The United States didn’t deserve to go out of the World Cup Thursday against Germany — not after coming within 30 seconds of clinching their place in the knockout stages against Portugal, and battling gamely against the worst travel schedule in the competition, and a group of death that promised and delivered drama and hardship.
If the US had gone out today, it would have meant that Ghana knocked the Americans out of three World Cups in a row; this time, Ghana would have sent the US packing despite playing a different team – Portugal – and losing to the US earlier in the tournament.
No, that would have been too much. Too cruel. Too devastating. So when the Americans needed some help and got it on Thursday, they didn’t owe any apologies to anyone.
They gave the Germans a tough time, and were only beaten by a world-class goal by Thomas Muller.
So even though it was dark sheets of rain and gloom that cascaded down on Recife, it was all sunshine and light in Brasilia, where Cristiano Ronaldo’s late goal ensured safe American passage.
That’s the World Cup for you: CR7 turned American hero.
A drenched Jurgen Klinsmann was downright bubbly in his post-match press conference. Now the fun begins for the United States.
They’ve made it through the Group of Death, defying a world’s worth of scoffs and doubt, but more importantly keeping the US’ country-wide soccer joy ride on the road for the biggest game of them all.
It wasn’t easy – as Klinsmann said after conceding in the 95th minute against the Portuguese, “we have to do it the hard way.” Heat of the moment or not, Klinsmann had a point: Of the eight teams that played in diabolical Manaus, none were seeded at the World Cup draw.
Going by simple ratios, one out of every four World Cup teams was seeded. Two should have had to contend with the jungle. None did.
The game against Germany wasn’t much fun either. The US, outclassed but undaunted, scraped and scraped their way through 90 slow, difficult minutes.
As Klinsmann – who wouldn’t answer questions in German before the match – happily said in German after the match, “I’m glad it’s over.”
Never in his managerial career did Klinsmann look as gaunt and devastated as he did after his adopted country was paired with his native country last December at the World Cup draw.
In truth, from the moment on, this World Cup has been Klinsmann’s. We’re all just along for the show.
In qualifying, Klinsmann mostly stuck to the script. The US won their home games. They got railroaded in Costa Rica and Honduras. Jurgen beat Mexico dos a cero in Columbus, just as Bob Bradley and Bruce Arena did before him.
Everyone knew what to expect, and everyone was on board.
Then the draw happened. And Klinsmann flipped the script. He sacked his loyal and long-serving assistant manager Martin Vazquez. He hired German coach Berti Vogts as an assistant.
Klinsmann shunned the tried and true 4-2-3-1 for a diamond 4-4-2, which has evolved now into a 4-5-1.
Eddie Johnson was exiled. Then Landon Donovan was axed. The US’ final 23-man squad included so many players who weren’t involved in getting the team to Brazil, the team felt almost foreign. The sense of impending doom was palpable.
But Klinsmann really believed. He believed in every guy he took to Brazil – except maybe Julian Green. He believed in what he was doing. He believed it would work.
You have to look at the decision to make Kyle Beckerman a starter alongside Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley in the center of midfield and say “genius.” Beckerman has been the US’ security blanket, their most consistent performer.
It’s hard, but think back to before this tournament, when people didn’t want this 32-year old career MLS veteran anywhere near the national team. That stance looks pretty foolish now.
Beckerman’s first start in the same team as both Jones and Bradley came before the US’ last warm-up game against Nigeria.
It was a risky move, but it gave Jones a freedom to roam and play offense and wreck havoc that has turned the once-maligned enigma into one of the best weapons the United States has.
It was risky to play Omar Gonzalez in the Recife rain. How many other coaches would have inserted a World Cup rookie who hadn’t played 90 minutes in a month and a half into a decisive final group game against Germany?
DeAndre Yedlin, believe it or not, has played his part. John Brooks too. This US team believes – in each other, in its mission, and in its leadership. It’s evident in their work every time they step on the field.
Of course, Klinsmann isn’t infallible. Every time I see Brad Davis or Alejandro Bedoya’s name on the team-sheet, it hits me how much the US miss Donovan.
Altidore’s injury and the lack of a replacement for him makes you marvel at the cost of Julian Green’s inclusion.
Klinsmann is a flawed coach. But he’s our flawed coach.
Would you rather have him, or Löw – who even as his side was coasting to victory was furiously flapping his arms, willing more out of his side.
Löw’s tactical failings at this tournament have brought Germany down. The lack of a center forward, the four center-backs across defense, and Phillip Lahm in midfield are all hindrances to a push for the trophy.
While Löw may have won the battle, Klinsmann may yet win the war and leave this World Cup looking better than his former assistant.
The Germany game is done. A beatable and underperforming Belgium side is next in Salvador. I think the US beats them and goes into the quarterfinal – and when I saw the 23-man squad in May, I said this team was done. I was very wrong.
Now, led by a maverick’s maverick, the United States are just getting started at the World Cup.