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The US Soccer mindset coming into this World Cup was to play for the future. At this point it couldn't be clearer that they need to play for right now.
After defeating Ghana and tying Portugal 2-2 yesterday, the US needs a win or a draw versus Germany to automatically go through to the elimination round. Or they could lose and still go through as long as Portugal or Ghana don't beat the other AND make up an overall goal-differential deficit to the US on Thursday.
Portugal (five goals back due mostly to its 4-0 loss to Brazil) can't do it unless they win big (or huge) and the US loses big (or huge). Ghana (-2) would tie the goal differential standings if it wins 1-0 and the US loses 1-0. But if that happened, the US would still win. The second tiebreaker is total goals scored and at this point the US has four and Ghana has three. So the two 1-0 results would mean a tie in that tiebreaker. The third tiebreaker is head-to-head goal-differential and the US wins that one.
The aforementioned initial plan to focus on getting young players playing time in big games to benefit them in the future was in place long before the tournament started. More than six months back, national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann gave an interview to a reporter for the New York Times magazine in which he said the US would not win the World Cup in Brazil this year.
Some have slammed the coach for his defeatism while others have praised his truth-telling. I lean toward the latter. Some people love to reference the US hockey team's upset of the Soviet Union in the Lake Placid Winter Olympics in 1980 on its way to a gold medal, the story that was depicted in the movie Miracle. They have pointed out that legendary coach Herb Brooks sure as heck never disparaged his team's chances.
To those people I would say . . . that was 34 years ago already! If we can't come up with a more recent example of a cliched, never-say-die sports story with a happy ending, folks should just go ahead and concede the other side of the debate.
Who knows what Klinsmann was thinking when he made the statement. It was such a weird situation in that he gave the interview way back when and then the story wasn't published until the weeks leading up to the Cup. He apparently had not repeated the sentiments he mentioned to the magazine reporter in the many, many press conferences he had had since. But he did assemble a World Cup roster that was heavy on young, unproven talent.
So it is hard to believe that Klinsmann had some master plan (it was more likely he made a flip remark in a situation where it was understandable that he had his guard down). If he did and his intent was to take the pressure off his charges by declaring that they didn't have a chance in the hopes that they would play free and easy soccer, well, that went out the window in all of 30 seconds.
That was the amount of time it took for the US's Clint Dempsey to score that beautiful early goal against Ghana and in doing so declare that the US was playing for keeps. The team did not react terribly well to that score, allowing Ghana to dominate possession for about 75 minutes afterward. Ghana finally tied the game after having the far better of the play during that time. But then the US turned it back around and in the end worked a little magic with Graham Zusi's perfect corner kick and John Brooks' winning goal.
After that game, not enough was made of the fact that shortly after his score, Dempsey was on the wrong end of an aggravatingly awkward play by a Ghanian defender that resulted in him getting kicked in the nose and having it broken. I guarantee that the vast majority of soccer players would have bowed out at that point, but Dempsey knew the US was in dire straits after Jozy Altidore was forced to the sideline by a torn hamstring. If the team had been forced to use not one but two of its three substitutions (all that are allowed per game) before the first half of the first half was over, it would have had a major, major problem.
So he soldiered on and finished the game. One of the reasons the national team has had considerable success with Dempsey in a leading role is that his teammates sense that he is willing to do anything in his power to make a big play or do whatever it takes to give his team a better chance. After all, the US is competitive in international competition after international competition (with the 2006 World Cup the one glaring example of that not being the case) despite virtually always competing with fewer players who play professionally in one of the great leagues in the world. Those would be the European leagues (for example the Spanish, Italian and British) that feed into the annual Champions Cup tournament.
Dempsey playing through a broken nose in one game and his coming back to star after that injury in another added two more awesome chapters to his rapidly growing case for being perhaps the greatest American soccer player ever.
Dempsey is the big reason to play for right now. This is almost certainly his last go-round at the World Cup. He is 31 and has a successful Premier League career behind him, featuring six great years at Fulham and one final strong season scoring big goals for Tottenham Hotspur. Last year he came back home to the Seattle Sounders. His career actually stands in sharp contrast to that of the goat of these games so far for the US: Michael Bradley is counted on to be a leader in the midfield but he played poorly against Ghana and it was his turnover that sent Portugal on their way to the crushing tying goal in the last minute on Sunday.
Bradley had seemingly established himself in Europe after signing a contract with Roma in Italy in 2012. But things didn't go perfectly and the 26-year-old Bradley apparently felt as though his best move was to sign with Major League Soccer's Toronto franchise at the start of this year. The problem was that in so doing, Bradley was essentially demoting himself to the minors just when his career in Europe should have been heating up.
Anyway, perhaps his poor play will motivate Bradley to try harder to get back to the major leagues of soccer rather than just accepting the decent money with Toronto. More importantly, perhaps his poor play will drive him to better things Thursday versus Germany. Game time is 11 a.m.
Jim "Coach" Coffman is our man on Mondays. He welcomes your comments.