Dec 24, 2009

Ten for '10: Top questions facing the beautiful game in 2010

Happy holidays from Soccer Source! In the spirit of things, we thought it would be a good idea to identify 10 questions facing world soccer in 2010 and rank them according to (our perceived order of) importance. Note that while we might claim these are "world" soccer issues, true imperialists that we are the list is almost entirely U.S.- and England-specific. But you've come to expect as much at this point, right? Anyway, here goes:

1. Who will win the 2010 World Cup?
Any speculation on this topic naturally begins with the point that no European country has won a World Cup outside its home continent. That would leave Argentina, Brazil and the United States as favorites. Just kidding, the U.S. is at least a generation or two away from even entering that conversation. So it's between Argentina and Brazil then? Not so fast. The 2010 tournament might be played outside of Europe, however the South African winter probably suits Europeans better than South Americans. Recent World Cups held outside Europe took place in ecosystems more akin to tropical rainforests, which are ill-suited to delicate European (particularly northern European) athletes. The one exception, Argentina, featured a heavily favored home side--and even then the Dutch almost won. So in terms of geography, we're entering uncharted waters in 2010 and not just because it's the first World Cup to take place in Africa. So where does that leave us? Maybe, just maybe, the best team will win. Right now, that team is Spain or Brazil, depending on whom you believe. So one of them will win the World Cup. Germany will probably make the final again just because that always happens. But really, Spain and Brazil are heavy favorites, followed by Argentina and Italy. Germany and Ivory Coast could be right there as well. England? Don't make me laugh. Ireland have a better chance of winning at this point and I say that fully aware they won't even be in the field.

2. Will Barcelona repeat its success from 2009?
It's going to be very, very difficult. For starters they have to repeat as Liga champs. That may be the easiest task at this point and only because second-placed Real Madrid have failed to impress. Then there is the Copa del Rey, a grueling two-stage elimination tournament that is now just in the round of 16. Upsets always happen in this thing (just ask Real Madrid) especially when teams have to devote manpower to their European campaigns. Speaking of which, Barca have an easy draw in the Champions League round of 16 (they face VfB Stuttgart, who aren't even good in Germany anymore). So at least that's in their favor. But with the myriad other tournaments, there are simply so many things that can go wrong that it's difficult to like Barcelona's chances of winning six trophies again.

3. What form will professional soccer take in the U.S.?
Make no mistake: this issue will have a direct impact on the wider world of soccer. North America has historically been the "final frontier" of the beautiful game, with countless professional leagues coming and going the last 80 years. Now, U.S. professional soccer is at the crossroads once more , with its top two divisions facing a labor stand-off and infighting, respectively. It could not come at a worse time. Major League Soccer, which was created as a prerequisite for the U.S. receiving the 1994 World Cup, has finally made some inroads with the American public. Its newest team, the Seattle Sounders, were an unprecedented success in 2009. The next expansion club, the Philadelphia Union, are already selling season tickets by the thousands. Television ratings have even gone up. A strike or lockout would be costly, perhaps fatal, but is now a very real possibility. A Jan. 31 deadline looms and the two sides remain far apart on major issues. Then there's the new North American Soccer League, or NASL 2.0, a group of dissident clubs from the United Soccer Leagues that acquired the rights to the NASL name. The two leagues, USL and NASL, are now caught in their own legal battle. How will all this end? Who knows if it even will end in 2010? If the history of U.S. professional soccer has proven anything, it's a penchant for self destruction.

4. How will the U.S. Men's National Team do at the World Cup?
This issue is also vital to the future of the beautiful game, which is why the powers-that-be in Zurich engineered an easy yet compelling draw for the Yanks. The U.S. should qualify from its group for sure. I can see them even defeating England, which will be hampered by the forced inclusion of David Beckham in its squad. After that, it's anybody's guess. A quarterfinal spot could be in the offing. Anything beyond that is highly unlikely. In the end everybody will say the U.S. did enough to demonstrate they're on their way to becoming a world soccer. Which is exactly what they say all the time, anyway.

5. How will England do at the World Cup?
No better than the U.S., that's for sure. England are caught in a kind of generational shift, with aging, overrated midfielders (Gerrard, Lampard) holding on to spots while younger guys like Aaron Lennon struggle for space. The whole thing is made more difficult through the forced inclusion of Beckham. You laugh, but do you really think Becks' corporate sponsors (which only includes, oh, everybody, plus all the companies that are bailing on Tiger Woods) will let Fabio Capello get away with leaving him off? Beckham is not only going to be named to the squad, but will also see at least 45 minutes of action against the U.S. That will screw up England's game and they could lose, or at least draw the match. Once that happens, FIFA will assure both sides get through to the elimination round. England might go through to the quarterfinals again, but that's about as far as we can see them advancing.

6. Who will be the star of the World Cup?
Another item that will have a major bearing on the future shape of the game (or at least its marketing arm). Who will be "the face" of the 2010 World Cup? The 2006 tournament didn't really have one, other than Zidane, and that for the wrong reason. In '02 you had Ronaldo and perhaps Oliver Kahn (shudder). In '98 Zidane again or one of his teammates or perhaps the entire France squad. It's been a little while (probably Maradona in '86) since somebody claimed the tournament for himself. This year the stars seem lined up for Lionel Messi but don't count out the likes of Didier Drogba or Fernando Torres or maybe somebody less obvious. (Not Cristiano Ronaldo. I have no faith in his ability to perform on this stage with that team).

7. Can Chelsea win the Premiership?
Yes. Will they? Yes. Perhaps by default, but Blues will take it. They simply have too much firepower, even with Drogba missing time this winter due to the African Nations Cup. More importantly, the only team with a realistic chance of catching them seems to lack the talent and wherewithal to mount a challenge. Then you have Arsenal, who are simply too inexperienced. Maybe next year.

8. Will professional soccer become a hot ticket in New York once more?
Obviously this depends on what happens with item No. 3 and to a lesser extent item No. 4. But the metropolitan New York area is poised for a soccer renaissance. The main reason for this is the new soccer-specific stadium, Red Bull Arena, that has arisen on the banks of the Passaic River. The Harrison, N.J., ground finally provides the New York metropolitan region the state-of-the-art soccer temple it has clamored for ever since Dutch settlers traded a few glass shards for the island of Manhattan. Unlike Giants Stadium, which was never intended for soccer, it is accessible via public transport. The ground's primary tenant, the New York Red Bulls, are admittedly not the most exciting draw (and not just because of their horrible name) but that could change very quickly. The likes of Thierry Henry and Raul have been linked to the team, who have both salary cap space (one "designated player" spot) and cash-on-hand to make such a deal happen. Better yet, they could trade in their goofy name for something much better: the New York Cosmos. Rights to the name were recently sold to new ownership and there has been some talk it will reappear in some form. Of course if there's a strike or a lockout this all becomes a moot point.

9. What U.S. soccer player will establish himself in a top European league?
This one's easy: Jozy Altidore. It's going to happen. All he needs is a chance to see first team football on a consistent basis. So far, Altidore's short European career has been almost completely wasted. His current coach at Hull City, Phil Brown, for whatever reason doesn't want to play him any more than his previous ones at Villareal and Xerez did. But Hull City are caught in a relegation dogfight and we expect Brown's leash to be a short one. He'll either be forced to play Jozy out of the sheer necessity to try something new, or will go down before he has the chance. The team's last two games, neither of which Altidore suited up for, demonstrated it cannot score without him in the lineup. It may not be able to score much with him either, but it's hard to fathom why he hasn't received more of a chance. But he'll get one next year and when he does he'll impress. Take it to the bank.
10. What's going to happen with Liverpool?
Nothing good we can think of. Rafa Benitez should have been fired already, but might be allowed to hang on for a little while longer. A top four spot clearly isn't happening, no matter how much the Spaniard doth protest. Once the team's owners catch on to this it will likely be the end for Benitez. How much that helps the club's fortunes is open for debate. There is no doubting the team has talent and no denying it is showing little resolve on the pitch at this point. On paper, those things would be helped by a new, better coach. But Liverpool's problems might just go deeper than that. Maybe the players just won't work together because they're inherently selfish and were never taught to be anything else? Maybe they simply can't complement each other on the pitch? If that's the case, new blood will be needed. But who? And where from? And how much might they be expected to change the team's play if Stevie G is still running the show? Maybe Stevie's part of the problem? The only thing clear is there are no easy answers when it comes to Liverpool. 2010 won't be an easy year at Anfield, either.

Photo taken from without permission.


  1. I'm just wondering..
    (1) but how exactly will Messi be the star of the World Cup especially after their disastrous qualification record. Obviously Messi failed to impressed there.

    (2) And do you honestly believe that the US will be able to win over England in South Africa (a climate near identical to England in the winter?). Maybe the Yank's victory over Spain got caught up in your head, but I hope you realize England and Spain are two different teams with two different playstyles. You sure the Yanks can handle an aggressive, forward England?

    (3) You must be one of the new-age fans all caught up in the Chelsea-mania? Rafa is a great leader and is one of the few managers left in the world who can lead Pool out of this crisis. It's honestly the Yank's foolhardy management - honestly opting to hand Rafa so much each year. Yes it's true Rafa spent so much but he's always given a cap to what he can spend each window.

  2. @Anonymous ok in order:
    1) Yes Messi failed to impress but that was partly because his priorities were for Barcelona and partly because Maradona didn't know how to use him properly. I expect neither to be an issue at the World Cup.

    2) The US will beat or draw England because England aren't that good to begin with and will be made worse by David Beckham having to play at least 45 minutes of the match. Climate is secondary here because most US nationals are used to that and/or play for clubs in Northern Europe.

    3) Rafa got Liverpool into this crisis so I suppose it's only fair to let him lead them out. Apparently the American owners agree (either that or they're too cheap to hire another guy while they pay his salary). We shall see.

  3. I think the winner of the world cup will be a sleeper..perhaps an African country.

    liverpool is a mess, but isnt a lot of the premiership with all the change of ownerships.

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