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Goooaaalll! The 2014 World Cup is about to kick off (literally) in Brazil, so for the next month you’re going to be hearing a lot about soccer. But if you’re like most Americans, you probably don’t pay much attention to the planet’s most popular sport during the three years and 11 months when the World Cup isn’t going on.

Fortunately, Jimmy Conrad—a former member of the U.S. Men’s National Team, a long-time Major League Soccer star, and current host of KICKTV—provides the lowdown on this year’s tournament, from its funky format to its most-likely contenders. Conrad even offers his two cents on the Landon Donovan controversy. (More on that in a minute.)

How the Tournament Works
Regardless of where they play the sport professionally, soccer stars from across the globe will suit up for their home countries in an event that happens only once every four years, Conrad explains.

While qualifying matches have been going on for the past two-plus years, the 32-team field of competitors is set and the real tourney is about to take place in 12 cities spread across host country Brazil.

Each national team has been assigned (through a blind draw) to a group that includes three other countries, and those four teams will each play one another once. For a win, a team receives three points. For a tie, they receive one point.

At the end of those group games, the top two teams from each group based on points will then move on to the Round of 16. “After that, it’s a sudden-death, one-loss-and-you’re-gone competition,” Conrad explains. (FYI: The United States is playing in Group G against Germany, Portugal, and Ghana—the team that eliminated them in the last two World Cups.)

Reasons to Watch
1. Ronaldo or Messi? There’s a huge international debate going on right now over who’s the best player in the world, Conrad says. Is it Ronaldo or Messi? Also, neither has won a World Cup. “The best players of all time—Zidane, Pelé—they’ve all won a World Cup,” Conrad adds. “And, for me, you have to win a Cup to be considered one of the all-time best.”

2. Europe’s South American struggles. “No European team has won a World Cup on South American soil,” Conrad says. He attributes this drought to the climate and the size of a country like Brazil. “I don’t think the European clubs are used to traveling so far and playing in such different conditions from one game to the next,” Conrad says, adding that he’s curious to see if one of the Euro teams can step up this year and break that dubious streak.

3. Landon Donovan not making the U.S. team. “He’s arguably the best player the U.S. has ever produced, and he has more goals in World Cup play than Ronaldo and Messi combined,” Conrad says. “So I’m curious to see what we can do on a world stage without him.” He adds that he thinks there’s “no question” Donovan should be on the team. “Landon’s a friend, so I have some personal bias here,” Conrad says. “But you can’t tell me he’s not one of best 23 in our country.” (Conrad won’t speculate about why Donovan didn’t make the U.S. team. But a lot of sources point to the rocky relationship between the aging star and the U.S.’s head coach, Jurgen Klinsmann, as the reason for his omission from the roster.)

Go to the next page to get the details on the players to watch and the basic rules 

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