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.|
... 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.
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.|
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.|
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.|
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.