The USA could have won their game against Belgium. Chris Wondolowski nearly scored in stoppage time, skewing his shot wide with only the goalie in front of him (though he may have been called offside); after falling behind 2-0 in extra time, Julian Green scored for the USA, and gave the Americans hope of tying the game and winning on penalty kicks, which Clint Dempsey nearly pulled off from a set piece.

It all could have happened. Tim Howard was massive in goal, making 16 saves, the most of a keeper in recorded World Cup history. Belgium dominated the game, for sure, but the USA refused to break for all of regulation, and we got to hope.

Heart-breaking? No. Belgium deserved the win, deserved the two goals they got in extra time, and deserve to play Argentina this weekend in the quarterfinals. But heart-stopping? You had better believe it.

It is possible to find small moral victories all over the field in the USA’s performance – Howard, Green’s goal, everything DeAndre Yedlin did. And it is also possible to dismiss the Belgium win as a simple equation: Belgium is better than the USA because they have better players, all over the field, and a win for America would have been an upset. And it is also possible to appreciate the Americans’ tenacity to come back, after being dead and buried in extra time, to manage to haul themselves back into the game one more time.

Nevertheless, it’s disappointing to be here, again, as an American fan. With four years between World Cups, when another one rolls around, it’s tempting to believe that this is the year of the breakthrough. This is the year that America finally finds itself, and begins to realize the promise that the team has showed for years. Even when all evidence is to the contrary – we are still short on good players – it’s always worth a hope that somehow the team can come together and find that missing something to make a run.

It all seemed possible in 2002, when the USA outplayed Germany in the quarterfinals but lost 1-0. 2006 was a horrible disappointment, and 2010 was one late Landon Donovan goal away from going the same way. Twelve years on, American fans were looking for some idea that things were on the upswing.

We’ll have the days and weeks to come to unpack that, of course. We can remember valiant defeats to Germany and Belgium, two awfully good teams, and the draw against Portugal that should have been a win, and the Americans overcoming Ghana despite being outplayed.

Or, we can remember that the USA was second-best against Ghana, Germany, and Belgium, and wasn’t good enough to hold on against Portugal. We can remember that, though the team got through the Group of Death, they did so with the second-worst possession statistics of any team in the tournament. For all of the hope of America finally asserting itself offensively, they really only did so in the middle hour of the Portugal match.

This World Cup was going to be a referendum on head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, a chance to judge the controversial coach. After this World Cup, it’s still unclear, and your opinion on the team as a whole may be geared to match your opinion on Klinsmann.

Ultimately, though, perhaps the best summation came from the goalie. “I don’t think we could have given any more,” said Howard after the game, and he was dead right. Talent aside, coaching aside, luck and hope and breakthroughs aside, ultimately that may be all that we as fans can really ask for.

NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.

The first four teams in the quarterfinals are set, and it’s the four that most people expected to get through. The only surprising thing is how the four got there. A few thoughts:

Brazil 1, Chile 1 (Brazil wins on penalties 3-2): This is not the Brazil we thought we would see. We did not expect Brazil to score in the first half, concede a goal a quarter of an hour later, and then doggedly hang on through the remainder of the game and extra time in order to get to penalties. This is supposed to be the World Cup of samba, of verve and attacking and the expression of joy through futbol; it never crossed our minds that Brazil would need to hang on against Chile.

Then again, perhaps we’re just expecting too much from Brazil. They are still the tournament favorites, and are still three wins away from a seventh World Cup. Then again, they were the favorites in Germany and South Africa, too – they are perma-favorites – and they lost in the quarterfinals both times.

Colombia 2, Uruguay 0: Every World Cup has a breakout star, a player that maybe you knew about already, but who suddenly is possessed by the spirit of Pele and scores a bunch of goals. This year’s edition is Colombian winger James Rodriguez – it’s pronounced Hahm-ez – who scored both Colombian goals in the quarterfinals, bringing his tally up to five, the most in the tournament. If you have not yet seen his first goal, please go watch it; I suspect we will not see a better goal in the tournament.

I guarantee you that every fan of a club soccer team around the world has, at some point during this World Cup, gone to Rodriguez’s Wikipedia page to find out where he plays (Monaco, in the French league) and how old he is (just 22). They will have been disappointed to learn that Monaco paid 45 million Euros for him last season, in the top 20 highest transfer fees in history, making him too expensive for all but a handful of teams. But they will remember his name – if for no other reason, than to pronounce it correctly in the future.

Netherlands 2, Mexico 1: Giovani dos Santos scored an excellent goal, and it looked like Mexico might hold on – until a late Wesley Sneijder rocket tied the game, and an Arjen Robben dive in stoppage time fooled the referee into awarding the Dutch the game-deciding penalty. If this serves only to remind the world that Arjen Robben is absolutely the worst, then perhaps it’s still worth it. To sum up: Arjen Robben is the worst.

Let’s also spare a thought for Mexico, which – almost incredibly – lost in the first knockout round for the sixth consecutive World Cup. It’s like our neighbors to the south are doomed to forever be the 13th best team in world soccer: sure to qualify, good enough to progress, never good enough to go any farther.

Mexico has now been in the World Cup 15 times. They have made it to the knockout stage eight times. And in all that time, they have won ONE knockout-round game. By the time they get a chance to go for another, it’ll be 32 years since that win, at home against Bulgaria in 1986. Yikes.

Costa Rica 1, Greece 1 (Costa Rica win 5-3 on penalties): Costa Rica are the tournament’s happy underdog story, and we’re just so pleased to see it keep running for a few more days. Bryan Ruiz scored in the 52nd minute for Los Ticos, who then had Oscar Duarte sent off 14 minutes later. But the Costa Ricans exhaustedly withstood the Greece attack for an hour longer, even after Sokratis Papastathopoulos tied the game in stoppage time in regulation, and then somehow had the energy to score all five penalties to advance. Striker Joel Campbell in particular looked like he could barely walk up to take his penalty, but he scored.

Costa Rica’s reward is a quarterfinal against the Netherlands on Saturday, which is a poor reward. Still, during the game, the announcers told the story of the 1990 World Cup, the only other time Costa Rica made it through to the knockout round. Though they lost in the first game, upon their return to Costa Rica, they were given a heroes’ welcome; people came out of their houses and held up mirrors, as the team’s plane circled the country, and the players could see the reflection of a thousand points of light from all across the nation.

I don’t know what awaits the team upon their return to Costa Rica this year. The modern equivalent would probably be laser pointers, but that seems unsafe.

NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.

I want to reassure you, soccer fans of Minnesota – especially those of you who might just be joining us, thanks to an exciting World Cup and the USA making it to the knockout round. Allow me to soothe your fevered brows: Minnesota will get a Major League Soccer team. When they will start play, no one knows; who will own the team is also undecided, as is where the team will take the field. But it’s happening. I’m convinced of it.

For all of Major League Soccer’s talk about franchise fees and expansion criteria, the league has been extremely pragmatic in placing its franchises. The league wanted to tap into the Pacific Northwest’s soccer culture, so it placed teams in Seattle, Vancouver, and Portland, despite the first two playing in cavernous football stadiums and the last playing in a converted baseball stadium. MLS wanted a second team in New York, and so New York City FC will begin play next year in Yankee Stadium, without a concrete plan to build a stadium of its own. The league wanted to get back into the Southeast, where two clubs folded in 2002, and so awarded teams to a smaller market in Orlando, to an NFL owner in Atlanta, and to a stadium-free, David Beckham-led bid in Miami.

Now, the league wants to spread across the country, to expand from its East Coast / West Coast / Texas footprint. The Southeast trio was a big part of that expansion. Adding another team in the center of the country, to go with Chicago and Kansas City, looks like it’s the next logical step. Combine that with the lure of a top-15 television market and the financial backing of the Twin Cities business community, and you begin to see why Minnesota, not San Antonio or Sacramento or Las Vegas, has been the focus of most of the next-franchise league rumors.

Nothing has been decided yet, though, and that’s because Major League Soccer would like to drop a team into a perfect situation in the Minneapolis-St. Paul market. Ideally, the league would like all of its teams to play in a soccer-specific stadium, in a downtown locale that’s accessible both by car and by public transit, in front of fans that have an affinity for the team and owned by a group that’s committed entirely to soccer. The league has never made any bones about this desire in every market they’ve gone into. They’ve achieved bits and pieces of this vision; twelve of the league’s 19 teams play in soccer-specific stadiums, although these tend to be in the suburbs and not downtown, and very few of the league’s teams have the disinterested corporate ownership that predominated in the MLS’s early days.

It remains possible that the league could check just about every one of their boxes in Minneapolis. Two decades of pro soccer support in Minnesota have now coalesced around Minnesota United FC, and almost ever since Dr. Bill McGuire purchased the team early in 2013, rumors have swirled about his desire to build a soccer-specific stadium in Minnesota. Talk of a stadium at the Farmer’s Market site in downtown Minneapolis has intensified, and other sites that would meet the team’s desires have been suggested. Any plan would not only require a site but also a financing plan, which could be difficult in a local market that has seen the approval of four new stadiums in the past ten years. But if McGuire – and any partners he might include in the team – could make a stadium plan a reality, it would appear, to me at least, that the team is a natural choice to become the next MLS franchise.

Should the plan fail to materialize, though, the league has a waiting backup plan in the Vikings. The team already has the downtown arena being built, albeit in the form of a Vancouver-style converted football stadium, and the Vikings’ latest public-relations push appears designed to convince both the league and local fans that the team is serious about being a committed MLS owner.

Many United fans are dead set against the idea of the Vikings owning a team, an anger that is the combination of a number of factors. For one, the fans fear the cheap, disinterested soccer ownership style that New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft, who also owns the New England Revolution in MLS, has made infamous. For another, fans of pro soccer in Minnesota are angry that the Wilfs did not step in to save their team while it was in years-long danger of being folded – even while simultaneously pushing the possibility of soccer in the new Vikings stadium.

Mostly, though, both local fans and MLS itself realize that there is still the possibility of that top-notch, soccer-focused experience coming to Minnesota, and that’s what they’re holding out for. If that doesn’t happen, I expect the league to once again be pragmatic, and announce the launch of a Vikings-backed team. But the league can afford to be patient, and wait to see if its best hopes become a reality.

I know it’s hard, soccer fans. But I think you just need to be patient, as well. I’m convinced MLS in Minnesota is going to happen, and waiting means it might happen in exactly the way that both you, and Major League Soccer, want it to happen.

NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.

NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.

History will remember the USA’s 1-0 loss to Germany as a speed bump on the way to the knockout round, and ultimately, that might be the truth of it. The Americans never looked like scoring against Germany, but Portugal beat Ghana 2-1 in Group G’s other game, and in the end the Americans go through quite comfortably on goal differential.

Following the World Cup draw, this was exactly the path to the knockout round that most pundits planned for the USA: beat Ghana, get a result of some kind against Portugal, and then keep it close against Germany and hope results break the USA’s way. That’s exactly what happened, and while it wasn’t convincing, it got the job done. The many who have questioned the team, and especially the methods of head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, will be left to remember that Klinsmann navigated his underdog team through the hardest group at the World Cup.

Focusing on the results, though, ignores the actual panic of the early afternoon for American fans. 0-0 at halftime, with Portugal leading Ghana 1-0, everything felt pretty comfortable; barring a Ghanian comeback or a German goal, the USA would skate comfortably through. Within three minutes of each other, though, Thomas Muller scored for Germany and Asamoah Gyan – him again – scored for Ghana, and suddenly the USA was one Ghana goal from going out.

It wasn’t until the 80th minute, when Cristiano Ronaldo scored for Portugal, that fans began to breathe easy. Ghana never found either of the two goals they would have needed to go through, nor did Portugal and Germany look like scoring the three combined goals they’d need to score to send the USA home, and each of the fifteen minutes that remained following Ronaldo’s goal was more comfortable than the last.

In the end, it was a 1-0 loss that the USA could be happy with. From the opening kickoff, it became apparent that the Americans would concede Germany most of the possession and aim to wait for a chance on a set piece, or for a German defensive mistake. Germany, at least, tried to press the Americans into a mistake; the USA sat back, allowing two-thirds of the possession to go to their opponents in favor of keeping most of their team behind the ball.

For much of the first half, the USA appeared to be playing nothing so much as six defenders; in general, either or both of wings Graham Zusi and Brad Davis were in the defensive line, along with occasional trips there from Kyle Beckerman, who barely strayed more than ten yards from either center back. Michael Bradley, theoretically set to lead the USA’s attack from midfield, was again so ineffective that he and Jermaine Jones effectively switched places. Clint Dempsey was surrounded fore and aft by German defenders for the entire game, to the point that he eventually started coming back to 30 yards in front of his own goalkeeper, just in the hopes of getting a piece of the ball.

Still, though, to focus on the negatives of the USA’s defensive-minded approach would be wrong, in some ways. It’s also notable that the powerful German offense barely cracked open the USA defense; Tim Howard was forced into a few saves, but most of them were either shots from distance, or controllable. It was only from a corner that Howard’s initial save fell to Mueller near the edge of the area, and the German striker buried a world-class shot inside the far post.

You can be positive about the USA’s defense, then, given that a collapse would have sent them home. You can be infuriated about their lack of attack, given that they managed just four shots – none on goal – and two corners. Ultimately, though, the Americans knew that a 1-0 loss might be enough for them – a belief that proved true.

Getting out of the Group of Death? Achieved. We will remember John Brooks’s late winner against Ghana, and that Portugal’s at-the-death equalizer against the Americans wasn’t enough to knock the USA out. We will forget about today’s game against Germany, just as we’ve forgotten about the USA’s 3-1 loss to Poland in the final group-stage game in 2002, which also wasn’t enough to knock the Americans out of qualifying for the second round.

The tournament resets now. The USA will play either Belgium or Algeria – likely Belgium – next Tuesday at 3:00. The Group of Death is over. Now comes the hard part.

I wrote an article for the Star Tribune sports section, looking back at the USA’s run to the quarterfinals in 2002. You can read it here.

I talked mostly about soccer on the latest episode of the Sportive. It was fun for me, though perhaps not for the listener.

Quick recap of today: Xherdan Shaqiri scored a hat trick for Switzerland, sending the Swiss into the Round of 16 and Honduras home without a point. Iran finally scored a goal, but gave up three to Bosnia-Herzegovina – the first World Cup win for the latter, which also meant that neither would go through to the group stage. Instead, Group F’s representatives will be Argentina and Nigeria, though the Argentines beat the Nigerians today, 3-2, mostly thanks to a pair of first-half goals from Lionel Messi. And France were finally held goalless, by Ecuador, though the latter needed a win to go through and could only manage a 0-0 draw.

With that out of the way, let’s take a look at how the bracket’s shaping up for the knockout round, which begins already on Saturday.

Up first is the South American mini-tournament at the top of the bracket, where the winner of Brazil and Chile faces the winner of Colombia and Uruguay. Brazil, of course, has to be favored there; Chile have drawn the roughest task of all. Colombia have looked exceptional at this tournament, and should be able to beat Uruguay, especially if the latter is without Luis Suarez – but it’ll be a big ask to beat Brazil in Brazil.

Next comes Netherlands-Mexico and Costa Rica and Greece, and again, the first team has to be favored. Mexico managed to keep Brazil out for 90 minutes, but they’ll have trouble coping with the Dutch. Costa Rica, meanwhile, has an excellent chance of reaching the quarterfinals for the first time in their history, unless Greece can somehow rediscover the ability to actually play soccer. The winner of the Netherlands-Mexico match has to be favored to reach the semifinals.

With four spots in the knockout round to be decided tomorrow, the rest of the bracket remains incomplete. France look good enough to beat a Nigeria side that barely squeaked through a weak group; they’ll likely have the winner of Germany and either Algeria or Russia waiting for them in the quarterfinals. On the flip side, Argentina have a tough match ahead against Switzerland, with the winner facing a probable matchup with the winner of Belgium and whoever comes out of the USA / Ghana / Portugal tussle.

This highlights, however, the reason that the USA would dearly, dearly love to beat Germany tomorrow. Winning Group G means a matchup with (in all likelihood) either Russia or Algeria, neither of which holds any terrors for the USA. Win that one, and they’ll likely face France, who has been excellent in this tournament but had fairly low expectations entering the month.

Finish second to Germany, however, and it likely means a knockout-round berth against Belgium, who were picked as a dark horse to win the World Cup by so many pundits that they were starting to sound like actual favorites. Make it past Belgium, and it’s probably Argentina waiting in the quarterfinals.

It’s far too early to speculate on American quarterfinal opponents, of course. They have too much work to do tomorrow, in order to even make the knockout round – never mind actually winning a game. But if you’re thinking that you might like a nice tame draw with Germany tomorrow, ensuring that both teams qualify for the knockout round, it’ll likely mean a near-impossible path through the knockout stage.

Then again, four years ago, American fans were thrilled to win Group C and land in a bracket with Ghana, Uruguay, and South Korea. Ideas of a semifinal against Brazil or the Netherlands were floated. And we all know how that one turned out.

Right now, our best guess at the semifinals: Brazil vs. Germany, and Netherlands vs. Argentina. But tomorrow will go a long way towards deciding that.

NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.

It seems like the World Cup just began, and already half the knockout-round spots have been taken. Eight teams are in with a chance; eight are flying home. Here’s a look at each group that’s been decided.

Group A: Brazil and Mexico in, Croatia and Cameroon out

Brazil, of course, were in the second round from the moment that the groups were drawn for the World Cup. Mexico, on the other hand, were impressive in beating Croatia 3-1 in their final group match; they’re going through thanks to three goals in ten minutes, which for a Mexico side that’s struggled mightily to score must have felt like about ten goals in three minutes.

Croatia are the disappointing ones of the group; bad goalkeeping and worse refereeing sent them to defeat against Brazil, but until they capitulated against Mexico, they still had a chance. Cameroon, meanwhile, was terrible all the way through, and barring a collapse, will finish with the worst record of any team.

Group B: Netherlands and Chile in, Spain and Australia out

This was the least exciting group on the final day, given that the two teams that had already qualified were playing each other. Still, it must be noted that the Dutch scored twice more and held the Chile attack scoreless; it’s hard not to see the Oranje as the favorites in their half of the knockout round, especially with Mexico and the Costa Rica/Greece winner lined up for the first two rounds.

As for Spain and Australia, we’ll remember this World Cup as the fall of the Spanish, and the time Australia got drawn in a group that was sort of unfair, and got beat three times.

Group C: Colombia and Greece in, Ivory Coast and Japan out

Oh, Greece. If it wasn’t for Uruguay – about which more later – you would be by far the most annoying team that’s in the final sixteen.

The Greeks finally managed to score a goal in their final game against the Ivory Coast, taking the lead before halftime through Andreas Samaris, but when Wilfried Bony scored with sixteen minutes to go, it looked like the Ivory Coast – who needed just a draw to qualify – was going through.

In stoppage time, though, Georgios Samaras tripped himself in the penalty area, and the referee fell for it. Samaras put away the resulting penalty, which sent Greece to the knockout round for the first time in their history. The Greeks are annoyingly boring to watch, one of the few teams that can be described as such in what has been a wildly entertaining World Cup, so it’s disappointing that we’ll have to see more of them. I suppose they’ll probably make the semifinals now.

For American soccer fans, Colombia is mostly “the country that we shouldn’t have beat in 1994, but did because Andres Escobar scored an own goal and then was murdered when he went back to Colombia.” That, though, ignores how good Colombia were in 1994 – they didn’t lose a game in qualifying – and also ignores that they really haven’t been good since, going down quietly in 1998 and failing to qualify since.

The Colombians are back, though; they won all three of their games in this round, led by James Rodriguez, who scored in all three. They’ve ended up in a quarter of the bracket with Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay, South American rivals all, which might be good for them; they finished ahead of both Chile and Uruguay in qualifying, beating both along the way (as hosts, Brazil didn’t have to qualify).

Japan? Japan also participated.

Group D: Costa Rica and Uruguay in, Italy and England out

Quickly on three of the four: Congratulations to Los Ticos, who won the group and qualified for the knockout round for only their second time ever. As for Italy, given that they failed to score in two of their three games, it’s hard to feel bad. As for England, they remain stuck in their semi-absurd self-mythmaking that generally sees expectations for the team wildly inflated. “We showed today how good of a team we are,” said manager Roy Hodgson after their 0-0 draw with Costa Rica, which probably tells you everything.

Now, Uruguay. A good newspaperman probably would not have buried Luis Suarez all the way at the bottom of this blog post, but to recap: Suarez, while running through the penalty area, bit Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini in the shoulder. This is the third time – THE THIRD TIME – in his career that he has bit an opposing player.

You can spend all day reading about Suarez – Wright Thompson for ESPN is a good place to start – but after this incident, there is absolutely no doubt that he is the most hated man in soccer. He is an adult who bites people, he is perhaps the biggest diver in soccer today, he was once suspended eight games for racially abusing another player, and was involved in one of the more shocking moments of cheating in World Cup history.

Few can defend him. More will remember that Diego Godin scored a minute after Suarez’s latest chomp, the late goal that Uruguay needed to get to the knockout round. Suarez will, if there is any justice, be suspended from the rest of this World Cup. There will, unfortunately, probably be no prison time to go along with the suspension.

NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.

A win is a win, and joy is unconfined; a loss is a loss, and sorrow knows no bounds. A tie, though, is ambiguous; a tie is unresolved, open, an unanswered question that leaves infinite room for interpretation.

It’s only been a few hours since Portugal rescued a 2-2 draw against the USA with the last move of the match, since Varela snuck in behind a coasting Geoff Cameron to head home the equalizer, and there’s still no defining the result. We won’t actually know until Thursday morning, when the USA plays Germany and Ghana plays Portugal, and we find out whether tonight’s final whistle doomed the USA to come up just short of qualifying for the knockout round, or whether it represented the point that America needed to go through.

The USA was supposed to lose to Portugal. A point was supposed to be a victory. The Americans confirmed it when they went down 1-0 after five minutes, thanks to Cameron somehow contriving to kick the ball 180 degrees opposite of where he was aiming to kick it, thus giving it to Nani in a spot where he could not have failed to score. And for ten minutes following the goal, Portugal took it in turns to pass the ball around every American defender, a calm game of keepaway that seemed destined to again land the ball in the USA net.

It is ultimately a credit to the USA that they not only picked themselves up off the mat, but played one of their best games ever as a team. At one point in the first half, the USA had barely a quarter of the possession; by halftime, they’d managed to turn that around to 55%. They ended the game with more shots than Portugal, and except for the first fifteen and last ten minutes, outplayed the side that was ranked #3 in the world.

Michael Bradley, restored to his normal self and driving the USA attack forward, should have scored ten minutes into the second half. Jermaine Jones, once again immense in midfield for the Americans, did score six minutes later, bending in a cannoning shot that left Portugal keeper Beto flat-footed, with no chance to reach the ball. And with ten minutes to go, a scramble in the Portugal area suddenly left Graham Zusi wide open on the left, where he could cross for an unmarked Clint Dempsey to gut the ball home for a 2-1 lead.

2-1. Against Portugal. After trailing 1-0. In the rainforest heat in Manaus. With a win – an impossible win – meaning that the USA could qualify for the knockout round after just two games.

Is it any wonder that all thoughts of a positive draw were forgotten? That one point suddenly went from one more than we hoped, to two too few?

We will remember this game for the USA’s comeback performance, for Jones’s screamer, and for the joy of going 2-1 up when it seemed for an hour like there was little chance of even getting back to 1-1. We will also remember it for Cameron, who gifted Portugal their first goal and who failed to track Varela on the last, for perhaps the most horrific defensive performance in USA World Cup history. He certainly wasn’t all bad, but his lapse at the end of the game cost the USA two points, and his clearance at the beginning of the game ranks up there with Jeff Agoos’s own goal twelve years ago as one of the most stunningly terrible defensive moments ever for the USA.

This may also go down in history, though, as the day that American fans began to love Jurgen Klinsmann, who completely outcoached Portugal. The Americans, without their best option up front, simply put Dempsey up front as a striker and overran Portugal in the middle of the field. Jones was everywhere, and Kyle Beckerman was wonderful again, playing defensively in front of the center backs. The Americans even made Portugal pay for including a clearly injured Cristiano Ronaldo on the left wing; Ronaldo basically stood completely still when not attacking, leaving right back Fabian Johnson free to play effectively as another winger.

By the time Klinsmann was inserting Deandre Yedlin to play right wing and switching Zusi to the left, we were done questioning him. Is it any wonder that it was Yedlin whose run created the second USA goal? For the second straight match, Klinsmann substituted one of the players that many thought shouldn’t be in the team’s 23-man squad, and that player created a goal for the US. We can only assume that Julian Green will score against Germany on Thursday.

The USA were 30 seconds away from making it to the knockout round; now, they must wait until Thursday. A win against mighty Germany will put them through, of course; a draw will do the same (and with Germany in the same boat, many have speculated that a draw is what we’ll see.) Depending on the other results, a loss might be enough as well; if Portugal and Ghana tie, the USA could lose 15-0 to Germany and would still move on to the next round.

I have no idea what we’ll see that day. It could be a boring, results-oriented 0-0 draw; it could be a wild 4-4 slugfest. We could see the USA that struggled but won against Ghana, or the USA that outplayed but drew with Portugal. They’re the same team, yet different; the same players, but not. We have seen two games that appeared to come from different teams in different tournaments. Thursday, however, will determine whether this tournament is over – or keeps going for at least one more game.

NOTE: This appeared at SoccerCentric.

Sometimes at the World Cup, teams come back in their second group match of the tournament to erase the memory of a disappointing first game, to prove that they weren’t the team that we all saw in the opening round. There were six games on Wednesday and Thursday, though – and not one team managed to turn things around. To wit:

* Croatia 4, Cameroon 0: Cameroon are still terrible, I mean really terrible, at soccer.

* Netherlands 3, Australia 2: The Dutch are still wildly entertaining, especially when they’re endeavoring to fall behind 2-1 in the second half, then coming back with two goals in short order to win. And Australia is still wildly overmatched in Group B.

* Chile 2, Spain 0: It is hard to describe how bad Spain were. It’s hard to describe how easy Chile made it look to out-work and out-play them. Spain, who famously love to keep the ball, could hardly string passes together. When they did manage to create a chance, they screwed it up themselves. For every Spain attacker, there were three Chilean defenders, somehow; the Spanish were swarmed wherever they went on the pitch. Spain deserve to lose. They were rotten in their first game and they were rotten in this one, and if there is any justice, Australia will beat them in their final group game, and they will go home winless.

* Japan 0, Greece 0: Greece haven’t scored a goal in this tournament, and don’t look like they have much of a chance to score one, or even look that interested in scoring one. Greece looks like they would be happy if nobody scored ever again and it was always raining and everyone watching got a paper cut. Their highlight was probably their captain, Konstantinos Katsouranis, getting sent off in the first half for a pair of challenges in which he missed taking the ball by roughly five feet.  Japan, meanwhile, worked hard, but missed a couple of golden chances and now need to depend on an improbable set of circumstances to get through their group.

* Colombia 2, Ivory Coast 1: Never bet against South American teams at a World Cup in South America, we guess. All six may yet go through; Colombia was the second to officially qualify for the knockout round, after Chile, and they did it with a couple of quick-fire second-half goals in front of what sounded like 300,000 Colombian fans. Playing in Colombia must be terrifying. Playing against them in Brazil looks like it’s hard enough.

* Uruguay 2, England 1: Oh, England. Two goals from Luis Suarez were enough to doom the English to their second 2-1 defeat of the tournament; they remain not terrible, but not good either. They’ll need a minor miracle to make the knockout round now; a draw today between Italy and Costa Rica would be enough to confirm their demise. On the flip side, Suarez was wildly emotional after the game, tearfully speaking about how he dreamed scoring twice, to overcome all the criticism he has faced. Let me remind you that this criticism was for blatantly cheating in the last World Cup, for racist taunts against Patrice Evra, and for biting another player during a game, and use all of that to remember that Luis Suarez is still an enormous idiot.

We shall see if any other teams remain in form today. It begins with Italy and Costa Rica in half an hour, and if they match their stereotypes, Costa Rica will enjoy themselves and Italy will do everything in their power to make the game tough to watch.

NOTE: This also appeared at SoccerCentric.