The United States’ men’s soccer team has played massive games before in the World Cup. But, in most previous tournaments, the U.S. entered the game most often as a serious underdog.
Even during the best World Cup run in modern American soccer history — reaching the 2002 quarterfinals — a U.S. win (even against rival Mexico) was considered an upset.
While the Germans are the likely favorite Thursday in Recife, Brazil, (11 a.m. on ESPN), this particular United States team has something that those previous teams didn’t quite have: Expectations.
In the last five World Cups, the U.S. was an awkward athletic challenge for many European teams. The Americans often played quite well (especially against Germany in the 2002 quarterfinals), but those squads were mostly technically and tactically over-matched.
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That’s not really the case anymore. Not after the last two matches. Qualification for the knockout stage was so close, anything less than accomplishing that now will be seen as failure.
After withering the Ghanaian storm and out-playing Portugal for 93 minutes and some change, the bar by which Jurgen Klinsmann and the United States are measured has been raised. Before the tournament started, four points from two games would’ve been a dream scenario.
Now? Not enough. We expect more. But there are doubts, mostly because the U.S. still lives in World Cup purgatory — waiting for the the last whistle to blow in the last game of the group stage to find out their fate. Despite the raised expectations and quality of soccer, the margin for error remains very, very thin.
Needing a draw or a victory the Germans — a flawed but extremely talented contender to win the whole thing — how will the Americans handle this pressure? Can they salvage a draw? Can the Americans actually win this game outright?
Let’s toss out the orange cones and get a little warm-up in before kickoff.
Win the battles out wide
Most of the best scoring chances for the U.S. this tournament have come down the wings. But not via the standard American tactic of crossing the ball over and over.
Instead, the American fullbacks (and midfielders) have provided excellent combination play down the flanks. During the last game, with Cristiano Ronaldo not the least bit interested in defending, Klinsmann’s tactics evolved to attack down whatever flank Ronaldo popped up on. Bringing on speedy youngster DeAndre Yedlin to play as a winger was a stroke of genius. His speed eventually opened up the field for Clint Dempsey’s goal.
Germany has yet to play with traditional fullbacks this year, opting for Jerome Boateng and Benedikt Höwedes (both central defenders at their clubs) to play out wide. Neither are exceptionally fast or consistent threats in attack. This could open up space for Fabian Johnson, who has by far been the United States’ most consistent attacking threat.
Don’t let the German attack drag the defense out of shape
Germany started both games thus far without a truly recognized striker. Tactical nerds call this playing with a “False 9” — basically, someone who plays the traditional forward position (called the #9) like he’s a midfielder. Thomas Müller has been very good in this role. He will drop into midfield to create combination play, he will drift out wide to help Mesut Özil or Mario Götze overwhelm a fullback or he’ll make a diagonal run across the defense from unpredictable starting points.
Basically: He’s a nightmare to keep track of. Communication, awareness and recovery speed are of the utmost importance. Look for Matt Besler to have share some of the responsibility of tracking Müller. He should be familiar with this sort of movement, as Sporting KC’s Dom Dwyer often exhibits some (but definitely not all) of the traits of a “False 9” in Peter Vermes’ 4-3-3.
Yes, we know our enemy
There probably isn’t a team in this World Cup that the U.S. knows better than the Germans — not even Mexico.
Jermaine Jones, Fabian Johnson, Julian Green, Timmy Chandler and John Brooks all play professionally in Germany. Michael Bradley and DaMarcus Beasley played in Germany in their careers. Klinsmann, obviously, both played for and coached the German national team. Assistant manager Andreas Herzog and special advisor Berti Vogts both played in Germany too.
The German coach, Joachim Löw, was Klinsmann’s assistant coach in 2006.
There is nothing about this team (or how they’ll play) that will or should surprise the United States.
The Curse of Manaus?
So far, all four teams that played a game in the jungle of Manaus have lost their next game. Even scarier, all four teams that played a game in the jungle of Manaus have failed to qualify from their group. Those four teams: Italy, England, Croatia and Cameroon.
Sporting KC’s Graham Zusi and Team USA are downplaying the potential side-effects. After all, the conditions in Manaus this time of year are pretty comparable to playing a game in KC or Houston. (You know, minus the rain forest and giant moths.)
Remember: A draw is your friend
This won’t be very popular for some of the newcomers to soccer: A draw is an excellent result in this game. Seriously, even a boring 0-0 draw would be an outstanding result. (A win would definitely be more outstanding though.)
Because a draw is worth a point, and a point is often the difference between success and failure, draws are a necessary evil.
They are part of the pragmatism built into the framework soccer. If both teams play the game evenly or, in most cases, if one team fails to make the other pay for mistakes, a draw is often called a fair result. (A “fair result” is probably one of those ideas that soccer fans will never be able to completely explain to a fan of, say, college football.)
There’s not a like-for-like example in many American sports for this mentality. Except maybe golf. A golf tournament is a four-day event where the cumulative score determines a winner. It’s not whether a golfer is exceptional on every single day, it’s whether he or she is consistently good for the entirety of the tournament.*
*You could also make a case that Nascar’s championship is analogous. Racers earn points over the season to determine a champion. A driver who finishes in second place 10 times has a better chance than someone who wins one race but doesn’t finish several others.
Soccer in general — and World Cups in specific — is all about survival and consistency. So far, America has done both and is in the rare position of controlling their own destiny. They just have to survive and maintain consistency for 90 more minutes.
U.S. 1, Germany 1. Everyone gets their point.