World Cup 2014: ESPN, Grantland's 'Men in Blazers' Predict U.S. Victory Over Belgium (Q&A)
After surviving the Group of Death, the U.S. World Cup team is facing sudden death in the knockout round. But at least two men believe they can survive, and told The Hollywood Reporter why they have such undying faith in Jurgen Klinsmann and his men.
Grantland and ESPN's Men in Blazers — aka Roger Bennett and Michael Davies — "believe we can win," and broke down what to expect in the matchup against Belgium on Tuesday in their smart and cynical British style.
"We've tried really hard to think of reasons why the U.S. shouldn't like Belgium. We’ve come up with Dr. Evil so far, and have been watching In Bruges to do background on the game," Bennett tells THR, adding that the match is "the Statue of Liberty going head-to-head with the Manneken Pis."
Beyond waffles, chocolate and beer, what do we need to know about Belgium?
Davies: Belgium is a very, very good footballing side, but they’re a fine group of individuals who don’t play together as a team. As individuals, they’re an all-star team of real talents and on paper — player to player — the Belgian ability should outstrip the U.S.'. But the U.S. has endeavor, tenacity and a real collective spirit, so we expect it will be a very close game.
What is going to give the U.S. the edge?
Davies: The U.S. is the fittest team at the World Cup, and as you go into the lightning knockout stages, your fitness is a huge thing.
Bennett: Plus, they have a manager, Jurgen Klinsmann, who has proven himself to be a quite brilliant man-motivator and a risk-taker, and that's going to put Belgium on its heels.
Who are the players to watch out for?
Bennett: The key for the U.S. is that midfield diamond — Kyle Beckerman, Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones. The three of them have covered more ground, ran more miles than anybody in midfield in this entire tournament, and they’re masters of it. Bradley has run almost 24 miles in the three games. He actually ranks number one of any player in the entire tournament in terms of how much distance he's covered. Forget what they do with the ball against Belgium, we just need to see them run really far! It will be the dreadlocks of Beckerman up against the splendid afro of Marouane Fellaini.
Davies: Belgium has a true star in Eden Hazard, but he is going to have to show up, as all focus is going to be on him. The joy of the World Cup is that you have all-star teams that come together very fleetingly every four years, and some knit cohesively and other teams are just great names that don’t really fit together, like a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces don’t connect. Belgium is still coming together and working out how they mesh, but the U.S. is an incredibly cohesive unit — that’s what separates the teams that go deep into this World Cup from those who disappear in the early rounds.
These are like knockout, single-elimination cuts, every match counts, winner takes all, and it's played in an intense climate with a lot of travel, with referees that might make one bad decision or one good decision — so no pressure at all! American athletes do so well under pressure though. They’re mentally tough and physically so fit; they’re very well coached. … If this were a seven-game series against Belgium, we’d be picking Belgium. But in a one-game elimination contest, we’re gonna take the United States.
Bennett: As they say on Game of Thrones, it is known!
Is the U.S. finally embracing soccer?
Bennett: We've always joked that soccer is the sport of the future and has been since 1972, but privately we know that the future is now.
Davies: We've known for a long time that this was inevitably coming, and we knew this World Cup in the same time zone as the United States essentially was going to be a turning point for American soccer. It is not just about the team, the thousands of fans who came down to Brazil, the 20,000 in the stadiums singing their hearts out, it is about the millions of people who are watching at home. The TV ratings don't come close to scratching the surface because of the amount of out-of-home viewing at the bars or outdoors. The social engagement of our audience is as high as it is on a show like Watch What Happens Live [for which Davies is an executive producer].
Bennett: We've noticed an incredible discovery. It was like in the past that world football was like a lecture in university and everyone had to sit in the back with their hands down. With the U.S. team, everyone knows they are the future but no one knows what the hell they are about in the present, but in a way, they've already won this World Cup — in Chicago, Kansas, New York — with all the incredible public viewing parties, the phenomenal ESPN ratings, and we are tracking socially on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook higher than ever. So there is a massive, surging swell of passion for this game. The U.S. has already done what it needed to, which was to get out of this Group of Death, which was an outstanding sporting achievement. But they have yet to put together a performance that truly reflects their potential, which is a great thing and a frightening thing from an American perspective.
Did Klinsmann make the right decision leaving star player Landon Donovan off the U.S. side?
Bennett: I directed the ESPN six-part series Inside: U.S. Soccer’s March to Brazil and all I can say is it was a very bold decision by Jurgen and one that he consistently signaled in interviews, saying, "I’m going to be picking players based on what they bring in the present, not what they have in the past," and Landon saw it coming. It was a massive, bold risk by Jurgen, and he really put his neck on the block. If the U.S. had gone three and out it would have come back to haunt him. He decided to emphasize youthful, hard-running, athletic players, and his decision was that Landon did not fit in with that.
Bennett: The Americans are so much better than England right now. One country is going up in an elevator and the other is going down toward the basement.
Davies: It is like America is Dallas and Britain is [gritty British TV series] EastEnders. It is as different as the soap operas in terms of glitz and glamour.
How did the Grantland platform help you grow the Men in Blazers brand leading up to the World Cup?
Davies: I blogged every day for the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, before it was even called a blog, and then we started with Off the Ball for the 2010 World Cup, and that is how the Grantland thing came about [two-and-a-half years ago], which has been amazing for us. We're around a lot of like-minded people creating content, with Bill Simmons and David Jacoby behind the scenes. They accept the beauty of sport but also how funny it is, and they always look to see pop culture connections between sport and entertainment. It has been incredible, and certainly in terms of developing our brand for video, the previews Grantland did for us for on YouTube really established how we can be Men in Blazers.
Bennett: 2014 has been the product of a slow and steady build. We brought an audience with us from Off the Ball, with a heavy emphasis on interactivity. We do a lot of live shows around the country where literally our listeners fly in to be together. We call them Great Friends of the Pod. We are like a band that has really clicked. We put in the hours gigging in small venues, and what we’re seeing at the World Cup is really a product of that.
The U.S. team faces Belgium on Tuesday, with coverage beginning on ESPN at 3 p.m. ET/noon PT and kickoff at 4 p.m. ET/1 p.m. PT.
Watch video below of the Men in Blazers' prediction that the U.S. will win the World Cup — and how it will go down.