World Cup Fever

With the World Cup a month away, a lot of people have been asking my thoughts on how I think it will pan out, especially regarding how the US team will fair. So here goes, my comprehensive outlook on the 2006 World Cup.The U.S. National Team: When I first saw the group that the US was drawn in, I was a bit worried. Italy, the Czech Republic and Ghana. Yikes. That's one of the most difficult groups in the tournament. Let's look at the competition: Italy: The US played Italy only once recently, and that was back in 2002 where they were beaten 1-0. Not bad, but methinks that is a flattering result. Italy are currently ranked 14th in the FIFA Rankings, with the U.S. a full 10 places higher in 4th. But don't let that fool you for a second, those rankings don't mean much. Italy lost only 1 game in the final round of 10 qualifying matches, and that was to Slovenia. Sure they had a pretty weak group, but they topped it by 5 points. They're inconsistent at times, and have some HUGE egos to contend with, especially up front. They recently beat Germany 4-1 but could only muster a 1-1 draw against the Ivory Coast. The U.S. could beat them on the right day, but they'll need to have a solid back line and put away the few chances they'll get. Czech Republic: The USMNT has really struggled against Eastern European teams in the past - actually, that's not entirely accurate - the only Eastern European team they've played in recent years is Poland - having played them 4 times in the last 5 years. The results have been mixed at best - they were spanked 3-1 by Poland in the 2002 World Cup, and there have been a series of 1-0 wins for either team since then, the most recent being a 1-0 win for the U.S. in blizzard conditions in Germany. They had a tough time qualifying, coming second best to Holland in their group. They eventually beat Norway 2-0 in a playoff. The Czechs scored more goals than any other European team in qualifying. Yikes. Oh and they're also ranked number 2 in the world. I am much more concerned about the Czech Republic than I am about Italy. Ghana: One of the things that the US has not done well is find a variety of competition - we play the same teams over and over and that has hurt us in the past. Interestingly, we've played quite a few African teams in the last 5 years, including South Africa (W), Tunisia (D), Cameroon (D), and a game in two weeks against Morocco. This is Ghana's first World Cup, so they're expectations will be low which can make them dangerous. That said, the U.S. really should beat Ghana. Conclusion: To advance to the second round, the U.S. is going to have to beat either Italy or the Czech Republic. If that doesn't happen, they're going to have to hope for favorable results in the other games. I've said it before and I'll say it again, the US team can beat anyone on the right day. They're going to have come out very agressively and pull off a good result against the Czechs like they did against Portugal in the 2002 World Cup. The Squad: Let's look at who Bruce Arena elected to bring to Germany: Albright, Chris Beasley, DaMarcus Bocanegra, Carlos Cherundolo, Steve Ching, Brian Conrad, Jimmy Convey, Bobby Dempsey, Clint Donovan, Landon Gibbs, Cory Hahnemann, Marcus Howard, Tim Johnson, Eddie Keller, Kasey Lewis, Eddie Mastroeni, Pablo McBride, Brian O'Brien, John Olsen, Ben Onyewu, Oguchi Pope, Eddie Reyna, Claudio Wolff, Josh Any surprises? Absolutely. But good ones. I was very pleased to see Briang Ching and Jimmy Conrad included in the squad. They were chosen instead of Taylor Twellman and Gregg Berhalter. I was surpised about Berhalter, not so much about Twellman - poor guy just hasn't gotten it done at the National Team level. Why was Ching brought along? Couple of reasons: firstly, his height - he's a good stand in for McBride should McHead be injured or need a break. He's also dynamite in the air which is going to be a huge advantage, especially on set pieces. Secondly, he's been putting the ball in the back of the net for his club week and week out in the MLS this season. As for COnrad - I've always been a fan of Jimmy, and I just hope his lack of experience at this level doesn't undo his efforts when it comes to crunch time. So who would be my starting eleven? formation.gif The front 3 players are self explanatory. Johnson can score a goal against any team if he's on his game. McBride has been scoring consistently for Fulham and will create havoc in the air. This could be the stage for Landon to shine. He has the ability, and in this position he's absolutely deadly. He can score and create goals. His performance could make or break the US' World Cup chances. Beasley is a no-brainer on the left wing. He's been playing well for PSV Eindhoven, and his speed is going to be a huge asset. Let's hope his diminutive size doesn't cause too many problems. Beasley will also be a very effective sub in the latter stages of a game to cause trouble with tired defenders. Dempsey has been solid in the last year for the USMNT and the Revs. With a decent perfomance in Germany, he could find himself receiving some interest from European clubs. Claudio Reyna....boy, let's just hope he stays healthy - we need him to anchor the midfield and give the attackers time to get into space. The, this is tough. Pope is the only cert in my mind. I'm not worried about the US scoring goals. I am concerned about them conceding goals. Pope will need to anchor the defense and make sure whoever is next to him is doing the job. I opted for Cory Gibbs simply for his European experience. Chris Albright is a decent wingback and his speed will be important, just as long as he doesn't neglect his defensive duties. Jimmy has the chance to prove to a lot of people that he was the right choice - I doubt he'll start but I think he's got the quality and if he plays well, he's as good as any other defended on the US roster. Kasey Keller has been playing very, very well in Germany and for the U.S. - we'll need him to be as good as Friedel was in 2002 to stand a chance of making it out of the group stage. Finally, my predictions: Will the US make it out of the group stage? Yes, but it will depend on another result. Will England make it out of the group stage? No, they will underestimate Paraguay, and without Rooney and an unfit Owen, they will fail to beat Sweden. Who will win the whole thing? Smart money is on Brazil, but Argentina is looking very strong. In the end, I have to go with Brazil. Who will be the standout player for the U.S.? I think Landon and Eddie Johnson will have great tournaments. Which team will be the surprise of the whole tournament? I think Australia might do well. They have a good coach and some great players. Which team will be the biggest disappointment? England - they just can't handle the expectations that are placed upon them. They'll play solid soccer and lose on stupid mistakes.