Archive for June, 2009

A lesson in finishing

June 28, 2009

brazil

It’s not exactly news that Brazil is a very good footballing side.

But during their 3-2 win over the United States in Sunday’s Confederations Cup final, the Selecao showed just how much quality and poise they possess.

And just how far the United States has to go when it comes to sealing the deal on the world stage.

Don’t get it twisted. Any fan of American soccer should be proud of the team’s effort today.

The two first-half goals were brilliant pieces of skill – a stark contrast to the goals against Spain, which were more of the lucky bounce variety.

It’s really all that anyone could ask. For the red, white and blue to have a 2-0 lead over one of the world’s best teams at halftime of a FIFA tournament final is the stuff of dreams.

The problem with dreams is that, sooner or later, you wake up.

So I guess that makes Luis Fabiano the bogeyman.

The Sevilla striker scored in the 46th minute to drag the Samba Kings back in the match before adding the equalizer on a rebound header in the 73rd minute.

Ten minutes later, the captain, Lucio, slammed home a powerful header off a perfectly served corner from Elano to give Brazil the match winner.

And they deserved it.

So, where did it go wrong?

That’s the thing. I’m not so sure it did.

Sure, the U.S. came out of the locker room a bit more tentative with the two-goal cushion. But why wouldn’t they? There’s no need to push so many men forward with a big lead when killing off the game would serve just as well.

No, on most days, two goals would have been enough.

The credit here goes to Brazil. I’m not sure what Dunga said at the half to light a fire under his squad, but the Selecao  looked as good as I’ve seen them since their World Cup run in 2002.

Felipe Melo and Gilberto Silva slammed the door on any U.S. attacks in the midfield and Luis Fabiano kept flashing the form that made him one of La Liga’s most feared strikers.

They came forward in wave after beautiful wave, sliding the ball into the middle, then out to the wings and then in to Tim Howard’s box.

You could see it coming. After the first goal, I knew that No. 2 was on the way. After the second, I hoped we could get it to extra time.

But it didn’t happen.

I’m disappointed, sure. But the overwhelming emotion for me is pride.

We were robbed against Italy, got waxed by Brazil, thumped Egypt, out-gutted Spain and then stood toe-to-toe with Brazil in the final of the Confederations Cup.

I’ll take that anyday.

And I’m taking something else with me from this tournament.

Hope.

Because, if all goes well, we’ll be back on these fields next year, playing for the biggest prize in world sport – the World Cup.

I can think of no better preparation than what we’ve just endured.

A lesson in finishing

June 28, 2009

Brazil celebrates with the Confederations Cup

It’s not exactly news that Brazil is a very good footballing side.

But during their 3-2 win over the United States in Sunday’s Confederations Cup final, the Selecao showed just how much quality and poise they possess.

And just how far the United States has to go when it comes to sealing the deal on the world stage.

Don’t get it twisted. Any fan of American soccer should be proud of the team’s effort today.

The two first-half goals were brilliant pieces of skill – a stark contrast to the goals against Spain, which were more of the lucky bounce variety.

It’s really all that anyone could ask. For the red, white and blue to have a 2-0 lead over one of the world’s best teams at halftime of a FIFA tournament final is the stuff of dreams.

The problem with dreams is that, sooner or later, you wake up.

So I guess that makes Luis Fabiano the bogeyman.

The Sevilla striker scored in the 46th minute to drag the Samba Kings back in the match before adding the equalizer on a rebound header in the 73rd minute.

Ten minutes later, the captain, Lucio, slammed home a powerful header off a perfectly served corner from Elano to give Brazil the match winner.

And they deserved it.

So, where did it go wrong?

That’s the thing. I’m not so sure it did.

Sure, the U.S. came out of the locker room a bit more tentative with the two-goal cushion. But why wouldn’t they? There’s no need to push so many men forward with a big lead when killing off the game would serve just as well.

No, on most days, two goals would have been enough.

The credit here goes to Brazil. I’m not sure what Dunga said at the half to light a fire under his squad, but the Selecao  looked as good as I’ve seen them since their World Cup run in 2002.

Felipe Melo and Gilberto Silva slammed the door on any U.S. attacks in the midfield and Luis Fabiano kept flashing the form that made him one of La Liga’s most feared strikers.

They came forward in wave after beautiful wave, sliding the ball into the middle, then out to the wings and then in to Tim Howard’s box.

You could see it coming. After the first goal, I knew that No. 2 was on the way. After the second, I hoped we could get it to extra time.

But it didn’t happen.

I’m disappointed, sure. But the overwhelming emotion for me is pride.

We were robbed against Italy, got waxed by Brazil, thumped Egypt, out-gutted Spain and then stood toe-to-toe with Brazil in the final of the Confederations Cup.

I’ll take that anyday.

And I’m taking something else with me from this tournament.

Hope.

Because, if all goes well, we’ll be back on these fields next year, playing for the biggest prize in world sport – the World Cup.

I can think of no better preparation than what we’ve just endured.

For all the marbles

June 28, 2009

Brazil vs. United States

Well, today’s the day.

By the time we eat dinner tonight, the final chapter of the United States’ ride through the 2009 Confederations Cup will be written.

No matter what happens, it has been quite a story.

Whether it’s Judas New Jersey-born Giuseppe Rossi scoring a brace for Italyagainst the country of his birth, Brazil running circles around an over-awed and under-inspired side in a 3-0 romp, the Americans righting the ship and pounding Egypt, 3-0, and getting a matching result from the Brazilians in their match against Italy – the group stage alone would have made this an event to remember for the red, white and blue.

But the United States advanced to the semifinal through a heaping helping of good fortune and complex mathematics.

And the Americans took the proverbial quarter on the carpet, walked up to the slot machine and hit the jackpot with a 2-0 win over the top-ranked team in the world, Spain.

The payoff? A rematch with Brazil – which I guess you can say has both given and taken away to the United States in this tournament.

Of course, there was the romp in the second group stage game, but without that master class offensive effort from the Brazilians against the world champion Italians, our win over Egypt would have been reduced to a “hey, how ’bout that” footnote.

So, as my good friend Bryan Hanks asked me last night, what kind of chance do we have?

Frankly, I liked our chances much better against Spain.

But, if a few things go well, we could write a happy ending for this magic carpet ride we’re on…

1. Cash in on set pieces – It’s going to be tough to get run-outs like the ones that were there against Spain, but as dominant as Oguchi Onyewu and Jay DeMerit were in the air against the Spanish, corner kicks and free kicks into the box could become prime scoring opportunities.

2. Use the left wing – Kartik Krishnaiyer over at www.majorleaguesoccertalk.com had a piece on this and I couldn’t agree more. The Brazilians like to push foward. We need to punish them when they over-commit, and the weak spot is on the left. Andres Santos and Klebar are hardly household names. We need to test them.

3. Bring the lunch pail – Every ounce of the heart, every bit of the desire and all of the energy it took to keep Spain off the scoreboard will be required to slow down Brazil. It can be done, as South Africa’s effort against them the other day showed. The defense will need to be huge again, Tim Howard will need to be great again and for heaven’s sake CAN WE PLEASE AVOID ANY STUPID RED CARDS!!!

I had a hard time explaining to Bryan why Brazil is such a heavy favorite. Maybe it’s because they’re blessed with incredibly gifted players and a culture that fosters creativity and brilliant football.

But, when the first ball is kicked in anger later today, only one thing is certain.

The team that stays true to its identity – Brazil’s flair and style and the United States’ heart and hustle – will be the one lifting the cup.

Oh, by the way

June 25, 2009

There was yet another stuningly bad red card against the Americans in an international match in yesterday’s 2-0 win over Spain.

Jorge Luis Larrionda, the man who handed out two questionable red cards against the United States in the 2006 World Cup match against Italy, dished out a complete farce of a card against Michael Bradley.

As a result, Bradley will miss Sunday’s final.

The world feed, which ESPN fed to us, didn’t really show us the foul. Or should I say so-called foul.

Here it is. Judge for yourselves:

More on the national team

June 25, 2009

Benny Feilhaber celebrates the United States' 2-0 win over Spain on Wednesday

Today is a good day.

The sky is a bit more blue, the air carries a hint of possibility and the birds are signing Better Than Ezra tunes.

Because today is the first day of a new era of American soccer.

If you’ve been reading my soccer blog, you know that the United States beat Spain, 2-0, yesterday at the Confederations Cup.

Now, my friends and readers cover the entire spectrum when it comes to the beautiful game.

I know people who read this space on a regular basis that refer to soccer as “a communist sport.” I know other people who, like me, are walking around channeling the Special One this morning:

“Shut up, Europe!”

No matter where you come down on the beautiful game, if you bleed red, white and blue, you’ve got to love what went down yesterday and, by extension, what’s happened to American soccer during the last four days.

  • The impossible scenario that faced the U.S. on Sunday before its final group match with Egypt, a team that lost to mighty Brazil on a 93rd minute penalty and blanked Italy 1-0, was this: Beat the Pharaohs by at least three goals and hope for a matching result from Brazil over Italy. Somehow, someway it happened.
  • So, buoyed by the fact that they had escaped the group stages by overcoming long odds (9,000-to-1 was the English bookmakers’ line on the States advancing on Sunday morning), the Americans entered Wednesday’s game against the reigning European champions and current top-ranked team in the world, Spain, playing with the proverbial house money.
  • Still, playing free and easy wasn’t likely to be enough against a team that had gone 35 matches without a loss, including 15 straight victories. A team that features a laundry list of the world’s best players – Fernando Torres (Liverpool), David Villa (Valencia, for now), Iker Casillas (Real Madrid), Carlos Puyol (Barcelona) and on and on. Let me put it this way. With the possible exceptions of Oguchi Onyewu and Landon Donovan, no American would see the field on that squad.

So, the odds were long again. But, despite being out-shot (11-4), enduring another dubious red card and three times as many corner kicks (9-3), not to mention getting absolutely dominated in the possession stats, the United States made the most of the chances it created by getting goals from Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey in a stunning 2-0 win.

So what does it all mean?

Personally, I think a new day is dawning.

Our Gold Cup win over Brazil in 1998 was nice, but it came on our home soil in a game we really didn’t need to win. The victory over Portugal in the 2002 World Cup was great, but it happened in Asia (read: the middle of the night) and it didn’t really resonate with the public.

This one feels different.

The U.S. team had come under a great deal of scrutiny, and rightfully so, after some awful, low-effort performances against Italy and Brazil.

It’s as if a switch has been flipped, clueing the national team into something that some of its fans have been feeling for quite some time.

We want more.

It’s not enough to just show up in South Africa, get your three games of World Cup practice in and then go home and gear up for the Gold Cup.

We want heart. We want hustle. We want a burning desire to win every ball, get the uniform dirty and play hard for your country.

We got that yesterday.

And when something like that happens, it can transcend the boundaries of the normal sports fan.

Jim Rome, radio and TV host and known soccer hater, led his show yesterday by congratulating the U.S. team for its win. Even the biggest non-believers in soccer have to take their caps off to the red, white and blue today.

Soccer is not where I wish it was in this country. We are No. 14 in the latest FIFA World Rankings and if a team on either side of us on that list, Paraguay or the Czech Republic, did what we did yesterday, they’d still be dancing in the streets of Asuncion or Prague.

But Rome wasn’t built in a day and the roaring passion that burns for this game in Europe or South America can’t be fostered overnight.

But every fire that rages anywhere on this planet begins the same way.

With a spark.

Very much like the one that happened yesterday.

So, you don’t have to love soccer. But anytime a team sells out and shocks the world – for you, you’ve got to tip your cap.

And maybe someday, you’ll even stand up and cheer…

They said it

“If you’re not ready to defend for your life against a team like Spain, then you’re in big trouble,” defender Jay Demerit said.

“It’s a big day for us and one of the biggest moments in our history,” defender Carlos Bocanegra said. “It’s hard to believe right now; it hasn’t really sunk in. There were a lot of acrobatic, sliding blocks. One guy would be sliding in to clear the shot away, and another guy would come in behind to clean it up. The defense was amazing, but it wasn’t just the defenders – the whole team worked the slam the door shut.”

“We knew we were going to have to defend for our lives,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “To pull off a shock win like this you have to defend like your life actually depends on it.”

Waiving the flag

June 25, 2009

benny

Today is a good day.

The sky is a bit more blue, the air carries a hint of possibility and the birds are signing Better Than Ezra tunes.

Because today is the first day of a new era of American soccer.

If you’ve been reading my soccer blog, you know that the United States beat Spain, 2-0, yesterday at the Confederations Cup.

Now, my friends and readers cover the entire spectrum when it comes to the beautiful game.

I know people who read this space on a regular basis that refer to soccer as “a communist sport.” I know other people who, like me, are walking around channeling the Special One this morning:

“Shut up, Europe!”

No matter where you come down on the beautiful game, if you bleed red, white and blue, you’ve got to love what went down yesterday and, by extension, what’s happened to American soccer during the last  four days.

  • The impossible scenario that faced the U.S. on Sunday before its final group match with Egypt, a team that lost to mighty Brazil on a 93rd minute penalty and blanked Italy 1-0, was this: Beat the Pharaohs by at least three goals and hope for a matching result from Brazil over Italy. Somehow, someway it happened.
  • So, buoyed by the fact that they had escaped the group stages by overcoming long odds (9,000-to-1 was the English bookmakers’ line on the States advancing on Sunday morning), the Americans entered Wednesday’s game against the reigning European champions and current top-ranked team in the world, Spain, playing with the proverbial house money.
  • Still, playing free and easy wasn’t likely to be enough against a team that had gone 35 matches without a loss, including 15 straight victories. A team that features a laundry list of the world’s best players – Fernando Torres (Liverpool), David Villa (Valencia, for now), Iker Casillas (Real Madrid), Carlos Puyol (Barcelona) and on and on. Let me put it this way. With the possible exceptions of Oguchi Onyewu and Landon Donovan, no American would see the field on that squad.
  • So, the odds were long again. But, despite being out-shot (11-4), having three times as many corner kicks (9-3) and absolutely dominating possession, the United States made the most of the chances it created by getting goals from Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey in a stunning 2-0 win.

So what does it all mean?

Personally, I think a new day is dawning.

Our Gold Cup win over Brazil in 1998 was nice, but it came on our home soil in a game we really didn’t need to win. The victory over Portugal in the 2002 World Cup was great, but it happened in Asia (read: the middle of the night) and it didn’t really resonate with the public.

This one feels different.

The U.S. team had come under a great deal of scrutiny, and rightfully so, after some awful, low-effort performances against Italy and Brazil.

It’s as if a switch has been flipped, clueing the national team into something that some of its fans have been feeling for quite some time.

We want more.

It’s not enough to just show up in South Africa, get your three games of World Cup practice in and then go home and gear up for the Gold Cup.

We want heart. We want hustle. We want a burning desire to win every ball, get the uniform dirty and play hard for your country.

We got that yesterday.

And when something like that happens, it can transcend the boundaries of the normal sports fan.

Jim Rome, radio and TV host and known soccer hater, led his show yesterday by congratulating the U.S. team for its win. Even the biggest non-believers in soccer have to take their caps off to the red, white and blue today.

Soccer is not where I wish it was in this country. We are No. 14 in the latest FIFA World Rankings and if a team on either side of us on that list, Paraguay or the Czech Republic, did what we did yesterday, they’d still be dancing in the streets of Asuncion or Prague.

But Rome wasn’t built in a day and the roaring passion that burns for this game in Europe or South America can’t be fostered overnight.

But every fire that rages anywhere on this planet begins the same way.

With a spark.

Very much like the one that happened yesterday.

So, you don’t have to love soccer. But anytime a team sells out and shocks the world – for you, you’ve got to tip your cap.

And maybe someday, you’ll even stand up and cheer… 

They said it

“If you’re not ready to defend for your life against a team like Spain, then you’re in big trouble,” defender Jay Demerit said.

“It’s a big day for us and one of the biggest moments in our history,” defender Carlos Bocanegra said. “It’s hard to believe right now; it hasn’t really sunk in. There were a lot of acrobatic, sliding blocks. One guy would be sliding in to clear the shot away, and another guy would come in behind to clean it up. The defense was amazing, but it wasn’t just the defenders – the whole team worked the slam the door shut.”

“We knew we were going to have to defend for our lives,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “To pull off a shock win like this you have to defend like your life actually depends on it.”

Spain falls to the United States, 2-0

June 24, 2009

Clint Dempsey

Wow. I mean, what can you say after a performance like that? Spain dominated possession, had more corners, more shots, more shots on target and finished the match up a man.

But the U.S. got two goals on what must be called fortunate bounces and they go through, 2-0.

Some people wonder why I like this game. Today is why.

National pride. Instead of being the world’s whipping boys, we took down the top team in the world by two goals. It wasn’t blinding skill, but fierce heart and determination that won the day.

There’s no doubt Spain is a better side.

But not today, they weren’t.

Jozy Altidore was awesome today. Landon Donovan was as fired up and fiesty as I’ve ever seen him and the back line was tremendous. Jay DeMerit and Onyewu were like hockey defensemen, going down to block shot after shot. And Tim Howard looked like one of the best keepers in the world.

If you’re Spain, you’re feeling unlucky. A few bounces another way, and it’s a different scoreline.

But after a lifetime of being on the wrong end of those lucky bounces, today was our day.

It was brilliant.

Now, if we can just bottle this and bring it back to South Africa next year for the 2010 World Cup… 

U.S.A./Spain Live Blog

June 24, 2009

Fernando Torres

HIT REFRESH OFTEN FOR THE LATEST UPDATES!

2:24 p.m. – The lineups are out. For Spain, it’s Iker Casillas, Carlos Puyol, Joan Capdevilla, Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique, Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Cesc Fabregas, Albert Riera Ortega, Fernando Torres and David Villa.

The U.S. counters with Tim Howard, Oguchi Onyewu, Jonathan Spector, Carlos Bocanegra, Jay DeMerit, Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Ricardo Clark, Jozy Altidore and Charlie Davies.

2:27 p.m. – The anthems are wrapping up…

2:28 p.m. – The teams are lining up for team pictures. It’s like Little League in South Africa today…

2:30 p.m. – We’re under way. Spain’s in a 4-3-1-2 and the U.S. counters with a 4-4-2…

1st minute – A U.S. giveaway almost leads to trouble, but Onyewu clears it away.

3rd minute – Spain wins a corner, but Howard punches it away. There was a Spanish foul, anyway.

4th minute – Altidore makes a run into the Spanish box and wins a corner. Good ball from Donovan, but no one can get a head to it.

5th minute – Donovan’s in the book after a 50-50 challenge on Xavi.

6th minute – Casillas leaves his box to snuff out a long ball to Davies. … Davies tries a bicycle kick the next time down. Not a million miles away, either.

9th minute – Davies free again in the box after Donovan pressures Puyol into a turnover. His header’s wide. Seconds later, Dempsey sends a screamer inches wide. The Americans are up for it so far.

11th minute – Torres misses a golden chance at the near post after a good servie from Fabregas. Could be 1-0 right now…

14th minute – The teams swap possession in the midfield. A little bit of a lull after an exciting start.

16th minute – Spain pushes forward, but it’s offside. Then, the U.S. does the same thing…

18th minute – Torres gets a good look from about 12 yards out. Howard saves, but the Liverpool striker was offside anyway.

20th minute – Villa skins Spector on the wing and charges into the box. His cross is swept away…

21st minute – Donovan uncorks a shot from distance that misses just wide to the right.

22nd minute – Spain storms back, but can’t get a good strike on goal.

24th minute – The Spanish are starting to control the possession and push the States back a bit.

25th minute – A corner kick for Spain, but Onyewu powers it away. Another corner, played short, comes to nothing.

27th minute – Altidore shields his defender perfectly at the top of the box, he turns and slams a shot. Casillas gets a glove to it, but it glances off the post and in. GOAL, 1-0 U.S.A.

28th minute – Got to say, very much against the run of play…

30th minute – Altidore, who plays with Villarreal in Spain, beat his teammate, Capdevilla, for that goal…

31st minute – Spain pushes forward. David Villa has his shot blocked and it goes out for a corner. Two of them in succession go begging.

32nd minute – David Villa finds the ball at his feet in the box, but his shot sails well over.

35th minute – Howard looks around for a ball for a goal kick. It’s a bit early for time wasting, isn’t it?

36th minute – Altidore wins a free kick in Spanish territory. Donovan stands over it and Dempsey has a free header that goes over.

38th minute – Torres gets a great ball from Fabregas, but Onyewu steps in and sends the ball out for a corner. The U.S. dodged a bullet there.

41st minute – Altidore gets fouled in his own end. He stays down for a bit, then gets up and plays on.

42nd minute – Spain wins a free kick on the right edge of the box. It gets cleared out, but Spain comes back in. DeMerit saves the day with a late clearance, otherwise, it would be 1-1.

44th minute – Spain is pouring players forward. It’s all hands on deck for the U.S. right now.

45th minute – Torres hits the turbo button and gets into the box. He saves his low shot at the near post. The U.S. is living on borrowed time at the back right now.

45th minute – It’s halftime, and the U.S. leads the world’s No. 1 team, 1-0.

Halftime – I’d say I was shocked, but since I predicted a 1-1 draw, I’m not. Spain is having the better of play, but as my friend Andrew McCarthy pointed out to me after a match this season, soccer is a game where you can dominate and not win.

Charlie Davies has been a workhorse, and aside from a dubious yellow card, Donovan has shown heart and fire. Altidore’s turn and shot that led to the goal was a good piece of skill. Hopefully, my EPL club, Fulham, was watching…

46th minute – We’re back from the orange slices and lemonade at halftime. ESPN is about 11 seconds late coming back from a “This is SportsCenter” commercial. Nice…

47th minute – Donovan, in the Spanish box, wins a corner, but the cross is headed high.

48th minute – David Villa has a go from 15 yards and Howard makes a wonderful save.

50th minute – Spain is again pressing the issue, but the U.S. weather the storm.

52nd minute – Another corner for Spain gets cleared out.

53rd minute – Spain is fired up right now, and they’re ahead everywhere but the scoreboard.

54th minute – Good chance for Spain, but David Villa can’t control a nice pass…

56th minute – I feel like a broken record here. David Villa shoots, Howard saves…

57th minute – The States win a corner. Donovan sends it in, but it comes to nothing.

60th minute – Another corner for Spain played short, and like the others, no real chance comes from it.

61st minute – David Villa has yet another shot. This one goes wide…

63rd minute – The U.S. needs to keep the ball more. They can’t defend this way for 30 more minutes.

64th minute – Big block from DeMerit and then another huge save from Howard. Then another. Spain is running rampant here…

66th minute – Clark comes in to get a block in on Ramos. This is like a hockey game, with guys hitting the ground to block shots.

68th minute – Cazorla in for Fabregas and Feilhaber in for Davies.

70th minute – 20 minutes left. Can the United States hold on?

72nd minute – Better here from the Americans. Holding the ball and relieving some of the pressure.

74th minute – Clint Dempsey collects a wayward cross from Donovan just to the left of the penalty spot. He’ll never have an easier one. GOAL!!! U.S. leads, 2-0.

76th minute – A very fortunate goal for the United States. Spain has played well enough, but the U.S. has played great on defense and have taken their chances.

78th minute – Spain swaps Mata for Riera. Corner for Spain, which leads to a foul on the U.S. in a dangerous spot. … Villa’s shot is, you guessed it, saved by Howard.

84th minute – Altidore comes off for Connor Casey. Great game for Jozy today.

86th minute – Straigh red for Michael Bradley. It’s 11-on-10 for Spain now.

88th minute – Dempsey off in favor of Bornstein. Good game for him, too.

89th minute – Pique draws a yellow for dissent after a foul on Donovan.

90th minute – Three minutes of stoppage time in this one.

90th minute (plus two) – Spain continues to dominate play, but this has been a defensive master class today.

90th minute (plus two) – Aside from Bradley’s stupid foul, this has been that perfect game I thought the Americans needed.

FULL TIME – And the upset has happened! The United States shocks Spain, 2-0, and will play the winner of Brazil and South Africa on Sunday for the title. 

Confederations Cup preview – U.S.A. vs. Spain

June 24, 2009

Michael Bradley and the U.S. face Spain today

No chance, right?

That’s what the experts say about the U.S. team’s chances against Spain today in the semifinals of the Confederations Cup in South Africa.

Well, there’s certainly evidence to support the fact that the odds are currently running 11-to-1 against a United States win. Spain is the world’s top-ranked team and it is also the hottest, coming off a stylish run through the European Championships last summer and riding a unreal 35-match unbeaten streak, including a 1-0 win over the United States in Spain last summer.

They’ve also won 15 straight matches, and the book makers say that the Spanish are 1-to-4 to make it 16 wins on the trot today.

Here are a few keys to today’s encounter (ESPN, 2:25 p.m.):

1. Watch the space– Spain is most deadly when Xavi or Cesc Fabregas can pass the ball around in the midfield, setting up darting runs into the box for the jet-quick Fernando Torres or David Villa. The play of Michael Bradley and probably Ricardo Clark will be key. The U.S. midfield quite simply must play perfect soccer to contain the Spanish attack.

2. Test them –Iker Casillas is a brilliant keeper, but Sergio Ramos and Joan Capdevilla like to push up the wings. That opens up space for counter attacks against Carlos Puyol and Gerard Pique. Those two players can be exploited by pace, and the Americans have some of that. Set pieces in the box may be key as well, as the U.S. figures to have an advantage in the air.

3. Don’t be stupid– I read this morning that the referee is the same guy who showed the U.S. a pair of red cards in the 2006 World Cup draw with Italy and the fourth official is the guy who sent Sasha Kljestan packing in the group stages of this tournament. Remember the no slide tackle rule I mentioned last week? Might be a good idea here.

Seriously, watch the late challenges and don’t give the ref a reason to reach into his pocket.

4. Spend the house money – Honestly, the Americans should be home prepping for the Gold Cup. Only the rousing 3-0 win over Egypt, coupled with a shambolic effort from the Italians against Brazil got Bob Bradley’s side into this match.

So, since being on this stage was unexpected, why not play loose and relaxed? Have some fun.

My prediction

Now, I freely admit to being a bit of a homer for the national team, but I have a good feeling about today. I don’t see the U.S. coming out and playing an attacking, free-wheeling game against Spain. Instead, I think they’ll take the Iraq approach of stacking the defensive third with bodies and trying to crowd out the Spanish midfield.

That strategy worked for a while for Iraq, and it will work today for the Americans. I see a 1-1 draw after 90 minutes and the Americans advancing in penalty kicks.

Check back here in a couple of hours for the live blog and see how wrong – or right – I end up being…

Breaking out the crystal ball

June 24, 2009
It hasnt happened yet, but it will

It hasn't happened yet, but it will

Every once in a while, I like to take a shot at predicting the future.

It’s a good summer activity, cleverly designed to fill the void of sporting news until training camps open for NFL players and freshmen report to campus for the start of football practice.

So, let’s do it:

1. Brett Favre will be a Viking – Yeah, and in other news, gravity is still holding my fat butt in this chair. Look, it’s a done deal. He’ll be there when camp opens up in Mankato at the end of July.

I have a bit of Favre fatigue, though not nearly as much as my wife. Here’s a woman that has loved No. 4 all of her football-loving life, and now she’s on the verge of trading in her love potion for some purple Haterade.

Me? I don’t care that much. It livens up the offseason.

I’ll predict 3,100 yards, 23 TDs and 14 picks.

And a NFC North title.

2. Plaxico Burress and Donte Stallworth will be miss at least the first eight games – Roger Goodell has already dropped the hammer on Stallworth, slapping him with an indefinite suspension. He’ll hit Plax with some league justice as well, assuming he doesn’t wind up in jail first.

3. Florida will repeat as champions – I am not a fan of the Florida Gators, so I say this without a blue-and-orange bias: There’s no way the Gators won’t win the “national championship.”

It’s in quotes because the NCAA doesn’t officially crown a champion. Brilliant, that is.

Anyway, aside from a trip to Baton Rouge to face LSU on Oct. 10, there isn’t a game on the schedule in which the Gators shouldn’t be a touchdown favorite. Their defense returns all 11 starters and they have eight starters back on offense, including that Tim Tebow guy, who I hear is pretty good.

That’s enough for now.

Until we meet again, be champions! (Watch at 2:22)