Sunday, June 11, 2006

World Cup: No Surprises? Not Suprising.

1/6th of the way through the group stage, and we haven't seen any shocks. I know some European media called the Ecuador win over Poland a shock, but they were pretty evenly matched. A slight upset maybe, but nothing crazy.

That should continue. Don't expect to see a few cinderella runs like last time for several reasons:

1) First and foremost, this time around the Euro players should feel more comfortable. It's in Europe, a more comfortable environment on the field and especially in the stands. Plus the tournament itself starts a week later, giving players a few more days of rest. I actually don't think a few more days of rest is a big deal, because a lot of big name players were hurt/not 100% last time which probably had a lot more to do with it than a couple days rest.

2) The quality of the non-Euro/S.American teams is worse. The top African teams didn't make it, while the best two African teams that did are in the two hardest groups. Japan and South Korea lack the home field advantage.

Not only that, but all the top teams qualified. Last time, the Netherlands didn't make it. Now, there's one fewer Euro team for starters. So instead of a Denmark or Norway you have Trinidad & Tobago. Overall this time there's just a larger gap between the good and bad teams (and the draw didn't help the "good" underdogs).

3) There really weren't a lot of surprises in 2002 to begin with. At least, the top teams were rarely outplayed. You had games that were decided by refs (S.Korea/Italy) or went to extra time (Senegal/Sweden). I don't think there was any real shift in the balance. Just look at Greece, who failed to qualify after their Euro 2004 success. Granted there may not be as many blowouts, but don't expect 3 non-Euro/S.American teams in the quarterfinals this year.

4) Finally, speaking of referees, they should be much improved this time around. FIFA has gone to great lengths to improve the quality this year. They are using fewer refs, paying them more, doing workshops, and making sure they all are from the same country (in most cases).

United States vs Czech Republic

If the USA wins it will be considered an upset. It shouldn't be a big one, about the same as Ecuador. I mentioned the Czech's scoring issues in my preview a few days ago. We have a pretty solid defense, so it would surprise me if they allowed the Czechs more than one goal. But will we be able to score on them? I think so. I'll predict that we win by a score of 1-0.

If there's one team that should perform better in the World Cup than in qualifying, it's the USA. We have to deal with poor referees, horrible fields, and hostile crowds, even in our own country sometimes. Then there's the problem of MLS and Euro guys not playing much together. None of those things will be a problem in Germany. That's a big reason why I was confident four years ago, and it goes for tomorrow as well.

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