A day after the United States survived the so-called “Group of Death,” the national team’s veteran players met with the World Cup rookies to remind them of a story from only four years ago.
In the 2010 World Cup, Landon Donovan scored one of the most historic goals in the country’s soccer history, a stoppage-time strike that helped the U.S. defeat Algeria and clinch a berth in the knockout stage.
The euphoria, however, lasted only three days. Fewer than 72 hours after the dramatic victory, the Americans were eliminated from the tournament with a loss to Ghana in the round of 16.
The veterans’ message wasn’t lost on the team’s rookies — a group that includes Sporting Kansas City players Matt Besler and Graham Zusi.
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“It’s a great reminder that nobody really remembers how you got there — it’s how you finish that matters,” Besler said in a phone conversation. “They wanted to make sure everyone knows we have to take advantage of this moment, this opportunity, and keep it going.”
The opportunity is this: The United States has returned to the knockout stage for the second consecutive World Cup. The Americans will play Belgium at 3 p.m. today to close out the round of 16.
Belgium has yet to lose in the World Cup. It swept Algeria, Russia and South Korea in group play while allowing only one goal over the three matches.
“Belgium is a very talented team. They’re much like Germany in their style of play,” Zusi said. “I think for us, we need to focus on our game as much as possible and (keep) doing the things that we do well — being extremely hard to play against, being very good defensively and creating as many chances as possible, as well.”
On an individual level, the knockout-stage match presents Besler and Zusi with another opportunity to prove themselves during their first appearance on soccer’s biggest stage.
After three matches, Besler has been billed as the linchpin in the center of a back line that was previously seen as the team’s question mark entering the World Cup. He drew commendable player ratings in the group-play matches while playing against world-class strikers such as Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Germany’s Thomas Muller.
Belgium will offer a more balanced — and therefore a sometimes more unpredictable — offensive attack in today’s match.
“When you get a chance to play against great players, I think of it as an opportunity,” Besler said. “I know I wanted to see how I could compete with some of these big-name players. It’s an internal challenge for me. I’m motivated to see how well I can do.”
Zusi tendered a similar motivation for his play in the World Cup, which has included two consecutive starts after he came off the bench and assisted on the game-winning goal in the World Cup opener against Ghana.
“I’ve made a point to enjoy the moment as much as possible,” Zusi said. “It’s sometimes tough to do that when you’re so focused on a task. But I’ve made a point to enjoy it as well.”
The performances of Zusi and Besler have been noticed by a Kansas City community that watched the two Sporting KC players climb from unknown backups in the MLS to national team mainstays.
More than 10,000 people have flocked to the Power & Light District in downtown Kansas City to watch the U.S. national team matches — and those fans are cognizant to cheer each time Besler is mentioned on the telecast or each time Zusi lines up for a corner kick.
During their limited internet access, Besler and Zusi said they have pulled up YouTube clips of the crowd reactions from the Power & Light District.
“It’s incredible the support we’re getting,” Besler said. “It seems like it’s really catching on. As a team, we want to make sure we’re able to capitalize on this opportunity — not just for us, but for the fans, too.”
Zusi’s two assists in the World Cup ignited the most exuberant reactions from KC fans.
Asked which one was his favorite moment of his first World Cup, Zusi replied, “I think our biggest positive hasn’t come yet.”
To reach Sam McDowell, send email to email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/SamMcDowell11.
U.S. vs. Belgium
WHEN/WHERE: 3 p.m. today in Salvador, Brazil