The 2018 FIFA World Cup begins in Russia on Thursday, and the world will turn its attention to its most popular sport on its biggest stage.
But while fútbol (aka soccer) may be the king of the world, college football is the king of the South. So we at SEC Country thought, why not combine the two in order to find a king of everything?
We’ll use current SEC players and coaches to select a starting XI and manager. Think of it as we’re playing FIFA 18 on our Xbox and creating our SEC Ultimate Team.
For purposes of simplicity, we’ll use a 4-3-3 lineup, which for novices means four defenders across the backline in front of the goalkeeper, three midfielders, and three forwards.
Here’s our only rule for team selection: no Alabama kickers. Despite the need for kicking the ball, this one seems self explanatory.
Okay, let’s begin.
Manager: Nick Saban, Alabama
Soccer is a game of tactics and managing egos, with the latter often becoming more important than the former. Saban will have both of those things under control. You won’t see any prima donna player trying to overshadow or disrespect Saban on the pitch (the field), and even if Alabama’s championship-winning coach has never watched soccer before, we think he’ll pick up on it pretty quickly.
Goalkeeper: Terry Godwin, WR, Georgia
Nobody’s getting anything past Terry Godwin. Exhibit A:
Right Back: Rodrigo Blankenship, Kicker, Georgia
Depending on the team, the right back could be used primarily as an attacking weapon or a defender down the wing. In our lineup, we’re thinking goals on goals on goals. Soccer is more fun when games end 4-3 rather than 1-0. That reason is why Rodrigo Blankenship is lining up at right back. He’ll push up the right wing and join the offense, using his strong right leg, to deliver long, deep crosses into the box, giving the forwards plenty of opportunities to head them into the net.
Center Backs: Mack Wilson, LB, Alabama and Devin White, LB, LSU
The center backs are the backbones of the defense, just like middle linebackers. Devin White was a first-team All-SEC linebacker at LSU last season, and Mack Wilson is a rising star, having come back from multiple injuries last season to lead the Crimson Tide in tackles in their National Championship Game win. Those two will be a wall at the back of our defense, bringing the speed to chase down forwards when needed as well as bringing the physicality on the ground and in the air to head away any potential scoring chances coming into the area.
Left Back: Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama
For the same reason we have Blankenship on the right side, we have Tagovailoa on the left. Utilizing his strong left arm, er leg, his speed and elusiveness, Tagovailoa will provide a dangerous option running down the left wing. Opponents will have to account for his deep-ball accuracy as well as his ability to make runs into the penalty area himself. Essentially every play he touches the ball will be like second-and-26.
Right Midfield: Drew Lock, QB, Missouri; Central Midfield: Jalen Hurts, QB, Alabama; Left Midfield: Jake Fromm, QB, Georgia
Here’s where things get fun and the SEC’s diversity of talent shines through. The midfield plays a critical role in connecting the primary defenders to the primary attackers. Passing ability is crucial. These three quarterbacks each provide a unique skill set that will help this lineup.
First, at central midfield, Jalen Hurts has the most defensive and running responsibilities of the three. At times, he’ll act like a third center back along with Wilson and White. His frame, built by his weightlifting background, is not one that opposing forwards will want to have to dribble through or around, and his dynamic running talent will present plenty of options as our team switches from defense to offense.
Jake Fromm and Drew Lock will give opposing midfields all kinds of headaches. HEADACHES! Once Godwin makes a save or Wilson, White, or Hurts retakes possession of the ball, Fromm and Lock will be the keys that unlock the counterattack in transition. If the passing lanes are there for short, quick passes, Fromm will exploit them and thread the needle. Lock will then be able to deliver the long balls over the top to the forwards, springing them into the final attacking third. Fromm’s ability to take care of the Ball will rub off on Lock, while Lock will help Fromm further improve his downfield passing ability. Just like football, keeping possession and limiting turnovers are important in fútbol.
Right Forward: A.J. Brown, WR, Ole Miss
Every soccer team needs a guy that has a ton of talent and swag, and for us that guy is A.J. Brown. This All-SEC player brings all the sauce to the field but absolutely backs all of it up. His speed down the sideline and nose for scoring will make him a serious threat any time our team approaches the final third. Also, his leaping skills will make him one of the best options on crosses and corner kicks into the box, as Brown is the best at getting to the ball at its highest point. And y’all know that when Brown scores, he’ll have some epic celebrations.
Left Forward: Mecole Hardman, WR/KR/PR, Georgia
Mecole Hardman will provide the perfect partner to Brown on the left side of the pitch. Arguably the fastest player in the SEC (he also runs track in Athens), Hardman can line up at wide receiver, kick returner, punt returner, and wildcat quarterback, so why not soccer forward as well? He’s the not the tallest, but his quickness and knack for finding even the smallest sliver of open space will allow for Hardman to sneak his way into dangerous spaces or have his teammates deliver the ball into those areas, where he’ll just beat everyone to the spot and finish for the goal.
Striker/Center Forward: Raekwon Davis, DL, Alabama
HEAR ME OUT: As unconventionally outside of the box as this choice seems, consider these factors. Raekwon Davis very well might be the pound-for-pound most athletic player in the SEC. In the two games of the College Football Playoff last season, he had 10 tackles, 3 for loss, 2 sacks, and 1 interception, which he returned 19 yards. For a kid who is 6-foot-7 and 306 pounds, he moves excellently. While departed fellow defensive lineman Da’Ron Payne scored a goal-line touchdown for the Crimson Tide against Clemson last season, Davis seems the likely choice to take over that unique role this season.
So, I’m putting Davis at striker, where he can use his size and strength to manhandle any opposing defender to get in position to receive the ball at any spot. He’s a huge target for corner kicks, free kicks, and high crosses into the box. And when he does use his sneaky speed to get out ahead on the break, opponents might be able to catch him but often will be forced to take his legs out to try to stop him, which will earn free kicks near the goal as well as penalty kicks. And lastly, he’ll be the most intimidating presence on the field, acting as an enforcer and protector of our other 10 players.
There we go. A fútbol starting XI that can be rivaled by no other football conference and that can make the transition from the pigskin to the roundball without missing a beat. Unlike the United States Men’s National Team, we’ll be lifting the World Cup trophy in no time.