The good folks at Merriam Webster will tell you that a nuance is a subtle distinction or variation. A look on my Facebook timeline, Twitter stream or the comments on World Cup articles I have been feverishly following the past two weeks tells me that the nuances that make the world’s game beautiful to so many remain largely misunderstood in the US but I have come to believe that the exponentially high interest, both good and bad, in the nuances of soccer is a very good thing and I’d like to tell you why.
My first example from this World Cup took place a week ago when host nation Brazil played to a 0-0 draw against Mexico. I watched this game with emotional interest pulling strongly for El Tri, as the Mexican National team is known to the initiated and saw one of the best matches played to date during this world cup. However, my social media timeline was inundated by casual fan commentary about how silly soccer is because you can tie or worse still, God forbid, end in a scoreless draw. What you miss though, if that’s the stance you took was that Brazil had 14 shots on goal and 8 of those shots were “on-frame.” Mexico created 13 shots on goal with only three of those staying on-frame. My first nuance point to make here is to compare those 14 shots for Brazil and 13 for Mexico, for a total of 27 shots and ask you, if you are a fan of another stalwart, more standard American Sport like Baseball or American Football and ask you if there are 27 action opportunities that determine the outcome of the sport you cheer for primarily. My guess is that the answer is yes within a reasonable percentage of variance. So, nuance lesson number one, challenge yourself, when watching soccer, to condition your mind to look beyond the scoreboard. The action on the field will reward you as you measure the symphonic build-up of each opportunity that is created.
Also of note within the context of the Mexico-Brazil scoreless affair was the performance of Mexican goalkeeper, Guillermo “Memo” Ochoa who made 6 saves during that match, most of which were at near point blank range, against the potent Brazilian scoring front-line, led by their star Neymar, in a goalkeeping performance that will go down as one of the very best in the history of the World Cup. Ochoa almost single handedly kept Mexico alive and preserved a draw, which netted Mexico one point in World Cup group play at four points total; even with hosts Brazil, giving Mexico the gift of increasing their shot of advancing to the second-round, knock out stages of the tournament.
My second example also focuses on another tie result that occurred on Sunday, 6/22/14 when the US Men’s National team took on Portugal, the nation where polarizing figure and reigning Balon D’or winner (award given to the world soccer player of the year), Cristiano Ronaldo hails from. Now, going into this World Cup, most soccer pundits gave both Germany and Portugal the best odds for advancing out of Group G ahead of the US and Ghana. Even after Portugal was embarrassed by Germany 4-0 in their opening match, most expected an angry Portugal side to next line up against the US looking to avenge that loss, even though two of Portugal’s four starting defenders wouldn’t be playing due to either injury or suspension. Conventional wisdom said that the US should expect to assume their rightful, traditional place in the pantheon of world soccer hierarchy and receive their drubbing.
But this isn’t a conventional US Men’s National soccer team. Led by head coach and German soccer legend Jürgen Klinsmann, he has used unconventional tactics to assemble an American side that is as hard working and as unexpected as their head coach. He has focused on mixing American born soccer passionate players who have developed state-side with children of American service members from mainly: Germany, Norway and Iceland who have collectively been thrown into a soccer pressure cooker and produced a footballing dish that tastes unlike anything we have created previously.
I believe that Klinsmann is precisely what US Soccer needed after taking the reins from his predecessor Bob Bradley who admirably brought US soccer as far as he was able to. He has put together a team that both astounds and, in all honesty, even dumbfounds you at times during fleeting moments of inattention to detail. Never was that more evident as it was during yesterday’s 2-2 draw against Portugal. However, as was the case during the Mexico-Brazil affair, if you simply looked at some highlights or the final score, you missed a wonderfully symphonious performance by as complete a US team as this nation has ever fielded. A symphony complete with both beautiful harmonies and head shaking dissonance.
On a routine miss-clearance by US defender Geoff Cameron, the US gave a surprised Portuguese forward, Nani an easy goal during the first five minutes of the match. At that moment, a nation that seemed ready to get behind the boys in red, white and blue like never before seemed to resign themselves to the inevitable but then something unexpected happened. The US side seemed to close ranks, kept attacking and creating high quality opportunities throughout the first half, knocking on the door of evening the score line several times. As you felt and assessed each opportunity, you could perceive that Klinsmann’s intense confidence had been infused into his side and they were going to keep Portugal’s potent attack at bay while shifting the balance of momentum back to the US attack. And then it happened.
In the 64th minute and well into the second half, American midfielder Jermaine Jones caught a rebound off a corner kick, moved the ball to his right to create space and bent a brilliant shot into the right side of the goal. Portuguese keeper, Beto, didn’t even move. The stadium and an appreciative nation erupted in chorus. This setup a 25 minute final sprint to see if one team would win or if both sides would end in a draw. Consider another nuance here: running constantly over 90 minutes. Have you ever wondered how far a soccer player runs during a 90 minute match? Players wear monitors to track this and they will average between 6 to 10 miles travelled every single match. Just to put this into perspective, according to a Gizmodo research report:
- NBA player Luol Deng of the Chicago Bulls was measured running 2.72 miles during a game in 2012,
- NFL cornerbacks and wide receivers generally run about 1.25 miles per game,
- MLB Baseball players don’t run even a mile during a typical game.
So, 65 minutes into yesterday’s match, there was a 25 minute sprint remaining to determine the outcome and there was to be no timeouts or television breaks during that time. That may cause you to look at the nuance around the drama of soccer injuries a bit differently.
Back to yesterday’s match. It wasn’t until the 81st minute that a brilliant crossing pass from clutch US player from game one against Ghana, Graham Zusi found a carefully positioned Clint Dempsey, carefully maintaining his line, so as to remain onside for a deflection into goal for what appeared to be an unsurmountable lead. It wasn’t.
Somewhat controversially, five minutes of injury time was added to the match at the 90 minute mark and, like two weary boxers, both teams traded punches with the US trying desperately to keep Portugal from the third of the field which they were defending. Somewhat unexplainably though, the second perturbing dissonance of the US effort occurred with less than a minute to play when normally dependable midfielder Michael Bradley far too easily gave up on possession and lost the ball in the middle of the field. Portugal has one last run in them and Cristiano Ronaldo himself made a picture perfect cross to a diving Varela who had subbed into the match in the 69th minute, had fresher legs and beat, guess who, defender Geoff Cameron, who headed the shot into the goal emphatically to steal a guaranteed spot for the US in the second round and saddle them with a 2-2 draw. But, through our disappointment, both US fans and players now have a belief that they not only belong on the field with perennial FIFA power houses like Portugal but can win these matches. The US may very well be, under Klinsmann’s leadership, prepared to shed the role of irrelevant soccer country and become a nation that matters on the global soccer stage.
So, here’s nuance lesson number two, don’t be afraid to connect emotionally with the emerging US soccer team that has rapidly become more than relevant globally. The women’s national team is already world class, even dominant, and the men are doing everything possible to follow their lead. I have done my best to let you see this past week’s events through my filter and, trust me on this, many within the community of the global soccer elite are starting to take note and, if the US national team, was an emerging stock, would be buying shares by the boatload. Don’t be afraid to diversify your sports investment and spend some time and effort in getting excited along with me. This coming Thursday morning, 6/26/2014, the US will face their biggest challenge yet when they face one of the favorites to win the world cup, Germany, country that our coach Jürgen Klinsmann both played for and has coached. Here’s the scary thing about this group. They haven’t played their best yet. Let that sink in.
Will Klinsmann have them ready for this task on Thursday? We will have to wait and see but I’d be foolish to bet against him at this point. There is reason to get behind this special group and they will need even more of the collective spirit of a national to get them over this next hurdle!
Four years ago, the country where my wife and children hold a passport for won the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. Today, the next quadrennial edition of the games kicks off and I, for one, am so incredibly excited to see if the defending champs: Spain, my country of birth: the U.S. or the nation of my father’s heritage: Mexico will be the country to hoist the most cherished prize that exists for those who eat, drink and live for: “El Jogo Bonito.”
I have been asked by my friends at Al Día News, in partnership with Philadelphia Daily News, to write about my love for the most global of global games. My initial piece was published today in both English and Spanish to coincide with the kickoff of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, which commences today in Brazil when the host nation clashes with Croatia. Here are both versions of my article for your review:
Feedback and thoughts below are welcomed!