Wild American Gooner

When Sports Are More Than Just Sports


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The State of My Stateside Teams

I want to do today’s post a little differently. Instead of choosing one topic, I’m going to give each of my teams in the United States a paragraph. S0 here goes.

The Red Sox are a mess right now. It feels like I’m re-watching 2014, because like last year, every single time there’s the smallest bit of momentum, they drop the next two and three of the next four. I still think it’s worth holding course and seeing if David Ortiz and Pablo Sandoval can break their season-long slumps, but I’m getting less optimistic with every successive setback. However, it is encouraging to see a few of the players turn things around, notably Xander Bogaerts, Dustin Pedroia, Wade Miley and Joe Kelly. If a couple more players can figure it out, maybe there is a run in this team. But no matter how bad it gets, as long as we have Eduardo Rodriguez going every five days, there will be something to look forward to. He is the real deal.

The Celtics are about to enter a really interesting part of the offseason. With large amounts of cap space for the first time in years, this summer will be a test of whether big free agents will be attracted to playing for Brad Stevens. My gut tells me no, but wouldn’t it be nice if LaMarcus Aldridge came for a visit? Regardless, a priority has to be re-signing Jae Crowder. I also want Danny Ainge to work as hard as he can to move up a few spots in the draft to get Willie Cauley-Stein. He could make a serious impact on the team defense, and is miles better than somebody like Kevin Looney, who is being looked at for #16. I’m opposed to giving up the Nets picks, but I think Cauley-Stein’s value above who we’d draft at #16 is worth surrendering an extra first round pick.

The Patriots continue to make news in all the wrong ways. Whether it’s appeal talk, Brandon Spikes’s hit and run or Malcolm Butler getting benched, it’s so negative that following the team this offseason has become unappealing. I think this could be an ugly year on the field too. It can’t be overstated that where all three AFC East teams improved, the Pats lost almost everything at running back and in the secondary. I’m legitimately worried about making the playoffs. This could be an bad year. It’s a really good thing the pressure is relatively off for a year after the Super Bowl win.

Arkansas baseball has been an inspiration. Zach Jackson’s three and two thirds inning save to close out the Super Regional was one of the most gutsy performances I’ve seen on a baseball field. These guys fight and these guys win. Getting to Omaha is the highest achievement this team could have imagined. Any success in the College World Series will just be icing on the cake. With the dire lack of arms in the bullpen due to James Teague and Dominic Taccolini’s injuries, making a run there will be extraordinarily difficult. But this is a truly special group – I wouldn’t bet against them. Nothing made me happier than the Red Sox drafting Andrew Benintendi in the first round and then Tyler Spoon in the 30th. I can’t wait to see Benintendi roaming the Fenway grass. But in the meantime, it’s time for the #OmaHogs to beat Virginia. Woo Pig Sooie.

After a successful year on the hardcourt, Arkansas basketball is looking at a rebuilding year. When Anthlon Bell is the leading returning scorer, that’s not a good sign. But for the next month, the focus of Hog basketball is on watching Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls in the NBA Draft. Portis is getting rave reviews across the league as one of the most NBA-ready players. And Qualls has managed to disappear from draft boards despite posting the lowest body fat percentage of anyone. I really wish Qualls had come back for his senior year, but alas, he made the same mistake B.J. Young did and gambled despite not being assured of being drafted. However, I think Qualls could be a success in the NBA, even if he isn’t drafted. I certainly want the Celtics to take a flier on him in the second round. He’s such a talented athlete that I think he has serious potential defensively with a year of good coaching. I think Portis will be solid, and could have himself a nice career, but his ceiling is low. With so many power forwards on the Celtics, he’d have a hard time getting going in Boston, and thus hope he gets drafted somewhere else.

Arkansas football is riding a ridiculous high right now. Suddenly Arkansas is mentioned as a national title threat. And despite a murderous schedule once again, I don’t disagree. For the Arkansas offense has the potential to be incredible. Two 1,000 yard rushers are returning behind the best offensive line in the country, which in Denver Kirland, John Skipper and Sebastian Tretola boasts three potential all-americans. Sure there are questions at receiver, but I liked what I saw from Keon Hatcher last year and as much flak as I give Brandon Allen, he now has two full years of experience. Plus, the new offensive coordinator Dan Enos is a coach who has had success with QB’s. The defense took three big losses through the middle, but largely remains the same group that held LSU, Ole Miss and Texas to a combined seven points. I realize I need to temper my expectations before the season starts, but the excitement is too real. September 5th can’t come soon enough.

The Davidson basketball non-conference schedule is slowly coming out and I’m liking what I’m seeing. Games at UNC and at Madison Square Garden vs. Pitt give Davidson big-time exposure and a real chance to earn RPI-boosting wins. But more importantly, it seems like the schedule will be a little stronger on the back-end too, which was almost an issue last year. It’s good to pile up wins, but the strength of schedule numbers needed to be higher. I’ve seen early predictors say this team won’t be the same without Tyler Kalinoski, but he’s just one player, albeit a really good one. Between Jack Gibbs, Brian Sullivan and Jordan Barham, there are many hands capable of filling his production. And with Jake Belford returning from injury and some size coming in with the recruiting class, I’m not convinced there will be even the slightest bit of drop-off from last year.

The last team I want to mention is the U.S. Men’s National team in soccer, who beat both Netherlands and the world champion Germans this week on European soil. I’ve heard many people say the wins don’t matter because they are friendlies without many of the sides’ top players, but that should not take anything away from the achievement. Taking many players without experience, the U.S. topped two of the best teams in the world. That’s a fact. And it can be a springboard for Jürgen Klinsmann and the program. You can’t tell me players like Bobby Wood and Gyasi Zardes aren’t better off in the career having this burst of confidence. This was a week to treasure for U.S. soccer fans.

 

 


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My 58 Nation Blog

Good morning, everyone. Let the World Cup withdrawal begin. It’s been a wild month of action, one that will go down as a truly great World Cup, and now we all have to go back to whatever it was we were doing before we began watching 6 hours of soccer a day.  But fear not. For the club season is just around the corner. And as much as I love the World Cup, I must say that I prefer watching Arsenal. If you liked the action in Brazil and think you might want to watch more soccer, make sure to check out the Premier League. I absolutely love it.

However, before we move on from the World Cup, there is reflection to be done. I have a post lined up for later this afternoon about my team of the competition, with a 23-man squad complete with a best XI and a second-best XI. That should be up soon. And then at some point later this week, I’ll have a piece about what my lasting memories will be about this last month. Today, however, I would like to reflect about how the World Cup inspired this blog.

A little more than a month ago, I wanted to start a blog for a few reasons. I wanted to improve my writing, with the idea that doing more of it would be helpful. And I wanted to see how I liked writing about sports on a daily basis – with an eye towards figuring out if sports journalism is a legitimate career option. Writing this blog was also an excuse to watch as many games as I physically could. I thought I would write a post a day, likely more for myself than for any readers, and that I’d probably shut the blog down at the end of the summer.

But as I started writing every day, I quickly developed an affinity for writing these posts. I challenged myself to get as much quality content as I could up on the site, with the faint hope of developing a readership, even at the expense of many hours spent on my computer each day. At the beginning, my viewership was quite small. But slowly but surely, more visitors have started coming to the site. Yesterday was the third straight day I hit triple-digits with visitors, a significant rise from only two or three weeks ago. And I hit 3,000 views overall after the Final.

I received some scorn from my friends for how specific my prediction section was, but I had a lot of fun writing vivid descriptions of games before they happened. And by the end, I was doing pretty well, even with getting final scores and goalscorers right. My predictions didn’t start off so well in the group stage, but I ended up correctly predicting 15 of the 16 winners in the knockout round. I think that’s a pretty decent percentage if I may say so myself.

But aside from my success with predictions, the coolest part about this last month has been watching where my viewers come from. I never dreamed of writing for an international audience, but as of now, people in 58 different countries have looked at this blog. For me, the greatest part about the World Cup is that it’s a truly global event. And I got to experience that firsthand. Whoever has read my stuff in Namibia, Vietnam, Cyprus, Qatar, Colombia and in so many other nations, I say thank you.

As I said yesterday, Wild American Gooner is not ending anytime soon. My dream of becoming a sports journalist is alive and well, and I will continue writing on here as much as I can. For the time being, I’ll try to have daily posts in the mornings, with the occasional afternoon or evening post on anything significant that’s happened that day. There will be a lot of Arsenal content – I plan on outlining my expectations for each player in the squad in the coming weeks, doing two or three at a time. But I’ll probably also have more writing about the Red Sox. So despite the end of the World Cup, the site is alive and well.

Now, as we move on to the next chapter of the sports world, I want to stop and say thank you. I’m loving every second of this. Keep checking back for more content, share the link with anyone you think might be interested, and please give me any feedback you think might help improve the site. Thanks for reading.


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USA Player Grades

Good morning, everyone. I’ve had a night to reflect on the World Cup campaign and my views haven’t really changed. This team did well. But the more I see of Chris Wondolowski’s chance, the more I feel an opportunity was really missed. But oh well. So I figure on a day with no action, a player-by-player grading will be the best way to examine the success of the United States in Brazil. To be clear, these are grades on the whole tournament, not just yesterday.

Grades (A-F)

Jozy Altidore – Incomplete It would be unfair to assign Altidore a grade. His hamstring injury in the opening minutes of the Ghana game proved fatal to his campaign, and his presence was sorely missed. Had he been fit for the Belgian game, things might have been different. For everyone’s sake, let’s hope Jozy gets another chance in 2018.

DeMarcus Beasley – B- For a player who had no experience playing defense as recently as eighteen months ago, the fact that the wily veteran started four games at left back is incredible. And for much of the tournament, he didn’t look out of place. He had some nervous moments against Ghana, and his crosses left a little to be desired, but overall, he was solid in defense.

Kyle Beckerman – B+ Beckerman had to be wondering what he did wrong to get left out for the Belgium game, because he was one of the U.S.’s most reliable players in the group stage. The veteran was particularly impressive in stopping the famed Portuguese counter attacks. His positioning was excellent, and he allowed Jermaine Jones the freedom to go forward. Klinsmann looks a genius for bringing him back into the fold.

Alejandro Bedoya – C+ Bedoya started three of the four games in Brazil, yet I can hardly recall a moment when he had a hand in an attack. The winger did his job covering the fullbacks, and was always committed to the cause. But the U.S. really could have used a little more from him going forward.

Matt Besler – B+ Besler has to be the surprise star of this World Cup cycle. His unexpected rise to being the first name on the team sheet in defense was earned through steady play at the back. He defended crosses well, was always positioned correctly and communicated impressively with the rotating cast of players beside him. Besler should have been stronger against Romelu Lukaku on Belgium’s opener in extra-time, and for that, he falls out of the A range. I believe a move to Europe could do wonders for Besler’s continued development.

Michael Bradley – C Bradley was not cut out for the number 10 role handed to him this year when playing against the world’s best. He was poor in possession and at times looked like he was completely lost on the field. He needed to step up in Altidore’s absence and he simply didn’t. A perfect ball to Julian Green in extra-time against Belgium and an impressive work rate will save him from complete embarrassment.

John Brooks – A- In his limited role, Brooks made quite an impact. His winning header off the bench against Ghana will go down as one of the great moments in U.S. soccer history. He’ll need to improve his consistency in the coming years, but he looks a talent in defense for the future.

Geoff Cameron – C+ Cameron got the start in central defense for the first two games, and struggled at times to clear the ball, giving up Portugal’s opener with a horrific error. A surprise start in central midfield against Belgium demonstrated his versatility, but it also showed Klinsmann needs to hand him a permanent position so that he can settle into the national team. Cameron’s European pedigree should have been an asset, but instead, he disappointed for much of his time in Brazil.

Timmy Chandler – N/A One of two field players not to see action, Chandler must improve to see time in the next cycle.

Brad Davis – C- Davis was a bit of a surprise inclusion in the squad, but as a spot kick specialist, he could have been valuable. In his one big opportunity, a start against Germany, he failed to make much of an impact. This could be his last time wearing the red, white and blue.

Clint Dempsey – A- Asked to play the role of a lone striker, Dempsey did his best and created a number of chances. His early goal against Ghana set the tone for the tournament, and his goal against Portugal was equally important. He will rue not converting the chance he had at the end of the Belgium game, but the U.S. couldn’t have asked for much more from their captain.

Mix Diskerud – N/A The other player to fail to see action, Diskerud will be disappointed. It seemed strange he wasn’t given a chance, because he was someone who could have provided some spark in the midfield. He will hope to remain a part of Klinsmann’s plans for the future.

Omar Gonzalez – B+ Gonzalez came into the tournament without a defined role, but by the end, he had rediscovered the form that made him seem like the U.S.’s best defender a year ago. He was particularly impressive against Belgium, always being in the right place. He and Besler look to be the pair in central defense for the considerable future.

Julian Green – A Green arrived with no expectations. He was expected to sit on the bench and soak everything in. But instead, he nearly saved the Americans’ life. His volley past Courtois right after coming on in extra-time against Belgium will spell big things for the teenager. His goal made Klinsmann look pretty smart for his selection. I think we’re all glad Green is committed to be an American soccer player.

Brad Guzan – N/A Guzan could have started for most teams in Brazil, but remains permanently behind Tim Howard, watching from the sidelines once again. He doesn’t complain, and he should be admired for that. It’s nice having assurance that if Howard goes down, Guzan will be ready. It looks doubtful that he’ll take over the number one shirt any time soon though.

Tim Howard – A+ Howard was simply incredible for the U.S. His performances between the posts were among the very best in Brazil. He kept the Americans in matches with unbelievable save after unbelievable save. At age 35, Howard still looks to be getting better. Let’s hope for everybody’s sake that Howard sticks around for a few more years.

Aron Johannsson – C- Much was expected form Johannsson in Brazil as a sort of super sub. But in his big chance, he failed to seize the opportunity to fill Altidore’s shoes. It was a big ask, but Johannsson was not ready to lead the line in Brazil. After that, it was notable that Wondolowski was preferred to Johannsson off the bench. In a few years, he might be our top striker, but in this World Cup, he could not do what we needed him to do.

Fabian Johnson – B+ Johnson was one of the United States’s best players in Brazil, constantly making dangerous runs down the right and sending in quality balls from the byline. In defense, he did well against the top talent he had to face. His injury against Belgium was unlucky, and the Americans really missed his dual-threat in his absence. He should be a regular for years to come.

Jermaine Jones – A Few would have pegged Jones as the U.S.’s best player going in, but the veteran midfielder was just that in Brazil. He was great defensively and was tremendous going forward throughout. He was constantly making dangerous runs and playing accurate balls in the final third. His beautiful equalizer against Portugal typified his tournament. Without Jones, the U.S. wouldn’t have had much of anything going in attack.

Nick Rimando – N/A The number three keeper will be happy to have been in Brazil.

Chris Wondolowski – C+ Wondolowski did almost everything right in his substitute appearances. He held up the ball nicely against Portugal, and his pass to Dempsey on the late set piece against Belgium was spot-on. However, he made one crucial mistake that will forever cloud his World Cup experience. When he should have scored the winning goal against Belgium, he shanked his kick. That could haunt him forever.

DeAndre Yedlin – B+ A surprise inclusion in the side, Yedlin proved his worth with a series of impressive substitute appearances. Especially against Portugal, his pace down the right changed the game. His suspect positioning against Belgium showed he still has a lot to learn, but he performed beyond anyone’s wildest expectations in Brazil. He is one to watch for the future.

Graham Zusi – C The U.S. counted on Zusi to help fill the boots of Landon Donovan, and he did not deliver. Apart from his corner against Ghana that produced John Brooks’s goal, his set pieces and crosses were horribly inaccurate. And in possession, he rarely made any decisive passes. His work rate and cover down the right were vital to the defense, but the U.S. needed a lot more from Zusi going forward.

Have a great day, everyone. I’ll share some thoughts on Jürgen Klinsmann later.


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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.


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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.