Frequent contributor Jon Marthaler has written about virtually every sport in the Twin Cities, and fills in on Saturdays for the RandBall blog on StarTribune.com. He'll cover the professional soccer scene in the Twin Cities, whether at the Metrodome or at the National Sports Center.
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History will remember the USA's 1-0 loss to Germany as a speed bump on the way to the knockout round, and ultimately, that might be the truth of it. The Americans never looked like scoring against Germany, but Portugal beat Ghana 2-1 in Group G's other game, and in the end the Americans go through quite comfortably on goal differential.
Following the World Cup draw, this was exactly the path to the knockout round that most pundits planned for the USA: beat Ghana, get a result of some kind against Portugal, and then keep it close against Germany and hope results break the USA's way. That's exactly what happened, and while it wasn't convincing, it got the job done. The many who have questioned the team, and especially the methods of head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, will be left to remember that Klinsmann navigated his underdog team through the hardest group at the World Cup.
Focusing on the results, though, ignores the actual panic of the early afternoon for American fans. 0-0 at halftime, with Portugal leading Ghana 1-0, everything felt pretty comfortable; barring a Ghanian comeback or a German goal, the USA would skate comfortably through. Within three minutes of each other, though, Thomas Muller scored for Germany and Asamoah Gyan - him again - scored for Ghana, and suddenly the USA was one Ghana goal from going out.
It wasn't until the 80th minute, when Cristiano Ronaldo scored for Portugal, that fans began to breathe easy. Ghana never found either of the two goals they would have needed to go through, nor did Portugal and Germany look like scoring the three combined goals they'd need to score to send the USA home, and each of the fifteen minutes that remained following Ronaldo's goal was more comfortable than the last.
In the end, it was a 1-0 loss that the USA could be happy with. From the opening kickoff, it became apparent that the Americans would concede Germany most of the possession and aim to wait for a chance on a set piece, or for a German defensive mistake. Germany, at least, tried to press the Americans into a mistake; the USA sat back, allowing two-thirds of the possession to go to their opponents in favor of keeping most of their team behind the ball.
For much of the first half, the USA appeared to be playing nothing so much as six defenders; in general, either or both of wings Graham Zusi and Brad Davis were in the defensive line, along with occasional trips there from Kyle Beckerman, who barely strayed more than ten yards from either center back. Michael Bradley, theoretically set to lead the USA's attack from midfield, was again so ineffective that he and Jermaine Jones effectively switched places. Clint Dempsey was surrounded fore and aft by German defenders for the entire game, to the point that he eventually started coming back to 30 yards in front of his own goalkeeper, just in the hopes of getting a piece of the ball.
Still, though, to focus on the negatives of the USA's defensive-minded approach would be wrong, in some ways. It's also notable that the powerful German offense barely cracked open the USA defense; Tim Howard was forced into a few saves, but most of them were either shots from distance, or controllable. It was only from a corner that Howard's initial save fell to Mueller near the edge of the area, and the German striker buried a world-class shot inside the far post.
You can be positive about the USA's defense, then, given that a collapse would have sent them home. You can be infuriated about their lack of attack, given that they managed just four shots - none on goal - and two corners. Ultimately, though, the Americans knew that a 1-0 loss might be enough for them - a belief that proved true.
Getting out of the Group of Death? Achieved. We will remember John Brooks's late winner against Ghana, and that Portugal's at-the-death equalizer against the Americans wasn't enough to knock the USA out. We will forget about today's game against Germany, just as we've forgotten about the USA's 3-1 loss to Poland in the final group-stage game in 2002, which also wasn't enough to knock the Americans out of qualifying for the second round.
The tournament resets now. The USA will play either Belgium or Algeria - likely Belgium - next Tuesday at 3:00. The Group of Death is over. Now comes the hard part.
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