So it happened.
The United States finally failed to qualify for a world cup. It was a good run, Americans, and you’re probably hurting right now. So, it is with some English smugness that I bring you a solution. The United States weren’t the only competitive team not to qualify for the World Cup, so I have resolved to predict a best-of-the-rest tournament.
I have chosen what I believe to be the eight best teams not to qualify for Russia next year and ranked them as follows:
- United States
The imaginary tournament rules are simple. Eight seeds play one seeds, seven play two, and so forth. Using a very scientific method, relying solely on my instincts and personal bias, I have simulated the eight team tournament. For the purposes of fairness and fun, all players are assumed to be healthy and playing at their natural positions.
The First Round
Chile 2-0 Austria
No real surprises here. A lack of top tier European talent costs Austria against a strong Chile side. Arturo Vidal takes David Alaba out of the game, and Alexis Sanchez has a goal and an assist to send the Chileans through.
United States 2-1 Slovakia
Had this been a competition against far inferior squads, the Americans would face an early exit (believe me, History is not on the US’ side.) Technically, since we’re branding this a “major” tournament, the United States is going to overperform. Yet it wouldn’t be American soccer without a sloppy defensive performance against an inferior team. Even with a healthy John Brooks and in-form Tim Howard, the U.S. look shaky at the back. Enter Christian Pulisic. The phenom scores two in the second half to secure a place in the semifinals.
Wales 3-1 Bosnia
This should be a gritty midfield battle for the Welsh against a physical Bosnian team. However, Chris Coleman gets his tactics right, and frees up space for Gareth Bale to do damage. After a rough couple of months with injuries, the star man inspires yet another big stage victory.
Netherlands 2-3 Ecuador
This is where it gets interesting. Holland is fantastic on paper, but lacks a clinical finisher up top. Arjen Robben does his best, and Virgil Van Dijk handles the back, but both can only do so much. Led by an inspiring performance from Antonio Valencia, the Ecuadorians run riot on attack, coming up with the first major upset of the tournament.
Chile 2-2 Ecuador (Chile 3-2 on Penalties)
Ecuador comes out playing physical, and Sanchez doesn’t have a second to settle on the ball before being challenged. The Ecuadorians sit back and defend, and it’s 0-0 at the half. Both teams show a more attacking mentality in the second, though. Sanchez is heavily marked, but the pace of Eduardo Vargas is too much for the struggling Ecuador defense. The Chileans score in the 60th and 65th minute and appear to be in cruise control. However, the proverbial fat lady is yet to sing. Ecuador wins a penalty kick and adds another off a corner to send the game to extra time. We go all the way to penalties, where Arturo Vidal is the hero, burying the winner for the Chileans.
United States 1-2 Wales
This one is closest game of the tournament. Bruce Arena, had he not resigned in order to participate in this imaginary tournament, fields an attacking lineup, with Pulisic playing behind Clint Dempsey and Bobby Wood, and the early results are good. Dempsey curls a free kick for an early lead, with Pulisic looking a constant threat. The Americans lead 1-0 at the half. It all gets very American from there. Quiet in the first half, Bale explodes in the second. With help off the bench from Liverpool youngster Ben Woodburn, the Real Madrid man tears apart the rattled American defense. He sets up Woodburn with a defense-splitting pass and seals the win with a 30-yard screamer with minutes to go. Tim Howard has 18 saves in the loss because he’s Tim Howard and this is a major tournament.
Wales 2-1 Chile
Two strikingly similar teams line up against each other. Both posses a world class, speedy forward, and rely on a cast of solid teammates to facilitate. Woodburn earns the start following his semi-final heroics and has the game of his life, scoring in the opening minutes. Bale adds another before half time, and the Welsh appear to be cruising. Not so fast. Sanchez makes Ashley Williams look silly with a marauding run in the 80th minute, leaving the game 2-1 with 10 minutes to play. Under heavy pressure, the Welsh grind out the rest of the game, and take home the trophy that doesn’t mean anything at all.