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2018 World Cup Russia Takeaways

It’s the world’s most popular sport on the sport’s biggest stage … it’s the World Cup. With as much hype as the Super Bowl and yet the international relevance of the Olympics, the World Cup is unique to it’s kind. The event is positioned as a measuring stick of where the game of football (or soccer, as us Americans call it) currently sits – with players, coaches, and fans across the world taking note at which playing styles prevail, which continents are the most dominant, and who the world’s most elite players really are. So with that, here are 5 of my biggest takeaways from 2018 Russia.

  1. Europe is Still King.

With 15 of the 32 qualifying countries coming from Europe, this World Cup saw 6 of those European countries make up the final 8 teams in the tournament.

World-Cup-Semi-Final-France-v-Belgium
Samuel Umiti’s header sent Les Bleus and the French past Belgium and into the World Cup Final.

It made for an all-European semi-finals and upcoming final between France and Croatia on Sunday. 4 out of South America’s 5 teams went through to the Round of 16, however without Brazil, Argentina, Columbia or Uruguay making the semi-finals, CONMEBOL will view this World Cup as largely a disappointment for themselves. While Africa’s expectations are not quite as high as South America’s, they too, will be disappointed without seeing a single one of their 5 teams advancing to the Round of 16. Given the mere 3 teams Asia had representing the continent, Japan became a bit of a Cinderella team after having Belgium on the ropes, up 2-0 in the 2nd half of a Round of 16 match. While only one of the 3 North American teams (Mexico) advanced to the Round of 16 … North America also claimed the tournament’s worst performing country with a record of 0-3 and a -9 goal differential

Belgium Counter Attack Goal
Down 2-0 in the 2nd half to Japan and facing elimination, Belgium had one of the most improbable comebacks in World Cup history. The comeback culminated with Belgium’s Nacer Chadli’s last touch of the ball off a brilliant counter attacking goal in stoppage time.

with Panama, the same country who eliminated the US from qualifying.

 

  1. Tika-Taka Out, Counter-Attack In

For those unfamiliar with the “Tika-taka” style of play, this is known as a Spanish style of the game that is characterized by short, quick movement passing while working the ball through channels and keeping possession. While it’s a style of play largely associated with Spain and Barcelona FC, it’s the pervasive style of many South American teams like Brazil and Argentina as well. In France’s wins over Argentina and Uruguay, as well as Belgium’s win over Brazil in the Quarters, the world saw a new counter-attack style of soccer prevail predicated on sharpness in transition and catching opposing teams off balanced on the counter attack.

The concept here is centered on the idea of attacking as soon as the ball is taken possession of in an effort to catch up an opposing a team unbalanced defensively. Belgium and France did this better than any other two teams in the tournament in large part due to attacking midfielders who fit this mold with De Bruyne and Hazard for Belgium and Mbappe and Griezmann for the French.

  1. Set Pieces Decide Matches

The numbers are staggering with 70 of the 160 goals scored in this World Cup having come off set-piece finishes, an unprecedented 43.8%. The team that everyone was talking about on set-piece goals was England, who got their lone goal in the semi-final yesterday off a free-kick.  The tournament saw a lot of penalty kicks but also very well-executed corner and free kick designed plays. The aerial aspect to the game is still a critical part of deciding matches.

Trippier England Goal
England’s Kieran Trippier’s set piece goal in the 5th minute of yesterday’s semi-final was the quickest goal in a World Cup semi-final since 1954. The England were’s able to bring it home, but distinguished themselves on set pieces throughout the tournament.
  1. Video Assisted Review (VAR) – Verdict Still Out

Every professional sports league in the United States have official replays and reviews and yet this was the first year of it being introduced at the World Cup. Quite frankly it was overdue. Having said that, I think there are still differing opinions about the technology as it applies to soccer after this World Cup. The technology helped Sweden collect a pivotal PK against South Korea, which was justified and changed the face of Group F. Meanwhile the Brazilians felt like their defender was pushed on Switzerland’s tying header in group play. And France was awarded a very soft PK against Australia after reviewing a foul on Griezmann.

VAR Review
Russia 2018 marked the debut of Video Assistant Referees which certainly changed a few matches. There are still mixed opinions of the technology, but many believe it is here to stay.

There is still a huge element of the sport that relies on human judgment which the traditionalists of the sport will argue should be left in the hands of the person with the whistle in the middle of the field … while the VAR supporters will argue the more eyes on the play the better and that it is simply a matter of mastering the use of the new technology. I think the two biggest knocks on the implementation of the technology have been, one, how long does it delay the game and secondly, the appropriate timing of when the play is actually stopped to review the questionable play.

  1. Too Many Dives

FIFA terms it simulation, that is, the act of when a player takes a dive. In fact the governing body of international soccer instructs it’s officials to issue a yellow card if and when a player does this. Nonetheless, diving is still a huge part of today’s game, which was exemplified by Neymar throughout the tournament. Neymar was in fact the most fouled player in this year’s World Cup by a landslide. However, what several players and coaches were most upset about, was the excessive exaggeration of the injuries and perceived time-wasting that was associated with it.

Neymar
Brazil’s Neymar was the tournament’s most fouled player, however, he received an overwhelming heat of criticism among players, coaches and fans for the way in which he “sold” many of the fouls.

The rolling around in agony and flailing arms led to countless comedic videos go viral, and even allowed Kentucky Fried Chicken an opportunity to commercialize a combo meal “Making a Meal Out of It” through the course of World Cup television commercials. I personally believe the Video Assisted Review will play as a big a role in discouraging this behavior as it will to confirming or denying penalty kicks.

At the end of the day, there is diving or “flopping” in every sport, American football, hockey, and basketball. US soccer legend, Alexi Lalas, in fact calls simulation a skill, stating that there are good ways and bad way to sell fouls.

The World Cup Final on Sunday will feature heavily favorited France take on a somewhat surprising Croatian team. If Croatia prevails, Croatia will be the second smallest country in population (4 million) to ever win the sport’s most coveted trophy after Uruguay (3.4 million) did it in 1930 and 1950. Meanwhile the French feature the second youngest team in this World Cup, with an average age of 26. Needless to say it should be an entertaining final.

Soccer’s First American Superstar

I get asked every once in a while, “who is the best soccer player you’ve ever played against?” Having played Division 1 soccer at Georgetown for five years, semi-professionally with DC United U23’s as well as stints on trial with DC United and the Tampa Bay Rowdies, I’ve certainly played against several elite players. I’ve played against Herman Trophy winners Joseph Lapira and O’Brien White, International heroes like Andre Blake and Jaime Moreno, and MLS all-stars like Charlie Davies and Dwayne De Desario. The answer, however, is clear as day … that is, 19-year-old Christian Pulisic.

SlingMorenoHeader
Myself and Jaime Moreno (MLS’ All-Time Leading Goal Scorer) challenging for a header

At the time I played Pulisic, he was merely 15 years old … and needless to say it was a humbling experience. He was playing with the U17 US Men’s National Team down at IMG Academy in Bradenton, FL against my amateur men’s team, the St Petersburg Kickers, a perennial men’s amateur powerhouse and national champion contender. Despite our Kickers team being made up of ex D1 college guys and ex pro’s in their “prime” (20’s and early 30’s), we lost to Pulisic and their group of 15 and 16’s year olds by a score of 4-1, with Pulisic leading the way with a few goals to his credit.

 

As difficult a score-line that is for me to admit; at the time, I’m not sure I would have readily said that the little 15-year-old center midfielder was the best player I had ever played against. He wasn’t running by anyone or muscling people off the ball (given his age and physical maturation), but his technique, vision and ball control were unquestionably the best on the pitch (despite being half the age of many).  And with a hat-trick and an assist in the stat sheet, he was clearly the man of the match.

United States v Colombia: Group A - Copa America Centenario
Christian Pulisic played on both the U15 and U17 US Youth National Teams while training down at IMG Academy in Bradenton, FL. 

Fast forward to today, about four years later. Before having turned 19 years old (which he did on September 18th), Pulisic has had 9 goals in 60 club games (regular starter for Borussia Dortmund in Germany’s 1st Division) and has 7 international goals in 18 games to his name for the US National Team. In comparison, before Lionel Messi turned 19, he had a similar 9 club goals in 34 club games but only 2 international goals in 9 international games. Nor was Christiano Ronaldo as dominant as Pulisic at that age, with only 6 club goals in 53 club games before the age of 19 and 0 international games to his credit.

 

Featured on CBS’s national “60 Minutes” last Sunday night, Pulisic has already become a celebrity and the face of American soccer. In fact, US Men’s National Coach, Bruce Arena, calls him soccer’s “first American superstar.” Despite the lofty words, it’s hard to argue. Earning $8 million a year with one of Germany’s top clubs, performing better than any other US National Team member at the moment, and having just turned 19 two weeks ago, I tend to agree with Coach Arena’s proclamation as the first American soccer superstar.

Screen Shot 2017-10-05 at 12.16.38 AM

Why is he different? What has allowed Pulisic to stand out this much in a country that is continuously ridiculed across the world for their lack of homegrown soccer talent. Before we talk about the play, I think it’s actually more important to understand the environment he has been put in (as well as removed from) to allow him to grow and mature as a player.

 

  1. US National Team Early – Pulisic started playing with the US Youth National Teams at the age of 14 where he played with both the U15 and U17 teams. He was a captain of the U17 team and scored 20 goals in 34 games through his 2-year cycle with them. This exposure at international events like the 2015 U17 World Cup in Chile where he had a goal and an assist put him on the radar for top international clubs and paved the way for him to Dortmund.
  2. No College Soccer – Despite both his parents playing collegiate soccer at George Mason, Pulisic did not go that route. While collegiate soccer is a great route for most (myself included), for the top 1-2% players in this country who will go on to play professionally and internationally, the game is oversaturated with under-talented players. For the most part, collegiate soccer promotes a direct, physical style of play that severely hinders the development of the more technical and skillful players and stunts their overall growth.
  3. Overseas – As much as the MLS has grown over the course of its 20+ year existence, the best soccer is still played overseas in Europe. Yes this is changing, but the reality is there is a reason why more people in this country choose to watch the EPL over the MLS … the quality.

 

As much of a team game that soccer is (more than any of the top 4 American sports – baseball, football, hockey and basketball), the importance of the playing environment a youth player acclimates too, is exponentially magnified.

PulisicLowCenterOfGravity
Pulisic’s combination of low center of gravity and speed allows him to dribble at a level that Americans ever never witnessed at his age. 

In looking at Pulisic’s actual game, there are really three attributes that he possesses that have allowed him to transcend the rest of the talent pool in the United States. And quite frankly, after Pulisic, should be weighted heavier when evaluating youth talent in this country. The first is God-given, and that is the combination of his low center of gravity (5’8’’) and speed. This allows him to dribble the ball more aggressively and effectively at defenders than any other player we’ve ever seen in this country at his age. Second … his technique. This may be his greatest asset. His touch, two-footedness, and range of pass, are the things that are immediately apparent when watching him play. His last attribute is largely environment-driven, and that is, his decision-making and vision. Pulisic plays as though he’s been playing at the international level for years (which he has, just not for very long with the US Men’s National Team). His 7 goals in 18 international games speak to his composure on and off the ball, ball speed, and decision making in the attacking third at the game’s highest level.

 

Hyping youth talent seems to have become a sports media cliché in the modern era. But numbers don’t lie … this kid has been better than the best in the game were at his age. And on Friday night, the United States plays in their most important game since their 2014 World Cup elimination game against Belgium, when they take on Panama in a World Cup Qualifier in Orlando, FL. The United States currently sit at fourth in World Cup Qualifying while Panama sits at third, with only the top 3 advancing to the 2018 World Cup. A win secures the US greater than a 90% chance of qualifying, while a loss would dramatically decrease their chances to 44%.

SPI Chance to Qualify

 

We’re at an incredibly pivotal time for the game of soccer in this country and the US National Team. We’re at an equally pivotal time in Christian Pulisic’s career, as he attempts to qualify for his first ever World Cup.

 

The country will be watching on Friday night.

Jurgen Klinsmann & US Soccer in the Perpetual Hot Seat

There are several high-pressured positions in the vast world of sports; however, few are surrounded by more scrutiny than that of the Head Coach of the US Men’s National Soccer Team. Jurgen Klinsmann was the highly sought after man from Germany that the U.S. had to wait for but eventually got, back in 2011.

Coach Jurgen Klinsmann was the coveted man for the US Men's National Team head coaching job.
Coach Jurgen Klinsmann was the coveted man for the US Men’s National Team head coaching job.

This past summer Jurgen and the Yanks saw the highest of highs (beating the #1 and #3 teams in the world in Germany and the Netherlands) simultaneously with the lowest of lows (a penalty-kick defeat to Panama in the CONCACAF Gold Cup 3rd place game). Things only got worse a few weeks ago when the US suffered an agonizing 3-2 overtime defeat to their arch-rival Mexico eliminating any hope of them qualifying for the Confederations Cup in 2017.

The US U17 MNT failed to record a win in the qualifying round of the 2015 U17 World Cup in Chile.
The US U17 MNT failed to record a win in the qualifying round of the 2015 U17 World Cup in Chile.

Moreover the youth National teams have not faired much better recently. The U17 Men’s National Team did not record a single win in their three games in the U17 World Cup this October in Chile (2-0 loss to Nigeria, 4-1 loss to Chile and a 2-2 draw to Croatia). The U20 Team is winless in their last three contests, including an 8-1 drubbing in Germany.

 

And yet many think Klinsmann’s job is safe. Sunil Gulati, the President of the US Soccer Federation, hired him and extended his contract through 2018 after his performance in the 2014 World Cup. He is the highest paid coach in U.S. soccer coaching history by a wide margin. His salary is rumored to have surpassed the $3 million mark after getting a hefty raise following the 2014 World Cup.

 

In looking at the US Men’s National Team’s body of work over the last 6 years it’s hard to argue with their consistent presence. Only 9 countries have been to 4 out of the last 6 World Cup knockout rounds, and only 8 have been to 3 out of the last 4 knockout rounds… the US are in both of these groups. The US can also boast being one of only 7 countries to qualify for each of the last 7 World Cups. A third place 1999 Confederations Cup finish, a 2nd place 2009 Confederations Cup placing and several Gold Cups, it is actually relatively easy to argue that the US is in that upper tier of countries.

 

But it is difficult to say much more than that … as the US still has yet to cross that threshold into the elite that Americans have come to expect from their national teams. You still cannot mention US soccer in the same breath as Brazil, Argentina, Germany and Spain. And until that day comes, the position Jurgen Klinsmann holds as Head Coach of the US Men’s National Soccer Team will continue to be a tumultuous one.

The US loss to Jamaica in the Semi-Finals of the Gold Cup was the beginning of a very disappointing stretch of results for the US Men's National Team.
The US loss to Jamaica in the Semi-Finals of the Gold Cup was the beginning of a very disappointing stretch of results for the US Men’s National Team.

Combine the summer’s Gold Cup debacle with their most recent 3-2 loss to Mexico, and a second straight failure in CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying, and it’s clear that Klinsmann is in the most tumultuous part of his four-year era.

 

Another EPL Season is Underway – How Does it Impact U.S. Soccer?

The 2015-16 English Premier League season started this past weekend with some very unexpected results but some very good television ratings. Saturday’s four matches on NBC, NBCSN & USA Network combined for 2.02 overnight rating which was the best ever in the United States for the EPL opening Saturday. This rating was up 43% from the prior record set last August. The 12:30pm ET match on NBC, a 2-2 draw between Chelsea and Swansea City, averaged a .93 overnight to rank as the best Saturday opener ever and topped last season’s NBC opener between Arsenal and Crystal Palace by 27%. Moreover the 7:45am ET match on NBCSN that featured Manchester United’s 1-0 victory over Tottenham in the opening match of the EPL posted a .49 rating which was the best overnight rating in the early Saturday window.

Chelsea defender John Terry is shown a red card in the defending champions' opening game against Swansea.
Chelsea goalie Thibaut Courtois is shown a red card in the defending champions’ opening game against Swansea.

The results were surprising to say the least. Arsenal, who many considered a favorite to be atop the league after picking up Petr Cech in the off-season, dropped a 2-0 home match to West Ham. Defending champions Chelsea had a frustrating 2-2 draw with Swansea City. Liverpool were able to pull out a last minute 1-0 victory at Stoke City behind Philippe Coutinho’s “goal of the week” worthy winner. Manchester United squeaked by Tottenham in an evenly played contest 1-0. And yesterday, Manchester City impressed everyone in the way in which they beat West Brom 3-0.

Arsenal's big signing, Petr Cech, had a less than stellar performance as the Gunners dropped their season opener to West Ham.
Arsenal’s big off-season signing, Petr Cech, had a less than stellar performance in net as the Gunners dropped their season opener to West Ham.

One of the things we know about US sports viewers is that they like stars and that they like big events, especially when it comes to sports outside the “big 4” (football, basketball, baseball, and hockey). People in the U.S. are watching the World Cup in record numbers. The U.S. team’s final match against Belgium had an overnight rating of 9.6 (16 million viewers) on ESPN, the largest rating at the time for a soccer match on ESPN. Also of note, the match between Mexico and Croatia set a record on Univision, as did the Germany-Ghana match set a record on ESPN for most watched soccer match not involving the U.S. national team. These numbers suggest that soccer interest in growing in this country.

Thousands of fans gathered in Chicago's Soldiers Field on July 1, 2014 to watch the US take on Belguim in the World Cup, which at the time was the most watched soccer match ever on ESPN.
Thousands of fans gathered in Chicago’s Soldiers Field on July 1, 2014 to watch the US take on Belgium in the World Cup, which at the time was the most watched soccer match ever on ESPN.

Having said this, over half of the goals in the World Cup were scored by players who play in the German Bundesliga, the English Premier League and the Spanish La Liga. With NBC paying the Premier League more than $80 million annually to air every match of the season, Americans can now watch the stars of the World Cups on a regular basis. The U.S. viewership of the EPL has steadily climbed since 2007. Comparatively to Major League Soccer, where ESPN, NBC and Univision pay a combined $30 million, viewership has stayed relatively stagnant since 2009. Within the MLS television deal, many of the games are only available locally or with the MLS Live Subscription. This has caused very strong local fan bases (some of which rival the support of MLB, NFL and NBA teams). Along those same lines, attendance has increased over the last 14 years, with total attendance topping 6 million each of the last two seasons.

Former Chelsea legend Frank Lampard appearing in his Major League Soccer debut for New York City FC.
Former Chelsea legend Frank Lampard appearing in his Major League Soccer debut for New York City FC against the Montreal Impact.

The good news is soccer is growing as a sport in popularity in this country. The EPL is a more watched league, as it should be for the average sports fan. After all, the EPL is still a better product. Something Major League Soccer realizes it has to do a better job of is diverting stars (in their prime) away from the EPL and into the MLS. This year the MLS was able to do a substantially better job of this in getting Kaka to Orlando City, David Villa and Frank Lampard to New York City FC, and Steven Gerrard to the LA Galaxy. Meanwhile, they’ve been able to retain U.S. stars like Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Jermaine Jones (New England) and Clint Dempsey (Seattle) away from Europe and back into the MLS.

 

Needless to say, the EPL looks to continue to maintain its dominance after a very entertaining opening weekend, as it clearly is the most popular soccer league in the world. While it may not be the best thing in the world for MLS, the continued rise in U.S. viewership numbers of the EPL speaks very well to the future of the game in this country.

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