SAO PAULO – There is nothing like a near-death experience to make you appreciate life. Now that the USA has survived the World Cup’s “Group of Death” – barely – they take a new zest from knowing that they are as undead as any of the other 16 teams to reach the knockout stages, which pits them against Belgium in Salvador on Tuesday.
The mood around camp is light and breezy right now, even though the team has now spent 6 ½ weeks in close quarters. The Americans play games before practice and the laughter carries to the other end of the field. They have advanced, after all, and did what they were supposedly unable to do.
Sure, it had hardly been pretty – a hard-fought win over Ghana, an unfortunate tie with Portugal, and a loss to Germany – but the Americans gamed the group stage system and earned their way out. But there isn’t much time to marvel at the loss that was a win – or the win that was a loss – and the daring escape from the impossible draw.
“It’s a huge achievement by the team to get out of the ‘Group of Death’ and to move on,” head coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. “But, at the same time we already communicated to the team, ‘This is all done now. Be proud of it for a second, but don’t be content.’ This is now the key going into the knockout stage, is about understanding the dynamics of knockout games. That means do or die.”
In the one-and-done format that starts in the round of 16 and carries through to the final, death is always around the corner. But having laughed in its face once already, the Americans are feeling something closer to immortal than dead men walking – even though all but one team will die at some point.
Credit that to Klinsmann. The Americans may have been outplayed in two of their three games and have needlessly given away the win in the third, but they feel like they are at their very best. “We feel fresh, the group is loose,” said goalkeeper Tim Howard. “Right now the morale is up. We feel like we’ve been playing well. It just seems like we’re in a good rhythm.”
At the World Cup, self-confidence, whether justified or not, can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Klinsmann seems to understand this better than anyone. In order to go on a Cinderella run, you first have to convince yourself that you’re Cinderella.
Since being put in charge three years ago, Klinsmann has institutionalized a culture of positivity. “He puts all his faith in us and he gives us all of the confidence in the world,” said defender Omar Gonzalez. “And we believe that we can step on the field with any team and beat them.”
With Klinsmann, his optimism almost feels like that of a tacky motivational speaker, except that his sincerity always pushes through. “I walk into a room with Jurgen, and you come out of that room thinking we can win the World Cup,” said US Soccer president Sunil Gulati. “And he never says, ‘We’re going to win the World Cup.’ But he’s just so confident.”
“Something with Jurgen being so positive and a good spark plug is definitely unique,” added Gonzalez.
Ironically, it was Klinsmann who had told the New York Times Magazine back in December that it was unrealistic for the USA to win the World Cup. But he believes in aspiring, he believes in believing and he believes there is more glory to be won.
“I believe that in our team so far, nobody can claim that he reached his 100 percent yet,” said Klinsmann. “This is a very important message to the players: take it one game at a time with total focus, and after that game is done to the next game and make it happen. Is it doable? Absolutely. They got out of this group, now anything is doable.”
But doing anything means beating Belgium first – and then the winner of Switzerland-Argentina – and while Belgium is a small country, theirs is a frightfully talented team. “It’s one of kind of the secret favorites in this World Cup because of the players that they have,” said Klinsmann. “But we have absolutely no fear at all. We feel like we are in a position now to challenge it. We believe we have built a foundation in our team and that we are able to beat them.”
While gifted, the Belgians are also very young and haven’t fired on all cylinders yet, relying on late winners to claim all three of their games so far. Perhaps that’s something for the Americans to take some confidence from.
The Belgians also have some injury worries, including captain and defensive rock Vincent Kompany. The Americans, meanwhile, might have striker Jozy Altidore back in some capacity after he missed two games with a hamstring injury. That’s something else to take confidence from.
Then there’s the ever-confident message emanating from Klinsmann, the blond and well-tanned statue to self-assuredness with the undying smile. “We’re going to get everything out of these guys that we can,” he said. “Believing also that you can compete, because you can. I asked this morning all the players to make sure that all their flights are booked after July 13th.” That’s the day of the World Cup final.
After the USA’s last all-or-nothing game, it’s time for the next all-or-nothing game. That’s how the World Cup works. To avoid death, you have to stay alive.