That just happened. They just did that. We—you—just did that! The United States lost today to Germany in their final group stage match. But they only lost 1-0, while Portugal beat Ghana 2-1, which means that the USMNT have pulled off what many thought to be the impossible: They entered the Group of Death, took on all comers, made it through pretty scathed but whole, and are now moving on to the Round of 16.
And now that they're safely through, it's finally kosher to state what we all, deep in our hearts, know to be true. They backed into the knockout rounds. Ghana trounced the USMNT, beating them in every way but one, thanks to a late John Brooks header.
Next were Portugal, in the rainforest. USA rolled them. The Americans dominated most of the match in possibly their greatest performance against elite competition since like 1950, maybe, and deserved all three points. But two lapses—one at start of the match, and one at its death—saw two Portugal goals, and the game ended in a draw. Instead of qualifying for the knockout stage of the tournament right then, the USMNT went into the Germany needing, basically, to not get blown out.
They didn't! This was partly because of a pretty gnarly flood in Recife that flooded the city streets and soaked the pitch, turning the match into an ugly mudwrestling bout, with bodies flying everywhere, the Germans surging forward and the Americans holding onto their opponent's leg for dear life with one eye on the Portugal-Ghana scoreboard. The Americans didn't create a real chance until the end of the game, while Germany, likely the best team in the world, missed chance after chance save one, denied by a stupendous performance from keeper Tim Howard, and the very elements themselves. Midway through the second half, it started to feel like this shit was meant to be.
They survived, which was all they had to do, but it was an objectively terrible performance. It was concerning. In fact, this whole tournament has been concerning. And USMNT fans should all be pretty pumped about that!
The Americans have failed to put in a complete performance in Brazil yet. Our best player, center midfielder Michael Bradley, looks like the greatest soccer player to ever put on an American jersey when he looks good. At this year's World Cup, however, he was dominated in the first match, gravely erred in the second, and today, looked to be playing in galoshes. His first touch was worse, probably, than yours, and while he provided defensive support, he struggled to get up the pitch to link with Dempsey, who was too often left on an island, holding the ball up with no one to play it to.
As hilarious as it is that Brad Davis is at the World Cup, it wasn't all that awesome to see him starting today. Because yes, relatively speaking, he sucks. His replacement Alejandro Bedoya came on with a half-hour to play, and he sucked too.
It doesn't feel like manager Jürgen Klinsmann has quite found his best lineup yet, or even his best formation. Even so, there are bright spots.
Some people are whispering or screaming that Klinsmann should look into benching Bradley. This is dumb. But it would be accurate to say the Americans were able to advance in spite of Bradley. They were able to do so, more than anything else, because Jermaine Jones turned, seemingly overnight into Michael Bradley. Jones has always gotten a bad rap with American fans, and though he was never dope, per se, the harsh criticism was a little unfair to his skill and tenacity as an all-action midfielder. Still, this tournament, Jones has made an Aaron Ramsey-like transformation, and has comfortably been the Americans' best player in each of the first three matches. Remember this?
And if Jones is our best, then his complement in the defensive midfield, Kyle Beckerman, is the USMNT's most consistent. He's a calming influence, seemingly invisible at times, but always there, always clean and tidy when the ball's at his feet, and stepping into passing lanes when it's not.
There is nothing sexy about wide midfielder Graham Zusi's game, but when he's in, he affects the match. He came on as a sub against Ghana and had the winning assist to Brooks. He started against Portugal and hooked up Dempsey for the go-ahead goal nine minutes from time. Today against Germany, he got the nod and nearly scored a great goal from outside the box.
Center back Besler is a stud, but there's a question as to whether Geoff Cameron or Omar Gonzalez slots in better next to him. Cameron is the better player, but fucked up against Portugal for their first goal. Gonzalez (who was looked over for substitute Brooks in the first match) started today against Germany and didn't make a mistake all game...which probably means he's due. Klinsmann has a tough choice to make, but the play of Fabian Johnson and, shockingly, old man DaMarcus Beasley on the right and left flanks have more than acquitted themselves against Cristiano Ronaldo and Germany's murderer's row of midfielders. (Ghana...not so much, but let's forget about that.)
So, the USMNT have some flaws, but what matters is that they grit and ground and lucked through Group of Death, and now Bradley is presumably going to revert to form, and anyway Klinsmann has a chance to make it right.
Luckily, we here at Deadspin have partnered with the good folks at Howler, and we put our heads together to come up with a plan going forward for the knockout stages. Without Jozy Altidore, a 4-1-2-1-2 doesn't make much sense, and besides, the Americans don't have the players for it. But a 4-2-3-1 is also worrisome for a number of reasons. Jones, weirdly, seems like a more viable attacking option behind the striker than Bradley, but it's probably better to give him the option of going forward instead of number 10 responsibilities. And though Bradley remains a must-start, as well as Jones, Beckerman, and Zusi, a fifth midfielder hasn't appeared who could play on the left.
There are, however, some good attacking options on the bench, the best of whom is probably Aron Jóhansson. The Iceman is too slight to hold down the center forward position on his own, and besides, playing with his back to goal, shrugging off towering center backs ain't his game. At his club, Dutch side AZ, however, he scored 26 goals in all competitions last season, and he was a terror cutting in from the left onto his right to create havoc.
So let's play him there, on the left wing, and see what he can do. It might behoove Klinsmann to switch to a 4-3-3 and see what comes of it. Dempsey could lead the front line, with Zusi whipping in crosses from a deeper position. Jones and Bradley can hold down the center of the midfield, allowing both Bradley and Jones to get forward at times, and Beckerman would shield the back four of Beasley, Besler, Cameron, and Johnson. Of course, Howard stays in goal.
Whatever Klinsmann decides, it's obvious he'll have to make some changes. The Americans are a flawed group who have yet to put in a great performance at the World Cup. And yet here we are, safely out of the Group of Death, talking Round of 16 tactics.
Let's do this.
Photo Credit: Getty