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 it’s the conclusion of the four-part series of articles where NASL players help guest writer Carlos Verde – Canadian Sport Journalist, to preview this summer’s World Cup
By Carlos Verde
Tomorrow (Thursday, June 12, 2014), 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.
Another potential ‘Group of Death’, Group G features four teams that can all make legitimate bids for the World Cup. Germany are considered by many pundits to be the odds-on favorite to win it all in Rio, while Portugal, Ghana, and the United States all have talented squads in their own right.
The Good – If this team were a baseball bat, this year’s tournament would be the sweet spot. The squad is incredibly deep, especially in the midfield where the likes of Marcos Reus (Dortmund), Toni Kroos (Bayern Munich), and Sami Khedira (Real Madrid) may find themselves on the bench! 35 year-old national team legend Miroslav Klose returns with his sixty-eight international goals, and Captain Philipp Lahm’s 105 caps of experience should prove invaluable this summer.
The Bad – The Germans’ only defeat in the past eighteen months came at the hands of the United States last June, when the Americans popped four goals past Marc-Andreter Stegen in a 4-3 win. Germany was also tested by Portugal at Euro 2012 when they narrowly squeaked past Paulo Bento’s men 1-nil. There is the potential for an upset or two in this group…
The Skinny – While there may be some tense moments for the Germans in-group play, they should advance comfortably, taking seven to nine points.
Prediction – 1st.
The Good – The Portuguese have arguably the most exciting player in the world at their disposal in Cristiano Ronaldo. The Real Madrid man almost single-handedly powered the Portuguese past Sweden in their UEFA play-off. Portugal’s midfield is amongst the best in the world when it comes to passing, with Joao Moutinho and Raul Meireles forming an excellent duo in the middle of the park.
The Bad – With defensive leader Pepe and offensive maestro Cristiano Ronaldo both battling niggling injuries towards the end of their club campaigns, manager Paulo Bento could be without two of his most important players. The seleccao had a typically terrible qualifying campaign dropping points against the likes of mediocre Israel and lowly Northern Ireland.
The Skinny – The potential is there for a long run in Brazil, but the potential is also there for Paulo Bento’s men to crash and burn out in the group stage. Cristiano Ronaldo will, as per usual, be the key for the Portuguese.
Prediction – 2nd.
The Good – The Americans bring their most talented squad in recent memory to Brazil. Up front, Clint Dempsey, Chris Wondolowski and the always-entertaining Jozy Altidore highlight the list of exciting attacking talent manager Jurgen Klinsmann has at his disposal.
The Bad – The obvious question on all American fans’ lips is- Will their defense hold up? It’s a valid question, as Klinsmann’s squad have conceded penalty kick goals in their past two friendlies against Turkey and Nigeria.
The Skinny – While the United States typically play to the level of their opponents, I can’t see them stealing more than four points total from this group.
Prediction – 3rd.
The Good – There’s certainly lots to like about the Black Stars. A midfield featuring no less than four Serie-A regulars including Michael Essien (Milan) and Kwadwo Asamoah (Juventus) will strike fear into most of Ghana’s opponents. Up front, Asamoah Gyan will be looking to make up for a horrendous match against Paraguay at South Africa 2010, which saw his country eliminated. With 39 international goals, the Al-Ain striker could be the key offensively for Ghana.
The Bad – An inexperienced defensive core could be exposed by the sheer talent of Ghana’s group G competitors, and a crushing defeat on penalties in the African Nations Championship final against Libya will still be fresh in the team’s mind.
The Skinny – While Ghana boast loads of offensive talent, it’s difficult to see them getting out of this group due to their lack of discipline and structure. Most points they’ll possible grab from Group G is three.
Prediction – 4th.
In-Depth With: Hamza Elias, Ottawa Fury FC
The 21 year-old Hamza Elias sits near the canteen at Ottawa Fury FC’s training facility, smiling. The Ghanaian midfielder has been in Canada just under two months, and is quickly earning a reputation as the team’s jokester amongst his teammates at training.
“I love everything here with Fury FC. I’m very happy and glad to be here. With the opportunity they’ve given me, I’m just so happy to be playing in Ottawa.”
The native of Accra, Ghana has spent time in the Ghanaian First- and Second-Division, but says the NASL offered him a unique opportunity as a soccer player.
“Of course I miss everyone back home, especially my mother. But this is an important step for me to take as a professional, this is a good league with plenty of opportunity. The club have given me a good house, in a very good place to live- it’s something I’m very happy about.”
That being said, he does admit he was initially taken aback by the frigid Canadian weather during training camp- “It’s the first time outside of Ghana for me, experiencing this weather. It was so cold! It’s a great experience for me though, and I’ve really enjoyed my time here.”
As for his beloved Black Stars, Elias believes that his nation have a good chance of advancing from Group G-
“I think it’s a very tough group, but we are playing very well and by now we’ve learned how to play on the world stage. We have a strong country, good players, and I believe we can qualify from the group.”
As for key players, Elias notes that the usual suspects for Ghana- Asamoah Gyan and Kevin-Prince Boateng- will have to be solid for the Ghanaians to advance, while also highlighting Kwadwo Asamoah, a midfielder from Juventus, as a key player at both ends of the pitch for the Black Stars.
As our conversation comes to an end, Elias’ eyes light up when I ask him to describe his homeland’s passion for the game, before he beams, “Ghana is football, and football is Ghana.”
A wide-open group featuring four nations who will all believe they have a chance to advance, the eighth and final group sees Belgium, Russia, Algeria, and South Korea matchup. The top two teams from this group will cross over with the aforementioned ‘Group of Death’, Group G.
The Good – Marc Wilmots’ squad have all the makings of a championship side, with top goalkeeping in the form of Thibaut Courtois and Simon Mignolet, and excellent defenders such as Vincent Kompany and Jan Vertonghen. Without even mentioning a midfield featuring Kevin Mirallas, Eden Hazard, and Axel Witsel, or a strike force led by Christian Benteke and Romelu Lukaku, it’s clear this is a deep and dangerous team.
The Bad – There isn’t a ton of experience in Wilmots’ team, but youthful exuberance can also be a blessing on a massive stage like the World Cup. There is talent all over the pitch, the main question for the Belgians is whether or not they are mentally ready to make a run in Brazil.
The Skinny – The Belgians are good. In fact, they’re very good. Look for them to make a run to at least the quarter-finals.
Prediction – 1st.
The Good – The Algerians know how to play under pressure, reversing a 3-2 first leg deficit in their Qualification play-off with Burkina Faso with a clutch 1-0 victory at home during the second leg to advance on away goals. The Fennec Foxes are a well-disciplined team with a quality back line. Essaid Belkalem (Watford), Madjid Bougherra (Lekhwiya) and Rafik Halliche (Academica Coimbra) are all good defenders who will be called upon to step up in Brazil.
The Bad – Algeria lack star-power, but the same can be said for everyone else in Group H minus Belgium.
The Skinny - If the team buys into manager Vahid Halihodzic’s system, as I believe they already have, they will surprise multiple teams in this tournament. The Fennec Foxes will be this year’s Cinderella story.
The Good – The Russians were in top-form for most of their UEFA qualifying group, topping Group F ahead of favorites Portugal. Manager Fabio Capello has a wealth of options to choose from in the midfield, including veterans Yuri Zhirkov, Igor Denisov, and captain Roman Shirokov. Mix in young, dynamic Alan Dzagoev and you can be sure Capello’s Russian squad will attempt to dominate the midfield.
The Bad – With an aging Aleksandr Kerzhakov nearing the end of his international career, there isn’t much else up front for the Russians. Aleksandr Kokorin offers a decent option, but the pickings are pretty slim in the final third for Capello.
The Skinny – Russia could well turn into this group’s version of Spain. They may dominate possession in the midfield, but a lack of finishing will be their downfall.
Prediction – 3rd.
The Good – An industrious side, the South Koreans average over two goals-per-game in Asian qualifying. Striker Lee Keun-Ho (Sangju) and midfielder Kim Bo-Kyung (Cardiff City) led the charge for the Taegeuk Warriors offensively, with three and two goals respectively in their six-game qualifying group.
The Bad – The South Koreans have been lit up defensively multiple times in the past year and a half, namely by identical 4-nil scorelines against Croatia (February 6th, 2013) and Mexico (January 29th, 2014). They can’t seem to keep the ball out of their net against good teams, and if that trend continues the Taegeuk Warriors could be forced out early.
Prediction – 4th.
The route through the professional game is long and winding. Think about where the following NASL players got their start in the sport:
• Fury FC’s Sinisa Ubiparipovic began his soccer career in a town in central Bosnia.
• Fury FC’s Hamza Elias began his soccer career in the Ghanaian capital, Accra.
• FC Edmonton’s Ritchie Jones began his soccer career in the illustrious academy of Manchester United.
• Minnesota United’s Miguel Ibarra began his career in California.
• New York Cosmos midfielder Marcos Senna began his career in Rio Branco, Brazil.
• Carolina’s Jun Marques Davidson began his soccer career in Japan.
• Minnesota United’s Richard Garcia began his career as a boy in Australia.
When you consider the varied and unique backgrounds of these six players alone, it’s clear that the North American Soccer League is a true reflection of the global nature of the game. Six continents represented by six players in one league.
This is what makes the beautiful game so enticing- its vast appeal and widespread popularity. When the Estadio Maracana is filled to capacity on July 13th the whole world will stop what they are doing and tune in to see a world champion crowned.
Since this is a World Cup preview, I suppose I should disclose my predicted champion. In similar fashion to the 1950 World Cup, Uruguay will stun the host Brazilians in either the quarter-final or final depending on group stage seeding.
The Uruguayans are such a deep squad, with so much talent from the goal outwards. Oscar Tabarez’s men are my out-and-out pick to win it all in Rio de Janeiro this July.
To slightly alter the deep words of Ottawa midfielder Hamza Elias: "The world is soccer. And soccer is the world."
Photo - Hamza Elias of Ottawa Fury FC with ball against Atlanta Silverbacks