Want to win the World Cup? Better win your group.

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‘All we need to do is get out of the Group of Death and we are good, right Mikey?’ ‘Not quiiitee Ale’

So much emphasis at the World Cup is put on getting out of the group. If you get out of the group, anything can happen! Technically this is true, but when zero of the teams that finished second in their respective groups at the 2014 World Cup won a game in the round of 16, it made me wonder if this was an anomaly or if  it was relatively standard. Here’s what teams that finished second in their group have done in the round of 16 since 1998:

Only 9 teams at the past 5 World Cups have won a round of 16 match when they advanced as the second place team out of their group. 1998 was when the World Cup shifted to 32 teams, so previous World Cups aren’t relevant as third place teams advanced from the group stage too. The teams that did win a round of 16 game after finishing second were Croatia and Denmark in France ’98, England, Senegal, Turkey, and the United States in Korea/Japan ’02, France and Ukraine in Germany ’06, and Ghana in South Africa ’10.

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Test Driving the Nike Magista Obras

Yes, you’ve seen them. Bright yellow or brighter red, everyone at the World Cup has been rocking them. The new Nike Magista Obras are the flyest kicks on the pitch at the World Cup and only the best players in the world have them. You can add me to that list. Why? Because I’m German-American and gunning for a spot on the 2018 roster? Well, no. I’m not nearly good enough for that. Fortunately the good people over at SoccerPro.com were kind enough to let me test drive these bad boys just to see how legit they really are. Can they make my mediocre touch silky and beautiful? I guesssssss they are just boots and not miracle workers. Or are they?

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When I first picked them up, I was amazed at how light they were. If you look at the picture here very closely, you can see that they are actually not touching the ground but just hovering slightly about it. That is how light they are. It’s like you are putting clouds on your feet, bright, brilliant first touch improving clouds. Of all the pairs of boots I have owned, these are by far the lightest. In fact, it’s almost frightening. I wondered for at least two minutes who stole part of my boots and how I could get them back. Seriously people, stop stealing part of my boots directly out of the mail! It’s uncalled for.

When you do put them on, there are two feelings: First, they feel like an extension of your foot and second, the envy of your friends as they watch you put them on. Seriously, not everyone will be happy for how awesome you are. The sock extension is a bit funny at first, but it stretches to fit your foot and ankle nicely. As soon as I started running on the field, it felt like I was wearing my Nike Frees but with way more traction. It was awesome. You get the ball and it feels like you are playing in your bare feet, but with better touch and control. That is a serious upgrade. Even the shoelaces are designed to maximize the lightness and minimize impact on your touch. Bravo to whoever designed these bad boys, you deserve a raise.

Speaking of raise, the Magista Obras definitely gave my first touch a raise. Or as we refer to it, the improvement that comes from #DatSockTouch. Be warned, #DatSockTouch may drastically improve your skills to the point where you question what you are doing at your day job instead of making moves in the 2. Bundesliga and hoping that Hertha Berlin and Borussia Mönchengladbach are keeping an eye on your prowess in front of goal. Have they seen that YouTube highlight video of my assist last game? I hope so. You need #DatSockTouch. Really though, the Magistas did seem to boost my touch on the ball, albeit not my overall skill. Nothing can help that, trust me, I know. Or at least that is what the doctor has told me. I did bend a free kick around a wall and into the bottom right corner for a lovely goal the first game I played with these on though, so maybe you should be the judge.

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The only way to make them better? Some AMERICA ball action.

Overall I have been incredibly pleased with these boots, you can tell how high quality they are. They only concern is because they are so light, they seem to lack a bit of protection in the back, in case someone slides into your heels as you zip past them. Outside of that, they seem to be pretty much flawless, besides the fact that no MLS team has reached out to me and offered me a contract since I put them on. I have looked dangerous both up top and in an attacking midfield role, so San Jose Earthquakes or DC United feel free to hit me up on Twitter if I can fill a need you have on your roster. I’ve been truly impressed with the way they handle and how much they feel like an extension of my foot. The Nike Magista Obras truly are the next generation of great boots. If you are in the market for a new pair, check out SoccerPro.com’s selection of the Nike Magista Obras, they won’t do you wrong and they just released some sweet new colors. Unfortunately they still don’t seem to come with a guaranteed contract, apparently you have to figure that out on your own. Hopefully the next variation will though!

Sharing the Beautiful Game via Kindness at the World Cup

This post is sponsored by Dignity Health, however the opinions and story expressed are my own.

Humankindness is greater than language barriers, than differences in opinion of what team to cheer for at the World Cup, and can connect people when nothing else can. Dignity Health are believers in the healing power of kindness as they bring more humanity into health care. Check out their mission to create, discover, and celebrate the humankindness around us. Humankindness helped my friends and I deal with a rough morning at the World Cup a few weeks ago, as the beautiful game brought people together to enjoy life in a way that often only sports and humankindness allows us to.

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A beautiful Fortaleza morning.

It had been an interesting morning. Our flight to Fortaleza got changed and instead of taking off at 8 AM and landing at 9 AM, we now had the delightful flight time of 3:30 AM, landing a little bit before 5 AM. This is the price you pay for trying to make day trips during the World Cup, but I knew that the Greece – Ivory Coast match would be worth it. Or I hoped it would be anyway. A little after 9 AM I was questioning my thought process big time. Getting no sleep and heading for a town where our only contact didn’t have a cell phone wouldn’t be a problem, right?

When we landed in the airport, the sun hadn’t even come up yet. We were really tired after the Mexico – Croatia game the night before and desperately wanted our friend B to respond to our email about meeting him at his hotel room and letting us nap for a while. No dice though when we landed. No worries, we could watch the sun rise in the Fortaleza airport and nap there. After an hour, none of us could sleep. What was our next move? We waited another half hour until half the crew was restless, and decided we should head for his hotel. Seemed smart enough. We grabbed some cabs and headed into Fortaleza to his hotel, where surely air conditioning and some comfortable beds awaited us.

Nope. We got to his hotel, but we still had no email response. The front desk gave us his room number, but no answer on the hotel phone. Three tries later, still no dice. Time for plan C, which was head for the beach. This seemed like a good idea, we could just nap there. At 7 AM the sun was warm and the beach was empty besides some Brazilians doing water aerobics. Time to lay on the sand and get that desperately needed sleep. By 8 AM the sun was HOT. We are talking today might break 100 degrees hot. No way to sleep in that. It was almost painful how bad we all wanted to nap. We started taking turns going in the ocean while everyone else sat on the beach and guarded our belongings and match tickets. This was just not a good start at all. More people started showing up on the beach and a pickup game of beach soccer broke out in front of us. Most of us sat and watched with interest, as we had all wanted to get into a beach soccer game with Brazilians on this trip. Maybe this would be our chance.

By now we were all sweaty and close to miserable. All we wanted was some sleep really. Just a few moments of distance from a rough morning is all I could think about. Instead, I got something even better. As I walked down to the ocean to put my feet in the water to try and beat the overbearing heat, one of the Brazilians playing waved to me and a couple of my friends to come join them and play. It was if he had read our minds, and knew what a rough morning it was. The perfect way to forget the past 7 hours and how tired we all were was this offer to join them playing the beautiful game on the beach. It didn’t matter that we couldn’t understand each other or that we weren’t cheering for the same team in the World Cup, all that mattered was that we all shared the ball and the love of the game.

Quickly we joined teams, and everything else faded away. When you are on the field, no matter where it is or what the circumstances are, nothing else matters. Just you and your teammates trying to be better than the people you are up against. We held our own. They appreciated that we were decent, and we appreciated their moment of kindness to let us escape a rough morning and to fulfill a desire we had each had when we talked about this World Cup trip back in 2013. To get a chance to play soccer on the beach in Brazil with people who lived there, that is something dreams are made of. There we were, doing it, sharing laughs over bad passes and high fives for great goals. After a half hour it was time for us to try and meet up with our friend again, and we thanked our new Brazilian friends for letting us join them. Their kindness had made our morning bearable, and is one of the lasting memories that we each took home from Brazil.

Have any great stories of humankindness from the World Cup, whether in Brazil or your backyard? Share them using #keepitkind and at  https://www.hellohumankindness.org/share/!

The World Cup in Brazil via Street Art

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São Paulo – Near Ibirapuera Park

Everyone has heard about the protests in Brazil in advance of the 2014 World Cup. It has been a major talking point for many people in advance of the World Cup, however protests tend to often be sensationalized by the media, both in good and bad ways. I wondered how people really felt, so I tried to look for as much street art as possible while I was there to get a better feel for how the people of Brazil really felt via graffiti/street art. I figured it would be a better representation of the people.

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Borrowed from Dixon’s Facebook Page.

Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera everywhere, so this is just a small sample. The most consistent was just ‘FUCK FIFA’, which we saw often. Simple, direct, and to the point. Not really a surprise and often truly appropriate and poignant.

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São Paulo

Most of the other art we saw focused on what people felt like Brazil was trading to host the World Cup, spending on stadiums instead of on education, hospitals, schools, transportation, and other infrastructure.

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São Paulo

The fact that you couldn’t eat soccer was a prevalent theme. The cost of the World Cup is something to always be considered, especially in nations where putting the money to different use could benefit them in a much greater fashion than a month of soccer. Not everything we saw was negative though, as people were certainly behind Brazil.

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Rio de Janeiro

Overall the message was consistently more negative and anti-FIFA and World Cup than it was positive. Not a lot of love for FIFA in Brazil.

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Rio de Janeiro

There was the call for ‘Mais Amor Por Favor’ or More Love, Please. Certainly a message we can all agree on, no matter what country we support or how we feel about FIFA, Brazil, the World Cup, or Arjen Robben’s terrible diving. Also, some bonus Mona Lisa twerking for your viewing pleasure. Or something.

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Now Let Me See You Twerk São Paulo

 

 

USA v. Belgium: Go Time

Not the best option for the US if it goes down today...

Not the best option for the US if it goes down today…

The US–here four years ago–has a chance to advance to its further point in the World Cup in more than a decade. Belgium? A very beatable opponent. Can Klinsmann get it right?

TSG’s USA vs. Belgium Preview: Dukes With Hazard

Bald is better.

Bald is better. (illustration by Ben Saufley)

The US clicked on their World Cup hazards last Thursday and backed their way into the second round, courtesy of a choppy match against Germany. Kyle Martino Thomas Müller provided the lone tally; a lash from right outside the 18-yard dance floor that spared Tim Howard what would’ve been a futile dive and parry attempt. 1-0 bad guys.

With Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo driving the stake into an infighting Ghana team, both Portugal and the US finished on four points. But not all four points are equal and the US moves on via the tiebreakers.

Against Germany, the US came up against two new challenges in the group stage that Belgium–or a later stage opponent, Thibaut Courtois-willing–should exploit.

First, Thomas Müller–man that guy is good–continually danced along the US back-line. It was cerebral play from Müller and fabulous recognition from Joachim Löw and Germany.

Muller would pick pockets–Inzaghi-like pockets–typically in the channels between a US center-back and full-back–and remain offside. As Germany pushed up the field, the back-line, led by Matt Besler controlling that line, would drop, rendering Muller onside just in time to present himself as an option. Germany created numerous overloads and problems by Müller’s sharp off-ball work.

Compounding this was Germany’s desire to attack the flanks like Portugal did in the second half of the game before. This was not an expected tactic as Germany’s fullbacks–center-backs by at their respective clubs–struggled to get forward against Ghana and before the man advantage against Portugal.

Müller’s movement and Germany pushing their fullbacks would immediately present problems for the US.

The US’s two bands of four were immediately disrupted. On the left which was targeted most frequently, Besler would play “sweeper” defense, looking to come to the aid of DaMarcus Beasley if he got beat and Germany would fill the channel.

Özil, Müller, Boateng, Kroos or Lahm would join the party and the US midfielders, specifically Brad Davis would get caught in no-man’s land, at odds with whether to collapse and help support the channel or stay wide and defend the fullback–as is customary.

The Germans would abuse that left channel so much so that I suggested the US go to a formation featuring two defensive central midfielders to help. The US was lucky to escape a concession in the first 20′.

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(Above) The heat maps for Germany’s midfield three and their full-backs. (Below) Initiated tackles by that same player grouping against the US.

Second, Germany attempted to defend and win the ball in a different place than the US’s other two opponents (see images above). Portugal sat a little deeper for the most part. Ghana pressed high and then dropped after the first pass.

Germany defended in the high middle third and made a concerted effort with their midfield to smartly shutdown the outgoing distribution of Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones. With less time on the ball, Jones and Bradley were forced to play more square balls rather than passes over the top. They did not have, and could not take, the extra second to let the Fabian Johnson or DaMarcus Beasley overlaps develop. It became Clint Dempsey versus the German rearguard. The latter will win that battle nearly every time as fans saw.

Jones countrymen did him no favors on Thursday as the US barely escaped.

Jones countrymen did him no favors on Thursday as the US barely escaped.

The US, of course, capitulated to this strategy because they didn’t have the legs to get out and run often enough. It’s remains a blueprint for beating the US, who find themselves against tough, but imperfect, opposition in Belgium in the next round–a team whose attack is not all too different in form to Germany’s.

That said, the States’ disposition against the Germans suggested it was attempting to survive the game more than compete.

The US refused to break shape except to send one midfielder beelining up the pitch to the opposing end-line when in possession.  It was a targeted and methodical way of looking to clear space and systemically save the legs of the front six. Both Clint Dempsey and Jermaine Jones saw a few opportunities come their way from this type of strategy.

For long stretches of the game, the US’s “Big Three” in midfield — Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman — looked to be laboring merely to maintain shape and defensive integrity. They had little left to get up the pitch and attack.

Klinsmann did attempt to get some fresh-leg relief by inserting Brad Davis on the left in a dumpster-fire of an attempt to get some diagonal balls going forward. Despite clocking in with the least pitch time in the Group, Davis struggled to acclimate to World Cup game speed. Klinsmann acknowledged the mistake of his gambit as Davis was the first player sacrificed by the US manager in the 60′ in a like-for-like substitution with Ale Bedoya. Germany repeatedly targeted the side Davis was on until then.

Omar Gonzalez was played in the back and did what he does well: emergency defending.

It was an aggressive substitution by Klinsmann and one likely borne out of watching Mario Götze–who only played as a sub here–and Thomas Muller split central defenders time and time again in qualifying. Through those sets of games, Mesut Özil and Philip Lahm continually found those two players with lofted service from the outside and they often converted.

The Davis insertion may not’ve worked, but Klinsmann gets credit with Gonzalez performing better than most–including here–thought he would.

Regardless of the components and the fatigue, the US moves on and will need to ready itself for its first attempt to get passed the second round in over a decade.

Belgium Red Devils hunting saison.

Without further Freddy Adu, we get to our customary preview. As usual, it goes….

About The Opponent: Belgium

TSG What Are We Looking For

11 At The Whistle

Keys To The Match

Can he be talismanic in the knockouts? Hazard for Belgium.

Can he be talismanic in the knockouts? Hazard for Belgium.

About the Opponent: Belgium

Belgium arrives in the second round after a soft 3-0 record, slipping their way past every opponent in Group H by a one-goal differential.

They snagged a 2-1 victory that could’ve gone either way versus a tough Algeria side, a 1-0 result against a fits-and-startsy Russian side. And finally another 1-0 win against a hard-working, but unimaginative South Korean team after the Red Devils had gone down to ten men.

The victories, however, extracted their tax.

Center midfielder Steve Defour pocketed himself a shiny new red card to gaze at on the bench Tuesday. Vincent Kompany is still in serious doubt over a groin issue. Thomas Vermaelen is not fully fit as well; he is not expected to play if Kompany cannot go. Leftback Jan Vertoghen–who was having enough difficulty when fit managing the left fullback spot-apparently may have knock as well, but that’s uncomfirmed.

Belgium, however, are in danger of becoming the Alt-J of the soccer world and Brazil 2014. Talented beyond question–only Brazil’s roster surpasses Belgium’s for total player value at the World Cup–but in danger of not managing that talent and extracting everything out of it. Alt-J’s rise to indie pop stardom hit its apex months ago despite talent to the contrary.

The cliched refrain you’ll hear on the Red Devils over the next few days is the “sum does not equal the parts.” Despite wonderful individual talent, Belgium still struggles with individuality in attack–a notion of drive-and-shoot/dish rather than motion offense. Many of the players are the same age and, though Vincent Kompany is their captain, there isn’t a natural hierarchy of core-support-squad players. It’s all just “squad.” This notion has been further excerabed by Belgium manager Marc Wilmots, codename: Warpig in his playing days, rotating the front six quite frequently. Though communicated as a big to keep players fresh; it’s hurt continuity.

Depending who you speak to, manager Wilmots’ squad either deploy in a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3. Really, the only difference is in how high they get their wingers and whether they are pushing two or one midfielder into the attack.

Defensively, Belgium claim to be a pressing team but that’s a dangerous description for it. They’ll occasionally go through spells when they’ll press high when commanding the run of play; but, if not, they’ll usually just retreat behind the halfway line and attempt to loosely swarm the ball. <– i.e. not pressing defense. Sampaoli would be mortified.

At the top of the attack for Belgium is Romelu Lukaku, a curious talent in the same vein as Jozy Altidore. (Note: Odd seeing Altidore in street clothes and with the team. Is he rehabbing? Enquiring minds would like to know.)

Lukaku came alive this year at Everton under Roberto Martinez after waiting for his turn at Chelsea. By all regards, Lukaku has huge potential, but suffers from the same “big man” syndrome that Altidore does. Though blessed with a sturdy physique, he–like Altidore–is more comfortable sweeping wide and running the channel than playing as a target-man–think Thierry Henry more than Victor Anichebe. Wilmots also appears to be having a difficult time managing the confidence of Lukaku alternately condemning his efforts and then publicly commenting a few days ago that Lukaku puts too much pressure on himself. True to from, Wilmots has been tinkering with inserting Lille youngster, 19-year-old Divock Origi–only brought due to Christian Benteke’s absence–in Lukaku’s spot. Again, breaking continuity.

Origi though is a premium version of a young Juan Agudelo and will threaten the US if he gets in there.

A possible Belgium deployment on Tuesday.

A possible Belgium deployment on Tuesday.

The next band of a three is some permutation of Eden Hazard, Kevin DeBruyne, Dres Mertens, Adnan Januzaj and Kevin Mirallas. DeBruyne and Hazard are mainstays in the line-up with Hazard the key player who owns the LFW spot. Here’s Geoff Cameron when I asked him about Hazard–who he defended when Chelsea played Stoke–in the US training camp.

“Hazard? He’s a really shifty player. One second he’s there you blink and then he’s over there. You just work to keep him in front of you and contain him.”

The challenge for Wilmots here is that none of the lot likely to run the right toughline and going wide is the way to beat a DaMarcus Beasley–Januzaj, Mertens and Mirallas all like to come inside. Look for Wilmots to likely start Mertens on the right, but see him switch often with DeBruyne who has some of that wide right ability.

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USA – Germany: Live Commentary

Might we see this again in the 85' Thursday?

Might we see this again in the 85′ Thursday?

Line-ups shortly.

ALL THE MARBLES.

If you missed our preview … here.

 

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