Turner Sports Takes Over Champions League Coverage

Last August, Turner Sports announced they would be taking over coverage of the UEFA Champions League from FOX Sports. They also have the rights to the Europa League. 

It was a surprising announcement to say the least. FOX had been the broadcasters since the 2009-10 season. And ESPN had the rights for at least 14 seasons prior to that.

For their coverage of the two European club competitions, Turner Sports is rolling out an 'over the top' (OTT) streaming service for the games not broadcast on one of their stations. Initially, there seemed to be some consideration for using TNT, TBS, and TruTV for the match days. Instead, it looks like TNT will air two games each day during the first round, while switching to one a day during the knock out phase. 

UEFA has decided to have two kickoff times for games on each match day--1pm and 3pm EST. Turner Sports will air one game from each start time on TNT. That means three games at each kick off time will not be covered on a normal cable channel. This is where the OTT streaming service will kick in. 

More than likely if you follow a big side like Manchester United, Bayern Munich, Barcelona, or Real Madrid, you can go without having to access the stream service. It seems logical that barring some weird grouping situations or timing conflicts, those teams will always be selected for the normal cable service. 

Fans whose teams aren't getting coverage will be able to buy the streaming package for $2.99/game, $9.99/month, or $79.99 for the whole year. 

But, if your team is in the Europa League, like say Chelsea, well you should probably go ahead and invest in the full year package. Or at a minimum check think about how you're going to access the streaming option. Because, Turner Sports has decided to only offer the Europa League final on their cable station. All the other games will be on the OTT service. 

Turner has taken a page from NBC's book. Last season the Premier League broadcaster utilized a similar service for the games not being broadcast on their slate of cable channels. They, like Turner, felt there was value in offering up the option to watch under-represented sides via an OTT service. 

That said, there were significant complaints about strength and the actual value. For $50/season, the service was at best inconsistent and often completely shut down. Personally, I chose not to renew my subscription for this season. I'm also a Liverpool fan and feel like they're likely to be on the cable coverage anyway. 

The Atlanta based company has also sought to boost their soccer coverage credentials by signing some notable pundits. Kate Abdo will be the host for the pre-game, halftime, between-game, and post-game coverage (interestingly enough Turner has pitched this set up as four new shows, when really it's just the same sort of game coverage we've always had). Tim Howard and Steve Nash have signed on as analysts with Stuart Holden's name mentioned as another yet to be signed.

One step up from FOX's coverage will be that Turner will use the world broadcast instead of their own in studio commentators. Alexi Lalas haters can breathe a sigh of relief knowing they won't have to listen to his voice during a Champions League match. Plus, personally, it always sounds better to have the commentators inside the park giving us the play-by-play rather than sitting in a sound booth somewhere in Atlanta or LA. 

'Cord-cutters' should like this new option, too. It's one less thing to worry about, no more boxes or weird remotes. That said, if the streaming has half the problems of the NBC Gold, it won't be worth it. 

Turner Sports looks to be banking on a business theory called "the Long Tail." It was created by Chris Anderson, Editor-in-Chief at Wired Magazine. The idea is that while bigger market items will certainly make up a majority of your revenue, smaller market items if packaged correctly in non-traditional formats could eventually produce enough revenue to rival those of the bigger markets. In this case, Turner knows their money maker, right now at least, will be the coverage of the most popular teams on their main channel. But they're also banking on the longer term expansion of revenue from coverage of teams with the smaller fan bases. If those fans move towards the OTT service to watch their team's play, they could add to Turner's revenue. 

The other side of the coin, however, could be that those smaller fan groups switching to OTT would actually cause a noticeable decrease in viewership for the games on the regular cable coverage. That may lead to less advertising revenue for Turner.

It may not matter after all. The Champions League, and to an extent the Europa League, are fairly popular here in the US. I'm genuinely curious to see if this sort of service takes off or if it flounders. Will it lead to a weakening of the popularity of the Champions League in the US? Will the streaming service crash like NBC's did all too often last season? 

All I know is I'm ready for the season to start.

Pulisic Transfer Rumors Heat Up

Eddie Johnson recently described Christian Pulisic as the best American player ever. Big words for a 19 year old, but Johnson, a former US National Team player, would know. Pulisic spent a chunk of the off-season training with the former MLS frontman in Orlando, Florida.

Now that preseason training is in full swing and the transfer window drawing to a close, it seems the Hersey, PA native could be on the move. 

Contract talks have stalled with his club team, Borussia Dortmund. He has two years left, but without an extension Dortmund would have to settle for selling him at a discount next summer or letting him go for free. 

Pulisic has been on the radar of Liverpool, FC Bayern, and Real Madrid. Jürgen Klopp, manager at Anfield, was in charge of Dortmund when the American winger first arrived in Germany. FC Bayern sees Pulisic as a natural replacement for their aging stars Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben. And Real Madrid is interest because everyone else is too. 

Late Sunday evening, however, a new front runner has emerged, Chelsea. The London club hasn't made a big splash in the transfer market as of yet. But with Willian, Eden Hazard, and Thibaut Courtois likely on their way out, they'll have money to spend. 

The American youngster does have the potential to be great, but most likely won't be able to fill the shoes of Hazard if the Belgian leaves Stamford Bridge anytime soon. Pulisic didn't particularly shine last season for Dortmund. 

For the sake of improving his skill sets, he's better off staying for another year in Germany. There he'll play much more often than at any of the other teams in the running. Liverpool looks to have sorted out backups for their wingers, Pulisic won't start over Sadio Mané or Mohamed Salah. At FC Bayern, he'd still have to share time with Ribéry and Robben. There'd be no playing time at Real Madrid, even in cup ties. At Chelsea, the team seems in such disarray that even if he were to play more often, it may not be worth the hassle. 

Interested teams, for their part, would be better off waiting until the 2019 Transfer Windows--either in January or in the summer. Dortmund would likely be forced to take much less than the £65 million ($85 million) on offer today. Or they could manage to swing a deal that lets Pulisic stay in Dortmund for one more season--letting him develop his skills--with his transfer being effective next summer. 

Nonetheless, I don't forsee any movement unless Chelsea can get their transfer situation sorted out. Without the money to pay for Pulisic, there's no way they can make a move. It's a better decision all around if he stays one more season in yellow and black. 

Özil's Retirement Fuels Integration Conversation

Mesut Özil will be 34 by the time Qatar hosts the first ever World Cup not held in the summer. It's very likely Russia would have been his last, anyway. 

But on Sunday, he released as statement announcing his retirement from the German team. He pointed, primarily, to the sorts of racial and ethnic abuse that critics have been throwing his way as the basis for his early exit. 

Blame was also shared by the German FA, who did little to support Gelsenkirchen-born midfielder during the controversy surrounding his decision to take a photo with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

For the Arsenal star, their lack of support was based solely on his ethnicity and faith. Özil is a practicing Muslim and can be seen praying before each game. 

Some German politicians have, ironically, pointed to the midfielder's statement as a case against integration. They feel this proves that both Turkish and Muslim citizens aren't able to assimilate. I use the term 'ironically,' because in 2016 he received a Bambi award for being an example of successful integration in Germany. 

There's lots to say here, I think. Both about Ozil's decision and this idea of integration/assimilation.

The Arsenal midfielder is third generation Turkish-German and was born and raised in Gelsenkirchen. Third generation can be ambiguous, but at a minimum it tells us that his family been in Germany for at least three generations. 

As an example of this ambiguity, I could either be first or second generation Iranian-American. As I was the the first generation to have been born here. Or if you count my father's naturalization, then I would be second generation. In short, if I have children, they could be described like Özil, third generation Iranian-American. 

But I digress. 

We live at a time when the idea of identity can be polarizing. Simply being hyphenated is political. Having dueling nationalities, competing identities is to some anathema to creating a unified national narrative. 

In a more globalized society, however, it is increasingly difficult to maintain an idea of a monolithic national identity. This is especially true in societies with strong linkages to countries through colonialism or economic trade. For Germany, the large Turkish population stems from the guest worker program that allowed Turkish workers to help fill the labor void in factories across Western Germany. Those workers ended up staying and building lives in Germany. The German authorities had to decide to either forcibly remove the guest workers or allow them to remain. After a lot of hand wringing, the Germans began recognizing the German born children of Turkish guest workers as citizens, which gave that community stronger legal status. 

But Özil isn't the only one complaining that despite their allegiance to their home country (in his case Germany), fans often speak of them in terms of not being fully accepted. For players like Karim Benzema or Romelu Lukaku, followers are willing to accept their French or Belgian status only when they're playing well, scoring goals. Fans strike another tune, however, when those players with dueling identities aren't playing well. Ozil, Benzama, and Lukaku's immigrant-origins are highlighted.

Michael Bradley or Olivier Giroud performing poorly will never have their nationality questioned. Their ethnic make up will never be a part of their team's fans. That's the privilege whiteness bestows on them. Or going further Mix Diskerud's performance will never elicit questions or comments highlighting his Norwegianness. 

On a personal level, I can identify with Özil, Benzema, and Lukaku. If I were to do something heroic, possibly by serving in the military, my Americanness would never be called into question. But, as often happens, when I'm critical of something this country has done, my Iranianness is highlighted. "Go back to you country" or "why don't you just leave, if you don't like it here" are all too familiar responses to my commentary on social issues. 

Like Özil, Benzema, and Lukaku, I'm a natural born citizen. We were born in the places we represent. But in the places we represent, our status, even if it is legal and somewhat protected, sits rather tenuously. And it is often determined solely by societies misaligned idea of how we should perform or behave. We're only counted when we do something they like. 

None of this is to say that Ozil's performance at the World Cup wasn't abysmal--it was. Or that his meeting with Erdogan wasn't misguided and the follow-up could have been handled differently. Push back on those fronts are warranted. But the critiques should be coated, not in racism or anti-Muslim sentiment, but in basic footballing terms. He looked lackluster, uninspired. His choice meet with Erdogan caused some locker room issues and his lack of response to the surrounding shitstorm made it worse. 

The fact of the matter is, even outside of sports, these conversations should be taking place. Sports could be the vehicle through which societies begin to realize that being hyphenated shouldn't be a problem.

It's instructive to know that neither side of the hyphen is sufficient enough to critique a person's character. But both sides are very real identities for those of us who are hyphenated. 

I think we can start there. 




Premier League Transfer Deadline Looms Large

We've all become used to the mad dash to wrap up transfers by August 31st.

Several games into a season, teams were still searching for a solution to glaring needs on the field. Maybe they haven't quite settled on terms with a long held transfer target. Or, possibly there's that lone trouble maker they're trying to off-load. 

But those late editions/subtractions can also be disruptive to team chemistry. 

That's precisely what Premier League clubs were seeking to avoid when they announced last season on a 14 to 5 vote (one abstention) that they'd move their transfer deadline back from August 31 to the Thursday before the first weekend of games. The new deadline falls on August 9th. 

FIFA, it must be noted, has mandated a 12-week transfer window. Which is why, if you recall, Premier League teams were finalizing transfers as early as mid-May. Fabinho to Liverpool from Monaco is a prime example.

It seems, though, teams in England haven't really caught on to the new transfer deadline. Yes, there have been some big signings--Liverpool picked up Xerdan Shaqiri from Stoke and Alisson from Roma. But overall there haven't been the series of splashes that a transfer window normally has. 

We should also take into account the four-week-long extravaganza in Russia, the World Cup usually slows the transfer market. Surely that puts a damper on activity as teams wait to see how targets perform and whether or not they have to increase their bids. 

But that doesn't account for the general hesitancy of teams to buy or sell. Normally a big transfer, like Ronaldo to Juventus, would act like a multiplier and set off a series of other transactions. That hasn't happened yet.

Some have said we should wait until the last ten days, which will begin July 31st. There's always a flurry of activity as the window starts to close.

Still others have pointed to the delayed transfer deadlines of other clubs. Italy has decided to enact the same policy as the Premier League, but their start date is a week later. Germany, Spain, and France haven't made those changes and will be free to sign players until August 31st--even  from sides in the UK.  

While it is certain to limit confusion and allow players to focus on the season, the new policy could lead to Premier League sides missing out on players as clubs in other leagues have a bit more time hammer out transfers. And if there's a want-away player on a side in England, a club with a longer transfer deadline would be able to make a lower bid, knowing there's a strong desire to get rid of the player. In short, the last three weeks of August will be a buyers market. 

The new transfer rules look to be reasonable, but the fact they aren't uniformly applied across Europe makes it all the more confusing and likely that English sides could get the short end of the stick. 

Obtaining consistency across Europe should be next on the agenda. 


Liverpool picks up a goalkeeper, Chelsea's new coach is tired of transfers

Liverpool may have found the solution to their problems in net. It's been over a decade since there's been a reliable net-minder at Anfield. Pepe Reina, as loved as he was, had his problems. Simon Mignolet, was, well, Simon Mignolet prone to errors on routine plays. And most recently, Loris Karius seemed to find ways to fumble in big games.

Barring some unforseen medical issue, Alisson, a 25 year old Brazilian, previously at Roma, will likely take over between the posts. He's been reliable for the Rome side, but also in the goal for Brazil. Both Chelsea and Real Madrid had expressed interest in signing the Brazilian. 

It will be interesting to see how the future shakes out for Karius and Mignolet. Who will stay and deputize for Alisson? My guess is that for the time being Mignolet will stick around, while it's clear that Karius doesn't really have a chance to suit up for another season at Liverpool. 

Hopes will be high for the former Roma keeper. Liverpool look to challenge for their first title in nearly 30 years. They'll need a strong showing from Alisson to do that. Can he live up to the pressure.

In other news, Chelsea's new manager indicated he was "bored by the transfer market." While he's keen on keeping Belgian stars Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois, but he's not interested in talking about how they can keep them on. Real Madrid seems like the front runner for both players. 

Chelsea have signed former Napoli player Jorginho and have expressed interest in Russian standout Alexandr Golovin. 

The Croatian Dream Continues, as England Falters

Wednesday semifinal started auspiciously for the Three Lions. An early free kick goal from surprising standout Kieran Trippier with just five minutes gone gave the impression football might actually be coming home. 

For the next half hour and some change, the Croatians looked shell-shocked. But to be fair, they've been down early before--giving up a goal to Denmark in the first minute of their Round of 16 match. 

But on the stroke of halftime, it seemed the Croatians had settled. The tiny nation may just have had enough fight left to challenge England's youthful side. 

After not putting up much of a rebuttal in the first 45, the Luca Modric led side hammered England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford with seven shots in the first 15 minutes of the second half. 

Just past the hour mark, Ivan Perišić took a late run into the box and got his boot, above a diving Kyle Walker, to Šime Vrsaljko's cross from the right side. Pickford was helpless to prevent the goal.

And facing a bit of shell-shock themselves, the England side almost conceded a second a few minutes later. Perišic's shot hit the inside of the post and Ante Rebic's rebound fell comfortably right into the hands of a panicked Pickford.

Ninety minutes wouldn't be enough, however. And for the third time in three games Croatia would have to play an extra 30 minutes. Curiously, both teams had most of their subs remaining--Croatia with all four and England three. Entering extra time, teams are allowed a fourth substitute.

The first 15 almost came and went without much fan fare. But, in the final minute of the first extra period, Mario Mandžukić latched on to a cross at the near post with pressure from Pickford forcing his shot wide.

The dagger came just three minutes into the second frame. A headed ball from the left by Perišic combined with a momentary switch off by England's defense, allowed Mandžukic to sneak in and finish first time past the diving keeper from Everton. 

England had to finish down a man as Kieren Trippier was helped off with a groin injury. But even if he had stayed on, able to finish, it seemed a bridge too far. The Croatians had outlasted an England side that had so inspired the country and even the rest of the globe. 

As the Croatians celebrated and the Three Lions players stood dejected, one thing was certain England will be back.

The core of this team will eventually bring football home. And the rest of Europe and the World should be very afraid. 


Belgians Run Out of Ideas, France Books Trip to Moscow

The only certainty, when the teams took the field on Tuesday, was that those of us watching would be in for a treat.

The French were led by teenage phenom, and potential Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo usurper, Kylian Mbappe. Combined a formidable duo controlling the midfield in Paul Pogba and N'Golo Kante fireworks were all but certain.

Their opponents, who had essentially run riot through their group competition and previous knockout stage opponents, were living up to a new moniker, one that harkens back to bygone era of American baseball. The Big Red Machine. Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, and Romelu Lukaku seemed finally destined to break Belgium's title drought. 

And for the first twenty-five minutes, the Red Devils certainly looked like forcing their will on the game. They possessed, they attacked, they prodded the French defense. Hazard launched attacks from the left, De Bruyne from the right while combining with Nacer Chadli who was playing in an unfamiliar outside right back position. 

But no matter how hard they tried, they simply couldn't manage to unlock the French defense. Their best chances came from Hazard in the 15th and 18th minutes. Those failed as the Chelsea midfielder rushed his first shot and had his second pushed over bar via deflection from an unwitting French defender, Raphaël Varane.

A few moments later Toby Alderweireld's quick shot off a poor clearance forced his club teammate, Hugo Lloris, into a reaction save. With a bit more pace, it just might have beaten the French goalkeeper. 

Then as if some random force shifted it's weight snuffing out the fire fueling the Belgian machine, the momentum shifted in favor of France. Olivier Giroud and Benjamin Pavard miss clear chances. The Stuttgart defender, after a brilliant through ball from Mbappe, having his effort blocked by Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois' big right foot.

Halftime didn't temper the French ascendency, in fact they came back burning hotter than they had at the end of the first 45. 

The French earned a corner early in the second half. Antoine Greizmann's in-swinging cross was met by Samuel Umtiti, who's darting run to the near post left him free from his mark, Alderwield, rose to head the ball, beating out Maurane Fellani, and steered the ball past Curtios at the near post.

France was up 1-0. And it very likely should have been a two goal lead just a few mins later. Giroud couldn't finish after Mbappe provided yet another sublime distribution. The French center forward, who's had a miserable time finding the back of the net in Russia, should have buried his chance on the first touch. Instead, his attempt to control then finish gave Mousa Dembélé enough time to slide in and block his shot. 

The Big Red Machine was all out of ideas on how to crack the French defense. Hazard and De Bruyne, no matter how hard they worked, couldn't manage to combine with Lukaku. And at times seemed their own worst enemy by over complicating possession, finding themselves in self-imposed defensive cul-de-sacs. 

With the insertion of Dries Mertens, who started on the bench for the second game in a row, replacing Dembélé, who was, outside the sliding block on Giroud to prevent a second goal for France, essentially ineffectual all game, there seemed to be a brief moment of hope. Mertens was initially more effective on the right flank launching a few crosses that seemed to cause the French defense a few problems. Fellani got his head on one, narrowly missing the bottom right corner. But, Lloris looked to have it covered. 

There was a legitimate shout for a free kick after a tackle by Giroud on Hazard. The referee waved it off, unfortunately. It certainly would have been in a dangerous position, but there's no way to know if it would have resulted in a goal. 

Nonetheless, as the referee blew the final whistle, Belgian players, in what has been a tradition across sports for losing teams in these types of games, collapsed to ground in agony. Meanwhile, French players sprinted across the pitch in ecstasy. They're on their way to Moscow.

World Cup Semi-Finalists Reflect Team Spirit

First, I want to apologize. It's been more than a week since my last post. Admittedly, I had every intention of writing through vacation, but then I realized taking a step back would be wise and allow me to fully recharge. But now I'm back and ready to go full force into providing analysis and insights. 

When we take a look at all four semi-finalists (and one could argue some of the quarterfinalists as well), the one thing that emerges is that while each team has a star, none of the teams wait for the star to perform. In short, the success of the final four squads hasn't been balanced precariously on a single player. 

Sure Croatia's talisman, Luca Modric, scored a superb goal against Argentina--one that outshined Messi's performance, except maybe that amazing finish vs Nigeria. But he also missed a penalty kick against Denmark in the waning moments of extra time, one that could have sealed the game and avoided a shootout. His teammates, and really his goalkeeper, rallied behind him to prevail in the shootout. 

England relied heavily on Harry Kane in their first two games, he even scored in the Round of 16 match up against Colombia. But it was Harry Maguire and Deli Alli (and some would argue Raheem Sterling's work rate in the attacking third) that carried England into the semis.

For France, it's been more of a combination of Antoine Greizmann and Kylian Mbappe upfront along with solid efforts from N'golo Kante and the defensive backline. A sum of its parts rather than a singular focus on a super star.

And the Red Devils of Belgium have done it while employing multiple formations and multiple roles for its most special players. Having started the first two games and the Round of 16 match up as a central striker, Romelu Lukaku was forced out wide against Brazil in favor of a Kevin De Bruyne playing a false 9. De Bruyne himself had been forced to drop deeper in previous matches. Eden Hazard, too, was moved from a central position, one that was more raumdeuter than anything else, to a position out on the right flank.  

It's a little cliche to say, but teams win World Cups. Which is why Portugal, Argentina, and Brazil never stood a chance. All three teams relied heavily on a single player. Every possession, tactical adjustment, and even failure was centered around the performance of their star. Once could reasonably argue, they'd probably lose the debate, but it is still worth discussing, all those teams could have fared better without Ronaldo, Messi, and Neymar. 

Portugal won a European Championship without Ronaldo on the pitch. And to be fair, they didn't perform well during that competition, narrowly escaping the group phase and their first two games in the knockout rounds. 

Argentina looked lost with Messi on the pitch. They probably would have looked lost with him off the pitch, too. But the clear deference at nearly every venture, every rough patch made the likes of Angel Di Maria, Javier Mascherano, and Sergio Aguero look shadows of their usually on form selves. 

And for the Brazilians, Neymar's desire to be the director of all things Seleção prevented other stars from shining brightly. Gabriel Jesus looked lost as he tried in vain to partner with the mercurial Brazilian talisman. Barcelona midfielder Philippe Coutinho had an impact early in the group stage, but seemed to be left out of forward movements as the tournament progressed. All things Brazil had to go through Neymar.

It's telling that the sides with arguably the three best players in the tournament never really threatened for a shot at the title. In a tournament as grueling as this, it's the team that matters. And even in the World Cups where single players dominated, they allowed their teammates to shine as well. Brazil had the talent to pursue a title,  and if Neymar's self-centered flare and infatuation with the limelight had allowed it, we might be talking about the possibilities of a sixth World Cup title. Portugal and Argentina, unfortunately, never seemed to have the quality required--even with their superstar.

Alas, it is the sides with the best team chemistry, the ones most willing to sacrifice for each other, that have made it to the final four. One of them will win and the glory will go to the team spirit embodied by every player on the roster. 

That should be the lesson from this World Cup.


Messi and Ronaldo Exit Stage Left

When the final whistle blew on June 26th, pundits, fans, and even the most casual of observers were drawn to the top half of the left side of the knockout bracket. Uruguay v Portugal and Argentina v France were intriguing, not because of the match-ups themselves, but because of what they could yield.

A Portugal v Argentina, ahem Ronaldo v Messi matchup would be a show stopper. It'd be the type of game every advertiser could only dream of--except maybe if it had been in the finals. 

Both players would have much to prove. Despite winning nearly every major trophy, neither have won the World Cup. Ronaldo, at least, won the European Championship two years ago in France--but some would be quick to point out, he wasn't on the pitch for the victory. Messi has managed to earn the ire of many Albiceleste fans, who claim the Barcelona star plays harder for his club than his nation. 

But the hopes for a dream World Cup quarterfinal match up were, for fans and marketing managers alike, all for naught. 

Argentina succumbed to France side that seemed finally willing to fire on all cylinders, even if it took well going down 2-1 to realize their potential. For Messi, it seemed more like a necessary exercise that capped off a miserable Russian adventure. His teammates, and really the Argentine manager, seemed far too willing to let their talisman take over answering nearly every question tactically. With a team chock full of super stars, it was confounding to see just how anemic they looked in attack. And how cynical they looked in defense, reckless tackle after reckless tackle made it surprising they ended with eleven players on the field. 

But why couldn't Jorge Sampaoli find a way to fit Sergio Aguero, Paulo Dybala, Ganzalo Higuain, in the lineup at the same time as Messi? Some argued it's because they all played similar styles. But wouldn't you want to have your best scoring and creative threats on the pitch simultaneously? It seemed, though, being content to let Messi carry the team was the overall strategy. Everyone else would fall in line. 

Messi, surely, is a game changer. That type of superstar coming once (or twice in this case) a generation. But even the most successful ones--Pele, Diego Maradona, Zidane, Ronaldo--had teammates who didn't just pull their own weight, but also stepped into the breech when their leader was having a bad day. Those role players turned on field leaders were in short supply and thus Messi and Company are headed home. 

For Portugal, a team that seemed far more adventurous and unified than Argentina, they fell victim to a surprisingly in-form Uruguay team. The South American side's strong central defense duo, who play together at the club level too, made one mistake during the Round of 16 match up. Portuguese defender Pepe made them pay. But it wasUruguay's dynamic due from Salto, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, who ran riot at the opposite end of the pitch with Cavani burying two wonderful goals--the first, possibly the best worked combination play of the tournament. 

It's not a stretch so say that Portugal's early exit isn't surprising. Maybe I'm wrong. But even when one takes into account their title in France two years ago, we'd all be remiss to think it was anything but a fluke. The Ronaldo led side couldn't win a match in the group phase and only progressed because of the expanded tournament field. They finished third to Hungary and Iceland. But it took them all the way to the semi-finals against Wales to win their one and only match during regulation time (they won the finals vs host France via a 109th minute goal by Eder). 

Unlike the Argentines, the Portuguese side played with a bit more tactical and strategic unity. They had skilled players outside of Ronaldo, but nothing of the firepower Sampaoli refused to utilize. Despite the lack of reserves, Portugal was far more entertaining and we were left knowing they put everything into each performance in Russia. Ronaldo was certainly impressive during the tournament, scoring a hat trick in his first group match versus Spain. But where Messi's teammates' ill-discipline left him hanging, Ronaldo could play knowing his teammates wouldn't let him down because of lack of concentration. Rather they'd simply be out classed. Nonetheless the European Champions are headed home early too. 

Some thought that a Ronaldo v Messi match up in the quarter finals would end the debate over who's better. I highly doubt that. If their multiple head to head match-ups when playing for Real Madrid or Barcelona haven't solve that riddle, one match at the World Cup wouldn't likely tip the balance. 

Both teams are home by now, leaving exactly when they should have. Although, Argentina didn't deserve to make out of their group. They were far too uninspiring to have been rewarded with an extra game.

Now we're left with a tournament bereft of a mega star, but plenty eagerly waiting to challenge Messi and Ronaldo for their shared throne. 


No Wayne, No Gain

It was the fall of 2002 and I was entering my third year of college. Unsurprisingly, at just 20 years old, I was far out of my depth. Just knowledgable about the subjects I was taking to mask my true ignorance about life. 

But on a grainy feed in my off-campus shit hole of a house I shared with several friends, I had the luxury of watching, most likely on replay and several days late, Wayne Rooney score his first Premier League goal against Arsenal. I knew then he was destined for greatness.

'What player, just a few games into his first full season in the Premier League, has the balls to hit a shot like that against a team that has a 30 game unbeaten streak,' I thought to myself. If I had said it out loud, none of my roommates would have understood. None of them grasped the madness of football. 

Rooney was on the brink of 17 years old, earning a mere £80 per week. He'd not been on the field long enough for anyone to actually think he would make an impact. But with less than 30 seconds to go, the new boy wonder controlled a speculative long ball, took a few touches toward goal, and as the Arsenal defenders decided to back off rather than close down he launched a curling shot from well outside the box. Just like Ronaldinho a few months earlier in Shizuoka Stadium, he surprised David Seaman, the England and Arsenal Goalkeeper, by tucking the ball into the upper left hand corner of the goal. 

To be sure, if Rooney's career had ended up a dud, we'd have all called it speculative. But 16 years later, looking back on one of the most storied careers for any English footballer, it was an introduction to precisely what we've come to expect. 

Yesterday, the former England captain signed with DC United, currently the worst team in Major League Soccer. For those who have watched Rooney's career, the decision to make the brand new Audi Field his new home certainly raises eyebrows.  But for the fans of the Black and Red (full disclosure, I'm a season ticket holder), his addition to a squad that's floundering not just in the offensive third, but also in the standings signifies a new hope and a chance to recapture the greatness that's been missing for more than a decade. 

Wazza's workmanlike style matched with the sort of cheeky initiative that drives defenders mad fits perfectly with the system DCU coach Ben Olsen has in mind. Given a backloaded season by MLS, so that Audi Field could host the majority of their home games this season, DCU needs all the breaks possible to reach the playoffs. Rooney just may be exactly what they need to slide into the post season. 

Injuries have plagued Rooney of late, however. And the MLS, despite the idea that it's a retirement league, isn't a push over. It will be physically grueling for the new signing. 

Nonetheless, he's already engendered himself to the city after making Wunder Garten, a beer garden in NOMA, one of his first stops in the city after arriving yesterday afternoon. 

Those of us who are DCU fans will certainly be looking forward to his efforts on the field. Maybe he'll be the first to score 15 goals since Dewayne DeRosario in 2011. Regardless, the excitement is building, hopefully he won't disappoint. 

Deutschland, Deutschland Not Über Alles

At some point, I was going to have to write a premature obituary of a favorite. At no point in the past few weeks did I ever presume it would be Die Mannschaft's.

To say the reigning World Champion (not for long) looked anything more than lackluster would be fake news. From the very first game, Germany's hopes to be the first team to repeat as World Cup Champions since Brazil 1958-1962 were always in doubt. 

Against Mexico the team looked uninspiring, apathetic even. Movements forward were more like walks in the park and less like the blitzkriegs we've become accustomed to over the last few tournaments. Whatever Germany had done to prevent the sorts of failures we saw in the late 90s and early naughts, the thought goes, had presumably inoculated the team from collapse. Unfortunately, Germany lost 1-0.

Even that loss against America's southern neighbor wasn't enough to spark a rejuvenated side. Jogi Löw was seen jogging near the team's resort hideaway and had time to pose for a posh photo. It was almost as if they saw nothing wrong with losing game one. After all the Spanish lost to Switzerland in 2010 and managed to lift the World Cup trophy. 

When they marched out against Sweden, the Germans still seemed lost in the Englischer Garten. Several counter attacks later and they were down 1-0 to a much less skillful side. Only a second have renaissance saved the four time champion. Even then, they had to wait until the last minute to reach salvation. They won 2-1

It was short lived, however, as somehow Die Mannschaft found their safe space in going through the motions even when their place in the Round of 16 was on the line. There was no point during the final match against South Korea where the casual viewer could walk away from watching thinking Germany actually wanted to be there. Maybe, just maybe, in the dying moments of second half stoppage after already being down 2-0 to South Korea, the German side could have been accused of caring. But, by then, it was too little, too late.

The Germans end the 2018 World Cup exactly where four of the last five World Cup Champions have--heading home early. To call their performance lackluster would be too kind. Regardless of what happens next, it's gut check time for the DFB (German Football's governing body). Maybe Jogi Löw has to go, maybe it's time for the veterans to retire (after all it was the younger crew who swept through last summer Confederations Cup). 

Die Mannschaft will be back and very likely they'll be on a mission to avenge the disaster in Russia. I, for one, am hoping they do. 

Messi Didn't Crash Out After All

Five days ago, I wrote about the possibility of Messi not making it to the knockout stage. The pressure was on the Albicelestes captain after leading Argentina to a measly one point in the first two games.

Fast forward to today's final game against a surging Nigeria side and there was a real chance Messi and Company could be headed home far too early. 

Would the Barcelona star find a way to rescue his teammates, just like he did against Ecuador on the last night of qualifying? Or would he further speculation that he just didn't care about playing for Argentina?

Less than a quarter of an hour in to the game and Messi told us exactly what his intentions were. Controlling a pin point driven ball from just inside Argentina's attacking half off the boot of Ever Banega, Messi's first touch with his left thigh beat his mark. And before the ball could even hit the ground his right foot nestled the ball perfectly out in front of his stride, setting up a perfect finish with his weaker right foot. Argentina 1, Nigeria 0.

Fifteen minutes later, Messi nearly struck again. His freekick from just outside the box on the left side of the D was tipped on to the post by the young Nigerian goalkeeper Francis Uzoho. 

The half ended 1-0 and Argentina looked likely to advance. But, five minutes into the 2nd act, Mascherano pulled down a Nigerian player in the box during a corner kick. The Turkish referee had no choice, but award a penalty kick. Victor Moses stepped up to bury it in the back of the net. 

Argentina was in panic mode for the next 35 minutes, even being saved by VAR of possible second penalty scare. But in the 86th minute, Marcos Rojo latched on to a cross from Gabriel Mercado and side footed the ball into the bottom right hand corner past a diving Uzoho. 

Messi and his merry band of underperforming teammates had salvaged their World Cup. Next up is a strong France side, who fielded a weakened team in their final match against Denmark earlier in the day. But there's a chance Messi and Ronaldo could meet in the Quarterfinals, if both of their teams win their first knockout game. 

Let's not hold our collective breaths, however. Both sides could end their Russian adventure on Saturday. 

Team Melli Unites a Divided Diaspora

After Iran's loss to Spain, I was asked to put together a piece on Iran's performance at the World Cup. I was hoping to delay it as long as possible, but unfortunately, despite a valiant display against Portugal the result in the Spain v Morocco match up left Iran no hope of making it to the knockout stage. 

Below is a link to that piece, it was posted this morning.


With Poland Out, Yet Another World Class Goal Scorer Leaves Too Early

Poland came into this summer's World Cup as the seeded team in Group H. Expectations were that they would find a way to make it into the knockout stage. 

Some observers, myself included, were less optimistic. Their group opponents, Colombia, Senegal, and Japan, were strong enough to challenge the Polish side and even prevent them from making it out of the group. 

Two games in and those naysayers were clearly on to something. Poland has already crashed out after being surprised by Senegal losing 2-1 in their first game and then being thrashed 3-0 by Colombia. 

There were high hopes for Polish striker Robert Lewandowski, the Bayern Munich goal scorer. Even if they failed to finish in the top two of their group, Lewandowski had enough quality and class to make things interesting. After all, he did score 16 goals in the qualifying campaign. 

But those expectations were left unfulfilled, as Lewangolski, the moniker used by FC Bayern fans, failed to find the net in his first two games. At times, it seemed the Poland captain wasn't even on the pitch, barely registering a call or shout from the commentators. You could argue the Polish offense was anemic, but a world class striker is a world class striker. He should find ways to inject himself into the game. See Ronaldo against Spain. 

It's a shame he won't play a bigger role this summer. I was hoping to see him work his magic, even if I didn't think they reach the next round. 

By being eliminated after the second match, he joins Mo Salah as another great goalscorer to exit with a whimper. At least Mo Salah could argue that his impact was muted, because he was left on the bench in the first game. And, after all, he does have a goal to his name, unlike Lewandowski. 

Germany Snatches Victory From the Jaws of Elimination

I almost had to write a third entry in a row about a favorite crashing out. There was certainly fear  of sounding like a broken record. Luckily, Tony Kroos's cheeky free kick right as time was expiring saved me from that fate.

He didn't just save me, though. Kroos, also, rescued Die Mannschaft from being the fourth of the last five defending champions to not make it out of the World Cup's group stage. It not only would have been embarrassing, but the performance would have generated critical opprobrium from their fans.  

After losing to Mexico, the game against Sweden was a must win. But just as first game went, so started their second. At almost the same exact minute as the game against Mexico, Jogi Löw's team gave up yet another goal off a counter attack. And, let's not forget, there was a legitimate shout for a Sweden penalty kick in the 12th minute. Marcus Berg was hauled down from behind by Jerome Boateng just inside the 18 yard box. 

After putting in a lackluster performance in the first 45, Germany went into the halftime looking for inspiration. They found it early in the second half. In a smash and grab moment, more reminiscent of their sides of the late 80's and early 90's, Marco Reus managed to wrong foot Swedish keeper Robin Olsen after getting the inside of his knee on a cross from Timo Werner.  

As the game went on, however, the German side returned to their pedestrian performance of the first half.  And in the 80th, Jerome Boateng received his second yellow card for a reckless challenge on Marcus Berg. He'll miss the important final group match up against South Korea. 

But only after going down a player, did the Germans start to perk up. Mario Gomez directed his header right to Olsen, who tipped it over the bar in the 87th. Five minutes later, Julian Brandt's thunderbolt managed to find the post, but not the back of the net. 

Finally, with about 20 seconds left in estimated stoppage time, Kroos stepped into the breach and saved Germany from elimination. It was do or die and the Real Madrid midfielder curled his effort into the back post from a wicked angle, fooling the goal keeper and breaking the hearts of Swedes in the stadium and watching at home. 

To be sure, they're not out of the woods yet. They still have to beat South Korea. And even then, to absolutely guarantee their ticket is punched to the knockout round, they have to win by two goals.

The craziness doesn't end there. Mexico, after storming out to two victories, could still be eliminated. All they need is a point to assure a place in the next round. But if they lose to Sweden, they could go home early. And that would be a shame. 


Belgium Makes Their Case

If there ever was a favorite dark horse to win this summer's edition of the World Cup, it'd have to be Belgium.

Coming in the tournament, pundits were picking all the usual suspects as to lift the trophy on July 15th--Brazil, Germany, Argentina, France, Spain. Rarely, and almost always as an after thought, a few would mention Belgium. 

But as each of the teams finish their second first round game and we've seen several of the favored sides struggle to impress, Belgium has been the one side that stands clearly above the rest. In both of their games thus far, they've thoroughly dominated their opponents. They left no doubt of their intentions. 

Sure, you'd be right to point out that they're even on points and goal differential with England, yet England's struggle bus performance against Tunisia in their first game left many unanswered questions. Some were answered in England's 6-1 victory over an out-of-their-depth Panama side. John Stones and Harry Kane stepped into the breech and led the team to victory, but how will they respond when faced with a far superior and more complete Belgium. 

Both sides have much to prove, but I give the nod to the Roberto Martinez coached side. They not only have an in form striker in Romelu Lukaku, but they also have two creative midfield players that are forces to be reckoned with--Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard. I'm not certain the Three Lions will be able to cope with, much less contain, all three.

My bet's on a goal fest, with Belgium winning 3-2. 

Wait, Could Brazil Crash Out Too?

When the World Cup draw was made last December, I don't think anyone doubted Brazil chances to make it out their group. Serbia, Switzerland, and Costa Rica all seemed like unworthy opponents of Joga Bonito FC. 

But two games in and with impressive performances by Serbia and Switzerland, Brazil could be headed out at the close of next Wednesday. 

Yes, Brazil finished off Costa Rica two-nil, but it took deep in to stoppage time for them to actually convince the casual viewer they could muster three points. And even then most of us were left with doubts.

After watching Serbia's performance vs Costa Rica (a 1-0 victory which they dominated and should have been awarded a penalty kick) and then against Switzerland (a 2-1 loss, that was impressive for both sides), it's clear the Brazilians have their work cut out. 

Surely, Serbia still has to beat Brazil and Switzerland can't lose to Costa Rica, but it's no longer implausible that scenario happens. Costa Rica has looked a shadow of the inspired 2014 side. And both Serbia and Switzerland look more than capable of getting the results they need. 

In all my life watching soccer (since the 1990 World Cup as an 8 year old), I've not seen a Brazil side this up in the air. Maybe the 1998 final, but even then most of us had the confidence they'd pull it out--they lost 3-0 to France. Maybe even in 2002, when they struggled to qualify for the World Cup, but managed to find a way to win it all. 

The difference between 1998/2002 and today, is that Neymar is a playmaker rather than a goal scorer. Ronaldo, the original and still the more talented one, finished off chances his teammates created. Sure he could create things out of nothing, but he didn't force his teammates to play every offensive movement through him. The current Seleção, however, has to run everything through Neymar. And much like the situation with their neighbor to the West, they're easily stymied by the lack of dynamism up top despite being stacked with talent. 

A Serbia side with conviction and sense of purpose could derail hopes of a deep run for the Brazilians. This World Cup could do with a little bit of excitement and maybe Brazil heading home after the group stage is exactly what we need. 

Is Messi Crashing Out?

After Argentina's 3-0 thrashing at the hands of Croatia, it seems likely Messi and Co are headed towards an early exit from the 2018 edition of the the World Cup. 

It's certainly true the Albicelestes rely heavily on Messi's to get them through rough patches. After a dismal qualifying campaign and on the brink of being left out of the festivities in Russia, Messi single handedly helped Argentina punch their ticket with a masterful display against Ecuador. 

But so far in Russia, Messi has failed to find the spark needed to overcome whatever is ailing the Argentine side. Against Iceland's resolute defending, Messi seemed unable to breakdown his opponents. He even, uncharacteristically, missed a penalty kick. 

And then came today's match up with Croatia. Outside of an early chance, there seemed to be little creativity coming from the Barcelona player. Without his innovation in the attacking third, Argentina looked lost at sea. It was truly difficult to watch. 

In order to make it to the next round, Argentina will need Messi to channel whatever it was that brought him that performance last fall. Without it, they may be on their way back home much sooner than all of us thought. 

But is it all Messi's fault? Sure, he's the talisman. But it's not like there aren't other superstars on the team. Where have they been? Why haven't they taken the initiative? Why haven't they picked up some of the slack?

Messi deserves more from his teammates. If they don't step up, Tuesday may be the last time we see Messi in an Argentina jersey.

Team Melli


In less than 24 hours, Iran and Morocco will face-off in the opening match of the 2018 FIFA World Cup’s Group Bin Saint Petersburg. Both teams are given slim chances of advancing from a tough group, but their ability to surprise the world should not be overlooked. The opponents are daunting to say the least. Both teams will face the 2010 World Cup champions Spain and the current European champion Portugal. Morocco will not be an easy match for Iran either. As one Africa’s top teams, Morocco is packed with talented players who kick for European clubs such as Juventus, Real Madrid, and Ajax.

Iran’s team does not seem to be a pushover and should be taken seriously. It is full of talented young players who have gelled well together under the direction of the team’s experienced Portuguese coach, Carlos Queiroz. The ultimate results are hard to predict and anything can happen on the wondrous World Cup stage. So rather than predicting the outcomes, I thought it may be interesting to analyze Iran’s strength, weaknesses, and overall style of play.

Iran’s Strengths: They have more strikers and attacking mid-fielders than the 2014 World Cup and that could help Queiroz with his tactical plans. It may allow the team to take more calculated attacking options. In addition to Sardar Azmoun who plays for the Russian club Rubin Kazan, Iran has Alireza Jahanbakhsh who became the top scorer in the Dutch league. Karim Ansarifard is the second top scorer in Greece, Kaveh Rezaei was among the top scorers in Belgium and Saman Ghoddos had a great season with his club in Sweden. They play well as a team. They know how to defend as a team and press affectively. They seem very united and no dramas or negative rivalries exist between players.

Iran’s Weaknesses: Iran struggles when it comes to its defensive line. Defense at times seems confused and unorganized, especially when the defensive midfielder, Saeed Ezatolahi, is not in the game. Bad news is that he is suspended for the crucial opening match against Morocco. Queiroz’s search for replacements have not provided the perfect match. Another major weakness in defense is the center back. Morteza Pouraliganji and Jalal Hosseini have been reliable center-backs, but after Queiroz decided to leave behind Hosseini, he is forced to deploy another defender alongside Pouraliganji. Cheshmi seems to be the replacement, but that’s not the position he usually plays, so his comfort level seems to be low. The percentage of defensive mistakes go up dramatically when the speed of the game goes up and this gets worse without Ezatolahi. Iran still struggles with positioning and covering gaps that open up between the defensive and midfield lines. The team has also struggled with stamina and physical strength in the past.

Game Analysis: Through the friendly matches that lacked the expected quality, Queiroz attempted to build the team’s self-confidence before the World Cup. The team is much younger than four years ago and inexperienced. Lack of experience at times results in messy and slow starts, but they typically find themselves after 15-20 minutes. Iran’s team is not built to come back from behind. If Iran falls behind early on, more than likely it will not be able to recover. According to an analysis by a popular sports program in the country, Iran has been scored on first in 16 games under Quiroz’s tenure. They have lost every single of those games.

Thus far, the current team has demonstrated better tactical abilities compared to 2014 and Queiroz has recognized this improvement. As a result, his style is becoming riskier, which he demonstrated in the friendly matches against Tunisia and Algeria. He is trusting the players to begin pressing in the opponent’s half, which has resulted in some great scoring opportunities. This tactic may be utilized against Morocco in particular.

More than likely, the tactic adopted against Spain and perhaps even against Portugal will be a deep multi-layered defensive game in Iran’s own half. Iran’s approach would be a less risky game against those two teams where the players are forced to take advantage of potential counterattacks and care less about a possession game. This style of play calls for high levels of coordination and tactical discipline in pressing and requires high levels of physical readiness. It forces a lot of one-on-one battles that need to be fought and won. Iran has made incredible tactical advances in this area, but the old-school style of some of the defensive players had to change for this approach to yield results. Utilizing this approach also requires defenders and wingers who are accurate deep passers in order to set-up the counter attacks in transition. Judged by those indicators, Pejamn Montazeri seems to be the only defender who had a satisfactory performance during Iran’s friendly matches. The rest of the defensive line made a lot of errors, especially when the speed of the game increased. An easy way to threaten Iran is to take advantage of the spaces that open up behind the defensive halfbacks. Something that the Tunisian and Algerian strikers managed to utilize well.



Iran Opponent Preview: Portugal


Qualified: 1st in UEFA Group B, 9-0-1, 27 pts

Manager: Fernando Santos

Best Finish: Third (1966)

Last Appearance: 2014, Knocked out in Group Stage finished 3rd in group

Strengths: Cristiano Ronaldo, who has a few more strike partners this time around. And a stingy/disciplined defense.  

Weaknesses: Over-reliance on Ronaldo. An aging central defense in Pepe and Jose Fonte or the ageless Bruno Alves could prove their Achilles heel in games against speedier opponents.

Who was left behind: Renato Sanches (Swansea City on loan from FC Bayern), Eder (Lokomotiv Moscow on loan from Lille), Nani (Lazio on loan from Valencia)

Analysis: There’s a tendency to over exaggerate Portugal’s abilities. With Ronaldo, it’s easy to see why. But, their win at the European Championships two years ago in France was more of a fluke than due to their quality. In the group phase, the Portuguese side didn’t win a game and finished third behind Hungary and Iceland—both teams weaker than Iran’s current side. It took them until the semi-finals to win a game in regular time. And, at the last World Cup, they finished third behind Germany, the eventual champions, and the US.

Portugal will rely on a tried and true method of reducing risk, while maximizing rewards. They’ll mirror the strategies and tactics that won Leicester City the EPL title—essentially, they drag teams down to their level. Look for stingy defending combined with a more direct style when transitioning to offense. Even in their offensive third, however, there’s a tendency to think defensively. They like to cross the ball from the corner of the penalty box, as opposed to taking it closer to the goal line. This tactic allows them to be better positioned to stop a counter attack. Crosses will look to find Ronaldo or whoever is chosen to be his strike partner—and there are plenty of options.

They will likely line up in a 4-4-2, but then transition to a 4-3-3 when moving from defense to offense. Bernardo Silva will be tasked with pushing up and providing the third option in attack.

Defensively, the Portuguese will be forced to rely on the aging Pepe, Jose Fonte, and Bruno Alves. They’ll likely be exposed in their first match against Spain.

In my opinion, based on the games I’ve watched, Portugal actually seems more dynamic with Ronaldo off the pitch. The team seems to rely on him too much to carry the load. But without him, they become multi-dimensional and more free flowing. That said, it’s hard to top the quality that Ronnie brings to the table.

How to beat them: Eliminate their ability to counter-attack. Utilize a strong holding midfield player to stop/prevent quick outlet passes to either of Portugal’s wing midfield options. Pressure their aging and less mobile center backs, force them to make clumsy tackles (which they’re all apt to do) and bad passes out of the back. Wing players should try to go deeper when in possession and play the ball back in between the defensive and midfield lines. Teams have created several opportunities this way versus the European Champions.

While it’s important not to lose focus on Ronaldo, teams shouldn’t forget about everyone else. There are several other potentially dangerous players lining up with the Portuguese captain.

Iran’s Chances: Hopefully, Iran will have the gotten the results they need to progress before this game. Nonetheless, I’m bullish. Iran possesses the skill sets necessary to beat a team like Portugal. If they press at the right times, they can force their aging opponents into mistakes. On the defensive side, they’ll have Saeid Ezatolahi for this game, unlike in their first against Morocco. He will be key to preventing a Portuguese counter-attack and monitoring CR7. 

Possible Spanish Starting 11: I pulled this from the Guardian. As I said before, Bernardo Silva will likely become a third striker or winger when Portugal moves from defense to offense. This tactical adjustment forces Soares to push up to provide him cover. Guedes is certainly on form at the moment, but Andre Silva could also make a start alongside Ronaldo, instead.