Archives for posts with tag: soccer

July begins with a BANG! as the “sports offseason” is rather busy on multiple fronts.  What to do as I try to get my poolside summer reading done…

 

It’s almost fitting that it took until the 82nd game (one after the midpoint) that the Nationals Opening Day Eight finally played a full nine together.  Big Red Machine, they’re not…but you need healthy components to be successful in the NL East race.  Bryce Harper’s return (1-3 with 1 run and an RBI) provided some pop and extends the lineup (Desmond hitting 7th is always nice) while providing manager Matt Williams options against tough lefties (Zim to 1st while LaRoche rests his legs), righties (Harper to CF while Span takes a seat), American League parks (Zim DH’s) and tough pitchers in general (Rendon to 2B while Espinosa slows down his 186 strikeout pace).  Hopefully Jordan Zimmermann can keep up what was an incredible June (six starts, a 1.43 ERA with opponents batting .192).  Will Harper’s attitude in wanting to play CF and bat higher than sixth hurt the club?  I’m happy to see a player of his potential want to hit higher and play a more demanding defensive position…but the key is playing his way into both spots.

 

Despite a Tigerless weekend after Mr. Woods was unable to shake three months rust and a Friday where the notables weren’t on the leaderboard but below the cut-line (Major winners Ernie Els, Vijay Singh, Mike Weir, Keegan Bradley and  Jason Dufner)…at least Sunday at Congressional Country Club began with a former US Amateur Champ atop the leaderboard.  But Ricky Barnes bogeyed consecutive holes on the front nine…and after getting back to 6 under par carded consecutive double-bogeys on the back nine.  Opening the window for Justin Rose…who somehow bounced back from a Thursday 74 (same score as Tiger) to shoot 65, 71 and 70.  That final round placed him one shot ahead of Shawn Stefani (sounds like a designer accessory, but he’s actually a 2-time winner on the web.com Tour) before Rose bogeyed 18.  Stefani’s missed birdie putt on 18 set up a playoff that was rather drama-free when Stefani’s second shot landed in the water hazard.  All in all a nice weekend in Bethesda– and it’s a shame there’s not a course inside the beltway that will embrace this tournament as much as the PGA will embrace said course.  For many in the area:  Gainesville, Virginia may as well be Gainesville, Florida.  The biggest problem for Tiger’s tournament isn’t the place but the timing:  next year the Quicken Loans National takes place during Redskins Training Camp…and the following year it moves to late May.  The bigger a tournament is…the less it moves on the calendar.

 

Americans to the Exits–so much for the US hopefuls at Wimbledon.  John Isner’s loss in the mens’ third round and Madison Keys retiring from her third round match mean that for the first time since 1911– no American man or woman is in the Round of 16.  Make that gentleman or lady.  It’s a shame there are no American elites excelling on the major tournament level…because both games are exciting in completely different ways.  The mens’ game is a full-fledged Fab Four Era where Djokovic, Nadal, Murray and Federer take turns trying to one-up each other (sorry, Stanislas Wawrinka–you’re the Pete Best of the bunch).  Federer may be the lion in winter, but grass is his surface.  Nadal may have Federer’s number, but he’s never been as good on grass as he has been on clay.  Djokovic may be the top seed, but he’s reached the finals here only twice in his storied career.  And Murray may be the only Brit in the bunch, but when he loses he becomes just a Scot.  Barring an upset, there will be compelling fireworks on July 4th.  Speaking of upsets, that’s what makes the womens’ game so interesting to follow come Grand Slam time– witness last year’s carnage at Wimbledon where most of the top seeds were gone by the end of the first week, followed by more blood-letting this year.  Where are OUR underdog women that are shocking the world?  Where’s our elite man that makes the Fab Four a Fab Five?  Sadly the absence of both drains the American rooting interest.  So much for “Breakfast at Wimbledon”;  for years its been the omelet of sports viewing…while for most Americans this year it’ll have the significance of a pop-tart.

 

Speaking of breakfast, according to Wikipedia “the Belgian waffle is identified by its larger size, lighter batter, larger squares, and a higher grid pattern that forms deep pockets.” For those eating today– beware.  As  World Cup Fever reaches a potential apex this afternoon the US National Team faces Belgium in the Knockout Stage.  While Belgium went 3-0 in Group H, let’s remind ourselves that Russia’s ranked #19, Algeria’s 22nd and South Korea currently ranks 57th.  Team USA’s Group (OF DEATH) G path that finished 1-1-1?  A 2-1 victory over #37 Ghana, a 2-2 tie with 4th ranked Portugal and a 1-0 loss to 2nd rated Germany.  So the RPI thing (to go college hoops on you) favors the Americans.  Jozy Altidore’s hamstring remains a question and a concern…and goaltender Tim Howard can only stand on his head so many times this tournament between the pipes, right?  Just like I was rooting for the US not to be subject to the casting of lots (the final tie-breaker in group play)…I’m hoping for no penalty kicks this afternoon.  I accept that penalty kicks is the way of the world…but it seems as arbitrary as free throws.  Instead, I’d rather see the two 15 minute periods followed by 15 minute “sudden victory” periods.  Recalibrate the substitutions after regulation and then if 90 more minutes are played, recalibrate them again.  The World Cup should decide the better/best team– not the better/best shooters & goaltender.

Sports fans are all about conspiracy theories:  the frozen envelope that let the Knicks draft Patrick Ewing…Richard Petty winning race #200 the week President Reagan decides to visit a NASCAR race…Fred Swearingen ruling Steelers touchdown for the Immaculate Reception six years before calling pass interference on Bennie Barnes…Steve Sanders winning the Beverly Hills Beach Club volleyball tournament.  Sometimes something just doesn’t seem exactly right.  If the United States and Germany tie their match Thursday, both nations get through the Group Stage (which would be an achievement for the US and the bare minimum for Deutchland).  Will we buy a draw thinking what we know and knowing what we think?

 

Group Gor in honor of the shoes…the Franz Beckenbauer Group:

US faces Germany— a draw as we all know full well sends both teams to the Knockout Stage with Germany winning the group.  If there’s a tie in the other match both teams move on.  If the US loses they need to maintain their goal differential advantage (+1 to Ghana’s -1 and Portugal’s -4) to advance…likewise for Germany (who’s in better shape with a +4 goals advantage).

Ghana plays Portugal-– both nations need a win plus a blowout result in the other match for a shot at advancing.  Ghana at -1 would have a better chance than Portugal (-4)…further underscoring how much Sunday’s draw was worse for them than the US.

 

Group H– Lev Yashin Group:  not a lot of great World Cup history to choose from, so we wemt with a wiley Soviet goalkeeper in the 1960’s and 70’s.

Belgium takes on South Korea— Belgium already assured of advancing, takes the group with a win or a tie…or a loss by Algeria.  South Korea makes the Knockout Stage with a victory if Russia wins and they surpass Russia’s goal differential advantage (they’re currently -2 to Russia’s -1), or Russia and Algeria tie and South Korea outscores Belgium by 4 (3 if they surpass Algeria’s advantage of +2 in total goals).

Algeria meets Russia— Algeria’s in with a win or a tie (as long as South Korea doesn’t beat Belgium by 4 or 3 while surpassing their total goals advantage)…while Russia’s in with a victory if South Korea loses, ties or doesn’t outscore Belgium by more than Russia’s margin of victory over Algeria.

 

 

Just when you thought the World Cup was going to proceed without any biting– Uruguay’s Luis Suarez has to go ahead and ruin things for everbody else.  His 79th minute chomp of Giorgio Chiellini overshadowed the goal that followed two minutes later and the resulting advancement into the Knockout Stage.  It doesn’t help that he’s bitten before…not once but twice (while playing for Dutch club Ajax and while with Liverpool in the EPL, so at least he’s spread his dining around).  Tuesday’s early games were major cannon fodder for those who dislike soccer:  the biting episode that went unpenalized a match that meant everything, and then a scoreless draw in a match that felt much longer than the 90 minutes + stoppage time.

Woe is England– one point in three matches represents that nation’s worst ever showing on the biggest stage.  For some reason the whole once again turns out to be far less than the sum of the team’s parts.  Reminiscent of the US mens’ basketball team finishing 6th at the 2002 World Championships– except that tournament was played in Indianapolis.

Latin America Looms Large– of the eight teams advancing over the first two days, four are from South America (Brazil, Colombia, Chile and Uruguay) while two are from Central America (Mexico and Costa Rica).  If it weren’t for Greece’s penalty kick in stoppage time against Ivory Coast, there’d be just one European nation getting through the group stage thus far.

So far this week the tiebreakers (goal differential, most goals and then head-to-head) have only applied regarding the Group A winner (Brazil thanks to a better differential than Mexico).  Wednesday all four berths in the Knockout Stage could come down to hair-splitting scenarios…and just remember, if they’re tied after head-to-head they cast lots.  As a 21st century competition that keeps time in a 20th century manner decides to determine worthiness based on a process perfected in 6th century B.C.  I can hear the naysayers already.

 

Group E--or in honor of France’s best ever player, the Zinedine Zidane Group:

France faces Ecuador— the only way France is eliminated is if they lose by 4+goals or allow 6+ goals in a 3 goal loss and Switzerland tops Honduras by a 5+ goals.  A tie delivers the Group.  Ecuador is in with a victory plus a Swiss loss or tie (or a Swiss win that doesn’t boost their goal differential), or a tie plus a Swiss loss or tie.  Ecuador’s likely in with a loss if Honduras wins…because of goal differential.

Switzerland meets Honduras— the Swiss are in with a victory plus an Ecuador loss or tie, or a tie plus an Ecuador loss, or a loss by less than 2 goals and if Ecuador loses by 3+ to France and doesn’t surpass them in total goals (Swiss are at 4, Ecuador are at 3).  Honduras reaches the next round with a 2+ goal victory over Switzerland plus an Ecuador loss by 3+ goals unless they surpass the other two nations in total goals.

 

Group F-or the Diego Maradona Group:

Argentina plays Nigeria— Argentina’s moving on regardless…and can win the group with a victory or tie.  Nigeria takes the group with a win…advances with a win or tie…and if they lose needs Iran to lose or tie to Bosnia-Herzegovina, or they go to goal differential/total goals tiebreaker.

Iran plays Bosnia-Herzegovina— Iran’s slim hopes hinge on a victory plus a Nigeria loss if their margin of victory is more than Nigeria’s margin of defeat…or is equal and they finish with more total goals than Nigeria (who has a 1 goal lead now).  Bosnia-Herzegovina’s out of contention.

Who’s ready for the second of four “final days”?  Monday’s action gave the host nation a sigh of relief…after Cameroon tied things up in the 26th minute.  Mexico also punched its ticket to the next round…while the Netherlands gave everyone notice that they may be a force to be reckoned with in the near future.  Chile?  You get Brazil Saturday.  Take plenty of pictures.

Four more matches today with the usual multiple connotations:

Group C known in no circles whatsoever as the “El Pipe” Valderamma Group:

Colombia plays Japan— Colombia’s already in regardless.  Japan needs a win plus a loss by Ivory Coast, or a win plus an Ivory Coast-Greece tie if they outscore Colombia by 2+ goals, unless they score 3+ more goals than Ivory Coast does today.

Greece faces Ivory Coast— Greece is in with a victory plus a loss or tie by Japan.  Ivory Coast advances with a win, or a tie if Japan loses or ties, or a tie if Japan doesn’t outscore Colombia by more than 1 goal and doesn’t score 3+ more goals than they do this afternoon.

Group D–also known as the Paolo Rossi Group:

Italy faces Uruguay— the winner advances.  If there’s a tie–Italy’s off to the Knockout Stage. Either winner remains in contention for taking the group if Costa Rica loses, depending on their margin of victory.

Costa Rica meets England— Costa Rica already assured of reaching the next round, wraps up the Group with a tie, or an Italy-Ghana tie, or a loss where their margin of goals remains better than the winner of Italy (right now +3 to 0)-Uruguay (currently +3 to -1).

Was it just me, or have the last few days of World Cup soccer felt like the final weeks of the NFL regular season?  Who would have thought summer clinching would be just as mindnumbing as it is in December?  Of course, it’s a challenge to keep track of the teams in the “tables” instead of “standings”…and “fixtures” instead of “gametimes”.  In a world where we get on hockey for having “sweaters”, “dressing rooms”, and “organizations”, it’s kind of quaint to see soccer resolute in not compromising a thing.  Hey, we live in a world where we give one sport’s championship games Roman Numerals.

That said– today’s matches have ramifications:

GROUP A–Can’t they name these divisions like they do in hockey?  I will.  So here’s the PELE GROUP:

Brazil battles Cameroon:  a win or a draw (no ties in soccer, only draws) sends the host nation to the knockout stage (instead of sweet sixteen)… while a loss by less than 2 goals gets them there.  Cameroon is out of contention.

Croatia meets Mexico: Croatia’s in with a win.  A win or draw by Mexico means they advance…while a Mexican loss by 1 goal plus a Brazilian loss by 2+ goals gets them to the next stage.

Croatia wins Group A with a win plus a Brazil loss, Brazil prevails with a win or a tie plus a Mexico-Croatia tie, while Mexico wins with a victory plus a Brazil loss or tie, or a tie plus a Brazil loss.

 

GROUP B–or my purposes…the JOHAN CRUYFF GROUP:

Netherlands faces Chile:  the winner takes first place…while the loser likely faces Brazil in the round of 16 (see above).

Australia plays Spain:  the loser finishes 0-3… something the defending champs would much like to avoid.

More tomorrow– with a fresh set of fixtures, tables, and thoughts about extra time.

Soccer’s World Cup takes semi-center stage for the next few weeks...and for some the start can’t come soon enough while for others the end can’t arrive too quickly.  Prepare for three groups of fans to emerge:  the first that can’t stand soccer and complains how the lack of scoring make it such a boring game, a second that can’t believe how one can’t see the pure beauty of a 19th century game that’s brilliance lies in its pure simplicity, and a third that would wish both previous groups would shut up so they can actually follow the games and tournament.  I wish the substitution rules were relaxed (unlimited after goals, between periods and before goal kicks) and time kept on an actual scoreboard (can the game move into the 20th century sometime during the 21st?) but understand that it’s not America’s game to tamper with.  The only substitution rule that would help Team USA is if they were allowed to suit up 12 against Germany and Portugal.  If the US gets to the knockout round, it’ll be a major victory.  Instead, we get to watch the world go crazy as Brazil tries to wash away the stain of losing the 1950 Final on its home soil (trust me, that defeat to Uruguay still stings)…Spain try to become the first European nation to win in the Americas and first repeat champ since Brazil in ’62…nations like Chile and the Netherlands hope that this is finally the year they join the small circle of world champs…and England obsess over what’s wrong with this year’s roster and why they can’t dominate a sport they created.  It’s been 48 years since England stood atop the world…can you imagine Team USA not winning Olympic Gold in mens basketball from now until 2060?  Hopefully Brazil will be ready to host the tournament– word is the conditions will make the Sochi Olympics look like the London Games.

 

Golf’s US Open has two Grand Slams in question:  can Bubba Watson follow his Masters win better than he did in 2012 when he missed the cut?  Outside of his two green jackets, Waffle House’s most famous patron has just two top ten finishes in majors– (2nd at the 2010 PGA Championship and T5 at the 2007 US Open).  He’s already made remarks about the conditions at Pinehurst–and even if they have merit you don’t crush the course.  Come on, Bubba.  The other Grand Slam in question replaces the annual “is the year Phil finally breaks through?” storyline.  Can a player who appeared to be doomed a little over a decade ago (no Major wins until the 2004 Masters) join the ranks of Tiger, Jack, Player, Hogan and Sarazen?  Injuries and inconsistencies have helped keep the reigning British Open Champ out of the top ten this year (with 3 missed cuts and 2 withdrawals)…although the fact he returns to the site of his first of a record six runner-up finishes makes the heart hope he’ll complete the circle.  In Lefty’s near-misses, the first three came at the expense of a multiple-major winner (Payne Stewart, Tiger Woods and Retief Goosen) while the last three came to one-hit wonders (Geoff Ogilvy, Lucas Glover and Justin Rose).  In four of his six second place finishes, Mickelson had the lead after the second or third round (trailing by an average 6.5 shots after those rounds at Bethpage in ’02 and ’09) and shot 70 three times while carding a 71 and a pair of 74’s.  Everybody will be rooting for him though…

 

Rafael Reigns at the French Open– Nobody can contend with the King of Clay:  Nadal wins his 9th championship at Roland Garros and improves to 66-1 lifetime in the tournament.  His Finals victory over Novak Djokovic turns the pendulum back;  after once losing three straight Grand Slam Finals to the Serb Nadal has now bested Djokovic four straight times (3 times at Roland Garros and once at the US Open).  His 14 Grand Slam titles ties him with Pete Sampras (and he’s won each major, something a French-less Sampras was unable to do)…and Roger Federer’s 17 while not a slam-dunk isn’t out of the realm of possibility.  At age 28 one could see Nadal winning perhaps 1 or 2 more French Opens while nabbing one more Australian or US Open.  We often compare grand slam tennis to golf because they’re both individual sports;  but the cliff that elite players fall off of in tennis is far steeper.  But the way Nadal has played over the last year makes one think he has 2-3 left in his pocket.  

 

Horse Racing trots quietly into the night– No Triple Crown winner again, you say?  The streak hits 36?  California Chrome’s co-owner turned what was a good story that just missed perfection somewhat ugly by whining about how Tonalist didn’t deserve to be the Belmont champ because it didn’t run in the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness.  Not cool.  Even after the first outburst he could have regained a little dignity…but now the blue bloods who snubbed the Cinderella Story will tell themselves “go figure”.  Now-Steve Coburn has a point.  The short turnaround between the Derby and the Preakness causes a lot of owners to hold his horse out of the race at Pimlico if they don’t prevail at Churchill Downs.  This often inflates the actual perceived ability of the horse that wins the Derby and Preakness–as often it takes the Black Eyed Susan amidst a diminished field (or at least one that’s not as elite as the one it competed against two weeks ago).  And then to run the longest distance of its career against the best of the rested?  I’ve long wished they move the gaps between the races to 3 or even 4 weeks…but much like unlimited substitution and scoreboard clocks in soccer, it’s not going to happen.  Until next year…