SAO PAULO – Whether the Group of Death was conquered or merely survived no longer matters. Whether the U.S. national team stormed its way to the World Cup’s round of 16 or backed in -- whether it outworked and outsmarted its opponents or benefited from their lack of health and precision -- is irrelevant. The Americans have arrived, and as Michael Bradley said here before departing for Salvador, “The tournament starts over.”
There is no first-round hangover – only opportunity ahead.
“You come here thinking about the first three games, about the group stage. You have six months of knowing your opponents, of preparing for the first three games,” Bradley said. “The end of the first round is kind of the first checkpoint to see now who’s able to deal with all the challenges … who’s able to survive and come through the group. There’s no extra points for winning all three games. Either you come through the group or you don’t. So now you have 16 teams left and it’s simple. “
Well, sort of. Belgium, which the U.S. will face Tuesday evening in the Bahian capital, represents arguably its toughest challenge of the competition. Ghana proved to be less than the sum of its parts, Portugal was undermanned and one dimensional and the Germans needed only a draw, if that, in Recife. But Belgium is deep, balanced and according to Bradley, “One of the best teams in Europe.” And that makes it a formidable foe.
Tuesday’s game will be the seventh World Cup knockout match in U.S. history, and that history is bleak. The Americans have won only once, defeating Mexico, 2-0, in 2002. As satisfying as that victory was, it’s unlikely any U.S. player will feel more comfortable in an elimination game than while facing El Tri at a neutral site. When going up against nations from beyond CONCACAF, however, the U.S. is winless and in the modern era has been beaten by teams from South America (Brazil, 1-0, in 1994), Europe (Germany, 1-0, in 2002) and Africa (Ghana, 2-1, in 2010).
As painful as those experiences were, however, they may pay dividends in Salvador. Not only are there five key U.S. players with World Cup knockout pedigree, and several more who get yearly exposure to single-elimination soccer in MLS, they’re led by a coach, Jurgen Klinsmann, who’s lifted the golden trophy. Together, they said they have a sense of what these games demand and what it takes to win them. That might be something to fall back on when the going gets tough against Belgium.
“Be proud of it, but don’t be content,” Klinsmann said regarding his team’s qualification for the round of 16. “This is now the key going into the knockout stage, is about understanding the dynamics of knockout games. That means do or die … It’s just a completely different topic than preparing for a group stage, where you always count the points, you watch the other teams how they perform and you kind of adjust to it.”
Klinsmann won both the World Cup and European Championship with Germany. He played beyond the group stage in six consecutive major tournaments.
“Now going into knockout games, everyone has to call up his 100 percent for the team, and I believe that in our team so far, nobody can claim that he reached his 100 percent yet," he said. "So this is a very important message to the players, is that now prove it. This is what you worked for so long and so hard for it, and now take it one game at a time with total focus just to this one game. And after that game is done, to the next game and make it happen. Is it doable? Absolutely. You got out of this group. Now anything is doable. But you need now to understand that you have to raise the bar -- personal and as a whole team – in order to make things happen. This is what we want to achieve.”
The recipe for Belgium: dig deeper.
Four years ago, the U.S. met Ghana in the round of 16 after three desperate group-stage encounters. The Americans fell behind England by one goal, Slovenia by two and then had to spend more than 90 minutes searching for a crucial winner against Algeria. The U.S. then recovered from one deficit against Ghana, only to face another one early in extra time. By then, the tank was empty.
Goalkeeper Tim Howard started that day in Rustenburg and will be in net again on Tuesday. He said the current 1-1-1 squad is in a better place than its 2010 counterpart, which finished the first round 1-0-2.
“We’ve gotten out of the group and we’ve gotten to the same stage we did four years ago, but I think this was a tougher group. I think we’re playing better. As much as we’ve had to defend at times, we’re not just a defend-and-counter team. We’ve been able to use the ball,” Howard said. “From where I am in the back, I get a broader view and it just seems like our passing has been more fluid. We’ve opened teams up … We’ve been more confident in possession, trying to get forward, so it just seems as if we’re in a good rhythm.”
Bradley agreed that despite three challenging first-round games, the taxing travel (the U.S. flew the most miles out of the World Cup’s 32 teams during the group stage) and the humidity in Manaus and Recife, their reserves are far from depleted. Since taking over in 2011, Klinsmann has been fixated on fitness, nutrition, habits and lifestyle, preparing his players for this eventuality. It can seem as if as much attention is paid to preparation and recovery as to the 90 minutes on the field.
“We’re certainly proud of what we’ve done so far just to get out of the group because in a difficult group, I don’t think many people gave us much of a chance. So there’s certainly a feeling of satisfaction and excitement as there should be,” Bradley said. “But we want more. There’s still a feeling that now we have more to give. Every guy has that much more to find physically, mentally, and so we use these few days to recover, to prepare and step on the field on Tuesday against a very good team but knowing it’s all there for us.”
Expectations have risen. After multiple knockout-round defeats, the definition of success has evolved.
“The sting of failure is the same if you lose in this round as if you didn’t get out of the group,” Howard said.
That wouldn’t have been the case in the past. Belgium won’t be happy to just to be there, either. Although they’re competing in their first major tournament since 2002, the Red Devils are talented and highly touted and may not be yielding too much on the experience front. Fourteen of Belgium’s 23 players spent last season with clubs that competed in the UEFA Champions League.
“A lot of their team plays at really big clubs in Europe and when you’re playing in the Champions League, there’s almost nothing like it outside of the World Cup. So they’ve got a ton of experience and I think that part would certainly be balanced," Howard said.
These games often are, and they can wind up turning on a single play or decision. The U.S. players understand. Defender Omar Gonzalez has only 91 minutes of World Cup experience but said he's learned lessons from his playoff runs with the L.A. Galaxy.
"Guys are a lot more focused," he said. "Small plays end up being huge plays, and so I think everyone has to be tuned in for the entire game and can’t take any breaks, because at any moment things can change.”
If the Americans can do that – if they can summon all the qualities that Klinsmann, Howard and Bradley referenced -- if they can find the required reserves, then they may very well change their own history. Beating a European team in a World Cup knockout match would set a new standard.
“This is what players live for. You live to play in these types of games,” said defender DeMarcus Beasley, the only holdover from the 2002 team that beat Mexico. “Getting out of this Group of Death is one thing, but at the same time, we’re not satisfied with that. We want to obviously do well for ourselves, for our country, and it’s a big step in the growth of soccer if we go on and get past Belgium.”