World Cup Watch
The finals edition
We're down to the final two games now, and an unexpected matchup it is, at least for me. Croatia, ranked 18th in the world, and a 35-1 underdog at the beginning of the tournament, came from behind to shock England, 2-1 in overtime in Wednesday's semifinal, a day after France completely stifled Belgium's prolific attack in a 1-0 first semifinal. Here's a preview of the two remaining games, with a look back at the results of the past week. Note the 10am kickoff for the final – the only game that's had that start time.
Saturday, July 14, 9am: Third-place: England vs. Belgium
This consolation game is always a hard one to predict; neither team wanted to be here, so which has more to gain or lose? I've got to think that a number of factors figure in Belgium's favor, though. They've looked the better team all along, for one thing; their No. 3 world ranking isn't a fluke, nor was their impressive win over Brazil in the quarterfinals, while England was skipping through the weaker bottom half of the bracket. Then too, the Belgian "golden generation" will still want to finish strong to earn their nation's best finish ever, while England has to be gutted at having their title hopes dashed, and will have to really work to find any motivation in playing for third place instead. Then there's the fatigue factor: Belgium gets an extra day's rest, and they get to stay in St. Petersburg, where they played their semifinal; England had to play through a grueling overtime, then travel from Moscow and play on two days' rest. And while Belgium will be getting back their very underrated right back, Thomas Meunier, who was sorely missed in the loss to France due to yellow-card accumulation, England may well be without the very influential right winger Kieran Trippier, who suffered what looked like a serious leg injury in the final minutes against Croatia (forcing England to play a man down since they were out of substitutes). Trippier has been a revelation here, controlling his side of the field, and scoring the lone goal of that game on a stunning free kick.
Sunday, July 15, 10am: Championship final: France vs. Croatia
Well, well. Croatia, you say? Not many people saw that coming a month ago. The travel/rest factor may be less of an issue here: France has the extra day's rest, but had to travel to Moscow. (Six of the past titles have gone to the team that got to stay put between the semi and the final.) On the other hand, Croatia has had to play three straight overtime nail-biters. That's like playing a whole extra game – a full 90 minutes more soccer than France has had to endure over the last week, not to mention the pressure of the two penalty shootouts over Denmark and Russia. That has to be worrisome for a team whose whole game revolves around their workhorse midfielders – Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Ante Rebic, Ivan Perisic – but they've shown no signs of being human thus far, so what's another 90 (or 120) minutes? On the other hand, do they have anyone with the pace to keep up with France – especially the exquisite teenager Kylian Mbappé? Probably not. But really, what most impressed about France in shutout wins over Uruguay, and especially Belgium, was their underrated defense. Belgium had possession of the ball for almost two-thirds of the game, but could do nothing with it. (In fact, perhaps that hampered the counterattacking style that had so devastated previous opponents; you can't counterattack if you have the ball the whole time.) Croatia's Mario Mandžukić (set to welcome Cristiano Ronaldo as his strike partner at Juventus in Italy next month) will have to have more success than Belgium's Romelu Lukaku did in getting touches and holding up the ball in the middle of the attack.
There's mixed news regarding U.S. TV viewership: Overall, viewership has been down about 35% from four years ago, on both Fox and the Spanish-language Telemundo. On the other hand, not only did we have a U.S. entry then, but those games in Brazil were on in evening prime time, instead of mornings and early afternoons; so both networks are touting record numbers for comparable time slots. By any measure, Saturday's two quarterfinals drew well: Fox averaged 5.25 million viewers for the morning England-Sweden game, and 6.7 million for Croatia-Russia, making that the most-watched World Cup quarterfinal since at least 1990, including the USA-Germany game in 2002.
Among other milestones thus far, Telemundo said the June 17 match, when Mexico beat Germany, 1-0, set a Spanish-language U.S. record with 7.1 million viewers. Mexico-South Korea on June 23 was close behind at 6.6 million – and was "the most-watched livestream event in Spanish-language history."
Next Up ...
Meanwhile, the first ATX Coed World Cup is down to the semifinals this Saturday at Onion Creek. Read all about it at www.acsasoccer.org. And while you're there, if all this soccer action has you ready the take the field, registration is now open for the Austin Coed Soccer Association fall season, and they're offering a limited-time offer for teams to register for just $250.
Local Viewing Options
With game times starting as early as 5am, and the latest kickoffs coming at 1pm, a number of venues are opening early, and/or offering breakfast and lunch options. Here are a few highlights: Mister Tramps Sports Pub & Cafe (8565 Research) will be showing every WC game with 20 TVs to choose from... The Tavern (922 W. 12th) will be showing every game, even though they are a European-based bar, and will be showing all the games on their 32 big-screen TVs... Haymaker (2310 Manor Rd.) will be open for every game, with drink specials and breakfast available until 10:45am... Salvation Pizza (51 Rainey) will be opening early at 10am to show the games with special breakfast tacos for $4.50, as well as $3 mimosas and $4 Bloody Marys... B.D. Riley's (1905 Aldrich & 204 E. Sixth) both locations will be open for all matches after the first round with drink specials... Crown & Anchor Pub (2911 San Jacinto) will be showing every game during their WC special hours, which are 9-2am. They also have local and craft beer specials all day every day, including an all-day happy hour on Sundays... Black Sheep Lodge (2108 S. Lamar) will be open for every game, with drink specials, including $3 Whitestone Konverter Kolsch pints and $12 pitchers, and breakfast available until 10:45am... Native Hostel (807 E. Fourth) will show every game of the WC. They will have drink specials, as well as a 1v1 soccer tournament with prizes... Little Woodrow's (Burnet location) will be opening at 7am to show the matches, and breakfast tacos will be available upon opening. Sixth Street & Tech Ridge locations will be open for 1pm games. All locations will have worldly bucket specials available throughout the tournament.