Wednesday, June 25, 2014

2014 World Cup CHEATSHEET: US Men's National Team

Entire country coming to a standstill tomorrow to watch American play soccer and you'd like to have an idea of who's rep'ing the Red, White, and Blue? You've come a pretty good place (though the right place is probably Though I'm terrified that anything I write might end up being incredibly jinxy, here are my personal thoughts on a very likable United States soccer team.


The United States has been producing world-caliber goalies for quite some time now. Historically, the best ones have had no hair, and this roster is no exception.

Tim Howard is our starter. He's a man's man, the sort that would grow a beard to play a ninety-degrees-in-the-shade game in the Amazon jungle. He's originally from New Jersey. Once upon a time ago, he played for the infamous Manchester United. Now he plays for Everton, a spunky team in Liverpool in the English Premier League (and they wear the same color blue as the Indianapolis Colts, so I dig them). He's lived with Tourette Syndrome and plays in goal as though he's moving his defenders around with a PlayStation controller.

Our backup goalie is a guy from the Chicago 'burbs named Brad Guzan. While we obviously hope Timmy Howard maintains perfect health, we do have some depth at the position should something go horribly wrong. Brad also plays in the EPL, for Aston Villa in Birmingham, and Brad actually played in a lot of the games that qualified the US for the World Cup. Our third goalie is a guy I don't know anything about: Nick Rimando, who plays for Salt Lake City in MLS (who lost in the championship game last season to Kansas City). He has a full head of hair, so I'm not sure how I feel about him. He's probably a really nice guy who's kind to puppies and children.


A lot has been made about Coach Jurgen Klinsmann's German kids (Timmy Chandler, Fabian Johnson, John Anthony Brooks, Jermaine Jones, and Julian Green). Guys with one American parent and one European parent, the children of American soldiers who were stationed overseas. Four of the five have played, and they've really risen to the occasion (Green hasn't played, but for crying out loud, he's 19 years old). There were some questions of how "American" these guys really were. Maybe they've never lived in the States. Maybe they speak with European accents. Maybe they just decided to play for the States because "they weren't good enough" to make Germany's roster.

We can't know what's in these guys' hearts, but I have thought a lot about how much identity is wrapped up in nationalism (I wrote a novel about it once upon a time ago, so this narrative is particularly special to me). At some point in history, all of us have ancestors who chose to be American. Nobody forced these guys to join the team. We don't know for sure that the line about them "not being good enough" is actually true (especially in Julian Green's case, because NINETEEN YEARS OLD). So long as these fellas want to be American, that's good enough for me. They've already made a lot of positive noise in the World Cup, and they'll no doubt (for better or worse) be the story against Germany.

There are two other kiddos on the roster who had to choose their national soccer allegiances: Aron Johannssen and (my personal favorite) Mix Diskerud. These are our Scandinavian Americans. Aron, who came on for the injured Jozy Altidore against Ghana, was born in Alabama, but grew up in Iceland (some have nicknamed him "The Iceman"). Mix, who might have the coolest name in all of American sports, has a Norwegian father and Arizonian mother. Match-ups and injuries have demanded particular players play, and Klinsmann has done a magnificent job managing this roster, but I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I'm terribly disappointed Mix hasn't gotten to play yet. But he's young. And delightful. He'll get his chance.


One of the underrated stories of this World Cup how our domestic league players have really delivered. The United States brought several established players who have been toiling in MLS for years, who maybe thought their chances at making a World Cup team were over.

Matt Besler and Graham Zusi both play for reigning MLS champions Kansas City (who, by the way, have really nice uniforms). These two are best buddies. Besler has been awesome as a defender in two games, despite his gimpy hamstring. I didn't know much about him until he caught my attention in the ESPN 30for30 documentary on the team, when he basically said "Ronaldo's good, but he's human." And Graham Zusi has been a corner kick wizard, getting two assists and looking good doing it.

One of the truly blue-collar players has been Kyle Beckerman, he of the famous dreads. He plays for Salt Lake City, doesn't get a lot of glory, but plays hard and with a great attitude. Side note: if you want to get attached to an MLS team and aren't sure where to start, the pattern of players on the national team would probably lead you toward Kansas City, Salt Lake City, LA Galaxy, or Seattle. If Mix's transfer to Portland had gone through, my allegiance would be finalized. Alas.

We can't forget Chris Wondolowski here, either. Wondo's a California guy of Native American heritage with eyes so big and innocent I like to think of him as the American Puss-In-Boots, right down to his quiet assassin-like tendencies. DeAndre Yedlin, a burst of energy off the bench against Portugal, was born in Seattle and now plays for Seattle, too. Omar Gonzalez is a basketball-tall soft-spoken guy from Texas who now plays for the LA Galaxy. And Brad Davis, who plays in bright orange for the Houston Dynamo, does a lot of great work with military families.

One thing to keep an eye on: if the United States continues to play well, some of these players making names for themselves might get opportunities to move to higher paying teams overseas. MLS has a salary cap; the European leagues do not, and they don't have limits on how many guys they can keep on their rosters, either. If these guys attract foreign attention, it could be good for them, but it might potentially suck for the home league to lose them.


As much as MLS has improved over the last twenty or so years, the best players still play elsewhere. But, there has been a bit of a trend lately of American globetrotting players coming home. Our star goal scorer, Clint Dempsey, played for a couple of London teams, Fulham (which is now owned by the same guy who owns the Jacksonville Jaguars) and Tottenham (one of the bigger teams in the English Premier League). But, in the run up to the World Cup, Dempsey shocked everyone by coming home to play for Seattle, arguably the most rabid soccer fanbase in America. They consistently fill the Seattle Seahawks' football stadium and behave like a really, really big college student section. Seattle is amazing.

After Dempsey came home, so did Michael Bradley. He'd been playing in Rome for one of the better teams in Italy, but now he's stationed in Toronto (yes, I know it's technically in Canada, but it's still our domestic league). Defender Geoff Cameron, who has taken a little heat for the goal at the end of the game against Portugal, plays for Stoke in the English Premier League. An English TV announcer once described him throwing a ball in from out of bounds as "Quarterback Style!" Though defenders don't score very often, it is fun to scream "Quarterback Style!" any time Cameron does something good. But when things go a little sideways, he has been known to get Tim Duncan eyes.

To round out the roster, Alejandro Bedoya plays in France, and DaMarcus Beasley (originally of Fort Wayne, Indiana) plays in Mexico. And of course, our injured playmaker, Jozy Altidore, a Floridian born to Haitian immigrant parents who scored goals like a maniac when he played in the Dutch league (with Aron Johannssen), then almost suffered relegation with Sunderland in England. Jozy's been tumbling around inside a cement mixer for about a year, but hopefully he's on the mend. That's twenty-three likable guys, each with a story to tell and with something to contribute. But really, the star of the team seems to be Coach Jurgen Klinsmann. He's dynamic, he's charismatic, and he's played a very, very smart tournament. I've grown quite fond of him. Regardless of what happens Thursday, I hope he has this job for a long, long time.


Thursday, June 19, 2014

CHEATSHEET: 2014 World Cup

Not a sports fan? Think soccer is stupid but everyone's talking about it right now and you feel a little left out? Or maybe you kinda like the idea of soccer but there are so many leagues and teams and players that it's all kind of overwhelming? You've come to the right place! We're Americans! We like embracing flash-heroes! Here are a few story lines and talking points to help you enjoy the next few weeks.


Maybe you've heard the United States is in "Group G." There are eight groups, "A" through "H." Every team is guaranteed to play at least three games. Wins are worth three points, ties are worth one point, losses suck. If two teams in a group have the same number of points after three games, then they count up the goals scored to decide who wins the group (so running up the score is good, if you can do it). The top two teams in every group move on to an NCAA Tournament style knockout round, where ties cease to exist.


Spain was one of the favorites, but I'm late writing this post, so they've already been eliminated. This means I don't have to explain how they won the last three international tournaments in a row, but it also means I have no excuse to link to anything related to Sad Fernando Torres. Watch for him to score 10 completely meaningless goals against the Australians, who are also already eliminated. What a shame, the Aussies were fun to watch.

The Dutch were the runners up in the last World Cup, and they were the ones who slayed the Spanish and Australians. They usually wear orange, but so far in this tournament they've been wearing these gorgeous blue alternate uniforms, which I've decided are lucky. They have two super stars who are rumored to hate each other, Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben (Robin and Robben). Robin plays for the famous Manchester United in England, Robben plays for the also famous Bayern Munich in Germany.

Germany might be the San Antonio Spurs of this tournament, quietly taking care of business and people kind of forget about them between games. The United States will play them soon, and there are many connections between the two. Our coach is a former German team star. Several of our players are dual American/German citizens, because their fathers were military guys stationed overseas. Those players had their choice of which country they wanted to play for; once they take the field for one country or the other, they're "tied" to that country for the rest of their career. John Brooks, who scored America's winner against Ghana, was one of these dual-citizen players. He was not officially tied to the United States until he took the field on Monday, but he's ours now!

Mexico looks pretty good, but they were a "bubble" team; they had to do a weird playoff against New Zealand to qualify. Their goalie Ochoa was like an X-Man in the zero-zero tie with Brazil this week (and he's currently between teams, so it must be a fun week to be his agent). That was the game where people started whispering, "I understand why ties can be cool."

No European team has ever won the World Cup in South America. Brazil has never won the World Cup at home, and they're dealing with a lot of personal baggage. Chile looked really, really strong, and Argentina has arguably the best player in the world, Lionel Messi (yes, pronounced messy). In conclusion, I know embarrassingly little about the teams from Africa and Asia. I am ashamed.


The subject of "best player in the world" breaks down to a sort of "Manning vs Brady" argument, with Lionel Messi playing the role of Manning and Cristiano Ronaldo, for Portugal, playing the role of Brady. The United States will play against Portugal on Sunday, and there have been rumors all week about Ronaldo having a bad knee. But, being arguably the best in the world, he'll have to be comatose to not be on the field. Oh, and if he scores, he might un-shirt himself.

Those who taught me soccer, Roger Bennett and Michael Davies, believe Uruguay's star Luis Suarez looks like Anne Hathaway. Italy's Mario Balotelli, who scored the game winner against England last weekend, is probably best known for blowing up his own bathroom with fireworks on the eve of a big game, then wearing a t-shirt that read, "Why Always Me?" (Note: I enjoy Balotelli; he makes me happy). Belgium's team is just filthy with big-named players and they've long been thought to be a dark horse contender (if you want to sound like you know what you're talking about, tell your friends you predict either Belgium or Chile to win it all). The English team has some fun characters, too (Note: Wayne Rooney looks like Shrek), but we have to get on to more important stuff. Just know, generally speaking, that teams tend to give the symbolic number "10" to their star guy, and the captain, their team leader, will wear an armband.


So why isn't Landon Donovan on this team? I don't know, but I've heard several theories. He's getting older and kind of broken down (by his own admission). He's still playing well for his team, the LA Galaxy, but by Team USA standards he's probably a guy who would come off the bench, and thus might have been a distraction ("Why isn't he starting!?"). By not having him there, it may have been just one less thing to worry about. Or, he and Coach Klinsmann might just passive aggressively not get along. If you listened to Landon's quotes leading up to the selection, you kind of got the idea that he was prepared to not be on the team; it's possible he was just worn down. But anywho.

Team USA has had a few different "number 10" guys over the years. Sometimes Landon wore it. Sometimes it was Clint Dempsey (the guy who scored the goal in the first 30 seconds against Ghana then got his nose broken). Now Clint is our captain (so some people are hoping he'll wear a Captain America mask to protect his broken face), and he's arguably our best goal scorer. Our best player is probably our goalie, Tim Howard, who plays for Everton in the English Premier League; he used to play at Manchester United when Portugal's Ronaldo was there. They were TEAMMATES! Now, our number "10" is actually a new guy, Mix Diskerud (the coolest name on the roster); he tends to be the first guy off the bench, when injuries don't dictate otherwise. I adore him.

The guy who needs to have a HUGE game against Portugal is Michael Bradley (the bald guy who never smiles). His dad used to be Team USA's coach; he was fired after the last world cup, and that's when Klinsmann took over. Bradley is really good; the people who know things say that he could easily play in any league in the world, but he recently chose to come to MLS (he plays for Toronto). A lot of our guys have been coming back to the home league lately.

Against Ghana we lost the one guy we couldn't really afford to lose: Jozy Altidore. He's supposed to be our biggest scorer; none of the other guys play the way he plays (no, not even Landon, they don't even play the same position). Rumor has it that his injury isn't as bad as they originally thought, but he's not playing against Portugal. So who will replace him? Either Aron Johannsson (a kid who was born in Alabama but grew up in Iceland) or Chris Wondolowski (a late-blooming player of Native American heritage). Aron came on for Jozy against Ghana, and it was a little symbolic, since they played together for awhile in the Dutch league, before Jozy moved to Sunderland in England. I'm kind of feeling Wondo against Portugal. I can't explain why, just a feeling.

Team USA has a lot of interesting, likable characters on it (see also, Kyle Beckerman), and you can see them all introduce themselves here in little 90 second videos. Highly recommend.