By David Nikolic   Published Jun 25, 2006 at 5:56 AM
Two weeks have passed in the soccer fan's version of heaven.  The field is now
cut in half.  While there have been a few surprises, most of the favorites have
advanced.  Now the real work begins because it's win or die time.

The Favorites:
Everyone's pick, Brazil, breezed through the group stage.  While individually
brilliant, the team's true shape is just starting to take form.  Parriera has
said he is planning for a seven-game tournament and each game they only get
stronger.  Ronaldo looks to be coming out of his personal fog and that spells
trouble for the rest of the teams.

Argentina in my opinion has played the best team soccer to date.  The 26 passes
leading up to the third goal against Serbia-Montenegro was a thing of beauty.
They are talented and deep.  They seem to be on the same page.  The question
is, are they peaking too soon?

England has been disappointing and now have lost on their stars in Owen.
Unbalanced and unimpressive in all three games, they have shown vulnerability
defending against set pieces and struggled to find the right attacking

Because they set the standard so high in 1998 and 2000, the pressure to succeed
has gotten to France.  Full of talent and flair, the French should only be
rivaled by Brazil, but seem to be stuck in first-gear. They make it through,
barely. It's too bad because things could end soon.

Italy is a three-time champion that understands how to win the tournament and is
playing like it.  With their puppet master, Totti, pulling the strings and a
tactically savvy coach, the Italians possess all the ingredients to go deep in
this World Cup.

Spain may be considered an afterthought this year because they are the team with
the most victories to never have won a World Cup, but this team could be
different.  What is different is that they have meshed their individual talents
into a team concept, something they have lacked in previous competitions.  THey
are mentally tough, have incredible team spirit, proven by their come from
behind win, plus the draw is favorable for the Spaniards the rest of the way.

Teams of Potential:
Playing where they left off in 2004, the Portuguese look relaxed, confident, and
full of team spirit.  Their road to the Cup final is not easy, but it is truly
fun to watch them play.

It is said that teams take on the personality of their coach and Germany fits
the bill.  With more attacking ideas than ever seen before, the Germans have
many weapons to choose from, and with their home country behind them, they have
full belief in their ability.

A very organized and talented team, the Dutch, have a strike-force that put fear
into the opposition.  They too are growing in team confidence.

Australia's Guushiddink is now the favorite son of the entire country.  He has
molded the individual talent into a team that no other country wants to face.

The Black Stars of Ghana are shinning brightly in this World Cup.  Their youth
and athleticism has proven to be too much to handle for both the Czechs and the
USA.  Organized in the attack with talented strikers, Brazil's defense will be
tested for the first time.  That will be a fun game to watch.

Proving that finishing third to Brazil and Argentina in qualification for the
World Cup was no fluke, Ecuador has played dynamic attacking soccer and seem to
be up to any challenge.

Serbia-Montenegro gave up one goal in qualifying, brought virtually the same
team and preceded to give up 10 goals in three matches.  They were embarrassed
by Argentina in the second game and even after making changes in the lineup they
could not turn their furtune around against the Ivory Coast.  A seeminly
impenetrable defense proved to have too many leaks.  For a final performance as
a country, this was a disgrace.

Although coming in very confident, the Americans were smashed to pieces like
Humpty Dumpty against the Czech Republic.  While coach Bruce Arena was able to put
the pieces back together to earn a point and retain hope against Italy, the U.S.
was exposed too often for what they really are: an average team without a
superstar. Despite the difficulty of the group the expectations for this team
were high. And that is a good thing.  Finally as a Americans we are expecting
to see results.  It did not happen this time, but we will be back.

Two weeks down, two to go ... and I am sure there are plenty of surprises ahead.

David Nikolic is the associate head coach of the UWM women's soccer side.