Category Archives: Soccer

El Tri Roster & Depth Chart Right Now

Juan Carlos Osorio is under fire. That is no secret. In fact whoever is the National Team manager is under fire the second they are hired. I really think that sometimes coaches are hired just so they can be fired.

Either way, despite the fan and media hysteria, the truth of the matter is Juan Carlos Osorio is actually doing a pretty good job. If the #1 objective of a National Team Manager is to qualify his team to the FIFA World Cup, then JCO has already gotten mission accomplished. He’ll have a big chance in two weeks to earn himself some good press for a half second if he’s able to officially secure Mexico’s World Cup berth.

At this exact time last cycle “Chepo” de la Torre had just: flamed out in the Group Stage of the 2013 Confederations Cup, bungled his Gold Cup with a Mexico B squad by losing to Panama, and was on his way to getting fired when he proceeded to lose to Honduras at the Azteca in September. Then after losing to the United States (dos a cero) under Luis Fernando Tena, Mexico then hired Victor Manuel Vucetich for the final two qualifiers which required Mexico needing a Raul Jimenez golazo and a Graham Zusi to bail the entire country out.

Instead, JCO has four games left in which he could play the Chivas u-19s in all of them and qualify El Tri to Russia. Somehow, this is such an atrocity that it requires vulgar shouting every time he walks by some clown wearing a green jersey. But I digress.

While there are some things Osorio does which irk me, (I think sometimes he rotates without a clear enough purpose, for instance. And his tendency to play people out of position can be annoying.) I happen to think he’s doing a good job. The players are still coming to his aide. And that’s vital.

Now that we have all that nonsense out of the way, assuming JCO isn’t fired or (perhaps rightfully) quits between now and FIFA World Cup 2018, let’s see if we can’t figure out what he’s thinking is his World Cup roster if he had to draw it up today. With Liga MX already kicking into high gear and two qualifiers forthcoming now seems as good a time as ever.

So, without further ado, let’s evaluate, how I think is how Juan Carlos Osorio is currently viewing the player pool in its entirety:

JCO Depth Chart

Now, once I was able to group all the names and see them in front of me, I was able to better find a way to a top 23. Here’s what I came up with as Juan Carlos Osorio’s top 23 as of this moment:

JCO 23

So, how did I come up with this? Well, I’ll tell you generally now before going player by player in a bit. Mexico, more so than the United States, was able to more clearly delineate the “first string” from the “second-string” because El Tri was entered into two international tournaments this summer: FIFA Confederation’s Cup and CONCACAF Gold Cup.

Osorio therefore was kind of forced to play his hand as to what was his “Top 23” and then his “Next 22” as the two rosters only shared one player-Luis Reyes of Atlas. He also put all 12 of his European contingent in the Confederation’s Cup squad while the Gold Cup squad, save for one member of MLS’ Houston Dynamo, was composed of Liga MX players. So it was a decent bit easier to get into his head as to who his best squad was.

The following was Mexico’s roster for the confederations cup:

CC 23

From that 23, only five players were replaced.  Rodolfo Cota, Rafael Marquez, Oswaldo Alanis, Luis Reyes, and Jurgen Damm were all removed from the 23 and in their placed the following five came in: Jose de Jesus Corona, Edson Alavarez, Jesus Gallardo, Jesus Dueñas, and Jose “Tecatito” Corona.

The next important thing was to determine what is Mr. Osorio’s preferred formation? And amazingly enough, despite all the formation changes, lineup changes, and position changes, we really did notice a top XI emerge in a preferred 4-3-3. The excellent Sir Tom Marshall of ESPN seemed to agree.

Here’s what it would look like:

Juan Carlos Osorio's ideal El Tri XI as of this moment.
Juan Carlos Osorio’s ideal El Tri XI as of this moment.

Based off that, let’s go player by player and explain why I think JCO has them on his roster.

Forwards: Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez as a prospective starter for El Tri should come as no surprise to anyone. Not only is he one of the world’s (or at least North America’s) most popular players, but he has a really good goals to minutes ratio. (Don’t make me look it up. OK fine, here it is.) I don’t really need to defend his roster slot or his selection as a starter.

Raul Jimenez is the next player on the depth chart and he’s pretty much a lock too. He’s a big, strong, skilled player who will deploy his coach’s game plan sans complaint. He will even play as a right winger if need be. He’s also the only one who could step in and play as a lone striker if Chicharito were to go down.

After that we come to two players who are undoubtedly forwards, but are not really strikers either: Giovani Dos Santos of the LA Galaxy and Marco Fabian of Eintracht Frankfurt. Dos Santos while capable of playing as a winger or even an advanced midfielder in a pinch, is best deployed as a second striker making late runs into the box and the freedom to create. Fabian is very similar. Though I think he’s better suited to midfield work. I think both will make the team based off experience provided they maintain good form at club level. Dos Santos in particular has his detractors, especially since his move to MLS. But his ideal replacement candidates the young trio of Orbelin Pineda, Rodolfo Pizarro, and Erick Gutierrez did not step up in the Gold Cup and I think Gio played just fine in Russia.

Lastly, I placed Oribe Peralta in as a fifth forward or third striker. While he’s getting up there in age, (he’ll be 34 in January) he will be there for his intangibles if he stays healthy. The guy is a gamer and has a World Cup goal on his resume. ‘El Cepillo” (The Brush) as Peralta’s known reminds me a lot of Clint Dempsey in his effort and ability to come up clutch time and time again.

Wingers: If there’s one position where Mexico seems to have an almost endless amount of depth it is at winger. Not that all things are equal. But someone like Isaac Brizuela, the American-born right winger that was part of Mexico’s 2014 squad, is clearly outside the top 5 despite being a dangerous weapon for Guadalajara.

Jurgen Damm of Tigres UANL is a fine player and has been flirting with a European move this summer. Yet he only made Mexico’s Confederation’s Cup squad because of Jesus “Tecatito” Corona’s absence (which had a trickledown effect because the Gold Cup squad could’ve used him) for “personal reasons.”

Carlos Vela, despite being an inverted winger, is clearly at the top of the list. The Real Sociedad man is probably Mexico’s most talented player. He’s shown a lot more maturity the past couple seasons both with club and country and should be one of the top three or four names on the team sheet. (Although Osorio does seem to bench him for certain matchups for tactical reason. I think that’s one of the many things he does which irks Mexico fans.)

Next on the list is Tecatito. I can’t imagine he’s not starting at LW or LM when September 1st rolls around or even at the first game of next summer’s World Cup for that matter. The guy is one of those tricky attackers unafraid to take people on. Every team needs a guy like that.

Hirving Lozano I think also will be an Osorio regular, especially now that he’s moved to PSV Eindhoven in the Eredivisie. His speed makes him an ideal late game sub and for a guy with his skills he’s a solid finisher as well.

And I think the last winger spot, despite Jurgen Damm’s talent will go to his Tigres teammate Javier Aquino. Aquino has seemingly been around forever, but he’s still only 27. He is a great two-way winger who, despite the talent on Tigres can still play games where he looks like the team’s best player. I think a guy like that is indespensible to a roster. His defensive tracking also makes him important if Osorio ever wants to go back to three centerbacks. His ability to go endline-to-endline for 90 minutes makes him capable of being a wingback or a winger in a 3-4-3.

One other player worth mentioning is Elias Hernandez of Club Leon. He had a very solid summer and is capable of playing on either wing. But I just think there’s too many other players ahead of him on the depth chart.

Midfielders: So there are three players who cannot be dispensed with in the midfield: Captain Andres Guardado, Hector Herrera, and Jonathan Dos Santos. All of them are so talented that Juan Carlos Osorio felt the need to play Hector Herrera as a CDM in order to get them all on the field at once.

The one who played best of the three at the Confederation’s Cup was Jonathan. But to the dismay of many El Tri fans, the younger Dos Santos brother just joined his sibling at the LA Galaxy in MLS. It will be interesting if Osorio will maintain Jonathan in as high esteem after that.

Considering the depth at the position, I’m not sure JDS is really in any trouble of missing out on the roster. Losing his starting role? Maybe. But not his roster position.

One of biggest controversies that arose out of the Conderation’s Cup roster selection was the fact that Osorio didn’t bring a fourth central midfielder and more specifically, he didn’t bring a true #6. It was perplexing given his seeming affection for both Jesus Molina (a true CDM) and Jesus Dueñas (capable of playing multiple roles, but a more than solid experienced CDM). It angered people because once again, it led to Juan Carlos Osorio playing a key player, Hector Herrera, out of position.

I expect him to rectify this mistake in his next roster call up. He’ll do so, I think, by calling up either Jesus Dueñas or Jesus Molina. I went back and forth on this, but I think he’ll prefer Dueñas. While Osorio likes Molina’s height, positional discipline and has complimented Molina several times in the past-even going so far as to say he was ready for European football; I think he’ll prefer Duenas. I think it’s because he’s more versatile and he had a pretty good Gold Cup (or at least as good a Gold Cup as any Mexican player could have had).

Despite three of a possible four central midfield spots generally being spoken for there are some names to keep an eye on. The youthful trio of Pachuca’s Erick Gutierrez and Chivas’ Orbelin Pineda and Rodolfo Pizarro are all possibilities. At 22, 21, and 23 years old respectively, they show a lot of promise and all three are leaders on their clubs. But none of them stepped up as expected in the Gold Cup leaving many to think that they just won’t be ready for this cycle.

There are two names I think worth mentioning, even though I think they’re, as of now, very much on the outs: Carlos Pena of Rangers F.C. and Chivas’ Jose Juan Vazquez. Pena, 27, had been at times a semi-regular for Osorio but after a bad spell at Chivas, he fell out of favor. His physical style of play always appealed to Osorio. So, it will be interesting if Pena, now at the Scottish Premier League side Rangers will be able to catch Osorio’s eye. While the SPL may not be a top European league, Osorio may appreciate Pena’s gumption at going to face a challenge at a pressure cauldron like the Ibrox.

Fullbacks: After Miguel Layun, there aren’t a whole lot of good fullback options for El Tri right now. Layun, the FC Porto man, is capable of playing either fullback position equally well, but as a right-footed player he gives Mexico an extra little something as a ball-possessing LB.

In fact, the depth chart at both fullback spots is so lacking that Juan Carlos Osorio only brought two to Russia and on several occasions played CBs at both RB and LB. However I’m not sure if I expect him to rectify this with his next set of call-ups.

The only other regular or semi-regular fullback was Paul Aguilar. But he’s been out with a serious injury for almost a year now and there’s no telling how Osorio will receive the 31 year-old when he returns.

I think if anyone is going to provide depth at fullback on this roster it will be the 22 year-old Jesus Gallardo from UNAM. He was one of the few bright spots in the Gold Cup, but he’s not a full-time LB. He spends a lot of time at LM as well. Either way I think that versatility will serve him well and I think he’ll get the call-up next time. It will be left to be seen from there if he can maintain that roster slot for another eleven months.

One last option to keep an eye on is Guadalajara’s 20 year old LB Alejandro Mayorga. Osorio liked him so much he took him to the Confederation’s Cup just to get the kid exposed to the experience of the whole thing. But here’s the rub: Mayorga doesn’t have a single senior team appearance for his club. Granted he has the entirety of the Apertura and Clausura to earn a spot, but for a 20 year-old with no pro experience yet that’s a lot to ask.

I think any other depth at fullback will be provided by CBs.

Centerbacks: This position has been much criticized by the El Tri fans, but I think despite that the centerback corp. is fairly set. Hector Moreno is clearly the first name on the team sheet. And while Nestor Araujo and Diego Reyes battle for the right-footed CB spot, both are capable and both seem to have their place in the team secured.

Araujo is the bigger, more physical English-style centerback, while Diego Reyes, despite his height is the more skilled player; capable of playing RB or CDM. It seems as if Osorio as a part of his rotaciones likes each in different matchups.

Carlos Salcedo the former Real Salt Lake and current Chivas player was recently loaned to Marco Fabian’s Eintracht Frankfurt after being loaned to Fiorentina this past season. He has played far more RB for El Tri than CB despite it being his natural position. He’s not bad it

This brings us to another even younger centerback: Edson Alvarez. The 19 year old Club America product played the entire Gold Cup out of position at RB yet he seemed to have earned the most plaudits with his play and demeanor off the pitch. He’s big, at 6’3” and hadn’t played RB in any of his 21 Club America appearances. But I think because of the depth at centerback and the lack of it at RB, Alvarez’s best chance of making the World Cup squad is at RB.

The only thing I’m nervous about when it came to selecting this roster is that I didn’t pick a second left-footed centerback. Osorio on multiple occasions has stated his preference for having two left-footed centerbacks on the roster. But I didn’t pick one. Oswaldo Alanis after his great performance in Chivas de Guadalajara’s playoff run got to go to Russia, but didn’t cover himself in glory. But really, there’s no one else except maybe Yasser Corona who last got some run with El Tri at the 2015 Gold Cup-so it’s been a while. I think if Alanis does make it, having it be at the expense of Jesus Gallardo would make the most sense. Especially since six centerbacks wouldn’t be overkill knowing Osorio’s penchant for three CB formations.

And finally, we should discuss quickly the undead creature that is Rafael Marquez. The Mexican legend is almost 39 years-old and has 143 National Team appearances to his name. He was taken to the Confederation’s Cup but he didn’t play until the third place match mostly due to injuries. I can honestly say that I was having trouble imagining a scenario in which he’s doesn’t somehow squeak his way into the picture. He’d almost have to be arrested to be stopped.

Goalkeepers:  I think the goalkeepers are all set. I can’t picture anyone besides Guillermo Ochoa, Alfredo Talavera, and Jose de Jesus Corona getting picked. While it would be nice to have a fourth keeper banging on the door to keep the competition sharp, it just hasn’t happened. Jonathan Orozco has been around forever and never really threatened. Rodolfo Cota seemed to be picked for the Confederations Cup more as filler so Corona could be the Gold Cup starter. Moises Munoz seems too old now, despite his steady presence. And Jesse Gonzalez of FC Dallas is, well American now. Raul Gudino at FC Porto still hasn’t played a game at senior level yet and I’m having trouble coming up with more names.

The one big development this summer has been that Guillermo Ochoa has finally seemed to cement his spot as the #1. He and Talavera had at times seemed to be rotated for tactical reasons with the bigger Talavera used against the US in Columbus and New Zealand in Russia. But in the knockout round Ochoa started both matches.

As if I haven’t already gone into a deep enough dive on the El Tri player pool, here’s my stab at Osorio’s seven injury replacements:

Rafael Marquez, CB (Club Atlas)

Oswaldo Alanis, CB (CD Guadalajara)

Jesus Molina, CDM (Monterrey)

Jurgen Damm (Tigres UANL)

Elias Hernandez (Club Leon)

Alan Pulido (CD Guadalajara)

And 1 of:

Rodolfo Pizarro, CM (CF Pachuca)

Orbelin Pineda, CM (CD Guadalajara)

Rodolfo Pizarro, CM (CD Guadalajara)

How Would I Do It?

Now, I know what you’re all asking: So, Jon how would YOU go about selecting a roster? Never fear, I’m about to tell you.

If I were the Mexican National Team Manager this would be my roster for the World Cup right now barring injuries (which have seemed to crop up in several cases).

My 23

My only would make three changes from what I anticipate Osorio will do. I would take Paul Aguilar if he’s healthy. I know he’s getting up there but his ability to play RB or RWB and join the attack is a great weapon. And at 31, he’s still got good pace (at least hopefully he will still have it despite the injury).

I would also take Jorge Torres-Nilo which I know would cause the El Tri faithful to unanimously emit a choral groan of “Ugh, him again.” type apathy. I know what his critics will say. He’s already got 45 caps and has never given a reason to get excited about him. But I like him for several reasons:

1) He’s experienced both at the National Team level and at club level. Ricardo “Tuca” Ferreti of Tigres is a good coach and he has a very talented squad at his disposal and they’ve played a lot of big games both domestically and internationally. And through it all Torres-Nilo has maintained his spot in the XI steadily throughout Tuca’s reign in Monterrey.

2) He’s big. At 5’11” Torres-Nilo is capable not just playing LB but LCB in a back three. So, in that sense he brings some versatility since there won’t be another left-footed CB besides Hector Moreno.

3) He’s a defense-first LB. Doesn’t hurt to have those kinds of players, for at the least, late game situations.

4) I want at the very least three true fullbacks. Because of Miguel Layun’s ability to play either side I don’t need four fullbacks. But I at least want three.

And my last change to my Osorio predictions is that I want Jose Juan Vazquez on the roster. JJ Vazquez has never once been called up by Juan Carlos Osorio despite being a key component of Miguel Herrera’s squads. Maybe I’m biased as a Chivas fan but I think it’s astounding that a player like Vazquez who was a major piece of Chivas’ Championship last season and who had three excellent starts at FIFA World Cup 2014 would be this far removed from the National Team. I think it may in large part be due to Vazquez’s lack of height, But if Osorio, who I know is a student of the game, looks he doesn’t have to try too hard to realize some of the greatest CDMs of all time were small.

I would add the following seven players as my reservists/injury replacements for now:

Oswaldo Alanis, CB (CD Guadalajara)

Jesus Molina, CDM (Monterrey)

Jesus Dueñas (Tigres UANL)

Jurgen Damm (Tigres UANL)

Elias Hernandez (Club Leon)

Alan Pulido (CD Guadalajara)

And 1 of:

Rodolfo Pizarro, CM (CF Pachuca)

Orbelin Pineda, CM (CD Guadalajara)

Rodolfo Pizarro, CM (CD Guadalajara)

That’s it, there’s nothing more to add.

Vaya con dios!

Bruce Arena’s USMNT Roster as of Today

With the Gold Cup over and as this over-the-top Michael Bay of a summer transfer window winds down to its absurd conclusion, it’s time to take stock of the USMNT depth chart. There were lots of words written about how the Gold Cup was needed to test out the deeper end of the player pool and find the right players to solidify the end of the USMNT’s bench. Some even went so far as to say that this objective was a higher priority than even winning the tournament.

While I’m not sure whether that was true or not, what is true is that the USMNT has only four official matches left between now and next June when FIFA World Cup 2018 kicks off in Moscow. And not only are those four matches vital, being that qualification for Russia is not secured, but they’re vital because there may not be much time left for experimenting.

With that in mind, perhaps it might be prudent (or at least amusing) to try and dive into the mind of one Mr. Bruce Arena and guess exactly which 23 players he likes the most right now.

One of my biggest pet peeves, especially from MLS fans, is that whenever a player is playing well there are natural calls for his inclusion into the Men’s National Team. However they do this without ever considering tactics, formations, or which players would have to be removed from the roster due to their inclusion. You can’t have 34 player on the USMNT. I always remember Jurgen Klinsmann now infamous platitude: “There are others ahead of him.” But it’s true. You can’t take them all. Cuts need to be made. And often times, cuts near the end of the bench are more about fit and need than talent which is why guys like Sacha Kljestan, Christian Roldan, Benny Feilhaber, Lee Nguyen, Kelyn Rowe, Juan Agudelo, CJ Sapong, Dom Dwyer, Sebastian Lletget and other guys MLS fan boys clamor for just don’t have a spot. In fact a lot of these guys aren’t really even close when you kind of map it all out like I did below. But I digress.

So without further ado, let’s predict who Bruce Arena might have penned (or merely penciled) in at the moment and then we’ll get into what my thoughts are.

The following picture is a diagram I designed to help flush out all the names in the player pool and how I think Bruce perceives them:

US Pool
Remember Julian Green?

Using this as my guide: I came up with the following roster:

us roster
Sebastian Lletget was my first man out.

Now let me explain how I got to these conclusions briefly before going player by player. I figure, after Klinsmann’s disaster in not having a backup for Jozy Altidore after his injury in 2014, I think Arena will attempt, for the most part, to take two of every position. For example, I think Dax McCarty will be on the roster simply to break in case of an emergency, i.e. a Michael Bradley injury. I’m not sure he’ll really have any other chance of starting alongside Bradley, save for a late 5-10 minute close-out. In that vein I arranged the roster in anticipation of Arena truly trying to build a roster rather than a collection of the 23 most talented football players in the country. This roster should be based on some variation of a 4-4-2 or possibly 4-2-3-1 (although as I’ll explain later, I wouldn’t be surprised if he whipped out the 5-3-2 again).

lineup

Forwards: I don’t think saying Jozy Altidore is a lock is any kind of stretch. The likelihood is somewhere around 99.4% that he’s starting the first game of the World Cup against whomever that is.

            Bobby Wood too should be fairly secure in his place. He’s played well for the States for a couple years now, whether off the bench or as part of a striker tandem. The only reason I didn’t lock him in is because when you’re playing in the Bundesliga your career can crater quickly with all the talent around you and there’s pressure to perform week in and week out. So long as he can start regularly he should be in.

As for what happens after those two is tricky. I think most of us still want Clint Dempsey to be involved even if it is as a super-sub. But for a 34 year old, with a heart condition on his medical history, 10 or 11 months is a long time and a lot can happen. I think Bruce should assemble his roster under the assumption that between now and next June Dempsey will dip in form or health simply out of due diligence.

If I had to guess, I’d imagine that Jordan Morris would be the last man in. Up until he scored the Gold Cup Final winner I had him as the first man out. Why? Because someone had to be. The way I see it, the biggest battles to be in or out of the squad are for those last forward/winger hybrid spots and they’re between Arriola, Morris, Zardes, and Lletget. I only see two at most of that four getting in. Maybe a third could get in if Dempsey is somehow out of the picture by next summer. I think guys like Rowe, Joe Corona, Dwyer, Agudelo, Chris Wondolowski, and Sapong are mostly out of the picture and they will be scrambling for a reserve spot with the last two in the first group. Remember you can only take 23.

But Morris’ versatility will help him, especially since we’re really thin when it comes to players who can play “out wide.” As of now, this roster really only has Fabian Johnson and Paul Arriola to supply width. While Nagbe and Bedoya may lineup in “winger” positions we all know that’s not who they are. By design much of the width will come from the fullback positions via DeAndre Yedlin.

The Dom Dwyer situation is harder to read. Being sent home early wasn’t good, but I could see him as the kind of guy Bruce calls for CONCACAF qualifiers and then leaves home for the big show. While his MLS production is excellent and while he probably is the 3rd best true striker in the US pool I still think he’s already done in terms of making the tournament roster. After that, it’s all really just a stab at a bunch of different albeit flawed candidates like Agudelo, Wondolowski, Aron Johannsson, Christian Ramirez, or whoever else.

The last question to ask is: Could Arena take a fifth forward? It’s definitely possible give our program’s predisposition for playing two strikers at a time. A hybrid forward/winger like Zardes could be useful in order to provide deep cover at two positions but I think he’s more in competition with the winger group.

Wingers: The reason I have Pulisic listed as a winger even though he will almost certainly play as a typical #10 is because in reality, for his Club Borussia Dortmund he’s a winger. The #10 role will require him to play further forward than he does at even his club because he’ll be expected to contribute goals not just assists. I wouldn’t be surprised if he actually wound up being more of a second striker in the end. Or maybe he will play as part of a three man midfield and Wood can start with Jozy. The possibilities are endless with him. Or maybe his talents may even permit the USMNT to play with Jozy Altidore a sole striker in order to get an extra midfielder in the center of the park which hopefully would prevent the USA from being once again overrun in the possession battle as we have been in the past with teams like Mexico, Ghana, Germany, Belgium, etc.

christian-pulisic-dortmund_1owiehz8v8uvzb2zvre10ez3
As an 18 year-old, Christian Pulisic is already the lynch pin to the USMNT offense.

As I alluded to earlier, this is by far the USMNT’s weakest position. It’s so weak in fact, that I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point Bruce Arena whipped out a 4-4-2 diamond or a 5-3-2 just to find a formation which best catered to the strengths of our best players.

In fact, two of the four wingers I predicted Arena will select and utilize aren’t really wingers at all: Darlington Nagbe and Alejandro Bedoya. Bedoya doesn’t even play as a winger for his club; he plays as a number 8, which is far more suited to his skill set and his tendency to hustle at both ends of the pitch. However, while Nagbe does play as a left midfielder for the Portland Timbers, you could easily find some very smart Timbers fans and MLS fans who don’t believe this is his best deployment. When Portland won the MLS Cup two seasons ago, they did so with Nagbe in the central of the park. But, Arena seems to agree with Caleb Porter that Nagbe is best suited as an inverted winger.

This point brings me to the only other full blown lock of the group: Fabian Johnson. Johnson is an excellent footballer playing at a consistent level in the German Bundesliga mostly as a wide left midfielder. While he is versatile and capable of playing a myriad of positions, I still have a sneaking suspicion he could wind up as a left back.

Why? Partly it is because I’m still not sold on Jorge Villafaña. It’s not the he’s a bad player, he’s a fine player and a good quality CONCACAF level player. But while he’s been a steady starter for Bruce Arena, I’m not convinced that his club career and his form will be steady over the next eleven months. He’s only made 35 appearances in all competitions over the past year and a half for Santos Laguna.

And partly it’s because I think Darlington Nagbe has made a nice little case for being one of the starting “wide” midfielders. Although I guess one solution to that issue could be to move Fabian Johnson to the RM or RW position in order to keep Nagbe wide. It’s not as if that RM position is anything closed to being locked down.

And lastly, I have DC United’s Paul Arriola as the final man in beating out the likes of Sebastian Lletget, Gyasi Zardes, Kelyn Rowe and Joe Corona (who really isn’t a winger anyway). It seems like Paul Arriola as much as anyone has improved his stock this summer between his game in Mexico City and the Gold Cup. He brings a youthful dynamic to the group and if needed can provide some width if it’s ever called for late in a game. In essence he’s Alejandro Bedoya’s back up who can pretty much do all or close to all of what he can do.

Who else could slide in? I guess Zardes with his LA Galaxy connections is always hovering around the selection and Jordan Morris is a nice fit because he can play two positions, but after that I’m not really sure. Could Bruce take 5 wingers? I doubt it as it isn’t a focal point of our tactics nor do we really have the depth at the position to justify it. Not to mention the fact that Pulisic is actually our best player at the position.

Midfielders: As has been the case for nearly 7 or 8 years now, Michael Bradley is the first name picked for the USMNT midfield whether positioned as a holding midfielder, a box-to-box guy, or even for a short time as a #10. These days he’s been regularly placed as as a #6 and the team has been essentially constructed around that deployment.

Because of this need to put Bradley into his favorite position, the USA often lines up in lesser known formations such as 4-4-2 diamond, 4-1-4-1, or the 4-1-3-2. While I’m not a fan of these they are oddly suited to the US personnel. The other common formation is the flat 4-4-2 which never seems to do Bradley any favors and in my recollection usually guarantees that the USA’s possession percentage will hover around 40%.

After Bradley it gets hazy quickly. As I said before I think Dax McCarty makes the roster simply as the poor man’s Michael Bradley. He’s the closest approximation to Michael Bradley when the Captain plays as a 6. In fact, at the MLS level, I really don’t see that much of a difference between McCarty and Bradley’s ability. Unfortunately for Dax his steady play has not yet translated to the international level. I think it could if he was able to play alongside Bradley in order to become this cycle’s Kyle Beckerman: a defensive minded player who gives Bradley more ability to help the team with all the good offensive things he does. But it doesn’t seem to be in the cards in Bruce Arena’s eyes. C’est la vie.

I think Kellyn Acosta is pretty close to being locked in. He’s a phenomenal MLS player and his upside will carry him farther than perhaps his performances alone would. I know the MLS crowd loves him and rightfully so, but I’m not sure I want him out there against France or even a Croatia in a World Cup group stage match. But I think as of today that may be Arena’s move.

The last man out for me was Sebastian Lletget-if he can get healthy and in form enough to get called into some matches-would be Sebastian Lletget. (I don’t know if it’s possible but maybe he could aim for a call up to the October World Cup Qualifiers against Panama and Trinidad & Tobago.) Again he may not be known as a top USMNT talent, but he has a couple things going for him. 1) Versatility. That’s always a good thing to have from a coach’s perspective. 2) Connection to Bruce Arena. Never hurts to have an “in.” 3) He was last seen scoring a goal in the 5’ minute of his USMNT debut. And like Buddy Holly or Ritchie Valens (Admit it millenials, you have no idea who either of these guys are!) you’re always more fondly remembered if you go out when you were at your peak. If he gives Bruce Arena any reason to take him he will. In fact, I had him in and Jordan Morris out all they way through the Gold Cup Final. But Arena’s trust to start Morris in the semi-final and final changed my mind.

There's no way a regular EPL player isn't a USMNT starter, right?
There’s no way a regular EPL player isn’t a USMNT starter, right?

The big wild-card here of course is Germerican Danny Williams. After several years in the Championship with Reading, Williams has made the big move to Huddersfield Town AFC in the Premier League. I don’t have him on this roster because I do buy a little into the conspiracy theory of Bruce Arena as an MLS-approved candidate. I think that for a player based abroad to get selected he’ll have to be so much better than MLS rival that it will be impossible to ignore. Otherwise, I don’t think Arena will pick them. Now, I can’t claim to have seen a ton of Danny Williams at Reading. But I do know that if he gets 25 or 30+ starts in the English Premier League it would be unprecedented not to take him. Did you ever think the USMNT would be in a place where it would be turning down the chance to call up an EPL regular? I certainly never did.

Actually, the bigger wild card here is Jermaine Jones. The dude will just not die. He turns 36 in November and has been injured almost the entirety of the season. But even Bruce Arena couldn’t quit him. I was stunned back in March when Bruce Arena called Jones into the squad for qualifiers against Honduras and Panama even though Arena knew Jones would be suspended for the first game due to yellow card accumulation. And then he started him in a flat 4-4-2 midfield alongside Michael Bradley in the second game despite the fact USMNT fans have been screaming for years that alignment doesn’t normally pan out in our favor (which it didn’t in that game). He may not be healthy now, but I’m not going to count this guy out until he’s six feet under.

Fullbacks: As of now, I think the only lock at either fullback position is DeAndre Yedlin. He’s got pace, he’s got World Cup experience and he’s coming off a good season for Newcastle United in the Championship. But while I hear every USMNT fan and pundit writing him in as the starting RB with permanent marker, there are a couple things to worry about. The first is that Newcastle is in the Premier League now and they’re a big club. If he can’t do a job or has even one bad game, he won’t get the next start. Also worrying is the fact that Newcastle signed 23 year-old Javier Manquillo from Atletico Madrid (on loan with rivals Sunderland last season) in the transfer window. Even starting out as Newcastle’s opening day RB will be a tough battle.

For now Jorge Villafaña seems a likely choice. But why did I place Jorge Villafaña on Bruce Arena’s roster even if I think he could be up for a rough year at club level? Because Bruce trusts him and will want a true left back on the roster. But that doesn’t mean that he has to play him when the time comes to face off against a World Class international team. I would think that Johnson and Nagbe is a much stronger left side than Villafaña and Johnson. I have a hunch at some point Bruce will have this come-to-Jesus moment. Or maybe he’ll simply use Johnson as a LWB after adopting some kind of three centerback formation.

After those two the player pool gets murky. Graham Zusi got the key starts at the Gold Cup over Championship veteran Eric Lichaj. But Graham Zusi will be a 31 year old winger with only a season and a half of RB under his belt by next summer. I was amazed that he was more trusted than lifelong and steady professional right back Lichaj. But if his job is just to be there in case something happens to Yedlin, he may make the roster. His versatility and late dead ball ability may be something Bruce Arena really likes as a tool on his bench.

This last fullback spot was the roster slot I spent the longest time trying to figure out. So hard in fact that I think Arena may just figure Fabian Johnson and Jorge Villafaña are all the cover he needs at leftback and he can take someone else like Lletget or Zardes instead. But assuming he takes two true leftbacks, I chose Greg Garza for a few reasons. Firstly he’s similar in style to Villafaña. Secondly, it wasn’t long ago before his injury when Garza during his days at Club Tijuana was the LB from Liga MX du jour. He’s an MLS All-Star level fullback and he might already be the best LB in MLS, American or foreign. Also, he’s 2 years younger than Villafaña. But if Villafaña has already secured a roster position and Arena wants a like-for-like backup for him then Garza is his man.

The last man out for me was DeMarcus Beasley. Talk about people who never die. Beasley will be 36 years-old next summer and despite “retiring” from the National Team already, I can’t imagine he would turn down the chance to go to a freakin’ fifth World Cup (He’d be only the 4th person to do it; or tied for fourth if the corpse of Rafa Marquez also makes it, though that seems likely now with his legal issues). Beasley was last seen playing for the USMNT as a LWB at the Azteca. Could he rise again? I will never doubt him.

And as I’ll discuss later, I think the second left back spot could be sacrificed. It could be sacrificed because Fabian Johnson will be the backup left back or because for a fifth centerback. That fifth centerback would likely Tim Ream who can also provide the “break in case of emergency” cover at LB as well.

Could Tim Ream benefit from a need to take 5 CBs?
Could Tim Ream benefit from a need to take 5 CBs?

Another major player for a fullback position is Timothy Chandler. Again, like Danny Williams, it’s funny to think that the USMNT is in an era where it could seriously consider not taking a player who is a week-in, week-out starter for a German Bundesliga club. But, his bad play in a USMNT shirt, his seeming disinterest in making some of the call-ups, and the fact that Yedlin is almost certainly the starter make his selection far more doubtful than I could’ve imagined.

Centerbacks: The centerback position was fairly straightforward. Ideally Bruce Arena wants to take four centerbacks. Preferably two right-footed and two left footed. Luckily the top four centerbacks seem to fit that mold. If we presume John (don’t call me Anthony) Brooks and Geoff Cameron are the starters, then Omar Gonzalez (a long-time Bruce Arena disciple) and the left-footed Matt Besler make the most sense because they have such experience and familiarity with the program. Despite the talent of the “Matts” Hedges and Miazga it was Besler and Gonzalez that Bruce trusted in the end.

The only other player I could see fighting his way in is Tim Ream. Beside the fact that he’s Besler’s only real rival as a left-footed CB, I think the Fulham man would be a smart addition (if perhaps necessary) addition to the roster if Bruce Arena does go with a three centerback formation. When a team goes with three centerbacks it makes taking five centerbacks mandatory. He may benefit the most from that after he played so well as a LCB in the away match against Mexico.

I know the “Matts” will make a push and I agree that they’re very promising I just don’t see how they leapfrog Besler and/or Gonzalez. Simply put: “There are others ahead of them.”

Goalkeepers: OK, I lied. Goalkeeper was the most straight forward position to select. I have a gut feeling; actually it’s more of a hunch that Tim Howard and Brad Guzan will be the #1 and #2 goalies.

After that I had kind of a three way scramble for the final spot between Ethan Horvath, Bill Hamid, and Jesse Gonzalez.

Horvath is 22 years old and all the Brian Sciaretta types seem to think highly of him. If Arena thinks he’s the next great goalkeeper, maybe he takes him. Gonzalez however is 15 days younger than Horvath and in my opinion is already a top three MLS ’keeper. After all the fuss USSoccer made to convert Jesse from El Tri to the USMNT maybe he should be the one.

But I think it will be Bill Hamid. He’s 26 and, believe it or not, he’s been a pro since 2009. You’re going to want someone Hamid’s age (26) to bridge the generation gap between Guzan and Horvath/Gonzalez. Plus I think when push comes to shove if you actually had to put someone in a game I think you’d prefer Bill to Ethan or Jesse.

Reserves: And as for Bruce Arena naming those seven reservists/injury replacements? If I had to predict Bruce’s 7 I think we might be looking at something like:

Tim Ream (Fulham): You always want that extra left-footed CB.

Eric Lichaj (Nottingham Forest): He’s veteran professional capable of playing LB and RB

Danny Williams (Hudderrsfield Town): It will be tough to ignore an EPL player even if he’s only a part time starter.

Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy): He’s a Bruce Arena favorite and in his 12’ USMNT minutes he already has a goal.

Kelyn Rowe (New England Revolution): He’s kind of like a slightly more athletic and versatile Brad Davis. But not as Good.

Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy): His game kind of reminds me of an American soccer version of Danny Welbeck. He looks like he should be good, but isn’t good enough in front of net to play striker. But coachable and dedicated enough to get starts out wide.

Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes): C’mon, look into your heart; you know it to be true.

But that is a total stab in the dark.

WHAT WOULD I DO?

And with all that said, we now come to what I would do, if I were picking the USMNT roster. Here’s how I’d have it and why.

As I’ve continually reiterated throughout this overly lengthy analysis, there does exist a more than just a token chance that Bruce Arena does something funky. Look, if after only three days to practice he can implement and play a three centerback formation at the Azteca with mostly backups then he can do it in preparation of the World Cup. Yes he may be unwilling to implement it again down the final four game stretch of the Hexagonal, but once the October games are over, provided the USA qualifies, Bruce Arena will have nearly four months to plan and scheme.

Once he starts all his little plans and schemes he’s going to realize a few things. One that Omar Gonzalez is a better centerback than Bedoya is a RM or Kellyn Acosta is a CM. I also think he’s going to realize the best wide players on the pitch are Johnson and Yedlin. I also think both those players make for better wingbacks than fullbacks as both lack the defensive discipline for that at the international level. I’m also convinced that at some point Danny Williams is going to become impossible to ignore. I also think he’s going to realize that he wants Johnson and Nagbe on the pitch together to maximize our talent (ability to maintain possession). And I personally, I am really in favor of this. I really think this could be our eventual formation and lineup.

Could we wind up in a 5-3-2?
Could we wind up in a 5-3-2?

For those of you counting at home the league breakdown of the starting 11, it is: 4 MLS, 3 German Bundesliga, 3 EPL, 1 Liga MX.

For my fantasy roster as a whole it is: 13 MLS, 5 German Bundesliga,  3 EPL, 1 Championship, 1 Liga MX.

(Turns out my roster is far more MLS-centric than I figured it would be. But then again the USMNT is far more MLS-centric than it probably should be.)

So once you’ve admitted to yourself that three centerbacks are the way to go, and once you figure out your starting XI, then you can begin to mold the back end of the roster. So ideally you want a backup at every position. My bench would be almost a like-for-like replacement of every position save for Omar Gonzalez. You don’t need to bring six centerbacks, even if playing three at the back. That gave me the chance to bring an extra forward/midfielder who would ideally be Clint Dempsey… but you never know.

Yes, missing out on nice promising players like Arriola, Acosta, Morris, Hedges, or Miazga may seem cruel, but are those guys really going to be the difference between us winning a game we might not otherwise have won? No, I don’t think so. One other criticism I would anticipate is that the lack of youth on the team doesn’t keep the team “hungry” and “energized.” People will point out Arena’s failure at FIFA World Cup 2006 was largely due to the fact that he picked an old squad that aged overnight and was complacent.

While Sacha Kljestan and Benny Feilhaber aren’t spring chicken’s anymore, I don’t think you’d have to worry about complacency with either of them. Both would be totally energized at the prospect of playing in a World Cup-Kljestan for the first time.

Also some of the “older” players like Dax McCarty, Clint Dempsey, Graham Zusi would have their own reasons for being motivated. Dax because it’s his first trip, Zusi because he’s at a new position, and Dempsey because he’s Deuce and is as fiery as they come, especially now that he’s been doubted.

Guys like Danny Williams, Tim Ream, Darlington Nagbe would also all be first timers and motivated. And several young guys like Pulisic, Yedlin, Brooks, Wood, and Jesse Gonzalez would play integral roles pushing guys to maintain their energy levels.

As for the reserves I think these seven would be good:

Matt Hedges-Best young American CB in MLS.

Jorge Villafaña/Garza-Either would work for me as true LB.

Eric Lichaj-I like his experience.

Kellyn Acosta-He’s still a talent.

Paul Arriola-Love the energy, but he wouldn’t have a position in the 5-3-2.

Jordan Morris-If a striker goes down he’d be the next in line.

Dom Dwyer-Can never have to many out-and-out goal scorers.

Also aside from Acosta, who could serve a role on this roster, Morris nor Arriola are going to have a fit because of the lack of width. I guess Morris could play as a striker, but he’s not as good as solo striker as Jozy or Wood.

In the end, I do expect this three centerback formation to pop up again in an important spot for the USMNT. But no, I don’t expect my roster to be Bruce’s even if he does go back to 3 CBs. In fact his 3 CB formation might implement wingers as he used more of a 3-4-3 at the Azteca in March.

Anyway I hope we’ve had a good look at the depth of the player pool and what exactly the USMNT roster looks like at this particular moment in time. Again it’s easy to say someone deserves a look. It’s much harder to pick the 23 and start cutting people when you realize you have to make choices. Maybe we’ll update this after the two September qualifiers as we see Bruce integrate the European contingent for the big home match against Costa Rica in Harrison. Those two lineups will tell us a lot about what he learned during the Gold Cup.

I’ll be back in a few days to break this down from the Mexico National Team perspective. Vaya con Dios mis amigos.

Everything a USMNT Fan Should Know About El Tri

It’s like Jesus said: “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Do not even the tax collectors do that?” (Man, tax collectors get the worst publicity) Anyone can learn the USMNT roster. Takes a real fan to learn your rivals!

This entry will help you do that. Read this post and you’ll know all there is to know about El Tri heading into the huge game on October 10th at the Rose Bowl.

As a fan of both Mexico and the United States (Call me blasphemous if you want, I don’t care.) I am often astounded (and incredibly frustrated) how little USMNT fans know of the Mexico team, the program, and really Liga MX and Mexican football in general (I mean Mexico’s National Team is this nation’s most popular sports team and have really good players! How much US soccer fans ignore the amount of free soccer on TV from a Top 10 league I’ll never know. But this is another post altogether). As someone who grew up as a diehard Yankee fan you can be certain that we always knew everything there was to know about that Red Sox roster. If there was a hot prospect in AAA the Sox fans were giddy about, we knew. Same rules should apply here in a rivalry as heated as U.S.A./Mexico. It’s amazing how long conversations regarding the USMNT’s match-up against El Tri can go without their opponent and how and what they do not be mentioned.

download
You may loath the idea of your rivals celebrating, but a good opponent knows and understands their enemy.

Which is a shame. Because if this is supposed to be the great rivalry that fans proclaim, then don’t you want to know each and every one of those guys lining up against you? Can you have a serious discussion about formation when you don’t understand what your opponent will likely try to do?

But before we get to the individual players let’s try and get a snapshot of the team right now by asking and answering some basic questions.

1) What’s the current form of El Tri?

US Men’s National Team fans will never forget the way in which Mexico struggled to qualify for the 2014 World Cup. Nor will they ever allow El Tri’s fan base to forget the fact that they only played in Brazil via the miracle of San Zusi (Mexico really ought to build a holy shrine at the Estadio Rommel Fernandez). But the fact remains, Mexico played well at the World Cup, qualifying out of the group stage for the sixth consecutive World Cup (only Germany and Brazil have achieved that). They followed up the World Cup with some strong friendly performances versus the likes of Chile, Honduras, Panama, Ecuador, and even a road win versus the Dutch.

And with maybe a teeny tiny bit of luck, Mexico got into the Gold Cup Final. Which, you can’t take away from them, they did go on to win convincingly.

It was ugly. It was controversial. But in the end, Mexico are Gold Cup Champions.

Their last test versus Argentina was great for many reasons. The best positive to take from the game is that they reverted back to the same formation and spine used in the World Cup, even though it would not normally be their new coaches’ preferred tactics.

2) What do we need to know about their new interim coach, Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti?

Anyone who watched any of ESPN’s World Cup 2014 coverage, was probably aware that they were managed by Miguel “El Piojo” Herrera.  The former Club America boss instituted his preferred three centre-back system and gave the team its swagger back with his loose and fun coaching style. He, along with Jurgen Klinsmann, was one of only two World Cup coaches to be on Twitter.

But, his Copa America and Gold Cup teams struggled and the heavily cynical Mexican footballing press began to wear on him to the point where Herrera punched Christian Martinoli, a prominent commentator, at the Philadelphia airport.

(Side note: one thing I definitely don’t think USMNT fans understand is the current dynamic of the Mexico fan and how complicated it is. Mexicans in Mexico are, like their press, incredibly cynical. They believe that El Tri is a soft bunch of underachievers that are undermined by the corrupt FMF which is a reflection of the entire corrupt system of governance in Mexico. Whenever I ask a cousin or a Mexican friend how Mexico will do, they tell me Mexico is no good and almost always predict a bad loss. Mexican-Americans on the other hand, use El Tri to connect to their heritage and pump up the Mexican players, saying they are superior to American players so that they have something with which they can brag about and be proud of. You’ll never hear a Mexican-American predict a loss to the US, and even when they win, they’re confounded because on paper Mexico ought to be so much better.)

So, in the aftermath of the Philadelphia incident, out went Piojo and in came: Interim Manager-Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti-UANL Tigres, Mexican Liga MX: The man they call “Tuca” has been in Mexico so long people forget he’s Brazilian. He has been in Mexico continuously since he signed with Atlas of Guadalajara as a player in 1977! Even his Spanish accent is heavily northern Mexican.

The FMF has a lot of problems, but Ricardo Ferretti volunteered himself in the interim.

There’s no doubt about him at this point in his career. The 61 year old is known for two things: good defensive tactics and being a stern disciplinarian. But nobody really knew what to expect of him in his voluntary 4-game stint as Mexico manager (I’m not sure anyone’s positive about what he’ll do even now). But after leading Tigres on a great run to the Copa Libertadores Final, he was the best domestic choice.

And, as his personality might have suggested, he shocked (and irritated) people right from the get-go by not selecting the Dos Santos brothers or Guillermo Ochoa for the September friendlies. But he also pleasantly surprised fans by naming all three to Mexico’s provisional roster. He also further pleased fans by returning Mexico to the 5-3-2 for the Argentina match.

Long a fan of the more traditional 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 he showed a lot of flexibility in allowing El Tri to take the field in a formation with which the players were familiar and also allowed for the best XI possible players on the pitch. I think he was smart (and humble enough) to realize that he had a big game with the United States with only one game left to tinker. And after another wild draw with Trinidad and Tobago he realized defensive stability came first.

3) So what tactics can USMNT fans anticipate?

It’s not Tuca’s preferred alignment, but it makes sense based on Mexico’s personnel.

I expect Ferretti, for the sake of continuity (hear that Jurgen, players like continuity) to line Mexico up in the 5-3-2 on October 10th, even though it ensures his two star wingers from Tigres will be forced to the bench. The wrinkle will be the health of former captain Rafa Marquez and current captain Andres Guardado. Without them, and moreso without Marquez, it will be very tempting to play a 4-4-2. Guardado is a 50/50 proposition at this point and Marquez looks to be out.

Miguel Herrera had long been a proponent of a three centre-back formation which heavily relies on wingbacks. He used it to much success with Club America, winning the title that tied them with Guadalajara for most titles in Mexican league history.

What Herrera liked best about this formation, it would seem, is that it gave Mexico extra defensive cover with three centre-backs and five defenders, yet allows for more of a 3-5-2 flank-oriented attack when Mexico is in possession. And what really makes this formation work is Mexico’s two wingbacks from Herrera’s days at Club America: Miguel Layun and Paul Aguilar.

The other element of Mexico’s success with the 5-3-2 is that they’ve found an undisputed killer threesome in the center of midfield. Captain Andres Guardado of PSV Eindhoven, FC Porto man Hector Herrera, and defensive midfielder Jose Juan Vazquez of Club Leon play at a very high level. Guardado and Herrera are incredibly skilled with the ball at their feet, aggressive in possession, and deft passers with a sense of defensive responsibility. And at ages 29, 26, and 25 they’ll likely be the threesome through 2018 qualification.

At forward, Mexico has a litany of options in their two-striker setup. They can go with any combination of Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, Carlos Vela, Raul Jimenez, Giovani Dos Santos, Oribe Peralta or Jose Manuel “Tecatito” Corona.

Goalkeeper is a position where El Tri will be solid if not spectacular. Guillermo Ochoa and Jose de Jesus Corona have long been Mexico’s 1 & 2 and are equals in talent to Brad Guzan. But Ochoa is currently a backup with his club and neither was named to the squad. But it looks like Club America’s reliable Moises Munoz is poised to start or possibly Alfredo Talavara, the starter when Mexico last won at the Rose Bowl.

4) Well, they sound pretty solid… so where is Mexico’s weakness?

Tras casi dos meses de inactividad por lesión, con una destacada actuación, el mexicano Rafael Márquez reapareció en la victoria de su equipo Hellas Verona. Foto: yucatan.com.mx
Really? Franklin & Marshall College sponsors Hellas Verona?

Currently, Mexico’s centre-backs are perceived to be their weakness. Which has at times been particularly glaring being that they are likely to require three. At the World Cup they started Hector Moreno, Rafa Marquez, and Francisco “Maza” Rodriguez who were at the time 26, 35, and 32 respectively. And while Moreno is in his prime and has had a solid European career, Mexico has had trouble trying to find long-term replacements for Rafa and Maza going back to 2010.

Rafa Marquez, long-time villain of Team USA fans, returned to the starting XI for the Argentina friendly and looked excellent, organizing the defense and playing several of his patented long balls.

Maza has not had a great season and picked up a knock before the last pair of friendlies and wasn’t named to the squad. His replacement will likely be Diego Reyes, who has long been thought the heir apparent to Marquez. But the talented 22 year-old was forgotten in Porto last season and has been unable to progress as expected and is currently on loan at Real Sociedad.

10_bradley
Bradley used the word “hate” in reference to this rivalry. Should lead to a great atmosphere.

5) So, how does the USA attack Mexico?

Well, Mexico should win possession against the United States. That’s a virtual lock. Their players are skilled with the ball at their feet and are super familiar with the system and their roles in it at this point.

At last summer’s World Cup, Mexico really only ever got into trouble when they were being attacked with speed cutting inside from the flanks (Neymar & Robben come to mind. Although who don’t they give problems too?). Even Croatia’s central midfield stacked with the likes of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Danijel Prjancic, and Mateo Kovacic were completely dominated by Mexico’s midfield trio.

Mexico is far more vulnerable down the flanks. While Marquez can hardly run with any pace at all anymore, Reyes and Moreno have decent speed and should insulate Rafa’s big weakness. Moreno is also smart, strong, and he and Rafa know one another well. The key will be minimizing youthful mistakes from Reyes who with his thin frame is capable of being pushed around by bigger physical players. They won’t be caught out of position often. So what do you do? You hit them with speed, preferably on the flanks while Layun and Aguilar are caught up field.

Except there’s one problem: The USMNT has a lack of true wide midfielders. The absence of true wingers in the US pool has been evident for a while. Guys like Graham Zusi, Alejandro Bedoya, Gyasi Zardes, Fabian Johnson, Joe Corona, and DeAndre Yedlin are really not wide midfielders.

The deployment and usage (or non usage) of these two guys may be the key to the USMNT’s success.

The USMNT has always given Mexico problems when they play very ugly American-style ball. What that means is: physical, scrappy, hard-nosed and organized play, relying on counter-attacks, some set pieces and good goalkeeping. When you try to out finesse Mexico (like they did during the 2011 Gold Cup Final) that’s when you lose.

If it where up to me, I’d play Besler and Gonzalez with Fabian Johnson and Geoff Cameron at fullback. Shore up the right side with Cameron, who’s big, strong, and used to being poised under siege. At midfield, I’d play Michael Bradley in front of a true defensive minded midfielder like Kyle Beckerman (I’d prefer someone a bit more athletic, like Maurice Edu, who did a fine job at the Azteca in the hexagonal, but I understand who Jurgen likes and doesn’t like. Maybe Danny Williams could be the new Beckerman.) Jermaine Jones in my view is a disaster waiting to happen, when on his inevitable runs forward will vacate space in front of defense with just enough room for a guy like Herrera, Vela, or Guardado to wreak havoc (see 2011 Gold Cup Final). That was probably Jones’ worst game ever in a USA shirt. Just watch his positioning in those highlights. It’s atrocious. I think playing a flat 4-4-2 with a Bradley/Jones CM pairing is pure doom for the U.S. They would both be totally overwhelmed and outnumbered in midfield.

Instead I would play a diamond in midfield which would give the USA a foursome with which to clog up the midfield, thus preventing Herrera and Guardado from dictating the game.

Will we see Jozy? Or Werder Bremen’s Aron Johannsson?

Finally up front, I’d prefer to have speed for the counter attack but in the absence of speed go with strength and clinical finishing: Dempsey and Altidore. You may only get one or two good chances; you want the guys who can make them count. Then in the end, if Mexico is becoming frustrated, you bring in Yedlin and/or Zardes to speed up the flank attack and see if you can outrun those tired wingbacks.

6)         So, let’s get to the important part, who are the players we will likely see at the Rose Bowl wearing black and green come October and what do we need to know about them?

So finally, without further ado, here is a quick cheat sheet as to who exactly are likely to face off against the USMNT in Pasadena.

The presumption remains that Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti will stick with Miguel “Piojo” Herrera’s 5-3-2 for the sake of the team’s continuity like he did against Argentina. And I’d expect the starting XI to be: Chicharito & Vela at forward, Guardado and Herrera in front of Jose Juan Vazquez in central midfield, Paul Aguilar and Miguel Layun deployed at wingbacks, and a back three of Moreno, Reyes and a third center-back to be determined (likely Miguel Angel Herrera or Oswaldo Alanis) if Rafa Marquez is truly out. Moises Munoz or Alfredo Talavera is favored to be in goal over Guillermo Ochoa.

If due to Marquez’s injury, Ferretti decides to go with his preferred 4-4-2 (because Marquez as a libero is what really makes the 5-3-2 work), you can imagine that Javier Aquino will come in to play one of the two wing positions. But after that, the ideal XI becomes much more murky and that’s why I expect the 5-3-2 to be the call.

ST-Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez-Bayer Leverkusen, German Bundesliga: We’re all familiar the man nicknamed the Little Pea. The diminutive striker may not be the best player on Earth and most experts probably wouldn’t have them in their top 100 players in the world. Heck, for those that know Mexican football, he’s certainly not even Mexico’s best player. But when it comes to fame and popularity, there are fewer footballers with quite so many fans. In many respects he may be the most famous footballer in two different countries: Mexico and the United States.

Hernandez is the face of the Mexican game and MLS’ dream signing.

And while his talent to popularity ratio brings out the haters, it’s easy to forget that he’s actually pretty damn good. He will always be an elite level clinical finisher as we saw in last season’s UEFA Champions League quarterfinal. It’s just a matter of having a coach who believes in him and good service. He still has one of the best goal-to-minute ratios in Europe.

And while some deride him as simply a poacher, for me, he’s most dangerous when playing a team that prefers playing a high defensive line. Yes he’s known for his sense of space and timing, but for me, his ability to score goals like the one he scored versus France in South Africa that excite me. He missed one of those versus Argentina, but if he gets in rhythm between now and October with Leverkusen then Chicharito may finally nab that goal vs. the United States which he has yet to tally.

I think one of the reasons he’s failed to score on the Yanks is twofold: 1) while he’s shifty and a great leaper, he’s too short to score poaching goals against the USMNT. 2) USA almost never plays a high defensive line. It will be interesting to see if US plays it tight and to see if he will get frustrated or if he finally breaks through versus the Yanks.

FW-Carlos Vela-Real Sociedad, Spain’s La Liga: Along with Giovani Dos Santos, the mercurial Vela was supposed to headline Mexico’s “Golden Generation” after winning the Golden Ball at the 2005 U-17 World Cup as a 15 year-old. And, like Dos Santos, after signing with a Premier League Team (Arsenal) and subsequently wandering the European wilderness on loan, Vela finally become an elite player upon settling at Basque club Real Sociedad in 2012, helping the team advance to the Champions League in 2014.

Vela, despite earning the captaincy from David Moyes at Sociedad, has not been in form this season.

But the real story with Vela was his long three-year absence from El Tri. Details of the beef are murky. But it stemmed from a six-month suspension Vela received from the Mexican Football Federation for a party he threw in Mexico after a friendly. That was late 2010. But after one more appearance with El Tri in early 2011, Vela began refusing all-call ups to play for Mexico until only this past November for a pair of friendlies against the Netherlands and Belarus. And when he started beside Chicharito in that game, Mexico fans saw what they had been waiting three long years to see.

What exactly does Carlos Vela bring to El Tri? Pure dynamism and elite talent. He’s the one guy in a Mexico shirt (perhaps Gio too, to a certain extent) who can truly make something out of nothing. He’s the guy Miguel Herrera said is Mexico’s best footballer. On talent alone, he certainly is.

He’s a drifter. Vela has never quite been the ideal inverted right winger and he’s never quite been a striker and he’s never quite been a No. 10, but he can be all of those things within a single game. He is a good partner for Chicharito because he won’t occupy his space. Whereas Hernandez wants to be on a centerback’s shoulder, Vela wants to pick up the ball between the midfielders and the defenders or between a centerback and a fullback where he is capable of shooting from distance, attacking the defense, or passing. This gives center-backs the dilemma of having to come to him, which would leave Hernandez able to break free behind.

Jimenez’s physicality and effort could earn him a start over Carlos Vela.

ST-Raul Jimenez-Benfica, Primeira Liga: While I still think it would be hard not to pick a Vela/Hernandez forward-line, do not be surprised if Ferretti elects to replace Vela with Jimenez after his excellent performance against Argentina. Jimenez, is tall, physical, technical (watch this epic goal which saved Mexico’s bacon at the Azteca) and is Mexico’s best weapon at matching up in the aerial game. Growing up at Club America where the team always possessed a South American star striker, Jimenez learned quickly how to complement whoever he needed to as a second striker. He is definitely capable of playing a role and doing dirty work if asked to do so.

It’s going to be a hard decision for Ferretti to choose two of Vela/ Hernandez/Jimenez but Raul may be the best strategic matchup for El Tri in countering the US’s size and physicality.

ST/MF-Jesus Manuel “Tecatito” Corona-FC Porto, Primeira Liga: The twenty-two year old winger/striker hybrid is the player Mexico fans are most excited about right now. His coming out party on the international level was the Gold Cup Final where he earned his start of the tournament and recorded the winning goal. He is simply fearless. He takes on players, almost to a fault, always convinced he can beat his man. I am sure, that if he’s on the ball out wide and facing a converted center-back playing fullback, he’s going at him. Probably each and every time. He’s not a great passer yet, so crossing is not where he’ll hurt the USA. It’s his ability to head to the end line, turn in and create chaos in the box that’s his specialty.

Tecatito may be Mexico’s next big star.

He would’ve been a part of the recent friendlies but he stayed in Portugal to assimilate with his new team after just being transferred. It was a good idea as he debuted with a brace. I would expect Tecatito almost certainly will be used as a substitute during the US match.

El Tri fans were not happy with Gio’s move to MLS, still to be seen how it affects his standing with the team.

FW-Giovani Dos Santos-LA Galaxy, Major League Soccer: The son of a Brazilian footballer, the Mexican-born speedster has always been a player with whom a ton was expected. Finally, during an excellent 2013-2014 season with Villarreal, Dos Santos seemed to finally be living up to his potential. In that season he scored 11 goals and notched 8 assists as he led the newly promoted Villarreal to sixth place. Unfortunately last season saw him miss lots of time due to injury and his coach lost faith in him, leading the way to (GASP!) a transfer to MLS.

Dos Santos always has been a feast or famine player. At his best he’s roaming the pitch for the best positions to receive the ball and attacks defenders 1-on-1 ruthlessly. At his worst, he drifts side-to-side disinterested in defense and disengaged. Luckily for El Tri, the former has become more and more the norm. Luckily for the USA… it’s very likely that he won’t see the field after Ferretti left him out of the September friendlies, which means he won’t be able to do this.

With Jurgen Damm cut from the final roster, Javier Aquino is Mexico’s only true winger.

Wingers-Jurgen Damm*/Javier Aquino-UANL Tigres, Liga MX: As two of Tuca’s regular starting XI in Liga MX everyone assumes both wingers would slide right into El Tri’s starting XI, however as Tuca has reverted back to Herrera’s 5-3-2 formation for the sake of the squad, it is likely Damm and Aquino who will suffer as there’s no role for traditional wingers.

Aquino (25) who made a name for himself at the London Olympics hasplayed in Spain the last two seasons and been mediocre. Damm (22), one of Mexico’s top prospects, looked destined for Europe this summer (especially since he holds an EU passport. The US aren’t the only CONCACAF nation with Germans!) until Tigres opened the checkbook to enlist him and Aquino for Tigres’ run to the Copa Libertadores final. Both are incredibly fast (Damm in particular is one of the five fastest players in the world according to OPTA ) and along with Tecatito would be the most logical choice as offensive substitutions for Mexico, especially if the USA is ahead late.

There is nothing particularly nuanced about their games. They favor staying wide and like to use their speed to blow by people. And both are confident enough to take on defenders 1v1, Damm with youthful ignorance and Aquino with what Bill Simmons would call “irrational confidence.” (By the way the USMNT could use a couple irrational confidence guys. Dempsey and Jones seem to be the only ones with swag in the pool. Michael Bradley’s quiet confidence does not equate.)

(* didn’t make the final 23-man roster)

CM-Andres Guardado-PSV Eindhoven, Dutch Eredivise: The man nicknamed “Principito” (Little Prince) started a World Cup knockout round game against Argentina in 2006 aged 18 in the number 10 role. And while he never became the dynamic winger/creative maestro Mexicans hoped for as a young teen (this video, from 2013 is toward the end of Guardado’s career as a winger and you can see his tendency for hugging the touchline as a traditional winger was well ingrained. The best example of him as a left midfielder in a Mexico shirt probably came in the 2011 Gold Cup Final), he has had a distinguished European career. And now, the Tapatio, who turned 29 this week has become the Mexican captain succeeding Rafa Marquez.

There’s no doubt who has been Mexico’s most in-form player for the past year.

And Guardado has made a fine successor. Last year Guardado settled in nicely at PSV Eindhoven on loan after several years struggling out of position at Valencia. And for the first time since playing for Deportivo La Coruna in the Spanish second division, he’s a fixture for his club. He even earned Player of the Year honors from one major Dutch newspaper. In fact, this past March, the PSV fans, thankful for Guardado’s role in leading PSV to their first title in six years, put together a touching pre-game display for Guardado. They displayed a tifo thanking the Mexican and urging PSV and his parent club Valencia to make the loan move permanent.

What he provides in midfield is steadiness and technical ability. He plays well both in attack and in defense and will be a key in helping Mexico dominate possession. Funny enough prior to the World Cup, many Mexico fans wondered if he’d even make the roster. But a serious injury to Club Leon’s Luis Montes gave Guardado new life and his club and country form has been superb ever since.

Clearly Mexico’s best player in the Gold Cup, what he does excellently is dictate play. He runs so hard at the ball, winning it back (along with Herrera and Vazquez who also both run relentlessly) that he’s able to spur these mini-counterattacks from midfield (much like he did for PSV’s winning goal against Manchester United). If the US midfield has one those days where their first touch just isn’t good, it could be a long day for them. Mexico’s trio will scoop up those long touches and the ball will be heading toward Hernandez before anyone knows what’s going on. That’s why, if I’m a Mexico fan I want Jermaine Jones in the starting XI. He’s going to make forays forward, some of them wildly, and if and when the ball is lost he’s going to give his own backline more headaches than they can deal with. Herrera, Vela, or Jimenez or Guardado are going to charge into that vacated area and create scoring chances.

MF-Hector Herrera-FC Porto, Primeira Liga: Despite being overshadowed by the likes of Chicharito, Giovani Dos Santos and others, Herrera is possibly Mexico’s best footballer at the moment. The twenty-five year-old has quietly become the undisputed banner carrier for Mexicans abroad in Europe. Starting regularly as a central midfielder, Herrera was the only CONCACAF outfield player playing in the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League last season and was a key part of FC Porto’s run to the quarterfinals.

While off to a slow start this year, Herrera had the best club season of any Mexican in the 2014-15 season.

Herrera is a dangerous player because he has the exact same position and role with Mexico as he does at Porto. He plays on the right side of a narrow three-man midfield ahead of the CDM and looks to create for the forward line, and more increasingly of late, look for his own long range shots (he scored this great golazo in the Champions League last season). Herrera is tall, strong, technically gifted and will not be intimidated by the USA’s physicality after playing against Europe’s elite. He was incredibly underutilized by Mexico during their disastrous Hexagonal campaign much to the chagrin of Mexico fans.

After a rough Gold Cup which saw him benched for the final, he finally tallied his first goal for his National Team, in the Trinidad game and immediately followed it up with a second in the Argentina friendly. He is a player that must be paid attention to if you hope to disrupt Mexico.

CDM-Jose Juan “Gallito” Vazquez-Club Leon, Liga MX: “Gallito” was the break-out star of the Mexican team during the World Cup last summer. Vazquez, who had not been on the National team radar until Miguel Herrera took over and noticed he may have been the lynchpin to a Club Leon midfield that won back-to-back Liga MX titles. While Luis Montes and Carlos Pena won the plaudits playing roles similar to that of Guardado and Herrera, Herrera saw that it was Vazquez’s bulldog, and dare I say, Beckerman-esque defensive nature which allowed them to thrive.

“Gallito” Vazquez has been Mexico’s secret ingredient since the World Cup.

Even then, however, it seemed Herrera was going to start his Club America midfielder Juan Carlos Medina in the CDM role in Brazil. But, fate intervened, Medina was hurt in practice and Vazquez was handed the reigns and thrived, playing all three group games in Brazil. In fact, his injury leading up to the Gold Cup prevented him from being a factor at all in that tournament and I think his absence was a huge loss for El Tri. Granted, Jonathan Dos Santos, who replaced him, is far more talented, but is not as defensive minded. Ferretti’s desire to start Vazquez may be the reason Jonathan Dos Santos is unlikely to start.

Yes Gallito can be eager to test the goalkeeper from distance, but generally Vazquez’s game is simple. He guards the defense, runs arounds (the downside: sometimes, he can run himself out of games against well drilled and skilled midfields), wins balls and looks for Guardado and Herrera who will do the creative passing. His battle with a forward deployed Bradley could be the key to the whole game.

CM-Jonathan Dos Santos-Villarreal, Spain’s La Liga: I think Jurgen Klinsmann would’ve appreciated Jonathan Dos Santos. The younger brother of Gio, Jonathan spent five seasons fighting, scraping, clawing, to stay at FC Barcelona despite the fact many urged him to move on and earn regular minutes. It wasn’t until his brother’s team came calling that he finally agreed to concede that he wasn’t going to reach the first team in Catalonia.

His performance in the Gold Cup Final was superb. But he probably won’t start in Pasadena.

At Villareal last season he thrived, even as Gio struggled with injuries. Deployed all over the pitch, the self-proclaimed defensive midfielder is as talented a player as Mexico has. Think of him as Michael Bradley with skillz (yes, skills with a ‘Z’). His game is similar to Guardado’s in that he uses his energy to win balls and his skill to launch attacks. The best example of this was the Gold Cup Final against Jamaica. I was there in person and the way in which he kept attacking the ball and then properly moving the ball forward was the one thing I will always remember about that game.

The question will be, after Dos Santos was notoriously absent from the squad in the September friendlies, will Ferretti use him if Andres Guardado cannot go after this nasty ankle role he suffered at the hands of Chris Smalling.

LWB-Miguel Layun-FC Porto, Primeira Liga (on loan from Watford, Premier League): Not always the most popular player in the eyes of Mexico fans, the former Club America captain definitely has his skill set. Naturally right-footed, Layun can play several other positions as well and tends to cut inside in the final third where he is capable of ripping off golazos from 20-25 yards. He can truly be an extra midfielder in possession.

Watch here as he cuts inside to the right foot. He won’t be a dangerous crosser, though he can do it adequately with his left and showed versus Argentina he can counter with the best of them. But it won’t be a caught up-field fullback that will scare you with him. It’s a caught up-field right-sided central midfielder who will encourage him to sneak inside and forward and help Mexico control possession in the USA’s defensive third.

Layun & Aguilar’s ability to play as wingbacks are the key to Mexico’s success with the 5-3-2.

RWB-Paul Aguilar-Club America, Liga MX: I’ve already stated just how much Paul Aguilar and Miguel Layun make the 5-3-2 work. Mexico needs both of them on top of their game to succeed in this tournament. If for some reason Ferretti elects to go with only 2 centerbacks, I’d expect Aguilar to be replaced by Tigres’ Israel Jimenez, a more defensive minded fullback.

But Aguilar is the perfect wingback. He’s a speedy attack minded right winger disguised as a fullback. He makes great overlapping runs into the 18 on give-and-goes (great goal by the amazing Chucho Benitez in this video, R.I.P. I still rue never getting to see him, Enner Valencia, and Antonio Valencia together at the World Cup) with the midfield and can send in a heck of cross as well. And he, like Layun is capable of long range sniper rifle shots too.

FB-Israel Jimenez & Jose Torres-Nilo-UANL Tigres, Liga MX: The right back, who made his name by starting for the Mexico team which won the Olympics hasn’t really reached his potential. But he plays his club football for Tigres which means he’s already a reliable soldier for interim coach Tuca Ferretti. While he got the start in Mexico’s 2-2 draw with Argentina, he’s not ideally suited to a 5-3-2 if that is the formation. While he’s a capable fullback who just recently played in the Copa Libertadores Final, he’s just not a strong enough offensive player for that role. At least that’s my opinion, it may not be Ferretti’s however who clearly trusts him. But if the USA goes with a narrow diamond midfield, then Mexico will lose a lot by not having a right sided marauder to take advantage.

It’s interesting that of of the 4 players from Ferretti’s Tigres on the Mexico squad, none are likely to start.

Jose Torres-Nilo lost his position as Mexico’s LB to Layun during the 2014 World Cup Qualifying cycle, but he’s always hung around as an option. Like Jimenez, if Tuca chooses a 4-4-2, then the possibility of Torres-Nilo playing goes way up as he’s a more natural defensive player.

CB-Rafa Marquez-Hellas Verona, Italian Serie A: My goodness. What can I say about longtime USMNT villain Rafa Marquez that hasn’t already been said through gritted teeth? Although Marquez’s resume is excellent (2x UEFA Champions League winner, 2x Liga MX champion, only man to captain a team at four different World Cups), he really has never played great against the United States. Their physicality frustrates him and he’s prone to cards as it is. But this 5-3-2 formation has brought him new life. Flanked by a center back on either side, Marquez is able to play an almost Pirlo-esque role while using his experience to direct the defense. He has become the ultimate “libero” in his old age.

USMNT fans have seen Marquez around for a long, long time.

His long range passing is such a weapon and it diversifies Mexico’s attack. While the rest of the team can play the possession game, he can start counter attacks incredibly quickly with his direct play. It’s something that El Tri just can’t duplicate or replicate and why, like a zombie apocalypse, he just keeps coming.

As an anecdote I remember being incredibly nervous prior to the final group stage game against Croatia last summer. Mexico only needed a draw and Croatia a win, but armed with Modric, Racatic, and Mandzukic, the Croats were certainly dangerous. Then after a few minutes, I realized that no one on Croatia was pressing Marquez when he received the ball. It was right then I knew Mexico was going to win. I don’t know if it will be Bradley or Altidore’s job to chase Marquez off the ball, but if they don’t, expect to see 40-60 yard pinpoint passes sprayed all across the field, leaving the USA scrambling to recover.

And, don’t forget, he’s always dangerous on set pieces!

I think it’s safe to say Hector Moreno made a name for himself in the Champion’s League against Manchester United.

CB-Hector Moreno-PSV Eindhoven, Dutch Eredivise: Very quietly Moreno has been Mexico’s steadiest player abroad for several years. Starting with his time at AZ Alkmaar, and continuing through to his years at Espanyol, Moreno has been one of the first names on the team sheet since 2010 regardless of who is managing Mexico.

Prior to the World Cup, it was expected that the 27 year old would move on to a bigger club, possibly even one at a Champions League level. And while his unfortunate leg break in the Round of 16 derailed that, Spurs, Arsenal, and Juventus’ names resurfaced in summer transfer rumors for the centre-back… until he required foot surgery from an injury against Costa Rica while tuning up for the Gold Cup. But PSV, eager to show their stuff in Champions League bought him solely for that competition. If he plays well in the group stage, and I suspect he will, expect top 4 league interest in him once again.

There’s a lot to like about Hector Moreno’s game. A left-footed player, he was occasionally deployed at left-back in his younger days but is now truly a centerback. And while not the tallest (6’0”) and not the fastest, his soccer brain often places him in the right positions where neither is a detriment to him. I’d argue that his lack of flash is his best attribute. He is Mr. Reliable. I can’t even recall a time where he has made big gaffe, but he can certainly get his head to a ball on a corner. This is really the only compilation video of him I could find.

If there is one knock on him however is that he hasn’t seem capable of taking charge of the back line in Marquez’s absence. However that shouldn’t be an issue October 10, provided the 36 year old can stay glued together over the next month.

After stalling at Porto, Reyes has looked excellent thus far under David Moyes’ tutelage.

CB-Diego Reyes-Real Sociedad, Spain’s La Liga (on loan from FC Porto, Primeira Liga): Reyes, the 22 year-old FC Porto man will likely be a starter in a three-man backline, unless perhaps Tuca favors Tigres’ savvy veteran Arturo Rivas. Much has been expected of Diego Reyes in Mexico and he has long been thought the heir apparent to Marquez. At 18, he started for the Mexico U-23 squad which won Olympic Gold and was a star at Club America before earning the big overseas attention.

However his time at Porto was not good. While Hector Herrera has thrived in Portugal, Reyes has floundered. But Mexico for almost five years now has expected him to be the heir apparent to Marquez. He’s tall (6’3”), speedy, and skilled enough to play defensive midfield or even right back as well. Marquez was always able to give Mexico a dangerous counter-attack with his long ball accuracy and Reyes seems to be the only center-back in the pool with the capability of someday providing Mexico with that kind of danger from the back.

He’s looked great so far at Real Sociedad and played well versus Argentina. There are not a lot of highlights to show off since he left Mexico. This game versus Academia in the Portuguese Cup was his one bit of extended action last year and as you can see he’s shown flashes. He even earned a Champions League quarterfinal start at RB because of this performance, but he was embarrassingly pulled before halftime as Bayern Munich exploded with multiple goals in the first half. But in the end, I don’t think he’s any less of a prospect than John Brooks is.

He doesn’t have any big games for El Tri on his resume, but Munoz is undoubtedly a winner.

GK-Moises Munoz-Club America, Liga MX: By anyone’s measure Munoz is at best Mexico’s fourth best goalkeeper behind Malaga’s Guillermo Ochoa, Jesus Corona of Cruz Azul, and  Pachuca’s Alfredo Talavera. But the steady and reliable 35 year old likely earned the start versus the USA with his excellent showing versus Argentina in Dallas (though he did have the big error that allowed Argentina to get back in the game). As the elder statesman of Mexico’s goalkeeper pool and as the man who has guarded the net for Mexico’s biggest club over the last few seasons he’s exactly the kind of player a coach would like for a one game playoff. He’s going to bring leadership and he’s going to stay within the gameplan.

alfredo_talavera_2011_06_25
The 2011 Gold Cup Final is the last time Talavera played a key match for Mexico.

GK-Alfredo Talavera-Deportivo Toluca, Liga MX: When Mexico last won at the Rose Bowl in 2011 in the Gold Cup Final versus the USMNT, Talavera was in goal. That was really the last time he was in net for a meaningful game for El Tri. Talavera seems to suffer from just not being able to capitalize on his opportunities in the Mexico kit, such as the September friendly against Trinidad and Tobago. Which is unfortunate because he’s consistently been one of Liga MX’s top goalkeepers for years now. But I suspect if he’s in goal for Mexico on October 10, no one will be too concerned.

GK-Guillermo Ochoa*-Malaga, Spain’s La Liga: Although incredibly popular in Mexico, many fans of El Tri were surprised Ochoa got the start over Jesus Corona at the World Cup. In fact, he was about to have the unfortunate distinction of heading to his third straight World Cup without playing. Luckily for Ochoa, Jose de Jesus Corona picked up a knock during the warm up matches and Ochoa was able to wrestle the job away.

This has been Guillermo Ochoa’s last year and a half. It’s cost him his job with El Tri.

And despite making a big name for himself last summer and rumors connecting him to several big clubs, he eventually moved on a free transfer to Malaga. However, the choice of going to Malaga has been nothing short of disaster (he just reached 500 days without a La Liga start!) as Ochoa was never able to wrestle the starting job away from incumbent Carlos Kameni.

But Herrera believed in him. And while Ochoa may not be the biggest keeper, and while he may have his flaws, there’s no denying he may be one of the best pure reaction save keepers in the World when he’s sharp.

(*not selected to roster)

Could the internationally inexperience Miguel Angel Herrera play as Mexico’s important 3rd centerback?

CB-Miguel Herrera*-Pachuca, Liga MX & Oswaldo Alanis*-Guadalajara, Liga MX: Well, these two players have a grand total of 10 caps combined. And yet one of them could quite possibly start in perhaps Mexico’s biggest game of the year. The big difference between them is that one is left-footed and one is right-footed, which may be the deciding factor. While Hector Moreno is the more accomplished center-back by far over Diego Reyes, it is Reyes who is more familiar with the center role in the back three. Therefore don’t be surprised if Herrera gets the call to man the right center-back position. He is also more familiar with a back three. Mexico fans will definitely be uneasy about either of these guys despite the fact that they both performed well together in a November 2014 friendly in Amsterdam versus the Dutch. Moreso than seeing either of them in the starting XI, seeing the 4-4-2 may cause more angst among fans.

(* neither made final 23 man roster)

OK, well after all that, it’s time to make a prediction. So, will El Tri win it all?

I believe they will. I anticipate Mexico will control the tempo in midfield and their defense will play just well enough against the counter attack to get them through. I say final score: 2-1 Mexico.

Promotion and Relegation: Never?

Is There Such A Thing As Too Many MLS Teams?

Only a year ago, people thought Don Garber was over-promising a 24 team league.
Only a year ago, people thought Don Garber was over-promising by announcing a 24 team league by 2020.

It was this time last year, during the All-Star weekend, when MLS commissioner Don Garber dropped the bombshell on MLS fans that he wanted a 24 team league by the year 2020. Since that declaration, all but one of the remaining spots were gobbled up. Almost as soon as the news broke, NYC FC and Orlando City franchises were officially announced as teams 20 and 21. Not long after David Beckham’s team was tentatively slated for Miami pending a new downtown stadium. Most recently, Atlanta was officially announced as the 22nd team, with Miami still being the unofficial 23rd. And all of a sudden, within a year, only one spot remained.

Yet, while speculation has been rampant, there has not been a clear frontrunner for the final spot. Several cities and franchises have asked to step up. NASL’s San Antonio Scorpions have made the most noise. It might make sense as MLS has had success in cities with basketball as their only pro sports team, such as Portland, Salt Lake City, and now Orlando. Minneapolis appears to be a city poised to host MLS team #24 considering there have been reports that both the Vikings and Twins owners have inquired on the subject of ownership. St. Louis, with its soccer rich history, has maintained its place as the sentimental favorite for a franchise, though no ownership group seems interested. In July, stories broke that MLS met in Las Vegas with a potential ownership group as well as the city’s mayor. And this week, there are stories that the Sacramento Kings’ owner has sought to invest into the Sacramento Republic franchise for the purpose of making an MLS bid.

So, for those of you keeping score, that’s five cities as potential landing spots for our last MLS franchise. Almost all of those cities make sense as homes for a club, so my question is: what is MLS to do?

This Train Ain’t Stopping At 24

Somewhere Don Garber is smiling. While soccer writers questioned the pragmatism of a 24 team league, one which is bigger than any first division in the World, Garber has instead created a demand for a surplus of potential suppliers. While some thought he was over-promising, he knew exactly what he was doing. But all these ownership groups stepping up to the plate got me thinking? Could MLS be setting the groundwork for an MLS and MLS2?

Could This Even Perhaps Be The Precursor To Promotion And Relegation?

It only took a year to go from 19 teams to 23.
It only took a year to go from 19 teams to 23.

It’s unlikely. Unfortunately, it’s very unlikely. It’s so unlikely, that while I was writing this post the following news came out: http://prosoccertalk.nbcsports.com

If you ask me, what’s far more likely is that Garber, who as a former NFL guy believes in conferences, divisions, local rivalries, and equal distribution of revenues, wants to someday have a 30 or even 40 team league where each conference kind of acts as its own league and the MLS Cup Playoffs will almost act as a sort of de facto Champions League.

Garber has the benefit of having an American sports scene where 30 or 32 teams is the standard, so fans will be pre-programmed to accept it with MLS as well. Someday we’ll probably have an Eastern and Western Conference with Central, North, South, and West divisions in MLS where teams within divisions are playing one another 4 times a year. Personally, this kind of thing makes me want to throw up. I hate unbalanced schedules, almost as much as I hate amateur drafts and salary caps. But while I can stomach the latter two, the first is really sinful as it messes with the integrity of the league. Not to mention the fact that it really strays from the soccer norm around the globe.

But what if there really were too many quality ownership groups to turn away? Could two leagues really be the answer?

Perhaps. And I say that because I believe Don Garber wants to cap the league at 24 teams about as much as I believe that the moon landing was faked.

HUMOR ME

If there are multiple ownership groups worthy of an MLS franchise, why stop at 24?
If there are multiple ownership groups worthy of an MLS franchise, why stop at 24?

Does there exist a way in which MLS can do promotion and relegation that is lucrative for everyone, especially the original investor/owners? I say there absolutely is, and the MLS would be foolish not to ponder it seriously.

The first step in that process would be a buyout of, or merger with, NASL. In fact, I think this is inevitable, and I’m convinced that is what NASL ownership has been pining for all along. Much like the ABA/NBA merger, the ABA got four of its teams into the NBA and the league took off thereafter making everyone involved richer, the same could happen for MLS and NASL. It wasn’t long after MLS President Mark Abbott’s “never” comments that NASL commissioner Bill Peterson responded with a counter opinion in regards to promotion and relegation : http://www.si.com/soccer/planet-futbol

Despite the big talk by NASL and the constant disdain of that league by MLS, the truth is the league has some intriguing properties. Minnesota United and the San Antonio Scorpions are both NASL teams. Their presence in markets like Tampa, Carolina, Indianapolis, and Oklahoma City are also intriguing. And of course, there is also the property that is the New York Cosmos. MLS and the Cosmos can pretend that they dislike one another, but I still believe, and I believe they both secretly know, that there’s a great opportunity in joining forces. But MLS would want to make sure that the Cosmos knew who’s the boss.

So how does this all relate to promotion and relegation? Don’t worry, I got you.

If MLS were to really ever head down the road to promotion and relegation it would need, by my best guess, 40 franchises at minimum. This, as I said before, might be the goal for Garber anyway. And all 40 franchises would need to be under MLS control to assure the investor/owners of MLS that they’ll still get a slice of the MLS pie even when they’re in MLS2. You would have to give MLS teams almost a 5-10 year warning before implementing a promotion and relegation format.

But there’s also another issue. As we’ve learned with the most recent expansion fees, entry in the league is not cheap. MLS has done all it can to keep the league exclusive. But at the same time, they’ve discovered expansion fees are the quickest way to make money (Another reason  I don’t believe in MLS capping the league at 24 teams). In 2007 Beckham got a cut-rate $25 million dollar fee for a franchise built into his MLS contract as a reward for legitimizing the league, which at the time only had 12 teams. Beckham got a deal, because Orlando City and Atlanta by comparison had to pay $70 million entrance fees. And the glamour franchise of NYC FC, backed by big Manchester City money was given a $100 million fee which their Emirati owners scraped together from underneath their couch cushions.

MLS already controls tier 3 of the US Soccer Pyramid
MLS already controls tier 3 of the US Soccer Pyramid

So, in this hypothetical scenario, in order to set up the proper setting for such a transition, MLS would have purchased the 13 team NASL. Add in the fact that the MLS already quasi-“owns” the third division USL Pro league and now MLS would have control over 44 teams thereabouts. This is perfect because some teams would overlap territorially, such as the Atlanta Silverbacks with the new Atlanta MLS team or the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers with Beckham’s new Miami franchise. It would be necessary therefore for MLS to contract or merge a couple franchises.

After that was done by either buying out owners or giving them a stake in other properties, the two leagues, MLS and MLS2 would need to be aligned. And so, without further ado, here’s a realistic scenario of how the two-tiered system could work to start off:

Major League Soccer

Western Conference

Vancouver Whitecaps

Seattle Sounders

Portland Timbers

San Jose Earthquakes

LA Galaxy

Chivas USA Rebrand

Real Salt Lake

Colorado Rapids

Sporting Kansas City

FC Dallas

Houston Dynamo

San Antonio Scorpions (For argument’s sake, let’s say this winds up being MLS 24)

Eastern Conference

Chicago Fire

Columbus Crew

Toronto FC

Montreal Impact

New England Revolution

New York Red Bulls

NYC FC

Philadelphia Union

DC United

Atlanta Franchise

Orlando City SC

Beckham Miami Franchise (hopefully)

 

MLS2

Western Conference

Sacramento Republic (From USL)

Las Vegas Franchise TBD (Expansion Franchise)

Arizona United (from USL)

FC Edmonton (from NASL)

Minnesota United (from NASL)

St. Louis FC (From USL)

Oklahoma City (both NASL & USL have a planned franchise in the city; this would have to be negotiated)

Austin Aztex (from USL)

Eastern Conference

Ottowa Fury (From NASL)

Detroit Franchise TBD (Expansion Franchise)

Indianapolis Eleven (From NASL)

Pittsburgh Riverhounds (From USL)

Louisville City (from USL)

New York Cosmos (From NASL)

Charlotte Franchise (possible merger of Wilmington Hammerheads and/or Charlotte Eagles of USL and/or Carolina Railhawks of NASL)

Tampa Bay Rowdies (From NASL)

That’s kind of an example of what the two tiered system could look like. I know what some of you real soccer junkies are thinking: “What about some lower tier teams with good histories like the Richmond Kickers or Charleston Battery”. Unfortunately for this to work, the leagues would need as many top 40 metropolitan areas as possible. Cities like Richmond and Charleston just aren’t economically feasible. They’d be better served in a Tier 3 alongside the likes of LA Galaxy II and the Rochester Rhinos or Harrisburg City Islanders and focusing their efforts on the US Open Cup. Perhaps over time there could be a system for them to be promoted to MLS2, but not to start. The owner/investors need to keep the number of slices to as few as possible so that they each keep receiving their lucrative revenue checks.

The Nitty-Gritty Details:

You can't ignore the fact NASL has some nice properties.
You can’t ignore the fact NASL has some nice properties.

So, now we return back to the problem of how to get MLS’ owner/investors to agree to the possibly of going down to MLS2 after being in an uncontested top tier for so long. You explain to them that:

A) by being in MLS2, you are still an MLS investor and you are still welcome to a slice of all MLS revenues, albeit it would be 1/40th rather than 1/24th (Actually, it could pay out 1/28th or 1/33rd if there were still teams yet to pay their expansion fees).

B) You further explain that since not all MLS2 franchises will be MLS caliber either on the field and/or off it; that teams can only be promoted if they 1) pay a $70 million dollar expansion fee before their first promotion which will only be distributed to teams that have as of that moment been MLS teams before and 2) Meet certain predetermined MLS criteria regarding financials, stadium infrastructure, fan base, and local TV deals.

The first criteria is simple enough. Pay up the expansion fee or you don’t get a piece of MLS’ earnings. Teams could even pay before qualifying to be promoted to MLS so as to become part of the family sooner. Secondly, you set up a minimum for things such as cash on hand, a soccer specific stadium with a capacity minimum (I’m thinking at least 15,000 people), an average attendance figure (perhaps around 8,000-10,000) and finally, you’d need a local TV contract which allowed for all your games to be aired. If these standards were not met, or you could not pay your expansion fee, then you would not be entitled to be promoted to MLS, even if qualified for promotion via the standings.

As for how promotion and relegation would work competitively: this is how it would go: At the end of every season, two teams would be automatically promoted. The winners of MLS2 Western Conference and Eastern Conference would go up and replace the last place teams in MLS Western and Eastern Conferences. Therefore, teams will always remain in the same Western or Eastern Conference designations regardless of whether they’re in level one or two. Then, the second place finisher in each MLS2 conference would play a single elimination game on the road against the penultimate finishers in each MLS conference. However, if teams can’t pay the expansion fees or don’t meet the minimum MLS requirements, they can’t be promoted. In fact, there could be years where no one is promoted because they don’t qualify as tier 1 franchises.

The only way to ensure all markets are passionate about MLS is to have promotion and relegation.
The only way to ensure all markets are passionate about MLS is to have promotion and relegation.

For example: let’s say the Montreal Impact finish last in MLS and the Philadelphia Union finish second to last, under my hypothetical rules, the Impact would automatically be relegated and the Union would have to host the second place finisher in the MLS2 Eastern Conference for a single elimination playoff. But let’s say, that the Pittsburgh Riverhounds finish second and they are nowhere close to playing in a soccer-specific stadium and they only average 6,000 fans per game, don’t have a TV deal and don’t have close to $70 million dollars on hand.  Well then, they’re staying in MLS2 and the Philadelphia Union are now saved from the possibility of relegation. And let’s say that the MLS2 Eastern Conference champion was the New York Cosmos. Obviously the Cosmos would be the most likely team to have all the required criteria to be promoted. So if they qualified, now the Cosmos would have to play the Montreal Impact in a single elimination game for the right to be promoted.

It’s a little convoluted, and it would probably be years and years before all 40 teams were capable of promotion, but that’s a good thing. And as for there being a likelihood of having several years with no teams moving up or down, that’s OK. In leagues like Mexico and Argentina it is very hard to be relegated, and even when it happens it’s only one team that goes down.

The world of soccer has a long history of promotion and relegation. For me, when I first heard about it, it nearly blew my mind. It instantly attracted me more to the world of soccer. I thought it was the most brilliant idea. Certainly better than worrying about lazy owners, greedy owners, dumb owners, ping pong balls, or tanking seasons. If you deserved it, you stayed up and earned the money. If not, adios, learn to do business.

Unfortunately, while I never believe anyone when they say never, promotion and relegation in MLS is likely to be 20 years away minimum. Maybe it is 50 years away. Maybe, it will only happen when Garber and Abbot have long since retired and a young traditionalist is in the commissioner’s office.

But either way, I’d say we’re more likely to be headed for two big leagues. I’d Say This Is A More Realistic Future:

Major League Soccer

Western League

Northwest Division:

FC Edmonton

Vancouver Whitecaps

Seattle Sounders

Portland Timbers

Sacramento Republic

Pacific Division:

San Jose Earthquakes

LA Galaxy

Chivas USA Rebrand

Las Vegas Franchise

Phoenix FC

Midwest Division:

Salt Lake City

Colorado Rapids

Minnesota United

St. Louis FC

Sporting Kansas City

Southwest Division:

Oklahoma City Franchise

FC Dallas

Houston Dynamo

Austin Aztex

San Antonio Scorpions

Eastern League

Northeast Division:

Ottowa Fury

Toronto FC

Montreal Impact

New York Cosmos

New England Revolution

Mid-Atlantic Division:

New York Red Bulls

NYC FC

Philadelphia Union

Pittsburgh Riverhounds

DC United

Central Division:

Chicago Fire

Detroit Franchise TBD

Indianapolis Eleven

Columbus Crew

Louisville City

Southeast Division:

Charlotte Franchise

Atlanta Franchise

Orlando City SC

Tampa Bay Rowdies

Beckham Miami Franchise

What MLS may not realize is that you kill teams and seasons if this is all that matters in an MLS season.
What MLS may not realize is that you kill teams and seasons if this is all that matters in an MLS season.

Not quite as sexy is it? Two separate leagues of 20 teams each. I can already predict how it will work: you’ll play 2 home and 2 away against each team in your division and 1 game each versus all other conference opponents for a total of 32 games. Top team each in each division goes to the playoffs and the next best 4 Wild Cards advance to the MLS Cup Playoffs which will include 16 teams. Ugh. American sports at its most typical.

But, you can’t argue it will line pockets. Or can you? Personally, I think my idea could be as lucrative, if not more lucrative, than a 40 team league. Mostly because I believe a two-tiered league could be put together far sooner, in just a few years, because it will utilize more pre-existing organizations. It will give MLS2 franchises time to grow their organizations organically while playing good soccer and it will give the original MLS investor/owners bigger slices of the financial pie in the meantime. Sometimes when people are making a lot of money, they don’t see just how much more money they can make.

One Last Thing

The final piece to this puzzle may not seem related, but it absolutely is. MLS needs to launch a network. And I mean need. They could probably get one up and running for the price of an expansion fee. Not only is it a source of revenue and something which adds to MLS’ financial evaluation, but its the best advertising tool possible for MLS. While ESPN and Fox Sports may have signed lucrative deals to cover MLS, an MLS Network could be used to highlight teams that don’t get national recognition, MLS2 games, US Soccer youth tournaments, NWSL games, and it should even be the home for US Open Cup (which would definitely need to be highlighted if you had two levels of MLS). The truth of the matter is, that MLS and US Soccer’s relationship, especially through Soccer United Marketing, has only gotten stronger, and they can and should work hand in hand to promote that tournament as an extension of MLS.

The new ESPN, Fox, and Univision contracts are great, but MLS needs to depend on itself.
The new ESPN, Fox, and Univision contracts are great, but MLS needs to depend on itself.

This is the perfect time for MLS to launch a network. If you are a soccer fan in the United States, there is no channel where you know that you can plop down on the couch, turn on the TV, and check out soccer or soccer news. MLS, by launching the channel now beats everyone else to the punch. By doing that you will force soccer junkies to tune in to MLS as a matter of necessity. I have said it a million times and I will say it a million more times: there are literally millions of soccer fans in this country that don’t watch MLS.

And filling the lineup would be easy and cheap.  The NBA Network has had a raving success with their show “The Starters”, a former Toronto-based podcast. With the soccer world forced into podcasting by the mainstream media, there would be no shortage of good talent. And cheap talent at that. Not to mention there are plenty of soccer leagues the network could televise cheaply to fill air time: Scottish League, A-League, heck, even French league or Dutch League. Why not?

The NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL all have fantastic networks and they don’t even have all that much original programming. If MLS is to be their equal, they are going to need one as well. Aside from a morning highlight show, these league owned networks have some shows from about 5-7pm and some wrap-around coverage in the evenings. MLS wouldn’t even need that as games are only occasionally played on weeknights. There’s so much revenue to be had that I don’t know how the league’s owner/investors can’t want to build it immediately. It’s the next step in the league’s organic growth.

To be sure, I’ve rambled enough. Especially since nobody will read this. And I understand Don Garber has a vision and I understand that it’s a brilliant vision, but it needs to be amended. Rather than be an NFL carbon copy, he needs an even bigger vision. That’s the truly brilliant approach.

Time for a New MLS All-Star Game Format

Has MLS moved on from needing European stars?
Has MLS moved on from needing European stars? It doesn’t seem so.

There’s been plenty of discussion recently about whether MLS is on the cusp of transitioning to “Version 3.0,” as if anyone knows what that really is.

And while the consensus seems to be that we’re not quite into the third era of MLS’ history, we are close. MLS, slowly, has begun fitting in better to the rest of the soccer world. Key elements like a Fall—Spring schedule (totally OK with this, a necessity right now) and promotion and relegation (which I hope to see someday, but not holding my breath) seem almost distant impossibilities. But, generally MLS is doing what it needs to do to be as pure a soccer product as it can. But, because our country has four major sports leagues with rich histories, they’ve each lost a bit of their own unique identity by borrowing ideas readily from one another. There has become, for better or worse, a set “way of doing things” in American Sports.

Thankfully MLS has been obliged to stay away from such things as timeouts, commercial breaks for no reason (an American sports broadcasting staple), and the notion that every game must end with a winning team and a losing team. But some American traditions have found their way into MLS, such as collegiate drafts (communist), playoffs (necessary), conferences (unfortunately semi-necessary), unbalanced schedules (a pure manifestation of evil), goofy team names (at least there’s no more Wizards, Burn, Fusion, or MetroStars to contend wit), and of course the All-Star game.

But, you know what? I love the MLS All-Star game. I love All-Star games. As a kid growing up I had a hard time grasping the subtleties of baseball, but I certainly didn’t have trouble grasping the idea of star powers. I was riveted by guys like Cal Ripken, Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr., Frank Thomas, Tony Gwynn, Ricky Henderson, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, and Greg Maddux. I would see these guys play during the All-Star game and I learned all about the league and baseball by following what these guys were doing and where they were doing it. Same went for basketball. And MLS should be no different. Kids can discover Bayern Munich on their own, they don’t need MLS to introduce them.

We know who these guys are, we don't need MLS to introduce us.
We know who these guys are, we don’t need MLS to introduce us.

For a growing sport in this saturated sports market, highlighting premier players is obviously vital for MLS. This goes double for the league that invented the concept of Designated Players and has always focused their marketing around stars. It makes sense therefore, to have a summer event which brings these players together and allows the casual fan to celebrate the top talent in the league.

And if there’s one thing MLS does have, it’s top talent, MLS has made sure of that ever since they brought in David Beckham.

But for me, the real question is whether the style of MLS’ All-Star Game is the most viable?

While pitting MLS’ best versus one of the World’s best teams is intriguing, I truly feel that the league and its players have outgrown the format of MLS All-Stars vs. touring European team in preseason. MLS can’t claim that it has a new depth of talent, yet at the same time, only name one team of 23 players as All-Stars. In fact, MLS names nine players as “inactive” All-Stars due to a clause in the Collective Bargaining Agreement. In a league of 19 teams, soon to be 21 teams, there are 437 players. Naming 35 All-Stars and having two teams of MLS All-Stars isn’t too many.

If beating a UEFA Champions League team in one-off friendly could earn MLS worldwide esteem, I’d be all for it. But it can’t. It’s a futile exercise in gaining credibility. Instead we need to show the United States that there’s more than just 30-year-old plus designated players.

It doesn’t allow for young players, the MLS lifers, or the American players to be promoted sufficiently. Instead, it simply trots out the Designated Players whom are already well known, or in World Cup years, USMNT players. Before we get into a discussion about what format should be implemented, or what players should be there, let’s look at who’s on the roster for next Wednesday’s game:

Will Torres, MLS' one Mexican of note, get to play enough over legends like Henry, Keane, and Donovan?
Will Torres, MLS’ one Mexican of note, get to play enough over legends like Henry, Keane, and Donovan?

Goalkeepers: Nick Rimando, Bill Hamid

Defenders: Matt Besler, Aurélien Collin, Omar Gonzalez (to be replaced by Sean Franklin), Chad Marshall (to be replaced by Bobby Boswell), Michael Parkhurst, DeAndre Yedlin

Midfielder: Osvaldo Alonso, Kyle Beckerman, Michael Bradley, Tim Cahill, Clint Dempsey, Will Johnson, Diego Valeri, Graham Zusi

Forwards: Jermain Defoe (to be replaced by Dom Dwyer), Landon Donovan, Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane (to be replaced by Maurice Edu), Obafemi Martins, Erick Torres, Bradley Wright-Phillips

Everyone is there. All the players MLS thinks you want to see. Which is all well and good, but the casual fan isn’t going to learn more about the league by being shown the same 20 players over and over.

The team is jam-packed with DPs. And with guys like Jermaine Jones, David Villa, Frank Lampard, and Kaka coming into the league next year, will there be room for anyone else but elder foreign statesman?

Despite twice making MLS' Best XI team, this is Marshall's first All-Star Game.
Despite twice making MLS’ Best XI team, this is Marshall’s first All-Star Game.

In this squad only Erick Torres (who, as the league’s only Mexican of note needs to be signed to an extension and kept in MLS), Will Johnson (who’s selection is based more on last season’s performance) are non-stars. That’s it. Two players. Thankfully due to injury (ie. Wanting to rest), players like Dom Dwyer, Bobby Boswell, and Sean Franklin will be showcased.

You might be able to add Chad Marshall to the list, who despite being named twice to the MLS Best XI list, is an All-Star Game debutant in his first season at one of the league’s signature franchises.

In short: this is not fair. Any All-Star game’s mission should be twofold: to promote the leagues stars, yes, but also to get the best players together to share their skills with one another. Even if it’s only for a couple days, someone like Torres or Dwyer can learn an immense amount from being able to talk to a Thierry Henry or Robbie Keane as equals.

All-MLS LIFER STARTING XI

There are so many great American MLS lifers who should’ve been highlighted throughout their careers. Here are some just off the top of my head. Most have already been All-Stars, but they still got buried beneath the praise heaped on the DPs.

Goalkeeper: Dan Kennedy– Nobody can say Nick Rimando hasn’t been given his due after being an All-Star for the fourth straight year. But poor Dan Kennedy has been toiling away at Chivas USA for years and will soon be their all-time leader in appearances. Yet, he doesn’t really get his due as a good keeper.

Left Back: Todd Dunivant– Since Dunivant’s second stint with the Galaxy began in 2009, the left back has been one of Bruce Arena’s most reliable players. Although he’s been injured this year, this is the kind of MLS lifer that needed to be given his due in the past. Being one of the best players on a team that won back-to-back championships should earn you some recognition.

Center-Back: Nat Borchers– Keeping guys like this away from Scandinavian leagues should be the exact kind of thing the MLS should seek to eliminate. MLS players should only be going to Norway, Sweden, or Denmark if they can’t handle the league. It shouldn’t be seen as a step up. We’ll forgive Borchers for a quick detour through the fjords and recognize he’s been one of the league’s best center-backs both in Denver and Salt Lake City.

Center-Back: Chad Marshall– As I mentioned earlier, left unrecognized in Colombus, Marshall had never before been an All-Star until he finally was recruited to settle down Seattle’s defense. And his effects have been felt immediately.

Right-Back: Jack Jewsbury– The one-time All-Star has already become a Timber through and through. And despite right back not being his best position, he plays there because that’s where he’s needed. Even when a guy like this makes an All-Star team he doesn’t get to play enough.

Left Midfield: Brad Davis– He’s so underrated it’s ridiculous. At 32, Brad Davis has had a great MLS careers and is still one of its most clutch performers. He’s one of the reasons that . In my opinion he’s going to be one of the top five careers of any American MLS players.

Central Midfield: Kyle Beckerman– The dreadlocked USMNT regular is the poster boy as to why we need to highlight more MLS players. It wasn’t until Beckerman was almost 32 and had 7 All-Star games to name that he caught the eye of Jurgen Klinsmann.

Central Midfield: Jeff Larentowicz– The redheaded Ivy-Leaguer put in two good years for the Rapids, one of which he earned an All-Star berth for. But he’s been a solid MLS lifer, the kind you can bring in to settle a midfield.

Right Midfield: Graham Zusi– Sporting’s newest DP might actually be underrated at this point. After an average World Cup which drummed up little to no interest abroad, fans seem to forget he’s an elite playmaker in this league. Despite becoming an All-Star game regular, players like Zusi deserve to start and play 60 minutes not make brief cameos as 23 All-Stars shuffle in and out of the game.

Forward: Mike Magee– Chicago is bad. But Mike Magee isn’t the problem. After years of being one of the “other guys” in LA, Mr. Magee showed us all how good he can really be when he won the MLS MVP last seaosn. Perhaps if the All-Star game had been more inclusive we would’ve noticed him earlier?

Forward: Chris Wondolowski– By now, everyone knows Wondo’s triumphant story of persistence. And these are the exact kinds of guys we need to make room for in the All-Star game: players who are late bloomers but have thrived in MLS.

OTHER FORMAT OPTIONS?

A player of Javier Morales' caliber should never miss an All-Star Game.
A player of Javier Morales’ caliber should never miss an All-Star Game.

There have been alternative All-Star game formats bandied about over the past several years such as MLS versus the USMNT. Beside the fact that it would be difficult logistically, that idea is now stale because the majority of the national team is in MLS (as it should be).

Could MLS develop an even stronger relationship with their rivals to the south by playing against a select team of Liga MX All-Stars? Intriguing idea certainly, but doesn’t cure the problem.

The bottom line is: more MLS players need to be highlighted. With this as the goal, the MLS would have three format options: a traditional Eastern Conference All-Stars v. Western Conference All-Stars matchup, a USA/Canada All-Stars v. World All-Stars (which would work considering around 55% of MLS starters are American), or an NHL style pick-up game format with big stars as “team captains”.

Certainly there’s no difficulty in arranging East versus West. Guys like Lee Nguyen, Benny Feilhaber, Javier Morales, Gonzalo Pineda, Frederico Higuain, would be rightfully given their props. Or perhaps one of New England or Colorado’s youngsters would be shown to the world.

The pick-up game format could be fun by giving MLS another signature event with the selection show and it could allow for a more casual atmosphere where a player’s personality can be highlighted, but in the end, it’s just too gimmicky.

But I’m really intrigued by the idea of a USA v. the World format. The NBA and MLB have flirted with the ideas in the past, but soccer really is the World’s game and the teams would really be equal. Here’s what a World XI for MLS might look like:

Higuain might have the most pure talent in MLS. I want to see him play amongst and against MLS' best.
Higuain might have the most pure talent in MLS. I want to see him play amongst and against MLS’ best.

Goalkeeper: Donovan Rickets

Center-Back: Aurelien Collin

Center-Back: Victor Bernardez

Center-Back: Jamison Olave

Left Midfield: Oscar Boniek Garcia

Defensive Midfield: Osvaldo Alonso

Central Midfield: Frederico Higuain

Central Midfield: Javier Morales

Right Midfield: Diego Valeri

Forward: Thierry Henry

Forward: Jermaine Defoe

You back that starting XI up with guys off the bench like: Robbie Keane, Jose Goncalves, Jaime Pinedo, Darlington Nagbe, Marco Di Vaio, Tim Cahill, Mauro Diaz, Cubo Torres, Steven Beitashour and all of a sudden the USA team is given a tough opponent.

What would that team look like? Just riffing, but how about:

I want to see how good the US talent in MLS really is. And I want to see these two together again.
I want to see how good the US talent in MLS really is. And I want to see these two together again.

Goalkeeper: Nick Rimando

Left Back: Chris Klute

Center Back: Matt Besler

Center Back: Omar Gonzalez

Right Back: DeAndre Yedlin

Left Midfield: Brad Davis

Center Back: Kyle Beckerman

Center Back: Michael Bradley

Right Midfield: Graham Zusi

Forward: Landon Donovan

Forward: Clint Dempsey

Add Chris Wondolowsi, Maurice Edu, Seth Sinovic, Bill Hamid, Benny Feilhaber, Will Johnson, and a few more from the team I previously mentioned and now MLS has everyone playing that you want: the high priced European DPs, the USMNT stars, with some MLS up-and-comers and lifers sprinkled in.

For me, this is what MLS needs to do. Embrace the “World’s Game” aspect of soccer. Give those fans who only watch US Soccer a chance to root for their team, albeit in a roundabout way. I would recommend selecting 17 All-Stars per side, thus creating two game day rosters.

I think the USA/Canada versus the World accomplishes the goal of being unique without being gimmicky. If MLS is serious about the non-DP signings in our league, then its time it backed it up with some actions.

It’s nice to show off Bayern Munich. But it’d be nicer to show off MLS’ product wouldn’t it?

Two Nations, One Shared Dilemma

They'd be reluctant to admit it, but El Tri and the USMNT have much in common.
They’d be reluctant to admit it, but El Tri and the USMNT have much in common.

They shouldn’t do it. There’s part of them that knows they shouldn’t do it, but they do it anyway. And what’s more? They really like doing it. American soccer fans are constantly measuring their national team against that of Mexico. But all of a sudden, Mexico and the United States soccer programs are more similar than they are dissimilar. And you can pretend it isn’t true. But it is.

So without further ado, I present to you my case:

There are plenty of similarities between Mexico and the United States soccer cultures at present. They are both certain that they’re the best team in the region and are held back by being in CONCACAF (with all due respect to Costa Rica that is generally true). Both nations are desperately hoping that the Copa America Centenario will lead to more regular competition amongst South American sides.

Both programs are convinced a bias exists against their players abroad. This internal perception is key to the identity of both nations. Many USMNT fans were truly proud of their team’s performance during the World Cup in Brazil. And while I may slightly disagree with the optimism they maintain about their team, you cannot dispute how huge an accomplishment it is for the United States to escape the group stage for the second straight World Cup for the first time ever.

ZusiBesler
Currently on top of the MLS World, Graham Zusi and Matt Besler have chosen to be lifers.

Yet, there has not been an appropriate level of interest in American players as a result. DeAndre Yedlin’s transfer buzz seems to have tapered off. Matt Besler after pondering over joining Premier League bottom-feeder Sunderland and Championship side Fulham instead elected to sign a Designated Player Contract with Sporting Kansas City along with his friend Graham Zusi, who wasn’t able to generate any interest abroad of his own. Perhaps this is due to the perception that the United States is a team that plays better than the sum of its parts. Or perhaps it is because an anti-American bias exists amongst European coaches.

But as long as the love for country supersedes the love for club in the United States, the USMNT will remain a formidable international squad. Even in Mexico, (and especially to those Mexicans in the USA), El Tri is still No. 1, no matter how deep one’s love for America or Chivas is rooted. In fact, most Liga MX fans still take immense pride in boasting how many of the players from their club team made the national team roster.

The best result to have come out of the United States’ performance in Brazil is there grew a perception that the United States is not to be underestimated. Other nations will always believe that they possess better talent than those wearing the Stars and Stripes, but they also know that playing the US Men’s National Team means a 90 minute dogfight, if not 120 minutes. They also know the USA will have a world class goalkeeper, that they’ll have an organized defense, that the squad will be loaded with speedy and physical athletes, and that they’ll be dangerous on set pieces. Not to mention their MLS contingent is going to be in season and far from over-tired like those who participated in UEFA Champions League.

El tri
The FMF can take some solace in the fact they are one of only three nations to escape the group stage in every World Cup since 1994.

Mexico on the other hand, has quietly been one of the World Cup’s best performers over the past 20 years. No, they haven’t advanced to the quarterfinals since they hosted the World Cup in 1986, but they have escaped the group stage in every World Cup in which they’ve participated going back to 1994. Only three nations in the World have progressed from their group in every Cup since ’94: Germany, Brazil and… Mexico. Scoff if you will at the lack of quarterfinal appearances, but there’s something to be said for always being able to get out of the random craziness that is the group stage.

But how have they accomplished that? Simple; it all stems from a lack of familiarity. Even now, despite a couple of high profile Mexicans in Europe, the majority of El Tri is called upon from Liga MX. El Tri has always been a tough team to scout because their players are a continent away. Yes, I’m sure all the coaches have tape on their opponents, but do you really think a European coach understands the Mexican soccer culture? International coaches have such limited time with their teams and have a hard enough time following their own players; you think they’re breaking down a Tigres v. Cruz Azul game to get a glimpse of Mexico’s left back? Heck no. And you can forget about them watching MLS because it’s not happening.

Even watching El Tri’s qualifying games, how much are you going to learn watching Mexico play against Central American teams parking the bus? While players for the Yanks are known for their athleticism and organization, Mexican teams are known for their relentless running and technical skill. Due to Mexico’s tactical isolation, El Tri is likely to play an unfamiliar style, often employing three center-backs. And as for fitness, Mexico is such a warm country situated at such high altitude, the summer weather and fitness issues prevalent during World Cups are nothing for a Liga MX player.

The young Mexican duo of Reyes and Herrera at FC Porto could open more doors for Mexicans in Europe.
The young duo of Reyes and Herrera at FC Porto could open more doors for Mexicans in Europe.

Sadly, despite Mexico being a soccer obsessed nation of 120+ million people with a rich footballing history, Mexico only has about a dozen players plying their trade in Europe at the moment. That is an almost absurdly low number. That’s less than even the American contingent in Europe. Meanwhile, nations of less than four million people like Uruguay donate dozens of players to Europe’s elite leagues while the North American duo of Mexico and the United States struggle to do so, despite playing well at international level.

The reasons for Mexico’s lack of players abroad are complex. But the main cause for lack of Mexicans abroad has always stemmed from the strength of the Mexican league. Liga MX has a lot of history and is economically strong with dollars coming in from Mexico and the United States. The league is more than capable of paying its stars competitive salaries. Recently though, there has been a crop of young Mexicans who seem eager to test themselves in Europe, with America star Raul Jimenez and Tigres striker Alan Pulido the most current cases. But Mexican teams still request high enough transfer fees for their players that it will derail a potential move. Often it behooves players to just stay in Mexico and be an important part of a team while working toward a spot with El Tri. Young up-and-comers like Pablo Barrera and Efrain Juarez had their careers side tracked or derailed completely by stints at West Ham and Celtic respectively. It took undoubted talents like Carlos Vela and Giovani dos Santos years of bouncing around on loan before settling down and thriving at Real Sociedad and Villareal. Rather than deal with a foreign culture, it’s better to stay in Mexico, close to home. Mexicans have rich traditions and don’t always adjust to European culture smoothly, especially if it’s a club that doesn’t assist transition of its players well. Why risk heading off to Europe where the threat will always linger that a new coach could put you deep on the bench? At 23 years old Javier Hernandez started the UEFA Champions League Final. In his four years at United, Chicharito is now on his third manager and it seems as if Louis van Gaal has even less use for his Mexican striker than David Moyes.

Dempsey and Bradley may have changed the American soccer culture by returning.
Dempsey and Bradley may have changed the American soccer culture by returning.

The development of MLS placing a premium on bringing key American players back home has changed the landscape of American soccer. First, it started small, with Maurice Edu, Michael Parkhurst, and Clarence Goodson returning as the three defenders sought spots on the World Cup squad. Then it reached a feverish climax with the arrival of USMNT Captain Clint Dempsey and later Michael Bradley. This week, DeMarcus Beasley to Houston Dynamo continued the homecoming of national team players, while rumors of Jermaine Jones and possibly even Jozy Altidore persist.

Jurgen Klinsmann has shouted out to anyone who will listen that he wants Americans going to Europe to claw and scrap for playing time. But at the same time, he’s favored American players who have performed well and shown leadership with their MLS squads like Besler and Zusi, Omar Gonzalez, Brad Davis, and Chris Wondolowski. Plus, despite Bradley and Dempsey returning to MLS to earn the dollars and minutes they deserve, Klinsmann still saw fit to promote the duo as leaders on the national team. I wholeheartedly disagree with Klinsmann that working abroad and fighting tooth and nail for every minute of playing time for a mid-level Premier League team is the only way to get better. And I’ll tell you why.

Despite claiming to bring style to the USMNT, Klinsmann may have reinforced the fact we already have one.
Despite claiming to bring style to the USMNT, Klinsmann may have reinforced the fact we already have one.

American soccer aficionados have long clamored for an “American style”. I might argue an American style already exists. Klinsmann, for all his tough talk about offensive minded football, reverted back to a style US fans were all too familiar with during the World Cup. We played organized defensive soccer in front of a world class goalkeeper. We also showed lots of hustle and grit, utilized our speed and strength and were dangerous off some set pieces. Sound familiar? Two times is a coincidence, but seven times is a trend.

The US and MLS, as we are constantly reminded, are still in their infancy. But even with money you can’t rush the stages of development; everything from player development to fan interest has to develop organically. Mexico, for all their history, still has yet to build a solid pipeline to Europe. Yet the US has found their soccer program at a similar stage of development all of a sudden. In my opinion this return of top level American talent to MLS is a good thing. It shows fans we can develop our own stars and don’t always need to import high priced 30-something EPL veterans to sell tickets. But more importantly it strengthens the quality of play on the field while giving our USMNT players confidence by keeping them in form as vital cogs for their MLS clubs. In Brazil players who have never played outside Mexico like Oribe Peralta, Paul Aguilar, and Jose Juan Vazquez believed they were winners when they stepped onto the pitch because in Liga MX they had been winner their whole lives.

GARBER
Despite US Soccer’s wishes, looks like Don Garber and MLS want to bring home more USMNT players.

I want to see MLS add a fourth DP spot for teams that already have one American or Canadian DP. I want to see Jozy Altidore, Sasha Kljestan, Jose Francisco Torres, Brek Shea, Alejandro Bedoya, and yes, even Jermaine Jones in MLS. Hell, I even Freddy Adu in MLS (I mean Serbia? Really?). In just a few years there will be 24 teams in the league and we’ll need… neigh, we’ll demand players of that caliber to keep the quality high and hopefully put butts in the seats. In MLS those guys can pump in goals, win games, and become leaders. I don’t know if the can do that at Sunderland, Stoke, Nantes, or Anderlecht. And it’s OK if they can’t.

The US Soccer team could afford to go through a phase where we have a little swagger and think we’re maybe a little better than we are (even if the soccer snobs try to rain on our parade).

The one thing MLS has going for it, and by proxy US Soccer, is that there’s far more tactical diversity in MLS than in Liga MX. There are plenty of Latin American and European minds in MLS. This will help bring in new ideas which our players can learn. Liga MX conversely, has always been overwhelmingly dominated by Mexican coaches, with the occasional Colombian or Argentine skipper. They are a nation, which in the isolation of CONCACAF, has become set in its ways and has never been forced to look inward. Perhaps if they had failed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, as nearly happened, a much needed evaluation of the country’s practices may have taken place. But their performance in Brazil only showed that Mexico was about as good as we all had anticipated.

How good is the United States? I’ve asked that before. But the truth is it’s tougher to tell as MLS’ attraction for top level American players grows. And playing Mexico as much as it does and measuring itself against El Tri first and foremost doesn’t really bring any additional answers. But the United States can be the best version of itself. And, for now, that won’t be so bad.

The Great “What If?”

The host nation of Brazil had a thrilling victory over Chile in penalty kicks Saturday. While the nation rejoices over its victory it is easy to forget that Brazil has actually struggled mightily this tournament. They are a mere shell of a team that dominated last year’s Confederation’s Cup so excitingly. While the Brazilians can ignore the team’s issues, the fact is the Seleccao have serious flaws as a squad: namely, they lack a striker.

Brazil manager Felipe Scolari only selected two natural strikers for his tournament roster: 30-year-old Fred of Fluminense and 27-year-old Jo of Atletico Mineiro. And the fact remains, despite Fred’s goal versus the hapless Indomitable Lions of Cameroon, they are not good enough. Neymar Jr., the 22-year-old face of the World Cup, has had to carry his Brazilian teammates. And even though Neymar has been fabulous, scoring four goals, he’s going to need help.

brazil
Neymar, the famed #10 is playing more like a #9.

He’s been stranded alone up top during each game. And opposing defenses are essentially ignoring Fred (and Jo), completely unafraid of his scoring abilities. Felipe Scolari has been loyal to his man Fred, starting him in all four games despite the fan outcry to bench him. Fred’s defenders, and subsequently Scolari’s, argue that Fred’s physical hold up play allow Neymar to make runs behind the defense, but that’s not what best serves Brazil. Here, at the chart on the left, take a look at Brazil’s players’ average position during their close call versus Chile.

As you can see in the chart, Neymar is leading the charge from a rather central position. Fred, the “striker” is hanging out where a traditional #10 would be. This wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t shove Oscar, Brazil’s second most talented player out left where he’s slightly less effective.

If you’re waiting to argue that Fred is primed to make dangerous secondary runs, I will counter that A) that’s not a striker’s job and B) Fred isn’t good at it.

Fred was a surprise performer at last summer’s Confederations Cup with five goals in six games. and perhaps that is why Scolari has been so loyal to him, but with the way he’s playing now that devotion will be tested. Although I expect him to stick with Fred simply because he has no other options.

The one move Scolari could make is to move Hulk or Neymar up top in the center forward position and start a player like Willian to provide some much needed width. But again, Scolari is a manager that shows loyalty to his guys. But beware of such managers. Because Spain’s manager Vicente Del Bosque showed the same loyalty to his team and his players, but watched as they aged in front of his eyes and went down in flames.

And speaking of Del Bosque it was certainly odd that with the loyalty he showed to champions like Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez, Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique, and of course goalkeeper Iker Casillas, he somehow also felt obliged to shove newly eligible Diego Costa right into the lineup with hardly any rapport with his teammates.

Costa was born and raised in Lagarto, Brazil but the 25-year-old decided in 2013 that he would prefer to represent Spain in International Football after hanging around the fringes of the Seleccao for several years. At the time, Brazil didn’t think much of the defection, but then something happened which changed it all: Diego Costa had a brilliant 2013-2014 season for his club Atletico Madrid of Spain. He scored 36 goals in all competitions and led his team to  the La Liga title and an appearance in the UEFA Champions League final.

Oh! How good does Costa look in that Brazil kit?
Oh! How good does Costa look in that Brazil kit?

All of a sudden Costa was a hot commodity and both nations were desperate to enlist him. But he seems to have already been firmly of mind to play for Spain at that point.

But then for Spain’s opening game of the World Cup versus the Netherlands, Del Bosque did something odd. He inserted Diego Costa into his starting lineup straight away despite the fact he had only played two friendlies for Spain previously and was coming off an injury. Del Bosque shoehorned Costa into the starting XI despite the fact his training with his teammates was likely minimal.

But the saddest part of the whole experiment is that a manager as smart as Del Bosque should’ve been able to foresee this poor fit and furthermore that he should’ve assisted Diego Costa by playing him with any of his Atletico Madrid teammates. Instead he played a whopping 19 minutes with a fellow Atletico teammate on the pitch. That’s just not good for him or for Spain.

In fact, tactically he’s a bad fit for Spain. The Spanish are all about possession. They’re stacked with midfielders that want to play “Tiki-Taka”.

Diego Costa is positioned where a striker should be, in the box.
Diego Costa is positioned where a striker should be, in the box.

The Spanish midfielders that have been the key to Spain’s unprecedented success want to pass and move you to death. Costa on the other hand doesn’t do that at all. He’s not a ball-handler, he’s a finisher. He wants to stay high, annoy the the center-backs and bring down crosses and through balls. All Costa does with Spain is give the team one less player to keep the ball flowing around the pitch. Just look at Diego Costa’s heat map (left) during his 64 minutes on the pitch versus Chile, which was essentially an elimination game.

His reddest area is inside the 18 yard box, about 20 yards above Brazil’s highest placed player in their game versus the same Chilean side. There’s no doubt that what Costa provides doesn’t fit in with Spain. But instead it may be exactly what Brazil is lacking. Brazil prefer to use speed, crosses, and direct attacking

So on Friday if Brazil lose to Colombia, or even if they lose in semi-finals or finals, it will be because they were lacking a great #9 like Ronaldo or any of their past greats. For a nation like this to lack in a key position because their best player defected to the defending World Champions the year prior to Brazil hosting the World Cup is a tragedy. The even greater tragedy is that he didn’t fit into a Spanish National Team and was quickly eliminated. As soccer fans we all lost a little bit by not having Brazil be the national side they ought to be. We see obviously how much Brazil loves football and the emotion with which their players bring to the pitch, but they’ve been let down by the Brazilian Footballing Federation which allowed a talent like Diego Costa to escape.

If Brazil doesn’t win this World Cup and I do not think they will (though they certainly can), football writers forever will wonder about the “What If?” scenario of Diego Costa being the possible missing link the Brazil side. I wonder if Costa already regrets his choice?

One Nation, One Team? It’s a Little More Complicated.

One Nation, One Team. This is the US Team’s motto for the 2014 World Cup. But the truth of the nation and the team is a bit more complicated. A more accurate representation of the team would be:

USA: A Constitutional Union of Fifty States Spreading Their Seed Across the World, One Team.

That’s a bit more explanatory of what the United States and the Men’s National Team is. And this got me thinking… what if this were the motto for every other World Cup team? Certainly every nation has situations which are equally complex. So I composed a list.

So without further ado, here’s the list of World Cup Team Mottos, if they properly explained their situations.

Algeria: One Nation, One Team raised by the French Football Federation.

Argentina: One Nation except for a key archipelago in the south, One Team.

Australia: One Continent, One Team.

Belgium: Two regions: French speaking Wallonia and the Dutch speaking Flanders which wants to secede, One Team.

Bosnia-Herzogovina: Two Nations that used to be part of the bigger nation of Yugoslavia, One Team

Brazil: One Nation of 201 million people, and one key defection to the Spanish National Team.

Cameroon: One Country with a region that speaks English and another that speaks French which don’t particularly like each other, One Team.

Chile: One Nation which disputes the Patagonian Ice Field with Argentina (what?), One Team.

Columbia: One Nation except for the part where the USA started a revolution to build a canal, One Team.

Costa Rica: One Nation plus almost a million Nicaraguans, One Team.

Croatia: One Nation no longer part of Yugoslavia or Serbia, One Team.

Ecuador: One Nation, originally part of Gran Colombia with Venezuela, One Team.

England: One Quarter of One Nation; Four National Teams

France: One Nation with no French Algerians except Karim Benzema, One Team… usually.

Germany: One Nation since 1990, and thankfully still separate from Austria, One Team.

Ghana: The English Speaking half of the Akan People, One Team.

Greece: One Xenophobic nation; One pure team.

Honduras: One Nation with most of its population fleeing for the USA, One Team.

Iran: One Nation Which Should be Named Persia to Avoid Confusion with Iraq, One Team.

Italy: One Very Regionally Proud Nation, One Team.

Ivory Coast: The French Speaking Half of the Akan People, One Team.

Japan: Four Main Islands, over 6,000 smaller ones, One Team.

Mexico: One Nation Spread Across Two Countries, One team.

Netherlands: One Kingdom composed of Holland and six Caribbean Islands, One Team.

Nigeria: One Nation; half Christian, half Muslim, One Team

Portugal: One Nation sharing the Iberian Peninsula with a much better country at soccer, One Team.

Russia: One Nation plus the Crimean part of Ukraine, One Team.

South Korea: One Democratic Nation Split From its Communist North, Two Teams.

Spain: One Nation depending on who you ask, and two non-FIFA sanctioned National Teams.

Switzerland: One “Neutral” Nation with enough immigrants to make One Team.

Uruguay: One Nation, which historically should be part of Argentina.

Who Is Your Bracket Buster?

There have been 48 games played played over the past 16 days. But it’s these final 16 games become the real money rounds. There will be some delicious match-ups over the next couple weeks, including today’s South American double-header.

Bracket
Who do you have going through?

This part of the tournament is simple: win or go home. No more counting points. No more draws. No more watching other games for their effect on your team’s game. Just keep winning. Or bye-bye.

And really, what’s better than brackets? Answer: Nothing. So without further ado, here’s the predictions for the final 16 games:

Brazil v. Chile: Everyone’s favorite host nation has not lived up to the level of play they showed off at last summer’s Confederations Cup. Fred has been a total bust thus far and a team loaded with talent has been forced to rely very heavily on their 22 year-old star Neymar Jr.

Chile meanwhile has been one of the critic’s darlings with their intense style of play. They play with three defenders and they run at you for 90 minutes forcing you into mistakes. And their two stars Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal have been excellent. Could they really be the ones to knock out the favorites this early? I say yes.

Winner: Chile 2-2, winning on penalty kicks.

Colombia v. Uruguay: The Colombians have thrived so far at this tournament without their star forward Falcao, mostly due to the emergence of star play-maker James Rodriguez. But the Uruguayans will have lost their mojo with Luis Suarez out for suspension. Unless Edinson Cavani as a huge game, I don’t see Uruguay advancing.

Winner: Colombia 2-1

France v. Nigeria: You can see the Nigerians growing in confidence as the first round progressed, but France should still be too much for them to handle. France has far too much talent in midfield, and far too many scoring weapons. Prediction: Pain.

Winner: France 2-0

Germany v. Algeria: I must say, Algeria has been a real surprise thus far. And they didn’t just squeak through. They played attractive attacking soccer throughout the first three games. But unfortunately the road ends here against a German team that all American fans now realize is pretty darn good. I just hope Algeria tries their best and doesn’t just bunker in.

Winner: Germany 3-0

Netherlands v. Mexico: As a Mexico fan, I’d love to be able to pick El Tri to win this game. But I can’t see the slow Mexican back-line able to handle the dual striking threat of Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie.

Winner: Netherlands: 3-1

joel_campbell
Joel Campell will be needed to breakdown the stingy Greek defense.

Costa Rica v. Greece: Nothing would make me happier than seeing Costa Rica’s run continue against a Greek team that is immensely lucky to be here. But I worry greatly

Winner: Costa Rica 1-0, in extra time

Argentina v. Switzerland: The Swiss looked OK against Honduras and Ecuador. But that stinker versus France would scare me going up against the brilliance that has been Lionel Messi. But I do expect the Swiss to scrap.

Winner: Argentina 2-1

Belgium v. USA: As a fan of the USA, I want to pick the Americans. But Belgium is just so darn talented. They seem to win games at the end by simply saying “OK, time to win now”. I wonder if the USA will be resolute enough for 90 minutes to defend the late barrage they will face. It would also be nice if the USA were able to have a goal or two by the 80th minute.

Winner: USA 2-1, in extra time

Quarterfinals:

Chile v. Colombia: I’m picking Colombia to win here whether they face off versus Brazil or Chile. Not only has Colombia looked great from back to front, but they seem to have the swagger that’s necessary to beat a team a fellow South American rival.

Winner: Colombia 2-1

Germany v. France: The French will not be a pushover. They’ll have skill in the midfield to retain possession and the strikers to finish off the chances they do get. But they lack the blinding speed you need to cause Germany real problems.

Winner: Germany 3-2

Netherlands v. Costa Rica: How great would it be if Costa Rica could win this one? I just don’t see it. The Oranje and the Ticos both play similar systems, but the Dutch have the World-Class players to make the difference. Unfortunately the Costa Ricans run ends here.

Winner: Netherlands: 3-1

450990720-483997
Will this be the tournament we remember for Leo Messi?

Argentina v. USA: Can the United States really take on Messi and his friends? No, probably not. The Argentines will play with a level of skill and technique that the Americans will not be used to. But, if the Albiceleste haven’t figured out their tactics by the quarterfinals, perhaps the USA could use their athleticism and size to disrupt Messi& Co.

Winner: Argentina 3-0

Semi-Finals:

Colombia v. Germany: I have been so impressed with the Cafeteros that I could see them beating the mighty Germans. But I just can’t make them my pick. The Colombians have a skill set that should give Germany fits, but I see the Germans as the team to finally break through the central defensive pairing of Cristian Zapata and the ageless Mario Yepes.

Winner: Germany 3-1

Netherlands v. Argentina: This is certainly a heavyweight match-up as the Dutch go for their first World Cup win. Often the bridesmaid, but never the bride, the Dutch will be extremely hungry if they find themselves this close once again. But Argentina too will want the title on Brazilian soil to claim the right to be called the best in South America. I believe if the Argentines get this close there is no way that Messi will allow the team to fail.

Winner: Argentina 2-2 in penalty kicks

germany
It’s finally time for this German generation to win a trophy.

Final:

Germany v. Argentina: The German team’s time is now. After making four straight major tournament semi-finals, Joachim Low, Philipp Lahm, and Bastian Schweinsteiger will be desperate for their first title as a generation. And I think that here, in Brazil they finally get their fourth World Cup title. Messi will not be enough against this big defense unless someone else can step up to provide goals.

Winner: Germany 2-1

FIFA World Cup 2014 Cheat Sheet

If you find yourself channel-surfing this summer and come across a FIFA World Cup game without knowing much about the teams, do not fear. You need only consult this guide and you’ll instantly be an expert on the game at hand. You’ll sound so sophisticated and worldly to your friends.

You’re Welcome.

Also, quick recap of procedure:

The FIFA World Cup Finals includes 32 teams (13 from Europe, 5 each from Africa, Asia, and South America, and 4 from North/Central America)  divided into 8 groups of 4 teams each.

Each team will play the other 3 teams in its group 1 time in a Round-Robin format.

Wins are worth 3 points and 1 point is earned for a tie.

The 2 teams with the most points in each group advance to the Round of 16.

The tournament then continues in a single elimination format until the Final Game which is to be played in Rio de Janeiro on July 13th at the famed Estádio do Maracanã.

Two Key Links:

The Complete World Cup Schedule

The Complete World Cup Rosters

Now without further ado, I give you your World Cup 2014 Cheat Sheet:

 

Group A:

Brazil:

Things to Know:

Team Nickname: Seleccao (The Selection)

Jersey Colors: Gold, Green, Blue

Population: 203 million

Official Language: Portuguese

Principal Religions: Catholic (65%), Evangelical (22%)

GDP: $2.4 Trillion

Team w/ Most Titles: Santos FC & SE Palmeiras (Sao Paulo); 8 titles each

What are the experts saying?

Brazil is the host nation and bookmaker’s favorite to win it all.

History:

In case you haven’t heard, Brazil’s pretty damn good at soccer. Brazil has won the World Cup 5 times, the most in history. They are also the only country to appear in all 19 World Cups. If you aren’t aware, soccer is literally as part of the Brazilian culture as the Samba, beaches, plastic surgery, Carnivale, or the Portuguese language.

Player(s) to Know:

Neymar: The 22 year old FC Barcelona forward is already the face of the 2014 World Cup and not a ball has been touched. It is an amazing thing to realize that the most important and promoted player on the World Cup Favorites is only 21 years old. Blessed with skill, speed, and a bag of tricks, he’s already the nation’s best player in a nation stacked with great players.  It will be fascinating to see how his story unfolds.

Neymar Jr., at just 22 years of age, has already stolen the show.

Thiago Silva: Goal scorers get all the attention, but only one Brazilian player can make the case that he’s the best player at his position in the world, and that’s 29 year old Paris Saint-Germain central defender Thiago Silva. He was the only defensive player nominated for FIFA World Player of the Year in 2013. Playing for an offensive minded team alongside David Luiz, an offensive minded defender, his work will be cut out for him.

Players Not There: (Sometimes the Biggest Stories are the Omissions)

Diego Costa: Historically, it has been relatively common for countries to nationalize Brazilians to play for their national teams. However, most all these Brazilians elected to play for these foreign nations because they weren’t good enough to make the Seleccao. For Diego Costa, this was certainly not the case. In fact, Diego Costa would certainly be the starting forward for Brazil.

In fact, if the Brazilians have one weakness, it’s at the forward position. With the 25 year old Diego Costa coming off the best season of his career, Brazil would’ve been a bigger favorite than they already are. Instead he will be suiting up for co-favorites Spain making them all the more formidable. Brazilian Head Coach Felipe Scolari has since described Diego Costa as nothing less than a “traitor”. Should be a fascinating storyline.

Kaka & Ronaldinho:   These two players have many things in common. They’re both Brazlian footballing legends and they’re both creative attacking midfielders. They both have won FIFA World Player of the Year (Kaka in 2007, Ronaldinho in 2005). They both won the World Cup in 2002. (Although Kaka wasn’t a big part of the team yet). They’re both on the wrong side of 30. (Ronaldinho is 34, Kaka is 32) And they both aren’t on this 2014 Brazlian World Cup squad.

Head Coach Filipe Scolari has elected to go with an extremely young –and extremely exciting—roster. We’ll see if they’ll notice the lack of veteran presence.

Coach & Tactics:

Felipe Scolari: The Brazilian manager has a great track record as an International coach. (Never mind his club record) He already won the World Cup in 2002 with Brazil and took Portugal to the European Final in 2004. (Never mind the huge upset to Greece) Brazil re-hired him in 2012 after a disappointing run of for the national team. Wanting to win the World Cup at home, Brazil returned to the one man they knew for sure could do it: Big Phil. And Brazil has been on fire since he arrived.

The Geopolitical Angle:

In 2001 Brazil was named by Goldman Sachs as a “BRIC” nation: the 4 nations with the potential to become economic powers that the company ought to invest in. (The other nations are China, Russia, and India) However, Brazil has largely performed disappointingly since. The preparations for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro have been damning examples.

Many projects aimed at modernizing the nation have failed to be completed or failed to get off the ground altogether. This has led to tens of thousands of people taking to the streets in protest in major cities all across the country. The protests should continue into the World Cup. The protesters are arguing that the country has squandered millions (billions?) of dollars in preparation for sporting events rather than for public employee salaries and badly needed public infrastructure. They claim the World Cup has exposed the amount of corruption which exists within the government. For sure, this will be at the forefront of World Cup coverage.

 

Cameroon:

Things to Know:

Team Nickname: Les LionsIndomptables (Indomitable Lions)

Jersey Colors: Green, Yellow, Red

Population: 23 Million

Official Languages: French & English

Principal Religion: Indigenous Religions (40%) Catholic (40%) Muslim (20%)

GDP: $53 Billion

Team w/ Most Titles:  Coton Sport FC (Garoua); 12 titles

What are the experts saying?

Cameroon has had better teams in the past and most expect them to finish 4th in the group. But then again, I’d venture to say most haven’t seen them play at all.

Soccer History:

Cameroon has one of the better international footballing histories amongst African Nations.

Player(s) to Know:

Samuel Eto’o: This 33 year old Cameroonian may be past his prime, but he has had one of the most brilliant footballing careers around. (His manager, Jose Mourinho, at Chelsea FC claims he’s much older than 33) He is one of only 2 players to twice score in the UEFA Champions League Final and has won Europe’s biggest game 3 times (Twice with Barcelona FC and once with Internazionale of Milan). He’s likely the best African footballer of all time, (depends if you count the late, great Eusebio a Mozambique-born Portuguese) and this could well be his international footballing swan song along with the veteran core of Pierre Webo and Benoit Assou-Ekotto.

Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho claims Eto’o is far older than 33.

Alex Song: The FC Barcelona midfielder has regressed since leaving Arsenal of London in 2012. Despite being part of a strong young core at Arsenal which included Gael Clichy, Cesc Fabregas, and Robin van Persie, Song left tempted by the bright lights of Barcelona’s Camp Nou. But he soon realized what many realize: it’s darn hard to earn regular minutes. So, despite a dearth of playing time the past two season, Song will be required to step into the center of midfield and control both the offensive and defensive tempo for the Indomitable Lions.

Players Not There: (Sometimes the Biggest Stories are the Omissions)

Pierre Webo:   The 32 year old veteran forward currently plays for Fenerbahce of Istanbul and may miss the World Cup after hurting his shoulder while scoring a great bicycle kick goal vs. Macedonia in a pre-World Cup friendly match. His veteran savvy could be a huge loss.

Mohammadou Idrissou: The 34 year old Cameroonian vet had a rough season with German club Kaiserslautern and couldn’t get into rhythm in the World Cup preparation games. Thus he was dropped in the final roster cut. Likely only to be a backup and locker room presence, this will put more pressure on the small Cameroonian contingent of World Cup veterans.

Coach & Tactics:

Volker Finke: Famously in charge of SC Freiburg in Germany for 16 years (1991-2007), Finke has always been known as a tactical innovator. And although his ideas aren’t as new as they once were, they still serve Cameroon well. He knows that whatever he chooses to do, he will have forwards and midfielders who will run, run, and run more. In the heat of Brazil, that might be Volke’s biggest tactical advantage. He has a team of pros who understand that they can trust their coach’s schemes, which is something many teams cannot say.

The Geopolitical Angle:

After World War I Senegal was broken up into two separate administrative divisions: English & French. And although the country was reunited in 1972 there have been problems since. The nation has been under Paul Biya’s authoritarian government since 1982 and now the former British portions of Cameroon are looking to secede. Perhaps a good World Cup performance could be enough for people to set aside their differences, at least for a while.

 

Croatia:

Things to Know:

Team Nickname: Vatreni (The Blazers)

Jersey Colors: Red & White

Population: 4.5 Million

Oficial Language: Croatian

Principal Religion: Catholic (86%)

GDP: $79 Billion

Team w/ Most Titles: Dinamo Zagreb; 16 titles

What are the experts saying?

Most experts are predicting that either Croatia or Mexico will finish second in Group A, but no one sees either team advancing past the Round of 16.

Soccer History:

Croatia’s shining moment came during World Cup 2002 in South Korea & Japan. The Vatreni finished 3rd marking the first major footballing achievement for one of the former Yugoslav republics. Forward Davor Sukor even won the Golden Boot Award for most goals in the tournament.

Player(s) to Know:

Luka Modric: The 28 year old midfielder from Real Madrid just came off what has been the best year of his career after winning the European Champions League. He is undoubtedly Croatia’s best player. He is a two-way midfielder that will be expected to control the tempo of the game and implement his team’s strategy. He’s known around the world for his bouncy long hair and ability to create something beautiful out of nothing in the flow of play.

Luka Modric and the Croatians were forced to play the role of the Washington Senators in the opening game of the World Cup.

Mario Mandzukic: If Modric is Croatia’s best player, Mandzukic may be its most important. Banned from playing in the first game vs. Brazil to a red card suspension in his final World Cup qualification game, Mandzukic is the man the Blazers are going to need to put the ball in the net.

Coming off two great seasons with European giants Bayern Munich, Mandzukic will be playing extremely hard. He is likely to be looking for a new team in this offseason and will want to make an impression.

Players Not There: (Sometimes the Biggest Stories are the Omissions)

Josip Simunic: The veteran defender from Dynamo Zagreb was a key member of the Croatian national team. Unfortunately he will be missing the World Cup after being banned from the World Cup by FIFA for leading Croatia fans in a pro-Nazi salute after the team qualified for the tournament. I think we can all realize that was a big no-no.

Coach & Tactics:

Niko Kovac: The German-born coach, only appointed after Croatia began struggling during qualifying, was a longtime captain of Croatia. Kovac hasn’t been able to fully overhaul the team but one tweak he has made is to let his two talented and offensive minded fullbacks off their leashes. While he may real them back in for the opening game versus Brazil I expect Kovac to instruct them to attack, attack, attack against Cameroon and Mexico, which should lead to some very entertaining up and down games.

The Geopolitical Angle:

Croatia and Slovenia are the only former Yugoslav republics to join the European Union. Croatia has raced to modernize ever since its four year war for independence with Serbia. Since the war ended in 1995 Croatia’s assent finally culminated with its entrance into the E.U. in 2013. So, when Croatia was drawn with Serbia in European qualifying, it was immensely satisfying to qualify over their longtime political and footballing rivals.

P.S. to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver: remember when Croatia, Serbia, and the rest of the former Yugoslavia where supposed to be the next basketball hotbeds? Well, as expected, the NBA let the fad fade and now soccer’s popularity has far surpassed basketball. Maybe the NBA should shorten their season and spend a month touring like soccer has done with much acclaim.

 

Mexico:

Things to Know:

Team Nickname: El Tri (For the 3 Colors of the Mexican Flag)

Jersey Colors: Green & Red

Population: 120 Million

Official Language: Spanish

Principal Religion: Catholic (83%)

GDP: $1.3 Trillion

Team w/ Most Titles: CD Guadalajara & Club America (Mexico City); 11 titles

What are the experts saying?

It wasn’t that long ago that El Tri was considered a team to keep an eye out for. But those supporters have long jumped ship after a gruesome qualifying campaign that saw them barely earn a spot (Thanks USA). Even if they can escape the group, no one sees them winning in the Round of 16.

Soccer History:

Mexico, the giants of the North American, Central American, and Caribbean region, has qualified for every FIFA World Cup since 1994. Along with Brazil and Germany, they are one of only three teams to escape the Group Stage in every World Cup since 1994. They’ve been on the cusp of the joining the elite soccer nations several times, but it has never seemed to come to fruition. The main reason for that is its distance from the traditional cradles of soccer: Europe and South America

Player(s) to Know:

Rafael Marquez: The 34 year old Mexican captain will achieve World Cup history when he steps on the field to play Cameroon in the first game. Marquez will become the first player in football history to captain a nation in four World Cup tournaments. This achievement for the Club Leon midfielder is truly amazing and he should be given his due despite the fact he is far from the player he was in his late twenties. His ability to accurately hit long balls and organize the defense will be essential to Mexico’s success.

Javier Hernandez: The man known as Chicharito, (the little Pea) has been the face of Mexican soccer since he moved to Manchester United from CD Guadalajara in 2010. But because of a consistent lack of playing time with the English giant he will not start in the first game. However his proclivity for scoring as a substitute just may ensure we are likely to hear from the 26 year old striker before all is said and done.

Chicharito Hernandez, the face of Mexican soccer has not had a good 2014 and will not start at the World Cup.

Players Not There: (Sometimes the Biggest Stories are the Omissions)

Carlos Vela: One of the strangest stories going into the World Cup is that Vela, the Mexican forward who plays for Real Sociedad of San Sebastian, is likely Mexico’s best player for the past two and a half years and yet he has continually refused to play for El Tri. More strange, he has consistently dodged giving a concrete reason for doing so. His problems with the Mexican National Team likely stem back to a 2010 incident in which the team banned him for 6 months for organizing a late night party for teammates. Mexico fans and all soccer fans will miss out greatly by not seeing him this summer.

Luis Montes: The 28 year old midfielder from Mexican champion Club Leon has hit his prime over the past 12 months, but unfortunately Montes broke his leg minutes after scoring a great goal vs. Ecuador in a pre-World Cup friendly. Likely to have been a starter he will be missed and will likely be replaced by his Club Leon teammate Carlos Pena.

Coach & Tactics:

Miguel Herrera: The coach left Mexican champions Club America of Mexico City to take over El Tri in late 2013. He was the fourth man to manage the national team in what was a disastrous 2013 qualifying campaign for Mexico which only saw them qualify for the World Cup by the skin of their teeth.

A former player, Herrera is a system coach who employs an unconventional 5-3-2 formation which utilizes five defenders, two of which are offensive minded wingbacks whose jobs are to cross balls into the center of the field where the other 8 outfield players are positioned.

The Geopolitical Angle:

The almost symbiotic economic, political, and cultural relationship between the USA and Mexico are well known, but what may not be known is that those differences have yet to truly carry over to the soccer field. Football-wise both nations are head and shoulders above their fellow regional rivals both domestically and internationally and are constantly forced to play one another. However, the interchange of footballing ideas has yet to occur between the two nations. Interestingly Mexico players Isaac Brizuela and Miguel Ponce were born in Sacramento and San Jose, California respectively but only two American players, Omar Gonzalez, and 3rd string GK Nick Rimando have Mexican blood.

In fact, both Mexican & American football are particularly isolated from the flow of footballing ideas from around the world due primarily to the strength of their domestic leagues. And the flow of ideas back and forth between the two rivals has yet to happen.

Furthermore Mexico’s rivalry with Brazil extends far beyond the football field as the two nations are continuously vying to be the predominant economy in Latin America. While Brazil was named as a member of the BRIC nations, Mexico along with Turkey, Indonesia, and Nigeria has been declared a MINT nation, or “next 4,” with many arguing they should be ahead of Brazil as an immerging market. Whatever the case, don’t expect them to leapfrog Brazil in soccer anytime soon.

 

And, while we’re at it, here are some prominent leagues and teams from around the world you should know before we continue:

UEFA Champion’s League: The most prestigious club soccer tournament in the world, the UEFA Champion’s League pits the best 32 teams from across Europe into a tournament, which like the World Cup contains a qualifying round, a group stage, and a knockout stage. The following is a list of soccer powers from around Europe which routinely make deep runs in the UEFA Champions League and will be supplying the World Cup with an abundance of talent (and likely to be buying those young players who break out during the tournament).

England’s Premier League:

Arsenal (London)

Chelsea (London)

Liverpool

Manchester City

Manchester United

Spain’s La Liga:

Atletico Madrid

FC Barcelona

Real Madrid

Germany’s Bundesliga:

Bayern Munich

Borussia Dortmund

Italy’s Serie A:

AC Milan

Internazionale (Milan)

Juventus (Turin)

Napoli

Roma

France’s Ligue 1:

AS Monaco

Paris Saint-Germain

Portugal’s Primeira Liga:

Benfica (Lisbon)

FC Porto

Netherland’s Eredivisie:

Ajax (Amsterdam)

Russia’s Football Championship:

CSKA Moscow

Zenit St. Petersburg

 

 

Group B:

Australia:

Things to Know:

Team Nickname: The Socceroos

Colors: Yellow & Green

Population: 24 Million

Language: English

Religion: Protestant (29%), Catholic (25%)

GDP: $998 Billion

Team w/ Most Titles: Brisbane Roar; 3 titles

What are the experts saying?

Australia is screwed. No one sees them finishing any higher than a very distant fourth. It’s a little unfair they’re received both 2010 World Cup Finalists in their group, along with a very strong Chilean side.

History:

Australia has qualified for every World Cup since 2006 where they took eventual champions Italy to overtime in the Round of 16 only to lose on a controversial penalty kick. The problem is Australia is relying on many of the same players it did in 2006.

Player(s) to Know:

Tim Cahill: The Red Bull New York designated player is certainly past his prime but he’ll still be expected to produce as a leader on and off the field for the undermanned Socceroos. After having made a name for himself at Everton of Liverpool for many years as a breathless winger, he know features more as a striker due to his reputation as a world class header of goals. His size and strength are a pain for defenders to deal with and it will be interesting to see if this 34 year old has any miles left in the tank.

Despite moving to MLS, Tim Cahill remains the most recognizable Socceroo.

Mile Jedinak: The Aussie of Croatian descent just had a good season manning the midfield for Crystal Palace of London. His play helped the team move up to the Premier League from the second division of English football. The 29 year old Socceroo Captain will be expected to compete against some of the world’s best players in the midfield and fight to win the ball.

Players Not There: (Sometimes the Biggest Stories are the Omissions)

Lucas Neill & Archie Thompson: The two elder statesman of Australia, both of whom participated in the 2010 World Cup, and both of whom were needed in World Cup qualification at times were left off the final roster in lieu of some younger more unproven players.

Coach & Tactics:

Ange Postecoglou: The Greek born, Australian raised coach has not had a ton of time with this squad, only taking over in late 2013. But Postecoglou, raised totally within the Australian soccer system is trying to shape the Socceroos into a squad that reflects the traits Australia as always been known for: speed, strength, and athleticism.

The problem is the squad is still leaning heavily on the generation that played so well in 2006. That generation is on its last legs and the country has not developed footballers as expected since. This is one of the reasons no one expects much from this squad.

The Geopolitical Angle:

Like the U.S.A., Australia, despite its rich sporting history, is a relative newcomer to the game of soccer. Long lauded in sports like tennis, golf, swimming, cricket, rugby, and of course Aussie Rules, the Australians are destined to become a soccer power someday. Really it’s only a matter of when. They have a growing domestic league which will only help in the development of young players and growing the sport’s popularity.

It’s strange that a nation, only armed with 23 million people can be poised to become the World’s 18th member of the trillion dollar GDP club. As this nation grows more prominence on the world stage and as immigrants from around the world continue to flock to their shores, its soccer program is destined to follow close behind.

 

Chile:

Things to Know:

Team Nickname: La Roja (The Red)

Colors: Red, Blue, White

Population: 17 Million

Language: Spanish

Religion: Catholic (67%), Protestant (17%)

GDP: $335 Billion

Team w/ Most Titles: CSD Colo-Colo (Macul); 30 titles

What are the experts saying?

Despite being drawn in a group against two European giants, many still believe Chile can and will advance out of the group. It will be a tall order, but certainly something they can accomplish. They should have an advantage in terms of handling the brutal South American climate.

Soccer History:

Chilean soccer seems to be back. After missing the ’02 & ’06 World Cups, they had a solid run in World Cup South Africa 2010, escaping their group before being beaten soundly by Brazil in the Round of 16.

Player(s) to Know:

Arturo Vidal: A truly dominant force, many have said that the Juventus of Turin midfielder has been the best players in the Italian Serie A for two years running. However his health is in jeopardy as he races to recuperate from a minor knee surgery. His status for the first game is still in doubt and if he cannot go, it will be a huge blow for the La Roja.

Chile is not the same team if Vidal is not 100%.

Alexis Sanchez: The 25 year old FC Barcelona midfielder is likely to move to the English Premier League this summer. While merely a cog in Barcelona’s talented machine, Sanchez will be expected to be the principal creator for Chile, especially since fellow attacking midfielder Matias Fernandez is to miss the World Cup.

Players Not There: (Sometimes the Biggest Stories are the Omissions)

Matias Fernandez: While Arturo Vidal is still in doubt, Chile already know their talented midfielder will not factor in the World Cup due to an ankle injury. The free-kick specialist, who plies his trade for ACF Fiorentina, is coming off an excellent season and will be sorely missed.

Coach & Tactics:

Jorge Sampaoli: The Argentinian coach believes in one thing, attacking relentlessly. Sampaoli’s offensive minded 4-3-3 formation leads to some very entertaining football where the opposing defense is always back on their heels. Expect a lot of attacking down the flanks from this Chilean side.

The Geopolitical Angle:

Chile is a nation in transition ever since the end of Augusto Pinochet’s 17 year reign as dictator. While the country has grown stable and democratic quickly, it has not always been smooth. Since 2011 there have been massive and repeated protests over education reform. While the demands of the students are complicated and varied, essentially they’re arguing for the same thing those in many countries want: more subsidizing of secondary education by the government.

But don’t expect too many protests during the World Cup for this soccer obsessed nation. A study recently showed that the Chilean stock market is the quietest of all world stock markets while their particular national team is playing.

 

Netherlands:

Things to Know:

Team Nickname: Oranje (Orange)

Colors: Orange & White

Population: 17 Million

Official Language: Dutch

Principal Religions: Atheist (42%), Catholic (28%), Protestant (19%)

GDP: $696 Billion

Team w/ Most Titles: AFC Ajax (Amsterdam); 33 titles

What are the experts saying?

Netherlands, the 2010 World runners up , are favored to escape the group based on talent alone. But their history of imploding during major tournaments, due to internal discord, has made the experts wary. This, combined with a feisty Chilean squad, could spell danger for the Oranje if they don’t gel in time.

Soccer History:

The Dutch whose crowing moment came in 1988 when they won the European Championship. But they might be more famous as a bridesmaid, thrice finishing runner up in the World Cup: 1974, 1978, and 2010. But the Dutch influence on the game has been immense ever since Ajax of Amsterdam introduced “Total Football” in the 1970s and was adopted and perfected by FC Barcelona.

Player(s) to Know:

Arjen Robben: The speedy and diminutive winger has never been a popular player despite his immense talent. But no one can dispute that over the past three years he and France’s Franck Ribery have formed the most dangerous flank attack in football for Bayern Munich. As talented as he is, he can disappear at times, especially in big moments. There is no doubt that he will be vital to Netherland’s success.

Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie will form one of World Cup’s most lethal duos

Robin van Persie: The Dutch captain, like most Manchester United players, is coming off a bad season. But the 30 year old forward is undoubtedly still one of the top 5 goal scorers when in form. His close relationship with head coach Louis van Gaal should ensure that he’s put into a position to succeed. Van Persie, along with Robben, Wesley Sneijder, and Nigel De Jong are part of a golden generation of Dutch soccer which has one last chance at glory.

Players Not There: (Sometimes the Biggest Stories are the Omissions)

Rafael van der Vaart: Also a member of the golden generation. The attacking midfielder who plays for Hamburger SV of the German Bundesliga will miss World Cup 2014 with a calf injury. The savvy veteran would’ve been a key offensive substitute for the Oranje in this tournament.

Kevin Strootman: The absence of the injured defensive midfielder has forced coach Louis van Gaal to completely rethink his tactics. In fact, aside from France’s Franck Ribery, I would dare say the 24 year old Strootman is the most important injury of the tournament. The young player just finished a superb season for Roma of Italy’s Serie A. Strootman has already proven to be a fabulous two way midfielder and played excellently at the core of the Netherlands formation during their dominating World Cup qualification run.

Coach & Tactics:

Louis van Gaal: The whole world will be watching this Dutch side intently, mostly because of Louis van Gaal. Why? Because after the World Cup, the Dutchman will be taking over England’s most storied club: Manchester United. Failure to advance past the group could create doubt amongst United’s tough fanbase.

Tactically, van Gaal has taken a big risk converting Holland to an unorthodox 5-3-2 formation after an excellent qualification campaign. The coach believes that this formation gives a weak defense plenty of cover while still allowing all of Netherland’s best players to start.

The Geopolitical Angle:

The Dutch have always had a bit of minority flavor in their national team, especially in regards to its Indo-Surinamese and Afro-Dutch populations. But much like its neighbor Belgium, it has a growing Islamic population, mostly Moroccan and Turkish. But unlike Belgium, its national team has yet to reflect this minority which accounts for 5% of the population. There has been much made in the Netherlands of this Muslim “problem”, but I expect it to be a benefit down the road for this small nation with a storied international footballing history.

 

Spain:

Things to Know:

Team Nickname: La Furia Roja (The Red Fury)

Colors: Red & Blue

Population: 47 Million

Official Language: Spanish (Also Castillian, Galicean, & Basque regionally)

Principal Religion: Catholic (94%)

GDP: $1.4 Trillion

Team w/ Most Titles: Real Madrid; 32 titles

What are the experts saying?

A European team has never won a World Cup staged in South America, but if there’s someone who can buck that trend it is Spain. Stacked with World Class players they’re the among the “Big 4” favorites of Brazil, Argentina, Spain, and Germany.

Soccer History:

This incarnation of the Spanish national team has been one of the most decorated teams of all time winning the European Championships in 2008 and 2012 as well as the 2010 World Cup. They are looking to become the first team ever to win four straight major tournaments.

Player(s) to Know:

Diego Costa: Perhaps the biggest storyline in this World Cup will be Diego Costa. The Brazilian born Atletico Madrid forward is coming off an amazing season which saw him injured toward the end. But 2013 also saw Diego Costa declare his allegiance for Spain rather than his native Brazil. If he is healthy and he is starting and playing well for Spain he could become the story, especially for the over 200 million Brazilians who desperately want to win the World Cup as host.

“One of Ours” reads this Spanish headline. Spain beat Brazil without ever stepping on the field.

Xavi Hernandez: The FC Barcelona midfielder has already cemented his legacy as one of the best players of all time. But the 34 year old still has a bit of soccer left, and I expect that the Catalan legend believes this World Cup could be his swan song (perhaps before moving to MLS?). He and Barcelona teammate Sergio Busquets will be required to control the tempo in midfield, especially defensively.

Players Not There: (Sometimes the Biggest Stories are the Omissions)

Fernando Llorente, Alvaro Negredo, Roberto Soldado: What do these men have in common besides the fact they’ll all be 29 by end of summer? They’re all Spanish strikers who couldn’t make the Spanish team over Fernando Torres, David Villa, and an injured Diego Costa. Soldado, admittedly had a bad season with Tottenham Hotspur of London. But Negredo and especially Llorente had fine seasons with Manchester City and Juventus of Turin respectively.

Coach & Tactics:

Vicente Del Bosque: The Spaniard for several tournaments has used the spine of an excellent FC Barcelona squad as the foundation for his national team, rounding out the starting XI with Real Madrid players.

Unconventional and often forsaking the use of a traditional forward for an extra midfielder, Del Bosque has taken Barcelona’s “Tiki-Taka” style to a whole new level. He often will start six midfielders in an unique 4-6-0 formation which can implement “Tiki-Taka” to the extreme.

What is “Tiki-Taka?” it’s a style of play that believes dominating ball possession with short passes and little time spent on the ball is in fact the best defense. When you watch Spain play, notice you will never ever see a Spaniard touch the ball more than three times before passing.

The Geopolitical Angle:

On the heels of Scottish Referendum for Independence which will take place in September, the Catalans are starting to mumble for secession as well, especially as the Spanish economy continues to struggle. Spain, which also has Basque and Galician regions with strong cultures, has struggled for a national identity ever since the fall of Francisco Franco. Perhaps only during Spain games does the nation root as one (well at least for some). The dominance of this squad which utilizes key players of Castilian, Catalan, and Basque decent could perhaps not be coming at a better time.

 

Group C:

Colombia:

Things to Know:

Team Nickname: Los Cafeteros (The Coffee Growers)

Jersey Colors: Yellow & Blue

Population: 48 Million

Official Language: Spanish

Principal Religion: Catholic (90%)

GDP: $527 Billion

Team w/ Most Titles: Atletico Nacional (Medellin) & Millonarios FC (Bogota); 14 titles each

What are the experts saying?

As the World Cup approached, Colombia had attained “Dark Horse” status along with Belgium. But then tragedy struck when Radamel Falco, their best player by a long way, ruptured his ACL earlier this year. Despite this, they are still stacked with talent but experts vary widely on how far they go.

Soccer History:

Colombia has a long and distinguished history or being World Cup underachievers. This is their first World Cup since 1998. There most famous appearance was probably 1994 when, favored to perform excellently, they bombed out early. Tragically defender Andres Escobar scored a horrendous own goal versus the U.S. in that World Cup and was later on murdered in Colombia for his gaff.

Player(s) to Know:

James Rodriguez: The Monaco midfielder has had an excellent season at AC Monaco setting up fellow Colombian Radamel Falcao with goal scoring opportunities. Now, Rodriguez we be expected to play centrally and be the principal creator for the speedy Colombian offense. He will need to develop a chemistry with Jackson Martinez akin to what he has had with Falcao.

Jackson Martinez: With the absence of Radamel Falcao, it will be Jackson Martinez, the 27 year old FC Porto striker, expected to carry the offense. Although he is no slouch, he’s no Falcao. Whether paired with another striker or playing alone up top, he is capable of being one of the bigger stars to emerge from this tournament. Expect to hear a lot of big clubs chasing the Portuguese if he is scoring.

Players Not There: (Sometimes the Biggest Stories are the Omissions)

Radamel Falcao: There is no doubt that the AC Monaco forward, when at his best, is one of the best four of five forwards in the world. He, along with Franck Ribery of France will be the most high profile name to miss the World Cup to injury. Although loaded with offensive talent, nothing Colombia has can quite match the excellence of Falcao.

Unfortunately for Colombia their big story will be the absence of their star forward.

Coach & Tactics:

Jose Pekerman: The Argentine has developed Colombia into an extremely dangerous team by unleashing its depth of offensively minded midfielders and forwards. Originally led by Falcao, the keys to this sports car of a team will now be handed to Martinez & Rodriguez to share. Whether lining up in a 4-2-2-2 or a 4-2-3-1, expect the Cafeteros to press forward hard in search of goals.

If there is a weakness to this squad, it’s the center of defense which is led by the legendary (but 38 year old) Mario Yepes. Yepes, despite his advanced age, will be expected to use his brain to keep the team defensively organized.

The Geopolitical Angle:

The politics of Colombia has always been well known due to the nation’s association to the drug trade. And the absence of Colombia from the World Cup since 1994 despite its soccer talent is not a coincidence. Time and again we see that there are tangible connections between economics, politics, and football.

Things in Colombia, are far from good, but the nation is slowly improving. Perhaps the football program could be a catalyst for change in the nation that so sorely needs it?

 

Greece:

Things to Know:

Team Nickname: To Piratiko (The Pirate Ship)

Jersey Colors: Blue & White

Population: 11 Million

Official Language: Greek

Principal Religion: Greek Orthodox (98%)

GDP: $267 Billion

Team w/ Most Titles: Olympiacos (Athens); 41 titles

What are the experts saying?

Being that Group C has by far the most parity, experts opinions on Greece vary widely. But generally the consensus would be that although the should perform admirably, they will likely not advance.

Soccer History:

While Columbia may have a reputation of being perennial underachievers, Greece has quite the opposite reputation. Greece’s shining moment came during the 2004 European Championship where they stunned the Continent by winning the whole thing. And although they haven’t come close to winning a major tournament since, they remain the consummate overachievers.

Player(s) to Know:

Kostas Mitroglou: The talented Greek forward was not able to make the most of his January transfer to Fulham of London from Olympiakos of Athens. But nevertheless he will be expected to be a focal point of the Greek attack along with Celtic of Glasgow forward Georgios Samaras.

Kostas Mitroglou is going to show Fulham fans he should’ve played more.

Sokratis: The young Borussia Dortmund defender will be asked to set the foundation of what the Greeks do best: play defense. And while normally the Greek team excels because of its ability to defend as one, Sokratis provides a new and exciting aspect to the Greek defense: individual ability. The 26 year old is in his prime and is more than capable of going mano-a-mano with the group’s best strikers.

Players Not There: (Sometimes the Biggest Stories are the Omissions)

Sotiris Ninis: The Greek roster lacked any real surprises, but the PAOK of Thessaloniki forward was supposed to be a future superstar. Shooting to domestic superstardom with Panathinaikos FC of Athens, the 24 year old has regressed after failing to impress at Parma of Italy’s Serie A. But there’s still plenty of time for the youngster to bounce back and be an integral part of Euro 2016 or World Cup 2018.

Coach & Tactics:

Fernando Santos: Defense. Defense. Defense. This has always been the trademark of Greek soccer, and this year’s version of the team is no different. In 10 World Cup qualification games Greece only scored 10 goals, but they also only conceded 4. That is the kind of soccer you can expect to see from Greece. It may not be the most exciting style, but it is always entertaining to watch how their system can absolutely frustrate sides with far more talent.

Santos despite being Portuguese, has fully adopted the Greek style and implemented a 4-3-3 formation where the defenders never help in the attack, thus making attacking the Greeks all the more difficult.

The Geopolitical Angle:

The Greeks, despite playing in Europe, have perhaps the most isolated footballing culture on the continent. They are only just now starting to have their best players go abroad to take in the various European football philosophies. For one of the most mono-ethnic countries in Europe, could this be a much needed foreshadowing of Greek business and culture? Their economy has famously struggled this past decade mostly because of the nation’s unapologetically Xenophobic culture. Despite their penchant for hiring foreign coaches, their style has always been uniquely Greek. But I would expect that to change in the not too distant future.

 

Ivory Coast

Things to Know:

Team Nickname: Les Elephants (The Elephants)

Jersey Colors: Orange, Green, & White

Population: 23 Million

Official Language: French

Principal Religion: Muslim (39%), Christian (32%), Indigenous Beliefs (12%)

GDP: $44 Billion

Team w/ Most Titles:  ASEC Mimosas (Abidjan); 24 titles

What are the experts saying?

There are many who expect the now aged “golden generation” of Cote D’Ivoire to make one last run in this tournament, but because of the balance in the group, no one is sure.

Soccer History:

The aforementioned “golden generation” of Cote D’Ivoire helmed by 38 year old Didier Drogba has just enough talent left to make some noise, but they have underwhelmed in both 2006 and 2010 after much was expected from them. Whatever happens, there is no doubt Ivory Coast has been and will remain and African footballing superpower.

Player(s) to Know:

Yaya Toure: The cog to Manchester City’s championship midfield this season, the 31 year old may actually be in his prime. Originally a center back at FC Barcelona in his younger days, the Ivorian has turned into one of the finest two-way midfielders in the world. When his head his on straight, Toure is capable of protecting the defense as well as scoring some of the prettiest and most athletic goals you will ever see.

Brothers Kolo (left) and Yaya Toure will form the spine for Ivory Coast

Gervinho: The Roma midfielder is undisputedly coming off his finest season of his career at age 27 and it couldn’t come at a better time. In fact, he may have had a great season because he developed so much confidence as the focal point of Cote D’Ivoire’s attack during the African championships in 2013. Despite struggling at Arsenal of London, the Ivorian is primed to set up the fleet of goal scorers the Elephants possess such as Wilfred Bony, Salomon Kalou, and Didier Drogba.

Players Not There: (Sometimes the Biggest Stories are the Omissions)

Lacina Traore & Seydou Doumbia: The two young forwards, aged 24 and 26 respectively, are undoubtedly talented, but suffer from the abundance of forward talent on the Ivory Coast roster. Unfortunately for them, coach Sabri Lamouchi was forced to fill the roster with defenders and midfielders as well.

Coach & Tactics:

Sabri Lamouchi: Ivory Coast shocked the soccer world (and perhaps even themselves) when they hired the novice French manager of Tunisian decent. And despite Ivory Coast seeming to have immediately been rooting against him, he guided Cote D’Ivoire effortlessly through qualification.

Like many young coaches, he enjoys offensive football and often utilizes a 4-3-3 to best get his best players on the field together. It will be fun to see if this talented team can finally make the deep run so many have waited for.

The Geopolitical Angle:

Like many African nations, the country is suffering from inter-ethnic conflict. But a new rash of violent clashes has put the Ivory Coast back on the forefront. Much of this stems from the current ousting of former president Laurent Gbagbo, who is currently on trial for crimes against humanity. We can only hope that Ivory Coast’s football team finally lives up to its potential and is able to heal a nation, at least for a summer.

 

Japan:

Things to Know:

Team Nickname: The Blue Samurai

Jersey Colors: Blue & White

Population: 127 Million

Official Language: Japanese

Principal Religion: Shintoism (83.9%), Buddhism (71.4%)

GDP: $4.7 Trillion

Team w/ Most Titles: Kashima Antlers; 7 titles

What are the experts saying?

Japan could just as easily finish fourth in the group as they could make a run to the quarterfinals. It will depend on whether their excellent midfield can make up for some of the other big faults of the team such as lack of a good goalkeeper or goal scorer.

Soccer History:

Despite the fact that South Korea was the team who made the big run in World Cup 2002 (co-hosted by S. Korea & Japan), Japan has emerged as the team to beat in Asia ever since.

Player(s) to Know:

Kaisuke Honda: The Japanese who just moved to AC Milan in January is undisputedly the keystone to everything the Blue Samurai do. Often a two-way midfielder and occasionally a winger, for Japan, there is no doubt that Honda is an offensive player. He will play the #10 role, an advanced midfield position often given to a team’s best player. Because of the weakness at striker, expect Honda to be aggressive in looking for his own opportunities to score.

Keisuke Honda (Left) and Shinji Kagawa are by far the best and most well known Japanese players

Shinji Kagawa: The Manchester United midfielder is coming off a mediocre season, but no one would argue he doesn’t have talent. And as Japan’s second best player, he’ll be needed to attack, attack, attack, by putting pressure on opposing defenses by cutting in from the left side. Although offensive minded, he is not a natural goal scorer, but is certainly capable of putting defenders on their back heels.

Players Not There: (Sometimes the Biggest Stories are the Omissions)

Hajime Hosogai: The 28 year old who played a key role for Hertha Berlin in their first year back in the top level of German football was a surprise omission from the World Cup squad. Hosogai is a versatile player, capable of playing fullback and defensive midfield. For a team that is less than spectacular at the back, one would’ve thought he’d come in handy at some point.

Coach & Tactics:

Alberto Zaccheroni: One of three Italian coaches in the World Cup, (Cesare Prandelli for Italy, and Fabio Capello for Russia being the others) Zaccheroni is the ideal man to lead the technically inclined Blue Samurai. Often stereotyped as culture of overly robotic and disciplined men, Japan is equipped with plenty of stylistically inclined players with some flare.

Zaccheroni has encouraged this kind of play within his typical and defensively sound 4-2-3-1 formation. Both Honda and Shinji Kagawa are expected to dictate play from the midfield and both will do so will plenty of skill. Japan will be a fun team to watch.

The Geopolitical Angle:

Note to Bud Selig: Don’t let Yu Darvish and MasahiroTanaka’s success the past two years fool you, soccer’s popularity in Japan is booming. The J-League has been a success and has begun to attract elder stars such as Uruguay’s Diego Forlan. If a country with the population and resources of Japan wants to be good at something, eventually they will be. It would not surprise me at all to see soccer be more popular than Japan in the next dozen years or less.

Japan has a proud athletic tradition, especially in individual sports. But they have enough to succeed both in baseball and soccer as they are the only team sports of consequence in the nation. And they are currently doing what all good soccer nations do: importing good coaches and sending stars abroad. Never underestimate the Blue Samurai. That’s all I’m saying.

 

Group D:

Costa Rica:

Things to Know:

Team Nickname: Los Ticos (El/La Tico/a is a nickname for Costa Ricans)

Jersey Colors: Red

Population: 4.7 Million

Official Language: Spanish

Principal Religion: Catholic (76%), Evangelical (14%)

GDP: $61 Billion

Team w/ Most Titles: Deportiva Saprissa (San Jose); 30 titles

What are the experts saying?

Many experts look at Costa Rica as a squad with some talented players. And although there are several who foresee Los Ticos capable of really playing spoiler; most ultimately see them finishing fourth in the group.

Soccer History:

Costa Rica has a solid soccer history, long being the third wheel in the region behind the USA and Mexico. But missing out on World Cup 2010 to bitter rivals Honduras was devastating to the tiny soccer nation. Unsurprisingly they bounced back with a strong qualification campaign.

Player(s) to Know:

Celso Borges: The son of a Brazilian footballer, the talented 26 year old currently plays for AIK of Stockholm. He will likely be placed in the center of coach Jorge Luis Pinto’s formation and will be expected to contribute both offensively and defensively.

Keylor Navas: Pound for pound, the Levante of Valencia goalkeeper is one of the best in the tournament. And he will be sorely needed to keep the pesky Ticos in contention to win games in this stacked group D.

Keylor Navas could play the ultimate spoiler in Group D.

Players Not There: (Sometimes the Biggest Stories are the Omissions)

Bryan Oviedo: The Everton of Liverpool fullback is probably Costa Rica’s best player. His ability to contribute offensively from defense will not be able to be replaced. He may eventually be replaced by Red Bull New York’s Roy Miller who has performed admirably as a left back for the MLS club for several years.

Alvaro Saborio: The Real Salt Lake Designated-Player was the one forward Costa Rica had who was capable of being physical with the world’s best central defenders. Now the goal scoring duties will be handed over the small but fast as lightning Joel Campbell who had a great season at Olympiakos of Athens on loan from Arsenal of London.

Coach & Tactics:

Jorge Luis Pinto: The Colombian has been leading the Ticos for three years now and did what he was expected to do: return Costa Rica to the World Cup after they missed out on 2010. Coaching Costa Rica for the second time, Pinto utilizes a pragmatic approach, often implementing the use of five defenders, knowing that Costa Rica is often outmanned.

But this version of the Ticos while possessing some individual talent, but has been hit hard by the injury bug. Therefore expect Pinto to really stick to his traditionally defensive approach.

The Geopolitical Angle:

By far the most stable country in Central America, this small soccer obsessed nation draws its players from two very distinct regions: the Central Valley and the Province of Limon. Limon province has far more African cultural influence, when the British brought in Jamaican labor to help complete the railroad that connected San Jose with Puerto Limon. Some of the more isolated Afro-Costa Rican communities still speak an English Creole.

Meanwhile the Central Valley which includes the major cities of San Jose, Heredia, and Alajuela remains more Latin in scope while hosting nearly one third of the nation’s population. But while many believe the Costa Rican government doesn’t assist Limon the way it ought, there’s no doubt the two regions have come together to create one singular soccer culture.

 

England:

Things to Know:

Team Nickname: Three Lions

Jersey Colors: White

Population: 53 Million

Official Language: English

Principal Religion: Protestant (35%), Catholic (10%) (UK)

GDP: $2.4 Trillion (UK)

Team w/ Most Titles: Manchester United; 13 titles

What are the experts saying?

It’s almost become cliché at this point to say England are no longer an elite team, but all of a sudden the experts have come back around. With Uruguay seemingly weakened by Luis Suarez’s absence, most see England finishing second and advancing.

Soccer History:

You may be surprised to know that England’s recent soccer history isn’t all that great. They failed to qualify for FIFA World Cup 2014 as well as the 2008 European Championships. For a nation with the world’s best league this is quite embarrassing. Some believe England, World Cup winners in 1966, will never win the Cup again.

Player(s) to Know:

Wayne Rooney: Still the best English footballer, the 28 year old Rooney should be in his prime, ready to lead a talented offense. Now however, England fans wonder if Rooney will even start the first game against Italy. The Manchester United man may not be the ideal fit for Roy Hodgson if he decides to build his team around Liverpool. Either way, Rooney will have a part to play in this tournament.

Wayne Rooney is still England’s best.

Steven Gerrard: The 34 year old Liverpool legend (an incredibly beloved legend with no limit of YouTube tribute videos), who has never played well for England, is coming off his finest season in several years. After many wondered if he was done, he came back strong as a deep lying midfielder and will look to reprise that role with England. The English captain with speed and youth all around him will seek to spray his accurate passes all over the field putting pressure on opposing defenses.

Players Not There: (Sometimes the Biggest Stories are the Omissions)

Theo Walcott & Kyle Walker: The two right sided players would’ve fit in well with the team Roy Hodgson has built. Walcott, a winger, and Walker, a fullback, are 25 and 24 respectively and loaded with speed. Walcott in particular was having a career year until he tore his ACL earlier in 2014. They certainly would’ve made the team if not for injuries.

John Terry: The legendary Chelsea defender and former England captain is coming off a fabulous season playing alongside fellow Englishman Gary Cahill. But he retired from international football and never once wavered or showed a desire to come back.

Coach & Tactics:

Roy Hodgson: The well-traveled coach who has had stops at Internazionale of Milan and Liverpool along the way shocked the English press by selecting a young team loaded with speed and youth. Although Hodgson often plays a fairly straightforward 4-4-2, his starting XI now is more of a 4-3-3 as he has sought built around Liverpool’s English contingent of Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson, Daniel Sturridge, Glen Johnson, and Raheem Sterling. The only real question for England is will the inexperience of the young players come to bite Hodgson in the butt?

The Geopolitical Angle:

Are England’s footballing failures a symbol of the United Kingdom’s decreasing international importance? Hardly. The strength of the English Premier League shows the economic strength of England on World football as well as the European marketplace. Despite the strength of the top teams in Spain and Germany, there’s no doubt that top to bottom the EPL is the best league in the World, with the greatest depth of great players. While other leagues have a big 1, big 2, or big 3, England has a big 6 when it comes to number of elite teams.

Meanwhile England believes it is in crisis. The English FA just released a report on what it could do to enhance the quality of English footballers. Their big idea: B Teams in the lower levels of football. But it’s far more likely that their downfall is likely their greed. The Premier League plays more games than the other major European Leagues, and does so without the typical winter break. England only needs to produce about 15-18 world class players a generation. That is certainly within their reach. They just need to calm down a bit and ditch the persistant negative energy te press creates around the team.

 

Italy:

Things to Know:

Team Nickname: El Azzurri (The Blues)

Jersey Colors: Blue

Population: 60 Million

Official Language: Italian

Principal Religion: Catholic (80%)

GDP: $1.8 Trillion

Team w/ Most Titles: Juventus (Turin); 30 titles

What are the experts saying?

Italy has some issues, but most still predict Italy to finish atop the group and to make plenty of noise during the knockout stage.

Soccer History:

Italy has one of the best World Cup histories this side of the Atlantic, last winning the World Cup in 2006 (you may remember Zidane’s head-butt). Only Germany can boast the history of trophies and medals in Europe.

Player(s) to Know:

Mario Balotelli: Born to Ghanian immigrants, he was adopted at the age of 3 by the Balotelli family and the AC Milan forward is a favorite of marketers and journalists alike. But he can also be a coaches nightmare. Supremely talented, and occasionally moody, the 23 year old’s ability to focus is the difference between Italy being a good team or a great team. Balotelli is capable of scoring some of the most incredible goals you will ever see. Just go look at his semifinal performance versus Germany at Euro 2012.

Mario Balotelli has always attracted the Press.

Andrea Pirlo: The 35 year old is an Italian legend, and his ability to stay a vital part of both Juventus of Turin and Italy after the age of thirty has been astounding to watch. In fact, both teams in many ways are designed around his skill set. But at 35 it will vital for Cesare Prandelli to find spots to rest him. Because Italy can’t make a run if he’s not lying back sending beautiful long balls all over the field to the powerful forwards.

Players Not There: (Sometimes the Biggest Stories are the Omissions)

Giuseppe Rossi: The diminutive 26 year old Fiorentina forward is a fan favorite. But he has been amongst the last cuts made from the roster both in 2006 and 2010. He has also stated his displeasure and disbelief of these facts. But the player, born in New Jersey will get no sympathy from USA fans, many of whom believe he is a traitor that markets himself abroad as “American” despite never considering to play for the red, white, and blue.

Ricardo Montolivo: The AC Milan midfielder was expected to start, but after suffering an injury in a tune-up match, he will be missing the World Cup. Half Italian, half German, Montolivo is a veteran of both Euro 2012 and World Cup 2010 where he started all the games. His ability to both defend and attack will be missed.

Coach & Tactics:

Cesare Prandelli: The 56 year old manager is looking to change Italy’s identity during this World Cup. Italy long famed for its “Catenaccio” style of play. Catenaccio, or the door-bolt, is a lock down defensive style of play. It is ideal for low scoring tournament play and has helped Italy win four World Cups.

But Prandelli, using a core of Juventus players (Gianluigi Buffon, Claudio Marchisio, Andrea Pirlo, Andrea Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci) has been one of the most offensive minded Italian coaches ever. Italy’s Serie A has fallen in prestige behind Germany and Spain over the last decade. And yet the country has remained isolated, with all its major stars playing in Italy and its brilliant coaching minds leaving to coach elsewhere. Could Prandelli help usher in a new age for Italian football?

The Geopolitical Angle:

Italy, always a divided and regional nation, has always had one thing to unify the country: the Azurri. But, it has always been a bit of an isolationist nation as well. This has not just hurt the Italian economy, but the football program as well. Serie A has fallen behind Germany, England, and Spain in footballing prestige, something unthinkable just 20 years ago. Fully 20 of 23 Azurri players are based in Serie A while the other 3 all play for Paris Saint-Germain. The nation is neither receiving the influx of immigrant players nor swapping tactical ideas with other nations. This is crazy for a nation which prides itself on being at the tactical cutting edge. Perhaps Italy needs more than just a change in its football culture, but in its national psyche as well.

 

Uruguay:

Things to Know:

Team Nickname: La Celeste (Sky Blue)

Jersey Colors: Sky Blue

Population: 3.3 Million

Official Language: Spanish

Principal Religion: Catholic (47%), Other Christian (11), Atheist (17%)

GDP: $56 Billion

Team w/ Most Titles: Club Nacional (Montevideo); 11 titles

What are the experts saying?

Originally a hot pick to run deep into the tournament, the last second surgery to Luis Suarez has changed a lot of minds. The consensus now seems to be that they will finish third in this group.

Soccer History:

You can never count out this itty-bitty soccer mad nation. They finished 3rd at World Cup 2010 and followed that up by winning the 2011 South American Championships. Their team may be a bit old, but their team is stacked with winners.

Player(s) to Know:

Edinson Cavanni: The striker from Paris Saint-Germain formed one of the world’s best forward tandems with Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic. And now he’ll need to do so again with Liverpool’s Luis Suarez if this team is to make any noise like it did in 2010.

Edison Cavanni (left) & Luis Suarez are by far the deadliest striker pairing in Brazil

Luis Suarez: There is no doubt the Liverpool striker had perhaps the best 2013-14 season of anyone in the world. Suarez tied Cristiano Ronaldo’s single season EPL scoring record with 31 goals, despite being suspended for the first five games for a biting incident. And really, it’s that kind of madness that makes Suarez so much fun to follow.

Players Not There: (Sometimes the Biggest Stories are the Omissions)

Andres Scotti: Head coach Oscar Tabarez has not picked a single domestic based player to his squad and Andres Scotti seems to be the one who has suffered for it. How it is this nation of 3.3 million people is able to provide so much talent to leagues around the world? It’s much like how MLB has developed the Dominican Republic over the past twenty years. But with so many bigger and wealthier nations committing to soccer, could this be Uruguay’s final years atop the soccer food chain?

Coach & Tactics:

Oscar Tabarez: The 67 year old has been in charge of Uruguay since 2006 and has overseen the Uruguayan renaissance of the past few years. However the Golden Generation of Diego Lugano and Diego Forlan is now aging and the team is shaky at the back. They’ll rely heavily on their pair of World Class strikers, which will not work if Luis Suarez can’t go in their games versus England and Italy.

The Geopolitical Angle:

Uruguayan President Jose Mujica has made a lot of headlines recently. Time Magazine recently called him one of the World’s top 100 pioneers for his legalization of marijuana which he has used to cull drug crime in his nation. He also donates 90% of his salary to charity and was a former guerilla fighter.

But can any man turn Uruguay into an economically stable economy? The future of their proud soccer program may depend on it.

 

Group E:

Ecuador:

Things to Know:

Team Nickname: Amarillos (The Yellows)

Jersey Colors: Yellow & Blue

Population: 16 Million

Official Language: Spanish

Principal Religion: Catholic (95%)

GDP: $158 Billion

Team w/ Most Titles: Barcelona SC (Guayaquil); 14 titles

What are the experts saying?

Ecuador has been the forgotten team to come out of South America, with most experts forgetting they finished above critic’s darling Uruguay. But they will have a tough time qualifying. It could all come down to their game versus Switzerland.

Soccer History:

Ecuador has become a more consistent soccer performer qualifying for the World Cup in 2002, 2006, and 2014. Their best moment came when they qualified for the Round of 16 in 2006 only to be eliminated by a brilliant David Beckham free kick (no comment on the Dave O’Brien call).

Player(s) to Know:

Antonio Valencia: The Manchester United man has long been the most high profile Ecuadorian on the international scene. Manning the right flank, he will utilize his speed and defensive ability to cover lots of ground and initiate attacks from seemingly nowhere.

Jefferson Montero: Likely to be stationed on the left flank opposite Antonio Valencia will be Monarcas Morelia left winger Jefferson Montero. The 24 year old will be expected to perform at the level of his compatriot Valencia, because with the absence of a world class striker, goal duties will be part of Montero’s responsibilities.

Players Not There: (Sometimes the Biggest Stories are the Omissions)

Christian Benitez: The man nicknamed “Chucho” was the main man for Ecuador scoring all their big goals. But the big forward who for many years starred for Mexican League Power Club America of Mexico City tragically died of sudden heart failure in July 2012 about a month after transferring to El Jaish of Doha, Qatar. (But don’t worry guys, I bet staging a World Cup in Qatar’s summer heat in 2022 will be a real smart idea!)

All soccer fans were deprived after the sudden death of Ecuadorian star Christian “Chucho” Benitez.

Coach & Tactics:

Reinaldo Rueda: The third of three Colombian coaches at the World Cup (none of whom are coaching Colombia), Rueda has been in charge since 2010. He was guiding Ecuador comfortably into the World Cup in what is always a tough South American qualification system until the death of “Chucho” Benetiz really seemed to affect the team. They then limped across the finish line, but still managed to qualify in front of Uruguay.

Ecuador’s tactics are simple, stay back, play defense and hope to counter attack down the flanks with the speed of Montero and Valencia.

The Geopolitical Angle:

Ecuador is sometimes the forgotten South American country. Not much news ever seems to come out of this small nation on the equator. But the reality is there’s a lot happening in this country recently. The relations with the United States have been strained, as the Ecuadorian government believes the US influence in the region is too strong.

Now, Ecuador faces the crisis of many developing nations: a fight over what’s needed to advance in the global marketplace versus what’s needed to maintain a nation’s identity. Just in May, Ecuador, a nation renowned for its biodiversity and ecological track record, announced it will permit oil drilling in Yasuni National Forest in the Amazon. What is a nation, seeking to increase revenue to do?

 

France:

Things to Know:

Team Nickname: Les Blues (The Blue)

Jersey Colors: Blue & White

Population: 66 Million

Official Language: French

Principal Religion: Catholic (85%)

GDP: $2.3 Billion

Team w/ Most Titles: Saint-Etienne; 10 titles

What are the experts saying?

Most felt the French lucked out with an easy group after what was a lackluster World Cup qualification campaign. But no one really knows what to expect from them in the knockout rounds, especially after the loss of the great Franck Ribery to injury.

Soccer History:

France has only been a World Cup power for about 15 years or so. But in that time, they have been to two World Cup Championship Games winning it all in 2002 on home soil. However they have a history of really falling flat when they aren’t organized, like in 2002 and in 2010.

Player(s) to Know:

Karim Benzema: Part of the great BBC triumvirate of Real Madrid (Bale, Benzema, Cristiano), Benzema will be expected to be a to carry the load of goal scoring duties. The problem is that while at Read Madrid he’s flanked by two of the top wingers in the game, for France he will not have the same level of service, especially after Franck Ribery, his primary playmaker is to miss the World Cup.

Paul Pogba: The 21 year old midfielder will have a lot of eyes on him during this World Cup. The young Juventus man is considered a bit of a soccer prodigy and if he performs for France, he could be headed for a really big transfer free after the tournament. He along with Blais Matuidi will be important pacesetters for Les Blues from the center of the field.

Players Not There: (Sometimes the Biggest Stories are the Omissions)

Franck Ribery: The Bayern Munich winger is easily the biggest name to be missing the 2014 World Cup. The 31 year old just finished 3rd in the FIFA player of the year balloting and was expected to pair with Karim Benzema to form a potent attacking duo. But after being affected by a persistent back problem he will miss out.

The biggest star to miss the World Cup will be French winger Franck Ribery.

Samir Nasri & Gael Clichy: The young and talented Manchester City duo has been left off the squad despite finishing the Premier League as Champions. Clichy was left off because he lost his starting spot to Serbian Aleksandar Kolarov. But it was leaving off the 26 year old Sami Nasri that made the most noise. Despite having by far his best season as a pro and being an integral part to City’s success, head coach Didier Deschamps said that Nasri was a problem in the locker room when he doesn’t start.

Coach & Tactics:

Didier Deschamps: Has been thrown for a loop with the loss of Franck Ribery, but the former French great seems to like it best when he can shape the team he prefers, and not necessarily when he’s forced to find a place for all his stars.

Deschamps seems committed to his 4-2-3-1 formation, but with the absence of Ribery, the team’s leader in international goals, he may need to change it up. That could mean playing two strikers at times, perhaps pairing Benzema with Arsenal of London’s Olivier Giroud or perhaps with the speedy Loic Remy who played for Newcastle United on loan last season. But in the end, Deschamps seems to prefer workman like wingers to star strikers. Perhaps, the French, after all their high profile ego clashing will be able to succeed

The Geopolitical Angle:

Perhaps no national team more accurately reflects the changing face of their immigration demographics than France. Even going back to the days of Claude Makalele and Zinedine Zidane, the sub-Saharan and French-Algerian flavor of France has been strong. On this team Benzema is the only player of North African decent due to the exclusion of Nasri. But the African-French connection is strong.

The infamous 2010 meltdown of the French team along racial lines (led by the controversial Nicolas Anelka), doesn’t seem to be any different than the rabid debates going on in France about the growing immigrant populations. Perhaps this time the football team can be an example rather than a microcosm of all the problems France is having.

 

Honduras:

Things to Know:

Team Nickname: Los Catrachos (Originally a Nicaraguan nickname for Hondurans that all Central Americans, including the Hondurans, have now adopted)

Jersey Colors: Blue

Population: 8.5 Million

Official Language: Spanish

Principal Religion: Catholic (97%)

GDP: $39 Billion

Team w/ Most Titles: Olimpia; 27 titles

What are the experts saying?

Despite a blossoming program and despite having performed well the past couple years, it’s widely agreed that the Catrachos will finish fourth in the group.

Soccer History:

The growing soccer nation has now qualified for the World Cup twice in a row. And in between they performed extremely well at the London Olympics where they lost 2-3 in a great game versus Brazil. Both squads in that game will be similar to

Player(s) to Know:

Roger Espinoza: The former Sporting Kansas City man has played for Wigan Athletic the past two seasons. And while he played well for Roberto Martinez in the Premier League, he struggled this season under Uwe Rosler in the English Championship (2nd Division). Either way, Espinoza is vital to the success of Honduras.

Raised mostly in the USA, Honduran Roger Espinoza has helped turn his country’s program around.

Oscar Boniek Garcia: There is probably not an MLS player more important to his team than Boniek Garcia is to his Houston Dynamo. The speedy winger races up and down the right flank for Dominic Kinnear and will be doing the same for Honduras. But don’t be fooled, he’s more than just lightning, the guy has some thunder too and is as capable of scoring goals as he is setting them up for others.

Players Not There: (Sometimes the Biggest Stories are the Omissions)

Jonathan Mejia: The 25 year old striker was a surprise omission despite having a good season with Real Jaen in the Spanish 2nd Division. Although not a veteran of the national team, his presence could’ve been a good backup for the two Jerrys: Bengston and Palacios who have not played as well in the run up in the tournament as they ought.

Coach & Tactics:

Luis Fernando Suarez: The man who in 2006 led Ecuador to their best ever performance, now seeks to do the same with Honduras. He’s going to do this by not hiding in a defensive formation. Honduras often plays five defenders when they feel outmatched. But if there is a strength for the Catrachos it’s their pair of central defenders. Does Suarez trust Hull City’s Maynor Figueroa and the San Jose Earthquakes Victor Bernardez to hold down the fort alone?

Honduras didn’t score a goal in 2010, and getting off the mat, should be Suarez’s #1 goal. This team has too much talent to sit back and park the bus, hoping to stave off embarrassment.

The Geopolitical Angle:

Honduras, long stuck with the reputation as the murder capital of the world, is now making the news again as millions flee for Mexico and eventually the United States. It’s far too early to know what kind of long term effect this mass exodus of Central Americans, the majority of whom are Hondurans, will have on the region. But it shows that conditions in the Central American nation are not good.

For a soccer program that seemed to be growing in the right direction, it doesn’t seem that soccer will get a chance to be a catalyst for change in the nation. In fact, with the millions of young children leaving the nation, it’s likely Honduras is going to struggle to develop the next generation of players to build on this good one.

 

Switzerland:

Things to Know:

Team Nickname: Nati, short for Nationalmannschaft (The National Team)

Jersey Colors: Red & White

Population: 8 Million

Official Languages: Swiss German (65%), French (18%), Italian (10%)

Principal Religion: Catholic (38%), Protestant (27%), Muslim (5%)

GDP: $371 Billion

Team w/ Most Titles: Grasshopper Club Zurich; 27 titles

What are the experts saying?

No one is really saying much about the Swiss these days. A team which is more than the sum of its parts, it has been easy to overlook the Nati. But most foresee them battling for second in the group.

Soccer History:

Switzerland, a growing soccer nation, has been improving since it hosted the European Championship in 2008. They have qualified for the World Cup three tournaments running. Their biggest moment came in 2010 when they beat eventual champion Spain in their opening match, but somehow the Nati still failed to advance from the group.

Player(s) to Know:

Xherdan Shaqiri: Captain Gokhan Inler gets more ink than Shaqiri, but the Bayern Munich man is vital for Switzerland despite only being a part time player for his club side. Shaqiri, despite often lining up outside is expected to spend a lot of time in the center of pitch and contributing goals alongside striker Josip Drmic.

Xherdan Shaqiri’s form needs to be excellent for Switzerland.

Stephan Lichsteiner: The Juventus fullback is kind of a jack of all trades for both his club team and Switzerland. He’s the one defender that is permitted to join the attack in Omar Hitzfeld’s scheme. He often comes up and fills the space vacated by Shaqiri as he cuts inside. His defensive discipline and offensive skill are vital to the overall performance of the Swiss.

Players Not There: (Sometimes the Biggest Stories are the Omissions)

Patjim Kasami: There weren’t any surprises in Omar Hitzfeld’s roster announcement. But if there was one omission of note it’s Patjim Kasami who started the season off well with Crystal Palace but lost playing time after Tony Pulis was brought on as manager and turned the team into a winner.

Coach & Tactics:

Omar Hitzfeld: The German coach as a track record which has seen him in charge of both of Germany’s elite teams: Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. Since 2008 however he has been the catalyst of a big change within the Swiss program. Although they didn’t advance out of the group in 2010, they did shock the world by beating Spain in the opening game. Now, Switzerland is one of the 8 seeded teams after a smooth qualification campaign and more will be expected of the budding soccer nation.

One of the most intriguing factors in Hitzfeld’s Swiss squad is his use of the three Napoli players which he uses to create as a backbone of cohesion in the midfield. Gokhan Inler, Valon Behrami, and Blerim Dezmaili have such good chemistry from playing together at Napoli, that it seeps through to the rest of the roster. That is why this team is going to make noise is this tournament.

The Geopolitical Angle:

One thing you may have noticed is that surnames like Inler, Shaqiri, Behrami, and Dezmaili don’t sound particularly Swiss. And you’d be right. Like Germany, Switzerland is developing a large immigrant population. And while Germany tends to import Turks, Switzerland is attracting Albanians and other peoples from former Yugoslav republics. These folks have given the Swiss soccer program the boost they needed to become a solid European national team.

 

Group F:

Argentina:

Things to Know:

Team Nickname: Albiceleste (White & Sky Blues)

Jersey Colors: White & Sky Blue

Population: 43 Million

Official Language: Spanish

Principal Religion: Catholic (92%)

GDP: $771 Billion

Team w/ Most Titles: River Plate (Buenos Aires); 36 titles

What are the experts saying?

Argentina, armed with the world’s best player (Lionel Messi), is considered one of the “Big 4” favorites which also includes host Brazil, Germany, and defending champion Spain. Many expect at least the semi-finals for the Albiceleste.

Soccer History:

Argentina has an incredible soccer history winning the World Cups in 1978 and 1986. They also boast Diego Maradona, who is often billed as the World’s second best player behind Brazil’s Pele.

Player(s) to Know:

Lionel Messi: The Argentine who will turn 27 during the World Cup had already won 4 FIFA World Player of Year Awards by age 25 and is indisputably one of the best players to ever play the game. The diminutive attacking midfielder, who has already won two UEFA Champions League titles, has only one slight gap left in his resume: winning a major tournament with Argentina. Some have accused Leo of not caring about his Argentine performances, but after a dominating World Cup qualification campaign, fans have finally gotten excited about the team.

World Cup 2014 is Leo Messi’s time to shine for the Albiceleste.

Sergio Aguero: The Manchester City Striker was off to a great start this past season scoring goals and keeping the team near the top of the table. But injuries saw his season derailed after scoring 17 goals in 20 Premier League games for City. But apparently he’s now healthy and will be expected to spearhead a stacked Argentine attack which also includes Messi, forward Gonzalo Higuan, and midfielder Angel DiMaria.

Players Not There: (Sometimes the Biggest Stories are the Omissions)

Carlos Tevez: The 30 year old Tevez has played in two World Cups and been nothing short of an Argentine legend with a record of scoring big goals. But his relationship with manager Alejandro Sabella has never been good. Sabella never called him up during World Cup qualification and unsurprisingly refused to call him up for the World Cup as well despite a fabulous season with Juventus of Turin.

Nicolas Otemendi: The former FC Porto defender who was transferred to Villareal in January had a good season. He was someone many expected to be a part of the Argentine defense which is the team’s Achilles heel. Instead the duties will fall to Benfica defender Ezequiel Garay and Napoli defender Frederico Fernandez. Their performances in the knockout round will likely define Argentina’s success.

Coach & Tactics:

Alejandro Sabella: The man who has been in charge of the Albiceleste since 2011 is completely aware of what the team’s strength is: scoring goals.  He has often allowed his team to play what is essentially a 4-2-4. This is the kind of formation you only read about in Jonathan Wilson’s “Inverting the Pyramid”. But this will put a lot of pressure on the central defensive midfield pairing of Javier Mascherano and Fernando Gago. The Argentines, who play for FC Barcelona and Boca Juniors of Buenos Aires respectively, will likely be the key to the series.

The Geopolitical Angle:

Argentina has long been close to being an economic and political force in Latin America, but the nation always seems to fall short. The nation at times still seems to be struggling from its days under a succession of dictators. But the presence of Pope Francis has brought a new focus to Argentina and perhaps now the nation can develop into the country it has long sought to be.

But I think all any Argentine right now is thinking about, is the idea winning a World Cup on bitter rival Brazil’s home soil.

 

Bosnia & Herzegovina:

Things to Know:

Team Nickname: The Dragons

Jersey Colors: Blue

Population: 3.9 Million

Official Language: Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian (all official)

Principal Religion: Muslim (40%), Serbian Orthodox (31%), Catholic (15%)

GDP: $32 Billion

Team w/ Most Titles: Zeljeznicar (Sarajevo); 5 titles

What are the experts saying?

Bosnia-Herzogovina, the only World Cup debutante, is also the World Cup’s second smallest nation (behind mighty Uruguay). Because of these two things they’ve kind of become a critic’s favorite. They could have a tough fight with Nigeria, but certainly have the talent to advance.

Soccer History:

Bosnia is the only World Cup nation appearing for the first time. They had never even qualified for the European Championship before. There’s no doubt Bosnia and Herzegovina were drawn into an easy qualification group. But there certainly has to be an immense amount of pleasure taken from the fact that they are in the World Cup and Balkan power Serbia are not.

Player(s) to Know:

Edin Dzeko: The Manchester City forward had to compete for minutes with two other immensely gifted forwards: Spain’s Alvaro Negredo and Argentina’s Sergio Aguero. But in the end, Dzeko was the man who got a lot of minutes down the stretch for the English Champions. His ability to score goals will be the most important thing for this team.

Bosnia & Herzegovina will need goals from Manchester City star Edin Dzeko.

Miralem Pjanic: The talented 24 year old Roma midfielder is one of several reasons why American star Michael Bradley is currently playing for Toronto FC instead of still playing for Roma. The fact is: Pjanic was simply better than Bradley. And now, like Bradley, the two men are expected to carry their respective midfield by implementing the pace and tempo their coaches asks of them.

Players Not There: (Sometimes the Biggest Stories are the Omissions)

Ervin Zukanovic: The central defender who plays for Gent in Belgium was dismissed from the team after complaining about Bosnian soccer federation. But in fairness the 27 year old was denied an USA visa for the team’s warm up tour due to a federation error.

Coach & Tactics:

Safet Susic: The Bosnian is one of the longest tenured national team coaches, manning the helm since 2009. And Susic, armed with the players he wants, has finally instilled an aggressive, offensive style. But Susic has admitted that the drop off between his top 11 or 12 players and the rest of the roster is significant.

Susic is probably aware that second place in the group for Bosnia is quite achievable and many expect him to fully go at Iran and Nigeria with all the offensive firepower he can muster.

The Geopolitical Angle:

Bosnia and Herzegovina is a small nation with lots of divisions. The most distinctive of these are the large Serb and Croat Christian populations alongside the large Bosnian Islamic population. But like all nations with regional and cultural differences, the football team becomes a great unifier, if only for a short while.

And as Bosnians begin migrating all over Europe these days there are fights over players of Bosnian decent. There are Bosnians that have connections to Germany, Switzerland, the USA, and Australia during this World Cup. Yet they have still managed to put together their best team since entering international football in 2000. This team, like many in in the World Cup accurately represents the changing face of European ethnicity.

 

Iran:

Things to Know:

Team Nickname: Team Melli (The National Team)

Jersey Colors: White & Red

Population: 77 Million

Official Language: Farsi

Principal Religion: Muslim (99%)

GDP: $987 Billion

Team w/ Most Titles: Sepahan (Isfahan); 4 titles

What are the experts saying?

Despite a solid qualifying campaign in which they defeated Asian power South Korea twice, most see them finishing fourth.

Soccer History:

This World Cup will be Team Melli’s fourth and first since 2006. Their shining World Cup moment came in 1998 where they embarrassed team USA by beating them 2-1 in the group stage.

Player(s) to Know:

Ashkan Dejagah: The Fulham of London player  is by far the most well-known Iranian player. Furthermore, there’s no denying the big, strong winger will be the focal point of a team which is not well known. He was one consistent bright spot for an otherwise atrocious Fulham season. Dejagah is well known for his energy and willingness to play defense.

Ashkan Dejagah and Iran could certainly silence those who don’t believe in their ability.

Steven Beitashour: Wait, Steven doesn’t sound like an Iranian name! You’re right, it’s not. Beitashour is an American of Iranian decent. But the first year Vancouver Whitecaps fullback caught Iran’s attention with his steady play over the past several years for the San Jose Earthquakes.

Players Not There: (Sometimes the Biggest Stories are the Omissions)

Mohammad Reza Khalatbari: The 30 year old Khalatbari was the only real surprise omission from Carlos Quiroz’s roster. A veteran of the the Iranian league, he played a large role in qualifying. But the winger did not make the team’s final cut without much of a reason known.

Coach & Tactics:

Carlos Quieroz: The Portuguese manager knows that this team is a bit offensively challenged. So what he has done is create a team which is incredibly tight and organized at the back. Operating out of a 4-2-3-1 formation, expect Iran to sit back deep and frustrate opponents. Nigeria and Bosnia are teams that could be beaten 1-0 if they are able to lock down the way they are capable of.

The Geopolitical Angle:

Well, there’s not much to say about Iran, which under the eight year reign of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad regressed in regards to its progression toward modernity. But the bottom line is the country has large supplies of natural resources and according to Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski’s “Soccernomics” contains all the ingredients to be a soccer power someday. And now Quieroz is doing something vital: bringing in outside ideas. In a weak Asia Confederation Iran should become a World Cup fixture.

 

 

Nigeria:

Things to Know:

Team Nickname: Super Eagles

Jersey Colors: Green & White

Population: 174 Million

Official Language: English (Official)

Principal Religion: Muslim (50%), Christian (40%), Indigenous Beliefs (10%)

GDP: $479 Billion

Team w/ Most Titles: Enyimba International FC (Aba) & Enugu Rangers; 6 titles each

What are the experts saying?

Once upon a time, Nigeria, the current African champion, was considered to have good “Dark Horse” potential. But they have looked bad in the run up to the tournament. It will be intriguing to see if they have what it takes to survive and finis second in the group.

Soccer History:

Nigeria is coming off a 2013 African soccer championship where they upset the favored Elephants of Ivory Coast. They have qualified for the 2002, 2010, and 2014 World Cups and seem poised to be an African power for the foreseeable future.

Player(s) to Know:

John Obi Mikel: The Chelsea midfielder has always been known more as a defensive stalwart than a creative maestro. But for Nigeria, the veteran is precisely that. In many respects as Mikel goes, so goes Nigeria. It will be his job to distribute the ball quickly to all the speedy players in front of him, launching quick counter attacks.

Chelsea FC’s John Obi Mikel makes everything work for Nigeria.

Victor Moses: The Chelsea winger on loan to Liverpool this season is loaded with pace and talent. Despite playing out wide, he will be needed to contribute in the goal scoring department. But a veteran now of the Premier League the 23 year old’s ability to mature during the tournament will be vital to the Super Eagles success.

Players Not There: (Sometimes the Biggest Stories are the Omissions)

Ikechukwu Uche: The Villareal striker just finished a wonderful season forming a lethal partnership with Mexico’s Giovani dos Santos. That meant nothing to coach Stephen Keshi who refused to call up the Nigerian time and time again, claiming that Uche didn’t fit into his scheme.

Coach & Tactics:

Stephen Keshi: The Nigerian manager as had a tumultuous relationship with the Nigerian football federation. He tried to retire in 2013 only to change his mind a day later. Keshi is a man who believes in the 4-3-3 and utilizing the team’s speed

The Geopolitical Angle:

Nigeria has all the ingredients to become a soccer superpower: an enormous population, a developing economy, and players who are now in their second generation of playing for strong teams in Europe. But, like the government, the Nigerian football federation is full of bureaucracy and corruption. This will need to change in order for foreign teams to invest in Nigerian soccer. Because for Nigeria, despite having a solid national team, the next key in their evolution is to develop a star player like Ivory Coast and Ghana have.

 

Group G:

Germany:

Things to Know:

Team Nickname: Der Mannschaft (The Team)

Jersey Colors: White

Population: 88 Million

Official Language: German

Principal Religion: Protestant (34%), Catholic (34%)

GDP: $3.2 Trillion

Team w/ Most Titles: Bayern Munich; 23 titles

What are the experts saying?

There are a few who have recently dared to bet against Germany, especially after a rough rash of injuries. But those who do, do so at their own peril. They have reached at least the semifinals in four straight major tournaments. Most have them reaching the semis once again.

Soccer History:

Famous English footballer Gary Lineker once said about the 3 time World Cup and 3 time European Champions: “Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.” That about sums it up.

Player(s) to Know:

Philipp Lahm & Bastian Schweinsteiger: The two Bayern Munich midfielders are only 30 and 29 respectively, but they will already be playing in their third World Cup. It’s quite an incredible feat that the former left back and former right winger are likely to start as a central defensive midfield pairing in Brazil. If so, expect the savvy veterans to dictate the pace of the game and smoothly feed all their excellent young forwards for goals while at the same time excellently protecting the defense.

Bastian Schweinsteiger (left) and Captain Philipp Lahm are Germany’s heart and engine.

Toni Kroos, Thomas Mueller, Mehmut Ozil, Mario Gotze, Andre Schurrle, Mats Hummels, & Kevin Grosskreutz: What do these players all have in common? They are all 25 years old or younger. And all are likely to play at some point. The amount of talent, and especially young talent, on this roster is just ridiculous.

Players Not There: (Sometimes the Biggest Stories are the Omissions)

Marco Reus: The young Borussia Dortmund forward/midfielder would’ve been on the above list as well if not for picking up a late injury in a warm up match.

Mario Gomez & Stephan Keissling: Like, Spain, Germany seems to think that strikers are so 2006. And Low has said “Auf Wiedersehen” to all his strikers save one, 36 year old Miroslav Klose. The 28 year old Gomez has been a key figure for Germany in the past, but was left off the roster after a poor year for Fiorentina in Serie A. Keissling on the other hand, despite being in his prime at age 30 and being an excellent goal scorer for Bayer Leverkusen the past two years has continually been ignored by head coach Yogi Low.

Coach & Tactics:

Joachim Low: The man who used to be Jurgen Klinsmann’s assistant has been lauded as a tactical genius. But after failing to reach a major tournament final yet, the pressure is starting to reach Low.

And now, Low seems to be taking even more tactical risks by bringing only one true striker to Brazil: the ageless Miroslav Klose coming off a good season for Lazio of Rome. Even if Klose can maintain his form it’s unlikely he can start every game. Could Low try and implement the famed Spanish 4-6-0? He is certainly armed with a sufficient amount of talented midfielders. Germany is probably likely to play with four attacking midfielders ahead of the defensive duo of Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger.

The Geopolitical Angle:

Germany, clearly the economic power on Continental Europe as regained its form as the dominant force in European football ever since Jurgen Klinsmann’s reign as national team coac. One problem though: they don’t have any trophies to show for it. But the team is getting better as it adds more technical ability to Germany’s already famed discipline and organization.

What is one of the key factors behind this new technical aspect to German soccer? The influx of immigrants has accurately reflected the changing face of Germany. There are players of Polish, Albanian, Ghanian, Tunisian, and of course, Turkish ancestry on the team. This will only grow as time goes on.

 

Ghana:

Things to Know:

Team Nickname: The Black Stars

Jersey Colors: White & Red

Population: 26 Million

Official Language: English (Official)

Principal Religion: Christian (71%), Muslim (17%)

GDP: $90 Billion

Team w/ Most Titles: Asante Kotoko (Kumasi); 24 titles

What are the experts saying?

Because of the presence of United States in this group, Ghana’s prospects have been slightly skewed. Most have them finishing third or fourth, but if they can beat the USA in the first game, there chances of advancing are greatly enhanced.

Soccer History:

Ghana, along with Ivory Coast, has developed a reputation as the powers of Africa. Both in 2006 and 2010, Ghana has qualified for the knockout stages. And in 2010 Ghana become the first African team to reach the quarterfinals, and nearly made the semi-finals if not for a brutal sequence of events triggered by the (Heroic? Evil?) actions of Uruguayan forward Luis Suarez.

Player(s) to Know:

Kevin-Prince Boateng: The half-German, half-Ghanian midfielder is a unique story. His full-blood brother Jerome is likely a starter for Germany and they will face each other in the group stage as they did in 2010. Heavily recruited by Ghana, the Schalke player gives Ghana a polished professional in the front.

The German-born Schalke star gives Ghana a little something extra.

Asamoah Gyan: The 28 year old Ghanian captain isn’t remembered for his great three goal performance at the 2010 World Cup. Unfortunately he’s most remembered for his botched penalty kick in the quarterfinals versus Uruguay that cost Ghana the win. But the veteran, in his third World Cup, has the ultimate chance to redeem himself.

Players Not There: (Sometimes the Biggest Stories are the Omissions)

Jeffrey Schlupp: After a being a key part to Leicester City’s promotion from the English 2nd Division to the Premier League, the German-born Schlupp was a surprise inclusion. But unfortunately he was one of the last cuts from the team as well. But at only 21, the talented young left back will have the chance to represent Ghana in the near future.

Coach & Tactics:

James Kwesi Appiah: The manager is the first African coach to take Ghana to the World Cup. And he knows exactly what his strengths are: speed and power. In many ways Ghana is similar in style to the United States. But if you look through the Ghanian roster you’ll see a bit more pedigree than you’ll see in the USA 23.

Appiah has famously stated that he doesn’t believe in rigid formations. He may not have the most disciplined player for such a philosophy, but he certainly has the athletes to cover the ground necessary to unleash them.

Just a reminder to USA fans, Ghana is a good team. Really good. And they see the USA as much as a must win game as we do. It should set up for an up and down affair and a very entertaining game.

The Geopolitical Angle:

What do Ivory Coast and Ghana have in common besides both having grown into African soccer powers? The neighboring countries both share the same ethnic majority. Akans, an ethnic group numbering around 20 million composes 42% and 47% of the population in Ivory Coast and Ghana respectively. Because of this the two have always been significant rivals, both politically and in soccer.

Ghana, armed with an treasure trove of natural resources has steadily been climbing out of the depths of poverty into a country with some stability and regional influence. The results of which have been directly reflected in the growth of football in the country. Expect the West African country to continue to improve both economically and in soccer.

 

Portugal:

Things to Know:

Team Nickname: Seleccao das Quinas (National Team of Shields)

Jersey Colors: Red

Population: 11 Million

Official Language: Portuguese

Principal Religion: Roman Catholic (81%)

GDP: $243 Billion

Team w/ Most Titles: Benfica (Lisbon); 33 titles

What are the experts saying?

The safe money here is to bet on Portugal finishing second in the group. But they will face two tough games versus Ghana and the USA as both nations will see Portugal as the more “winnable game” as compared to Germany.

Soccer History:

The small nation of Portugal has a long and illustrious soccer history. Unfortunately, despite always hanging around near the end of major tournaments they have yet to win the European Championship or the World Cup.

Player(s) to Know:

Cristiano Ronaldo: If you learn only two names this summer, let one of those names be Cristiano Ronaldo (And let Lionel Messi be the other). The Portuguese and the Argentine have combined to win the last 6 FIFA Player of the Year awards.

But there’s some bad news for Portugal and all soccer fans alike: Ronaldo is dealing with some lingering injuries and is unlikely to be at 100% during the World Cup. But 70 or 80 percent of CR7 is better than most.

All soccer fans want to see Ronaldo 100% at the World Cup.

Joao Moutinho: If you watch Cristiano Ronaldo’s clutch hat trick versus Sweden that got the Seleccao into the World Cup, the one thing that sticks out his how great the through balls to Ronaldo were. And it was Joao Moutinho from Monaco who was serving those balls up. If Portugal is a great counter attacking team, it is only because Moutinho is able to spray the ball accurately to the speedy wingers Ronaldo and Nani.

Players Not There: (Sometimes the Biggest Stories are the Omissions)

Ricardo Quaresma: The 30 year old FC Porto star was a surprise omission from the Portuguese roster. A veteran of two World Cups, one would think he would’ve been useful. But he’s had a rough couple of years and has been known to be a bit of a headache to coaches. Looks like his close personal friendship with captain Ronaldo was not enough to save him.

Coach & Tactics:

Paulo Bento: The young 44 year old coach hasn’t done much to shake up Portugal’s style of play since he took over in 2010. With strength down the flanks and armed with the world’s best player, this team is built to do one thing: counter-attack. With the clear weakness of the team being striker, it will be up to Nani and CR7 to get the ball into the net.

Playing a 4-3-3 formation, it will be up to the midfield trio, a combination of Moutinho, Veloso, Meireles and Carvalho to clog up the center of field giving the team defensive cover. But once they win the ball back, it’s their job to distribute out to Falcao, Nani, Pereira, and Ronaldo. And this team knows how to play in this system.

The Geopolitical Angle:

Portugal has always had a bit of a Brazilian flavor and this year is no different. On this year’s team central defender Pepe is the most high profile Brazilian born player. He’s a big nasty defender always working to get one of the opposing players frustrated enough to do something stupid.

Portugal also as a history of utilizing players from current and former Portuguese colonies ever since the days of Mozambique-born Eusebio. This year Nani, from the Cape Verde Islands is the most high profile of those players. But there are also players from other places such as Guinea-Bissau. Even Cristiano Ronaldo was born and raised on the island of Madeira.

 

United States:

Things to Know:

Team Nickname: The Yanks

Jersey Colors: White, Blue, & Red

Population: 318 Million

Language: English

Principal Religion: Protestant (51%), Catholic (24%), Unaffiliated (12%)

GDP: $16.7 Trillion

Team w/ Most Titles: DC United & Los Angeles Galaxy; 4 titles each

What are the experts saying?

Hard to get a good read on this group, being that it’s trendy to both be patriotic and negative about the US squad. Some have the US losing all three games, while others say the USA will win the whole thing. But it is far more likely that they fall just short of advancing from the “Group of Death.”

Soccer History:

The USA has qualified for every World Cup since 2004. And while they’ve played well in 1994, 2002, and 2006, they’ve tanked in 1990, 1998, and 2006. What does that mean for this year’s team…?

Player(s) to Know:

Clint Dempsey: Now the United States’ captain, the single minded Dempsey has had to learn to lead. Clearly the most accomplished player on a team sans Landon Donovan, his days as a winger are long gone. He is a tried and true goal scorer now. And he will be expected to work hard, help co-striker Jozy Altidore, and score goals.

Michael Bradley: The son of the Bob Bradley, the USA’s coach from 2006-2011, the midfielder has oddly enough, thrived under coach Jurgen Klinsmann. So much so, that Bradley has been asked to play the #10 roll for the US. A naturally defensive-minded midfielder, coach Klinsmann has so much respect for his ability that he’s asked him to be the primary creator of offense for the team. His ability to adjust to this role will determine how many goals the team will score.

The son of the previous USA coach, Michael Bradley has thrived under Jurgen Klinsmann.

Jermaine Jones, Fabian Johnson, Tim Chandler, John Brooks, & Julian Green: What do these five players have in common? They all had African-American serviceman fathers and German mothers. And they all play for the USA despite growing up predominantly in Germany.

Players Not There: (Sometimes the Biggest Stories are the Omissions)

Landon Donovan: You may know Landon Donovan as the face of US Soccer since he made the 2002 team as a 20 year old. But his shaky personal relationship with head coach Jurgen Klinsmann led to his getting cut from the World Cup squad. The Yanks will just have to do without the three time World Cup participant and all-time leader in goals for both the US national team and Major League Soccer.

Giuseppe Rossi: The 27 year old from Teaneck, NJ is without a doubt the best player the United States has ever produced. However, the son of a legendary high school soccer coach, has never represented the US, instead choosing to represent his father’s native Italy. But sadly, despite his immense talent, Rossi was one of the last cuts from both the 2010 and 2014 Italian World Cup squads. Ha! (Sorry, couldn’t help myself.)

Coach & Tactics:

Jurgen Klinsmann: The German striker is a footballing legend and has appointed himself the savior of American soccer. Living in Los Angeles with an American wife for more than a decade, Klinsmann both understands American culture, American soccer, and what we do right, what we do wrong, and what needs to be changed.

He’s experimented with several formations in the past year, but seems likely to resort back to the steady 4-2-3-1 that is in vogue around the world. But it won’t be tactics or schemes alone that gets the US through. There’s no doubt this World Cup will simply be a referendum on whether the players who step on the field are good enough.

The Geopolitical Angle:

Every 4 years the whole world gets to see the United States as anything other than a superpower. The USA may dominate the Olympics and the global economy, but during the FIFA World Cup, they’re just another average team.

But what USA soccer fans believe, and what world soccer fans fear is that the United States soccer success is an inevitability. Soccernomics would tell you that the USA winning a World Cup someday is all but assured. But the real question is when is that day? Certainly not this year, but Jurgen Klinsmann’s German influence is opening up the US to tactical ideas it has long needed. There was no question the USA was too “American” in their soccer playing for years. These tactical changes and the influx of soccer loving minorities in this country is sure to expedite an inevitable US Soccer dominance in the future.

 

Group H:

Algeria:

Things to Know:

Team Nickname: Les Fennecs (Desert Foxes)

Jersey Colors: White & Green

Population: 39 Million

Official Language: Arabic, French

Principal Religion: Muslim (99%)

GDP: $285 Billion

Team w/ Most Titles: JS Kabylie (Tizi Ouzou); 14 titles

What are the experts saying?

Most aren’t talking too much about the Algerians saying they will likely finish fourth. But they have performed well of late and should make noise.

Soccer History:

Algeria, armed with a legion of French-Algerians, has quietly become a steady presence in African football after qualifying for both the 2010 and 2014 World Cups.

Player(s) to Know:

Sofiane Feghouli: The fact that the 24 year old Valencia winger chose to play for Algeria rather than France may be the biggest coup in the program’s history. Feghouli grew up playing for France’s youth teams and even stated publicly his preference to play for France. Yet, in 2008 after being selected by Raymond Domenech to play with the senior France squad, he had a change of heart.

The recruitment of Sofiane Feghouli away from the French soccer program was a huge coup for Algeria.

Nabil Bentaleb: The Tottenham Hotspur of London midfielder may only be 19, but he’s sure to start. Not only that, the teenager, born in Lille, France, will be a tactical lynchpin in front of the back four in his manager’s 4-1-4-1 formation. This talented youngster’s ability to step up to the moment will be key for the Desert Foxes.

Players Not There: (Sometimes the Biggest Stories are the Omissions)

Abdelkader Laifaoui: The versatile 32 year old veteran of the Algerian league was the only outfield player to miss the cut for the World Cup. How cruel.

Coach & Tactics:

Vahid Halilhodzic: The Bosnian manager is armed with a far better and more experienced team then the 2010 version which showed up to South Africa simply to wave the flag and park the bus.

This team will compete. Belgium and Russia are good teams, but far from unbeatable. I expect Halilhodzic to challenge his team by letting them play. This team has players all over the World at good clubs. Heck, USSoccer would kill to be represented at this list of clubs.

Expect nothing less than technical and organized soccer from Algeria this time around.

The Geopolitical Angle:

One of only two Islamic nations in the Cup, Algeria is the only Arab nation. But, about half this team is French-born players of Algerian decent, giving the squad a great pedigree of having being raised in the French footballing system. While some joke that it’s a French B team, others see an exodus of talented youngsters from the French system. The question is, are these players not good enough for France? Or are is there simply a racist bias within France? The answer is complicated, and the answer will be different depending on who you ask.

 

Belgium:

Things to Know:

Team Nickname: Rode Duivels, or Les Diables Rouges (Red Devils)

Jersey Colors: Red & Black

Population: 10 Million

Official Language: Dutch (60%), French (40%)

Principal Religion: Catholic (75%), Protestant (25%)

GDP: $421 Billion

Team w/ Most Titles: Anderlecht (Brussels); 33 titles

What are the experts saying?

Everyone’s favorite “Dark Horse”, Belgium is expected to make a deep run stacked with a supremely talented and young roster.

Soccer History:

Despite a great history, Belgium has not had so much success recently, missing out on all major tournaments since the 2002 World Cup. This inexperience could rear its head as none of the young Belgian players have been here before.

Player(s) to Know:

Vincent Kompany: The Manchester City and Belgium Captain at 28 years old is already one of the world’s most accomplished footballers. The son of Congolese father, Kompany speaks both Flemish and French and is expected to ensure the unit is synchronized. Not only that, he’s expected to lock down the defense freeing the midfield to attack, attack, attack. Although most agree Kompany has slipped, he is still one of the top 10 central defenders in the world.

Belgian captain Vincent Kompany needs to make sure this team is unified in its mission.

Eden Hazard: Although the Belgian midfielder often plays out left, he almost always find himself in the center of the pitch. He will likely do the same for Belgium. The young Chelsea midfielder is easily the most creative player for the Red Devils. But he tired toward the end of Chelsea’s season. Will be intriguing to see if he can recapture his old form.

Players Not There: (Sometimes the Biggest Stories are the Omissions)

Christian Benteke: There is no doubt that Benteke is a huge loss for the Belgians. A large, immensely talented striker, he will miss the World Cup due to injury. Only 23, Benteke who plays for Aston Villa of Birmingham, was sure to start up top. Romelu Lukaku is a fine, if not excellent, understudy, but if there is any injury there will be a huge hole at center forward.

Radja Nainggolan: The Indonesian-Belgian has a lot of talent and was a pretty surprising omission. Many believe the Cagliari midfielder was left off solely because head coach Marc Wilmots wanted to bring along talented 19 year old Adnan Januzaj because of Januzaj’s ability to commit to several other nations.

Coach & Tactics:

Marc Wilmots: Thus far, the former Belgian Senator, has done an excellent job at the helm of everyone’s favorite dark horse. They cruised through qualifying while playing an attractive brand of soccer.

Utilizing a 4-3-3, Wilmots will seek to maintain possession with three strong two-way midfielders: Steven Defour, Marouane Fellaini, and Axel Witsel. But only Kevin Miralles from Everton of Liverpool is likely to utilize the flanks as a place to launch attacks from.

Also strangely, Belgium’s strength is likely its biggest weakness, namely, that they will play four central defenders across the back line who will be unable to provide anything to the attack. Arsenal captain Thomas Vermaelen is likely to play the left back position and right back is likely to be manned by Atletico Madrid’s Toby Alderweireld. Both are large central defenders unused to bombing up and down the flanks in assistance of the attack.

The Geopolitical Angle:

Belgium is a nation with two distinct regions: French speaking Walloon region and the Dutch speaking Flemish region. The cliques which form from players of each region are one of the principal reasons Belgium has become a perennial underachiever. But they seem united in mission this time around. Perhaps they know they have a prime opportunity to do something dangerous.

Another factor to note, Belgium has received a huge boost from its immigrant and minority populations, especially its Moroccan influx which has produced Fellaini and Nacer Chadli.

 

Russia:

Things to Know:

Team Nickname: Sbornaya (National Team)

Jersey Colors: Red & White

Population: 144 Million

Official Language: Russian

Principal Religion: Russian Orthodox (20%), Muslim (15%)

GDP: $2.6 Trillion

Team w/ Most Titles: Spartak Moscow; 9 titles

What are the experts saying?

Russia are favored to finish second in the group, but a handful have picked South Korea to finish ahead.

Soccer History:

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia has been a steady but unspectacular presence in international football. Often lacking star power, they play best when team chemistry is good and they’re organized.

Player(s) to Know:

Alan Dzagoev: The fitness of CSKA Moscow midfielder Alan Dzagoev is of great concern to head coach Fabio Capello. Dzagoev is the one player who is capable of a little creative magic. But all looks good for the 23 year old and it needs to be after the injury to captain Roman Shirokov.

Alexander Kerzhakov: The 31 year old Zenit St. Petersburg striker will be relied on heavily to produce goals. The Russians won’t need a lot, because they don’t concede a lot, but they’ll need someone to be a steady threat. If there’s someone Capello can trust to leave isolated on occasion it’s Kerzhakov who is the Russian League’s all-time leading goal-scorer.

Players Not There: (Sometimes the Biggest Stories are the Omissions)

Roman Shirokov: The Russia captain is out due to injury and it’s a major blow. Shirakov is known for his selfless play and willingness to play any position. But he’s best in the center of midfield and that’s where he will be missed. He has been relied on for his ability to organize the team and to dictate the tempo.

Russia will miss their captain Roman Shirokov.

Andrey Arshavin & Roman Pavlyuchenko: The elder statesman of Russian soccer both had storied club and international careers. But coach Fabio Capello felt it was time to move on from the pair who are aged 33 and 32 respectively.

Coach & Tactics:

Fabio Capello: Advanced analytics say that Capello is one of the great managers of all-time. But the English will tell you he’s a bumbling fool who is most likely blind, deaf, and mute. The truth? He’s far closer to the former.

Russia, which lacks stars but plays good soccer, needs exactly what Capello brings: outside ideas, especially the Italian “Catenaccio.” The Russians had a smooth qualification campaign and play well together because every single player on the roster is based in the Russian league.

Expect defense, defense, and more defense from this squad. I think the game versus Belgium will be the ultimate tactical clash and will likely determine the group’s winner.

The Geopolitical Angle:

If you haven’t heard, Vladimir Putin has been making some noise recently on the world stage. But luckily, due to the disgusting stories coming out of Qatar’s preparation for World Cup 2022 (read about those allegations here), no one is debating Russia’s duties as host in 2018.

Putin will attend the World Cup and will supposedly meet with the leaders of the other three BRIC nations. Much like the USSR sought to excel in soccer to show off its might, Russia might be regressing in football because of its desire to strengthen its domestic league. If there is one thing history has shown is that a country such as Russia can only grow when they are properly importing ideas from abroad. And this goes for far more than just soccer.

 

South Korea:

Things to Know:

Team Nickname: Taegeuk Warriors (The Taegeuk is the Yin-Yang symbol on their flag)

Jersey Colors: Red & White

Population: 49 Million

Official Language: Korean

Principal Religion: Christian (32%), Buddhist (24%)

GDP: $1.7 Trillion

Team w/ Most Titles: Seongnam FC; 7 titles

What are the experts saying?

Despite a rough qualification campaign where they finished second in their group behind Iran, there are plenty who see Korea capable of finishing second in their group.

Soccer History:

South Korea shocked everyone when they burst onto the World stage in 2002 by finishing third at the World Cup they co-hosted with Japan. But it has been Japan which has grown into the Asian power since.

Player(s) to Know:

Son Heung-min: The Korean midfielder, who plays for Bayer Leverkusen, is vital for the Taegeuk Warriors. At only 21 years old he can be deployed on the left or centrally where he can help create as well as score. As of now he looks more than likely to line up in a #10 role. If Korea, who has been struggling, is able to rectify their form, Son could become a star.

Son Heung-min and South Korea have their work cut out for them.

Ki Sung-yueng: The 25 year old spent the year on loan at Sunderland from Swansea City was a key spark in assisting Sunderland to avoid relegation. The big 6’2” Ki is a hard two way midfielder that is good at fighting for balls in set pieces. Finishing the season in great form,

Players Not There: (Sometimes the Biggest Stories are the Omissions)

Lee Myung-joo: The 24 year old midfielder is a rising star in the K-League. But he was passed over by coach Hong Myung-bo. After participating in some World Cup qualification, his omission was devastating for fans of the Korean domestic league.

Kim Jin-su: A promising young left back, the 21 year old just moved to Hoffenheim in the German Bundesliga. But that wasn’t enough to get him into the squad as Hong looked to more experienced players.

Coach & Tactics:

Hong Myung-bo: The former national team sweeper became a star when he captained the South Korean national team to the 3rd place game of the World Cup in 2002. The young, 45 year old manager only just took over in November and has had very little time to imprint his style on the team.

The one thing he has done is try to instill a sense of typical Korean discipline and professionalism in the squad. The team hasn’t looked ideal in the run up to the tournament, but many expect the team, which has plenty of European pedigree to perform admirably.

Hong is likely to implement the en vogue 4-2-3-1 and hope to launch counterattacks. He knows his team is unlikely to control possession, but still

The Geopolitical Angle:

South Korea is undoubtedly one of the strongest economies in the world. And if Korea could ever reunify, they would probably be on par with the Japanese (and their soccer team would improve as well). And like Japan, the population of South Korea has quickly adopted soccer since they co-hosted the World Cup in 2002. As the Korean players begin moving abroad to Europe the team will only grow stronger. The next step for the nation is to bring in a foreign coach with an international pedigree. Until China is able to develop their men’s soccer program, Korea is likely to remain among the top of the Asian football confederation along with Japan and Australia.