Friday, June 25, 2010

World Cup Tomorrow: Saturday, June 26

And, finally, we’re into the knockout round. All the usual clichés apply: Do or die; win or go home; steak, chicken, or fish. Tomorrow’s games feature one fun matchup between teams who have played better than expected, and one likely nailbiting slugfest between teams who haven’t quite fired on all cylinders to date.

Uruguay v. South Korea (10 AM ET)

No, seriously, we really like this game. Uruguay have visibly gained confidence as they’ve gone along in South Africa. They sort of hedgehog-ed in their opener against France, not realizing that they were playing an empty husk rather than the defending World Cup finalists. Once they ground out that result they opened up, giving Diego Forlan a new role as a withdrawn striker playing behind 1 or 2 men up front. Forlan has energized the team, scoring multiple goals and setting up others. As a result, Uruguay have looked like the third-best team in the draw, behind only Brazil and Argentina (it’s been a great World Cup to date for South America).

They’ve drawn South Korea, who impressed early in running over Greece 2-0, before eating a 4-1 loss to Argentina and enduring a nervous 2-2 draw against Nigeria. As you can see, the common denominator in all three games was goals. South Korea get forward in numbers, and have shown both excellent speed on the counterattack and the ability to score off of free kicks (something most other teams have been unable to do so far). But they weren’t skilled enough to defend against Argentina, and weren’t athletic enough to defend against Nigeria. Uruguay’s frontline will pose another problem, especially with Forlan in this kind of form.

Prediction: Uruguay 2-1 South Korea. An entertaining game to watch even without a rooting interest.

USA v. Ghana (2:30 PM ET)

Side note: we snuck around the corner to what turned out to be a unofficial carpenter’s union bar to watch the last 15 minutes of USA-Algeria. The place was filled with exactly the sort of Real Murcans who theoretically hate soccer as a socialist evil. Instead, they were running through tiebreaker scenarios and threatening to go climb on a plane and f#$k up the linesman. (And also drinking a ton of beer for 11:30 in the morning, so consider avoiding buying new construction in the vicinity of City Hall in Manhattan.) The place went bonkers when Landon Donovan scored. We’re not saying that these guys will be getting up early to watch a Wigan v, West Bromwich Albion game this fall, but soccer has apparently cleared some sort of hurdle in this country.

So, the game. Somewhat lost in all the mayhem of blown calls and last-second comebacks is the fact that the USA haven’t actually played all that well for large stretches, and have started every game terribly. They still haven’t settled on a defensive pairing, with Oguchi Onyewu hitting the bench against Algeria in order to get more speed on the field in the person of Jonathan Bornstein, nor have they settled on a defensive central midfield partner for Michael Bradley, with three different guys getting starts in the three group games. By this point, you’d like to have more certainty. Says here that Gooch will come back in to wrestle with Ghana’s target forward Assamoah Gyan, and that Maurice Edu will be the CDM going forward. But all these changes create the risk of yet more dumb mistakes early on.

Ghana’s performance has also been a little mixed. They’ve been well-organized in every game, playing a defense-first formation that relies on long balls to Gyan to start the offense, and keeps a fair number of guys behind the ball at all times. But they’ve also been lucky—they haven’t scored from open play (just on penalty kicks), and only had to play against 10 Australians for most of the match (and even then only managed a draw). In other words, they’ve been unable to score in the absence of some massive brain fart by the opposing team. Unfortunately for the US, they’ve been brainfart specialists to date.

Prediction: USA 1-1 Ghana (USA advances on shootout)

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