Monday July 30th, 2012

MANCHESTER, England -- Five (or six) Monday thoughts on the Olympic soccer tournament. Strap in and let's go!

Brazil's Neymar is walking the walk. The most hyped soccer star of these Olympics was the real deal on Sunday: In a 3-1 come-from-behind win against Belarus, the 20-year-old Neymar 1) scored on a glorious free kick from distance, swerving an inch-perfect strike into the top corner for the lead, and then 2) produced one of the more incredible highlights you'll see this year on Brazil's final goal. Taking a pass in the air on the left side, Neymar pulled off an outrageous "head-meg" -- heading the ball down through the legs of his defender -- to beat his man, then ran forward and (at full speed) delivered a perfect back-heel pass into the path of teammate Oscar, who finished past the keeper with ease. Unbelievable. With two wins, gold-medal favorite Brazil is through to the quarterfinals.

Honduras's elimination of Spain is also big for MLS and CONCACAF. The Catrachos' pulled off a stunning 1-0 victory against a Spanish team with two scorers from the Euro 2012 final (Juan Mata and Jordi Alba) and players with a combined market value worth tens of millions more than the Hondurans'. Hardcore soccer fans can say all they want about Olympic men's soccer being less than prime time and a glorified under-23 tournament, but I'm not going to disregard Honduras's achievement here. The early Honduran goal came off a passing combination between three MLS players: Andy Najar (D.C. United) to Roger Espinoza (Kansas City) to Jerry Bengtson (New England), who merely scored his third goal of the Olympics to tie for the tournament lead. Let's see if those MLS players now draw some interest from European club scouts, who are here in attendance.

It's cool to see Olympic soccer in marquee stadiums. The U.S. women's team is already through to the quarterfinals, but its last group game vs North Korea takes place on Tuesday at Manchester United's historic Old Trafford stadium (12:15 p.m. ET, NBCSN). That's a cool thing for the U.S. players, who've seen games for years from the soccer shrine but have yet to play there themselves. (The only known women's game I could track down in Old Trafford before these Olympics was the 1989 women's FA Cup final, which drew a crowd of 941.) Meanwhile, a throng of 70,000 is expected at famed Wembley Stadium for the women's game between Britain and Brazil on Tuesday. Both teams are already through to the quarterfinals, so let's hope to see a wide-open game featuring some of the best players the women's game has to offer, including Marta, Kelly Smith and all-time-leading Olympic goal-scorer Cristiane.

Maybe Mexico's Giovani Dos Santos can get a start now. Odd thing: Dos Santos starts for the Mexican senior national team, but he has yet to be in coach Luis Fernando Tena's starting lineup for Mexico in this Olympic tournament. No matter: Dos Santos came on as a substitute and scored both goals in El Tri's 2-0 win over Gabon on Sunday. Dos Santos said afterward that he's fully fit to play 90 minutes for the Mexicans, who have four points with South Korea atop Group B and are guaranteed to advance with a tie against Switzerland on Wednesday. The fact is that Mexico is a better team with Dos Santos on the field, and if Tena wants to win the medal his team is capable of earning he'd be wise to use his most talented player to the fullest.

Olympic soccer is easier to watch than ever before. For all the flak that NBC is getting over its Olympics coverage, the soccer tournaments are a lot easier to see in 2012 than in any previous tournament for fans. With games being shown on the NBC Sports Network, MSNBC, Telemundo, a dedicated Olympic soccer channel and streaming online, viewers have a lot of choices and can see most of the tournaments live if they wish. Granted, it's not fun to have commercial breaks in the middle of the action at times, but it's better than not seeing most of the games at all. Keep in mind, there are 56 men's and women's soccer games taking place in a three-week period� which is to say, almost as many as in the men's World Cup (64) over a month.

There shouldn't be a lot of drama on the final women's group day. With eight of the 12 teams on the women's side reaching the quarterfinals, it's pretty clear which four teams are on their way out: New Zealand and Cameroon (which are already eliminated) along with South Africa and Colombia (the two other teams on zero points). The main question will be about group placement. With France expected to beat Colombia, the U.S. would need at least a tie against North Korea to ensure finishing first in its group.

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