Teams never are happy when they lose, but the United States men’s national soccer team has good reason to stretch its collective grin from sea to shining sea.
Team USA lost 1-0 to Germany on Thursday in its final Group G game at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. Despite the defeat, the United States achieved its primary World Cup objective by escaping the so-called “Group of Death” and advancing to the Round of 16.
The third game of a World Cup often is a strange one, as teams’ agendas momentarily change at the end of the group stage. Before kickoff, Germany and the United States were in position to advance with a draw, and both teams played to win. But the outcome of Portugal’s game against Ghana was more important to fates of the Germany and the United States than the USA-Germany game itself.
That could explain the conflicting emotions that Team USA and its legions of fans are feeling right now. It could clear up confusion for those wondering why American players posed for celebratory photos in the dressing room after losing to Germany. If there was ever a jubilant defeat, this was it.
The weather conditions probably were the biggest factor in the result. Torrential rain pounded the city of Recife, Brazil, in the hours before kickoff. The field at the Arena Pernambuco was waterlogged in some parts and soggy everywhere else, which prevented both teams from playing at a faster speed than third gear would take them.
Germany might have overran the Americans in perfect conditions, but the rain-soaked affair dulled its powerful and incisive attack. Nevertheless, Germany outplayed the United States from start to finish and won thanks to a world-class goal from a world-class player, Thomas Muller.
Team USA created three quality scoring chances, two of which came during stoppage time in the second half. The United States’ apparent lack of ambition going forward reflected head coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s necessity to balance risk and reward. Germany could have cut the Americans open if they pushed too far forward, and a lopsided victory would have dented Team USA’s hopes of advancing. Germany also could have overpowered Team USA if it defended too deeply. Klinsmann solved the dilemma by taking a cautious approach, one which would keep the score close, and relied on the result of the Ghana-Portugal game to help his team.
Germany also faced a dilemma, as it too had something to lose against the United States. Head coach Joachim Low took the opposite approach to solving it, telling his team to go on the attack without exposing itself to the counter-attack. Germany had 60 percent of the possession, but rarely did it flood the United States’ third of the field with players. Germany often attacked as individuals or pairs instead of as one flowing unit, and the U.S. defenders ably rebuffed the tactic throughout the contest.
The United States will face Belgium in the Round of 16 at 4 p.m. ET on Tuesday in Salvador. Team USA should be confident that it can defeat the highly rated Red Devils. The Americans are well-organized, supremely motivated and have largely avoided the havoc injuries and suspensions can wreak during a month-long tournament.
Team USA hasn’t hit its stride yet. There was no room to stride in the “Group of Death.” The United States is positioned to play its best soccer at the most important time. If it does so with the fearlessness it showed in the three Group G games, it can continue one of the 2014 World Cup’s great fairytales and continue to captivate the nation.