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The Day of Finals

July 7, 2019 presented a rare confluence of futbol championship events.  In the morning (US time), the 2019 Women’s World Cup final between the U.S. and the Netherlands took place in France.  In the afternoon, the Copa America final featured host country Brazil versus Peru.  In the evening, the U.S. men’s team faced off against Mexico in the Gold Cup final in Chicago.  The U.S. women’s team rightfully considered themselves disrespected by the North and South American soccer federations for scheduling their finals on the same day the World Cup came to a conclusion.  Nonetheless, it was a great day to be a soccer fan.


The United States cruised through the group stage scoring an astounding 18 goals while giving up none.    The Netherlands didn’t have it quite so easy in their group, but still came away with three convincing wins.   The American found tougher games in the knockout rounds, but won by a 2-1 score in each round–the Round of 16, the Quarterfinals, and the Semifinals–on their way to the finals.  The Dutch gave up a goal in their 2-1 Round of 16 win, but threw shutouts in the Quarterfinals and Semifinals.  This was only the second World Cup that the Netherlands had qualified for, but they served notice of their abilities by winning the European championship two years ago.

From the start, the U.S. dominated the game.   They continually pushed the attack, fired shots, and earned corners as the game was largely played in the final third.  The Dutch showed resilience on their back line though and turned away attack after attack by the  Americans.  For the first time in the tournament, the U.S. failed to score in the first 15 minutes of the game and the game was still scoreless at the half.

The American lethal front line of Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan, and Tobin Heath continued their relentless assault into the second half and earned a penalty kick 15 minutes in when a Dutch defender kicked too high in an attempt to prevent Morgan from receiving a pass inside the box.  Rapinoe buried the penalty kick as she has done all tournament.  The Dutch defense seemed rattled at that point and less than 10 minutes later, that discombobulation cost them.  U.S. midfielder Rose Lavelle took a pass near the mid-line, dribbled straight down the center of the field, made a simple juke move at the top of the box that turned the defender the wrong way and then rocketed a left-footer past the goalie into the right corner of the goal.  Even with the two goal lead, the U.S. continued to press the attack, something many squads fail to do when they build a lead.  The Dutch got their best chances as time ran down, but could not convert.

The 2-0 win gave the U.S. their fourth World Cup title–their second in a row–two more than any other national squad.  Rapinoe won both the Golden Ball and Golden Boot awards.  With the emergence of the 24-year-old Lavelle, who won the Bronze Ball award, the future of the U.S. team continues to look very bright.  Much of the Dutch squad will still be in their primes in four years, so look for them to be a force at the 2023 World Cup.

Given the American womens’ dominance at the highest levels, it is high time that the U.S. soccer federation paid the women the same as the men.  The womens’ team scores better results, draws bigger crowds, and gets better TV ratings.  It’s time they get PAID!


In a rarity, the Copa America final matched two teams that came out of the same group.  In the group stage, Brazil punished Peru 5-0, but La Blanquirroja managed to advance out of the groups with a tie against Venezuela and a win over Bolivia.  Peru then won Quarterfinals and Semifinals games against Uruguay (penalty kicks) and Chile, respectively, that they really had no business winning, but for a stout defense that turned away numerous shots and making the most of the few chances their offense received.  Seleção fought through some minor bumps in the road, notably a tie against Venezuela in the group and a penalty kick win against Paraguay in the Quarterfinals, two national squads that Brazil should have dominated.  In a hard fought game, Brazil turned away Argentina 2-0 in the Semifinals, disappointing Leo Messi on the world stage yet again.

in the Final the Peruvians surprisingly came out swinging at the start, repeatedly pushing into the Brazilian box, but could not finish.  At the 15-minute mark, a Brazilian run down the right sideline produced a long cross into the box where Peru’s defense had collapsed inward, leaving Everton alone on the back side.  He ran onto the cross and rammed home the first goal of the game.  Just before half-time, Paulo Guerrero delivered the equalizer for Peru on a penalty kick after a pass in the box bounced off the arm of a falling Brazilian defender.  Minutes later, in extra time, Peru’s defense again failed, leaving Gabriel Jesus with too much space at the top of the box which he converted into a 2-1 halftime lead for Brazil.

Brazil continued to dominate the ball in the second half, but neither team was able to get much in the way of shots on goal.  However,  as Jesus tooketh, he also gaveth away, doing Peru a favor and earning his second yellow card of the game by delivering an elbow to the back of an opposing player’s head while jumping for a high ball.  Brazil had to play a man down for the final 20 and Peru nearly tied it up again on a long shot by Edison Flores.  However, Brazil maintained its attack and got an insurance goal on a questionably earned penalty kick just before extra time.  With the 3-1 victory, Brazil won its first Copa America championship since 2007.


Mexico and the United States have long dominated the CONCACAF Gold Cup with 7 and 6 championships, respectively.  Canada is the only other national squad to have won a Gold Cup.  So it came as no surprise that El Tri and the Americans found themselves facing off in yet another Gold Cup Final.  Both squads rumbled through their groups without much problem scoring many goals in the process.  For the U.S., always known for their conservative game, this attacking approach was refreshing.  Both team faced tougher games in the knockout rounds, but survived to reach the championship game.

The Americans did not abandon Coach Gregg Berhalter’s attacking style, creating two great early opportunities for Christian Pulisic and Jozy Altidore that could not be converted.  The Mexicans played a more patient passing approach, but the stiff U.S. back line prevented any troubling penetrations in the final third.  At the end of the half, the stats say Mexico had more possession and shots, but the U.S. clearly created the more dangerous opportunities, though they were unable to finish them.

An early corner in the 2nd half nearly put the Americans on the board.  A header off the Pulisic corner was saved by a defender’s header on the goal line at the near post.  A follow-up shot went off a defender’s back.  As the half progressed though, Mexico’s attack kept building, earning corners and putting shots on goal.  Momentum had clearly shifted and the Mexicans finally cashed in on a push up the middle where Raul Jimenez put through a beautiful back heel pass to Jonathan dos Santos at the top of the box.  Dos Santos then placed a left-footer into the top left corner of the net that U.S. goalie Zach Steffen could only watch.  The United States staged a furious rally in the final 20 minutes, but despite some great opportunities, they could not find the equalizer.

The Americans should feel good about their showing in this tournament.  They still need to find a Clint Dempsey-like finisher, but the attacking style suits the make-up of the team.  Budding stars like Pulisic, Weston McKinnie, and Reggie Cannon, all 20 or 21 years old portends a bright future for the USMNT.  Mexico’s bend but don’t break approach survived this time, but many of their attackers are 25 and under, so they will get better with experience too.  Hopefully both squads continue to get better so that CONCACAF can put forward a better presence at the World Cup.


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Runners-Up: Netherlands

What Went Right?  Expert at direct attacking quality. Not nearly as fluid or flashy as “Total Football” but effective nonetheless. No side made use of the flanks more than this one. Used their speed to great use, breaking down defenses on the wings. Their forward attack was so fast and effective that they didn’t need to go forward in numbers. Best attacking flankers in the game, their wingers could score from any angle and did. Were so good on the flanks that they could switch possession from side to side in the blink of an eye. The 4-5-1 they employed was more of a 4-2-1-2-1, and it was that “diamond” attack up front that made them go offensively. The Dutch did not dilly-dally around; when they got possession they got the ball to their forward flankers quickly and without preamble, yet still had a majority of possession in every game except the final. On the rare occasions where they patiently built up an attack they did it on the flanks and were expert at beating the offside trap. One of the two or three best sides in the tournament in counterattacking, especially on the flanks. Not the best at getting the ball into the box but one of the two or three best sides at taking quality long shots from outside the box that were on target. One of the two best sides at taking advantage of opposition mistakes in the back. They didn’t spend a lot of time in their own end, preferring to take the game to their opponents and playing in the attacking end. Despite their lack of height they were fantastic in the air and on 50-50 balls. Pretty decent at reading the game and anticipation in the back, and their backline wasn’t afraid to take on anybody who came into the penalty area. From the start they were going to let everybody they played know that they were going to take them on, and exhibited a physicality and nastiness not seen in previous incarnations. To that end they played with a bad disposition, making hard tackles and getting a body on any opponent who had the ball. Didn’t sit back and wait for their opponents to attack, choosing instead to close them down and take the ball away from them. Next to Spain the surprisingly second best goalkeeping in the tournament.

What Went Wrong? As great as they were on the wings they were just as soft in the center on both sides of the ball – and in the end it mattered. In an era when a suffocating defense is the linchpin to success at the international level the Netherlands gave up way too many goals for a World Cup finalist. The center of the defense had way too many mental lapses, were surprisingly easy to break down, and played with a certain nastiness that bordered on dirty. The same can be said about their defensive/holding midfielders, who contributed virtually nothing going forward, were pretty slipshod about distribution and attacking orchestration, and showed no defensive finesse in taking on opposition attackers before they got to the backline. While both fullbacks were proficient in contributing to the attack, there were too many times when they were just embarrassed by an opposition winger on their rear flanks who juked them out of their pants, leaving the back exposed to efficient service into their box. Not the world’s most effective use of the center of midfield going forward, and needless to say they were just average at getting service into the box, although when they did it usually was one of their wingers or Wesley Sneijder who got on the end of it. Relied way too much on just two players, Sneijder and Arjen Robben, instead choosing to play a three-man game in attack that also included Robin van Persie (before Robben was healthy in the knockout round the three-man attack consisted of Sneijder, Dirk Kuyt on the left flank and van Persie up front). Worst of all, they chose to get away from what worked for them prior to the final and practically mug Spain, playing like they were thugs. It was nasty, unattractive and embarrassing. If they had just played their game and attacked like they had been they may have been holding that 13 pound trophy instead of Spain.

Who Stepped Up To The Plate?  Who else? Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben. Four years ago under coach Marco van Basten, it was Robben on the left flank, van Persie on the right flank, and Ruud van Nistelrooy as the target man up front in the three man game, with the midfield getting circumvented entirely. It didn’t work; the Netherlands were easily ousted in the Round of 16. It was a stroke of genius to move van Persie up front, bring Sniejder inside in the space just behind van Persie, make a winger out of Dirk Kuyt on the left, and switch Robben to the right side. Once Robben was back and healthy, they were so good at switching play and working the triangle game on the flanks that you just didn’t know where they were coming from, and that made them hard to defend. This more than anything is why the Netherlands were playing for a championship. There was arguably nobody harder in the midfield to displace than Nigel de Jong and Mark van Pummel, er, Bommel, who were the best thing defensively about the Netherlands. Thirty-six year-old left back Giovanni van Bronckhorst was at his level best getting forward on the left flank and breaking off some great service inside. Nothing spectacular from keeper Maarten Stekelenburg, but he was steady, reliable, didn’t make any mistakes and actually managed to make quite a few stellar saves, and that was enough to make him the second best goalkeeper in this tournament. On the rare occasions when he got in Rafael van der Vaart created some good opportunities for Robben and Sneijder to convert; why he wasn’t on the pitch for every minute of every game is beyond me. They lost absolutely nothing going forward on the flanks when they brought in Eljero Elia, whose speed alone just created so much space for an attacker to run into. And 36-year-old Andre Ooijer and Khalid Boulahrouz were actually better in the center of defense than anybody they had starting.

Who Didn’t Show Up?  For the most part John Heitinga and Joris Mathijsen played pretty well, but on way too many occasions you could tell they just weren’t communicating with each other and Stekelenburg – and that’s when they were the most prone to breaking down their defensive shape in front of goal. As good as he was going forward, van Bronckhorst was just as ineffectual in the back, allowing too many attacking wingers to come in and break him down in the back. Still, he was much better on the left than Gregory van der Wiel was on the right; he didn’t do anything particularly well. De Jong and van Pummel, er, Bommel were virtually useless going forward; their entire existence was simply to mug any opposition player that came into their area, get the ball out to the flankers and then get out of the way. They could have done so much more.

How Was The Coaching?  As ugly as that final game was, Bert van Marwijk actually coached pretty well. Previous incarnations of the Dutch national obviously had much better players with much better flashy creative flair and magical ball skills, but they also lacked a backbone and refuse-to-lose quality. This wasn’t “Total Football”, the fluid movement-intensive system that transformed Dutch football, but “Total Football” didn’t win them any championships, either. So I’m not going to blame van Marwijk for using a more direct attacking approach and instilling a crunching hardness into this side. Still, there are two reasons to be critical of van Marwijk. One is he could have gotten a lot more creative in the center of midfield if he either (1) had one or both of de Jong or van Pummel, er, Bommel go forward and attack some, or (2) replace either de Jong or van Pummel, er, Bommel with van der Vaart, arguably the best creative midfielder the Dutch have (and somebody I’ve been saying for more than four years now needs to see a lion’s share of time on the pitch). Secondly, you don’t change your game in response to the other team’s tactics. That’s what the Netherlands did when they played Spain, got away from the attacking side that had got them there and turned into these maulers and mashers who hit and kicked Spain at every turn. YOU NEVER CHANGE YOUR GAME! You always make the other team bend to your will. By turning into thugs van Marwijk was basically saying he had no confidence in his defense. This is the Netherlands, for God’s sakes. They should be able to attack, attack, attack at will. Sure it would have been a track meet, but the Dutch would have put some goals in the back of the net, gotten into Spain’s head and shook their confidence. Instead we got stuck with this war of attrition, a trench warfare that looked like something out of a bad World War I movie. That I lay solely at the feet of van Marwijk.

Did They Finish Where They Were Expected?  No they did not – and that is exactly the point. The Netherlands got further than anybody thought they’d get. The Dutch are creative and offensive enough to beat anybody on the planet. Before this tournament, if I had thought the Netherlands was going to play in the final I’d have given them better than even odds that they would win. They instead turned into something ugly that defied football sense. Yet even at that the Dutch had way too many chances to win the final. Kudos for getting where nobody thought they would, but they should be the ones celebrating a world championship in Amsterdam and Rotterdam. That Spain’s long football ignominy is finally over and Holland’s continues I just don’t have any sympathy for.

What Now?  As critical as I am of their tactics, coaches and finish, I can’t help but be very positive of the Netherland’s football future. There is as much talent on the ground in the Netherlands as there ever has been, and they clearly are now steeped in coaches that can instill a certain tactical rigidity when they need to. Plus, they manage to integrate new players into the national side when they need to. On the tactical side I would just suggest that they find some defenders who can play with just a little more finesse and a little less brutishness, and they could get a little more creative offensively in the center of midfield.

South Africa 2010 Match Observations: Championship Game

Some random observations after the final:

Netherlands 0-1 Spain: For the second straight game, Spain started with striker Fernando Torres on the bench and employed a 4-5-1 formation, as did the Dutch. Early on, Holland played a bit tentative while the Spanish probed the midfield looking for openings. Sergio Ramos had a couple of good early opportunities, one a good header off a free kick, but blew a breakaway opportunity on the other. After 15 minutes, Holland started to get more aggressive and physical. Five yellow cards early, but all were merited, as players on both teams were making silly late challenges and taking out opposing players. Nigel de Jong’s yellow could have been a red as he put his boot into the chest of Alonso who was up for a header. Neither team showed much sustained possession in the first half. Mathijsen had an excellent opportunity on a corner kick, but mis-hit the ball. He was serving the ball out of the defensive third very poorly as well. Mark Van Bommel, the Dutch enforcer, who already had a yellow card had several other challenges that could have resulted in another booking and expulsion from the game. The Netherlands finally got some pressure in the box in first half injury time resulting in a shot by Robben that forced Casillas to make a good save. The first half was ugly and clearly the Dutch turned up the physical pressure to take the Spaniards out of their game and it worked, though at the cost of many yellow cards. The Orange continued their physicality into the second and earned two more early yellow cards. Holland got Robben on a breakaway, but Casillas made a great save with his foot despite guessing wrong on the kick direction. Robben should have chipped over the goalie knowing Casillas would have to slide. The Netherlands harassed the Spanish midfield out of their usual possession passing game and the Spanish did not push the ball out on the flanks to open space. Midway through the second half, the game began to open up, likely because the Dutch had to back off the physical challenges for fear of losing a man and Spain amped up their pressure in response. David Villa got a couple of good opportunities, but could not convert and Sergio Ramos blew an unmolested header on a corner. Robben beat the Spanish defense to a through ball and was nearly taken down, but Casillas was able to slide into the ball before a shot was taken. Robben probably would have earned a free kick just outside the box if he had gone down when shoved by the defender, but goal scorers stay on their feet when they think they have a chance to beat the goalie. Despite the increased Spanish pressure, regulation time ended in the nil-nil draw. Neither team played particularly well in the first 90, as both looked too tight, passes were not crisp, and neither team used the flanks effectively.La Furia Roja began to put the petal to the metal in extra time. Cesc Fabregas broke free on a through ball early, but Stekelenburg made a great save. The Spanish then make a three-on-one break, but Iniesta, with the only defender on him, failed to give the ball up to either teammate open on his wings. The Dutch finally lost a player when John Heitinga got his second yellow, though it was probably the softest foul resulting in a booking. Spain was doing some acting in extra time trying to draw fouls. Shortly thereafter Holland gave up possession in its defensive third resulting in a perfect through ball to Iniesta on the right wing and he blasted it by Stekelenburg on a half-volley from 10 yards out with four minutes left. Spain fell into a protective defensive shell in the last few minutes and the Dutch could not find an equalizer. Overall, the game was not a beautiful game one would have hoped for. The Orange apparently decided that they could not match the Spanish possession game and tried to beat the Spaniards into submission. To their credit, Spain did not react in anger, but they also did not effectively use their flanks to open space in the middle. Both teams missed some excellent opportunities and had any of those found the back of the net, this could have been a much different and potentially better game to watch. Instead, both teams looked afraid to give up the first goal as the game progressed. Both teams are likely to be top seeds four years from now in Brazil. Until then, Spain deserves much credit for their consistently tough defense (no goals given up in the knockout rounds) and their ability to kick up the urgency late in games to find the winning goals. And for the next four years, Spain is your world champion.