The World Cup is upon us, my favorite competition in sports. Yes, I write about baseball as a hobby, but the nationalism and pride of the World Cup, and the showcase of the majority of the world's best athletes, is too much for me to not be enraptured by.
This competition comes around once every four years, it's a rare event that the masthead fully endorses.The people who run this site love soccer, so non-baseball discussion rules is going to be relaxed over the next four weeks.
As such, I would like to offer my general thoughts on the world cup, starting with the group stages and my predictions for what will follow.
BRAZIL - CAMEROON - CROATIA - MEXICO
Brazil is the host country, despairingly so for the nation's poor, and nearly coin-flip favorites to win it all. They are led by a 22 year old who can score but is unproven on this stage, who takes and gives more fouls than any observer would like, and who has become the only clear scoring threat on the team. The team has two coaches, a pair of winners from the '02 and '94 cups, that have worked together to enact a switch to pragmatic football, as opposed to the former more flourished style of play. There are very, very good reasons they are the favorites this year, and it goes beyond home field advantage and deeply into defense. Ian was quick to remind me they have the best right back and center back in the world, the other two defenders are top five.
Mexico might have peaked early, playing at their highest level of competition in 2012. They've qualified for the round of sixteen in each of the last five cups, and have the slightest edge to do so again this year. In 2010 they got by on goal differential, and could use that strategy against opponents not named Brazil, but the defense will need to hold off Croatia for that plan to succeed.
The other two teams are each carried by a gifted striker and almost no one else. Cameroon is led by the video-game like Samuel Eto'o, and the team has a strong goalkeeper, but the defense is bad and there's not much support from the midfield. Croatia has Munich's No. 9 jersey, Mario Mandžukić, and a great midfield, but are otherwise a bad team. Their shining star on defense is Srna, once the best right-back in the world, but now easily overwhelmed. I expect each to fall victim to Brazil and mentally never recover.
The Group opens play this afternoon to lead off the cup, with Brazil taking on Croatia (who will be missing Mario Mandžukić to a one-game suspension). If you have ever complained about soccer being boring, this game could very well be a blood bath, and the opening ceremonies should have promise. Tune in.
AUSTRALIA - CHILE - NETHERLANDS - SPAIN
Australia's qualification comes from the region of the world they play in, but their team this year is not horrible. In fact, from a goal prevention perspective, their defense has performed better than any team in Group A, and their offense could beat all but Brazil if that was their draw. Unfortunately, Group B is stacked with incredible offense, which will be disaster for the passionate fanbase that supports the Socceroos.
The other three teams in the group are heavily weighted toward offense, and supplanted by a brilliant passing game. From a statistical perspective they mirror one another, but take very different roads to achieving that end.
Chile looked to enter the tournament with swagger, filled to the brim with top performers, but none more so that midfielder Arturo Vidal. He can do absolutely everything on the pitch, and would have made Chile locks to make it out of group stage. Unfortunately, his recovery from meniscus surgery a month ago was thrown off track during a warm up match against North Ireland. He has not been seen in training camp since. Their top scorer is Alexis Sanchez, the team will fake any injury, so a meeting with the Netherlands will be fun.
The Netherlands are built on brilliant passing, as opposed to simply booting it forward, and have a roster full of names you might recognize, mostly because those players are finishing their prime this Cup. This team is constantly slightly injured, and strangely plays with little to no chemistry. Runners up to Spain in the last world cup, the odds are not in their favor, for a team that is normally a favorite. They are captained by Robin Van Persie, who is joined on the attack by Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben. Hopefully they can keep their feet to themselves.
Spain. The team FIFA ranked number one ahead of the cup. They are a flare team, but not in a way you would expect. Fancy play is forsaken for the tiki-taka psychology of many tiny passes and craving ball possession like a jealous lover. Espana has won the previous two Euro cups and 2010's World Cup, but this iteration does not have the most reliable defenders. The Red Fury has many new players, leading to infrequent scoring. The swarm offense needs chemistry to work, and new players detract from running up the score; however, that hardly matters when you win all the time. The top scorer is David Villa, who recently signed a contract with New York City FC, an MLS team with the Rays color scheme (owned by Manchester City and the Yankees), which makes it's debut in 2015.
The meeting between Chile and Netherlands will likely decide this group.
COLUMBIA - GREECE - IVORY COAST - JAPAN
Columbia is very defensive minded, with an offense normally on par with what the Netherlands bring to the table. Unfortunately, the stars are hurt right now, and young James Rodriguez must step up as ace. That said, the team is a 50% favorite to win (as opposed to tie or lose) in each match of the group.
Greece is a tragedy.
Ivory Coast has Yaya Toure in the midfield, and Didier Drogba up front, but the team has consistently been a poor performer in tournaments. The offense of Drogba brings them up to par with Columbia on the attack, and their speed should wreck Greece, but it's hard to say with confidence they can win the group.
Japan is a remarkable team in this group. Intelligent, methodical, strong, but small. A lack of towering players makes them remarkably weak on set piece defense (such as corner kicks on either side of the ball). Still, their strikers have enough technical skill to go toe-to-toe with Columbia and IV. Watch out for Honda and Kagawa.
COSTA RICA - ENGLAND - ITALY - URUGUAY
England is normally a team veterans from the premier league, but this year will be a group of youngsters. This sudden change in mindset for squad selection make them suddenly an exciting team to watch. Young, dynamic, and surprisingly multicultural. The Three Lions will be supported by a slew of players from Liverpool, Manchester United, and Arsenal -- including Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge up front, Steven Gerrard and young Raheem Sterling in the midfield, and backed by Manchester City's exuberant goalie Joe Hart. Part of their defeat last time around involved a non-goal that led to replay review kinda-sorta being implemented by FIFA.
Italy will be England's breaking point, much like Chile and the Netherlands. The Italians have solid defense, but few stars by comparison, but no lack for tactical players. Italy has been bred to be a complex and malleable team to meet any style of play, not unlike the United States. The team tends to play four central midfielders and no wingers, which is vogue in the Bundesliga. Andrea Pirlo of Juventus and star athlete Mario Balotelli of Milan (the Derek Jeter and Yasiel Puig of Italian football) will be the goal scoring threats. Expect drama.
Uruguay have a blessed front line and an aging back line. Luis Suarez is at the peak of his game, recently leading the premier league in scoring for consecutive seasons at Liverpool, but he is uncharacteristically nursing a knee injury. Should he recover, Uruguay could vault to the final four.
ECUADOR - FRANCE - HONDURAS - SWITZERLAND
Ecuador is terribly underrated, with skills on par with group favorite Switzerland. They will be buoyed by Antonio Valencia of Manchester United, and the gifted play of Walter Ayovi from the back line. Think of him as a left footed Glen Johnson. He's a defender who wears No. 10 - that should tell you everything you need to know. Nothing flashy elsewhere in the field, but they should have the stamina to knock out the Swiss, and that's all you need to get through this group.
France has a lot of stars from smaller leagues, but still barely entered the cup playoffs. No hierarchy, no identity, no leadership, injury issues, but strong scoring capability. They have the weakest defense in the group, but the offense should outweigh the others. France should win the group on goal differential. Les Bleus will send forward the steady Olivier Giroud of Arsenal, the young Antoine Griezmann of Real Sociedad, the inventive Mathieu Valbuena of Marseille, and subbing in the aging Karim Benzema of Real Madrid. Backed by a versatile midfield (hello, Raphaël Varane). Their fullbacks are box-to-box sort of players who will rush forward into the fray as well (Patrice Evra and Mathieu Debuchy), but that will be a poor mix if the team never has the ball. Possession is key for their success.
Honduras has a reputation for dirty play, and their skill level is on par with Australia. Expect good defense, but inferior offense, and no wins.
Switzerland and their little star Xherdan Shaqiri are ranked far higher than they deserve entering play. Switzerland has a reputation for defense at every position, but their play is standard and the squad is unproven. The offense is on par with Ecuador, and the meeting between those two teams will likely decide who moves on.
ARGENTINA - BOSNIA - IRAN - NIGERIA
Argentina football is like a song, a one lyric song of "Goooooool" that never ends. They have surprisingly violent and visionary play that should be rightfully feared on the pitch. Star driven by Lionel Messi (the Mike Trout of soccer, for you non-fans who have stuck with me), the team has never capitalized on this talent. Somehow, they have not won a trophy of any kind since 1993! Normally teams are wary to include defense, but for this cup they've left that across the border. They have two strong defenders on a weak line, so defense is not a total lost cause, but when the dominant style of play is passing and you're tactics are based around slaughter, you have to wonder which strategy will succeed? The proven or the brash? Any way you slice it, now is the time to capitalize on having Messi. The compliment will be Real Madrid's Ángel di María, and the formations on the field will oscillate between the French 4-3-3 on offense, and the US's 4-4-2 Diamond on defense, which I will get into later. Their hopes are pinned to Messi, di María, and the shifting formation all playing up to their potential. If the stars align, they are the biggest threat to Brazil.
Bosnia is likewise all attack, but more out of desperation than strategy. They play with incredible passion, as a rookie team to the Cup, you might be surprised to learn they have premier league players: star striker Edin Džeko of Man City, and goalkeeper Asmir Begović of Stoke City. The other birght spot is Miralem Pjanić, the creative midfielder who keeps back and right more than you would expect from someone with his gifts. They play in the old-fashioned (but still well championed by Liverpool) 4-2-3-1, which is coming back into style. Their defense is quick to abandon the line to help in the assault, results be damned.
Iran is just happy to be here. The star is a striker from Fulham, a classic premier league team recently relegated to the second tier of English football. That explains everything you need to know.
Nigeria is the quintessential African team: crazy speed, solid press up front, superior athleticism. This team in particular has been playing together a long time, has incredible precision in passing, and therefore a strong passing game. Beat Bosnia, and they'll qualify.
GERMANY - GHANA - PORTUGAL - USA
The Group of Death.
Surely you have heard by now the United States were sorted into the famed group of death, and accordingly are not expected to make it out of the group stage.
Germany has the ability to press the ball forward from any position, which is exhausting for both sides but allows scoring opportunities and anxious defending. Here's the trick: this German team does not do well in uncomfortable circumstances. Accordingly, they built their own hotel to control their environment, but the building is still delayed, forcing them into a last second hotel. Furthermore, the team is ravaged by injuries. Their biggest threat may have been in midfield, but Marco Reus tore ligaments in his ankle and Lars Bender suffered a thigh injury. Remaining strong midfielder Sami Khedira of Real Madrid is still returning from injury, an ACL tear, as are starting keeper Manuel Neuer, captain Philipp Lahm, and midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger, as were left back Marcel Schmelzer and star forward Mario Gomez. The latter two were ruled out for the Cup. It's a shame it's the deepest roster in football. Mesut Özil is still leading the midfield, while the strikers remain unchanged past Gomez: Thomas Müller (Bayern Munich), Miroslav Klose (Lazio), and once promising Lukas Podolski (Arsenal). There's enough here to win the group, but not the prize.
Portugal. Coming off a semi-final appearance in the Euro Cup, this odd team has little depth, though much experience, and one star: Christiano Ronaldo. He is on top of his game, having just led Real Madrid to the top of the annual Campions League, then personally walloped a strong Sweden team with four goals, preventing one of Europe's best from advancing to the World Cup in the final playoff round. He's currently fighting both tendinitis and a hamstring injury, which was a shock for the footballing world, and his fitness may be America's great hope. They roll with a 4-3-3 in attack, and a 4-5-1 in defense. Guess who the 1 is.
Ghana is the great rival of the Stars and Stripes, having knocked the United States out of the World Cup in our previous two meetings. Now they draw into the same group, and the United States will have to be ready. Ghana's chief weapon is speed, featuring the terror Asamoah Gyan up front, supplemented by Abdul Majeed Waris on the wing, making for a stronger offensive threat than we saw four years ago. For the rest of the squad, they are like the Italians in that most players can play any position. The difference is on defense, which allowed only three goals in qualifying play. The Black Stars open the Cup against USA on Monday night.
The United States have a deep squad, with a decent amount of B-level talent spread throughout the field. There are no true star athletes, but this squad compares to the '94 and '06 teams in terms of athleticism. The offense features a pair of veteran strikers coming off horrible years (Jozy Altidore with Sunderland, Clint Dempsey with Seattle), while the defensive line is completely ambiguous. Michael Bradley is the best player on the team, and will lead a midfield formation in the 4-4-2 Diamond -- named for its appearance of pulling the wing players toward the middle of the field, truly a 4-1-2-1-2. There is no question this is a squad worth of the 16-team knockout round, but surviving the Group of Death is another matter. I have much and more to say about the Yanks below.
HUGE DISCLAIMER: I'm assuming Ronaldo is not up to form. If he is healthy, then I truly believe Portugal will claim the group. Without him, they will struggle and fall.
ALGERIA - BELGIUM - RUSSIA - SOUTH KOREA
Algeria has many experienced players, and the defensive mindset necessary to survive the group stage. It's a shame they have little offense to speak of, a rarity on the world stage. In fact, it's not a stretch to call this the worst offense in the Cup, if goal scoring is your thing.
Belgium is one of my favorite teams in the tournament. Everton's striker Romelu Lukaku and Chelsea midfielder Eden Hazard are the familiar names on the roster, but look further down the list and you'll find their squad features the third most transfer dollars in world soccer, and possibly the best goalkeeping rotation in the World Cup. Cultural and language divisions between players, who love the night life, are this team's biggest weakness. Luckily they have a coach who speaks both languages, was a former captain of the squad in four Cups, and believes in strict discipline. The offense is on par with the best of Europe, do not be surprised by this team.
Russia is defensive team with old players and experience. Russia is also a team with attackers who play with desperation. There was no B-team in qualification, and at the end of the day, it was Russia who forced Portugal and Sweden into a playoff for the Cup. They play in a 4-3-3 that faces forward (so more of a 4-2-3-1), and will pass the ball up the middle often, of only they could have possession. The defenders are intimidating and injured, making them a weaker draw to South Korea.
South Korea has smart, tactical play, picked up from having so many European players. The team is taller than Japan's and likely more prepared as well. The quarterback of this team is Sunderland's Ki Sung-yueng. He has a long strike, and should feed Arsenal's Park Chu-Young and the young Son Heung-min well. A strong defensive performance against Russia should see them through.
Questions on the United States
1. Who plays back line?
DaMarcus Beasley (Puebla) is one of the best players on the team at a position of strength for the US: Right back. Meanwhile, there is no qualified player to take on left back. The best is the enemy of the good, so Beasley will likely slot to the left side, but USA coach (and former Germany coach) Jurgen Klinsmann has been tinkering every match. The four will need chemistry, but not being named a week before play is troubling. The towering Geoff Cameron (Stoke City) should also be replacing the not-recovered Omar Gonzalez (LA Galaxy), leading to more a lack of familiarity. Matt Besler (Kansas City) is the only lock, sharing center.
2. Who leads the attack?
Jurgen heaps praise, but Altidore can't finish. Jozy is a man of confidence and personality, but he's been missing it for a calendar year. He struck home twice, and could have a third time in the final warm up match for the United States, a smidgen of hope. Dempsey remains an effective forward, joining Altidore in the front of the formation, but there's two other very present threats. Michael Bradley will be playing farther up as the defensive point and the team's quarterback, but most intriguing? Mix Diskerud, Jurgen's No. 10 recruited to the US squad when he signed on as coach. Right now he could play the center of the front line in a 4-2-3-1, but given the defensive minded formation of the Diamond, he will likely be the first midfielder off the bench.
3. What's the starting lineup?
ALTIDORE - DEMPSEY
ZUSI - BECKERMAN
BEASLEY - BESLER - CAMERON - JOHNSON
Altidore's strength will be stealth, stealing forward and then cutting back in for the sure footed goal. That leaves Dempsey to be the ferocious attacking presence. The bench forward to know is Chris Wondolowski of the San Jose Earthquakes, or possibly an attacking midfielder moved forward.
In that attacking mindset of the midfield, Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones are two sides of the same coin, each box-to-box in their style of play. If they were to overlap, there would be confusion, so splitting the two in this diamond is logical (then either could be subbed by Mix Diskerud).
It's the center of the diamond that is up for grabs, where we can expect a rotations of many midfielders: Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City) will likely get starts in the Cup, while Alejandro Bedoya (Nantes), Brad Davis (Houston Dynamo) and Julian Green (Bayern Munich) are likewise capable. Klinsmann and his coaches will need to make the best match-up calls game-to-game.
Fabian Johnson (Borussia) is your new starting right back, and the defense solidifies much later than was probably necessary. This has always been the logical alignment, in my opinion. Omar Gonzalez (Los Angeles Galaxy), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin), DeAndre Yedlin (Seattle Sounders), and Timmy Chandler (Nürnberg) are your replacements.
Then in goal, there is of course, the great Tim Howard of Everton, who recently finished his 100th cap for Team USA in the final warm up match. He is backed by the capable Brad Guzan (Aston Villa), and Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake).
My predictions for the World Cup, if Christiano Ronaldo is hurt:
HOWEVER! If Christiano Ronaldo is healthy, do not get me wrong. I would have Portugal in the final four against Brazil. If you're interested, that bracket looks as follows: