In his first press conference after landing in Brazil, Jurgen Klinsmann refused to walk back his then-infamous comments about the United States having no chance to win the World Cup, saying instead that his team only needed to worry about getting out of the group.
"Then," Klinsmann said, "the sky is the limit."
Welcome to liftoff.
"It's huge," Klinsmann said to ESPN's Jeremy Schaap after the 1-0 loss to Germany on Thursday in rain-soaked Recife. "It's huge for us getting out of this group. Everybody said, 'You have no chance.' We took that chance and we move on. And now, now we really want to prove a point."
The first point Klinsmann should want his team to prove is that they can play a better brand of soccer than they did in the group stage. Through three matches, there is no question the United States deserved to get out of Group G, but doing so wasn't exactly pretty. It surely wasn't the style of play Klinsmann wants to see in the next round.
Having said that, the United States survived Group G in the manner many of us who picked them to advance thought they would: a hard-fought victory over Ghana, a hard-fought draw with Portugal and a hard-fought loss to Germany. If there was one (obvious) theme in the three group matches, it was the resilience the United States showed, no matter the outcome.
The Ghana match was, frankly, a poor display of quality for the U.S., but they did enough to earn a much-needed opening victory. As unlikely as the John Brooks goal was late in the match against Ghana, nobody thought fortunes would change with a 95th-minute tally for Portugal in Manaus.
The U.S. outplayed Portugal almost the entire match, working to recover from an early deficit to earn what looked like a sure victory. We all know how that ended, leaving work to be done against Germany to guarantee advancement.
While the match against Germany played out more like Ghana than Portugal, the United States didn't stop plugging away despite obviously weary legs. Not wanting the result of the match between Ghana and Portugal to factor into advancement, the U.S. fought until the very end, nearly tying the match with multiple chances in the box as the final minutes died out.
The loss to Germany was indeed that, a loss, but it was close enough to make the 2-1 victory for Portugal over Ghana inconsequential to the final result of the group. The U.S. is through, surviving the perceived Group of Death, with new life in the round of 16.
"We still can do better," Klinsmann said after the match, via ESPN. "We got through the group, but we have to do better in the round of 16, and we will do better.
"For all the players it's a tremendous achievement," he continued, "but now we really get started. As we know, once the group is done, another tournament actually starts."
Group of Death or not, the path to winning the World Cup is far more daunting than the group stage ever could be. Klinsmann's side could potentially face Belgium, Argentina and the Netherlands in order to reach the final, where the likes of Brazil, France, Germany or Colombia could be waiting for them. Suddenly the likes of Ghana and Portugal don't look so tough.
Sure, there's a chance the United States could get an easier road, and if they can manage to reach the semifinals there's a decent chance they might face CONCACAF foes Mexico or Costa Rica with an opportunity to get to the final on the line.
Hmm…maybe the sky is the limit.
Truth be told, it has to be. While the United States hasn't looked very good in two of the three group matches, they did what good World Cup teams do—they stayed strong together. Ghana had a chance to advance out of the group with a 2-1 victory over Portugal, and at 1-1 in that match, American fans had to be worried about a late-game strike that would knock the U.S. out of the tournament.
Instead, it was Portugal who struck, as the Ghanaian defense completely fell apart to allow Cristiano Ronaldo—the man who facilitated the service that nearly broke millions of Americans' hearts a few days earlier—to bury home an easy go-ahead goal, thereby ensuring the United States would get through despite falling to the Germans.
Yes, it felt odd to celebrate after a loss, but the United States had done enough in its two previous matches to deserve the celebration. Now, the next loss will absolutely send them home.
When asked about moving on to the next round, U.S. captain Clint Dempsey seemed predictably level-headed. "The knockout stages," Dempsey told the FIFA postgame interviewer, shown on ESPN. "Anybody can go through if you bring it on that day."
Bring it they must, particularly the American stars. There were very few chances on the offensive side of the ball against Germany, and with similar issues against Ghana throughout that match, Klinsmann may be concerned with his team's ability to fill the net in the knockout round should Jozy Altidore not be fit to return in time.
The defense saw a change at center back against Germany—as nerve-racking a move by Klinsmann as any he's made this tournament—installing Omar Gonzalez instead of Geoff Cameron, who had made two key mistakes against Portugal. Now, with Gonzalez playing better against Germany after a few nervy moments, Klinsmann will have to figure out which tandem is the best fit in the round of 16.
He'll also need to figure out what in the hell is wrong with Michael Bradley. The American star was woeful against Ghana, routinely picking out the wrong pass and struggling to find a rhythm in the center of the field.
Bradley actually played quite well against Portugal, despite missing a sitter of a chance that was miraculously saved off the line and committing the now infamous turnover at midfield with seconds to go in the match that led to Silvestre Varela's header.
American fans wondered which Bradley would show up against Germany, and it turned out it was neither. He was somehow worse.
Bradley's first touch failed him the entire match, and he had to rely on Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman to provide any positive distribution out of the center of the field at all. Yes, Bradley was facing Philipp Lahm in the German midfield, but his head just didn't seem in the game as much as it needed to be. Neither, sadly, were his feet and legs.
And yet…the United States got through. The sky is most certainly the limit now, and they did it without their best player playing his best, which might now be considered a positive.
Jones and Beckerman have played far better than anyone expected.
And how about Jermaine Jones? For my money, he was USMNT Man of the Match for a third straight game.— Ives Galarcep (@SoccerByIves) June 26, 2014
Dempsey has been active up top, scoring two goals in the group stage to lead the team. Tim Howard has been very good in goal. Fabian Johnson is a bona fide offensive threat down the right, and even DaMarcus Beasley has been able to get down the flank on the left side and contribute.
The center backs are what we thought they'd be going into the tournament, while the wide midfield players are still a bit of a work in progress. Finding the right matchup in the knockout round will be important in how far the United States can go.
Speaking of which, how far can this team really go? Klinsmann said before the tournament they didn't have a chance to win, and by the way they played in the group stage—and the road ahead of them to get to the final—it does not look like his assessment was wrong.
This team is not there yet, but they are further in this tournament than most expected.
Perhaps, then, the sky is the limit.
There was enormous pressure on Klinsmann and his team to get out of the group, despite the tough opponents they faced. There shouldn't be a team in their side of the bracket tougher than Germany, and unlike that match, where getting out of the group was still on the line, there is far less pressure now on the Americans than there was then, or even four years ago in that knockout stage.
Klinsmann achieved his goal. He got out of the Group of Death. Now is when U.S. Soccer can really start to take off, no matter what happens in the next round.