Reflections on the Exciting 2014 World Cup Group Stage

Today is the first off day of the 2014 World Cup as the survivors of the group stage prepare to begin the round of 16 tomorrow. To be honest, I do not mind having a day off from watching matches because this tournament has been intense! There have been unexpected results and goals galore. Nearly every match was enjoyable to watch, and the final 16 includes a number of surprises that will continue to add intrigue to the tournament, most notably the qualification of Costa Rica and Algeria and the absence of Spain, Italy, and England.

Some of the teams who qualified for the second round were especially impressive, notably Holland and France, and others will need to step up their game to have a chance of advancing, including two of the pre-tournament favorites, Brazil and Argentina. I said before the tournament that Brazil would not be the champions, and I am even more sure of this prediction after seeing how flat they have been. They got a lucky victory against Croatia after a horrible penalty call, and then beat a Cameroon side who had already been eliminated and ended up finishing last. They will have a difficult time beating Chile, let alone getting to the latter stages of the tournament. I am picking Germany to win the tournament. They have not been as impressive as the Dutch, but I just do not trust the Dutch to win the big one.

Of course picking a European team to win the World Cup in South America is dangerous, as a European side has never won the trophy when the tournament took place in the Americas (indeed, the only European team to win the tournament outside of Europe was Spain in South Africa in 2010; similarly, the only non-European team to win in Europe was Brazil in Sweden in 1958) and more than half of the European teams failed to reach the second round. Argentina has a shot to win if Lionel Messi continues to be unstoppable, but the rest of the squad have not shown the necessary quality. Colombia has been the most impressive South American side, and they could make a deep run into the tournament.

Teams from the Americas have had an excellent tournament in general. Five of the six South American sides went through to the round of 16, and South America is guaranteed at least one semifinalist because the winners of the two all-South American second round match-ups will meet each other in the quarterfinals. Three of the four CONCACAF sides went through, which is especially impressive because the U.S. were in the Group of Death, Costa Rica were in the Group of Death Part II and won it handily, and Mexico were in a group with Brazil (which ended up being less of a difficulty than everyone predicted, but still). These results should put to rest any talk about taking away any of CONCACAF’s 3.5 qualifying slots for the 2018 World Cup. However, Asia had a terrible tournament, with none of its four teams even winning a game. The AFC might be in danger of losing its half qualifying slot to Africa, who did surprisingly well after a difficult start to the tournament, with two of its five teams advancing–one better than in 2010.

The U.S. did an excellent job advancing from the Group of Death (an especially impressive feat considering the injury to one of their key players, Jozy Altidore, in the first match), and will be a difficult out in the knockout rounds. Just like 2002, they won their first match, drew their second, and lost their third, but unlike in 2002 they played solidly in their final match and should feel good about themselves going into their second round encounter with a Belgian side that has looked about as unimpressive as it is possible to be while still winning all three group matches. Most people expected the U.S. to be eliminated in the first round, but Jurgen Klinsmann has done an excellent job instilling confidence into the squad and making tactical and personnel adjustments during the tournament (really his only misstep was starting Brad Davis against Germany).

I was critical of Klinsmann for leaving Landon Donovan out of the American squad and for including DeAndre Yedlin, but the team’s results have shown that these were both correct decisions. What I have realized after thinking about this turn of events is that the U.S. has finally progressed to the point where they no longer have to take their best 23 players to the World Cup and hope that they mesh together well enough to get results. They have enough quality players that the manager can choose the 23 that will work together the best as a team, and this is what Klinsmann did. I feel very confident about having him in charge over the next four years as the U.S. prepare for the 2018 tournament in Russia. The U.S. have never advanced to the second round when the World Cup has been held in Europe (conversely, they have always advanced to the knockout stages when it has been held outside of Europe with the exception of 1950 in Brazil, when they had their famous 1-0 victory over England, which was almost as good), but I am confident that they can break this streak just like they broke their streak of never qualifying for the second round two tournaments in a row this year.

I look forward to seeing how all of the tournament’s intrigue continues to develop over the coming weeks!

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