Setting the table for World Cup fanatics

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Yes, we admit it’s a little bit strange that focus stays on the World Cup when the Mariners are kicking backsides close to home, but ...

That was the deal.

My run of sports essays would kick off during the world’s largest and most prestigious athletic event, I’d fill up soccer junkies for a month – then relapse into good ol’ American sports.

Not that soccer is exactly in a coma here.

OK, the Sounders have struggled to 10th in the 12-team MLS Western Conference about halfway through the season, but Seattle is second in the league in attendance at just over 40,000 per game.

Those are big numbers.

So despite the humiliation of the U.S. national team failing to qualify for the World Cup — in the planet’s easiest region — we’re still kicking.

Pun intended.

AND WE promise we’ll get to the story of the Mariners’ bid to reach the playoffs for the first time since about 300 B.C. — just as soon as we wrap up Sunday’s World Cup final.

Meanwhile, there are two fascinating semifinal games set for today and Wednesday.

France and Belgium begin booting each other this morning at 11, and if you put a gun to my head, I couldn’t tell you who’ll survive this one.

Both sides are loaded with big-name, big-money stars — and yet have had moments of sheer ineptitude at some points during their stay in Russia.

For all its glitz, Belgium had to mount a furious comeback to overcome a two-goal, second-half deficit against Japan.

Then Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Co. seemed as though they’d run rings around mighty Brazil — only to hang on desperately against a late siege and win 2-1 by the length of 6-foot-5 keeper Thibaut Courtois’ fingernails.

France is loaded with speed and skill, but at times has appeared disjointed. Occasionally Les Bleus look as though the players just met each other that same morning.

But both teams are crammed with talent from front to back.

Flip a coin.

But find a way to watch.

THE OTHER tournament bracket has tossed us a weird one for Wednesday.

England, where the sport was invented, has only won the World Cup once — and that was way back in 1966, in London, on a disputed goal.

But pretty much every Englishman alive is going bonkers over the chance to “bring the Cup home,” with only Croatia and the Belgium-France winner standing in the way.

Full disclosure: I lived for a few years in Scotland, have loads of pals there, and for all of us, well ...

Trust me, there are pubs all over Scotland with Croatian flags prominently displayed this week.

This is the fastest and perhaps most talented England side in decades, but there lurks a suspicion that the Three Lions haven’t played anyone of real danger in an extremely fortunate run through the tournament.

They get yet another break against Croatia, which played an exhausting 2-2, extra-time draw with Russia on Saturday night — and only survived on penalties.

The Croats were dead on their feet at the end of that one, and who knows if they’ll have anything left to hold off England.

Croatia does have a huge midfield advantage with clever Luka Modric (Real Madrid) and solid Ivan Rakitic (Barcelona) alongside him.

Somehow, though, you get the feeling England’s luck will hold again.

Yikes!

• • •

Steve Cameron is a columnist for The Press.

A Brand New Day appears Wednesday through Saturday each week. Steve’s sports column runs on Tuesday.

Email: scameron@cdapress.com.

Twitter:@BrandNewDayCDA

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