Seven Kingdoms (and Costa Rica)

For fans of the USMNT, today is the first day of the 2018 World Cup.

It’s been one hell of a ride for the United States in Brazil, a reminder both of what we have going for us as a soccer nation and how wide the gap is between us and the true powers of the game.  Once again Team USA managed to claw its way into the knockout stages, and once again lost a winnable game once it got there (My God, Wondolowski, how do you live with yourself?).  This one does feel like more of a victory than 2010 did, but because of the horrendous draw the US had and the incredible groundswell in support the team received at home.

I’ve seen many supposed new dawns for soccer in America, where the sport was sure to ascend to new heights of popularity and never did.  This feels different, but we’ll see.  If FIFA truly wants the sport to take off in America – and I think it’s an open question whether they do – they’ll deliver the 2026 World Cup to the US.  That would dovetail nicely with the timeframe for the USMNT to seriously threaten to win it – Jurgen Klinsmann will no longer be the coach, but he’s trying to institute a lot of changes from the ground up that will take a lot of time to really be felt.

I think Klinsmann summed up the Americans’ problem at the international level quite well yesterday:

“When you concede a goal you have to chase the game, and suddenly we are able to do it,” he said, pointing specifically to Tuesday’s loss.”We could have turned that game around the last 15 minutes of extra time, absolutely,” Klinsmann said. “We had enough chances to win it 3-2. Why not [attack] earlier? This is a constant discussion we have — I believe it is a mental thing we have to work on more than it’s about talent.”

We saw this play out in stark fashion in the Mexico-Holland game, where Mexico was the better team until the 48th minute – when they scored.  After than they hunkered down and let Robben threaten them over and over until finally giving up the equalizer off a set piece.

One of the notable things about DeAndre Yedlin is that he started attacking from the moment he entered the games against Portugal and Belgium and never stopped.  We saw the same from Julian Green – though he entered after the team was already behind 2-0.  Both of these guys figure to be a big part of the 2018 squad – hopefully so will Mix Diskerud, the slick 23 year-old Norwegian-American midefielder who could have helped the US in Brazil but never got the call.  But Tim Howard among others will likely be gone – so will Clint Dempsey, though he’s savvy and nasty enough to possibly hang around in a supersub-elder statesman role.

Klinsmann’s mentality comments aside, what the USMNT is sorely lacking are true playmakers and true finishers.  Not strikers, necessarily – playing with a false nine is in ascendancy at the moment – but someone who can finish with deadly precision.  Perhaps that playmaker is 17 year-old phenom Gedion Zelalem, the Ethiopian-born German citizen who’s about to become eligible for the US program.  He’s a midfielder in the Arsenal system and seems to have the qualities of a true Fantasista, and he would be the first we’ve had since Claudio Reyna – if Klinsmann can persuade him to join the US program.  We might even get something from Stuart Holden, who’s battled horrendous injury luck and may never be what he was, but whose presence in midfield would have been huge had he been healthy.  As to who that finisher is, the “knight in the area” – we’ve never had one in our history and if he’s out there, I don’t see him yet.

In any case, while there’s reason to doubt Jurgen Klinsmann as a tactician I think it’s clear he has the qualities needed to take US Soccer to the next level.  He knows the game encyclopedically and is respected everywhere in the world.  And no less important is that he has an infectious enthusiasm and tireless energy, the kind of personality needed to be the frontman for the program as it tries to become more popular at home and more feared around the world.  They’ve given us a thrilling World Cup and as disappointed as I was by the Belgium result, I feel good about what the team accomplished.

Surprisingly, they’re continuing the World Cup without the USMNT – and it’s shaping up as quite a thriller.  All eight group winners advanced, all eight favorites – and the quarter-finalists are an honor roll of the great soccer powers of the world (and Costa Rica).  Four teams from Europe, three from South America (and Costa Rica) advanced and because there are no true dominant teams in the field based on play so far, I think any of them (except Costa Rica) could conceivably win.  I’ll be rooting for Belgium despite my pain – they’re a classy side who plays positive football, it was a clean game, and I think that’s the country that would be most truly gobsmacked in a good way by seeing their team win.  Here are my guesses for the quarters:

Brazil vs. Colombia – It’s kind of a shame Colombia runs into Brazil this early.  In truth, they may be the most impressive team in the field so far – but I’m not picking against Brazil in this tournament, no matter the opponent, as long as Neymar is relatively fit.  Brazil hasn’t lost a competitive match at home since 1975, so why would you?  No, this is not their best team – Neymar is really their only outstanding player – but they have enough surrounding him to survive and ride their home advantage.  Colombia is an outstanding side and may represent the biggest threat to Brazil – midfielder James (“Ha-mez”) Rodriguez has been a true revelation,  with the glamor clubs of Europe fighting over his services, and Colombia has talent across the board.  If this match were being played anywhere else, I’d give Colombia the edge based on form – but I think Brazil will sneak by.

Netherlands vs. Costa Rica – I think Holland is unjustifiably dissed for their performance against a skilled and dogged Mexico side in unspeakable conditions, when they kept running until the final whistle and earned their two goals.  They’re not a glamorous team, but no one in the field is better at the pure counter-attack.  It’s hard to keep a team with assassins like Van Persie and (especially) Robben down for an entire game.  Costa Rica is the standard-bearer for CONCACAF now and the only real Cinderella left, and the Ticos are a gritty and defensively sound bunch, but they don’t have much firepower and will be missing critical defender Oscar Duarte (yellow cards).  They’ll also run at the Dutch, which is exactly what they want.  I expect The Netherlands to win, and it would be the biggest upset of the quarter-finals if they don’t.

Germany vs. France – Yeah, there’s some history in this rivalry all-right.  France has exceeded expectations so far, but I think their performances have been a bit overrated – Honduras is probably the worst team in the field, and Ecuador nothing special.  Germany by contrast wasn’t especially impressive against Ghana, USA or Algeria – but they’re here.  Joachim Low hasn’t impressed me especially with his tactics so far – I’d certainly move Philipp Lahm to full-back where he belongs and take advantage of his bench full of midfielders, and Jerome Boateng is a perpetual impending disaster who’d never see the field if I was coaching that side.  Both teams are weak at the back, but I think France more so.  This is a tossup on paper, but I like Germany in extra time or perhaps penalties.

Argentina vs. Belgium – This is an intriguing matchup.  Despite the fact that they haven’t even qualified for the World Cup since 2002, I can’t call the Red Devils a Cinderella team – based on their club payrolls (an arbitrary but meaningful metric) their players are the third-highest paid at the World Cup.  Undefeated in qualifying, undefeated and untied in Brazil, Belgium showed against the US what it can really do – they buzzed around the USA penalty area like a swarm of locusts and only Tim Howard’s heroics got the game to extra time.  Argentina is another of the elite soccer powers that’s been unimpressive in Brazil – Lionel Messi is the best player in the world and his national team play is finally reflecting that, but he gets very little help.  In a way this is a perfect matchup for Belgium – Argentina will run at them, has a tendency to lose their shape and is somewhat suspect on their back four. Argentina is favored but I’m picking Belgium as the only “upset” of the quarter-finals – though I don’t see this as a huge upset.  And I really want to see the Benelux Bash in the semis – as Belgium tries to get one over on their overbearing big brother at last.

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27 comments

  1. m

    As of 2 world cups ago (2006) USASoccer has made a number of steps towards growing the talent of American soccer players. Part of the problem is that kids in the US have so many different options for sports growing up, and while you can find pick up games for the major 3, it's difficult to find pick up games for soccer. Clint Dempsey spent most of his youth kicking a ball against his family's garage door. There's an element of familiarity with the ball that European and South American players have that you don't find in US players. USASoccer has been trying to rectify that by creating national camps for top youths hopefully giving opportunities for young Americans to develop their game early and focus hard on soccer. I agree that a 2026 WC in the states would be perfect timing. You would likely see the results of those steps start to pan out around that time, and hopefully one win in an elimination round could give fans the push to follow soccer a bit more. That and finally start playing more top European league games on standard channels. I know NBC has some on their sports channel, and I think one on the regular NBC on Sat, but once every 4 years isn't often enough to really keep fans around. Get more fans of world club soccer, then bring in player to MLS and the potential for growth is there with how much Americans love sports.

  2. We got our win in a knockout round against Mexico in 2002, which was another "dawn of a new day for soccer in America" then ended up being more or less just another day. I'm hopeful, but we'll see what happens.

    It's funny, because I never had trouble finding a pickup soccer game as a kid. You just need a ball and a clear patch of dirt, really. I think losing the best athletes to football, basketball and baseball is a problem, but an equal problem is that the soccer instruction for very young kids (11 and under, say) is extremely rigid and built on obedience and formula. We don't teach (or even allow) our boys to be creative with the ball or think for themselves on the pitch. I think that's why a lot of times you see the USMNT players with some creativity – guys like Green and Diskerud (though sadly you didn't see him in Brazil) and Holden – are guys that learned to play in Europe (usually Germany). I think that may be why we tend to do much better with home-grown central defenders than #10s and strikers.

  3. m

    When I say pick up game I mean a legit game. I always had someone to shoot or pass the ball with, but that's not the same as how easy you can find football or especially basketball games with full sides. Haha yeah I was saying before that part of why we won that elimination game, and maybe the only reason, was because we got to play Mexico. Not that they're bad, but we know them so well we always have an even shot at beating them.

    You're right about the yuth coaching in the US. Often times travel teams are coached by one of the player's Dad, and often that guy never played or watched soccer before. I remember going to soccer camps and then coming back to my travel team to teach my teammates you don't shoot, pass, trap, and do everything with only the inside of your foot. There's stories of guys emphasizing juggling in the US and when player go to Brazil they laugh at you if you can't do that with a tennis ball. We have way to large of a gap in knowledge from that older generation that I think will be fixed (hopefully) by the time 2026-2030 world cup comes around. The lack of creativity will never come until we teach our coaches how to let players put themselves into their game. That's why Johnson's play stood out so much early on because you don;t often see a US player dribble that much. But you're right that we need a complete overhaul in how we teach kids to play, and hopefully that was started in 2006. Those results won't be seen much until 2026 though.

  4. f

    if we based the who's the favorite by looking at their form, i think belgium is favorite rather than argentina. belgium has been very impressive against the US, they play one the best football in this world cup, meanwhile their argentinian counterpart is heavily reliant on messi, even maradona has criticized this messi-centric style.

    so yeah, from what i see belgium beating argentina here won't be an upset, they have shown how good the can be

  5. Well obviously I don't think it's a huge upset as I think they're going to win, but Belgium is definitely the underdog. Right now Argentina is second-favorite to win the whole thing, and you can get almost 3-1 odds on Belgium in this game. That seems like a nice bet to me – as does Colombia at almost 4-1 in the Brazil game, and 12-1 to win the tournament.

  6. m

    Hahaha never use Maradona as an argument. Maradona says that bc he hates Messi and the fact that Messi (or anyone who isn't him) is getting attention. That's why he screwed him when he was Argentina's coach by playing him out of his normal role, and then threw him under the bus about his play. Maradona is a scumbag through and through.

    Belgium at 3-1 is a nice bet, though I don't think they'll win. Argentina outplayed Switzerland more than the score showed just like Belgium outplayed the US more than ET and the score showed. Columbia at 12-1 odds is a great thing to put your money on. Haha I already did, I only wish I would've thought to do so before the WC started. They must've been running big odds then.

  7. m

    I agree that France hasn't done anything particularly impressive (aside from their rout of the Swiss team), and despite Germany's sloppy play at times, they clearly have a better team. If Germany can play at their top form, and I think they will against hated rival France, they should come out on top without too much worry. The score will be close, but I imagine the game won't be as close as the score lets on.

    I also agree that the Netherlands shouldn't have too much of a problem with Costa Rica. Yes they did advance against 3 top 10 teams, but England continues to have the same problem scoring goals that the US team does, Italy hasn't been all that dangerous since they won it in 2006, and Uruguay wasn't playing their best even before Suarez lost his mind. I think the Dutch win it fairly easily by a score of 2-0.

    I actually still like Argentina despite how they've underperformed. People forget that Switz was a top 6 team coming into the WC, and despite early poor play, played really well in the game that got them into the elimination round. Argentina won a close game in ET, but the game was mostly dominated by the Argentinians, and there's always the case of the South American teams adjusting to the weather better. I know they rely too heavily on Messi (4/7 of their goals and the assist on the goal vs Switz), but if there's one player in the world that strategy can work with it's Messi. He's a WC win away from standing next to Pele as the best to ever play the game (I refuse to accept Maradona bc of the type of person he is) and they do have other top names out there (Di maria for one). It'll be close, but I think Messi does what he has to do and gets his team into the semis.

    The other game I disagree with you on (and really the one I disagree with by a lot) is Columbia-Brazil. Neymar has 4/9 goals for the team which is good in that it's a lot but not as high as Messi's %, but 2 came against Cameroon and 2 against Croatia. He hasn't scored in their 2 games against good teams. They haven't looked great overall against those good teams either, tying Mexico (who looked like the better team) and needing a shootout to beat Chile. Yes, being at home is a huge advantage, but the WC host has only won it all 6 times, 2 being the first 2 WC which had a different format and far less teams (13/16 respectively) We saw this in 2006 when Italy routed Germany 2-0 at home. Brazil has bounced around to play in every stadium possible, and now plays in the one stadium they haven't scored in (the 0-0 tie with Mexico) James Rodriguez is playing better than Messi, even if only by a little, and he isn't the only threat on that team. In their opening match he scored an amazing solo effort goal, and followed it up with the perfect team play goal off an unselfish header from Cuadrado off a nice cross. Martinez ha 2 goals, and four others each have a goal of their own, so it's more than just James doing all of the work. Brazil is also missing a starter, not a huge loss considering but still matters. Columbia also didn't have to play until a shootout, and you never know if the extra rest could matter. All in all I think Columbia has played their best soccer in every game of the tournament so far, something no other team can claim. Brazil is at home, and will have the advantage, but I think Columbia has something to prove and in the battle of #10s, known as the # pele wore and non a coincidence maradona and Messi, I'll take Rodriguez with something to prove (his jersey says James) over Neymar with all of the pressure.

  8. B

    The Lannisters send their regards!

    Haha. But honestly, Team USA kept me on the edge of my seat till the final whistle. I can see you guys becoming strong by the next Wold Cup.
    Plus, Courtois makes it look easy, but Tim Howard was like our Nemesis for this game. Hats off.

    To be honest, the main reason I'm interested in the WC is that it pisses off the Nationalists (yeah, we've got those…) every time we win.

  9. Surely, all sides in Belgium could get together for a day and agree to hate the Dutch? Although I don't deny it would come more naturally to the Walloons…

  10. m

    Courtois is good, but he isn't as good as Tim Howard. He isn't even top 10 in the world, maybe rounding off top 20.

  11. B

    @Enzo: Haha. I don't know. I think the Flemish "hate" the Dutch more than we do. We Walloons get to bash the French.

    @maverickmann84: I was basing myself on my impressions of the match. I don't actually know much about rankings. But thanks for the added context.

  12. Actually ESPN has Courtois ranked as the #1 keeper in the WC, and his stats in qualifying and the Champions League were the best in the world. Every major outlet has him in the world Top 5 and he's universally considered a better keeper than Howard.

  13. m

    ESPN has Howard ranked 2, which is also silly, and their rank consists of World Cup goalies not best GK of clubs. It doesn't factor in Iker Casillas starts for Spain over Victor Valdes, Diego Lopez, De Gea, or Reina all of whom are considered top tier, and some top 5 GK in the world. The problem with certain ranks is it's subjective and aside from each list including the likes of Buffon, Casillas, and Neuer (sometimes Hart) those lists vary wildly. I've ssen Courtois at 1 and many time Courtois not on a top 20 list. I've also never seen somewhere where Howard and Courtois are straight up compared and where one has been said "universally considered" better or worse than the other.

  14. S

    "Knight in the area", nice reference. Whatever happened to that series, did he ever reach his full potential?

    Brazil has been one of the worst of the top 8, and Colombia one of the best, so I'm thinking Brazil will get punished early and then resort to fouling and flopping, and eventually get red carded. I'd hate to be the ref in that game.

    The other contender for the gold would be Germany, I think. with Belgium and the Netherlands completing the top 4.

  15. m

    The manga is way ahead of the series, but the manga English trans are way behind the anime.

  16. Z

    Looking forward to the Argentina Belgium game. Is Messi enough to take them to the finish line?

    A Colombia win over Brazil would be most welcome!

    Although I'm rooting for Germany either way.

  17. 7

    The USMNT’s aggressive approach played to Belgium's strengths. Klinsmann went for an approach similar to the one Algeria adopted against Germany, despite the fact that Germany and Belgium have very different strengths. The consequence: Belgium regularly carved the US open, and only a mixture of terrible finishing and great goalkeeping kept the Yanks in the game, and they very nearly won it in the 90th! Moments like these are why I love football. Lukaku is at his best in open games, his pace and power were too much to handle for the tired defense. Those last 15 minutes were fantastic for the US, Green's movement was sharp and intelligent throughout his little cameo, and he finished coolly from Bradley's very nice chip in the box. The Belgians were pretty tired themselves. All-in-all, it was a very entertaining game for the neutral, thanks to the USMNT's naively gung-ho gameplan.

    Argentina haven't impressed me yet. They rely way too much on individual brilliance rather than collective play in attack, their style of play is very unbalanced and their defense is barely decent.

    I'm fancying France, unless Debuchy starts and Schurrle gets more than 30 min against him. It should be a very balanced game, and I can't wait for it.

    I'd like Costa Rica to go through, and the childish part of me wants the hosts to lose, just to see what would happen in Brazil. It'd probably be something both fascinating and terrifying.

  18. M

    In Belgium the general mood is that, for once since the start of qualifying, we have nothing to lose. The trick will be to contain Messi and Di Maria (in zone defense). But if Argentina doesn't improve on their Swiss game, they can get in some trouble. Belgium is a defensive powerhouse, and the Argentine back-four is to slow for our attack.

    The animosity with the Dutch is a funny thing. There is big cultural barrier between Flanders and the Netherlands, but there is none between Wallonia and France. The Flemish never watch Dutch tv for example, while French TV is very popular in Wallonia. So if Belgium weren't in the Cup, most Walloons would support France. Most Flemish would rather drop dead than support Oranje. Like in 2010 there was a sigh of relief that Spain finished them in the final. Although in the past many people would support them because they did play the best soccer.

    Also there are a lot people whom I'm sure voted for the Flemish Nationalist in the May elections, that now have a Tricolor waving from their window. Those things aren't always black/white over here.

    What the Dutch want on the other hand: a semi-final against Argentina (vengeance for '78) and definitely a final against Germany. For them Germany is a much bigger rival than Belgium.

  19. S

    Here in the Netherlands we don’t exactly “hate” Belgians, it’s more like an indifference since we feel superior to them (and rightfully so!). The only things we can be jealous of is that they’re better at spelling and grammar than us, have more Grand Slam titles in tennis and (used to) produce great comic books. But generally there are very strong ties between the two countries. Relatively many Dutch people work in Belgium and the reverse is also the case.

    I always thought the Belgians would support Oranje during their 12 year draught. Whenever I watch the Belgian sport TV, there seem to be more coverage on the Netherlands than any other foreign country. Heck, there are even two Dutch men providing analysis in the Belgian football program.

    We are actually hoping to face Belgium in the semi-final. We already took revenge on Argentina in 1998 with the most beautiful Dutch goal ever from Bergkamp (plus that match-up may cause a little bit of turmoil in the monarchy since our Queen is from there). A match against Belgium can finally end a 2 year long discussion about who has the better football team. The consensus is that the Netherlands has the better coach, tactics and offense, while Belgium has the better defense and individual players overall, so it’s pretty much even and I’m curious to see how it will play out.

  20. m

    Here in the Netherlands we don’t exactly “hate” Belgians, it’s more like an indifference since we feel superior to them (and rightfully so!). <—-I hope that relates to soccer and not to a general feeling of superiority as people. I didn't think the Dutch were quite that stuck up. I know the only 2 Dutch natives I ever met have a strange air of arrogance about them, but I attributed that to the individual and partly bc that happens often when people move to another country. Please tell me your country aren't that way about Belgium. If it's just soccer that's no big deal though.

  21. m

    I don't think Belgium beating Argentina would be that big of an upset considering how Argentina has played. But I do think it'll be tough for them. Anytime you face arguably the best player of all time you have a tough game ahead of you, and even though it's a bad strategy overall, you can still win a WC relying on a player when he's that good (Argentina did it with Maradona and not one other recognizable name). Plus Messi isn't alone, the rest haven't played up to par, but like the Belgium-US game showed that doesn't mean they won't come out firing on all cylinders. Belgium hadn't played their best pre-US (and TBH I still think their game can go higher). If both teams played their absolute best I'd think Argentina wins 6/10 of those so it's not a huge advantage either way. The problem is Messi and his career .95 goals per game average. I don't see him being kept out of goal for 2 straight games here, so it comes down to if Belgium can put 2 in and stop the rest of Argentina from being a factor.

    I wouldn't be mad if Belgium won it all seeing as they're the second biggest underdogs behind Costa Rica, but I do want to see Messi get the credit he deserves amongst his country. Anytime Maradona gets shown up and gets mad is a good day for me. Though my money is on Columbia, so that's really who I'm pulling for, for selfish reasons anyway.

  22. Well, Low finally backed off his suicide pact with himself and moved Lahm to right-back where he belongs. Even put Klose in the lineup. I would have yanked Boateng, though.

  23. s

    Definitely have to say – that was one hell of a game, quite entertaining even if Germany would have lost. A bit disappointed that Schürrle didn't use those two big chances he had, but eh, a win is a win. Now on towards the other games – really hard to predict. My favorite development would probably be victories for Colombia, Netherlands and Belgium – a Benelux-derby in the semi-finals would be a -very- interesting sight, and really, despite Neymar I'm not really that much of a fan of Brazil. Then again, this IS a tournament – those are known to have their own sets of rules when it comes to which teams advances and which not. Let's see, the tournament might still have a few surprises in store.

  24. m

    That game wasn't much of a surprise, except for Low's coaching choices which seemed to pay off. I know Lahm is a top 10 player in the world, but that's no reason to force him into a position he doesn't normally play, especially with the talent they have at MF. I figured Germany would win 1-0 or 2-1 without it being too exciting. The game had its moments, but Germany looked like the better team throughout. Now hopefully Columbia can show up Brazil at home.

  25. 2 for 2 so far – things following the track I expected. Now we'll see if Belgium can fulfil their end tomorrow.

    Tough to pick Brazil against Germany without Neymar and Silva. Remember – I said "I'm not picking against Brazil in this tournament, no matter the opponent, as long as Neymar is relatively fit."

  26. Holy crap – 16 elimination games, 16 favorites win. How effing boring is that?

    Thanks a pantful, Belgium, for showing up for only one game out of five. I'm not naive – I realie it's partly a measure of how inferior the US was that made Belgium look so strong. But they clearly seemed to have a drive and cohesion in that game that I haven't seen from them in any other. Their lack of urgency after falling behind Argentina was striking, and they looked disjointed and disorganized in Argentina's end. Very disappointing performance.

  27. 12 eliminations games of course, not 16. But still holy crap.

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