- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 19, 2009

Once upon a time, the World Cup was a tournament full of surprises. It was often the only time the world got to see different styles of soccer.

The Germans would arrive with their disciplined game, the Italians came with their famous catenaccio “bolt-door” defenses, and the Brazilians and Argentines dazzled with their delightful Latin flair. Sometimes, a little-known Asian or African team would pull off an upset.

Those days are long gone, and an argument could be made that there are no longer distinctive styles of soccer in the top flight of the game - there’s just what could be called “Champions League-style soccer.” Let’s face it: The rosters on the major national teams - Brazil, Germany, Argentina, Spain, England, Portugal, France, the Netherlands, etc. - are filled with players who compete annually in the Champions League, the world’s premier club tournament.

Soccer seems to have a universal style these days, and it’s hard to distinguish the play of the major world powers. Even England’s top players, who populate the cosmopolitan Premier League, have been converted to the “continental game,” with its more attractive possession-heavy style of play. The days of “route one” soccer or the “long-ball” game are disappearing from the higher echelon of English soccer.

Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Ashley Cole, Joe Cole, Frank Lampard, Aaron Lennon, Michael Carrick and Shawn-Wright Phillips - players the U.S. team likely will face at the World Cup - can hardly be classed as “kick-and-run” players, as many English players of yesterday were dubbed. The multinational Premier League and Spain’s La Liga are now the great levelers of world soccer. The world’s best players compete in those leagues, learn the style of play and become acutely acquainted with other international stars - often their own club teammates - whom they will face on the field at the World Cup.

There are no longer any secrets. No team will arrive in South Africa next June with a box full of surprises. Not even the closeted North Koreans. There won’t be a repeat of 1966, when the unknown North Koreans stunned the world by beating Italy and nearly taking Portugal to the cleaners.

Likewise, the U.S. team will be studied by opponents and taken seriously. After downing Spain and giving Brazil a scare at the Confederations Cup, the U.S. team will never again be taken lightly. Landon Donovan may not yet play in a top European League, but he is well-respected after scoring 42 goals in 120 games for the U.S. team.

Does the U.S. squad play a certain style? The Americans are certainly athletic, fast and composed on the ball and continue to produce excellent goalies, but as of now, there are no American superstars on the horizon. The U.S. team does not have a Didier Drogba like the Ivory Coast, and Freddy Adu’s rise and fall gives us all caution. That said, the Americans know they can play in the big games and fear no one.

The U.S. team’s quarterfinal place in 2002 was inspired by a collection of players - the likes of Brad Friedel, Clint Mathis, Tony Sanneh, John O’Brien, DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan - all in peak form. The potential is there for the Americans to do it again next year, but it won’t be easy.

Second-tier international teams in the same class as the U.S. squad now regularly reach the semifinals of the World Cup. South Korea and Turkey did it in 2002. Sweden and Bulgaria did it in 1994, and Croatia did so in 1998. However, there’s still a psychological hurdle for those second-tier powers to reach the World Cup final game.

World Cup winners - Brazil, Argentina, Italy, Germany, Uruguay, England and France - are in an exclusive club. This time around, Spain, the Netherlands, Portugal, Mexico and perhaps even an African team, such as Ghana or the Ivory Coast, will be looking to gate-crash that elite group.

Now that would be a surprise.

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