Survive and advance. Legendary North Carolina State basketball coach Jim Valvano originally coined the phrase during the Wolfpack’s improbable run to a 1983 NCAA Men’s Basketball victory. Valvano simply meant that it does not matter how a team advances – just that it advances. Every tournament is a grind, and every team needs the will power – and a little bit of luck – to go home as champions. One of the greatest international sides of all time, 2010 World Cup champions Spain, squeezed out 1-0 win after 1-0 win to hoist the cup in South Africa.
On Thursday, the United States won, 0-1 and made the late Coach Valvano proud. It was never pretty, but the US are through.
Despite the Americans’ being shut out by Germany in a cagey match played during a Recife downpour, the match felt like a win – while the honorable and all-important draw versus Portugal felt like a loss. It would be easy to criticize the United States for (mildly) celebrating after a loss, but the team’s advancement out of the remarkably difficult Group G is a result of its outstanding play in its first two matches.
The hobbled and tired Americans, after a long match in the brutal Amazon rainforest, could have rolled over against the Germans and relied on their already-high probability of advancing to get them through to the Round of 16. Yes, they lost and needed help from Portugal, but the Americans played valiantly and kept the match close. Had they not, they could have been sent packing in place of Portugal, who have been eliminated by virtue of their horrible 4-0 loss to Germany in the opening game.
The Germans’ 1-0 win was not for lack of chances by Joachim Löw’s side. The US squad remained organized in defense, made some huge tackles – including from Omar Gonzalez, who received an unexpected start ahead of Geoff Cameron, which we will get to later – and enjoyed another stellar performance from goalkeeper Tim Howard. The Everton net-minder remains an underappreciated asset for the USMNT. Few teams have a longtime English Premier League top-quality keeper anchoring the squad, and the generally inexperienced back four relies on his outstanding leadership. The Germans’ one goal came from a rebound – one that Howard actually cleared pretty well – and a perfect shot from the detestable Thomas Müller.
For the third straight game, Jermaine Jones was the United States’ stand-out outfield player. He exudes so much of what makes this such a great squad – the high work rate, the willingness to fight for possession, and the ability to push the ball up the field despite not necessarily being the better athletes. Jones broke his nose on a late-game collision with teammate Alejandro Bedoya, which means the squad’s two top performers in the group stage enter the Round of 16 with broken noses. Weird.
Jürgen Klinsmann made two surprising personnel changes Thursday, by inserting 32-year-old Brad Davis for Alejandro Bedoya and the aforementioned Gonzalez for Cameron. The Davis selection was especially peculiar, as the Houston Dynamo midfielder made his World Cup debut despite his age and never really figuring into the USMNT. My guess is that Klinsmann was seeing what he could get from the experienced Davis, particularly from his outstanding crossing and set-piece skills, while also giving Bedoya a rest. It was an interesting move and one that could have been seriously questioned had the United States not advanced.
Gonzalez’s selection was odd in a different way. The LA Galaxy center-back had originally appeared to be a starter for the squad before receiving knee surgery in April and underperforming in international matches. Cameron, meanwhile, had a great club season at Stoke City and increasingly played a role in Klinsmann’s squad. The back four is always dangerous to tinker with, since so much of defending centers around communication between players. Some have said that Cameron was benched after playing an infamous role in both of Portugal’s goals on Sunday, but I believe Klinsmann selected Gonzalez to give the squad some more height against the towering Germans, as well as to give him a shot at a starting role, to which he responded surprisingly well. It will certainly be interesting to see who Klisnmann selects against Belgium, though I suspect he will go back to Cameron.
The critics of Michael Bradley continue to grow and continue to be blind. I concede that he has yet to play a game up to his normal level, but that is more a testament to his abilities than anything. The box-to-box midfielder has covered more ground in the first three matches than any player in the entire tournament. Considering the quality of opponents, the unlucky match conditions, and that Bradley has had to shoulder so much more of the offensive role than anyone could have guessed, that’s pretty damn impressive. Additionally, Bradley showed Thursday how big an offensive weapon he is. His over-the-top lobs were the Americans’ only threatening offensive moves all day. He has just been lacking a little bit in patience on the ball and getting the right touch on his passes. I am not worried.
An interesting thing to consider – hat tip to The Cauldron’s Andy Glockner for discussing this – is a lineup change to move Bradley a little further back on the pitch so the squad would not have to rely upon him so much to create. This would probably mean taking off either Graham Zusi or Bedoya in favor of a striker to play with Clint Dempsey. Jozy Altidore will likely miss Tuesday’s match, so seeing the young Aron Johannsson get a start up top could be in the cards.
If I have time, I plan on giving readers a deeper preview of Belgium next week, but for now I will leave it at this:
1) Despite their 3-0-0 record in Group H, Belgium were unimpressive in every match, which were all against relatively weak opponents. Each Group G team played better in its first three games than Belgium did.
2) Despite all of the praise Belgium have received over the last four years, Belgium are a collection of a bunch of phenomenal players, while the United States are a team.
That sounds trite, but Klinsmann’s men have proven it time and again over the past two weeks. I believe.