the study of the kicking components within sports

Saturday, July 31, 2010

NFC North Training Camps: Specialists

Chicago Bears
Heading into camp, the Bears are set with starting specialists long snapper Patrick Mannelly, punter and holder Brad Maynard, and kicker Robbie Gould. As special teams coordinator Dave Toub recently attested, “I’m very fortunate. We’re going into our seventh season here, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have Maynard and Mannelly the whole time and Robbie for the majority of it. They work very well together and they’re good leaders in our room, which is real important.” Punter Richmond McGee is on the roster to serve as a camp leg and to allow Maynard to ease back into things following off-season hip surgery.

Detroit Lions
No direction is the focus of the Lions’ kicking game in camp. Directional kicking hurt Nick Harris’ punting numbers and Jason Hanson’s kickoff numbers last year. New special teams coordinator Danny Crossman will allegedly minimize the directional stuff. As head coach Jim Schwartz noted, “Jason's always been such a good kickoff guy. And then we've tweaked our kickoff a little bit; probably do a little less directional and just let him hammer the ball a little bit more." To ease the workload in camp, rookie kicker Aaron Pettrey was signed and is still on the roster. The Lions had briefly claimed kicker Justin Medlock off waivers, just long enough to thwart his return to Toronto. Don Muhlbach remains the long snapper.

Green Bay Packers
After missing a fair number of kicks last year, some fans and media feel that Mason Crosby should have competition for the kicking job this year; however the Packers’ coaches do not. Crosby enters camp as the only kicker on the roster. Brett Goode is the only long snapper on the roster, although nobody is questioning that. The specialist competition to watch during August is for the punting job. The contenders are Chris Bryan, former Australian Rules Football player, and Tim Masthay, who was in the Colts training camp last year. In addition to punting, they’re also working on holding on kicks, which could factor into the final decision. After OTAs, coach Mike McCarthy noted, "I would say it is still a dead heat. Frankly, I want to see both Tim and Chris punt in games…. I definitely like the talent level of both the punters and we'll definitely go into training camp and let these guys slug it out."

Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings enter training camp with four specialists on the roster. The question is whether all four, or just three, will continue into the regular season. Long snapper Cullen Loeffler and punter Chris Kluwe don’t need to sweat it. Nor does kicker Ryan Longwell, although he may begrudgingly have to surrender one of his job duties - kickoffs. Free agent addition Rhys Lloyd will have to show enough during camp and preseason to convince the Vikings to keep him employed as a kickoff specialist. He recently noted, "It's time to get back in a rhythm. I'm not coming in and trying to prove anything in camp by knocking every kick through the end zone. That's what the games are for. I'm just trying to get prepared for the games."

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Friday, July 30, 2010

AFC North Training Camps: Specialists

Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens have no question at punter and holder, roles both handled by Sam Koch. At long snapper, although Matt Katula will likely retain the job, it is not a certainty as he is coming off a difficult year dealing with elbow tendinitis. In camp and preseason he’ll need to find a delicate balance between showing that he has recovered and establishing timing with his co-specialists, while not over working his elbow. Should his snappers' elbow flair up, undrafted rookie Morgan Cox could snatch the job. The primary competition to watch in camp and preseason is the kicking battle between Shayne Graham and Billy Cundiff. Graham was a late free agent addition, coming from the division rival Bengals, while Cundiff served as Baltimore’s kicker during the second half of last year.

Cincinnati Bengals
Kevin Huber heads into his second season as the Bengals punter and holder. The other two specialist roles are up for grabs during camp and the preseason. The kicking competition features two players who’ve had their share of setbacks, but are resilient enough to still be vying for a starting job in the NFL. Last year Dave Rayner lost out in the preseason to Shaun Suisham for the Washington Redskins kicking job. Mike Nugent began last year as the Buccaneers kicker, was released after struggling, and then resurfaced in Arizona to fill in for an injured Neil Rackers. A less publicized, yet just as important competition is for the long snapping job. Clark Harris was brought in part way through 2009 to replace Brad St. Louis. He’ll have to beat out rookie Mike Windt, who has previously worked with Huber when they were team mates at the University of Cincinnati. The multiple competitions in camp means the ultimate winners will have fewer repetitions as a unit as compared to most other teams’ specialists.

Cleveland Browns
Long snapper Ryan Pontbriand is back, with no questions or concerns. Kicker Phil Dawson is the only kicker on the roster (Leigh Tiffin and Shaun Suisham were around briefly during the spring). For the second year in a row, he had skipped voluntary workouts, but showed up for the required ones. While the media has speculated extensively on Dawson’s displeasure with his contract, he has not publicly indicated so. He did note, “Regardless of whether there's a new regime or not, you have to prove yourself again every year, especially at my position.” Punter/holder Dave Zastudil is recovering from a knee injury which caused him to miss the second half of last year. Punter Reggie Hodges was brought in to finish the 2009 season, and remains on the roster heading into camp.

Pittsburgh Steelers
Heading into camp, the Steelers are set for the year with the two specialists that use their foot. Kicker Jeff Reed was given the franchise tag for 2010, although he and the team did not subsequently negotiate a new long term deal prior to the deadline. Dan Sepulveda will once again handle punting, as well as serving as the holder on kicks. The question mark for camp is the health of long snapper Greg Warren, who is coming off injured reserve and recovering from his second ACL injury in as many years. As a health insurance policy, Matt Stewart was signed. The former linebacker is looking to extend his football career by transitioning to long snapper (not to mention the greater prestige of playing special teams rather than defense).

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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Steve Hauschka: Soccer, Lacrosse, Football, Golf, & Neuroscience

Many kickers got their start in soccer, and then made the transition to kicking a football in high school. Steve Hauschka took that a step further. He played soccer since being a toddler. He played soccer and lacrosse in high school, and then continued with soccer as a freshman at Middlebury College. Football didn't enter the picture until his sophomore year in college. He graduated with a degree in neuroscience, and working towards dentistry, went on to grad school at N.C. State. With an extra year of football eligibility, he was able to kick for the Wolfpack. Despite the late start in football, he succeeded at both schools - enough so that the NFL suddenly entered the picture. After stops at Minnesota and Baltimore, he is now with the Atlanta Falcons, competing for the starting job. Earlier this month, we had a chance to talk with Steve regarding his athletic career to date:

Going all the way back to the very beginning, what is your earliest recollection of kicking a ball (any kind of ball)?
"I always remember being a good soccer player. I started playing soccer when I was two or three. We had those soccer nets, like the hockey goals were soccer nets. I remember being the goalkeeper and being able to shoot at the other goal from my goal. I kicked the ball pretty well from a young age."

What was the most challenging part about learning to kick a football after having started with soccer?
"I kicked a couple footballs in eighth grade, just messing around once with my friends, but that was just one day only. I played soccer in high school and in my freshman year at college. Then I started kicking footballs, to try to win a position on the football team, the summer between my freshman and sophomore years. I started like mid-July, so I really only kicked for about four weeks before training camp. I remember the difficulty of kicking this oblong object compared to a soccer ball. When you kick a soccer ball you can hit the sweet spot every time. But when you’re kicking a football it’s difficult to find that spot at first. And your foot position needs to be in a different place. I’d say the hardest thing for me to get used to at first was just how to hit the ball with my foot. The foot-to-ball contact was really tough to adjust to at the beginning."

Was there anything from soccer that you had to unlearn when switching over to football?
"Yea, definitely. You can swing across the ball in soccer and get away with it - you almost want spin on the ball. But then when it comes to kicking a football, you want to swing up and through the ball. Much like a goal kick, you want to get as much elevation on the ball as you can. It’s a little bit of a different swing plane. But with the right instruction, and just being aware of that was something that helped me get better at kicking a football."

Have you been following the World Cup?
"Oh yea. That’s one of the nice things about this summer break. I’ve been able to watch just about every game… or the important ones at least."

Any general thoughts to share on the matches so far, or a prediction on Spain vs. the Netherlands?
"I actually was doing a tournament bracket and I predicted Spain and Netherlands in the final. I was excited to see that happen. I think Spain will end up winning just because of the style that they have – they keep possession for so long and wear down the other team. They’ve got a good team.
It’s been a fun World Cup. It seems like the ball that they’ve had was causing some problems early. It’s good to see that it is not causing any problems now. I don’t know about the other guys (kickers), but I always watch the free kicks. That’s one of the exciting parts of the game for me. It was kind of disappointing at the beginning of the World Cup with all the free kicks way over the cross bar. There have been some good goals recently."

You've mentioned that you play golf, which seems to be popular amongst kickers. Could you comment on the parallels between golf and kicking?
"There’s so many! Trusting your swing is about as important a thing as you could ask for as a kicker. That’s huge. There are so many parallels in the game, that you could pick up any golf psychology book and learn something as a kicker. It’s about as mental a sport as you can get. Playing golf makes kicking seem easy. There are more variables. I enjoy playing golf a lot. It’s something good to practice – work on your mental game. Not only is it fun, but it’s good cross training as a kicker. You can build mental discipline."

Are there any other sports you played?
"Competitively it was just soccer and lacrosse. We had a good college program that was competing at the national level every year, so I didn’t get to see much time my sophomore and junior years. Then my senior year I actually didn’t play because I was trying to walk-on at the team at N.C. State."

Looking back at your football career in college, including both Middlebury and N.C. State, does a specific field goal come to mind as your biggest kick?
"First was my first college kick ever and it was 42 yards. That was my first kick in a game ever. I made that. That first one was huge! That got my confidence going, and I didn’t even really know what I was getting into at that point. I ended up getting first or second team conference honors. Making that first one really helped a lot. Other than that, I had a game winning kick against Miami to win, also from 42 yards. That was in Miami."

Is there anything in particular relative to kicking that you’ve been focusing on this past off-season?
"Just some minor technical things. It’s really easy to over think things and get too technical. There’s kind of a happy medium between working on the appropriate technical stuff and then at the same time just trusting your swing and replicating things. So I’m trying to find that fine line which will make you a better kicker. If you’re purely technical, you’re going to be too focused on that and forget the natural rhythm of a kick. The other way around, if you have great rhythm with poor technique, it’s not going to get you very far. I’m always trying work on something, but at the same time I’m preparing for the season, just finding that swing that I can do every time, under pressure - something that’s repeatable and that works for my body."

Regarding the mental side of kicking, how do you get “in the zone” for a kick?
"A lot if it is trying to take your mind out of it. You’ve done so much work and your body knows how you want to kick the ball. You just want to have a sound, simple routine, much like a golfer would have. I know a lot of the other kickers have it. Just something that you can put your mind on autopilot, and carry out the routine. I think the point of the routine is to get your mind as focused as you can be on the task at hand, which is kicking the ball. You don’t want other thoughts – about the wind, or the rush, or the snap, or the hold – to be coming into your head. You just want to be focused purely on kicking the ball. If you have that laser-like focus, you’re going to give yourself the best chance to make the kick."

Based on your experience with several different sports, which would you say is harder: lacrosse, soccer, or football?
"There’s no sport that puts in more practice time than football. I think if you compare the amount of hours you put into football to any other sport it’s just so much more. I think that’s why it’s a great result too. Then obviously there is a different flow to lacrosse and soccer games. Football is so complicated; it is a difficult sport for a lot of people to pick up."

What’s harder: football or neuroscience?
"Good question. I guess kicking a football comes easier to me than a lot of things. It’s one of those things that you’ve got to keep simple. You can make it as complicated as you want. In neuroscience you’re constantly analyzing things at the smallest levels of detail. When it comes to kicking you can’t really analyze things at that same level of detail or else you’ll go crazy. At some point you’ve got to be an athlete. I guess I have to go with neuroscience is harder."

This interview sponsored by the National Camp Series.

Monday, July 26, 2010

CFL 2010 Week Four K Quotes

Some kicking news and quotes from Canada and week four of the CFL season:

A fair portion of the Montreal Alouettes' 37-14 win over the Hamilton Ticats came from the foot of Damon Duval
He made seven of eight field goal attempts, tying his own team record (for FGs in a game) that he also shares with Terry Baker.
"The first three games, I was a little unfortunate but I was confident in my swing. Sometimes it takes that first one to get in the groove.... I missed one. It would have been nice to go 8-for-8."
Although kicker Alexis Serna had a field goall attempt blocked during Winnipeg's 47-21 over Edmonton, he rebounded with a 45-yarder in the third quarter.
“It was nice. I felt I hit the one they blocked well, but it’s unfortunate. Situations like that can get you down, but I just looked as it like I hit it well and it would have gone in, and I was ready for the next one.”
In the latest installment of their rivalry, the Calgary Stampeders won 40-20 over Saskatchewan. Kicker Rob Maver hit 1 of 1 FGs and 5 of 5 PATs. Prior to the game, he discussed his rivalry experience from his college days at the University of Guelph when they played Western Ontario.
"It was pretty bitter, too, but at a micro level compared to this. At the Yates Cup in 2007, I remember sitting on the bench and turning around and seeing two old 50-year-old guys in a fist fight, one in a Guelph shirt, one in a Western shirt. So I'm familiar with bitter rivalries. It makes for an entertaining week of prep and a really intense game day. I'm looking forward to it."
The game also featured a new potential punter for the Roughriders. Eddie Johnson was brought in for an in-game tryout. He averaged 42.2 yards on six punts and 68.3 yards on four kickoffs.The team will soon decide whether they'll retain Johnson or stick with Louie Sakoda. Johnson commented on the situation:
"It's up to the coaches, so I don't think about all of that. I just try to do my thing and trying to get into a rhythm. I still felt like I was a little off. I had problems turning over some punts that should have gone further. My leg swing just wasn't there."

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

AIFA Championship: J.R. Cipra vs. nobody

The American Indoor Football Association's (AIFA) championship game is this Sunday July 25th at 4:00pm EST. While kickers are the most anticipated match-up in the vast majority of football games, that's only half possible in this particular instance.

J.R. Cipra, Baltimore Mariners
Cipra, former kicker for Ohio Northern University, the Peoria Pirates, the Erie Freeze, the Erie Riverrats, and the Canton Legends, led the AIFA in kicker scoring this year. He amassed 172 points, hitting 17 of 38 field goals, 100 of 104 PATs, plus 21 rouges.

Although our focus is on Cipra's kicking, it was his primary vocation that initially brought him to the Baltimore area:
"I needed to find a new job somewhere and I figured this was my opportunity to get out of Cleveland. I had over 50 interviews all up and down the East Coast for teaching positions. I basically lived out of my car for one week while interviewing. I just about accepted a job in Robeson County SC when my sister who lived in Baltimore said come check out Baltimore.... And the rest is history."
Earlier this year, Cipra discussed his typical pregame routine:
"Arrive super early to arena, almost beating the coach so that I can pump up the footballs. Listen to some tunes while getting dressed, stretch then do my own thing on the field until the cheerleaders kick me off, which trust me, I don’t mind. Chill in locker room singing to some more music. Somewhere in there share some Skittles with [Jamaal] Stokes. Before I come out of the tunnel, Coach Gaunt hands me a Dr. Pepper that I chug, love my caffeine. I have never shared this one, but after the star spangled I kneel down and say a prayer to grandfather and my godfather, both passed away over a year ago. Then I look for "tink" smile and game on!"

No kicker, Wyoming Cavalry
In a unique (although not entirely unheard of) approach, the Calvary do not have a kicker.  Dan Maciejczak, the team's head coach, answered a few questions for us regarding this scenario.

How far back does the idea of not using a kicker go?
"We haven’t had one here for the past three years. I had one that kicked for me in my first year here, off and on when he was available. In Everett I had a kicker off and on. It’s been going on for quite awhile, especially since we got to the AIFA and our situation out here."
When you first went that direction was it a conscious decision or did you fall into it by default?
"What happened was I had trouble finding a kicker that I thought was a productive kicker. For us, or anybody in indoor football, that is making their extra points, having a strong enough leg that they can get it out of the back of the endzone, and make a fair percentage of field goal attempts. So we jumped into the theory that we should go for two [point conversions] every time and go for it on fourth down. If we could get half of our two point conversions then we’d be setting pretty good as compared to having a kicker that would make all of his extra points. Not having a kicker, now we can suit an extra player that we think we might need – an O-lineman, a D-lineman, receiver, or DB – whatever we can use to beef up our roster where we’d be weaker in the kicking game."
Are you set in that scenario and looking ahead to next year you’ll probably continue without a kicker?
"Here in Casper Wyoming, the wind blows 24-7. We don’t have a lot of housing, so for me to bring in a kicker and for him to be able to practice every single day like my players do, it’s just not a real fair scenario. For him to kick into the wind and kick in the cold as we can’t always get into the arena, it just something that really isn’t feasible for us. We kinda got accustomed to it - going for two and going for it on fourth down. I suppose you can weigh the facts either way, and if I had a kicker like Baltimore’s or Reading’s – yea I would take a kicker like that. But for us to have a kicker that’s just an average kicker it doesn’t seem to pay off for us. We’ll stick with what we’ve got and it’s worked pretty well for us. Even last year when we played Reading in the finals, their kicker made some unos and a field goal, but it wasn’t the kicker that beat us. It was us giving up a touchdown before the half and then giving up the interception for a touchdown right after the half that got us."

Friday, July 16, 2010

IFL Championship: Garret Palmer vs. Rob Zarrilli

The Indoor Football League's (IFL) championship game is this Saturday July 17th at 7:00pm EST. While some fans may get distracted by offense, defense, and touchdowns, most will be watching the kicking game.

Garret Palmer, Billings Outlaws

Former San Diego State kicker Palmer has provided much sought after stability at that position for the Outlaws. Earlier this month he commented:
"When I first got here, they called me ‘Kicker’. They said they weren’t going to bother learning my name because I probably wasn’t going to be around that long. It was hell my first couple of weeks here. I give a lot of credit to my dad for making me mentally strong or I might not have made it. In training camp I would make every PAT and they would say ‘That doesn’t matter. You need to show us you can do it in a game.’...
I know they’ve had a tough time with kickers here. Obviously that was my goal (to be here the whole season), but this is my first experience in indoor football so I wasn’t sure what to expect....
It’s a different game, that’s for sure. The goalposts are basically half the width of outdoor football (10 feet compared to 18 feet, 6 inches). That’s a little intimidating at first. I tell my agent that I’m making 80 percent of my PATs here, but I’m 100 percent on NFL PATs....
Basically all you can do with kickoffs is squib it. You don’t have the element of surprise with the squib kick anymore … they know it’s coming."

Rob Zarrilli, Sioux Falls Storm
In addition to doing a fine job with multimedia for the Storm, Zarrilli of course handles their kicking. He took some time out of his championship game preparations this week to answer a few question for us:

For those who lost track of you since your days at Hofstra, could you give us a brief update on your kicking journey since graduating and how you ended up joining the Storm?
"Right after Hofstra I was in rookie mini-camp with the Cleveland Browns. Even though I got released after the short camp, I did well and had a great time. I then went back to my hometown of Orlando Florida and took some time off and started my career working as a Sports Performance Specialist at Spectrum Sports Performance. They are an Elite Sports Performance Training Facility in Orlando. Here is a taste of the kind of workouts I was doing while working for SSP. I stayed in great shape but was a little burned out from kicking. As the months progressed, I continued to miss football more and more and decided to actively pursue it again and started to kick frequently and signed with an agent. It wasn't long before teams were receptive to me and that's how I signed with the Sioux Falls Storm."
What are some of the differences in kicking in the IFL vs. kicking in the NCAA?
"Indoor is totally different then kicking outside, however I do not believe it is harder then kicking outside. Obviously we have smaller uprights inside, but their are no weather conditions and the surface is always consistent. I think that the biggest adjustment that you have to make indoors is the shorter steps on your kickoffs and really getting your hips through the ball on FGs. Outside, you can let it rip on field goals because you have some room for it to go left or right; indoors you have to be precise and finish your kick every time to get that perfect straight ball. Overall I think any good outside kicker can make the necessary adjustments to do well indoors."
Looking back over your entire career, does a particular field goal come to mind as your biggest kick?
"I have a few that stand out in my mind. Earlier this season in the IFL, I kicked a game winning field goal from 40 yards with :10 left at Wichita. They are one of our rivals and a great team, and it was my fifth field goal in a low scoring game so special teams played a huge part in the win. That kick was my first game winner and was special to me because of how sure I was that it was going in even before I kicked it. Another kick that stands out is a 45 yarder into a 25 mph wind at Hofstra Univeristy. The wind was so bad... like incredibly bad. It was blowing at a angle right into my face and to my left. I took my steps back and aimed five yards to the right of the right post. I drilled it and it appeared to be pushed badly right. The other team started walking away saying no good right before the wind caught the ball and took it right through the middle of the posts. It was different then any kick I've ever attempted because I've never aimed outside of the field goal post. I just had to trust the wind would take it where I wanted, and luckily it did."

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

SIFL Championship: Trey Crum vs. Blake Bercegeay

The Southern Indoor Football League's (SIFL) championship game will be this Sunday July 18th at 6:00pm EST. As is often the case, the anticipated matchup is at the kicker position:

Trey Crum, Columbus Lions

Crum joined the Lions this year, after having previously kicked for Delta State, the Mississippi Mudcats, and the El Paso Generals. He led the SIFL in kicker scoring this year, hitting 72 of 82 PATs and 14 of 32 FGs. He was awarded the league's Special Teams MVP for the year. Last month Crum noted:
"This is definitely the best year I’ve had. I think its because I’m playing with an exceptional team. The chemistry is great between me and my holder, Gerald Gales, and snapper, Justen Rivers. They do a lot to help me out, and that makes a difference."

Blake Bercegeay, Louisiana Swashbucklers

Former McNeese kicker Bercegeay was on and off the Swashbuckler's roster, but ended the season as the starter. Despite playing in only six games, he finished fourth in the league in kicker scoring, going 29 of 40 on PATs and 4 of 21 on FGs. 

One of his first games was a win over Columbus, after which head coach Michael Warren said of Bercegeay:
"I think he surprised himself. He was pumped up through the whole game and really came through for us tonight. We are really proud of him and we are going to ride him all the way to the playoffs."

Monday, July 12, 2010

Golden Guys: Forlán, Müller & Casillas

While Spain won the 2010 FIFA World Cup, several tournament players also received individual accolades:

Uruguay's Diego Forlán won the Golden Ball award, for the tournament’s most outstanding player.
"It’s as great as it is unexpected. I never even imagined something like this, nor did I have my sights set on it. As I’m a striker, I perhaps could have seen myself chasing the Golden Shoe, and in fact I came close. That would have been more normal. But to go from that to winning the prize for the best player… I’m enjoying it and I’m delighted, but I’m very aware that it’s the result of the spectacular tournament the team has had. It’s another reward for this positive period for Uruguayan football....
I’ve won other awards during my career and I’m very grateful, but I don’t let them stop my feet from staying on the ground. I’ve got parents who taught me key values and brothers and sisters who help me stay on the right path. Everything is the result of hard work, so I’ll keep working to try and improve.
Germany's Thomas Müller won the Golden Boot, for the tournament's top scorer. Although David Villa, Wesley Sneijder and Diego Forlan also scored five goals, Muller added three assists. He also won the Best Young Player award.
"This is just incredible for a newcomer to the World Cup. If anyone had told me I'd end on eight scorer points, I'd have said they were kidding me. It's an honour of course, but at the end of the day, I'd rather have had the World Cup itself....
It's a huge honour to be part of a group including the likes of Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Michael Owen and the most recent winner, Lukas Podolski. For me personally, it's terrific confirmation of the work I've put in over the last year. I'm delighted my great run has continued here, and I've really enjoyed it too. The honour will be with me for all time, and it's a wonderful memento too."
Spain's Iker Casillas won the Golden Glove, as the tournament’s top goalkeeper.
"It’s a real honour. It’s a real honour and a pleasure. This is one of those awards that you look for but don’t expect to win. Now that I’ve won it, it’s time to go out and enjoy it....
That’s what we’re here for. A goalkeeper’s job is all about stopping your opponents from scoring, no matter how, and it’s a team job that you work on with your defence and which everyone deserves some recognition for. I’m so happy. It’s been an unforgettable night....
This is something you dream about as a child, winning a cup that you’ve seen Brazil, France and Italy win. It’s something you see in video games and on TV. It’s something you see everywhere but can never picture happening to you. To be honest, I still can’t believe it.”

Sunday, July 11, 2010

World Goals: España

Spain 1-0 Netherlands
The fans wore orange or red. The refs flashed plenty of yellow. The nets remained empty until Spain finally got one in during extra time. As a result, they won their first ever World Cup. The Netherlands remain the best team to never win the cup, now 0-3 in finals matches.

In the end, and as always, beauty is in the eye and foot of the beholder:

"I can't quite believe this yet. I had the opportunity to score that goal that was so important for my team, and it's incredible. I've made a small contribution in a very tough game, a very rough game - there were all sorts of things happening on the pitch....
Spain deserved to win this World Cup. It's something we have to remember and enjoy, and should feel very proud of everyone in this squad. The manner in which it happened, we gave everything. To win the World Cup - there are no words to describe it....
I wanted to carry Dani Jarque with me and with my other team-mates. We wanted to feel his strength. We wanted to pay tribute to him in the world of football, and this was the best opportunity to do so. This is for Dani Jarque, for my family, for all of the people. It is the result of hard work over a long time and some difficult moments."

"It was a difficult game, the Netherlands closed down a lot at the back and didn't let us get through. We had some chances that we didn't put away, they had some chances too ... In the end the goal by our kid 'San Andres' means that we're world champions."

"I remember [Italy captain Fabio] Cannavaro told me that being world champion doesn't happen every day. This really is quite a cup. The European Championship was the most important moment of our lives, but today is much bigger than anything else."

"As a player, you always try to keep going, but for them to score a goal [four] minutes before the end was tough. It made things very difficult for us. We kept trying to get something out of the game, but the dressing room was a pretty depressing place. We sat there in the dressing room and only talked about some of the refereeing decisions. There were a few things which were hard to take, but there is no point talking about them now."

"I think our effort, our flair... is never ending, that will last forever. We have excellent players in this squad and they demonstrate that every time they go on the pitch. Netherlands played a good game. I mean, yes, it was rough but that is part of football. I think in this final we saw offensive football. Both sides were pressing....
This World Cup title does draw from what we did in 2008. It is the continuity and continuation of players who were on that squad. We have a very good legacy and tried to respect that legacy. We simply followed on the lines of what was done back then. We only brought some players in to the squad to refresh it."

"I'm here to speak about the beautiful things in football. It was a very intense game, balanced and even. It was rough at times but that's part of football. They made it very difficult for us to play comfortably. There was pressing from both sides but football is moving forward. The reward today was for beautiful football....
I tried to ring home in the dressing room after the game but everyone was ecstatic and it was difficult to speak, it was so loud. But Spain, as a country, deserves this triumph. This goes beyond sport. Everyone was behind us back home and we're delighted to reward them all with this victory."

"I don't think the referee controlled the match well. Both sides committed fouls. That may be regrettable for a final. But the best team won the match....
We made a real game out of it and we had two great chances through Arjen. I'm not someone to look back on the what the referee did. I think the best team usually wins the match. But if you look at the second chance of Robben, the referee should give Puyol a second yellow card, which would have meant him being sent off. It was a crucial moment just before the end of the 90 minutes. It is very bitter, but that is sport. It is harsh. And as I said, Spain were the better team....
It was still our intention to play beautiful football, but we were facing a very good opponent. Spain are the best footballing country in the past few years, so we needed to have a top day to beat them. We did a good job tactically on them. We got into good positions at times. It's not our style, but you play a match to win. It's a World Cup final, and there's a lot of emotion out there. You saw that with both teams. I would have loved to have won that match, even with not so beautiful football."

Third Place Goals: Germany

Germany 3-2 Uruguay

The Germans won yesterday's match for third place in the 2010 World Cup, earning them bronze medals. Uruguay finished in fourth. Before and after, the players and coaches commented on the consolation match:

It is a little bit difficult for us. We set our sights high, but at the end of the day, we’ve not achieved what we wanted. But it goes without saying that our attitude now is to go out and win the game in Port Elizabeth. That's exactly what we want – for us as players, and for all the fans in Germany.

Edinson Cavani scored a first half equalizer for Uruguay.

“It [final shot] just missed by a fraction. We improved a lot in the second half but we made a couple of mistakes and the game got away. I’m pretty tired but it’s over now....
We wanted to reach the final, it wasn't possible, but we did our best in every game. Now it's time for a rest. Finishing among the top four teams is spectacular. At the beginning we never thought we'd taste a moment like this. We wanted to finish third, but we'll remember the positives."

"Despite the injuries, the team has always shown character and team spirit and underlined what can be achieved in a tournament like this. In terms of development, we have taken a giant step forward. Maybe we can achieve the same success the Spaniards started three years ago."

"We had hoped for more, and we did everything for it. This was some kind of final. We have a young team and set an exclamation mark here and can reach more."

"We achieved an equal game against a real power. We could have won because in the game they were not superior to us....
We're not that far away, the route has been marked. We must learn from this [World Cup]."

"We achieved more than we perhaps expected. Immediately after this match there is no reason to be disappointed. After the match against Spain everyone was disappointed. But champions rise again. We have every reason to be fully satisfied with our tournament. There is no room for disappointment."

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Semi-final Goals: Spain

Spain 1-0 Germany
In a semi-final match-up that some pundits feel featured the two best teams out of all four semi-finalists, Spain emerged with a one goal victory over Germany. Although the score was close, the Spanish dominated the match. Spain advances to their first ever World Cup final, where they will face the Netherlands.

We typically feature quotes from the goal scorers, however the matches only goal came from Carles Puyol, who as usual didn't offer up any post-match commentary. Therefore we will rely on the words of his team mates and the opposing coach to capture the match.

"We've shown that in the big moments we've risen to the occasion. It's the best game we've played. We deserved to score more but a Puyol goal put us in the final and we're exultant."

"After everything he's given to the national team he deserves a goal like that. The trajectory he brings here is so admirable, and what better present than to put us into a final. Clearly, to score from a corner kick against Germany is tough. Carles did it so well since these games are decided by the smallest details."

"We’re delighted about the win, which we deserved. The team did a great job, we put our stamp on the game, we dominated Germany, especially in the second half....
We felt good out there and controlled the ball. Added to that, we were lucky enough to get the goal from the corner for Puyol. Spain deserved the win and we showed our personality out there. Holland are a great team, they've got really strong players, especially from the midfield to the attack and they're on a great run of form. But we have to play our football – if we play like today, we have a great chance."

"There were 10 minutes where we were camped outside their penalty area but didn't score and then Puyol arrived like a young wild boar and scored."

"We just never had the ball. All credit to the Spanish....
When you play against Spain, you have to work very hard. They’re just such good footballers, and that showed up our current limitations today. They stifled us in certain areas, and we were never able to break free. Their passing game is so good, you spend practically all your time just chasing. We were unable to win possession in the key areas which would have allowed us to switch from defense to attack at speed. Overall, my young team has had a magnificent tournament, but it’s not worked out the way we wanted it today....
It’s a shame, we’re sad and all disappointed, but at the end of the day Spain was terrific."

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Semi-final Goals: Netherlands

Netherlands 3-2 Uruguay
The favored Dutch did indeed win their semi-final match, although Uruguay kept it interesting with a first half equalizer and then a late goal that gave them hope until the final whistle blew.

The Netherlands will now be appearing in their third World Cup final, but are still seeking an elusive first win. In 1974 they lost 2-1 to host nation West Germany. In 1978 they lost 3-1 to Argentina in extra time.

The goal scorers from both teams commented as follows after the match:

"I hope it will be the most beautiful game of my life. There were no tears, just joy. The last game in my career and it's a World Cup final, what can you say? It could not be more beautiful....
For everyone, it will be the game of their life."

"It [thigh injury] was bothering me a lot. At times I felt a great frustration because I wasn't 100%....
It's a shame because we lost a unique opportunity. At times we were the ones controlling the game."

"This is unforgettable. It was a tough fight and towards the end we complicated matters. Sunday, we play in the World Cup final. I have to get used to that....
It was a hard match, but all that is forgotten now and we are in the final. The most important thing now is to win. We are so close. There is nothing bigger than the World Cup."

"Unbelievable. If you win the final, you make yourself immortal, at least in our country. It is 32 years since the Netherlands was in the final of a World Cup and we will do everything we can to take the cup back."
"We did everything to win this game but could not. From the first minute we went to press up. This team gave everything but we could not win. The defeat happened because they got the goals. They scored two goals, we went out to look for the equalizer but couldn't find it. This team has given everything. The joy and pride to have represented the national team here has ended."

The Kicker with a Thousand Faces

As I sit here on the Fourth of July weekend, what better time to pen a few concluding thoughts on this year's World Cup? You're probably thinking that makes no sense on several levels. Foremost, the World Cup hasn't even concluded yet. Nonetheless, regardless of whether Uruguay, the Netherlands, Germany or Spain ultimately takes home the trophy, and regardless of the exact manner in which the remaining games play out; I'm confident that what I'm thinking at the moment won't change. Secondly, the World Cup isn't an obvious topic of discussion on the holiday celebrating the birth of the eventual United States. Although it occurs at a different time of the year, the Super Bowl would be a far more American thing to discuss. But as Thomas Jefferson wrote, "all those who kick a ball are created equal" (or something like that). Plus, the holiday itself and the requisite three day weekend provided me with a little extra time to write...

To provide some background, I'll begin with a rather large confession. This year is the first World Cup that I have followed. Making that all the more the surprising is that I realistically could have started paying attention as far back as the 1974 World Cup, when host nation West Germany surprised the Netherlands (and their Total Football system) in the finals. How is it even possible that I waited so long? Like many in the U.S., I was born and raised in the American vacuum - in many ways oblivious to the rest of the world. During that time span I became an avid fan of American football. I occasionally checked in on baseball and basketball. Soccer never really registered on my radar, aside from the occasional game in gym class in elementary school. A related second embarrassing confession: it is only recently that I could name any soccer player aside from Pelé. So why start paying attention to soccer now? While in the vacuum of following American football, I developed a strong interest in one of the less prominent aspects of the game - kicking. As I delved into the history of kicking, soccer not surprisingly surfaced in my research. I quickly realized I had a lot of catching up to do. So in simple terms, my foray into the World Cup is from the perspective of someone very knowledgeable of American football kicking, but with virtually no soccer background.

My initial reactions to 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa? From day one I was hooked - on two different levels.

Without a technical or tactical knowledge base, I have viewed the individual matches primarily from the gut level. My gut feels that the various matches ranged anywhere from decent at worst, to compelling in many, to riveting in some cases. Contrary to some warnings from soccer detractors that I had read beforehand, I was not bored to tears by the low scoring structure of soccer as compared to American football. In the latter, there is often the growing anticipation during the course of a game as to whether an offense is going to falter or a defense will step up and determine the final scoring. The same anticipation was there in soccer, simply in reversed roles - which offense will step up and score or which defense will slip up. More broad similarities began to surface when I began thinking and remembering in addition to just reacting.

The second aspect that intrigued me from the start was the sheer globalness of the event. Vast numbers (billions) of people from cultures, regions, nations, and continents across the globe - all watching, reading, gathering, spending, discussing, arguing, rooting, agonizing, and triumphing together.... all focused on some guys kicking a ball. It drove home the point that we truly live in a world of kicking. Of course the World Cup is the international pinnacle of the pyramid of kicking, or perhaps tip of the kicking iceberg would be analogous. Stacked below it are various levels of professional leagues, even more levels of amateur organizations, and countless kickabouts in back yards, empty lots, or any relatively level open surface. And of course soccer is only one form of "football" (as I should more appropriately be calling it, as does the rest of the world). Kicking resides in varying degrees in the American, Canadian, Gaelic, and Australian versions of football, as well as in rugby football, plus in other games of the foot such as kickball, futsal, and marngrook.

While each individual sport has it's own distinct rules and history, and while every player, every team, and every game is unique, the more World Cup matches I watched, the more the universality of kicking came to mind. That finally brings us to the title of this post, which I shamelessly pilfered from Joseph Campbell's book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell proposed that all the heroic myths, legends, poems, epics, etc. from cultures and religions throughout the world and throughout history all essentially tell the same story. While every hero, every setting, and every story is unique in it's details and trappings, the theme remains constant. I'm not suggesting that kickers are mythical heroes (although some do become the stuff of legends), however I was reminded of certain overarching kicking themes while watching the World Cup matches. Themes found throughout sports, throughout the world, and throughout history - told most recently through soccer, the most popular version of the story.

When Landon Donovan scored a decisive goal in stoppage time, it was the culmination of his own unique personal journey to that point, it gave the USA a win over Algeria, and it sent his team (one with very limited World Cup success) on to the Round of Sixteen. Earlier this year, when Garrett Hartley kicked a decisive field goal in overtime, it was the culmination of his own unique personal  journey to that point, it gave New Orleans a win over Minnesota, and it sent his team (one with very limited NFL playoff success) on to the Super Bowl. In both instances, when their team had completed their run, both kickers went on to make the requisite blitz of media appearances.

Given his previous successes, it seemed almost inconceivable that Asamoah Gyan would miss what would have been a game winning penalty kick at the very end of extra time in a quarterfinals match. But surprisingly he did miss, and Uruguay went on to win in the penalty shootout. It was a wrenching loss for Ghana. In 1998, given his previous successes, it seemed almost inconceivable that Gary Anderson would miss what would have likely been a game clinching 38 yard field goal late in the NFC Championship game. But surprisingly he did miss, and Atlanta went on to win on a field goal in overtime. It was a wrenching loss for Minnesota.

In both of the preceding comparisons, the details differ and are certainly not direct correlations, but the themes carry through. I chose these particular examples as they represent the two primary (and most obvious) themes regarding kicking at a target - the big make and the big miss. Some secondary themes that recurred during the World Cup were kickers selflessly thanking their team mates who set them up with the shot, kicks that didn't go as planned but scored anyway, and kicks of redemption, to name just a few.
Needless to say, I'll be eagerly watching future kicks - even if I've already seem them in the past. Perhaps when someone kicks the deciding goal in the World Cup finals this Sunday, or the next NFL kicker to hit a last second game winner, or the kid down the street hits a grand-slam homerun in kickball, it could stir memories of Johan Cruyff, Jan Stenerud, or Jonny Wilkinson, or it might harken back to a legendary kick by Beowulf, Buddha, or Hunahpu.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Quarter Goals: Germany & Spain

In a match that was expected by most to be much closer in score, Germany put together a very strong team effort and readily dispensed of Argentina. In a match that turned out to be much closer in score than many expected, Spain edged Paraquay with a late goal. From a continental perspective, all three European quarter-finalists have advanced to the semi-finals. As always, we turn to the goal scorers for commentary on the matches:

Germany 4-0 Argentina
"What's happened today is obviously just unbelievable. After you've played Argentina off the park and beaten them 4-0, you're basically speechless. The star today was definitely the team yet again. We're all playing at the limit; every one of us is giving everything for the cause. I hope my teammates do everything right in the semifinal, and maybe I'll score again in the final."
"Look at the names on paper and Argentina are stronger than us. But it was the same with England. They had more experience and bigger names but that didn’t show on the pitch. We have a great team and we can definitely go out and do what we did in our last game."
"We play with so much happiness and that is good."
"I do have 14 goals now like Gerd Mueller but Mueller played at only two World Cups and this is already my third. That's why the comparison is unfair....
I am just pleased that we are in the semifinals, that was our target. I am sure that I will reach 102 caps at this tournament. If we don't make the finals, we'll play at least for third place."

Spain 1-0 Paraguay
"I live to score, so you can say I'm pretty happy. Things are working out, so let's just hope it continues on this way....
We're not at all [worried about Torres], since we know what a great player he is. Surely he'll be back to his best as he was against Germany [in the 2008 final]. For sure in the next game, he'll reappear and help us get to the final."
"We have time now to put the work in to get to the final and Germany will not be pleased that they have to play Spain. The match against Paraguay was our most difficult so far and we know that when our opponent sits back and defends it is tough for us but we came through and the important thing is that the team is still alive....
Things are going well and I hope they continue to do so. The goals are important but if you win by a big margin and you score once or twice it doesn't have the same value."

Friday, July 2, 2010

Quarter Goals: Netherlands & Uruguay

Advancing to the World Cup semi-finals is newsworthy in and of itself. Doing so by beating Brazil is doubly so. That's exactly what the Netherlands did, overcoming a first half deficit in the process. In the semis they'll face a Uruguay team that won their match over continental favorite Ghana in a dramatic conclusion - and not just dramatic for the moment, but dramatic for the ages.

Netherlands 2-1 Brazil
"The first half was excellent. Two silly balls cost us the World Cup. We lacked attention. In the first half we thought we could win by a large margin and we lacked attention in the second half."
Initially ruled a Felipe Melo own goal, the first Dutch goal was eventually credited to Wesley Sneijder:
"It seemed pretty much impossible to progress at halftime. However, we told each other during the break that we had to give it our all and that we could still make it to the semifinal. We started the second half with attacking intentions and were rewarded with a quick equalizer. I got all the time and space I needed for our second goal and I didn't hesitate to head the ball home from inside the area....
This is simply a fantastic feeling. We've beaten Brazil 2-1 to progress to the semifinals. This is a unique chance for us to go all the way. We never stopped fighting and we deserved the win after 90 minutes."
"It just slipped through from my bald head and it was a great feeling....
The first half was really difficult for us. We were 1-0 behind, a great save by our goalkeeper on Kaka kept us there. At halftime we said to each other that we had to improve things and put more pressure on the Brazilian defense. For 45 minutes we went full throttle and we were rewarded....
It was an amazing game. I think we showed the whole world how we can play. Finally we won, we beat Brazil!"

Uruguay 1(4)-1(2) Ghana
"I had a discussion with the coach. I think I was maybe a little silly. Everything is good now, everything is cool. I am always with the team. I have always given 100% to the team....
It is going to depend on the coach who plays but I am ready to give my all. On a personal level I want to leave all the negative stuff behind me and we all want to make the whole of Africa proud. We have great dedication and commitment.... It is without question the biggest game ever for Ghana. We have a chance to make history and go into a stage no African country has been before."
"I think I made the best save of the World Cup....
It's difficult to be sent off at a World Cup, it's a complicated. But the way in which I was sent off today - truth is, it was worth it."
"I've nothing to say, you know? It's part of the game....
The ball went in, it did cross the line, and the referee disallowed it. If it was our day, the referee would have seen it and whistled as a goal. Everything is hard luck....
[Suarez] is the hero now in his country because the ball was going in and he held it with his hand and unfortunately I missed the penalty, and they've come back and they've won ... But football is like that."
When Gyan hit the bar it was like...then it was penalties. It’s unbelievable what you have to feel. You have a lot of feelings and then we won....
It’s unbelievable the team, the way we work together and the way we’re doing everything and now we’re into the last four."