Day 1: Hope for South Africa and Painful English History

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World Cup 2010 Day 1: Some good, some bad.

It’s awesome to finally get to talk about some actual World Cup soccer rather than just what everyone thinks is going to happen. Coming from someone who just spent a couple of hours yesterday previewing the tournament and making predictions, it’s time to throw all that crap out the window and talk about real games. Let’s touch on the two games today, before getting to what we all really want to talk about, USA-England tomorrow.

I picked Mexico to win Group A yesterday, and they sure looked the part in the first ten minutes of their match vs. S. Africa. The Mexican attack was on full display, and the home team looked like the pressure of playing in front of hundreds of thousands of South Africans blowing away on their vuvuzuelas (that buzzing sound you keep hearing) had given them a collective brain aneurism. However, Mexico failed to take full advantage of their early dominance, and South Africa settled down a bit as the game continued. Mexico continued to have the better of the chances in the first half, and even had a goal called off (correctly) for offsides. The S. Africans continued to improve, though, and actually controlled large portions of the 2nd half. Their momentum paid off when the fabulously-named Tshabalala sent an absolute rocket into the top corner past the Mexican keeper. Unfortunately for the hosts, Mexico scored the equalizer shortly thereafter on a mental lapse by the South African captain, who failed to step up on with the offsides trap, which had given the Mexican squad a lot of trouble throughout. South Africa had one more great chance to take the lead at the end but knocked it into the post.

A few thoughts. First of all, I was really impressed with South Africa in the second half. They are a dangerous team on the attack, especially with the crowd spurring them on, and they used the offsides trap to great effect (except on the goal, of course). I’m not sure what else about their defense managed to frustrate the Mexican team so much, but I do know El Tri just seemed to be lacking the sophistication or composure to play that final ball where they needed to. I’m really surprised that Mexico only managed to score one goal, particularly after the way they shredded the South African defense early. I still have a lot of confidence in this Mexican squad, but I’m optimistic if I’m a South African fan as well.

I won’t say as much about France-Uruguay match, because, quite simply, it wasn’t nearly as much fun. The South Africa-Mexico match was really wide open, especially in the 2nd half, and the game was played at a very high pace. Uruguay did what they had to do defensively, but I’m not sure I saw anything out of them to suggest they’ll be able to score in their other matches either. As for France, I shouldn’t really be surprised that they looked a bit sluggish, since, if anyone remembers, they looked about as poor at the beginning of the 2006 World Cup. If you’ll remember, things worked out pretty well for them then, since they ended up in the final. Of course, that was mainly because Zinedine Zidane (the head-butt guy for the uninitiated) completely took over, playing at an astoundingly high level over their next four games. Who will be that guy for France this time around? I’m not sure Thierry Henry’s capable of that level at this point, and, honestly, it should be Bayern Munich midfielder Frank Ribery. Unfortunately, he was almost invisible for much of today’s game.

The day is almost here that every U.S. fan has been anticipating December, when we first found out we’d be facing England in our first group match. In the spirit of optimism, and the spirit of me loving lists, here are five reasons why the U.S. could win tomorrow.

1.The English are traditional slow starters. Although they won their first match in 2006, they struggled a lot against Paraguay, just managing to steal a goal and 3 pts. In 2002, they tied 2 of their 3 group matches. Let’s get this straight. England is a great team, and a much more talented team than the U.S., but of all the number 1 seeds the U.S. could have been drawn to face, I would take England over every other top team except Italy or South Africa (who is only a #1 seed because they’re hosting). England has a long tradition of disappointment at a World Cup. A lot of American fans don’t realize this, but England has only won one World Cup, way back in 1966 when they were the host team, and England hasn’t been back to the finals of the tournament since then. They’re certainly a soccer power, but let’s not pretend they’re on the same level (historically) as Brazil, Italy, or Germany.

2.Apartheid was really their fault. Ok, I don’t want to trivialize the horrors of apartheid in South Africa, but let’s be honest, it can all be traced back to the bloody British colonists. If karma exists, they’ll get knocked out early, and Nelson Mandela will be waving good-bye as their plane takes off in a couple of weeks.

3.History. Ok, I already pulled out the apartheid connection, so now it’s time to pull out the American Revolution connection. I’m convinced that we need to remind the English of the Revolution as much as possible before the game tomorrow, and I’d even like to see the American coaching staff come out in period costumes. Anyway, the specific history I’m talking about is the 200 year anniversary of King George’s craziness. That’s right, exactly 200 years ago, in 1810, King George III, the English king who first pissed off the Americans and ruled throughout the American Revolution, was officially declared insane. The lesson: don’t mess with the Americans or you’ll go insane 35 years later…or something like that.

I purposely left out the reason that a lot of people have been citing: that the English have a lot more pressure on them than the Americans. However, I’m not 100% that that’s exactly the case. See, there’s no doubt that the English as a nation care much more about this match than the Americans, and it’s also true that if the English lose this match, they’ll be absolutely blasted by the media at home. The difference is that the English squad knows that they’re not actually going to lose fans over this match. England will still care about their team, they’ll still follow all these players on their club teams, and the players will be given plenty of chances to win back the their favor. As for the Americans, they won’t be lambasted on the street corner like the English squad will in London, nor will their entire country focus on their failure like they would for the English.

However, what will happen is that the U.S. will lose the chance to impress, or interest, a lot of potential American fans who have finally been willing to give soccer a chance. What I’m trying to say is that, ultimately, the result of this match won’t have any real effect on the state, or future of English soccer (football), but this is arguably the biggest match in American history in terms of the number of American viewers and its potential to advance the sport here. I don’t want to overstate what a win will do for Americans, but I also don’t want to understate what a loss could do. Americans want winners, and this match is the best chance the American squad has to impress their countrymen by beating the country that, arguably, most resonates with the rest of the country. If you’re the Americans, this game shouldn’t mean nearly that much, because they can win their next two, advance to the 2nd round and forget all about the England game, but I wouldn’t blame them if they get caught up in the all England hype and feel some real pressure.

I’ve personally avoided getting into a lot of Xs and Os, because I’d much rather discuss the strategy that’s actually implemented, rather than what might happen. If I knew what lineup Bob Bradley would roll out tomorrow, I’d be more than happy to discuss the match-ups, but there are still a lot of questions.

For those familiar with the U.S. lineup and strategy, though, I’m just going to say that I’d like to see Altidore and Buddle up top, Dempsey at left mid, Bradley and Torres in the center, Donovan at right mid, and Cherundolo, Onyewu, Demerit, and Bocanegra across the back. I think it’s a mistake to assume that having Torres in the center automatically makes the U.S. lineup extremely offensive and vulnerable. What makes the U.S. vulnerable is Ricardo Clark’s tendency to turn the ball over, and Torres has shown repeatedly that he’s not a defensive liability. He’s a good on the ball defender, and I think he compliments Bradley’s defensive tendencies to clog space in front of the back line. As for the forwards, I like what I’ve seen from Buddle, and I’m interested to see what he and Altidore can do paired up together. I’d save Findley’s speed for the 2nd half, and I don’t think, contrary to what some people think, that Altidore and Buddle are the same kind of player and can’t work well together. I’d also like to see Holden get some time in the 2nd half.

Let's not forget, there are two other very good games tomorrow morning. Greece faces S. Korea at 7:30 AM and Nigeria plays Argentina with Lionel Messi at 9:30 AM.

I'll be back tomorrow with a reaction to the England-USA match (1:30 PM ABC).

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