<b>THE WORLD IS WATCHING:</b> The Press Room (top) is a favorite haunt of fútbol fans thanks to the big TVs and the accommodating hours kept during the World Cup.
Paul Wellman (file)

The U.S. soccer team risks being DOA in the “Group of Death” if it does not get a positive result against Ghana in its opening match of the World Cup (Monday, June 16, 3 p.m. PDT). The Americans also must face European powers Portugal (Sunday, June 22, 3 p.m.) and Germany (Thursday, June 26, 9 a.m.). Only the top two teams of each group will advance to the knockout rounds of the month-long tournament.

Ghana was responsible for sending the U.S. home from the last two World Cups. In 2006, the Africans scored a 2-1 victory in a do-or-die group match. In 2010, they met in the Round of 16, and Ghana again won 2-1 in overtime. A triple crown of thorns, anyone?

If there is any reason to expect it will be different this time, it’s the mind of Jurgen Klinsmann, the incendiary coach whose judgment was questioned when he left all-time leading scorer Landon Donovan off the U.S. roster.

Rudy Ybarra, a Santa Barbara soccer star in the ’70s and coach of the S.B. Soccer Club’s national youth championship teams, did not agree with that decision. But Ybarra has faith that Klinsmann will figure out a way to beat Ghana.

“He understands the game better than any coach the U.S. has had,” Ybarra said. “Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley [previous coaches] never played the game at a high level.” Klinsmann was a striker for Germany’s 1990 World Cup champions and coached his native country to third place in 2006. During his playing career, he learned from some of the game’s top strategists. “He still flies down to Buenos Aires to have coffee with [Argentine mastermind] César Luis Menotti,” Ybarra said. “He has brought in Bernie Vogts, a great defender for Germany, as an advisor.”

UCSB coach Tim Vom Steeg has serious doubts about Klinsmann’s performance. He wonders why the starting U.S. lineup appeared to be undecided in the final days before the tournament and why so many players who helped the team qualify for the World Cup — including Donovan and defender Brad Evans — are not going to be there. Vom Steeg compared the situation to college soccer, where a team gets two weeks of practice together before the start of the season. “But [Klinsmann] is facing Ghana, not Stanford,” Vom Steeg said.

Ybarra maintains there is a method to Klinsmann’s confounding ways, and it was borne out in the U.S. team’s final preparatory match last Saturday, a 2-1 win over Nigeria. A new back line of defenders, considered a liability in the past, not only gave goalie Tim Howard solid support but also initiated several attacks, notably when right back Fabian Johnson made a long run to assist on Jozy Altidore’s first goal. Klinsmann installed Altidore as the primary striker, even though he had not found the net in months, and was rewarded not once but twice, the second time when Altidore turned Michael Bradley’s deft pass into a lethal strike from 12 yards out.

“Klinsmann has the U.S. ready to play five different formations,” Ybarra said. “The players are more educated than ever before.”

It is conceivable that the U.S. could survive the group if it gets away with a tie on Monday, but then it would have to upset Portugal (which still remembers being embarrassed by the U.S. in 2006 and features one of the world’s great players in Cristiano Ronaldo) or Germany (the team that is Europe’s best hope to win a championship in South America).

International Students Talk World Cup

Brazil and Croatia will kick off the soccer World Cup on Thursday, June 12. Thirty other national teams will later join the fray. Bruno Salgado and Camila Victorio — among the hundreds of students attending the EF International Language Center in Santa Barbara — will be pleased if the last teams standing on July 13 are Brazil and Argentina.

Brazilian Bruno Salgado and Argentinian Camila Victorio cross their fingers their countries will be the last two teams standing.
Paul Wellman

Salgado, 17, is from Rio de Janeiro and hopes to score some tickets when he returns home later this month. He prays that “joga bonito” — play pretty — is the style that brings Brazil its sixth championship.

“Neymar [one of Brazil’s creative stars] doesn’t do the normal things,” Salgado said. “He always does like this [moving his feet like an intricate dance step]. Sometimes I don’t like the style. They forget to do the scores and win the game.”

Victorio, 19, says that when she tells people she is from Argentina, they say, “Ah, Messi.” Lionel Messi, the goal-scoring wizard of Spain’s Barcelona club, will try to lead his country to its third world title. “We will win because we fight to win,” Victorio said. “Pope Francis will be watching.” The pope is a lifelong fan of San Lorenzo, a club that miraculously won the Argentine league’s first-half title of the 2013-14 season.

Salgado acknowledges that Brazilians have staged massive protests, called “manifestations,” airing their grievances against the background of the World Cup for the past year. “The stadiums are costing money, while people go to the hospital and they don’t have medicines and things,” he said. He believes the country will joyously rally in support of the team once the World Cup gets underway. “Our players support the manifestations and say, ‘Não somos do governo’ (We are not the government),” he said.

European students were not optimistic about the prospects of their teams, which have never won a World Cup in the Americas. “Something will go wrong. It always does,” said Tim Poppers of the Netherlands, which invented the end-to-end attacking style of modern soccer in the 1970s.

Though studying in Santa Barbara, many an EF International student will be rooting for their home-country teams. Julian Gambald, who hails from France, shows his ball-handling skills.
Paul Wellman

Julian Gambald of France was juggling a soccer ball on his feet in an outdoor recreation area. He said he could go beyond 500 touches without the ball hitting the ground. As for the French national team, he said, “No, we don’t have a chance,” without the injured Franck Ribery. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Brazil will win. It’s just football.”

Brazil also comes out on top in the analysis of Santa Barbara soccer expert Rudy Ybarra because “their players have technical skills equal to anybody else’s, and they are physically stronger and more athletic.” Three other teams that could make the final, Ybarra said, are defending champion Spain (“veteran players, and the weather will help them”), Germany (“disciplined and strong”), and Argentina (“a lot of fans, great on the attack, but the defense is lacking”). Dark horses include Chile and Belgium.

The pope, and 999,999,999 other fans, will be watching.


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