When the World Cup draw was made last December, American fans must have resigned themselves to a nice trip out to Brazil for a week or so, holding out little hope of actually progressing beyond the first round.
They were after all to play Germany, who would be one of the favourites to win the whole tournament, Portugal, who have the best player in the world and a team of more than adequate supporting characters, and Ghana, who would be unpredictable but always dangerous, with the likes of Asamoah Gyan and Kevin Prince Boateng in their ranks.
Now, some seven months later, they are through to the second round, having pipped both Ghana and Portugal to second spot behind the Germans, and it can't be overstated what an impressive achievement this is.
America are, in truth, a very limited side. They have a collection of game but not particularly technically proficient players, something exemplified by the presence of Jozy Altidore, who was so bad for Sunderland last season that he turned into a punchline, in their first-choice team.
What they do have in abundance is enthusiasm, and while that might sound hugely patronising, when combined with a decent degree of organisation can be enough for a team to play above their abilities, and given the USA have eliminated Cristiano Ronaldo, Joao Moutinho, Pepe, Miguel Veloso, Gyan, Boateng and the Ayew brothers, we can say they have very much done that.
This 'enthusiasm' can manifest itself in some slightly unfortunate ways, most notably seen in the rather aggressive way they approached the crucial game against Germany. They committed 15 fouls over the 90 minutes, some of them extremely cynical and were perhaps lucky to get away with only two bookings. Their plan was to disrupt their opponents as much as possible, and it largely worked, with Jogi Loew's team nowhere near as fluent as they can be.
Of course so much credit must go to Juergen Klinsmann, who will feel a large amount of vindication after receiving plenty of criticism before the tournament, mostly for his omission of Landon Donovan from the US squad. Of course, Donovan is reaching the latter stages of his career, and at 32 isn't the player he used to be, but he was America's biggest star, and one of the few outfield players who had genuinely impressed outside of the US.
— Clint Dempsey (@clint_dempsey) June 26, 2014
Instead of Donovan, Klinsmann selected a collection of youngsters, including Aron Johannsson and Bayern Munich's Julian Green, making his choice even riskier, but the decision has paid off pretty emphatically.
The World Cup as a whole will benefit from the USA's continued participation, as well. The fervour with which America has supported their team is pretty endearing, and while it's pointless to compare 'soccer' to the big four US sports, it at least will hopefully put paid to any tedious questions of whether the country has embraced football.
There are more American fans in Brazil than from any foreign country, and the exuberance with which they support their team is hugely beneficial to the tournament. While football clearly has caught on in America, that they are a relatively young football nation (in terms of taking it seriously, in any case) lends their fans a youthful vigour, an enthusiasm that only comes from people discovering and enjoying something relatively new. In short, they look like they're having fun, which can be a slightly foreign concept for those of us with years of footballing disappointment and disillusionment under our belts.
This team have a taste for the dramatic, too. Whether that's Dempsey's first minute goal against Ghana, John Brooks' remarkable late winner in the same game, or the whole game against Portugal, they have been one of the more entertaining sides to watch in Brazil, even if they are technically one of the weakest to make it into the knockout phase.
“It is huge for us getting out of this group,” Klinsmann said after the game.
“Everyone said we had no chance. We took that chance and now we really want to move on. This is a huge, huge step and we can’t wait to get to the Round of 16… It was a big game. Although we gave them too much respect to start with. We should have created more chances.”
That's perhaps the key to Klinsmann as US manager. As a country, they are not used to being underdogs, and the German isn't treating them as such. He has made this squad of relatively average players feel like they belong at the World Cup, and given how they have played so far, they have proved his instincts correct.
- Sports & Recreation
- Clint Dempsey
- Kevin Prince Boateng
- Asamoah Gyan
- Juergen Klinsmann