While it was fun (and also draining) to watch the U.S. national soccer team put up a brave, but ultimately losing fight, against Belgium in the round of 16 in the World Cup, the only teams left standing in Brazil are about as far away from "gutty underdogs" as you can get. The four remaining teams have combined for ten World Cup wins as well as ten losses in the final. And there is still hope for an all-American final.
On Tuesday afternoon in Belo Horizonte, five time champion Brazil plays three time champion Germany. On Wednesday afternoon in São Paulo, two time champion Argentina plays the Netherlands, who has never won the World Cup, but has lost in the final three teams, including in 2010.
So, while the World Cup began with a flurry of unexpected results and saw small countriesl like Costa Rica (the last North American hold out) make it to the quarterfinals, the big kids are still in charge of the playground down in Brazil. What the World Cup may now lack in surprises, it makes up for quality.
Brazil will be playing Germany without its top player, Neymar, who suffered a back injury in the team's 2-1 quarterfinal win over Colombia. A hard foul led to broken vertebra, which is not as bad as it sounds. Neymar is expected to recover with some rest.
Although I will be mixing sports metaphors here, you might want to think of Brazil as the Lakers of world soccer. (Present Lakers team excepted.) They win a lot and their fans expect them to win in style. The Brazilians have been winning, but not with much style. Their goals have tended to come from set pieces, which are less glamorous than dramatic runs down the field or beautiful passing. However, the goals all count the same. Brazil's goalie, Julio Cesar, plays for FC Toronto in MLS and could be the first player from that league to win a World Cup (unlike players who have won it earlier and then played in MLS, like Thierry Henry.)
Germany has become a slight favorite with oddsmakers after Neymar's injury. The Germans are the St. Louis Cardinals of world soccer. They consistently make it deep into the World Cup (10 semifinal appearances in the last 13 tournaments) and they are, for the most part, not beloved by many people outside their own fan base (unlike Cardinals fans, Germans have a good idea why people don't like them). The Germans just keep winning and seemingly never run out of stars.
In the other semifinal, Argentina, who are tough to draw a comparison to an American sports franchise (I've heard Chicago Bulls or Green Bay Packers), plays the Netherlands (who are the Minnesota Vikings or Buffalo Bills, with three losses in the final without a win).
Argentina has the world's most exciting player in Lionel Messi. The Barcelona star didn't live up to expectations in his first two World Cups, but he has been as advertised this year. He has scored goals out of nowhere. He has scored on a wonderful free kick. He has set up his teammates for goals. Messi's genius combined with Argentina's very disciplined defending make the South American team very hard to beat.
The Dutch will give it a shot after surviving a penalty shootout against Costa Rica in the quarterfinals. Dutch manager Louis van Gaal made the unprecedented move (at least in the World Cup) to change his goalkeeper for the shootout. It paid off as the replacement, Tim Krul, made two saves to send the Ticos back to Central America.
Since the Netherlands beat Mexico in the second round in controversial style. (Some words of Spanish to know to make friends who root for Mexico feel better: "No era un penal.") The Dutch have some tremendously talented players, but they are known more for dives and whining a lot.
The championship will be played on Sunday in Rio de Janeiro in a match that starts at noon Pacific Time.
As for American soccer hopes in the future, it is getting brighter, but there is still a long way to go. The Americans are now competitive with the top European teams. There used to be a chasm between the Americans and the Germanys and Brazils of the world, but that's been narrowed to just a gap. But that gap is still tough to close. It is not likely to be closed in 2018 in Russia until America develops a world-class striker or enough high quality midfielders with superior technical skills to keep up with the top teams.
The best American players are mostly playing in Europe. Goalie Tim Howard plays for Everton in England. Midfielder Fabian Johnson, whose injury against Belgium really sunk U.S. hopes, plays for Borussia Möautnchengladbach in Germany. Julian Green, the teenager who scored the only goal for the U.S. against Belgium, plays for Bayern Munich, but mostly on the reserves. Other MLS players may be headed to Europe, including DeAndre Yedlin and Matt Besler. So, American players are starting to be held in higher regard by European teams, even though the American public still has its skeptical holdouts.
Since Brazil's win over Germany in the 2002 Final, the last two World Cup finals have been all-European affairs. Personally, I am hoping for an all South American final, which has happened twice, in 1930 and 1950. However, the top European sides sat out one or both of those tournaments. Watching Brazil and Argentina go after it in the Maracanã would be great theater, an all-American finale if you look at it globally instead of locally.