Photo by Perry McIntyre/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
RECIFE, Brazil — It all comes down to this.
The U.S. Men’s National Team has enjoyed a strong start to this World Cup, but its campaign hangs in the balance going into Thursday’s Group G finale against Germany. Neither side has yet to book a place in the Round of 16 and while a draw at Arena Pernambuco would do the trick for both teams, all indications are that the U.S. and Germany will both play for the win.
U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann said immediately after the Americans’ 2-2 draw with Portugal this past Sunday that he had no intentions of playing to a stalemate with his native Germany, and that still holds true as he wants his side to advance to the knockout phase by finishing atop of the group for the second straight World Cup.
“We are going to play this game to win it,” said Klinsmann. “We are not made for going into a game to end with a tie. That’s just not in our DNA and it’s not even in the DNA of the German side, so they are both teams that want to get the results, both teams want to win the group.
“That’s another thing you want to drive for because you want to possibly arrive at 16 as the winner of the group, so whatever happens at the end of the game then we’ll see. But we are definitely going in there with the approach that we want to push it and we want to go for gold and we want to get three points and this is really what we are driving for.”
Saying that is one thing. Doing it against a very talented Germany team that many consider among the favorites to win the World Cup is another.
Like the U.S., the Germans enter this match on four points. They crushed Portugal, 4-0, in their opener before playing to a surprising 2-2 draw with Ghana. Germany is still in first place in the group due to goal differential – +4 compared to the Americans’ +1 – but still could be knocked out with a loss and a lopsided win from either Portugal or Ghana in their final group match.
While that seems unlikely, Germany is still keen on taking the group and picking up some momentum ahead of the Round of 16. That means it will not be an easy day at the office for the U.S., which will again be without injured forward Jozy Altidore and had one less day than Germany to recover from its last game.
“I don’t think it’s really bothering us right now,” said midfielder Kyle Beckerman. “I think our minds are (in the mindset that) this is the biggest game of a lot of our lives right now so any fatigue in our legs will be erased. We have got to give everything we’ve got and more. I think we’ve done the proper stuff, we’ve recovered our legs so we don’t think the short rest has been harmful at all.”
Beckerman has been a key to the U.S.’s success so far at this World Cup and so too has been the stellar play of midfielder Jermaine Jones, one of a handful of German-Americans on Klinsmann’s current roster.
The one midfielder who has not lived up to his usual high standards is Michael Bradley. Bradley admittedly struggled against Ghana before delivering an improved outing against Portugal, but even that second performance was far from his best and saw him get outmuscled for a ball late that wound up leading to Portugal’s last-gasp equalizer.
“Here and there it’s not going to be a perfect game all the time,” said Klinsmann. “I’m not expecting perfect games from anybody. I expect they give everything they have and then when he makes a mistake that the other guy is there to help him out. This is what happens right now in this team: When somebody is making a mistake, he gets a clap on the shoulder and the other guy comes in and helps him out.
“I’m absolutely sure that Michael will grow big time into this tournament. There’s no better stage to do it than in the next game against Germany. Every game you play now is getting bigger so that’s when you want to see those things coming through.”
Klinsmann could make a big statement himself if he delivers a victory over his motherland on Thursday. That would come at the expense of Germany head coach Jogi Low – Klinsmann’s friend and former Germany assistant - but Klinsmann doesn’t care about that right now as the focus is on picking up three points and moving on in the group.
“Joachim’s doing his job the best way he can do, I do my job the best way I can do so we leave phone calls and text messages now and wait for a couple days and get the job done,” said Klinsmann. “Once the World Cup is over – hopefully in two weeks from now - we’ll be back on the phone and talk about it and see the families and they miss each other. It’s more than just a working relationship. It’s a very close friendship with a lot of admiration.”
There are lots of links between both teams, especially since the U.S. boasts German-Americans like Jones and Fabian Johnson who have spent much, if not all, of their careers playing in the Bundesliga. That has allowed them to become quite familiar with the talented likes of Lahm, Thomas Muller and Mario Gotze, who the U.S. will need to do a good job of containing in order to prevent losing its first game in Brazil.
The match will also hold special significance to the German-Americans because it will pit them against the country in which they were born. They are expecting a wide range of emotions as a result, but are still strictly focusing on the task at hand.
“I think it’s just a big game for everyone of us,” said Johnson. “We are all excited and looking forward to it and its one of the biggest matches of our lives for a lot of us so we’re excited.”
The excitement and confidence is there for the Americans, who will likely find it harder than it did against Portugal to maintain possession for large stretches against the skillful Germans. A tough game is surely in store for the U.S., but it is one that Klinsmann and his side are more than eager to win.
“It’s massive, I would say,” said Klinsmann. “It’s deciding who’s winning the group, the Group of Death. It’s deciding who moves on onto the knockout stage. We want to continue the way we started the tournament in a very positive way. We can’t wait to get this thing started.”