Friday, June 16, 2006

What the World Needs Now

We are well into the first round of the World Cup and we are starting to get a better picture of the contenders and pretenders. The two most impressive performances so far have come from Argentina and the Czech Republic. Argentina scored six goals in dismantling Serbia & Montenegro. It's the largest goal scoring output so far and as always, Argentina appears to be a threat to win it all. The Czech Republic lived up to the #2 FIFA ranking by absolutely dominating the US squad. The final was 3-0, but it could have been worse, as a couple of good scoring chances found the post.

The US squad looked so incredibly overmatched in the game that it really stretched the imagine to understand how they attainted the #5 ranking from FIFA. They didn't appear to have a player who could break down an opponent one on one. And only Eddie Johnson, who was a second half sub, showed any real signs of life. They need a major overhaul in attitude and tactics if they are to have any chance against Italy. Italy is somehow the 13th ranked team by FIFA, so in theory the US should have a good chance to win the game. It remains to be seen however if Bruce Arena can coax the kind of performance out of the team that would be required to beat a team like Italy. The goal of the US soccer federation was to have a team in place that could win the Cup in 2010. A three and out result in 2006 would be a devastating blow and would be a great set back to the program. Soccer in the US is already at a huge disadvantage when it comes to recruiting the best athletes and a quick exit will not help them in their struggle against the more established American sports.

My pre tournament pick, England, has looked very ordinary to this point, all be it in two wins. Their problem at forward may be somewhat alleviated by the return of Wayne Rooney, but Michael Owen has not played up to his previous form. Lack of conditioning and multiple hamstring injuries have apparently turned him into a shadow of his once mercurial form. Perhaps he can recover in the next round, but he has yet to look dangerous to this point. Playing Rooney and Owen at the same time may provide the spark that England needs, but I don't think that's in the cards, as their coach is much more likely to substitute one for the other.

Brazil didn't impress many people with their 1-0 win in their opening game. Ronaldo appeared out of shape and uninspired in his time on the pitch. Brazil beat a less than awe inspiring Croatia team in unspectacular fashion. While they don't have much real competition in their bracket, Italy or the Czech Republic will be looming in second round play. They need a motivated Ronaldo and more bold play from their midfielders in order to prove that they are indeed the best team in the world.

Ecuador has also been very impressive. They have made their way into the second round with convincing wins over Poland and Costa Rica. They ranked #39 by FIFA but are showing that rankings don't mean much. Both Poland and Costa Rica are ranked higher by FIFA. Their final game in the first round will be against Germany, so we will get a better sense of how dangerous they may be after that match.

It's been a good first week. Some surprises, but for the most part the better team has won the majority of the games. We haven't seen any major stars emerge to this point, but I wouldn't be surprised if the second week sees a singular star start to show himself. And of course we still haven't gotten that singular electrifying effort from a player (think Michael Owen against Argentina in '98 or Maradona against England in '86) that puts a stamp on the tournament, but hopefully it's coming. Anyway, I'm sticking with the England pick. It's probably foolish, but no one has ever accused me of being a rocket scientist.



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