wherein DF travels to Deutschland for the 2006 world cup to follow the US men's national soccer team

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Progress report: 3/1/2006

There is nothing more dangerous than trying to predict a team's World Cup performance based on their results in the friendly matches that precede the big dance. US fans know this all to well: our ego-inflating 3-0 shellacking of Austria (which was a Cup participant that year) in Vienna on the eve of France 98 was followed by the debacle that was our ignominious three-loss performance in the event itself.

With that caveat in mind, it might be interesting to at least compare how the US was doing in its preparations for the 2002 World Cup at this point four years ago. Check it:

2002 results:

1/19/02.........US 2:1 Korea (Gold Cup prelims)
1/21/02.........US 1:0 Cuba (Gold Cup prelims)
1/26/02.........US 4:0 El Salvador (Gold Cup quarterfinals)
1/30/02.........US 0:0 Canada (4-2 PKs) (Gold Cup semifinals)
2/2/02...........US 2:0 Costa Rica (Gold Cup finals)
2/13/02.........Italy 1:0 US
3/2/02...........US 4:0 Honduras

2004 results:

1/22/06.........US 0:0 Canada
1/29/06.........US 5:0 Norway
2/10/06.........US 3:2 Japan
2/19/06.........US 4:0 Guatemala
3/1/06...........Poland 0:1 US

The numbers seem pretty comparable. At this point in 2002, we were 5-1-1, while now we're 4-1-0 (I'm using a W-D-L system, which has always seemed to make more sense to me). There were a couple more data points then, but there are a lot of parallels. In each year, we had a one-goal win over a good Asian side; a couple thrashings of far weaker teams; and a good showing against a strong European side.

That said, I think a look past the numbers indicates that we're doing better this time around, though not by a ton. One difference is that we played Cuba very close in the Gold Cup, while we haven't looked bad against a subpar opponent so far this year, instead smoking them all (OK, the Canada game, but that was early on, and Canada's really not that bad; they beat Austria in Austria today). The post-match press this year after the early games was all about how it was impossible to read anything into those games because the teams weren't good; we were at home; etc. But I think it means a lot when you consistently crush inferior opposition, and in the three games that ended the early 2006 camp, we did just that (and Japan is not inferior, but we still beat up on them before getting sloppy late).

Of course the optimism doesn't necessarily translate into anything. I like that we're playing well. I think we're looking even better than we were at this point in the last WC cycle. It's too early to read anything into all this, but given what indications we do have, it seems hard to argue that cautious optimism isn't warranted.


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