A few hours after Matt Besler and Graham Zusi were selected to the United States men’s national team roster last month, the Sporting Kansas City players met with members of the media for nearly an hour. The questions and subsequent answers were run-of-the-mill variety until one inquiry drew a laugh from Besler.
Was advancing out of the so-called “Group of Death” an impossible task for the Americans in the World Cup?
“Impossible?” Besler responded. “I wouldn’t say impossible. That’s not the attitude I’m going there with, and I know it’s not the attitude any of the rest of the guys are going there with. We’re looking forward to seeing how we stack up against the best teams in the world.”
As it turns out, pretty well.
The United States survived the Group of Death — even if it required a bit of help from Portugal.
The Americans suffered a 1-0 defeat to Germany on Thursday, but coupled with Portugal’s 2-1 victory against Ghana, the U.S. still advanced to the World Cup knockout stage. The U.S. tied for second place in Group G but qualified for the Round of 16 with a better goal differential than Portugal.
“Advancing out of this group is a huge accomplishment,” Besler said in a text message. “There’s a bunch of people who never thought it was possible, but we’ve proven them wrong. U.S. Soccer belongs on the world stage, and we can play with anyone.”
The chance to prove those words is on its way.
The U.S. will play Belgium at 3 p.m. Tuesday with a trip to the quarterfinals on the line. Belgium swept South Korea, Russia and Algeria to win Group H.
“Now it’s our job to refocus and get ready for the knockout stage,” Besler said. “We have a chance to do something very special.”
Besler and Zusi have played their role in that opportunity. Both players started Thursday against Germany.
Besler has started all three matches in the World Cup, drawing rave reviews for his play in defense. Zusi notched a pair of assists in group play.
“Bes and Graham played phenomenal,” said Sporting KC defender Chance Myers, who attended the watch party at the Power & Light District in downtown Kansas City. “It’s almost surreal watching them. They continue to impress not only the city but also the world with what they can do.”
Myers was part of an estimated crowd of more than 10,000 people who flocked to the Power & Light District. A crowd antsy for an excitable moment instead settled for a subdued reaction to the sound of the final whistle, which signaled the Americans’ first loss in this summer’s World Cup but also clinched their spot in the knockout stage.
The moment had a bittersweet feel to it.
“I don’t look at it that way,” said Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes, a member of the 1990 World Cup team. “You have to become one of the top two teams in the group — that’s the objective. They’re advancing, and that’s a tremendous accomplishment.”
It’s one the players may have sensed coming — even if few others did not.
Sporting Club CEO Robb Heineman attended the first two U.S. matches in Brazil and said he spent some time around the team, which relished the opportunity to fight through a group that included the second- and fourth-ranked teams in the world in Germany and Portugal, respectively. Add to that, Ghana eliminated the U.S. from the 2010 and 2006 World Cups.
“I think there was no question in their minds, even months ago when the group was announced, that they were going to get through (to the knockout stage),” Heineman said. “They were so locked in. That’s a great testament to all the work they’ve put in over the last few years. I couldn’t be happier for them.”
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SPORTING KANSAS CITY AT PORTLAND TIMBERS
WHEN/WHERE: 10 p.m. Friday; at Providence Park, Portland
TV/RADIO: KCMI (Ch. 38); WHB (810 AM)
ABOUT SPORTING KC (6-5-4): After a three-week international break for the World Cup, Sporting KC returns to MLS action with a trip to Portland. Sporting is the only team in the Eastern Conference with a positive goal-differential on the road this season. The club welcomed Aurelien Collin (hamstring) and Paulo Nagamura (concussion) back to the lineup earlier this week, but Benny Feilhaber will miss Friday’s match. Feilhaber and his wife, Michele, had a baby girl Thursday and named her Sofia.
ABOUT PORTLAND (4-4-8): The Timbers are 4-1-3 in their last eight MLS matches after a rough start to the season. Their defense, however, remains an unsettled issue. Portland has allowed the second-most goals (27) in the Western Conference.
BOTTOM LINE: The two teams met only three days ago at Sporting Park, when Portland eliminated Sporting KC from the U.S. Open Cup competition with a 3-1 victory. Peter Vermes criticized his team’s defensive effort after the match, a problem that will need to evaporate for Sporting KC.
PREDICTION: Portland 2, Sporting KC 1