The 2014 World Cup commenced this week. A total of 32 teams, each with 23 players on their final rosters will compete over the next month. That's 736 players to keep track of. We narrowed that down to five of the top soccer players to watch who can affect the outcome of the world's largest sporting event. Whether you're an avid fan of the game year-round or you only watch soccer every four years or so, make sure you're keeping your eyes on Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Wayne Rooney, Neymar, and Julian Green during this year's World Cup. Here's why:
Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal is one of the top players in the world. Of course his name is on this list. One thing to keep an eye on in particular during this World Cup is whether Ronaldo has any kind of lingering injury. He'd been struggling with tendonitis and hadn't played a game since he won the Champions League title with Real Madrid in May until Portugal played a friendly against the Republic of Ireland this week. Though Ronaldo didn't score, he played a great game. Word is he left a training session early with an ice pack on his knee this Thursday though. Portugal is in the so-called Group of Death with Ghana, Germany and the United States. They'll have to field the best team as possible to compete and will need a healthy Cristiano Ronaldo in order to do so.
Considered to be the greatest soccer player in the world, Lionel Messi is seeking to add to his legacy this World Cup. All Messi does is win so anything but winning the World Cup would be disappointment to Argentina. Argentina doesn't even necessarily view Messi in the same light as the rest of the world. He has been questioned by his country for moving to and living in Spain, he has constantly been compared to Argentine hero, Diego Maradona, and even his playing form is starting to be called into question. A large part of Maradona's legacy comes from the 1986 World Cup in which he captained Argentina to victory. A 2014 World Cup win for Argentina and its current captain could be the trophy to put Messi over the edge into that category with the likes of Maradona and Pele.
Another player whose legacy may be somewhat on the line as far as international play goes is Wayne Rooney. Rooney's on pace to become England's all time leading goalscorer, but he has never scored in a World Cup despite playing in both the 2006 and 2010 tournaments. At age 28, this may be his last shot. He's by no means old, but he may not have the same opportunity to be as integral a player for England four years from now. There's a lot to be said for Rooney's devotion to his country, even if that means sacrificing his own personal achievements. When he was recently asked about his personal legacy, Rooney said, "Listen, I'm not a player who needs that. Like Cristiano Ronaldo, he has to have that and you admire him for having that. I'm more about winning things as a team. He wants to have...his moments...It's more important for me to win trophies as a team." We'll see if Rooney can lead his team to a trophy, and if he adds to his own legacy along the way, then so be it.
Neymar scared the country of Brazil earlier this week when he went down with an apparent ankle injury in one of his training sessions. He went on to play the first game of the World Cup yesterday against Croatia and put his ability on display, scoring two goals in Brazil's win. With the win, Neymar hopefully put the injury in the rearview mirror. Neymar is 22 and a rising star. All of Brazil's hopes for World Cup success lie on Neymar's shoulders. He started playing for FC Barcelona last year where he may not have had as high a profile as his teammate Messi. All eyes are on Neymar as he plays for the national team though. This could very well be the World Cup of Neymar so don't blink; he's so fast you might miss him.
Are you familiar with Julian Green? If you're not yet, you should be. A lot was made of USMNT manager Jurgen Klinsmann leaving Landon Donovan off the final World Cup roster. Remember four years ago when Donovan scored the winning goal in the 91st minute against Algeria? Goosebumps! Well Julian Green is thought to be the player who took Donovan's place on the roster this year. Green was born in Tampa, Florida and grew up in Germany with his mother. He had the choice to play for either Germany or the US in the 2014 World Cup. It's a win for the USA that he chose to play for the red, white, and blue. While Green's playing style remains a bit of a mystery to the world (most of his experience is in the German 4th division), his coach and teammates support him completely. "Julian has his sparks," says Jurgen Klinsmann. “On the field, he’s exciting," says USMNT goalkeeper Tim Howard. And he’s the X-factor, and every team has an X-factor. You have to have it, it’s good. It’s a surprise." The rest of the world's lack of information on Julian Green can potentially be an advantage for the US. "Maybe it is good they haven’t seen me," Green said. "We will see what happens."
Each of these players is expected to perform above and beyond for their nation. Honorable mention goes to CoachUp ambassador and USMNT defender Matt Besler. Matt won the MLS Cup last year with Sporting Kansas City and is considered one of the best defenders in the MLS. His consistent play on the back line will be key to the USMNT's success in the World Cup.