How to Take Apart a World Power

By Iron Chef Leftovers

Watching the Brasil-Germany semi-final, I figured that this was going to be a tough game for the Germans – it is a home game for Brasil, in front of an extremely loud, mostly partisan crowd, even with Brasil missing a couple of their best players and not exactly playing great soccer. I figured that Germany was going to press to try to get a lead and take the crowd out of it so when Muller scored; I figured that was exactly what they were trying to do. Then, about 22 minutes in, I figured that the game was just about over when Klose scored. The Germans were outplaying the Brasilians, and they have a great defense and the best goal keeper in the world with Neuer, so it would be tough to come back from 2-0 down. Well, then Germany went all blitzkrieg on the Brasilians and put 3 more in the net, in 6 minutes. I am writing this at halftime (and a couple of days before this will actually post) and I fully expect that Germany is going to use their 3 subs at the start of the 2nd half, just to avoid anyone getting hurt.

Germany is playing their best game since they dismantled the US in the group stage. Yes, the score was only 1-0, but at no point did you get the feeling that the US was going to mount any real threat. Heck, watching the game, it seemed like the Germans spent most of the second half trying to set up Klose so he could break the World Cup scoring record. That is what the first half of the Brasil-Germany game felt like, even before it became a blowout. It does not matter what the Brasilians do, Germany has complete control of the game.

The 2014 World Cup Group of Death

By Blaidd Drwg

Much has been written about the U.S. being in the “group of death” in the upcoming World Cup, but I happened to be reading a WC preview and realized that it isn’t so much a group of death as the U.S is in a group with two good teams and two middle of the road teams and they are not one of the good ones.  Sure Germany is pretty much going through to the knockout round, but is Portugal, give their history of fading in international competitions, really a shoe it, leaving the U.S. out of the knockout stage? Is this group any more the “group of death” than Group B with Spain, Chile (who are better than you think), The Netherlands and Australia.

It got me thinking, which group is actually the group you don’t want to be playing in?

Let’s take a look at the groups. The SPI ranking is the ESPN ranking and the odds are the percentage of times a team advanced in their simulation.

Group A

Team FIFA Rank SPI Rank SPI Odds
Brasil 4 1 99%
Mexico 19 25 44%
Croatia 20 30 34%
Cameroon 50 38 23%
Average Rank 23.25 23.5  

 

Obviously, Brasil is making it to the knockout stage and if they don’t the entire country is going to burn, so you really won’t have to worry about the rest of the tournament. The other spot is really between Mexico and Croatia, and that one could go either way. Cameroon has a chance, albeit a small one to sneak in. A tough group with 1 powerhouse and 2 middle of the road teams and 1 team happy to be there. Hardly a group of death, well, unless you are Cameroon or the team that finishes third.

Group B

Team FIFA Rank SPI Rank SPI Odds
Spain 1 3 85%
Chile 13 5 71%
Netherlands 15 10 38%
Australia 59 40 7%
Average Rank 22 14.5  

 

Spain should have no problem going through and Australia is happy to be there. It is going to be a tough battle between Netherlands and Chile for that second spot. ESPN likes Chile, I like Netherlands here, but don’t be surprised if it comes down to the Chile-Netherlands game on 6/23 and the final is something like 4-3. This group as a whole is going to light up the scoreboard. A candidate, just not a strong one for the group of death moniker.

Group C

Team FIFA Rank SPI Rank SPI Odds
Colombia 5 6 85%
Ivory Coast 21 16 48%
Greece 10 27 46%
Japan 47 36 22%
Average Rank 20.75 21.25  

 

Here is a group that there is really no clear favorite. Colombia is good, but is by no means a team that I think is a shoe-in for a spot. Japan is not as bad as people think and they could give the other teams in this group a run for their money. Ivory Coast is inconsistent and Greece is old, so who knows how they will hold up in the Brasilan sun. If you want to know who is going to advance in this group, you might as well pick names out of a hat.

Group D

Team FIFA Rank SPI Rank SPI Odds
Uruguay 6 8 60%
England 11 9 56%
Italy 9 12 46%
Costa Rica 34 24 38%
Average Rank 15 13.25  

 

This is far and away the most balanced group in the tournament. Any two teams have a legitimate shot at advancing, especially given the complete inconsistency of both England and Italy on the international stage in recent years. Any one of these 4 teams could conceivably get through to the knockout round and don’t be surprised if it ends up being Uruguay and Costa Rica. I could probably make an argument that this qualifies for a group of death if this was 20 years ago, but England and Italy are playing more on reputation right now than actual skill.

Group E

Team FIFA Rank SPI Rank SPI Odds
France 17 7 77%
Ecuador 26 11 62%
Switzerland 6 22 38%
Honduras 33 33 23%
Average Rank 20.5 18.25  

 

Another balanced group due to the horribly overrated France who are going to be missing their 2 best players for the World Cup. Again, any of these 4 teams could make it through and the Swiss are young and aggressive and, if they beat France, will probably advance with Ecuador. Probably the toughest group to be in.

Group F

Team FIFA Rank SPI Rank SPI Odds
Argentina 5 2 93%
Bosnia 21 15 48%
Nigeria 44 28 37%
Iran 43 39 22%
Average Rank 28.25 18.25  

 

ESPN likes the teams more than the FIFA rankings do in this group. Argentina is arguably the best team in the world, so it would take an act of God for them not to make it through. Iran is just happy to be there. Bosnia and Nigeria, in just about any group would probably be a good bet to move through to the knockout stage, but they are going to be competing against each other to survive this group. Both of those teams are better than you think and whoever makes it through has a good chance to possibly win a game or two in the knockout round. You definitely have 3 teams who would be close to locks to make it if you could have that.

Group G

Team FIFA Rank SPI Rank SPI Odds
Germany 2 4 87%
Portugal 4 14 47%
USA 13 21 35%
Ghana 37 26 31%
Average Rank 14 16.25  

 

What you have here is Germany who just needs to show up to advance. Portugal doesn’t seem like they ever show up for these international tournaments – they are almost as talented as Germany but play so inconsistently that they aren’t a great bet to even make it out of the group stage. The other two teams, USA and Ghana are both plagued by inconsistency also, so who knows. It is a case where any one of the non-German teams can make a case to get through, but I don’t think that in most of these groups, any of those teams would be the second best team there. A tough group if you are not Germany, but not quite a group of death.

Group H

Team FIFA Rank SPI Rank SPI Odds
Belgium 11 13 73%
Russia 19 17 68%
South Korea 57 31 43%
Algeria 22 69 16%
Average Rank 27.25 32.25  

 

This group is probably the worst in the tournament. Belgium probably finishes at best second in any other group and I don’t think that any of the other teams would get through in any other group. This is where you probably would want to play if you were a team like the US – getting through wouldn’t be much of an issue.

For what it is worth, I think Group E is really the group of death in this tournament and I think that Brasil beats Argentina 4-2 in an insane final.

An American Coach in London

By Bliadd Drwg

The NBC Sports network has been advertising their upcoming EPL coverage with a brilliant set of commercials titled “An American Coach in London.” As I was looking for them to post to the blog, I discovered that they are actually just segments of a much larger promo video that NBC Sports put together. It is about 4:45 long and has some pretty funny stuff in it.

 

For your viewing enjoyment:

The MLS Expands…Again

By Iron Chef Leftovers

I almost spit out my coffee when I saw that the MLS wants to expand again and add another team in the New York City area. Here is a quote from the ever delusional MLS Prez, Don Garber:

“This market has 19 million people in the region and is soccer hungry,” said MLS commissioner Don Garber. “With the Red Bulls here, we have the opportunity for a rival — a derby, if you will — that will break through the clutter of sports teams in this market and will work on the local, national and global levels.”

Ok, sure. The market has 19 million people but it has never really embraced the MLS. The team has averaged about 75% capacity over the 3 seasons they have occupied Red Bull Arena and their average of 18,804 per game there is only slightly higher than it was at Giants Stadium. Red Bull Arena sits right on 2 mass transit lines, has easy highway access, plenty of parking and is in the middle of an area that has a high immigrant population, which usually means more soccer support. The problem that the MLS has is that those people know what good soccer looks like and the MLS isn’t it. There is a reason why you don’t see the US National team playing home games in NY/NJ during the World Cup qualifying – it turns into a virtual home game for their opponent.

That being said, is the talent level in the MLS really that good that they can dilute it down further without compromising the “quality” of the product? I don’t think they can. The season is early, but the attendance is down league-wide this year – Only DC, Montreal, Dallas and Portland have seen any increase in attendance (well technically KC also, but their average has gone up 9 per game). Even the Sounders have seen a significant drop in attendance this year. Last year they drew 66,000 for a game against Portland. This year – just a shade over 40,000.

What this is all about is money and brand. The new NY club will be owned by the Steinbrenners (of NY Yankee fame) and Sheik Mansour bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (owner of Manchester City). Since both of these owners have very deep pockets and the MLS has very liberal rules about skirting the salary cap when it comes to foreign players, you can expect this team to be stocked with over-paid, past their prime players from Europe who have name recognition, a la David Beckham. That is not good for the long term success of the MLS and is exactly what brought down the NASL.

Considering that teams like Chivas, New England, Dallas and San Jose don’t draw well, the league might just be better served moving one of those teams to NY. Honestly, the league would probably be better served putting another team in Seattle over NY – right now, I believe the only cities that could support a second team attendance wise would be either Seattle or Portland.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Road to Wembley

By Blaidd Drwg

I had given serious thought to doing a post on the NBA and Seattle or even the first active gay athlete in major professional sports in the US, but then I decided that, based on the happenings in the Champions League, that would be a more interesting post.

Will Bayern Munich be celebrating in Wembley Stadium at the end of the month? Only time will tell.  Photo Credit: espn.com
Will Bayern Munich be celebrating in Wembley Stadium at the end of the month? Only time will tell.
Photo Credit: espn.com

If you are not familiar with the Champions League, it is basically the World Series of European Club soccer. Each season, the top teams from all of the major leagues go through several rounds of games until one team is left standing and is crowned champions. This year, the semi-finals ended up with 2 Germany vs. Spain matchups with Bayern Munich squaring off versus Barcelona and Dortmund squaring off against Real Madrid.

If you follow European soccer at all, you know that Bayern, Barca and Real are considered to be 3 of the absolute best in the world. If you had asked me at the start of the semis who would advance, I would have put my money on Bayern and Real. It is a good thing that I did not.

Dortmund did not have the world’s toughest (or smoothest) path to the semis, although they did manage to make it through the group stage besting both Ajax and Manchester City. They knocked off Shakhtar Donetsk in the round of 16 and barely got by Malaga in the quarter finals with 2 goals after the 90 minute mark in the second leg of their bout. If they would not have scored the second goal, Malaga would have advanced to the semis instead. Malaga and Shakhtar are both good teams, but not elite, so the expectation was going to be that Real would destroy Dortmund.

A funny thing happened on the way to the finals. In the first leg of Dortmund-Real series, Dortmund lit up an overmatched Real team to the tune of 4-1 with all 4 goals coming from one player – Robert Lewandowski. Real did not roll over and play dead in the second leg, scoring 2 goals in the last 10 minutes to take a 2-0 lead. Dortmund survived a furious onslaught at the end of the game and did not give up any more goals (a 3-0 Real win would have put them through to the finals) to advance to the finals.

Bayern, on the other hand, is on fire. They crushed Juventus in the quarter finals 4-0 aggregate and then utterly destroyed Barca 7(!)-0 aggregate in the semis. Keep in mind that Barca is the team with Lionel Messi, the goal scoring machine who is considered to be the best player on the planet right now. To beat the best club in Italy AND the best club in Spain is difficult at best. To destroy and dominate those two teams is virtually impossible.

If I were a betting man on the finals, how would I bet? Bayern has a 2-0-1 record against Dortmund this season and is 20 points up on them in the Bundesliga with 3 games to go. They do have one more game to play head-to-head on Saturday, but I suspect that Bayern won’t be playing most of their regular players. Bayern is on fire and going to be a heavy favorite on May 25th at Wembley Stadium and that is probably who I would put my money on. But a funny thing happened on the road to Wembley…

Attacking the Zone

By Blaidd Drwg

I have seen goalies play up late in the game to try to give their teams an advantage on the attack when they are behind, but this is brilliant.

The scene is set in the offensive end of the field and the attacking team’s goalie (the one in the yellow jersey) is near the attacking goal. What happens next is a brilliant way to recover.

The full story can be found here.

FIFA, the MLS and Popularity

By Blaidd Drwg with AJ Coltrane

Recently, MLS president Don Garber responded to FIFA president Sepp Baltter’s criticism of the MLS. Basically, Blatter was critical of the MLS for not promoting soccer enough in the US. I can understand where the comments come from – the United States is a rich market that FIFA would love to get millions of dollars in revenue from and it hasn’t been able to since soccer is arguably the 5th most popular professional sport here, behind football, basketball, baseball and hockey.

While I am no fan of Blatter, he has a point. A few reasons why:

  • The U.S. initially dropped the ball on getting a league going – it took 2 years after the 1994 World Cup for the MLS to start play and they lost any momentum that might have been gained to increase popularity. The US has a large immigrant population that is a ready base for soccer fandom, and by waiting, these people went right back to watching the club teams from their respective countries and didn’t give the MLS much thought on its inception.

 

  • The league did very little to bring in names that most Americans recognized, even from their own national team. Most of the players from that 1994 World Cup team went back to Europe to play club soccer, leaving the league essentially with secondary national team players and college kids. Couple that with a strict salary cap and this contributed to some pretty lousy soccer.

 

  • There is no relegation system. The league won’t improve if there is no incentive to get better. You drop the bottom two teams every year and bring up the top 2 from the 1st Division and you will improve the league in a hurry.

Garber points to the league’s success based with the following:

The league has set attendance records in the past six years, as the average has increased from 15,504 in 2006 to 17,872 in 2011 and a record 18,807 in 2012.

That is a 21% increasing in attendance. Sound good, huh? Well, it is technically true, but not quite the way that Garber wants it to be. Between 2006 and 2008, the league’s average attendance increased from 15,504 to 16,460, or about 6%. Nothing spectacular, but not horrible either, about 2% annually. Then, in 2009, the league opened up an outpost in Seattle. With the Sounders drawing 30,000+ a game, the league attendance jumped 14% between 2009 and 20012. If you take the Sounders out of the equation, league attendance between 2008 and 2012 jumped just 6%. That is incredibly slow annualized growth for the league (around 1.5%) when you take out the rabid Sounders fans.

The other comment I took issue with that Garber made:

“If he were to come to a game — whether it be in Seattle, Portland, Toronto, LA, Philadelphia, New York or any of our MLS markets — I think he would be very pleasantly surprised to see the passion that exists in our fan base and the high level of soccer IQ that exists in our fan base,” Garber told mlssoccer.com.

The passion is a bit overstated. Yes, Seattle has turned out to be a fantastic soccer market and there are plenty of people here who are causal fans. The same situation exists to an extent in Vancouver and Portland. Outside of that, unless you are actually attending games in many of the other markets, the fan base is almost non-existent. I can tell you from the time that I have spent in NY, Boston, LA, SF and Toronto, soccer is an afterthought in those cities. Heck, in Boston, I would be willing to bet that MLS soccer ranks below college sports in terms of popularity. So, Mr. Garber, if you want to impress FIFA, take them to a game in Seattle. If you want them to think they are right about their comments, take them to a game anywhere else.

Coltrane, the Sounders supporter he is, has a different take on this:

My take on it is that the FIFA president was talking out of his ass. I feel that the MLS commissioner has a much better grasp of his marketplace than the FIFA president does. If I were the MLS commissioner, I would have been “surprised” too. Soccer growth in the US is not going to happen overnight, or even over the 20ish years that the MLS has had so far. Establishing the sport will take another generation or two — when I was growing up all the dads/coaches would just roll the ball out there because none of them had played. It’s now getting to the point where dads who played are bringing sons to games to share the game they love (and coaching the kids) – just like baseball or some of the other “established” sports. I got the feeling from the FIFA president quote that he felt that his “beautiful game” was just going to roll into the US and take over the sporting landscape, and he was shocked that it hasn’t happened yet, which is ridiculous.

Watching Paint Dry

By Bladd Drwg

I have no real love for MLS soccer – the play reminds me of schoolyard basketball, the skill level is marginal compared to watching any European team play and the officiating is downright atrocious. I did recently go see the US Open Cup final between Seattle and Kansas City and was treated to everything I hate about watching an MLS game.

Both teams looked flat and the Sounders looked like they were playing not to lose the game. KC was not much better and the bulk of regulation time was spent with both teams middling around in the middle of the field making bad passes and not really pushing any attacks. It was frankly as exciting as watching paint dry. Both teams had a few scoring chances, but in those cases they were generally created by defensive mistakes rather than offensive skill.

The Sounders managed to get flagged for 4 yellow cards in regulation – and in each of those cases, the card should have been awarded. The Sounders should have only had 3 cards – Alonso was going to be warned early on for an aggressive play but he kept walking away from the ref, and eventually pushed the official away drawing the yellow. There was only one play that I thought KC made that might have warranted a yellow, but the ref did not call it. There were a number of questionable calls on both sides of the ball but I don’t believe the handball that lead to a KC goal was a bad call (unfortunately GolTV refused to show replays on just about every play).

After going 90 all tied, we were treated to another 30 minutes of incipit soccer as KC practically dominated the overtime but could not mount much of an attack. For all you Sounders fans – yes, Ianni deserved his yellow in the 119th minute – he pulled down a guy that had no defenders between him and the goal; that is an automatic yellow.

After watching 120 minutes of uninspired play, we got to witness the soccer equivalent of kissing your sister – penalty kicks. For the sake of the setup – a goalie is supposed to start on the goal line and is not supposed to move until the player taking the kick strikes the ball; a rule that is rarely enforced except on the last kick. If the goalie moves before the ball is struck or does not start out touching the goal line and touches the ball preventing a goal, it is a rekick. If he does not touch the ball, there is no rekick, even if the player kicking the ball does not score. That is exactly what happened at the end of the game, leading to a 3-2 advantage for KC and the win. (Yes – the replay does show that the Sounders goalie did not start out on the line).

If you read Jerry Brewer’s account in the Seattle Times, you will get a very different perception of the game. Some of the “highlights”:

…after a grueling 120 minutes of tense competition, after drama, frustration and five decisive penalty kicks from each team, history succumbed to anger, confusion and allegations of biased officiating.

It was a spirited contest, as competitive as you want a title game to be. But when it was over, the Sounders were left miffed and unsatisfied.

If Brewer thought the game was competitive and spirited, I suggest he watch a Champions League final or a Euro tournament.

A slightly less biased article (and a much more realistic view of the game) was written by Jeff Carlisle on espn.com. It’s title? “Hard to watch, easy to love.” I think that just about summed up the game.

The Beautiful Game at Its Best

By Blaidd Drwg

Amazing. Just absolutely amazing. If you told me the score of yesterday’s Italy-Germany match in the Euro 2012 semis was 2-1, I would have just assumed that Germany won the game. Italy, shocking everyone, pulled it out in one of the best games I have seen in a long time. If you have not watched this game, watch it. It is the perfect example of why soccer is called the beautiful game.

Italy played brilliantly – they attacked, they were patient and they spread the German defense by working the ball in and then passing it back out. The first Italian goal was one of the best goals I have seen in a long time – Italy works it in to the top of the box, have nothing, send it back out to midfield, long pass to the left wing (who was open) splits the defense and crosses to the middle, header in the net. The score of that game should really have been something like 5-1, but Italy missed 3 goals in the last 15 minutes when Germany was pushing their entire defense up and Italy was just lobbing it down the field to wide open players.

The result was a surprise since Italy has not looked good lately. They limped into Euro 2012 with a ton of uncertainty and very young players. The tied Spain 1-1, and looked pretty good there, but then they tied Croatia by getting too conservative at the end of the game (and nearly losing in the process). They did beat Ireland, but Ireland is the worst team in Euro 2012, so it is not saying much.

On to the quarterfinals, they beat England in penalty kicks, but it should not have been that close. They outshot England something like 35-6 (with 16 shots on goal) and really did dominate but could not convert their chances. Beating England was not really a big deal – England was the “winner” of the weakest group in Euro and were probably the worst remaining team in the tournament.

Italy came out full of fire in the game against Germany, a fire that I have not seen since they played in the World Cup final in 2006. The missed goals were alarming and they need to take advantage of those types of opportunities if they want to beat Spain. Until then, Forza Azzuri.