1. Players can only be chosen from the eight quarterfinal teams.
2. The selections are based solely on their form in this tournament, not incoming reputations (though obviously these biases are hard to dislodge).
3. The players should be chosen to play as a team. This is not simply the most spectacular 11 individuals in the Cup so far; it's a lineup that, in theory at least, could function successfully as a unit.
4. At least one player from every team should be included. Otherwise why not just trot out Team Brazil, tack on Villa and Messi, and call it a day?
On to the XI! (And I'd love, by the way, to hear your comments and/or alternate Quarterfinal XIs below...)
Goalkeeper: Richard Kingson, Ghana. I know there's a meme in club football that African goalkeepers haven't quite measured up to world-class level. Maybe it's a consistency thing; and maybe it's just racism, but whatever the case that seems crazy to me as a World Cup viewer. Nigeria's Vincent Enyeama has probably been the best pure-shot stopper of the Cup, and Richard Kingson is a close second. Though he's only the third-string keeper for mediocre Wigan Athletic, Kingson leads the quarterfinal keepers with 17 saves and has let in just 3 goals -- one via a penalty kick. And it's not just spectacular one-on-one stuff (like his save on Ozil, above): his positioning vs. the USA was excellent, with Findley, Bornstein, and Feilhaber, among others, finding their open-goal shots swallowed up in his torso (yeah, yeah, insert anti-US striker joke here).
Left Back: Joan Capdevila, Spain. This was actually the toughest spot to fill: in a quarterfinal loaded with explosive right backs (Maicon, Sergio Ramos, Philip Lahm, even Ghana's John Pantsil), fewer left backs have stood out. But Capdevila has been unflappable on defense, and consistently useful in attack; in fact, the amalgamated stat-makers behind the Castrol Rankings declare him the top-rated player in all tournament so far. I don't trust their methodology too well -- Steven Gerrard, really? -- but it's enough for me to slot Capdevila in my starting XI.
Center Back: Diego Lugano, Uruguay. Not just because he looks like Brooke Shields's youthful companion in The Blue Lagoon. Lugano is also the captain and obvious leader of one of the tournament's best defenses, conceding just one goal in four matches so far. A fiery, active center back, he's tenacious on the ball and tall enough (at 6-1) to win challenges in the air. Few defenders have looked more formidable so far in 2010.
Right Back: Maicon, Brazil. At one of the tournament's top positions (see above), this is still an easy choice. Maicon, perhaps even more than Kaka, is the engine that makes Brazil's attacking gears churn. Bursting up and down that right flank, he often seems affixed to the upper corner of the opponent's 18-yard box, but I haven't once seen him exposed for a mis-timed forward adventure. He won and then fired in the perfect corner that set up Brazil's game-breaking first goal against Chile. And, of course, his 55th minute side-slotted masterpiece against North Korea is probably the most memorable goal of the tournament so far.
Right (Wing) Midfield: Thomas Mueller, Germany. Leaving aside the Castrol Rankings, Mueller is perhaps the most statistically impressive player of 2010: only one off the Golden Boot with 3 goals, his 3 assists are good enough to tie Kaka for the tournament lead. (Those 6 total goals created are two more than anyone else has). And Mueller has been just as impressive to the eye: his knifing runs and pure passes on the right wing have been a critical component to perhaps the most fluid attacking side in this World Cup.
Left (Center) Midfield: Mesut Ozil, Germany. The young Peter Lorre has had a tournament to kill for so far. Maybe the brightest new offensive star to emerge in South Africa, Ozil's creativity both on and off the ball offers German fans no end of pleasant surprises. His torrid run down the left to set up Mueller's second goal against England has mostly been seen as an embarrassment for Gareth Barry, but it also showed Ozil's enormous class. Along with Maicon and David Villa, he is on my short list of Golden Ball candidates for overall best player. And scarily enough for everyone else in Europe, he's just 22.
Center Attacking Midfield: Lionel Messi, Argentina. I swear (I think) this is not reputation talking. In fact I've barely seen Messi play before this Cup, but I've still been dazzled by the dwarf from Rosario. He hasn't scored, and technically has only earned one assist, but sometimes statistics are deceiving. In every Argentina game I've seen (all but the Mexico contest) Messi has been at the absolute heart of every threatening Albiceleste attack. As a manager of possession, a critical one-two threat with Higuain/Tevez/Aguero/etc every time he gets the ball, and a consistent fright to enemy keepers (I can think of two posts and one terrific Nigerian save so far), he's surely the best attacking player in this Cup not yet to score a goal. Now, apparently, he's bet Diego Maradona double-or-nothing that he will score vs. Germany. I like his odds.
Striker: David Villa, Spain. The co-possessor of the Golden Boot, with 4 goals, Villa has been utterly spectacular in his four games. And not just as a clinical striker, although he has surely done filled that role, as well: but unlike a Klose or Higuain or even Luis Fabiano, Villa doesn't just finish goals, he starts them, too. An irritant on the left side without the ball, he is absolute monster with it. As an opposing fan, there's no player I'd less rather see with the ball at the edge of the box. If all goes well for Spain, he'll surely end with the Golden Ball as well as the Golden Boot.
Attacking Sub: Gonzalo Higuain, Argentina. It's really close between him and Fabiano.
Midfield Sub: Wesley Sneijder, Netherlands. Sublime lead-bomb pass to Robben against Slovakia just edges him past Xavi and Kaka.
Defensive Sub: Gilberto Silva, Brazil. This "invisible wall" of a holding midfielder snuffs out opposing attacks with a minimum of fuss. The infallible personification of Dunga's Brazil.