World Cup Roundtable: Who was the biggest disappointment of the group stage?

The group stage of the 2022 FIFA World Cup is officially behind us and there was no shortage of upsets. Unfortunately, in order for there to be upsets, there have to be teams that fail to live up to expectations.

Before we move onto the knockout-stage, we had former United States men’s national team players DaMarcus Beasley, Jimmy Conrad, Landon Donovan, Sacha Kljestan and Alexi Lalas reflect on the group stage and make their predictions for the Round of 16.

Which team has been the biggest surprise so far and why?

Donovan: The Aussies! Coming into the tournament, although unlikely, I would have said Japan and Korea getting through were possibilities — I would have never guessed that Australia would have advanced ahead of Denmark or even Tunisia. To me, they’re the surprise of the tournament so far.

Lalas: It would probably be Japan.

Conrad: Morocco. They just hired their coach a few months ago; two of their best players had been ostracized by the previous coach but were brought back in; they’re super organized, good going forward and won a tough group.

Beasley: Australia. Even before coming into this tournament, not even the media or the fans thought much from the team. To lose your first match to one of the favorites of the tournament 4-1 and then come back with two wins to get you through the group, I think that is a tall feat, and they proved that they can play football and that they have believe in their team – they don’t give up.

Kjlestan: Morocco. I don’t think we knew a lot about some of their players because they might not play in Europe, and they hired a new coach recently, and they won a group that had Belgium and Denmark in it, which no one expected.

Which team was the biggest disappointment and why?

donvan: Belgium. Belgium had more talent than Germany and I think they just did less with more than any team in the tournament.

Lalas: Germany. I thought that the failure of 2018 would have triggered a response. Not only did they not have a response, but it was more of the same. That’s very un-German-like. For a nation that has so much talent, it’s unacceptable and that reboot might be coming again, but I’m not sure they needed this to tell them that.

Conrad: Denmark. They’re the Euro semifinalists from the previous summer, scored 30 goals in 10 World Cup qualifying games to win an automatic spot to Qatar, and then absolutely sucked when they got here. They scored only one goal, and it was off a set piece by their center back. Embarrassing.

Beasley: Belgium. They had, on paper, one of the most talented groups in the World Cup. It just goes to show that if you let things creep in your environment from off the field, it’s going to affect you on the field. I know that Kevin de Bruyne’s comments came after Belgium’s second game, but you could already tell that something didn’t look right. That’s not what you need going into a tournament like the World Cup.

Cljestan: Belgium. Coming in being ranked No. 2 in the world, coming to the end of this Golden Generation of players, I think they just bottled it. They didn’t play well. Even when they beat Canada in the first game, they didn’t play well. Then they lost to Morocco and were not able to score against Croatia. It was just a bad tournament from them, and we had big expectations from them.

Which player impressed you the most in the group stage and why?

Donovan: Josko Guardiol. I had high expectations for him, but I’m not sure many people in the soccer world really knew anything about him. I saw him play live last night and, to me, he’s probably a top-five player in the tournament right now.

Lalas: From a US perspective, it would be Tim Ream. I think he had a great tournament. He’s been wonderful and consistent and secure. And some of these young players, like Cody Gakpo, that are emerging right now, as the Messis and Ronaldos die off, that next generation has to step up, and I think there’s a lot of really good talent out there and that bodes well for 2026 .

Conrad: Tyler Adams. He was the heart and soul of the USMNT as they went undefeated to get out of the group.

Beasley: Mathew Leckie. I remember watching him come in. Obviously, you have to look at players and who the better players are, you watch videos on them, and I’m like, “Okay, this guy has good feet, he can play” — you saw some characteristics of what he can do on the field. But the goal he scored to take them to the Round of 16 was phenomenal. Everything he is as a player is shown in that one play. He got the ball, and he showed his speed, his balance, his ability to go one way and shift the ball to his left side, score with his left foot. The hardest thing to do in football is score goals, and he’s shown that he can do that. He’s a very good player, he has a lot of quality, and it goes unnoticed because Australia aren’t known to be that dominant force in football. I like Matthew Leckie. I think he’s been very impressive in this World Cup so far.

Cljestan: Cody Gakpo. He usually plays as a winger for PSV and Louis Van Gaal has got him playing almost like a striker now, which is a slightly different position. He scored one goal in every group game and that consistency is big in a tournament like this. He’s been very impressive.

Has your pick for champion changed since the tournament started? Why or why not?

Donovan: No, it’s still Brazil. They still have to be the favorites.

Lalas: It hasn’t. Nothing that Brazil has done has given me pause. And as strange it sounds to talk about, the defensive prowess of Brazil is what’s going to win it for them, and Neymar’s getting back to health. They are trending in the right direction and I think they are ready to peak at the possible point. Everyone else has had a flaw or a moment of doubt, but I’m cool with Brazil.

Conrad: No. Brazil are still the best and most talented team in this tournament (and haven’t given up a goal, either) so my mind hasn’t changed.

Beasley: It has not changed. My pick was — and is — Brazil. They’re very strong and they proved that they can play without Neymar. I know he’s a big part of it and he needs to be on the field in order for them to win this World Cup. But they’re stronger than they are without Neymar. I think they have a deep team, especially in that attacking part of the field. They’re still on course to win the World Cup.

Cljestan: No. I picked Brazil to win the tournament and I still think Brazil looked the best. They’re still the favorites, and I’m feeling pretty confident about my pick.

Which of the current goal leaders (Cody Gakpo, Kylian Mbappe, Alvaro Morata and Marcus Rashford) has the best chance of winning the Golden Boot and why?

Donovan: You just have to think Mbappe’s going to be playing longer. Gakpo could be done tomorrow; Rashford could be done tomorrow; Mbappe should be playing the longest, so it has to be him.

Lalas: Mbappe because he’s going to be on, and he’s going to score. The problem with the Netherlands is that they had an easy group, so we don’t quite know how good they are. They’re good, but we don’t know how good. So I’d go with Mbappe.

Conrad: Mbappe because he is on the team with the best chance to go the furthest in the tournament.

Beasley: I’m not going to say Gakpo because I think they’re going to lose! So I’m going to say Mbappe. Rashford, as well, with England being on that side of the bracket, but they might face France, so I’m sticking with Mbappe. He can score goals in many different ways. We haven’t seen many players do what he can do. He’s a special talent, and it only takes one second for him to get going, whether it’s him going one-on-one with someone or it’s someone playing him through. There are so many ways that he can hurt you on the field — that means he can score goals in a lot of different ways.

Cljestan: Mbappe, for two reasons. One, I think he’s the best player in that group of players, he’s the most talented, and he’s scored goals at the World Cup before. And I think that France is the best of those teams that are left, so I could see them getting to the Final Four, so that guarantees them four more games. I’m going Mbappe.

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