Sunday, June 20, 2010

Delayed First Thoughts on the World Cup

I haven't been able to post any thoughts on the World Cup yet, having caught the first weekend of games then spending the week watching games on travel. Finally home and with a chance to lay out some thoughts on a World Cup that has been all over the place.

After the first week, I don't think too many observers were surprised, if still disappointed, that the opening round of group matches were mostly cagey and unremarkable.  Now that teams feel a sense of urgency to get the victory or see their second round hopes quashed, more wide open play has come with some more notable results.

Starting with the US, from a pure entertainment standpoint, they may have played the most exciting group stage match three World Cups in a row. The 2002 Cup had some memorable first round games, like Senegal upsetting what turned out to be a very poor French team, England-Argentina, a good Brazil-Turkey match, and Korea holding off nine man Portugal with the help of the post late on (ultimately sending the USA through), so maybe Portugal-USA isn't the undisputed best early match that year, but it was certainly up there and it was the biggest upset along with the Senegal victory.

In 2006, the USA-Italy matched was genuinely exciting as nine man USA nearly beat the champions-to-be.  No other opening round matches really stick out, with the memorable performances being Argentina crushing Serbia and Montenegro and Germany surprising everyone with an exciting attacking style in all its matches.

Now, Slovenia-USA has been hands down the best match of this tournament, with the comeback, late drama, and controversy.  I won't even go into that or I may have another conniption. 

After two matches, the USA continues to be disconcerting in the back.  Gooch has been particularly inconsistent, showing poor timing and a lack of tactical awareness one half, playing much improved the next.  The attack is not that problematic as long as we can settle on the fact that Mo Edu is our second best center midfielder.  Done.  And we've barely seen attacking spark Stuart Holden other than his being the first man to tackle Michael Bradley after his game tying goal, nor any of DaMarcus Beasley.  I'd like to see Jozy get a goal for all the good work he's put in up top.  And Dempsey hasn't been at his best either (and that's not a reverse jinks, since it seems like whenever we start talking about how poorly Dempsey plays he suddenly starts popping goals in bunches).

Moving on from the US, the opening matches have probably produced three true favorites -- Brazil, Netherlands, and Argentina.  Does anyone want to bet against this Brazil team marching to the finals?  I wouldn't, even though something about them just doesn't feel right (maybe the lack of an inspirational practitioner of joga bonita in the midfield).  I'm still not sold with the Netherlands defense, and before you point out the two clean sheets, I'll have you notice their two opponents were Japan and a Denmark team that is predicated on organization and defense, not scoring.  No world beaters there.  I'd like Argentina if their coach wasn't insane.  Spain, meanwhile, hasn't played a second time yet so it's hard to make a full judgment after the Swiss stole the US playbook on how to beat La Furia Roja.

Meanwhile, the African countries are for the most part disappointing people who had high hopes for this World Cup mostly because no one actually watches African soccer enough nor paid enough attention to history to realize they weren't actually that good.  Their "home field" advantage in South Africa doesn't amount to much and when looking at the draw, it was always going to be tough for multiple teams to impress.  Ghana has been the standard bearer to date, and even though they lead Group D, there is a very strong possibility they could fail to advance because they still need to play Germany while Serbia take on Australia, who despite its draw with Ghana is among the worst teams in South Africa, not to mention they'll be missing their two best players.

I think we're all laughing at France right now, not least because anyone who knows anything about that team would've put money on the French imploding before the tournament started.  Italy looks old and uninspired because, well, they're old and have no real inspiring players (oh Cannavaro, how you've fallen).  As Alexi Lalas loves pointing out, England just isn't that good, plus Wayne Rooney can't be 100%.

If anything, all the craziness of this Cup has me remaining optimistic that IF the US takes care of business against Algeria, they could advance further into the knockout stages.  The US would be underdogs against any of the group D trio they'd be likely to face, but I wouldn't be terrified of any of those potential match-ups.  Just three days before boys can get the win their first round efforts already got them deserve.

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