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U.S. shows resolve, but falls short of shifting World Cup expectations

06/24/2014 12:29 AM

06/24/2014 2:58 AM

Before the World Cup started, if a time traveler had visited me and told me the U.S. would have four points ahead of their final game with Germany, I’d have been delighted. If that same time traveler visited me at halftime against Portugal and told me a draw was imminent, I’d have been fairly ecstatic.

However, now that I’ve seen the soccer that the U.S. is capable of and now that I’ve seen that the U.S. can outplay Portugal, I’m somewhat less pleased with both facts than I should be. (I’ve also realized I’m incapable of being a neutral supporter of this team. Which is probably obvious.)

The United States is a gloriously complicated, stubbornly proud and, on occasion, a frustratingly flawed soccer team.

Somehow capable of conjuring the near magical ability to rise to the occasion and fall short in heartbreaking fashion — sometimes nearly simultaneously.

After going down a goal through an all-too-predictable early goal by Nani…

… the U.S. battled back against a superior (at least, on paper) team with one of the world’s best players (Cristiano Ronaldo). For large stretches of the game, the United States played some good futbol and really took the game to Portugal. With seconds remaining, the U.S. were up 2-1 and fans taking a peak at the Round of 16 possibilities. You know what happened next.

Instead of a joyous moment of soccer success, it feels to many like an opportunity lost. While it’s a squad that fills me with undeniable pride, I’m also a bit frustrated by the mistakes and failure to close the game out.

This must be what it feels like to be a soccer nation with expectations — even if those expectations change radically from minute to minute.

Hopefully by now, we’ve had a chance to get all of that “Michael Bradley must be benched” hate out of our systems. (Hopefully, you never had that hate in the first place: It’s more than a little shortsighted.) Let’s look back at the good and the bad of the draw with Portugal.

The Jermajesty of Jermaine Jones

In a just world, every MLS team is on the phone with Jermaine Jones’ agent right now

Admittedly, he’s an aging (32) and pricey midfielder. But, the list of people who’ve pulled on an American jersey who can do this is probably very short.

In a hybrid role of attacking midfielder, destroyer and Ronaldo watcher, Jones was just about flawless. He was equally as dependable against Ghana. Jurgen Klinsmann has shown a lot of faith in Jones — not all of it respected or understood by American fans/media — but he’s come through when it has counted most in his first World Cup.

Can we talk a little bit about Matt Besler?

Besler’s entire career has seemingly been about defying critics who always seem to have a “Yeah, but…” to throw his direction.

Besler was a decent college prospect. Yeah, but he’s from Kansas.

He’s on the radar of a few MLS teams ahead of the 2009 SuperDraft. Yeah, but he’s not a sure-fire first-round pick.

He’s drafted in the first round by the Kansas City Wizards. Yeah, but they probably reached to take a hometown kid when other players were available.

He turns out to be a decent defender. Yeah, but he’s not strong enough to start as a central defender and not quite fast enough to make his career at left back (where he started under Curt Onalfo). He struggled later to prove himself to new coach Peter Vermes, who demoted him several times to make him tougher.

He’s an MLS All-Star. Yeah, but he’s not the best defender in the league.

He becomes the best defender on the best defense in the league. Yeah, but Aurelien Collin gets all the credit and Besler hasn’t done enough to earn a U.S. call up.

He gets a U.S. call-up, immediately becomes a Jurgen Klinsmann favorite and leads the league’s best defense to an MLS Cup in 2013. Yeah, but he’s not a world-class caliber defender.

Now he’s twice been the best defender for the U.S. national team in a World Cup match and managed to hold his own against Cristiano Ronaldo.

Perhaps it’s time for those questions to end with the response: “Yeah, and?”

Klinsmann on Besler

“It is just fun to watch Matt. He’s one of our most promising center backs that we’ve brought along here the last two-and-a-half years. This is something that hasn’t just happened in five weeks, it’s been three years since we’ve been working on this puzzle, on the team, on the players to make them understand what it takes to perform on the level of a World Cup. When you see Matt Besler coming through and breaking through and going through pain and still keeps his composure and his focus and there were many positive things on the field. For a coach this is very rewarding when you see things coming alive in a tournament like this, but that’s also because we’ve been working on these things for three years.”

Zusi’s bank shot

Anyone can score a goal, Graham Zusi banks his goals off his teammates.

I don’t think KC’s midfielder had the greatest game. Often, his lack of top-line speed betrayed him. Bizarrely, his control at times seemed to evaporate as well. But, when it counted, his vision and patience on the ball rewarded Klinsmann’s choice to start him. Zusi has two assists on four U.S. goals thus far this tournament and played a vital role in creating a chance that Michael Bradley saw blocked off the line too.

Besler and Zusi have both represented Kansas City extremely well. It’s probably not surprising that both are seeing their stock rising during this World Cup.

Howard saves the day

Mark it down, Tim Howard with the save of the tournament.

The misplaced blame game

Lots of blame for Portugal’s tying goal on Twitter was thrown in the direction of Bradley and Geoff Cameron. Bradley had a solid game, but not nearly up this standards. Cameron had difficulty at times and was partially at fault for Portugal’s first goal.

But blame is a weird thing. In reality, as with most goals conceded in soccer, it’s usually a series of mistakes that lead to a breakdown. As it was on that last-second goal.

The United States was, quite literally, seconds away from winning that match. Just before the 94-minute mark, youngster DeAndre Yedlin attempts to cross the ball into the box. It is blocked and he eventually loses a 2-v-1 battle for the ball in the corner. Portugal gets a throw in and lumps the ball downfield.

Bradley picks up the loose ball and starts dribbling it toward his own half. He is then dispossessed by Portugal’s forward Eder.

In the blink of an eye, Portugal is suddenly surging forward with the United States struggling for shape and a foothold.

As the move progresses, Omar Gonzalez — brought on ostensibly to be an extra defender — is playing in the midfield, Besler is too disconnected from DeMarcus Beasley and Beasley is on an island by himself covering Ronaldo. Most of the U.S. players are parked outside of the box. Niether Fabian Johnson nor Cameron is in a position to stop Silvestre Varela as Varela starts his run into the box.

Beasley can’t close down Ronaldo — one of the fastest and most incisive players in the world. Cameron doesn’t track Varela’s run. Howard takes a moment of hesitation on his line.

Tie game. More than 90 minutes of hard work, undone by a series of small missteps by several tired players that all happen in a ridiculously short amount of time.

These are the sort of small mistakes that cumulatively can doom a World Cup bid to failure. Ask England.

Rumble in the jungle

The game, as you’ve probably heard, was played in Manaus, Brazil. Which is in the Amazon jungle. The Arena da Amazonia was built specifically for the World Cup and will host just four matches. Did I mention it’s a little more than three miles from the Amazon River?

During the match, temperatures hovered in the high 80s with nearly 80 percent humidity. (Which, basically, sounds like a typical summer day in Kansas City honestly.) The humidity didn’t effect the game nearly as much as many feared — though there was a water break.

The jungle isn’t just hot and humid, it’s often filled wth fascinating wildlife. Friend of the blog Mark Kapfer, on the ground in Manaus following the team throughout the World Cup, reported “moths the size of birds flying around the stadium.”

Okay, the similarities to a Kansas City summer stop there.

Chances of getting out of this Group of Death alive now?

I know that most Americans hate the concept of draws. We want winners, dangit. But, against Germany, a draw is the most reasonable, practical and helpful result imaginable. For both sides.

This is soccer in KC now

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