Don't Call It A Bromance

Three amigos, one blog.

Don’t Call It A Picks Competition: Season 2!

Don’t Call It A Comeback

College Football season is nearly upon us once again and you know what that means—the return of everyone’s no one’s favorite weekly column, Don’t Call It A Picks Competition! While we know that we set the bar incredibly high last year, we promise the new season won’t be nearly as horrific of a disappointment as Season 2 of Friday Night Lights. (Although Matt Saracen was as dreamy as ever.)

While we stopped counting after the last week of the regular season because I’m lazy and no one else really cares about this, if I recall correctly Bob won narrowly over a very respectable Matt while my picks finished about as well as Fernando Torres. (NEW THIS YEAR: SOCCER ZINGS!) But with a new season, comes new hope and with new hope comes redemption! Or, better yet, in the age of #HASHTAGANDCAPITALIZEEVERYTHING (for those of you too lazy to parse out those words, that says, “Hashtag, fuck you, I worked hard on this. You can interpret that. Also, sorry Mom, but I use that language because of how you raised me.”), with new hope comes #REDEMPTION! And like the University of Miami football team, I must have a stupid marketing slogan to attempt to distract attention from my relatively pedestrian ability.

So what is this? If you were around last year, you certainly need no explanation and we sincerely appreciate your readership. Seriously, the support and readership for this column blows us away and means a lot. Thanks. If you’re just coming on, welcome! This is a weekly picks competition that posts every Thursday where Matt, Bob and I pick five college football games and try to publicly humiliate each other as much as possible. Each week, we’ll pick the games for each of our schools (Illinois, Northwestern and Miami, respectively) as well as two national games. If one of our teams is off, we’ll substitute a national game for it. You are invited to play along in the comments and we’ll post the standings each week.

We also have some news this year! Since we last wrote for you, Matt and I have both jumped on to real sports blogs. He writes about the Illini over at The Champaign Room and I talk Miami at Canes Warning. And of course I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Bob’s great weekly columns for the Daily Northwestern.

Aside from the picks, each edition includes a column-type thing that mostly involves me making a bunch of highly offensive and stereotypical jokes (some of which have caused confrontations with multiple close relatives, yep seriously) that Matt and Bob cringe at knowing they will be associated with them. [ED Bob: Yep.] [ED Matt: Yep.] Here’s what you can expect this season:

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This Woman Managed to Demean Men, Women, Herself and Her Marriage All In One Amazingly Offensive and Awful Blog Post

Typically when we (okay fine, I) write a line-by-line fisking of something written elsewhere, it’s entirely over-the-top and solely for comedic purposes. (Here’s a nice example.) This one will feature plenty of that, but overall this isn’t going to be a simple, empty calories entry like the fiskings before it. It will only be mostly empty calories. On June 11, a woman named Lauren who writes a lifestyle-type blog called Apples and Band-Aids Blog posted an article called, “My Husband Doesn’t Need To See Your Boobs“. [Update: Lauren has thankfully removed this post from her blog. Luckily for me, the internet never forgets and nearly all of it is included in this post.] Beyond the fact that it’s moronic as can be, it’s downright demeaning (and not just towards men). In fact, my main issues with it aren’t the things she asserts about men, although they are insulting and asinine. Let’s go line-by-line and break this down so we can hopefully take some sort of good lessons (and laughs) out of this shameful, toxic mess.

I can’t believe I’m writing this. I can’t believe I’m writing this. I can’t believe I used the word boobs in the title of this post.

I can’t believe you’re writing this. I can’t believe you’re writing this. Wait, boobs? Do go on.

I got enough purity lessons in high school to invoke a gag reflex any time I heard the word modesty. I remember wanting to crawl out of my skin when my Bible school teachers discussed appropriate *touching*. Ugh, that still makes me want to throw up in my mouth a little.

If there’s anyone who’s teaching someone who’s about to teach us about what’s appropriate and not appropriate, it should be Bible school teachers. Seriously, Bible standards are great and relevant barometers for modesty in the twenty-first century! Thus, anyone who attended Bible school must be an authority on the topic.

Growing up, my father carefully examined everything I wore out of the house. There was a stack of clothes in his closet that I was never allowed to wear, even if I had just ripped the $54.99 tag off. If it was too short, too tight, too low-cut, or too anything, it went in the pile in his closet.

This behavior from a father towards his daughter isn’t demeaning, repugnant or alarming at all! Dropping the sarcastic tone for a minute, I’m going to assume Lauren didn’t decide to sport nothing but two sea-shells up top and a skimpy bikini bottom with the words “OPEN FOR BUSINESS” right on the butt (retail: $54.99) to Bible school growing up, so this type of KGB policing is downright disturbing from her father. It at least shows that her worldview on this topic is so distorted because of her upbringing and it’s not completely her fault.

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Bruised and Exhausted, USA Survive and Advance

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Survive and advance. Legendary North Carolina State basketball coach Jim Valvano originally coined the phrase during the Wolfpack’s improbable run to a 1983 NCAA Men’s Basketball victory. Valvano simply meant that it does not matter how a team advances – just that it advances. Every tournament is a grind, and every team needs the will power – and a little bit of luck – to go home as champions. One of the greatest international sides of all time, 2010 World Cup champions Spain, squeezed out 1-0 win after 1-0 win to hoist the cup in South Africa.

On Thursday, the United States won, 0-1 and made the late Coach Valvano proud. It was never pretty, but the US are through.

Despite the Americans’ being shut out by Germany in a cagey match played during a Recife downpour, the match felt like a win – while the honorable and all-important draw versus Portugal felt like a loss. It would be easy to criticize the United States for (mildly) celebrating after a loss, but the team’s advancement out of the remarkably difficult Group G is a result of its outstanding play in its first two matches.

The hobbled and tired Americans, after a long match in the brutal Amazon rainforest, could have rolled over against the Germans and relied on their already-high probability of advancing to get them through to the Round of 16. Yes, they lost and needed help from Portugal, but the Americans played valiantly and kept the match close. Had they not, they could have been sent packing in place of Portugal, who have been eliminated by virtue of their horrible 4-0 loss to Germany in the opening game.

The Germans’ 1-0 win was not for lack of chances by Joachim Löw’s side. The US squad remained organized in defense, made some huge tackles – including from Omar Gonzalez, who received an unexpected start ahead of Geoff Cameron, which we will get to later – and enjoyed another stellar performance from goalkeeper Tim Howard. The Everton net-minder remains an underappreciated asset for the USMNT. Few teams have a longtime English Premier League top-quality keeper anchoring the squad, and the generally inexperienced back four relies on his outstanding leadership. The Germans’ one goal came from a rebound – one that Howard actually cleared pretty well – and a perfect shot from the detestable Thomas Müller.

For the third straight game, Jermaine Jones was the United States’ stand-out outfield player. He exudes so much of what makes this such a great squad – the high work rate, the willingness to fight for possession, and the ability to push the ball up the field despite not necessarily being the better athletes. Jones broke his nose on a late-game collision with teammate Alejandro Bedoya, which means the squad’s two top performers in the group stage enter the Round of 16 with broken noses. Weird.

Jürgen Klinsmann made two surprising personnel changes Thursday, by inserting 32-year-old Brad Davis for Alejandro Bedoya and the aforementioned Gonzalez for Cameron. The Davis selection was especially peculiar, as the Houston Dynamo midfielder made his World Cup debut despite his age and never really figuring into the USMNT. My guess is that Klinsmann was seeing what he could get from the experienced Davis, particularly from his outstanding crossing and set-piece skills, while also giving Bedoya a rest. It was an interesting move and one that could have been seriously questioned had the United States not advanced.

Gonzalez’s selection was odd in a different way. The LA Galaxy center-back had originally appeared to be a starter for the squad before receiving knee surgery in April and underperforming in international matches. Cameron, meanwhile, had a great club season at Stoke City and increasingly played a role in Klinsmann’s squad. The back four is always dangerous to tinker with, since so much of defending centers around communication between players. Some have said that Cameron was benched after playing an infamous role in both of Portugal’s goals on Sunday, but I believe Klinsmann selected Gonzalez to give the squad some more height against the towering Germans, as well as to give him a shot at a starting role, to which he responded surprisingly well. It will certainly be interesting to see who Klisnmann selects against Belgium, though I suspect he will go back to Cameron.

The critics of Michael Bradley continue to grow and continue to be blind. I concede that he has yet to play a game up to his normal level, but that is more a testament to his abilities than anything. The box-to-box midfielder has covered more ground in the first three matches than any player in the entire tournament. Considering the quality of opponents, the unlucky match conditions, and that Bradley has had to shoulder so much more of the offensive role than anyone could have guessed, that’s pretty damn impressive. Additionally, Bradley showed Thursday how big an offensive weapon he is. His over-the-top lobs were the Americans’ only threatening offensive moves all day. He has just been lacking a little bit in patience on the ball and getting the right touch on his passes. I am not worried.

An interesting thing to consider – hat tip to The Cauldron’s Andy Glockner for discussing this – is a lineup change to move Bradley a little further back on the pitch so the squad would not have to rely upon him so much to create. This would probably mean taking off either Graham Zusi or Bedoya in favor of a striker to play with Clint Dempsey. Jozy Altidore will likely miss Tuesday’s match, so seeing the young Aron Johannsson get a start up top could be in the cards.

If I have time, I plan on giving readers a deeper preview of Belgium next week, but for now I will leave it at this:

1) Despite their 3-0-0 record in Group H, Belgium were unimpressive in every match, which were all against relatively weak opponents. Each Group G team played better in its first three games than Belgium did.

2) Despite all of the praise Belgium have received over the last four years, Belgium are a collection of a bunch of phenomenal players, while the United States are a team.

That sounds trite, but Klinsmann’s men have proven it time and again over the past two weeks. I believe.

A Brutal Gut-Punch Mars an Encouraging Performance

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The entire nation – the one that mostly trashes soccer 47 out of every 48 months – covered in the colors of our star-spangled banner, stood still, mouth agape, as Portuguese substitute Varela netted the latest regulation goal in World Cup history.

A match for the ages could not have ended any other way. For 95 minutes, Jürgen Klinsmann’s squad worked nearly flawlessly to keep men behind the ball and shut down Portugal’s lightning-quick attack. That all ended with a careless turnover from “General” Michael Bradley, Cristiano Ronaldo finally finding space and unleashing a beautiful cross, and a poorly marked Varela heading the Brazuca past Tim Howard. Devastating.

Yes, Bradley could have done better with the ball in acres of space. Yes, Omar Gonzalez came on precisely to stop aerial attacks. Yes, the defense could have been playing a higher line to play Varela offside.

In reality, people are only dwelling on this goal because it came last. There were three other goals that were just as remarkable and just as important in deciding the fate of our beloved United States Men’s National Team.

The performance tonight was, for the most part, outstanding. From day one on the job, Klinsmann has stressed that his side will control the ball and take it to opponents. It always sounded great, but it was never something I could really believe the USMNT could do against quality opponents – until tonight. Yes, Portugal were content with an early lead to let the US have a share of the ball, but the ability of Bradley and Co. to lead a potent attack while almost universally stopping Portugal’s chance at a counter was remarkable.

The United States were the better team tonight, and we should be proud of that fact.

Jermaine Jones was once again my man of the match. In both matches, he has been a force in the midfield on both sides of the ball. I (and just about everyone who follows the team closely) have criticized him a good amount over the last few years for being reckless and foolish, but he has been pure class in Brazil – not to mention his stunning equalizer tonight.

I can’t believe I even need to address this, but some people have mentioned that Michael Bradley should be benched. That is an absurd overreaction to his turnover on the final goal – which involved other mistakes and was, quite simply, a great goal from Portugal. Bradley has been the United States’ most essential player for four years. The entire team runs through him. If you are asking to bench him because he has had two sub-par games by his standards – I don’t want to sound too mean, but this is true – you are proving that you do not know what you are talking about. It’s not happening.

I expressed doubts earlier in the week about the idea of playing Clint Dempsey alone up top, but he had a spectacular match, particularly in the first half and of course in his legendary pelvic-thrust goal. The addition of Graham Zusi in the midfield undoubtedly made an impact. Zusi was great going forward, and adding another midfielder who could stay home allowed for the fullbacks to get forward much more than they could against Ghana. Klinsmann said after the match that Jozy Altidore could play against Germany, but I expect this exact same eleven to start on Thursday.

Speaking of Thursday, a quick rundown of what needs to happen:
1) Win/draw
2) Loss + POR/GHA draw
3) Loss + POR win, with fewer than 5 goals made up between the two results
4) Loss + GHA win, with fewer than 2 goals made up between the two results

Giving up that goal was crushing, but we should feel encouraged by the USMNT’s strong performance against a top team as well as the likelihood of their advancing to the Round of 16. See you on Thursday.

A Cliche Title about the End of an Era

Editor’s note, from Bob: Jacob Altstadt – good friend of the blog as well as my classmate at Northwestern University – recently began publishing his own blog, Oldtown. Oldtown serves as his personal opinion blog and will consist of a majority of sports and soccer-related posts. Here is Jacob’s first post, a captivating account of Spain’s shockingly quick exit from this month’s World Cup.

Vicente Del Bosque

I am shocked. Actually, I’m beyond shocked. I can’t even come up with a word to describe this feeling I’m experiencing after having witnessed the reigning world champions lose consecutively 1-5 and 0-2 to knock them out of the World Cup. And I can honestly say that every single person in the entire world is just as surprised as I am. If someone says that they’re not, they’re a liar. And I mean that.

Who would have predicted that the greatest national team dynasty to ever exist would get absolutely obliterated by the Dutch team they beat in 2010 to lift the trophy, the Dutch team that crashed out of the 2012 European Championships? Who would have predicted this epic assembly of some of the greatest footballers of our time would lose (and get shut out) by a Chile team that, albeit extremely talented, didn’t even come close to having the amount of superstars that Spain has been accustomed to? Who would have predicted that today, on June 18th, we would be talking not about how Spain would breakdown Croatia in the Round of 16, but rather how Spain will move forward from this embarrassing display at the 2014 World Cup? Certainly not me.

Spain-World-Champions-2010

Yet, despite all predictions, statistics, opinions, simulations, facts, figures, graphs, diagrams, and articles made prior to the World Cup, Spain are out. In the group stage.

While normally I condemn hasty conclusions and sweeping generalities, I must admit: I agree with the general public on this one. An era is over. It’s not just the fact that Spain lost twice, but rather how they lost. And how they lost in the Confederations Cup final. And how Barcelona, the core of the Spanish side, have finally come back down to earth (As a Real Madrid fan, I’m praising The Lord on that one). And how the Golden Generation of Spanish Football is past their prime. The Spanish downfall hasn’t happened over night, all the signs have been pointing to it for the past couple of years, unfortunately it’s just finally happened fully.

Let me be clear. Spain does not “suck.” They are without a doubt still one of the top ten teams in the world, if not one of the top five. There is no way a team wins three consecutive major tournaments, and the next day suddenly becomes awful. There is no way that a team who has absolutely destroyed the rest of the world for the past six years becomes terrible overnight. They simply are no longer the best team in the world, and they haven’t been for a while now. At their peak though, they were the greatest national team to ever exist.

Let’s break down the past 6 years.

In 2008, Spain win their second Euro, their first since 1964 and second-ever major title. Simultaneously, things at FC Barcelona become abysmal because they are the worst team to ever have stepped foot on this planet and blue and red stripes are tacky HALA MADRID heat up in epic proportions as Lionel Messi storms onto the football stage in dramatic fashion, accompanied by genius coach Pep Guardiola. Why is the Barcelona development important? Because aside from a few players, the team at the Catalan club is almost entirely Spanish. This allows the players, specifically the midfield, to gel as unit 24/7/365 and develop into the most talented group of players to ever play together simultaneously for both club and country.

Captain Iker Casillas of Spain lifts the trophy after winning against Germany in the UEFA EURO 2008 Final match between Germany and Spain

In the years that lead up to the 2010 World Cup, Barcelona goes on an absolute rampage of success as they win trophy after trophy, a ridiculous campaign that included the first ever “sextuple” by a football club in a calendar year. All the while, the Spanish core of this Barcelona team develops and develops as they play game after game with each other. They learn each other’s secrets, tendencies, styles, and movement. They become so cohesive, that they are literally able to predict what their teammate will do next and plan accordingly. Their prowess as a unit becomes so incredibly perfect that they have a playing style named after them (See: tiki taka) and boast the best possession stats the world has ever seen.

As much as this picture pains me being a Madrid fan, FC Barcelona winning the UCL, one of many trophies they won.

When it comes time for Del Bosque to coach his Spanish squad in the 2010 World Cup, all he has to do is fill the gaps with Real Madrid players and he has a team that knows each other better than any national team has ever before. This is the key to Spain’s success. And here’s why.

The biggest difficulty in playing for a national team is that you have almost no time whatsoever to develop a system and play together as a unit. Soccer, sorry I mean Football, is a game won partially by talent, but more so by tactics and chemistry. Football requires seamless transition, perfect movement off the ball, and knowledge of your teammates movements. Football, although it appears obvious, requires immense amounts of teamwork. Therefore, playing every other month with a group of unfamiliar guys, that happen to be the same nationality as you, becomes tricky because, aside from those rare games, you don’t play with them too often. This is what made Spain so special in 2010. They didn’t have that problem. Their starters had all played together for years and had the kind of national team chemistry the world may never witness ever again. Del Bosque didn’t have to rush to develop and implement a simple system that he could teach to his squad in the short training camp before the Cup, he just had to tweak the “tiki-taka” and insert a few extra players. Boom. Done. Best national team ever. They win the World Cup.

The years in between the 2010 Cup and the 2012 Euros is more of the same from Spain and Barcelona. More success. More wins. More chemistry. For Barcelona, more trophies. More everything-that-makes-a-team-click. The only reason that reporters and fans alike have any reason to doubt that Spain won’t win the 2012 European Championship is simply because we have never seen anything like this before. We’ve never encountered success of this magnitude. It’s foreign. We don’t know what to say or do with this Spanish squad that, for all intents and purposes, is perfect. So what do we do? We critique it and doubt it. Man, are we wrong. Spain wins the 2012 Euros. Easily. Hell, they beat Italy 4-0 in the finals!

spain

And with that win, Spain completes two “firsts”. The first “first”: The only team to have ever won consecutive European Championships. The Netherlands’ Total Football never did that. Germany and Franz Beckenbauer never did that. The four-time world champions Italian team never did that. The five-time world champions Brazil never did that (haha get it? it’s funny cause they’re in South America…  I hate myself). No one. Except Spain. The second “first”: The only team to have ever won three consecutive major tournaments. Italy and Brazil won consecutive World Cups in 1934/1938 and 1958/1962 respectively, but they failed to win their continent’s respective championship in between. And even as impressive as winning two World Cups in a row is, it was done at a time where the level of football was absolutely no where near where it is today. That’s another aspect of Spain’s Reign of Terror that is so special. They won three major titles in a row at a time where Football was (and continues to be) at its highest level ever. They didn’t beat awful sides. They beat extremely talented, well-organized, football teams that would have won titles in any other time in history except during Spain’s Reign of Supremacy.

The past six years is what makes this 2014 World Cup Spanish fiasco so hard to stomach. The greatest national team to have ever played together (I’m going to keep calling them that until it sinks in) has finally shown that it is mortal during this past week. For the first time in over half a decade, we have seen a scratch in the other wise blindingly brilliant golden armor that is the Spanish national team. (It should be noted that with all the trophies and medals that the team and players on Spain have won since 2008, they very feasibly could make a full size suit of armor, no joke). What caused this scratch? One word: Time.

The perennial enemy to the human race.

With each passing day, the Golden Generation got older and slower, the rest of the World started to figure out how to stop Spain, and they rest of the world simply got better while Spain drifted slightly from perfection. No longer are the passes perfect to the millimeter. No longer do Xavi and Iniesta seem immortal. No longer is San Iker Casillas perfect (although he’s still pretty damn close and anyone who wants to argue with me on that Casillas point can come find me). The Spanish Reign of Perfection has ended.

Why do I say that?

Why am I so definitive?

Because 2013 and 2014 have proven that that is true. Starting in 2013, we witnessed the deterioration of FC Barcelona as Guardiola left, the rest of Europe figured out how to beat them, and they lost their edge. Correction: the core of the Spanish National Team lost their edge. Starting in 2013, we witnessed Spain’s loss to Brazil in the Confederations Cup final and the imperfect, albeit still exceptional, play that followed in the year after. Spain seemed to be slowing down, not making all the passes they used to. Time met up with España. The recent ending of Spain’s run of excellence has been a year in the making, we were just too hopeful and naive to believe it was actually true.

Spain’s unsuccessful run in the 2014 tournament is nothing to rejoice in (as many of the people I follow on Twitter fail to realize). We have just witnessed the literal end of an era. And hating the team for hatred’s sake is not what a true fan would do, nor is hating the team just because they are good. Take pride in the fact that you were alive to witness and watch this squad. It will truly be something you will tell your grandchildren about, I know I will.

With all of this in mind, it is truly a tragedy that Spain are out of the World Cup in the group stage this year. They are absolutely without a doubt THE best national team to have ever walked this Earth, and their dynasty is more than likely over.

So take a good look, kids. We will never see a team like this again.

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