By Ridge Mahoney
The USA survived the Group of Death. A 1-0 loss to Germany was still enough to send the Americans through to the round of 16 on Tuesday when Portugal's 2-1 victory over Ghana was not enough to overcome its hole on goal difference going into the deciding matches.
ENOUGH LEFT TO BLUNT GERMANS.Depth is vital at a World Cup, and to bolster his lineup for the group finale against Germany, head coachJurgen Klinsmann handed starts to Brad Davis and Omar Gonzalez for the first time in the tournament.
Davis took over a wide midfield slot for Alejandro Bedoya, who had started but failed to finish the first two games, and Gonzalez replaced Geoff Cameron, whose scuffed clearance had provided Portugal a chance it converted in the fifth minute of the 2-2 tie the nations played on Sunday. Many of his teammates were also badly fatigued yet Cameron appeared to be the most gassed and so Klinsmann turned to Gonzalez, who had taken over a starting role during the Hexagonal and earlier this year but moved to the bench during the warm-up games.
A policy of containment permeated the Americans, and though Davis worked hard on the left flank he didn’t provide much attacking impetus. On the opposite side, Graham Zusialso put in a workhorse shift defensively. Neither Zusi nor Davis were particularly effective on set pieces, of which there were few since Germany controlled most of the play.
Gonzalez played a strong game, winning balls in the air and twice thwarting threatening situations by slide-tackling decisively. He and Matt Beslerwere regular central partners for much of the Hexagonal and if satisfied with their work together Klinsmann may retain that pairing for the round of 16.
Though many U.S. players were obviously fatigued from the first two games, they were able to maintain a relatively high level of energy even though Germany controlled most of the second half. Tim Howardagain came up strong when he needed to and is emerging as one of the top keepers in the tournament. Over the three games, the Americans were tough psychologically throughout.
MARGINAL THINKING. The dynamics of Group G were altered considerably when Portugal lost its opener to Germany, 4-0, and ultimately that result proved just as decisive as that of the three U.S. games. Goal difference, not head-to-head results, is the first tiebreaker used at the World Cup and other FIFA competitions.
Dropped into a hole by the heavy defeat, Portugal came back to tie the USA, 2-2, and beat Ghana, 2-1, to accrue the four points that is usually the minimum required to advance. But in essence, the group was decided by the U.S. losing to Germany by fewer goals than did Portugal, which kept its hopes alive by scoring a spectacular last-second equalizer against the USA but ultimately fell short.
THE WRATH OF RONALDO.American fans slammed Michael Bradley’s giveaway and some loose marking after Cristiano Ronaldo nailed his majestic cross toSilvestre Varelaproduced the tying goal in Manaus. Up to that point, the U.S. defense had done a magnificent job of stifling the reigning World Player of the Year, and he hadn’t done much in the opener as Germany ran rampant.
Once given an opportunity to influence the outcome, Ronaldo did just that against the USA, and against Ghana he soothed the nerves of American fans by scoring the goal that broke a 1-1 tie and essentially rendered the USA-Germany result meaningless. Ghana would have edged the USA for second place if it had beaten Portugal by 2-1 or any other one-goal margin other than 1-0.