Larissa Riquelme Wins Legions of New Fans for Her Country, Nearly Breaks Google Image Search, with Promise to Run Naked if Paraguay Wins

Busty, budding Paraguay superfan Larissa Riquelme—that’s her up there, and here, and here—has promised to run naked through the streets if her country wins the World Cup.

Her vow came about in response to an identical one made by Argentina coach Diego Maradona.

Their pledges may be identical, but the outcomes, in terms of spectator satisfaction, would be polar opposites.

And not only is Riquelme sadly far less likely to have to make good on this than Maradona (shudder)—because Paraguay is going to lose to Spain on Saturday—but she added a caveat: She says she’ll do it, but “with my body painted with the colors of Paraguay.” … Copout!

All right, Backpost is headed to the beach. We’ll try to post between tiny-umbrella-capped drinks over the holiday weekend.

In the meantime, here are our picks for the semifinals:

Brazil

Ghana

Argentina

Spain

Your Juicy Post–World Cup Blind Items About England Players

Fasten your seatbelts: From our Fleet Street* moles come the following two fall-off-the-bone juicy rumors that could, if true, explain why England looked so unbelievably horrible at South Africa 2010:

Number 1:

One of the Sunday tabloids will print a story this weekend claiming that an England player got caught with a prostitute just before the World Cup (picture evidence—the lot), and the paper agreed to postpone printing until after England crashed out of the World Cup. It will go live this weekend. The player was aware of this situation throughout the World Cup.

Number 2:

Another player has got his wife’s sister pregnant. He has a gagging order on this story that expired today, but it’s been renewed for another two weeks. One of his teammates knew about the situation, and was furious that the player was not disciplined for the indiscretion. These two players cannot stand each other, and their rift divided the team.

These items exist at the level of gossip and rumor right now. But considering what’s already gone on with this team, would anybody be surprised if they turned out to be true?

Further, the libel laws in England are famously strict in favor of complainants, so if a tabloid is going to publish a story (see the John Terry contretemps), chances are it’s got its facts straight.

Stay tuned; we may have an answer on No. 1 this weekend.

*Not actually the home of the British press any longer….

What Now for the USMNT?

Let’s get right to it, beginning with the coach and the starting XI against Ghana this past Saturday:

Bob Bradley: Bradley stumbled in the Ghana game with lineup selection and substitutions (he had none left as the team tired in extra time), but mostly he did an admirable job, getting his team to fight for 90 minutes every game and achieving the goal of getting out of group play with a squad hit hard by injuries to key players. But it may be time for someone else to take the reins—and that may come about by mutual consent.

VerdictOut. In view of the comments coming from USSF prez Sunil Gulati,we would bet that Bradley is done. 

Gulati said that he and Bradley “will sit down and talk. If we were carrying a trophy home it would be easy but it is not that situation.”

He further mentioned “mixed results,” “an opportunity missed,” and his desire to “hear [Bradley’s] thoughts about how things went. I have got some questions … about decisions that he made along the way.”

Potential replacements: Jürgen Klinsmann, Sigi Schmid, Dominic Kinnear, Peter Nowak, Guus Hiddink.

Tim Howard: Howard will be 35 by the time Brazil 2014 rolls around, but he’s an exceptional athlete, has no significant injury history, and it’s often said that goalkeepers peak later than outfield players.

Verdict: In for the short term, and a decent bet for 2014.

Potential Replacements: Brad Guzan, Troy Perkins, Dominic Cervi

Steve Cherundolo: He was one of the most solid and consistent performers on the team in South Africa, but he’s 31, and his position puts a premium on speed and a lively body.

Verdict: In for the short term, out for 2014.

Potential Replacements: Jonathan Spector, Sean Franklin, Kevin Alston, Marvell Wynne

Jay DeMerit, Carlos Bocanegra: They’re 30 and 31, respectively; we’d imagine the U.S. would want to get younger here come 2014—and it can; see below.

Verdict: In for the short term, out for 2014 (both).

Potential Replacements: Jonathan Spector, Chad Marshall, Omar Gonzalez, Clarence Goodson, Ike Opara, Gale Agbossoumonde, Tim Ream, Geoff Cameron

Jonathan Bornstein: We, like many others, did not have a lot of faith in Bornstein at South Africa 2010, but he turned in two decent performances and should gain a lot of confidence from the experience.

Verdict: In.

Potential Replacements: Jonathan Spector, Heath Pearce … ??

Clint Dempsey: Dempsey had a solid World Cup and he’s a crucial player for the team. But he’ll be 31 in 2014, and he suffered a knee injury last winter.

Verdict: In for the short term; health and form will tell for 2014.

Potential Replacements: Sacha Kljestan, Stuart Holden, Benny Feilhaber, Sal Zizzo

Michael Bradley, Ricardo Clark: Bradley was arguably the best player in the tournament for the U.S. Clark is a fine player who had a terrible Cup.

Verdict: Bradley—In. Clark—In for now, likely to be supplanted before 2014.

Potential Replacements: Maurice Edu, Jose Torres, Benny Feilhaber, Mikkel Diskerud, Sebastien Lletget, Jared Jeffrey, Geoff Cameron

Landon Donovan: He scored three goals, all of them big, and he emerged from the Cup as the most high-profile U.S. player ever. But he’ll be 32 in 2014, and speed is a huge part of his game.

Verdict: In for as long as he holds up.

Potential Replacements: Jose Torres, Benny Feilhaber, Robbie Rogers, Alejandro Bedoya, Andy Najar, Freddy Adu

Jozy Altidore, Robbie Findley: Think the U.S. missed the injured Charlie Davies at this tournament? Its forwards failed to score a single goal (for the second straight World Cup).

Verdict: Altidore—In. Findley—Out. Altidore is only 20 and he has a bright future. He didn’t score, but he made things happen for the U.S. and was a real handful for defenders for much of the tourney, drawing five yellow cards from opposing backs.

Findley is only 24, and his World Cup experience should boost his game, but unless he greatly improves his finishing ability, he won’t be part of the program for much longer.

Potential Replacements: Charlie Davies, Edson BuddleEddie Johnson?, Stefan Jerome?, Joseph Gyau? ….?

Yep, the forward position is a real problem area for the U.S. at the moment. Altidore is in limbo with his club side, Villarreal, and it remains to be seen whether Davies can return to his pre-car crash level. The other options are either very young or simply not good enough.

SUBS and Bench:

Maurice Edu: Played very well in South Africa, and at only 24 now, will be in his prime in 2014. Verdict: In.

Benny Feilhaber: Creative and solid on the ball at the Cup. Verdict: In

Herculez Gomez: Had a good game against Slovenia, but little impact against Ghana. Good nose for goal but lacking physical qualities for elite level; also: 28 years old. Verdict: Out.

We’ve touched on the likes of Goodson, Spector, Holden, and Torres, all of whom we think will be part of the team going forward.

What about Oguchi Onyewu? The hulking centerback will be 32 at the next World Cup, he’s coming off a serious knee injury, and he’s struggling to fit in with club side AC Milan. Verdict: In for the short-term, out for 2014.

Winger DaMarcus Beasley made a good charge just to make this team. But he too is in limbo at the club level and will be 32 come Brazil 2014. Verdict: Out.

Over all, the future looks reasonably bright for the U.S. The talent pool is deep in defense (with the exception of left back) and midfield, but dangerously shallow at forward. Finding or developing a dangerous striker will be priority No. 1 going forward.

What do you think of the USMNT’s future? Did we miss any future candidates? Let us know in the comments.

Ghana Sends U.S. Out of World Cup—Again

It’s taken us a couple of days to get to this past Saturday’s U.S.-Ghana game because we’ve been in transit, and on deadline at the day job, not—we repeat, not—because we’ve been on a three-day bender drowning our sorrows, or because we’ve been curled up in the fetal position since Saturday afternoon. (Not as far as you know.)

But we did take the U.S.’s 2-1 extra-time loss especially hard, for many reasons.

Here are three of them:

1) The World Cup functions as kind of a quadrennial Referendum on the Sport of Soccer in the United States. When the U.S. plays a World Cup match, it’s not only the team’s chances in the tournament that are on the line, but in many real ways, the future of the sport is at stake as well. The U.S. is pretty much unique in this regard. Sure, Italians and Englishmen are disappointed, devastated even, at their national teams’ performances at South Africa 2010, but soccer will continue to flourish in those countries just as it had before the tournament, and the Premier League and Serie A will resume grabbing all the sporting headlines when they start back up in six or seven weeks’ time. It’s a different story for the sport here, and for Major League Soccer.

But if the U.S. wins this game, and then goes on to … sigh.

That brings us to Reason No. 2…

2) The U.S .got the best Round of 16 draw it could possibly hope for, maybe everLandon Donovan said after the game that the team felt it had let “a little bit of an opportunity” slip away. Right. And the Grand Canyon is a little bit of a depression in the surface of the earth: If the Yanks had gotten by Ghana, next up would’ve been a very winnable game with Uruguay for a spot in the semi-freaking-finals of the World Cup. They may never get another opportunity like that again.

3) They had this game! Because of reason No. 1 above, we are usually somewhere between acute anxiety and deep pessimism while watching this team play in a World Cup, but after Donovan tied it from the spot in the 62nd minute and the U.S. started creating more chances, we genuinely believed they were going to win the game. They had the momentum and Ghana seemed to be tiring. This one was there for them.

So what went wrong?

Before the game, we pointed up five areas that could influence the outcome of this game, and the Yanks flubbed three of the five en route to the defeat that eliminated them.

Early Stages

We need to get the Elias Sports Bureau (and possibly the American Psychological Association) on this: Has a team ever given up early goals in three of its four World Cup games—along with allowing an early shot off the crossbar in the fourth?

This was more than a worrying trend—it was downright weird. And no one had an explanation for it.

Let’s review: they conceded a goal to England in the fourth minute, to Slovenia in the 12th, allowed a blast off the bar to Algeria in the sixth, and then in this knockout game against Ghana, gave up a goal in the fifth minute.

WTF, indeed.

They did rally each time, and this past Saturday it looked like they were bound to score the winning goal … until extra time began … and the Yanks reverted to their beginning-of-the-game form: time to give up a soft goal!

In the third minute of extra time, a punt from Ghana keeper Richard Kingson led directly to a goal by Asamoah Gyan, aka Baby Jet (best nickname in the tournament? Best nickname in the tournament), as U.S. central defenders Carlos Bocanegra and Jay DeMerit played a little game of ‘you got him?’ ‘no, you do.’

Ghana’s Athleticism

This had to have been one of the main talking points in the U.S.’s preparation, right? How it’d be important to get the ball off your feet quickly and be precise with your passes because these guys close down spaces faster than your average opponent, etc. etc?

Yet there was Steve Cherundolo on the right flank in the early going, taking his time with the ball and getting stripped. And there was Ricardo Clark giving it away cheaply in the fifth minute—a turnover that led to Ghana’s first goal and cost the Backpost household one apparently antique endtable.

In Clark’s defense, Bradley put him in a tough spot with his pass, and then vacated the space behind him with an overlapping run, leaving him with no cover after the turnover. Click here for some video evidence submitted by Backpost reader Old 27.

Crunch-Time, Extra time, Penalties

Fall asleep at a critical moment down the stretch and it could cost you a game like this. The U.S. did just that on Ghana’s game-winning goal, allowing a punt to fall between its two out-of-position centerbacks and then, well, what did happen after that?

Bocanegra shoulder-bumped Gyan, and when that didn’t knock the player off balance, appeared to give up on the play, stopping his run and—seriously, watch the replay—looking up at the sky while leaving DeMerit to take over and defend the attack on his own. But DeMerit was always behind the play and had no chance of stopping Gyan. Check it out here (third goal, obv):

The U.S. stumbled in three other key departments as well: Lineup selection, goalkeeping, and finishing.

Starting Ricardo Clark was a mistake, and Bob Bradley admitted as much by subbing the player off after half an hour. He said he made the change because Clark picked up a yellow, and that it was “extremely dangerous” for a hustling, tackling central midfielder to be carrying a yellow in a game like this, and that makes sense. But Clark was having a bad game—and he had a bad tournament: two appearances, two errors that contributed to goals against the U.S. (he failed to track Gerrard on the England goal). The U.S. looked much better when Maurice Edu came in.

Tim Howard had an excellent tournament, for the most part, but he was beaten to the near post on Ghana’s first goal, and appeared to be out of position (see above). The second Ghana goal went right over his head—it was a rocket, but it was right at him.

We thought Bradley would start Robbie Findley in this game, and we think it was the right move. He’s the only player on the U.S. roster with the speed to trouble Ghana’s backline, and he did that. But he fell short—well short—in the finishing department, blowing a golden chance in the 35th minute, scuffing his shot into Kingson’s leg from 10 yards.

The U.S. squandered several other excellent opportunities as well, with Jozy Altidore, Benny Feilhaber, and Michael Bradley all failing to finish good to decent chances.

So it was a mixed bag for the U.S. at South Africa 2010: They accomplished their goal of getting out of the group stages, but they missed a golden opportunity to do something unprecedented in U.S. Soccer history.

Next up: What now for Bradley and Co.?

U.S. vs Ghana: Revenge in Rustenburg?

The U.S. faces Ghana tomorrow in Rustenburg with a place in the quarterfinals at stake and an opportunity to avenge a 2-1 loss to the Black Stars that knocked them out of the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

Much like the Yanks’ experience in this tournament, that game was not without controversy.

After Claudio Reyna was stripped of the ball in his own half and Ghana turned the gaffe into its opening goal, DaMarcus Beasley and  Clint Dempsey did this:

But in first-half stoppage time, German referee Markus Merk handed Ghana a penalty, whistling U.S. centerback Oguchi Onyewu for what looked like a fair challenge for a header against Ghana’s Razak Pimpong.

The call was almost as dubious as Koman Coulibaly’s phantom whistle on Maurice Edu’s goal against Slovenia last Friday, and Ghana converted the penalty for a 2-1 lead that held up.

Now, four years later, the Americans have a chance for payback.

Here are five factors that will influence tomorrow’s outcome:

Early Stages

The U.S. gave up a goal in the fourth minute to England, in the 12th to Slovenia, and nearly conceded one in the sixth minute to Algeria this past Wednesday. Add to those worrisome facts this one: Ghana striker Asamoah Gyanwho has both of the Black Stars’ goals in this tournament (both from the spot)—scored the fastest goal in World Cup history back in 2006, hitting the net just 68 seconds into a 2-0 win over the Czech Republic.

It’s a very safe bet that Ghana will to try to attack the U.S. right from the start. How will the Yanks respond to the pressure? They obviously cannot afford to give up an(other) early goal.

Ghana’s Athleticism

Who will coach Bob Bradley start on the U.S. backline, and elsewhere, to deal with Ghana’s elite team speed and power? Will Onyewu return, hungry to wipe out the bad call against him from four years ago? Or will Jonny Bornstein—who, it must be said, held his own in the Algeria game—get thrown back into the cauldron?

Our bet is the speedy Bornstein.

We also expect Robbie Findley back up top with Jozy Altidore, giving the U.S. two different kinds of physical threats to keep Ghana’s backline on notice—Altidore’s bulk and power, and Findley’s raw speed.

In midfield, we figure Bradley will stick with the Maurice Edu/Michael Bradley combo in the center, with Lando and Clint on the wings.

But whoever is out there needs to be wide awake—from the opening whistle onward.

Refereeing

Mistakes, there’ve been a few: Yes, the U.S. has been on the short end of two egregious refereeing errors so far in this tournament. To their immense credit, they’ve been able to shake them off and get on with it without losing concentration. Will they be able to do the same if it happens in a knockout-round game?

Since the Slovenia and Algeria matches were essentially knockout games, the guess here is yes.

That said, we’d hate to see a bogus penalty or rash red card handed out at any point….

Algeria Hangover

The Americans reached this stage in the most dramatic, draining fashion possible. Will they be able to wring that out and get mentally and physically prepared for the task at hand tomorrow?

(England has an extra day of rest, by the way, facing Germany on Sunday after downing Slovenia the same day the U.S. beat Algeria.)

So far they’re saying all the right things. Right after the Algeria game, Michael Bradley told Soccer America, “We’ll be ready. We could play tomorrow and we’d be ready.”

The following night, Bornstein told ESPN they were done enjoying the Algeria victory and were now “really looking forward to this game against Ghana.”

They’re all well aware of the opportunity in front of them—they’re in the most favorable quadrant of the final 16. If they get past Ghana, they’ll play the winner of South Korea-Uruguay.

Neither of those teams is an easy opponent, but they’re not the world powerhouses lurking in other areas of the bracket, either.

The U.S. should have no trouble getting up for this one.

Crunch-Time, Extra Time, Penalties

If the U.S. can avoid early errors in the back and settle into the game, it’s likely to be a tight one for 90 minutes. Games like that are often decided by little things in the late going—a mistake or a crucial touch or tackle—or they go into in extra-time, or to a penalty shootout.

Will the U.S. have the mental steel for those possibilities? Considering all they’ve battled through to get this far, we say it’s a good bet. And if it comes to penalties, U.S. fans could do worse than having Tim Howard in goal.

What are your thoughts on the game? Think the U.S. is still hungry for more? How will Bradley tweak his lineup?

Let us know in the comments, and enjoy the game.

U.S.-Algeria: More Afterglow (Then Bring on Ghana!)

Of the dozens of great articles out there in the aftermath of the U.S.-Algeria white-knuckler, this one right here, by Jason Gay of the Wall Street Journal, might be our favorite. 

The second paragraph nails it:

 “If you weren’t completely, utterly, thrilled, exhausted and satisfied by Wednesday’s 1-0 Team USA World Cup thriller over Algeria, you’re a lifeless sports corpse. You are banned from all future U.S. World Cup matches and hereby ordered to spend the rest of the season watching the moribund Baltimore Orioles, eating cold oatmeal in a Slanket.”

The Journal produced some unexpectedly strong coverage of the game, despite Timothy Martin’s saying, in this article, that “Landon Donovan broke a scoreless tie by kicking the winning goal with three minutes to go.”

Excellent piece Mr. Martin, but it wasn’t a field goal.

Hey, baby steps; and we’ll take the mainstream coverage. Click here for another worth-your-while WSJ story on the game.

But Gay’s article points up an interesting thing we experienced in the aftermath of the game—and we don’t think we were alone in this—that is, getting emails and texts from non-soccer-loving friends (we tolerate a few of those) who were genuinely caught up in the outlandishly exciting game.

One of our pals, who is not only not a fan, but also a bit of a hater, wrote:

 “WOW!!!! [All caps and four exclamation points his]

“And it could have been 6-1. We had the goal, the one called back, and at least four near misses, by my count. And, of course, Algeria had that rising drive off the crossbar…. ”

This from a guy who normally would weigh in on soccer only to make snarky comments about a lack of scoring. Here he was jazzed about a 1-0 win.

Yes, this game is a potential corner-turner for the sport in this country.

Here are some more postgame quotes we liked:

“It was like a 40-year-old losing his virginity. The place just exploded.”

 —Annabel Heany, California native visiting Pretoria for the game, describing the stadium response to Donovan’s goal, for a.m. New York.

“I don’t think we’re going to convert the American population overnight, but anybody that watched today’s game and can’t get excited about it, we’re not gonna win them over, I accept that. But I think we’ll win a lot of people over today.” [See Jason Gay article above.]

—USSF President Sunil Gulati.

“We don’t get many moments like this. I think it’s a sign that people are starting to pay attention. We always talk about the water level rising with soccer. Well, today the water rose.”

 —MLS commissioner Don Garber.

“This World Cup is like WWII: England vs. Germany, the French surrender, and the Yanks turn up at the last minute.”

 —Unsourced wit from the Internet 

 “Hi Bianca.”

 —Landon Donovan, in his postgame interview with ESPN, giving a shoutout and blowing a kiss to his ex-wife, actress Bianca Kajlich.

Click here for more on that last one. 

Developing?

U.S. 1, Algeria 0: Hot Damn!

Landon Donovan buried a rebound from a Clint Dempsey shot in stoppage time to give the U.S. a dramatic 1-0 win over Algeria today.

The victory, which came after the U.S. had missed multiple scoring chances and had another goal disallowed by a refereeing error, vaulted the team into the knockout stage of the World Cup just moments before they would have been eliminated by a tie.

When Lando hit net, the venue where Team Backpost was watching exploded, and the woman standing next to us took a shot to the nose in the ensuing melee. She was bleeding—and smiling—for 20 minutes afterward.

We are tracking down video and/or photo evidence of this, but in the meantime, here is a small sampling of the email/text correspondence flying in and out of Backpost HQ before, during, and after the match (all times EST):

Pregame:

RefBaiter: “Gooch is out. I am surprised. Bornstein scares the poop out of me.”

ChaseTheGame: “I don’t get Gomez. Seems better as sub. Why doesn’t Holden get more love?”

Espo: “Is anyone else nervous?”

RefBaiter: “Extremely.”

KEEP: “Going on record: I like the move to sit Gooch.”

First half:

Mr. Law [10:06]: “Crossbar! Nearly the third early goal allowed in a row!”

DoubleD [10:07]: “Can we please keep it tight at the back? Please?”

RefBaiter [10:22]: “Gomez! Cmon.”

Addick [10:22]: “Wow! Another bad call!! Really painful (and Gomez should have buried first chance, too).

Mr. Law [10:25]: “They’re getting us back for eight years of Bush.”

KEEP [10:39]: “I hate soccer.”

SimonSays [10:44; from England]: “You’re just watching the wrong game in this group!”

Second half:

Mr. Law [10:47]: U.S. looks better than Algeria, but Algeria counters quick…could catch us.”

Monkey Man [11:02]: “Get Holden in here for Edu.”

WarrenG [11:04]: “Feilhaber in for Edu.” 

StrikerLiker [11:15] “Snakebit USA.”

RefBaiter [11:16]: “Ready to vomit.”

Monkey Man [11:17]: “Painful.”

StrikerLiker [11:23]: “Cmon Buddle! Do it for New Rochelle, baby!”

Seize-a-Bull [11:50] Y-Y-YES!!! Altidore! Dempsey! DONOVAN!!

HillTopper [11:50]: “WOW!!!”

MacDaddy [11:52]: “Holy S***!”

Mr. Law [11:55; hasn’t taken a drink in three years]: “I’m drinking again!”

KEEP [11:57]: “I love soccer.”

Clearly, this team makes its fans suffer—but maybe the wins are sweeter that way.

Three final thoughts:

Man of the Match

This has to go to Donovan for hitting the winner, but Michael Bradley is a close second, just ahead of Tim Howard.

Much as he was in the second half against Slovenia, Bradley was a beast out there today—clogging passing lanes, making great touches in tight spaces and surging forward through midfield. Quality performance for the coach’s son—again.

Howard was his usual rock-solid anchoring self, and he started the game-winning play with a superb long throw to Donovan on the right wing.

Jozy Altidore also had a good one—pretty good holding the ball up top, and always a handful for the Algerian backline, especially in the second half, when he drew several free kicks in dangerous areas.

Great, Impossibly Dramatic Win, But …

The U.S. is unbeaten in three games, but has yet to put together a solid, sound, 90 minutes of soccer. They nearly conceded a goal in the sixth minute today, when Algerian forward Rafik Djebbour thumped the crossbar, and there were too many gaps and defensive lapses—the kind of mistakes that a better opponent will punish.

Lando On the Verge?

Donovan’s goal against Slovenia was massive—it jumpstarted the U.S. comeback and it was a great, sheer-will-to-win moment—and his goal today was the most dramatic tally in U.S. soccer history, making his team World Cup group winners for the first time since 1930. And yet he, like the team, has yet to produce an excellent overall performance.

If that changes in the knockout stage, the U.S., as Donovan said in his postgame interview, is “not done yet.”

Who Should Partner Altidore Up Top vs Algeria?

Koman Coulibaly may have cost the U.S. a victory with his mysterious foul call on Maurice Edu’s goal last Friday, and he definitely forced a roster change with his phantom hand-ball call and subsequent yellow card on Robbie Findley. The booking—on a play whose replays clearly showed the ball hitting Findley in the face and the chest—got the speedy striker suspended for tomorrow’s game against Algeria.

Findley squandered his touches in the final third against Slovenia, but he did get into dangerous spots several times with his speed and well-timed runs. Those qualities would be very useful against an athletic team like Algeria, which needs a win against the U.S. to have any hope of advancing, and so will likely try to attack the Yanks. Having Findley’s wheels out there would put pressure on the Algerian backline. Since he’s not available, who will Bradley start in his place?

He could go with the lineup that finished the game against Slovenia—Clint Dempsey alongside Jozy Altidore in attack, with Benny Feilhaber wide in midfield—or he could bring in Edson Buddle at striker and keep Dempsey in midfield.

If Bradley has concerns (as we do) about Feilhaber’s athleticism and soft defense against an untethered Algerian side, he could slot Stuart Holden at right midfield, and go with Dempsey up top.

Here’s our bet for the starting XI:

Howard

Cherundolo            Onyewu            DeMerit            Bocanegra

Dempsey            Bradley            Edu            Donovan

Buddle            Altidore

[With Holden and Herculez Gomez ready as the first subs]

Who do you think should start in this win-and-you’re-in game? Let us know in the comments.

World Cup Notes: The Going Gets Weirder

Anyone know what this is all about?

After the World Cup draw last December, the London tabloids claimed England had landed in “the best group since the Beatles.”

Considering the freaky results that have unfolded, though, they may want to change that to the Electric Prunes, or Captain Beefheart. And England is definitely having a strange trip (maybe they took the brown acid).

The Three Lions tied the U.S. on Robert Green’s infamous goalkeeping gaffe, then tied Algeria 0-0 while stars Wayne Rooney and Frank Lampard appeared to sleepwalk for 90 minutes. After that one, they had a pudgy punter wander into their locker-room “looking for the toilet,” he said, before going on tell the team, “You are a disgrace.”

Also falling under the category of weird, if not psychedelic, were Slovenia’s drowsy 1-0 win over Algeria, courtesy of a goalkeeping error almost as bad as Green’s, and the U.S.’s furious rally in its 2-2 draw with the Slovenes—a game marred by a hallucinatory foul call by Malian referee Koman Coulibaly that denied the Americans an unprecedented comeback victory.

Then there are Slovenia’s Charlie Brown uniforms, and their doofus goal celebrations, in which half the roster circles up and twists their hands in the air above their heads as if unscrewing lightbulbs.

What is that, exactly—apart from very dorky and more than a little effeminate? Please advise in the comments if you have information on this deeply goofy ritual.

The strange goings-on were by no means limited to Group C(razy). Over in Group F(’d up), New Zealand tied Italy. No, really. That happened.

It was 1-1, and both goals were dubious—New Zealand’s may have been offside, and Italy’s was a penalty for the briefest of shirt grabs in the box. Put it this way: If that was a penalty, then what the Slovenian defenders did to the U.S. in the box late in last Friday’s game might require a firing squad.

The poor officiating ended up being a wash as—we repeat—Italy, with a pool of 3,541 professional players to call on, tied New Zealand, which has 25.

Speaking of poor refereeing, guess who was the fourth official in the Kiwi-Azzurri tilt?

Drumroll please….Mr. Koman Coulibaly.

Apparently, he has since been benched by FIFA, but we swear, he was out there on the touchlines for New Zealand-Italy.

Yesterday, Kaka of Brazil picked up a red card for the tamest of second-yellow offenses: a defensive, light forearm to the chest of Ivory Coast’s Kader Keita, who went down—as if by shotgun blast—clutching his face. But the Ivorians were also on the wrong end of some poor officiating, earlier in the game, when Luis Fabiano appeared to handle the ball, twice, en route to scoring Brazil’s second goal in a 3-1 win.

This morning, North Korea dominated the first 45 minutes against Portugal, only to get blown off the rain-drenched field in the second half, losing 7-0 in the most lopsided game of the tournament, and the biggest World Cup rout since Germany shellacked Saudi Arabia 8-0 in 2002.

All that weirdness, and we haven’t even gotten to France: Is there a French word for ‘meltdown’? When the President steps in to sort things out, you know it’s bad.

This tournament already has an official anthem, Shakira’s “Waka Waka (This Time for Africa),” and that unwieldy title is weird enough, but if this keeps up, they may want to bring in Gnarls Barkley for a rewrite.