I wrote an article for the Star Tribune sports section, looking back at the USA’s run to the quarterfinals in 2002. You can read it here.
I talked mostly about soccer on the latest episode of the Sportive. It was fun for me, though perhaps not for the listener.
Quick recap of today: Xherdan Shaqiri scored a hat trick for Switzerland, sending the Swiss into the Round of 16 and Honduras home without a point. Iran finally scored a goal, but gave up three to Bosnia-Herzegovina – the first World Cup win for the latter, which also meant that neither would go through to the group stage. Instead, Group F’s representatives will be Argentina and Nigeria, though the Argentines beat the Nigerians today, 3-2, mostly thanks to a pair of first-half goals from Lionel Messi. And France were finally held goalless, by Ecuador, though the latter needed a win to go through and could only manage a 0-0 draw.
With that out of the way, let’s take a look at how the bracket’s shaping up for the knockout round, which begins already on Saturday.
Up first is the South American mini-tournament at the top of the bracket, where the winner of Brazil and Chile faces the winner of Colombia and Uruguay. Brazil, of course, has to be favored there; Chile have drawn the roughest task of all. Colombia have looked exceptional at this tournament, and should be able to beat Uruguay, especially if the latter is without Luis Suarez – but it’ll be a big ask to beat Brazil in Brazil.
Next comes Netherlands-Mexico and Costa Rica and Greece, and again, the first team has to be favored. Mexico managed to keep Brazil out for 90 minutes, but they’ll have trouble coping with the Dutch. Costa Rica, meanwhile, has an excellent chance of reaching the quarterfinals for the first time in their history, unless Greece can somehow rediscover the ability to actually play soccer. The winner of the Netherlands-Mexico match has to be favored to reach the semifinals.
With four spots in the knockout round to be decided tomorrow, the rest of the bracket remains incomplete. France look good enough to beat a Nigeria side that barely squeaked through a weak group; they’ll likely have the winner of Germany and either Algeria or Russia waiting for them in the quarterfinals. On the flip side, Argentina have a tough match ahead against Switzerland, with the winner facing a probable matchup with the winner of Belgium and whoever comes out of the USA / Ghana / Portugal tussle.
This highlights, however, the reason that the USA would dearly, dearly love to beat Germany tomorrow. Winning Group G means a matchup with (in all likelihood) either Russia or Algeria, neither of which holds any terrors for the USA. Win that one, and they’ll likely face France, who has been excellent in this tournament but had fairly low expectations entering the month.
Finish second to Germany, however, and it likely means a knockout-round berth against Belgium, who were picked as a dark horse to win the World Cup by so many pundits that they were starting to sound like actual favorites. Make it past Belgium, and it’s probably Argentina waiting in the quarterfinals.
It’s far too early to speculate on American quarterfinal opponents, of course. They have too much work to do tomorrow, in order to even make the knockout round – never mind actually winning a game. But if you’re thinking that you might like a nice tame draw with Germany tomorrow, ensuring that both teams qualify for the knockout round, it’ll likely mean a near-impossible path through the knockout stage.
Then again, four years ago, American fans were thrilled to win Group C and land in a bracket with Ghana, Uruguay, and South Korea. Ideas of a semifinal against Brazil or the Netherlands were floated. And we all know how that one turned out.
Right now, our best guess at the semifinals: Brazil vs. Germany, and Netherlands vs. Argentina. But tomorrow will go a long way towards deciding that.
It seems like the World Cup just began, and already half the knockout-round spots have been taken. Eight teams are in with a chance; eight are flying home. Here’s a look at each group that’s been decided.
Group A: Brazil and Mexico in, Croatia and Cameroon out
Brazil, of course, were in the second round from the moment that the groups were drawn for the World Cup. Mexico, on the other hand, were impressive in beating Croatia 3-1 in their final group match; they’re going through thanks to three goals in ten minutes, which for a Mexico side that’s struggled mightily to score must have felt like about ten goals in three minutes.
Croatia are the disappointing ones of the group; bad goalkeeping and worse refereeing sent them to defeat against Brazil, but until they capitulated against Mexico, they still had a chance. Cameroon, meanwhile, was terrible all the way through, and barring a collapse, will finish with the worst record of any team.
Group B: Netherlands and Chile in, Spain and Australia out
This was the least exciting group on the final day, given that the two teams that had already qualified were playing each other. Still, it must be noted that the Dutch scored twice more and held the Chile attack scoreless; it’s hard not to see the Oranje as the favorites in their half of the knockout round, especially with Mexico and the Costa Rica/Greece winner lined up for the first two rounds.
As for Spain and Australia, we’ll remember this World Cup as the fall of the Spanish, and the time Australia got drawn in a group that was sort of unfair, and got beat three times.
Group C: Colombia and Greece in, Ivory Coast and Japan out
Oh, Greece. If it wasn’t for Uruguay – about which more later – you would be by far the most annoying team that’s in the final sixteen.
The Greeks finally managed to score a goal in their final game against the Ivory Coast, taking the lead before halftime through Andreas Samaris, but when Wilfried Bony scored with sixteen minutes to go, it looked like the Ivory Coast – who needed just a draw to qualify – was going through.
In stoppage time, though, Georgios Samaras tripped himself in the penalty area, and the referee fell for it. Samaras put away the resulting penalty, which sent Greece to the knockout round for the first time in their history. The Greeks are annoyingly boring to watch, one of the few teams that can be described as such in what has been a wildly entertaining World Cup, so it’s disappointing that we’ll have to see more of them. I suppose they’ll probably make the semifinals now.
For American soccer fans, Colombia is mostly “the country that we shouldn’t have beat in 1994, but did because Andres Escobar scored an own goal and then was murdered when he went back to Colombia.” That, though, ignores how good Colombia were in 1994 – they didn’t lose a game in qualifying – and also ignores that they really haven’t been good since, going down quietly in 1998 and failing to qualify since.
The Colombians are back, though; they won all three of their games in this round, led by James Rodriguez, who scored in all three. They’ve ended up in a quarter of the bracket with Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay, South American rivals all, which might be good for them; they finished ahead of both Chile and Uruguay in qualifying, beating both along the way (as hosts, Brazil didn’t have to qualify).
Japan? Japan also participated.
Group D: Costa Rica and Uruguay in, Italy and England out
Quickly on three of the four: Congratulations to Los Ticos, who won the group and qualified for the knockout round for only their second time ever. As for Italy, given that they failed to score in two of their three games, it’s hard to feel bad. As for England, they remain stuck in their semi-absurd self-mythmaking that generally sees expectations for the team wildly inflated. “We showed today how good of a team we are,” said manager Roy Hodgson after their 0-0 draw with Costa Rica, which probably tells you everything.
Now, Uruguay. A good newspaperman probably would not have buried Luis Suarez all the way at the bottom of this blog post, but to recap: Suarez, while running through the penalty area, bit Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini in the shoulder. This is the third time – THE THIRD TIME – in his career that he has bit an opposing player.
You can spend all day reading about Suarez – Wright Thompson for ESPN is a good place to start – but after this incident, there is absolutely no doubt that he is the most hated man in soccer. He is an adult who bites people, he is perhaps the biggest diver in soccer today, he was once suspended eight games for racially abusing another player, and was involved in one of the more shocking moments of cheating in World Cup history.
Few can defend him. More will remember that Diego Godin scored a minute after Suarez’s latest chomp, the late goal that Uruguay needed to get to the knockout round. Suarez will, if there is any justice, be suspended from the rest of this World Cup. There will, unfortunately, probably be no prison time to go along with the suspension.
A win is a win, and joy is unconfined; a loss is a loss, and sorrow knows no bounds. A tie, though, is ambiguous; a tie is unresolved, open, an unanswered question that leaves infinite room for interpretation.
It’s only been a few hours since Portugal rescued a 2-2 draw against the USA with the last move of the match, since Varela snuck in behind a coasting Geoff Cameron to head home the equalizer, and there’s still no defining the result. We won’t actually know until Thursday morning, when the USA plays Germany and Ghana plays Portugal, and we find out whether tonight’s final whistle doomed the USA to come up just short of qualifying for the knockout round, or whether it represented the point that America needed to go through.
The USA was supposed to lose to Portugal. A point was supposed to be a victory. The Americans confirmed it when they went down 1-0 after five minutes, thanks to Cameron somehow contriving to kick the ball 180 degrees opposite of where he was aiming to kick it, thus giving it to Nani in a spot where he could not have failed to score. And for ten minutes following the goal, Portugal took it in turns to pass the ball around every American defender, a calm game of keepaway that seemed destined to again land the ball in the USA net.
It is ultimately a credit to the USA that they not only picked themselves up off the mat, but played one of their best games ever as a team. At one point in the first half, the USA had barely a quarter of the possession; by halftime, they’d managed to turn that around to 55%. They ended the game with more shots than Portugal, and except for the first fifteen and last ten minutes, outplayed the side that was ranked #3 in the world.
Michael Bradley, restored to his normal self and driving the USA attack forward, should have scored ten minutes into the second half. Jermaine Jones, once again immense in midfield for the Americans, did score six minutes later, bending in a cannoning shot that left Portugal keeper Beto flat-footed, with no chance to reach the ball. And with ten minutes to go, a scramble in the Portugal area suddenly left Graham Zusi wide open on the left, where he could cross for an unmarked Clint Dempsey to gut the ball home for a 2-1 lead.
2-1. Against Portugal. After trailing 1-0. In the rainforest heat in Manaus. With a win – an impossible win – meaning that the USA could qualify for the knockout round after just two games.
Is it any wonder that all thoughts of a positive draw were forgotten? That one point suddenly went from one more than we hoped, to two too few?
We will remember this game for the USA’s comeback performance, for Jones’s screamer, and for the joy of going 2-1 up when it seemed for an hour like there was little chance of even getting back to 1-1. We will also remember it for Cameron, who gifted Portugal their first goal and who failed to track Varela on the last, for perhaps the most horrific defensive performance in USA World Cup history. He certainly wasn’t all bad, but his lapse at the end of the game cost the USA two points, and his clearance at the beginning of the game ranks up there with Jeff Agoos’s own goal twelve years ago as one of the most stunningly terrible defensive moments ever for the USA.
This may also go down in history, though, as the day that American fans began to love Jurgen Klinsmann, who completely outcoached Portugal. The Americans, without their best option up front, simply put Dempsey up front as a striker and overran Portugal in the middle of the field. Jones was everywhere, and Kyle Beckerman was wonderful again, playing defensively in front of the center backs. The Americans even made Portugal pay for including a clearly injured Cristiano Ronaldo on the left wing; Ronaldo basically stood completely still when not attacking, leaving right back Fabian Johnson free to play effectively as another winger.
By the time Klinsmann was inserting Deandre Yedlin to play right wing and switching Zusi to the left, we were done questioning him. Is it any wonder that it was Yedlin whose run created the second USA goal? For the second straight match, Klinsmann substituted one of the players that many thought shouldn’t be in the team’s 23-man squad, and that player created a goal for the US. We can only assume that Julian Green will score against Germany on Thursday.
The USA were 30 seconds away from making it to the knockout round; now, they must wait until Thursday. A win against mighty Germany will put them through, of course; a draw will do the same (and with Germany in the same boat, many have speculated that a draw is what we’ll see.) Depending on the other results, a loss might be enough as well; if Portugal and Ghana tie, the USA could lose 15-0 to Germany and would still move on to the next round.
I have no idea what we’ll see that day. It could be a boring, results-oriented 0-0 draw; it could be a wild 4-4 slugfest. We could see the USA that struggled but won against Ghana, or the USA that outplayed but drew with Portugal. They’re the same team, yet different; the same players, but not. We have seen two games that appeared to come from different teams in different tournaments. Thursday, however, will determine whether this tournament is over – or keeps going for at least one more game.
Sometimes at the World Cup, teams come back in their second group match of the tournament to erase the memory of a disappointing first game, to prove that they weren’t the team that we all saw in the opening round. There were six games on Wednesday and Thursday, though – and not one team managed to turn things around. To wit:
* Croatia 4, Cameroon 0: Cameroon are still terrible, I mean really terrible, at soccer.
* Netherlands 3, Australia 2: The Dutch are still wildly entertaining, especially when they’re endeavoring to fall behind 2-1 in the second half, then coming back with two goals in short order to win. And Australia is still wildly overmatched in Group B.
* Chile 2, Spain 0: It is hard to describe how bad Spain were. It’s hard to describe how easy Chile made it look to out-work and out-play them. Spain, who famously love to keep the ball, could hardly string passes together. When they did manage to create a chance, they screwed it up themselves. For every Spain attacker, there were three Chilean defenders, somehow; the Spanish were swarmed wherever they went on the pitch. Spain deserve to lose. They were rotten in their first game and they were rotten in this one, and if there is any justice, Australia will beat them in their final group game, and they will go home winless.
* Japan 0, Greece 0: Greece haven’t scored a goal in this tournament, and don’t look like they have much of a chance to score one, or even look that interested in scoring one. Greece looks like they would be happy if nobody scored ever again and it was always raining and everyone watching got a paper cut. Their highlight was probably their captain, Konstantinos Katsouranis, getting sent off in the first half for a pair of challenges in which he missed taking the ball by roughly five feet. Japan, meanwhile, worked hard, but missed a couple of golden chances and now need to depend on an improbable set of circumstances to get through their group.
* Colombia 2, Ivory Coast 1: Never bet against South American teams at a World Cup in South America, we guess. All six may yet go through; Colombia was the second to officially qualify for the knockout round, after Chile, and they did it with a couple of quick-fire second-half goals in front of what sounded like 300,000 Colombian fans. Playing in Colombia must be terrifying. Playing against them in Brazil looks like it’s hard enough.
* Uruguay 2, England 1: Oh, England. Two goals from Luis Suarez were enough to doom the English to their second 2-1 defeat of the tournament; they remain not terrible, but not good either. They’ll need a minor miracle to make the knockout round now; a draw today between Italy and Costa Rica would be enough to confirm their demise. On the flip side, Suarez was wildly emotional after the game, tearfully speaking about how he dreamed scoring twice, to overcome all the criticism he has faced. Let me remind you that this criticism was for blatantly cheating in the last World Cup, for racist taunts against Patrice Evra, and for biting another player during a game, and use all of that to remember that Luis Suarez is still an enormous idiot.
We shall see if any other teams remain in form today. It begins with Italy and Costa Rica in half an hour, and if they match their stereotypes, Costa Rica will enjoy themselves and Italy will do everything in their power to make the game tough to watch.
Minnesota United are currently promoting their “Summer of Soccer”, including friendlies with Swansea City and the Mexico U-21 team. Throw in their league game at TCF Bank Stadium, and it’s an important summer for the club from a marketing standpoint – but on the field, the most important game of the summer might be tonight, against Sporting Kansas City in the US Open Cup.
Friendlies are fun, but by the end of the year, it’ll be tough to remember whether United won or lost against either Swansea or Mexico’s youngsters. And while the game at TCF Bank Stadium will take place on a bigger stage, it’s still just a regular league game.
Win tonight, though, and the Portland Timbers come to town next week. Win tonight, and Minnesota will be the team that beat the MLS champions. Win tonight, and the transformation from plucky underdogs – “the team that nobody wanted” – to a force to be reckoned with will be, in some ways, complete.
“It’s become even more important because we have a club that expects us to get silverware,” said United head coach Manny Lagos. “The US Open Cup means potential credibility at a different level. Teams are taking it particularly seriously, because winning it gives you a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League, which is coveted nowadays.”
For Lagos, though, the US Open Cup is no longer about proving yourself. “I feel like that storyline is a couple of years ago,” he said. “The guys on the team feel like they should compete against any team in North America right now.”
It’s that chance to compete that is most exciting for the players on the club. “This is a big one,” said defender Justin Davis, who spoke about wanting to prove that NASL teams could beat MLS teams. “KC being geographically close to us, it’s one of the bigger games for the club for sure. We’re going to go in there like it’s a cup final.”
Four MLS teams have gone down already. New York lost to their crosstown neighbors, the Cosmos, in a 3-0 beating that had the Red Bulls’ fans incensed about coach Mike Petke’s cavalier attitude to the competition. Carolina, always tough at home, beat floundering Chivas USA on penalties, and Atlanta won 2-1 against Real Salt Lake, to make a trio of NASL teams already into the fifth round. DC United also lost to third-division Rochester. Seven other MLS teams have already gone through to the next round as well, two of them over NASL sides; Minnesota has a chance to keep the league’s winning record against MLS intact.
That said, beating Kansas City is a much taller order; for one, the team is unlikely to throw out a half-strength team. “I know the coaching staff there very well,” said Lagos. “They’re going to take the game very seriously.”
Not only are KC the reigning MLS champions, but they play a high-pressing style that has troubled Minnesota in the past. The Cosmos did the same to Minnesota earlier this year, and United went about the first hour of the game seemingly without completing a pass or putting together anything organized offensively. Sporting is well known for doing the same, and it concerns Lagos, who says he’ll have to treat this different than a normal NASL game. “‘d be a little naive if I didn’t think about it differently, particularly against Kansas City, which has developed a style that’s different than some other MLS teams,” said the coach. “We’re going to have to absorb a different type of tempo than we’re used to, a different type of pressing, a different speed of play. I think even teams in MLS have to deal with that when they play Sporting KC.”
Both teams will have to deal with the heat, as well; temps will reach the 90s in Kansas City today, and while kickoff isn’t until 7:30 – you can see the game on sportingkc.com – it’ll still be plenty warm.
It’ll be a tall order for United. Whatever the team might say, they are underdogs this evening, on the road in one of America’s toughest places to play. If they can come through with a win, the rest of the summer – despite the marquee games – might pale in comparison.
We’ve now seen each of this World Cup’s teams on the big stage; Brazil and Mexico have played a pair of games apiece to boot. I think that’s enough information for us to rank all 32 World Cup teams.
- Germany. Destroyed Portugal, looking – as Germany always seem to do in the opening game – like they are totally unbeatable. Generally this lasts right up until the semifinals, so get used to some German wins.
- Netherlands. Spain have won two European Championships in a row. Spain won the last World Cup. Spain has lost one non-friendly match – ONE – since losing its first game of the 2010 World Cup. And the Dutch made them look old, slow, and terrible.
- Chile. You know, maybe their plan to play ten strikers and a goalkeeper can work after all.
- Colombia. Somehow it feels like they have qualified already, after only one match.
- Argentina. They haven’t even made the semifinals since 1990; this has to be the year, right?
- Brazil. They probably would have been higher until they couldn’t find a way past Mexico. On the bright side, they pummeled Mexican goalkeeper Memo Ochoa, which is always fun.
- France. Won 3-0 and there was no hint that the squad is about to go on strike, which is an improvement from previous years.
- Switzerland. Found a way past Ecuador, one of the few South American countries to disappoint, but it’s France next for Europe’s dark horse contender.
- Ivory Coast. The only African team to win its first game. They have to play Colombia next, but they get to finish with Greece.
- Mexico. 0-0 draw with Brazil bumped them up the charts. They’re (probably) a result against Croatia away from qualifying; knowing Mexico, this will also be a 0-0 draw.
- USA. This seems about right, somehow, though if my passport didn’t say “United States of America” on it, they might be about ten spots lower.
- Belgium. Came from behind to beat Algeria, and as a USA fan, I can vouch that it’s always fun to beat Algeria.
- Costa Rica. They won! At the World Cup! In what was basically an away game against Uruguay! Granted, they now have to play Italy and England, so it’s not easy, but why not the knockout round for Los Ticos?
- Italy. They won, but they’re still hard to watch.
- Russia. Drew with South Korea.
- South Korea. Drew with Russia.
- Ecuador. The whole country is still wondering how they managed to lose to the Swiss.
- Spain. Seriously. They allowed only three goals in eight WC qualifying matches. They won Euro 2012. They lost to Brazil at the Confederations Cup, but losing to Brazil in Brazil is no crime. So when, oh when, did the entire roster hit 49 years old?
- Ghana. They weren’t bad; they just lost.
- Croatia. It would have been interesting to see how their game against Brazil had finished, had the ref not ruined it, or if Croatia had brought a goalkeeper who didn’t resemble the Tin Man.
- Bosnia and Herzegovina. They’re at the World Cup for the first time ever, and they outscored mighty Argentina 2-1, except one of their goals was in their own net.
- England. Are they good? I can’t tell.
- Algeria. Maybe Africa’s best team, but we’ll see if they can right the ship after losing to Belgium.
- Uruguay. Losing to Costa Rica, basically at home, is pretty embarrassing.
- Australia. The Soccerroos would like to extend a hearty Australian middle finger to the World Cup draw, which stuck them in with Spain and the Netherlands and threw in Chile for good measure.
- Japan. Get to play Greece next, which is always helpful.
- Portugal. If any team can lose 4-0 and somehow make it seem even worse than the final score, it’s Portugal.
- Iran. Everybody is mad at them for playing an awful, boring game.
- Nigeria. Was also involved in awful, boring game.
- Honduras. In case CONCACAF was getting cocky: France 3, Honduras 0.
- Cameroon. Not good at soccer.
- Greece. Not as good as Cameroon.
I hope that this objective and scientific breakdown has made the World Cup much easier for you.
Coming into the World Cup, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann was quoted in several periodicals, saying that he wanted to change the USA’s style of play to a more “American” style. “American nature is to take the game to our opponents,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “We don’t want to just react to them.”
Perhaps not, but against Ghana on Monday night, the USA played the way that American teams usually play: mostly on defense, and with only a vague sense of how to get the ball to a teammate, yet with an against-the-odds, never-say-die attitude. More than anything, it’s that attitude that has infected the team’s fans with a sense of optimistic enthusiasm that is, perhaps, the most American thing of all.
Few American fans have any real illusions about the team’s talent level, but most of them have grown up with a USA team that exceeds all expectations, that qualifies for Italy ’90 against the odds, and beats Colombia 2-1 in ’94, and leads Portugal, mighty Portugal, 3-0 in the first half and hangs on for a win in ’02, and comes back from 2-0 down and dead and buried in ’10 against Slovenia, and scores in stoppage time against Algeria to go through the same year. This is the USA we learned to love.
Tonight, Clint Dempsey scored after 34 seconds, and thereafter, the USA deployed the bend-but-don’t-break defense that has occasionally carried them through against better opponents. This involves an enormous amount of running and a lot of adversity to overcome, mostly, and there was plenty of adversity.
Jozy Altidore pulled his hamstring early and was carted off. Matt Besler did the same and limped off at halftime. Alejandro Bedoya limped through most of the second half, before finally being replaced. And in their place came Aron Johannsson, John Brooks, and Graham Zusi – World Cup novices, all, and Brooks and Johannsson barely out of the youth game, to boot.
Johannsson disappeared for most of the rest of the game. Brooks settled down eventually, but at the beginning, appeared set for one of the classic defensive blunders that so plagued the Americans at the last World Cup. And meanwhile, everything else was going wrong; Dempsey got booted in the face and bled everywhere, while American talisman Michael Bradley developed a strong case of Cherundulitis, a terrible condition, the main symptom of which was every pass he attempted landing twenty yards behind or beyond his target, and occasionally in the tenth row of the stands.
By the second half, I was counting American passes to see how many they could string together; I gave up, discouraged, after the team seldom got beyond two. Ghana ended the night with nearly 60% of the possession and with 21 shots, most of which thankfully sailed high and wide, or were stopped by Tim Howard.
When Andre Ayew scored in the 82nd minute to level the game at 1-1, though, it felt like the floodgates opening. The USA, tired from chasing the ball all night, appeared ready to sag defensively; ESPN commentators Taylor Twellman and Ian Darke began to openly sandbag from the commentary box. “A draw’s not a bad result,” cried Twellman, desperately hoping that the USA could somehow hang on to a point, knowing that they needed at least one to stay in competition for a place in the knockout round.
And then, the substitutes made their presence felt, if for a moment. Johannsson, with the ball at the edge of the Ghanian penalty area, attempted to find right back Fabian Johnson rushing around the edge of the Ghana defense. Johannsson weighted his pass too strongly, but Johnson – attacking after being pinned back by Ghana striker Asamoah Gyan for most of the night – managed to hook his foot around a defender at the end line to challenge for the ball, and in the confusion, the Ghanian defender ran the ball out for a corner.
It was Zusi who took it. And it was Brooks who found it with his head, flicked it downwards to the center of the goal. Brooks, the 21-year-old, born and raised in Berlin, lumped in with Julian Green by many as a scholarship player, his inclusion geared for the 2018 World Cup, unlikely to see the field in Brazil, merely one of Klinsmann’s German-American favorite sons, primed for the future.
The ball ricocheted off the turf and into the top of the net, and America let loose a joyful, primal scream.
This, then, is Klinsmann’s America: an Icelander passing to a Munich native, who wins a corner that the American places perfectly on the head of Berlin’s favorite son. And the red, white, and blue all go crazy.
There will be other nights for American soccer; Sunday against Portugal, and next Thursday against Germany, for two. There will still be time Klinsmann’s critics to come to the fore, and time for American soccer to adopt their coach’s vision, or fail trying.
For this night, though, it’s probably best to let the thousands of American fans in the stands have their say, and to use the words of the chant that they repeated, incessantly, throughout the game, the words of optimism in the face of looming disaster that are the most American of all.
I believe that we will win.
The 2010 World Cup started on June 11. Both games that day were draws; South Africa drew 1-1 with Mexico, and neither Uruguay nor France could score a goal.
It was June 13 before a team scored more than twice in a match. It was June 15 before both sides scored in a match that didn’t end as a 1-1 draw. Just 18 goals were scored in the first four days, and four of those goals were from Germany; the other 21 teams in action couldn’t even manage a goal apiece. Nine were blanked entirely, and six more were involved in 1-1 draws with each other.
Now, let’s look back at four days of soccer in 2014. Every match save Mexico-Cameroon has featured at least three goals, and Mexico had two wrongly called back for offsides against a rather weak Cameroonian side. The Netherlands scored five. Karim Benzema had a hat-trick for France. Haris Seferovic scored for Switzerland in the third of three stoppage-time minutes, to snatch a 2-1 win against Ecuador when the South Americans appeared set to themselves steal victory. There hasn’t been a single draw. There have been 37 goals, in 11 games, and by one count there have been eight more that were disallowed for one reason or another.
Sure, the goalkeeping has been terrible, with Spain’s Iker Casillas and Croatia’s Stipe Pletikosa leading the Wall of Goalkeeping Shame. Some of the defending has been terrible, as well; many of the goals were reasonably simple headers from unmarked players in the penalty area, generally a good sign that things aren’t right defensively. And a few defenders are getting into the spirit, if on the wrong end; Brazil and Bosnia-Herzegovina have both scored upon themselves in this tournament.
Still, it’s been undeniably fun to watch. Five of the eleven games have featured one of the teams coming from 1-0 down to win, and we surely can’t be far away from a two-goal comeback win.
Now then. On to more important things – specifically, the first USA match of the tournament. It’s at 5:00 tonight, on ESPN, and as our friend Michael Rand once said, if you’re not planning on watching, then you might as well turn in your passport.
The game is in Natal, which has seen such rainfall that the city is on flood alert. More showers are forecast for tonight, along with dew points in the 70s, which here in Minnesota – where the dew point is in the 70s for only a couple of hours in a normal summer – is the point at which it becomes so humid it is no longer possible for humans to breathe.
Americans will be worried about Ghanian striker Asamoah Gyan, who you might remember from 2010, when he scored in extra time to eliminate the USA in the first knockout round. You may also remember him from Ghana’s match against Uruguay in the following round, when Gyan missed a penalty with no time left at the end of extra time, after Luis Suarez had been sent off for this piece of blatant cheating. Gyan scored 40 for his club team in the UAE this year, has scored twelve in his last 19 matches for Ghana, and figures to be the most dangerous presence tonight for the USA back four to deal with.
So too will America worry about do-everything Ghanian midfielder Michael Essien, who will likely be the main force attempting to blunt USA midfielder Michael Bradley’s creativity. If Essien gets the best of Bradley, it could be a disjointed night for the Americans.
On the flip side, Ghana will worry about – actually, no one, really. All noises from the Ghana camp seem remarkably unconcerned about a USA team that the Africans have beat at two consecutive World Cups. Ghana midfielder Andre Ayew said, in a press conference, “If we’re all fit, if we’re all 100%, there’s no way we don’t win this game.” While it seems like overconfidence, it does appear to be the attitude of the USA’s opponents – and to be fair, they have had the Americans’ number.
It’s a game that is remarkably important for both teams’ potential fortunes. With games against Germany and Portugal remaining, a loss would probably end the hopes of either to qualify, and a draw wouldn’t go much further. Anything less than three points will be a disappointment in both camps.
Like we said: 5:00. ESPN. If you haven’t planned ahead already, then plan now.