Tag Archives: soccer

When They Draw My Name From the Lottery

Tomorrow is the draw for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.  By noonish Eastern Time, we’ll have a pretty good idea of who has an easy road to the knockout stage and who got totally screwed by a bunch of ping pong balls.

I cannot wait.  In fact, my buddy and I did a prediction contest four years ago and I won, 2-0, so I have a title to defend!

(Yes, we conducted our own random draws to predict the outcome of a random draw, and we compared the results.  As I have told you many times, we are sick.)

Anyway, here’s how it works:

• The host, Brazil, plus the top seven teams in the October 2013 FIFA rankings are considered the “seeded” teams for the draw.  They will be placed in Pot 1.  The remaining pots are constructed to ensure as much geographic separation as possible: the five African qualifiers plus Chile and Ecuador make up Pot 2, Asian and North American qualifiers go into Pot 3, and the European nations that are not seeded make up Pot 4.  P.S. Pot 4 is loaded.

• One of the European teams in that loaded fourth pot will be drawn at random and placed in Pot 2 to even the pots at eight teams each.

• As the hosts, Brazil will be placed in Group A, and then the seven remaining seeds will be drawn sequentially into Groups B through H.

• A new pot, “Pot X,” will be created, consisting of the four seeded South American teams.  Whoever is drawn from Pot X will have the European team that was drawn into Pot 2 placed in its group; this prevents any group from having three European teams.

• The remaining teams from Pot 2 will be drawn sequentially into Groups A through H.  If a South American team from Pot 2 is drawn into a group with a South American team from Pot 1, they will be bumped down sequentially through the remaining groups until they are placed with a European seed.

• The teams from Pots 3 and 4 will be drawn sequentially into their groups.

• After the four members of each group are assigned, there will be a draw among the unseeded teams to decide who will play who in what order.  Don’t worry, we’re not predicting that.  We’re just trying to get the right teams into the right groups.

Before I conduct my predictive draw, here is who is in each pot:

Pot 1: Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Colombia, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, Uruguay

Pot 2: Algeria, Cameroon, Chile, Ecuador, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria

Pot 3: Australia, Costa Rica, Honduras, Iran, Japan, Mexico, South Korea, United States

Pot 4: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, England, France, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Russia

Here we go!

Group A: Brazil, Nigeria, United States, Italy

Group B: Switzerland, Ecuador, Australia, England

Group C: Germany, Chile, Japan, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Group D: Uruguay, Croatia, Honduras, Portugal

Group E: Spain, Ivory Coast, South Korea, Greece

Group F: Argentina, Cameroon, Mexico, France

Group G: Colombia, Algeria, Costa Rica, Russia

Group H: Belgium, Ghana, Iran, Netherlands

(Notes: Croatia was the European team drawn into Pot 2.  Uruguay was drawn from Pot X.  Ecuador was drawn into Group A, but moved to Group B.)

Oof.  Poor USA.  The Americans appear to have drawn the “Group of Death” this time around, with hosts Brazil and maybe-should-have-been-seeded Italy.  That group has three of the top 14 in the current rankings (Brazil is ranked 10th because, as the hosts, they didn’t play any qualifiers, so they didn’t earn many ranking points).

However, should the Americans be able to squeeze into the knockout stages, a tasty matchup with the winner of Group B would await.  I say “tasty” simply because Switzerland is the weakest of the seeded teams, England is notorious for underachieving, and Ecuador is the lowest-ranked of the South American squads (but may surprise people playing on their home continent).  Playing any of those teams after dealing with Brazil and Italy would almost be like a vacation.

I would consider Group G to be by far the easiest draw; in that spot, Colombia might as well have a bye to the Round of 16, and you might see Costa Rica sneak through.

Looking to the knockout stages, this draw would likely set up a Round of 16 match between Spain and either Mexico or France.  Sweet.  Or, should one of them falter and finish second in their group, Spain and Argentina.  Even sweeter.  You could also see England taking on Brazil or Germany facing Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal.

Of course, this is all for fun.  We’ll know the real draw in just a few hours.  I’ll probably break it down tomorrow night, because I am a dork and I absolutely love the World Cup.

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I’m Blue

I woke up early this morning – look, if I have a day off, 8:30 is early – to watch a soccer match.  With NBC’s new Premier League coverage, this is becoming a more common occurrence.  I find that I end up watching at least some of at least one match every weekend.

Of course, this is happening more often because my favorite club, Manchester City, is good, which means they get on television more often.  And when City is on, I do my best to watch.

Today was a big match, as the Blues were hosting Tottenham Hotspur, another nouveau riche club like City, except not as “nouveau” and nowhere near as “riche.”  Since the Premier League began in the early 1990s, there was the “Big Four” – Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, and Liverpool – and then everyone else.  Spurs has been in that next tier, and occasionally cracks the top four.  City, on the other hand, has risen over the last decade after infusions of cash, making them among the richest clubs in the world.  As I wrote about before, City reached the apex of English football in dramatic fashion, winning the 2011-12 title in stoppage time on the final day of the season.

Anyway, I woke up at 8:30, prepared for a close game.  City was undefeated at home, thrashing opponents to the tune of 20 goals scored to just two conceded.  The club’s away form, however, leaves something to be desired.  Actually, two somethings: goals and points.  MCFC has suffered four defeats on the road, with just one win and one draw; eight goals for and 10 against will do that.

As I unsuccessfully fought off some yawns, I flicked through the channels to settle in for the next couple hours.  I reached NBC Sports Network in the second minute of the match.

City 1, Spurs 0.  The Blues had scored just 13 seconds into the match on a strike from Jesus Navas.  And if you’re a Spurs fan, that was probably the highlight of your day.

An own goal followed by a smooth finish from Sergio Aguero soon after gave City a 3-0 lead at halftime.  I decided to have some breakfast; if I hadn’t, I would have gone back to sleep.  The match was over.

Instead, I’m glad I stayed up.  Goals on goals on goals for the good guys!  Aguero again, Alvaro Negredo, and then a second from Navas in stoppage time just to rub it in.  Aguero now has 10 goals in 11 Premier League matches; the entirety of Spurs’ roster has nine in 12.

I see a lot of people on Facebook or Twitter or other assorted internet media sources making references to the Premier League, and an inordinate number of them are Arsenal supporters.  After the Gunners, however, Spurs seems to have a strange swell of support.  I don’t get it.  I am, literally, the only person I know who likes Manchester City, but a quick scroll through my Twitter feed will easily find someone who supports Tottenham.

Well, more like NOTtenham, am I right?!  6-0!!  And if the morning couldn’t get any better, later on, Manchester United gave up a goal in stoppage time to draw with Cardiff City.

Of course, I didn’t see it.  I told you, 8:30 is early, man.

Model Citizen, Zero Discipline

I know it’s nearly a week old, but I wanted to write something about the United States Men’s National Team’s win in Panama last week.  I wasn’t really following along until the latter stages of the match (it happened the night my dad went to the hospital), but by the time I checked the score, it was level at 1-1.  That’s when things went a bit crazy.

The United States is part of the CONCACAF federation, which is for North and Central America and the Caribbean.  In CONCACAF, the final round of qualifying consists of six nations playing each other home and away; because there are six teams, it’s often referred to as the “hexagonal round,” or simply “The Hex.”  CONCACAF has 3.5 places in the World Cup finals; the top three teams qualify directly to the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, while the fourth-place team enters a two-legged, total goals playoff against New Zealand next month for a spot in the draw.

Through nine matches, the United States had clinched first place in The Hex, which assured them qualification to Brazil.  Also through nine matches, Mexico stood in fourth place with 11 of a possible 27 points.  Panama was fifth, with eight; as it stood, the United States, Costa Rica, and Honduras were heading to Brazil, and Mexico was headed to the playoff.

This is kind of shocking.  Mexico has long been one of the two mainstays of the region; “El Tri” ruled the roost essentially unopposed until the rise of the USMNT in the 1990s and early 2000s swung the balance of power.  Since then, the two countries have been dominant in the region, alternating who is ranked higher in the FIFA rankings at any given time.  Most recently, the United States won the bi-annual CONCACAF Gold Cup championship, while Mexico won the gold medal at the 2012 Summer Olympics.

This is all to say that for Mexico to miss out on the World Cup would be unfathomable north of the border, and downright devastating south of it.

And yet, with the Mexicans in Costa Rica (“Los Ticos” ended the USMNT’s winning streak earlier in qualification; they are a solid club and very tough to beat at home), and the United States playing an “experimental” (read: “hey, so who wants to play their way into the squad for the World Cup?) side, there was the real threat of it happening.

Anyway, a little over an hour into the match in Panama, Michael Orozco Fiscal scored for the United States to leave both matches tied at a goal apiece.  But right around the same time, Costa Rica went ahead of Mexico, 2-1.  If the results stood, Mexico would be in the playoff, but just barely.  A Panamanian goal would leave both teams on 11 points and with a -2 goal differential, but by virtue of having more goals scored, Panama would take the fourth position and leave Mexico out in the cold.

And that Panamanian goal did come, courtesy of Luis Tejada, in the 84th minute.  Panama’s all-time leading scorer had his nation on the brink of possibly reaching its first-ever World Cup.

Full time in San Juan: Costa Rica 2, Mexico 1.  The fate of El Tri now rested solely in the hands of its biggest rival.

When I saw the scorelines, I admit, I was pumped.  You always want your team to win, but sometimes you want your rivals to lose, and honestly, Mexico simply did not deserve to qualify.  The team had played some awful games and gone through multiple managers during qualifying, and if you can’t muster more than 11 points from 10 matches, you should not be a part of the world championship.  I couldn’t see the match, but I imagined U.S. players literally laying down on the pitch, penance for the years of abuse (remember, Mexican fans routinely pelt American players with bags of urine…during matches) that the USMNT had taken from the Mexican fans.  There would be no sweeter way to end the year of Mexican football’s discontent.

Of course, with a limited data connection on my phone at the hospital, it had taken me a while to access the page where the qualifying standings were shown, so while I was fairly certain that I knew what needed to happen for either Mexico or Panama to reach the playoff, I wasn’t 100% positive, and I wanted to be sure before I gave my dad the good news.  I went to look up the final scores in the hopes of finding an article detailing the results when I saw something stunning:

PAN 2-3 USA

WHAAAAAAAAT?

With Panama on the brink of the brink of qualification, Graham Zusi had given a nation a swift kick to the stomach, scoring in the first minute of stoppage time to level the match.  And then, with the Panamanians desperate for a winner, Aron Johannsson slit their throats with a winner of his own even deeper in stoppage time.

Mexico was through.  Panama was gutted.

Despite the not-so-secret wishes of most of its fans, and possibly even its own players, the United States, with really nothing to play for as a team, did not lay down.  The Americans did not flip their rivals the bird en route to the World Cup.  No, they played for 90 minutes, and then some, and did what any squad should do: tried to win the match.

My first instinct was to be mad.  I mean, come on!  You had a chance to throw your biggest rival into complete upheaval!  There are players who grow up eligible to play for either country who in recent years have given serious thought to playing for the United States (and in at least one well-known case, elected to do so); if Mexico missed the 2014 World Cup, I guarantee the talent pool for the United States would have widened.

But then I thought about it some more and came to the conclusion that no, they did the right thing.  Of course it’s the right thing; if teams aren’t trying to win, where is the sport?  If you take the pitch or field or court, your aim is to win.  That’s it.  And while everyone speculates (and possibly rightly so) that the Mexicans would not have paid the U.S. the same courtesy (someone tweeted that if the roles were reversed, Mexico’s Rafa Marquez likely would have spent the match firing on his own goal), I am proud of our boys for doing right by the game.

I feel awful for Panama, but like USMNT manager Jurgen Klinsmann said after the match, they didn’t finish us off.  And that’s been the mark of the American squad, especially under Klinsmann: you may have more talent, or you may outplay us for most of the match, but you have got to finish us off.  Panama didn’t, and now Mexico is in the playoff.

It will be interesting to see the next time the U.S. and Mexico face off on Mexican soil.  The fans will no doubt give their own squad a raucous ovation, but you might see the loudest roars reserved for Mr. Zusi – “St. Graham,” as he is now known in Mexico.

Imagine that: an American soccer player revered throughout Mexico.  It really is the beautiful game, isn’t it?

If You Don’t Give My Football Back, I’m Gonna Get My Dad on You

I just wrote about how I don’t like football as much as I used to.  I do, however, absolutely adore the other kind of football; you know, the one played with your feet.

The popularity of soccer has seemingly been rising in the United States, and networks have now gone all-in on bringing the best of the game to the U.S. market.  Because of this, you can watch more soccer in the United States – Major League Soccer, the Premier League, La Liga, etc. – than you can in England.  ESPN has a lot to do with this; they spearheaded the movement by throwing all their resources behind the FIFA World Cup and then adding the Women’s World Cup and the UEFA European Championship to the mix.

However, the Premier League is NBC’s baby now, and they are raising it right.  Every Saturday you can watch three matches on television, plus if there are any being on Sunday and Monday, you can see those too.  Plus, every other match airs online, so you can theoretically see a piece of every single Premier League match for the entire season – that’s 380 games – while still living just about anywhere in the United States.

I’m a Manchester City supporter, and while the Blues already played in one of today’s featured matches, it kicked off at 7:45 a.m., so I decided to pass on watching this one.  That being said, I’m sitting here right now watching Crystal Palace, a newly-promoted side, play host to Sunderland, the definition of a run-of-the-mill, middle-to-bottom-of-the-table club.  It would be like watching a baseball game between the White Sox and the Mariners.  And yet, listening to the crowd and knowing that this is the best league in the world and is airing on national television in the United States makes it seem like so much more.

Good on you, NBC, for bringing us a world-class product and actually giving it a world-class presentation.  I could certainly get used to this.  Assuming of course, that City’s matches air a little later in the day.

Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down

Well, our soccer team certainly did some work today, huh?

After trailing a higher-ranked Bosnia-Herzegovina squad on the road in Sarajevo by a 2-0 score, the United States men’s national team charged back with four straight goals, eventually winning the international friendly by a 4-3 score.  The win was the USMNT’s 12th in a row; the world record is 15, held by Spain.

Now, that’s not a 12-match unbeaten streak; that is 12 consecutive victories.  In a sport like soccer, where goals can be difficult to come by and 0-0 draws are fairly common, it doesn’t matter what teams you’re playing: that’s impressive.

We could talk about the play of American debutantes John Brooks and Aron Johannsson, two young players with eligibility for Germany and Iceland, respectively, who have chosen to play for the United States.  We could talk about whatever adjustments manager Jurgen Klinsmann made at halftime.  We could talk about whether or not Michael Bradley is the new “best American soccer player” right now.

But really, the only thing anyone should talk about is Jozy Altidore.

Altidore made the final pass to Eddie Johnson for the Americans’ first goal of the match, and then scored the next three himself.  Altidore has now scored in a record five straight international appearances for the U.S., and appears to be “putting it all together,” so to speak.

He outran Bosnian players to the ball all day, and his free-kick goal to put the U.S. ahead was an absolute laser of a strike.  Top corner, no chance for the keeper to stop it.  To be honest with you, I watch a fair number of national team matches, and I can’t recall ever seeing Altidore take a free kick, let alone score directly off of one.

Despite being 23 years old, it seems like Altidore has been part of the national team picture for ages.  There have always been knocks on him – he doesn’t hold the ball well, he looks disinterested at times – but again, he’s been a fixture of the U.S. side for four years now, and he won’t be 24 until November.  If my eyes, and Wikipedia, don’t deceive me, it appears the United States has never lost a match in which Altidore has scored.

He had a fantastic club season in the Netherlands last year, scoring 31 goals for AZ Alkmaar, and will now ply his trade for Sunderland in the English Premier League in 2013-14.  What many before thought might have been squandered talent might instead be turning into – get this – talent developed.

Jozy Altidore has speed to burn and has developed a nose for the goal.  Those are dangerous weapons for a striker to have, and as the United States looks to wrap up qualifying and head to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup, Altidore’s form will go a long way towards deciding just how far the Americans can go.

These are the Champions

I thoroughly enjoyed today’s UEFA Champions League final between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund this afternoon.  Fox aired it on its main network, as opposed to Fox Soccer, and I hope it led to casual soccer fans – or, even better, non-fans – sitting down for a couple hours and watching.  It was a fantastic match that featured an underdog taking it to the favorite, late-match tension, and a hard-luck past loser (as much as one can call one of the world’s biggest clubs “hard-luck”) getting a monkey off its back.

Bayern Munich has now won five Champions League titles, tied with Liverpool (yes, believe it or not, they used to be good) for third all-time.  More famously, however, Bayern took a 1-0 lead into stoppage time before Manchester United scored two goals in stoppage time (of course) to take the 1999 Champions League final  In 2010, Bayern lost the final to Inter Milan, and last season, an 83rd-minute Bayern goal was canceled out by an 88th-minute goal from Chelsea’s Didier Drogba to send the final, held at Bayern’s home ground, to extra time.  In extra time, Bayern star Arjen Robben missed a penalty that might have won the match; Drogba then converted the clinching kick in the shootout to give the Blues the title.

So when Robben slotted home today’s winner in the 89th minute, the emotional release was genuine; one of the world’s top players erased some pretty painful memories for both himself and his club.

I felt like Dortmund missed its opportunity in the first half.  Both keepers played out of their minds, and the underdogs dominated the run of play.  It reminded me of this year’s NBA playoffs, when Golden State maybe should have won game one in San Antonio; even though they won game two, it certainly seemed like they missed their chance, and San Antonio went on to win in six.  Same thing with Indiana; they blew game one in Miami, and even though they won game two, it still feels like an opportunity was lost.  Dortmund had its chance to win the match in the first 45, but couldn’t do it.

Then Robben struck in the 60th minute with a pinpoint pass as he was heading out of bounds that set up Mario Mandzukic for a goal.  In retrospect, it was offside, but nonetheless, when it happened, I thought, “well, there you go.”  But Dortmund battled back and earned a penalty eight minutes later; rather, Marco Reus earned a penalty by getting kneed in the chest and kicked in the groin.  Ilkay Gundogan converted, and things were level.

Until the 89th minute.  Until Arjen Robben.  It always had to be Robben.

If every soccer match was like this one, maybe Americans would catch up to the rest of the world.  Then again, for those of us who already love the game, it was a fantastic little gem that I personally have no problem keeping for myself.

It’s out there, people, and it’s grand.  Ignore it to your own detriment.

Without a Dream in My Heart

Today was the FA Cup final.  The oldest continuously-held cup contest in the sport, it’s one of the marquee events of the football/soccer season.

I won’t go into details, because BOOOOOOOOOO, but my favorite club, Manchester City, lost to Wigan Athletic, 1-0, on a pretty nice headed goal in stoppage time.  There is no shame in losing, but when the team that beats you is in very real danger of being relegated next weekend, well, then there’s some shame.

For whatever reason, a per peeve of mine came up today.  I will occasionally talk to people who aren’t soccer fans about my affinity for the game.  From time to time, I refer to the game as “football,” without even thinking about it.  I don’t do it to sound snobby or pretentious; I do it because most of the coverage I read and watch focuses on the English Premier League, and over there, they call it football.  It just kind of sneaks into my lexicon.

Almost inevitably, if I don’t stop myself and clarify that I am referring to the game they call “soccer,” someone will say, in a tone that is equal parts inquisitive, mocking, and condescending, “do you mean football or ‘futbol’?”

No, I mean football.  It’s an English word, not Spanish.  I actually find it a little offensive.  Believe it or not, ignorant guy at the bowling alley, there are people who both speak English AND enjoy soccer.  And I don’t hear anyone asking if I mean “fussball” or “calcio,” either.  Why is it acceptable to pretend you’re suddenly a Spanish speaker?  Why not throw in a little German or Italian?  Oh, because you think soccer is just for people in Spanish-speaking countries.

Well, it’s not.  And it IS, in fact, possible for someone thousands of miles away to be bummed out over a club’s cup final defeat.