Wednesday, June 30, 2010

world cup sidetrack: what the hell makes a good attacking team anyway?

You'll notice if you watch much soccer or read much about it that everyone likes to talk about creativity in attacking play without ever explaining with any sort of precision what that means (a sin I've been guilty of too). In reality, it's quite a complicated matter, which is why it's so hard for teams to be good and score goals. Pure technique is a huge factor in good attacking play (that is, the ability of individual players to make the ball go exactly where they intend it to go with individual touches and passes). But aside from technical ability there is large variation in the degree and the quality of movement that separates teams as well. I know of nobody who systematically and comprehensively thinks about what constitutes good "movement off the ball," even though it's a critical factor in scoring goals.

One of the most important aspects of movement is the ability to deceive defenders and get them to "lose track" of one's path.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

penalties penalties penalties

If ever there was a reason to change the rules for penalties, we just saw it in the 5th minute of the Spain-Portugal match. Torres was clearly fouled and anywhere else on the pitch it would have been given. Come on!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

world cup thoughts of the day

1. Overall the play has improved a lot since the first set of games, and the matches have been much more exciting. A lot of the teams that sat back and played for draws in their opening matches are out, and I suspect, rueing their engative tactics (eg France, Ivory Coast, Serbia, etc.). The second round matches have so far been pretty awesome (despite today's refereeing). We'll see if things continue this way, or revert to 2006 low-scoring, defensive-style games. It's great to see teams attacking, but I still think the format of the tournament could be tweaked, and the rules modified to make the game that much better.

US-Ghana thoughts: Why, Bob Bradley, why???

Another good game, between two evenly matched teams, and in the end, I think we were unlucky to lose. It was a tale of two halves once again: in the first half we were woeful and could hardly find a pass; in the second, especially leading to the goal, we looked really dangerous. But we decisively lost the tactical and psychological battle that the match became. For some reason, this US team just can't seem to motivate themselves to attack with real commitment except when they're behind or chasing the game. And it would have helped to have the right players on the field from the start!!

Friday, June 25, 2010


The internet is abuzz with the possibility that the US team could make the semifinals of the World Cup. It's certainly the best chance we've ever had! (Well, since 1930 that is, but that one hardly counts). The bookies have us as favorites to win the game at 2.7/1, with Ghana at 3/1 and a draw after 90 at 3.5/1. I'll take it! What's slightly puzzling is that every match preview I've read puts Onyewu, Clark, and/or Findley back in the US starting lineup. Are you kidding me??? I assume this is a result of poor observation skills, and not some actual hint from Bob Bradley that any of those players will be back in the team. Bradley does seem to fancy Findley, who may have missed out on the Algeria game only because of suspension, but our other attacking options are far superior. Here's my starting XI:
Cherundolo, Demerit, Bocanegra, Bornstein
Donovan, Edu, Bradley, Feilhaber (or Dempsey)
Dempsey (or Buddle), Altidore

Once again, if Onyewu starts, I'll be disappointed and terrified. Bradley doesn't seem to like Feilhaber, so I don't really expect to see him until the second half, but it's no coincidence that our midfield play in the Slovenia and Algeria games improved when he came on.

Should be another good game!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Since all I can do right now is think about soccer anyway....

In honor of today's inspiring goal from Donovan, a look back at ten goals that, by a combination of quality, timing, chance, and of course, being for the right team, are forever etched in my memory.


My prayers were answered with Onyewu being left out of the side, and my god did it pay off despite the early jitters from Demerit and Cherundolo. Bornstein came in at left back and played the best game I've ever seen him play for the national team, and thus our defending was finally solid, if not perfect, especially as we had to push forward for that winner. Gomez started and was dangerous in attack, but when Feilhaber came in he was again excellent in the second half. Altidore ever-present and dangerous, using his strength to turn and run at the Algerian defense. Every time he received the ball at his feet our attacks looked promising. But the real heroes today were Donovan and Michael Bradley. Bradley worked tirelessly from end-to-end, was always a threat with smart runs going forward, and always there to cover in defense. Donovan, well... I'd still be crying in a corner if it weren't for his finish.


I've watched this goal a few dozen times now, and it gets better every time. About a year ago I witnessed what I thought would forever be the most remarkable, exhilarating moment in the history of sport when Barcelona scored against Chelsea in the 93rd minute of the Champions League semifinal. I could barely focus on anything for days. But Landon Donovan and the USA have topped it. The timing of the goal, its importance for the team and for US soccer, and the extra save by the keeper on Dempsey's shot just before it (thinking to myself, AGAIN??) all contributed to the ecstasy of the moment. But more than anything, it was the frustration, the anxiety, the sheer injustice of being held scoreless for the whole game, and the creeping sense of despair. For so long I resisted the belief that we had blown it with our terrible finishing, the referees with their awful calls, and Algeria with its stubborn defending; but I was finally trying to come to terms with defeat. And then when it finally seemed too late, that final chance came our way.

There's really nothing in sports comparable to that last-gasp goal in soccer. After playing for so long, doing everything except scoring, the swing in emotions is indescribable. And for it to happen to the US team, in a decisive World Cup game! Even if they didn't play the best soccer, team USA treated us to the two most dramatic examples of soccer matches in the last two games: a two-goal comeback, and a last-minute game-winner. We're all lucky to have witnessed it.

I'm sure my own suffering is far from over at this World Cup; after all, Spain have at least one match to play, and watching them play so well without scoring is just painful. The soccer gods are fickle, and may not give us justice again for some time. But today was the best reminder of why we suffer through countless games, and why we suffered today for 91 excruciating minutes. For now, it all seems worth it.

more thoughts to follow

us-algeria pre-game thoughts

First, a starting XI:
Spector, Demerit, Bocanegra, Cherundolo
Donovan, Edu, Bradley, Feilhaber
Dempsey, Altidore

If Onyewu plays, I don't think we can keep a clean sheet and thus we probably won't be able to win the game. I've never been so worried about a player singlehandedly destroying a team's ability to defend.

The temptation for Bob Bradley, and for the team, will be to come out and play a very cautious first half hour, considering the blunders committed against England and Slovenia and the early goals conceded. This would be another colossal mistake. There were early blunders in the last two games, but the biggest one was coming out and playing like we were scared to take risks. Tomorrow morning we should come out and attack, attack, attack right from the start and take control of the game. When we play without inhibition is when we've played decently, after England scored their goal, and in the second half of the Slovenia game. Playing with caution has only gotten this team into trouble.

[Praying Bob Bradley doesn't muck this up....]

Monday, June 21, 2010

Oh, the irony: Keita and Kaka's red card

Ya know, from everything that I've seen and read about the incident today, no one has pointed out the most ridiculously absurd part of it, which is that Keita's writhing in agony will surely turn out to hurt, rather than help, his team. Maybe he was hoping that, with a man advantage, Ivory Coast could manage a second goal in the final three-odd minutes against Brazil. But he evidently didn't stop to think during his dramatic fall to the ground that he needs Brazil to defeat Portugal in the final group game, and that Kaka is--despite his current form--one of Brazil's best attacking players. So not only is Keita a jackass for feigning a blow to the head, he's an idiot too! He should be fined and suspended by FIFA for diving, and by his own team for hurting their chances of advancing.

I'll feel awfully sorry for the rest of the Ivory Coast team if Brazil tie Portugal and Ivory Coast beat North Korea, but I won't feel bad for Keita.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

world cup thoughts of the day

The refs keep getting worse! Okay, well, they couldn't be worse than they were Friday, but they continue to be poor after a good start. Did everyone see Fabiano's blatant double handball on Brazil's second goal? The first one wasn't too obvious, but how could both referees miss the second one? Kaka's second yellow card was extremely harsh, and the same player who embellished that bit of contact could have been sent off for his earlier tackle on Elano, which left him in a stretcher. If FIFA want to seriously crack down on simulation or diving, Keita should be their first retroactive target, and he should be suspended from the third game for trying to deceive the referees into thinking that Kaka had struck him in the face.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

rule changes for soccer, part 6: free kick placement

Soccer needs a new and better rule for where to place the ball on a restart after a foul has occurred. Once again the real reason has to do with perverse incentives for defending teams: because a free kick is always taken from the spot of the foul, it's often in a defending team's favor to foul. But a priori the whole point of having laws of the game and awarding free kicks is to provide incentives not to foul.

This problem has a few levels, and so a couple of revisions to the laws are in order.

Friday, June 18, 2010

US-Slovenia: an instant classic

Wow. Just when I was absolutely fed up with the World Cup, it lures me back with the most dramatic, exciting, agonizingly heart-wrenching game I've ever seen. I think my friend put it best: what are we supposed to feel right now? Elation? Disappointment? Extreme, unadulterated anger? I certainly feel all three. Over the course of 90 minutes, we felt it all: disappointment at another slow start, disgust at the poor display of the first 30 minutes, hope as we started to get into the game, despair at Slovenia's second goal. And then the comeback began, and what a comeback it was. Donovan's goal was magnificent. Bradley's run before meeting the header from Altidore was genius. Altidore was the man-of-the-match, continuously terrorizing the Slovenian defenders with his strength and power. And if it weren't for the stunningly incompetent Koman Coulibaly, who, according to wikipedia "hates the United States with the burning passion of a white hot sun," we would have completed the first ever comeback win from 2-0 down at half time in World Cup history.

The foul call on the 3rd goal is one of the most inexplicable decisions I've ever seen in a soccer match. Watching the replay, what's remarkable is the lack of normal jostling by US players for position. Meanwhile, at least two clear fouls are being committed by Slovenian players (most notably the player bear-hugging Michael Bradley). What gives? Apparently the ref called the foul on Bocanegra, who in addition to being nowhere near the flight of the ball, was clearly in a six-of-one-half-dozen-of-the-other struggle with his marker. It was the worst decision of the World Cup, seconded by the yellow card given to Findley in the first half, when the ball, catching him completely unawares, struck him squarely in the face.

Luckily, Findley has been pretty invisible in the minutes he has played, and shouldn't be missed much in the Algeria game. Hopefully, Bradley will make some other adjustments to the team that started today. Most importantly, he should keep Onyewu as far from the pitch as possible, as his play has been disastrous. He's been culpable on all three goals conceded, and is absolutely incapable of playing cohesively with Demerit. Over and over, he gets caught drifting too far back, too far forward, out of line with the other three defenders. He leaves huge gaps in the middle and doesn't cover well for Demerit. He is far too slow to step up and pressure the ball when it is finally played into his area, and to recover when it leaves his area. His passing is atrocious. Goodson or Spector should start in his place, pushing Bocanegra to center-back if necessary. Feilhaber should also start in place of Torres, who took no risks at all going forward.

Algeria looked decent against England, and the last game will be a serious challenge. Recent history is not encouraging: we've lost the last group game in every World Cup we've played with a group phase. In the last 5 world cups, we've lost to Austria, Romania, Yugoslavia, Poland, and Ghana respectively. We'll have to do better on Wednesday! A win guarantees that we advance. A draw will be enough if England and Slovenia draw and as long as we have more goals than England (right now, winning that count 3-1). Can't wait.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

before I never mention that Spain game ever again

Okay, they obviously deserved better than 0 points given the sheer number of chances they created, but at the same time, I sure hope del Bosque had a word with the team about Jesus Navas' play after the game. For such a good player, who actually played decently, he somehow managed to kill the game for Spain. Every time he got the ball, that was it for any creative movement: they just stood in the penalty area, hoping he could get to the by-line and put in a decent cross, which he did a few times. But were they really looking to beat Switzerland in the air? They really should have left the game in the hands of Xavi and Iniesta, who played fabulously, except for their weak finishing. But they were certainly getting the ball to David Villa and Torres once he came on.

Let's hope we see Fabregas next time instead of Navas!!!!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

world cup part 5, "and then it really started to suck"

My first post about this World Cup, as well as my post right after the draw, were both reactions to what I saw as basically the decline of international soccer as we know it. The problem is this: the World Cup is the greatest sporting spectacle on the planet, but the play never lives up to the spectacle. People who watch the European leagues year-round will realize soon, if they haven't already, that World Cup soccer just isn't as good or as fun to watch as European club soccer.

Monday, June 14, 2010

world cup thoughts, part 4

One bright spot so far: the refereeing. With the exception of Tim Cahill's ejection from the Germany-Australia match (for a clear yellow card tackle), it has been excellent. Nothing would have made me more annoyed than to see the very best plays of the tournament so far, that is, Germany's delightful through passes against Australia, called back erroneously for offside. These were the type of plays that look offside at first glance because the attacker is sprinting past the last line of defense, but are actually perfectly timed. These calls, are, unfortunately, incredibly difficult to get right (in fact impossible based on the limits of visual attention), and so it's inevitable that there will be errors. The important thing for me is that these errors not be systematically biased toward the defending team, which is too often the case. Only time will tell if this aspect of good fortune holds up.

And of course the one offside call that the commentators were all moaning about, calling back a Mexico goal against South Africa, was actually correct: there need to be two defenders between an attacker and the goal line; one of them is usually the goalkeeper, but in this case, he had stepped out ahead of the attacker.

world cup thoughts, part 3: US-England

Let's face it, neither of these teams should end up going very far in the tournament. England may yet turn things around, but too many of their star players were virtually anonymous in the opening game, and in the first half they could hardly complete a pass. Given some regrettable defending by the USA, I expected much more pressure from players like Rooney, Lampard and Ashley Cole, in particular. Gerrard was okay, but only Aaron Lennon and Glen Johnson were threatening throughout the game.

world cup thoughts, part 2

The new ball: It's pretty obvious after watching several games that players are struggling a bit with the ball, which raises an obvious question: why introduce a new ball for every World Cup? The canonical answer is always that the new ball travels more unpredictably through the air, and will result in more spectacular goals from distance. But the actual result is that the players aren't used to the ball, and that goes for goalkeepers and attacking players. In this World Cup, the new ball seems to bounce unnaturally high, and travel a lot farther than any player predicts. I don't think I've seen a single free kick on target yet. A new ball takes getting used to, and even if players have been training with a new type of ball for a month, they'll still be working with implicit memories they've built up through years and years of playing. They train day after day for years to perfect their technique with a standard type of ball (with small variations). Introducing something new just before a massive tournament is a recipe for throwing them off.

world cup thoughts, part 1

The World Cup is well underway. Some initial thoughts to follow:

1. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: World Cup soccer is too defensive, and always disappointing. Watching the first few games just convinces me more and more that something has to change in the rules of soccer or the structure of the tournament to encourage more attacking play. Through nine games so far, even after many of the best teams and best players in the world have already played, only one team has actually attacked with much flair and confidence, and that was, somewhat surprisingly, Germany. I hate to say it, but so far, the opening matches look too much like soccer straight out of that Simpsons episode: fast-kicking perhaps, low-scoring for sure, and ties, you bet!

With games like this, you too often have teams losing games, instead of winning them. For instance, Robert Green lost for England (goalkeeper blunder), Algeria's goalkeeper for them (another blunder), Kozmanovich for Serbia (stupidly conceded penalty), and Poulsen for Denmark (own goal). I want to see more players, like Oezil and Podolski for Germany, actually earning their teams' victories.

Apologists will say that it's opening game jitters, that teams are especially cautious in opening games, that the best attacking teams have yet to play, and that players are struggling with the new ball (see below for more on that). Though those all may be true, shouldn't we hope for attacking play throughout the tournament? If this really is supposed to soccer's greatest exhibition, is it too much to ask that more than a handful of teams actually come out and try to score goals and win games? If teams are really that cautious in the opening games, then shouldn't we change the group phase somehow so that a third of the group games don't suck?