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Thursday, June 26, 2014

USMNT Gets The Job Done: Advances To the Knockout Round for the 2nd World Cup in a Row

It was not a memorable match by any means since the U.S. men's national team basically held on for dear life the entire time, but when the final whistle blew at Arena Pernambuco in Recife this afternoon that hardly mattered. The Americans had booked a spot in the knockout round of the 2014 World Cup via a 1-0 loss to Germany coupled with a 2-1 Portugal win over Ghana.

The Americans finished in second place in Group G (behind Germany) with four points and a goal-differential of zero. Portugal and Ghana both go home while the U.S. meets Group H winner Belgium on Tuesday (4, ESPN) in the round of 16. Germany plays Algeria on Monday with the elimination games beginning on Saturday while we all get a welcome day off tomorrow following two straight weeks of incredible soccer.

This is the first time ever that the U.S. has made the knockout round in back-to-back World Cups so there is plenty to celebrate, especially when you consider the supposedly great teams that are already gone: Spain, Italy and England to name a few.

Germany controlled the ball the entire way but at least had nothing to show for it in a scoreless first half. The one real good chance for the U.S. came on a curling shot from the top of the box by Graham Zusi that just went over the crossbar. Unlike fraudulent Portugal which was ranked No. 4 for no good reason, Germany is legitimately recognized as the No. 2 team in the world.

At some point, the talent of a team like that will eventually take over. Tim Howard had just made a diving stop when the rebound went out to Thomas Mueller. His one-timed rocket from distance went into the corner of the net. It was a breathtaking strike, his fourth of the tournament which ties him for the lead with Brazil's Neymar and Argentina's Lionel Messi.

From there, it didn't matter that much if Germany scored again. It was more about what happened in the other match (going on at the same time) which makes it even tougher to take. Ghana was the bigger threat to the U.S. since Portugal buried themselves with the opening 4-0 loss to Germany. Cristiano Ronaldo's late goal for Portugal basically sealed the U.S.' fate so I guess we have to take all the nasty stuff we said about him.

After defending the whole game against a superior opponent, in the pouring rain, credit to the U.S. for conjuring up a couple near goals in the dying minutes. Their best passing sequence of the group stage almost resulted in a beautiful goal by Alejandro Bedoya but it was stopped by the sliding German defense. Clint Dempsey had a header from feet away that somehow went over the net. Oh well, bring on Belgium.

I don't fear Belgium nearly as much as I did Germany. They are one of the top teams in the world these days but they are new to these lofty heights so as far as the national team goes, they really don't have much big game experience. We'll see if that plays a role on Tuesday but I feel like if the United States plays up to their capabilities, they could surprise Belgium since make no mistake, the U.S. will be the underdog.

The winner of U.S.-Belgium meets the winner of Argentina-Switzerland (12, ESPN) which precedes it on Tuesday. That quarterfinal match is on July 5. The U.S. lost in the round of 16 to Ghana in 2010 and they've only reached the quarterfinals once in the modern era (2002). Therefore the next few days' worth of hype is well deserved and it would really be something for the sport in this country if they can get past the Belgians to possibly have a shot at Messi (the best player in the world) and Argentina-another top team.

UPDATE 6/27: Jermaine Jones broke his nose yesterday in a collision with teammate Alejandro Bedoya but the good news is that it sounds like he'll still be able to play vs. Belgium. He is carrying a yellow card along with Kyle Beckerman and Omar Gonzalez into the Belgium match. Those only clear when you reach the semifinals.

Monday, June 23, 2014

U.S. Blows Late Lead, Draws 2-2 With Portugal Setting Up A Huge Match vs. Germany

It should tell you something about the rapid rise of the U.S. men's soccer team under head coach Jurgen Klinsmann that a 2-2 tie vs. Portugal this afternoon at Arena Amazonia in Manaus, Brazil was seen as very disappointing. We feel this way because the Americans had all the power in their hands as they could have booked their trip to the knockout round with a win while Portugal would have been eliminated from the 2014 World Cup if they had lost.

Instead, after allowing the tying goal in the 95th minute on Varela's header from Cristiano Ronaldo, the U.S. faces the grim challenge of Germany on Thursday (12, ESPN) in their final group stage match. A win or tie against the Germans would do the trick but the U.S. can also advance with a loss: 1) coupled with a tie in Ghana-Portugal or 2) better goal-differential than whoever wins the other match. You couldn't ask for much more in terms of excitement since all four teams in Group G are still alive.

This was a fantastic contest and since it was on a Sunday night in primetime, I predict they received record ratings in the U.S. It was the type to pull in a casual fan and hopefully hook them enough that they check out the Germany match and possibly some others. What is it about the beginning and ends of games for the U.S.? They are always filled with drama.

After Geoff Cameron's clearing attempt went horribly awry-deflecting right to Nani in the fifth minute-the Manchester United product showed the finishing skills that he's lacked for the past year with both his club and country. The U.S. trailed at halftime in the rainforest which was certainly alarming since they were 0-14-1 when trailing at halftime at the World Cup (they tied Slovenia in 2010). Meanwhile, Portugal had been 8-0-0 when ahead at halftime.

Unlike vs. Ghana, the U.S. looked solid from the start (save for Cameron's blunder). They owned more possession and were unlucky to be down to the team that FIFA ranks as the fourth best in the world (haha yeah right!) The Americans tied it in the 64 minute on an absolute howler by midfielder Jermaine Jones. It easily has to go down as one of the prettiest that the U.S. has ever scored on as he wound up from way behind the 18-yard box and put it in the corner with serious pace.

A tie would have been ok but credit to Klinsmann and his team for continuing to go for the three points. They were handsomely rewarded in the 81st minute when Clint Dempsey's re-directed Graham Zusi's cross with his stomach. Not his chest, I can't say I have ever seen that kind of maneuver. In a sense, the U.S. was fortunate to be leading at that point since Portugal had blasted a shot off the post and Tim Howard made a spectacular reaction save on the followup.

Ronaldo hadn't done much all day so it figures that the top player in the world showed up when it mattered most: Michael Bradley capped off his tough day (he should have scored an easy goal earlier in the second half) by turning the ball over in midfield. The Portuguese quickly counterattacked (albeit 5-on-7) then Ronaldo whipped in the cross that Varela perfectly hit past Howard.

If we're being honest, this game probably was most deserving of a draw. Germany and the U.S. are tied atop Group G with four points while the Germans have a superior goal differential (+4) to the Americans (+1). Ghana (-1 goal differential) and Portugal (-4 goal differential) each have a point. Leading up to Thursday, I can guarantee that most sane fans and media will expect Germany to win. The good news is that tough situations like that where people are doubting them the most seems to be when the U.S. plays its best. Four points against Ghana and Portugal is admirable but the U.S. still has plenty of work to do to prepare for Germany (who have an extra day of rest) and get a result that will keep them alive.

Friday, June 20, 2014

As Expected, Jozy Altidore Will Miss the Portugal Match

Today the U.S. soccer federation confirmed what we all could have guessed back on Monday: striker Jozy Altidore (strained left hamstring) will be out on Sunday when the U.S. meets Portugal (6, ESPN) in Manaus. Obviously, two important followup questions come with us but the problem is that at least for now we have no idea who will replace him in the lineup (either Aron Johannsson or Chris Wondolowski) or if Altidore will play another match at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Even without Altidore, who is far from their best player but still one of the most irreplaceable (if that makes sense), I think that the U.S. has a good chance to beat Portugal. It sounds like Matt Besler's hamstring injury is much less severe than Altidore so he should be able to play while Clint Dempsey will also compete whether he has to wear a goofy mask or not.

The U.S. clearly have their issues and Altidore's absence can't be underestimated but few would disagree when I say that Portugal is much more of a mess. Defender Pepe is suspended after receiving a red card vs. Germany, right back Fabio Coentrao is out for the rest of the tournament and forward Hugo Almeida's status is uncertain after he left early with an injury in the 4-0 German beatdown.

It is a must-win for Portugal, they can't afford another lost particularly with that brutal scoring differential starting them in the face. I think another win for the U.S. would basically clinch a spot in the knockout round since I can't see Ghana beating Germany (they play on Saturday).

Sunday is shaping up to be a huge day for U.S. soccer and it's sure to get monster ratings in that primetime slot. Let's hope the U.S. can continue this wave of positive momentum for the sport in this country, after all everybody loves a winner.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

U.S. Finally Solves Its Ghana Issue at the World Cup

It only took three tries but the U.S. men's national team found a way to beat Ghana at a World Cup. What better way to open up their 2014 experience in Brazil than with a thrilling 2-1 victory over Ghana at Estadio Das Dunas in Natal? Ever since the fateful draw in December, we knew that if the U.S. was going to have any chance to advance from Group G, they had to beat Ghana (the same team that had eliminated them in the past 2 World Cups with 2-1 defeats). 21-year-old German-born defender John Brooks was the unlikeliest of heroes for Jurgen Klinsmann as he scored the game-winning goal in the 86th minute-a header from Graham Zusi's on-the-money corner kick. It was the first goal scored by an American substitute in World Cup history, how's that possible?

The fact is that 85% of teams who win their opening match advance to the knockout stage while ESPN's trusted Soccer Power Index gives them a 63% chance after the huge three points. There are many aspects that made this such a sweet victory: Ghana's Andre Ayew had tied it at one in the 82nd minute so this looked like a draw or maybe even loss for the U.S. since they had basically defended the entire match after Clint Dempsey scored the fastest goal in U.S. history (32 seconds in!) and became the first American to score at three World Cups. There were an absurd amount of injuries for the Americans: Jozy Altidore went down with what looked like a serious hamstring injury in the 23rd minute, Dempsey's nose was broken with a high kick to the face and Besler was switched at halftime before he got seriously hurt.

Ghana owned a 59%-41% advantage in possession although truthfully it felt way higher. That's not normally a sound strategy to win at major tournaments but the U.S. made it work since Ghana didn't put together too many great chances, usually bungling passes or losing it in the attacking third. They took 21 shots but only eight landed on goal and Tim Howard was under considerable pressure but he didn't have to be Superman. Ghana got increasingly frustrated as midfielder Mohammed Rabiu picked up a yellow card in the 30th minute and midfielder Sulley Muntari was booked in the 92nd minute. An added bonus is that the U.S. didn't receive any cards, congrats Jermaine Jones!

Altidore will be evaluated more tomorrow and we have to hope that it wasn't as serious as it looked. Aron Johannsson came on for Altidore and despite playing 72 minutes, I can't remember him making a single positive play for the U.S. That's not to say he was terrible, he just didn't do anything to stand out in his first career World Cup appearance. Keep in mind that the striker from Iceland is only 23.

The U.S. is off until Sunday (6, ESPN) when they meet Portugal who got crushed 4-0 vs. Germany earlier this afternoon. That will certainly be a tough match but it doesn't look quite as imposing as we probably expected for a couple reasons: 1) Portuguese defender Pepe received a red card so he's out; 2) forward Hugo Almeida and defender Fabio Coentrao were both subbed out with injuries. Their status is something to monitor in the coming days. Portugal will be desperate and seeking to score many goals (to dig out of their brutal -4 goal differential) while the U.S. would be happy with a tie but a win would essentially put them through. Ghana plays Germany on Saturday (3, ESPN), good luck with that!

Who else already has a case of World Cup fever?