Wednesday, June 11, 2014

World Cup Predictions

It's time for me to embarrass myself.

First group predictions, then elimination predictions, then award winners.

Group A: Brazil, Croatia

Hulk and Brazil should get through a
tough Group A.
This is a really balanced group. Host nation Brazil is a major favorite, and wont have to play Mario Mandzukic (Croatia's star striker) in the opener. They surely should come away with at least 7 points and win the group. Mexico vs Cameroon (much like US/Ghana) in their opener is massive. Each team knows that if they lose, they are pretty much done. Should be a fun game. I'll take Croatia to go through the group with the host nation. Ivan Rakitić isn't a house hold name, but he will be after this tournament. Paired with Luka Modrić and Mandzukic (for the final two games), the Croatians have too much star power to fall short.

Group B: Spain, Chile

Poor Australia. I mean really, the Aussies --usually a team that can fight for that second spot in the group-- are in for a rough month. Spain, the Netherlands, and Chile are all world class teams that share the same goal, winning the tournament. Spain beat the Netherlands in the 2010 final, and Chile has a roster stacked with underrated talent. A key to this group could be the health of Arturo Vidal (Chile). If he's good to go for the Spain and Holland match, Chile can win this group. They can also win the tournament. The Netherlands aren't the same team they were in 2010, and are very shaky at the back. Spain is older, and may run out of gas as the tournament goes on, but should have enough to get through the Group of Death. Give me Spain and Chile. (Poor Australia, goal differential could decide who goes through, or wins the group, so expect the men from down under to lose by at least three goals each game. Also winning is very important, because the second place team likely plays Brazil in the first knockout game)

Group C: Ivory Coast, Columbia

Will the Ivory Coast finally break through?
This group may not feature any "elite" teams but man will it be fun. All four teams have a solid shot to get out of the group. Columbia --who will not have their best player, Radamel Falcao due to an ACL tear a few months ago-- is the favorite despite the injury. They, like Chile, have a ton of talent and should benefit from playing on South American soil. I don't think Greece will score enough, and I'll take Yaya Toure and the aging but still talented Ivory Coast squad to have too much size for Japan (who have a very skilled midfield in Honda and Kagawa, but not a lot of D). The race for both spots will likely come down to the final day. This might be the most balanced group in the field.

Group D: England, Italy

England is known for laying an egg in the big tournaments, but I like this team a lot. They have world class skill, youth, a strong D led by Joe Hart, and something they aren't use to having. Little expectations. I think they find a way to win this star studded group. Italy is one of the European teams that I worry about coming over to South American, but I would like to think their trip to the Confederations Cup will help. Uruguay worries me. They are very old, and didn't play all that well in World Cup Qualifying. More worrying then that, the health of Luis Suarez. He is one of the top 5 players in the world. With him, Uruguay can make a deep run. Without him at 100 percent, they will struggle. He probably won't play a huge role in their opener, but thankfully for them they play Costa Rica, a team that will be lucky to leave Brazil with more then one point. This will be another fun group, and could come down to goal differential.

Group E: France, Switzerland

One of the easier groups to pick in my opinion. I like this France team. They took the 23 best team players instead of the best 23 (even though I love me some Samir Nasri). Paul Pogba will dominate this tournament. He's a beast. The Ribery injury hurts, but Antoine Griezmann will fill in and do just fine. Easy group, and France is due to make a run this year. The Swiss should come in second over Ecuador. They are a solid team with a great D and strong midfield. Ecuador played great at home in qualifying (Playing 28347321832765734658394624723198 feet about sea level) but struggled elsewhere is SA, so it may not be a huge advantage compared to other SA teams. Honduras stinks. They lost 4-2 to Israel just a few days ago. Not good.

Group F: Argentina, Bosnia

Another straight forward group. Argentina is loaded, led by Messi, Sergio Aguero, and Gonzalo Higuaín. Every game for them will fell like a home game playing so close to home. This group is easy too. Bosnia is a good side, but comes over from Europe and has never played in the world cup. That's a big disadvantage. They still have a very good team led by Dzeko and will be a threat for second. Nigeria will likely compete with them, but I'm not all that impressed with them. Maybe a strong start to the tournament over minnow Iran will jump start them. The game between Nigeria and Bosnia will be a fun one with a ton on the line.

Group G: Germany, USA

Another balanced group where anything can happen. I detailed why I think the US will get through in my US piece so check that out...Anyway, Germany despite some injuries is still the odds on favorite and could win the tournament. They will get at least 7 points and should win the group. The US needs to get four points from the first two games and hope they can squeak a point vs the Germans -or lose by one goal-- and go through on goal differential. This group is one of few where all four teams have a good shot to get through --along with C-- so it will likely come down to the last day. If Portugal can adjust to the conditions, and Ronaldo is Ronaldo, the Americans are in trouble, but I don't think Portugal has enough time get him back to 100 percent and adjust to the conditions in time. US/Ghana winner could decide it all.

Group F: Russia Belgium

I think Belgium could make a very deep run, but I also think they could struggle early in the tournament. A lot of these predictions are somewhat "chalk" but here is a mini bold pick. The Russians find a way to win the group on goal differential. Both get seven points as South Korea and Algeria wilt out early. Maybe deep down someplace in my brain I'm thinking this because I want the US to have an easier opponent if they come in second, I don't know. But this would certainly be a surprise.

Knockout Rounds: 

Round of 16:
Could France make a run??

Brazil over Chile, Ivory Coast over Italy, Spain over Croatia, Columbia over England, France over Bosnia, Germany over Belgium, Argentina over Swiss, USA over Russia.

Some surprises here on paper. This is the last hoorah for this golden generation for the Ivory Coast, and I think Toure will help them sneak past Italy in a classic game. If the US gets Russia, I like their chances, if they get Belgium they are done. Hopefully they play one of the two though, thats my only wish (GET THROUGH THE GROUP BOYS!). Many would be a bit surprised to see France in the final eight, but I really like their team and youth.

Round of Eight: 

Brazil over the Ivory Coast, Spain over Columbia, Germany over France, Argentina over USA

Pretty much all chalk here, but man this would be awesome. The best four teams left. Two best South American teams vs the two best Euro teams.


Brazil over Germany, Argentina over Spain

Talk about GREAT TV. Two monster games filled with stars, goals, and story lines. Brazil on home soil will be so tough for a Euro based team to best. They are on a mission, and we saw a glimpse of how they would deal with such a situation when they ripped apart Spain in the confederations cup final last summer. In the other game, I like Argentina to outlast Spain in a classic 4-3 game. So much talent. Messi would have even more motivation (as if he needs more) if we went against many of his Barca teammates for a spot in the final. Will Spain even last this long? Old legs.
Will Neymar deliver for Brazil? I think so. 


Brazil over Argentina 3-2

Higuain slots home to open up the scoring and Argentina takes a 1-0 lead to the half. Messi scores a second just out of the break to go up 2-0. Brazil then makes its run as Hulk scores two and ties it up in a 15 minute span, the second coming in the 77th minute. Argentina presses for the winner and Brazil launches a counter with Neymar scoring the winner in the 89th minute. ENJOY!

Golden Boot: Aguero, nine goals.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

USMNT World Cup Preview

--Lee Kunkel

(Today, I'm posting my USMNT preview with the World Cup just two days away!!!!! I'll have a broader preview and predictions out tomorrow on the tournament as a whole.)

The greatest spectacle in sports is upon us. It's been a long four years since South Africa 2010 and much has change around the globe, on and off the soccer field, but that tournament, the first on African soil, will be one I will never forget.
(NY Mag)

I liked soccer entering June of 2010. I LOVED it when the calender turned and July had passed (along with the tournament in which the Spaniards took home the crown).

If you're an American soccer fan --whether it be a die hard like myself, or a novice like the June 2010 Lee Kunkel-- the date June 23rd, 2010 was one for the ages. Landon Donovan gave us what many consider the greatest moment in US Soccer history with a late winner against Algeria that propelled the US into the knock stages.

Not only do I remember the goal, I remember EVERYTHING around me. Great times, great times.

Now the USA needs to build on it in Brazil. So let's get to it!

Roster, Group Outlook, Program Outlook
When the US roster was released, it was more about who wasn't on it then who was. Jürgen Klinsmann shocked just about everybody when he cut Landon Donovan from US camp and left him off the World Cup roster.

My thoughts? There isn't a universe --whether it be back in 2010, now, or two weeks from now-- that Brad Davis is a better soccer player then Donovan. BUT, JK's job is not to name the best 23, it is to name the best team. Donovan wasn't part of that group. End of story (Oh, he also quit the team at the start of WC qualifiers, seemed to clash with JK since his days a Bayern Munich, and has openly admitted he isn't in great shape because of his age).

As for the guys that are going to Brazil, I couldn't be happier. This is, far and away, the best collection of players the United States has ever taken to a World Cup.

Much of the USA success will depend on Bradley.
That's a good thing.
It all starts with Michael Bradley. Make no mistake about it, and don't be fooled by the MLS move (for a tonnnn of cash and "you're THE man" role at Toronto FC) Bradley could make the roster for every country in the world, and play for any club team in the world. Not saying he would start or have a massive role for Brazil or Manchester City, but he could play. He's the best individual player the US has ever taken to a World Cup in my opinion.

Around him are some great pieces.

Jozy Altidore (who had a down right awful season at Sunderland) seems to have his confidence back. He scored two goals in the USA's win over Nigeria this past weekend, and has played great his last two games. Jozy always plays a lot better for his country, and last year broke a long scoring drought at the start of the summer against Germany. He then went on a tear scoring in five straight games for the US, three in WCQ, and scored an incredible hat trick at Bosnia.

People forget he is just 24 years old, and already has 70 caps, 23 goals, played a huge role in the Yanks win over Spain (2009 Confederations Cup) and played in a World Cup (2010). No striker has scored for the US in the World Cup since Brian McBride carried the US in 2002. I think that drought is over in Brazil, thanks to Jozy.

The rest of the squad it littered with MLS stars and some great European club based talent. Out of the MLS group, expect captain Clint Dempsey (who is in great form for the Seattle Sounders) Graham Zusi, Matt Besler and Kyle Beckerman to all have big roles for Jürgen Klinsmann. All could play in high level leagues throughout Europe. Guys like this (and Omar Gonzalez/Brad Davis/Chris Wondolowski) have stayed home and really helped elevate the stateside league.

The player that has everyone talking currently is German-American Fabian Johnson. He has been on a tear for club and country as of late. The Bundesliga product has found a home a right-back, and is great at launching the attack, but can also track back and help the defense. He will be instrumental in Brazil, and is the second most important player behind Bradly.

Anchoring the defense will be Everton goalie Tim Howard (who just played his 100th game for the US this past weekend). Howard is in coming off his best season ever, and is in the prime of his career. One could argue he is a top 10 goalie in the world at this very moment. In front of him will be another Barclays Premier League product, Geoff Cameron. The Stoke man had a great season and should pair nicely with Besler.

Jermaine Jones will join Beckerman and Bradley in the midfield. He doesn't always make the smartest decisions, but he's a guy who plays as hard as anyone, can get forward and spring the attack, and will track back and halt a counter. The US needs a big tournament from Jones if it wants to have success.

The rest of the roster has some very good talent and balance. Ale Bedoya had a nice season in the top French league for Nantes and could start a few games in Brazil. He is a nice outside midfielder that can play both sides of the ball. John Brooks and Timmy Chandler --two other German American's-- could be huge off the bench. They both had strong campaign's --particularly Chandler-- in the Bundesliga.

The young Johnnsson could be just the wild card the US needs.
Aron Jóhannsson, Mix Diskerud, DeAndre Yedlin and Julian Green are all youngsters that could have an immediate impact like Donovan and DeMarcus Beasley (who is back for his forth World Cup and could start at leftback) had for 2002 team.

Overall, this a very talented group of guys, with a nice mix of youth, speed, talent, and experience.

Now to the group.

Ughhhh :(

For as nice as the soccer Gods were to us in 2010, they were equally as mean and nasty this time around. I won't sugarcoat it, the US *could* play three near perfect matches, and lose all three games. It's that hard.

Germany is one favorite to win the tournament. Portugal has the best player in the world. Ghana has eliminated us from TWO straight World Cups and might be the best team from Africa. But, as my loving dear mother once told me, "things can always be worse Lee Thomas..."

Once again, Mom is right.

The US could be in group B with Chile (a loaded dark horse playing on home continent soil), Spain, and the Netherlands (the two teams that met for the 2010 title). Not a chance in hell we make it out of that group. So it's not all doom and gloom.

Truth be told, we're the reason this group is so hard. We were the best team from our pot, so we were always looking at a difficult road. But that's just the thing, it's the World Cup. It isn't supposed to be a cake walk. And quite frankly, I think the US will get out of this death trap.

Massive game, both team needs 3 points.
Start with the first game June 16th vs Ghana. Disregard the past history vs the Black Stars. Should the 38th ranked team in the world (though fifa rankings are so stupid) really scare us? I don't think many would be all that terrified of Ghana if the history was not there. Four years is a long time. Ghana is a solid team (much better then their ranking shows) but not near the team they were in 2010, and they aren't as good as the US. They are very susceptible at the back. The US will get chances. If the Yanks don't turn it over in their half (Ghana kills team by pressing and getting the ball close to their goal, and hits you on a quick counter), US 2-1.

Then there is Portugal (ranked fourth, but like Ghana that is inaccurate). No way they are that good. Cristiano Ronaldo is a star, and if he's really on, Portugal can win this whole tournament (See the playoff against Sweden PUT THE TEAM ON MY BACK BRO). If he's not on though....(They barley got past Sweden, a team that doesn't have much outside of Ibra).

Not to mention, Portugal is the type of European team that could really struggle in South America, particularly against the USA. That game will be played in the middle of the Amazon in Manaus. High 90's, insane humidity = massive advantage for the Yanks.

CR7 has been battling a variety of injuries, hasn't played in any of Portugal's friendlies, and won't be in top shape when the tournament kicks off in a few days. He looked very pedestrian in the Champions League final a few weeks back (his play, not his muscles, which he showed to the whole world). This is one of my bold predictions, I think Portugal flames out and finishes last in the group.

JK and the crew hold possession (Portugal will give you the ball because they like to get out and counter with Nani and CR7) and wear down the Portuguese. As the game wears on, they wilt, and the US gets a late goal to win it 1-0. A draw here may even do too.

As for Germany, not much to say. They are stacked. If they want to tear up the US (or Ghana and Portugal) they likely will. Losing Marco Reus hurts, he was maybe their best player, but they plug Ozil (Arsenal) Kroos (Bayern), Gotze (Bayern), Lahm (Bayern), Schürrle (Chelsea), Müller (Bayern) or their next young stud, Draxler (Schalke) into the lineup. Just an embarrassment of riches. I guess it may help the US that they play Germany last. Maybe they take it easy on us and rest some guys with the group wrapped up. All I know is the US better not wait until it's last game to make a move.

My Pick: Second in the group, but another tough game in the round of 16 vs Belgium, who beat us 2-1.
Best case: Finish second in the group, hope to get an upset in group H and play Russia, make a run to the final eight (where Messi would likely take on the US).
Worst case: No points in what amounts to too tough of a draw.

Program Outlook

As Americans (or maybe humans as a whole, I've never been thrust into another countries sports culture) we tend to overreact. A lot. Look at the NBA Finals just this season. Game 1: LBJ is a bum who can't hydrate and the Heat are done. Game 2: The King is going to carry Miami and the old Spurs are donzo.

Same goes for the World Cup. While I'll agree that every player, coach and team is judged on their performance in this tournament, we can't put too much weight on it, especially given the group.

Hard to argue Klinsmann's success
to this point.
In the past four years under Jürgen Klinsmann we have won at Mexico, got a point at Mexico in WCQ, topped the Hex with ease (winning every home game), won the Gold Cup, grew the player pool to a point where the best American player of all time isn't on the WC roster and it's justifiable, beat the Italians (away), Bosnian's (away), Germans, Nigerians, and Turks, tied the Russians (away) and went on the longest win streak in USMNT history.

It's been a great four year cycle and things only look better on the horizon. The 2018 roster could be stacked with top level euro league talent (Julian Green!!). The MLS is growing in success and popularity (Spain and Brazil will have an MLS player on their roster, and both should feature in the tournament). The media actually covers soccer like a major sport.

Do I hope the World Cup performance reflects all of this? YES. But that may not be the case. If we come home with just one point (Gulp, or less), please America, don't throw out the past four years. The future is bright. (PS, this also goes the other way too. If we make a surprise run to the semifinals, we aren't all of a sudden a top four world power)

As I wrap things up, clear your calenders for next Monday around 6pm, grab your favorite American beer, gather your friends, and get ready for a stressful but amazing two hours.

"Go Go USA" as my man Ian Darke would say.