Frequent contributor Jon Marthaler has written about virtually every sport in the Twin Cities, and fills in on Saturdays for the RandBall blog on StarTribune.com. He'll cover the professional soccer scene in the Twin Cities, whether at the Metrodome or at the National Sports Center.

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World Cup Day 17 and 18: Four for the quarterfinals

Posted by: Jon Marthaler under Soccer Updated: June 30, 2014 - 9:31 AM

The first four teams in the quarterfinals are set, and it's the four that most people expected to get through. The only surprising thing is how the four got there. A few thoughts:

Brazil 1, Chile 1 (Brazil wins on penalties 3-2): This is not the Brazil we thought we would see. We did not expect Brazil to score in the first half, concede a goal a quarter of an hour later, and then doggedly hang on through the remainder of the game and extra time in order to get to penalties. This is supposed to be the World Cup of samba, of verve and attacking and the expression of joy through futbol; it never crossed our minds that Brazil would need to hang on against Chile.

Then again, perhaps we're just expecting too much from Brazil. They are still the tournament favorites, and are still three wins away from a seventh World Cup. Then again, they were the favorites in Germany and South Africa, too - they are perma-favorites - and they lost in the quarterfinals both times.

Colombia 2, Uruguay 0: Every World Cup has a breakout star, a player that maybe you knew about already, but who suddenly is possessed by the spirit of Pele and scores a bunch of goals. This year's edition is Colombian winger James Rodriguez - it's pronounced Hahm-ez - who scored both Colombian goals in the quarterfinals, bringing his tally up to five, the most in the tournament. If you have not yet seen his first goal, please go watch it; I suspect we will not see a better goal in the tournament.

I guarantee you that every fan of a club soccer team around the world has, at some point during this World Cup, gone to Rodriguez's Wikipedia page to find out where he plays (Monaco, in the French league) and how old he is (just 22). They will have been disappointed to learn that Monaco paid 45 million Euros for him last season, in the top 20 highest transfer fees in history, making him too expensive for all but a handful of teams. But they will remember his name - if for no other reason, than to pronounce it correctly in the future.

Netherlands 2, Mexico 1: Giovani dos Santos scored an excellent goal, and it looked like Mexico might hold on - until a late Wesley Sneijder rocket tied the game, and an Arjen Robben dive in stoppage time fooled the referee into awarding the Dutch the game-deciding penalty. If this serves only to remind the world that Arjen Robben is absolutely the worst, then perhaps it's still worth it. To sum up: Arjen Robben is the worst.

Let's also spare a thought for Mexico, which - almost incredibly - lost in the first knockout round for the sixth consecutive World Cup. It's like our neighbors to the south are doomed to forever be the 13th best team in world soccer: sure to qualify, good enough to progress, never good enough to go any farther.

Mexico has now been in the World Cup 15 times. They have made it to the knockout stage eight times. And in all that time, they have won ONE knockout-round game. By the time they get a chance to go for another, it'll be 32 years since that win, at home against Bulgaria in 1986. Yikes.

Costa Rica 1, Greece 1 (Costa Rica win 5-3 on penalties): Costa Rica are the tournament's happy underdog story, and we're just so pleased to see it keep running for a few more days. Bryan Ruiz scored in the 52nd minute for Los Ticos, who then had Oscar Duarte sent off 14 minutes later. But the Costa Ricans exhaustedly withstood the Greece attack for an hour longer, even after Sokratis Papastathopoulos tied the game in stoppage time in regulation, and then somehow had the energy to score all five penalties to advance. Striker Joel Campbell in particular looked like he could barely walk up to take his penalty, but he scored.

Costa Rica's reward is a quarterfinal against the Netherlands on Saturday, which is a poor reward. Still, during the game, the announcers told the story of the 1990 World Cup, the only other time Costa Rica made it through to the knockout round. Though they lost in the first game, upon their return to Costa Rica, they were given a heroes' welcome; people came out of their houses and held up mirrors, as the team's plane circled the country, and the players could see the reflection of a thousand points of light from all across the nation.

I don't know what awaits the team upon their return to Costa Rica this year. The modern equivalent would probably be laser pointers, but that seems unsafe.

MLS will come to Minnesota, and waiting may be a good thing

Posted by: Jon Marthaler under Vikings management, Soccer Updated: June 27, 2014 - 1:00 PM

I want to reassure you, soccer fans of Minnesota - especially those of you who might just be joining us, thanks to an exciting World Cup and the USA making it to the knockout round. Allow me to soothe your fevered brows: Minnesota will get a Major League Soccer team. When they will start play, no one knows; who will own the team is also undecided, as is where the team will take the field. But it’s happening. I’m convinced of it.

For all of Major League Soccer’s talk about franchise fees and expansion criteria, the league has been extremely pragmatic in placing its franchises. The league wanted to tap into the Pacific Northwest’s soccer culture, so it placed teams in Seattle, Vancouver, and Portland, despite the first two playing in cavernous football stadiums and the last playing in a converted baseball stadium. MLS wanted a second team in New York, and so New York City FC will begin play next year in Yankee Stadium, without a concrete plan to build a stadium of its own. The league wanted to get back into the Southeast, where two clubs folded in 2002, and so awarded teams to a smaller market in Orlando, to an NFL owner in Atlanta, and to a stadium-free, David Beckham-led bid in Miami.

Now, the league wants to spread across the country, to expand from its East Coast / West Coast / Texas footprint. The Southeast trio was a big part of that expansion. Adding another team in the center of the country, to go with Chicago and Kansas City, looks like it’s the next logical step. Combine that with the lure of a top-15 television market and the financial backing of the Twin Cities business community, and you begin to see why Minnesota, not San Antonio or Sacramento or Las Vegas, has been the focus of most of the next-franchise league rumors.

Nothing has been decided yet, though, and that’s because Major League Soccer would like to drop a team into a perfect situation in the Minneapolis-St. Paul market. Ideally, the league would like all of its teams to play in a soccer-specific stadium, in a downtown locale that’s accessible both by car and by public transit, in front of fans that have an affinity for the team and owned by a group that’s committed entirely to soccer. The league has never made any bones about this desire in every market they’ve gone into. They’ve achieved bits and pieces of this vision; twelve of the league’s 19 teams play in soccer-specific stadiums, although these tend to be in the suburbs and not downtown, and very few of the league’s teams have the disinterested corporate ownership that predominated in the MLS’s early days.

It remains possible that the league could check just about every one of their boxes in Minneapolis. Two decades of pro soccer support in Minnesota have now coalesced around Minnesota United FC, and almost ever since Dr. Bill McGuire purchased the team early in 2013, rumors have swirled about his desire to build a soccer-specific stadium in Minnesota. Talk of a stadium at the Farmer’s Market site in downtown Minneapolis has intensified, and other sites that would meet the team’s desires have been suggested. Any plan would not only require a site but also a financing plan, which could be difficult in a local market that has seen the approval of four new stadiums in the past ten years. But if McGuire - and any partners he might include in the team - could make a stadium plan a reality, it would appear, to me at least, that the team is a natural choice to become the next MLS franchise.

Should the plan fail to materialize, though, the league has a waiting backup plan in the Vikings. The team already has the downtown arena being built, albeit in the form of a Vancouver-style converted football stadium, and the Vikings’ latest public-relations push appears designed to convince both the league and local fans that the team is serious about being a committed MLS owner.

Many United fans are dead set against the idea of the Vikings owning a team, an anger that is the combination of a number of factors. For one, the fans fear the cheap, disinterested soccer ownership style that New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft, who also owns the New England Revolution in MLS, has made infamous. For another, fans of pro soccer in Minnesota are angry that the Wilfs did not step in to save their team while it was in years-long danger of being folded - even while simultaneously pushing the possibility of soccer in the new Vikings stadium.

Mostly, though, both local fans and MLS itself realize that there is still the possibility of that top-notch, soccer-focused experience coming to Minnesota, and that’s what they’re holding out for. If that doesn’t happen, I expect the league to once again be pragmatic, and announce the launch of a Vikings-backed team. But the league can afford to be patient, and wait to see if its best hopes become a reality.

I know it’s hard, soccer fans. But I think you just need to be patient, as well. I’m convinced MLS in Minnesota is going to happen, and waiting means it might happen in exactly the way that both you, and Major League Soccer, want it to happen.

Germany 1, USA 0: Game is lost but the job got done

Posted by: Jon Marthaler under Soccer Updated: June 26, 2014 - 1:50 PM

History will remember the USA's 1-0 loss to Germany as a speed bump on the way to the knockout round, and ultimately, that might be the truth of it. The Americans never looked like scoring against Germany, but Portugal beat Ghana 2-1 in Group G's other game, and in the end the Americans go through quite comfortably on goal differential.

Following the World Cup draw, this was exactly the path to the knockout round that most pundits planned for the USA: beat Ghana, get a result of some kind against Portugal, and then keep it close against Germany and hope results break the USA's way. That's exactly what happened, and while it wasn't convincing, it got the job done. The many who have questioned the team, and especially the methods of head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, will be left to remember that Klinsmann navigated his underdog team through the hardest group at the World Cup.

Focusing on the results, though, ignores the actual panic of the early afternoon for American fans. 0-0 at halftime, with Portugal leading Ghana 1-0, everything felt pretty comfortable; barring a Ghanian comeback or a German goal, the USA would skate comfortably through. Within three minutes of each other, though, Thomas Muller scored for Germany and Asamoah Gyan - him again - scored for Ghana, and suddenly the USA was one Ghana goal from going out.

It wasn't until the 80th minute, when Cristiano Ronaldo scored for Portugal, that fans began to breathe easy. Ghana never found either of the two goals they would have needed to go through, nor did Portugal and Germany look like scoring the three combined goals they'd need to score to send the USA home, and each of the fifteen minutes that remained following Ronaldo's goal was more comfortable than the last.

In the end, it was a 1-0 loss that the USA could be happy with. From the opening kickoff, it became apparent that the Americans would concede Germany most of the possession and aim to wait for a chance on a set piece, or for a German defensive mistake. Germany, at least, tried to press the Americans into a mistake; the USA sat back, allowing two-thirds of the possession to go to their opponents in favor of keeping most of their team behind the ball.

For much of the first half, the USA appeared to be playing nothing so much as six defenders; in general, either or both of wings Graham Zusi and Brad Davis were in the defensive line, along with occasional trips there from Kyle Beckerman, who barely strayed more than ten yards from either center back. Michael Bradley, theoretically set to lead the USA's attack from midfield, was again so ineffective that he and Jermaine Jones effectively switched places. Clint Dempsey was surrounded fore and aft by German defenders for the entire game, to the point that he eventually started coming back to 30 yards in front of his own goalkeeper, just in the hopes of getting a piece of the ball.

Still, though, to focus on the negatives of the USA's defensive-minded approach would be wrong, in some ways. It's also notable that the powerful German offense barely cracked open the USA defense; Tim Howard was forced into a few saves, but most of them were either shots from distance, or controllable. It was only from a corner that Howard's initial save fell to Mueller near the edge of the area, and the German striker buried a world-class shot inside the far post.

You can be positive about the USA's defense, then, given that a collapse would have sent them home. You can be infuriated about their lack of attack, given that they managed just four shots - none on goal - and two corners. Ultimately, though, the Americans knew that a 1-0 loss might be enough for them - a belief that proved true.

Getting out of the Group of Death? Achieved. We will remember John Brooks's late winner against Ghana, and that Portugal's at-the-death equalizer against the Americans wasn't enough to knock the USA out. We will forget about today's game against Germany, just as we've forgotten about the USA's 3-1 loss to Poland in the final group-stage game in 2002, which also wasn't enough to knock the Americans out of qualifying for the second round.

The tournament resets now. The USA will play either Belgium or Algeria - likely Belgium - next Tuesday at 3:00. The Group of Death is over. Now comes the hard part.

Guest Post: Three keys to USA-Germany

Posted by: Jon Marthaler under Soccer Updated: June 26, 2014 - 9:22 AM

Editor's Note: Star Tribune economy reporter and well-known soccer lover Adam Belz is here to take us through his three keys to USA-Germany. Adam?


Michael Bradley must have his best game of the World Cup and leave the first two matches behind him.

Bradley, the clear leader for Team USA throughout qualifying, has come under fire after he lost the ball with 39 seconds before the final whistle, triggering the Portuguese counterattack that ended with Cristiano Ronaldo crossing beautifully to a charging Silvestre Varela, who thumped the ball into the net with his head. Game over. A tragic draw.

Bradley has his defenders but the giveaway in the waning moments was unacceptable, especially for a player known for his mental toughness. Against Ghana he turned in his worst performance in recent memory. Against Portugal he played better and was able to key a fluid U.S. attack, but he was still uncharacteristically sloppy.

There was a nice sequence in the 35th minute that epitomized how good Bradley is and how he was just a bit off. The U.S. team built an attack gradually from deep in its own territory. Bradley started it from the left sideline by playing Clint Dempsey, who was checking to the ball at the half line. The ball moved methodically from left to right and then back to the left, touching the feet of six more Americans before Dempsey played a square ball to Bradley at the top of the box. The buildup left the ever-threatening Fabian Johnson wide open, lurking on the right wing in acres of space. To his credit (and this is not something many players would try) Bradley saw that Johnson was open and tried to one-time a left-footed lob across his body to Johnson. Had it fallen to Johnson, it would have been a brilliant pass, setting up a likely one-on-one with the keeper. But Bradley didn’t hit the pass the way he would have liked, a little low, and a Portuguese defender intercepted it.

It was that kind of night for the center midfielder. He missed a chance for what would have been an outstanding goal early in the second half when Johnson flashed down the right wing, drew the goalkeeper out and zipped a diagonal ball across the box to Bradley’s feet. Bradley, facing an open goal but for defender Ricardo Costa cowering on the goal line, struck the ball right at Costa’s thigh. No goal. And then he lost the ball deep in stoppage time, leading to Portugal’s equalizer.

But despite all the criticism he’s taken, Bradley is America’s best player. Match after match he has proven to be the technical and emotional heart of the U.S. men’s national team. On his best days he wins the ball, makes smart decisions, calmly shifts the point of attack, creates dangerous chances with his passing (see his chip to Johnson for that lovely goal in the June 1 tune-up against Turkey), and generally is the hub through which the American attack flows. He returned to form for large portions of the Portugal game, but his mistakes were big ones. He needs to build on the positives of the Portugal game and do better against the Germans.

The outside midfielders need to generate more chances.

Throughout Sunday’s game against Portugal, the right side of the American attack was a force. Right back Fabian Johnson bombed down the flank repeatedly and dragged the ball across for Bradley’s should-have-been-a-goal. DeAndre Yedlin, the 20-year-old Seattle Sounders back who came on for Alejandro Bedoya in the second half, enjoyed similar freedom to roam, and created the chance that led to Dempsey’s go-ahead goal.

It was exciting to watch these two young players – aided by Ronaldo’s disinterest in the hard work of defending -- wreak havoc against the left side of the Portuguese defense. What was lacking, throughout the match, was anything resembling that sort of energy from Bedoya or Graham Zusi. Zusi was in the right place at the right time to pick up a loose ball and assist Clint Dempsey’s go-ahead goal, and he made the cool, correct decision to play a waist-high ball across to Dempsey when lesser men would have tried to blast a shot from a poor angle. He also was part of several clever combinations throughout the game. But he did his best work in the middle of the field. He failed to create anything dangerous from the left side, and he gave the ball away at least five times.

Neither Zusi nor Bedoya looked like a threat on the ball. And Bedoya was largely invisible before he was replaced by Yedlin. DaMarcus Beasley made a few runs up the left side, but looked tentative. Maybe that’s just how it’s going to be. Jurgen Klinsmann may be happy to attack with Johnson on the right and settle for Beasley’s savvy defending and Zusi’s set piece contributions (he’s good with a  dead ball). But you have to wonder what Klinsmann thought of Bedoya’s performance and Zusi’s flat-footedness on the wing, and whether he is considering throwing 19-year-old Julian Green onto the pitch to give the U.S. some left side pace, especially after Yedlin’s success on Sunday.

Geoff Cameron needs to clear his head.

The center back’s errant clearance in the opening minutes of the game was obviously a disastrous mistake, the definition of an unforced error. Portugal is dangerous enough without the U.S. turning a harmless cross into an inch-perfect chip to Nani on the back post, but that’s what Cameron did.

Thankfully the U.S. regrouped, but Cameron cannot let something similar happen against Germany. And while Bradley has taken the lion’s share of the criticism for the last-second goal that tied the match, Cameron (and Fabian Johnson, for that matter) must answer for it as well. Cameron was tracking with Varela through the box, but failed to meet Ronaldo’s cross, instead raising a leg half-heartedly as Varela pounded the cross into the net.

Had he dealt with that cross as he should have, Thursday’s match against Germany would be a relaxing affair. Now it will be a nail-biter. We must win or draw against arguably the world’s best soccer team, or face the possibility of elimination. Cameron’s center back counterpart Matt Besler has emerged as a rock in the middle and played very well in this World Cup. I counted eight defensive interventions by him against Portugal, some of them crucial, and no giveaways. Jermaine Jones (though he still wastes possession more than he should) has also played well. Cameron needs to follow suit and turn in a mistake-free performance on Thursday.

World Cup Day 13: Looking forward to the knockout round

Posted by: Jon Marthaler under Soccer Updated: June 25, 2014 - 6:28 PM

Quick recap of today: Xherdan Shaqiri scored a hat trick for Switzerland, sending the Swiss into the Round of 16 and Honduras home without a point. Iran finally scored a goal, but gave up three to Bosnia-Herzegovina - the first World Cup win for the latter, which also meant that neither would go through to the group stage. Instead, Group F's representatives will be Argentina and Nigeria, though the Argentines beat the Nigerians today, 3-2, mostly thanks to a pair of first-half goals from Lionel Messi. And France were finally held goalless, by Ecuador, though the latter needed a win to go through and could only manage a 0-0 draw.

With that out of the way, let's take a look at how the bracket's shaping up for the knockout round, which begins already on Saturday.

Up first is the South American mini-tournament at the top of the bracket, where the winner of Brazil and Chile faces the winner of Colombia and Uruguay. Brazil, of course, has to be favored there; Chile have drawn the roughest task of all. Colombia have looked exceptional at this tournament, and should be able to beat Uruguay, especially if the latter is without Luis Suarez - but it'll be a big ask to beat Brazil in Brazil.

Next comes Netherlands-Mexico and Costa Rica and Greece, and again, the first team has to be favored. Mexico managed to keep Brazil out for 90 minutes, but they'll have trouble coping with the Dutch. Costa Rica, meanwhile, has an excellent chance of reaching the quarterfinals for the first time in their history, unless Greece can somehow rediscover the ability to actually play soccer. The winner of the Netherlands-Mexico match has to be favored to reach the semifinals.

With four spots in the knockout round to be decided tomorrow, the rest of the bracket remains incomplete. France look good enough to beat a Nigeria side that barely squeaked through a weak group; they'll likely have the winner of Germany and either Algeria or Russia waiting for them in the quarterfinals. On the flip side, Argentina have a tough match ahead against Switzerland, with the winner facing a probable matchup with the winner of Belgium and whoever comes out of the USA / Ghana / Portugal tussle.

This highlights, however, the reason that the USA would dearly, dearly love to beat Germany tomorrow. Winning Group G means a matchup with (in all likelihood) either Russia or Algeria, neither of which holds any terrors for the USA. Win that one, and they'll likely face France, who has been excellent in this tournament but had fairly low expectations entering the month.

Finish second to Germany, however, and it likely means a knockout-round berth against Belgium, who were picked as a dark horse to win the World Cup by so many pundits that they were starting to sound like actual favorites. Make it past Belgium, and it's probably Argentina waiting in the quarterfinals.

It's far too early to speculate on American quarterfinal opponents, of course. They have too much work to do tomorrow, in order to even make the knockout round - never mind actually winning a game. But if you're thinking that you might like a nice tame draw with Germany tomorrow, ensuring that both teams qualify for the knockout round, it'll likely mean a near-impossible path through the knockout stage.

Then again, four years ago, American fans were thrilled to win Group C and land in a bracket with Ghana, Uruguay, and South Korea. Ideas of a semifinal against Brazil or the Netherlands were floated. And we all know how that one turned out.

Right now, our best guess at the semifinals: Brazil vs. Germany, and Netherlands vs. Argentina. But tomorrow will go a long way towards deciding that.

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