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Friday, June 23, 2006

Weekend Edition of World Cup of Coffee

Before we get down to business, I've got an announcement to make: I'm going to Puerto Rico. A friend of mine is getting married this weekend, and while we plan on catching some of the World Cup, travel plans may hinder my blogging. I have no idea what type of computer access I will have where I'm staying. It's up to you dear readers, to keep the conversation going in the Comments section over the weekend. I'll check in if and when I can. I'll be back to the mainland on Monday. To compensate, I present a special weekend edition of picks and reflections...

First, a word about the US loss to Ghana. What made it so disappointing was that the table was set for us. Ghana beat the Czech Republic, we tied Italy. Italy beat the Czech Republic. We win and we go through. Bruce Arena played a surprisingly conservative 4-5-1 formation for a team that needed goals. It seemed to me at least that his plan was to prevent giving up a first goal to Ghana, hope we steal a goal, but if not switch to an attacking line-up at 60 minutes and go for the 1-0 win. Could be wrong, but that's how it looked to me. The first goal was a killer. What was Reyna doing? Instead of clearing the ball at the edge of the box, he holds onto it and gets the ball taken for a one-on-one with Keller (who I wish would have ran out more aggressively at the Ghana player). What a disaster. But Clint Dempsey gave us what we all wanted with a smashing equalizer. A gamble for Beasley to pass paid off and Dempsey delivered the finish that the US has been sorely lacking. Momentum seemed with us until a ridiculous penalty call on Gooch in the box. It was a bad pass from Bocanegra but no penalty on the recovery. The Ghana diver had no chance at the ball. A terrible, gamechanging intervention by the offical. But we can't blame the ref. We didn't show the class to really put the Ghana goal under pressure.
Which raises the question: how disappointing was Landon Donovan? Tentative and below average play from Donovan really hurt the US this World Cup. He had a nice stretch against Italy, sure, but that was when the game opened up with three less players on the pitch. It's not all his fault. And Ghana deserves credit--they are a very good side. We just lack that magical goalscorer and an extra touch of class in the midfield and the back. Hey, does Dwayne Wade play soccer?
Meanwhile, Italy took care of business against the what-happened-to-us Czech Republic. They will face Australia, one of the surprise teams of the tournament under Guus Hiddink. I think they'll give Italy a game. It sounded like their match with Croatia was very intense and entertaining. Croatia is left to rue that draw with Japan, who after taking a 1-0 lead experienced a four goal onslaught from the Brazilians. I think Brazil's going to kick it in gear, but that back is vulnerable.
On to the weekend matches, starting with the final group matches on Friday:

SPAIN vs. SAUDI ARABIA
This could get ugly. Spain will field many reserves, but their reserves are really good. The Saudis looked really, really bad against the Ukraine. There is no reason Spain couldn't get at least 4 goals in this match. Watch for Arsenal's Cesc Fabregas--he is a rising star at age 19. Spain 4 Saudi Arabia 0.

UKRAINE vs. TUNISIA
This has the potential to be an interesting match. Ukraine advances to the second round with a win or draw. Tunisia advances to the second round with a win (I'm not even factoring in the Saudi rout of Spain scenario). Tunisia played much better against Spain than they did in their disappointing draw with the Saudis. This will be close and competitive. I want to root for the Africans, but I think probably Ukraine 2 Tunisia 1.

SWITZERLAND vs. REPUBLIC OF KOREA
This is one game I just don't have a good feel for. These two and France are vying for the pair of second round berths and it could come down to goal differential. As much as both sides would love to win the game and therefore the group, for some reason I see a draw. At that point, it comes down to goal difference, with the Koreans going home. Switzerland 1 Republic of Korea 1.

FRANCE vs. TOGO
No Zinedane Zidane, no problem. As I've mentioned before, running everything through Zidane hinders France from utilizing its greatest weapon: Thierry Henry. You know, the guy that's probably the second best player in the world. I'm hoping he runs rampant in Zidane's absence so the truth will be revealed. Build around Henry, sit a few past-date vets, and taste victory. Hey, has Togo gotten their cash yet? France 2 Togo 0.

NOW ONTO THE SECOND ROUND ON SATURDAY:

GERMANY vs. SWEDEN
This will be the first major test of the tournament for Germany. I'm not sold on Ecuador completely, but even if you are they did rest five players in the loss to the Germans. Sweden's resiliency was on display against England, overcoming two deficits to earn a deserved draw. Germany is in great form. Klinsmann has trusted youth, played an exciting attacking style, and seemingly shored up that back a bit. Plus there is that homefield advantage. This will be a tense, close, hardfought affair. Er, I think. Germany 2 Sweden 1.

ARGENTINA vs. MEXICO
Hey at least one team from CONCAAF made it to the second round, eh? But Mexico's stay will be shortlived. They just haven't kicked it into gear this tournament. Argentina's class has been a sight to behold, by contrast. Their patient passing and skilled playmakers, combined with a solid back, lead me to think they will dispatch of Mexico somewhat comfortably. Argentina 2 Mexico 0.

AND SUNDAY's SECOND ROUND
ENGLAND vs. ECUADOR
Who knows what to make of this England team. Or Ecuador for that matter, who feasted on weak opponents in Group A. One thing I can't see is Ecuador winning this match. England still has too many weapons despite the handwringing, injuries, and line-up and formation issues. Sven needs to not only figure out the tactics but address the issue of second half fades. Rooney to start, will Hargreaves? Lampard? Whatever the case, I think England gets two and wins with relative ease. They'll need it for their next opponent. England 2 Ecuador 0.

PORTUGAL vs. NETHERLANDS
This may be the best match-up of the Round of 16. Portugal has gathered steam with three wins under Big Phil Scolari while the Dutch made it through the Group of Death by the second match. More people probably see the Dutch taking this match, but I have a funny feeling about Portugal. They are familiar with the Netherlands (Euro 2004), play with great technical skill, and have one of the best coaches in the world. The Dutch have dangerous young talent and have been solid at the back, but I'm just feeling like...Portugal 2 Netherlands 1 (in extra time).


Food for thought:

Jamie Trecker asks where the US goes from here and offers this thought on American soccer culture:

Soccer in the USA will never be as it is in Europe or Latin America. It should stop trying. Soccer will never be a proxy for religion or a stand-in for battles in pasts, recent and distant.
What soccer can be, however, is a sport that Americans define themselves by in the same way that fans define themselves by their baseball team or city's NBA franchise. The tribalism of soccer in America will reflect itself not in its opposition to other groups or clans, but to other sports themselves. A consumer culture such as America, can expect nothing more.


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