The fly-in, fly-out nature of international soccer creates a scenario in which an entire season's worth of emotional highs and lows can take place within the span of a week. (In that regard, the whiplash emotional condition of the collective American fan base doesn't help matters.) Eight days ago, the United States national team found itself desperately in need of a victory, down a no. 1 goalkeeper (Tim Howard) and its top four fullbacks, and reeling from revelations of possible dissension in the ranks. Fast-forward to Wednesday morning, and the Americans sit in fine form, perhaps the highest they've been since last August.
Panic is mostly a matter of perception. The situation before the United States men's national team took the field at Dick's Sporting Goods Park on Friday night was this: With eight matches remaining in a 10-game tournament, the Americans — who hadn't lost a home World Cup qualifier since 2001 — were a single point out of second place in the six-team Hexagonal. They were playing at home in front of nearly 20,000 pro–Stars and Stripes supporters including 2,000 American Outlaws, the largest contingent ever. Jurgen Klinsmann's team was favored. Hardly a dire predicament.
And yet, the general mood in the reactionary, overblown world of U.S. soccer was that it was time to freak out. The sky was falling, ever faster after a midweek article in the Sporting News cited 22 anonymous sources who spoke about the coach's lack of, well, coaching, and factions within the squad. The mood was tense. The red, white, and blue — down four fullbacks and their no. 1 goalkeeper, no less — were in trouble.
In case you were busy soothing your aching joints with an old-fashioned Epsom salt soak, here's what you missed in sports last weekend.
The NCAA tournament Sweet 16 is set, and the biggest story thus far has been the run of Florida Gulf Coast University, who find themselves among college basketball's elite after an 81-71 win over San Diego State. Based on all my knowledge of the school from before the tournament started, "FGCU," which has probably been around for over a decade, has amassed a number of victories on their way to becoming a true school where NCAA basketball is played. The team features players, of which five play on the court at the same time, barring truly unusual circumstances, who shoot basketballs toward baskets, which is a thing those players do to get basketball points. They employ strategies regarding where they should run so that they can shoot basketballs from preferable positions, implemented by a coach with a unique backstory that I remember hearing about once but mostly forget. He might have been a baron of some sort? So mark it down in your personalized line drawing of college names: Florida Gulf Coast University is a school from Florida, probably located along the gulf coast, that plays basketball and is eligible for advancement in the NCAA basketball tournament. Up next for Florida Gulf Coast University is the University of Florida, a school that is also run by the state of Florida. Expect basketball shots, two strategic men telling basketball players what to do, and collusion.
Louisville, the tournament's no. 1 seed, advanced to the Round of 16 after dismantling Colorado State, 82-56, at the University of Kentucky's home court, Rupp Arena. Louisville head coach Rick Pitino said after the game, "Man, it's nice to be back at the old stomping ground, playing out of the home locker room. Hey, has anyone heard how the Wildcats are doing? No? Yeah, no, me neither. That's really unusual. But hey, tell John, old friend of mine, 'Thanks for the hospitality.' Also, we used all of the condiments that were in the fridge here. Hope that's not a problem."
In case you were too busy lamenting the fate of your already busted NIT bracket, here's what you missed in sports on Wednesday:
LeBron James had a triple double as the Miami Heat extended their winning streak to 24 games, overcoming a 27-point deficit to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers, 98-95. "We are legends," James said after the game, in which the reigning NBA champions beat a Cleveland team missing its two best players by three points. "This is a game for the history books, a true shining moment for Heat basketball," he said about a game in which he was dunked on repeatedly by Alonzo Gee. James concluded his postgame remarks by suggesting that a game in which the third-worst team in the Eastern Conference outscored his team by 21 points in the first half would cement his legacy as one of the greatest basketball players of all time.
Future Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed has left the Baltimore Ravens after 11 seasons, signing a three-year deal with the Houston Texans. Although Reed has yet to comment publicly on the move, confirmation has come from former teammate Ray Lewis, who was seen doing a flamboyant bird-like dance toward the east, before turning and performing a trio of bull-like dance moves toward the south.
The Chicago Bears have parted ways with star linebacker Brian Urlacher after the team failed to come to contractual terms with the former NFL defensive player of the year. While Urlacher has publicly stated that he's prepared to join another team, he's privately known to have spent much of the past 24 hours listening to Semisonic's "Closing Time" while looking wistfully at old pictures of former Bears quarterback Rex Grossman. Urlacher was later spotted alone in a bar mouthing "You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here" to himself, as a single tear rolled down his cheek.
James Madison defeated the LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds, 68-55, in the preliminary round of the NCAA tournament. Unfortunately, history, as it always does, found a way of repeating itself, as James Madison moves on to face the red jerseys of Indiana, who've already made clear that, win or lose, they intend to burn down the White House. "But I picked Indiana to win it all," complained President Barack Obama, as the first lady began packing their most valuable artwork into an old Dodge Caravan.
Thanks to Marc Gasol's game-winning tip-in with 0.8 seconds left, the Memphis Grizzlies beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in overtime, 90-89. Watching at home on TV, L.A. Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak shouted "Tradebacks!" as Gasol's shot fell in. When told by assistant GM Glenn Carraro that "tradebacks" aren't a real thing, Kupchak protested, "But me want best center. Lakers get best center, yes? Lakers get best center always. Me want, me want, me want!"
Veteran winger Teemu Selanne scored the winning goal as the Anaheim Ducks came from behind to beat the Chicago Blackhawks, 4-2, in a battle of Western Conference powers. "I don't feel a day over 55," joked the 612-year-old Selanne, before asking teammate Corey Perry if he could "just borrow some blood for a while, you know, because that's a cool thing that friends do for other friends."
The San Jose Sharks staged a third-period rally before downing the Edmonton Oilers in a shootout, 4-3. Sharks center Logan Couture, who had two goals in regulation before scoring again in the shootout, dedicated his effort to "all the real sharks out there who keep losing their teeth. We don't talk about this problem enough, but it sucks. I feel your pain, great whites and tigers. You, too, nurses and whales. Stay hungry, my brothers."
Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Clint Dempsey was named the U.S. Men's National Team captain for its upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Costa Rica and Mexico. In unrelated news, Dempsey's erstwhile teammate Landon Donovan was named captain of his bowling league team, "The U.S. Men's Trashed-onal Team," where he's known as "Lane One" Donovan.
Robinson Cano 2B
Some Red Sox Guy 3B
Bernie Williams CF
Uh, can we also put Bernie Williams in left? LF
If we're cloning Bernie Williams once, we might as well put another Bernie Williams in right RF
A prospect who's overrated because he plays for the Yankees SS
Yogi Berrnie Williams C
A copy of a copy of Bernie Williams DH
Dan Johnson 1B
On Wednesday, Bayern Munich and Málaga joined six other clubs in the quarterfinals of the Champions League. Watching the games made me wonder how the United States national team would do if it were dropped into the group stage of the tournament. Would the Americans be able to finish in the top two of a four-team group featuring the Continent’s strongest sides?
I asked Earnie Stewart, former American midfielder and current technical director of Jozy Altidore's AZ club. Quite fairly, he more or less told me it was a ridiculous query. "They are not a club team. It's so very hard to compare international teams to club teams," he said. "It's totally different. The way you play. The responsibilities are different. Plus, there's the fact that it's something that's never going to happen. We're never going to have a national team in a club tournament."
Fair enough. Stewart — who has an actual, important job in soccer — has better things to do with his time than speculate about hypothetical tournaments. You know, like run a team. I, however, do not. So I set out to find an answer with the help of a couple of soccer journalist friends. (See: That thing about not having real jobs.)
The initial response was that the Stars and Stripes would struggle. "If you dropped the U.S. in and they hadn't trained together, they would get destroyed," says Zac Lee Rigg. "I think most national teams would. The World Cup is not as good quality as the Champions League is."
The first United States men's national team friendly of every new year is a predictably strange affair. It comes at the end of a long training camp and features roughly two dozen tired guys, the vast majority of whom are not first-choice players for the USMNT. Many of them are not even second or third on the positional depth charts. The group traditionally consists mostly of players in between Major League Soccer seasons, as well as a few assorted refugees from teams in one of the Scandinavian leagues that take a long winter break so their fans don't freeze while watching a mid-January match. It’s a moment to make impressions — sometimes first, sometimes final.
Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann called the typical gathering of players this year but attempted to add some gravitas to the month-long affair that culminated with Tuesday night's abysmal 0-0 draw against Canada. His reasons for doing so were both practical and ideological. For one, the Americans are in a slow transition at a few key positions, as both the in-flux center back situation and the uncertain status of Landon Donovan are creating a number of problems.
The story of the Premier League this weekend, told in five goals. Get some.
We all know about The Kobe Assist. I'm starting to wonder if there's such a thing as the Suarez Assist. This happens when Liverpool forward Luis Suarez drops his head and tries to dribble through three or four defenders at a time. Like a homing beacon, more and more defenders come to the ball. Now Suarez, for all his qualities, is not Zidane. He's not pirouetting around players as much as he is clawing through them. Once he gets to the box, he's a piranha. But something happens when all this attention is focused on Suarez: Other players are left on their own. And as Suarez insistently tries to weave through this growing armada of defenders, the ball tends to ricochet away from him, off defenders. And a few times this year, it's bounced to another Liverpool player who has somehow benefited from Suarez's selfishness. In this instance, Jordan Henderson is the main beneficiary.
In case you were busy writing the first part of a gritty 3-D trilogy reimagining the story of Humpty Dumpty called "HD Volume One: Sitting on a Wall," here's what you missed in sports last weekend.
The Baltimore Ravens topped the Patriots, 28-13, behind three touchdown passes from quarterback Joe Flacco. After the game, Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs reportedly said, "Tell (the Patriots) to have fun at the Pro Bowl." When told this, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady grinned ear to ear, saying, "Terrell said that? Really? I thought that guy didn't like me, what with the all the hitting and screaming today. I guess I learned a valuable lesson in judging. Tell Terrell congratulations on his hard-fought victory, and that we will have a great time at the Pro Bowl because nothing is better than chilling with friends in Hawaii. And then tell him aloha, because, hello, what a great competitor; goodbye, I'll miss his sweet face; and I just love that guy's attitude!"
The story of the Premier League this weekend, told in five goals. Get some.
Robin van Persie
Robin van Persie's injury-time game-winner against City in the Manchester Derby. As free kicks go, hell, as RvP free kicks go, you won't be playing this over and over in your head. Not like this thunderbolt against Fulham from the Dutchman's Arsenal days ...
Winter has arrived in England. Everywhere there was football it seemed to be lashing down rain, and perhaps nowhere was the gloom more apparent than in the stands. Chelsea supporters at Stamford Bridge were stirred from silence to proclaim their disapproval of new interim manager Rafa Benitez, while over at White Hart Lane the visiting West Ham supporters' anti-Semitic chants overshadowed Clint Dempsey's return to form. Football, bloody hell indeed.
In this week's Men in Blazers podcast, Michael Davies and Roger Bennett review a soaking-wet Premier League weekend — the good, bad, and the plain old unclassifiable. We mean you, Kolo Touré, who apparently enjoyed a two-year affair while passing himself off as a used-car salesman named Francois.
In case you were out living a life of leisure, here's what you missed in sports on Tuesday.
Justin Verlander pitched 8.1 strong innings, allowing just one run and three hits, as the Tigers beat the Yankees 2-1 to take a 3-0 lead in the ALCS. "Our pitchers really let us down by allowing two runs," said benched slugger Nick Swisher, attempting to change the narrative of the massive Yankee failure. "You're not going to win a game when your pitchers give up two runs. Dicks."
In a virtual must-win match for the United States Men's National Team, Jurgen Klinsmann's side did exactly what they needed to do, and nothing else. Herculez Gomez's 55th-minute free kick provided the only score on a beautiful night in Columbus, Ohio, propelling the Americans over a Jamaican squad that defeated them just four days prior in Kingston and to the top of their World Cup qualifying group.
The Stars and Stripes, featuring five new starters after the surprise 2-1 loss, was a different team in front of the 23,881 red-white-and-blue-clad supporters. Specifically, the insertion of Danny Williams as a defensive midfielder and Sporting Kansas City's Graham Zusi — who looks like early-career Roger Federer — helped the U.S. to dominate the ball in the opening 45 minutes. The Americans won the possession battle (80 percent to 20 percent), the distribution war (338 passes to 52), and the shot fight (eight to zero). But they had precisely nothing to show for the effort, other than forcing a few highlight-reel saves from Reggae Boyz netminder Dwayne Miller and three strikes that hit various parts of the goal frame and bounced harmlessly away. (Williams's blast from 25 yards was especially awesome. It nearly exploded the metal pole to Miller's right before shooting back in the direction from whence it came.)
For 36 seconds, things unfolded perfectly. The final strains of Jamaica’s amazing national anthem were still echoing around Kingston's Independence Park when Clint Dempsey slotted home a rebound of Herculez Gomez's shot, giving the United States men's national team a 1-0 lead over Jamaica in an important World Cup qualifying match. The winner of the game would take sole possession of first place in four-team Group A, halfway through the third round. The top two teams advance to the final "Hexagonal" stage of qualifying.
After Dempsey's goal — the quickest U.S. WCQ tally ever — the USMNT looked set to run their undefeated streak against Jamaica up to 19 matches. But it wasn't to be. The Stars and Stripes, missing Landon Donovan and Michael Bradley, failed to connect passes, failed to create chances, and failed to deal with Jamaica’s team speed. They conceded few opportunities in the run of play but allowed free kick goals by Rodolph Austin in the 23rd minute and Luton Shelton in the 62nd minute and left "The Office" with a 2-1 defeat.
Free at last, free at last, thanks to Tottenham, Clint Dempsey is free at last. The Texan's brave football strike came to a glorious end last Friday after Fulham agreed to his liberation. But while Americans everywhere breathed a sigh of relief, the Deadline Day news was quickly subsumed by the continued disintegration of Liverpool. In this week's pod, Michael and Roger review the EPL's biggest comings and goings, consider Arsenal's impressive victory over Liverpool at Anfield, and salute the Premier League's newest powerhouse, West Bromwich Albion.
Before things devolve into complete idle chatter, the Blazered Ones are once again joined by Sir Ian Darke, live from his automobile, as he single-handedly navigates the hazardous roadways of England in order to watch his beloved Portsmouth play football. "You show me a guy who in this game doesn't support a team," says Darke, "and I'll show you a cold fish." Wise words from a wiser man.
On Friday, transfer deadline day in European soccer, Clint Dempsey did what he’s done his entire career when facing a challenge: He succeeded. Heading into the day, Dempsey essentially didn’t have a team to play for. He was coming off a career year, probably the best ever by an American in Europe: 23 goals for his club, Fulham, 17 in the English Premier League, fourth in the league behind international superstars such as Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie. But when the 2012-13 Premier League season started a few weeks ago, he wasn’t playing for Fulham. His manager, Martin Jol, said he refused to play. Dempsey tweeted that there were two sides to the story.
We may never know exactly what was communicated between Dempsey and Fulham brass and why he didn’t play for the Cottagers in the first three matches of the season. What we do know is this: After last season, Dempsey, always seeking the best competition, voiced his desire to play for an elite English club, one capable of playing in the Champions League. Liverpool, while not in the Champions League this season (or last season), is one of the most successful clubs in the history of European club competition. The Reds expressed interest in Dempsey, publicly and privately, and all summer long, Liverpool fans have awaited the news that the club had finally signed the American.