Call it World Cup fever. Call it “I Believe That We Will Win” fervor, or just call me crazy, but if there was ever a World Cup the United States could actually win, Brazil 2014 is it.
When you’ve recovered from laughing, allow me to explain…
There is a certain tongue-in-cheek quality to the I Believe campaign by U.S. Soccer and Nike leading up to this World Cup, enhanced by ESPN’s TV promos and various celebrities chiming in with their belief in this U.S. team. The cheerleading efforts are positive and fun, but does anyone who closely follows U.S. soccer actually believe that the U.S. can, much less will win this World Cup? Even died-in-the-wool American soccer patriot Alexi Lalas infamously looked the U.S. team in the eye before the World Cup started and declared, live on ESPN during a Times Square pep rally for the team, that he didn’t think they would advance out of Group G.
Then the actual World Cup matches began and conventional soccer wisdom was quickly tossed out the window. Spain eliminated after two games? Costa Rica winning Group D, with Italy and England sent home? Greece advancing instead of Ivory Coast? Netherlands and France suddenly looking like serious contenders? And of course, one of the tournament’s most surprising developments – the U.S. advancing over Portugal and Ghana? This has already been the World Cup of surprises with more surprises likely in store during the Round of 16.
Even the teams considered top contenders for the title look less than invincible so far. Argentina minus Messi is not particularly intimidating. Uruguay without Suarez is beatable. Germany looks formidable, but Ghana nearly beat them and a battered U.S. held their own against them. Belgium, the popular pre-World Cup outsider choice to make a deep bracket run, doesn’t look as strong as many thought they would. As for the home team, Brazil is still the main favorite, but looked frequently vulnerable against Croatia and Mexico. There are no guarantees Brazil will get past a very strong Chile in the Round of 16.
There is no dominant Spain-like force remaining in the tournament. If a rested U.S. team builds confidence by squeezing past Belgium, a quarterfinal win over Argentina or Switzerland is no longer a pipe dream. That would set up a possible semifinal against Netherlands, undoubtedly a tough task, but what if the Netherlands falls to Mexico in the Round of 16? Assuming Costa Rica continues their surprising form by dispatching Greece, that would mean the U.S. would face a CONCACAF opponent in the semifinal – the least intimidating scenario possible for the U.S. On the other side of the bracket, if Chile knocks out Brazil, Germany becomes the favorite to make the final. A rematch with Germany in the final would be no easy task of course, but at least the U.S. would fully know what to expect.
It is still a very long shot for the U.S. to make their first-ever World Cup final, but after surviving three brutal Group games against quality opponents, all bets are off for the Round of 16. Considering the unpredictable nature of the tournament thus far along with the lack of a clear-cut favorite, there has never been a better opportunity for the U.S. to go all the way. Laugh all you want, but I’m starting to believe.