Sports 2018 World Cup set to kick off in Russia without United States Germany, Brazil and Spain are among the favorites to claim victory at the end of the monthlong competition. Forward Thomas Muller, right, returns after leading Germany to the 2014 World Cup crown. Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images / MIGUEL MEDINA By Jeff Weisinger Special to amNewYork Updated June 13, 2018 8:57 PM Print Share fbShare Tweet gShare Email The 2018 FIFA World Cup kicks off Thursday when host Russia takes on Saudi Arabia in group play. The knockout stage will thin the 32-team field to 16 beginning June 30, leading up to the July 15 final in Moscow. Although the United States is out of the tournament for the first time in 32 years, there still are plenty of storylines to follow as Fox and FS1 handle the English broadcasts this time. Here’s a preview of what’s to come. Favorites Expect to see Germany in the mix to repeat after winning it all four years ago in Brazil. Meanwhile, Brazil was listed Wednesday afternoon as a 7-2 betting favorite by SportsLine. Spain is a trendy pick among international media, as well. However, the team’s decision Wednesday to fire manager Julen Lopetegui, just two days before its opener against Portugal, could doom their chances before the games begin. Sporting director Fernando Hierro will take over for Lopetegui, who went unbeaten since taking over in July 2016, for the World Cup. Root for rival? With Team USA crashing out of the World Cup qualifiers at Trinidad last October, it may be hard to find someone to root for this year. This makes Mexico a perfect choice. Mexico dominated qualifying, going 6-3-1 to punch its ticket. A solid Mexico run — or a Cup crown — could boost CONCACAF and improve U.S. soccer culture on the pitch by placing a refreshing sense of pressure to perform. With the tournament itself coming to North America in 2026, the USMNT can show that their ready for the big stage. World’s stage A few countries are in the competition for the first time this summer. Iceland makes its World Cup debut coming off a magical run in the Euros two years ago and is the smallest country by population ever to qualify. Panama, the two-time runners-up at the CONCACAF Gold Cup, claimed the presumed U.S. spot. Peru returns for the first time in 36 years. Working in their favor, the South American nation will have leading scorer and captain Paolo Guerrero, who recently was cleared to play after a Swiss court agreed to temporarily lift his doping suspension. By Jeff Weisinger Special to amNewYork Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Comments We're revamping our Comments section. Learn more and share your input.