A lot has happened in the world of international soccer since the last World Cup was held four years ago in South Africa.

All-time greats like Ronaldinho have faded away from their once seemingly untouchable positions of supremacy. Up-and-coming stars like the electric Neymar have taken their places. Most of the world was made aware — for the first time — of Qatar’s existence, the controversial host of the future 2022 World Cup.

But despite all of the change, one thing remains the same. The eyes of the entire footballing community — and even the world — will converge on this year’s World Cup, as they do every fourth summer. And this time, they will turn to Brazil, a nation with a rich history of soccer.

The ride hasn’t always been smooth. In fact, with potential strikes for Brazilian public transportation workers and difficulties in stadium construction, it has been anything but.

However, all of that will be forgotten when the Brazilian national team opens up the tournament this afternoon against Croatia.

The past four years have signaled change across the board in the international soccer community, and the United States national team is no exception.

Four years ago in South Africa, the United States national team captured the imagination of the nation with an inspired — if not wholly successful — showing in the World Cup.

The team finished first in its initial group, propelled by an improbable tie against the English national team and an exhilarating last minute victory against Algeria courtesy of a Landon Donovan goal.

The U.S. was knocked out in the first round of single elimination play, but it had already put on quite the show for its nation.

This summer’s World Cup figures to be a different story entirely for the United States in some respects and eerily similar to that of four years ago in others.

First of all, the U.S. has a new man at the helm, having parted ways with the calm and collected presence of former head coach Bob Bradley in favor of Jurgen Klinsmann, a more fiery and intense personality.

The U.S. team also has a dramatically different look on the pitch, having cut Donovan — the team’s all-time leading goal-scorer and most recognizable figurehead — from the final World Cup squad in a highly controversial decision.

The team’s new look is not all negative, though. Forward Clint Dempsey has filled in nicely in the captain’s role for Donovan, supported directly by more experienced team leaders in fellow forward Jozy Altidore and midfielder Michael Bradley (son of Bob).

The U.S. team’s more experienced core has been augmented by a more dynamic and youthful supporting cast than ever before in the team’s history.

This energized squad, in combination with Klinsmann’s more proactive approach to the game, has led to some of the most exciting and successful play in recent memory leading up to the year’s World Cup.

But despite this apparent rejuvenation and sea change for the national squad, the U.S. team finds itself in a similar position to last year: namely, facing an uphill battle.

This year, the U.S. team got very unlucky in its World Cup draw, finding itself in the proverbial “Group of Death.”

To even move past group play, the U.S. will need to contend with perennial powerhouse Germany, Christiano Ronaldo’s Portugal and Ghana, which has been a thorn in the side of the U.S. for each of the past two World Cups.

And even if the U.S. were to earn more points than two of those teams and advance past group play — which is quite possible — it would still need to contend with Lionel Messi’s Argentina, defending champion Spain and home favorite Brazil to contend for the championship.

Even Klinsmann has conceded that expecting for the U.S. to win the World Cup this year is simply “not realistic.”

But all is not lost.

The U.S. are still possibly fielding its most exciting squad of all time, and they are primed to put on a show in one of the world’s most spectacular sporting enough. For now, that’s more than enough to expect.

It’s almost time to hit the pitch, and it’s going to be fun.

That will never change.

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