A two-week whirlwind of highly-concentrated World Cup action breaks for Friday in preparation for the knockout stages. Little by little, teams return home (if they haven’t already) as the chase for glory goes on in Brazil.
A couple weeks remain of a tournament that so far, has surely surpassed expectations from an entertainment perspective. Here are four thoughts on the World Cup group stages:
Is there a favorite?
The last two World Cup champions have been sent packing, as Italy and Spain couldn’t muster their way out of their groups. Pre-tournament favorites such as Germany, Brazil and Argentina all finished first in their respective group, but none were incredibly convincing. Every team that has a decent claim as a contender also possesses at least a flaw or two.
So of the 16 teams remaining, who wins this thing? Brazil is going to be there or thereabout for a good long while, as it’s not difficult to see them riding the wave of both home support and the golden legs of Neymar, who can do no run in the yellow jersey. Messi has provided moments of magic for Argentina, but a creaky defense doesn’t inspire confidence.
Germany has looked the real deal at times, though like Argentina and Brazil, relying on the production of one player; in this instance Bayern Munich’s Thomas Muller, who is scoring goals at a ridiculous rate at World Cups (he has nine World Cup goals in nine games). Belgium picked up the full points from its three games, though all one goal wins against opposition that was hardly convincing. The Netherlands shocked the world with a 5-1 win against 2010 champions Spain and take on a tricky Mexico side, while Chile, Colombia and France have shown flashes of excitement.
It’s more or less anyone’s game at this point — as we’ve already seen at this World Cup, anything can happen, and that makes the second round and beyond an even more tantalizing prospect than the group stage.
Horror show for Asia as the Americas rule
While it’s not always the most accurate measure, the World Cup is an opportune time to see how different confederations of the world stack up against one another.
2014 was a nightmare for Asia. With four entrants (Australia, Japan, Iran, South Korea), the confederation produced a collective 0-9-3 record, a dismal output. Its fifth place finisher Jordan, was smashed in a playoff against Uruguay to even get here.
On the flip side, the North and South American teams enjoyed a banner run in the group stage. Of the ten teams from either America, eight advanced to the second round, with the lone exceptions Ecuador and Honduras, both in the same group.
Making broad, sweeping conclusions of how the regions stack up against each other directly is difficult in three one-off games. Australia played some enterprising soccer at times, though faced Chile, Holland and Spain in Group B. Japan was the one true disappoint, as they commonly enter international tournaments as a hipster favorite.
If anything, it goes to show how wild and unpredictable knockout tournaments can be, rather than a true indicator of where each region stands. Regardless, Asia’s performance is more than forgettable ahead of 2015’s Asia Cup.
Measuring U.S. accomplishments
Few predicted that the U.S. men’s national team would progress from a difficult Group G, but that’s just what they managed on Thursday with a little help from the Portugal-Ghana result. In a competition with razor-thin margins, it’s no wonder the last 20 minutes of Thursday’s final group games felt incredibly precarious; even after Ronaldo’s goal, it didn’t seem ludicrous imagining the Portuguese closing down the goal differential, even with just seconds remaining.
Bob Bradley led the USA out of its group in 2010 in dramatic fashion, while Arena’s 2002 team made it all the way to the quarterfinals. Klinsmann is telling his team to dream big as per usual, and is preparing for a clash with the pre-tournament dark horse Belgium.
Stacking up the current run on past success is an intriguing exercise. The 2002 team needed help to get out of its group, then faced CONCACAF nemesis Mexico in the second round. In 2010, the miracle of Algeria was followed by an extra time loss to Ghana.
Emerging from Group G is no doubt impressive, especially when comparing the talent between the USA and the rest of the teams on paper. Klinsmann deserves credit for fostering a team spirit and unity that could have generated a pair of wins, if not for the late equalizer conceded against Portugal. As of right now, is simply getting out of the group more impressive than 2002 or 2010?
At first glance, it wouldn’t be unfair to stake that claim. Even without beating Germany, and needing help, it’s a tremendous accomplishment. But when you combine the salary Jurgen Klinsmann commands and his comments in the media, anything less than advancing on Tuesday is a disappointment.
Young stars shining on the biggest stage
Perhaps my favorite thing, and a byproduct of working for a site covering player development, is seeing the younger, lesser known talents shine bright. And while the Neymar and Messi-type global stars have lived up to their billing (for the most part), under-the-radar young players have shined as well.
James Rodriguez, Colombia’s sensation, isn’t a complete unknown, but is one of a handful of young, exciting attackers from South America who has dazzled. Memphis Depay, the 20-year-old from the Netherlands has two goals and an assist, and could be even more prominent should Robin van Persie or Arjen Robben fail to fire in the knockout rounds. Even though the U.S. has relied mostly on its veterans, 20-year-old DeAndre Yedlin has provided a spark coming on as a substitute in the midfield. Belgian’s youngsters haven’t really caused too much of a stir, and 19-year-old forward Divock Origi’s winner against Russia was one of the more memorable moments.
As the pressure continues to ramp up, the impact of the more unproven stock of players, and their tenacity and ability to rise above the enormity of a global tournament, could prove to be the difference in the chase for the Cup.