Two questions: Are we having fun yet? What will the US Men’s National Team do for an encore?

 

By any measure, the World Cup is off to a raucous start, with goal-scoring and TV viewership at an all-time high, and the USMNT pulling off the rare double-double of notching one of the earliest goals in World Cup history and then giving up the latest goal ever in a regulation game. That was all merely a prelude to US coach Jurgen Klinsmann, the golden boy of German futbol, attempting to depose and dispose of his homeland to secure a spot in the knockout stage for the Americans.

 

Your correspondent has worked diligently to immerse himself in the global game these past two weeks, as he’s sangria-ed with Argentines, sake-ed with Blue Samurai fans, sekem-ed and skelewu-ed with Nigerians and stood in stunned silence with Sam’s Army at New York’s Madison Square Park on Sunday. His exhaustion is reaching 90-minutes-in-Manaus levels, but he is ready to recharge for the four-day sprint that will determine who advances and who suffers the cruelest fate of all – being forced to cut short a Brazilian excursion.

 

Before we dive into our group projections, however, let’s take one more pause to recognize the absurd brilliance of Sunday’s USA vs. Portugal match. Not only was it the most watched American soccer game ever, it was also the highest rated program in ESPN history, excluding NFL and NCAA football broadcasts. It is inconceivable that Michael Bradley, American’s most steady and trusted leader, would provide the lethal give-away that sent Christiano Ronaldo streaking down the far side with time about to expire. It was also transcendental to watch the world’s most gifted player dial up the perfect pass at the perfect moment to break American hurts. This was truly a once-in-a-lifetime sequence that played out on the biggest sports stage.

 

Team USA leaves the Amazon with heavy emotional and physical baggage, and it remains to be seen if they have the fortitude to recover. Such is life in the Group of Death. Without further ado, here is a group by group pulse as we prepare to play knockout.

 

Group A: Of all spectacular Brazilian sights, there are none more mesmerizing than Neymar’s ascension to superstar status. He is the game’s most electrifying figure, and it is gratifying to see him elevate his game in front of his home fans. That said, we still question his decision to go with the frosted tips. Very questionable, indeed. While Brazil wins its group for the ninth straight World Cup, El Tri advances to the knockout stage for the sixth straight time, truly remarkable given Mexico’s near disastrous qualifying campaign. Their second half performance versus Croatia was among the most dominant of the tournament, and their fans are packing the stadiums in droves. Plus, keeper Memo Ochoa is superhuman and Coach Miguel Herrera is kind of a psycho. We like that.

 

Group B: The Netherlands and Chile have emerged as two of the most exciting teams in the tournament, and they carry powerful momentum into the knockout. Chilean fans get the award for causing most destruction to stadium property, but the in-stadium atmosphere for their round of 16 match-up with Brazil will be unlike any other thus far. Let us hope someone bolted down the seats. The Dutch will likely have too much firepower for Mexico, but there may be a little bit of magic brewing for El Tri, especially with stalwarts Rafa Marquez and Chicharito finding the back of the net in their last match.

 

Group C: With Colombia clear to the knockout stage, all eyes will be on Ivory Coast on Tuesday. Les Elephants have a favorable match-up versus an offensively-challenged group, and they hope that Drogba can summon one more jolt of energy for his troops. The time is now for Ivory Coast to shed the underachiever label and to seize its opportunity to advance – the road has never been more golden for the golden generation.

 

Group D: Perhaps no match this week is more anticipated than Italy versus Uruguay. The stakes are even bigger than Luis Suarez’s teeth. Clearly diminished by his knee injuries, Suarez personified Uruguayan grit in willing his team past England with two goals. Italy remains a world power, but they suddenly look pedestrian. If Suarez is fit, the edge goes to the South Americans. That said, something tells us that Mario Balotelli will be a factor. Balotelli was made for matches like this. Los Ticos of Costa Rica are the darling of the World Cup dance, and they are certainly poised for another upset in the round of 16.

 

Group E: Three words: Allez Les Bleus. Our international nightmare of having to root for the French appears unavoidable. Shockingly, these guys are kind of likable, and they are an unstoppable offensive force. It is unclear how they will react if tested, but we will not find that out until next week at the earliest. If they take the foot of the gas in the final group match, Ecuador has a chance. Otherwise, Switzerland seems the likely choice to emerge from the group. Did we mention that we really want to hate the French?

 

Group F: It may be up to the Super Eagles to take down the French. Should Nigeria advance, they are likely to draw Les Bleus. Nigeria emerged from its defensive shell in earning a critical versus Bosnia, and they will need to play with more purpose and aggression if they hope to make a run. Old nemesis Argentina stands between them and the second round, but a draw is good enough to secure advancement. Thus far, Messi’s brilliance has saved the Albiceleste, who have yet to demonstrate their dominance. Selfishly, your correspondent is pulling for Nigeria, so that he can be invited to another spontaneous victory dance party.

 

Group G: The scenarios and permutations in this group are dizzying, as everything remains up for grabs. The US and Germany both advance with a single point, which has conspiracy theorists wondering if Klinsmann will broker a pre-match deal with his former German mates. Ghana may very well be the class of this group, as their battle with Germany was epic. The Black Stars may not have received the result they deserved, and one senses they will take out their frustration on a depleted Portugal squad. While the US beat them head-to-head, Ghana once again may be the team that effectively knocks the Americans out of the World Cup – for the third straight tournament. It is win or go home for the Black Stars, and your correspondent speaks for all American fans when he says that he is terrified of this team.

 

Group H: Belgium continues to play down to the level of its competition, and this group’s overall power ranking is rapidly dwindling. The Red Devils seems equal parts inexperienced and uninspired, and that is a dangerous combination. They are the likely group champions by default, but Algeria has been a far more spirited unit. The Desert Foxes control their own destiny versus an anemic Russia. This quartet’s collective mediocrity bodes well for Group G.

 

What are your predictions for the final matches of the group stage? Share your thoughs or reach me on Twitter @endbadly.