YOESTING: Recapping the World Cup group stage


tmt Column photo
United States' Clint Dempsey (8) and Germany's Per Mertesacker battle for the ball during the group G World Cup soccer match between the USA and Germany at the Arena Pernambuco in Recife, Brazil, Thursday, June 26, 2014. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Take a breath.

After two weeks of nonstop action, the World Cup had its first day off Friday, marking the end of the group stage after which half of the 32 teams have been eliminated — thankfully, the U.S. isn’t one of them.

Today the knockout rounds of the World Cup begin, with the South American quadrant kicking things off.

But first, let’s look back at some of the notable events from the first 48 games.

 

TEAM USA DOES JUST ENOUGH

Everything was stacked against the Red, White & Blue, from the star-studded group foes to the incredible travel and inhospitable playing conditions. Nonetheless, Team USA pulled through, barely.

Though Thomas Muller scored the lone goal in Germany’s win over the U.S. on Thursday, the Americans have Muller to thank for moving on.

It was the German striker who drew Pepe’s bizarre head butt and subsequent red card in the first Group G match that allowed Die Mannschaft to rout Portugal 4-0. In the end, that four-goal differential was what allowed the U.S. to go through.

Not that the Americans should have to apologize for going through on goal differential. They completely deserved to go on, and it would have been especially disheartening to go out based on Portugal’s last-second equalizer in their rainforest battle.

Best of all, the U.S. hasn’t played its best game yet.

In the 2-1 win over Ghana, they were forced to defend for most of the game, unable to maintain possession. Against Portugal, the U.S. were impressive for long stretches, but defensive miscues left them with just one point. Germany dominated the Americans for most of the game, though they defended well for the most part, a few moments of poor marking notwithstanding. Germany’s goal did come off a set piece, but the U.S. didn’t do anything offensively, not even recording a shot on goal.

The U.S. continued a great trend for the colors red, white and blue. Of the 16 teams left, five have flags made up entirely of those colors. France and Netherlands basically have the same flag, just tilted at different angles; Chile wishes it was Texas; Costa Rica and the U.S. put way too much thought into their flags — all five have been impressive in reaching the knockout rounds.

Belgium is next for the Americans. The country best known in the U.S. for waffles presents a winnable game — though we also thought Ghana was a winnable round of 16 match four years ago.

Despite winning its group, Belgium has yet to look impressive, like they did in beating the U.S. 4-2 in Cleveland a year ago. Tuesday’s matchup will be a great competition between a group of outstanding individuals against individuals coming together to make an outstanding team.

 

SUAREZ BITES THE DUST

You know it’s big news when it preempts LeBron James opting out of his contract on SportsCenter.

Uruguay’s Luis Suarez, for the third time in his professional career, bit an opponent, this time Italian Giorgio Chiellini.

Suarez was subsequently banned from all soccer activities for four months, a huge punishment and likely one meted out to send a message.

I feel bad for Liverpool, which will miss its star striker for most of the Champions League group stage, not to mention a large chunk of the English Premier League season. Then again, they’re the ones that have always stood by Suarez, whether he’s chomping down on a Chelsea player or allegedly racially abusing a Manchester United player.

Back in Uruguay, the country is incredulous. This small nation of less than 3.4 million feels persecuted by FIFA and the global soccer community. You can feel their pain at basically being kicked out of the World Cup (without Suarez, Uruguay has little chance to reach the semifinals as they did in 2010).

For me, there are two camps.

One side views a bite as just about the worst thing you can do on the soccer field. It combines the insult of spitting with the injury of teeth sinking into the skin. They agree with the lengthy ban and applaud FIFA for making a strong statement.

The other side looks at a bite as something seriously wrong, but not nearly as bad as other incidents. Sure, Suarez deserved a red card and should sit out a few games, but a bite isn’t going to end someone’s career like a vicious slide tackle from behind and it’s not even close to being as bad as cheating, be it match fixing or using performance enhancing drugs.

Personally, I thought the punishment was a bit harsh. Suarez definitely should have been kicked out of this World Cup and suspended for a large number of Uruguay games. But this incident came on international duty, and it’s excessive to ban him from all soccer stadiums for four months, harming his club in the process.

 

CONCACAF, MLS SHINE

For the first time ever, three CONCACAF teams have reached the round of 16. While impressive for Mexico and the U.S., it’s not a massive shock. Costa Rica, on the other hand, has defied colossal odds to get this far.

Not only did the Ticos have the toughest draw for any individual team, escaping a group with former champions Italy, England and Uruguay, they won it. Now they get perhaps the other weakest team in the round of 16, Greece.

Costa Rica is one of many World Cup squads with a Major League Soccer player or two (three, in fact). In all, a record 21 MLS players made World Cup squads, including Brazil’s No. 1 goalie Julio Cesar.

The U.S. team makes up for 10 of those 21 and has perhaps done the most to improve the image of the MLS. American players are always viewed with negative connotations overseas, but watching a team chock full of MLS players take it to Portugal and hold its own against Germany will open some eyes.

 

BIG NAMES EXIT EARLY

I’m not going to brag that I predicted Spain would go out in the group stage, because I never thought they’d be so poor, but I will bring it up again. Spain became complacent (and old) and the Netherlands and Chile took it to them, earning their spots in the next round at the defending champions’ expense.

But Spain wasn’t the only big name heading home early.

We knew one of Uruguay, Italy and England would go home, but few expected it would be two: Italy and England.

England actually played pretty well against Italy and Uruguay, both 2-1 losses, but their opponents proved just a bit better.

Italy, meanwhile, will be the angriest side heading home early, having the Suarez bite directly affect the outcome. Moments after Suarez had a late-game snack, Uruguay scored the game’s only goal. Meanwhile, Italy had been playing a man down for a soft red card on Claudio Marchisio. Had Suarez been sent off for his bite, Italy, which only needed a tie to advance, likely would have held on.

The reigning World Player of the Year is also on his way home, with Portugal unable to overcome the 4-0 shellacking it took from Germany. Cristiano Ronaldo, who broke American hearts with an amazing cross to help his side equalize late in Manaus, made it up to the U.S. by scoring late against Ghana to ensure a late Ghana goal didn’t send the Americans home prematurely.

 

WHAT’S NEXT

We just witnessed a great, free-flowing group stage that saw 136 goals at an average of 2.83 per game, the highest scoring since 1970.

However, things will tighten up over the next two weeks. As matches become do or die, win or go home, teams will become less willing to surge forward seeking goals.

While I doubt the tournament becomes a dour succession of 1-0 games, the days of six-goal games are likely at an end.

As for predictions, I think the Netherlands is set up well for a run to at least the semifinals with a possible return to the final, and not just because of an easy path. Their ability to play with three center backs — along with two wing backs and two strong defensive midfielders — makes for a stout defense while still allowing for the creative triangle of Robin Van Persie, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder to attack at full speed.

Argentina will try to ride Lionel Messi to the semis and stop Holland in that round, but the team has to figure out how to balance playing their impressive numbers of attacking players while remaining strong in the back.

On the other side of the bracket, Brazil has to be sweating today’s matchup with Chile, which impressed in its win over Spain and won’t be afraid of the host nation. Whoever wins that matchup will get past Colombia, the tournament’s best dancers thus far, to reach the semifinals, where Germany will be waiting, having easily dispatched Algeria and then bruising past border rival France.

As for Team USA, I think they pull out a 2-1 win over Belgium before bowing out at the hands of the magnificent Messi.

While I think the U.S. can beat Belgium and Argentina, I don’t see them reaching their first semifinal since 1930. After all, the Americans have only won one knock-out game in World Cup history.

Then again, few thought they’d escape the Group of Death.