By Noah Davis, SI.com
New Zealand captain (and former D.C. United defender) Ryan Nelsen is one of only two All Whites to play in one of Europe's top leagues.
Brendon O'Hagan/AFP/Getty Images
Through April, SI.com will profile two World Cup teams a week. We continue with New Zealand. Click here for the full archive.
Defender Ryan Nelsen leads a back line that conceded just three goals in the team's final five Oceania qualifying matches. Weak competition to be sure, but New Zealand showed resolve in shutting out Bahrain for 180 minutes during the two-leg playoff. In the World Cup, however, the All Whites will be out-skilled and outclassed in all three matches. No matter how well Nelsen leads the defense, goalkeeper Mark Paston will be peppered with shots. He saved a penalty kick from Bahrain's Sayed Mohamed Adnan to help New Zealand preserve its 1-0 victory and the Wellington Phoenix's backstop will need to use every inch of his 6-foot-5 frame to protect the Kiwis' net.
In the attack, manager Ricki Herbert will turn to striker Shane Smeltz to lead the way forward. Oceania's Player of the Year tallied more than half of his team's goals during the run through qualifying but remains a relative unknown on the world stage because he plies his trade at Gold Coast United of Australia's A-League. Rory Fallon, the lone goal-scorer against Bahrain, and Chris Killen will team with Smeltz in a three-man frontline. Former Celtic midfielder Michael McGlinchey represented Scotland at the youth levels, but used a FIFA rule change to switch his allegiance to the island nation and appeared in the team's last three matches. He'll be just 23 years old when the Cup kicks off and likely won't start the first match, but look for him to inject pace as the tournament progresses.
What to watch for
Logically, the All Whites should have two goals in their second-ever World Cup: Avoid embarrassment and, well, score a goal, a feat they failed to accomplish during the 2009 Confederations Cup. The squad has the correct man at the helm in Herbert, a veteran of the country's only previous appearance on the globe's biggest stage. What the native New Zealander lacks in international experience, he makes up for with an inspiring, indefatigable attitude that reverberates throughout his troops. As coach of the Wellington Phoenix -- the lone Kiwi club in Australia's A-League -- Herbert deals with almost half his starting XI on a daily basis.
The Kiwis don't boast many world-class talents -- only Nelsen and 18-year-old Chris Wood play in one of the world's top eight leagues -- but they're a massive bunch. The 11 players that took the pitch against Bahrain averaged around 6-foot-1 in height. This bruising style of play could come in handy during the first World Cup held in the winter of the Southern Hemisphere since '78, especially considering all three of New Zealand's group matches will take place at altitude.
The All Whites' other advantage is Herbert's willingness to experiment with the marginal talent his side possesses. In both matches against Bahrain, he trotted out an aggressive 3-4-3 lineup. Honestly, even a one-goal loss -- especially if the squad manages to score -- likely will be considered a victory by New Zealand's 4 million.
Key match in group stage
June 15 vs. Slovakia. This game represents the Kiwis' best chance to earn their first-ever World Cup point. Vladmir Weiss' side, led by his son of the same name, is dangerous, but less so than either of the next two opponents.
Celebrity scouting report: Prime Minister John Key*
I think you can say the country was elated at the prospect of the All Whites going to the World Cup. The No. 1 sport in New Zealand is rugby and it gets a lot of attention, but there is an enormous, growing number of children playing soccer. The country really rallied behind the team. ... Nelsen is obviously the key. He has a lot of international experience playing in the Premier League and he's going to be critical to our success over there. But as we saw when they played Bahrain, Fallon can step up and score goals for us. Clearly they will be up against some of the best in the world -- playing Italy and the likes will be a huge step change for them -- but they'll play with a lot of heart and passion. If they keep it tight and hold it together, it won't be the first time in the world that there has been an upset on the football pitch. ... I think we are taking it one step at a time. The first thing is there will be great pride in the team for making it to the World Cup. The second thing is to perform well on the day and get a few goals. Last is for a victory. Soccer's a funny sport -- sometimes the strangest things happen and a team that has not much to lose and is playing for their country can pull off the unexpected.
* The Auckland, New Zealand, native is a self-described "massive football fan." As told to Noah Davis.