Monday, June 12, 2006

Time for the U.S. to Get Going.

The U.S. kicks off its world cup campaign today against the Czech Republic. It's a game they can ill afford to lose. A loss would effectively end the world cup campaign before it gets started. If the U.S. lose this game they would need to beat Italy and Ghana to have a realistic chance of progressing. Italy is among the most consistent teams in World Cup history and you can usually pencil them into the quarterfinals. They've won the World Cup three times and finished runner ups twice. With the strong Italians looming, Monday's game is a must win game if the U.S. hope to reach the heights of 2002.

At 6'8'' Jan Koller may be a giant problem for U.S. defenders.

The Czech Republic are ranked second by FIFA and the U.S. is ranked fifth. However, anyone who knows anything about the FIFA ranking system knows that these rankings are artificial and hardly give any indication as to which country has the better team.

On paper, the Czechs seem to have the better team. They have the world's second best goalie in Peter Cech(Italy has the best in my opinion, Gianluigi Buffon). Their midfield is better with Pavel Nedved, Tomas Rosicky and Karel Poborsky. They have players playing on the top teams in Europe including former European player of the year Pavel Nedved. The Czechs also have more experience playing in high pressure games as many of their players have played in the champions league and have won titles in some of Europe's top leagues. The U.S. team is not without its strengths, however.

They were quarterfinalists in the 2002 tournament and jumped on Portugal in their first game last time, taking a 3-0 lead before the Portuguese knew what hit them. The U.S. will need a similar performance this time around if they are to repeat the performance of 2002. What they lack this time around will be the element of surprise. The U.S. are no longer pushovers. Teams take them seriously and if the Czechs come into the game seriously I think they will be able to defeat the U.S. team. For the U.S. team to win they will need a big game out of Landon Donovan.

Landon Donovan, the key to U.S. hopes against the Czechs.

Donovan has an extra incentive to give his best since the world cup is in Germany, a country where he twice failed to make it as a footballer on Bayer Leverkusen. Donovan is the best American player and he needs to play like it if the U.S. are to have a chance. Additionally, if DeMarcus Beasley gets into the game early the U.S. can gain some early confidence. The U.S. needs to use their speed, probably their only advantage, to create opportunities for stirker Brian McBride if they are to have a chance in this game. The biggest key for the U.S. will be getting the first goal. I don't think winning this game is beyond the U.S. if they are allowed to play to their strengths but if the Czechs score first, the U.S. may end up getting mauled because there are few European teams that attack quite like the Czechs.

The key to the Czech attack will be Tomas Rosicky. Rosicky is a skilled midfielder who passes and dribbles the ball well and rarely makes a bad decision on the ball. His distribution to Milan Baros and giant striker Jan Koller will be a pivotal part of the Czech attack. If the U.S. defenders, namely Oguchi Onyewu and Eddie Pope can cope with Koller's size, they will still have to deal with the Czech midfield attacking options in Nedved and Rosicky.

My head says that the Czechs will win. Indeed, I picked the Czechs and the Italians to advance from this group. My heart, however, is with the U.S. team. I live in America and I want to see the sport thrive here. The only way for it to do so is for the U.S. team to do well consistently at the world cup. The difficulty with this is that few teams do consistently well at the world cup. With the exception of Brazil, Germany and Italy, most countries are hit or miss. In 2002 the defending champions, France, went out in the group stages. The thing happened to two time champions Argentina. Failing to advance from the group stages for the U.S. team, when paired with Italy and Czech Republic, along with traditional African power houses Ghana, would not exactly be failure for the U.S. team. What is important is that the team shows progress and progress is not necessarily making it farther than they did last time but to show that they are getting better and able to compete against the top European sides.

Many Americans figure since the country is good at everything else, why not soccer? An ESPN poll also suggests that many Americans could care less who wins this game. 37% of over 43,000 people polled said they will not be watching the game at all. The Americans will have to depend on something other than national support to spur them on and hopefully that will be their confidence in their own abilities. If they come out timid their campaign will be over early. My prediction is a 2-1 Czech Republic victory. However, my pick that Poland would score five against Ecuador shows that I'm hardly infallible.

Today's other games....

Australia v. Japan: Effectively a third place game in group F where Brazil and Croatia are favored to progress from the group. I'm picking the Socceroos to win this one solely on the basis of their coach Guus Hiddink who was responsible for guiding the South Koreans to the quarterfinals in '02.

Italy v. Ghana: nothing would make me happier than a Ghana victory in this game because it would blow the group wide open. The Ghanian midfield trio of Michael Essien, Stephen Appiah and Samuel Kuffour will be instrumental in determining how far their team progresses. For the Italians Francesco Totti is tipped to return and play some part in today's game. He is the most talented Italian player but, by way of comparison, he reminds me of Arod in baseball. A great talent who always seems to disappear when the chips are down. . . . I'm picking Italy to win this one in a low scoring affair. Catenaccio style, baby.


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