Wednesday, July 16, 2014

2014 FIFA World Cup: Germany, Building the Monster

When the German National Anthem played out before the Final, I remembered the first time I remember hearing the smooth Anthem of Die Manschhaft, back before the Final of EURO ’08, when they played, and were filleted by Spain. Spain was just entering its Golden Generation, they were about to revolutionize the sport. For all that came out of that seminal win for the Spanish, the possession numbers weren’t that ridiculous. Spain played fast and loose, they attacked more directly than people remember. They weren’t the team they were in 2010 yet, when they seemed to drain the life out of opponents. They were still brilliant though. They won 1-0 off the strength of a great individual goal by Fernando Torres. The German coach that day was Joachim Low, in his first major tournament in charge. The German team that day mostly comprised of the same players that starred for Germany’s surprising run to the 2006 World Cup Semis, played in Germany. The names were familiar. Ballack, Klose, Podolski, Metzelder, Frings, Lehmann. But added to those were a few new names, like Lahm, who had grown a lot in two years, or Schweinsteiger, who burst onto the scene in that tournament. Spain’s dynasty started that day, but so did Germany’s march to the 2014 World Cup. It just took a bit longer.

Germany’s recent success at Major Tournaments is astounding. They’ve gone Semis-Finalist-Semis-Semis-Champion at the last five from the 2006 World Cup to the 2014 World Cup. They’ve been deep in all, but it was only the last three where there was real expectations. That’s when Thomas Muller was discovered, when Mesut Ozil was placed into the lineup, when Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng were put in Central Defense, and when the Polish Duo of strikers were being slowly phased in and out. They lost the 2010 World Cup Semifinal to Spain and then were shocked in the Euro ’12 Semis by Italy (who pretty much owns Germany in major tournaments) but you could see the team getting better and better and better. It wasn’t a question of ‘If?’ but ‘When?’, and that answer is right now.

The two players that combined to score the World Cup winning goal, Andre Schurrle and Mario Goetze, are 23 and 22. They were 15 and 14 when Germany hosted the World Cup, and 17 and 16 when they lost the Euro Final. They grew up in a Germany that was changing the way it played football, to add more fluidity and possession to its ruthful, tactical brilliance that had defined the country’s National Team for (very successful) decades. Jurgen Klinsmann started this process, but Joachim Low spearheaded it forward and perfected it. They had a concerted, country-wide effort to raise kids to play a certain way. The scariest part, though, is Schurrle and Goetze are just two of a long pipeline, many of whom haven’t even arrived yet. Germany will be good for a long time. Even scarier is that they aren’t relying on generational talents to make their system hum like Spain was in Xavi and Iniesta. No, these are just a collection of very good players. None brilliant, but all good enough to be a dominant team.

Germany isn’t boring anymore. They might never be again. They’ve found this recipe that works so well, and have drilled it into perfection. It is using the possession principles of Spain to have a fluid midfield, with the size and speed that Germany has always had to have a ‘Plan B’ if possession isn’t working, something Spain has really missed really since 2008. Of course it helps to have a roster full of stars, and people like Miroslav Klose who is ageless and Thomas Muller who is Klose’s heir in World Cup scoring records. But it also helps to have consistency and compatibility. Seven German Players who suited up for the final (including the injured Sami Khedira) were on the field in the 2010 Semifinal, including Neuer, Muller, Lahm, Schweinsteiger, Boateng, Ozil and Klose. Goetze and Hummels were both on the team for Euro 2012. Now, Klose definitely won’t be there in four years time, and Schweinsteiger and Lahm are 50/50, but the rest should all be there. They have a youth that the World Cup winner hasn’t had since maybe France in 1998. They should have a staying power that should last a while.

Football never works that way, though. Only two times has a team repeated as World Cup Champions, with Italy going back-to-back in 1934 & 1938, and Brazil doing it in 1958 & 1962. Only on two other occasions has the defending Champ made it back to the Final (Argentina in 1990 and Brazil in 1998). Four years is a long time. There will likely be 3-4 players who have large impacts on the 2018 World Cup that barely anyone knows right now, like James Rodriguez was for this World Cup. But who is going to stop them? Spain is probably more than 4 years away from rebuilding to what it once was. Italy is losing Pirlo. France is possible if they unearth a few more good players and they are likely the main European Challenger. The answer might just be in the team that Germany drubbed 7-1.

Brazil started this tournament with what seems to have been a very ominous win. They beat Croatia 3-1, but they gave up the first goal in a David Luiz own-goal, and needed Neymar plus some refereeing luck to bail them out. Brazil was criticized after that first match despite the 3-1 win and they never, outside of the game against minnows Cameroon and the 1st half against Colombia, looked like a confident team. They did play like an energized team, but that energy was turned against them against Germany. Still, Brazil has talent, but more than that they have young talent. Neymar should be better, and hopefully less injured, in 2018. Oscar should be better. David Luiz and Tiago Silva should still be there. The 2018 Brazil should be a good side. They have, just looking four years out from now, the best projected Starting XI outside of Germany and maybe France.

Still, it won’t remove what happened last week to Brazil. It does slightly obscure what was an awesome tournament. There were goals aplenty in the best Group Stages I have ever seen. And while scoring in the knockout rounds was actually down from 4 years ago, the scoring in 2010 mostly came in blowouts (Germany beating England 4-1 and then Argentina 4-0) or monotonous wins were Spain choked the life out of their opponent. Here we had tension and drama. We may have had few great games from the QFs on, although to me Netherlands vs. Costa Rica and Brazil vs. Colombia somewhat apply, as does the final, we had great drama. And ultimately we had a Great Team that won the title.

That’s something I love about the World Cup. There are no real fluke winners. Look at the last five World Cup Champions.

There is no fluke among them. Spain, oddly given how many consider them the Greatest International Team Ever, has by far the weakest resume, as they were the only team to lose a game, and scored the fewest goals and had the worst Goal Differential. Germany is slightly skewed by 7-1, but then again Brazil and France enjoyed easy groups where they dominated. Still, those are all quality teams with multiple World Class players. That’s why, really, Argentina had no business winning. Their Goals Allowed to Goals Scored ratio would have matched up with Spain from 4 years ago had they won 0-0 on penalties (overall mark: 5-0-2, with 8 Goals Scored and 3 Goals allowed), but they were nowhere near as controlling and dominant as Spain. Still, Germany is right there with those other teams. Each deserving Champions. Germany waited a long time to finally get back to the top of World Football, but they did it the hard way, the noble way, and they deserve every bit of it.

Who knows what 2018 holds. Germany looks like the easy favorite and unless there is a rash of injuries or there is another Messi lurking that no one knows of yet, they will be the favorites. But it is hard to repeat. It is hard to stay that dominant, that focused, and to win so many close contests. Despite being easily the best team in this tournament, they could have as easily lost the final to Argentina. Had Higuain taken advantage of Kroos’ awful header, or had Messi done what he has done hundreds of times for Barca and scored on that relatively simple chance right at the start of the 2nd half, or had Palacio controlled it better in extra time, Germany may lose. They didn’t, which is nice because they deserved to win. The best team won the World Cup by playing great football that was beautiful and tactically sound at the same time. They did it by coming together as a nation and fostering a style that pervades through that German team and will do so for the forseeable future. Germany is on top of the World, and they might be there a long, long time.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Fargo, aka How to Perfect Short Series Story-telling

When it ended, with that familiar haunting tune playing out the image of Gus, Molly and Greta watching Deal or No Deal, I was not sad that the miniseries was over. I was overjoyed, I was ecstatic, that it happened. It never should have worked. You don’t need me tell you that, the internet, ahead of its premier, told you that. Here was a beloved movie, one of the more famous, and most unique films made by one of our generations most beloved filmmaking duos. It was a film that was famous for its peculiarity, its odd sense of timing, rhythm and scene. There was no way to copy it. They didn’t copy it. They took its world and made it all its own, and somehow just as good. Noah Hawley did it. He took Fargo, changed all the characters, the motives, the violence, the story, the plot, but made it something just as special. Fargo, the TV series, will never get the acclaim the movie got, but even had it never tied itself to the iconic film, it deserves just as much. That was incredible television.

There is a strange, but ultimately nice, movement in TV happening, a shift, really, back to the days of the Anthology format. One season, one story, one cast. Next year, all new people, all new stories, all new cast. The most obvious recent example was True Detective. Now, I realize that American Horror Story has been doing this for years, but few shows in recent memory have ever gotten the publicity in its first season than True Detective did. It became a phenomenon I was not expecting. It really fit all the marks for being a great show, but also took advantage of every part of the anthology format. First, it allowed viewers to know that the story was going to end in full form in this season. It wouldn’t drag, because it couldn’t drag. Also, it allowed a tv show to have Hollywood-caliber stars work it. You can’t get Matthew McCaughnahey to do a television show for four seasons. But one season? Sure. You can get him and Woody Harrelson. True Detective was a great show. It launched this anthology trend. Fargo, however, was better. That was a perfect season of television.

I like the movie Fargo a lot. I find it, aside from The Big Lebowski to be the Coen brother’s most lovable and re-watchable movie. The cast of characters, the weird accent that doesn’t really exist, the strange ‘true story’ of it all allowing for absolutely pointless, but lovable scenes (like where Marge meets Mr. Nagarita). Fargo is brilliant. The TV show? About as good. I’m shocked really that someone could have taken something so unique and done it well without pandering to everything that made the movie great. No, Fargo the tv show was good on its own, it holds up if you’ve never seen the movie, but it also holds up brilliantly if you have. Noah Hawley, the writer/creator/Don of Fargo is a genius, and this was his magnum opus.

What I loved the most about Fargo wasn’t the incredible performance of Billy Bob Thornton in becoming the brilliant character that was Lorne Malvo, a bad guy that was deserving of everything True Detective pretended what ‘The Yellow King’ was. It wasn’t Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard (which was so hilariously close to the name Jerry Lyndegaard), or even Molly Solverson (brilliant name), no it was the 20 characters that came after. Some didn’t make it through the show, like Mr. Numbers and Mr. Wrench, or the hot single Israeli woman who was tempting Gus, or Mrs. Hess. Some were comically disconnected to the events of the season finale, like the whole side-plot with Stavros Milos, his idiot son, Glenn Howerton’s brilliantly-stupid Don Munch, and the plagues. That was a side-plot worthy of a Coen brother’s movie. The whole show was. Brilliant character after brilliant character, all distinct and well-formed and all with a place in a weird world that was Minnesota.

Fargo, for 10 brilliant hours, was just a beautiful story that was told and sold brilliantly. Every actor bought into the little quirks in their characters. Martin Freeman probably had the hardest role to play, going from a whipped husband to evil strategist (his thought process to ‘escape’ and pin his new wife’s murder on Malvo was brilliant if not successful), and he was so good. That accent even was so well played, as he did it slightly more subtlety than William H. Macy did on the movie. Billy Bob was awesome, as we all know, but how good was Allison Tolman as Molly. She also had to play essentially the analogue of one of the most loved character from the movie in Marge, and she sold it well and made that character her own.

The story was just as good though. Because of the length, it had the time to go far farther than the movie went. It became a real character study about how good and how evil people can be, and if evil is a product of situation (Lester) or innate personality and lifestyle (Malvo). It was about two hunts, the one was obvious, Molly knowing that Lester has a role to play in the murder of his wife and Mr. Hess and fighting her life to find out how, and then the one that was forgotten halfway through but brought back with Gus making up for the fact that he let a murderer drive away. The story went through so many interesting turns as well, like poking into religion and karma with the Stavros plot, or family archetypes with Gus, Greta and Molly. It wasn’t as surface as The Wire and not as brilliant either, but few things came as close in such a limited package.

I don’t know if the show will come back. Noah Hawley has said he’ll do another season if he can come up with an idea that is as good. He waited years to get his version of Fargo on air. He finally got his chance and nailed it completely. In a way, I don’t want it to come back. It won’t be the same characters, and it, sadly, won’t be as good. That was too perfect. Contrast to True Detective which I want to come back. I liked it less, but I want to see if Nic Pizzolatto can do it again with a new cast. I want to see if the success of that show was more about the setting, the camera-work, the ridiculous mysticism that amounted to far less, or the amazing performances of McCaughnahey and Harrelson. For Fargo? I don’t care what made it so good, all I care about was that it was. It was a perfect little ‘mini-series’ in its purest form. I don’t want to know anything more. The story was told, the characters came and left and made a lasting impression. He accomplished what he set out to, take an enduring piece of American Film in the movie Fargo, alter it just enough, enhance and change enough things, and repackage it is something different but no less awesome.

Mini-Series, or more aptly, Anthology-Shows may be a recurring trend in the future of television. It makes sense. It allows you to tell self-contained stories, it removes issues about serial nature of shows or making sure people get continuity. It allows shows to capture big stars for a year and getting performances that are rare on TV in terms of rawness and size. There are so many great ways that Anthology Series have enhanced TV viewing. The thing is Fargo just perfected all of them. It told a self-contained story that doesn’t have to go any further. It is rare I’ve seen a show finish and not ask ‘what next?’. Sure, the fact that I know what could be next won’t be about these people, but I don’t want to know. I just want to watch it again. Nothing felt so good than hearing the familiar strains of the movie’s defining score play us out to black, or in this case white, and thinking, “Man, that was awesome,” and knowing and not caring that nothing more will happen. Nothing more needs to happen.  

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

2014 FIFA World Cup: Brazil's Different Place in History

So, what compares to what happened yesterday in Belo Horizonte (or Belo Horizonch, as they pronounce it)? Nothing really. Nothing ever comes close to seeing the 5-times World Champions, who haven’t lost a competitive game at home since 1975, lose 7-1 in a World Cup Semifinal, and not only lose by that seemingly made up score, but trail 5-0 after just 30 minutes. Nothing. That will be a memorable, infamous game for as long as the World Cup is played. That will be repeated endlessly the next time these two Footballing Titans meet. That will be the takeaway from this World Cup unless Messi scores 4 goals in the next two games. The story of the World Cup was written. In many ways, that might be the biggest sports story of the year. This was Brazil’s tournament. No team has probably faced as much pressure heading into a World Cup than Brazil.

They needed to make up for their losses in the QFs to France and Netherlands in ’06 and ’10. They hadn’t made a Semifinal since ’02. Brazil had never gone three straight World Cups without reaching the last 4 (which is absurd). They did make the last four, but they seemed a little overwhelmed the whole time. Their first match wasn’t great, but they won 3-1. They actually played better in their draw to Mexico, and then finished off the Group Stage with the most criticized 4-1 win ever. It was unfair, really. This team went 2-0-1 in the Group Stage, scoring 7 goals and giving up 2. You know who else did exactly that? Germany. Sure, they were nervous against Chile, but they pulled through. Hell, World Cup winners all the time need to win close games. Italy in ’06 got bailed out in the Round of 16 with a 2nd Half Stoppage Time penalty to win 1-0 against Australia of all teams. Spain won all four of their knockout games 1-0 in ’10. Teams don’t fly to World Cup titles. Brazil even played a confident, quality game against Colombia, who had probably been the most impressive team in the World Cup to that point. That was the real Brazil. Then Tiago Silva went and did something idiotic, and then Neymar got kicked in the back.

24 hours later, it is still hard to believe that happened. I thought Germany would win. I had a half-written Semifinal Predictions post that had Germany winning 3-1. That would have been fine. A solid loss to a team that, given injuries and suspensions, is better than you. Brazil would have been mad, but they wouldn’t have been embarrassed. That is what happens when you lose like that. The last hour a long extended funeral. People counting down the seconds till the referees final whistle. Germany didn’t hold off, adding two more in the 2nd half. Oscar scoring the most hollow of goals to give Brazil one moment to half celebrate. The tears bursting from every player after the game ends. That was surreal.

It did get me thinking about what comes close to that? What comes close to losing 7-1. Honestly, when you add in the fact Brazil was at home in a situation they hadn’t lost in since Jimmy Carter was president, nothing really does. Still, there are some similar games I can think of.

  • Super Bowl XLVIII – You don’t have to go too far back to find a game that fit a lot of the same themes. The Broncos entered this years Super Bowl seemingly pretty even against Seattle. The Broncos too had players missing (though not players that played in the previous game), and the Broncos kept it close for a quarter. Remember, despite the safety, and the first interception it was just 8-0 after 15 minutes, much like this game was 1-0 through 20 minutes. Then came the first TD, the pick-six, the kick-off return for a TD, and before we blinked, in just 15 minutes of game time more, it was 29-0. Just like Oscar’s goal, Manning’s TD pass to Thomas was hollow.

  • Super Bowl XXXVII – Another awful memory when the Raiders played a quasi-home game Super Bowl (in San Diego) against the Bucs, somehow went up 3-0 (kind of like Brazil carrying play and looking way faster through 6 or 8 minutes) and then the avalanche started. Tampa tied it, took a lead, added two TDs on offense, and then for good measure added two more on defense to jump out to a 34-3 lead. The Raiders, unlike Brazil, kept fighting and cut it to 34-21, but that just made the Bucs add two more TDs on defense and win 48-21.

  • 2013 & 2014 Champions League Semifinals; Bayern beats Barca 7-0; Real Madrid beats Bayern 5-0.

o   These were the first soccer examples I could think of. It was over two games, but Bayern Munich, who featured 5 of the stars of Germany’s thrashing, beat Barcelona 7-0. They took the team many had christened the Greatest of All Time, and thrashed them in a way that was worse than Barca beat anyone in Champions League play. The 1st leg in Munich was bad enough, but the real analogue was the 2nd leg in the Camp Nou. Much like Brazil not having Neymar, Messi sat out the 2nd leg injured, and Barca, already down 4-0, gave up 3 second half goals in quick succession and never even came close to scoring. They gave up, much like Brazil did.
o   This year’s example was actually even closer, in a way. Madrid won the 1st leg of the Champions League semifinal 1-0. They then went to Munich, that same team that did what I just wrote to their biggest rival the year before, and whipped them 4-0. Just like in yesterday’s game, Madrid scored early and killed off Bayern quickly. Before the game was 20 minutes old, Sergio Ramos had two headed goals, and Bayern needed to score 4. Ronaldo added a goal before the half-hour struck and inside of 30 minutes it was 3-0 and Bayern needed 5 and it was all over.

  • 2014 FIFA World Cup – Netherlands beats Spain 5-1; Yeah, the tournament’s first ‘What the Hell?’ game fits in the reverse. That game it was the 2nd half when Netherlands did their damage. Through 44 minutes, it was 1-0 Spain. Over the next 35, it was 5-0 Holland. This game featured the same terrible defensive play by Spain that was so much a factor in Brazil’s demise (though for Spain it was more Pique and Ramos not being good enough than Brazil being totally out of position). It featured Casillas giving up a goal, the same silent reaction from the fans (of Spain, at least) and the same ‘Is this really happening?’ reaction from the media. Spain was shown to be a shell of itself, but that is still a talented team going down almost as hard.

  • 2009 AFC Wild Card Game – Ravens defeat Patriots 33-14. This might be the most apt example. I have never seen a game like this… until last night. In this one, the Patriots entered as a team that hadn’t lost a home playoff game in the Brady/Belichick era (9-0). Tom Brady hadn’t lost a home game since the 2006 season. The Patriots did lose Wes Welker in Wk. 17, and while Neymar is more important to Brazil than Welker to New England, there was a sense of the Patriots barely being favorites. So, how did the game start… let me tell you, I know it from memory because it was too good:

o   Ray Rice scores an 82-yard TD on the first play
o   Tom Brady gets strip-sacked by Suggs on their first possession
o   Ravens score a TD to make it 14-0
o   Teams trade punts after Patriots go 3-and-out again
o   Tom Brady gets intercepted in one of the worst passes I have ever seen
o   Ravens score a TD to make it 21-0
o   Tom Brady gets intercepted on a floating duck by Ed Reed, returned to the 8-yard line
o   Ravens get held for a field goal to make it 24-0

How much time had gone off the clock? 10 minutes. That was even more stunning than last night. The Patriots, the team that had personified not making dumb mistakes and never not showing up in the playoffs, were trailing by 24 and had turned it over 3 times, within a quarter. The rest of that game played out eerily similar to yesterday, with a stunned into silence crowd and a weird feeling of ‘the Patriots deserve to get theirs’ and ‘this is no fun when the crowd is leaving at halftime and the 2nd half is a pointless exercise’.

To me, that is what made yesterday so sad, in a way. The last 60 minutes of the game was a pointless exercise. It was supposed to be a good matchup. Had Tiago Silva not idiotically gotten himself suspended and had Neymar not have been hurt that could have been a great game. Those are the two most historically good countries in World Football. That should have been something special. Instead, it was a disaster. In a way, that is a running theme of every single one of my examples. Both those Champions League Semifinals looked like awesome matchups on paper. Two great teams, in form, playing against each other in the highest of stakes. One game in each park. They should have been epic, instead they were awful. Both Super Bowls had the same thing, the two best offenses against the two best defenses, storylines abound, and the games were awful, the two worst Super Bowls in recent times. No one expected much from that Wild Card game, but the other four were supposed to be epic battles.

We may still have some epics left in the World Cup. Tonight’s Netherlands – Argentina match (my prediction: Holland wins 2-1) may be one that goes down to the wire. The final, no matter who plays Germany, could shape up to be one. A Brazil vs. Argentina 3rd-place game could be the most interesting 3rd place game ever given how Brazil lost and the rivalry between the two. Still, this was a dream World Cup through the QFs. We had a bonkers group stage, such amazing parity, some great stories, new stars introduced the World Over (James Rodriguez), and then four close, if not particularly exciting, QFs. We had a great slate of Semifinals, but Germany ruthlessness, and more so Brazil’s pathetic display, ruined that. I hope 7-1 isn’t the lasting memory of the 2014 World Cup. I hope the only lasting takeaway from that game is that it shows, along with Barca and Bayern getting hammered, and the Broncos, and Patriots and even Spain just four weeks earlier, that for everyone on top, their time is coming.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

2014 FIFA World Cup: Quarterfinal Picks

Brazil vs. Colombia

This is hard, maybe the toughest game to pick. I honestly like both teams. Colombia has probably been my favorite team to watch in the tournament so far. They’ve also been arguably the most dominant. Now, they didn’t have to play the best of teams, put in a Group with the Ivory Coast, Greece and Japan, but they won those games all rather easily and now have beaten Uruguay easily as well. Brazil on the other hand is arguably the most criticized team to ever make a World Cup Quarterfinal. They won their first and third group game by a combined 7-2. They needed a miraculous performance by Memo Ochoa to not beat Mexico by two or three. Yes, they skated by Chile, but they also had the better chances. Also, most World Cup winning sides over the last few years needed some luck. Heck, Spain itself needed two penalty shootouts and five more 1-0 wins in their knockout runs in Euro ’08, Euro ’12 and the ’10 World Cup.

Brazil now has worse problems, as Neymar has been gimpy with a hurt thigh from late in the Chile match. He’s really the best thing Brazil has going for it, scoring 4 goals and generally being dangerous all the time. The other Brazilians have started playing better, especially Fred, but they’ll need to raise their level even more in this game. Oscar was invisible against Chile. That can’t happen again from their main playmaking passer. Colombia on the other hand, has no real weakness right now. Their defense has been resolute, rarely giving Uruguay, who was admittedly missing Luis Suarez, even a sniff of a chance. On offense, they attack with the best of them. James Rodriguez has been an absolute sensation, but the team has gotten contributions from all over their 11. Tio Guitterriez has played well. Abombo and Cuadrado have been great down the flanks. This is a team playing in top form.

As for my pick, it is really tough. Colombia has been my favorite team to watch in this tournament. The unbounding joy that they display underscores how technically gifted they are. That said, Brazil is playing in Brazil. Colombia has enjoyed a large home-crowd atmosphere at all four matches, and that is as good as gone here. Chile enjoyed the same in its first three matches, and when Chile played Brazil there was 90% Brazil fans. Now, Chile came close to winning, and Colombia can too, but I think the Brazilians relax a bit in this game, and open up and show the world the talent that they have on hand. I like the idea of the Brazilian attacking options going up against the soft back-line of Colombia, and in particular Colombia’s aggressiveness going forward more than the reverse against players the likes of Luis Gustavo, David Luiz and Tiago Silva.

Brazil 2  -  Colombia 1

Netherlands vs. Costa Rica

All eight Group Winners won their Round of 16 game. It was easy to say that after a round full of drama, including five trips to extra time, and 7 goals in extra time, that it was all for naught, that all the big boys won. Now, I’m fine with that, given that I always hope the best teams in March Madness go through as well. But there is an imposter in the ranks. Somehow, someway, Costa Rica escaped the toughest group in the World Cup. Somehow, someway, they drew one of the easier Round of 16 opponents. They suffered a 2nd yellow to one of their players, played an hour with 10 men, and only gave up one goal. And here they are. What impressed me the most about Costa Rica was their calmness and brilliantly struck penalty kicks in the shootout. The Netherlands, on the other hand, weren’t all that impressive, but when you have attackers with the individual skilll they display, it may not be necessary to play all that well.

I haven’t watched too much of Costa Rica, as I only caught the 2nd half against Uruguay, was spoiled of the score at work against Italy, and the game against England was pointless. That said, I did watch Joel Campbell. How he does not play for Arsenal more is beyond me. Guy is great as a True #9, great holding play, great receiving, and great ball skills. Bryan Ruiz isn’t to bad either. I’ll be honest I don’t really know the names of the other players on Costa Rica. Except for Yeltsin Tejada, because, well, that is an awesome effing name. I know who plays for Netherlands, I just want to know how. Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder are all close to or over 30 (though Robben has looked about 37 since he was 25). They should be past their prime. Their prime should have been the 2010 World Cup. In a way it was, as they made the Final before losing in the 116th minute to Spain. Somehow, they’ve been better this time around. Some of it could be the good play of the younger players. Danny Blind has been very good, as have the whole backline. But it starts and ends with those three, and hopefully Sneijder’s strike to tie it up against Mexico rejuvenates him as he was, up till then, having a disappointing World Cup.

I have no idea how to pick this game. The Dutch are better on paper. They escaped by a better opponent than Costa Rica escaped by. Of course, Costa Rica will have most of the fans in the stadium, they’ve already beaten two football giants, so maybe their miracle run continues. Personally, I don’t see it. The Dutch are playing to well right now. Robben and Van Persie look to be too dangerous. Everything is coming up well for them, including being on the far easier side of the draw (to me, I would have only Netherlands as being as good as the four teams on the other half). They drew a lot of criticism for their bullish play during the 2010 World Cup Final, and then proceeded to lose all three Group games to flame out of Euro 2012, but the Dutch have done so much to win back our hearts, and it continues.

Netherlands 3  -  Costa Rica 1

Argentina vs. Belgium

Both of these two teams deserved to win in the sense they put up way more shots and controlled play in their games for most of them. That all said, it had to be disheartening for fans of underdogs to see the underdog go a full 90-minutes without conceding to lose in Extra Time. For once, Lionel Messi was shut down by a sturdy Swiss defense. Now he faces a defense about as good. Vincent Kompany is one of the best defensive players left in the tournament. The Belgians have size in the back to make life tough for Lio. Of course, he’s Leo. Nothing is really too tough for him. Belgium showed up in full force for the first time in the tournament, and if not for the brilliance of Tim Howard, that is a 4-0 Belgium win. They played well throughout the lineup from what I saw. Eden Hazard is slowly coming back to life in this World Cup, and Romelu Lukaku wasn’t a disaster for once.

It’s too easy to say that it all depends on Messi, but it really does. Belgium is playing better as a team. Neither were in particularly hard groups. In fact, they were both in the easiest group. And both struggled mightily despite winning all three games. You can really call that the story of this World Cup, struggling mightily but winning close. Argentina needed some of Messi’s magic to avoid drawing with Iran (in a game where Iran should have had at least two goals), and Belgium needed late goals to beat both Algeria (which doesn’t look that bad now) and Russia. They both even continued that theme winning in stoppage time. The actual matchup, to me, is about how well Di Maria and Higuain can play against the Belgian wingers and outside backs. Can they win that matchup, which is winnable, or will they fail to show up again. If so, then Belgium has the clear edge.

I don’t have too much to say other than this should be an exciting game. There is no real ‘defensive’ team left in the World Cup. All can play defense to varying degrees, and many like to sit somewhat back and spring on the counter (Germany, France, even Brazil to some extent) but none are out and out defensive, like Greece, or Paraguay who made a surprising QF run from the 2010 World Cup. That said, these are two teams that hate defense. Belgium had more shots than any team since like 1970. Argentina’s only real talent lies at winger and striker. This should be a flying game. I’ll take Argentina because their home field should be helpful. Also, when you don’t score a lot of goals despite scores of shots, well that might be a problem.

Argentina 3  -  Belgium 2

Germany vs France

What a way to start the long weekend of football. Despite their prominence in the World Stage the last 20 or so years, they’ve never met in a Euro or World Cup in that time. Germany is reaching the peak of their ridiculous consistent run since finishing 3rd in the 2006 World Cup, but like all things in German football, that peak doesn’t seem like it is going to end given the age of their team. Still, this is the last hurrah for Klose, and most likely Lahm, Schweinsteiger, and while building around a nucleus of Muller, Goetze, Khedira, Ozil, Nueur, and the injured Marco Reus going forward is still good, the Lahm/Klose/Schweinsteiger nucleus deserves a major tournament. That all said, France is about to enter another glory phase. Despite losing Franck Ribery to injury before the tournament, and despite head coach Didier Deschamps leaving off Samir Nasri, France has been a revelation.

Personally, I think it is because the Zidane could is no longer hanging over the French team. The first two tournaments without Zidane, the Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup, were disasters. The team had no leader, especially shown when then-Captain Patrice Evra orchestrated the coup in South Africa. The coach was shown to be an idiot. The team was at a loss, as other than Thierry Henry and Ribery, the rest of the nucleus of the ’06 team was gone as well. It took a while for them to realize that no one will be the next Zidane, and that France had to move on. They have, and boy did they. Current France has no ZIdane, but they have a score of good players. They have arguably the most talented overall 11 in the tournament. Paul Pogba has been awesome (and did a nice Zidane-ish impression against Nigeria). Benzema has been solid. Matuidi has been solid in the midfield, as has Cabaye and Vermaelen and Evra (who seems to play a lot better when not captain), and Hugo Lloris is a very good keeper. They’ve flown through this tournament, and while it took them a while to get going against Nigeria, mostly due to a really awful game by Olivier Giroud, when they did they were so dominant. The problem for France is the only team that can match them 1-11 is the team they are playing.

I really see this game playing out one of two ways. Both teams like to use their athletes and skill to play on the counter, but it is hard for both to do that. One will have more possession (even if it is just a 60-40 edge, or 55-45). Personally, I think Germany will have more possession, just because they seem quite comfortable playing with more possession (see their win over the US), but that could isolate their slower central defenders against a fast France attack. This is a really close game. All four semifinals are somewhat close on paper, but this is the closest while also being the tactically closest. I don’t have a great feel on who will win, but I do think Germany will have more possession, and France’s defense isn’t really good enough to keep them off the scoreboard. France will get their chances on the break, and Pogba can dominate the game again, but I think they’ll fall just short.

Germany 2  -  France 1

Friday, June 27, 2014

2014 FIFA World Cup: Group Stage Review

Player of the Group Stage: Neymar

Sure, Messi's goals have mostly been more brilliant, and sure, Neymar got a goal off of a dubious penalty (it should be said, not off the noted flopper Neymar himself), but no player entered this World Cup with more tangible pressure. This World Cup means more to Messi's legacy, but it means more for Neymar's present. He can't fail in a World Cup in his home country. Instead, Neymar has 4 goals in 3 games. Brazil 'underwhelmed' their way to a 2-0-1 mark with 7 goals for and 2 against (and like four sure goals saved by Ochoa against Mexico). Neymar's been really good. Somehow, because of all the other amazing moments in the World Cup, he's done it quietly.

Runner-Up: Lionel Messi - Argentina without Messi has a lot of talent, but can't play as a team. That team has no defense at all. They should have lost to Iran. The only reason this team is 3-0-0 is because of Messi. For the first time in his life, Messi can't lean on anyone else... and he's kicking ass and taking names by himself.

Team of the Group Stage: Colombia

There have been a few standout performers so far. Three teams went 3-0-0 (Netherlands, Colombia and Belgium) but no team has been so joyous in doing it than Colombia. They entered the World Cup as the 'Team that should have been the trendy pick if not for the fact that their best player is hurt.' They leave as the latest team that got a lift by losing Radamel Falcao. Colombia has played beautifully, played up tempo, and have unearthed some new stars, like James Rodriguez and Guttierez. Of course, then there's the dances. Those amazing goal dances. They never get old. Long live the Colombia National Team.

Runner-Up: Netherlands - They were a trendy pick to not make it out of the Group Stage, but instead they went 3-0-0 against a tough slate. They blew the doors of Spain in the best way possible: utilize the extreme individual skill so present in the Dutch team. Their win over Chile was a controlled performance against one of the best teams through the first two games. I thought their prime was 2010, and outside of Wesley Sneijder, somehow their top players aged backwards the last four years.

Goat of the Group Stage: Igor Akinfeev

I'm sure Igor Akinfeev made a few nice saves, but the reason Russia isn't going through in a really manageable group is because of their veteran goalie. The goal he gave up to South Korea was awful, obviously. It was a goal reminiscent of the one England gave up to the US. A 6th grader could ahve stopped it. That cost them two points. He was out of place against Belgium, but I can't hold that one really against him. Then, all they had to do was beat Algeria, but Akinfeev was totally lost on the free-kick that tied the game and ended Russia. They'll host the next World Cup, but I doubt Akinfeev will get near the 2018 Russia team.

Runner-Up: Sully Muntari and Kevin Prince Boateng - Look I'm sure the infighting regarding the late payment of World Cup bonuses was a real situation, but for two of the most three veteran players on the team (along with Michael Essien) to go rogue and pull a Patrice Evra was terrible. That team was so good against Germany, but losing Muntari and Boateng hurt them on the field but also psychologically.

Goat Team of the Group Stage: England

This was supposed to be a different England, a new England. They had youth in Sterling and Sturridge. They had left the old 'Golden Generation' behind with Terry off the team, and the Brothers Cole and Lampard mostly on the bench, but none of it mattered. Unlike 2010, they were given a tougher group, and they did nothing with it. Sure, they played pretty well against both Italy and Uruguay, but their defense collapsed at the worst moments, and Steven Gerrard looked sad as an old, aging player, so much unlike Andrea Pirlo. England really isn't talented enough yet. They should be a lot better in 2018. Good thing for them, though, is there were two more established European teams that went home early.

Runner-Up: Uruguay - Sure, they're going through, but I'm pretty sure 9 out of 10 non-Uruguayans would rather have England or Italy going through than a Suarez-less Uruguay. Without Suarez, Uruguay is a 3-0 loss waiting to happen. Also, that effin' biter. How the hell does Suarez do that again? How? How is that even possible. This is the strangest affliction I've ever seen.

Surprise of the Group Stage: Regional Parity

Other than maybe 2002, we've never seen all such parity with the different regions. Only the Asia contingent fell on their face, but we have two African teams in teh Round of 16 for the first time. We have three CONCACAF (North America) teams in teh Round of 16 for the first time. We have five South American teams in teh South American World Cup. That leaves just 6 from Europe, the lowest since Round of 16's became a thing. That's what happens, I guess, when you play in South America. One of the biggest storylines heading into the World Cup was how playing in South America would invigorate the American teams... and alas sometime the storylines are spot on. This World Cup has been amazing for so many reasons, but nothing makes me happier than so many regions doing well.

Runner-Up: All those Golazos - This probably should be the winner, but the goals being scored have been awesome. 2006 and 2010 had basically the same amount of goals. Now, few goals doesn't make for boring games (just take 2006 as a prime example, where we had some great 0-0 and 1-1 games), but often it does. 2010 was the nadir, with Spain sapping up 75% of possession and winning 1-0 in all their knockout games. This year has been different. Counter-attacking is in. Set-pieces are in. The best part is the goals have been all over, as there are no 8-0 games skewing the overall numbers. 

Disappointment of the Group Stage: Spain Dying a Sad Death

I already wrote about the sadness of Spain getting killed so quickly, but days later it only gets worse. Watching their last game against Australia, in those strange black shirts, truly was like watching a funeral. Seeing David Villa subbed out after one last goal, knowing his next stop would be the MLS. Seeing Torres score a goal and remember back to a time when he was the biggest star striker they had, muscling by two Germans to score the winning goal in Euro 2008. Seeing the new era start with many new guys playing the last game and no Casillas in goal. All of it looked odd. All of it looked sad, really. Spain was so utterly dominant in 2008, 2010 and 2012. They played 10 knockout games in those three tournaments and never gave up a single goal. They then gave up 4 in one half.

Runner-Up: Nothing - Nothing else has been disappointing. The Group Stage was utterly amazing. Great games all around. Late drama all over the place. Every team scored. No team got embarrassed. What a wonderful display of futbol.

Team Performance of the Group Stage: Costa Rica winning the Real 'Group of Death'

We all named Group G the 'Group of Death', but we called 'Group D' the Group of Champions. It was the first time three former Champions were in teh same group. We would have a Group Stage game with two nations that combined for 6 World Cups. So who won the group.... the team with barely any World Cup history. Costa Rica shocked a Suarez-less Uruguay with a 3-1 win. They then beat Italy deservingly to lock up a spot, and shackled England to win the group. In the end, that was the real Group of Death. Two former Champions were killed off, just because Suarez played one full game before inevitably biting someone, and because Costa Rica grew up damn quickly.

Team Letdown of the Group Stage: Italy Falling Off

Few teams really looked more solid through the first round of Group Stage games than Italy. They systematically beat England. They had the right mix of good attacking play, sturdy Italian defense, and Andrea Pirlo brilliance. They looked like a good lock to get out of that group. Then came the loss to Costa Rica, followed by the deserved red card against Marchisio, adn the Suarez-gate. Italy has now followed up winning the 2006 World Cup by going out in teh Group Stage two Cups running. Sure, they've done well in the Euro's in the interim, but Italy is dropping on the World Stage.

Storyline that will be Beat into the Ground: Is Brazil vs. Argentina Inevitable?  

Brazil and Argentina have combined for 7 World Cups. They're loaded with good players. They have the two biggest fanbases in South America. They've essentially played three home games. They should meet in the Final. Their on opposite ends of the draw. Argentina has looked beatable, but look at that draw. First, they get a Switzerland team that lost 5-2 a week ago. Then either disappointing Belgium or the USA. Then one of the Holland/Mexico/Costa Rica/Greece quadro, which is not too hard of a path. Argentina probably should make the Final, and we'll hear a lot about it. Brazil, on the other side, has a much tougher path, but they haven't lost a competitive home game since like 1960 (and that's not even an exaggeration). Now they could get knocked out and have that streak continue since losing in PKs is technically a draw, but I can't really see it.

Storyline that Should be Beat into the Ground: Can Germany and Netherlands Reunite?

Germany and Holland have a major rivalry in World Football (as does most European Countries and Germany). It's a rivalry that was at its peak in the 70's topped in the 1974 World Cup Finals which (West) Germany won against the 'Total Football' brilliance of the Dutch and Johan Cruyff. Netherlands have looked surprisingly good through three games, and Germany has been, well...., German. They've been the machine. They were vulnerable against Ghana, but they were so locked in against Portugal and the US. They have defense, they have the transition players, and a great group of fungible attackers. They should win. Holland, on the other side, has more talent than anyone on that half of the draw. In a way it is like in 2010, when Holland had to contend with Uruguay/Ghana/Brazil (and Brazil wasn't great in 2010), while Spain was on the loaded half with Germany/England/Argentina/Portugal. Holland should make the Final.

Coming up next: Rd. of 16 Picks

Monday, June 23, 2014

2014 FIFA World Cup: Reviewing and Previewing the Group Stage

My God, where to begin. Heading into the Final Group Games of the 2014 World Cup, we are squarely in football paradise. There's really nothing that would shock me at this point. Nothing, and that is what has made the 2014 World Cup so special.

Group A

1.) Brazil (1-0-1  =  +2)

Brazil's really in a no-win situation right now, as nothing will satisfy the Brazilian fans outside of holding the Jules Rimet trophy on July 12th. Nothing. They actually played better against Mexico than they did against Croatia, but a ridiculous spate of saves kept them off the scoresheet. They should roll Cameroon and enter the Knockout Rounds with some momentum against a good opponent no matter who it is.

2.) Mexico (1-0-1  =  +1)
3.) Croatia  (1-1-0  =  +2)

I'm grouping these two teams together because of their upcoming meeting. What a game this should be. Both teams played Brazil tough, Croatia ruined with a bad penalty call against them, and Mexico saved by Ochoa's brilliant goalkeeping. Croatia looked totally reborn with Mandzukic, but it should be said they, outside of their 1-0 lead, was being played very evenly, if not outplayed, by Cameroon before Alex Song's red card. Mexico needs to play well in this game, because on paper Croatia is better.

4.) Cameroon (0-0-2  =  -5)

Obviously, this has been a disastrous World Cup for a team that really didn't have many expectations. It's sad seeing Samuel Eto'o sitting forlornly on the bench, but he's past his prime. I can't see them giving Brazil much shot. Alex Song's red card ruined them, a shocking mistake from one of their veteran players.


Brazil def. Cameroon  3-0
Crotia def. Mexico  2-1

Brazil (7 pts.) and  Croatia (6 pts.) advance

Group B

1.) Netherlands (2-0-0  =  +5)
2.) Chile (2-0-0  =  +4)

The real group of death killed off the defending Champs quickly and with great ease, as both teams combined to outscore the Spanish 7-1. Both struggled more with Australia, which begs the question: are the Soceroos actually better than Spain? Getting back to reality, I'm really surprised that Netherlands has been able to hold their form with the Van Persie, Sneijder and Robben trio for a good six years. They took hold in Euro '08 and have lasted longer than Spain. Chile has been good at playiing defense, good at playing offense, and generally been a better version of the team that did well in 2010 as well. Without Van Persie, this is a really even game coming up.

3.) Australia (0-0-2  =  -3)

The Australian team continues to play well for a country with no real soccer history. Let's remember this team came within a really dubious penalty from taking eventual Champion Italy to extra time in 2006 in the Round of 16. They were run off the field in 2010, but Tim Cahill is ageless. They can leave the World Cup with their one great moment with Cahill's Goal of the Tournament against the Dutch.

4.) Spain (0-0-2  =  -6)

That '-6' Goal difference is still stunning. They have to pound Australia by three to avoid being the worst defending Champion on goal difference. It was a poetic moment for the team that had won 3-straight major tournaments to be the first knocked out in 2014.


Netherlands draw Chile  1-1
Spain def Australia  3-1

Netherlands (7 pts) and Chile (7 pts) advance

Group C

1.) Colombia  (2-0-0  =  +4)

Colombia's 3-0 win over Greece in Round 1 was one of my favorite performances. Honestly, they've been my favorite team, one with a bunch of no-names making a name for themselves playing truly attractive football. James Rodriguez has been a revelation. Colombia has been a revelation. I love the way they play and I really believe they can make noise in the Knockout Rounds if they get the best draws.

2.) Ivory Coast (1-1-0  =  0)

The Ivory Coast came into this World Cup with relatively low expectations after getting trumped up in 2006 and 2010, and lo and behold they have an easy path to making it to the knockout rounds for the first time. Just beat Greece, terrible, aimless Greece, and they are in. Didier Drogba's a shell of himself, but that whole team perks up when he's in there. Honestly, this is the strongest Ivory Coast team I've seen, and they deserve their spot.

3.) Japan (1-0-1  =  -1)
4.) Greence (1-0-1  =  -1)

I didn't watch the Japan vs. Greece game, and I probably saved myself a dreadful 90 minutes. Both these teams seem allergic to attacking, and hopefully they provide easy fodder for Colombia and Ivory Coast and let the right two teams to go through.


Colombia def. Japan  2-0
Ivory Coast def. Greece 2-0

Colombia (9 pts.) and Ivory Coast (6 pts) advance

Group D

1.) Costa Rica (2-0-0  =  +3)

Easily the most stunning team so far as I don't think anyone saw this coming. Costa Rica was billed, quite rightly, as the 'other' team in the 'Group of Champions', and they've beaten the three time and two time Champions to get here. Their win over Uruguay remains one of the most stunning comebacks I have seen. I honestly don't think they'll go very far in the knockout rounds, but all the credit in teh world to them.

2.) Italy (1-1-0  =  0)
3.) Uruguay (1-1-0  =  -1)

It's amazing how good Luis Suarez is. He looked understandably slow in his return, but he had two chances and scored two goals. He makes that Uruguay team run, as does Nicolas Lodeiro, who played so much better than Diego Forlan (which is sad, given how awesome Forlan was in 2010). This is a great game, probably my favorite going into the 3rd round of group games. Two come in, only one can advance. As for Italy, they looked tired against the Costa Ricans, but this is still Italy we are talking about. It would seem incomprehensible for them to go two straight World Cups without making the knockout round. Italy seems to always get the result. Can it happen again?

4.) England (0-0-2  =  -2)

As our former rulers, I would like to give a hearty message to England: HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA


England def Costa Rica  2-1
Italy draw Uruguay  1-1

Costa Rica (6 pts.) and Italy (4 pts.) advance

Group E

1.) France (2-0-0  =  +6)

France has been the best team in the World Cup so far. Somehow, despite that and scoring a World Cup high 8 goals, with a World Cup best goal difference, they are under-the-radar. I honestly think France needed their one failed major tournament cycle after Zidane left to recover from losing their best player ever. Starting in 2012 they removed the pressure from Ribery of making him into the new-Zidane and just started to play. Now, without even Ribery, they've made this their tournament. Teams that start this strongly rarely hold up, but this is great form ahead of Euro 2016 which will be in France.

2.) Ecuador (1-1-0  =  0)
3.) Switzerland (1-1-0  =  -2)

I wish they were playing each other for the right to go to the 2nd round, but they already played their match, with Switzerland's dramatic 89th minute winner. What a game that was too. What a huge impact it could have too. Switzerland looked awful against France, but as long as they beat Honduras and France holds up its end of the bargain, they go through. I really hope that doesn't happen since I'm not really a fan of watching that Swiss team.

4.) Honduras (0-2-0  =  -4)

Congrats to them for scoring their first goal in a World Cup in a while, but they really aren't up to par with the other three teams. Hopefully they can play spoiler against Switzerland, because I would much rather have an above average South American team continuing in this World Cup than an above average European one.


Ecuador def. France  2-1
Switzerland def. Honduras  3-1

France (6 pts.) and Ecuador (6 pts.) advance

Group F

1.) Argentina (2-0-0  =  +2)

I guess you can say this has been a dream tournament for Leo Messi, scoring the game winning goal in both games, both being awesome individual goals themselves. He helped Argentina escape some serious infamy with that stoppage-time goal against Iran of all teams. The bad news of course is had that been a better team that Iran, Argentina is probably down 3-0 in the 91st minute when Messi does his magic. The rest of the team, most notably Higuan and Aguero, need to step up for Argentina to have any chance.

2.) Nigeria (1-0-1  =  +1)
3.) Iran (0-1-1  =  -1)

They played an awful game against each other, and each would likely be Round of 16 kindling against France, but someone has to go through. Each would be a nice story. Nigeria would be an African team in a World Cup that quite conceivably could get 3 African teams into the last 16. Iran would be the first Western Asian team to make it past the Group Stages. Iran, let's be real, deserved at least a draw against Argentina. They still have a chance if Nigeria falters against Argentina. They would be the ultimate underdog.

4.) Bosnia and Herzegovina (0-2-0  =  -2)

Honestly, how the hell did they make it out of UEFA Qualifying. It's a shame they are playing when Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Turkey is sitting this out.


Argentina def. Nigeria  3-0
Iran def Bosnia 2-1

Argentina (9 pts.) and Iran (4 pts.) advance

Group G

1.) Germany (1-0-1  =  +4)

A very uncharacteristic German performance kept them from already clinching, but they're in decent shape. It is hard for Ghana to catch them on Goal Difference, so even if they suffer a shock loss to the US they should go through on Goal Difference. Germany probably should have put one of those last couple chances away, and they look so incredibly dangerous going forward. I think they showed that those two center backs are beatable through. Still a top team that should get through off the strength of that '+4' goal difference alone.

2.) United States (1-0-1  =  +1)

Obviously, that was an incredibly tough loss. As someone who's seen a lot of tough losses as a fan, that one was hard to take. Of course, it really doesn't change much for the US. Given they're drawn with Group H and Belgium has been wholly underwhelming finishing 1st and 2nd means nothing. The cynic and tactician in me would really like Germany and US to collude and play to a draw, but the US is probably safe. They only way out is if Ghana wins by at least two goals or if the US loses by at least two. Of course, Germany has no incentive to win by more than 2. It would be awful if they don't make it. The success of the US team really will help keep the US connected into what has been an awesome World Cup. I fear National interest waning if the US is knocked out, so I really hope Cristiano Ronaldo's lone contribution to this tournament is that pass.

3.) Ghana (0-1-1  =  -1)
4.) Portugal (0-1-1  =  -4)

Ghana looks like a bigger skin for the US after the way they hung with Germany, but I was really impressed with their defending in getting back and keeping the German team at bay after the Germans reached a new level in the last 15. This Ghana team likely won't make it out, but they've sure shown again that they are the best tactical African team three World Cups running. For Portugal, they need a massive win and help, but they can give back to the country they just burned. The US would go through if Cristiano and Co. can get a result against Ghana (save a major Portugal win).


Germany def. USA  1-0
Ghana draw Portugal  2-2

Germany (7 pts.) and USA (4 pts.) advance

Group H

1.) Belgium (2-0-0  =  +2)

Belgium was a trendy sleeper pick for obvious reasons. They have major talent that plays on major clubs. They have the start of a potential Golden Generation.They've also been really underwhelming. They needed 70 minutes to score against Algeria, and they needed 89 to score against Russia, a team who outplayed them pretty substantially in the 2nd half. Belgium might have been a sleeper, but they've mostly just been asleep.

2.) Algeria (1-1-0  =  +1)
3.) Russia (0-1-1  =  -1)

In the final winner-take-all game (assuming South Korea doesn't beat Belgium), Russia has been very unlucky in this tournament, but could still get out of the group all the same if they just beat Algeria. Algeria was really impressive in both of their games, playing Belgium well and then running right through South Korea time and time again. It looks like them targeting French-born, ethnic Algerians is doing wonders for them. Of course, had they done that 25 years ago, they could have had Zinedine Zidane. This Russian teams starts slowly, but they always seem to reach a higher gear late in hte game. Hopefully for them they don't fall behind early again.

4.) South Korea (0-1-1  =  -2)

Technically they are still alive, but this is a team that was strafed by Algeria and should have lost to Russia if not for an all-time goalie blunder by Igor Akinfeev. South Korea made it out of the Group Stage last time around, but it was a similarly bad group and they were better. I can't see them going through, and they really don't deserve to after two lackadaisical performances.


Belgium def. South Korea  3-1
Russia def. Algeria  2-1

Belgium (9 pts.) and Russia (4 pts.) advance

Projected Round of 16 Games

(A1) Brazil  vs.  (B2) Chile
(C1) Colombia  vs.  (D2) Italy
(E1) France  vs.  (F2) Iran
(G1) Germany  vs.  (H2) Russia

(B1) Netherlands  vs.  (A2) Croatia
(D1) Costa Rica  vs.  (C2) Ivory Coast
(F1) Argentina  vs.  (E2) Ecuador
(H1) Belgium  vs.  (G2) USA

Thursday, June 19, 2014

It's Hard to Say Goodbye

I don't think I ever loved Spain. Not being a Barca fan, not being someone who bought into all their 'More than a Club' stuff that they tried to shove down everyone's throats, will do that to you about Spain. That said, I respected Spain, I feared Spain, at once upon a time I enjoyed Spain.

Let's take you back to 2008. It was a strange year for me and soccer. I wasn't that much of a soccer fan, following mainly just the EPL and getting very interested in the World Cup in 2006 because of Zidane. I didn't really know much about soccer outside England. I had a few friends who were as die-hard as they came, but again mainly about England. Then, Euro 2008 happened. It changed my life, in soccer terms. The sport was never really the same to me. It stopped being about goals, and drama, and became about art.

My Mom and Sister were in India that summer from May onwards. My Dad was working on-site in Connecticut from Monday through Thursday, and he would drive up Sunday night. I was still in high school. Add that all together, and yes, I was alone four days and four nights a week. I had already finished my SAT's, and by mid-May had finished taking the 6 AP Tests I took as a Junior, and most of my classes were reduced to nothing. I was living the dream. I always say my Senioritis started the very first week I was left alone. So, what did I do during those weeks alone? I rented a shit ton of movies from Blockbuster. I watched a ton of NBA and NHL playoffs. I just got my license in April, so I was driving around a lot. It was wasteful, since gas was like 3.75 a gallon, but I drove all over the place.

I also watched soccer. I mean really watched it. For the first time. I didn't know too many players, but I watched all of it. Euro 2008, which took place in Poland, was a great tournament. Spain was dominant, but Germany was starting their youth movement in earnest, Holland was rounding into the team it has been since, Italy was still good with the last remaining '06 winners. Teams like Russia and Turkey came out of nowhere to make the semifinals (and make Andriy Arshavin millions). It was a glorious tournament, and Spain won it playing a brand of football I have never seen. Remember, now, this was the summer before Pep Guardiola unleashed tiki-taka on the world, before Lionel Messi became LEO EFFING MESSI, and before the Barca revolution. This predated all that. In fact, the term tiki-taka was mostly created in that Euro '08 run.

I would have never been nearly as much of a soccer fan had I not sat down, alone in my parent's large house, sneaking (although no one was there to stop me) a few beers, and imbibed that tournament. Spain in 2008 was still the most dominant tournament team I have ever seen. Spain in the 2010 World Cup won all their knockout games 1-0, and easily could have lost the Semifinal and Final had Germany or Holland made one play. Spain in 2012 probably should have lost to Portugal in the Semifinals. Spain in 2008 probably shouldn't have done anything but win. My love of soccer started in earnest that day. More importantly, Spain's legend did as well.

That legend is over. Gone. Spain's Greatest Generation ended in a way no one would expect, and truthfully no one would want, with losing two games in the World Cup, by Four Goals and then by Two Goals. Worse, they never seemed threatening. The only goal they've scored was a (dubious) penalty, and I can count the amount of real chances they have had on one hand. It didn't used to be that way. In the past, when they would go to penalties at 0-0 (Italy, Euro '08 Quarterfinal), it was because they somehow hadn't scored on their million chances. Now, it was amazing they scored at all.

It was sad. My Dad, who is a Barca fan, was really sad. My Mom, who doesn't know much about soccer was sad, as even she knew the names Xavi and Iniesta and Casillas based on how prevalent they've been at the top of World Football recently. They didn't just lose. They got hammered. They got embarrassed. They got killed. Long Live the King.

The bigger question is how did this happen? How did it all end so quickly? They won Euro 2012 with one of the more dominant wins, a 4-0 win over Italy. Less than two years later they've been outscored 1-7, the worst of anyone in the tournament. The answer is complicated, but it is partly the same reason Barcelona's reign has pretty much ended as well. That is not surprising given the obvious ties between the two teams. The other is even less surprising, age. Xavi is 34. Puyol, their heart and soul in the past, is 34 and seemingly hasn't played in years. Xabi Alonso is 32. Fernando Torres is 10% of what he was in 2008. David Villa is 10% of what he was in 2010. The core is aging and pas their prime. This is what happens.

Spain was never going to last forever, but did it have to end that way? ESPN commentator Roberto Martinez spoke after the game how Spain fans shouldn't feel bad, they should feel happy, they should thank those players for giving them the best 6 years any country has ever had. I agree, and although their artistically beautiful, but boring style got grating come 2012 (somewhat by design, as as the years passed teams were more and more willing to give Spain the ball and slow the pace, as Spain in '08 ripped teams with speed as much as possession). But still, they gave me 2008.

I missed seeing a legendary team in France from 1998-2000. Brazil's legendary peak happened either before I was born, or coincided with France (1994-2002). Germany doesn't really have a legendary team because their essentially always about as good as any other time in history. Argentina once was a legendary group from 1978-19876. Holland had 1974-1978. Other than maybe Germany I can't see any team right now that can take that mantle next, and that's partly why I'm sad. There was a regal aspect to what Spain was doing, something that made me sense that this was more than soccer, it was royal, it was historical. That is all gone now.

In a larger way, maybe it is about a period of soccer, the first one I followed greatly, ending. Spain defined the post-Zidane era of soccer. They defined it at the National Level (this will be the first major tournament won by someone else since Zidane's last game). They almost equally defined it at the club level. They're style defined it most certainly at the tactical level. All the debates of whether Spain were beautiful or boring (answer: both, but increasingly the latter), whether teams that played against them were smart or cowardly in parking the bus (answer: the former, times 100). Whether this was the Greatest Collection of Players Ever (answer: at the National level, almost definitely). Whether this would ever end? And the answer to that last question is yes.

What is sad for me isn't that they lost. They were bound to not win a major tournament at some point. It was the way they lost, the way they bowed out early. It was a lot like watching Roger Federer in 2013 actually, losing earlier in slams than ever. Legendary teams should go out fighting, like Brazil in 2006, or France in 2006. They shouldn't go out in the 1st round without winning a game or even really being competitive. When we see Spain next in full in two years, Casillas will be gone, Xavi will be gone, Villa and Torres will be gone. Most likely Xabi Alonso will be gone. The whole gang will be gone. An era ended last night, it ended in the most stunning fashion ever. As a sports fan who is slowly realizing a full generation of sports has passed, as a sports fan who is realizing that the rookies in each sport are getting younger than himself, Spain's era ending so soon was hard to take.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Celebration of the Spurs, Pt. 3

59-22. What does that number represent? Oddly, it is one game off (59-23) to the average record of the Spurs five title teams (when adjusting their 37-13 record in the lockout-shortened 1999 season). No, but it also represents the run the Spurs went on.

They were down 22-6 just six minutes into Game 5 last night. The Heat were hitting everything and the Spurs hit nothing, including Parker missing shots, Green missing threes, and them looking very much like the team that couldn’t close out the Mavs in the 1st round. Then came the run, punctuated by back-to-back-to-back threes, all but one in transition, built around a block of Dwyane Wade by Tiago Splitter, and built with neither Tim Duncan nor Tony Parker on the floor. When it ended it was 65-44. The Heat got no closer than 14, and capitulated sitting LeBron with seven minutes to go in the Game down 18. 59-22 might very well be the lasting image of the Spurs dynasty. Their Mangum Opus. This whole series felt that way. This was the crowning achievement, responding from their worst defeat (blowing Game-6 in a most un-Spurs like fashion) to dominate the 2-time defending Champs. It was their crowning achievement, one 17 years in the making.

The Spurs have been on those runs before, you know. They closed out both the Mavericks in and Nets in the 2003 playoffs with giant 2nd half runs (42-15 over the Mavs in Game 6, 22-4 in Game 6 of the Finals). They all featured the same thing, a few blocks, and a lot of threes. It was Steve Kerr and Stephen Jackson in 2003. Nothing really encapsulates the Spurs quite like that, does it? The man who played the Patty Mills role for the 2003 Spurs is a man who retired, became an analyst, then became a GM, then became an analyst again, and has now been hired as a coach. He’s had a full post-player life… and the Spurs are still winning titles.

The Spurs never got the credit they deserved mainly because when they were on the game’s biggest stage, the Finals, they and the East champ always disappointed. They beat up on the woefully overmatched ’99 Knicks, and then beat the almost as woefully overmatched ’03 Nets, with only Duncan’s ridiculous stat-lines (21-20-10-8 in the clincher) fitting as a lasting memory. The played a dramatic 7-game series against the Pistons, but when you get the two best defensive teams of the past 15 years at their peak against each other, it won’t be too pleasing on the eyes. Then they beat up on the most over-matched of all the opponents in 2007. Of course, hiding behind their boring Finals’ dominance was a team that had to play in the better Conference year in and year out and was part of some memorable series.

Let’s remember the Spurs for being involved in probably the two most famous non-Finals series of the past 10 years, the 2006 and 2007 Western Semifinals against the Mavs and Suns. They played wildly entertaining games against those run-and-gun Suns and Mavs back in the day, often outscoring them instead of slowing the game down. The best example was the 2005 Western Conference Finals, when they beat the 62-20 Suns in 5 games, scoring 100+ each time. They won the first two games of that series, in the mad-house that was Phoenix at the time, 121-114 and 111-108. That was the brilliance of the Spurs, as that same season in the Finals, they won games 84-69 and 81-74. They could play all styles.

They still can. Lost in the talk of their incredible passing and pick-and-roll times ten offense that they run to symphonic perfection, was their defense becoming a Top-5 unit in the league again. In that epic 59-22 run the Spurs went on to close out the last vestiges of hope the Big Three had, the more impressive part was the ‘22’. They held the Heat, whose offense itself had been on a ridiculous roll in these playoffs, to 22 points over 24 minutes. They held them with great team defense. Duncan was everyone, looking like he did back in 2005. Kawhi Leonard was Bruce Bowen, but bigger and stronger. Ginobili was at his pestiest. Boris Diaw played the Robert Horry roll. On one end of the floor, they were the 2005 Spurs. On the other, they were the 2014 unit, a beautiful offensive machine.

While that win takes the bad taste of 2013 out of the mouth of many Spurs fans (and Heat haters), in a way it makes it worse. They were one play away from finally winning back-to-back titles last night, for Duncan and Popovich to tie the six titles that Phil and Michael won together. For the Spurs to tie the Bulls for 3rd place for most titles. Five titles is nice, but five titles just matches Kobe. Six is a different planet. There’s only two player-coach pairings to ever get six. One was Russell and Auerbach, in a very different NBA with far fewer teams. The other was, as mentioned, Michael and Phil. Now, admittedly they did it in 8 years while the Spurs would have taken 16, but winning is winning.

The Spurs also did an amazing thing last night, they made the Heat seem pitiable. We are used to the Spurs doing that to the Western Conference minnows. When they blew the doors of Dallas in Game 7, or Portland in Games 1, 2 and 5, it was old hat. It was the Spurs playing perfectly against a team that couldn’t keep up anyway. These last three games? This was something we have never seen. It has been a long time since a Finals was this uncompetitive. The Heat weren’t an ordinary team. Sure, signs were there all season long that this was the worst version of the Heat since ‘The Decision’. They had the worst record and worst scoring differential, and Wade and Bosh had their worst seasons, and somehow the bench got increasingly worse as the years wore on. Still, this Heat team rolled through the East playoffs. They scored on Indiana, the league’s best defense, at an inhuman rate. They were still the Heat, the two time Champs. It was almost unsettling to see them outscored 59-22.

I actually felt bad for the Heat. Champions should not go down this way. I may hate the Heat. I may still hate LeBron for choosing what I took as the easy way out back in 2010, for leaving Cleveland behind because he wanted a Championship given to him. But the Heat didn’t have it given to them. They faced many different points where they could have lost out on any titles. They were down 3-2 with a Game 6 to be played in Boston in the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, and LeBron delivered one of the great performances in recent years. They were then down 1-0, losing late in Game 2, to the Thunder in the Finals before pulling it out and rolling a Thunder team that was the best in the Durant/Westbrook era (mainly because of the presence of that 3rd guy, Mr. Harden). They had to play a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals last year, and didn’t quit when in an almost impossible situation last year against the Spurs. And of course, they lost the Finals in 2011.

Even in those 2011 Finals, and I rewatched the super-entertaining Game 5 of that series, the Heat seemed to at least have answers. The Mavericks won that Game and the series because LeBron was passive, and because the Mavericks outplayed them in critical moments (Game 6 was the only game in which the Heat did not have a 4th-quarter lead). The 2014 Finals were different. The Heat were just worse. There were no late-game situations that the Heat blew. In fact, discounting Game 1 because of the Cramps/AC-Gate, the Heat were the team that made plays down the stretch of the one game that was close in the 4th quarter. They stole Game 2 because the Spurs missed 4-straight freethrows. The Spurs made sure they were never in that position again.

It is hard to really say what the best Spurs performance was of the last three games. Was it Game 3, with their 71 first half points? Was it Game 4, with their excellent play throughout on both sides of the ball against a team that had to win it? Or was it Game 5, with a slow start but a dominant middle the likes we rarely see? Who knows, really. The Spurs give so many moments.

In a weird way, a great comparison to the Spurs is Rafael Nadal in one sense: their ability to play a starring role in some incredible games and series. Despite being hailed by their critics as boring (and I’m talking about the 1999-2010 Spurs here), both are one-half of some of the best contests in their sport. I’ve already mentioned the 2006 and 2007 Western Conference Finals, but they also played a highly entertaining 6-game series against a good Sonics team in 2005, and a great series against the New Orleans Hornets in Chris Paul’s should-have-been-MVP season. The Spurs have played in some fantastic games, with flawless execution by highly skilled players. They may never get the credit they deserve because only a few have been in the Finals, but they’ve been the team that should be most associated with this post-Jordan era of basketball in every way, not just in their ruthless excellence.

We will never see a team like the Spurs again. We may see a team that wins five titles, or more titles. We may see a team that is this dominant, that strings together a long run of 50-win seasons, that can run a team off the court in the finals like that. We may see all those things. What we won’t see is a team do that in that particular way. We won’t see one of the Greatest Players Ever stay 17 years in one city, particularly a city that isn’t known for being the most exciting. We won’t see a team be able to nail late draft pick after late draft pick. We won’t see a team be able to keep their main stars in affordable contracts forever. And we won’t see a coach like Gregg Popovich come in and stay two steps ahead for the league for an entire decade.

The Spurs did things their way. That way included no one saying anything, staying out of the media spotlight (aside from Tony Parker’s extra-marital engagements); it included a coach who became more openly prickly yet more openly respected over time. It also included getting three players to subjugate themselves for the team for years and when the top guys buy-in, the lesser guys have no real option to not do the same. The Spurs did everything pretty close to perfect for the past 15 years. They got their ‘One for the Thumb’ to finish things as well.

I don’t know what the lasting memory of the Spurs will be. I guess it depends what you really think the takeaway message is. If you think it is how great Tim Duncan is, I guess it will be his 21-20-10-8 performance in Game 6 to close out the Nets in 2003 (or the half dozen other absurd games he had that postseason). If you think it is about their unending success on defense (which it was this year as well), maybe it will be their defensive masterpiece against the Pistons in '05. If you think it was about them being the scourge of basketball in the mid-2000's, maybe you think it was Robert Horry checking Steve Nash into the boards. If you think it was about beautiful basketball, maybe it was their tic-tac-toe possession that ended in a Diaw three in Game 6 against the Thunder.

There are endless supply of memories. The Spurs have supplied the NBA with more great games and great moments and 'Oh My God, How Good Are They' plays to account for 10 teams. But honestly, what I will remember is how the Spurs reacted to losing. Arguably their three worst playoff defeats were when they were beaten by eh 2002 Lakers (a team they were better than) losing the last two games ever at the Alamodome, when they fell victim to Derek Fisher's shot with 0.4 seconds left, when Ginobili fouled Dirk up 3 in Game 7 in '06, and the million things they did wrong in last year in Game 6. How did they follow up those disappointments: title, title, title and title.

In fact, the last four years of Spurs basketball are the best evidence. They surprised everyone by going 60-22 in 2010-11, but were knocked off by Memphis in the 1st round. They responded by going 50-16 in the lockout season, and winning 20 straight games heading into Game 3 of the Conference Finals. The Thunder then proceeded to run them off the court. How did they respond? By making the Finals. Then, they blow the Finals in teh worst way possible, and respond by winning it in such dominant fashion that Miami sat LeBron with half the 4th quarter left in Game 5.

The Spurs never repeated (they might next year), but they endured. They endured the game changing, the players changing, Super Teams getting built and then falling apart. They endured so many years of playoff losses (10 times they've lost in the playoffs in 15 years), but always came back stronger. That is what I'll always remember about the Spurs. They fought, they won, in any and every way possible.

About Me

I am a man who will go by the moniker dmstorm22, or StormyD, but not really StormyD. I'll talk about sports, mainly football, sometimes TV, sometimes other random things, sometimes even bring out some lists (a lot, lot, lot of lists). Enjoy.