Team USA finally gets chance to prove it belongs against Germany
JUN 25, 2014 4:00p ET
RECIFE, Brazil --
From here on out, the value and merit of four years of planning and striving and toiling comes down to one World Cup game at a time for the United States men's national team. They slogged through qualifying in Central America's cauldrons, got the needed points off arch-rivals Mexico in their heated showdowns, played a raft of friendlies to measure themselves against the world's best. They spent a month painstakingly preparing in a series of camps and tune-up games, all in the hope of proving that they belong among the best now.
And the Americans, living up to their overachieving reputation, have brazenly positioned themselves to advance from the group of death, so called, with a result against Germany on Thursday. Earlier in the tournament, they gained a 2-1 win over Ghana and a 2-2 tie with Portugal -- who needed a 95th-minute equalizer, mind -- against expectations and bookies' odds. Now they face mighty Germany in the make-or-break game in another rain-soaked Brazilian beach-side city, which will decide if they reach their objective of progressing into the knockout stages.
"It's massive," giddy head coach Jürgen Klinsmann said during his pre-game press conference on Wednesday. "It's deciding who is winning the group of death. It's deciding who moves on to the knockout stage. We can't wait to get this thing started."
"We're confident, we did our homework," added Klinsmann. "I think some people might be a little bit surprised by our results so far. We are not. We are now by no means underdogs here in this tournament."
A victory sees the Americans through as winners of Group G. A draw and they place second and advance as well, although they would probably face a strong Belgium team in the next round, rather than the much weaker Group H options of Russia, Algeria or South Korea. Lose, and things get complicated; either Ghana or Portugal, who face each other at the same time as the USA game, need to win and to make up the goal difference with the Americans to knock them out. Ghana currently lags the USA by two goals; Portugal by five.
Things might have been simpler, had the Americans not given up that last-second goal to Portugal. They would have qualified already. But they haven't let that knowledge tread on their institutionalized optimism. "If we wouldn't have ended up in a tie in the last 30 seconds of the game against Portugal, it obviously would be a lot easier," said Klinsmann. "But now we have to do it the hard way, the tough way."
To the neutral fan, this makes a captivating contest even more appealing. Klinsmann managed his native Germany from 2004 through 2006, was perhaps the finest striker it ever produced and won the World Cup as a player in 1990. He has five players on his team with dual German-American nationality, seven players in all who have played in the German Bundesliga and three staff members who are either German or worked in Germany. Joachim Löw, Germany's head coach, was Klinsmann's assistant and stepped into the top job when the latter left. The staff Klinsmann put together there is largely unchanged.
This may give the USA an edge. "I think it definitely helps that a lot of our players know the players from the German team," said Klinsmann. "They've faced them in Bundesliga games and are a little more familiar with them. They can read them a little bit better."
But in the undercurrent of all of these plot lines flows some awkwardness. Klinsmann and Loew are still close friends, catching up over meals when they can. And to the understandable concern of the other two teams in the group stage, if they came to some sort of unspoken agreement to tie the game, both of them advance. There's an element of Game Theory in play.
Both teams insist the incentive of winning the group -- and likely avoiding Belgium in the next round -- outweighs the risk. And that neither team is hardwired to take a knee anyway -- it's worth noting here that Germany did give away games at the 1974 and 1982 World Cups, when it suited both them and their opponents.
"We want to come out very aggressive and we want to give Germany a real battle here," said Klinsmann. "We are very well capable to beat Germany, and we know that. It's possible, it's doable. As you've seen, this World Cup is full of surprises. We want to be one of those surprises. So far we've done a good job, but we haven't done it yet."
"We don't play 90 minutes not to score a goal," echoed Germany midfielder Mesut Özil. "Our purpose is to win and that's what we're going to do against the United States."
His manager, Loew, praised the American chemistry and mentality in his own press conference, saying that he worried about the USA's physicality -- even though the Germans, unlike the Americans, were spared a game in the oppressive jungle atmosphere of Manaus and got an extra day of rest. "We have to be very well prepared in physical terms," he said. "The United States have this aggressiveness that we saw in the tournament. They are at an excellent physical level."
The physical stuff the Americans have always been good at. And save for striker Jozy Altidore, whose hamstring injury will keep him out for a second game, they are fully fit. Now they get the chance to prove that, after all those years of aspiring, they belong.