By Ridge Mahoney
Has by surviving the “Group of Death” the U.S. national surpassed the feats of the 2010 team, which won its group and fell to Ghana, 2-1, in the round of 16 on an overtime goal?
One might think so, given the waves of relief and euphoria expelled when the final whistle sounded Thursday and the standings showed Germany atop Group G and the USA second, via the goal-difference tiebreaker, with Portugal third and Ghana last.
Belgium is next up Tuesday in the round of 16 and a victory in that match would equal the team’s showing in 2002, when it beat Mexico in the first knockout phase to reach the quarterfinals. So the 2014 team has yet to face the hurdles of its predecessors, and if to make proclamations at this stage is premature, well, perhaps that’s a backlash on all the gloom and doom that ensued once the draw was made in early December.
Still, the comparison game is fun to play -- if a bit premature -- as the players relish the unprecedented support back home and sees Americans fans everywhere in Brazil. So far, most of the moves made by head coach Jurgen Klinsmann have worked out well, and a few of the six players who return from the 2010 team believe this edition has more in the tank.
“I think we’re playing better,” said keeper Tim Howard when asked about the differences from 2010. “I see it from the back, our ability to open teams up, to possess the ball, to get at teams has been a big difference.
“Germany aside -- this was a tough game, they had a lot of possession and were always going to have a lot of possession -- I thought our passing movements have been good, I thought we’ve created chances, whether it’s been one or two today or a host of chances in other games. I really do think this team is better equipped to possess the ball and press teams.”
The Americans didn’t press Ghana much after they stunned their opponents by scoring in the first minute, then harried and harassed Portugal relentlessly after falling behind in the fifth minute. Against Germany, they faced a foe capable of pressing or falling back, so they should be tuned up to handle or impose just about any tempo required against Belgium. Whether they have the talent and skill is another matter, yet the players realize this is an excellent chance to punctuate the progress they’ve seen.
“We showed a lot of character, in terms of how hard we’ve fought throughout the whole tournament really,” said forward Clint Dempsey after the 1-0 loss to Germany “We continued that even into the last game. We’re not happy with the result in terms of losing the game, but I think that we deserve to go through to the next round and I’m excited about the possibility of getting to knockout stages which we always wanted to do. The fact that we were able to get out of a very difficult group shows the belief that we had in ourselves.”
Much of the confidence expressed by Howard stems from Klinsmann, of course. He has mixed sunny optimism with stark statements of how unrealistic it would be to expect the USA to win the World Cup. Former head coach Bruce Arena did something of the sort in 2002; from the first day of the World Cup preparation camp, he told his players every day: "We can beat Portugal.” And that’s precisely what happened in the group opener that the Americans won, 3-2, after stunning the Portuguese with three first-half goals.
Arena also provided his players with the training and instruction and tactics to achieve that goal, and Klinsmann has steered his team through a tough group in similar fashion. There’s still a pervasive underpinning of being the underdog that the players have turned into motivation.
“Before this tournament started, no one was talking that America can come to the next round,” says Jermaine Jones in reference to dire predictions from journalists and pundits. “It was always Portugal and Germany. We showed people that we have a good team and we have a good atmosphere in the group. Everything that the coach did before the tournament, who he sent home and who he took for the team, I think was a good decision. The team showed heart and gave good feedback,”
Klinsmann has followed the game plan regarding Belgium: his mixed messages acknowledge the difficulty of advancing while putting it firmly in the past. “We still can do better,” he said after the Germany game. “We got through the group, but we have to do better in the round of 16 and we will do better.”