World Cup Update (The Sweating It Out Edition)

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Posted June 22, 2014 by Kristian Lin in Blotch
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Just once, it’d be nice if USA won its World Cup games by a huge margin or qualified for the next round with a game to spare. It would certainly be easier on the poor, shredded nerves of USA fans. Another round of World Cup games is in the books, and Portugal’s last-second goal turned what would have been a great USA victory into a draw, so let’s reassess where we are, using the Q&A format that I used earlier.

What is the glass half-empty scenario for USA?

We need a win or a draw going into a game against Germany, not a situation that any team would envy. The Germans have enough offensive talent to not only beat USA but rip us apart. Their defense figures to be much stiffer than anything that Ghana or Portugal put up against us, too. Ghana can sneak in ahead of us with a win over Portugal, and the Black Stars looked a lot better in their second game against the Germans than they did against us. Team USA had a golden opportunity to secure qualification against Portugal, and they let it slip with seconds left on the clock. USA has to deal with that emotionally. And how long can the team keep living on the edge like this before it all ends in tears?

Oh, my God! We’re doomed, aren’t we?
Not at all. USA proved in today’s game that the offense doesn’t need Jozy Altidore or set pieces to score goals. Germany’s defense got breached twice by Ghana (in a totally bonkers game, by the way), so we know our next opponent isn’t an impregnable fortress. That German offense hasn’t quite found its gear yet, either, so maybe USA can help them put that moment off until the round of 16. If Coach Jürgen Klinsmann knows any team better than his own, it’s Germany, and undoubtedly he has some plans to counter Die Mannschaft. (The nickname might sound like the title of a German gay porno movie, but all it means is “the men’s team.”) USA’s contingent of German-based players will also be familiar with their adversaries. Mathematically, the Germans can still be eliminated if they lose to us, but it’s such a distant possibility that motivation might be an issue for them. It won’t be an issue for the Portuguese after they’ve been handed a lifeline. Any positive result for them against Ghana puts USA through, and they’ll want to reclaim their pride at least. Plus, with Pepe back in the team, their defense doesn’t figure to be as porous as it was against us. Two games in, USA has yet to lose and is still in control of where they end up. Only the most optimistic USA fans could have predicted that when the groups were drawn up six months ago. We’re still alive, and England and Spain are dead. Enjoy that. Speaking of which…

¿Qué pasó a España?
Netherlands and Chile played great against them, but Spain’s success was built on the fact that they had their choice of four of the best passing midfielders in the entire world. Once those midfielders lost just a little bit of accuracy, things fell apart for them. The tiki-taka system is made in part to prevent the team from falling behind. When the team did, the system wasn’t well-equipped to launch a comeback. Well, La Roja have some excellent young midfielders coming up to replace Xavi and Xabi Alonso, so they shouldn’t fall off too much. Even if they do, they’ve had an unprecedented run of success, their tactics have revolutionized the sport, and for my money, they go down as the greatest national soccer team ever. ¡Buen trabajo!

Who’s to blame for England going out?

Nobody. They’re just not good enough at this point.

Which of the other superpowers are struggling?
Argentina has relied on moments of individual magic from one Lionel Messi for both their wins. Other than him, their offense has been surprisingly static. They can’t keep relying on him. (Actually, maybe they can.) Belgium was everybody’s favorite dark horse, partly because they swept through European qualification on a wave of goals, but they’re having trouble finding their rhythm. Someone from USA’s group will have to face Belgium in the next round, and the Red Devils might be more beatable than everybody figured. Brazil isn’t steamrollering anyone yet, either. Other teams at this tournament have been far more impressive.

Like who?
Colombia and Chile have outshone Brazil and Argentina so far. The Colombians (known as “Los Cafeteros,” or “The Coffee Workers”) are so much fun, running opposing teams ragged down the wings, finishing their chances well, and doing choreographed team dances to celebrate their goals. Meanwhile, Chile found a way to counter Spain’s attacking soccer with their own form of attack, using an unorthodox formation and getting forward with great verve and assurance. If Chilean soccer is the wave of the future, bring it on. Also, France has had the benefit of a weak group, but if they keep scoring goals like they’re doing, neutrals may have to start rooting for them. And there’s a new reason to root for a handy Ivory Coast team, with stars Kolo and Yaya Touré playing on despite their younger brother Ibrahim’s death this week, reportedly from cancer.

You forgot Costa Rica. How great a story are they?
Fantastic. I figured that Los Ticos might surprise one of their opponents, but I never thought they’d actually get out of the group. Their wins over Uruguay and Italy have them in the next round with a game to spare, and neither of those victories were lucky, unless you count Costa Rica not having to face Luis Suárez as luck. Jorge Luis Pinto developed perfect game plans against their opponents, and Joel Campbell, Celso Borges, and Keylor Navas all came up big time. This is already Costa Rica’s greatest achievement at the World Cup. They’re playing with house money now.

Why do the World Cup referees hate the Balkan countries?
I don’t know. First, Yuichi Nishimura hands Brazil a victory over Croatia, then New Zealand ref Peter O’Leary and his crew wrongly disallow a perfectly good (and beautiful) goal by Edin Džeko for Bosnia-Herzegovina, leading up to the Dragons losing to Nigeria and being eliminated. As if the country of Bosnia hasn’t suffered enough. True, the loss was also owing to the weird lineup that Coach Safet Sušić ran out and on the Nigerians smartly defending against the little passes from Bosnia’s creative midfielders. Still, it’s a shame to see such a terrific story end with such a terrible officiating call.

How do you pronounce “Džeko?”
JECK-o. On Univision, the announcers had an on-air, in-game discussion about how to correctly pronounce the Manchester City striker’s name. I found their thoroughness refreshing in light of ESPN’s British announcers constantly messing up the first names of Sergio Ramos and Sergio Agüero, pronouncing the “g” in “Sergio” with a soft “g” sound. That would be fine if those players were Italian, but since they’re Spanish and Argentinian respectively, the “g” should be pronounced like an “h.” The Spanish-language announcers didn’t make that mistake, though to be fair, they were mangling the names of the Dutch players pretty good. Univision’s coverage is pretty good if you don’t have cable and don’t want to travel to sports bars for all the games, and you get a chance to hear Bulgarian-accented Spanish in commentator Hristo Stoichkov, who starred on a Bulgaria team that shockingly got to the semifinals at World Cup 1994.

When is Brain Injury Awareness Month?
March, but evidently Uruguay’s left back Álvaro Pereira and coach Óscar Wáshington Tabarez missed that one, because Pereira got knocked unconscious against England and yet was allowed to overrule Uruguay’s team doctor and return to the game. The NFL gets bashed for dragging its feet on concussions, and for good reason, but soccer is lagging behind in recognizing the seriousness of these injuries. Earlier this season, Tottenham Hotspur (and France) goalkeeper Hugo Lloris was knocked out during a game. Not only did his then-coach André Villas-Boas let him back in, but he lashed out at doctors afterwards who questioned the decision, calling them publicity hounds and saying that the medical professionals didn’t know anything about soccer. Fortunately, American soccer is ahead of the game, thanks to the examples of the NFL and NHL, and to ex-players like ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman, whose playing career was ended by post-concussion syndrome and does much to raise awareness. In this, the rest of the world needs to follow our example.

How dangerous is Cristiano Ronaldo?
Love him or hate him (and many people choose “hate” with great enthusiasm), the guy would still be a menace even if he were in a wheelchair. After 94 minutes of looking very far from himself against USA, he delivered the cross that Varela headed in for Portugal’s last-minute goal. This despite a Ghanaian witch doctor putting a curse on Ronaldo’s leg before the tournament to keep him out. Stupid witch doctor!

When is the next game for USA?

Thursday morning. Be there or be a bad American. Let’s keep this party going.


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