Wild American Gooner

When Sports Are More Than Just Sports


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Ah, How I Love the Third Place Game

Good morning, everyone. I’d imagine I’m unique in this way, but today is one of my favorite random sporting events. It’s the third place game at the World Cup. And I can’t be more excited. I fear we may not get many more of these once FIFA begins to realize how much the players hate them, so make sure to tune in this afternoon for Brazil-Netherlands. It’s sure to be fascinating in a way only third place games can be.

This game doesn’t matter much, and I’ll be the first to admit that. With the club season coming up rapidly, I completely understand why players wouldn’t want to risk getting hurt in an extra game like this one. As Arjen Robben pointed out, the whole World Cup is played so that teams can win a trophy. So why should they care about the only game that doesn’t matter in that competition for the trophy? It makes sense to have a third place game in the Olympics with there being a bronze medal, but why have one when there’s no extra incentive? Entertainment, that’s why.

There are a few interesting subplots in today’s game and most of them revolve around Brazil. For starters, both coaches will likely be coaching their last games. While Louis van Gaal will obviously leave for Manchester United with a great deal of dignity, his Brazilian counterpart Luiz Felipe Scolari could be ridden out on a rail. Van Gaal might not care too much if he loses his final game in charge of the Dutch team, but Scolari will certainly be coaching for a semblance of pride. He should feel a huge amount of pressure to win this game, if only to avoid further embarrassment.

The team sheets won’t have many familiar names on them, but for vastly different reasons. Van Gaal’s stars won’t want to play, and why should they? We’ll likely see as many as 9 or 10 changes I’d imagine, with Klaas-Jan Huntelaar leading the line. For some, this may be their final chance to put on their country’s uniform, and players like Dirk Kuyt might relish their last opportunity to wear the Dutch shirt. Brazil’s players might also fear it could be their final opportunity, but because of Tuesday’s embarrassment rather than becaause of old age. Fred, Jo, Fernandinho and Dani Alves, to name a few, all could be playing their last game for Brazil. If they have any self-pride, you have to think they’d want to give their all.

On that note, this game should be interesting to watch to see how Brazilian players react to the 7-1 shellacking by Germany. Will they be out to redeem themselves, or will they try and hide after the humiliation? I’d imagine it will be some of both. If there are usual starters in the starting 11, it will likely be because they want to restore some pride and I expect those players in particular to be energized. Whether or not they channel that energy in a positive way rather remains to be seen, but their could be serious passion on the field. If Brazil don’t score quickly, play could get chippy, and we might see a straight red card.

Nearly everybody on this roster might never play for their country again, with a few obvious exceptions, if Brazil goes out looking disinterested. A two or three goal loss would be devastating in so many ways. However, should they come out fighting, showing more passion and commitment on the field than they did Tuesday, and should they win convincingly, the players might be able to reframe this narrative. A goal or two from Fred, a disciplined performance from Paulinho, or any such strong exhibitions and some of the pain might be lessened.

With the Netherlands likely starting a lot of inexperienced defenders, Brazil could find spaces in the attacking third. And with the Dutch probably not caring too much, the game could open up early due to a lack of defensive tactics. As such, there is certainly room for Brazil to begin their atonement for Tuesday. However, I’m not entirely convinced they will be up for the task. Any harsh treatment from fans in the early going could rattle the Brazilians, and they themselves might leak goals.

Predicting this game is nearly impossible given the uncertainty in team selection and the degree to which these players will actually try, but regardless, I expect this game to be full of goals like most third place games are. I expect Willian to be particularly active today for Brazil, and he will score the opener so early, that it will leave many wondering where the Dutch’s motivation lies. However, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar will score a first half brace on two poorly defended set pieces to give Netherlands the lead at halftime. When Brazil get booed off the field at half, Thiago Silva will give an impassioned speech to inspire his teammates. And Fred will score the equalizer near the 60th minute. However, against the run of play, Huntelaar will complete his hat trick late on and Brazil will leave losers, having been beaten by a side who don’t want to be there. It will end up Netherlands 3 Brazil 2.

But regardless of what Brazilian team shows up, this game should be fun for the neutral. If you like goals, this will be the match for you. Check back later for analysis, and enjoy watching the World Cup while you still can. Only two days left.


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And Now We Can Go Back To Appreciating LeBron the Basketball Player

An otherwise dull sports day will now be remembered forever after the news that a superstar is coming home. No, I’m not talking about Luis Suarez’s transfer from Liverpool to Barcelona, the home of his wife’s family. Frankly, I can’t be bothered to care too much about the carnivorous forward during his four month suspension. I’m talking about LeBron James, the best basketball player on the face of the earth, and his decision to return to Cleveland.

In a nicely written article posted on Sports Illustrated earlier today, LeBron James announced that he was returning home to his roots, signing a max deal with the Cavaliers. In one instant, the outlook of an entire city changed completely. Cleveland suddenly forgot about their history of sporting letdowns, and were able to celebrate the homecoming of the century. If only ashes could be turned back into jerseys.

What made this day great was that LeBron did not have another “Decision.” He didn’t even title his article in Sports Illustrated “The Return.” He learned from his mistake this go around, and tried to make this news as much about the city of Cleveland as it was about himself. The tone of his article was also a lot less self-centered. Instead of talking about what was best for him, he talked about what was best for all the kids in Cleveland that would be growing up in the coming years. This was a much more mature way to announce the huge news, even if a big event to announce this would have made many Cavaliers fans happy in the end.

Basketball wise, LeBron has a lot of work to do to make the Cavaliers a contender again. Even if a trade is made for Kevin Love, there isn’t much in the way of depth on the team – they weren’t particularly close to the postseason last season, after all. They are hugely inexperienced in the playoffs, including their new coach David Blatt, and while Kyrie Irving may be a superstar in a year or two, he’s not quite there now. It isn’t like LeBron is joining another dream team. However, LeBron’s arrival does bring that championship or bust mentality to the team. The expectations will be huge, but if anyone is equipped to deal with that now, it’s Mr. James.

As a fan of basketball, this could not be better news. Having a star choose his small-market hometown team over the allure of Los Angeles and Miami will be good for the game, restoring parity to a league that was losing much of the equality it was establishing. It’ll also be much nice to see real sports fans get to appreciate LeBron rather than those in Miami. And won’t it be much more bearable to watch LeBron lead his Cavaliers to a title than it would have been had he won 4 or 5 with the Heat? In addition to Cleveland residents, all NBA fans are winners today.

I’m not ready to forgive LeBron entirely for “The Decision” as a basketball fan and human being. However, while I’ll never forget that hour of television, I can put those feelings aside now, focusing on the basketball player we are all so lucky to watch. He did everything right this time, and for that, he deserves our respect. LeBron’s decision to be the better man and accept whatever apology Dan Gilbert offered for his letter says a lot about his increased maturity level.

LeBron shouldn’t suddenly become revered for his character on account of today’s news, but hopefully the image of him as a villain will disappear. Being able to watch LeBron without vehemently rooting against him will be nice for a change. I applaud him for his decision today, and now we wait for all of the other NBA dominoes to fall. This should be an exciting year in the NBA.


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The Calm Before the Storm

Good morning all. Today is the calm before the storm World Cup wise. We get the third place match tomorrow and the final Sunday, but today we have to wait. I don’t have much time today so that suits me just fine. But all day, I’ll be thinking about this weekend. It’s going to be fun.

Yesterday was quite a day for Arsenal supporters, and frankly I still can hardly believe that happened. We signed Alexis Sanchez… It’ll take a while for that to sink in. It seems strange that he took number 17, given that Nacho Monreal was currently wearing it. The options weren’t great for numbers, with 13 and 18 being the two best available, so you can see why Sanchez wanted something better. But what does it say to Monreal about his importance that his number was just given away? I guess there’s no way of knowing if he gave it up willingly, but it can’t be a good sign for the Spanish left back. Hopefully this doesn’t signal the end of Monreal’s time in an Arsenal shirt.

Hopefully there will be more good Arsenal transfer news to come in the immediate future, and now that Arsene Wenger has proved he can buy someone before the end of the window, everyone will be expecting big things. There is still a need at right back, center back, defensive midfield and goalkeeper, so this shouldn’t be the end of Arsenal’s spending. If Wenger plays his cards right, Arsenal could be a feared side come late August.

On a different front, the Red Sox won their second straight game in walkoff fashion yesterday, beating the White Sox in extra innings after Koji Uehara had blown a save. These last two games have been ones the Red Sox wouldn’t have won earlier in the season, but it would seem naive to consider everything fixed after two games. There are still lots of issues offensively – Jose Quintana had a perfect game into the sixth for the White Sox – and there’s a rapidly rising concern about the bullpen. Two walkoffs could help change the momentum and improve the vibe in the clubhouse, but in order to make a second half run, they’ll need to start hitting. Three hits in 10 innings won’t get you too many wins.

However, it is a good sign that the team hasn’t given up after the A.J. Pierzynski dismissal seemingly signaled that the front office was throwing in the towel on the season. That the players still have each others’ backs says a lot about the character of this team. We knew it was strong last year, but nobody seemed to be stepping up this year. It would be wise to try and ride this momentum out for as long as possible, but I don’t see it lasting much beyond the all-star break. However, if the Red Sox can make a legitimate push in the A.L. East in the next few weeks, maybe they can be buyers at the deadline after all. There’s no telling what will push the players’ buttons in times like these, but maybe the fear of getting traded or released could be the needed motivation.

It isn’t always pretty, but at least the Red Sox games have been more watchable in recent days. If there’s any more Arsenal news today, I’ll have some analysis, but otherwise, it’ll be a pretty quiet day. Thanks for reading.


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Arsenal Get Their Dream Man – Welcome Alexis Sanchez

Today is a landmark day for Arsenal Football Club, as Arsene Wenger has won a worldwide battle for a dream transfer target, getting Alexis Sanchez in a compelling move from Barcelona. Alexis Sanchez was a true star at the World Cup for Chile this summer, and coming off of a very successful third season at Barcelona, one in which he scored 19 league goals along with 10 assists, he was a valuable commodity. Seen by new Barcelona coach Luis Enrique as surplus to requirements, Sanchez had his pick of places to go, among them Liverpool and Juventus. Once other teams got involved, many Arsenal fans feared his transfer story would go the way of Gonzalo Higuain’s. But in recent days, it became clear that this time was different. And this afternoon, Arsenal confirmed that Sanchez is a Gunner.

As many people saw at the World Cup, Sanchez is a useful player indeed. He isn’t your typical striker, but his movement and pace are smart enough that he can more than hold his own up top when called upon. However, his best positions or Arsenal will likely be on the left or right side of attack. He has the speed to get in behind the full-backs, and having successfully played a similar role for Barcelona, he has learned how to make the diagonal runs in between the defenders. He has a rocket of a shot, but has also scored a lot of clever goals with finessed efforts and chips.

The player who will benefit most from this transfer is Mesut Özil. With Real Madrid, the German superstar was at his best alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and other pacey players who could continuously make intelligent runs from the flanks. Özil could sit deeper, finding the perfect ball to thread in between the defenders. With Theo Walcott out for much of the year, Arsenal’s record signing had nobody to play those type of balls to, and had a tougher time creating chances. Olivier Giroud certainly wasn’t making those runs, and neither were Lukas Podolski or Santi Cazorla from the left. But now Sanchez will be there to run in behind, and with Walcott soon returning to fitness, defenders will be downright scared of leaving any space behind them. Sanchez is an ideal signing to bring out the best in Özil.

The other area that Sanchez can help tactically is that he’ll be another head to aim at in the box when Arsenal look to cross. Sanchez has showcased his ability to get to the back post in recent years, which is something Arsenal have been without. And with more bodies to cover in the box, Aaron Ramsey might find more space to make his late runs forward. Podolski and Cazorla certainly possess great abilities in the attacking third, but neither player was eager to get in behind. As such, the midfield got overcrowded at times, with no options beside Giroud at which to aim crosses. Sanchez’s abilities to be both the creative force in midfield and the hard-working finisher should make Arsenal’s attack significantly less predictable.

Sanchez’s arrival may not be the only signing up front this summer, but his versatility could allow Wenger to focus the rest of his transfer energy on other areas. Behind Olivier Giroud, Arsenal now can play Sanchez, Yaya Sanogo and Joel Campbell in addition to Walcott and Podolski on occasion. And with an abundance of attacking midfield talent, Arsenal possess an incredible front 5. The lineup of Giroud, Sanchez, Walcott, Özil and Ramsey should scare everyone. That Cazorla, Podolski, Tomas Rosicky, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jack Wilshere won’t all be good enough to even make the bench if everyone’s healthy shows that Arsenal’s depth in this area is tremendous. Everyone will need to work harder for places in the side, and that can’t be a bad thing.

There are still moves to be made to shore up the defense, with the potential Mathieu Debuchy arrival looking likely, but today’s signing of Alexis Sanchez sends a message to the rest of the Premiership that Arsenal will be a force in the attacking third this year. And as none of Sanchez, Özil, Walcott or Ramsey are older than 25, this will be a potent side for years to come. I can not believe Arsenal got this deal done so quickly, and with a nearly full preseason to get acquainted with his teammates, Sanchez should be firing in no time. This is a great day to be a Gooner.


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Argentina Wins the No-Midfield Battle

There was no Tim Krul to save the day this time. Argentina were uninspired going forward today, and not many would say they’ve breezed through the tournament. But Lionel Messi and his teammates are into the final, having beaten Netherlands on penalties after a scoreless draw. Javier Mascherano was the man of the match for Argentina in his role in front of the defense, holding Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie at bay. Maxi Rodriguez will steal some of the headlines for his winner in penalty kicks, but the story should be about the impressive defensive efforts on both sides. Once again though, I hate to see penalties decide a match though, as Ron Vlaar’s brilliant game should not have ended in heartbreak for missing a crucial spot-kick.

This was hardly an entertaining match, and the reason for that lies in the lack of true midfielders on the pitch for both teams. In direct contrast to how Germany has lined up, each team played with a system with only a single player in the middle of the park at times. Both teams started two holding midfielders who were more defenders than anything else, and while all were excellent in that role, none of them offered any support going forward. The lack of creative thought in midfield was never more evident than when ESPN showed the stat late in the second half that neither team had more than three touches in the opposing box. With nobody to provide service for all the attacking talent, neither team had any chances in regulation.

Playing two forwards, a back five and two holding midfielders, the Dutch were left with only Wesley Sneijder in the middle in the attacking half, and he wasn’t all that interested in dropping deep to receive the ball. As a result, they were forced to play a lot of lofted balls in to Robben and van Persie, who clearly were lacking the fitness to get onto them. As such, the Dutch hardly had any way forward. When Argentina dropped their line deeper, Netherlands didn’t have any creative options for breaking down the defense. Had Robben not played 120 minutes a few days ago, he very well might have been able to find space in behind the defense. But today, he needed more of the ball at his feet to be effective.

Argentina was much the same way, as their tactics didn’t help provide much service for Messi and Gonzalo Higuain up top. Lucas Biglia and Mascherano were once again outstanding defensively, keeping Robben and Sneijder at bay, but neither ventured forward too often with much vigor. People often say Messi is good enough to make his own chances, but when he has to drop into his defensive half to receive the ball because of a simple lack of bodies in midfield, he isn’t able to have the same impact in the final third. Ezequiel Lavezzi was disappointing on the wing, and it was clear that Angel di Maria’s pace was deeply missed. Not until Sergio Agüero and Rodrigo Palacio came on were Argentina able to create any real chances in open play. But even then, Messi was still playing more of the midfielder role than he would have wanted.

Pablo Zabaleta has not had a great tournament in my eyes. The right back came into Brazil being seen as one of Argentina’s biggest threats going forward, having run rampant in recent years down the flank in England. However yet again, he hardly touched the ball in the attacking third. Defensively, he was exceptional next to Ezequiel Garay and Martin Demichelis, always in the right position when the Dutch looked to counter. And in that way, his lack of offensive motor certainly helped Argentina maintain the clean sheet. But were his team to score today, he needed to be a presence up the field. He’ll need to be much more of a threat against Germany.

Jogi Löw’s German side should be able to grab the match by the neck on Sunday given their abundance of talent in midfield. If nobody is there to press Bastian Schweinsteiger and Toni Kroos high up the pitch, they will always pick the right passes. We saw yesterday that given time and space on the ball, Germany is lethal. If Argentina is going to have a chance on Sunday, there will need to be a change in tactics to put more men in the middle of the field.

On a completely different note, I have come to really enjoy Jon Champion and Stewart Robson as a commentating duo on ESPN. Their approach of being insightful but reserved comes off quite nicely after having to listen to so many games with the abrasive Ian Darke/Steve McManaman duo. I love that team of announcers, but they have become rather annoying recently, injecting their own biases into the matches far too often. While Darke thrusts himself into the match, Champion lets the play on the field do the talking most of the time. It’s refreshing to hear an announcer do such a nice job as a neutral.

What were your thoughts on the match? Comment below.