United States Men’s National Team: World Cup Preview

Despite their team landing in one of three groups of death in the WC, American soccer fans have retained unbridled optimism for their team's prospects.

Despite falling in one of three groups of death, American soccer fans have retained unbridled optimism.

Team outlook

For fans and players alike, the final cut by coach Jurgen Klinsmann generated a mixture of expectance (midfielders/forwards that played prominent roles in qualification) and surprise (omitting Landon Donovan, and DeAndre Yedlin ousting Brad Evans and Michael Parkhurst for a defensive spot). Given a mere few weeks to adjust to the final 23-man selection, the Americans had to come together as a group in a dire situation–and knowing that they’ve somewhat failed to do so during preceding years in the back of their minds.

Yet following their three World Cup tune-up friendlies, the U.S. men’s national side began to develop a sense of unity, and nurturing the type of imposing style Klinsmann so frequently calls for on the pitch. Particularly noticeable in the June 7th game against Nigeria at home, the United States opened up play much more vibrantly than in previous games; always striving to avoid their customary lethargic starts, the USMNT displayed renewed aggression in the early-going by assertively taking shots on goal and initiating several opportunities. Quality early starts will prove critical in a ruthless group stage for the U.S., where there’s little room for error or even lapses in activity.

The play and character of Bradley (4) will be huge for the U.S. (David Bernal/ISIphotos.com)

The play and character of Bradley (4) will be huge for the U.S. (David Bernal/ISIphotos.com)

By now, one can easily acknowledge Michael Bradley, who has dramatically improved the technical aspect of his game, as the centerpiece of this squad–and a modest team-oriented one for that matter. The offense runs through the 26-year old before forwards receive their chances, with Bradley often assuming the role of creatively setting up his teammates: in 6 games in the final round of CONCACAF qualifiers, he connected on a stunningly efficient 89.3% of pass attempts. Thus, Bradley’s boxscore effect on the USMNT takes the form of team-high assist totals, but also interestingly ranking near the top of the squad for shots; while aware of the importance of setting up opportunities for others, the midfielder can take initiative himself as well, a balance that marks him as a great leader and on-field thinker.

Furthermore, Jozy Altidore at long last appears revitalized after his clinical two-goal work against a respectable and WC-bound Nigerian side. The transformation back to a formidable striker comes in the nick of time as well, the opening-cup clash with Ghana having loomed nine days away at that point. What once looked like a disastrous chain of events–Altidore played in top form between 2011-13 with the Dutch club AZ Alkamaar, as well as during WC qualification and exhibition matches near that period, but then lost confidence after a horrid season at Sunderland, and then continued to under-perform in international friendlies, a trend dangerously close to spilling into the World Cup itself–Altidore should now be primed to carry the goal-scoring load for his country in Brazil.

It might as well just vault the Americans into serious contention with Portugal (and Ghana, too) for a spot in the second round, and in an ironic way too: as Portugal’s essential goal-scorer in Cristiano Ronaldo suffers from a knee injury with his team’s World Cup start date rapidly approaching, the U.S.’s top forward presence, Altidore, is amid the process of replenishment.

Overall, it has unquestionably been a long-winding road for the Americans since getting ousted by Ghana four years ago in South Africa, but the display in these last few friendlies might just be the capstone of the team’s development since then. There’s always a next step to take, and as USMNT enters Group G with an underdog mentality (one relished by the team), the Yanks surely have their work cut out for them: bettering both a rising Portugal squad and nemesis Ghana in point total.

The adversaries to the dream

Fundamental to a successful tournament run, Team USA will have to face and overcome their demons straight out of the gate: a match against Ghana in Natal on June 16th will resurrect heartbreaking past WC memories–having been eliminated by this relatively minuscule nation on the western coast of Africa in each of the last two cups–in addition to forming a considerable obstacle to knockout-stage advancement. The Americans must play up to par with powerful Ghanaian midfielders, who like many of their teammates, have the benefit of abundant experience at the club level around the globe. The usual show of grit and effort, an unwavering focus, and a newfound sense of determination and boldness–strengthened by the idea of avenging for a historically one-sided series with their opponents–will all become necessary for a U.S. victory.

Six days later, and 1718 miles west into the Brazilian inland, the USMNT will take the pitch in sweltering and humid conditions against the fearsome Portuguese–what could possibly end up deciding the victor of second place in Group G. The effect of playing in the swamp-like city of Manaus will hinder both the USA and Portugal, a circumstantial factor assisting the former most of all, as the Americans will be desperate for any aid in a battle from which they’d be content leaving with even a draw; although the Portuguese clearly boast the superior skill and offensive firepower, the game conditions should help level the playing field a good amount. Team USA’s objective throughout the contest will pertain to inhibiting the effect reigning Ballon d’Or recipient Cristiano Ronaldo has on the game, with particular attention to his regular attacking runs down the wings–thereby making the quality of the jobs done by American fullbacks crucial. Other than its one superstar, Portugal presents some other playmaking options in the midfield, as well as contains a few tenacious and sturdy defensive players, but nothing too daunting if the U.S. is clicking on all cylinders.

And finally, to conclude group stage competition on June 26th, but hopefully not entire World Cup action, the United States will face the machine-like execution and talent-stacked roster that comprise perennial powerhouse Germany, a nation seeking its first major tournament title since Euro ’96. Best-case scenario for the Yanks involves the Germans somehow locking up first place in the group after the first two sets of matches, and therefore not playing as strongly in a meaningless game. Regardless, it will almost assuredly be the toughest encounter in the tourney for The Stars and Stripes. Tempered and reasonable hopes center around preserving the goal differential result (that could eventually figure prominently) from this match to -2, or even -1. Other than the instance of Jurgen Klinsmann pleading fellow countryman and German coach Joachim Low to settle for a draw, the U.S. will tacitly acknowledge an inevitable defeat, and instead rest their second-round aspirations on the outcome of the Portugal/Ghana matchup–that begins at the exact same time as their own game–in country capital Brasilia.

(David Richard/USA TODAY Sports)

Howard (1) must shore up his defense’s weaknesses. (David Richard/USA TODAY Sports)

Can they do it?

In Team USA’s two most pivotal matches, Ghana and then Portugal will relentlessly challenge an unproven and suspect American back line. As a result, the decisive factor for the U.S. will very possibly become the play of Tim Howard; the Everton goalie often rises on the big stage, and could consequently push the United States over the hump, also adding leadership and moxie to his reliably exceptional performance in the net. Thus, with a world-class and internationally-respected goalkeeper anchoring the back, and potent midfield and forward pieces falling into place, under the valuable direction of Jurgen Klinsmann, and with an ever-increasing American soccer fanbase on their backs, the United States Men’s National Team will complete the unthinkable: escape the group of death, and into USA sports lore.

Key matches: Ghana vs. USA, June 16th & Portugal vs. United States, June 22nd

Predicted Finish:

1) Germany (9 points): W vs. Portugal, W vs. Ghana, W vs. USA

2) USA (4 points): W vs. Ghana, T vs. Portugal, L vs. Germany

3) Portugal (2 points): L vs. Germany, T vs. USA, T vs. Ghana

4) Ghana (1 point): L vs. USA, L vs. Germany, T vs. Portugal

Advertisements

2014 FIFA World Cup Group F: Cruise Control For La Albiceleste

With the captain armband on his sleeve, Messi will seek to erase any remaining doubt concerning his performance on the WC stage.

With the captain armband on his sleeve, Messi will seek to erase any remaining doubt concerning his performance on the WC stage.

The other South American giant

If there’s one team that poses a truly considerable threat to overtaking Brazil in pursuit of a WC trophy–and revive the tragic memories tied to the last time the Brazilians hosted the tournament–then it’s the rivals from down south: Argentina.

After the appointment of Alejandro Sabella as manager in July of 2011, superstar Lionel Messi has excelled at a level previously unseen of him on the international stage. With 10 goals in 14 CONMEBOL qualifiers, and a total of 20 since the new coach took over the reigns, one of the best players in the world has played as such for him home nation, finding a way to reproduce the same exceptional ability he shows while playing with his club, Barcelona. Furthermore, in doing so, Messi has shattered any remnants of doubt concerning his chemistry with the rest of the team, priming him to finally break out in a World Cup competition.

Messi will pair up with a host of other European-club standouts up top, which collectively stand as the most high-powered, intimidating, and irrepressible quartet of footballers in the entire WC. The attack still revolves around Messi–as most of the team’s goals come from the center of the field where he plays–but Sergio Aguero and Angel di Maria to his sides, and an authentic striker in Gonzalo Higuain running ahead of him, play nearly as important a part in allowing the Argentine offense to function. The top four have discovered a way and proved that they can work well in tandem, and all create a lot of space for each other to operate in the offensive third of the field.

With their imposing agility, the Argentines can also really punish opponents with a ferocious counterattack, on which they maximize the usage of speed and skill going from one end of the pitch to the other. Midfielder Angel Di Maria especially will play the crucial role of connecting the midfield with the attack, using his speed to push the ball forward to the unrivaled core of Messi, Higuain, and Aguero, that spends most of the time high up the field, and not so much bridging the gap in the midfield like di Maria does.

Without question, the most striking weakness for La Albiceleste exists on the defensive line. The experience and steadiness of Manchester City stalwart Pablo Zabaleta will be crucial to shielding the goal and then subsequently sending the ball back to the talented attackers. In addition to only maintaining a clean sheet in 25% of the team’s qualifying matches, the defense will not exactly receive much support from their goalkeeper behind them: the projected starter, Sergio Romero, will start rusty after getting displaced at goal at AS Monaco and sitting on the bench for most of last season. Yet the defense–composed of individuals playing for top European clubs–can surely still hold ground within the group stage; it’s only once Argentina progresses through a likely lengthy tournament run that the back four will simply not be able to effectively compete and match up against the greatest offenses the world has to offer. That, of course, does not deter the entire team’s path; a dynamic offense has the capacity to make up for inadequacy in the back, and quickly morph a contest into a goal-scoring extravaganza.

Who else advances? 

Iran: A defensive-first team, the Iranians will bank on the counter-attack to produce goal-scoring opportunities; when the ball does reach the top of the formation, 26-year old striker Reza Ghoochannejhad, who plays in the English second division, will hope to continue recent success with representing his country, having netted nine goals in his first 11 caps. Considering that some regard this squad as a golden generation of sorts for the country, it’s truly unfortunate that Iran will enter the WC unprepared and untested, with hardly any prior experience against top-flight–or at least average–international competition completely due to lack of funding for the team and politics.

Nigeria: Against the likes of Argentina and Bosnia-Herzegovina, veteran goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama–currently moonlighting for Lille in the French Ligue 1, and having experienced a successful club career in general–will have to perform in the net better than ever before if the Nigerians are to advance to the second round. A midfield organized by EPL players John Obi Mikel and Victor Moses, capable of significant offensive impacts, play ahead of a strong defense. The Super Eagles as a whole are very unified and unselfish, and bring valuable international exposure stemming from the diverse array of their clubs.

In Dzeko (top) and Ibisevic, the Bosnians have unprecedented offensive firepower.

In Dzeko (11) and Ibisevic (9), the Bosnians have unprecedented offensive firepower. (top and bottom: AP Photo/Amel Emric)

Bosnia-Herzegovina: A June 15th date with powerhouse Argentina will serve as quite the reality check, but the Bosnians are a talented and offensively dangerous group, and will play the most inspired football: with many of the players having actually endured the tragic Yugoslavian Civil War, a trip to the WC in Brazil itself is a crowning achievement of perseverance. An attacking onslaught best defines this World Cup debutant, as at the forward line, the pair of Edin Dzeko–who has played a good part in his club Manchester City’s success–and Vedad Ibisevic–amassing 33 goals in 71 appearances for Bundesliga team VfB Stuttgart–combined for the most prolific goal-scoring duo (with 18) during UEFA qualification, and will seek to wreak havoc once again in Brazil. The presence of 24-year old Miralem Pjanic–having solidified his spot and playing wonderfully with Roma in the last few years–in the midfield will also be vital to bolstering the attack. Moving on to the back of the lineup for the Dragons, one of the best English Premier League goalies in Stoke City’s Asmir Begovic will certainly help mask a questionable defense, and diminish this Achilles’ heel of a back line’s potential effect of undoing the team’s offensive efforts; with an explosive and well-rounded attack, and just enough support in the defensive third of the pitch, Bosnia-Herzegovina should clinch a round of 16 berth.

Key match: Bosnia-Herzegovina vs. Nigeria, June 21st

Predicted Finish:

1) Argentina (9 points)

2) Bosnia-Herzegovina (6 points)

3) Nigeria (3 points)

4) Iran (0 points)

2014 FIFA World Cup Group E: A Lucky Draw For Les Bleus

Pogba should factor in as a key ingredient in both the French attack and defense. (AFP/Getty Images)

Pogba (19) should factor in as a key ingredient in both the French attack and defense. (AFP/Getty Images)

Considering the hardship sustained by the French Football Federation in South Africa four years ago, and a qualification route that nearly excluded the team from Brazil, a fortuitous group draw for France seems a long overdue lucky break. A Switzerland team erroneously placed by FIFA rankings among the world’s eight best teams, and two of the weaker sides from their respective qualifying zones in Honduras and Ecuador, headline a soft pool of competition for France; its one disadvantage would come into play if the French overlook the group stage and set their minds in the team’s likely knockout stage road. This would lead to an even worse situation of evoking an attitude of arrogance that has often poisoned team chemistry and helped spur the debacle during the last World Cup.

But manager Didier Deschamps has sought to displace this mentality, and help set his players’ egos–at least while representing the nation–to rest. Vocalizing this desire to the media and to his players is an important step, but what was it that truly revealed the resolve in his effort, and showed that he would actually follow through with his message? Leaving Samir Nasri off the 23-man squad. The Manchester City player surely had the talent and skill to make the cut and contribute, but Deschamps made the decision with the idea of doing what was best for the team, and therefore demonstrated that the 2014 World Cup-edition of Les Bleus would be built around unity and character (presumably indicating that Nasri would not figure usefully in this intention).

Of course fate had to deal the French a blow at some point. That eventuality came when it was announced that Franck Ribery, a regular Ballon d’Or finalist, had succumbed to a back injury and would miss the tournament in Brazil. France will sorely miss their best player in Ribery–and all the flair, energy, and craftiness he unveils on the pitch–and even more so after likely group stage success; the damaging fallout from the winger’s absence will increase and will be felt to a greater degree as the tourney progresses and the team faces more stringent opposition.

Nevertheless, there’s still the low level of group competition, and even more importantly, what the roster contains–even with Ribery out. Leading Les Bleus into Brazil, in what will likely become his “breakout” tourney–21-year old phenom Paul Pogba might just be the most essential player on the French side. Developing in the Italian Serie A for the last years at Juventus, Pogba competes powerfully with his imposing frame on both offense and defense, but couples this strength nicely with creativity and a penchant for breathtaking plays and goals. Regarded as one of the best center midfielders, Pogba acts as a mobile enforcer, impacting the game on both ends of the pitch, as well as noted for his speed with the ball and lightning strikes on goal. If he can replicate the same stabilizing effect and inventive style on offense–mostly seen at the club level–for France at the World Cup, Pogba will leave the tournament more popularized than ever, and potentially help transform his country into serious contenders while still in Brazil.

Benzema (10) will have plenty of opportunities to finish off attacks. (Julian Finney/Getty Images Europe)

Benzema (10) will have plenty of opportunities to finish off attacks. (Julian Finney/Getty Images Europe)

Also among the young and bustling group of midfielders, 28-year old Yohan Cabaye will help control the ball for Les Bleus, utilize his excellent technical ability to help move the ball upfield, and showcase proficiency on free kicks and penalties. With the forwards corps, there are some effective and tested options; this comes even with the absence of Ribery up top, which will force Deschamps to tinker with the lineup, as Loic Remy currently appears as most suitable to fill the void at the wing. Movement in the offensive third of the pitch will center around Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema, who will cooperate with the central MF pair of Pogba and PSG’s 27-year old Blaise Matuidi–both of whom also assigned the responsibility of dropping back for defensive support. Their two-way duty, and the consequent required energy fulfill it, reflects the necessity for the whole team to supply maximum effort and with diligence and vigor. Pogba and Matuidi’s aid on defense will prove especially critical to a back line that–albeit experienced and shrewd–was unsteady and suspect to dubious play in qualifiers; captain and goalkeeping mainstay Hugo Lloris should add further reinforcement in this aspect of the game.

Over the last couple of months, the French have impressed spectators and overpowered opponents in the friendlies since a narrow victory over Ukraine in a UEFA qualification playoff–such progress constitutes as evidence of the manager gradually determining the right strings to pull on his team; Deschamps has helped calibrate a group composed of once raw and disjointed talent, while effectively amalgamating youthful and experienced players.

On top of all this this pure talent and burgeoning cohesiveness, France also has history on its side. The last few decades have seen Les Bleus alternate between successful WC campaigns and horrendous ones, or even worse, none at all. After placing fourth and third in 1982 and 1986, respectively, the French missed out entirely on the tournament the next two times. In 1998 they rebounded with authority–as a host nation–by winning the championship, only to falter in the group stage in 2002, then coming a headbutt away from potentially winning another title in 2006 (instead settling as runners-up), and finally, stumbling miserably in their group in 2010–thereby making WC success over the next few weeks almost probable, if to follow this persisting historical trend. A light travel schedule, composed of games only on the coast, certainly doesn’t hurt either.

The rest of the pack

The Swiss have a 5'7'' speedster in Shaqiri (23) who is a prolific goal-scorer.

The Swiss have a 5’7” speedster in Shaqiri (23) who is a prolific goal-scorer.

While undoubtedly sustaining challenges by the other two teams from the Americas, Switzerland–overestimated by FIFA rankings’ accounts, but underrated by the rest of world–should comfortably prevail out of Group E, entrusting a group of youthful and speedy talent to lead the way. In the role of attacking midfielders, Xherdan Shaqiri (22 years old) and Granit Xhaka (21) will help develop the offense for Switzerland, which relies heavily on establishing a fast pace with the ball moving forward, and thrives on set pieces: ranking the best among UEFA qualification group winners, 5 of 17 goals were off corners or free kicks. The defensive line is marked by experienced veterans, who must play a more coordinated game to thwart opposing attacks. Overall, the fact that young, skillful stars lead the team (particularly on offense) signifies that although the Swiss can certainly prove a formidable squad in the ’14 tourney, the group’s full impact will come into effect in the future.

Finally, while both Ecuador and Honduras can effectively counter-attack and create opportunities off a fast pace, they each have their own deficiencies on defense. Ecuador will do most of its attacking work on the wings–an effort spearheaded by Man-United’s Antonio Valencia–and generally employ a fast tempo, and rely on crosses to create chances. Though they have some potent attacking options, a lacking Ecuadorian defensive unit, in desperate need of organization, will be easily exploited by the attacking firepower of the French and Swiss; moreover, the team has a recent track record of underperforming away from home. For Honduras, the performance of team veterans will be key to attaining at least some points. Although forward Jerry Bengston–who led the team with nine goals in qualifying–could factor in prominently during group play, the porous nature of the defense will undo Los Catrachos in the end.

Key match: France vs. Switzerland, June 20th

Predicted Finish:

1) France (7 points)

2) Switzerland (6 points)

3) Honduras (3 points)

4) Ecuador (1 point)

2014 FIFA World Cup Group D: Three Talent-Ridden Contenders, Only Two Survivors

Balotelli, Rooney, and Suarez (clockwise from left to right) will hope to finish off their respective nation's offensive attacks.

Balotelli, Rooney, and Suarez (clockwise from left to right) will hope to finish off their respective nation’s offensive attacks.

As top-heavy as any other group in the tournament, Group D presents the classic South American-European clash, plus one. A pair of consistent powers from Europe along with a resurgent soccer nation–that has not fielded a team this good in at least 40 years, if not since the 1930 and 1950 championship squads–will fiercely vie for World Cup survival, all three sides certainly deserving entry into the knockout round. With all this hubbub at the top, it leaves outsider Costa Rica squarely out of the mix, and before the groups stages have even commenced. Los Ticos will maintain their stingy manner of play on the pitch, and pack it tight in the back with goalkeeper Keylor Navas (who had a huge role in qualifiers), but with inexperience, youth, and a relative dearth of talent, will struggle to do more than act as spoiler to the hopes of the other three teams.

Three-way fight to the death 

Italy

No longer are the Azzurri simply defined by tenacity and emphasis on defense; rife with potent attackers, and marked by creativity and technical preeminence, Italy has gradually evolved into a dangerously balanced side–and one primed to avenge a catastrophic 2010 World Cup showing.

Nevertheless, the team will still hold fast to their usual ways of securing control of the game through efficient ball movement, setting the pace and dictating tempo, and exerting a resolute defensive effort. Pedantic and deliberate as it moves up the field to attack, the Italian team will still retain its classic style of play, amid also experimenting with different lineups and structure, particularly in regards to the back line. Lagging behind in terms of pace when playing opponents comes with the territory of an older team, yet even then, if Italy imposes their style on a game, the result is a decreased need for a high level of endurance.

Pirlo (21) will hope to celebrate in Brazil in what will probably be his last World Cup.

Pirlo (21) will hope to celebrate in Brazil in what will probably be his last World Cup.

But in Brazil, the Italians will attack more than ever, having a top-flight striker Mario Balotelli at the core of the offense. The A.C. Milan player must put the stamp on Italy’s offensive drives, and continue his efficiency as a finisher, revealed during UEFA qualification and previous friendlies, especially in the penalty box: he netted 10 goals on 27 shots since Euro ’12, and five on 10 during qualifiers in this area near the goal. Also, it’s crucial to the team’s collective offensive prospects for Balotelli to trend away from his mercurial nature and more towards a dependable, team-oriented character. Nevertheless, with “Super Mario” working alongside 35-year old talisman Andrea Pirlo–who still acts as the backbone of the attack with unparalleled vision and touch–in addition to a plethora of other viable, proven options, the Italian attack will boast a powerful mix of experience, organization, dynamism.

Moreover, the Azzurri will have available a near-perfect blend of experienced countrymen that have both endured triumphs (2006) and hardships (2010), and a crop of youthful rising stars. And that’s on top of the factor of unity: the group enters the tourney with 20 of 23 players on the roster regularly interacting on Italian club squads, meaning that Italy will be as cohesive a team as ever. World-class goalkeeper and captain Gianluigi Buffon will also play a significant role in making up for any shortcomings by a sometimes-shaky back four, so the defensive third of pitch is once again covered well.

England

Even with slightly lowered expectations going into this tournament, the pressure still seems as strong on the English to succeed. In Brazil, The Three Lions will continue to employ a characteristic defensive mindset in terms of the team’s likely formation on the pitch, and possess a group of gifted midfielders that pack the best clubs in the Premier League. The team is not suited to play the possession game, nor will rely much on any counterattacks; rather, they will build from the back with a stout defense, utilizing the same approach as in past World Cups. Therefore, the English will again put forth a very simple and basic style of attack: launching the ball forward with long passes and connections aimed at Rooney and other fellow attackers up high. Rooney, despite only 28 years old and leading the roster in international goals, remains an enigma on the WC stage; however, the team still banks on the now fading hopes that the volatile striker will finally deliver consistent production. When him and captain Steven Gerrard become active offensively and forcefully press upfield, the rest of the team benefits on the attack. In general, the midfielders and forwards are mostly untested and young, which consequently tasks coach Roy Hodgson with discovering the right formula, fusing athleticism from youngsters with the experience of the veterans.

Uruguay

For La Celeste, the performance of striker tandem Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani will determine how far the team goes. Perhaps no other nation possesses such power up front, as the duo can ravage opposing defenses even just playing amongst themselves. But Uruguay does has several skilled playmakers to surround and facilitate the two forwards, coming up from the midfield position; these additional members–whose ages range from 23 to 34, and play for clubs in England, Brazil, Spain, Italy, and Mexico–are just as vital in helping the Uruguayan attack function.

Uruguay will count on Cavani (21) to regain his top form for the WC.

Uruguay will count on Cavani (21) to regain his top form for the WC. (Clive Rose/Getty Images South America)

As game-changing and dangerous the aforementioned two strikers can be in Brazil, there remains some skepticism: Suarez is currently nursing a knee injury and will have to battle through this ailment for however long he stays on the pitch, and Cavani comes off an underwhelming season at the club level with Paris Saint-Germain. The two should still dominate once they conjoin on the field, and it bodes well that the team only has its first true test on the 19th against England, granting Suarez more time to heal. Regardless of the condition of these two, Diego Forlan, who rose to international prominence in South Africa four years ago, is a more than viable option off the bench. The 35-year old adds useful experience and leadership to the Uruguayan squad; the country’s leader in all-time caps and goals in official matches, Forlan can easily provide an important offensive boost in the role of a substitute.

After playing poorly for West Brom in the EPL last season, captain Diego Lugano still anchors an unstable defensive line that along with the goalkeeping, linger as weak points in the Uruguayan lineup. But it would be foolish to disregard the presence of 28-year old Diego Godin, whose stalwart play for La Liga champs Atletico translates to instantly fortifying an otherwise deficient supporting cast. And despite a disconcerting CONMEBOL qualifying campaign characterized by inconsistency–and included having to win an international playoff to advance to Brazil–Uruguay has seemingly put their woes behind them, performed strongly as of late, and enter the WC with some momentum.

The verdict 

Initially, I had Group D as yet another producer of two UEFA teams for the knockout rounds. But after more consideration, a bigger conundrum revealed itself regarding England. The likelihood of advancing to the knockout round for The Three Lions hinges on their opening match in the tourney: if they can muster enough might to play up to par with and tie a fellow European force (and in doing so proving their status as one themselves), the English will probably take about four more points in their last two games, adding up to a 1-0-2 record good enough to progress out of the group. But if Italy wins the first game, then the Azzurri might not be so overwhelmingly strong as to sweep the entire group for nine points–indicating a potential draw with La Celeste in each team’s final group match, and leaving England behind in the dust.

Furthermore, location of play is often of paramount significance in the World Cup–and not only to determining the eventual champion. A combination of Italy likely emerging victorious from its first game, coupled with the dynamic and influential attack of Uruguay–bolstered by playing in its home continent–should spell doom for England: a team whose players regularly lack confidence on this stage for fear of making the smallest of mistakes, and that fails to have a special, intangible factor that helps distinguish itself and push it over the hump.

Key match: England vs. Italy, June 14th

Predicted Finish:

1) Italy (7 points)

2) Uruguay (5 points)

3) England (4 points)

4) Costa Rica (0 point)

2014 FIFA World Cup Group C: Full Of Parity, Lacking In Luster

A Falcao-less free-for-all 

Just as any hopes that Radamel Falcao would play in the World Cup have evaporated, so too has any true interest or consideration for the results of Group C. Looking ahead to the knockout stages, the top two point-getters (from a pool of England, Italy, and Uruguay) from Group D will voraciously pounce on the two teams from a much weaker Group C selection. This outlook has become increasingly more likely after the Colombian goal-scoring machine in Falcao was ruled out, meaning Group C teams will have most if not all their successes playing against each other.

Gutierrez (19) will look to guide Colombia offensively in the absence of his superstar teammate. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

Gutierrez (19) will look to guide Colombia offensively in the absence of his superstar teammate. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

But even with the AS Monaco striker unavailable, Colombia persists as one of the most talented teams, composed of players moonlighting on clubs around the world, in the group. Only in their projected starting lineup, Los Cafeteros have players on clubs based in France, Argentina, Italy, Spain, and Portugal; with a tourney like the World Cup that includes sides from five different continents, this list of clubs translates into familiarity with a wide array of international competition for the Colombians, who enter as prepared and tested as any other team in the group.

The team’s offensive firepower stems from the talented forward duo of Teofilo Gutierrez–the highest goal-scorer during qualifiers that will play in Brazil–and F.C. Porto’s Jackson Martinez. The midfielding corps is just as integral to the explosive Colombian offense, that posted fantastic CONMEBOL qualifying numbers: in addition to amassing 30 points, Los Cafeteros led the zone with 96 shots on target, as well as placed second in both pass completion percentage and assists.

As a whole, the team will rely heavily on pushing up–and moving out of a shaky defensive third of the field–as much as they can, allowing the midfielders and attackers to possess the ball and create chances. Thus, Colombia thrives on the counterattack, and without Falcao around which the offensive previously revolved, will try to get the most out of quickly driving the ball up-field out of connections from several competent and reliable players.

While Colombia has awaited a WC return for a lengthy 16 years, the Ivory Coast has finally arrived on something even more elusive: a non-deathtrap group. In their last two World Cup appearances that marked the first in their history, the Ivorians have had horrible luck with draws; in 2006 they came in third facing the likes of Argentina and the Netherlands, and had the same result in 2010, but against Brazil and Portugal, another power-tandem containing both a South American team and European one. But now that they’ve finally been placed on even grounds with their opposition, and despite all the clamor about their age, the team will jump on this perfect opportunity.

A point-black miss on goal–by opposing Senegal in the final round of African qualification–away from not travelling to Brazil, the Ivory Coast have put their narrow escape behind them, and will enter the tourney guided by a group of seasoned veterans, once deemed the country’s golden generation and still remain among Africa’s best players. Operating as the linchpin that allows other talented members on the team to actually mesh well together, Manchester City’s Yaya Toure will showcase his scoring and passing proficiency, impose himself physically with his tackling (epitomizing an overall sizable and strongly-built side), and speedily patrol the field from box-to-box in group play.

The 31-year old plays alongside a larger group of forwards–most of which fall back to a more midfielding area–that includes the seemingly ageless Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou (who clinched the team’s WC qualification), and Gervinho, all contributing to the team’s fast-paced attack. It’s important to note that three of the six projected starters that play MF/F are between 27 and 28 years old, and by also acknowledging the near certainty of Y. Toure not running out of stamina, the doubts linked to this team’s age are a overblown. Furthermore, the Ivory Coast have the skillful 25-year old Wilfried Bony at their disposable, either as substitute or even as starter, having shined at the EPL level for Swansea City scoring 16 goals the last season. So upon closer inspection, the perceived weakness of old age is exaggerated more than anything, and should instead factor in as experience that will prove valuable in the early-going of the tournament. Adding in the international exposure of most of the Ivorians (all but one currently play for European clubs), and the significance of Drogba’s last hurrah on this international stage, Les Elephants should finally make the leap that the world and their continent have long counted on, and emerge as victors of Group C.

The play of Drogba (11) and Toure (19) will be vital to the Ivory Coast's chances of advancing.

The play of Drogba (11) and Toure (19) will be vital to the Ivory Coast’s chances of advancing.

Some concern arises with the defensive unit, but even in this area of the pitch, there is strong experience; as long as Kolo Toure (older brother of Yaya) leads a similar effectiveness seen during qualifiers (surrendering just five goals), the back line should not impede the Ivory Coast’s path to winning the group.

Two respectable challengers 

Of course, parity abounds in Group C, making Japan and Greece almost as strong contenders who surely will pick up a good amount of points. Japan, known as the Samurai Blue, has become very technical, and have displayed the capacity to score goals in large numbers during qualification. A.C. Milan’s Keisuke Honda runs in the middle of Japan’s push forward and operates as the most important organizer on the team’s offense; the attacking midfielder also embodies the creative and dynamic style of the Samurai Blue, whose terrific ball movement can pose serious challenges to fellow group teams. Yet a Confederations Cup performance woefully exposed Japan, its defensive line not nearly up to par (yielding nine goals in three games in that tourney), especially on set pieces. Both Colombia and the Ivory Coast are well-equipped to capitalize on this Japanese deficiency, with an increased vulnerability playing against the Ivorians due to Japan’s general small frame.

Finally, Greece is one of the most defensively-oriented teams in the world; every Group C squad will struggle agonizingly against the Greeks for some duration during their games against them, and at least one game should conclude in a tie. The defensive corps allowed just four goals during group stages of UEFA qualification (and two more during a two-game playoff with Romania), physically outlasting and out-working opponents, and will once again lead the charge–and be critical to any slim, knockout stage hopes–in Brazil. While the Greek striking attack contains big, effective goal-scorers, the midfield rarely works creatively and does not have much pace. Overall, the offense is inconsistent and will not keep up with prolific goal-scoring efforts from other group teams, which will eventually break through the team’s defensive wall for some goals.

Key match: Ivory Coast vs. Japan, June 14th

Predicted Finish:

1) Ivory Coast (6 points)

2)  Colombia (5 points)

3) Japan (4 points)

4) Greece (1 point)

2014 FIFA World Cup Group B: ’10 Final Reunion, With A Darkhorse Included

Midfielder Andres Iniesta (6) will serve as the focal point of the Spanish attack in Brazil. (Denis Doyle/Getty Images)

Midfielder Andres Iniesta (6) will serve as the focal point of the Spanish attack in Brazil. (Denis Doyle/Getty Images)

The World Cup Draw regularly leaves countries either ecstatic or slighted depending on their group placements in the upcoming tournament; there can never be a perfect balance of competition in each group. Yet following the draw for the 2014 tourney, the striking lack of any semblance of evenly distributed teams bordered on atrocity. Oddly-skewed FIFA rankings don’t paint an accurate picture–just a basic lookover reveals some peculiarities. Powerhouses have been squeezed into Groups B, D, and G, increasing the prototypical “group of death” threefold. The aftermath of the questionable group arrangement involves toughening the task of predictions, and unfortunately includes premature elimination of teams that deserve a longer stay in Brazil. Group B presents this type of situation, featuring the final two teams from the 2010 World Cup–Spain and the Netherlands–mashed together with an emerging South American force in Chile. With a group already stuffed to its competitive brim with just three teams, Australia quickly becomes the odd man out, and can only hope to dent the other three’s aspirations by catching them off guard in a “trap game”.

Spanish supremacy 

Let’s get one thing out of the way: Spain, though it will field considerable challenges from the Dutch and the Chileans, should win all three of its matches. Even though the Spaniards could mirror their slow start from 2010, one that the Netherlands would seemingly take quick advantage of, two developments detract from the possibility of Spain gaining anything less than three points in their opening match. For one, Spain will enter as an even stronger team than four years back (a growth that seems baffling yet likely for a reigning champ). Secondly, the Dutch have shown signs of decline and aren’t nearly the team of such caliber seen in South Africa, a slump that will figure importantly later in assessing whether they advance out of the group.

Drawing attention back to the Spanish national team roster, there’s simply a ridiculous amount of dynamic playmakers–their impact on a match bolstered by how they all flow in unison–that will take the pitch. The mid-fielding group, albeit only combining for one goal in WC qualifiers, contains a variety of consistent and top-tier performers, hailing from the world’s best clubs. Their familiarity with each other results in unparalleled on-field chemistry–a phenomenon that encompasses the attacking and defending lines as well, but to a lesser degree–since many actually play together in their clubs; just with respect to the midfield, four players come from Barcelona, so it’s no wonder two of those, Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez, act as cornerstones on the national team.

Thus, the Spanish team will once again mesmerize (they will play the most beautiful style in Brazil), pass (utilize the “tiki-taka” approach, characterized by short passing and movement), and possess (possession percentages will continue unequaled) more than any other team in the tournament, en route to gradually overpowering the Group B opposition.

Perhaps the team’s sole disadvantage would expose itself on set pieces, as the Spanish defenders collectively lack the adequate bulk and stature to overcome imposing forwards crashing the net. But even then, Spain will yield few opportunities like this for opponents to capitalize on, as overall the back lines plays resourcefully and with constant pressure. Moreover, early-game deficits shouldn’t cause much trouble, as domination of the ball–and subsequently a higher amount of created chances–is inherent to Spain’s character as a team.

The right to play Brazil 

You can’t be shortsighted in what soon becomes a knockout tournament, so far all of the Netherlands’s and Chile’s struggles to advance to the second round, those efforts could come in vain after a bout with the powerful hosts (assuming the likely scenario of Spain and Brazil winning their groups). Yet for the Chilean team, unlike the Dutch, an end to their tourney in the round of 16 might not be their highest of hopes, but definitely satisfying, and hardly demoralizing like it would be for their primary group counterparts.

Akin to the situation in Group A, the second spot in the round of 16 will most likely be clinched in the third set of group games. After experiencing both ends of the spectrum of World Cup competition (Spain and Australia), the Netherlands and Chile will meet on June 23rd in Sao Paulo, a trip to the second round hanging in the balance.

Sanchez (7) will seek to guide his team into the second round.

Sanchez (7) will seek to guide his team into the second round.

For Chile, which has increasingly become a darkhorse candidate in World Cup discussions, its identity centers on the offensive attack. A proven dangerous striker, in Barcelona-man Alexis Sanchez, and a tenaciously dominant midfielder that has gained consideration as one of the best at his position during his time in Juventus, in Arturo Vidal, drive the prolific goal-scoring charge. Yet balance also personifies the offense of La Roja: six players with multiple goals and 11 with at least one during the qualifiers demonstrate the wide-ranging options the team will field, a strength which will become incredibly useful when the Sanchez/Vidal duo draw the majority of defensive attention.

The back line appears as the most pressing weakness for the Chileans at the moment, as the team devotes most of its efforts to attacking on the other side of the pitch. The aggression and ability to retreat to a defensive role of midfielder Vidal will minimize but not entirely erase the ramifications from a porous defense.

Breezing through its UEFA qualifiers, the Netherlands team is dotted with offensive weapons that combined for a towering 34 goals in the qualification process. World-class and internationally-tested scorers Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben, and Wesley Sneijder will once again form the basis for the attack, and will challenge opposing goalkeepers like no other team.

Yet just like with the Chileans, worries begin to arise when evaluating the Dutch defense; with the midfielders stationed upfield more often than not (an absence of a quality two-way MF), it leaves a very young back line–that lacks experience on the European club-level–to defend the goal, in what could ultimately undo the team as a whole.

With that in mind, it seems Chile can more effectively exploit this common weakness between the two teams, than the other way around. However fluid, flashy, and forceful the Dutch may be, they also exude a bit of arrogance, and as a result could underestimate their Chilean foes; La Roja will always have more to prove than the Netherlands, and will surely play with more determination and spirit. Furthermore, although winning nine of 10 qualifying matches (and drawing another) looks sublime on paper, the team’s performance really just masks their EURO 2012 debacle (losing all three of their games, including an opening one to Denmark). No other UEFA qualifier opponent that the Netherlands faced ranked better than 30th, indicating that the last time this team saw WC-like competition, it crumbled. The Dutch will play not to lose, and the Chileans will play to win; when the teams finally clash, expect offensive fireworks, and for Chile to come exploding out of the gates and eventually trounce their counterparts, securing their entry into South American soccer’s elite.

*Update as of June 7th: I’ve swayed back and forth on whether the Netherlands or Chile would advance several times, so don’t rule out any future modifications. Although Chile’s attack deserves all the praise it will get later in the month, it takes a definite backseat to that of the Dutch; in other words, upon looking back on my Group B evaluation, I wildly underestimated the team’s offensive potency. While the defense can be exposed, RVP and Co. can easily counteract a poor back line showing, as the Dutch attack itself should have a field day with a more dubious Chilean defense; the Netherlands, as long as it musters all of its effort in the game, should have the upper hand in an offensive shootout. Furthermore, it would be historically discordant that Chile would follow its exact path from the 2010 World Cup of finishing second to Spain in the group stages and falling to Brazil in the next round. Conversely, it seems all too fitting that the Netherlands would advance to the round of 16 to play the hosts: a victory for the Brazilians over a team that shocked them out of the WC four years ago in the quarterfinals would be a necessary component in Brazil’s road to redemption.

Key match: Netherlands vs. Chile, June 23rd

Predicted Finish:

1) Spain (9 points)

2) The Netherlands (6 points)

3) Chile (3 points)

4) Australia (0 points)

2014 FIFA World Cup Group A: Predictability At The Top, A Balanced Battle Below

(YASUYOSHI CHIBA / AFP/Getty Images)

The Brazilian national team will hope to reach the final on July 13th in Maracana stadium (center), situated near other iconic Brazilian images such as the “Christ the Redeemer” statue (left center) and hillside favela slums (top center). (YASUYOSHI CHIBA / AFP/Getty Images)

The favorites 

Host nation or not, and no matter the era, Brazil‘s national team has made a habit of both getting burdened by expectations in the time leading up to the World Cup, and advancing out of the group stage handily. The routine will surely not break in the summer of 2014. But with the tourney in fact taking place in the hallowed soccer “Mecca”, the birthplace of the noblest of soccer movements known as Joga Bonito, and the unequivocal origin of beautiful futbol, there will be an added allure when the Selecao first take the pitch on June 12th.

First off, beyond any outsider pressure related to actual on-field performance, Brazil as a country is currently in a state of turmoil, its citizens torn over whether the nation is fit to host the World Cup, as well as the Summer Olympics two years later. Pointing to weak and unstable infrastructure, educational systems, and hospitals as more deserving of monetary help than stadium refurbishments–and rightly so for that matter–protesters, and the message they convey, have pierced through the souls of all Brazilians, forcing them to reconsider the unprecedented: the suitability of having a celebration of their most beloved sport in their own backyard.

Frankly, as nice as it sounds for the tournament to return to Brazil for the first time since 1950, it shouldn’t. Brazil has a multitude of bigger concerns to address at the present, and notably bigger than the magnitude any sport. Considering the horrendous quality of life for the far majority of Brazilians–ironically many of which dwell in favelas, from where some eventually become the soccer stars that attract the WC back to Brazil–and the additional resources and attention needed to execute a world-class sporting event, there’s no doubt that it’s both wrong and sad that Brazil will host the tourney. Thus, this makes the 2014 World Cup the most bittersweet sporting event that I, for one, will probably have ever experienced–and that’s before it’s even started.

And before venturing too far into a societal and economical discussion about the plight of a nation, there’s one more disclaimer of sorts that detracts from the glamor of the Brazilian national team: the current squad does not exactly adhere to the aforementioned concept of Joga Bonito–though a notion not necessarily destructive to their success. Long gone are the days of dazzling, beautiful, organic, and genuine play, best exhibited by the teams from the 1970s, and from the ones that made three consecutive World Cup Finals appearances between 1994 and 2002, winning two in that span. Some finesse may still lurk in the modern day’s Selecao, but the heralded Brazilians forwards and midfielders are youthful, and may appear disjointed at times: a lack of chemistry and experience with each other haunted the team during the last two WC’s and the periods between and after them, sending the country into despair before the team gradually revitalized itself leading up to the imminent World Cup.

Neymar scored a beautiful free kick in a Tuesday WC tune-up game. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

Neymar scored a beautiful free kick in a Tuesday WC tune-up game. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

Regardless of their shortcomings, it’s a potent bunch as always, with several new, young faces. The attack revolves around superstar Neymar, fresh off an underwhelming season in La Liga. His position as the offensive centerpiece was not set in stone until coach Luiz Felipe Scolari (the last manager to guide Brazil to a title, in ’02) showed how to successfully utilize Neymar in this role, as evidenced by his spectacular Confederations Cup performance a year ago. In this precursor of a tournament to the World Cup, Neymar was tied for second in goals, leading all players in touches, and should only preserve this dominating trend into mid-June and feast on inferior group opponents. In addition to a host of other developing stars, playmaker and Chelsea starter Oscar figures to be a key component in his team’s attack as well. Having trademarked smart runs, craftiness, and excellent vision with the ball at his feet, Oscar–along with fellow mid-fielding mates Paulinho, Willian, and Ramires–will help distribute the responsibility of creating chances and netting goals.

The attackers of course may be as talented as ever, but in 2014, the Brazilian defense seems set to uncharacteristically lead the charge as they start tourney play on their home turf. Led by 29-year old captain Thiago Silva, the defense has suffocated opponents lately, yielding three goals in five Confederations Cup matches last year, and shutting out Panama in the first of two WC tune-up games. Furthermore, performances on the club level also speak to the back line’s efficiency. Silva, for example, also served as the linchpin on his club Paris Saint-Germain’s defense; he led the team to a second-best shots conceded per game total (9.7) in Ligue 1. Dani Alves, another prominent player on Brazil’s defense, helped his club Barcelona to a La Liga-best 8.9 shots conceded per game in the role of right back, and is one of the best in the world at that position. Throw David Luiz and Marcelo into the mix–both of whom experienced competition from around the globe playing for their respective, high-profile clubs–and the back line becomes that much sturdier.

The defense’s importance stretches to generating offensive efforts as well, as the team’s powerful counter attacks originate in the back line. Moreover, as seen in the friendly against Panama on June 3rd, the defenders often advance up the field enough to contribute strikes on target, with Dani Alves scoring the second of four Brazil goals in the game.

Overall, not only will Brazil have the clear advantage in terms of skill and talent, but also in stamina: having not needed to fight their way through qualification as the host country, the Selecao will take the pitch healthier and physically stronger than any opponent, in addition to a developed cohesiveness as a result of more training together at times when otherwise qualifiers would take place.

Intercontinental clash

Cameroon, Croatia, and Mexico (their flags from left to right) will vie for a spot in the 2nd round.

Cameroon, Croatia, and Mexico (their flags from left to right) will all compete for a berth in the 2nd round.

After Brazil assuredly will top the group in points, the trio of Cameroon, Croatia, and Mexico appear fairly evenly matched, each possessing the capability of besting one another for the second spot. The prospects for all three teams really come down to only the matches they play against each other (so two key contests for each), as it seems unfathomable that any of them can snatch even a point from their games against Group A-giant Brazil.

In seeking out the usual one African team to advance from the group stages, Cameroon seems like more of a darkhorse contender for this role. Yet the Indomitable Lions have a key ingredient often seen in underdog squads: one–or a few in their case–standout leaders from European clubs that the rest of the team can rally around. Samuel Eto’o, having just participated in a Premier League campaign, and Alex Song, a proven but underused cog in the Barcelona system, lie at the heart of this unified and physically sizable group. But although tenacious and fairly experienced, Cameroon has a suspect defensive line, and their age will eventually get the best of them as this WC will end similar to their dismal one four years back.

That leaves Mexico and Croatia, two teams that qualified for Brazil through intercontinental playoffs–a process that naturally affixes doubt to its participants. Croatia looks very formidable on paper, and with a shocking amount of balance on the team the Croats initially have the edge over their Mexican counterparts. A tested goalkeeper, a back line anchored by captain Darijo Srna (who has 112 caps and 21 goals to his name), a dangerous midfielder corps that contains three La Liga members (the most distinguished of which, Madridista Luka Modric), and Bayern Munich striker Mario Mandzukic (with team-topping numbers in goals and shots during qualifiers) compose this complete squad. But for all their offensive firepower, Croatia scored a paltry high of two goals in their qualifying rounds–and that’s against the likes of Iceland, Scotland, Serbia, and Wales. Perhaps the team is not as congruous as many would think, and against a Mexican team that has become increasingly united, that fault could be Croatia’s downfall.

On that note, the key for Mexico entering World Cup play is momentum: maintaining a resurrected exuberant spirit to the way the team plays soccer under the tutelage of coach Miguel Herrera, who led El Tri to a 9-3 aggregate victory over New Zealand in a playoff to qualify for the World Cup. Mexico has also won both of their first two tune-up games–3-0 against Israel and 3-1 over another WC team in Ecuador–in emphatic fashion. While the country traditionally harbors disdain for its players that leave overseas, El Tri will have to rely on two experience-laden “traitors” to help settle the team and provide a competitive edge over Croatia and Cameroon: proven but a tad enigmatic forward Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez (club: Manchester United) and journeyman playmaker Giovani dos Santos (club: Villareal).

Peralta (19) has played an integral part in Mexico's resurgence. (Reuters)

Peralta (19) has played an integral part in Mexico’s resurgence. (Reuters)

Yet it seems emerging star Oribe Peralta will best uphold the prolific goal-scoring identity–and a relatively newfound one–of the Mexican national team. The 30-year old, who made his name in Mexico’s own Liga MX, netted 10 goals in qualifiers, and with his five in the intercontinental playoff against New Zealand, thrust himself onto the national scene. Additionally, on the other side of the pitch, El Tri boasts a steady back line that will alleviate concerns surrounding the goalie situation.

Within Mexico’s progression through its three opening games, it will be imperative to their second-round hopes to not break their stride–stemming from a powerful end to their qualification process–when they face Brazil in their second match. If they put up a good fight and keep their composure, the Mexicans should have no difficulty in retaining their spirited play going into an all-important showdown against Croatia to decide the last slot in the 2nd round.

Key match: Croatia vs. Mexico, June 23rd

Predicted finish:

1. Brazil (9 points)

2. Mexico (6 points)

3. Croatia (3 points)

4. Cameroon (0 points)