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It’s do-or-die time for U.S. in World Cup

In one of the most exciting FIFA World Cups, U.S. fans got to see their soccer team emerge from a highly competitive initial round to make it to the “round of 16.” The U.S. next plays Belgium at 4 p.m. EDT Tuesday on ESPN. The outcome of that game will determine whether they advance or go home.

Our go-to soccer guru, PRI’s The World’s editor/reporter William Troop, is now in Brazil where we caught up with him for an update. (You can follow him on Twitter @worldsoccerguy and listen to his report on The World.)

What matches have you seen so far?

Two in Salvador, then I flew to Recife for the Costa Rica-Greece game. The Greeks were about to lose the game when they tied it at the last minute. That was very dramatic. These players are giving it their all out there. The temperature wasn’t that bad, but the humidity was over 90 percent. It was draining even to be in the stands. These players were completely exhausted, and then came the penalties, when nobody scored in extra time. It was just thrilling and dramatic, and a great win for Costa Rica.

Have you encountered any protests?

I have not seen any in Recife and Salvador, and the locals I’ve asked have told me the protests are mostly in Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro. We arrived in Salvador on the day Brazil was playing (against Chile in Belo Horizonte, Brazil) and basically the whole city was decked out with green and yellow bunting and flags.

Walking around the streets, you saw tons of TVs everywhere with people watching the game. I think their main focus right now is the soccer. Who knows what will happen if Brazil were to be eliminated, because after that people might start thinking about the protest issues more.

It’s an unfair comparison because Brazil is hosting the World Cup, but what’s the hoopla like there compared to the U.S.?

Here, going to the game venues and the places where fans are congregating, everybody’s so excited about the tournament. It just doesn’t compare to the United States. In the U.S., there’s a lot of excitement, but it’s kind of contained to people who know and love soccer, and it’s certainly not everywhere.

In Brazil, there are Brazilian flags and something Cup-related everywhere when you walk around the host cities. The level of excitement here for the soccer and for the tournament is much higher than I anticipated. I thought people would be more ambivalent.

Luis Suarez of Uruguay and Giorgio Chiellini of Italy react after a clash during a World Cup match in Natal, Brazil on June 24. Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

Luis Suarez of Uruguay and Giorgio Chiellini of Italy react after a clash during a World Cup match in Natal, Brazil on June 24. Suarez received a four-month, nine-game ban after biting Chiellini during a game. Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

Is there still buzz about Uruguay player Luis Suarez biting Italian Giorgio Chiellini (sparking an Internet feeding frenzy)? Do people think his punishment was fair?

I still see people talking about it a little. Last night, on the bus from the stadium in Recife back to the city, we were sitting next to some English fans who were joking around and one guy was pretending to bite another guy. I haven’t heard anybody say that he didn’t deserve some punishment. I’ve heard some people say maybe he was punished too much; it was too long a suspension (he was suspended nine games and banned from any soccer activities for four months).

But I think most people agree that for his World Cup to be over was fair. Everyone’s moving on to the next game and this tournament has been so dramatic so far that there’s no lack of new drama for people to talk about. The latest one is the Mexico-Netherlands game — the Netherlands barely won it in stoppage time with a controversial penalty call.

Have there been any questionable calls so far that might prompt fixing allegations?

I don’t think it’s fixing that’s on people’s minds. A lot of the match-fixing allegations that have been talked about during the tournament are not about World Cup games but the friendly games that take place beforehand.

What’s really on people’s minds is whether the referees have been making questionable calls. And people can’t be really objective about this — they want one side to win or the other. To the extent that people are grumbling about such things, it’s really about whether it was a good call or not.

USA v Germany: Group G - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil

U.S. player Jermaine Jones pursues the ball in the World Cup match against Germany on June 26. Germany beat the U.S., 1-0. Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images

What are the U.S.’s chances against Belgium?

On paper, the two teams are not quite evenly matched. Belgium has some players who are considered rising stars in Europe. Their biggest star player is Eden Hazard, and it seems to me like his World Cup hasn’t quite started yet. He hasn’t played his greatest, and if he turns it on in time for the U.S. match, that could be real trouble for the U.S.

But that said, the U.S. has been gritty. They’ve been playing tough. They have been creating chances and playing well. Belgium so far has not been playing its best. And if that dynamic continues, I think absolutely the U.S. has a chance. It has its own players who have been turning it on, like Clint Dempsey. Jermaine Jones had an amazing game against Germany. If they bring that intensity that they’ve showed in the Group stage game, they really do have a chance.

The World Cup goes until July 13. See all of the PBS NewsHour’s World Cup coverage.

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