Will the USA advance or will we take a step back to our 1998 World Cup form? This question has troubled all of us since the draw was announced in December 2005, and we realized that the USA were to be placed in a group with two of the top squads in the world as well as an up and coming African nation, Ghana. In addition, the USA has never played well in World Cups held on European soil. While we were all troubled by a horrible performance versus Germany in a March friendly, we do remember that a similarly bad performance in a friendly against the same Germany squad in 2002 did not indicate an unsuccessful cup. We also recall that positive results leading into the World Cup such as we had in 1998 when we achieved victories over Sweden, Brazil and Austria didn’t really matter either. In May 1998 I thought Steve Sampson was the best thing going. We had beaten Brazil, had just crushed Austria in Vienna and had a new 3-6-1 formation to place a distinctly American stamp on the worldwide sport. Two months later Steve Sampson was out of a job after the US had finished last in the World Cup. In December 2000, after barely clearing the second round of qualifying against the likes of Barbados and Guatemala I was convinced Bruce Arena was way over his head coaching the national team. Maybe Alan Rothenberg the former Federation chief who badly wanted Bora back after the 1998 WC disaster and was outvoted in favor Arena, whom he thought little of, was correct? Two years later, Arena had taken the USA within a controversial call of a semi-final bith in Korea/Japan 2002 and was building a regional soccer superpower. The uncertainty on pegging the fortunes of the USA before each cup proves why the World Cup is so difficult to get a handle on before the competition begins.
The group which the US was placed in is one of the most difficult at Germany 2006. However none of the opponents’ sides are so overwhelming to preclude any hope for the USA. Italy, of course is one of the world’s great Footballing nations, but the Italians have more question marks than usual entering this World Cup, largely because the squad has transitioned from a veteran side to a group of younger players thanks to Coach Marcelo Lippi. Italy well enter Germany 2006 on an 18 game unbeaten streak, including key victories over the Germany and Dutch in the last several months.
The Azzurri has a solid defensive side that will push forward when needed. Attacker Luca Toni’s health has been a question mark as well. But Lippi has brought to the forefront a new generation of young players to carry the banner for Italy .
The Azzurri use young players as their backbone. Cristian Zaccardo is among the best defenders around and Daniele DeRossi helping to not only stimulates the attack from his holding midfield position, but also has remarkable on the ball skills. is not only versatile, but serves as the glue that holds together the Italian Midfield Unit. Francesco Totti continues to be a key peg in the Italian attack and has more international experience than most of Italy ’s key players. Alberto Gilaradano and Luca Toni form a strong attacking combination that works well together. Italy, despite substantial youth is going to be very difficult for the United States to even manage a draw with. That leaves two other matches in the group whom we will need to get a result from.
The USA opens versus the Czechs on June 12th. Despite being ranked #2 in the world largely due to excellent results in the last three European Championships The Czech Republic has not made the World Cup since 1990 (when the nation was still united with Slovakia), where they crushed the United States 5-1 in the Americans first World Cup match in 40 years. But times are different now, since the USA is making its 5th consecutive appearance in the World Cup Finals while the Czechs do not have a single player with World Cup experience on its roster. The Czechs have an attacking flair that is virtually unmatched throughout the world of Football. Old horses Pavel Nedved, Karel Poborsky and Jan Koller pace the Czech attack. Despite not being a seeded side, the Czechs are getting similar attention to Portugal in 2002, as a prospective European nation with an attractive brand of attacking football. Much like the Portuguese in 2002, the Czechs seem supremely confident. Manager Karel Bruckner lauded his sides consistent European Championship success and mentioned that the World Cup is essentially the European Championship plus Brazil and Argentina . That sort of attitude will not serve the Czechs well as they open with the USA and then play Ghanaians. Moreover, the Czechs do not look as if they are in good form entering the World Cup. Despite being Saudi Arabia on home soil 2-0 last week, the Saudi’s controlled the flow of play all afternoon long and were the victims of questionable penalty decision. Jan Koller has not been fully fit for sometime and the advanced age of most of the Czech’s key players will also work against them, particularly since they lack World Cup experience. Tomas Rosicky and Tomas Galesak, the squad’s skipper, are also banged up. Vladimir Smicer, a key attacker has already been scratched for the entire World Cup.
I am fairly the confident the United States will get at worst a draw and probably a full 3 point victory versus the Czech Republic. Ghana though should also get a results versus the Czech’s and thus the USA must play very well against Ghana to assure advancement.
Ghana qualified for its first World Cup thanks to the coaching of Ratomir Dujkovic. The Black Stars are a cohesive and highly disciplined side that relies on the excellent ball skills of its midfielders and the ability to attack in spots. Stephen Appiah and Michael Essien who plays his club football for Chelsea are two of the best midfielders on the African continent. Both fit perfectly into Dujkovic’s strategy of ball control and possession. Another midfielder to watch is Sully Muntari who plays in Serie A and has excellent ball skills as well. Asamoah Gyan and Dutch-based Matthew Amoah, are excellent finishers. The back line is somewhat shaky, but Ghana has a disciplined and skillful side.
Winning a full three points from Ghana may not be as easy as many American fans believe. The Ghanians are a tactically savvy side whose manager has instilled a discipline and understanding of the game needed to face squads with more talent. The US should win a full 3 points from this match but it may be a stalemate which is broken by some late magic off a set piece or even a penalty. The USA is likely to get less goal scoring opportunities versus Ghana than versus the Czechs, so our attackers better improve their recent poor finishing form if we are to move on.
WHO ADVANCES: ITALY, USA
BEST PLAYER IN GROUP: MICHAEL ESSIEN, GHANA
BEST YOUNG PLAYER GROUP: ABOUT 5 ITALIANS TO CHOOSE FROM