RECIFE, Brazil — “For all the players it’s a tremendous accomplishment, but now we really get started.”
Those were the words of U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann after his team had clinched a berth in the World Cup round of 16, and it’s impossible to think of a more Klinsmann-like thing that he could have said.
This is a coach who doesn’t want to belittle what his team just did, advancing from probably the World Cup’s most difficult group and waving goodbye to the No. 4 team in the FIFA world rankings (Portugal) and the nation that had eliminated the U.S. from the past two World Cups (Ghana). The U.S. overcame some serious obstacles to survive and advance: traveling insane distances, playing in the Amazon heat of Manaus, losing forward Jozy Altidore to a hamstring injury after 21 minutes and dealing with an epic rainstorm here that caused major flooding and kept players’ family and friends from reaching the game.
And yet, despite all that, the U.S. has now advanced beyond the group stage in consecutive World Cups for the first time in national team history.
Those are no small feats.
But Klinsmann is always looking forward, and as a guy who played and coached in four different World Cup knockout stages, he knows exactly how the demands change at a higher altitude in the tournament.
“It’s very different, because there’s a very clear picture in front of you,” Klinsmann said when I asked him about the differences between navigating the knockout rounds and the group stage. “You’ve got to win the game, no matter how, so you win it in extra time or win it in penalty shootouts. You prepare for one game at a time. In a group phase, everybody still kind of makes the numbers and says ‘if this happens, if that happens…’ This is now all gone. And it’s a good feeling.
*Now we really get started.*
Four years ago, as an analyst with ESPN, Klinsmann criticized the U.S. for not turning its attention quickly enough to the round of 16 game against Ghana after the euphoria of winning the group on Landon Donovan’s memorable goal against Algeria. Now Klinsmann and his team are in the same position. And while the circumstances weren’t the same for the group finale on Thursday—the U.S. lost, after all—there was a palpable sense of looking ahead (not backward) when speaking to the U.S. players afterward.
Clint Dempsey, for one, has some unfinished business after his U.S. team went out in extra-time against the Ghanaians in 2010. Winning a golden ticket into the 16-team World Cup bracket presents him with an opportunity he wasn’t sure he would ever get again.
“Everything’s fresh again,” said Dempsey, who’s still dealing with a broken nose from the Ghana game. “It doesn’t matter what you’ve done in the group stages, it’s what you’re going to do on that day. I think there’s more pressure to that game, because you stay or go home. You want to keep staying, keep fighting for the opportunity to be in this tournament as long as possible.”
Sunil Gulati, the U.S. Soccer president, knows the best thing possible for the sport in the America is for the national team to keep riding this World Cup wave as long as possible. Sunday’s game against Portugal drew an average U.S. TV audience of almost 25 million, the most ever for a soccer game in the United States. And while Thursday’s game won’t have the same numbers (due to its daytime weekday kickoff), Gulati knows that Americans are deeply engaged with this team.
“Now we get four, five, six days and hopefully more of intense interest in the United States,” he said afterward. “The e-mails I’ve been getting today describe what’s going on in front of the Empire State Building, in Los Angeles, just spontaneous [celebrations]. It’s fantastic. We carry that forward for another five days, and that’s huge for the sport.”
Every four years, the World Cup creates new soccer fans in the U.S., young people and old people, fans who want to play the sport and learn more about it, fans who want to dive down the rabbit hole and discover everything they can about all the different forms of the global game. And now, with U.S. television showing 70 to 80 live soccer games from around the world every week, all year long, they have an infrastructure they can tap into.
“[The World Cup] translates into more fans, more casual fans, more kids that get turned onto the sport and may want to play,” Gulati said. “So every game we play here—and I’m not going to say it’s a bonus, because we want to go a long way—but it’s surely a big plus in terms of all those things we want to be a positive.”
For Dempsey, too, advancing to the knockout rounds in two straight World Cups is tangible evidence that U.S. Soccer is reaching new levels of success.
“You want the game to keep moving in the right direction,” he said. “You want to continue the development of the game in the States and hope that one day we can get to a final in a major tournament and do really well. That’s what you hope for.”
The only way to get there is by making the knockout rounds. USA-Belgium comes Tuesday. Now we really get started.