Julian Green

As loss to Belgium exemplified, time is now for US to develop game-changing players, style

21 Comments

Every now and again, it is fun to think about: What if just ONE of America’s greatest athletes had played soccer instead? What if LeBron or Cam Newton or Mike Trout or Adrian Peterson or Patrick Kane had chosen soccer instead of their sport?

Tuesday, I think, we saw what it might have looked like: It might have looked just a little bit like Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku.

Did you see him? Holy cow: Did you SEE him? Apparently Lukaku has been disappointing for much of this World Cup, listless, indifferent, unready for such a big stage. That, I guess, is why he was a substitute on Tuesday. Lukaku is only 21 years old, and he has spent much of his young career in the Premier League getting loaned out. He’s clearly trying to find his place.

But talent? Absurd. He’s 6-foot-3. He’s brilliantly fast – have you seen that Quicksilver scene in the new X-Men movie? Yeah, he’s like that fast. Most of all, he’s just overpowering when he runs. Like Peterson. Like LeBron. The Guardian named Lukaku one of the 10 most promising players in Europe.

And Tuesday, in extra time, he came in and he made the World Cup his own by running through a game but tired United States defense again and again – unstoppable, unbreakable, untouchable. It was mind-boggling. The United States would send one, two, three defenders at him and he would just smash through them. He set up Belgium’s first goal by simply running through a stumbling U.S. defender. He scored the second with a powerful run to the near post where he shielded off the defender and left-footed a smash past goalkeeper Tim Howard. He had various other moments that almost ended up as goals.

[MORE: Belgium sinks U.S. in extra time, advances to World Cup quarterfinals]

The United States has had many good soccer players. They’ve had scrappy defenders and tough midfielders and blazing fast forwards. Their goaltender, Howard, put on a display for the ages against Belgium with 16 saves, the most ever recorded for a World Cup game. He’s one of the best goalkeepers in the world; America has had a few good goalkeepers. Well, we’re good with our hands.

[MORE: Howard’s heroics not enough in ‘heartbreaking’ U.S. World Cup exit]

But they’ve never had a Romelu Lukaku. Or, more to the point, America’s Romelu Lukakus have spent the last few decades driving hard to the basket, plowing through linebackers and crashing into fences after long fly balls. What kind of goal scorer could Barry Sanders have been? How about Dave Winfield? What about Tim Tebow?

So far America has never had that soccer force who can scare the heck out of the rest of the world. So far America has not had a player who can take over games the way Lukaku did. And it seems that until American soccer has a Lukaku (never mind a real soccer genius like Messi or Neymar), a player capable of making magic time after time, this round of 16 business just might be their limit.

Oh, make no mistake, this was a very nice World Cup for the United States. Few thought they could escape the so-called Group of Death, with Germany and Portugal both ranked in the FIFA Top 5 and the added bonus of Ghana, the country that ended America’s last  two World Cups.

It wasn’t easy. The U.S. scored almost instantly against Ghana this time, then withstood a furious barrage, and finally scored a late game-winner. The U.S. outplayed Portugal and should have come away with a victory but took the draw after a singular bit of magnificence from Cristiano Ronaldo. Then, even in a loss to Germany, they showed will and gritty defending against a clearly superior team.

What they rarely showed, though, was brilliance. Throughout the tournament, the key word was “possession” – the U.S. gave the ball away again and again … they could rarely build any sort of sustained attack because they couldn’t keep possession long enough. A team can have some success at the World Cup with a well-organized defense and a couple of lightning-bolt goals. But sooner or later, that style runs its course.

[MORE: USA player ratings vs. Belgium  |  Signs of progress small, but clear]

Yes, the United States could have beaten Belgium on Tuesday – if Chris Wondolowski had punched home that remarkable chance in the final minute of regulation, the United States surely would have won. But talking about missed chances in soccer isn’t especially helpful; if Howard had not been Superman, the United States would have lost 6-0. The bigger point was the U.S. was thoroughly outplayed by a much more talented team. The U.S. might have stolen the game, but it would have been just that: A steal. Belgium was much, much better.

And if the U.S. is to take the next step, they cannot go into games where they are thoroughly outclassed. The U.S. needs to develop some players who go beyond tough, beyond rugged, beyond resilient and fit and hard-working. They need to develop some players who can do wizardry.

This is something people have been talking about for decades – the “when will America develop a world-class player” stories were written 30 or 40 years ago – but I suspect the time is now.

Sure, people will keep arguing about soccer’s place in the American landscape. Some will point to the extraordinary way this World Cup took hold in the United States. Others will point to the extremely low ratings of MLS. Some will see the trend of young people embracing soccer. Others will point to the many years of youth soccer dominance in America and how little impact it has had on soccer as a spectator sport. That argument isn’t stopping anytime soon.

But wherever soccer ends up on the great American sports spectrum, there is no question that this is a moment for the team to build on. Two young players – DeAndre Yedlin and Julian Green – had auspicious debuts this World Cup. But there’s something else, too.

You know the story of Pelé, right? He was 10 years old in 1950, when his home country of Brazil lost to Uruguay in one of the most famous matches ever played. The young Pelé saw his father crying after the loss. Pelé went up to his father and said, “Don’t worry. One day, I will win it.”

Something like that could very well have happened at this World Cup, too. This was the most-watched World Cup in American history and by far the most talked about. So maybe a 10-year-old who plays all the sports – maybe a whole bunch of 10 year olds – saw the brilliant passing of Ronaldo, the magic of Messi, the sheer physical sway of Belgium’s 19-year-old wunderkind Divock Origi and his replacement, Lukaku. And maybe they thought, “That’s what I want to be.”

The U.S. fell in the round of 16 for the second straight World Cup. They played hard, and they held up well, and they gave us a final 15 minutes to remember, and they were not good enough. But if those kids were watching … this could be the most important result in U.S. World Cup history.

Spurs’ Kane wants to win everything: “We are buzzing”

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 14: Harry Kane of Tottenham Hotspur celebrates scoring his penalty with Danny Rose during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur at Etihad Stadium on February 14, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Leave a comment

FA Cup, Europa League, Premier League? Yes, please. Harry Kane wants them all.

Kane converted a penalty kick as Spurs bested Manchester City 2-1 on Sunday at the Etihad Stadium, moving to within two points of the Premier League’s top spot.

[ MORE: Match recap | Watch Eriksen’s winner ]

The big striker was euphoric after Christian Eriksen also scored to help Spurs pick up the win, and said the media can decide what it wants about their chances; He knows they can do it.

From the BBC:

“That is up to you lot if we are challengers, we know what we are capable of. We are still in three competitions and we are taking them all very seriously. We are confident we can beat anyone in the league, you saw that today and we came away victorious. We are buzzing.”

Spurs have captured 15-straight points in making their run to second. There’s plenty of time before March 5’s big North London Derby with Arsenal, but we’re looking forward to it.

Before then, Spurs have a pair with Fiorentina in the Europa League, an FA Cup date with Crystal Palace, and PL fixtures versus Swansea and West Ham.

Title race on!

Three things we learned from Tottenham’s big win vs. Man City

Leave a comment

Tottenham Hotspur beat Manchester City 2-1 at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday in a tight encounter.

[ MORE: Arsenal beat Leicester late on ]

A controversial penalty kick got Spurs rolling and despite a Man City fightback, Christian Eriksen pounced late on to grab the winner on his birthday.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Here’s what we learned as the title picture becomes even more jumbled after an epic day where the top four all met one another.

AWFUL PK CALL COSTS CITY

There’s a debatable handball decision and then there’s the kind of decision which went against Man City on Sunday. At the start of the second half Danny Rose curled in a pretty innocuous cross from the left flank and Raheem Sterling jumped in the air with his back to the ball and was right on the edge of the penalty area. The ball struck his ribs and may have grazed his elbow but he knew nothing about it. PEEEEEPP! What. No way. He hasn’t. He has.

Referee Mark Clattenburg pointed to the spot and Man City’s players looked on in disbelief as the penalty was awarded. Take a look at the video below. It was incredibly harsh and swung the game in Spurs’ favor and overall the decision created a major talking point about what is and what isn’t a handball anymore.

Referees show a severe lack of consistency when awarding penalties for handball. Is it ball to hand? Does the arm have to be in an unnatural position? On and on the debate goes, and from his angle it looked like Clattenburg guessed that it hit Sterling’s arm rather than seeing it actually strike the arm. It cost Man City dear as Manuel Pellegrini‘s side have lost two on the spin at home against title rivals Leicester City and now Spurs. City are six points off top spot now with 12 games to go and they aren’t out of this. However, when you look back at big decisions at the end of the season this one could be the difference between them winning the title or not. That PK call and a huge late save from Hugo Lloris who took the ball off Nicolas Otamendi’s head could be pivotal. Sure, City look better at the back with Vincent Kompany returning from injury but there’s no doubt they’re the outsiders for the title after a seventh defeat of the season.

SPURS’ INTENSITY INFECTIOUS

They hunt in packs. They hunt together. And on Sunday, Tottenham’s players hunted down loose balls with more ferocity than in any other game this season. Snapping into tackles, in the first half City couldn’t get into any rhythm and despite the poor PK call from Clattenburg they deserved to win.

[ MORE: Arsenal fans go wild in USA after Welbeck’s winner

Over the course of the game Tottenham looked more comfortable on the ball, they believed in each other and Spurs secured a fifth-straight PL win at a venue where they had lost on each of the last five encounters. Mauricio Pochettino‘s team are showing a maturity beyond their years. Harry Kane stepped up and was ice-cold with his penalty kick, Mousa Dembele patrolled the midfield with power and panache and Eriksen’s winner was a prime example of the high-tempo approach Pochettino loves to employ. In the 83rd minute Yaya Toure tried to run forward from midfield and lost the ball with four Spurs players swarming him. Erik Lamela then ran at the hart of City’s defense and slipped through a perfect pass to Eriksen. On his birthday the Dane was coolness personified as he took a sublime first touch and slotted past Joe Hart to send the away fans wild. Spurs have only won the title twice in their history and the last came back in 1961. Now, with an easy looking schedule they could transform from the dark horses to the favorites. Pochettino’s player are hungry, have the best defensive record in the PL and have proven themselves in the big games this season.

NORTH LONDON TITLE TUSSLE

Okay, this is actually happening. With Arsenal beating Leicester earlier on Sunday both north London teams are now just two points behind the Foxes. Spurs sit second and Arsenal third as only goal difference separates the two rivals who have 51 points. When they meet at White Hart Lane on March 5 it will be an incredible atmosphere and it could well be a huge game in deciding which half of north London the title goes to on May 15.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings | Schedule ] 

When you look back at the history of PL title races, there have been only a few instances where direct crosstown or local rivals have gone head-to-head for the title. Man City and Man United have had a few title tussles since 2011 but the fact that two bitter rivals are going at it for the title will only add to the incredible unpredictability. This season it is closer than ever at the top and Spurs and Arsenal now have plenty of momentum as they head into the two week PL break. Get ready for plenty of talk of a “title tussle in North London” over the next 10 days or so.  It’s legit.

WATCH: Lamela finds Eriksen to boost Spurs past Man City

1 Comment

Spurs are within two points of the Premier League lead after this goal from Christian Eriksen boosted them to a 2-1 win over Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday.

[ MATCH RECAP: Man City 1-2 Spurs ]

With the match tied at one, Spurs sub Erik Lamela played a well-weighted through ball to Eriksen, who touched it forward before pushing a shot around a sliding Joe Hart to give Tottenham a lead it would not relinquish over the final minutes.

Manchester City 1-2 Tottenham Hotspur: Controversy and drama at the Etihad

Leave a comment

Harry Kane and Christian Eriksen scored goals in a big 2-1 away win over Manchester City on Sunday that kept Tottenham Hotspur in the thick of Premier League title race.

Kelechi Iheanacho scored Man City’s goal, briefly tying the match up before Eriksen decided things in the 83rd minute.

The win pulls Spurs into a mass of three teams within two points of the Premier League lead, above derby rivals Arsenal on goal differential and two points behind first-place Leicester City.

For Man City, it’s fourth place: four points out of second and six ahead of Manchester United.

Kane’s goal opened the scoring, and came off a controversial penalty call. Raheem Sterling leapt to block Danny Rose‘s cross and took the ball off his elbow, and Mark Clattenberg thought the elbow wasn’t tucked close enough to the body.

 

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

The first half featured plenty of cautious play and feeling out from both sides, as well as some testy tackles.

Danny Rose paid for making a great shot block on Raheem Sterling in the 24th minute. The Spurs defender slid hard to get in Sterling’s blast radius and took the shot off his chest.

Rose also pushed forward plenty in giving City’s left side fits.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Sterling then conceded a controversial penalty at the whistle of Mark Clattenberg. Rose’s cross hit the leaping City man’s back or elbow inside the 18, and Kane buried his shot up the middle and past Joe Hart.

The goal forced an offensive sub, as Manuel Pellegrini took Fernando off for Kelechi Iheanacho in the 66th minute.

Then David Silva found Gael Clichy‘s overlapping run, and the latter’s cross was buried by Iheanacho from around the penalty spot.

It was a day for impact subs, though, as Erik Lamela played a perfectly-weighted ball through for Eriksen, who slid the ball past a splayed Hart.

A late sliding chance for Silva popped over the frame, and Spurs went back to London with all three points.