EDGAR ZUNIGA - Monday, December 7, 2009
After a few harrowing moments through the dark, tangled forest that was the FIFA World Cup 2010 draw, the US has emerged into the light and see before them a tough, but manageable road.

And, yes, Bob Bradley is blinking in the sunlight.

Almost every prognosticator, soothsayer and automated drawing program had the US thrown into a difficult group. For a while, it seemed almost inevitable that the US was going to have to face Ivory Coast, Netherlands or France, maybe even Brazil.

Almost everyone was hoping to somehow land in Group A with host South Africa, which - no offense - are, arguably, the weakest host nation in World Cup history. When Mexico was chosen first, you could hear the gnashing of American teeth echoing across the land.

But, as it turns out, playing England, Algeria and Slovenia is a lot better than what Group A has in store for the Mexicans, who are slated to play South Africa (a host has never been eliminated in the first round - why would FIFA let that happen now?), seemingly shaky but very physical Uruguay, and everyone's public enemy number one France - the US in that group? No thanks....

It isn't going to be a walk through the Smurf village, but at least the US won't have to worry about soccer superpowers, until at least the second round. And, no...England is not a soccer superpower.

So, what's in store for our boys in the World Cup? Let's break it down.

First up, you couldn't ask for a better first opponent than England. You can bet the guys at ESPN are drooling over the production that will go leading up to this matchup. Jump onto any soccer forum and the heckling and chest-pounding from both sides of the pond began almost immediately.

When you take into account the Los Angeles Galaxy-factor, with teammates David Beckham and Landon Donovan clashing in the World Cup, it's so perfect - it's Hollywood.

Just this past summer, Donovan was ripping Becks in Grant Wahl's much-discussed tell-all The Beckham Experiment. Upon the return of the Englishman from Milan, they kissed and made up, taking Galaxy to the brink of MLS glory. Now, they'll be going head-to-head again, but on the world's biggest stage.

For causal American soccer fans, it will be a sumptuous feast, with Beckham biscuits and Landycakes for all. It has the potential to be the most watched US soccer match in history. You can bet ESPN will milk it for all it's worth.

But what about the game? Oh, yes...there's a game to be played.

Yeah, England did great in qualifying, taking their group with nine wins, no draws and a single loss. England prepared well for the challenges of Ukraine and Croatia, two decent teams. However, you look at the rest of the group...Belarus, Kazakhstan and Andorra. They're not exactly world class, you know.

But, that's what the qualification process is for - to separate the best from the rest - and England is a team whose pride has been hurt so many times since 1966, that supporters will expect - no...demand - a victory over the inferior Yanks and anything less will be seen as a failure for the English.

For the US, it will be a huge opportunity to not only upset the "mighty" English team, but proclaim to the world that the American team will no longer just be an also-ran.

And think of the media fallout from that...

Can the US beat England? It's a definite possibility.

Will the US beat England? Probably not - definitely, no, if the US plays with their tails between their legs like they did in Wembley Stadium in 2008.

Next up for the US will be Slovenia, who, to be honest, came out of a weak qualifying group. Slovakia edged them for first place by two points, the Czech Republic isn't what it used to be, Northern Ireland and Poland are weak, and San Marino is a joke - even the Vatican put a team together that beat them.

What Slovenia did well, though, was lull the Russians into a false sense of confidence, and edged them by the slimmest margin to earn their passport to the World Cup. Andrei Arshavin is probably making funny faces in a mirror somewhere, right now.

It's a wonder how a team like Slovenia, which could only manage to push eight goals past San Marino, in two qualifying games, made it this far. Still, the US better watch out or the Slovenians might put them to sleep and slip past them.

Can the US beat Slovenia? Yes.

Will the US beat Slovenia? The Magic 8-Ball says: Outlook good.

Finally, the US will have to deal with Algeria, another team that made it this far by the slimmest of margins. Algeria just barely got past Gambia and Senegal in an earlier qualifying stage, and, after tying with African Cup of Nations champions Egypt on everything in the final round, won a tiebreaking playoff, 1-0, to qualify.

This is only the third time that Algeria has qualified for a World Cup and there's no telling how they will fare. Some have argued that Egypt slept on their laurels as African champions, allowing Algeria to sneak by. Others will argue that Algeria will be a darkhorse in the World Cup and can't be taken lightly.

Well, it is the World Cup and you can't take anyone lightly, but the US has the chops to beat a team of this caliber. Algeria showed a lot of grit after being attacked by Egyptian fans prior to their qualifying playoff. It's grit that drives Team USA, more than anything. So, you can bet this will be a battle of wills.

Can the US beat Algeria? Yes.

Will the US beat Algeria? The Magic-8 Ball just broke, but, yes, they should beat Algeria.

Okay, now, hold this scenario, did the US just win two matches and possibly draw with England? That's enough to finish second or even take the group.

However, before you go get a tattoo of Bob across your chest and run screaming through the streets naked, for anything positive to happen for the US, all the players must be in good form and healthy.

We already know that Charlie Davies will be missed. Even if Oguchi Onyewu rushes back to competition, it's not like he's a starter with Milan and will get the necessary playing time to get back to playing form.

Bob has some holes to plug, and fast. Blink, Bob, blink!

While there are some loose ends that need to be tied before the US sets off on the meandering road to World Cup glory, at least for now, let the warm glow of a favorable World Cup draw keep you warm throughout the holiday season.

Let the English know how much you love them and invite them over for a Boston tea party.
Monday December 7, 2009 1:08 pm
Mark and Kyle-

I would submit to you that Charlie Davies was emerging as the X factor that you were describing and that the starting XI we saw against Spain is the best US Soccer has to offer right now (ahem minus Bornstein aherg)--it's a pretty good lineup with good chemistry.

While I think that Senior Bradley made his share of mistakes (so did Gus Hiddink with Russia, and Klinsmann with Bayern Munich BTW), but he also has made some smart long-term developmental choices and we qualified, which was the first order of business (never mind the magic trick that was performed at Confed Cup). Now the job is about whittling down to a final roster that can play competitive international football--not just concacaf rugby. Again, injuries do not make this job easy. I don't know many coaches who would like to face the prospect of missing their number one center back and most dynamic attacking option at the time that it matters most. Personally I don't know how to replace Charlie Davies short of completely changing the system of play. Dempsey is the best option for up top but he brings a totally different vibe to the position-he's too mercurial and not a catalyst type player, which is waht CD9 was/is..

So, IMO the biggest question is who emerges to fill in the void and how will that change everyone else's role?

Laslty, accept that Bradley and Gulati will be driving this bus to the other side of the tournament. USSF will not splash cash on a coach if they can avoid it--they need the war chest for the WC 2018 bid. So ya'll better accept that and use your prodigious soccer minds to mull over other ponderables... ;0)
Monday December 7, 2009 11:22 am
Nice Edgar,
I was going crazy listening to people say Mexico got off easier - WTF. Finally a sound voice amongst American Soccer Fans! I feel you precisely about the US group. They have a very good chance but let's not jump up for glory just yet. US is not in a position to look down on "smaller" teams. US plays well against big teams Italy or Brazil, but then seems somewhat lower than mediocre against the likes of "smaller" teams. US should be happy they got a "weak" group, but we must respect these other teams, they will not be a pushover!

Great Article!
Monday December 7, 2009 10:25 am
OMG "Landycakes" I LOVE that and your analysis is spot-on as the Brits might say, it's just the US teams also seem to find ways to sabotage themselves somehow, let's hope they leave the demons behind.
Monday December 7, 2009 10:14 am
Bob needs to cap Geoff Cameron as a possible replacement for Gooch and then take a look at Dempsey on top. I agree with you on Onyewu's playing time. Even if he is healthy, I would look at Cameron, who will be playing 90 a game leading up to South Africa.
Monday December 7, 2009 10:00 am
lest I forget to mention the debacle at Dortmund
Monday December 7, 2009 9:17 am
Hey I'm all for rooting for the home team and I certainly hope the US makes it through, but keep this in mind:

1. Slovenia has players plying their trade as starters in the Premiership, French Ligue 1, Italian Seria A, German Bundesliga, plus the Belgian, Dutch and Russian pro leagues. While there are no "big names" on paper, their team has a deeper resume than we do.

2. Algeria has players in the lower table teams of the Premiership, a few standouts in Ligue 1 and Bundesliga, and a few rising stars from their domestic league. Sound familiar?

3. England will be brimming with confidence and looking to make a big statement in the opener, plus they have arguably the greatest manager in the tournament pulling their strings. If their starting squad is healthy and match fit and ours is not, a blowout in the first game could be in the cards for the US.

4. If we get through we'll most likely face Germany or Ghana in the elimination round.

So go ahead and pound your chests everyone, just make sure you give these opponents the respect they deserve. We got a great draw but it will not be easy. After all, as the confed cup showed us all here stateside -- any team can beat any other team on any given day. Believe in your team but do it with common sense and respect--otherwise you're just perpetuating a stereotype!
Monday December 7, 2009 8:39 am
Let's make one thing clear, this is not a tough and manageable road. it is the easiest possible road of eight the US could ask for, and anything less than second in the group is abject failure. England are a very good team and very well coached and their cerebral, possession game matches up well for them against us. Anything short of our A-game and we are toast. Their B-team usually handles thoroughly. The most recent example I would argue was the 3-1 defeat in Chicago a ways back.

And bradley better have his team together quickly in 2010, because Arena's friendlies in 2006 saw us get thoroughly worked by Morocco and we put in a piss-poor performance against Jamaica on home soil. The US team has too much depth these days to make any excuses. And if Conrad, Hejduk, or Keller are anywhere near that roster, we have big problems.
Monday December 7, 2009 7:45 am
A good draw does not make for wins. The USA may have a small mountain, but they still have to climb. I believe there is something missing from the USA side, call it the Y factor, and that may present problems. We have talent, but I don't think we are a team. They may believe they are a team, but they are missing that special factor that you can't just put a finger on.

I place a lot of the blame on BB, but the problem may actually be higher in the organization and BB is just the tool. The problem may be with the MLS wanting to showcase their league.

Success is subject to definition. My definition is to make it into the knockout and play good football. I want to see the best on the field at all times. It doesn't matter to me who is there although I believe those who play in Europe will be better prepared than those who play in the MLS.

I hope we can get it sorted out before the cup begins.
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