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.

The Knockout Game (not that knockout game): Weekend World Cup Preview

Yesterday was probably the happiest I’ve ever been after watching my team lose, and J Reed’s post yesterday in its aftermath summed up my feelings in words better than I could have put together (ed. note: that can’t possibly be true). Because of the way the group stage is set up, all the US had to do yesterday was not lose badly, and they’d see themselves through. Ghana helped by losing to Portugal, who needed to make up considerably more goals than the Black Stars would have. The US weathered the first fifteen minutes, which was one wave after another of German assault on poor Tim Howard (God Bless Him and Keep Him) and a beleaguered defense, after which they held their own, giving as good as they got for a good 40 minutes or so, Thomas Mueller’s goal notwithstanding.

Mueller's goal against the US
Damn that was a beaut.

Mueller’s goal was an absolutely beautiful shot, and other than the Nani goal off of Cameron’s miscue, every goal the US has conceded has had a measure of the gorgeous. Mueller’s perfect curl off a Howard parry goes up there with Cristiano Ronaldo’s inch-perfect cross and Asamoah Gyan’s goal in the opening match. Making your opponent work that hard to score, allowing goals only when they are the result of breathtaking artistry combined with tremendous effort and world class skill, is what every team strives for. You can’t keep them all out, but the US (Cameron-to-Nani excepted) kept all but the most miraculous in the field of play. The US got some good goals as well. Dempsey’s (PBUH) opener will be long remembered in the annals of US Soccer and Jermaine Jones’ dagger from deep against Portugal was among the best shots you can take from that distance. Brooks’ header and Deuce’s crotch thrust goal were more hard work combining with luck than anything else, but they all count the same.

And that’s the point. If the US can continue to stymie and frustrate opposition in front of goal, then there will be more space for the US attack, with the other team committing more players forward. This is how the US wins, and how they want matches to go. As the opponents tire, and bring more players into their attack, the US springs to life and rushes past on the break. Early goals make the job easier for the US, but they aren’t as necessary as they are for teams who rely on sustained possession and intricate passing. And it’s not as if the US is incapable of holding the ball and stringing together magical passes, simply that they aren’t built around doing it way, for better or worse. This is a team that huffs and puffs for 90 minutes assuming you can’t keep up with them the whole time. Until the last twenty minutes against Germany, they were right. They have until Tuesday at 4:00 to get their legs and their lungs right.

Tomorrow is the beginning of the knockout stages, which means no more playing for a draw and no more tidy 2-hour timeslots. They play the full 90, and then, if still tied, they go on to two 15 minute overtime periods. It’s not sudden death, but the limited time on offer can certainly make it feel that way if your team is the one that concedes. If they play all 120 without a winner, they proceed to penalty kicks, which is stupid and probably unfair, but no one has come up with a better idea aside from letting them play until only one player is left breathing (ed. note: this is far preferable to penalty kicks).

Brazil and Chile kick it off at noon, which should be great brunch viewing. Neither team is likely to put themselves in a shell around their own penalty area, although Chile are a much more defensive team than Brazil. The host country has had their share of problems at the back, however. Whether it’s been lack of communication and familiarity, a deliberate plan to get players forward or simply players who aren’t at their best, Brazil’s back line has been their weak point, and could end up as their Achilles heel. The matchup to watch (even though they’ll infrequently be matched against one another) is the Exploding Ham Cart that is David Luiz and the half-rock, half-tree, half-bomb defusing robot that is Arturo Vidal. As Chile has become the hipster’s choice of this Cup, Vidal has become the “guy you don’t know about but should.” He is strong and stout, capable of destroying would-be attacks with brawn and intelligent enough to snuff them out by superior positioning and anticipation. In attack, he uses the same combination to overpower and out-think defenses. Every time he and Luiz are within a few yards of each other, it’s going to be worth watching.

In the late game, Uruguay will be without the services of Luis Suarez, suspended for four months by FIFA and thus out for the rest of the tournament. They still have plenty of firepower up front with Edinson Cavani, who looked like the only Uruguayan really up for it against Italy earlier this week, and Diego Forlan, who despite his advancing years can still light it up for 90 minutes on the right day and against the right defense. Jose Pekerman’s team will focus their energy on containing those dangermen and getting the ball to their number 10, James (Hahm-Ez) Rodriguez, who’s been outstanding so far working off Teófilo Gutiérrez. Colombia certainly had the better group stage, but also had the benefit of playing considerably lesser teams than Uruguay.

The Netherlands look to open the scoring early on Sunday against Mexico. Though they looked suspect briefly against Australia, they have otherwise looked like the most complete team in the World Cup (with the possible exception of France). Despite what was considered an inexperienced and suspect back line (by yours truly as well as most observers in the months before the tournament) , they dismantled and dismayed Spain and put two past the very stout Chilean defense without conceding any. Mexico were thought to be lucky to be here, and indeed, they were only so through the grace of the US. But since qualifying, they have been on a tear. This is another match that should see some excitement and action, though Mexico can certainly become an overly defensive team if they get put under enough pressure. 

Sunday’s night game is likely to be the most dour affair of the second round, as neither Costa Rica nor Greece look to pour on the goals. Greece will continue its push to have soccer classified as a hate crime by placing everyone in a defensive crouch, relying on two and a half creative players to win free kicks in dangerous areas in order to score. Costa Rica won Group D, with wins over Italy and Uruguay before drawing England in a game that meant little to either team. Beating those two teams is something of an achievement (as is emerging from those games with 22 legs, 22 arms, and no bite marks) but no one seems to believe in the Ticos as real challengers. Beating Greece won’t change many people’s minds, but it will still put them in the quarterfinals. Costa Rica are also the only team who relies on a guy named Yeltsin.

By the time you go out for dinner on Sunday night, there will be 12 teams left in the tournament, and half the quarterfinalists will have been decided. That means that as much fun as this World Cup has been (Every team scored at least one! Even Greece!), it is swiftly drawing to a close. The next week should be a little cagier than the group stages, where a loss didn’t automatically put you on a plane (which, thank God), but there is still plenty to cheer and celebrate, and some moments of stunning quality yet to come. Enjoy the weekend and see you Monday.

Thank God Pepe Was an Idiot so the U.S. Could Advance, or WHOOO DID WE WIN THE WORLD CUP YET?

Sunday, I was ready to celebrate the U.S. advancing to the next stage of the World Cup. I was watching USA-Portugal at my favorite local, managing to get seats at the bar because I’m overly punctual and anxious. Portgual was looking if not worse for wear, at least potentially beatable. I was surrounded by perhaps a hundred rabid and drunk-since-brunch USA fans, a group that was made more fun by the addition of about ten unafraid Portugal fans.

It’s always more fun watching your side win when fans of the opposing side are nearby. Because schadenfreude.

Then Portugal score that first early goal against an uneasy U.S. side that was playing a new and uncomfortable formation* and all I could think was, “Okay, whatever, I’ll take the fucking draw.”

Then the U.S. came ahead, and I was ready. Ready to celebrate, ready to be relieved that the Group of Death was done. That Germany, despite their dominance (if weak backfield) wouldn’t even be a factor. We all were. Then the referee added five minutes** and this shit happened:

The whistle blew just seconds after, and we all left the bar. A night that could have been full of reverie turned to dejection. But, we drew! That’s all I wanted; that’s all we needed. But, dammit, now Germany was the wildcard, we all thought. If we drew, we’d all advance. That’s what mattered.

The good news: We advanced! But the bad news.

Were it not for Pepe being an idiot and getting himself a red card, we probably would not have advanced.

It was easy to think of Germany as the wild card in our group, but turns out, despite some hardships versus a strong-attacking Ghana side, they were definitely the dominant squad in the group. However, Portugal was nearly as good. Turns out, though, that Portugal was the wild card.

Team USA advances because despite being tied for points with Portugal (thanks to a lucky win against Ghana), Portugal lost huge against Germany. And Portugal lost huge to Germany because Pepe was a fucking idiot and left them one man down for most of the match.

However, as we saw Sunday, and some of us saw today, Portugal with a full team is a fucking tsunami. CR7 will get you when you’re not looking, and you’re often not looking because Eder or Nani are about to put the ball the net.  Basically, this:

But, thank our lucky stars Pepe was a fucking idiot whose antics let Germany score a ton of them in the first match.

This is all not to say the U.S. doesn’t deserve to advance. They’ve played some inspired soccer, even in today’s loss. If you watched the first half of the match and thought the U.S. didn’t have a chance of winning it all, then we had to have watched different matches. Strong passing, a defensive formation that was like unto a da Vinci drawing, and hard tackles, steals and runs were enough to make you believe.

It’s easy to say that Bradley seemed a little off, until you realize that it was fucking pouring almost the entire time and the pitch was almost flooded. I’d like to see how you handle the quick touches a center midfielder needs to handle in those conditions. Germany had the same troubles, but their play didn’t depend on the center of midfield as strongly. They also sucked on defense. 

But, despite an incredible U.S. defense, Germany’s offense managed to let one through, which seemed inevitable due to Germany maintaining possession of the ball on the U.S. side for most of the second half. That it was only one is a major testament to the back line and His High Holiness Timothy Howard.***

However, it’s hard to celebrate this achievement after losing the match. We were this close to advancing by winning, on a Sunday evening, and instead, we advance despite losing, at two o’clock in the goddamn afternoon while we’re at stupid work.

I’d like to think that had we won, I’d have just walked out the front door and into the nearest bar, ordered a double shot of Jim Beam, and removed my shirt, but I doubt it. I am, after all, kind of  an adult, and I need my job to pay the rent.

Doesn’t matter, though. We play next week, probably against Belgium. The final test of whether fried potatoes should be dipped in mayonnaise or ketchup. I’ll give you a hint: one of those is fucking disgusting.

* Still don’t know why the fuck Klinsmann thought a 4-5-1 was a good idea. I’m glad we finally settled into a more comfortable (and better fitting the personnel) 4-2-3-1.

** Has anybody figured out why so many matches have been getting so much stoppage time in this tournament? I mean, before this year, I’m not sure I’ve seen a handful of 5s in the hundreds of matches I’ve watched.

*** Despite not having the international superstars that many of the strongest teams have, we have a embarrassment of riches in the goal. As a Villa supporter, I can say that Brad Guzan, who’s along for the ride but will see exactly zero minutes of play, is nearly every bit as good as Howard, who is probably the best goalie in the world. Again, as a Villan, I’d love to see Guzan play a bit, but of course he won’t. However, Howard is 35, so this might be his last World Cup. Just know that Guzan is ready.

Update/Epilogue:

I didn’t even get into the refereeing, which was just terrible. Not sure if it was the conditions, or the particular ref, but the calls were in general terrible. It was evident right away, when in the opening minutes, a German player fouled a U.S. shirt, and the ref stopped play, even though Jermaine Jones had the fucking ball and was about to run up the field with it. Some of the bad calls also went to Germany, to be a little fair, but only to cover up the fact that he obviously had been paid off by Germany and turned around and bet the money on Germany.

I leave you with this, because it’s awesome and Dempsey’s been a hell of a captain of this squad:

 

On Omens and Destiny and Fate: US-Germany Preview

I woke up this morning to find that the air conditioner in my bedroom had leaked inside and bubbled the paint under the window. I took the dog for a walk, hoping to get coffee, and he stepped on my foot and sliced upon my big toe. The first coffee place had a line about 12 deep, and the dog doesn’t have that kind of patience, I was at the second spot for about two minutes, ready to place my order, when I saw him jumping at strangers and heard him barking. Walking home, coffee-less and in pain, wondering about how I would fix the AC, I got an email from work, informing me that a long-time parishioner is more ill than initially assumed. It was 10:30.

These are bad omens. These are harbingers of dark shit to come. Every obstacle, setback and disruption reminds me of one thing: Germany at noon. In moments, the USMNT will take the field against one of the best teams in the world, needing a draw to advance and a win to take first place in group G. If they lose, they need Ghana and Portugal to draw one another, Ghana to win by one in a low scoring affair or Portugal to win by less than 4 (I think). It will not be easy to beat the Germans, who field among the best attacking players assembled in this tournament, and play with a precision and intensity that the US will have to match. They cannot switch off for a moment, as they did in the 5th minute, and then again 90 minutes later, against Portugal. They cannot absorb a game’s worth of pressure, allowing Germany time on the ball to pick apart the weaknesses of the American defense, as they did against Ghana. To emerge from this group will be as difficult as we imagined it would be when the names were drawn six months ago.

I woke up to a shining sun, when it was supposed to have been raining. On our walk, the dog and I ran into an old friend from college, and had a nice chat. I had the opportunity to actually take the dog on a leisurely walk in less-than-oppressive humidity, not rushing to get home or back to work. I managed to find a parking spot across the street from the third coffee shop, and actually parallel park my way into it. I remembered to buy toilet paper.

These are good omens. These are signs that the stars have aligned for the US, and they are destined to get done what they must and live to play another day. They have a great chance to make it to the next round. The Germans have little to play for, and shouldn’t be expected to throw themselves fully into the attack, probably happy to allow their superior goal differential to carry them to the top of the group, or to get one goal quickly and sit on that lead. Ghana have, this morning, kicked Sulley Muntari and Kevin-Prince Boateng, two of their most creative players, off the team, which means they obviously won’t be in the lineup, and thus Ghana’s chances to beat Portugal are that much slimmer. And five goals are a lot to score, even for a team with Cristiano Ronaldo, even having seen what he can do when given the opportunity.

There are no omens. There are no stars aligning. There are simply possibilities and odds and opportunities. There is luck and there is chance, but there is no fate. There are four teams: each of whom can theoretically make it to the next round; each of whom can theoretically be on the next plane home. They are going to play the games, and we are going to watch (I hope you’re going to watch), and we are going to live and die with every kick, with every run, with every leaping save and towering header. And we will not know how it ends until it’s over.

Can the US win against Germany? They can. It would take a monumental effort from the entire US team, from Klinsmann on down, but it isn’t impossible. The US has played close with great teams in the past, and even beaten them. They have a team that is in great form and is coming together at just the right time. Cameron* and Besler, despite the former’s miscues, have proven to be strong, courageous and intelligent in the face of persistent attacks. Beasley and Johnson have proven adept at getting forward from deep, but never forgetting their duties at the back, probing weaknesses and stretching defenses while keeping their own line secure. Kyle Beckerman has been a rock, slipping in to the defensive line when needed and coming up to break up attacks when possible. Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley have both been our engines, and though neither (especially Bradley) has been perfect, they have demonstrated their ability to boss a midfield, to cut off passes and initiate offense. Graham Zusi has been a steady presence, finding space for himself and teammates, reliable on corners and free kicks. Clint Dempsey and Time Howard continue to be the on-field and spiritual leaders of this team, two players who expect the most of themselves and those around them, who wear their pride and confidence on their sleeves and who leave nothing of themselves on the field at the end of any match. These are the players who we have, and the players who we need, and the players who will take the field in a few minutes to try and claim victory.

I can’t predict this match, because the game is unpredictable even when it’s obvious. Any team can squander great opportunities, and any team can find the back of the net from the least dangerous places. But I will stick with this team. I like our chances with this team. They’ve brought us here and they may bring us further yet. If they play like they did for nearly 90 minutes against Portugal, we’ll be playing for a long time. If they can keep their shape and take their chances when they come, if they can be patient and wait for their moment, if they can read the game and react to what their given, Uncle Sam’s Army will be singing as the clock runs out and the whistle blows.

There are a lot of “ifs,” and some of them the team itself does not control, but of those they do, there is a chance. There is life in this team, and there is joy. There is dedication and there is preparation. There is so much to this team to like, that it will be devastating to watch them go home, to see it all come apart. But if it does come apart, it will not be because they have let us or themselves down. It will not be because they didn’t put everything that had into this tournament and into this team. It will be because that’s the way the world works. That sometimes your best isn’t good enough, and sometimes you can’t control everything around around you.

But when your best is enough, and when everything around you falls right into place, that is a feeling and a moment you hold onto and cherish forever. When you set the goal and reach it. When you clear the bar that no one thought you had any business setting for yourself in the first place, it makes the work and the setbacks and the difficulties seem like mere preparation for that moment. All the failures that preceded it only sweeten the success.

There is no soccer tomorrow. This is it. This is the game the US plays, and the players with whom it will play. This is the team we have, and the team we have come to love, in their failure and their success. There is no soccer tomorrow. But there may be more yet in the days to come.

*I guess we’re going with Gonzalez, which, oh. Klinsy has done everything else pretty much right, but Gonzalez was far more directly responsible for the Portugal equalizer than anyone else. Also, I have no idea what we’re doing with Brad Davis either. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

 

Stoppage Time Blues: Weekend World Cup Recap and Day 12 Preview

Teddy Roosevelt USA Fan World Cup

I had to work until 8pm on Sunday. It was a terrible oversight on my part, the result of planning six months ahead, and requiring me to miss out on watching the USMNT take on Portugal in real time. Aside from Nani’s 5th minute goal, following an absolutely calamitous attempted clearance by Geoff Cameron, I avoided spoilers. I listened to nothing on the hour-long drive home and turned my phone off, lest someone assume I hadn’t made the terrible decision of trying to remain gainfully employed rather than watch a soccer game.

As I approached my neighborhood, I realized that even without the radio or texts or social media, there was still one way that might find out the result before I got home and fired up the DVR. People: honest-to-God human beings, pouring out of bars and walking along the street in USMNT jerseys and American flag shorts, wearing soccer-ball hats and painted faces. Driving down South Street, I craned my neck out the window to look at them, to read their expressions, to deduce from their eyes and the corners of their mouths, how the team had done. All the work I’d put in to avoid hearing about the game went out the window when I saw them. They knew how the US had done. I looked at them and scrutinized them. Not happy faces. Not jubilant. There was no laughing and no cheering. Just blank expressions, as if they had tried on every manner of face and exhaustion was all that was left. Oh dear, I thought, this is not going to be a fun experience.

It was in this context that i sat down to watch. And I could not have been more wrong. This may have been the best 90 minutes of US soccer I’ve watched. The 2009 Confederations Cup win over Spain might have been more fun, taking down, as it did, the reigning European Champions. The 2002 match against Portugal in South Korea was more surprising, like a newborn able to speak in complete sentences. Indeed, let’s just say that the whole 2002 World Cup was something on the edge of disbelief. Those US games were less like watching your team win than wondering how a camel learned to sew an evening gown, but there it is on the red carpet all the same. The draw against Italy in 2006 was more an occasion to embrace American toughness and yell at Italian treachery (aided by an incompetent referee), and thus more “memorable” than “good.” Landon Donovan’s goal against Algeria in 2010 may be the finest moment that American soccer has produced, but the rest of the match was not exactly the kind you show to folks who don’t know or like the sport. The preceding match against Slovenia, though? That was a great one to watch with folks who didn’t know the game very well, but was entirely frustrating to those who did.  Any time we’ve beaten Mexico in a tournament or qualifying belongs on a list of great performances, but, honestly, we’re doing that more frequently now, so such victories have lost some of their shine.*

No, Sunday’s game against Portugal was simply one of the first times that it didn’t seem like the US was relying on grit and tenacity, fitness and physicality, to outlast a drastically more talented European power, but simply playing with and even outplaying a world class team with world class players. Granted, Portugal were missing two defenders, had their third choice striker on after fifteen minutes, and Cristiano Ronaldo was nowhere near full fitness, but we didn’t have Jozy, Clint Dempsey (PBUH) was certainly still ailing, and Matt Besler was also struggling with injury. You don’t necessarily get your best eleven at their peak in any given game, but you deal with what you have available.

On that score, Klinsmann and the Americans did great work. Fullback Fabian Johnson was actually more of a second striker than anyone in the midfield according to his average position, playing quite wide but just off Dempsey’s shoulder vertically.** That wouldn’t have been possible without Jermaine Jones and Geoff Cameron being available to cover the spaces that Johnson had vacated, and actually doing so with aplomb. Jones especially has been a revelation in this tournament, now that he isn’t fighting with Kyle Beckerman for his spot, or with Michael Bradley for who’s allowed to go forward. Klinsmann has come to realize that playing all three of these midfielders gives the US the best chance at competing in both halves of the field, and well worth the risk of losing one. They play together as if they’ve been doing so for far longer than five matches and complement one another’s strengths and weaknesses well.

Aside from Cameron’s miscue, there was little the US did wrong in the first or second half, and Jones’ goal was a long time coming, even if the commentary in my living room in its run up went a little (exactly) like this: “nononononono Jermaine, please don’t shoot from that far ou —– OH SHIT NEVERMIND HOLY SHIT WOW.” The US still relies a little too much on long-range shots from the edge of the danger zone for my taste, but with Altidore out and playing five midfielders who aren’t the most incisive passer or inventive runners, those shots look to be their best chance for success, lest they simply pass the ball into the knees of a stacked defense.***

Equalizing meant that Portugal, who really needed a win, needed to press the attack even more, which in turn opened up more space for the US. There were some great moments for both side in the attack in the second half, as Ronaldo became much more involved for Portugal and the US continued to move quickly on the break when the Portuguese attack broke down. Both defenses continued to make mistakes and wore down a bit in the heat and humidity, and neither really covered itself in glory. Ricardo Costa probably had Portugal’s best defensive moment when he kneed Bradley shot off the line, but that was the result of very shaky defending from everyone else in red; Tim Howard’s heroics continue, but his one-legged save was the result of an uncharacteristic failure on the first shot.

The Dempsey goal resulted from those forces combining perfectly for the US. The tired Portuguese defense couldn’t get the ball out of their own danger area, the keeper was completely out of position, defenders were unused to playing together and thus unsure of their responsibilities. The US used their speed down the flanks and put four midfielders in the box to overwhelm the opposition numerically, giving Graham Zusi plenty of time and space to essentially place the ball in Dempsey’s stomach. End result: crotch goal. Glorious, glorious, crotch goal.

Dempsey crotch goal against Portugal World Cup

At this point, I started thinking about those faces I saw. I thought about what mine looked like, eyes the size of dinner plates and a grin from ear to ear, and it certainly didn’t match the emotionless and exhausted ones I’d seen on the street. “Oh dear,” I thought again, “These last ten minutes are not going to be a fun experience.” Graham Zusi sauntered off like his girlfriend had asked him to pick up tampons and chocolate added a minute to stoppage time. Michael Bradley (FOR THE SECOND FUCKING GAME IN A ROW JESUS GET IT TOGETHER MICHAEL) gave up possession willingly and in a dangerous area in that extra minute. And Cristiano Ronaldo, for one beautiful, sublime and shining moment, played like the best (or at least third-best) player in the world, running at a stretched American defense, playing a rifled and perfectly placed cross such that Silvestre Varela needed to do nothing but continue to exist in that moment and inhabit a physical body subject to the laws of physics, to conjure a goal and rescue their hopes. Whistle. End of match.

I leapt up at the whistle. I had expected another Portugal goal that would not come. I thought those faces were the result of resignation and defeat, but they were truly just exhausted and deflation. The high of potentially winning the group, and having maximum points after two matches, crashed hard around them, and they wore it around after. But a draw! I still smiled and beamed. A draw means we’re tied top of the group, and the most likely results on Thursday are a draw with Germany or narrow German victory coupled with a slender Portuguese win, any of which see us through to the knockouts. Why aren’t people celebrating? Why aren’t they happy? Why were their faces fixed with gloom?

And, of course, it was because they hadn’t had the benefit of seeing their own faces. I can’t imagine how crushed I would have been by that 94′ minute if I hadn’t already expected it to come. I cannot fathom the words I’d have for Zusi and Bradley and Ronaldo and the referee and the third official who added the time. In the 81st minute, it was a glorious crotch goal that promised to deliver the US another spectacular victory against Portugal. In the 94th minute, it was a kick in the balls.

TODAY!

NOON: Netherlands and Chile play what could be more exciting than you’d imagine as the winner of this game actually manages to avoid Brazil in the next round. Look for two of the most exciting teams in a tournament surprisingly stocked with them to play for all three points, committing to attack and not settling for a draw. If you would rather keep tabs on whether or not Spain will have the worst ever run for a defending World Cup champion, see if they can get anything off of Australia. A win would save them from ignominy and a draw would probably see them mentioned in the same breath as France 02 and Italy 10.

4:00 Brazil are through and Cameroon are eliminated, so there’s not much in that, though even at half speed there may be some remarkable moments from the host team. Croatia need to beat Mexico to get through, while El Tri can survive a draw. Mexico sitting back and absorbing the Croatian attack might not sound like a lot of fun, but they are also a team that breaks quickly on the counter, so there could be some goals in this one and at least the result will matter.

ENJOY!

*SICK MEXICO BURN

** You can find that info here, as well as a ton of other stuff. I really suggest checking out all the different things on that page.

*** Remember the other day when I was talking about advanced metrics in soccer? Good. Here’s a primer on the relationship between shot location and goal scoring. You will not be surprised to learn that the closer and more directly in front of the goal the shot comes from, the more likely it is to go in. I know. Crazy.

Pepe Has a Case of the Mondays: Day Five Review/ Day Six Preview

An eventful Monday began just 10 minutes after noon, when João Pereira brought down Mario Götze in the Portuguese 18 yard box, conceding a penalty and drawing a yellow card for his troubles. A little over fifteen minutes later, Portugal’s striker Hugo Almeida grabbed his hamstring and exited the match, swiftly followed by another German goal — this tally from Mats Hummels — and then, well, J Reed covered this yesterday:

headbutt

What you can’t see from that angle is the referee staring directly at them as it occurs, nor the incident that preceded it, for which this was — presumably? — retribution, in which Thomas Mueller, goalscorer and headbutt recipient, may have embellished a foul around the edge of the box. Let’s reset here: Pepe, who plays on a team with Nani, João Moutinho,  Fábio Coentrão and Cristiano God Damned Ronaldo, became so irate at the notion of a player potentially getting a little theatrical in the even of contact that he ran over to him and threw his forehead into that person’s skull, under the watchful eye of a referee not 20 yards away.*

A college friend of mine once, in the middle of the night, knocked over all the plates in the dining hall, not out of anger or any particularly remarkable drunkenness, but merely because he “wanted to hear the sound they made.” A security guard happened to be sitting in one of the dark corners of the hall and immediately apprehended him, surrounded by shards of plates. When the administrator on duty came to investigate, our man, broom and dustpan in hand, looked up at her and said: “I’ve done a lot of dumb things in my life, but this is probably the dumbest.” He was wrong, by the way. He’d done much dumber things, and would carry on to do still dumber things in the future, but it was the dumbest thing he’d ever been caught doing. Pepe, pick up the plates.

Portugal was at a loss as to how they might free Ronaldo and Nani when they had eleven players. Once down to ten, it was only a matter of how close they could keep it. Mueller added a second before the half, and it looked for all the world that this match could end up making the Netherlands-Spain meetup look tense and cagey. Ronaldo didn’t exactly give up, as he still tried to take on defenders and create space for teammates, but his work rate certainly declined as the game wore on. Honestly, I’m not sure, down a man and three goals, why you’d keep an all-out attacker like CR7 on the field at all, except for ego. He’s human, and as yesterday demonstrated, humans can break.

The game ended 4-0, as Germany mostly tried to dominate possession and only went for goal when the stars aligned perfectly, and as they tend to when you’re playing with considerably more talent one to eleven and have a man advantage to boot. Germany look like they’ll coast to the top of the group, with three points and a +4 goal differential.** Mueller looks not to have lost a step from 2010 when he won the Golden Boot for most goals in South Africa, as he got his hat trick in this one.

PortugLOL, on the other hand, looked downright miserable and defeated even before Pepe went off. They didn’t seem to have a plan beyond pack the penalty area and then get the ball to Ronaldo and/or Nani in space. When those spaces closed up, as they obviously would when they fell behind, there didn’t seem to be a plan B. Ronaldo stomped and pointed at his teammates. Nani had a “hissy fit” so audacious and brazen that even the announcer called it precisely that, and then later stole the ball right off his own teammate running in on goal so he could shepherd it uselessly to the endline. None of this even mentions the certain loss of Pepe to suspension as a result of his red card, nor the likely injury-induced absence of Almeida and fullback Coentrão, who both had to be removed and look unlikely to be ready by Sunday. Missing two first choice defenders and their man up top, Portugal cannot rely on the counter-attacking strategy they had counted on until today.

Of course, the thing is, they may not have to. Ghana and the US proved to be nothing if not vulnerable at the back, and particularly outside. DeMarcus Beasley looked shocked to see people coming toward him, even though Ghana have pretty consistently buttered their bread from crosses flung in from out wide. In this analogy, Sully Muntari is a knife, the ball is the butter and Asamoah Gyan is the bread, except, really the goal should be the end result, so perhaps Muntari is a toaster who flings the bread at the butter (Gyan), and thus lightly caressed, lands on a plate/goal. That will do. Yes. On the other end Fabian Johnson was, in the latter stages of the match certainly, able to make some probing runs into the penalty area simply by showing up there.

Oh, and let’s not forget the reason for the season, Our Lord and Savior Clint Dempsey (PBUH), who rambled and rampaged through a Ghanaian defense apparently unaware that an opposing player was allowed to do that, only 34 seconds in. Behold:

clint-dempsey-ghana

Now that really is great work there, by everyone involved, even if we don’t get the whole build-up in that gif. The passing and spacing is incredible, and Dempsey puts three perfect touches on the ball once he gets it. The team was, from the opening whistle, playing as a cohesive unit that looked as if it had spent far longer than three weeks preparing for this match. Of course, they’ve known their opponent for months, so every friendly and every training session was devoted to getting a win in this match (and probably a draw against Portugal).

For the first twenty minutes, Ghana seemed a little shocked by the US strategy of allowing them space on the flanks in attack and then using the vacated areas to play the ball onto Altidore and Dempsey. The formation before the game was announced as a 4-4-2, with Altidore and Dempsey carrying the attack, and then a diamond in the midfield supporting a flat four. This was, as most formations are, a lie. Often, the US played in almost a 4-3-2-1 Christmas tree formation, with Jozy the star, then Bedoya and Dempsey, with Bradley, Jones and Beckerman shielding the defense. This gave Ghana room down the sides (as there was no width up top, the fullbacks could make runs up the field without worrying about losing the man they should be marking) when they were on the attack. But as the fullbacks came up, and the midfielders packed the central areas, they found no further comfort, playing the ball generally onto the feet or head of one of the seven men behind the ball.

At which point, the formation became something more like a 4-3-3, with one of either Altidore or Dempsey headed to where the fullback should have been and the other splitting the centerbacks, waiting to pounce on the clearance at speed and in space. This worked well enough, as Jozy especially found himself in some advantageous positio — oh

prayforJozt#prayforjozy

When he pulled up with an obvious hamstring issue, the entire game changed. Gone were the confidence and the effective runs into space. The US played much more cautiously and sat back even further. After winning the ball back, Bradley would even drop behind his own defense in order to restart the attack, which is a far cry from the whiplash movement of the first twenty minutes.

I’m not sure the US could have kept up their pace for 90 minutes even without the injury, but after it, they flipped the switch completely — no dimmer — and turtled up, sitting way back and allowing Ghana all of the possession and the lion’s share of goal-scoring opportunities, most of which were, blessedly, completely wasted. Packing the box (LOL) has its advantages, as it makes it much more difficult for opponents to find room to maneuver in front of goal, and less space in which to run onto cross unimpeded. Ghana’s game is not quick, close-quarters passing up the middle, but bombing down the sideline, throwing a cross toward the goal and then running up to the rebound at full speed and firing off a shot from 25 yards. Nothing the US did changed their gameplan or hindered it in the slightest. It was Ghana’s profligacy, recklessness and perhaps poor GPS that sent shots so far wide that Tim Howard barely bothered to watch them sail past.

This was not a tactical victory, nor — in all honesty — a deserved one. Substitute John Brooks, who only came on at the half because Matt Besler also came down with an injury, scored on a great corner kick after looking for all the world like he would give up twelve goals before he ever scored one. DeMarcus Beasley didn’t appear to have a grasp of his role, or else whoever was supposed to provide cover preferred to stay far away from the disaster zone. Bradley was, for the most part marginal, and there wasn’t a great player on either side for the whole match. Dempsey spent the last hour of the match struggling to breathe after getting his nose broken by a red-cardable kick to the face, but with Jozy already sidelined, there was no way to take him off.***

That said, it was a victory, and it puts the US in position to control their own path into the knockout round. They will face a wounded and desperate Portugal on Sunday evening, needing a win to salvage any hope of advancing. Whether this lights a fire under Ronaldo and Nani or turns the entire team into a fascinating dumpster fire remains to be seen. But the US cannot allow wingers like them the space and opportunity to create that they gave to Ghana. Even a disinterested Ronaldo, booking a week at Ibiza and shopping for new swim trunks on his phone while running at Beasley, would have more than likely put at least one in the back of the net against last night’s team. The US also needs to address the staggering number of injuries, nicks, knocks and general fitness malaise that struck them last night. They’ve likely lost Altidore for the duration, Dempsey won’t be full speed, Besler may or may not be fit, Alejandro Bedoya was grabbing at his hip, and several other players seemed to be cramping up at regular intervals.

So, the US needs to completely change its defensive shape and strategy while also getting some magical muscle elixir into the legs of its players. In five days. Though Klinsmann has always known Portugal was the second match, it seemed from the friendlies that he was concentrating on Ghana, to build confidence and secure the “easiest” opportunity for points in a stacked group. The group got a little less stacked with Portugal’s meltdown, but they remain a formidable opponent. A draw and the US is in amazing shape to progress, needing only to not lose to Germany by five more goals than Portugal beats Ghana, should that happen.**** It’s not impossible to believe that they can manage that, but they won’t get it if they play the way they did for the majority of the match last night. I don’t think Klinsmann would have chosen that path were it not for injuries, nor were it against Portugal, but I don’t know what other options are out there without Altidore’s hold-up play and Dempsey with half a nostril. The US has always relied on speed, toughness and stamina to compete against teams with more skill. Last night, all three of those took a hammering. The clock is running for Klinsmann to find a plan B.

Today!

Noon: Belgium have somehow put together one of the most complete teams in this tournament, despite no one ever giving a shit about Belgium. Jan Vertonghen (COYS!), Daniel van Buyten and Vincent Kompany are world class defenders. Eden Hazard is about as creative and deadly as they come, even after an up and down club season. Moussa Dembele (COYS!), Nacer Chadli (COYS!) and Kevin de Bruyne are well drilled in their roles and know how to play with one another in the midfield and up the flanks. Romelu Lukaku is one of the more sought after strikers in the transfer market, an up and comer who has already up and come a long way. They also have three other players in their starting lineup, none of whome play for Spurs (yet). They play an attractive brand of soccer that you would enjoy if the game weren’t on in the middle of the day, but you’ll get plenty of other chances to see them in this tournament and over the next few years, as they really blossom. Algeria have 11 players born in France in their squad, such is the continued horrific legacy of colonialism, though none are named Camus.

3:00 Hey! These teams have already played! Must mean we’re done with new teams! Marcelo is unlikely to gift Mexico a goal as he did for Croatia and exploding ham cart David Luiz will find more space in the open attacking scheme of Mexico. Gio dos Santos might find some room when Luiz starts rolling downhill, but the question is whether anyone will risk taking the ball off Luiz and if they’ll be able to see the tiny guy behind Paulinho and Thiago Silva. That said, expect Hulk (HULK!) and Neymar to have their way outside as a result of Mexico’s extremely narrow formation.

6:00 OH FOR FUCK’S SAKE MORE NEW TEAMS. Russia and South Korea will play a soccer game while you are hopefully taking your significant other out to dinner as an apology for scaring the dog both times the US scored last night, and his/her continued acceptance of your monopolizing the television. Or is that just me? Or you could just stay late at work and catch up on everything you missed today watching the first two matches. Either way.

*Upon which contact Mueller reacted theatrically again, because OF COURSE HE DID, that’s why you were mad in the first place you punch-drunk fuck-weasel.

** Goal differential serves as a tie breaker when two teams have the same point total from matches contested. Three for a win, one for a draw. So if Germany ends up on 5 points, which would mean one win and two draws, and so does — lets say — the US, then they would win the group with a +4GD to the US’ +1GD. It rewards teams that win handily and score goals, and is, over the long run, a mark of a superior team over a merely lucky one.

*** Can we now, finally, dispense with the “soccer players are nancy boys who fall over and cry whenever they get touched” nonsense. This is the second time that a US player has gotten the crimson mask in a World Cup game and stayed on until full time. In 2006, Brian McBride got the full force of Daniele DeRossi’s elbow, requiring three stitches and something just shy of windshield wipers to keep the blood out of his face, and stayed on. Yesterday, Dempsey took a shoe to the face that would have knocked each of us out, and just got some paper towels shoved up his nostril. Let’s all just agree: baseball players are the real sallies in sports, if only because golf is not a sport.

*** Of course, Ghana could beat Germany and Portugal, the US could draw both of its games, and they’d be on the outside looking in.

Follow wahurd on Twitter @hemingwaysgun.