Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Nike Ad Curse

Nike's "Write the Future" advertisement was a brilliant campaign, a continuation of the long history of great spots Nike has created for the World Cup.  However, this year it seems they may want to re-consider their casting agency.

Let's see:

-Didier Drogba broke his arm before the games even started and Côte d'Ivoire never looked like going through their difficult group.

-Fabio Cannavaro looked like he was already in retirement and hitting up the talk show circuit, a step to slow for every attacker that came his way.  Still, Italy probably should have had enough quality to qualify but were completely uninspiring.

-Wayne Rooney barely bothered to even show up.  Was he still injured? Probably.  At the least he was worn down from carrying Man U on his back all season.  Not even Atlas probably beared such a burden. England were less inspiring than Italy, only they managed to get one round further before being humiliated by the Germans (controversial goal or no goal).

-Franck Ribéry... well, the less said about the French the better. Who is that player in the background of the play marking Theo Walcott (who didn't make England's roster)... that's right, Patrice Evra!

-Ronaldinho, as everyone knows and regrets didn't even get a plane ticket to South Africa.  At least the Brazilians are still playing though.

-Cristiano Ronaldo was mostly anonymous save for his preening and grimacing after either diving or being fouled but not getting a call in either case, and now Portugal is out thanks to their superior Iberian neighbors.  By the way, why does Portugal play such a horrible, defensive system?  They actually have good defenders, so they should play creative, attacking football knowing the defense is solid behind them.  I blame Carlos Queiroz (who proves that anyone looks like a great coach while assisting Alex Ferguson, but doing it yourself is a different matter... maybe it's leftover stink from his stint with the New York MetroStars).

On the other hand, three teams getting only minor cameos had better fortunes. OK, so the USA lost, but Landon Donovan was the only player of the entire commercial who truly "wrote the future" by scoring the goal against Algeria that so far is still probably the moment of the tournament.  But maybe the US disappointment (I'd say failure) in losing still tied to this commercial?

The Spanish players also get a brief cameo (even though the Spanish team itself is sponsored by Adidas, which is why you only see Iniesta, Fàbregas, and Piqué wearing blank warm-ups with no logos) and they are still on course for a potential dream semifinal with Argentina/Germany and final against Brazil. Brazil, as mentioned before, are still in it, and looking pretty much locks to advance to the final, with only one threat in their half of the bracket, the Netherlands... who also happen to have a cameo in the Nike ad! That's them fouling Ronaldo.

The Dutch are impressing most people but honestly, do you think their D will hold up against the Brazilians?  And of course they're up to their old tricks again, the Dutch, what with Robin van Persie acting like the spoiled arrogant brat (I'd also call him a certain name that rhymes with witch) that he is -- shocker considering he's coached by Arsène Wenger -- and showing hints of the internal dissension that has derailed so many better Dutch squads in the past. No matter what the Dutch camp says about unity and harmony within the team, don't buy it. 

Adidas doesn't have any ad remotely as good right now, but at least they can tout Leo Messi and David Villa,  who just keeps on scoring (god, how scary will Barcelona be next season).

It's not quite the Madden Curse or SI Jinx, but funny nonetheless.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Things Fall Apart

I'm not sure I've ever felt so deflated about an entire tournament as the result of one loss.  After all the great moments and excitement from the US the last two weeks, they just laid an egg against an inferior team.  It's one thing to lose if we played well and just couldn't get it done, or we lost to a superior team.  This time, there's just four years of regrets and what ifs.

First, I finally went ahead and praised Bob Bradley for his moves this World Cup, only for him to inexplicably make the boneheaded decision to start Rico Clark over Mo Edu.  You know, because they're interchangeable defensive mids with the exception that Edu is better than Clark in every facet of the game save for long range shooting (not exactly what we should care about our D mid doing).

Clark has tremendous upside potential (thanks Simmons!) because in games where he plays well he can really be a great midfield destroyer. But he also has the worst downside, disappearing from games, being reckless in tackles, and hurting US possession.  So despite Edu being the better player and playing very well against Algeria, Bradley went back to his boy Clark, who subsequently had to be embarrassed in front of worldwide millions when his poor play help spot Ghana a goal 5 minutes in and necessitated a wasted first half substitution.  It's also pretty clear that Michael Bradley plays better and can advance forward more when Edu is playing alongside/behind him.

Not to put all the blame of Bradley Sr./Clark, Tim Howard played the shot by the German Ghanaian, Kevin Prince Boateng, very poorly and getting beat near post when that should never happen on that type of shot.  I personally was disappointed with Howard this Cup, despite playing well against England and of course his great outlet pass springing Donovan against Algeria.

I don't know if it was naively thinking they could beat Ghana by just stepping on the field and they were looking ahead to a reasonable passage to a possible semifinals, or they were really just dead from the physical and emotional toll of the Algeria.  But they wasted a half and they lacked concentration again in the beginning of the overtime.

The regret is that much greater because let's face it, Ghana is not a good team and they didn't even have their best player.  Ghana's decision making was pretty ridiculous.  A team that makes that many dumb decisions shouldn't be in the quarterfinals.  They also don't even have that much skill, though Gyan did very well on his winning goal (set up as it was by the pure luck of a blind defensive clearance).

Then of Ghana went into among the worst time wasting I've ever seen unrewarded by a single yellow from the ref.  It's understandable when teams waste time and exaggerate injuries when fouled, but the Ghanaians acted as if murdered when it was clear that they weren't touch at all.  Not light brushed or small touch fouls, I mean absolutely no contact -- pure flopping.  I have no love for Uruguay and their ugly style of play -- only marginally redeemed by the fact that it's executed by quality players, in particular that great strike force -- but I will be rooting strongly for Uruguay to beat the Ghanaians.

Lastly, even with all the above, the US still probably still should have put away their chances, only for the lack of a goalscoring striker to come back to haunt them.  Gomez and Findley failed to put away their chances this Cup, showing that being on form in the Mexican league and MLS means very little.

If you're world class you're world class (watch Miroslav Klose and Podolski, scoring goals like clockwork for Germany again despite both having a very poor club season), and the US just doesn't have such a player.  This is where they missed Charlie Davies, and Jozy Altidore showed how far he still has to go.  He too missed his chances, and he constantly reminded why he sometimes gets labeled as lazy and as lacking a soccer brain (so said Martin Keown on the BBC).  It's frustrating because despite all that, his talent and physicality still posed problems for defenders and gave the US great chances.  He showed why he only scored two goals for Hull this year.

So where does this leave the US for the next World Cup?  It's a big question mark.  The US needs to start developing strikers.  Can Jozy become world class?  I hope so.  Will Charlie Davies recover sufficiently?  With his injuries, I really don't know. Before I would've said he was a better bet to become a great goal scorer than Altidore.  Dempsey and Donovan will still be around in four years, but both will have a lot of miles on their legs.  They'll still be key players, but need strikers to support them.  The midfield will probably be very solid with Edu and Bradley both young, Stuart Holden also young, and I'm sure other midfield options will develop. 

The defense is another matter.  Based purely on age, we could see a number of the same players, but let's hope not.  Spector and Bornstein are young and will be around.  Gooch will only be 32, so he too could still be around, but let's see how his knee holds up.  He wasn't exactly fast to begin with, so that's a big question mark.  Even before this Gooch was too inconsistent and at 28, even for defenders who take a little longer to develop than great attackers, he's running out of time to turn into a world class defender.  Boca and Cherundolo -- the USA's best defender this Cup -- will both be 35, too old to realistically be relied on to keep up with the speed and quality at the World Cup (just see how 36 year old Fabio Cannavaro fared with Italy).  Similarly, DeMerit will be 34, and he's never really going to be much more than he is now.

With Germany embarrassing England this morning, we're slowly whittling away the weaker teams and setting up for some great matchups down the road. Possible Germany-Argentina and Brazil-Netherlands quarterfinals could be doozies, the semis could see Germany/Argentina against Spain, and the final will most likely have Brazil -- who has an extremely manageable draw on their half of the bracket aside from the potential Netherlands matchup -- against one of Germany/Argentina/Spain.  If the trio from that half of the bracket wins this Cup they will have fully earned it.  The Ghana match aside, this has been a mostly excellent and redeeming World Cup (including the French flameout, karma at its best), with the only thing missing as yet being a singular defining performance by one of the worlds greats (Messi, Ronaldo, etc.).  I can only hope Messi chooses to oblige us against El Tri.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

USA Advancing to the Round of 16

First, before some videos, I have a few thoughts to put out there, aside from the obvious of how amazing it felt when Donovan scored that goal.

I had no real reason to dislike Algeria before.  I didn't particularly know much about the country.  As far as I was concerned, they were famous for being the birthplace of a pair of immigrants to France who produced the greatest footballer of his generation, as well as that great goalkeeper-football fan-philosopher-Nobel laureate Albert Camus (therefore also being the setting for his great books).

Now however, I can throw this onto my list of countries to dislike.  (OK, not seriously but you get the idea, in sporting terms).  They were so intent on playing out political biases that they were actively trying to play defensively for a draw so as to eliminate the US rather than playing for the win they needed to give themselves a chance of advancing.

Well, for that, you Algeria join Costa Rica and others as countries that tempted the football gods with your negativity, or the Costa Rican's horribly blatant time wasting, only to be cruelly and justly felled by that great cliche, the American spirit.

Cliche though that fighting spirit may be, how awesome is this team's heart?  You really couldn't have it any other way.  People always deride the US for lacking a style, the way the Brazilians have (or used to at least) joga bonita, the Italians the catenaccio, Germans the machine-like precision, etc.  But the US has a swagger and belief, without being cocky, that suggests you'll never outwork them and they'll never give up, and I love it, not the least because it's easy to rally around (check out the crowd videos below) and of course the late drama is amazing (if particularly heart attack/ulcer inducing).

Check out this list of comebacks:

-USA 1 - Algeria 0: Donovan scoring in the 91st minute.
-USA 2 - Slovenia 2: Two down, tying the game in the 82nd minute, winning it in the 85th.
-USA 2 - El Salvador 1: OK, a B team friendly, but Kljestan scored in the 92nd minute for the win.
-USA 2 - Costa Rica 2: Bornstein's 95th minute goal wins CONCACAF qualifying, on a night being played with recently injured Charlie Davies on everyone's mind.
-USA 2 - Panama 1: In the Gold Cup, a B/C team playing, US wins in overtime (105th minute).
-USA 2 - Haiti 2: Again in the Gold Cup, probably a C team playing (because otherwise a tie against Haiti is beyond embarrassing, and even still...), Stuart Holden ties it in the 92nd minute.
-USA 2 - El Salvador 2: In El Salvador for qualifying, two down, Jozy scores in the 77th minute followed by Hejduk equalizing in the 88th minute.

Those are merely the matches the US either tied or won on a goal after the 80th minute in 2010 and 2009. It doesn't count matches the US tied or won with earlier goals coming back from deficits, like against England or at Honduras in qualifying, or scoring 3 goals against Egypt to complete the five goal swing on the day needed to advance in the Confederations Cup.

Though I don't need to go over the particular performances by US players because we've all seen it, a few demand praise:

-Donovan has truly become a leader and star, if he wasn't already.  He keeps this up, he'll be like Wayne Rooney in that Nike ad with all the baby names, and I'd even consider it.
-Michael Bradley is impressing everyone, not just the US faithful.  It's not just his tackling and fabulous late runs into the box, which I guess not everyone has seen since he played at Heerenveen and now at Borussia Mönchengladbach, but also the clever footwork and passing -- see his play that set Donovan up leading to the goalbox scrum in which Jozy blasted over.
-Stuart Holden -- he's playing the Mark Madsen role of bench cheerleader and team celebrator perfectly.  Maybe it's because he's so noticeable with his blond hair, but he's certainly managed to get to both Bradley and Donovan fast enough to start the big pile-ons.  Kudos Mr. Holden, kudos.  
-Altidore is playing great in all areas except goal scoring, which should be sort of important because he's a striker, but he's now teamed with Donovan to be responsible for assisting on both late goals against Slovenia and Algeria.  We wouldn't be here without him.  And he also pancaked the entire US team celebratory mob on top of Donovan.  He's a big man to be doing that.  Not to be outdone of course, I must mention Jay DeMerit, late arriving from the back, somersaulting over the pile and nearly taking the head off one of the team's staff.  Great stuff.
-Steve Cherundolo is pretty good. I'd forgotten how good he was, I mean he's the captain of a Bundesliga team!  To think Jonathan Spector started pushing him for a starting spot.

Lastly, gotta give props to Bob Bradley.  I, as many have over his reign, have railed against him for his tactics and team selection.  Well, he's gotten every decision spot on this World Cup.  I have new respect for the man.

Lots of videos going 'round, here are some of my favorites that I've seen to keep giving you goosebumps:

And the scene at one of my faves, Lucky Bar in downtown DC:

In Seattle:

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Delayed First Thoughts on the World Cup

I haven't been able to post any thoughts on the World Cup yet, having caught the first weekend of games then spending the week watching games on travel. Finally home and with a chance to lay out some thoughts on a World Cup that has been all over the place.

After the first week, I don't think too many observers were surprised, if still disappointed, that the opening round of group matches were mostly cagey and unremarkable.  Now that teams feel a sense of urgency to get the victory or see their second round hopes quashed, more wide open play has come with some more notable results.

Starting with the US, from a pure entertainment standpoint, they may have played the most exciting group stage match three World Cups in a row. The 2002 Cup had some memorable first round games, like Senegal upsetting what turned out to be a very poor French team, England-Argentina, a good Brazil-Turkey match, and Korea holding off nine man Portugal with the help of the post late on (ultimately sending the USA through), so maybe Portugal-USA isn't the undisputed best early match that year, but it was certainly up there and it was the biggest upset along with the Senegal victory.

In 2006, the USA-Italy matched was genuinely exciting as nine man USA nearly beat the champions-to-be.  No other opening round matches really stick out, with the memorable performances being Argentina crushing Serbia and Montenegro and Germany surprising everyone with an exciting attacking style in all its matches.

Now, Slovenia-USA has been hands down the best match of this tournament, with the comeback, late drama, and controversy.  I won't even go into that or I may have another conniption. 

After two matches, the USA continues to be disconcerting in the back.  Gooch has been particularly inconsistent, showing poor timing and a lack of tactical awareness one half, playing much improved the next.  The attack is not that problematic as long as we can settle on the fact that Mo Edu is our second best center midfielder.  Done.  And we've barely seen attacking spark Stuart Holden other than his being the first man to tackle Michael Bradley after his game tying goal, nor any of DaMarcus Beasley.  I'd like to see Jozy get a goal for all the good work he's put in up top.  And Dempsey hasn't been at his best either (and that's not a reverse jinks, since it seems like whenever we start talking about how poorly Dempsey plays he suddenly starts popping goals in bunches).

Moving on from the US, the opening matches have probably produced three true favorites -- Brazil, Netherlands, and Argentina.  Does anyone want to bet against this Brazil team marching to the finals?  I wouldn't, even though something about them just doesn't feel right (maybe the lack of an inspirational practitioner of joga bonita in the midfield).  I'm still not sold with the Netherlands defense, and before you point out the two clean sheets, I'll have you notice their two opponents were Japan and a Denmark team that is predicated on organization and defense, not scoring.  No world beaters there.  I'd like Argentina if their coach wasn't insane.  Spain, meanwhile, hasn't played a second time yet so it's hard to make a full judgment after the Swiss stole the US playbook on how to beat La Furia Roja.

Meanwhile, the African countries are for the most part disappointing people who had high hopes for this World Cup mostly because no one actually watches African soccer enough nor paid enough attention to history to realize they weren't actually that good.  Their "home field" advantage in South Africa doesn't amount to much and when looking at the draw, it was always going to be tough for multiple teams to impress.  Ghana has been the standard bearer to date, and even though they lead Group D, there is a very strong possibility they could fail to advance because they still need to play Germany while Serbia take on Australia, who despite its draw with Ghana is among the worst teams in South Africa, not to mention they'll be missing their two best players.

I think we're all laughing at France right now, not least because anyone who knows anything about that team would've put money on the French imploding before the tournament started.  Italy looks old and uninspired because, well, they're old and have no real inspiring players (oh Cannavaro, how you've fallen).  As Alexi Lalas loves pointing out, England just isn't that good, plus Wayne Rooney can't be 100%.

If anything, all the craziness of this Cup has me remaining optimistic that IF the US takes care of business against Algeria, they could advance further into the knockout stages.  The US would be underdogs against any of the group D trio they'd be likely to face, but I wouldn't be terrified of any of those potential match-ups.  Just three days before boys can get the win their first round efforts already got them deserve.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

News and Bits - One Day Before Kickoff

Just one day before the fun kicks off with South Africa hosting perennial second round losers Mexico.  So I'm sure everyone is fiending for their World Cup fix. There's plenty out there to read previewing the Cup, but here are some not so serious stuff to beware of.

It's being reported that FIFA apparently requires its referees to learn English swear words for the World Cup.  Not just for the all-English speaking USA-England match mind you.  Haven't you always wondered how the various teams and referees communicate when you have a Spanish speaking ref mediating an argument between a German and a Ghanaian?  Now you know that apparently English is the universal language for telling the ref to go f*ck off. 

While most of your World Cup viewing is going to be early in the morning, so unless you're one of those sick people who somehow can function off only five hours of sleep, you'll also want to be getting to bed early.  However, you might not want to fall asleep too early because the Daily Show, where sadly to say I do in fact get a large portion of my information about the news, is sending senior foreign sports correspondent, John Oliver, to South Africa.  Tonight will air the first segment, which features Oliver, aka Dr. Ian Duncan, psychology professor at Greendale Community College, hanging around the US Men's National Team training camp.  Other segments will follow with the Liverpool supporter (Oliver was born in Birmingham but raised in Liverpool, so I imagine he has extra reason to root against Tim Howard and Landon Donovan).

In further evidence that politicians shouldn't get involved with sporting events, and of course vice versa (I'm looking at you Curt Schilling), the US Consul General in South Africa, Alberta Mayberry, is running her mouth off and claiming that, "Our men are preparing to crush your little boys," and that, "We're a nation of winners - we don't do losing." If this wasn't being reported in the Telegraph I wouldn't guessed it was part of some Onion-style fake article.

While not the Onion, the Sports Pickle is also good for a laugh, and here's a piece on why you should root against the other 31 teams in the World Cup. Want a specific reason to root against Uruguay, look no further. They're greedy bastards, having won two Cups despite having only 3.5 million people, and here in America we don’t take kindly to nations who want to hog a disproportionate share of the world’s resources. And, Uruguay produces no oil. None. What good are they?

With two days before the US-England match, I'm already giddy with anticipation.  And with the early kickoff times during the week, let me just say thank you to ESPN3.  What the hell would I do without you?

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Bradley With Decisions To Make

The US closed out its World Cup tune ups with a 3-1 victory over Australia this morning, leaving Bob Bradley with a few big decisions to ponder.

Starting from the back, this match didn't really provide many answers, other than confirming that the US backline is probably the USA's biggest problem area, not the forwards that so many people fretted over.

Going into the training camp, the first choice back line would have been Spector/Cherundolo-Gooch-DeMerit-Bocanegra.  However, Gooch clearly isn't 100%.  I'm sure Bradley was holding him back because of the horrible field they were playing on, but that doesn't hide the fact that Gooch hasn't played a full match since October.  At one point they followed him walking/jogging during a lull in play, and John Harkes had to call him out on his awkward gait.

Would you trust Gooch against Wayne Rooney?  I wouldn't at this point.  That means the new central pairing is Goodson-DeMerit.  Today was probably DeMerit's worst match with the US that I can remember.  Goodson was just as poor on crosses and set pieces, something he's usually good at, but was more solid that DeMerit.  Is Bradley confident enough in this duo?  Boca is playing every minute at right back, because no matter if Bornstein played much better today in his cameo he still better not see a minute in the World Cup.  So Goodson and DeMerit it is.

On the bright side, the midfield looked good.  Or at least Donovan and Dempsey looked sharp.  Donovan's killer passes are making Buddle and co. look like an actual area of strength.  Bradley was Bradley, tracking back nicely (particularly one nice play where he covered for Bornstein after an ill advised foray).  He almost had another classic Bradley goal, cleaning up a rebound in the box, except Mark Schwarzer made a great reaction save.  (The follow up from that shot was definitely a goal.  Dempsey was onside, Findley was not, but Findley never made a play on the ball.  Bad call by the linesman.)

The only question in midfield is the other center midfielfer.  Rico Clark was ok, generally solid again.  I think it's clear Coach Bradley prefers Clark over Edu or Torres.  Against England he'll clearly go for two defensive mids, and even though I think Edu has a better overall game, Clark is solid enough and will get the nod.  I've liked Torres the best in these friendlies, and he'll definitely see the field at some point, and probably get at least one start in the group stage.

The other dilemma for Bob Bradley is going to be his starting duo up top.  Before the past two matches, this was an area of concern, but I'd have to say I'm not so worried anymore.  Now that's not saying I think Buddle, Findley and Gomez are sure things, but the overall flow of the US attack, with Donovan and Dempsey linking with the forward tandems, has generally produced chances and led to goals. 

One sequence on the counter looked positively Brazilian/Dutch in the 27th minute, when Clark won the ball in the back from Tim Cahill, Goodson released Donovan to one-touch to Bradley, who played to Buddle checking nicely at midfield to one touch right back to Donovan, one touch to Dempsey, who was denied by Schwarzer.  Reminiscent of Donovan's goal against Brazil in the Confederation's Cup final.

The dilemma though is presented by the fact that Jozy Altidore may not be entirely healthy and there's not much separating Buddle, Gomez, and Findley.  If you want another finsher, it looks like Buddle could be called to start, and Gomez is a good option off the bench. 

As the speed option, Findley is sort of infuriating. He made great runs, harassed the Aussie defense, showed surprising touch (and that after his fantastic pass releasing Donovan that led to Jozy's goal against Turkey), BUT also missed a  few glaring chances.  There was no excuse for missing the open net after he beat the offside trap and rounded Schwarzer, and he hit the post on the sequence leading to Dempsey's "goal," though he probably should have scored then too.  And he also never could get the final pass right the could've set up Buddle for a hat trick goal.  As my best friend texted me, he's ALMOST a good player. 

So who starts?  A lot depends on Altidore's ankle.  If he's healthy he still needs to be in the lineup, and whether it's Buddle or Findley opposite him comes down to who has the best chemistry with Jozy.  I'm inclined to go with the speed option Findley so he can harass an England back line that could isn't exactly fleet of foot with Ferdinand now out of the Cup injured. 

The best thing to come out of the past two friendlies is an increased confidence in the US attack, and it's tempering my increased nervousness with the backline.  And let's face it, the English generally present a number of match-up nightmares for the US (good in the air up front and in the back, negating a US strength, and pacy wingers that could expose the slower US fullbacks), so a draw would be a good result.  But I'm being encouraged that a draw is still a good possibility, and win is certainly not of the cards (and neither is an embarrassment).

Just under 7 days before the US adventure kicks off.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Highlighting Youth Development in the US

As the World Cup draws ever nearer, major new outlets are increasing their soccer coverage, ranging from your basic US Men's National Team news to full World Cup team profiles, historical profiles, general interest stories, and other new, fresh takes on the sport.

One topic I've noticed creeping around the landscape recently is the major difference between the development of soccer players across the globe and here in the US.  For those interested, the New York Times Magazine is running a feature on the famed Ajax youth academy.  The article is fairly comprehensive and easily understandable for those who don't know the sport well (or don't know about the famed Ajax training method), as well as having enough interesting reporting and interviews to be worthwhile for those more knowledgeable.

There are a couple basic differences that the article highlights between the US and European approach, all well recognized by us in the soccer community in the USA.  Youth players in the US "pay to play," whereas the European academies are basically free.  US youth teams focus on winning, European academies focus on developing individual skill. US teams play tons of matches and tournaments.  European academies limit the number of games played and focus more on training sessions.

Certainly in other places across the world (South America, Africa) players develop on their own playing pickup matches, "sandlot soccer" if you will.  Of course Europeans expect their best players to be doing that as well, but doing it on their free time.  Which is key, because as a kid you still need your free time.  You're just a kid after all. 

The NYT Magazine article notes that some of this is changing the US, and MLS's youth academies are gradually transitioning to the European model.  The article highlights the DC United youth academy, including 17-year old breakout star in the making, Andy Najar.  Coincidentally enough, ESPN just highlighted the growing MLS academies, in particular Andy Najar, as the future model for US youth development.

The articles detail the debates about the Ajax model in the US, particularly how cultural differences regarding college education for athletes and the wariness of seeing clubs exploiting youths will take time for the US system to evolve into something that produces world class players.  I won't go into further detail, but it's certainly true that the US model needs to shift and that DC United gives a great example (its youth teams are very good both locally and nationally, and it is producing quality pros like Najar and DCU's starting 19-year old keeper Bill Hamid).

The NYT Magazine piece might overstate the nature of the stars Ajax currently produces, but it's worth a look and reading the perspective from scouts, coaches and players involved in the Ajax system.

As a little bonus, check out the highlight of Andy Najar's Open Cup winner last night against Salt Lake.  Too bad he's Honduran, but if the DC academy, or other academies in the US system, can produce more of this, the US National Team will be better off in future World Cups.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Genius Behind World Cup Stars

Only nine days before the World Cup kicks off and 10 days before the cross-Atlantic battle between the US and England. Over the course of the month, many of the world’s greatest athletes will be on display. It’s a long lamented fact that the USA’s best athletes are found in other sports. If Cristiano Ronaldo grew up in the United States, he’d be a wide receiver or third baseman or point guard something. Fortunately for us, he’s a soccer player and we get to watch as he and the likes of Wayne Rooney and Leo Messi show their genius on the pitch during the greatest sporting event on Earth.

A relatively recently published article in the science magazine Discover sheds an interesting light on just why great athletes like Ronaldo and Rooney can in fact be called geniuses. Their brains are simply wired that way.

That’s an oversimplified statement, and it comes as no surprise that athlete’s brains are different from us mere mortals. After all, it takes a certain type of person to dedicate every waking hour to the perfection of their athletic craft, to constantly crave and desire to be the best in his sport. I love soccer (you might say obsessed) and was pretty good at it, but it just wasn’t in my make-up to spend every free minute of my time juggling or dribbling or practicing shooting. Furthermore, thanks in large part to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, it’s more widely understood that becoming a master through practice is more important than genetic gifts alone (you certainly need those gifts, but those alone won’t get you there).

But what exactly happens with all that practice, why can you call the brains of those athletes the brains of geniuses? Well as the article explains, their brains arrive at solutions to problems quicker than most. Not exactly stunning news. But here’s the surprising part, athletes’ brain waves are actually quieter during competition than your average Joe, “which means they devoted less brain activity to these motor tasks than nonathletes did.”

Essentially, this is a scientific, neurological explanation of the difference between those people who “think too much” on the field and those who react more naturally and fluidly. And it’s practice that gets professionals to that expert level where their brain anatomy and neurons can change to become more efficient.

One of the experiments described was performed with soccer players:

“Several years ago Matthew Smith and Craig Chamberlain of the University of Northern Colorado examined the connection between the quieting of the [prefrontal] cortex and athletic ability. They had expert and unskilled soccer players dribble a ball through a slalom course of cones. At the same time, the players were asked to keep an eye on a projector screen on the wall to see when a particular shape appeared. Even with the second task, the seasoned soccer players could dribble at nearly full speed. Unskilled players did much worse than when they were undistracted, however. The disparity suggests that dribbling didn’t tax the expert player’s prefrontal cortex as heavily, leaving it free to deal with other challenges.”

Basically, the experts had uncluttered minds that can more easily solve problems presented by new and additional information in the flow of a performing a task. So Xavi’s mind is actually less busy as he’s controlling the ball and moving into space, allowing him to see the opening that will open a couple seconds later for Leo Messi (or in two weeks, David Villa). Xavi makes those connections easier and more efficiently than say Benny Feilhaber, let alone your average pub player, and apparently his brainwaves would tell us the same.

Contrast the above explanation with the picture of someone’s mind racing, trying to decide what to do with the ball, thinking too much, needing to concentrate hard just to have a proper first touch and dribble forward.

Just a little something for those of us sitting on the couch to think about as Ronaldo, Xavi, and the other geniuses in South Africa are doing their thing.