When the World Cup draw was made in early December, it yielded a match rife with intrigue and human interest as well as sporting overtones: the USA and Germany would play on the final day of play in Group G.
Not only had the Americans landed in the vaunted "Group of Death," former German international and national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann would send out the players of his adopted country against his fatherland. During the ensuing six months, subplots abounded as more German-Americans worked their way onto the squad and stalwarts such as Landon Donovan, Clarence Goodson and Eddie Johnson dropped off.
When both teams won their group openers, the scenario by which both teams could advance to the round of 16 by tying their meeting began to emerge, and it took firm shape last weekend when Germany tied Ghana, 2-2, and the Americans ended up even with Portugal by the same score. Germany and the USA play Thursday (noon ET, ESPN, Univision) in Recife as joint top dogs and three points ahead of their two group foes.
The topic of a prearranged tie has been bludgeoned ad infinitum and won’t be revisited here. The Americans will be vulnerable only if they fall behind; the same applies to the Germans, yet the competitive nature imbued in all elite athletes mandate they strive for victory, at least for a while. They will play hard but they must also be practical. Both teams have shown enough defensive glitches that even playing conservatively won’t necessarily be prudent.
Less frequently stated but just as relevant is the fact one country can knock out the other by winning, if the right result occurs in the Ghana-Portugal game that will be played concurrently. As simple a set of results as a 1-0 German win and a 2-1 triumph by Ghana will earn Germany the group title and edge Ghana into second place on the second tiebreaker, goals scored. That is a very plausible scenario. Portugal’s banged up back-line and bleak chances of advancement due to a minus-4 goal differential (Ghana is minus-1) will greatly motivate the Ghanaians.
German head coach Joachim Loew was Klinsmann’s assistant at the 2006 World Cup when Germany reached the semifinals, and four years ago Loew matched that accomplishment. Which team knows more about the other is a hot topic for debate, since four of the Americans see the Germans up close every week in the Bundesliga, and a fifth, Jermaine Jones, played there for parts of 13 seasons.
Along with refuting any notion of a planned result, Loew gives the Americans high marks for what they’ve done in the World Cup so far. “Their matches really showed great involvement and pressure all the time in the game against Ghana and also against Portugal,” Loew said. “You have a team with very strong technical players and this will require a lot from us.”
Both teams endured tough battles last weekend. The Germans’ extra day of rest -- they played Saturday, a day before the USA faced Portugal -- could be beneficial. Defender Jerome Boateng departed at halftime with sore left thigh, and midfielder Sami Khedira took a knock to his left knee and came off in the 70th minute.
Loew’s decision to play Philipp Lahm, one of the world’s top outside backs, in defensive midfield hasn’t been universally praised. Khedira only recently returned to action after suffering a knee injury in November, and a Lahm giveaway provided Ghana with a chance Asamoah Gyan converted to take a 2-1 lead. Loew showed that Klinsmann isn’t the only World Cup coach who can make subs to great effect: Miroslav Klose came off the bench to net the equalizer by which he tied Ronaldo’s all-time tournament scoring record at 15 goals.
Mario Gortze also scored against Ghana, Thomas Mueller hit the Portuguese net three times, Mesut Oezil is a regular for Real Madrid, and Andre Shuerrle is no slouch, so with U.S. striker Jozy Altidore again sidelined with a hamstring strain the Germans clearly have an edge in firepower. Clint Dempsey has scored once in each game for the U.S. but hasn’t seen that much of the ball.
Dempsey could again be deployed as a lone forward or be paired with either Aron Johannsson or Chris Wondolowski. The five-man midfield did a good job of controlling play against Portugal, though its attacks from the flanks were limited and keeper Tim Howard was required twice to come up with sharp saves.
Much of the USA’s attacking impetus has been supplied by right back Fabian Johnson and it wouldn’t be a surprise if Germany works that side to pin him back as much possible. Goetze tends to drift to that side and midfielder Toni Kroos could also be deployed to track Johnson when the U.S. has the ball and attack down his side as well.
Lahm’s labors in central midfield may cause a reshuffling, depending on whether Loew prefers his range or the greater offensive prowess of Bastian Schweinsteiger. Regardless of the German setup, the Americans might again use a central midfield triangle with Michael Bradley in the advanced role and Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman as the base. Bradley’s disastrous midfield giveaway that led to Portugal’s last-second equalizer tainted an improved performance from that against Ghana but either because of fatigue or injury he’s not been up to snuff in Brazil.
The stifling heat and humidity endured by the Americans Sunday in Manaus and shorter turnaround time are thorny problems for Klinsmann, as is the issue of how well centerback Geoff Cameron will rebound from the scuffed clearance from which Portugal opened the scoring. He and central partner Matt Besler have been reasonably secure in the first two games, and Besler’s knack for stepping into midfield to cut off passes and win balls has stifled many an opposing attack. Yet the individual explosiveness and snug cohesiveness of Germany’s attackers are capable of opening up any back line.
A rematch of the 2002 World Cup quarterfinal won by Germany, 1-0, the game in Recife is a tall obstacle, but the Americans have already attained much in this “Group of Death.” Record television audiences have watched the first two games and throngs of Americans have gathered in many venues. A crucial match against a legendary foe that will be watched by hundreds of millions of people around the world is merely a means to an end.
“I think it would be a big win for the United States to get a win over Germany in a World Cup,” says Beckerman, “but ultimately get us to where we want to go, which is the next round.”