On this momentous day — which is not only the eve of this year’s World Cup, but also the historical announcement that the event will be returning to North America in 2026 — it’s time to round up the crew of Pittsburgh Soccer Now contributors to gather everyone’s thoughts about soccer’s biggest spectacle.
Thanks to Matt Gajtka, Mark Goodman, Rachael McKriger, Mike Sparks and Kevin Sparks — for providing insights on what they think will happen in Russia in the next month by answering five burning questions.
And you can also join us by participating in Pittsburgh’s World Cup challenge contest (it’s FREE and it’s not too late — you can enter your picks HERE by 5 p.m. Wednesday!).
Which group stage match you are looking forward to most?
Mike Sparks: Sweden vs Mexico. If USA can’t be there, then I’m keeping an eye out for our “friends” south of the border. Mexico should make it out of the group, but Sweden isn’t going to make it easy on them. While Germany vs El Tri should be a fun one, I don’t think it’s ultimately going to decide Mexico’s fate. The Sweeden game will.
Matt Gajtka: Argentina vs. Iceland is the group stage match I’m most looking forward to. I find Iceland’s recent run fascinating and this should be a wonderful test for the Vikings.
Kevin Sparks: Portugal v Spain
Mark Goodman: Germany-Mexico in Group F or Belgium-England in Group G. Those are all just teams brimming with talent and potential.
Rachael McKriger: I have to say Russia vs. Uruguay on June 25. While Russia isn’t much of a head turning team in the United States, they have personal support from me. Being born in Moscow and moving to the United States when I was only one, I have a fondness for the country and the national team. This is a match that could decide a tricky — and uncertain — group. I have Russia advancing — and even winning — from their group. This match will be one to watch.
John Krysinsky: Brazil should easily advance out of Group E, but all of the matches between the other three, Serbia, Costa Rica and Switzerland will be a dogfight as I don’t see much separation between these teams. Columbia vs Poland will be the one match I am really looking forward to seeing. Poland has Bayern Munich’s goal scoring dynamo Robert Lewendowski and this is a special generation of talent of Columbian players headed by James Rodriguez that is capable of a deep run. A loss in this match may lead to yet another World Cup disappointment one of these Nations.
AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, File
Who will be surprise/sleeper team of the tournament?
Mike Sparks: Nigeria. There’s some buzz around the team (partially thanks to their amazing kits), but if they can capitalize on their chances they’ve got a good shot of getting out of Group D with Argentina.
Matt Gajtka: With Falcao back and healthy, joining Rodríguez up front, I like Colombia to make a run.
Kevin Sparks: Hardly a true “sleeper” but outside the realistic contenders, i’d say Belgium.
Mark Goodman: Senegal are going to make it out of their group. So will Costa Rica, Morocco, and Iceland. And Mexico and England will go deeper than anybody would have expected
Rachael McKriger: Everyone is rooting for Iceland, since they have the most underdog/Cinderella story. I believe that Morocco can pull off an upset in their group. Morocco didn’t win the bid to host the World Cup in 2026, that may certainly ignite a fire and provide a spark. While they might not be able to top Spain for the top spot in their group, they can give Portugal a scare — and even prevent them from advancing. Despite having Cristiano Ronaldo on their roster, Portugal has struggled in the World Cup. If the United States could prevent Portugal from advancing from the Group of Death in 2014, Morocco certainly has a chance.
John Krysinsky: Croatia has talent, but very few are talking about the Blazers advancing out of a fairly competitive Group D — and they’re practically near home in Eastern Europe. This is a roster that includes a fabulous creative midfield combo of Luka Modric, Barcelona midfielder and Ivan Rakitic along with Juventus striker Mario Mandzukic.
Who are going to be the most interesting team(s) to watch?
Mike Sparks: Egypt. After Bob Bradley came so close to getting the team into the World Cup in 2014, the team will make a splash and likely get out of Group A with Uruguay. All eyes will be on Mo Salah to see if he can do for his national team what he did for Liverpool this season.
Matt Gajtka: Has to be Iceland, right? They’re definitely the story of international football over the past few years.
Kevin Sparks: Egypt. First appearance in the world cup since 1990 led by the man of the moment Salah.
Mark Goodman: France is interesting because they are so absolutely stacked with talent, and yet I still think they’re going to come up short. Argentina are fascinating because the whole team will have to climb on Messi’s back and hope he carries them through single-handedly (he won’t). But I think many people will fall in love with Peru – fans won’t be familiar with the players, but they’ll love what they see.
Rachael McKriger: Brazil is the most interesting team of this year’s World Cup. Who could forget the mark of failure the team had in their home country after a 7-1 loss against Germany? If there’s one certainty it’s that Brazil has the most dedicated, passionate and obsessed soccer fans in the world. This year, with Neymar, Willian and Thiago Silva all healthy, is a comeback year for Brazil.
John Krysinsky: The story line of how England will fare is always fun to see play out, and this time around is no different with scrutiny from the British media being as intense as ever. All those penalty kick shootout exits in the 1990s/2000s, then the dud that was 2014, they’re desperate for a strong World Cup result. I have a feeling that with the likes of Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane — they have more attacking talent then ever and will be fascinating to watch to see if they can get out of the group and pull off a win or two in the knockout stages. Anything less than a win vs Tunisa on Monday in the first match would make things very interesting early in the competition.
Staying in Europe — the big unknowns for me would be are Spain and France – both oozing with so much young talent — are they capable of winning a World Cup?
Who will be the Golden Boot winner?
Mike Sparks: I’m tempted to say Neymar (Brazil), but I’ll go with Griezmann (France)
Matt Gajtka: Last gasp for Messi? I say so, and I think he rises to the occasion for the Albiceleste.
Kevin Sparks: Thomas Müller (Germany)
Mark Goodman: Dries Mertens (Belgium)
Rachael McKriger: Without a doubt, this is going to Neymar Jr. It’s time for him to bounce back after his catastrophic injury in 2016.
John Krysinsky: Man, this is tough. It’s a who’s who of top scoring talent from around the World in this field including: Lewendowski, Müller, Mertens, Kane, Neymar Jr., Ronaldo, Messi, Salah, even the pair of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani with Uruguay, etc. That’s what will makes this a fun tournament to watch — to see which players can separate from the pack as their teams advance. The group stage match-up that provide some lopsided results often determine the tournament’s top scorer. With Germany being a sure bet to probably win one group match by three or four goals, and getting to the final, I’ll have to go with Thomas Müller.
Who’s lifting the Cup?
Mike Sparks: Brazil. I feel like this is their year, although I feel like we say that every World Cup.
Matt Gajtka: I’d love to say my homeland Poland will get it done, but Germany is a machine and they’ll win again.
Kevin Sparks: Germany
Mark Goodman: It’s going to be a first-time winner this year. Mexico.
Rachael McKriger: Brazil. It’s hard to bet against the nation with soccer being the living force driving a whole country. The roster is so talented and Brazil is going to cruise through their group. After a horrendous end to their 2014 tournament on home soil, Brazil is back with vengeance.
John Krysinsky: There may be a team of destiny in this field that can take out the Germans in a penalty kick shoot out. Brazil has the motivation and pedigree, Argentina has Messi, Spain and France have talent, but not sure any of them can outlast the Germans on this stage. My pick – Germany will march into Russia to take its fifth World Cup victory. They are so difficult to play — so precise in its attack and no team in this field defends better.
World Cup Schedule
All kick off times are listed in Eastern Time in the USA.
Thursday, June 14: Russia v Saudi Arabia, Moscow (Luzhniki) 11am
Friday, June 15: Egypt v Uruguay, Ekaterinburg 10am
Tuesday, June 19: Russia v Egypt, St Petersburg 2pm
Wednesday, June 20: Uruguay v Saudi Arabia, Rostov-on-Don 11am
Monday, June 25: Uruguay v Russia, Samara 10am
Monday, June 25: Saudi Arabia v Egypt, Volgograd 10am
Friday, June 15: Morocco v Iran, St Petersburg 11am
Friday, June 15: Portugal v Spain, Sochi 2pm
Wednesday, June 20: Portugal v Morocco, Moscow (Luzhniki) 8am
Wednesday, June 20: Iran v Spain, Kazan 2pm
Monday, June 25: Spain v Morocco, Kaliningrad 2pm
Monday, June 25: Iran v Portugal, Saransk 2pm
Saturday, June 16: France v Australia, Kazan 6am
Saturday, June 16: Peru v Denmark, Saransk 12pm
Thursday, June 21: France v Peru, Ekaterinburg 11am
Thursday, June 21: Denmark v Australia, Samara 8am
Tuesday, June 26: Denmark v France, Moscow (Luzhniki) 10am
Tuesday, June 26: Australia v Peru, Sochi 10am
Saturday, June 16: Argentina v Iceland, Moscow (Spartak) 9am
Saturday, June 16: Croatia v Nigeria, Kaliningrad 3pm
Thursday, June 21: Argentina v Croatia, Nizhny Novgorod 2pm
Friday, June 22: Nigeria v Iceland, Volgograd 11am
Tuesday, June 26: Nigeria v Argentina, St Petersburg 2pm
Tuesday, June 26: Iceland v Croatia, Rostov-on-Don 2pm
Sunday, June 17: Costa Rica v Serbia, Samara 8am
Sunday, June 17: Brazil v Switzerland, Rostov-on-Don 2pm
Friday, June 22: Brazil v Costa Rica, St Petersburg 8am
Friday, June 22: Serbia v Switzerland, Kaliningrad 2pm
Wednesday, June 27: Serbia v Brazil, Moscow (Spartak) 2pm
Wednesday, June 27: Switzerland v Costa Rica, Nizhny Novgorod 2pm
Sunday, June 17: Germany v Mexico, Moscow (Luzhniki) 11am
Monday, June 18: Sweden v South Korea, Nizhny Novgorod 8am
Saturday, June 23: Germany v Sweden, Sochi 2pm
Saturday, June 23: South Korea v Mexico, Rostov-on-Don 11am
Wednesday, June 27: South Korea v Germany, Kazan 10am
Wednesday, June 27: Mexico v Sweden, Ekaterinburg 10am
Monday, June 18: Belgium v Panama, Sochi 11am
Monday, June 18: Tunisia v England, Volgograd 2pm
Saturday, June 23: Belgium v Tunisia, Moscow (Spartak) 8am
Sunday, June 24: England v Panama, Nizhny Novgorod 8am
Thursday, June 28: England v Belgium, Kaliningrad 2pm
Thursday, June 28: Panama v Tunisia, Saransk 2pm
Tuesday, June 19: Poland v Senegal, Moscow (Spartak) 11am
Tuesday, June 19: Colombia v Japan, Saransk 8am
Sunday, June 24: Japan v Senegal, Ekaterinburg 11am
Sunday, June 24: Poland v Colombia, Kazan 2pm
Thursday, June 28: Japan v Poland, Volgograd 10am
Thursday, June 28: Senegal v Colombia, Samara 10am
ROUND OF 16
Saturday, June 30: 1C v 2D Kazan 10am (Match 50)
Saturday, June 30: 1A v 2B Sochi 2pm (Match 49)
Sunday, July 1: 1B v 2A Moscow (Luzhniki) 10am (Match 51)
Sunday, July 1: 1D v 2C Nizhny Novgorod 2pm (Match 52)
Monday, July 2: 1E v 2F Samara 10am (Match 53)
Monday, July 2: 1G v 2H Rostov-on-Don 2pm (Match 54)
Tuesday, July 3: 1F v 2E St Petersburg 10m (Match 55)
Tuesday, July 3: 1H v 2G Moscow (Spartak) 2pm (Match 56)
Friday, July 6: Winner match 49 v winner match 50 Nizhny Novgorod 10am (Match 57)
Friday, July 6: Winner match 53 v winner match 54 Kazan 2pm (Match 58)
Saturday, July 7: Winner match 55 v winner match 56 Samara 10am (Match 60)
Saturday, July 7: Winner match 51 v winner match 52 Sochi 2pm (Match 59)
Tuesday, July 10: Winner match 57 v winner match 58 St Petersburg 2pm
Wednesday, July 11: Winner match 59 v winner match 60 Moscow (Luzhniki) 2pm
Saturday, July 14: St Petersburg 10am
Sunday, July 15: Moscow (Luzhniki) 11am