Watch: The most insane improbable shot in this insane improbable tournament so far

Watch it the first couple of times to see that shot. Then keep watching it over and over to watch the Georgia St. coach fall out of his chair. Over and over.

I hope he “did it for the Vine,” because this may be the most perfect Vine of all time, forever.

Sports in the Courts: Jeff Wilpon answers the allegations

It has been seven weeks since former Senior VP of Ticket Sales for the Mets, Leigh Castergine, accused her former boss of discriminating against her for being pregnant and unmarried.  The team’s Chief Operating Officer, Jeff Wilpon, was accused of numerous disparaging comments.  Today, Wilpon and the Mets filed their answers in federal court in response to Castergine’s complaint.  You can read Wilpon’s answer here; the answer filed on behalf of the Mets makes the same response.  The same law firm is representing both defendants.

Wilpon’s response in short, “[none of it is true].” Above all, Wilpon denied that Castergine was harassed or treated differently because she was pregnant.  Specifically, he denies the quotes attributed to him by Castergine: “[I’m] old fashion and thinks [Castergine] should be married before having a baby” and “don’t touch her belly and don’t ask how she’s doing; she’s not sick, she’s pregnant,” or the more odd, “I am as morally opposed to putting an e-cigarette sign in my ballpark as I am to Leigh having this baby without being married.”

Along with denying that he mistrated Castergine, the court filing allowed Wilpon to respond to the allegations that the team suffered at the helm by poor ownership, and that it alienated fans.  Not surprisingly, Wilpon denies this as well.

It is somewhat bizarre that Wilpon and the Mets denied everything, given the specific accusations of Castergine.   What to expect next?  Well, more money from the Mets organization for the legal fees of Wilpon.  If the parties don’t settle, discovery will take months if not years.

What’s a Mob to a King? World Cup Final Preview

First things first: You’re going to watch this game.

You have to watch this game. Even if you haven’t watched a minute of this World Cup, even if you’ve never watched a minute of soccer in your life, even if you think watching a minute of soccer is a waste of a minute, you’re going to watch this game. You’re going to watch it because everyone else is. You’re going to watch it because a Sunday afternoon with friends and beer is only made better by watching strangers run around, developing allegiances to those strangers whose names you’d never known, picking a country for just a couple hours and adopting it as your own, suddenly feeling like those strangers and that country filled a void in your life — a space deep in your very own heart — that you never knew existed. A new family that you’d die for, and brings you life, for just two hours at a time.

Let’s get something straight: You’re going to watch this game, and you’re going to love it.

It won’t matter if the game is any good, though it should be. It won’t matter if you can’t tell Thomas Mueller from Manuel Neuer from Pablo Zabaleta from Gonzalo Higuain. It won’t matter if you don’t have a firm grasp of the offside rule, or the difference between a goal kick and a corner kick. The game in front of you on Sunday is not about learning the finer points of a high line, developing an appreciation for a midfield press, or dissecting the strengths and weaknesses of playing a false nine instead of a true number ten. It’s not even about knowing what any of those things mean. It’s about picking a color and bleeding that color for two hours. It’s about losing yourself in something that is absolutely meaningless and finding more meaning in that than in anything else in your life for two hours. It’s about forgetting about everything important in life and making the trivial become the ultimate for two hours. Pick one. It doesn’t matter which. Just pick.

But if you need some reason to pick one team over the other, well, there are some differences worth talking about. Argentina has the world’s most transcendent player, perhaps the best ever to take the field, in Lionel Messi. In the 2011-12 season, he scored 73 goals and produced 29 assists for Barcelona, both of which were more than any other player in the sport that year. That same season he became the all-time leading scorer for Barcelona, one of the most prestigious and successful clubs in soccer history, at 24 years old. For the calendar year of 2012, he scored 91 goals total: 79 for Barcelona and twelve for Argentina (in only nine games), not to mention chipping in 55 assists for club and country. Last season, in what was considered a disappointing effort, he notched 41 goals and fifteen assists. In his career, he has scored 243 goals in 277 matches for Barcelona and 42 goals over 92 matches for Argentina.

Those are numbers. And they tell a story, but they don’t tell the whole story. They tell you that he can, will and does score, and that he is capable of passing up an opportunity to put one on the board if a teammate is in better position. What they don’t tell you is that Lionel Messi does all these things in the most beautiful and stunning way possible. His tiny frame gives him a lower center of gravity that he uses constantly to get defenders out of position, to turn at angles larger players are incapable of without falling over, to speed past them and squeeze between them, the ball constantly just at the edge of his own toes. He looks less like a soccer player in those moments than he does some kind of sorcerer, flitting in and out of reality, knocking players down without getting within five feet of them, telekinetically keeping the ball in a place where only he can reach it, or more specifically, where no defender and no goalkeeper can. He looks fragile out there, because he is so small. Yet when the 90 minutes are up, it seems as if he is the  only one unbloodied and unbowed, ready to go another 90 immediately, willing to risk his life and limb again because what else is there to life. And even the opponent considers it for a minute, almost wanting to be ensorcelled a second time, just to be near it and a part of it again.

messi

Lionel Messi is the best player in the world. There is little doubt about that. Yet, the World Cup Final does not reward the best player, but rather the best team. That is almost surely Germany. 4, 2, 1, 2, 1, 7: those are the goal totals for Germany in the first six games of this tournament. Now, Pepe’s stupidity had something to do with that first number, but it was already 2-0 when he was sent off for headbutting Thomas Mueller, who would end that match on a hat trick. And the last, that giant, crooked 7 that will hang over Brazil for a generation — perhaps defining the Brazilian teams yet to come as much as the 2-1 loss to Uruguay in 1950 defined the great Selecaos of the 1960s and 70s — will certainly be remembered by most of the world as a Brazilian collapse rather than a German triumph. But Germany simply took what was given to them, executed their plan, and punished every Brazilian mistake in the most clinical and damaging way possible.

That is how they got here. The Germans do not have the best player in the world. Indeed, they don’t have a ton of players you’d find yourself thinking, “well, I certainly can’t wait to see him play.” Rather, you want to see the German team play. You want to see their midfield contract around an opponent the way darkness surrounds a kid who’s stayed out in the woods too long. You want to see how that same midfield suddenly expands to fill the entire attacking third, like one drop of food coloring seems to fill an entire glass of water. Germany is not players, they’re not even corporeal to their opponents most of the time. They’re encroaching darkness; they’re water.

They’re the relentless tide and the tropical heat. As they press up against their opponents, they weaken them, hurry them into bad decisions, rush them into poor passes and futile runs to nowhere. As they race toward the goal, they fan out and make every position a potentially dangerous one. They present too many legitimate goal-scoring threats for an honest defense to stop. Playing in this team, Miroslav Klose, who no one has ever confused with Lionel Messi, has become exactly Lionel Messi, scoring 16 goals in 23 World Cup matches, and currently the all-time leading scorer in World Cup History. Klose has scored more than 30 goals in a season once in his fifteen year career; Messi has at least that many in each of the last six, more than doubling that count twice. Yet, in this team, with its efficiency, ruthlessness and pitilessness, Klose becomes one of the world’s best.

Yet, this game is not so easily distilled into the one-man-team vs. team-over-individual match that it might seem. Argentina is a team that knows its success lies not only in giving Messi the opportunities to score and set up his teammates, but also that Messi’s individual brilliance allows them to attack with fewer players than most teams. Argentina can live with Messi, Higauin and Lavezzi alone working on offense, with sporadic assistance from from midfielders and fullbacks. That means that Argentina can employ six or seven players in defense, helping them blockade their own penalty area and daring opponents to either dribble into the teeth of their defense or optimistically shoot from long distance. Opponents react by sending more player forward in attack, which only gives Messi more room in which to practice his sorcery.

Indeed, it may take a moment of individual brilliance from Mezut Oezil, Thomas Meuller or Klose in order to break through the Argentine wall in front of their goal. The Netherlands never did commit extra attackers, and as a result only got off one shot on target over 120 minutes of soccer on their way out of the tournament. The best attacking team in this World Cup refused to attack, so fearful were they of Messi’s ability, and left Wesley Sneijder pinned in his own half. If Germany do the same, keeping Schweinsteiger, Khedira and Kroos out of the final third, one of Germany’s forwards will have to take up sorcery to progress.

This is not simply one man against a nation, not Messi v Germany, but two completely different styles of soccer being thrown at one another. The Germans rely on possession and patience, making short passes and methodically progressing toward goal, taking high percentage shots and then closing down on defenses if the attack breaks down, before they can transition into offense. Argentina will absorb the pressure and invite the opponents into their third, almost seeking to create two trenches of ten men each outside their own penalty area, so that they can quickly get the ball upfield and release Messi into space, give him a chance with plenty of room to work and fewer impediments between him and goal. Germany are a proactive team and want to control the game, to bend the game to their style and their desires. Argentina are reactive, letting teams play their way until the last possible second, suddenly flipping the field so that what had been a disadvantage is their greatest asset.

Pick one. Pick either. It doesn’t matter which. Pick one and bleed for them. Scream for them. Nothing has ever mattered less than those two hours on Sunday, but nothing may ever matter more for you during those two hours.

First things first: You’re going to watch that game.

I’m Sorry Ronaldo, Klose’s For Real: World Cup Recap and Netherlands-Argentina Preview

/taps mic

I’m Sorry Ronaldo!

Klose’s for reeeeaaaal!

Never meant to make your country cry,

Die Mannshaft won it sieben-eins.

 

The US conceded six goals in four games. Costa Rica gave up two in five. Germany has let four in over six. Reiging (until Sunday) World Champions Spain saw seven balls roll over the line in their three group stage matches, as did Portugal. It took Algeria and Switzerland a fourth game to reach that total. Only Honduras (eight), Australia and Cameroon (nine each) allowed more than seven goals over the course of this world cup. Those last three teams finished 30th-32nd in the tournament.

Yesterday, in capitulating to Germany, Brazil surrendered seven goals to five different opposing players. In the span of six minutes, they allowed four, to three players. It got so bad that after Andre Schuerrle’s goal in the 79th minute*, this happened:

THE SCOREBOARD SCROLLED DOWN. There was not enough room in the real estate afforded and, thus, space had to be artificially created below that, such that the first goal — Thomas Mueller 11′ — was not visible at the same time and in the same space as the final two — Andre Schuerlle 69′, 79′. This may seem an odd thing to fixate on after such a match, but I’m doing it, mostly out of morbid fascination, but also because some metaphors are also facts.

Brazil was in this game for roughly eight minutes. By the time Mueller scored his fifth goal of the tournament (tenth of his career), after being left completely unmarked by interim-captain David Luiz on a corner kick*, it seemed like a 1-0 lead was already insurmountable. Fred** looked more likely to earn a red card than a goal; Hulk seemed intent on passing it to the least convenient — if not physically impossible — places for his teammates to receive the ball; wee bastard Bernard ended up isolated on the wing and any attempt to cut in toward goal was caught out by Philipp Lahm, finally playing at his natural fullback position. Without Neymar (RIP) to hold up play and control the ball in the attacking area, not to mention his ability to conjure up magic on his lonesome, the Brazilian attack was stymied.

When Klose scored, and in doing so took the all-time World Cup scoring record away from a Brazilian, in Brazil, against Brazil, I joked that the Germans would need a secret tunnel to escape the stadium. Six minutes — and three goals — later, I completely seriously suggested that the Brazilian team might want to use that tunnel as well. The fifth goal was the one on which it was obvious that Brazil had just about lost interest in competing in the game and given up any hope of winning it. Sami Khedira*** fed Mezut Oezil on the left side of the Brazilian penalty area and literally stood still, patiently waiting for Oezil’s return ball. It came, as it obviously would. How many Brazilian players came with it? Let’s watch and find out:

Zero. [Count von Count voice] Zero Brazilian defenders. Ah ah ah. [/Count von Count voice]

They still played for another hour, allowing two more goals, but the match, had it not been decided before Khedira’s goal, certainly was in that moment. Losing Thiago Silva, their best defender and leader, may have meant even more than losing Neymar. Brazil enjoyed more possession than Germany, took more shots and produced more crosses and deliveries into the penalty area. Germany attempted fourteen shots and scored seven. A 50% team average is rare in basketball, where teams often score in triple digits; it is unheard of in soccer. Silva’s absence put Brazil’s defense in disarray, which pulled Julio César out of his position or made him slow to react to what was happening in front of him. After a fairly good tournament that had seen him getting some renewed buzz, César had one of the worst days a keeper could ever imagine. This was the polar opposite of Tim Howard’s performance against Belgium. Everything that could have gone wrong for Brazil did. They lost the players that meant the most to them on offense and defense, and rather than attempt to adjust their style of play in light of those facts, doubled down on the tactics that had brought them to the semifinal in the first place. 

Of course, the problem with that was that they didn’t get there convincingly. They never looked the favorite even while playing with the decided advantage of having 60,000 rabid fans cheering them on every time they took the field. They played Mexico to an exciting but still goalless draw; eked past Chile on penalties in the round of 16; beat Colombia in something that was less like a soccer match and more like Muay Thai with a ball. They attempted to continue those bruising tactics against Germany, kicking out and shoving, coming in heavy and late in the midfield. This can intimidate and slow down a lot of teams, and it might have slowed down Germany, except that it also pulls your team out of shape. If you’re coming in late, or sliding, you need time to recover. Silva allowed them that luxury, but against Germany, all those rash movements simply opened up space for players like Khedira, Schweinsteiger and Kroos to push the ball ahead to Mueller, Oezil and and Klose. Lahm’s move to right back also gave the German team another player capable of coming into the midfield to retain or regain possession.

This was Luiz Felipe Scolari’s plan. And it had worked. Brazil won the Confederations Cup last year without losing a single match, conceding only three goals over five games, and shutting down the dominant Spanish midfield by employing their defensive midfield to knock them over, and their wingers to run past them. The cracks began to show against Mexico and even Cameroon showed they were far from invincible. When playing a similar team in Chile, they were stretched to the very end of their rope. Facing Colombia, they clamped down even harder, throwing James Ramirez to the turf at every opportunity, aided and abetted by a referee reluctant to hand out cards for violent play until it was already too late.

As of this moment, Scolari is still the coach. I’m shocked. I’ll be further shocked if he’s not replaced before September, when they play their first post-World Cup friendly. Against Colombia.

4:00 – I have no idea what to make of this match. If you look at the rosters, you’d think another scrolling scoreboard might be in order. Argentina can roll out Lionel Messi, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Gonzalo Higuain and, if rumors are correct, a returning Sergio Aguero. The team has played largely unchanged (except via injury) for years. Yet, they’ve often been mercurial and inconsistent (does that make them consistently inconsistent?), struggling to put it all together.

The argle-bargle (Argie-bargle?) going into this tournament was that Messi plays well for his club, but not for his country. After five games, we can certainly say that if this one is their last, it might indeed be due to Messi not playing well, but also that they wouldn’t have gotten this far without his contributions. Messi has been the only thing that Argentina has had on offer going forward. Of the seven goals Argentina has scored****, Messi has four of them, and assisted on another.

Seven goals over five games is not a great scoring record for a team with the attacking firepower listed above. They’re still in it because they’ve only given up three, thanks to Ezequiel Garay, Federico Fernandez, Marcos Rojo and Pablo Zabaleta at the back, and the ageless Javier Mascherano just in front of them. The Albiceleste have only faced seventeen shots on target over their five games. Not only are teams not scoring on Argentina; they aren’t even getting the ball in areas where they might have a chance. Part of this is also down to their opponents concentrating on their defense so as not to be exposed, but after allowing six on target against Bosnia in their first match, they’ve held every other opponent to fewer than five shots, culminating in just one shot on target for Belgium last weekend.

So The Netherlands will have to unlock the lead door that Argentina have set up in front of their goal. To do so, Dutch coach Louis van Gall can offer up Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie (who might be out, but I can’t imagine van Gaal following through), Klaas Jan Huntelaar and Wesley Sneijder. van Gaal even deployed Dirk Kuyt, generally a forward or attacking winger, as a wingback (on the wrong side to boot), and moved him all over the place in order to fit more attacking verve into his side. It didn’t work. They scored zero goals over 120 minutes against Costa Rica, which — again — only gave up two over their five matches, and is the low for the tournament, so is no great insult. They also left it very late against Mexico, scoring two (one of which was a penalty) in the final ten minutes to push past Guillermo Ochoa and ten other guys — but Ochoa was a revelation, allowing only a meaningless and last minute goal against Croatia in the tournament, before the late Dutch goals.

So, are the Dutch actually more hapless on offense than their name recognition, obliteration of Spain and general tenor suggest? Or have they just run into three of the tournaments best defensive teams, in Mexico, Costa Rica and Chile? We might find out today, except that Argentina is another defensive stalwart.

One last thing, remember when I said that Argentina had only allowed seventeen shots on target and that’s really impressive over five games? Well, the Dutch have allowed only fifteen (15!!!) over the same*****. And while you might think that most of their opponents focused on defending Robben, RvP, et al — and you’d be right — it’s still pretty amazing.

So will we need the scrolling scoreboard or will we need 120 minutes and penalty kicks to finally get a goal on the board? The most obvious — and likely — answer is neither. Both of these teams will defend deep and defend well, hoping to catch their opponent sleeping on the counter. How effective those tactics will be when neither team really wants to control the flow of the game but react is up for debate. But it should feature some fun moments of creativity from Messi and Robben.

Happy watching and I’ll be back on Friday to preview the Final unless this game has something amazing in it (i.e. biting, seven goals, a double bicycle kick, more than one red card).

* I can see that Luiz was blocked off him a bit, but that’s still awful defending. And I had very high hopes for Captain Ham Cart.

**The Brazilian Tony Shaloub

*** The German Jason Schwartzman

**** Argentina have “scored” eight goals, but one was a Bosnian own goal in their opening match.

***** (Ed. Note): That’s Villa defenseman and eternal savior for your sins Ron Vlaar you can thank for that one.

When It’s Over: World Cup Recap and Brazil-Germany Preview

Julian Green's Goal Against Belgium

 

Five days.

It took me five days after the USMNT lost to Belgium to be able to read any of the many obituaries, encomia and tributes that followed in that match’s wake. It took me five days before I could begin to think on the accomplishments of the US team and reflect on what had happened. It took me five days to get over it, to move on from it. As I watched the games on Friday and Saturday, as the quarterfinals became the semifinals, I did so not really believing the next game wouldn’t feature Dempsey, Howard, Bradley and Jones. Their run was certainly, and decisively, over, and yet I was not ready for it to end.

In the first hour of October 17th, 2003, I found myself kneeling on a barroom floor, my legs covered in peanut shells and my hands on my head. The bar was emptying but I had not yet mustered the strength to join them. I didn’t cry. I didn’t yell. I didn’t move at all or say anything at all. I stayed on the ground, staring into the distance, at the projection screen that hung from the ceiling, silently willing its images to become different, for time to rewind, for history to change.

Tim Wakefield, good and faithful servant that he was, had gone out to pitch to Aaron Boone in the bottom of the 11th inning in Game 7 of the ALCS in Yankee Stadium. That inning lasted one pitch: a pitch that wobbled out of Wakefield’s hand only for Aaron Boone’s bat to meet it, and redirect it into left field, into the night, into the stands. Wakefield walked off silently and sadly, but not despondently. I sunk into the peanut shells and grabbed at hair.

At a gas station, I got out of the car and just kind of paced around. I didn’t say much, was still in a mostly catatonic state. I kept seeing the ball leave the bat and Wakefield’s forced march from the field. It was not that they had lost, not that they had disappointed me, not that they had given up or choked or failed. It was that it was over, and I didn’t want it to be over. I wanted another night to watch them and take joy in them and thank them for everything they’d given me. But it was over.

I didn’t think the USMNT could do that to me. I didn’t think that they could make me care that much, not about them winning, but about them. I didn’t think that those guys could make me feel bad not because they lost, but because they lost. To think on Michael Bradley finally figuring out his new position and playing his best game of the tournament, and to imagine that it was his last game. To see Clint Dempsey’s battered face and know that it would heal long after he got on the plane. To watch Jermaine Jones walk off the field draped in flags, having become a star and hero over four games, and realize that they were the culmination and not a prelude. To look at Tim Howard, after the most complete performance any of us are likely to see a goalkeeper give, to see the tears and know that those were all he had left to give us. I only wanted to see them play again, not for me, not because they should have won or deserved to win, but because they had made me care so much about them and I didn’t want it to end for them, not yet.

And yet it has ended. Though they’ll play again for the US over the next couple years, this is likely the last we’ll see of DeMarcus Beasley, Kyle Beckerman, Brad Davis, Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, Jermaine Jones, Nick Rimando and Chris Wondolowski in the World Cup.* Alejandro Bedoya and Graham Zusi might get passed by for spots as the team continues to bring on the next generation. That’s ten of the 23 players on this team, including three of its best performers in this tournament in Dempsey, Howard and Jones. When we think back on this team, those are the names, faces and moments we’re likely to remember.

Yet we may also remember this as the international coming out for DeAndre Yedlin (snapped up by Roma before the US even got on the plane home) and Julian Green, whose goal against Belgium in the game’s dying embers caused me to fall to shout louder than I can remember for any reason. Bradley will return, hopefully as a deeper-lying midfielder than trying to play as a number ten. Jozy Altidore will be entering his prime as the US goes to Russia. John Brooks, Matt Besler, and Fabian Johnson (probably on his favored left side with Beasley gone) will all return. And there is more youth and hope in the pipeline. Even when it’s over, there’s still hope for another time and another chance.

4:00 – We’re down to the final four, which this year looks like a Final Four of Kentucky, Duke, Kansas and North Carolina. This is the 20th World Cup and these four teams have been semi-finalists 29 times, finalists 21 times and have won ten World Cups between them. Two of these four teams have played one another in the final five times. The Netherlands have never won but have appeared in three finals. Argentina have won twice and appeared in two more finals. But more on them tomorrow.

Brazil and Germany have appeared in a combined fourteen times and won the trophy eight times (five and three, respectively), and stand as the two greatest powers in the tournament’s history. Italy may have won more often than Germany, but the Germans have been more consistent. For Brazil, this is their chance to keep a second Jules Rimet trophy. This is the fourth consecutive World Cup that the Germans have reached at least the semis, a run that began in 2002 when they faced off against a Ronaldo-led Brazil in the final.

Somehow, Miroslav Klose was on that team, and the tournament’s second leading goal scorer, with five goals, a feat he would repeat in 2006 before being comparatively awful and netting only four in 2010. Klose only one goal in 2014, giving him fifteen total for his career, tied with Ronaldo for the most in World Cup history. Netting one against Brazil this afternoon would put him atop the board and could push his team past the only other country with a similar track record of sustained excellence. More likely, the goals will come from Thomas Mueller, who has scored nine over his two World Cups, or Mezut Oezil, who is a far better player than he has demonstrated over the last two weeks. The German defense remains characteristically stout, if plodding, with Phillip Lahm and the return of Bastian Schweinsteiger shoring up any of their weaknesses. They are a calculating and exacting team, that look to play as they want and impose that style on the other team, rather than react to what their opponents are doing. That said, they are perfectly capable of discovering a weakness in the other team and then exploit it ruthlessly.

Of course, Brazil remain the favorite to keep the trophy in Rio. This despite never looking entirely confident or competent for a full 90 minutes. Their road this afternoon became much more difficult thanks in large part to Carlos Velasco Carballo. Carballo does not play for Brazil. Neither does he play for Colombia, their previous opponent. Rather, he was the referee in that match, which swung well out of control under his watch, as fouls became nastier and tackles heavier the more Carballo let them go. In the end, Carballo’s inability to keep peace and calm stormy tempers led to Brazil’s best player being taken down with a knee to the back, resulting in a fractured vertebra** for Neymar, the astounding striker and focal point of the Brazilian attack. Thiago Silva, their captain and rock at the back, will miss the game as well, having received his second yellow of the tournament.***

The road is thus harder for the hosts, but by no means impassible. They still have a star-studded team full of goal-scoring threats (Hulk, Oscar, Fred, Willian, Jo), midfielders adept at turning over possession and initiating the offense (Fernandinho, Paulinho, Ramires) and the Exploding Ham Cart himself, David Luiz, who got his porkluminum all over Colombia with a free kick in the quarters. The problem being that Germany can answer with threats of their own (Mueller, Oezil, Goetze, Shurrle, Kroos) and mids of their own (Khedira, Lahm, Schweinsteiger). The Germans may have the better defense and goalkeeping, but Brazil will have a decided advantage playing in their home country.

For one of these teams, it will be over too soon, in just a few hours. The other will play again in the Final and hope to add to their already dominant resume. I think it will take more than 90 minutes, but not PKs, and Brazil will edge out Germany for a chance to get their sixth championship and second keepsake trophy.

 

* To be fair, I could very easily see Howard coming back as the mostly ceremonial third keeper in 2018 after ceding his role to his current backup (and great keeper in his own right for J Reed’s Aston Villa) Brad Guzan. Dempsey could also head over to Russia as a late-game substitute, but the honest hope would be that the US could produce someone capable of more than 30 minutes of action to bring in his place.

** Note: he fractured a vertebra (ver-teh-bruh), not several vertebrae (ver-teh-bray), as ESPN insisted on pronouncing it. It’s still a terrifying thought, and indeed a horrifying reality for Neymar, but it is at least slightly better. /pedant

*** It’s called “accumulation” and intends to stop players from getting one yellow every match of a tournament (which would be allowable under the rules of the game, but would imply a destructive and dangerous player not receiving any actual sanction for improper play), by suspending players who receive two yellow cards over their team’s first five (or fewer) matches for the team’s next match.

 

World Cup Preview: Belgium vs. USMNT

People will say that the US is lucky to be in the Round of 16. They’ll say, as we did, that Pepe, the Portugal centerback, had just as much to do with getting the US to the knockouts as anything any US player did. They’ll note that they faced a weakened Portugal and lost to a German team that really didn’t have much to play for in their match, the score as close as it was because the Germans didn’t need anything more than the 1-0 win they ended up with. They looked anything but convincing against Ghana, switched off at two important moments against Portugal and couldn’t get anything past the German defense.

Yet, they got the four points they needed. They looked rampant before Jozy Altidore’s injury against Ghana forced them to change their entire game-plan for the tournament within 30 minutes and a multitude of cramping players took away the US’s greatest assets of speed and stamina. The draw against Portugal demonstrated that the US could learn on the fly, adapting to their new formation, new players in unfamiliar positions with little rapport, and even a weakened Portugal still featured great players, who the US stymied and frustrated. The Germany game was actually very promising, despite some tactical decisions that may not have worked (especially Brad Davis, who was overrun until Klinsmann switched him and Zusi, which reduced the latter’s impact as he was on the wrong wing to use his favored foot), and the US played up to their opponents, turning in some sublime moments and never backing down in the face of superior firepower.

That’s how the USMNT got here. They did enough. They scraped and scrapped when the could not dominate. They cleared their lines in desperation when they could not play the ball out carefully. Their best has been good enough, if not necessarily awe-inspiring.

If you had told me before the tournament that Michael Bradley was our third best midfielder in the group stages, I would have assumed that we lost all three matches. Yet, for several reasons, we’ve managed to survive and advance without Bradley making much of an impact on the field. Jermaine Jones has played the best he’s ever done for the national team over the three games thus far. As he and Kyle Beckerman and Bradley continue to gel together, to reach a better understanding of one another’s games and anticipate one another’s movements, the unit actually covers up for some its weaknesses and can paper over a bit of Bradley’s run of mediocrity.

Yet, let’s remember that Bradley’s role is to transition the team from defense to offense, and both phases have been different in each of the US’ three games thus far. The US had relied on Altidore’s combination of hold-up play and speed (in basketball terms, we’re thinking of a Chris Webber type of forward, who can pass from the post, but can also handle the ball on the fast break) in its initial gameplan and in the tuneups in the month before the World Cup started. And it was working. But with his injury, Dempsey becomes the lone man up front, and as skilled as he is, he can’t play Altidore’s game. He needs to move into spaces and receive the ball with room (again in basketball: someone like Ray Allen, who only needs a little space to get a shot off, but can also get the defender off balance and blow past him if they play the shot too close).

When the focal point of the offense changes, how you get into it must change as well. The moving parts — not just Bradley (as the nominal point guard in this scenario), but all the other players — change, not only in where they are, and who they are, but how they interact with one another. It’s an adjustment that takes time, and Bradley has looked more and more at ease in the new look with every game. Jones’ new role allows him to advance further up and keep pace with Bradley and share responsibility on both offense and defense, but with the greater offensive load to one and defensive to the other (this is probably like having one guard primarily bring the ball up and another who marks the opponent’s initiator, but not exactly because …).

They’re allowed this new freedom because Kyle Beckerman has stayed back and protected the defensive, cutting out balls and slowing the runs of oncoming attackers enough to allow Bradley, Jones and the fullbacks time to get back into position. If the US played a transition game for 90 minutes, they’d get cut to pieces. They need to slow it down occasionally, pack the midfield and crowd their defensive half. Beckerman has been fantastic at this, as have the centerbacks when they’ve been called on to be in position to cover for Fabian Johnson and DeMarcus Beasley. Jones has actually also done this well.

This is all to say that Bradley’s performance needs to be graded on a curve, and how he does today will go a long way to deciding whether or not the US advances. Being able to get the US into their offense after packing tight in the center around the creative but generally narrow midfield of the Belgians is a daunting task. Especially if Klinsmann persists with Zusi and Bedoya on the outside in the 4-5-1 (4-3-2-1, whatever) he’s likely to use. The five midfielders should be able to choke off some of the distribution from Kevin Be Bruyne (their version of Bradley) and either of Moussa Dembele or Marouane Fellaini, especially as — like Germany — they play four centerbacks across the back with no natural fullbacks*, so the attacks will have to come through the center, where the US has a numbers advantage.

Yet, with three forwards, including a 23 year old starlet in Eden Hazard who’s coming into his own and could go supernova if given time and space, the US can’t completely give up the outside channels and sidelines, or the Belgian attackers will fill them. Dries Mertens has gotten into dangerous areas all throughout the tournament by simply finding the empty space down the sides, and though much of his passing has gone for naught,, the law of averages says Romelu Lukaku will get on the end of one eventually . That said, pressing up on the midfielders and slowing them down will make long passes more difficult and less efficient.

That being said, being overly defensive will mean trying to work our way past Dembele/Fellaini and Alex Witsel, as well as Belgium’s strong defensive backline. Thomas Vermaelen is supposed to be out, and Vincent Kompany is rumored to be as well, which would help, but the Belgians can just continue to throw quality centerbacks out like so many chocolates. The best tactic might be to get DeAndre Yedlin’s speed out there to combine with Fabian Johnson down one side, since though the Belgian back is large and in charge, they’re not exactly the paciest bunch. Working the sidelines and trying to draw them out of shape might be the US’ best chance at gaining an advantage.

I don’t know what’s going to happen in a few hours. I can’t say for sure whether or not the midfield will continue to improve and impress or whether it will be overrun by the Belgians as it was in their last friendly against them. Belgium have not looked like world beaters, despite winning their group. They started slow in every match and have left the outcome late in every one. A quick US goal could prove decisive, allowing them to sit deep and use their numerical advantage in the midfield to park the bus in front of Tim Howard (who has been his usual outstanding self, and has marshaled the defense into good positions for cover regularly).

This is not a gimme for Belgium, nor a lost cause for the US. The odds are that Belgium will win, but it’s not a foregone conclusion as it might have been against some of the other teams left in the tournament (Colombia, for instance, would detonate us in a flash of fire; Chile would have ground us to dust). Marc Wilmots, the Belgian coach, has done a masterful job with substitutions and altering his strategy on the fly when Plan A isn’t working. Klinsmann has also shown a knack for adjusting to the game as its playing rather than as it was expected.

The US is playing with house money right now. No one expected them to escape the group and no one expects them to beat Belgium. But keeping up with them, frustrating them and denying them time to pick out clever passes through the middle, gives them a chance to get past them. But they need to do more than frustrate the Belgians. They need to drag them out of shape and tire them out. Johnson, Beasley and Zusi (or Yedlin if he makes an appearance) need to attack the fullbacks, to run at them and then shoot or find Clint Dempsey (PBUH) near the keeper (see: crotch goal), and the midfielders when they catch up, to put shots on from the edge of the box (see: Jones’ screamer).

This game can be won by either team. Even if Belgium have seven or eight players (including a fantastic keeper) valued at over 30 million dollars, and the US have, well, none. Sometimes one team simply matches up poorly against another, and the way the Belgians have been going — narrow yet reliant on crosses from wide to score; starting slowly; sluggish fullbacks — plays right into the hands of how the US have done their business — bruising, packed midfield and tall centerbacks, pressuring from minute one; using speed down the flanks to open space in the middle. I’m not saying the US will win, I’m just saying they can.

I’m saying there’s a chance.

Now set your Outlooks to “Offsite Meeting” from 3:30 to 7:00, find a bar and drink and scream and jump. Try your damnedest to be in one of those reaction videos they show in case the US wins. This should be fun as hell.

*Jan Vertonghen is the most likely to make forays from the back, and he can be equally dangerous and calamitous, having given up a penalty in their first match against Algeria, scrambling to get back to cover.