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Jeff Maurer's Soccer Blog
Sunday, 27 April 2008
The Seven Stages of Relegation
Topic: English Premiership

Fulham are going down. Probably. They've still got a chance, but it's not looking good. Like many Americans, I am a Fulham fan. And, like many Americans, I have never been through this before.

Relegation pain is unique. It's gradual and incremental, with flashes of hope that only prolong the suffering. It's more like a gutshot than a bullet to the brain - the suffering unfolds slowly, in stages, with the outcome becoming more apparent with each passing moment.

I can't explain this condition to my non-soccer-loving friends. It's an experience that Bill Simmons hasn't documented. I feel a need to record my symptoms so that Americans can understand this affliction that the Europeans have brought over. Maybe Nicholas Kristof will chronicle my plight. Mabye little rubber bracelets will draw attention to the horrors of this condition. Bono might get involved (though maybe not - he supports Celtic). I must speak. The world must know:

 

The Seven Stages of Relegation:

Stage 1: Naive Optimism.  Soccer players are a bit like race horses - they're evaluated largely by pedigree. Fulham's opening day roster had some pedigree. Danny Murphy is ex-Liverpool, who are politely included in the Big Four. David Healy holds the record for most goals scored in European qualifying, and no one ever went wrong in soccer basing their evaluations on goal-scoring statistics, right? The manager, Lawrie Sanchez, had great success managing Wycome Wanderers - they absolutely tore apart my rec team (they were winning 4-1 when we had to clear the field for marching band practice). And we avoided relegation last year by one whole point! Who else here has their sights set on European football in 2008!?!

Stage 2: Tinkering. A few weeks into the season, it was clear that the team needed...let's say "adjustments". Specifically, Brian McBride's tibia needed to be adjusted to be roughly in line with his femur. Also, it was not yet clear whether Stephen Davis should be played in the center, played on the wing, or shot into deep space. Still, there was time, and reinforcements were coming from, um, Crystal Palace, and with Lawrie Sanchez applying the same deft tactics that helped Northern Ireland almost not fail to qualify for Euro 2008, the ship would still be righted, right? Right?

Stage 3: Hatred of Chris Baird. Is Chris Baird's dad really powerful or something? Does he possess compromising photos of important people? What I'm asking is: what was it that kept this man on the field for so long? Was it the same thing that's keeping Andy Rooney on TV? With all of Fulham's contacts with America, why didn't they just pick any - literally any- right back from MLS? They're all better than Chris Baird.

Stage 4: Denial/False Hope. I don't think that Mohamed Al-Fayed celebrates Christmas, but I sure celebrated when he fired Lawrie Sanchez in December. With that act alone, things started looking up. After all, surely the new coach wouldn't make the same mistake that Sanchez had made: buying players based on reputation alone, then sticking with those players for too long in a stubborn attempt to avoid admitting a mistake. Besides, Bullard and McBride were coming back, and Bolton was horrible, and Derby was already down, and Wigan is a rugby town, so there's nothing to worry about, right? Right?

Stage 5: Xenophobia. You know who's fault this all is? Foreigners. Specifically those filthy fucking Irish: Baird and Healy and Davis and Aaron Hughes...they're the ones to blame. They come here and they take jobs away from hard working Americans, and look what happens. None of this is the Americans' fault. Bocanegra, Dempsey, and Keller aren't seeing enough minutes, and it's all because of their sneaky English coach. The English have always favored the Irish.

Stage 6: Bitterness/clinging to God, guns. This is all a test. The penalty kick against Newcastle, the hand ball goal against West Ham...it seems like everyone is out to screw us right now - and they undeniably are - but you know how we can get through this? Faith. A little good, old-fashioned, faith - you know, the kind of faith that causes God to give you stuff. You've read snippets of the bible - ask and it shall be given unto you. Well, God, if you're listening, I would like to hold onto a one-goal lead. And if we can't, I'm going to get a gun and shoot Chris Baird in both knees.

Stage 6: Aethism. Thanks a pantload, God. Or, should I say: "god". There is no hope - life is meaningless. We are born, we suffer, and then we die. Soccer is like life: a random series of chance encounters over which we have no control. All we can do is watch where the ball bounces and hope for a quick and relatively painless death. The sky is grey. The orb is spinning. I retire. Silence.

Stage 7: Manchester United. They are the Death Star of English soccer. They are big and powerful and have a gravity that draws you inward. Yes, they are evil, and they exist to squash the hope of smaller civilizations throughout the galaxy, leaving only the blackness of space...but, damn it, they win. Maybe I should stop being such a martyr and go over to the dark side.

 

But no...I've already decided: if Fulham go down, I'm going down with my team. Hell, I'm part Irish myself: I'll stick with this marriage forever no matter how bad it gets. Actually, after the comeback win at Man City last week, I'm starting to think they could stay up. Which either means that we've either begun Chapter IV: A New Hope, or that I've cycled back to Stage 4 and still have stages 5, 6, and 7 ahead of me.


Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 2:18 PM EDT
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Sunday, 20 April 2008
Eddie Johnson Sucks. At Soccer.
Topic: US National Team

  Everyone over at Soccer by Ives is wondering why Eddie Johnson isn't playing at Fulham.

  I'll tell you why he isn't playing: it's because he isn't good at soccer. At all. He is the one American player whom I do not want to see on the field for Fulham, and it's because he's just not good. At soccer. Not even a little.

  Maybe this will help people understand...

 

Eddie Johnson cannot play,

He sucks in many, many ways;

 

He cannot shoot, he cannot pass,

He often falls down on the grass;

 

His touches often take him wide,

He's always, ALWAYS caught offside;

 

He does not work, he can't defend,

He does not get from end to end;

 

He is not good with back to goal,

He is not good in any role!

 

He can't play high or on the wing,

He is not good at anything!

 

He is not good when with his club,

He is not good used as a sub;

 

His is not good when with the Nats,

He is not good and that is that!

 

He's played his first and last World Cup,

US fans should give it up!


Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 12:01 AM EDT
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Tuesday, 23 January 2007
America Demands Soccer Editorials from Unknown Comedians
Topic: US National Team

  This past weekend, sports fans in this country were thrilled by one of the most remarkable games in recent memory: the U.S. under-20's 5-0 win over Panama. Nobody at work can stop talking about it.


  I watched all three US games in the qualifying tournament, which was played on what can't possibly be the best field in Panama (come on, Panama - you have professional teams. Do they all play on high-school-quality fields with dirt patches and potholes?) My thoughts on each player are below, because soccer fans everywhere are dying for the opinions of federal employee-comedians who last played competitive soccer in high school. I also scored each player twice on a scale of 1-10. The first score is how well that player played in the tournament. The second score is how much potential I think that player has in the long run. Please note: the second number will almost certainly look comically wrong if we were to look back at it in a couple of years.

- Chris Seitz (GK) - 7, 9 - Barely had anything to do in any of the games. The only goal he gave up was a penalty kick against Haiti, which he probably should have saved. He gets the seven mostly because he looks like a good 'keeper, i.e., he's big and has a shaved head (why are all American goalkeepers bald?). His positioning was okay, though not perfect, and he made a couple nice saves against Panama. I'm eager to see if he can win the starting spot in Salt Lake if Scott Garlick goes into a slump.

- Quavas Kirk (D) - 4, 9 - Probably the biggest disappointment of the tournament from my perspective. I've been pretty optimistic about this guy since I saw him run the right flank against DC, but he didn't have a good tournament. He showed a lot of speed and a willingness to get forward, but his defense was lacking and he was frequently caught out of position. He also gave Haiti their PK by unnecessarily tugging a Hatian player's shirt. I still think that he shows a lot of promise, but I wonder if his future is more as a right mid than as a right back.

- Julian Valentin - 5.5, 6 - Solid defensive work, though his distrubition was a bit lacking. Maybe it was because of the rough field, but the defense as a whole often seemed very slow to play the ball out of their third. Still, Valentin showed good composure for a kid and was rarely caught out of position, which is what you want from a central defender.

- Nathan Sturgis - 5.5, 6 - Pretty much identical to Valentin - good defense, good composure, could have been a bit better playing the ball forward. He, like most of the American players, definitely benefitted from a considerable size advantage over his opponents.

- Tim Ward - 5.5, 6 - A mixed bag: showed a good willingness to get forward and had some nice moments, but had some bad giveaways as well. It seems like he maybe has the tools to be a solid MLS left back, but not much beyond that.

- Danny Sztela - 8, 8 - I never quite understood what everyone sees in this kid; I always thought he was unimpressive with the U-17s and with Columbus. But I finally started to see it this time - I thought he had the best tournament of any American player. He controlled the midfield well, which was important because he often didn't receive much help in a three-man midfield. He distributed the ball pretty well and played at a quick pace. He also looked a lot bigger than he looked previously, which makes me think that he might eventually turn into a pretty effective midfield destroyer.

- Tony Beltran - 5, 5 - Solid, though not spectacular. Didn't make too many mistakes, but didn't do much to distinguish himself, either. Played defensive mid in the third game and was a more stabalizing influence in that role than Anthony Wallace.

- Freddy Adu - 6, 9 - I've seen a lot of Freddy over the past three years with DC United, so I pretty much know what to expect: outstanding vision, excellent through balls, disappointingly difficult square balls, the occasional brilliant touch, the occasional stupid giveaway in an attempt to execute a brilliant touch, the occasional great finish, the occasional shot that misses the goal by 40 yards, excellent dead balls and free kicks, great runs capped by completely losing composure and dribbling right into a defender, a wildly fluctuating work rate, an ever-improving ability to hold and distribute the ball, and absolutely, positively, under no circumstances, any right foot whatsoever. I did notice two encouraging things about Freddy's play that I haven't really seen before: 1) When on the ball, he seemed to be playing at a quicker pace than most of the other players. I guess that's the professional experience paying off. 2) He had some decent attempts on goal from free kicks. These are positive aspects from his game that he seems to be developing.
  If I'm John Ellinger (Real Salt Lake's coach), I make Freddy practice using only his right foot two days a week.

Johann Smith - 6, 8.5 - I was exited to see this guy for the first time, and he showed some moments of really good soccer - he created the first goal against Panama all by himself. He had a few chances to showcase his speed (he ran the 100 in 10.4 in high school), but it was mostly while chasing down long balls played into the corner. He showed decent touch and skill, but his passing and decision-making wasn't always the greatest. Still, since there appear to be two wide-open forward slots on the full national team, I'll be watching his progress whenever I get a chance.

Robbie Rogers - 4, 4.5 - This was the first time that I've seen this guy as well, and I came away a bit disappointed. He didn't show a great deal of speed or skill; his main asset seemed to be his crossing ability, which was apparent but inconsistent. He also seems to be able to play a good cross with either foot, which is a plus. Still, I felt that his contribution to the attack was less than stellar.

Josmer Altidore - 6, 9 - Like Quavas Kirk and Freddy, I'm really optimistic about this guy, and his undeniable skill was unapparent at times. He showed a lot of speed and trickery, though the U-20 World Cup Finals will be a much better measure of his talents. On the negative side, his first touch let him down sometimes, and I felt that he did a subpar job of creating space for himself. It's also worth mentioning that he was apparently sick throughout this tournament, and he missed the whole first game and half of the second.
  One thing (among many) the the announcers didn't notice: he slapped the ball out of a Guatemalan player's hand before a free kick when he was already carrying a yellow card. Not smart. Although the team kept their composure pretty well on the whole for a bunch of 19-year-olds.

Jonathan Villanueva - 4.5, 4.5 - This is the guy who beat out Dax McCarthy for a roster spot, and it wasn't entirely clear to me why. He wasn't horrible, but I didn't see a whole lot of skill, pace, or vision. It should be pointed out that Haiti was absolutely terrible in the first game, and we should have scored even more than the four goals that we did. Subpar attacking play, part of which was Villanueva, is, in my opinion, the reason why we didn't score more.

Sal Zizzo - 4, 6 - Showed a good work rate and decent passing ability, but failed to make the most of his opportunities in the final third. Another one of the attacking players in the Haiti game whom I though didn't play all that well.

Anthony Wallace - 4.5, 5.5 - Very inconsistent - made some good plays, but probably had more poor first touches and unforced giveaways than any other player. He got into the attack a lot at some points, but it often came at the expense of leaving Sztela stranded in the defensive midfield.

Andre Akpan - 4.5, 4 - This is probably a harsh judgement for a guy who was credited with a hat trick in the only full game he played (though the second goal was actually an own-goal), but his goals were pretty much tap-ins, and I actually though he should have done better on a couple of occasions. Also, he didn't show the speed or skill that some of the other forwards demonstrated. The attack was a lot more dangerous when Altidore and Smith entered the game.

Didn't play enough for a rating: Ofori Sarkodie (which is too bad; he played well for the U-17s), Bryan Arguez (also too bad; he was DC United's top draft pick), Preston Zimmerman, Amaechi Igwe, Brian Perk.

Also, here are my thoughts (in a much briefer form) on the US players who played against Denmark:

Reis: Very poor but got away with it
Albright: Below his standard
Conrad: Pretty good, one moment of ball-watching
Boswell: Calm and controlled as always, a few mistakes, should be capped again
Bornstein: Completely schizophrenic in a nonetheless promising way. Cap him again and see what happens.
Pearce: Wish he had played more
Namoff: A little jittery, did a good job (as always) of knowing when to stay home
Clark: Pretty good, would like to see more
Mastreoni: As always, extremely tough but occasionally brainless
Donovan: Good, everyone wants him to be great
Rolfe: Poor as a mid, good as a forward
Mapp: Great run for the second goal, fundamentals could use some work. Cap him again against Mexico.
Johnson: Complete crap - what happened to this guy?
Nate Jaqua: Not too good, though he spent a lot of his time chasing down long balls, which is not really his game.
Kenny Cooper: pretty good. I'm optimistic about this guy.


Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 12:01 AM EST
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Sunday, 7 January 2007
The BCS
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
Klinsmann
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, ESPN.com 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
Fuck.
Topic: US National Team

  Fuck.
  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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