(Mauricio Sadicoff wearing his Brazil World Cup Champion Shirt)
Soccer is bigger than ever before in the U.S. This is true even in Bloomington Normal where football and baseball take up most of the summer sports oxygen. The World Cup Tournament in Brazil starts in two days. WGLT's Charlie Schlenker talks with twin cities fans about who they will be rooting for.
Hear more from Mauricio Saudicoff
and Adam and Ben Nielsen
The U.S. World Cup team left for Brazil after taking down a solid, Nigerian team last weekend in the final warm up game. It is no longer a valid question whether soccer has a future in the U.S. Brazilian native and State Farm systems analyst Mauricio Sadicoff of Normal has been watching the beautiful game and playing it since he was a child. Sadicoff says he has seen more available coverage of Soccer leading up to this World cup than of Hockey, despite the NHL playoffs and Stanley Cup going on.
"The last world cup, even with the schedule being weird because the games were in South Africa, had more audience on TV than the NBA Finals. NBC just closed a deal with the British Premier League. They're going to transmit all of their games live every Saturday and Sunday during the season. I see soccer growing tremendously."
All the world cup games this year will be available live and delayed on U.S. TV and the internet. Even though the proposal for a new soccer complex in Normal has not advanced, Sadicoff says just having the conversation is a sign of progress. He says adult recreation leagues in the twin cities are full and getting more professional with insurance coverage now required.
Ben Nielsen is a standout high school soccer player at Unit Five's Normal West High School. He will be checking his phone every few minutes for game updates and will watch every evening. Nielsen says the cup is huge for all his friends and could further advance the sport.
"I mean the U.S. team is no slouch. And I think this year we can be really proud to sport a really good U.S. team on the field. And if we get all the support we can get the U.S. is going to be inspired by that and I think this will be the biggest year in the U.S., I think ever."
For Ben's father Adam Nielsen a fan and sometime youth league coach, soccer arrived...four years ago as he was standing in a hotel lobby in Washington D.C. with a large crowd watching the final seconds tick away on the U.S. attempt to advance to the knockout round of the World Cup against Algeria.
"That's a unique moment and I think we'll probably feel some of those again in the next several weeks."
Two U.S. stars, Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey have done very well in Europe at top teams. But, unlike past generations of players, who go to Europe and come back to the U.S. to wind down their careers, Ben Nielsen says Dempsey and Bradley have returned in their prime to play for Major League Soccer teams in Seattle and Toronto.
Ben6 "As more players like that come back to the U.S. and support the MLS, I think it will start to grow in popularity."
In fact, about half this year's national team comes from Major League Soccer. Ben's dad Adam also says U.S. professional soccer could take a page from the European leagues, an idea called relegation, dumping the poor performing teams into a lower league while the top teams from that second tier set are promoted to the big league.
"And that adds a level of fan interest that you couldn't invent that if you wanted to and I think that would be part of a winning formula in addition to being able to attract more of the top level players."
It used to be the U.S. was happy to make it into the every four year tournament. Now, it would be a surprise if they did not play. The next step will be to advance further into knockout rounds.
"It will expose more people to the game. And they will see what an enjoyable game, what an athletic game it is. These are true athletes that are competing at a top level for something that is sought after by every country in the world and billions of fans."
Mauricio Sadicoff will soon take off for Brazil. He has tickets to the quarterfinal game in Rio. It will take place in the stadium that hosted a World Cup final in 1950. It's the first significant win or go home game. He expects to see Germany and France play.
"It's gonna be amazing (laughs) if the French team doesn't blow themselves up like they did in the last cup. You know in the last cup they lost the first game, tied the second game and fought with the coach, and it was just a mess. If they do that, I have a chance of seeing Germany and Argentina, which also would be a great game to see. It would be great to root for Germany in that one. As a Brazilian I don't want Argentina to go through. (laughing). A Brazil Argentina final would be a Brazilian nightmare. (They also get significant home field bump) Yeah, for most South American Countries that's effectively a home game because the Brazilians will be rooting for the people around them anyway."
The only other World Cup in Brazil was in 1950 when Brazil lost the final to Uruguay. He says there is a big worry Brazil will have to face another Latin American Country and history will repeat. Brazil is highly ranked and they will be playing at home. Saudicoff says crowd support matters a lot in Soccer.
"It's not just the fact that they're playing in front of their home crowds. They're playing in front of their families, and their friends that saw them grow up and people are gonna yell at them if they are not doing well and raise the team forward. I've seen games that you thought were dead at three zero at half time turn around and become four three after the second half because the crowd just wouldn't let the team relax."
And home crowds can have an indirect impact on another key element of the game, officiating.
"The entire stadium, a hundred thousand people are yelling for the referee. You barely will be able to listen to a referee that makes a call for Brazil that's very obvious."
Even though Brazil might be favored, other teams scare Mauricio.
"Weirdly enough kind of almost all of them. This World Cup is unique in the sense that I haven't seen a World Cup since the 1982 world Cup and that's a World Cup of my youth, (I was nine years old) in which all of the best teams in the world were there and were there full force."
Spain won the world cup last time and has continued to win international tournaments since. Germany is also a scary team after finishing third in the last World Cup and improving since.
"They continue to be the team nobody wants to play against. They are very strong, very aggressive, very attacking team. It's fun to watch. Spain is not fun to watch. They are very slow and patient, but Germany is fun to watch. Schweinstagr, their Defensive Mid, scores goals. It's as if your linebacker was scoring touchdowns every game. They're pretty great."
Mauricio hates to admit it, but says the team from Argentina is also going to be great this year. Ben Nielsen will root for the U.S., but if that doesn't pan out, he likes Brazil. Ben says they are pretty to watch and it's fun to root for a home team. For exciting soccer, Nielsen also has his eye on another team.
"My favorite player in the world plays on Belgium and his name is Aidan Hazard. He just can do things with the ball that aren't human like, that are almost superhero. He can do anything he wants with it and he makes defenders look silly. And they will end up on their rear ends many times when he has the ball under his control. And he can change the flow of a game just by wanting. He can just flip that switch."
Belgium is expected to get out of the group play stage and advance to the knockout round. Adam Nielsen says Brazil looks very good. But a number of South American Countries are strong.
"It's important to note that no non South American team has ever won in south America. But those are the kinds of things that change."
Adam also likes World Number two ranked Germany and the defending cup Champion Spain; the Spanish Team because they have played together as a unit for so many years. Adam says this may be Spain's last big opportunity with this batch of players. The Spanish concentrate on precision passing and a technical, almost hypnotic style. They do not play an attractive thrilling kind of game. But, the discipline they show, Nielsen says, points up a mistake the U.S. may have made.
"You can't plug and play. The team chemistry is really important and what I am seeing of the U.S. ...very athletic, high skills, very technical, but by the same token, the same group isn't out there game after game and when it comes to crunch time, I think we're going to see why that probably wasn't a very good approach."
Teamwork and a lack of ego by players is, according to Mauricio Saudicoff, the only thing that may help the U.S. get out of the so called "Group of Death" that includes Germany, a very difficult Portuguese team, and Ghana, which has taken the U.S. out of the two previous World Cup tournaments.
"The U.S. has a chance because of the schedule. The U.S. has a chance of beating Ghana in the first game and that exorcises all of the demons on the previous losses."
If they do not win the first game, is the tournament effectively done for the U.S.? Adam Nielsen.
"It puts enormous pressure on them. People who think that they have a chance to go through believe that they need to beat Ghana, and they need to beat Portugal and hope that Germany has its second or third team on the field because they'll already have wrapped up their trip to the knockout stage."
Also a question mark for the United States is the decision by Coach Jurgen Klinsman to leave star player Landon Donovan off this year's team. Normal Community West soccer player Ben Nielsen likes the somewhat controversial decision by Klinsman.
"His philosophy is you can't dwell on the past. If you look at the U.S. Team, it's a lot of young, a lot of new players. Sort of vibrant soccer. Landon Donovan, I mean he's 32, 33, that's ancient in soccer. Recently he had been quoted in a documentary saying he can't go a hundred percent in practice and be expected to go one hundred percent in games."
No one is arguing Donovan is completely done. He just set a scoring record with his Major League Soccer team. But, Ben says Donovan has not had an impact internationally for some time.
"And I think that it was time for Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey to start leading the team to victory."
The distraction of having a star potentially serve as a reserve and feel like he should get more playing time is important to consider as well, especially Adam Nielsen says, since Donovan has passed up opportunities to play in the English Premier League and recently took a sabbatical from the U.S. Team.
"I think it's safe to say that his heart is not completely with soccer and you can't afford to have that on the field on the pitch when you are in an international competition."
Sadicoff agrees that Donovan's statements betray a lack of motivation, but there might also be an element of history with U.S. Coach Jurgen Klinsman who brought Donovan to a German league where Donovan did not impress.
"I don't think he likes Donovan and that's fine and that's a good reason if a coach doesn't want a player there disrupting the other players and disrupting his authority, sometimes that happens. I like to give Klinsman the benefit of the doubt because well, he's Klinsman."
Klinsman won a World Cup as a player for Germany and has gone on to several successful and high profile coaching jobs before taking the U.S. post. Klinsman can also afford to think beyond this world cup, especially with the U.S. group play stage so difficult to advance from. He has a five year contract and Mauricio Sadicoff says Klinsman is choosing to offer seasoning to the next generation of players in preparation for four years from now.
"If we manage to do well without him that says a lot more for the future of soccer in the U.S. than anything else."
There is very little downside to the choice, because, Sadicoff says, the U.S. chances are slim this year. Perhaps one reason European teams have not done terribly well in high profile tournaments held IN South America is the climate. It is supposedly winter in Brazil right now. But, Sadicoff says that means 85 degree days with 90% humidity. Ben Nielsen says that can create endurance issues late in games.
"Like I played a tournament game two weeks ago, you know 45 minute halves. And about that 80th minute, your mind starts to go and get blurry. But, these guys are incredible athletes. Like this is their career. And they've been trained all season. And they will be well equipped to deal with the climate. But I do think those South Americans will be hard to beat because they're going to be used to this."
Travel is also an issue. Sadicoff says most European teams are not used to switching time zones or going long distances. For instance the U.S. will have to travel 9,000 miles to make all its first round games. Sadicoff says the U.S. Team should not be bothered by this, but European country squads might. Each world cup has defining world cup moments off the field as well. One such, four years ago in South Africa was the horrendous din of noisemakers...Vuvuzuelas. That won't happen in Brazil. Sadicoff says South Americans don't like the plastic trumpets. And while you might expect the Brazilian party atmosphere to dominate the off field feeling, or the national dance of Samba, Saudicoff says it could be something else.
"Oh man, I would love for it to be the niceness of the Brazilian people, but the way things are turning out I think it's going to be the protests."
Resentment has grown about the amount of money spent on the cup that has not been put into hospitals, schools, and infrastructure. Sadicoff says support for the tournament has eroded from 87% to less than half the population.
"Brazil is not shy about protesting. People do show up."
Sadicoff says it will still be a grand show and a great party for the world. And for Ben Nielsen and many in central Illinois, the games will make their entire summer.
"You know magic happens in the World Cup. We are going to see some of the best athletes in the world come together and do something magical and I can't wait."
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