June 7, 2010 14 Comments
To start out, I wouldn’t classify myself as a true soccer fan, but rather a casual one. I mean, this is America. The large variety of sports available in the U.S. makes soccer obsolete compared to other countries. The great American athletes/media usually focus on basketball, baseball, and football, leaving soccer in the distance. I will admit this is one of the few articles I had to do extensive research on so for the die-hards out there, bear with me.
If you have turned on ESPN in the last six months, you should know the World Cup starts this weekend. I know there are die-hard soccer fans who truly know the in’s and out’s of the World Cup, but chances are that most don’t. So with a few days left until the start of the Cup, here is my Idiot’s Guide to the biggest sporting event in the world. For those soccer aficionados expecting a detailed analysis of all the teams, then this may not be the article for you.
What you need to Know: 32 countries qualify for the Cup – with the top two teams from each pool entering a 16 single-elimination tournament (Ok, if you didn’t know this, you have much to learn). The host country this year is South Africa, the first time ever to have an African host country. If you thought the Super Bowl was big in ratings, the last World Cup had 715 million tuned in to see Italy take home the trophy. The standout favorites to win the Cup are Spain (4 to 1 odds) and Brazil (4 to 1 odds). Makes sense, given every World Cup Champion has either come from South America or Europe. For those of you who think the U.S. has a shot (50 to 1 odds), you are better off betting on the Houston Astros to win the pennant this year (and I don’t see any Angels in the Outfield this time). Being the stats man that I am, it is hard to ignore that 11 of the past 13 World Cup Finals either Brazil or Germany was the winner or runner-up. For those who don’t know the significance of this, this is like betting for the Celtics or Lakers to make the Finals in the ‘80s (or even now). It’s just easy money.
USA: Let’s be honest, all the casual fan truly cares about is the U.S.. If America exits the Cup early, so does half of ESPN’s viewership. With that in mind, I will attempt to breakdown the U.S. for the World Cup amateurs out there (myself included). Arguably, this is the best team the U.S. has had for the World Cup and with 50 to 1 odds to win, this isn’t saying much. However, with the best American player ever, Landon Donovan, and strikers, Dempsey and Altidore, the U.S. may be a nice underdog to watch. Not to mention, All-Star goalie, Tim Howard, who single-handedly is our defense. To start out, the U.S. got a very favorable draw in this year’s Cup with only the heavy-weight of England in their way. Those hard-core soccer fans will tell you, no matter how easy the match is, without good tournaments from Dempsey and Donovan, you can’t expect the U.S. to be in South Africa for long. This is the United States’ “no excuses” Cup. With a soft group and an improved team there is no reason not to advance to the field of 16. And if the U.S. makes it out of their group, they are primed to play Germany first round – and they are no slouch either. The U.S. might not have the skill set and experience of some of the elite, but they possess great chemistry. As you know, American athletes always believe they are good enough to win (After all, this is America). With the absence of speedy striker, Charlie Davies, the U.S. is going to have to rely on team chemistry more than ever. A player to watch/fill Davis’ shoes is speedy Herculez Gomez (quite possibly one of the coolest names ever). The best finish the U.S. has ever had in the World Cup was taking home 3rd in 1930. Since then, Soccer has taken a back seat in the U.S. ultimately due to their dead last finish in 1990. Thanks to the ESPN Hype Machine, Soccer is more prevalent than ever in the U.S. and is primed for a decent run at the Cup. If history tells us anything, it’s that the U.S. isn’t super consistent when it comes to the World Cup. As evident in the last World Cup, the U.S. typically plays a good game (1-1 tie with Italy), a mediocre game (2-1 loss to Ghana), and one terrible game (3-0 loss to Czech Republic). This year, they can’t afford a terrible game.
The Big Game: There is one game in the World Cup that is bigger than all the others. This is England vs. the United States. Last time there was a match-up of this significance, the U.S. was fighting off Great Britain for independence in the Revolutionary War. This time, they are fighting for respect amongst the soccer’s elite. And for those who have been to England, England would much rather lose a war than a World Cup soccer game. After all, Soccer in England is equivalent to every sport combined in the U.S. As I said earlier, the one knock on the U.S. is they lack the skill set and pedigree of England, but if past wins are any prediction, there is one thing that matters most: chemistry. By the start of the World Cup, the England team will have only played three games together and are losing players left and right (Rio Ferdinand, most recently). So a U.S. upset isn’t out of the question. If the U.S. can play the Brits like they did the Italians in the last World Cup (1-1 tie, who eventually went on to win it all), then I wouldn’t put a U.S. win past the realm of possibility. One of my favorite players, Steve Nash, has been a die-hard England fan and believes this England team is the best they’ve had since they won the Cup in 1966. Other than the superstar Wayne Rooney, Nash likes speedy Aaron Lennon to emerge as England’s number two. Just like the U.S. was able to pull off a HUGE upset against Spain in the 2009 Confederations Cup, a win over England would bring out more American soccer fans. And let’s be honest, despite its economic and political dominance over many of the world’s countries, the United States still remains a third-world soccer country.
Stick’s Pick: I’m not going to sound like I truly have any confidence in my pick for the World Cup (because trust me if anyone does, they don’t know what they are talking about). But if I had to pick a team, I will take Argentina. For those of you who know my style, you know that I always love the team with the best player to win it all (See Cleveland Cavaliers). In this case, Lionel Messi is the LeBron James of the World Cup. He is hands down the best player with a mediocre supporting cast around him. He is coached by the wacky soccer legend, Diego Maradona, who holds the record for most goals in a single Cup. If Ozzie Guillen can win championships, I see no reason why Maradona can’t. I’m not saying Argentina will win for sure, but with the world’s best player, 6 to 1 odds doesn’t seem too bad. Argentina will have to get through the likes of Germany, and Spain just to make the final. So with that in mind, I love Argentina as my high-risk, high-reward pick. Like a LeBron or Jordan, if Messi somehow pulls out a World Cup for the ages, then I can definitely see Argentina returning with a first place trophy.