It's one of the most massive sporting events, if not the most, in the entire world, with a truly global audience tuning in to see which of the 32 teams in Brazil will come away lifting international football's most coveted trophy. A club will pay a player his huge wages, keep him financially secure (unless it's tragic English figure Paul Gascoigne), but it's the glory of playing for one's nation, the chance to bring the successor to the Jules Rimet Trophy to your homeland that makes this tournament so special. So with the World Cup almost here, we talk about the tournament, the connection to UCLA, and some other international football related thoughts:
1. With the World Cup kicking off tomorrow, UCLA is only sending one player to Brazil (reserve goalkeeper Nick Rimando). In prior years, there have always been at least three Bruins wearing the Red, White, and Blue in the world's biggest tournament, in 2010 (Carlos Bocanegra, Jonathan Bornstein, Benny Feilhaber), in 2006 (Bocanegra, Eddie Lewis, Jimmy Conrad), in 2002 (Brad Friedel, Frankie Hejduk, Eddie Lewis, Joe-Max Moore, Cobi Jones), in 1998 (Friedel, Hejduk, Moore, Jones), in 1994 (Mike Lapper, Jones, Moore, Friedel, Paul Caligiuri), and in 1990 (Paul Krumpe, Caligiuri, Chris Henderson, David Vanole). Are the declining number of Bruins in the USMNT a product of an underperforming program under Jorge Salcedo (and Chianti Dan) or the natural result of Jurgen Klinsmann looking at more European-based and dual-nationality players? Or both?
Bellerophon: I think it's a product of both. On one hand, our model of amateur development is not ideal - especially when compared to the European model. Klinsmann is not only selecting players who are dual-nationality (John Brooks, Timothy Chandler, Fabian Johnson, Mix Diskerud, Jermaine Jones, Julian Green, Aron Johannsson) but he's also looking at guys who are coming out of European development systems or who have spent considerable time overseas. Now, there's still a lot of MLS based players and guys who came out of the college soccer system (Brad Guzan - South Carolina, Rimando - UCLA, DeAndre Yedlin - Akron, Omar Gonzalez - Maryland, Matt Besler - Notre Dame, Geoff Cameron - West Virginia/Rhode Island, Alejandro Bedoya - Boston College, Brad Davis - St. Louis, Graham Zusi - Maryland, Clint Dempsey - Furman, Chris Wondolowski - Chico State), but UCLA is losing its place at that table, which I think speaks a lot to Jorge Salcedo and a men's soccer program that is underperforming. UCLA hasn't won a national title since 2002, when Tom Fitzgerald was the boss. UCLA is producing a lot of MLS journeymen type players, but the Bruins haven't brought in (or developed) a top-end USMNT player in a very long time, with Carlos Bocanegra really being the last UCLA player to have played at the top level for both club (having played for Fulham in the EPL) and country. But with Chianti Dan at the helm, Salcedo can continue to underperform (with this year's choke job by the #1-seeded Bruins losing in the NCAA Sweet Sixteen to Connecticut particularly painful) with impunity since accountability is the last thing anyone knows in Morgan Center.
AHMB: Wow. Way to start the roundtable off with a softball question. I think the two factors you named are both at play. The fact of the matter is that things have changed. Other programs across of the country have caught up to (and surpassed) UCLA's program of late, and the USMNT is pulling from a much deeper field. You don't have to count USMNT team players to realize that our program has fallen off- just look at the records over the past few years.
IE Angel: I'd have to agree with the crowd on this one in saying that it is a little bit of Column A and a little bit of Column B. Another factor is probably just the overall increase in competitive soccer play in the United States. As more athletes start playing soccer at a high level, the talent would logically be spread more evenly across the country instead of being centralized in Southern California.
Patroclus: I am also going to agree with the crowd on this one. There is no question that the UCLA program has fallen out of the collegiate elite in the past decade - with responsibility spread however you like between coaches and the AD. But the NCAA and traditional American developmental system just isn't ideal for the dual-passport guys (who Klinsmann is right to be pursuing IMO) and other elite young players with a legitimate aim of playing in the major professional leagues who compromise a greater part of the national team pool.
tasser10: It is obviously a disappointment not to have any Bruins on the team, but frankly, if a college level player is good enough for a World Cup team, then the US will just not catch up to the rest of the world. The development is just lagging, and it's kind of systemic in the culture. Where are the pickup games in the parks and on the streets? Sure, that's oversimplifying it, but that's where it starts, IMO. Let's see if Klinsmann's experiment works out.
gbruin: I'll agree that it's both. Klinsmann has clearly shown that this is his team, so the previous structures don't apply now. Our Bruins fit well into the previous regimes, but then those teams were never overly successful either. This will be Klinsmann's chance to show if his way is a step forward or not. At the same time, the top US players should be able to adapt to a new coach and system, so seeing our recent Bruin alums shut out is concerning and certainly raises questions about our talent and development - which I think mirrors the performance of our men's team under Salcedo. Where are you, Sigi?
2. Besides the United States, which team(s) are you rooting for? Why?
Bellerophon: I love to watch beautiful, attacking football, so I'm pulling for the Netherlands, which employ a typical attacking Dutch 4-3-3 and a recently cobbled together attacking 5-3-2 under Louis van Gaal, who will soon be on his way to Old Trafford to replace the failed David Moyes at Manchester United. In that same vein, I want to see their neighbors to the south, Belgium, go far given the wealth of young, exciting talent they have in attack (Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, Mousa Dembele, Adnan Januzaj, Nacer Chadli, and Kevin Mirallas).
islandbruin2: I am choosing teams for absolutely personal reasons, unrelated to the style of play. Since I spent a year in England on the UC Education Abroad Program, I have to root for the Three Lions. They will do nothing again this World Cup, but there will always be an England.
AHMB: I'd love to see a Brazil-Argentina final.
IE Angel: I have to go with my heritage and put priority on watching the Vatreni of Croatia in Group A. Got a break by getting Mexico without their midfielder, so there is a strong chance of Croatia making through Group play. Also (prepares to defend myself against incoming rocks) I don't really root for the United States in the World Cup. It is mostly just bias because I didn't enjoy watching the US teams falter or their general style of play when I was younger, so I looked elsewhere. I feel like enjoying Brazil is the soccer equivalent of being a Yankees fan, but I can't deny what my eyes and mind enjoy.
Patroclus: Like islandbruin2, I studied in England through EAP and share his affinity for their national team - even though they are destined to lose or draw a game in the group stage they have no business dropping before exiting the round of 16 on penalties.
tasser10: I'll be rooting for the United States and France, my two adopted countries. One is an underdog and the other an underachiever. France is infuriating but can be beautiful to watch. With Ribery out due to a back injury, we won't get to see if he finally steps up when it counts on the international level, but Antoine Griezmann is an exciting player to watch as his replacement.
gbruin: I always root for Spain. I've travelled there several times and have good friends there. I love that country. Same applies to Sweden though that's not an issue in the 2014 Cup. Coincidentally, those are the only two foreign countries where I have attended soccer matches. So for this Cup, it's U-S-A! and ¡Olé, olé, olé!
3. How far do you think the United States will make it in Brazil? Do they escape their dreaded "Group of Death" or will they be coming home early?
Bellerophon: I'm actually cautiously optimistic for the USMNT. On paper, our group is extremely intimidating. Germany is one of the favorites to win the whole thing, Portugal is extremely talented (even if the world's best player, Cristiano Ronaldo, misses out), and Ghana is a tough, battling, physical team who has eliminated us twice (both 2-1 losses in 2006 and 2010). But, I think we can beat Ghana this time around (especially given our good showing in a 2-1 win over a Nigerian squad that is very similar to Ghana in style of play), so there's three points there. Portugal's strength is sitting deep and breaking on the counter, with Ronaldo and Nani on the wings. While the Portuguese can sit deep and absorb pressure with a very good defense (led by Real Madrid's Pepe and Fabio Coentrao) and strong defensive midfield (led by Sporting CP's William Carvalho and Dynamo Kyiv's Miguel Veloso), they don't have an outright world-class striker at the top (with Hugo Almeida, Eder, and Helder Postiga), so they are going to be heavily reliant on Ronaldo to produce goals and hope midfield maestro Joao Moutinho of AS Monaco can pull strings to create something. We probably won't score against the Portuguese, but if
employ a defensive look (think a 4-5-1, with Beckerman, Jones, and Bradley as the midfield three in the center), it might be enough to grind out a 0-0 draw. There's four points. I would expect Portugal and Germany to both beat Ghana. If the Germans beat the Portuguese, they'll go through with 9 points, and both us and Portugal will have 4, and then it comes down to goal difference (which depends on how bad Germany beat both squads and how bad both squads beat Ghana). So, I think there's a chance, certainly more than what most people think with both Portugal and Germany in the group.
AHMB: With Marco Reus out and Cristiano Ronaldo hobbled, maybe we have a shot to make some noise. We have one of the best keepers in the world in Tim Howard, plenty of speed on the back line, and two midfielders that are as good as any American has ever produced in Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey. The biggest question in my mind is whether Jozy Altidore will show up or not. If he does, we can hang with anybody one game at a time.
IE Angel: If I had to bet, I would say no. The other guys certainly are more aware of the USMNT profile than I am though, so I would trust their judgement in being cautiously optimistic. Personally, I see no way Ronaldo isn't playing in the World Cup. Even if he is at 70%, he would still be the best player on the field against the US. Germany is a powerhouse, Portugal might be a better team even without Ronaldo and Ghana already has the mental edge of having beaten the US in a World Cup atmosphere.
Patroclus: While I wouldn't actually put money on it, I think we have a decent shot to make it out of our group, for the reasons that B and AHMB explained above.
tasser10: The United States will not make it past the group stage. I'd say they need at least one win and one tie to advance. I think they'll have one tie and two losses.
gbruin: Honestly, no chance. Germany and Portugal are simply better. And, well, Ghana. Anyone remember the last two tournaments? The USMNT got a terrible draw, will have to play for low scoring ties, and I think it's too much to advance (and yes, I'm playing the N reverse mojo card right now).
4. Who do you think will be the victors lifting the replacement to the Jules Rimet Trophy at the end of the tournament?
Bellerophon: I think the Spanish will be eliminated in the group stage - the combination of age (Xabi Alonso is 32, Xavi is 34, Iniesta is 30), lack of form for some players (Cesc Fabregas, Fernando Torres) and their tough group (Netherlands, Chile, and Australia) could lead to a shock exit for the defending champions. Looking at the groups, how I think they'll finish, and the bracket, I expect a final four of Brazil, Germany, Italy, and Belgium. Yes, I think the Belgian Red Devils will surprise a lot of people. But I think Germany win it all. Die Mannschaft are just too good and too deep. Even with Marco Reus getting injured in their final warm-up beat-down of Armenia (6-1), they have two reliable and seasoned shot-stoppers in Bayern Munich's Manuel Neuer and Borussia Dortmund's Roman Weidenfeller, a very experienced group of defenders (Kevin Grosskruetz, Benedikt Howedes, Mats Hummels, Phillipp Lahm, Per Mertesacker, and Jerome Boateng), the best midfield in the world (sorry Spain) at this moment (Bastian Schweinsteiger, Mesut Ozil, Toni Kroos, Sami Khedira, Thomas Muller, Julian Draxler, Andre Schurrle), one of the best young creative midfielders in the entire world (Mario Gotze), and two forwards who are unspectacular but always (and I mean, always) find a way to find the net (Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose).
AHMB: La Furia Roja may be aging, but they may be the greatest team ever assembled. A win this year would remove all doubt. That said, I think the home team wins this year. The English may have invented soccer, but Brazil perfected it. Brazil beats a charged up Argentina in the final in what could go down as the most epic final in WC history.
islandbruin2: Here is a sleeper pick- Uruguay. They have geography on their side, and if Liverpool's Luis Suarez can avoid trying to bite opponents for the entire tournament, they have a shot.
IE Angel: (Idea Bubble: We should do World Cup brackets for BN) I think Brazil and Croatia make it from Group A, Spain and the Netherlands (my least favorite team) from B, Greece and the Ivory Coast from C, Uruguay and Italy from D, France and Switzerland from E, Argentina and Bosnia & Herzegovina (I casually root for all Eastern European teams), Germany and Portugal from the Group of Death, and Russia and Belgium from Group H. Going with a Final Four of Brazil, Uruguay, Germany and Argentina. Championship between Brazil and Argentina with the host team losing in the final. But, no one gets excited about picking one of the favorites, so I say an incomprehensible championship for Croatia.
Patroclus: I read Nate Silver's World Cup predictions piece on fivethirtyeight.com earlier this week that made the case that Brazil - while the clear favorite heading into the Cup is also heavily undervalued by bettors. While it seems hard to believe that Brazil enters the 32-team tournament with the nearly 50% chance of winning that Silver's model gives them, I'll be very surprised if they break their home winning streak of competitive international matches which dates back to 1975. Yeah, going out on a limb I know, but the Brazilians will keep the trophy in Rio.
tasser10: Brazil will win this cup. They may not be at their most talented but they'll have too much going for them as the host nation.
gbruin: I have much less insight than the guesses above, but maybe simplicity (or ignorance?) helps. Germany is probably the best team. Brazil is very good and at home. I see those two in the final with the Germans crushing the hopes of the host country.
Alright folks, what do you think? Who are you rooting for in this year's World Cup? Fire away in the comment thread with your own thoughts on the upcoming World Cup, who is likely to win it all, and all your other international football related thoughts/takes/etc.