When was the last time the United States played a bad World Cup game, devoid of drama, controversy, and great goals? You’d have to go all the way back to a meeting with Germany in Paris in 1998.
Jurgen Klinsmann got the second goal for the Germans as they eased by the overmatched and misfiring U.S. 2-0.
Sixteen years later, Germany and the US meet again in the World Cup in Recife, Brazil, with a whole lot more than places in the knockout stages and atop Group G in play.
Germany and the USA’s historically difficult relationship off the field makes their close connections on the field so fascinating. Of course, Klinsmann is now the US manager, and he’s selected a team flush with influential German-American players, including 2014 standouts John Anthony Brooks, Fabian Johnson, and Jermaine Jones.
Klinsmann’s side has even derisively been referred to as “The German B-Team.” And there’s more: The current manager of Germany, Jogi Low, was Klinsmann’s assistant when the pair led Germany in wildly successful fashion when they hosted the 2006 World Cup.
Although the pair remain close friends, Low was always seen as the man wearing the pants in their professional relationship. In their Euro 2008 preview, Four Four Two wrote that “Low by and large ran the team at the World Cup, with Klinsmann more of a spiritual leader than a true coach.”
If Klinsmann, a German soccer hero, can beat his native country and his protégé with an underdog side, no one back home will question his managerial nous ever again. It’s not personal, but Klinsmann wouldn’t mind winning this one – just as he did when the US beat the real German B-team last summer at RFK Stadium.
For US Soccer, this match also provides a chance to exact revenge for Germany knocking the US out of the 2002 World Cup in the quarterfinals.
In what is regarded by many as the best match the US has played in the modern era, they dominated the game and were denied only by a missed handball call on the line that would have given them a penalty and man-advantage. They lost 1-0 on a Michael Ballack header, and Germany went on to reach the finals.
A draw in this game – no matter what happens between Portugal and Ghana – is enough to send both of these teams through. Germany would win the group on goal differential, the United States finishing in second.
That’s the easy way – and don’t be surprised if things coincidentally wind down towards the end of the match and finish all square, but with the US involved, nothing ever comes easy. Silvestre Varela’s 95th minute goal is still stinging.
This is it: One of the most anticipated match-ups of the World Cup group stage. Here are the key match-ups.
Thomas Muller v. Geoff Cameron and Matt Besler – Muller is as tricky and wily as they come. Not necessarily in the mold of a center forward, Muller gets his goals through grit and craft. He’s an exceptionally smart soccer player.
The US center-back pairing of Geoff Cameron and Matt Besler haven’t put together a full game yet in this tournament. Cameron was terrific against Ghana while Besler left injured, while Belser was terrific against Portugal as Cameron struggled mightily. The two – who have still only played together a handful of times – will have to communicate exceptionally well to not lose track of Muller. One lapse will kill, as Cameron found out against Portugal.
Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones v. Phillip Lahm and Sami Khedira – Here’s one problem for Germany: Phillip Lahm isn’t a great central midfielder. He’s a good passer and a solid midfielder, and his best position is fullback.
It’s that simple. Lahm struggled against Ghana, unwilling to shoot or expand the field, and his sloppy giveaway led to Asamoah Gyan’s goal. Couple that with his diminutive stature, and the vaunted German midfield which was the root cause of former US coach Steve Sampson going his infamous 3-6-1 formation before the 1998 World Cup looks a little less threatening. Fitness issues aside, Lahm in central midfield is also the reason Bastian Schweinsteiger is on the bench. With Sami Khedira only a month removed from returning after tearing his ACL, Michael Bradley could have a get-well game.
Criticism of Bradley after the Ghana game was fair, but against Portugal it was unwarranted. He covered more ground than any other US player, and his range of passing, for the most part, was exceptional. His bad giveaway at the end led to the equalizer, but it wasn’t the main cause. Bad defending was. Bradley is desperate to have a great game. This US World Cup run is passing him by. Here is where he might do it.
Jermaine Jones, meanwhile, is playing against his native country in what will be an emotional game for him. Jones has said he won’t celebrate if he scores (another 25-yard cracker?), and it will be interesting to see how he reacts to the occasion. Jones has played out of his skin so far, in a free role with the infallible Kyle Beckerman holding behind him – Klinsmann’s best tactical move of the tournament. If he continues that form, the US wins the midfield battle again.
Fabian Johnson v. Benedikt Howedes – Fabian Johnson has to get forward, or the US doesn’t have enough offense. That was the case against Ghana, but Johnson’s rampaging runs against Portugal gave Klinsmann’s team a much-needed wide threat and instant offense.
Because of Low’s unwillingness to play Lahm at his natural position, it’s Howedes – a natural center-back, albeit a very good one – who plays on the outside. Johnson can get by Howedes with pace. This is a matchup the US should be looking to exploit all day.
Clint Dempsey v. Per Mertersacker – Assuming that Klinsmann sticks to the 4-5-1 that worked against Portugal, Dempsey will again be alone up top without Jozy Altidore.
Dempsey started brightly, but faded against Portugal – only to pop up with what appeared to be the US’s second goal. Unfortunately for Dempsey, Germany’s central defense won’t be as easy to breach as Portugal’s – but Per Mertersacker especially can be slow-footed and mistake-prone in big matches. Dempsey will need to use his guile to get much joy in this match. The US can’t have him going invisible and drifting out of the game.
Jurgen Klinsmann v. Jochiem Low – The unavoidable matchup. How much of Klinsmann’s system does Low know, and visa-versa? There’s an x-factor here that we simply can’t predict. Familiarity might be a blessing or a curse, depending on how each coach handles knowing the other more or less knows their system.
How will Klinsmann deal with the Manaus effect? No team has won in the match after playing in the rainforest, and those teams have a second-half goal differential of -6. Add to that the Americans played on Sunday and the Germans on Saturday, and that unlike the Italy-England game in Manaus the US-Portugal game was a full-throttle, intense affair for 95 minutes, and this turnaround looks like a very daunting task.
Don’t underestimate the physical exhaustion of the US.
In the end, the result of this game might not matter. If Portugal and Ghana draw, both the US and Germany are through. If Portugal, with their -4 goal differential, win by as many as three goals, it still looks very good for the two teams in Recife. It’s if Ghana win and the US don’t that you have to panic.
The US holds tiebreakers right now on goal differential as well as goals scored and head-to-head, but that could all change. Germany only need a draw to win the group and avoid Belgium, while the US have to win.
Steady now – football matches don’t come much better or bigger than this.