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Jeff Maurer's Soccer Blog
Sunday, 7 January 2007
Topic: Football (American)

  Observant readers will notice that this blog is not actually about soccer - it's about the other football. But the BCS has bugged me for a long time now, so I figured I'd go ahead and put my thoughts in writing.

   Tonight is the college football National Championship Game, so now is also a good time to express my hatred of the Byzantine, arbitrary, completely moronic system known as the Bowl Championship Series.


  Here's the only iron-clad lock in sports: the college football champion will be controversial. Several teams will claim that they deserved to be in the BCS title game, and they will have a point. However, the teams who actually do play in the BCS title game (it's the Rose Bowl this year) will also have a legitimate claim to their spot in the game. There will be no satisfactory conclusion. This will lead to a level of whining and bitching that no other sport – figure skating included – would tolerate.


  This will happen because college football is organized by people too ignorant to recognize this obvious truth: any championship format that involves voting will be viewed by some as illegitimate. Let's review how things are presently done:


-         Each team plays between 11 and 14 games.

-         The quality of opponents varies considerably, with teams in the six "major" conferences playing significantly tougher schedules than teams in the five "minor" conferences.

-         Some conferences have title games, which pit the two top teams against each other. Others do not.

-         Teams schedule their own non-conference games. National championship contenders frequently schedule games against teams in the lower divisions of college football, which, for some reason, is allowed.

-         From this clusterfuck, the BCS rankings are determined. The BCS rankings consist of three factors:


1.      The Harris Interactive Poll. The Harris poll is compiled by sports writers and former players. All of these people have jobs and can't possibly watch every game in college football. Furthermore, practically all of them went to college, including many of the colleges involved in the poll.


2.      The Coaches Poll. This poll is compiled by coaches who were obviously coaching their own fucking game while the other teams in the poll were playing. These coaches have a greater incentive than anyone else in the world to cast self-interested votes. It is commonly known that athletic directors, assistant coaches, and, in some cases, equipment managers actually submit the "coach's" rankings.


3.      Computer poll average. Six computer polls are averaged out to create a single computer poll average. These rankings are completely objective and calculated according to pre-determined, result-oriented criteria, making them immune to skewed perceptions and sentimental factors. Nonetheless, after every season, meathead sports commentators will claim that the computers – and not the shit-for-brains coaches and reporters – got it wrong.


The BCS used to factor in strength of schedule and quality wins, but these criteria were dropped after the objective determinations of mathematics failed to reflect the subjective determinations of idiot football coaches. The system now is almost identical to the failed system that led to the creation of the BCS in the first place. The top two teams in the BCS poll at the end of the season play in the National Championship Game. This game rotes among the four BCS bowls (Rose, Sugar, Orange, and Fiesta), completely fucking up the sacred bowl traditions (i.e., the Rose Bowl has the Big Ten and Pac Ten champs) that are ostensibly one of the main reasons why we don't have a playoff. The winner of the National Championship Game is declared the National Champion, but this is almost always disputed, as nobody agreed on which teams should be in the game in the first place. Even in relatively non-controversial years (such as last year, when the only two undefeated teams in the country met in the title game), it is easy to argue that good teams were not given a fair shot at the title.


So, that's how it is now. Let's review the pros of this system:


-         It's better than the old system.


Okay, now the cons:


-         You're comparing apples and oranges. How can you compare two teams who quite possibly didn't have a single common opponent? And how do you compare the quality of various conferences when there are only a handful of inter-conference games? With that being true, how can you compare a 12-0 team to an 11-1 team from another conference? Maybe the 11-1 team had a much tougher schedule. But, you can't punish the 12-0 team, can you? Furthermore, how do you compare an 11-0 team to a 13-1 team? Isn't it possible that the 11-0 team would have lost if they had played those extra games? And given that there are only a handful of really tough games, how do you factor in home field advantage (or disadvantage) in those games? How does head-to-head competition factor in? Also, what are we actually voting on? Are we looking for the best team, or are we looking for the team that had the best season? If it's the first, then why even bother playing the games? But it can't be the second, because many teams have identical seasons. Also, are we looking for the best team now, or the best team over the course of the season? Which brings up the question: should we factor in margin of victory? It seems like we shouldn't, because that makes close victories into losses, and it rewards teams for running up the score. But, on the other hand, if you had teams with identical records and schedules, wouldn't margin of victory be the tie-breaker?


There are no answers to these questions, which is why any system that involves voting will never work.


-         It's ruined the bowl traditions. The biggest argument against a playoff used to be that the bowl traditions are sacred. The Pac 10 always played the Big 10 in the Rose Bowl, and it had been that way since the '30s. Anything that disrupted that system was a non-starter. Yet, in their infinite stupidity, the NCAA managed to institute a system that destroyed these traditions without solving the fundamental problem. This is why ..:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Oregon was denied a chance to win their first Rose Bowl in more than fifty years despite winning the PAC 10 in 1999.


-         The other bowls mean nothing. It used to be that Michigan would be thrilled to end up in the Rose Bowl. This year, however, they were pissed, because it meant that they were denied a chance of playing for the national title. Every game except for the title game is nothing more than an exhibition.


-         Reputations matter. When several teams end the season with identical records – as often happens in college football – tie-breakers are important. In practice, reputation is one of the most important tie-breakers in college football. Traditional powerhouses, such as Notre Dame, Penn State, and Florida State, are almost always overrated. Remember, people are making these rankings based on how good they think these teams are. And the inflated reputations of the perennial powerhouses mean that when you've got two teams with identical records, the powerhouse team will often be given the benefit of the doubt.


-         When you lose matters. You hear this logic a lot in college football: "they won, so they shouldn't move down." On one hand, this makes sense: a team shouldn't ever be punished for winning. However, it ignores the fact that the initial rankings were a guess based on no results, and therefore shouldn't mean anything at all. Furthermore, teams that lose late in the season are often pushed behind teams with identical records who lost early in the season (see, for example, the fact that Oklahoma are ranked above USC). People have started to get wise to this flaw in recent years, but it still matters.


-         Small teams have no chance. If you are not in a major conference, you will never win the national championship. Those aren't the formal rules, but that's the way it works in practice. If you're in one of the five "minor" conferences, your title dreams are gone before you stepped on the field. There are no Cinderellas in college football - no '06 George Mason, no '84 Villanova. This year, Boise State won every game on its schedule, including a thrilling 43-42 win over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. For that they win…nothing at all. The best they'll get at the end of the season is a number three ranking, behind a couple of teams with one loss (including the potential national champion, if Florida wins tonight). They don't even get a chance to keep playing until someone beats them. Where's the excitement in that?


  Obviously, the current system is arbitrary and unfair. A playoff is required, as just about anyone who follows the sport will agree. All of the old arguments against a playoff – it will add too many games, it will destroy traditions, it will distract players from their academics – have been torpedoed by the NCAA's own expansion and distortion of regular season and bowl schedule. The last argument – that a playoff would distract student-athletes from their studies – doesn't even pass the laugh test, especially considering the fact that Division II, which includes the Ivy Leagues, has a playoff.


  Most proponents of a playoff advocate basically the same format as the NCAA basketball tournament, only with eight teams instead of 64. While this would be better than the current system, there is still a major problem: voting would still play a major role. Look at what would have happened this year: Boise State, one of only two undefeated teams in the country, would be out. 10-2 LSU, an SEC team, would be in, while 10-2 Auburn, also an SEC team who beat LSU, would be out. Two-loss teams Notre Dame, Virginia Tech, West Virginia, Rutgers, and Wake Forest would be out in spite of the fact that three two-loss teams would be in. Also, there would have been no drama in the fourth quarter of the Michigan-Ohio State game, as both teams would have known that they at least made the game close enough to avoid dropping out of the top eight. My point is this: If we simply put the top eight teams into a playoff, we'll still have many of the same problems that we have now. We need to get rid of voting altogether.


  Here's how we do that: First, fold the five small conferences into four (this isn't so far-fetched due to the restructuring in the ACC and Big East in the past few years). Conference USA disappears (or the MAC disappears – it doesn't matter for these purposes). Notre Dame joins the Big 10; sorry, Notre Dame, we're not going to force a crappy system on all of college football so that you can have your undeserved BCS bowl payday (note: I am a lifelong Notre Dame fan. It is the last vestige of the days when my family was Catholic). Then the bowl games get structured like this:


-         WAC champ vs. Mountain West champ, winner goes to Fiesta Bowl

-         MAC champ vs. Sunbelt champ, winner goes to Fiesta Bowl


-         Fiesta Bowl: WAC/Mountain West champ vs. MAC/Sunbelt champ

-         Rose Bowl: PAC 10 Champ vs. Big 10 Champ

-         Orange Bowl: Big East Champ vs. ACC Champ

-         Sugar Bowl: SEC Champ vs. Big 12 Champ


  These games take place on January 1, as used to be the tradition. Then, there are two more rounds until there is a winner. The matchups would change every year (Sugar vs. Orange winner one year, Sugar vs. Fiesta winner the next) so that no one conference always ends up playing the Fiesta Bowl champ, which will arguably be the weakest team in the final four.


  The logic behind this system is the same logic that lies behind the playoff system in every pro sport: you play your way in. There's no voting, no subjectivity. The path is laid out, and if you keep winning, you will be the champ. Also, if you claim to be the best team in the country, then you have to at least prove that you're the best team in the division.


  The main drawback that I see in this system is that non-conference games don't mean as much as they do now. But non-conference games would still serve three purposes: 1) They'd be tie-breakers for teams with identical conference records (as they are now), 2) They'd be important for the non-playoff bowls (which would still exist, as they do now), and 3) A points system based entirely on non-conference games could be used to determine home-field advantage for the semi-final and final, which would provide an incentive to actually schedule games against tough teams. Also, I'd like to point out that it would be extremely difficult to make non-conference games more boring than they already are, as the big teams have taken to beating up on the Eastern Michigans of the world in order to avoid a potentially crippling loss.


  The advantages of this system are this:


-         There's no voting

-         It restores the bowl traditions and enhances inter-conference rivalries in those games

-         It doesn't add too many games

-         It intensifies in-conference rivalries

-         Teams get to actually play the teams competing with them for a playoff spot

-         It creates semi-final and final games with an actual home-field advantage, which will be much more exciting than bowl games at neutral sites (note: if they can play NFL games in Green Bay in January, then they can play college games in Michigan in January)

-         The small colleges have a chance to win it all


  That's it. I'm surprised you read this far.

Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 1:56 PM EST
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Tuesday, 12 December 2006
Random Soccer Stuff
Topic: US National Team

  Some random thoughts on sports, Larry King News & Notes style…


  The Freddy Adu trade:


  If nothing else, my team just got a little less exciting for the moment. As much as Freddy had his down spells, he would also have moments that would make you think "maybe he deserved all the hype." In MLS, where you can wrap up a playoff spot with 2/3 of the season left to play, I liked having a player on the team who made the game worth watching all by himself. I'm also a little bummed that he won't be referred to as "the former DC United man" when he plays in Europe.

  That being said, this has the potential to be a great trade or a terrible trade. The DCenters says that waiting and seeing is a cheap answer, but it's my answer anyway. There are just too many unknown variables at this point.

  If Freddy leaves in June, this could be a great trade – we will have essentially traded some cash and a bit of quality in our backup keeper for an allocation. That's a good deal. However, the other variable in this equation is the quality of the player that we sign using that allocation. If we sign another Christian Gomez, we fleeced them. If we sign another Lucio Filomino, they fleeced us. I hope that DC is acting on a bit of insider information on both of these counts.


  The ongoing US National Team coach hunt:


  I wanted two things in a coach: 1) Success at the highest levels of competition, and 2) A working knowledge of American soccer and its players. There was only one candidate who had both of those qualifications, and he removed himself from consideration last week. So, looking through the remaining candidates, here is my order of preference:


  1. Gus Hiddink (head coach, Russia, formerly of PSV Eindhoven and Australia) – He has won everywhere he goes (although Russia isn't going great guns right now), and he definitely got the maximum out of the Australian team. He had an American player in Damarcus Beasley at PSV. Unfortunately, he is under contract with Russia for two more years, so I doubt he's available.
  2. Gerard Houlier (head coach, Lyon) – I'll confess: I have only seen Lyon play a few times, and the coaching decisions didn't make any impression on me. However, what he's done at Lyon is remarkable: they've won 5 straight league titles and are 14 points clear in their quest for a sixth. They're also playing very well in the Champions League, and should have knocked out AC Milan last year. He also has a good record of developing young players.
  3. Carlos Queiroz (Manchester United assistant coach, head coach of the Metrostars in 1996) – He's got experience in MLS and has experience as an assistant at the highest levels. That's close. I've never seen him coach, but I've read a lot of good things about his personality and his intelligence.
  4. Sigi Schmid (head coach, Columbus Crew, formerly of the LA Galaxy and the US U-20s) – He's extremely underrated. He had a team that was rebuilding this year, and then they got hit with a hurricane of injuries – that's why Columbus sucked so hard this year. It wasn't Sigi's fault. He never should have been canned as LA's coach in the first place. Also, when he was with the U-20's he coached a lot of the guys who are candidates to make the team in 2010.
  5. Bob Bradley (head coach, Chivas USA, formerly of the Metrostars and Fire, present interim coach) – From what I can tell, he's a good coach and a smart guy. His record of success is interrupted only by his time with the (then) Metrostars, but from what I remember he never had a quality striker and a quality defender on that team at the same time. We'll know a lot more about him in the next couple months.
  6. Frank Yallop (head coach, LA Galaxy, formerly of San Jose and Canada) – Landon Donovan likes him and has played well under him. That's an asset if you think that will translate to the national team, but it's a liability if you think someone needs to motivate Donovan to play at a higher level. I think it's probably an asset, but I'm not convinced. My main problem with Yallop is his complete and total failure to get Canada anywhere close to qualification for the '06 World Cup.
  7. Jose Peckerman (Argentina head coach during '06 World Cup, Argentine U-20s coach before that) – I aired my problems with Peckerman in a previous blog. Still, Ryan's right: three Youth World Cups is pretty good. Let me point this out, though: he doesn't speak English. Also, it took the goal of the tournament to beat Mexico in extra time, so I think we should put the quality of the '06 Argentina team in perspective.
  8. Peter Nowak (head coach, DC United) – My problems with Peter go beyond his handling of Freddy Adu (which, now is a good time to point out, was never very good). My problem is that he is so incredibly rigid. I'm a big fan of the 3-5-2, but is it really the right situation against every team in every game? Also, it takes him a very long time to change his mind. It took a full year for him to realize that Christian Gomez is the linchpin of this team and doesn't need to always be subbed out in the 65th minute. He was the last person in DC to realize that Boswell and Erpen should both be in the back line. He never did admit what nobody wants to admit: Jaime Moreno's skills are deteriorating. Add that to some other bizarre decisions (why the right-footed Josh Gros on the left and the left-footed Freddy Adu on the right? Neither had a cutback goal all year) and substitutions, and I just don't have a whole lot of confidence in this guy.
  9. Sven Goran-Erikkson – This guy is an egomaniac and a crappy coach. He got the absolute minimum out of that English team and created problems along the way. I don't see a whole lot of positives in this guy.


  For now, I'm willing to give Bob Bradley the benefit of the doubt. He seems like a good guy, and I'm willing to be convinced. Also, I kind of have to root for a guy who was no-one's first choice.

Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 1:57 PM EST
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Thursday, 7 December 2006
Topic: US National Team

  Jurgen Klinsmann will not be the next coach of the U.S. National Team. Damn it. That sucks. He's definitely the guy I wanted. He really seemed to have just about everything you'd want.

  Apparently, Klinsmann and US Soccer didn't disagree about money so much as "executive control." I have no idea what that means. Control over what? I don't know nearly enough about the actual job of being a national team coach to imagine what issues executive control covers. But I hope the US Soccer weighed the value of having the optimal coach with too much control against the value of having a sub-opitimal coach with the right amount of control.

  Chivas USA coach Bob Bradley is the interim coach. The search must be going really poorly if we're six months in and have to name an interim coach just to get through our January friendlies. Bob Bradley is a good coach, but if you're going to go with a quality MLS coach who doesn't have much of a reputation outside of the US, why not just stick with Bruce Arena? The down side of any American coach is that they can't help but internalize a lot of the conventional wisdom about the team. I like the idea of bringing in someone with a fresh perspective who might challenge some of the orthodoxy surrounding this team. I'd like to see someone ask: "Would a 4-3-3 suit this team?" Or "Does Damarcus Beasley really deserve a spot on this team right now?" Even if the answers to those questions are "no" and "yes," I'd like to see someone brought in who'd be willing to re-evaluate the whole program.

  If Jose Peckerman ends up getting the job, I'm going to be pissed. When I think of Jose Peckerman, I think of Lionel Messi on the bench. Messi on the bench versus Germany in the World Cup, and Messi on the bench versus the US in the first game of the U-20 championships. Argentina lost both of those games. Who leaves Messi on the bench? And who inserts Julio Cruz - a striker - when you're trying to hold a 1 goal lead? I'm not going to judge a coach on a few games alone, but it certainly does raise questions about his competence. And, yes, he's had tons of success at the youth level, but it's not like he had that success with Lichtenstein. That would be impressive. Coaching success, in my mind, is not proved by results alone. People always say Joe Torre is a great coach, and he may be, but I could have coached that '98 team to a World Series. Successful coaches shouldn't get credit unless we can point to specific things about their technique and decisions that suggest that they maximized the team's potnetial. The same goes for Peckerman. As it stands, I have seen no evidence that would convince me that he is a good coach.

Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 1:58 PM EST
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Saturday, 29 July 2006
Farewell, Jurassic Carl
Topic: Baseball

  Yesterday, the Mariners released designated hitter Carl Everett, who "does not believe" in homosexuality or dinosaurs. Now is a good time to look back at the prediction I made for Carl Everett before the season started:

From Dec. 19, 2005

"The Mariners - unlike the Oakland A's - apparently do not look at three year trends when making personnel decisions.  If they had, they would see that Carl Everett is player on a steady decline in spite of the fact that he has played left-handed-hitter friendly parks.  This is probably one of the reasons why the A's kick our asses every year with half the payroll.  My predictions for Carl Everett in 2006: 100 games played, .235, 14 HR, 2 ejections, 3 things said about Ichiro that, upon closer inspection, are incredibly racist, 6 quotes "taken out of context", 1 Texas Rangers fan karate-chopped in the throat, 322 references to himself in the third person."

Carl's actual 2006 numbers:

92 games played, .227, 11 HR. Unfortunately, doesn't keep track of that other stuff, but there was a notable post-game shouting match with the manager.

Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 1:59 PM EDT
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Friday, 14 July 2006
DC United 4:0 Celtic
Topic: DC United

  DC United beat Scottish champions Celtic 4-0 in a friendly Wednesday night. It feels good to have a positive outcome for American soccer after the World Cup letdown. To be fair, Celtic was missing some key players (though so was DC), and Celtic are still in their preseason (which makes a big difference), but, still...4-0 is cool.

  It's good to be a DC United fan. As an American soccer fan, you always know that your league and your national team are a cut below the best in the world, and that may be putting it mildly. But at least I cheer for the one team in MLS that has some small level of international respect. We won the Concacaf Champions Cup and Interamerican Cup in 1998, four MLS titles (out of ten), and one US Open Cup. We're something like 20-9-4 in international games, including only one loss to a Premiership team, which was a 2-1 loss to Chelsea in which everyone agreed we played well. All this has happened in spite of the fact that we have the same money as every other team in MLS; we're not cheating like the Chelsea or the Yankees. We've had players who have had success in top European leagues (John Harkes, Ben Olsen, Bobby Convey, Hristo Stoichkov) and some of the best players in league history (Etcheverry, Moreno). We've got future Chelsea signing Freddy Adu on the current team, which is presently 12-1-5 and 11 points better than the second-best team in the league. We have a serious name (as opposed to, say, Real Salt Lake), a cool crest, and wear uniforms that look like something that a real soccer team might wear. We also have "DC" in our name, which I like; only people who don't live here call the city "Washington." The shitty World Cup performance would probably be twice as difficult to take if I cheered for the Red Bulls (that name is still a huge embarassment) or Kansas City. I should consider myself lucky that the team in my town happens to be the best in the country.

  Now if we could just get a stadium.

Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 2:00 PM EDT
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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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