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6 Thoughts on the Group of Death, and U.S. Success

American Soccer Now's Brian Sciaretta shares his takeaways from the U.S. national team's navigation of Group G, with thoughts on a vulnerable Belgium team, the backline, and Michael Bradley.
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
June 27, 2014
3:25 PM
IT HAS BEEN A DAY of celebration for American soccer fans who have probably never felt so good about a loss before. For the past six months, nearly every article on the U.S. national team included the phrase “group of death,” but that label is now a thing of the past.

The U.S. survived its group while exacting revenge upon a Ghana team that has been an albatross on the program for eight years. The difficult knockout rounds still await Jurgen Klinsmann and company, but here are some thoughts on the team’s group stage campaign and the most recent game against Germany.

1. Mission accomplished

The United States men's national team still has work to do. The team can play much better than it did against Germany. Still, the overall goal of this World Cup was to get out of a very challenging group—and the team accomplished that.

While the possession edge was lopsided, the game against Germany was no easy task considering the many factors working against the Americans. For one thing, Jozy Altidore’s absence significantly limits the team’s ability to hold the ball up in the attacking half. Also, the team's previous contest was played in the extreme humidity of Manaus. With only three days off following that physically taxing environment, and facing one of the best teams in the world, the deck was stacked against them. Engineering a one-goal loss to keep the goal differential was a key part of the strategy.

2. The Defense Is Thriving

Just one month ago the left back position was a huge question mark, and the experiment of moving DaMarcus Beasley to that position looked like a liability in Brazil. In his fourth World Cup but first as a fullback, Beasley has been terrific. In fact, his performance is reminiscent of Frankie Hejduk's strong showing at the 2002 World Cup. Hejduk, like Beasley, had minimal experience at left back prior to the tournament but turned in a great performance.

Matt Besler has been the rock of the backline and sources told me on Thursday that interest from European clubs has picked up substantially for the Sporting Kansas City central defender. It’s easy to see why. He has successfully passed every challenge in Brazil, representing his country, his club, and Major League Soccer very well.

Omar Gonzalez has not had a good year with the national team and it was a surprise to see him starting over Geoff Cameron against Germany. But the six-foot-five defender rewarded Klinsmann’s faith with his best performance since the U.S. earned a scoreless draw against Mexico at Azteca in March 2013. If he can continue playing like he did against Germany, it bodes well for his future with the team beyond Brazil.

3. Tim Howard is World Class

Whenever this tournament ends for the United States, it will be a fair argument to discuss who had the better performance at a World Cup: Brad Friedel in 2002 or Tim Howard in 2014.

Friedel’s run in South Korea was and still is the gold standard for the proud tradition of American goalkeeping. His penalty save against South Korea and his saves in the Portugal game carried the Americans to the knockout rounds. Howard’s run in Brazil is approaching that level. He is making no mistakes and is coming up with big save after big save. It’s been remarkable to watch.

4. No pressure against Belgium

How can the United States defeat a very talented Belgium team? It will be an uphill climb but also certainly possible. As everyone knows, the Belgians have remarkable quality but the team is very young and is now dealing with increasingly high expectations. Belgium could very well contend in 2018—but 2014 might be too soon for the team.

Most importantly, the U.S. will have the mental edge because it is playing with house money at this point. Belgium has the talent and the benefit of some very high-profile players. The U.S. can now go out and play its game knowing it has already had a good tournament. No matter what happens Tuesday in Salvador, the American players can feel like their World Cup was a success.

5. The Importance of MLS

With the U.S. now in the knockout stages again, it reflects a growing pattern of success. It has now advanced out of the group in three of the past four World Cups. In combination with reaching the finals of the 2009 Confederations Cup, along with Gold Cup wins in 2007 and 2013, there should be no doubt that American soccer is on the rise.

Much credit must be given to MLS in how it prepares players for the international game. Obviously, Matt Besler, Kyle Beckerman, and Graham Zusi (with two assists in the group stages) have been great in Brazil, and all three have played their entire careers domestically—so far. But the league has also been the starting point for players like DaMarcus Beasley, Tim Howard, Geoff Cameron, Michael Bradley, and Clint Dempse . MLS should take a fair share of credit for theses players' development.

Clearly, the best MLS players can succeed on the international stage. It will be interesting to see how Don Garber and others in the MLS front office can use the visible success of the national team moving forward.

6. The Michael Bradley situation

It is pretty apparent that Michael Bradley has not played up to his usual high standard at the World Cup. But what does this mean for the knockout stages?

While it is not ideal to have the team’s best player struggling, I think some of the concern is overstated. For one, it is hard to believe that any player was as beat up and physically taxed in Manaus more than Bradley. Even when he’s not playing well, no American player runs more than Bradley and the Amazon conditions likely took a toll on Bradley.

For one, I didn’t think Bradley played poorly against Portugal until his turnover at the end. In fact, he was a big reason why the team was able to outplay Portugal for long stretches of time.

After a poor performance against Ghana he rebounded well for the second game. The game against Germany was a difficult one for him to succeed and he still played well defensively.

He is still a leader for the team and now against Belgium he will have an extra day of rest and conditions will be in his favor. I would say it is more likely than not we see the usual Michael Bradley on Tuesday.

Brian Sciaretta is an American Soccer Now columnist and an ASN 100 panelist. Follow him on Twitter and share your thoughts on his thoughts below.

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