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Sports column: World Cup gave controversy, skill, drama and hope

From Clint Dempsey’s goal 30 seconds into the U.S. men’s national team’s first game to unlikely German hero Mario Gotze’s extra-time game-winner vs. Argentina in the final, the World Cup provided a lot of entertainment, except to fans of the defenseless Brazilian home side.
Here’s just a short list of indelible memories:
• Hello, James Rodriguez! The Colombian’s 20-yard volley vs. Uruguay off the bottom of the crossbar and in provided the thunder, while James’ footwork against Japan — he caused a defender to do a 360 and collapse to the ground before he left-footed a chip over the onrushing keeper and into the back of the net — provided the lightning.
• CONCACAF goal-tending (CONCACAF is the region to which the U.S. team belongs, including North America, Central America and the Caribbean). American Tim Howard gained the most notoriety and became an Internet meme for his record 15 saves vs. Belgium, but equally deserving of mention are Mexico’s Guillermo Ochoa frustrating Brazil with three or four point-blank saves in a 0-0 draw, and Costa Rica’s Keylor Navas helping his team reach the quarterfinal round with a series of remarkable efforts — ask the Dutch if they felt fortunate to advance.
• Fabian Johnson’s wonder strike to give the U.S. the lead vs. Portugal, Aussie Tim Cahill’s one-time volley vs. the Netherlands, and Lionel Messi’s game-winning bender vs. Iran.
• The defense of Argentina’s Javier Mascherano and all of Costa Rica’s back four. ¡Viva Los Ticos!
• The unbelievable talent and speed of Dutch star Arjen Robben, possibly the tournament’s best player. 
• Robben’s annoying flopping. Robben would be better served by shelving the antics and playing honest soccer. If he didn’t try to buy calls and instead tried to stay on his feet (like Messi, for instance, a more admirable player) Robben might get more calls and be in a position to make more plays. As it is, hard to root for him.
• Spain crumbling. Alas, as all dynasties do. Age (goalie Iker Casillas and center back Pique both appear to have lost a step, and both certainly miss the retired Carlos Puyol) probably just took its toll, and Brazil offered the template a year ago in the Confederation Cup final on how to defeat Spain’s elegant possession style — high pressure and physical play.
And a few thoughts:
• For the sake of all that is sacred on this planet, never mind the corruption and arrogance, at least FIFA could join the modern century and use a real clock and video replay.
Start with the clock. Teams use substitutes and phony injuries to stall when they are protecting a lead. I could make a sandwich in the time it takes a player to leave the field when he is being subbed out when his team is up, 1-0. Just have a game clock and stop it and end the nonsense. Same with injuries, real or not. Just put an end to the idiocy.
As for replays, it’s great FIFA finally allows goals to be reviewed to determine if balls were over the line, but how about offsides? Bosnia-Herzegovina and Argentina were both robbed of goals by poor linesmen’s calls. Allow a challenge to determine if calls are correct. And stop the clock while it’s being done.
And video could also be used after games to punish those who, like Robben (or Thomas Muller of Germany in the final) cheat the game by faking being fouled. That practice would go a long way to clean up that distasteful part of the game. Even Sepp Blatter says he favors doing so, but somehow nothing has happened. Make it so, Sepp.
• If I were Brazil manager Felipe Scolari, I might have put on a disguise at halftime of the Germany semifinal and fled the country. He deserves blame for fielding a team that fouled relentlessly (more than any other in the tournament, and it’s no surprise his star player, Neymar, was hurt in a rough game), played without discipline on defense (it re-enacted the Maginot Line vs. Germany), and showed little of the creativity of the past.
His selections for the team and then which players to play — where was Oscar early on; and even David Luiz’s club team, Chelsea, no longer puts him at central defense — also justifiably came under fire. Até logo, Felipe. I am not a fan, but the tournament’s most consistent team probably won. Argentina did not play especially well early on in the Cup, while Germany steadily dispatched all comers except Ghana (a 2-2 tie). In the final, Germany held the ball for more than 60 percent of the time and created steady pressure. Even if Argentina had three golden chances to win, taking advantage of those opportunities ultimately sets teams apart, and Germany’s Gotze did what Messi, Palacio and Higuain did not do for Argentina — convert.
• And that thought brings us to the U.S. Debate has gone back and forth about whether this World Cup represented progress or hope for the USMNT.
It is fairly noted that U.S. men’s teams went through to the same round of 16 in each of the past two World Cups and reached the quarterfinal round in 2002, when it lost to Germany, thanks in part to an uncalled handball on the German goal line. (A quick search for “Germany handball vs. USA” produces another argument for video replay.) On the other hand, few expected the USMNT to advance out of a group that included Germany, Portugal and Ghana, and it did.
Deficiencies were certainly on display this time around. The defense was average, and must be better than that if the USMNT is to truly contend. The passing out of the back must also improve. Too often the ball went to the wrong jerseys.  
Midfield play and the transition up the field might be described as haphazard, and creativity at times went lacking. I have no idea what happened between manager Jurgen Klinsmann and longtime standout Landon Donovan, so I won’t second-guess Donovan’s exclusion, but Donovan would have helped shore up this weakness.
But referring back to converting chances, before Germany defeated the USMNT, 1-0, the Americans had scored two goals in six straight games. That’s production. And the team looked legitimately dangerous when counter-attacking, especially when it found itself trailing late in matches.
The USMNT looked particularly threatening when using its speed on the flanks to stretch opposing defenses, and were pressuring teams without its injured starting striker and despite having one of the Cup’s worst travel schedules imposed on them (the team traveled almost 6,000 miles in the group stage; the Germans, less than 2,000). The Belgians surely felt fortunate when the referee whistled time to cement their 2-1 win over the U.S. in the round of 16.
And creating and finishing chances remains the hardest thing to accomplish in soccer. Just ask the Argentines. The fact the USMNT has done so consistently gives hope for the Klinsmann era and helped make it, overall, a successful visit to Brazil.

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