There's a strange feeling surrounding the 20th World Cup which opens Thursday in Brazil. As the world has gotten smaller thanks to the Internet, the language of the beautiful game has nearly taken on a life of its own and the cultural borders which used to define playing styles have all but disappeared.
The host country knows this all too well. The samba style that won the world over in the era of Pele and other greats, has been replaced by tried and true (and much less exciting) methods which you see in the elite leagues across Europe.
Brazil is the favorite to win its sixth World Cup just by the very nature of the enormous benefit playing at home gives host countries at the World Cup (we saw this here when USA over-achieved at the 1994 cup). But a sense of unease has settled in there and it has nothing to do with the play of the national team.
Protests over the massive amounts of money spent on stadiums and infrastructure have become fairly commonplace across Brazil over the last year or so and it's likely to fire up again once festivities start. The laundry list of FIFA corruption charges is too long to address here, but this tournament could be a turning point in how bidding processes for such events as the Olympics and World Cup are perceived.
The USA, for instance, will play its second game against Portugal in a 42,000-capacity stadium in the middle of the Amazon jungle which will likely serve no further purpose after the World Cup.
Here's some thoughts and tidbits about the tournament:
USA'S CHANCES: The draw didn't do the USA any favors and pessimism has surrounded the team for months now. You can look at what Ghana, Portugal and Germany have on paper and come to the conclusion that it will be a short business trip (wait that's not entirely right... the USA will travel the most miles out of any team at the World Cup) for the national team.
Ghana and USA are listed as 6-5 co-favorites to be at the bottom of Group G. USA's chances of winning the group are 15-1 and 7-2 to finish second.
ODDS DON'T MATTER (MAYBE): The World Cup group stage is such a brief series of three games that a fluke goal here or there can throw everything out of whack. The best thing the USA has going for it is it has its most manageable opponent first. A win over Ghana would put immense pressure on whoever loses or draws Portugal-Germany and that would be a blessing for the USA. A loss or draw against Ghana, however, would be dire.
OHIO CONNECTION: Former University of Akron defender DeAndre Yedlin is in Brazil with the United States team. Yedlin, a Seattle native, played in 2011 and 2012 for the Zips before being signed by Major League Soccer's Seattle Sounders. He wears No. 2.
LOCAL CONNECTIONS (SORT OF): East Liverpool's sister city Stoke-on-Trent in England boasts an improving English Premier League team in Stoke City and four of those players will be in Brazil for the World Cup.
Goalkeeper Asmir Begovic (Bosnia and Herzegovina), defender Geoff Cameron (USA), winger Peter Odemwingie (Nigeria) and midfielder Wilson Palacios (Honduras) all should see some playing time in the group stages.
TV THOUGHTS: The ESPN family of networks will be carry all of the games and unfortunately the brass at ESPN have deemed it unnecessary to show the U.S. national team's games on ABC (other countries have rules that state all national team games must be available on over-the-air TV, not so here). What ABC will show will be such illustrious matchups as Greece-Colombia, Uruguay-Costa Rica, Switzerland-Ecuador, France-Honduras, Russia-Belguim and South Korea-Algeria. Go figure.
WHERE TO WATCH WITH OTHERS: Collective experiences watching the World Cup on TV have become popular in recent years (see the Landon Donovan goal reaction video vs. Algeria from the last World Cup) and some of these watch parties are making it closer to this area.
The Youngstown chapter of the American Outlaws (national U.S. soccer fan club) will be coordinating events for the USA matches at O'Donald's Pub in downtown Youngstown. For those of you closer to Pittsburgh, the Steel City American Outlaws will host watch parties at Claddagh Irish Pub on the South Side and Latitude 360 just south of the airport. Check Twitter and Facebook for more details.
PREDICTIONS: USA will finish third in its group. The rest of the CONCACAF region including Mexico, Honduras and Costa Rica will also struggle to get anything. I'd like to say Brazil will win (and they likely will), but I'll go with Italy as the surprise winner.