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Happy Monday!

First off: Great job yesterday by the United States versus mighty Portugal. Literally except for the last seconds, it was one hell of an effort.

“I believe that we will win!” 

The top two teams from Group A and Group B will advance to the round of 16 later this afternoon. While Group B already has the Netherlands and Chile advancing, their match at noon on ESPN will determine the #1 and #2 seeds for the next round. Group A will likely see Brazil control Cameroon and secure the #1 spot, but the Croatia v. Mexico game should be an absolute thriller for #2 in the group. However, if Cameroon plays inspired, they could potentially prevent Brazil from the #1 spot or from even advancing depending on the result from the Croatia v. Mexico game…

Bottom line: Group A’s matches will be exciting to watch on ESPN and ESPN2 at 4:00 p.m. ET.

While relaxing late last night watching television, I saw the scene below. It wasn’t the first time I had seen it, but it rang surprisingly true for this World Cup because it doesn’t always matter what teams or players are supposedly better or superior in certain skill-sets, but whether or not they win the big games when it counts.

Happy Monday and Congratulations Again to the San Antonio Spurs!  

The Relentless Journey of a Champion

There are multitudinous differences between Major League Soccer (MLS) and the prominent European leagues. Speed, style, talent, history, fan culture and culture in general, scheduling for the season and club priorities, to only name a few. The latter provides a fascinating insight into one of the core distinctions between the soccer/footballing mentality of the best clubs from these two land masses separated by the massive Atlantic Ocean.

Exhibit A: Bayern Munich.

On Tuesday, February 12th, Bayern Munich lined-up against Hamburger SV in a German Cup quarterfinal match. FC Hollywood has been dominant to say the least this season (again) and a victory could have been secured with a bevy of bench players (though all are borderline world-class). But did Pep Guardiola pursue such a lackadaisical strategy? No. Why? Because he’s a championship coach and he doesn’t accept anything less than a championship effort.

The starting lineup for Bayern Munich looked like one a fan or analyst would and should come to expect for a top Bundesliga or Champions League clash. The result? A 5-nil drubbing by Guardiola’s men.

It was a championship statement by a championship team.

Next Wednesday will see Bayern Munich travel to Emirates Stadium to face Arsenal for a UEFA Champions League clash. With a weekend Bundesliga match to play a few days prior, the Bavarians should again enter the opening kickoff with a familiar, confident rhythm from all players and coaches.

Time will tell if remaining on 4th and 5th gear will pay off for Guardiola & Co.

Exhibit B: The Columbus Crew (as just one MLS example).

Conversely, the Columbus Crew has, on numerous occasions, chosen to rest a few of its top players for MLS games only. This has, sadly, resulted in unexpected losses in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup by a less talented opponent from an inferior American league or by an MLS team they should have defeated.

2012: The Crew 1-2 Dayton Dutch Lions in Columbus Crew Stadium.

For the Crew, it seems like the mindset is that the Open Cup is nice, but it’s not as prestigious as the MLS Cup. And perhaps this is a big problem. Why? Because championship teams want to win championships. All of them. Period. No excuses. If the coach wants to get more players quality time on the pitch, then a more suitable strategy may be to mix them in as substitutes and even starters (1 or 2 in a game here and there) throughout the MLS season. In other words, the team dynamic should not be an A-Team and a B-Team, but rather one team that can rotate players from the bench/reserves without much disruption in the style of play for the individual and team as a whole. This could help alleviate some of the exhaustion during extremely hot summer conditions in Texas or a busy week or two straight of competition without missing much of a beat in quality or achieving positive results.

This post is not an effort to necessarily hail Bayern Munich and Europe and criticize the Columbus Crew and MLS, but to shine a bright light on the reality of how a championship team is built, how it evolves and then how it capitalizes on every opportunity for glory. The Crew won MLS Cup in 2008, but that comprehensive drive for achieving all titles each season seems to be lacking and it seems to be contagious among its fellow MLS teams.

For the media’s part, not all competitions are viewed through the same lens of importance as the MLS Cup. There are some legitimate reasons for that. However, soccer coverage in the United States is still limited. Yes, that’s a disappointing fact, but it’s getting better. Regardless, the MLS season is not just about the MLS Cup. While it is the best title and the crown jewel of the league, it’s not the only title (Supporters’ Shield, U.S. Open Cup & CONCACAF Champions League).

There is an intense sense of urgency in Munich right now (as there was last year as well) where any single loss or instances of complacency in motivation or effort is felt, scrutinized and immediately corrected from within.

The best tend to do that.

Acclaim Through Addition

Jupp Heynckes and Pep Guardiola.

These two football coaches have and do pace the sidelines with their own brand of suave, seriousness, calmness, intention and ingenious planning. Heynckes and Guardiola are different men from different countries with different styles and strategy, but are perfectly united by the same ambition and records of epic proportions, past and present.

But what precisely defines a global footballing/soccer champion in the modern era?

This is a fascinating, complex question to ponder, specifically regarding the perception of European football when compared to soccer in the United States. In Major League Soccer (MLS), the four championships/trophies competed for each season are perceived more so as individual conquests than as an all-or-nothing pursuit. It is not unusual for one team to win the Supporters’ Shield and another team to win the MLS Cup. Is it peculiar for one club to hoist the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup trophy, but not the CONCACAF Champions League trophy? No.

Winning the Supporters’ Shield for the most points in the regular season and the MLS Cup is a tremendous achievement (6 times/TBD 18 years), but it is not the expected protocol. As a result, it is greatly celebrated when this occurs. In Europe, though, a legendary feat consists of winning at least three to four trophies, depending on certain qualifications for certain clubs. This could involve the German Cup, the Spanish Super Cup, the UEFA Super Cup, the FIFA Club World Cup, etc. Then, of course, there is the UEFA Champions League. For Europeans and fans around the world, this is their “grandaddy of them all” for club football/soccer.

Remaining in Europe, specifically Munich, Germany, the journey for another record-breaking season is well under way. The pressure is palpable. Fortunately for Guardiola and his men, the 2013/2014 campaign has been victorious with the injection of new formations and style of play. It even bears a striking resemblance to the 2012/2013 club in the standings.

14 games into the 34-game Bundesliga season, Bayern Munich (under Guardiola) is 12-2-0 (W-D-L) with 38 points and a positive goal differential of 25. At the conclusion of the 2012/2013 campaign, Bayern Munich (guided by Heynckes) had earned 91 points from a 29-4-1 record with an insane positive goal differential of 80. A quick calculation postulates a realistic replication of Bundesliga glory for Hollywood FC, considering the fact the team is playing more comfortably and confidently under its new management and head coach with each victory in all of its competitions, most notably the Champions League.

And the latter part of the last paragraph is the key phrase: “…in all competitions.” It seems like, in today’s football/soccer universe, that winning a top league in the world is not complete unless there is a sweeping of all competitions. There exists little oxygen for a league champion or champion of a single tournament to receive the appropriate congratulations and acclaim, unless it’s a one-in-a-million league or tournament kind of run.

In Europe, the requirements (not preferences) for true greatness are the league title, the country’s home tournament/Cup, their version of a Super Cup and the UEFA Champions League. This formula is structured on addition, not +/-. Is this fair? That’s debatable. However, while the standards are extraordinary, the opportunities are equally extraordinary. That’s a reality that’s not all bad for one magnificently unforgettable campaign.

One record-breaking/amazing/storybook/legendary season can elevate a club to eternal glory and prominence of epic proportions. Imagine if this happens two years in a row…or more. But make no mistake about it, it is extremely difficult to achieve such success in a season. The results on (and off) the field need to resemble virtual perfection.

Will Bayern Munich, through the leadership of Pep Guardiola, cap another unforgettable season with arms full of trophies?

That is still several months away from being determined and the challenges looming ahead are undeniably massive and treacherous. However, if they can continue to show an improving expertise in moving 11 men in wonderfully successful fashion and synchronization, then adding a few more prestigious titles to their shelves will seem academic.

Champions do tend to make the extraordinary look easy.

And it’s only at this point when the simple addition of multiple trophies becomes proof of something epic.

“Three is a Magic Number”

Imagine that you are a fan and patron of the ballet (just for a few minutes). You enjoy watching ballerinas, with their beauty and striking features, effortlessly glide across the stage in amazement. When a new show is set to premiere a short run at the gorgeous theater downtown, the question is not if you will see the show, but only when.

The lights go down to a glow when the audience sees the curtain rise and soon after comes the first leg movement. The vivid string music picks up a second later. Enchantment fills the air. The next two hours are filled with grace and inspiring strength, as demonstrated by a ballerina’s grand jeté. The drama or sometimes adventure, with a few moments of comedic relief, captures everybody’s attention. The audience is rewarded with such a wonderful and tight performance that a standing ovation is not an optional exercise.

Bravo! Bravo!

Another night and another show defined by smooth, world-class movements. They took the crowd through a journey of delight and precision. The latter word alludes to the fact that the ballet is a defined and confined art in many ways, yet that is exactly what keeps fans coming back for more. In other words, they are meticulous about what they expect.

But, what if the rumors are true and a new choreographer is set to be hired? Nothing drastic is set to occur, but his reputation is one that demands his dancers be more free flowing. In the strict world of ballet, there are very few exceptions for bending the rules.

It is, ironically, an uncomfortably comfortable art. There are assigned movements and a familiarity (sometimes painful) that becomes second nature to the trained and dedicated professional. It’s not so much about thinking what to do next when dancing in front of the bright lights, but instead it’s about reacting to the music and partners on stage.

This could be a risky move to change a structure so beloved and rich in history and tradition. And yet, the day has been set for when the new choreographer will arrive. His reputation is one of excitement, degrees of unpredictability and all with quicker movement between dancers. The quickened pace will add dynamism that can be difficult to predict, both for those doing and watching. Some long-held beliefs on this ballet stage will be redefined. There will undoubtedly be curiosity and anxiousness.

Outside reviews declared their audiences were “mesmerized” by his adaptations to the traditional ballet. Each ballerina performed with more movements en avant and with a splendid final allegro. It’s new and exciting.

Nobody is exactly sure what to expect.

This past Wednesday, it became official that 41 year-old Pep Guardiola had signed a three-year contract to become the next head coach at Bayern Munich starting this July to replace the outgoing 67 year-old Jupp Heynckes.

“He is an adventurous and attacking coach, who fits at a club that shows guts,” Arjen Robben said.

Pep used his own Tiki-taka strategy at Barcelona from 2008-2012. This team won just a few top-shelf accolades (14 trophies) and also showcased the likes of Lionel Messi, Gerard Pique and David Villa. Despite the contradiction, this team continues to move and play with a precise fluidity. It is very impressive to witness.

The style of soccer at Bayern Munich is not exclusively defined by structure, discipline and toughness (& winning quite frankly), but are nonetheless paramount factors. There are players who exercise tremendous flare and skill of course, as is evidenced by a Dutchman (Arjen Robben), a Frenchman (Franck Ribéry) and a Weilheim Winger (German Thomas Müller). Possession with world-class individual play is on full display during any given game. However, their passing is not typically accompanied with as much misdirection as is used by the players at Barcelona.

How much of their style will change?

Bayern Munich has won seemingly countless German Football Championships and four UEFA Champions League Titles. They are no stranger to success and winning. But a new coach and a new style is about to reign in Munich.

There will be two firsts come this July. First, the Tiki-taka philosophy will be implemented or adapted with the current players, plus perhaps a couple future big name signings.

A Tiki-taka Tutorial:

Second, Guardiola will become the first Spanish manager of this club dating all the way back to when Bayern Munich entered the Bundesliga nearly fifty years ago in 1965.

Changes are coming and even though they will not alter the very game itself, they are going to be significant. The dance of “the beautiful game” in the capital city of Bavaria will be different from what has been seen there before. While world-class talent will remain along with each individual’s offensive and defensive prowess, the way they move will adjust and how they use their skills at certain moments will have new and spontaneous variety.

There are certain expectations fans of Bayern Munich will want to transition from its previous coaching regimes. But with such a banner hire, the team will look more distinctive compared to years past.

Much like at the ballet, the audience has very particular expectations. Soccer is similar in the sense that its fans demand to be constantly entertained with superior defending, speed, dribbling, passing, shooting, toughness and intelligence. Soccer is “the beautiful game” and its fans are not shy about expressing their support or disappointment to what they see on the pitch…every other minute.

Unlike the ballet, soccer is a physical sport that involves contact and some occasional rough play. Its atmosphere is more lively, less formal and sees more vocal reactions from fans of all ages. And yet the intention of this post is to point out surprising correlations between two contrasting professions.

As with the ballet, soccer fans can be tentative to remove an “Old Guard” for something new.

We’ll all just have to wait and see if Bayern Munich’s faithful will embrace a little “Pep” in their step.