Before I break down the tournament, let's first examine how it works. The 32 teams are organized into 8 groups of 4 teams labeled with letters A through H. The United States falls into Group C. The first round consists of each group playing a round robin. At the end of the round, the top two teams emerge into the second round where they are paired with a neighboring group. For example, if the United States were to win Group C, they would play the #2 team out of Group D whereas the winner of Group D would play the second place team out of Group C. At this point, the tournament proceeds as a single elimination bracket with the remaining sixteen teams.
This is the sixth consecutive World Cup appearance for the United States. The previous five visits have been inconsistent. It's safe to say that the US has developed its soccer program to such a point that a failure to qualify for the second round should be considered a failure.
As US soccer has grown over the past 20 years, several trends have emerged, all of which reflect favorably upon the USMNT's odds on this tournament.
- It's our turn to do well. The United States has alternated good and bad World Cup performances. In 1990, 1998, and 2006 the Americans failed to emerge from group play, twice finishing dead last. In 1994, they made the Second Round and in 2002 they made the Quarterfinals. Should this pattern hold, it's time for the US to make it out of group play again.
- The Curse Of Kasey Keller. Keller has achieved quite a bit in his career. He was the first American goalkeeper to start in the EPL and in the German Bundesliga. He was at the helm when the US upset then defending World Cup champs Brazil. With that said, his World Cup performances have left something to be desired. He was the starter for the American teams in '98 and '06 when neither of those squads were able to win a single game. Keller is not on the roster this year, replaced by Tim Howard in goal.
- The games are played in South Africa. No European team has ever won a World Cup played off of European soil. Ever. Conversely, the United States has struggled mightily in Europe. In three prior trips to European World Cups (Italy, France, Germany) the Americans are 0-1-8 (W-D-L). On the other hand, the US advanced out of group play in 1994 (USA) and 2006 (Japan/South Korea). In addition, the US enjoyed surprisingly favorable results in South Africa last summer in the Confederations Cup.
Should Group C play out as experts predict, then the US can expect to face Germany in the second round. Die hard fans will remember the last time these two met in World Cup play. The result was the elimination of the Americans in a 1-0 match in the '02 Quarterfinals, aided by a goal saving handball non-call (at 1:48 in the clip) that favored Germany.
However, this time around the sun is not shining so brightly on the Germans who just lost their best player, captain Michael Ballack, to injury for the entire tournament. In addition, all-time great German keeper Oliver Kahn has retired, while the leading overall goal scorer from the last two World Cups, Miroslav Klose, is struggling and on the verge of being benched. The 2010 German squad is young, susceptible to an American upset. With a little bit of luck, the US could find themselves back in the Quarterfinals or beyond.
As for the remaining teams, smart money says to look for a Brazil-Spain final. FIFA currently has them ranked as the top two teams in the world. Brazil won last year's Confederations Cup while Spain won Euro 2008, setting a record with a two year, 35 game unbeaten streak along the way--a streak broken by the United States.
Several other teams are expected to contend. England has high hopes, but aging star David Beckham is injured, while another player has been stripped of his captaincy due to nefarious behavior, and his replacement also went down to injury. Furthermore, temperamental star Wayne Rooney is returning from an ankle injury and is not 100%. All things considered, the Brits are not playing their best soccer right now. This was evident in their last warm up in which they struggled to beat a South African club team. To put that in perspective, this is the soccer equivalent of the Los Angeles Lakers struggling to beat a Division III NCAA basketball team.
Of course, we can't rule out defending champion Italy, although the Azzuri have struggled through a coaching change and a new style of play during the past four years. It's worth noting that, no one has repeated as champion since 1962.
My pick to win it all: the Netherlands. The Dutch have long been among the elite even though they have yet to win a title. With the lack of any elite teams with home field advantage in 2010, I am taking the Oranje as my dark horse pick to break the European curse and bring home their first title.
Thanks for following RPBlog's World Cup 2010 Preview. Fan or no, take the time to watch a few games. You never know, you just might enjoy it! Whatever the end result, this World Cup promises to bring a lot of excitement and high quality play. Go USA!