Before this World Cup started, former U.S. defender and current ESPN commentator Alexi Lalas made a not very bold prediction in front of the entire U.S. national team, who were assembled for media day. “They’re five feet away from me, they are right there, while I love and respect them, I don’t think that they get out of the group,” said one of the stars of the 1994 U.S. team to his 2014 counterparts.
Before their first game, statistical guru Nate Silver gave the Americans a 1-in-3 chance of surviving a Group of Death that was the only one in the 2014 tournament to include four teams that made it to the knockout round of the 2010 World Cup. And the betting wisdom at the start of this World Cup gave the Americans just a 26 percent chance of getting through Ghana, Portugal, and Germany and into the next round.
Those odds and Lalas’ prediction all seemed fair at the time, but the Americans defied them all. On Thursday, the U.S. men’s national team wrapped up what has been an impressive group campaign and advanced to the last 16 despite a 1–0 loss to a German side that completely dominated them.
The U.S. relied heavily on its Group G opponents to achieve this feat. The former most-hated man in soccer, Cristiano Ronaldo, became a combination of Abraham Lincoln and a soaring bald eagle by scoring a late winner against Ghana to help knock out the Black Stars. The U.S. also got some help from the Germans and the Portuguese way back in the group’s opening game. Without Portuguese defender Pepe’s idiotic headbutt and Germany’s 4–0 trouncing of Portugal in that game, the U.S. might not have advanced over Ronaldo and co. on goal difference.
The U.S. has been lucky. But they’ve also been good. Despite two or three costly lapses, the team’s performance in the 2–2 draw against Portugal was thrilling and impressive. The 2–1 victory over Ghana was a gritty, fightback win in a game where they were just a bit outplayed.* That is exactly the kind of result that top teams are able to get on bad days.
Despite the 1–0 scoreline and a near U.S. equalizer at the end of the game, the Group G finale was totally one-sided. From the opening minutes, the Germans were on the attack, with Jérôme Boateng booming down the right sideline and sending in dangerous cross after dangerous cross. In the first 10 minutes, the Germans had 147 touches compared to 31 for the Americans. While the U.S. turned it around for the rest of the first half, grabbing a little bit of possession and defending well, the German onslaught continued in the second half. When attacking midfielder Thomas Müller blasted home the go-ahead goal in the 55th minute off the rebound of a Tim Howard save, a German victory felt all but inevitable. At that point, attention on the U.S. sideline turned to the Ghana–Portugal game. “[It] kind of calmed me down in the last five minutes a bit,” said U.S. coach Jürgen Klinsmann of learning of Ronaldo’s goal against Ghana.
The stats show just how fully the Germans controlled this game. According to FIFA, Germany had 53 dangerous attacks to the U.S.’s 17, 13 shots to 4, nine shots on target to one, 63 percent possession to 37 percent, and 725 passes completed to 363. This last stat is especially astonishing. According to stats company Opta, the Germans completed more passes against the Americans than any other team did against any opponent at this World Cup. (Opta is not FIFA’s official statistics provider for the World Cup, so they have different figures—686 passes completed vs. 725 according to FIFA.)
But even in so thorough a loss, the Americans can take comfort. For one, it could have been a lot worse. Tim Howard made a succession of great saves and is again proving that he’s one of the best goalkeepers in the world. Omar Gonzalez, who started for the first time at this World Cup, replacing Portugal game goat Geoff Cameron, played better than anyone could’ve hoped, making several essential clearances in the first half.
In the end, the U.S. did exactly what they needed to do: lose with dignity and keep the scoreline close enough to advance. Against Germany this is no small feat. The Germans are currently second in the FIFA world rankings. This is a team that has now won its group in seven straight World Cups. It’s a team that has been to at least the semifinals in the last three tournaments. And it’s a team that is now 20–1–7 against non-European opponents in the group stage of the World Cup.
The goal scorer for Germany, Müller, is also one of the stars of this tournament, playing on a level that no American player can match. He has four goals so far, and nine goals in nine World Cup games for his career. The man is only 24 years old and is scoring World Cup goals at the same rate as Pelé.
All of this is to say that Germany is one of the top soccer nations in the world every single year, and especially this year. For the U.S. to keep the game close was an achievement, even if the necessary result was a 1–0 loss. After all, the difference in the group was that the U.S. lost to Germany by one goal yet Portugal lost to Die Mannschaft by 4. So that’s something.
With Costa Rica and Mexico already through, the U.S. became the third team from CONCACAF to reach the second round of this tournament. That’s the first time that’s ever happened. These teams were able to get through two Groups of Death and another with Brazil and a very tough Croatian side. CONCACAF has long been considered the poor man of international soccer, but with this World Cup it should be earning some respect. For perspective, here are some European teams that failed to qualify for the second round: England, Italy, Portugal, and Spain.
By finishing second in the group, the U.S. will also get an extra day of rest. The Germans play Monday against Algeria, while the United States’ date with Group H winners Belgium isn’t until Tuesday afternoon. Commenting for ESPN, Landon Donovan said after the game that the extra day could make all the difference for a U.S. team that had the most difficult travel schedule of any team during the group stage, and who looked worn down at times against Germany.
What of the Belgians? Belgium was a trendy sleeper pick heading into this tournament and features a golden generation of some of the top talent in Europe. Thibaut Courtois stands aside Howard as one of the best goalkeepers in the world. The team has a strong defense, and star Premier League attacking threats in Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku. Hazard scored 14 league goals for Chelsea last season, while Lukaku scored 15 while on loan from Chelsea to Everton. The Belgians also whacked the U.S. in a friendly in Cleveland last year, winning 4–2.
And yet, this is a team that hasn’t really clicked yet at this World Cup. They needed two second-half goals to come from behind and beat Algeria 2–1, and could only beat a very weak Russian team 1–0 on the strength of a goal in the 88th minute. In the Belgians’ final group game, a 1–0 win over South Korea, they went down to 10 men in the first half on account of a red card to midfielder Steven Defour, who will now miss the game against the U.S.
It’s a team that, despite its immense talent and 3–0–0 record at the World Cup thus far, looks extremely vulnerable. Belgium won every game, but unconvincingly and arguably in the tournament’s weakest group. Silver’s prediction model gives the U.S. a 42 percent chance of winning against the Belgians. Considering their odds going into the tournament, that should suit the U.S. just fine.
*Correction, June 27, 2014: This post originally called the United States national team’s 2-1 victory over Ghana a come-from-behind win.