Let’s Kick Some Balls
Issue   |   Tue, 03/04/2014 - 23:56

Every four summers, soccer fandom in the United States reaches new heights. As the best players around the globe gather in search of the most coveted trophy in soccer, everyone seems to be in a better mood. The combination of competitive soccer, summer and patriotism leads to a special atmosphere around every World Cup.

Worldwide, there are 250 million soccer players in over two hundred countries, making soccer the world’s most popular sport. The 2010 World Cup in South Africa saw an average of 400 million viewers per match, and 700 million were expected to tune in for the final.

American interest in soccer has seen substantial growth in recent years. An average of three million Americans watched each World Cup game, up sixty percent from 2006 while the U.S. team remained in the competition. The final drew 24 million American viewers. Behind basketball and baseball, soccer is the third most played team sport in America with thirteen million participants. An ESPN poll ranked soccer as the second most popular sport among the 12-24 age group. 33 million Americans now describe themselves as avid soccer fans, and for the first time, the NBC Sports Network live broadcasts every English Premier League game in the U.S.

Major League Soccer, the highest level of American soccer, has seen average attendance rise to 18,000 per game, above the NBA and NHL. The MLS hopes to be among the top soccer leagues by 2022 and shows signs of progress, improving the level of competition by importing European stars in the twilights of their careers. Unfortunately for the MLS, only 7.2 million of the 33 million avid American soccer fans are fans of MLS. This number will only rise as the league attracts more talent and established stars.

Although the U.S. Men’s National Team reached the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan, much of its success has come in the last five years. In the Confederations Cup, an exhibition tournament that takes place a year before the World Cup, the U.S. beat number one ranked Spain in 2009 before losing 3-2 to Brazil in the final. One year later, the United States had a strong showing in South Africa, winning its group for the first time since 1930. In the next stage, the Round of 16, Ghana eliminated the U.S. 2-1 in heart-wrenching fashion, scoring the decisive goal in extra time.

Jürgen Klinsmann has since replaced Bob Bradley as head coach. Under Klinsmann, who previously managed the German National Team and renowned German club Bayern Munich, the U.S. has adapted a more fluid play style that is fun to watch. Recently, the team beat Italy 1-0 in 2012 for the first time in U.S. history and second-ranked Germany 4-3 in 2013 en route to a twelve-game winning streak.

Americans playing in Europe have long been stigmatized as hardworking players ultimately lacking the skill and feel for the game required in top leagues. The current men’s team, however, has plenty of European experience. Casual American soccer fans likely know the names of established national team players such as Landon Donovan, Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore. Michael Bradley played in the top Italian league before returning to the MLS and may be the best position player for the U.S. in Brazil. The shiny bald midfielder excels at turning defense into offense with quick counter-attacks toward the opponent’s goal.

Several new players who have seen their stock rise under Klinsmann will be looking to establish themselves on the international stage as well. Graham Zusi is a creative midfielder who plays with a flair rarely seen in an American team, and Geoff Cameron, a starting right back in the Premier League, combines solid defense in the air with composure on the ball. Aron Johannsson, a promising young striker, has scored an encouraging thirteen goals in Europe and will attempt to make a name for himself at this World Cup.

The U.S. faces a tough challenge in the group stages, having drawn Germany, Portugal, and Ghana. If they can advance, the Americans will likely play Belgium or, ideally, Russia in what look to be difficult but winnable match-ups. In all likelihood, Argentina will be awaiting the U.S. in the next round, should the Americans advance.

The Brazil World Cup marks the first major international competition since 2006 in which Spain will not be the heavy favorite. Spain enters Brazil coming off of back-to-back European Championships, winning in 2008 and 2012, as well as a 2010 World Cup title. Now it appears as though Spain’s reign as the world’s best team is coming to an end. Germany looks poised to take the helm with its ruthless counter-attacking replacing Spain’s relentless possession. The Germans combine precision offense with stout defense but have yet to put it all together in a major tournament.

That may not occur this year ­— no European nation has ever won a World Cup in South America. Brazil, the host nation, has been pegged as the favorite to add another title to its record five. Brazil boasts a young squad with world-class talent at every position — although goalkeeping could be a weakness. Look for Neymar to make a statement. He combines speed and agility with great dribbling skills, finishing, and vision.

Argentina is considered to be one of Brazil’s greatest challengers. Lionel Messi, widely recognized as the best player in the world and Neymar’s teammate at Barcelona, will view anything less than winning the title a failure. The two South American nations are soccer powerhouses with a great shot at winning the whole thing. Still, a championship for Germany or Spain would hardly come as a surprise.

In each World Cup, the player who scores the most goals is awarded the Golden Boot. Thomas Müller of Germany won the award in 2010 with five goals. Several competitors will be vying for the award this year. Among South Americans, likely candidates are Neymar, Messi and Sergio Agüero (Argentina), Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez (Uruguay) and Falcao (Colombia) if he has recovered from injury in time. Of the Europeans, Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal), Robin van Persie (Netherlands), Romelu Lukaku (Belgium) and Mario Balotelli (Italy) all stand a chance. For many South American strikers, there may not be enough goals to go around. Suarez has arguably been the best striker in the world this season, but I don’t see Uruguay progressing far enough for him to win the Golden Boot. As the focus of a very talented attack and without a top tier striker in front of him, Neymar is my choice as winner of the Golden Boot.

Brazil is the easy favorite to win its group, which would afford it a relatively simple path to the semifinal. Germany will likely face Brazil in the Semis after they dispatch a talented but unsteady France. Argentina also appears to be a favorite to reach the Semis. A face-off between Argentina and the United States is not a promising one for the American men; the magic created by Argentina’s many gifted attackers will prove too much for the Americans to hold back.

Spain and Italy look primed to meet each other in a closely contested match in the quarterfinals. Spain is the better team and, with tons of experience, will ultimately overwhelm the Italians. Brazil can beat Germany and will advance to the final. A match-up with Argentina seems too good to be true and I think that Spain has the acumen to take advantage of Argentina’s weakness in defense. In the final, Brazil’s young team will be cheered by an entire nation, propelling them to an exciting victory over Spain.

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Huge Fan (not verified) says:
Mon, 03/24/2014 - 22:26

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