Dear Marvell Wynne: Please take up another sport. Regards, American soccer fans

Look, I get that Marvell Wynne is an extraordinary, maybe even world class athlete. I get that. I’m not blind. I’m not cruel. I’m not stupid.

But I think it’s quite clear that he’s just not a very good soccer player. Quite honestly, I thought he was the kind of “one-tool” player that MLS had passed by at this point, and yet there he was tonight, stumbling around aimlessly in the penalty area and directly responsible for Chile’s lone goal. Grant Wahl called him “out to sea” on that first goal, but really that’s an insult to the sea. The Pacific Ocean covers 63.8 million square miles. Wynne can’t cover three square yards.

I hope Colorado likes having him around because they’re not going to have to worry about losing him to international duty for long time. Gary Smith and company seem to like him at center back and that’s good for them. They stumble-bummed their way to an MLS Cup win, after all. Great champions, yada yada yada.

But if Wynne wants to represent the United States again, he needs do so in a sport better fitted to his ability to perform occasional feats of outstanding athleticism in between longer periods of positional aimlessness and technical incompetence. Maybe, and I’m being only half-facetious here, he should take up the decathlon or bobsled, something that just uses his skill-set to greater effect.

Moving on to Dax McCarty. He actually looks like a good player then. I’m still not quite sure what position he most belongs in, but he’s now impressed me the last 3-4 times I’ve seem him play on TV. It doesn’t mean I’m ready to start throwing rose petals down on ground in preparation for DC United’s “inevitable” march back to the MLS Cup final, but at least he gives fans some hope.

Speaking of hope, Teal Bunbury and Juan Agudelo ought to giving fans palpitations of hope. I loved the way Bunbury stepped up to take the penalty and I liked the way Agudelo drew the, admittedly softish, penalty. As I said when Agudelo scored against South Africa, it’s only a matter of time until we start hearing the chorus of “HE’S GOTTA GO TO EUROPE RIGHT NOW RATHER THAN THROW HIS CAREER AWAY BY STAYING LONGER IN MLS!!!” Right, ask Dominic Cervi how that’s working for him? He’s seen so little match time that he was left out of this game for two guys who played their last matches before Thanksgiving. Let’s hope that the Wizards (you bet I’m in denial) and Red Bulls don’t sell either of them off anytime soon.

Finally, US Soccer says they drew over 18,000 to that match. Really? Did it look like that in the stadium? If so, booze and hookers to the sales people who got that done. That’s an achievement when the most well-known and intriguing guy involved in the entire match is other team’s coach.

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World Cup 2010 (Day 16): Dream another dream; this dream is over …

… A nation was ready to believe on this Saturday afternoon. Across the United States, the hardcores and the newbies gathered alike in bars, basements, and outside viewing areas to watch their new heroes take on Ghana and try to advance to the World Cup quarterfinals.

They were ready to back their heart-filled group of 11 …

… Howard, Bocanegra, DeMerit, Bornstein, Cherundolo, Edu, Bradley, Dempsey, Donovan, Gomez, Altidore …

… and then, in a moment the newbies probably couldn’t have appreciated but the hardcores had to know spelled trouble, the lineup appeared on our TV screens with the name Ricardo Clark on it. Robbie Findley also returned, with Maurice Edu and Herculez Gomez taking seats. Findley was returning from suspension, and Gomez wasn’t particularly effective vs. Algeria, so I get that.

But Clark? I’ve never quite understood the fascination with him at the National Team level, but all that aside, the change Bob Bradley made to put him back in the lineup, and break up part of the core that worked so hard vs. Algeria before finally breaking through will leave me with nothing but confusion and anger for the rest of time. I know, Edu was subbed out vs. Algeria, but I fail to see how Clark was a better option.

Clark isn’t of the appropriate level to have played under today’s circumstances. It showed on the first Ghana goal, where when he received the ball in the midfield, it appeared he literally had no idea where he was on the field, had no clue where his teammates were for passing options, and given all of that, had no idea how he was going to beat his man to keep possession of the ball.

Predictably, possession changed, and Kevin-Prince Boateng fired home the opening goal seconds later. I cannot find any possible legitimate justification for Clark’s appearance in this game (he was cautioned moments later). If the excuse was that Edu had a knock, it’d be tough to believe given Clark was subbed out for Edu on 30 minutes, and Edu played the remaining 90 of the United States’ 2-1 loss to Ghana in the 2010 FIFA World Cup Round of 16, eliminating the Americans.

Other then re-adding Findley, there was no reason to screw with the group that worked its asses off on Wednesday. John Harkes and Ian Darke went on and on about fatigue and dead legs, but Ghana played Wednesday, as well. Yet for much of the game, they were able to keep the ball, get into open spaces, and make the US defense look silly. Only through a well-earned penalty and subsequent conversion by Landon Donovan did the US even force extra time.

There, two ills conspired to sink the American battleship. First, through much of the latter part of the second half, and early in overtime, the US refused to keep the ball. They reverted to long balls, skipping the midfield – which to my mind was the strength of this side entering the tournament. Unable or unwilling to possess the ball, Ghana took their chances on a long lead ball for the ever dangerous Asamoah Gyan, who beat Carlos Bocanegra’s would-be challenge with shameful ease, then fired past Howard to give Ghana its eventual game-winner. Bocanegra was beaten so badly on the play, he can be seen looking skyward in frustration after Gyan bounced off his “challenge,” (what we Americans like to call, a little bump) even before the shot was taken.

What was possibly the best chance the US could ever ask for to return to the quarterfinals blew apart as the result of the poor defending we expected, some strange tactics offensively, and the inexcusable lineup change that ended up leaving the United States in yet another early hole. That just can’t happen game after game, and for the US to go behind within no more than 13 minutes in three of its four matches at this World Cup is not a coincidence or bad luck. It’s a systemic problem that never was solved. It was crystal clear to the world this afternoon that Clark wasn’t ready for this game, in this moment, under these circumstances. Clear to everyone, except Bob Bradley.

Harkes and Ian Darke tried to be comforting as the final minutes ticked away, saying the US would leave this World Cup with their heads held high, and this would be good development for the 2014 World Cup. But that’s all garbage. That’s what you say to Little Leaguers who just finished their season 0-1 and the coach is too poor to take them to Pizza Hut.

The World Cup doesn’t work like that. You have to take each glorious opportunity as it comes – not fumble it away through questionable lineup decisions, poor defense, and abandoning the offense that could’ve brought you so much success. And if we know anything about the US, it might be to not expect much in 2014:

1994: Reached second round, lost to Brazil.
1998: Eliminated in group play.
2002: Reached quarterfinals, lost to Germany.
2006: Eliminated in group play.
2010: Reached second round, lost to Ghana.
2014: ???

See a pattern? Whoever is in control of the US program over the next two years before qualifying begins has to find players who can mark better, especially against speed. Ghana had way too much speed for the US at times today, and the Americans were lucky to not be caught out more than they were.

A nation was ready to believe. For a few sparkling moments, soccer was the talk here, and our national team was all the rage.

Now, sadly, our team will be long forgotten in what will probably be short order – the creators of one beautiful moment against Algeria that some of us will remember for a lifetime, but in the end, just another team in another year that bowed out before the stage got really big. The US leaves this World Cup having just won 1 of the 4 matches it played – about on par for its performance historically (7 wins in 29 matches played).

And while Clark had what he may well remember as his worst day as a professional, the loss doesn’t all come down to him. He, the coach, the defense, and the attack all share blame on this day. All in one form or another didn’t do their duty to the best of their ability this afternoon, and as a result, history has repeated itself with Ghana knocking the United States out of the World Cup.

To me, this doesn’t hold promise for 2014. And my head is not held high. To me, there’s only disappointment in thinking of what might have been … what probably should have been. Now, there’s only the frustration of knowing that the process of becoming successful on the world stage must start all over again, from square one. All the alleged progress in the world that the US might have made during these 16 days won’t help them at all when qualifying begins again. It won’t be worth any points, it won’t help with marking.

Maybe, someday, we’ll be able to hook all the non-believers in again. Maybe, someday, we can make the ride last a little bit longer.

Maybe, just once, we’ll finally get it right.

Until then, a painful four-year wait begins.

* So yeah, Uruguay beat South Korea, 2-1, Luis Suárez scored twice, including a beautiful second. Whatever.

SUNDAY’S PREDICTIONS:
Germany 3-2 England (aet)
Argentina 2-1 Mexico

Today’s Record: 1-1
Tournament Record: 26-24.

World Cup 2010 (Day 15): The Waiting is the Hardest Part …

… Yes, there were four games in the 2010 FIFA World Cup yesterday, and yes there was some intrigue in Group H at least as to which two of Chile, Spain, and Switzerland were going to advance to the last 16. That was settled in the afternoon as Spain downed Chile, 2-1, while Switzerland couldn’t put anything together against a drab Honduran side in a 0-0 draw. Spain wins the group and Chile advances.

A couple quick Group H thoughts:

* David Villa’s goal might not be considered all that given he scored into an empty net, but from how far out he hit it, and the angle he had to navigate in order to score, it’s a pretty strike. On the other hand, I don’t know what the hell Chile goalkeeper Claudio Bravo was thinking charging out as far as he did when the Spain player chasing down the ball was at least somewhat marked. Even if Fernando Torres got to that ball first vs. the defender, I’m not sure how threatening he would have been.

* I didn’t like Torres’ reaction to the heel clip he received in the run-up to Spain’s second goal, scored by Andrés Iniesta. It seemed a bit much. But given that he was subbed off in the 55th minute, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. This time.

* Spain are still a very dangerous team in this tournament, but I’m not sure yet that they are at the level we’ve seen from other contenders here.

* All five South American teams that started this tournament reached the last 16. Four of the five won their groups.

In Group G, the much anticipated Brazil-Portugal match was an awful disappointment, ending 0-0, and provding little to no entertainment whatsoever. Portugal’s wall of defense did a great job blocking shot after Brazil shot, but when the whole team is between Brazil and the goal, that’s going to happen. It would have been good to see more flair from both teams yesterday.

* Ivory Coast needed something like 235 goals against North Korea and managed just 3, which made my prognostication look good, but wasn’t enough to keep them in the tournament. They were a disappointment, though in the end, I’m not sure the result of Brazil and Portugal moving on is really all that surprising.


Well … I … don’t know what happened …

OK, enough of yesterday.

There’s a game today that as a t-shirt once read, is kind of a big deal.

USA-Ghana, 2:30 p.m. Eastern time, ABC. I, other fans, and media folk have spent the last 72 hours or so pondering a dream scenario for the United States – a draw that could legitimately see them reach the semifinals of this World Cup, something not done since this tournament was a very different beast back in 1930. Ghana, however, cannot be discounted, and most of these American players only need look back four years to understand that.

But other than a great deal of passion and emotion in the 1-1 draw with Italy during the 2006 FIFA World Cup, that US team was far from showing you the determination and heart that this 2010 group has. But determination and heart are only going to get the US so far. Other things have to happen for the US to go beyond what we’ve all imagined in our heads and dreamed in our sleep, and win this game to reach the quarterfinals.

* Defending. Yes, I know the US posted a shutout against Algeria, but Algeria haven’t scored a goal since I think 1974. Today’s assignment will be more difficult, if Ghana decides to make it so. If Ghana slip into their bad habit of simply rifling shots from 30-40 yards that don’t much concern US goalkeeper Tim Howard, it could be an easy day. But the US must be tighter in its marking to try and frustrate Ghana’s attack, and force them into that mode of firing from miles away.

* I still think an early goal would be critical. They managed without one against Algeria, only to be saved late by Landon Donovan. But if chances go unconverted early today, I’d be worried about frustration rolling into the US team, as well, with players thinkng, “Oh no, not this [bleep] again.” This is especially true, I think, for Clint Dempsey. An early strike for him would be great to put aside his misses vs. Algeria.

* Hopefully, when the US does score today, it actually counts!

* Many feel the Americans are favored in this match, and they need to play like a favored team would. Control the ball, control the game. Dictate the tempo and don’t let Ghana decide how the US is going to play. The US talent is strong enough that if the above happens, the chances should be there and they should win.

* None of which will keep from being a nervous wreck a few minutes before gametime, but that’s life right now – and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Meanwhile, South Korea and Uruguay kick off at 10 a.m. The winners of today’s two matches meet at 2:30 p.m. Friday.

SATURDAY’S PREDICTIONS:
Uruguay 2-1 South Korea

* I can’t go against the South American contingent in this spot.

United States 2-1 Ghana
* It won’t be as comfortable as I know we’d all like, but would this team do it any other way?

Friday’s Record: 3-1.
Tournament Record: 25-23.

World Cup 2010 (Day 14): US Dares to Dream as Italy’s Nightmare is Complete …

… In their last 15 minutes of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, Italy showed an attacking desire and an aggression that had been missing for nearly the entirety of this tournament. Perhaps from arrogance, perhaps from just being a bit over the hill compared to their competition, Italy looked like a team who felt something less than their best was going to be more than enough to coast into the last 16 against the likes of Paraguay, New Zealand, and Slovakia.

And other years, it probably would have been. But coach Marcello Lippi’s lineups were curious, and he didn’t have all his potential arsenal available with Andrea Pirlo’s injury. But still, with a 100% effort, Italy should have advanced out of Group F blindfolded. But not this year. Not falling behind to every opponent it played and having to rally just to try for a draw (which would have been enough today, as it turned out).

Italy’s departure isn’t in the same class as the French, a fractured farce of a “team” that probably could end up as nomads with their own country embarrassed at the team’s performance. Italy’s fans won’t be happy, but a couple that I know, oddly, don’t even seem to be surprised. Italy’s early exit from this World Cup (their first group stage goodbye since 1974), unlike the French, merely closes out an era. The Italians will take the next four years, develop talent, say arrivederci to some solid veterans, and my guess is they will be ready to return at Brazil 2014 better than ever.

France’s situation, on the other hand, is so bad that as I write this, former Major League Baseball player Robin Ventura is making fun of them during the College World Series.

Italy’s departure, meanwhile, is yet another little piece to a larger puzzle that gives the majority of the teams left every reason to believe there’s at least a semifinal appearance in their near future. Think of it this way … one of the following four teams:

* United States
* South Korea
* Uruguay
* Ghana

… is going to the World Cup semifinals. A bonanza for any of these nations, if for nothing else that it gives the team a guaranteed two games no matter how the semifinal turns out. I know Uruguay are World Cup champions from many decades ago, but the semifinals for any of these four teams would be an incredible accomplishment.

Now, consider this. THREE of these four teams WON’T make the semifinals:

* England
* Germany
* Argentina
* Mexico

… Those four teams collide in Sunday’s Round of 16 doubleheader, with England battling Germany and Argentina having another knockout match with Mexico.

I’m not saying the path is cleared for the United States. But having Italy out is one more potential threat eliminated. This is what Landon Donovan’s late, late, late, holy crap it’s late goal against Algeria yesterday has done for US fans today. It’s OK to dream now. It’s OK to look at this pod of four teams as it were and think, “You know what, we might just be the best damn team of the four.”

This doesn’t mean the US will win Saturday. Things didn’t go so well against Ghana in 2006, and they, as well as South Korea and Uruguay, are definitely not to be taken lightly. But as opposed to 2002, when we knew the US would probably have to beat Mexico and Germany to reach the semifinals (and didn’t miss that outcome by all that much), we look at this 2010 draw and that little part of all of us that wants to look ahead and dare to dream is gaining a louder and louder voice.

And it’s fitting. What we’ve seen from the US, despite their early-game struggles in the first couple games, is almost the exact opposite of Italy. There was no lack of effort, there was little of the diving and embellishing that we saw at times from Italy. And in the Algeria game, there was just hard work. And when that didn’t get it done. There was more hard work. And when the assistant referee took away our goal, there was more hard work.

And in the end, when it almost seemed lost … yeah, there was even more hard work. And it finally paid off. Against top-class teams, who knows what will happen. But against Ghana, South Korea, and/or Uruguay, hard work is going to go a long way.

It’s a lesson Italy painfully learned after their World Cup clock had already struck midnight.

(Yes, I know the Netherlands, Brazil, or Portugal would likely be waiting in the semifinals, but let’s get there, first. )

* The Netherlands beat Cameroon, 2-1, to win Group E, while Japan dented Denmark, 3-1, to also advance. The Netherlands plays Slovakia in the US half of the bracket, while Japan battles Paraguay on the other side.

* New Zealand’s wonderful World Cup ended with a third consecutive draw, this time 0-0 to Paraguay. One goal would have sent them through, but there’s no shame in their performance at all. It wasn’t pretty football, but they were doing what they had to, as best they could, and it was almost good enough. Congrats to them. Paraguay win Group F, Italy finish dead last.

The final day of group play is tomorrow! Predictions below. Join in on the conversation in the Comments section below.

FRIDAY’S PREDICTIONS:
Brazil 2-1 Portugal
Ivory Coast 3-0 North Korea
Honduras 1-1 Switzerland
Spain 3-2 Chile

Today’s Record: 1-3.
Tournament Record: 22-22.

World Cup 2010 (Day 13): For the US, The Day That Changed the Game …

… I’m not sure what was more chilling; my instant reaction to Landon Donovan’s goal this morning that went something like this:

“Hey! We scored! How will they make it not count this time!”

Or, the feeling hours later, scanning the Internet, watching YouTube videos of reactions to the goal in bars and at gatherings around the United States on this, the 13th day of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, and the day that changed things for US soccer.

It’s not that the US hasn’t advanced to the knockout rounds of the World Cup. The memory of beating Mexico in the Round of 16 eight years ago isn’t that faded from my mind. There have long been talked about wins over England in 1950 and Colombia in 1994. Maybe because there haven’t been many US wins in World Cup history (today was the 7th), we have held on to them for, in some cases, many decades.

Somehow, Donovan’s goal has given US soccer more legitimacy and visibility than all of our success did to this point. Today’s Algeria is not the opponent that 1950 England is in all the old stories, and they aren’t 1994 Colombia or 2002 Mexico. Years from now, the fact Algeria was even on the field today probably will be little more than a footnote to history – as will Clint Dempsey’s disallowed goal, and even Maurice Edu’s overturned score in the Slovenia match.

In one instant, as the commercial says, the non-believers (most of them) were converted into the faithful. Donovan did much more than simply score a goal that advanced the United States into the last 16. He did it in the moment. With more of the country watching than the audience soccer would normally draw, and those “casual fans” or “new fans” on the brink of thinking – “just what I thought, 0-0, and I can go back to not caring,” Donovan stepped into the spotlight, kept hustling, and as a result, found himself with the golden opportunity. It didn’t fall to a fringe player, it didn’t fall to a lead-footed defender joining the attack.

It fell to The Man. And The Man delivered.

In an instant, everyone – the hardcores, the casual fans, the new fans, and those who simply watch every four years to root for their country – combusted in a thrilling ecstasy that I don’t even remember in my lifetime from those prior conquests over Colombia and Mexico. The nature of the goal coming at the death, and the fact that it was the player who is supposed to stand and deliver, and the promise it now holds for how far this team can go, combined to make it potentially the biggest single moment in US soccer history.

The US is more than just a team that advanced to the last 16 now. First, they WON a group at the World Cup – something that had only occurred in 1930. They won a group with England in it – something few people expected (EASY, huh, England?). Many expected the US to advance, but no one envisioned the crazy, nerve-filled journey required for these Cardi-Yanks to reach Saturday’s knockout match vs. Ghana (2:30 p.m. Eastern). Where many of us watch the US hoping for the best, and constantly critiquing all of our players’ every move for better or worse, a whole nation of folks watched today simply praying for a goal, and when it came, the feeling of elation from hardcores and newbies alike was combined with a stunning sense of relief.

Only time will tell us how much the pendulum swung today. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be writing that tonight. I wrote last night that no matter the result, we weren’t staring at some sort of seminal day for US soccer.

But given what occurred, given how it occurred, I’m pretty sure I was wrong. Donovan launched US soccer to a new plateau in some ways, and the charge is now on the Federation and everyone involved with this great sport to captialize going forward. This is something players like Donovan and Dempsey and Tim Howard have no control over. They can just play. And we love this team because we know they’ll do just that until they’ve left everything on the field.

We don’t know where this road ends. The whole trip could have been cut short seconds before Donovan’s goal, had Howard not saved an Algerian header that would have put advancement clearly out of reach. Instead, Donovan reaches hero status, and we all try to speed through the rest of this week to see what Saturday holds – the hardcores, the casuals, the newbies, just about all of us, all on a journey together.

I never quite imagined that. But I never could have imagined what occurred today. The final destination of this voyage is a mystery, but I for one can’t wait to get there.

* Oh yeah, England beat Slovenia, 1-0, to advance as runner-up in Group C. They play Germany Sunday, who won Group D with a 1-0 win over Ghana. Uruguay meets South Korea in the other game Saturday, while Argentina-Mexico collide Sunday. Why yes, if we can still take in more after whatever happens Saturday, Sunday’s doubleheader, for the Round of 16, is really something else.

THURSDAY’S PREDICTIONS
Paraguay 2-1 New Zealand
Italy 1-0 Slovakia
Denmark 2-1 Japan
Holland 2-0 Cameroon

Today’s Record: 4-0.
Tournament Record: 21-19.

World Cup 2010 (Day 12): Now the Fun Begins …

… If this is what you, as a US soccer fan, call fun. If this is fun, then I’d suggest to you that you have a funny definition of the word “fun.”

First, let’s get the formalities out of the way. Argentina beat Greece, 2-0, today to go perfect in Group B and sail into the last 16. They’ll meet Mexico in that round, who enter as the runner-ups in Group A, despite a 1-0 loss this morning to Uruguay. Uruguay, who needed a playoff just to qualify for this World Cup, won Group A with 7 points and were far more impressive than I thought they’d be. South Korea completes the quartet of qualifiers today, as their 2-2 draw with Nigeria is enough to send them to the second round and a date with Uruguay.

France, Greece, Nigeria, and the hosts South Africa, we bid you farewell. For three of the four of you, thank you for playing, we appreciated having you on the show, and there are lovely parting gifts for you near the door.

For France, you didn’t belong in this tournament in the first place, then had the nerve to crash it with an attitude of arrogance that features a rift between the coach and the players, a rift between a trainer and a player, a rift between the federation and its team, and perhaps even a rift between the players. You were an embarrassment to this tournament for the means by which you qualified, and nothing about your play or conduct during these 12 days has shown the world anything that would offer a different opinion. Beaten finalists in 2006, you have fallen off the competitive map in just four years’ time, and the next stop on your own personal MARC commuter train to Hell is irrelevance. Congrats. Maybe if you need a way off, Thierry Henry can lend you hand.

(No, I’m not at least half-Irish, why do you ask?)

Ok, now that this little bit of fun is over, let’s get to the important stuff.

Grant Wahl today tweeted an interesting observation, noting that the United States has never won a third group game in its World Cup history. Remember, even when making the quarterfinals in 2002, the US was smoked by Poland on that final group day. In 2006, Claudio Reyna fell over, and the US collapsed with it, losing 2-1 to Ghana.

Here is the US history in Game 3s:

2006: Lost, Ghana, 1-2.
2002: Lost, Poland, 1-3.
1998: Lost, Yugoslavia, 0-1.
1994: Lost, Romania, 0-1.
1990: Lost, Austria, 1-2.
1950: Lost, Chile, 2-5.

How does that impact tomorrow’s game? For the players and the coaches, it probably doesn’t. For the fans, I’m sure it plays a role. There’s a reason why, over time, results tend to repeat themselves. In 2002, the US fell victim to a malady this 2010 team is full of – falling behind early. Poland were clear 2-0 leaders just five minutes into that match in ’02. In this World Cup, the US were behind to England only four minutes in, and it took 13 minutes for Slovenia to find the target and take the lead in the second US match.

This US team has danced with the fickle dame known as Margin for Error long enough in this World Cup. Should the tango last any longer, the US could well find itself sans a partner when the dance comes for the Round of 16. That’d be a shame, because of the group assembled in South Africa for this tournament, I think the United States has a rightful place in the knockout rounds. I think the team can be that good.

But when facing such situations like that we see (and perhaps, fear) tomorrow, our nation has a history of failure. And winning World Cup games isn’t exactly a tradition for our country anyway. The US is 6-16-5 all-time in World Cup play. Three of those draws have come in the United States’ last four World Cup matches (going back to the 1-1 draw with Italy in 2006). Not every final group game necessarily held promise for the US, and not every poor result knocked us from contention (see ’94, ’02).

If confidence comes from demonstrated performance, however, there isn’t much to go on here. There’s valid reasons why US fans should be worried. Some will try to make this out as being a situation where the future of soccer in America rides on Wednesday’s match with Algeria. I don’t buy that. Major League Soccer will still have its fans, there will still be excitement over the incoming expansion teams, and there will still be the drive to bring better talent to the league.

And should it all go wrong in about 12 hours’ time from right now, it’ll hurt, but folks will be back on board should we qualify in 2014, if for no other reason than patriotism. How many of us watched curling during the Winter Olympics? Then proclaimed based on no knowledge that the US team needed to do X, Y, and Z because they weren’t playing well. If it has USA on the jersey, a certain segment of the population is going to watch. Converting those new folks into domestic 24×7 soccer fans is a different conversation for another blog post. Would a win over Algeria help that? Maybe. I wouldn’t bank on it, just as I don’t think a loss is going to kill all dreams of the sport advancing domestically.

We know what the US must do. It must take charge early, score the opening goal (for a change), and defend better. I’d really love to see Jozy Altidore use his strength and the physical advantage he has over many defenders more often. We’ve seen it in flashes in both games thus far, but he needs to be more consistently imposing. I hope the defense does a good enough job all over the park that I don’t have to spend the whole game watching goalkeeper Tim Howard yelling at them like they ruined his birthday. I’d like to see coach Bob Bradley pick the right lineup and make the right substitutions.

But in the end, I wish I could draw on a particular game and say, see that, we’ve done this before. However, such a record (in terms of group play) doesn’t exist when we’re talking about the third and final match. What this World Cup and tournaments before it have taught us is that once you’re in the knockout round, anything can happen. Playoffs in all sports have shown us the same. And maybe, just maybe, this particular group of players will use their 3-0 win over Egypt in a 2009 Confederations Cup game similar in set-up to this match vs. Algeria, as motivation. Maybe we will see that such a scoreline wasn’t a fluke, and this team can really get it done when at least some of the chips are down.

I hope so. But, fun? No. This isn’t fun. This is Hell. Hopefully, we’ll all still have something to laugh about when we see the other side 12 hours from now.

WEDNESDAY’S PREDICTIONS:
England 2-1 Slovenia

* Despite all we’ve seen, I just can’t fathom England falling apart tomorrow.
Germany 3-1 Ghana
Australia 1-0 Serbia
United States 2-1 Algeria

* It’s going to be nervy and scary and heart-rattling till the end, but I think they’ll get it done. History be damned.

Today’s Record: 2-2.
Tournament Record: 17-19.

World Cup 2010 ( Day 8 ) : Foul Play …

… As tempted as I was to write about the US-Slovenia match in the moments after it finished, I decided it would be better to wait until now and the regular nightly World Cup recap. Anything I wrote in the wake of the conclusion to that match would have been unprofessional, too emotionally driven to make sense, and wouldn’t have had the quality required to post here.

Pissed? Hell yeah. Wanting to throw my remote control halfway across the room in anger? You bet your ass. Anything I can do about it? Not a damn thing.

After playing like total crap through the first half to fall behind Slovenia, 2-0, the United States nicely rallied in the second half, getting well-taken goals from Landon Donovan (what a shot from short range) and Michael Bradley (neatly putting home a shot just after a bounce that really could have gone anywhere).

Moments later, Maurice Edu won the game for the Americans, knocking home Donovan’s free kick from the right side. But referee Koman Coulibaly claimed to see an American foul, and the goal was washed out. Replays didn’t show a US foul, nor was Edu offside. If anything, it showed multilple US attackers being held and mugged inside the penalty area. But no matter, Coulibaly had made his call, and what was reported as his first-ever center assignment in the World Cup ended in controversy. (Note: Yahoo’s Martin Rogers is reporting this may well be Coulibaly’s debut and departure, all wrapped up in one.)

The players were seen questioning Coulibaly repeatedly after the call and the game, but according to Donovan, they never got an answer and were “ignored” (though, according to Coulibaly’s bio at worldreferee.com, he does speak English). I credit Donovan greatly for how he handled the post-game questioning … he got his point across regarding how he felt his team was robbed, but wasn’t inflammatory about it. It was a mature reaction.

Some will argue that the US wouldn’t have had to worry about it had they played better in the first half, and going into halftime down 2-0, as the real culprit – and there’s some merit in that. I can’t assign too much blame on Slovenia’s second goal, a converted counter attack that Zlatan Ljubijankic put away well past Tim Howard.

But Slovenia’s first goal was a joke. In just the 13th minute, Valter Birsa found himself wide open near the US penalty area, where six … SIX … US players were somewhat in the vicinity, forming a rectangle to surround Birsa. But no one decided to close in on Birsa, who uncorked a shot that flew past the sedentary American defenders and froze a bewildered Howard to open the scoring.

This lazy effort on defense is criminal at this level, and unbecoming of any of the 32 teams that are in this tournament. Howard is often seen admonishing his defenders in an animated fashion when they don’t close down shooters and don’t pick up their marks. Clearly, Howard’s message isn’t getting through given what we saw on Birsa’s goal. It was as disgraceful as Coulibaly’s foul call was later that took the US winner off the board.

But here’s the difference. Any media at that game, once it was over, had the chance to take American players to task for what happened on Birsa’s goal should they have seen fit. Questions would have been asked, answers would have been given, and someone probably would have raised their hand and noted, “I should have been better there.”

We’ll never see that from Coulibaly, who robbed the US of two points right out from under their noses, brazenly whistling a foul that through all replays I’ve seen simply didn’t exist. Coulibaly has no requirement to explain his decision, and all FIFA can do is fast-track his departure from the tournament, which would speak volumes. The lack of accountability is the most disturbing part of this to me, not being able to ever know what the actual hell was going through Coulibaly’s mind when he put whistle to mouth and at the time, seemingly fractured the United States’ chances at advancing to the last 16.

Still pissed? Yep. But is it a big deal now? Maybe not. Algeria’s inspired effort to earn a point vs. England in a 0-0 draw turned Group C on its head yet again. England have a nice collection of players, but no idea how to play together. Sometimes, they’ll do well because one of those quality players will impose their will on the match and make plays that the other team simply can’t stop. But England’s stars offered nothing of that nature today, and perhaps their most highly regarded player, Wayne Rooney, was more likely to turn up as a target on Ghost Adventures.

Speaking of quality, if I had to make a Best XI for this World Cup right now, Algeria’s Nadir Belhadj would be in that group somewhere.

Algeria’s point keeps them very much in the race to advance, and they will be no pushover for the US on Wednesday when Group C concludes – while England plays leaders Slovenia. The US controls its own destiny: Win and their in. They could even advance with a tie. The first goal at a World Cup is to enter the final group game having either advanced or to control your own destiny to move on, and the US has that. They’ve rode their luck a bit at times (thanks, Robert Green), and had luck slam the door in its face at times (thanks, Coulibaly). So, maybe, as pissed as we all are right now, they are right where they are supposed to be.

But there are serious problems in the defense and with efforts to start games that coach Bob Bradley must somehow address between now and Wednesday. These can’t be overshadowed by Coulibaly’s howler. Bradley has a test now to refocus his players and get them ready for an Algeria team Wednesday that won’t be easy to beat. And the way the Americans are defending right now, no team is easy to beat.

* Serbia shocked Germany this morning, 1-0, getting a goal from Milan Jovanovic in the 38th minute, then a penalty save from Vladimir Stojkovic on Lukas Podolski with about a half-hour to go. Serbia held on and suddenly, the team I and many others had declared the best in the tournament so far, Germany, suffered its first group play loss in a World Cup since 1986. The Germans face Ghana, no easy task, to end group play. Ghana takes on Australia tomorrow (10 a.m. Eastern kickoff) and could take control of the group with a win that would put them on 6 points. Stunning.

Today’s game was soured by the 9 cards handed out by referee Alberto Undiano Mallenco, many of them early when he seemed to be trying to take control of a game that didn’t really require that kind of babysitting.

The early kick tomorrow is Holland-Japan; with Cameroon-Denmark on tap for the afternoon. Enjoy the games, and let’s hope the men in the middle do a better job. Back tomorrow evening with the recap.

SATURDAY’S PREDICTIONS:
Holland 2-1 Japan
Ghana 2-0 Australia
Cameroon 1-0 Denmark

Today’s Record: 0-3.
Tournament Record: 10-13.