How USA Can Survive the Group of Death

Matthew CelentanoFeatured ColumnistJune 17, 2014

NATAL, BRAZIL - JUNE 16:  Clint Dempsey of the United States celebrates with teammates after scoring his team's first goal during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Group G match between Ghana and the United States at Estadio das Dunas on June 16, 2014 in Natal, Brazil.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Another day, another series of exhilarating World Cup matches.

Day 5 of the 2014 World Cup did not fail to disappoint, with seven goals scored between the two "Group of Death" matches that were played.

While it was certainly a good day for neutrals (aside from the bore 0-0 draw between Iran and Nigeria), it was an even better day for fans of the United States national team. 

Not only did the USMNT earn a huge 2-1 win over Ghana, but Germany's 4-0 drubbing of Portugal also plays into the Americans' hands.

When the Group of Death was first drawn, it was clear who the two favorites to advance were: Germany and Portugal. 

Germany rarely fail to make it past the quarter-finals, and it would be unthinkable for them to go out at the group stage, while Portugal are thought to be spurred on by Cristiano Ronaldo coming off of his best-ever season.

While it was expected that the Germans would find a way to win against Ronaldo and Co., few expected Germany to play Portugal off the park in the manner that they did. It helped that Portugal were, for the most part, quite awful.

Cristiano Ronaldo was clearly playing for personal glory—as evidenced by his numerous attempts from 35 or 40 yards out—but his less-talented teammates didn't exactly give him much help. Bruno Alves and Pepe were diabolical at the back, while Miguel Veloso and Raul Meireles hardly impressed in midfield.

The nature of the defeat for Portugal, however, is a real boost for the United States. If it had been just a one-goal or even two-goal deficit, Paulo Bento's side could have seen it as a "you win some, you lose some" scenario and Portugal could have carried on with their heads held high.

It was a bad day at the office for Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal
It was a bad day at the office for Cristiano Ronaldo and PortugalMartin Rose/Getty Images

Now at the bottom of Group G with a negative-four goal difference, Portugal face a real uphill battle to advance to the knockout round. 

With the Portuguese predicament and the United States having beaten Ghana, Jurgen Klinsmann's side now must be seen—cautiously—as real contenders to finish second in the group and advance to the knockout round.

That being said, there is still lots of work to be done for the United States, as their remaining two games are against Portugal and Germany. While two more points would guarantee their place in the knockout round, it's generous to propose that the USMNT can get anything against a ruthless Germany side.

There is, however, one catch to their game against Germany. If Joachim Low's side get three points against Ghana to seal progression, their game against the United States could be seen as an opportunity to rest players for the knockout round.

This, of course, would be a huge boost for the USMNT, especially if they find themselves in need of a result against Germany.

Klinsmann's focus, though, must now be on the game against Portugal.

If Portugal play as poorly as they did against Germany, the United States won't have much to worry about. This, however, is unlikely.

Klinsmann should be wary of the "wounded animal" that Portugal currently are, as they'll likely be hoping to smash the United States to make up for their disappointment against Germany. 

It'll be interesting to see how Klinsmann plays this one out—that is, if he sets his team up to earn a point or if he goes for the win.

21-year-old John Brooks made himself a hero by scoring the winner against Ghana
21-year-old John Brooks made himself a hero by scoring the winner against GhanaLaurence Griffiths/Getty Images

There are pros and cons to both approaches. While it would be brilliant if the United States could successfully play for a draw, their weakness in defense means that it's unlikely they will keep the Portuguese from scoring at least once.

That being said, letting Portugal have plenty of possession might not be the end of the world. The pace of Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani coupled with the passing range of Joao Moutinho means that Portugal are very much a counter-attacking team.

Although the United States' defense might not be good enough to sit back and soak up pressure from Portugal, they certainly showed signs of improvement against Ghana. Geoff Cameron, Matt Besler and later on a certain John Brooks dealt with the constant Ghanaian crosses well—in the end, it took a moment of magic from Asamoah Gyan and Andre Ayew to beat the United States defense.

Going for the win against Portugal could end up backfiring due to the danger Ronaldo and Nani pose on counter-attacks. The consequences of a loss could be detrimental, too: If the United States lose to Portugal and Portugal subsequently beat Ghana, Klinsmann's side will go into the Germany game needing all three points, which is not an ideal situation.

With the stakes higher than they've been in four years, Klinsmann has to get it right against Portugal. It'll take some performance to stop Ronaldo and Co., but after the spirited win against Ghana, the USMNT will be full of belief.

There is a spirit in this United States team that Portugal—with Ronaldo's whining and Pepe's antics—simply don't appear to have. Hopefully that spirit will be enough to survive the Group of Death against all odds.