Wednesday, July 2, 2014

World Cup Musings

Disclaimer: I'm about to embark on an analysis of a sport which I am pretty severely under-qualified to write about. I have never in my life played competitive soccer, not even as a little kid (I played tee-ball and swam instead). But the "gripping drama" (copyright Ian Darke) of the last few weeks has certainly gotten me in its hold; hell, I don't think I've seen more than a few innings of baseball since the World Cup started. Don't worry, footy fans; I'm no Ann Coulter who's going to blather about how soccer is a sign of moral decay. I thoroughly enjoy the sport, but I just don't know it as well as many other people. Experts (paging Richie and Michael), feel free to chime in on the comment board if I make a mistake. Otherwise, onwards and upwards (copyright John Reimers, for those of you who get that joke).

Once upon a time, I thought that baseball was the most backward sport when it came to utilizing available technology to make sure that what happened on the field was called correctly. But soccer takes the cake. It is only now, in 2014, that FIFA has instituted technology to make sure that a goal is, in fact, a goal. Instant replay on the goal line has been around in the NFL for what, twenty years now? But thanks for keeping up with the times, FIFA! Now that they have done that, at least that ensures that everyone knows when a team has actually scored, but there are still issues with officiating that need to be addressed (and likely won't be until long after we have left this mortal coil).

It might be heresy for me, as a former rugby player, to suggest this, but there needs to be another official on the field.* This is an incredibly fast game played by elite, well-conditioned athletes who are the best in the world at what they do. How is anyone supposed to believe that a single middle-aged man can see ninety percent of what happens on a 5000-square meter pitch and call it appropriately when it's easy to see what he's getting wrong with the benefit of HD and close-up replays?

*My old rugby coach, Robert Ahola, probably just threw up in his mouth a little. He always used to say that American football was what happened to rugby after too many engineers got a hold of it, one of the "fixes" being that they put a lot more officials on the field. He has a point, but would one more kill the game?

I think that one key area where another official (with two, they wouldn't have to run as much, and would hopefully stay out of the way of play more - I feel like there's been a lot more referee obstruction in this World Cup than usual) could help is with dives in the box. There has got to be a way to spot floppers better, and to quit rewarding them for bogus fouls like the one that turned the Brazil-Croatia game.** A two-referee system might also be harder to corrupt for those who would seek to fix a match, because they could essentially serve as a check on each other. Even if it will probably never happen, it's something worth exploring.

**Speaking of which, I absolutely LOATHE officials who make themselves the center of attention. After whistling that ridiculous foul and pointing to the spot, the ref in that game made a big show of running in a giant loop towards the back of the goal so he could give one of the Croatians a yellow card. The best officials are the ones you barely notice who still manage the game well.

One other thing that I think might be good to change is how the bracket works for the knockout rounds, at least in terms of playing teams from your own confederation. Five of the six South American outfits reached the knockout stages this year...but four of them had to eliminate each other in the round of sixteen (Brazil-Chile and Colombia-Uruguay). Couldn't FIFA ensure both that a) teams from the same group cannot possibly meet again until the semifinals AND b) teams from the same confederation can't meet until the quarterfinals (barring, of course, more than eight European teams qualifying for the knockout stages)? This year, for example, no confederation got more than six spots (Europe), with South America getting five, CONCACAF three, and Africa two teams. Instead of forcing those South American teams to play each other, for example, one could have shifted four teams like so; Chile and Uruguay could have swapped places with Nigeria and Algeria, and boom, problem solved. I realize it introduces more uncertainty into teams' eventual round of sixteen matchups, but also doesn't force teams to play against each other early when they already see so much of those opponents in qualifying (particularly the South American squads, of which there are just ten - Guyana and Suriname play in CONCACAF). The draw felt particularly unfortunate for Chile, who probably have one of the six or seven most talented (and entertaining) squads in the tournament, but wound up facing their longtime Kryptonite in Brazil (all-time record of 48-7-14 in favor of Brazil, with precisely zero of those seven Chilean wins coming in Brazil, and a goal differential of -104).

And so we come to it. Yesterday's game was oh-so painful in the end, but this felt like the best US performance since we started qualifying regularly for the World Cup back in 1990. Yes, I know that there was the quarterfinal run back in 2002, but we were in a much easier group back then, and playing with much lower expectations. I feel like if we had just gotten that last set piece goal and gotten to a shootout, the odds would have been on our side after Tim Howard had just submitted perhaps the finest performance by anyone in an American jersey, ever.*** As it is, we'll have to settle for a ninth-place finish and wonder what kind of instrumental changes will come to US soccer over the next four years.

***Someone made this darkly hilarious tweet yesterday; "Tim Howard could have saved my parents' marriage."

Every four years, it seems that people wonder if soccer is finally going to make it on the same level as our other professional sports. The thing is, it already may have. Owing largely to climate, soccer long ago outstripped hockey in participants and spectators. MLS attendance is up to a 19,000 average these days, fifty percent more than a decade ago, which is more than the average attendance for both the NHL and the NBA, and MLS viewers skew young (as might be expected).  With a new, $600 million Fox/ESPN deal, MLS now has more staying power, plus additional cash to both invest in its own developmental programs and pay higher salaries for better players to increase the quality of competition now. A whole generation of kids and teenagers has now grown up watching MLS games and the major foreign leagues on television, and don't really know a world without Landon Donovan, Tim Howard, and Clint Dempsey being household names. And more kids today play soccer in this country than any other sport except basketball. Soccer has indeed "made it" in the United States, whatever the get-off-my-lawn types might say.

What will change at the upper levels of the national team? After the game yesterday, my friend Michael vented some of his frustrations at the typical American style of play:

Dear USA,

It's time for a change. We've brought the same three things to every World Cup for the past 7 Trips - phenomenal goalkeeping, athleticism, and determination... We've never brought ball possession, a dangerous attack, a dominating midfield, etc... The thing that scares our opponents the most is our hope.. Even the catchy "I believe we can win" chant reinforces the mindset that we're not the better team, to each game. We need more.. Our identity is what is holding us back. We need to change our style of play. We need to play with more skill, possession, and dare I say "swagger"! We need young overconfident players to answer the call. I'd strap the boots on again but I'd for sure get some serious blisties on my feet and I'm not about that life anymore. Only 4 or 5 players from this squad should return for 2018. The only players allowed to play in MLS are our defenders. Midfielders and forwards all need to play abroad. Why? Because the most dangerous goalscorer in MLS the last few was ineffective this World Cup, wondolowski) Julian Green should be put on a TSA watch list so he can't ever step in the USA again until the World Cup is held here. Our chant for the next World Cup should be "WE WILL, WE WILL, ROCK YOU! (stomp stomp clap)". At least it gives us a sense of confidence.

Rant over

Michael raises some very good points. We HAVE brought the same qualities to every single tournament that we've played in, and it has not been enough to beat the big boys on the international stage. This is a style or a mindset that has transcended coaches and players alike: our best player is pretty much always our goalie; we never hold on to the ball enough; and our forwards can never seem to score when it matters. We have to hold on to the ball better and give our defense a rest; how often do you see two or three passes before someone launches a long ball down the field hoping for a quick strike? Those kinds of plays have their utility, to be sure, but they're lower-percentage chances, and when the ball is lost, all of a sudden you're back to chasing the other team around the field. Changing the way we play in this country is an extraordinary task, but it's one that Jurgen Klinsmann was brought on specifically to do. As youth soccer keeps moving more towards the goal of "develop better players" (meaning more possession and smart tactics) and further away from "winning games" (meaning booting the ball downfield and hoping for the best), the products of that development will start showing up on a world stage.

While I agree that heart and athleticism can only take you so far without the requisite technical ability, I would challenge the assertion that only four or five players from this squad should return when the World Cup reconvenes in Russia in four years' time. Some of them are bound to age off the roster: Jermaine Jones (probably the best player, non-Howard division, for the USA in this World Cup), Kyle Beckerman, DaMarcus Beasley, Brad Davis, Chris Wondolowski, and Nick Rimando are all between 31 and 35 years of age now, and extremely unlikely to have a further impact on the international level. Also in that age group are captain Dempsey (31) and Howard (35). Given the poor record of American strikers, one could hope that Dempsey may be able to hang around for four more years a la Germany's Miroslav Klose as a potential impact substitute.**** As for Howard, goalies last forever as long as their reflexes stay intact, and he is still one of the five or so best in the world, although as per usual we have a deep bench of quality keepers waiting for him to turn in the #1 jersey (Brad Guzan, Cody Cropper, Sean Johnson, and Bill Hamid, to name four). If this was Howard's swan song, though, what a way to go out, with a record-setting and mind-bending performance that just left everyone in awe.

****One hopes that should Dempsey return in four years, he won't look as decrepit as Uruguay's Diego Forlan and Diego Lugano did this year at a similar age. It's really hard to run around a soccer pitch with a monster churrasco fork sticking out of your back.

The list of players who should definitely come back in four years (barring catastrophic injury or loss of form, naturally) begins with Bradley (currently 26), whose passing was often suspect but whose field coverage and generalship the Americans quite simply could not live without. Even if Dempsey or Howard is back in four years, Bradley is likely to be the USA captain in 2018. Jozy Altidore seems like he's been around forever (71 caps and 23 goals), but he's only 24, and his absence was pretty severely felt throughout the team's four matches. The younger Germans should all return to play potentially key roles; John Brooks (21), Julian Green (19), and Fabian Johnson (26) all had moments of brilliance in Brazil, and Timothy Chandler (24) was one of two outfield players not to see any action. The other, Mix Diskerud (23), will be an option for Russia as well. DeAndre Yedlin (20) was a hugely important substitute this time around, and his speed and crossing ability will be a major asset on the flank going forward. Speaking of Yedlin and Green, raise your hand if you questioned Klinsmann's inclusion of them on the final squad over the likes of Donovan. Yeah, me too. But both of those decisions turned out to be prescient. That leaves six question marks: Omar Gonzalez (25), Geoff Cameron (28), Matt Besler (27), Alejandro Bedoya (27), Graham Zusi (27), and Aron Johannsson (23). Right now, in the aftermath, I would say yes on Gonzalez and Besler (both of whom played extremely on the back line) as well as Johannsson (assuming further development), maybe on Cameron and Zusi (who had their moments, but there are likely to be better options in four years, and no on Bedoya. Assuming "maybe" means "no," that would leave eleven holdovers: Bradley, Altidore, Brooks, Green, Johnson, Chandler, Diskerud, Yedlin, Besler, Johannsson, and Gonzalez.

There will probably be some kind of balancing act between raising the profile and prestige of MLS (underway) and encouraging the best American players to play against the best competition in Europe. This year's squad did have more players playing in Europe (thirteen) than in North America (ten, all but Beasley in MLS), with eight of those thirteen in either the Bundesliga (Green, Chandler, Johnson, and Brooks) or EPL (Howard, Guzan, Cameron, and Altidore). More top American players need to go overseas, and stick there (and not just goalies). That way they'll be exposed to better competition and different styles of play than the treadmill of "three great saves and pray for a breakthrough goal" that the national side seems to be stuck on.

Even though we lost, this was a memorable World Cup run for the United States, and one that the team can be extremely proud of. Soccer is a game that often presents just a few chances per game to make a winning impact; the American team was fortunate to be around until the end despite the Belgians having about a 25-5 edge in that respect. So let's tip our caps to Klinsmann and his players, and start cheering for Costa Rica to shock the world next weekend. I'll leave the last word to my dad, with his simple eloquence:

Thank you, USMNT. To a nation that expects success as it's birthright, and is rather afflicted with hubris on a given day - and that calls a sporting event "The World Series" that Dominicans didn't even play until, like, 1959 or so - that a particular championship is a very long journey may come as a difficult lesson for those of us in the seats. But the men who wore our colors represented the best of our nation in grit, in character, and in perseverance. So if that doesn't make their sport an 'American' sport, then I'm sorry for you, because today on the pitch in Salvador, some fine Americans gave it their all. Thank you, guys.