Wednesday, June 25, 2014

This One Time... Ann Coulter wrote about Soccer...

Usually on this blog I am not one to delve into politics or anything close to partisan discussion of that nature. It is a minefield which I do not dare wish to have my feet blown off in. I also don't participate in the "Hot Takes" of the day, because I believe I've moved above that segment of the sports-loving populous. I also don't comment on the old sports-writer bashing soccer, because everyone's done that before and I can add almost nothing new to it. But today, I'm throwing all of those things out the window because Ann Coulter (yes that Ann Coulter), decided that she would write about soccer today. And since I'm also not above aping other people's fantastic work (thanks Matt Yoder and Awful Announcing), I've decided that I couldn't resist so it's time to see what the amazing political and social theorist Ann Coulter thinks of the beautiful game...

I'm going to need an acid bath after this...

She begins, "I've held off writing about soccer for a decade... or about the length of an average game... so as not to offend anybody." Miss Coulter, you make a living by offending people, so talking about soccer is probably tame in comparison. "Any growing interest in soccer can only be a sign of the nations moral decay", she continues... Well guys, it has been a fun run but I'm afraid I've been found out... I'm a part of moral decay in America! I didn't think after spending nearly 21 years on this earth leading what I thought was a clean and healthy life that I'd find myself as part of the degradation of American society but... those columns invoking Rich Kotite finally did me in.

We've barely scratched the surface here though. After saying that there is no individual achievement in soccer (failing to mention a few folks, namely Lionel Messi, Neymar, Ronaldo, Zlatan (!!!!)), she then says "Everyone runs up and down the field and, every once in a while, a ball accidentally goes in. Then we're supposed to go wild. I'm already asleep." Well that's not so bad... it means Ann Coulter will be quiet and miss the "accidents" that are some of the amazing goals in history... I'm sure Marco Van Basten and Pele are weeping at the sight of Ann Coulter asleep at the wheel.

More from the "stale" pile: "No 'sport' ends in as many scoreless ties as soccer... If Michael Jackson had treated his chronic insomnia with a tape of Brazil/Argentina instead of Propofol, he'd still be alive, although bored". First... didn't know you were such a fan of the shootout Ann. Gary Bettman would like to see you in his office now. Second, while some soccer games are boring and some are sleep inducingly bad I will admit, you picked one of the most exciting rivalries in world football to describe that with... instead of possibly, West Ham vs. Stoke on a rainy Tuesday night perhaps...

But, if you can even imagine, it gets better: "The prospect of either personal humiliation or major injury is required to count as a sport. Most sports are sublimated warfare." Soccer doesn't have personal humiliation or major injury? Tell that then to Luis Suarez, Wayne Rooney, Mario Balotelli... or even if we dare invoke major injuries like the ones Aaron Ramsey, Stuart Holden, David Busst, or others who have seen their careers derailed by serious injuries like SNAPPED KNEES among other things have suffered. About personal humiliation though... how do you think John Terry felt on that night in Moscow? Or Roberto Baggio on that afternoon in the Rose Bowl? Or the many others who I have spared for I have a conscience willing to do such a thing, which apparently Ann Coulter doesn't possess because she wants to see her athletes have mental breakdowns on the field of play for her amusement?

"You can't use your hands in soccer. What sets man apart from the lesser beasts, besides a soul, is that we have opposable thumbs." Unfortunately, I cannot call Ann Coulter a lesser beast since she does have opposable thumbs, although about the soul thing, this next quote should explain a good deal.

"After a football game, ambulances carry off the wounded. After a soccer game, every player gets a ribbon and a juice box." Yes, Ann Coulter does in fact want to see your 7 year old son taken off the field on a stretcher after he just suffered his 3rd concussion, because football is a "real sport" with the threat of injury... and permanent brain damage (I'm not commenting on this any further... temptation is hard to resist). She's also loves hockey fights... even more of a reason to outlaw it entirely from every level of the sport, and I'm not one to want to ban it!

"It's foreign" she says next. "One group of sports fans with whom soccer is not 'catching on' at all is African-Americans. They remain distinctly unimpressed by the fact the French like it." Hmm... I do seem to remember viewing tweets from African-American athletes across the many different sports tweeting their support for the US Men's National Team recently, and I bet they are very impressed that the French like the sport because they're pretty dang good at it... and I'd be impressed too watching Paul Pogba play (although the Le-Pen family probably agrees with you Ann, but those are not people you want to associate with).

After devolving into a rant about liberals and the metric system (no you haven't dropped acid, you're still here), she ends with a true kicker, one that should sear right into the heart of every full-blooded patriot in this land:

"If more 'Americans' are watching soccer today, it's only because of the demographic switch effected by Ted Kennedy's 1965 immigration law. I promise you: No American whose great-grandfather was born here is watching soccer. One can only hope that, in addition to learning English, these new Americans will drop their soccer fetish with time".


Oh, and one of my great-grandfathers was born in this country, and I'm watching soccer. Whoops. I know my last name might be German, but it's true. Sorry Ann. And I have just typed out a long response in the English vernacular to your own column saying I don't know English Ann... maybe I should go back to school to remedy that problem... I knew the SAT was good for something...

I won't link you to the column here, since I've already given her enough publicity; more than she even merits in fact. I try my very hardest to ignore these things for you dear readers, because you (should) expect more of me than that. But this was just too hard to resist, and I should have known better. One would think someone like Ann would be into the noxious patriotism a World Cup can bring but apparently not...

At any rate, remember that if you like soccer, Ann Coulter thinks you don't know English, you don't know "true sports", and you lack the ability to understand true humiliation or suffering that they can provide.

You know... just like reading one of her columns, or writing a response to one. On that front Ann, maybe you're right.

(Downs a gallon of bleach)

Thursday, June 12, 2014

For World Cup and Soccer Newbies Everywhere

To the non-soccer crowd that is just as entranced by this World Cup as I am: welcome to the party. I hope you stick around.

Too much of this World Cup build-up has been characterized by the typical battles between the soccer die-hards and soccer newbies about the usual "defending your turf", "you don't know anything about these players", etc, etc. It's tedious and tiresome as always. Even when it's completely justified (cough *Mike Wilbon* cough), it still feels ancillary and unnecessary. It's given soccer fans a bad reputation as people who almost don't want to see their sport get big in the mainstream US conscience. And while some of us having an itchy trigger finger doesn't help the group, this is not a one way street. So non-soccer people, here is my advice to you:

--> Ask questions. This World Cup and the US National Team in particular have many interesting sub-plots with interesting questions to be asked. So ask them. Ask us about the tactics of the teams, ask us about the diamond formation, or the worries about Jozy Altidore's Sunderland form. It will tell us that you've done more than the basic trumpeting of popular narratives that the rest of us tired of long ago.

--> Do research. I know that seems sacrilegious, but bear with me for a second. "Research" sounds like a dirty word, but if you look up players and teams and histories when the US inevitably fails, you'll have another team or player to watch. And maybe then that is your gate to staying with the sport for more than 2 weeks every 4 years.

--> Appreciate. Appreciate what the die-hard soccer fans have done ever since the last World Cup in building up to this one.  They are the ones that watch the games no one dared to, they are the ones who woke up at 7:30 to watch West Ham play Hull in the Premier League, they are the ones who know about the names of future US stars and were just as heartbroken when the US failed in Olympic qualifying 2 years ago as they will be this summer. A large part of why you're seeing what you're seeing now is because of the work these people have done, and simply they just don't want to see the fruits of their labor eaten by people who did none of the labor.

--> Stifle your pre-conceived notions. Everything you think you know about soccer will have moments when they may be justified, and that is natural. There will also be moments when that all goes out the window. For the month that this tournament goes on, choke down on your stereotypes of soccer even when they are itching to escape, because it will help out everyone if you do.

--> Find a reason to stay. If you want this sport to get bigger, or better yet, if you don't want the angry twitter soccer crowd banging at your door with pitchforks and torches, find a reason to stick around. The World Cup is amazing, but this is not like 2002 when it was hard to keep the momentum going. The Premier League is widely available, so is the Champions League. MLS is getting a fat new TV contract next season with consistent TV windows for you to see. The internet is a treasure trove of quality soccer writing, podcasting, and analysis if you just look hard enough. You will never be wanting for the reactions and readings you'll need to gain context. And best yet, it won't come with Baylessian shouting and narrative trumpeting that would make FOX News shudder!

So as the World Cup begins, please take all of what you read above into account. We don't want people turned off of the game because of us, we just want people to appreciate and love the game as much as we do. You don't have to know the ins and outs of the tactics of Harry Redknapp by the end of the World Cup, or what transfer source is most trustworthy, just appreciate the game and what has been built slowly but surely. The game will grow without you, and you can either jump on or stand by, but do the latter at your own peril.

And don't fight us about Gus Johnson. You'll lose that one.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

2014 World Cup Group H Preview

This group contains a team with a golden generation, a future World Cup host, and 2 teams that have consistently made the tournament, but not done much when they get there. Makes for an interesting mix, yes? Well, at least it should.

Belgium have everything you could want for a World Cup roster. Talent everywhere, especially loaded in midfield with a solid defense and world class keeper. So what's not to like? There are a couple of warts that may not be easy to spot, but could prove to be future problems. Without Christian Benteke, Belgium are really only 1 deep at striker, and while Romelu Lukaku has been setting the world alight for this past season, if he goes down or dips out of form, then the only one to replace him is young Divock Origi of Lille who is just 19. The midfield is exceptionally skilled with many players you'll know, but the one name in there that many have questioned is Adnan Januzaj, not just because of his dipping form at Manchester United, but also because of his supposed worth to the side, which Kevin Mirallas openly questioned. Could he be a distraction? And while the defense is strong, it is particularly one-sided. But to me, none of those things are the real issue for the Red Devils. It's big tournament experience. Most of these players have played on large stages for their clubs, and that's great, but major international tournaments are another animal entirely. No one on this team sans Daniel Van Buyten (aged 36) has played in a major senior tournament before, and you cannot replicate that for 22 other players. To be fair, Belgium are probably one major tournament away from really challenging for the title, and Euro 2016 next door in France is probably when we'll see this come good. In Brazil, they'll probably at least make it out of the group, but how far they go beyond that depends on how quickly this squad learns the ropes of the major tournament.

It's been since 2002 as well for Russia to be in the World Cup, but in the meantime they have competed in the Euros before. It's a team that is entirely based in Russia, and while that might be good for team unity and harmony, it might limit them on the stylistic things that they can do or the influences the team will have that many of the other good teams in this tournament. It's not particularly young, but has some interesting young players on it that could play a role. Fabio Capello is who you'll know from his time at major clubs and managing England, which should give you a clue as to how Russia will play in this tournament. That might be useful against Belgium, but will it be useful against Algeria and South Korea? That remains a question yet unanswered. It might also behoove Russia to do well here, as they are the hosts of the next World Cup and would not like to head into that on a sour note. Can they make it out of the group stage here? Certainly, but both other teams will give them troubles for sure.

Many in the United States will remember Algeria as the team Landon Donovan scored his great goal against, but that's not how one should look at this team. They should look at this team as one that may be on the rise. It's not the most supremely talented team in this tournament, but when the team has names like Sofiane Feghouli of Valencia, Saphir Taider of Inter, and Yacine Brahimi of Granada, maybe we should give them more credit. As is usual with African teams, the weak link comes on defense, but then again they held out impressively 4 years ago against a similar group of teams, and have always been stout there in qualifying and in African Cups of Nations. The issue will likely come in terms of putting the ball in the net, as Algeria were one of the two teams in South Africa that didn't score, and that may come difficult again. The team that is going to Brazil is far more experienced however, so that should help out with some of the jitters. And also selfishly, it's awesome to see Nabil Bentaleb fresh out of Spurs academy heading to the World Cup. Tim Sherwood did something right! Anyway, this team might not be a sexy pick to get out the group, but if they can solve some of the scoring problems with players like Ghilas and maybe some help from midfield, then they can certainly make it interesting.

Since finishing 4th in their own World Cup 12 years ago, South Korea has made the tournament each of the last 2, but has been eliminated rather quickly afterwords. It did make it to the KO stages in 2010 (somewhat by virtue of Greece and Nigeria being silly), and it was a quick exit after when they lost to Uruguay. It remains to be seen whether this team is better than that edition or not, but the early signs are no. It has a decent backbone of players from the Bundesliga and England, but it's not particularly impressive either. They had far more trouble in Asian qualifying than one might have expected too. It's also not particularly young, but there is past major tournament experience to rely on, which should be helpful. The group is not going to be helpful in terms of fixing some scoring woes, since the defenses for all of the teams they'll be facing are rock solid. They seem to be decent enough, but whether they can advance past the group and even the Round of 16 are questions that don't look like likely to bring positive answers.

Prediction: Belgium is the class of the group, and their problems might well be exploited later, and the fight for second is a fascinating one between 3 teams that have issues scoring goals. Next goal wins?

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

2014 World Cup Group G Preview

The Group of Death... or so it seems. It's a fascinating mixture of teams with histories against each other, with revenge and reunions on almost everyone's mind. So what does that mean for the table?

Germany are the class of the group no matter their issues, and to be fair they do have some. The defense doesn't quite inspire the confidence of past groups of German defenders, especially in the middle. They are solid, but not overly special in that area. Germany's midfield might be as good as any team in the tournament, but by virtue of how they play, they are entirely reliant on the midfield to do the creating, scoring, and cleaning up. They have a bevy of technically gifted players who can do almost anything with the ball at their feet, but they really only have one defensive midfielder in Sami Khedira and he is still regaining fitness after a long-term injury layoff. Speaking of injury layoffs, Manuel Neuer is still dealing with a troublesome injury post Bayern Munich season, and he hasn't yet played in Germany's lead up to the tournament. So it seems like Germany could be a surprise entrant in the "big Euro team to flame out in the group stage" sweepstakes? Steady on. They are still filled with players not only from Bayern, but Dortmund too, and that means that despite some noticeable flaws they are still loaded with quality everywhere. The real question for me comes in the form of the scoring, and who will grab that role and run with it. The other tournament favorites you might say have that kind of talismanic player, and Germany simply doesn't. If they can find one, then this may just be the tournament to break their hoodoo.

Ghana always seems to play Germany and the United States at every World Cup, and this one is no different. But for Ghana, who were missed penalties away from the semifinals in 2010: Are they still Africa's best team? And if so, how far can that take them in a tough group and tough draw? They are still typically strong in the midfield as per usual with players like Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari, and Kevin Prince-Boateng while they've added some new talent in like Kwadwo Asamoah of Juventus, the Ayew's of Marseille, and some other young talent that bears watching. And the one constant is still Asamoah Gyan, who has tortured US fans for 4 years and may well do more of that in Brazil. The one worry as it seems to be the case with every African team sans Cameroon is the defense, and it is young here, but the strength of the midfield for Ghana might mitigate that somewhat. They don't really have the creative impetus in midfield that they could really use, and the big players of past tournaments are now getting older, especially Essien, so Ghana could easily be had in that respect. But, some of this young talent like Majeed Waris and Wakaso Mubarak have plenty of one thing: speed, which could equalize some of the issues. They will have it difficult getting out of the group by virtue of who else is in it, but do not discount them.

Portugal's golden generation have long gone, and it seems that they may be waiting for a new one to develop by virtue of the roster they put out for every major tournament. Even so, they always make it out of the group stage at every one... every one since 2002. And they still have this guy Ronaldo who you may know is pretty good. But Portugal is not just him and him alone. The defense still has strength in players like Fabio Coentrao and Pepe among others, even if that unit is getting older. Nani is still around and will provide a unique aspect on the flanks for the Portuguese, and the midfield is marshalled by one of the best in the world in Joao Moutinho, who'd better get the credit he deserves after this tournament because he is an incredibly good central midfielder. But I'd be lying if I said this team didn't come down to one player, and certainly Paulo Bento has agreed by the way the tactics are set up. They are designed to channel everything to Ronaldo, because they know he can break the game open if its set up for him. And when he's on his day, he can and will do that. Trying to shut him down seems like a futile effort, so shutting down his channels and proxies are better solutions, and Portugal's success will be dictated by how well the other teams can do that. Despite their issues in qualifying, and what the US media wants to tell you about how they are a one man team, they always get out of their group in major tournaments, at least in recent times. Remember this too: they were penalties away from the Euro Final 2 years ago.

And now for the elephant in the room. This US team has been the most talked about, maybe ever, and therefore every aspect of this team has been dissected comprehensively. You'll know most of the narratives and the storylines already, so I'll try my best to give you something new. Hmmm... nah, I can't do that. What really matters for this US team is how the back 4 coalesces and how quickly that happens. They'll have to be bend but don't break in this tournament by nature of the formations they'll play ahead of them, since there will be acres of space in the midfield for players to operate in. Can this incredibly green back 4 do that on a consistent basis against the attackers they'll be going up against? I have my doubts. This team's strength is going forward, and when Michael Bradley takes the keys and runs with it, the US is a tough side to beat. Jozy Altidore's form is almost irrelevant so long as he's holding up play and dominating physically as we know he can do, so long as Clint Dempsey is scoring (and he's certainly in form). The other worry about the supposed Diamond formation is not only the lack of width, but the lack of creative players at the edges. Graham Zusi and Alejandro Bedoya are interesting wingers who can track back with the best of them, but lack the creative edge that some of the bench options have. A formation change to the usual 4-2-3-1 or 4-2-2-2 is the best way to go about fixing this, but it remains to be seen whether that will happen or not. The other worry I have (and this might be making new ground) is fitness, and not that they won't be fit (they certainly will be). It's whether they'll be drained. Jurgen Klinsmann likes his training, and we're already seeing that players are commenting on how tough the training has been. Could the US team be out of gas before the group even starts? Now can they advance out of this group... sure they can. They did in 2002, and 1994. But their problems are holding me back from saying that they will.

Prediction: It's wide open, although I expect Germany and Portugal to be the teams that advance out of the group despite this. Ghana's midfield isn't quite as dominant as it once was, and the US has formation and defensive issues that don't look like they'll be fixed in time for when the games start.

Monday, June 9, 2014

2014 World Cup Group F Preview

One team and then a bunch of others. That may just be the popular perception of Group F. But is it?

This World Cup is so massive for Argentina on many fronts, it's hard to hit them all. The Lionel Messi talk is not without foundation, and the team's relative strength everywhere including being in South America for this tournament makes them one of the 4 most likely to win it. But where are the possible holes in this squad? One may argue on defense, but they seem to have found some relative strength in there with players like Zabaleta, Demichelis (I know) and Garay. They certainly have it spades up front. Where Argentina may encounter some problems come in the middle of the park, especially when we talk about Javier Mascherano. He is good at many things, although he is not good at everything. It would be tragic to see the playmaking duties fall on his shoulders, especially when the squad has players like Maxi Rodriguez and Angel Di Maria in it; players who could probably shoulder those burdens better. If Mascherano has to create and break-up, then Argentina could be in for some issues. But even at that, Argentina may be second favorites to win the trophy because of all of those things plus having an all time great at the height of his powers... if he wants to be. If Messi is Messi, then this could finally be his and Argentina's day. But if not, there will be inquests and inquisitions at his door that may never end.

It is always exciting to see fresh blood in a tournament like this, and Bosnia are a welcome addition to the field. This is their first major tournament ever, and they have only been in existence as a federation since 1995. And this team may be the second most fun in the tournament to watch behind Japan. They score a boatload of goals, and when you have players like Miralem Pjanic, Edin Dzeko, Vedad Ibisevic among others, then you probably should score in buckets. They have showed well in their World Cup warm-ups, which is encouraging for a team that hasn't been on this type of stage before. The issues come at the back, with a very inexperienced back 4 even for Bosnian standards, let alone major tournament standards. Emir Spahic is the veteran among a sea of younger and talented, yet green defenders that will learn by fire in this tournament. While it does help to have a keep like Asmir Begovic behind you, it may not be enough. Their stay in Brazil might be short, but at least it will be fun to watch.

The Super Eagles are always a fascinating team to watch, namely because they are always challenging to be Africa's best, and are almost always vocal about it. Yet, they have not lived up to standards when the time has come at World Cups. Their showing in the African Cup of Nations last year was impressive, yet they still didn't look at their best at the Confederations Cup. They are young, but they do have promise almost everywhere. Players like John Obi Mikel, Victor Moses, Joel Obi are among some names you may know, and they are all either in the prime, or just about to hit the prime of their careers. Yet, there is always a concern about what they can or cannot do when the time comes to put their feet in the World Cup door. They seem to do it when it comes to it during African tournaments, but can they do it in a World Cup for once? The game against Bosnia will probably determine their fate.

Iran are returning to the World Cup after a one Cup absence, and their presence in 1998 was at least troubling for US fans (bad memories I know), and they weren't more than a footnote in the story in Germany. And this tournament seems to be no different. Their qualifying wasn't overtly impressive, needing a win in South Korea on the last day to qualify automatically. There are not many names that will be familiar on a large scale because this squad is mainly Iran-based, but there are a few stories to tell. Steven Beitashour is an Iranian-American who never fully got a shot with the US team and will likely be one of the starting fullbacks for Iran, and that's always a good story to tell. Javad Nekounam is still around, and after his run with Osasuna he has gone back to relative obscurity, but the strength of Iran runs through him. There are 2 players in English football that may create some waves in Ashkan Dejagah and Reza Ghoochannejad, both players who can put the ball in the back of the net, but didn't consistently when they moved to Blighty. They are managed by Carlos Quieroz who has done a pretty impressive job considering the issues he's had to work around, so getting here is impressive enough, and anything more might be cause for parades in Tehran.

Prediction: If Argentina do not get 9 points then there will be shock and awe among many, and it's Nigeria and Bosnia to fight out for second.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

2014 World Cup Group E Preview

Group E is one that figures to be an easy one to decode, and yet there is some complexity in it. It may not be as clear cut as first glances would dictate. But on the flipside, there doesn't seem to be many true challengers to the heir apparent to the throne.

France is the class of this group as you might expect, but this is not the same France team as past editions (for very good reason). The 2010 World Cup was nothing short of a titanic disaster for Les Blues, and therefore the decks have mainly been swept from then to now. Didier Deschamps is thankfully not Raymond Domenech (and therefore not a raving lunatic), so France may have some stability in their ranks for once. They are also transitioning away from an older generation that was partially responsible for the failures in 2010 to a younger one with immense promise. It seems that the youth will dictate France's fortunes in this tournament, especially players like Paul Pogba, and maybe others like Antoine Griezmann and some of the youth in the back 4. The injury concerns for Franck Ribery are concerning most certainly, but the way that France play should be able to adapt if he's not around, even if a player like Clement Grenier cannot directly replace him.Their major concern will likely come in the center of defense, with the incumbent centerbacks being two solid Premier League players in Koscielny and Sakho, but do they inspire confidence like what other teams (or specifically Mehdi Benatia, a player France let slip from their grasp) have? But even then, France could be this tournament's true sleeper thanks to their group and run that they have to eventual promise. If the squad can stay cohesively together and unite with their manager, this France team may have a deep run in them.

Remember in their first game in 2010 that Switzerland beat Spain? Some may neglect to tell you that. They've been solid if unspectacular through qualifying for this World Cup despite the presence of names that many will be familiar. There is the strong Napoli contingent of Inler, Behrami, and Dzemaili and there are a number of solid Bundesliga players in there as well such as Xhaka, Shaqiri, and Josip Drmic. The way to describe the Swiss team would probably go just as they did in qualifying: Solid if unspectacular. There is no standout name on this team, but then again you can't particularly find a terribly weak link in the group either. Much of that has to do with the great Ottmar Hitzfeld, who is stepping down after this World Cup, who has instilled that sort of belief into this team. They may not be the most talented team around, but they'll be in every game no matter the opponent, and just look back to when they beat Brazil last August as an example of that. They will be quietly good in this tournament; never making a ton of noise but solidly going about their business probably on their way to the knockout rounds.

We would be remiss when talking about Ecuador if we do not talk about Chucho Benitez, who sadly passed away last year and is a player that Ecuador hasn't, and probably can't replace. He was the center of almost everything his teams did for both club and country, and Ecuador have just not looked the same without him. That being said, playing with inspiration is often a catalyst, and maybe it will be for this team as well. Their strength comes through their wing play with players like Antonio Valencia and Jefferson Montero, even if it comes at the expense of the middle of the park for them. Whether they have the forwards to put away the fruits created by these dynamic wingers is another question, and that is asking a lot of Felipe Caicedo and Enner Valencia, even though the latter began to dominate Liga MX this past Clausura. They were always a difficult team to beat in Quito, but they struggled away from home in CONMEBOL qualifying, so the lack of an altitude advantage might prove to be fatal for them in Brazil.

Thanks to Mexico's cataclysmic qualifying campaign, Honduras gained CONCACAF's 3rd auto berth to this tournament, and it's hard to say they didn't deserve it. They've always been a pesky team, even if they are weaker than the US, Mexico and Costa Rica. The strength of this squad comes mainly from MLS through the likes of Victor Bernardez, Boniek Garcia, Roger Espinoza (now at Wigan) and Jerry Bengston, which is nice for the head office of Don Garber but not particularly amazing for the team at large. Some will say they are in Brazil to make up numbers and their first handful of friendlies in the build-up hasn't really disproven those theories as they have been handled by Turkey and Israel; two teams that are not going to the World Cup. They have enough quality to cause problems in game for a team like Ecuador or Switzerland, but probably not enough to trouble the group on a larger scale.

Prediction: France and Switzerland will duke it out to win the group, and if France wins it they have a clear run to the quarterfinals to pick up some momentum.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

2014 World Cup Group D Preview

     This group has a good amount of intrigue thanks to the connections all of these teams have with each other. Uruguay and Costa Rica have a decent amount of recent history against each other, Uruguay and Italy just played each other in the Confederations Cup, Italy and England just played each other in the Euros, and there's a little about that Luis Suarez guy. Therefore, this group should provide plenty of good storylines to latch onto.

   Uruguay are the defending holders of 4th place in the World Cup, and you would be lying if you said you expected that in 2010. This is what happens when a striker like Diego Forlan gets hot. There is not much change from that team to this one, which could end up being a problem. Or, if Uruguay's ridiculous strike force with Suarez, Cavani and Stuani get going, it might not be. On paper, this is a team that has underachieved massively, thanks to the expectations they set themselves in 2010 and 2011. Even though South American World Cup Qualifying is always a bit of a minefield, finishing 5th is not something Uruguay should be doing. Aside from the inevitable power up front, Uruguay do have a strong defense and midfield, if not exposed by speed and characterized by a lack of creativity. Names like Lugano, Pereira (Maxi and Alvaro), Godin and Caceres are all still present, which means the defense will be stout if not a touch slow, and in the midfield they still have the power of Gargano, Rodriguez, Rios and Gonzalez, even again at a lack of creative impetus. Gaston Ramirez and Nicolas Lodiero will have to step their games up for Uruguay to get out of a group that has matchup problems for them, as we will see below.

   One of my old favorite pasttimes at World Cups gone by is laughing at England when they failed to meet the lofty expectations that the English Press set them, when in reality they had no chance of meeting those expectations in any reasonable fashion. Unfortunately for me in 2014, they've gone, and are replaced by uncharacteristic optimism thanks to two managers of Spanish influence: Pochettino and Martinez, and one who was taught in that school at Swansea: Rodgers They've transformed England from a stale team of the Capello days to an exciting one that Roy Hodgson must temper. Therefore, the Southampton, Everton and Liverpool influence in this side is overpowering, with the usual smattering of United, Chelsea and Arsenal players as well. That influence has brought up questions about how England will play, and how those players will link in together. That remains to be seen, but England will at least be an entertaining team to watch with some definite flair, as opposed to the dour days of the past. The one thing England have that can cause everyone else problems is speed, and they have it in buckets with players like Sturridge, Sterling, and on the flanks as well with players like Shaw and Barkley available. It's amazing to see how England have changed even from the draw to now. They've gone from "happy to be there" to "well, maybe there's something here", and that's a scary thought for Group D.

    Apparently, Italy will be happy if they make the quarterfinals, which seems weird since the Azzuri are still a world power. They did finish second at the Euros and 3rd at the Confederations Cup, which means the expectations are still there for a high finish. The turnover in the squad has been small, so Italy will be able to take that experience to heart as they go forward against teams they know all too well. Andrea Pirlo is still his usual levels of awesome, and his heir apparent Marco Verratti could well soon take over his role, and up front Italy has their usual cadre of potent forwards, even if Giuseppe Rossi doesn't make it (which would be tragic, for the record). So Italy looks like most of the Italy teams of old, which means they'll make a deep run, right? Well, the defense isn't quite as strong as Italy teams of the past, and aside from the standouts in the midfield of Pirlo and De Rossi, it doesn't inspire quite as much confidence as it should. Italy will make it out of this group to be sure if they can put what happened in 2010 behind them, but the quarterfinals might in fact be their ceiling.

   Costa Rica might seem like cannon fodder in this group, but do not underestimate the Ticos. The US has done that plenty and its only won them misery and woe in San Jose. So Costa Rica will take their pretty bad form away from their own friendly confines to this World Cup, but they will do so with swagger and confidence since they do have the ability to pull off interesting scalps. Unfortunately, they will not have Real Salt Lake striker Alvaro Saborio who suffered a foot injury, but they still have quality up top with Ruiz, Urena, and Campbell all still capable of causing problems. The defense is also lacking a key piece in Bryan Oviedo, and his replacement Roy Miller (much to the shock of Red Bulls fans) has been playing well in MLS this season, so he'll at least be in form going up against the dangerous attackers of this group. Celso Borges is a key midfielder that can cause problems for everyone, but he's about it in terms of potentially dangerous midfielders. Goalkeeper Keylor Navas will have a lot of work to do to keep his team involved, and if his form at Levante is any indication, he'll probably do a good job of it. But even as much as I talk them up, they're still rooted to the foot of Group D's table, even if they will make each team sweat for their result.

Prediction: The big 3 of this group will duke it out to get out of the group, and while for a good portion of time it seemed that it was Uruguay and Italy to move forward, England's mini renaissance has changed some opinions. There will be intrigue abounding, no doubt.

Friday, June 6, 2014

2014 World Cup Group C Preview

        Group C might be the most open group out of all of them, for a variety of different factors. Injuries, teams that have either major flaws or flawed big stage reputations, and the fact that they all have to play each other. Therefore, it might be the most fun to watch out of all of the groups in the tournament.

       It has been 16 years since Colombia made the World Cup, and their arrival back on the scene is most welcome. It may be even more so if one Falcao was healthy, but his health has become the question that has no answer and whose answer might determine the fate of a group and 4 or 5 teams. The indications I've gotten from people is that he isn't healthy enough to play, but that may change by the time the games kick. Even if Falcao cannot play, Colombia are not a group of scrubs lifted by one player. They have quality up front with players like Teo Gutierrez, Jackson Martinez, and Adrian Ramos, and in the midfield they have quality such as James Rodriguez, Fredy Guarin and Juan Cuadrado. They will be able to create and score goals with or without the Monaco hitman. But losing him is going to create ripple effects throughout the group no doubt, since his presence lifts Colombia from being a solid team with a possible knockout stage pedigree to one that can not only win their group, but one that can make a deep run. Their issues come in the back, where a 38 old Mario Yepes will anchor the backline, and that should be a concern. One player to keep an eye on if he does play is River's young anchor Eder Alvarez Balanta, who probably will earn a European move soon. Does this team have shades of the Colombia squad of 1994? Possibly, but no one has El Pibe's hair.

    The Ivory Coast. Always a bit of a tournament darling; always expected to do far better than they actually do, and such have been overtaken as the best African team by Ghana. Obviously though, they still have loads of talent everywhere, and you will know the names by now. For Sabri Lamouchi's men, it's a matter of putting it all together for the first time at a World Cup. They should be solid enough on the backline, they have the Premier League's best player in Yaya Toure, and up front they have not only an in form Gervinho (I did just type this) and Wilfried Bony, but they still have a guy named Drogba that might still be pretty good. This might be the final World Cup for this core of players, so there should be no excuses as to why they cannot get out of the group stage on their 3rd attempt at a World Cup.

  Greece have long held a reputation of being defensively stout, but offensively lacking. That reputation is changing, but not at a rapid rate under Fernando Santos. While he's tried to bring a more open style of play to a nation that is accustomed to rock solid defending and nicking the odd goal, Greece's reputation has got the better of them at points, especially in qualifying when they allowed a grand total of 4 goals. They did score 4 in the playoff 2 legs against Romania for the record. They are a team in transition from the generation that helped them shock the world and win the Euros 10 years ago to a younger one that hasn't quite matured yet, which means this World Cup could be in an awkward time for the Greeks. If they want to get out of this difficult group, they will need to hope that Kostas Mitroglou shakes off his disastrous form from his Fulham time and finds his pre-move form when he couldn't stop scoring, or that Georgios Samaras does what he has done in past big games. Maybe defense will be the best in this group with potent attacking threats, but it remains to be seen whether Santos can impose his new style or whether the old Greek ways will come on strong.

    Japan are Greece's polar opposite team. Technically gifted like almost no other team in the tournament, and they have all of the attacking talent one could ever want, meaning that for neutrals they may be the most fun team to watch. However, they have major deficiencies at the back, partially from style and partially from development. And Eiji Kawashima is prone to the odd gaffe every now and again... of the major variety. But they should be able to score in big gulps against everyone, as evidenced by the Confederations Cup performance against Italy when they scored 3, but allowed 4. Whether that formula will be good enough to get them out of a group with Colombia and the Ivory Coast in it remains to be seen.

Prediction: It depends on the health of Falcao. If he's good to go, then Colombia are the odds-on favorites. I If not, anyone can win this group, and I mean anyone.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

2014 World Cup Group B Preview

This group has everything: The 2 finalists from the last World Cup, an up and coming power and this tournament's best example of cannon fodder. So, how will this group with an amazing coincidence that may never be seen again shake out?

     The defending World Champions are coming in on the backs of 2 major tournament wins in a row, and a 3rd will cement their reputation as possibly the best national team of all time. But this team has issues that have been bubbling up under the surface for some time now. Last tournament they had one of the best centerbacks in the world with Carles Puyol anchoring this backline, and as Barcelona went without him, it might well go the same for Spain. The pairing of Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique isn't terrible by any stretch, but the anchor at the back is no longer present. The tiki-taka system has taken some blows this year and last mainly with Barca's fall and the rise of managers like Brendan Rodgers and Diego Simeone, but it will still dictate tempo against almost every team they will come up against. Xavi is not a spry chicken anymore, and while they still have players like Fabregas, Silva, and Iniesta, the maestro in the middle might not be able to hold up as much in the draining Brazilian conditions. Diego Costa's health may well be the biggest question mark for the entire Spain team, since he offers something no other forward on this team can provide. His presence might be the difference between massive success and massive failure for Spain in this tournament, since the cracks are more present than they have been in the past. They are still a tournament favorite no doubt, but the potential is there for the wheels to fall off.

     The Oranje of Holland may have one of the biggest microscopes of the tournament on them. This is not because of who is in their group, and what they did in South Africa; it's where their current manager will be collecting paychecks after the tournament is done. Manchester United fans will watch the Dutch with eager eyes, and that may not be a good thing. Louis Van Gaal has tried to transition this team away from the older, veteran back 4 and goalie of 2010 to a very young and inexperienced one. None of the defenders from 2010 made this squad, and while there is a lot of promise for players like Bruno Martins, Stefan De Vrij and Joel Veltman among others, they are still young and naive to this type of stage. From there up, they still have the same players like Sneijder, Robben, Van Persie and Kuyt, but even then behind them they are incredibly young and inexperienced as well. There is always a big Euro team or two that has a howler in the group stage and goes out, and with the group and circumstances surrounding them, it may well be the Dutch this time.

     Part of the reason for that may be down to the Chilean team they have to face. Continuing on from the Marcelo Bielsa reign of the high press high pressure football, Jorge Sampaoli will lead a very talented Chile team forward with some championing them as possible dark horses. Now while I won't go that far, they do have the system and players to really cause intrigue. Arturo Vidal has been linked with clubs like Barca, Real Madrid and Manchester United for a reason, and hopefully he will recover from his injuries to show that in this tournament because he is one of the rising stars in European football. While Chile won't have the excellent Matias Fernandez next to him, they will have Charles Aranguiz, who has begun to really take South American football by storm and can do largely the same things that Fernandez do, plus even more. Even while losing players like Suazo and Pizarro, Chile still don't feel like they are missing that much. If anything will trip them up, it might be relative weakness with their back 3, but the system that they play doesn't put too much pressure on them regardless of that. If they come in as healthy as possible, they may well upset the Dutch and advance out of the group, possibly even winning it.

   Poor Socceroos. They are merely cannon fodder for this group of giants. After Holger Osieck was sacked after getting blown out by both Brazil and France, the Aussies settled on Ange Postecoglou, who hasn't won them the best of results so far. The team selection also doesn't inspire much confidence. They still have Tim Cahill who hasn't lost any form since moving to New York, but other than that they don't have many players that will threaten any of the big boys in this group. The back 4 is inexperienced in spots, and long standing keeper Mark Schwarzer has bowed out in favor of inexperience behind him. This team is a large contender to be 32 out of 32 in Brazil; probably more so than even harboring a hope of getting out of this group.

   Prediction: Spain will win the group, but cracks will be exposed to be exploited later, and Chile and Holland will duke it out to finish second, with Holland facing a major risk of finishing 3rd. Australia should be happy to be here.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

2014 Stanley Cup Final Preview

Since everyone has dipped their toe into this pool, why shouldn't I? New York and Los Angeles facing off against each other on a big stage for the first time since the Yankees and Dodgers in 1981, and storylines and narratives galore for both sides (although the whole "this is the series the NHL wanted" nonsense needs to stop). Many think this will be a walk for the LA Kings. But will it be? Probably.

How good are the LA Kings? Very, but are they the juggernaut everyone presumes them to be? As Jeff Marek has said repeatedly, "you can't be a juggernaut if you've needed 3 Game 7's to move on", and that is true... but the Kings do have to deal with the minefield that is the Western Conference. They've certainly passed all of those trials, which include coming back from 3-0 down in a series to win it, winning a series after dropping 3 in a row after winning the first two on the road, and winning a Game 7 on the road after trailing 3 separate times. They are certainly resilient, but how does that match them up against the Rangers? They match up well in everywhere but in net. Jonathan Quick is not the same goaltender he was 2 years ago, and let's be fair, he probably never will be again, because that run will never be replicated again. Henrik Lundqvist has been the best Ranger this postseason, and this has been his best postseason. If he wins the Conn Smythe trophy, the Rangers more than likely hoist the cup.

Everywhere else though, the Kings are better. They have better strength up front with players like Kopitar and Gaborik, they have better depth in the forward group with players like Toffoli, Williams, Stoll, and King among others, and they have Drew Doughty while the Rangers simply don't. The Rangers also have a tendency to let teams off the hook after climbing to what seem to be insurmountable leads (just ask the Flyers). The Rangers are often their own worst enemy, and look at Benoit Pouliot's penalty numbers to see that proven. If the Rangers stay out of their own way long enough, maybe they'll have enough to get a foothold in the series. But in all likelihood, the Kings will be forcing those mistakes instead of the Rangers causing them for themselves.

Everything on paper says that the Kings will win this series quickly (pun 100% intended, sorry) and efficiently. This is hockey, so anything can and probably will happen. What will the Rangers have to do to hoist the cup? Rick Nash and Brad Richards have to play to the level we know they can play at consistently. The Rangers power play can't go ice cold as it did against Pittsburgh. Finally, they'll have to make so that Henrik Lundqvist doesn't have to win every game for them to win the series, and even though he likely can, the Rangers can't win a series that way. If all of those things happen, they'll have a chance to make this interesting.

Maybe the Kings will win the Cup simply because Gary Bettman will have no clue who to hand the Cup to if the Rangers win since they traded away their captain at the trade deadline. That might be a clever out for the Rangers fans if they need it, but more than likely they'll just have to applaud as the Sharks, Ducks and Hawks did that they were beaten by a better team.

Prediction: Kings in 5, because sweeps don't happen in the NHL since Foxtrax was thankfully erased.

2014 World Cup Group A Preview

This is part of a series of World Cup Previews by group for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. They run from today until the day of Brazil-Croatia with full predictions. 

         The 2014 FIFA World Cup is upon us, and no one is more excited (and or nervous) than the host nation Brazil. Regardless of the circumstances surrounding the tournament, the seleccao are the favorites by a substantial margin. There may never be a host nation that has this much pressure heaped upon it, and particularly on one man: Neymar. His first year at Barcelona was marred by controversy over his transfer, his form, and the entirety of what turned out to be a pretty terrible season at Camp Nou. But all of that is behind him and he will be charged to lead Brazil's line and be the talisman for this team of different ilk than Brazil teams of the past. For whatever reason, this team does not have the same samba quality or overtures of it that past squads did. It might be the inclusion of players like David Luiz, Ramires, and Luiz Gustavo among others, or it just might be that aside from Neymar the shine has worn off many of these players even though they are incredibly successful on the biggest of stages. But that's not to say this Brazil team isn't any less talented. They would have rolled through this group no matter how difficult it might have been, and the group they are facing has its possible pitfalls, but won't be the major hurdle for this squad. Now what about this group they are facing?

       El Tri are always a telenovela, and 2013's edition might have been the highest rated of all time. Their struggles in qualifying are well documented, and their beatification of one Graham Zusi is still hilarious to this day. But on the pitch how will Mexico fare? It's clearly a different side than the Chepo De La Torre one that took the field one year ago in the Confederations Cup. Miguel "Piojo" Herrera is a cult star in waiting, but that probably doesn't have much to do with the tactics he's playing. He will play with a 5 man backline anchored by Rafa Marquez (which is amazing in of itself), but Mexico's future in this tournament will dictated by who ends up being the talismanic figure that can score. Will it be Javier Hernandez, or will it be some of the Liga MX standouts like Oribe Peralta or Alan Pulido? The biggest worry comes from midfield, and the seeming unwillingness to play holding midfielders (even though Carlos Pena is a rising star). If Mexico can find the midfield to provide defensive coverage and decent enough service for the strikers, then they can get out of this group.

     Cameroon in the last World Cup finished 31st out of 32 teams, and it was little fault of their defense. They have the best back 4 of any of the African teams in this tournament, which compared to other African teams is a bit of a departure from the norm. It might help that they also have a very strong midfield with players like Stephane Mbia and Alex Song, but the fault in that lies in how little they have in the creativity department. They will be relying too on forwards like Samuel Eto'o and Pierre Webo to be the goal scoring forces, and they are both up there in age and not the same players they once were. They will be able to hold out against the powerful attacks in this group, but can they score enough? If they can, they will certainly be able to advance out, but I have my doubts.

    Finally we come to Croatia, who are making a return to this tournament after missing out in 2010. They had a very good run in qualifying until the end of it, when the wheels came off and the manager Igor Stimac was sacked after a terrible run of form. They are in this tournament on the strength of their midfield, which is one of the best in the tournament. Rakitic and Modric will form the backbone of a midfield with a lot of creativity and flair, and will be able to get the ball to strikers like Eduardo, Mario Mandzukic, and maybe even Nikica Jelavic. Their back 4 is also stronger than advertised with players like Darijo Srna, Dejan Lovren and youngster Sime Vrsaljko of Genoa who is a rising player on the European stage. They have all the intangibles to make it out of the group, but something is holding me back from thinking they can advance out of the group. They have all the talent to do so, but I wonder whether they can or not. 
    Prediction: The dogfight for second in this group will be fascinating since all of the teams are very different and have unique and exploitable flaws. Brazil will run through all of them, but the way the other 3 match up against each other will determine who advances out.