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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Goals Don’t Match the Horns Aplenty

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Soccer's big problem in the United States is simple: It's fun to play but a challenge to watch because the ball doesn't go in the net very often. The first four days of the World Cup in South Africa were no exception: just 18 goals in 11 games, with nine teams blanked and only three scoring more than once. The U.S. team tied mighty England, 1-1, but got its goal thanks to an incredible gaffe by goalkeeper Rob Green.

The Observers reverted to the national pastime Sunday, heading to Miller Park to see the Brewers play Texas. But as they waited for the No. 90 bus, the world's obsession came up for discussion.

Frank: You look a little flushed. World Cup fever?

Artie: Out of all these countries, these are the best players? Nobody can put the ball in the freakin' net—and this is with a ball that goalies say is "juiced" in the first place. It's like we've got a front-row seat to watch Sisyphus try to push that rock up the hill. We know what’s gonna happen, and it won't be success.

Frank: As we stand here, the World Cup has produced seven games and exactly nine goals. Bob Ley of ESPN used an interesting phrase after the scoreless first half of the Ghana-Serbia game—which Ghana eventually won on a penalty kick. He said, "You sense the coiled promise of offense."

Artie: So far, I sense that there's something better to watch on another channel.

Frank: I like watching soccer, though I see why people would like to see more scoring. But weren't you thrilled by the Americans' "victorious tie"?

Artie: Jeez louise, that English goalie! I could have stopped that shot with a cigarette in one hand and a cocktail in the other.

Frank: And I know why—you were told in Little League, "Get in front of the ball; let it hit you in the chest." Poor Mr. Green was angled just enough that the ball skimmed off. And the next day Slovenia got a 1-0 win because the Algerian goalie made the same mistake on a somewhat more difficult shot.

Artie: If this is as good as the world's game gets, the world can keep it.

Frank: This is truly a contact sport! When you see all these replays in close-up, you realize that it's like watching Bill Laimbeer against Moses Malone in the paint. You see how much they maul each other on just about every play. They're pulling jerseys, they're flinging elbows.

Artie: I guess there are some similarities between basketball and soccer. The passing, the weaving, the flopping. But the only way basketball would really be like soccer is if they raised the hoops to 30 feet, or used the same circumference rims as they do in a carnival midway. Then the scores would be exactly like soccer!

Frank: But how about that festive World Cup atmosphere? How do you like those plastic horns the crowds are blowing constantly? In South Africa they're called vuvuzelas.

Artie: Sounds like a word you'd hear in a sex-education class, ain’a?

Frank: As in, "Voulez-vous vuvuzela avec moi?"

Artie: I can't imagine being at any of those matches and hearing that blare continuously. It was driving me nuts on TV.

Frank: I hope those folks are wearing earplugs. But back to the field: You can't deny that the lack of scoring makes every goal super-important. There's no shortage of drama.

Artie: True, but 5-4 would be more interesting than 1-nil.

Frank: I'm not sure what the soccer authorities can do. Call more fouls and penalties? But as we can see, just about every play involves a lot of contact. Fiddle with the offside rule? But that might produce too much "cherry-picking," like basket-hangers in hoops.

Artie: I say they should declare height and weight standards for the keepers—a maximum of 5-foot-2 and about 120 pounds. I know! Hire retired jockeys to play goal. That would do it.

On the Ride Home…

Frank: Not a good way for the Brewers to head off for a week on the road—a 7-2 loss in a start by their best pitcher, Yovani Gallardo.

Artie: At least I wasn't at home downtown when the Blue Angels were roaring all over the sky. Hey guys, go to Afghanistan and make yourselves useful instead of giving me a headache!

Frank: Almost makes vuvuzelas sound soothing.

Artie: Anyway, the Brewers are into a 12-game stretch against winning teams—Texas, the Angels, Colorado and Minnesota. I think they'll be mighty lucky to go 6-6 in that stretch, but even if they do they'll still be 10 games under .500 with almost half the season gone.

Frank: Part of our prediction for the N.L. Central is coming true. The Cardinals are scuffling and their pitching is banged up, so it looks like they can be passed. But the team doing the passing is Cincinnati.

Artie: And the other half of our scenario—Milwaukee pitching that improves enough to help the offense carry things—ain't happening.

Frank: Look at the team's rankings in the league through Sunday. On offense, they were seventh in batting average, fourth in runs, second in hits, doubles and homers, and third in drawing walks. But in pitching they were somewhere in the bottom three in ERA, hits and homers allowed and walks issued.

Artie: Deja vu all over again. And there's one offensive ranking that is lousy—next-to-worst in runners left on base.

Frank: Saturday night was strong evidence—12 LOB, including the tying and winning runs in the ninth. For all of their runs, the Brew Crew has some big holes when it comes to hitting with runners in scoring position. Ryan Braun, Casey McGehee and Rickie Weeks went into this week RISP-ing at well over .300, but Corey Hart, despite all his homers, was down around .200 and Prince Fielder and Jim Edmonds were well under that. Hart and Fielder left those final runners out there Saturday night.

Artie: Braun's overall average had been sinking steadily, but he showed some signs of coming out of it during the homestand. Fielder's two solo homers Sunday were nice, but he's still way behind everyone's expectations.

Frank: And that raises a worst-case scenario. What if the Brewers are, say, in fifth place and 12 games out at the All-Star break? They might start thinking ahead and become "sellers" at the trading deadline—and the biggest asset they'd have to offer is Prince. No matter what his 2010 stats are, the Brewers won't be able to afford him when he reaches free agency after the 2011 season.

Artie: On the other hand, trading him during this season might not get the Crew the best deal. The only "buyers" in July and August will be contenders, so right away the market is limited. But next winter everyone will be back in play, at least theoretically.

Frank: Besides, if they traded him this year, the fans would go ballistic. That really would be waving the white flag.

Artie: Then again, with the season he's having so far, a deal that would land two ready-made starting pitchers would be easier to swallow. But with the season he's having so far, I think other teams will rethink what they're willing to offer for him.

And Later That Night…

Frank: Hey, buddy, did you notice that Germany exploded for a 4-0 win over Australia?

Artie: Just my luck. The one game that somebody figured out how to score, and I was watching the Brewers tally half as much as the Germans.

Frank: And speaking of 1-0 games, how about what happened at Wrigley Field—a double no-hitter into the seventh inning that ends with the Cubs barely holding off the White Sox? Another snoozer, huh?

Artie: Well, that's different. In baseball, 1-0 isn't the final score in 90% of the games. In baseball, 1-0 is a scintillating, spine-tingling pitchers' duel—or it would be if it didn't involve the Cubs winning.