The World Cup is really the only time I consistently talk to non-soccer watching friends about soccer. Before the tournament even started I had a friend ask me “so, what’s got to happen for the US to advance?” I said, “I don’t know, man, but if they’re going to advance, it’s going to take something really special.” Making it through the group of death was an achievement. But going through on a loss to a superior German side made it all so underwhelming.
Imagine if the order of our games was reversed. Imagine we lost to Germany first. We would have thought, “yeah, we’re out of our depth in this World Cup, no wonder it’s called the group of death.” Then a tie to Portugal would have seemed like a glimmer of hope. And then imagine that John Brooks’s header was the late goal that saw us through to the knockout round. We would have defeated the team the saw us out of the tournament in 2010 and we would have gone through. We would have felt unstoppable. Instead we lost to Germany to make it through. We even got a little help from Christiano Ronaldo who put Ghana away with a gimme goal from a defensive mistake.
But I don’t want to go down the road of what if’s. What if Boateng and Muntari were playing for Ghana yesterday? What if Altidore never hurt his hamstring? What if we had won that Portugal game? Or what if Portugal hadn’t gotten beaten 4-0 by the Germans? We can concoct scenario after scenario where we either do or do not deserve to go through. But it’s not what might have happened, it’s what did happen that matters. We got the results and it’s on to the round of sixteen.
It wasn’t pretty, though. Much like the Portugal game, it took us about twenty minutes to really start playing. And those first twenty minutes were rough. Jerome Boateng was given free reign on the right side to make crosses, making me think that perhaps Beasley really is a weak link. Omar Gonzalez had one whiff on a clearance that made me think this was going to be a disaster but then he settled in and provided some well timed, penalty-defying tackles. I hope he’s in the back four against Belgium.
But then, the second half happened. It appears that the Manaus Hangover is a real thing. Teams that played their previous game in Manaus had been 0-4 in this World Cup (they’re now 1-5). The US looked sluggish and tired. A lot of our passes seemed to want to go to other US players but the accuracy was off. Kyle Beckerman, who had been looking so solid in midfield, started to level off as time went on. Even Michael Bradley, arguably the Michael Bradley-est of all US players, had a sloppy first touch, losing the ball far too often.
Jermaine Jones, who has become our standout player this tournament and who was perhaps playing extra hard against his countrymen, was all over the place. He collided with the ref, then, later, collided with Alejandro Bodoya. That collision looked rough for both players and left Jones with a bloody nose. What the hell was going on?
And then Thomas Muller scored. Of course Thomas Muller scored. Nine goals in nine World Cup games. Can you be a prodigy at twenty-four? Well, whatever he is, he’s deadly.
Also, during second half, I wanted to punch Ian Darke in the face. I said I didn’t want to consider the ways we could advance and I meant it. “Now, if Ghana scores and this result holds, the United States will finish third.” Okay, got it, Ian. “You see Ghana and the US will be level on points and goal differential but Ghana will have scored more total goals to go through.” Oh, didn’t know that, Ian, thanks but I’m trying to watch this game. “The US has to be hoping that Ghana doesn’t score.” Ian…. “Again, if Ghana scores another goal, the US will be eliminated.” Ian, if you don’t shut your mouth… “The US could go down 2-0 and it would not effect the result.” Ian, I’m going to find you and when I do…
And then Ronaldo scored in the other game and helped us out, but more importantly, shut Ian Darke the hell up.
Why doesn’t DeAndre Yedlin start? Is it his lack of experience? Is it because he’s a great injection of fast, fresh legs at the end but not as effective for a full ninety minutes? He causes problems and puts the ball in the box. His pace is deadly. It’s not a coincidence that we had two bursts of activity and legitimate chances at the end of the game (in the 93rd minute, for Christ’s sake) when he was subbed in.
And regarding that last chance… I had been saying to my friend Josh during the game, “I don’t get Phillip Lahm. He’s the captain of Germany and of Bayern Munich but is he really that good a player? Is he just there for leadership or something?” But what could have been a great shot on goal in the 93rd minute was blocked by a sliding German defender. “Phillip Lahm just ran sixty yards back to intercept that shot!” Okay, gotcha. That guy’s pretty good.
So, yeah, we’re through. Last tournament, Landon Donovan’s late goal got us out of the group stage. We all had an amazing sports high. And then we lost to Ghana in our next game. The high of a dramatic win is why we watch but it doesn’t mean anything.
And now we have to face Belgium. Belgium is the team I’ve been talking about since before the tournament. They have a golden generation of players, many of whom star on some of the best teams in the Premier League (three of them – Vertonghen, Dembele and Chadli – are on Spurs). They won all three of their group matches. They were down to ten men in the last one.
But has Belgium been tested? I’m not saying that South Korea, Algeria and Russia aren’t formidable opponents… um, actually, that’s exactly what I’m saying. In their next round, Belgium will be playing against a team that just got out of the group of death. Enjoy the sports high of winning your group, Belgium, you’re about to face a team that knows how to grind out a result.