Monday, July 19, 2010

World Cup - A Look Back and a Look Forward

--A final entry from men's soccer player Peter Sanger

First and foremost, I just want to make it clear that I picked Spain from the beginning and was more than ecstatic to see them take the Cup final through an exquisite finish by Andres Iniesta. Coach Vicente Del Bosque couldn’t have hit the nail on the head any better than declaring, “the reward today was for beautiful soccer.” Despite very well organized, negative tactical planning on the behalf of the Dutch, skill and technical ability won out. It’s by no means a coincidence that seven of the 11 starters in the Spanish squad come from club team Barcelona where day-in and day-out they play the most cohesive and fluent soccer in the world. Add in Real Madrid stars such as Sergio Ramos, Xabi Alonso and Iker Casillas and you’ll most likely be in the driver’s seat at any tournament.

The game itself might not have been open and thrilling, but World Cup Finals rarely are. It’s one game with the pressure of your entire country depending on you, with the entire world watching. Thus, more cautious and tentative approaches are adopted. The Netherlands boasted a team with great attacking talents; however, going into the game they knew that they could not beat Spain with that sort of style. They played with extreme discipline and for large parts of the game kept Spain from retaining possession in the attacking half like they’re used to.

But to the viewers who complained of a dull game, I couldn’t disagree more. I was in New York City for the final at a local bar called Denton’s and it was packed to the brim with everybody on the edge of their seat with every attempted through ball, shot or breakaway opportunity. Ramos came close with a couple of opportunities early on and Arjen Robben missed a couple of glorious chances to grab the glory himself when found with the ball at his feet and only Casillas to beat in front of him.

Yet Spain was not to be denied and I take great pleasure in the fact that a player from my favorite club, Cesc Fabregas of Arsenal, was one to really make the difference for them. His addition provided Spain with that little bit of creativity and spark that they needed to crack open the Dutch. Arsenal plays a similar brand of soccer to Barcelona with the only difference being they bring a bit more of a direct approach to their short passing. Time and time again they’ve scored brilliant goals via beautiful through balls from Fabregas and Iniesta’s goal was no different.

Fabregas picked out the wide-open Iniesta with great vision and a player of Iniesta’s class does not miss chances like that. What a moment for such an introverted player like Iniesta. In the build-up to the World Cup all the attention was on the attention-starved divas like Cristiano Ronaldo, Robinho and Wayne Rooney. Actions speak louder than words however, and Iniesta wrote his name into World Cup history with that finish, not to mention his touching tribute to fallen Spaniard Dani Jarque who died not long ago from a heart attack before a club game. Having won both Euro 2008 and now the World Cup 2010, Spain will still be a force to reckon with in the near future. Although the greats like Xavi, Iniesta and Puyol are aging, there seems to be enough talent within the ranks of the youth to make up for their potential exclusions from future national team squads in the future in the likes of Fabregas, David Silva and Gerard Pique. In my opinion, as long as you see Barcelona continue to dominate club soccer with a large contingent of homegrown players, you will continue to see Spanish soccer at the top.

This leads me into my last point to make following the World Cup… What’s next for U.S. soccer? Will we finally realize that you can’t just win tournaments by being the most fit and physically dominant team around? Will we realize that there’s a reason why the nations that focus more on building up technical skill and creativity rather than results at youth levels end up prevailing at the World Cup? There’s a reason why it continues to happen time and time again. Every team comes into the tournament extremely well conditioned, thus all that’s left to make a difference is tactical and technical ability. Does Bob Bradley possess the tactical awareness to take the United States to the top? Unfortunately I can’t believe that he does. Having only coached in the United States, how can he claim to be on the same level as other National Team coaches? The only club teams he’s ever coached have been members of the MLS, a league nowhere near the level of experience we need our leader to have. It’s no surprise that our best players are those who play or have played overseas, it’s the same idea with finding the best coach.

Furthermore, these changes need to start at the youth levels. The introduction to the academy league is a huge first step. They claim to put development first and results second which is exactly the type of environment these players need to catch up to the youth of other countries. Then those who play in high school and college need better coaching and the style of game needs to change. Although I’m extremely proud and honored to be able to be a NCAA Division I athlete, often times I can’t believe the type of soccer I’ve seen played. Coaches search for the best athletes and just try to be faster and stronger, rather than smarter and more creative. The same thing is found in the MLS, because the players that are drafted are the same players that succeeded in college with the same type of soccer. Extremely fast paced, a bit wild and crunching tackles might be exciting at times, but nothing is more exciting to watch then soccer played the right way. The culture of soccer in the United States needs to change if we’re to catch up with everybody else. For once we can’t just do it our way; we need to look at what makes all these other countries successful and use that to improve ourselves.

Lastly, foreign ESPN analyst, Jurgen Klinsmann, brought up an extremely telling point following the U.S. exit from the World Cup. Where are the inner-city and less fortunate kids playing soccer? There is a reason why the NBA is the greatest basketball league in the world; kids who grow up poor in the United States look at that game as their only ticket out of that life. When I was a little kid, I went on a trip to Colombia with my family in the build-up to the ’94 World Cup. At that time, Colombian soccer was at the height of its game and was considered a favorite going into the World Cup. What were all of the poor kids doing there in their spare time? Playing soccer, with anything for a ball, using anywhere for a field. Here soccer is too much of a suburban sport, thus you find less young kids develop the same passion for the game. Soccer needs to be introduced into the inner cities, most likely in the form of futsal. Futsal is similar to soccer, but is played with a smaller and heavier ball and played on a hard court with fewer players on the field. Soccer superstars like Ronaldo and Ronaldinho all started with futsal. It’s an affordable version of soccer that requires less land, less equipment and less players.

As a country, we need to build upon the buzz generated from this World Cup and take the necessary steps to continue progressing forward in the game. Thanks to all who have taken the time to read my thoughts on this World Cup and I’m looking forward to being back in touch with you all once this fall season starts.

Until then, Joga Bonito…

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Final Thoughts From Head Coach Chris Whalley

Milwaukee men's soccer head coach Chris Whalley shares his thoughts from the final games of the World Cup:

On the last four teams in the tournament:

"I expected Spain to be in the final, so I saw that coming. And I always thought Netherlands was too strong for Uruguay. It was a great game though - I think that game was a lot better than the Spain game. Five goals in a World Cup semifinal is exciting and the Netherlands scored three good goals, so it was great to see. And I have had Dutch guys play for me in the past, so I have a soft spot for Holland."

On the game plan for the final:

"I think the Dutch coach was smart ... he looked at the two teams and, player for player, they were not as good as the Spaniards. So, they tried to frustrate and slow the game down, but they played a way that kept Spain under the reigns, so within that, they had a chance. To be fair, the Netherlands had chances to win the game and didn't take them. If Robben takes the chance, they win the game, and everyone is singing the coach's praises. I think the best team in the world won, which is great, because some times in soccer, the best teams don't win. But the Spanish team was the best team on the day and when you've got guys like Fabregas and Torres on the bench, I think it shows how good your team is."

On the game-winning goal:

"I think it's nice that a goal - and a good goal - won the World Cup final rather than somebody missing a penalty kick and then having that hang over them. It was a good goal, it was well-taken and pleased that he finished that way. It probably should have been a corner on the other end, and then a minute later, it popped up. Iniesta's first touch wasn't great, which made the ball bobble up in the air, but then his technique to get his knee over the ball and hit it hard across the keeper was fantastic. The goalkeeper really didn't have much of a chance because he was so close and he hit it so hard. It was a great way to finish a great tournament. All in all, I think it was a great World Cup. It was fantastic advertisement for soccer in the America and I enjoyed it."

Monday, July 12, 2010

Kevin O'Connor - Final World Cup Thoughts

Associate AD-Communications Kevin O'Connor checks in with some final thoughts on the World Cup

The World Cup is now in the rearview mirror, having left behind a legacy in Africa and a mind full of memories.

Certainly, the final was not as memorable as all of us might have wished, but I must say that I am not as negative about it as many others have been. Yes, the Dutch played dirty at times and mucked up the play, but that still didn’t stop them from having real offensive opportunities to have won the game in regulation. And, the Spanish could (should?) have scored in the first five minutes of the match, which would have changed the entire complexion of the day’s events. So, fair enough if you thought the match wasn’t an ‘A+’, but I don’t know that I would give it an ‘F’, either.

As for the Cup as a whole, it is hard to come up with too many things that aren’t positive. Even the officiating might turn into a positive if FIFA takes some steps toward technology in correcting the most troubling of errors. But, the quality of play was generally high, especially later in the group stages through the knockout rounds. The star quality was excellent, from the newish (Thomas Mueller) to the more well-known (David Villa). And the U.S. acquitted itself at least to a level of belonging, which has not always been the case.

So now we turn our eyes to the future. For fans who have just caught on to the world’s soccer phenomenon, Euro 2012 is well worth your time and qualifying for it kicks off in a little over a month. The entire tournament in the summer of 2012 will then air on the ESPN family of networks. While the next World Cup is four years away in Brazil, qualifying for the event starts in two years. The drama is different because the matches are so spread out, but the quest to even get in the tournament is extremely intense. On top of all of that, along with the various overseas league that get started in a month, it is hard to beat following the Champions League, which pits the best club teams – and stars – in an event that runs concurrent to league play. And, here in the U.S., one of the more anticipated matches of the summer will pit the MLS All Stars against Manchester United in an “exhibition” match in a couple of weeks. The U.S. MNT also plays Brazil in a friendly in August.

It’s been a fun month. It will be 2014 before we know it.

Chris Lins - Final World Cup Thoughts

New Media Assistant and former Panther soccer standout Chris Lins contributes some closing thoughts on the World Cup

It was a well-deserved victory for Spain as they become only the 9th country to win the World Cup - Congratulations!

For me, the game was very choppy and didn't flow as some predicted. When Spain was given the opportunity, they linked some great passes together but failed to convert on any of the several chances they created thoughout the first 90 minutes. The Netherlands looked dangerous on a couple counter attacks but wasn't able to get into any sort of rhythm. The game was very physical as it set a new record of yellow cards in a Final at 13. I think that this style of play favored the Dutch. Whenever Spain tried to play their game and move the ball around one and two touch they were fouled.

This continued even through extra time, as Dutch defender John Heitinga managed to get his second yellow of the game and sent off in the 109th minute. After this, Spain was able to find that extra space on the pitch and pull the stubborn Dutch defense apart. It wasn't long after that, when Spain's Andres Iniesta found the back of the net in the 116th minute.

YES!!! I was relieved and happy because as much as most (including myself) people would have loved the game to go into a penalty shootout (very exciting) I didn't want to see the Cup go to a team that didn't perform well enough to win during regulation, to win in a shootout.

In the end, the World Cup is a roller coaster ride with great teams not meeting expectations and unknown teams finding that unity and drive to make some heads turn. I congratulate Spain on their victory and am counting down the days till the next World Cup!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Chris Lins On The World Cup

New Media Assistant and former Panther standout Chris Lins checks in with his latest World Cup thoughts

It has certainly been a World Cup of ups and downs. Twenty minutes in to the Brazil vs. Netherlands game, Brazil looked poised and on form taking the lead. To much of my surprise (and I'm sure many others) they looked confused and didn't know how to react after the own goal by Felipe Melo, the second Dutch goal and finally the sending off of Felipe Melo. It was the first time Brazil was tested and they failed.

Uruguay vs. Ghana was another match that was worth watching the full 120 plus minutes of play. Both teams played exciting soccer throughout the match and it all climaxed at the 121st minute when Suarez handled the ball on the goal line to give Ghana the chance to send the first African nation to the semifinals, EVER! I guess the pressure was too intense and Asamoah Gyan missed penalty to send the game into a shoot out. With that miss, Uruaguay certainly had the momentum going into the shoot out and ended up winning.

With only one more semifinal game to be played (Germany vs. Spain) regardless of who wins, the final is sure to be much anticipated. It's tough to pick who will win this match up but I think that the winner of Spain & Germany will take the Cup. Netherlands is a good team but they have been pretty lucky throughout the tournament and for them to win, they will need all the luck they can get. Germany is looking very good after dominating Argentina in the quarter-finals. Spain on the other hand is probably one of the best passing teams in the world but, have struggled to find their best form. Maybe they'll find it against Germany?

It's all about peaking and finding your best form at the right time. It will be interesting to see if Spain can find that form that made them European Champions in 2008. Can Germany continue to play at the level they have been or did they peak too soon?

We'll find out soon enough!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

World Cup - Potential Realized

Associate AD-Communications Kevin O'Connor adds some World Cup thoughts after today's 3-2 win by the Netherlands over Uruguay

Congratulations to Holland for a strong performance in today's semifinals and a well-deserved berth in Sunday's final.

Kevin Conway made fun of himself when he mentioned the Netherlands in his pre-tournament picks, and a few of the rest of us also talked about how much we liked them. But, were we all just hoping they could be as good as they should be?

As it turns out, the Dutch are that good. They have stars, they have structure and, best of all, they can score goals. Wonderful, beautiful goals - two of the three today were as good off the foot and head as we've seen in the tournament. And the orange ... you'd expect a Dutch version of Rocky Top to break out in South Africa Sunday.

I find the World Cup to be so much better when Italy and France are home while Holland and Spain are still playing, but too often in recent years it has been the opposite. Now, we have the possibility of a delicious final, no matter who wins the Spain/Germany contest Wednesday.

So, Sunday we are assured that plenty of stars will be on display. If all goes well, both sides will look to attack, and hopefully it will be settled prior to PKs. This tournament has gotten better in every round of games, and at this point the final should put the proper exclamation point on the event. I can't wait.

More World Cup Thoughts From Chris Whalley

UWM men's soccer coach Chris Whalley checks in with his latest thoughts on the World Cup as we move through the semifinal round

First of all, as you might expect, I was disappointed in England going out. They played very poorly and didn’t think they played that great the day they lost to Germany.

In the quarterfinals, what a crazy, crazy game the way Ghana had the game – had the PK to win – when Saurez had the handball called on the goal line. He sacrificed himself to help his team go through, and then they missed the PK and their goalie went on to win the penalty kick shootout. So that was pretty crazy.

I don’t consider the Netherlands beating Brazil to be a shock. I thought they were one of the best teams in the tournament, so to see them win was exciting and to have them do so well. Hopefully they can continue on and advance to the next level because I think they play great soccer with players like Wesley Sneijder, Robin Van Persie, Arjen Robben - all very good players. Then they are complimented by the likes of Mark Van Bommel - some defensive-minded players that come through if you give them a platform to play on.

I can see Netherlands beating Uruguay. Then Germany – who I thought was fantastic against England and even more so against Argentina - they play Spain. I think they are similar in a lot of ways. That game could go either way – they play conflicting styles and they score goals.

Obviously, I would like to see Germany v. Netherlands final. There is a lot of history between the two countries and I think it would be great for soccer. With so many European teams left it is exciting for someone from that side of the pond like myself. But, I think when you get to the semifinals, any of the four teams can win it. There are no poor teams left in the competition at that stage.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Five Thoughts Heading Toward The Quarterfinals

Associate AD-Communications Kevin O'Connor checks in with another blog entry as the World Cup heads toward the quarterfinal round.

We’re on to the quarterfinals, with two superstar matchups and two under-the-radar contests. As many have noted, the showdowns between Brazil/Holland (Friday) and Germany/Argentina (Saturday) could qualify as semifinals or even finals matchups. Yet, the Ghana/Uruguay contest has the intrigue of Africa against yet another South American team advancing deep in the tournament. And, the Spain/Paraguay match could be where the eventual champion sits, with Spain still a strong favorite to win the whole deal. Predictions and insights below, with another edition of five thoughts …

Done With Portugal … The list of disappointments at a World Cup is always long, but Portugal has sapped the life out of anyone expecting a talented side to play attractive soccer. In the group stages, they did exactly what an aggravating side does, which is to throttle the minnow of the group while playing for the scoreless draw in its other two contests. Then, while looking dangerous on occasion against the Spanish, did it ever really feel like they were going to equalize? This is the third-ranked team in the world – alright the FIFA rankings are shaky - but they play much more like a side hoping to hang on. If Paraguay plays the defend-and-counter style against Spain in the quarters, you can understand it – in fact it would be suggested and the best chance of winning. But Portugal is better than that, yet spent much of the World Cup looking like they didn’t know it. So maybe they are not better than that.

TV Time … ESPN made some waves by hiring almost all foreign announcers for their coverage of the World Cup. These were good waves, mind you, and it seems the coverage has now become critically acclaimed. In fact, you have to chuckle that the two remaining American soccer experts on the broadcasts – John Harkes and Alexi Lalas – seem to draw the most ire. I can’t disagree with that stance, or with the idea that the rest of the coverage has been spot on. For U.S. fans who watch the Premiere League and Champions League during the regular season, it comes as no surprise that using those matches as a coverage blueprint has developed a successful operation.

You Like Free Agency? … There is much buzz and excitement over the start of NBA free agency, and rightly so if you are a fan of one of the five or six teams with a chance to greatly improve themselves in the next two weeks. But, this window may have nothing on the upcoming transfer parade on the European soccer scene. The offseason always sees plenty of movement within and among leagues, but the month following the World Cup usually takes it to another level. New faces and players have emerged, often claiming big (and sometimes undeserved) contracts with new teams after being seen on the big stage. U.S. fans will be watching closely to see where Landon Donovan lands (I vote no on Manchester City), while also keeping an eye for a move by Michael Bradley to the Premiere League or to another bigger-money European club. There is also come early speculation that Clint Dempsey could follow his now-former coach Roy Hodgson from Fulham to Liverpool.

Speaking Of Bradley (Specifically Bob) … I really don’t think I have a formulated opinion on the comings and goings of Bob Bradley as the U.S. coach. My take is very simple – I just don’t know how much it matters for the next two years. I don’t necessarily assume if he is retained for now that it rules out the possibility of him being let go before the next World Cup. Likewise, if a new coach is named in January and the U.S. struggles in the Gold Cup and early 2014 qualifying, there could be yet another new coach in the pipeline. It does matter who coaches the team by 2013. Until then, I will be much more interested in the development of individual players – something the national team coach has little, if nothing, to do with - than who is drawing up the tactics for a Gold Cup group stage match with Trinidad and Tobago.

Finally, The Picks … For what it is worth, Brazil and Uruguay win Friday, Argentina and Spain win Saturday.

Look Back at U.S./Ghana - Michael Moynihan

Women's Soccer Head Coach Michael Moynihan gives his thoughts on the U.S./Ghana match-up.

Going into the World Cup we knew the defense was going to be suspect, and this proved to be our downfall. It just amazes me that teams were not able to exploit it even more. The early game blunders and the soft nature of many of the goals conceded was quite alarming. I don't understand how we can look so good at times and struggle so mightily at other times. Both goals conceded to Ghana were far too easy for them. Good strikes, but they came out of nothing and could have been dealt with.

You have to give the players and coaches a lot of credit for developing a battling, never say die mentality. We showed some fantastic flashes and the team provided a lot of excitement for all of us in the United States. When you look at the Ghana game, we created a lot of chances. Probably more than anyone else they faced. That says a lot about the potential we have. Unfortunately, we lacked the maturity to take advantage of the opportunities. I thought Dempsey and Bradley were the two players that really stood out for us. Howard and Donovan shone in spurts as well. Other than that though, we were very inconsistent. Altidore created problem for the opposition but there was not much as far as an end product. His technique and tactical awareness often let him down. I liked Edu, but I don't think we saw enough of him.

We have a lot to look forward though I think. Many of the players will be back for the next World Cup and we have some very interesting young talent that will be added to the mix as well. If we can solve our defensive problem, I think we could be a very exciting side. While this year's team provided a lot of excitement and cause for optimism in American soccer, it still leaves me wanting more, even expecting more. I guess that is a good thing. I know when I've coached a good side and our season comes to an end, I just can't wait to get started again. I'm eager to get back at it and take the next steps in our development. That's how I feel about the US team now. I'm excited to see them again. I'm excited to see them take the next steps in developing maturity on an international level. I just wish there were more opportunities for them to do this.