Thoughts From the Opening Matches of the Knockout

By Aaron Hampton  

The knockout rounds of the World Cup began this weekend and saw Brazil, Columbia, Costa Rica, and the Netherlands all go through to the quarterfinals.  So while you’re still catching your breath from the two penalty shootouts or possibly still gasping in amazement at James Rodriguez’s wonder goal, here’s my takeaways from each fixture.

Brazil Survive and Advance

The Selecao’s performance against Chile was at times frustrating, always dramatic, and in the end just enough to see Brazil through to the quarterfinals.  And while they are moving on to the next round of the World Cup, it seems as though this win left more answers than questions; mainly about the creativity of this Brazilian squad. Neymar is the unquestioned star of this team, and it’s clear that as he goes so will Brazil, however you can’t help but be struck by just how ordinary this team looks when Neymar isn’t allowed to weave his magic. 

Coming into the match with four goals, if Chile had any chance at winning the match they were going to have to limit Neymar and overall they did a good job in containing him, often putting him in situations with three or four defenders surrounding him.  With that type of focus squarely on stopping the Barcelona forward, it was on the other members of the team to provide Brazil with another outlet of attack.

 Hulk had his best game for Brazil in recent memory, consistently finding success getting up and down the flanks and putting pressure on the back line of Chile, but even his failed clearance led to Alexis Sanchez equalizing for Chile in the first half.  Beyond him,  you really struggle to find anyone else who had an impact on the game.  Fred continued his struggles in this tournament, and was subbed off for the equally ineffective Jo.  Oscar, consistently a source of creativity and attacking inspiration for Chelsea, also struggled to make his mark on the game and was virtually nonexistent on the pitch.

 And while at this stage of the tournament advancing to the next match is really all that matters, clearly if the host nation is going to live up to the high expectations set on them, they will have to do more to supplement the attacking prowess of Neymar.  There will be games, games of which we’ve already seen during this World Cup, where he will put the team on his back and drag Brazil across the finish line.  But as we get into the later rounds, Brazil can’t count on that every match.  Eventually goals are going to have to come from somewhere else.  Where is anybody’s guess, but moving onto the next round Brazil will have a few days to think it over.

Rodriguez Shines For Columbia

In all honesty their was only one clear distinction between Columbia and Uruguay in their knockout round matchup, one team had James Rodriguez and the other did not.  That’s where we’re at at this point in the World Cup, where James Rodriguez is making himself a household name with each passing match producing another otherworldly performance. Coming into the World Cup minus the talents of world-class striker Radamel Falcao, many were wondering how Columbia would be able to progress deep into the tournament without their number one striker.  Not to say that Falcao has become an afterthought, but that’s just how easy it is to get caught in the amazement of what James Rodriguez is doing in this tournament. 

With five goals and two assists, he has been the unquestioned player of the World Cup.  But what’s even more impressive is that he seems to grow in confidence and get better as Columbia gets deeper in the World Cup.  His eye for goal and finding teammates in dangerous positions has been second to none to anybody in this year’s World Cup.

 His wonder strike in the first half of Columbia’s win was a microcosm of everything Rodriguez has meant to Columbia and fans watching the World Cup.  It was creative, confident, and clinical, the perfect balance between flair and finishing. 

Columbia now goes through to a quarterfinal matchup against Brazil, firmly on the back of their 22 year-old prodigy.  How far they make rest squarely on the left foot of James Rodriguez, who continues to announce himself to the world each and every time he sets foot on the pitch.

Heartbreak for Mexico

Five minutes from stoppage time and it seemed as though Mexico was on their way to qualifying for the quarterfinals of the World Cup for only third time in there history.  It was then when set piece defending, the achilles heel of this Mexican team, reared it’s ugly head.  With the Netherlands taking their tenth corner of the game, Wesley Sneijder was allowed to pounce on a deflection and  bury a wide open shot into the back of the net to knot the game up at one goal a piece.

From there the nightmare would continue as Arjen Robben, who unquestionably was the Netherlands most threatening player all afternoon, was taken down in the box in stoppage time, which led to Klass-Jan Huntelaar cooly slotting home the game winning goal from the spot.

What makes the defeat even more hard to stomach if you’re a Mexico supporter, is that prior to the two goals in eight minutes by the Netherlands, El Tri were clearly the better side of the two all afternoon  They were able to dictate the pace at which the game was played, not allowing the Netherlands to get out on the break and stifling both Robin Van Persie and Arjen Robben whenever they picked up the ball.  Beyond that they were fearless in getting forward and taking their chances at goal, which was rewarded by Giovanni Dos Santos first goal for the national team in over two years. 

And while Mexico may have been the better team for 80 minutes of the contest, all that’ll be talked about and dissected from the match is the meltdown in the dying moments of the game.  Which is a shame because in just a short time since World Cup qualifying this team has grown under the leadership of Miguel Herrera.  It was evident in their gusty performance in earning a draw against Brazil during the group stage, and it was solidified in outplaying the Netherlands for large portions of their match.

The Magical Run Continues for Costa Rica

In a World Cup filled with many shocks and surprises possibly none is bigger than the continued success Costa Rica is experiencing in this year’s tournament.  They were never expected to challenge in a group that included England, Italy, and Uruguay and yet they finished first in that group and continue to make waves in the tournament after dispatching Greece by way of penalties.

While it wasn’t the most aesthetically pleasing performance tactically from Costa Rica, their heart and resolve were on display for all the world to see as they had to finish almost the entire second half and 30 minutes of extra time down to only 10 men. As Greece dominated possession and tried to kill the game off, keeper Keylor Navas made a number of great saves at close range to keep his team in the game and inspire to withstand Greece’s offensive advances.

It’s only fitting that he have the defining moment of the game in the penalty shootout.  With each team taking turns cooly slotting home penalty shots, Navas made an impressive diving, left handed save that put Costa Rica in the drivers seat, and gave defender Michael Umana the platform to kill off the game with his final penalty shot, and send Costa Rica on to a matchup with the Netherlands.

Once again Costa Rica will come into that game with the Netherlands as the overachieving underdog, but as the games go by and the wins pile up that title is ill-fitting.  This is a squad that belongs and one that will take the fight right to the Netherlands.  And while their run up until this point has been magical, something tells me they still my have one or two tricks up there sleeve.

 

True Grit

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By Aaron Hampton

It wasn’t easy or pretty, but there was something so American about the way the United States qualified for the knockout round of the World Cup.  Michael Bradley talked in the lead up to the World Cup about wanting to be the that can suffer the most, and that in itself sums up the war of attrition the United States overcame in making it out of the group.

Take the loss of Jozy Altidore for example.  Losing your number one striker would be a major blow for any team, but more so for the United States and Klinsmann’s preference for running a 4-2-3-1 formation.  Now you can make what you want of Altidore’s form heading into the World Cup, but the fact remains no one on the roster can fill his shoes as the lone man upfront for the United States in that formation, with neither Clint Dempsey, Chris Wondolowski, nor Aron Johanasson as adept at playing with their backs to goal.  Yet, without their target man upfront the United States were still able to brave a lethal attacking threat in Ghana just long enough for John Brooks to etch his name into folklore with his brilliant header in the dying embers of that opening game.

Even more important than the three points taken from the win against Ghana was how the United States responded to dominating large portions of their match against Portugal, only to see Portugal salvage a draw behind a momentary defensive lapse and a picture-perfect cross from Cristiano Ronaldo.  A win in that game would have sent the United States through to the knockout round with a game in hand against Germany, however it wasn’t meant to be and the United States faced Germany with their berth in the knockout round far from secure.

And while the United States came away on the short end of there match against Germany, there performance was gritty, determined, and everything needed in order to make it through to the next round.

That’s not to say there is no work that needs to be done to the squad by the time the knockout round begins.  Michael Bradley will definitely need to improve his form heading into the next round.  While the United States clawed its way out of the group stage without the best performances from Bradley, eventually during this tournament they will run into a point where they will need the steel reserve of Bradley to push them through.  His touch and decision making haven’t been what we are accustomed to seeing from Bradley, but with the group stage behind and essentially a new tournament starting with the knockout stage, it’s now or never for Bradley.

The health of Jozy Altidore will determine whether the United States’reverts back to a 4-2-3-1 or if Klinsmann continues to tinker away at the formation to find the perfect mix without the Sunderland striker.  The United States went to a 4-5-1 against Germany with Clint Dempsey upfront, and the results were mixed at best.  While Dempsey is serviceable at that role upfront, it’s clear he’s more effective linking play and making runs at goal in contrast to playing with his back to goal.

The back line of the United States has been a lingering question mark for the team since World Cup qualifying, and that’ll also be an interesting area to keep an eye on as the team moves forward.  While I believe both Fabian Johnson and DaMarcus Beasley have both right and left back cemented respectively, the center back position still poses a question for the United States.  Omar Gonzalez looked impressive against Germany, neutralizing a few German attacks with monster clearances, and it will be interesting to see if he slots in next to Matt Besler in the middle of that back four.

To say the United States has come a long way since their 2-1 loss to Honduras during World Cup qualifying would be an understatement.  That loss, arguably the lowest point of Jurgen Klinsmann’s reign as head coach of the United States Men’s National Team, brought with it questions about his leadership style, tactics, and overall suitability for the job handed to him after the firing of Bob Bradley.  Fast forward to the present with the United States advancing out of the “Group of Death”and to a knockout round showdown with either Belgium or Algeria, and it’s clear to see that not only was that loss an aberration, but that there’s a grit to this team we didn’t see before.  A decidedly American grit that will see them through to the knockout round.