It can be easy to put too much pressure on any U.S. soccer team during international competitions, but this particular team at this particular time in the history of the sport in this country—with this particular coach at the helm of the entire program—had as much pressure as any U.S. soccer team in history.
And then came the World Cup draw. American soccer fans were convinced the team had been placed in the Group of Death, with Germany and Portugal ranked as two of the top five teams in the world and Ghana being the United States' personal World Cup executioner in each of the last two tournaments.
For the United States, the group looked like imminent death, but as the tournament has played out over the first nine days, preconceived notions about life and death in a World Cup are proving to be different from reality.
Someone go tell England that Group D wasn't the toughest. Go tell Spain Group B wasn't a more difficult lot.
American fans didn't look at the draw for CONCACAF brethren Costa Rica as more difficult than that for the United States because no one in the world thought the Ticos would have a chance to get out of a group with Uruguay, Italy and England. Now, two games in, England is already out of the tournament and Costa Rica is in line to finish first in the group.
If there is such a thing as CONCACAF karma, maybe a little will rub off on the United States as well. If Costa Rica can get out of its group, surely the U.S. can do the same, right?
Heck, even Mexico—another CONCACAF team with the U.S. and Costa Rica—has earned a victory over Cameroon and an immense draw against Brazil in its first two matches, needing just a draw or better against a tough Croatia side to get out of Group A. If Mexico can advance…
There have been other surprises around the tournament so far as well, many of which could have the United States feeling rather optimistic about its own chances.
Chile, for example, was overlooked by many pundits—admittedly including myself—when drawn with Spain and the Netherlands in Group B. It's Chile, after wins in its first two matches, that has a chance to win the group. It's Spain, inexplicably, going home with nothing.
No matter what the group, death is often wrongly diagnosed at the World Cup.
For the United States, getting three points from a match against Ghana in which the team was summarily outplayed for 80 of the 90 minutes should be reason to enjoy life, not worry about imminent death.
Despite the lopsided nature of the match, the U.S. got the result it expected—and certainly the result it needed—and can look at the rest of the tournament with a lot more hope than many might have expected.
How much hope? Let's do some quick math. With a victory over Portugal, the United States would be all but assured a spot in the knockout stage before even having to face Germany. Should the U.S. draw with Portugal, it would be on four points, three ahead of Portugal with a plus-one goal differential to Portugal's woeful minus-four.
In order to make up that difference in the third set of matches, Portugal would have to beat Ghana by, say, two goals and hope that Germany beats the United States by more than three goals.
If Portugal was able to make up just that five-goal difference, and not more, the teams would go to a tiebreaker whereby the third decider—after group points and goal differential—is greatest number of goals scored.
Even if the United States lost 4-0 to Germany and Portugal beat Ghana 1-0, the United States would advance over Portugal with more goals scored. Portugal would need to beat Ghana 3-0 or better and the United States would have to lose 2-0 or worse to Germany for Portugal to win any tiebreaker.
A draw for the United States against Portugal opens up a huge path to the knockout round. Ghana, in several ways, can still muck that plan up, but the group is set up for the U.S. to play for a draw against Portugal while hoping for—but not necessarily needing—a win.
If there was ever something to be optimistic about, it's going into two matches with Portugal and Germany and really only needing one point in the first to advance. Surely two or three points will be better than one, but the win over Ghana in this group—and the absolute thrashing Portugal took from Germany—could not have set things up much better for the United States.
And still, three points don't seem all that impossible. Optimism abounds.
The loss of Jozy Altidore will surely hurt the United States, but losing Pepe to a horrible suspension after headbutting Germany's Thomas Mueller and the injuries to Fabio Coentrao and Hugo Almeida may hurt Portugal more.
Add in the pressure that Portugal really needs to win both of the final two matches, knowing that with the goal differential in the group four points probably won't be enough to get out, and the external pressure of the match against the U.S. is squarely on the shoulders of Cristiano Ronaldo and his countrymen.
In a way, Jurgen Klinsmann was handed a favor by being placed in a group nobody thought his team could escape.
After winning the first match, Klinsmann's charges are still (sort of) playing with house money. Sure, expectations can change during a tournament—just look at Chile, Costa Rica and even Mexico—but no one in the world expects the United States to take down Portugal or Germany, yet with the victory over Ghana, the U.S. doesn't even have to anymore.
"Don't lose" is a more realistic goal than "win" when facing two of the top-ranked teams in the world. All the U.S. has to do is "not lose" twice and the team is guaranteed a spot in the next round. All it has to do is "not lose" once and getting through the group looks downright plausible.
That's not to suggest the U.S. will park the proverbial Winnebago against Portugal, but with Ronaldo running around the pitch causing fits for the U.S. back line, parking whatever they can might be the best tactic for stopping one of the best players in the world.
And still, there is optimism.
Why? Because the United States got three points out of a game in which it was outplayed for most of the 90 minutes.
The Yanks got a win out of a match where Michael Bradley—the best player in red, white and blue this year—had a substandard game and where the team's only true target forward went out with 70 minutes to play.
The U.S. got a win when one of its two center-backs had to be subbed off at halftime, and his replacement—who has barely played at all in a USMNT jersey in his career—adeptly held the back line and scored the game-winning goal.
Do you know how hard it is to win a World Cup match when your best player has a bad game and you have to blow two of your three substitutions by halftime because of injury?
Despite the heat and humidity in Manaus, one has to hope multiple non-contact injuries won't hit the U.S. two matches in a row. And does anyone who follows the USMNT think that Bradley will have two matches in a row like the performance he had against Ghana?
Speaking during media availability this week, Bradley said, via U.S. Soccer:
I’m certainly honest enough and hard enough with myself to know that it wasn’t my sharpest night, but unfortunately, they’re not all going to be. We talked five minutes after the Ghana game ended about being excited and proud of the way we started off but also realizing that one game doesn’t mean anything.
Bradley also talked about the importance of following up on those three points with a positive result against Portugal:
If you’re not able to follow up the first game with a good result, then the first game goes right out the window and all of a sudden you’re going into game three needing a result or looking at the other game. There’s enough presence, enough leadership, enough guys who have been around in our group to make sure that we’ve kept a good, solid focus. There’s pride and excitement and energy, as there should be about the way the first game went but at this point, it’s all about Sunday.
If there is a call for optimism heading into the match against Portugal, it surely starts with Bradley. He clearly understands that he has to play better. Given the matchup with Portugal in both formation and personnel, it stands to reason he will.
There is no telling how much better the U.S. will be when Bradley plays his best. Will it be the difference in thwarting Portugal? If you are optimistic enough, it has to be.
Follow Dan Levy on Twitter: Follow @DanLevyThinks
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