USA falls to Germany, but advances: Time to take off training wheels?
Germany beat the USA, 1-0, without much trouble Thursday, but the Americans still advance to the second round of the World Cup to face Belgium. The good news? They have to win.
OK, now we can pin this on US men's soccer's cosmic to-do list and move on.
Among the many things the USA must improve if is it going to become a legitimate force in world soccer is the ability to play for a result. In other words, what do you do when you don't have to score?
Well, all the USA had to do was look at the team that was playing keep-away with them Thursday to get a glimpse of how it's done.
In the end, the 1-0 loss to Germany Thursday was a gut-check game after the heat of Manaus and the heartbreak of the 2-2 draw with Portugal there Sunday. To its credit, the USA defended well, and on this day, that was enough to advance to the second round.
But you suspected that, for most of the game, Germany was essentially playing left-handed. Even with the game tied, 0-0, in the first half, they looked faintly bored, and their seemingly inevitable goal came from no great amount of effort. The German BMW was never forced out of first gear.
Such is the way of things when you are Germany, which can come at opposing teams with Wagnerian fury. Somewhere, Robert Duvall is humming "Ride of the Valkyries" as he sees Thomas Müller, Mesut Özil, and Mario Götze screaming through midfield, defenders clueless about where they might go. Even when you're not really trying to score all that hard, you still do.
Yet, in must be said, the Americans basically hit "cut and paste" to the unconvincing middle 81 minutes of the Ghana game and duplicated it Thursday. Playing not to lose – or, in this case, not to lose too badly – they rarely attempted anything that could be charitably considered "offense."
And this is why USA coach Jürgen Klinsmann basically opened his post-match press conference with a gigantic "phew!" Yes, the USA had qualified for the round of 16 and, as it turned out, a Tuesday game with Belgium. But his relief was more than that.
"Now, we really get started," he said, adding, "Whoever we face now, we're going to take it to them."
Those could be empty words. But Klinsmann explained why they might not.
In short: Come Tuesday, the USA has to win.
From the moment that Klinsmann decided to become the US coach in 2011, he sought to emphasize an American way of playing soccer. Americans, he suggested, were not built to play tentatively – to allow another team to be the aggressor.
Yet from the very first minute of this World Cup, that is exactly what happened. Dempsey scored 29 seconds into the game against Ghana, and the US went into "not lose" mode. When Ghana equalized in the 82nd minute, the USA responded within four minutes.
Against Portugal, the USA conceded a goal in the fifth minute, then, needing a goal, promptly went on to play such impressive soccer that the world sat up and took notice. By the 81st minute, the USA was up, 2-1 (though it gave up the equalizer in the 95th minute).
On Thursday against Germany, it was "not lose" from the opening whistle, and it looked like it.
Michael Bradley, the fulcrum of the entire team, again looked more problem than solution. His turnover that led to the Portuguese equalizer on Sunday was not nearly so worrisome as his complete lack of effectiveness against Ghana and Germany. Indeed, the rise of Jermaine Jones as perhaps the best American player of this World Cup has been a necessity as Bradley has shrunk into the shadows.
Without Bradley pulling the strings Tuesday, however, American forward Clint Dempsey faded into insignificance, with no good passes coming out of midfield. If the USA has any serious hopes of advancing further, Bradley must play like he did against Portugal – and preferably even better.
But now, at least, the stakes are clear from kickoff, and Klinsmann beamed at the prospect Sunday. For the first time since the first 29 seconds of the Ghana game, he has the opportunity to tell his team to go out and win a game.
Will that be good enough Tuesday? There's no question that the Belgians have more talent than the USA. They're Germany-lite, in a way, with an armory of weapons in midfield and wide defenders who are vulnerable to players with speed (not that the USA tested that much against Germany). In Marouane Fellaini, they also have the only man who can compete with American Kyle Beckerman for FIFA's coveted Most Outrageous Hair of the 2014 World Cup award.
But their undefeated ride through the first three games of the World Cup has been efficient more than effervescent: 1-0, 2-0, 1-0.
On one hand, they appear to have more than they've shown. On the other hand, they haven't shown it yet, which could offer hope to the Americans.
As long as Dempsey doesn't score in the first minute.