From One Cup to Another

14 Jun

The hockey season came to an end on Friday night, with the Los Angeles Kings collecting a second Stanley Cup in three years. They dispatched of the New York Rangers in five tidy games; sure, three went to overtime, but the Rangers never could quite shake off the sense that the real battle for the title came in the Western Conference Final between Los Angeles and the Chicago Blackhawks. That series was the highlight of the postseason, a reminder of everything the NHL can be as the winners of four of the past five Cups seesawed back and forth over the course of seven games.

The Kings are deserving champs, a thoroughly complete team that made dramatic comebacks and overtime thrillers a matter of daily routine. Drew Doughty and Anze Kopitar are at the top of their games, Marian Gaborik proved the ideal rental of a championship caliber finisher, and Justin Williams and Alec Martinez provided the clutch heroics. Los Angeles may never be a proper hockey town, but the Kings are starting to develop a reputation, an image cultivated by the stone-faced Darryl Sutter, whose fixation on the moment made it easy to settle into the rhythm of the playoffs and take everything in stride.

The overmatched Rangers, meanwhile, were left to lean on the brilliance of Henrik Ludnqvist in goal. Smothered under wave after wave of King forecheckers, the Rangers iced and coughed up the puck far too often, leaving King Henrik as their sole line of defense. He singlehandedly gave them a shot in Game Five, but the Ranger skaters, already outclassed by their counterparts, looked to be out of gas.

The playoffs were also a coming out party for Ryan McDonagh, the Ranger defenseman and Cretin-Derham Hall alumnus. While not flawless, McDonagh was a wrecking ball throughout, and his lasered shots from the point were among the most effective weapons in the New York arsenal. If his shot had gone a half-inch to the left in the first overtime on Friday night, and we’re probably getting ready for Game Six. The 2007 Mr. Hockey can now claim the mantel of best Minnesotan in the NHL, and from there, it’s not too much of a stretch to place him near the top of the best Americans in the league. Of course it can be hard to compare positions, and Patrick Kane is probably better when he’s at the top of his game (which is not exactly every game he plays), but McDonagh is right up there with anyone. I am annoyed by attempts to use individual players to build up or tear down certain development paths—using such logic makes one a better cherry-picker than Dave Spehar—but McDonagh’s prowess at the very least shows that Minnesota high school kids can become franchise players without running halfway across the continent to get to that point.

And now, after spending so many hours watching artistry on ice sheets, we turn southward to look for it in a jungle. Three days into the World Cup, the race for the title has only tightened. Host Brazil is the obvious favorite, but they didn’t exactly look like a championship caliber squad in the opener. Sure, they won 3-1, but they were the beneficiaries of some generous refereeing and shoddy goalkeeping, and showed serious weaknesses down their flanks. Croatia, meanwhile, can be reasonably proud of its effort, and has some chance to go through to the second round.

The big shocker came on Day Two, when the Dutch dismantled Spain 5-1 in a rematch of the last Cup final. The men in orange, after entering the Cup with little fanfare, are suddenly back among the contenders, while Spain now looks like the old team past its prime. The loss naturally brought about some talk of the demise of tiki-taka; I’m not sure it’s a condemnation of the tactic so much as it is a sign of decline among this squad’s longtime core. As Barcelona’s parallel (relative) struggles have shown over the past two years, tiki-taka requires a relentless work rate, something that older players just may not have, especially in the Brazilian heat. Their next match, coming against a decent Chile side that won its opener, will be instructive. It’s worth remembering that they lost their 2010 opener to a weak Switzerland side before kicking it into gear.

Speaking of looking old, Uruguay sure did in a 3-1 stunner of a loss against Costa Rica on Saturday. With Luis Suarez on the bench and injured, the rest of the squad melted about the pitch in Fortaleza, allowing Los Ticos to impose their will with surprising ease. Colobmia’s impressive win over Greece, on the other hand, marked them as a potential player, especially given their weak group; they now join Belgium among the chic picks to make a rare venture into the later rounds. And age showed no signs of slowing Italy, whose 2-1 victory over England may have been the most championship-worthy performance to date. Andrea Pirlo remains peerless at age 35, and Mario Balotelli’s presence insures the Italians won’t be exemplars of bus-parking boredom, as they occasionally can be.

Mexico opened with a 1-0 victory over Cameroon that could easily have been more lopsided. El Tri hobbled into the Cup, but the core of this team did win a gold medal two years ago in London, and new manager Miguel Herrera hasn’t been afraid to shake things up in pursuit of a winning formula. So far, so good for the boys south of the border; Brazil awaits next. The U.S., meanwhile, has to be excited to get out on the pitch on Monday so that Jurgen Klinsmann is no longer the focus of the headlines. It has been anything but a smooth run-up to the Cup for the American skipper, and while I largely support his vision, I wonder how long it will take for him to wear out his welcome if things keep up like this. It doesn’t matter how good a coach’s ideas are if he cannot command the respect of his players. With the U.S. stuck in the group of death, any realistic judgment of Klinsmann’s efforts will have to take much more than the results into account.

My pick to win it all remains the Argentines, though I admit part of that may be my well-hidden diabolical side coming out as I try to imagine an Albiceleste victory parade in Rio. Argentina has a few questions on defense and their unmatched strikeforce will need to find some chemistry if the whole is to exceed the sum of the parts. It may also be a while before they’re seriously tested, as they’ve drawn a cakewalk of a group. Messi and Friends sailed through the early rounds four years ago, but Germany took them apart in the knockout stage. The question here is one of discipline: can this team come together in the homeland of its most bitter rival?

When it comes to discipline, Germany and Italy always lead the pack; while Europeans traditionally don’t do well in South America, those two are clearly among the safest picks for a title at the moment. Portugal is also somewhere in the picture, depending on the state of Cristiano Ronaldo’s knee; even with him, they don’t exactly play a thrilling brand of futebol. The French and English camps are surprisingly quiet; for once, the expectations around those two squads might be realistic, and it will be interesting to see if they, like the Dutch, can serve up a reminder of their proud histories. The early returns on England are not exactly glowing, while the French get underway Sunday against bottom-feeder Honduras. (Spanish pun alert.)

Heat and referee controversies aside, the games so far have been defined by a lot of offense. That’s great for the tournament as a whole, though it’s worth noting that some of the best performances—like those of the Dutch and Costa Ricans—weren’t the result of throwing attackers forward with reckless abandon; instead, they focused on good discipline first, and let a select few forwards roam freely to create their chances. One is reminded of that positivist slogan across the heart of the globe on the Brazilian flag: ordem e progresso. Order and progress. It had mixed results as a turn of the century political platform, but as a maxim for modern futebol, it gets things about right. The Spaniards might rebound and the Argentines have yet to unveil their approach, but I wouldn’t bet on a variant of Total Football winning this Cup. There is too much parity, too many teams well-built to rely on the counter, and too much humidity. The eventual winner will be above all a disciplined squad, and will couple that with enough offensive initiative to eclipse those who park the bus. We’ll check back in a month to see who that might be.

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