Every Wednesday throughout the 2014 NASL season, a guest writer who regularly covers the NASL and soccer in North America will give their take on the league or the sport in general.
This week its second part of series articles where NASL players help guest writer Carlos Verde – Canadian Sport Journalist, to preview this summer’s World Cup
By Carlos Verde
In a little over three weeks, the world’s greatest soccer players will congregate in Brazil. Like most other professional soccer players, the stars of the NASL will be following game-by-game as the tournament churns excitingly towards the crowning of a World Champion on July 13th in Rio de Janeiro.
Being one of the most wide-open groups in Brazil, this group embodies everything that is great about the World Cup- the variety of teams geographically, the variety of teams stylistically, and the purely awesome fact that countries with none (or very few) previous meetings will duke it out for the right to continue on the path to world soccer glory.
The Good – Colombia boast one of the most offensively-talented squads in the entire tournament. Even if Radamel Falcao’s recovery does not allow him to partake in the festivities in Brazil, the South Americans still boast Jackson Martinez (Porto), Carlos Bacca (Sevilla), and Luis Muriel (Udinese) up front. Add James Rodriguez and Fredy Guarin in the midfield, and the Porto connection could me magical for the Colombians this summer, with or without Falcao. Factor in Juan Cuadrado, Victor Ibarbo and Juan Quintero and the list of excellent midfielders is unbelievably deep for the Colombians.
The Bad – The Colombians don’t have a ton of World Cup experience, but aside from that, there is not much to pick out as ‘below average’. I wouldn’t venture to call the defense weak seeing as they allowed the fewest goals in CONMEBOL qualifying, but Colombia’s back four won’t be quite as star-studded as their attackers. Mario Yepes (AC Milan), Pablo Armero (West Ham), and Luis Perea (Cruz Azul) are some of the bigger names on the back end for Colombia.
The Skinny – This is a quality team. Many people have been tricked into thinking that this team lives and dies by Radamel Falcao’s health, but the truth is that this is a country that could make a deep run in Brazil, with or without Monaco’s star.
Prediction – 1st.
The Good – Alberto Zaccheroni has brought a very industrious system to the Japanese national set-up since joining the Asian giants in 2010. They possess very solid attacking options, with high-profile players like Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa backed by a hard-working supporting cast highlighted by veterans Yasuhito Endo and Shinji Okazaki.
The Bad – With one exception (a 6-0 blowout victory over Jordan), Japan did not by any means overpower their decidedly average Asian qualifying competition. The obvious physical mismatch must be highlighted as well when comparing them to Cote d’Ivoire. Will they be able to keep up a solid run of form for three competitive matches? Only time will tell.
The Skinny – The Japanese are very well coached, and are also a much underrated squad. They should advance from this group, however, anything can happen with these four evenly matched teams.
Prediction – 2nd.
The Good – As per usual, Greece parked the bus successfully throughout UEFA qualifying, allowing just four goals (three of which came in one match against Bosnia & Herzegovina) en route to a World Cup play-off matchup with Romania. Once there, Fernando Santos’ men exploded offensively to see off the Romanians 4-2 on aggregate, thanks to three goals from Fulham’s Konstantinos Mitroglou. Defense will be the key for Greece if they are to have any success.
The Bad – Despite the outburst against Romania, this is still a very offensively challenged squad. Only twelve goals in ten matches against very mediocre competition in UEFA group stage qualifying has to be a major concern for Santos and the Greeks going forward.
The Skinny – It would be too easy to put the underdog Greeks in fourth place because they will guarantee swipe points off of somebody in an ‘upset’- either a defensive stalemate or one-goal victory. Whether they’ll advance is substantially less certain.
Prediction – 3rd.
Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast)
The Good – The Ivoirians’ offense remains as potent as ever, with the likes of Seydou Doumbia, Wilfried Bony, Salomon Kalou, and of course the wily old veteran Didier Drogba offering manager Sabri Lamouchi a wealth of excellent attacking options. Don’t forget about Manchester City’s Yaya Toure, arguably the most in-form midfielder in the world.
The Bad – As has been the stereotypical knock on most African nations at the World Cup finals, Cote d’Ivoire lack a true system. Their defensive core is old and features players that have been exposed at the highest level of club competition (Kolo Toure, Liverpool; Didier Zokora, Trabzonspor). It’s fine and dandy if they score, but will they keep the ball out of their own net?
The Skinny – Yes, Cote d’Ivoire may score some goals, but I am a firm believer that defense and structure wins championships. Well-disciplined squads like Japan and Greece will have a plan and will successfully shut down the Ivoirians.
Prediction – 4th.
Another potential group of death sees three previous World Cup winners (Italy, England, and Uruguay) that will all arrive in Brazil feeling that they have a legitimate claim to be crowned champions. Throw in Costa Rica, who will be brimming with confidence after a solid CONCACAF qualifying run, and this group could be very interesting.
The Good – Oscar Tabarez’s squad has elite players at every position, and the depth to match. Fernando Muslera is an excellent goalkeeper and has a star-studded defensive line in front of him, featuring the likes of Diego Godin (Atl. Madrid), Maxi Pereira (Benfica), and Martin Caceres (Juventus) to name a few. While they’ve been accused of lacking a midfield, Uruguay has Cristian Rodriguez (Atl. Madrid) and Walter Gargano (Parma), who should hold their own just fine. Up front, timeless striker Diego Forlan will be joined by Liverpool’s red-hot Luis Suarez.
The Bad – Though I am nit-picking here, Uruguay’s midfield is its one potential weakness. With five midfielders playing in a European elite division, I truly am grasping at straws. This is as well-balanced and talented squad.
The Skinny – A South American team has won the World Cup every time the tournament has been hosted on the continent, and Uruguay could very well capture international glory in 2014.
Prediction – 1st.
The Good – Italy is coming off of an excellent Confed Cup performance in 2013, and Cesare Prandelli’s squad seems to have the golden aura of a side that’s found the perfect mix of youth and experience. Giorgio Chiellini will lead a rock-solid back four, while Italy enjoy great depth both in the midfield and up front. Prandelli’s challenge will be to field the perfect Starting XI out of an incredibly deep and balanced squad.
The Bad – The Italians haven’t won in their last five matches, drawing four and losing 1-0 to Spain. The good news for the Azzurri is that their confidence should be sky-high come their opening game against England, as they’ve got two sitters in exhibition play with Ireland and Luxembourg scheduled.
The Skinny – A very talented team with many personalities (and many egos), Prandelli will need them to buy into a system as a team if they are to have success. If the Italians bond and come together as a team for Prandelli, then watch out.
Prediction – 2nd.
The Good – The Costa Ricans know how to step up in important matches. A 3-1 win against CONCACAF leaders USA showed that. They have one of the most underrated goalkeepers in the world, Keylor Navas (Levante), and a fairly dependable back four led by Junior Diaz (Mainz). Bryan Ruiz (PSV) and Alvaro Saborio (Real Salt Lake) pose two threats up front for whoever faces the Ticos.
The Bad – Just two wins in their previous six matches, including a demoralizing 4-0 defeat to Chile in January, have left Jorge Luis Pinto’s squad in disarray. They need to find their form from qualifying, where they defeated both Mexico (2-1) and the United States (3-1).
The Skinny – The deep, troubling questions for manager Jorge Luis Pinto lie in the midfield. With a quality goalkeeper, decent defense, and decent attacking options, it is the one glaring weakness for this Costa Rican side. I think they’re game for one giant killing.
Prediction – 3rd.
The Good – Roy Hodgson has plenty of top-quality players to select from, however expectations are surprisingly not high for the Lions. Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck, and Daniel Sturridge all offer fairly good attacking options, while manager Roy Hodgson has infused some youth in the midfield through the likes of Andros Townsend and Ross Barkley in recent matches. There are plenty of above-average players to choose from Hodgson.
The Bad - Outside of Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson, the defense does not have a lot of experience. This group will be a showdown between direct English football and continental possession football. If English style loses out, this could be a forgettable World Cup for England.
The Skinny – If England can find a way to shut down Italy and Uruguay in their first two games, they may have a shot at advancing. However, with two likely losses under their belts, I could see them being upset by Costa Rica in their final match of group play.
Prediction – 4th.
FC Edmonton’s Ritchie Jones knows the pressures of international soccer. Capped 34 times by England at various youth levels, the Manchester-native predicts that England, “Will make the knockout stage, and then it’s anyone’s World Cup from there. Anything can happen in the space of one game.” Jones also reaffirmed his belief that Roy Hodgson is the correct manager to lead England to glory, calling him a fantastic manager with loads of experience. “If England take the right mix of youngsters and senior players to the World Cup then we’ve got a shot at progressing to the knockout stages. Every person wants their country to win the World Cup, and I feel England could put in a good challenge.”
The 27 year-old spoke of just how important soccer is in his native England, commenting that, “Football in my eyes and in many others is the biggest sport in England without a doubt. Nearly every game is on television and it’s all most people talk about. People in England are very passionate fans- they watch their clubs play week-in week-out, but their priority is always the national team.”
Finally, Jones spoke of what kind of opportunity the NASL offered him and other English players. “I would definitely recommend this league to all English players. It’s a well-organized league with some very talented players. With the likes of Marcos Senna and Kleberson already playing here, it’s easy to see the quality of player in this league and the kind of player the league wants to attract. The standard of teams here is great, and I would 100% encourage more English players to pursue careers here.”
England’s most high-profile Group C competitor, Italy, are represented in the NASL by three players- Alessandro Noselli of the New York Cosmos, Josh Travagli of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, and Simone Bracalello of Minnesota United.
I had the opportunity to speak with ‘Braca’ about Italy’s World Cup squad, and while he admits it’s a difficult draw, he is confident that his beloved Azzurri can advance to the knockout stage. “We have a really good group of guys, very young compared to the 2006 squad that won the World Cup mind you, but we can make it through.”
Braca admits to being a Cesare Prandelli fan, lauding him as a, “Great coach for the big stage,” before chuckling, “Who knows how to handle big personalities. The good results in (last year’s) Confederation Cup gave us a lot of confidence for this year.”
The 28 year-old native of Genoa described the unifying effect the national team has on the country, explaining, “The clubs that is something very, very personal. People get very intimate and passionate with their club. But when the Azzurri play, everybody comes together and stops caring about their club rivalries to support the country.”
While Braca is optimistic about his team’s chances of advancing through to the knockout round, the Minnesota United veteran isn’t sure this is the year for the Italians, saying almost apologetically, “To be honest with you, I don’t know if we can make it all the way to the finals this year. We are very young. Then again, with Italy, you never know,” he laughs.
One thing is for sure- both Braca and Ritchie Jones will be watching closely as their countries battle it out in the jungle on June 14th at the Arena Amazonia in Manaus.
Soccer Is Truly The World’s Game will continue with Part III next week.
For Part I Of The Series - Soccer Is Truly The World's Game Click Here
Photo - Ritchie Jones of FC Edmonton, By Tony Lewis