Jun 27, 2014

Five things we learned from the Group Stage of the 2014 World Cup

The 2014 World Cup is about to get real. Really real. Knockout stage, single elimination real. No margin for error real. The seeds are set, the brackets are drawn up. Who will win it all? Who the hell knows! For now we're sticking with our pick of Brazil over Argentina in the grand finale on July 13 at Rio de Janeiro's Maracana stadium (the number two ranked soccer Mecca in the world, according to our ranking). First, let's take a step back and look at the things we learned from the group stages and see how these might affect matters in the elimination round:

1. For all Juergen Klinsmann's talk and bluster about ushering in a new era of attacking football, the U.S. Men's National Team is playing an awful lot like it were still coached by Bob Bradley. That is, drop 10 men behind the ball, let the opposition control possession and hope your superior physicality wins out to carry the day. This was all on display against Germany in the final group stage game yesterday. It didn't work, as Germany deservedly won the match. The Yanks still got through to the round of 16 thanks to Portugal beating Ghana, which in the end is a superb result for the U.S. and for Klinsmann. But the whole thing should dampen the enthusiasm of those who think the U.S. have turned the corner to become a first rate soccer power. The bottom line is that this team still lacks playmaking creativity in the midfield and there are few signs that U.S. development academies are able to produce players with this skillset. The one creative engine in the American midfield this World Cup, the first two games at least, was 32-year old Jermaine Jones, who grew up in Germany. And we saw what happened when he had a bad game in the group stage finale. The team was flat and uninspiring. If the Yanks are to have any chance against Belgium, Jones must bring his A game. As for who might supply Klinsmann with this spark in 2018 and beyond? There are no obvious candidates and therein lies the problem. Not Michael Bradley, as this was never really his position to begin with.

2. Uruguay are only as good as Luis Suarez, and with the mad biter of Montevideo suspended for the team's round of 16 match against Colombia, well, you do the math. It turns out we were wrong about Uruguay, one of the teams we thought were "done" after watching them play once in the group stage.

3. France are untested as a result of being drawn into the weakest group in the tournament. Switzerland barely put up a fight against les bleus in what was arguably the most one-sided match of the entire World Cup. This is the same Swiss team that finished second and will lose to play Argentina in the round of 16. This means Ecuador and Honduras were really, really bad. It also means France probably aren't that good. If Nigeria don't beat them, Germany most certainly will in the quarterfinals.

4. Mexico may have peaked. El Tri reaped a massive confidence boost from their opening match against Cameroon, when they outplayed the African side by a far greater margin than the 1-0 victory would suggest (and indeed were robbed of two perfectly good goals by the referee). Mexico next played Brazil to the letter in a scoreless draw before finishing out group play with an impressive win over Croatia. But Mexico always play well against Brazil and Croatia is not the Netherlands, Mexico's opponent in the round of 16. Only once in World Cup history have Mexico advanced past the round to 16 and that was when they hosted the tournament in 1986. There's no real reason to believe history won't repeat itself at Estadio Castelao Fortaleza on June 29.

5. Lionel Messi is the likely star of this World Cup. The Argentine captain has scored in all of his team's matches, twice supplying the winning goal. After the albiceleste turn the Swiss defense to, well, Swiss cheese, they likely face Belgium in the quarterfinals and probably the Netherlands or Costa Rica in the semis. Those are mild roadblocks for the best player in the world who is at the peak of his powers. The 2014 World Cup will go down as Messi's tournament just like the 1986 World Cup belongs to Maradona. Messi may yet be crowned a world champion next month. It's going to be close, but in the end we think Brazil's home field advantage will prove to be the difference.

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