McLaughlin: 11 reasons to watch World Cup despite U.S. not being there

Scott McLaughlin
June 12, 2018 - 8:33 pm

Christopher Hanewinckel/USA Today Sports

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The NBA and NHL seasons are over. NFL training camps are over a month away. Outside of not-always-exciting midseason baseball, this is usually a bit of a dead spot on the sports calendar. But if you’re looking for something to fill that void, I have some great news: the most-watched sporting event in the world starts on Thursday.

You’d be forgiven for not realizing that the World Cup is upon us, because the United States embarrassingly failed to qualify for this year’s tournament, which really stinks. There’s no sugarcoating it. That said, there are still plenty of reasons to watch if you’re a soccer fan or even just interested enough to check out the World Cup every four years. (But if you’re one of those miserable cranks who dismisses soccer out of hand and is about to spend the next month complaining about other people enjoying soccer, then I just feel sorry for you.)

This tournament still gives us a chance to watch the vast majority of the best players in the world, including a couple of the very best to ever play. There are some stacked teams that should be loads of fun to watch. Plus, all the games are during the day, and who doesn’t like a good excuse to slack off at work?

So here is a viewing guide to some of the most intriguing teams and players.

1. The legends: Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo

If you enjoy watching all-time greats in their prime on the world’s biggest stage, then cherish this World Cup. It could be the last one we get 30-year-old Lionel Messi (Barcelona) at his best, and it’s pretty much guaranteed to be the last one we get 33-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid) at his. Neither has won a World Cup, with Messi and Argentina coming closest four years ago when they lost to Germany in the final in extra time. Ronaldo and Portugal, meanwhile, are hoping they can carry over some of their magic from 2016, when they won the European Championship by beating France in France in the final despite losing Ronaldo to a first-half injury.

It would be a stretch to call either Argentina or Portugal a favorite to win this World Cup, though. On paper, Argentina would appear to have the better shot. At the very least they should be one of the most exciting teams to watch, as they have a loaded attack that starts with Messi but also includes world-class talents like Sergio Aguero (Manchester City), Gonzalo Higuain (Juventus), Paulo Dybala (Juventus) and Angel Di Maria (Paris Saint-Germain). Argentina has question marks on defense, in goal and even in the midfield, though. While that shouldn’t prevent them from getting to the knockout round, it could be their downfall against the more complete favorites in entries 2-5 here.

Portugal’s Euro 2016 title silenced a lot of the talk about them not being able to put enough around Ronaldo, but… it kind of looks like this team doesn’t have enough around Ronaldo. There’s really no one else you’d call a star, and their back line, which has been a strength in the past, is now old -- their top three center backs are 36, 35 and 34. Portugal’s grind-it-out style worked two years ago, though, so perhaps they shouldn’t totally be dismissed. We’ll get a good idea of how they look against the elite right away, as they open Group B play against Spain Friday at 2 p.m. ET in what could be one of the best games of the group stage. A loss in that game would put Portugal in a tough position, though, because Morocco and Iran won’t be pushovers.

2. Neymar and a loaded Brazil

The “best player in the world” debate has been all about Messi vs. Ronaldo for a decade now, but Neymar (Paris Saint-Germain) has had the best claim to third place for the last several years. (Mohamed Salah was better this season, but Neymar was still having a great season before suffering a season-ending injury in February. He appears to be fully recovered now, as evidenced by his play in recent friendlies.) And he could beat Messi and Ronaldo to a World Cup, because Brazil is loaded and hungry to break through after their 2014 tourney ended with an embarrassing 7-1 loss to Germany in the semifinals on home turf (in a game Neymar missed due to injury).

This team is better than that one, and it's far from being overly reliant on Neymar, as Philippe Coutinho (Barcelona), Gabriel Jesus (Manchester City), Roberto Firmino (Liverpool), Willian (Chelsea) and Douglas Costa (Juventus) join him in a deep attack. Behind them is a strong midfield that will feature some combination of Casemiro (Real Madrid), Fernandinho (Manchester City), Paulinho (Barcelona), Fred (who just moved from Shakhtar Donetsk to Manchester United) and Renato Augusto (Beijing Sinobo Guoan).

Brazil’s back line doesn’t look quite as loaded, but it’s still very good, and it does include one of the best left backs in the world in Marcelo (Real Madrid). Plus, their best defense is going to be their dominance in possession anyway. Brazil will also have a world-class keeper in net, whether it’s Roma’s Alisson or Manchester City’s Ederson.

3. Can Germany repeat?

No country has won back-to-back World Cups since Brazil in 1958 and 1962, but Germany certainly look capable of pulling it off. They have two of the best keepers in the world in Marc-Andre ter Stegen (Barcelona) and Manuel Neuer (Bayern Munich), who missed pretty much the entire season due to injury but is back on the pitch now. They have a strong back line anchored by the Bayern Munich trio of center backs Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng and right back Joshua Kimmich, although left back is a bit of a question mark.

Toni Kroos (Real Madrid) is one of the best all-around midfielders in the world and Thomas Muller (Bayern Munich), Mesut Ozil (Arsenal), Marco Reus (Borussia Dortmund), Julian Draxler (Paris Saint-Germain) and Julian Brandt (Bayer Leverkusen) are all dangerous attacking players. Coach Joachim Low made arguably the most surprising cut of any team, though, when he left another great attacking wing at home in Leroy Sane (Manchester City), so he better hope the guys he brought get the job done. He’ll also be hoping he has a center forward who gets the job done, as that’s a spot of some uncertainty. Germany will roll with 22-year-old Timo Werner (RB Leipzig) there, but they’d feel better if his Bundesliga goal total hadn’t dropped from 21 in 2016-17 to 13 this year.

4. Stacked Spain looks to bounce back

After winning Euros in 2008, the World Cup in 2010 and Euros again in 2012, Spain fell into an international rut for the next few years. They failed to get out of their group in the 2014 World Cup and got knocked out in the round of 16 at Euro 2016. There are plenty of reasons to think this team could return Spain to glory, though. They have the best back line in the world, with elite players straight across in left back Jordi Alba (Barcelona), center backs Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid) and Gerard Pique (Barcelona), and right back Dani Carvajal (Real Madrid). They have a top keeper behind that in David De Gea (Manchester United). 

Spain also has an absurd amount of talent in the midfield, where defensive stalwart Sergio Busquets (Barcelona) anchors a unit that will feature some combination of the aging-but-still-stellar Andres Iniesta (Barcelona), David Silva (Manchester City), Isco (Real Madrid), Thiago (Bayern Munich), Koke (Atletico Madrid) and Saul Niguez (Atletico Madrid). These are the guys who will frustrate opponents with their ability to control play through their “tiki-taka” short passing game.

Up front, Marco Asensio (Real Madrid) is a dangerous option off the wing, but like Germany, Spain also has a question mark at center forward. Diego Costa (Atletico Madrid) had five goals in 10 qualifying games and is probably the favorite to start there, but he’s coming off a rough season that saw him score just seven goals in 23 appearances in all competitions. Celta Vigo’s Iago Aspas isn’t as big of a name, but is coming off a much better season in La Liga (22 goals in 34 games) and could (should?) get a look there. If one of them (or maybe even Valencia’s Rodrigo) proves capable of finishing the bountiful chances Spain’s playmakers are sure to create, look out.

5. Will France live up to its immense potential?

Few teams have more exciting attack options than France. Antoine Griezmann (Atletico Madrid) is one of the most talented forwards in the world and 19-year-old winger Kylian Mbappe (Paris Saint-Germain) is on his way to superstardom. Fellow young wingers Ousmane Dembele (Barcelona), Thomas Lemar (Monaco) and Florian Thauvin (Marseille) are all dangerous too, as is center forward Olivier Giroud (Chelsea) and attacking midfielder Nabil Fekir (Lyon). Paul Pogba (Manchester United) remains one of the best central midfielders in the world despite a bit of an up-and-down season this year.

The talent extends to defense as well. N’Golo Kante (Chelsea) is one of the best defensive midfielders this side of Busquets. Samuel Umtiti (Barcelona) and Raphael Varane (Real Madrid) are a formidable center back combo, and while France is a bit unproven at full-back, there is plenty of potential with Benjamin Mendy (Manchester City) on the left and Djibril Sidibe (Monaco) on the right.

The problem with France for years now has been that things never seem to run smoothly and they often don’t live up to their potential, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if that continues to plague them -- they still haven’t found their go-to formation, for instance, which is not an ideal place to start a World Cup. They also just settled for an unimpressive draw against a young, inexperienced U.S. team in their final pre-tournament tuneup. If they can get things to click, though, it’s not hard to envision France winning it all.
 
6. Is Belgium ready to break into the title conversation?

This has been called the “golden generation” of Belgian football, but so far, they’ve been intriguing dark horses more than true trophy contenders. Both their 2014 World Cup (when they bombarded Tim Howard and the United States in the round of 16 and finally broke through in extra time to advance) and 2016 Euros ended in the quarterfinals. Not bad, but not enough to put the world on notice either.

If they’re going to go deeper this time around, it will likely be in large part because Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City) and Eden Hazard (Chelsea) are two of the most dynamic players in the world and can shred opposing defenses. They also have two forwards up top who can finish their chances in Romelu Lukaku (Manchester United) and Dries Mertens (Napoli). On defense, Belgium has a strong back three in Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany (assuming he stays healthy, which unfortunately hasn’t been a safe assumption the last few years) and Tottenham’s Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld and a great keeper in Chelsea’s Thibaut Courtois.

On paper, Belgium’s final group stage game vs. England on June 28 looks like one of the best games of the group stage, but given the weakness of the other two teams in Group G (Tunisia and Panama), there’s also a decent chance both of those teams will have already locked up a round of 16 spot by then and won’t be giving it their all. Speaking of England… 

7. Exciting but unproven England

I really want this England team to have a good World Cup (like at least reach the quarterfinals and put up a fight against a top opponent there). Why? Because the English media is brutal and they probably have their “England fails again” stories already written, and this team is too fun and likable to get vilified like that. They also don’t deserve to carry the weight of England’s past struggles, because a lot of this team is young (they’re the second-youngest team in the World Cup) and inexperienced on the world stage.

That’s not to say there shouldn’t be ANY expectations, though. There is still a lot of talent here, and not getting out of their group would be a significant failure. Harry Kane (Tottenham) is one of the best strikers in the world and dropped 30 goals in Premier League play this season and 41 in all competitions. Raheem Sterling (a frequent target of undue criticism) is coming off a terrific 18-goal, 11-assist campaign for Manchester City. Dele Alli (Tottenham) is an exciting, potentially game-breaking attacking midfielder. Fellow attackers Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford have both shown flashes at Manchester United.

But there are also question marks. They don’t have a world-class keeper, and their center back, wing-back and central/defensive midfield spots feature a lot of guys who make you say “he’s fine” or “he has the potential to be really good,” but not many who are sure bets. Manager Gareth Southgate has gotten things to click with a unique 3-5-2 formation and some good results recently, but now comes the real test.

8. The dark horses: Uruguay, Colombia and Croatia

Uruguay is a popular dark horse pick to make a deep run, and it’s easy to see why. They have arguably the best forward combo in the whole tournament in Barcelona’s Luis Suarez (assuming he can keep his teeth to himself) and Paris Saint-Germain’s Edinson Cavani. They have a very good center back duo in Atletico Madrid teammates Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez. They also have some promising young midfielders, and just how ready that group is could determine how far Uruguay goes. Oh, and they’re in Group A, quite possibly the weakest group in World Cup history (the other three teams are Egypt, Saudi Arabia and hosts Russia), so they should be as much of a lock to reach the knockout round as anyone.

Staying in South America, Colombia also offers plenty to get excited about. James Rodriguez (Bayern Munich) is a star attacking midfielder coming off a great season who led the 2014 World Cup in goals, including this one. Forward Radamel Falcao (Monaco) and winger Juan Cuadrado (Juventus) join him in a dangerous attack. Davinson Sanchez (Tottenham) and Yerry Mina (Barcelona) make for a strong center back combo. Colombia doesn’t have much in the midfield to connect its defense and attack, though, and that could be a problem.

Croatia has one of the best midfields in the tournament with Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic, Real Madrid’s Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic, and Inter Milan’s Marcelo Brozovic. They have talented attackers in front of that group in Ivan Perisic (Inter Milan) and Mario Mandzukic (Juventus). But Croatia has question marks on defense and they won’t have much margin for error in a tough Group D that also features Argentina, Iceland and Nigeria.

9. Big stars on not-so-great teams: Mohamed Salah and Robert Lewandowski

Mohamed Salah is still a question mark for Egypt's opener against Uruguay on Friday after suffering a shoulder injury in Liverpool’s Champions League final loss to Real Madrid. For the sake of soccer fans everywhere, hopefully he can go, because he established himself as one of the best players in the world this year, netting 32 goals in Premier League play (the most in a Premier League season in 23 years) and 44 in all competitions. Assuming he's playing, it will be interesting to see what he can do with Egypt, as they don’t have a whole lot of talent around him. But the combination of having Salah and playing in the weak Group A gives them a chance to get to the knockout round.

Robert Lewandowski has a bit more talent around him with Poland, but the Bayern Munich star forward is clearly the main attraction here and the key to Poland making any kind of run. His 29 goals in the Bundesliga this season were 14 more than anyone else, and he broke 40 goals in all competitions for the third straight year. On paper, Group H -- which also includes Colombia, Senegal and Japan -- looks like the group with the most parity, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see Lewandowski and company win the group or fail to get out of it.

Other very good attacking players worth watching if you come across their team’s games include Denmark’s Christian Eriksen (Tottenham), Senegal’s Sadio Mane (Liverpool) and Serbia’s Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (Lazio).

10. Will Mexico finally win a knockout round game and will FOX ever shut up about them?

If you watch any of FOX’s studio coverage of this World Cup, you’re going to hear a lot about Mexico. On one hand, I get it. Without the United States there, it makes sense for FOX to shift its attention to a team that has a large, passionate following among Mexican-Americans. On the other, it’s kind of annoying and weird. Mexico is the United States’ biggest rival in soccer and I’m not going to suddenly care more about them or want them to win just because the U.S. isn’t there, which seems to be what FOX is trying to convince viewers to do.

Anyway, on the field, there is a pretty interesting Mexico storyline: the so-called “curse of the fifth game.” Mexico has advanced out of the group stage in six straight World Cups, but has then lost in the round of 16 all six times. Will this be the year they finally get over the hump and reach the quarterfinals? Probably not. They can certainly beat out Sweden and South Korea to get out of Group F, but it’s hard to see them winning the group over Germany -- if they’re going to have a shot, they’ll almost certainly need at least a draw against the Germans when they meet in their tournament opener Sunday at 11 a.m. ET. And if they have to settle for second in the group, that would likely mean a tough match against Brazil in the round of 16, assuming Brazil wins Group E.

11. Everyone’s favorite underdog: ICELAND!

Iceland and their Viking clap captured the adoration of the soccer world in 2016 when they qualified for Euros for the first time and then pulled off a shocking upset of England in the round of 16. Their remarkable run continued in 2017 when they became the smallest country ever to qualify for the World Cup. Can they keep it going in 2018 on the biggest stage of all?

It won’t be easy. They’re in a tough Group D, and on paper they don’t measure up to Argentina or Croatia. But hey, they did split their two games against Croatia in qualifying, and they weren’t supposed to measure up to England either. Iceland is generally sound defensively and dangerous on set pieces, and that might be just enough to surprise the world and make some noise once again.

Prediction for the final: Brazil over Spain

Neither of these teams has lost in two years. They look like the two squads that are clicking best, as both dominated in qualifying and have looked very good in recent friendlies. They both have a ton of talent, a clearly defined system and minimal question marks. This would be an awesome final between probably the two best possession teams in the field, and I’d go with Brazil because I think they have the edge in two key areas that could make the difference: speed and finishing. Neymar wins the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player.

(Writer's note: About 10 hours after this was published, Spain fired its coach, Julen Lopetegui, just two days before their first match. You can read up on the bizarre situation here, but the crux is that it was announced he would leave the national team to take over Real Madrid after the tournament and all of it was done behind the Spain national team's back, which understandably didn't sit well with them. I'm sticking with Spain to get to the final because A) changing your pick is lame, B) I still believe in their players, and C) they'll presumably still play Lopetegui's system because there's just not enough time to change anything. I definitely don't feel nearly as good about the pick now, though, because changing coaches this close to the tournament is far from ideal.)

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