USA 2, Ghana 1 – Pentagram

What a game!  What a weird, wonderful, and at times frightening game!  Some will claim the USA turned back the clock about 30 years with a gritty, ugly, gut-check win.  Some will note that Juergen’s tactics and substitutions pretty much worked to a T.  And down at the Dublin Pub, with most of our YMCA U8 Soccer Team looking on (occasionally), we were starting to get a very bad feeling when Ghana continued to whip in crosses and come closer with their outside blasts.  The tying goal seemed inevitable…   And then Graham Zusi to John Brooks…


Juergen’s success with his subs continues…  With Germany’s pasting of Portugal, the Group of Death suddenly seems navigable – even with the injuries.  So on to five points about this opening World Cup Win…

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Five Points from the Send-off Series

Less than a week from today, the U.S. Soccer team will take the field for their first World Cup match against Ghana.  That will be at 5 pm CST on Monday, so plan to leave work early.  Juergen Klinsmann has had his team together for three-plus weeks, he’s controversially cut Landon Donovan, and he’s  led the team to three wins in the send-off series against progressively more difficult opponents. The 2-0 win against Azerbaijan was a snoozer.   The back line didn’t have much to do, the offense looked rough amidst tired legs, and Mix Diskerud and Aron Johannsson  go the goals.  The next game, against Turkey, was more instructive.  Here the back line looked a little disorganized and loose, while Jermaine Jones had too much to do at the base of the diamond midfield.  But the offense looked better, more fluid, and the Bradley-to-Johnson goal was as good as you’ll see:

2-1, USA, with more for the coaches to think about.  This past Saturday, the team took on Nigeria, who will also be in Brazil and are easily the best opponent of the three.  This 2-1 win was pretty convincing, and should have us all feeling a lot more positive.  The defense looked stout, the attacking movements were there, and Jozy Altidore scored twice to break out of his slump.  If you had asked what we wanted out of the Nigeria game, those preceding three points are it.

So now it’s on to the grand stage.  The wait is nearly over.  It’s gut-check time.  Insert additional cliche here.  Ghana, Portugal, and Germany are on the horizon.  Here’s your U.S. Soccer Send-off Series Pentagram, with five points to consider…

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Pentagram – USA v. Mex in the Desert

The General celebrates new shirts and a goal

Say this for the new away kit:  It looked a lot better in action than it does on the promo material…  And along with the new bomb-pop shirt, Jurgen trotted out a diamond midfield – something the EA Sports FIFA Soccer series tells us is always a good idea (offensively, at least).  Recently heralded German-American, Julian Green – all of 18 years old – debuted and showed some flashes.  And as good as the American midfield looked in the first half, the Mexicans adjusted and controlled the first portion of the second half.

So even though a brutally bad offisides call robbed Eddie Johnson of a clinical goal in the final ten minutes of the game, which would have given the U.S. the win, we’ll take a 2-2 tie.  We’ll also take note of who’s ready and who’s not, because the naming of the World Cup preliminary roster is only a month away.

Five points in this USA-Mexico pentagram from Arizona…

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Pentagram: Road win in Vegas

Coach em up

For the Fighting Illini basketball team, the first real test came late last night against UNLV on the road.  After beating up on some lesser opponents in Champaign, Coach Groce and Company traveled to Las Vegas in preparation for a December stretch that’s looking much tougher.

Illinois went down by 10 at halftime and looked pretty bad the final four minutes of the first half.  We knew the halftime adjustments were coming, though, and Coach Groce indeed had them looking better in the second.  It’s such novel idea to come out of halftime knowing your team will shift and change to exploit identified weaknesses…  We still aren’t used to it.

The Illini out-toughed and out executed UNLV in the second, with good performances by Ray Rice, Nnanna Egwu, and Jaylon Tate.  Final score 61-59, thanks to switching the defenses, running the right set plays in given situations, and hitting some clutch shots towards the end  This is an early season belief-win that will surely help the RPI come March.

Five points in your first road-win pentagram…

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Pentagram: First Look Illini

Joe B. to the rack

Illinois basketball opened the season this weekend with a pair of wins over  Alabama State (80-63) and Jacksonville State (86-62).  Both opponents were small conference foes who were never going to be competitive unless they shot lights out from three-land.  You can only take away so much from these types of games; but you better believe John Groce and company saw plenty.  And the coaching staff has the definite objective of blooding the five freshmen, building the depth and confidence, and getting prepared for the foul-out slugfests to come next month and in conference play.

We mention the foul-outs due to the new points of emphasis the NCAA has implemented to cut down hand-checking, bumping, and Duke-style phantom charges.  That sound you hear is Matt Painter grinding his teeth at Purdue.  We’re mostly in favor of this, but man are we going to see some ugly games until the players and coaches adjust.

The Illini return just three contributors from last season:  Nnanna Egwu, Joe Bertrand, and Tracy Abrams.  As has been highlighted elsewhere, the rest are transfers and freshmen.  We don’t really know the identity of this team – who will take the clutch shots or grab the vital rebounds.  We do know Coach Groce will have them playing hard and attacking the basket.  How many wins can this group gather; how will they sack up against top opponents? It’ a big question mark.  We’re hoping for post-season play (translate NIT) with a chance to sneak into the NCAA Tourney.

With that in mind, here are five early impressions of the team based on our viewing of the sometimes-choppy Internet broadcast from ESPN 3…

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Gold Cup Themes – Pentagram

The CONCACAF Gold Cup has begun, with a couple of surprises – including Mexico’s opening match defeat to Panama.  For us it really gets started tonight as the USA takes on Belize in Portland (10:00 CST, Fox Soccer).  Only in CONCACAF does the regional championship routinely feature ‘B’-level squads from its top two teams, yet those teams (USA and Mexico) still expect to win.

This year’s Gold Cup is a little different, though.  This year’s winner will square off against the 2015 winner for the right to go to the 2017 Confederations Cup in Russia (the World Cup Warm-up event that just finished in Brazil).  So the Gold Cup does matter this time.

The tourney is also a nice way for the CONCACAF bureaucrats to make some money, get their teams on TV, and get some of the smaller teams more competitive.  Bonus points if you can guess the number of Cubans who end up defecting, and the number of unknown MLS signees-of-the-future to be seen in this Gold Cup.

Most importantly, the Gold Cup is a chance to see some National Team fringe guys and depth guys make their case for inclusion in next summer’s 23-man World Cup Roster.  Five points we will be tracking throughout the tourney:

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Pentagram: Utility Wins for the USA

US Soccer can see Brazil on the horizon.  Thanks to two wins in the last week, last Friday’s 2-1 victory in Jamaica and Tuesday night’s 2-0 defeat of Panama in Seattle, Jurgen Klinsmann and co. are top of the Hex in World Cup Qualifying.  The team has 10 points from five games over this first stretch that included three road games.  16 points has guaranteed qualification in past cycles, and with a majority of home games remaining, a win next Tues. over Honduras and the team can shift emphasis a bit.  It will be more about building the team and less worrying about getting to Brazil next summer.

The team also looks much, much better.  A number of factors contribute here:  time together, diminished quality of opponents, and a likely change in some coaching/communication methods.  The key component has been the emergence of important utility players, who have stepped into new or less familiar roles.  This can be a tricky proposition; oftentimes when you play guys outside their natural or familiar club position, they’re tentative or ineffective.  But Jurgen seems to have pushed the right buttons in this case, and his plug-and-play lineups have succeeded – at least against these regional opponents.

Five points for your two World Cup Qualifier utility wins…  Continue reading

Pentagram: Four Points Earned

Herc is now your #9

The US Soccer Team took its first steps on the road to the World Cup Finals in Brazil.  And they’re tired already.  Last Friday’s 3-1 win over Antigua and Barbuda, followed by Tuesday’s 1-1 draw in Guatemala, served the reminder that qualifying, while mandatory, ain’t easy.  It’s the same old mantra for qualifying out of our region:  win at home, draw on the road.

Juergen Klinsmann will take the results.  He will also have to take some of the criticism, because the team looked pretty underwhelming and was actually pretty fortunate not to lose that last game.  The players were obviously tired, from Juergen’s demanding fitness schedule following long club seasons.  Roster/player selections were an issue, as were some of the deployments and tactics.  While we applaud the overall strategy and philosophy the coach is trying to implement, a year in and we’re still wary…

But the team is off until September, when it will play Jamaica twice in five days.  Win at home, draw on the road, get to the next round.  Still, we need to improve depth and the offensive gameplan to win the Hex and arrive at Brazil in position to make some noise.

Five points in the pentagram…

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Pentagram: The Ugly-Pretty

AJ Jenkins looks to score

The Illinois football team defeated Arizona State 17-14 on Saturday to go 3-0 and crack the Top 25 for the first time in awhile.  It was an ugly game, marred by penalties and mistakes on both sides, with the defenses dominating for long stretches.  Most people picked this game as a shootout, with someone needing to score 40 to win.  While that didn’t happen, the Illini win has kicked in this little-known concept of momentum, and that result along with the how the schedule could play out make the result pretty enough.

This game broke some streaks for the Orange and Blue, including a long stretch of futility against Top 25 foes (ASU was #22 last week) and the non-conference Top 25.  It’s the first time starting the season three games undefeated in years.  Perhaps most importantly, the Illini came from behind in the 4th quarter to actually win a game at the end.  This simply has not happened the last three years, with the team dropping virtually every close contest in the final frame.

Now it’s time for two more home games in which the Illini will be favored:  MAC opponent Western Michigan this week and Northwestern the week after.  Win those two and how you have yourself some serious momentum – just what the program needs.  Five points in the Pentagram:

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Pentagram: Gold Cup Group Stage

Well, the US Soccer Team made it out of their group with an unconvincing 1-0 win over Guadeloupe (population: 400,000) last night.  This comes on the heels of Saturday’s first ever Gold Cup group state loss, 2-1 at the hands of Panama, and last week’s ho-hum 2-0 victory over a very static Canada.  So Team America will now face a dangerous looking Jamaica side in Washington D.C. on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Mexico has looked dominant, winning their group in style while scoring 14 goals and giving up one.  If you were looking for indicators that the balance of power in CONCACAF has shifted, you’re seeing them.  A US-Mexico final in Pasadena weekend after next is still a possibility, but not many would favor our chances based off recent games.

Speculation abounds that Coach Bob Bradley is once again on the hot seat, and maybe he should be.  His player selections (same guys again and again), tactics (same, same, same), and most importantly, seeming inability to get the team locked in with intensity and focus at the start of games are all troubling.  We still say that anything less than winning the Gold Cup would merit a reevaluation of Bradley’s position.  But not all is so bleak; after all, Jozy Altidore seems to be regaining some form and confidence with a pair of goals, including this blast:

Five points in your Gold Cup Group Stage Pentagram… Continue reading