The outcome is all that matters.
When the final whistle blew, despite a loss and a disappointing performance, the U.S. players were able to celebrate their escape from the Group of Death.
It was tense for a while during the second half, with the score tied at 1-1 in the other group match between Ghana and Portugal. Had Ghana found a winning goal, it would have eliminated the U.S. A feud within their ranks did not help the African cause, however. Two of Ghana’s most influential players, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Sulley Muntari, did not play because they were sent home the night before the game after quarreling with officials at their training headquarters.
A goal from Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo eased U.S. anxieties during the final 10 minutes of both matches and assured the U.S. of a place in the elimination phase of the tournament.
This is a tremendous achievement for this group of players. The pressure is now off. The team has already exceeded expectations, and they can now look forward to facing Belgium with confidence. That game is scheduled for 4 p.m. EDT on Tuesday in Salvador, another hot and humid venue.
There are some worrying signs, however. It is clear that the U.S. lacks depth within the squad. This is the World Cup, and, naturally, the best players in the world are here. The U.S. do not have any individual players who are world-class. Players like Graham Zusi and Brad Davis work hard for the team, but they are not game-changers.
The team’s lack of a natural goal-scorer is a handicap and places the onus on getting creativity from the midfield, where, unfortunately, Michael Bradley is not enjoying a good tournament. He has been eclipsed as team leader by the combative Jermaine Jones, who has turned in some great displays. Forward runs from Jones were the only real threat the U.S. managed against a German team that strolled through this one. They were superior to the U.S. and controlled the entire game. For long periods the U.S. players were simply chasing shadows as the Germans moved the ball around the sodden pitch. The injury to Jozy Altidore has forced the U.S. to change its preferred style, but his absence only underlines Klinsmann’s biggest mistake so far — leaving Landon Donovan behind — among his otherwise impressive managerial decisions.
More encouraging for the U.S. was a strong defensive effort from the L.A. Galaxy’s Omar Gonzalez, making his World Cup debut. He came in to replace Geoff Cameron in central defense, and after a nervous start looked strong, and probably earned himself another start.
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While the U.S. were definitely second-best, let us not lose sight of the fact that this very good German team could well go on and lift the trophy. They know how to score goals. Muller helped himself to another here. He has notched four now and could end up with the Golden Boot.
After the Group of Death, the game against Belgium promises to have a much different feel about it.
In the knockout phase, desire is all, and anything can happen. The Belgians are no world power, but they have some excellent players and should not be underestimated. Les Diables Rouges have won all three group games, admittedly against some of the weaker teams, but a win is a win. They do not concede many goals and it may be tough for the U.S. to find a way through their back line.
In Eden Hazard, they have a gifted player who could be the difference between the sides in what should be a very close game. Eleven of the Belgian players feature for top teams in the English Premier League, so this is a very streetwise outfit who can match the US in style and physicality. It’s going to be too close to call, and we will see which team goes for it. The first goal will be huge.
Portugal 2, Ghana 1: A small victory for Portugal, against a dispirited opponent who gifted them two goals, may have put a little gloss on their World Cup campaign, but it is entirely superficial. Conceding four goals to Germany in the opening game doomed Portugal from the outset. With Ronaldo troubled by an injured knee throughout and unable to demonstrate the full range of his skill, there was no way back. This game was a formality. Ghana might have taken something from, it but their stay in Brazil was not a happy one, marred by disputes over money and dissension within the camp. Most of these players will be happy to leave the 2014 World Cup behind them.
Russia 1, Algeria 1: Algeria have made it into the Round of 16, eliminating Russia in the process. Another mistake from the Russian goalkeeper proved disastrous in allowing Algeria back in the game. The North Africans began with high hopes after their sparkling 4-2 win over Korea, needing only a tie to advance. The Russians, who host the 2018 World Cup, took the lead after five minutes with a great headed goal. They seemed to be holding out until Igor Akinfeev, the Russian goalkeeper, missed a cross and Islam “Super Slim” Slimani headed the goal that sees Algeria advance to face Germany. The Algerian fans provided more entertainment than the teams in this one.
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Belgium 1, Korea 0: As expected, Belgium won the game, and the group, but it did not unfold as planned. The Belgians played with 10 men after Stephen Defour was sent off just before halftime. Even down a man they had too much for Korea and were able to rest some players of their players for the next game against the U.S.
MOST INTERESTING MAN
Brad Davis started the game for the U.S. against Germany, and at the age of 32 he has reached a pinnacle that few soccer players anywhere achieve: He has played in the World Cup. An MLS stalwart, Davis turns out for the Houston Dynamo every week. A solid rather than a spectacular player, he was probably elated just to be included in the final 23-man squad. Now he actually got some minutes and he did OK. He has been on the winning side in the MLS Cup, but this was undoubtedly the highlight of his career.