Archive for Thursday, June 8, 2006

Opinion: The Cup is coming

June 8, 2006

If you're a soccer fan the next month is going to be awfully exciting. If you're not a soccer fan, now's the time to become one. The World Cup is here, starting June 9 and going all the way until July 9. All the games will be televised on either ABC, ESPN or ESPN2 and most will actually air at a reasonable time this year, generally between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. The most compelling reason to jump on board now is that the United States is fielding perhaps its best team ever.

The US squad will go to Germany ranked fifth in the world by FIFA, soccer's international governing body, and the roster is an exciting mix of reliable veterans and talented youngsters.

The veteran presence starts in the back, where goalies Kasey Keller and Tim Howard provide as solid a duo as can be found in the 32-team field. Keller has an incredible ratio of 44 shutouts in 91 starts and though Howard isn't quite as accomplished, he may be more talented. Both are veterans of England's Premier League, the top soccer division in the world.

The USA goalies will have to be on their game because the defense, usually a strong point, is a bit suspect. Old standbys like Eddie Pope and Eddie Lewis are still there, but they're aging and have lost a couple steps. The defense also suffered a major blow when Cory Gibbs, perhaps the best pure athlete in the group, was injured in an exhibition match. If the US is to be as stingy as it has been in the past, a lot may depend on 24-year-old Oguchi Onyewu. The kid's got a strange name, but it's one to remember. He's a 6-foot-3, 200-pound mountain of solid muscle, the kind of intimidating defensive presence most soccer coaches only dream of.

In front of the defense is the Team USA midfielders, and this, like goaltending, is an area where the squad truly has world-class talent. Claudio Reyna is the national team's longtime leader, a solid, smart player who is one of just a handful in the whole tournament going to the World Cup for a fourth time. Reyna will soon be passing the torch to a couple of super talented mids named Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, both of whom just turned 24.

Donovan is Team USA's best all-around player, a tireless creative force. He already has 25 goals for the national team and may well end his career as the squad's top all-time scorer. Beasley, whose brother Jamar is a pro indoor soccer star with the Kansas City Comets, is pure speed and athleticism. His blazing quickness makes him dangerous leading counterattacks after other teams lose possession.

The creative trio of Reyna, Donovan and Beasley is likely to set up a lot of scoring opportunities, but the fate of Team USA may hinge on how well the forwards cash in. Finishing has long been the Achilles heel of the US team and coach Bruce Arena is again relying on a group of forwards that are, for the most part, unproven. Brian McBride leads all current US players with 29 international goals, and is still going up for the fearless headers that have become his trademark. But McBride will turn 34 during the Cup and it remains to be seen if his body can still hold up against the pounding his style of play creates.

The wild card in the forward group is Kansas City Wizards star Eddie Johnson. Johnson exploded onto the national team scene last year with goals in each of his first four games, including a hat trick against Panama. The brash, flashy forward has been quiet since, but if he could regain his scoring magic, the US team's trip to Germany could be truly special.

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