Strong USA Looks to Escape Shadow of World Foes

    The biggest and single most popular sporting event on the planet, the World Cup, has the power to unite warring factions of a civil war-torn country and bring an entire country’s economy to a grinding halt, as was the case for the Ivory Coast. In 2002, 1.1 billion people worldwide watched the final match between Brazil and Germany on television. The cup makes the Super Bowl look as tame as an 80-year-old’s birthday party.

    Billy Wong/Guardian
    The United States’ best-ever soccer team faces an uphill battle in the World Cup, with formidable opponents Italy and the Czech Republic standing in the way of a second-round berth.

    In anticipation of World Cup 2006, Nike launched the biggest soccer-focused marketing initiative ever on American soil in an effort to promote interest in and awareness of a tournament that historically draws little attention from the American public. Featuring commercial spots and giant billboards across the country, the message from the in-your-face campaign is clear: Do not underestimate the U.S. men’s team in Germany this summer.

    The squad representing the red, white and blue this year is considered one of the deepest and most talented ever. Under Bruce Arena, the longest-tenured coach in the tournament, the team as a whole has steadily grown and matured since its surprising performance in the World Cup four years ago. While Landon Donovan may be the most well-known player on the team, captain Claudio Reyna, is more valuable to the team. Reyna pulls all the strings as a holding midfielder: He can control the tempo of the game, diffusing attacks as well as starting them. Left-footed youngster Bobby Convey has been in impressive form and may have played his way into the starting XI, especially if DeMarcus Beasley switches to right wing to make room for Convey.

    Team USA will rely on experienced veteran striker Brian McBride to provide an aerial presence for the team. Donovan, who can line up as a striker in addition to his normal midfield role, could play alongside McBride, freeing up a midfield spot for the fearless dribbler Clint Dempsey. Returning from a foot injury, Eddie Johnson is another option at forward.

    At 6 feet, 4 inches tall and 210 pounds, center back Oguchi Onyewu has a combination of size, strength, athleticism and skills never before seen in an American defender. Representing his country for the fourth time in the World Cup, goalkeeper Kasey Keller is one of the world’s top keepers and his commanding presence will solidify the American defense. Keller’s performance in Germany will dictate how the Yankees advance in the tournament.

    While interest in the oft-overlooked sport may be at an all-time high, expectations are also higher than they have ever been. After all, if this year’s U.S. side is considered one of the best ever, shouldn’t they advance past the quarterfinals this summer, where the 2002 team narrowly lost to eventual finalists Germany?

    Not so fast.

    The Fédération Internationale de Football Association World Cup is a monthlong tournament with 32 teams representing six geographical regions. The tournament, which begins in Germany in less than a week, is actually the final tournament in a competition that began more than two years ago. Over 200 member nations of FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, dwindle down to 32 through a series of qualifying games within their respective region. Simply surviving this qualification process is a triumph itself.

    What is commonly known as the “World Cup” is the final tournament in the competition. The 32 surviving teams are divided into eight four-team groups in the group stage. Half of the teams are eliminated after only three games. Getting past the group stage is no guarantee; France, the reigning world champion heading into the World Cup in 2002, was sent home after three games, failing to score a single goal in the process.

    By a stroke of grave misfortune, the U.S. team is drawn into Group E with the Czech Republic, Italy and Ghana, widely considered one of the toughest groups in the tournament. The Czech Republic’s attack is considered one of the world’s best while the talented Italians are one of the favorites to win the tournament. World Cup rookie Ghana cannot be overlooked; they qualified ahead of 2010 host South Africa, giving up only 4 goals in 10 qualifying games.

    The mere thought of dealing with the offensive talents of Czechs Pavel Nedved, Milan Baros and Jan Koller and Italians Francesco Totti, Alberto Gilardino and Luca Toni would give any defender nightmares. On the other end of the field, don’t count on scoring many goals against world-class netminders Petr Cech and Gianluigi Buffon of the Czech Republic and Italy, respectively. Ghana’s Michael Essien, a physically dominant midfield destroyer nicknamed the “Bison,” will wreck havoc with the US. midfield. Even with a side as talented and motivated as the United States, advancing from this group will not be an easy task. And it gets worse. If the Americans somehow manage to get out of the tough group alive, finishing second in the group will likely earn them a date with soccer powerhouse Brazil in the knockout rounds. Score!

    This year’s squad is more complete and experienced than the one that made a surprising quarterfinal run in 2002. But reaching the quarterfinals is not the starting point; it’s a goal to strive for. By no means should we automatically expect this year’s team to better that feat. The World Cup is so much more than just about winning or losing: It’s about proudly representing your country on the biggest stage in the world. It’s about screaming your lungs out and cheering on our country side-by-side with complete strangers. No matter how far Donovan, Keller, Reyna and Co. advance, the U.S. team is making strides by helping the sport of soccer gain the recognition it deserves on American soil. So, whether the United States exits after the first round or takes a run deep into the tournament, I will be cheering for a squad that is fighting not just for a trophy, but for respect at home, as well.

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