Group play has concluded in Russia with 16 nations advancing to the World Cup Round of 16, which means, of course, that 16 more are going home.
We were all shocked, shocked! to see Germany leading the group that was sent packing after the opening round, despite the fact the two previous winners, Spain 2010, Italy, 2006, were eliminated at the same point as they attempted to defend their titles, while France, the 1998 winners also flopped in 2002.
10 of the 16 nations to advance come from Europe, four made their way to Russia from South America (CONMEBOL), and just 1 CONCACAF nation (Mexico) and one Asian country (Japan) emerged from group play, with Africa failing to advance a team to the knockout rounds for the first time since 1982.
VAR has been in the headlines with both the haters and proponents having multiple chances to say, aha! I was right. From my viewpoint, the system has worked well, with any problems coming from human error in implementing the technology.
The host nation, Russia started well, stumbled but advanced, Mexico did the same, though El Tri needed a San Zusi like moment with South Korea beating Germany to play the role of Graham Zusi, whose goal in 2013 sent Mexico to the World Cup the following year.
Which brings us around to the question of how American fans are taking this World Cup without our beloved USMNT?
With Costa Rica eliminated and Panama humiliated, only Mexico moved onto the Round of 16, a far cry from Brazil ‘14 when the U.S. Mexico, and Costa Rica all advanced, with only Honduras failing to carry the CONCACAF banner into the KO rounds.
The USMNT and Mexico went no further but at least in Brazil, American fans could take a measure of regional pride in the Ticos exploits in reaching the quarterfinals, knowing that our boys had repped the red, white, and blue in decent fashion while taking comfort in the knowledge that the hated rivals to our south had gone no deeper in the tournament that had the U.S.
No such comfort exists for USMNT supporters at Russia ‘18, despite retired U.S. great turned corporate endorser Landon Donovan’s embrace of Mexico. No, if USMNT supporters were to adopt a chant for this World Cup, “I Believe That I Can’t Take It!” might replace 2014’s ubiquitous “I Believe That We Will Win!”
And any thought that the positive vibes emanating from the USMNT youth movement in a series of pre-World Cup friendlies would help heal the still fresh wound of the October Surprise versus Trinidad and Tobago were dashed as we watched Costa Rica, a team that beat the Americans by a combined score of 6-0 in the final round of World Cup Qualifiers, eliminated after failing to score even one goal in its first two matches., before ending its World Cup on something of a positive note with a 2-2 draw versus Switzerland.
And then there is Panama, the side that finished 32nd out 32 teams in Russia. Regardless of whether Jurgen Klinsmann or Bruce Arena was at the helm, U.S. fans must be feeling that the Americans should have found a way to finish above Panama in the Hexagonal.
And if we are tempted to give the World Cup debutante Canaleros at least a bit of a pass due to their tough opening schedule of Belgium followed by England, we should remember that four years back in Brazil the Yanks were just a Chris Wondolowski moon shot away from defeating Belgium and advancing to the quarters, while one Mundial previous in South Africa, the Americans drew with England, while topping the group.
But no, we know all too well that Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, and even Honduras, who lost to Australia in a playoff that saw the Aussies qualify for this World Cup, all finished above the U.S. in World Cup Qualifiers, with Mexico undefeated and Costa Rica collecting just a single mark in the L column during the 10 match HEX.
So, if the swift elimination of two of our CONCACAF betters is a bitter pill, it must also serve as a harsh reminder to newly appointed General Manager Earnie Stewart and his as yet unnamed coach that there is yeoman’s work to be done to get the USMNT up to an acceptable standard, a standard that ensures that American soccer fans, and American soccer, is not on the outside looking in when the World Cup rolls onto Qatar in 2022.