it's a major award
9/6/2014 – Michigan 0, Notre Dame 31 – 1-1
I set a new record for earliest departure from a Michigan game Saturday: 10 minutes and change, besting the 2007 Oregon game that I left with about six minutes left. And I feel… okay, I guess.
Ace and I did the podcast Sunday and it's actually kind of good. This is a far cry from previous podcasts in the aftermath of doom. The Alabama one was barely worth recording, and we knew it at the time. This one runs down the suck but there's a jaunty air and no one seems like they're taking the bar exam after a 72-hour bender.
We are used to it. And hey, man, Michigan outgained Notre Dame. I know we lost 31-0 but that was nowhere near as emasculating as that aforementioned Oregon game or the 2008 Ohio State game in which Brandon Minor was the only Michigan player who looked like he was in college instead of high school or last year's Michigan State game in which Michigan acquired –48 rushing yards. Or maybe it was but we can't tell because our football testicles have been ground away by the sandpaper of the last seven years and all we feel is increasing smoothness.
Oh man. This feels really smooth.
I can't even remember why I didn't want this bit between my legs to be so flat you could try to set a land speed record over it.
I don't know, man. You only have one thing to base predictions of the future on: the past. And the past suggested that Blake Countess was a pretty good cornerback who couldn't cope with Tyler Lockett. It didn't look like that on Saturday night. It looked like Tony Gibson was in town again.
Notre Dame built its unassailable lead on a series of man press-type coverages on which ND would break to the inside unmolested without a Michigan cornerback even there to tackle on the catch. That is a recipe for disaster. With Raymon Taylor knocked out and Channing Stribling burned just like Countess was on his first play, Michigan had no choice but to throw Countess out there again. He promptly ended up yards away from Will Fuller on the fade all the inside stuff had set Michigan up for.
Countess had six interceptions as part of a pretty good pass defense a year ago and while that was a passive zone thing you kind of figure that guys capable of doing that will be capable at man coverage.
That was emphatically disproven on Saturday, throwing the entire offseason into question. The deck chair shuffling of defensive coaches touted as the path forward now looks ludicrous.
- you're going to give your defense an extreme makeover based on pressure and man-to-man coverage and
- you rearrange your coaching staff so that your new cornerbacks coach is a guy who has never played or coached the position before and
- then your corners are a complete fiasco in their first real test, then
people are going to think that's a bad idea man.
By all accounts Roy Manning is a terrific recruiter and enthusiastic, dedicated coach. He's just not a secondary coach. That kind of random insertion at position X is something lower-level (like, DII) schools do because of limited resources. Michigan found itself in that position because…
I don't actually know. That was not a rhetorical pause.
Best as I can figure, Hoke loathes firing anyone. For most of last year it was expected that Borges would return because those were the vibes the program was emanating, and the about-face there still has conspiracy theorists asserting that Brandon made him make the switch. Approximately 80% of emails to me this offseason were some variant of FIRE DARRELL FUNK FERGODSAKES, and it's hard to imagine many programs sticking with the offensive line coach after that.
Meanwhile Hoke's standoffishness with everyone outside the program is increasing daily. Everyone inside the velvet rope is golden. Everyone on the outside is garbage. The bunker mentality is suddenly warranted, at least.
Getting blown out 31-0 by Notre Dame is a gamechanging event. You can feel it in the nonsense decisions Hoke made in the second half. Michigan played turtle ball that saw Michigan run 35 seconds off the clock between snaps in the middle of the third quarter; they left Funchess and Gardner in the game deep into the fourth quarter. Let's look like we're trying without actually doing so. Make it look good for the boss.
Gardner ended up taking a lethal cheap shot on the final snap, and no one in a winged helmet seemed to notice or care. That was eerily reminiscent of the hockey team a couple years ago when Mac Bennett was the recipient of a dirty hit at the end of a 5-1 blowout at the hands of lowly BGSU. No one responded, and it was obvious they were cooked.
Hoke talks about toughness constantly, but when asked to defend their quarterback they walked away, to a man. Maybe that's Taylor Lewan's fault too.
This program has a real knack for blaming the people who aren't around anymore for its current failings. Let's detail those real quick: Michigan is 3-7 in their last ten games with wins over Indiana, Northwestern in three overtimes, and Appalachian State. Brady Hoke was 16-4 with Denard Robinson as his starting quarterback and is 11-9 since, excluding the Nebraska game he went out of. Michigan has one road win over a team with a winning record, that over 7-6 Illinois in 2011. The trajectory is not good.
This is a breaking point. Either Michigan comes to Jesus, or they break. It was at this moment that Michigan hockey turned to Andrew Copp, a freshman, because it was clear no one else had any of that leadership stuff, and charged towards respectability. They ended up short, but it was better than that BGSU game in which they couldn't muster a third-period shot until 15 minutes in.
There's time yet to salvage something, Lloyd Carr-style, but little reason to believe such a thing is possible. One thing's certain: we are running out of people to blame other than the ones in charge.
From the ND perspective, not that there's any other possible:
Brady Hoke Epic Double Points Of The Week. Devin Funchess (#1) was real good at catching the ball, especially that one time they targeted him downfield at the end of the third quarter.
#2 Willie Henry was a key component of a run defense that held Notre Dame to 72 yards, sacks and whatnot excluded.
#3 Ryan Glasgow was also a key component of that run D.
Epic Double Point Standings.
6: Devin Funchess (#1, APP, #1 ND)
2: Devin Gardner (#2, APP), Willie Henry (#2 ND)
1: Ryan Glasgow (#3, ND)
0.5: Kyle Kalis (T3, APP), Ben Braden (T3, APP)
Brady Hoke Epic Double Fist-Pump Of The Week.
For the single individual best moment.
Honorable mention: Nothing.
Epic Double Fist-Pumps Past.
AppSt: Derrick Green rumbles for 60 yards.
MARCUS HALL EPIC DOUBLE BIRD OF THE WEEK. Other than everything it has to be the fourth-and-three conversion on which Countess was nowhere to be found. That led to an ND touchdown that opened the margin to two touchdowns.
Honorable mention: Matt Wile misses two field goals to end longish drives and put Michigan in a hole. Gardner has Chesson wide open 20 yards downfield in front of his face, holds the ball, and gets annihilated, fumbling. Countess torched on a fade.
AppSt: Devin Gardner dares to throw an incomplete pass.
ND: Countess nowhere to be found on fourth and three.
[After the JUMP: things. probably!]
8/30/2014 – Michigan 52, Appalachian State 14 – 1-0
NOBODY TOLD US WE WERE SUPPOSED TO GO THAT WAY LAST YEAR [Fuller]
I watched a lot of football on Saturday. I did not watch Magnolia because my then-girlfriend and current wife thought that her coping mechanism for sadness, which is apparently suffusing yourself in it until your fingers look like you've been in a pool of despair for hours, was applicable to humans. I mean:
That's what I did seven years ago. I had to turn it off because Magnolia is a movie that is unrelentingly miserable. I did not need additional resources in this department at that time.
I didn't turn anything off on Saturday. I watched twelve hours of football after getting back from Michigan Stadium. The only mention of Michigan's game before insomniac time was one dismissive sentence from Rece Davis, something about how there will not be "another seminal college football moment" this weekend. They didn't even take the opportunity to put gratuitous Funchess on the screen.
The only difference between this game and Michigan's opening-weekend romp over CMU last year: a nation's hope Michigan would blow it again. Once it became clear this would not be the case, a nation forgot the game happened before it had even ended. This was the best possible outcome.
So 1) hooray for the best possible outcome and 2) don't let that change your opinion about whether this was the dumbest scheduling decision in the history of scheduling decisions. The nation knew this about Michigan before Saturday: lol Appalachian State. This is what they know today: lol Appalachian State. On College Football Final their brief treatment of the game gave more time to 2007 than 2013. We are experiencing the maximum possible upside from this game, which is everyone immediately forgetting about it like Michigan was thumping a MAC opponent.
And thank God for that. Michigan eased out to a 21 point lead, and then it was suddenly 42, and at no point did Appalachian State look anything like a secret powerhouse; at no point did Michigan look so utterly clueless that they might blow their immense physical advantages. At no point did I wish I had a cyanide capsule handy.
The one thing worth noting here is that Michigan does seem prepared to deal with the football reality of 2014. Greg Mattison's defense played in the face of the opposition all game long, featuring nickel and dime packages frequently. They shot a safety into the box on most plays. They've got the personnel they need to deal with the spread. Possibly two at once.
Contrast this to 2007, when Johnny Sears started at cornerback in the Horror, with a patently unprepared Stevie Brown at safety. The linebackers available outside of Shawn Crable were Obi Ezeh, Chris Graham, and John Thompson. Michigan spent the entire day with two safeties twelve yards deep like they were playing Peyton Manning, and were surprised when the numbers didn't work out. Their linebackers were two-down thumpers for whom space is a cold vacuum in which death awaits. They barely had one cornerback, let alone a chorus line of them.
A big chunk of my spread zealotry has been the fact that Michigan has made it look unstoppable from the drop. They validated the entire idea against Northwestern and set their program on fire in the Horror and the Post-Apocalyptic Oregon game that followed. Put a running quarterback in front of them and they will die explosively. It's happened far too often the last 15 years for it to be a coincidence.
My primary worry about Brady Hoke is that he's stuck on a vision of 1990s Michigan in a world that's evolved past that. There was no sign of that Saturday. The defense's radical makeover paired with what was not the cram-the-box cro-magnon ball it certainly could have been against this opponent felt a tiny bit like John Beilein overhauling his program to be a man-defense, ball-screen offense juggernaut.
I'm not looking for a juggernaut this year. This is the punch-the-cow-for-butter year in which any yellow semi-solid will do. I proclaim this semi-solid yellow, and thank God for that.
Now let us immediately forget this game ever happened, like everyone else.
Parkinggod's usual Michigan-centric one:
And if ten minutes isn't enough here are 20:
Also a guy noticed an eerie parallel between Blake Countess's LOS stick and one from Charles Woodson:
Brady Hoke Epic Double Points Of The Week. Yes, points. We're moving this to a hockey-like three stars system.
Michigan racked up 350 first half yards while holding App St to 60 en route to a 35-0 first half lead, so there are many, many candidates. It says here that Devin Funchess gets #1, because good Lord that is an unstoppable freak show.
#2 is Devin Gardner, who was on point with every throw except one, flashed that athletic ability, and stepped up (up!) in the pocket when suffering edge pressure
#3 is split between Kyle Kalis and Ben Braden. Michigan started gashing App St when Kalis replaced Joey Burzynski, with big runs repeatedly coming over the right side of the line.
Honorable mention: Basically the entire defense. There were no particular standouts, though.
Epic Double Point Standings.
3: Devin Funchess (#1, APP)
2: Devin Gardner (#2, APP)
0.5: Kyle Kalis (T3, APP), Ben Braden (T3, APP)
Brady Hoke Epic Double Fist-Pump Of The Week.
For the single individual best moment.
Michigan had gotten a couple of solid 10-20 yard runs from Smith and Green already when Green took the snap on an outside zone and shot downfield untouched by man or beast until 60 yards had elapsed. Runs. We may have them.
Honorable mention: They threw a screen to Norfleet! Any of the variously unstoppable Funchess touchdowns. Hellacious Stiffarm wins by a nose over LOL I'm Tall. Tacosack, hopefully the awesome thumping cousin of Tacopants.
Epic Double Fist-Pumps Past.
AppSt: Derrick Green rumbles for 60 yards.
MARCUS HALL EPIC DOUBLE BIRD OF THE WEEK. That one time Devin Gardner threw way behind a blitheringly open Devin Funchess to prevent him from going 14/14.
Honorable mention: That one drive where the Mountaineers drove the ball on the ground against the second team.
AppSt: Devin Gardner dares to throw an incomplete pass.
[After the JUMP: Funchess! Holes! Teddy KGB!]
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.
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.
6/22/2014 – USA 2, Portugal 2 – 1-0-1, Group G
I had an internship in Austin when I was in college, and fell in with some guys who played roller hockey in the parking lot. We were a motley crew; I was near but not quite at the bottom in terms of skill. This is always my critical point: I have to be obviously not the worst guy. I was at least fourth from the bottom here, which marks my personal athletic best.
We would take breaks because it was summer in Texas. During those breaks we would discuss how close we were to dying at that very moment, because we were engineers playing roller hockey in summer in Texas. But there was this guy. He had a ponytail and did not look like an engineer. He was not skilled either. When we took our breaks to pound water in our faces and discuss how narrowly we had avoided catastrophic death, this guy would be flying around the parking lot at top speed. He did nothing except take laps.
We looked at him like he was out of his mind. He kept skating. Endurance is rarely spectacular, but when it is, it really is.
Jermaine Jones probably doesn't know what hockey is, let alone the variety that comes on fake ice skates. He is nonetheless that guy, running and running and running even after he should fall over and expire. This has always been more or less true, but now that he's been well and truly released by the presence of Beckerman, he is something to marvel at. He's probably taking laps at halftime.
And then this gets into what it is to America. I read one of the pile of articles about how Klinsmann was or was not making American soccer more or less American and got irritated at various assertions but particularly this one…
"Largely due to an influx of continental players, the U.S. team has options now and is reaching beyond its previous identity, the way a toddler goes from a crawl to a walk. "
…because it just couldn't be more incorrect. The Influx Of Continental Players is basically Fabian Johnson and Jermaine Jones and the occasional substitute appearance, hardly unusual world-wide. Spain (Spain!) started a recently naturalized Brazilian striker. The US lost Giuseppe Rossi and Neven Subotic to Italy and Serbia, respectively. Meanwhile, the United States has long been on the lookout for anyone technically American, no matter how vague the connection. Having the son of a soldier stationed overseas on the team dates back to at least Earnie Stewart. The teams that won't poach a dubiously authentic Insert Nationality Here if given the opportunity start and end with Brazil.
But anyway I bristled at this assertion that the USA's surging fortunes were due to some unprecedented wave of educated foreigners to the point that I left a snotty comment, which was this:
There are all of two dual-nationals who are projected to start, and one of them is the most stereotypically American player in the 11: Jermaine Jones, a physical and endurance marvel who's about as creative as a brick.
And he is! You could not carve a more American defensive midfielder out of apple pie. He may as well be running around the field in a stovepipe hat, all industry and impossible running 80 minutes into a game played in a convection oven.
It's not often that you can see a guy playing sports and go "whoah" just because he's running in a straight line faster than the other guys around him. Those moments are usually reserved for the Denard Robinsons and Usain Bolts of the world. Even next to the indefatigable Bradley, though, Jones makes you marvel. When US shirts had descended into sheer, soaked clingfilm, Jones was still roaring around.
The US got their grip on the game, and this time it was Portugal dropping out exhausted as the US kept coming on. I said after the Ghana game that I had seen this before, and it does remain a real thing about this team: they will never stop coming.
Then friggin' Ronaldo had to go and do his Ronaldo thing—actually his un-Ronaldo thing—to spoil the party. If you had given me any odds that Ronaldo was going to doodle around and then fire in a shot from a bad angle that was still scary I would have taken it. Ronaldo doesn't cross. Are we rubbing off on people? I certainly hope not.
After it was over I collapsed on a stool, wrung out. I had not been there, but my legs, stomach, and assorted other vaguely aching bits would disagree with this assertion. Jones had fired in a piledriver of a goal that felt like it was coming as he and Bradley took turns calibrating their rifles in the first half; I had done a series of involuntary squats at chances squandered on both sides.
Thirty seconds from freedom; instead another lap. Okay. We have legs yet.
It happens. Stray into a comments section today and you'll get some dude screaming about how Bradley should be deported for overall suck, and I'm just like… no. Bradley managed to put a ball from two yards on to a defender's knee, sure. Here is The Best Player In The World afforded a chance from not quite the same range but not much further:
juuuuuust a bit outside
The number one rule of soccer is that it is hard and you mostly look dumb trying to do it.
The late turnover is also a thing that happens; Bradley had a poor first touch, then set up to wall off the Portugal player who was trying to get the ball off him. he found misfortune when that guy happened to be Eder, who is about 30 pounds heavier than anyone else on the field and made a play that was seemingly way out of his wheelhouse by deftly stripping the ball without fouling.
It still took three subsequent major errors and a perfect cross for anything to come of it.
If the above still had been the goal instead of the sad thing that transpired in the 95th minute people would be bitching about Dempsey and Beckerman, who conspired to turn it over and create a break. When you complain about something that happened after six more touches, none of which had anything to do with the initial turnover, you are just venting irrationally.
Bradley was much, much better in this game than against Ghana, opening up the Portugal defense with accurately placed balls down the wing and harrassing Moutino into a performance that lacked impact. A turnover well on the Portugal side of the field is just that: a turnover. Which happens.
The real question. What is even the point of Omar Gonzalez? Specifically brought in to deal with crosses late, Gonzalez ends up higher up the field than four other American players on the fatal break.
Gonzalez dead center, higher than Jones
If he is even with Besler in the center of a three-man back line he cuts that cross out well before it gets anywhere near Varela and everyone goes home happy. Instead he's somehow gotten dragged into the midfield. When Bradley loses the ball he is literally at the halfway stripe!
I don't get it. It makes sense to bring the guy in to clog up the box with about three minutes left. So why isn't he doing it?
Tactical shift, quicktime. The official lineup released by the US had Zusi on the left and Bedoya on the right, presumably because Bedoya's higher work rate and defensive ability would come in handy against Ronaldo. The fifth minute goal seemed to change that:
Bedoya left, Zusi right, after 5 minutes. Before that they were flipped.
After the US went down Zusi moved over to a spot where his right foot was better situated to have an impact. Note Zusi's tendency to stay tucked in so Fabian Johnson could bomb down the right, exploiting the space that Ronaldo refuses to track back on. For 94 minutes he was a liability.
Zusi then flipped back to the left when Yedlin came on, which is where the assist on Dempsey's goal came from, a sweetly hit short cross from his left foot.
Immense. Matt Besler just turned in one of the finest performances I've seen from a US center back in… ever? Possibly ever. Oguchi Onyewu has to get a mention here for battering out approximately a mole of crosses from Spain in the Confed Cup (oh man now I just thought about having Gooch in this game instead of Gonzalez and now sadness reins).
Other than that, Besler's high up there. Besler's positioning and instincts were impeccable here. The high point was probably the break he snuffed out at midfield just as everyone was getting their Ronaldo panic on. He was near flawless.
Immensely variable. Cameron, Besler's partner, had a major hand in shutting down Ronaldo all night. He also scuffed a clearance right to Nani for the opener and got beaten in the last minute. I don't know, man. Obviously both those things are very bad. But outside of those very bad things Cameron has been consistently good for the US, anywhere you put him. I think he'll put an admittedly game-wrecking performance behind him.
I mean, there's a poor clearance and there's a poor clearance that happens to be the absolute perfect ball to Nani. As with Bradley, I'm trying to chalk up Cameron's error on what it was instead of the result.
Are you five-foot-eight and fast as a guy with flaming pants? If so, stop playing basketball. Stop playing football unless you are Dennis Norfleet. You aren't making it big in either of those sports. Best-case scenario, the one in 300 million scenario, is that you are a role-playing freak show for a few years. It's not bad if you can get it, but you probably can't.
Soccer, though: DaMarcus Beasley is 5'8". DeAndre Yedlin is 5'8". All those terrifying buggers like Christian Atsu and various other Ghana midges are 5'8". Brazil brings on a 5'5" guy(!).If you can run all day and change directions quickly but tend to disintegrate on contact because you are a wee thing, get thee to the soccer field. For America.
The US wins the group with a win over Germany and finishes second with a tie. The prospect of a wink-wink draw with the Germans is there, as it would guarantee both teams advance and Germany would avoid (presumably) Belgium in the first knockout round. At the very least expect both teams to play defensively.
If the US loses things get into goal differential with the winner of the Ghana-Portugal game. Portugal would have to make up their 4-0 loss in the opener; Ghana just has to make up a one-goal loss. The US is out if they lose 1-0 and:
- Ghana wins by two goals, or
- Ghana wins by one in a goal blizzard (3-2 at least)
- Portugal wins by five
So root for Portugal in the other game. Barring unlikely outcomes, the US enters the final match with a two-and-a-half goal cushion on Ghana and a five-and-a-half goal cushion on Portugal.
That's still a pretty good situation.
The Germans are close to healthy. Right back Jerome Boateng was lifted at halftime of the Ghana game with a hip injury of some variety and may or may not be available. Thomas Muller took a nasty collision right at the end of the Ghana game but is not seriously damaged and should be fine for Thursday. Everyone else is good to go.
After a German walkover of Portugal, they struggled against Ghana. The 2-2 draw was closer to a Ghana win than vice-versa as the Germany D struggled to keep pace with Ghana on counters. Germany's outside backs were particularly poor at both ends, and not unexpectedly: both the starting right back, Benedikt Howedes, and Boateng's replacement, Shkodran Mustafi, are center backs at club level. Boateng is a bit more versatile but is still primarily a center back. (Germany's using Phillip Lahm as a holding midfielder for some reason—really makes you wonder if Germany would have both Jones and Johnson on their roster if they had not switched to the US.)
It's the offense bit that's worrying. Germany has about a half-dozen world-class attackers, and even though one's out with a pre-World Cup injury they've still got a pile of dudes more talented than anyone the USA's got.
Knowing they only need a draw, The US is likely to reprise their 4-2-3-1 from the Germany game in an attempt to keep possession for long stretches and remain compact at the back.
6/16/2014 – USA 2, Ghana 1 – 1-0-0
HOW MANY EAGLES CAN INTIMIDATE ON THE HEAD OF A PIN
Clint Dempsey had just been kicked in the face, hard. He'd jumped to head a ball; the Ghana defender he'd made infamous 30 seconds into the game decided he'd challenge for it by kicking Dempsey really hard in the face.
It was obvious from the first shot that Dempsey's nose was broken, even more obvious in the post-game press conference. Someone asked him about it. He said he couldn't really breathe through the thing anymore.
At the time, though, Jozy Altidore had already done something bad to his hamstring and there was nothing for Dempsey to do but spit blood, shoot murder from his eyes, and carry on.
It turns out yesterday's post was unnecessary. All questions about how American USA soccer is under Klinsmann have been resolved in 90 minutes. The verdict: even when the guys still running when normal folk would be in a heap and pounding in the set piece goal are pretty much German, they are so, so American.
Anyone who's followed the US national team for a while can point to a game like that, a frustrating exercise in soaking pressure and trying to pop up on the counter. The US has a knack for bleeding profusely and winning games they have no business doing so via sheer doggedness. This game shoots to the top of that list, the blood and dogs list.
It'll take some doing to top it. They lost their main relief valve to injury 20 minutes in and were forced into a halftime substitution when Matt Besler tweaked his hamstring; by 70 minutes it seemed like half the roster was grasping a leg muscle when afforded the opportunity. When Ghana finally broke through ten minutes later, it felt like the floodgates were about to open.
Instead the US grinds out a corner by running real hard. I mean… if we are trying to move away from the cliché that national teams are avatars for their countries, trying to move away from the faintly ridiculous notion that a country that grows Michael Phelps in a lab is a plucky underdog… if we are attempting to have a straight-faced tactical conversation amongst serious people… I mean, you just can't. I can't.
I'm dying and Fabian Johnson manages to grit up a corner by being annoyingly effortful like he's the right back version of David Eckstein, and it doesn't matter that Fabian Johnson is pretty much German. I have been here before. I have seen this corner before in this game before; I know we've got some tall guys in there and even the guys who aren't tall, like Carlos Bocanegra, have a tendency to fling their head at the ball even if it's at a level where you could reasonably get kicked in the head.
I have been here before. I muster up every last bit of focus and try not to forget to stand. I have seen this on brutal Central American fields where batteries are flung out of the stands. Zusi stands over the ball. Zusi scored to tie Panama in stoppage time when doing anything but would have put Mexico out of the World Cup. They won that game a minute later, because what the hell, why not.
This is a thing they do. Frankie Hedjuk against El Salvador. Donovan against Algeria. The US played a friendly against Italy they won 1-0 because the ball refused to go in for the Italians and the US parlayed their moment into a goal. I have been here; they do this.
I am hoping against hope and remembering not to fall over; Zusi is kicking the ball, which is low enough and high enough and hard and curving into a dangerous area, and I have seen it before.
Must improve. The game got out of whack early because of the shocking goal and the Altidore injury, plus whatever the US screwed up to have big chunks of the team doing terrible things to their muscles. But they've got to do better in possession if the Ghana game is going to mean anything. Bradley in particular had a game far below his usual standard, tossing balls out of bounds.
When Bradley's off, the verve goes out of the US attack. Verve was almost beside the point here. I would have given a kidney for some extended spells of possession, but balls just kept getting plowed into the sideline. I don't know why. I do know that if they try to soak that much pressure in the next two games they're unlikely to get out of the group.
The goal. The bad one. It was mostly just one of those things that occasionally happen when you're watching the opponent have the ball most of the game; a good pass into the box and an excellent one-time backheel right into the path of a teammate, followed by an equal finish.
I've seen some people criticize Howard for getting beat at the near post. I'm not going to put any of that out Howard. Given the angle—Ayew was close to dead center—and the distance there was little he could do. Ayew's finish was brilliant as well. He hit it with the outside of his left foot, causing the ball to curl away from Howard from an unexpected starting spot.
Zusi should have tracked Ayew. That's the main problem. He's a sub; he should be tracking that run flat-out.
He did make up for it. Zusi's corner that led to the goal was perfect, driven, high enough to get over the guys he needs to get over, low enough for Brooks to get on top of it.
What in the flying hell. Pre-match I was thankful that a Swedish guy was the ref instead of someone from nowheresville who'd never taken on a match of that significance; not so much at halftime. Clint Dempsey's nose was broken by a flying boot applied to his face as he was three feet off the ground, an obvious straight red card for dangerous play. Boye, the same defender Dempsey turned into goo in the first minute, didn't even see yellow.
That in and of itself is unacceptable; then Jermaine Jones is hammered from behind mere minutes later and the guy who did it got an accidental boot to the head. That resulted in the same kind of aggressive physical action that saw Pepe sent off just a few hours before. Again, not even yellow.
Both the tackle and the reaction afterward are easily card-worthy. Ghana should have been down to nine men by halftime.
But hey, at least the US got totally boned by the refereeing in a game they won for a change.
Jones: the man. Tireless and active, Jones was the USA's best player on the night. He wasn't particularly helpful going forward, because he's generally not, but he was everywhere. Besler's first half was also excellent; hopefully he can return.
Obvious Ghana plan is obvious. Ghana spent most of the game isolating Christian Atsu on Beasley. For their troubles they got a bunch of crosses that didn't result in much.
There was that one terrifying Gyan header that Howard had to save despite the fact it was going wide, and then some shots that would have had to been as brilliant as the Gyan chance. Key passes were more balanced, with the Ghana breakthrough coming from the USA's right flank, at Zusi's expense:
please ignore the ones coming from the corners
Beasley coped, and only just. Here are defensive events from the outside backs and outside mids:
Tackles are green; Beasley(#7) had none; he had a pile of clearances and "recoveries," which are events when you get the ball after it's popped loose or someone sends it directly to you. He played off, didn't let Atsu by him, and let the crosses in. It was reminiscent of the Spain Confederations Cup game.
What now? Altidore's World Cup is almost certainly over, leaving the US in a difficult situation. With Eddie Johnson and Terrence Boyd left off the roster, there is nothing approximating a like-for-like substitute. Johannsson's the closest thing and the Ghana game was a good indication he's not much of a target guy at a World Cup level.
The USA's options:
- Use Johannsson like Charlie Davies. IE, have him run onto long balls to the side of the field, hopefully outdistancing the centerback he's matched up against. With Pepe out and Germany relying on the enormous but a bit ponderous Per Mertesacker, this is a viable option.
- Use Dempsey as a target guy. In this situation Dempsey leads the line with Johannsson or Wondolowski playing off of him. I am not enthused about this possibility.
- False nine time. The "false nine" you hear so much about is a striker who isn't really much of a striker. He often comes back into the midfield and then plays balls at gentlemen running past him. Dempsey is a potential fit in that role; he can maintain the ball if it's played into his feet; then Johannsson and Bedoya can be runners past him. That's yet another tactical departure, though.
I'm guessing they go with the first option, but I'm afraid we're about to find out that Jozy does a bunch of things you don't appreciate until he's not out there doing them. Keeping possession better than they did against Ghana is even more critical.
Portugal situation. They've been whittled down by injuries, which momentarily made US fans giddy until Altidore and Besler went out. Pepe is out after taking a red card; left back Fabio Coentrao and striker Hugo Almeida left with injuries that will hold them out of the remainder of the group stage.
Almeida's replacement will (probably) be Eder, a strapping gentleman who plays in the Portuguese league. He is in the Jozy Altidore vein: a physical guy with flashes of brilliance who is maybe a little lacking on the technical side. Almeida wasn't exactly lighting the world on fire, and Eder has made some impact when he's gotten in recently. That dropoff won't be severe.
On the other hand, Coentrao's replacement is a major step down. Coentrao is a fixture at Real Madrid and has excellent chemistry with Ronaldo; he was replaced by Andre Almeida (not that Andre Almeida). The other Almeida plays for Benfica, mostly in the midfield, and only moonlights at outside back. He's only got six caps.
Pepe's replacement is likely to be 33-year-old Ricardo Costa of Valencia. Costa drew into the lineup during Portugal's pre-WC friendlies when Pepe was held out as a precaution. Costa played about half of his club's games as Valencia finished 8th in La Liga. He's no pushover, but neither is he first choice at Real Madrid.
Group situation. The US is in good shape as long as they don't lose to Portugal. Win and they are obviously all but in. A draw is still looking pretty good. If the US and Portugal tie, then the situation based on the result of Ghana-Germany:
- Germany win. Ghana is eliminated; US advances if they either get a point from Germany (who knows they are through) or they lose and Portugal does not make up the goal difference against Ghana. That would require making up five goals.
- Tie. US and Germany enter final game knowing a draw gets both through, and Germany knows they are top of group. Desultory 0-0 draw beckons.
- Ghana win. The US would be at the top of the group but this is the most dangerous situation. Ghana would enter the final game with an opportunity to advance with a win over Portugal, and Germany would have to go all out to beat the US. A US loss then puts them in danger.
So root for the Germans against Ghana.
What if the US loses? Not all is lost but then things are much tougher. A win against Germany would put them through; a tie then puts your fate in the hands of the Ghana-Portugal game.