One of the most dramatic Rounds of 16 I’ve ever seen, if maybe not one of the highest quality. Five out of the eight matches went to extra-time, two to penalties, and one of the remaining three decided in injury time. Only France and Colombia won semi-comfortably. For neutrals, the tournament has shaped up beautifully, with all eight group winners in the next round. The only surprise in the quarter-finals is Costa Rica after their dream run through Group D and Greece. Awesome for the Ticos.
If the old pattern holds — teams usually lose their next match after a Round of 16 extra-time — you’d expect a final four of Colombia, France, Holland and a coin toss between Argentina and Belgium (both of whom went to extra-time).
Could happen, certainly …. France have the quality to beat Germany, Colombia have looked better than Brazil, Holland should make short work of Costa Rica, and Argentina is maybe a nose in front of Belgium. On the other hand, but for the Costa Rica match, you wouldn’t be surprised to see it exactly the opposite, or somewhere in between. I’m still ok with my lazy pre-tournament bracket that has Brazil and Argentina in the final, but I’m not remotely ready to double down on that bet.
Before I get to the matches, a digression on the exit of the USA: We played all four matches with the bravery and tenacity you’d expect from a US team. But we didn’t play great football for the vast, vast majority of the tournament. Simon Gleave at Infostrada Sports has a cool infographic called the “wave” that captures balance of play in a match based on scoring opportunity/probability. Looking at it for the USA’s games (he didn’t do USA-Ghana, but you can imagine the extreme barbell shape of that one), it’s clear that we were only the more dangerous team on the field for about half the Portugal game, and for just a few moments of the other matches. Sure, we played only very good teams, but we were never bossing games, even for stretches. By comparison, our CONCACAF brothers Mexico and Costa Rica looked considerably more in control.
We are going to hear an endless chorus of “too many Germans,” “no Donovan” (enough with this one already folks: Donovan is an aging B player, not our football Jesus), “too defensive,” “no Plan B after Jozy” ad infinitum from the talking heads and provocateurs. I think it’s mostly bullshit. In my opinion, Klinsmann did the best with what he had available in a very brutal tournament from a draw and travel perspective. We are, at present, a good team but not nearly a great one. We have some good players, but no standout talents on the levels of players we see throughout this competition. If you want to progress to the final four of the World Cup, you need either to be a great team or to have some great players, preferably both.
I would rather we saw our 2014 World Cup performance as the end product of our youth development system. I have a 13 year old son who plays youth football at the highest competitive level in northern California, one of the hotbeds of US youth development (Chris Wondolowski is a direct product of this local system). It is 100% geared toward NCAA scholarships for elite players — and so colleges, not clubs, assume the crucial training role for 18-22 year olds, and worse, the young players are groomed to look good to college coaches. The San Jose Earthquakes academy — the only local MLS club — is not even considered the best youth academy in the region despite what should be a massive resource and brand advantage.
The youth coaching ranks are infested with well-meaning former English, American and northern European players who believe it is their job to beat the beautiful game into submission with discipline, shape, and triangle passing. Flair and individual skill on the ball have no place in the system. Kids (unfortunately, frequently Mexican-American kids) get subtly chided for “trying things” — back-heels, nutmegs, dribbling past defenders to make space. It’s a regression to the mean. When I hear Brits pissing and moaning about their stultifying youth system on BBC call-in shows, their description sounds disturbingly similar to what I see on training grounds here in the US of A.
By comparison, look at those German-born Americans who came through the German development system. Even though Jermaine Jones had a terrible game against Belgium, he had three great ones in the group stage. John Brooks, Fabian Johnson, and even Julian Green made big contributions. The USA scored 5 goals: Dempsey had two (playing as a lone striker) and the German-born players had the rest. Like it or not, Klinsmann did well with his squad selection and his substitutions, given the choices and circumstances. We can quibble at the tactical margins — Cameron vs. Beckerman in the Belgium match, stranding Dempsey up front when he looked so much better playing beside Bradley with a striker in front of him, etc. — but come on, does anyone really pine for Bob Bradley or Bruce Arena, even if our end result was the same?
Four years to Russia 2018 is a long time. Klinsmann got meaningful, competitive minutes at this tournament for Brooks, Yedlin, Green, and Johannsson, all of whom will be between 23 and 27 years old in 2018. Chandler (will be 28) and Diskerud (27) didn’t get on the field, but will have benefitted from the atmosphere, training and experience. Altidore will be 28, Gonzalez 29, Fabian Johnson and Michael Bradley 30, Guzan 33. That’s a great group of eleven experienced World Cup vets who can be built around with young players and MLS guys. Remember that only a half dozen players from our 2010 World Cup team went to Brazil this year. We will miss Dempsey, Jones, Beckerman, Beasley and Howard, but they, like the media’s false god Landon Donovan, are not irreplaceable.
Reforming the youth development system is a longer road — maybe 10-12 years. But at some point, when our talent development catches up with our national character and will to win, we have a chance to lift the Cup.
On to the matches:
This may be the quarter-final I am anticipating the most. Feels like a totally even match (FiveThirtyEight has it 52/48 Germany, essentially a toss-up). Neither of these teams is coming off a particularly dominant tournament so far. Germany came out of the tough group with the USA, Ghana and Portugal, then got pushed to extra-time by a good Algerian team with a hot keeper. France looked fantastic in spurts but ordinary at times, too, during the group stage. They struggled to put away Nigeria, letting them hang around at 0:0 for 80 minutes.
What have we learned about these teams from their previous four matches? From the back, I think they are relatively even on keepers (Lloris vs. Neuer) with a slight nod to Germany; I think we’ve seen more organization and speed from the French defense while the Germans have looked vulnerable; both have fantastic midfields — I think perhaps France’s is under-rated but Germany is a hair better; France’s attackers have been scary and they are deep (the sub of Griezmann for Giroud felt like a trade up against Nigeria), but Germany is stocked with goal poachers.
I think this one gets decided in the 90 minutes, maybe 1:0. Praying for an early goal to open things up.
I love Colombia. They are my favorite team remaining in the tournament. The part of me that believes that football is about joy and creativity and audacity gets fully validated watching Colombia. They are the antidote to Sepp Blatter. Just the smile on James Rodriguez’s face is worth the price of admission.
Normally, I could be convinced that a South American team playing Brazil in a World Cup in Brazil is the triple-whammy of psych-outs. No chance — too much historical baggage. But we watched Chile put up some really stiff resistance and play without the fear I was anticipating. And, as I’ve said before, this isn’t the hyper-dominant Brazil we’ve come to expect. It’s ten really good Brazilian role-players and Neymar. Which is still a really good team. But it’s a beatable team. And not a particularly deep team.
My love of Colombia leads me out onto the limb: I think Colombia pulls this one out 2:1 in extra-time (Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight has this almost 3-1 odds for Brazil — 72% favorites — which seems insane to me). Unfortunately, this will also be the world’s greatest buzzkill for the nation of Brazil (not on par with 1950, but brutal).
Both these teams got pushed to extra-time in the Round of 16, so both could be a bit fatigued. Belgium showed a lot of class putting away USA, with Lukaku super-impressive off the bench, Hazard full of pace and danger, De Bruyne making plays, Company and Courtois shoring up the back. They probably deserved to win 4:0 if not for the heroics of Tim Howard and some less-than-stellar finishing. They won all their matches in a Group H that looked weak going in, but after seeing Algeria and even Russia, maybe was a bit better than we thought.
Argentina has also won all their matches, maybe looking a little less balanced than Belgium and a little overly-reliant on Messi, who had the run-and-assist late in extra-time against Switzerland to set up Di Maria’s winner. They are still Argentina, playing in South America. They still have, on paper, the best attack in the tournament, with Messi, Di Maria, Higuain, Aguero, Palacio and Lavezzi available in various combinations. But they haven’t really put it together despite getting results, mainly due to sketchy midfield play. But they have Messi.
Both teams have a ton to prove by getting to a semi-final. I have a bit of hope that this match could be the highest-scoring of the quarter-finals.
Since everyone is writing this one off as an obvious Dutch victory, can Costa Rica give Holland a game? Perhaps the best argument for Costa Rica is that, in their minds, they have already won the World Cup. For this nation of 5 million to get through Italy, England and Uruguay undefeated, to win the Group of Champions, to win a penalty shoot-out after playing over an hour with 10 men against the wily Greeks, to get to a quarter-final match with Holland that the entire world will be watching, is pretty much the apex. They have nothing to lose. They already won.
Holland, on the other hand, come from a deep and haunted football culture. They have reached, and then lost, three World Cup finals. Three finals! Lost to Germany in ’74, Argentina in ’78, and Spain in ’10. They have talent all over the place at this tournament. Shook off the Spanish curse with a 5:1 win in the group stage. But they were taken to the mat by Mexico (arguably a weaker side than Costa Rica, who finished above them in CONCACAF qualifying), and only won through some dubious theatrics from Robben.
So … can Costa Rica win? Likely not. But if they get an early goal and put some doubt into the minds of the Dutch — that things might be unravelling for Holland once again, then maybe. Just maybe.