Wednesday, June 30, 2010

No Mo' Joe

If you can't tell, I haven't been paying a whole lot of attention to sports outside of the World Cup right now, so with free agency one minute old, I am going to outsource the explanations for why the Hawks should not attempt to sign Joe Johnson to a max deal. Here is Hoopinion:

Don't offer Joe Johnson $125 million over 6 years unless you're absolutely sure he's not going to accept the offer and even then only offer Joe Johnson $125 million over 6 years if you're preoccupied with managing perceptions rather than winning basketball games.

Signing Joe Johnson to a max deal will necessitate making future decisions based on finances rather than basketball all in the pursuit of keeping hope alive for the opportunity to get beaten soundly in the second-round. Pushing up against the luxury tax in the short-term and sacrificing future cap flexibility throughout the prime of the careers of Josh Smith and Al Horford so as not to lose a player who, good though he is and has been, projects to be the team's third-best player before the half this hypothetical contract expires is not in the best interests of the franchise.

And here is Peachtree Hoops:

It's become clear, in all of these conversations, that Joe is a fallback plan piece, a Plan B or C, to all these teams that have cleared a path for the real big hitters of this free agency forum. Michael Wilbon, during the course of free agent discussion on ESPN's Pardon the Interruption, mentioned that Johnson "isn't a #1", but as a #3, he'd be great! Wilbon is not alone around the league on this assessment.

Wonderful. So now, as the Hawks maintain that they will do all they can to resign Johnson, it stands to mention that the Hawks might end up mortgaging the next six seasons for a player who is better suited as a second or third option on a team today, at 29 years old, but get paid like a #1, and be paid that way until he's 34. Scary.

Joe is/has been a great player, but has always been miscast as some sort of superstar, even in star-starved Atlanta. His numbers, beyond All-Star game count, has never proven that reputation out. He's a great shot maker, plays a very physical brand of basketball, but it seems the rest of the league and those who watch the NBA is getting around to the same conclusions as Bird Watchers have....Joe is not a max player, doesn't quite rise to the level of a top-shelf free agent, candidate, and is, at best a fallback plan for a team that has the financial resources to swallow an above market contact well beyond the years of peak performance.

There was consensus in the USMNT blogosphere that starting Ricardo Clark and Robbie Findley was a bad idea; there is consensus in the Hawks' blogosphere that spending max money on Joe Johnson is a bad idea. This is not an overreaction to the Orlando debacle. Joe has been an asset to this franchise. He has played hard, scored a pile of points, worked his tail off on defense, and taken the team as far as he could. I'll always have affection for him for taking the team from 13 wins the year before his arrival to 53 this year. The Hawks got his best years. However, spending $119M for a player who has logged a ton of minutes at a position that sees players fall off a cliff around 31 or 32 is terrible business. Let the Knicks make that mistake.

Sigan Chupando

There is fun, there is great fun, and then there is watching Portugal get knocked out of the World Cup while Cristiano Ronaldo is punished for years of diving by being deprived of legitimate fouls. Simply glorious.

What was most interesting about this match to me was the fact that Vicente del Bosque decided it by taking off Fernando Torres. Torres had a terrific shot on goal in the first minute, but then produced the sort of rusty performance that has marked his World Cup so far. Del Bosque put Athletic Bilbao’s Fernando Llorente onto the pitch. Within minutes, Llorente had a great chance saved by the keeper, Villa had shot just wide, and then Villa scored a quintessentially Spanish goal after a series of short passes from the tika taka experts: Iniesta and Xavi.

The match was not unlike Spain’s win over Russia at Euro ’08. There, Spain struggled to break down Russia for a half. Villa picked up an injury, which forced Spain to change its shape. The new shape, with Cesc Fabregas in the middle and space for the full backs out wide, was devastating and Spain won 3-0. Yesterday, Spain didn’t change its shape, but bringing on Llorente gave Spain a traditional target man, which presented Portugal with a new threat. Portugal, like Russia, is coached by a tactical expert who most likely set his team up with a very specific plan to handle a Torres-Villa attack. When that attack changed to Villa-Llorente, Portugal was taken out of their plan. Spain are often criticized for having only one way to play, but yesterday’s game showed that La Furia Roja have terrific depth and can bring all manner of options off the bench. Del Bosque has a number of appealing tactical options as games progress; the question is whether he will continue to be willing to make significant changes.

The match yesterday also highlighted a theme from this World Cup: the underperformance of English Premier League stars. Torres is no different than Robin Van Persie, Didier Drogba, and Wayne Rooney, the strikers for the other members of the EPL’s Big Four. All four have been banged up and unproductive at this tournament. In fact, it’s hard to find a contender that is relying on an EPL star. (Argentina with the indestructible Tevez? Holland with Kujt, de Jong, and Heitinga?) I think that there are several factors at work here. First, the EPL is the only major league without a winter break. Second, the EPL has two domestic knock-out competitions instead of one. Third, and I think most importantly, the style of the EPL is fast, physical, and direct, aided by refs who let defenders get stuck in a little much. (Ask any Arsenal fan.) The style that makes the EPL the world’s most popular league takes its toll on its participants. Not only do EPL players end up playing more games, but the games that they play are more taxing. It is said that the passion that English fans have for football creates undue pressure on England’s players. More indirectly, the intense interest for football in England causes its clubs to over-schedule games, which means that the players are knackered by the summer.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Blame Game

The United States lost to Ghana in extra time on Saturday afternoon. In so doing, we lost a good chance to make a deep run in this World Cup. However, the primary reason why the US lost demonstrates that if the Nats would have made the semifinal, it would have represented a level of achievement that exceeds our talent. To put it bluntly, our centerbacks are not very good, so we can have no complaints that we are not going to finish this tournament as one of the four (or eight) best teams in the world.

The US conceded five goals in four games. Every one of the goals came right down the middle:

1 - England come through the middle, Gooch is sucked too far forward, Clark and Cherundolo are unable to cover, and Steven Gerrard scores.

2 - Valter Brisa ghosts in from the right into the space between the midfield and back line. The center backs don't step out, and Birsa knocks home a screamer.

3 - Slovenia come forward on the counter, one or both of Demerit and Gooch butcher their assignments, and Zlatan Ljubijankic scores.

4 - Ricardo Clark turns the ball over in the midfield to Kevin Prince-Boateng. KPB then turns Demerit inside-out before beating Tim Howard at the near post.

5 - Asamoah Gyan simply splits the US centerbacks, latches onto the most hopeful of long balls, and smashes a shot past Howard.

In every instance, the centerbacks were at least partially at fault. On some occasions, they were too slow. On others, they compensated for their lack of speed by playing off of faster attackers, which gave those attackers space to unleash lethal shots. There were also positional issues, mainly when the pairing was Gooch and Demerit. In the end, it is just about impossible for a team to survive on the top international level with suspect centerbacks. Our three options at centerback were a player who has missed the entire club season with a major knee injury, a starter for a club side in the second tier of English football who was discovered playing amateur games, and a left back for a team in Ligue Un. The U.S. has top class goalies, midfielders, and attackers; the current generation lacks top class defenders and that's why our World Cup ended in the Round of 16.

I say that as an opening before I start complaining about Bob Bradley. Bradley got the Nats to a result commensurate with our talent. In that sense, he cannot be criticized too harshly. The combination of his conditioning regime and the belief/chemistry that he fostered with the team was the major reason why the Nats kept fighting back from deficits. Bradley was able to diagnose problems in the lineup and make appropriate changes. Unfortunately, those problems were usually the result of Bradley's selection issues. By the fourth game of the tournament, the gaffer should know his best XI, but Bradley did not.

One doesn't have to be Jonathan Wilson to figure out that: (1) Maurice Edu is a better option in defensive midfield than Ricardo Clark; and (2) Robbie Findley is a poor man's Theo Walcott: a fast attacker with little ability to pass or shoot. Bradley should have learned after the Slovenia game that the best lineup for the US was Edu anchoring the midfield, allowing Bradley and Feilhaber or Torres to get forward, and then sticking Donovan and/or Dempsey higher up the pitch. He had to relearn that lesson when Clark played poorly and had to be hauled off 30 minutes into the Ghana match. Not surprisingly, the Nats looked much better when Bradley deployed the lineup from the second half of the Slovenia match. The fact that he didn't learn what appeared to be an obvious lesson is the major black mark against him in the aftermath of South Africa '10.

Other thoughts:
  • In 2006, I watched the Ghana match with Spencer Hall at a bar off of Moreland. I wore my '96 USMNT jersey. We conceded early, Dempsey forged an equalizer, and then we lost. In 2010, I watched the Ghana match with Spencer Hall at a bar off of Moreland. I wore my '96 USMNT jersey. We conceded early, Dempsey forged an equalizer, and then we lost. Bob Bradley isn't the only person who doesn't learn from experience.

  • After the game, I was commiserating with another fan about the fact that the Nats don't have any major tournaments other than the World Cup. The atmosphere at the Midway was electric. It sucks that we are going to have to wait four years for the Nats to play in a match that approaches the stakes of the World Cup (and no, the Gold Cup isn't the same). My solution: convince CONMEBOL to expand Copa America. Make the tournament 16 teams: the ten powers in CONMEBOL, the US, Mexico, and then four qualifiers from the remaining countries in North and Central America. Let the U.S. and Mexico host the tournament once in a while. CONMEBOL has already invited Mexican club teams to the Copa Libertadores because of the market potential in Mexico; imagine what they can do with Copa America if they can get the US and Mexico as regular participants (as opposed to being the occasional invitee). Wouldn't everybody win with a true American championship?

  • If you asked me right now to choose between the US producing a world class centerback and Jozy Altidore developing a first touch and ability to finish, I'd be hard pressed to come up with an answer. Jozy does a lot of good set-up work, but it's not good for a striker to play four games at the World Cup without scoring. One way of looking at Saturday's result is that Ghana won because their striker was able to create and finish a chance, whereas ours was not. Jozy is young and there's time for him to develop skills, but he needs to be playing regularly with a club that has a track record of developing talent. In retrospect, a year with Phil Brown was a wasted year.

  • I was a little let down by Tim Howard on Saturday, especially by his positioning on the first goal. I was reminded that Howard is a very good goalie, but he does have a reputation in the EPL for giving up goals on long range shots. He gave up two at this World Cup.

  • I made a joke about the Red Army crushing the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 at some point in the first half after a bad call, but I can't for the life of me remember what the call was.

  • I would have liked to have had a healthy Gooch and Charlie Davies on Saturday, but I'm sure that Ghana would have liked a healthy Michael Essien. If Ghana beat Uruguay, they will become the first African team to make the World Cup semifinals and they will have done it without their biggest star. There has to be some meaning in that possibility, but I'm not sure what it is. Something about the importance of having a bunch of good players playing together as opposed to a team that revolves around a superstar?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

This is Awesome

The reaction to Donovan's strike all over the country.

This raises an interesting point: do the TV ratings account for the fact that so many people watch World Cup games in bars? More than any other sporting event, there is a communal element to World Cup games, in part because of the "us versus them" element and in part because many of the games are during the work day, so people watch with their co-workers at the local bar as opposed to at home on their couches.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Landon Donovan

Comin' to save the muthaf***in' day now.

I have absolutely nothing educated to say about that game. There was a friggin' lid on the goal for 90 minutes, infuriatingly placed there by a combination of wayward American finishing, a competent Algerian goalie, and a Belgian linesman whose country I would forever curse if they didn't produce such delicious beer. Chance after chance went begging. I couldn't eat, I couldn't drink, and I could barely form coherent sentences other than "A goal, please!?! F***!!!" I could barely see the screen at Ri Ra because we were sitting towards the back of the room and, sports fans being sports fans, everyone stood up at key moments. When Landon scored the winner, all I could do was judge the reaction of the people in the front of the room before jumping around like I just won the Showcase Showdown and landing in the arms of my friend who convinced me to watch the game at Ri Ra instead of Taco Mac, which has a million elevated TVs.

Now, we're likely on the Serbia/Ghana/South Korea/Uruguay quarter of the bracket. Nothing is a given or likely for a team that rallied from 2-0 down against Slovenia and then needed a Hollywood ending to beat Algeria, but that's not exactly the quadrant of death. If we were wondering which quarterfinal is going to be billed as the "one of these teams is about to make the World Cup semis?", here it is. Thank you to Raymond Domenech and the incompetent FFF for their attempt to one-up Gamelin for the title of "worst French management ever."

Other random thoughts:
  • Now do you people understand why I and most of the rest of the planet love this game? There is nothing quite like the Chinese water torture that is the second half of a game in which your team needs a goal. The second half of Chelsea-Barca in '09 took a little bit off my life; today did the same. BTW, have I ever mentioned that Landon Donovan is Andres Iniesta with a tan?

  • What was more improbable: the Nats winning in injury time or Jonathan Bornstein putting in a good performance in a crunch game. Let's hear it for the Tribe!

  • Speaking of which, I'm not predisposed to root for Germany, especially when Ghana are the last hope for an African team making the knock-out rounds in this tournament. However, the prospect of an England-Germany knock-out game is too tasty. This is one of the conflicts that the World Cup presents. On the one hand, most fans like to root against the favorites, especially teams like Germany and France. On the other hand, when the favorites don't progress, the knock-out rounds aren't as good. Does anyone remember anything about Turkey-Senegal in '02?

  • Save for his finishing (which is an awfully big caveat for a striker), this was one of Jozy Altidore's best games for the USMNT. He was a constant threat, right into injury time. Let's hear it for Bob Bradley making sure that these players are in peak physical condition.

  • Spare a thought for Slovenia. They are the smallest nation in this tournament and they were mere minutes away from progressing.

  • When I get around to buying one of the navy US jerseys, Michael Bradley's name is going on the back.

  • I could not have been angrier at Algeria as the game went on. They had a chance to progress with two goals, but they were sitting in a friggin' bunker, making no effort to press the US or force mistakes. Maybe they were just out of gas, but to my conspiratorial mind, I assumed that they were letting their dislike of the US trump their own self-interest. Congrats to the Desert Foxes on going goalless for 270 minutes; you brought SO much more to the table than Egypt would have. (/shout out to the Pharaohs).

Random Thoughts before D-Day (North Africa Version)

  • I love the World Cup again. I reserve my right to change my mind in three hours.

  • I just finished Inverting the Pyramid, which I thoroughly enjoyed. A couple initial thoughts. The description of Greece's Euro '04 win made me think of Paul Johnson and Georgia Tech. Otto Rehagel brought back the sweeper system and man-making, a defensive system that had been out of favor in major football for decades. Opponents had forgotten how to deal with that system, so Greece strung together 1-0 wins over France, the Czech Republic, and Portugal, all of which had far more talent than the Greeks. Does that sound a little like Johnson's success on the Flats? And if this analogy holds, then Greece's lack of success since 2004 - they failed to qualify for Germany '06 and they were knocked out at the group stages in Euro '08 and South Africa '10 - is a worrying sign. An unrelated note from the book: this quote from Arrigo Sacchi is the best counter to the "you never played the game" criticism of coaches and commentators from current or former players: does a jockey first need to be a horse?

  • West African sides are often accused of wasting their formidable talent in major tournaments through bouts of naivete. The archetype of this phenomenon are the two penalties that Cameroon gave away to England in Italia '90 when the Indomitable Lions were poised to make the semifinals. Nigeria's red card when they were on the front foot against Greece is a perfect recent example. With that context in mind, Kaider Keita's Oscar-worthy performance in getting Kaka sent off was sadly hilarious. On the one hand, a West African team had finally figured out how to deploy the sort of gamesmanship that we take for granted from most major futbol powers. On the other hand, Keita's timing was exceedingly bad, as the Ivory Coast was already cooked in the Brazil game, so getting Kaka sent off reduced the chances of Brazil delivering the hiding to Portugal that the Elephants need to progress. Even when an African side deploys the dark art of play-acting, they don't get it right.

  • Barcelona lacked a proper left-sided attacker this year after Thierry Henry showed that his career as a top level footballer was over. With that in mind, David Villa's opener against Honduras - in which Villa cut in from the left, beat two defenders, and then laced a shot into the side netting while maneuvering around a third - was sweet music to my . . . eyes? I liked what I saw from Spain against Honduras, minus Fernando Torres's incredibly wasteful finishing. Jesus Navas and Sergio Ramos made absolute mincemeat of the Honduran left and Villa had his way on the right. Spain 4 Chile 2 seems like a likely result on Friday. In terms of attacking, chances, and drama, that should be the game of the group stage.

  • I don't know what to think about the Nats today. On the one hand, they looked very good in the second half against Slovenia, so you would hope that they can take that momentum into a game against a weaker foe that is going to have to press forward. Algeria are going to be uncomfortable needing to attack, which should create all sorts of chances for the US. On the other hand, nothing ever comes easy for our boys. The memories of Poland in '02 are still fresh. I like the US 2-1 today, but I'm uneasy, although not as uneasy as I would be if I were an England fan.

  • Speaking of which, those of you who are regular readers can probably imagine how much joy I am taking from England's inability to complete a pass from point A to point B. All of the reasons why I don't like England - overrated EPL players who benefit from playing with skilled foreign teammates, passion in the place of skill, running in the place of passing - have been evident in the Three Lions' struggles. Not that he asked me, but if I were Fabio Capello, I would: (1) make Wayne Rooney the striker; (2) give license to Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson to get forward to pump crosses into the box; (3) bench one of Lampard or Gerrard (probably Lampard); (4) play Michael Carrick in the base of a 4-3-3 next to Barry and tell Carrick that his job is to be Andrea Pirlo or Xabi Alonso by spraying passes everywhere; and (5) make Aaron Lennon and Joe Cole the right and left wings of the attacking trident with instructions that they need to stretch the Slovenia backline and pin the Slovenia left and right backs to the wall. Capello is probably too conservative to do so, which raises another criticism of the English FA: they have figured out that there are no good English managers, but why have they tried to solve the problem by hiring two of the most conservative products of Serie A? I like Capello and will never dispute his merits as a manager, but when England's problem has been scoring goals against top competition and then going out on penalties, he doesn't seem like the fix. In retrospect, wouldn't Guus Hiddink have been the better solution?

Friday, June 18, 2010

Instathoughts on USA 2 Slovenia 2

Overall, a good result that feels strangely empty. The US shouldn't have many problems with an Algeria team that will almost certainly have one foot on the plane. (Note: I'm sure I was saying the same thing about our final match with Poland eight years ago.) It is very unlikely that a win over Algeria will not send the US into the knock-out stage. And with Germany losing and looking vulnerable, the premium for winning the group has gone out the window. I ought to be thrilled with the guts that the US team showed by fighting back from 2-0 down in the second half. (What was it that everyone says about this team being inconsistent?) Still, there's such a feeling of frustration because the winning goal was waved off because Michael Bradley managed to find himself in an "offside" position as a result of being tackled in the box. Swirl that one around in your mouth for a moment.

Lotsa thoughts:

1. The US looked really good on free kicks. Landon Donovan's deliveries were consistently excellent and we had guys crashing to the right spots time and again. It seemed like it was a matter of time before we scored on one. Also, I was a little surprised that Slovenia - a team with a reputation as an organized, defensive side - was so slack in marking our attackers. England will have a field day on set pieces if they get the opportunities.

2. I'll repeat my gripe from eight years ago: FIFA damages the World Cup by making nice with its broad constituency by having refs from tiny countries calling big matches. In 2002, South Korea advanced to the semifinals because refs from Ecuador and Egypt were intimidated by the Koreans' fantastic crowds. Today, the US was undone because of a crew from Mali. Honestly, does anyone think that a ref from one of the poorest countries in the world is better able to handle the speed of a world class game and the pressure of making calls in front of 80,000 fans with hundreds of millions watching all over the globe? I can't claim to be an expert on the domestic league in Mali, but I'm guessing that your average ref from any one of the major European leagues, not to mention the leagues in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, the US, and Japan, would be better positioned to make a close call in a critical game.

2a. And FIFA's referee selection policies are made worse by its refusal to do anything to make sure that the right call is made. FIFA hasn't gone to two refs, it hasn't put refs behind the goals (yet), and it is totally against video replay. Any one of those fixes would have increased the chances that the right call would have been made on Edu's goal. It is very difficult to be a ref or a linesman. I can think of few calls in sports that are harder to make than offside because the linesman has to see two different places within a split second. Because of the low-scoring nature of the game, refereeing decisions take on out-sized importance in futbol. These are all reasons why FIFA should be doing more to get calls right, as opposed to its current policy of sticking its collective fingers in its ears and singing "Mary had a Little Lamb."

2b. The US has had a dreadful decision go against it in the last three World Cups: the handball on the line by Frings in '02, the penalty that ended our hopes against Ghana in '06, and now the travesty of a call on Edu's winner in '10. Can we think of any notable bad calls that have gone our way? The only one that comes to mind is the penalty that Mexico should have had when they were down 1-0 in the '02 Round of 16.

2c. All that said, in futbol, you just have to accept that calls are going to be missed.

3. Maybe my view is distorted because the US played with more urgency in the second half and Slovenia was sitting on their lead, but I liked the 4-3-3. Bob Bradley moved Maurice Edu into a proper holding role, which we don't have in the 4-4-2, put Michael Bradley into a more offensive midfield spot alongside Benny Feilhaber, and then pushed Donovan and Dempsey into forward positions. That formation makes sense for a couple reasons. First, the strength of this team is clearly in the offensive positions, so why not go with an offensive formation? Play to your strengths instead of compensating for your weaknesses. Second, the 4-3-3 gives more defined roles. Right now, we have two central midfielders, but their roles are mixed between offense and defense. In the 4-3-3, we would have Edu tasked with shielding the back four (which they desperately need) and Bradley in a more advanced position to take advantage of his Gerrard-esque ability to crash the box. The US has given up three goals in this tournament, all right down the middle and all in the space that would be covered by someone playing the classic Makelele role. The downside to a 4-3-3 would be that Dempsey and Donovan would have to run their tails off to provide help for the left and right backs. That said, maybe encouraging opponents to play down the wings and cross would play to the strength of our centerbacks. That certainly worked against Spain last summer, although Spain is a unique case.

4. Demerit and Gooch have played together for ages, but they are not doing a good job of communicating. Also, with Gooch slowed by his knee injury, we have two slow centerbacks and we can only get away with one.

5. Did anyone else notice on Landon's goal that he didn't have a passing option because Feilhaber ran into Dempsey? They both went to the same spot.

6. Boy, this tournament has gotten a lot better after the first set of games. The goals are suddenly coming in a flood. I'm happy to have been wrong.

7. Assuming that England beats Algeria by more than one goal, Slovenia is going to have to play to win against England. Let's see how a naturally defensive team does in that situation. They were in the same spot in their second leg match against Russia and they pulled it off, but it's easier to go for the win at home as opposed to at a neutral site.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

We're One Week in and this Tournament Already Sucks

16 games. 25 goals. 1.56 goals per game.

When Italia '90 was universally panned by non-Teutons as being a hopeless bore because it finished with 2.21 goals per game, FIFA stepped in with two major, positive rule changes. First, it introduced the rule that teams would get three points for a win instead of two. Second, it banned goalies from picking up the ball after it had been played back to them from a teammate's foot. Leagues across the world followed the change and by USA '94, the average goals per game increased to 2.6.

Right now, we've regressed from the low standards of Italia '90 by almost two-thirds of a goal per game. Moreover, the quality of goals has been low. I can't recall a free kick on target, nor can I remember a quality shot from outside the box. There are two major causes of the stultifying play:

1. Damn you, Jabulani! Who is with me for a boycott of Adidas? The prevailing impression that I have taken from the first 16 games has been of attacking players futilely chasing balls as they run out of play for goal kicks. On the rare occasions where teams have found themselves in promising attacking positions, their passes have typically been too heavy for the players making runs. Quality crossing has been virtually non-existent. Top strikers who are noted for their first touches have been bumbling balls out as if they were over-the-hill drunks in a park. Maybe this is the result of the fact that FIFA and Adidas, in a shameless grab for filthy lucre, changed the object of the game - the ball - on the eve of the tournament. Can you imagine if Major League Baseball reduced the seams on the baseball before the playoffs so pitchers couldn't get the same spin? Bud Selig may be a goof, but he's Pete Rozelle compared to Sepp Blatter. And naturally, FIFA and Adidas didn't account for how their new ball would perform at altitude, which makes perfect sense since Johannesburg and Bloemfontein were all at sea level until last week. In the end, the best footballers in the world are playing with an oversized racquetball. I'm hoping that they get used to this abortion of a sphere, but I'm not hopeful.

2. Creeping Mourinhoism. You knew I'd blame Jose somehow, right? With limited exceptions, the coaches in this tournament have been remarkably conservative. Kenny Hassan was right on point on a World Football Daily episode before the tournament when he said that every team seems to be planning to play on the counter, so nothing is going to happen. It used to be that inferior teams played on the counter and teams with talent (save for Italy) would, you know, actually try to pass and score. Now, mimicking the Special One, numerous talented teams refuse to commit players forward, instead waiting for the other teams to take risks. The problem with being a parasite is that you need a prey. If everyone is a parasite, then everyone starves. The nadir was the Ivory Coast-Portugal game. Sven Goran Eriksson and Carlos Queiroz managed to neuter two teams packed with talent such that each team had about one good scoring chance. I say that on information and belief for last 15 minutes because I fell asleep on 75 minutes. If a game loses me, then it's fair to say that it's losing a casual fan. I feel especially bad about the spineless instructions given by managers to their players because ESPN has expended a great deal of time and money to sell this product. Soccer is becoming more mainstream in this country, but a tournament with record-low scoring will not be good in that respect. In a certain sense, I shouldn't care. If the games are on, why does it matter if I'm part of a select few watching them? I care because I love talking and writing about the game. The more fans, the more I get to do that.

Other thoughts on the first 16 games:

  • The Dutch looked uncomfortably similar to the 2006 version that struggled to create chances and bowed out of the tournament in the round of 16. They struggled to generate chances against an organized Denmark side. The problem with the team was that Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart are similar players, not unlike Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard. When they play next to one another, they look to do the exact same things: get the ball in a center-left position and make the final pass. They got in each other's way repeatedly and they lacked targets, other than the well-marked and off-form Robin van Persie. The Dutch looked much better when they hauled van der Vaart off and brought on Eljero Elia, a younger, fitter version of Arjen Robben. With a passer and a dribbler in the attacking midfield instead of two passers, the Dutch looked much better. When Robben is healthy, the Oranje should click. Until then, Elia needs to start.

  • France can't score without Zidane? Knock me over with a feather, I'm shocked!

  • I tipped Nicolas Lodeiro before the tournament as the missing link for Uruguay. He lasted 18 minutes. FML.

  • I got misty this morning listening to the Honduran national anthem. I can't imagine how exciting it must be for that small country to see its players and hear its song on the world stage for the first time in 28 years. As much as I bitch about this World Cup, I still love it like family.

  • Yes, my bitching at the start of this post started before my Spanish friends laid an egg today. Yes, that egg has further fouled my mood on the tournament. I didn't see the match, so I don't know whom to blame other than the ball and the injuries that the team suffered at the end of the European season. And no, I'm not going to accept that the reigning European champions are bottlers.

  • It's funny listening to English announcers express surprise at Brazil struggling to break down a defensive side. They are aware that Dunga is Brazil's coach, right? And that half of Brazil hate him because his teams play so defensively, right? And that 1970 and 1982 were a long time ago, right? It's not unlike being told over and over that the Dutch are perpetual disappointments, despite the fact that they come from a country of 17 million. And I'm still waiting for someone to acknowledge that the Germans are playing the most attractive football of any team so far. If the performance against Australia would have been delivered by a team in orange or yellow, we would never hear the end of it (and I say that as a fan of the Dutch). This Germany team is fun to root for. They're young, athletic, attacking, and multiethnic. They could be a great metaphor for the modern success of that country. (I have The Third Reich at War waiting on my bookshelf for when I finish Inverting the Pyramid. These nice statements about Germany will surely cease.)

  • Speaking of our friends in central Europe, if the English want to know what they're doing wrong, they should take a peek at the Germany side. The Mannschaft is loaded with young talent: Muller, Badstuber, Khedira, Ozil, and Neuer are all young players who have gotten domestic and European experience playing for top Bundesliga sides and are now performing on the highest international level. When was the last time that promising young English players broke into any of the Big Four? Chelsea, Liverpool, and United all feature lineups that they bought and Arsenal's youngsters come from everywhere by England. (Yes, I am aware of Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshire. Let's see them break into the first team.) Germany's clubs produce young talent and then give young players quality experience. England's clubs see their top young players waste away at Middlesboro and West Ham. This is why you fail.

Conference Expansion: Don't Speak Too Soon for the Wheel Still it Spins

I have gotten a few comments, e-mails, and confused calls from friends, all along the same lines: why haven't you written anything about the sea changes going on in your favorite sport? There are two reasons. First, when the World Cup is around the corner, everything else takes a back seat for me. El Mundial is my favorite sporting event. It represents one of my earliest sporting memories, sitting in the basement of our house in Pittsburgh in 1982 with my Dad and our neighbor Leonardo watching PBS's coverage of the World Cup. It's one of those rare, we can all get along events that appeals to my natural optimism. It's a proving ground for new stars and a platform for the swan songs of legends. Put it this way: I like basketball and I was only vaguely familiar that Game Six of the Finals was on last night.

The second reason is that the conference expansion was a constantly shifting landscape of rumor. In retrospect, what would the point have been of writing about the Pac 16? It looked like the Pac Ten was going to engulf the Big XII South, but then that didn't happen. It looked like Notre Dame was finally going to join the Big Ten, but then that didn't happen. It looked like Texas A&M was going to make a brave move to independence, but then that didn't happen. Frankly, there was enough bandwidth wasted on scenarios that didn't play out and I didn't feel like I had much to add to the dreaming. Now that we've reached a stopping point, I have a few thoughts. Naturally, I'll start with a claim of victory:

1. College basketball has been killed by the Tournament. In all of the discussions about who was going to end up where, did you notice that Kansas was completely on the sidelines? The Big Ten wasn't interested and the Pac Ten wasn't interested, which left the Jayhawks as bystanders, hoping that other decision-makers would reach conclusions that would be incidentally beneficial. The fact that Kansas - one of the top five college basketball programs, both historically and at current - is an irrelevant property should tell you all you need to know about college hoops. The same was true during ACC expansion. The ACC - the nation's best basketball conference - expanded to add football powers (plus BC, for faulty reasons) and to have a championship game. The objections of the basketball programs in the conference were brushed aside. (In retrospect, those concerns were valid, as the ACC has diluted its identity as a top basketball property, but it hasn't progressed on the gridiron.)

From a revenue perspective, college football is a more valuable property for three reasons: (1) Americans love football; (2) college football has a meaningful regular season because it doesn't kill its product with an expansive playoff; and (3) the programs that generate TV money get to keep that money. The third point is critical here. Generally speaking, the TV money from the Big Dance goes to the NCAA, which then spends the money to maintain its bureaucracy and for other, feel-good goals. The TV money that college football generates goes back to the schools and conferences that are responsible for the eyeballs watching games. If you want to know why college football's stakeholders don't want a big playoff administered by the NCAA, this is the reason. And they're not wrong. Just ask Kansas.

2. Identity Still Matters. Unlike the ACC's attempt to repackage itself as a football power, the Big Ten seems to have a good understanding of its brand: a Midwestern conference that favors tough, physical teams. Adding Nebraska makes perfect sense. Jon Chait made a good point ($) about expansion:

You can put together a conference that looks powerful on paper. But it's a bit like trying to meet women through a computer dating service. A match that looks good on paper might fail in real life for reasons that can't be quantified.

If the lessons of the conference conglomeration fad teach us anything, it's that tradition and history matter. You can't just bring schools together on the basis of creating the most lucrative cable television package and expect them to cohere into a natural fit.


In the short run, the television dollars will be staggering. But in the long run, the television value will follow the actual value. And the actual value of the conference grows out of its cultural cohesion, its history, its collective identity. Every college football fan can tell you what Big Ten Football is, or what SEC football is, or Pac Ten football. Those things have an identity on the field and in their surrounding communities. Trying to build a conference tailored to maximize the value of a television footprint is a short-sighted way to maximize the real value of a conference.

Jim Delany entered the expansion process talking about the Big Ten's demographic issues, namely the fact that people are leaving the Big Ten states in droves. He ended up adding Nebraska. At some point in the process, he recognized that adding a school that fits the Big Ten, both in terms of geography and culture, made more sense than taking a run at the New York City television market. In other words, he avoided the mistake that John Swofford made when he added Boston College.

[Yes, the Big Ten would have been willing to add Texas. They would be fools not to add an athletic and academic behemoth like the one in Austin. However, the Big Ten wasn't willing to make all manner of concessions to Texas such as unequal revenue splits or dragging along its weak, but politically important cousins to make the deal happen.]

From an identity perspective, the Pac 16 was an interesting idea because it would have created two mini-conferences: the old Pac Eight and most of the old SWC with Arizona and Arizona State thrown in as Southwestern friends. Those two divisions would have made sense; the question would have been whether there would have been fighting between the divisions as there was in the Big XII between the former Big Eight teams in the North and the former SWC teams in the South.

3. It's World War I all over again! I started this process thinking that the Big XII was Germany plus the Austro-Hungarian Empire: a collection of ill-fittting allies about to break apart in a number of different directions. I am ending the process thinking that Texas is functioning as France at Versailles, imposing as harsh terms as possible on their neighbors. Texas has gone from a conference in which they were the big fish to the conference in which they are an orca swimming with baby seals. In an era in which quality non-conference games are a dying breed (and Texas certainly isn't a paragon for ballsy scheduling), this is a problem.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Post Squinting at my iPhone USA-England Thoughts

I was on a ferry coming back from a wedding between 3 and 4:30 on Saturday. Thanks to the wonder of modern technology, I was able to watch the game on my phone. Thus, I have thoughts, but I have to start with the caveat that I might have missed a thing or two . . . like which players were which.

1. Overall, I'd say that the U.S. had a pretty good performance and generated a very good result. Any of us would have taken a draw before the game started, so 1-1 puts the Nats' chances of qualifying well over 50%, especially in light of the fact that neither Algeria, nor Slovenia looked especially good yesterday morning. The Nats were under the cosh for a fairly good portion of the second half, but they didn't give up too many clear chances and their defensive attention ensured that England's best chances in the second half fell to two players who cannot finish: Emile Heskey and Shaun Wright-Phillips. (Or maybe we were just lucky?)

2. Before the game, I talked to a friend and predicted a 2-0 loss. I wasn't concerned about England creating offense through the midfield because I've seen way too many matches in which Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard get in one another's way. My concern was Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson having their way with our left and right backs and then getting crosses in for Wayne Rooney to finish. So, you might imagine my surprise that England struck early with a move that came right through the midfield. Gooch was drawn out of position to deal with Rooney and Gerrard exploited the massive space behind him. Gooch might have been instructed to step out on Rooney (I can't give credit for the Nats ensuring that England's weakest finishers got chances without acknowledging that this strategy can cause the defense to be pulled out of shape), so it's possible that Ricardo Clark deserves more of the blame for not tracking Gerrard's run. Bob Bradley had a good game, but I was not thrilled with his selection of Clark. Ricardo isn't as good a defensive option as Maurice Edu or as good a passer as Jose Francisco Torres. Landon Donovan was a little quiet in the match, in part because he was up against an outstanding left back, but also in part because his supply wasn't great. Torres would correct that problem. I really hope we see Jose against Slovenia.

3. But if we're talking about managerial goofs, the majority go to Don Fabio. He doesn't have a great option between the sticks, but managed to take one that led to an enormous gaffe for the Nats' goal. He had to pull off a midfielder in the first 30 minutes and then a central defender at halftime. He deployed the midfield combination that has never worked for England. That said, Capello's mistakes illustrate the weaknesses of England's talent base. The country hasn't produced a top keeper since Gordon Banks and all of EPL's top clubs have foreign goalies. England have not have a proper left-sided midfielder for ages, with the possible exception of Joe Cole, so Capello had to choose between James Milner - a jack of all trades and master of none - and Shaun Wright-Phillips - a natural right-sided midfielder who brings little other than speed - for his left wing. He has to play Lampard and Garrard together because England have only one proper holding midfield as a result of Michael Carrick's poor season. In sum, you wouldn't know it from listening to the English media, but the England team is not especially talented.

4. Can we all agree that the one instance of bad luck for the U.S. is that Jamie Carragher didn't get sent off? He was on a yellow when he bundled into Robbie Findley as Findley bore down on goal. Carragher is too slow to function at this level and the Nats exposed his lack of pace on more than one occasion.

5. The weekend's results create a new goal for the Nats. Coming into the tournament, we all wanted them to make it out of the group my any means necessary. Now, with a draw against England and Germany looking like the best team in the tournament, there should be motivation for the Nats to do their best to win the group to avoid the Germans in the round of sixteen. Am I getting carried away? Probably.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Case for Spain

I am picking Spain. This shouldn't surprise any of my normal readers, given my beliefs in the omnipotence of Xavi, Iniesta, Puyol, and Pique, but I don't think that I'm being led astray by the Barca card in my wallet. In the lead-up to the tournament, most discussions of Spain and Brazil have been marked by the inevitable caveat that favorites have tended not to do well in recent World Cups. However, Spain is a better favorite than any team I can recall. (West Germany 1990 probably comes close.)

A team is usually the World Cup favorite for one of three reasons: (1) it won the most recent European Championship or Copa America; (2) it looked great in qualifying; or (3) its players are in great form, as evidenced by performances in the Champions League. Spain is the first team I can remember that checks all three boxes decisively. They won Euro '08 with a dominating performance in which they did not concede a goal in the entire knock-out stages. They won all ten qualifying matches, including two wins over the Euro '08 and World Cup '02 semifinalists. Their spine forms the core of the best club team in the world. (If Inter were really better [as opposed to better over 180 minutes with the help of a tactical genius], why did they park the bus at the Nou Camp?) Moreover, they play the same tika-taka style at Barca as they do for Spain, so there are no stylistic transition issues. Spain's players will be playing in the same way that they play for their club sides.

The fact that this is a cold weather World Cup also helps Spain. I know that the conventional wisdom is that the climate will help the northern Europeans, but the bigger impact will be that attacking, pressing sides will be able to do their thing. If the tournament were played in oppressive heat, then pressing would be very hard for anything other than short stretches. Thus, teams that play on the counter and conserve energy would have the advantage. In cold weather, Spain can press with its forwards and midfielders for longer stretches, which means they'll monopolize the ball and also protect their back line. In a hot environment, I'd take Brazil over Spain. On a colder day, I see Brazil having a hard time getting the ball. (Counterpoint: Brazil depend on their right backs for offense. Maicon and Dani Alves can run their tails off in the cooler weather.)

Brazil, the other favorite, checks the boxes for winning the last two Copa Americas and also looking good in qualifying, but they have some worries in terms of the form of their key players. It's true that Julio Cesar, Lucio, and Maicon were all instrumental in Inter's European triumph. However, Brazil have major questions further up the pitch. Kaka, their key offensive player, had a bad year at Real. 2007 seems like a long time ago for Ricky. Robinho washed out at City and has been picking on minnows in a regional Brazilian competition. Luis Fabiano was hit-or-miss for Sevilla this year. Felipe Melo was a major disappointment at Juve. Gilberto Silva is well past his sell-by date. I'm well aware of the fact that players can look bad for their clubs and then good in a different system for their countries (Zidane looked finished at this time four years ago), but Brazil have an awful lot of question marks for the supposed favorites.

The fact that Spain are the best team doesn't mean that they'll win. Futbol involves far too much variance to make that prediction confidently. (Goldman Sachs' preview listed Brazil and Spain as the favorites and gave them 13 and 10 percent chances of winning, respectively.) One inspired counter from a drug-addled former superstar, one wall that is marginally misplaced, or one intimidated referee from Egypt can be the difference between success and failure. However, I refuse to pick against the best team simply because they have never won the tournament before. Spain have the reputation of being bottlers, but when have they ever been the favorites before? They come to South Africa as the European Champions and with a collection of players who are winners on the club level. Shouldn't that matter more than Zubizarreta's near post or Tassotti's elbow?

One more thought: in editing this piece, it occurs to me that France '02 could be described in the same way as Spain '10. They had the same credentials, with the added benefit of having also won the World Cup. That France team was undone by losing Zinedine Zidane before the tournament. That illustrates another of Spain's strengths: they have two of everything (unless you think that Xabi Alonso and Sergi Busquets aren't proper Makeleles, in which case they have none of one thing. That is Spain's one weakness. If they are undone, they'll be missing Marcos Senna.) France's attack revolved around Zizou. Without him, they were lost. Spain can afford an injury to any of their players because they have replacements of the highest quality. It's a fool's errand to state with confidence that a particular team is going to win and injuries are a major reason why, but this Spain side are better equipped to deal with absences than any other team in the tournament. If I'm not drinking sangria on the night of July 11, an injury or two will not be the reason why.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

From Normandy to Waterloo

You're Bobby Cox. On a Sunday afternoon, you're headed into the bottom of the 11th inning at Chavez Ravine in a 4-4 game. Here are your options:

1. Billy Wagner, your closer with a 1.69 ERA who hasn't pitched since Wednesday;

2. Craig Kimbrel, a young reliever with good stuff, control issues, and a 2.08 ERA in limited work;

3. Cristhian Martinez, about whom we know precious little other than the fact that we will cut-and-paste his name for the entirety of his career in Atlanta; or

4. Jesse Chavez, who has a 7.09 ERA in 23 innings and therefore is a pitcher about whom we know all we need to know.

Naturally, Bobby took option #4. Chavez entered, walked the leadoff hitter Russell Martin on five pitches, and then allowed the game-winning single after the Dodgers sacrificed Martin to second. I'm angry now and my anger will double when Wagner comes in with a 6-2 lead in one of the games against Arizona to mop up. Our $7M closer will mop up in a meaningless situation after he collected splinters when his team needed him most in LA.

I can't be angry at Chavez. To quote Chris Rock, that tiger didn't go crazy; that tiger went tiger. Chavez is a bad pitcher. He should not come into a high leverage situation unless there are no alternatives. There were three superior alternatives available to Bobby and that's before we start discussing putting position players on the mound or summoning Don Sutton from the booth. Once those alternatives were exhausted, then Bobby should have pulled a Coach Eric Taylor in East Dillon's opener and forfeited the game.

Bobby Cox is a Hall of Fame manager, but he has never been good at managing a bullpen. I always defended the Braves' lack of success in the postseason as a matter of luck, but in my heart of hearts, I'll admit that having a manager who doesn't have a feel for the pen didn't help matters. Bobby is great at both seeing the big picture in a long season and maintaining a friendly atmosphere that is conducive to players performing at their best. There's a reason why multiple polls of major leaguers have Cox as the runaway winner in the "for which manager would you most like to play?" category. However, he is not good in late game tactical situations, which are the easiest scenarios upon which fans can judge a manager (we don't see Cox behind the scenes smoothing things over in the clubhouse) and which generate the most white heat among baseball fans. (There is an obvious Lloyd Carr analogy to be made here.) Ergo, we all acknowledge that Bobby is a legend as a manager, but we won't miss everything about him.

66 Years Ago Today

Thursday, June 03, 2010

I Could Get Used to this Never Losing Thing

The Braves are nine outs away from extending their winning streak to nine out in Los Angeles and I'm sure I am going to jinx their hit streak by writing about it, but holy hell? May just got better and better to the point that I thought I was watching the vintage, dynasty Braves. Those teams would usually let a division rival get its hopes up for a month or two in the season before crushing them in June and July. This year, the hot streak came a little early, but it has arrived in force. Moreover, after four straight years of mostly average baseball and then a forgettable April in which the team struggled to generate anything offensively, the hot streak is unexpected and therefore doubly sweet.

When bats were afraid in April, it struck me sorta funny that the team was so good at drawing walks, but couldn't do anything else offensively. It raised two possibilities. One was that opposing pitchers would figure out that the Braves hitters had no pop and would therefore stop walking them. The other possibility was that the Braves were just unlucky and would start hitting as a reward for being able to tell the difference between a ball and a strike. As it turns out, the latter has occurred. The offense has exploded in May.

Troy Glaus has been the bell cow (HT: Keith Jackson), knocking just about everything out of the park. He had a Hack Wilson May with 32 RBI after he looked for all the world like the white Mondesi in April. Now, if the team is healthy and Glaus hits fifth, he's preceded by hitters with the following OBPs: .336, .412, .392, and .383. Does that sound like a recipe for a power hitter to rack up a big RBI total?

As for the pitching, the most encouraging sign in May was the turnaround of Derek Lowe. After a month of baseball, Lowe looked like his career was in an irreversible decline, which is something of a concern with a player for whom the Braves are on the hook for two more years and $30M. Instead, here are his numbers for his last five starts: 33 IP, 9 ER, 19 Ks, 11 BBs, 0 HRs. OK, so those five starts were against the Brewers, Mets, Pirates (twice), and slumping Phillies. It's just nice to see that Lowe is not done. If he keeps the ball in the park, then he can get away with his low strikeout rate and be a decent pitcher. You would hope to have more than decent for $15M per year, but decent beats decrepit.

Other random notes on the Braves:
  • I went to the game on Monday afternoon. It was a perfect afternoon. The weather was beautiful after a morning drizzle. The Ted was mostly full. The Braves jumped on the Phillies early and propelled themselves into first place. Chipper broke a long homerless streak. The only negative was that the crowd applauded after a montage of American soldiers who lost their lives in military conflicts. Seemed weird to me, but I guess that's what you get for a heavy moment at a baseball game.

  • The Braves have a strangely unbalanced lineup. When Eric Hinske is starting, they have six regulars who have OPS+ numbers over 100, then a dropoff to Nate McLouth at 61 and Yunel at 55. Yunel is heating up and will poke that number up as he gets healthy, which just leaves our centerfielder as the weak spot on the team.

  • Despite their great month, the Braves are still a game below their Pythagorean record. Moreover, the hitters and pitchers have combined to be 12.5 wins over replacement level, but the team is nine games over .500.

  • Will ESPN even acknowledge the NL playoffs if the participants are the Padres, Reds, Braves, and Rockies?

  • The Braves have drawn 241 walks. The next closest team in the NL is the Cardinals with 204. Moreover, the Braves have struck out fewer times than any NL team other than the Astros. This team collectively has a great sense of the plate. I credit Jason Heyward. Let's send him to the Gulf.