In the wake of the U.S. team’s heartbreaking come-from-ahead draw against Portugal in the World Cup on Sunday, soccer analysts and Twitter users scrambled to figure out the many ways the U.S. can still get to the next round. With a three-point lead over Portugal and Ghana in Group G, the Americans can advance even if they lose their match against Germany at noon Eastern today, depending on the outcome of the Portugal-Ghana game played at the same time. Deadspin has one of the better graphical breakdowns of every potential scenario for the U.S., including the dreaded drawing of lots.
All the focus on permutations and goal-differential scenarios has undercut the importance of today's game for American soccer. There’s not as much at stake, goes the implication, because we can move ahead even if we lose to Germany. But this is about more than getting to the next round. This is an opportunity for the U.S. to face one of soccer’s elite teams on the biggest stage and prove it can hang with—even beat—any country in this World Cup.
Before the tournament, most people thought it would be an unlikely success for the U.S. just to get out of the so-called Group of Death and to the Round of 16. Now, after beating Ghana and dominating much of the game against Portugal, the U.S. can dream bigger. Beat Germany, and America wins its group for the second straight World Cup, a result nearly unthinkable when the draw was announced in December. Beat Germany, and the U.S. secures a favorable Round of 16 match most likely against Algeria or Russia, rather than a trickier faceoff with sneaky-good Belgium.
Just as important, a win would mean that the Americans have defeated one of soccer’s oligarchs at a World Cup, with both sides trying their best for a victory. That by itself would be a precedent-setting result. The U.S. is 3-6 against Germany since that country became unified in 1990, and 0-2 against it in the World Cup, including a 1-0 loss in the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals. Of the U.S.’s five World Cup wins since 1950, only one has come against a European team, a 3-2 triumph over Portugal in 2002 that ranks among the greatest accomplishments in American soccer history.
So even though Jurgen Klinsmann’s squad could manage to advance in defeat, a win (or well-contested draw) would be a big deal. Unlike the Ghanaians or the Portuguese, talented but flawed teams whose weaknesses can be exploited, the Germans lord over the soccer world, the second favorites to win this World Cup after the host Brazilians. Germany's talent reserve is so deep that offensive wizard Miroslav Klose, whose equalizing touch against Ghana tied him for the most career goals in World Cup history (15), has been used as a second-half substitute. The top German player, young striker Thomas Muller, recorded one of two hat tricks in the World Cup thus far with three goals in Germany’s 4-0 shellacking of Portugal.
Germany is one of a very small handful of countries, along with Brazil, Argentina, and already-eliminated Spain (and potentially France and The Netherlands), that will consider anything less than a World Cup victory a disappointment. They occupy the space that many American soccer fans dream of seeing the U.S. enter in their lifetimes: perennial favorites. And the only way for the U.S. men to ever get there is to beat the best teams when it counts the most.
America's team is objectively worse than Germany, to be sure. Though Clint Dempsey has been a beast spearheading the American offensive attack and midfielder Jermaine Jones has emerged as a legitimate star, the U.S. has struggled to maintain possession at times and is vulnerable to counter-attacking plays like the one that led to Portugal’s last-minute equalizer. Striker Jozy Altidore, who strained his hamstring against Ghana, will miss his second game in a row.
But the U.S. has the self-belief of a winner, as it showed when it overcame Ghana’s late tying goal to win, and when it rallied from a 1-0 halftime deficit against Portugal. That, plus Klinsmann’s familiarity with the German squad he coached in the 2006 World Cup (with current German coach Joachim Low as his deputy), gives the U.S. a real chance to shock the soccer world.
This crucible moment for U.S. men's soccer comes as Americans are tuning in to support the team in record numbers. More than 25 million people watched the U.S.’s draw against Portugal, far more than saw the NBA Finals or the World Series (and that figure does not completely account for the millions of people watching in bars and outdoor communal areas nationwide). While the noon Eastern starting time against Germany may hurt viewership, millions of working Americans will undoubtedly be calling in sick, taking a long lunch, or playing hooky to watch the match. A loss, even if the U.S. advances anyway, would confirm for many first- or second-time soccer viewers that America has an above-average squad who can’t hang with the greats. A draw could potentially be chalked up to wink-wink collusion because both Germany and the U.S. will advance if they tie, despite both sides vociferously denying that they will play for a draw.
But a win, no matter how it happens, would be a watershed moment for the American team and open up the real possibility of a deep run in the knockout stage. Regardless of what happens in the rest of the tournament, the U.S. would return home having won the Group of Death by beating its deadliest team, announcing America as a soccer force to fear in the future.