Friday, July 13, 2007

U-20 World Cup | US v South Korea | Jun 30

Considering that since I went to Montreal to see the U-20 World Cup, that the US team has beaten Poland, Brazil and Uruguay and are now in the quarterfinals against Austria (Sat. 7/14, ESPNU, 2:15pm), this post is even more stale than that Wilco review. However, my World Cup post about Germany last year was even later. So, I’ll run with it anyway.

The only eventful part of the drive up was the traffic at the border. I’ve never run into more than two cars ahead of me trying to get into Canada. However, we had to wait almost a half-hour to get through security. On the other side of the border, we saw the mile long back-up to cross over into the US and hoped it would be cleared before we came home.

The Brazil-Poland game wasn’t until 2:15pm and it was only about 12:30 when we hit town. So, my friend and I headed over to Bar St. Sulpice on St. Denis to have some pre-game beers and lunch with members of Sam’s Army which is the supporters club for the US team. Nice guys. A few were up from NH while the rest were from NYC, NJ or DC. One guy was a student from Univ. of Illinois and was spending the summer working as an intern at the recreation department in White River Junction. My friend and I looked at each other and simultaneously said, “White River Junction’s rec department has interns?!? From Illinois?!?!?” Who would have thunked it? The only downsides to the pre-game beers was the loud jackhammer that some workers used next door for about ten minutes and the parking ticket I got. What happens if a foreigner doesn’t pay a ticket in Canada? I guess we’ll find out.

From there, we grabbed the Metro over to the stadium. It was a quick six stops and allowed us to avoid the traffic associated with the sell-out crowd of 56,000. The cars were packed with fellow soccer fans but nothing like the scene last year in Gelsinkirchen riding out to the US-Czech Republic match.

One of the many reasons Olympic Stadium is a crappy stadium is that everyone has to enter through the same set of doors. So, you can see the crush of people that we ran into shortly before kick-off. Plus, they were checking everyone for bottles and cans. So, after being crushed by everyone, you get felt up by some dude in rubber gloves. All in the name of love for soccer.

Having gone to a few Expos games in Olympic Stadium before they moved, I had gotten used to navigating the stadium in its typical empty state. So, it was very weird being in there with a huge crowd. The narrow hallways and meager amenities were even more narrow and meager with 56,000 people wandering around.

Here’s a quick rating of the fans. The best were Poland’s. There were lots of them, they were all decked out in red and white, had lots of flags & banners and made a ton of noise. Two weeks later, I still have their chants of “POL-SKA! POL-SKA!” rattling around in my brain. The next best were the Koreans. They seemed to have come over on a tour package because they were all mainly in three sections and had those inflatable bangers with Korea Air printed on the side of them. They also brought a bunch of big drums. All combined, they made a good deal of noise. However, when things weren’t going well for Korea, they were completely silent. There were a lot of people at the game with Brazil jerseys on but they barely uttered a peep. I’m guessing they were a bunch of fair weather fans who picked up a Brazilian jersey while on holiday in Rio de Janeiro. They’d try to start a “BRA-SIL! BRA-SIL!” cheer but the Poles would immediately aurally swarm them.

By far, the worst fans were the US fans. There were about 100 of us there. Plus, all the Poland and Brazil fans openly booed the US team throughout the game. The small group of Sam’s Army did their best but there was less than 50 of them and they were all the way at the back of their section in the corner. You can barely see them in the photo above. They tried to get the Poles on our side by chanting “POL-SKA!” during dead moments in the game. However, despite getting a few chuckles out of the Poles around us, it didn’t sway them. Sam’s Army did bust out the big flag though when the US scored which was cool.

Brazil was one of the pre-tournament favorites. So, it was surprising when Poland came out looking much stronger than expected. Poland held their shape, pressured down the wings and largely controlled the game. Even after Poland had a man sent off, they still closed the gaps quickly and held their backline straight. Meanwhile, Brazil had trouble connecting more than two passes in a row. Watching them beat Brazil 1-0, it looked like Poland would be a strong contender for the title. That’s why you can’t make such determinations based upon one match. In their next game on July 3rd, the US throttled the Poles 6-1.

One indicator that Poland may not have been as good as they looked in beating Brazil was the way they celebrated at the end of the game. It was the first game in a month-long tournament but they acted as if they had just won the cup. They formed a big circle, locked arms and jumped up and down for a few minutes before making a lap around the stadium waving & bowing to their fans. The US and Korea were well into their warm-ups when the Poles finally left the field. Perhaps the Poles knew better than we did that they had played over their heads and that would be their high-water mark.

Between the matches, we wandered around the concourse for a while. I checked out the souvenir booths but they weren't selling any US scarves. In fact, they had plenty of stuff for the other countries but all they had for the US fans was a crummy lame t-shirt. At first, I was annoyed but then I remembered how few US fans were in the house and realized that they were right to not stock up on US items.

The other odd thing we noticed on the concourse was that the were no lines for beer but the lines for soda were extremely long. I have no explanation for that.

As for the US match, the US pressured the ball really high right off the bat. For the first few minutes, it looked great as they the US shut down everything Korea tried. However, after about four minutes, they abandoned that approach. I don't know if it was a change in tactics right away or if they, for some reason, just wanted to knock Korea backwards initially and then absorb them. No idea. In general, the game was fairly even for the first fifteen minutes.

The US then scored in the 17th minute when Danny Szetela made a nice run onto a good cross from Sal Zizzo. However, around that time, the game shifted. Korea then started exposing our slow backline with their lightening quick forwards. Geez, were those guys fast. They beat us everytime. Even with the ball, they were faster than our defenders. This led to the US left back, Tim Ward, having the worst half of soccer I've ever seen someone have while wearing the US jersey. He looked like a traffic cone out there.

However, our poor play for the next 45 minutes wasn't all Ward's fault. Everyone looked crappy. Josy Altidore missed a sitter. Michael Bradley, who often starts for the full senior team, repeatedly failed to link the offense and defense as he sprayed passes to the feet of Koreans all night. The US goalie, Chris Seitz, and the aforementioned, Sal Zizzo, were the only players that looked like they belonged out there.

The only thing that saved us was Korea's complete lack of imagination once they got pass our defenders. It was as if their coaching had taught them how to get pass the defense but nobody had ever shown them what to do next. So, they blew a ton of chances to put the US away. They tied up the game in the 38th minute but, overall, out shot the US 17-8.

The US got a bit of a spark from Dax McCarty when he came on and the last half hour of the match was more even but we were still lucky to walk off the field with a tie. At that moment, my friend and I both agreed that the US looked like the worse team of the day while Korea and Poland looked like contenders. It's funny how wrong those impressions were in the end. The US is the only team of the four still playing.

After the game, we headed back to the Metro to head back to our car. Here's where the Canadians completely out shined the Germans. Last summer, we waited forever for trains after the games. It was completely disorganized in Germany. In contrast, the Metro system had a bunch of extra subway cars ready to go. The game was over at 6:55pm and we were back on St. Denis street by 7:10pm. Excellent job, Montreal.

We were still a bit worried about hitting the long line at the border. So, my friend and I decided to hit Bistro Iskaya for some post-game sushi. I know I always go back to the same place but it's easy, good and relatively inexpensive.

Thankfully, by the time we hit the border slightly before 10pm, the line was 100% gone. We sailed right up to the booth. The guard asked us what the score of the US game was and then asked if it was true that Brazil fielded a team of one-legged players in order to lose to Poland. It was pretty funny and refreshing to find a fellow American interested in the games.

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