June 19, 2014 6:53 AM EDT

Maybe the Samba spread to their feet. In a pulsating first week at the World Cup, the goals piled up in a barrage of offense that hadn’t been seen in nearly 50 years.

The early games are often turgid defensive battles, but the first 18 matches of this World Cup averaged 3 goals per game–a big jump from the 2.27 average for all the 2010 Cup’s games. The tone was set early, when local boys Brazil routed Croatia 3-1. It was quickly bested by Robin van Persie’s luscious lob of a header, which sparked Holland’s 5-1 overpowering of Spain. (Five days later, the defending champs were eliminated after losing to Chile.) Germany’s 4-0 demolition of Portugal completed the Iberian implosion.

Then there were the dramatic comebacks: the entire 2010 Cup had four, while this one had seven in the first 18 matches, with Ivorian legend Didier Drogba entering late against Japan to key a 2-1 victory.

What’s driving the increase in scoring? For one, the use of innovative offensive formations has opened up play, allowing teams like Germany and Argentina to send their wingmen and even back lines blazing down the flanks to create opportunities. That makes room for lethal strikers like Lionel Messi to finish and score.

INTERNATIONAL INFUSION

John Brooks (No. 6) went from unknown to hero when the sub’s 86th-minute header gave the Americans a gotta-have 2-1 win over Ghana in their first game. Brooks is one of five German-grown players–all sons of U.S. service members–recruited to provide some European flair to the American team in coach Jürgen Klinsmann’s new up-tempo style. At 21, Brooks has never lived in the U.S., though he does have a tattoo honoring his father’s hometown of Chicago.

FEVER PITCH

‘It’s absurd to play a World Cup game in Manaus.’

RIVELINO, Brazilian soccer legend, on the stifling heat and humidity in the Amazon city Manaus, where locals claim just two seasons–summer and hell. The pace of the Italy-England game, played in 61% humidity at a temperature of 84°F (29°C), slowed to a crawl at times as players struggled with the jungle conditions. One player said he felt as if he was “hallucinating.”

THE SLIM FIT

What’s with the skintight jerseys worn by Italy, Uruguay and six other teams? It looks as if they were swiped from a ballet company. Jersey maker Puma claims the leotard-like tops have benefits like boosting energy to muscles. Of course, the team with the best strikers, not the best uniforms, tends to win the Cup.

15.9 million

The number of people who watched the U.S. play Ghana June 16 on ESPN and Univision, a record for a U.S. match. Viewership topped the final Stanley Cup game and neared that of the last NBA Finals game.

NIL-NIL THRILL

Even the dreaded scoreless draw proved to be one of the tourney’s dazzling games, thanks to Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, who batted away what seemed like certain goals by Brazil’s Neymar and Thiago Silva. Ochoa, a last-minute pick for the team, put Mexico in a solid position to advance.

3 TRENDS TO WATCH

As the Cup heads into the knockout phase, some giants are teetering. Can Portugal regroup? Will England stop its long slide? Does crowd favorite Brazil really have championship chops?

EUROPE’S NEW OLD ORDER

Germany, France, Holland and Italy remain dominant, with Belgium looming. Germany’s flowing style of play is a preview of the game’s future.

IT’S MESSI

This was supposed to be Brazil’s year, but its offense has appeared listless, while Argentina, powered by Lionel Messi, looks like the stronger South American squad.

CONTINENTAL DIVIDE

Early matches are a reminder that teams from Asia and Africa still lack the skill and experience to contend. South Korea should be ticketed for loitering, while Nigeria and Cameroon seem like perpetual next-time teams.

This appears in the June 30, 2014 issue of TIME.

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