World Cup: USMNT say "Not today" to Group of Death, advance to Round of 16 | Armchair Analyst

I.

I believe.

I believe that.

I believe that we.

I believe that we will get what turns out to be an entirely acceptable result in our third group-stage game that, combined with the result between the other two teams, puts us through into the knockout round!

If you're American, you have to learn that chant. Thursday's 1-0 loss to Germany, combined with Portugal's 2-1 win over Ghana, makes it three times in the last six World Cups that the US have made it into the Round of 16 despite a defeat in the final group-stage game.

Did Your World Cup Bracket Survive the Group Stage?

Defeat tastes like victory today. Have a beer and a bratwurst. Jurgen Klinsmann deserves some praise for getting the US through the Group of Death.


1. Weathering the early storm

I retweeted this from ESPN's Paul Carr (a must-follow on Twitter) in the moments leading up to the game:

The US are the kings of the flat start on the world's stage, and it doesn't really matter who the coach is. It happened to Bob Bradley's teams in 2010, Bruce Arena's in 2006 and 2002, Steve Sampson's in 1998. And of course it happened to Klinsmann's own troops last time out against Portugal.

So when Germany came out in a rhythm – they weren't thunderous or anything, just really comfortable – and the US could hardly get a kick of the ball, it felt familiar. And deadly. Add in a whiffed clearance from Omar Gonzalez (who was otherwise flawless, and we'll get to that in a bit), and it went from "familiar" to "deadly" to "oh my God, we're going to concede before Simon's back from grabbing a sandwich."

(Simon Borg was by far the most calm person in the newsroom. He is a machine.)

About 40 minutes later, Paul tweeted this:

They held on by the skin or their teeth (we'll call that the obligatory Luis Suarez reference) for the first 10, then came into the game nicely over the course of the half. They didn't push numbers forward in waves, but understood that the central triangle was strong enough to give just about everyone else license on the counter.

About that central triangle...


2. Beckerman, Besler and Omar 

The "central triangle" is the triumverate of Matt Besler, Gonzalez and Kyle Beckerman. Usually when we conceptualize our game, we talk about "backline," "midfield" and "forwards." It's useful if sloppy shorthand.

A better way of thinking about it is "Where does Team A win the ball vs. Team B? Where does Team B's penetration stop, and which players work as a unit to maintain frame?

Look at the network passing graph for an idea:

Beckerman, Besler and Omar won their battles in that triangle, denying Germany any purchase in Zone 14 during the run of play. Let me explain why that is important:

We talk a lot about teams that run the channels, work between the lines and attack from odd angles. It makes the game fun, and often beautiful. The best teams in the world (Germany are definitely one of them) are able to find those spaces and create those angles with more frequency and precision than the hoi polloi.

But even Germany now, even Spain in 2010, even Pep Guardiola's Barcelona in full flight, would rather attack right up the gut. They would rather find their attacking looks at the top of the box, 18-35 yards out, and build from there.

The whole reason "Attack from angles!" is a thing is because good teams don't let them. You shift the percentages appreciably in your favor if you can protect Zone 14, if you can force teams to create angles rather than sit back and give them looks.

Beckerman, Besler and Omar protected that part of the field and allowed everybody else to harry the Germans everywhere else. Play 'em to a stalemate in the middle, and make them beat you with something special.

Job done. They're all Man of the Match.


3. Jones and Bradley figure out their rotations

Neither Jermaine Jones nor Michael Bradley were great in this one. But they were very good, and seem to have developed an understanding of how to play both with and off of each other – the type of understanding that had eluded them when they were playing deeper in midfield as double pivots.

Neither was the pivot today, with both playing higher than Beckerman in the 4-1-4-1. 

I didn't take screenshots during the game (I should have, but I really wanted to kick back and enjoy this one), and you always need to take event maps with a grain of salt. They just show on-the-ball events, not off-the-ball movement, which is just as crucial.

But this, from Jones and Bradley, seems to show a balanced deployment that allowed them to both help Beckerman keep midfield tight while helping Clint Dempsey keep the German defense backpedaling:

Of all the positive developments over the past month in US camp, the ability of Jones & Bradley to work with each other has been the best one – and the one that bodes best for the US going forward.

Into the knockout rounds.

Job done. Now for the fun part.


A few more things to think about...

10. DaMarcus Beasley remains the most underrated American player of all-time:

I'm against cherry-picking stats, and we all know that simple pass completion numbers never tell the whole story. But given the game's context (which Devin mentions, of course), that is really a phenomenal game from the veteran.

9. Who's feeling CONCACAF'fy? The US make it three of the four teams from the region – joining Mexico and Costa Rica – that have qualified for the knockout rounds. Including two (US and CR) from what were largely considered to be the two toughest groups in the tournament.

8. Good thing we didn't play that closed-door friendly vs. Belgium a few weeks ago. That's likely who the US will take on in the Round of 16, on Tuesday, July 1, in Salvador.

7. The US didn’t punish Benedikt Höwedes in isolation enough. There were chances to go at the German left back, but Fabian Johnson and Brad Davis (later Alejandro Bedoya) usually slowed the pace and then took an extra touch. Heavy legs and a conservative gameplan may have had something to do with it, but regardless the US weren't clinical when gaps opened.

As for heavy legs...

6. The streak is broken! This is the first time in five games that the US didn't concede a goal after the 80th minute. Considering it came against one of the world's great attacking teams, and on short rest after the horror of Manaus, I consider this to be a huge victory. Klinsmann rotated his squad just enough to keep the fresh, and picked a line of confrontation that was deep but not passive:

5. Set pieces will always be Germany's thing. The last time the US played Germany in the World Cup, we kicked their rears – except for Oliver Kahn in goal and Michael Ballack on a single, lonely restart. This time they bossed us ... and once again beat us on a restart. Thomas Müller is a boss, and Germany gonna Germany.

4. Graham Zusi quietly had his best defensive performance in US colors. Fans are focused on his poor set-piece delivery (he was bad), but more crucial was the endless running – intelligent running – he did on the flanks. The best tactical move of the game came early in the first half when Klinsmann flipped Zusi to the left side in order to give more help to Beasley.

3. The big risk paid off. Klinsmann raised red flags a couple of months ago when he sacked long-time assistant Martin Vasquez, seemingly out of the blue after nearly a decade of faithful service. Coming on in Vasquez's stead were US Under-20 head coach Tab Ramos as an assistant, and current Azerbaijan boss (and former German national team manager, back in 1996 when they won the European Cup) Berti Vogts as a consultant.

Beckerman's role as the teams No. 6 became solidified, and the US have defended more compactly ever since – save for the friendly against Turkey, which was Jones' audition for that d-mid role.

Whether it was Klinsmann's own decisions, or his willingness to listen to others, I don't really care. What matters is that he made the right moves to get us out of the group. I'm tipping my cap as I type this.

2. Not a soccer nation, eh? Even money takes a back seat to the World Cup:

1. Spare a thought for Cristiano Ronaldo, a true American hero. Early in the first half of the Portugal win over Ghana, it looked like the Real Madrid superstar would have a hat trick inside an hour. But he kept missing sitters.

Mid-way through the second half, it looked like Portugal was dead in the water. Ghana had equalized and were pushing hard for a second – and with it a 2-1 win that would have put them through to the Round of 16 at the US's expense, based upon total goals (the second tiebreaker).

Then Ronaldo got a chance that even he couldn't fluff:

That goal broke Ghana. And if it hadn't come, it definitely felt like only a matter of time before the Black Stars drove the knife it.

But that didn't happen.

Not today, Ghana. Not today.