The time has finally come! If you’ve developed a strategy to shorten your work days over the next few weeks, today is the day to begin implementing it. Brazil vs. Croatia kicks off at 4:00 (New York time) this afternoon. I’m sure your boss (and, hopefully, my boss) will understand.
Since today’s preview seems likely to get a bit wordy, seeing as how it involves the USA, I figure I’ll limit it to just one group. I’ll wrap up with Group H tomorrow.
Compliments are funny things. We all like to receive them, but they’re not always offered in the spirit of kindness, or at least not purely in the spirit of kindness. Sometimes, condescension runs just beneath the surface, and the line between a compliement and an insult can get pretty fine. It’s the kind of feeling you get when someone describes your house as “well-maintained.” A nice enough thing to hear, but it makes you wonder if the speaker is really thinking, “It’s a pity it’s not bigger and newer.”
I have the same reaction when someone uses terms like “well-organized,” “hard-working” or “difficult to beat” to describe a soccer team. None of those are bad qualities, and they all imply that a team is performing up to it’s potential, but I always feel like something is being left unsaid: It’s a pity your players just aren’t good enough.
This is where the United States found themselves at the end of the Bob Bradley era. They’d earned some respect from the rest of the world by beating Spain at the Confederations Cup, and then winning their group in 2010. Several of the players were regulars with (not the biggest) European clubs. They were decidedly not a pushover, but they seemed to have reached a ceiling. They were capable of taking a big scalp, but they weren’t ready to be a top team themselves.
Hence, we’ve embarked on the Jurgen Klinsmann project. His mandate is bigger than just the 2014 World Cup. Really, he’s been charged with re-vamping our entire system; not just the way the national team plays, but the ways in which we indentify, develop and train young talent. We want to create American players that can command $20 million transfer fees someday.
So how’s that going for us? Honestly, it’s a silly question to ask at this point. The type of change that Klinsmann was brought in to instill is going to take years to realize. Look at Belgium as an example (more on them tomorrow). In the early 2000’s, they scrapped their old system entirely. They standardized their youth program, got everyone playing small-sided games as children and then transistioned them into an attacking 4-3-3 formation as they grew. Everyone in Belgum learns to play the same way, with the same two-touch keep away drills featured at every practice, whether its the national team or a bunch of schoolkids. A dozen years into their rebuilding project, they’re sending a very, very strong team to Brazil.
If tiny little Belgium can pull that off, then surely we can too, right? Maybe, but we’ll have to go about it a little differently. America’s size and temperment make it less amenable to top-down standardization, and the fact remains that other sports here compete for young atheletes’ attention to a degree that you don’t see in more soccer-centric countries.
I don’t want to seem overly pessimistic. Soccer is more popular than ever in the United States, and growing. MLS continues to see its credibility enhanced year after year, and an improving domestic league bodes well for the future of the national team. But whether all of this leads to the U.S. showing up with a serious chance to win in 2022, or 2026, very much remains to be seen.
It might be premature to assess Klinsmann’s project at this stage, but it’s a World Cup year, so he’s going to have to answer for himself whether he’s ready or not. So far, despite a couple of early stumbles, he’s done what he’s needed to do, namely get through CONCACAF qualifying unscathed. At times, it felt like he had to revert to a more direct tactical approach than he would have preferred, but there’s nothing wrong with a little pragmatism in my book (perhaps something to keep in mind, given the strength of the opposition in Brazil).
Michael Bradley is the best American player, and most good things that happen for the U.S. will go through him. Clint Dempsey has declined since 2010, but he remains an opportunistic goal scorer. Jose Altidore’s role will be critical. Even if he doesn’t score, he’s going to need to hold on to possession long enough to give the defenders a break from the pressure , and to allow others to join the attack. Cameron and Besler are solid enough in central defense, but they’ll find it tough to hold off continous waves of German (or Portuguese, or Ghanaian) attacks without respite, even with support from Jermaine Jones from midfield.
The absence of Landon Donovan is less of a big deal than the press here is making it out to be. He checked himself out of the national team set-up for large chunks of this World Cup cycle, and he hasn’t really been a central figure on the squad in quite some time. It’s tempting to think that he might have proved useful in Brazil as an impact substitute, but his skills have diminished, and I’m inclined to trust Klinsmann’s judgment on this.
Is this team better than 2010’s version? They actually might be; I certainly don’t see them as measurably worse. Unfortunately, the draw was much less kind to them this time around. In South Africa, they faced England, Slovenia and Algeria; in Brazil, it’ll be Germany, Portugal and Ghana, each of whom represents a bigger challenge than their corresponding predecessors.
Germany managed to develop their last batch of young stars ahead of schedule, and they made more of an impact in 2010 than anyone expected (3rd Place). Now, those players have had the benefit of another four years of experience, and many of them are in their prime. They play an open, attacking style, with quality in every position; if anything, they’ve been a little questionable defensively, but they are the consensus pick to win this group. Many are backing them for a trip to the final.
One senses that Portugal’s fortunes are entirely dependent on Christiano Ronaldo, so the news that he’s been nursing an injured thigh must have jangled a lot of nerves in Lisbon. The latest word is that he’s fit and ready, which is bad news for his Group G opponents. Whatever you think of him, he’s a uniqely talented player, and even the Germans will struggle to contain him.
Setting your team up as a one-man band has its disadvantages, though, even when that man is the world’s best player. Portugal required a playoff win over Sweden to even make it into this field (which they won, of course, on the back of spectacular hat trick from Ronaldo in Stockholm). Impressive in the end, but they found themselves with their backs against the wall because they dropped points to teams like Northern Ireland and Israel.
If Portugal is going to survive this group, Ronaldo is going to need some help. Joao Moutinho, Raul Meireles, William Carvalho, Helder Postiga – at least a couple of these guys are going to have to step up. Perhaps more critically, the defense needs to be tighter than what they’ve shown. They will likley open with a defeat against Germany, so they’ll need to be resiliant as well.
The final team here is Ghana, and their match against the United States on June 16 could prove critically important for both teams. If either can win it, they’ll put themselves in pole position for that second qualifying spot. Ghana were a missed penalty away from the semi-finals in South Africa, and they are eager to return to the late stages of this tournament. They have also knocked the United States out of the last two World Cups, and they will be full of confidence based on not only on that history, but also on their recent form (they completely overran South Korea in their last friendly).
Ghana is an attacking team that likes to possess the ball and dominate in midfield, and they have the talent and the experience to do it. Nine of their players appeared in the UEFA Champions League this season (compared to only one, Jermaine Jones of Schalke, for the U.S.).
For me, this is by far the most difficult group to predict. Germany is the obvious pick to win, but I’ve talked myself into (and out of) each of the other three teams for the runner-up spot. It’s not hard to envsion a way forward for the United States. If they beat Ghana (well within the realm of possibility), they’ll be in a very good position heading into their match with Portugual. Sadly, I don’t see that happening. I think they lose to Ghana, draw with Portugal, and lose to Germany. I sure hope I’m wrong.
Group G Winner: Germany
Group G Runner-Up: Ghana