I don't think I've ever quite managed to convince Mike that soccer is a real sport (but then, I suspect that Mike thinks the UFC is the only real sports league in the US). But I'll try to boost enough for the both of us.
The men's World Cup starts today (Friday, 9 June 2006). The 200+ teams trying to qualify for the Cup over the past three years have now become only 32 teams. Those 32 teams will play 64 matches at 12 German venues for the next month. About 3,200,000 people will watch in person. Billions will watch on TV.
In case you're ignorant but interested, here's a brief primer on the World Cup and the US's chances.
How the Tournament Works
The tournament set-up, roughly, is as follows. The 32 teams are divided into 8 groups of 4 teams for the first phase. Within the groups, each of the four teams plays the others. For each game, a team gets 3 points for a win, 1 for a tie, and 0 for a loss. (Tiebeaks include records vs. one another, goals scored, and goals alowed.)
After all the preliminary groups have played each other, the top two teams from each group advance. Then it's single elimination for the remaining 16 teams.
A Brief Introduction to the US Team's History and Prospects
Since scraping its way into the 1990 World Cup, the US has gradually turned itself into a respectable international team. We're currently ranked fifth in the world (fourth a month ago), but that's higher than we deserve, really. Still, we're a solid team. In S. Korea/Japan (2002), we made it to the quarterfinals, our best showing in decades.
Because our domestic league (MLS) has improved, because a lot of our players work in the good European leagues, and because our team is fairly experienced at the highest level, we probably have a better team this year than we did in 2002. But we also have a much harder draw. For reasons known only to the rat bastards at the FIFA seeding committee, the US didn't end up as one of the number one seeds this year (though Mexico, whom we qualified ahead of, did).
Since we're not seeded, we're lumped in one of the two toughest preliminary groups: Group E. We have to play the Czech Republic (recent European champs and FIFA #2), Italy, and Ghana. (Ghana is very good, but a lot of people don't take them seriously because they're African. Or, at least, not European. The only non-European sides the Europeans take seriously are Brazil and Argentina.) Our group is so tough that English bookmakers William Hill put us and (demostrably inferior) Australia at the same 81:1 odds not to win the tournament. Last I checked, they had us at 4:1 not to win the group.
Sadly, if we were to qualify for the single-elimination phase as group runners-up, we'd almost certainly have to play Brazil. And they're very scary.
Who to Watch
In addition to the US, the following teams should be fun to watch: Brazil, Ivory Coast, Holland, Argentina, England, Mexico, Spain, Ghana, Italy. Trinidad & Tobago (population one million) has qualified for the World Cup for the first time ever. They might not score a goal, but they'll be going all out.
The following team should be good but no fun to watch: Germany. [UPDATE: This is a cheap historical joke. They're actually pretty entertaining; as they proved against us in a recent tune-up match, they can definitely score goals. They're doing so to Costa Rica right now.]
Where to Learn More
FIFA official World Cup site
BBC World Cup web page
Washington Post World Cup web page
US World Cup blog
Most of these sites have schedules. Unlike the 2002 World Cup, this one's only a third of a day ahead rather than a half, so you don't have to watch them in the middle of the night. Or in Spanish--all the games will be on ESPN or the English-speaking broadcast networks. (Though I might still watch in Spanish. Univision knows and cares more.)