Monday math links

The Ulam spiral of primes.  Number theory gives me the chills (in a good way).

Which extra time format encourages attacking play?


Diary of a US soccer fan

5:15am. My alarm goes off.  You gotta be joking, right?

5:40am. I’m clean, dressed, and on my way to the BART.  The traffic lights aren’t even on yet.

5:45am. I reaaaaaally want some food and coffee.

6:00am. I arrive in the Mission and meet up with Coworker Mike. We chat while we wait for the rest of our crew to show.  I ponder a quick run to the Chinese doughnut shop.

6:10am. Everyone’s here!  We start the long drive down the peninsula.

6:45am. We have arrived at the pub and the line waiting to get in stretches all the way down the block.  But wait!  Coworkers Adam and Omeed got up SUPER early and staked out a position at the front of the line.  Big ups to you, gentlemen.

6:56am. We score a couple excellent tables.  Great view of the USA match on the big screen, plus we’re close to England on the little one.

7:10am. Coffee!  A giant mug of crappy pub coffee, that is.  It makes me incredibly happy.

7:30am. And my egg-and-sausage bagel has arrived!  The service is noticeably improved from the Slovenia match, when our food didn’t arrive until late in the second half.

7:34am. “If we keep playing like that,” I say, “we’re gonna get a goal eventually.”  This is the first of about six million times I will say that exact sentence.

7:49am. Halftime.  Race to pee– no line.

8:47am. Heartbreaking.  Massively disappointing.  And yet, for once, I can’t imagine even the most vicious blogs finding much to criticize.  The boys gave us 270 minutes of top-notch American soccer: lots of heart, lots of guts, a few mistakes, a few moments of sublime skill, and of course epic goalkeeping.  They should be proud.  But I’m just not ready for the ride to end.

8:50am. Madness!  Everyone’s jumping and clapping and screaming.  I give high-fives to everyone I can reach.  I’m hugging strangers.  I’m shouting “Unbelievable!”  I shout it over and over and over.

8:54am. The “U-S-A” chants last all the way through stoppage time.

9:02am. Some guy dropped an empty beer glass on my chair.  Bits of broken glass are clinging threateningly to my hoody.  It couldn’t possibly bother me less.

9:05am. Upstairs at the office, trying to pretend like it’s any other work day.  My andrenaline is still pumping.  I’m unbelievably high.

12:27pm. Out for a bowl of pho.  Emily Post would be appalled but I’m following Unprofessional Foul’s liveblog on my phone.  I keep cracking up.  I try unsuccessfully to explain the Tim Cahill jokes to Coworker Vikram.

5:54pm. On the train back to the city.  I get a text from Coworker Mo about plans for Saturday.

I never want to forget what that felt like.

I’ve waited four years for this

At some point during the Czech debacle in 2006– maybe after the second goal, maybe after the third– I felt an awful deflation when I realized the team was toast and there were four long years before their next shot.  Months of building anticipation led to nothing but forty-five ugly minutes.  Obviously that turned out not to be the whole story, but at the time all I could see was an eternity looming.

Well, the eternity is up.

We’ve seen this match before.  The USMNT have played teams with inferior talent but also with organization and determination and nothing to lose.  They’ve done it in scarier places too: Estadio Saprissa and Estadio Cuscatlán and Estadio Mateo Flores.  It might not be pretty, but the Yanks usually make it through.  Usually.

The last time I played organized soccer was at the U9 level, but I still feel obligated to make some comment about tactics.  I expect to see the same squad that started against England, but with Edson Buddle in the place of the suspended Findley.  But why not start the same eleven guys that completely outclassed Slovenia in the second half?  Edu backing up Bradley, either Donovan or Dempsey pushing up top, with Feilhaber filling the empty midfield slot.

Honestly it shouldn’t matter.  The USA will have a better lineup either way.  They should win.  But it’s an unpredictable game: when we say they “should” win, we mean they have, at best, a 3 out of 4 chance at winning.  And until 9am tomorrow I’ll be sweating over the possibility of a stupid penalty or a red card or simply a botched offside trap dooming us to another four long years.

OK, I can’t write about this any more.  If you want more, here’s a much better preview from That’s On Point.  Enjoy the match.

In defense of draws

Chicago law professor Richard Epstein has some ideas to improve the laws of the game.  Permit me to quote him out of order.  First, he hates draws:

it is only a matter of time before disappointed fans will start grousing about…frequent draws…

Soccer officials took one step in the right direction by making a win worth three points and a draw only one in a conscious effort to open up the game. That sensible change, however, did not go far enough….

…that extra point spread reduces the likelihood of ties…

Wait, what’s wrong with a draw?  Two of the most exciting matches in the tournament, USA 2-2 Slovenia and Italy 1-1 New Zealand, have ended in draws.  Games are interesting while their outcomes are in doubt; it honestly doesn’t matter so much what the actual outcome is.

He also misses the point of the three-point change.  It was successful not because it reduced the actual number of games ending in a draw, but because it discouraged teams from playing for a draw.  Two teams gunning to break a tie is thrilling to watch whether or not they achieve their goal.

Next, he takes on penalty kicks:

Soccer instantly becomes a much better game when it awards two points for a goal and one point for a penalty shot.

Think like an economist.  What happens when you decrease the cost of something?  You get more of it!  If penalty kicks are half as bad, defenders are gonna get awfully grabby.  In a follow-up, Epstein acknowledges this problem.  His solution is to allow the ref to award two penalty kicks, each worth half a goal, so that committing the foul is worse than allowing the shot.  Hey, wait a minute, where have I heard of a system like that before?

The same problem applies to his prescription for the yellow/red card system.  Yes, the current system is harsh and granular, but the point is not to balance the cost of the infraction against the strategic value of the foul.  The point is to deter chippy play.

There is another issue with improving the game by fiddling with penalty kicks.  Penalties are rare.  In the 2009 MLS season, there were 63 penalties awarded in 225 games, 0.28 attempts per game.  In 2008, there were 48 penalties in 210 games, 0.23 per game.  In the 2005/06 Premier League, there were 78 penalties in 380 games, 0.21 per game.  (I didn’t cherry-pick that season to make my point; it’s surprisingly hard to find PK stats for the Prem.)  It’s tough to see how you’ll save the sport by changing a rule that affects maybe a quarter of games.

Is soccer perfect?  Hell no.  The flaws Epstein points out are real.  But rule changes tend to have unintended consequences.  The last thing I’d want is for soccer to become more like pointy football, where the NFL tries to micromanage gameplay by tweaking the rulebook every season.

Home field advantage

In 2006, so long ago that I apparently still used Livejournal, I wrote:

Remember how 2002 was so exciting and full of surprise teams? Many pundits seem relieved that the traditional powers are back on top; the strong performances from Korea and the USA were clearly flukes.

.. or maybe the European teams were not quite as strong on a neutral field.

In the last 4 Cups in Europe (France 98, Italy 90, Spain 82, Germany 74) European sides have posted a 61-20-30 record, with 208 goals for and 90 goals against (1.87 – 0.81 per game).

In the last 4 Cups outside of Europe (Korea/Japan 02, USA 94, Mexico 86, Argentina 78) European sides have posted a 49-44-29 record, with 160 goals for and 147 goals against (1.31-1.20 per game).

UEFA countries are 8-8-7 so far in South Africa, with 19 goals for and 19 against.


Unstoppable in friendlies and USOC. Can’t buy a goal in a league match.

(I can’t find anything to link to so: DCU 3-2 AC Milan, with only a few Milan starters out for World Cup duty. Woo!)

Week 9 MLS preview

Just a formality.  Who’s paying attention to MLS today?

New England Revolution at Toronto FC. I can’t “preview” this, it’s going on right now.  Anyhow, do you remember a few years ago when the NBA was really unbalanced?  And seven of the top eight teams played in the West?  And the East was just a big morass of mediocrity?  That’s sorta how I feel about MLS right now.

San Jose Earthquakes at Seattle Sounders. Seattle have taken 33 shots on goal and allowed 33 shots on goal, earning a 3-3-3 record.  They are the Median Team.

DC United at Houston Dynamo. Based on the standings the Dynamo are way stronger.  But these teams are actually dead even in shots on goal.  Houston have a slightly better defense, plus home field advantage, but I don’t think it’s too optimistic to hope for a 0-0 draw.

Real Salt Lake at Chivas USA. Pop quiz, what teams have the best goal difference in MLS?  LA (+14) and Columbus (+7) are first and second of course, but the defending champs are right behind at +6 despite an unremarkable 4-3-1 record.  RSL are straight-up better than Chivas, plus the Goats are missing two of their best guys for World Cup training.

Columbus Crew at Kansas City Wizards. What’s the deal with this schedule where Columbus have played 3 fewer games than LA?  That’s 40% of the season.  Anyhow, I feel like KC are better than their record indicates.  But I also feel like Columbus are as good as record indicates, so this is not the week for me to predict an upset.