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Football Friday: The World Cup Is Coming

May 30, 2014

The 2014 FIFA World Cup kicks off in just under two weeks, on June 12, and I can’t wait for the action to begin. The U.S., playing in this tourney’s Group of Death©, starts play Monday, June 16, against Ghana.

I’ve read a lot of commentary that says the U.S. don’t have a chance this year and will go out, possibly without a win (or a goal, as Jozy Altidore is on the heels of a horrid season with Sunderland). Me? I have different ideas.

When people talk about how tough Group G is (featuring Germany, currently ranked No. 2 in the world by FIFA; Portugal, currently ranked No. 3 in the world; and Ghana, currently ranked No. 38; and the U.S., currently ranked No. 14), I have a pretty simple reply.

F#&k it. You have to test yourself against the best.

Besides, I recall the World Cup in 2002, when no one thought the U.S. would get out of a group that had Portugal, South Korea and Poland. Going into that tournament (which had, in my opinion, the strongest U.S. team to date, possibly until this team), everyone thought we were going to get our heads handed to us. I disagreed. I thought Portugal would get caught up in their first World Cup for a generation. (I was right.) I thought there was a good chance we could pull off a couple shocks and get out of our group. After getting out of the group stages, it’s anyone’s game. (The fact the U.S. beat Mexico handily in the second round makes that tournament my all-time favorite.)

Then again, it could go the way of 1998. I had serious optimism then, too. When U.S. coach Steve Sampson dropped captain John Harkes (at the time he said it was because Harkes refused to buy into the system; we’ve since found out it was for other reasons), I said “It’s OK. The team will be alright.”

When Sampson introduced a new tactical plan for the midfield, featuring “windshield wiper” wing backs, I thought “This is going to be innovative and will knock the world on its ass.”

It didn’t. The U.S. got demoralized by Germany in its first game, beaten by Iran in the second (my low point as a fan of soccer in general, and U.S. soccer in particular) and bullied by Yugoslavia in the final match, leaving the U.S. 32nd out of 32 teams.

This year, though, I’m cautiously optimistic. We have talent. We have resolve. And the thing that’s separated the great U.S. team in 2002 from its competition, we’ll have serious fitness. (Seriously, other than South Korea in that tournament, the U.S. were the fittest team, and ran their opponents’ asses off.)

I watched the U.S. play Azerbaijan Tuesday night in San Francisco, even though I knew there wouldn’t be much to see. The team was coming off a tough training camp, so their legs were heavy. They (ugh) were incorporating a new midfield “diamond” scheme, which takes some getting used to. It probably wouldn’t be much to look at.

It wasn’t, until substitutes Aron Johannsson and Mix Diskerud came on (each scoring a goal). I think those two could be important players for the U.S. In that Azerbaijan game, the U.S. were disjointed and lacked the final ball in the attacking third for most of the game. These things should (read: “had better”) improve through the last two warm-up games.

I also don’t think Landon Donovan’s exclusion will hurt too much. I’ve read numerous posts from people who say he’s obviously one of the 23 best players in the country; therefore, he needs to be on that team.

To them I say, on his best day he’s one of the best. Most days, he’s not. He’s 32. Training is more difficult and maintaining fitness isn’t as easy as it once was. Playing three games in a span of 10 days isn’t something that he’ll be able to do.

Also, the constant rumors that he and a certain player whose name rhymes with “Flint Flempsey” don’t particularly get along didn’t help his cause. I think I gasped when I read of Donovan’s exclusion. However, it wasn’t that much of a shock. A year ago, I prepared myself for both Donovan and Clint Dempsey to be out of the team, as coach Jurgen Klinsman was trying to build a team in his vision.

As the coach keeps saying, it’s not just about the best players. It’s the players who play best together.

Here’s to holding out hope that this group of 23 players will be able to shock the world. Getting out of their group won’t be a shock to me, though. I’m counting on our boys to do something nice in Brazil.

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