When both Portugal and Argentina lost in their respective first games of the World Cup knockout round, it felt like the end of an era. This is the last time we’ll see Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi on soccer’s biggest stage, at least at the height of their powers. Both will be on the wrong side of 35 by the time the 2022 World Cup rolls around, and it’s very possible that neither will play another World Cup game. There will never be another Messi or another Ronaldo, but who will take their places at the very top of the game? This World Cup may offer a few clues.
The obvious answer is Neymar, the Brazilian talisman, who is 26. The forward is already spoken of in the same tones as Messi and Ronaldo, and is the most famous player in the world outside of those two — but is still short on trophies. He left Barcelona for Paris Saint-Germain last summer, ostensibly to get out of Messi’s shadow and to be the established star of his own team, yet his season was blighted by injury and clashes with teammates. PSG lost in the Round of 16 in the Champions League. Brazil went out in the quarterfinals of the World Cup.
In fact, this World Cup has shown us that one of Neymar’s PSG teammates might be the heir apparent to “best player in the world” status — French striker Kylian Mbappé. Just 19 years old, Mbappé announced himself at the World Cup by winning a penalty that gave France its first goal in its knockout-round game against Argentina, then scoring twice in five minutes in the second half to clinch the game. If France can go on to win the World Cup, Mbappé will be the most outstanding player on the world’s best international team — serious credentials for anyone, never mind a teenager. With Real Madrid rumored to be chasing Mbappé to replace Ronaldo, the French wunderkind could be a step closer to superstardom than even Neymar.
Another candidate is England forward Harry Kane. Kane is the odds-on favorite to win the Golden Boot as the top scorer at this tournament, after six goals in his team’s first four games. He’s the Platonic ideal of a striker; someone who is equally comfortable scoring on the counter-attack or from a set piece, who can score with both feet and his head, who sometimes can’t be stopped even with excellent defending. Kane is only 24, and like Mbappé, still has a chance to lift the Jules Rimet trophy.
There are plenty of other great players still playing in the World Cup, but history has shown that it’s the goal-scorers that take the headlines, from Pelé to Maradona to Messi to Ronaldo. Neymar, Mbappé, and Kane have all demonstrated their prowess at this World Cup. As we head for the 2022 edition of the World Cup, with Messi and Ronaldo gone, this trio will be the soccer world’s new focal point.
• Once again, it’s astonishing the number of teams descending on the National Sports Center in Blaine for the USA Cup youth soccer tournament, which begins next Friday. This year, 1,150 teams from 20 countries, 20 states and four Canadian provinces will visit. Until the NSC can build more fields — it has 50, with room for more — the tournament is more or less at capacity.
• It’s rare for local youth teams to win on a national stage, but one local team came close. The Minnesota Thunder Academy U-17 girls’ team lost in the semifinals Friday of the Elite Clubs National League championship, the top level of girls’ youth soccer. Making it to the final four is an outstanding feat.
• Minneapolis City, which plays in the fourth-division, semipro National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), clinched the league’s North Division and with a win or a tie Saturday can finish the regular season unbeaten. The sprawling NPSL has nearly 100 teams, but Minneapolis City appears to be one of the best.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
World Cup: Sweden vs. England, 9 a.m. Saturday, Ch. 9.
Sweden is tenacious defensively and will try to score on the counter-attack against England, which is surprised to be the favorite in a World Cup quarterfinal. The English have a reputation for disastrous performances in big games; can they reach just their second World Cup semifinal in a half-century?
World Cup: Croatia vs. Russia, 1 p.m. Saturday, Ch. 9.
Russia wasn’t supposed to even make it out of its terrible group. When it did, the Russians were supposed to be overrun by Spain. Instead, here they are, a game from the semifinals, against a Croatia team that might be just too old to take advantage of its best World Cup opportunity.
MLS: Orlando at Los Angeles FC, 3:30 pm. Saturday, Ch. 9.
At one point in this MLS season, Orlando was the hottest team in the league, winner of six in a row. Since then, the Lions have lost eight straight and fired coach Jason Kreis. Things don’t get any easier when Orlando visits expansion LAFC, one of the top teams in the West so far.
MLS: New York at New York City, 6 p.m. Sunday, FS1.
Both teams are unsettled after coaching departures; NYC’s Patrick Vieira left weeks ago for France, while New York’s Jesse Marsch left in midweek for Germany. The Red Bulls have twice stomped NYC 4-0 this year, once in MLS, once in the U.S. Open Cup. The Cityzens are out for revenge.