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Does the U.S.A. have a chance?

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Ok, first I'd just like to welcome you to City Paper's official 2010 World Cup blog. I'll be providing daily updates throughout the tournament, examining the interesting storylines that emerge each day and previewing the following day's matches. This is America, and I'm American, so I will give the U.S. squad a good bit of attention. However, there will also be plenty of love for the rest of the tournament, and my overall goal is to keep you updated on what's happening in South Africa and enhance your enjoyment of the Cup. For this first post, I just want to give you a few items to keep in mind as the tournament opens tomorrow and throughout the next month.

The top storyline going into the World Cup, unfortunately, is the rash of injuries that has hit a some of the world's biggest stars over the past week. Perhaps the best player to take a knock was Ivory Coast's Didier Drogba who also plays for Chelsea in the English Premier League. Conflicting reports have come out of the Ivory Coast camp since Drogba apparently broke his forearm during a match last week, and it's unclear whether he'll be able to play in South Africa at all. Fortunately for the Ivory Coast, their first opponent Portugal also lost one of its best players this week when winger Nani went down with a bruised collarbone.

The most important injury news for the U.S. (besides the continuing recovery of forward Jozy Altidore's ankle and defender Oguchi Onyewu's knee) is the knee injury to English center-back Rio Ferdinand that has ruled him out of the World Cup. Despite assertions by many that this injury doesn't really hurt the English squad much, the fact remains that Ferdinand was a starter and the squad's captain. American fans can hope that perhaps the English back line's communication might not be quite as smooth, even if substitutes Ledley King or Michael Dawson are fully capable of filling in.

Other injured stars include German captain Michael Ballack, Ghana's stalwart central midfielder Michael Essien, and the Netherlands' mercurial winger Arjen Robben. Ballack and Essien have both been ruled out of the tournament while the Dutch are holding out hope that Robben can recover in time to participate.

I just thought I'd note quickly that it's interesting amid all these injuries how willing some coaches are to deal with injuries and give players a chance to recover, while others aren't. For example, Spanish forward Fernando Torres is only just returning to full training after suffering a serious knee injury way back in April, and English midfielder Gareth Barry still hasn't been declared fit to play (and probably won't until at least England's second match). However, both of these players made their squads (Torres' exclusion wasn't even discussed) while the Americans' best forward Charlie Davies, who had just resumed full training a couple of weeks before U.S. coach Bob Bradley chose his squad, didn't even make the team. Just saying.

So, the tournament opens up tomorrow with Mexico facing South Africa, and here are some early storylines to pay attention to.

1. The ball. It seems like every World Cup is accompanied by some players (usually goalies) complaining about the ball's movement or weight. It happened in Germany 2006, and it's happening again this year. However, I have to admit that there were definite moments during last weekend's friendly between U.S.A. and Australia when the ball did look a little funny. For starters, U.S. forward Edson Buddle's early goal blew past the Aussie keeper so fast it looked like it had been blasted out of Mega Man's rocket-launcher, and there were a number of occasions throughout the game where players from both squads appeared to misjudge the ball. I lost track of how many times I saw a player leap up for a header only to see the ball float a few inches over his head. I don't want to make any early condemnations, but just keep an eye out.

2. The conditions. Quick geography lesson. When it's summer in the Northern Hemisphere, it's winter down South. Also, toilets don't really flow opposite ways on either side of the Equator. Only one of those facts applies to the World Cup this summer, though (I think). It's winter in South Africa, so it'll be interesting to see how the change in temperature will affect some of the northern players who have been training in the heat for a month or two, even though South Africa's winter is fairly mild. More importantly, many of the games will be played at altitude, and anyone who's trained or played a sport at varying elevations will attest to the breathing and fitness difficulties high altitude can cause. Fortunately for Americans, the U.S. is normally one of the most in-shape squads in the tournament.

3. How the African teams fare. I think we can all agree that Africa's had a rough go at it for the last few hundred years, between Europeans carving up their continent and shipping off their best workers, corrupt regimes and coups, and the AIDS epidemic. The simple fact that South Africa even landed the World Cup was a victory in itself, but that won't be much consolation for the African nations in this competition if they all go out early. Despite passionate fans as crazed as any European hooligan and a host of African players populating the top leagues in England, Spain, and Italy, no African team has ever made it to the finals of a World Cup. Despite the injuries I mentioned above and a couple of tough draws (for Nigeria and Ivory Coast), this is probably the continent's best chance so far, with a home-field advantage and some of the highest quality squads they've ever put forward. If Drogba can't go for the Ivory Coast, Cameroon might be the most likely African team to make a run.

4. Find a way to gamble and pick your non-American team. There's two things Americans (okay, all human beings) love about sports: betting on teams and having their team win. It helps if you actually gamble on your favorite team and they win, but we can settle for one or the other. March Madness is popular largely because of the office pools that spring up all over the country, and it's time for us to bring that same under-the-table, semi-illegal passion to the World Cup. ESPN has a great Bracket predictor game, and I've also seen some contests set up on several other soccer-centric websites. You can just use ESPN's game as a model and set up your own. It's also a tradition among soccer fans in America to pick a team other than the U.S. to follow throughout the tourney. Unfortunately, the thinking behind this is that the U.S. probably won't advance very far, so you'll have somebody to pull for after they get knocked out. It never hurts to have a backup, though (as long as you don't pick somebody who's actually in the Americans' group, that's borderline Benedict Arnold territory), and you've got plenty of options. You can go with a feel-good story like one of the African teams, a fun-to-watch South American team like Argentina or Chile, or you can even take this as an opportunity to do a little family research and trace your heritage back to the land of your forefathers. Of course, for many of us, that heritage is English, and that's a definite no-no, since, you know, we're facing them in our first match on Saturday.

I'm planning a separate post for later on to give my official group stage predictions. I'll also be doing a post today with a full preview of the USA-England game as well as a review of Friday's opening games.

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