It’s long been said that the whole world watches the men’s World Cup. But for years the U.S. didn’t. Then, the U.S. Men’s National Team ran off a string of consecutive appearances starting in 1990, and the women’s team won three. Now, the Americans are tuned in. But this year, we’re only watching, not playing: The men didn’t qualify. We went to Paul Krumpe, former member of the USMNT and head coach of LMU men’s soccer, to ask what there is to watch in a World Cup tournament with no American team, not to mention no Italians, Chileans, Czechs or Ghanaians. Here are 10 things Krumpe says he’ll be watching for in the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
1 GLOBAL STAGE
The World Cup is the absolute pinnacle for a soccer player. Not only do you have the pressure of playing in a world championship, but it’s heightened because it takes place only once every four years. You may be at the apex of your career this time and miss it next time because you’re no longer able to play at the same level. Also, your team must qualify to get there, and that means more pressure. It is definitely the highest pressure for an individual, and then it’s magnified because your entire country is watching. So the stakes are off the chart.
2 FLAWED FAVORITES
Although the tournament is being held in Europe this year, both Germany and France are susceptible to being upset. They are in tough groups, especially Germany, who must get past Mexico, South Korea and Sweden. The German side are the favorites, but I don’t see them winning all three games. France is grouped with Denmark, Peru and Australia. I think France will go through to the next round, but with those opponents, I don’t think they’ll leave group play unscathed.
3 MESSI’S YEAR?
Lionel Messi is amazing. We are so blessed to be able to see him, and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, play every week for their clubs. They are surely two of the top five players of all time, if not the best two ever. But Messi’s best chance for a World Cup title was four years ago, when he was younger and the tournament was in South America. It’s very hard for South American teams to win titles in Europe. I don’t think Argentina will win this year.
4 AN AFRICAN SURPRISE
Of all the African sides, Senegal should have the best chance to advance out of the group stage because the other African nations are in more difficult groups. There is much parity in Senegal’s bracket of four, which includes Colombia, Poland and Japan. Strangely enough, those teams will either provide the most interesting games of the group stage or the dullest.
5 ENGLAND RISING
The English will get out of their group and advance to the knockout stages. Beating Belgium, who is also in their group, will be a tough task. But England is aware of the challenge, since many members of the Belgian national side play in England’s Premier League. England should be favored against Panama and Tunisia, but they tend to drop games when they are favored.
6 NEIGHBORS UNITE?
Will Americans root for our neighbor Mexico? It’s difficult to cheer on your main rival. I would suggest Americans support Costa Rica instead. I’ve taken the LMU men’s team on foreign tours of Costa Rica three times — in 2009, 2013 and 2017. Costa Ricans love the game and are die-hard soccer fanatics, just like the Mexican fans. But I don’t foresee any main rivals of the U.S. advancing out of the group stage.
7 PLAYER TO WATCH
I wish it were Christian Pulisic, the young U.S. star. But since we failed to qualify, he’ll be watching on TV like
the rest of us.
8 U.S. DISAPPOINTMENT
I hope U.S. fans will appreciate how difficult it is to qualify every four years and yearn even more for qualification in 2022. Even some big powers were left out this year: Where is Holland? Chile? It has been a long run without U.S. participation since my teammates and I qualified in 1990 — that’s seven straight appearances. U.S. fans should see this as the bottom of a cycle, and everything will be heading back up again going forward.
Once the whistle blows, players at this level should not be distracted. They would not be in the position of playing for their national team if they couldn’t handle the spectacle. The biggest risk for teams may simply be the top clubs looking past an opponent and getting caught flat-footed.
10 TEAMS TO WATCH
Portugal and Argentina fascinate me because they feature Ronaldo and Messi. I will always watch Spain and Germany play, and I expect them to win. But this year, I will pay extra close attention to Iceland to see if they can escape the group stage. We signed two young men from Iceland to play for us next year. I’d love to see them bring some extra momentum into LMU because of their country’s success at the World Cup in Russia.