By Ryan Thies of the Long Beach Post
After the 2006 tournament in which the US drew the Group of Death (eventual champs Italy, powerhouse Czech Republic, and up-and-coming Ghana) I was sure that this World Cup’s draw was going to crush us again. When the US got drawn with England (the top team in qualifying), I yelled something that I’m not allowed to repeat on this site. I was sure The Death was forming around us. So when Algeria and Slovenia became teams 3 and 4 in the group…well, let’s just say I was relieved. The US was handed advancing on a silver platter. But will they win it all? I think by now you’ve realized that with all the shortcomings of this year’s field, no one will win the World Cup. Especially not anyone in Group C…
England- I think I have done a pretty good job riling up English fans–although don’t worry, Uruguay, you’re now my favorite fans to antagonize. The difference between England and Uruguay is that this year’s English team actually has talent (I just couldn’t resist…)
But the thing that’s clear about England is that while they have the talent, they rarely have the success they expect. They have won only one more World Cup than the USA has. In fact England did as well in the Euro 2008 tournament as America did (sadly, both failed to qualify). But look a little deeper and you’ll notice the Three Lions haven’t been eliminated in the group stages since the 50s, and each of the last two World Cups they made the Quarter-Finals.
What’s more, they only lost in ’06 because of penalty kicks and in ’02 because they ran into (eventual champs) Brazil. And suddenly you realize that England is not a bad team, or a group of choke artists, or whatever else the English media wants to say; they are simply a victim of high expectations. The English media likes to blame the WAGs for distracting the team (WAG’s stands for Wives and Girlfriends; think: the Real Housewives of Manchester). Their shopping and partying make an interesting scapegoat but I find it hard to believe that their six-figure shopping sprees are what caused Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard to miss their PKs. Overall what’s actually plaguing England isn’t bimbo wives, or lack of quality strikers, or shoddy goalkeeping, or overly similar midfielders–well, ok, the goalkeeping might be a factor, but the true culprit is pressure.
It’s been 44 years since they last won the Cup (which, not coincidentally was also the last time they hosted it), and the pressure has been building and building since then. Like the soft rabbit that they love to hold a little too tightly, this English team can’t control themselves every time they are in a big tournament. A game against the Colonies was probably the last game they wanted to open their schedule with, but the second-half of the draw ensures that it should be an easy advancement (or a colossal collapse).
They have one of the world’s best 3 players (in Wayne Rooney), they have a fast midfield, they have an experienced defense, and even their keeper situation isn’t as bad as in previous years. This team could do very well, and their history of coming up short is really the only reason not to believe in them. That said, they still have a ton of questions to answer (is Crouch really the answer to partner with Rooney upfront?); they have a ton of drama (who’s keeping an eye on the wives when John Terry’s not around?); and they have a ton of talent that has been battle-tested by the best league in the world (will the EPL’s demands leave them exhausted before this tourney even begins?). This team won’t win it all, no one will; but success won’t be how far they go, it will be how the country accepts their inevitable loss.
USA- I strongly considered giving “Why the US won’t win the World Cup” its own column. There certainly are enough reasons to justify a few thousand words on the matter, but ultimately writing that would be like writing “Why you won’t win the lottery” or “Why I’m not as fast as Usain Bolt”.
To win it all takes luck (which has been in short supply for Sam’s Army), skill (which may arguably be in shorter supply), and consistency (which undoubtedly has been the least of the three). The US won’t win it all, but that’s not to say that this World Cup can’t still be a success.
Actually while I said I had a few thousand words on why the US won’t win, it really only takes one: defense. The back-line is unquestionably the weak spot of the team. With Gooch coming off an injury, Demerit battling his problems, and the both the left-back and right-back spots having a bulls-eye on them, it’s easy to imagine a tournament (like the Confederations Cup) where the US gives up 3 goals nearly every game. But as I mentioned earlier I was fully expecting the US to get shafted and draw a few more tough teams; fortunately, the Ping Pong Ball Gods smiled on us.
Instead the US gets a high-profile, no-expectations game against our footballing Godfathers and then we get two games that we must win. Anything short of two wins against Algeria and Slovenia would be Bob Bradley’s ticket to a permanent vacation. But it’s not just the two winnable games that made this a good draw, it’s the audition factor. With the exception of Tim Howard and maybe Clint Dempsey, the entire rest of the US team is on display. Landon Donovan with a good showing can increase his stock enough to get more serious attention from the EPL, Jozy Altidore can prove that he just didn’t have enough talent around him at Hull and he too can get back to the Premiere League. Oguchi Onyewu might prove that he’s worthy of a starting spot in a top-tier league (as opposed to just Milan’s bench), and Jose Torres might make the rare change by leaving the Mexican league for Europe. (Friend of the site, Jonny Bornstein might have the most to prove if he cracks the starting eleven.) The point is: every one of these guys is on display, not just for their country, but for their livelihood. For a team that has been known to come out flat in big tournaments, that might be an important motivation.
The Confederations Cup last Summer was a fantastic building block for the team. The good from that? Playing in South Africa, against top teams, and making it to a halftime lead in the Final. The bad from that? Making it all the way to the Final and still be outscored for the Tournament tells you how inconsistent the team was. The good for this Cup? Playing somewhere other than Europe. The bad? Germany waiting for them in the Elimination Round. The good? In a field more wide-open than any in recent memory, the US has the potential to show they belong. The bad? Expectations only lead to heartbreak. So I will reiterate: the US won’t win it all…don’t even think about it.
Algeria- Part of the reason the US and England look at this as an easy draw is that of the 6 African teams, Algeria is probably the weakest. They don’t have the depth that some of the other African teams have, and with the US getting them in the 3rd game, there is a distinct possibly that injuries or Yellow Cards could further weaken the team. The flip side to that coin though is that the biggest shortcoming of Algeria is experience. They haven’t made the World Cup in nearly a quarter-century and their individual players have very little international experience. But by getting two games under their belt by the time they meet the US, those players could find their comfort zone and become a dangerous team.
Home Continent soil is known to do magical things–like spinach to Popeye or steroids to A-Rod. And add to that that Algeria has some decent wins (especially a 3-2 win over Ivory Coast in the African tournament; or beating reigning African champion Egypt to eliminate them from World Cup qualifying) and you’ve got a recipe for surprises. Of course that same Egypt team walloped Algeria the next time they played, and despite being the same continent, Algeria is as close to South Africa as New York is to London. And of course a young team that could be eliminated by the time they meet the US in the 3rd game could just phone it in. That’s the thing with young teams–you never know which one will show up. What do you know? That no matter which Algerian team shows up there’s no way they’re winning it all.
Slovenia- the story of Group C is England/USA. But the secondary story is that it is an easy group. Everyone agrees with that. Except…Algeria is ranked 28th in the world which means they are not even in the bottom quarter of teams in this tournament. And Slovenia is ranked 33rd which means every other group has at least 1 team ranked lower than them. You read that right- the “easy” group the US has, is actually the most difficult group according to FIFA’s rankings. So why do we consider it easy? (Besides that FIFA rankings are laughably unreliable.)
Because despite the ranking, Slovenia doesn’t have much business being in this tournament. They drew a weak group in World Cup Qualifying, they only made it out of that group because of a 1-nil win over a nine-man Russia. They have almost no players in any major European league, they did terribly in Euro 08, and they just seem to lack the talent of serious competitor. They are not going to win it all, that much is obvious. And even for them (or Algeria) make it out of the group stage would take a near-miracle. Of course this is the World Cup, and miracles are bound to happen. Here’s hoping they just don’t happen in group C…
Ryan Thies is a writer for The Long Beach Post. This Column originally appeared on the Long Beach Post and is republished here with written consent.