World Cup Watch: And Then There Were Eight
As the knockout round started, the traditional powers put the hammer down
The group stage of this World Cup was marked by upsets, and the field for the Round of 16 was unusually diverse, with entries from five continents and an unprecedented six of the 16 coming from outside the power continents of Europe and South America. But once the knockout round started, the traditional powers put the hammer down, as game after game saw the favorite take control in more or less comfortable fashion, starting Saturday morning with the Netherlands putting an end to the American story. And so it followed – France, England, Argentina, Brazil – all the pre-tournament heavyweights imposed their will on the upstarts.
That was the story until Tuesday anyway, when it was Morocco who imposed their will on favored Spain, patiently absorbing their patented passing game without really giving up any serious chances. Spain had 77% of the possession, but only two shots on goal over a scoreless 120 minutes of regulation and overtime, and by then they were fried, getting shut out in the penalty kick shoot-out. So the Atlas Lions become the first Arab team ever to make the quarterfinals, in this first Arab World Cup. They're in with some glitzy company, as we got treated to master classes from France with Kylian Mbappé, then Brazil with Neymar and Richarlison, then Portugal with six goals without Cristiano Ronaldo, who got benched and saw his replacement score the tournament's first hat trick. Plus there's England, who looked workmanlike in dismantling a very good Senegal team. England-France is the marquee matchup of this next round – Friday-Saturday – as we look toward a star-studded final four.
End of the Road for the U.S.
What hurt and was unusual about the U.S. loss to the Netherlands was that all three Dutch goals came from individual mental errors by three of the best of the U.S. players. Tyler Adams lost track of Memphis Depay on the opening Dutch goal, Sergiño Dest lost Danny Blind on the second one, and Antonee Robinson didn't cover his side on the final one. Three moments of switching off, and the Dutch made them pay, with precision. There was a painful suddenness to each of the goals, and to the final result, that pretty much negated the fact that we actually outplayed the Netherlands for most of the game – as we had outplayed England back in the group stage. That doesn't count for much right now, but this is a very young team: The starting front six, plus the first three subs, are all under the age of 25. So they should be right in their prime in four years, when the World Cup is co-hosted in the U.S., Mexico, and Canada. I can't wait.
More on the Hosts
Hospitality is almost a fetish in Arab cultures, but it's wearing a bit thin, perhaps. Criticism of Qatar seems to have quieted as the soccer has heated up, but there's been a backlash of Arab observers complaining about a lack of respect for their culture, noting the human rights advances they have made and calling out Western hypocrisy, considering our own human rights abuses at home and abroad, and the legacy of colonialism. That's me-tooism, but also true. Perhaps we can agree that we can all do better?