Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Futureheads, Live at the 9:30 Club

comanche/soul takes another brief respite from the dog-eat-dog world of the World Cup knockout stages to catch some harmony-laden, angular post-punk from Sunderland's own the Futureheads.

The Futureheads - Live at the 9:30 Club - 6/28/06
The Futureheads' self-titled debut album was, on first listen, one of the most stunning albums I had heard in a long time. Never really going for anything representing a genre (or pseudo-genre, as it were) with the prefix "post-", the drive of the angular, quirky guitars and Beach Boys (if they were singing about Blackpool) vocals was a shock to my jangle-pop system. Seeing them live for the first time at Minneapolis' Triple Rock Social Club confirmed my first impressions. They were sharp, professional, very British, warm, and engaging. And in my concert going career there have been few moments as impressive as hearing their exquisite (maybe top ten all time) cover of Kate Bush's "Hounds of Love", with it's intricate backup vocal interplay providing the hook to frontman Barry Hyde's rousing plea's ("Do you know what I mean?") sinker.

But where does a band go from there? It's been noted that their debut was so urgent and focused that it basically pounded you into submission with its style. In short, it sounded like a band with a very clear sense of what it wanted to do. And, to be honest, the show didn't really provide much of an answer to that question. The budget is clearly beefed up -- it's always funny to see bands that are big in the UK (the Magic Numbers, Travis, etc.) but not so much here tour the US rock club circuit with major label dollars -- evidenced by a plethora of guitars and a fancier stage setup. But the songs, while not the same, are at least similar.

There's less reliance on the "Oh Oh-Oh Oh"s and more straightforward guitar pop. The rhythms are a little more varied, and I'm pretty sure they're even experimenting with some effects pedals these days. Opening with News and Tributes opener "Yes/No" was predictable but enjoyable, the simple chorus letting the audience warmup their vocal chords early on. Then came previous single, "Area" (listen here), which isn't on the new album proper but is a great tune that could've fit onto their debut. Best of all, it showcases a subtle but nice improvement in Hyde's delivery. His phrasing has markedly improved (that that it was ever a problem), adding unexpected rhythmic hooks.

Other highlights were new songs "Fallout" and "Thursday" as well as "Trying Not to Think About Time" from their debut, but while these succeeded others fell flat. I'm not sure if it was the mix on the night or the performance, but even "Hounds of Love" and encore "Decent Days and Nights" (on one of those OC mix tapes) weren't particularly rousing or inspired. It made it all too clear that the Futureheads aren't an ordinary rock club band and need something considerably better than an ordinary rock club mixing job. I say push the vocals farther out front, mic that snare a little better, and let the 'Heads themselves handle the guitar crunch.

And there's one more complaint. If you're one of my friends, you've probably heard it after practically every show, but what's the deal with the crowd at these things? The band gave us a two song warning that their show was nearing its close, they went out with a bang to close their 55 minute set, yet I've never heard an audience cheer so little for an encore. If I were the band, I wouldn't have come back out to such lackluster, half-hearted applause. I'm beginning to think it's the town, as this isn't the first show where I've had this experience.

So there was a little sour taste in my mouth at the end of the show, but I took heart in the $10 purchase of the new album, complete with a number of bonus tracks. I'm three cuts in right now and it sounds terrific: beefed up, loud, and more textured than the debut. If the show sometimes failed to touch the heights, then I'm comforted in knowing that "the only a cappella group that matters" (as Pitchfork writer Sam Ubl put it) is still one of the most rewarding listens out there today.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

(Dis)graceful Henry

I just wrote a long intro to this piece and decided it was too wordy and too preachy to keep around. I'll cut to the chase: Puyol bumped Henry in the chest and Henry grabbed his face in apparent agony, winning the free kick that resulted in Viera's go-ahead goal and set France towards a 3-1 victory over Spain.

To be fair, Spain did not exactly deserve to win. They were fortunate to get a penalty which gave them the lead, and, against stiffer competition, the team seemed to buckle as it always does. When they went down a goal with 7 minutes remaining, surely the deja vu alarms went off. Another talented Spanish team, another premature exit.

But to talk only of Spain's demise would excuse and overlook what was far more disheartening. Watching Henry fake a foul -- specifically the type which has seen players ejected from this tournament already -- and feign injury was truly sad. Some of you may recall at the onset of FIFA and Nike's anti-racism campaign (spearheaded in part by Henry), the ill-tempered Roy Keane said what was really needed was a campaign against diving.

Keane should be taken with a grain of salt, but FIFA's maneuvers to punish diving have failed to address the real problem: those that embellish actual contact by rolling around on the ground in faux-agony. The English -- who, according to them, never dive -- tend to address their complaints towards teams of Latin backgrounds -- Brazilians, Paraguayans, Portugeuse, etc. It may then come as quite a shock that England's favorite foreign footballing son is as big a diver as any.

As for the game, it was pretty standard but engrossing stuff. Lots of room in midfield in the first half but the second much tighter. France's equalizer came once again from a high defensive line -- when are teams going to realize that in this day and age of the "passive offsides" rule, you simply can't play such a defensive system? -- as Ribery got behind and rounded Casillas far too easily. No particularly clear cut chances came until Henry's dive led to a Zidane free kick 45 yards from goal. His bending cross skimmed the head of Xabi Alonso before finding Viera on the backpost. He directed his header down and Casillas looked to have it covered but Sergio Ramos tried to intervene and deflected the ball into the net. Spain pushed forward then, with Joaquin coasting by defenders on the flank only to find that Spain didn't have much of an aerial presence in the box.

If I was angry at the impending result, it felt somewhat better to see Zidane receive Wiltord's through ball, cut back around Puyol, and slide the ball past Casillas (who, I might add, looked pretty poor on two of the three goals). A fine goal for a great player. And with Viera finally firing on all cylinders for his national team, France might just have a little more left in the tank against Brazil. We'll see on Saturday.

Monday, June 26, 2006

The Italian Job

They've done it again. Ten man Italy escaped this morning, 1-0, thanks to a Francesco Totti penalty, 3 minutes deep into injury time. Grosso beat his man with a nifty move, then pushed the ball by Lucas Neill. Neill had already committed, and all Grosso had to do was run into the defender's body and go to ground. Penalty awarded, and up stepped substitute Totti to blast the ball into the left corner past the diving Mark Schwarzer.

The result is no surprise (1-0 to Italy may well be the most common World Cup result over the past five tournaments...I'm looking into it), but with Inter defender Materazzi already tossed from the game, the Aussies were in prime position to pull the upset, or, at the very least, let the Italians take the game to the penalty kick lottery. But they were wasteful in their finishing and probably missed Liverpool midfielder Harry Kewell (injured) quite a bit. On the whole, they've got to go home feeling good about their performance here. I'm sure we'll see them again in South Africa in 2010 -- they're now qualifying directly through the Asian federation. Let's just hope whomever takes over the team recognizes that superb fitness, hard running, and physical (but not dirty) play can be successful. They were never a pretty team to watch, but they were certainly endearing and entertaining.

As for Italy, who knows. With the easiest knockout draw of any of the big teams, they now have either Switzerland or the Ukraine standing between them and a birth in the semifinals for the first time since 1994. Pirlo looked lost for much of the game, Gilardino and Toni both continued to be wasteful in front of goal, and that joker Lippi subbed in up top is one of the least dangerous players to play up top for Italy in a decade. Where is Inzaghi? At least he can score. They're not a bad team, at all, but there's not much attacking quality there, and it will be difficult to see them making it to the final. And, to be honest, I like Switzerland's chances if they can beat Ukraine today.

Knockout Rounds Outlook
ROUND OF 16
Germany 2 - Sweden 0
Argentina 2 - Mexico 1 (ot)
Italy 1 - Australia 0
Switzerland v. Ukraine
England 1 - Ecuador 0
Portugal 1 - Netherlands 0
Brazil v. Ghana
Spain v. France

QUARTERFINALS
Germany v. Argentina
Italy v. Switzerland/Ukraine
England v. Portugal
Brazil/Ghana v. Spain/France

SEMIFINALS
Germany/Argentina v. Italy/Switzerland/Ukraine
England/Portugal v. Brazil/Ghana/Spain/France

There's a lot being said about the Round of 16 match pitting France against Spain. Spain has to hate the way the draw worked out, but I truly do believe that the Swiss are the tougher draw. Fabregas has proved he can handle Viera and Zidane, and Puyol has proved he can deal with Henry. Ribery has looked active but not necessarily dangerous. Wiltord is simply a role player who can score some goals if placed in the right position. For Spain's sake, hope that Viera starts at right midfield so Zidane can have the middle to himself, then raid that side and pack the middle defensively.

The situation of France brings up a common theme in this tournament: the inflexibility of managers. Domenech of France and Eriksson of England are the prime examples, displaying more and more with each match their unwillingness to field a cohesive team (that is, someone playing right midfield who actually plays right midfield or has some proven degree of success there) and/or bench key players. But enough with the Beckham talk...he's proved his worth. No, the right side is not dangerous, and perhaps a more creative coach (why again is Lampard keeping his place?) would find a way to have Beckham on the field and get him involved more. He simply doesn't have the pace to be a threat offensively in open play, but on set pieces he is still deadly. Spain has looked sharp in part due to the competitive nature of the squad: bringing Raul off the bench makes him hungry to score. With Reyes and Joaquin riding the pine as well, coach Aragones has more attacking variety in his second 11 than most of the 32 managers have in their entire lineup.

But let's be honest...with relatively few major upsets so far, the deepest and most talented teams are advancing, regardless of how well they play. And as other teams seemed bogged down by opposition gameplans and tactics, only two teams have been able to display a consistent ability to set the pace and tone of each match. One is Spain, and they could be pushed to their breaking point by a French team loaded with stars and looking to make Zidane's last ride a memorable one.

The other is the Germans. A tough road to the final lies ahead, but this team is starting to look like the reverse image of France in 98, the attacking pace and youthful enthusiasm to France's seasoned, miserly defence. Both host nations, both with difficult quarterfinals with a seemingly winnable semifinal to look ahead to. You never know.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

USA 1 - Ghana 2

Kwaku, one of my coworkers and former Ghanaian U-21 international, is in a pretty good mood right now. And rightfully so. Ghana put in a performance that, while not nearly of the caliber of their win against the Czechs, was still good enough to see off a spirited but somewhat inept American squad. There's tons to say about the game and US effort and the coaching. You may have heard or read already how ESPN commentator Eric Wynalda commented that coach Bruce Arena "screwed up this World Cup". I'll start here.

While I do not believe that wins and losses are often a coach's fault, Arena did his underdog squad no favors this time around. Where his approach in 2002 was to come out guns blazing against Portugal -- a sort of electroshock method when World Cup openers are often more likely a small cup of room temperature water being doused on the face, in 2006 his team frankly looked scared and nervous. Rather than paying attention to the press at home hailing them as a new force on the international soccer seen, they perhaps should've been reading the press abroad (more knowledgeable, at any rate) that saw them as a longshot to challenge the Czechs. Without a doubt, motivation was a question in that first game.

And then the tactics. In contrast to that magical opening game in 2002, we never really looked like a dangerous team. Donovan had one or two flashes of promising attacking play, but -- and if one stat is telling it is this -- failed to register a single shot on goal. Consider that. Is there a team in the tournament whose best attacking player does not have a single shot on goal? Is there a team in the tournament whose best three players do not have a single shot on goal? After two full games of soccer, the Americans were averaging a tournament low 0.5 shots on goal per half. If I were permitted to ask Arena one question, it would be that: why wasn't the team able to create more shots on goal? Quick...name a save we forced the keeper to make. Yeah, I can't either. You don't score on the best two keepers in the world without shooting (although, poor Kasey Keller, 6 goals allowed in the 3 games is a harsh return for such a classy goalkeeper). Isolating McBride, repeatedly and without any degree of success, shows a surprising lack of flexibility in contrast to what we've seen from Arena in the past.

There were some bright spots for the team. Jimmy Conrad -- who knew? -- is a quality center back. Playing against much, much faster players, his positioning was excellent. He organized well and made a number of crucial blocks and clearances. Perhaps Pope's poor form in the early MLS season should've been a warning sign. Likewise, Onyewu will be a center back to count on for the next five years. He gets a lot of fouls called on him simply because he's huge, but the guy's a force and should only get better through a move to Middlesborough (let's hope that still goes through).

Ultimately, this was not a game we deserved to win. We were not, on the whole of the three games, one of the best three teams in the group. To have a claim to that spot, we would've had to come out and soundly defeat at least one other team, something we never even threatened to do. I would've loved to see us take a crack at Brazil, but if it's got to be someone else, I'm happy it's Ghana. The best news of all this? No Yanks on my fantasy squad.

Judgement Day: USA v. Ghana

Hopefully the majority of you will be able to tune in at 10 am this morning (hell, hopefully I will be able to tune in) to watch the United States play Ghana in a deciding group match. I've said it before and I'll say it again: a win in this game would constitute a very positive tournament for us, regardless of whether we advance or not.

The media in this country is chomping at the bit for soccer to finally break through. ESPN seems to have really boosted its advertising for games -- especially Mexico's games, rightly sensing changes in the market -- and our success at the last World Cup has raised expectations. But we have to be realistic: until our entire roster is capable of starting in the Serie A, La Liga, Bundesliga, or Premier League, we will always be at a disadvantage. I am confident that this time will arrive. If all goes according to plan, we may have as many as seven or eight potential starters in the Premier League next year -- McBride and Bocanegra with Fulham, Bobby Convey and GK Marcus Hahnemann with Reading, Claudio Reyna with Manchester City, Tim Howard with Everton, and possibly Oguchi Onyewu with Middlesborough and maybe even and Eddie Lewis transfer into the top flight. That's impressive. Add to that Beasley playing for Dutch champions PSV Eindhoven, Kasey Keller firmly entrenched in the Bundesliga. Conor Casey -- not on the roster -- has been started for a Bundesliga team, as has Steve Cherundolo.

On top of that, the MLS is improving. Anyone with a soccer brain knows it and can see it. It has developed players to compete at a much higher level than ever before, and it has replaced the faltering college soccer system in improving our young players. However, look at the US lineup and it's weakest spots. Eddie Pope -- while not disastrous -- cost his team dearly in two games by leaving Koller for the Czechs first goal and getting ejected from the Italy game. Landon Donovan came out against the Czechs looking like he thought he was playing against Chivas USA, not a true European power. Additionally, Mastroeni's red -- while undeserved -- showed a noticeable lack of savvy (something I've often mentioned here) that the Italians and Czechs had in spades. I'm not suggesting the MLS players are the problem (Beasley and McBride were two of the worst in the opening game), but, I think, on the whole, they're missing the experience and composure that comes with playing at the highest level on regular basis.

But I digress. A win today would be a significant step for the USA. 1-1-1 in maybe the toughest group of the tournament, with a 9 man draw against Italy, is, much like that draw itself, a very acceptable if not totally gratifying result. What I'd really like to see is our boys to come out and take care of the little things. I want to see them show that they've learned how to mark a goalscorer in the box -- see Czech Goal 1 and Italy goal. I want to see someone shoot from long range to keep the defense honest. I want to see a dangerous set piece. I want to see Onyewu mark a good forward without shoving him from behind. I would like to see the team switch the ball quickly enough to find Beasley, 1 v 1, where he can simply push it by his man and get to the line. I want to see Donovan get some shots on target. I want us to prove we won't be manhandled by what appears to be a faster, more athletic midfield. I want Kasey Keller to get his first World Cup clean sheet. He deserves it. If these things happen, we will probably win.

But I'll be honest: I'd rather just have a win. Mark people, don't mark people. Score beautiful goals, or settle for undeserved penalties and own goals. It makes no difference. I'd rather just win and advance.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

A brief respite from World Cup coverage

It turns out those ESPN World Cup commercials aren't exactly true: the whole world does not stop for an entire month while the World Cup goes on.

No, unfortunately, I live and reside in the one country that continues its schedule of real news -- though, with Iran's fruitless performance, expect news there to pick up soon -- and commentary covering the self-aggrandizing tendencies of Fox News' Bill O' Reilly and not Phil Scolari.

So without further delay, here's what you could also be checking out:

- Lately I've been listening to more and more talk radio as I become disillusioned with the indie rock scene. Besides the usual sports stuff -- Kornheiser, Sports Junkies, Jim Rome when I'm on the road -- I've started listening to Bill O' Reilly. And you know what? When his guest is Ann Coulter, the guy sounds pretty damn reasonable. But he's not perfect, and Michael Easley (former Slate editor) published an interesting, quasi-review of his book The O' Reilly Factor. Where O' Reilly used to get me pretty pissed off or at least amuse me with his ability to frustrate and deceive, he is nothing compared to fascist Jay Severin.

Some regular readers and friends will note that I often use the term "fascist" in jest, or at least in exaggeration. Make no mistake here: Severin would take delight in such a label. In fact, his own logic -- (direct quote here) "all Democrats are socialists and all socialists are communists" -- invites it. If that's the case, then conservatives are on the total other side of the spectrum which, of course, is fascism. He's a brash guy with a few things to say -- which he repeats, ad nauseam, every show. And he's got a face for radio. I suggest you take a look at some of his beliefs, and see what you think for yourself. My personal favorite is "Illegal immigrants are criminals. They are sewage." You can also check out his own blog here.

- This isn't exactly new news, but I recently found out that a family friend was actually responsible for the latest in-depth reports coming out of Guantanamo Bay. Charlotte Observer reporter Mike Gordon had been invited to the military prison to do a profile of Mike Bumgarner, prison commander. Anyway, he was accidentally given access to a secure meeting of officers and produced a pretty fascinating profile of the camp. Of course, the fallout of publishing the story got him sent home. Read more on that part of the story here.

- An unrelated note: a truly excellent and wonderfully evocative concert review of Bruce Springsteen's Seeger Sessions Band tour on PopMatters.

- Another random note: Slate ran a piece today on the "woes of low-rise pants". Fashion expert Judy Childers comments: I agree the trend is way out of control. Low rise pants have mass produced tunics though (so theyre long enough to cover your body and not show too much), so I am thankful for that.

Back to the Cup
- Mexico looks distinctly suspect -- and screws over my fantasy team -- on defense in a 2-1 loss to a Portugal team missing five regulars. Unfortunately, the plucky Angolans can't capitalize on Mexico's loss and only tie 1-1 with Iran when they needed a two goal victory to advance.
- The afternoon's game between the Netherlands and Argentina -- kicking off as we speak -- should be interesting. Mexico definitely looked like the weaker of the two teams, and I imagine both will want to avoid Portugal in the next round. What kind of lineups will we see? Looks like Robben, van Bommel, and van Bronckhorst (amongst others) will not start for the Dutch. On the other side, youngsters Messi and Tevez will start for Argentina. Advantage: South Americans.
- Michael Owen is, as expected, out for the entire tournament. Looks like some ligament damage.
- Oh, I almost forgot. Remember Jay Severin from earlier in this post? Last night on his show he said ESPN's boosted ratings for this World Cup were due to "the invasion of our country by Mexicans" (or something pretty close to that). I definitely think the growing Latino population helped the numbers quite a bit. But the ultra-conservative argument/paranoia that they're forcing everyone to speak Spanish reminds me that most of them actually do speak Spanish and might actually watch the games on Spanish-speaking channels instead. And as for the supposed "cultural" revolution occurring because of the large immigrant population and as evidenced by soccer's new popularity, I would suggest that Severin merely look at the demographics of AYSO and elite club soccer teams across the country. I think he'll find those numbers have dramatically risen in the past twenty years, and that immigrant demographics don't have that much to do with it.
- Check back after the games and I'll update the Round of 16 preview.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Round of 16 Outlook

England couldn't figure out how to beat Sweden again. After super-sub Steven Gerrard grabbed a late lead with a header off a Joe Cole cross, Henrik Larsson somehow contrived to nick the ball off his toe and barely into the far corner in injury time for a 2-2 draw. Joe Cole, Man of the Match, after scoring a stunning goal in the first half.

Trinidad's dream also ended today, sadly, with a 2-0 loss to Paraguay. They will be missed.

Round of 16 Outlook
I thought we could look ahead a little bit to how the knockout stages are shaping up. I'm ruling out the possibility of anything I consider to be a major upset happening (partially in hopes that one of them will happen).

Should everything go to script, the knockout round will look something like this:
Germany v. Sweden
Argentina v. Mexico/Portugal
Italy/Czech/Ghana v. Australia/Croatia
Switzerland/France v. Ukraine/Tunisia
England v. Ecuador
Netherlands v. Mexico/Portugal
Brazil v. Czech/Ghana/Italy/USA
Spain v. Switzerland/France

Let's just say seeding/favorites hold in those games. You'd have quarterfinals looking like this:
Germany v. Argentina
Italy v. France
England v. Portugal/Netherlands
Brazil v. Spain

I won't hypothesize further, but those could be some dynamite matchups.

Best Goal of the First Round
Thought I'd start soliciting votes for the best goal of the first round. I'd probably go for Cambiasso's finish to Argentina's intricate passing move against Serbia. Joe Cole's goal today against Sweden merits a mention, as does Torres' goal for Spain against Ukraine.

Cup Update and Other stuff

Turns out comanche/soul isn't the only blog obsessing over the World Cup. I thought I'd give you a little rundown of what else the internet has to offer, and where to get your slightly less insightful commentary.

The New Republic has a World Cup blog featuring editor Franklin Foer -- who wrote the fairly interesting book How Soccer Explains the World. A lot of it revolves around refuting and supporting the recent book Thinking Fan's Guide to the World Cup. That, and congratulating themselves and their friends for writing such a clever book.

Sports Illustrated also has a Cup blog. It's a lot like mine, but with less insight and more financial backing. Check it out here.

ESPN Soccernet is running a correspondent's program where fans keep a blog sort of thing about one particular team. Some are better than others. The USA correspondent isn't bad.

Finally, Slate's doing a little thing they call "Dispatches from the World Cup". It's a little more offbeat and cultural, and reeks of this new soccer liberalism that is interesting for serious fans but sure doesn't help the sport's future in the American market.

News...
Ecuador fields a weak lineup and goes down 3-0 to Germany. Klose's two goals make him the leading scorer with 4 so far. Podolski gets the third, meaning that all three of Germany's goals were scored by Polish born players. In a related story, Poland claims a 2-1 win over Costa Rica to get third place. Paulo Wanchope has a late equalizer called back for offsides.

Steven Gerrard will be replaced by Bayern Munich's Owen Hargreaves in today's match in order to avoid a second yellow which would rule him out of England's Round of 16 game.

Italian coach Lippi has apologized to fans and admitted to overlooking the USA on Saturday.

Monday, June 19, 2006

World Cup Weekend Recap and Preview

An unfortunate internet breakdown caused me to lose my entire blog on the US game this past weekend. Which is a real shame for both you and me, as the commentary in the posting was, on the whole, very insightful and of a high overall quality. You would've been impressed.

But, alas, nothing can be done now. Instead, I'll just resort to a quick breakdown and some standard bullet-point type stuff about the weekend's games and what we have to look forward to in the coming week.

USA 1 - Italy 1
A truly engrossing match that started well for the Americans. We took the game to Italy with pace and confidence, and maybe should've had a lead before Eddie Pope decided he was sick of being so close to Gilardino, allowing the Italian forward to easily guide his header past Keller for a 1-0 lead. The USA rebounded quickly, thanks to an Italian own goal. The events which transpired after that are difficult to explain. If you care about soccer at all you know the officiating was a joke -- three red cards issued -- and the USA put in a gutsy performance to preserve a 1-1 tie. I'll just give some quick thoughts to add to what's already been said:

- The main difference between the two teams -- the reason it was a tie and not an American win -- was simply that Italy is much more savvy than the US. They know when and how to win a foul, they know how to fall down in order to draw a card, and they know what to do when they win a foul.
- Onyewu and Keller played excellent games, as did Cherundolo. If little Stevie could serve a decent ball into the box, the upper echelon of European teams might be knocking on the door. His energy and steady play were essential.
- McBride was a true warrior and led by example...but he should've scored when Donovan teed him up in the second half. Getting caught offsides for Beasley's would-be winner didn't help either.
- Jimmy Conrad deputized very admirably at center back. I was nervous when he came in, but he seemed to organize very well and made a couple crucial plays.
- Anyone have any idea why Arena didn't use his third sub? Eddie Johnson on for the dead-tired McBride for the last ten minutes to run at the Italians, maybe sneak a goal, give some energy in tracking back? An extra defensive midfielder? Would it have hurt to throw on Ben Olson or someone scrappy to help win some balls in the last five minutes?

WORLD CUP WEEKEND THOUGHTS
Group A
- Germany and Ecuador clinch spots in the next round with Ecuador's resounding 3-0 defeat of Costa Rica. Ecuador has really come on, scoring five goals in two games and allowing zero.
- Goal differential means a draw between the two in the final group game will send Ecuador into first place, leaving Germany to possibly face England. I like Germany's chances in the game tomorrow, 1-0.

Group B
- Trinidad put up quite a fight against England before ultimately falling 2-0 with goals from Liverpool men Crouch and Gerrard. England will have to be frustrated once more and neutral observers will continue to wonder why Eriksson remains in a state of denial about the way his team has played so far.
- Sweden beats Paraguay on a late Freddie Ljungberg headed goal, 24 hours after I remove him from my fantasy team.
- The Group B scenario breaks down like this: England is in the next round. They can win the group with a win or a draw against Sweden. Sweden can advance with a win, a draw, or a Trinidad loss or draw against Paraguay. Trinidad can advance only with a win and an England win. Trinidad will also need to overcome Sweden's goal differential (currently +1 to their -2). Paraguay is eliminated.
- England will likely field a first choice team in an effort to avoid meeting host Germany in the next round. However, by the time Group B kicks off tomorrow, Group A will be set. If Ecuador wins Group A, do not be surprised to see a below full strength England team. I'm not the coach, but if I was, I might try playing with a defensive midfielder for once.

Group C
- Straightforward. Argentina and the Netherlands are in. They play Wednesday. The winner gets first place and likely Mexico in the Round of 16. The loser gets Portugal. A draw would favor Argentina with their significant goal difference.
- Argentina's trouncing of Serbia -- not a weak team at all -- has sent a warning signal to other Cup contenders. No team has looked so efficient offensively in their first two games and, in Crespo, they appear to have a goal poacher who is truly in form. Watch out.
- Poor Ivory Coast. Two excellent performances and only two consolation goals to show for it. Let's hope they get the win they deserve in their last match.
But most importantly...credit to them for their attacking approach and positive play. Excellent goal on Friday too.


Group D
- Same as Group B. Portugal has clinched a place in the next round. Iran is eliminated. Mexico can advance with a win or a draw in their final game against Portugal or a loss or draw by Angola. Angola can advance with a win and a Mexico loss, and also need to cover the goal difference (now +2 for Mexico v. -1 for Angola).
- With Argentina's dominant performance, Portugal will want to avoid them in the next round and will probably send out a full strength team against Mexico.
- Look for Iran to recover some pride and get a result against Angola, sending Mexico into the second round regardless of the result in their game v. Portugal.
- Thought to be one of the weaker groups, Angola and Iran have really pushed both Mexico and Portugal to the limit and made this much more competitive than many thought. I'd pay good money to see Angola sneak into the second round over Mexico, but I don't see it happening.

Group E
- Scenario: Complicated.
ITALY - Can advance with a win or draw v. Czechs and/or a draw in the Ghana-USA game.
Can clinch the Group with a win or a draw and a draw in the Ghana-USA game.
CZECH REPUBLIC - Can advance with a win, or a draw and a draw in the Ghana-USA game. Can clinch the group with a win and a Ghana loss or draw. Can also advance with a tie and a USA win by less than 4 goals.
GHANA - Can advance with a win. Can advance with a draw and a Czech loss. Can clinch the group with a win and a Czech-Italy tie.
USA - Can advance with a win and an Italy win. Can advance with a an Italy-Czech draw and a win by 4 clear goals.
- It's an uphill battle for the Yanks, but not impossible. This is by far the most fascinating group, with the USA the only team who can't win the group and doesn't control it's own destiny.
- Every team will have to send out a full strength team with Brazil waiting the second place team. After Italy was stung by that improbable 2-2 tie at Euro 2004 between Denmark and Sweden that eliminated them, expect them to try and get a result to control their own destiny. Likewise, Ghana will be confident and may come out boldly to get the win that would put them through.

Group F
- Brazil is in and, if I'm not mistaken, has clinched the group already. Australia is in with a win or a draw v. Croatia. Croatia needs a win over the Aussies to advance. Japan needs a win against Brazil and an Australia loss.
- Brazil will probably field a below strength team, but since this team will feature goalscorer Fred, sub Robinho, free kick expert Juninho and others, they could easily sweep aside the Japanese. Australia looked impressive against Brazil. Their game against Croatia should be very tight and physical, and I like the Aussies to advance with a 0-0 draw.

Group G
- Another wide open group. France really blew their golden chance at qualification with a draw against Korea. They're not really out of it by any means, but they don't control whether or not they get first place in the group. If either Korea or Switzerland win their game, that team will top the group. Should France also win, they would get second place. If they tie and France beats Togo, it will come down to goal differential. Right now Switzerland is at +2 and Korea at +1. France would need to win by 2 clear goals against Togo to be sure.
- Look for France to get the win they need and sneak in the next round to meet Spain. You almost sense that they could use the wakeup call against an established power to really get themselves playing again. Of course, they'll have to do this sans Zidane, out for picking up his second yellow card.

Group H
- Ukraine's 4-0 over Saudi Arabia helped their chances quite a bit. They will -- barring a Tunisian upset of Spain today -- only need a draw against Tunisia to ensure qualification. There are other scenarios, but until the Spain-Tunisia game is over, I'll hold off spelling them out for you.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

ESP v. UKR, KSA v. TUN, GER v. POL

Have barely seen five minutes of the games so far, but I think Spain's victory will rank as the most impressive win of the tournament's first round of games. In beating Ukraine 4-0, their strikers looked sharp and luck appeared on their side. Also, I personally got a big fantasy boost with the shutout and Puyol's assist. Ukraine could easily rebound with two wins in their next two, but they'll have to be better than they were today.

Tunisia 2 - Saudi Arabia 2
According to my friend Casey, a "fantastic game". Bolton's Jaidi gets a 93rd minute equalizer after the North Africans blew the lead. I'll hopefully get to watch a little of this one on tape later this evening.

Germany 1 - Poland 0
A late, late winner from Neuville -- courtesy of a cross from young sub Odonkor who looked very good -- gives the host a much needed win. An Ecuador victory tomorrow ensures qualification, but a tie for the South Americans against Costa Rica would still ensure Germany qualified and actually mean that they'd only need a draw in their final game to get first place in the group. Poland went down to ten men in the 75th minute, and Germany had a boat load of chances to put it away. In the 89th minute, Klose's header hit the bar and Ballack somehow smashed the rebound also against the bar -- screwing my fantasy team -- before another blocked rebound and an offsides call saved the Poles for a moment. Then a quick break down the right, and extremely fast sub Odonkor lobbed in a cross. The dimunitive Neuville snuck in between two Polish defenders and slid low to knock in the game's only goal. A fine match and a good atmosphere as well.

Weekend Forecast
I'm getting out of the District for a long weekend and will most likely -- if my girlfriend has any say about it -- not be contributing to this blog until Sunday night at the earliest. I realize that the Cup without c/s updates sounds almost painfully dull, but I'll provide some predictions now, then you can check back later and see how I did. Feel free to post comments in the meantime so I can have some fodder to cover when I get back. In the meantime, here are some comments and predictions for the weekend to come:

- In the Americans group, Ghana-Czech Republic should be an interesting game. The Czechs go into it without either of their first choice strikers. Another dominating performance makes them a favorite to advance all the way to the semifinals, especially if/when they get Koller and Baros back up top. Likewise, Ghana have the steel and speed in midfield to compete with the Czechs where the US could not.
- The tightest matchup will probably be Sweden and Paraguay tomorrow. Neither team can afford a loss, but a draw would make for a very interesting final round of group games in Group B. I expect Paraguay to play conservatively and hit on the break, where a few moments against Trinidad indicated the Swedes might be vulnerable. I think we'll see a 1-1 draw, handing first place over to England with a game to spare.
- In the Group of Death, don't be too surprised if we know the qualifiers by the time the Netherlands and Ivory Coast finish up. I don't see Argentina -- who looked sharp but have a deep bench that coach Pekerman barely used -- dropping points against the Serbs. However, the other game will be closer and I could even see the Ivory Coast stealing a tie to make the last round of games somewhat interesting. But I'm betting the Elephants impress but fall short again by a score of 2-1.
- The popular notion that Group D's second round qualifiers were set before play even started looked up in the air for a while on Sunday. But Mexico poured it on late and Portugal hung on, and now advancing appears beyond both Angola and Iran. These might not be terribly compelling games and, if things to go plan, Mexico and Portugal will close out group play in a match that will decide who gets the Netherlands and who gets Argentina. Six of one...
- Brazil's group originally appeared pretty straightforward for the favorites to navigate, but Croatia's performance in a 1-0 loss revealed some weaknesses. Australia will no doubt come out physical on Sunday, believing they could get a vital tie that could, conceivably, clinch a spot in the second round. Japan were less than impressive against the Aussies though, so a Croatia win vs. the Japanese would send the Aussies and the Croats into their final game with everything to play for. Predictions: Brazil 3 - Australia 1, Croatia 2 - Japan 0.
- The French were decidedly poor on Tuesday against Switzerland. Korea proved it hasn't lost any energy or stamina from the last tournament, and if they're able to hold France goalless through the first 60 minutes, will like their chances to get a draw or sneak a win. France have far too much quality to fail to score again, but it won't be easy. In the other game, Switzerland will be orderly and composed, and threaten Togo in the air. Predictions: France 1 - Korea 0. Switzerland 2 - Togo 1.
- Finally, Spain to continue their run with a 1-0 win against the Tunisians. They'll dominate possession -- as per usual -- but a physical approach from the North Africans could unsettle them a little. Don't expect Saudi Arabia to trouble the Ukraine too much, with Shevchenko scoring his first goal at a major international tournament. 2-0 to the Eastern Europeans.

Enjoy the games...

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Matchday 5

Missed most of the first two games today but they seemed pretty decent and evenly matched. Korea came from behind to beat World Cup debutantes Togo -- mired in a coaching controversy that has seen Otto Pfister leave then return to coach the team -- 2-1. 2002 star Ahn was left off but came on late to score a very nice winner from about 22 yards out. Both Korean goals looked nicer than they were. Can somebody tell me why there are so few decent African goalkeepers? Kingson of Ghana looked set to pass the laughable Benzekri of Morocco in 98, but Italy seemed determined not to exploit his vulnerability on high, lofted balls and also to fire a number of shots right at him.

Watched about thirty minutes of France-Switzerland, and the Swiss looked like a more dangerous team. I can't imagine this will be a long tournament for the French. If you look back on WC 98, they sort of willed themselves to victory with a watertight defense. You may recall they only beat Paraguay 1-0 on a golden goal from defender Blanc in the Round of 16, beat Italy on penalties in the quarters after a 0-0 tie, beat Croatia in the semis pretty much solely on the determination of defender Thuram, who, never having scored for France before that game, scored twice after making the mistake which originally put Croatia in the lead. They then conquered a mysteriously out-of-sync Brazil in the final with two headed corner kicks goals from Zidane and one late breakaway from Petit after the game was already decided. Their Euro 2000 success owed much to the excellence of Henry and Trezeguet in that tournament. They haven't had the production they've needed since.

Though the direct route from Switzerland looked uncomfortable for France, one great block from Barthez preserved a shutout and a 0-0 draw. Probably a fair result based on what I saw, and you would think that both teams will like their chances in the next two group games. If both take maximum points in the next game, expect France to go through in first place on goal differential. But don't quite rule out the plucky Koreans, who, early though it may be, are still in first place in the group right now.

Later today - BRAZIL v. CROATIA - Preview

Everyone's fantasy teams look set for a big points boost as the favorites finally take the field. Croatia proved difficult to breakdown in qualifying, but with Australia's win there's some pressure to earn a draw here. A point would be a massive step towards the next round.

With these three group games, most people seem to be wondering how many goals Brazil can put up, but I expect Parreira to go for efficiency in the first game. In 94, Brazil (with Parreira as coach) used midfielder Rai's play as a springboard to a 2-0 victory over Russia in their opening game and were never really challenged. Croatia should present a tougher test. They're likely to show their opponents some serious respect and get plenty of players behind the ball in defense. Of course, Ronaldinho and Kaka are masters a breaking down a mass defense, and, should they struggle, Lyon free kick wizard Juninho waits in the wings with some dead ball tricks up his sleeve.

Prediction: 2-0 to the holders.

Monday, June 12, 2006

USA 0 - Czech Republic 3

As massive Czech forward Jan Koller wheeled away from the goal five minutes into today's game with arms stretched in triumph, you could've been forgiven for having a bit of deja vu. The last time the United States was handed this demanding a draw in the World Cup, they gave up an easy, close range headed goal in the first ten minutes off some suspiciously slack defending. On that occasion, German midfielder Andy Moeller gratefully accepted the gift, albeit with less power and punch than Koller's smashing header five minutes into the game.

And that effectively set the tone. It was always going to be difficult to score, and goals like that tend to deflate young, inexperienced underdogs pretty easily. But the Yanks admirably took possession afterwards, controlling most of the ball in the first half. They looked baffled by a very organized Czech backline that was unspectacular -- they are the type of defenders who prefer to hoof the ball out of the back and let their quick and savvy midfielders chase it down and initiate the attack from there -- but always surefooted. US captain Claudio Reyna came close, hitting the left post with a low shot, but most US attacks ended in weak crossing attempts.

1-0 at halftime would've been one thing -- adjust, gather some steam, go at them -- but Tomas Rosicky's brilliant 25 yard strike put the Czechs up 2-0 and pretty much out of reach. A cross from Nedved was cleared by Onyewu but only as far as Rosicky who had plenty of time to take a touch and line up his shot.

Arena's second half changes were aggressive and attacking, but ultimately proved fruitless. Cherundolo came off for Johnson and Mastroeni was subbed out for John O' Brien as Eddie Pope moved to right back in a 3-5-2 formation, but with the formation change the Americans' possession advantage was lost. The second half saw more of the same: short on ideas, the US could only penetrate as far as 25 yards on each wing and was left to serve hopeful balls into the penalty area. When Nedved took possession just inside the US half in the 75th minute with the American backline pushed up high and flat, a third Czech goal was a mere formality. Nedved laid the ball into space ahead of Rosicky and the new Arsenal signee's first touch took him in the clear. His outside-of-the-foot finish was effortless and a thorough drubbing of the Americans was ensured.

That's more or less how it went down. During the post-game -- I spared myself the pandering of Marcelo Balboa and watched the game on Setanta Sports -- ESPN commentator Eric Wynalda railed on the team's lack of effort and urgency. And he was exactly right. But this was a performance that had you wondering how in the world Wynalda (and others as well) could have possibly picked the US to top the group with ease (I specifically recall Wynalda suggesting we would defeat the Czechs). ESPN Soccernet said it appropriately:

Bruce Arena's Team USA were taught a footballing lesson by the Czech Republic on Monday as they ran out convincing 3-0 winners. Jan Koller opened the scoring after just 5 minutes, but the star of the show was Tomas Rosicky who scored two stunning goals either side of halftime to put the result beyond doubt.

And yes, the score was harsh for all the possession the Americans had. But what of our big players? While Reyna was solid and effective as a distributor, Donovan did very little and McBride was, to put it mildly, atrocious. Convey was poor and Beasley couldn't have been worse. On top of that, Arena's changes didn't offer much, and, I would argue, the 3-5-2 hurt our possession and failed to change the game at all.

But it would be a shame to ruin such a wonderful thing as the World Cup so early in the campaign, so here's the good news. Eddie Johnson looked like he might just be ready for this level. It's a shame he didn't score because even a consolation goal would've done wonders for him going into the next match (which he really should start). I didn't think the back four were bad at all. Onyewu was terrific in the air, though still slow on the ground and called for too many fouls. Lewis was adequate at left back. Save four shots -- three of which went in -- Keller had little to do. The other good news is that now there is officially no pressure. We have nothing to lose at this point and we can't really get a worse result than this. Let's hope Ghana holds Italy to a tie.

Player ratings:
Keller - 4.5. Didn't really have much to do. Might've had a chance on the third goal, but not really at fault. Still, didn't look as authoritative as Cech in claiming crosses and high balls.
Cherundolo - 4. Struggled with Nedved. Poor service from the right flank.
Onyewu - 5. Would've been higher but had a number of needless fouls and lack of quickness let Rosicky through for the third.
Pope - 4.5. Clearly not accustomed to the kind of accurate delivery and clever movement Koller showed for the first goal.
Lewis - 5. Defended well. Didn't get forward very often, and isn't much use as a left back in a three back system.
Mastroeni - 5. Don't really remember him doing too much, which might be a good thing for a D-mid. Probably should've been more aware of Rosicky on the second goal.
Reyna - 6. Best US player. Sharp touches, good passing, kept possession and found feet. Unlucky to get a card, unlucky not to score.
Convey - 3.5. Out of ten crosses, only one threatened at all.
Beasley - 3. Looked scared.
Donovan - 4.5. Good turn in the first half and run at the D won a free kick (subsequently wasted by a poor Beasley touch) and one good run and layoff in the second. How many shots on goal? Zero?
McBride - 3. Maybe a 2.5. Really awful. Really really awful.

Subs:
O Brien - 5. Fine. Didn't do too much but his passing and patience are a nice addition.
Johnson - 6. Wanted to score. Tried to score. Shot the ball. Made hard runs in the box. More than can be said for any of the other attackers.
Wolff - (no score). Fifteen fairly inconsequential minutes.

USA v. Czech Republic - Matchday 4

***Breaking News***
Wow...three goals in the last ten minutes of the match give the Aussies not only their first ever World Cup win, but their first ever WC goals. Everton midfielder Tim Cahill, a sub, scores twice before John Aloisi adds an insurance third in injury time.


Blogging today from the office, where unfortunate circumstances -- either America's indifference to the game, the impracticalities of cross-time zone TV watching, the socio-cultural constraints of a traditional 40 hour work week, or my quickly decreasing lack of vacation time, depending on your perspective -- have forced me to follow the World Cup action at work.

We open things up today with Australia v. Japan, in what is surely a very pivotal matchup for both teams. With Brazil sure to top the group, both teams (and Croatia) may be in for a dogfight for that last spot. Looks like Japan is in the ascendency at the moment, claiming a controversial goal from Nakamura to go up 0-1 in the 26th minute. Appears to be a rough and tumble game too as a number of guys have already been carded.

Today's second match, of course, features in the Americans' opening match against the Czech Republic. Preposterous FIFA rankings aside (Czechs #2, USA #5), this should be a good matchup. Both teams are strongest in midfield and there look to be a couple great individual battles. Big guys, center backs, and Shaquille O' Neal are all looking forward to the aerial duel between 6-7 Czech striker Jan Koller and 6-5 Olney, MD defender Oguchi Onyewu. Expect no quarter given. Aston Villa forward Milan Baros would normally compliment Koller in attack, but is injured and may miss out.

Where the Czechs have pedigree, the US should have team spirit and an element of surprise. Bruce Arena's teams rarely seemed rattled by big occasions and will hopefully be no different. Arena has also kept his cards close to his chest, announcing his starters only to the team and not the media. Expect the team to start like this:
GK - Keller, RB - Cherundolo, CB - Onyewu, CB - Pope, LB - Lewis, LM - Convey, DM - Mastroeni, CM - Reyna, RM - Beasley, FWD - McBride, FWD - Donovan.

There's a chance Arena would opt for Reyna and Donovan in the center of midfield and Eddie Johnson in attack, but I personally feel he's gonna want someone like the combative Mastroeni to get physical with Rosicky and Nedved.

RECAPS OF MATCHDAY 3

Netherlands 1 - Serbia and Montenegro 0
First half goal from Robben on a breakaway was enough to decide the game. The Serbs took it to the Dutch in the second half, but shot most of their opportunities straight at keeper van der Sar. It was a solid showing and a vital three points in the Group of Death -- already made that much tougher by the Ivory Coast's resilient performance against Argentina. On a curious note, Serbia pulled both starting striker Mateja Kezman and Savo Milosevic early in the second half. Also, Robben's Dutch teammates criticized the Chelsea winger after the game for his selfish play.

Mexico 3 - Iran 1
Billed as Mexican keeper Sanchez brave return after his father's recent death, Mexico looked the better team on the whole in a scrappy Group D match. But they were made to wait to take the lead and things looked in doubt, especially after star striker Jared Borgetti -- lead scorer in all of WC qualifying with 14 goals -- hobbled off in the second half. But Bravo came on to add his second after some dreadful giveaways by the Iranian backline and then Naelson added a third with a wonderful passing move and a very accurate header.

Angola 0 - Portugal 1
After Pauleta's fourth minute goal, it looked like the rout might be on. But Portugal's former colony Angola held firm and made a few half chances of their own late in the game. Cristiano Ronaldo was dangerous but left frustrated after hitting the crossbar with a header and having an 18 yard effort saved. Still, veteran captain Luis Figo was dangerous and Portugal got its three points. But Angola -- much like Trinidad, albeit with less to show for their efforts -- proved they're no pushover.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

World Cup Matchday 3

I'm once again holed up in my apartment on a wonderful late spring morning here in DC, coming to you live during today's slate of World Cup games. A few thoughts on the first two days:

- Poor officiating. While the refs haven't been as card happy as usual, they haven't been letting people play (what was the deal with all those bad throws in the Trinidad game). Lots of free kicks, lots of touchy fouls.
- I'll say it again: Paraguay's Paredes was a real disgrace. He seemed like a pretty decent player when he wasn't rolling around on the ground.
- Overall, positive attacking play. Ivory Coast and Argentina were both a treat, with Argentinian efficiency just edging out the exciting Africans. Look for Ivory Coast to bounce back and compete for a second in the group (*I'm currently watching the Dutch play, and they look sharp).
- TV coverage has been a little iffy. Marcelo Balboa wastes not only his breath but mine -- when I have to swear at the TV and/or criticize the worthless (and often incorrect) observations he makes on the air. John Harkes panders a little bit, but he and JP Dellacamra are a solid team. At least Harkes remembers what it was like to be a player and shares that experience with us as commentator. Also, Wynalda just came on TV and he's pretty good. At least he's got some attitude and cuts to the chase. American TV guys are so worried about saying negative things about games, but after the England game, Wynalda was spot on in suggesting that their play was very dissappointing. I spoke with a couple friends last night who said they were watching on Spanish-speaking TV (they happen to speak Spanish -- an unfair advantage) and that the coverage was pretty good. Comments welcome on this topic.

HALFTIME - NETHERLANDS 1 - SERBIA AND MONTENEGRO 0

The Dutch have looked sharp. I usually hate Robben -- mostly because of his dive vs. Liverpool which got our keeper Reina tossed -- but damn, he's looked good. You can always count on Holland to come out and really knock the ball around. Lots of possession, lots of quick passing -- no team finds angles in quite the same way.

Robben's goal came with the Serbs pushed up high and pretty flat, leaving a lot of space behind. Some high pressure from the Dutch won the ball back and Arsenal's Robin van Persie (impressive so far) released Robben with a nicely waited through-ball. The ESPN guys keep harping on it, but it does stand out: the Dutch had 66% of the possession so far. That said, Serbia has had some chances and if Milosevic gets a little space...wait, they just subbed him out...not sure why, had a very active first half...

Game's back on. I'll take 2-0 to the Netherlandish...

Saturday, June 10, 2006

World Cup Matchday 2

FULL TIME - SWEDEN 0 - TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO 0

The casual soccer fan will see this score and be glad they missed a dull game. The average American, skeptical of soccer, will see this score as something similar to a 52-49 win for Angola over Poland in a prelim Olympic basketball game.

But if you watched the whole thing -- whether you know the game well or not -- you know you witnessed a truly historic event. Trinidad, playing in their first ever World Cup game, with a roster full of third division English League players, ageing vets, and players based in their weak domestic league, held off heavily favored Sweden for a nil-nil draw. Sweden dominated chances, especially in the second half after Avery John was harshly sent off for a second yellow card. Substitute Marcus Allback was particularly wasteful, missing the games best opportunities one-on-one with sensational TnT keeper Shaka Hislop (who played in college at Howard University here in the District).

There are thousands of underdogs that go out with the aim of earning a 0-0 draw. It can be hard to watch, and never pretty, but the Caribbeans -- not exactly known for their resolute defending -- soaked up every ounce of pressure, stayed organized, flung themselves in front of crosses and shots, and, simply put, gave the most inspirational performance I've seen in a long time in the World Cup. Man of the match was surely Hislop, but reserve defender Brent Sancho and Carlos Edwards were magnificent as well, while lanky center back Dennis Edwards was quietly efficient. And even if they created no real chances for themselves (save a blast off the crossbar from LA Galaxy forward Cornell Glen), they were never purely negative. There was no diving and no real time wasting -- it was apparent to anyone watching that this was a team that was going to earn their nation's crowning soccer achievement, fair and square.


HALFTIME - SWEDEN v. TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO

Sweden's definitely looked the better team, with Trinidad defending desperately for most of the half. The Soca Warriors have to be happy with 0-0 at halftime at this point, even creating a few half chances near the end. Can't really see them scoring with just ex Columbus Crew and Birmingham striker Stern John alone up top -- especially with former Man U goalscorer Dwight Yorke playing such a deep midfield role.

Sweden, on the other hand, have to be pretty disappointed. Ljungberg hasn't had much space to work with. Everything dangerous is coming from the punk with the rat-tail on the right or combination play between Ibrahamovic and Larsson up top. Expect an early push for a goal, with one of the strikers to get on the end of a cross or a knock down.

Should Trinidad go down a goal, they'll probably try to hold right there and then throw on wiley veteran Russell Latapy late in the game. This could free up Dwight Yorke a little to go forward, and if it's only 1-0 with ten minutes left...who knows? John and Yorke might just have a little magic up their sleeve to conjure up an equalizer and earn a truly historic result for the Caribbean side.

BREAKING NEWS - one minute into the second half, the rat-tail punk makes a big deal out of a tough tackle from Avery John, John gets his second yellow and Trinidad's down to ten men. A very tough tackle, to be fair, but to end someone's World Cup debut because of it? Typical example of a ref having too much influence on a game.

Prediction - sticking with 2-0 to the Swedes.


EARLY GAME - ENGLAND v. PARAGUAY

Game started pretty typically with a frantic pace and a lot of long stuff towards Crouch and Owen. Then, free kick about forty yards out, on the right, Beckham flights it in and an unfortunate glance off the head of Paraguay captain Carlos Gamarra helped freeze the keeper and give England a dream start.

Course, the next 96 minutes were more of the same from England: lots of long balls to Crouch, zero dangerous touches for Owen. The best work came from Joe Cole on the left -- seemingly the only England player with any real attacking confidence -- but Eriksson pulled him off with twenty minutes to go. No blame there, necessarily, as Cole had been roughed up quite a bit. England did defend well though, Terry and Ferdinand handling most things with ease. Gerrard did passably in a more holding midfield role. Didn't see much from Lampard, besides a couple decent efforts from outside the box.

I do need to say this because it will ruin this tournament like it ruined the 1990 WC in Italy: the diving and rolling around has got to go. Paredes of Paraguay was a true disgrace to the game. To be perfectly honest, I wanted to see something from Paraguay because England was playing so poorly, but I can't root for a team with a player like that. If I were him, I'd fear having to watch that game tape with my teammates.

*stay tuned for most posts later....

Friday, June 09, 2006

Cup-Tied

Got to the office a little early today so I could make sure to give one last blog before the World Cup gets underway. If you're a big fan like we are here at c/s, you know that the anticipation of the event is worth every second of the four years. The long qualification process is so grueling, so tense, that just being there is quite an accomplishment for a lot of these teams -- Angola with its war torn history; Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay for negotiating the tricky task of playing away qualifiers in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru thousands of feet above sea level; Trinidad and Tobago for winning an away game thousands of miles away against Bahrain. There are others (like Australia, who played exactly two difficult games to get in) for whom the road was less rocky. But all that matters not as we get underway today, with the ailing hosts Germany taking on upstarts Costa Rica just before high noon.

In other, related news, any Junkies Radio fans out there may have heard yours truly on the radio this morning. The Junkies were making their World Cup picks and asked for caller advice, I helped them select their teams. Though Brazil and England went first, I helped EB (I think) select Argentina and Italy with picks four and five. However, I think I may have messed up a fact on the air, so here's the truth: the last time a South American team has won a World Cup in Europe was 1958, when Brazil won in Sweden (the only time it's ever happened). Beyond that, here's a good one: I read some theory the other day that Italy advances to the Final once every twelve years. You do the math.

Pitchfork "reviewed" England's official World Cup song, by the band Embrace. Also, England coach Sven Goran Eriksson has a new training method for penalty shootouts. It involves telling the goalkeeper which way you're shooting to force yourself to hit a better shot. To be honest, I see little to no value in practicing penalties, except to figure out who your good penalty takers are. Course, this comes from a guy who took penalties in high school and club but lost two straight state cup titles in shootouts.

FANTASY UPDATES
Michael Ballack has pronounced himself fit to play in Germany's opener, 24 hours after the coach ruled him out.

Deep-lying Portuguese playmaker Deco will most likely miss his team's tournament opener against Angola. This most likely won't affect Portugal's chances or game plan, but absence later in the tournament would be a big blow.

comanche/soul exclusive (not really): Argentina's starting lineup for Saturday's opener against the Ivory Coast:

Formation (4-4-2):
1-Roberto Abbondanzieri; 21-Nicolas Burdisso, 2-Roberto Ayala, 6-Gabriel Heinze, 3-Juan Pablo Sorin; 18-Maxi Rodriguez, 8-Javier Mascherano, 5-Esteban Cambiasso, 10-Juan Roman Riquelme; 7-Javier Saviola, 9-Hernan Crespo
Ukraine arrived in Germany last night, the last team to get there and set up camp. They're situated in Potsdam, the city which hosted a monumental post World War II conference between Truman, Clement Atlee of Great Britain (who replaced Churchill during the conference after defeating him in the election for PM), and Stalin. The conference divided Germany into four zones of occupation. Ukraine opens the World Cup against Spain on June 14 (Wednesday).
Friday and Saturday's comanche/soul opening match predictions:
Germany 2 - Costa Rica 0
Poland 1 - Ecuador 1
England 2 - Paraguay 1
Trinidad and Tobago 0 - Sweden 2
Argentina 1 - Ivory Coast 1
Enjoy the games and stay posted for updates over the weekend.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

comanche/soul discovers the blogging community

Messing around on the the DCist today and came across a funny little story from last year about this thing called DC Late Night Shots. I don't really know much about it, something vaguely like facebook with membership by invitation only. Fellow blogger why.i.hate.dc -- who, as you may have guessed, doesn't have a lot of great things to say about our fair city -- rails on it pretty good. It's not particularly funny railing, mind you, but you can tell he's pretty annoyed.

Anyway, all this blog-hopping led me to this, a picture of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's young, nostalgic son John. I am somewhat impressed with his picture and very much amused by it (save the Confederate soldier pants he's got on...give it up, kid, it's over). You'll notice he's constructed a belt of Natural Light (I would've gone with Natural Ice... maybe that's just how I was raised) with what appears to be duct tape. His female friend to the side appears equally excited.

So this is how comanche/soul discovered the world of DC blogs. Expect more frequent links and such from now on as we look to expand. In the meantime, we'll return to our regularly scheduled programming.

In the news...
Poor Kennedys. Seems every big political family has that one, not-so-bright, not-so-smooth kid who just keeps sticking his foot in his mouth. Patrick Kennedy has done it again, doing the Democrats no favors in a hotly contested election year by compounding the misery from his farcical and embarassing driving-under-the-influence of "antinausea meds" stunt. When asked if he received "preferential treatment", here's what Kennedy said:

"I expect at the end of the day to have made sure that I will have done the same thing, in terms of the charges, in terms of bookings, in terms of mug shots, fingerprints, whatever they might have me do, it's what anyone else would have done to them if they were an African American in Anacostia and they were picked up and they were -- stay overnight in a jail, because there was no one else to pick them up."
While it's not the worst thing in the world to say, it certainly hasn't made him particularly popular with many African Americans, in Anacostia or otherwise. It's also not a little degrading to fully distance himself from African Americans and Anacostia so much; we all realize you aren't black and don't live in Northeast DC, but there's no need to say such a thing. (To read the whole press conference, go here. After finishing the bit about preferential treatment, he goes on a long tangent about some medical privacy bill he sponsored. Not the most subtle move.)
Mostly, I just wonder how this guy got elected. He was first elected to Washington in 1994 as a 26 year old. A 26 year old who had already been to drug rehab. Also, if you're a Kennedy and the best school you can get into is Providence College, there may be a problem.

Continuing with yesterday's news a little bit, the Senate blocked a vote on the amendment banning same sex marriage. It went 49-48 to end debate on the issue. Patrick Guerriero, President of the Log Cabin Republicans, wrote a poignant open letter to President Bush, blasting the President's intolerance and Constitutional abuses.

In sports (read: "World Cup")...
With just about 48 hours until kickoff of the opening game of World Cup 2006, German midfield general Michael Ballack's fitness is still up in the air. Comanche/soul doesn't really like Germany's chances, but one of the guys at work (who used to play for the U-21 Ghanaian national team) tells me they're going to the final.

Arsenal defender Kolo Toure waxes delusional about the Ivory Coast's chances. While I'm coming around and thinking they could maybe advance out of their group, if they do make the final, I'll spend an entire Saturday night drinking apple martinis at Town Hall.

Good news for the US: Italian midfield hatchetman Gennaro Gattuso will most likely miss Italy's first two games because of a leg injury. If I wasn't such a loyal patriot, it would've been entertaining to see Gattuso chop down Landon Donovan a few times.

Also wanted to extend an invitation to all my readers to join my ESPN Soccernet World Cup fantasy league. You can join by going here. My league is called The Cornwell Cup and the pin is 1045. All entries must be in by kickoff of the first game on Friday.



Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Billy Preston

Sad news today as legendary rock keyboardist Billy Preston passed away, at the age of 59. He had battled kidney failure for the past couple years. Beatles' fans know Preston from his work on their swansong, Let it Be, and his subsequent performance at their final rooftop concert. The smooth organ intro on "Get Back" and the breakdown in "Don't Let Me Down"? That's Preston. He's also one of the two guys (Clapton, pre-country-club-blues wankery, being the other) brought in to play on late period Beatles' albums, causing the feuding band members to remark at the time how the presence of another player got everyone on their best behavior and temporarily stopped the bickering. He would go on to do session work for the Rolling Stones and was even asked to join the band full time but declined.

In other news...
Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D) has made his first post-Mayo clinic rehab appearance, speaking at Brown University yesterday. After crashing his Mustang on Capitol Hill, he checked into their drug dependency program, which I don't quite understand since: 1) he has denied that he was drinking and 2) he claims to have taken only standard dosages of his "antinausea and sleep medications." Unfortunately for Kennedy, a waitress at Cap Hill bar Hawk 'n Dove saw Kennedy drinking there that same night (the waitress, incidentally, is also on Missouri Rep. Roy Blunt's staff). Fortunately for Kennedy, the police didn't give him a breathalizer.

An Indonesian volcano look about ready to blow as 11,000 people fleed villages about 250 miles from the capital of Jakarta.

Today in Slate, Bruce Reed waxes about the two sides of the conservative mountain. He notes that, for as long as anyone can remember, two main tenets have helped knit all conservatives together: 1) America is the greatest nation on Earth and 2) America's decline has begun and the fall is imminent. It's a brilliant marketing scheme. Reed's talking mainly about the mostly irrelevant same-sex marriage amendment being proposed (if I'm not mistaken, 45 of 50 states already have a measure in place). And yes, with all this talk of the moral deterioration of America and how the sanctity of family and marriage is on the verge of ruin, it's hard to believe the President's claims that things on the home front really are going well. Actually, it'd be hard to believe them anyway. In the midst of a potential nuclear crisis with Iran, a quagmire (in every sense of the word) in Iraq, a somewhat faltering education policy, and a nasty battle over immigration, I'm almost completely positive that a debate over this amendment is a massive waste of time. Frankly, comanche/soul doesn't agree with the amendment at all, but that's not even really the point. I get that we're supposed to be scared of America's impending fall because of gay marriage, but what could be a better sign of such a decline than a bunch of self-important politicians wasting money, breath, time, and ink debating legislation that -- essentially -- already exists in 90% of the country. While certainly times change -- and with them values, prices, and the cut of men's jeans -- I do find the exercise of asking "what would our forefathers have done?" to be occasionally useful. And, on an occasion like this, I feel completely confident in saying that they would be appalled to see our bloated federal government using its precious time and resources -- during wartime, no less -- like this.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

More Cup Previews

Now 8 days until post time. As I've slacked off a little bit, I will now be previewing the tournament favorites. And today, I'll look at the Yanks' Group E opponents:

CZECH REPUBLIC - For me, a difficult team to figure. Loaded in midfield and possessing some very good strikers in attack, this is the most dangerous attacking team in the group. They are dynamic: if 6'7" striker Jan Koller is healthy, they can attack directly with great efficiency. The talisman is undoubtedly (former?) Juventus midfielder Pavel Nedved, a tricky player who plays in the left center midfield channel. But should he falter, Arsenal signing Tomas Rosicky and alltime Czech caps leader Karel Poborsky are likely to pick up the slack. I don't know much about their defense, but they've got experience and are supposedly well-organized. That they have Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech backing them up will certainly help.
While the Czechs have had some recent success at big tournaments with runs to the Euro 96 final and Euro 2004 semis, this is their first World Cup appearance since they split with Slovakia (Czechloslovakia had a good run in the 90 tournament, losing out to eventual winners West Germany 1-0 on a Matthaus penalty). Expect them to come out hungry and sharp. If there's a weakness, it's a backline that I saw hand Saudi Arabia a few too many opportunities in a recent friendly. They've also taken some knocks -- former Liverpool midfielder Vladimir Smicer is out and Koller and Rosicky are recovering -- that could wear on them.
Best case scenario: Semifinals.
Worst case scenario: The optimist in me says first round elimination, but a second round exit to Brazil seems most likely.

ITALY - Ahh, the Italians. If history is any indication, they will slog through their first round games but advance. Once in the knockout stages, the world will see the uniquely Italian approach to the sport. Italy, if often seems, believes that the true goal of a soccer match is to protect a 1-0 lead for as long as possible. Only in the event that the other team scores can the Italians be coaxed into attack. This is precisely why the Juventus-AC Milan Champions League final of a few years back was the worst thing to happen to the future of soccer in America since the 94 World Cup Final. No goals, and no real chances either. But for an astute fan, it was tactical attrition, the inch-by-inch fighting of World War I played on a soccer field.
Luckily, this time around, the Italians have a true artist in Francisco Totti. He's recovering from injury, but will probably play tucked just behind the strikers, with license to roam. The hitman up top looks to be Fiorentina's Luca Toni, who lead Serie A with 31 goals this year. We may also see master goal-poacher Pippo Inzaghi -- one of those guys who plays no part in the buildup but is invariably found toeing the ball into the net from three yards at the end of an attack -- and Milan's Gillardino. Their defense is ageing, to be sure, but Cannavarro and Nesta are still seasoned, tough, and commanding. After giving away two gift goals to lose to Korea in 2002, don't expect any favors from them this time around. I'd put money on two clean sheets in the group stages.
Best case scenario: this is a team we could see in the final if all the chips fall in place. Experienced, tactically astute, and skillful.
Worst case scenario: Likewise, a team that could -- and, my prediction, will -- overlook their lesser fancied opponents in Group E. We've seen complacency from them before -- Euro 2004, World Cup 2002, and Euro 96 all come to mind -- and it might happen again.

GHANA - Like US coach Bruce Arena admitted when the World Cup draw came out, I don't know much about Ghana. Most US experts -- former players like Eric Wynalda and Marcelo Balboa -- have indicated they think we will knock off the Ghanians with relative ease. And while there's something to be said on the Americans' behalf for World Cup experience (Ghana is competing in their first ever World Cup despite strong performances at the youth level), there's also something to be said for quality. African teams are often the most organized, but Ghana's top players have a good deal of European experience. Premiership fans will know Michael Essien of Chelsea, whose speed and tenacity made him the most expensive African player ever when he was signed from Lyon. The Black Stars can match the US for talent, with captain Stephen Appiah at Turkey's Fenerbahce, playmaker Mutari at Serie A club Udinese, defender Sami Kuffour (formerly of Bayern Munich) at Roma, and striker Matthew Amoah at Borussia Dortmund. Expect a surprisingly stingy performance, but some difficulty finding goals. They'll likely play with only one striker, but if Amoah can score a couple goals, they may be dangerous. A 3-1 win over Korea shows that this is by no means a weak team. However, getting out of the group is probably beyond them, but how difficult they are to beat could go a long way to deciding who advances from the group.
Best case scenario: Second round loss to Brazil. Would be a big achievement.
Worst case scenario: Three losses and a first round exit.