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Well wasn’t that fun.  If you want to know what this means to the US hopes of advancing, scroll down…

The US once again let up an early goal and then doubled the fun by succumbing to the counter attack just before the half.

The US was outplayed in the first half; Slovenia had more ideas, was stringing passes together better, and overall just looked like the better team.  The American’s one good chance was agonizingly close but then they got caught napping on the break and all of the sudden they were staring likely elimination in the face.

The second half was a totally different tale.  Landon Donovan started things off inside of 3 minutes with a beautiful, composed, and powerful finish.  He was aggressive in getting the ball in his own half and combining well with Bradley to help the US get forward.  His free kicks have been excellent throughout this tournament and it is only a matter of time before they finish one (although they kind of already have).

The Slovenians proceeded to totally fall apart and despite a few combinations along around the box, they seemed to disappear completely from the middle of the field.

Jozy Altidore was really causing problems for the entire defensive unit.  Mimicking his post up of Jamie Carragher on a few occasions and looking kind of like Dwight Howard out there, no one has a prayer of getting around him legally.  Won a few free kicks and looked dangerous throughout.  Being a striker though, you would love to see him get on the score sheet for his confidence alone.

He also did very well to win the ball in the air which set up Bradley’s finish which tied the game.  A finish which deserves al the slurp that is coming, it was absolutely brilliant.  To keep that ball down with the bottom of his shoe, going full speed, with the goalie coming out, is truly incredible.  Landon Donovan was the official Budweiser “Man of the Match” but in my opinion it was Michael Bradley.

The kid was every where in the middle of the field.  He constantly pressured the ball and took back possession.  His distribution was very good.  As I have stated (this is blog, it is self serving)….his runs from the midfield into the box always seem to cause problems for the defense, and today was an excellent example.  He is turning into a great American central midfielder in the mold of a Claudio Reyna, but with the best sense of goal we have seen from that role.  He has also matured very well over the past year and has cut down greatly on bad tackles and his hothead attitude.

There should also be credit given to Bob Bradley and Herculez Gomez for that goal; Bradley inserted the extra striker who occupied all the attention of the other CB during Donovan’s cross.  He didn’t react quick enough after the layoff from Altidore and it created the space which allowed Bradley to come into the box and finish beautifully.

Bradley’s midfield options weren’t nearly as effective as he was.  Jose Torres in the first half seemed to struggle with effective distribution, often giving the ball away and not really connecting with anyone effectively.  Maurice Edu was just as sloppy with the ball, but did do better to help win possession back a few times and was better as he got into the game.  He was quite unlucky to have that goal called back but more on that later.

Clint Dempsey was never really as threatening as he can be.  Not to say he had a bad game but he just never seemed to be really dangerous.  Might have done better on a set piece in early in the 2nd half but that is nit-picking and did get a little more active when moved up front to compliment Altidore prior to Herculez’s intro.  He just didn’t seek nor receive enough of the ball to make the kind of impact he is capable of.

Benny Feilhaber got his first World Cup appearance off the bench and had a fairly positive impact.  He did seem to be lacking in chemistry with his teammates and the knock on him continues to be that he thinks just a little too much on the ball sometimes.  He tracked back very well and was not afraid of his defensive duties at all.  I think he would have been better off starting in place of Torres, he does have the experience at this level.

Jay Demerit was very disciplined in the back, keeping the play in front of him and just being his standard aggressive self.  He also did a very good job on the much taller and clinical Milivoje Novakovic.  He did get caught out a bit on the first goal but it could also be said that his partner Oguchi Onyewu didn’t step up fast enough for the trap to work, and they got burned….not the first defensive pairing to make that mistake.  Gooch also didn’t close out fast enough on that first goal but other than that he was excellent once the game got flowing.  He did play one great long ball to Jozy, which was wasted but the ball in should get some credit.

The first goal though wasn’t all Onyewu’s fault as Tim Howard probably would have screamed and yelled at him if it was.  Howard did seem to get caught flat footed on that.  Other than that he did well to control the area and made a few big saves late on.

Carlos Bocanegra continues to have issues with any sort of speed coming down the wing but was fairly solid overall.  No glaring mistakes which is a good thing for people in his role.  On the other side, Steve Cherundolo continues to be excellent.  Offensively he wasn’t quite as creative or effective as he was against the Brits but defensively he was a stud.

In closing…

it was a fascinating game but truly a tale of two halves.  The habit of not really getting into the game until they give up a goal is scary, especially now that they must beat Algeria.  It is better to go down early  rather than play 0-0 and concede in the 75th minute, at least it gives their adjustments time to make an impact.

Despite what the press might say, Slovenia/Algeria are not bad teams.  This sport means the world to them and that is how they can turn populations that pale in comparison to the US into competitive soccer teams.  The American’s must not just talk about taking these teams seriously but actually come out flying from the beginning.  This is especially important next Wednesday when a win is absolutely necessary.

Referees

As far as the refereeing goes, it ranks right up there with the ball as things I don’t like to discuss.  There are rash examples, ie Byron Moreno from Italy v S Korea in 2002, but this isn’t one of them.  All sports are impacted by human error; the referee or a flubbed chance or a dropped pass in the end zone or letting the ball bounce through your legs.

When it is a refereeing error, it is amplified because it is much easier to rip into him than it is to blast a specific player, especially if he is your teammate.  You would love to let these kind of games unfold with out having to worry about 3rd party influence, but we are human and we can’t govern ourselves so these are evils we must live with.

Maybe I am sympathetic b/c I have some experiencing refereeing 10 year old girls, but I think Koman Coulibaly was out there with the goal of enforcing the laws of the game as accurately as possible.  He probably made an error but this is the game, sometimes they will go in your favor and other times they will not.

USA World Cup Scenarios

Now that Algeria has made things wildly interesting by tying England, we can look at what this means to the US.

Most importantly, they now control their own destiny.  Win and in. Simple.

If England beats Slovenia, the US must beat Algeria.  The winner of the group will be determined by who’s margin of victory next is great next Wednesday.

If England and Slovenia tie, the US can tie Algeria and advance in 2nd place instead of England as long as England doesn’t outscore the US by 2 goals total on Wednesday.  If they outscore the US by exactly 2 goals, it seems that advancement is by coin flip…although that sounds absurd.

If England and Slovenia tie, the US wins the group if they beat Algeria by 2 or more goals.

If Slovenia beats England, the US can advance with a tie.

Algeria can also still advance as well if they beat the US and other things go their way…not really getting into that.  Just means they will also be looking for a victory.

Others

Since things are so neat and tidy when you can put a number next to them….

Alexi Lalas is fucking pissed

If this is your thing; A full rant from FoxSoccer.com on the refereeing

Day 9 aka Tomorrow

Another reason I am stoked the US tied it….I don’t think I could have gotten excited about this weekend of games if the US had lost and been essentially eliminated.  Fine, not eliminated but too reliant on other results to really be positive.

The 2nd and last weekend of 6 games starts tomorrow, make sure you enjoy it as it will be another 4 years until we see this quantity on a weekend again.

Saturday kicks off with the Netherlands v Japan.  An interesting matchup as both teams won their opening round games; one expectedly, the other unexpectedly.  The Netherlands have the attacking prowess to make a deep run while Japan would be happy to get out of the group.

Ghana has an excellent opportunity to take control of Group D after Germany’s loss from earlier today.  Australia didn’t look great against Germany but they will surely come out ready to play, especially after today’s result threw that group into disarray.  Ghana remains the only African team to win and will surely be looking to really generate some momentum and turn into the “home team.”

In a sign of Germany’s WC consistency, that was their first group stage loss since 1986.  They did have a lot more trouble today than they did against Australia last weekend; maybe their new beautiful style was more a result of Australia’s poor performance than their own emergence.  Or the danger with a young team like this, they just got a serious wake up call that this game isn’t as easy as it sometimes looks.

Specifically, Mesut Ozil got all sorts of love after the first game but just never seemed to get into it today, didn’t have much time on the ball and didn’t seem entirely interested in being there.  One good ball did set up one of Lukas Podolski’s 10 chances but he pushed the ball wide.

The final game is a final chance for these two teams to keep their hopes of advancing alive.  Cameroon took some flak after last week’s loss, even drawing rumors of “being on the take.”  Denmark on the other hand was very successful in qualifying but was clearly outclassed against the Dutch.  However, a win tomorrow will make them keepers of their own destiny going into the final game vs Japan.

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Day 6 saw South Africa get pretty much dominated by Uruguay.  Their hope of advancing is now dependent on beating France and hoping for a result in their favor from Uruguay vs Mexico.  I guess my positive thinking and continued reminders that no host nation had ever failed to make it out of the group stage did no good.

Chile lived up to the hype as a fun to watch, offensive force.  Honduras is probably one of the weakest teams in South Africa and Chile should have scored more than once.  They were always looking up and moving very well with out the ball.  #7 Alexis Sanchez = the real deal.

The huge news of the day was Spain’s upset at the hands of Switzerland; their first ever victory over the Iberian folk.  Similar to the USA’s 2-0 victory last year, the Swiss absorbed the Spanish attack for 90+ minutes and were able to score a scrappy goal on the counter attack.  This result threw Group H into a bit of disarray and puts a lot of weight into the 6/25 Chile v Spain encounter.

It should be noted that the round of 16 pairs the Group H runner up with the Group G winner.  Of course, the Group G winner is widely expected to be Brazil.  Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, today proved that can be dangerous, but I just wanted to throw it out there.

Moving onto tomorrow…

Group B – Round 2

There isn’t too much to say about these two games as 2nd place in this group will probably come down to the last set of games on the 22nd.  Argentina is always interesting and they will surely be confident coming off of Saturday’s performance.

Nigeria could lose and still have a chance at advancing.  However, they will know by the time they take the field what is required to keep themselves in the race for the knockout round.

France v Mexico

This might be the most important game of this 2nd set of games.  Uruguay took control of the group with today’s win and both these teams will be looking to match them.

France must be itching to take the field after last week’s disappointing tie.  Negative news continues to surround the camp and whether or not they can somehow use it as as an “us against everyone else” mechanism will determine how far they go.  Florent Malouda looks to set to start after coming off the bench vs Uruguay and will probably supplant Sidney Govou.  Franck Ribery is always dangerous but he has lost some pace recently, he must do a better job combining with his teammates rather than trying to do everything himself; this team is talented enough to make a deep run if they play as a team.

Mexico must feel a level of urgency knowing they would be better off had they taken 3 pts from the South Africans.  Once again a loss would not put advancing out of the question but it would require them to go and beat Uruguay next Tuesday.  They looked dangerous throughout last week’s encounter but were lacking entirely when it came to the final product.

Overall, a Mexico loss would still mean they hold their fate in their own hands while a France loss means that they would need major help to get through.  Unfortunately, a tie isn’t the worst news for either team so we might see both trying not to lose rather than win.

Et al

Their well played, hard fought game vs Brazil yesterday helped the North Koreans garner a ton of underdog support in this country.  Despite what you might think about the country, you can’t deny what playing in this tournament means to these players.

Gawker.com put together a funny list of reasons you should root for them.

ESPN.com’s coach profile page was either compiled by someone with a sense of humor or is an all time great example of unintentional comedy.  My favorite: “…coach himself has claimed he received regular tactical advice during matches, apparently using mobile phones that are not visible to the naked eye. Jong-Il is said to have developed the technology himself.”

Tim Howard apparently wishes he was a midfielder.

Maradona continues to entertain, this time ripping into Pele and Michel Platini.  I like him.

Finally…I heart legos, so this is one of the coolest WC related things I have seen thus far:

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So these daily little looks will come towards the end of the 2:30 games, aka sometime between 4 and 5PM EST.

Today was kind of odd as the one match everyone was thought would be the best, was probably the most negative game thus far.  Both teams clearly didn’t want to lose and if it weren’t for some moments of Ronaldo and Gervinho, the game might have ended with 0 offensive chances created by either side.

Portugal has the advantage of playing Brazil in their last game; they should know exactly what they need to do in order to beat out the Ivory Coast for that elimination spot.

New Zealand showed that maybe they aren’t the worst team in the tournament and saved their chances of advancing with an injury time equalizer.

North Korea played a very organized and efficient style in the late game.  They were able to stay level with Brazil through the first half and even scored late on to make the ending a little exciting.

It was nice to see two excellent goals from Brazil as this run through has been void of any real highlights.  Maicon’s was a mini version of this Roberto Carlos classic and Elano was the beneficiary of a beautiful pass from Robinho (who was probably Brazil’s most dangerous attacker throughout)>

Final Four Teams to Start

Chile vs Honduras kicks things off tomorrow at 7:30 AM EST and could end up being fairly exciting.  The Chileans have been a popular underdog pick due to their attacking nature.  Honduras on the other hand has been written off almost entirely after qualifying based on a late US goal vs Costa Rica.

Chile’s reputation says they will not follow the convention of playing not to lose.  This should result in some entertaining early morning Latin flavored soccer.

The second game places the tournament favorite, Spain, up against the Swiss.  Spain is going to hold possession for like 85% of this game and it would be nice if they could put some away.  The real high quality teams have played one of two ways so far; firing on all cylanders and flowing like Germany/Argentina or play more cautiously like the Italians/French/English/Portuguese.

My boy Phil Ball from ESPN.com says that the mood in camp is excellent and things look almost too rosy for this version of La Roja.

South Africa vs Uruguay

After what has seemed to be a very long 5 2/3 days, we get into the second set of group games.  Now teams with moving into the knockout round have to start making a move towards that.  If someone wins this game it will start to clear up the Group A picture.

Belief seems to be that South Africa blew their load in the first game vs Mexico and can’t replicate the performance tomorrow.  Personally, I think they are lucky to get France in the final game and tomorrow is really a toss up.  Uruguay didn’t look particularly good vs the French and were lucky to escape with a point.

It will at least be interesting and let’s rejoice in the fact that games start to matter a little more now.

US et al

Tim Howard returned to full training today; expected but still a good sign concerning his availability for Friday.

Slovenian midfielder Andrej Komac has guaranteed victory. An interesting tactic but it’s a little nerve wracking that they are so confident.

Paul Gardner at soccer America has an excellent article on the first few games and the quality refereeing thus far. A few days old but definitely worth a read.

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In the context of the World Cup yesterday’s tie vs England was an excellent result.  It leaves the US in a good spot going into their next two group games, games in which they will be favored and should get 3 points.

Slovenia did get 3 points with a 1-0 victor over Algeria early this AM and is now top of group.  The US will still be favored, but there is definitely more pressure now.

Within the greater context of international soccer, this was a very good result for the US.  The Americans did not look over matched and had the opportunity to get another goal, they also did very well to respond positively from that early goal.

They did concede a lot of possession in the 2nd half but this is the they style Bradley prefers when in a desirable position.

Brits will surely say that the US got lucky with their goal, but these are the bounces of the game…sometimes they are with you, sometimes against.   If they truly were that superior, they would have found a way to put another in.

Onto a player by player breakdown…starting in the back…

Tim Howard

Tim Howard deservedly the man of the match.  Despite getting a nasty knock in the first half, he toughed it out and came up with at least 3 huge saves in the second half.  The American’s style is one which often requires the keeper to make saves, he was up for the task and is obviously the rock of this team.

Steve Cherundolo continued to show why he was the right choice at right back for the US.  The introduction of Shaun Wright-Phillips did challenge him more than James Millner, a good early sub from Capello.  He was also very good going forward and is obviously the more offensive of the two wide defenders.

On the other side, Carlos Bocanegra didn’t have a great game.  He seemed to struggle with Glen Johnson (who was probably England’s most consistent offensive threat) and Aaron Lennnon.  He never found much space to get forward, but it seems Bradley prefers to keep him back and let Cherundolo do the marauding.

Jay Demerit did a great job to contain Wayne Rooney throughout 2/3 of the game.  He did come to life towards the end, but he is Wayne Rooney.  Demerit was consistent throughout the game and very solid in the back.  Did a good job to consistently make things difficult for England offensively.

Oguchi Onyewu did get caught flat footed on the goal and got caught out on Emile Heskey’s 2nd half chance.  I was a little worried about his adjustment period to playing at this level again, apparently rightly so.  Positively, he did make it 90 minutes and seemed to get better as the game went on, especially tracking back to deny Lampard late on.

Ricardo Clark also let Steven Gerrard sneak behind him on that early goal.  Onyewu was just standing there but that was Clark’s man.  Other than that, not very involved throughout the game, but no other glaring mistakes.  I think Bradley values the chemistry him and Bradley Jr. have developed over the last year.

Michael Bradley was all over the center of the field throughout the game.  The  Lampard/Gerrard central midfield partnership might not work for its own reasons, but Bradley did an excellent job containing Lampard throughout most of the game.  Also did excellent on distribution and looking for the attack.

Landon Donovan was very good for the US.  He seemed to disappear for long amounts of time, but once again, that is probably a product of this style.  He looks comfortable out there, calm with the ball, and his service into the box was excellent.

What can be said about Clint Dempsey other than that he has some sort of supernatural ability to come up with huge goals for this team.  It was a brutal error from Robert Green but as Martin Tyler said, “if  you buy a ticket, sometimes you win a raffle.”  Other than  that, he did a good job tracking back but seems to be most dangerous/comfortable when he’s close to goal

Robbie Findley has settled into his role as well.  His speed is good but his creativity is under-appreciated.  He is very good at getting his defenders turned around and getting himself into dangerous positions.  He did seem to lose a little pace right before he was removed; overall a quality showing but seems to lack that strikers sense.

I thought Jozy Altidore did really well throughout the game.  Being a striker in a counter attacking focused offense can be very frustrating at times, but he was able to keep his head enough to be dangerous when the ball did get to him.  Was unlucky to hit the post in the second half but it could be said he should have done better in the air in the first half.  Absolutely abused Jaime Carragher in the 2nd half, just wanted to say that.

Overall a good result.  Be careful of anyone who is going to make any sort of sensationalist statement about how good the US really is, or that the US is as good as England.  The US are obviously a good team but the difference in strategy is a reflection of each team’s overall quality.  However, the US has confirmed that belief that they can get on the field and compete with any team in the world for 90 minutes.

Others:

It seems as if Tim Howard might have broken some ribs in the first half, we will know more about his status late on Sunday or early Monday.

Goal.com gives their player ratings; also some defensive and midfield analysis.

Jeff Carlisle provides his player ratings at ESPN.com.

Ives Galarcep breaks it down at FoxSoccer.com, an excellent look.

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So this is it, South Africa got a deserved tie vs Mexico.  If you were wondering:

Yes that was offsides in the first half, the rule is that “a player is in an offsides position when he is nearer to his opponents’ goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent.”  Second last is because the goalie is usually the last defender but on that corner kick, the South African keeper got caught way out and therefore, even though there was a defender on the line, Carlos Vela was offsides.

Tomorrow brings some excellent games in the morning but the majority of people in this country are focused on what is probably the most hyped soccer game ever in this country; 2:30 PM, England vs USA, ABC.

Football vs Soccer.  Redcoats vs Patriots.  Favorites vs Underdogs.

If you want to get yourself fired up, here’s a purposely pompous piece from the other side on why the US will lose, courtesy of the London Evening Standard via the NY Daily News.

A brief preview, or as I prefer…”what to watch for.”

Starting Lineup

This team has a lot of promise but there are still major question marks about health.  It looks as if Altidore has fully recovered, and is poised to start according to BB.  I think Dempsey is the best option alongside him, as what they do lack in outright speed, the pair would make up for in sheer finishing ability.  My guess is that Bradley goes with Robbie Findley to start though as he seems to like two strikers with complimentary skill sets.

There has been little news about Ricardo Clark after he injured himself last weekend, so it will be interesting to see who is paired alongside Michael Bradley.

Onyewu swears he is healthy but it wouldn’t a surprise if Clarence Goodson started in the middle in order to save Onyewu for next week.

My guess though:

Howard

Cherundolo-Demerit-Onyewu-Bocanegra

Demspey-Bradley-Edu-Donovan

Findley-Altidore

Wayne Rooney

Easily the best player on the field tomorrow.  My fear is that the US won’t be able to contain him and he will score 3 times and put the game out of reach before the US even knows what happened.  It will be up to Demerit and (probably) Onyewu to keep tabs on him and close down very fast when he gets the ball.  He can score from anywhere around the area with the slightest amount of room.  Containing him is key to keeping this game in reach.

Midfield Battle

If Rooney can be held in check, this is where the game will be won or lost.  Making sure the Edu/Clark and Bradley Jr. combo stay alert vs Gerrard and Lampard is integral to not playing behind the ball the whole time.  It will be up to the pairing to close these two down and ensure they have very little time to either distribute or shoot.

They both have the ability to score from distance, and are probably salivating at the thought of this new ball.  Anticipating their space and closing it down will save the Americans a lot of trouble.  Of course, they also can’t give away many soft fouls, as both also dream about the idea of free kicks from 20-25 yards.

The Air Up There

With Peter Crouch expected to start and England’s skill down the flanks, it will be important for the US to control the box.  Crouch is huge and excellent with his head but Rooney also added this element to his game this past season.  The US has the defenders to cover for this but if they have trouble with the ball flight like they did against Australia it could end up being a long afternoon.

Carlos Bocanegra

Definitely the best option for the US at the Left Back position, but he will be tested immediately tomorrow.  Aaron Lennon is fast and loves to dart inside.  Bocanegra’s main weakness is his lack of pace and therein lies the obvious problem.  Bocanegra does have experience though and he will need to rely on this in order to frustrate  Lennon and keep him off his game from the opening whistle.

Additionally, Glen Johnson loves to overlap and will surely combine with Lennon to get the ball forward.  It is a dangerous combination and one which the US must not forget about when focusing on the middle.

Carlos has a lot to worry about tomorrow, but I would be way more nervous if Jonathan Bornstein were starting.

Landon Donovan

The other side of this is that the left side for the US will be the most open side for the US to exploit the counter attack.  Johnson can get caught too far forward and is defensively suspect.  Look for most counter attacks to start in this direction; Donovan taking off  down the left should really cause problems for the remaining English defenders.  Jozy Altidore should get some opportunities and hopefully Robbie Findley can keep his cool in front of the net.

This applies to Clint Dempsey as well but Donovan is much more dangerous on the break, so it’s named after him.  Ashley Cole is also much more defensively sound than Glen Johnson so the Right flank won’t be as exploitable for the Red/White/Blue.

Overall

England will likely utilize a fairly offensive lineup with both Lampard and Gerrard occupying the middle.  Combined with the penchant of their wide-backs to get forward, the game could result in plenty of counter attacking opportunities the US thrives on.  I don’t have concerns about the Americans’ ability to score, they have been good at both creating chances and finishing them in the warm up games.

My concern is with not letting Englad get too far ahead; they must close down space in the final 3rd very fast and keep the game in front of them.  Overcomitting will leaving space open in other places, space which any number of the Englishmen will be salivating at exploiting.  The US has the ability to score but if they are required to get 3+ goals to get a result is where I start to worry a bit.

Etc.

In closing, make sure you enjoy this.  I know few people out there consider themselves diehard American Soccer fans  and we aren’t long suffering like Cubs fans, so there will be few people chewing their nails or sweating heavily tomorrow afternoon.  But the tournament as a whole is a rarity and you should make an effort to enjoy it while it’s happening.

Also, don’t forget that this is just a first game.  Winning would be awesome, getting out with a point would be solid, but a loss would not be crippling at all.

Internets?  What are your thoughts on the game(s) tomorrow?  Tournament as a whole?

Others:

Goal.com’s official preview, including their lineup selections.

Grant Wahl gives his 5 things to watch. Nothing really revolutionary but a good point about these teams and their love of set pieces.

A look at England and their Defensive “weakness.”

10 overall storylines to follow throughout the cup from SI.com.

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Preview might be a bit of an overstatement but to try and get myself some search engine loved I have moved on from the “WTWF” in the title.  The post is really just some things to watch for from the tournament as a whole; full previews can be found at SI.com, The Guardian, and ESPN.   I would have loved to break down each group but let’s be realistic here.

Soccer Weather: For the first time since Argentina in 1978, the World Cup will be played in what is essentially winter.   Being below the equator and all means that this is actually South Africa’s winter season; not really winter by northeast standards, more like fall, but nonetheless still not summer.

Ideally this milder weather will result in better soccer. Games should be faster paced and more entertaining than “summer” editions of the tournament where games can seem to plod along at times, with players more focused on not dying than on actually playing.

Of course, a majority of these games will be played at altitude which could cancel out the mild weather altogether, but at least it’s not Mexico City in August.

Argentina: because of this man and much moreso, this man.  No team in the tournament is more of a mystery but with a strike force which is absurdly talented they should score, a lot.  Defense wasn’t Diego’s strong suit and he picked a unit that is still fairly suspect.  This gap between in quality should provide some cardiac moments for La Albiceleste but from a neutral point of view, what could be more exciting.

Back to the second “this man,” as my slurping of him is no secret.  Lionel Messi established himself as the best player in the world this past season.  This World Cup is his for the taking, and while pressure never makes anything easier, it will be up to him to authenticate his standing.  A victory for the Argentinians will push him to another level and whether or not he gets there, it will be fascinating to watch him try.

Spain is the squad if you want to see pretty football & Brazil if you want a true team experience, but no team is going to be more exciting to watch than Argentina.

This is an excellent piece from SI on the National team within Argentinian culture, Diego Maradona, and Lionel Messi.

The Africans: while this is all actually happening in South Africa, the whole continent feels that this is their World Cup.  Each of the 6 teams (Ghana, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Algeria, Nigeria, and South Africa) feel a level of pride in participating in Africa’s first ever world cup, and they will surely feel more at home than they did in Germany.

The Ivory Coast is the popular choice to advance the farthest, even if they do have to make it out of that group. However, the hisorically great African teams, 1990 Cameroon and 2002 Senegal (the only two to make a quarter-final run) were probably on few experts’ lists of the final 8.

Don’t rule out the hosts as well; the power of performing at home, in front of the World has carried all 18 previous hosts.  None have failed to make it out of their group and that alone throws Group A even further into the unknown.  The US was fortunate on some bounces in ’94 and South Korea got the calls in ’02; don’t say nobody warned you when the Soccer gods smile upon Bafana Bafana this month.

I have no idea how it will unfold and I try to stay away from making predictions (except of course if I like the odds) but I believe one of those 6 teams will make a serious run this year; like Shakira says “Waka Waka, it’s time for Africa.”

Goals: Adidas’s Jabulani Ball has been the source of despise from many of the best keepers in SA. The difference this year is that it seems they are afraid because of the unpredictability of the ball in the air.

In my opinion it sounds like whining and preemptive excuses, so I have tended to ignore it.  Just make sure you keep your eyes out for the piped goals that are sure to come from it.

Champions: the fact is that no European team has ever won the World Cup outside of a European country.  History is not on their side, and while this works in favor of the already favored Brazilians, they are still only one of 19 non-European sides.  This is bound to change at some point, but you can bet it will be harped upon endlessly if Spain/Holland/England etc make it to July 11th.

What bodes poorly for the two favorites (Spain and Brazil) is that Pele has tipped them for success.  Interestingly enough, Pele predictions aren’t just wrong but often spectacularly wrong.

Video Fun:

Now some more fun video to get you all excited….which you should be anyway.

Top 10 World Cup goals, courtesy of the BBC:

and now this again, in case you didn’t catch it the first time around:

What about you all out there in the internets?  What are you pumped for over the next month?!

That is all for today, tomorrow we dive into the fun with a US v England WTWF.  O boy, o boy!

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I will get into specifics later this week but before that we should focus on the US team’s overall performance. Afterall, despite all there hype, there are at least 2, maybe 3, 4, or, 5 games after they play England this Sat (5 games means the semi finals, so they theoretically could play 6 but let’s not get ahead of it).

There are two, alternating pieces to this; one is the key players (no real surprises) and what they need to do to be successful while the other is overall team components.

Formation: Bob Bradley experimented with some lone striker, 451 play during the Turkey game. He could look to utilize this if he wants to try to clog up the midfield force opposition to play wide. It didn’t work too well offensively but in a game where they will not force the issue from the beginning, it might be useful (Read vs England this Saturday).

Of course, he has been loyal to his 442 for a while now, and that seems to suit their counter-attacking style best.  They are most dangerous when catching other teams too far forward and are able to strike quickly.  I say, don’t mess with what works.

Michael Bradley: with a history of accumulating Yellow Cards and the occasional Red, his personal battle to keep his temper in check is very important. He missed last years Confederations Cup Final due to a Red card vs Spain.  While playing with 10 men is never ideal, this is more about the player that Bradley Jr. has become.  He is integral to this team and his ability to stay on the field is of the utmost importance.

Additionally, after two successful seasons in Germany he could be on the verge of another step up.  A strong performance here would go a long way in pushing that along.  He is excellent at retrieving possession and starting the team on the attack, while his long runs with out the ball into dangerous areas always seem to cause excitement.  He seems to have a strikers sense for the goal as well, which him get on the score sheet once or twice.  Basically, he is the most complete player on the field and this tournament will be an excellent indication of just how far he has come.

Playing as Favorites: the US has had difficulty in the past when they are expected to win. They seem to play down to their opponents and subsequently make things much more difficult on themselves. They will come into their 2nd and 3rd games as the favorites and whether or not they take the game to the Algeria/Slovenia will determine how much the American soccer fan sweats.

The US seems to be a little unsure of themselves when given the opportunity to dominate possession.  They don’t do to well in small spaces or in playing large portions of the game near the oppositions goals against a well organized defense.  If Algeria and or Slovenia sit back and attempt to beat the US at their own counter-attacking game, it will be interesting to see if they US can adjust and really own the game.

Jozy Altidore: as the striker with the highest level of international experience and most talent, the need for goals does fall to him.  His youth will serve him one of two ways here; either he embraces the environment, takes a liking to the atmosphere and channels it into strong performances or he gets lost in all the media and hype and fails to even get on the scoresheet.

Personally I expect big things from him.  His experience in SA last summer got him used to the environment, while a year in the EPL taught him exactly what high level performance consists of.   His main challenge will be to keep his head in the game, even when he goes long periods with out seeing the ball.

He has struggled some on the club level but he has always performed for country.  A strong showing in South Africa (read: multiple goals) should see his stock rise again.

The Midfield: Bradley and Donovan are fixtures and will likely play close to every meaningful minute of the tournament.  With the strong showings of Buddle and Gomez, along with Findley’s speed, it is likely that BB will utilize Clint Dempsey in his normal position on the flank opposite Donovan.  This only leaves 1 spot open, however it is a spot with a lot of variation possible.

There has been limited news about Ricardo Clark after he limped off last weekend so who starts this weekend is still a mystery.  You have to believe that it will be him or Edu though when BB prefers to be defensive.  Jose Torres and Stuart Holden will be pumped to make an impression when the team needs to go offensive.  Also look for Damarcus Beasley to be employed if Bradley does employ Dempsey upfront.

Clint Dempsey: Probably the most dangerous player in front of goal, he will surely be required to come up with big goals to see the US through.  No one can doubt his work ethic on the field, but my one concern is his penchant to try and do too much with the ball, getting caught in possession.  He is best when making darting runs towards the top of the box and beating defenders one on one.

His creativity and fearlessness in front of goal have endeared him to the Fulham faithful and while he is the cause of much debate here in the States, most of it is misguided.  Expect to see the Texan bring his ‘A game.’

Defensive Health: This has been a major question mark since Oguchi Onyewu tore his Patella Tendon last October.  He has been a little tentative since returning and while he swears he is ready to go, there are only a few teams that would provide more of a test than England.

Jay Demerit, while physically fit for 90 minutes, has seemed to struggle with his judgement over the 3 warm up games.  His eye injury resulted in some crazy cornea replacement, and he has admitted that his judgement has been slightly off.  His grit and toughness are needed in a back line but he must play within himself and not make any glaring mistakes.

Wayne Rooney can make any CB look dumb, while Peter Crouch is like a freaking hawk in the air (ok, that might be a bit much).  Either way, we will know within 45 minutes what kind of shape the back line is in.

Landon Donovan: The 2002 World Cup was his arrival, the 2006 version signaled he just wasn’t ready, and now we are on the precipice of his 3rd/probably defining World Cup.  Despite being the 2nd choice captain, this is his team.  The US will concede goals at the back, every team does, but it is how they work offensively which will determine how far they go.

His ability on the counter attack is World Class but he must play within himself when opponents give him space and invite the attack.  Players like him who excel in the wide spaces tend to love the counter attacking style the US plays, however when this isn’t possible he must adjust, be patient, and pick his spots.

He always seems to be on the verge of ripping one from outside the box and occasionally his unselfishness hurts.  I would love to see him take a few chances from 18 yds+ and I hope he will be rewarded, he’s due.  My guess is that we see a whole new level of Landon Donovan this month, one that the Brits only got a glimpse of this past winter.

My sports writing man-crush Joe Posnanski takes a great look at the maturation of Landon Donovan; read.

Others:

Speaking of Mr. Donovan:

1)Apparently he has been the focus of the British media leading up to Saturday.

2)He also makes an appearance on the Dan Patrick show and was apparently a great guest, unfortunately I haven’t had the time to listen yet.

3)NYTimes Goal Blog also takes a look at him and he recognizes being in a different place today than where he was the past two world cups.  I would be really worried if he thought he was was the same as that 20-year old from 2002.

An ESPN roundtable with some editors on how far they expect the US to go.  I do really enjoy this style as it provides numerous different viewpoints, some you are bound to agree with and some you aren’t.

As stated, Onyewu and Jozy both claim to be all ready to go.  A good sign but we won’t really know until about 3:15 on Saturday.

John O’Brien continues his awesome blog at NYTimes.com, this time addressing changes in team training as the tournament approaches with a very fresh approach.

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