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Alexander Zemlianichenko, AP Photo

Without U.S. contention, here are a few teams to follow at the FIFA World Cup in Russia

By Sean Walker, KSL.com  |  Posted Jun 14th, 2018 @ 10:15am


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ON YOUR TV — The 2018 FIFA World Cup opens in Moscow, Russia, and for the first time since 1986, the United States is not involved.

Yeah, we know, U.S. soccer fans; it still stings. The Yanks will be back, at least by 2026.

Even without a rooting interest, Americans will cheer. They will clap. They will flood bars and pubs and watch parties around the country. Many will even fall in love with a new generation of tournament darlings, like Egypt’s Mohammed Salah (more on him in a moment).

So if you need a rooting interest to follow the games, because you don’t want to #RootForChaos, here are nine teams you should follow over the next month.

Did we miss your favorite non-U.S. team? Let us know in the comment section.

Mexico

Ironically, when the United States lost its “Hexagonal” match on that fateful night at Trinidad & Tobago, the most popular national team in the country wasn’t eliminated.

That honor goes to Mexico, the Kings of CONCACAF and perhaps the region’s greatest hope for a title — or at least a deep tournament run.

Despite its intense, emotional and sometimes even dangerous rivalry with the United States, "El Tri" counts the USA among its biggest supporters. Since 2010, Mexico has played twice as many times on U.S. soil as on its own.

Part of the disparity comes from Mexico’s deep run in the biennial CONCACAF Gold Cup. But even in friendlies held several times a year, Mexico generally sells out American football stadiums in Dallas, Los Angeles and the Bay Area — even regions of the United States not typically known for high Latino populations, like Seattle.

On the television side, more than 4.5 million diehards are expected to watch Mexico's games between Spanish-language broadcasts on Telemundo and Fox, the official English language broadcaster of El Tri since 2016. The four most-watched soccer matches in U.S. television over the past year have come from Mexico — two by El Tri and two from the country’s Liga MX.

So grab a carne asada taco, pull up to a tailgate blaring Ranchero music, and cheer for CONCACAF’s best hope from a region of underdogs; Mexico hasn’t advanced past the World Cup quarterfinals since 1986, and is 50-1 odds to lift the trophy (and just 6-1 to advance out of Group F with Germany, Sweden and South Korea).

But if you like underdogs, how about the host country?

Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov arrives at the official training session of the Russian team one the eve of the group A match between Russia and Saudi Arabia at the 2018 soccer World Cup at Luzhniki stadium in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, June 13, 2018. (Photo: Alexander Zemlianichenko, AP Photo)

Russia

Few hosts have been heavy favorites to win a World Cup title since Germany in 2006, before the current run of top-flight Die Mannschaft.

But 2018 host Russia, which will open the tournament at 9 a.m. MDT Thursday against Saudi Arabia, is on another level as an underdog host.

The Russians have 80-1 odds to win the trophy, according to Las Vegas sports books, and boast just 9-1 odds to get out of Group A — often described as the "Group of Dearth" next to Uruguay (minus-175), Egypt (25-4) and Saudi Arabia (50-1).

But Americans are nothing if not suckers for a good underdog story.

Which brings us to …

Saudi Arabia

If you thought Russia's odds weren’t great, the Saudis have the worst odds to win a World Cup championship at 2,000-1.

Saudi Arabia will be making its first World Cup appearance since 2006, and fifth in program history. Its best finish was a Round of 16 exit in the United States in 1994, but striker Mohamed Al-Sahlawi is a prolific scorer who can — at the very least — help the Saudis contend for advancement to the Knockout Stages.

Maybe you want something a little more familiar, though …

Australia

A former British colony that calls the world’s football “soccer” with an aging talisman will try to do something rare when the tournament tips off Thursday.

Australia — led by former New York Red Bulls and MLS All-Star Tim Cahill — isn’t soccer-mad like much of the rest of the world. Its version of “Aussie rules football” is less popular than the Beautiful Game beyond its borders.

But Cahill, the 38-year-old all-time scoring leader for the Socceroos, will try to help Australia beat the odds of 20-1 to get out of Group C from France, Denmark and Peru.

Another country anglophiles might find interesting is …

England

The motherland for many Americans, and perhaps the most tortured football community in all of Europe, the Three Lions are at 16-1 odds to win the World Cup and plus -115 to get out of Group G from Belgium (minus-135), Tunisia (20-1) and Panama (50-1).

Of course, the immense popularity of the English Premier League in the United States — not to the mention the debonair good looks of England captain and Tottenham Hotspurs star Harry Kane — may draw some Americans back to the land of their ancestors.

England hasn’t reached the quarterfinals of a major tournament since 2006, and the squad is coming off what many in the English press consider to be a disappointing Euro 2016, when it fell to tiny Iceland in the Round of 16.

Speaking of Iceland …

Iceland

How does a country roughly the size of Peoria, Illinois (population 334,252) qualify for the world’s biggest sporting event?

It has a roster of high-profile internationals that include Burnley midfielder Johann Berg Gudmundson, Aston Villa midfielder Birkir Bjarnason and captain Aron Gunnarsson — plus a head coach who previously moonlighted as a professional dentist before taking command of both the men’s and women’s national teams in current men’s-only head coach Heimir Hallgrimsson.

What Iceland lacks in size it more than makes up for in its ability to capture the world’s imagination — listen to the exciting Skol clap, a tradition that started just two years ago, and you’ll be hard-pressed to actively root against a team collectively referred to as “Our Boys” by the native population.

Of course, maybe you don’t want to root for the underdogs, in which case …

In this Monday Oct. 9, 2017 file photo, Iceland's captain Aron Gunnarsson celebrates at the end of the World Cup Group I qualifying soccer match between Iceland and Kosovo in Reykjavik, Iceland. (Photo: Brynjar Gunnasrson, AP Photo)

Germany

The Germans are 7-2 favorites, according to most Las Vegas sports books, to hoist the trophy — and why shouldn’t they be?

Since the defending champs' triumph on Brazilian soil in 2014, Germany has finished third at Euro 2016 and won the Confederations Cup a year ago.

In fact, the Germans haven’t finished outside the top-four at a World Cup since 1998.

But there’s another team from among the favorites that many neutral observers will be fleeing based on events of the last 48 hours …

Spain

La Furia Roja was once among the favorites to lift the trophy, tied with France at 13-2 odds for the third-best odds.

But many are doubting those odds after Wednesday morning’s announcement that national team manager Julen Lopetegui had been fired after accepting the Real Madrid job. His replacement Fernando Hierro has plenty of talent on the roster, including Atletico Madrid’s Diego Costa — but will the team and coach have time to jell to make a deep run?

Speaking of standout individuals …

In this May 29, 2018 file photo, Argentina's Lionel Messi controls the ball during a friendly soccer match between Argentina and Haiti at the Bombonera stadium in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Photo: Natacha Pisarenko, AP Photo)

Argentina or Portugal

For all of their talent, neither Argentina's Leo Messi nor Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo have ever won a World Cup.

The two have finished first and second for FIFA World Player of the Year honors every year since 2008.

Argentina seems to have the pieces — and some repute with 8-1 underdog odds — to deliver Messi his first major international trophy in what is likely his final World Cup appearance. For Messi, 31, the time is now to cement himself as the greatest player of all time by winning La Albiceleste’s first World Cup title since 1986.

Ronaldo, who at 33 years old is still in peak physical form, may have another cycle in him with Portugal, which is a 20-1 underdog to win the trophy.

But there’s another challenge on the individual award list that may interest you …

Egypt

Led by Liverpool winger Mohamed Salah, Egypt is an extreme underdog at 200-1 odds to win it all and just 25-4 to advance out of Group A, trailing Uruguay and Russia.

The 2018 World Cup could be Salah’s coming out party, though.

The 25-year-old forward is fresh off an appearance in the UEFA Champions League final with the Reds, and his career is just getting started after stints with Chelsea, Fiorentina and Roma before his move to Merseyside a year ago.

Salah won the Premier League Golden Boot award in 2018 after registering 32 goals in 36 league games, and he was named the Premier League player of the year by the Football Writers’ Association.

Sean Walker, KSL.com
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