Column: U.S. cheated Death, got away with it

6/28/2014

By Marcus Thompson II

By Marcus Thompson II

San Jose Mercury News

(MCT) — To cheat Death is a tall order, but that's what the U.S. men's soccer team has done.

They are advancing in the World Cup and will play Tuesday against Belgium. They won their place as one of the 16 best soccer teams on the planet despite losing 1-0 to Germany on Thursday.

Despite playing most of their three games without their top striker, Jozy Altidore.

Despite a travel schedule that sent them from the jungle of Manaus 1,760 miles to the coast of Recife.

Despite weather that included 100-plus degree temps and flooding.

And despite competition that consisted of Germany, Portugal and Ghana — aka the Group of Death.

This team was supposed to fly home. They didn't. They are not. They are staying on. They are playing on.

"For sure, something to be proud of," midfielder Michael Bradley said. "It's important to be happy, important to be proud of it. But now let's stay focused on what this is all about " in the big picture, we've not done anything yet."

Oh, but they have.

Few predicted they would advance to the knockout rounds when the group pairings were announced in December.

Germany and Portugal, two of the most prestigious countries in the sport — featuring two of the world's best players in Thomas Muller and Cristiano Ronaldo — were the class of the group. And Ghana had knocked the U.S. out of consecutive World Cups.

On top of that, coach Jurgen Klinsmann had taken a bunch of young, inexperienced players with him to Brazil.

Then star Jozy Altidore got hurt minutes into the opener. Then Clint Dempsey had his nose broken on a defender's shin. Then Bradley, arguably the team's best player, seemed to lose his mojo and become a liability with too many turnovers and not enough play-making.

But the U.S. overcame it all. The doubt and criticism. Ghana. A devastating, last-minute tie to Portugal. The inexperience of several key players. The intense heat of Game 2. The relentless rain of Game 3.

They subdued all the odds to earn a special place in American sports history.

It makes you wonder: Can this team be counted out moving forward?

They take on Belgium in the round of 16 on Tuesday. A win likely sets up a date with Argentina, a title contender.

This team has some intangibles it can ride, a la the 2002 squad that made it to the final eight before barely losing to Germany.

This U.S. installment is a magnet for drama. They have a penchant for dangling the nation on the edge of heartbreak every time they play. They are just good enough to make winning possible, just flawed enough to make defeat an option. But they're also just hungry enough to keep fighting.

The game with Germany wasn't as thrilling, or inspiring, as the two previous games. Certainly not as emotional as winning would have been. But Portugal's concurrent 2-1 win over Ghana negated the need for a U.S. win — or even a tie.

Still, the Americans couldn't afford a blowout loss like the one Germany had planted on Portugal. The Deutsch squad is more than capable of racking up the goals and that might've opened the door for Portugal to sneak in. But the American resolve wouldn't allow it.

Torrential rains and focused Germans increased the degree of difficulty. The mucky field, a short turnaround after playing in the steamy jungle of Manaus, noticeably robbed the U.S. of pizazz. Yet they hung on.

It takes a real appreciation for World Cup soccer to fully understand what the Americans pulled off. Group play, especially in this daunting of a quartet, is all about survival. That seems to be how this team rolls.

Can the Yanks keep moving forward? Can they compensate for limited talent with excess heart?

Hard to say they can't. After all, they just cheated Death.

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