Friday, July 30, 2010

North Koreans Still Alive

Contrary to what many of you may have been expected, the North Korean team, fresh off their embarrassing World Cup, is home safe and sound.  The team has not been physically punished -- at least not yet -- but they were punished nonetheless.

As this report finds, the Red Mosquitoes were subject to a six-hour session of ridicule and abuse, or as the Guardian says eloquently, an excoriation, from the media, sports students, and the sports minister.  Their failure reflects poorly upon Dear Leader's son and dictator-in-waiting, Kim Jong-un.  They go so far as calling the team's actions a betrayal.  I guess they should be relieved they haven't been sent to any gulags, though rumor has it that coach Kim Jung-hun may be sent to work at a building site.  He may have to watch out for "falling" bricks or anvils or pianos (if they even have them in North Korea).

(By the way, what kind of nickname is Red Mosquitoes??  Hi, we're an annoying, malarial insect... even the USA's "Yanks" -- among the worst nicknames at the Cup -- is better than that.  No wonder you suck -- your efforts at inspiration only bring to mind an easily swatted nuisance.)

Impressive PK Performance

This is what I've come to at the moment, just posting about a penalty shootout by 17 year olds.  But, it's about the only good news for DC United fans this summer (I'm grasping for straws here).  And really, has anyone had a better shootout performance than making five straight stops and scoring the winning kick??  Props to the amazingly named Dakota Niedermeier. The first of his five saves is particularly impressive.  Apparently DC really knows how to turn out goalkeeping prospects.

As a post script -- how bad are some of these penalty takers? I know they're only 17 and this was a pressure situation for them, but shouldn't kids that age who are part of a pro team's youth system be able to take PKs better than that?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

World Cup Withdrawal

Anyone else have the same feeling?  Constantly craving?  Checking sites like ESPN for news only to realize that there's absolutely NOTHING going on right now?

After the month long orgiastic spectacle in South Africa, we have to content ourselves with MLS or news that James Milner wants to move to Man City.  Be still my beating heart.

The European leagues haven't started yet and though some of the top clubs have started their preseason tours, those matches just aren't that exciting this year particularly because stars from the World Cup are taking breaks.

Maybe it wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for the fact that I'm forced to watch not just any MLS soccer, but the worst soccer in MLS.  On top of that, this weekend DC United plays Portsmouth, the worst team in the EPL last season, now playing in the Championship. 

I guess this gives us a different look at gauging where an MLS side compares to an English side, whereas usually you're gauging the MLS team against a good team in its preseason rather than a poor one (literally).

Can DC United put on a respectable performance?  You'd think so.  DC isn't getting blown away, which maybe is what makes them harder and harder to watch.  Not that it's agonizing in a heartbreaking way.  It's that I know the hammer blow is coming after watching DC unable to create anything offensively and miss the chances it does create.  It's only a matter of time before the loss comes, almost pre-determined.  And these are home matches I'm talking about. 

Shouldn't a team with a bright US prospect (Chris Party Boy Pontius), a 17 year old rookie that has the entire league buzzing (Andy Najar), and good/solid veterans (Troy Perkins, Jaime Moreno, Clyde Simms) be better than 3-11-3 in MLS play?

I suppose it could be worse.  I could be watching the games in a dilapidated sinkhole of a stadium... oh wait.  If anything I'm at least taking heart in the fact that the NY Red Bulls are creating the Easiest Team to Hate or Super Evil Friends (take your pick) by first signing the Hand of Gaul and now chasing after the Mexican Red Card Stomp maestro Rafa Marquez. 

I may not have much to root for, but at least I'll have something to root against.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Beautiful Reading on the Beautiful Game

Thanks to my friend for passing on the following links, which I'll gratefully pass on for anyone else to check up on. Here's an article from Slate on why we should root against the Dutch, a Vanity Fair piece by David Winner (he of the fantastic book Brilliant Orange) on the changing Dutch and German rivalry, and a really interesting blog post, a little older, on Barcelona and the Idea of the Beautiful Game.

It's always a pleasure to read good writing, and good writing on football is an even greater pleasure (makes me realize I'm not so good of a writer, at least not when I'm just posting randomly here and don't have much time to really compose something worthwhile).

The Barca piece was particularly interesting but I'd argue it wasn't entirely accurate in describing Madrid as existing solely to win without regard to aesthetics. Clearly Real doesn't try to sustain a moral idealism through their style like Barca, and they truly do exist to win more than anything else. But my friend who is a lifelong die-hard madridista would argue that there is a constant tension between that desire to win and the desire to do so beautifully, and it's a much greater aspect of the Real Madrid psyche than the article wants to give credit. It's the reason Capello was constantly pilloried for his pragmatism and was fired despite winning La Liga, while the madridistas looked longingly upon the previously unsuccessful galactico era simply because they played more adventurous football.

As for the Slate article arguing that we should root against the Dutch, well beside the fact that I'll be rooting for Spain because they attack better, don't have dirty midfielders, and I have Spanish blood, I sort of do think that there's something endearing about the image of the Dutch as the "almost" team, the purveyors of skillful football that can't quite win the big one. A loss by this team, even if they are far removed from the long deceased total football, would keep up the image of the Netherlands as everyone's favorite team that hasn't won the World Cup and would add another layer on top of the already complicated interrelationship between the Dutch philosophies regarding football, the desire to win and win beautifully, and the growing recognition of the benefits of pragmatism and the desire to simply win for all the lost opportunities of the great Dutch teams of yore (thereby also alleviating those past national traumas from the collective psyche).  Not to mention the psychological intrigue that would result from losing to what is probably the closest relative to the total football ethos (as the article correctly notes, this Spanish team's style is largely based on Barca's style, and that style is largely the offspring of it's one-time star and ex-coach, Cryuff).

On an somewhat tangential note, it'd be nice if people would stop overplaying the angle of the Spanish as being historical underachievers.  Yes the Dutch teams underachieved in the past.  But Spain? The reputation of Spanish football is largely built on the reputations of its great domestic clubs, and those clubs built their reputations on foreigners from Puskas and di Stéfano (he's Argentine, let's not consider him Spanish please) to Zidane and Messi.  Sure the Spanish have had good teams in the past that underachieved relatively, but as far as I can remember, and I've never really read otherwise, Spain has never come into a tournament as big favorites.

This version of la furia roja are favorites however and I expect them to keep up that artistic tiki-taka and win one for the lifelong lovers of the beautiful game and newcomers alike.  You know there is something great about them because even the people who don't follow soccer and are just caught up in the spectacle of the World Cup appreciate Spain because they really do manage to create sudden coherence and eloquence out of chaos.

Need further reasons to cheer for Spain.  I give you... paella and sangria v. Gouda and Heineken (does anyone who's not from the Netherlands even know a Dutch dish?).  The defense rests.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Oranje v. La Furia Roja

While most people heading into the tournament were dreaming of a Brazil-Spain final, I think most neutrals would happily settle for the Dutch and Spanish - probably the two teams most stylish teams, the two most committed to playing attacking football (along with Argentina and Chile). 

Let it be known that I predicted this final before the tournament in my bracket, which I ultimately never paid the $20 for my friend's pool, so I get nothing from it other than the satisfaction.  Of course, also let it be known that I foresaw the very week part of the bracket that led to Uruguay's place in the final four, but mistakenly bought into the notion that the combined forces of Fabio Capello and Wayne Rooney would lead England to first in group C and therefore the easy path that quarter of the bracket contained.  Still upsetting to think that could have been the US.

I grew to enjoy watching the new version of the German team, one of the few teams going out to demoralize their opponents by getting multiple closing goals.  However, they were just no match for Spain, particularly with Ozil not influential enough and Mueller suspended.  Spain are rightly through and I'm very aroused by the final matchup (it's the smell of desire m'lady).

You have the feeling Spain have yet to really hit full tilt, though yesterday was probably their best match so far.  Iniesta seems to be becoming more and more influential, Xavi is still Xavi, and Pedro looked very dangerous before producing the worst 2-on-1 in history.  The big difference between this Spain team and the 2008 Euro champions is that Torres is out of sorts, so the attack isn't quit as dangerous because they are playing better with Pedro rather than Torres, and Pedro plays more from the midfield than as an out an out lead striker, leaving Villa more isolated.  Additionally, Marcos Senna was sensational in 2008, all due respects to Sergio Busquets, and that combined with the greater width and spacing in the midfield with da Silva playing on the wing rather than the deeper lying Xabi Alonso made the attack more adventurous.

Most people saw the great irony in Spain's semifinal winner coming from a thunderous corner kick header rather than the tiki-taka, death by a thousand paper cuts football.  But to me the real irony was that the most important goal in Spain's history was scored by Puyol, the embodiment and symbol and captain of Barcelona and Catalonia. For so long Raúl dominated the Spanish team; as the longtime captain of Real Madrid he was a symbol of the capital, Spanish Nationalism and Castille (not to mention Francoism). Spain may be captained by another Real Madrid star (Saint Iker), but the heart of the team lies in the cadre of Barcelona maestros. 

No matter who wins on Sunday, I'll be happy -- though not nearly as happy as an actual Spaniard or Dutchman; have you ever seen two countries so joyous at just reaching the final?  They deserve to be so elated and I can only hope to feel the same way at some point in my life.  Anyway, before the World Cup began I predicted Spain would win and I'm not going to change that pick now.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Dutch Back In the Finals

With today's victory over the Uruguayans, the Netherlands are a step closer to winning their elusive first World Cup title.  Awaiting us is a possible classic rematch of the 1974 World Cup final with the Germans or a matchup with Spain that would guarantee a new country will win its first title (not too mention a great matchup of possession oriented attacking teams).

It's hard to root against the Dutch, but I think the best sentiment I've heard is that if the Netherlands wins the title this year it will be the equivalent of Martin Scorsese's "lifetime achievement" best director Oscar win for The Departed.  I really really enjoyed the Departed, more than a lot of people, but it clearly wasn't Scorsese's best work and it was an injustice that he hadn't won a statue before. 

Well, this isn't remotely the best Dutch team (would it even crack the top 5?), and there still seems to be something about them that is underwhelming.  Their defense and Skelkenburg in goal don't exactly inspire tons of confidence, and despite their very good attack they've yet to really seem completely in sync and in a groove for a full 90 minutes.  They've played wonderfully at times, but I haven't been truly awed at any point.  But maybe that's what's needed to finally reach the summit.

I guess it also doesn't help that I still detest van Persie, van Bommell (and Nigel de Jong, though he was suspended today) continues to hack and foul at will, while Robben writhes in agony at the slightest breath blown his direction.  Not to mention Dirk Kuyt is so ugly you almost want to root against him so he'll stop being shown in HD.  Oddly enough the player I like the most is Wesley Sneijder, someone who was widely believed to be a rotten apple prior to leading Inter Milan's treble this season and now the Dutch World Cup run.

Couple all the above with Diego Forlan's brilliance -- it was quite amazing that he kept stepping up in the clutch and dragging Uruguay with him, an admiral feat even if you don't like the Uruguayans or if you felt wronged by the Most Infamous/Greatest Red Card in History -- I almost found myself rooting for La Celeste.  But the Oranje wouldn't be denied, and neither are we denied one of the superior finals matchups that we've all been rooting for, and that ultimately left me happy with the day's result. 

They won't be favorites in the Final, but bravo to the Dutch -- they've deserved all their victories, they brought style to the tournament, and they are worthy finalists. 

Nike's USA Soccer Follow-Up Ad

If you haven't seen, here is Nike's follow up to its Write the Future ad campaign, which famously debuted to much hype and is now infamous for its stars failing said hype.  This new ad features a variety of American youths thanking the USMNT for playing hard, attacking, never diving, and scoring that goal.  Short and to the point, kinda cool I think.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Are The Soccer Gods Chortling?

Has there even been an ending to match as happened today?  Have many teams in any sport ever last so cruelly?

I was technically a neutral, but really everyone ends up rooting for a team during these matches.  Today, I imagine most people were rooting for Ghana, which I'll be perfectly honest in saying I don't understand if you are a USA supporter how you could support Ghana.

People were trying to beat the whole last African team standing theme to death, and while it made for great theater because it seemed that about 83,000 of the 84,000+ inside Soccer City Stadium were cheering for the Black Stars, it was irrelevant to me.  Let's face it, Ghana aren't a particularly great team, they cruelly beat the USA (though maybe deserved on the day), and did so by finishing the game with a level of time wasting and injury faking that simply disgusts me.

So I wanted Ghana to receive their just rewards, and maybe the soccer gods are laughing right now.  But damn, that is traumatizing.  As it is I'm pretty horrified of penalty shootouts and I'm not even English!  Players have missed plenty of decisive penalties before, but has it ever happened on the last kick of the game, with the World Cup semis on the line, then seeing your team lose in the subsequent PK shootout, which, by the way, had to be a forgone conclusion after that miss silenced pretty much an entire continent of fans?

It was damn thrilling drama.  This World Cup has only had a few great performances (and even calling those great is a stretch), but it sure hasn't been short of the amazing and dramatic.  Wow, a perfect encapsulation of why football is beautiful and cruel, inspiring and tragic all at once.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Sports Guy: "We will always have the Algeria game. Always."

I love it when Bill Simmons writes about soccer, as he did again today. Is anyone better at creating or addressing sports/cultural  talking points?

Now, everyone who knows soccer knows that Simmons doesn't know soccer well, at least yet.  Whereas before he either admitted as much or made really obviously stupid comments, he's slowly getting better.

For instance, he's gotten good enough to immediately know that starting Clark over Edu was a huge mistake before the game started (he even tweeted about it at the time), and he makes the occasional smart analogy - this time comparing Jozy Altidore to an NBA center by questioning whether he has a little too much Dwight Howard and not enough Pau Gasol and needing a striker with speed and innate goalscoring ability (Gasol = Klose).  Of course he still gives it away with comments like "How can you screw up a team with superstuds like Lionel Messi and Carlos Tevez on it?" (easier than you think) and "The theory that soccer would never catch on until we found our own Pelé or launched our own successful pro league was dead wrong."

The first half of the latter comment is true, but his dismissing of the importance of a pro league is wrong.  Maybe he's right insofar as he's probably thinking of a "successful" league being on par with the NHL or NBA or NFL.  But having a league was important because it creates a culture where soccer is at least there, even if not everyone is watching it.  More importantly, you can't advance the US team without there being a domestic league for players to start in, to change the youth system, and to give kids a thought about playing pro realistically.   Only six players on the roster never played in MLS at some point.

Reading Simmons singing the praises of not just the World Cup but just soccer in general is encouraging, and his article really takes off in the last couple paragraphs where he talks about the US team being one of the few things nowadays that all Americans can get behind.  In particular, there's a somewhat stable cast of players you can grow with and there are ongoing games between cycles (unlike the Olympics).  He compared the US-Algeria game, that collective moment really, with nothing we've been given since Lake Placid (before I was born).  While not quite that level, it was impressive nonetheless, and he's right -- those YouTube clips don't lie and we'll always have Donovan's goal against Algeria.  Even the ongoing sting of the lost opportunity last Saturday can't take that away.