This was supposed to be the World Cup in which a swashbuckling U.S. men’s national team shed everything American about it and announced itself as elite at the World Cup. It very well still could be.
But the 1-0 loss Thursday to Germany that sent the United States into the last 16 of this year's World Cup — its second straight trip to the knockout rounds — was as American as they come. That’s OK, too.
In 2002, the United States advanced to the quarterfinals for the first time since 1930, but only after the same group-stage record it posted in Brazil — a win, a draw, then a loss that ultimately didn’t matter. In 2010, a pair of draws left advancing in question before a goal by Landon Donovan at the death put the United States atop the group.
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The world’s powers are the ones who know comfort. In Germany's 1-0 win today over the Americans, only the rain was a nuisance. Brazil broke a sweat because of the climate, not its competition. France is far from the embarrassment it was in 2010, and a host of South American sides are more than happy to play in the Brazilian heat.
The United States has made a habit of reaching a plateau of sorts, then crossing its fingers and hoping for the right results elsewhere. It hasn’t earned "comfortable" yet, and likely won’t for a while. The result was adequate, and the qualifiers of fatigue, weather, and opponent were made enough during the broadcast that I don't have to. But to consider a 1-0 loss a “good” loss — especially one in which you rarely threaten to score — is the mindset of a less ambitious nation. Take the result, take your medicine and move on.
Michael Bradley, the U.S. star turned undeserving whipping boy, said the team wouldn’t mind being the one that suffered most through the groups. No team traveled farther for its matches. No team had a tougher draw. The United States deserves full marks for getting through the group, even if not much of it makes you feel warm inside.
Now it's time for this team to show whether it is capable of the type of performance that made the Portugal draw hurt so badly. My reaction to Cristiano Ronaldo’s devastating goal Sunday was more an indictment of that — and the potential for it to backfire — than the team itself.
The Kyle Beckerman-Jermaine Jones midfield combination that seemed unlikely to jell has proved spectacular. Right back Fabian Johnson has been a revelation going forward, even if he lapses occasionally with his defensive responsibility. Forward Clint Dempsey has taken a Jozy Altidore-size weight onto his back as captain and lone striker, and delivered two goals with inconsistent support. Center back Matt Besler is a player who is not much longer for Major League Soccer.
Bradley aside — and while he hasn't been great, he's far from losing his place in the team — the spine of this U.S. team has been up for every challenge it has faced. But as a team, the performance has been sustained only through small stretches of the win against Ghana and a longer one against Portugal.
Coach Juergen Klinsmann said after the loss to Germany that the knockout stages of the World Cup were a different beast than the group stages. There’s no sitting back and playing for a result, or settling for a 1-0 loss. You have to win the game eventually, whether it takes extra time or penalties to do it.
That will is already alive inside the American squad. With an extra day’s rest ahead of it before Tuesday’s match in Salvador, the U.S. stars need to find the energy to match and put in a lively attacking performance that doesn’t leave the team vulnerable to Sunday's disappointments.