Friday, June 25, 2010

Round of 16

Just one goal makes all the difference.  Had Landon Donovan's missed his strike in the 91st minute, had he sent it over the bar (as U.S. players did throughout the game), had the Algerian goalkeeper held on to the initial shot by Dempsey - denying Donovan the rebound, had U.S. keeper Tim Howard failed to make a perfect throw half the length of the pitch to set up the play - had any of those happened, the game would have ended in a 0-0 draw.  The U.S. team would already be home, their winless World Cup adventure considered a failure.  Coach, Bob Bradley would be out of a job and Landon Donovan would be regarded as the underachieving disappointing face of U.S. soccer.

Instead, the U.S. team beats Algeria advances to the knockout round of 16, winning their group ahead of England.  Donovan is a national hero and America's soccer haters have no choice but to put up with all of this for at least a little while longer.

Commentators and fans will be talking about this goal for a long time, and arguing about where it belongs in within the history of U.S. soccer and in rankings of the most dramatic moments in U.S. sports.  It's the biggest U.S. soccer goal since at least, well... the one scored by Brandi Chastain in 1999.  (It's worth remembering that the Women's Team actually won the World Cup)  For now, let's focus on what it means for the U.S. team in the short term.  Tomorrow the U.S. plays Ghana in the round of 16.  It will be another tough match.  Ghana beat the U.S. last time around and was the only African team to advance this year.  We've made it this far before.  In 2002, the U.S. won a round-of-16  match against Mexico before bowing out to Germany in the quarterfinals.  But there's been much greater drama this time and a much larger U.S. audience watching.  Americans who saw the white-knuckled win over Algeria finally tasted some of the tension, passion and pride, familiar to other nations.  No, it's not going to make soccer a bigger sport than American football.  But kids were watching.  Plenty of new fans were born.

For a real treat, make sure you listen to the orgasmic call of Landon Donovan's goal by Andres Cantor.  

And if all of that is too insane, there's always the classic parody from the Simpsons.     .

Soccernomics Again

In my last entry, I noted the observation made in "Soccernomics" about the recent dominance of Western Europe.  In the 2006 World Cup.  No team from Western Europe lost a match to any team not from Western Europe until the knockout round when there was only a single loss - Switzerland lost to Ukraine on penalty kicks.  Well, in 2010, in the First round alone, teams from Western Europe have lost six matches when playing teams from elsewhere.  In 2006, there were 9 Western European nations in the tournament and all of them advanced to the knockout stage.  In 2010, there were 8 teams and only 4 have advanced.  France, Italy, Denmark and Switzerland have already been eliminated.  And the South American teams (Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay) have yet to lose a single match.  


Uruguay 1, South Korea 0
U.S.A. 2, Ghana 1
Germany 1, England 1 (Germany wins on penalty kicks)
Argentina 3, Mexico 2
Netherlands 3, Slovakia 1
Brazil 2, Chile 0
Japan 2, Paraguay 1
Spain 3, Portugal 1

Monday, June 21, 2010

World Cup Notes

World Cup 2010 is into its second week.  Each team has played twice - 32 games have been played in all.  Here are some random thoughts and reactions.

The Nick Hornby Scale:  USA vs. Slovenia

USA vs. Slovenia had a little bit of everything.  According to Nick Hornby, a truly memorable match has the following features.

1.  Goals (as many as possible)
2.  Outrageously bad refereeing Decisions
3.  A noisy crowd
4.  Rain, a greasy surface, etc.

The pitch in Johannesburg seemed fine, but otherwise, the conditions were met.  The game saw 4 goals - quite a lot by the standards of this tournament.  The average goals-per-game in this World Cup is 2.09.  (The average was well below 2 before  Portugal's 7-0 drubbing of North Korea).  It had an outrageously bad refereeing deicsion.  The U.S. dramatically came back from a 2-0 halftime deficit to tie the game and only a horrible refereeing decision, a phantom foul disallowing Edu's goal, prevented them from winning it.  But doesn't this kind of terrible officiating ruin the game?  Not according to Hornby:

"Indignation is a crucial ingredient of the perfect footballing experience; I cannot therefore agree with match commentators who argue that a referee has had a good game if he isn't noticed...I prefer to notice them, and howl at them, and feel cheated by them."

Mission accomplished.  The third element - a noisy crowd - was also satisfied.  Between the lunatics of Uncle Sam's Army and those damn plastic vuvuzela horns, there was no shortage of noise.  That's 3 out of 4 on the Hornby scale.  Not bad.

I was correct in predicting a draw between the U.S. and the impressive Slovenians but I can feel only the slightest degree of satisfaction.  The good news is that the U.S. has broken a trend - it played a team from Eastern Europe in the World Cup and for the first time, it did not lose.  The better news is that the U.S. still controls its destiny.  A win against Algeria and they advance to the knock-out stage.

What Sucks About Soccer

For my money, what sucks about soccer isn't the money, or the politics, or the draws, or the penalty kicks, or the low scoring.  It's this stuff.  A player from the Ivory Coast runs into Brazil's best player, Kaká, and then pretends he was elbowed in the face.  The referee is fooled by the act, and issues a yellow card which means that Kaká will miss Brazil's next game against Portugal.  Ivory Coast was considered the strongest of the African teams and I was pulling for them at the start of the tournament.  Not anymore.  This was a disgrace.

Soccernomics Refuted

I picked up "Soccernomics" by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski.  I enjoyed Kuper's earlier book, "Football Against the Enemy," a fascinating study of the way that cultural identity, politics and even ethnic hatred is expressed through the international game of soccer.  Soccernomics is a bit different.  It's a cross between Bill James and Steve Levitt.  A dispassionate statistics/economics approach to the game that promises to shatter conventional wisdom about the game and the business behind it.  I don't think it works all that well, largely, because soccer is not like baseball.  It is less susceptible to the kind of number-crunching and meaningful statistical analyses that Bill James brought to baseball through his pioneering of sabermetrics

One of the trends observed by the authors is the dominance of Contintental Western European nations when it comes to International play.  (Follow the GDP!)  For example, in the 2006 World Cup, not only did Italy meet France in the final, but no Western European nation lost to a team from any other part of the world.  The only exception was when Ukraine beat Switzerland in penalty kicks after a 0-0 tie.  Well, we're only halfway through this year's edition but we've already seen Mexico beat France, Serbia beat Germany and Chile beat Switzerland.  The story for this World Cup might be the fact that no South American team has lost yet.  In fact, the only team from the Western Hemisphere that has lost a match is Honduras. 

The Run of Play

Judging by present form, the two teams that look the best are probably Argentina and Netherlands.  Netherlands was impressive against Denmark and Japan and have already advanced.  Argentina, which features the world's best player, Lionel Messi and the world's maddest coach, Diego Maradona, looks to be the most dangerous side.  But it's too early to read much into it.  In 2006, Argentina also looked dominant in group play before stumbling in the Quaterfinals.  And Netherlands, for all of their orange brilliance, tends to find a way to self-destruct.  But if there is one lesson of economics that can be applied to soccer, it is this:  Past results are no guarantee of future reults.  You have to play the game.

Friday, June 18, 2010

World Cup Diary: Week One

Opening Game

I was planning to catch the opening match between South Africa and Mexico but since I’m in California that means a 7:00am start time. But I figured, why not? And if you’re going to watch the Mexican national team play soccer while in Los Angeles, you may as well head down to Olvera Street. To a New Yorker, Los Angeles doesn’t feel much like a city because it’s all sprawl and there’s no real center. No heart. But if any place can lay claim to being the heart of L.A., it is Olvera Street, the oldest street in Los Angeles and the historic home of LA’s latino heritage. Shortly after dawn, we drove to downtown Los Angeles. There was no traffic.

Olvera Street is pedestrian thoroughfare of smooth red tile, lined with kiosks and vendors selling crafts, clothing, candy and souvenirs and where you find historic adobe buildings and authentic Mexican restaurants. It’s a nice mix of charm and kitsch, but it’s a gem within an otherwise blighted downtown and its historic roots and quality food are real enough. At 7:00 in the morning the kiosks aren’t yet open but some of the restaurants are. Of course they are showing the game. We go to Café de Camacho at the south end of the street. It’s a newer place that serves flavored coffees and has brightly colored walls displaying paintings for sale. We had no problem getting a table. It wasn’t very crowded but nearly everyone there was wearing the green Mexico shirt and cheering for El Tri. Spirited but civilized. Instead of beer and meat pies, it was coffee, muffins and breakfast burritos. Much more my speed.

Mexico dominated the play, but it was South Africa, the host nation, who drew first blood. Siphiwe Tshabalala sprang free on the left wing and blasted a perfect shot past the Mexican keeper. The stadium erupted. Cafe de Camacho groaned. Unluckily for Mexico, an apparent Mexican goal was ruled off on what appeared to be an incorrect offsides call. Retribution came late. Mexico kept up the pressure and in the 80th minute, Rafa Marquez, the veteran defender for Barcelona equalized. Café de Camacho roared with excitement. The 1-1 tie was a fair result but one that frustrated Mexican hopes. Mexico is a soccer-mad nation with a talented squad but they are also cautious in their hope. They routinely qualify for the World Cup and advance to the round of 16 but they have never made it past the quarter-finals. The next two games – against France and Uruguay are expected to be tougher. But with some better finishing, Olvera Street might yet see some festive partying.

The U.S. Team

The much-anticipated game between U.S. and England did not produce the dramatic upset Americans were hoping for, but it was hardly a let-down either. As a practical matter, a 1-1 tie with England is an excellent and extremely fortunate result. The U.S. goal was a gift from England’s Keeper, Robert Green, whose mishandling of an innocuous shot from Clint Dempsey produced a howler for the ages. The best news for the U.S. was that its defense, a real question mark going into the game, performed solidly. Tim Howard and Steve Cherundolo, at right-back, were the best U.S. performers of the match. Jozey Altidore showed some signs of danger but needs to be more involved.

I was reading some of the reader comments on ESPN Soccernet last week. One comment read “The England game doesn’t matter that much – the key game is the 2nd game against Slovakia.” Exactly right, save for one detail. The U.S. opponent isn’t Slovakia – it’s Slovenia. What concerns me isn’t the fact that Americans are bad at geography. It’s that they don’t appreciate how tough their opponent is. I don’t mean to be pessimistic but I think it’s nuts to suppose that the U.S. should be heavily favored in this game, but that’s exactly what is being reported. I’ve already noted what’s impressive about Slovenia. The U.S. has qualified for every World Cup since 1990. That’s five tournaments. And each time, the U.S. has played a team from Eastern Europe and each time it has lost. I’m predicting another 1-1 tie. (Soccer haters love those). If it happens, the American sports media will howl, but we shouldn't be at all surprised.

Santa Barbara

My vacation took me to Santa Barbara on California’s beautiful central coast. It’s not an obvious place for watching soccer, but Santa Barbara has a richer soccer heritage than you might expect. The local college, University of California at Santa Barbara, was the NCAA men’s soccer national champions of 2006. The main drag, State Street, is full of stores, galleries, restaurants and bars – and these cater to upscale shoppers as well as college kids and beach bums.  The restaurants, sports bars, English taverns, Irish pubs and coffee houses are all televising the World Cup matches. In the evenings, it’s all about the NBA finals – Lakers vs. Celtics. But by day, soccer rules.

On Thursday morning, we’re watching Mexico again. This time, they’re playing France, who drew nil-nil in an uninspiring opening match against Uruguay. We’re at Moby Dick, a sea food restaurant on Stearn’s Wharf. It’s an unusual soccer-viewing environment. Outside our window pelicans are hovering over the Pacific and we’re having grilled salmon and a crab-melt sandwich. Nearly all of the patrons watching are rooting for Mexico, surprising only because we encountered so many French tourists in Santa Barbara. Mexico’s 2-0 win is well-deserved. Defender Carlos Salcidos is an intense-looking guy and he put on a master class at left fullback. It’s hard to feel sorry for France. Not only because of the controversial way they qualified, but because they’re playing a dull and listless brand of soccer. Franck Ribery is a nice player but he’s no Zidane. Only Florent Malouda was lively. Mexico beating a Western European power in a World Cup match is a very big deal. As beautiful as Santa Barbara is, I wonder what it’s like right now on Olvera Street.


Saturday, June 12, 2010

World Cup Diary

We’re minutes away from the biggest soccer game in U.S. history. I’m thinking not only about the excitement of the World Cup but about the game of soccer and its place in U.S. Culture. Soccer’s no longer just for immigrants and suburban kids who are driven around by Moms in mini-vans. Americans are getting increasingly interested in the International game. Last month the European Champions League final between Inter Milan and Bayern Munich, was aired on a Saturday afternoon on Fox. Not Fox Soccer Channel. Fox. New York’s Channel 5. This is new. And it could be the start of something big.

But admittedly, I’m more enthused about soccer than is your average American sports fan. I grew up in the New York area and started kicking a ball around the same time Pele joined the New York Cosmos, who played before bigger crowds than even the Yankees could draw. I played varsity soccer at my Long Island high school in the 1980s. I’ve tuned into every World Cup since 1986, when a squat player from Argentina named Diego Armando Maradona put on one of the greatest performances that any sports fan has ever seen. I consider Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch to be the best sports-fan memoir ever written. I visited London and Madrid in the late 1990s, and saw professional matches at Highbury (Arsenal) and the Bernebeu (Real Madrid). An American sitting in those legendary venues, watching the game being played at its highest level among impassioned supporters, can only begin to understand the degree to which soccer is in Europe’s blood. To say nothing of Latin America. And anyone looking to experience how Asians feel about soccer ought to visit’s 32nd and Broadway, New York City’s Koreatown, when South Korea plays in the World Cup. To see what soccer means to Africa, just watch this year’s edition of the World Cup.

For the mainstream American sports fan, the game of soccer tends to invoke one of two reactions. The first is contempt. And as soccer grows in popularity, so does the intensity of the American backlash against it. Some of that is simply an expression of nationalism. Since soccer is the biggest game in the world by far, the red-blooded patriotic American is inclined to be to be suspicious of this foreign activity. The second and more common reaction is ambivalence. Here are the American sports fans who have nothing against soccer on a cultural level, but who just can’t get all that excited about it. The sport isn’t really foreign to them – they’ve played it, or their kids have. And they’ll enjoy watching a great goal or show of individual skill on ESPN Plays of the Week. But the game itself doesn’t capture them and the lack of success by the U.S. at the International level frustrates them.

Here’s what bothers lots of American fans about soccer:

• Low scoring.

• Tie games.

• Whining, dramatics and simulation of injuries.

• Outcome of games decided by penalty kicks

But what the U.S. likes most about sports – more than lots of goals or tough play – is winning. If the U.S. can do well in this World Cup, plenty of Americans will look past what they see as the negatives of the sport and come to embrace the Beautiful Game. That’s one reason why today’s game between the U.S. and England is so huge. The media has hyped the game a lot but there’s no question that the U.S. is a decided underdog. There are a lot of eyes on this game but in the U.S., there’s also a notoriously short attention span. A U.S. win would be historic. And if you think there’s a lot of hype and sports media attention now…just wait. But if we see a disappointing showing by the U.S. or a dull game, a nil-nil draw, or a questionable call by a referee resulting in a penalty kick giving England a 1-0 win, the soccer haters will say “See? I told you so.”

But that’s Ok. Some of us will keep on watching.  That's what fans do.