Soccer in times of Covid19

One of the victims of Covid-19 has been the suspension of sports throughout the world. Most major sports leagues shut down in order to limit the spread of the disease since spread of the virus flourished in large gatherings of people. When health organizations began limiting the number of congregations, the sporting world was one of the first industries to start shutting down. This wasn’t limited to professional sports either as youth sporting activities also shut down.The effect was immediate. Entire sporting rituals were suspended overnight.  MLS managed to play play a couple of games before the suspension. Minnesota United had the best start of its short history in the MLS by winning their first two road games. The NBA suspended operations a bit later after several of their players tested positive. By mid March, the EPL suspended operations and was soon followed by all major European soccer leagues. Also in mid-March, the Gophers men’s basketball team won their first game of the Big Ten tournament and then the entire competition was shuttered the following day. Inevitably, March Madness, the start of MLB, and the NHL playoffs were all stopped cold. For a while, Liga MX continued operation before it too succumbed to the virus.

Sports persisted in cold storage for about three months before officials figured out when and how they would reopen. Testing had to improve so it could be done more effectively and with more timely results, protocols had to be developed to ensure the safety of the athletes, trainers, and coaches, and most importantly, the number of infections had to be reduced (now colloquially known as the flattening of the curve) before government officials throughout the world decided that it was safe to resume sporting competitions. One thing that would become evident pretty much more the beginning was that sports would resume without allowing any fans in the stadiums. The sporting spectacle, as we had become accustomed to, would not be the same again until the pandemic was conquered for good.

The sporting industry, both on the professional and youth levels, have become so big that they faced many of the same challenges to reopen as other businesses, trying to maintain a delicate balancing act between opening too soon and risking public health, and opening too late and losing more money and possible financial ruin.

Billions of dollars were lost in the 3 months of the shutdown. It is estimated that the cancellation of March Madness cost the NCAA more than one billion dollars in revenue plus hundreds of millions more lost by cities hosting the events generated by the thousands of fans that flock to the games.

The English Premier stood to lose $1.25 billion if the league couldn’t complete the season. La Liga $800m. The Bundesliga $700m. Seria A between $650-$700 million. The EPL approved a  $125 million pound grant to help clubs through the shutdown. It’s estimated that Manchester United lost approximately $3m pounds of revenue per match. These are only estimates. The true loss of revenue would not be known until the end of the season, however that would be accomplished.

For some sports, the “too big to fail” label would certainly apply. This would cause a huge amount of pressure to reopen. I believe this was the case of worldwide soccer and NBA basketball.

In Europe, where the spread of the virus was more effectively contained than in the United States, soccer started back up in the early June timeframe. Games were played in empty stadiums (only the players, staff, and TV personnel were allowed in). The EPL reopened June 13. La Liga June 7, Serie A June 13, The Bundesliga on May 13th.  Just as the rest of society had also started a reopening as well, it was deemed to restart sports as well.

In the United States by contrast, MLS decided to restart with a World Cup style tournament in early July in Orlando Florida. All teams would stay in a “bubble” in one of the Disney resorts and all games would be played in two adjacent fields with no fans present. At the time of the reopening, Florida was a major hotspot of corona virus infections, with cases growing exponentially. At one point, the infection rate in Florida was a staggering 25% of all cases tested. While Europe got the opening right, the United States bungled through it (as we had with all aspects of managing the pandemic).

MLB restarted in mid-July. The NBA set its restart at the end of July. Hockey set its restart for early August. For all sports except baseball, this suspension marked a weird inversion of their calendars. We are just no used to having basketball and hockey played in the dog days of summer. The pandemic turned the entire world upside down including the familiar sports calendar.

English Premier League: Project Restart

Three months after suspending league play, the English Premier League (EPL) restarted on June 28 with 92 matches crammed into a 40 day period (fixture congestion indeed). Games were played at empty stadiums and each team was allowed 5 substitutes per match. One water break was added per half to compensate for playing in the hot humid summer months. 

Stadium seating was covered with gigantic tarps adorned with home team insignia. The camouflage tarps helped by adding color to what otherwise would have been empty seats. It added the appearance of occupancy when in reality it was only the teams’ personnel and TV crews that attended. On some grounds,  the tarps had giant images of peoples faces to give the illusion that fans were actually present. The camera work focused mostly on the playing field so that it was not so apparent that actual fans were missing. That only became obvious from the low angle camera shots, such as on corner kicks or throw ins. If one concentrated hard enough, watching the EPL restart games was almost like watching the real thing. 

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the EPL restart was the decision to include pre-recorded fan noise. The fan noise infused the telecast with a dosis of reality; it made the the spectacle more proximate to what  we are used to watching. It wasn’t perfect, but it was by far the best of the viewing experiences from Europe. Games telecast from Italy and Germany didn’t feature the noise and they were just not nearly as enjoyable as the EPL games.

The game schedule was intense. Games came rapid-fire, every day rather than concentrated on the weekends. Each team ended up playing every three or four days. After a couple of weeks, the level of play improved dramatically and moved back into mid-season form. The EPL is a highly technical, physical, and competitive league. On any given year, there are a realistically between 4-6 teams that can win the league title (unlike the monopoly that exists in the Bundesliga or La Liga). The middle of the pack teams can win on any given match. The bottom of the table teams mostly struggle against the giants over the course of a long season, but the possibility of upsets in any given match infuses the league with added drama, especially when the top teams lose out no the prizes such as qualifications European competition such as the Champions League or Europa League play.

The Covid-19 product did not disappoint. Games were enjoyable to watch even with empty stadiums. The drama of who would win the league was absent since Liverpool had amassed such an insurmountable lead, but there was always the race for the top 4 spots for Champions League, the next two for Europa. At the bottom, the aforementioned drama to avoid relegation gives the Premiership three different races to focus on instead of only deciding a champion.

Liverpool had such a huge lead (it had only dropped points once all season!) and it won the league for the first time in 30 years in record setting fashion by clinching its triumph with 6 games to play, the earliest any team had won in the history of the league. LFC also won 18 games in a row and 23 games at home., and amassed the most points at home with 55, an EPL record. After winning the league, Liverpool was essentially competing to win league records.

Besides games that decided the league champion, there were games that determined the fate of the teams at the bottom, the relegation battles are actually much more interesting because they can make or break clubs for years if not decades. (For a recent example of this, see my write up on the Netflix reality show Sunderland ’Til I Die, which chronicles the relegation — twice — of Sunderland from the EPL to the Championship and then again to League One.) For these clubs, the ability to stay in the EPL has impactful financial repercussions making the stakes in the games that much more significant. The reactions of the fans and the emotions they feel are indicative of how important the club and its success is to the livelihood of these people.

Bournemouth’s Struggle

On July 12, Bournemouth was playing Tottenham in a crucial game that felt like it was a must win (the team wouldn’t be mathematically eliminated if it lost or tied but it sure feels that way). Sitting at the top of the bottom third, and three points below the relegation zone, Bournemouth scored what appeared to be a game winning, and EPL saving, goal in the 91st minute off of an overhead scissors kick. The goal was reviewed by VAR because it appeared that the ball was directed into the net by the hand of another Bournemouth forward who was closer to the goal than the player who kicked it. After a lengthy and anxious review, the goal was disallowed. Bournemouth had another golden chance minutes later when one of their young players was a fed a pass and had a a 1-1 vs Tottenham’s French keeper Hugo Lloris in the open field. Lloris, one of the best keepers in the world, closed the gap and got enough of a hand on it to deflect it to safety. Another golden chance was blown. Another chance to stay in the top tier possibly blown.

Bournemouth suffered another defeat a week later, this time against Southampton. And again VAR reared its ugly head as a late Bournemouth equalizer was reviewed and annulled. Several minutes later, Southampton scored a second goal to seal Bournemouth’s fate in the game; the club’s chances of staying in the Premier League would now come down to having to win their final game at Everton and hoping that West Ham could beat Aston Villa.

Bournemouth was living and suffering the same drama that was so aptly captured in the Sunderland Netflix show. As the final day of the season loomed, Bournemouth still had a chance to stay in the Premier with a win but they would need help from West Ham. A win by the Hammer against Aston Villa would mean Bournemouth would stay and Aston Villa would go down to the Championship.

(The drama that unfolds late in the season, both at the top and the bottom is what makes the European leagues so special. Leagues like MLS which don’t feature promotion and relegation lack that competitiveness in games played out to decide the fate of the teams at the bottom of the table.)

Championship Sunday

The table was thus set for a dramatic final Sunday on July 26, called Championship Sunday. All games are played simultaneously to avoid any kind of sporting impropriety. At stake where two of the top 4 spots (for Champions League), and the last relegation spot.

At the top of the table, Manchester United played Leicester City in a Champions League playoff game with the winner taking the final Top 4 spot. United, who had suffered some bad seasons after their legendary manager Alex Ferguson stepped down in 2013, had made a remarkable recovery during the restart, winning 6 and tying 3 games. In overtaking Leicester, they had overcome a 14 point deficit to the Foxes since January.

Chelsea beat Wolves 2-0 to clinch 3rd place in the league. Under rookie coach Frank Lampard, the Blues, spearheaded by American Christian Pulisic, won five of their last 9 games to cement their place back in the Top four of English football. Pulisic, who started the season slowly (mostly due to a groin injury), had a fantastic restart and ended up the season with 9 goals and 4 assists. His fearless runs pierced unsuspecting defenses. When he wasn’t scoring, he was setting up teammates or drawing penalties. Pulisic really strutted his stuff for Chelsea and gives them hope to challenge Liverpool and Manchester City at the top the next season.

Speaking of Manchester City, another season of excellence ended with them in second place. They still tallied 85 points, but due to Liverpool’s ridiculous run, this wasn’t nearly enough for City to claim their third consecutive championship. But Pep Guardiola still has most of him top talent returning (except for David Silva, whose ten year of excellence ends), which will make City a team to fear for years. And with the UEFA’s two-year suspension lifted, City can still try to claim it’s the best club in the world by winning that competition.

At the bottom, Bournemouth took care of business by beating Everton 3-1. But when Aston Villa went up 1-0 on the Hammers in the 84th minute, it looked like all hope was lost for the Cherries. West Ham equalized nary a minute later and the teeter-totter was in full swing again as Bournemouth still could hope that West Ham could rescue them from relegation with a miracle last minute strike. That never materialized as the Hammers never got near the goal again. The result doomed Bournemouth to the second division of English football.

The celebration at the end of the Villa West Ham game was momentous. Both clubs celebrated in the middle of the field together. They patted themselves in the back and shouted into the air. They danced and shouted as if, somehow, they both had just won a title themselves. In a way, they had. They had both survived atop the best football league in the world.

Madness in Final Group Match Day

Group B – Iberian Shift

Group B was not supposed to elicit much drama. Spain and Portugal were both considered the overwhelming favorites. Iran and Morocco were simply there to fill out the group. The Iberian Darby in the second day of the tournament had the ear markings of a semi-final or even a final. That game was supposed to be the highlight of the group.

The 3-3 draw between the two giants provided fireworks as promised. But they didn’t compare to to what happened in the final 10 minutes of the last group game, especially since both games were being played simultaneously.  Coming into the last game, Iran harbored the possibility of advancing to the next round if it beat Portugal. Spain had to also play for at least a tie to make sure it could get through in the event of a Portugal win or draw.

Morocco entered the game being mathematically eliminated and played very loose and took the game to the Spanish. A sloppy exchange between Iniesta and Ramos near midfield allowed Morocco’s Khalid Boutaib to steal the ball and dribble unimpeded 1-1 vs DeGea. He cooly slotted the ball into the corner of the goal for a suprising 1-0 lead. Spain responded quickly five minutes later when Isco scored from inside the goalie box after a typical well worked Spanish play.  But late in the game, Youseff El-Nessri outjumped Sergio Ramos and hit a thundering header to put Moroccco up 2-1.

Meanwhile, in the other game, Portugal held a tenuous 1-0 lead until late on a beautiful goal by Ricardo Quaresma. Ronaldo missed a penalty that would have sealed Portugal passage into the next round as the group winner.  In stoppage time, Iran was awarded a controversial penalty kick by VAR, when the replay officials judged that the Iranian’s player header had struck the Spanish defenders hand in the box. Iran’s Karim Ansarifard hit a ball high into the right corner of the net to make the score 1-1. Iran still needed a win to advance because despite having the same number of points as Spain, they had a worse goal differential. In the 94th minute, Iran got a chance to win the game, but a volley struck the side netting. As it stood, it was Portugal #1, Spain #2 in the group.

spain_mor_goal_2

Back in the Spain-Morocco game, Spain scored an equalizing goal that was heavily also heavy reviewed by the VAR system, which judged that Spain’s Iago Aspas had not been offside as he flicked a cross from a corner kick into the goal.  With both ties, the positions flipped. It was now Spain #1 and Portugal #2.

The significance of that was that Spain will now face an easier path into the quarterfinals, having to play Russia, and the winner of Croatia vs. Denmark/Australia. On the flip-side, Portugal must now go through Uruguay in the Round of 16.

Drama indeed.

Group D – Argentina beat Nigeria (again)

Argentina and Nigeria have been paired 5 times before in the same group. And every time, Argentina have never lost to Argentina. Argentina and Nigeria met again and played a final match in which Argentina had to win to advance (Nigeria could do so with a tie). Messi finally got a goal in the first half thad had Argentina into the next round. Then, in the 56th minute, Nigeria got the equalizer on a penalty kick by Victor Moses that put them back through. The PK came after a lengthy VAR review in which it was ruled that Javier Mascherano had fouled Leon Balogun inside the area.

With time running out on Argentina, Marcos Rojo, an unlikely hero scored on an impressive right footed volley off a cross that went pass the Nigerian keeper. After the goal, Messi rode on Rojo’s back during the celebration. In the stands, a visibly relieved Diego Armando Maradona, kissed a fellow fan before showing the middle finger and proclaiming the P word that the Mexican fans have been fined for to the Nigerian team. (He has been subsequently fined by  FIFA for this gesture.)

This time, after the victory, Messi and the rest of the Argentinian team, stayed a long time on the pitch, visibly relieved to have moved on despite a very poor group performance.

Group F – Mexico falters but backs in after shocker of the Cup

The final day of Group F play was as dramatic as it gets. As Mexico was losing 3-0 to Sweden late, I was certain that Germany would score the winning goal against South Korea that would put them into the next phase and Mexico would be eliminated. It is what you come to expect from the defending and four-time world champions.

But unanticipated events unfolded in Kazan. With Germany pressing for the goal that would get them through, they had some defending to do against a Korean side determined to play the spoiler role. While defending a South Korean attack, Tony Kroos, the hero of the Sweden game, attempted a pass out of trouble in his own zone, and when his errant pass nutmegged his own teammate, it fell straight to Kim Young-Gwon who kept his composure in front of the imposing Manuel Neuer, took a slight touch and roofed the ball into the right side of the net. After a VAR review, that goal was rescuing Mexico as Germany would now need to score two in the final 3 minutes to advance.

Now Germany needed two goals and it inexplicably put Manuel Neuer on the left wing instead of in his customary sweeper keeper position. Neuer gave the ball away rather easily, and after a 60 yard clearance by the Koreans, Son Heung-Min outraced the final defender to the ball and tapped it in for the second goal.  Why Neuer was so hopelessly out of position I will never know. It almost looked like a futsal flykeeper who gets put well into the opponent’s half.

Mexican fans mobbed South Korean fans all over Russia as their team had just allowed Mexico go to through. Their prize: they will play Brazil in the Round of 16.

High Drama in Group F

The conventional wisdom in tournament group play is that if a team wins two games, it either moves on automatically or is in a very good position to advance to the next round.  This is the situation that Mexico find itself in in Group F.

After Mexico dispatched South Korea 2-1 in their second group phase game put Mexico on the verge of qualification. All it needed to ensure this was Sweden to beat or tie Germany.  The Mexican’s automatic qualification was thrown into disarray when Tony Kroos executed a magnificent free kick in the 95th minute of the Germany-Sweden match. Just seconds before that kick, with the game tied at 1, Germany, the defending champion and current co-favorite to win the tournament, were essentially all but out.  But an errant and unnecessary tackle at the edge of the box by the Sweden defender (replays show two other Swedish defenders within range so it was essentially a 1-3 situation for the attacking German player) set the stage for Kroos’ high drama. Realizing that the angle for the kick was very tight, Kroos and Reus discussed the strategy. In the resulting kick, Kroos rolled the ball a yard to Reus, who simply stopped the ball and lifted his foot off. Kroos struck a curving ball that eluded two Swedish defenders before arcing into the corner of the goal, just past the Swedish goalkeeper.

Just like that Germany was still in play and Mexico’s automatic ticket to the second round was in doubt.

One devilish scenario for Mexico looms. If Sweden beat Mexico 2-0 and Germany beat South Korea by an identical scoreline, Germany and Sweden would advance by virtue of better goal differential. It’s not an incompletely unthinkable scenario. I would bank on Germany’s victory as they are now full of confident after coming back from the brink. They are, after all, the world champions and traditionally one of the most resolute teams psychologically.

Sweden, on the other hand, have got to be exhausted, both physically and emotionally, after that draining loss. They gave it their all and almost knocked Germany out, but in the end succumbed to the Kroos sucker punch that very well may have eliminated them. Mexico will be a tough matchup for them. Anything’s possible, but I wouldn’t bet on it given how well Mexico has played so far.

Messi’s Fate ?

 

How to explain the awful and uninspired performance by Argentina, one of the favorites to win  this World Cup ? Argentina tied Iceland 1-1 and then was clobbered by Croatia 3-0. It now finds itself needing a victory over Nigeria to barely eek out of this group in second place, eerily similar to the situation it did before the final game of CONMEBOL qualifying, where it needed to beat Ecuador to avoid the relegation playoff.

Argentina started this World Cup with a bang. Against Iceland, Sergio Aguero scored in the 19th minute. The common belief was that Argentina could now coast to victory because Iceland would have to chase an equalizer goal, a style of game it isn’t suited to play. The Vikings like to score and then defend their field for long periods of time. Argentina, on the other hand, buttressed by the early goal, could take advantage of Iceland’s advance and score more goals.  Argentina is a team that, given the talent they have, should be able to tactically adapt to any situation. But when a defensive lapse allowed Iceland to tie the game at 1 just 4 minutes later, the tactics of the game were reset. Argentina were now forced to again possess the ball and try to score while Iceland simply parked the bus and hoped for a counter-attack. And possess the ball Argentina did (by a whopping 73% to 27%). Maybe the most lopsided statistic was the number of completed passes: 718 for Argentina to Iceland’s 189.  

This massive statistical advantage didn’t result in any additional goals however. Argentina were unimaginative and predictable in their buildup and approach. On corner kicks, they never attempted any variant (a short kick to Messi to dribble into the box, a short kick to cross into the box); on free kicks, it was always Messi over the ball and no-one else. There was no trickery, no wrinkles, just Messi. Even on Messi’s penalty kick, he executed exactly as he does on the Pepsi blue paint ball commercial, lightly and to his left.  Never has a team with that much possession done so little.

Parking the bus is a tactic that allows Iceland’s to freeze a game that would make the most ardent proponents of the Italian Catenaccio proud. Against this Argentinian team, they never really seemed that hard pressed to lock the opposition down.  Sure Iceland couldn’t ever possess the ball or do anything with it when they did, but the key is they never allowed Argentina to score again.

Against Croatia, Argentina was further exposed, especially on defense.  Caballero, the backup goalkeeper on the national team and at his club side Chelsea, made a horrible pass early on that essentially gifted Croatia an early goal when Ante Rebic pounced on the ball and hit a nice volley over the hapless goalie.  In the 80th minute, it was Real Madrid’s Luka Modric’s who hit a strike from outside the box after beating two Argentinian defenders. Ivan Rakitic, Messi’s Barcelona teammate, sealed the deal with a beautiful goal late in the game as the Argentinian defense was shredded to pieces attempting to step forward to cause an offside trap. Instead, Rakitic scored a third goal which now put Argentina on the edge of disqualification.

Messi has been there before and has come through. But the expression of disbelief after the Iceland game was matched only by his disturbing body language during the anthem before the Croatia game. Something seems amiss with Leo. He’s not playing up his level and Argentina only seems to play as well as their superstar does.

I wouldn’t count him out (Argentina has never lost to Nigeria in 5 group stage matches and it is Messi after all). Argentina has vowed to fight “until the final minute.” But even if Messi pulls Argentina out of this mess again, they’re likely to succumb soon thereafter in the knock-out phase.

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.