Reaching the knockout round a solid feat for U.S.

rseibel@macon.comJune 26, 2014 

OK, so I totally whiffed on Spain.

Who would have thought the defending World Cup champion would have been such an easy out? And who would have thought that Spain, England and Italy all would fail to make it out of pool play?

This World Cup has been a bit of an adventure, although most of the usual non-European powers made it through to knockout play. The U.S. finished right where I expected at four points, with the Americans’ fate not decided until the closing moments of Thursday’s pool play contests.

The good news? Things broke the right way for the U.S. in pool play, and four points gave the Americans what they needed to advance out of a challenging pool that included two of the top four teams in the FIFA World Ranking in Germany and Portugal. Considering the U.S. advanced without key offensive player Jozy Altidore, who was injured in the early stages of the opening contest against Ghana, what the Americans accomplished was no easy task.

Things won’t get any easier once knockout play begins. From here on out, it’s win or go home. Belgium is the U.S. opponent Tuesday, and the Belgians should provide some strong competition. They were steady in wins over Algeria and Russia, and they closed out pool play Thursday with a win over South Korea.

Should the U.S. get past Belgium in the 4 p.m. contest, the Americans likely will face an extremely tall task in the quarterfinals. Argentina, should it get past Switzerland in the Round of 16, likely will be a big favorite based on home-continent advantage alone, not to mention the country’s deep World Cup history. Get past that, and a pair of fellow North and Central American teams, Costa Rica and Mexico, would be potential semifinal opponents, along with the Netherlands and Greece.

Right now, however, the focus should be on Belgium. The U.S. has held its own without Altidore, but the Americans really need his offensive spark to do any damage in knockout play. He’s good for a goal if he plays, and one goal could be the difference between heading home for Independence Day or playing a quarterfinal contest July 5 in Brazil.

Three other Round-of-16 contests to watch:

Colombia vs. Uruguay, 4 p.m. Saturday: In the second of two all-South American contests Saturday, Uruguay takes the field without Luis Suarez, who was suspended for nine contests -- and for four months from all soccer activity -- by FIFA for his third career biting incident during Tuesday’s match against Italy. Both sides will play some passionate soccer, and don’t be surprised if this one get a bit testy at times.

Netherlands vs. Mexico, Noon, Sunday: Mexico, which needed U.S. help during the final round of qualifying just to make the World Cup, made it through pool play with seven points, tying for the top spot in Pool A with Brazil after holding the tournament host to a scoreless draw. The Mexicans face the defending World Cup runner-up, with Team Orange winning all three of its pool play games with a plus-7 goal differential.

Costa Rica vs. Greece, 4 p.m., Sunday: Costa Rica was the only North and Central American team to win its pool, edging Uruguay by a point for first place in Group D. Greece needed a penalty kick in stoppage time of its pool play finale just to reach the knockout round.

Contact Ron Seibel at 744-4222 or rseibel@macon.com.

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