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Wednesday’s Weekly Guest Writer: Soccer Is Truly the World’s Game – Part I

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 begins the first part of several 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. 

Thirty-two nations will play with unmatched passion and national pride for the right to immortalize themselves and their country in soccer history. 

The spectacle of the World Cup is best described by Minnesota United FC midfielder, Miguel Ibarra.  The American-born midfielder who has spent the past three seasons with the Loons is one of many NASL players looking forward to watching the World Cup.

“Everybody is there- great players from all over the world mix with young kids from smaller countries,” said Ibarra.  “It’s everybody in the world getting together for the great game of soccer.

One of Ibarra’s Minnesota United teammates, forward Simone Bracalello, will be watching the tournament with special interest.  The native of Italy says this year’s edition of the Copa Mundial, “Will be very special.  When everybody thinks of soccer, futbol, they think of Brazil.  They’ve won five World Cups, and they’ve produced some of the best players in the world, so absolutely it will be memorable.”

Notably, the NASL is the only men’s professional soccer league in North America that will be breaking for the duration of the world cup, as requested globally by FIFA.

With eight groups and thirty-two teams to preview, let’s tee up what promises to be a breathtakingly exciting month of the beautiful game!

Group A

Tournament upon tournament, we always hear complaints that the hosts had an easy group, or didn’t face much adversity.  This notion will surely be cast off in the 2014 edition of the tournament, with host Brazil drawing three quality teams in Group A- Croatia, Mexico, and Cameroon.

Brazil

The Good – Certainly lots to like about Luiz Felipe Scolari’s squad.  They boast some of the best creative talent in the world with Neymar and Hulk, while employing a rock-solid defense anchored by the likes of Thiago Silva in the middle and Dani Alves on the flank.  Factor in veteran ‘keeper Julio Cesar, plus playmakers like Oscar and Paulinho in the midfield, and Brazilians certainly have multiple reasons to be optimistic.

The Bad – Despite boasting a ton of offensive firepower on the wings, the hosts don’t really have an out-and-out striker of similar calibre.  30 year-old Fluminense veteran Fred will likely be tasked with finishing off what is sure to be a multitude of quality chances for Brazil.  Mind you, he did have an excellent 2013 Confederations Cup, tying for the tournament lead with five goals.

The Skinny – Brazil has a squad that is ready to win- now.  The defensive core is amongst the best in the world, and the sheer amount of gifted offensive weapons they boast alone makes them one of the favorites to be crowned World Cup Champions at the Estadio Maracana.  One big question is how they will deal with the massive pressure of playing in front of an expectant home crowd.

Prediction – 1st.


Mexico

The Good – Newly-minted boss Miguel Herrera has righted the ship that is El Tri, after what was a dismal start to CONCACAF’s Hexagon qualifying phase.  Herrera has instilled a renewed sense of pride in the national team, after picking almost an entirely domestic-based squad for the country’s crucial World Cup play-off against New Zealand. 

The Bad – The fact is El Tri should never have had to compete in a play-off when you consider the talent they have.  Another storyline to watch this June will be how European-based players, like Manchester United’s Javier Hernandez and Valencia’s Andres Guardado, mesh with the rest of the Mexican squad after having been left off of Herrera’s team for the final qualifiers.

The Skinny – Herrera believes that his team, “Will be the surprise,” and I believe him.  As a hardworking and skillfull group, I believe El Tri can pick up the points necessary to advance under Herrera’s leadership.

Prediction – 2nd.


Croatia

The Good – Croatia boasts about experienced and deadly strikers Ivica Olic and Nikica Jelavic, who have between them 23 international goals and well over 100 international caps.  When you factor in Mario Mandzukic up front, one has to admit at the very least that Croatia certainly have the offensive firepower to punch a ticket to the knockout round.

The Bad – Rookie manager Niko Kovac, a long-time defensive midfielder for the Croatian national team, has only managed two competitive matches- both legs of an uninspiring 2-0 aggregate play-off win for Croatia over Iceland.  Will he be able to manage on the world’s largest stage?  Top striker Mario Mandzukic will also miss Croatia’s opening game, against group favorites Brazil of all teams, due to suspension.

The Skinny – Croatia have the horses up front, but their lack of top-end defenders could be their downfall against three offensively-talented groupmates. 

Prediction – 3rd.


Cameroon

The Good – Les Lions Indomptables boast some elite talent offensively in the obvious form of Chelsea striker Samuel Eto’o, who will in all likelihood be joined up front by Lorient man, Vincent Aboubakar.  Some quality defenders are also available for German manager Volke Finke, including Sevilla’s Stephane M’Bia and Granada’s Allan Nyom, although their defensive depth is questionable.

The Bad – Rumors of unrest in the squad and a general distaste for foreign manager Volke Finke have many wondering if Cameroon may disintegrate against tough group opposition, especially defensively.

The Skinny – If Samuel Eto’o fails to provide the goals he is expected to, it could be a painful three matches for the squad that only made it to the African World Cup Playoff because group-leader Togo fielded an ineligible player.

Prediction – 4th.


In-depth with an NASLer:

Minnesota United’s Miguel Ibarra is enjoying a breakout third season with the Loons as a dynamic midfielder.  Described by Ottawa Fury FC coach Marc Dos Santos as, “A very energetic midfielder who creates a lot of chances,” Ibarra is an American born to Mexican parents.  He follows both national teams closely. Here is his take on Mexico’s chances in Group A:

“It’s a hard group.  Mexico is not playing as well as they can, they can definitely play better.  They’re not playing the way they are supposed to play, and it’s going to be difficult for them to get out of the group.  They’re going to have to play a lot better.”

“I thought that Herrera was very smart (in picking only domestic players).  Those players already knew his system, so it was a lot easier for the players to play under him, being comfortable with his style.”

“I think they have a better chance of advancing with the new coach, Herrera, and his system.  The players get it.”


Group B

A very intriguing group featuring two-and-a-half potential champions, Group B will see at least one Top-15 nation eliminated in the Group Stage, with Spain (1), Chile (13), and the Netherlands (15) all featuring in the group alongside Australia (59).

Spain

The Good – Having won every major tournament in recent history (European Champions in 2008 and 2012, World Cup Champions in 2010), the Spaniards boast one of the most experienced squads in soccer history.  Iker Casillas will feature in goal as per usual, while Spain will likely dominate the midfield with the likes of Real Madrid’s Xabi Alonso and Barcelona’s Xavi patrolling the middle of the pitch.

The Bad – Chinks in the armor have started to appear for Vicente Del Bosque’s dynasty.  A thorough 3-0 dismantling suffered at the hands of hosts Brazil in last year’s Confed Cup final may have planted a seed in the minds of Del Bosque’s men.

The Skinny – While still a world-class squad, and still heavy favorites to make a deep run in this year’s tournament, Del Bosque’s men are looking beatable for the first time in quite a while.  That being said, they should still cruise through this difficult group on the strength of their passing game.

Prediction – 1st.


Chile

The Good – Chile are a very technically-sound outfit, and got the job done in a very difficult CONMEBOL qualifying section.  Their two key players, Barcelona striker Alexis Sanchez and Cardiff City defender Gary Medel, both got on the score sheet in their automatic berth-clinching 2-1 victory over Ecuador on the final qualification match day.  Medel, who is a former Sevilla man, will anchor a very sturdy midfield, while Sanchez has garnered a reputation as being a ‘clutch’ player for the national team, with twenty-two international goals to his name already at age 25.

The Bad – Jorge Sampaoli’s squad conceded a whopping 25 goals in qualifying, by far the most of any South American nation to book an automatic spot in Brazil (Ecuador allowed 16, Argentina 15, and Colombia 13).  Facing two top-calibre offensive teams, this could be an area of serious concern.

The Skinny – Chile has enough talent in the squad to pull off an upset.  Alexis Sanchez is a clutch international performer, and should be good for at least a goal on the big stage against either Netherlands or Spain.  I firmly believe the Chileans have enough to see themselves through to the knockout round.

Prediction – 2nd.


Netherlands

The Good – Louis Van Gaal’s squad had one of the most impressive qualifying runs of any Brazil-bound nation, dropping just two points over the course of ten games and boasting a +29 goal difference.  Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben are world-class talents, who could be game breakers at any stage of this tournament.

The Bad – The scars of a terrible Euro 2012 campaign certainly linger for the Dutch, and it wasn’t their questionable defense that garnered the brunt of the blame, it was their star players.  Two goals in three games was simply unacceptable, and you have to wonder whether or not the Dutch will be able to return to their South Africa 2010 form when they reached the World Cup final.  Defensive questions definitely present for Van Gaal’s squad, and could be answered resoundingly by their gifted group mates.

The Skinny – While Netherlands could definitely rise above Chile, Australia, and potentially dethrone Spain, their defensive questions and mental wounds from a terrible Euro 2012 appearance make me believe they are ripe to be ‘upset’ by Chile.

Prediction – 3rd.


Australia

The Good – Veterans Archie Thompson and Tim Cahill looked like they could still get the job done, in qualifying at least.  They are essentially all that remains from Australia’s “Golden Generation.”  Crystal Palace’s Mile Jedinak has really come into his own over the course of this past EPL campaign, and with new manager Ange Postecoglou leading his team to respectable results (1-0 victory over Costa Rica, 4-3 defeat against Ecuador), there is some desperate hope for the Socceroos faithful.

The Bad – Well, they tied Oman twice in qualifying.  They lost by identical 6-0 score lines against both Brazil and France last year.  Those results are pretty self explanatory, and after conceding four times against Ecuador, many Aussies should shudder at the thought of the damage any of their three Group B compatriots might inflict upon their beloved Socceroos.

The Skinny – Most Australian supporters would probably be satisfied with a single point from three points.  Scratch that, the lowest-ranked team in the tournament will be happy if all three of their matches stay relatively competitive.

Prediction – 4th.

 

Soccer Is Truly The World’s Game will continue with Part II next week.