General Sports Chatter

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Tuesday, August 5, 2014

What does Alabama have against the Vancouver Canucks?

If you've taken a dive down the internet's endless rabbit hole recently, you would have noticed that sports hate maps have popped up. Thanks to the geniuses from the Reddit subfeeds for every sport, we now have maps for all of the major sports in this country, and they've uncovered some interesting things. Here are my personal favorites:

NFL: 

1. In Kentucky and Tennessee, apparently there is a lot of hatred for the Houston Texans. This is fascinating because not only did latter state steal Houston's first team and didn't even show the common courtesy to give them their silly name back, now they're hating the new team on top of that! And it's not like the teams have had any moments of true hatred... aside from Cortland Finnegan attacking Andre Johnson with his helmet. Well now that both teams are bad, they can share in their mutual loathing of the Colts who are light years better. 

2. It's nice to know that most of the South hates the New Orleans Saints, which proved to me that Falcons fans had something to hate aside from Bobby Petrino. At least the Saints fans reciprocated by hating the Falcons in equal measure. 

3. Yes apparently Giants and Jets fans can unite on one thing: The Pats suck. 

4. Philly fans clearly had a stronger influence in Pennsylvania because the Cowboys are the most hated team in that state instead of the Ravens. The rest of the AFC North thanks them, because Ohio, West Virginia and even Maryland hate the Steelers most of all. 

5. Internationally, the Pats are most hated almost everywhere as expected, but the Ravens are apparently the most disliked in Europe. I guess they have stronger stances against domestic abuse than most people in the league office. 

NBA:

1. Everyone either hates the Heat or the Lakers except for a few outliers: I can get why folks from the Volunteer State dislike the Clippers because of the playoff encounters with the Grizzlies, but with Mississippi and Louisiana joining in, apparently there are more Grizzlies fans than I thought. Or the Hornet/Pelicans are still bitter about Chris Paul. Nice touch from the folks from Washington State in hating the OKC Thunder. 

MLB:

1. Everyone hates the Yankees! What a shocker. 

2. People from Arkansas I guess really dislike the Cubs. This is bizarre, because even the people from Missouri don't dislike the Cubs as much as they dislike the Cardinals, which is even weirder. Do Royals fans really have that much say? 

3. In Canada's Northwest Territories, there is a substantial amount of Padre hatred. Must be San Diego's weather. In Newfoundland, they don't hate anyone which is a great sign. Hatred is bad, kids.

NHL:

1. If you thought everyone in the world hates the Yankees, apparently everyone in the world hates the Bruins too. Even Florida's cadre of retirees hates the Bruins too. I'd have picked the Canadiens because their fans are none too nice when they crudely invade BB&T Center, but my vote didn't swing anything.

2. The Ottawa Senators are hated in Wyoming. I hope this is a sample size issue, or maybe it's where Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson planned their Ottawa escape route. Maybe Eugene Melnyk's hidden money stash is there and he just won't bring it across the border to Canada. I should be careful though, or some Ukrainian hackers are going to take down my blog. 

3. Why does Africa hate the Winnipeg Jets? What did they ever do to you Zimbabwe? I have only one theory: All of the old unused Atlanta Thrashers jerseys and merchandise were sent to Africa and the kids who received them were mad that they got stuff from a team that no longer exists. I assumed they liked their "New York Rangers 2014 Stanley Cup Champions" gear more.

So students of the world, according to these maps all of these things are true: You probably hate the Boston Bruins, New York Yankees, Miami Heat, and a NFL team of your choosing. We can find world peace based on this colossal agreement of the many races and creeds.

Call the UN, I have an idea... 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

If the Toronto Maple Leafs are doing it...

Advanced stats in hockey are a part of the game now, and almost anyone not trapped in their own 1970's idealism would probably agree with that thesis. There are still a few holdouts (hello there Steve Simmons), but the vast majority of hockey executives, players and fans all now at least acknowledge the role of advanced stats in the modern game. One of the more notable holdouts wasn't any one individual person, it was an organization: the Toronto Maple Leafs. But as Kyle Dubas moves from Sault St. Marie in the OHL to the Leafs front office, the most famous of knuckle-draggers may now be on the forefront of the cutting edge. And that's a great moment for all of hockey.

Following the Toronto Maple Leafs for the last couple of seasons have been an astonishing view into the advanced stats debate in the sport. The Leafs would get off to these fast starts only to fall off (last season spectacularly), and the advanced stats usually bore the warning signs that a demise was coming. Some denied it, but the Leafs amazing capitulation at the end of last season could well end up changing not only that organization but the rest of hockey for the better. Now out go some of Brian Burke's brain-trust, who were some of the true old school in hockey executives, and in comes a 28 year old who has made his name in turning a junior hockey club into one of the best in all of hockey for advanced analytics. Finally, the supposed $10 million analytics budget will now be spent instead of collecting dust in a Rogers utility closet. As amazing as it was that the NHL's glamor franchise was so adamantly against advanced stats as the team became the game's biggest case study, it's for the betterment of everyone that has finally changed.

Hockey is not near baseball in terms of widespread acceptance of advanced stats just yet, but as a sport hockey has come a long way. Fans are blessed with the advent of sites like Extra Skater and Boucher Scouting being greater among equals, and public figures who have already accepted them like James Mirtle, Tyler Dellow and others who have made advanced stats as mainstream as they can be. Turn to them if you want a numerical and analytical approach to what the Leafs hiring Dubas will really mean for hockey's biggest team, but in terms of a global perspective something has to move the needle, and this may well be the move that makes it. Not necessarily insofar as individual teams, since it's common knowledge that if most teams don't use Corsi and Fenwick they use their own numbers for analytic purposes, but maybe for the public that hasn't yet accepted the role of these stats. What stock you individually put in them is up to you, but as a piece of an overall analysis they have proven to be remarkable sturdy in predicting future outcomes and giving us a clue into a deeper performance by players and teams.

The Leafs being the battleground team was important to move the debate along, and now what the Leafs have just done is important for the widespread acceptance of analytics on a larger scale. Even among some hockey fans who have incorporated things like PDO into their basic analysis, the Leafs going in the direction of advanced stats will have more people turning to sites like Extra Skater, or even asking the basic question of "what is Fenwick anyway?" and hockey absolutely will be better for it.

In Toronto this is being analyzed, dissected and carved up in almost every measurable way, and for the "center of the hockey universe" to be having this discussion in the dead of summer about something that 2 years ago would have been regarded as almost witchcraft is a bit of a watershed moment. Soon we'll find out more about newer stats to tell us about true possession of the puck, or how a goaltender has really been performing, or maybe even what individual teams are using as their advanced stat of choice. The tip of the iceberg was found years ago, and now most of the hockey world is finding out how deep the iceberg goes, and as baseball found out with moneyball and the A's years ago, that's how the sport will move into the future and adapt with the times.

Maybe this will start the trend for casual fans talking about a players FF% in the same breath as they talk about his compete level and truculence soon enough. 

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Well the US is out... so Soccer is Done for 4 Years Right?

The US is now out of the World Cup at the hands of Belgium (and I will not quote what Monty Python thinks of Belgium in this piece... not PC), and that has hurt everyone from those who have been around this team since Asamoah Gyan did the same thing 4 years ago to those who just realized the Sunday before the Ghana game that the US even has a national soccer team. This team bridged long widened gaps and hopefully put to bed a few long held stereotypes about soccer and the people that follow the game in this country. Unfortunately, because the World Cup is a perfect combination of noxious patriotism and big event marketing (2 things America loves the most), many who have been captivated by this tournament will go back to ignoring soccer until the World Cup circus turns up in Mr. Putin's garden in 4 years. This is not a plea to them, but some advice: soccer never stops, and maybe giving it a little more of your time will reap rich rewards. Here's how:

Amazingly, the European club season kicks into high gear only about a month after the World Cup Final. There is quality soccer played in England, Spain, Germany, Italy, Portugal, France, and in other places too. Our modern media world means it is no longer incumbent on you to have FOX Sports World or go to a hole-in-the-wall pub in Soho to watch the games every weekend. The Premier League is on NBCSN every weekend, and they make it so easy to watch the games and enjoy it as a die-hard or newbie. Need a club? Usually this is not something I advise, but Tim Howard plays for Everton, Geoff Cameron plays for Stoke, and Jozy Altidore plays for Sunderland (now at least). That could be your way in. If none of that suits you, there are many US players that play in Germany too. If all of that just made your head spin, go and ask someone what club to latch on to. They'll help you find a club that makes sense, and one that you'll get into quickly. International soccer is only a small fraction of the game. If you also need help with a club, odds are one Euro club is playing a friendly in your town this summer. Look around and find out, because you may soon find that Real Madrid is playing Manchester United at the Big House in Ann Arbor (that is happening by the way).

Speaking of that, the US national team plays again in Prague against the Czech Republic in September. They'll play many more friendlies from now until next summer, when another edition of the Gold Cup (CONCACAF's confederational tournament) rolls around. The US will likely win that. Also next summer: The FIFA Women's World Cup in Canada, the U-20 World Cup in New Zealand (for someone who really wants to be a soccer hipster), the qualifying draw for the 2018 World Cup, and many other things too. If you can't wait that long, there will be "competitive" European qualifiers for Euro 2016 on FOX and ESPN coming up this fall as well. There is no shortage of international footie to watch even when the next World Cup is a distant dream of the future.

But what if you're itching to watch footie at home? There's MLS, and yes it's not the highest of quality in the world, but it is just as fun to watch and has some of the same atmosphere you saw with the US watch parties this summer. 2 new clubs are coming into the league next summer, and more big name players are coming over every day. No MLS club near you because you live in say, Atlanta? Try the NASL's Silverbacks, and if somehow MLS or NASL doesn't cover your back, try even USL Pro. It's soccer, and while it isn't amazing quality, it's soccer, and live it is a sport that you can't beat in the stands. It may never trump a day out at Williams-Brice stadium for excitement for many, but seeing the fun at low levels may make you clamor to see it a higher ones.

Soccer doesn't stop between World Cups; in fact it never really stops. There is always something going on in the game every day of every year, and while every sport in this country usually takes a break, soccer never does. It may never be your number 1 sport, but it is something worth adding into your repertoire. It is harder to follow than the Big 4 and college sports in this country I grant you, but the initial effort is the hard part, and everything once you've figured out how to follow the game with ease is downhill from there. The internet is a magical place...

It's said that true heartbreak often begets true love. Lots of people just experienced true heartbreak with the US National Team. I just hope that 10 people are soon going to find out what true love of soccer really is because of it.

All you need to do is ask.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

This One Time... Ann Coulter wrote about Soccer...

Usually on this blog I am not one to delve into politics or anything close to partisan discussion of that nature. It is a minefield which I do not dare wish to have my feet blown off in. I also don't participate in the "Hot Takes" of the day, because I believe I've moved above that segment of the sports-loving populous. I also don't comment on the old sports-writer bashing soccer, because everyone's done that before and I can add almost nothing new to it. But today, I'm throwing all of those things out the window because Ann Coulter (yes that Ann Coulter), decided that she would write about soccer today. And since I'm also not above aping other people's fantastic work (thanks Matt Yoder and Awful Announcing), I've decided that I couldn't resist so it's time to see what the amazing political and social theorist Ann Coulter thinks of the beautiful game...

I'm going to need an acid bath after this...

She begins, "I've held off writing about soccer for a decade... or about the length of an average game... so as not to offend anybody." Miss Coulter, you make a living by offending people, so talking about soccer is probably tame in comparison. "Any growing interest in soccer can only be a sign of the nations moral decay", she continues... Well guys, it has been a fun run but I'm afraid I've been found out... I'm a part of moral decay in America! I didn't think after spending nearly 21 years on this earth leading what I thought was a clean and healthy life that I'd find myself as part of the degradation of American society but... those columns invoking Rich Kotite finally did me in.

We've barely scratched the surface here though. After saying that there is no individual achievement in soccer (failing to mention a few folks, namely Lionel Messi, Neymar, Ronaldo, Zlatan (!!!!)), she then says "Everyone runs up and down the field and, every once in a while, a ball accidentally goes in. Then we're supposed to go wild. I'm already asleep." Well that's not so bad... it means Ann Coulter will be quiet and miss the "accidents" that are some of the amazing goals in history... I'm sure Marco Van Basten and Pele are weeping at the sight of Ann Coulter asleep at the wheel.

More from the "stale" pile: "No 'sport' ends in as many scoreless ties as soccer... If Michael Jackson had treated his chronic insomnia with a tape of Brazil/Argentina instead of Propofol, he'd still be alive, although bored". First... didn't know you were such a fan of the shootout Ann. Gary Bettman would like to see you in his office now. Second, while some soccer games are boring and some are sleep inducingly bad I will admit, you picked one of the most exciting rivalries in world football to describe that with... instead of possibly, West Ham vs. Stoke on a rainy Tuesday night perhaps...

But, if you can even imagine, it gets better: "The prospect of either personal humiliation or major injury is required to count as a sport. Most sports are sublimated warfare." Soccer doesn't have personal humiliation or major injury? Tell that then to Luis Suarez, Wayne Rooney, Mario Balotelli... or even if we dare invoke major injuries like the ones Aaron Ramsey, Stuart Holden, David Busst, or others who have seen their careers derailed by serious injuries like SNAPPED KNEES among other things have suffered. About personal humiliation though... how do you think John Terry felt on that night in Moscow? Or Roberto Baggio on that afternoon in the Rose Bowl? Or the many others who I have spared for I have a conscience willing to do such a thing, which apparently Ann Coulter doesn't possess because she wants to see her athletes have mental breakdowns on the field of play for her amusement?

"You can't use your hands in soccer. What sets man apart from the lesser beasts, besides a soul, is that we have opposable thumbs." Unfortunately, I cannot call Ann Coulter a lesser beast since she does have opposable thumbs, although about the soul thing, this next quote should explain a good deal.

"After a football game, ambulances carry off the wounded. After a soccer game, every player gets a ribbon and a juice box." Yes, Ann Coulter does in fact want to see your 7 year old son taken off the field on a stretcher after he just suffered his 3rd concussion, because football is a "real sport" with the threat of injury... and permanent brain damage (I'm not commenting on this any further... temptation is hard to resist). She's also loves hockey fights... even more of a reason to outlaw it entirely from every level of the sport, and I'm not one to want to ban it!

"It's foreign" she says next. "One group of sports fans with whom soccer is not 'catching on' at all is African-Americans. They remain distinctly unimpressed by the fact the French like it." Hmm... I do seem to remember viewing tweets from African-American athletes across the many different sports tweeting their support for the US Men's National Team recently, and I bet they are very impressed that the French like the sport because they're pretty dang good at it... and I'd be impressed too watching Paul Pogba play (although the Le-Pen family probably agrees with you Ann, but those are not people you want to associate with).

After devolving into a rant about liberals and the metric system (no you haven't dropped acid, you're still here), she ends with a true kicker, one that should sear right into the heart of every full-blooded patriot in this land:

"If more 'Americans' are watching soccer today, it's only because of the demographic switch effected by Ted Kennedy's 1965 immigration law. I promise you: No American whose great-grandfather was born here is watching soccer. One can only hope that, in addition to learning English, these new Americans will drop their soccer fetish with time".

HOW DARE YOU DISRESPECT IAN DARKE. HE IS MORE OF A PATRIOT THAN YOU'LL EVER BE. AND HIS GRASP OF ENGLISH IS FAR SUPERIOR TO THAT OF EVEN THE LEAD SCRIBE OF THE OXFORD DICTIONARY.

Oh, and one of my great-grandfathers was born in this country, and I'm watching soccer. Whoops. I know my last name might be German, but it's true. Sorry Ann. And I have just typed out a long response in the English vernacular to your own column saying I don't know English Ann... maybe I should go back to school to remedy that problem... I knew the SAT was good for something...

I won't link you to the column here, since I've already given her enough publicity; more than she even merits in fact. I try my very hardest to ignore these things for you dear readers, because you (should) expect more of me than that. But this was just too hard to resist, and I should have known better. One would think someone like Ann would be into the noxious patriotism a World Cup can bring but apparently not...

At any rate, remember that if you like soccer, Ann Coulter thinks you don't know English, you don't know "true sports", and you lack the ability to understand true humiliation or suffering that they can provide.

You know... just like reading one of her columns, or writing a response to one. On that front Ann, maybe you're right.

(Downs a gallon of bleach)

Thursday, June 12, 2014

For World Cup and Soccer Newbies Everywhere

To the non-soccer crowd that is just as entranced by this World Cup as I am: welcome to the party. I hope you stick around.

Too much of this World Cup build-up has been characterized by the typical battles between the soccer die-hards and soccer newbies about the usual "defending your turf", "you don't know anything about these players", etc, etc. It's tedious and tiresome as always. Even when it's completely justified (cough *Mike Wilbon* cough), it still feels ancillary and unnecessary. It's given soccer fans a bad reputation as people who almost don't want to see their sport get big in the mainstream US conscience. And while some of us having an itchy trigger finger doesn't help the group, this is not a one way street. So non-soccer people, here is my advice to you:

--> Ask questions. This World Cup and the US National Team in particular have many interesting sub-plots with interesting questions to be asked. So ask them. Ask us about the tactics of the teams, ask us about the diamond formation, or the worries about Jozy Altidore's Sunderland form. It will tell us that you've done more than the basic trumpeting of popular narratives that the rest of us tired of long ago.

--> Do research. I know that seems sacrilegious, but bear with me for a second. "Research" sounds like a dirty word, but if you look up players and teams and histories when the US inevitably fails, you'll have another team or player to watch. And maybe then that is your gate to staying with the sport for more than 2 weeks every 4 years.

--> Appreciate. Appreciate what the die-hard soccer fans have done ever since the last World Cup in building up to this one.  They are the ones that watch the games no one dared to, they are the ones who woke up at 7:30 to watch West Ham play Hull in the Premier League, they are the ones who know about the names of future US stars and were just as heartbroken when the US failed in Olympic qualifying 2 years ago as they will be this summer. A large part of why you're seeing what you're seeing now is because of the work these people have done, and simply they just don't want to see the fruits of their labor eaten by people who did none of the labor.

--> Stifle your pre-conceived notions. Everything you think you know about soccer will have moments when they may be justified, and that is natural. There will also be moments when that all goes out the window. For the month that this tournament goes on, choke down on your stereotypes of soccer even when they are itching to escape, because it will help out everyone if you do.

--> Find a reason to stay. If you want this sport to get bigger, or better yet, if you don't want the angry twitter soccer crowd banging at your door with pitchforks and torches, find a reason to stick around. The World Cup is amazing, but this is not like 2002 when it was hard to keep the momentum going. The Premier League is widely available, so is the Champions League. MLS is getting a fat new TV contract next season with consistent TV windows for you to see. The internet is a treasure trove of quality soccer writing, podcasting, and analysis if you just look hard enough. You will never be wanting for the reactions and readings you'll need to gain context. And best yet, it won't come with Baylessian shouting and narrative trumpeting that would make FOX News shudder!

So as the World Cup begins, please take all of what you read above into account. We don't want people turned off of the game because of us, we just want people to appreciate and love the game as much as we do. You don't have to know the ins and outs of the tactics of Harry Redknapp by the end of the World Cup, or what transfer source is most trustworthy, just appreciate the game and what has been built slowly but surely. The game will grow without you, and you can either jump on or stand by, but do the latter at your own peril.

And don't fight us about Gus Johnson. You'll lose that one.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

2014 World Cup Group H Preview

This group contains a team with a golden generation, a future World Cup host, and 2 teams that have consistently made the tournament, but not done much when they get there. Makes for an interesting mix, yes? Well, at least it should.

Belgium have everything you could want for a World Cup roster. Talent everywhere, especially loaded in midfield with a solid defense and world class keeper. So what's not to like? There are a couple of warts that may not be easy to spot, but could prove to be future problems. Without Christian Benteke, Belgium are really only 1 deep at striker, and while Romelu Lukaku has been setting the world alight for this past season, if he goes down or dips out of form, then the only one to replace him is young Divock Origi of Lille who is just 19. The midfield is exceptionally skilled with many players you'll know, but the one name in there that many have questioned is Adnan Januzaj, not just because of his dipping form at Manchester United, but also because of his supposed worth to the side, which Kevin Mirallas openly questioned. Could he be a distraction? And while the defense is strong, it is particularly one-sided. But to me, none of those things are the real issue for the Red Devils. It's big tournament experience. Most of these players have played on large stages for their clubs, and that's great, but major international tournaments are another animal entirely. No one on this team sans Daniel Van Buyten (aged 36) has played in a major senior tournament before, and you cannot replicate that for 22 other players. To be fair, Belgium are probably one major tournament away from really challenging for the title, and Euro 2016 next door in France is probably when we'll see this come good. In Brazil, they'll probably at least make it out of the group, but how far they go beyond that depends on how quickly this squad learns the ropes of the major tournament.

It's been since 2002 as well for Russia to be in the World Cup, but in the meantime they have competed in the Euros before. It's a team that is entirely based in Russia, and while that might be good for team unity and harmony, it might limit them on the stylistic things that they can do or the influences the team will have that many of the other good teams in this tournament. It's not particularly young, but has some interesting young players on it that could play a role. Fabio Capello is who you'll know from his time at major clubs and managing England, which should give you a clue as to how Russia will play in this tournament. That might be useful against Belgium, but will it be useful against Algeria and South Korea? That remains a question yet unanswered. It might also behoove Russia to do well here, as they are the hosts of the next World Cup and would not like to head into that on a sour note. Can they make it out of the group stage here? Certainly, but both other teams will give them troubles for sure.

Many in the United States will remember Algeria as the team Landon Donovan scored his great goal against, but that's not how one should look at this team. They should look at this team as one that may be on the rise. It's not the most supremely talented team in this tournament, but when the team has names like Sofiane Feghouli of Valencia, Saphir Taider of Inter, and Yacine Brahimi of Granada, maybe we should give them more credit. As is usual with African teams, the weak link comes on defense, but then again they held out impressively 4 years ago against a similar group of teams, and have always been stout there in qualifying and in African Cups of Nations. The issue will likely come in terms of putting the ball in the net, as Algeria were one of the two teams in South Africa that didn't score, and that may come difficult again. The team that is going to Brazil is far more experienced however, so that should help out with some of the jitters. And also selfishly, it's awesome to see Nabil Bentaleb fresh out of Spurs academy heading to the World Cup. Tim Sherwood did something right! Anyway, this team might not be a sexy pick to get out the group, but if they can solve some of the scoring problems with players like Ghilas and maybe some help from midfield, then they can certainly make it interesting.

Since finishing 4th in their own World Cup 12 years ago, South Korea has made the tournament each of the last 2, but has been eliminated rather quickly afterwords. It did make it to the KO stages in 2010 (somewhat by virtue of Greece and Nigeria being silly), and it was a quick exit after when they lost to Uruguay. It remains to be seen whether this team is better than that edition or not, but the early signs are no. It has a decent backbone of players from the Bundesliga and England, but it's not particularly impressive either. They had far more trouble in Asian qualifying than one might have expected too. It's also not particularly young, but there is past major tournament experience to rely on, which should be helpful. The group is not going to be helpful in terms of fixing some scoring woes, since the defenses for all of the teams they'll be facing are rock solid. They seem to be decent enough, but whether they can advance past the group and even the Round of 16 are questions that don't look like likely to bring positive answers.

Prediction: Belgium is the class of the group, and their problems might well be exploited later, and the fight for second is a fascinating one between 3 teams that have issues scoring goals. Next goal wins?

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

2014 World Cup Group G Preview

The Group of Death... or so it seems. It's a fascinating mixture of teams with histories against each other, with revenge and reunions on almost everyone's mind. So what does that mean for the table?

Germany are the class of the group no matter their issues, and to be fair they do have some. The defense doesn't quite inspire the confidence of past groups of German defenders, especially in the middle. They are solid, but not overly special in that area. Germany's midfield might be as good as any team in the tournament, but by virtue of how they play, they are entirely reliant on the midfield to do the creating, scoring, and cleaning up. They have a bevy of technically gifted players who can do almost anything with the ball at their feet, but they really only have one defensive midfielder in Sami Khedira and he is still regaining fitness after a long-term injury layoff. Speaking of injury layoffs, Manuel Neuer is still dealing with a troublesome injury post Bayern Munich season, and he hasn't yet played in Germany's lead up to the tournament. So it seems like Germany could be a surprise entrant in the "big Euro team to flame out in the group stage" sweepstakes? Steady on. They are still filled with players not only from Bayern, but Dortmund too, and that means that despite some noticeable flaws they are still loaded with quality everywhere. The real question for me comes in the form of the scoring, and who will grab that role and run with it. The other tournament favorites you might say have that kind of talismanic player, and Germany simply doesn't. If they can find one, then this may just be the tournament to break their hoodoo.

Ghana always seems to play Germany and the United States at every World Cup, and this one is no different. But for Ghana, who were missed penalties away from the semifinals in 2010: Are they still Africa's best team? And if so, how far can that take them in a tough group and tough draw? They are still typically strong in the midfield as per usual with players like Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari, and Kevin Prince-Boateng while they've added some new talent in like Kwadwo Asamoah of Juventus, the Ayew's of Marseille, and some other young talent that bears watching. And the one constant is still Asamoah Gyan, who has tortured US fans for 4 years and may well do more of that in Brazil. The one worry as it seems to be the case with every African team sans Cameroon is the defense, and it is young here, but the strength of the midfield for Ghana might mitigate that somewhat. They don't really have the creative impetus in midfield that they could really use, and the big players of past tournaments are now getting older, especially Essien, so Ghana could easily be had in that respect. But, some of this young talent like Majeed Waris and Wakaso Mubarak have plenty of one thing: speed, which could equalize some of the issues. They will have it difficult getting out of the group by virtue of who else is in it, but do not discount them.

Portugal's golden generation have long gone, and it seems that they may be waiting for a new one to develop by virtue of the roster they put out for every major tournament. Even so, they always make it out of the group stage at every one... every one since 2002. And they still have this guy Ronaldo who you may know is pretty good. But Portugal is not just him and him alone. The defense still has strength in players like Fabio Coentrao and Pepe among others, even if that unit is getting older. Nani is still around and will provide a unique aspect on the flanks for the Portuguese, and the midfield is marshalled by one of the best in the world in Joao Moutinho, who'd better get the credit he deserves after this tournament because he is an incredibly good central midfielder. But I'd be lying if I said this team didn't come down to one player, and certainly Paulo Bento has agreed by the way the tactics are set up. They are designed to channel everything to Ronaldo, because they know he can break the game open if its set up for him. And when he's on his day, he can and will do that. Trying to shut him down seems like a futile effort, so shutting down his channels and proxies are better solutions, and Portugal's success will be dictated by how well the other teams can do that. Despite their issues in qualifying, and what the US media wants to tell you about how they are a one man team, they always get out of their group in major tournaments, at least in recent times. Remember this too: they were penalties away from the Euro Final 2 years ago.

And now for the elephant in the room. This US team has been the most talked about, maybe ever, and therefore every aspect of this team has been dissected comprehensively. You'll know most of the narratives and the storylines already, so I'll try my best to give you something new. Hmmm... nah, I can't do that. What really matters for this US team is how the back 4 coalesces and how quickly that happens. They'll have to be bend but don't break in this tournament by nature of the formations they'll play ahead of them, since there will be acres of space in the midfield for players to operate in. Can this incredibly green back 4 do that on a consistent basis against the attackers they'll be going up against? I have my doubts. This team's strength is going forward, and when Michael Bradley takes the keys and runs with it, the US is a tough side to beat. Jozy Altidore's form is almost irrelevant so long as he's holding up play and dominating physically as we know he can do, so long as Clint Dempsey is scoring (and he's certainly in form). The other worry about the supposed Diamond formation is not only the lack of width, but the lack of creative players at the edges. Graham Zusi and Alejandro Bedoya are interesting wingers who can track back with the best of them, but lack the creative edge that some of the bench options have. A formation change to the usual 4-2-3-1 or 4-2-2-2 is the best way to go about fixing this, but it remains to be seen whether that will happen or not. The other worry I have (and this might be making new ground) is fitness, and not that they won't be fit (they certainly will be). It's whether they'll be drained. Jurgen Klinsmann likes his training, and we're already seeing that players are commenting on how tough the training has been. Could the US team be out of gas before the group even starts? Now can they advance out of this group... sure they can. They did in 2002, and 1994. But their problems are holding me back from saying that they will.

Prediction: It's wide open, although I expect Germany and Portugal to be the teams that advance out of the group despite this. Ghana's midfield isn't quite as dominant as it once was, and the US has formation and defensive issues that don't look like they'll be fixed in time for when the games start.