World Cup: Two Sides of a Coin
There are two ways to look at this game. Belgium won because they’re the (much) better team. Or, a heroic USMNT’s best effort fell just short.
Pick a side: optimists or pessimists. Pessimists – who will refer to themselves as realists – insist that the USMNT never had a shot. Belgium was overwhelmingly the better team. Why did US goalkeeper Tim Howard have to make a record 16 saves yesterday, the most in the past 50 years? Because Belgium took the fourth most shots on goal – 39 – of any team in the past 50 years. Belgium teed off. We couldn’t buy a pass in their half. Midfielder Michael Bradley didn’t have another bad game – he actually played fairly well, assisting Julian Green’s goal on a beautiful chip over the defense – he was simply overmatched by a much better Belgian midfield. The USMNT was The Little Engine That Could to start the tournament, until it came up against soccer superpowers Germany and Belgium, and couldn’t anymore. As Klinsmann said before the World Cup, “For us, we have to play the game of our lives seven times to win the tournament.” Against Ghana, that happened. Howard and co. beat one of the top ten teams in the world. Against Portugal, the number four ranked team in the world, the US team put together yet another world class effort. And tied. The chinks in the armor started to show.
You know where they’ll go from here. Germany pummeled us. In a game in which they didn’t have to, a game in which they weren’t particularly motivated, they smothered the USMNT in every conceivable way. Their only regret? They didn’t score more. It’s no secret that USA’s back four were shaky entering the World Cup. That wasn’t talked about more because of Tim Howard. Together, Howard and whichever defender was guarding the opposing striker became a formidable defense. The US defender would cut off a third of the angle, Howard would take care of another third, and they would dare opposing players to aim for the remaining slice. Very often, they’d miss, hit the defender, or hit Howard. But sometimes…it was a dangerous tactic. It meant Howard often had to vacate the net. Then again, why are we talking so much about Howard? This is America – shouldn’t we be talking about how Chris Wondolowski screwed the USMNT out of the quarterfinals? Receiving a pass in the 91st minute of the game, he missed the open goal. Sailed it over. Why aren’t we crucifying him like we would LeBron James in a similar situation?
Which brings me to the optimists. You saw what I saw. Perpective on this match, and on the USMNT’s effort in the Group Stage, is important. Against Belgium, Zusi’s few terrific corners that just couldn’t quite connect. The ageless Beasley’s inspired play, both defensively and offensively. The surge substitute DeAndre Yedlin provided on offense. We were down 2-0, and instead of giving up, came back to score. And who netted that goal? 19 year-old Julian Green – on his first touch ever in the World Cup, I might add. Young and brash, he was fearless when we most needed him to be. And on we went. Seven of the USMNT’s 17 shots came in the last 15 minutes. We weren’t going down without a fight. The set play to Clint Demsey, another almost-goal, was a thing of beauty. Don’t be surprised if you see that again from another team in this World Cup. And last, but not least, what a game by Tim Howard. At the moment, he’s US soccer’s lone world class player, but when he’s on, you get what you saw yesterday. His effort made you stand up and cheer, and his look of devastation when the first goal got past brought you crashing back to your seat. At 35, it’s probably his last World Cup for Team USA, but he and the other players should be proud of how they played.
Against Ghana, they got revenge. Against Portugal, they earned respect. Left for dead amongst some of soccer’s giants, they escaped death and moved on from group play.
Soccer may not yet be in our blood as a nation, but it’s becoming our religion internationally.