USMNT World Cup Thoughts

Look, I get it. Most Americans couldn't care less about soccer for 3 years and 8 months, but when the World Cup rolls around people might actually pay attention. Being an avid soccer fan myself and a huge supporter of the US Men's National Team (USMNT), I can't get enough of the World Cup. I've been completely ineffective at work these last few weeks and have done everything in my power to watch as many games as possible. So I thought it would be appropriate to write up something on how the USMNT has done thus far and you might actually care. After all, this is the United Sates Men's National Team. What kind of American are you if you don't support your national team?! Have I guilted you into caring yet?

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The Group of Death

This World Cup the Americans found themselves staring face-to-face with the "Group of Death." This is a term given to a group of the World Cup in which typically is the most difficult group deemed by the media. With Germany, Portugal and Ghana in our group we were the undisputed Group of Death. Germany and Portugal are both top 5 teams in the world and Ghana had been the team to knock the US out of the World Cup the last two cycles. Things were not looking promising for the Yanks going into the World Cup, but rather than lay down and let the big dogs run over us the USMNT channeled the chant from the American Outlaws, "I believe that we will win!!"

And that's what they did in their first match. Win. Beating Ghana 2-1 on an amazing set piece header from John Brooks in the 83rd minute the USMNT put the demons of World Cup past firmly behind them. Despite a sloppy performance when the final whistle blew, we walked away with a victory and three points. Setting the stage for a showdown against a beat up Portugal team who would be missing two of their best players due to a red card and an injury. Even still, they're a top five team in the world rankings with arguably the best player in the world right now in Cristiano Ronaldo. Nothing was going to be handed to the USMNT.

After a weeks worth of media hype, Sunday finally came and with it the hope of a nation getting behind their soccer team in efforts to will us out of the Group of Death. Then five minutes into the match we gift wrap Portugal a goal and the doubts begin to rain in. How could we compete with a top five team? Are the flood gates going to open now for the Portuguese side? The US will never be able to hang with the top dogs of soccer. But what transpired in the coming minutes seemingly quieted those fears. The USMNT actually started taking Portugal to task a little bit. They began to battle back from an unfortunate goal and started to dominate the time of possession. Then their offense began to get going. By half the score line was still 1-0, but somehow I couldn't help but find myself filled with hope. We had taken more shots at half time then we did the entire game against Ghana. Could we put something together in the second half and actually tie this thing up? Take me back to Obama's 2008 campaign because YES WE CAN!

Jermaine Jones from outside the box freezes the keeper with a brilliant strike and levels the score at 1-1! Wow! The excitement in our house was through the roof. But that goal was no fluke either because the USMNT kept pressing. My family thought that with the score being tied Portugal would wake up and start playing hard again, but what happened next sent us into a frenzy. Clint Dempsey found himself in the right place at the right time and just like that, with approximately 15 minutes left, the US was beating Portugal 2-1. 

All of the sudden the conversation was no longer about getting out of the game with a tie, but advancing to the knock-out rounds with a victory! We were playing so well, and against Portugal! The minutes continued to pass by and our defense was actually playing extremely well, negating everything that Portugal tried. Even containing the best player in the world, Ronaldo, albeit that he likely wasn't 100% but no matter! The 90th minute arrived and we're starting to prepare for celebration. Five more minutes of stoppage time and victory is ours! The defense continues to hold, we even look like we're putting together a little offense when the 94th minute arrived and the ball fell into Ronaldo's feet with room to work on the right side. Our defense caught in transition, Ronaldo sent a beautiful cross inside the box that found the head of Varela who buried the shot along with our dreams. And just like that, the match is over. The latest goal in World Cup history. 

Had you told me going into the Portugal game that we would walk away with a tie I would have been elated. But the way it happened has since made me feel a little queasy. I keep telling myself that a tie is a great thing for us and puts us into the position to move out of the Group of Death. But then I keep remembering those twenty-or-so minutes when it seemed as if we were going to do the impossible and beat Portugal. The whole match agreed with the outcome. We had out played Portugal and deserved the win. It was ours for the taking. But then it was snatched out of our hands by a simple lapse of defensive hustle. I think I'm going to vomit.

This one hurt. Almost worse than a loss. And I absolutely hate to lose. If you ask me if I either love to win or hate to lose my answer every time is I hate to lose. But this draw, while it still was a positive for the USMNT, has been eating at me for the last 24 hours. 

Even still, with all things considered, we're in a position to move on. It's time to move past the draw and look to the positives. Maybe this article with act as a form of catharsis. If we can hang with a beat up Portugal side and if Germany can tie Ghana then who knows what can happen this Thursday. Yes I know that Germany is maybe the best team in this whole tournament, but if Ghana can pull off a tie then why can't we? Maybe Germany underestimated Ghana which lead to their tie, but I'm going to bet that Jurgern Klinsmann is telling the USMNT that we can hang with Germany. And honestly, after watching the Portugal match, maybe we can! No, you know what, WE CAN! Why not us? Why not now? Our guys believe in themselves and so do I. 

Whatever happens this Thursday I am going to be proud of our guys. We were given little to no chance in advances out of the group stage and here we sit going into the last game of group play with a great shot at making it out. If we don't advance to the knock-out round will I be disappointed? Of course. But I'm not going to consider it a failure at all because what I've seen thus far in the World Cup has given me hope that we can compete with just about anyone. If we get smoked by Germany and end up losing by 5, big deal? We aren't expected to be able to play with them yet. But we're on our way. We have some young talent that in four years could take us to the next level. Does that help right now? No, but it ought to give us hope. Our team is finally headed in the right direction and maybe for once we can elevate our game to not just be an after thought on the world stage but rather a formidable foe. 

I'm interested to see how the Germany games goes. And you know what? I BELIEVE THAT WE WILL WIN!!! 

NBA Finals Thoughts and Musings

I'm doing it. I'm lifting the cone of silence The Crimson Slate has been in with the latter half of the NBA playoffs.

Why? Because history is on the line. And because these finals are the last piece of real sports (outside of the World Cup which most of you don't care about) that I can write about until football starts back up. Yes, I know this is The Crimson Slate, an Oklahoma centric sports blog. And yes, I know that the beloved Thunder are not part of the finals. But I'm hoping you can put that aside for the moment and enjoy what is shaping up to be a pretty spectacular NBA finals.

Here are just some general thoughts and comments on the finals thus far.

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As of right now the San Antonio Spurs are up two games to one against the Miami Heat. A familiar story line if you recall last years finals. One exception, which must be noted, is the format of the series. Last year the finals were a 2-3-2 format where the Heat played 2 games on their home court, then 3 games in San Antonio, and 2 games to finish out the series at home. This year, the format is 2-2-1-1-1 with the Spurs having home court advantage. A subtle difference, yes, but one that could make a notable impact. Instead of either team being able to go back home for the final 2 games of the series, they both could potentially have an opportunity to close it out on their home floor. 

Furthermore, in the NBA finals, the team with a 2-1 lead go on to win the series 83.6% of the time. With that being said, if you remember last year the Spurs were up 2-1 only to be one of the nine teams ever to lose a series after leading 2-1. 

The first three games of this series have been nothing but good television, though. Game one you've got the drama of the air conditioning "coincidentally" going out in the Spurs arena. Look, I know it's San Antonio, but when was the last time you were in any facility that the AC just decided to stop working? Subsequently LeBron James cramps up in the fourth quarter and the media jumps all over him. The Spurs go on to win the first game and the slogan, "I'm from Texas, I can stand the heat" was born and cheesy t-shirts were made

But then the Heat come back in game two and pull of an impressive victory in San Antonio. The media machine starts to over react, per usual, and the conversation of just how many rings will LeBron win in his career starts up. People go from calling LeBron a "quitter" and questioning if he pulled himself out in game one, to conceding his third straight NBA championship after game two. And the series was tied 1-1! 

Side note, for the reader who is currently trying to pin me into either the LeBron hater's club or lover's club. Stop. I don't fit in either. I appreciate the dude for what he is, the greatest player of this generation. Do I love him? Not really. Do I own a jersey of his like one of my fellow co-writers? Nope (sorry, cheap shot). Do I despise the guy and want him to fail at all cost? No! I'm just trying to appreciate getting to watch one of the greatest basketball players ever in the prime of his career. Now I'm sure every LeBron hater will label me a lover and vice versa. Whatever. 

Back to basketball. Game three rolls around and I have no clue what to expect. The Heat looked like the two time reigning champions that they are and the Spurs gave up a game at home. Honestly, I expected the Heat to take care of business in Miami, but then the most impressive half of NBA finals basketball ever played (in my opinion) occurred. The Spurs shoot nearly 90% from the field and scored 71 points in the first half! Led by Kawai Leonard's aggressive play and up by 25 points at half, the Spurs never looked back and emphatically took back a game in Miami. Despite the Heat's best efforts, and even closing the gap to 7 at one point in the third quarter, the Spurs looked like a championship team. 

Now I'm at a point in the series where I just don't know what to expect. Who knows how game one would have turned out if LeBron hadn't cramped up. Then the Heat proved that they weren't going to lie down in game two making me think that they might just take over the series. Now the Spurs have come in to hostile territory and had arguably their best game of the playoffs! I feel like I'm watching old school Chuck Liddell vs Wanderlei Silva just throwing bombs at each other with no idea who's gonna get knocked out first! 

Listen, love or hate either of these teams (or hate both for that matter), this series has been fun to watch. And however it shapes up, history is going to be made. Either the Spurs cast their bid for one of the greatest dynasties in the history of basketball or LeBron joins the mythical three-peat club all while bolstering his legacy. Would it be nice if this were Thunder vs Heat? Yea of course! But let's not let our sour grapes keep us from appreciating some really amazing basketball. Is it easier for me to say that because I grew up a Spurs fan? Sure. But go ahead and ask anyone who knew me in Norman who I was rooting for in 2012 when the Thunder beat my Spurs to play in the Finals. Yep, the Thunder.