Winning Everywhere but on the Pitch

The U.S.’s World Cup run is done, ending in the Round of 16 for a second straight time after a 2-1 extra time loss to Belgium. The Belgians were the better team; while the U.S. did blow a few good chances, they were hardly carrying the play, rescued time and time again by Tim Howard in goal. Belgium may be small, but it’s loaded with a golden generation of top-flight European talent, and they should give Argentina a good run on Saturday.

The biggest issue for the U.S. was its midfield play and lack of possession. Michael Bradley has been made the scapegoat here, and not without reason, though anyone who was expecting him to be Xavi or Schweinsteiger or Pirlo was in for a rude surprise. The U.S.’s defensive tactics covered for a lot of that hole, but if they want to be more than an exciting upset threat, they really need to start controlling play more. There were some key steps this Cup, with a win over nemesis Ghana and a near-win against a good Portugal team, but the U.S. remains somewhere on the outside of the world’s elite, and that #13 FIFA ranking, for all of its flaws, probably gets things about right.

Even so, the Cup was, for the most part, vindication for Jurgen Klinsmann, who coupled his enthusiasm and mind games with German efficiency and had a knack for making the right substitutions when injuries didn’t force his hand. Whine all you want about ESPN’s bitter robot analyst—err, Landon Donovan—or some of the comments to the media, but the U.S. coach knew what he was doing from start to finish, and his fine touch with the likes of DeAndre Yedlin and Julian Green suggests a bright future. Klinsmann took a team with minimal top-end talent and serious injury issues and put them in a position to win. There is a vision here that goes far beyond the 2014 World Cup, and the U.S. has the right man directing this long and arduous ascendancy to soccer relevance.

Mexico, meanwhile, did what the Mexicans do in the World Cup, likewise bowing out in the Round of 16 for a sixth consecutive time. This was the most excruciating, though, as they held a lead over the favored Dutch with less than five minutes to play. The end result wasn’t a huge surprise—Miguel Herrera’s very conservative approach after the Mexican goal left El Tri a bit too reliant on the heroics of Guillermo Ochoa, and exposed that back line so much that it was hard not to think it was just a matter of when the Dutch would strike. The cautious approach worked in the group stage, and it’s hard to rip on Herrera’s tactics after he turned a struggling squad into one that looked pretty good in its first three games, but the Mexicans needed a bit more positivity to compete with the world’s elite. It wasn’t beyond their ability.

The eight group winners may all have gone through to the quarterfinals, but that hardly suggests any sort of dominance by the traditional powers. The great Spanish dynasty is dead, and no one is leaping to fill the vacuum. The Brazilians don’t appear terribly cohesive, and have issues in back; the biggest things they have going for them are geography and Neymar’s heroics. Argentina is in a similar boat, though Lionel Messi might just be good enough to carry his nation to the title in spite of it all. Their side of the bracket is open for the taking, and one gets the sense that they have yet to show us their best. The quarterfinal between France and Germany, meanwhile, should be a thriller between two of Europe’s top contenders. France’s easy road so far is a mild surprise after their debacles in recent years, but the talent is clearly there; the Germans, while perhaps not quite as crisp as their western neighbors, are still probably better when playing to their potential, lacking the disjointedness of their fellow favorites from South America.

The other four teams left in the race offer some intrigue, too. The Colombians are unproven but perhaps the most exciting team in the Cup, and James Rodríguez has the potential to take his coming-out party to the next stage if he can exploit the gaps often left by the Brazilian defense. The Belgians are also new to this stage, and while they lack the dynamism of the Colombians, they have enough top-flight players to trouble Argentina. On the other end of the spectrum, this great Dutch generation refuses to die, and have earned themselves a favorable quarterfinal against Cup darlings Costa Rica. If the Orange Crush can handle the upstarts, who’s to bet against their tried and true formula?

Whatever the end result, this Cup has had the feel of a watershed moment for U.S. soccer. For the first time, it felt like more than a fringe sport. It was hard not to get sucked in when walking into a bar packed with people in red, white, and blue chanting USA! and that cheer that was cool in hockey three years ago, that collective ecstasy and frustration shared by everyone. The aggravating nature of soccer—ninety minutes of frustration in the hope of one or two seconds of brilliance—lends itself to that unity, and when the ball finally does hit the back of the net, everyone gets it. It has its flaws, but the simplicity makes the appeal universal.

All of that said, I have some reservations about soccer going mainstream. There’s the obvious complaint about a broader but less knowledgeable fan base, leaving us with the painful Landon Donovan whiners who didn’t actually know anything about him beyond that one goal against Algeria. But the World Cup also comes with a dose of false cosmopolitanism that ignores the corrupt and moneyed interests that dominate FIFA, an organization in which the New York Yankees would look frugal and kindly to their fellow franchises. FIFA is a fairly accurate reflector the world’s power structure, and I do not mean that as a compliment. The Cup is nice and international, which is all good fun when you’re a kid and learning to appreciate all of the silly little things that make countries unique, but becomes a bit facile after a while, with Mexicans in ponchos and Americans playing up a self-consciously overdone U.S. bravado (‘Murica!). Soccer is a global sport, and that is a double-edged sword; it brings us closer to the rest of world, but abandoning other sports in its favor eats at the diversity that makes things interesting. If our “shared language” boils down to a bunch of stereotypes, Coke ads, pop stars at the kickoff concert, and rolling about on the ground in feigned pain, is it really a language worth sharing?

It can go deeper than that, though, so while soccer will never be my first love, there are aspects that continue to grow on me. For the U.S., it’s time to look ahead to Russia in 2018 with ever-rising hopes; in the meantime, we’ll hope the remaining eight add yet more drama to what has already been a superb Cup. And even if they don’t, maybe will get a few memorable little nibbles.

(Can I get some credit for going over 1,000 words before making a Luis Suárez pun?)


From One Cup to Another

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.

The Reign in Spain

Europe crowned a new champion on Saturday, as Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid clashed for the title in Lisbon. For a second straight year, the Champions League final featured two teams from the same country, with a feisty upstart taking on an established, incredibly wealthy power. Both years, the upstart has played brilliantly, gave it everything they could, been in good position to pull it off near the end of the game…and lost.

Stylistically, the upstarts were pretty different. Borussia Dortmund pushed the pace and went up and down the pitch with Bayern Munich last season, while Atlético Madrid’s approach was about as defensive as it gets. Led by the Man in Black, Diego Simeone, they brought a heavy dose of physicality, roughing up Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo in the early going and consigning him to a very minor role in the win. Their incisive interceptions frustrated the Real attack, and they pounced on Iker Casillas’s error in goal to grab the early lead. But their legs began to fail them as the game progressed, and despite countless narrow escapes, they couldn’t keep out a Sergio Ramos header in stoppage time. Spent, Atlético conceded twice in extra time, and after ten years and over a billion dollars spent in the effort, Real Madrid are champions of Europe once again.

Two players on this Real Madrid team get all the attention: Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, the $100 million man who, after countless wasted chances, finally headed home the game-winner. But in reality, neither of these players makes Los Blancos go; that honor goes to the midfield duo of Angel Di Maria and Luka Modric, who had the most energy on the pitch by extra time, setting up Ronaldo and Bale time and time again before one of them finally hit paydirt. Goals are rare enough in high-level fútbol that the goal-scorers will always get outsize attention, and Ronaldo and Bale certainly have their moments of brilliance, but in so many games, the supporting cast gets far too little recognition.

If I may let my colors show some, there is nothing terribly inspiring in a Real championship, but in addition to the under-recognized midfielders, one other man deserves some credit: the patient, low-key Carlo Ancelotti, who did what the far more dynamic José Mourinho could not. The Real manager turned his players loose and let them use their prodigious skill, and in the end, it all paid off. Even with all of the resource advantages in the world, winning it all isn’t easy, and Ancelotti was willing to take some bumps in the early going to get it right in May. When the wealthy traditional powers win, it sets the standard for everyone else, and while there’s a risk of European soccer drifting toward oligarchy, things are still unpredictable enough that a team like Atlético can frustrate Real for 92 minutes. Their championship should only inspire everyone else to get on to their level.

The ending will long haunt Atlético, and with a payroll less than one third of Real’s, they’ll struggle to hold on to many of their top end players after this season. This was probably their great chance, and as impressive as their defense can be, it alone can’t win a championship. Still, it was a heroic performance from Simeone’s squad, which elevated the standard for tough play in Spain and won their first La Liga title in 18 years. Their coach is a rising star, and they played their two biggest games—the Liga season-ending, title-clinching draw with Barcelona and the Champions League final with Real—with near nothing from two of their finest players, Diego Costa and Arda Turan. With Simeone in charge and some smart personnel decisions, they’ll continue to put pressure on the two big guns in Spanish soccer.

This all brings us to the team left out of the party in Lisbon, Barcelona. The Catalan power, rulers of the European fútbol scene for the past six years, did not win a single trophy, falling to Real in the Copa del Rey and Atlético in La Liga and the Champions League. To be sure, the gap is a small one: they dismantled British champion Manchester City in the Champions League, tied Atlético five times and lost once (1-0) in six meetings, and went 2-1 against Real. They lost all three major trophies by a single goal, and with Bayern Munich looking like they were trying to shove square pegs into round holes in their first season with Pep Guardiola at the helm, it’s not hard to argue that the three best club teams in the world right now are all Spanish.

Yet the times are changing at Barça, with veteran keeper Victor Valdes and longtime captain Carlos Puyol headed for the exits, and Xavi no longer in his prime. Argentine coach Tata Martino got more flak than he deserved for his management of an injury-riddled squad, but while his tactics were competent, the consensus was that he didn’t do enough to light a fire under his stars, and he is one and done. Add in the kerfuffle over Neymar’s contract, a (temporarily suspended) transfer ban for violating stupid but clear rules in their handling of several players in their youth academy, and a lot of squabbling on the board, and it looks like a mess.

Barça has moved swiftly in the past week, bringing in fiery former star Luis Enrique to take the reins and tapping Marc Andre ter Stegen as Valdes’ successor. The board is likely to open up the pocketbook, and Real’s win only rubs more salt in the wound. Even in a “down” year, Lionel Messi is still better than pretty much anyone out there; with Andrés Iniesta and Sergio Busquets playing at an extremely high level and younger players like Neymar and Jordi Alba in the fold, the core is there for a return to dominance.

In the end, though, the big winners of this European soccer season are the Spanish. Yes, La Liga is top-heavy, but Spanish teams were strong across all European competitions, and the imbalance is far worse in some other leagues. And when the big guns do clash, it makes for some of the most thrilling fútbol in the world, with the distinct styles and sheer star power on display. For all that bothers me about club soccer, from its inequities and questionable international oversight to its inane rumor mills to its viciously short leashes, these matches still offer some of the most compelling sports drama out there.


Since I’m writing about soccer, I’d be remiss not to mention the big news coming out of the U.S. National Team this past week: head coach Jurgen Klinsmann elected not to pick Landon Donovan, the longtime star and hero of the U.S.’s 2010 Cup run, for Brazil. It’s a gutty call, and earned him plenty of ire, especially among more casual fans, who see the 32-year-old as the face of U.S. soccer. It might just cost him his job if the U.S. doesn’t get out of the group stage—and that’s something I wouldn’t bet on happening at this point, with or without Donovan.

In principle, though, I’ll defend the decision. I don’t watch enough MLS to comment on Donovan’s form, but the reviews are generally not great, and, hard as it may be, there comes a time when teams have to move on. Klinsmann’s youth movement is a gamble, but it aims toward a brighter future, and in general, it’s a good sign to see that U.S. soccer is generating a bench deep in viable options instead of clinging to an aging fan favorite. I’m not sure I’d have done the same thing—I like the idea of a veteran, professional goal-scoring weapon off the bench—but in principle, this is a case where reasonable minds can disagree.

The most striking thing about Klinsmann’s squad, though, is its reliance on players with dual citizenship, some of whom barely qualify as “American.” It’s not that I’m chauvinistic about these things; it’s encouraging to see players excited to put on the red, white, and blue, and given my own roots, I’m rather partial to German-Americans. Plenty of other nations, including France and Germany, have had success with players who were born on different continents. Still, I can’t help but be reminded of Herb Brooks’s outrage when USA Hockey brass rushed to naturalize Canadians for U.S. Olympic hockey teams in the 1970s. U.S. hockey, Brooks argued, would never reach its potential so long as it relied on imports. Instead, it had to do the dirty work of training its own kids up from the youngest ages, building as broad a pyramid as possible to generate a self-sustaining pool of talented players. There’s no doubt Brooks’ strategy worked, and continues to work. To Klinsmann’s credit, he’s done some work on that front as well, and U.S. Soccer has given him a lot of time and freedom to do his thing. U.S. soccer doesn’t have much to lose, so it might as well let the man see out his contract and see what he can do. I appreciate Donovan’s career, but I also look forward to a day when the U.S.’s most illustrious goal on the international stage isn’t against Algeria.

Whatever one thinks of the Donovan saga, we’ve got less than three weeks until the World Cup. In Brazil. Need I say more?