The Yanks lost the battle but won the war.
The US national team was defeated 1-0 in its final first round game to Germany, but advanced as the second seed in Group G on goal differential after Portugal beat Ghana 2-1 in Brasilia. The US will move on to likely play Belgium in the round of 16 on July 1.
Indeed, the US were second-best offensively to the Germans, who dominated possession and out-shot the Americans 13-4. But defensively, the US managed to keep Die Mannschaft quiet. A starting 11 composed of seven MLS-based players ushered the US—albeit in a nervy, rocky performance—through the firestorm of German scoring chances and into the knockout round.
It became obvious in the first 15 minutes of the game that collusion wasn’t part of the game plan. The Germans got off to a quick start, pinging the ball around the US penalty area in search of an early goal. The aggression of the Germans required collective defending from every US, calling even the attacking players to come back and help the back line.
US coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who played for and coached his native Germany in World Cups before, made two changes to American lineup. He swapped Premier League defender and Attleboro, Mass. native Geoff Cameron, who started the US’ first two World Cup games, for Los Angeles Galaxy central defender Omar Gonzalez. Next, he started Houston Dynamo left winger in place of former Boston College midfielder Alejandro Bedoya.
Davis was added for his expertise on set pieces. Gonzalez’ addition was more surprising, as the 25-year old defender hadn’t played a full 90 minutes since April and has only recently recovered from meniscus surgery.
When Germany asserted its dominance in the early stages of the match, Davis, along with offensive players like Clint Dempsey, Graham Zusi, and Michael Bradley, disappeared. The focus shifted to whether or not the US back line—and its newest addition in Gonzalez—could handle Germany’s incessant attacks.
Goalkeeper Tim Howard did his part, collecting five saves on the game. But he and his defense needed help. Gonzalez looked nervous in the opening 10 minutes of his first World Cup start, letting the ball slip in behind him and struggling one-on-one with Germany’s star players. But he got a grip once play slowed down and the entire US team got behind the ball to defend.
It wasn’t a surprise when Germany did finally breakthrough in the 55th minute, as they had been pounding chances out for a majority of the game. Thomas Muller sniped the ball to the inside of the right post after collecting a rebound from a header by Miroslav Klose following a corner kick. The goal was all class, all beauty, and too well put together to be saved by an outstretched Howard.
But as news ran in through social media and the internet that Ghana had levelled the score with Portugal with half an hour to play—threatening to knock the US out of the tournament—the focus shifted to retaining the same, disciplined defensive shape and seeking out an equalizer.
The Germans didn’t allow the US much going forward. Zusi shot high of Manuel Neuer’s goal midway through the first half; Philipp Lahm blocked a shot from inside the penalty area by Bedoya that looked as if it had the trajectory to sneak into the net in the 90th minute while Dempsey flicked a header from inside the six-yard box over the crossbar in added time.
It was more of a challenge, in fact, to keep Germany at bay after they gained attacking momentum from Muller’s goal. Klose, who is seeking a record-breaking goal that would make him the best scorer of all-time at the World Cup, came on at halftime to help the Germans find the elusive goal. Marking Klose proved to be a tough task, as Gonzalez and Sporting Kansas City defender Matt Besler combined to keep him off the ball and limit the service into his runs.
In a game where the US was clearly second best, it was impressive that they were able to defend a team that scored four goals on Portugal to open Group G and led European World Cup qualification in scoring.
The US will have wanted to enter the knockout round with a positive result to spring them forward. But a gutsy defensive performance against one of the tournament’s favorites will have to do. Should the US face Belgium (as expected), they’ll be competing against a side that has many attacking weapons as the Germans. Whoever Klinsmann calls on to take the field—whether MLS-based or not—will have to put together the same versatile and resolute performance.