Wild American Gooner

When Sports Are More Than Just Sports

Leave a comment

Argentina State Their Case

Argentina proved they are more than just Lionel Messi in their 1-0 quarterfinal win over Belgium today, with a number of players impressing on the day. Belgium once again looked lost in its own system, with so many talented individuals playing like only a fraction of their normal selves.

Gonzalo Higuain may often get overlooked in the grander scheme of things, but he may be almost as crucial to Argentina’s World Cup campaign as Messi himself. Higuain played his best game of the tournament today, opening up with a brilliantly taken volley past Thibaut Courtois to give Argentina the lead. From there, his play only got better. He was a menace on the ball, dropping deeper than normal to pick up the ball when his team earned possession. His hold-up play was among the best seen in Brazil, as his ability to keep the ball under fierce pressure allowed his midfielders time to get forward. Holding off Vincent Kompany is always a big ask for a forward, but Higuain had little trouble today. His nutmeg of Kompany on a solo run that ended with a well-struck shot hitting the crossbar typified the performance.

When Angel di Maria went down with a thigh injury, Argentina’s approach understandably became more patient. But even without di Maria’s pacey runs, Messi and company still found success out wide. Ezequiel Lavezzi put in an impressive shift defensively, but he also made a number of runs out wide that nearly resulted in goals. With di Maria likely out of the semifinal, Lavezzi will be called upon to deliver another performance like his one today. And in midfield and defense, Alejandro Sabella’s changes in the lineup looked genius. Lucas Biglia had a solid performance in the middle of the park, certainly appearing up to the task. And in defense, Martin Demichelis hardly put a foot wrong. Especially late on when Belgium started sending in long-balls, Demichelis’s physicality proved vital for Argentina.

While Belgium might be satisfied with their quarterfinal appearance in their first World Cup since 2002, they never lived up to their potential. Much like they had all tournament, they lacked creativity in the final third today. Star player Eden Hazard was rightly substituted late on, because he had not looked even a shadow of himself. As one of the Premier League’s best players, Hazard could have stolen the show in Brazil, but instead, he barely made an impact. He’s got a long shelf life in international soccer, but his poor performances here won’t enhance his reputation. With Cesc Fabregas coming in at Chelsea, Hazard might be at risk of getting dropped if his play doesn’t pick up in pre-season.

Marc Wilmots’s Belgian side had more talent on the field today than Argentina did among all 11 players. But Belgium did not have a single player step up. They were wasteful all day on set pieces, and with Kompany, Romelu Lukaku and Marouane Fellaini all capable of changing a match with their heads, the consistently poor delivery did themselves no favors. In two years time, after this young side has had more time on the training ground together, they should be a favorite at the European Championships. But today, they were not cut out for the biggest stage.

Messi had a good game in possession, once again looking a magician with the ball at his feet, but he will be disappointed not to have beaten his nemesis Courtois at the end of the game. One has to feel Messi won’t miss many more chances like that in Brazil. But overall, he will be delighted with the performance of his teammates. Gonzalo Higuain, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Javier Mascherano are all more than capable of stepping up beside Messi to lead this team to the title. And they showed it today.


1 Comment

Thiago Silva’s Lookalike and Today’s Picks

Good morning, everyone. I hope you all survived any 4th of July festivities. One random thought before I move to my predictions for today’s games. For a while now, I’ve looked at Thiago Silva and thought he looked familiar. But I couldn’t ever place it. That is, until yesterday, when I figured it out – he looks like the lead male actor from The Fault in Our Stars, Ansel Elgort. Obviously, the two of them have drastically different skin tones, but the shape of their faces and certain facial features look rather similar. Google just told me I am not the very first to make this connection, but I doubt too many people have put Silva and Elgort together in their minds. Somehow I think there aren’t many Brazilian soccer aficionados out there who also are fans of The Fault in Our Stars.

Now, to the picks.

Argentina 2 Belgium 1

Despite all the offensive firepower on the field, this game could be a dull one at times. These two teams have underwhelmed on their ways to the quarterfinals, lacking much of the flare they possessed in qualifying. For Argentina, it will be vital for Angel di Maria to be at his best on the left wing. Belgium’s fullbacks, especially Toby Alderweireld, will be the weak links that Argentina can attack. Pacey runs from di Maria could see Argentina run away with the game. For Belgium, I expect Romelu Lukaku to reclaim his starting spot. His ability to link up with Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne could cause nightmares for the Argentine defense. Thibaut Courtois will be counted on in the Belgian net more than in any game prior.

I expect the game to start slowly, with any chances in the opening half an hour coming from defensive mistakes rather than any particularly impressive attacks. One such chance will fall to Hazard, who will open his World Cup scoring account and give Belgium the early lead. At halftime, Argentina will change things up tactically to get Lionel Messi more involved. However, Argentina’s equalizer will come from Pablo Zabaleta, played in by di Maria. Minutes later, Messi will give his country the lead from a brilliantly played one-two with Ezequiel Lavezzi. It will be a vintage effort from the world’s best player that sends Argentina to the semifinals.

Netherlands 2 Costa Rica 0

As much as I would like to see Costa Rica pull off the unthinkable and reach the semifinals, they’ll have to play an almost perfect game to beat the in-form Dutch. Thus far, Costa Rica hasn’t had to deal with many lightning quick forwards, which has allowed them to gamble on the counter. But if they do that today, their backline will be left on an island trying to defend Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben. The Dutch will punish any mistake, and unfortunately, I don’t think Costa Rica will be play mistake-free.

I predict Costa Rica will be the team attacking with the most vigor in the early going, trying to send a message that they’re here to play with the big boys. But roughly a quarter of an hour in, Arjen Robben will get the game’s first real chance. Afraid of giving away the penalty, Costa Rica will allow Robben the extra inch of space he needs, and the Bayern Munich man will fire the ball into the back of the net, beating Keylor Navas near-post. The goal against the run of play will knock some of the wind out of the Ticos sails. Before halftime, the Dutch will double their lead, with Ron Vlaar rising highest to head in a corner. In the second half, Joel Campbell and Bryan Ruiz will combine well to create a couple of chances, but Jasper Cillessen will prove up to the task in goal. The latter stages of the game will be fairly comfortably for the Dutch, who will advance to the semifinals with relative ease.

What are your thoughts on today’s games? And do you see the Thiago Silva-Ansel Elgort connection or am I crazy? Please comment below.


Thanks, Guys

Where do I start after a game like that? The U.S. may have lost, but they did so in the most American way possible. They fought until the final whistle, clawing back into the match at the most unexpected moment. Belgium was clearly the better side, but for much of the game, that didn’t matter, as the American defense played the game of their lives. Omar Gonzalez hardly put a foot wrong alongside Matt Besler, who himself was immense for much of the match. And then there was Tim Howard, who made more saves today than any keeper had in a World Cup game in over 50 years.

Regulation was a defensive exposition for the United States, who had to deal with Belgian pressure from the very first minute. When Fabian Johnson went down with a hamstring injury, few would have expected the Americans to keep a clean sheet, however every single member of the squad stepped up on the defensive end. Gonzalez and Besler made clearance after clearance, and Tim Howard backed them up with what had to be the best performance by an American goalie ever. His positioning and balance were excellent all day. Many will criticize Graham Zusi and Alejandro Bedoya for failing to make an impact in Brazil offensively, but they provided vital cover for DeAndre Yedlin and DeMarcus Beasley on the flanks. Zusi and Bedoya’s efforts on the defensive end should not go unheralded. Without them, the center backs would have been left exposed far more often.

Once the game went into extra time, and the USA began to push forward, a Belgian counter-attack goal seemed inevitable. Besler could have done better with Romelu Lukaku, but he shouldn’t be put solely at fault for the opener. The big Belgian’s physicality changed the match, and he set up Kevin de Bruyne for a deserved goal. It has to be said though that the U.S. got unlucky there, as Gonzalez got to Lukaku’s cross first, ultimately stretching too far to get the ball away. The second goal was much the same, as Lukaku simply was too good. The Americans needed to press forward then, so a counter attack was always going to be killer.

After Belgium’s two extra-time goals, most teams would have given up. But not these guys. In his final brilliant move of the tournament, Jürgen Klinsmann played his wild-card, Julian Green, who had been deemed by the media and fans alike to be utterly useless to this particular team. I guess he was ready after all. His run was impeccable and the pass from Michael Bradley was perfect, and suddenly with a wonderfully taken volley, Green had the USA within reach. This goal surpassed even John Brooks’s goal in the category of unexpected scorers.

The final ten minutes were agonizing, yet beautiful. For the first time all tournament, we watched a United States team unafraid to get forward. Nearly everybody was in the box, fighting for headers and usually winning them. Were it not for Thibaut Courtois, who himself proved his worth as a world-class keeper, Clint Dempsey would have found the equalizer. It seemed a goal was destined to come, but alas, we were all left stunned at the improbable comeback our team nearly pulled off. My sadness at getting knocked out almost immediately turned to pride.

This game might well be a springboard for the United States soccer program. Players from all ages stepped up to play the game of their lives, and while ultimately the lack of a number 10 proved fatal, the USA proved they could compete with the top nations in the world. Belgium is certainly a step up from Ghana in 2010 quality wise, and while the scorelines from the round of 16 losses are the same, today marked a big improvement from the red, white and blue. Jürgen Klinsmann has breathed life into what was an aging squad, and made us play like winners again. If kids aren’t inspired to kick around a soccer ball tomorrow, I’ll be shocked.

Losing in extra-time is always going to be heartbreaking, but don’t be disappointed too long, for this team should make you proud. They beat death after all. And today, without Jozy Altidore and Fabian Johnson, they nearly took the game from a top-class Belgium side. For all the fun I’ve had watching this team’s World Cup campaign, I say thank you to Jürgen Klinsmann and to all the players. You guys were amazing.

I’ll have player grades for the tournament tomorrow, with some final thoughts on the American odyssey in Brazil.

Leave a comment

How the USA beats Belgium

Last spring, the USA lost a friendly to an upstart Belgium 4-2, a match in which the American defense looked hopelessly inexperienced. Belgium ran rampant in Cleveland, even without star playmaker Eden Hazard. That night, the United States did not look anywhere close to the level of the Red Devils, putting themselves under loads of pressure going into the Gold Cup. However, a year later, tables have turned. Belgium is now the side that is struggling with pressure, and the U.S. is the upstart. In today’s round of 16 game, anything can happen.

The biggest difference from the United States side that was torn apart a year ago is the defense. That day, the back four was Cameron, Gonzalez, Goodson and Beasley, who was still learning the left back position. Since then, Matt Besler and Fabian Johnson have stepped into the first team, and both have been tremendous in Brazil. Today, the two of them will need to continue that form against the Belgians. Besler will be tasked with stopping the physical Romelu Lukaku and the pacey Divock Origi. One will start and one will come off the bench, but both are equally dangerous. Johnson will have his hands full with Eden Hazard on the right, as the Chelsea man will be the best player of the field. Keeping Hazard from getting to the byline is absolutely crucial for the American defense.

In midfield, Jermaine Jones will need to continue his scorching form. With Kyle Beckerman next to him, Jones can continue to venture forward as needed. He was the best American a year ago against Belgium, and he will need to be that again today. If he does go forward, Beckerman will have to remain disciplined, because Belgium possess the same talent in midfield that Germany did. There’s not a weak link of the field. As a result, Michael Bradley will be needed more than ever today and he can’t have another poor performance. It’s that simple.

Even if Jozy Altidore is fit enough to play, I wouldn’t give him a start. Stick with the lineup that played against Germany, and if needed, Altidore can be an option off the bench if the U.S. wants a late goal. Gambling on his health would be too big a risk right now, especially in a game that could go 120 minutes. All three substitutions will be needed late on, and wasting one on an Altidore injury setback early could be costly. Jürgen Klinsmann has had the magic touch with substitutions, and he will need to counter an even higher level of success that Belgium’s subs have had in recent games.

I predict the game goes into extra time. Belgium will retain their cautious approach at the start of the game, allowing the United States time to settle in. There will be no early goal this time. As the game builds, chances will start falling for the U.S., who will not be dominated in possession as many fear. The best chance will fall to Bradley, but once again, he will fail to convert. Thibaut Courtois will be hard to beat. On the other end, Tim Howard will be forced into a tough save from Kevin de Bruyne late in the first half, but Belgium won’t be overly dangerous.

The second half will see the Belgians take control of the match, finding success with midfield runners opening up the flanks. Once they open the match up, they will be scary to watch. However, their goal will come from a set piece – off the head of Vincent Kompany, who will have overcome his injury concern to deputize the side. But the U.S. will press on after the goal, sending Jozy Altidore into the mix late on. He will get onto a long ball from Jones and earn a penalty with a clever turn. Clint Dempsey will step up to tie the game. In extra time, the legs will begin to go for the Americans, and the chances will all fall to Belgium. One will land at the feet of Eden Hazard, who will break American hearts. There won’t be enough left in the tank for another comeback and the final score will be Belgium 2 United States 1. I sure hope I’m wrong.

Argentina 2 Switzerland 1

The other game today will also be a good one, with the Swiss putting a scare in Argentina. Lionel Messi will continue his stunning form, scoring an early goal, but the result will be a question of whether his supporting cast shows up. Switzerland’s suspect defense will be exposed once again in the opening minutes, torn apart by a solo run from Messi. Johan Djourou will have trouble making his teammates believe he once started for Arsenal when they beat Messi in 2011. However, Xherdan Shaqiri will find an equalizer against the run of play, scoring a sparkler for the Swiss. When it looks like the tide is turning, Angel di Maria will finally show what he is capable of, beating the Swiss defense on a counter to give Argentina the lead. Messi’s supporting cast will ultimately get the job done.

Well, today is going to be an interesting day. I hope all of you will be watching. I am not nearly as worried about this game as I have been about the others. That’s not to say I am confident, it’s just that I understand at this point, anything can happen. The best team won’t always win. Get it to penalties and who knows who’ll wilt under pressure. Check back for post-match coverage tonight. I believe, despite my prediction. We can do this.

Watch this video and you’ll believe too.


1 Comment

Belgium Must Abandon the Hope of Becoming a Team

Belgium has six points from two games and has safely progressed into the knockout round. Two games and two wins would satisfy most, but the Red Devils have not lived up to their potential. Both wins have come late on, after long periods of uninspired play. With all the hype about Belgium being this World Cup’s dark horse, they are playing much more like an old, underperforming favorite than an inspiring upstart. And maybe that’s not a bad thing.

Being an underdog has its perks. There is little to no pressure, and everyone will be happy with you if you just put in the effort. The result won’t matter so much as whether or not you competed. Belgium has been that underdog for much of the country’s sporting history. But now, they have reached the stage where they must face the pressure. Tipped by so many to be dark-horses, they in turn became overrated in many people’s eyes, with a ton to prove. The consensus among their critics was that they had not earned the status people were giving them. They hadn’t even qualified for the European Championships in 2012.

Belgium is a squad of Premier League stars. It’s a squad that many casual fans won’t be familiar with because of their inexperience on the international level, but any week in-week out fan of club soccer will know them all. There’s an abundance of talent everywhere. Because of their individual talent, they became a “great” team overnight, without ever actually becoming a team.

Now they are out to prove that they are a team rather than merely a group of individual stars. But their first two contests have not settled that debate in any favorable way. They look uncomfortable playing together, afraid to step outside the system to show off their own skill. Creative players like Eden Hazard have been uncharacteristically unadventurous in their first two games. It hasn’t been until the substitutes have come in the field in both matches that Belgium has shown any signs of their talent. Only when they are allowed to be themselves do they look a team.

The age old question is whether a team with a bunch of individual stars is better than one that will play like a team. In this World Cup, the two teams that will aim to settle this debate are Belgium and Costa Rica. With both being relative newcomers to big-time soccer success, they have advanced in completely different ways. Belgium, as I said above, has needed their individuals to carry them when their system has failed to produce any results, while Costa Rica, a team whose unheralded players have been around each other for years, has commanded matches from the start with their tactics and spirit as a team. Both have six points, but wouldn’t you have to say Costa Rica has been more impressive so far?

Belgium certainly have the talent to go far in this tournament. But where they are as a team right now does not meet the necessary level to progress in the knockout stages. This talented group of individuals needs a lot more time over the next few years to become comfortable playing with one another. For now, they might be better off abandoning hope that they’ll become a true team in Brazil. Releasing the individual talent will be their savior, as few teams possess Belgium’s individual talent. However, if they try to play as a team at this point in their development, it won’t be enough.

Not many teams can be more successful if they abandon the team mentality. But if Marc Wilmots wants his squad to advance in the World Cup, he needs to unleash the individuals, because in this case, the stars are bigger than the team.

Do you think my unorthodox suggestion is preposterous? Please comment below and tell me what you think.