Many Americans still sneer at soccer, but ESPN is determined to make this country care about the world's game. And when ESPN decides to do something, they do it big. The self-proclaimed "worldwide leader in sports" has given an enormous promotional push for its coverage of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, and will pull out all the bells and whistles for live telecasts of every game, beginning with Friday's first match, between host South Africa and Mexico (June 11, 9:30am/8:30c). (Some games, including the July 11 championship, will be on ABC; a few on ESPN2. Most games will also stream at espn3.com and repeat in primetime on ESPN Classic. nivision has the Spanish-language rights, so ESPN Deportes' games will be called in Portuguese.)
"We will give you no opportunity to say you couldn't watch the game — unless you're spelunking," jokes John Skipper, ESPN's executive vice president for content and a big champion of the network's expansive Cup coverage. "We're convinced that when they pay attention, people are gonna fall in love with this." And unlike four years ago, when the match commentary seemed informed by The Idiots Guide to Soccer, expect a much more savvy presentation from South Africa. "We plan to appeal to the highest knowledgeable base," says Tim Scanlan, vice president for event production. Exhibit A: ESPN has recruited respected English sportscaster Martin Tyler as their lead play-by-play man.
Of course, the performance of the United States team will go a long way towards making the tournament must-see TV. After a disastrous first-round exit in the 2006 World Cup, where they scored just one goal, the U.S. has made a steady climb back toward international credibility. A stunning upset of European champion Spain at last summer's Confederations Cup signaled that, on any given day, the Yanks can play with the world's best. Whether or not they can do it on several given days remains to be seen.
The U.S.'s three Group C opponents — England, Slovenia and Algeria — present a challenging, but not impossible, path to the knockout round. The first game, on Saturday — against an English team that includes some of the world's most talented players — will be the toughest (June 12, 2/1c, ABC). "The U.S. has nothing to lose — they're the underdogs," says ESPN analyst John Harkes, who played for the U.S. in the 1990 and '94 World Cups. "They have to be very disciplined going into that game and can't concede a lot of fouls and free kicks. They have to be the aggressive team against England and shock them."
Landon Donovan, the all-time leading scorer for the U.S., and fellow midfielder Clint Dempsey will use their experiences playing in England — Donovan on loan this winter for Everton; Dempsey as a mainstay on the Fulham roster — as they attempt to penetrate the Three Lions' defense. Edson Buddle, Donovan's teammate on the Los Angeles Galaxy, was a late addition to the U.S. squad after scoring nine goals in the early stages of this spring's Major League Soccer season. On the other side of the field, goalie Tim Howard (who also plays professionally in England, for Everton), has become one of the world's most respected keepers.
Game 2 is against Slovenia (Friday, June 18, 9:30am/8:30c, ESPN, espn3.com), which upset Russia in a European group qualifying playoff to make the Cup finals. "They are a team that's organized, disciplined, and they have great energy," Harkes says. Still, he gives the Americans the upper hand in this one: "I think the U.S. has better players, so I think that's their advantage."
Group play ends with the Desert Foxes of Algeria (Wednesday, June 23, 9:30am/8:30c, ESPN, espn3.com), who Harkes calls "a nasty team to play against." Though they also lack the star power of the U.S. (or England), their style of play can help them subdue superior opponents. "They disrupt the play so much," Harkes says. "They try to take you out of your game. They're choppy, they'll foul you late, [and] exaggerate fouls themselves on stay on the ground to control the rhythm of the game and upset the other team."
Looking at the tournament overall, five-time winner Brazil, defending champion Italy, and Euro 2008 titlist Spain are considered the teams to beat. Other serious contenders include Germany, Portugal, the Ivory Coast, the Netherlands and Argentina, led by FIFA's reigning World Player of the Year, Lionel Messi. Harkes also cautions that Serbia could be a dangerous team.
The 2010 FIFA World Cup begins with South Africa vs. Mexico, Friday, June 11, 9:30am/8:30c, ESPN and espn3.com. The full TV schedule for can be found here. Studio 90, the U.S. team's official daily updates, will stream at ussoccer.com.
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