Friday, June 4, 2010

One Cup to rule them all: World Cup Cinderellas, favorites and predictions

If the NCAA Tournament took steroids and decided to conquer the world, it would look like the World Cup. Then play it once only 4 years. Could you imagine Duke, North Carolina, Kansas and Michigan State going for the tourney title only once every 4 years? That's the best way I can explain it to American sports fans. Lots of big time countries will lose to less talented squads who play with a lot of hustle and heart. Yet the same super star nations end up in the semi finals (final four) every tournament. So if a team like Mexico, the US, England or France bows out early don't think of it as much how they screwed up but how these other nations rose to the occasion. Also, please feel free to bandwagon onto whatever Nation makes a surprise run. It's totally acceptable.

As for my overall preview, one things really sticks out to me.

Location, location location.

Host nations do really well in the Cup. While I personally expect South Africa to make some magic, I consider every African team a host nation and for them to do well because I feel they will be playing with the pride of the entire continent on their shoulder. More importantly European countries play poorly off their continent. It's a fact in my mind. Only two countries have ever won the Cup off their home continent: Brazil and Argentina. My picks reflect this. As much as I enjoy watching England and Spain play I foresee them heading home disappointed.

If the boot fits: Cinderellas in the crowd. These are teams that I feel have the chance to win it all if they catch a break or two. It is my hope that the USA can make a run, but I will use my space to feature other teams.

Ivory Coast: This is the most talented African nation in my mind. They have talented, experienced players all over the field. But they have maybe the most influential player in the Cup: Didier Drogba. Love him or hate him (I double hate him) he is a forward that always finds a way to score. He has carried Chelsea to huge success, and he can do it in South Africa as well. He broke his arm preparing for the Cup which leaves the question: Is the arm going to be the excuse for a bad World Cup, or the inspiration for a spectacular one?

The Netherlands: Consider them those old Roy Williams Kansas teams. All the talent, none of the big victories. The Dutch terrorize Europe during the regular season, but never seem to put it together for the big tournaments. Well, it only takes one tournament to change that perception. They have a top 3 offense and a good enough defense. If they can get their heads straight they could send some big countries home.

The Favorites:

Brazil: Brazil is looking to win its 6th World Cup on its 5th continent. What?? That's the kind of pedigree the Brazilians come from. Lots of people love their home country first, but Brazil is their second team. They have flash and style, but they have focused on defense recently. To the point where they left former world player of the year Ronaldihno at home. (despite the Nike commercial!) Fortunately, they have another former world player of the year in Kaka, and he will be their main creative force. If the defense can hold up and the forwards get some confidence it will be hard to stop the World Domination of Brazil.

Argentina: They boast the current world player of the year in Lionel Messi. How much can one player influence a team? Well, when he can literally dribble around the entire midfield, defense and goalie to score he is a rather important player. Not to say he is alone, there are many talented, experienced player around him. The question is whether their insane manager Maradona can not screw it up. As weird and temperamental as he is, I think he can hold it together for the big one.

Spain: They put on a show winning the European Championship in 2008. Much of that team is in tact for South Africa and they are ready for a World Championship. They have fierce forwards and brilliant midfielders and a top 5 keeper. Their downfall? They have played a ton of games. While those extra games from '08 may not matter now, all the games their talented players participate in the Champions League may take their toll. Also, Spain used to be known as the team that couldn't win the big one. Can they win the big one twice in a row?

And now for my doomed picks:
A1: Mexico
A2: South Africa
B1: Argentina
B2: Nigeria
C1: England
D1: Ghana
D2: Germany
E1: Netherlands
E2: Cameroon
F1: Italy
F2: Paraguay
G1: Brazil
G2: Ivory Coast
H1: Spain
H2: Chile

Nigeria V England
Netherlands V Brazil
Argentina V USA
Cameroon V Spain

Semi Finals
England V Brazil
Argentina V Cameroon

Argentina V Brazil

Champions: Argentina

Obviously I am very hopeful for the African continent. Think of North America, Asia and Africa as the mid-majors where a Final Four is like a championship. I also would like to see a non-European team not named Brazil win. As much as I would like Africa to do it, I see too much talent for Argentina. I see a classic final that is decided by a questionable call just so those two nations can hate each other more.

Enjoy The Cup!!!

One Nation: My USA World Cup Preview

No sporting event means more to the American sports landscape than the World Cup. That is not an exaggeration: for better or worse it's the truth. True, more Americans will talk about the Super Bowl or will fill out NCAA brackets or stop what they're doing to watch Albert Pujols than talk about soccer. But when it comes down to it, nothing compares to the effect the US Men's result in the World Cup has on the state of soccer in our nation. Lose and people think "wasn't that cute....Americans trying to play with the big boys." But defeat some of the big boys....and US Soccer gets some serious credibility in the eyes of a skeptic nation.

No pressure.

Actually that's more true than you would imagine. The expectations of the US team rides on the coat tails of their performance in the last World Cup. In 2002 the national team shocked the nation by making the quarterfinals. Expectations were high for 2006, some were predicting the semifinals. Well, we scored 2 goals and got knocked out early. This gives our team a "nothing left to lose" attitude. An attitude that fits Americans well. Here is a look at some key players you should know.

Consistent Stars: Great players who just seem to have the knack to rise to the occasion.
Tim Howard: He is an elite keeper, one of the top 5. He played over 40 games in England last year and he is sharp both in form and in decisions. He can clear out corners, get down for low shots and keep our back line organized. You don't have to worry about the keeper making a dumb decision with Howard in the goal. And that's saying a lot.

Landon Donovan: The all-time leading scorer for the US has moved from being a forward or attacking mid to play right wing. At first I was concerned about moving a playmaker to the wing, but Landon has proved my worries unnecessary. He is explosive in space, he makes great runs off the ball and has great touch. He knows how to weave in and out of the defense and that allows him to find his way into the action, often to create a chance on goal. Once a liability, he is clearly a strength now.

Clint Dempsey: His story is similar to Donovan's. A great striker and goal scorer, he now plays wing for the US. And like Donovan, that position suites him well. What he lacks in pace he makes up for in determination. He is always in the right place, always fighting for the ball. He knows when to use a flashy move and when to just muscle it through. And he always ends up in the action. The difference is Dempsey is more likely to get in a fight than Donovan. Not a bad thing mind you.

Need to perform to their abilities: Good players who have something to prove.

Jozy Altidore: He's been great for the national team over the last couple years, but he only played in about half his games this past season, and he didn't exactly perform well. Will we see the Jozy of last summer or last winter? As our most seasoned forward that is an important question for the team.

Michael Bradley: Honestly Bradley has played really consistently for the US. But even the slightest gaff and he could cost the US a game. He is our strongest defender in the midfield and often kick starts the offense. He connects the back to the front, we need him to be on his game.

Oguchu Onyewu: Gooch busted his knee last October and has shown a lot of heart getting to the World Cup at all. But he is still needed in the back. No offense to Clarence Goodson, but Onyewu (when healthy) is a rock on the back line. Can his knee hold up? Will there be rust? The answers will determine if Tim Howard makes comfortable saves or "hold your breath" saves.

Rise above it: Can these players make a difference?

Jose Torres: To be honest, I didn't know who this guy was before World Cup qualifying. I was surprised he made the team. But after the Turkey game I have really high hopes for him. He doesn't mind doing the dirty work in the midfield: Defending deep, bailing out the defense. This allows the rest of the midfield to focus on their offense a little more which greatly enhances our ball movement. I don't know how much he will play, but a good tournament from Torres could do wonders for the US.

Findley/Gomez/Buddle: Three forwards with little National team experience. Crazy? Crazy like a fox. These three are all playing great right now. They are literally too inexperienced to feel the pressure. All they know is the ball goes in the net. If any combination of these three can score 2 - 4 goals, the US is in great shape.

Success? After the poor performance in '06, the measure of success is hard to gauge. Think of the World Cup as the NCAA tournament, good teams lose and lesser teams make a run. Picking the World Cup is the same. For me, my expectation is for the US to get out of Group C and make the knock out round. I would call the tournament a definitive success. Make the Semifinals and the world will notice.

Win it all? Running around naked would be acceptable. I don't think it will happen, but that's why you play the games.