Wednesday, June 28, 2006

To Paraphrase James Carville in Old School...

this is brilliant. I have nothing else to add. It's a perfect evisceration of the announcers that ESPN and ABC have deployed for the World Cup, as well as their flawed method of covering games that comes from their crappy work cluttering American sports telecasts. Just read it.

Would It Kill You to Read a Box Score, Bill Simmons?

Predictably, Bill Simmons thinks that the Hawks are making a mistake by drafting Shelden Williams. Here's his reasoning:

They made a promise to Shelden Williams here. Everyone swears it's true.

WHAT THEY SHOULD DO: Here's my question: Why promise a guy with no chance of going in the top four that you'll take him fifth? Are they trying to distract everyone from last year's Chris Paul/Marvin Williams and Boris Diaw debacles with a fresh dose of idiocy? And how could you possibly take Williams over Thomas when Thomas killed him in the NCAAs? It's just common sense.

WHAT THEY WILL DO: Exercise a complete lack of common sense. One mitigating factor for Hawks fans: My dad loves Shelden Williams; he's my dad's favorite player in the draft. He's adamant that Williams will be a 20-10 guy. We'll see.

THE PICK: Williams.

He's right that it makes no sense to make the promise to Williams, but that's a peripheral point. As to Tyrus Thomas "kill[ing]" Williams, here are their stat lines for the game:

Williams: 23 points, 13 rebounds, four blocks
Thomas: 9 points, 13 rebounds, five blocks

I know that Simmons likes to make sweeping generalizations as to the NBA futures for various players based on the one game he sees in the NCAA Tournament, but would it be too much to ask for him to actually get that one game right? And if he's going to overrate the importance of NCAA Tournament games, then how does he ignore Thomas' sterling line in the loss to UCLA in Indianapolis: five points, six rebounds, three blocks?

And isn't Simmons' draft philosophy supposed to be that NBA teams should take proven college production over potential? Wasn't that his reasoning for advocating for Jay Williams over Yao Ming? Or to advocate on behalf of Luke Walton? Can't it be used now to explain why it was a mistake to let Dwyane Wade slide to the 5th pick in the Draft after he took Marquette to a Final Four? With that reasoning, how can he claim that it's a huge mistake to take a player who averaged 19/11/4 as a senior after a similarly productive junior year over a player who redshirted (warning sign, perhaps?) and then averaged 12/9/3? And that's before we get to the fact that Thomas is redundant with Josh Smith, whereas Williams plays a different style than anyone else on the roster. But hey, why make arguments based in logic or fact when you can recycle the same old jokes about Boris Diaw and Chris Paul?

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

"Maybe next time I'll learn how to dive." - Thierry Henry, May 17, 2006

You've proved Aragones half right. You are a shit, Thierry. You dove to draw the winning free kick. You initiated contact between your chest and Puyol's elbow and then proceeded to act as if you'd been punched in the face. And you and your coach had the gall to lecture the world about the right way to play football last month. Enjoy being Chelsea's bitch.

(If you can't tell, my three teams have all been knocked out and I'm bitter bitter bitter.)

The Antonio Davis Comparison

Sekou Smith makes the point today that Shelden Williams turning out to be another Antonio Davis would be a waste of the #5 pick in the Draft. That's wrong on two levels because Davis wouldn't be a bad end result for a player taken at #5 and because there are strong indications that Williams is a better player than Davis.

Smith criticizes Davis on the basis that he has averaged 10.0 points and 7.5 rebounds over the course of his NBA career. However, those numbers are deflated by the fact that he has hung on too long and has thus dragged his averages down significantly. In his prime (ages 31-34), here are his PPG/RPG averages:


And why did Antonio Davis hang on too long? Could it be the five-year, $60M contract he signed in the summer of 2001? Apparently, someone thought that he was an above-average player.

And why would we necessarily be surprised that Davis was a 10/7 player in the NBA, since he averaged 10/8 his senior year at UTEP? If college numbers are an indicator of pro success, then shouldn't Shelden Williams' 19/11 imply that he's going to be a better player than Antonio Davis? And that's before we get to the fact that Williams is an excellent shot-blocker, which is a skill that Davis has never really shown. It's that defensive skill that makes him non-fungible and therefore worthy of a high pick. Davis is more aptly compared to Zaza Pachulia, a tough rebounder who can score garbage points and play positional defense, but that's it. Williams has more offensive skill than that (although he still needs to develop in that regard) and he adds much more on the defensive end, which is where the Hawks have to improve.

Now, let's also look at the past ten #5 picks (and their career averages) to see whether we should expect a star at that spot (and keep in mind that this is a weak Draft by all accounts):

2005 - Raymond Felton (11.9 ppg, 5.6 apg)
2004 - Devin Harris (7.5 ppg, 2.5 apg)
2003 - Dwyane Wade (22.9 ppg, 6.1 apg)
2002 - Nikoloz Tskitishvili (2.9 ppg, 1.8 rpg)
2001 - Jason Richardson (18.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg)
2000 - Mike Miller (13.4 ppg, 4.4 rpg)
1999 - Jonathan Bender (5.6 ppg, 2.2 rpg)
1998 - Vince Carter (23.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg)
1997 - Tony Battie (6.7 ppg, 5.7 rpg)
1996 - Ray Allen (21.1 ppg, 4.6 rpg)

What conclusions can we draw from this list? First, and most notably, there are four star-caliber players on the list (Wade, Richardson, Carter, and Allen) and all of them are swing men, most likely because great point guard or big man prospects are off the board at the #5 pick (save for the occasional diamond in the rough). As we have discussed ad nauseam, the Hawks don't need another swing man, unless they want to take Brandon Roy and put him next to Joe Johnson in a backcourt with two combo guards, an interesting idea but one that fails to address the team's glaring defensive problems. The star-caliber players also all came out in loaded Drafts and were pushed down the board as a result. In this Draft, I don't see any LeBron/Carmelo/Bosh pairings to push the next Wade down to us, nor do I see an Iverson/Camby/Rahim/Marbury quartet to push the next Allen to us. Generally speaking, if Williams turns into a 15/10 player and improves the Hawks' interior defense, which seems to be a reasonable expectation, then he would be good value at #5, given the other players who have gone at that spot.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Brief Hawks Thoughts

Given my conclusion, based on some elementary statistical analysis and a whole lot of subjective observation from section 317, that the Hawks' primary problem last year was not their poor point guard play, but rather an inability to play defense, especially in the form of allowing other teams to get to the rim too easily, I'd be quite happy with Shelden Williams in a Hawks uniform. The AJC lists five prospects for the pick and I can say pretty confidently that: (1) Billy Knight isn't going to take Brandon Roy or Marcus Williams (unless some team wows them with a trade such that it makes sense for the Hawks to move down to about #10 to take Marcus Williams); and (2) Andrea Bargnani and LaMarcus Aldridge aren't going to be around when the Hawks take their turn at #5. Williams might be a similar size to a number of different players on the team, but he plays differently than any of them. He would combine rebounding and shotblocking better than anyone else on the roster and the team would likely have fewer disastrous defensive performances in the fourth quarters of games. He's not Elton Brand, which is a facile comparison based on the fact that Brand and Williams are both African-American big men from Duke. Brand had a better offensive game at Duke, so it's not fair to assume that Williams can turn into a 25-point per game guy, but he'll improve the team defensively.

Mark Bradley disagrees and I normally trust his judgment on basketball, but he doesn't spend much time explaining why Williams won't be successful, other than that he needs to develop a face-up game to be a power forward. That seems like a pretty legitimate question, but are there really any better options? Marcus Williams is good, but not outstanding point guard for a team that badly underachieved last year and he comes with the baggage of having stolen laptops at UConn, so do we really want to take a chance on how he'll react to being a multi-millionaire? LaMarcus Aldridge was last seen getting totally dominated by Big Baby Davis in the Georgia Dome. (In contrast, Williams kept Duke in the game against LSU with 23 points, 13 rebounds, and four blocks.) Andrea Bargnani does in fact play the same 2/3 position that the Hawks currently have stacked, as do Adam Morrison and Rudy Gay. Tyrus Thomas seems like a carbon-copy of Josh Smith (minus two years of development in perimeter skills). Williams will definitely serve an important role and if he turns out to be another Udonis Haslem, there are worse fates in basketball than that.

Getting the Blog Thing

Newspapers have generally been pretty slow to figure out what appeals to sports fans about blogs: the ability to go into detail on a subject, the ability to avoid lowest common denominator writing, the ability to interact with readers, etc. However, the AJC has a shining example to the contrary in Braves beat writer David O'Brien's blog entries, which are typically well-written and full of useful details. His good work has often left me little to add. Also, my way of dealing with the Braves' collapse has been to completely ignore it, other than looking at box scores and moping about continued inadequacy. Anyway, this entry from Friday is a detailed description of why the Braves suck, primarily, an epic clusterf*** of a bullpen. O'Brien is dead-on when he says that Schuerholz erred over the last several seasons in not spending more time and money on the 'pen in light of the fact that the Braves no longer have excellent starters who can go deep into games, so the 'pen is more important and needs greater depth. O'Brien omits discussion of the fact that Leo Mazzone was good at getting innings out of scrap-heap pitchers (the 2002 'pen of Smoltz backed by excellent performances by Darren Holmes, Chris Hammond, Mike Remlinger, and Kevin Gryboski being the best example) and Roger McDowell, so far, has shown significantly less ability. Mazzone did not do a very good job with last year's bullpen, so it might have been the end of the run in terms of his ability to get through to young pitchers, but McDowell has taken a bad bullpen and made it much worse.

Götterdämmerung, World Cup Edition

The U.S. flamed out, the Dutch are history, and now I can eagerly wait for France to bore Spain out of the tournament and we'll have a quarterfinal completely free of my three rooting interests. It's been a while, so let's take these in order:

USA 1 Ghana 2

It's fun to get mad at a ref, especially when surrounded by dozens of belligerent fans drinking at ten in the morning at Brewhouse (great decision by the local soccer bar to serve drinks only in plastic cups; that'll come in handy when England gets knocked out) and especially when that ref is German. (Trust me, the "still mad about Dresden?" jokes were flying fast and furious at halftime.) Merk's decision to gift Ghana the winning goal was an atrocious call, given that: (1) refs have not been calling anything in the box other than fouls that deprive opponents of clear scoring chances; and (2) Onyewu didn't even foul Pimpong (a sentence that surely rivals "Tatupu tackled by Tuiasosopo" in sports history). That said, the U.S. was CLEARLY the inferior team on Friday and did not deserve to get a result. The bad call might have deprived us of momentum and made the hill to high to climb, but what does it say about the U.S. that they responded to adversity by quitting instead of getting angry and playing their asses off. Actually, quitting might be too strong a term. The U.S. seemed to play hard and for a five-minute stretch from minutes 65 to 70 created a lot of pressure, but they were devoid of ideas. Beasley can't really be blamed since he created the U.S. goal, although he didn't play well for the rest of the game, but Landon Donovan was useless. He fluffed a good shooting chance in the first half and refused to attack the box in the second when he cut in from the right. My biggest concern about Bruce Arena right now is that the young players who should be the heart of the team - Donovan and Beasley - played worse in this tournament than they did four years ago. Convey was also useless when he came on in the second half. This is what concerned me about Mike Woodson and the Hawks when Josh Smith and Josh Childress were regressing during the season and it's my concern about Arena now.

Actually, that's not true. I'm also concerned about excessively defensive tactics, namely refusing to play more than one striker in a game the U.S. had to win. A 4-5-1 isn't necessarily a bad formation when you have good offensive midfielders who can get forward and take chances created by a holding forward. Portugal showed this last night, as Maniche, Luis Figo, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Deco all played well in tandem with Pauleta. However, when your offensive midfielders are slumping as those of the U.S. were, you need to provide more direct targets and that's where Eddie Johnson would have come in. I couldn't understand why the U.S. spent most of the second half with one relatively ineffective striker when they needed two goals to save themselves.

Holland 0 Portugal 1

How is it that the Dutch did so well in qualifying because Marco van Basten emptied the team of its older, more egotistical players and replaced them with young, hungry guys who worked well in tandem with one another, and yet they're going home because of a selfish performance by all of its attacking players? The Dutch had the lionshare of possession yesterday and put themselves into scoring positions throughout, but they never bothered to try to pick one another out in the box. Robin van Persie was the most glaring offender when he beautifully freed himself in the box, only to shoot with the outside of his boot at a tight angle rather than simply lofting the ball to the far post for Wesley Sneijder to finish. Van Persie was hardly the only offender, as Mark van Bommel decided to shoot every time he got within 35 yards (although one of his shots almost found its way in off the keeper) and Arjen Robben continued to take on multiple defenders without getting help from his teammates. The team's selfishness, combined with two instances of very poor finishing - Cocu hitting the crossbar from six yards out and Kuyt hitting the keeper on a breakaway when it would have been very easy to lift the ball over him or round him - are the reasons why they were KLMing it back to Amsterdam after the game. (OK, that and the Russian ref's novel interpretation that Arjen Robben getting kicked in the chest three yards from goal while going for the ball was not a foul. Robben's reputation as a diver has really hurt him, as he gets fouled all the time now and gets no calls. It's really his own fault. Deco, to a lesser extent, is similar.) Despite all the talk of a new Dutch side, this was the same old thing: great individual skill and questionable ability to use one another. The contrast between the Dutch efforts to score and Portugal's goal - a wonderfully-worked interplay between Ronaldo and Deco on the right and then Pauleta and Maniche in the box - was telling.

A word on Kuyt: he played poorly and I was wondering along with John Harkes why Ruud wasn't brought on, but let's not pretend that Ruud would have been a panacea. He played very poorly throughout the tournament and it's quite apparent, in retrospect, that Alex Ferguson knew something when he demoted Ruud from Manchester United's starting lineup. Alex didn't get that "Sir" before his name by benching in-form players.

As always, I managed to find a new villain other than the team that knocked my team out. In this case, it's England. The English played their usual crap style, getting a goal from a free kick and otherwise creating relatively little. Their overrated defender du jour John Terry nearly gifted Ecuador a goal with a terrible header back to his keeper. (He made a similar mistake that allowed Liverpool to take a 2-0 lead in the F.A. Cup semifinal, and don't get me started on his errors against Barca in the Champions League tie.) Nevertheless, they advanced and will now play Portugal minus their best player (Deco), a second midfielder (Costinha), and possibly their second best attacking player (Ronaldo). They might make a semifinal without playing a side of genuine quality, and that will just continue to build the excessive hype that swirls around their players. Must be nice.

Actually, I found Luis Figo to be the other villain, as any good Barca fan would. He celebrated the fact that he got away with headbutting Mark van Bommel by taking a complete dive upon the slightest contact from Khalid Boulahrouz. Since Cocu didn't get the chance to kick the crap out of him, it falls on Owen Hargreaves to realign my cosmic sense of justice. And the most galling thing is that it turns out that Figo is still pretty good.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

My gut tells me...

Italy 2, Czech Republic 0
USA 1, Ghana 1

Italy and Ghana progress. I hope I'm wrong, but in my heart of hearts, I believe that Italy and Ghana are the two best sides in the group (at least as the Czechs are presently constituted without a healthy striker).

Messi...Tevez...van der Vaart...van Nistlerooy...0-0

I suppose that we shouldn't be that surprised that the Dutch and Argentines drew 0-0 last night, despite the attacking talent on the field for both sides. Neither team really played with the passion they've shown for the first two games, and quite rightly, since they had very little to play for. There isn't a huge difference between finishing first or second. Portugal is a slightly tougher out than Mexico (although neither of them have a history of doing much at the World Cup), but Germany is a much tougher out in the quarterfinals than England or Ecuador. Thus, the teams didn't have their normal levels of aggression. Also, these teams are not on the short list of potential winners solely because of their offensive talent; they're both very solid in the back. John Harkes quite rightly pointed out the contributions of Roberto Ayala, who is as good as any central defender in the tournament. The Netherlands looked quite stout defensively, despite having rested three of their first choice starters. Bouhlarouz looked very good in central defense, his near-Escobar aside, and did nothing to dissuade my thinking that he would be an improvement at right back over Heitinga. The Dutch gave away ten corners and marked well on each of them, leaving Argentina with no chances from those corners, despite the fact that they were delivered by the ever precise Riquelme.

My impression of the Dutch didn't change too much after watching the game yesterday. On the one hand, they are a tighter bunch defensively than their Dutch predecessors and are therefore more likely to do well in the knock-out rounds. They allowed one goal in three games in the Group of Death and that goal was an absolute screamer from outside the area, the kind of goal to which you just tip your hat to the shooter and say "well done." The individual marking has been good, the positional play has been good, and the only real howler was allowing Cote D'Ivoire to break two-on-one when the Dutch were nursing a 2-1 lead in the second game. On the other hand, the Dutch midfield is not creating much at all. They're good defensively, but they aren't creating much through the middle and Ruud is absolutely starved for support. The only Dutch offense comes from the midfield kicking the ball out to the wingers and I worry that Scolari will figure out a way to shut down an outside-in attack. The other concern is that Ruud isn't playing very well. He has been somewhat starved for support from the midfield, but he isn't making many runs to make himself available. The lack of support has dispirited him. The best example was in the first half yesterday when Kujt robbed a defender on the left and broke towards goal. Ruud just floated towards the goal with him and made himself useless by positioning himself between the two defenders. If he takes two steps back (as Drogba did to set up the Ivory Coast goal against Argentina), then he has presented a passing target for Kujt. As it was, Kujt missed a chance to drop the ball to van der Vaart in a great shooting position, so Ruud might not have gotten the ball anyway, but it was a clear instance of failure to present for the ball. Generally speaking, I don't like Kujt in the winger role. He's a finisher by trade and that was evidenced by his reaction to getting free on the Argentine right. He also doesn't have quite the dribbling ability to be a winger. I might consider starting him over Ruud in between van Persie and Robben, but van Basten is unlikely to bench his "star" at this stage.

A couple preliminary thoughts on the match with Portugal. The Netherlands and Portugal having been crossing paths fairly regularly in recent years, twice in qualifying for the '02 World Cup (the Dutch blew a 2-0 lead in Lisbon, one of the main reasons they watched the World Cup from home) and again at Euro '04. My recollections from the Euro '04 match are that the Dutch were disorganized defensively (the first goal came from Ronaldo on a corner when the marking was non-existent) and the Portuguese completely marked Robben, the Dutch dangerman in the tournament, out of the match. (I think that Paolo Ferreira did the honors.) This Dutch team is more motivated and organized than the '04 version, so I don't worry so much about the defense, but I worry greatly about the wing play being shut down. Van Persie is going to be the key. The Dutch struggled in '04 at creating from the right wing. In '06, Van Persie has been pretty good and he'll need to be better for the Dutch offense to thrive against Portugal. Cocu versus Figo in the center of midfield will be interesting; I fervently hope that Philip kicks the piss out of the traitor (while the ref is looking the other way). The Dutch are due against this side and a win puts them through to a game against England, a real treat for the German polizei.

And a word on the Albiceleste. I've never been a big fan of Argentina. As I've mentioned before, the 1990 World Cup was a real formative experience in terms of my football preferences and Argentina's performance there was disgraceful, marked by little more than cynically playing for penalty kicks and harassing every ref who dared to call them on their thuggery. The '98 Holland-Argentina game is an all-time favorite in part because of Bergkamp's winner, in part because my brother Dan tried to destroy my Hup Holland flag unsuccessfully, and in part because Argentina tried their usual chicanery when Ortega dived in the box and were finally punished for it. They came into the game on the heels of having beaten England on penalties in a game that was terrific until Diego Simeone baited Beckham into a petulant little kick and then acted as if he'd been knifed in the groin. After going a man up, Argentina shut up shop, knowing that England would panic from the spot. (They did.)

I mention all of this only because I'm finding it hard to root against the Argentines this time. They play more attractive football than Brazil. They have Riquelme, a nod to a bygone era when players were judged on their ability to pass instead of their ability to run. They have exciting young players, including Barca's future star Leo Messi. They haven't resorted to their usual Fake Broken Limb Masterpiece Theatre (although I did find it funny last night that ESPN had highlights of the '78 final and the '98 quarterfinal ready and waiting for the predictable injury delays caused by Argentina on each side of halftime). And now, I find out that their coach and captain are both Members of the Tribe. With Israel having been pipped by Switzerland for the second spot in Group 4, does the Talmud require me to root for Argentina? I need a religious ruling on this one.


Wednesday, June 21, 2006

In Honor of Holland-Argentina...

My all-time favorite goal. I only wish that I could find a youtube clip with the Univision audio, as the increasingly excited call from Andres Cantor - "Bergkamp, Bergkamp, Bergkamp...GOOOOLLLLL!!!" - followed by the late Norberto Longo's soliloquy on "los grandes jugadores" is one of those calls I'll never forget. If only the Dutch would have followed the result by taking out a Brazil team that was there for the taking and thus set up a dream final against France, but the nature of cheering for the Dutch is to make "if only" statements. If only the Dutch had gone for the kill when they went ahead of West Germany in '74 instead of teasing the Germans. If only Rensenbrink doesn't hit the post in '78 in Buenos Aires. If only the '90 team would have gotten along with one another. If only de Goey covers his half of the goal against Branco's free kick in '94. If only the team wouldn't have lost control of their bowels from the penalty spot in '00. If only Kluivert's second-minute breakaway yielded a goal at Lansdowne Road in the critical qualifier against Ireland in '01.

A few other thoughts:

1. Spain and Argentina look to be favorites right now because they're the deepest teams in the tournament. Look at what Argentina's subs accomplished against Serbia. Look at the second-choice line-up that they can call upon against the Netherlands today. Look at how Spain responded to going a goal down against Tunisia. They simply threw on a devastating winger (Joaquin), the best teen central midfielder in the game (Cesc), and their all-time leading scorer (Raul). Those three subs linked up, along with Fernando Torres, for three goals in the second half to secure their place in the round of 16. As the tournament progresses and teams lose players to cards and injury, Argentina and Spain are the best positioned to deal with that attrition. Well, them and Brazil, who would almost certainly get better if a certain striker was lost to cards or injury.

2. After Germany's impressive demolition of Ecuador yesterday (admittedly, an Ecuador side missing a number of rested starters), we can now confront the delicious possibility (assuming that Argentina draws or beats the Netherlands today) of a June 30 quarterfinal between Germany and Argentina in Berlin. The absence of upsets in this tournament has made the first round rather forgettable, but match-ups like that (with Italy-France as a possible nightcap) are only possible when the name teams hold serve. In the end, tournaments are remembered in posterity for their knock-out games, rather than their group games.

3. What must Jermaine Defoe be thinking these days? England have no back-up striker other than a 17-year old who has never played for Arsenal's senior team, while Defoe, an accomplished scorer in the Premiership, wastes away in London. Good work, Sven. Please take the Real Madrid job after the World Cup. I anxiously wait to see how you squander that collection of talent after never figuring out how to deploy England's talent properly.

4. Your stat of the day: Zinedine Zidane has never assisted a Thierry Henry goal for France. How in the world is that possible? The best offensive midfielder of his generation, playing right behind one of the best strikers over the past five years, and the two can't create goals. Do they not get along? Are their styles inherently incompatible? Does Henry have something against Algerians? Will France be better without Zidane? Their inability to score without him in '02 and then in qualifiers for '06 suggest that the answer is "no."

5. My guilty feeling about hijacking an ostensibly Atlanta-oriented sports blog with World Cup blatherings are assuaged by the strong ratings that the games have gotten in the Metro area. USA-Italy outperformed the Braves, NASCAR, and the US Open. Hell, take the patriotism angle out and the Czech Republic-Ghana game still outperformed the Braves and the US Open. In addition, it's fun to note that viewers in Atlanta, the oft-dubbed worst sports town in the history of the world, watched the NBA Finals and World Cup at rates significantly greater than the rest of the country. The ratings for the NBA Finals reflect that this is a very solid NBA market and that the Hawks could be a very popular entity if they could ever field a good product. The ratings for the World Cup negate the image that this town is full of xenophobic hillbillies who view soccer as a communist plot to subvert marriage and the free market. Just thought I'd point that out.

Monday, June 19, 2006


No bullpen. No offense from the corner outfield spots or first base. No more disappointment in October.

My Laziest Post Ever

I was at a wedding (of an Italian friend, no less) north of Pittsburgh on Saturday during the US-Italy game and didn't get to watch it. So, instead of having analysis of what we did to stay with one of the best teams in the world, all I have is a story about how I spent a good chunk of Saturday night completely lost in Joe Namath's hometown of Beaver Falls, PA, unable to read street signs that were completely illegible in the dark, dodging teenagers riding bikes with no lights at 11 p.m., and generally muttering to myself "and they say the South is full of rednecks." And incidentally, I got a new perspective on Ben Roethlisberger's decision not to wear a helmet while riding a motorcycle, since nobody in the Pittsburgh area apparently wears helmets on their bikes. Anyway, having only watched about ten minutes of my tape of the game, here are AdmantiumBlue's thoughts from the Victors board. Admantium knows more about soccer than I could ever dream, so this is really a net positive for you. The only downside is that he won't relate our tactics to those of the Red Army around Leningrad in 1944, nor will he explain how certain events in the game made him feel like Francis Dolarhyde. With those caveats out of the way, here's his take on the US's performance:


I think the Italians paid close attention to the Mexico game in Mexico City and our Costa Rica game, and to some extent the Czech game. They made the decision early to play a very traditional Italian counter-attacking game rather than the more aggressive game they played against Ghana. I think this is because the US style is more of a the quick, short passing style where the midfielders push into the box and we have a big player for set pieces in the box in McBride. I think they wanted to take the space away from us to run in their own end and close all of the passing lanes. If you watch early, they are trying to keep 6-8 players behind the ball in a very tight formation. They are giving us possession in midfield and even giving us the sidelines to some extent, but packing 6-8 tight any time we are in their end to keep Donovan from pushing behind the defense or getting much possession in the box. I don't believe they expected the US to be so creative as this lineup with Convey, Donovan, Reyna, and Dempsey in midfield (along with Mastroeni. Dempsey especially had more flair and was more creative than they seemed to be prepared for. ON the other had, they recognized that the individual skill level and finishing of the US wasn't that high and the US relies on quickness and short passing in an opponents' end (with numbers coming into the area from midfield), so they packed it tight and were hoping to spring a fast counter as others have done to us. Contest the ball in their back third, and spring the fast on the counter-attack, which is very different from what Lippi's team had done in previous games and showed a lot of respect for the quickness and fitness of the US team. I don't think he wanted to challenge us in midfield, where we had loaded up numbers, and leave his defense exposed to our quick midfielders penetrating the box. His strategy worked to a great extent early, as the US had a lot of possession, but didn't really create many real good shots, and they got the early lead on that set play. Had the teams stayed at 11-11, I think they would have continued this strategy and patiently waited to open up a bigger lead.

Instead two things changed their gameplan. The own goal by Zaccardo evened things up, and then De Rossi gets justifiably bounced (obviously reckless if not intentional elbow).

The US tries to take advantage but the Italians are even more resolved to pack things tight at the box after the sending off.

Then comes the Mastroeni red card. Personally, I think it was the wrong call, but I think that it is not as unjustifiable as many think. From my red, white and blue perspective, Mastroeni nearly got the ball so we saw worse in this game. But this wasn't a foul where he came in under the guy or the guy tripped over him, Mastroeni drilled his ankle with his cleats. He nailed him good. If the ref felt he was intentionally playing the man with his cleats up, then he would have to call it (especially since it was a blind hit, where the player never saw Mastroeni). It is a harsh call though, as he had no warning, no yellow, just one close call and boom, he is gone. The ref is just going to say that FIFA gave them instructions to call those type of hits and Bocanegra and all of the players were told they were calling that red this year (any malicious hit from the back). ON the other hand, Mastroeni really wasn't that late, he nearly got the ball.

Pope's sending off was less controversial in my mind. He knew that he had a yellow, and continued to pull people down and hit from behind. They weren't nearly as rough as Mastroeni's hit (which was pretty violent), but they are just obvious fouls that add up. He could have been sent off in the first half for a lot of those shoves, tugs, and trips he was pulling so as not to get beat (he is just getting way to slow to be part of the national team). That was just half expected in my mind.

I think the US played about as great of a game as could be expected. I don't think the Italians were prepared for convey and Dempsey and how well the US attack was played wide (Donovan later as well). They just kept finding ways to create opportunities in the box, though not really that many really good shots on goal, but possession and some opportunities.

Convey's finishing was disappointing, however, his play out wide was really excellent. He was even turning some in pretty well and making runs inside against a tightly packed box.

Mastroeni was having a great game, and Reyna was dogging Pirlo everywhere, rarely giving an inch to the guy. Keller was phenomenal and the reason the US stayed in as long as they did.

Beasley did what he was brought in to do. To take advantage of his speed and pressure the Italians. He was loafing at time, but was pretty effective in the limited time he was brought in. Donovan was doing very well in helping distribute the ball, and played even better when he got pushed out on the right. He was working very hard.

McBride had a tough game, as Nesta was all over him. He lost far more airballs than he won, and he doesn't have the pace anymore to be part of any real offensive scheme (just set pieces). Still, he was the US's one shot at having a player up there that could get control of the occasional long ball and distribute it to on rushing midfielders. He was also a big body in there on set pieces. You also have to give McBride some credit for the US goal. Zaccardo gambled with that poor attempt at clearance, because he feared McBride in the box. IF they hadn't watched a lot of film and recognized McBride as the main threat, I'm not so sure he just swings at it recklessly like that.

I probably would have subbed O'Brien or Wolff for Donovan late and tried to get fresh legs in there. I don't think Eddie Johnson fit with the gameplan, which was to defend like hell and try and grab the quick counter on a long ball or dumping up the right sideline. It was working, and the US needed at least a point, so you can't blame Arena for staying conservative.

I admire the grit and determination of the team in bouncing back and really hustling against Italy to an extent we didn't see against the Czechs.


Incidentally, in light of the Italians' preference for going to ground, I found this very funny:

Friday, June 16, 2006

Open Wide For Some Soccer!!!

Simpsons - Soccer: Mexico Vs Portugal

Thanks to Grant Wahl and the World Cup draw bringing Mexico and Portugal together, here's an all-time favorite. Anyway, here are my thoughts on the last few days:

1. Argentina...holy shit! Part of my nervousness at the end of the Dutch game was based in the knowledge that Argentina's second-string are as good as their first string, so getting a result in the group decider would be difficult for the Netherlands, even if Argentina had nothing to play for. Argentina, with their sublime one-touch short passing, are now more like Brazil than Brazil. Remember in 2002 when Argentina were the favorites and Brazil came in under the radar? Remember how that turned out? Now, you think that we might have something of a role reversal at hand? Remember that Argentina '02 started with a relatively unimpressive 1-0 win over Nigeria? Now how did Brazil open this Mundial? It's too bad that Brazil's group is ridiculously easy and Australia is already talking about resting players to make sure that they're fit for the decider against Croatia. (A mistake, in my opinion, because Brazil are beatable [or at least tieable] while they still labor under the misapprehension that Ronaldo can kick a ball properly. Australia should also be concerned about goal difference so they don't have to go into the Croatia match needing a win.)

She's excited and that jersey is hanging on for dear life.

2. The Netherlands...whew! The Dutch played, dare I say it, a German game against the Ivory Coast. How many times over the years have I watched Germany play and then muttered afterwards "the Germans were outplayed, but they won. Kraut bastards!" Well, the Dutch displayed defensive frailties by allowing the Ivory Coast to get into good shooting position on a number of occasions (starting Gio is probably a defensive frailty in and of itself...and how the Dutch allowed a two-on-one immediately after a corner kick while nursing a 2-1 lead is beyond me) and they didn't generate that many chances, but they came out 2-1 winners anyway. At halftime, I had the same sinking feeling that I did during the Netherlands-Czech Republic classic in Euro '04, in which the Dutch blew a 2-0 lead and lost. This team is defensively superior to the '04 Oranje and also a little luckier. Or maybe they just benefited from the fact that Nedved and Baros weren't playing for Les Elephants. The Dutch allowed only one goal and that can be chalked up to an outstanding offensive play. Beyond that, van der Sar wasn't forced into a really challenging save. Was that because of poor shooting by the Ivory Coast or am I being too harsh on the Dutch defense?

The good news for Holland, other than the fact that they qualified for round two and will likely draw Portugal or Mexico (both of whom are eminently beatable), is that Rafael van der Vaart came on and looked very good, certainly better than Wesley Sneijder, who was anonymous in both games. (Kudos, by the way, to Tommy Smyth for spotting the Dutch weaknesses - Sneijder and Heitinga - before they were substituted. It was refreshing to have an analyst who knows his ass from a hole in the ground. His taunting of the English play-by-play guy about the Three Lions' epic performance against Trinidad and Tobago was even better.) If the Dutch can just get Arjen Robben to PASS THE F***ING BALL (which I may or may not have yelled at the TV in the 70th and 85th minutes when he shot instead of feeding open teammates in the box), they'll have a tidy offense. Van Persie is living up to billing and Ruud is due for a big game if he gets good service. For instance, if the star left winger would share his toys with the rest of the class.

2a. I feel really bad for the Ivory Coast. They're one of the better teams in the tournament and are heading home after losing two tight games against excellent opponents. It's not at all a stretch to say that they would have qualified out of just about any other group, other than Group E and possibly Group A if Ecuador really is that good. Tommy Smyth was pimping them for a run in South Africa in four years time and that sounds like a good bet.

3. Spain...grrr! Going into the tournament, Spain was a team in search of a striker. All of a sudden, Raul is banished, David Villa has started reproducing his form that let him bag 25 goals for boring boring Valencia, and the Spanish look to be a real threat to win the whole thing. They're solid everywhere else and Xavi is in position to be one of the standout players in this tournament now that he's healthy and rested after having missed most of the season with a knee injury. The Liverpool pair of Luis Garcia and Xabi Alonso also look good, although maybe that was just because the Ukrainian players couldn't sleep the night before on account of the frogs outside their hotel. (Best excuse ever!!!) And don't think that I didn't make a "no one has flattened the Ukraine like that since Heinz Guderian" joke to my German friend.

4. It's so rare that I'm right about something that I need to take every advantage of repeating it, but I told you that France had offensive problems, right?

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Tonight, the Puyol Let Me Down

World Cup Highlights: Spain vs. Ukraine

When I decided to buy a Barca jersey (my third) this season, I picked Carles Puyol's name to go on the back because he's the captain, he's Catalan, he's a Barca lifer, he looks like a goofy metalhead who would drive an I-ROC if he could, and mainly because it's cooler to honor the central defense hardman than a flashy offensive player. Anyone can get a Ronaldinho or Eto'o jersey and get all misty-eyed about goals and passes; a real fan picks out the backbone of the team and revels in a good tackle or subtle jersey tug. So imagine my dismay last night when watching the tape of Spain's disemboweling of Ukraine to see that my boy Carles actually is a playmaker. Ronaldinho and Messi would be challenged to replicate a move this sweet. I'm feeling very misled.

The move starts at 3:24 on this video.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Just Awful

There's very little to say, other than that the Czechs are much, much better than we are. I guess there's a reason why their attacking players get checks from Juventus, Arsenal, and Dortmund, while our defensive players pay the mortgage thanks to the largesse of Standard Liege, Leeds, and Hannover 96. The match today was crap almost from start to finish. The Czechs opened with a goal that can only be described as breathtakingly simple: ball into acres of space on the right to Grygera, who then finds an embarrassingly open Jan Koller for the opener. Koller's threat in the air is obvious and yet the US appeared to be oblivious to the fact that a 6'8 bald guy might head the ball with proficiency.

The US played well from the first Czech goal to the second, creating one good chance that ended with Landon Donovan getting destroyed in the open field and then Claudio Reyna hitting the post some time thereafter. We had about 30 minutes in which we had possession and created some decent chances, although nothing too good other than Reyna's shot. Then, Rosicky hit an absolute screamer and we basically quit. Although the ESPN crew were blaming Onyewu for the Rosicky goal, he cleared the ball with some good distance; if someone is going to hit a shot into the side netting from 35 yards, then at some stage, you have to tip your hat. Or find someone on these shores who can do the same. Hahahaha.

The second half was desultory. I was watching with a bunch of friends at the Cheyenne Grill and the second half produced nothing more than slouched people muttering at the screen about the fact that we couldn't complete a pass or make a cross properly. There's nothing worse than watching a soccer match when your team is two goals down and creating nothing. It's a slow death personified. Being surrounded by a bunch of obnoxious UNC paraphenalia (and isn't that term redundant?) while watching UNC grad Eddie Pope get skinned again and again added to the happy feelings.

The US's wing players - Lewis, Cherundolo, Beasley, and Convey - were collectively useless, which then made Brian McBride useless, since his only discernible skill is heading the ball. The US resorted to long balls forward because they were being dominated in the midfield and yet McBride couldn't hold any of them up for his teammates. It was just as well, since the players weren't making runs off of one another as the game progressed. Landon Donovan...was he on the pitch after getting hammered in the open field by David Rozenhal? Claudio Reyna (the UVA grad - f*** off Carolina [can you tell I'm bitter?]) was the only starter who acquitted himself with any dignity, although the Czechs' dominance in midfield has to be attributable to him, in some part. Eddie Johnson confirmed my opinion that he's the US's one big game striker by creating some good chances before another Rosicky goal (this one definitely being the result of an Onyewu error, namely taking a terrible angle to Rosicky's run) killed the match off entirely.

The second half was especially depressing. Here were the Czechs, a team not noted for their defense and playing without either of their two quality strikers, dominating the "most talented US team ever." You know that Balboa, Wynalda, and Lalas had a tinge of "Ha ha. See, these guys suck, too!" in their post-game analysis. And speaking of the coverage, another shout out to Dave O'Brien for reducing soccer to a bunch of repetitive, unhelpful stats. (THIS IS NOT BASEBALL!!! WE DON'T MEASURE LANDON DONOVAN BY A "VALUE OVER REPLACEMENT ATTACKING MIDFIELDER" STAT!!!) We get the picture. The US has never won or tied a World Cup game in Europe. You don't need to rub it in your own countrymen's faces.

Other than all of that, this afternoon was awesome.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Dutch Enjoy Afternoon with S&M, Move On to Elephants

He's good. However, he was also this good at the start of Euro '04 and then the Portuguese managed to shut him down in the semifinal. Dutch opponents are going to be committing players to their defensive right sides for the rest of the tournament, which will make it imperative that Robin van Persie play well on the Dutch right. Van Persie played well today, as he assisted on the goal and generally created problems on the right. His free kick in the second half was also perfect; it was a likely goal that no one could touch. The likely defensive strategies of Dutch opponents will also put pressure on Sneijder, van Bommel, and van der Vaart (if healthy) to generate offense through the middle today.

This was definitely a different Dutch side, consistent with what I've been reading about Marco van Basten. They did have the lionshare of possession, especially in the first half, but they scored their goal on a counter after they had sucked S&M forward and then they defended well with the lead. There were certainly some tense moments, especially on a couple occasions when the Dutch let balls bounce around in the penalty area, but Serbia never had a great chance to equalize and the Dutch marking was sound, especially on set pieces. Contrast the way the Dutch played with a 1-0 lead in this game with the way the Dutch played with a 2-0 lead against the Czech Republic in Euro '04. (I suppose you can also contrast the offensive talent on the Czech side with that of the Serbs.) Three points are all that matters and the Dutch got them and earned them by creating the majority of the good chances. Thus, they're a win against the Ivory Coast from making the game with Argentina irrelevant. The first 20 minutes against the Ivory Coast will be critical. The Elephants have their backs against the wall and will come out with all guns blazing. If the Dutch absorb that and hit on the counter, they'll be fine. Eboue versus Robben will be interesting. Any Premiership fans want to give a scouting report on how that match-up has played out before? And speaking of the Premiership, Didier Drogba faced his strike partner Hernan Crespo in his last game, he'll face Chelsea winger Arjen Robben in his second game, and he'll face Chelsea reject Mateja Kezman in his third game. Chelsea have truly cornered the market on name talent.

Other thoughts on the first few days of the Weltmeister:

1. To ESPN and ABC, congrats. You've screwed this up, too. The mistakes in commentary and graphics have been too numerous too count. Arjen Robben is 22, not 27. Becks' first name is David, not Mike. I'm pretty sure that Mexico and Iran haven't played yet, so showing a possession stat for them was a guess that you didn't want to make. And why the hell can't they show the national anthems, which are the perfect way to get the blood flowing before the game? And why is the color so much better on Univision than ABC and ESPN2? And why do they have to do the coverage as if the viewers have never seen a soccer game before? I like the JP Dellacamera/John Harkes team, but everyone else have left a lot to be desired. Like bad college football announcers, they have certain angles to plug - Ivory Coast have a civil war, David Beckham is famous and good-looking, etc. - and they just beat those angles to death in lieu of providing insight on what I'm seeing.

2. Forgive me for saying this, but I'm rooting for Mexico. Just like I root for all the SEC teams in the bowl games, I want CONCACAF to look good. I like Rafa Marquez, despite his personal vendetta against Cobi Jones. And politically speaking, the xenophobia being hurled around by the Tancredos and O'Reillys and Dobbs of the country has made me like Mexico more. To stereotype very broadly, Mexicans come to this country, work their asses off, keep our prices for food and construction low, and pay payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare benefits that they're never going to receive. Yes, our culture will be tilted to a Latino tinge and frankly, I like that.

3. England, uh, yeah. I stand by all of my remarks about them. Sven Goran Eriksson is the Lloyd Carr of international football. If Sven were a football coach, he too would restrict his offense and get all tingly about the idea of punting with a lead. If Lloyd coached the Three Lions, he too would pull off his strikers with 30 minutes to go in a 1-0 game and take the air out of the ball, thus trusting a narrow lead to a team whose keeper thinks that palming the ball to his own penalty spot is a great idea.

4. Juan Roman Riquelme...after one game, I'm totally wrong about him not being a good fit on a team full of stars. He was the difference against the Ivory Coast. It's great fun to watch a guy pass the ball like that, he's a relic from a by-gone era when vision and passing were more important than workrate and physical ability. Argentina look like the best team so far. Just wait until Leo Messi is on the receiving end of those passes.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Here We Go Yo, Here We Go Yo

So what, so what's the scenario?

With the Braves' season circling the toilet drain, the World Cup cannot arrive at a better time. As I type this, we're four hours away from the Nationalmannschaft (gotta love the Germans' ability to smush concepts together into one, unpronounceable world) and the Ticos, the Mayhem crew are arguing about the merits of soccer, and, to quote Ellis Boyd 'Red' Redding, I'm so excited, I can't keep a thought in my head. So naturally, it's a perfect time to blog my remaining incoherent thoughts in advance of El Mundial.

Let's start with a prediction on a winner. Every time I think of a contender, I think of reasons why they can't win.

Brazil? A number of their players are off form and I don't know how they're going to respond as the favorites. Plus, their fullbacks are an appetizing target for opposing offenses. I just don't see Roberto Carlos and Cafu holding up over an entire tournament, which is going to put too much pressure on Dida, Lucio, and Juan.

Argentina? A very good team, but I suspect that Riquelme is going to disappoint because he does well at Villareal where everything revolves around him, but he failed at Barcelona when he was surrounded by great players and had to fit in. Argentina is far more like the Blaugrana than the Yellow Submarine. I like everything about their team, but nothing jumps out at me, except for Leo Messi who, if he's healthy, could be the player of the tournament.

France? Despite a good forward line, they cannot score goals. They didn't score a single goal at the last World Cup against Senegal, Uruguay, and Denmark. You would think that they would respond by kicking ass in World Cup qualifying, but they scored a grand total of three goals in six matches against Switzerland, Israel, and Ireland. The World Cup simply isn't the time for a team to start scoring when it hasn't scored in ages. I used to think that the cause was Thierry Henry being an overrated player, but watching him this year has disabused me of that notion somewhat (although he's still not an equal of Ronaldinho). My latest theory is that the French do not have any width. Their starting midfield consists of two engine room defensive midfielders (Makelele and Viera), a formerly sublime attacking midfielder who has become inconsistent in his old age (Zidane), and one winger (Malouda, spelled by Ribery). I don't think that that's enough of a midfield to stretch an opposing defense and punish them from packing the middle. Thus, Henry doesn't have the space that he does at Arsenal when Ljungberg, Pires, and Reyes are stretching opposing back lines out. Plus, France is making a terrible decision playing Barthez over Coupet and I sincerely hope that they are punished for their insouciance.

England? I think I've covered this one. No defensive midfielder, no ability to win in penalty kicks, out-of-form strikers, and a history of flattering to deceive. Honestly, who was the last big name country that England have beaten in the World Cup? France in the group stage of '82? I guess the Argentina win in '02 counts, despite the fact that it was achieved on the backs of a dive by Owen and a down-the-middle penalty by Beckham (the last one he's seemingly converted for the Three Lions), not to mention the fact that that Argentina team turned out to be way overrated.

Germany? I'm honestly tempted. Ballack is fighting with Klinsi, but that's only part of the fine German tradition of the star player and coach not seeing eye-to-eye (or do we need to ask Beckenbauer about his relationship with Helmut Schön. The Germans fit together as a squad, they have an in-form keeper (Lehmann) and two in-form strikers (Klose and Podolski). All that said, I'm not sold on their defense. I can't get 2-2 against Japan or 1-4 against Italy out of my head and I don't think that Metzelder, Mertesacker, and Huth are going to cut it in central defense. They'll make the semis and then get knocked out.

Italy? They were my pick six months ago, but a number of things have changed. Aside from the giant question mark that is their match-fixing scandal and the fact that a number of their players must be wondering whether they're going to be in Serie B next year, taking buses to Albinoleffe and Pescara, there are injury problems on the back line and the team's signature player - Francesco Totti - is coming off of a broken ankle and has a lousy history with the Azzuri. I'm also not sold on their midfield, which doesn't have much offensive spark. I am sold, however, on the fact that they'll be much better under Marcelo Lippi than under the certifiably insane Giovanni Trappatoni. Nothing would surpise me from this team. They could fail to win a game or they could win the whole thing.

Spain? Call me when they find a striker who can score a goal.

Portugal? See: Spain.

When in doubt, I throw up my hands and pick my favorite team:

Why am I taking the Dutch?

1. Hubris. Barca won the Champions League, so naturally, my team will win the World Cup, as well. Right?

2. Form. The Dutch drew a difficult qualifying group (Czech Republic, Finland, and Romania) and didn't lose a game, while conceding only three goals.

3. Homefield. Next to Germany and possibly England, the Dutch are going to be the best-supported team at the tournament. And if you think that doesn't matter, please note that Holland won the European Championship in Germany in '88 and lost the final to West Germany in the '74 World Cup. Their record on German soil is as good as Patton or Zhukov's. (There I go again.)

4. They're healthy. And not just that, none of their key offensive players should be especially tired. Rafael Van der Vaart missed the second half of the season at Hamburgwithh an ankle problem (and was a revelation in the first half of the year). Wesley Sneijder was in a similar boat at Ajax. Ruud van Nistlerooy got onto Alex Ferguson's bad side and found himself with time on his hands at the end of the Premier League season. (Ruud is looking for a new team and pissed off, two good factors for a key player.) Mark van Bommel, Arjen Robben, and Robin van Persie didn't play in all of their team's games for rotational reasons (not to mention that fact that Robin can be a little testy at times).

5. Marco van Basten is a Dutch god, which means that the players will listen to him (thus preventing the traditional Dutch bugaboo of infighting bringing the team down) and the media will not overanalyze every one of his decisions. OK, the media will overanalyze his decisions, but they'll be respectful about it.

6. They're due. Finalists in '74 and '78, semifinalists in '98, they've been knocking on the door for years. Like France, Dean Smith, Tom Osborne, and Bobby Bowden, that door has to come down eventually.

7. They fit well together as a team. Van Basten has picked a relatively young group of players who aren't necessarily the 11 best Dutch players, but are hungry and play well together. If there's one thing that Greece's run in 2004 taught us, it's that a team that fits well together can beat a more talented opponent. The difference is that that Greece team didn't have van Nistlerooy, Robben, and van der Vaart.

8. Because it'll make this guy happy:

So give me the Dutch over Argentina in the finals with Brazil and the Ukraine (I totally bought LD's reasoning on them and I think they'll upset France in the round of 16 and then beat Australia [who will have upset Italy] in the "one of these teams is going to be a semifinalist" in the quarters) rounding out the semis. The other quarterfinalists will be Germany, Australia, England, and Spain.

A few other thoughts on the tournament:

1. I have no idea what to make of the US. The teams in their group are such wild cards. I've mentioned Italy, but what's going to happen with the Czechs, who are talented, old, and injured, or the Ghanaians, who are talented, young, and somewhat unknown, is also up in the air. I have tremendous faith in Arena to come up with tactical plans for each of the opponents in the first round. He's never failed as a coach, not at UVA, not at DC United, and not with the National Team. This team is strong up the middle with Keller, Onyewu, Reyna, and Donovan. All that said, we probably have the least talented team in the group (laugh if you want, but we don't have a player with the European pedigree of Mikel Essien or Stephen Appiah, let alone the Czech and Italians) and we have a dreadful record in Europe. We also have questions at striker that would have been answered by Eddie Johnson before his injury. My guess is 1-1-1 in the group stage, just like last time, with everything coming down to goal difference.

2. I'm also interested to see if this is a form tournament or if we have a bunch of surprising names in the latter stages, as we did in Korean/Japan '02 and Portugal '04. There were a lot of articles written after both tournaments about how the major countries no longer had advantages because their players were worn out and unlikely toexpendd the sort of effort for their countries that they would for their paying employers. Those articles have been forgotten and possibly with good reason, as the European World Cups tend to be form affairs: West Germany/Holland/Brazil/Sweden were the last four in '74; Italy-West Germany-Poland-France in '82; West Germany-Argentina-England-Italy in '90; and France-Brazil-Holland-Croatia in '98.

3. Pay attention to the officiating. FIFA, with their customary incompetence and political correctness, has repeated their mistake of four years ago by appointing refs from such soccer hotbeds as Benin and Singapore who will be completely unable to handle the pressure of making calls in front of 60,000 baying fans at speeds far different from those they've seen before. This factor will make the games a little random and it will also help the Germans, first and foremost, and the other well-supported teams (especially England and Holland). Also, pay attention to the assignments in certain games. If the Germans keep getting third world refs for their games, as South Korea did on their run to the semis in '02, then that'll be another sign (beyond the incredibly cushy group) that FIFA wants the Germans to advance.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Sweet Oden's Raven!!! It's Phil Steele's Top 25!!!

I haven't yet seen Phil's six-point font cornucopia of VHT's and "Turnovers = Turnaround!!!" at Borders yet, although my spies will surely let me know when the blessed event takes place (or maybe I'll just stalk the magazine rack there like Francis Dolarhyde waiting for the Tattler in Red Dragon, brandishing a knife and scouring the magazine for secret messages that Phil is sending to me).

Michael brings Phil Steele's Preview home and then gets in touch with his inner dragon.

Thanks to a totally anonymous post on the Victors board, I now have his Top 25:

1. OU
2. Auburn
3. Louisville
4. USC
5. Texas
6. Miami
7. Notre Dame
8. OSU
9. VT
10. FSU
11. Michigan
12. Tennessee
13. Arkansas
14. Georgia
15. Iowa
16. Cal
17. WVU
18. Clemson
19. Boise St
20. Florida
21. LSU
22. Nebraska
23. Utah
24. Purdue
25. Oregon

Assuming that this is really his Top 25, I'm officially in love with Phil. Notre Dame and Ohio State, the chic picks at #1 and #2 in the mouth-breathing, "Defense? What's that? Games in 2005 other than the last two? How could they possibly be relevant?" college football media? Safely placed at #7 and #8. (Incidentally, I couldn't have been more heartbroken than when Orson from made the following statement: "LSU’s the pick for us [in the West,] especially following their wipeout of Miami in the Peach Bowl. Momentum works most of the time, and we’re banking on it here." Since we're in a movie sorta mood this morning, I was William Wallace, he was Robert the Bruce, and I just figured out that he had been fighting on the side of the English against Mother Scotland. His next post ought to include the following admission: "I have nothing. Men fight for me because if they do not, I throw them off my land and I starve their wives and children. Those men who bled the ground red at Falkirk fought for [Michael from Braves and Birds]. He fights for something that I never had. And I took it from him, when I betrayed him. I saw it in his face on the battlefield and it's tearing me apart." Where was I, anyway?)

When defending the Charles Rogers Theorem (imbalance of skill position talent relative to line talent + playing better at end of previous season than for the previous 10-11 games = overrated), it's well beyond rage.

I'm not entirely sold on the Oklahoma pick, given their offensive line issues, but I do suspect that we're in for a vengeance from the Crimson and Cream this year. One of my other pet theories is that rivals often respond to their enemies successes with successes of their own. Michigan often has great seasons after Ohio State has had one and vice versa. You think that OU might have been a tad motivated this offseason by a never-ending fusillade of "Texas this" and "Texas that" (at least before Jimmy Clausen's hairdo and Tom Zbikowski's pugilism shifted the attention to Notre Dame)? I am fairly certain that Oklahoma will have a great defense this year. Whether they can block for Adrian Peterson is the million-dollar question.

I'm sold on Steele having Louisville ahead of West Virginia. Honestly, what separates these two teams? Two things: (1) WVU's miracle OT win over the Cards at home, a game that would almost certainly have turned out differently at a neutral stadium or at the Pizza Palace; and (2) WVU catching Georgia in major let-down mode after the SEC Championship Game on the same day that Louisville lost to Virginia Tech without their starting quarterback. This is what I love about Phil: he looks at the talent each team has, the schedule they'll play, and then feeds that information into his HAL 9000 and spits out consistently superior predictions. Every other preview seemingly consists of a series of subjective statements based on imperfect information and ends up with preseason rankings that look remarkably similar to the final rankings at the end of the previous season.

The one place in which I'm going to dare to disagree with Phil the Seer is Florida State, which surely looks good under his framework, given their bounty of VHTs and a relatively manageable ACC slate without Virginia Tech or Georgia Tech. I just don't think he's properly taking into account the awesome constipating force that is Jeff Bowden. This is one place that a subjective opinion is useful, although Phil's reliance on stats should clue him in that FSU's offense has underperformed for several years now.

The Arkansas pick is very interesting. I'm on record as saying that they are the most interesting team in the SEC in 2006, given their returning starters, their strong second half of the season, Darren McFadden, and the Malzahn-Mustain experiment. (I'll be interested to see if and how Heismanpundit dismisses the new Arkansas offense as another boring SEC miasma.) #13 seems pretty high, but if Phil is selling it, then I'm buying it. Phil also seems to agree with me about Tennessee winning the East, since he has them as the highest rated team in the division. Great minds, yada yada yada.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

I Try Not to Agree with the Germans Too Much...

But they have a point here. If I were a German, I'd be pretty annoyed if my only beer option at a World Cup match was American swill. I was especially amused that the reaction to this article on Mayhem in the AM was Steak Shapiro telling the Germans to shut up because "it's called capitalism." No, capitalism is about having choices in the market and the better product winning, not forcing one inferior option down the throats of a captive audience that would prefer any one of a number of superior options. Also, I'm pretty sure that "it's called capitalism" could have been used by Tom Glavine to parry the insults from sports radio hosts in this town when he signed with the Mets for decidedly more money than the Braves were offering, but who cares about being consistent when we have the chance to be jingoistic?

Maybe I'm just defensive on this subject because I have very fond memories of sampling the best that Bavaria had to offer (over and over again) at the Augustiner Beer Hall in Munich in November 2004.

That's not me because: (1) that's a woman; and (2) she's standing upright.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Barnhart's Top 25

From up on high comes Tony Barnhart's Top 25. Tony, never one to rock the boat, has Ohio State at #1, followed by Texas, USC, West Virginia, and Notre Dame. He does fall into the trap of picking WVU high based on their schedule, which could ultimately become a self-fulfilling prophecy that has nothing to do with whether or not they are a top five team. The more I think about the Mountaineers, the more I think they're overrated. Their defense was not especially good last year. Statistically, they were impressive, but a weak schedule had a lot to do with that and Virginia Tech, Louisville, and Georgia all scored on them. (Georgia scored relatively easily once they stopped fumbling the ball on a regular basis and some of the Georgia receivers were embarrassingly open, especially in light of the fact that they were behind and WVU knew they would be throwing.) Plus, they have to replace a good chunk of that defense, especially the secondary, if I recall correctly. (Phil Steele, please help!!!)

Barnhart doesn't have an SEC team in his top five, so he can't be accused of being a homer. I'm in agreement with having Auburn as the top team in the SEC, although I've got that little voice in my head (the same one that told Ray Kinsella to "go the distance") reminding me that Auburn typically does well when nothing is expected of them and poorly when they are highly rated. I have a major logos/ethos dilemma to resolve about the Tigers before the season starts.

Barnhart seem to throw up his hands at the end of the top ten by including all three Florida teams, none of whom have been that good in the last several years. Seriously, when was the last time that Florida State finished in the Top Ten? They've averaged four losses per season since Mark Richt bolted out of town. At what point do people who are paid to know football start to sense a pattern that should be painfully obvious to anyone? Miami has lost three games in each of their two seasons outside of the Big East and just replaced their program lifers with...more program lifers. Florida...well, if you're going to rate West Virginia highly based on a weak schedule, don't you have to downgrade the Gators for having a Bataan Death March of a slate?

Monday, June 05, 2006

After Blogging about the Braves, I Needed a Little Pick-Me-Up...


And then I couldn't stop watching this. Damn you, Lang Whitaker.

"Snakes, why'd it have to be snakes?"

The Braves are 1-6 on their current homestand and have been outscored 51-32. They just got bitch-slapped by the D-Backs pitching staff, despite missing Brandon Webb during the four-game series. Braves beat writer David O'Brien has a solid take on their failings. In short, the bullpen sucks, the pitching depth is questionable, and Francoeur and Langerhans aren't hitting. Personally, I'm not going to get too carried away by the last seven games, which are essentially a market correction after the Braves tore through the Cubs, Marlins, and Nats, but the bottom line is that this is a .500 team until the bullpen starts getting some outs. Horacio has been very encouraging, but as he has stepped up, John Thomson has turned in a couple excreble performances.

Getting Back to Ed on Notre Dame

Regular contributor Ed offered a few thoughts on my comparison between Notre Dame fans and Religious Right voters found, naturally, in this post on Mark Bradley's 2006 college football predictions. Since he has some interesting ideas and also since this topic hits on why I would root for Ohio State, Michigan State, Tennessee, or the Al-Aqsa Martyr's Brigade against Notre Dame, I thought it deserved the full treatment of a response. Plus, I figured that an all-out war between Ed's references to Berlioz and Poussin and mine to Lubyanka Prison and the Battle of Kursk would be an appropriate paean to the blogosphere. Either that or a cure for insomnia. Anyway, here is his post:

Oh those silly paranoid Notre Dame fans! What are they thinking?

The Media focuses a lot of attention on Notre Dame, because it has a large fan base and that equals lots of money. That's a pretty simple formula.

But simply because the media gets maximum coverage out of ND's football team doesn't preclude the notion of an "anti-Notre Dame bias."

ESPN, Sporting News, CNNSI etc. will run 300 million articles about Brady Quinn this fall. Many of them will be positive. But on the "serious" issues (Ty Willingham's firing, Notre Dame's continuing independence, Charlie Weis's extension etc.), one finds a decidedly similar tone to many of the articles written on these subjects. It usually reads like this:

Notre Dame is a privileged, insular little midwestern school living in the past. It has a holier-than-thou attitude towards other schools, but incident x clearly shows that it has always been, or has become,(here's where there is a slight difference of opinion) no different than the Miami's or the Ohio State's of the world. For all of its hot air about academics and Catholic values, Notre Dame is simply in it for the bottom line.

But try telling that to its fans, who are a bunch of uneducated working class stiffs who think that good ole Catholic Notre Dame is the center of the universe, even though they're probably too stupid to find South Bend on a map.

I exaggerate only a little bit (and yeah, I could a cite a ton of articles written by people at ESPN, CNNSI, to prove my point). I have not read a sportswriter who has had anything good to say about the Notre Dame the institution in a long, long time.

But that would make sense wouldn't it? The above manner of coverage combines two fundamental tendencies in the way in which educated people (or, at least, semi-educated with the pretense of worldliness) perceive the world today. There is the surface anti-elitist skepticism of any institution with an "exceptionalist" sense of itself. Yet, once one scratches a little, one finds a vigorous elitism towards those dumb enough to still believe in the old myths.

Hence the ubiqitous, healthy contempt for those dumb, anthem-chanting fundamentalist christians living in Texas Georgia who serve as the last bulwark for America's flagging sense of superiority.

So, I guess this is my roundabout way of saying that your Notre Dame/Religious Right analogy is spot-on, though certainly not in the way you intended. But maybe I've spent too many years in the happy, progressive halls of academia not to give a little credence to the persecution complex of traditional christians.

The general criticism I have of Notre Dame fans feeling like the media is out to get them is that same criticism I have of just about any fan base making the same argument: they're harping solely on the bad stuff. We always remember the articles that rip on our favorite programs and conveniently forget the articles that laud them. We remember when announcers say things that we feel are excessively critical of our favorite programs, but we forget when they give us too much credit.

Michigan fans, for instance, all remember Lee Corso shilling for Nebraska during the 1997 bowl season and a number still use that argument as a justification for the "Lee Corso hates Michigan" conclusion. That, however, just shows the danger of ever reading too much into one opinion. Sports media personalities are supposed to give opinions and their opinions of often zero-sum: if they're building someone up, they're tearing someone else down. That's what they get paid to do. That's also why just about every fan base thinks that Lee Corso has an agenda against them. I thought that Corso had it out for Michigan because of the '79 Michigan-Indiana game until I realized that it wasn't just Michigan fans who thought that Corso didn't like them, but that just about every other fan base in the college football world thought the same thing. And it's not just Corso. Michigan fans also remember the "M Stands for Mediocrity" article in The Sporting News' 1997 Preview, Billy Packer and Bill Walton's rants about the Fab Five, and Chris Fowler's regular complaints about Michigan fans (despite the fact that the Michigan fan base is typically mild-mannered in comparison to others). We don't notice that TSN has also had some very nice things to say about Michigan, or that Billy Packer is negative about just about everyone, or that Chris Fowler can be grumbly about other fan bases, as well.

My views on the media being "out to get" certain programs has also been colored by observing SEC fans. There is a contingent of the Alabama fan base that is convinced that everyone is out to get them, the national media included. The conspiracy is apparently fueled by Phil Fulmer and Tennessee's desire to keep Bama down as a program. Conversely, Tennessee fans were convinced that Tutorgate was part of ESPN's war on the Vols that started when ESPN decided to pimp Charles Woodson for the Heisman over Peyton Manning. It occurred to me at one point that: (1) the media can't be out to get both programs if both programs are enemies; and (2) ESPN and the rest of the national media have no reason to attack Tennessee or Alabama since both have large fan bases that are appealing to advertisers. The evident paranoia of certain Tennessee and Alabama fans caused me to point some fingers at myself and say "gee, I was pretty dumb when I decided that Lou Holtz was conspiring against Michigan to sway the coaches' vote in '97, wasn't I?"

As pertaining to Notre Dame, I'm quite sure that there have been negative articles about the Irish. I'm even willing to grant that there have probably been more negative articles about ND than most other programs because there is more coverage of the Irish than of any other program. However, the idea that Ed could state that "I have not read a sportswriter who has had anything good to say about the Notre Dame the institution in a long, long time" merely illustrates the point that he, like most fans, has an extremely selective memory. Perhaps he's forgotten this:

Or this:

Or this:

Do I need to mention the fact that most of the coverage of Notre Dame this summer has been about installing Brady Quinn as the prohibitive Heisman favorite or covering Tom Zbikowski's burgeoning boxing career? Shall I note that TSN picked the defensively-challenged Irish #1? Can I reference the media fawning over Jimmy Clausen's subtle college announcement as if he's the only blue chip quarterback to announce a college preference in years? (And nary a mention in the national media of "by the way, both of his brothers turned out to be overrated.") If this is an anti-Notre Dame bias, then what would a pro-Notre Dame bias look like? Campaigning to have Charlie Weis appointed as secretary general of the UN?

Ed mentions the coverage of Ty Willingham's firing and Charlie Weis' extension as evidence of the media being out to get Notre Dame, but the media's reaction proves my point. Jason Whitlock wrote a weak piece on Notre Dame giving Weis an extension as evidence of racism and then pretty much the entire college football media and blogosphere, including some unexpected defenders of the Irish, leapt to Notre Dame's defense to argue that Weis was a better candidate for an extension than Willingham was. I specifically remember every contributor on ESPN's college football page defending the decision to give Weis an extension and rightfully so, despite the superficial parallels between Weis and Willingham's first seasons.

And as for the attacks on Notre Dame's status as as exceptional institution, my response is "well, yeah!" Any institution that holds itself up to be on a higher standard than those with which it competes is asking for negative treatment. And yes, it's because many people are cynical towards any institutions that hold themselves out in that way. Maybe I've experienced one too many Abu Ghraibs and Kim Dunbars. And maybe it is a different, post-modern way of viewing the world. But that doesn't mean that the cynical worldview is uniformly wrong and that doesn't mean that there aren't plenty in the media who go the other direction and echo the "Notre Dame is different and better" line. Like for instance, the people who label every white Notre Dame quarterback as "Golden Boy." Why wasn't Danny Wuerrfel "Golden Boy"? Why wasn't Tom Brady "Golden Boy"? Why isn't Troy Smith "Golden Boy"? Why do Notre Dame quarterbacks get this special treatment that goes beyond their merits as passers?

Generally speaking, the media does as much or more to elevate Notre Dame to exceptional status as they do to tear them down, just like they build up every program at its apex (Florida State and Nebraska in the 90s; USC today) and then tear them down. It's a function of the way the media operates, not a function of some desire to hammer Notre Dame. Specifically speaking, Notre Dame gets built up more than any other program because of its history and popularity, so it should stand to reason that there'll be more negativity against the Irish as a reaction against the love-in that occurs every time they win nine games. That said, I just don't see the tear-down of Notre Dame being that intense, although to get back to my original point, I might be selective in thinking that.