Soccer, as my freshman year JV coach (who was just a gym teacher with a background in basketball and lacrosse) often said, is a crazy game. In this round, we saw few goalkeepers stand out, while the CONMEBOL nations won all 5 of their matches by a margin of 13-2. One of those nations, Argentina, produced the tournament's first hat trick and easily the best display by a team thus far.
So I've mentioned Gonzalo Higuain's hat trick...but he's not my player of the round. With all due respect to Higuain's calm finishing and awareness, his goals were mostly a product of being in the same general area to the world's best player. Lionel Messi was nothing short of brilliant as his Argentine side dismantled a quite respectable South Korea team 4-1. Messi played a part in every goal and really ran the show despite facing one of the World Cup's fittest teams and a side with strong defensive midfielders. Messi's gifts weren't just in his dribbling and vision; it was in his ability to see where the gaps in the Korean defense would be well before they revealed themselves. I only hope the casual fans out there understood that they were watching a genius at work despite the fact that he didn't score a goal.
The rest of my team is beyond the jump.
Goalkeeper: Vladimir Stojkovic (Serbia) It wasn't a great round for keepers, so I'm going with the keeper that had the best single moment. Germany, despite being down a man, was the side creating more chances as the second half of their game against Serbia unfolded. The penalty kick awarded to them after Nemanja Vidic's bizarre handball opened the door for Germany to get level. At that stage, they were creating all the chances, so a goal at that time might have even allowed the Germans to go on and win the game despite their numerical inferiority. Stojkovic, however, stepped up to bail out Vidic by rather easily saving Lukas Podolski's penalty kick. In this round, that was enough to be the top keeper in my book. Honorable mention: Alexandros Tzorvas (Greece)
Right back: Sergio Ramos (Spain) While we'll mostly remember Spain's 2-0 win over Honduras for David Villa's attempts at getting a hat trick, we should not forget that Sergio Ramos almost looked like fourth striker for Spain (who played a 433, not the 442 ESPN listed that had Xabi Alonso on the left). Ramos couldn't find a finish, but what he did do was own his side of the field. Los Catrachos switched their wide men, then replaced Roger Espinoza and pushed David Suazo wide, all in fruitless attempts to keep Ramos from ranging so far forward. That, and the lack of other standout performances, gets him my right back slot. Honorable mention: Siboniso Gaxa (South Africa)
Center back: Madjid Bougherra (Algeria) Playing on the right side of a back three is much closer to a traditional center back role than it is to right back, so Bougherra fits in here. Powerful, brave, and smart, Bougherra seemed to be the answer to the limited number of questions England posed in attack. Honorable mention: Marcus Tulio Tanaka (Japan)
Center back: Ryan Nelsen (New Zealand) Let's see...ex-DC United captain and leader of our last MLS Cup-winning team captains his likable underdog national team to an astonishing 1-1 draw with the unlikable (sorry Italy fans, you know it's true) defending champions, who needed a penalty to even manage that tie. You do the math. Nelsen was a giant, New Zealand got one of the all-time great World Cup results, and the All Whites still have a chance to advance. Vamos Nellie! Honorable mention: Lucas Neill (Australia)
Left back: Carlos Salcido (Mexico) Salcido essentially functioned as both a left back and a left midfielder for Mexico, which often gave them the look of a 343 going forward while preserving a back four for when France came forward. Salcido's industry didn't lead directly to a goal, but it did allow Mexico to overwhelm France with numbers in the central portion of the field, a big factor in their 2-0 win. Honorable mention: Ashley Cole (England)
Right midfield: Landon Donovan (USA) Donovan was the main force behind the few good things the US did in the first half, and then opened the second half by manufacturing and scoring a goal in spite of his teammates (who made runs that canceled themselves out after Donovan had run onto the ball). It was also Donovan's excellent free kick that set up Maurice Edu's gamewinner, which was only denied by horribly incompetent refereeing. Donovan made great use of all of his gifts, and his work rate was exemplary. Honorable mention: Dennis Rommedahl (Denmark)
Defensive midfield: Javier Mascherano (Argentina) Sure, Argentina's thrashing of what was a decent Korean side on the day was essentially the Lionel Messi show. I worry that people might have missed out on watching Mascherano really own central midfield. Mascherano was always one step ahead, often forcing the Koreans to play sideways or backwards. It wasn't a powerhouse display, but rather a great showing of how you can stifle an attack through positioning and anticipation. Honorable mention: Cristian Riveros (Paraguay)
Attacking midfield: Lionel Messi (Argentina) Honorable mention: Mesut Ozil (Germany)
Left midfield: Milan Jovanovic (Serbia) Jovanovic got the winning goal for Serbia, but he was also Serbia's most consistently dangerous player going forward both in terms of being a goal threat and in creating chances for others. His positive play also kept Philipp Lahm home for much of the game, which hurt Germany's attack. The Germans often looked like they were just barely short on offense (before and after Miroslav Klose's red card), so that contribution can't be overlooked. Honorable mention: Yoshito Okubo (Japan)
Forward: Diego Forlan (Uruguay) Deployed underneath Luis Suarez, Forlan showed that there's more to his game than popping up unmarked in the box. Uruguay desperately needed some creativity to augment what is a dangerous forward pairing (I say pairing because their third forward on the night, Edinson Cavani, contributed very little), and Forlan provided that as well as the glorious cross-field ball that lead to Alvaro Pereira's goal. Honorable mention: David Villa (Spain)
Striker: Gonzalo Higuain (Argentina) So earlier I basically wrote off Higuain's contribution to his hat trick, almost like it happened to him on accident. Here's the thing about hat tricks: It doesn't matter if they're accidents, or if you just happened to be receiving passes from a genius, or anything else. You score a hat trick, you get recognition. I will say, though, that if he didn't get the third, I was prepared to move him to honorable mention behind the higher-octane performance of Tevez. Honorable mention: Luis Fabiano (Brazil)