Tag Archives: soccer

World Cup Knockout Stage Review

My initial World Cup predictions got 3 of the 4 semifinalists right, and the only game I missed* in my second try with the knockout stage was Belgium vs US, so a good showing overall.

*Note: I made no prediction for the third-place game, because no one cares.

We got to see one of the better tournament in recent memory, with plenty of goals in the early stages and plenty of excitement in the elimination rounds. If you watch the entire tournament, you definitely see a change after the group rounds when teams begin to think “defense first,” although that didn’t prevent us from seeing the hosts completely implode against Germany. I should say that the commentary following the Brazilian loss has been grossly overblown: Brazil wasn’t as good as they thought they were, and a single-game implosion doesn’t tell us nearly as much as people think.* That doesn’t mean that Brazil won’t go through the soul-searching that usually ensues, but their team isn’t suddenly significantly worse than we believed all along.

*Same is true of the Denver Broncos. In fact, the best comparison for something like this might be the 2003 New England Patriots, who were demolished 31-0 by the lowly Bills in the season opener and then proceeded to lose one more game en route to winning the Super Bowl.

It’s always unfortunate to see teams depart on penalties, especially overachievers like Costa Rica, but it’s also unreasonable to ask players to go more than 120 minutes. One of the bugs and the features of the world cup has been the way the tournament tends to filter down to the best teams. There are certainly exceptions – did you know that Turkey and South Korea both made the semifinals in 2006? – but the extended tournament makes consistent upsets more difficult. Perhaps that’s for the best, although a little more randomness couldn’t hurt the sport.

I’ll qualify that last statement by adding this: the sport could certainly use less randomness when it comes to officiating. Specifically, something must be done about fouls in the penalty area, where clearly an entirely different set of unofficial rules applies. Fouls that aren’t fouls in the box are fouls almost everywhere else on the field, and this should be either codified to quell the outrage every time somebody falls down there, or we should have a lot more penalty kicks. I’m also disappointed that the referees didn’t punish diving more severely, because Arjen Robben just has it coming to him. Also, as I mentioned on Twitter, I dread the health care crisis we’ll have when all these guys get older and start breaking hips because they’ve taught themselves to flail their arms helplessly instead of breaking their fall.

Arjen Robben, worsening the health care cost crisis.
Arjen Robben, worsening the health care cost crisis.

Now, only 54 more days until Euro 2016 qualifying starts.

World Cup Knockout Stage Prediction

Updated predictions for the remainder, with the big change being the winner of the Germany-Brazil semifinal (and thus the whole thing).

Round of 16

Brazil over Chile
Less of a sure thing than anyone would have guessed two weeks ago, but Brazil at home still has to be the overwhelming favorite.

Colombia over Uruguay
Uruguay has played well, and perhaps I’m overrating the effect of Suarez on Uruguay, but he has played a huge role for them, and this week he won’t. So I say Colombia takes advantage.

Netherlands over Mexico
Mexico played good defense in the group stage, and now the high-scoring Dutch enter. I think the game will come down to the Dutch defense, which was briefly exposed by Australia before consolidating. I think they hold.

Costa Rica over Greece
I’d call this one of the weaker matchups, and would have loved to see Ivory Coast take Greece’s place here, but Costa Rica has been solid in group play and I say they keep moving.

France over Nigeria
Nigeria’s another team that probably shouldn’t be here, but I also expect the French to make quick work of them. After showing surprising firepower in group play, France is good for three goals here.

Germany over Algeria
Germany’s tailed off after a dominant win against Portugal, but they’ve played maybe 20 bad minutes (against Ghana so far). Algeria’s defensive prowess is more substantial than I expected, but it won’t be enough.

Argentina over Switzerland
This could be a really fun game to watch, with both teams capable of scoring and the Swiss showing a cheese-like defense against France. The key will be for the Swiss to mount a solid attack to keep this game close late, and if they can, they have individuals up front to upset Argentina. I just don’t think they will.

US over Belgium
A decent draw for the US, although Belgium won all games in the group, including a game in which they were down a man for a good portion. The US played some of very good soccer its last two games and can win this, and I think they will. Bonus prediction: Jozy Altidore is a non-factor.

Quarter-Finals

Looks like the Cinderella teams all get booted here.

Brazil over Colombia
Same comments as on Brazil v. Mexico.

Germany over France
I’ll stay away from historical references and instead hope for a high-scoring game. I doubt either team gives up much early, though it would make for an excellent game if they did. A closer game than I would have said before the tournament, but Germany advances.

Netherlands over Costa Rica
Los Ticos beat Italy and Uruguay, so I can’t underrate them, but I just don’t see them scoring enough to win this one.

Argentina over USA
All the athleticism and coaching in the world will not stop Messi. The US doesn’t have the players to stop him, even if he doesn’t score.

Semi-Finals
Big names only.

Germany over Brazil
The biggest change in my pre-tournament predictions. Brazil has looked shaky enough, and Germany has been very good. I say the hosts get upset here.

Argentina over Netherlands
A promising matchup that will probably end up being a scoreless tie. Still happy to watch it, and not very confident in this prediction.

Final

Germany over Argentina
Wouldn’t bet on this, but could be a fun matchup. Both teams have plenty of scoring ability and are strong possession teams. More importantly, neither will be afraid to concede (like Spain and Netherlands were four years ago). This could be a classic.

World Cup Group Stage Review

An exciting and mostly fun group stage this year, far better than the bland events of four years ago. Gameplay has been brisk, even in the jungle of Manaus, where the referee awarded the first ever water break to the teams because of the high heat and humidity. Upsets aplenty, which is nice but unlikely to last, as the World Cup tends to filter out the upstarts by the semi-finals at the latest. I’ll comment on each group separately below, but overall, this has been a very watchable tournament so far.

Also, Suarez bit a guy again, and everyone is surprised.

Officiating has been decent, too, with a few large exceptions. The higher rate of goal scoring has fortunately offset some of the mistakes (like the “penalty” for Spain in their game against the Dutch), but at least two teams are going home as a result of referee error. My beloved Bosnia was robbed twice in short succession, first with Dzeko’s disallowed goal (below), and then a foul on the other end that led to Nigeria’s winning goal. More egregious was the penalty given to Greece in the 93rd minute when a Greek player kicked the ground (also  below). The resulting goal eliminated the more deserving Ivory Coast. The wrong southeastern European and west African teams are moving on.

Edin Dzeko's goal would have shifted the balance in Group F.
Edin Dzeko’s goal would have shifted the balance in Group F.

Group Stage Review
(see my initial predictions here)

Group A
Predicted finish: Brazil, Mexico, Croatia, Cameroon.
Actual finish: Brazil, Mexico, Croatia, Cameroon.
Nailed, although Brazil looks more vulnerable than I expected, and Mexico is much stronger than I expected. I don’t expect Mexico to continue with the scoring they showed against Croatia.

Group B
Predicted finish: Spain, Netherlands, Chile, Australia.
Actual finish: Netherlands, Chile, Spain, Australia.
Big disappointment by Spain, lots of great goals by the Netherlands, plucky effort by Australia, and a workmanlike effort by Chile. I hate to over-analyze these things into narratives, but I couldn’t help noticing how any adversity seemed to just crumble Spanish players. Perhaps the past six or so years of dominance have spoiled them a little.

Group C
Predicted finish: Colombia, Japan, Ivory Coast, Greece.
Actual finish: Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast, Japan.
Believed this group to be difficult to predict, it turned on the terrible penalty call I mentioned above. Ivory Coast was much more disciplined than they were in friendlies leading up to the cup, and their departure is unfortunate. Japan was in every game, but just lacks the scoring ability to be a factor.

Group D
Predicted finish: Italy, England, Uruguay, Costa Rica.
Actual finish: Costa Rica, Uruguay, Italy, England.
Could hardly have gotten this more wrong. Costa Rica surprised me big time, as did Italy’s implosion after the big win over England. England must be disappointed but not surprised: their scoring ability disappeared in this tournament, and they made basic mistakes against Uruguay.

Group E
Predicted finish: France, Ecuador, Switzerland, Honduras.
Actual finish: France, Switzerland, Ecuador, Honduras.
Unsurprising – I had the Swiss and Ecuador as mostly even. Honduras was more impressive than I expected, but it didn’t help them. French scoring ability was solid, though I wouldn’t count on it going forward.

Group F
Predicted finish: Argentina, Bosnia, Nigeria, Iran.
Actual finish: Argentina, Nigeria, Bosnia, Iran.
I explained above why Bosnia should be in the #2 spot here, but otherwise a predictable group. Bosnia gave Argentina a fright, and Iran played excellent defense their first two games, but this should surprise nobody.

Group G
Predicted finish: Germany, USA, Portugal, Ghana.
Actual finish: Germany, USA, Portugal, Ghana.
Happy that my US pick was vindicated. The US played best in the Portugal game and will need that form going forward; we’ll see if Altidore makes a difference, though I’ve never been a big booster of his. Meanwhile, Germany must wonder what their defense did wrong against Ghana, because otherwise they’ve been impenetrable. Ghana played well enough to advance, and they finish fourth her. I don’t care about Portugal.

Group H
Predicted finish: Belgium, Russia, South Korea, Algeria.
Actual finish: Belgium, Algeria, Russia, South Korea.
Belgium did what I thought they would, Russia’s defense held, for the most part, and South Korea’s weaknesses were exposed. What I didn’t count on was Algeria bringing physicality on defense and creativity on offense that advances them to the knockout stage. I’ll be rooting for them.

Mental Reps And Women’s Soccer

A question I received about my recent post in which I speculate that “mental reps” are part of the reason that US soccer tends to be a notch below the world soccer powers: doesn’t American success in women’s soccer undermine my point?

I don’t think it does.

As I mentioned in that post, the advantage of European and South American nations is that their boys and young men play and watch soccer nearly to the exclusion of other sports, such that they get more physical and mental repetitions, and thus more of them get enough practice for talent to be developed and filtered properly. This offsets the United States advantages in population and affluence. In women’s soccer, this offset doesn’t happen because girls everywhere, on average, think and play sports less than boys. Thus, women playing for other countries have a smaller advantage, in terms of preparation, over the US women than their male counterparts do over US men. As a result, the American advantages of wealth and population weigh more heavily and lead to success.

Yes, there are cultural factors – women lose fewer athletes to other sports in the US, etc – but American women have less of a preparation gap to make up relative to their male counterparts.

World Cup 2014 Preview

A quick preview of the group stage of the world cup, along with a preliminary knockout stage bracket. I’ll redo the latter once we know who the teams are. I’ve found this to be a particularly tough one to pick, since the group drawings gave us multiple groups of death and a couple of very weak ones as well. As always, I have very little confidence in these picks unless otherwise noted. Upon further review, I am probably underrating some of the South American teams, especially Chile and Uruguay, although I am somewhat confident that the US will beat Portugal to advance.

Group Stage

Group A
Predicted finish: Brazil, Mexico, Croatia, Cameroon.
Tough to predict after Brazil. Mexico gets a slight edge based on hemisphere, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Croatia advanced instead.

Group B
Predicted finish: Spain, Netherlands, Chile, Australia.
Picking a small upset by advancing the Netherlands over favored Chile.

Group C
Predicted finish: Colombia, Japan, Ivory Coast, Greece.
A weak group, and tough to predict. I’ve seen Japan chosen to win the group and finish last, so I have little confidence here.

Group D
Predicted finish: Italy, England, Uruguay, Costa Rica.
Uruguay is probably favored here, and likely will advance, but I just don’t think their style is well-matched with Italy or England’s defense.

Group E
Predicted finish: France, Ecuador, Switzerland, Honduras.
Ecuador over Switzerland is a close call. Also, never forget that France can be terrible at big tournaments.

Group F
Predicted finish: Argentina, Bosnia, Nigeria, Iran.
Bosnia – Nigeria is the pivotal game of this group.

Group G
Predicted finish: Germany, USA, Portugal, Ghana
Yes, I’m taking the US over Portugal.

Group H
Predicted finish: Belgium, Russia, South Korea, Algeria.
Russia and South Korea are basically interchangeable here.

Early Knockout Stage Predictions:

Brazil over Netherlands, England over Colombia
Bosnia over France, Germany over Russia
Spain over Mexico, Italy over Japan
Argentina over Ecuador, US over Belgium

Brazil over England, Germany over Bosnia
Spain over Italy, Argentina over US

Brazil over Germany, Argentina over Spain

Brazil over Argentina.

Soccer And Repetition

I’ve been watching a lot of soccer in preparation for the World Cup, and as usual, I’m reminded how American soccer tends to look rough and coarse compared to even the workmanlike German and English leagues and certainly compared to the more flair-filled Italian and Spanish versions. The US should have a pretty good team, given its large population and plentiful wealth. Of course, historically many good athletes go to other sports* and the US doesn’t have much of a soccer culture, so American soccer tends to remain mediocre.

*I’ve heard it said that because football and basketball require larger players than soccer, the talent drain isn’t that large. I disagree: the talent drain happens at lower levels, where guys who could have become top soccer players become also-ran wide receivers and second basemen who wash out by the time they’re 18.

I wrote this a while ago, based on Danny Kahneman’s two-system theory:

Athletes, for the most part, don’t think consciously while they’re performing – at that level, most actions are best described as quasi-instinctive. They’re not legitimate instincts, which are natural and inborn – there is no natural instinct to cover first base on a grounder to the right side – but after sufficient practice and repetition, the reactions are automatic.

I believe Europe’s advantage lies here. As a transplant from Germany, I was as enthusiastic as anyone to play soccer as often as possible. In practice, this meant two practices a week, with a pickup game with a handful of people if I was lucky. Watching live soccer was even rarer. Compare this with Germany, where at the same age I probably played and watched soccer daily. (In school, groups would assemble in the 5 minute breaks between classes for 4 minute games with tennis balls.) European boys, as a first approximation, live this way. Over the years, that’s a huge advantage in practice time and in mental reps, a term I first heard in the NFL but which makes perfect sense here. Many more European players get the 10,000 hours of practice that Malcolm Gladwell says are necessary for greatness.

With soccer being more readily available for viewing and the rise of urbanization (density = more people to play with), the US disadvantage relative to Europe should decline. It will take a while, however, for the US to make up the difference.

MLS And The Critical Mass Problem

The New York Times featured a nice piece on US national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, whose career I’ve followed since he was a player for Germany. Worth a read for every soccer fan, and every fan of jealousy (read the former coaches’ comments for that). One particular line of note:

If Klinsmann had his way, the United States roster would be made up of Americans playing their club soccer in Europe, facing the best competition in the world on a daily basis instead of only a few games every few years.

Obviously, playing against better competition is better for player development, but having your stars play in Europe would reduce interest in the sport in the United Startes. This could lead to less investment in soccer at younger levels as demand dries up, and in the long run this could actually hurt American soccer development.

The best long-run alternative for US soccer is to have a competitive domestic league, but that’s difficult to do now for several reasons which boil down to one thing: it’s almost impossible to build a competitive alternative piecemeal. European soccer leagues are already established and top talent goes there because top talent is already there. The presence of top talent means advertisers which means money. The dominance of soccer in Europe also provides a ready fan base that doesn’t have to be won over from other sports like it would in the US.

For MLS to have a similar level of talent, it would have to reach such a level almost at once. As it stands now, talented individuals in MLS can leave for Europe for more money and better competition. With international player rules and nationalism each presenting a smaller impediment to playing abroad than in the past, this means that, unless MLS becomes competitive in money and talent overnight, they’ll continue to experience a talent drain to Europe.

This is a common phenomenon in economics: marginal costs tend to decline as an industry grows locally. Talent, suppliers, and customers can cluster and be more readily available. You see this in places like Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and Las Vegas for technology, movies, and live entertainment, respectively. You’ll notice that there isn’t, for all intents and purposes, a second SV, Hollywood, or Vegas.

As a soccer fan, I hope it continues to grow in the US. My optimistic prediction is that MLS realizes its best bet is an alliance between the Pacific Northwest and the Hispanic south, each providing their most ardent fans, followed by slow expansion into the rest of America. The attempt to market the league as a nationwide competitor to the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL is probably a mistake. The NHL, for comparison, essentially retreated to its Canadian & northern base before expanding into the Southern US. MLS might want to do the same from its own strongholds.

Zmajevi

When I was little, I was a huge fan of soccer.* I still am, but I don’t think it’s possible (or desirable) for soccer to be so important to a grown man as soccer was to me from the ages of 9 to 14. I played soccer for 4-5 years on either end of that range, but as far as caring about the sport, and more importantly, soccer played by other people, 9-14 was my golden age. This time, for the most part, overlapped heavily with the formation of the modern version of my home state of Bosnia. The state was too busy with warfare to matter in sports, so most of my attention was focused soccer on my new residence in Germany.

In 1996, at 13, I watched Germany face Italy (then as now a powerhouse matchup) in the third group game of Euro 96. Germany, a double winner, was almost assured to advance, while Italy, having lost to the Czech Republic, needed a win. The Czechs faced Russia, the group’s weak link. The games, played simultaneously, probably could not have been more different. The Czech Republic tied Russia 3-3 in a back and forth match that saw two goals in the last five minutes, the last of which gave the Czechs a point and a one-point lead on the Italians. While this was going on, Italy was mounting a constant attack on the German goal. The Germans managed one chance I can recall – now-US coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s header a few inches short of the near post – while Italy had chance after chance. After a German player was sent off (Thomas Strunz, who always reminded others of me and whom I hated)(possibly related issues), Italy had 30 minutes of numerical superiority. They even had a penalty kick awarded to them in the early going. However, no matter what they did, the Italians could not score. They failed to advance, while Germany and the Czech Republic eventually met in the finals.

I’ve thought about this game a lot the past few days. Today, Bosnia’s national team traveled to Lithuania, where a victory would assure them their first trip to the World Cup. For 70 minutes, Bosnia mirrored 1996 Italy, attacking relentlessly but failing to score. The Lithuanian goalie, Giedrius Arlauskis, repeated the feats of his 1996 German counterpart Andy Kopke. The attack only became stronger in the second half, when Lithuania basically gave up on anything but defending, with nothing to show for it. As I resigned myself to a 0-0 tie that would probably force Bosnia into a third straight playoff with hated Portugal, Bosnia scored. I don’t think anyone heard me cheer in my office, but I don’t care if they did.

Today, with a 1-0 victory over Lithuania, Bosnia qualified for their first World Cup in the state’s history, and for a few hours, I got to be a preteen boy again.

*I will use soccer throughout because I live in the US now, but it still doesn’t come to me naturally. FYI, if you’re wondering about the origin of the term soccer, it is short for “association football” as distinct from other types of football.