A few days into the FIFA 2010 World Cup is as good a time as any to take a look back at what we saw, observe any emerging trends and evaluate some of the performances.
Much ink has been split criticizing the official World Cup ball, with players, especially goalkeepers, claiming that it floats in strange and unpredictable ways. It looks like they are right. Just ask England goalkeeper Robert Green, who fumbled away a routine save and conceded an incredibly weak goal to American striker Clint Dempsey. The very next day, Algerian goalkeeper Faouzi Chaouchi struggled with another low, bouncing shot, and gifted a late goal to Slovenia. From my vantage point, the problem is not one to be suffered by just the men in goal. It looks like the ball has a tendency to gather spin and drift if a player doesn't strike it just right. So far, I've seen an excess of high, floating free kicks, and seemingly well-struck shots curve harmlessly away from goal and towards the corner flags. It could just be indicative of bad shooting, but to me it looks like the ball has at least something to do with it.
Crowds, or Lack There of:
If you've been watching the World Cup, you may have noticed something unusual - rows and rows of empty seats. The sparse crowds contrast sharply from FIFA's party line, which is that 97 percent of tickets have already been sold. Games were regularly sold out in the last two iterations of the World Cup (2006, in Germany and 2002, in South Korea and Japan) and it remains a mystery as to why the crowds don't seem to be there in South Africa. Fingers have been pointed at the organizers, public transportation disruptions, and third-party ticket holders, but whatever the problem may be, it reflects poorly on FIFA and the host nation, South Africa.
While the results have mostly gone as expected, there have been a few major and minor surprises. European giants England, France and Italy struggled to disappointing draws, while Argentina, Germany and the Netherlands cruised to victories. One of the bigger surprises of the first few days was Japan's 1-0 victory over Cameroon, widely considered to be the strongest of the six African teams at the tournament. Nobody gave Japan much of chance in the game, but they scored late in the first half and effectively shut down Cameroon the rest of the way.
What's Next for the USA?
The Yanks are going into their June 18th against group leaders Slovenia with the wind at their back. After their emotional draw against England, they will expect to get the full three points in Johannesburg. Doing so will put the US on track to achieve their pre-tournament goal of advancing out of their group. The big question is whether Tim Howard will be healthy enough to play after his bruising collision with England's Emile Heskey. Beyond that, it seems that coach Bob Bradley will field the same 10 outfield players. If he does make a change it could be at forward, where Robbie Findley failed to make much of an impression against England.