Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Tuesday Grab Bag: Can the US Rebound to Advance to the Sweet 16?

Before I get to the soccer, allow me to submit a friendly reminder that the NBA draft is this Thursday.  The Mayor, Spencer Dinwiddie, figures to prove the doubters wrong by having his name called at some point.  I'll have a teaser up in a few days, but, until then, let me simply point out that more and more mock drafts have been including the point guard in spite of his ongoing recovery from an ACL tear.  Echoing Andre Roberson's shock call last summer, I'm expecting a pleasant surprise on Thursday.


Today in the bag, I'm talking the USMNT's last second letdown against Portugal, their chances at advancement, and the landscape of the World Cup as group play concludes.

Click below for the bag...

An absolute gut-punch - 

So damn close. Close enough to make you want to vomit.

Riding high off of a stunning late-game win over Ghana, the US Men's National Team traveled to the sweltering jungle metropolis of Manaus for a leveraging tilt Portugal.  A win would see them through to the knockout stages of the World Cup, while a tie would put them on the doorstep.  A loss was unthinkable.

At first, the magnitude of the event seemed to overwhelm the relatively young American squad.  In the game's opening minutes, the back four blinked hard, and a woeful attempt at a clearance from Geoff Cameron turned into a stunning Nani goal for Portugal.  Just barely five minutes in, the US were down 1-0, and staring the previously unthinkable in the face.
Jermaine Jones has been on fire in this tournament.
They would respond, however.  The USMNT surged forward in the remaining time before the half, looking far more comfortable in possession than they did against Ghana.  The momentum regained after the opening score carried over into the final frame, with the US continuing to attack the Portuguese net.  Finally, after numerous near-misses, there was a breakthrough.  Off of a busted corner, the ball fell to the feet of the oft-maligned midfielder Jermaine Jones.  The German national Jones, who has been enjoying the form of his life in Brazil, dribbled to his right, and unleashed a thunderbolt strike towards the far post from just outside the penalty box.  The shot was so perfect, so unstoppable, that Portugal's goalie never even had a chance to move. The ball rocketed, unmolested, into the net, and the US were suddenly even.  They would follow that effort up with another goal, this time the product of clever play closer to the net that ended up ricocheting in off the gut of Clint Dempsey, to take a 2-1 lead with just over 10 minutes to play.  At this point, the US was all but through to the knockout stages.  All they had to do was hold on...

... but it wasn't to be.  Saddled with a bloated five minutes of extra time, thanks to an overly slow substitution, the exhausted Americans had to defend against one too many charges from Portugal.  With just under a minute remaining, USA's Michael Bradley coughed up the ball around midfield, and had to watch in horror as Portuguese star Chistiano Ronaldo, who had been conspicuously quiet up to this point, bounded down the right side into open space.  He had all day to pick out a cross, and did just that, finding forward Silvestre Varela streaking free behind a disjointed US defensive backline.  Varela powered the header home for a 2-2 final, and early advancement was snatched from the Americans at the last possible moment.
The draw leaves the US with four points and some work to do in their final group-stage match with international juggernaut Germany.  That sick feeling in the pit of your stomach?  That's a normal reaction.  Apply bourbon liberally until the condition eases.  On the bright side, given the alternatives, the draw was a solid result, and the Americans remain a prohibitive favorite to advance.

How the US can still advance

From mere seconds from securing their place in the knockout stages, the US now finds themselves perched precariously on the edge of elimination, far to close for comfort.  A win or a draw with Germany would be enough to move them through, but a game against a tournament favorite is not a match you should bank on earning a result from.  Luckily, the USMNT can still advance with a loss, but the scenarios get complicated, quickly.

In order to worry the Americans, either Portugal or Ghana would have to win while the US loses; a draw in either game ends the discussion. For the most part, I would suggest rooting for Portugal, as, even with a win, they'd still have to overcome a five-goal gap in goal differential.  That's quite a tall order, and would take a severe breakdown from both Ghana and the USA.  Should Ghana win (in my mind the likelier result), it's significantly trickier.  The Ghanaians are only two goals back of the USA, and basic math would tell you that any US loss/Ghana win combination would, at least, make that up.  The next tie-breaker would be total goals scored; America is +1 in this category - tenuous, at best.  Should the tie continue to remain unbroken, the next, and deciding, factor would be head-to-head results, where the US opening-match win over the Ghanaians looms large.

At this point, I fully expect Ghana to beat Portugal. Should the US then lose to Germany by more than a goal, or score two fewer goals than the Ghanaians, the Americans will be cruelly bounced from the competition.  As painfully dark as that scenario is, it's not out of the realm of possibility.

It all comes down to how seriously Germany approaches the contest.  Should Die Mannschaft play the game straight, you could easily see a tidal wave of goals, as incisive cross after incisive cross flows into the box. Interestingly, however, the Germans only need a tie from this fixture to secure top marks in Group G.  Pragmatically, they could play for the tie, or even just a narrow victory, in hopes of resting up with knockout play looming.  While not necessarily Germany/Austria from 1982, this would be a convenient result for both teams, especially considering the shared heritage across both the rosters and the coaching staffs.

To that end, USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann stated, adamantly, that he would not accept an 'agreement' to share the spoils with the Germans.  This would echo USA's performance from qualification, when they refused to lay down with a chance to eliminate rival Mexico via a meaningless loss to Panama.  They played it straight, right on up to the final whistle, and the legend of 'San Zusi' was born.

While that's noble, and all, it'll probably be Germany's attitude toward the situation that determines the run of play.  Prepare yourselves, this one's gonna be close...

The group stage comes to a close -

Groups A & B - 

Mexico and Brazil have already advanced, with the Mexicans nearly stealing top honors at the death.  The hosts held, however, and take their overall #1 seed into the next round.  They'll play the Netherlands and Chile, respectively, as those two teams had advancement sewed up heading into yesterday's contests.
Mexico is deservedly through after thrashing Croatia.
The big surprise here is that the defending world champions, Spain, are done and dusted, having already been eliminated after only two games.  Not only that, but they've only scored once (from the penalty spot), and conceded a ridiculous seven goals in their first 180 minutes of action.  It was hard to watch; a country once so joyous in possession, suddenly looking mortal and broken.  Watching them in this tournament, it's hard to even remember the Furia Roja hoisting cup after cup over the past decade.  Thankfully, the Dutch and Chileans bring more than enough joy to the table, and appear to be strong challenges for the Group A entrants later this week.

Groups C & D- 

I've been generally impressed with Group C's presumptive winner, Colombia, and would normally have favored them to a fun to the semi finals.  Unfortunately for the Colombians, their path to the final four probably runs through Brazil, which is a death sentence.    The other spot from Group C looks to go to the Ivory Coast, but results are still pending this afternoon.
Don't look so shocked, the Ticos have been fantastic to watch.
Over in Group 'D,' a 'group of death' featuring three former holders of the cup - England, Italy, and Uruguay - was upset by a marauding Costa Rican side.  The Ticos won their opening two games in convincing fashion to claim a hold on the group, and look to have a winnable match in the Round of 16 against the Group C runners-up.  Carrying through with them to the next round is Uruguay, who shocked the 2006 champions Italy with a 1-0 result to claim the second spot in the group.

Groups E & F - 

I give in, I've stopped trying to look for the 'French' in France.  After their 5-2 humiliation of seeded Switzerland, I'm just set on appreciating Les Bleus as they play some of the best soccer currently on display. They look to claim the group, barring an epic collapse in the finale.  As for second place, I would put my money on the Swiss, as they are gifted a date with Honduras tomorrow afternoon.  They'll have to make up a two-goal gap in differential against Ecuador, but they should manage to do just that.
I'm tentatively putting a foot on the French bandwagon.
Group F featured the single worst game of the tournament: Iran and Nigeria's 0-0 draw.  As a result, I won't even mention the quartet, other than to say Argentina got the easiest draw in recent memory.

Groups G & H - 

See above for my thoughts on the breakdown of Group G.  As for their counterparts in H, it's another lackluster mish-mash of unimpressive sides. Belgium, for all the hype surrounding their roster, haven't, yet, looked the part.  It's probably due to boredom, more than anything else, but the point remains that they've been skating by against the likes of Algeria and Russia.  Speaking of the Algerians, I'll be rooting for them on Thursday as they look to advance over the Russians.  A draw would probably do it for them, barring a stunning multi-goal victory for South Korea.

Happy MondayTuesday!

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