Thursday, June 01, 2006

#17: Stars and Stripes


Where? Here.

How big? Big. About the size of the USA. Population about 10 times the size of California.

Something I learned from the CIA Factbook... In reference to yesterday's mention of the difference between GDP % in agriculture and the % of the labor force in agriculture, the USA is the reverse - agriculture actually accounts for a larger percentage of the GDP than the percentage of the population working in that sector. Here's something else: the US has more railway miles than the European Union. That surprises me a lot.

Geopolitical significance? Everything that matters on earth somehow affects or is affected by the US.

Fun? I am endlessly amused by the fact that YouTube has 182 results for the search term "kicked in the nuts". Plus, the US created Yacht Rock.


OK, OK, OK. This is the last of the teams I'm predicting not to advance past the group stage. And it pains me to do it. I've got high hopes for the Yanks, but the group is just too tough and I still don't trust the US on European soil, where the USA has never won a World Cup match.

The USA has a poor all time record in the World Cup. It reached the semifinals in the very first World Cup, but suffered one humiliating defeat after another in the development of the sport, failing to qualify even in this weak continent for the 9 World Cups between 1950 and 1990. As hosts in 1994, the US showed some promise, advancing thanks mostly to that sadly fatal own goal in the Colombian match. 1998 was a step back, I believe mostly because of an overreliance upon the supposed stars of the 1994 team. Thankfully in 2002 the USA introduced some real players, not just long haired marketing machines, and it paid off with a run to the quarterfinals, and if not for a missed obvious handball, the US reaching the final wouldn't have been out of the question. A lot of that was due to Brad Friedel playing superman and making saves which bordered on impossible, and I'll go on to say that only Oliver Kahn meant more to his team in 2002.

Many 2002 players return for Germany, and qualifying was the easiest it's been in modern history. The USA qualified with three matches to go basically, sealing things with a fantastic win over Mexico, which capped a 5 game winning streak, each an impressive win.

The team is pretty well blended between players based in MLS and those based overseas (Germany and England, mainly). Claudio Reyna I still think is the best playmaker in the midfield, so his injury worries me greatly. Keeping remains a strong point, as Keller always plays better in international competitions, occasionally incredible. Howard and Hahnemann give depth few other teams have. Those keepers are definitely helped by the size and strength ogf Oguchi Onyewu, who may just be the best player on the roster. McBride will probably be the biggest scoring threat, but don't be surprised if Beasley's speed is tough to handle in the Czech match.

But the one to watch is Landon Donovan. Yes, he wasn't able to hack it in Germany before. Yes, he sometimes has trouble with physical, bigger defenders. But he's also the one player attacking on the US roster who has made me surprised by plays I didn't think Americans could do. He's dangerous outside the box. He can whip crosses in. He can slip behind opponents. And he's hitting his prime. Plus, never forget the power of narrative in the World Cup. A young Donovan was pretty much shamed by German soccer. Watch him return and show what they missed. He'll be the best American player.

But the group is just too tough. Had the US gotten Mexico's draw, easy advance. Costa Rica's, easy advance. Even Trinidad and Tobago's, they'd probably advance. But instead they're stuck with two exceptional European teams, and a good African team. No gimmes. And worst still, they play the two big Euros first, and Ghana last. So the US doesn't get the advantage of posting something on the board against the small team for the others to match.

In the opener against the Czechs, the US faces the best keeper in the world (really, three of the best keepers in the cup are in group E) and two tall forwards. The forwards don't scare me too much on normal plays from the field, as I think the US central defense can hang with them. But it's the wingers playing back that scare me. Convey especially is just small, and I worry that the US will give up too many corners, and with that size, it'll bite you. The Czech's get one early off a corner to go up 1-0. The US equalize on a Donovan free kick blocked, but the putback goes in. Late in the game the US doesn't want to give up another goal on a corner, and it results in a bad foul in the box. Rosicky converts the PK. 2-1 Czech Republic.

The US won't give up though. The next Saturday, the US come out swinging against Italy. Using speed and not letting the Italians push them around, the US score twice in the first half, stunning Buffon and most of Europe. Late in the second half, Totti gets a PK under dubious circumstances, and that goal may end up costing the US. A 2-1 win, the first ever for the Red, White and Blue, but things are still unsettled in terms of advancing.

Luckily the US have Ghana last, and there are plenty of ways things could work out for them. A win over the Black Stars, along with a Czech win or draw against Italy puts the US through. And the US does their part, scoring early with a McBride header. Early in the second half, Donovan converts a penalty. But late in the game Ghana scores to make it 2-1. It's a costly goal.

The Italians beat the Czechs, and three teams sit tied for the group lead with 6 points. The Italians lead on goal differential, so they take first. The Czechs score one more goal than the Yanks, sending the Americans home with as good or better a preliminary record than 7 of the advancing teams. 2 wins and a loss, 6 points, +1 goal differential, 5 goals, but a bitter pill to swallow.

If this were March Madness, the US would be... a school in a somewhat poor conference that isn't really a basketball school, but gets behind the team when it counts. When the bright lights come on, they look great, but suffer from a heartbreaking draw and tough circumnstances. Had I picked the US to advance far, they'd be Florida or Texas. But with this early exit, I'm guessing Alabama.

Thank the Lord I don't have to watch this dude lose every single ball played into the corner. I'm stunned that he's the most capped player in US history. Seriously.