With a game to go, the Americans have one foot in the door of the knockout round. A draw or a win against Germany today or any Portugal-Ghana outcome today that keeps the U.S. ahead on goal differential will keep Team America alive far longer than soccer’s cognoscenti thought they would be.

By Mary Cunningham

This odd mix of young and old, of boys from the heartland and from Northern Europe, doesn’t toil for the top clubs in the world, nor, for the most part, even the top leagues. The marquee players, captain Clint Dempsey and midfielder Michael Bradley are slipping down the ladder of international club soccer. They weren’t expected to get a point against Portugal; history said they wouldn’t even get one against Ghana.

Two games in, even a soccer newcomer can see why. Ghana played keepaway with the ball for most of the first match, a fortunate 2-1 U.S. win. The Americans are prone to mistakes, especially on defense. Geoff Cameron’s whiff-like failure to clear a ball Sunday night led to Portugal’s first goal, and he let Silvestre Varela sprint past him in the waning seconds, resulting in a 2-2 draw.

When the Americans score a goal, they tend to sag back on defense instead of pushing for another score to put the game away. Letting Portugal draw even on the game’s penultimate play feels like the kind of heartbreaking occurrence that is bound to come back to bite a bubble team like the Americans, who were positively gutted after Sunday night’s match in the sweltering Arena Amazonas in Manaus.

“We could all taste it,” said defender Matt Besler.

That’s because, rightly or wrongly, the Americans fully believe they deserve to make the final 16, no matter how bleak their prospects ever look.

After a fluke of a goal less than a minute into the Ghana game, order was on the verge of being restored as Ghana pounded the U.S. throughout the second half. Then came the 86th-minute goal off the head of substitute John Brooks. On Sunday, Portugal spent the first 15 minutes putting on a clinic that included a couple of let’s-watch-Ronaldo-dance-on-the ball moments. (Such a showoff.)

And yet, down a goal, the U.S. settled in. “At halftime we said, ‘It’s all good; we’re going to get this first goal and then we’re going to get a second,” said head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, the former German superstar.

The comment was typical Klinsmann, who has been pumping this group with confidence and challenging them to prove their worth for months. Earlier this year he said Bradley was good enough to play for European champion Real Madrid. He compared midfielder Kyle Beckerman, the dreadlocked, 32-year-old World Cup rookie, to Dunga, the captain of Brazil’s 1994 World Cup champs. Everyone may snicker, except, of course, this U.S. team.

By the middle of the second half, the U.S. was outclassing Portugal, the No. 4 team in the world by the FIFA rankings, moving the ball across the middle of the field with confidence. Jermaine Jones’s wicked strike from 30 yards and Dempsey’s chest-deflection to give the U.S. a 2-1 lead were both stunning yet seemingly inevitable.

“We showed a lot of people we can play some good soccer,” Jones said.

Let’s pause here for a moment and consider just who was leading this charge.

Goalkeeper Tim Howard has been a mainstay in England for nearly a decade, and Johnson is climbing the ladder of Germany’s Bundesliga. But Dempsey and Bradley both returned to Major League Soccer during the past year. Yes, they are being paid handsomely—more than $6 million each—but surely both would have remained in Europe if they could have landed similar jobs and similar salaries at top teams in top leagues.

Midfielders Graham Zusi and Beckerman are career MLSers. So is Besler. Jones transferred from Germany to Turkey this season—not exactly a promotion.

None of that prevented them from going to eye-to-eye with Ronaldo or Manchester United’s Nani Sunday night. “We were the better team for most of 90 minutes,” Bradley said.

That’s debatable. Gutsier, yes, but better? The numbers said Portugal outshot (20-15), out-possessed (52%-48%), and outdid the U.S. by nearly all offensive measures.

Then again, Bradley and his mates probably aren’t studying those numbers too hard, nor should they. This team isn’t about numbers but rather a belief that they can create misery for any team in the world.

When it is genuine, such faith can be powerful stuff in a sport where the margin between winning and losing can be a wayward bounce or a momentary loss of concentration. It can take a team, even this team, pretty far. It already has taken them farther than most thought possible.

They can’t even be bothered with simple math that says a gentlemen’s draw with Germany, a team Klinsmann used to coach, will send both teams to the knockout round. They say they are not built to play for draws, even though the obvious move here is a call to coach Joachim Löw of Germany and agree to bilaterally disarm Thursday in Recife.

“We have that fighting spirit and that determination to do well in every single game,” Klinmsann said. “I’m actually pretty confident that we are going to get a good game there.”

Klinsmann and his group are in the minority on that one. So far, that hasn’t mattered.


About admin

Loading Facebook Comments ...

Leave a Reply