United States national team coach Jürgen Klinsmann did not mince words after his side completed its successful journey out of the Group of Death on Thursday.
"It’s huge for us getting out of this group that everybody said, ‘You have no chance,’" Klinsmann told reporters after the 1-0 defeat to Germany. "We took that chance and now we move on. We really want to prove a point."
Klinsmann and his players sent their message loud and clear after finishing second in a group including Germany, Ghana and Portugal. This edition of Five Points focuses solely on how the Americans managed to confound the odds and secure a Round of 16 meeting with Belgium on Tuesday:
Confidence and conviction established the platform
Klinsmann fostered and nurtured the belief and the spirit long present in American sides before this squad left for Brazil. He allied his natural optimism with a group of players willing to move collectively in pursuit of a team objective. He culled potential distractions from the group to remove any hindrances and support that team unity. He goaded his best players along the way to extract the most from their talents. He guided his team through controversies largely of his own creation without deviating from the established path.
All of those measures — as unorthodox and as unwelcome as some of them were — forged bonds within the ranks and placed this squad in a position to achieve great things in Brazil. It may have felt messy at times, but these players stepped off the plane convinced they would advance from this difficult group. In a four-team pool separated by such fine margins, that sort of unwavering conviction matters a great deal.
Intelligent tactics placed the players in positions to succeed …
Instead of establishing a system and sticking to it throughout the group phase, Klinsmann altered his approach in each match to suit the opposition. The malleability allowed the Americans to mitigate the strengths of their opponents and thrive in areas where they could reasonably succeed.
The lopsided midfield diamond deployed against Ghana forced the Ghanaians to operate in possession instead of breaking quickly, play predominantly down the right side and swing cross after fruitless cross into the penalty area. The more structured shape against Portugal limited the service to Cristiano Ronaldo on the counter, permitted the Americans to push out a bit more and paved the way for more successful forays on the ball against a rickety Portuguese defense. The deep line against Germany restricted the Germans from combine on the edge of the penalty area and sparked Joachim Low to bring Miroslav Klose off the bench at halftime to change the calculus with a more direct element for all of those crosses.
Each of those game plans essentially provided the United States with a foothold in the game by their mere construction. And the players acted resolutely to make sure those efforts did not go to waste.
… and the players grasped the opportunity with both hands
Tactics do not mean much without the players to implement them. Klinsmann may have placed his team in a position to thrive, but the success would not have followed without the steady and successful players across the team.
It truly proved a group effort across the three matches. There were seven or eight good performances in every match, the sort of displays required to forge a collective submission worthy of claiming a result against Ghana and Portugal. There were few, if any, star turns here, though the likes of Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard and Jermaine Jones received justifiable plaudits for their contributions.
The consistency across the board — plus the punctuation marks provided by key figures along the way – ensured the consistent implementation of those tactics and guaranteed this group maintained its foothold in matches with assured displays.
Most of the adjustments worked …
Every team encounters temporary disruptions to their plans during the course of group play. Klinsmann and his players handled most of them particularly well to ensure minimal upheaval within the ranks.
John Anthony Brooks climbed off the bench to replace the injured Matt Besler at halftime and stunned Ghana with his late header to cap his impressive showing in a tough spot. He nodded home a corner kick from fellow substitute Graham Zusi for the confidence-building winner against the Ghanaians. Dempsey accepted the burden of checking to the ball and facilitating others more readily with Jozy Altidore sidelined in the second and third games. DeAndre Yedlin hopped off the bench against Portugal and played a part in Dempsey’s critical second goal against Portugal. Omar Gonzalez replaced Geoff Cameron for the match against Germany and stood strong against the relentless pressure.
Klinsmann didn’t get every change right — Aron Jóhannsson flailed around after replacing the injured Altidore against Ghana, for example — yet he hit the mark on enough of them to keep the team on track and make his alterations a net positive by quite some distance.
… and this group as a whole buckled down to grind out results regardless
There were plenty of times when this United States team could have lost the plot with or without the proper tweaks. Ghana pinned them back for much of the opening game after Altidore went off injured. Nani threatened to crack the Portugal game wide open with his fifth minute goal. Germany knocked the ball around fluidly in the finale without really stretching out the scoreline.
Instead of folding when it got difficult, the Americans found a way through. They compensated when Altidore missed out against Portugal and Germany. They relied on their cohesiveness and their plans to navigate through the difficult times. They held out against Ghana long enough and responded well enough to conceding to claim the precious three points. They maintained their composure and summoned the energy against Portugal to come within seconds of securing a knockout round place after two matches. They toiled through the finale against Germany with heavy legs and provided a good account of themselves along the way.
The three matches were not perfect by any measure, but this team managed to keep plodding through regardless of the circumstances. The dogged nature of those displays — coupled with the belief, the defined structure and the diligent performances underpinning them — ultimately proved enough to drag them out of this difficult group and provide them with a deserved reward for a job well done.