a terrible blight on our fine country
2014 world cup
If only coach Mattison knew how to FaceTime. pic.twitter.com/uG1JwVwnlv
— Frank Clark (@UMclark57) July 10, 2014
First, the mandatory comment about charge: good charge, Frank Clark. Way to keep on top of that.
Then: this is hilarious but it is also just, like, art, man. Yeah.
CLARK: coach you gotta point the phone at you
MATTISON: I am pointing it at me
CLARK: coach you are probably not a cloud or the sky or the rays of the sun
MATTISON: but I could be
CLARK: yeah but you're not, you're a bald guy, I've seen
MATTISON: but I could be the sky and the sun and a bald crown
CLARK: ok coach
Welcome. Orson wrote a terrific thing about the Brazil kid weeping so hard he was trying to shove a cup through his face in case that would help:
I have nothing for you. Maybe it's worse when your team is good, and there is the hope of winning. If you'll notice, fans of desolate, perpetually forlorn carrion wagons like Kentucky football or tragedians like Ole Miss fans don't hold up cups to their faces, clutch their eyes, and try to literally vomit their sorrow into a Coke cup after losing by six goals on their home turf. Brazil fans do, because shame has a prerequisite: the standard, or the notion that you will be somewhere that is not crying so hard you have to compress yourself into some kind of ball to keep from shattering into a thousand tiny pieces.
Intermittent reinforcement is apparently the way to get obedience: sometimes you get the thing. Other times you do not get the thing. Sports is very intermittent reinforcement. So congrats, kid! If you haven't sworn off soccer forever already, you are the proud recipient of a lifetime mania that will probably work out just fine because you're Brazilian.
Brutal! Mark Emmert showed for a congressional hearing that went even worse than the court thing did.
McCaskill offered some of the sharpest criticism of Emmert, questioning why his role exists if he can’t shape reform or prevent athletic departments from investigating sexual assaults.
“I can’t tell if you’re in charge or a minion” to the schools, McCaskill said. “If you’re merely a monetary pass-through, why should you exist?”
"I'm a good cartel," Emmert said under his breath. "A good one." New Jersey's Corey Booker:
"When they can lord over you the removal of your scholarship - because it does still happen, athletes are still exploited, that if they blow out their knee, if they somehow don't meet the mandates of a coach, they lose their scholarship, they don't get their degree -- to me, this is plain and simple the dark side of the NCAA, where athletes are being exploited," Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) later said, noting that some issues he dealt with as a college athlete 20 years ago are still being dealt with by athletes today.
If the NCAA thinks they're going to get antitrust help from Congress, that hearing was some cold water. I know Democrats and Republicans and whatnot, but this may be an organization with a worse public image than Congress itself… not exactly baseball in 1910 or whatever.
Thornton tearing things up. Beilein and Calipari were jowl to jowl watching Derryck Thornton, and they were treated to a show:
(Thornton) picked up right where he left off after standing out at the Steph Curry Camp to start the month. Thornton was a true floor general, in complete control every time he stepped on the court and able to impact the game in a variety of different ways. He handles the ball on a string and excels at making a variety of different reads off the pick and roll. He holds his dribble going through the lane as well as anyone in the field, just waiting on the defense to break down and reveal open receivers. He even shot the ball well here, making a series of pull-ups as well as rhythm 3s. Thornton took unofficial visits to both Kentucky and Michigan last month and was followed by both Kentucky’s John Calipari and Michigan’s John Beilein here.
Thornton's done taking visits this summer after heading to Michigan and Kentucky, both of which he plans on visiting again this fall. It appears this is a head to head battle.
Adapting to reality. Mark Richt is adapting to life in the fast lane.
"One of the big things for us is football is now becoming a very high up-tempo game,” UGA coach Mark Richt explained recently. “It used to be 30, 40 seconds between a play. Now it could be as short as 10-to-18 seconds between plays. So you’re exerting and then resting for a short period of time. So now, even in the weight room, we want to go hard, rest a short time, then go ahead. A quicker recovery time. We’re not going to run the longer distances anymore. We’re going to run the shorter distance.”
After last year's Indiana game, I'm hoping there's some sort of similar soul searching within the Michigan program. You'd figure so, but… if anyone was going to not give it as much time as they should it would be Michigan. They've been just so, so bad with anything related to tempo under Hoke, whether it's defending it or trying to go fast themselves.
7/1/2014 – USA 1, Belgium 2 (ET) – out of World Cup
I never really forgave the guy. Admittedly, it's not like there was a huge amount to forgive. I just thought that after I'd indulged his desire to go to a couple of shows that I normally would not have he would reciprocate. Instead, he sulked through the entirety of a fun Robert Earl Keen show that I should have enjoyed about 15% more.
We were 20-ish, in Austin, Texas. We were engineers on summer internships, suddenly stripped of our friend networks and ill-equipped to forge new ones. In such circumstances, horizons broaden rather quickly, which is how I'd ended up at a Smashing Pumpkins show a few weeks earlier.
I know exactly what I wore: a terrible replica Michigan hockey jersey forged from whatever that fabric is that comes with large, regular holes and feels more like plastic than anything else that humans put on their bodies. I know this because after the show this material was absolutely soaked with sweat. Some of it was mine; the majority was from the writhing mass of humanity that had surged to and fro for the duration of the show.
I had no idea the thing could even get so sodden. I'd washed it several times and knew it was the kind of material that exited a washing machine as dry as it entered. After that show the thing was ten pounds heavier than it was two hours before.
I sat on a stoop in the bright Texas sun and tried to process the weird communal thing I'd just gone through. It was, above all, exhausting.
On the day that hooked me for life, I force-marched myself down to the pub at halftime. I was in Ireland for a summer mostly because a girl had dumped me and I wanted to broaden the ol' horizons and the United States had just roared out to a 3-0 lead against impregnable invulnerable super-skilled Portugal. My place was about 20 minutes from the city center at reasonable pace; I got myself down there in 15, huffing and puffing as the second half kicked off.
To the Irish, the USA game that had just blown my mind was just an appetizer to Ireland-Germany. Group stuff meant that a draw would just about see the Irish through—they had Saudi Arabia last. Germany scored, because Germany. A loss was deadly. Everything was desperation and death until stoppage time, when Niall Quinn knocked a ball down to Robbie Keane and Kahn was finally breached.
Pandemonium. I ended up hugging a guy who was definitely not Irish. 12 years on I can only say he was Pakistani-ish. We hugged like we'd known each other since birth and jumped up and down and I was permanently in the power of the World Cup.
Ireland decided to take the afternoon off to drink by the river.
Four years later I watched the USA get blasted off the field by the Czechs. Six-foot-one-hundred Jan Koller pounded in a cross in the first ten minutes and things got worse from there. I sat across the table from Anthony, who'd moved to Ann Arbor and read my blog and knew I liked the USMNT. He'd emailed me because he needed someone to watch them with.
A number of months later, a guy who'd just moved to Ann Arbor named Jerry joined us at Charley's for some match or another—Gold Cup?—because he needed someone to watch the USMNT with. I don't remember what it was. It doesn't matter. From there it the web expanded to encompass most of my friendships forged after college. When I got married three years ago, Jerry was our officiant and Anthony was the best man.
Four years later I was in Chicago for the very exciting Blogs With Balls conference; the World Cup was in South Africa and the USA was playing a tune-up friendly against Australia on the premises, which meant the thing was at approximately 7 AM. I met a guy I'd known as Orson and kind of now know as Spencer (but who is still mostly Orson) at a bar somewhere proximate to Wrigley Field and watched Robbie Findley round the goalkeeper and shoot about 20 feet wide.
When I started this blog, there were two other college football blogs, period. Orson ran one. As college football blogs developed it gradually dawned on a large percentage of the early adopters that we had another, odder obsession: the US national soccer team. I think it's because the kind of person into college football enough to start a blog about it prefers his emotional gambling on sports to be as high-stakes as possible.
We gathered it ourselves in weird ways. I watched the 1994 World Cup in my basement on a 14 inch TV, just like FIFA wanted, and then helpfully forgot about it in 1998. I honestly have no idea what drew anyone else to the national team other than Orson, who's written about it. At the moment I was force-marching to the King's Head in Galway, Orson was running up a darkened street towards a lunatic screaming "WE'RE UP ON PORTUGAL" at five in the morning. I imagine all of us were, in some manner of speaking, running towards a lunatic at some point.
We were together then. I saw Landon score against Algeria in a bar with my best friends, both the half-dozen I knew already and the two hundred who just happened to be there.
I love the US national team. I love it in the way you can only love your wife: I chose it. It was not given to me by my father, like Michigan was. As something approximating an adult I made a decision. It stuck in a way that the Red Wings did not stick, that the Oilers did not stick, that every single other attempted non-Michigan affiliation did not stick. I chose it, and somehow it chose me.
Now I am in so deep that in some weird way the anger cannot stick. If I saw Chris Wondolowski today I'd buy him a beer and say "it's okay, man." I wrote a column earlier this year about how I invented a slur for people who annoy me by being even slightly incompetent. And yet here I am after getting crushed and all I want is for September 23rd to roll around. That's the next time the USA takes the field.
So I'm under this table. I'm under it because the US has just worked a brilliant drawn-up-in-the-dirt free kick that results in a goal a universe where being really clever is everything. I am aware I am not in this universe. If I was being a teenager would have gone a lot better. Therefore the US is still down a goal with five minutes left.
I am under this table an unusually long time. I am the kind of person who screams SHOW ME THE GAME when, say, a basketball broadcast cuts away from a point guard bringing the ball up the floor uncontested. I am still under the table, though. If I remain under the table I will not have to see the clock ticking inexorably upward. I know that I have to stop being under the table pretty soon, but I like it under the table where time has stopped.
Eventually I undo the emergency squat and stop being under the table, and time resumes. I'm not soaked in sweat but it's not for lack of trying. I have lurched to and fro only metaphorically this time, with a mass of humanity that extends to the table I had to abandon to get to the spot where I could stop time, to Atlanta and Alabama and Denver where Orson and Jerry and Jess are, to that setup in Kansas City or Chicago they keep showing on TV in an attempt to catch that Landon-vs-Algeria video live.
Above all, it is wonderful. Except for the score, of course, which is a crime and a lie. But I would not trade the horrible roiling feeling of doom for anything. As Michael Bradley said, the World Cup is about suffering well. We do, together.
I ain't got nothing. I mean, I could, but I can't. Instead, some goodbyes to guys who probably aren't going to see 2018:
BEASLEY. I may have been excessively strident in my attempt to stab anyone who said anything bad about Beasley, and then Beasley goes and redeems all excessive strident-ness. Amazing career, terrific player, terrific story arc, still weighs about 65 pounds. Most underrated USMNT player ever.
HOWARD. YOU SHALL NOT PASS, he said. He had an incredible beard as he did so. "Distribution… brilliant."
DEMPSEY. 1000% Anthemface. 1000% Deuceface. Scored goal after goal and stood as an eagle-riding, gun-waving avatar of America. Made it impossible to accuse USMNT of being euro floppers for duration of career. A hard man for hard times.
JONES. Anyone who says this is not an American is going to get run into the ground and then lashed in the face by a shot. Jones may not have known it, we may not have known it, but the man was born in Kansas and never left. He has overalls, and has always worn them.
BECKERMAN. Sanneh 2014. The guy who you're just like "remember when Beckerman played out of his mind?" Legacy is being that guy in the movie who gets on the Sports Or A Capella Team just at the end and kills it.
DONOVAN. Mexico feared Landon Donovan.
|WHAT||USA vs Belgium|
|LINE||Si Se Puede|
WIN OR DIE. Image via a "spritegirl".
THE THEM: IT CAME FROM GERMINAL BEERSCHOT
Belgium is ludicrously talented for a nation with about the same population as Michigan, especially since this is not a country like Holland that has a rich history in the game. The Flyin' Waffles haven't so much as made either the World Cup or the European Championships since 2002. This has not stopped them from growing a generation of talent that has seen them rocket up the FIFA rankings and the bookies' odds. Pre-tourney, Belgium was fifth-favorites.
This is because the team is full of club-level stars. If you took each World Cup team and sold them on the transfer market right now, only Brazil would cost more.
Part of that is because Belgium is so danged young. The other part is because they are good.
This hasn't really shown in the group stages. The Waffles haven't scored before the 70th minute of any of their games despite fielding an all-star team in a group that was kindling waiting for a match.
There are two main reasons for this. One is the absence of striker Christian Benteke, who was injured just before the World Cup. Romelu Lukaku, his replacement, is a big name himself, but for whatever reason the team seems to lack je ne sais quoi when he's the main guy. The second is Belgium's lack of outside backs. Without overlapping runs from them, teams have been free to double up on Belgium's talented wingers.
There hasn't been a whole lot to learn about Belgium in two of their three games. They faced an Algeria team that was parking the bus virtually the whole time, and in the group finale against South Korea they played a heavily rotated lineup against what may have been the worst team in Brazil.
The Russia match is the closest thing to what will transpire against the US. Russia had half the possession and matched the Belgians in shots, finally ceding a goal in the 88th minute as the defenders on Eden Hazard faltered.
And then there was the friendly about a year ago in which Belgium thrashed the USA backline to a 4-2 win. The US started a back four of Beasley-Goodson-Gonzalez-Cameron in that one and Christian Benteke, who is out of this World Cup, was around to harrass the USA… but if they play anything like they did in that friendly it's going to be ugly.
GOALIE: Thibaut Courtois has spent the last three years as Atletico Madrid's goalie, during which time Madrid's stingy defense saw them win La Liga, shockingly. He's a strength.
Kompany and Vermalen (background) are doubtful, apparently
DEFENSE: Health issues abound. Anthony Vanden Borre, the Zangeif-lookin' mofo you may have noticed menacing his way around the field against South Korea, is out with an injury. While he was not a likely starter he may have been called on as a substitute if Belgium found themselves trailing; as a natural outside back he offers more going forward than their other options there.
That's because the rest of those options are center-backs. Like Germany, Belgium have entered this tournament determined to play a back four entirely consisting of naturally central players. In Belgium's case it's because they have a pile of excellent CBs and no fullbacks.
The first-choice central defenders are supposed to be Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermalen, but both of them are nursing injuries. Kompany has a groin issue, Vermalen a hamstring problem. Kompany missed the South Korea game, for whatever that means. It does sound like he's having issues that might make him a risk his coach may not want to take:
"Now we wait for the reaction, the training and the development day by day, but you saw the last game too – he tried hard in the last training session and had to stop after half an hour"
If one of those guys can't go, expect 36-year-old Daniel Van Buyten to get a start. Van Buyten has played all of Belgium's games so far; at 6'6" he is obviously a force in the air, but he may be susceptible to getting outrun. He is a backup at Bayern Munich who's gotten about a dozen appearances per year for the last three. If both are out Zenit's Nicolas Lombaerts is likely to draw in. He's is a downgrade but only because Kompany has a claim to be the world's best central defender. He actually scored against the USA in 2011, but that USA lineup had Howard and Dempsey and no one else who will play tomorrow.
As previously mentioned, the outside backs are a bit of a weak point. Toby Alderwereld is the right back; he's a backup center back for Atletico Madrid. The left back could be Vermalen but is more likely to be Jan Vertonghen. Vertonghen had an up and down group stage, giving up the penalty that put Algeria up and scoring the lone goal against South Korea.
These guys aren't hoofers or anything…
these are talented technical footballers who impress at centre-back because of their ability to bring the ball out of defence, so they certainly aren’t useless clodhoppers. Amazingly, Alderweireld, Vermaelen and Vertonghan had almost identical footballing educations, raised at Germinal Beerschot before moving across the border to Ajax, where they were encouraged to play proactively in a high defensive line, and bring the ball out of defence intelligently.
…but while they can help the team get it out of the back, overlapping is not in the cards. Against Russia they barely approached the final third.
Belgium outside backs versus Russia
Belgian outside backs did get a bit more forward in the other games. If the US gets trapped in their own end with 30% of the possession or just flat sucks, fullbacks popping up on offense will be a symptom, not a cause.
MIDFIELD: Belgium is likely to field Alex Witsel in their version of the Beckerman role. Insert the usual "except he's paid a bucket of money by a major Euro club" here. In this case it's oil-gorged Russian outfit Zenit St Petersburg. Witsel as described by Zonal Marking:
The primary holder is Axel Witsel, a strong, reliable and commanding midfielder that doesn’t advance into attack, but can move up the pitch to shut down opponents and leave space between the lines – as mentioned, the centre-backs deal with anyone in that zone.
The primary attacking midfielder will be Kevin De Bruyne, who shredded the US with through balls in that friendly and has easily been Belgium's most dangerous offensive player aside when allowed to play in the center of the field behind the striker. (He was anonymous as a right sided midfielder for about 60 minutes against Algeria, then became a huge threat as soon as substitutions shoved him into the middle.)
The third midfielder is in question. Marouane Fellaini made a major impact in the Algeria game as an out-and-out striker looking to pound things in with his head. He also scored a thundering header against the US a year ago. He was deployed against Russia in Belgium's most important group game, so it seems like he'd be the obvious pick. But then there's a calf injury that forced him off the field early yesterday. That would open the door for Mousa Dembele, except he's suffering from basically the same injury. The Ghana witch doctor may be on our side now.
Anyway, pick between these gentlemen:
They’re very different options – Fellaini is a physical destroyer who lacks guile on the ball, and Dembele is a peculiar, converted forward who is excellent at dribbling forward and evading challenges, but offers surprisingly little end product, preferring to keep his passing simple.
Fellaini's ability to hit things hard with his head gives him the edge, health being equal.
De Bruyne (left) and Lukaku (right) haven't been able to hook up so far
FORWARD: Belgium's been looking for something more impressive than what 21-year-old Chelsea forward Romelu Lukaku's been able to offer so far, but they don't have great options. Kevin Mirallas is not a physical presence at 5'10" and Divock Origi is promising but just 19.
The wingers will be problems. Dries Mertens has consistently gotten into dangerous areas coming in from the right.
Mertens vs Russia
The area just inside the box towards the end line that Mertens got to repeatedly is assist central.
Premier League assist density, last three years
Mertens could not find the final ball against Russia, or his strikers weren't in a spot to run on to it. Mertens may just be a guy who isn't too good at making goals right now.
Even so the US will be playing with fire if they allow anything similar—Russia finally got bit when Eden Hazard, the left winger, got into that spot on the other side of the box and set up Origi for an easy slam home. Hazard is the most expensive and highest-regarded of any of Belgium's players—he was just named Chelsea's player of the year at the ripe old age of 23—but he hasn't had much impact with the national team. He's scored just six times in 47 caps and for much of the tournament he's been anonymous. That's where Belgium's lack of full-backs really shows. Defenses can overplay him and take him away. Expect the same from the US, with a defensive mid shaded to him.
Facing down another 4-3-3 with super dangerous wingers and question marks at outside back, expect a reprise of the Portugal game plan: a 4-5-1 with defensive responsibility on the flanks and Johnson bombing forward in an effort to exploit the lack of defense provided by the 4-3-3.
DEFENSE: Beasley, Besler, Cameron, Johnson.
Beasley and Besler are locks if healthy; Johnson is going to start. There is a faint chance that he gets moved up into the midfield, allowing Yedlin or Chandler to start. Faint, though.
While Gonzalez had his best game for the US in a long time against Germany, Cameron is likely to return to the lineup. He provides more ability with the ball at his feet and the USA is going to need more possession than they did against Germany in a game they actually have to win. Also, his mobility will be a major asset against Hazard.
The US has a little bit of a luxury here, as they can afford to give their outside backs cover since Belgium won't be overlapping much. Job one for the US outside backs and midfielders is to keep Belgium's wingers out of the danger zone. If they cross, they cross. The US has decided to live and die with crosses by jamming the middle, and with Fellaini in question all the more reason to double down.
time for meep meep?
MIDFIELD: Beckerman, Jones, Bedoya, Bradley, Yedlin
Beckerman, Jones, Bradley are locks. Jones has been the USA's player of the tournament so far. This is the game Bradley's touch returns, I promise. Beckerman is going to be absolutely critical as he strives to prevent De Bruyne from playing Belgians in on Howard's goal. If he can quiet the Belgian #10 as the US reaches the quarters hell have cemented an unlikely place in USMNT lore.
The wing spots are in doubt. Davis was invisible and lifted early. Zusi's touch has been off and his service poor aside from the winner against Ghana; Bedoya seems like he's about ready to fall over and expire on the regular. Given what we've seen so far, Bedoya makes sense. He's the only guy who's given you two-way play on the left this tourney, and he's relatively fresh.
Aaand… this could be a spot where Klinsmann does something wacky like start Yedlin. It's easy to see Yedlin zooming past the Belgians' left back, whoever it is, into the assist zone he got to for the second against Portugal. Yedlin's speed will also help the US cover on Hazard. Meanwhile any individual defensive issues he has are not likely to come into play.
Zusi is of course a possibility.
What about Jozy? There have been reports he's doing some running, and Klinsmann has said he's "very optimistic" again:
‘‘We are very optimistic,” said US coach Jurgen Klinsmann. “Every day is a big step forward with Jozy. It’s 11 days now and it’s looking better every day, so we are optimistic we have him being a part of the Belgium game.’’
"A part" is one thing. A start that might go 120 minutes with a still-lingering muscle injury is unlikely.
SUBS: If the US finds itself down they'll have to go for it, so expect some sort of midfielder-for-striker swap with Beckerman the most likely to go out since he offers the least going forward. This is a recording.
In a tie game pushing towards extra-time, the US might lift one of the wingers for Wondolowski, and then if things get very deep Dempsey will probably be cashed out, allowing Johannsson to enter.
If the US is fortunate enough to be protecting a lead, bringing in Gonzalez will make sense. Fellaini is truly terrifying in the air, and Belgium's response to Algeria suggests they will go 4-4-2 with Fellaini up front if they need to. Whether that's a straight swap for Cameron or something else I don't know, but whatever it is it should not be Gonzalez as some sort of ostrich defensive mid.
Algerian Djamel Haimoudi has drawn the game. He did the most recent African Cup of Nations final and a Confed Cup semi; so far in this tournament he's done the Costa Rica-England and Holland-Australia games.
The latter featured a pretty ridiculous PK call for Australia when a Holland defender's arm hit a cross that came from about two feet away and seemed an obvious case of ball-to-hand. On the other hand, Haumoudi has a number of opportunities to bite on dives in the box and passed.
I'd mention cards but at this point it's clear that the refs have been instructed to be very lenient with yellows. That's no doubt an attempt to keep suspensions down since yellows now clear after the quarters instead of the group stage.
KEYS OTHER THAN SCORING MORE GOALPOINTS
Good goddamn Bradley. This is not the Michael Bradley I know. The above is. Bradley's history with the US when allowed to forward is one of constant activity, through balls that come off, and late runs into the box that are a danger few outfits are adequately prepared for.
He hasn't exactly been terrible in this tournament, but he has not provided the attacking edge he has for the last four years. It's probably just bad luck and bad form at the wrong time, but it's unlikely the US wins this game without Bradley having a hand in a USA goal.
Fitness will be tested… again. The US got an extra day of rest compared to Germany, but unfortunately they are going up against a team that rested a bunch of guys in their final group match.
However, the tests will go both ways. Belgium has a number of guys in various states of injury. If Kompany or Vermalen or Fellaini play there's a chance that one of them has to use up a substitution early, and as the US learned four years ago you really do not want to have to use early substitutes in a game that can go 120 minutes.
Keep the ball, have the ball, keep and have the ball. The US has gotten boxed in by two of its three opponents so far, and while the situations they found themselves in (up a goal thirty seconds in and soon without Jozy; playing Germany needing to not lose by lots) lent themselves to that kind of cagey play, now it's win or die time.
This means keeping the dang ball and playing Belgium like an equal. The good news is that Belgium is not particularly good at pressing. Algeria and South Korea abandoned any idea of possession pre-game, but a not particularly technical Russian side had exactly as much of the game as Belgium did, with relatively few Aimless Upfield Punts.
Center backs and goalie unsuccessful passes, Russia vs Belgium
The Shin Guardian's take on Belgium's panini game:
Defensively, Belgium claim to be a pressing team but that’s a dangerous description for it. They’ll occasionally go through spells when they’ll press high when commanding the run of play; but, if not, they’ll usually just retreat behind the halfway line and attempt to loosely swarm the ball. <– i.e. not pressing defense. Sampaoli would be mortified.
The first pass or two out of the back will be crucial, especially without Jozy. Bradley should be dropping deep to provide an outlet on the regular.
Fullback offense. The US fullbacks didn't have much impact on the Germany game aside from a couple of slaloming Beasley runs on which Run DMB seemed a decade younger, but this was largely because the US couldn't hold the ball long enough for them to get upfield. Once the US clears Belgium's pressure, the best offense they'll have is their speedy wing backs against the Belgium flanks.
WIN THE GAME. #winthegame
SECTION WHERE I PREDICT THE SAME THING KENPOM DOES
6/26/2014 – USA 0, Germany 1 – 1-1-1, 4 points, second place group G
In the aftermath of what quite a lot of people are calling Best Loss Ever there's a kind of dissonance. We lost; we advanced. Soccer luddites are persnickety about it in the annoying way that fills my Twitter timeline with backlash to a meme I'm only aware of because of the backlash. And yes while any baseball fan who's like "but you lost" should be tossed into a woodchipper, they're not entirely wrong.
There is something a bit unsatisfying about putting your guts in a blender for 55 minutes, turning it up to "pulverize" for 25 more, and then finally having the pressure release when the Ghana goalie decides that catching is for people who get paid. When he bats the ball directly to the Best Player In The World, he scores a goal so stupid nobody even celebrates it. Ronaldo didn't celebrate a goal that put his team up in the 80th minute. If it's not the dumbest goal ever scored at a World Cup, it is in the top ten.
So, yeah. Pile all the masculine guitar riffs and stony anthem game face you want into the USA's escape from the Group of Death. Pile them into a bowl for my face. I crave them all. Give me Dempsey photoshopped onto everything. It was a bit of an escape, though.
And that's fine! We aren't that good at this soccer business yet. We're quite good at not getting sent off in the first 20 minutes of the World Cup. We're quite good at not needing a literal convoy of money to be sent from the homeland in a partially successful attempt to abort all-out rebellion.
— John Bennett (@JohnBennettBBC) June 26, 2014
This is not the kind of asset you think about when sports are intra-country things. It turns out that having your shit together is a skill. The USA got out of the Group of Death because we pay our taxes, both literally and metaphorically.
But what happens when you're a guy who feels pretty good about not waiting until April 15th this year and you're up against some dude who got them in by February?
this either happened in the 68th or 91st minute
You spent a lot of time being impressed with how organized that guy is. Like, he pulls out that Franklin Planner your mom gave you when you were 15 and it is battered. He sends thank you notes. He has a meticulously organized collection of all his Halloween costumes dating back to 1988 (Alf, if you're wondering). And he is where he is supposed to be all the time.
In the preview I said that Germany looks like the hypothetical end point of what USA soccer will be. While that may be thousands of years in the future, that seemed pretty on-point as the Germans outclassed the USA in one area in particular: the high press.
Trying to win the ball back high up the field has been one of the primary tactical trends of the last decade. Spain and Barcelona—often one and the same—are widely credited for that shift, as both adopted a relentlessly possession-based style predicated on the fact that the opponent can't win if they don't have the ball. When it works, it's metronomically ruthless, as Spain's three straight major tournament wins demonstrate.
Everything is a copycat league, so high pressing has become a defining characteristic of soccer. Teams either can or cannot do it and can or cannot cope with it. Germany can do it; Germany can cope with it. The US is… working on it. They could barely touch the ball in the first 10 minutes, but came back to fight the Germans nearly equally for the rest of that half.
— Paul Carr (@PCarrESPN) June 26, 2014
In the second half, things fell back to those first ten minutes, but it wasn't for lack of trying by the US. The US flew high up the press, trying desperately to get one of the Aimless Upfield Punts that generally result when high pressure hits home. But Germany wouldn't cooperate, with Neuer casually dribbling past a charging USA player and dumping it back to the other side of the field.
Howard and the USA had far less success and far more AUPs. Here are unsuccessful passes from the goalies and central defenders of each team.
Germany left; USA right
Please mentally delete the two Germany AUPs from #1 that occur outside of the box, as they were Neuer rushing out to cut out potential USA through balls and not Germany losing possession. Once that's done, the AUP edge for the Germans is truly prodigious. Thus the USA's inability to get the ball in the second half: they gave it away a lot and couldn't force Germany into the same mistakes.
Maybe this was a tiredness thing. I don't think it was—or it was at least not entirely that. Ghana boxed the US in for most of that game, for one. And when the screws get turned up the US is still liable to get itself in trouble and boot the thing upfield for safety's sake. It is in our soccer blood; I have seen it for twelve years.
Klinsmann's challenge is to take the US from back to front and get them passing to each other despite Germans pouring across the border, and to turn up the pressure himself. He said this himself when he was hired. The Group of Death has shown us just how far they have come… and how far they have to go.
What the pants man. Any remaining questions about whether it was a good idea to leave Landon Donovan at home have been resolved: hell no. Brad Davis, Donovan's obvious replacement, reprised his awful Turkey performance in his first start since the 2005 Gold Cup.
All you need to know: a guy whose one asset is a kick-ass left foot for crosses and whatnot was flipped to his off wing so the defensively meh Graham Zusi could check a German center-back who was 1) playing out of position and 2) annihilating the USA left flank.
Davis got lifted before the 60 minute mark, and that was 60 minutes too long. Presumably that will be the last time he dons a USA shirt. At least this World Cup only features the inexplicable inclusion in one start instead of three—I still shudder to think that Robbie Findlay started every game he was not suspended for in 2010.
Tactically, that was bizarre. The US was low on options, but should have gone with a defensively-oriented guy on the left and an attacking player on the right—Germany's left back was hesitant to get anywhere near the US box. Bedoya left, Diskerud right. Maybe Bedoya is exhausted, but an exhausted Bedoya would have more impact on the game than Davis.
Gonzo. Klinsmann's other tactical gambit went better. Everyone was terrified when Omar Gonzalez was announced as a starter, and Gonzo's first 15 minutes bore that out. He whiffed on a cross that easily could have resulted in a goal; he lost a couple German dudes on crosses in the box. (To be fair, it's super easy to lose German attackers.) His distribution out of the back was problematic.
As he came into the game, though, you saw flashes of why he was supposed to be the next big thing at the beginning of the last cycle. One of those Boateng crosses looked like an inch-perfect replica of the Ronaldo cross from the end of the Portugal game, down to the guy running onto the end of it; Gonzalez recovered and challenged so that the resulting header went harmlessly over the bar. It was a little like watching Jake Ryan close on someone with speed he shouldn't have.
In re: not having options from the first bullet. In almost all ways I am very positive on Klinsmann, but this USA roster has a number of obvious flaws that are biting now and will further bite in the event that the US gets to the quarters and one of their D-mids gets a yellow card suspension. There's no target guy to spot Altidore; there's no backup to Beckerman or Jones; the inclusion of Davis and Julian Green leaves the US desperately short on reasonable substitutes in a witheringly hot and humid tournament.
But seriously Klinsmann is A-OK. We got out of the group, and on his watch the US has acquired a number of promising dual-nationals. There are no Neven Subotic escapes on his watch, and the guys he's adding… well, you're college football fans. You know the importance of recruiting. Julian Green is a lottery ticket; Gedion Zelalem is a lottery ticket; you need lots of lottery tickets so you don't end up with a bench as short as the USA's in this tournament.
Meanwhile, I am 100% behind his attempt to revise the youth levels of USA soccer. When the U20s took on Spain they pressed like mofos for about 40 minutes and looked Spain's equal or better before they got torn apart, because Spain. That lets the USA know how far they have to go, but the only way to get on the level of elite teams is to organize your entire system around playing a technical, high-pressing style.
While he's not perfect, his supposed tactical deficiencies are overstated. He's led the US to a ton of landmark victories (beating Italy in Italy, winning in Azteca) and has at least reacted well to the situation when it was clear Beckerman needed to play with Jones. The adjustment to the 4-2-3-1 after Jozy went out was the right move against Portugal, and flipping Johnson to right back was a great move that prevented someone like Brad Evans or Tim Chandler from having to start.
If you say something bad about Beasley I will cut you. Again Beasley is hung out to dry by the narrowness of the USA's formation; in this game Jones was cut loose to shoot upfield so much more than he had been before, so the only guy he had covering for him was Davis and then Zusi. As a result he was exposed to constant two-on-ones on which the best option was to give Boateng space and time to cross. Things got better when Zusi flipped to his side, but he was still isolated quite a bit.
Beasley's not perfect, but why is he the guy constantly left on an island? Right. Because the only thing that happens is some guy gets in a cross from a middlingly dangerous position.
I bet Cameron returns for Belgium. He's more deft with the ball at his feet and in a game the USA is planning to win, having more of the ball will be important. Gonzalez would draw into the lineup if one of the defensive mids gets suspended, I'd imagine, with Cameron moving forward.
Bradley… man. He has improved since Ghana but he has not looked much like the potential breakout star everyone was hoping for. He'll get it together for Belgium. That's the ticket.
Don't read too much into their most recent game against South Korea. For one, Belgium was playing a bunch of subs with advancement assured. (The guy who got red-carded had about a 2% chance to see the field against the USA.) For two, South Korea has been a shambolic mess the whole way. They got blitzed 4-0 by Ghana before the tournament and only got a point in the World Cup because Russia's goalie decided to give 'em one.
In their other two games, Belgium left it late, scoring only with substitutes and only after the 70th minute. They dominated the Algeria game but could not provide much threat until one of Belgium's Bob Ross guys came on (Marouane Fellaini); the Russia game was dead even almost the whole way. Chelsea star Eden Hazard was anonymous until the final 15 minutes, when a tired Russia started allowing him space; he got to the most dangerous crossing area (inside the box on the endline) and set up a teammate for the winner.
Belgium is a lot like Germany. They play four center-backs due to a lack of quality full-backs; their offensive players are very talented and interchange frequently. Belgium is a bit more structured, and their Klose I-head-the-ball figure—Fellaini—is actually a midfielder(!).
The good news: the US has been pretty successful at cramming the middle of the field and forcing things to go around the outside, which Belgium isn't much suited for. The bad news: they flipped to a straight 4-4-2 with Fellaini and strapping 19-year-old Divock Origi up top when trailing late against a packed-in Algeria side and immediately pounded in goals from crosses to win.
Belgium is not Germany's match for the high pressing that stifled the USA in two of their three group matches. They've got a couple of winger types not particularly inclined to harass defenders. Unfortunately they've just provided their starting 11 plenty of rest and with the USA's ability to play it out of the back an obvious weakness they're likely to give it a shot.
HELLO THERE WILL BE LITTLE CONTENT TODAY BECAUSE OF TERROR SO MUCH TERROR
BUT HERE YOU GO
And you can't have one without the other…
GROUP OF DEAD AMIRITE
|WHAT||USA vs Germany|
It's simple for the US: tie or possibly go home. Things get complicated if they're losing. So let's not do that.
THE THEM: DIE MANNSCHAFT SOUNDS LIKE A JOKE BUT IS ACTUALLY WHAT THEY'RE CALLED AND WHY NOT
From 1,000 feet, the German national team is the US national team: great goalkeepers, hard-working, tall, disciplined, organized, relentless, not given over to the kind of petulance that affects quite a lot of people after they've been running around for 70 minutes and think they might collapse at any moment.
The problem comes when you zoom in, and all the American stuff about German holds true and then they happen to be smarter, faster in spots, and just generally better. The hypothetical endpoint of USA soccer is Germany. Teams like Italy and Holland occasionally crash out in the group stage. Germany never does. Michael Ballack summed it up best when the final bit of the Group Of Death fell into place during the World Cup draw: as America panicked and set its pets on fire, Ballack monosyllabically droned "we. don't. care."
They don't care because they'll win anyway. Imagine Michigan, 1989. That's Germany.
GOALIE: Manuel Neuer is generally regarded as the best in the world right now. He's done nothing to give anyone a different impression so far.
more like Per Mertesoccer amirite
DEFENSE: The usual collection of giant robots direct from that Pixar-y Nike commercial. Central defenders Per Mertesacker and Mats Hummels are 6'6" and 6'4", respectively, and while Mertesacker can be exposed by speed somewhat, Hummels is usually able to compensate. They're in the running for the best pairing in the tournament.
The problem, such as it is, comes on the outside. Phillip Lahm has been drafted as a defensive midfielder, leaving Germany a collection of outside backs who are generally deployed on the interior at their clubs. This was a major issue in Germany's 2-2 draw with Ghana, as Christian Atsu was able to fire in shots and crosses considerably more dangerous than the ones he got off against DaMarcus Beasley; Andre Ayew was able to score on a back-post header and Ghana fired in a ton of crosses.
Ghana chances largely came from the German left
The left back, Benedikt Howedes, is a right-footed central defender by trade. The right back, whether it's Jerome Boateng or Shkodran Mustafi, is a slightly less awkward fit since they're on their natural foot. But only slightly; both are central defenders at club level. As a result the German outside backs rarely venture beyond the edge of the final third.
Howedes, Boateng, and Mustafi against Portugal (left) and Ghana (right)
That Portugal chart is pretty remarkable what with Portugal's wingers so uninterested defensively and the team playing narrowly after the Pepe red card.
As a unit, these guys are large, organized, and reasonably fast enough. Outside back, though, is a place where the US does seem to have an advantage.
MIDFIELD: Lahm, Sami Khedira, and Toni Kroos are the backbone of the entire side, and will give the USA problems. The US has a couple of guys who are a physical match for the burly Khedira, and Beckerman may be the tactical equivalent of the heady Lahm, but really it comes down to Bradley being Bradley and not the off-brand version we've seen so far.
That's because Kroos is Bradley minus doubts. Jonathan Wilson:
Kroos is dynamic and hardworking. He can play at the back of midfield or at the front, in the centre or on the flank. He could almost certainly play as a box-to-box midfielder in a 4-4-2 if he ever were asked to do something so archaic. He is creative without being flash, breaks up play without being violent. He is physically robust without being a monster and astute in possession without over-reaching. He has an understated efficiency that means he probably isn't appreciated as much as he ought to be.
Wilson does seem to think more of Kroos than many people. Not a ton more—dude is a starter on Germany, after all.
Meanwhile, if Kroos is German Bradley, Khedira is German Beckerman:
Khedira is in many ways Löw's key player. In a team characterised by outstanding attacking prowess he holds the defensive midfield together and is very much a player out of the "coach's favourite" mould: a good reader of the game, disciplined and perfect at implementing his respective manager's instructions. No wonder, then, that his coaches at Real Madrid, José Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti, also value Khedira's style of play. In the midst of a host of artists he plays the unpretentious conductor and with the German national side not having a Pirlo or a Xavi, it needs at least a Khedira.
Because he's German Beckerman he's like Beckerman except a super elite athlete.
Lahm is a fixture with Germany and Bayern Munich, generally at outside back. Last year he was moved to defensive mid by his club, though, and he has taken up the same position for Germany. He had issues against Ghana's high press—he was involved in the sloppy German build-up to the Ghana pirate schooner of a goal. That was an aberration for Lahm's career and recent form.
FORWARD: You can look at a tactical thing that says Mehmet Ozil is here and Muller is here and on average they'll be right-ish, but everyone goes everywhere. Ozil in particular roams across the width of the field just in front of the opposition defense, offering outlets to any German who happens to have the ball and playing in guys from anywhere.
Ozil vs Ghana
He has virtually no defensive responsibility.
Mario Gotze is a very similar player, a natural #10 who roams around looking for the ball. With Ozil on the field he functions a bit like a winger and a bit like a withdrawn striker. Thomas Muller is the most striker-y of Germany's dedicated attackers, at least in this tournament. Normally one of the three attacking mids in a 4-2-3-1, an injury has forced him into the striker spot. He relies on intelligent movement more than raw power to get his goals; all three attacking players interchange constantly.
The overall effect is odd. None of Germany's attackers are physically overwhelming or even particularly deft on the ball—no Messis or Ronaldos here—but because of collective understanding and anticipation they rain in goals.
If Germany's chasing the game, ancient Miroslav Klose will likely enter. Klose is a combo target forward/poacher who just tied the all-time World Cup scoring record; he's done so without scoring a goal from outside the box.
ALTERNATIVES: Germany has many of them.
Without Altidore, the US switched to the 4-2-3-1 they'd gone with through most of qualifying. Dempsey was the lone forward with Bradley the attacking mid; Beckerman and Jones were D-mids behind. I felt some foreboding about it and not entirely without reason, as neither Zusi or Bedoya had much impact on the game until Zusi's cross off a scramble gave the US their second.
But situations being what they are, it makes sense to reprise that formation. Jozy is still out and the US get through with a draw. Given the roster, the question is who replaces Jozy: Zusi/Bedoya or Johannsson/Wondolowski? The answer against a 4-3-3 was a midfielder; the answer against what's pretty much a 4-3-3 is likely to be a midfielder.
DEFENSE: Beasley, Besler, Cameron, Johnson.
Any thought that the US should switch things up because Cameron had a bad couple plays needs to compete with the fact that apparently it would be Omar Gonzalez replacing him. Even if Gonzalez was supposed to be playing some sort of defensive mid spot late against Portugal, he has been shaky for the US in his last half-dozen appearances.
On a down to down basis, Cameron offers more. He has not provided many moments of worry except the terribly bad one to Nani—I buy Jesse Marsch's explanation of the Portugal equalizer that spreads blame throughout a bunch of players*. Focus on the consistency instead of the accidental severity of mistakes and Cameron is obvious.
As discussed in the Germany D section, this is a spot where the US should have a tactical advantage. Johnson can bomb forward without worrying that his opposite number will catch him on the break. As long as the US has cover, and with Cameron and Beckerman they do, the outside backs should be the freest guys on the field.
*[Marsch points out that Varela is Fabian Johnson's mark and that Cameron has two guys slowing up at the edge of the box in front of him that he is looking at. By the time Cameron sees the cross he's got little chance of getting to it, because it is perfect.]
MIDFIELD: Beckerman, Jones, Bedoya, Bradley, Diskerud
The three defensive-ish mids are locks. Bedoya is highly probable.
Then the fourth guy is in question. Zusi had a bad game outside the assist, constantly losing possession thanks to a wooden first touch. Davis is probably not in the cards since crossing won't be at a premium against Germany and Davis was absolutely miserable defensively against Turkey. The US will want guys who at least try.
Diskerud is a strong possibility. He is the most possession-y option in game in which the US would like to grab the ball and thunk it around quite a bit. The Germany wings are threatening, but not quite in the same way that Ronaldo and Nani are; the German fullbacks do not provide a whole lot of threat. A centrally-oriented possession midfielder makes sense given the situation and opponent. Diskerud is that, and he's fresh. Also his hair is amazing.
Dempsey did a credible imitation of a target forward against a couple of burly but not particularly agile center backs and he's got a version of that again in this game. Hummels in particular is a step above anything Portugal has to offer, but given the situation it makes sense to play things conservatively and add attacking verve if the situation demands it.
SUBS: If the US needs a goal, lifting Zusi or Bedoya for Wondolowski or Johannsson, makes sense, possibly both if you want to drop Dempsey into an attacking midfield role. If the US is shepherding a win or draw to the finish line, Yedlin should reprise his speed merchant role from the Portugal game.
Ravshan Irmatov is from Uzbekistan, but he's not one of the randoms from tiny countries included to disallow Maurice Edu goals. He's a veteran of many high-profile matches with few complaints lodged against him. He did the 2010 World Cup opener and a semifinal.
The most controversial thing on his profile was an incident where he whistled for a penalty kick the moment before a goal was scored and decided to allow the goal.
KEYS OTHER THAN SCORING MORE GOALPOINTS
is a tired Jones even possible?
Fitness will be tested. I'm not entirely sure I buy the game-after-Manaus-is-doom meme being tossed around. Yeah, England lost to Uruguay and Italy lost to Costa Rica, but after the crapfest they put up in their final matches it's possible those teams just suck. And a look deeper than the score indicates that most teams coming off a game in the jungle weren't exactly overrun:
- England vs Uruguay: England outshoots 12-8, has 63% possession, almost scores about five goals, gives up derf derf goal to Suarez to lose.
- Italy vs Costa Rica: Shots tied, Italy with 61% possession and about 200 extra passes.
- Croatia vs Mexico: 11-10 shot edge for Mexico, Croatia with 55% of possession.
Cameroon—possibly the worst team in the competition—was always going to get ripped by Brazil. So there's only one game in which the Manaus effect really looks like much of anything. That's Mexico-Croatia. Is that a Manaus effect or just the obvious effect of putting a bunch of Mexican dudes up against people who think 75 is time to flip on the AC?
That said, the US has had their defensive midfielders run their ass off for full 90s and has one fewer day of rest. If they're pressing for a goal, things are going to get seriously stretched.
Touchline crosses and "underlapping" runs. The aerial doom provided by the German defensive Luftwaffe makes trying to head in goals a difficult proposition. Setting up against a set defense and trying to put it on Dempsey's head is a wasted possession.
Despite this, the US has a couple of speedy outside backs that can and should have an impact. This can come either by beating the slower German outside backs to the endline, where crosses can be fired in low and hard, or diving inside when the USA's wingers provide them room by stretching Germany horizontally. See: Yedlin versus Portugal, Johnson versus Turkey, etc.
Low tempo, high possession. With fitness a concern and a draw good enough, the US should be content to dawdle on the ball if not presented with a clear chance to break. This may not be a wink-wink draw but neither is it going to be a wide-open attacking goal fest.
It'll be interesting to see how much pressing either team does. Germany certainly has the ability to do so, but they're also vulnerable, what with a number of defensively-oriented guys in awkward positions. Sulley Muntari's tackle in Germany's defensive third led to a trademark goal from Gyan.
An eye on the other game. Depending on how the other game goes, the US may not need to react if they go down a goal. If Portugal is leading the other game they can take a 1-0 defeat and get through. If Portugal-Ghana is 0-0 in the 80th they're feeling pretty good.
But Ghana already in the lead against the Portuguese or even 1-1 would mean the US would have to go all out for a goal even if that left them exposed to counterattacks from Germany. The best way to avoid all this is to not go down, of course. But… yeah.
A lot of people are predicting that Portugal falls over and dies. That is a possibility. But Ronaldo is highly concerned with his legacy and has zero goals in this World Cup as Neymar and Messi pound 'em in. He's going up against a shaky, disorganized backline. Pepe should return with an eye on redemption, as well. They'll at least give their all for 45; hope for an early Portugal goal and then they'll be energized to hang on.
TIE THE GAME. #tiethegame
SECTION WHERE I PREDICT THE SAME THING KENPOM DOES