The Knockout Game (not that knockout game): Weekend World Cup Preview

Yesterday was probably the happiest I’ve ever been after watching my team lose, and J Reed’s post yesterday in its aftermath summed up my feelings in words better than I could have put together (ed. note: that can’t possibly be true). Because of the way the group stage is set up, all the US had to do yesterday was not lose badly, and they’d see themselves through. Ghana helped by losing to Portugal, who needed to make up considerably more goals than the Black Stars would have. The US weathered the first fifteen minutes, which was one wave after another of German assault on poor Tim Howard (God Bless Him and Keep Him) and a beleaguered defense, after which they held their own, giving as good as they got for a good 40 minutes or so, Thomas Mueller’s goal notwithstanding.

Mueller's goal against the US
Damn that was a beaut.

Mueller’s goal was an absolutely beautiful shot, and other than the Nani goal off of Cameron’s miscue, every goal the US has conceded has had a measure of the gorgeous. Mueller’s perfect curl off a Howard parry goes up there with Cristiano Ronaldo’s inch-perfect cross and Asamoah Gyan’s goal in the opening match. Making your opponent work that hard to score, allowing goals only when they are the result of breathtaking artistry combined with tremendous effort and world class skill, is what every team strives for. You can’t keep them all out, but the US (Cameron-to-Nani excepted) kept all but the most miraculous in the field of play. The US got some good goals as well. Dempsey’s (PBUH) opener will be long remembered in the annals of US Soccer and Jermaine Jones’ dagger from deep against Portugal was among the best shots you can take from that distance. Brooks’ header and Deuce’s crotch thrust goal were more hard work combining with luck than anything else, but they all count the same.

And that’s the point. If the US can continue to stymie and frustrate opposition in front of goal, then there will be more space for the US attack, with the other team committing more players forward. This is how the US wins, and how they want matches to go. As the opponents tire, and bring more players into their attack, the US springs to life and rushes past on the break. Early goals make the job easier for the US, but they aren’t as necessary as they are for teams who rely on sustained possession and intricate passing. And it’s not as if the US is incapable of holding the ball and stringing together magical passes, simply that they aren’t built around doing it way, for better or worse. This is a team that huffs and puffs for 90 minutes assuming you can’t keep up with them the whole time. Until the last twenty minutes against Germany, they were right. They have until Tuesday at 4:00 to get their legs and their lungs right.

Tomorrow is the beginning of the knockout stages, which means no more playing for a draw and no more tidy 2-hour timeslots. They play the full 90, and then, if still tied, they go on to two 15 minute overtime periods. It’s not sudden death, but the limited time on offer can certainly make it feel that way if your team is the one that concedes. If they play all 120 without a winner, they proceed to penalty kicks, which is stupid and probably unfair, but no one has come up with a better idea aside from letting them play until only one player is left breathing (ed. note: this is far preferable to penalty kicks).

Brazil and Chile kick it off at noon, which should be great brunch viewing. Neither team is likely to put themselves in a shell around their own penalty area, although Chile are a much more defensive team than Brazil. The host country has had their share of problems at the back, however. Whether it’s been lack of communication and familiarity, a deliberate plan to get players forward or simply players who aren’t at their best, Brazil’s back line has been their weak point, and could end up as their Achilles heel. The matchup to watch (even though they’ll infrequently be matched against one another) is the Exploding Ham Cart that is David Luiz and the half-rock, half-tree, half-bomb defusing robot that is Arturo Vidal. As Chile has become the hipster’s choice of this Cup, Vidal has become the “guy you don’t know about but should.” He is strong and stout, capable of destroying would-be attacks with brawn and intelligent enough to snuff them out by superior positioning and anticipation. In attack, he uses the same combination to overpower and out-think defenses. Every time he and Luiz are within a few yards of each other, it’s going to be worth watching.

In the late game, Uruguay will be without the services of Luis Suarez, suspended for four months by FIFA and thus out for the rest of the tournament. They still have plenty of firepower up front with Edinson Cavani, who looked like the only Uruguayan really up for it against Italy earlier this week, and Diego Forlan, who despite his advancing years can still light it up for 90 minutes on the right day and against the right defense. Jose Pekerman’s team will focus their energy on containing those dangermen and getting the ball to their number 10, James (Hahm-Ez) Rodriguez, who’s been outstanding so far working off Teófilo Gutiérrez. Colombia certainly had the better group stage, but also had the benefit of playing considerably lesser teams than Uruguay.

The Netherlands look to open the scoring early on Sunday against Mexico. Though they looked suspect briefly against Australia, they have otherwise looked like the most complete team in the World Cup (with the possible exception of France). Despite what was considered an inexperienced and suspect back line (by yours truly as well as most observers in the months before the tournament) , they dismantled and dismayed Spain and put two past the very stout Chilean defense without conceding any. Mexico were thought to be lucky to be here, and indeed, they were only so through the grace of the US. But since qualifying, they have been on a tear. This is another match that should see some excitement and action, though Mexico can certainly become an overly defensive team if they get put under enough pressure. 

Sunday’s night game is likely to be the most dour affair of the second round, as neither Costa Rica nor Greece look to pour on the goals. Greece will continue its push to have soccer classified as a hate crime by placing everyone in a defensive crouch, relying on two and a half creative players to win free kicks in dangerous areas in order to score. Costa Rica won Group D, with wins over Italy and Uruguay before drawing England in a game that meant little to either team. Beating those two teams is something of an achievement (as is emerging from those games with 22 legs, 22 arms, and no bite marks) but no one seems to believe in the Ticos as real challengers. Beating Greece won’t change many people’s minds, but it will still put them in the quarterfinals. Costa Rica are also the only team who relies on a guy named Yeltsin.

By the time you go out for dinner on Sunday night, there will be 12 teams left in the tournament, and half the quarterfinalists will have been decided. That means that as much fun as this World Cup has been (Every team scored at least one! Even Greece!), it is swiftly drawing to a close. The next week should be a little cagier than the group stages, where a loss didn’t automatically put you on a plane (which, thank God), but there is still plenty to cheer and celebrate, and some moments of stunning quality yet to come. Enjoy the weekend and see you Monday.


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