This is not your grandfather’s US national team.
The 23-man group that’s currently navigating its way through the Amazon and the group of death in Brazil is decidedly different than the ragtag group of amateur soccer players that shocked England at the 1950 World Cup.
That much was clear when the US battled Portugal to a 2-2 tie on Sunday evening in Manaus, improving to four points to tie Germany for the group lead while the Portuguese and Ghanaians are left squirming at the bottom of Group G with a single point. Against Os Navigadores in arguably the most inhospitable place for a soccer game in the Western Hemisphere—temperature in Manaus was in the 80s with nearly 70 percent humidity—the Yanks didn’t pull off a shock upset at all.
Instead, they went full throttle against Portugal, coming from behind to eventually take the lead after Nani easily put away a scuffed clearance by Geoff Cameron just five minutes into the game. The momentum of the match switched almost immediately after the Americans conceded. And after a slew of shots narrowly missed the net or got cleared off the goal line, Jermaine Jones equalized for the US with a right-footed cannon following the remnants of a 64th minute corner kick while captain Clint Dempsey handed his team the lead by deflecting a cross from Graham Zusi into the back of the net in minute 81.
With Portugal reeling, the US could have secured a place in the knockout round by seeing out their 2-1 lead. But the match’s final 30 seconds changed the storyline, as Cristiano Ronaldo—who had been kept silent throughout the game—received the ball on the right flank following a giveaway at midfield by Michael Bradley, sending a looping cross into the penalty area for Varela, who latched onto the feed with a diving header that flew into the goal.
The shock result wasn’t that the US got a tie against the fourth ranked team in the world to solidify second place in the group with one game left. It was that Portugal came back after getting outplayed and outworked by the US for most of the game.
This is not Landon Donovan’s US national team, either.
The so-called World Cup team snub has temporarily traded in his soccer cleats for the studio microphone, joining ESPN’s coverage of the US national team as an analyst. But when Donovan came on the air for Sunday evening’s pregame show he predicted that the team he once captained would sit back to defend rather than take the game to Portugal.
One of the major storylines ahead of Sunday’s game was who would replace Jozy Altidore (hamstring), who could still be out for the Americans third and final group game against Germany on Thursday. Donovan was touted by several pundits and fans as the ideal player to step in for the injured Altidore against Portugal. Losing Altidore both shed the spotlight on US head coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s decision not to take Donovan and questioned the American’s offensive depth.
But the US had few problems pushing forward and maintaining possession, choosing instead to replace Altidore in the starting lineup with a fifth midfielder and use Dempsey as the lone forward.
The ultimate outcome was that the US didn’t sit back at all. Bradley, Jones, and Kyle Beckerman fought to win back possession in the middle throughout the game and used Dempsey as a target. The outlet runs came from the flank as Graham Zusi, Alejandro Bedoya, DaMarcus Beasley, and Fabian Johnson bombed up and down the flanks. In fact, both of the US goals wouldn’t have occurred had it not been from the speedy and pacey work by the American wingers, particularly down the right side.
Klinsmann’s 23-man group has yet to match some of the results of past US national teams, though they are going about their business in a way that no American team has ever done at a World Cup. There are striking differences between the Klinsmann regime and those of past coaches Steve Sampson, Bruce Arena, and Bob Bradley.
One is that this crop of national team players not only believes but is capable of earning results against top tier soccer nations. Consider that under Klinsmann, who coached his native Germany to a third place finish at the 2006 tournament, the US got their first-ever victory over the Italians, defeated Germany in a seven-goal contest 4-3, and beat Mexico at the Estadio Azteca—another one of the harshest places to play on this side of the world—also for the first time.
Given the quality, mental fortitude, and recent experience of Klinsmann’s team, neither a tie nor a win against the Portuguese was out of the question.
But a more subtle and less emphasized difference—perhaps because of the clichés it attracts—is the unification of the national team’s players. During Sunday’s playing of the “Star Spangled Banner,” each player stood one in front of the other, with one hand on his heart and the other on the shoulder of the man in front of him. It was a small gesture that is rarely, if ever, seen by the national team, whose players generally just stand side by side when the anthem plays.
When Klinsmann took over as coach of the national team in 2011, he noted that one of the US’ strengths that he sought to exploit was the “melting pot” of different cultures and background that fit under the umbrella of what it means to be American. When he made that statement in his introductory press conference, few thought it would mean that nearly four years later, seven players who aren’t native to the US would be representing it at the World Cup.
That Klinsmann brought along five German-Americans was enough to make critics go “hmm.” Using foreign players hadn’t done much for the US in the past. In 1998, Sampson’s US team enlisted the help of Thomas Dooley, a serviceable midfielder born in West Germany, to help the team stay competitive against top oppositions. The US lost every match of the tournament in embarrassing fashion as internal team drama regarding marital affairs, player selection, and coaching mistakes melted away any semblance of a team.
It is true that Arena, with players like Claudio Reyna, Carlos Llamosa, and Ernie Stewart who were eligible to play for other nations as well as they US, was able to get his team to play well and go far in the tournament. Arena’s group started the 2002 World Cup in Korea/Japan with a 3-2 win over Portugal, setting the stage for them to advance out of the group and go all the way to the quarterfinals.
But Arena’s sterling result in 2002 looked like a fluke four years later when again the US failed to make it out of the group. In their first game against the Czech Republic in 2006, Jan Koller scored in the fifth minute—the exact same time as Nani’s goal on Sunday night. But unlike Klinsmann’s group which rose to the occasion against a quality opposition, Arena’s players folded and succumbed to a 3-0 defeat.
The US enjoyed success with Bradley during the last World Cup cycle including another “shock” victory, 2-0, over European champions Spain in the 2009 Confederations Cup. Dubbed “The Miracle on Grass,” the US followed that performance by winning the group at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. But Bradley’s problem was getting the US to be consistent against teams of equal or similar caliber to Spain.
He tried harnessing the US’ advantage as a physical and fast team even though it didn’t work against more tactically sound teams. And when Spain showed up at Gillette Stadium in 2011 to beat the US 4-0 in a friendly, it was clear that Bradley’s win over the world champions in 2009 was exactly what everyone had called it: a miracle.
Klinsmann is a been there, done that coach. What the US lacked in tactic and ability to possess the ball in the opening win against Ghana, they made up for by nearly beating Portugal. The US, as they showed on Sunday night, is capable of the winning the ball back and creating chances against any team. And with a chance to go through to the next round against Klinsmann’s native Germany on Thursday, the US will aim for the kill.
This is your US national team and they believe that they can win—even if everyone else doesn’t.