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Bulls Abroad: A guide to the 2015 AFC Asian Cup for New York Red Bulls fans

If you hadn't heard: there's a Red Bull due to start work in Australia shortly. Here's a look at what lies ahead for Tim Cahill and his Socceroos in the 2015 Asian Cup...

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Tim Cahill is, as best we can tell, a New York Red Bull. And until such time as that changes, he is deserving of the attention of a website that follows all things to do with the New York Red Bulls. In early January, that attention will focus on the 2015 AFC Asian Cup, a quadrennial (except for that time in 2007) intra-continental competition that determines the soccer champion've doubtless already figured that part out.

Cahill doesn't seem to know whether he wants to stay at RBNY or not; or rather, he isn't willing to say, which implies he knows, and is merely being polite and prudent about revealing his intentions at a moment least likely to disrupt his preparations for this tournament and whatever it is the Red Bulls are trying to do with their off-season. Nonetheless, whether he's staying or going, what's good for Tim Cahill is good for the Red Bulls.

If he's planning on leaving New York, he's still got a year to run on his contract - so a good performance in Asian Cup might boost his transfer value (assuming a deal hasn't already been struck). If there is any chance he stays with RBNY, he is of greatest use to the team if he is motivated and confident: winning a major international tournament might be just the pick-me-up he needs after getting beaten back to his club's bench by Bradley Wright-Phillips's irrepressible scoring form.

Also, it isn't every day there is a RBNY player competing in a big-time international competition.

All of which builds to the thought there might be Red Bulls fans out there with a passing interest in Asian Cup.

Once A Metro is here to help.

The History

The Asian Football Confederation was founded in 1954, and has been running this tournament since 1956. The most successful team in the Cup's history is Japan: four-times winner of the competition, including the 2011 edition. Indeed, this is currently the Japan era of of Asian Cup: it has won four of the last six tournaments.

Prior to Japan's regional domination, the Asian Cup invariably went to Saudi Arabia: three times champion and once runner-up (to Japan) in the four tournaments between 1984 and 1996.

From 1968 to 1976, Iran won three Cups in a row. And the first three editions of the competition were essentially a contest between South Korea and Israel; the Koreans won in '56 and '60, Israel won in '64 after two consecutive runner-up finishes.

The outlier results in the Cup's history are Kuwait's win in 1980 and Iraq's victory in the 2007 tournament.

The 2015 Asian Cup will feature all the competition's previous winners, with the exception of Israel, which is no longer part of the AFC.

Australia transferred itself out of the Oceania Confederation and into the AFC in 2006. It reached the quarterfinals of the 2007 tournament (bounced by Japan on penalties), and the final of the 2011 edition (lost, 1-0, to Japan in extra time).

It is hosting Asian Cup for the first time, and hoping to at least not get knocked out by Japan again.

That's not true: Australia is very much hoping to win the whole thing. It is, however, currently the tenth-best AFC team according to the FIFA rankings, largely because it won just one out of 11 matches played in 2014.

But the Socceroos only played one game at home in 2014. The entirety of Asian Cup will be on Australia's home soil, and host nations have won this tournament six times and finished second twice - a decent showing over 15 editions. The Socceroos will be hoping home advantage continues to deliver for Asian Cup hosts.

The Basics

There are 16 teams in the tournament, and they start out divided into four groups of four.

Group-stage opponents play each other once, with the top two teams from each group advancing to the knockout rounds. From there, we'll get quarterfinals, semifinals and a final. All very familiar: this is pretty much the standard format for international soccer tournaments, give or take an extra round of knockout games.

If teams are tied on points in the group stage (three points for a win; one point for a draw), the first tiebreakers are based on the head-to-head result of the match between the teams in question: points, goal difference, goals scored - in that order. If the tied teams cannot be separated by those measures, then the tiebreaker moves on to goal difference or goals scored in all group matches. Things get more interesting after that, but we'll save that discussion for when (if ever) it is needed.

In the knockout rounds, tied teams will play extra time followed by a penalty shootout, as required to break the tie.

The opening game of the tournament is January 9, 2015; the final is on January 31.

The Socceroos

Australia is among the pre-tournament favorites because it was a finalist in the 2011 Asian Cup and it is hosting this tournament. There isn't a great deal of other evidence to suggest the Socceroos are potential regional champs: they haven't won many games in the year (ish) since a new coaching set-up was put in place.

Ange Postecoglou has been a consistently successful coach in Australian domestic soccer for a couple of decades. He was appointed to manage the Socceroos in October 2013, after the team suffered the indignity of successive 6-0 defeats (to France and Brazil).

He is expected to lead Australia into the 2018 World Cup, and the timing of his appointment effectively turned the 2014 tournament into part of that preparation. Postecoglou is trying to build a younger team with a prettier playing style than has traditionally been associated with the Socceroos, and he has - so far - been granted a considerable amount of leeway.

To date, he has prepared Australia for 12 games - all but three of them friendlies - and seen the team win just twice. The Socceroos won praise for their performance at the 2014 World Cup, because Cahill scored an amazing goal and the team gave the Netherlands a fright - but it lost all three of its games.

In preparing for Asian Cup, Postecoglou has deliberately chosen a difficult path: sending his team to play AFC rivals on the road rather than trying to rack up wins at home. He has time, and Australia seems inclined to be patient, so the coach has sensibly taken advantage of the opportunity for extended tinkering.

All that tinkering also means the team is heading into Asian Cup without a clearly established sense of its tactical identity or even its starting lineup.

The squad for this tournament is young - nine players under 25; only four over 30 - and it has been stated the team will not rely as heavily as imagined on its talisman. Cahill has said he doesn't expect to play every game, which suggests his deployment as a bench option in recent friendlies was part of Postecoglou's plan for this tournament.

If Cahill is on the bench as often as he is on the field, it raises a question that has not been successfully answered by Postecoglou to date: when the national team's all-time leading scorer isn't around, who will get the goals? Cahill has bagged seven of the 11 goals scored by the Socceroos in 2014.

Captain Mile Jedinak has scored three times for his country this year; he will be 33 by the time the next World Cup kicks off, and he is not a likely candidate to match Cahill's scoring volume.

Attacking players like Tommy Oar, Matthew Leckie and Robbie Kruse have shown considerable promise without (yet) delivering regular goals. Less experienced players - Massimo Luongo, Nathan Burns and Tomi Juric - will also get the opportunity to turn Asian Cup into their claim for a key role on the journey to 2018.

Scoring isn't the only concern: the defense has posted just two clean sheets in Postecoglou's 12 games in charge.

Despite serious questions hanging over almost every part of the team, the most intriguing prospect in the squad may not play a significant role in answering any of them. Postecoglou has called up 21-year-old Terry Antonis, a hot prospect since he was a teenager. By the age of 17, he already had an impressive highlight reel.

Antonis could be Australian soccer's next big star. Fittingly, he is a close friend of Australian soccer's current big star.

There is strong temptation to regard this tournament as the last hurrah for a golden generation of Socceroos (represented  by Cahill and Mark Bresciano) and the start of a new era. But that will depend on positive results: the one thing Postecoglou has yet to deliver.

Group A

Australia is the only team in the tournament to feature a New York Red Bull, so Australia is the only team in the tournament this guide cares about. The Socceroos are in Group A, so it is the only group this guide cares to consider.

There are, of course, three other groups - and 12 other nations - in the competition: that is what other guides are for (this one is recommended); we'll get round to talking about whichever of the non-Group A teams Australia has to play when Australia has to play them.

For now, here's a look at what Cahill and his fellow Socceroos are up against.


Plays Australia: January 9, 2015

All was going pretty well for Kuwait up until the end of November, 2014. Jorvan Vieira - the Brazilian who coached Iraq to the 2007 Asian Cup title -  was appointed head coach in August 2013, and he duly guided the team to second place in its qualifying group for the 2015 tournament and a place among the 16 Australia-bound nations.

Al-Azraq had mixed results in its 2014 friendlies: winning a couple, losing a couple and drawing three. But it kicked off November's Gulf Cup of Nations with a 1-0 win over Iraq, followed by a creditable (if frustrating - the team had a 2-0 lead after 32 minutes) 2-2 draw with United Arab Emirates. And then the team took a 5-0 thrashing from Oman and failed to get out of its group.

The result saw Vieira sacked, and new coach Nabil Maaloul was appointed scarcely a month before Kuwait was due to kick off its Asian Cup.

The Blue is ranked 124th in the world by FIFA, making it the second-lowest ranked team in the tournament (North Korea is the Cup's back-marker).

Still, the Australian press appears inclined to treat the Socceroos' curtain-raising opponents with respect. Fox Sports points out Kuwait has only played two competitive matches in Australia - and won both of them. The same piece notes host nations have traditionally struggled to win their Asian Cup openers: only Singapore (1984), Vietnam and Indonesia (co-hosts of the 2007 tournament) have done so in the last eight editions.

The squad includes experience: defender Musaed Neda scored the goal that beat the Socceroos the last time Kuwait played competitively in Australia; Bader Al Mutawa is approaching 150 caps and 50 international goals. And 24-year-old striker Yousef Nasser has an excellent scoring record for his country.

Al-Azraq will be expected to lose every game it plays at this tournament, but complacency can be a useful ally when facing allegedly superior opponents.


Plays Australia: January 13, 2015

The Red Warriors are the odd men out in this group: they look settled and prepared, while their groupmates all appear to be in various stages of transition.

Currently deemed 93rd-best in the world, Oman is hardly a regional power, but it is still seven places higher than Australia on the FIFA rankings. Head coach Paul Le Guen has been in charge since mid-2011. The former France international and Paris Saint-Germain stalwart won three straight Ligue 1 titles as manager of Lyon between 2002 and 2005, before less successful stints with Rangers, PSG and Cameroon.

Results since he started coaching Oman have been modest, but the team has won more often than it has lost under his care. In qualifying, the Warriors made a nonsense of being seeded third in a four-team group: they won the group unbeaten, and conceded just one goal.

They played the Socceroos four times during AFC qualifying for the 2014 World Cup: losing one, winning one,  and drawing twice - including their most recent trip to Australia, in March 2013, when they claimed a 2-2 draw after taking a two goal lead. Their 5-0 trouncing of Kuwait in November's Gulf Cup of Nations is the reason Al-Azraq has turned up for Asian Cup with a brand new coach.

The current squad is almost entirely based in the Middle East, but captain Ali Al-Habsi was regular starter for Wigan Athletic during the latter years of the club's last spell in the English Premier League, though the 'keeper's fortunes have declined recently.

The roster selected for Australia is built on experience: there are four players with 100 caps or more in the 23; seven players have been picked from Omani club Al-Oruba, and another five play domestically for Fanja. Forward Abdulaziz Al-Muqbali counts a competitive goal on Australian soil (the opener in that 2-2 draw in 2013) among his 12 international strikes to date.

Oman is the third seed in Group A, just like it was in the qualifying group it won to get to Asian Cup. The team is not overburdened with expectation nor unsettled by sweeping coaching or personnel changes: the squad has only four changes from the 23 selected for the 2014 Gulf Cup of Nations.

This is not the best team in Group A, but it might be the best prepared.

South Korea

Plays Australia: January 17, 2015

The Reds qualified for this tournament by winning the third-place playoff of the 2011 edition, which means they haven't had to go through competitive qualifying to get here.

The team played 15 games in 2014, of which 12 were friendlies and three were at the World Cup. The Brazil tournament didn't go particularly well for the Taeguk Warriors: a 1-1 draw with Russia was followed by a 4-2 loss to Algeria and a 1-0 loss to Belgium. The team finished bottom of its group and was ranked 27th out of the 32 teams in the competition. Fans were not pleased, the squad was pelted with toffees on its return home, and coach Hong Myung-bo was forced to resign.

But Algeria, Belgium and Russia are not in the AFC. South Korea has played two Asian Cup rivals this year: Iran and Jordan, in back-to-back friendlies during the November international break. The Reds beat Jordan (in Amman), 1-0, and lost to Iran (in Tehran), 1-0.

All told, the Warriors won five games in 2014, drew once (against Russia), and lost the rest. They have shown an alarming tendency to get shut out: they scored in just two of their nine losses for the year. On the bright side, they kept clean sheets in four of their five wins, and didn't lose a single game in which they scored first.

The team will have one pre-tournament friendly - against Saudi Arabia on January 4 in Sydney - to try to steady its stuttering form (it has been stuck in a win-one-lose-one pattern since the World Cup).

New coach, Uli Stielike, has only formally been in charge for four matches. His contract runs through the 2018 World Cup, and the squad looks a lot like the sort of transitional unit one might expect from a new coach with an eye on the long term. About half the World Cup squad - 11 players - are out, taking more than 240 caps with them; replacing them are a group who muster 145 caps in total, of which almost half (70) have been won by veteran full back Cha Du-ri, who has been recalled after missing out on Brazil.

Perhaps the biggest name missing from the squad is Park Chu-young, once the AFC Asian Young Player of the Year, but for whom the World Cup represented something of a career low.

Among those who weren't selected for Brazil but will be in Australia, 23-year-old Nam Tae-hee is one of the more interesting prospects. He turned pro in France, for Valenciennes after leaving Reading FC's academy in the UK, but joined Lekhwiya in the Qatar Stars League in 2012. The attacking midfielder looks fun to watch.

More senior members of the team include Swansea City's Ki Sung-yueng, Bolton Wanderers' Lee Chung-yong, and 24-year-old Kim Young-gwon, who has won three straight Chinese Super League titles and an Asian Champions League since joining Guangzhou Evergrande in 2012.

The Reds will expect to get out of their group, and surely hope to at least make the semifinals, but a coach who has been telling the press he'll "leave it up to the players to determine how they set up against their opponents" doesn't entirely sound like a man convinced he knows his best team, best tactics, and how to put them together to get the best of his opponents in the upcoming tournament.

Nonetheless, with or without much assistance from their coach, the Taeguk Warriors pose the greatest threat to Australia's chance of winning its group.

What happens after the group stage?

If Australia finishes first or second in its group, it will be pitched into a quarterfinal with a team from Group B - most likely Uzbekistan or Saudi Arabia. If that challenge is met successfully, the Socceroos will roll into a semifinal against a Group C or Group D team (expect Iran or Japan). And then on to meet whichever team still standing for the final.

If all goes according to pre-tournament expectations of form and Australia's expectations of itself, the Socceroos would win their group, play Saudi Arabia (runner-up in Group B) in the quarterfinals, take on Iran (winner of Group C) in the semifinal, and then seek to avenge the agony of their past two Asian Cups with a win over Japan (winner of Group ) in the final.

Chances are it doesn't quite go according to that plan. Once A Metro will keep you posted as the tournament unfolds.

Cheering on Cahill and Australia in Asian Cup? Favor another team for a reason other than that-one-has-a-RBNY-guy-in-its-squad? Could not care less about what happens to a bunch of soccer teams on the other side of the world? Let us know in the comments!