Coming just a year after an underwhelming spectacle in the Copa America, the worst was expected from some critics regarding FOX’s coverage of the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup. But surprisingly for some, FOX Sports has come through with solid coverage.

As we have now finished the group stage of the competition and enter the knockout phase, the time is right to give a full accounting of FOX’s coverage and how it impacts next summer’s World Cup.

Here are the highlights:

Absence of the USA helps FOX cover competition properly

The over-the-top cheerleading FOX Sports has subjected viewers to when covering the various US National Team’s or competitions the USA qualifies for is absent in this Confederations Cup. Perhaps the neutral viewer who just wants to watch the tournament should be thanking Mexico for the victory in the CONCACAF Cup in October 2015, which sent Mexico instead of the USA to this competition. Without the USA narratives to drive coverage, FOX Sports has had to do the basics right, which means developing storylines about the participating nations, and just cover and analyze the games with the players and countries that have qualified.

Without the USA present, FOX Sport has focused on analyzing soccer and trying to do so objectively. As a result, the Confederations Cup is proof positive the absence of the USA actually improves the network’s objectivity and presentation for the competition.

Studio teams

FOX Sports has featured far more studio analysis and time in covering this tournament than ESPN did in 2013. It is worth noting that the ESPN FC program, which anchors ESPN’s soccer coverage, was a critical component in World Cup 2014 and UEFA Euro 2016 coverage but it did not launch until August 2013, a month after the end of the 2013 edition of this event.

For FOX Sports, the broadcaster deployed Eric Wynalda to Russia alongside Kate Abdo who has been outstanding as usual. Guus Hiddink has proven a useful addition with some strong analysis. Back in Los Angeles, Ian Wright has stood out for his strong commentary at halftime and after matches. And Alexi Lalas, though inconsistent, has offered some very good moments.

Fernando Fiore hasn’t added much except for forced clownish behavior and obvious analysis on the set. Fiore is an expert on the sport and a colorful character but it seems his act is at times over-the-top and he isn’t being relied on to give the type of analysis he has for years on Spanish language television and radio. Mariano Trujillo has been outstanding when in the studio adding to the discussion not just on Mexico but also on the opposition.

Rob Stone and Abdo have both facilitated conversations well among the studio talent. The let downs of the studio teams have been the Germans (Arne Friedrich and Lothar Matthaus), a seemingly forced aspect of FOX’s coverage when Germany is playing.

It also should be noted that FOX Sports has done a good job of keeping storylines in context regarding next summer’s World Cup. Instead of overhyping this tournament and its importance as ESPN was guilty of doing both in 2009 and 2013 at times, FOX Sports has offered a perspective that is refreshing and takes big picture considerations into account. The World Cup and qualifying is what matters and FOX’s studio team has done a great job of reminding viewers of that.

Match commentators

The two rotating commentary teams of John Strong and Stuart Holden as well as J.P. Dellacamera and Aly Wagner have been fantastic. Holden is improving with every opportunity though it’s still questionable how well he would do without Strong who has emerged as arguably the best-ever American commentator in this sport.

Wagner, in particular, has given sharp analysis and seems unafraid to be critical when warranted. If this is an audition for her to be on a commentary team next summer, she’s passed with flying colors. If it weren’t for Dr. Joe Machnik, Wagner would be the star of the summer on FOX Sports. Meanwhile, Dellacamera remains a broadcasting legend and his work in this tournament has lived up to his lofty reputation.

In contrast, the FOX Sports team of Jorge-Perez Navarro and Cobi Jones for Mexico games have been unlistenable. For Mexico games, Telemundo’s team of Andres Cantor, Manuel Sol and Carlos Hermosillo remain preferable to FOX’s team. Navarro’s English language usage is strong enough but his cadence is poor and Jones doesn’t help him with his rather predictable analysis.

Last but not least, Mark Followill and Tony Meola have continued their strong FIFA U-20 World Cup with work broadcasting MLS games while the rest of the FOX Sports team has focused on Confederations Cup. That team of Followill and Meola should be in consideration for World Cup duty next summer as well.

Video Assistant Referee/rules

Dr. Machnik has been johnny-on-the-spot for FOX Sports, giving a level of analysis as we go through the growing pains with the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system. Machnik has gone from being awkward and annoying on air during the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup, 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup and last summer’s Copa America to being perfectly comfortable and borderline indispensable in this competition.

Time and again in this tournament, unlike the past, Machnik has been willing to criticize officials if they get a call wrong and has been able to break down the frustrating VAR process. He’s become incredibly poised and confident on air, be it in studio or being literally “on call” for Strong, Navarro or Dellacamera to consult with on a moment’s notice when a controversial call takes place. Machnik has been assured when brought in on these occasions.

SEE MORE: Schedule of Confederations Cup games on US TV and streaming

Machnik is giving American viewers a treat when it comes to rules interpretations and understanding of the VAR process. If VAR is retained for next summer’s World Cup, Machnik again might well be FOX Sports’ “man of the match” each and every game.

Broadcast windows

FOX Sports has treated American viewers to two Group Stage games on the FOX over-the-air but has also bumped a match to FS2 and will be showing the Germany-Mexico semifinal on FS2. Sadly FOX’s ability to showcase certain matches is limited by contractual obligations to other sports, particularly the USGA and NASCAR. Like the bumping we would see of matches to ESPN2 during the World Cup and Euros when a conflict with Wimbledon was present, FOX is also hamstrung. But FOX Sports is more committed to forcing games on its over-the-air platform than ABC or ESPN has in this tournament and the network has pledged to bring us an unprecedented level of matches over-the-air next summer.

Final analysis

FOX Sports has been surprisingly strong during this tournament. Coverage of soccer on the network is an acquired taste, and while it is not everyone’s cup of tea, it’s by any objective measure improving.