The difference between winning and losing, at this stage, is minuscule. In the round of 16, winners and losers basically attempted the same number of set pieces per contest (winners 2.8, losers 2.9), committed the same number of fouls (winners 18.1, losers 17.9), and had basically the same completion rate within the attacking third (winners 65.2 percent, loser 63.2).
Some of the biggest differences, however, came away from the attacking third. Winners completed 87.1 percent of passes in the middle third to losers' 82.3, and winners completed 96.2 percent in the defensive third to losers' 90.4.
SB Nation's analytics and research intern Chris A. Brown is busy charting extra possession data during the World Cup. Soccer is a game of infinite turnovers, but I've been curious about the how and where -- how you turn the ball over and where you do it. Chris Anderson and David Sally, the authors of The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong, talk about soccer as a "weakest link" game, one decided as much by mistakes and teams' weakest players as by goals and stars. Though the stars have been brilliant, this theory was certainly backed up in the first of the knockout stages.
If you're in the quarterfinals right now, you made fewer mistakes with the ball in your half of the field. Uruguay completed only 85 percent of its passes in its defensive third (Colombia completed 94 percent). Algeria completed 88 percent to Germany's 99 percent. Mexico didn't make many mistakes (94 percent), but Netherlands made none (100 percent).
(The same goes for short and long passing. Winners completed 44.8 percent of long passes to losers' 44.0 percent, but winners completed 86 percent of short passes while losers completed just 82. The little things...)
The goalpost managed to play a solid, devastating impact in two upset bids. It's already difficult maintaining a shot at an upset for 90, or even 120 minutes. Just ask Nigeria and Algeria, who both cratered around the 70th minute against France and Germany, respectively. (Algeria held on for dear life and forced extra time before allowing a pair of goals, while Nigeria allowed its pair in the final 15 minutes of regulation.) Just ask the United States, which needed a super-human performance from keeper Tim Howard to force overtime, then allowed two goals anyway. But two other upset bids very nearly succeeded ... and didn't.
First, after about 45 minutes of mostly defensive play, Chile got a breakaway in the closing minutes of extra time, and Mauricio Pinilla cannoned a shot off the crossbar. In the ensuing penalty shootout, following the inevitable Pinilla miss, Gonzalo Jara sneaked a shot past keeper Julio Cesar, but it caromed off of the left post, and Brazil advanced.
Gonzalo Jara reacting to Chile's devastating elimination from the World Cup, Photo credit: Dean Mouhtaropoulos, Getty Images
A few days later, a less heavy underdog, Switzerland, got similar treatment. Argentina's Angel di Maria scored off of a perfect feed from Lionel Messi in the 118th minute, but with only a couple of minutes remaining, Switzerland was able to generate a few decent scoring opportunities. They also got one spectacular opportunity, a clean header for Blerim Dzemaili. The result was gut-wrenching.
Round-of-16 favorites had plenty of missed opportunities and adversity as well. But when the bounces go against the underdogs, those are the ones you remember.
Of the eight remaining teams in the World Cup, only four are currently in the top 10 of the FIFA rankings (No. 2 Germany, No. 3 Brazil, No. 5 Argentina, No. 8 Colombia). Five are in the top 8 of the ELO ratings, and six are in the top 8 of Nate Silver's Soccer Power Index, which appears to be performing the best in this regard.
No matter how you slice it, however, there are seven teams, and then there's Costa Rica, which ranks 28th overall in the FIFA rankings, 32nd in ELO, and 23rd in SPI. From a stats perspective, the Ticos were rather drastically outplayed by Greece in the round of 16: according to the FourFourTwo statszone, Greece had 61 percent possession, completed 445 passes to 266, attempted 11 corners to three, completed 70 percent of passes in the attacking third to 56, completed 90 percent of passes in the middle third to 85, and completed 58 percent of long passes to 36.
While we're at it, the Greeks also succeeded far more on crosses (24 percent to 13 percent) and take-ons (62 percent to 52 percent) and, using FIFA's stats, created more than twice as many dangerous attacks (60 to 28) and four times more total attempts (24 to six). But Costa Rica had goalkeeper Keylor Navas (seven saves and the only penalty shootout save) and Bryan Ruiz (one goal and a successful shootout attempt), and it allowed them to overcome a stoppage-time goal from Sokratis Papastathopoulos and gave CONCACAF at least one team in the quarterfinals after both Mexico and the U.S. lost late.
In a tournament has seen some of the world's best players play some of their best soccer -- Lionel Messi, Neymar, and Thomas Müller all have four goals, Robin Van Persie, Arjen Robben, and Karim Benzema have three, and have you seen some of the goal-keeping??? -- one player stands atop the Golden Boot race at the moment.
Colombia's James Rodríguez might not have had the same opportunity to shine had star striker Radamel Falcao not injured his knee and missed the World Cup. Falcao's injury was supposed to lay a devastating blow to The Coffeers' chances of advancement; instead, Rodriguez, Falcao's Monaco teammate, has erupted. It has competition, but his out-of-nowhere strike in the 28th minute against Uruguay might have been the best goal of the tournament. It completely redefined a match that had not yet seen much action. (On his second goal, his fifth of the tournament, others did most of the work.) Colombia seemed content with taking long shots early on, and that's not necessarily a winning strategy. But Rodriguez bombed one in anyway. And without Falcao, Colombia is still in the quarterfinals, still with perhaps the best scorer in the tournament.
Six of eight knockout matches were tied after 90 minutes. Two went to shootouts, three others to extra time, Holland won deep into stoppage time. In 2010, there were two overtime matches in the Round of 16, one shootout (Paraguay over Japan), and three matches decided by at least two goals. And that was pretty good! In 2006, there were again two OT matches, one shootout (Ukraine shutting out Switzerland in PKs), and three relative blowouts.
The World Cup is always a spectacle, always a special event, even when the matches aren't that competitive. This has quite possibly been the most competitive, consistently interesting World Cup we've seen, at least since 2002, and maybe since 1982.
Of the 19 kicks taken in two penalty shootouts -- Brazil-Chile and Costa Rica-Greece -- 13 went in, a success rate of 68.4 percent that is far below the normal PK averages (80+ percent). Of course, Costa Rica and Greece made eight of their nine. It was the Chile-Brazil match that combined stellar goal-keeping, timid shots, and an ill-timed bounce off of the goalpost.
Sixteen! Timmy Howard made 16 saves! That is inhumane in both directions. No keeper should have to work so hard to save his team, and no team should have to work so hard before actually putting a ball into the net. According to FIFA's match stats, it took more than 70 "dangerous attacks" before Belgium finally scored.
We've long known that Howard was one of the world's better, more athletic keepers. But he painted his masterpiece on Tuesday with his feet. His positioning was superb -- on multiple occasions, I watched Howard as Belgium approached, thinking, "Why is he so far out?" or "Why is he at Point A instead of Point B?" only to see the shot come right to him each time -- and his footwork and reactions were otherworldly. We go overboard with praise sometimes; there is no going overboard with Timmy at the moment.
The right team won, of course. The team that created more scoring opportunities, passed better, played better defense, and didn't treat the ball as a giant Super Ball for most of the match, won. We know this. That doesn't automatically make a loss easier to take, but it makes it more logical. Three years from now, "GOD, HOW DID WONDO MISS THAT?" will become "We advanced to the knockout round again!"
Around 6:30 p.m. ET yesterday, the present tense ended and the future tense began. That's how the World Cup works. It is as if the college football season lasted three weeks, followed by a nearly four-year offseason (with mini-seasons here and there).
But perhaps Jurgen Klinsmann's greatest accomplishment in this tournament was combining the present and future tenses from the beginning. We got to witness spectacular final hurrahs from goalkeeper Tim Howard (who, hell, still might be the best American goalkeeper, at age 39, in 2018), striker Clint Dempsey (31), left back DaMarcus Beasley (32, veteran of four World Cups), Jermaine Jones (32), and Kyle Beckerman (32). One or two of these players might carve out a role in four years, but probably not. And all five of them played some of the best ball of their respective careers in Brazil. Howard made a tournament's worth of saves against Belgium. Dempsey scored twice. Beasley was perhaps the steadiest American in the two losses. Jones and Beckerman might have been the team's two non-Howard MVPs in the group stage. The U.S. wouldn't have advanced without these five.
Immigrants could shape the USMNT's future
Here is a list of potential U.S. citizens who could feature in the next World Cup.
But while we were getting a long, last, loving look at these players, we also got to see the future. There's 21-year-old defender John Brooks scoring the game-winner against Ghana. There's 20-year-old DeAndre Yedlin giving the U.S. sideline runs and crosses for about 90 minutes against Belgium (and, yes, occasionally advancing too far and getting caught out of position defensively). There's 19-year-old Julian Green, scoring a goal on his first World Cup touch.
We will remember the Belgium loss as both a send-off and a harbinger, a performance of a lifetime for Tim Howard and an introduction for Yedlin and Green. It's the day after, therefore I lean toward the latter. I am at my best when waiting for next year -- conditioning from being a Pittsburgh Pirates, Portland Trailblazers and Missouri Tigers fan -- and it's impossible not to be excited about the prospects of Green (23 in 2018) and Yedlin (24) running the flanks while still-near-his-prime marathoner Michael Bradley (30) feeds them balls and Mix Diskerud (27), Jozy Altidore (28), and Aron Johannsson (27) combine athletic prime with growing wisdom. So many key defensive pieces should be back as well: wingers Fabian Johnson (30) and Timmy Chandler (28), central defenders Matt Besler (31), Omar Gonzalez (29) and Brooks (25).
Throw in the next batch of New Generation guys -- Luis Gil (24 in 2018), Erik Palmer-Brown (21), Joe Gyau (25), hopefully Arsenal wunderkind Gedion Zelalem (21) -- and you've got yourself a deep, fast-as-hell team that might be able to play the style Jurgen Klinsmann promised*. There could be depth issues at striker and goalkeeper (where a 33-year-old Brad Guzan should be ready to take over for Howard ... if Howard is willing to give up the job), but depth on defense and, especially, in the midfield, could be better than ever before. (Or, some of the key pieces could still be too young, and I'm writing a paragraph very similar to this in four years.)
* We can complain about how Klinsmann hasn't brought the style of play to the U.S. that he announced he would and that the U.S. basically played like Greece -- plodding, iron-footed, not particularly high-pace -- against its two best World Cup opponents (Germany and Belgium). But we also have to note that most of the players who can actually bring that style to the table are barely able to legally drink, if they're legal at all. If the USMNT is still Greecing it up at key moments in 2018, complaints are totally warranted.
It's always easy to fantasize about how good your team will be in four years. Fans of every team thus far eliminated from the World Cup are doing just that (except probably England fans, that is). But it's particularly easy to do it for the U.S.
For now, though, the World Cup continues without the United States, just as every previous iteration has. Ann Coulter gets to go back to pretending her backwards-looking, change-fearing, generally hateful version of the country actually exists, and the rest of us will continue believing ... believing that ... believing that we ... believing that we will win, if not in four years, then in eight, or 12, or 16, or...