RECIFE, Brazil – Drawn into a group most figured the United States would depart in a body bag, death has yet to come in Brazil.
They may not have finished their Group G journey on a high note – Germany outclassing the Americans in just about every aspect during a 1-0 win – but the job is done. For the third time in four tournaments, the US have reached the knockout rounds.
“Whether we’re in the Group of Death or not, I think that’s what’s come to be expected of the US,” goalkeeper Tim Howard told reporters Thursday evening. “We get out of the first round and hopefully make some noise. We’re going to try and do that.”
They’ll try to do that after making history, ending the in-out-in-out World Cup trend by advancing to the knockout round in consecutive tournaments for the first time via a victory against Ghana, draw against Portugal and loss (by only one goal, a fact that proved decisive) to Germany.
“It’s something we’ve never done before,” US Soccer president Sunil Gulati told reporters following the defeat. “We just did it in what most people would acknowledge is one of the toughest groups in the tournament. If it’s not the first, it’s one of the top two or three. By rank, it’s certainly the toughest. So that’s a huge plus. The odds were against us.”
Those odds are not likely to change just because the US managed to navigate the Group of Death.
Belgium are next on Tuesday, July 1, in Salvador, the same team that bossed the US in Cleveland last summer. Considering the Americans’ inability to hold possession against Germany (or Ghana, for that matter), it could be another defend-and-hope match for the likely underdogs.
But if that works, in regulation or otherwise, and the US somehow move on, nobody will complain. Least of all, Jurgen Klinsmann.
“[The knockout stage] is very different, because there is a very clear picture in front of you,” he said in his postgame press conference. “You’ve got to win the game, no matter how. You’ve got to win it in extra time. You’ve got to win it in a penalty shootout. We now prepare for one game at a time.”
But on a night in which he said his team gave Germany far too much respect, Klinsmann also did not deny the US would have to be better to actually pull that off.
Neither did Clint Dempsey, who pointed to the Portugal game as an example of what the Americans can do against a top side. In that match, the US created chance after chance, held extended possession and put pressure on Cristiano Ronaldo and company high up the field.
Can they do it again? Sure, especially since history, if not form, is wiped clean in the knockout stage.
“Everything is fresh again. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done in the group stages,” Dempsey said. “It’s what you’re going to do on that day. There’s more pressure to that game because you either stay or you go home.”
The US want to avoid the frustration of a Round of 16 loss like the one suffered in 2010. In an encouraging sign, as in their successful 2002 match against Mexico, they have recent experience against their Round of 16 opponent.
Whether that will make a difference against Belgium remains to be seen. Either way, the US will do everything they can to stave off death for another 90 minutes on Tuesday in Salvador.
“It’s a knockout game,” Jermaine Jones said, “and we have to see it like a final.”