The World Cup kicks off Thursday in Moscow without familiar faces like the United States, Italy, Holland and Chile.
On the flip side, defending champion Germany is salty as ever. Brazil still has the most talent. Spain is loaded, even with a bizarre last-minute coaching change. France is explosive. Argentina has arguably the best player on the planet.
Mexico, with legions of El Tri fans spread across the States, will stand in as America’s Team.
Soccer is gaining steam in this country, but enough to justify Fox’s $400 million broadcast-rights gamble on Russia ’18 and the 2022 and 2026 games?
“This is the summer we find out how much Americans really like soccer,” said Michael MacCambridge, a former American-Statesman writer who’s teaching a World Cup class at the University of Texas this summer. “In recent World Cups, so much of the focus was on the U.S. team and the massive crowds that gathered around the country to watch those games.
“This year everything is working against it being a big event here. Because of the time difference in Russia, most of the matches will be occurring in the morning. For the first time in the memory of most American soccer fans, ESPN isn’t broadcasting it. And the U.S. isn’t playing.
“If, in the face of all that, the tournament still gets substantial viewership numbers — and dominates sports talk for the next month — that would be telling.”
Phil West, a soccer historian and author who lives in Austin, certainly was betting on the U.S. qualifying. His most recent book “I Believe That We Will Win” makes a case for the Americans contending for the title. He had to do some rewriting after the Yanks lost 2-1 to Trinidad and Tobago in October. Yet West said Wednesday’s announcement that the United States, Mexico and Canada will co-host the 2026 World Cup provides a positive jolt.
“We can at least watch it with the satisfaction of knowing we’ll be hosting this party in ’26,” West said. “We might still say, ‘that could have been us,’ when we see another team celebrate a goal, but when we see crowds gathered for games and fan events, we can confidently say, ‘That’s going to be us, but we’ll do it better.’
“It’s still going to be a really fun tournament, once we get past (Thursday’s) Russia-Saudi Arabia, which is like an NCAA play-in game.”
Fox analyst Stuart Holden, who’s in Russia, acknowledged to the Statesman this spring the obvious: No U.S. means decreased ratings.
“Yet I think soccer has grown up enough in the U.S. to weather the storm,” Holden said. “My first game I’m doing is Spain vs. Portugal on Friday. That gets the juices flowing, and the disappointment over the U.S. begins to subside.
“Mexico becomes the home team for us. El Tri is no stranger to playing in the U.S. or being on TV. They are carrying the banner for this region, so we certainly hope they make a good run. But they’re in a tough group with Germany and Sweden.”
Germany versus Mexico on Sunday is an early marquee matchup that will be telling for El Tri’s chances.
West, who wrote “The United States of Soccer: MLS and the Rise of American Soccer Fandom” in 2016, goes back and forth on Mexico.
“I’m a huge believer in (forward) Hirving Lozano, who could be one of the breakout players in this tournament,” West said. “Mexico has talent, and I’ve talked myself into Mexico making a run. Yet they lack a certain kind of dynamism, and I’d be concerned about them not scoring in two of their last three tuneups.
“The X factor for them is how well (Coach Juan Carlos) Osorio has prepared them.”
West said this year’s event is set up for a European team to win.
“I fully expect a France-Germany final,” he said, “with maybe (French forward) Antoine Griezmann winning the Golden Boot” for most goals. “I’d throw Belgium out there as a wild card. But I’m not entirely convinced about Brazil.”
He does not see Lionel Messi leading Argentina to the title.
“He’s phenomenal, but that team is really weird,” West said. “Their 30s players are aging out, and the younger players are probably not quite ready. I don’t know that they have the core to get to the final. I think the semis are their outer limit.”
Once Russia ‘18 fades into the background, West and MacCambridge see an American resurgence.
“We have promising young players, and I think we’re fixing some of the things about our development and academy system that we didn’t do well five or 10 years ago,” West said. “My book is predicated on being hopeful about 2026.”
MacCambridge said one era of American soccer ended Oct. 10 when the U.S. was eliminated from qualifying and the next era starts now, leading up to the ‘26 Cup.
“Everything is set up for that tournament to be a huge commercial success,” he said. “It will be the biggest World Cup ever — 48 teams — and the first men’s summer World Cup in eight years.
“We won’t be favored, but if the next generation of U.S. players progress, then we could reasonably expect to have a tough, talented host team that no one would want to be drawn against.”
World Cup at a glance
When: Thursday through July 15
Where: 11 cities in Russia
TV: Fox and FoxSports 1
Defending champ: Germany
Favorites (odds): Brazil 4-to-1; Germany 4½-1; Spain 6-1; France 7-1; Argentina 9½-1
Opener: Russia vs. Saudi Arabia, Thursday, 10 a.m. (Fox)
Note: A watch party is planned Thursday at Austin City Hall Plaza from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. with complimentary tacos, paletas and giveaways by MLS2ATX.
Belgium (12-1): While the Red Devils are no long shot, they do not have a glorious history in the World Cup with an all-time top finish of fourth place in 1986. Any team with internationals stars like Fs Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku, M Kevin De Bruyne and D Vincent Kompany are a threat to go a long way.
Croatia (35-1): Real Madrid Luka Modric can make a major impact in midfield, and Domagoj Vida will be one of the more intimidating defenders in the tournament. But Croatia is in a tough group with Argentina, Iceland and Nigeria.
Senegal (125-1): Austin soccer historian Phil West said the Lions will be one of his favorite teams to watch. They are led by Liverpool winger Sadio Mane, coming off a 20-goal season, and Napoli D Kalidou Koulibaly, a 6-4 tower of power.
Costa Rica (250-1): Los Ticos may have about as good a chance as Mexico to reach the knockout stage. Joel Campbell is one of the slickest, quickest forwards around, and Real Madrid GK Keylor Navas will stop most anything.
Timo Werner (F, Germany): The striking sensation of Red Bull Leipzig scored seven goals in 10 matches for his national team last year. Despite 42 goals over the past two club seasons, Werner is not even among the Golden Boot favorites.
Kylian Mbappe (F, France): The 19-year-old from Paris-Saint Germain has exploded onto the scene with dynamic ability that can make your mouth drop watching him. Even with Antoine Griezmann and Paul Pogba, the French may build their attack around Mbappe.
Dele Alli (M, England): The Tottenham playmaker could really make a difference in setting up opportunities for Harry Kane and English forwards. “He plays the game with a certain arrogance because he knows he can beat you,” David Beckham said.
Christian Cueva (M, Peru): The attacking midfielder often drives in from the left wing and is hard to contain because of his terrific dribbling ability in tight spaces.