Team USA and Germany are both playing to advance past Group G in their pivotal matchup on Thursday.
The U.S. were only seconds away from locking down a place in the final 16, but Portugal broke their hearts with a goal with less than a minute of stoppage time remaining to salvage a draw. "I believe that we will win!" chants quickly turned to "wait, we tied? What just happened?"
Germany, the Group G favorites entering the World Cup, also failed to seal the deal during their second match, which ended in a 2-2 draw with Ghana.
Although a dastardly blow, the elusive two points are not enough to deflate the U.S.' chances of survival. A win or draw is enough for either side to make it past Group G.
Either team could even advance with a loss. Ghana and Portugal would eliminate each other with a draw, but the winner would still need to edge out a defeated U.S. or Germany with a higher goal differential—an unlikely scenario for Portugal at minus-four.
Let's take a look at the top storylines entering Thursday's monumental World Cup clash.
|Thursday, June 26||12 p.m.||Arena Pernambuco, Recife||ESPN|
Seriously, Why Don't Both Teams Just Take a Draw?
In theory, it would behoove both clubs to gather around the field in a drum circle and engage in a 90-minute singalong before ending the match in a 0-0 draw; the one point awarded from a draw being enough to support each team's advancement to the knockout stage.
It simply seems like a silly thought that would never come to fruition, but it actually happened at the tournament 32 years ago. After West Germany scored an early goal against Austria in their 1982 match, the two teams aimlessly kicked the ball around with a knockout bid secured for each squad.
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who played for Germany during their 1990 World Cup triumph, defiantly dismissed the notion of playing for a draw to the Associated Press' Nesha Starcevic:
I don't think that we are made for draws, really, except if it happens like tonight—two late goals, last seconds. I think both teams go into this game and they want to win the group. You're talking about a game that is decades away that is only part of the Germany history and not the United States. The United States is known to give everything they have in every single game. ... We have that fighting spirit. We have that energy and that determination to do well in every single game.
Pride, honor and fairness will be enough to fuel both sides' desire for a victory, but more importantly, winning Group G would impact the next round. The group leader will face Group H's second-place finisher (currently Algeria) while the runner-up gets a date with Group H's winner (currently Belgium).
The lack of desperation for a win, however, could factor into the closing minutes. Should the scores be tied late in the contest, both teams would be foolish to risk conceding a goal by amplifying their attack. At that point, they'd play it safer than usual if they were wise.
Can U.S. Keep Up Without Jozy Altidore?
The USMNT suffered a devastating blow during their victory over Ghana, losing star striker Jozy Altidore to a hamstring injury. He missed the last match with Portugal and will also sit out Thursday's match with Germany.
A key cog in the team's offensive attack, Altidore booted in four goals during five USA qualifying matches. Without him, they're severely lacking in offensive firepower, and a Klinsmann critic would quickly point out that Landon Donovan would help them right about now.
Altidore's absence against Portugal forced Clint Dempsey to play a more unaccustomed role as the only striker in a 4-5-1 formation. The alteration worked for most of the match, as the 31-year-old guided in what appeared to be the winner up until the closing seconds. ESPN provided a video of the dramatic moment on Twitter.
Through their first two games, the U.S. have played with a bend, but don't break attitude. Against Ghana, they controlled the ball for just 40 percent of the match. While they improved versus Portugal, they still held the ball for 48 percent of the draw after loosening up too much at the end.
Against a more aggressive Germany squad that has controlled possession in both of their matches, the U.S. can't expect to change the tides. Instead, they'll have to make the most of their opportunities while keeping Germany away from the net as often as possible.
The onus is once again on Dempsey to come through in a big way. Without another score from the Seattle Sounders' star, the U.S. may have to battle to a scoreless draw.
Can the U.S. Defense Hold Down the Fort?
In Germany, the United States defense faces its toughest challenge of the tournament. The Germans sport the second-highest offensive rating behind Brazil in ESPN's Soccer Power Index. If the U.S. carry over their early play into Thursday, the day won't end well for them.
Some sloppy play has plagued a defense being heavily relied upon to keep the score manageable for a limited offense. Michael Bradley, usually their most sure-footed defender, has received a lion's share of the blame.
After logging an overall ugly performance against Ghana, the veteran mishandled a ball late in the match against Portugal. The turnover led to the ensuing equalizer that cost Team USA a victory.
USA Today's Mike Foss, however, discouraged U.S. soccer fans from pinning all of the squad's misfortune on Bradley, who hasn't played up to his accustomed level through the opening two bouts:
Listen, we know the guy next you in the gym thinks Michael Bradley cost the U.S. a win against Portugal and that the center midfielder has had a terrible World Cup. It’s not quite that simple. Bradley has not played up to usual Bradley standards during this World Cup, which creates the perception that he’s struggled. In reality, Bradley has been relatively average. Being relatively average was good enough to beat Ghana and draw with Portugal. It won’t be enough to get points from Germany.
In Mesut Ozil, Thomas Mueller and Mario Goetze, Germany are armed deep with playmakers who will make opponents pay for any miscues. For the U.S to keep Germany away from the net, they must play a clean match devoid of errors.