Saturday, June 3, 2006
Well, folks… we have made the last 12-month wall calendar flip. The time is almost nigh. World Cup is almost back. Maybe mainstream America doesn't care just yet, but the ones who care can be impressively obsessive about the 'Nats.

As if I were Professor Charles Francis Xavier, I can literally feel the rest of you mutants out there – craving the goals and the drama and the German beer and the new friends from all over the globe. And, oh yes, the trophy.

Maybe you have been boring your friends with talk of set piece defending. Perhaps you have suffered major productivity outages at work pondering which line-up is actually the best one Bruce Arena can field. You may even have shot up straight in bed at night, disturbed by visions of a Pavel Nedved toe poke.

You are not alone.

I have been trying to write this particular bit for several days, but couldn't seem to focus on any one theme. There are too many stories, too many angles, too many thoughts swirling. How do the other teams in Group E look right now? What's up with DaMarcus Beasley?

In the spirit of discombobulation, I'm just going to do what jazz musicians do when they feel stuck: just riff, baby.

Cory Gibbs

Forget for a moment that he was our best man marker – nay! – eraser and his loss makes it much more difficult for Arena to pull the trigger on a 3-5-2 formation. I have to admit to a little heartache when I found out Cory wasn't going to be able to make the trip to Germany as a player.

It certainly was tough to lose Frankie Hejduk, both on the field and in the locker room, but Dude has been to this party twice. The 2006 edition was to be Gibbs' first World Cup, and I know he was itchy with anticipation before that wretchedly timed injury against Morocco crashed his summer.

I know he'll come back strong and I know he'll keep flashing that infectious grin, but I can only hope he doesn't take the misfortune too hard (not that I would blame him). My money says Mr. Gibbs anchors the backline in South Africa four years from now.

Sure, other, younger defenders will get better, some a great deal. But who says Cory is done with improving? He'll be 30 in 2010, THE prime age for a defender if you ask me.

Mark my words… go ahead, mark 'em.

DaMarcus Beasley

I've gotten used to seeing DaMarcus get a whole lotta love from Red, White & Blue supporters over the years, but the honeymoon seems suspiciously on hiatus. The #17 shirt has certainly not put in his finest performances for the US lately, but I think many critics have been overpunching.

Many folks seem to expect him to have returned from two up-and-down years at PSV Eindhoven as the second coming of Arjen Robben. He is being heavily criticized without much regard for the difference between playing as a 4-3-3 winger for the champions and playing a 4-4-2 midfielder for an extremely dark horse national team.

I read a comment on a message board with the gripe that Beasley 'only made safe passes in the build and played good defense' against Latvia… that actually sounds very midfielder-ish to me.

If he plays in a three-man front line and isn't taking on defenders, then get plenty mad at him (I know I will). But don't get mad at him for playing safe football in the middle of the park.

One should also add a degree of difficulty factor when he switches to the right side. Working from right wing is much more familiar to and easier for him than working from right midfield.

More than one stateside pundit has suggested Beasley will start there against the Czech Republic to help annoy Pavel Nedved with his splendid backtracking – and I'm buying what they're selling.

Fans should not require – or even necessarily desire – a midfielder Beasley that is constantly at the end of offensive plays. That would mean he was leaving space behind, and nobody wants that.

Bobby Convey

While we're on the topic of left-siders, I want to demand that Bobby Convey start the latter two games of Group E play. Starting him against these physical backlines is like registering for restarts.

Against Italy, I say the more free kicks the better... been sayin' it for a while. On the other hand, set piece defending is a particular weakness of Ghana.

I can't say enough good things about Convey this year, and I have never been a huge supporter. But now… I wish I had a dollar for every time somebody said 'what a difference a year makes'.

After a stirring club season, where he may well have been the best player on a record setting Reading juggernaut, Convey has looked downright venomous. He is also one of the few guys we have capable of taking some cracks from distance, and I'd like to think someone's going to get stung.

Gianluigi Buffon… you've been warned.

How do the Czechs look?

Well, I can verify that the team medical staff is earning its keep – maybe even logging some sweet overtime hours. This team hasn't looked particularly strong in recent wins over Saudi Arabia and Costa Rica, but then again, coach Karel Brueckner isn't working with a full crew.

Playmaker Tomáš Rosický may be hurt worse than the Czech Republic staff are letting on, captain Tomás Galásek hasn't played since winning the Dutch Cup with Ajax on May 7th, key defender Zdenek Grygera has played precisely 45 minutes since before Valentine's day, target master Jan Koller has played precisely 20 minutes since September and attack ace Vladimir Smicer has already been sent home with an injury.

Did I miss anyone? Brueckner better hope not, but as things stand I'm feeling pretty good about my longstanding prediction of a US win in the opener. One could certainly say I'm anxious for June 12th to arrive.

How does Italy look?

Maybe things aren't going quite as haywire for Marcelo Lippi, but the Azzurri have considerable problems of their own. Draws with fellow World Cup invitees Switzerland and Ukraine were underwhelming, and the attack looks pedestrian and overly reliant on counter attack long balls.

The injury news is no less encouraging than with the Czechs. Wingback extraordinaire Gianluca Zambrotta insisted over the weekend that he would be ready for the opener – and yet, the Italy doctors had stated major worries over his availability only an hour earlier.

Mercurial leader Francesco Totti finally made his return from a bad ankle break against Ukraine, and save for a long free kick drive that troubled the keeper, looked a bit lost out on the field. At least his famous temperament has maintained; barely ten minutes into his first match since February, the #10 shirt took a silly yellow card for barreling into the back of an opponent in frustration.

I've never held much hope for a result against a top drawer Italy side, but things could change rapidly if these two are unavailable or ineffective.

How does Ghana look?

The African debutants have been in Germany longer than most teams, and have played some comfortable soccer in the run-up. Despite not featuring their top line-up in either match, Ghana posted a 1-1 draw against a medium strength Turkey and drilled a disinterested looking Jamaica 4-1.

It should come as no surprise that midfielder Steven Appiah and Michael Essien are leading the charge from central midfield. The power packed by this duo is magnified when streaky forward Matthew Amoah scores, as he has in each of the last two games. I don't want to play Ghana while they have a lead, nor should Arena.

One potential twist that could help the Americans on June 22nd involves left back sensation John Mensah. Indications out of camp are that the powerful Rennes star could line up in the middle with veteran Sammy Kuffour, which on the surface seems like a problem.

However, the switch would almost certainly place Eric Addo out on right back, where he tends to wander around aimlessly and give away danger free kicks. If you ask me, setting out the PSV Eindhoven man in front of Beasley (who sees him regularly in training) or Convey spells S.U.I.C.I.D.E.

All in all they look quite solid, but haven't been sternly tested since losing to Mexico in Dallas at the beginning of March. I would expect to get the best indication of how the Black Stars will fare when the top eleven squares off against South Korea on Sunday.

Prediction, Greg?

Not yet, I'm afraid. I will say that I didn't find the three Send-Off performances to be as bad as many US fans made them out to be.

The final balls were lacking and there were moments of confusion at the back, but our ball movement was often crisp and the back five (I like to include essential midfield presence Pablo Mastroeni as an auxiliary member of the backline) didn't surrender too many chance against three teams that are probably a lot better than Stateside supporters realize.

I will admit to residing in the cautiously optimistic community, but you'll need to wait a few days for YA's World Cup 2006 prediction feature for me to go out on to that limb.