Monday, May 31, 2010

World Cup Group C Preview

This picture pretty much says it all. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise because deep down, every American soccer fan has been waiting for this moment their entire lives (if you're still alive and kicking from 1950 and actually follow soccer, I salute you). The chance to play England at their own game on the biggest stage. At 234 years, we are one of the oldest independent countries from England's colonial past. And yet, every proud American still relishes an opportunity to poke fun at the bad-teethed Brits as though King George III were still alive today. This rivalry aside, the Yanks' progression to the next round is far from a sure thing...

Slovenia enters this tournament as the smallest of all participating countries with a population of about 2 million people. However, this is a team that must be reckoned with. Beating Russia over two legs to get in was no small feat. Nor is the fact that in its short 20 year footballing history (since the breakup of Yugoslavia), this minnow has made the world cup twice. And even before that when Yugoslavia was a footballing powerhouse, very very few of the players were Slovenian. So what does this all mean? Well, they've got no players you will recognize. There's no flair or jaw dropping beauty to their game. But they are deep. They are organized. And they play smart. A very good qualifying campaign means they will surely be capable of stealing points.

Aside from hosts South Africa, Algeria are arguably the weakest of the African teams in the tournament. You could argue they are mentally exhausted from the campaign that got them here and I would agree. A 2 legged bloodbath with their hated rivals Egypt wasn't enough to settle the last qualifying spot (4:30 in the video). Not to mention the fact their bus was attacked on the way to the stadium resulting in numerous player injuries. But they made it through in the do-or-die extra game against Egypt played in Sudan. After that they took their best squad to the African Cup of Nations where they were pounded by Malawi 3-0 but managed to beat Ivory Coast 3-2 in the knockout stages, only to be ultimately eliminated 4-0 by Egypt. Inconsistency is the word with this team. At their best they are one of Africa's strongest teams. At their worst, well, not so much.

England. Good ol' England. Tea and strumpets. England breakfast. Yellow teeth. Proper cockney. You could mock them for hours, but we will only have 90 minutes to dispatch of their threat. At the immediate hour of this post, the official 23 man roster has yet to be announced but we know this. Unless Gareth Barry gets healthy, Lampard and Gerrard will assume their roles in the middle, something that has plagued England for many many years. Rooney up top to play off of Heskey. Gerrard will most likely push out wide left and Lennon or SWP will fly up the right. There will be no worry about Walcott who was correctly left off the squad. People are upset but the fact is this -- he runs and runs and runs and runs but his final ball is non-existent. When that point comes to make a decision he freezes and gets nervous, and usually turns it over. This is the World freekin Cup. If you don't have the brains or balls to finish off a mesmerizing run with a simple ball to the middle then you are a liability. And I'm happy Capello finally came to his senses. Weaknesses in this squad? There are many. Glen Johnson can terrorize any team with his offensive abilities, but his defending is suspect if he manages to get back in time. Should Terry and Ferdinand start in the middle, they are not as rock solid as they used to be. Both are showing age and coming off very unconvincing seasons at their respective clubs. I don't think Capello knows his #1 keeper yet and probably won't until the day of the game. And if Gareth Barry can't play, Lamps and Gerrard will do one of two things. Both know that neither can play the defensive midfield role on their own so both will sit back leaving nobody to receive and distribute the ball from the middle. OR, both will attack leaving a gaping space in front of the defensive 4. For England's sake, Barry must get better. As a team, they are boring to watch. Holding possession is always a problem for the tactically inferior English born players but they have an uncanny ability to convert set pieces into goals to win games. In the end it doesn't matter how you play, just get wins.

Which finally brings us to the United States. Perennial powers of CONCACAF for what it's worth. Bradley did a good job putting together his roster mixing youth, experience, flare, and toughness. My hope is Bradley employs a 4-4-2 with Altidore and Findley up top. Let Donovan and Dempsey play out wide and use the open space. Michael Bradley will need to play his best, because when he is at that level, he is quite the formidable hard nose midfielder. Coach Bradley will have a number of options to pair up with his son in the middle. No worries between the posts with Tim Howard. Defensively? On the wings we should be ok. Jonathan Spector is coming off another fine season with West Ham and Steve Cherundelo should be placed on the other side. Bradley has experimented with Bocanegra on the left but he is tall, goofy, and slow. He belongs in the middle. His friend in the middle will undoubtedly be Gooch. Bradley is an idiot for taking him and showed very weak character in doing so. This man has played about 1/2 game this entire season? Even before he got hurt with AC Milan, his lack of quickness was immediately exposed by Europe's best. He is a liability back there. The likes of Defore and Rooney will show him no mercy. But ultimately it will come down to our play-makers. Donovan has busted out this season after an incredible stint with Everton. Everybody now knows what he can do against the world's best. You can substitute Dempsey's name in there as well. What a season for Fulham. I'll sum up his season as follows: he did THIS. That settles the wings. Up front, questions remain about Altidore's confidence after warming the bench most of the season. His raw talent however is without question, but whether he can manage it effectively to produce goals will ultimately determine this team's success.

HOW IT WILL PAN OUT: Expectations are as low as they've ever been for an England team, humbled by missing out on Euro 2008. They will have no problem topping this group. A quick exit in the next round wouldn't be too surprising either. I'm going to say the United States gets its head out of its ass and plays to its potential - like we saw against Spain and for 45 minutes against Brazil last summer. Slovenia and Algeria are formidable and are the types of games you could see the US throw away. But not this tournament. We are more talented than those two teams and will get the points needed to move on.

GAME OF THE GROUP: Renounce your citizenship if you don't watch the game on Saturday 6/12 at 2:30 in the afternoon on ABC. I'm not kidding. Don't ever speak to me if you don't watch this game. Nerves are to be expected, but this is going to be fueled by pure adrenaline and heart. It will be hyped like a World Cup final in both countries. The winner, if there is one, will surely take the momentum and dispatch of the rest of the group. It will be billed as the colonials vs the imperialists. A repeat of 1776. All dramatics aside though, this will be be the game of the tournament.

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