets. The Knicks big star was Patrick Ewing who was playing in his first NBA Finals, and he was matched up against Hakeem Olajuwon. It was a battle of two of the finest finest centers of their generation, and the second meeting in a championship game since Ewin’s Georgetown team had beaten Olajuwon’s Houston Cougars in the 1984 NCAA title game. Olajuwon, a former soccer player from NIgeria, had beautiful footwork and a sweet baseline jumper that was unstoppable. Ewing’s game was based on pure power and physicality; he was the NBA’s leading shot blocker and one of its best defenders and rebounders. Absent from the Finals were the Chicago Bulls, who had just finished winning their first of two three-peats the previous year, because Michael Jordan had left basketball to pursue his dreams of playing baseball for the Chicago White Sox.  The Knicks had knocked out the Bulls in the first round of the Eastern conference semi-finals, exacting revenge for the many times Jordan had kept them from advancing in the East.

Five days before the start of the World Cup, Nicole Simpson (OJ Simpson’s estranged wife) and a man named Ronald Goldman had been murdered in Brentwood California. This story was being covered 24-7 by CNN much like the First Gulf War had been in 1990-1991. The story dominated the airwaves and as it gathered momentum, it was beginning to drown out the NBA Finals and the start of the 1994 World Cup. As the story unfolded, it was becoming clear that O.J.himself was a prime suspect in the murder of Nicole and her friend Ronald Goldman.  By the time the World Cup was about to kick off in Chicago, Simpson was considered a suspect in the murders and the LA Police Department wanted to further question him. (They had already questioned him once, the day after the murder, when Simpson had flown back from, ironically enough, Chicago).

I had planned to go to Chicago to see the opening game between Germany and Bolivia at Soldier Field. I traveled from Minnesota to the Windy City to meet my brother, who had secured the inaugural game tickets after holding on the phone for 3 hours. We planned a day of sports viewing. We first would watch Germany begin defence of their 1990 World Cup Title against an upstart Bolivian team. We would then head to a bar to watch the second game that day between Spain and South Korea, the other two teams in Group A besides Germany and Bolivia. We also planned to watch Game 5 of the NBA Finals (the series was tied 2-2) later that evening.

The plate was set. A veritable smorgasbord of world-class sporting spectacle waiting to be devoured in the great Windy City.

When I arrived in Chicago, signs that the city was host to the world’s largest sporting spectacle, were everywhere: banners with the Cup logo, sports bar with signs proclaiming that they were showing every game. signs at the L and bus stops indicating how to get to the stadium. I got to collect one of those signs when a family friend, a Puerto Rican man who worked at the CTA, presented me with one of them as a gift. After giving me the sign, he also wondered why we were so excited to watch soccer, a sport he didn’t consider to be equal to any of the other American sports. I realized that the typical American fan, even one of Latin American origin, still viewed soccer through a different prism, and still didn’t pay soccer any respect.

On Friday, we took the L downtown.  After a quick lunch at Millers Pub, we made our way down to Michigan Avenue. The electricity was palpable as Germans and Bolivian fans headed towards the stadium, singing songs and waving flags. Some inter-mingled in the streets’ many cafes and restaurants. World-class soccer was alive in the Windy City. I’ve never been as exhilarated going to see a game.

The day was hot and extremely humid, and I got winded just walking to the game. I wondered how difficult it would be for the players to play in these conditions.  The stadium was jam packed, and one could see colors of various flags, jerseys, and banners, not just of Germany and Bolivia, but of many other countries.  I especially remember seeing many Mexican fans at the game.  Germany won the game 1-0, but they did not dominate like I thought they would. The Bolivians, who had one of their best team in generations, held their own and created some good chances but could never score.  The German fans vastly outnumbered the Bolivians, and after they scored, one could hear the roar of “Deutchland, Deutchland” reverberate around the stadium.

At the end of the game, we walked back towards downtown, past fans drumming and ratlling noise-makers, fans dancing and rejoicing, fans waving flags and yelling slogans. The World Cup party had begun.

On Michigan, just past Randolph, we spotted a bar with a sign: “All World Cup Games shown live via Cable TV.” A lot of German fans were going in and we decided to follow them so that we could get a good seat for the next game.  An hour later, Spain and South Korea played to a 2-2 tie in the Cotton Bown in Dallas. We would see Spain play Germany in Chicago 4 days later. Unbeknown to us, In LA, OJ’s friend Robert Kardashian and defense attorney read a letter in which Simpson sent greetings to 24 friends and wrote, “First everyone understand I had nothing to do with Nicole’s murder … Don’t feel sorry for me. I’ve had a great life.” This was widely interpreted as a suicide note, and reporters now joined the police in the search for O.J.

By the time the basketball game started at 8 p.m. central, the bar was now full of German fans, still decked out in white and green jerseys, and some even had flags wrapped around them. Most of them were were drinking Budweiser, which I found quite odd .  Shortly after the game started, at around 8:30 p.m., NBC’s Tom Brokaw interrupted the game with the breaking news about O.J. Simpson: he had failed to turn himself in for questioning to the LAPD, they showed his friend and attorney Kardashian reading of Simpson’s apparent suicide note; and the latest, O.J had been spotted riding in his friend’s Al Cowlings White Ford  Bronco on Interstate 405.

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What followed was truly a bizarre and captivating spectacle, one that would capture the imagination of the entire country, and one that would serve as the mere appetizer to the whole O.J. murder case trial. The game resumed for a while, but it was interrupted a scant 5 minutes later.  Out of nowhere, the White Bronco appeared on the screen, being followed by 10-15 squad card in a slow-speed chase on the the four-oh-five (as Interstate 405 is widely called).  NBC kept this image up for a while, but then returned to the game.

I was infuriated at first.  The game was very exciting, a pivotal Game 5 with the Finals on the line, and now we were being forced to watch O.J. riding in a white bronco ! As it became obvious that a distraught O.J. may actually commit suicide in the car as his friend drove, the story became too magnetic for NBC to ignore. As the chase continued, it became the main event, the game itself relegated to the small screen, barely visible.

As the White Bronco streaked across the freeway, followed by squad cars by ground and media choppers by air, legions of O.J’s fans began lining the overpasses, cheering for O.J. to flee. They held up signs stating: “Go O.J., go” and “We love the Juice.” It was a surreal event, and indeed superior drama even to the basketball game, a real life soap opera that Hollywood writers couldn’t have scripted any better. Questions buzzed around everyone’s mind: Did O.J. do it ? Was he so distraught that he would actually end his life ? How long would the chase go on for ? Would there be a violent confrontation at the end ?

The German fans were quite baffled by this development.  Who was in the White Bronco ? Why was the game being interrupted for this other news event ? Since I was initially very mad about this, I also shared my frustration. But as the importance of the chase became evident, I turned to one of the German fans and said: “Imagine if that was Franz Beckenbauer in the car.  Imagine if he had just killed his estranged wife, and the police suspected him of the murder.  Do you think then that this would be a bigger event than a World Cup between Germany and some other country ?” The German fan turned to me, the 16 ounce can of Budweiser in the air, a twinkle in his eye, and said: “Now I understand. This O.J., he was a very famous football player in this country, yeah ? He did a very bad thing.”  I took my Heineken and clinked it with his Bud, and said: “Yes he did. Now you understand why the chase is more important than the game.”

In what seemed to last hours, the Bronco continued its ride until it finally ended back in Brentwood at 10 p.m. Central time. The chase had lasted for 50 miles and a couple of hours.  Eventually, O.J. turned himself in to the police. The Knicks won Game 5, a result that I think nobody hardly remembers.

Germany was eventually eliminated by Hristo Stoichkov’s surprise Bulgarian team in the same bracket as Spain was eliminated by Italy, both by identical 2-1 scorelines. Brazil went on to win the World Cup, beating Italy in the first ever PK shootout in the Rose Bowl.  The Rockets beat the Knicks in what was a thrilling 7 game NBA Finals. And we all know what happened in the O.J. case.