A recast U.S. men's team and Brazil's extreme home-field advantage are among the storylines for this summer's FIFA World Cup tournament.
Once every four years, the nations of the world put aside their diplomatic differences and settle their scores like they should -- on the soccer pitch.
The FIFA World Cup begins with group play June 12 and ends with a final match July 13 that is expected to draw more than 700 million television viewers from around the world.
This time, the World Cup is being hosted by Brazil -- and that's awesome for several reasons. For one, Brazilians know how to have a good time, and their passion for pageantry is sure to show through on the television screen.
But on a more practical note, Brazil's time zones are closely aligned with those in the good ol' USA. That means American soccer fans can enjoy the games essentially in prime time, or something close to it. The United States' first game against Ghana, for example, is scheduled to be played at 6 p.m. EDT on Monday (7 p.m. in Natal, Brazil).
For those who prefer watching the games on an English-language broadcast, every match will be shown on either ESPN, ESPN2 or ABC. For Spanish speakers, the games will be shown on Univision.
1. The new U.S. squad.
The Americans will make their first World Cup appearance under manager Juergen Klinsmann, a former German star who has brought a hybrid version of European-style attack to North America. The U.S. Men's National Team is highly ranked -- 13th in the world, according to FIFA -- but has been put in a terribly tough Group G with opening matches against Germany, Portugal and Ghana. They will need to play three nearly flawless games to finish at least second in the group and secure advancement to the knockout stage.
The U.S. roster is also in transition. It's the dawn of the Clint Dempsey era, with the brash player from Nacogdoches, Texas -- who after several years of playing in England is now a star midfielder for the Seattle Sounders -- serving as captain. And it could be a last go-around for goalkeeper Tim Howard, who, after signing a contract extension with English club Everton, suggested he might retire in four years.
2. Home team is No. 1.
Brazil probably doesn't even need home-field advantage, but it's got it. The club is widely considered the favorite to win the tournament, which would add to its collection of five World Cup trophies, the most of any country. What's more, the team almost never loses on home soil. About the only thing that could derail the team is the pressure. Brazilian fans expect a championship from their yellow-shirted heroes, and anything less would be unacceptable.
3. Viva Mexico!
This team shouldn't even be in the World Cup after a disappointing showing during last year's qualification games. But in September, the U.S., which had already qualified, netted two last-minute goals to knock out Panama in both teams' final qualifying match. That opened the door for Mexico to sneak into a playoff against New Zealand, the winners of the Oceania qualifying group. Mexico then easily won the two-leg playoff by an aggregate score of 9-3. And now that it's in the tournament, El Tri has the talent to go far with players such as Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez and Rafael "Rafa" Marquez.
4. Belgium boys.
This team has amazing young talent. It isn't favored to win this year's World Cup, but watch out in 2018. Many young players could make international names for themselves in this year's World Cup. Romelu Lukaku, 21, plays professionally for Everton in England and is considered one of Europe's most promising young strikers. Midfielder Eden Hazard, 23, who plays for Chelsea in England, is considered a fierce attacker who is being compared to legends Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
5. Who's better: Ronaldo or Messi?
For many soccer fans, one of these two guys is the best player in the world. The Portuguese team, though highly ranked, is a shell of itself without Cristiano Ronaldo. Argentina is loaded but has yet to succeed internationally with its main little front man, Lionel Messi. One of these international stars -- who have something of a rivalry -- could create a new legacy by getting his team into the finals. The other could be seen as an international failure.
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