Friday, June 18, 2010

Quick Results

ESPN2's English commentators at the Germany-Serbia match (now at halftime) are whining about the "card-happy" referee. There have been many times when I have agreed completely with that complaint, but this time, not entirely.

The first yellow card went to Miroslav Klose. A Serbian player had taken the ball and was running with it, full-tilt. He was just about at mid-field; Klose was chasing, and don't you know he just accidentally, unintentionally just barely touched the runner's foot.

That happens all the time. It happened a second time in the first 20 minutes of this match, and another card was shown. These expensive international players just don't have sufficient control of their limbs to avoid that sort of incidental contact, if you believe the commentators.

But what I saw was, in the 40th minute (after Klose had been sent off for a second yellow), the German defender chasing the Serbian runner was very careful to avoid the runner's feet, and a breakaway went ahead. Only led to a bad pass, but this referee's eagerness to go to his pocket is already paying dividends in the excitement of the match.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Playing With The Big Boys Now

In the 2002 World Cup, the US advanced to the quarterfinals, where it met Germany in a game that it would have won, had the referees had their wits entirely about them: there would have been a penalty kick awarded for a handball literally on the goal line that kept what would have been the winning goal out of the net. That match was a high-water mark for US soccer.

What followed was six years of matches that were, at best, uninteresting; at worst, they were the three crappy matches we played in the 2006 World Cup. The string was relieved only by our winning the Gold Cup and becoming North American champions. That tournament win was nice, but considering there's only one team in our federation that can really challenge the US, winning the Gold Cup is hardly a Great Triumph. It's always won by Mexico, and occasionally by the USA. The other teams in the competition are there to make the tournament last more than two hours.

The Gold Cup was immediately followed by a trip to South America to play in the Copa Libertadores competition, the South American continental championship tournament. North and South American confederations routinely invite their counterpart's champions to participate. That might change, since the US elected to send a squad of unblooded neophytes, who performed not just poorly, but embarrassingly so. The South Americans felt insulted. (US coach Bob Bradley didn't care; I think he would have just as soon not gone to the tournament anyway.)

But by winning the Gold Cup, the USA got to go to the Confederations Cup in South Africa in 2009. That's its only real value. The Confederations Cup is sort of a dry run for the next World Cup. It's played in the same host country, and gives them a chance to rehearse the incredible logistics for the world's largest sporting event, on a more manageable scale. Everybody knows the tournament itself will be won by either a European or South American team. The Asian, African, Oceanic and North American teams are there just to make that tournament last longer than two hours.

The 2009 Confederations Cup provided some surprise, though. Its eight teams (six federations champions, plus the host nation and the World Cup holder) played first in two groups of four; two teams from each group advance to knockout rounds. The US promptly lost to Italy (3:1) and Brazil (3:0), but beat Egypt (wow) 3:0. By virtue of the tie-breaker, goal differential, the US advanced to the semifinals while Egypt and Italy went home.

In its semifinal, the United States beat Spain, the European champion, 2:0. This was even more of a shock because the match represented Spain's first defeat in I don't know how many international matches -- a year or two's worth. And Spain had not sent a junior team to the tournament.

In the final, the US met Brazil again. This time we lost, but in a thriller, by a 2:3 scoreline. We played the best team in the world and came up just a little short.

Well, OK, but it's still just the Confederations Cup. No matter how surprising it was when we advanced, no matter how surprising it was when we beat Spain, and no matter how close we came to actually beating Brazil, matches like that can never mean as much as any match in a World Cup.

Today, the United States played England in the World Cup. It didn't start off well. Stevie G scored for England early, and our guys looked occasionally dishevelled at the back, and ineffective up front after that. But gradually we got back into it, held our line, and started to attack. It was a show of maturity as a team that made me, for one, proud. When Clint Dempsey scored a freak goal just before halftime, I felt as happy as if I'd scored it myself.

The game ended that way, and truth be told, our guys played as well through the second half as England's did, even, arguably, better. But we came away with a 1:1 draw, and for us, that's a victory -- a big victory -- while for England it's a bitter loss. If England and the US both beat Slovenia and Algeria, which they're expected to do, then the group winner will be determined by goal differential. But no matter which team ends up on top officially, our guys will be the big winners in this stage of the competition.

To sum up, two great things result from today's match: first it proves, like no Confederations Cup result could, that the US can play football (I mean real football, not that pointy-ball stuff) with the best teams in the world; and second, it means, I hope, that we never again have to have the 1950 World Cup match result trotted out by television commentators as something relevant in the 21st Century.

Yeah, that's gonna happen.

Friday, June 11, 2010

It's World Cup Time!

The first two games of the World Cup are done, and if they have set the pattern for the rest of the tournament, it should be a great show.  South Africa, the host nation, could have beaten the much-vaunted Mexican team by a score of 3:1, but in the end they had to settle for a respectable draw at ones, and I think they're very happy with that. France and Uruguay didn't disappoint, either. Well, it didn't disappoint me, anyway: I want France to do poorly, as poorly as they did in 2002. The nil-nil draw, though, was satisfying, especially since the excitement level throughout the match was fairly high, with France pressuring and Uruguay looking for the counterattack.

The internet is surely already full of insightful analysis of the play, and some of it might even be worth reading. Like most of what's on the internet (excepting, naturally, this blog), a lot of the commentary out there will surely be short on reasoning, long on idiosyncratic prejudices masquerading as deep and careful thought, and generally wrongheaded. I don't intend to add to that.

I want, instead, to comment on two things that are vitally important to the billions of people who watch the matches on television: officiating and announcing.

The officiating at the 2006 World Cup was so phenomenally bad that I, a rabid soccer fan, could not bear to watch the tournament, and settled instead for reading post-match reports. I don't regret that decision: I've seen some highlights of the play at that tournament, and even if you put them all into a single ninety minutes, they don't overcome the aggravation that politically-motivated and muddled officiating provoked. The officials were generally capable men, but because FIFA dicked around with the rules and interpretations just before the tournament, the officials had to abandon their common sense and experience and toe the company line instead. It was an utter and compleat debacle.

Thank God someone at FIFA remembered that odious experience. The teams of officials in both of these first two matches did an outstanding job. I might not have given a yellow card to the Uruguayan substitute for the challenge on the French goalkeeper,* but he would still have been sent off after his very poor challenge on the French fullback later on. For the ref, it was a case of two yellows; for me, it would have been a straight red. And I might quibble with a few calls in the first match, but none of them were clearly wrong. More a matter for disputations over beer in the lounge after the match report has been filed.

Last World Cup, ESPN used some truly abominable announcers; the same crew, I think, who make the network's MLS broadcasts such a tiresome experience. This time, ESPN has wisely gone to the well and drawn up a bucket of knowledgable soccer announcers who actually talk about the match in front of them, albeit with British accents. Well, OK, the second announcer on the Uruguay-France game, Abby Mc-Something, had an accent that brought me close to using closed captioning at times, but generally you could tell what he was saying. The other three were all very easy to understand, and unlike their American counterparts, not one of them said anything really stupid through three whole hours of football. (I can pardon Mr. Ekoku, who seemed to forget how the offside rule works. But we all, from time to time, see without seeing, and apparently someone pointed out his error at halftime.)

Looks to be a really top notch World Cup this go-round.

(If you want to see the kind of drivel I describe in the second paragraph, above, go read whatever Paul Gardner writes about the England-USA match tomorrow. Whatever happens in the match, I just bet you his column will assume that England is Evil and the US is naive and easily duped. It's what he does.)

* I read after posting this that the first yellow card was for dissent, not for the goalkeeper challenge. I withdraw my criticism.

A Simple Solution Evades BP

I think the good people at BP are overthinking this whole blown-well thing in the gulf. They're trying all these high-tech solutions to capture the oil, with expensive equipment and untried machinery. What they really need is a very, very large sturdy plastic sheet, with weights around the edges, and a tube coming up from the middle, oh, a few yards across. All they have to do is spread the sheet out and let it sink into place over the blown well. The pressure of water on the inside will be the same as the pressure on the outside, so it shouldn't be too tough to get it positioned over the well. The weights will suffice to hold it in place. Then the pressure inside will increase as the oil spews into the space under the sheet; this will raise the sheet up some and keep it off of the damaged well, while the oil, which is lighter than the surrounding water, will make its way up the tube to the surface, where it can be collected by ships already in place.

It'd probably be cheaper than all these failed machines, too.

Friday, June 4, 2010

County count progress

Since several people have asked me: this last trip to Cincinnati and DC got me to 119 new counties. I've now been to almost exactly 2/3 of all the counties in the country -- the easy ones, you might say. I've been to 2,065 of the 3,097 U.S. counties -- 66.7% and change.  There are still four states I haven't been in at all: Alaska, Hawaii, Washington, and Oregon. I'll be going to Washington & Oregon later this year.

I've been to all the counties in 9 states now: Maryland was finished up on this trip with a drive down the Eastern Shore (plus a side-trip the day before to Kent county, just so I could take advantage of a nice day and not have to make a detour the next day), and it joins Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware, Louisiana, Texas, Arizona and Nevada in the "been there, done that" column.

Ain't that exciting.

Later this summer I'll get some more of those borin' ol' counties in the Great Plains and then the Upper Midwest, when I deliver a stained-glass tryptich to Wisconsin; and then this year's last Big Trip, to Washington State, will get me to two new states and who knows how many new counties. Looking forward to that. Sort of.