Friday, April 30, 2010

The Favorites Knocked Out

I’m going to perform a little exercise in which I write about and quote analysis on two teams that were upset Wednesday despite being heavy favorites to win their respective championships in two different sports. (No cheating and peeking at the footnotes to see which quotes refer to whom.)

One team was supposed to be all conquering, an attacking powerhouse. “They scored goals in bunches, sometimes seemingly at will.”¹ On the other hand, the opposition was tactically astute and dedicated to defense. They “provided a steady dam in front.”²

The more skilled team forced the attack, controlling possession in the offensive zone. Yet, “tactics became less important than focus - which in itself makes up a lot of the scope which you prepare tactics for - and heart, of which the [opposition] showed a lot.”³

“The home side were frustrated in their attempts to find a direct channel, as they managed to do very late.”⁴ All the brilliant defending from the opposition denied space and sight lines on goal. The vaunted attack “never had a real chance to up the tempo and to accelerate, as they like to do, because there was simply no room to do that.”⁵

In the end, all the dirty work by the opposition won they day, surely disappointing neutral fans hoping for the home side, containing the most exciting player in his sport, to win and advance.  Instead, they are at home licking their wounds. Once again it was proven that “defensive courage, in sufficient quantity, can negate a good offense.”⁶ When a team coordinates its defense so well, you “can find ways to take away one star scorer and hope that the pressure to score will shift to lesser stars,”⁷ who are not up to the task.

Quite simply, “The more spectacular, brilliant side were stifled over two games, and the more consistent, aggressive, determined team went through.”⁸

Importantly, the opposition was more prepared to expose and take advantage of the favored team’s deficiencies. For all the excitement over the course of the season that they exhibited, the loss “showed that their fluid attacking style has weaknesses.”⁹

First and foremost, the defense was not as strong as necessary. Cavalier “defenders” attacked forward, pinching up the sides and exposing the team and its goalie to counters and breaks where the defensive gaps now existed in behind.

The opposition duly took advantage, scoring the crucial goals to put them through.

Second, when the attacking team’s fluid passing and dynamic movement were clogged by a barricade of defenders, “they lack a Plan B. It is a criticism that has often followed the great attacking sides in the game, especially those who remain faithful to one particular style of play.”¹⁰

It’s obviously frustrating as the team so used to scoring when it wants or needs to can’t find the opening to do so, “and you get a little more unnerved because you are not used to that adversity of not being able to score.”¹¹

Despite all the claims of how defense trumps, it's sometimes forgotten that attacking teams have won in the past, including last year. Of course those teams remained fairly sturdy in back, often with the help of some timely saves from the goalie. But the true benchmark of greatness is that “sides need to be adaptable and when a bus is parked in front of goal, they need to find a way past it.”¹²

Doesn’t matter if it’s a deflected shot or a crossing pass that somehow gets hammered home from a scrum in front of the goal. You just need to find that way, and unfortunately this team continued to slickly pass their way and fire through the wall, and were seemingly incapable of having someone crash the goalmouth area to truly trouble the defense.

The coach certainly takes some of the blame. From the losing side, it was clear that, “He's a master of attack but clearly no mastermind of postseason psychology or tactics.”¹³ On the opposite bench, a superior tactician played upon weaknesses and rightfully advanced.

Though unfavored and not the “sexy” team, the opposition “must take credit for holding off their opponents with a defensive display that [they] can be proud of.”¹⁴ It was a win earned and deserved.

1. Barry Svrluga, "Montreal's stunning upset of Washington ends Capitals' season much sooner than anyone expected," Washington Post, April 29, 2010, A01.
2, 3, 4, 5, 8. Roberto Gotta, "Inter wall stands firm," ESPNsoccernet,, April 28, 2010.
6, 7, 11, 13. Thomas Boswell, “Washington Capitals are built for the regular season and they are punished for it in the Stanley Cup playoffs,” Washington Post, April 30, 2010, D01.
9, 10, 12, 14. Jon Carter, "Barca in need of a Plan B," ESPNsoccernet,, April 28, 2010.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

USA, World Cup Readings

Before getting to the Champions League Final pairing of Bayern Munich and Inter Milan at another date, here are some links and discussion of some reading on the US team and the World Cup to be found on ESPN Soccernet and elsewhere.

They’ve been running a series of features, one series called “World Cup 101 – 101 features in 101 days.”

ESPN’s been using a lot of statistical analysis in its pieces, such as today’s piece on the percentage likelihood of each team’s advancement from the USA-England group.

Maybe what surprised me the most from the article was finding out that according to ESPN’s Soccer Power Index (SPI), the US has the 9th rated attack, whereas only the 34th rated defense. I’m pretty sure it would take you all of 1.2 seconds to name 10 teams with better attacks than the US. I don't even need to list them.

The weaker defense however actually shouldn’t be too surprising. Aside from goalie, the left back spot is always shaky, while injuries and inconsistency among the center back pairings haven’t helped either.

Still, some of the statistical analyses can be interesting, such as an examination of how the goals per game in the European leagues the year of a World Cup predict an increase or decrease in goals per game during the World Cup from previous years. (This year… look for more goal scoring than in past low years, but nothing close to historical highs. Old school defending just not exactly high quality.) Other articles range from highlighting players that could see a post-World Cup boost in transfer value, and why the cooler weather could lead to a more exciting Cup.

Another interesting series of reads has been a best XI of position players. Always fodder to argue who the top 11 attacking or defensive midfielders have been.

Lastly, as time is running out for players to make their way onto the World Cup, there are a few questionable spots left on the potential US roster and there have been a variety of articles from experts on those who are in or out. Unfortunately there aren’t many forwards worthy of being in.

If there was something close to a consensus on the roster, it would look like this:

Goalkeeper (3): Tim Howard, Marcus Hahnemann, Brad Guzan
Defense (8): Jonathan Spector, Steve Cherundolo, Oguchi Onyewu, Carlos Bocanegra, Jay DeMerit, Clarence Goodson, Jonathan Bornstein , Heath Pearce
Midfield (9): Clint Dempsey, Stuart Holden, Michael Bradley, Ricardo Clark, Maurice Edu, Benny Feilhaber Landon Donovan, Jose Torres, Alejandro Bedoya
Forwards (3): Jozy Altidore and two of Brian Ching, Herculez Gomes, Charlie Davies or Edson Buddle

As you can see, picking Bedoya as the midfield wild card over DaMarcus Beasley is the only non-forward tough choice, and even then that spot is available only because Robbie Rogers hasn’t improved and there’s room for an extra midfielder because Dempsey and Donovan can play up top. I won’t presume between picking the forwards because there’s still a lot to be seen in terms of Ching’s and Davies’ injury recoveries.

Also, I’d like to remind everyone clamoring for Gomez, who was joint top scoring in the Mexican first division, that he was the top scorer in the Mexican first division, not exactly the Serie A of tactical defenses. Nonetheless I’d still take him because he’s on form and confident, something in short supply in the US camp. Here’s where I start praying that Davies can return to a semblance of his former self…

Monday, April 19, 2010

Glad to Be a Soccer Sports Bigamist

Those of you who read ESPN's Bill Simmons, aka the Sports Guy, are probably well aware of a few of his well-know rules for being a true sports fan. One of those rules, one that often goes without saying, is the prohibition against sports bigamy.

However, being a soccer fan, particularly one in the United States, presents a much different situation than your typical NFL, NBA, or NHL fan.  I have a favorite team in those sports, and I will only root for that one team for the entirety of my life. 

But how is soccer different?  For one, MLS only began play 14 years ago.  So prior to that time, allegiances had to lie elsewhere, and as the league was still in fledgling stages, those allegiances remained and kept building.  And as a fan with no other inherent alliances or ties to particular European teams, like many other US soccer fans I suspect I found myself attracted to teams for various reasons, such as cheering for a favorite player (say Roberto Baggio) or a team that plays an attractive style.  Additionally, Champions League aside, the major European leagues offered separate leagues where one could develop multiple allegiances.

So, not being Italian, Spanish or English, with no natural ties to any teams there, I believe it only natural that I find myself cheering for particular teams within each league.  Never multiple teams within a league, but multiple teams across leagues.

But then again, being a US fan presents another wrinkle to this issue.  Like most US fans, I want to see Americans playing in Europe do well, which includes cheering for their teams to do well.  I'm not a Fulham fan, but I root for Clint Demspey and Fulham to win every weekend except when they take on Manchester United.  I don't see anything wrong in this.

To some degree it's not even that I'm a true fan of those teams.  In La Liga I root for Barcelona because I enjoy watching the best soccer on the planet and for whatever reason I disliked all the US fans of Real Madrid who rooted for them just because they had won the most titles. But I'm not really a true Barcelona fan. I'm just a fan of watching Xavi find the unseen angle and Mess perform the unbelievable.

Here's the point of this whole argument.  As a US fan in a time where you can watch soccer from all over the world and circumstances led to fan allegiances with foreign teams, while also having a local MLS team to root for, days like this past Saturday become much more bearable, enjoying, and ultimately fulfilling.

My home team DC United lost yet again, 2-0 at home, falling to 0-4.  It's pretty clear that they are the worst team in MLS, quite a dubious distinction.  It's one thing to root for a middling MLS team, but when your favorite team is this bad, you start questioning the proper outlay of your money.

But that aforementioned soccer bigamy at least gave me a chance to enjoy some good soccer with a vested interest as a fan.  It's one thing to enjoy an exciting Manchester Derby, and marvel at the Ginger Prince securing a second dramatic, extra-time winner against Man City this season.  It's all the better to have a vested rooting interest in seeing the Red Devils pull one out at the death once again.

After that, not to mention knowing that Chelsea's loss left the title race wide open again, everything that was going to happen at RFK stadium could only be gravy.  Sure, watching a team whose only bright spot is a 17 year old academy graduate (I'm already excited about the future of Andy Najar) is slightly depressing.  But that comes with being a fan, and being a US soccer fan, a fully-admitted soccer bigamist, gives me even more to root for.  The good or the bad, I'm still a fan and the more to indulge myself in the better.  I wouldn't have it any other way.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

This Guy You Might Have Heard Of, He's Pretty Decent

I suppose you might have heard about this diminutive forward/winger Lionel Messi.  You might also have heard he's not a half-bad player.

Well, as if there was some debate about who is the best player in the world, the Leo Messi Show yesterday against Arsenal erases any doubt:

Which of the four was the best?  Can you even choose?  The chipped finish to complete the hat trick was fantastic, while the run leading to the fourth was equally good.  No point in even choosing, just marvel.

The ironic thing is that the 4-1 scoreline doesn't reflect the fact that as a team, Barca were not as dominating as when they played Arsenal off the pitch during the first 60 minutes of last weeks match at the Emirates. Xavi was still commanding and impeccable, challenging those who believe, like Wayne Rooney, that Andrés Iniesta is Barca's best midfielder and best player.

What mattered on this day was that Messi not only single-handedly played Arsenal off the pitch and out of the Champions League, but played himself off the pitch where the mere mortals of football reside and ever closer to that realm of greatness that only a select few reside, the Peles, Maradonas, and Zidanes.  Messi still needs to lead Argentina to a World Cup title before I place him alongside those greats, and at 22 he has another decade at least of great football left in him (knocking on wood...).  I've been similarly awe-struck by performances from Cristiano Ronaldo in the recent past, and it's on the grandest stage that their legends must really be made.

But, as Ray Hudson would say, Messi's magisterial goals are already becoming the stuff of legends.  His speed and quick feet, quick thinking and surprising strength on the ball, combined with deadly shooting accuracy, make it almost impossible to stop him when he wants to score.

Arsene Wenger is a lover of the beautiful game, and he'd rather lose trying to emulate Barcelona's flowing, silky passing attack, than win it all by playing catenaccio.  So no matter how upset he may be at staring a fifth consecutive trophy-less season in the face, the Proffesor in Wenger who is devoted to the aesthetics of football could not help but be effervescent inside with awe and veneration at the display of extraordinary footballing grace and power before him.

There is something mythical, almost supernatural, in watching Messi at the Camp Nou, where 98,000 people, visiting fans included, are so joyous at watching Messi's craft, wanting more without really knowing how it can be done, only for the young Argentine to find new ways to amaze.  The reverence showed by the fans upon the latest act in this wonder-show just further the sense that Messi has reached heights beyond any other footballer of his generation.

With each passing moment the world's itch to see Messi replicate his club performances for his country, to truly duplicate Maradona's World Cup winning heroics, grows deeper and deeper.  Can Maradona himself find a way to bring that out of Messi in South Africa?  I can certainly dream.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Thoughts From Lot 8

This winter was one of the worst in recent memory in DC, with record breaking snow falls. But this weekend finally brought with it not just long-desired spring weather (some would say early summer weather), but a chance to exalt in the hope of a new season and to celebrate those new beginnings with fellow revelers in some quality tailgating.

One problem though was that with all that snow from this winter, it had to be dumped somewhere. DC couln't just plow it normally or the snow banks and piles would have made transportation, in all forms, virtually impossible (as it was it was a disaster anyway). So where else to dump it, lot 8 at RFK Stadium of course.

The snow may have long melted away, but the ravaging effects of the elements took its toll. More than half the lot consisted of gigantic craters, rubble, and dirt. Thankfully the access road was repaired and they even completely re-paved the portion of the lot closest to the tunnel heading to lot 5 and the stadium gates.

Just that little bit of open, available space was enough for the previously mentioned revelry. And the DC United crowd made sure to enjoy the day in large numbers. A crowd of over 20,000 enjoyed the pre-game festivities and continued through the game’s opening whistle, thanks in part due to the reappearance of the El Salvadoran support back in the fold after the acquisition of winger Christian Castillo.

Hoping to forget opening game humiliation at Kansas City, the DC United crowd was vociferous and lively, as they usually are. DC United responded with good possession, but few good chances. Like a tailgater who starts early, enjoys sun and drink, only to peter off and lose momentum as the night wears on, drained from the day’s toll, so too did it seem like United must have been enjoying the early fun in the sun. Their early possession failed to produce the opening goal the team desperately needs, and as the game’s paced slowed to visiting New England’s liking in the second half, the Revolution put away its late chances to steal a road victory.

Is this a portent of the season to come, or a slow start for a team trying to fit together significant new pieces? It’s taken all of two games to dash all of my optimism about the season. DC isn’t as bad as six goals against and nil for, but I can see another year of playoff hopes coming down to the final weekends. I hope I’m wrong. I hope Danny Allsopp gives DC that extra bit of threat up top and that a summer signing can come and provide some midfield creativity and control.

In the meantime, I’ll have to remember to get to lot 8 a little earlier than usual to get one of the available spots. You never know in DC when the weather will turn.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Barcelona-Arsenal 2-2 Mauling Highlights

If you have18 minutes to kill, you need to watch the highlights of yesterday's amazing Barcelona-Arsenal match.  It was the biggest 2-2 thrashing you'll ever see. 

Quite an amazing result indeed.  Barca should have killed the match beyond any doubt before Arsenal got back in the game.  You'd have to think the tie is beyond Arsenal anyway with the two away goals and considering how the utter dominance of Barca's attacking will translate at home.  On top of all that, Arsenal's best player, Cesc Fabregas, will miss out on a return home.  But with both Pique and Puyol also out suspended (was the Puyol call the right call? Eh, I can go either way on it), it will be an intriguing match, even if Arsenal should really fear the worst (Messi wasn't nearly as devastating as he can be).  Barcelona's magical, beautiful passing is what all teams should aspire too and if they go on like this, who's to stop them?  Appointment viewing.