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The World (Cup) According to The MN United FC

We decided the best way to learn how to properly watch the World Cup was to watch a game with the pros . . . Literally.

World Cup 2014 at the Nomad World Pub in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Photos by Drew Wood

The Croatia vs. Brazil World Cup 2014 opening match had all the drama and energy that a seasoned fan would hope of a Cup opener: an energetic underdog grabbing an early lead, missed opportunities by the home team that turned their vuvuzela-tootling fans to boo birds, and, let’s not forget, a pair of bad calls at critical moments that went so clearly for the home team/ tournament favor that most of the soccer-watching universe declared the fix was in. But what about an unseasoned fan? Well, if they’re anything like me it probably seemed like the same plodding low-scoring affair that you perceive all soccer to be. Then again, if they're anything like me they want to like watching soccer. Which is why I decided I’d hit the Nomad World Pub and watch a match with some seasoned vets, MN United FC coach Manny Lagos and team president Nick Rogers, to see if some of their passion for the “beautiful game” could possibly rub off on me. Here are my takeaways:

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Even when you’re watching with someone who understands the beauty of the game, there seems to be lots of time killing while you’re watching soccer. So in an early lull I asked them what was up with futbolers and fashion.
Manny Lagos: Rinaldo’s obviously amazing for it, but Messi’s not really marketable for it because he’s kinda short and just not - -
Nick Rogers: Off the pitch he’s like the most boring human being alive. He never says anything interesting. He never has any scandals. Messi just disappears when he’s not playing.

In case you didn’t watch, Croatia’s jerseys—as with lots of soccer kits—are pretty sweet; so sweet that Manny couldn’t resist commenting.
ML: I think Croatia’s jerseys are awesome looking. My high school had those in blue and gold.

There’s a player for Brazil whose father no lienamed him after Bruce Banner’s alter ego:
ML: So, number 7 is a huge player and his name is Hulk. Kinda different than your traditional skinny Brazilian too. He’s like a big, thick guy.

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Brazil, the favorite in the tournament was obviously also the favorite in the match. So when the Croats bit ‘em early, Manny and Nick’s exchange was uniformly surprised.
NR: Unbelievable.
ML: Wow.
NR: Unbelievable. Unbelievable. Olic has been all over the place.
ML: Was that an own goal? Own goal?
NR: Brazil looks slow.
ML: Pretty slow to the middle too.
NR: Modric just gets into transition so quickly.

What Nick and Manny referred to as slow to the middle the announcers referred to as “lazy” so I asked Manny what they meant by that.
ML: There’s a group and individual context to that question. What they’re saying is, as a group, they were moving the ball slowly and in key parts they weren’t really picking up the tempo and then Croatia would steal it and kinda counter. So I think he was kinda referring to Oscar in particular because there wasn’t really a quickness to it. And when you’re playing quick and the ball turns over then you run back and get it back again, and Brazil’s recovery has been really sluggish. And then you could say it’s lazy and then you start picking out which player did it or how they did it.

Soccer fans tend to frontload catastrophe into games so when Crotatia scored, even though there was still like an hour of game time left, Brazil’s were ready expatriate their team.
ML: Now the tension’s crazy. There was a big, kinda boo in this crowd already.
NR: They were hissing. Even before the goal.
ML: Yeah, they weren’t happy.

Curiously, for as low scoring as soccer can be, when one does happen another usually follows suit, though, not this time.
ML: There tends to be goals right after goals, so the fact that Brazil didn’t score right after Croatia adds another layer of tension before halftime.

It turns out that a lot of the first half of soccer is actually just sandbagging for the second half of soccer.
ML: When you see long spells of possession for Croatia that’s a really big deal in the game because that makes Brazil run and defend and that will add up later in the game when Brazil wants to attack with numbers and players and they can’t because they ran so much early in the game. These next 10 minutes will actually be big for Brazil in the second half even if it’s 1-0 still.

Just when you think things are going one way in a match everything changes. Only moments after Nick declared that Croatia had been having better chances, this happened:
NR: This is a chance.
ML: WHOA. There it is!
ML: He didn’t hit it cleanly and I think the goalie was a little out of position to be honest. I think the goalie thought it was going wide at first. NR: {in jest} I need to see the goal line technology to make sure it was a goal.
replay ML: Wow. Off the post. So it went through the Croatian player’s legs.
NR: Yeah, he didn’t hit it that well.

After that admittedly subpar equalizer, the game meandered a bit again (for me), so I got curious about corner kicks and “set pieces” in general.
ML: The room for error is tough. You wanna get it just above the first defender and in that gap so that it’s really hard for the goalie to read. Lots of practice goes into corner kicks. It’s one of the reasons David Beckham, even later in his career, was so valuable. His legs weren’t working so well but his set piece, specifically corner kicks, were unbelievable.

Post “bend it like Beckham” musings, things picked up because, it’s not your imagination, the closing minutes of a half really are more action-packed.
ML: It is a big deal, time and place in general, because both teams tend to try to play more wide open to seek a goal before the half. So the tempo of the games tends to pick up with usually about four minutes left.

It turns out being on the “wall” during a penalty kick sucks as much as it looks like it does.
ML: There’s a reason why they cover certain parts of their body in that situation. You tend to put guys on the wall who you feel wanna embrace that kind of pain, I guess.

Americans like their soccer announcing staid, informative, and old school.
ML: [Ian Dark’s] kinda become a fixture of the World Cup. Ian’s not very flamboyant.
NR:  He’s very popular in America.
ML: In our country we had a lot of announcers who tried to dumb the game down a little bit and he tries to do it from a traditional country standpoint. He’s helping us find our way to the announcing of the sport. He’s clever, he’s honest, he talks about it a little bit.

Ties matter in soccer, especially in the group stage of the World Cup.
ML: Home and away is such an advantage in soccer that for an away team to come away with a tie it is a feat. Almost like a pseudo win, which is a weird concept for us because we want things so black and white. Remember, it’s survival of the fittest. It’s not about winning this game it’s about getting through to the next round. So, even though they’ll get it in the media, a tie is OK for them here as opposed to a loss.

Brazil’s got a budding one-name-only superstar called Neymar, but a team cannot exist on Neymars alone.
ML: Everything about every player in every World Cup is debatable.
NR: This is the ultimate team sport. Neymar by himself with a bunch of schmucks is not going to do anything. You get exposed in this game if you’re weak at certain positions.
ML: If I had 11 Neymars to play for me team we wouldn’t win.

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Also debatable? The import of a player’s facial hair on their performance.
ML: [Gustavo’s] a boring player.
NR: But at least he’s got a great mustache right now.
ML: He does have a porn 'stache.
NR: That’s gotta count for something.
ML: It does but there’s gotta be more flair in the middle of the field.
NR: A porn' stache is a nice start for flair. Just do something with the mustache.

Professional soccer coaches know what they’re talking about. Literally five minutes after Manny said the following Brazil proved him 100 percent correct.
ML: He’s gotta make a sub here soon. In five minutes there’ll be a sub. Particularly in the second half, Brazil’s just been tacking down one side of the field or the other and just generally not being very dynamic and not switching the ball a lot and when you’re switching the ball a lot you open up spots in the field to make chances happen. So I think they’re trying to increase dynamics in the middle of the field and to get the ball moving.

Yellow cards are important for something other than defining subpar pop punk in the early 2000s.
ML: [They’re] massive in a game because that player has to play differently now for the rest of the game. (especially important for) the two center backs who kinda have to battle the whole time.
NR: If one of those guys picks up a yellow it changes how they go into a tackle.

Sometimes the refs are very, very wrong and, in this game, it effectively put the Croat’s down 2-1.
ML: Ooh. PK! My goodness.
NR: I do not like it. I did not like the call.
ML: Wow.
{The replay is shown}
ML: Oh gosh.
NR: That’s a terrible, terrible call. It looked like a terrible call when it happened live and it’s a bad, bad call.
ML: He felt his hand go on his left shoulder and he just fell down. It’s bad. It was definitely not a PK. There is a measure of trickery to this game.

. . . Because players are preeeeeetty sneaky.
ML: You know how all sports evolve? I think fouls and diving are in the middle stages with soccer. I think it’s going to become less and less, especially with video, but it’s hard though because the game is so ingrained to trick the referee. It’s semi-accepted, but now because it’s so debated it’s going to become less and less. Fred will get villified for this now. In South American soccer culture this is not only accepted, it’s encouraged. In Europe it’s much more looked down upon, particularly in England, because you’re taking away the honor of the game.

Although they often don’t look like they do, goalie’s usually have a plan for penalty kicks.
ML: I hate when goalies guess. I want the goalie to wait and then dive. Use his athleticism. Stay big. Make him think about it.
NR: I think the psychology of penalty kicks is fascinating.

Sometimes in soccer, even during the World Cup, the fix can be in and said fix usually becomes apparent during moments like the one where Croatia’s potential-tying goal was disallowed for a highly manufactured goalie interference call.
NR: Croatia equalizes! {Stops. Waits.} Oh, they called a foul. They called a foul right there. That was a terrible call. This is nonsense. The Croats are getting screwed. Uh, the fix appears to be in. Didn’t look like a foul to me. I mean, the Croatian guy headed the ball. That’s nonsense. There’s no foul. I . . . I . . . For me there’s nothing there.


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