As most of L.A. awaits Game 7 of the NBA Finals, the World Cup has buzzed along (thanks to the omnipresent vuvuzelas) through its first set of matches in South Africa. The first 16 matches might not have done much to make a potential soccer convert want to come up in front of the congregation and testify, but there have been some interesting stories.
The U.S. team scored a 1-1 tie in its opening match against England. After conceding an early goal to England's Steven Gerrard on a defensive lapse, the Americans tied the score thanks to a blunder of epic proportions by English keeper Robert Green on an easy shot by Clint Dempsey. Dempsey, who had a goal in the 2006 tournament, now stands two goals off the U.S. record for total goals in World Cup play. That record is four, held by Bert Patenaude, who scored all of them in 1930, including a (disputed) hat trick against Paraguay. (The U.S. finished third in that World Cup, its best ever showing.)
Next up for the U.S. will be Slovenia, on Friday at 7 am PT in Johannesburg. Slovenia leads Group C, after defeating Algeria 1-0 in their opener. The U.S. would be in good shape with a win over Slovenia, but a tie would be troublesome and a loss would likely have the Americans checking to see when the next flight home is.
While the LAPD is ready for postgame revelry after the Lakers-Celtics game, I think that there needs to be a strong police presence in the Little Ljubljana neighborhood on Friday in case that Slovenia dashes the American team's hopes. If you're there and you run into trouble, yell "Poklici policijo!"
On Thursday, Mexico tries to keep up with Uruguay in Group A. The Mexican team will take on France at 11:30 am in Polokwane. Uruguay leads that group with four points after crushing the spirits of the South Africans, beating the home team by a 3-0 margin, making it nearly impossible for South Africa to advance.
France's team seems to be in disarray as the players hate the coach, the coach hates the players, and the French fans hate both the players and the coach. Mexico didn't look too impressive in a 1-1 draw in the tournament opener against South Africa, but the Tricolores at least pretend to get along with each other.
The first 16 matches had an average of just 1.56 goals per game. Nine of the first 16 matches were scoreless at halftime. Teams have shown, in Homeland Security terms, "an abundance of caution" in their style of play.
Only a couple of squads have showed that they want to go on the attack. One was Germany, which routed Australia, 4-0, in its opener. The other was Chile, which still managed just one goal against an overmatched Honduras squad. (I'm taking the word of others about Chile. That match started at 4:30 am Wednesday. I did not see it. I have discovered that I enjoy sleep.)
The biggest upset in the tournament happened Wednesday in Durban when tournament favorite Spain was upset 1-0 by an uninspiring Swiss team. Spain could never figure out how to get through the Swiss defense and the Spanish defense made one mistake that cost them the match. Spain will need wins over Chile and Honduras to advance, and will probably try to pour it on against Honduras to help out with the goal difference tiebreaker.
Another tournament favorite, Brazil, won its opening match, 2-1, against the lowest ranked team in the tournament, North Korea. The North Koreans held Brazil to a 0-0 tie at halftime, but Brazil prevailed in a match played in frigid weather(36 degrees at kickoff) in Johannesburg.
Defending champion Italy tied Paraguay 1-1 in its first match. The Italians did not look like they were primed to make another run at the Cup. But, they are in an easy group. Their remaining opponents are Slovakia and New Zealand, who also played a 1-1 tie.
The best hope for the African continent for a team to advance seems to be Ghana, which beat Serbia 1-0 in a Group D match. If Ghana can pick up a win on Saturday against Australia, they will most likely be through to the second round. And potentially play the United States.
Argentina and South Korea meet up Thursday in Johannesburg in a match that starts at 4:30 am PT. Don't be surprised to see a large group of fans gathering in Koreatown to watch the match together. If you're in the area, it's worth spending a couple predawn hours with some of the most enthusiastic, and well-behaved, soccer fans in the world. (As for me, I'll be asleep, see above.) * The fans were likely bummed out too as Argentina hammered South Korea by a 4-1 margin, thanks to a hat trick by Gonzalo Higuain.
As the tournament progresses, expect a bit more offense. The players will be more accustomed to the locations and their teammates. Also, more teams will know that they have to win a match or two to advance. In their first matches, most teams played not to lose. That only goes so far as history has shown in the World Cup. There will be some plays to remember.
And a lot of droning vuvuzelas.