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DC United
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US National Team
Jeff Maurer's Soccer Blog
Friday, 23 June 2006
Topic: US National Team

  This picture says it all:

  So close. So, so close.

  In the post-game press conference, Arena was asked how this team would be remembered. I don't remember what he said, but the answer has to be this: this team will (or at least should) be remembered as the unluckiest team the U.S. has ever brought to the World Cup. True, they didn't play as well as they could have, and they're just not talented enough to overcome bad luck and mediocre play, but the fact that we're out and Mexico is moving on is evidence that luck is a major factor.

  Here are our bad breaks, in chronological order:

1. FIFA deciding to seed only the top 8 teams in the tournament, instead of all 32.
2. Being drawn into arguably the toughest group
3. Playing the Czech Republic on what was by far their best day of the tournament (which included a ridiculous Rosicky strike and Jan Koeller's only appearance)
4. Mastreoni's red card (though this is at least debatable)
5. Pope's red card (sorry; this really isn't)
6. The general gullability of the ref in the Italy game
7. Yesterday's penalty kick

  I didn't include injuries on this list because, though Gibbs, Hejduk, and (as it turned out) O'Brien were injured, that's just par for the course in a World Cup. I also didn't include shots that hit the post or other near misses, because - though small margins in difference produce wide variances in outcomes in such instances - those things are within our control. The seven things listed above were not.

  In fairness, we did get one very good break: the own goal against Italy. But, on the balance, we were unlucky.

  It's a shame that we couldn't add an comeback in the Ghana game to the memorable, gutsy performance in the Italy game (which, because it now stands on its own, is suddenly a lot less memorable). That would have been a nice narrative. And it really looked possible after the Dempsey goal. But that penalty kick really did change things, and, as I noted above, small changes sometimes have huge effects.

  Had that penalty kick not been called, it's very possible that the U.S. soccer community would be praising Bruce Arena's remarkable ability to pull one out of the fire instead of calling for his head. As of 10:44 yesterday, he was still a genius. But now, I'll be surprised if he lasts until the end of the week.

  Let me say this: I think that much (though not all) of the criticism of Bruce is unfair. Clearly, a number of the decisions he made didn't work out, but the only valid criticisms are those that were made before everything went wrong.

  For example, if you think that moving Eddie Lewis to left back was a bad idea, you may have a case. BUT, you'd better be able to show that you felt this way before the Czech game, and it would certainly be nice if you vocally opposed this plan when it was hatched in mid-2005, at which point Pope and Gibbs were hurt (meaning Bocanegra would be needed in the middle), Onyewu, Conrad, and Jonathan Spector were largely unknown, Heath Pearce hadn't been called into a single camp, and Greg Vanney clearly sucked. Furthermore, if you oppose playing guys out of position as a general principle, then presumably you not only oppose the Lewis-at-left-back and Beasley-at-right-mid experiments that went poorly at this World Cup, but also the Tony Sanneh-at-right-back and Frankie Hejduk-at-left-back experiments that went unbelievably well at the last World Cup (funny; I don't seem to remember reading a lot of articles along those lines). Likewise, if you don't like Donovan at striker now, then you probably also didn't like him there in 2002, when he scored three goals. Finally, if you think Clint Dempsey should have been a sure-fire starter, then hopefully you didn't write one of the "Who's Going to Fill the Massive Hole at Right Mid?" articles that clogged the soccer media immediately before the tournament. My point: there are valid criticisms to be made, but the accuser has no standing if he or she is operating merely out of hindsight.

  That being said, I think that it might be time for Arena to go. Not for tactical reasons; while I've got my disagreements (I wanted two strikers in the Ghana game and I think we adopted too defensive of a posture in general), he's hit more often than he missed with tactical decisions, and I can't prove that things would have gone any better had he done what I would have done. He may need to go now simply to restore confidence in the program. There's a tremendous buildup to a World Cup, and getting very little payoff is a crushing psychological letdown. We may need to make a change simply to give the players, sponsors, and fans the sense that the 2006 era is over and a new one is beginning.

  A few other random thoughts on the World Cup:

- When our offense was struggling game after game after game, starting in the warmup matches, did anyone else ever start to think this: how did everything end up going so wrong with Clint Mathis? The player that Clint Mathis was supposed to be in 2006 would have been awfully handy to have.

- One that topic, if I had guessed immediately after 2002 which guys would be back, I probably would have guessed Mathis, McBride, Donovan, Beasley, O'Brien, Mastreoni, Sanneh, Reyna, Lewis, probably Friedel, probably Pope, maybe Keller. And you'd think that Chris Armas probably would have come back from injury to make the team. So it's pretty hard to guess. From this group, I would guess that Onyewu, Cherundolo, Dempsey, Beasley (if he gets things turned around), Donovan, Howard, Johnson (again, though: he needs to get back on track), probably Gibbs, maybe O'Brien, maybe Mastreoni, maybe Ching.

- I am pretty high on the following players for 2006: Marvell Wynne, Heath Pearce, Chris Rolfe, Freddy Adu, Nate Jacqua, Brad Guzan, Jonathan Spector, Conor Casey, Lee Nguynn, Kyle Nakazawa, Bobby Boswell, Chad Marshall. Let me say Chris Rolfe's name again; I think that he might be the pick of the bunch. And, of course, there's Freddy, who's ceiling is extremely high. One problem: a multitude of speedy little guys up top (Rolfe, Freddy, Landon). Let's hope that Jacqua or Casey develop into good target guys.

- Danny's idea that anyone carried off on a stretcher has to stay off for ten minutes is a pretty good one, but there's a problem: they use the stretcher in soccer to speed the game along. The player doesn't call for the stretcher; they just bring it out so that they can get him the hell off of the field whether he's hurt or not and get things moving again. And ten minutes is maybe a little much. But I might consider this: if you're down for one minute or more, you have to stay out for five minutes. And it would also help if injury time were actually real instead of made up. I'll address these and other issues in a future blog that I will call: Make the Fucking Goals Bigger.

- If there's one unequivocally good thing to come out of this World Cup, it's this: DC United's Ben Olsen played in a World Cup. Awesome job, Benny (he probably reads my blog); well deserved. Ben was projected as a national team star of the future until he suffered multiple ankle injuries that robbed him of all of his speed. But he made the team and got on the field (and played well) on his sport's biggest stage. That officially counts as coming all the way back.

Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 2:01 PM EDT
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Friday, 16 June 2006
Don't Learn Too Much from the Czech Republic Game
Topic: US National Team

  The question for the U.S. in the World Cup is always the same: are we close to arriving as a soccer nation? The 3-0 loss to the Czech Republic suggests a definitive answer: no, not yet. However, the reaction to that loss - as recorded in the press, blogs, and soccer message boards - suggests that the U.S. may be approaching parity with our European and South American counterparts in another area: hyperbolic overreaction to a poor performance. This is encouraging.

  When the U.S. lost to Czechoslovakia 5-1 in the first game of the 1990 World Cup, few in the media instantly turned on head coach Bob Gansler. Very few pundits who had previously ignored soccer completely devoted air time and column space to drumming up a controversy between the coach and his players. And, though the internet didn't exist at the time, I doubt that many fans took to their ham radios to express dismay over coaching decisions that were so obviously neglegent (thought they all seem to have waited until after the game to make their displeasure known).

  Now, admittedly, U.S. Soccer has a long way to go when it comes to overreacting and second-guessing. The Brazilians - who always set the standards for international soccer - have already turned on their 2002 World Cup star, with their President actually going so far as to call Ronaldo - and my Portuguese translation might be slightly lacking here - a "fat, flabby donkey turd." The English press have proved that even a victory in their first game won't impede their relentlessly negative coverage. And the French, after drawing 0-0 against a good Swiss team, already seem ready to surrender (old habits die hard - zing!). So, though our irrationalism, second-guessing, and fickleness are improving, we clearly aren't yet up to European and South American standards.

  Personally, I think that the criticism of Bruce Arena is completely misplaced. I'll go on record: the lineup that he put on the field is the same one that I would have fielded. That seems to have been a bad decision, but I don't know anyone - in person or in the media - who had a significantly different lineup in mind before the game. And as for our game plan, it is widely known that we wanted to get out of the gates quickly and put them on the defensive, much like we did against Portugal in 2002. Well, that game plan got shot to hell in the fifth minute. If anything, our urgency to attack cost us in the opening minutes, as Keller's overly-ambitious attempt to spring Bobby Convey led to the first goal. And yet criticism of Arena is almost entirely based on the premise that he played too cautiously and didn't tell his team to attack. I think that he did tell his team to attack; we just didn't have any success.

  I think that, had we gotten a couple of lucky breaks, things could have been very different. Don't get me wrong: we were thoroughly outplayed, and we were bad as much as the Czechs were good (and the Czechs were very, very good). But we were also unlucky.
  Games are often decided by small advantages that multiply themselves. In this game, the snowball began to build with a simple bad clearance. Had Keller made a better clearance (which he usually does), the Czech Republic wouldn't have gotten that first goal.
  Getting the first goal is a huge advantage. Look at how many times in this World Cup alone games have been decided by a good team getting an early goal and then packing in the defense for the rest of the game: England-Paraguay, Netherlands-Serbia & Montenegro, and Portugal-Angola. Trinidad & Tabago successfully implemented this strategy without going through the preliminary step of scoring a goal. Greece won Euro 2004 using this tactic. The U.S. beat Portugal in 2002 mostly because we got the first goal (plus the ever-handy fluke own-goal, which eventually led to the third goal on a counterattack). It is just a reality of soccer: it is difficult to score goals, especially if the other team has made defense a priority.

  This is doubly true for the U.S. Our main advantage is speed, and we have no opportunity to use our speed if the other team adopts a good defensive position for the whole game. We were called for offsides exactly zero times; that gives you an indication of just how much the Czech defense was laying back. Anyone who watched the U.S.-Morocco game before the World Cup knows that we just don't have the skill, size, or creativity to breakdown a team playing competent defense (and the Czech defense was more than competent).

  It's easy to forget that we were the better team between the first and second goals. It's true; I watched the replay on Monday night. We weren't spectacular, but we had a 65-35 advantage in possession and had a shot hit the post. I don't know if we ever would have gotten that goal back (my guess is no), but we certainly had a chance, untill...

  Rosicky's awesome first goal. That was a piece of brilliance, and it was also a dagger in our hearts. Rosicky is an awesome player, and he shouldn't have been given that much space, but it's still true that he probably only converts that strike from that spot one time in twenty. But he did it when it counted, which is all that matters.

  After that, we had to take risks, thus the substitutions and the 3-5-2. We also continued to try to trap them offsides with a high back line. It mostly worked (we caught them offsides 11 times), but the twelveth time it failed, which led to the third goal. That's why it's risky.

  My point is this: we got beat by a better team, but I don't think we're nearly as bad as we played on Monday. Everything snowballed pretty quickly, and had we got a couple of breaks early on, things might not have looked so bad. I haven't even mentioned the psychological impact of going down a goal in the first five minutes, then going down 2-0 right before halftime (as they always say: "the worst time to give up a goal"). I think that psychological factors were responsible for our apathetic offensive performance in the second half, which is the only thing that I am really upset about. If we get a goal against Italy, then our mentality will do an immediate 180, and we could very well get momentum going in the other direction. So I'm holding out hope for the Italy game. I'd give us a 1 in 10 shot of winning. I'll take that.

  Incidentally, I'd gives us better odds of winning if it weren't for this fact: there hasn't been a single upset so far in this World Cup. No, Ecuador beating Poland doesn't count, as Ecuador seems to be a bit better than we expected and Poland seems to be a bit worse. If this were the NCAA tournament, that's the equivalent of a 10 beating a 7: no big deal. And T&T tying Sweden is a bit surprising, but that's mostly a victory for FIFA's stubborn insistence on trying every batshit idea to increase scoring except for the obvious step of making the fucking goals bigger (I'll write a blog about that some other time).
  Other than that, no upsets so far. Compare that to 2002, when you had the U.S., South Korea, Senegal, Turkey, Paraguay, Japan, and Sweden all pulling significant upsets and getting into the second round. Argentina and defending champions France didn't make it out of the group stage. I don't see anything like that happening in this World Cup. Every top seed has won so far except for France (who drew), and they'll probably still get through their pathetic group. It's also been disappointing for the African teams, who are 0-4-1 so far, with Tunisia earning the only draw against lowly Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, the best two African teams, Ivory Coast and Ghana, are in the two toughest groups. This could be the World Cup that is remembered for having all of the world powers still around in the knockout stage.

Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 2:08 PM EDT
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Monday, 5 June 2006
US 1:0 Angola
Topic: US National Team

  The U.S. just beat Angola 1-0 in a closed doors scrimmage. Angola played the last 60 minutes of the match down a man. Angola has been getting their asses thoroughly kicked in their World Cup warmup matches, they played 2/3 of the game down a man, and we only beat them 1-0. As you might have guessed, Brian McBride scored our only goal. In our games against Morocco, Venezuela, and Latvia, we scored 0, 2, and 1 goal, respectively. I am starting to get seriously concerned about our goal-scoring ability.

  Which prompts me to say this: I hope that Donovan starts up top along side McBride against the Czech Republic. None of the strikers besides McBride have stepped up lately. I was high on Eddie Johnson for a while, but right now he's playing like he's never seen a soccer ball before. Donovan has speed, skill, and finishing ability, and he pairs up well with McBride. We'll still have O'Brien, Mastreoni, and Reyna in central midfield, so we can afford to slide Donovan up top. I hope that's what happens.

Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 2:09 PM EDT
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Monday, 1 May 2006
Bruce Arena Speaks
Topic: US National Team

  U.S. National Team coach Bruce Arena was on Argentine television last week, where he talked about his plans for the World Cup (and, because it is Spanish-language television, also sang a duet with a large-breasted woman and was tormented by a diabolical puppet).  I didn't see it, but it was picked up by a great soccer blog called Du Nord.  Apparently, he went into an incredible amount of detail.  If you're interested in reading the whole thing, follow the link in the last sentence, then scroll down the page (about 1/3 of the way, as of this posting) until you find where he posted links labeled "one, two, three," and so on, up to eleven.  I found numbers one, five, and eleven especially interesting.

  Here are some of the things we found out:

-  Bruce's starting center two are Oguchi Onyewu and Eddie Pope.  I'm sure that the Onyewu part won't surprise anybody, but there are a lot of people who will be disappointed to see Pope in there.  I feel like a lot of people are down on Eddie Pope because of the Jeff Agoos debacle in 2002, and they share a lot of similarities (both are distinguished but aging backs, have had their form called into question recently, and are Bruce Arena favorites from his D.C. United days).  Personally, I prefer Cory Gibbs as Onyewu's partner in the back, but I'm comfortable with Pope.  Honestly, center back is the position about which I spend the least amount of time worrying, as I am comfortable with any of our first four options for the two center spots (Carlos Bocanegra being the fourth).  Just as long as Greg Berhalter doesn't see the field.

-  Damarcus Beasley will be starting at left mid.  So any talk of a battle between Beasley and Bobby Convey for the starting left mid spot can be put to rest.

-  McBride's strike partner will be Landon Donovan, if anybody.  Apparently, I'm not the only one who thinks that Eddie Johnson has been playing like shit lately. 

-  Bruce actually took out a piece of paper and drew a lineup.  It looked like this:

  Yes, that's essentially a 4-5-1, though Bruce did leave Landon Donovan's position up in the air a little bit, saying that Landon would play "maybe up top."  Personally, the debacle in 1998 (in which we played an extremely weird 3-6-1), the Easter game against Mexico, and my general disdain for overly-defensive soccer make me skeptical of any single-striker formation, so I hope Bruce does end up putting Landon up top in a 4-4-2.  Bruce drew a question mark next to Reyna in the other central midfield spot, then said "maybe Pablo Mastreoni, maybe John O'Brien."  Other comments in the interview made it seem like Mastreoni currently has a slight edge (also, it was reported this morning that John O'Brien picked up a minor calf strain last week).  Bruce also drew a question mark at the right mid spot, then said "maybe Clint Dempsey," but didn't offer any other name.  I would assume that the alternative to Dempsey is probably Bobby Convey.

  Though Bruce drew the lineup pictured above, other comments he made throughout the interview (i.e., "Beasley can play on the left or centrally," "Reyna, O'Brien, and Mastreoni in the midfield") could lead you to believe that Bruce has something more like this in mind:

  If this is what he's planning, I like it.  For one thing, you've got your best eleven players on the field (Dempsey is good, just not as good as John O'Brien).  Also, it allows space for our outside backs to do what they do best: make offensive runs down the wings.  Furthermore, this has the flexibility to either become a 4-5-1, a 4-4-2, or a 4-3-3, depending on exactly where Beasley and Donovan decide to play.  Maybe Bruce is considering playing the first lineup versus the Czech Republic (when control of the midfield will be vital), then using this one against Italy (when we will probably try to attack the wings).

  I want to get on the record with my prediction of the U.S. World Cup roster before they announce on Tuesday at 6PM on Sportscenter.  Here's my best guess:

Goalkeepers: Kasey Keller, Tim Howard, Marcus Hahnemann

Defenders: Oguchi Onyewu, Eddie Pope, Cory Gibbs, Carlos Bocanegra, Greg Berhalter, Eddie Lewis, Steve Cherundolo, Frankie Hejduk

Midfielders: Landon Donovan, Damarcus Beasley, Claudio Reyna, Pablo Mastreoni, John O'Brien, Bobby Convey, Clint Dempsey, Ben Olsen

Strikers: Brian McBride, Eddie Johnson, Josh Wolff, Taylor Twellman

  This has been my prediction for a long time now (definitely since the game against Jamaica last month), and it seems that the most debatable part of this prediction is probably right, as the Washington Post is now reporting that Ben Olsen will make the World Cup roster.  That is awesome; it's good to have D.C. United represented, and Ben Olsen is my favorite player.  Very much deserved.

  Incidentally, Yanks Abroad posted this exact same list last week.  So it seems that the soccer nerd community is reaching a consensus.

Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 2:10 PM EDT
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Thursday, 27 April 2006
To Hell With My Friends

  Starting last fall, I played two seasons with a recreational soccer team in Springfield.  I had a lot of fun, and the team was pretty good; in the second season, in particular, we played some very good soccer and finished the regular season second out of ten teams.  Unfortunately, my move to Arlington and my increasingly busy comedy schedule (the Dale City Chuckle Hut is a demanding mistress) caused me to search for a different league.  Still, I had a lot of fun and made some good friends.

  Naturally, upon leaving, my wish became that the team would immediately plunge directly into the shitter, thus proving that I was the magic ingredient that kept the team afloat.  However, I checked the league standings recently and was horrified to discover that my former team is a very respectable 1-1-1 with a positive goal differential after three games against good teams!  What the hell?  I was hoping for a reincarnation of the '99 Chicago Bulls, making me the Michael Jordan of Northern Virginia soccer in this in-no-way-forced analogy.  Now, I stand the very real possibility of becoming the Pete Best of Northern Virginia soccer.  Well, you know what: fuck you, friends!

Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 2:12 PM EDT
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Tuesday, 27 December 2005
I Will Not Be "That Guy"
  For Christmas, my wife got me a DC United jersey (which I asked for) and, recognizing that my current soccer shorts have seen better days, added on some official DC United shorts as well.  As it happens, I played for a team in high school that wore black socks.  So, theoretically, I could wear an entire DC United uniform.  Here is my vow to you, the rest of the world: I WILL NEVER, EVER DO THAT.  I will not become that guy that wears the entire fucking uniform as if I'm tricking everyone into thinking that I'm on the team.  I recognize that my competitive soccer days ended long ago, and now I play only recreationally.  The shorts and socks will never appear in tandem with the jersey, which is mostly for when I am watching DC United games.  If anyone sees me violating this promise, or if I put my own name and number on the back of the jersey, I give you permission to shoot me in the head.  Seriously, do it; I deserve it.  Consider this blog post legally binding.  Print it out and bring it to court with you.

Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 2:12 PM EST
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Friday, 9 December 2005
World Cup Draw (pregame)
Topic: US National Team

  Let me quickly get on the record before it happens: here is my opinion of what would be a good, average, and bad draw for the US in today's World Cup draw.  By far the most important pot is pot 3, the one with all the European teams; the team we get from this pot will most likely be the team we fight for second place in our group.  The team we play from pot 1 (the one with the top seeds) is somewhat important, in that we have virtually no chance of displacing Brazil, whereas we've got an outside shot of ousting Spain or France.  Our draw from pot 2 (the African teams and the unseeded South American teams) makes virtually no difference to me whatsoever (unless we get an exceptionally weak team from pot 3, in which case the pot 2 team could potentially threaten for a top 2 finish in the group), as this will be the weakest team in our group and a stronger weakest team is just as likely to help us as hurt us.  So, here's my opinion of what would be a good, average, and bad draw, working from least important to most important.

Pot 2:
Good draw: Togo, Angola
Average draw: Tunisia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Australia, Ecuador
Bad draw: Paraguay

Pot 1:
Good draw: Spain, France
Average draw: Italy, England, Argentina
Bad draw: Brazil, Germany

Pot 3:
Good draw: Switzerland, Ukraine, Croatia
Average draw: Poland, Sweden
Bad draw: Portugal
Horrible draw: Netherlands, Czech Republic

  So, to boil it down: if we get put in a group with Netherlands or Czech Republic, I think we're just about screwed.  Being in with Portugal, Brazil, or Germany would also be very bad (though I'd like to see us play Germany again).  As long as we avoid these scenarios, I'll consider us lucky.

  Some quick notes: I also don't want to play Serbia-Montenegro (who, because of convoluted rules, are in their own pot); they are hot right now (having just beat arch-rivals - and not just in soccer - Bosnia Herzegovena in a must-win match) and hate us.  As for Germany, many people argue that they are at a low ebb right now, and I agree, but home field advantage in the World Cup is always - always, no exceptions whatsoever in the 72 year history of the tournament - huge. 

  Finally, there is some good news: because we are the highest seeded non-seeded team, and becuase we are by far the toughest team in our pot, there is a good chance that whatever group we get drawn into will become known as the "group of death".  For those of you new to soccer, the European press almost always designate one group to be the "group of death" (that phrase is almost as official as "sweet 16" is in basketball), then delight in predicting impending doom for those unlucky teams.  The two that emerge from that group (England and Sweden last time around) get an extra dose of respect.  So there's an excellent chance that Le Monde and Der Spiegel and The London Times will annoint our group the "group of death", then give us extra credit should we emerge from that group in spite of the fact that the group was only considered difficult by virtue of the fact that we were in it.

Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 2:14 PM EST
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Tuesday, 6 December 2005
Topic: US National Team
  The U.S. barely missed out on a World Cup top 8 seed today, meaning that our road to the second round will be much more difficult than that of Mexico (against whom we are 7-2-1 in the last 5 years, with a goal differential of 14-3).  FIFA is dominated by the European countries, which causes me to wonder: what did we do that offended Europe so badly?  Besides this: Rice Defends Tactics Used Against Suspects.  And this: US Admits Wrongful Detention, German Chancellor Says.  And this: CIA Ruse Damages Probe in Milan.  And that's just stuff that happened today.

Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 2:15 PM EST
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