Why is tonight's USA vs. Mexico men's soccer game so big?

When the United States Men’s National Soccer Team (USMNT) plays against Mexico tonight, it will be one of the biggest non-World Cup games in memory. I’ll be watching, starting at 9:30 p.m. on Fox Sports 1, and I encourage you to do the same. Of course, just saying it’s an important game shouldn’t be enough to get you interested, so I’m going to try to explain why it’s so big in this post.

The CONCACAF Gold Cup is the biggest men’s soccer tournament in North America, Central America, and the Caribbean. In it, teams from all over those regions compete every two years to determine which country is the best. It’s an important tournament for world rankings but even more so for continental bragging rights. In the 26 years (13 tournaments) since the Gold Cup began, Mexico or the United States has won the cup all but once. Mexico has won it seven times, the United States five times, and Canada surprised the world and won it in 2000. Must have been some kind of Y2K bug. In the two most recent tournaments, the United States won once (in 2013) and Mexico won once (this year). This is pertinent, because that split over the past two tournaments is why Mexico and the United States are playing tonight.

The Confederations Cup is another international soccer tournament. This one happens every four years. It’s a small tournament, only eight teams, and highly exclusive. The only way to get an invitation is to win one of FIFA’s regional championships, like the CONCACAF Gold Cup. There are six of these tournaments throughout the world. The other two teams invited are the current World Cup champions and the next country to host the World Cup. The tournament is offset from the World Cup by a year (the next World Cup is in 2018, the next Confederations Cup is in 2017) and is hosted by the host of that World Cup. It’s almost like a dress rehearsal for the World Cup. Playing in the Confederations Cup is important to countries like the United States and Mexico because it offers a rare chance to play in a World Cup-like atmosphere against the best teams in the world without quite the same unbearable pressure that the actual World Cup brings.

There have been two Gold Cups since the last Confederations Cup. The United States won one and Mexico won one. So, in order to determine which country should be invited to the Confederations Cup in Russia, the teams will play a single playoff game tonight. Win and book your tickets to Russia for the 2017 Confederations Cup. Lose and go home.

If those stakes weren’t enough on their own to make this a big game, there’s also a long-held and simmering once again rivalry between Mexico and the United States in men’s soccer. The general arc of the rivalry is this: Mexico was the undisputed power in CONCACAF forever, until around the mid 1990s when the United States started to challenge them a bit. Then, in the 2000s, the United States seemed to surpass Mexico, which was the cause of much gloating on the U.S. side and much angst on the Mexican side. Now things have settled in to a murky stalemate. Neither team is as good as they once were and both sides have a strange mixture of existential pessimism and swagger. Leading up to this game, the Mexican TV station Azteca ran a frankly hysterical advertisement with clips of Donald Trump, whose idiotic comments about Mexico are well known, interspersed with pictures of Mexican soccer players doing awesome stuff. This was pretty great — it stirred the rivalry up while also bringing soccer fans on both sides together, since even the most partisan U.S. fan should be able to see the humor and irony in the ad. Then, just a few days ago, Fox Sports 1, which is televising the match, ran their own ad featuring Trump. This pro-U.S. ad comes across as jingoistic and arrogant and has been widely criticized. It’s unlikely that Fox’s misfire will mean much to the players but it’s equally unlikely that they needed any more motivation to bring the simmering rivalry to a roiling boil tonight.

If you want to learn more about the USA vs. Mexico men’s soccer rivalry, I recommend these two oral histories from ESPN and MLS Soccer.

 

Did EA Sports' FIFA '16 rate the USWNT players fairly?

EA Sports’ newest installment of their soccer video game, FIFA 16, will be coming out on September 22, 15. When it does, it will feature women’s soccer players for the first time ever. This is an exciting development for fans of gender equality AND fans of the U.S. women’s soccer team. One of the most hotly anticipated aspects of the release of any new sports video game is the rating of players. Fans (and even players) obsess over player ratings. Is Player A too high? How could they possibly have made Player B only a 75 (all the ratings are out of 100)? For the first time ever, we get to obsess over the ratings of our favorite female soccer players as well as male. On Twitter today, I saw the first leak of the overall ratings of the players from the U.S. Women’s soccer team from Women’s Football Comp. Here they are, in order, with my comments. If you want to know more about any of the players, I’ve linked to the profiles of them that I wrote before the World Cup.

  1. Abby Wambach – 88: Okay, this is clearly an honorary legacy rating for the greatest international soccer goal scorer of all time. At 35, she’s no longer the best striker in the world, not even on her own national team. She came in off the bench in the last few World Cup games and that’s one of the reasons the team won the Cup. After all she’s done for the country and sport, I’m okay with this. Wambach forever!
  2. Megan Rapinoe – 87: This is an interesting rating and perhaps shows what strengths the FIFA game weighs more heavily than others. The U.S. vs. Germany semifinal notwithstanding, Rapinoe is normally a player who emphasizes technical skill over speed and strength. She’s can strike a set piece with the best of them and hit streaking attackers in stride with her accurate passing. The best non-Wambach player though? I’m not sure.
  3. Hope Solo – 87: Now we’re cooking with gas. Solo is still the best goalkeeper in the world. An intimidating presence in the net, Solo has earned every one of those 87 rating points.
  4. Carli Lloyd – 86: The hero of the World Cup for the USA, Lloyd’s strengths translate well to video gaming. She’s a physical beast, strong and durable, and if her long-range shooting rating is not 100, something is very, very wrong at EA Sports headquarters.
  5. Becky Sauerbrunn – 84: I could not be more happy with this rating. The back-four for the USA were my favorite part of the World Cup and, although she didn’t get as much acclaim as some of her defensive teammates, Sauerbrunn was the solid foundation that made it all happen. She’s totally dependable, which is exactly what you want out of a defender.
  6. Alex Morgan – 84: Yeah, well, okay, fine. I’m not a big fan of Morgan, either on the field or off, but she does have some very easily replicable skills. She’s very fast and extremely clever at making threatening runs through the defense. Her finishing touch leaves something to be desired, but at 84, I think that’s probably represented in her rating. She does everything else very well.
  7. Tobin Heath – 83: This overall rating is surely bolstered by the fact that Heath has the dribbling skills of an alien whose entire evolution has been devoted to soccer dribbling. She’s a freak.
  8. Christie Rampone – 83: Another honorary rating and another acceptable one based on her overall career arc. The only woman who was on the team that won the 1999 and 2015 World Cups deserves everything she gets. Just get her out of your lineup if you play as the United States in the game. Don’t break up the true back four for Rampone’s honorary strength.
  9. Sydney Leroux – 82: Leroux had trouble breaking into the U.S. lineup at the World Cup, but this rating rings true nonetheless. She’s virtually interchangeable with Alex Morgan, just ever so slightly worse. It’s why it’s hard for her to get playing time in real life and in video games.
  10. Lauren Holiday – 81: If I had my druthers, I’d push Holiday’s rating a little bit farther up, but her true strength, vision, is virtually impossible to capture in a video game.
  11. Julie Johnston – 81: If Johnston had been able to continue her scoring streak from the Algarve Cup into the World Cup, she’d be one of the top five players in the game. As is, this rating probably reflects that we should expect a little bit of regression to the mean in her play. She had a sublime streak of about fifteen games but there are cracks in her armor, which we saw against Germany and Japan.
  12. Heather O’Reilly – 81: I guess? For her have played only nine minutes in the World Cup and to be higher than several players who played key roles seems strange to me.
  13. Kelley O’Hara – 81: The proverbial spark plug off the bench for the U.S. in the World Cup, O’Hara looked every bit as good as her rating suggests. I might even push her up past Leroux and Heath, but at this point we’re quibbling over a few rating points.
  14. Ashlyn Harris – 80: Being stuck behind Hope Solo is no shame. The second best goalie on the U.S. team may also be the second best goalie in the world.
  15. Ali Krieger – 80: I’m surprised to see a core member of the U.S. defense so far down the list, especially one whose public profile is as high as Krieger’s.
  16. Whitney Engen – 79: Engen could have, might have, would have been the starting central defender if an injury had not given Johnston a chance to seize the day (and the position.) Engen is a solid player but given her lack of playing time in the World Cup, I’m surprised she was not at the bottom of the list.
  17. Morgan Brian – 74: Here’s where things start getting crazy. Brian was a key piece, some would argue THE KEY PIECE, that, once inserted into the lineup, made the U.S. team’s run to the World Cup championship possible. Even playing slightly out of position at defensive midfield, Brian was a rock. At 22, she’s also has one of the brightest future’s in the game, something that, in many game modes, players should actually get to experience. I hope that the programmers at least put that in. If you play more than a year or two into the future, Brian should be the top rated U.S. player seven times out of 10.
  18. Amy Rodriguez – 74: Oh, fine. I think Rodriguez gets a raw deal, but she’s used to it. There’s no way she’s ten rating points worse than Alex Morgan.
  19. Christen Press – 72: This is just stupid. Anyone who can do this to the French defense should be rated much higher. The awkwardness of her fit with Lloyd and Rapinoe in the midfield held her back from World Cup stardom and now it’s being reflected in this rating. That’s a shame!

Missing – A few players were not included in @jigsawwill’s Twitter posts. Here is my best guess at what their rating might be and why.

  • Alyssa Naeher – 80: As a Boston Breakers fan, I get to sit right behind Naeher and watch her work on a regular basis. She is an extraordinary keeper. I’m putting her even with Hope Solo’s other backup, Ashlyn Harris, who I haven’t seen play as much, but who I assume must be equally good.
  • Meghan Klingenberg – 82: Ahead of Julie Johnston and Ali Krieger? Yes — Klingenberg’s ridiculous speed bumps her above those players and will maker her a particular joy to play as in the video game. Speed kills in video games, just ask fans of Michael Vick and Bo Jackson.
  • Shannon Boxx – 72: At 38, Shannon Boxx’ time as a world class holding midfielder has come and gone. Unlike Rampone and Wambach, Boxx doesn’t have a high enough profile to get one of those charming honorary rating boosts.
  • Lori Chalupney – 74: Versatility is another quality that’s hard for video games to represent. Without Chalupney’s ability to play every position on the field (except, I assume, goalie) I’m not sure she would have been included on the team. Being a Swiss Army Knife is valuable, but not when quantifying the skills required to play each position.

Women in sports: the plight and the fight

With the women’s World Cup firmly in the rear view mirror and Serena Williams cooling her heels for another couple weeks until the U.S. Open, women’s sports and women in sports have faded slightly out of the spotlight. That doesn’t mean there still aren’t awesome women doing fascinating, frustrating, and forceful things in sports. This week we bring you three stories about the challenges that women face advancing in the world of sports.

The Lingerie Football Trap

by Jordan Ritter Conn for Grantland

Have you ever heard of the Lingerie Football League? Recently renamed to the Legends Football League (you’re not fooling anyone, guys, but it is a step in the right direction), this is full-on tackle football played by women with far less protective padding and far, far, infinitely far less reward than their male counterparts. Women playing football is a feather in the cap of progress. But women playing for noting and wearing almost nothing? Is it a step back? A small step forward? Or a stalemate? 

The LFL’s core audience wants to see skin. The players want to play real football in real arenas, to feel the rush of high-stakes competition. The commissioner wants to make money. The LFL, for better or worse, is their middle ground.

The relationship between the LFL’s uniforms and the players who wear them is complex. “I mean, yes, we’re wearing basically a bathing suit,” says Melissa Margulies. “But you can’t argue [with] sex sells. That’s going to fill the seats.” Even among players deeply critical of the league, there is often little patience for this debate.

They joined the league knowing full well what it sells. They agreed to market both their bodies and their talent. But that choice is limited, bound by certain realities. “Sometimes, when you’re a female athlete, you have to suck it up,” says Nikki Johnson, another former player with the Las Vegas Sin. “You have to do whatever it takes to get people to your games.”

Jen Welter Is the NFL’s First Female Coach and Nobody Had a Sexist Reaction to That (Just Kidding)

by Jenna Mullins for E Online

It’s amazing that the hiring of a training camp coaching intern made news, but such is the popularity of the NFL and such has been the complete dominance of NFL coaching jobs by men. Despite the fanfare over the first female hiring, what happens next will be far more meaningful. Will there be other teams that dare to hire a female coach? Will Welter get a permanent position?

“Coaching is nothing more than teaching,” head coach Bruce Arians said. “One thing I have learned from players is, ‘How are you going to make me better? If you can make me better, I don’t care if you’re the Green Hornet, man, I’ll listen.’ I really believe she’ll have a great opportunity with this internship through training camp to open some doors for her.” Arians added that after speaking to the veteran Cardinals players, they were all “very cool” with Welter taking on the position.

You know who is not “very cool” with Dr. Welter? Humans who still think women are the inferior sex and shouldn’t dare set food out of the kitchen. Also known as people who apparently time-traveled from 1951. What bummed us out most about seeing these comments on Facebook and Twitter is that a lot of them came from women. We’re bumming hard over that, you guys.

Why England’s women’s soccer team won’t be playing at the 2016 Olympics

by Karla Adams for the Washington Post

Before you get your indignation machine started, this story has nothing to do with gender — at least, the reason the women’s team won’t be playing in the Olympics has nothing to do with gender. Still, you can’t help but wonder whether Great Britain would find a way to make this work if it meant missing or making an important men’s soccer tournament.

At the heart of the debate over whether Britain will field any soccer teams at the Olympics are questions about British identity, and which of Britons’ multiple identities gets priority.

The four constituent nations of the United Kingdom compete as individual teams in soccer tournaments such as the World Cup and the European Championship. But in the Olympics, the athletes must compete under the single banner of “Team GB.”

England lays claim to inventing the modern game of soccer, and on the men’s side, it is wildly popular, with England’s Premier League being one of the most popular in the world. The Olympics, which on the men’s side has an age restriction of younger than 23 (with the exception of three players), is arguably not as important for the men as other tournaments… But the sport is still developing for the women, and some fans say it’s disappointing that the women won’t get the sort of high-megawatt exposure that a platform such as the Olympics can offer.

What leagues and people should I follow as a new soccer fan?

Dear Sports Fan,

Ok, so I downloaded the app FotMob and being a newbie to soccer (thanks to Fancred), I have a few questions. What are all the different leagues in the U.S.? I thought I would start out following those and the World Cup stuff when it comes around. Just trying to figure out what all is going on. Would take any suggestions on who else to follow. What leagues and people should I follow as a new soccer fan?

Thanks,
Tim Lollar


Dear Tim,

Congratulations on getting into soccer! Learning any new sport can be a fun and intellectually stimulating experience. As you learn the new sport, it subtly changes the way you think about sports you already understand well and even other aspects of your life. You may even find yourself having eureka moments about something at work or with a relationship and be able to trace it back to something you thought of while learning soccer. Long story short, learning about anything sparks learning about everything. If you haven’t already explored them, we offer a few easy email courses on soccer: Soccer 101, Soccer 201: Positions and Logistics, and Soccer 202: Culture.

It’s a particularly interesting time to become a new soccer fan. Thanks to this year’s women’s World Cup and last year’s men’s World Cup, both of which were conveniently located for U.S. soccer fans, there’s a tremendous amount of excitement about soccer. Unfortunately, it will be another three years until the next men’s World Cup and four until the next women’s. That’s a shame because, especially for the non-totally-hard-core soccer fan, the World Cup is the ultimate competition. Luckily, the alternatives are plentiful and exciting in their own right:

  • In the United States, the two main professional leagues to follow are Major League Soccer (MLS) for men and the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) for women. Both leagues are in the middle of their seasons, so now is a good time to become a fan. Choose the team closest to you and start rooting. One of the great things about professional soccer in the United States is that tickets are still quite accessible, even for normal people. NWSL tickets can be had at most stadiums for between $15 and $40 and MLS tickets go from $25 to $100. I wrote an entire post about how to follow the NWSL because, although all its games are available on YouTube for free, because only a handful of games are on TV, people often don’t know how to watch them. MLS games are carried weekly on ESPN and Fox Sports channels.
  • If you want to follow a professional league outside of the United States, your two best bets are Mexico’s Liga MX and the British Premier League. Virtually every game from both leagues is now available in some form in the United States. Liga MX is carried on Univision, Azteca, UniMas, and ESPN Deportes. The right to the British Premier League (the BPL but also sometimes called by its old abbreviation, the EPL) are owned by NBC and its child channel, NBC Sports Network. Unless you have a real connection to Mexico or England, choosing to follow either league as your primary league could be thought of as a slightly pretentious move. Don’t pay too much attention to that. Unlike with baseball, basketball, football, or ice hockey, the best professional league in the world is not in the United States, it’s widely thought of as being the BPL, so if you simply need to watch the best, that’s the league to follow regardless of the pretension.
  • Also unlike club teams in other sports, professional soccer teams play in many different competitions simultaneously, often against club teams from other leagues. These tournaments provide another exciting opportunity to watch extremely good soccer. The most prestigious of all inter-league tournaments is the european Champions League which pits the best teams from each of Europe’s many soccer leagues against one another. North America (plus Central America and the Caribbean) has its own version of this called the CONCACAF Champions League. Teams from every league in the United States play against each other in the U.S. Open Cup. As you can tell, there’s a wide array of competitions to track.
  • Even without the World Cup, there is a lot going on in international soccer if you want to focus on that. The U.S. men’s national team is playing in the Gold Cup right now. The Gold Cup is held every other year and is a World Cup-like tournament between only the teams in North America, Central America, and the Caribbean. Next year, the Summer Olympics will have their own soccer competition. Soccer at the Olympics are a funny proposition because they are almost as important as the World Cup to women’s soccer but they’ve never been seen as important in men’s soccer. Either as a result or as a cause, men’s olympic teams are restricted. All but three players on each team must be under 23 years old. The most important international men’s soccer tournament in 2016 will be the European Championships. The Euros, as they’re called, are a 24 team tournament that also closely resembles the World Cup, just with only teams from Europe. Some people argue that because of the depth of European soccer and the geographic requirements that the World Cup have to ensure representation from all over, the Euros are actually a more competitive tournament. They’re definitely fun to watch.

As you can tell, there’s always something to follow in the world of soccer! Apps like FotMob, which provide news and schedules for virtually every league and competition in the world are great resources to have. Twitter is another great resource for following soccer. I would start by following Grant Wahl, a leading U.S. soccer reporter who works for Sports Illustrated. He maintains lists of other people in the soccer world to follow for breaking news, as well as the men’s and women’s World Cup. Poke around in his lists and you’ll find some great soccer people.

Thanks and good luck,
Ezra Fischer

 

How to watch the 2015 World Cup final: USA vs. Japan

How should you watch the 2015 World Cup final between the USA and Japan? With enthusiasm and pride! With friends and family. In your living room, in a bar, in a public park or town square. Television coverage begins at 5 p.m. ET on Fox with the opening kickoff happening at 7 p.m. promptly.

What’s the plot?

Four years ago, Japan shocked the world by beating the United States in the 2011 World Cup championship game. Despite Japan’s sentimental appeal, playing for a country facing the aftermath of the triple earthquake/tsunami/nuclear meltdown disasters, no one expected them to be able to beat the United States. The United States was stacked with talented players and had proven itself in two giant knockout round wins over Brazil and France. The American team was the wolf and Japan was expected to be the sheep. Alas for the United States, no one asked the classic red carpet question, “What are you wearing?” As it turned out, the answer was “sheep’s clothing” and Japan showed itself to be the bigger, badder wolf, answering both U.S. goals with tallies of their own and triumphing in the resulting penalty shootout.

Four years later, the same two teams meet, and what’s at stake is legacy. Japan already has one title over the powerful American team. If they win today, they will ink their names into the history books as the ultimate World Cup performers — and the ultimate kryptonite to the United States. If the U.S. team wins, they’ll erase the memories of the 2011 team, a team that at the time was remembered more for its dramatic last second victory over Brazil than for its loss to Japan, but who, as time has gone by has been remembered more and more for its inability to bring home the cup. A U.S. win would end a generation of coming up short. For veteran players like, Shannon Boxx, Lori Chalupny, Heather O’Reilly, and of course, Abby Wambach, this is their last chance to leave the game with a World Cup championship on their resumes, and even though they have not played as large roles on this team as in past World Cups, it’s their legacies that are on the line today.

The United States had the hardest path through the Group Stage of any of the top-level teams. They opened the World Cup with a 3-1 win over Australia, a scoreline that disguises how close Australia was to scoring the upset. Next the U.S. team played a listless 0-0 draw against Sweden. At this point, doubts and criticism began to swirl around the team. A lackluster 1-0 victory over Nigeria, supposedly the weakest team in the group, did not help things. So, despite winning their group, the U.S. team was not looking all that strong. They then beat a feisty Colombia team in the Round of Sixteen, while still looking less dominant than people expected. It wasn’t until the next game, against China, that the team truly started looking like the overwhelming team we knew it could be. Tactical changes forced by suspensions to two midfielders, Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday, seemed to be the reason. This left coach Jill Ellis with quite the conundrum going into the team’s semifinal against a very scary German team who was favored to win the entire tournament: go back to the tactics of the first several games or choose to bench the now no-longer suspended Rapinoe and Holiday? She chose option C – change formations entirely and play those players but in different roles. It worked and remarkably, the U.S. dominated the Germans and advanced to the championship game today!

If anything, Japan has had an even more impressive run to the finals than the United States. They’ve won every single game they’ve played. Admittedly, their Group Stage matches were against inferior teams – Switzerland, Cameroon, and Ecuador, nor have they played against anyone as good as Germany, the United States, or France in the Knockout round. In their first elimination game, they beat a talented Netherlands team that’s probably four years away from being a true World Cup challenger. They moved on to face Australia, who almost found a way to upset Japan despite losing the possession battle soundly. In the semifinals, Japan beat England on that horrible 92nd minute own goal. If there were any justice in soccer, England and Japan would have played another 30 minutes of soccer and potentially a shootout to decide who moved on to the championship game. Who knows what would have happened? Throughout all of their games, Japan has possessed the ball more than their opponents but despite moments of brilliance, they’ve mostly done just enough to win, not looked dominant.

Who are the characters?

Jill Ellis – Questioned throughout most of the tournament, Ellis shut up her detractors by pressing all the right tactical buttons during the United States’ semifinal match against Germany. With success has come respect for how she’s managed the many big personalities on the team as well as the strategic choices. All that will be for naught if her team loses today.

Carli Lloyd – Through the first four games of the tournament, it wasn’t clear “whose” team this was. Now it’s pretty clear — it’s Carli Lloyd’s team. With one more captivating performance, it will be her ferocious midfield play and intensity that people remember when they think of the 2015 World Cup side.

Abby Wambach – “Win one for Abby” has been a rallying cry for the team throughout its World Cup run. She’s the greatest international goal-scorer of all time but she’s never won a World Cup. To all appearances, she’s gracefully accepted a reduced role over the last several games. She’s okay coming off the bench as a super sub. She just wants a World Cup championship.

Morgan Brian – The youngest player on the team, Brian has proven to be one of the most indispensable. An attacking player by nature, Brian has been asked to play as a defensive midfielder and has done it wonderfully. This has been enormous for the U.S. team because it came to the tournament with five or six natural attacking midfielders and only one defensive midfielder, the 38 year-old Shannon Boxx, who has barely played over the past year.

Julie Johnston – Johnston had the most dramatic night of anyone during the U.S. semifinal win over Germany. She committed the foul that gave Germany a penalty kick and its best chance to take control of the match. She was up and down the field, on offense, and defense, exhausting herself and taking a physical pounding. She seems to be made of steel but how much can she really have recovered from Tuesday’s game? She’ll need to be at full strength tonight.

Meet the rest of the United States team with our player profiles here

Aya Miyami – The current captain of the Japanese team, Aya Miyami, is a wizard in the midfield. She seems to have eyes in the back of her head and is able to pass to open players, seemingly by sonar or telepathy. She’ll take most of the team’s free kicks and other set pieces. She’ll have to be perfect tonight for Japan to have a chance.

Homare Sawa – Sawa is Japan’s answer to Abby Wambach. Once a star, now she’s a legend who plays in a secondary role and often comes in off the bench. In the battle of legends, it’s most likely that neither player will be the deciding factor in the game, but how fascinating would it be if Sawa came through with something amazing?

Norio Sasaki – With all of the focus on Jill Ellis and the decisions facing her, it’s easy to forget that there’s a coach on the other side — and a proud World Cup winning coach too. What tricks will Sasaki have up his sleeve when the teams enter the arena tonight?

Who’s going to win?

The United States has won games in many different ways this World Cup, but they’ve never had game where they were simply dominant from the starting kickoff to the last whistle. This is partially because they were in the “group of death” with three other very strong teams to start the tournament: Australia (the only team to score against the United States), Sweden (the only team to get a draw against the United States), and Nigeria. However, it’s also true that the United States team has been improving steadily from the moment it started its tournament to last Tuesday’s triumphant victory over Germany. In this final game of the tournament, I expect the U.S. team to be running on all cylinders. I expect them to be too powerful, too savvy, and too skilled for the Japanese team. I wrote before the semifinals that the winner of the USA vs. Germany game would be the enormous favorite in the championship game. Although I’m currently experiencing pre-game nervousness and although I’m superstitiously hesitant to jinx the team, I’m going to stick to my guns and predict a win for the United States. More than just a win, I expect a coronation. The U.S. will score early and maintain control of the game throughout.

How to keep the World Cup spirit going: watch the NWSL

The 2015 World Cup has been an amazing success for soccer and women’s sports throughout the world. If you’re reading this post, than you are probably sad that the tournament is coming to a close. Trust me, everyone who is involved with women’s sports and women’s soccer in particular is as well. The problem with relying on events like the World Cup and the Olympics to expand the reach of women’s soccer is that they only come around once every four years. The rest of the time, women’s sports get very little coverage from the media and very little attention from the vast majority of sports fans. This has a negative impact on the ability for female athletes to improve. It’s hard to find full-time professional jobs as athletes. There simply aren’t that many professional teams out there and those that exist pay far less than men’s professional teams, often not enough to live on. It’s a vicious cycle common to women who play sports at the vast majority of levels in the vast majority of the world: women’s sports are perceived to be not as good as men’s, therefore they don’t receive as much support, therefore they don’t provide as many opportunities for women to train, play, and improve, therefore the play isn’t as good as in men’s sports, which leads to them being perceived as worse, which leads to them not getting support… and so on into infinity. We can stop this cycle and we should!

As I wrote the other day, for women’s sports to thrive, strong professional leagues are a must. So, step one – support the professional leagues that do exist for women! Let’s start with the National Women’s Soccer League. The NWSL is a nine-team professional soccer league in its third year of existence with teams spread across the United States. The level of play is extremely high — every team has at least a couple World Cup players and as many as eight. The games that I’ve been to – Boston Breakers home games – have been great fun. Attendance is good, even in bad weather, and the atmosphere is great. Lots of cheering, lots of popcorn, lots of enjoyment. If you’ve enjoyed hosting or going to watching parties at home, you can keep it going with NWSL games. Every game is available live and for free on NWSL’s Youtube channel. Thanks to the success of the World Cup, three regular season games and all three playoff games will even be on terrestrial cable.

Here is everything you need to know about the nine NWSL teams including where they play, when their next home game is, how much their tickets cost, and which of your favorite World Cup players are on each team.

Boston Breakers

The Boston Breakers play their home games at Soldiers Field Soccer Stadium in Boston, Massachusetts. Tickets are available for $15 to $25 with all kinds of package deals available. Their next home game is Thursday, July 9 at 7 p.m. against the Chicago Red Stars. You can view their whole schedule here. The Breakers had four players in the World Cup this year: USA backup goalie Alyssa Naeher, Australian attacker, Kyah Simon, Brazilian defender Rafaela Travalao,  and Mexican defender Bianca Sierra.

Chicago Red Stars

The Chicago Red Stars are in first place in the NWSL Their home field is the Village of Lisle-Benedictine University Sports Complex in Lisle, Indiana, a suburb of Chicago. Tickets run from $10 to $75. Their next home game is Saturday, July 18 at 7 p.m. against the Boston Breakers. You can view their whole schedule here. The Red Stars are tied for first in the number of players they sent to the World Cup with eight: Americans, Julie Johnston, Christen Press, Lori Chalupney, and Shannon Boxx, Canadians, Melissa Tancredi, Adriana Leon, and Karina LeBlanc, and Abby Erceg, the one NWSL player from New Zealand’s national team.

FC Kansas City

FC Kansas city are the defending champions of the NWSL. The team plays at the Swope Soccer Village Championship Field within Swope Park, Kansas City’s largest public park. Their next home game will be on Wednesday, July 15, at 7 p.m. against the Houston Dash. Here’s the rest of their schedule. FC Kansas City is one of the best deals in the league, or anywhere else, with single game tickets ranging from just $11 to $25! The team has a talented and athletic bunch of World Cup players including Americans Becky Sauerbrunn, Amy Rodriguez, Heather O’Reilly, and Lauren Holiday, as well as Australian international, Katrina Gorry.

Houston Dash

The Houston Dash share their home field with the Houston Major League (men’s) Soccer team, the Houston Dynamo. They both play in Houston’s BBVA Compass Stadium. Ticket prices range from $15 to $42. Their next home game is Sunday, July 12, against the Chicago Red Stars. View their entire season schedule here. The Dash were represented in the World Cup by six players, three on the Canadian World Cup team and three on Team USA. The three Americans were all big parts of the team’s run: Meghan Klingenberg, Morgan Brian, and Carli Lloyd. The three Canadians were: Erin McLeod, Lauren Sesselmann, and Allysha Chapman.

Portland Thorns

The Portland Thorns won the NWSL’s inaugural championship in 2013. Why call a team “The Thorns?” Portland is known as “the Rose City,” so it’s actually a pretty clever name. They play their home games in Providence Park, the same convenient downtown location as the men’s MLS team, the Portland Timbers. The team’s next home game will be Wednesday, July 22, at 10 p.m. ET against their rivals, the Seattle Reign. Tickets go from $13 to $35. You can find a printable version of the Thorns’ schedule here. The Thorns were the other NWSL team with the giant tally of eight World Cup players: German goalie, Nadine Angerer, Jodie Taylor, the sole English national team player in the NWSL, Australian Steph Catley, Canadians  Kayln Kyle, Rhian Wilkinson, and living legend Christine Sinclair, as well as Americans Alex Morgan and Tobin Heath.

Seattle Reign

Of course, when you talk about clever names for sports teams, there’s literally nothing out there more clever than this team’s name, the Seattle Reign. Oh, sure, Seattle people may tell you that it rains more elsewhere but really, learn how to take a joke people! The Reign play in Memorial Stadium, conveniently tucked into Seattle’s Lower Queen Anne neighborhood. The team’s next home game is on Saturday, July 11, at 7 p.m. against the Western New York Flash. Tickets range from $19 to an incredible $400 experience that gets you a “pitchside table” with four seats! Their well-designed home page shows everything you’d need to become a fan including a full schedule and roster. The Reign only had two players in the World Cup, but they’re big ones! USA goalie Hope Solo and midfielder Megan Rapinoe both call Seattle home.

Sky Blue FC

Although many professional sports teams play in New Jersey (ahem NFL’s Giants and Jets and MLS’ Red Bulls,) only a select few are strong enough to claim Jersey as their home. One of those is NWSL’s Sky Blue FC. The team plays its games in Rutgers University’s Yurcak Field in Piscataway, New Jersey. There’s probably plenty of parking and, unless things have changed since I went to school there, it should be pretty easy to sneak into a free campus bus that goes there. Tickets are pricey (but only if you compare them to other NWSL teams), ranging from $19 to $60. The team next plays at home on Saturday, July 11, at 7 p.m. against the Portland Thorns. You can view the team’s whole schedule here. World Cup players on Sky Blue FC’s roster include one of the USA goal-scorers against Germany, Kelley O’Hara, as well as the team’s elder stateswoman, Christie Rampone, two Australians, Caitlin Foord and Samantha Kerr, Jonelle Filigno from Canada, and Mexico’s Monica Ocampo.

Washington Spirit

Tied for second place currently are the Washington Spirit. The team plays northwest of the capital city at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyd, Maryland. Tickets to the games range from $25 to $70. Their next home game is against the Seattle Reign at 7 p.m. ET on Saturday, July 18. Right now, they’re running a promotion on their website – sign up to throw your hat in the ring for two free seats to that game. Their whole schedule can be found here. The Spirit have the most international group of World Cup players in the league: two Mexican players, Veronica Perez and Arianna Romero, two Nigerian players, Francisca Ordega and Josephine Chukwunonye, Haley Raso from Australia, Diana Matheson from Canada, and Americans, Ali Krieger and goalie Ashlyn Harris.

Western New York Flash

The Western New York Flash play just outside of Rochester, New York, in Sahlen’s Stadium. The Sahlens are the first family of the Western New York Flash. Father, Joe Sahlen, is team owner, daughter, Alex Sahlen once doubled as a player and team president but is now just the president, and her husband, Aaron Lines, is the coach! Their next home game is Sunday, July 19, at 3 p.m. against Sky Blue FC. You can see their whole schedule here. Tickets range from $10 to $60. The Flash had a small but mighty contingent at the World Cup: Nigerian, Halimatu Ayinde, Cameroon’s one NWSL player, Ajara Nchout, and Americans Whitney Engen and Sydney Leroux.

How to watch the 2015 World Cup 3rd place game: Germany vs. England

To many American sports fans, just having a game between the two losers of the semifinal matches in a tournament feels un-American. Add to that, the fact that the game will be on July 4? You’ve got all the ingredients for a grumbly soccer denying fan base. Ignore the grumbles! As I’ve written before, Third Place games are often among the best of the tournament. There are lots of legitimate reasons to watch the Third Place game of the 2015 World Cup between Germany and England at 4 p.m., Saturday, July 4 on Fox.

What’s the plot?

Both teams in this game are sorely disappointed that they are not playing in tomorrow’s final. Germany was ranked 1st by FIFA coming into the tournament and had every reason to expect they would make the final. Although no one has come out and said it, I suspect that within the privacy of their locker room, they believe that if they hadn’t been tired and beaten up by their 120 minute battle against France in the quarterfinals, they could have beaten the United States in the semis. If you had asked England before the tournament if they would be happy to be playing for third place, they would probably have said they’d be thrilled. Before this year, England had never been past the quarterfinals in any World Cup. To win two games in the Knockout round, and be one step away from playing for the championship should be a triumph for England, but the way they lost the semis, makes them an even more disappointed team than the Germans. England was tied 1-1 with Japan and only seconds away from sending the game to overtime when a dangerous cross was mishandled by defender Laura Basset who sent the ball into her own net. It was one of the most devastating ways for any team to lose a game, much less a shot at the World Cup championship. As a neutral observer, it was only slightly ameliorated by the sense that England’s sole goal in the game had come from a penalty kick earned by a ridiculous dive in the box. England losing that game would have been karmic justice. Losing in that way was cruel and unusual.

Who are the characters?

Mark Sampson – England’s coach, Mark Sampson, is a man on the move. His rise from head coach of a non-affiliated women’s professional team in England to head coach of the national team can only be described as meteoric. He was not around for the 2012 game between these teams but you can bet he’s acutely aware of it and has been using it to motivate his team to victory today.

Laura Bassett – She became a household name in the worst way imaginable last game. In her first interview since the own-goal, Bassett said she would “prefer that no one knew [her] name.” It sounds tragic and it feels that way too but it’s worth noting that this is basically the way all defenders feel. Better to do your job and be invisible than mess up and become infamous. Bassett will be starting in this game, which shows real strength and courage.

Celia Sasic – A dual citizen of France and Germany, with Cameroonian heritage and married to a Czech soccer player, Sasic is every bit as international as the World Cup itself. She’s the leader of the German attack and the top goal scorer of the World Cup with six goals in six matches. Her only threat to leaving the tournament as its top scorer is teammate Anja Mittag.

Anja Mittag – Anja Mittag is the perfect complement for Sasic up front. More of a poacher than a playmaker, a finisher than a passer, Mittag benefits from getting a tiny bit less focus from defenders, which may be more than enough for her to catch her teammate Sasic.

Who’s going to win?

Germany has never lost to England, with 18 wins and two ties in 20 games. They are clearly the better team but they’re also more disappointed and less motivated. Germany came here to win the World Cup. How much passion will they have for winning third place? England came here to place well and they have. Plus, they’ll have ten players on the field willing to run themselves into the ground to support their teammate, Laura Basset, who’s just had the worst week an athlete can ever have. England wins, 3-2.

How to watch the World Cup semifinals: Japan vs. England

Despite all emotion to the contrary, the World Cup is not over after last night’s semifinal victory by the United States team. In this post, we’ll preview the other semifinal: Japan vs. England, Wednesday, July 1, 7 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1.

What’s the plot?

There’s a saying in boxing that “styles make fights.” What this means is that the very best matchups are between fighters or teams with contrasting styles. That’s exactly what we have in this semifinal matchup between England and Japan. This is a classic soccer matchup of a pragmatic team, England, against an artful team, Japan. Often pragmatic is a word used to describe a team that defends a lot and tries to win every game 1-0 on a penalty kick. That’s not the boring case with England. They really play to win, they’re just much more direct than Japan is. Japan likes to dance on the ball and flick it back and forth from player to player, dazzling and thoroughly confusing their opponents before striking. Japan is amazing to watch and will be the favorites in this game. England likes to go straight for the win. In their last game, against Canada, they scored two goals in the first twenty minutes and then played tough defense for the rest of the game.

Both teams are playing for a place in the final game against the United States but the two countries are coming at it from a very different place. This is already the farthest the England team has ever gone in a World Cup. They’re in uncharted territory. Japan, meanwhile, is the defending champion. They’ve been here before, literally for many of the players, and they know how good it feels to go all the way. Alone among world soccer powers, they have the confidence of having beaten the U.S. in a World Cup final. They’re not intimidated by the prospect of meeting us again in the finals, they want it.

Who are the characters?

Mark Sampson – England’s coach, Mark Sampson, is a man on the move. His rise from head coach of a non-affiliated women’s professional team in England to head coach of the national team can only be described as meteoric. He was not around for the 2012 game between these teams but you can bet he’s acutely aware of it and has been using it to motivate his team to victory today.

Karen Carney – Nicknamed “the Wizard” Carney is key to England’s attack. She also has a back injury. This is not a good combination but so far, so good for Carney and England. She was held out of their first Group stage game and used cautiously ever since. My guess is that the kid gloves come off in this game. If Carney needs to play 90 or even 120 minutes, she’ll find a way.

Fran Kirby – As a former defender, I rarely root for forwards, but Kirby is an exception. Aside from the tear-jerking story of her mother who died of an aneurism while with Kirby at a soccer event when Kirby was 14, Kirby’s simply a joy to watch play. She’s relentlessly fast, pursues the ball like a demon, and is very skilled without ever looking overly fancy. She never made it into the quarterfinal game against Canada, so she’ll be extra fresh if she plays in this one.

Aya Miyami – The current captain of the Japanese team, Aya Miyami, is a wizard in the midfield. She seems to have eyes in the back of her head and is able to pass to open players, seemingly by sonar or telepathy. She’ll take most of the team’s free kicks and other set pieces.

Homare Sawa – Homare Sawa used to be Aya Miyami, although her legend is still so big that it’s probably more accurate to say that Aya Miyami is the new Homare Sawa. Sawa is the same type of player as Miyami which partially explains coach Norio Sasaki’s seemingly strange choice to drop her from the team during the lead up to the World Cup — he wanted to make clear the transition from Sawa to Miyami in the midfield. Sawa was added back to the team right before the tournament and has been successful so far playing beside Miyama or coming in off the bench.

Norio Sasaki – Winning a World Cup as a coach, like Norio Sasaki did in 2011, gives you quite a bit of cachet. Doing it in the aftermath of the triple earthquake/tsunami/nuclear reactor disaster, makes you a celebrity for life. Sasaki is definitely that. Despite comparing himself to Steven Spielberg and his curious Sawa machinations, Sasaki still seems to have his finger on the pulse of his team.

Who’s going to win?

I’m going to go against the grain here and pick England to win. Japan is the better team but England simply seems to be living a charmed existence in this tournament.

Reflections on USA vs. Germany from Montreal

Last night, I had the distinct pleasure of being at the semifinals of the women’s World Cup in Montreal. A friend, Amshula, and I were part of the giant, pro-America, 51,000 person crowd in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium that witnessed a great soccer game between Germany and the United States, the first and second ranked teams in the world. Here are my reflections on the game.

Fourteen year-old girls are the best fans in the world. They launched the Beatles and dozens of derivative groups to world stardom. On Tuesday night, they were a big part of why the United States women’s national soccer team beat Germany 2-0 to advance to the 2015 women’s World Cup Finals. One of the big advantages that women’s soccer has over men’s is that they have, at least for now, a near monopoly on the 10 to 17 year-old female demographic. These are virtually perfect fans. They come out in droves, they bring their friends and families, they can scream like banshees, and because so many of them have played soccer for so much of their lives, they are highly intelligent fans. The crowd in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium wasn’t exclusively made up of tween girls but it was led by them.

As a man in my thirties, I was a part of a small minority for whom their was one enormous benefit. Almost uniquely in the history of live sporting events, there were virtually no lines for beer and the men’s bathroom. Unfortunately, hot dogs are age and gender agnostic, so it was impossible to acquire one.

Another unique aspect of the game (at least for me) was that my cellphone didn’t work. There was no wifi in Olympic stadium and I hadn’t bothered adding an international data plan to my cell service before the trip (What? Canada is a different country?) So, I couldn’t check Twitter, Fancred, and Facebook before and during the game. I wasn’t getting alternating irate and exuberant text messages from my friends and family. This left me feeling a little bit disconnected but it also gave me space to focus in on the game and just the game. I was totally present in the moment.

The only time I really missed my phone was before the start of the game when I was anxiously wanting to know who would be in the starting lineup for the U.S. team and I couldn’t tap my Twitter sources to find out. As I wrote in my preview to the game, Jill Ellis, the U.S. coach, had a real lineup dilemma on her hands. I had basically convinced myself that if she went back to the personnel of the team’s first four games, we would lose to Germany, but it seemed inconceivable that she would have the chutzpah to bench Lauren Holiday and Megan Rapinoe whose suspensions in the previous game gave birth to a more successful lineup. Ellis, I thought, was stuck between a rock and a hard place. When the lineups were announced by a PA announcer in the stadium and those two players were called out as being starters, my heart dropped. Before it hit bottom, as I continued to listen, I realized that I had also heard the names of three other midfielders: Morgan Brian, Tobin Heath, and the indomitable Carli Lloyd. My heart started to rise again. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, Coach Ellis had found a third option: play five midfielders and only one striker. I didn’t know if it would work, but at least I didn’t feel sure it wouldn’t. Watching at home, or with a cell phone, I would have had this tactical choice teased by people in the know before the lineups were announced and instant-analyzed right after. In the stadium, I had to figure it out on my own.

The first half was a nerve-jangling 45 minutes of amazing soccer. The two teams seemed almost perfectly matched with Germany perhaps carrying a slight edge in terms of possession but the United States creating the better scoring attempts. We probably should have scored. Alex Morgan, the sole striker, had a few chances that someone with better scoring touch would have put in. At halftime, I felt honored to be there, witnessing such a great game in person but I couldn’t shake the creeping feeling that this was exactly the type of game that Germany wins. They get outplayed but hang around, keeping the game close until something, usually a penalty kick, puts them over the top. If it happened to poor, valiant France in the quarterfinals, it could happen to us.

My worst fears seemed to be moments away from being realized when Germany won a penalty kick near the 60 minute mark after a Julie Johnston foul. Olympic Stadium is an enormous place. It holds over 60,000 people and it looks like it once seated more. The current layout is a horse-shoe in three tiers, with the open side closed off by a wall with a scoreboard and jumbotron. Near where the wall begins, you can see what looks to be the original, stone bench seating that may once have circled the entire field. The result of this renovation, is that one side of the field is relatively quiet, with fans only on the sides of the field, while the other is a cacophonous riot with fans screaming from all directions. The United States began by defending the quiet side of the field which means they were defending the loud side in the second half when the penalty kick was called. This small logistical fact may have saved the game.

When the ref motioned towards the penalty spot, signaling for a penalty kick, the crowd jumped to its feet and started screaming. It screamed while a series of U.S. players, first captain Carli Lloyd and then veteran midfielder Megan Rapinoe approached the ref to argue the call, or maybe to exchange stock tips, who knows. It kept screaming while Celia Sasic placed the ball onto the turf to her liking and prepared to take the biggest penalty kick of her life. For some reason, goalie Hope Solo took her sweet time getting ready to defend the kick. She walked around. She drank some water. She squirted water on the ground. Then she set up five feet off the goal line. The ref motioned her back. She stepped back a foot. The ref motioned her back again. We might never know why Solo did that. Maybe she was nervous. More likely, she understood the drama of the moment and the effect that 50,000 screaming American fans could have on a German player preparing to take a penalty kick that felt like it would decide her country’s fate. If Solo was playing to the crowd, we knew our role. We screamed. And Sasic missed. Wide left. We’ll never know what would have happened if she had made that kick. Maybe the U.S. team would have had enough to come back and score their two goals anyway, but I doubt it, just like I doubt that she would ever have missed if the kick had been on the other side of the field; the quiet side.

The missed Germany penalty kick seemed to give new life to the U.S. team and from then on, things started happening fast. The teams exchanged possession and offensive forays into opposing territory. Then, Alex Morgan, making her ten thousandth run behind the German defense, was fouled in the box. Penalty kick, U.S. There’s no way we could miss this. Not after Sasic missed hers – not with Carli Lloyd at the spot. No way. No!! She didn’t miss! GOOOAAAL!! Pandemonium in the stands. Not the drunken pandemonium of an adult male dominated crowd but pandemonium nonetheless. Despite everything, all of my foreboding feelings about the game, Germany’s skill and penchant for stealing games, the U.S. was up 1-0 with 20 minutes to go. Holding on to a one goal lead for 20 minutes after a five-plus game shutout streak shouldn’t be too hard, right? It felt hard.

Germany, to their credit, threw everything it had at the U.S. defense but nothing worked. One could say it wasn’t their night. Or you could say that the U.S. back four: Meghan Klingenberg, Julie JohnstonBecky Sauerbrunn, and Ali Krieger are superheroes who absolutely, incontrovertibly deserve their own Hollywood epic. Then, just when the crowd was beginning to look at the clock and will it to move faster, super-sub Kelley O’Hara, who had an immediate physical impact on the game when she checked in, knocked in a pass resulting from a ridiculously skilled Carli Lloyd run in the box. 2-0 USA. More pandemonium, this time with a sense of victory and finality.

The rest of the time flew by, with the team playing defense, the crowd screaming, and the German team desperately trying to claw their way back into the game. Abby Wambach, who drew a standing ovation along with chants of “Abby, Abby” just by warming up, came into the game in the surprise role of a midfielder to provide some extra physicality. (Note: I see now that her sub was actually made before the O’Hara goal.) The crowd’s adulation was a fitting tribute to Wambach’s long and insanely decorated service to the country’s national team but it was smart for Ellis to use her in a reserve role. Wambach’s speed was never her forte but now, at thirty five, and with the game moving faster and faster, it’s a flaw that could have proven fatal earlier in the game.

There was a strange moment in stoppage time when the ref blew her whistle to allow a final U.S. sub to come onto the field. The crowd and at least the German team thought she was signalling the end of the game. The crowd roared. The German players fell to the ground in exhaustion and defeat, only to have to rise again and play out the last minute or two of the game. What a strange thing to have to do – to experience the end and then be forced to go on, all the while knowing that, down two goals with mere moments left, defeat is inevitable.

When the end finally came, the player I was watching was center back Julie Johnston. When the whistle blew, she instantly physically transformed from a young woman in the prime of her powers to a tired, elderly lady. She stumbled, she stooped, she limped like every muscle, every bone, every joint in her body hurt. She was totally drained. When Megan Rapinoe sprinted up from behind to envelop her in a tackle/hug/sandwich with goalie Hope Solo, I was actually concerned for Johnston’s well-being. What an amazing reminder of just how much effort these women put into each game.

In what may be an interesting coda, it was only after Amshula and I escaped the stadium through a subway full of gleeful American fans and glum German ones, after we found ourselves some tacos to inhale, after we got back to the wifi-friendly confines of our hotel, and after I read about the game in articles by people who had access to television coverage and instant replays that I learned that the Romanian ref, Teodora Albon, had apparently helped the U.S. cause with a couple of very important bad calls. From within the partisan crowd, I didn’t think Julie Johnston deserved a red card for her foul in the box. Frankly, we didn’t even think it was a foul! Nor could we see that the foul on Alex Morgan was just outside the box and therefore not really deserving of a penalty kick. All we knew was that we hated the ref when she called fouls against the United States and loved her when she called fouls for us. Live sports in person — there’s nothing like it.

Panorama of Semis

Tune into Copa America 2015: Soccer's Biggest Dog Fight

Copa American is a quadrennial international men’s soccer tournament. The winner of each Copa can lay claim to being South America’s best soccer team for the next four years. Here to tell us all about the tournament and to get us prepared for the semifinals tonight and tomorrow and the final match on Saturday, is my old friend and soccer teammate, Salvador Baldino. Salvador is a life-long soccer (or as he calls it, football) fan. He was Princeton High School’s varsity soccer goalie in the early 2000s and has remained an integral part of youth soccer in the Central Jersey area. An Italian-Argentinian-American, Salvador’s passion for the game is as plentiful and diverse as his rooting interests.

Al-Jazeera owns BeIN Sport, the television station with the rights to the this years Copa America. If you don’t pay the extra $10 a month for BeIN, do it. Chile-Mexico, 3-3, Colombia-Brazil 1-0, Argentina- Paraguay 2-2 were some of the brightest and nastiest matches we saw in the first round. Free-flowing, care-free, physical, bloody and in one instance, sexually harassing (WTF Gonzalo Jara), styles of football are coming together right now in Chile. The pressure of the World Cup has been lifted a year ago and now we see teams trying to win or go on their respective vacations away from the beautiful game for a couple weeks.

Neymar, Brazil’s brightest star, is already on vacation, suspended for the remainder of the tournament for a post game skirmish with Colombia’s Carlos Bacca. Neymar’s carelessness went a bit too far as did Arturo Vidal (DUI) and Gonzalo Jara (borderline sexually violating Edison Cavani). South American soccer is a beautiful combination of international football superstars and street thuggery.

The 12 team tournament has culminated into the semi-finals which begin Monday. Chile, hosts and favorites vs Peru, the tournament dark horses. Chile had to overcome the defensive shackles of Uruguay to get there. Unlikely hero/defender Mauricio Isla scored the lone goal of the contest in the 81st minute to move along the host nation. Peru took care of lowly Bolivia in the other quarter final by a score of 3-1. All the goals coming from Guerrero (which means “warrior” in spanish).

The other semi final is not what we all hoped for. Fans across the Americas hoped for that this semifinal would be Brazil vs Argentina as soon as the Copa draw was announced 6 months ago. Instead, thanks to an upset of Brazil by Paraguay, it will be Paraguay who faces Argentina.

Argentina dominated Colombia in their quarter final match but were not able to beat them in regular time. David Ospina, Colombia’s Goalkeeper, stole the show, stopping Messi, Aguero, Tevez and the rest of the Albi-Celeste’s point blank shots. There is no overtime in the Copa America, matches ending in a tie in the Knockout stage go directly to a shootout, unless there is a tie in the final, then there will be OT then followed by the spot kicks.

Brazil continued their “average at best” performance and lost to Paraguay in a shoot-out for the second Copa in a row. Paraguay boasts a stout defense and veteran offensive skill players like Lucars Barrios and Nelson Haido Valdez.

Clearly Chile has the easier road to the final. Argentina will look to avoid any further suspensions on their way to the final. Star players Messi, Aguero, and Mascherano have each already received one yellow. One more and they will miss the final.

The four semi finalists have one interesting thing in common, all have Argentinian coaches, who all bring their own attacking flair and different hairstyles. Gareca, Peru’s coach, wins the hair award, still rocking the long hair at age 57. Ramon Diaz, Paraguays coach, formely of River Plate, has the slicked back mafioso look. Gerardo Martino, of Argentina has the classic history teacher look while Chilean coach Jorge Sampaoli has the bald as a cue ball look.

Peru with nothing to lose will challenge Chile who has all the pressure tonight at 7:30 p.m. ET on BeIN Sports. My prediction: Chile wins that one 2-0.

Argentina are displaying their best defensive football since… shit, who knows? — but their trade-mark offense is sputtering, doing everything but putting the ball in the net. Argentina should beat Paraguay on paper but this is football. Still, I say Argentina wins 1-0. This match happens Tuesday, June 30, 7:30 p.m on BeIN Sports.

The final dog fight will happen on the 4th of July at 4 p.m. ET on BeIN Sports. Unlike the rest of the Knockout round games, if the final is tied after regulation, the two teams will play overtime before heading to a shootout. While all of America celebrates the declaration that began its history’s greatest dog fight, we football fans will be watching another great one in South America.