2014 Pulitzer Prize Winner
  • World Cup surprises or was this expected?

    Mon, June 14, 2010 by admin with no comments

    I was going to use this space to write that I was in no way, shape or form surprised by defending champion Italy’s come-from-behind 1-1 draw with Paraguay.

    Then the texts started rolling in. And a comment on one of today’s earlier posts. The texts all expressed shock at Italy struggling to earn a tie. The comment did too, but it also added the England draw with the United States, questioned France’s performance and mentioned Japan’s surprise win over Cameroon, with this observation: “… very strange World Cup so far.”

    That got me thinking. Is it a strange World Cup so far? The horrible ball and its inability to bounce properly, instead skidding across the turf on every long pass; its inability to be caught, much to the chagrin of numerous goalies; and its odd spins that seem to make it challenging for even the most skilled players to connect on short passes aside, I’m not surprised by most of the outcomes.

    The U.S. tie over England was unexpected. But England has had problems the last couple months, and not just in net. Their midfield hasn’t looked solid in linking passes together and working the ball to the forwards. Defensively they’ve had questions in the middle. Striker Wayne Rooney has struggled for the last several months for country and some of it can be attributed to an ankle injury.

    France came in with plenty of question marks. Uruguay didn’t help France answer them, only raised more.

    Japan’s win over Cameroon was a surprise. But maybe more because of Cameroon’s lack of creativity in what should have seemed like a home game. Then again, Japan’s midfield play looked like something you’d expect out of Europe – that was plenty surprising.

    Italy was shocking in that it came out attacking – highly unusual for a team known for taking care of defense first. The problem was Italy didn’t have anyone to finish. Daniele De Rossi can only be so many places at once. Luckily for Italy De Rossi’s leg popped out of nowhere to tie the game. Italy was considered too old for this tournament. They didn’t look too old and didn’t look tired. They just didn’t look great.

    Why so many results that will puzzle some? World football. The easiest thing I can liken it to is the World Baseball Classic. With so many players from around the world, mostly Latin America, coming to play Major League Baseball in America, those players get better, go back to there countries and teach/coach and make players there better.

    Now, think about the World Cup. World football has been doing this longer than baseball, and has been a world game much longer than baseball. The big football clubs have scouts all over the world. The English Premier League is the strongest, most competitive soccer league in the world. Those teams are full of world players.

    Those players from countries not in Europe take the game back home to their national teams, to the kids’ organizations they run. Soon all those kids and national players that only play in their home country are trying moves and using tactics taught at the highest level.

    Essentially, the game is seeing more parity. Don’t get me wrong, Japan and the U.S. won’t have full squads of players like Brazil and England for years and years. But a couple of players like Japan’s Daisuke Matsui and the U.S.’ Clint Dempsey can help offensively while a team can play defensively easier than attacking.

    The shrinking of the world game makes for plausible upsets, such as Japanese and South Korean victories. Or U.S. draws with England.

    Now, if North Korea somehow defeats Brazil on Tuesday at 12:30 p.m. somebody text me. Of course, by then I might be too shocked to reply.

    – Scott Kaniewski

  • Japan win a rarity; Netherlands open up

    Mon, June 14, 2010 by admin with 1 comment

    Thank goodness Netherlands coach Bert Van Marwijk inserted Eljero Elia. Without him, the Dutch looked like just another plodding team trying to hold on to a 1-0 (own-goal) victory.

    Elia, just 23 and with nine caps to his career, came on in the 67th minute and brought with him a spark the Dutch were missing for the first 66 minutes. Playing on the left wing, Elia time and again showed flashy moves and speed that confounded the Danes. His biggest contribution came on a shot that hit the far post but was pounced on by Dirk Kuyt to put the Dutch up for good at 2-0.

    Speaking of Kuyt, the Liverpool winger was great, never tiring and working endlessly to help the Dutch attack. Kuyt really shined when striker Robin Van Persie left the field in the 77th. Other than a right-footed shot early, Van Persie didn’t get many looks. Kuyt on the other hand, playing up top where he rarely plays, looked right at home. Van Marwijk probably won’t change much in the Netherlands’ next game, but Elia gave him some food for thought.

    Japan playing on the road? Chock up a lo… Wait a minute, what’s that? A Japan goal in the first half? They must be trailing, right?

    Nope. Japan took it to Cameroon, earning the Blue Samurai their first World Cup finals win on foreign soil. Keisuke Honda’s 39th-minute goal off a cross was a deserved marker for the Japanese, who dominated the Indomitable Lions for most of the match.

    Japan controlled the midfield, looked creative in attack and kept Cameroon stuck in its defensive third for stretches at a time. The victory comes as a shock, as the Japanese won against a team playing on its home continent.

    The victory immediately puts the Japanese in the driver’s seat to the second round, second in Group E only to the Netherlands on goal differential. If the Japanese can earn a draw or a close loss to the Netherlands in their next match, they can turn their focus to a win over Denmark and a berth in the knockout stages.

    Few expected the Dutch to struggle to create in the attacking third. Fewer expected to see that 1 in the Japanese win column.

    – Scott Kaniewski

  • World Cup: The Build Up – Day 4

    Mon, June 14, 2010 by admin with no comments

    Going to be a good day. We get to see the defending champion, a possible heir to the throne and another African team with a good chance to get out of its group.

    Netherlands vs. Denmark (Group E)

    A team being called a dark horse by some to win the tournament, the Netherlands is no dark horse. This is a team with as much firepower as Germany, as much panache as Argentina and as much defense as Brazil will flaunt (yes, Brazil is being advertised as a defensive stalwart).

    Striker Robin Van Persie is healthy after missing much of the Premier League season with a leg injury. The left-footer is an unbelievable talent. He’ll have company when Arjen Robben returns, though Robben is expected to miss today’s game.

    Midfielder Wesley Sneijder is among the best in the game at delivering set pieces. Defensive midfielder Nigel De Jong will clog the Danes’ attack and look to turn the attack.

    Danes forward Nicklas Bendtner has been ruled out. (Update: Bendnter started the game, despite coach Morten Olsen claiming he wouldn’t play.)

    Japan vs. Cameroon (Group E)

    Cameroon has its hopes resting on Inter Milan striker Samuel Eto’o. The forward scored nine goals in 11 qualifying matches and is coming off a strong club season that saw him help Inter win the Champions League.

    The Indomitable Lions need this win, because they follow up with Denmark and finish with the Netherlands.

    The Japanese are in the same boat. An early win would do much toward following up with a game against the Netherlands. Midfielders Shunsuke Nakamura and Kengo Nakamura will lead the way for the Samurai Blue.

    Italy vs. Paraguay (Group F)

    The Azzurri might be the most scrutinized defending champions since the Greeks of the 2004 Euro Cup. The Italians are getting older, but not necessarily better.

    As usual, the Italians will rely on their defense. Gianluigi Buffon is still one of the best goalies in the world. Defender Gianluca Zambrotta will guide the back line. Midfielder Daniele De Rossi has one of the best shots in the world.

    Paraguay will get the first crack at the 2006 champions. They’ll be missing one of their best strikers in Salvador Cabanas, who is recovering from a gunshot wound to the head. But La Albirroja (the Red and White) still have plenty of firepower up top with Roque Santa Cruz and Lucas Barrios. If Paraguay can score once, it might be enough to force Italy out of its defensive shell and capitalize again, putting the defending champs right back under that microscope.

    – Scott Kaniewski

  • Australia behind 4-ball

    Sun, June 13, 2010 by admin with 1 comment

    We knew the Germans were going to be powerful, despite injuries. Unfortunately for the Australians, they were the first to prove that theory.

    Germany scored in the 8th minute and went on to a 4-0 route. It didn’t help when Australia’s most dangerous striker, Tim Cahill, was sent off with a straight red card in the 56th minute. Playing a man down, the Socceroos gave up two more goals.

    That four-goal deficit makes reaching the knockout stages incredibly challenging. Most likely Australia will have to win its final games against Serbia and Ghana. It’s a tall order for a team that showed little promise.

    Goal differential is so key in the World Cup finals tournament. It’s one of the reasons scoring is so low – every teams puts a premium on defense to limit that differential. Australia (or Germany in a sense) gives us a perfect example of trying to overcome a significant goal differential. Say Australia in its next match goes on to draw with Ghana 1-1, while Serbia loses to Germany. Then Australia beats Serbia 1-0, while Ghana, which won its opener against Serbia 1-0, loses to Germany 2-0. Ghana and Australia would each end up with one win, one loss and one draw. But Ghana, with a goal differential of minus-1 would advance ahead of Australia, which ended up with a differential of minus-3.

    To make it even more challenging for Australia, going into the last game with Serbia, the Socceroos would be well aware of the goal differential. Therefore they would open up their offensive game in hopes of getting more scoring. The drawback there is that would open them up to more counterattacks, giving Serbia more scoring opportunities.

    So allowing four goals in your opening game immediately puts you at a disadvantage. And for the Socceroos, playing in one of the so-called Groups of Death (though I’ve always seen this group as one power team, two competitive ones and Australia), losing to Germany in such poor fashion has already nearly ended any shot at advancing.

    – Scott Kaniewski

  • Red cards fly at World Cup

    Sun, June 13, 2010 by admin with no comments

    Dateline: Red Card City, South Africa – As far as I know, there isn’t really a Red Card City, I definitely am not in South Africa and officials sure haven’t had a problem handing out red cards in the 2010 World Cup. Through the first six games, three players had been sent off with red cards, including reds  in Sunday’s first two games between Algeria and Slovenia and between Ghana and Serbia.

    The cards were all warranted, but it’s not often you see the officials so quick to reach for those cards. Like in any sport, it’s not a good thing for the officials to impact the game. And their quick reaching for those cards resulted in the offending teams losing two of those three games. (Only France couldn’t capitalize when it had the man advantage over Uruguay.)

    Then I started thinking about why the officials were so quick to hand out those reds and definitely quick to hand out the yellows (31 through the first six games, including the three second yellows that earned reds). The officials are trying to quickly tell the players to watch their tackles. They are trying to protect the players, eliminating the hard fouls. They are trying to tell the players to stop with the dumb fouls, like Serbian defender Aleksandar Lukovic’s hold that earned him a red card and eventually led to Ghana earning a 1-0 win after taking advantage of the man advantage. (Funny thing was that after the red card Serbia had its best scoring chances.)

    Hopefully the officials won’t have to continue to dole out those sending-off cards. Hopefully the players all start to get the message. If not, we’ll see plenty more sending offs and more out-manned games. Which should lead to more goals – something I know that would not be a bad thing.

    – Scott Kaniewski

  • World Cup: The Build Up – Day 3

    Sun, June 13, 2010 by admin with no comments

    Obviously it’ll be tough to top Saturday. But today will give it a good shot.

    Algeria vs. Slovenia (Group C)

    This game should give us a feel for the United States’ next two opponents. (Set the alarm or DVR early for the 5:30 a.m. start.) Both of them are considered to be weaker than the U.S. and England, and Slovenia is considered possibly the weakest team out of Europe.

    Yet, Algeria is supposed to be weaker than Slovenia. Watch for Les Fennecs (Desert Foxes) to look to use a speedy counterattack. They used it to get past rival Egypt in a one-game playoff for Africa’s final World Cup berth.

    To put it mildly, the Zamjceki (Dragons) were impressive on defense in qualifying. At home they shut out everyone they played in qualifying. We’ll see if they can do it again.

    Serbia vs. Ghana (Group D)

    With Germany the favorite in the group and Australia possibly the biggest underdog, this game is of huge importance to both teams in one of the so-called Groups of Death (8 a.m.).

    The Serbians are turning a few heads. With a back line that includes Nemanja Vidic and Branislav Ivanovic, the Beli Orlovi (White Eagles) can turn heads and crunch bodies in the box.

    The Black Stars will try to use its speed to break down the Serbian defense. The two teams will provide the most excitement of the day, so if you opt to miss the early game, don’t miss this one.

    Germany vs. Australia (Group D)

    Germany is reeling from injuries, starting with captain Michael Ballack, who will miss the entire World Cup. Still, with strikers Miroslav Klose, Lucas Podolski (a Polish player turned German) and Cacau (a Brazilian turned German) Der Mannschaft (the Team) has plenty of firepower (12:30 p.m.).

    The Socceroos will have their hands full against the three-time World Cup champs. And if their 3-1 loss to the U.S. in a friendly a week ago is any indication of their play, it’s not a matter of if Australia will lose, but by how many. The Socceroos will need a big game from Everton’s Tim Cahill up top. He’ll have a tough time winning crosses from Germany’s back line. Australian goalie Mark Schwarzer will have his hands full, pardon the pun.

    – Scott Kaniewski

  • U.S. pulls off draw against England

    Sat, June 12, 2010 by admin with no comments

    When the final whistle blew to end the United States’ 1-1 draw with England, I received this text from Gazette Deputy Sports Editor Nathan Van Dyne: “Kiss your sister.”

    My response: “Gladly.”

    Clint Dempsey’s excuse-me goal in the 40th minute was a perfect example of what the United States needed to avoid an opening-game loss. His left-footed shot had enough on it (just enough, it turned out) to cross the goal line after England goalie Robert Green muffed the save and watched the ball roll past him into his net.

    The goal wasn’t the prettiest, but in that first half, the U.S. deserved it. After the horrid defensive let down in the first 5 minutes the U.S. looked like an actual football team. They tried attacking on both wings. They tried going up the middle. They actually possessed the ball for at least as much as England for that first 45 minutes. And most impressive, when they didn’t find anything they opted not to press. Instead, Landon Donovan and Dempsey showed what they’ve learned from the English Premier League and played the ball back to the defense, resetting for a new build up. To use a British football term, they were brilliant.

    The second half wasn’t a big surprise, as England regrouped and carried play. Manager Fabio Capello is a master at halftime adjustments. He did it again, leading to more outnumbered opportunities than the U.S. should give up. Luckily we had Tim Howard in net, and not Butter-fingers Bob.

    Up top, Robert Findley looked comfortable in his first World Cup finals appearance. He and Jozy Altidore didn’t necessarily link up often, but they complemented each other.

    Defensively, the U.S. still has work to do. Jay DeMerit was lauded for limiting English striker Wayne Rooney to zero shots on goal. Steve Cherundolo was adequate on the right side, which he needed to be when James Milner was subbed for the speedier Shaun Wright-Phillips. But the U.S. still had problems on the left with captain Carlos Bocanegra out of position too many times and too slow to match up with Aaron Lennon. Center back Oguchi Onyewu seemed to get stronger as the game wore on, a great sign, hopefully, of things to come. He still looked shaky early and too often will surrender a corner kick rather than trying to play the ball up or to a teammate on the wing.

    Other than that, there’s plenty to be pleased about. Maybe the biggest positive is the game with the toughest team in Group C is over. Notice I said toughest, not best. That has yet to be decided, as the U.S. earned a deserved tie.

  • South Korea, Argentina earn first wins of Cup

    Sat, June 12, 2010 by admin with 1 comment

    Until Argentina took the field a couple hours later, South Korea was the best-looking team in the tournament. Sure, the Taeguk Warriors played in just the third game, but they gave Greece more than the Greeks could handle. A 2-0 win gave South Korea the first victory of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

    And South Korea got to work early, scoring in the 7th minute, coming on a set piece that was effectively a corner kick. The taller Greeks couldn’t get to the cross and Lee Jung Soo finished on the back post. The Taeguk Warriors were first to the ball, they strung great passes together and showed great creativity.

    Greece, on the other hand, played terribly. Fifa’s world football rankings have been suspect for years. And having Greece ranked 13th will again give cause to question whatever theorems the world’s governing football body uses to determine rankings. The so-called 13th-ranked team still has never scored a goal in a World Cup finals match. Greece rarely threatened and gave up odd-numbered attacks throughout, even off its own set pieces. South Korea’s second goal came on a miserable Greek giveaway, leading to Park Ji Sung’s 52nd minute tally.

    As creative and fun as South Korea was, Argentina was that much better. A lone 6th minute goal from defender Gabriel Heinze was all the Albiceleste managed in a 1-0 win over , but their beauty from the backline through the midfield to the strikers was something to behold. The 2009 Player of the Year, Lionel Messi, was creative both as a striker and a playmaker. Messi had three shots that would have bested lesser goalies, but Nigeria’s Vincent Enyeama kept Messi off the scoresheet. Enyeama was voted Man of the Match his goaltending was so impressive.

    Nigeria had its chances, but never converted. Maybe they were as caught up as I was in watching Argentina work on and off the ball.

    – Scott Kaniewski

  • World Cup: The Build Up – Day 2

    Fri, June 11, 2010 by admin with 2 comments

    Today the World Cup sets before us a tasty platter, including a little game between the U.S. and England.

    South Korea vs. Greece (Group B)

    Set the alarm early for this 5:30 a.m. kickoff and grab that wake-up cup of coffee. This is a good start to the day. Why? Because this is the least anticipated game of the day. It only gets better from here.

    Neither team is expected to go far but both have a chance to get out of the group. That goes more toward three of the teams in the group being close in talent level, while Argentina is head and shoulders above the rest.

    The Greeks will focus on slowing South Korean midfielder Ji-sung Park, which means the Koreans have to adapt. Their speed should be enough to put pressure on the Grecian defense.

    Meanwhile, the Greek offense will have a sizable height advantage over the South Korean backline.

    Argentina vs. Nigeria (Group B)

    After morning coffee with the South Koreans and Greeks, we move on to breakfast. Nothing too heavy to spoil lunch, but maybe a couple of bagels to chew on while watching a couple good storylines develop.

    All of Africa is hoping one of its teams can make a deep run. The Nigerians are one of those teams with real expectations of reaching the knockout stages. Unfortunately the Super Eagles will be without John Mikel Obi, their most important player. The  Nigerian dream might turn into an early nightmare if Argentina’s talent plays to its potential.

    Which brings us to another great storyline: Diego Maradona coaching Argentina, one of the top three teams in the world talent-wise. Everyone wants to know if Maradona can get Lionel Messi playing for his country at the same level Messi performs for Barcelona. But it’s not only Messi that will be under the microscope. Will the rest of the team perform the way they are capable of, or will Maradona somehow hold this team up?

    By the time those questions are answered, we’ll be on to the main course.

    England vs. United States (Group C)

    What’s to say that hasn’t already been said? It’s possibly the most hyped game in U.S. soccer history. It could end up being the most watched game in U.S. history. A lunch of grilled hot dogs and hamburgers (as American as you can get) should be served up for the 12:30 p.m. start.

    What does the U.S. need to do to win? Score early and play solid defense or play solid defense and steal a goal late. Pack nine men in the box and pray for a tie. Any way you slice it, the Americans can’t hope to exchange scoring chances with the Brits. England will dominate possession, and the U.S. knows that.

    The Americans, namely Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey have to take advantage any time they carry the ball up the wings. And if they can get the ball in the box, Jozy Altidore and whomever coach Bob Bradley teams with Altidore have to capitalize.

    Defensively, if Oguchi Onyewu isn’t healthy the U.S. is in trouble. Nevermind the fact that captain Carlos Bocanegra is way too slow to be playing at left back, which will be a horrid matchup against England’s speedy winger Aaron Lennon. If Onyewu can’t battle Peter Crouch in the air or Wayne Rooney on the ground, the Three Lions will have a field day in the offensive third.

    And that could leave us the viewers with an upset stomach.
    - Scott Kaniewski

  • World Cup: France a disappointment in draw

    Fri, June 11, 2010 by admin with 1 comment

    It’s not so much that the draw between France and Uruguay was a surprise. But it is a shock to see the French held off the scoresheet. Seriously, Les Bleus, you couldn’t tally a single goal, even with Uruguay down to 10 men for the last nine minutes?

    Where does the blame lay? Easy, look no further than French coach Raymond Domenech. There’s a reason France’s fans have a beef with their coach. Flourant Malouda doesn’t come off the bench until the 75th minute? What are you waiting for? First off, Malouda should have started. Secondly, in a 0-0 draw in a game you are controlling possession of, you don’t wait until the 75th minute to bring one of your top attackers off the bench until the last 15 minutes. I know it’s a strategy many teams use, but most teams don’t have a young, talented scorer like Malouda riding the pine. He should’ve been brought in in the 60th or 65th, giving him plenty of time to get into the flow of the game. Domenech couldn’t have been worried that early about a loss. He must have known he was going to get at least a draw, with the way his team was playing.

    Now let’s look at their formation. Working from the back Les Bleus went with a 4-5-1. Ugh. That’s something a team like New Zealand or North Korea would do. Stack the back and hope for a counter. I understand Domenech thinks five midfielders will provide plenty of offense (and to be fair they did control possession), but with Nicolas Anelka alone up top, the formation rarely proved effective in the offensive third. Too many midfielders were forced to shoot from distance. Anelka, a worldly talent, works better when he’s paired with another striker, like he is at Chelsea when he plays with the Ivory Coast’s Didier Drogba. Too often the wingers or Anelka would cross the ball and there would be no one there to receive it.

    Domenech should have started Malouda as a wing midfielder and had Franck Ribery up top with Anelka. Or when he brought Theirry Henry on in the 72nd minute, Domenech should have left Anelka in with Henry up top and subbed out Sidney Govou for Henry.

    Can you tell I was disappointed in France’s tactics?

    On the other side, Diego Forlan won’t be held scoreless the rest of group play. The Uruguayan striker was a threat more often than not, even when it was him against the French back four. If Forlan sees the ball as often against Mexico and South Africa as he did against France, Uruguay will be on the score sheet by next game.

    – Scott Kaniewski