Tuesday, June 30, 2009

More Evidence that Atlanta Sucks as a Sports Town, Confederations Cup Edition

Atlanta was the #6 market nationally for the USA-Brazil match. Atlanta isn't usually thought of as a great soccer market and it isn't as if there is a huge Brazilian population here. Maybe people here just like sports? NOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!

The Confederations Cup Final got a 2.7 rating, which is a good number. By way of comparison, Wimbledon got a 1.1 on Saturday afternoon and Fox's MLB broadcasts have failed to get higher than a 2.0 on six of the last seven Saturdays. This interest was not sufficient, of course, to get the Sports Reporters to pay attention on Sunday morning, as they were busy discussing Shaq to Cleveland, Don Fehr's legacy (steroids!), and Manny Ramirez (more steroids!). Mitch Albom made the rarest of perceptive points - that the fans he encounters just don't seem to care that much about PED use - and then the group went merrily along discussing the issue. That show does self parody better than most.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The "Holy S***, we're 2-0 up on the Selecao!" Impromptu Live-blog

We're playing like Brazil. I kid you not. The second goal was a carbon copy of Brazil's second against us in the group stage: turnover on the offensive right, leading to a lightning quick two-man counter that ends with the diminutive withdrawn striker knocking the ball home from 18 yards. Donovan and Charlie Davies were phenomenal in using one another on the counter. Brazil would be proud to score a goal like that. Any team in the world would be proud to score a goal like that.

As for the opener, it was a carbon copy of the third goal against Egypt: a great cross from Jonathan Spector that was finished by Clint Dempsey. The finish by Dempsey was incredible if he meant it or good fortune if not. Either way, the run and cross put the US in position to benefit from some luck. If Spector turns into an offensive threat at right back, then the US will have a great set-up. Barca are able to get so much offense from Dani Alves because they have a great defensive midfielder and a left back who can play like a central defender when the back four become a back three. With Bocanegra at left back, the US has the latter and with Ricardo Clark playing so well, we have the former.

I can't say enough about Bob Bradley right now. He is getting his tactics exactly right against: two lines of four working together to frustrate a favored opponent. And it's not just his tactics; it takes great instruction in training and during the game to get the two lines to work together so well. Watch how there is always an American player to cover for a teammate when Brazil tries to play a one-two or a player gets into shooting position.

Listening to Tim Vickery's segments on World Soccer Daily for the past two years has been a total education in terms of the way that Brazil play. They struggle to break down organized, defensive opponents (Read: France) because they don't have the skill in the midfield that marked Brazil's game through the Zico-Socrates generation. They are deadly against opponents that come forward and create space for the counter. (Read: Argentina.) They are dependent on offense from their outside defenders. As bad as our tactics were last week, they have been perfect today because we're staying back and we're paying attention to Maicon.

Min. 46 - Uh oh. Luis Fabiano gets the ball at the head of the box, turns, and fires home. 2-1. Great goal. I'm not sure that you can blame Jay Demerit. Maybe he could have been a smidge closer. Predictably, the pass into Fabiano came from Maicon.

Min. 52 - The US has a great counter, but Davies doesn't find the streaking Donovan and then Dempsey can't play in Altidore. Not the greatest first touches from the US.

Min. 56 - Great save from Howard on a header from a corner. Howard has been outstanding and I'm taking him for granted because the keeper position is the one where the US is undoubtedly world class. The defensive style only works with a good keeper and we have one of the best.

Min. 59 - I guess Howard making a save after the ball crossed the line is a great save. Brazil are getting chances off of crosses, showing that our defenders may be good in the air, but we aren't that good. Kaka should have had the equalizer there. Remind me again why FIFA won't put a chip in the ball so we can actually know when it crosses the line, not that a major tournament has ever been decided by a ball that didn't cross the line before.

Min 64 - We maintain possession in the offensive end for the first time in the half, leading to a couple good shots. Nice to see the Nats relieve pressure on the back line a little.

Min. 70 - Horrendous turnover by Bocanegra leads to Fabiano coming in one-on-one with Howard. Howard takes the ball off his feet. Howard is the man of the match if the US holds on.

Min. 72 - Great run by Davies foiled by equally great tackle by Luisao.

Min. 74 - 2-2. I guess it was inevitable the way the game was going. Too bad that Fabiano was there for the rebound because Robinho hitting the bar from three yards would have been one of the great misses of all-time. Great run and pass by Kaka, who beat Spector badly.

Min. 85 - 3-2. Great header from Lucio. Brazil have killed the US with crosses from the wing in this half. That's a difference between Brazil and Spain. Spain can be frustrated if they're forced to go wide; Brazil are big and athletic and have wing backs who can cross the ball beautifully. This game has the feeling of Spurs going two up at Old Trafford and then conceding five in the second stanza. Sometimes, a more talented team gets rolling and you just have to grin and bear it.

Min. 88 - Onyewu heads over from a corner. That could have been a massive reversal of fortune. Brazil are not totally solid defensively, but when have we ever not been able to say that?

Min. 90 - Fin.

Kudos to Brazil, who put on a clinic in the second half. I'm not sure how much blame to apportion out to the defenders for allowing Brazil to take potshots with headers off crosses. Also, the outside midfielders tired and allowed the Brazilian wing backs to dominate outside. At the end, Brazil had better players and once they got momentum, the game was headed in one direction. The US was a very streaky team in this tournament. When they were good (the first 45 minutes against Italy, all 90 against Egypt and Spain, and then the first 45 in the Final), they were very good. When they were bad (the second half against Italy, all 90 minutes of the first game against Brazil, and the last 45 minutes of the Final), they were very bad. The Nats tended to give up goals in bunches, which might speak to the team having somewhat fragile confidence. If I could play amateur psychologist for a second, our team is talented, but when something goes against them against a name opponent, they appear to decide "oh yeah, Italy are supposed to beat us" and then one goal allowed becomes three.

Although there is some sense of a missed opportunity, this has been the best week in US Soccer history. We dominated the African champions, beat the European champions, and then led 2-0 against the South American champions before succumbing. This is a young team, so we should be better next summer. Bob Bradley figured out how to play against teams like Spain and Brazil. Our players will hopefully have the confidence to make a mark in the coming World Cup. Happy days are here again!

Friday, June 26, 2009

BurritoBlogging with Radioactive Lint

I went to my first Braves game of the year last night and it was a blur of Jeter dunking singles to rightfield, followed by the swarthy masses applauding wildly. It was nice to have a dog at a ballgame like a real American, but it hurt to watch the staff ace get beaten around by the Yanks. And the weather just seemed to get hotter, even after the sun went down. The only good thing was that I was with a client who is a Yankees fan and I got to pretend that our firm got him 11 runs.

OK, so second and first with no one out in the fourth. The game is 0-0. We're facing a pitcher who shut us out six days ago. Friend of the blog Jeff Francoeur is up. Shockingly, he strikes out on four pitches, with the final strike coming from a wave at a pitch in the dirt. Why the f*** is he not bunting? He is one of the worst hitters in the league and we're in a pitching duel. If you're going to hit like a pitcher, then f***ing bunt like one.

And now Big Papi goes deep. If any baseball fan wants to make fun of me for loving soccer, justify a sport where a player like David Ortiz can barely chug his way around the bases. You have to be very charitable with the definition of "athlete" to include him.

I have a Steele-inspired post in my head and it is very simple: pick against teams whose coaches won the conference coach of the year in the preceding season. Proceed at your peril, Joe Paterno and Houston Nutt.

Jair Jurrjens is having a better at-bat in terms of working the count than Francoeur has had in weeks.

The nice thing about baseball in the South is that is is an hors d'oeurve. If this whole Braves thing doesn't work, we have the main course in September. Nice, low risk fun.

For the record, I want Barca to sell Eto'o to Man City and then buy Villa. Eto'o is a little too old and wacky to commit to in a long-term deal. Villa is a natural replacement and he wants to play with Xavi and Iniesta.

The lady next to me just ordered fish tacos. Control yourself, Beavis.

I want to like Yunel, but the goofs in the field are getting very frequent. He's Spanish for Josh Smith.

It's too bad that Big Papi has saved himself, because he is the only guy stopping New England from having the all-white Red Sox lineup that the fans of the last franchise to integrate prefer.

I'm bitter if you can't tell.

I'm wondering right now if the Nats are a good style match for La Furia Roja, but a bad match for La Selecao. And I'm worried that I screwed up the articles in that last sentence.

I am feeling better about the leftfield situation.

OK, Francoeur up with a runner on in a 2-0 game. And before I can even describe the at-bat, he grounds into a double play. Sox fans were considering benching Ortiz and he was never as bad as Francoeur. Christ, make him an icon at Gwinnett. He can be their Gattuso.

Crawford & Teague

It would be a good law firm, but I'm not sure how they would be as a back court.

There's not much to dislike about the Jamal Crawford deal. The Hawks got a good scorer for virtually nothing: Acie Law and the corpse of Speedy Claxton. The only way that this move turns out badly is if Law suddenly turns into a good point guard. Even in that unlikely event, the criticism will go to Mike Woodson for not handling a young player properly, rather than to Rick Sund for getting rid of a player who wasn't producing and wasn't getting minutes. The Hawks should know better than anyone else whether Law is ready for point guard minutes in the NBA.

Crawford is one of the more selfish players in the NBA, but he ought to fit in reasonably well with the Hawks. Atlanta does not need a conventional point guard to run a structured offense, break down defenders, and set up teammates. Whatever it is that Mike Woodson runs on offense does not require a true point guard. It requires a one with a good enough handle to bring the ball up the floor and then a good shot to punish opponents for doubling Joe Johnson. I don't love the idea of the ball in Crawford's hands too much, but if the offense is running through Johnson or if Crawford is running the offense under strict "don't do too much yourself" instructions, then he should be fine. If nothing else, he's a better version of Flip Murray. He's also a second player for the Hawks to use in the Johnson role in Woodson's beloved "Joe Johnson versus the world" offensive sets at the end of close games. Crawford is a streaky scorer, so by the final minutes, Woodson will know if he can be trusted with a big possession. When he's on, Crawford is at least as good one-on-one as Johnson.

As for Jeff Teague, I'm a little underwhelmed. A college point guard with 3.5 assists per game? A 1.1-1 assist/turnover ratio? I like the fact that Teague is described as having a great first step, the ability to finish, a good jumper, and the ability to get to the line. The positive spin on the pick is that an athlete like Teague will do better in an NBA offense, which tends to be less structured than a college offense. I also like the fact that his stock dropped after one bad game in the NCAA Tournament. (Cue another reference to the recency fallacy.) However, can he pass the ball? This seems like a relevant question for a point guard, no? After four years of "can he throw the ball accurately?" questions about Mike Vick, we ought to be concerned when a player is questionable at the most important skill for his position. In the end, I'm lukewarm on the Teague pick, but I like it more than the Acie Law pick and I'll freely acknowledge that it's hard to find a quality starter in the later half of the first round.

Overall, I'm fairly pleased with the Hawks' offseason so far. I'll reserve judgment until they have made decisions on Bibby and Marvin. The best news is that Atlanta Spirit traded for a player with two years and $20M remaining on his contract, so the fears that they weren't going to spend any money in the offseason have proven untrue. As between Bibby and Williams, I'd prefer that the Hawks spend their attention on signing the latter, but I worry in the back of my mind about leaving the guard portion of the roster full of nothing but combo guards. Then again, at this stage in his career without the ability to beat opponents off the dribble, is Bibby a true point? Marvin is a fungible player, but he did get better last year before the injury and he shouldn't be too expensive in this market. Plus, we can all forgive him for not being Chris Paul now that we finally have our Wake Forest point guard, right?

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Spain 0 USA...uh, er, 2?!?

The United States is in the final of the Confederations Cup. They followed an incredibly improbably passage from Group B with a solid victory over the best team in the world. I don't know where to begin, so I'm just going to start typing.

1. Don't say I didn't warn you about Sergio Ramos. I hated Bob Bradley's tactics against Brazil, but he got it right against Spain. Take it away, Eduardo Alvarez:

Let the record show that I texted a friend of mine as early as minute 15 of the first half asking him what Ramos was doing on the pitch. As explained earlier, the US gaffer decided to give him plenty of space offensively to exploit his back at the counter attack, and Sergio naively swallowed the bait. The US caught Spain's defence out of place at least four times until Altidore scored, in all cases because Ramos wasn't where he should.

The first goal came from exactly the sort of offensive play that works against Spain: a quick ball out of defense and up the offensive left side to take advantage of Ramos being forward. Charlie Davies (one of the revelations of the tournament for me) and Clint Dempsey played a nice one-two, drawing Pique and Puyol towards the play and away from Jozy Altidore. Dempsey then played the ball to Altidore, who spun away from his club teammate Joan Capdevila (kudos to John Harkes for correctly noting that Capdevila isn't the greatest of defenders) and scored.

And while we're on the subject of Villarreal players, the first goal also showed how much Spain misses Marcos Senna. Barca are able to get away with Dani Alves bombing forward because they have a great defensive midfielder (Yaya Toure) who can cover the vacated space. As Alvarez points out regarding his beloved Real Madrid, the Del Bosque teams of the early aughts were able to get away with Roberto Carlos getting forward because Claude Makelele could cover the space. Xabi Alonso isn't a true defensive midfielder. At Liverpool, he has Javier Mascherano to do a lot of the donkey work. Against the US, he was victimized by the interplay between Davies and Dempsey and thus allowed Dempsey to play a dangerous ball into Altidore.

2. After Brazil clobbered the Nats, I made the point that we should not expect our players to compete on a top level because they haven't showed that they can make their way into top club teams. So what happened yesterday? How do we explain the US winning 2-0 against three Barca players, three Liverpool players, two Real Madrid players, and a player from Arsenal, Valencia, and Villarreal? It's hard to fathom, so I'll just say that if Jozy Altidore could consistently pull off the move that he did in undressing Capdevila, then he would be playing regularly next to Giuseppe Rossi as an all-American strike force for the Yellow Submarine. Our players seem capable of achieving great things, but for some reason, they don't do so consistently for top clubs. Maybe a break-through is around the corner? Or maybe we just shouldn't read too much into a sample size of one, no matter how much we want to do so.

3. FIFA refs are punishing us for something. George W. Bush? Hiroshima? Their kids eating too much McDonald's and getting fat? The Jonas Brothers? I'm at a loss to explain how the US seems to be the only team in the tournament that gets straight red cards and typically for run-of-the-mill tackles. The U.S. will miss Michael Bradley in the final, as he played quite well from box to box.

4. It needs to be said: we were lucky yesterday. It's not every day that David Villa and Fernando Torres both sky their shots over from great positions. Spain easily could have gone into the break up 2-1, at which point the Nats would have been vulnerable chasing the game. The difference between a 2-0 win and a 4-1 loss might have simply been two of the best strikers in the world scuffing their chances.

5. Bradley got his defensive tactics exactly right. The US central defenders are strong in the air, but they aren't the fastest guys in the world. So what did Bob Bradley do? Pack his defense into the middle to prevent Xavi from passing his way through and therefore invite the Spanish to come down the flanks and send crosses into the box. Please throw Demerit and Onyewu into that briar patch. Spain's crosses were weak. Bradley's strategy also ensured that Sergio Ramos would keep bombing forward. Hell, I feel like more insults directed at Ramos...

6. Madrid, cabron... Spain won its first major tournament in 44 years after banishing Real icon (and noted bottler for Spain) Raul out of the team. Spain lost its next major tournament because Real right back Ramos gifted space to the US for the first goal and inexplicably tried to dribble the ball directly in front of his own goal to allow Dempsey to poke home the second. The second goal was the result of a mistake that most ten year olds know not to make. As if 2-6 wasn't enough humiliation, the hits just keep on coming for Franco's favorite team.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

If I were Bob Bradley

I like to think that I know something about the way that Spain play after having watch Barcelona upwards of 40 times this season. This might not be entirely accurate because there are going to be only two to four Barca players in the Spain side today. Xavi and Puyol are certain starters; Busquets and Pique are possibilities, although unlikely because Xabi Alonso will likely fill the defensive midfield role and Albiol will partner Puyol in central defense. Ideologically, there would also be criticism of conflating Spain and Barcelona:

With those caveats out of the way, the Spain and Barca play very similar styles, built around short passing and quick movement. (The Spanish term is tika-taka football.) Xavi is the fulcrum of both sides, spraying passes all over the place and allowing his team to monopolize the ball, thus protecting the defense. Both sides will press aggressively when they give the ball away so as to prevent the opponent from maintaining possession and running at the defense. Both sides have a rampaging right back who will generate offense down the right flank, but will also occasionally leave his team exposed defensively. Spain have more of an aerial threat through Fernando Torres, which makes them more likely to score on crosses; Barca are more of a threat to dribble through the defense through Messi and Iniesta.

The best blueprint for stopping the Barcelona/Spain style was demonstrated by Chelsea in the Champions League semifinal. If Guus Hiddink isn't going to coach the Nats, then we can at least learn from his game plan against the tika-taka style. Hiddink deployed three robust, physical defensive midfielders: Michael Ballack, Michael Essien, and John Obi Mikel. These three screened Chelsea's able back line and presented a big wall in front of Xavi and Iniesta, while also helping on the wings against Dani Alves, Messi, and Thierry Henry. Chelsea's midfield and defensive lines played close together to deny Barca the space to pass their way through.

The US doesn't have Chelsea's personnel, but Bob Bradley can mimic this approach:

1. Play two defensive midfielders. Ricardo Clark should be an automatic on the team sheet. The second option should probably be Jose Francisco Torres. This is not a game for Bradley to play his best 11. Long term, the future of this team is a Michael Bradley-Benny Feilhaber pairing in central midfield, but that pairing would get eaten alive by Xavi, Xabi Alonso, and Cesc Fabregas. Bradley should be playing in front of two defensive midfielders so he can be free to look for shooting chances at the head of the box, a la Frank Lampard or Steven Gerrard.

2. Keep the defensive and midfield lines close together. If Xavi gets space and time, this is what he will do:

Xavi had four assists in one game against Real Madrid, or two fewer than Cristiano Ronaldo had in the entire Premier League season. Real left space between its lines and was eaten alive. The Nats cannot play an expansive game where they leave players forward thinking about goals. All of the midfield will have to come back to help, both in the middle and on the flanks (especially the US left, where Jonathan Bornstein is going to be vulnerable. When the US gets the ball...

3. Get the ball to the left wing quickly. If the US is going to squeeze out a 1-0 result, the goal will need to come from a set piece (unlikely because we aren't going to have the ball that much and won't get many free kicks) or a quick counter catching Sergio Ramos forward. The one match up advantage that the US has is that it can put its best player - Landon Donovan - on the offensive left side to exploit a Spanish defensive weakness. When Spain relinquishes the ball, the American players will need to get the ball out quickly towards Donovan. Donovan can hopefully exploit space, make a run, and then find Jozy Altidore or Clint Dempsey (one of whom should be playing striker, not both) making a run into the box. I might lean towards playing Altidore in this game because his physical presence would allow the US to play a little low-risk longball.

I'll be very interested when I watch the game to see how Bob Bradley adapts his tactics to play against a superior opponent. He has to do better than he did against Brazil, when his horrendous team selection opened the US to be carved apart. He has to resist the urge to think that the US can play the same against Spain as we did against Egypt. The odds are against the Nats, but after beating 9,000 to one odds on Sunday (I significantly underestimated the odds in my last post), nothing's impossible.

Monday, June 22, 2009


Going into yesterday's games, the US needed a three-goal win over the reigning African champions (Africa is generally considered to be the third-best continent for football after Europe and South America; North America and Asia are in some unknown order behind those three) and they needed the holders of the World Cup to lose by at least three goals against Brazil. The odds on those two events happening had to be in the neighborhood of 200:1. So naturally, Brazil put three past a hapless, aging Italian side in the first half (what did I say about the Brazilians effectiveness on the counter?) and then the US beat Egypt 3-0 to secure a place in the semifinals of the Confederations Cup. We progressed from a group containing Italy and Brazil. Swirl that around in your mouth for a moment.

The outstanding performance yesterday doesn't completely erase the weak second half against Italy or the horrendous 90 minutes against Brazil, but it does show what this US team is capable of. Sometimes, a team will win 3-0 because it got an early lead and then exploited an opponent forced to take serious risks. Yesterday's game was different because, in light of the result in the Italy match, Egypt just had to avoid getting hammered. Thus, the US won 3-0 against an opponent that was trying its best not to lose by that margin, rather than against an opponent that threw caution to the wind.

A few conclusions from the match:

1. It seems to me that Bob Bradley's coaching mindset is dictated by the fact that the US plays in CONCACAF against weaker opponents. He's used to coaching with superior players, so he deploys a relatively offensive formation to prevent the possibility of a 0-0, 1-0, or 1-1 result determined by the odd chance. That strategy was an utter disaster against Brazil, but it worked against an Egypt side missing several of its offensive stars. It was perfect in a match where the US had to win and win big. To me, it's ironic that a number of people want to replace Bradley with Jurgen Klinsmann, a coach who just got fired at Bayern Munich for throwing caution to the wind too often.

2. Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore are an either-or proposition. Dempsey is a waste in the midfield, but he's a good finisher. Bradley needs to play one on Wednesday, but not both. If I were Bradley, I'd use the Liverpool 4-2-3-1 with Dempsey as the striker, Bradley in the Gerrard central midfield role, Donovan on the left, and...I'm not sure who on the right. Charlie Davies? The outside attacking midfielders have to be prepared to track back to help the fullbacks. I like the idea of Donovan in an advanced left position to take advantage of Sergio Ramos getting too far forward. I would also make absolutely certain that Ricardo Clark and a friend are playing defensive midfield to present an obstacle to Xavi and Cesc. Speaking of which...

3. You see how important a competent defensive midfielder is? Ricardo Clark was on the pitch for 34 minutes against Italy and the US looked good. After his red card, the US gave up three goals. The US was then overrun against Brazil when they played without a proper defensive midfielder. I'm not saying that Ricardo Clark is the second coming of Claude Makelele, but he was certainly a major difference yesterday because his solid work gave Michael Bradley the freedom to get forward.

4. Holy cow, was Jonathan Spector's cross for the third goal great or what?

Friday, June 19, 2009

We're Just Not That Good

If you're a masochist and a US soccer fan, here are Jeff Carlisle and Grant Wahl on the game, as well as the player ratings from Goal.com. I have two basic thoughts on that thumping:

1. What in G-d's name was Bob Bradley doing? Generally speaking, an underdog in soccer will try to play defensively. By doing so, it will reduce the number of chances that both teams will get and therefore increase the odds of an anomalous result. (Soccer isn't the only sport in which Davids needs to reduce possessions to beat Goliaths.) A conservative strategy is especially important against Brazil because Brazil struggle mightily against defensive sides. One of the great myths in world football is that Brazil still play Jogo Bonito. Brazil haven't played that way for years. Instead, their current style is to play with two center backs shielded by two defensive midfielders. They generate offense from the wing backs while playing conservatively in the middle. Brazilians are extremely successful in the major European leagues in just about every position, but you'll have a hard time finding a great Brazilian central midfielder (and no, Gilberto Silva is not and never was a correct answer). Brazil struggle to create offense against massed defenses, but if you give them time and space to counter-attack, they'll beat you to death with their wing backs bombing forward. Their second goal yesterday is a perfect example of a modern Brazilian goal. Hell, for that matter, the first goal was a great example as well because the Brazilians have emphasized athleticism over skill in recent years, so they've become very good at out-muscling opponents on set pieces.

(An aside: Brazil-Spain would be a fascinating game on a number of levels. Spain play the Jogo Bonito game that Brazil used to play: short passing, constant movement, and total control of the ball. However, their style will also create space for Brazil to counter. The two team's styles mesh nicely, which ought to create the conditions for an outstanding game. Also, Spain are not the biggest team, so Brazil's physical power could create problems for them. Finally, Puyol will get his first chance to kick the s*** out of Kaka.)

In light of Brazil's style, which has been evident for years and is especially pronounced with the unimaginative Dunga in charge, Bob Bradley's obvious choice was to play defensively and look for a goal on a counter. Instead, he elected to play a 4-3-3 that exposed the US's vulnerable fullbacks to Maicon on the right. He played Sasha Kljestan, an attacking midfielder, in the central midfield role when the game was screaming for defensive midfielders. Does he think that we're Spain or Germany and can go toe-to-toe with Brazil? Is he mad? Bradley had an excellent record in MLS, but he doesn't seem able to manage when his players are inferior to those of the opponent (not that the list of such managers is very long).

2. The result shouldn't surprise us. As mad as I want to get about the US getting undressed by an unremarkable Brazil side, I just can't because rationally speaking, it is the expected result. American players just aren't that good. If you don't follow European soccer, here's a brief primer on the US starting XI from yesterday:

Tim Howard - successful goalie for a major club in England

Jonathan Spector - cannot find the field for West Ham, a mid-table club in England

Jay Demerit - starts for a second division side in England

Oguchi Onyewu - starts for Standard Liege in Belgium; failed on a trial at Newcastle

Jonathan Bornstein - starts for Chivas USA in MLS

Michael Bradley - starts for Borussia Mönchengladbach, a club which barely avoided relegation in Germany

Sacha Kljestan - starts for Chivas USA in MLS

DeMarcus Beasley - cannot find the field for Rangers in Scotland

Clint Dempsey - starter for Fulham, a team that just finished an impressive seventh in the EPL

Landon Donovan - failed on both forays to the Bundesliga; stars for the LA Galaxy

Jozy Altidore - couldn't get on the field for Villarreal or even second division side Xerez.

Other than Tim Howard, the US doesn't have a single player who starts for a major European club. The starting lineup is full of players who made little or no impression in Europe (Donovan, Altidore, Beasley, Onyewu, and Spector) or who are playing well for lesser European sides (Demerit, Bradley, and Dempsey) or an MLS side (Kljestan and Bornstein). Honestly, what do we think would happen when these players ran up against Kaka (2007 world player of the year; just moved between two of the biggest clubs in the world for a then-record transfer fee), Julio Cesar (arguably the best goalie in Serie A), Maicon (the best right back in Serie A), Lucio (stalwart for Bayern Munich), Luis Fabiano (star striker for Sevilla, the third place team in La Liga), and Robinho (4th leading scorer in the EPL for Manchester City)?

We want the US to do well, but can we really expect it when our players cannot make a big impact abroad? I think we're deluded by our success in CONCACAF. We think that winning the Gold Cup and qualifying with ease for the World Cup means that we can compete internationally, but it's really a miracle that we do as well as we do against Mexico. There is no American equivalent to Rafa Marquez (starter for two Barcelona sides that won the Champions League) or Ricardo Osorio (starter for the Stuttgart side who won the 2006-07 Bundesliga), not to mention the fact that the Mexican League is stronger than MLS (as evidenced by the strong performances of Mexican teams in the Copa Libertadores). The poundings that the US often gets when it leaves CONCACAF ought to be a spur to change something. I don't pretend to know what that something is.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Pepidemiology, National Teams Edition

I am an absolute sucker for lists like this. Of all of ESPN's triumphs in their superlative coverage of last summer's Euros, showing the national anthems before the games was the greatest. College football and international soccer have a number of common elements and one of the major ones is that they have pageantry. Honestly, can you ever remember that word being used to describe an MLB, NFL, or NBA game?

My only quibble with the list is the omission of "G-d Save the Queen." Though I root against the English and revel in their biannual humiliations, they have the best national anthem of the lot. It's short, it's got great long notes, and it's eminently singable while drunk.

If you want to know why central defenders tend to be team captains and icons, look at how Ferdinand and Terry belt this song out.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Spring Training for Mandel's Return

I don't know where to begin with this paragraph from Andy Staples:

I made it pretty clear in the first sentence of the second paragraph I didn't think the textbook issue merited a serious penalty, but considering 'Bama's recent history, it's no surprise some thought the NCAA should come down harder. My point was the NCAA probably will never again drop the hammer on a program as financially critical as Alabama or -- wait for it, Mike -- USC. Florida State, another key program, recently received a minor scholarship reduction and had to vacate wins for a case of widespread academic fraud. That's far more serious than athletes getting textbooks for friends, but the penalty wasn't much worse. The only reason Florida State challenged any part of that penalty is because the wins in question belong to Bobby Bowden.

I'm going to be a little subjective here, but how in the world was Alabama going to get serious penalties for its players giving free textbooks to other students? On the continuum of sanctionable activity, that is very close to the "who cares?" pole. In contrast, the allegations against USC are that Reggie Bush received massive amounts of improper benefits from an agent and that USC willingly turned a blind eye to his relationship with the agent. These allegations, if true, are a lot closer to the "you dirty bastards!" end of the scale.

What Staples is saying is that a rapist can expect a light sentence because a guy who was caught driving on a suspended license didn't get 20 years. I'm not sure if Staples is making a prediction about the NCAA's behavior (in which the blame should go to the NCAA for picking on Alabama and ignoring USC [although I'll admit that the NCAA does face evidence collection issues with USC]) or if he's saying that it's a good thing that no major program will ever be punished severely (in which case Staples is foolish). Personally, I don't dislike USC because I like seeing quality defense and because they give me great pleasure one Saturday every fall by humiliating Notre Dame. That said, if the Yahoo! articles about USC are correct, the Trojans deserve to burn, regardless of the fact that they are a valuable commercial property.

And then there's this pair of gems:

The way all of this is going, it seems highly unlikely the NCAA will severely punish USC even if all the accusations against Reggie Bush prove true. I'm guessing a poo-poo platter of scholarship reductions and vacated wins. If the NCAA finds evidence Bush was ineligible during the 2004 season, USC could be forced to vacate that season's BCS title. But guess what? No one will have to give back their rings, and the Trojans still thumped Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.

First of all, it's a pu pu platter. Chinese cuisine did not become ubiquitous in this country because of a prevalence of feces-based dishes. Second, the NCAA cannot force USC to give up a BCS Title because the NCAA does not award the BCS title, just like the NCAA cannot force Reggie Bush to surrender his Heisman because it does not give out the Heisman.

And Now, for the Sports Radio Take on the Braves, here is Jeff Schultz

So, the Braves find themselves three games under .500 with two of the worst corner outfielders in all of baseball. So whom does Jeff Schultz blame for the team's demise? All of the team's "next wave":

On Sunday, Yunel Escobar botched a double play and a run-down play in the first two innings, leading to several runs at Baltimore. Braves manager Bobby Cox became so incensed that he benched his starting shortstop — in the third inning — and later referred to him as lackadaisical.

It was right about this time when I started wondering: “Is there some reason why Jeff Francoeur is the only Brave who is central to trade rumors?”

Yunel Escobar is currently third among NL shortstops in VORP. Kelly Johnson is in a dreadful slump, but last year, he finished fourth among NL second basemen in VORP. Jordan Schafer has all of 195 major league plate appearances upon which we can judge him. Jeff Francoeur is dreadful this year, he was dreadful last year, and anyone who knows the importance of the ability to tell the difference between a ball and a strike knows that Francoeur will continue to be dreadful until he learns this skill (a rare, but possible occurrence). If the question is whether the Braves should trade Escobar, Johnson, or Schafer as opposed to Francoeur, then the only argument in favor of that proposition is that the former three players have trade value, whereas Francoeur does not. I don't recall the Padres being interested in Francoeur during their trade discussions with the Braves this winter. Escobar was the apple of their eye and that was before Francoeur repeated his horrendous 2008 with an equally bad 2009.

What bothers me about Schultz's analysis is that he gets carried away with irrelevant data. Yunel Escobar is a good hitter who has made a couple more errors more than the average major league shortstop. He made a few mental goofs last week, but that should be compared against a sample size of hundreds of at-bats and fielding chances. Schultz uses Escobar's benching on Sunday to make a ten-cent moral judgment. It's easy to point the finger and say "that's the bad guy"; it's not as easy to actually look at the massive sample size of data that we have for major league players and make judgments based on that.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Revisiting the Joy of Spotting Overrated Teams

For a few years, I had something going with the Charles Rogers Theorem. With seeming scientific accuracy, I could write a column before the season in which I would spot teams that would finish well below their preseason rankings by looking at two factors: (1) a disparity between returning skill position and line talent; and (2) a hot finish obscuring average results over the first ten games. Then, the Theorem spit out Florida in 2006 and Georgia in 2007. Florida won the national title in 2006 and Georgia finished #2 in 2007. If the available evidence disproves a hypothesis, then the hypothesis ought to be retired.

Orson's post on the consensus preseason top ten sent me in a new, simpler direction: just pick the non-traditional powers in the top ten and confidently assert that they are overrated. Doesn't that accomplish what the Charles Rogers Theorem purported to do? Wouldn't that have caught Michigan State in 2002, Auburn in 2003, and Clemson just about every year?

The trick is identifying the elite of college football properly. For instance, one would have to have spotted quickly that Florida State and Miami had departed that category at some point in the first part of the decade. One would have to decide whether Alabama is now in that category or will be joining in the next season or two. Is Virginia Tech an elite program or merely a good program swimming in a shallow pool? Was West Virginia elite when Rich Rodriguez was there? (Could they ever be elite with their recruiting base?) And what about Notre Dame? They certainly fit the definition of traditional power, but they haven't played like one since Lou Holtz's heyday.

However, if you identify the elite properly, then picking overrated teams is easy. Pollsters start to struggle after their first five picks, so they start scraping for teams that will make their preseason polls look interesting. This year, those teams are Ole Miss and Oklahoma State. Last year, those teams were Missouri, West Virginia, and Clemson. In 2007, it was West Virginia, Louisville, and Wisconsin. In 2006, it was Notre Dame, West Virginia, Auburn, and Florida State. On that list, do you see many teams that met expectations, other than the White/Slaton/Rodriguez Mountaineer teams?

The thinking behind this new theory is fairly basic. The elite programs compete with one another to sign the top high school talent. To varying degrees, their rosters are full of it. The programs in the next tier down have talent, but not on the same level. Thus, they are more vulnerable to injuries over the course of the season. They are vulnerable to the phenomenon of good players playing above their talent levels for a period of time and then coming back down to earth. They are vulnerable to having their average defenses finally catch up with them.

I'll freely admit that this new theory has a definitional problem: which programs are truly elite? Which programs are joining that category and which ones are leaving it? The theory also needs a cool name, maybe something from C. Wright Mills' oeuvre? As basic as it sounds, it does seem fairly useful.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Tommy Gregg was Better

I've gotten to the point where I get angry every time Jeff Francoeur comes to the plate. I'm resigned to the fact that this Braves team is pretty good, but nothing special. However, I feel my blood pressure start to rise when Francoeur comes up. He seems like a nice guy who is popular in the clubhouse, but I struggle to come up with examples of athletes in any sport who are so bad at their basic job functions and yet continue to get the opportunity to suck.

Right now, Francoeur is 145th out of 150 players in terms of VORP among NL position players with 100 or more plate appearances. By that statistical measure, he has cost the Braves 6.9 runs as compared to what a replacement level player would produce. If you prefer OPS, he is 80th among 89 qualifying NL position players. This comes on the heels of a season in which he was 133rd out of 134 players in terms of VORP among players who got 324 plate appearances.

Jeff Francoeur is the equivalent of a pitcher with an ERA north of seven. For instance, Francoeur had a VORP of -16.9 last year, meaning he cost the Braves 16.9 over what a replacement level player would have done. By way of comparison, Greg Reynolds of the Rockies had a VORP of -16.8. His ERA was 8.13. This year, Brad Lidge has a VORP of -6.7, which is comparable to Francoeur's number. Lidge's ERA is 7.27. If Francoeur had an ERA starting with the number seven, there is no way in the world that he would get the ball every fifth day for one season, let alone a season and then the first two months of the next. The fans in Atlanta (yes, even Atlanta) would go bananas if Francoeur were a pitcher, getting torched every day. Because we don't get upset about position players making outs in the same way that we do pitchers failing to get outs, the necessary pressure has not been applied. Thus, Bobby keeps trotting out one of the worst players in the Majors with apparently no thought to benching him or even platooning him.

And I think I'm about to say something that I never, ever, ever thought I'd say: where is Terence Moore when we need him? When evaluating the inexplicable patience afforded Francoeur, the facts that he's good-looking, local, and white have to be considered. The Braves do have to deal with a somewhat tepid fan base in Atlanta, one that was spoiled by success for 14 years. I see how they might have some reticence in dealing harshly with Gwinnett's finest. But for the love of G-d, how many more rallies must our rightfielder butcher before someone, anyone, gets a shot in right? How many more opposing pitchers are going to get to pitch an extra inning because one Braves hitter always hacks at their first offering? Frank Wren, you had a good week last week. Let's build on it.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

An Outfielder! With an Actual Bat! That Hits!

One of the nice things about the Braves' 26-26 start has been that the team has had defined strengths and weaknesses. The pitching is quite good, both in the starting rotation and in the bullpen. The infield, when healthy, has also been good, with Casey Kotchman being an especially pleasant surprise. The outfield has been abysmal. Thus, the solution to push the team into contention has been obvious. Frank Wren has been presented with a situation that does not require much thought.

Enter Nate McLouth. Last year, the Braves' outfielders hit 27 homers; McLouth hit 26. This year, the Braves' outfielders have ten homers; McLouth has nine. McLouth has seven stolen bases; no Brave has more than two. McLouth has a .349 on-base percentage; the starters to his left and right are at .288 and .275, respectively. Nate immediately becomes the best outfielder on the team and closes one of the three gaping holes in the lineup. If Garret Anderson's recent uptick is sustainable (unlikely), then we are down to one big hole. I'm not holding out any hope for Jeff Francoeur, who managed to strike out tonight in a 2-1 game in the 6th with the bases loaded on a pitch that was, I'm not kidding here, two feet inside. And low.

McLouth is also signed through 2011 with a team option for 2012, so this is not a one-year rental like Mark Teixeira was. If Jordan Schafer works through his issues and Jason Heyward continues to progress through the minors, the Braves will have an excellent outfield in 2011...just in time for the pitching to collapse, one would assume. As for the guys the Braves gave up, Charlie Morton was a decent prospect, but 25 is a little late for a pitcher to be waiting for his breakout season. Morton was behind Tommy Hanson and Kris Medlen on the pitching depth chart, so the Braves were dealing from a position of strength. Gorkys Hernandez is behind Schafer on the depth chart, so he was going to be traded at some point. Jeff Locke was having a rotten year at Myrtle Beach, so the Braves are reasonable in throwing him into the deal.

The McLouth deal puts the Braves closer to becoming a good team. In contrast, the decision to release Tom Glavine has no effect on the team's performance this season. Glavine was pitching reasonably well at AAA, but he was allowing a significant number of runners, so there's no reason to think that he would get major league hitters out. Any inning he threw would be an inning that wouldn't go to Hanson or Medlen, so denying Bobby the chance to roll out a veteran is probably a good decision. That said, the decision to sign Glavine, pitch him in Rome and Gwinnett, and then release him after throwing 11 shutout innings is shabby. It's the right baseball decision, but it's no way to treat a guy whose jersey you're inevitably going to retire. If the Braves were not going to pitch Glavine this year, then they should not have signed him in the first place to get his hopes up that he would have a swan song at the Ted. If I were him, my first call would be to Ruben Amaro because the Phillies need pitching and that would be the best way to stick it to Frank Wren. Frank had a good day in terms of the on-field product, but a bad day in terms of public relations. In a somewhat fickle major league market, that's a problem.

Fussing at the Margins

Paul Westerdawg has an interesting post up about Georgia's struggles at kicking off. While he makes a good point that Georgia's directional kicking is a poor strategy, he goes a little far at the outset of the post:

Football isn't a game of yardage. It's a game of field position. That's why hidden yardage (non-offensive and defensive stats are so critical). Field position is also driven by those less obvious / hidden stats such penalty yards per game, punt/kickoff returns and coverage and turnovers allowed and created.

Thank you, Jim Tressel, but allow me to retort. Football is a game of yardage. The objective is to be very good at moving the ball and stopping the opponent from doing them same. Everything else is secondary. There are games that are decided by field goal kicking, punt coverage, or penalties, but these games are far rarer than games that are decided because the winner is better at moving the ball and stopping the loser from moving the ball. Florida was very good at moving the ball and stopping their opponents from doing so. That's why they won. Does anyone remember how good they were at punting or kicking field goals, as opposed to scoring at will on offense?

Look at the chart that Paul uses to illustrate the importance of kickoff coverage. Two teams were clearly the best in the SEC at kicking off: Kentucky and South Carolina. Those teams combined to go 14-12. Florida won the national title while finishing 6th in the SEC in kickoff coverage. Alabama won the West and finished seventh in that department. Their totals were not far off from Georgia's. If one is looking to explain Georgia's disappointing 2008, kickoff coverage is not the place to start.

If you want a relevant stat to describe Georgia's issues in 2009, look at the 4.97 yards per play they allowed, which placed the Dawgs eighth in the conference. Alabama and Florida finished second and third in that category, behind a Tennessee team that was completely undone by its offense. Georgia was not very good at stopping opponents in 2008, hence the three losses. Looking for other explanations is interesting for off-season discussion, but we shouldn't pretend that Georgia finished behind Florida and Alabama in the SEC because Georgia opponents started drives after kickoffs on the 29, whereas Florida opponents started on the 27 and Alabama opponents started on the 28. That's a little like a Braves fan fixating on the team's bunting or stolen base percentage allowed as opposed to an outfield that cannot produce offensively.