Monday, June 28, 2010

Opportunity Squandered


This was an opportunity squandered.  One that is unlikely to reappear in such a gift-wrapped form any time soon--like the next forty years.  In the three games of the group stage at the World Cup the United States soccer team led for a total of two minutes.  But those two minutes concluded a win over Algeria and the team finished top of Group C ahead of England.  The draw broke beautifully for them as a result.

The Americans would play Ghana in the Round of 16.  Ghana had finished second to Germany in Group D.  The winner would play the winner of Uruguay-South Korea--not the world's most-feared footballing nations.  One of these four teams would reach the last four of the World Cup.  From that point, with confidence undoubtedly running high, anything could happen.

It won't be the United States.

On Saturday in Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg the U.S. again came out flat.  But eyebrows were raised even before the team took the field.  All the lineup and tactical changes coach Bob Bradley made in the first three games worked out beautifully.  Versus Algeria he changed three starters opting to use Jonathan Bornstein in the back, Maurice Edu in the midfield and Herculez Gomez up front.  Against the Black Stars the skipper went back to Ricardo Clark over Edu in midfield and Robbie Findley instead of Gomez up front.  Questionable decisions that immediately proved costly.

Five minutes in the team again fell behind early, the third time in four matches.  Clark made a terrible give away in midfield and Ghana attacked quickly down the left side.  Central defender Jay DeMerit couldn't have played it worse.  Backing off he tried to channel the attacker, Kevin-Prince Boateng, to the inside, but got beaten badly to his right, the outside.  Boateng, whose nationality was only changed to the land of his father as opposed to the land of his birth (Germany) on May 12, got a step and ripped a left-footed drive from sixteen yards past goalkeeper Tim Howard.  Howard should have done better as well, giving up too much of the near post.  1-0 Ghana.

From there Ghana controlled the possession, but both teams looked vulnerable in the back.  Bradley recognized his lineup misjudgment and mercifully replaced Clark around the thirty minute mark.  Shortly thereafter, Robbie Findley squandered a particularly delicious opportunity and the US went to break on the wrong side of 1-0.

The second half saw a changed storyline.  Benny Feilhaber replaced Findley and the Yanks immediately seemed energized.  Feilhaber had a great chance that was well-saved, but the U.S. kept up the pressure and was soon rewarded.  Clint Dempsey was deemed to have been taken down in the area and awarded a penalty shot.  Landon Donovan stepped up and knocked it in off the right post.  The giving of the penalty was questionable, but with all the Americans had suffered at the hands of the referees, it was nice to see them get the benefit of the doubt.

From here it seemed clear the United States would win the match.  They had the momentum and their superior fitness was clearly showing.  But it was not to be.  Clinical finishing and good central defending had abandoned them the entire tournament and this match would be no different.  The U.S. wasted opportunities in the final thirty and went to overtime level at one.   Three minutes into the overtime Asamoah Gyan latched onto a long ball played down the middle and crushed a volley past Howard into the U.S. net.  Ghana defended well enough from there to earn the right to play Uruguay in the quarterfinals on Friday.

What could have been.  The U.S. had a draw that afforded every opportunity to achieve more than they ever had on the world stage.  A 2:30 pm EST match on the Friday afternoon before a long national holiday weekend would have been a fantastic opportunity to rally a country that rarely has the chance to get behind a National Team or the inclination to invest in soccer.  But in the end, the side was lacking.  The United States team didn't have enough elite talent to push through.  The coach and most players are unlikely to be back four years from now when the World Cup sambas into Brazil.  Hopefully the exposure the sport got during this tournament expands the talent pool that the U.S soccer federation has to choose from when picking that squad and those that will come after it.  Opportunities like the one the Americans had in South Africa are few and far between.  They wasted one this time.


Saturday, June 26, 2010

Round of 16: On the Record for the World Cup

Now to the knockout stage.  Sixteen teams are left.  Italy, the 2006 champions, and France, the runners-up, are both home facing the wrath of their fans and vitriol of the media.  Brazil, Spain, Argentina, Germany and the Netherlands all won their respective groups as expected.  Uruguay, the U.S. and Paraguay are the other, somewhat surprising, group winners.  The rest of the participants generally followed expected form.

Here are the match-ups and my first two predictions:

Uruguay v. South Korea:  

Uruguay has played as well as anyone thus far, but by being drawn with the host, Mexico and France it turned out that they had a really easy road.  They ripped South Africa and played a great match against Mexico.  They have yet to concede a goal.  They are more dangerous upfront than most realize.  This is a really good team.

South Korea is fun to watch both because they score goals and they give them up.  They've given up more goals than any team that got through the group stage.  I really want to pick them to win this one because they are fun to watch and I think the US matches up reasonably well with them.  They must score the first goal to win this one.

But it isn't going to happen.  First goal wins.  1-0 Uruguay.

United States v. Ghana

The Americans looked really good against Algeria.  I assume they will stay with the personnel changes they made in that game and come out with the almost the exact same line-up.  The only change I expect is Herculez Gomez will start on the bench today and Edson Buddle will likely take his place up front next to Jozy Altidore.  Expect to see Gomez in the 75th minute, maybe earlier if the side is behind.  The most interesting thing about the U.S. side is that they have been better attacking than defending.  That makes for exciting football, but it isn't a good style for winning tournaments.

Ghana is a skilled, phyisical side but they but really have trouble in front of goal.  The Black Stars have only scored twice, both from the penalty spot.  Their 1-0 win over Serbia in their opening match proved to be the difference in seeing them through to the knockout stage.  They were also responsible for sending the U.S. home at the 2006 World Cup, defeating the Yanks 2-1.

A reversal of fortune this afternoon.  It will be fun to watch the boys play with a lead.  They've done it for a total of two minutes through the first three games.  United States 2  Ghana 0.


Friday, June 25, 2010

The Greatest Tennis Match Ever.....

certainly did not take place at Wimbledon this week.  Many, including one of the combatants, have mistakenly labeled the first round tilt between American John Isner and Frenchman Nicolas Mahut as The Greatest Match Ever Played.  It wasn't.

The Isner-Mahut match was many things.  It was the longest match in history.  It started on Tuesday and ended on Thursday.  The fifth set alone lasted 8 hours and 11 minutes about 90 minutes longer than any other match just by itself.  It had the most aces of any match ever played and each player broke the previous record for aces in a match--by more than 20.  It ended with the ridiculously crazy fifth set score of 70-68.  But, it wasn't The Greatest Match Ever Played.

The Title might belong to the 1980 Wimbledon Final in which  a 24 year-old Bjorn Borg, seeking his fifth consecutive Wimbledon title, defeated John McEnroe 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (16), 8-6.  That match certainly had The Greatest Tiebreaker Ever Played, an 18-16 marathon won by the 21 year-old McEnroe, after saving five match points.

The other contestant is the 2008 Wimbledon Final in which Rafael Nadal defeated the then five-time champion Roger Federer 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7 for his first Wimbledon title.  The 4 hours and 48 minute final, made longer by two rain delays, featured all the drama, tension, and pressure that comes with a Wimbledon Final and showcased sustained brillance by the two best players in the game playing at their very best.

Isner and Mahut deserve great applause for the stamina and their ability to serve brilliantly.  But there it is.  It wasn't great tennis.  In fact it was a bit boring.  It was only interesting because it was long.  Really long.  And with the length came tension, not only for the players but also for the spectators.  The fact that it took place for a third day gave everyone a chance to step back and take notice, and they did.  

But, this was a first round match.  It wasn't a grand stage.  In fact the Queen of England visited Wimbledon for the first time since 1977 on Thursday and she chose to attend a different match.  Isner, spent from his endeavor, was sent packing in the second round.  In three months few but the hardcore tennis fans will remember much other than maybe the score of the fifth set.  Nothing particular about the match will be emblazoned in anyone's mind.  It will probably remain in the record books forever.  But soon, people will just ask, "How did that happen?" and "Who were those guys?"  In reality it was a match like any first round match.  Just really long.


Thursday, June 24, 2010

A Picture Says...

As I was watching a two minute interview with Bill Clinton on ABC, during which he discussed attending the US-Algeria match yesterday, I came across this:

(Photo Courtesy of Luke Winn, twitpic)

Forget politics, this is the role this man was born to play: Ambassador of Sport and Socializing.  Bill, a Bud and Bocanegra, US National Team Captain.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

US Soccer's Iconic Moment


Iconic Moments.  How are they defined and by whom?  In sports you need drama.  A big stage.  Tension helps.  Have it be between nations.  An extraordinary finish seals the deal.  They don't come along often.

Hockey had one this year.  The winning goal in the Olympic Gold Medal game was scored in overtime by the best Canadian player against the United States on Canadian soil.  It doesn't get bigger than that.  That one checked all the boxes.

As a nation the United States doesn't have many.  Three of the four sports that dominate the landscape in the U.S. aren't really international sports.  Basketball comes closest.  The iconic moment in basketball happened in Munich in 1972 when the Americans lost to the Soviet Union in one of the most controversial sporting events in history.  When you dominate as the U.S. does one way or another in football, baseball and basketball the iconic games are hard to find.  As a result, for the United States as a nation, there is just one, and it dominates the landscape--The Miracle on Ice.

The events of June 23, 2010 aren't going to push aside those of February 22, 1980.  For one, thirty years ago the Americans were huge underdogs against the Soviets.  In today's soccer match the U.S. was favored to beat Algeria.  And two, it's just too early in the tournament to know how much success this American soccer team will have.  Few remember that the hockey team still had to beat Finland two days later to win the gold medal.  We forget because they did win that game.  We can forget because we know it was the game with the Soviets that mattered.

The memory of today's game will be impacted by the team's future success or failure in this World Cup.  But really, we are just deciding what kind of frame to put around the picture.  The United States Men's National Team just played the most dramatic game in its history.  Others may still be more significant as a moment in time.  A qualifying win to make the 1990 World Cup.  A win over Columbia in 1994 when playing the World Cup on home soil.  Maybe it's beating England in 1950.  Hard to know for sure.  But none were more dramatic.

How dramatic?  Well England had just finished beating Slovenia 1-0, so it was clear with less than five minutes left that the U.S. must win, not tie, to advance to the round of 16.  Check.  A big stage?  In sports, there isn't a bigger stage than the World Cup.  Worldwide the Super Bowl pales in comparison.  Check.  Tension?  For the second game in a row the U.S. had a goal wrongly disallowed by the officials and had wasted numerous fantastic scoring chances during the match.  Check.  A rival nation?  Algeria was the foil, but England was in the group and the results from each team's match directly effected the other.  Check.  An extraordinary finish?  Landon Donovan, the best U.S. player ever, scored a goal in the second minute of stoppage time to lift the U.S. to a 1-0 victory over Algeria and into the knockout round, of the 2010 World Cup.  Check.

As the U.S. moves on in the tournament each game becomes more important.  One game does change everything.  But it will be hard to have a bigger moment at a bigger time on a bigger stage than the U.S. did today.  In 1999 the U.S. Women had an iconic moment, albeit on a much smaller stage.  Today the U.S. Men produced their own.  I imagine if you saw it live, twenty years from now you will remember where you were.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Best Lines Hall of Fame, World Cup Edition, PG Rated

With the start of the World Cup knockout phase effectively taking place today it's time to look back at some classic moments from the first ten days.

--France arrived in South Africa due to a dubious referee's decision in a qualifying match against Ireland.  Turmoil around and within the side increased with an opening draw against Uruguay and then a loss to Mexico.  Enigmatic striker Nicolas Anelka was kicked off the team for insubordination.

ABC wanted to get to the bottom of the story and had Bob Ley interview L'Equipe journalist Erik Bielderman live on Sunday morning to discuss the story.  Click the link to see the interview or read the quote but basically Anelka told the coach to have at himself, to use soccer terms, and called him a son of a bitch for good measure.  I saw it live and, after I got over my disbelief, had a good long laugh.  My only disappointment is the screen was showing highlights rather than the set during the interview, so we didn't get to see Ley's reaction in real time.

--The Guardian has fantastic coverage of the tournament and the English writers are always willing to draw some great analogies.  In describing the New Zealand side one scribe quipped:
The New Zealanders are a bit like Thai masseuses--capable of surprising results given how little they earn, and leaving you wondering if there will be a happy ending.
In describing the live action from Spain-Honduras another blogged:
My fingers are getting tired and my head hurts from trying to remember which Spaniard pinged which short pass to what Spaniard seven pinged short passes ago.  Unless I say otherwise, just take it as reading that Spain are laying siege to the Honduran penalty area, sending the ball shuttling to and fro from touchline to touchline in intricate moves featuring, in no particular order,  Alonso, Navas, Xavi, Busquets, Torres and Villa.
Colin Greer opined the following:
On ESPN radio some American chap and Tommy Smyth (angrily waving his knobbly stick) are providing match commentary.  If anyone is considering suicide and needs a little extra push, give them a listen. 
And my favorite thus far, from an unidentified British source:
Spain meet Honduras in Jo'burg on Monday.  Greece meet Argentina in Polokwane, Tuesday.  On Thursday England meet France at the airport. 
France kept their part of the bargain this morning losing to the hosts 2-1.  England is on tap at 10:00 AM tomorrow.  The World Cup.  One game changes everything.......and the quotes just keep on coming.

Manute

Being 7' 6" certainly takes something off your life expectancy.  Being born a Dinka tribesman in the Sudan, where the life expectancy of males is only 51.5 years, doesn't give you a great start.  But when you have killed a lion with your spear while a teenager, maybe you're the guy who beats the odds.  Unfortunately, Manute Bol didn't.  He died Saturday at the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville.  He was 47.

The sports world first came across Manute in 1984 when he played his college basketball at the University of Bridgeport, a Division II school in Connecticut.  He was a more spectacle than star, but his sheer height and shot blocking ability were enough to have the Washington Bullets draft him in the second round of the NBA draft in 1985.  In 1987 he was paired with 5' 3" Muggsy Bogues, the shortest player in the league, adding to the carnival appeal.  Woody Allen once joked that Bol was so skinny, that to save on travel expenses his team would fax him from city to city.

But Manute proved to be more than just a ticket-selling curiosity.  He was a defensive force.  He set the rookie shot-blocking record and during his career tied the record for blocks in a half (eleven) and in a quarter (eight).  He remains first in career blocks per 48 minutes and second in career blocks per game while playing less than 19 minutes on average.

On the other end of the floor his skinny frame did keep him from developing much of an offensive game.  He finished his career with more rebounds and blocks than he did points.  He did however, take great joy in posting up beyond the three point line in a blowout and firing away, much to the crowd's delight.

Manute was well-liked by teammates and etymologists have documented that the expression "My bad" most likely started with Bol.  In trying to apologize to teammates for a mistake on the court Bol, who initially did not have a great command of the English language, rather than saying "My fault," would mistakenly say "My bad."

After basketball Manute had his share of troubles.  He was detained in Sudan for a time during the civil war, broke his neck in a car accident in Connecticut in 2004 and he had various physical difficulties as he aged.  But, he was revered in the Sudan and admired in the U.S. for all his work with charitable causes.  He played upon his popularity to raise money for humanitarian purposes in his war-torn country.  He engaged in a celebrity boxing match with William "The Refrigerator" Perry, signed a one-day contract with a minor league ice hockey team and donned jockey silks all to raise money for children in Sudan.

Unfortunately having kidney dialysis treatment in rural Sudan also reduces your life expectancy.  Bol reacted badly to the drugs involved and was hospitalized after returning to the U.S.  He died from kidney trouble and a rare skin disease.  In this case it's not "My bad," it's just too bad.


Friday, June 18, 2010

Robbed! Slovenia and Mali Tie U.S. 2-2 at World Cup

If you went to Wikipedia immediately after today's match between the U.S. and Slovenia and searched "Mali" here is what you found:
Mali, officially the Republic of Mali (French: République du Mali), is a landlocked country in Western Africa that is known for horrible football referees. 


The setting was Ellis Park, Johannesburg for each team's second match in Group C.  The Yanks tied their first match with England 1-1, while Slovenia defeated Algeria 1-0.  Both teams' goals were a result of goaltending mistakes that one is unlikely to see at the local high school game--one of the few things the World Cup's largest and smallest nations had in common coming into today's fixture.

With three points already in the books from their win over Algeria, it was widely expected that Slovenia would play conservatively and be very happy with a draw.  Having given up only six goals in their twelve qualifying matches the U.S. would have to seize on any scoring opportunities they created.

In what has become a disturbing trend the U.S. gave up an early goal to go down 1-0.  Valter Birsa found himself unmarked 25 yards from goal in the center of the pitch and ripped a curling left-footed shot past keeper Tim Howard, who never moved.  Thirteen minutes in and it was 1-0 Slovenia.  The goal was well-deserved as Slovenia was the more dangerous side and had the better of the play.  That changed around the half-hour as the U.S. settled down and started string passes together, creating multiple dangerous chances.  But, foreshadowing what was to come, the U.S.'s Robbie Findley was given a yellow card in the 40th minute.  Landon Donovan took a corner and drove a dangerous ball into the box.  It actually struck Findley in the face and landed dangerously in front of goal.  Malian referee Koman Coulibably blew his whistle calling a hand-ball on Findley and also showing him a yellow card.  It was a terrible decision and being his second yellow card of the tournament, Findley will be suspended for the next match against Algeria.

Minutes later and against the run of play Slovenia made it 2-0.  Throughout the half the American defenders had failed to track runners and this time they were made to pay.  Zlatan Ljubijankic timed his run perfectly.  He took a beautifully weighted thru ball from Milivoje Novakovic and slid it under the on-rushing Howard.  2-0 going to half.  It was a poor showing by the U.S. after a solid second forty-five minutes against England.  The team has recorded only one shutout in the twenty-one World Cup matches since defeating the Brits 1-0 in 1950 and the defensive shortcomings in this team have been exposed repeatedly.  The side certainly appeared to be on its way to being effectively eliminated from the World Cup.

The start of the second half saw two lineup changes as Maurice Edu came on for Jose Torres and Benny Feilhaber replaced Findley.  Immediately the Yanks played better, attacking with the desperation a 2-0 deficit produces.  Three minutes after intermission Landon Donovan got one back.  A long ball by right back Steve Cherundolo skipped past a defender and Donovan dribbled in from a bad angle on the right side.  Having no one available in front, he ripped a shot over the Serbian goalie's head into the roof of the net from a few yards out.  It was a great strike by Donovan and it reinvigorated the team and the many Americans in the crowd.

The U.S kept the pressure on and Slovenian defenders collected three yellow cards in the space of six minutes.  Eight minutes from time Michael Bradley got the equalizer.  Donovan again was at the center of the build-up.  He played a long cross from just inside the midfield line on the right side to Jozy Altidore at the top of the 18 yard box. Altidore headed the ball down and Michael Bradley, the coach's son, drilled a right-footed shot over the goalie.  It was a fantastic goal and would have provided a fair result if the game were to end 2-2.  (All highlights are here.)

But a few minutes from the end the U.S. got a great opportunity and appeared to take a 3-2 lead.  Maurice Edu converted a long free kick from Donovan and the U.S. had apparently completed a stunning comeback.  It was not to be.  Inexplicably Coulibably blew his whistle calling a foul on the Yanks and disallowing the goal.  Countless replays have shown not only that Edu was onside, but also that the Slovenians, not the U.S., committed three or four fouls on the play, any one of which could have resulted in a penalty shot for the Americans.  It was a stunningly bad call.  No explanation has yet been given as to who committed the foul.  British Premier League coach Roberto Martinez called it "a real football injustice."  Former national team player Alexi Lalas called the referee's performance a disgrace.  The final few minutes were played without incident and it ended level at two.

I have pointed out that the refereeing thus far in the World Cup has been outstanding.  It really has been. Today it wasn't.  The Malian, working his first-ever World Cup match, was inconsistent and his calls seemed to disadvantage the U.S. at the most important moments.  There is no excuse for the Americans' poor first half play, but they were robbed of  a victory they had earned with a superlative second half effort.

Now everything comes down to the U.S.-Algeria match at 10:00 AM EST on June 23.  Losses the past two days by Spain and Germany have shown anything can happen.  The Americans control their own destiny as a result of England's just completed 0-0 tie with Algeria.  A win and the U.S. is on to the round a sixteen.  A draw and an England loss to Slovenia would also put the U.S. through.  Stay tuned.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Day 5 Recap: The Beautiful Game....(and running behind, more later)


Tactics.  In most sports they matter.  At this level they really matter.  Most of the players are well-known not only to each other, but more importantly to the technical directors, coaches, managers, skippers--whatever you want to call the guy(s) on the sidelines devising the plan.  The goal is always the same.  Impose your style of play on the game.  While a team will not always have the superior talent, it can still dictate the tempo and pace of the match, looking to magnify strengths while exploiting perceived weaknesses in the opponent.  Basketball and football have similar goals, but the constant stopping and starting of the action bring a different structure to the games.


Brazil v. North Korea, Ellis Park, Johannesburg--The Most Intriguing Match

Brazil is the one side in the world that never worries about its opponents style.  They play The Beautiful Game, Joga Bonito, and expect the results to come.  As a nation they have an indomitable belief, supported by five World Cup titles, in their superior talent.  It is telling that one of the huge debates in Brazil running up to the Cup was whether manager Dunga's emphasis on defense would take the joy out of winning.

Rest assured it did not.  Nor did it take the beauty out of the game.  Brazil is the favorite regardless of what Spain shows Wednesday.  Skillful throughout the side, they passed the ball beautifully and attacked with flair.  It really can put a smile on your face watching the joy and the passion with which they play the game.

North Korea brought intrigue.  I wrote about it here.  In recent years they have done well internationally in youth tournaments.  Now some of those players have come of age and they qualified the side for the first time since 1966.  It was expected they would rely on a staunch defense and try not to embarrass themselves.

They did think defense first and they did it well.  The Koreans played with five in the backline, three of which were central defenders.  In front of that they had three midfielders who sat very deep--effectively employing eight defenders along with two front-runners.  Brazil came out in their favored 4-2-3-1 with Luis Fabiano up top and Real Madrid star Kaka slotted in behind, and, as expected, the Brazilians controlled the game in the first half.  But even the Selecao can be a bit cautious in the first half of their first World Cup match and the North Koreans were very well organized and defended superbly.  The teams went to the dressing rooms 0-0.

The Brazilians dominated possession attacking both inside with short passing and, as the second half unfolded, overlapping with their outside backs in an attempt to open the North Korean defense.  In the 55' it paid off as right back Maicon took a perfecly weighted pass from Elano along the endline and ripped a right-footed shot that eluded keeper Ri Myong-Guk.  It's debatable whether his intent was to shoot or cross, but either way it counts.  Were it not Brazil or a less-skilled player it would be a lucky goal.  In this case it may well have been grand design.

The incessant pressure certainly wore down the game Korean defenders and in the 72' Elano got his own on a perfect ball from Robinho and the samba began.  North Korea got a good goal in the 89' (pictured at top) and it was well-deserved.  Jong Tae-se, one of only three North Korea players to play out of the country, headed back to Ji Yun-nam and after a great first touch he beat Julio Cesar to the right.  Joy in Pyongyang as it was reported the home side won 29-0.  The final whistle saw 2-1 as the actual scoreline.

Brazil is worth watching every match.  They rarely disappoint.  Every pass seems perfectly-weighted, every run well-timed.  Certainly their was room for improvement as Kaka, the playmaker in the middle was off-form, still recovering from injury.  On the flip side North Korea will give Portugal and the Ivory Coast much more than they bargained for.  The have proven capable defenders and dangerous on the counterattack.  Ivory Coast's size and style of play may prove more troublesome for the Koreans, but I wouldn't be surprised if they got a result against either side.

I'll try to post more later in the day, but you'll have to go to the site to see it.  Thanks.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Getting a Feel for the Insanity that is North Korea

North Korea* is making it's first appearance in the World Cup since 1966 when they famously knocked out Italy.  It's been an interesting week.

*Here is a recent article filed by a BBC reporter describing her bizarre trip to try to see the team train.

First this:



Then this:



And on the same day, this story suggesting a U.N. Security Council decision may force them to go to war.

All that aside, the lads played a solid game against tournament favorite Brazil.  This was even a touching moment as Jong Tae-Se shed some tears during the national anthem.



I'll keep you posted on the latest goings-on with one of my new favorite teams from the most insane country on the planet.

Thoughts from Italy v. Paraguay, Other Notes and a Preview


Coming into Focus
A fan takes in Netherlands v. Denmark in Johannesburg

--Gotta love the Italians making a fashion statement.  The Azzurri wore their traditional blue jerseys now sponsored by Puma, but had their names in all lower case letters in an unusual script.

--Paraguay wasn't going to be phased playing the defending champions.  Having to qualify in places like Buenos Aires, La Paz, Recife and Lima makes a neutral site game in Cape Town relatively straightforward, even in the pouring rain on the biggest stage.

--The refereeing thus far has been excellent.  From getting the offsides call right in the opening match to handing out cards judiciously, it has been consistent and fair.  There has also been much less flopping and diving than in previous years.  If one team could be expected to continue with the theatrics, it was the Italians.  It wasn't outrageous, but they didn't disappoint.

--It's unclear the effect of the new Adidas ball to this point.  Three very bad goals have been conceded, by England, Algeria and Paraguay, but it is hard to pin any of those directly on the ball.  Most notable is that players appear to be having trouble judging the bounce of the ball when receiving long balls.  It seems to be consistently higher than players expect.

--Tomorrow's matches in Group G, El Groupo de la Muerte, should offer some of the most entertaining soccer thus far.  Ivory Coast and Portugal both assume they are playing for their ticket into the final sixteen.  A win by either side would be huge.  Didier Drogba and his broken elbow will be a game time decision for Cote d'Ivoire and Ronaldo's performance, after a series of substandard matches for the national team in qualifying, will be a referendum on his world class status and will go a long way in determining Portugal's fate.  I like the Elephants in this one.

--The other Group of Death fixture pits Brazil v. North Korea.  Brazil is always entertaining, but with Dunga as manager there is concern that they won't play the beautiful game as beautifully as their fans demand.  North Korea offers intrigue if nothing else.  The matches won't be shown back home for fear of epic failure, but it is worth noting that in their only other World Cup appearance in 1966 they knocked out the Italians.  They have fared well in youth internationals in recent years so they should be worth watching.  A stingy defensive style is their calling card this time around so the matchup with Brazil will put them right to the test.

--Stories like this make you wonder who minds the store in Pyongyang.  Gotta hope, at least a little, that these guys put on a respectable showing.  For their own sake.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Netherlands v. Denmark, Soccer City Stadium, Johannesburg

Result: Netherlands 2  Denmark 0  Take Away: Tactical changes in the second half paid off handsomely for the Dutch.  With five starters and a coach named "van ...", they should be nicknamed the Moving Company.

83,465 fans, seemingly all clad in orange (as were the empty seats), filled the Soccer Stadium in Joburg for the first all-European affair of this World Cup.  Most got what they wanted.  

Harkening back to years gone by, The Dutch came out classically numbered, wearing shirts 1 through 10 from the keeper up to the forwards.  Only number 11 was missing as star striker Arjen Robben was still nursing a hamstring injury.  Robben's ability to run at defenders with pace rivals anyone in the world and his absence from the Dutch's Big Four upfront was a concern.

The most recognizable member of the Danish squad was skipper Morten Olsen.  In his tenth year, Olsen is the longest-tenured manager at this WC and brings stability to a young group that lacks a marquee name.

The Netherlands is a country that prides itself on the success of its team.  But like the Brazilians, the style with which they achieve that success is equally important.  Led by Johan Cruyff* and Johan Neeskens in the early '70s, Holland leapt onto the world stage with their revolutionary and hugely entertaining style of Total Football.  The Clockwork Orange were the most dynamic team at the '74 & '78 World Cups, but they came up short to the host nation in the Final on each occasion, losing 2-1 to West Germany in Munich** and 3-1 to Argentina in Buenos Aires.  It is a very difficult legacy to live up to and has burdened past Dutch sides.  The 2010 version is talented, but will also carry the weight of high expectations.

*It is famously told that Cruyff once said he could do anything with a soccer ball.  A writer challenged him that he couldn't put the ball in the net from behind the goal.  Cruyff walked about ten yards behind the goal, put the ball down, then chipped it up and over the crossbar with a lot of backspin.  The writer retrieved the ball out of the net.


**In this match Cruyff was pulled down in the German penalty area in the first minute.  Neeskens converted the ensuing penalty and the Dutch were up 1-0 before the any German player had touched the ball.

Both sides cruised through their qualifying.  The Dutch went 8-0-0 and outscored opponents 17-2 while the Danes lost only once and knocked out neighbor Sweden with 1-0 wins both home and away.

The early going saw patience from each side with Holland controlling the tempo and the flow, but the Mexican Wave was the dominating feature.  Against the run of play it was the Danes who got the better chances.  The first time the cameras really panned into the shadows in front of the Dutch goal was the 26th minute when Arsenal striker Niklas Bendtner, Denmark's lone front-runner, failed to direct his header on to the target from six yards.  He should have done better.  Ten minutes later Thomas Kahlenberg's shot had to be tipped out for a Danish corner, but it too yielded nothing.

The neighbors went to the half with a palindrome: NED 0-0 DEN (hat tip, ESPN Gamecast).  Both sides were well-organized defensively and Denmark's five-man midfield did a good job of foiling the Orange attackers, but better lucky than good as Fortune smiled on the Dutch to open the second forty-five.  

One minute in, Dane Simon Poulsen tried to clear a Dutch cross from six yards out but his poorly-struck header caromed off teammate Daniel Agger's back and ended up behind keeper Thomas Sorensen.  The 29th own goal in World Cup history put The Netherlands up 1-0.  Though down Denmark continued to work hard, but the game really opened up when subs Eljero Elia and Ibrahim Afellay came on for the Netherlands.  Elia was able to spread the Danish defense by attacking down the left flank and his work led directly to the second goal.  Wesley Sneijder played a lovely penetrating through ball down the left side which Elia ran onto and fired off the far post.  Dirk Kuyt, sprinting like a man who smelled glory, out-hustled Dane Simon Kjaer to the carom and completed the easy finish.  2-0 was the final result.

Netherlands coach Bert van Marwijk's side has to be pleased with the result and particularly with their play in the final thirty minutes.  The insertion of Elia, my man of the match despite only playing 25 minutes, was key and I would expect him to be included when they take on Japan Saturday.  Former Dutch star-turned-television-commentator Ruud Gullit was particularly insightful about the Dutch needs when speaking at the half, highlighting Rafael van der Vaart's poor tactical play on the left side as a serious issue.  Van Marwijk saw it as well and the Dutch were much better the last half hour.

Denmark now has to look to it's match with Cameroon on Saturday.  Both sides were defeated today and anything less than a tie Saturday will guarantee a three match tournament and quick flight home for the loser.

Group D: Achtung, Baby!

Germany v. Australia, Moses Mabhida Stadium, Durban  attendance 63,030

Result: Germany 4  Australia 0  Take Away: Australia didn't play badly and they were lucky not to give up six or seven goals.

Durban, the largest city on the east coast of the African continent with a population of 3.5 million, lies on the shores of the Indian Ocean.  It offers a subtropical climate and beautiful beaches.  Bathers are warned to be aware of sharks lurking in the warm ocean waters.  They should have warned the the Aussies that they might also be found in the beautiful new Moses Mabhida Stadium.  

All analogies and jokes related to German precision and efficiency should be inserted here.  They fit.  Die Mannschaft hit the target early and often and looked fantastic rolling to an easy 4-0 victory over an outclassed Aussie side.  Concerns over the loss of Captain Michael Ballack and keeper Rene Adler to injury before the tournament were mitigated, at least on this day, by a ridiculously strong performance.  

Lukas Podolski opened the German account in the eighth minute.  Coming off a poor season with his club FC Cologne, Podolski rewarded manager Joachim Low's decision to stick by him with a left-footed missile from 14 yards.  His partner upfront, Miroslav Klose added to the tally in the 26th minute.   Klose rose up to head home a long cross from Phillip Lahm, notching his 11th World Cup goal, more than any other team has in its entire squad.  It ties him for fifth on the all-time list. The 2-0 scoreline at intermission understated the German dominance.

After that it was all schnitzel and beer.  Aussie Tim Cahill was sent off for a hard tackle in the 55th minute.  Most felt it a bit harsh, but Cahill went in late and hard and I think the Mexican referee was right to show him the red.  Thomas Mueller and Cacau, just after coming on as a substitute, rounded out the scoring and Germany was every bit as good as the final result suggests.

The Germans have been by far the most impressive team thus far, but of course Brazil, Spain and Italy have yet to be heard from.  Concerns about the team's youth seem overblown as untested players like Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira were excellent.  Germany served notice that they are a serious contender for the Cup.

On the other side, the Aussie ship seems to have sailed.  Fielding a relatively old side the Socceroos were no match for the speed and technical brilliance of the Germans.  As always they played hard, but they are now up against it.  I imagine their next match against Ghana on the 19th will seal their fate and they aren't likely to be seen back this way anytime soon with a lack of young talent in the system.


Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Smorgasbord: Fact Book Edition

--Lakers coach Phil Jackson is 47-0 when winning the first game of a playoff series.

--The Boston Celtics starting five of Garnett, Pierce, Allen, Rondo and Perkins has never lost a playoff series together, going 7-0.

Game 5 of the NBA Finals between the Lakers and Celtics takes place tonight in Boston.  The series is tied 2-2.  The Lakers won Game 1.

Update:  The Celtics are 11-0 in their history in series where they have a 3-2 games lead.  They won in Boston Sunday night and now lead 3-2.  All hell breaks loose in LA Tuesday night at 9 EST.  Stay tuned.

--With their 1-0 victory over Serbia, Ghana recorded Africa's first win in this World Cup, the first ever on the African continent.  Perhaps fittingly, it took place in Pretoria, the city where apartheid ruled.

--England and the US have each finished in the top three at the World Cup one time.  England won in 1966.  The US finished third in 1930.

--Germany, which got a headed goal against Australia in their 4-0 victory today, has 32 headed goals since 1966, almost double second place Italy's 18.

--27 year-old Daniel Nava hit a grand slam yesterday in the Boston Red Sox 10-2 win over the Philadelphia Phillies.  Nava became only the fourth player to ever hit a grand slam in his first at bat and only the second to ever hit one on the first pitch he saw as a major leaguer.  None of the four occurred during the 20th century.  Three have happened since 2005.

--Roberto Clemente is only player ever to hit a walk off inside-the-park grand slam when he did it July 25, 1956 at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh.  The Pirates defeated the Chicago Cubs 9-8.

--China has one time zone.

New Lows for the Pirates

(If you aren't a hardcore Pirates fan, skip this post.  Seriously.  It's long and detailed.  And not funny.)

I have been defending the Pirates front office for the better part of two years and I will continue to do so because I really believe they are on the right track.  But, at the moment, the on-field decisions and the lack of organizational planning at the major league level are almost mind-blowing.

Let's start at the beginning.  I am willing to be on-board, even in hindsight, with all decisions made coming out of spring training.  That's what a fan does.  Hope springs eternal and out of spring training I am willing to give the team a pass.  Forty-five days of practice and games that I am not privy to mean they get to make the call without a word of criticism from me.  But now let's review.

There are always roster decisions to be made out of spring training.  Deck chairs on the Titanic?  In hindsight none of these are particularly relevant.  Ramon Vazquez was released and the Pirates ate his $2 million in salary.  The money was already spent, good decision.  Brandon Moss and Steve Pearce were sent down and John Raynor made the team.  This made sense from an asset management perspective because not keeping Raynor would mean losing him.  I'm good with that.  Hayden Penn got picked up just before breaking camp and went north with the club.  I was and am actually very supportive of that decision.  Getting players into the system at no cost is good.  Penn was a disaster in his three appearances, but as I have written, that probably had its benefit as well.  The team was able to pass him through waivers and send him to extended spring training and eventually Indianapolis in an effort to get him on the right track.  Evan Meek and Donnie Veal were excellent Rule V pickups and I view Penn the same way, but he now has the benefit of working things out in the minors rather than in Pittsburgh.

Since breaking camp Charlie Morton and Daniel McCutchen have lost their spots in the rotation--McCutchen permanently, Morton probably for another couple weeks.  Brad Lincoln, one of the long-term pieces, and Jeff Karstens, a stop-gap if there ever was one, have taken their places.  Dana Eveland, at the cost of AA reliever Ronald Uviedo, has replaced Jack Taschner in the pen, which otherwise remains in tact and has been one of few bright spots.

In the field Neil Walker, the best story of the season thus far, has replaced Aki Iwamura at second.  Jose Tabata has replaced Lastings Milledge in left and this week Pedro Alvarez will replace Andy LaRoche at third.  When Alvarez comes up Iwamura will be designated for assignment.  Ryan Doumit, Ronny Cedeno and Andrew McCutchen will continue at their positions and Garrett Jones will play first or right with Steve Pearce (due back from the DL shortly) or Lastings Milledge starting at the other position.  Jeff Clement has been sent down and LaRoche will become a utility player.  The corresponding roster move when Pearce comes back will see Ryan Church or Delwyn Young traded (wishful) or released or, if the Pirates go to eleven pitchers (unlikely), Brendan Donnelly or DJ Carrasco released.

So, there we have it.  With Alvarez up the team is most likely set for the season with Morton really the only remaining question mark.  If and when Morton comes back Eveland or one of the aforementioned relievers gets released and Karstens goes back to the pen.

So my thoughts with 100 games left:  I am appalled at how badly the Pirates execute the fundamentals and can't believe how poorly they have managed some on-field decisions.

It's almost ridiculous to start listing the mistakes but let's just take last night's game.  First, the Pirates inexplicably start Ryan Doumit at first and use Garrett Jones as the DH.  Doumit didn't catch because he is recovering from a mild concussion (if he can't catch, he probably shouldn't play).  The only explanation that makes sense, and I haven't heard it yet from the team, is that if Jason Jaramillo got hurt and Doumit had to catch the Pirates would lose use of the DH if Doumit were the DH.  Plausible, but ridiculous to worry about when making out the lineup.

In the seventh, up 2-1 with one out and runners on first and third, Miguel Cabrera hits a hard comebacker to Evan Meek on mound.  Cabrera is sundial slow.  The obvious move is to second and a double play ends the inning.  Austin Jackson breaks for home and Meek, instead of going to second, hangs up Jackson in a rundown (which the Pirates rarely execute properly, btw) and they get one out rather than two.  The next batter also grounds to Meek.  Meek makes a low throw to first and Doumit doesn't catch it.  Two runs score and the Pirates go on to lose 4-3.  One game, one inning, one example but it has happened dozens of times.  Andy LaRoche doesn't know the rules when he and a teammate jointly occupy third.  Lastings Milledge has no idea how to run the bases, whether getting thrown out at third costing the team a run or tagging (or not) on fly balls.  Ryan Doumit stands behind the plate and tags runners up high on plays at home.

This is little league stuff.  Literally.  Little league.  The Pirates seem to make a mental or bad physical error every game.  I'm not talking about pitchers not being able to hold runners, catchers unable to get the throws on the bag or outfielders (yes and this definitely includes McCutchen) taking bad routes to fly balls which also happens every game.  I'm talking about things you learn when you are eight or nine years old.

From a managerial perspective it is just as bad.  John Russell sat Jeff Clement about every third day early in the season, but sat him against hard-throwing righties rather than tough lefties.  He had his three-hole hitter bunting in the first inning of a game with runners on first and second and then did not bunt later in the game in obvious sacrifice situations.  He played Ryan Doumit at first a game after he could not field an easy grounder one step to his right that, rather than being an easy double play, became a single putting runners at first and third.  The next night Doumit's ensuing error cost the team a win.

And from an organizational perspective they have made egregious errors as well.  The team didn't have Andy LaRoche taking grounders at other positions in the infield, which I have been screaming about since April, when they knew Alvarez was coming up sooner or later and was going to play third base.  (We won't go into whether he should be playing third base.)  Six weeks later LaRoche has started taking grounders at other positions.  They brought up Neil Walker three weeks ago and announced he would be a utility guy getting the spot start at the infield corners.  Five days later he is annointed the starting second baseman.

This deserves it's own paragraph:  Neil Walker is, to my eyes, the second best athlete on the team behind Andrew McCutchen.  A few years ago the team moved him from catcher to third.  Now the Bucs have Pedro Alvarez in the organization.  This spring the front office decided to move Walker around positionally, which was the right move, in order to find a spot for his bat if he continued to produce.  In Indy Walker played left, first and second.  He came up and basically was defaulted to second because Aki Iwamura was the worst positional player in baseball.  Walker is playing great, and shockingly he is playing Gold Glove caliber defense at second base.  He has fantastic range, particularly on pop-ups and soft liners and he is learning to turn the double play very quickly.  But this all happened by accident.  This was not preparation and foresight.  I give the FO small credit for quickly recognizing Walker as the best option, but they didn't have a plan.  They didn't have a plan for LaRoche and didn't prepare him for the moment that was inevitably going to come.  It could just as easily have been LaRoche playing second next month (and still could be), but they didn't plan for that occurrence either.  How did our scouts and others in the organization not see this?  (Seeing Walker's athleticism, I would seriously consider sending him to the AFL after the season and have him play shortstop.  I mocked people who suggested this a few months ago and I recognize it is a long shot in terms of being successful, but I would do it.  I know.  I know it's crazy.  But, I am now beginning to think he could handle it.  And I would have LaRoche there playing second next to him if possible.)

People talk about talent evaluation as the defining measure of Neal Huntington and his organization.  I don't know what to think about this.  The organization has seemingly had three very good drafts.  I'm fine with Huntington's record in player transactions.  Mostly good in my view, some bad, but he wasn't trading much talent and he has gotten some assets through Rule V and the waiver wire for free.  But, I am very troubled by the performance at the major league level.  Not the skill level, which leaves a lot to be desired, but the decision making by the players and the lineup construction and in-game managing by the manager.

I am more optimistic about the talent in the Pirates organization than I have been in many years.  But I am also now more concerned than ever with how they are currently, and will in the future, develop that talent.  The teaching that Neal Huntington continually cites as taking place is just not evident at the major league level and the long and short-term planning that is the core of any successful organization seems haphazard at best and non-existant at worst.

These are important days.  Put me down as concerned.

Group C, the Group of Life

Breaking from format, I give you Group C: England v. USA and Algeria v. Slovenia.

Result: England 1  USA 1

Aside from the extraordinary drama this wasn't a particularly entertaining match.  One thing was certain, we saw the the worst goal of the tournament.  It's been written about.  My two cents is that everything that was discussed before the game was spot on.  Strengths and weaknesses proved to be just that.  Suprisingly the US attacks better than they defend.  More surprisingly, the England midfield partnership of Gerrard and Lampard, for all their skill, appears miscast.  I hope to see better from Donovan and Rooney going forward.

Result: Algeria 0  Slovenia 1

No drama, a red card and the second worst goal of the tournament.

When there are sixty matches, they can't all be entertaining.  Slovenia is now in charge of the group, but if England and the US don't get through there will be hell to pay back home.  Let's hope that Group D brings us more joy today.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Argentina v. Nigeria, Ellis Park, Johannesburg

Result: Argentina 1  Nigeria 0  Take Away: Argentina should have no problem going through to the next round, but they looked suspect defensively at times.

The setting for this match was Ellis Park, the site of South Africa's Rugby World Cup triumph, made famous in the US by the movie Invictus.
The most famous member of Argentina's entourage is its controversial coach Diego Maradona.  Maradona's coaching chops are more than a little suspect, having used 38 players in the eight qualifiers for which he was in charge and using a system of play that doesn't necessarily highlight the talents of FIFA World Player of the Year Lionel Messi.  But, the 49 year-old FIFA Player of the Century (with Pele) did manage to guide Argentina to South Africa after taking over in November of 2008.

For this match Maradona elected to go with his big three up front--Messi, Manchester City star Carlos Tevez and striker Gonzalo Higuain.  Their skill was evident right from the start.  Four minutes in Messi danced through the Nigerian defense and slid a square ball to Higuain six yards out which the Real Madrid striker inexplicably side-footed wide.  A minute later Messi again found himself in space at the top of the box and played an beautiful curling left-footed shot ticketed for the upper right-hand corner that Nigerian keeper Vincent Enyeama did well to push wide.

The Albiceleste were rewarded on the ensuing corner as left back Gabriel Heinze went unmarked at the penalty spot and directed a diving header into the upper left hand corner of the net.  Six minutes in, Argentina 1, Nigeria 0.

Messi in particular continued to wreak havoc missing on another beautiful shot in the 37th minute that was also well saved by Enyeama, but couldn't find the net and went to the half up one.  The strength of the Argentine side was evidenced by the fact that they were able to bring Champions League Final hero Diego Milito on as a substitute in the 79th minute.  The scoreline held and Maradona's side collected their three points.

The Nigerians competed well, but few African nations are known for their defensive prowess and the Super Eagles did nothing to make one reasses that line of thinking.  Most visibly, down one with three minutes left in regulation time the Argentines knocked the ball around for a full two minutes as the Super Eagles looked on passively.  They will have to step up in their next two matches or their tournament will be a short one.  Their match versus South Korea on the 22nd is one to circle on the calendar.

South Korea v. Greece, Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth

Result: South Korea 2  Greece 0  Take Away: From start to finish South Korea was the better side.  The Greeks have to be disappointed with all aspects of their play.

5% of the allocation of World Cup tickets were not sold.  Not surprisingly an early round match between an Asian nation and one of the weaker European sides was a match that didn't sell out the new Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth.  Announced attendance was 31,513 about 15,000 less than capacity.  Those not in attendance missed a one-sided affair that produced the first victory of the tournament.
Just seven minutes in Lee Jung-Soo scored off a set piece.  That was foreshadowed by a classic line here, when it was determined that Lee would be key for the S. Koreans. The free kick was taken just in front of the left corner flag.  The Greeks were caught playing zone and doing a bit of ball watching.  The in-swinger grazed off the head of one Greek defender, changing its path ever so slightly and J. Lee, coming in unmarked, was at the back post, five yards out, to bang it home.  The S. Koreans have scored 24 goals in their World Cup history, eleven off set pieces.  The match went to half 1-0.

South Korea essentially put the game away seven minutes after the break with a great piece of skill by Park Ji-Sung.  The Manchester United striker took advantage of a misplay by the Greeks just inside the center line and took off toward goal, one defender on his heels and one in front.  He showed wonderful touches on the ball running at speed, eluded both defenders and slotted it in the right side past the on-rushing Greek keeper.  Although one might not notice it because Park seemed to score with such ease, it really was a goal of great class and enhanced his reputation as one for the big moment.

The Greeks made a better showing of it in the last twenty and Theofanis Gekas rifled one that forced the S. Korean keeper to react quickly in order to parry it over the bar.  But the result was never in doubt and the Greeks still have not scored at a World Cup after going goalless in the US in 1994.  South Korea was worth the 2-0 result, playing a fast-paced and entertaining style, while Greece will have to go back to the drawing board.

No doubt the Koreans will be hoping that Argentina fills the tally sheet in the other match in Group B as it now looks like they will be battling with Nigeria for the other spot in the Round of 16.


Best Lines Hall of Fame, World Cup Style...

This evening on Fox Soccer Channel's Ticket to South Africa, in previewing the South Korean team commentator Warren Barton said,

"The team has great experience, you've got Lee the goalkeeper, a great composer of the game who reads his line very well.  J. Lee the organizer in the back line, and you've also got Lee in midfield, a talented player who will push forward."

I'm gonna go out on a limb and say Lee needs to have a big game to get past Greece in the morning.

Also, watch the show.  Great previews and reviews of the days matches and it includes Andy Gray, the best soccer commentator on the planet.  Fantastic stuff.  It's just too bad Andy isn't calling games as well.

UPDATE: Lee, the keeper, has been left out of the side this morning.  All bets are off.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Uruguay v. France, Cape Town Stadium, Cape Town

Result: Uruguay 0  France 0  Take Away: France dominated the run of play but Uruguay defended well

Cape Town is one of the most beautiful cities in the world and it has a brand new soccer stadium to match.  Not yet as iconic as the Sydney Opera House, but certainly a stunning venue with the backdrop of Table Mountain and Robben Island a short distance off shore.

From Wikipedia:
The fifteen-story structure of the stadium features curved walls and it is clad in a translucent fabric mesh made from woven fibreglass coated with Teflon, The filigree skin changes its appearance with the movement of the sun, appearing blue at noon, rose in the late afternoon and red at sunset. On stormy days, it can appear silver, grey or even pewter. The stadium also features 360 internal lamps, which lend a transparent gleaming appearance to the outer filigree skin, revealing its interior when switched on.

I think the stadium probably shone brighter than either team today.  It wasn't the most titillating of matches.  France's Franck Ribery, recently in the headlines for this, was the most dangerous player on the pitch.  However, the best chance of the match fell to Uruguay's Diego Floran who missed an opportunity to start a weekend party in Montevideo that might have been worth getting on a plane for.  In the 72nd minute Floran had a half-volley from 12 yards.  He struck it well but missed his target badly to the left and Uruguay's best chance was gone.  

Nine minutes later Los Charruas' Nicolas Lodeiro, who came on in the 63rd minute, was sent off by the Japanese referee for a vicious tackle on Bacary Sagna.  With Thierry Henry on as a substitute, France pushed forward but couldn't penetrate the South Americans' strong defense.  There minutes of extra time brought nothing more and the day ends with all four teams in Group A tied with one point.

South Africa and Uruguay will go to sleep tonight feeling good about their efforts and look forward to their match on Wednesday.  For Mexico and France there may not be panic, but there will be a great sense of urgency when they clash on Thursday.  A loser in that match will now find themselves in deep trouble.