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World Cup 2014--national team generations, part VII

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At the 2014 World Cup in Brazil a number of National Teams will be playing what may be the final major tournament with their current generation of stars. For Spain, Germany, and Argentina at the top level, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Colombia, Portugal, Italy, and France, at the next level down, and Ecuador, Croatia, Ivory Coast, Belgium, England, and USA at the third level, this summer may be their teams’ last hurrahs. In an eight-part series, we analyze what the cup means to these teams and what their aspirations and chances may be next summer. Today we review USA and France.

France

FIFA Rank: 16, Coach: Didier Deschamps, Group D: with seeded Switzerland, Honduras and Ecuador. Odds of winning cup: 20-1 (ahead of Portugal Italy, and England, for instance).

FIFA World Cup history--appearances (13): Champions at home in 1998, runners up in 2006, third place in 1958 and 1986, fourth in 1982, quarterfinals in 1938, and eliminated in the group stage in 1930, 1934, 1954, 1966, 1978, 2002, and 2010.

How they qualified for 2014: Second in UEFA Group I with 17 points, 5 wins, 2 draws, 1 loss, 15 goals in favor and 6 goals against. Then a playoff against Ukraine where they lost 0-2 in Kiev and then came back to win 3-0 in Paris.

France has had a storied if star-crossed World Cup trajectory. French striker Just Fontaine scored 13 goals in the 1958 cup, a feat no one has equaled. It took Gerd Muller and Miroslav Klose three tournaments each to reach 14 and Ronaldo three to reach the current record of 15. Klose has a chance to break the record if he makes the 2014 German squad.

France’s World Cup pinnacle was winning a convoluted trophy at home in 1998. They began with the easiest group of the cup, beating Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and Denmark, and then needed extra time to beat Paraguay 1-0 and penalties to beat Italy, by one penalty, after the teams had tied 0-0 a.e.t. In the semi-finals it was defender Lilian Thuram’s unlikely brace that saw them come back to beat Croatia 2-1. In the finals the home team benefited from Brazilian star Ronaldo’s infamous convulsions, which had him hospitalized the night before the game, turned him into a zombie throughout the game, and turned his sleepless teammates into slow-motion dummies.

The following cup, 2002, France came in last in their group losing to Denmark and Senegal and drawing with Uruguay. In 2006 they made it out of the group stage by one point thanks to a 2-0 victory over Togo, before turning it up several gears to beat Spain 3-1, and Brazil and Portugal 1-0 each with Zinadine Zidane playing his inspirational swan song cup. In the final, France lost to Italy on penalties, mostly thanks to the infamous head butt that earned Zidane his red card.

On France’s current expanded squad are six players who might make it to Russia in 2018, 14 players who will be into their thirties in 2018, and five players who will probably retire soon after the Brazilian cup. Among the generation that Les Bleus will be bringing to Brazil 2014 are: captain Hugo Lloris, the Tottenham Hotspur goalkeeper; in defense Manchester United’s Patrice Evra, Arsenal’s Barcary Sagna, and Monaco’s Eric Abidal; in midfield Bayern Munich’s Franck Ribery, Marseille’s Mathieu Balbuena, PSG’s Blaise Matuidi, Manchester City’s Samir Nasri, and Liverpool’s Mamadou Sakho, and at striker Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema and Arsenal’s Olivier Giroud.

France scheduled four home field friendlies leading up to the World Cup this summer. They beat the Netherlands 2-0 in March and will later play Norway, Paraguay and Jamaica. Les Bleus will be staying in Ribeirao Preto for the cup, and will fly 3.25 hours south to Porto Alegre, 4 hours north to Salvador, and one hour and 40 minutes east to Rio de Janeiro for their three group games. Thereafter they will play in either Brasilia or Sao Paulo for their Group of 16 match.

In recent interviews with FourFourTwo and UEFA.com French coach Didier Deschamps assessed his team's chances and their trajectory to Brazil. "We are 16th in the FIFA rankings, [made it to] the quarterfinals in the last EURO, losing to eventual champions Spain. Our last good World Cup result was in 2006, but generations are changing and with many young players coming in with a lot of skill we have a chance.

"[Our draw] could have been more complicated, let's be honest. We'll have our Swiss neighbors, one South American team and Honduras playing a similar style. [Our] first game is against Honduras, it's the most important one, winning it would put us in the best position. No opponent is easy, we need to be ambitious but reasonable. Before and after the draw our objective is the same: round of 16. But, yes, we will need to prove ourselves at the World Cup this summer."

At Brazil, in Group E, France will have tough competition from seeded Switzerland and will be surprised if Deschemps comments are indicative of underestimating the challenge Ecuador will pose. Their game against Honduras will indeed determine if they will move on from group play.

Prediction: France are on a roll and it will continue in Brazil. They will make it out of their group, but will then most probably face either Argentina or Nigeria. They will conclude their Brazilian journey at the Group of 16 if it is the Albicelestes they face and they will have an even chance to move on if it is Nigeria. But if they beat Nigeria they will most likely meet Germany and that will be the end. This generation will live up to some very realistic expectations, and their fans will have more to look forward to in 2018.

USA

FIFA Rank: 14, Coach: Jurgen Klinsmann, Group D: with Germany, Portugal and Ghana. Odds of winning cup: 100-1.

FIFA World Cup history--appearances (9): Came in third in the first World Cup, 1930, then were eliminated in the quarterfinals in 2002, eliminated in the Round of 16 in 1994 and 2010, and they were eliminated at the group stage in 1934, 1950, 1990, 1998, and 2006.

How they qualified for 2014: Top of Group A in the third round of CONCACAF qualification, then top of the Fourth Round with 22 points, 7 wins, 1 draws, 2 losses, 15 goals in favor and 8 goals against. Notably, they scored the last-minutes-of-the-last-qualification-game goals against Panama that allowed their arch-rivals, Mexico, a chance to qualify.

The U.S. is the ripest untapped market in world football, yet one of the hardest to bring to full maturity. With over three million youth players and a growing domestic league (MLS) the country has yet to fully realize the promise of its potential. But, it is reaching the strongest organizational stance it has ever achieved and it retains on its current national team some of the best players it has ever produced.

The U.S. Soccer Federation has been steadily building an infrastructure that has so far yielded a strong national youth development strategy, the credibility to attract and recruit a world-level coach in former German National Team coach, and standout player, Klinsmann, and they are enjoying a period with the greatest number of USA players playing abroad. But the nation has yet to produce a generation of players able to compete at the highest levels of the sport for any sustained length of time.

What the USA has routinely produced is a bevy of uneven performances with a few outstanding ones sprinkled in. For glimpse of what their best looks like, one need only recall the USA's showing at the Confederations Cup 2009 where their electrifying play saw them reach the final, yet their naiveté saw them pull ahead 2-0 at half-time against Brazil only to lose the trophy 3-2 by allowing three unanswered scores in one half. For a glimpse of what the team does when it does not focus enough to play to its potential, see the USA's March 5th game against Ukraine.

The USA in 2014 has a waning generation of great home-grown stars, many of whom have surpassed the expectations anyone could have had for them. But this is unquestionably the last hurrah for the group. Of the nearly two dozen players Klinsmann called up for last month's game against Mexico, nine were in their thirties and another five where in their late twenties. None of the former will likely be around in 2018 and few of the latter will be.

Among the stalwarts the USA National Team squad has used in the past and my count with are: Everton's Tim Howard in goal; Puebla's Damarcus Beasley, Birmingham City's Jonathan Spector, Sheffield Wednesday's Oguchi Onyewu, and San Jose Earthquakes' Clarence Goodson in defense; at midfield, ex-Roma and current Torono FC's Michael Bradley, LA Galaxy's Landon Donovan, Philadelphia Union's Maurice Edu, and Houston Dynamo's Brad Davis; and at striker, Seattle Sounders FC's Clint Dempsey, DC United's Eddie Johnson, San Jose Earthquakes' Chris Wondolowski, and Sunderland's Jozy Altidore.

Last year the team compiled a 16W-4L-3D record against all opposition and this year they are at 1-1-1, beating South Korea 2-0 and drawing with Mexico 2-2 at home, and losing to Ukraine 2-0, away. The team has scheduled three home, pre-cup preparatory friendlies against Azerbaijan, Turkey and Nigeria, and a closed warm-up session against Belgium June 12th, leading up to their critical June 16th match-up against Ghana in Natal, Brazil.

Team USA will be staying in Sao Paulo during the cup and flying 3.25 hours to Natal, 3.75 hours to Manaus and 3.25 hours to Recife. The choice of camp, given the distance from the three opening match venues, is strange, particularly since Klinsmann has previously taken his team for warm-ups in the host nation. Perhaps the locale's distance from the venues is intended to provide a more stress-free environment.

The USA's coach has been confident, cautious, sometimes direct, and yet optimistic of his team's chances at the World Cup. His original feelings were very positive as the potential for an easy or even-strength group in Brazil outnumbered the negative alternative of a group of death. But even now that the group is known, even though he has tempered his perspective, he has not changed his belief the team can progress.

Speaking to NBC Sports Network late last year, before the group composition was known, Klinsmann said: "You've got to be realistic, I mean, I think we have the potential, obviously like in the past, to get out of the group stage. It all depends on the members of the group. In our recent friendlies we showed we can compete, so why not in the World Cup?"

Speaking to fans on-line earlier this year, Klinsmann said: "We basically start with a World Cup final against Ghana. We need badly these three points. If we get three points against Ghana, I think then that the confidence will rise, the guys will be pumped up, and they will be ready for Portugal and give them a real fight. We go into camp, middle of May, to prepare for this game in the sharpest and most intense way possible. When we step on the field, Ghana will sense the energy we have, that we are mentally and physically ready for them, and hopefully they realize it’s going to be our day."

In a Soccer World interview out this month, Klinsmann added: "We will be ready for every game and we will see how far we can go. Our goal is to make it out of the group and we believe we will do that."

The USA's current generation of players is good enough to give the nation hope that on a good day they could progress from an easy group to a group with a balanced strength of teams. Unfortunately they are in a deathly group, paired with cup favorites Germany and an in-form Portugal, both teams ranked in the top five of the world. The third team in the group, Ghana, has eliminated the USA twice: in the Round of 16 at the 2010 World Cup (2-1 aet) and by the same score at the Group Stage in the 2006 Cup.

Prediction: Despite having the potential of upsetting a strong team in a given match on a given day, the USA is not strong enough to beat two, let alone the three better teams it will face in its group. Assuming they are not robbed, as in the 2002 loss (1-0) to Germany, bit.ly/1mKsbB9 the team might tie or win a game, but they will be eliminated at the earliest stage, laying to rest one of the better national team generations the country has ever produced.

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For Examiner's in-depth coverage of the U.S. Men's National Team, and their World Cup 2014 odyssey, please see my colleague L. E. Eisenmenger’s coverage at http://www.examiner.com/topic/le-eisenmenger.

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