World Cup 2014 – Round of 16

Can Columbia and Costa Rica continue to crash the party?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe round of sixteen concluded with many of the usual suspects surviving, but all the matches were close and no truly superior team emerged. This makes me wonder, can Columbia and Costa Rica continue their magnificent runs.

Columbia will be up against an old rival, even though these two squads will present fresh faces to a traditional rivalry. Brazil will have the home crowd, but will that be enough to overcome the potent scoring machine they will be facing? The hosts have shown an inability at times to score, only coming through in a penalty shootout against Chile. The Columbian defense has looked disorganized against lesser competition in this tournament but survived. They will have to improve to have any chance of advancing.

Costa Rica has been a surprise, but not undeserving of where they find themselves. They have the talent, it just seems to have matured so quickly, before our viewing eyes, in Brazil. And the Netherlands themselves have seemed unbeatable at times and then very beatable at other times, trailing Australia in the group stage and requiring two late goals to best Mexico. It will likely be a game of mistakes and opportunities. Whichever side cashes in efficiently on those opportunities will advance.

Argentina vs. Belgium, or should I say, Messi vs. Hazard, will be fun to watch. France vs. Germany is a blue chip matchup that is nearly guaranteed to entertain.

Of note: Five of the eight matches in the Round of Sixteen went to extra time to decide the victor. Two of those went through the extra period without a score and required a penalty shootout. Parody has arrived at the World Cup.

World Cup 2014 – Days 6-10

The tournament begins to take shape. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Portugal is hanging by a thread. Spain and England have already bowed out. Costa Rica and Chile have secured their advance into the round of sixteen. And the U.S. has a fighting chance to win the Group of Death.

If these are not the winds of change, then they are, at the least, the dusty breeze that precedes such a storm.

We might well end up with two European powerhouses vs. two South American behemoths in the semis. In fact, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise at all. But every slot taken by an Ecuador or Nigeria is one less place for a Russia or Italy to land. Surely, there will be more upsets to come and more giants will fall. Even the Netherlands and Germany appeared nearly ordinary in their second matches.

Scoring has dropped off dramatically since the flurry of goals in the opening days of the tournament. And the third set of matches will only become tighter, as each squad learns exactly how many points they need to secure to advance into the knockout stages.

Tomorrow will be a defining moment for both the U.S. and Portugal. Is that a breeze I feel coming from Manaus?

Of note: Iran came within two minutes of securing a second point without scoring a goal in the tournament. Australia has scored three goals but has zero points to show for it. Which team has the best goal differential so far? Germany? The Netherlands? Actually, it’s France, with a +6 margin.

World Cup 2014 – Day 5

Day five from Brazil brought us two lumps of coal and the best match yet. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Germany vs. Portugal disappointed, Nigeria vs. Iran anesthetized, but Ghana vs. the U.S offered the best entertainment of the tournament so far. In the day’s first match, Portugal was vulnerable and unorganized in central defense, having already lost the game well before the thirty-seventh minute, when Pepe succumbed to a flash of frustration and was shown a red card for his efforts. The drubbing only continued from there. In the second match, Iran seemed to be playing for a scoreless draw from the outset and Nigeria was mysteriously willing to oblige. It was enough to make the most fervent soccer fan numb.

And then came the third match, Ghana vs. the U.S.A.

Just 34 seconds into the match, Clint Dempsey made an unstoppable run, and when he scored, it was clear this would be the game of the day. The Americans adopted a counter-attacking strategy for the match, but Jozy Altidore pulling a hamstring in the 23rd minute blunted the threat of that approach. Adding to the pressure was, first, Clint Dempsey being kicked in the face and having to leave the pitch for a time and then, second, Besler developing his own hamstring issues.

By the start of the second half, when Brooks was substituted for Besler, it was clear the U.S. was in total defensive mode. They rarely broke out, and when they did, the ball was often simply dumped in Ghana’s half for easy retrieval by their opponent. Pressure continued to mount as Ghana dominated possession and shots on goal. Howard made several crucial stops but eventually succumbed to Andre Ayew in the 82nd minute.

But what happened next might define this squad for quite some time. In the 86th minute, off a perfectly struck corner, Brooks converted a header and the U.S. was back on top. Nine long, white-knuckled minutes later, the U.S. had secured three points from a grueling duel. They now sit second place in the Group of Death, not the worst position to be in by any means. Next up for the U.S is a very pissed off and desperate Portugal. Should be fun.

Of note: When Brooks scored, it marked the first time in American World Cup history that a substitute had scored off the bench. When Dempsey scored in 34 seconds, it was the fastest ever score by an American in World Cup history and the sixth quickest overall in World Cup history. With that score, Dempsey also became the first American to score in three different World Cups.