Thursday, June 19, 2014

CHEATSHEET: 2014 World Cup

Not a sports fan? Think soccer is stupid but everyone's talking about it right now and you feel a little left out? Or maybe you kinda like the idea of soccer but there are so many leagues and teams and players that it's all kind of overwhelming? You've come to the right place! We're Americans! We like embracing flash-heroes! Here are a few story lines and talking points to help you enjoy the next few weeks.

GROUPS

Maybe you've heard the United States is in "Group G." There are eight groups, "A" through "H." Every team is guaranteed to play at least three games. Wins are worth three points, ties are worth one point, losses suck. If two teams in a group have the same number of points after three games, then they count up the goals scored to decide who wins the group (so running up the score is good, if you can do it). The top two teams in every group move on to an NCAA Tournament style knockout round, where ties cease to exist.

TEAMS

Spain was one of the favorites, but I'm late writing this post, so they've already been eliminated. This means I don't have to explain how they won the last three international tournaments in a row, but it also means I have no excuse to link to anything related to Sad Fernando Torres. Watch for him to score 10 completely meaningless goals against the Australians, who are also already eliminated. What a shame, the Aussies were fun to watch.

The Dutch were the runners up in the last World Cup, and they were the ones who slayed the Spanish and Australians. They usually wear orange, but so far in this tournament they've been wearing these gorgeous blue alternate uniforms, which I've decided are lucky. They have two super stars who are rumored to hate each other, Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben (Robin and Robben). Robin plays for the famous Manchester United in England, Robben plays for the also famous Bayern Munich in Germany.

Germany might be the San Antonio Spurs of this tournament, quietly taking care of business and people kind of forget about them between games. The United States will play them soon, and there are many connections between the two. Our coach is a former German team star. Several of our players are dual American/German citizens, because their fathers were military guys stationed overseas. Those players had their choice of which country they wanted to play for; once they take the field for one country or the other, they're "tied" to that country for the rest of their career. John Brooks, who scored America's winner against Ghana, was one of these dual-citizen players. He was not officially tied to the United States until he took the field on Monday, but he's ours now!

Mexico looks pretty good, but they were a "bubble" team; they had to do a weird playoff against New Zealand to qualify. Their goalie Ochoa was like an X-Man in the zero-zero tie with Brazil this week (and he's currently between teams, so it must be a fun week to be his agent). That was the game where people started whispering, "I understand why ties can be cool."

No European team has ever won the World Cup in South America. Brazil has never won the World Cup at home, and they're dealing with a lot of personal baggage. Chile looked really, really strong, and Argentina has arguably the best player in the world, Lionel Messi (yes, pronounced messy). In conclusion, I know embarrassingly little about the teams from Africa and Asia. I am ashamed.

PLAYERS

The subject of "best player in the world" breaks down to a sort of "Manning vs Brady" argument, with Lionel Messi playing the role of Manning and Cristiano Ronaldo, for Portugal, playing the role of Brady. The United States will play against Portugal on Sunday, and there have been rumors all week about Ronaldo having a bad knee. But, being arguably the best in the world, he'll have to be comatose to not be on the field. Oh, and if he scores, he might un-shirt himself.

Those who taught me soccer, Roger Bennett and Michael Davies, believe Uruguay's star Luis Suarez looks like Anne Hathaway. Italy's Mario Balotelli, who scored the game winner against England last weekend, is probably best known for blowing up his own bathroom with fireworks on the eve of a big game, then wearing a t-shirt that read, "Why Always Me?" (Note: I enjoy Balotelli; he makes me happy). Belgium's team is just filthy with big-named players and they've long been thought to be a dark horse contender (if you want to sound like you know what you're talking about, tell your friends you predict either Belgium or Chile to win it all). The English team has some fun characters, too (Note: Wayne Rooney looks like Shrek), but we have to get on to more important stuff. Just know, generally speaking, that teams tend to give the symbolic number "10" to their star guy, and the captain, their team leader, will wear an armband.

THE AMERICANS!

So why isn't Landon Donovan on this team? I don't know, but I've heard several theories. He's getting older and kind of broken down (by his own admission). He's still playing well for his team, the LA Galaxy, but by Team USA standards he's probably a guy who would come off the bench, and thus might have been a distraction ("Why isn't he starting!?"). By not having him there, it may have been just one less thing to worry about. Or, he and Coach Klinsmann might just passive aggressively not get along. If you listened to Landon's quotes leading up to the selection, you kind of got the idea that he was prepared to not be on the team; it's possible he was just worn down. But anywho.

Team USA has had a few different "number 10" guys over the years. Sometimes Landon wore it. Sometimes it was Clint Dempsey (the guy who scored the goal in the first 30 seconds against Ghana then got his nose broken). Now Clint is our captain (so some people are hoping he'll wear a Captain America mask to protect his broken face), and he's arguably our best goal scorer. Our best player is probably our goalie, Tim Howard, who plays for Everton in the English Premier League; he used to play at Manchester United when Portugal's Ronaldo was there. They were TEAMMATES! Now, our number "10" is actually a new guy, Mix Diskerud (the coolest name on the roster); he tends to be the first guy off the bench, when injuries don't dictate otherwise. I adore him.

The guy who needs to have a HUGE game against Portugal is Michael Bradley (the bald guy who never smiles). His dad used to be Team USA's coach; he was fired after the last world cup, and that's when Klinsmann took over. Bradley is really good; the people who know things say that he could easily play in any league in the world, but he recently chose to come to MLS (he plays for Toronto). A lot of our guys have been coming back to the home league lately.

Against Ghana we lost the one guy we couldn't really afford to lose: Jozy Altidore. He's supposed to be our biggest scorer; none of the other guys play the way he plays (no, not even Landon, they don't even play the same position). Rumor has it that his injury isn't as bad as they originally thought, but he's not playing against Portugal. So who will replace him? Either Aron Johannsson (a kid who was born in Alabama but grew up in Iceland) or Chris Wondolowski (a late-blooming player of Native American heritage). Aron came on for Jozy against Ghana, and it was a little symbolic, since they played together for awhile in the Dutch league, before Jozy moved to Sunderland in England. I'm kind of feeling Wondo against Portugal. I can't explain why, just a feeling.

Team USA has a lot of interesting, likable characters on it (see also, Kyle Beckerman), and you can see them all introduce themselves here in little 90 second videos. Highly recommend.