US and Them: An American soccer fan’s take on the greatest tournament in the world

Marshall Steele recaps the best and worst of the U.S. and all the rest at the World Cup, and previews the tantalizing quarterfinals yet to come.

Unless you have been living under a rock for the past three weeks, you already know that the World Cup is happening in Brazil this summer. Every four years this international ritual repeats itself, as 32 of the best teams from across the globe come together to compete for the ultimate prize. The greatest players forego their club allegiances in the name of something bigger: putting on the jersey of their native land (or in some cases, their adopted land) and playing for national pride. The tournament is a treat for fans of soccer* everywhere. Yet with 64 games being played over the span of a month, it is hard for the average fan to take in all that the World Cup has to offer.

WORLD-CUP-TROPHY

The World Cup trophy in all its glory

Thankfully, that’s where I come in. As a lifelong soccer fan, occasional soccer player, and habitual TV binge watcher I have sacrificed my summer in the name of watching every game of the World Cup 2014. And after watching 56 games in 19 days, I have some thoughts offer.

*Sidenote: Though I am fan of the global game, I am first and foremost an American, and as such I will refer to the sport as soccer. If that offends the more pretentious of fans out there, I apologize greatly.

Group Play Grid

32 teams in 8 groups

First things first, how does it all work? Each continent has their own qualifying process, which can get a little complicated, but ultimately 32 teams earn a spot at the World Cup tournament. The 32 teams are sorted (somewhat randomly) into 8 different groups of 4. In the Group Stage, all teams in a group play each other once. If you win a game, you get 3 points. If you tie, you get 1 point. If you lose, you get 0 points. After playing 3 games, the two teams from each group with the most points (or in some cases, the best tiebreaker) move on to the knockout round. After that it is a single elimination tournament: 16 teams becomes 8 in the quarterfinals, 4 in the seminfinals, and ultimately 2 are left to fight out in the Final.


US: The dramatic, inspirational, and heart-wrenching ride of the USMNT

Again, unless you have sworn off all technology and social media, you assumedly know that the United States Men’s National Team (USMNT for short) was recently eliminated from the World Cup, in rather excruciating fashion. After playing three intense games and escaping the “Group of Death”, the Americans fell 2-1 in extra time to Belgium. But before we get to the legacy of that game and this World Cup for USA, we need to discuss how we got here.

The USMNT has become a perennial qualifier for the World Cup, competing at the last seven straight. In our previous six appearances, we got out of the group stage three times and made it to the quarterfinals just once. So essentially we are always participants, but never true title contenders. A fact that doesn’t sit well with the diehard American fans out there (more on that in a minute).

US history

What great jerseys we had back then…

Yet despite not seeing any real results, there is no denying that the USMNT has been steadily improving over the past two decades. The 2014 team is coached by Jurgen Klinsmann, a German who both played and coached for the German national team at past World Cups. After being hired in 2011, he set about the job of developing and redesigning our national team from the ground up. Under Klinsmann, the US team has had both successes and failures, and consequently the coach has seen both criticism and praise for his management. Ultimately, the US qualified quite easily for the 2014 World Cup and the team chosen by Klinsmann represented a wide range of experienced veterans and talented youngsters.

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Jurgen Klinsmann is a very excitable man

From the moment the groups were drawn back in December, the US seemed to be in a terrible position. The Americans’ group was dubbed “The Group of Death”, as it contained perennial powerhouse Germany, ultra-talented Portugal, and Ghana, the team who knocked the US out of the last two world cups. Optimism was not high, and few people saw the USMNT getting past the group stage.

But if there is one thing that is true of World Cups, and of sports in general, it is that they are not played on paper. Despite their theoretical underdog status, the US came in motivated and prepared to play their opponents. In their first game against Ghana, team captain Clint Dempsey scored in the first minute of play and then the team sank back on defense and tried to hold of the aggressive African side. After 80+ minutes of valiant defense the Ghanaians finally broke through with the equalizer, and it looked like all that American effort would be for naught. But 21-year old newcomer John Anthony Brooks got on the end of a corner kick a few minutes later and headed in the winning goal in dramatic fashion to give the US a 2-1 victory.

FBL-WC-2014-MATCH14-GHA-USA

John Brooks scores to take down Ghana

Riding high after their opening win, the Americans had to take on Portugal in the sweltering heat of Manaus. A defensive error gave Portugal an early lead, but the USA rallied and played more aggressive in the second half. After a beautiful strike from Jermaine Jones and a pelvic thrust goal from Clint Dempsey gave the US the lead, it looked like the Americans would do the unthinkable by mathematically qualifying for the knockout rounds after only 2 games. But at the very last literal second, Portuguese superstar Cristiano Ronaldo sent a beautiful cross into the box that was headed home to steal a 2-2 draw.

Though deflated by the tie that felt like a loss, the US still had an excellent chance of going through. Playing Germany in the final game, the Americans opted for a defensive strategy to hold off their tactically superior opponents and hopefully rest their weary legs. Though they played fairly well, the Germans ultimately won out with a 1-0 victory. Yet after Portugal’s narrow win over Ghana, the US finished in a second-place tie in the group and advanced on a goal difference tiebreaker.

Qualifying in second place from Group G meant the USMNT next met Group H winner Belgium, a young and very talented squad. American passion and anticipation was high for the match, but once again it turned into a very defensive affair. The technically superior Belgians held most of the possession and were denied goals only by the absolutely outstanding play of US goalkeeper Tim Howard. The Americans generated a few chances of their own, but couldn’t take advantage of any of them and the game ended 0-0 in regular time. In the extra time period, Belgium brought on supersub Romelu Lukaku, who outmuscled the tired US defense to set up one goal and score another. Down by two goals with fifteen minutes to play seemed like an impossible hole, but 19-year old wunderkind Julian Green came off the bench and scored with his first touch of the game. That set off a desperate, frantic sequence of attacking play by the Americans as they tried to tie the game. Despite generating several great chances, the US could not find the equalizer and ultimately were eliminated 2-1.

US team

The US Men’s National Team

So what now for the Americans? A lot has been said in the aftermath about “what went wrong” and “what this means for US soccer”. Some pundits argue that this proves the USMNT isn’t up to snuff and maybe never will be. Other argue that this was a good performance and will revolutionize how Americans view and watch soccer. And in a way, both of them are probably true. This time, as all those times before, the US wasn’t a real contender at the World Cup. Our technical ability is not at the level of the best European teams and we were often forced to play a defensive, gritty, backs-to-the-wall style of play. But at the same time, there is much reason for optimism. The US made it out of the “Group of Death”. We finally beat Ghana and we came thirty seconds from beating a world power in Portugal. The young players who got on the field looked very promising for the future. And Americans across the nation watched, talked, and tweeted about the games, whether they had been “true soccer fans” before the World Cup or not.

US fans 2Nigeria at United States, friendly

Yet pinning the future of American soccer on these four games at this one tournament seems a little hyperbolic. Ultimately, what was true before the World Cup is still true now: soccer is growing in the United States, slowly but steadily. Major League Soccer is still not nearly up to par with Europe, but it is expanding, gaining popularity, and starting to draw big players. International soccer plays every weekend on cable TV now and fans routinely get together at sports bars to watch. Perhaps the best indication of the inexorable growth of US soccer is how much our expectations have changed. In 1994 we were thrilled just to host the World Cup. In 2014 we believe that we can, and should, make it to the quarterfinals and beyond. So while the US was still not quite good enough this year and while the newfound patriotic passion will naturally die down after the World Cup, the sport continues to gain traction here and will only be boosted further by the increased attention given to the valiant USMNT.


THEM: Because there were actually 31 other teams in Brazil as well

A lot happened in the 52 other games that didn’t involve the US. And almost all of it was worth watching. We’ve seen 154 goals so far, which is already more than 2010 and 2006 and is on pace to break the record for most ever goals scored at a World Cup. If you don’t feel like doing the math, that’s 2.75 goals per game. The games have been extremely dramatic as well, with 11 goals scored in stoppage time and 5 out of 8 games in the Round of 16 going to extra time or penalties. But enough with the statistics. Since we unfortunately can’t dedicate two pages to every team in the Cup, here are the highlights (and lowlights) so far…

Who’s Left?: A Breakdown of the Quarterfinal Matchups

 Brazil vs. Colombia

Brazil

Group Play results      beat Croatia 3-1, held to a 0-0 draw by Mexico, and routed Cameroon 4-1

Round of 16 result        eked past Chile in a penalty shootout after a 1-1 tie

Key Player                      Neymar (a.k.a. the only guy who can score)

How good are they? As hosts, Brazil entered the tournament as the favorites and Brazilian fans expect nothing less than a record sixth World Cup victory for their team. Yet while Brazil has not lost yet, their play has been unconvincing. At their best, the hosts are hard to stop going forward, but at their worst they can look sloppy and disorganized. While they are still favorites and are definitely exciting to watch, Brazil has a lot to prove if they want to win it all.

Colombia

Group Play results      cruised past Greece 3-1, Ivory Coast 2-1, and Japan 4-1

Round of 16 result       beat Uruguay 2-0

Key Player                    James (pronounced “Ham-ez”) Rodriguez

How good are they? Colombia, is one of the stories of the tournament thus far. Los Cafeteros are confident, talented, and very fun to watch. Colombia can score lots of goals and pull of fantastic samba dancing celebrations afterwards. However, they haven’t faced a true powerhouse yet and will get a real test against Brazil.

Rodriguez Neymar

The Pick   Colombia has enough skill and confidence to take advantage of Brazil’s sloppiness and pull off the upset.

Germany vs. France

 Germany

Group Play results       dominated Portugal 4-0, tied Ghana 2-2, and squeezed past USA 1-0

Round of 16 result       beat plucky Algeria 2-1 in extra time

Key Player                     Thomas Muller

How good are they? Germany is always a title contender, but they have regressed a bit since their opening game blowout over Portugal. The team is loaded with superstar talent and can score goals at will, yet their slow defense may be a problem going forward.

France

Group Play results       beat Honduras 3-0, crushed Switzerland 5-2, and tied Ecuador 0-0

Round of 16 result       came on late to beat Nigeria 2-0

Key Player                     Karim Benzema

How good are they? France had an abysmal World Cup in 2010, but has rebounded nicely this time around. Les Bleus are a complete team full of attacking and defensive talent and they look like they are focused and determined enough to go all the way.

Germany Benzema

The Pick   This is one is a true toss up, but France’s speed should be able to take advantage of Germany’s back line to help them push through to the semifinals.

 

Costa Rica vs. Netherlands

Costa Rica

Group Play results       beat Uruguay 3-1, outlasted Italy 1-0, and tied England 0-0

Round of 16 result      beat Greece in a penalty shootout after a 1-1 tie.

Key Player                  Keylor Navas (goalkeeper)

How good are they? Perhaps the only surprising underdog left in the tournament, Costa Rica has defied all the odds to make it this far. Lost Ticos were placed in a very tough group with three tournament heavyweights, but shockingly managed to win. The Costa Ricans thrive on tough defense and excellent goalkeeping. While it’s hard to see Costa Rica advancing any further, they have already wildly exceed expectations and have represented their continent well.

Netherlands

Group Play results       crushed Spain 5-1, beat Australia 3-2, took down Chile 2-0

Round of 16 result      came from behind to beat Mexico 2-1 in the final minutes

Key Player                    Arjen Robben

How good are they?  Holland is always a World Cup contender, yet many people thought they were not as good this time around. But L’Oranje, have proved all their doubters wrong with fast paced play and lots of goals. The Netherlands have been known to lack team unity and cohesiveness, but if they can stay organized and focused they have an excellent shot at another trip to the World Cup final.

Brazil Soccer WCup Costa Rica Greece Robben

The Pick  Costa Rica should hold defensively for a while, but the Netherlands seems likely to pull this one out in the end.

Argentina vs. Belgium

Argentina

Group Play results      beat Bosnia-Herzegovina 2-1, squeaked by Iran 1-0, beat Nigeria 3-2

Round of 16 result       got by Switzerland 1-0 in extra time

Key Player                    Lionel Messi

How good are they?  Argentina, another tournament favorite, has played similar to the Brazilians: brilliant in stretches, but unconvincing on the whole. Their defense has been heavily questioned and many of their superstar strikers have not found the scoring touch. Yet as long they have Messi on their side, Argentina will still believe they can go all the way.

Belgium

Group Play results      beat Algeria 2-1, Russia 1-0, and South Korea 1-0

Round of 16 result      muscled past the USA 2-1

Key Player                     Dries Mertens

How good are they?  Belgium was a favorite pick for tournament “dark horse” coming in (though we’re not sure how you can be a dark horse if everyone already knows about you). They are loaded with young talent, but have been slow starters so far, scoring all of their goals after the 70th minute of play. While Belgium has a lot of technical skill, they haven’t put it all together yet and need to play as more of a cohesive unit if they want to advance any further.

Belgium Messi

The Pick  Neither team has played up to their full potential yet, but in a toss-up game you always favor the side with Messi. Argentina wins.


And All the Rest…

The Good

○      The North and Central American region (known as CONCACAF) has had a great World Cup so far, with 3 out of 4 teams (USA, Mexico, Costa Rica) advancing past the group stage. Mexico in particular were extremely impressive, thanks in large part to their rising star, goalkeeper Guillermo “Memo” Ochoa, before falling to the Netherlands in the Round of 16,

 ○      South American teams have also shown up well, as 5 out of 6 managed to advance to the knockout rounds. Chile in particular used a very attractive, attacking style of soccer to beat defending champions Spain and come the width of a goalpost from upsetting host Brazil. They may be out, but they will be remembered for their star Alexis Sanchez and his love of short shorts.

 ○      Goalkeepers have been one of the highlights of this World Cup so far. Tim Howard had a record 16 saves against Belgium, while Ochoa (Mexico), Keylor Navas (Costa Rica), Vincent Enyeama (Nigeria), and Claudio Bravo (Brazil) have all played extremely impressive between the posts. And yes, there has been a ton of goals, but that has more been due to poor defending than poor goalkeeping.

○      Several of the African squads have solid World Cup outings as well. Algeria surprised many by getting out of their group and then almost was able to get past Germany. Nigeria also played tough against France, while the Ivory Coast and Ghana were unlucky not to advance out of the group stage.

 ○      Excitable coaches have been dancing around on the sidelines in entertaining fashion all tournament long. The most notable was Mexico’s Miguel Herrera, who got a lot of attention for his explosive goal celebrations. Mexico would be wise to hold on to him, if only for entertainment purposes.

○      Diving is one notable element that mostly missing from this World Cup. Soccer is much maligned for the frequency of play-acting among its players, but this World Cup has been mostly free of fantastic flops. That probably just jinxed it, but here’s hoping that trend continues.

 ○      Some teams didn’t advance, but did themselves proud by just participating and playing hard. Bosnia and Herzegovina played strongly in their first ever World Cup, Australia made life difficult for three clearly superior teams in their group, and Iran almost pulled off the greatest upset of all time over Argentina

○      You’ve got to give some props to Greece. It’s not pretty to watch, but they found a way to grind out some results and advance past the group stage. Their defensive toughness is hard to beat. Seriously though, it is NOT pretty to watch.

Tim Howard adds to the incredible play of goalies in this World Cup

Tim Howard adds to the incredible play of goalies in this World Cup

The Bad

○      What about European powerhouses Italy, England, Portugal, and Spain? All were unceremoniously eliminated in the Group Stage, combining for just three wins between the four of them. So much talent and so little to show for it.

○      While most of CONCACAF had a great World Cup, Honduras lagged far behind as they lost all three group games with hardly a whimper. The only silver lining for Honduras is that they managed to get a goal to break the second-longest World Cup goal drought (a few minutes before it became the longest).

○      Diving may not be a big issue, but the refereeing has. Soft penalties have been awarded left and right (much to the chagrin of poor Croatia, Ivory Coast, and Mexico), while offsides have been incorrectly missed and incorrectly given (at different times of course). We know they are trying their hardest, but incompetence at this level cannot be tolerated. At least there is goal line technology now!

○      Asian/Oceanic teams failed miserably in Brazil, as all 4 teams were eliminated in Group Play. Japan and South Korea had high expectations and did not live up to them at all. The Korean fans were so disappointed that they pelted their team with toffees after they returned home. Ouch.

The disappointment of losing was felt by Spain and many other big teams this year

The disappointment of losing was felt by Spain and many other big teams this year

The Ugly

○      Cameroon not only embarrassingly lost all three of their games, but also they are now being investigated for possible match fixing. Nothing to be proud of there.

○      Uruguay did manage to make it out of the Group Stage, but that will not be their legacy on this World Cup. For some inexplicable reason, Luis Suarez decided to take a bite out of an Italian defender during their last group match. Seriously, he bit a guy. For the third time in his career. Suarez and the Uruguay Football Association only made things worse by denying any wrongdoing and claiming he “lost his balance and fell on his opponent”. Thankfully FIFA finally did something right and banned him for 4 months. Which of course doesn’t mean we have heard the end of him by a long shot.

Luis Suarez gets hungry for Italian food during the match

Luis Suarez gets hungry for Italian food during the match

The Awards!

  • MVP of the Tournament (so far): James “don’t call me James” Rodriguez (COL)

○    Honorable mention: Arjen Robben (NED), Lionel Messi (ARG)

 James

  • Best Goalkeeper: Keylor Navas (CRC)

○      Honorable mention: Memo Ochoa (MEX), Tim Howard (USA)

 Navas

  • Best Name: Xerdan Shaqiri (SWI)

○      Honorable mention: Hulk (BRA), Sokratis Papastathopoulos (GRE)

Shaqiri

  • Best UniformCroatia. You can’t beat a classic

 Croatia

  • Best Hairstyle: Asamoah Gyan went all out with his ‘do.

Gyan

○      Honorable mention: Tim Cahill vs. Netherlands, Robin van Persie vs. Spain

  • Best Moment (so far): the Penalty kick shootout between Brazil and Chile

○      Honorable mention: John Brooks scoring to beat Ghana


So What Now?

The World Cup in Brazil has seen 56 incredible games of soccer, but there are still 8 more to go. And if history tells us anything, these should be the most exciting and dramatic games of all. So keep watching, talking, tweeting, and cheering. Be proud of your USMNT and continue to support them in the future, but don’t be afraid to pick a new nation to root for now they the US are out. So long everybody, I have to get back to my TV.

Marshall Steele is a contributing writer for The Philosophical Bear.

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